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Friday 31 October 2008

Leash Fen on 22nd October, 2008

Prompted by reports of Short-eared Owls in this Derbyshire location, I took a break from my decorating task at home and set off for Leash Fen in the early afternoon. I found the place quickly enough (at about 15.00), and another birder parked beside the road. However, Leash Fen covers quite a large area and, after more than an hour and nothing but crows being seen, I decided to leave the comfort of my car and take a walk eastwards along the road. I came across Ian Hurst, who was a regular visitor to see the owls. Ian gave me the low-down, and so I went to fetch my car so that I could sit comfortably whilst waiting. On the way to the car, a female Kestrel obligingly flew past at quite close range.

Common Kestrel (female)

Having repositioned myself, it was not long before the first Short-eared Owl appeared (at approximately 17.00). Almost immediately there were two - then three - and then a Kestrel mixing in with them. For the next hour, the birds put on a great show, during which they succeeded in putting up a couple of Jack Snipe that flew almost directly over our heads.

Short-eared Owl

As it started getting dark, the birds moved a bit further east from our position and started settling on posts and stone walls on either side of the road. Unfortunately it was somewhat too dark for any reasonable photography by now. However, it had been an amazing evening.

Short-eared Owl

Monday 27 October 2008


In late September, my wife and I took a short holiday in Colorado, USA. Although not a birding trip, I took a number of opportunities to look for birds and other wildlife. The weather was unseasonably warm, and it seemed that many summer birds had already departed, but the incoming migrants had not yet arrived. Nevertheless, some interesting birds were seen, and the other wildlife was great.

Colorado Monument
On Saturday 20th September we took the California Zephyr train for the scenic 8-hour journey from Denver to Grand Junction, through the Rockies. Little identifiable birdlife was seen except for a small flock of American White Pelicans (not photographed) as we passed the lake at Windy Gap, near Granby.

Colorado Monument on Sunday 21st September

This day we set off to visit the Colorado Monument. We had not gone far before we saw Mourning Doves. As we left Grand Junction a Great Blue Heron flew across in front of us and then an unmistakable Bald Eagle flew past us at altitude (the only one that we were to see).
Colorado Monument

We entered the Colorado Monument and were soon enjoying the fantastic scenery. We stopped at the very useful Visitor Centre and then, beside the car park, found a Western Bluebird – an amazing bird that looks very grey and drab until the sunlight catches it in a certain way and then it suddenly becomes brilliant blue with an orange breast. This is because of selective light reflection, rather than light absorption. I got several photos of the bird in non-reflective mode, but nothing that showed its true blue glory.

Western Bluebird (female)

From the Visitor Centre we took the relatively short Alcove Trail (designated a nature trail). As we joined the trail a Cotton-Tail rabbit crossed in front of us, and ‘hid’ under a bush at some distance. There were some Robber Flies about which looked and sounded a bit like dragonflies in flight, but looked very handsome, if a little sinister, when they settled.

Mountain Cottontail

Robber Fly

Soon we were seeing a number of lizards of various species (I have attempted to identify these but am no lizard expert so any input would be much appreciated). The first, a lizard with a striped back, I believe to be a species of Whip-tailed Lizard, but I can find no reference to a lizard with this few stripes - the Plateau Striped Whiptail is said to have 6 or 7 pale stripes, not the 4 that this had (perhaps it was a juvenile PSW?). This is the only one I saw, so I give you the best of a bad bunch of photos.

Whip-tailed Lizard species

Prarie/Plateau Lizard

I am not particularly interested in plants, but do have a passing interest in cacti, so was pleased to find Echinocereus Triglochidiatus.

Echinocereus Triglochidiatus

There were a couple of Western Scrub Jays seen (but not photographed), and several LBJs (little brown jobs) which seemed to be hiding from the sun in dense cover. With a total lack of experience of American birds, the LBJs were as good as impossible for me to identify.

I attempted to photograph a hawk (unidentified) that passed by at some distance but my camera had gone faulty just before the holiday, with insufficient time to get it repaired, and so had a tendency for the lens to electrically uncouple itself from the body, thus rendering autofocus and light metering non-functioning. The temporary solution was to give the lens a gentle twist until it connected again, but grabbed shots were virtually impossible to achieve for the whole of the holiday.

About half-way along the trail a Chipmunk (possibly Cliff Chipmunk) was seen scampering along the edge of a rock ledge, and then stopping under a bush.

Chipmunk (possibly Cliff Chipmunk)

At one point my wife was (unusually) just ahead of me, and suddenly put up a Hummingbird which hovered noisily for a split second and then shot off, never to be seen again (in spite of hunting for it for half an hour). It was all over and done with in maybe half a second. I did not notice any colour tendencies, so do not know what species it was, but I think that Broad-tailed Hummingbird is most likely.

Prairie/Plateau Lizard

Plateau Striped Whiptail Lizard

After this walk, we got into the car to explore the scenic qualities of the Monument from the various viewpoints. From these we saw Turkey Vultures and American Kestrels in the distance. There were also plenty of White-throated Swifts around.

At the southern end of the Monument we found what I believe to be a Hopi Chipmunk, Echinocereus Triglochidiatus forma Inermis, and some evil looking wasp-type insects which were killing caterpillars very much larger than themselves and dragging them down holes in the ground.

(probable) Hopi Chipmunk

Sagebrush Lizard

Echinocereus Triglochidiatus fa. inermis

Cricket sp.

'wasp' with caterpillar

Prairie/Plateau Lizard

At one stop we found a flock of about 20 LBJs which were constantly and noisily on the move (a little after the fashion of Long-tailed Tits). I believe these were Bushtits. I attempted to photograph them but they were in shadow, and moving fast, so the results were not good.


Turkey Vulture

Shortly after exiting the Monument we came across some Mourning Doves on a wire beside the road at a place that I could park, and so I managed a few shots in the low evening light.

Mourning Dove

Highline Lake & Colorado Monument on Monday 22nd September

On Monday 22nd, we went to Highline Lake, to the north of Grand Junction and close to the Utah border. This place has a reputation as a good birding spot. Approximately half a mile from the entrance to the lake, we were greeted by a sight that looked like something out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Clouds of birds were coming off a field and landing on the fences either side of the road. This was made even more amazing by the fact that the flock was of several species, including Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Mourning Dove, European Starling and (even more amazingly) a hawk that was too far away to identify, but small and pale – and in with the other birds without disturbing them. This flock was extremely nervous and virtually impossible to approach. Every time a car came they flew off into the fields next to the road, coming back after ten minutes or so. At one time the road ahead of us was virtually completely covered in birds. We sat with the window down for a while in the hope that some would settle near enough to photograph, but I managed very few shots – and then they were gone for good.

very small part of mixed flock of birds

Yellow-headed Blackbird (male)

Brewer's Blackbird (female)

European Starlings (juvenile)

At the lake we found the Ranger who had not been on duty for long (it was only who had seen the flock of on the way in, and confirmed that it was highly remarkable. She gave us several pointers as to what to look for where, and we set off for a four-hour walk round the lake in an anti-clockwise direction.

Eurasian Collared Dove

We quickly found a wader, which was too far away to identify (insufficient space in the luggage for a scope) but was almost certainly a Sandpiper of some type. Shortly after this we saw a couple of LBJs at a distance and into the sun (no chance of identification) and then the birds ‘dried up’ completely. However, we did see plenty of dragonflies, butterflies, crickets, and grasshoppers. There were also a few lizards. I have attempted to identify all this wildlife, but stand to be corrected if anyone knows better.

Highline Lake

unidentified wader

Thistle in 'misty' grass

Cricket sp.

Cricket sp.

Grasshopper sp.

Clouded Sulphur

Field Crescent

Common Checkered-Skipper

Western Pygmy-blue

spreadwing damselfly sp.

Western Meadowhawk (male)

Western Meadowhawk (female)

We got a little worried when we found some huge paw prints in the dust on the trail. These had visible claw marks in front of the pad impressions. They looked fresh and were heading in the same direction as us. This was a bit distracting as we found ourselves more concerned about the possibility of a bear or puma lurking ahead of us. I did, however, stop to photograph a Praying Mantis. This was fortunate as, if we had not stopped, our path would have been on a collision course with an eight foot snake which slowly crossed the path about ten feet in front of us. We carefully waited for the tail to come into sight and heaved a sigh of relief when no rattle appeared. With this, and the paw-prints that were still with us, we were even more nervous. I’m OK with snakes if I know that they are not going to harm me, and quite enjoy handling them, but at this stage, I did not know what it was.

Praying Mantis


We came to a point where our path diverged from the paw prints and started to relax a bit. We then came upon some rangers building a new path who told us, when I showed them the snake photos, that this was a harmless “lazy old Bull Snake which feeds on rats and mice”.

Damselfly sp.

Cricket sp.

beetle with ants

We were now half way round the lake, and little other than crickets and lizards was seen for an hour or so.

Powdered Dancer

Western Whiptail Lizard

However, having arrived at the dam at the western end, we followed the path into an area of comparatively lush vegetation. First we were intrigued by a black spider with a red spot on its back, which was creeping up on what I believe to be an adult Antlion. The spider was reminiscent of a Black Widow, but closer examination shows otherwise.

Antlion sp. and spider

unidentified spider

In some ponds beside the path we found some Mallards which took to the air as we approached, and then there was a loud clattering as a group of Mule Deer sprung out of the bushes near us and disappeared up the slope and into the trees. A little later, an American Kestrel flew past.

Mule Deer with young

American Kestrel (female)

When we got near to our start point we found the Ranger again. She told us that, shortly after sending us off to the east, an Osprey with a fish was at the western end of the lake.

That afternoon we headed back to Colorado Monument to do some bits not done the previous day. As we left Highline Lake, there was no evidence of any birds where there had been so many earlier.

Colorado Monument

The wildlife was much the same as it had been the previous day, with possibly another species of lizard seen. I also managed to get a distant shot of a Western Scrub-Jay.

American Kestrel (male)

Prarie/Plateau Lizard

unidentified lizard sp. (prob. Prarie/Plateau Lizard)

evil 'wasp' dragging caterpillar down hole

Western Scrub-Jay

Opuntia sp.