On a recent trip to the Chico Basin Ranch in Eastern Colorado (private- fee required to enter), I found myself having a photo frenzy on colorful spring shorebirds taking advantage of the muddy margins around a couple of ranch ponds. The various species showed strong preferences for different patches of habitats, returning even after they were spooked off by a falcon or a group of elementary students on a field trip. Armed with this knowledge, I took advantage of a group of Long-billed Dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers, sneaking up to their favorite corner after they had been flushed by the boisterous kids to lie down and wait for their return. Sure enough, they flew back in after about 10 minutes- it was awesome to almost feel the downdraft from their wings as they swished right over me, banked in, and landed right in front of me. Even better was when several of the Stilt Sandpipers decided to sing- something I had never heard. Sibley describes the display song as "a remarkable series of nasal, dry, buzzy trills..." and my friend Brian Gibbons compares it to a donkey braying. Whatever the analogy, it is really cool!
On another pond there was a shorebird threesome making repeated laps up and down the sandy and rocky shoreline- a Wilson's Phalarope, a Spotted Sandpiper, and a Sanderling. We started up on the dam face and slowly worked our way down the rip rap, edging a little closer each time they were at the far end of their back & forth cycle. I was thinking to keep an eye out for snakes the whole time but still managed to put my foot down about 1/2 an inch from a bull snake's head! That upped my heart rate a bit, but we both went our separate ways without engaging each other. Anyway, Brian Gibbons and I ended up right on the waterline, and the birds kept getting up into our grills on each of their laps!!
The proximity, combined with getting down really low, made for some great pics. I really liked the color on the Sanderling- practically all of the birds that come through Colorado are in basic or juvenal plumage, and I hardly ever see individuals this red. I'm also psyched about the spotty- they usually seem pretty skittish and I've never been this close to one before. Needless to say, my Spotted Sandpiper stock just improved a lot!!
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