The Unseasonable Cool Has Left Colorado A Bird-Watchers Paradise Right Now

Photo: Western Tanager On Western Slope - Courtesy photo
A Western Tanager rests on the deck of Ann Ramsey's home in the Western Slope. Because of the cold, wet spring in Colorado in 2019, more birds not normally seen at lower elevations in the state have been making appearances at neighborhood bird feeders across the state. 

Expert and enthusiast bird-watchers in Colorado are having a ball right now thanks to several late snowstorms and this spring’s long stretch of cold weather.

Arvind Panjabi, an avian conservation scientist with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, said the late spring storms and cold snaps changed some migration patterns this year.

“The recent wet weather that we've had the last couple of weeks has come right during the peak of the spring migration when millions of birds are flying through the airspace over Colorado. It effectively stopped up the migration and forced many of the birds that would have been in the air to land here in Colorado,” he said. “Bird-watchers likely noticed a lot more birds on the ground these last few weeks.”

Rare birds like the Western Tanager, Bullock’s Orioles and Grosbeaks have all made longer appearances here because of the delayed migration.

Bryan Guarente, a meteorologist at Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research with more than 30 years experience as a birder, said the late spring storms have done a spectacular job of funneling birds into the mountains and foothills.

He said birds were pushed into the region this year because of the wind patterns.

“People everywhere in the Front Range of Colorado were seeing more Western Tanagers, when most of the time these birds are found in the foothills or higher up in the mountains. Low cloud cover kept these Tanagers at lower elevations,” Guarente wrote in an email.

He said winds from the north around May 20 locked these birds in place because of the poor migration conditions. It left birds searching for the best possible sources of food — which included local bird feeders and any insects available in the cold.

Several days later, the winds out of the southwest caused the arrival of a rare warbler from the West Coast and Southwest: the Hermit Warbler.

“This was good for birders, but maybe not good for the Hermit Warbler itself,” Guarente said.

Birds that are off target with their migrations may not survive the season because they’re forced to find different food sources, he said.

Bird-watchers across the state have been enjoying the sights while they last. Ann Ramsey, birder and photographer who lives on the Western Slope, said she’s become obsessed with the Western Tanager this year. She has had up to a dozen at her bird feeder at a time.

Western Tanagers eat seed and squabble at a bird feeder.Courtesy of Ann Ramsey

“The last Tanager I was was in 2011. So it was such a treat to wake up and see them right on my deck,” Ramsey said.

She said the Pine Siskins have been eating her out of house and home, but she keeps stocking her bird feeder because it’s so nice to see the small, finch-like birds making a visit.

“When you have this kind of connection with the birds, it’s really special,” she said.

And the experts agree.

“It's really been quite a treat. I don't remember ever seeing quite the spectacle of Western tanagers in particular, but also the Bullock’s Orioles. It's really been quite a show, Panjabi said.

And the good bird-watching could last for a while because spring’s cold, wet beginning.

“It likely a infused the ground with a, a lot of moisture, which will be good for birds come nesting season and brood-rearing season when they need to feed their young,” Panjabi said.