Birdwatchers will begin flocking to Cortez next Wednesday, May 8, hoping to add to their life lists, pick up birding tips, and meet some fine-feathered friends.
The Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival will include five days of events, capped by a banquet with keynote speaker Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year. In birding parlance, a "big year" is a year-long informal but intense competition by birders to see, or sometimes hear, as many species as possible within an agreed-upon geographic area. In Obmascik's book, three young men crisscrossed North America, competing for a record.
The Big Year was made into a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. On Friday evening, a screening of the film will be held at the Mancos Public Library, along with a pizza party. Reservations are required.
For most festival-goers, though, the highlight of the event is the possibility of seeing new birds.
Montezuma County is an attractive birding location because of its wide range of habitats, from the riparian areas of the San Juan and Dolores Rivers and other bodies of water, to the high desert canyons and mesas of the Colorado Plateau and on up to the high peaks of the La Platas. From the tiny and reclusive Lucy's warbler, reliably found in only one spot in Colorado, to sharptail grouse, dusky grouse and the controversial Gunnison sage grouse, to peregrine falcons and both bald and golden eagles, and on to other birds that are common here but may be "life birds" - first-time encounters - for birders who have come from other terrain, the festival's bird list can reach 100 or more species.
The May window also offers good opportunities to see migrants on their way from their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America and even the far reaches of South America to breeding grounds north of here. By next weekend, hummingbirds and warblers should have returned in larger numbers, and flycatchers, from ubiquitous Western kingbirds to the smaller species that can be difficult for a beginning birder to differentiate, will be arriving as well. The birding festival will provide enthusiasts with information and support to hone their identification skills.
Birds offer valuable information about the health of the region's ecosystems. For example, the population of jays has shrunk with the loss of pinon habitat, and the West Nile virus also took its toll. Low water and fewer kokanee running up the Dolores River from McPhee resulted in smaller numbers of eagles wintering along the river. As the climate warms, bird populations move both northward and higher in elevation. Wildfires can destroy crucial bird habitat.
Some of the tours, led by expert birders, visit sites in and around Cortez. Other tours head to the La Plata Mountains, Dolores River Canyon, Mancos Valley-Summit Ridge area, Farmington lakes, and even Pagosa Springs for an overnight birding and history excursion via the Old Spanish Trail. Some tour habitats can offer birders 60 to 80 species. Registration for the tours is limited, so sign up soon. Snacks, water and lunch are included in each tour's registration fee.
A series of interesting afternoon and evening activities enhance this year's festival. Kim Potter, wildlife technician for the White River National Forest, will present Wednesday evening's lecture, "Small Montane Owls of Western Colorado." Thursday's afternoon and evening programs feature a slide presentation by Professor Tim Reeves, Farmington's San Juan College, about "Rare and Unusual Bird Species in the Four-Corners Area," and a program about Bluebirds and the Colorado Bluebird Project" by Kevin Corwin from Denver. Friday afternoon and again on Saturday morning, Debbie Ackley, a Colorado Springs volunteer with the Colorado Bluebird Project, provides materials and instructions for "Building and Placing Bluebird Houses." Nesting boxes may be purchased after the workshop. For a full schedule, visit the festival's website.
The Colorado Field Ornithologists will hold their spring meeting in Cortez the weekend after the Ute Mountain Mesa Verde birding festival.