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Bird tales, from a day off the trail

Oh, what sweet serendipity!

I schedule a hike about the wonders of a wetland, and I end up with an incredible birding experience.

The other week I had scheduled a plant hike, and it wound up being more of a cultural experience after I found a pot sherd on a game trail. Had I scheduled a bird hike this particular morning, there probably would have been few birds, but some monumental plant would have been in bloom during this dry spell.

So, for the avid birders who are reading this, they’re probably wondering what could have been so special this particular morning as to distract me from the historic uses of cattails or the marvelous filtering capabilities of a marsh.

As I was walking along the Sambrito Wetlands trail, smelling the sagebrush and thinking about cattails, I looked to my right toward an arm of the wetland area where most water birds like to float around. I was surprised to see something white in the distance.

Plastic bag? No, there’s another white “something.”

Egrets? Those couldn’t really be swans here at Navajo. They’ve got to be egrets.

So, I pull out my binoculars and focus on the first white thing in the water. Oh, my goodness, it is a swan!

I pan over to the other white being standing on shore whose head is tucked away from me. Must be another swan! Now which kind of swan is it? Tundra most likely, but could it be a trumpeter? Oh come on, hold still! Tundra? Trumpeter? Tundra? Trumpeter? Maybe the other one has turned its head and is more obvious.

Now for a big double-take: It’s a pelican!

What is going on here? Am I dreaming? I knew that Navajo had a pair of pelicans that stayed a while last year on the Piedra arm of the lake, but this is a single pelican (as far as I could tell) who is hanging out near a single swan.

What else is out there?

Coots, check.

Canada geese, check.

Brown ducks, check.

What is that swan? I think that I see yellow; no, I don’t. Turn this way, please … I don’t think that I see yellow; the bill is too thick. Now it’s time to get out the bird books that I happened to have in my field guide-laden backpack.

Unfortunately, I’ve grown up with the marvelous capacity for second guessing myself, hence my inconclusiveness this morning. I’ve spent many years working and traveling in wild country such as Yellowstone and Denali, and I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to observe all kinds of birds and wildlife for hours. You would think that I could tell what I’m looking at here. But it’s Navajo Lake in southern Colorado.

This is definitely a rare treat and a conundrum at the same time.

Oh, wow, there’s a great blue heron a little further to the right! What is it watching? Can it tell the difference between a tundra and a trumpeter swan, or is it just concerned that the pelican is going to lessen its chances for a tasty fish?

A few more glances at the swan in profile, in the bright sunlight, its bill glistening, now face forward, now back in the water. I think that I know what I’m looking at now. I’ve been here for 20 minutes on this hillock; it’s probably time to get back to the office. As I stood up I must have scared the heron who was more intent on its competition. It takes off with its huge wing beats and makes several raucous squawks. The swan looks up and watches as the heron alights on a nearby shore, amazingly only several yards from another great blue heron.

What a lovely big bird morning!

It’s too bad that no one showed for my wetland hike. Or is it? I got to relish this moment all to myself. But that’s the way that things always seem to happen. Some of the best stories occur when one is all by themself with no one else as back-up. Or is it greater folly for two people to be present at something, and each has a different experience of the same event?

My husband and I marvel at how this seems to happen to us often when relating tales of some of our adventures. But whether you choose to believe me about the swan and the pelican, it’s up to you. You’re welcome to call me at the park and offer your thoughts, stories or advice.

Or, better yet, come out to the park, and we can take a walk together. Who knows what is going to happen on my scheduled bird hike tomorrow!

You can reach me, Janis, at Navajo State Park at 883-2208, Ext. 207. I’m the seasonal environmental educator who thinks that a day on or off trail in the heat or rain is better than any day in the office.

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