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The wigeons are back at Clear Creek Valley Park

September 27, 2019

Red-tailed hawk – the female I believe – a top the cell tower across from Clear Creek Valley Park

September 27, 2019. Clear Creek Valley Park.

Things are starting to get interesting again after a pause in activity.

I hadn’t see the red-tailed hawk couple for several months now, perching as the pair often does a top a cellular tower just west of Tennyson St. in South Adams County. From atop the tower a wonderful view of all the ponds – former gravel pits for the interstate, I-76 – filled with water from Clear Creek. And then suddenly one of the pair appeared. If you look closely at the photo above, notice the mouse in her mouth.

I’ve been waiting for the ducks to appear.

Where have they been? I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I miss them – gadwells, cinnamon, blue-winged and green-winged teals, golden eyes, buffleheads, hooded and common mergansers, scaups, avocets, ring-necked ducks and redheads, ruddy ducks and I’m really lucky an occasional wood duck among them as well.

One male (white stripe across from the back to the front of his head, with a green patch covering his eye on the right) and a bevy of American Wigeon females just arrived.

With the exception of a few mallards, year round residents of the Denver area and the ever present Canadian Geese, most of the ducks have been been gone as well, having migrated, according to the birding books much further north into Canada and the Arctic to breed and take advantage of the rich summer food supplies available to them.

For the past month, not much variety at Clear Creek Valley Park. A lot of snowy egrets who roost just north of the railroad tracks in a pond just east of Lowell Blvd. About a dozen of them in all, with one particular bully of a male who’s always chasing the females away from the good fishing spots, monopolizing them for himself. Killdeer, another year round resident, abound as well. And then there is the osprey pair that nest at the top of a telephone poll just east of Jim Baker Reservoir both trying to nudge their shy offspring out of the nest.

Enough to see for sure, but nothing like the dramatic variety that call Clear Creek Valley Park ponds home in the fall and spring before they migrate either south or north. I didn’t expect to see anything new this morning, but the presence of the red-tailed hawk should have alerted me to the fact that things were about to change.

Juvenile wigeon

Sure enough, on the small pond closest to Tennyson St., a small group of ducks. I imaging that they are mallards but my binoculars tell me otherwise. It’s a group of American Wigeons, one breeding male amidst a group of six non-breeding males and females sunning themselves on a small sandbar in the middle of the pond. As they enter the breeding season the color of the females will change. And then some others that I did not recognize at first, but these turned out to be juvenile Wigeons, this according to the trusty Guide to Sibley Birds (2nd edition) that I picked up in last fall at Cheyenne Bottoms (in Kansas).

Wigeons are “dabbling ducks.” As with the other dabblers, they can often be seen with the butts in the air, their heads underwater finding anything that is edible. They are known for eating a higher percentage of plant matter than other dabbling ducks. Breeding males, like the one shown above, have a brownish grey head with a green stripe covering and behind their eyes and a white head. With a good pair of binoculars they are easily identified.

Here is a quote about Wigeons from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.:

The best time to see American Wigeons in the Lower 48 is from August through April. During these months check wetlands, ponds, and nearby agricultural fields and listen for their unique nasal whistle, which is often the first clue that they are around. From a distance the male’s gleaming white forehead and white rump sides are sure to grab your attention. American Wigeons flush easily if disturbed, so watch from a distance to get the best looks. During hunting season, they tend to be even more wary and may shift to feeding in fields at night and larger, safer lakes and ponds with vegetative cover during the day.

I am assuming that this small group of Wigeons is the first of many that will be heading south from Canada and Alaska to spend several months in the streams and ponds of Colorado’s mountains and front range. They are known to be quite vocal and, characteristically, they were quacking up a storm today. And my experience corresponds to this description: they are easily flustered and suspicious of people getting too near. It helps that I have a good telephoto lens to photograph them from a distance. In a month or two they’ll be flooding the lakes in Denver parks, City Park, Washington Park and Berkeley and Rocky Mountain Parks near where I live.

I watched them for about a half hour, alternating between resting on the sand bar and dabbling in the pond and then moved on, pleased to think that this is just the beginning of what I expect to be a typically active duck migration from the north.

Female kestrel… I’ve seen them before at Clear Creek Valley Park, but not for a good six months.

And then a surprisingly calm kestrel. It let me approach to within closer than fifty feet before flying away. I believe it was a female as the males have a clear blue streak of feathers running down their backs, in between a white underbelly with brown spots and an orange and black striped back. This one (photo on the right) doesn’t have the blue streak.

Small and slender with “a boldly patterned head” they are known for hovering above their prey unlike other small falcons and hawks. There is another spot, north on Federal Blvd near what decades ago used to be the Savory Mushroom Farm, where a kestrel pair appear to call home. I’ve gone up there and watched them a number of times. Feisty little hawks their claws are formidable weapons despite their small size. Needless to say, this one at Clear Creek Valley Park is not waiting for a duck but perusing the scene for smaller game.

A hint of things to come. The migration season is beginning.

The male snowy egret who won’t let the females fish anywhere near him, spending an inordinate amount of time chasing them away.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Phil Jones permalink
    September 28, 2019 12:42 pm

    Had never heard of wigeons before this. Enjoyed the photos and the text. Thanks

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