Denver After Dawn: best birdwatching spots
Looking for a free, fun hobby? Pick up a pair of binoculars and try birding.
Editor’s note: Throughout the spring, RED’s Denver After Dawn series will look at fun morning and daytime activities in and around the Mile High City.
Five hundred twenty species of birds either call Colorado home or make it a stop on their migration paths, said Christy Carello, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “That’s quite a lot when you consider the Lower 48 has 920 species total,” she said.
That bounty of birds makes the state a birdwatcher’s paradise — and the unique points where urban and rural terrain meet are ideal places to spot both common and more exotic species. RED asked Carello to share a few of her favorite places to bird and her tips on how to get the most out of the experience.
Head to Wheat Ridge for some of Colorado’s best birding. Featuring multiple lakes and lots of bird-friendly vegetation, this park is a hotspot for birds. Keep an eye out for herons, cormorants and other water birds who breed and roost at a rookery on the Tabor Lake island, which Carello calls “a great place for finding aquatic-associated birds.”
Ducks also love the water, while marsh birds and songbirds find haven in the brush, trees and natural vegetation that surround the large park. “There’s a boardwalk that goes over some cattails at the park,” Carello said. “Sometimes you’ll spot some unique species there as well.”
Featuring 880 acres of oasislike open space, this Littleton park is another haven for birds. Its small lakes and surface trails are a great place to spot birds, said Carello, who noted it’s beloved by ducks since the water surface only rarely freezes over entirely.
“You can find a lot of grassland-associated species there,” she said, and like other places in Colorado, it can be a good place to observe (and hear) songbirds in midmigration.
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“City Park can be a great place to bird,” said Carello. Despite its manicured urban looks, the park is home to a diverse set of birds who prefer both water and vegetation.
Look for the rookery on one of the lakes, said Carello, but don’t discount more citified features as well. “Some established trees can provide microhabitats for birds, too.”
Another unexpected birding spot can be found in the midst of Denver’s busy, tangled Lower Downtown traffic corridor. The park, located where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River meet, features waters that in recent years have undergone significant restoration, bringing back native plants and birds in abundance.
“There are tons of duck species in the winter, and that native restored vegetation attracts a lot of songbirds,” Carello said.
Want to get the most out of your birding experience? Carello suggests you bring binoculars, if possible, and download Merlin Bird ID, an ornithologist-developed app that can help you identify the species you spot. Be careful not to disturb birds and their habitat, she warned, and bring a friend.
“It’s always fun to bird with someone else,” she said. “Time passes so fast. You can spend 30 minutes just looking at a bird. You realize you didn’t even think about all of the things that were stressing you out before. It’s almost kind of meditative.”
The best times to bird are during the first few hours after dawn and close to dusk, when birds are most active. And birding is fun and fruitful in all weather, said Carello. “In Colorado, we’re really fortunate,” she said. “Most days are good birding days.”