TELLURIDE - I’m eavesdropping on two bald eagles perched in a dead tree, but when a red-tailed hawk swoops past, a snake dangling from its talons, I nearly get whiplash spinning around for a better glimpse.
I’m armed with a pair of binoculars and a camera, following eagle-eyed Eric Hynes on a morning birding tour through southwestern Colorado. Hynes seems to have a tracking beacon built into his brain that lets him know exactly where to find all the feathered stars. So far, besides the eagles and hawk, we’ve spotted hummingbirds, woodpeckers, cormorants and teal.
Birds have made the news a lot recently. The journal Science published a study in September showing that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has dropped by 29 percent since 1970.
That’s 2.9 billion birds gone in my lifetime. Suddenly I feel like I need to pay better attention.
I’m a scuba diver, and, like an obsessive birder, I keep a running list of all the species I’ve spotted underwater. I wasn’t sure if birding would capture my interest in the same way, but so far so good.
“It’s a sexy and athletic endeavor,” Hynes joked when he picked me and another birder up for the half-day excursion.
We began our tour in Telluride, where Hynes pointed out an American dipper wading through the San Miguel River in town. Dippers are best known for the way they step into moving streams and use their wings as flaps to hold themselves below the surface while they walk along the river bottom in search of food.
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Next we stopped at the edge of town to look for the peregrine falcons known to nest there, but they’d apparently flown the coop. Peregrine falcons, Hynes says, can fly at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour in a dive and curl their talons into a fist to punch out their prey.
We kept rolling down the highway, and when I noticed a big bird squatting on a snag in San Miguel Canyon, Hynes screeched to a halt and wheeled around so we could get a better look. We spent 10 minutes ogling the osprey, with its curved beak and white chest. From where it sat, it could watch the river for fish. We left the bird to its hunt and continued our own feathery search.
As we drove out of a canyon, Hynes, who grew up in Maine, told us the story of the “spark bird” that triggered his interest in birding.
He was 10 years old, staying at a summer camp, where he always woke up early. One morning he heard a ghostly, yodeling wail. The camp counselor told him it was a loon. Later that day, the counselor took Hynes out on a canoe to show him where the loons were nesting.
“I got to see it really close and was mesmerized,” said Hynes, who studied ornithology while earning a degree in environmental studies. Today he runs his own Colorado-based company Box Canyon Birding but also works for Austin-based Field Guides. He leads birding trips around Telluride and to other farther-flung hot spots, including Jamaica.
The terrain shifted as we continued our tour, and soon we arrived at a pond just off the road near the small community of Norwood. The place looked like the Grand Central Station of the avian world — sandpipers and snipes two-stepped around its fringes while ducks bobbed on the surface. A few hundred feet behind the pond, that pair of bald eagles kept a careful watch from an old tree.
We kept chugging to Miramonte Reservoir at the Dan Noble State Wildlife Area, where we hiked around the lake and spotted an otter, along with a new assortment of birds — green-winged teals, common mergansers, pied-billed grebes and some American coots. We paused for sandwiches, then headed home, stopping to check a Lewis’ woodpecker and double-crested cormorant off our list.
By the time we made it back to Telluride, we’d recorded 49 different bird species, from a black-chinned hummingbird, whose high-speed wing flapping we heard before we saw, to magpies, ravens, swallows, wrens, blue herons and Canadian geese.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them will disappear in the next half-century.