The 13th Annual Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival, hosted by the Cortez Cultural Center in Cortez, Colorado, was a popular venue for bird watching enthusiasts in southwestern Colorado during the second weekend in May. The festival was attended by hundreds of people from around the region and the United States. The Montezuma Land Conservancy has hosted tours with the festival since 2012 and this year, with the permission of generous landowners, hosted five tours on conserved properties in Montezuma and Dolores counties.

Jason St. Pierre, a biologist residing in Durango, led a tour of Trail Canyon, an isolated oasis in Montezuma County. The canyon comprises privately owned, historic homesteader ranches now protected with an easement held by the Montezuma Land Conservancy.  Located north of McElmo Creek, the dramatic geography includes sheer canyon walls and a beautiful waterfall.

Trail Canyon tour spotting pygmy owls

The tour group hiked up to the waterfall and then dropped into pinyon juniper where they spotted a northern pygmy owl in the trees. They quietly observed the owl for a while and then noticed that another pygmy owl was hidden by the foliage in the tree and assumed they were probably a nesting pair. As they watched for a while they saw the owl take off and then return with a lizard to its nest.

The northern pygmy owl may be tiny in size, similar to the size of a robin, but it’s a ferocious hunter with a taste for songbirds. These owls are mostly dark brown and white, with long tails, smoothly rounded heads, and piercing yellow eyes. They hunt during the day by sitting quietly and surprising their prey.  The group also spotted an olive sided fly catcher which is an unusual sighting in that area and many in the tour group were delighted as they’d never seen one before.

Coen Dexter and Brenda Wright, coauthors of “Birds of Western Colorado Plateau and Mesa Country” (2004), Led a tour of the Washburn Ranch, available for the first time for bird watching.  The Washburn Ranch is a sprawling 3,000-acre expanse of rolling sage brush plain and pinyon-juniper plant communities.  The entire Eastern boundary offers panoramic views of the Dolores River canyon. It was conserved with the Montezuma Land Conservancy in 2015 and 2016 in multiple phases.

Coen and Brenda led a tour of 22 people through old grove gambles oak and pinyon juniper to the edge of the canyon overlooking the Dolores River. They spotted a peregrine falcon at the canyon’s edge, a graces warbler high up in the ponderosa and a gray plumbius verio nest along their tour.

The Montezuma Land Conservancy was excited for the opportunity to once again partner with the Cortez Cultural Center and the Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival. We are grateful to the landowners of  these amazing properties for allowing the birding tours an opportunity to explore and see the many varieties of species on these beautiful conserved properties.

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