Bird drama – you just have to look up

       On a recent Saturday morning in the Garden of the Gods, long-time area naturalist Melissa Walker led eight people (who'd signed up in advance for her guided bird walk) along the trail south of the main parking lot between the towering North Gateway and White Rock formations. Along the way, she had them stop and look up.

Naturalist Melissa Walker (center), leading a bird walk through the Garden of the Gods recently, shows her delight at spotting a prairie falcon in flight. Joining her (at left) are Peter and Nancy Kiziu. At right are Stacey Lenters, with her daughters (oldest to youngest) Sierra, Zoe and Abigail.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Toward the north end of Gateway, high up, near a formation called the Tower of Babel, Walker showed where a prairie falcon couple had built a nest this spring and early summer. The birds' months of “whitewash” around the nest helped make it visible.
       The falcon family has since abandoned the nest, she noted, but - as she confirmed that morning - at least one of the falcons was still around. Happily, she pointed him out, swooping between the tops of formations.
       Then Walker introduced another context for the walk participants: the hundreds of smaller, white-throated swifts zipping around. As part of their migratory pattern, 1,500 or so swifts spend the summers here (and are curiously adept at departing just before the first major storm of fall). Most of their waking lives they are in the air. Accompanied sometimes by violet -green swallows, “they wheel around and chatter, eating as they go,” Walker said. Conveniently, the swifts' food consists of the many insects flying high in the air near the rock formations.
       None of the swifts seemed to be traveling in any particular direction, but Walker said they would steer clear of the prairie falcon, which has been known to attack them. She described the time she saw a falcon hit a swift as it flew across the Garden, killing it on impact.
       A small drama unfolded before upward-gazing eyes. A prairie falcon had found a resting spot atop the South Gateway Rock, but a kestrel was not happy about it and kept flying in and harassing the interloper. Walker speculated that the kestrel might have a nest nearby. At last the falcon got the message and flew off. “That kestrel was determined,” she observed.
       In her career in the area, Walker has been a naturalist and/or interpreter at the Beidleman Center (when it was an active nature center in the Westside's Sondermann Park), at the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center and at the Starsmore Discovery Center in North Cheyenne Canon Park. In her website blog, Walker refers to Dr. Richard Beidleman (after whom the center was named) and his research that led the federal Department of the Interior in 1971 to formally designate the Garden as a National Natural Landmark. The naming was in part because of the concentration of migratory birds, such as the swifts.

LEFT: A house finch poises at the top of a tree. RIGHT: A kestrel (right) drives a prairie falcon from its perch.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Nowadays, Walker does naturalist work for outside entities and volunteers her time to lead the bird walks, which leave from the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center. She remains personally interested in the habits of birds and has gotten up early in the morning recently to determine exactly when the robins would start singing. (Answer: 4:01 a.m.)
       On this particular bird walk, July 10, Walker was accompanied by Nancy Kiziu, a birder from Florida, with her husband Peter; as well as Stacey Lenters, from central Colorado Springs, who hoped to use the walk as part of a homeschooling curriculum for her three young girls, Sierra, Zoe and Abigail.
       Along the walk, other birds that Walker identified included a spotted towhee (its song, which ends in a distinctive trill, gave its location away), a house finch, ring-billed gulls and the Garden's ubiquitous rock pigeons. “Pigeons like the skyscrapers in cities, and they like natural skyscrapers,” Walker commented.
       She will lead another bird walk in the Garden of the Gods Sunday, Aug. 8 at 8 a.m.
       Other scheduled walks leaving from the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center this summer are instructive about insects, geology, photography, wildflowers and bats.

This year's falcon nest can be seen on the rock at left, where the bird "whitewash" is, facing the right-hand rock.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Reservations are generally necessary. For more information, call 634-6666.

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