Bird watching

 A Brown Thrasher and its young in Virginia. (Courtesy photo) 

A rare “bright spot in a pandemic-stricken economy.” That’s what the Audubon Society calls birdwatching paraphernalia, which reports “sales through the roof” for seed suppliers, birdhouse builders and small businesses helping people connect with nature in their backyards.

Avid avian-watchers spend big bucks on festivals, too, though alas, one of the most famous events of all (like much of the rest of big-time, in-person entertainment) has been canceled this year. Not to worry though, because the birds are coming to you.

For the first time ever, you need not travel to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Mexico to witness thousands of sandhill cranes alighting each dawn in migratory splendor. You can watch the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Festival of the Cranes — retitled Crane Fiesta 2020 — online through Saturday. Presented by the Friends of Bosque del Apache, today’s events include a session on “phonescoping” (that is, spotting and photographing birds using your phone); raptor identification, selecting birding optics, the climate crisis, duck identification and birding for kids, and a session on how to practice “Ornitherapy,” mindful observations of birds and nature and a discussion about the science demonstrating that getting out in nature reduces stress, lowers heart rates, reduces depression and anxiety and calms us down. There will even be dinner and a show, of a sort: a session entitled “Deadly Beauty Behavior,” at 1 p.m. Friday, will feature a wildlife rehabilitator demonstrating how trained hawks and falcons catch their prey. “The birds will be released to fly, chase lures and possibly even hunt live prey,” a description of this live webinar reads. “Viewers be warned!” Registration is required for the webinar; for a complete rundown of events through Saturday, visit


You don’t have to flick on your computer, or pick up your cellphone, to see birdlife, of course. Or for that matter, even bother to step outside (which is why birdwatching has become so popular during the pandemic). Closer to home, a single bird has become a local celebrity, and all Christine Lance of Ridgway — who first spied it — had to do was look out her window.

“It was a really unusual thing,” Lance said. “I’ve kept a daily diary of what I’ve seen for 20 years. And on Oct. 27, a new bird showed up. And I went, wait a minute. What is that?”

It was nothing Lance had seen before. “It doesn’t belong on the Western Slope at all,” Lance said. “It’s rarely been seen on the Eastern Slope.”

“It” is a brown thrasher, which typically nests in thickets, hedgerows and forest edges in the Eastern U.S., and the Great Plains. Thrashers are difficult to spot, period — much less on the Western Slope. Lance identified it by sending a photo to Eric Hines, a professional birder and wildlife guide who lives in Placerville. Hines confirmed the sighting. (It is likely that the bird got blown off its usual migratory route by a big storm, which happens often.)

The thrasher has been in Lance’s yard ever since she first spotted it. “Every morning, I wake up and make my coffee and look out the window, and there it is, hanging out in a Utah juniper,” Lance said. By now, at least seven birdwatchers have visited Lance’s backyard. One has driven from as far away as Glenwood Springs to see it. The president of the local National Audubon Society chapter, Bruce Ackerman, was in Ridgway on Wednesday to have a look (“He was so excited!”). 

Ackerman plans to write about the thrasher in the winter edition of Canyon Wrenderings, the society’s quarterly newsletter, and another local birder plans to anoint the thrasher ‘bird of the month’ in her newsletter.

The thrasher’s fame is likely fleeting. The lives of most birds — even large, flamboyant ones like as sandhill cranes — are elusive, given that much of their life is spent on the wing (as the New York Times recently put it, “Birds are not on lockdown”). While she can, Lance said, she’s been savoring these days. “It’s been so interesting to have a chance to observe its behavior,” she said. “I’ve been feeding it dried mealworms. I don’t normally feed birds, but I will in winter. It will chase off juncos, and house sparrows, and goldfinches, and even pinyon jays, which are larger. In fact, the pinyon jays have stopped coming around! But when the magpies and crows show up, it hides.” She called the rare opportunity to witness a new creature “beautiful and fascinating.”