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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

Connecting the Drops

connectingdropslogo4.1Bringing you the reporting you crave over the radio airways with extras and archives on our website. Visit the audio archives or listen to the latest story on the connection between Colorado's forests, watersheds, and forest fires:

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Water Education Colorado

An Avian Oasis on the Plains

By Lori Ozzello

From the ground, eastern Colorado's prairie rivers in late winter are shallow, sandy and slow. Bare cottonwood trees, tall dry grasses and stick-like shrubs line their narrow edges, sometimes the only clues the rivers are there at all.

From a migrating bird's perspective, they look like a Marriott Hotel.

The rivers are part of a rich nexus that includes playas and wetlands providing rest, food and refuge for thousands of migrating birds. The eastern plains are part of the Central Flyway, a north-to-south route acting as a wide, arterial highway for migratory birds traveling from Texas and Mexico. It follows the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains into Canada and the northwest arctic coast.

The plains' rivers are only half the story, though. According to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Colorado's eastern plains have about 2,500 playas, or small, shallow wetlands that rainfall and runoff periodically fill. The plains' annual average precipitation is 12 inches or less, so drought-like conditions are common and the playas often dry up.
DOW public information specialist Tyler Baskfield says there's an advantage to the on-again-off-again playas: Their seasonal fluctuations allow for substantial plant growth, which produces much-needed seeds for food for waterfowl and migrating birds.

‘Anywhere you get water out there, you'll get waterfowl,’ Baskfield says. ‘Wetlands on the eastern plains play a critical role. You'll see it if you visit a reservoir. You'll see it around playas, streams and creeks. Lot of times, because of creeks, you get kind of a treat corridor. The cottonwood seeds come down for the birds to eat and the trees provide a great cover for everything from deer on down. Any source of water is sort of a mecca for wildlife on the plains.’

Baskfield says there's another advantage. Unlike Midwestern states that have plentiful water, the plains' scarce water supply ‘sort of narrows things down.’

Large mammals—like deer—he says, gravitate toward the same streams as the sandhill cranes.

An International Attraction
Bird and wildlife watching are among Colorado's fastest growing tourism sectors. Annually, birders in the state spend $16 million for binoculars and spotting scopes and $37.5 million for commercially-prepared bird food, according to statistics provided by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Wildlife watching alone, in total economic impact, is second only to skiing in the recreation sector. It brings $1 billion annually, according to a 2001 Department of Wildlife study. In the United States, that's the largest amount by far of any state that doesn't have ocean front property. And, wildlife officers say it isn't unusual to find international visitors who tour the state to see specific birds.

‘This is an urbanized culture,’ says Baskfield. ‘This is one of the ways people want to interact with wildlife.’

The state boasts more than 900 different species. The variety, says DOW Watchable Wildlife Coordinator John Koshak, is due to Colorado's own diversity, going from prairie to high country.

In eastern Colorado, Koshak is working on a project to ‘loop’ viewing trails, something like the scenic byways signs along state highways. He's working with public and private landowners, the Rocky Mountain Observatory, Colorado Field Orinthologists, Audubon Colorado and the Colorado Department of Transportation, among others, to link 24 counties. The viewing site locations will be available on the Web and on maps for wildlife enthusiasts to follow according to the time they have, area and season. The Web site's completion is expected by summer's end, and the trail loops by the fall.

Until then, there are other alternatives, such as the existing watchable wildlife stations and a variety of viewing festivals held in various small towns.

Says Baskfield, ‘Really, all you need to do is get in the car and go.’

At a watchable wildlife station near Georgetown, for instance, DOW installed permanent viewing scopes for the public. At the site just off Interstate 70, visitors can drop in 50 cents to watch 300 or so bighorn sheep bounce from rocky ledge to precipitous foothold on the opposite mountainside. DOW volunteers staff the area on weekends. The sheep are around pretty much all day, every day, fall to spring.

At Windy Gap Reservoir near Highway 40, wildlife and birdwatchers can spot bald and golden eagles, a variety of waterfowl and small mammals through permanent scopes. The watchable wildlife area there includes a parking lot off the highway along with a covered picnic area.

The watchable wildlife program has existed for about 15 years and boasts a couple hundred areas around the state. Some are simple informational kiosks, others are blinds, and still others have scopes, says Baskfield. DOW partners with a variety of agencies and organizations to install and maintain the areas.

While watching wildlife maintains its popularity, searching for birds continues to become more popular all the time.

‘We know hunting and fishing bring a lot of money into the state, but only seven percent of the population hunts,’ says DOW's Wildlife Watch Coordinator Renee Herring. ‘People pay to go to Africa just to see birds, not the charismatic megafauna. Birds.’

Which explains the draw of events like the Lamar Snowgoose Festival in late February. In its fourth year, the festival drew about 200 people to a weekend of workshops and wildlife viewing.

Not only did visitors enjoy the return of between 5- and 15,000 snow geese, Koshak says, they also got to see more than two dozen bald eagles and several other raptors, including rough-legged hawks.

‘For some of these people,’ says Koshak, ‘it's a life changing experience.’
White-tailed deer were out early Saturday morning and visitors got to see a great blue heron rookery. Free classes at the high school covered everything from Zebulon Pike's historic odyssey across the plains, to how to watch wildlife properly.

If you missed Lamar, no worries. There's more, like the Wray greater prairie chicken festival in early April.

The Wray event, made possible by a collaborative effort among the Wray Chamber of Commerce, Yuma Historical Museum, DOW and private landowners, attracts birdwatchers from around the world, as well as Colorado.

The prairie chicken festival in Wray includes a night-before-viewing dinner, sunrise bird viewing, educational film and after-viewing breakfast.

After their 4 a.m. wake-up call, visitors board vans and ride over bumpy roads for a chance to view leks—the prairie chicken's gathering and courting areas—where DOW parks specially fitted trailers. Inside the trailers are bleachers for the birdwatchers. One side of each trailer opens, says Herring, ‘almost like a hotdog wagon’ revealing a window that looks out onto the prairie. Visitors are led in and quietly seated before the awning is opened.

‘At first, you can barely see outside,’ she says. ‘Then the light comes up and it's quiet. The sky begins to get light.Then you see the chickens.’

The males stomp, they dance. They blow up the orange sacs below their beaks.

After the mating ritual, ranchers on whose land the trailers are parked serve breakfast to the visitors and talk with them about a variety of topics, including water resources, rangeland management and life on the plains.
Says Herring: ‘It was a blast.’

Several plains and mountain towns, including Lamar, Wray, Monte Vista and Walden, host weekend festivals for returning birds. Wray's greater prairie chicken viewing occurs over five weekends beginning March 21.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife offers free workshops from now through August throughout the state to teach children and adults how to master outdoor skills. Some offer college credit. Visit www.wildlifewatch.net .
For more about birdwatching, visit:

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