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7 Highlights of our Colorado Birding Tour to zapata ranch

Long-eared Owl by Greg Smith

Read on for 7 highlights from Naturalist Journeys‘ Colorado birding tour and a letter from Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine.

Hello, Bird & Nature Lovers.

What a spring it has been—the strangest and most unsettling of my life, and perhaps yours too. Last month, I had plans to be at the Medano–Zapata Ranch. Mid-March is a magical time of year at the ranch, when the long winter is finally coming to an end. It’s when Sandhill Cranes fill the skies, when Mountain Bluebirds pause on every fencepost; when Cinnamon Teals and rare Mexican Ducks poke about the cold, clear waters of the region; when Sagebrush Sparrows and Sage Thrashers proclaim from the rabbitbrush and greasewood; and when Long-eared Owls sing their spooky songs from the quiet woods just beyond the ranch headquarters.

Mountain Bluebird by Hugh Simmons Photography

I didn’t get to experience any of that this year, but I know it’s happening right now—and I long to get back to “The Valley,” as it is simply known. The San Luis Valley, straddling the Colorado–New Mexico border, is immense, the size of the state of New Jersey. It is a land of superlatives, of 14,000–ft. summits, but also of vast wetlands and endless desert. And it is, strangely and unjustly, unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Even many Coloradans are only dimly aware of its existence.

At this writing, it’s impossible for me—it’s impossible for anybody—to say when The Valley will be open again for the business of nature tourism. I sure hope it’s sometime this summer, and that’s because my favorite time of year in The Valley—sorry, March—is the summer. The cranes are gone by then, but everything else is there: the bluebirds and teals and owls and so much more: gloriously green Lewis’s Woodpeckers…enchanting Snowy Plovers…busybody flocks of White-faced Ibises…Black Swifts blasting out of waterfalls… And a fantastic diversity of butterflies, beetles, and other arthropods.

Lewis’s Woodpecker by Steve Wolfe

The folks at Naturalist Journeys and the Medano–Zapata Ranch, acting out of both caution and practicality, have decided to reschedule our Colorado birding tour for June 13 – 20, 2021. The Valley is wonderfully alive at that time of year, with breeding bird activity at a peak, the days not too hot, and the evenings pleasantly cool. We are already in touch with the various experts who will join us in the field for special visits to private and restricted sites.

I’m disappointed that we won’t be spending time together this year, but I can say that I’m already excited about the prospect of doing so in the year following. I’m so looking forward to learning and exploring together with all of you! In the meantime, feel free to reach out to me with questions about observing and enjoying nature in The Valley. Email is best; you may contact me at tfloyd@aba.org. For questions about logistics and scheduling for our Colorado birding tour, be in touch with Naturalist Journeys. We’ll be seeing you—sooner or later!

Sincerely yours,

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine

THE NATURE CONSERVANCY’S ZAPATA RANCH: 7 HIGHLIGHTS YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS ON OUR COLORADO BIRDING TOUR

colorado birding tour
Rock Wren by Sandy Sorkin

1. Visiting the rugged, isolated, and beautiful John James Canyon is always a treat on our Colorado birding tour. Birds of rocky country like Black-throated Sparrow and Rock Wren can be found throughout the basalt hillsides, as well as two rare species of butterflies, rattlesnake, and the hearty Pronghorn.

colorado birding tour
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies banding a Black Swift by Madeline Jorden

2. No trip to the ranch is complete without a visit to Zapata Falls. Hidden inside a great rock chamber lies the roaring 25-foot waterfall, where we witness swifts bursting through the water at dawn. The parking lot offers a sweeping view of the entire San Luis Valley and the short walk to the falls is a riot of sound and color with tanagers, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and warblers.

colorado birding tour
Snowy Plover by Greg Smith

3. Blanca wetlands is a key stopover for migrating water birds and a visit to the wetlands offers wonderful close-up opportunities to see American Avocet, Snowy Plovers, and others. Here, we have the special opportunity to hear from local biologists about all of the great work they are doing.

colorado birding tour
Golden Eagle by Greg Smith

4. For dashing western raptors like Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle, a trip to Hell’s Gate formation is not to be missed on our Colorado birding tour. We usually spot Bighorn Sheep here (in fact, we’ve actually never missed them)!

Colorado birding tour
Wranglers on the ranch by Matt Delorme

5. Those hungry for more adventure can lace up their boots and join the ranch crew to explore areas of The Nature Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch, accessible only by horseback. Atop sure-footed ranch horses, we travel through cool grassy meadows teeming with life and down dusty gulches checkered with Coyote dens.

Dinner at the ranch by Madeline Jorden

6. Far from typical ranch fare, the food alone is worth the trip. A bounty of fresh local produce, ranch-raised meats, home baked breads, and heavenly desserts are thoughtfully prepared each day by the ranch’s excellent dining staff. While we take our lunch to-go, breakfast and dinner are a feast in the lodge’s great dining room, surrounded by panoramic windows. From our morning coffee to our evening cocktail, we admire browsing Mule Deer and follow the sun as it rises over the Sangre de Cristos and sets over the San Juan range.

Wild Bison pasture on the Zapata Ranch by Chris Haag

7. Of course, the ranch itself is the main attraction! With Great Sand Dunes National Park as our backdrop, it is magical walking out among the rabbitbrush and greasewood and see and hear specially adapted birds like Sagebrush Sparrow and Sage Thrasher, or to witness the ranch’s wild Bison herd and their spring calves as they wallow and bellow in the summer sun. Making the sprawling, magnificent ranch our home for the week is certainly the cherry on top of our unforgettable Colorado birding tour. 

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