FARMINGTON — As the weather grows warmer, many birds are flocking back to the Four Corners or making a pit stop in the region as they travel to their summer breeding grounds.
And with the birds come the bird-watchers. In conjunction with the birds' spring migration, area groups are organizing bird counts and a birding festival.
The Four Corners Birds Club is hosting two migratory bird counts, one on Saturday in Farmington and another one on May 17 at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The counts monitor changes in bird populations in those areas.
Jim Von Haden, the chief of natural resources at Chaco, will lead the count at the national park. He said a few good spots to bird-watch in Chaco are the South Mesa Trail and Pueblo Alto Trail, which reach into upper elevations. In previous years, birders have seen ravens, red-tailed hawks and prairie falcons during the count.
"I always like seeing the mockingbird come out because it's so colorful vocally," Von Haden said.
For the first time in several years, the park is hosting the count on a Saturday — rather than a weekday — in hopes of attracting more people.
"It's a unique opportunity for interested people who enjoy birding to get to see parts of Chaco they might not otherwise see," Von Haden said.
The Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival, now in its 10th year, provides another chance to spot both familiar and unusual birds. The Cortez Cultural Center is hosting the festival, which began Wednesday in Cortez, Colo.
Farmington area birders Tim Reeves and Donna Thatcher will lead tours during the festival.
This year, Thatcher will guide a tour along the Mancos River. The tour traverses through sagebrush habitat and a prairie dog village and then climbs onto the rim of a canyon, where birders can look out into treetops. In addition to birds, festival attendees can see archaeological sites along the river, Thatcher said.
Aside from her tour, Thatcher has signed up to attend other events, including a pontoon boat tour on McGee Reservoir.
"That reservoir is so big you can't see the ducks very well," she said.
She said birders often stand on the shore with telescopes just to catch a glimpse of the birds. By taking boats onto the lake, birders hope to get a closer look at the birds.
While birders always keep their eyes open for a variety of birds, festival attendees will look mainly for migratory birds, which go south for the winter and pass through the area while returning to their summer habitats, said Diane Cherback, who organizes the event for the Cortez Cultural Center.
The festival includes various tours, including an overnight trip to Telluride, Colo. Tourists hope to spot high-altitude birds as the group crosses Lizard Head Pass into Telluride.
In addition to tours, the festival offers a number of lectures. Among them is "Six Seasons: A Birding Year in the Land of the Apache," a keynote talk by Rick Taylor, a biologist from southern Arizona who leads bird tours and studies quetzals and trogons.
"We're a small festival compared to something like the Bosque," Cherback said, referring to the annual Festival of the Cranes in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
While thousands of people travel to Socorro County for the Festival of the Cranes in the fall, Cherback said about 120 to 130 people, mostly from Colorado, attend the festival in Cortez.
In addition to leading tours for the birding festival, Thatcher is the education specialist at Riverside Nature Center and leads a group of birders on weekly bird walks at Animas Park.
Every Tuesday morning, about 10 to 15 bird-watchers gather at Riverside Nature Center. The day starts when Thatcher throws a mixture of corn and birdseed outside the center near the pond, which persuades the birds to come down from trees and off the water to eat the food.
This Tuesday morning, a few Canada goose goslings climbed onto the shore and waddled over to the feed. Some onlookers commented on how much the goslings grew over the last week.
"I'm always amazed geese can grow as large as they do eating mainly little green leaves," Thatcher said.
The group watched the birds for a few minutes before walking a couple of miles around the park.
Over time, the group's faithful members have learned where nests are located and where to spot different types of birds.
On Tuesday, they stopped beside Willet's Ditch in Animas Park to look for the black phoebe — a small, sooty black songbird with a white belly — and the barn swallows that nest in the area. One of the birders spotted a black phoebe beside a trash can.
A little ways down the path from the ditch, the birders stopped once again to look up at a large cottonwood tree.
A few weeks ago, a woman walking her dog saw a mallard duck standing in the tree and watched as the duck went to brood on her nest. She alerted the nature center, and, since then, the birders have been watching the mallard nest.
Thatcher said the nest is unusual because mallards usually don't nest in trees. They tend to nest in tall grasses and shrubs on the ground.
The bird wasn't there on Tuesday, and some of the birders speculated the eggs may have hatched.
"If they hatched, they would all just tumble out, and she (the mother) would take them to the river," Thatcher said.
Unlike other birds that fledge only after they learn to fly, ducks leave the nest immediately after hatching and go to a body of water to feed on aquatic insects.
As they walked, Pam Coy took out her camera to show the group a picture of a Lazuli Bunting — a small, brightly colored blue bird — she had seen earlier that day at her backyard feeder.
She said she was talking on the phone when she saw the bird fly down to her feeder.
"I was really shocked," she said.
When other birds arrived at the feeder, the Lazuli Bunting flew away. But Coy waited near the feeder for its return and managed to snap a photo.
"I think it flew by and saw this nice food in the tray and came down for a bite," she said.
IF YOU GO:
What: Farmington Migratory Bird Count
When: Saturday, May 10
Where: Locations throughout Farmington
More info: Call Alan Nelson 505-325-8619.
What: Chaco Annual Spring Bird Count
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, May 17
Where: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, 1808 County Road 7950, Nageezi
Register: Email email@example.com or call 505-786-7014 ext. 223.
What: Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival
When: Events continue through Sunday, May 11.
Where: Cortez, Colo.
More info: cortezculturalcenter.org
What: Tuesday birders
When: 8 a.m. Tuesdays
Where: Riverside Nature Center in Animas Park, 135 and 145 N. Browning Parkway, Farmington
What: Durango bird walks
When: 9 a.m. Wednesdays
Where: Rotary Park 1565 E. 2nd Ave. in Durango, Colo.