Colorado's winter heralds
In the Rocky Mountains, 'tis the season for snowfall, dropping temperatures and America's favorite birds.
Monday, November 30, 2009 - 18:53
FLYING HIGH: Once in danger of extinction across North America, bald eagles (including Colorado's migratory population) are increasing yearly. (Photo: Lauren Buchholz)
As each of the past 11 years has drawn to a close, I've welcomed the return of colder temperatures to Colorado. Snow-capped peaks and frosty nights always provide a picture-perfect backdrop for the holiday season, and I look forward to seeing early snows transform the brown grasses and withered trees of the Front Range into iced shrines befitting a winter wonderland. Then, too, a continual drop in Fahrenheit means that one of the most beloved winter pastimes of your average Coloradoan (myself included) is soon to make its annual appearance: the opening of ski and snowboard season (it's never too far from the first snow).
Yet of all the annual traditions Mother Nature provides to usher in winter for the Rocky Mountain region, my favorite is one that doesn't have anything to do with snow. Sometime during October or November of every year, a small phenomenon takes place along Colorado's Front Range that asserts the return of the season with a finality missing from temperamental temperature swings. During the final weeks of the year, the frigid far north relinquishes a migratory population of some of Colorado's most dramatic seasonal residents: bald eagles. A definitive closure to fall appears with the species' arrival to these southern over-wintering grounds -- as well as another checkmark on the list of reasons for the state's winter appeal.
While spotting America's most famous birds along the plains of the Rocky Mountains may not be the main winter draw for out-of-state visitors, bald eagles maintain a regular presence in Colorado throughout the entire season. Relatively mild winters and substantial open bodies of water attract the fish-eating avian to this southern retreat from summer grounds in Canada and Alaska, providing habitat and occasionally breeding grounds for the birds. Young may continue to live at the latter sites year-round; however, the far-ranging seasonal adults draw the most attention. From late fall until March, single eagles and mated pairs can be seen soaring over Front Range open spaces and suburban developments, their strikingly-white heads and large wingspans making them easy to distinguish for even the novice birdwatcher. The tendency of eagles to return to the same nesting and roosting areas year after year further cements their visibility, while natural lifespans of 20-30 years make it likely that viewers returning to a certain area may even be seeing the same bird.
The high profile and current ubiquity of Colorado's winter bald eagle population, however, is far more than an incredible wildlife viewing experience. It is one of America's best examples of species protection -- and a reminder of the value of this preservation. Threatened by hunting, habitat destruction and pervasive use of the pesticide DDT in the mid-1900s, the bald eagle became a critically-endangered species in 1967. With only a little over 400 breeding pairs left in the U.S., the bird's extinction seemed imminent. Strict regulations and monitoring and conservation programs throughout the next few decades, however, allowed the bald eagle to make a tremendous comeback. Currently, over 12,000 breeding pairs live in the lower 48 states -- a population increase that allowed the bald eagle to be successfully removed from the endangered species list (although not from all federal protection) in 2007. (Source: Colorado Division of Wildlife.)
Today, the arrival of winter eagle migrations to Colorado stands as an annual testament to the species' success. More than 100 breeding pairs came to the state for the annual migration last year, and new eaglets and their parents provide the main attractions for some of the state's most popular bird-watching locations during its coldest months. Colorado's eagle population may not have achieved quite the same degree of fame as its snow, but these seasonal residents are every bit as worthy of the title of winter heralds for the Rocky Mountains.
For more general information on the bald eagle in Colorado, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s species profile page.
Photos © Lauren Buchholz.
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