Discovering Steamboat: Feather finders flock together

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— After an hour of coffee and conversation with Steamboat Springs resident Tom Litteral, I’m looking at the world around me with a keener eye.

Discovering Steamboat

Lisa Schlichtman's "Discovering Steamboat" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Schlichtman here.

On Saturday, I pulled over on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 40 to look more closely at a flock of big black birds that were perched in the tall branches of a cottonwood. I think they were magpies, but for a moment I thought maybe I’d spied the Bohemian waxwings that Tom and his group of local birders have been chasing. I still don’t know what a waxwing looks like, but I do know a flock of birds when I see it.

I also made a quick (and chilly) trip down to the Yampa River Core Trail where it travels under the 13th Street bridge near the library. I was on the hunt for a glimpse of the American dipper or water ousel. Tom said these birds build 2- to 3-feet long, cone-type nests under bridges, and they can fly under water. He said you can sometimes catch these almost black, sleek-looking birds popping up out of the water and bobbing. I didn’t see a dipper, but from now on, I'll keep on eye out for them whenever I pass under or over a bridge along the trail.

Tom also spoke about the Townsend solitaire — a bird that often can be spotted in the vicinity of Fish Creek Falls and is one of only a few birds that will sing in winter.

“You will hear its delicate song drifting through the snowflakes,” Tom said.

Spend time with Tom, and you’ll soon discover someone who is passionate about birding and nature in general. The retired park ranger and firefighter, who now serves as a city bus driver, has been able to share his love for feather finding through involvement in Yampa Valley Birding Club, a group he helped begin shortly after he moved to Steamboat 20 years ago.

Tom’s enthusiasm about birding is contagious and often inspires others to pay more attention to the world and the wildlife around them.

“I think everybody finds the more they know and appreciate about being outdoors, the greater the enjoyment of their experience,” he said.

He explained that his insatiable love for birding began more than 50 years ago. “As a young person, I was just curious,” he said. That curiosity blossomed in college when Tom, a sophomore, begged a professor to let him enroll in an ornithology class for graduate students.

“I learned so much, and I became a life-long learner about bird life,” he said. “Birding has been a key to a lot of the creativity and special events in my life. And I’ve been able to share it with lots of people.”

One of those special events was when he had a chance meeting with his future wife on a birding trail in the Everglades National Park. He spied her on the boardwalk, and a year after meeting there, the two were married.

Tom also is a huge promoter of the local birding club, which Tom describes as a “very loosely organized collection of birders.” Anyone interested in birding can join, and throughout the years, the Yampa Valley Birding Club has been involved in eagle nest monitoring for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and colony counts of herons for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. Members also share with one another unusual or rare bird sightings in the local area, which Tom says often draws a small crowd of enthusiastic viewers.

Another one of the club’s activities involves participation in a researcher’s count of small owls that utilize nesting boxes set up by the U.S. Forest Service. Tom said there are hundreds of these boxes, which are similar to bluebird houses, set up on Forest Service land. Volunteer birders visit these boxes to see if they are inhabited by owls.

“To get a small owl to poke its head out, you scrape the side of the tree with a stick,” Tom said. “It sounds like a predator so the owl sticks his head out and seems to say, ‘Who’s there?’ It’s rare to find an owl, but it’s all great fun.”

Tom sees birding as something bigger than just a weekend hobby for a few eccentrics. Bird watching is among the “watchable wildlife activities” that are exploding in popularity throughout Colorado and drawing tourists to areas like Steamboat where 350 different species of birds thrive.

“It’s not only aesthetic but economic, as well,” Tom added.

And on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Yampa Valley Birding Club and Yampatika will be conducting the annual Steamboat Springs Christmas Bird Count, and they are looking for volunteers to join them on their hunt.

Anyone interested in participating is invited to meet at the Steamboat Springs Community Center at 8 a.m. and then travel to several defined count zones to look for birds. Each zone will have an experienced birder there as a leader, so novices are welcome. The information is collected by the National Audubon Society, and the Steamboat Spring’s count is one of 50 similar counts that will be occurring across Colorado and one of more than 2,300 nationwide.

According to avid local birder Teresa Moulton, organizers of the annual Christmas Bird Count are expecting to find 35 to 45 species of bird. Among the most elusive would be the common redpoll, the snow bunting and the rosy-finch, and Moulton even holds out hope of spying Routt County’s first snowy owl.

For more information about Yampa Valley Birding Club or the Christmas Bird Count, email birdsNboat@comcast.net or visit www.yampatika.org.

I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you’d like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you’d like me to try. You can reach me at lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or 970-871-4221.

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