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In search of bird song on the San Miguel

Eliza Dunn

It's a little before 9 a.m. The morning is still cool, and Telluride is just waking up. But the birds have been awake for hours. A couple of people are out walking their dogs along the River Trail. If you listen closely, you can already hear some birds.

A small crowd is gathering on the sidewalk, most with binoculars hanging around their necks. At the center is Katie Triest, professional bird nerd (according to her business card) and local field guide.

"I own my own birding company," she explains. "It's called the Birding Company, the Birding Co., and I take people on guided bird trips."

Triest says her passion for birding began with a clock. "My college roommate took an ornithology class and as a joke, I got her a clock of all the bird calls," she says. "And the red-winged blackbird really stuck out to me, so I learned its call. It became an eye spy game for me. I started becoming obsessed with identifying what’s around me."

Today, Triest is leading a trip with the Wilkinson Public Library. The group of about 10 or 12 people is not ideal for birding, but we squeeze onto the River Trail, careful not to disturb the green brush. Triest points out a bird hovering above.

"Ooh—there’s a broad-tailed hummingbird! On that willow. They’re very fast, but they will perch, which is fun, because a lot of the time you don’t see that," she says.

Triest scans the sky. When she points out a bird, everyone's binoculars fly up to their eyes.

"So that thing you’re hearing is a white-crowned sparrow," she says. "And we’ll see those too. It’s got a really cool white and black cap."

A group of birdwatchers outside of Telluride, Colorado.
Eliza Dunn
A group of birdwatchers outside of Telluride, Colorado.

As we walk, Triest explains what she’s looking and listening for. "I’m listening to anything I hear, just bird sounds all around me. And I’m looking for movement. Because that’s how I’ll find something, you know. Like if I’m just staring at a little area, I’m just waiting for a bird to move so I can track it. And once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. That’s all I hear. I’m so distracted in conversations when people try to talk to me, I’m just like oh—oh so there’s some Canada geese..."

Once you know where to look, there are birds everywhere. Standing on the riverbank, some first-time birdwatchers list what they’ve seen today.

“We saw a yellow warbler,” one woman says, “and a hummingbird.”

“A couple of them!” another woman adds. “Yeah, broad-tailed hummingbirds. And then there was something else that she said was nesting…”

Her friend jumps back in, “I forgot… That wasn’t a sparrow…”

The other woman shakes her head, “No, but we did see a sparrow, and we saw a robin.”

There are also American dippers, Brewer’s blackbirds, hummingbirds, and song sparrows, all along the River Trail. Walking a familiar route like this one is one of Triest’s favorite parts of birding.

"It gives people the opportunity to learn the birds that they’re going to be walking with day in and day out. It’s a great way to get to know your neighborhood," she says.

“What I love about birding,” she continues, “is that it’s so good meditatively, because you can’t concentrate on anything else. It helps your brain slow down and stop if you’re anxious or worried about something. When you’re concentrating on finding stuff and looking so intently, that all goes away.”

Focusing on your surroundings, Triest says, brings you right into the present moment along with the geese and the sparrows. It requires patience and careful attention to the world around you.

Another birdwatcher on the walk agrees. Even in the most familiar places, paying close attention allows you to notice things you’ve never seen before. Pointing out a broad-tailed hummingbird, he says, “It all depends on the angle of the sun to the bird. Because they can look very plain, very plain, and then they can look that gorgeous.”

Triest’s advice to aspiring birders is simple: “Just get out there, get outside. Get a field guide. But really, when you’re in the field, the best thing you can do is focus on the subject without trying to find what it is. Write it down. Notice—is there an eye ring, are there wing bars, where is the color on the bird, what kind of sound is it making, what habitat is it in?”

And Triest’s favorite bird? “My favorite bird is the pigeon,” she admits, “and I’ll get a lot of flack for that.”

When asked why, she explains, “They’re really incredible parents. They’re resilient, which I love. I love a good resilient bird. They’re adaptable. And I think they look pretty badass, you know? And they’ve got so many color morphs, which is evolutionarily speaking very cool. They’re just rad animals.”

Triest says not to worry—there are no pigeons in Telluride, so she can’t take you on a pigeon-watching trip. But there are warblers, mallards, red-winged blackbirds, and all kinds of birds sharing our backyard here in the Box Canyon. So next time you step outside, take a look—or just listen.

Copyright 2024 KOTO.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Eliza Dunn is an intern at KOTO in Telluride.