Winter Close to Home

Article and photos by Jack Olson

Winter in the big city can deposit a soft layer of glistening snow; it can encourage hardy birds to remain or migrate in; it can freeze your face off.

Paddling in City Ditch after a light snow

Paddling in City Ditch after a light snow

Last year I wrote a column on “Wildlife Close to Home”, with feathered friends bearing young, swimming in warm waters. They even wander about the gardens, plucking leaves and petals. In winter it’s surprising how many birds remain, and how many migrate from the north. Once again, we’ll visit popular Washington Park, only about five minutes from my home.

In late autumn, the gardens fade and then are dug up. Leaves turn and then fall. Cormorants head for warmer, fish-filled waters. Robins flee for—wherever.

But quiet doesn’t descend on the park. Hundreds, even thousands, of Canada geese stick around to swim, peck away in the lawns and wing out to surrounding farm fields. Hundreds, even thousands, of Canada geese make a tremendous racket that can be heard from some distance away. When geese in the lake are preparing to take flight they make a higher pitched, nervous babbling before lift off, after which they assume a coordinated honk.

Huddling together in open water

Huddling together in open water

Ducks fill the lake. Northern shovelers shovel away in their tight revolving circle. Mallards are prominent, the males with their luminescent green heads. There are common mergansers, hooded mergansers, goldeneyes, ring necked ducks, a coot or two. A black-crowned night heron showed up in late January. And redwing blackbirds have already begun to stake out their territory in reeds by nearby Lily Pond.

Sometimes we hardly notice, and forget to mention, our common wildlife neighbors. Every day we encounter pigeons, gulls, ravens, crows, starlings, goodness knows what else. Squirrels scramble everywhere. You even hear them scratching as they vault out of waste cans.

But nothing, nothing, could prepare me for what occurred in late January and the first half of February. A young woman ran up to me excitedly and blurted that there was a bald eagle across the lake. She pointed to a tree and I could see something large, about the size of a cormorant, perched on a branch. But over the next few days, the mystery bird remained elusive. I finally began parking at the far side of the lake to more easily approach the tree.

Mt. Evans backdrops Washington Park

Mt. Evans backdrops Washington Park

And then I struck gold. There it was, a magnificent, glorious bald eagle. Over the next two weeks I met up with my eagle at least a half dozen times. It was sort of like we were neighbors. But then the neighborhood became much more crowded. Some large crows were angrily harassing the eagle, two of them within maybe three feet of it and two zipping through the air buzzing it. Finally the eagle had enough and flapped away. Many people noticed this striking visitor to the city center and it became famous on TV and in the newspaper.

It’s not all wildlife that attracts me to the park. We had only light snow into February, but snow adorning trees makes for an enchanting sight. There’s ice on the lake, in different patterns and hues. Shadows from trees, stretching long from the low sun, streak the ice. If it’s warm at all, and you stand quietly, you can hear the ice creak and crack.

Harassing the bald eagle

Harassing the bald eagle

There’s something about winter that seems to make for spectacular clouds. As Denver lies just east of the foothills of the Rockies, we get what are called “mountain wave” (or lenticular) clouds. There’s nothing like them. Right below these clouds, more visible since there are no leaves on the trees, loom the mighty Rockies themselves. The highlight of the view from Washington Park is 14,264 foot Mount Evans, easily seen from the east side of the lake.

RMOWP membership is scattered across the country. But all of us have a city park, a nearby pond, or a foothill stream that abounds with discoveries and treasures. If you have an hour or a half day, look to see what you can observe, photograph, or describe.