Teenage bird­ers log rare sight; more than 100 flock to be­hold

Sight­ing of pur­ple sand­piper marks first ever in Colorado

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Blevins

The snow was 2 feet deep and an arc­tic bliz­zard was rag­ing. Af­ter a day on the hill at Breck­en­ridge, Jack and Ryan Bushong’s dad wasn’t keen on a bird­ing ex­pe­di­tion to the shores of Dil­lon Reser­voir.

But the 13-year-old twins were de­ter­mined. The avid bird­ers from Louisville were hop­ing to maybe catch sight of a cack­ling goose for their list.

But they were part of some­thing much more rare: the first-ever sight­ing of a pur­ple sand­piper in Colorado. Their dis­cov­ery last Fri­day has left the state’s tight-knit bird­ing com­mu­nity af­lut­ter, draw­ing more than 100 cam­era-tot­ing bird watch­ers to the snow­packed shore­line hop­ing for a glimpse of their own — and an en­try in their all-im­por­tant life list of sight­ings.

The boys — in their excitement af­ter spot­ting the bird and re­turn­ing to their cabin for cam­eras and scopes — dashed from the car with­out snow gear.

Their dad, Steven, shouted af­ter them.

“I was like, ‘Guys, come on, it’s a bliz­zard. At least wear a jacket,’ ” he said, not­ing that he re­mained in the car as the snow blew side­ways.

The boys — in shorts, long un­der­wear and one jacket, or, as Jack said, “enough clothes that would be ap­pro­pri­ate for one per­son” — gal­loped through the snow to the shore of the reser­voir.

The pur­ple sand­piper was still there.

Jack and Ryan knew it was spe­cial, but they thought maybe it was a dun­lin, an­other wad­ing shore­bird. But this bird had or­ange at the base

of its long bill and its legs were or­ange. It could be a rock sand­piper, they thought, re­call­ing the many hours over the past five years they have spent por­ing over bird­ing books.

“But I thought I re­mem­bered read­ing some­thing about a rock sand­piper and the base of its bill be­ing more dull or­ange,” Jack said.

This bird’s or­ange was al­most glow­ing, they said. And the boys re­mem­bered how pur­ple sand­pipers were oc­ca­sion­ally seen in­land in De­cem­ber, far from their typ­i­cal win­ter range along the north­ern At­lantic coast. But the bird had never been seen be­fore in Colorado. At least un­til Fri­day.

“This might take the cake for Colorado bird­ing his­tory,” said Ted Floyd, the editor of the Amer­i­can Bird­ing As­so­ci­a­tion’s Bird­ing Mag­a­zine and a Colorado Field Or­nithol­o­gists board mem­ber. “We have had birds that have been as cel­e­brated as this one, but they were dis­cov­ered by more es­tab­lished bird­ers. It’s def­i­nitely one of the best birds in re­cent mem­ory in Colorado.”

The next day, the boys per­suaded their dad to for­get the fresh pow­der at the ski area. They went back early the next morn­ing and waited for the flood of bird­ers who had seen the boys’ on­line pic­tures and post­ings about the first-ever sight­ing of a pur­ple sand­piper in Colorado.

Those bird­ers, “hard-core lis­ters,” as they call them­selves, were stuck in ski traf­fic on their push from the Front Range. And they were “twitch­ing.”

“That’s what we call it. When you know there is a good bird that can be chased, un­til you have seen that bird and add it to you list, you are twitch­ing. Just aching. You re­ally don’t want to be the first per­son to miss it,” said Glenn Wal­bek, a long­time Colorado birder who im­pa­tiently nav­i­gated snowy moun­tain roads, ski traf­fic and a cou­ple of lane clo­sures on his early Satur­day drive up to see the pur­ple sand­piper.

The Bushong boys, who had pro­vided pre­cise di­rec- tions to the eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion, waited. As did the pur­ple sand­piper. In fact, the rare bird has been hop­ping along the shore­line near the mouth of the Blue River for sev­eral days, thrilling “at least a hun­dred, if not more, (bird­ers),” Wal­bek said.

The fact that bird has stuck around so long is an­other rar­ity. And that the bird was spot­ted and recorded by a pair of mid­dleschool boys makes the story even more re­mark­able.

“Nor­mally, some­thing like this is found by peo­ple who are avid bird­ers who are out here beat­ing the bushes ev­ery day all year long, and maybe af­ter 10 years, they find some­thing spe­cial,” said Wal­bek, de­scrib­ing more than a few high-fives among the lis­ters on the Dil­lon wa­ter­front that Satur­day. “Those boys, they are bird­ers for sure.”

The pur­ple sand­piper is com­mon along the rocky shores of east­ern Canada, Green­land, Ice­land and Scot­land. They move south to win­ter, gath­er­ing along the rocky shore­line of the East Coast, from Maine as far south as Florida. A way­ward pur­ple sand­piper is oc­ca­sion­ally spot­ted around the Great Lakes in De­cem­ber. One was spot­ted in south­west Utah sev­eral years ago.

“This bird got off the beaten path, big time,” said Floyd, not­ing that pur­ple sand­pipers are strong fliers, but this one might have been grounded on Dil­lon Reser­voir dur­ing the snow­storm last week.

The Bushong boys have been avid bird­ers for about five years. At Boul­der’s 75th an­nual Christ­mas Bird Count on Sun­day, they were wel­comed as he­roes.

“Every­one knew them al­ready,” said Steven Bushong, who calls him­self “the birder driver.”

In­ci­den­tally, Steven wanted to re­lax last Fri­day af­ter ski­ing all day.

“But he knew it was a big deal to us and it meant a lot of to us, so he was fine with it af­ter a while,” Ryan said. “He’s a good dad.”

On Wed­nes­day, the boys were vis­it­ing their grand­par­ents out­side Tucson. When a phone call came in for them, they were out­side, bird­ing. They had spot­ted a ver­mil­ion fly­catcher and were try­ing to get a photo.

“He or she is float­ing around a lot and mov­ing from perch to perch, so it’s hard to get him and her to just sit,” Ryan said.

The next day, they were plan­ning to visit a cave and nearby canyon. Maybe spot a black-tailed gnat­catcher or a trop­i­cal ru­fous-capped war­bler — for which the Tucson Audubon So­ci­ety is­sued a rare bird alert Fri­day.

“At first, for bird­ing, I was hop­ing for the oc­ca­sional rar­ity and to just have fun get­ting out there,” Jack said. “Now, it’s re­ally been el­e­vated, and we both feel much more pas­sion for birds and bird­ing.”

Loch Kilpatrick, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

This pur­ple sand­piper was the sub­ject of the first recorded sight­ing of the bird in Colorado. Jack and Ryan Bushong, 13-year-old twins and avid bird­ers, recorded the sight­ing on the shores of Dil­lon Reser­voir last Fri­day.

Ryan Bushong, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Bird­ers on Satur­day pho­to­graph the pur­ple sand­piper spot­ted by broth­ers Jack and Ryan Bushong the pre­vi­ous day at Dil­lon Reser­voir, mark­ing the first-ever recorded sight­ing in Colorado.

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