Changing of the Avian Guards at Lake Estes

Colorado weather keeps throwing us little morsels of warmer temperatures to tease us about the approaching spring only to tip us back into winter with more snow.

These changing weather patterns also signal the changing resident birds around Lake Estes.

The lake rarely freezes completely over during the winter because of the winds and the pumping of water from Grand Lake. Thus, a variety of aquatic birds spend the winter months here. As March approaches, however, the summer birds will begin to arrive.

This changing of the guard for birds makes the next couple of months a great time to see the winter birds before they fly north to their nesting grounds and see the summer residents arrive.

Common goldeneyes, which have spent the winter on Lake Estes, have started their annual mating rituals of dancing along the surface of the water.

The two resident bald eagles have spent the winter watching over the lake from their favorite perches on the powerline towers.

A few common and hooded mergansers may still be swimming around the lake and diving for crayfish.

The more common mallards, Canada geese, American crows, ravens, mountain chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, and house finches will stay here all year long, giving bird watchers something to always see through their binoculars.

A northern pygmy owl was recently spotted on the east end of the lake by the dam, a rare sighting witnessed by Scott Rashid, Director of Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute.

Mountain bluebirds and horned larks have already started to arrive.

In a few weeks, more early arrivals – Say’s phoebes, yellow-rumped warblers, western bluebirds, osprey, and song sparrows – will join the common winter birds around the lake.

Although many of the ducks will leave by early April, the areas around the lake will be buzzing with avian activity by May.

I recently spoke with Gary Matthews, a birder extraordinaire in the Estes Park area and coordinator of the annual Christmas bird count in Estes Park, about what to expect.

“Some years we see as many as 170 different species of birds in a year around Lake Estes,” said Matthews. “Numbers have been down since the flood in 2013 but we still get a wide variety of species.”

Mr. Matthews, who has traveled to exotic places, such as Attu on the far western end of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, to build up his life list of more than 700 birds, suggests parking at Fisherman’s Nook and walking west along the trail. Another option of where to start is to park at the Estes Park Visitor Center and look for birds in the pond. The trail around the lake is closed from the visitor center to the south so seeing birds on the south side of the lake will require using one of the parking areas in Cherokee Draw.

Places to look for birds near Lake Estes:

  • Matthews-Reeser Bird Sanctuary: look for birds, such as orioles, pine siskins, cedar waxwings, pygmy nuthatches and mountain chickadees in the forested area; look for spotted sandpipers and black-crowned night herons along the sandy shore.
  • Trail along Big Thompson River: look for warblers in the bushes, snipes in the river, and belted kingfishers flying above the water.
  • Fisherman’s Nook: shorebirds are popular here, white-faced ibis make an appearance for a few weeks in May, and once an American bittern was spotted nearby.
  • Golf course along Lake Estes Trail: look for bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, house finches, Cassin’s finches, and maybe even an occasional sandhill crane.
  • Marina area: killdeer scurry along the beach here in spring.
  • Wapiti Meadows: mountain and western bluebirds are common here in spring.
  • Cherokee Draw: look for avocets in the shallow water along the lake edge.

For a successful bird outing, Mr. Matthews recommends carrying a field guide, such as Sibley’s bird guide, an app on your phone (iBird or Merlin Bird ID), a good pair of binoculars, and a scope if possible.

Pick up “The Birds of Lake Estes” bird list at the Estes Park Visitor Center for a complete list of birds in Estes Park or reference “Birding Rocky Mountain National Park” by Scott Roederer for additional information.

For more information about the Lake Estes Trail, Cherokee Draw, Wapiti Meadows or the Lake Estes Marina, visit