Shhh. Listen. Do you hear that?
“Drink-your-teaaa,” sings Urling Kingery, mimicking the upward trill of the spotted towhee, a large black sparrow with a striking burnt orange patch on its breast and black-and-white spots on its feathers.
It’s perched on a scrub oak tree nearby.
“It took one year here to identify 100 (bird) species,” says her husband, Hugh. The couple sits nestled on the patio of their modern boxy wood home, which itself is perched overlooking the prairie meadows, caves and clefts of Castlewood Canyon State Park. It’s hard to imagine that just 20 minutes north, you’re traveling back into the suburban enclaves of towns like Parker.
“We’ve been here since 1997,” Hugh explains. “Before that, we lived right in the middle of Denver near Congress Park. We say it took us 20 years there to get a list of 100 birds in our yard there.”
Hugh is a retired oil-industry attorney who grew up in Denver. Urling migrated from upstate New York to Colorado to ski and teach elementary school.
“I got hooked on birdwatching, and I heard Hugh Kingery was a good birdwatcher,” she says when she recalls how they met. “Hugh was leading a backpacking trip with the Colorado Mountain Club, so I signed up.”
The couple, who have been married since 1974, are longtime birders. Their shared passion is one of the reasons they love living in a wild expanse. Hugh has written numerous field guides to Colorado birding, which include a beautifully illustrated breeding bird atlas and a birding guide to Colorado that lists nearly 200 mountain and prairie locations for prime birdwatching.
He says there are 498 species of birds that he knows of in Colorado, and that he’s seen over 400 of them. The state is somewhat of a birder’s paradise with hard-to-find species. Those include the Northern Goshawk, which inhabits lowland pines and forests, and the Gunnison Sage Grouse, one of the rarest birds in North America. The grouse is currently the center of endangered species debate embroiling much of southwest Colorado.
The Kingerys have been introducing Front Range residents to the art of birdwatching since the 1970s. They teach a beginning birdwatching class for the Audubon Society of Greater Denver along with a master birding course that entails 24 classroom talks, 24 field trips and half a dozen additional trips where the students are tested.
“One of the requirements on the test trips is to identify 100 birds by sight and 40 by sound,” Hugh matter-of-factly explains. As if just anyone can do that.
From the five feeders that are strategically placed on the couple’s home patio one can see a plethora of birds: the western scrub-jay, the black-capped chickadee, the red-breasted nuthatch, the gray-headed junco, all in the course of an hour.
“Quick, grab your binoculars,” Hugh says, his voice rising mid-explaining whether he prefers the hobby to be called birding or birdwatching. (According to Hugh, either is fine but birding is a more modern term.) This happens a lot with the Kingerys — they always have one eye on their visitor and one on the birds outside.
“Do you see that? Oh, darn, it just flew away,” he says, his voice lowering in disappointment as he puts his Pentax binoculars down. According to Urling, the couple keep at least six pairs at any one time.
“But some of them we’ve battered,” she explains.
Hugh is trying to show me a bird that keeps zipping between two cylinder feeders outside. After going through a list of questions that include whether its beak is long or short, and whether it has a crest or not, and many incorrect answers from me, the participant, Hugh concedes that it’s the scrub jay.
But don’t expect Hugh to tell you the names of any particular bird right away if you take his beginner course.
“We never shout out what the bird is, no matter what group we’re with. Then people don’t have the fun of figuring it out,” Urling chimes in. “Now you see what I’ve gone through all these years.”
“Our class is about how to use the field guide,” Hugh explains. “When you take people out in the field, we don’t tell them what the birds are, they have to figure it out themselves.”
Much of the time spent with the Kingerys also involves long moments of silence. If birdwatching teaches you anything, it’s how to sit outside and just listen.
We hear the tea-tea-teeeee and observe the spotted towhee jumping sporadically on the ground below the feeders outside.
“That’s the towhee’s dance,” Urling explains. “He usually jumps backwards with his two feet to stir up the leaves. He’s eating seeds and bugs. The seed eaters all feed their babies, for the most part, bugs. He’s my favorite bird. Yesterday, it was the bushtits with their chatter when the hawk flew by. Today it’s the towhee, unless something else exciting happens.”