Surrounded by busy highways and sprawling subdivisions, Austin Meadows may not be the first place you think of when planning an outing to watch wildlife.
But those familiar with the area, an island of yet-undeveloped open space northeast of Union Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway, know that it's a great place to spot Cooper's hawks, great horned owls, and swallows. With habitats ranging from bluffs covered with Douglas firs and cacti, to wetlands overgrown by coyote willows, the 54-acre area is home to as many as 100 different bird species at different times throughout the year.
A well-kept secret until now, Austin Meadows could soon attract birdwatchers from all over the country. The open space is one of more than 40 area birding sites that have been nominated for inclusion in the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail, a project spearheaded by Gary Lefko, a local birding enthusiast and member of the Aiken Audubon Society.
Lefko has worked for more than a year to create the trail, which is actually not a trail in the conventional sense, but rather a network of existing highways connecting local birding hotspots. Lefko's efforts have consisted of identifying the sites worthy of inclusion and developing a map that local and visiting birders can use as a guide. All of the work is being done through local fund-raising and volunteering.
An engineer by day, Lefko got into birds as a hobby about eight years ago. He found watching birds to be both interesting and relaxing. "You get bored looking at your computer all day," he said. "I think their behavior is fascinating, and you're probably not gong to see another animal that's as colorful."
Lefko got the idea for the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail from similar projects elsewhere in the country, mainly the 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail and the Coastal Birding Trail in Texas. He realized that the Pikes Peak region, at the intersection of three major migratory routes, was an ideal location for a birding trail. Local birders have cataloged more than 350 bird species in the area.
The sites selected for the trail range from ponds and reservoirs in the eastern plains to mountain canyons in the west. Some are publicly owned parks and open spaces, while others are private properties that allow limited public access.
By the summer of 2003, Lefko hopes the trail will stretch several hundred miles and include sites in El Paso, Pueblo, Fremont, Park and Teller counties. The trail already has its own Web site, www.greatpikespeakbirdingtrail.org, and will be publicized via special highway signs as well as printed maps distributed to local business and tourism offices.
Bird watching is rapidly becoming one of the most popular hobbies in America, and Lefko hopes the trail will attract visitors and their tourism dollars from all over the country. The trail should increase awareness of many local open-space sanctuaries and their environmental and economic importance, thus helping preserve such places, Lefko also hopes. For example, at Austin Meadows, only 13 acres are currently protected, and neighborhood activists are trying to find resources to purchase the remaining 41 acres and prevent them from being developed.
Already, the local effort is attracting attention from beyond the Pikes Peak region. Lefko was recently selected by the Colorado Division of Wildlife to serve on a steering committee that will develop a statewide Great Colorado Birding Trail, which will incorporate portions of the Pikes Peak trail.
Though the local trail is not complete yet, Lefko and the Aiken Audubon Society are planning to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony next month, as part of the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail Nature Festival, taking place May 10-12.
-- Terje Langeland