The Three Mile Radius

In 2016, I moved south from Denver to Centennial, Colorado. Once there, I immediately established for myself a local birding area, a circle with a three mile radius centered around my home.

The circle is thoroughly suburban, touching four towns in Denver’s southern orbit: Littleton, Centennial, Greenwood Village, and Cherry Hills Village. It’s bordered on all sides by fairly major roads and highways: Santa Fe on its west, Hampden Avenue on its north, 25 on its east, and 470 on its south. Most birding hotspots in the circle are small to medium size parks or man-made trails. It included, when I arrived, just a single eBird hot spot with a list over 100 birds: Ketring Lake in Littleton. Local birders and I have added four other, 100 bird spots in the last few years: Marjorie Perry Nature Preserve, Blackmer Lake, Willow Spring Open Space, and deKoevend Park.

Centennial Home Circle

Three of those hotspots are along the gem of my home circle, the High Line Canal Trail. In fact, the trail wanders through three of the four quadrants of the circle. Were you to walk the entire portion of it, you’d travel fifteen or so miles, while covering about nine miles, as the crow flies, across four towns.

The canal, which was built in the late 1800s, once ran year round. Today, Denver Water feeds it just a handful of days per year. But the old practices supported a thin line of plains cottonwood that are, today, the defining feature of the trails. The cottonwoods are old. They’re nearing, in fact, their expiration date, and Denver Water regularly removes individual trees that pose a safety risk. But for now, the enormous trees provide habitat for cavity dwellers, like Northern Flickers, Eastern Screech Owls, and raccoons. And the canopy provides refuge for migrants in the spring and fall. I spend much of my time birding along the trail. Not surprisingly, I’ve found a vast majority — 160 of about 185 — of my “3 mile birds” along or near the trail.

I established this circle, because I wished to bird locally. The circle also provided me a birding home amid the Denver metro’s behemoths — Chatfield State Park (to my west) and Cherry Creek State Park (to my east). My home circle is also small enough (< 30 square miles) to bird leisurely, large and rich enough (thankfully) to contain surprises, and underbirded enough (so far) to provide curmudgeonly me with solitude.

But then there are the disappointments. On the southern edge of the circle is a frisbee golf course filled with rabbitbrush, yucca, wildflowers, and weeds. It’s the best place in the circle to find nesting Western Kingbirds and Bullock’s Orioles. It’s being developed by the area park district for an ice arena (and, I presume, a huge parking lot). In the northeast, another undeveloped field has been cul-de-sacked and lotted for mini-mansions. Western Kingbirds, too, have preferred this field. And eventually many of the cottonwoods along the High Line will have to come down. It’s difficult to say what that will do to bird variety and numbers in the area. I worry, especially, about the screech owls.

But for now, I can watch what takes to this changed suburban habitat. And later, I can bear witness to what takes to these changed-again neighborhoods.

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