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A western kingbird chatters as its mate arrives. (Glenn Cushman / Courtesy photo)
A western kingbird chatters as its mate arrives. (Glenn Cushman / Courtesy photo)
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Western kingbirds chattered continuously at Barr Lake State Park in early May, sounding like a tape cassette run backward at high speed. (OK … that simile dates us … most folks nowadays have probably never heard of a tape cassette!) Brilliant gold orioles, recently returned from the South, flitted about the still-leafless cottonwoods. Fluffy owl chicks peered over the rim of large stick nests.

The orioles are back at Barr Lake. (Glenn Cushman / Courtesy photo)

Even if you’re not a birder, Barr Lake in May is magical. Right now the water level is so high, it seems almost like a Louisiana swamp.

Your first stop should be the Nature Center where a chalk board lists recent sightings, and numerous nearby bird feeders provide an ever-changing show that may include a lazuli bunting or a goldfinch or a 13-lined ground squirrel.

From the picnic area, cross the bridge over the Denver-Hudson Canal where the Gazebo Trail heads left and the Prairie Welcome Trail heads right.

The Gazebo Trail follows a wide gravel path along the canal for 1.3 miles to a boardwalk across the water to the Gazebo, the closest viewpoint of a heron and cormorant rookery with over 200 nests. The Gazebo is also where countless people since 1986 have viewed a bald eagle nest. The nest tree collapsed in April, and the eggs were found floating in the water. We hope the eagles will find another nesting site at Barr next year.

A scope is usually set up at the gazebo, but bring binoculars as well because there’s so much to see along the way. In addition to birds and more birds, watch for coyotes, foxes, and deer. One May we almost stepped on a pair of mating bullsnakes here.

Several spur trails from the main trail make short detours to the lake. The 8.8-mile lake loop that continues beyond the gazebo is closed during nesting season to protect the birds.

Before starting on the main trail, take a short detour on the Niedrach Nature Trail along a boardwalk across an arm of the lake. Enormous carp, in a springtime spawning frenzy, may splash madly in the shallows, and various duck species dabble and dive. One of the owl nests is visible from the boardwalk, and a loon in full breeding plumage was recently seen in the nearby cove.

Snow-covered mountains loom to the west of Barr lake. (Glenn Cushman / Courtesy photo)

The Prairie Welcome Trail heads east from the bridge with the lake on your left and the canal and prairie grasslands on your right. This mile-plus trail attracts fewer people than the Gazebo Trail and offers numerous benches and viewing spots. About a mile in, a spur trail leads to a blind with a view of a platform nest built for osprey but taken over by Canada geese this year. Happily, the osprey are rebuilding elsewhere.

Barr Lake was a mess of yellow-white soapy bubbles when we first saw it in the 1960s. Now it’s been restored, and the white mass in the middle is likely to be pelicans. The south end of the 1,900-acre lake — historically, a bison wallow — is a wildlife refuge where 350 bird species have been recorded. The north end is a boating and fishing area.

Park naturalists give frequent guided walks, and the “Eagle Express” offers a naturalist-guided ride to the gazebo in a motorized cart every Saturday and Sunday from mid-May through September. To make reservations or to schedule a trip on different days, call 303-659-6005. The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, located in the park, operates a banding station. To observe them in action, call 303-659-4348.

To reach Barr Lake from Boulder, take Colo. 7 to Brighton. Turn right (south) on 4th Avenue. In about a mile, turn left (east) onto East Bromley Lane (it becomes East 152nd Avenue after you cross Interstate 76). Continue east 4½ miles to Picadilly Road, turn right and follow the brown signs. Stop at the entrance for a park pass and brochure.

Ruth Carol and Glenn Cushman are the authors of Boulder Hiking Trails, published by West Margin Press.