Cherry Creek State Park
- Arapahoe County
Aliases: Cottonwood Creek
Ownership: None Listed
Description: Mention Arapahoe County to almost any birder in Colorado, and this is the site that comes to mind. It has a well-deserved place among the triumvirate of metro area reservoirs (along with Barr Lake and Chatfield). Cherry Creek's main strength seems to be gulls. Just about every species reported in the state has been seen here, many of them more than once. Large flocks of waterbirds often grace the lake, and uncommon and rare species such as Long-tailed Duck, all three scoters, Red-throated Loon and Red-necked Grebe occur with some frequency. Super rarities that Cherry Creek has to its name include Arctic Loon, Iceland, Little, Glaucous-winged, and Great Black-backed Gulls, and Golden-crowned Sparrow.
There are two entrances into Cherry Creek. By far the more often used is the west entrance, so this description will go around the lake starting from there. As you drive in from the west entrance you will pass through some good grassland that has Swainson's Hawk during the summer, and Northern Shrike and Harlan's Hawk during the winter. Also keep an eye out for Rough-legged Hawk. Before long the road will come to the marina at the NW corner of the lake. This is often a great spot to scan gull flocks, especially early in the morning when they sometimes roost on the docks. The water around here is often some of the last to freeze (at least near shore), and can be a good place to look for ducks in the late fall. It is also the only good vantage point for this whole quadrant of the lake.
From the marina a loop road goes all the way around the lake to the NE corner. Following this road south you will pass through tons of good grassland on the right, and the tree-ringed reservoir on the left. The first two loops you come to on the left go to good vantage points for the west side of the lake, and to some small stands of trees that rarely have much in them. The next loop to the south is the Cottonwood Creek Loop. This loop ends at a trailhead that provides access to a myriad of trails in the SW portion of the park. One trail goes down to a viewing platform on the lake edge, where you can scan much of the south end of the lake, as well as the extensive cattail marshes. This end of the lake often has large flocks of dabblers, and, when the water is low, shorebirds.
Also leaving from this trailhead are some trails heading into the woods to the south. The trail first crosses Cottonwood Creek, which can be a great spot to look for migrants, Marsh Wren, and occasionally rails. The woods to the south and east of here rarely get much birding attention, but are of very high quality. Covering them can take some time, but would probably be well worth it. The habitat in here is particularly good for Winter Wrens, and this author has seen them there more than once.
Back where the main road around the reservoir crosses Cottonwood Creek there is a decent sized wetland that seems to be somewhat reliable for Green Heron, and would be a spot to look for other waders and shorebirds. The loop road continues south and east from here, through more grassland (with all the same species mentioned above). Ring-necked Pheasant seems especially reliable along this stretch. Short afterwards, the road crosses over Cherry Creek, and the associated thick riparian corridor. This is a good spot to look for landbirds, ducks on the small ponds, and snipe in the wetlands.
From here the road bends back north. Shortly after the creek crossing you can turn right towards another trailhead, where yet another myriad of trails heads south along Cherry Creek. By following these trails one can access more prairie, some excellent wetlands with rails, ducks, snipe, and others, and even more excellent riparian. This area of Cherry Creek doesn't receive much coverage, which is a true shame given its potential.
Continuing along to the north, the road reaches a split. Go right to reach the east entrance and most of the east end of the park, and go left to head towards the east boat ramp. From here you can drive right up to and along the water, providing excellent views of any gull flocks in the area, and ducks and other waterbirds on the lake. The gull viewing can be especially good here when the south end of the lake is frozen and the gulls are perched on the edge of the ice.
Heading back towards the eastern entrance, pass the split from the south end of the park, and continue east and north. Turn left at the next turn to head the NE part of the park, or go straight to exit the park via the eastern entrance. Continuing north into the park, you will pass a couple of small parking spots on the left that access some weedy gullies that can be good for sparrows (Harris' Sparrow has shown up more than once), and then the campground on the right. The riparian areas here can be good for landbirds, including warblers in migration and sparrows during the fall and winter.
Just past the campground you can turn left for the swim beach, which provides another good vantage point for the lake, and the best for scanning the NW corner. This is often the best spot to scan for divers, which like the deeper portions of the lake nearer the dam. Gull watching can sometimes be good from here, though it is generally better from the SW corner. Also be sure to check the trees around the swim beach parking area. They may not look like much, but for some reason migrants concentrate here, especially in the locust grove by the bathrooms. A system of trails winds through some of the thicker growth, and to a small pond, where you could find more migrants, dabblers, and the occasional Black-crowned Night-Heron or Green Heron.
Habitat: Reservoir, Lowland Riparian, Grassland/Prairie
Directions: Cherry Creek has two entrances, the main entrance on the eastern side of the lake, and a smaller side entrance on the western side. To get to the eastern entrance, take Parker Road south from I-225 for almost 2 miles to the entrance, on the right. To get to the west entrance, take Yosemite St south from I-225 for half a mile, and turn left onto Union Ave. Take Union Ave east for less than half a mile, take a right onto Dayton St, than an immediate left into the western entrance to the park. Note that Cherry Creek Reservoir has a small extra fee for entrance on top of the normal state parks fee, so even if you have a state parks annual pass, you still need to shell out a couple extra dollars here.