Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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PALS AND BIRDS IN RUIN

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, December 8, 2016

“Where are all the Orioles? This is my ‘go-to’ spot.”

While scouting in anticipation of my visit, Bev had seen three species of Orioles here just a couple of days ago. Later, we drove up and down several side roads looking for a Mexican Sheartail—an endemic hummingbird that is narrowly distributed along the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. “These roads have never failed to produce a Sheartail,” she had said. Well, they failed this time. We did glimpse a hummingbird, but it was flying away and could not be positively identified.

We drove on to where she had seen 70 Stilt Sandpipers a few days ago. They were gone--possibly a consequence of unusual high tides caused by the recent “supermoon.”

Lest I give the wrong impression, Bev had already been enormous help. Because she had free calling to the US, we had already conversed for a half hour before my wife and I arrived in Mexico. Because of her tips, several days before, I had found a rare and hard-to-see species that I would not have seen without local advice. She also reassured us about the safety of our travel and gave us useful advice about places we were visiting.

Bev helped me because we were “pals,”—“Birding Pals.” “Birding Pals” is a loosely-organized network of birders willing to help visitors to their area. For a small annual fee, one can join the network for the fun of helping visiting birders. That's how I contacted Bev, and hit the jackpot. Not only was she a fountain of excellent advice, she even offered to go birding with us.

Our birding destination was a small archaeological site known as Xcambo. You probably haven't heard of it. Most everyone has heard of Chichen Itza. A visit there is worth it, but it barely introduces you to the variety of Mayan sites which can be explored. Mary and I visited eight different Mayan ruins while we were in the Yucatan. Each had unique architectural features. We were fascinated as we contemplated the rise and fall of the Mayans by exploring what remains of their cities. Most scholars believe the Mayan civilization declined because population growth stressed their natural resources resulting in social upheaval and increased warfare. Perhaps, this example should be heeded as a cautionary tale for present-day humans. Hmm. Oh well, never mind that for now. We were going birding.

(Birding with Bev, at Xcambo ruin.)

Xcambo, like most of the ancient sites we explored, has marvelous habitat for birding. I already had a great bird list for this trip, in part, because I had persuaded one caretaker to arrive at work and open up an hour and a half early so I could take advantage of early morning birding. At another site, rarely-visited, I crawled through a locked gate and found the caretaker who was happy to let us in. He just hadn't bothered to unlock because visitation was so sparse this time of year.

Xcambo is a special place because it combines wetlands with forest. The access road bisects wetlands featuring small lagoons colored pink because of the high concentration of brine shrimp—which pass on their pigment to a major consumer: American Flamingoes.

(American Flamingoes are rarely seen in the US.  They are abundant in the Northern Yucatan.)

While birding at Xcambo, Bev and I saw numerous migratory warblers, and a nice mix of tropical species such as two types of mot-mot. (Check these out, and see why in Mayan they are called “toh”--because on occasion they seem to count time with their tails:( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mxson4QdLxU)

(This Palm Warbler was feeding on insects it found on stone laid by the Mayans.)


I am accustomed to birding exotic locales, but birding the Ruins added something special. Perhaps, most of all it reminded me that we, the birds, the habitat, are all ephemeral. Once upon a time, these cities were the grandest in the Americas. Now, they lie in ruins. Unfortunately, human hubris is not in decline. We need to be careful!

(The fears of Mexico which fill the US these days are not pertinent to the northern Yucatan. We based our travels from the colonial city of Merida, with time in Santa Elena and Chelem. People were gracious and friendly. Authentic Mexican food was inexpensive and plentiful. We drove everywhere, relying on a gps with a Mexico chip. We walked in the city after dark, and never felt fearful. All of this permitted us to make good use of a long layover on the flight home—we planned a return trip--counting on more excellent advice from our pal, Bev.)

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, check our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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SOLITARY FOR THANKSGIVING

By Nic.Korte
Friday, November 25, 2016

I will start with a hypothetical question. What fairly-common bird, characteristic of the western mountains, is most overlooked by casual watchers of wildlife?

Probably almost everyone has heard of warblers and vireos, even if they are not familiar with individual species. The same might be said for buntings, finches, and flycatchers.

My nominee for most overlooked, relatively-common mountain species is the Townsend’s Solitaire. I have come to that conclusion from my own field experience and experiences leading birding walks. “There’s a Townsend’s Solitaire!” I have said, and those along with me have responded with, “a what?” Personally, it took some time until I realized how widespread they are. True to their name, they are usually solitary, and often hiding within vegetation. They are also mostly gray, although with some striking plumage characteristics which I’ll describe below. 

Solitaires are members of the thrush family. I admit to having an affinity for the family. A close relative, the Black-faced Solitaire, is common in the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica, where its bell-like/squeaky-gate call is the iconic sound of this habitat. They are also nearly always solitairy, and in that thickly-vegetated environment, very difficult to see.
(Black-faced Solitaire. To hear it sing, check this YouTube video and close your eyes and imagine being in a cool Central American Cloud Forest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3YFQwkXR6c )

The Townsend’s is the only Solitaire in North America. After having observed relatives in Central and South America, I decided to determine how many close kin there are. It was difficult. I finally checked the ebird data base and found 12 birds with the right name, but one of those was a different genus altogether and extinct besides (ebird.org). Further checking, by using the Latin names, revealed there are/were seven closely-related species on Hawaii, where four are already believed extinct. 

Fortunately, Townsend's Solitaires, unlike so many other native species, seem to be doing well. In our area, they seem to nest exclusively above 7000 ft in pine/aspen/spruce forests. Indeed, western National Forests could hardly have been better designed to harbor this species. Recent estimates and surveys indicate populations have been stable overall between 1966 and 2014. The global breeding population is approximately 1 million, with 80% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 39% in Canada, and 13% in Mexico.

The one million Townsend’s Solitaires breed in the Western Mountains from Arizona and New Mexico north to Alaska and the Yukon. They are not typically detected east of Colorado though they may wander somewhat in the winter. 

OK, here’s a bird that is robin-sized, with one million or more in its population. It is present year-around in our area. Why aren’t more people aware of it? True to its name, and despite a beautiful robin-like song, it is mostly gray, remains up in the trees and is usually alone.
 (Townsend’s Solitaire. Here are great views while it calls and sings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ef--sUpVsVA )

If you listened to the link above and spend much time paying attention in western forests you probably said to yourself, “I’ve heard that.” Indeed you have. And, despite the bird being mostly gray, it is very easy to recognize, especially in flight. Being a “solitaire,” it often won’t let you approach too closely—but watch for what at first seems like a non-descript bird flying off and notice the wagging tail and most of all, the buffy stripe in the wings. Once you have paid some attention to it, that buffy stripe is so striking that you’ll never miss one again.

So, back to the title? Why Thanksgiving? Townsend’s Solitaires eat mostly berries. Formerly, their winter diet consisted mostly of juniper berries, but they have learned about Russian olives and crab apples. Now, as winter approaches in November, they descend into irrigated, low-elevation valleys. Ideal locations to find them near Grand Junction include in and near the Colorado National Monument and its environs. Look for one when you are walking off your turkey dinner. You might even find one in any patch of berry laden-landscape junipers. 

[The Grand Junction Christmas Bird Count is December 18. The Grand Mesa Count is January 1. All abilities of birders are needed. Even if you are rookie, you can still count! If you would like to participate, please check the website or Facebook page. You will probably see a Townsend's Solitaire!]

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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EXOTICA II

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, November 10, 2016

The first time I wrote a blog entitled “Exotica,” I was discussing beautiful birds found in exotic locales ( http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/exotica ). This time around, my reference to “exotics” is not so friendly.

Late September and through about mid-November are somewhat between seasons for Western Colorado birders. Most migrants have already flown south and northern weather usually hasn’t been cold enough to push south the many ducks and raptors that winter in our valley. What we are left with are a lot of introduced species: Eurasian Starlings, House Sparrows, and Eurasian Collared Doves.

I recently spent a morning looking for birds near the river on East Orchard Mesa. More than half of the birds I saw were Eurasian Starlings. In my own yard, the most common birds are often House Sparrows or Eurasian Collared Doves. The impact of the Collared Dove on native species is still being debated, but no one doubts that Starlings and House Sparrows have out-competed native species in some cases. On the other hand, these birds will live in human-created squalor that other birds shun. Perhaps, we should be grateful for birds that nest inside traffic lights, road-signs, and in the eaves of gas stations. Maybe seeing the “wrong” birds is better than no birds. That really is the issue. See how many House Sparrows and Eurasian Starlings you find if you walk away from roads and other human alterations. You won't find a single one. So, we can't really blame the birds, we can only blame ourselves.

The facts are, some exotics have been welcomed. Here in Grand Junction, we have our own love affair with an exotic, the Chukar. Grand Valley Audubon Society has even named their newsletter the Chukar Chatter. I’ve noticed over the years, that naming the newsletter after an exotic bird has a love/hate aspect to it. There is pride in the Chukar because many birders travel to Western Colorado in hopes of seeing one. They aren’t very common. They are exotic looking and they thrive in difficult habitat apparently unwanted by native birds. Unlike nearly all other introduced species, Chukars thrive in pristine habitats away from human intervention.
(Chukar as photographed by Jackson Trappett)


But, what about the Rosy-faced Lovebird? These are natives of arid southwestern Africa such as the Namib Desert. Now, however, breeding populations are established in urban parks in and near Phoenix, Arizona. Birders often stop by to see them.
(Rosy-faced Lovebird that I photgraphed in a Phoenix park)


Rosy-faced Lovebirds are pretty, and, perhaps, an improvement over the House Sparrows and Starlings that might otherwise dominate. Actually, I don’t know whose niche they are taking if any, but what we don’t know yet is whether these Lovebirds will eventually be nesting in Denver, St Louis and throughout the country. Or, perhaps, they will go the way of the poor Budgeriger.

Yes, the Budgeriger, the familiar pet parakeet and native of Australia! Enough escaped in Florida that, as with the Lovebird, they were given status as an official North American bird species. For several decades, birders traveled to Florida’s West Coast so they could “count” one. [Here it is important for me to comment: I was not one who traveled to Florida so I could see a parakeet that wasn’t in a cage!] In any event, after seeming to thrive for awhile, the budgies all succumbed to a combination of cold weather and aggressive non-native House Sparrows. Oh, the irony!

The latest exotic to be officially accepted into our avifauna is the Scaly-breasted Munia. If you look them up, you will see they live in Southern Asia. I saw the Munias in Tecolote Canyon Park in the middle of San Diego. Scaly-breasted Munias apparently make good pets. A few, or at least two, escaped and successfully bred, and now they are with us whether we wanted them or not. 

I would not have gone out of my way to see the Munias or the Lovebirds, but being nearby for other reasons, I had a look. The Munias were feeding on a non-native plant growing alongside a concrete-lined drainage channel.
(Scaly-breasted Munia habitat in San Diego. Those dark specks in the middle of the photo are the Munias.)


The message remains clear. If we preserve enough native habitat, we won't have to worry about being overrun by non-natives.


This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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WHY BIRDERS FLOCK TO COLORADO: PART 2

By Nic.Korte
Friday, October 28, 2016

Our plan was to stop at the Penzey’s store in the Denver suburb of Littleton so we could re-stock our spice cabinet. Mary and I like to cook, and we were out of a few favorites. We don’t go to the Denver area very often so we’d inventoried our spice supplies before leaving for an evening event with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (BirdConservancy.org). We were a bit late. We were even a bit cross with each other about it. It was three hours until the event started and as we approached the turnoff to Penzey’s, we remained agitated even though we were less than 30 minutes from the event venue. You must be wondering how we could feel late.

Well, we were running out of time because we were going to squeeze in a quick(?) stop at nearby Chatfield State Park. Chatfield has a large reservoir and a Pomarine Jaeger had been reported. Jaegers are mostly birds of the ocean. Fast and acrobatic in flight, much of their living is made by stealing catches from other birds such as gulls. They are also adept at plucking eggs and young from nests on the tundra. What was it doing in Colorado? That’s a good question. That’s why I wanted to see it. Having a Jaeger in the state is a big deal. It happens most winters, but irregularly, and often only for a few days. Finally, I said, “Let’s just go straight to the park.” Mary was actually relieved. As she told me later, “I was afraid, the traffic, the parking, or a line at the cash register was just going to make us more and more anxious. I can always order the spices on line if I have to.”

So we drove past the turnoff to Penzey’s and went to the lake. Fortunately, about the time I was losing patience with not seeing the Jaeger, a nearby birder found it sitting on the water. To most people it probably looked like a mostly black gull. It was way out in the lake, and without my 45x scope, I couldn’t have identified it.

But then, it took off. Bulky-looking on the water, the Jaeger is a swift and acrobatic flyer once airborne. In the air, it is unmistakably not a gull. We watched as it performed a quick reconnaissance of a sandpit full of gulls and then a full attack on two flying birds. It didn’t appear to be successful stealing their prey, but the aerial agility of the Jaeger was in full display and it was marvelous.

I tell this story because it is another reason “birders flock to Colorado.” In my previous post on this subject, I highlighted our state’s great natural diversity (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/why-birders-flock-to-colorado). Another birding feature is our state's unnatural diversity provided by the many dams and reservoirs. In pre-settlement days, I have to wonder if a Jaeger ever landed in Colorado. Natural lakes tend to be high altitude and too small. Most didn’t even have fish until stocked early in the last century. What would a Jaeger eat?

Indeed, the top seven locations for bird species in Colorado are all man-made reservoirs and their associated parks—which usually include excellent bird-friendly riparian zones. The Mesa County location where the most species have been sighted? You guessed it! Highline Lake with 225.

(This Red-throated Loon was photographed by Denise Vollmar on Highline Lake.  This was the third west-slope record: two at Highline Lake and one at Vega Reservoir.)

While I was looking at the Jaeger, the various birding networks were reporting a couple of other seabirds in reservoirs on Colorado’s front range: a Surf Scoter and a Little Gull.

(These Surf Scoters were photgraphed by Jacksn Trappett at a small reservoir near Fruita.  Birding guidebooks say they winter on rocky seacoasts.)

In general, I oppose dams and reservoirs. They damage riparian areas which are the most important wildlife habitats in the west, but I also admit that a few are probably necessary if so many of us are going to live here. And, I do enjoy the occasional opportunity to see wandering seabirds that would be impossible to find nearby otherwise.   Besides the birds pictured in this blog, in the past several years our valley has hosted a Black-legged Kittiwake, of which my bird guide says "almost exclusively seen on open salt water," and a Long-tailed Duck--"common locally on shallow open ocean."  None of these birds would be possible in Colorado without reservoirs.  

I couldn’t muse about Colorado seabirds very long. We had an event. We had to be dressed up. We changed in the State Park bathrooms and drove away--only to realize, we would be driving right by Penzey’s. “There’s still time.” It wasn’t so leisurely. Usually, we enjoy wandering a bit and sniffing and discussing various varieties and blends. Instead, I dropped Mary off and continuously circled the busy block which was sans parking. She had a list. She was done quickly. We arrived at the event only a few minutes late and I got to tell everyone about the Jaeger!

{Grand Valley Audubon hosts an annual "Waterfowl Viewing Field Trip."  This year's trip is on November 19.  Everyone is invited.  Check out the website or facebook page for further information.}

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]

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BIRDERS ARE BETTER VOTERS!

By Nic.Korte
Friday, October 14, 2016

Maybe birders aren't better voters, but they should be. In this election season, there is more comment than ever about voters being immune to or uncaring about facts. Indeed, psychologists have shown that oftentimes, the more contrary the fact, the more a person will cling to their entrenched position. It's crazy, but we all do it. It's called confirmation bias, and birders have to work hard to guard against it.

Two years ago, I hooked up with a group of birders in Costa Rica who were going to see the rare Masked Duck. Two or more of the ducks had been hanging out in a small, natural pond on private property. Our leader was the dean of local birders. As we arrived at the pond, she quickly said, “there’s one…over by the shore.” She put her scope on it and we followers dutifully took a look one-by-one, and agreed we had now seen a Masked Duck. I am not certain who finally asked, “Are Masked Ducks usually so motionless?” Our leader looked again. “Hmm, maybe that isn't a duck after all.” Fortunately, about that time, two Masked Ducks paddled out of some nearby reeds. “Oh, there they are,” she said, and all of us had long and satisfying looks both through her scope and our own binoculars. Later we walked over and had a good laugh at the floating shell leftover from a long dead large turtle. What had happened? No doubt, her expectations were so high that we would see a Masked Duck, that the first floating lump she saw confirmed her hopes.
(This juvenile Cooper's Hawk, as photgraphed by Jackson Trappett, can be a difficult identification.)

I saw something similar once when on a field trip at a birding convention. Our group had roused an owl from a low-to-the-ground perch. Someone immediately blurted, “Short-eared Owl! I saw the buffy patch on the wings!” A Short-eared Owl would have been a remarkable sighting for our location. The person shouting the identification probably dearly wanted to see one. Well, the owl landed nearby, and remained perched when we found it again. There were no buffy patches. It was a different species altogether, and one that was expected in this habitat.
(This is definitely not a short-eared owl.)

As I’ve gained experience as a birder, I have become more wary of my identifications. For me, I have learned that I am especially susceptible to seeing the bird I expect. I don’t look close enough and I can miss a rarity. And, I also will admit, there have been a few times I have been like the guy with the owl. With only a fleeting look, I have decided I've seen a much desired species, only to learn that with a closer look, the fieldmarks I “wanted” to see were not really there.
(Scoters in winter, such as this Surf Scoter photographed by Carol Ortenzio, are rare in the Grand Valley and easy to mis-identitfy.)

Maybe these types of experiences make birders better consumers of political theater. Maybe, maybe not. There is a big difference. For the past decade or so, most birders record their sightings on a public database (ebird.org). The database is configured to notify everyone else who might like to see the bird. Others will be in the field trying to see what you think you saw, possibly within minutes. They will let you know if you are wrong—probably with photographs. The database also notifies an expert reviewer who contacts you and requests a detailed rationale for your identification. If you can't do it, the bird is not officially counted. Maybe if our voting rationale was subject to as much oversight, we really would be better voters.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.!]
 

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