Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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TIME FOR A CHAT (A DOUBLE ENTENDRE FOR EARTH DAY)

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, April 23, 2017

I'm writing on Earth Day, and saddened to recall the optimism I felt on the first one. This is the second time I've felt especially let-down by the occasion. The first was some ten years ago when I heard a speech by Denis Hayes who not only led the organization of the first Earth Day but then rose professionally to lead the National Renewable Energy Laboratory whose key programs were cancelled by the Reagan Administration. In that speech, he showed how, within a few years, the US could be energy independent with renewable energy without increasing the federal budget. He made his case showing actual data from installations that had already been built around the world. All that was needed was the political will. After hearing that speech, and seeing all the facts and figures, I was crushed to consider the lost opportunity. (A recent independent update of the same proposal has been reported by researchers at Stanford: https://singularityhub.com/2014/03/08/100-renewable-energy-is-feasible-and-affordable-stanford-proposal-says/)

This year, I'm devastated as I witness the policies of the most anti-environmental administration in our history. Besides the anti-environmental appointments, there is no deference to science. Who would say that science and technology aren't critically-important to our nation's future? Yet, appointing a Presidential Science Advisor, often one of the first vacancies filled, seems to not even be contemplated. Apparently, the advice of scientists would be inconvenient.

If my rant sounds like the grunts and rattles of just another disaffected tree-hugger, maybe we should turn our attention to another sort of Chat--the yellow-breasted kind. Yellow-breasted Chats are just now returning from Mexico and Central America. If you've never heard one, here is an apt description of their own rant: "... streams of whistles, cackles, chuckles, and gurgles with the fluidity of improvisational jazz".

The reason you may not have seen a Yellow-breasted Chat, is that they live in dense, often low, thickets. If you've ever floated our nearby rivers in the spring, you've surely heard a Yellow-breasted Chat, but to see one might have required crawling through the kind of thick streamside shrubbery that humans avoid.

More than once, however, I've had spring-time river campers ask me "what was that noisy thing that woke us up so early and wouldn't stop all that racket?" For such a raucous bird, Chats are very secretive. Indeed, the protection provided by those deep thickets explains why they can get away with such a long and loud and non-musical rant. You can't see them and predators can't sneak up on them. (Here is a link if you'd like to listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSXEFZdjMQo ). 

(This Chat posed in the open for my photo.)

Occasionally, they will deliver their cacophony of sound from an exposed perch during mating season, but often your best chance is watching for one to fly across the river during a float trip.

Fortunately for Chats, they may be observed in each of the 48 contiguous states, and their preferred habitat is not as desirable as that of some other species. Nonetheless, serious conflicts continue. An example in our valley is that the riverside shrub jungles and thick understory required by Chats block river views for walkers and cyclists.

As with most of our native species, there have been serious declines in parts of their range with a 37% overall population decrease in the past several decades. This species is not in serious trouble yet. Let’s retain sufficient stream-side thickets, and I won’t have to rant about Chats!


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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WISDOM’S WISDOM OR HUMAN WISDOM?

By Nic.Korte
Friday, April 7, 2017

Recent news about the oceans has been uniformly somber. Humans are running an unplanned experiment to see what happens if every sample of beach sand contains plastic microparticles (http://www.adventurescience.org/uploads/7/3/9/8/7398741/andrady_2011_mar_poll.pdf ). Humans are also running an experiment to determine what happens if we spew excess acid in the air (the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide) and change the temperature and pH of the ocean.

Early results from the latter experiment have scientists predicting loss of coral reefs worldwide including Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef. Were you still hoping to snorkel or dive there? Your time may have already run out ( https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/15/science/great-barrier-reef-coral-climate-change-dieoff.html?_r=0).

We should all ask ourselves if either of these unplanned experiments demonstrate human wisdom.

Another Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross, has also been in the news. Fortunately, I didn’t wait too long to write about her. Sometimes I run across an item that may be worth using in this blog and I archive it in a file labeled “under construction.” Then I forget the idea until it is no longer usable. I was thinking I should write about problems with the ocean and I remembered I had a now-several year old item on a very old albatross raising a chick. I checked for an update. She’s still alive!

This is a happy story, but also a sad one. Wisdom, when she lands in order to raise a chick, nests at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, an NWR has been established or commercial operations of many sorts might have eliminated the nesting site. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” website (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Laysan_Albatross/id ), “Laysan Albatrosses are numerous, but as with all albatross species there are serious threats to their population, and this species is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes “bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.” A 2009 estimate put the global breeding population at about 591,000 pairs, or just under 1.2 million breeding adults, with more than 90% of the total breeding at just two sites: Midway Atoll and Laysan Island.
(https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Laysan_Albatross/id )
Nineteen of the world’s 21 albatross species are threatened with extinction. Albatross populations have crashed because of human activities. Long-line fishing is especially deadly. Albatrosses get hooked and drown when they try to feed on the bait. (If you want to ensure that the fish you eat are caught sustainably check out the website http://seafoodwatch.org )

Scientists estimate that five tons of plastic are also unknowingly fed to albatross chicks each year by their parents. The lack of nutrition and resulting dehydration may lead to a slow death. Finally, invasive species, especially cats and rats, prey on eggs, chicks and nesting adults.

But back to Wisdom, the consummate survivor. There’s another amazing and ironic twist to this story. The reason Wisdom’s age is known, is that she was banded by Chandler Robbins, one of the greatest ornithologists of our time. Robbins was in his 40s when he put the first aluminum band on Wisdom’s ankle in 1956. Still working at age 81, he returned to the atoll in 2001 and, happened to pick up a bird with a tag that could be traced back to his original work nearly 45 years previously.

This year, Wisdom’s egg hatched on February 16. A month later, at the age of 98, Chandler Robbins died.

No one knows how old Wisdom really is. Laysan Albatross lay their first eggs typically at about three years old, but the first encounter didn't have to be her initial nesting.

Scientists thought that, like other birds, albatross females became infertile late in life and carried on without producing chicks. Wisdom, however, has raised chicks five times since 2006, and as many as 35 in her lifetime. Just as astonishing, she has used her 8-foot-long wingspan to fly up to 3 million miles since she was first tagged at Midway. Scientists estimate that she has flown the equivalent of “4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare.”

Unfortunately, research on albatrosses has many shortcomings. Scientists fear that too large of a percentage of the remaining populations are “too old.” Hopefully, we have enough time to ensure the continued existence of these long-lived inhabitants of distant oceans.

(To see more photos and to keep up with what else is happening on Midway, check out this Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/FriendsofMidwayNWR/ Unfortunately, recent budget cuts have eliminated the possibility of visiting the NWR.)

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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APRIL FOOLS’

By Nic.Korte
Friday, March 24, 2017

It was a birding trip in Costa Rica.  Our guide directed everyone to lean well over in the van so that we could see the stream running in the valley below. “There’s been a rare bird here throughout the summer, “He said. “I haven’t had any recent reports, but maybe we’ll be lucky.” Those of us on the riverside of the van made room for our van-mates on the opposite side as we peered into the valley. Suddenly, “There it is!” he shouted—“the Marvelous Plunger-bird.” I was one of those fortunate enough to have already seen the familiar bathroom plunger stuck between two rocks where it had washed down from above. We played along, “Great sighting!” “A real lifer.” But one lady hadn’t seen it. Thinking we were serious, she yelled, “Where? I can’t find it.” She was new to tropical birding and already beleaguered trying to keep up with unfamiliar and real names such as chlorospingus, tapaculo and jacamar. That led to some good-natured teasing.

(Jacamars are relatively common in tropical Americal.)

After that incident, you would think everyone would have learned, but no. The next day we were up much higher in the mountains looking into a smoky valley. Someone mentioned the fires, and our guide said, “Yep, and over there you can see a Phoenix flying from the ashes.” Some laughed, but once again, a couple of people ran over, “Where? I don’t see it.”

The end of March can be a bit slow for birding in our area. Spring migration is only starting and some of our winter raptors and waterfowl have begun to move out. Maybe that’s what led to my perusing a new field guide a friend gave me. The guide has an intriguing name: A Field Guide to Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America.

True to its name, I hadn’t seen any of the birds depicted. Despite having lived in Arizona for quite a few years and visiting often, I’d never seen the Blunt-billed Woodpecker. Then I noted that the guide said it was only found in the Petrified Forest—a location I’ve only visited a couple of times. I just hadn’t had the good luck to spy the woodpecker.

Another bird I’ve missed is the Small Flycatcher. I related in a previous blog (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/an-inordinate-fondness-for-beetles-or-flycatchers) how difficult it is to distinguish flycatchers of the genus empidonax. The Small Flycatcher (empidonax smallii) has no field marks. Indeed, they are so nearly alike to other members of the genus that, according to the field guide, sometimes even they cannot determine if another bird is the same species or whether it is male or female. These problems drastically reduce mating opportunities and account for the bird’s tiny population.

The field guide also introduced me to some shorebirds I’ve apparently overlooked.  Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are both regular migrants to Western Colorado, but the book introduced me to the slightly larger Greatest Yellowlegs, as well as the slightly-smaller Slightly-Lesser Yellowlegs. In between, is the Middle Yellowlegs. All of these are similar to the two familiar birds but with different sizes. The book suggests pushing rulers on-end all over mudflats so that birders can differentiate the various yellowlegs species by evaluating their relative height.

(Here is a Greater Yellowlegs. httpswww.allaboutbirds.orgguideGreater_Yellowlegsid)

APRIL FOOLS!


(A Field Guide to Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America does exist. It is available from Peachtree Publishers Limited, Atlanta, GA.)

 

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!]
 

15 comments

SHRIKE TWO!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, March 9, 2017

Sounds like the cry of an umpire doesn’t it? These days, there’s lots about baseball in the Sports Pages. But I am thinking of shrikes, not strikes, although, if you know much about these birds, the word “strike” appears in most descriptions of their behavior.

As my title implies, there are only two species of shrikes in North America: the Loggerhead Shrike and the Northern Shrike. An interesting aspect to their distribution is that unlike so many of our species, there are no close relatives in Central and South America. The thirty-some species of shrikes originated in Eurasia or Africa.
(This Loggerhead Shrike has "struck" a cricket. Photo by Jacson Trappett)

Here in Western Colorado, early to mid-March may be the best time to encounter both varieties. More Loggerhead Shrikes begin arriving to augment the few that stayed the winter. Meanwhile, the Northern Shrikes that wintered here haven’t left for their breeding grounds near and on the taiga in the Far North.

The best places to see shirkes seems to be in the Pinyon-Juniper and associated grasslands. Often they will perch atop a shrub or tree looking for prey to “strike.”

Superficially, with their black, gray and white plumage, they can be reminiscent of a mockingbird, but not so their feeding habits. Shrikes are carnivorous and their family name, lanidae, comes from the latin word for butcher. Indeed, one of their habits is to impale prey on thorns or barbed wire so they can eat it later. If you google “images of shrikes with impaled prey,” you’ll see a variety of bodies including birds, rodents and insects.

Local poet Frank Coons, captures their fierce lifestyle and uncommon beauty in his poem “The Shrike:”

THE SHRIKE*
Black masked assassin
In white satin damask
to pedestal, to wing
to wing’s advantageous pinnacle
to parapet
gentility is a lie my love,
as in the cat bird song he sings,
the little thing’s a predator,
his shape is but a counterfeit

it’s the small hooked beak, the sudden swoop
that breaks their necks, the snake, the skink
and that which he doesn’t consume,
he treks back to his trophy room
where on wire strung between
rusted
barbs he displays for to see,
his charcuterie.

(Northern Shrikes are slightly larger than their relatives, have longer bills, and narrower masks in front of the eye. Photo by Jackson Trappett)


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!]


*The Shrike, reprinted with permission from Counting in Dog Years by Frank H. Coons, available from Lithic Press www.lithicpress.com
 

16 comments

STINK CREEK AND SWEETWATER: IN PRAISE OF REGULATIONS

By Nic.Korte
Friday, February 17, 2017

Recently, I watched our president sign an Executive Order that requires two regulations to be removed for each one added. That made me think of Stink Creek.

I grew up in quintessential “Make-America-Great”/middle-class/all-white/small-town/Midwest USA.
It was, indeed, the kind of town that I could start off in the morning on my bike and find some friends and go to the pool or the ball diamond or wherever. One place I was supposed to stay away from was Stink Creek—so named because it received the effluent from the local sewage plant, which, in those days, was not nearly so regulated as now. And, to be explicit, it stank.

The creek was a draw for us, however. Where else could we take our BB-guns and shoot at floating debris? I well remember being found there by the father of one of my friends. I recall my friend being drug along by the arm as his father admonished, “if you want to play in that creek, let’s go home and I’ll p___ in a bucket, and you can play in that!”

The years went by, I grew up and eventually moved to Tucson and the University of Arizona (Go Wildcats!), where my wife and I both received graduate degrees. I had been interested in birds all of my life, but those early years in Arizona are when my life-long hobby took-off. On our first camping trip, we went to Madera Canyon for its beauty and hiking, not realizing this canyon was a nationally-famous birding destination. We put up our little, too-small, pup tent. A lady walked by and said, “This looks like fun!” I could tell she really didn't mean it—a sentiment proven true by our poor sleep that night—mostly caused by inadequate padding for sleeping bags.

The next day we walked by the lady’s camp and she invited us into her luxurious trailer where she had recently baked cookies. She and her husband had placed hummingbird feeders all around their campsite and I, who had only glimpsed a hummingbird a few times while growing up in Illinois, was hooked. I still remember the lady’s excitement when a Magnificent Hummingbird appeared. “Oh, there's another big one,” she would exclaim.

The first thing I did after the camping trip was to buy a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. I have been birding in the Tucson area ever since. Although I have returned to Madera Canyon a number of times, my most frequent birding location in recent years has been the Sweetwater Wetlands. Sweetwater, with 296, has more species reported than any other birding-hotspot in heavily-birded Pima County. I never birded Sweetwater in the old days. It didn't exist.

It is interesting to consider what a wildlife paradise was Tucson in pre-settlement days. The Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers, now channels for storm run-off, were perennial streams. Wetlands and cottonwood-lined streams provided miles of outstanding subtropical habitat. All that disappeared as settlers methodically cut down the trees, built dams and irrigation works, and eventually pumped so much groundwater that only desert remained.

A city, soon encompassing a million residents, needs a lot of waterworks, some of which result from treating sewage. In most locations, as in Grand Junction, treated water can be returned to a river. Many oceanside cities pump their treated effluent into the ocean. What could Tucson do with its “aguas negras” or black water as it is called in Spanish-speaking areas? How about a constructed wetland? Built in 1996, the wetland helps treat secondary effluent and backwash from a nearby reclaimed water treatment system. The City of Tucson, on its website, touts the area as follows: “Sweetwater Wetlands is a water treatment facility, an urban wildlife habitat, and an outdoor classroom.”
(This Sora, a wetland obligate species and usually secretive, was showing-off one morning while I visited Sweetwater.)  

Many birders visit Tucson and even in my infrequent visits to Sweetwater, I’ve encountered people from Colorado, and several birders from foreign countries. As for myself, Sweetwater is where I had my only western sightings of two eastern specialties: Baltimore Oriole, and Black and White Warbler. A quick check on ebird (an online site for listing birds seen) shows that nearly 10,000 checklists have been submitted for the area. Think about that. Ebird has only been available for about a decade, and while most birders use it, many still do not. Plus, birders serious enough to turn in checklists are only a fraction of the visitors to the Sweetwater Wetlands, most of whom are on a simple nature walk.

It isn’t a stretch at all to say that one of the City of Tucson’s most valuable resources resulted from sewage treatment regulations—which, brings me back to Stink Creek. I’ll bet my nieces and nephews living in my hometown have never heard of it. After those nasty regulations eliminated the smelly effluent, the creek was given a new name, and alongside it now lies my hometown’s most expensive real estate.

(Sweetwater is a great place to view a variety of ducks such as these Northern Shovelers.)

(Tucson is not unique. Many cities now include constructed wetlands as part of both their sewage treatment system and their park system.)

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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