Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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SCRITCH-SCRITCH (HEY SWEETIE!)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Friends have asked me where my ideas for this blog come from. Ideas arise because I enjoy writing.

Because I enjoy writing, I've read several books on writing—not so much to improve, but because I like the way writers think. One thing I have in common with some of the writers whose books I've read is that I find my ideas “just come.” These writers also say, “When you think you have an idea, write it down immediately. In a few hours, even if you remember it, the freshness will be gone. You won't re-create your train of thought.” That's great advice and I often find myself writing some notes, or tapping out some random train of thought and emailing it to myself.

Those considerations came to mind recently while cross-country skiing near the rustic cabin we own on 20 acres adjacent to the Grand Mesa National Forest. Our property is at 8300 ft. Other than a nice meadow, the terrain is aspen woodland with a few Gambel Oaks on the uplands and some Narrowleaf Cottonwood by the small stream—a deciduous woods, that is. As I skied, I stopped every so often to listen for birds.

I stopped. Silence! Deep silence is all I heard. Once I heard a very distant raven. Another time an airplane. Otherwise it was stillness. While I skied, I heard only the rhythmic scritch-scritch of my skies.

With all due respect to the Grand Mesa Nordic Council and the racers and skaters on the groomed trails (which I often enjoy myself) on nearby Grand Mesa, my favorite cross-country skiing is when I'm breaking trail. I love watching my ski tips push through the clean snow. I love returning on my own trail, rapidly now because of the track I've made.

Scritch-scritch. An idea formed. In a cumulative couple of months up here in the winter, I suspect I've seen not even ten species of birds. There is more diversity in the conifers which dominate the forest somewhat higher in elevation. Especially when there is a good cone crop, one might see crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and other species I never find among the winter aspens.

My idea gelled. I would write about the lack of bird sound. I would write about how the summer-abundant flycatchers, warblers, and swallows are in Mexico and Central and South America. This would be interesting, because in doing my due diligence for the article, I could learn for myself which birds traveled farther, which wintered together, and which went separate ways before their annual summer convergence.

These thoughts worked through my mind as I skied along—enjoying the shadow of cone flower heads waving over the untracked snow, the contrast of red birch and yellowish alder branches against the snow covered hills. High above the valley, I could see the dark green of the Englemann Spruce and Subalpine Fir. Silence and beauty, I was thinking. Scritch-scritch. 

Then I heard it--a birdcall. I stopped. Listened. Silence. Again, I skied. Scritch-scritch. Again, I heard the sound—a soft two-note call. I didn't recognize it exactly, but decided the pitch was correct for a Black-capped Chickadee—the most likely bird for me to see here, if I were to see a bird.

I pulled out my iPhone and played a typical “dee-dee” call, knowing I didn't have the brief “toot-toot” I had heard. Within seconds, a Black-capped Chickadee popped out of some nearby brush making the same sound I had just played. I had to look at my phone to assure myself it had quit playing.

The use of calls to attract birds is controversial. I could write quite a lot about that. Some feel it is an unnatural stressor. Others believe responding to a call is such a normal part of a bird's day, that playing an imitation is meaningless in the context of most bird’s lives. Some even believe using a call allows a male to demonstrate his fitness to his mate because most birders, once the bird is seen, cease playing the call. The apparent intruder, in that case, has been vanquished, and the female is impressed. Most of the time, when a call elicits a response, the bird will zoom in. Everyone has a look, me at the bird, the bird at me, and the bird leaves.

Not this time. Chickadees are typically gregarious. I've experienced playing a call and having ten or more chickadees descend on me. Not this time! This individual landed overhead and kept repeating “dee-dee, dee-dee.”

I began to feel badly. This poor guy really wanted to find some of his fellows. Then he did it.
He switched calls.

“Hey sweetie.” A pause. “Hey sweetie”. He had stopped making the quarrelsome “dee-dee” call and was doing his spring territorial/mating song. He was so lonely he was advertising for a mate, here on the last day of December. (Here is a link to the “Hey Sweetie” call: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX48Xv09HBI )

“Hey sweetie!” Over and over, he called. I was feeling mortified. Virtually, never have I regretted using a call to attract a bird. I was regretful now. He stayed overhead and called repeatedly. Five minutes! Ten! “Hey Sweetie!”

I'd never had a single bird go off like this. He seemed so lonely. One of my heroes, the late Alexander Skutch, perhaps the greatest field/observational ornithologist who ever lived, was criticized for anthropomorphizing birds. How could he not, with behavior like this? I didn't want to chase the bird away. It didn't deserve to be frightened. Plaintively it repeated, “hey sweetie.”

Then, out of the corner of my eye, some movement. A chickadee! Then another! Just two! At least my bird had some company. The calling stopped. The three of them worked their way up and down and under aspen branches. It struck me then, how perfect they were for winter in the aspens. Their combination of gray, white, and black is ideal. Each chickadee resembled a lively piece of aspen bark flitting from branch to branch and twisting to and fro as if looking for a place to fit just right in an aspen bark jigsaw puzzle and stop and hide.

I felt better now. It occurred to me that the two arrivals might be a mated pair that would only depress my apparently lovesick loner, but at least, he now had company. I felt even a little better when I returned to the cabin. My wife had seen some chickadees. She also saw three. Maybe the groups will get together and everyone can have a mate.

What about my writing? Now I had another idea. I could write about the chickadee. Then I would have two winter blogs, saving me possible future stress about finding an idea for the next one. But I remembered, somewhere in my readings about writing, there was more advice about ideas. “Don't save them. “If you hoard ideas, they grow stale. If you save an idea in case you won't have one the next time you need one, it just stifles your creativity.” “Ok,” I thought: “Scritch-scritch (Hey Sweetie).”

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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A(WASH) IN HABITAT (SOURCES AND SINKS)

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, December 22, 2016

“We saw a car go by early in the AM and figured it was related to the bird count--either that or someone was scoping our place for a pre-Christmas burglary!” That was an email I received a couple of days ago.

How about you? Last Sunday, December 18, did you see carloads of strangers cruising your neighborhood? In the pre-dawn hours, did a car race by, only to stop with lights off, while the passengers quietly disembarked?

December 18 was, indeed, the 117th annual Christmas Bird Count organized by the National Audubon Society. Grand Junction has been a participant since the 1950s. During the daylight hours, teams are cruising the valley within a 15-mile diameter circle centered at H and 24 roads. These teams count every bird they can see. Over the decades a lot can be learned from these data—pheasants disappearing, and Eurasian Collared Doves becoming one of the most abundant birds are two examples. 

For me, it is all about Western Screech-Owls. I developed routes for 18 teams that were out in the pre-dawn driving to selected locations to play a call and see if an owl appeared. Although, the 75 we found this year was a significant decrease from the past two years, it was the third highest number of this owl ever reported. Yes, Grand Junction is number 1 in something—Western Screech-owls! (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/owlish-onslaught)


(Western Screech-owls rarely use a box like this, but last Sunday this one was sunning itself making counting easy.)


One of the volunteers helping me set up the calling routes a couple of days before the count commented to me, “Have you noticed most of the stops are near washes?” Well, I certainly had, but when I looked on a map, it was more striking than I had realized.

Many years ago, the great conservationist, Aldo Leopold, suggested that every farmer should leave the last row of his field for wildlife. That never happened. In the conservative part of the Midwest where I grew up, it was more common for adjacent farmers to wait for the other guy to plow first, so they could follow and take part of a row from the neighbor’s field. There was no such thing as a wildlife buffer. It might be the same here, except we, from a wildlife perspective, are blessed with washes. Some may call them canals, drainage ditches or arroyos, but without them, there would be only a fraction of the wildlife that we are accustomed to in this valley.

After I compared our calling locations with a map showing the washes, I immediately thought of the flat areas of Western Kansas where crops are grown property-boundary to property-boundary as I described near my hometown. There’s not much wildlife. Where would animals and birds hide? Where would they breed? That’s the problem.

(Grand Valley washes are both home and highway for our wildlife.  Photo courtesy of LeeGelattPhotography.com)

Habitat is often broadly characterized as “source,” that is, where wildlife may successfully breed, or “sink,” where those individuals in excess of what the source area can support live, but with a lower rate of survival and breeding success. Consider that fledgling Western Screech-Owls often flutter from the nest to low shrubs and even the ground for a day or two. If their nest site was urban/suburban, they are susceptible to cats, dogs and cars. If the nest is near one of the broad washes, despite the presence of some of the same predators and more, there is more cover, and hunting was probably better for their parents such that the fledglings might be just a bit more fit-for-survival. 

These extra surviving fledglings from the wash have to find their own place, and may be the ones you see in your backyard in town or in an owl box near Lincoln Park or East Middle School. We are happy to see them in our schools and parks, but we suspect their breeding success is limited. These are probably “sink” habitats.

This year may have revealed to us a local contraction of the Western Screech-Owl population. One year of data is not a scientific record, but I can speculate. My view of the data shows a decrease in owls within the more urbanized/suburbanized area. Western Screech-owls do not live long, and if their prey base (think mice in the winter) goes through a lower population cycle, fewer owls survive—especially fledglings. The survivors will take the best habitat—along the drainages—and we will see fewer in town.

Is that what happened? Maybe. Only more data will tell us for sure. We can say this, however, if you live near a wash, don’t burn it. Don’t spray it. That’s the most important habitat in the valley. And, next year, come join us. Your cup of organic coffee will taste even better after an early morning listening and looking for owls.

(It isn’t too late to join a local Christmas Bird Count. The Grand Mesa Count occurs every year on January 1. If you’d like to join us, check the website for details www.audubongv.org

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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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!]
 

7 comments

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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