Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

Follow local birders in pursuit of their life lists. For more visit audubongv.org.

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FRUITGROWERS

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, May 14, 2015

Visiting birder’s frequently ask, “Where is the best place to go birding near Grand Junction?” While the answer may depend on what birds one wants to see; a good answer is always Fruitgrowers Reservoir (aka Hart’s Basin) near the little town of Eckert. Viewing at the small reservoir is easy, and, much of the time, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the abundant wildlife. Just the other day, a birder photographed an otter crossing the road. Often one can see thousands of cranes, and sometimes hundreds of White Pelicans. Most of the year, elegant Western Grebes are common—and, in the spring, they are dancing.

The Bureau of Reclamation website indicates the number of visitors per year is about 500. I found that laughable. It has to be higher than that. Whenever I talk to birders from the Eastern Slope, they all know about Fruitgrowers and many drive over for an annual visit. Most of the spring and much of the summer, it is uncommon not to find other birders in the area. 

The small reservoir and surrounding meadow can host thousands of Sandhill Cranes in the spring and fall. The bird-tracking website, ebird.org, shows 150 species recorded. That number is not so impressive, but what is important is the high quality of the list. For example, if you want to see the uncommon Clark’s Grebe, where would you go? 

Clark’s Grebe’s are usually found in the company of the similar Western Grebe. The Western Slope’s largest colony of Western Grebe’s is found at Fruitgrowers. The two grebes are easy to distinguish if the observer is close enough. However, both species may rest well away from shore. In that case, you may need a long look with a spotting scope to determine that the bird you are viewing has a more yellowish bill and an eye surrounded by white feathers rather than the black of a Western Grebe. (Here is a previously-published photo of a Western Grebe: http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/how-i-make-a-living-there-goes-a-crane).

(Clark's Grebe)

A more difficult-to-find bird—almost anywhere—but particularly in arid regions—is the American Bittern. I described other West Slope herons in a recent post (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/how-i-make-a-living-there-goes-a-crane), but unlike the abundant and highly-visible Great Blue Heron, American Bitterns are secretive and non-descript. They are not habitat generalists but require dense freshwater marshes and extensive wet meadows. Fruitgrowers has just about the only suitable nearby habitat. 

Your best chance to see a bittern is to arrive near dawn and watch the edge of the marsh. If you are very fortunate, you will see one standing still at the edge of the water. As with most herons, bitterns capture prey with a sudden thrust of their bills. If you are doubly-lucky, you may hear their call—often described as sounding like a pump. The sound is produced by what one website termed “spectacular contortions performed with its air-filled esophagus.”
(This Fruitgrowers Bittern was next to the road.)
Because of their shy habits, not much is known about bitterns. Although widespread, their population is believed to be declining because by any measure, high quality marshlands continue to be lost throughout the Americas. 

Also common at Fruitgrowers are Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Don’t be put off by the word “blackbird.” The males are beautiful, even if their song has been compared to “to a heavy door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge.” 

(Yellow-headed Blackbird)

Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds are partners in an interesting evolutionary struggle. Research has shown that Red-winged Blackbirds often return first from migration and stake out territories in the best places—only to be kicked-out when the more dominant Yellow-headed Blackbirds return. If that’s the case, why are Red-winged Blackbirds so much more abundant? The reason is simple. Red-winged Blackbirds can successfully rear broods in marginal habitat—even a shallow ditch with a single, small patch of cattails. Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the other hand, require the deepest and best marshes. The flexibility of the Red-winged Blackbird assures its survival whereas the Yellow-headed needs the type of marsh that can also conceal an American Bittern—such as at Fruitgrowers. It is worth a visit!

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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THE POET

By Nic.Korte
Saturday, May 2, 2015

In Chile, saying “the Poet,” is the same as being in the Western US and saying “the Canyon.” Everyone knows the former is Pablo Neruda, and the latter is the Grand Canyon.

Some years ago, our daughter Ann lived in Santiago, Chile, providing my wife and I the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in the Cone of South America. Ann insisted that the one place we had to visit was Pablo Neruda’s former seaside home. It isn’t feasible to describe its collections and architecture which are eclectic, eccentric and ridiculous—much befitting this complicated man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, while also being a political leader, and, even to his death, something of a child. Although he was already ill, some say he died of a broken heart when the duly-elected leftist government he so strongly supported was overthrown by a CIA-engineered coup in 1973.

Neruda is renowned for his classic love poems, but, as you may have guessed, he also wrote a volume dedicated to birds.

A few of Neruda's birds are very familiar to Western Colorado Residents. He captures both the Kestrel and the now-returning House Wren very well in these verses.

AMERICAN KESTREL 

(Photo by Jackson Trappett)
At that slender second
the hawk hammered its flight,
cut loose from the firmament,
and swooped like a sudden shiver.

The landscape remained serene
and the woodlands were not frightened,
….
Everything kept throbbing
….
except a hare, a bird,
something that flew or ran,
something that used to live
on that blood-spattered spot.


HOUSE WREN

(Photo by Jackson Trappett)

Little round neighbor, all
dressed up in feathered finery,
always after your treasure:

a wren turns upside down and inside out:
its agile eyes sparkle,
its tiny tail cocked

leaving behind its minute eggs,
round little works of wonder
from which a wren’s curiosity
will eventually pop out
to investigate springtime.

(Photo by Jackson Trappett)

[If you would like to learn more about Neruda, I suggest the excellent biography by Adam Feinstein: Pablo Neruda-A Passion for Life, Bloomsbury Press, 2004.)


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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THE ICONIC BARN OWL

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

“Barn Owl has always specialized in devotional darkness, pushing desert rock into previously unexplored, murky territories. Their sound is a ghostly rhythm almost beyond reach.’

Those sentences describe the music group “Barn Owl.” Listen to their music if you like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qi_XoQZfMxQ

If you’ve ever seen a Barn Owl flying or perched, you can understand how the bird’s ethereal whiteness evokes “devotional darkness,” “murky territories,” and a “ghostly rhythm almost beyond reach.”
(Photo from GVAS archives)

This barn owl is about to land and devour a mouse.  One reason barn owls and man co-exist so well, is their diet is virtually 100% rodents.  

Barn Owls are also a favorite on beer labels. I had been gifted a bottle of an Imperial Brown Ale brewed in England. 

While looking up the Cotleigh variety shown in the photo, I found ales named after Barn Owls brewed in Maine and Oregon. So, I kept looking. I found a wine, Barn Owl Red, which is made here in Palisade at Mesa Park Vineyards.

Barn Owls are among the most beneficial of avian species. According to one website, “Adults will eat two rodents per night in warm weather and up to four rodents per night in cold weather. Young birds in the nest will eat up to six rodents per night during their rapid growth stage. A barn owl family will consume 2,000 to 3,000 rodents annually.” No wonder everyone wants barn owls. California orchards and vineyards have been using barn owls for integrated pest management for decades. A few local vineyards have installed boxes designed for barn owls, but so far there have not been any takers.

Likewise, Grand Valley Audubon Society had some boxes constructed and have placed them in silos, old barns and trees. So far, no GVAS box has been used either. In fact, we continue to have difficulty finding barn owls in the Grand Valley as I described previously. (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/one-thousand-rodents-per-year).  In that previous blog, I noted that several former arroyo-cavity nesting areas in the Grand Valley had been abandoned. In one case, it appeared that the hole, if not the owls, had been used for target practice. Another location was overrun with dirt bike usage. Our arroyos or washes or canals are vital habitat for Barn Owls and other owl species. Burning, cutting and dredging those watercourses limits available habitat. Fortunately, there is a barn owl roosting in an inaccessible cavity. We were able to show this owl to several folks during the Grand Valley Audubon Valley Owl Prowl held a couple of weeks ago. At this time, this is the Grand Valley’s only known nesting site. We hope that by educating more people, more habitat can be saved, fostered, or created and this “explorer of murky territories” can become more common in the Grand Valley.

If you have a high barn with a dark corner or an abandoned silo and would like to host a barn owl structure, please contact Grand Valley Audubon. And, be on the lookout and report any sightings of a large, mostly white owl that lacks ear tufts.

[If you would like to follow a barn owl through its nesting cycle, “Like” “Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute” on Facebook. There is a webcam in a barn owl nest box in the Front Range. The owl is sitting on eggs right now and you can watch!]

{This post was written 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, such as weekly bird walks (continuing through May), please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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HOW I MAKE A LIVING (There goes a crane!)

By Nic.Korte
Friday, April 10, 2015

     Recently, I had an opportunity to practice my Spanish skills (such as they are) with a native speaker and workman at my home. When he asked where I learned Spanish, I described birding trips to Costa Rica and our close friends there. The man told me he had seen some Great Blue Herons that morning and asked if leading birding trips was my job. Sadly, I had to answer no—only an avocation. But, the conversation reminded me that I intended to write about herons—which many people call cranes (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/cranes)—which does relate to how I make a living.

     Until the past five decades or so, humans dumped most of their wastewater and waste (industrial or household) on the ground. Because the waste made the land worthless; it made sense to place it on lands already considered valueless. Like marshlands. Like seasonally-flooded lowlands. After many decades of denial, businesses and the government finally accepted the fact that dumping waste in wetlands had been the best way to ensure contamination of water supplies, groundwater and streams. A huge cleanup industry was born, and I’ve made my living assisting with the cleanup of sites such as these.  

     An example: My family often drove to nearby St Louis when I was a child. This meant driving through a series of lowlands being used as a massive garbage dump. These wetlands eventually became a Superfund Site. Although, I never worked there, the situation exemplifies how my career came to be. What this has to do with herons, is that the associated wetlands, despite the odor and the burning garbage, attracted Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets--never cranes. Even though I corrected him many times, my father always looked at them and said, “There are some cranes!” 
(Great Egrets are a widely -distributed heron, but are uncommon visitors to Western Colorado)

     Here in Western Colorado, we are fortunate to have cranes as well as herons. Other than being long-legged, herons and cranes have little in common. They belong to different taxonomic groups and have mostly different diets and habits.  Herons have unusual vertebrae which allow them to bend their neck into an S-shape. At the same time, the vertebrae can be retracted so the bird can be streamlined in flight. In the fall, Great Blue Herons seem particularly common because the juveniles disperse throughout Western Colorado’s aquatic habitats. In the spring, they are often seen in rookeries—collective nesting areas near bodies of water. Great Blue Herons appear awkward when landing on thin limbs and rocking back and forth on their long legs. Communal nesting is done for safety as the birds can squawk and flap and keep most predators away.

(Great Blue Heron)
     There are a number of accessible rookeries near Grand Junction. One example is on the west side of Highline Lake. Nesting has begun. Drive out and have a look.

     Consistent with life in the desert, our heron diversity is low. Of the sixty-four species, only the Great-Blue Heron is common here. Early fall is usually the best time to encounter the less-common species such as the aforementioned Great Egret, Green Heron, and Snowy Egret.

(Snowy Egrets, like Great Egrets, are widely-distributed herons, but uncommonly seen in Western Colorado.)

Other herons that may be encountered in Western Colorado include Black-crowned Night-herons, Cattle Egrets, and the secretive American Bittern. Keep your eyes open for these long-legged waders near water. They aren’t cranes. They are herons.


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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CRANES!

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, March 29, 2015

   Western Colorado has two types of long-legged wading birds: herons and cranes. The similarities, however, are superficial. They are not closely-related.

   Our area is poor for heron diversity (the subject of the next blog), although, if lucky, one might see as many as 6 of the world’s 64 species over the course of a year. In contrast, we only have one of the world’s 15 species of crane, the Sandhill—but for much of the year, we have thousands of them. If you want to see herons, go where there are more wetlands, particularly coastal areas. (I photographed this Reddish Egret near San Diego) 

If you want to see a lot of cranes in the United States, you might as well stay close to home.

   We are lucky to see all of these cranes. In a testament to the success of federal game management, “the Rocky Mountain population reached an historic low of 150-200 breeding pairs in the 1940s (http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/cranes/gruscana.htm). The current population is now estimated at 18,000 to 21,000.”
Most of Western Colorado’s cranes arrive in the fall after nesting in Alaska and the Arctic. They are looking for food and shelter for the winter and seem to be finding it. If you haven’t experienced a thousand or more cranes coming into roost, then you need to spend dusk, one evening next fall or winter, on the roads near the Escalante Wildlife Area near Delta.

   This large wintering flock near Delta is a recent phenomenon. Neither the Cornell University website (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/lifehistory) nor the aforementioned Fish and Wildlife Service website show Sandhill Cranes wintering in Western Colorado. Our local birding bible, Birds of Western Colorado (available from Grand Valley Audubon) published in 2004, notes that since 1999, approximately 100-125 cranes have wintered in Delta. Thus, long-time local birders remember when there were few or no wintering cranes. What has changed? No one knows for sure. It could be global warming making our winters more palatable. It could also be loss of habitat elsewhere on their wintering grounds causing cranes to seek new locations.
   

    We don’t have more cranes in our area because their population has increased. The references I reviewed suggest the Rocky Mountain population may be declining slightly because of regional drought, poor survival of chicks, and increased hunting pressure.

    A significant population decline would be expensive for Colorado because Sandhill Cranes are an important economic driver. Monte Vista has a crane festival in the spring (www.cranefest.com). The Yampa Valley has one in the fall (coloradocranes.net). Right now we are amidst the Eckert Crane Days Open House (eckertcranedays.com) which features the Sandhills that frequent the area near Fruitgrower’s Reservoir.  (Here is a Western Grebe at Fruitgrower's Resevoir)

   In springtime, cranes are particularly visible and noticeable as they find thermals and spiral upward over the Grand Valley. Their call is a common harbinger of spring and recognizable by even casual observers. That call, however, is difficult to describe. According to the Cornell website, “The Sandhill Crane’s call is a loud, rolling, trumpeting sound whose unique tone is a product of anatomy: Sandhill Cranes have long tracheas (windpipes) that coil into the sternum and help the sound develop a lower pitch and harmonics that add richness….They can be heard up to 2.5 miles away and are given on the ground as well as in flight, when the flock may be very high and hard to see.” If you’ve ever strained your eyes to look up and wonder “what’s happening up there?” It was probably cranes.


    Less-known is that Sandhill Cranes nest in Western Colorado—not commonly, but there are always a few pair. They typically lay two eggs in wet, open fields such as in Unaweep Canyon. Sandhill cranes, may not reach sexual maturity until they are 7, but they pair for life, usually sustaining a two-decade or more relationship. That’s better than most human marriages. Now is a good time to celebrate “our” cranes! 

(photo by Steve Bouricius)

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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