Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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SOUNDS OF THE STINKING DESERT

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, April 20, 2014

     Some friends of mine really dislike the desert between Grand Junction and Delta—often referring to it as the “Stinking Desert.” They talk of poor scenery, heat, and gnats. For myself, I like it. I like the openness. I like the long views and the big sky. The creatures that live there seem to like it too—at least if you believe in song as a way of expressing happiness.
    My wife and I took a little walk in this desert the other day and we enjoyed the sounds of spring. My favorite song was the western meadowlark. I only saw one, but he was singing lustily and the sweet trills (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o0FC7aqg94) accompanied us most of the way.
Once, we approached a rocky outcrop. The thin “tseet, tseet, tseet of a rock wren emanated from the rocks. This bird is well-named. There are no exposed rocks near some land my family owns at 8400ft here in Western Colorado. We had never seen a rock wren nearby. However, one year, we had a septic system installed, and the resulting excavation piled up quite a few boulders that remained for several weeks. After a few days—there was a rock wren claiming the rock pile for its territory. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsmSTmB7ssY). I like rock wrens. Unlike the winter-fleeing house wren, which sings most of the summer in the aspen woods, a few rock wrens spend the winter here if their territory is a warm, south-facing slope. There are a few locations I know where I can find one and be reminded that spring isn’t far away.
     A bit later, my wife and I heard, what to me is the iconic western rangeland call, the down-slurred “peeuur” of the Say’s Phoebe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEL_ZPVtHak). The call is meaningful to me because my father-in-law’s family were pioneer Western ranchers. I met the Say’s Phoebe long ago on Great Uncle Bill and Aunt Gertrude’s ranch in Northern Arizona. It was a poor spread. High desert—not exactly like our local “stinking” kind—but with lots of sage and some pinyon-juniper. Say’s Phoebe’s were always calling near the ranch buildings. I can’t hear one today without thinking of the ranch.  

(Say's Phoebe by Jackson Trappett)

     This is also a good time to visit the low desert because of the wildflowers. Desert primrose was in abundant bloom.

    Our bird list was short, but flowers and birds as well as grasshoppers and other insects were present. So, for them, despite a barren environment that seems too hot, too dry or too cold... for them it is a good place…reminding me of the words of one of my favorite authors who after studying the harsh habitats enjoyed by some diverse creatures, remarked, “Every single one of them is right” (Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert). 

To keep up with the activities (such as Spring Bird Walks, Evening Programs, and Migratory Bird Day) of Grand Valley Audubon Society, check out our webpage at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook. Please send any questions to audubongv@gmail.com.

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FOS

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, April 8, 2014

FOS is birder shorthand for "first of the season." What an exciting time it is! Just a few days ago the FOS black-chinned hummingbird was posted on the Western Slope Birding Network (Subscribe at: wsbn-subscribe@yahoogroups.com). Black -chinned hummingbirds are common in Western Colorado. In another month, they will be seemingly everywhere. But, the FOS! That is something. Birds are migrating. All is right with the world.

Migration is the harbinger of spring, or as in Spanish...La Primavera...a beautiful word for those of us at northern latitudes. "La Primavera" connotes flowers, and bright colors and warmth.

Ironically, I am writing this in Costa Rica where La Primavera is supposed to be the onset of the rainy season. Instead, it is dry with record heat. Speaking of climate change as a fact...is a fact here. Some rains will undoubtedly come, but fewer and more severe storms seem to be the pattern.

So where am I going with this? Recent studies on a small scale, and anecdotal remembrances by some long-term birders suggest bird populations are down throughout Costa Rica, although diversity remains high. Which brings me to a major disappointment. I will never see a golden toad.  

My first visit to Costa Rica in the late 1980s, was also in April. The rains of La Primavera were supposed to begin. They didn't...at least not right away. Some scientists were eagerly awaiting the first rains because that was when the famous golden toads...the symbol of the Monteverde Cloud Forest...came out to breed. The scientists were mildly concerned because so few had been seen the year before. One scientist I spoke with suggested the sparse rains of the previous year probably suppressed or prolonged breeding activities such that the toads were simply missed during the annual census. The general feeling was of optimism and excitement at the prospect of witnessing a marquee nature event...the emergence of golden toads for a night of unusual color and sound in the cold, dark cloud forest of Monteverde. Only, it didn't happen.

I read later that no golden toads were found that year...nor the next...nor ever again. The Golden Toad has been declared extinct. Studies eventually showed that a bacterial infection delivered the killer blow to the golden toad population, but several studies have also suggested links to climate change that either contributed to the drop in population or created a state of unusual vulnerability.

So, I am no longer as sanguine as I await FOS reports. We wait for that first hummingbird or yellow warbler or Swainson's thrush. Birds that remain abundant, such as these, are arriving earlier. http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/120326.html  While change in nature is a constant, these changes are far more rapid than any shown in the fossil record http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/28/the-sixth-great-extinction-a-silent-extermination/. Let's not take FOS reports for granted. We need to appreciate and maintain all they represent...welcoming habitat here, productive habitat on the winter range, and a climate that takes care of all of nature...including us.

Join one of Grand Valley Audubon’s Spring Bird Walks--every Wednesday and Saturday through May. Follow the GVAS Facebook page, the website (audubongv.org) or send an email to audubongv@gmail.com to find out where to go and when to meet. There are “loaner” binoculars and checklists. You will learn a lot and have an enjoyable beginning to your day.  

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MASTER PISH THEATER (Spring Bird Walks Anyone?)

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

     I stole the title of this post from a competition once held at a convention of the Colorado Field Ornithologists (cfobirds.org). Yes, it was a “pishing contest.” You can read into that anything you want.


    The truth is, birders do “pish.” I do it by pursing my lips together and blowing out gently giving a psshhhh sound. Others, by moving their tongue slightly, create a sound like air escaping a balloon—ppsssss. It is done repetitively as in psshhhh, psshhhh, psshhhh.  We do this because some birds are curious about who or what would make such a silly sound and either pop into view or approach the pisher. An example is the mountain chickadee. I was walking on a trail a few days ago and heard birds chirping high in some spruce trees. Not seeing them and not having binoculars, I resorted to pishing, and out popped a couple of mountain chickadees. (Note, these are closely related, but not the same species as the more familiar black-capped chickadee:http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/leaders-of-the-pack).
 

PHOTO BY JACKSON TRAPPETT

 

Chickadees, if it is not nesting season, are often curious and will fly quite close.

Another reliable “pishee” is the song sparrow. The latter live in deep thickets along streams, but they will reliably pop up when pished. 

 PHOTO BY JACKSON TRAPPETT

    It is important that we not overlook the matter of pishing etiquette. Let’s say you are a beginning birder. Maybe you have come to one of Grand Valley Audubon Society’s spring bird walks. (Keep an eye on audubongv.org and the Grand Valley Audubon Society Facebook page because times and locations will vary.). So, there you are, among a group of birders, and you are asking yourself. “Should I pish?” The answer is “No.” Pishing is left for leaders. Too many people making sounds will drive birds away not attract them. Besides, a number of birds are not attracted to pishing and might be frightened if you don’t know what you are pishing for.

     Fortunately, few beginning birders would be tempted to “pish.” There really isn’t much more to birding etiquette besides listening to your leader, being quiet, and not wearing bright or noisy clothing. An excellent reference on the subject is “Good Birders Don’t Wear White: 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.” But, better than reading the book (which is mostly common sense), is going birding.

    Join one of Grand Valley Audubon’s Spring Bird Walks--every Wednesday and Saturday beginning March 29 at 8AM at the Connected Lakes Entrance Kiosk. A Parks Pass is needed.  The April 2 walk will meet at 9AM at the beginning of the Audubon Trail in the parking lot near Albertson's.   Walks are free to everyone. There will be "loaner" binoculars for beginners and the leader will go over a checklist of birds seen following the walk.  Expect the walk to take 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  . Follow the GVAS Facebook page, the website (audubongv.org) or send an email to audubongv@gmail.com to find out where to go and when to meet for the other walks. You will learn a lot and have an enjoyable beginning to your day.  This post was provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. To ask questions or suggest blog topics, send an email to audubongv@gmail.com).
 

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MEXICAN HAIKU

By Nic.Korte
Friday, March 7, 2014

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Dry Leaves
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Flycatcher, Flammulated
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Chachalacas Chuckling


     While on the staff at the University of Arizona, too many years ago, I worked for a major professor who was nearing retirement. In his spare time, he wrote Haiku about the Sonoran Desert. (Haiku is a form of poetry favored by the Japanese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haiku ) He even published a book (Roadrunner: American Haiku of the Desert Southwest). I haven’t written poetry since my lovesick adolescence but a few weeks ago, I was in Jalisco, Mexico chasing a flammulated flycatcher in a dry forest. In the background, chachalacas were calling back and forth.

     Haiku that works, instantly puts me in a “place.” It can be a physical place or a very specific state of mind. What is remarkable is how the transformation can occur with such an economy of words.


     My attempt at haiku, except for colleagues who accompanied me to Jalisco, probably needs some explanation. First, it helps explain why I am a birder. My hobby can take me to exotic places and sights. This trip, a fund-raiser for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (www.rmbo.org), was designed to find as many endemics (birds found nowhere else in the world) as possible. Our trip leaders were making a valiant effort to give everyone a look at an elusive flammulated flycatcher. The bird was located by its distinctive call, but it is somewhat nondescript and likes to perch in the understory. That was the problem. We would see it move, find it, not get a good look, hunt for it, find it again, lose it. This went on for nearly an hour until all of us had sufficient, if not completely satisfying, views. Sneaking around in the brush also introduced a few chiggers —and in my case—a tick—which latched on several hours later. (The bite still itches.) But, it was worth it to see a new species—a species that can only be seen by journeying to this specific area in Western Mexico.

     While we searched for the flycatcher, chachalacas were calling. 

     There are 15 species of chachalaca. The Plain Chachalaca, whose range includes South Texas, has a call that sounds to some like CHA-cha-LA-ca----Cha-cha-La-ca. The variety I was listening to, the West Mexican Chachalaca (a West-Mexican Endemic), makes a different sound—not exactly like a turkey’s gobble, not exactly like quail chattering-- more of a rolling chuckle. That’s what inspired my haiku.


     While we hunted for endemics, most of the birds we saw were Neotropical migrants such as this McGillivray’s warbler who may spend next summer in an aspen grove on Grand Mesa.

     Here we compare the 2nd and 3rd smallest birds in the world. The one with the blue gorget (2nd smallest) is a Bumblebee Hummingbird—a West Mexican endemic.

     The other is a Calliope Hummingbird--an uncommon but regular Neotropical migrant in the Grand Valley.  One little guy stays home; the other is the smallest, long-distance avian migrant in the world. 

    Researchers with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO) and their colleagues in Mexico are doing some important work. Their mist netting and banding program is a small part of their efforts to examine the life histories of species such as these.  Clearly, protecting the habitat of Mexican Endemics also protects "our" migrants.  You can learn about and support RMBO's activities through their website (www.rmbo.org). Maybe you can go to Mexico next year and see a flammulated flycatcher while the chachalacas chuckle. 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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EVEN ED ABBEY COULD IDENTIFY A WAXWING

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Edward Abbey famously wrote that the only birds he could identify were pigeons, buzzards, and fried chicken. I suspect, however, he could identify Cedar Waxwings. According to one source, Cedar Waxwings are a shiny mixture of “brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers.

Most winters, our backyard has flocks of cedar waxwings feeding on the red berries of our two Hawthorn trees. Their feeding habits are interesting. One of our Hawthorns is ~25 ft. tall and the other half that height. The waxwings begin at the top of the tallest tree and strip all the berries until they reach the height of the smaller tree. They also omit the branches that brush against our bedroom window. But, when only those are left, they will strip the smaller tree and finish off the berries outside our window—often within two feet of someone looking from the inside. It is a treat to see such a beautiful bird so close.

      Last week, I counted 68 in the same tree. They flutter like so many butterflies from the fruit trees, to tall trees nearby if something scares them. I also noticed them flying en masse to the roof of our house. I realized there is a shady corner providing melting snow for an easy drink. So, they have a perfect triangle of food, water, and cover—the three things a bird needs to thrive.
      As my photos show, waxwing plumage appears soft and silky. But note the tips to the wing feathers and tail.

     These tips appeared to early observers as sealing wax, hence the common name of waxwing. Cedar waxwings nest nearby in mid-elevation riparian areas. In late spring and early summer, when native fruits are ripening, look for them in wet areas with tall trees at elevations of 6000-8000 feet or so. Their diet is mostly fruit, but later in the summer, I often see them perched on high dead limbs from which they sally into the air to feed on flying insects.
     During courtship, waxwings are known to pass berries back and forth. I vividly recall, as a small boy, seeing several sitting on a wire passing a berry from one to the next. Seeing such beautiful and apparently polite behavior was an early inspiration for my interest in birds.


    My photos are misleading because Cedar Waxwings are tiny—as I’m sadly reminded most years as one or more crash into one of our windows trying to escape a marauding hawk. They are only 7 inches long. Their crest, relatively long tail, and pointed wings give the appearance of a larger and more robust bird. They actually weigh less than the common sparrows and finches.
    A characteristic of waxwings is their flocking and wandering behavior. Frequently, I will be watching 20 or more in my tree and suddenly, they are gone—spooked by a loud sound, a gust of wind, or maybe a hawk who would dine on them. The flocks wander erratically depending, apparently, on where they happen to find food, and, perhaps, on the weather. Such behavior is termed "irruptive," a fancy way of saying, "now you see them, now you don't."   This is typified by what I see in my yard. Perhaps half the time, they find my trees early and strip every berry by mid-December. One year in four, they show up late, as this year—and the other year in four, I don’t see them at all. So, watch for a lot of activity in any berry-laded bushes still remaining in the valley.  You may see one of North America's most beautiful birds.
To keep up with the activities of Grand Valley Audubon Society, check out our webpage at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook. Please send any questions to audubongv@gmail.com
 

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