Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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SAY! MR. CASSIN!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, July 14, 2016

Previously in this column, I have riffed on bird-names, and how I prefer monikers such as Black-throated Sparrow—which actually is a sparrow with a black-throat—as opposed to nonsensical names such as Bushtit and Dotterel (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/what-comes-to-mind-when-you-hear-someone-yell-great-tits) (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/dunnocks-serins-and-shitepokes-oh-my-and-white-arses).

Worst-case names are those such as the Orange-crowned Warbler. An ornithologist friend has told me, “Well, if you shot one and ruffled the feathers on its head a bit, you might find a hint of orange.” Orange-crowned Warblers are relatively common in our area, but never having murdered one, I can’t vouch for the alleged orange in the crown.  Almost as frustrating for beginning birders, must be those birds ascribed to some long dead person. If you are a beginner, do you even know what a “phoebe” is? (No, not the late singer, Phoebe Snow, or a character on “Friends.”) What vision is conjured by considering the name Say’s Phoebe?

(Say's Phoebe by Jackson Trappett)

We have a great many birds named this way. John Cassin has especially been honored with Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Kingbird, and Cassin’s Vireo—all of which may be seen in Western Colorado. He is also commemorated with the Cassin’s Sparrow and Cassin’s Auklet.
( Cassin's Finch-Note the straight and longer beak relative to the House Finches found in our yards)


John James Audubon only has two birds named after him, an Oriole found along the Texas/Mexico border and into Mexico, and a Shearwater, a seabird that lives along the east and gulf coasts. Do these others deserve even one namesake species?

Thomas Say, who died in 1834, was an American entomologist and conchologist. Huh? Why is a bird named after him? A little research turned up that he was the official zoologist of an early expedition to the Rocky Mountains and tributaries of the Missouri River. That expedition reported the first description of his namesake bird. In his career, Say described more than 1,000 new species of beetles, more than 400 species of insects of other orders, and seven well-known species of snakes. He has had a lot of things named after him. I guess he deserves it. 

What about Cassin, who has five bird species named for him? Apparently, he was “a careful and talented taxonomist,” [who] named 198 birds not described in the works of his predecessors Alexander Wilson (he of five namesake species) and John James Audubon.
(Wilson's Warbler--high in the San Juan Mountains)

Wilson was a Scot who was apprenticed as a weaver, but was mostly known for writing poetry and strolling in the countryside. He used his poetry to deride the unfair treatment of weavers by their employers. Because the poems were considered libelous, he was in trouble with the law, lived in poverty and was forced to borrow money to pay court costs and other expenses (http://www.wilsonsociety.org/society/awilsoninfo.html).

In 1794, Wilson left for America where he met William Bartram, a famous early American naturalist who fostered Wilson’s interest in birds. Wilson traveled widely, observing and painting birds, and gathering subscribers for his nine-volume work, American Ornithology published in 1808-1814, which illustrated 268 species, including descriptions of 26 new species. OK, I will give him his due, five species for a man dedicated to poetry, human rights and birds. What’s not to like?

At least one bird named after a person seems to make immediate sense. Surely, the Lincoln’s sparrow must be named to honor our most famous president. Oops. No. It isn’t. It was named by Audubon after his friend, Thomas Lincoln who shot one while on a trip with Audubon in Nova Scotia in 1834. Tom Lincoln, apparently unrelated to the famous president and his family, was only 21 at the time. Sometimes “who you know” is more important than “what you know!”
 (Lincolln's Sparrow--as murdered by Thomas Lincoln)


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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DON’T POO-POO YOUR NOISY WOODPECKER!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 30, 2016

On numerous occasions, someone has asked me what they can do about a woodpecker that is tearing up the siding on their home. Not much, except wait for them to stop. At our cabin in the mountains, I have seen and heard them bang away at a metal chimney and even a metal bench. Usually, this behavior only lasts a few weeks while the woodpecker, always a Northern Flicker in my experience, attracts a mate and settles down to raise his family.

I once was disdainful of Flickers myself. They are our most common woodpecker. "Just another Flicker," was my usual reaction to seeing one. Not anymore. My respect for Flickers grew not long after I started setting out nest boxes around our mountain property. Year after year I added to the number of boxes. Each year all were used. Violet-green Swallows even nested in a swinging decorative gourd next to the cabin door. Boxes were also used by Mountain Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and House Wrens. These species nest only in cavities, but none are capable of creating their own. Obviously, there are not enough natural cavities if each box I mounted had a tenant.

Interestingly, one local cavity-user seldom if ever uses nest boxes. That bird is the Northern Flicker. Flickers like to excavate cavities so much that they typically make a new one each year. That’s a good thing. I suppose, in fact, that makes Flickers a “Keystone Species.” (A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance.) If all the Flickers disappeared, where would many other birds nest?
(Northern Flicker by Jackson Trappett)

Whenever you see a House Wren or a flock of swallows, consider that many if not most of them began life in a former Flicker-cavity. It isn't only swallows, wrens and bluebirds that rely on old woodpecker nests. Small owls such as Saw-whets and others also need former woodpecker cavities.

The obvious shortage of suitable cavities, explains why there is a Poo-Poo project. Think for a moment about how many pit toilets are at campgrounds, trailheads, boat launches, and picnic areas. All of these have a vent pipe. Vertical though the pipe is, the holes are typically the right diameter for the many birds looking for a good home or a temporary roost. Instead of a home, a bird inspecting a vertical, slick pipe usually is unable to climb out. In short, these pipes are death traps. 

The Teton Raptor Center recognized the problem and developed a simple means of providing a mesh cap. The Poo-Poo project was born! http://tetonraptorcenter.org/assets/media/files/2015.8.4%20Poo-Poo%20Project.pdf 

Grand Valley Audubon Society provided a grant to member Laura Johnston to provide and install caps locally. These have been installed at Vega and Highline State Parks and on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the Forest Service and the Park Service. Notice the caps when you recreate on our public lands this summer. The caps, protecting the birds, are a result of local contributions and local volunteer activity. These volunteers, as well as the Flickers, are assuring that we continue to see many swallows and bluebirds in and around the Grand Valley.

[Note, there are few small cavity nesters in the lower elevations in the Grand Valley. Small nest boxes installed in and around town are more likely to attract House Sparrows rather than more desirable species. Once you are above 5000 ft or so, the opportunity for bluebirds, swallows and others increases dramatically.]

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 the website at www.audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!

   

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GET OUT! NOW!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 16, 2016

This won’t wait until the 4th of July weekend. You need to get out NOW! Get out to our high desert country. Yes, the PJs. Spring and then summer are so fleeting. Two days ago, my wife and I hiked the Liberty Cap Trail in Colorado National Monument. We realized we almost missed IT! “IT” being the spring/early summer wildflower show.
(AScarlet Gilia and Prickly Pear)

(Nodding Onion)


With temperatures approaching 100 here in the valley, most everyone is thinking alpine wildflowers, but if you miss the high desert exhibition, you are missing a lot. I suspect the heavier than usual snow cover this winter had something to do with this year’s beauty which features the biggest and brightest Scarlet Gilia I have seen. Likewise, there is a huge crop of Sego Lillies; some growing in the middle of the trail.

(This Hairstreak Butterfly is inspecting a Sego Lily.)


It wasn’t just the flowers. This trail harbors some native grasses. It is also a great time for butterflies.

(There were many Checkerspots along the trail.)


I am not forgetting the birds. Our morning birding list was only ten species, but included Gray Flycatcher, Pinyon Jay, Lark Sparrow, and Black-throated Sparrows. These are all Western Colorado high desert species for which birders often specifically visit Grand Junction.
 (Lark Sparrows were singing continuously. 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, check the website at www.audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!
 

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EGGS! 12 CENTS A DOZEN!

By Nic.Korte
Monday, June 6, 2016

Regular readers of this blog know that I put in a lot of time monitoring Western Screech-Owls. An unexpected benefit of that program has been the wonderful people with whom I’ve become acquainted. One is a lovely elderly lady who was raised in a pioneer ranching family in Northwest Colorado. I’m talking the far Northwest, as in Brown’s Park. I always ensure that I have a little time for a conversation when I visit her home to check on her Screech-Owl boxes.

Lily has told me some great stories over the years such as having to shoo the Sage Chickens (referring to Sage Grouse) from the family chicken feed. “Nic,” she said, “there were so many, they would darken the sky.” Imagine, as Sage Grouse continue to be the source of such controversy in Colorado and other western states, here is a lady who has memory of a sight no one will ever see again—no matter which side prevails in the current dispute.

The other day we happened to discuss Magpies, and she reminded me that Colorado, as many western states, formerly had a bounty. One way to collect it was to bring in their eggs. I’m not sure who the eggs were taken to, but she recalled the bounty being 1c/egg. Most of us are familiar with Magpie nests. They tend to be 6-10 feet off the ground, but in awful tangles. Plus, these birds are aggressive, very loud and have long pointed beaks. 

Nonetheless, a few pennies was a lot of money, and money for a five or six year old rancher’s daughter was not easy to come by. Lily was determined and received permission from her mother to take one of the horses to ride out and collect some eggs. She found the nests easily but remembers being frightened of the birds and becoming all scratched and bloody. Nonetheless, she did retrieve some eggs. Then she had a dilemma. She had forgotten to bring anything for carrying the eggs. She tried her pockets. The results were predictable. She arrived home, bloody and scratched with pockets full of broken eggs. She remembers crying over the loss of revenue. “My mother felt so bad for me,” she said, “she gave me the pennies herself.” [There are no more bounties—Magpies are protected under the Migratory Bird Act.]

This leads to an interesting question. Magpies are abundant in our area. Despite their long tails and iridescent feathers, almost no one likes them. What good are they?
There are reasons for their unpopularity. They will predate other birds, particularly their eggs. (Note: One reference I consulted says their reputation for eating other birds and eggs is overstated.) They are extremely noisy. Having a brood in a nearby tree will drive most nearby humans crazy with the loud early morning squawking.
(photo by Jackson Trappett.  Would you consider this a beautiufl bird if it was rare?)
On further consideration these reasons for hating Magpies are shallow. Almost everyone loves our local owls. Some of them eat lots of birds, including young and eggs of smaller owls. Maybe owls receive a pass because of their human-like face and secretive habits. A Magpie might be spotted taking the eggs from a Robin’s nest, but an owl snatching one of the young, after dark, won’t be noticed. The Magpie will be blamed. And, that same Robin may awaken you by singing outside your window in the pre-dawn.

I suspect Magpies are also unpopular here because they are so abundant. Familiarity does breed contempt. I was bemused a few years ago when I visited the local zoo in Kansas City, Missouri. They had Magpies on display as an example of western wildlife. Zoo visitors were stopping and looking at them in the cage as if they were an exotic rarity. 

Similarly, on a visit to Northern Minnesota this winter, my birding guide received a call and turned to me and said excitedly, “Someone has just spotted a Magpie a mile or two from here. Do you want to chase it?” Before I could say anything, he registered the look on my face and said, “Oh, I guess they are common where you live aren’t they?” Yes, as an extreme rarity anywhere in the Midwest, birders who travel to MN for winter owls often ask their guides to find them a Magpie.

In reality, I’m just as bad. You see, our Magpies are Black-billed Magpies. Did you know there are Yellow-billed Magpies? They are a distinct species that are almost identical to our common Magpies, except for the bill color. This species lives only in a narrow area in oak savannas in Central and Northern California. When I found myself nearby, there I was out hunting for them until I finally got to see a Yellow-billed Magpie. 

We do have to give Magpies one very important credit. They build their own nests. Long-eared Owls do not.(Long-eared Owls need Magpie nests.)

In Western Colorado, most Long-eared Owls rear their young in last year’s (or much older) Magpie nests. No Magpies—no Long-eared Owls.

Everything has a place. The great biologist E.O. Wilson was once asked about an insect, “What good is it?” His response? “Well, what good are you?” That is as good an explanation as any for our love-hate relationship with Magpies.

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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I WILL SQUEEZE YOU (I WILL SQUEEZE YOU)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I was listening for those phrases while in the aspen woods these past two weekends. I wondered if the singer had returned from the tropics. Finally, I heard it once. Soon, that call will be incessant.

I find the song pleasant now, but for a time it was quite aggravating. Being mostly deaf in one ear, despite my interests in birds and birding, I had not invested much effort in learning bird calls. I also hadn't spent much time among the aspens.

My wife and I had found a sitter for our two young children. We were going away for a night--just the two of us. As I recall, it was our first such night since our daughter was born. She was now four, and as our son's second birthday approached, we had secured a night for ourselves in a nearby mountain cabin. It was early June and the aspens resounded with a warbler-like song. Serious birders reading this may be surprised by how little I knew of birdsong. I watched birds when I could, but it was only the "catch-as-catch-can" type of birding that could occur with a job that required heavy travel, and the demands of a young family.

We had a picnic and took a short hike. I continued to hear the song, and I looked and looked for a warbler. Most warblers have some color--in our area mostly a lot of yellow (e.g. Wilson's, MacGillivray's, or Yellow Warblers.). Another thing about warblers is they never sit still. Getting a good look can be difficult, but finding them moving about in the limbs and leaves is not so hard. This time, my frustration grew and grew as I saw no color, and no movement. Fortunately, our agenda was not about birds. Mary and I thoroughly enjoyed our overnighter--becoming a couple again while we had a few hours respite from parenthood.

Nonetheless, I didn't forget the frustrating bird that seemed so abundant but couldn't be found. Some years later, as I finally learned to recognize some bird calls, I encountered the song again. Yes, it was warbler-like, but the song was too long. Eventually, I was instructed by a more experienced birder. "Oh, that's a Warbling Vireo!" Now it all made sense. Vireos and warblers are both tiny birds, but unlike warblers, vireos tend to be mostly gray and slow-moving. No wonder my search for colorful movement was futile.

 (Warbling Vireo)

A few years later, another long-time birder told me he distinguished the song by applying the phrasing: "I will squeeze you, I will squeeze you, I will squeeze you until you hurt!" He was an eastern birder. Our western Warbling Vireos, to me, sound like "I will squeeze you, I will squeeze you, I will squeeze!" Now that I finally had the song anchored in my brain, I also recognized how abundant this bird is in our aspen woods. For much of the late spring through the summer, it is difficult to be in the aspens at any time of day without hearing this song repeated tirelessly by the many Warbling Vireos. 

 (Warbling Vireo in usual aspen woods pose)

My early struggles notwithstanding, this call is an easy one to learn. It does take a little imagination, and the “I will squeeze you's” are very fast, but after a few tries, you’ll get it and the bird will always be recognizable. Check out the song on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgy_wEc84fs Give it a listen, and much of the sound of our summer aspen woods will no longer be a mystery.

[The other two common vireos in our area are the Gray Vireo, and the Plumbeous (another word for gray) Vireo. There is little habitat overlap, and the calls of these two are distinctly non-musical.]


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 the website at www.audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!

 

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