Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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PEEPING AT SHOREBIRDS!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, July 30, 2015


You don’t have to go to California to see shorebirds. You can see most of them right here in Western Colorado. Yes, it is a bit more difficult. Timing and location are everything, but shorebird migration has begun. From now into October, shorebirds are passing through. Even if you have trouble identifying some of them, at least spend a few minutes thinking about their life history. Western Sandpipers, for example, breed in the tundra, mostly along the coast of Alaska. They winter along the southern coast of the US and the Northern Coast of South America. Isn’t that an amazing journey? You think so! Theirs is one of the shorter ones. Baird’s Sandpipers nest a bit further north across the Arctic and winter mostly in the Southern Cone of South America. (Western Sandpiper by Jackson Trappett)

But, how can we see shorebirds? We don’t have any coastline! True enough. We don’t have much. At least that fact limits the areas where we can look, but diversity can be exciting. According to ebird.org (try “Explore Data,” then “Mesa County,” then “bar charts), twenty-one species of sandpipers, plovers and their ilk can be seen in Western Colorado during migration. 

One of the most common is the Western Sandpiper. They are part of a group often referred to as “peeps.” Using the term “peep” is analogous to calling perching birds “LBJs” (little brown jobs) or “LGBs” (little gray birds), because several species are confusingly similar. Fortunately, as with most LBJs and LGBs, a little knowledge goes a long way. In our area, the Western Sandpiper may be the most common “peep.” Note the thick and slightly decurved bill in the photo. Note the dark legs. Finally, you can see it seems a bit stub-tailed, that is, the wings don’t exceed the length of the tail. That’s it. That’s a Western Sandpiper.

The other two common “peeps” in our area are the Least Sandpiper (greenish legs, shorter bill overall), and the Baird’s (wings longer than the tail). Yes, you have to look at them a bit to see these features, but with a little practice, you can confidently identify most of these birds. (Least Sandpiper by Jackson Trappett)

Fortunately, there are always a few shorebirds that are easy to identify—none more so than the American Avocet.
(American Avocet by Jackson Trappett)
Although a few pair may nest locally, Avocets are much easier to see during migration when small flocks stop for a rest on their journey south. Few birds are more beautiful than these.


The best places to see shorebirds are anywhere there are large mudflats. A few birds, however, may stop anywhere there is a small amount of open shoreline. Favorite places in the fall include Vega Lake State Park, Highline State Park, Cheney Reservoir, and, of course, Fruitgrowers Reservoir (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/fruitgrowers). The Colorado Field Ornithologists website (http://coloradocountybirding.org/ByCounty.aspx?CountyID=40) can be accessed for directions to these and locations all over the state.


Sadly, as with so many common species, most of the shorebirds are experiencing population declines. Declining species include the aforementioned Western Sandpiper and others often seen in Western Colorado: Snowy Plover, Killdeer, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Pectoral Sandpiper. Worse yet, a pervasive lack of monitoring data (in other words lack of funding) has led a recent shorebird researcher to comment, “we still have virtually no indication of the population trend for 25 percent of the shorebird taxa breeding in North America.”


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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NOISES OFF! (TRAVELING THE PHANTOM ROAD!)

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, July 19, 2015

“Noises Off!” is a stage play—a farce—a “play within a play,” about the staging of a comedy called “Nothing On.” Grand Junction High School produced this play some years ago, and it was hilarious. It is always great to see how much talent there is among the young people of our area.
As described in Wikipedia, the play-within-the-play, “Nothing On” is the type of farce in which young girls run about in their underwear, old men drop their trousers, and many doors continually bang open and shut.” As I said, the play was uproarious—a lot of noisy fun, but would you want to live there? And, do you have an opinion regarding the recent local controversy regarding whether certain Off-Road Vehicle routes should be closed? Birds do!

Researchers at Boise State University “set up 15 sets of speakers in trees along a ridgeline” far from human disturbance. Then they created a phantom road by replicating the sound of a 500-yard long stretch of busy highway. They turned the road noise on and off over 4 day blocks throughout fall migration. They compared usage by birds with a nearby ridge that was not exposed to any noise.

Counting birds at each site showed “more than a one-quarter decline in overall bird numbers.” “Even the most common species were impacted negatively by the road noise. Yellow Warblers and Cedar Waxwings almost completely avoided the ridge when the noise was turned on.” (Both of the latter species, it should be noted, are common near Grand Junction.) (This bright Yellow Warbler won't be singing close to a road!)

This research is the first to show that road noise alone has a negative impact on birds. This is important because until now studies have only shown that roads are bad for birds, and the assumption had been that the moving vehicle was the primary culprit. According to the Boise State researchers, 83% of the continental US is within hearing distance (1km) of a road.

(The Mockingbird on the passenger-side window doesnt' mind a quiet car!)

I find it very unfortunate that roads/routes/trails are so controversial. Consider the play, “Noises Off.” I enjoyed the “farce,” but I wouldn’t want to see such entertainment every night. I own a 4-wheel-drive vehicle and have enjoyed the fact that it has given me access to some backcountry locations for hiking and wildlife viewing. But, to tell the truth, overall, I prefer drama to farce and quiet to noise. At the same time, I understand others feel the opposite. That’s why we need balance. That’s why all of us have to practice restraint. What’s enough for either side will always be a controversy, but I will suggest that birders and wildlife viewers already practice a great deal of restraint.

If one wants to view Sage Grouse on a lek, it requires signing up, often months in advance, to reserve a seat in a blind. Suppose you want to see the vast number of Sandhill Cranes on the North Platte in Nebraska? Same thing. Sign up in advance to reserve a spot in a blind. Maybe you want to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Same thing—except there it is usually a good idea to take advantage of the Park Service’s option to select three possible itineraries. Your first choice is often not available, but you might get your second or third.

It isn’t hard to make the same analogy to off-road vehicle use. Restraint is needed. A reservation system might be needed for popular trails. Similarly, there can’t be trails everywhere or we will lose birds, and as other research has shown, deer and elk.
It is clear, other than the common species we find in town, most wildlife avoid noise. Wildlife avoid disturbance. It is no wonder to the birders among us that Sage Grouse are in trouble. When a visiting birder contacts me for advice on viewing some local bird species, I can do a good job, but with the grouse; I have to tell them to call the Division of Wildlife or a local community that sponsors tours. We can’t just go out and see them anymore.

As for the recent research with noise, it is unlikely that anyone is going to tear out a road to protect birds. However, it does suggest that new roads, routes and trails should be limited. It also suggests that measures should be taken to make roads quieter such as changing the road substrate, creating barriers to buffer sound, changing speed limits, or even limiting daily traffic through some areas. There are a lot of us.  We need to share, and practice restraint.


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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GET ON UP! (GET HIGH!)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I couldn't decide which segue I liked better. My wife and I recently watched the biopic about James Brown ("Get on Up!"), the genius rhythm and blues singer who was such an enormous musical influence. On the other hand, Colorado’s newest big-time cash crop also lends itself to a convenient double entendre. Neither James Brown nor marijuana have much to do with birds, although I suppose the silly rock song “The Bird is the Word” may owe something to James Brown. On the other hand, many folks (myself included) get high on amazing birding experiences.

My title double entendres can also refer to climbing and hiking in Colorado’s high country. Are you into climbing fourteeners? Or, maybe you prefer my favorites, high thirteeners, where you can have the fourteener experience without as much company? If you have climbed more than one or two, or if you have hiked or backpacked above timberline, you have seen two special Colorado birds. Maybe you didn’t identify them, but if you saw birds up high, you probably saw these two.

One is the American Pipit. It is the only common representative of the family Motacillidae found in the US outside of Alaska.

(photo by Jackson Trappett)

Most often, American Pipits are seen as one walks across the tundra. A slender brown bird with white tail feathers flutters up from the ground, and with an easy undulating flight soon settles back into the grass or on a boulder. If the pipit is in your path, it may do this a few times before finally doubling back to where you initially flushed it. American Pipits breed throughout the tundra in North America which includes the high Rocky Mountains, much of Alaska and the boreal regions of Canada. They winter, often in small flocks, throughout the Southern US, but also in Mexico and Central America. The Central Valley of California, east and south Texas and Louisiana are all important wintering areas. Right now they are nesting. Often eggs are laid under a small rock practically in the open. On one occasion, researchers studying some nests observed that most of the young survived their nest being snow-covered for 24 hours.

American Pipits are widely distributed, but there is one bird that almost has to be seen in Colorado. These are Brown-Capped Rosy-Finches. When hiking or climbing, look for small flocks of mostly brown birds whirling about remnant snowfields. These guys can often be tame. Once on top of La Plata Peak, a few of them foraged literally within inches of my boot. 

(photo by Jackson Trappett)

Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are a special bird in Colorado because they are a near endemic of our state. They nest in the high-country throughout the length of Colorado but only as far south as Sandia Peak in New Mexico and as far north as Wyoming’s Snowy Range. More than the American Pipits, Rosy-Finches are a true denizen of the highest mountains, only showing up in the valley during and after heavy mountain storms.

So take this opportunity to impress your hiking companions. There simply aren't that many choices in the high country. When you see a bird with white tail feathers take off from the tundra, tell them, “There goes an American Pipit.” When climbing that last thousand feet to the peak, if you see a small brown bird with some pink on the belly, rump and wings, that would be the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch.


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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HOW TO SEE A NEW BIRD (FINDING LIFERS!)

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 25, 2015

If you are a birder, you know what a “lifer” is. That’s a “new” bird—one you haven’t identified before. If you aren’t a birder, but are acquainted with one, you may have heard he or she excitedly describe some new sighting. And, if you aren’t a birder, you may be in wonderment. What is the big deal? Don’t most of them look the same? Are they really worth the effort?

I know for me, there’s sort of a “possession” when I see something new. I now “posses” that bird, that memory. At my core, I’m a watcher of wildlife. I want to see what happens. What are they doing? Why is that bird here right now? I find these questions interesting, and they keep me entertained even when there aren’t new birds to be seen. That’s a very good thing. I’ve already done my share of traveling for the purpose of birding and it would get really expensive if adding to my “lifelist” was my sole driver.

Nonetheless, I like to see new birds. I’m recently returned from nearly five weeks in Costa Rica. This tiny country, the size of Western Colorado, is justly famous for birding-- having nearly 800 species on its country list—about equal to the ENTIRE United States. Over several decades, my total time in country is approaching a year of my life. Much of my time there has been spent looking for birds. Lifers have become hard to come by. But, on this recent trip I managed eight new ones. My experiences ran the gamut of how it is done, so I thought I’d describe how seeing new birds happens.

Here’s the easy way. Find someone who knows where they are and have them show you. We were going to spend time near the small town of San Vito near the Panamanian border. I had perused checklists from the area posted on ebird.org to see what people had been seeing. I also signed up to receive information from the San Vito Bird Club—a public-spirit minded group of mostly ex-Pats who, besides birding, work in the local schools and raised funds for an observation tower at the Las Cruces Biological Reserve, a nearby Organization of Tropical Studies (http://www.ots.ac.cr/) research station.

Three days before we were to go to San Vito, the Bird Club website (http://sanvitobirdclub.org/) announced a “bird walk,” with the primary quarry being a Masked Duck which had recently been seen at Finca Cantaros—a private nature reserve (http://fincacantaros.com/) which can be visited for a small fee, and is located about 10 minutes from the house we had rented. Plans can change! We made arrangements to arrive a day early so we could accompany the bird club. A few minutes after meeting the group, we had walked to the small natural pond and seen a pair of Masked Ducks. How easy was that?

It should be said that Masked Ducks are found from the Southern tip of the US (chiefly Texas) all the way to Argentina so their large geographic range suggests their populations are safe. Nevertheless, they seem to be nowhere common where many people (such as birders) are found. It is considered a tough find in Costa Rica--very “hit-or-miss,” in part, because it lives in thick, swampy, shady habitats which are often difficult to access. Masked Ducks also tend to be shy and may slink off into the reeds rather than allow themselves to be seen. Finca Cantaros has a natural pond that I suspect has sheltered Masked Ducks for eons. That’s the easy “lifer.” Combine local knowledge with local help and be led to where the bird is. Birders find that exciting and fun. Making friends of some of the Bird Club members was a trip highlight. (Here’s a nice little video about masked ducks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGCA4p2MswI)

(masked duck photo from wikipedia)

The other “lifer” I saw nearby was found the hard way.

The Costa Rican Brush-Finch lives in this same area. As its name implies, it has a small range. It is found from Central Costa Rica to Northern Panama—a range that isn’t even as wide as the State of Colorado. We were staying in the heart of their abundance and that gave me some hope, even though, as the name implies, this bird likes the brush. Thick, nasty tangles are its preferred habitat. Such locations can have quite a few birds, but aren’t the overall best birding locations. In addition, this bird is a skulker. It stays close to the ground, preferring not to show itself. It was on the list at the Biological Station and at Finca Cantaros. Our location was in between. I deduced that if the populations were continuous, the bird would use the ravines below the house we rented. Maybe I could stay “home” and still find the bird.

This part of Costa Rica, as with much of the country, contains almost no flat land. The property we were on was so steep that walking usually required having a foot braced against the slope. I was impressed how the owners had cut some trails to maintain some accessibility to most of their property. Nevertheless, even finding a place to sit quietly was nearly impossible because of the slope. And, this is the tropics. Sitting in a brush tangle is hot, humid and buggy. Even if there was a breeze, it was blocked in the ravine by the slope and the brush.

This is where the value of electronics comes in. Yes, I probably would not have seen the bird without my iPad. You see, I like to write. I had found a location where I could sit without too much discomfort. I was at the bottom of the ravine, but there was a small opening in the brush to give me a little viewing area. I covered myself up with bug spray, took a look around, and resumed working on an article I had promised on Western Screech-Owls. Writing kept me distracted despite my sweat and the insects buzzing around.

I moved around some, trying different locations and eventually invested 4 hours in the effort. I had accomplished some writing and I’d seen a few birds—but they were common and not hard-to-find elsewhere. It was a bit discouraging, but I had another free afternoon coming up. I would try again.

A couple of hours into the second afternoon, I noticed movement in the thick brush in front of me. One or two birds had passed by at ground level. On my Ipad, I had the Costa Rican Bird App (http://birdingfieldguides.com/) with the Costa Rican Brush Finch selected. I played the high-pitched squeaky call—which is almost impossible for me to hear. The movement, now a couple of yards past me, stopped. Next a bird flew out of the tangle onto a perch right in front of me. A Costa Rican Brush-finch looked me in the eye. I remained motionless. It flew to another perch. Then another. Not finding its presumed rival, it dropped back into the tangle and resumed its journey. As a birder, I was proud. I had deduced where the bird would have to be—if it were present. I concealed and prepared myself. I needed 4 to 5 hours, but I had distracted myself with my writing—something I valued no matter what happened with the bird. And, I was successful. Two lifers. One hard. One easy. One social. One solitary. Both fun. Both exciting. That’s what it is like being a birder.

 (Costa Rican Brush-Finch from wikipedia)

(In our area, if you want to find out what other birders are seeing and where, check out these two listserves: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/wsbn/info and https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!forum/cobirds. You can also see what has been posted for Mesa County on ebird.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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NOW YOU SEE THEM! SOON YOU WON’T!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 11, 2015

Get out in the woods! Now! Birds are singing. They are singing from prominent perches.
Soon, all territories will be established and the females will be sitting on eggs, and many will become difficult to see.

When you are in the woods this spring, stop and listen. Maybe set your phone or watch timer for five minutes. When it goes off, have you found out that you had “tuned out” bird song. It is easy to do. I have the problem, and I’m what most people would call a hard-core birder. It is a Zen thing. Pay attention!

Two common birds in Western Colorado’s Mountains are Green-tailed Towhees and Hermit Thrushes. Both, particularly the towhee, are relatively common in our forests. In June, both are relatively easy-to-see, because they sing.  (GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE)

The Green-tailed Towhee, a member of the sparrow family, lives in deep brush and shrubbery. Most of the local population arrives in early May after spending the winter along the border or in Mexico and most leave by late September. Now, they are looking for mates and proclaiming their territories. They sing often and loudly from exposed perches.

Songs sound different to everyone. Some characterize the towhee as a jumbled mix of clear whistles and trills (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Green-tailed_Towhee/sounds). Look for it singing from the top of a bush. It will be near some forest but in a relatively open area. It will be showing its handsome red/brown crest, white-throat and olivey tail from the top of a Great Sage or a Snowberry or other large bush.

My favorite North American bird songs are the flute-like trills of our two mountain thrushes: Hermit and Swainson’s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0mATRdzZSc) I hate to use the word “ethereal” for these songs, but I may as well because everyone else does. The songs are beautiful and other-worldly with the ability to evoke deep feelings of both joy and sadness at the same time.(HERMIT THRUSH)
I find the behavior of the thrushes remarkable because I have more familiarity with them in Central America where they spend more of their lives. Swainson’s Thrushes, while in Costa Rica seem abundant. I don’t know that there are more of them. It is just that they are tame. They commonly enter yards and gardens and are easily seen. It is different in Colorado. Most of our thrushes arrive on their breeding grounds in late May or early June. Soon after arrival they sing their lovely songs from prominent perches—often from the tops of trees or prominent snags. This behavior lasts about two weeks and then they are gone. Well, not exactly gone, but hard-to-find. They nest, raise their young, and by late August, most are on their way back to their homes in the tropics.

These thrushes nest inside brush in the forest. They are dark brown and spotted so they blend in with the trees and shrubs. If you happen to flush one, they often don’t fly far but stay low and concealed. With patience, good views can be had, but often not.

It is always a great time to be in the woods. Now is an even better time. Listen and look—the season is short.

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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