Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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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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PROWLING FOR OWLS!

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

     For many years, Grand Valley Audubon Society has offered an annual “Owl Prowl”—a field trip designed to show folks some of the owls living in the Grand Valley.

     Take a moment, how many species of owls do you think live in the Grand Valley and its environs? Pick a number.

     Most people know the “hoot owl” (actually Great-horned Owl) because they are large and loud and often nest conspicuously. A few people are aware of our dwindling population of burrowing owls which use old prairie dog holes in the desert. That’s two.

(Burrowing Owl by Jackson Trappett)

How many species of owls are there in and around the Grand Valley? Would you believe nine?

     The others are: Western Screech-owls, Long-eared owls, Barn owls, Flammulated owls, Saw-whet owls, Northern Pygmy owls and Boreal owls. The Western Screech-owl is the most common owl but is not often seen because it is strictly nocturnal and small (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/no-swans-geese-doves-or-partridges-for-me-i-want-screech-owls-for-christmas).

    
    Why do we have so many owls? Diversity of habitat. Boreal owls live in the highest, coldest, wettest, and darkest areas of Grand Mesa. Long-eared owls are widespread and live in tamarisk and pinyon-juniper thickets. As local ornithologist Kim Potter says, “Where you don’t want to go, that’s where they live.” 

(Long-eared Owl)

     Recently, the GVAS Owl Prowls have been less successful for two reasons. The first is that Western Screech-owls may be nesting earlier such that our usual date for viewing them is after the female is on eggs down in a cavity. The male will be roosting nearby, but usually up in some leaves or hidden within the dense needles of a conifer. The second reason we have had difficulty is a dearth of Long-eared and Barn Owls. Both were once easy-to-find. We don’t know the reason(s) we are seeing fewer of these owls. Because they live in accessible public places, it is probably a combination of development, ATVs, and shooting. We have seen all of these activities displace these owls at one time or another.


We at GVAS still want people to experience our owls. For that reason, we have designed new field trips. On the 28th of March, we will have a Montane Owl Prowl where we will look for Northern Pygmy, Saw-whet and Boreal Owls.

(Saw-whet Owl by Jackson Trappett)

    Saw-whets, Pygmys and Boreals have retiring habits.  Combined with mountain living on public land, they seem to be doing fine. We have done a lot of scouting and expect to have some success hearing if not seeing these owls.


    On April 11, we will do Valley Owl Prowl focusing on Western Screech-Owls, Great-Horned Owls, Burrowing Owls, and possibly either or both Barn Owls and Long-eared Owls. This trip should be especially interesting to youngsters. If you would like to participate, information for signing up is through the Grand Valley Audubon Society website at www.audubongv.org. Come along and see some owls. You don’t have to be a member to participate!


[To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon Society, please see our website at www.audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook! If you have any questions, please send them to audubongv@gmail.com]
  

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Dunnocks, Serins and Shitepokes, Oh My! (And, “White Arses?”)

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, March 5, 2015

Previously, I did a bit of a riff on nonsensical bird names (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/what-comes-to-mind-when-you-hear-someone-yell-great-tits). It seems we have the “Old World” to blame for many of them. Last summer, I visited France and Italy. It wasn’t a birding trip—but I found occasion to do some searching—and I always have a pair of binoculars. (A trip-mate once asked me, “Do you shower in your binoculars?”)

Learning local species is always a task for the traveling birder. For example, in Central and South America, there are many families unknown in the US such as antpittas, manikins, and euphonias. At least, these birds usually have names such as “Streak-crowned Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and White-vented Euphonia. If you learn what a Red-capped Manakin looks like, you probably have a good idea how you would recognize a “Long-tailed Manakin.”

Unfortunately, there is no logic to many names in Europe. There are no families consistent with names like Dunnock or Serin. The former is an accentor--a family unfamiliar to New World birders, but why call it a Dunnock? Apparently, in ancient British, “Dunnock” meant “little brown one.” A Serin is a small finch similar to our own goldfinches. In brief research, I did not learn the origin of its name.

Perhaps the best bird I saw on my trip was a Dotterel. 


According to Wikipedia the English used “dotterel” as a contemptuous label for a “doting old fool.” Dotterels (the bird!) permit a close approach and are easy to shoot. That was my experience. I almost stepped on the one I photographed.

Fortunately, not all of the ancient names have persisted. For example, the term “shitepoke,” commonly used for herons in the early days in the Americas, was a corruption of terms used in Scotland: “shiterow” and  “shitehereon”. These name’s described the birds’ habit of defecating when disturbed.

Another group of European species are wheatears. The name "wheatear" is not derived from "wheat" or any sense of "ear", but is a 16th-century linguistic corruption of "white" and "arse", referring to the prominent white rump found in most species. Although now nonsensical, that name was descriptive once upon a time.

At least Bee-eaters eat bees.  As the name suggests, Bee-eaters predominantly eat flying insects, especially bees and wasps.

Apparently, honey bees are their single most important dietary item.

But, what about the somewhat similarly-appearing Roller? I was unable to find the origin of its name, only that it was assigned by Linnaeus in the 1700s. 

Old World names can be irritating or fun, depending on your point-of-view. What is sad, however, is that populations of many European birds are crashing. Thirty years ago, the Roller nested in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Eastern Germany and the northern part of Russia. No more. The reasons for the decline include hunting and increasing urbanization. 

My travels in Southern France and Northwest Italy gave me some insight into some things Europeans have done well, and some not so well.  There are important lessons to be learned for those of us in the US.  

If you would like to hear more. Please attend the Grand Valley Audubon Society March Monthly Meeting: 7PM, March 16, 1st Presbyterian Church, 3940 27 ½ Road. 

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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JAYBIRDS

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, February 22, 2015

Many birds are migratory. In the Grand Valley, we have summer visitors such as hummingbirds, orioles and tanagers. We have winter visitors such as Rough-legged Hawks and certain subspecies of Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows.

Now that it's late winter, it is appropriate to celebrate permanent residents such as our jays. Of the four species that reside here, you may be surprised to learn: we don't have any Blue Jays, but we do have Jays that are blue. I will explain.

The Blue Jay of the Eastern US, also common in parts of Colorado's Front Range and the mascot of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, is correctly called a Blue Jay. That's its name. It is the only jay that lives in most of the Eastern US.  It is occasionally, but rarely, seen on our side of the mountains.

The Western Slope, however, does have three "jays that are blue." These are the Stellar's Jay, Scrub Jay, and Pinyon Jay. Our fourth jay species is the Gray Jay. Gray Jays hang around your hunting camp in the high mountains.

You might have enticed one to sit on someone's head if you put some peanuts there while cross-skiing on Grand Mesa.  Often they are called Camp Robbers or Whiskey Jacks.  (photo by Jackson Trappett)

Sharing habitat with Gray Jays, but mostly living a bit lower in elevation is the bird most often incorrectly called a "blue" jay. This is the Stellar's Jay. It is mostly blue and crested like the East's Blue Jay, but has a mostly black or brown crest and has almost no white on its body.

(photo by Jackson Trappett)

Named after the German naturalist who first described them, I usually begin to see them in mid-summer in the aspen woods. Although a beautiful bird, I spy them with mixed emotions because they are hunting for nests of smaller species so they can devour the nestlings. Most jays are like this, that is, they are omnivores and will eat practically anything.

Below is a Western Scrub Jay. 

(photo by Jackson Trappett)

The easiest way to identify them is by their whitish throat with a blue necklace. Scrub Jays live in the greatest variety of habitats, including pinyon-juniper, Gambel Oaks, and desert scrub. These are the Jays most likely to visit your backyard feeder if you live in the Grand Valley.

Similar to the closely-related Gray and Stellar's Jays, Scrub Jays will eat almost anything and like most species (e.g. magpies, ravens, crows) within the Corvid family are known for their intelligence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvidae).
In fact, "Scrub Jays are the only non-primate or non- dolphin shown to plan ahead for the future" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_scrub_jay). They store, and recall locations of their food caches.


My favorite among our jays is the Pinyon Jay. Steely-blue with a short tail, these are often observed in noisy flocks in their characteristic PJ (pinyon-juniper) habitat. These are the most specialized of our native jays, feeding nearly exclusively on pinyon nuts and juniper berries. Also being omnivores, they may eat nestlings, but are more dependent on nuts, seeds and berries--especially pinyon nuts. I find their raucous voice difficult to describe, but I love hearing it. The great naturalist/writer Aldo Leopold, who called this species "piñaneros," wrote that their call was the characteristic sound of the juniper foothills. That's why I like their call so much. When I hear one, I know I am home.

I didn't include a photo of a Pinyon Jay. I suggest you find one yourself. Good locations include Little Park Road or the lower portion of the Monument Canyon Trail. Find them. Listen. Learn the call (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8QdX_SQPF0) of this most characteristic bird of the PJs.  Take a mid-winter drive or walk and go find some!


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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