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AN INORDINATE FONDNESS FOR BEETLES (OR FLYCATCHERS)

By Nic.Korte
Saturday, June 28, 2014

     J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was one of the founders of the field of population genetics. He is famous among non-scientists for an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, that was reported in a 1959 issue of the American Naturalist: Haldane…found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude [regarding] the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”
     What the theologians thought of that sentiment is lost in history, but the basis of the statement is that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetles, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and slightly more than 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are more numerous than the species of any other insect order.
     The study of beetles might be a bit arcane, even crazy—even fodder for an existential novel and movie. Has anyone else read and/or watched "The Woman in the Dunes" in which life is compared to searching for a sand-colored beetle that lives in sand dunes? If there is a birder’s equivalent, it is flycatchers—especially the genus Empidonax.  Empidonax flycatchers are a small part of the large family called tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae)—a family which occurs throughout North and South America. 

There are a few flycatchers that are remarkably easy to identify—such as this long-tailed tyrant from Costa Rica.

(Long-tailed tyrant)

     Unfortunately, most flycatchters are drab such as the aforementioned and notorious genus Empidonax (“empid,” for short). In fact, for many birders, the word “Empid” is a pejorative. As in, “it’s another ##$#$ empid!” It does sound like a slander. Once I was traveling with some Brits. They had a good laugh at my expense when I asked them to define “twit” and “blighter;” two obvious insults I had noted in British media. Maybe I should have retaliated by telling them to “stop acting like a couple of empids!” (There are no empids in the UK!)
     The 15 species of empid are distributed throughout the Americas. I had to laugh when I looked up empidonax in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a genus of small olivaceous American flycatchers comprising several familiar birds (such as the least flycatcher and the Acadian flycatcher). Talk about an Eastern bias. Least and Acadians are common in sections of the Eastern US, but there are no Colorado records of an Acadian, and the Least Flycatcher is very rare at best.
     With a Western geographic bias, the definition might have been: a genus of small olivaceous American flycatchers comprising several familiar birds (such as the dusky flycatcher and the gray flycatcher). Both of the latter species are relatively common in our area. If you look in the right places, you should also be able to find other empids such as Hammond’s and Cordilleran flycatchers. Willow flycatchers nest in Northern Colorado and probably pass through the Grand Valley annually.

(Dusky flycatcher-I'm certain because I heard it calling--notice it is in oak.)
 

     How do I know those facts about empids? I read them in books. And, that is the state of things for many birders because these species can be very difficult to identify. Actually, I have personally identified 14 of the 15 species in my travels, and I learned a lot about birds and birding by doing so.

What did I learn?
1) No one can identify every bird they see. Sometimes I would examine a bird for a very long time simply insisting to myself that I could identify it. Then I went out with more experienced birders and noted that sometimes, especially during fall migration when birds seldom call and are not restricted to their common nesting habitats, they might spy an empid and simply call it an “unknown empid”—and leave it at that.
2) Learning a few calls or songs is invaluable. There are some empids that have very similar calls, but many are quite distinct, and even the difficult ones can be learned with a little time. So, for birds difficult to identify with your eyes; learn the call and you can be certain about your identification.
3) Learning a bird’s life history and habits are usually keys to identification. For empids, there isn’t a lot of nesting habitat overlap. If it is June and you find an empid in pinyon-junipers interspersed with sagebrush—it is almost undoubtedly a gray flycatcher. Higher up, where scrub oak meets aspen and/or Ponderosa pine—you can be relatively sure you have a dusky flycatcher. Something similar can be said about each species in the genus.


Those three “lessons” will help you correctly identify many more birds, not just empids!


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 audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!
 


 

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PURPLE MARTINS LIVE OUT WEST!

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, June 15, 2014

     I have an early memory of being in bed with some childhood illness. My mother was reading to me from an old book. There was a short story about a young boy who built a Purple Martin house. The book was old and tattered. My parents weren’t readers. My mother’s favorite store was called “The Salvage Store,” where the proprietor sold merchandise he had bought from stores that had gone out of business or been salvaged from wrecks during transport. I suspect the book was from that source and cost something on the order of a nickel. It is interesting to me that I remember the incident because it shows my early interest in birds.
     Purple Martins are our largest swallow—approximately 1.5 times bigger than the more common varieties. Our neighbors, in the small Illinois town in which I was raised, had a Purple Martin house. Most everyone is familiar with the large apartment-style birdhouses usually mounted on poles.

(photo from: http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?pcatid=25783&cmpid=10csesz&ref=3474&subref=AA&CA_6C15C=1816206626)

     I looked forward to the return of the Martins in the spring and sympathized with the neighbors’ antipathy toward house sparrows and starlings. Both would take over every apartment in the Martin house if they could. It was always a contest to see whether the neighbor, who was elderly, could keep enough compartments open for the Purple Martins. (Stopping Starlings and House Sparrows meant repeated lowering of the nestbox to clean them out.)

     One year I built my own birdhouse and put it on a post in our yard. Purple Martins began going in and out. I was excited. But, then they were chased off by House Sparrows. Perhaps, that explains my still-present enmity toward House Sparrows—I even want to see their name changed (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/whats-in-a-name-a-modest-proposal). 

     I took care of those particular house sparrows. I snuck out late one evening and taped the hole shut in order to murder whichever adult was present. I am surprised at myself when I recall that cold-blooded act. I really wanted to watch the Martins nest in my birdhouse. 

     Purple Martins are considered among the most beneficial of birds. The oft-quoted statistic is that each can consume 2000 mosquitos per day. That might be true if they only ate mosquitos, but they eat many other insects, especially flies, and often like to nest near water where they can consume dragonflies and other large insects.

     The elderly neighbor died, and eventually I moved to Arizona and then Western Colorado.  I probably hadn’t seen a Purple Martin in decades. Then some years ago, a birding friend took a position where he was monitoring colony nesters. One of those “colony nesters” was Purple Martins. Once I began to look for them, I realized they were reasonably common—in the right locations—and the right habitat. 

     That “right location” is highly-localized: within about 50 miles of the town of Rifle in aspen groves at elevations of 7,500 to 9,000 feet. Scattered populations may also be found throughout southwest Colorado.  The Eastern slopes of Grand Mesa have several colonies as does the Uncompahgre Plateau.  The “right habitat” is edges of old growth aspen. They nest in holes originally excavated by woodpeckers—chiefly Northern Flickers. Unfortunately, a lot of old growth aspen has been dying. Climate change, such as drought that may be hastening turnover in old-growth aspen, may be a significant threat. At one Purple Martin colony I’ve been watching, I observed that when the large, live trees died, the Martins abandoned the site, even though their former nest trees were still standing.

     Our Western Purple Martins, while appearing very similar to those I grew up with, have slightly different vocalizations, and don’t use apartment house nestboxes. Some preliminary DNA testing suggests they may be a different species. At least, they are on their way to becoming one—if they survive. Colorado’s entire population has been estimated as no more than a few hundred breeding pairs.  We are fortunate to have them so near Grand Junction.

 

     In researching this article, I found there has been some success using individual nest boxes placed in a colony setting in some other Western States. Unfortunately, unlike tree swallows and violet-green swallows which readily use nest boxes only 6 feet or so aboveground (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/swallow-tales-tailsa-lesson-in-jizz), Martin houses need to be 25ft high, and it is suggested they be cleaned every year. Mounting nest boxes 25ft up in dead aspen is a discouraging proposition. Let’s hope we can hang on to enough habitat for this beautiful bird to survive.


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 audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]

 

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WHY NOT CACTUS?

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 5, 2014

     The car slowed. The occupant rolled down the window. “Hey,” he said, “I want you to know how much I enjoy your yard.” A few days later, a couple was walking by as I was retrieving the mail. They said, “We walk by every few days just to see what’s blooming.” I must be Mr. Green Thumb, spending my spare time and spare cash on flowers and lawn care products? Not at all! The compliments I received were for my cactus.
     My wife and I moved to Western Colorado from Southern Arizona where grass in the front yard was practically considered sinful. Besides, growing grass takes a lot of time, trouble, money, and maintenance for most of the year. Unfortunately, our subdivision has an antiquated rule that a certain percentage of grass has to remain in the front yard. Our front yard is large, so with the minimum amount of grass, I still had a lot of space—to fill with cactus

.


     The previous photos are of a claret cup (echinocereus triglochidiatus, v. melanocanthus). This particular plant has an interesting history. I mentioned in a previous blog (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/fewer-visitors-at-juco-this-year) that my wife is a descendent of a pioneer ranching family. In 1985, on what we suspected was our last visit to her Great Aunt and Uncle’s Northern Arizona ranch, I removed this plant from a small hill near the ranch house. The hill had been used by long-ago inhabitants as there was a small structure from piled juniper branches, several manos, a couple of metates, and many potshards.
     The cactus thrived in our Grand Junction yard for a year---but then I was transferred to Missouri. What to do? We decided we would rather have the plant die in our care than live with someone who didn’t appreciate its history. I managed to dig it up and move it to our new home near Kansas City.  The cactus rode in the car—taking precious space—but it was an important possession. Even with the humidity, extreme cold, and one month with 19-inches of rain; it survived. Perhaps, the plant suspected what our level of unhappiness would be, because within a year, I had found a new job permitting our return to Grand Junction. I dug it up again, and moved it back where it has thrived ever since. As someone who always enjoys and looks for cactus during frequent desert hikes, I have never found one of these in the wild nearly so large.
     Most of my front yard is stocked with plants that cost me nothing. Their care requires no more than one morning per year except for a little weeding throughout the spring and summer. Yes, that one morning, when I trim and prune all the plants to a reasonable size; I typically have to endure a spine or two—but only when I’m careless.

[NOW AN IMPORTANT ASIDE: YOU ARE NOT FREE TO COLLECT CACTUS OFF OF PUBLIC LANDS. Collecting from Park Service Property is strictly prohibited. Similarly, on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, you should check with the local office for rules and regulations.  Finally, it is important to know what plant you are taking. Wherever you are, don’t damage or remove a rare or endangered plant. Fortunately, as described below, often you don’t even need to remove plants.] 

     How did I accumulate my collection without buying any plants? Fortunately, I did have the ranch, from which I removed two varieties. I also had close friends from Southern Arizona who had cactus on their property. Where did the rest come from? Mostly from roadside ditches or vacant lots. And, here’s the other secret: most cactus are very easy to propagate—this goes for the opuntia varieties—known to most as the prickly pears and chollas. All you need is a single joint. You don’t even have to take very good care of it.
    For example, I had business in Santa Fe. I noticed some tall cholla in a vacant lot. I had a Styrofoam coffee cup in my rental car. A quick stop. A whack of the cholla with a small stick released a bruised joint from one end. I scooped it into the coffee cup. A week or two later, I planted the joint in a small pot. (I often use cactus planting mix purchased at local nurseries.) Some weeks later, I could see new growth. Time to plant! I dug a nice hole. I always make sure that if the soil is clayey to use some cactus planting mix and gravel—and now, for more than a decade, this plant has provided me with beautiful purple flowers.

  Cactus look good, and are easy to grow. Are they good for anything else? Hummingbirds, bees and butterflies visit the flowers. We have even used prickly pear fruits to make jam, and prickly-pear pads are used in many Mexican dishes. [The cactus varieties that grow the best in the Grand Valley, are not ideal for these uses, so, no, I haven’t done it often, but it was fun when my young daughter and I retrieved sufficient prickly pear fruits to make some tasty jelly.] Cactus are easy and inexpensive xeriscaping—give them a try!

    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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FEWER VISITORS AT JUCO THIS YEAR!

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, May 21, 2014

     It was twilight. Some coyotes howled in the distance. “Look at all those bullbats,” someone said. I jumped up. What could be a bullbat?

     I was out of my element here. I had once made my grandfather angry by asking him if the cows at his Illinois dairy farm were drinking milk. This was my first time on a big Western ranch. I didn’t want to say or do anything as foolish. 

     The ranch was in Northern Arizona—an extension of the pioneer ranching family from which my father-in-law had departed. Most of his family seemed to be big, raw-boned, quintessential cowboys. My father-in-law, diminutive of stature, had become a chemical engineer and moved to Illinois—where I met his daughter—who became my wife—and now I was on a real, old-time ranch visiting Great Uncle Bill and Great Aunt Gertrude. We were staying in a somewhat remodeled Navaho Hogan. I was living a fantasy. There really were people who resembled the cowboys I’d admired on TV in my youth.

     Unfortunately, watching Bonanza on TV had not prepared me for this world of which I knew little. My father-in-law, who had left it, at least had the chaps he’d won at a junior rodeo. He could also easily ride a horse. My attempt on a horse had already been the source of some merriment. I had little success persuading my horse to walk very far from the corral where it had been happy before being saddled up. When I gave up and let it have its way; it galloped back to the corral as I awkwardly clung to the saddlehorn hoping the horse would stop before I fell off. There was an audience for my performance, and they all had a good laugh. Now, I didn’t even know what a bullbat was. All I could see were common nighthawks—of which there were plenty.
 (COMMON NIGHTHAWK BY JACKSON TRAPPETT)

     Finally, I asked, “Where are they?” “Right there,” is what I heard, as several fingers pointed at the nighthawks. “Those are the bullbats.” It was a term new to me.

     The family to which nighthawks belong has been subject to more than this misnomer. European relatives were called goatsuckers—a term from the 1600s’ which, in turn, was translated from both Latin and Greek, because the birds were believed to suck milk from goats during the night.

     In English, we now call this family of birds “nightjars.” Trying to find out where that name came from, I learned the term dates from the 1630’s and was supposedly descriptive of the harsh sound they made during flight. One of my bird books describes the sound as “hooom,” and another simply refers to a “booming sound.” How those sounds are translated as that of a nightjar (whatever that sounds like!) is still a mystery to me. Supposedly the term bullbat was applied in the early 1800’s, and also referred to their booming flight sound.

    Nighthawks are crepuscular—meaning they appear at dusk. The rest of the day, they are sitting, possibly in full view, in a gravel area or on a tree branch. The problem is, they don’t move, and they are very well camouflaged so they are rarely seen except in flight.

 (COMMON NIGHTHAWK BY JACKSON TRAPPETT)

     So, finally, what has any of this to do with JUCO? It is simple. As a birder, I always enjoyed the many nighthawks that descended on JUCO games as the sun set. They weave about on stiff wings—not at all like the rapid flap of a bat. They have a small bill, but a wide gape—all the better for swallowing large insects and moths.

    Unfortunately, where there used to be dozens, there are now only one or two or none. Common nighthawks have undergone a 60% decrease in their population in just a few decades (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/lifehistory). Because nighthawks are so widespread (found in each of the 48 contiguous states); they are not in danger of extinction, but as with so many once-common species—while not too difficult to find--there just aren’t as many anymore. The skies over JUCO will probably hold a few, but nothing like the dozen or more of a couple of decades ago.

    The reasons for the loss of population are believed to be development and pesticides. These birds consume so much, that their decline may be telling us something about insect populations. Creating artificial nesting locations, by providing gravel areas on flat rooftops, is one approach being tried as a means of stopping the population decline. Meanwhile research continues in hopes of arresting the waning population of this interesting and valuable bird.

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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IF SOMEBODY IS BEATING YOU WITH A STICK…

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, May 8, 2014

 My last blog was about the three most common types of dove in the United States, and our most common species, the Mourning Dove, whose North American population is estimated at 130 million.

That’s a lot! Or, is it? The population of the US is approximately 316 million so that means about every 3 of us, represents one Mourning Dove.

But once there was a population of another bird, a cousin of a Mourning Dove (Both are members of Columbidae family), that put their population to shame. This year is the 100th anniversary of the death of the last Passenger Pigeon. Amazingly, in the 1850’s there were reports of Passenger Pigeon flocks that darkened the sky for as long as two hours. The population has been estimated at three-to-five billion. That is nearly forty times our present population of Mourning Doves. Passenger Pigeons were, as noted by the famous conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold, “a biological storm.”
 (photo from Wikipedia)

What happened to them? Humans killed them. They shot them for food. They shot them because they could. They destroyed their habitat. All, in just a few decades.

In less than 50 years, there were only a few individuals. Again, quoting Leopold: “Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more.”

This is a sad story. Why I am I remembering it? Well, the 100-year anniversary of the extinction is one reason, but I’m also reminded of Sage Grouse. It is difficult to pick up the paper these days without discussion of what should be done. Should they be classified as endangered or only threatened? Will State and Local actions be better than Federal programs? I am not going to debate that question in this blog.

(photo from Wikipedia)

But what I will do, is quote an elderly friend of mine. She’s 86. She was raised on a ranch in Northwest Colorado. Recently, we were discussing her childhood. One of her jobs, she said, “was to keep the ‘sage chickens,’ that’s what we called them” she said, from eating the feed her family put out for their domestic chickens and other fowl.

“Nic,” she said, “there were so many, they darkened the sky.” So, you can see why, when I think of the rapid demise of the Passenger Pigeon, it is difficult not to think of the rapid demise of Sage Grouse. Here is a person, still alive, who remembers when they “darkened the sky.” No more. Now reservations are needed to visit the remaining dancing and mating grounds of Sage Grouse. Many locations are guarded or not even divulged.


So, when I think of what to do about Sage Grouse—I don’t know. I read the arguments on all sides. But, I do believe that it isn’t good enough to slow the habitat loss or to slow the population loss. As a friend of mine in favor of all preservation has said, “if somebody is beating you with a stick—do you want him to slow down or do you want him to stop?”


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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