Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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ZIA DOES HUMMINGBIRDS: LEARNING FROM THE MASTERS

By Nic.Korte
Monday, September 5, 2016

“You’re kidding!” I said. “Really? She wants to go?” I was discussing my grand-daughter Zia with my daughter, Ann. I had called that morning and suggested Zia accompany me to watch hummingbirds being banded. Zia is only 6, but already, despite my best efforts (honestly!), she has become wary of birding excursions. As expected, when I called initially, she had responded negatively. Somehow though, she had thought it over and changed her mind. I said I’d be right over.

Zia didn’t know what an opportunity she had accepted. Many of my friends and relatives, being casual birders or less, believe I’m some sort of savant or super-expert when it comes to birds. I protest, but they consider it false modesty. Now, though, I was, indeed, taking Zia to visit some masters.

Stop and think. Everyone is familiar with the idea of banding birds. You catch them in a net and put a band around a leg. Nothing to it. (Actually, a lot of training and licensing is required.)  But what about hummingbirds? Think how small their legs are. Not only that, their legs are fragile. Have you ever seen a hummingbird walk? I haven’t either. It is because they can’t. How does one even catch them? Netting such a tiny bird seems fraught with opportunities for injury.

Grand Junction is fortunate to have among its citizens Steve and Debbie Bouricius. Of the approximately 6000 licensed bird banders in the US and Canada, only approximately 80 are licensed for hummingbirds.

 (This male Calliope Hummingbird, as photographed by Jackson Trappett, wasn’t banded. Steve Bouricius reports, however, that this has been a good year for immature and female Calliope Hummingbirds—uncommon fall migrants in the Grand Valley.)

With so few banders, most of the equipment used is handmade or one of a few. Steve and Debbie have accumulated a number of tools described as “one of five” or the like. Much of their setup is of their own design. For example, I have watched a lot of other bird banding. Bands are obtained from the appropriate authorities, the correct size is determined, and the band is attached to the bird’s leg with a special tool. It isn’t so easy with hummingbirds. The bands are so small and fragile, they are best made as needed. Much of the time while we visited, Steve or Debbie sat carefully making bands with their nearly-uniquie tools while the other handled the birds.
(Zia watches Steve prepare the bands)

Steve and Debbie have a central station with a series of binder clips attached to fishing line. Cages with large doors have been fashioned around standard hummingbird feeders. When a hummingbird is feeding in the cage, the doors are lowered with the fishing line. Doors are slowly shut to ensure that one of the small birds is not trapped against the wire. Once trapped, the hummingbird is carefully grabbed and then put in a small bag from which it is measured and banded.

 (Zia holds one of the more than 10,000 hummingbirds banded by Steve and Debbie since 1999)

I learned a lot by seeing the birds so close. This time of year, most of the easily-identifiable, full-plumaged males are already south of us, leaving the sometimes difficult task of identifying immature birds. Steve and Debbie were able to show me the fine points of identification.

As for Zia, I couldn’t persuade her to leave. She enjoyed watching scientists at work as they carefully handled the birds and made measurements. I was able to explain to her how Steve and Debbie are doing important research by helping to examine distribution patterns and population changes. Indeed, their orchard, which hosts several Black-chinned Hummingbird nests each summer, is yielding interesting data regarding nesting patterns and nest-site fidelity.

(Several times, Zia’s hand was used as the launching pad when it was time for a bird to be released.) 

Possibly more important than the research, however, is the educational aspect of Steve and Debbie’s work. They clearly enjoy sharing the experience of hummingbirds through presentations, seminars, and banding demonstrations (at their home and at the Annual Sedona, AZ. Hummingbird Festival)—just ask my grand-daughter!

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!]
 

6 comments

MIGRATION ROCKS! (TRUTH IN ADVERTISING!)

By Nic.Korte
Monday, August 22, 2016

I admit to being a little dishonest in my last blog. I wanted folks to consider butterflies as another reason to be outdoors. Now is, perhaps, the peak of butterfly season so why not pay attention?

Where I wasn’t quite truthful was in my reference to the Cornell website’s statement that now is birding’s “doldrums.” In truth, Western Colorado, because of its habitat and climate diversity, never has a time when birding isn’t interesting. Our first migrants, such as the Rufous Hummingbirds, began showing up more than a month ago. But, now is the time when things begin to heat up. This week, a friend and I found Solitary and Baird’s Sandpipers—two species that nest above the Arctic Circle. (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/here-come-the-orange-hummingbirds-good-news-and-bad-news  &
http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/peeping-at-shorebirds

Migration is exciting because one can go birding in a familiar patch and find almost anything—or nothing. During the first week of August, I had a difficult time finding even 20 species in my own patch of aspen woods at 8300 ft., east of Collbran. Indeed, I may not have even found 30 individual birds.
A week ago, it was a lot different. I encountered several mixed flocks of migrants, the best included at least eight Townsend’s Warblers.

(Townsend's Warbler by Jackson Trappett)

Townsend’s Warblers breed in only four of the contiguous US states: Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. From the US-Canada border, they breed on up into Alaska favoring tall, coniferous forests as their breeding habitat.

While I was watching the Townsend’s, I had Nashville on my mind. Nashville Warblers that is. The Western population of Nashville Warblers also nest in the Pacific Northwest but in a much smaller area than Townsend’s. Also unlike Townsend’s Warblers, Nashville Warblers need shrubby habitat and nest on the ground.

(Nashville Warbler by Jackson Trappett)

Nashville Warblers are usually seen singly and rarely. I didn’t find even one. Maybe next time.


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!]
 

29 comments

SUMMER ON THE WANE (WHADDYA GONNA DO?)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Last weekend, I spent some time birding the aspen forest in eastern Mesa County at 8300 ft. A few weeks ago, I would have easily found 30+ speices. The same will be true in a week or two. This time, I worked hard to break 20. Even Cornell University's fancy ebird website, in their July note to users, referred to this time of year as birding's doldrums. Well, hot times on a late summer morning or afternoon can be perfect for looking at butterflies.  [Check out previous posts on this topic: http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/butterflying-time  AND http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/looking-for-satyrs ]

I have lots of favorites. One that should be familiar to many is Wiedemeyer’s Admiral. Its favorite habitat is willow-lined streams. Their caterpillars feed on willows, cottonwoods and aspen—even chokecherry and serviceberry. I’ve just described most of the plant life in a Western Colorado aspen forest where this beautiful black and white butterfly can be found.


 

A less common butterfly in my experience, is the Ochre Ringlet. I looked it up. The source said “very abundant in the Rocky Mountains.” Shows how observant I am! The ringlet is small, gold and tan and has half-moon markings on its wings. Look for it in grassy areas.

 

Not all butterflies are colorful, which is why, my previous blogs about butterflies neglected the largest group, encompassing nearly 200-species. These are called skippers. Closely related to moths, skippers life histories are also similar as shown by the moth-like shape to their cocoons. The common name, “skippers,” is due to their jerky, skipping flight as they wing their erratic way from flower to flower. I find my own brain often dismisses skippers as “just some insect” because of the spasmodic flight pattern. Such a flight pattern can also make them difficult to watch and photograph, although I have had a few successes over the years.

Skippers are worth examining, if not the most beautiful butterflies, they do have some enticing names. For example, when trying to identify the photo below, I erroneously determined I had photographed a Dreamy Duskywing. Further research revealed that it was, instead, a Rocky Mountain Duskywing—here photographed in a Western Colorado meadow at ~10,000 feet.

Dreamy Duskywings have been found in adjacent counties. Go out and look. Maybe you can be the first to find a “dreamy” butterfly in Mesa County.

[A reminder: if you are able, plant some milkweed (http://www.joyfulbutterfly.com/milkweed-plant-for-monarchs/) in your garden. Monarch Butterflies, which rely on milkweed, have undergone a precipitous population decline. If we want our grandchildren to marvel at these gorgeous butterflies, we have to give them some help.]

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 or follow us on Twitter.!]
 

38 comments

CALIFORNIA VERSUS COLORADO: IT IS DIFFERENT OUT THERE! (HOW MANY HUMANS ARE ON YOUR LIFE-LIST?)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Humans are relentlessly mobile and adaptive. We go everywhere. We breed everywhere. That’s why there is only one species of human. Our DNA shows it. In birder’s parlance, everyone has the same life-list when it comes to humans--one!

On the other hand, some folks can be quite exorcised about their life-list of birds. I can be equivocal about there being one species of homo sapiens, but with birds it isn’t so easy. I can tell you there are approximately 10,000 species. But why is it “approximately?” Don’t we know?

I was thinking about this on a recent trip while driving to and from Southern California. The landscape is mostly familiar between Western Colorado and St George, Utah, but then it changes. The Mojave desert remains a formidable barrier—especially in mid-summer when temperatures frequently exceed 110 degrees. Sure, we zip across it in about five hours in our air-conditioned cars. But a mid-afternoon breakdown, say between Primm, Nevada and Baker, California, could still be a dangerous situation. And, if you are a bird with no desert adaptations? Well, you will just stay on your own side.

The Mojave, in consort with some of the mountains that lie north-south across the Western US, is a barrier many birds can’t cross. Sometime in the distant past, maybe when times were not so hot and dry, there was more interaction between east and west. Eventually, some originally-identical species, became isolated. Because evolution never stops, the isolated populations began to diverge and soon took on a slightly-different appearance, learned to live in a different habitat, and were no longer able to breed with their once close relatives. These facts have long been known, but it hasn’t been until recent advancements in the use of DNA testing and song recording, that scientists have been able to prove that some very similar appearing populations are, in fact, separate species.

All this means that if you are the type of person who lovingly adds another bird to their life list—now is a good time. A lot of species are being split. [That’s not to say that only “splits” are happening. There are also a few “lumps.” In these cases, birds with different appearances are now shown to be, like humans, superficially distinct in appearance, but with no other discernible differences.]

Here in conservative Western Colorado, many would like to consider Californians a separate species of human, but it just isn’t so. Maybe if each side would stay put for a few millennia, something interesting might happen, but that isn’t the human way. Many birds, on the other hand, have been isolated long enough for differences to arise.

In the past month, the international group that decides such things, decreed that our Western Colorado Scrub-Jays, are now Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. Those in California, get to keep the old title of Western Scrub-Jay. Wow, just like that. I added one to my life-list.

(Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay by Jackson Trappett.  On the west coast, the Western Scrub-Jay has a sharply  defined blue breastband and is whiter underneath)

Our annual family vacation to Southern California usually includes plenty of time for me to go look for some birds. Besides brushing up on shorebirds, which are almost always in scant supply in our area, I can look for those species specific to the West Coast. Scrub-Jays are easy-to-see, and I had already seen plenty in both locations, but a few years ago, there once was a sparrow known as the Sage Sparrow.

The Sage Sparrow is no more having been split in 2013 into the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell’s Sparrow. This split found me early on Sunday morning hiking a ridge in the Sycamore Canyon Open Space Preserve about an hour north and a little east of San Diego. Bell’s Sparrows allegedly live here.

Sparrows, being sparrows, are not so easy to see. Most like to hide on the ground or in bushes. These two species are also very similar. The Bell’s Sparrow has fewer or no streaks on its back, has somewhat bolder coloration, and has a broader and darker stripe on its throat. The differences are subtle enough that separating the two can be difficult. For that reason, I was looking for Bell’s Sparrow on its breeding grounds. (I admit, I can be a lazy birder—best to look where only one of the two closely-related species might be present.)

If I want to find Sagebrush Sparrows in Western Colorado, I know exactly what habitat to look in: “one-to three-foot high sagebrush that blankets hills and basins in large, unbroken stands” (Birds of Western Colorado, p 168). I looked around the Sycamore Canyon Preserve—no sagebrush. I was hiking in California Chaparral—an ecoregion under much pressure from development.

Even though I wasn’t looking for sagebrush, nothing else looked right either. I had already hiked more than a mile on a ridge. The plants I saw were too large. Some areas seemed too lush with too much diversity. A larger hill loomed in front of me. It was hot. “Oh well, I may as well see what’s on top.” Once on top, there was a moment of sudden recognition. Not sagebrush, but the southwest slope in front of me seemed structurally identical to where I find Sagebrush Sparrows in Western Colorado: one- to three-foot high shrubs in a near mono-culture.

It wasn’t long before I saw at least three Bell’s Sparrows including one close enough for a photo. The dominant plant here was chamise. I learned later that stands of pure chamise generally occur on hot, dry, south-facing slopes in areas of rough topography just like this one. As for the birds, they seemed a bit darker with a better defined throat stripe. 

(Sagebrush Sparrow on left--with distinct streaks on the back.  The Bells' Sparrow {right} has no back streaks but has a more distinct and broader throat stripe.)

Over many years, these sparrows have adapted to similar, yet different, habitats, and have become different species. Then I considered, “if humans ever did colonize Mars, how long would those on earth have to stay away until the life-list for humans would reach two?” Maybe we’ll know the answer in a few million or billion years!

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 and “like” us on Facebook!] 

106 comments

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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