Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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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!] 

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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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