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Do Sapsuckers Suck?

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, May 22, 2013

So what is the answer to this important question?  Maybe if you are a non-birder, you wonder if such creatures even exist.  Well, the Red-naped Sapsucker is one of the most common birds in our aspen forests—also foraging in the oaks below and the conifers above.  This is a very good time of the year to see them because they are especially active forming mating pairs and nesting.

  These handsome members of the woodpecker family were named for their foraging strategy, which consists of drilling neat horizontal rows of holes in tree trunks and then returning to those holes later to feed on the running sap and the insects attracted to it. The persistent and conspicuous calls and drumming of Red-naped Sapsuckers are commonly heard in early spring.  Later in the summer, when insects are abundant, I’ve seen them sally into the air like flycatchers—a bit incongruous for their body type, but they get the job done.
  Red-naped Sapsuckers usually nest in healthy aspen trees and a new cavity is excavated almost every year—leaving the old cavity for other birds such as house wrens, tree swallows, violet-green swallows and white-breasted nuthatches.  Indeed, the sapsuckers are vitally important for most of these other birds that do not have the ability to make a cavity. 


So, is there anything all that important in knowing about sapsuckers and whether they suck? What is important is knowing and learning about what is going on in the outdoors.  I have seen surveys that indicated that of all wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts, birdwatchers were the most knowledgeable.  Why would that be? Well, to see a wide range of birds one has to know where they live and how they live.  You are not likely to find a Red-naped Sapsucker on top of Grand Mesa or on the Devil’s Kitchen Trail in the Colorado National Monument—although other types of woodpeckers are present.  Birders scatter into all habitats.  And, they often have to travel to do it—with great economic impact. One study put that impact at more than 85 billion dollars annually and credits birders with supporting almost 900,000 jobs (  This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society.  Send questions/comments to]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, May 15, 2013

There’s a querulous bunch of birds in the bush outside your window filling the air with a maddeningly incessant “cheep-cheep.”  Those would be sparrows, right? Well, we call them House Sparrows but they are not really sparrows.  They belong to a family known as Weaver Finches and are not native to North America.  They were introduced to the US from Europe in the 19th Century and have ever since maligned our native sparrows by sharing the same common name.  House sparrows often gather in noisy flocks.  They nest anywhere—under your eaves, behind street signs, in boxes set aside for bluebirds.  They can dominate your birdfeeder—effectively driving away other birds.  Males have a black bib most of the year, while females are plain-breasted.  They have little in common with our native sparrows.   
      Now, suppose you are in the desert on a spring morning and there’s this nice little song that one book describes as “1-3 clear notes followed by a jangling trill.” That would be some kind of wren, right? Well, no, that is one of our native desert sparrows—the black-throated sparrow.   A closer look reveals a gray head with broad white stripes above the eye and for a moustache. Or maybe the desert songster shows a dark chest spot, chestnut cheeks, a neat, black moustache and a broad tail with white edges while serenading you with a mixed jumble of trills. That would be a lark sparrow.

Maybe you live near Tiara Rado and decided to put up a house for bluebirds and were excited because a pair were checking it out, but they got chased away by a couple of brownish, little aggressive sparrows.  Well, actually, those were the Weaver Finches (er, House Sparrows). 
Later you are walking along the river trail and a bird announces itself with a two or three high whistles followed by a trill and some short notes—that’s not a thrush or a warbler, but a song sparrow.

Driving up to Grand Mesa, you stop by a stream and there’s this “bubbly song of multiple trills.” Surely, that must be one of the warblers. No, that was a Lincoln’s sparrow.  Along with song and fox sparrows, these three fill many mountain streamsides with beautiful song throughout the short summer. 
   Have you ever been backpacking above timberline and trapped in your tent by a late summer storm? The rain and thunder never really stops, but through it all, there’s been this bird singing. Dee tu tu dee tu tu dee--a sweet, light, song amidst the gloomy weather.  During a break in the storm, you peer out and see on top of some Krumholtz, a brown-backed bird with a clear breast and beautiful snow-white stripes on it head.. By now you know, it is another native sparrow. This is a white-crowned sparrow.

 I’ve often wondered, would more people learn and, therefore, appreciate our native sparrows if they weren’t guilty by association with the House Sparrows?  That brings me to my modest proposal—let’s call the invaders something else so they don’t taint one of the most interesting and valuable groups of our native birds.  In the Midwest, many refer to them as spatzis—maybe that’s not a bad idea. {This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society.  Photos by Jackson Trappett. Send questions/comments to]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, such as weekly bird walks, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!] 




By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, May 7, 2013

One thousand rodents per year is the estimated diet of a pair of barn owls and their young.  Reportedly, barn owls do not dine on chickens or any other domestic or wild birds except on very rare occasions.  Barn owls are nocturnal rodent specialists.  They are also not big enough to eat the family dog or cat—having existed with both of the latter on farms for generations.
  Barn owls are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world—found on every continent except Antarctica.  Sadly, this very good friend of humans is having difficulty over much of its North American range.  These owls habitually nested in large hollow trees, but now they use old buildings and holes in steep ditch banks or arroyos.  Unfortunately, modern construction and farming practices have eliminated most of the old buildings.  They may roost temporarily in modern pole barns but these structures lack the dark recesses and wide rafters necessary for a family of large owls.  Previously-identified former arroyo-cavity nesting areas in the Grand Valley have also been abandoned.  In one case, it appeared that the hole, if not the owls, had been used for target practice. Another location was overrun with dirt bike usage.  Thus, Grand Valley   

Audubon Society (GVAS) has embarked on a project to create nesting habitat for barn owls.  The photo shows a GVAS volunteer installing a nestbox in a steel barn. Various types of installations are being tried.  A couple of boxes have been hung in old silos, some have been installed in old buildings and a few have been mounted high up in trees—a mode apparently successful in the United Kingdom but unproven here.  
  Barn owls, while relatively large (16 inches long with a 42 inch wing span), are little more than feathers, bone and sinew, weighing in at a pound or less.  Hence, they are poorly insulated and probably are semi-migratory in the Grand Valley. At present, for the first time in many years, GVAS members are unaware of an active barn owl nest.  Is this a product of last winter’s excessive cold?  Has the lack of nest structures caused the local population to wink out? Maybe we just haven’t been able to find any. There have been a couple of reports of sightings this winter.  If you have a high barn with a quiet, dark corner or an abandoned silo and would like to host a barn owl structure, please contact Grand Valley Audubon. And, be on the lookout and report any sightings of a large, mostly white owl that lacks ear tufts.  {This post was written by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society.  Send questions/comments to]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, such as weekly bird walks (continuing through May), please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]  



By Nic.Korte
Monday, April 29, 2013

   Many bird lovers know immediately what this essay is about: hummingbirds.  The recipe of one part white sugar to four parts water is what you need to fill your hummingbird feeders. They’re back!  A few have already been reported in the Grand Valley and more are on the way.  Hummingbirds are unique in many ways, such as being found only in the Americas.  Of some 300 species, Colorado commonly has only four with two known to nest.  In contrast, tiny Costa Rica, not even the size of half of Colorado, has more than sixty nesting species. So, if you want to experience the full variety of hummingbirds and those with names such as coquette, mountain-gem, sunangel and others; head for the tropics. 
    The most common hummingbird in the lower regions of the Grand Valley is the black-chinned.  The black-chinned, as with many male hummers, can be identified by its gorget—if seen well.  The original definition of a gorget was for armor or an ornamental scarf worn around the neck.  Thus, the gorget, or throat, of the black-chinned is black with an iridescent purple stripe at the bottom—if seen well. The light has to be just right. In the foothills and the mountains, the most common hummingbird is the broad-tailed. It has a rose-colored gorget which can appear black—if not seen well.  

   Unfortunately for identification purposes, the females, as shown by the black-chinned in the photo, lack brightly-colored gorgets. Instead, shape, behavior and location clues are often necessary for identification.  For many people, however, it is enough just to enjoy their feeding and fighting.  Possibly you have watched them fly high into the sky and descend in a power dive.  Those are the males showing off their colors and spirit—trying to convince females to mate with them.  That’s their job, mating, because they don’t help with nest building or rearing of offspring.  As for the fighting, hummingbirds are intensely territorial and seemingly spend more time fighting than feeding—even when there is abundant food.  
    Males showing off and strutting their stuff. Both sexes fighting all comers even when there is plenty of food.  No wonder so many people enjoy them, they act like humans.  (A particularly good overview of all things about hummingbirds can be found at this website:  Finally, don’t forget to bring your feeders in every few days and clean them to limit bacterial growth.)  {This post was written by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society.  Send questions/comments to]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, such as weekly bird walks, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]  


Drink Good Coffee, See More Birds

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, April 21, 2013

As I sat down to write, visiting in Illinois, my dad just offered me a cup of coffee--Folger's "Mountain Grown." Oh really!  I might drink a cup, but this is not my brand. 
I have stopped here to visit family on the way home from Costa Rica where I've just spent ten days in the jungle seeing a variety of exotic birds, snakes and being fodder for too many varieties of insects. 
If I'm passionate about birds, I can be tiresome about coffee.  What's the link?  Last week in Costa Rica, I saw several yellow warblers.

I also saw olive-sided flycatchers perched on the top of jungle trees just as they perch on top of spruce on Grand Mesa.  Yesterday, near a lake here in my home town, I saw an Eastern Kingbird (an occasional visitor/resident in the Grand Valley) as I'd seen one last week in a jungle clearing in Costa Rica.    Here's the point, approximately 250 species of birds in North America spend most of their lives in the tropics.  These species account for 1/3 to 1/4 of all species in North America but an even larger percentage of what we tend to think of as "our" songbirds.
  Yellow warblers are very common around GJ in the summer.  They nest in cottonwoods and willows in the lower valley and in aspen in the higher mountains.  You can hear their call ("sweet-sweet-a little bit sweet") on the golf course, in a walk through a park, and floating the river.  Yellow warblers are a species we consider our own, but are arguably tropical species that travel here for a few months to breed. (Maybe we do the same thing in reverse--anyone reading this ever take a romantic vacation to the tropics?) The yellow warbler typically lives here for about four months (mid-May to mid-Sept.) although there are stragglers and early-birds that extend the official sighting period.
  What does this have to do with coffee? A lot! A prominent ornithologist has said, "If you want to do one thing for migratory birds, drink shade-grown coffee."  Coffee is grown in the tropics and it is done in two ways: sun or shade.  Think of a sun coffee field as the biological equivalent of a soybean field or a cotton field.  How many birds’ nests and types of birds will you see amidst a monoculture of soybeans or cotton?
  Shade-grown (and organic) coffee is grown as an understory plant.  That is, it needs tall trees overhead.  Yields are less.  Connoisseurs, however, claim it tastes better. It certainly tastes better to me because, as a consumer, I am helping a market that is definitely doing the right thing.  My favorite source for organic coffee, from a farm I've visited a couple of times, is Cafe Cristina (, Costa Rica.  You can order the coffee on-line.  They will tell you the light roast has the most flavor although the medium roast is their biggest seller.  Oh, and the bird list for their farm has more than 300 species which includes many migrants we in the US anticipate arriving each spring.  According to an article posted by the Smithsonian, sun-grown coffee plantations may harbor as few as 4 migratory species ( {This post was written by Nic Korte, photo by Jackson Trappett, Grand Valley Audubon Society.  Send questions/comments to]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, such as weekly bird walks, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!] 


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