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By Nic.Korte
Saturday, June 22, 2013

This butterfly is called a pale swallowtail—a common species in Western Colorado. (Yes, many birders can identify a few butterflies—more on that in a later blog.)   I have seen these in the mountains and in my yard this year.  But, this essay is a tale about swallows and their tails.

   Did you realize there are seven species of swallows that are relatively easy to see in Western Colorado?  With a little planning, I could probably find them all in a long morning.  Cliff swallows nest under bridges and nearby cliffs and are common near the Colorado National Monument.  Barn swallows, perhaps the most widespread, can be found over most fields and lowland ponds.  Rough-winged swallows can be found along streams too—such as Plateau Creek.  Bank swallows and purple martins are a little more local, but I know some nesting locations.  We’ll get to the other two—tree swallows and violet-green swallows, below. 
    In contrast to swallows, if someone asked me to show them all the thrushes that live here, or all the owls, even though we could be certain of being in the right habitat—those birds might not show themselves.   Swallows make it easy because they feed 100% on flying insects which means they are out over open areas making them easy to spot—but not always so easy to identify. 
Two species very easy-to-see in mountain meadows—but also, at times, anywhere in the valleys, are violet-green swallows and tree swallows.  Both have green iridescence and the typical swallow wings that seem longish and pointed. 

   When adult males are perched, their differences are easy to note.  See the dark face of the tree swallow on the left and the white face of the violet-green on the right?  The violet-green swallow is a little smaller and often it is possible to see its white rump patch when in flight.  Unfortunately, they don’t always perch close by and in good light.  Even worse, the females are drab and juvenile violet-green swallows may have a dark face.  Now how can you tell them apart?  Especially in flight?  Why by their jizz, of course!
   According to Wikipedia, “there is a theory that [jizz] comes from the World War II acronym GISS for ‘General Impression of Size and Shape (of an aircraft).’  More likely, jizz is a corruption of gestalt, a German word that roughly means form or shape, or more obviously of the word gist which has the same meaning.”  But you get the idea.  The clue is in the photos.  Look at the tails.  Notice that the tree swallow has a tail as long as its wings.  Not so for the violet-green swallow which has a short tail--and almost a bullet-like appearance in flight. 
   For many years, all birding field guides emphasized field “marks” such as the white face or the rump patch of the violet-green.  That only works for a perched, fresh-plumaged adult male so the newer generation of field guides puts more emphasis on a bird’s structure or in birding lingo—jizz.  Now you know how an experienced birder can make a quick glance at greenish, dark swallows flying into the sun and confidently identify them.  It isn’t so difficult after all.  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, June 12, 2013

How can I talk about spring when its 100 degrees in the valley? It’s because I have the opportunity for frequent visits to a mountain meadow at 8400 feet where spring is still happening in mid-June.  Just this week the serviceberries and chokecherries were in full bloom covering the hillsides and roadsides with a white mantle.  The aspen leaves may have turned dark, summer, green but the oaks haven’t—still showing the light sea green of new growth. 
Wildlife watchers have been observing young great-horned owls down in the valley for many months but mountain birds are just now getting around to it.  Over several weeks, I’ve seen relatively elusive birds such as green-tailed towhees and MacGillivray’s warblers singing from exposed perches. They were difficult to see this week. There is little need for them to announce their presence as nesting has begun. 
Several of our nest boxes attract tree swallows, violet-green swallows, mountain bluebirds and house wrens.  The tree swallows, in fact, were really going at it this week.

They were flying in and out of nest boxes and, yes, copulating.  Over and over again.


Encounters were brief—but frequent.  We watched this pair on our seed feeders complete the act ten or more times over the course of a few minutes—immodestly in full view of a flock of pine siskins and Cassin’s finches. 
Tree swallows spend much of their days airborne, but not so much as the white-throated swift which can be seen copulating in mid-air near cliff faces in locations such as the Colorado National Monument.   I recall the first time I saw a pair of swifts seem to collide and then tumble earthward before resuming their flights.  Recounting this to a friend, his comment was, “well, that behavior gives new meaning to the concept of performance anxiety!”  
Tree swallows spend their winters in Southern Mexico although some populations can be found in Southern Arizona, Southern California and the Gulf Coast.  They are a common summer resident in Colorado mountain meadows where they co-exist with violet-green swallows and mountain bluebirds—all of which may share the same next boxes.  Here, a female mountain bluebird surveys the meadow from the box she and her mate selected last week.

Nesting behavior raises a lot of questions that are still being studied.  Some mountain bluebirds have already nested at lower elevations.  Why do some nest so much later and higher?   What was the pair in this nest box doing a month ago when their cousins were nesting in the valley?  Why do so many birds fly north to breed when very closely related species, with whom they spend most of the year, do not?
Studies have shown that tropical birds tend to have very low nest success (often <20%) because of the high rate of predation. Adult birds, however, tend to be long-lived and usually lay only two or three eggs so they can try again when the nest, eggs, or fledglings are lost. In contrast, most birds nesting in North America have larger clutch sizes—even to five or six.   Apparently, the idea is both to overwhelm the system and to take advantage of everything else that is growing all of a sudden.  Here, everything occurs at once.  The flowers bloom. The insects hatch. All the eggs are laid.  That’s why June in a mountain meadow is so fascinating for its remarkable fecundity.  Insects abound.  Butterflies flit in mating pairs. The birds are calling, chasing each other, and mating.  Too soon, it is all over.  Better go out and take a look before you have to wait until next year. (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
Thursday, June 6, 2013

  Maybe you aren’t familiar with the old Dixieland tune which is the title of this blog.   The song salutes a particular alcoholic beverage with a few obvious double entendres.  I learned the song off an old record as a youth growing up near the St Louis Riverfront where Dixieland music still hangs on.  When I’m on a river, to the dismay of my family, I sing it to them.  Fortunately, better music is made by all of the birdlife along the riverbanks.  And, no matter that the river water might be brown; this interface of land and water, the riparian zone, is truly green and is the most important wildlife habitat in our area.   Estimates are that 90% of all bird species, 72% of all reptiles, 77% of all amphibian species, and 80% of all mammals, which occur regularly in the Colorado Plateau region, routinely use riparian areas for food, water, cover or migration routes (  Even if you are in an inner tube, listen and watch because there is much more to see than the great blue heron (not a crane!) flying ahead or the many ravens croaking nearby. 
  While floating rivers, I’ve been surprised that some experienced river runners were unaware of the Say’s Phoebe—a common flycatcher which may appear as frequently as every 50 to 100 yards. 

Say’s phoebes are a good bird to learn because one of the first skills needed if you are going to learn birds is to be able to classify them to a family.  Say’s phoebes are flycatchers and, as with most of their family, sit in the open and sally out to grab flying insects before returning to a conspicuous perch.  These habits and their upright posture are a sign that says “flycatcher.”   Say’s phoebes are not musical but they are very vocal.   Listen for “pweeeer,” and watch for them as they frequently fly across the river.
  As common as Say’s phoebe near our desert rivers are Ash-throated flycatchers—a little bigger and duller gray than the phoebe.  These usually stay in the dry stuff—and not so close to the river bank.  Not many minutes pass as you float without the sound of its calls, which can be described as “kabrik” and “breer”—the latter being a shorter version of the Say’s Phoebe.   
  More difficult to see, but easy to hear are two members of the warbler family.  One night on a recent rafting trip, a song (?) began in the middle of the night and continued for hours. There were melodious whistles, interspersed with a variety of toots and squawks.  As the song continued into the morning, one of the trip members asked, “What the heck is that?”  Identifying it was easy—seeing it—not so much.   The bird was a yellow-breasted chat.  They are common wherever there is a tangled grouping of large tamarisk and willows.  They will sit deep within thick vegetation while keeping up constant chatter…hence, their name.   Away from the dry tangles, wherever there is a group of cattails, lives the common yellowthroat whose more musical “whichity-whichity-whichity” followed us down the river.  
  Both the chat and the yellowthroat (the male at least) are very striking birds, not always sitting up and easy to see, but if you listen for them—and watch, they’ll pop up eventually. The chat has a bright yellow throat and belly with a grayish green back and head with white spectacles.  The male common yellowthroat has a striking black mask and also a bright yellow throat. The female is much duller and lacks the mask.
  More surprising to my companions on a recent trip were blue grosbeaks.  The male is deep blue with cinnamon-colored wing bars.  These too are common residents of desert riparian areas but are often overlooked.  Females are buffy-brown but retain the cinnamon wing bars.

So, the next time you are “Floatin’ Down the Old Green River,” pay attention to the "thin green lifeline" provided by flowing water.  This post provided by Nic Korte, with photos by Jackson Trappett, 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!]



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!] 


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