Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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BIRDING IS POPULAR BECAUSE IT IS SO EASY / BIRDING IS POPULAR BECAUSE IT IS SO DIFFICULT

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, February 7, 2016

A few scattered feathers. Some are blood-splattered. What happened? A conflict for certain. There was a winner and a loser.

This led me to think of a less serious conflict--a recent debate on the website of the American Birding Association (www.aba.org). Two prominent birders were arguing whether the popularity of birding should be attributed to whether it was difficult or easy. To me, it is a bit of both. But, what has this to do with blood-spattered feathers?

A few minutes before, I had looked out my window and admired thirty or forty birds milling about my various backyard feeders. There were Lesser Goldfinches—a few males were starting to acquire their lemon yellow and jet black summer plumage. There were male House Finches displaying their range of color from pink to red. Dark-eyed Juncos representing several subspecies were also present. These birds were easy to watch, and easy to identify. Birding, therefore, is fun, because it is easy.

Now, my feeder birds were gone. I had a suspicion of what happened, and scanned the nearby trees. Eventually I spied a hunched-over shape. From past experience, I knew it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Both birds are common in the Grand Valley during the winter, and both feed almost entirely on other birds. Large assemblies of prey, such as at feeders, are attractive to the birds that would eat the birds that eat the seeds.

Birders accept the idea of Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks taking a few birds near their feeders. We hope that it will be one of the common and exotic species such as a Eurasian Collared Dove or a House Sparrow, even though we know that’s not always the case.

What birders find “difficult” about Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks is identifying them. These two hawks are closely-related. They belong to a family known as accipiters. They have very similar plumages and habits.

(Accipters have relatively short wings, perfect for maneuvering quickly. (Check out this YOUTUBE video of the closely-related Goshawk if you want to “feel” how these birds can dodge and dive: http://youtu.be/waNQmNF6Sgs)

What about the identification problem? I know I’ve made mistakes. The size of these birds can overlap, as can their other characteristics. That is, a large specimen of the usually-smaller Sharp-shinned, can overlap in size with a small Cooper’s Hawk. Fortunately, with enough viewing time or with great photos; most can be identified.

A Sharp-shinned tends to have a squarer tail, but conditions of molt and age make this characteristic unreliable. Usually, you need to examine several characteristics to be certain. Below is a photo of a Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk taken by a neighbor. This one was cruising our neighborhood, and a pile of feathers in another yard may have accounted for this bird’s long period of posing for photos. When they are actively hunting, accipters don’t tend to sit still very long, but after a meal, feeling sated, they may permit a close approach. Most birding field guides are unable to list enough information for separating Cooper’s from Sharp-shinned especially the juveniles.  How do I know this is a Coopers Hawk?

(photo by Joe Kendrick)

• The side/back view shows quite a bit of white on the nape. That is characteristic of a Cooper’s hawk. A Sharp-shinned would be dark.
• With the back view, you can see three dark bands on the tail—one just emerging from under the feathers on the back and then two more. On most Sharp-shinned hawks, you can only see two.
• The head appears flat not rounded. Cooper’s are flat, Sharp-shinned are rounded.
• The photo from the front shows what appear to be relatively thick legs. A sharp-shinned’s legs would look thin.
• If you had to say whether the eye appeared “forward” in the head or to the middle, I think you’d agree it looks forward.
That was fun—puzzling out which hawk this was and being able to explain it to my neighbor.

Here’s a view of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. 

(Sharp-shinned Hawk in my apricot tree)

This is an adult. If it were a juvenile, colors and markings would be very similar to the Cooper’s Hawk. Notice the apparent small head. It also has a big-eyed and barrel-chested look. Both are characteristics of Sharp-shinned. Those weren’t so hard were they?

What about this one? 

(juvenile Cooper's[?] Hawk)
I was able to examine this hawk for a long time, but the nape and head shape are not discernible in the bright light with this viewing angle.  The legs aren’t visible. The tail tip seems to be between rounded and square.   This type of view isn’t uncommon. Now what? My general impression of size and shape was that the bird was a Cooper’s hawk, but I’m not making any wagers. I had to leave that one unidentified, but it was fun to try and figure it out.

What about the debate on the ABA website? For me, it is a draw. I like to go birding because sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is difficult.


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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WHAT NEXT FOR THE SOB?

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, January 24, 2016

I have related previously that my wife, Mary, is an amazing Spouse of Birder for which I am very grateful (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/my-wife-is-an-sob). In that previous blog, I noted how she has endured more “more mud, sweat, insects, early hours (and late) than she ever expected”(or had nightmares about) while participating in my birding adventures. Now she can add another to the list—extreme cold.

Did you watch the Seahawks/Vikings NFL playoff game on January 10th? The one described as the coldest playoff game in history? The game was played in Minneapolis with a kickoff temperature of minus 6 with a wind chill calculated as minus 25. We were in Minnesota too…only we were 300 miles further north at a higher elevation. The temperature when we started was minus 22 accompanied by winds of 15 miles-per-hour making for a wind chill of approximately minus 50 degrees. We were searching for a chickadee. 

(By 8:19, the temperature had climbed to -20)

This wasn't just any chickadee, but a Boreal Chickadee. As the name implies, this slightly larger, much browner, cousin of Colorado’s familiar Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees is confined to boreal forests with the southern limits of its range along the northern border of the US. Proving Bergmann’s rule, (the further north the larger the species), Boreal Chickadees are slightly bigger than the varieties common in most of the US. (Bergmann’s Rule: http://www.biosci.ohio-state.edu/~awolfe/class/Biogeography/Readings/Barrett%20article.pdf)

We spent a long day in the field, mostly in the car. We stopped every so often, and with our intrepid local guide, Frank Nicoletti, played the chickadee call. There would be no response and we'd jump back in the car with a frozen face and fingers, drive a little further, and try again. We didn't even have to pull off the roads. No one else was crazy enough to be out on a day like this. Finally, we did achieve one great view of a Boreal Chickadee. We also saw a very few other denizens of the boreal forest: Black-backed Woodpeckers and Common Redpolls. I was unaccustomed to seeing so few birds. Just finally seeing a bird of any sort was a big deal.

Actually, we had come up here to see owls. Some years, when the combination of fledgling success and food supply are appropriate, there is a major irruption of northern owls that move into Northern Minnesota in the winter. It can be trivial to see many Great Gray, Boreal, Snowy, and Northern Hawk-Owls. This wasn't one of those years. I had been watching ebird (ebird.org) reports and corresponding with Frank. I knew we were going to need some luck.

Fortunately, the day before our frigid chickadee search, our luck had been near perfect. Sax-Zim Bog is a famous birding location north of Duluth (http://www.sax-zimbog.com/). In driving the bog’s roads, with the weather at a balmy near-zero, we had a fantastic encounter with a Great Gray Owl. 

(Great Gray Owl)

Great-gray owls appear very large, but are actually mostly insulation. As owls go, their body mass is moderate, and they typically eat nothing larger than a vole. Their appearance, however, is spectacular. We watched this one for quite a few minutes. Great Gray Owls hunt mostly by sound. This is the owl often shown on film catching a mouse or vole by plunging through untracked snow to capture the heard-but-not-seen small animal beneath.

We continued watching as the owl would point and rotate it's disc shaped face in one direction and then another in a perfect rendition of an avian radar antenna. Another car pulled up behind us, and the owl left its perch and sailed off. Mary and I were delighted. Frank let us know both how lucky we were, and how relieved he was. These owls had not been daily sights this winter. Most sightings had been brief and distant. We had been able to indulge ourselves with a nearby, unobstructed view.

Part of Frank’s relief was that he'd been in a quandary about what to do with us. In Duluth, all the previous week, there had been an Ivory Gull. Ivory Gulls live north of the Arctic Circle. I had read that one of their prime food sources was scavenging carcasses at Polar Bear kills. Apparently, their populations are plummeting because of climate change in the Arctic. This was the first Ivory Gull sighted in Minnesota in seven years. Birders were flying in from all over the country to see it. Thus, Frank’s dilemma. Do we leave before dawn to increase our chances for the Great Gray Owl and risk missing the Ivory Gull that could leave anytime? Do we wait and see the gull, and harm our chances for the owl?

Frank’s choice was perfect. After the owl, we returned to Duluth and the Ivory Gull flew over as we parked the car. We had very close views. 

(Ivory Gull)

Occasionally, the bird would sail about and then resume its nearby perch. Besides several hundred Herring Gulls, there were other uncommon and rare gulls: Thayer’s, Iceland, Great Black-backed, and Glaucous. Suddenly, a Bald Eagle flew over. All of the gulls lifted off and scattered. The Ivory Gull was not reported again until more than a week later. Now that’s good luck.

Our good luck day continued. Another rare visitor from the Arctic, a Gyrfalcon had been spied nearby. Frank, who had been staying in contact with other local birders, drove us right to it. Later, we also found a Snowy Owl. Snowies were not so common this year, but tend to be conspicuous. This one was perched on a lamppost on a busy road. 

(Snowy Owl watching the traffic)

After a day like that, missing Northern Hawk-Owls (the few in the US this year were another 3 to 4 hours away), and searching all day for a single Boreal Chickadee seemed just fine. Mary loved seeing those owls. That bodes well for whatever I choose next for an “extreme” day of birding.

(Postscript: Other Arctic birds which may be seen at or near Sax-Zim Bog in the winter include Snow Bunting, Hoary Redpoll, and Spruce Grouse. While we were there one group reported a wolf sighting. Duluth makes a great home base. It was worth enduring some cold.)

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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GREEN MANSIONS

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I hear a soft scuffle behind me. Holding my breath, I wait. A Puma? A Jaguar? More likely a Tamamdua (silky anteater) or an agouti (a large rodent). A healthy jaguar population exists a very few miles away, but here at Costa Rica's Las Cruces Biological station, I am probably too near the village of San Vito. The scuffle is that of a young jogger--probably a graduate student working with the tropical plants for which the Las Cruces Biological Station is famous.

(Visitor cabins at Las Cruces)

Light on her feet, she trots on by with a smile and a wave. A young woman running in the jungle led me to think of the novel, Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson. The book, set in the American Neotropics, is a fable about how the innocent are often misunderstood and destroyed. One of the book’s main characters is Rima, a young girl who lives in harmony with the wilderness. Other inhabitants find her confusing and frightening and decide she is the cause of any misfortunes they encounter. Eventually, they find her and kill her. The plot is an apt metaphor for what I have been seeing. The overwhelming fecundity and beauty of the tropical jungle is easy to romanticize. Unfortunately, my next realization is how much has been destroyed because it wasn’t understood.

A few decades ago, the jogger would have been dodging either cattle or coffee plants. But, just thirty years before that, this area was wilderness. In the 1950s and 1960s, settlers, including Europeans and North Americans, decided the area was suitable for agriculture. One of those early settlers, now in his 80s, has published two books about their struggles. He begs forgiveness from future generations. "We didn't know what we were doing," he says. He explains that if they had understood the soil, and the complexity of the natural environment, they would have known their efforts were doomed. The area was too steep, the soils, as always in the rainforest, were too poor. Now, much of the area consists of exposed and eroded soils and shrubby, brushy areas indicative of unwise land use.

Fortunately, some of the nearby highlands were not so heavily settled, and are mostly preserved today as part of the La Amistad National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of more than 570,000 hectares in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama. At lower elevations, there are still a few forest remnants, and there are restorations such as the location where I encountered the jogger.

 (Green Honeycreepers are common at Las Cruces)

This area was reclaimed by Robert and Catherine Wilson who had owned a tropical nursery in Florida. Hence, another name for the Las Cruces Biological Station is the Wilson Botanical garden. Through their knowledge and hard work, and with financial support from an English patron, the Wilson's established a world-famous garden.

 (Lush tropical vegetation abounds at Las Cruces)

In 1973, the garden became part of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a nonprofit consortium of universities and research institutions from the US, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia. Subsequently, the OTS purchased some nearby forest remnants such that the location has become well-known for its birdlife as well as its plants. 

(Can you guess the common name of this butterfly? How about an 88?!)

The OTS does important work educating the next generation of tropical researchers, and also provides training for teachers and students from all over the world. I have visited all three of the OTS locations in Costa Rica. I am always encouraged when I encounter some of the researchers and students. I am delighted these places exist for their benefit and ours. The work of the OTS is essential if we are to prevent future land use errors and restore some of the mistakes of the past. If you would like to become an "amigo” of OTS, check out their website: http://www.ots.ac.cr.


This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to nkorte1@hotmail.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!]

2 comments

OWLISH ONSLAUGHT

By Nic.Korte
Friday, January 1, 2016

This time of year, until January 5, birders all over the world will be checking out “count circles” to see how many and what birds are present. It is the time of the Audubon Christmas Count. It is a big deal! This is the 116th year. It is an international effort with more than 15 countries hosting counts.

The Grand Valley Christmas Count was conducted on December 20. As you may know, our “count” is famous for the effort invested in counting Western Screech-Owls. This year we had 18 teams out in the pre-dawn. More than 50 people collectively called at ~150 locations to see if the Grand Valley’s little “signature” bird answered.

(This is how you do it at 5:30 AM.)

(Happy Owlers at 7:30 AM)

 

Later in the day, two teams used “cameras-on-a-pole” to look in more than 100 nest boxes within the Grand Valley 15-mile diameter count circle.

Our results were spectacular. We found 86 little owls. This is the second highest number ever reported—only exceeded by the 99 we reported last year. The smaller number this year does not reflect a population change. Owls are mercurial. Last year, they were ridiculously cooperative; answering and zooming in and buzzing the callers. Almost everyone had a “close encounter.” This year, many callers reported distant answers without the owl approaching. Several owls flew in to be seen and not heard. The day-time box checkers found 23 owls hiding in boxes—many in locations where, previous to the count,  the owls had been sitting in their hole all day for everyone to see.

One owl had been sitting in a box in an area much visited by local birders. I had probably seen the owl sitting in the hole 10 times in the previous thirty days—early in the day, late in the day, on cloudy days, and on sunny days. Usually, this box was not on any of the calling routes, but I asked one group to stop and call there, thinking it would save me from needing to stop later in the day. The group responsible for that area dutifully stopped and played their call, but received no response. There was no response at their next stop either. It wasn’t that this group was unskilled or unlucky because they recorded 11 WESOs—the most anyone has ever had on a single route.

Later, my friend Larry and I came by with our camera on the pole. No owl was looking out of the box. So, we used the camera to look inside. There sat the owl. This isn’t the end of that story. My wife and I went for a brief sojourn a few days later-- on Christmas morning during the heaviest part of our unusual snowfall that day. We walked by the box. There sat the owl in the hole with at least an inch of the white stuff on its head. Why didn’t it make it as easy for us on count day? Moreover, there are two other nearby boxes--both empty on count day. Two days after Christmas, all three had an owl.

(These owls are NOT sharing a box. This is a composiste of three boxes located within ~100yds of each other. They are shaing the territory.)


Most route-leaders found fewer owls this year, but two route leaders who had better luck gave me this information: One said, “I think I had good responses because I used the higher-pitched call and played it loud.” The other said, “I think I had a good day because I used the lower pitched call and played it soft.”

I conclude: owls are smarter than I am. I guess if they were more predictable, keeping track of them wouldn’t be so much fun.


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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EAST-WEST (WHAT IS A SPECIES?)

By Nic.Korte
Saturday, December 19, 2015

"East-West" is the name of an excellent French movie released in 1999. The movie depicted a family's travails as they decided to return home to Cold-War Russia after initially escaping to the West during World War II. Unfortunately, the homeland they returned to was not what they expected.

I have lived in the Western US for more than four decades after being born and raised several states to the east. Fortunately, unlike the movie family, when I return "home," folks are happy to see me, and I am free to leave when I am ready. With respect to birds, however, I have found that not all is as I expected.

Recently, my wife and I stopped for a brief walk at the Konza Prairie Preserve (http://kpbs.konza.k-state.edu/) in Eastern Kansas. I spied two familiar birds: a Downy Woodpecker and a White-breasted Nuthatch. The identifications were easy, but the birds didn't look quite right. The Downy seemed to show quite a bit more white on the wings, back and nape. The Nuthatch had a slightly different call, and more black on the crown. It also had an unfamiliar thin, black line behind its eye.

(Rocky Mtn Downy Woodpecker. An eastern bird would have more white on the wings.)

I saw some chickadees too. These Black-capped Chickadees looked and sounded much like those I see and hear in Western Colorado.

The next day, we were in Illinois, southeast of St Louis, Missouri. Once again, I saw some Chickadees. These looked very much like the familiar Black-capped Chickadees--except they are not. These were Carolina Chickadees. Although quite similar in appearance, these were slightly smaller than Black-capped Chickadees. Overall, their appearance was drab and their call slightly different from the very similar Black-capped variety.
(Black-capped Chickadee from Colorado)
East-west differences such as these extend to many familiar species. Western Yellow-rumped Warblers have a yellow throat. Those in the east have a white throat. Even though the east-vs-west difference in these birds is, perhaps, more easily distinguishable than the differences in the chickadees, at least for now, these warblers are considered a single species.

Indeed, the question of "what is a species?" is very much in flux. Originally, species were distinguished solely on looks. Eventually, it was learned that some birds that looked very much alike had different calls and did not interbreed. That seemed easy enough until it was noticed that some birds that didn't look so much alike, hybridized with ease. Now DNA testing is often the principal tool used to separate species. A bird's DNA can determine how long species have been isolated and whether differences are sufficient to justify separating them.

Right now, in general, ornithology is in a "splitting" phase, meaning more species are being split rather than "lumped." It is not a stretch to predict that those Eastern vs Western Downy Woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches might someday be considered separate species. But, if so, how many species? The Nuthatches, in particular, may be split into three species—one for the East, one for the West, and one for the Pacific Northwest.

This is starting to sound very confusing. Consider Colorado's eastern plains where wooded areas, during migration, might simultaneously harbor both Rocky Mountain and eastern varieties of some species. Should you care? Only if you want to. Otherwise, just enjoy the birds, but it is worth realizing, that, like people, some birds might look slightly different. They might have a slight accent, but deep down, also like people, they are mostly the same.


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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