Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

Page 4 of 21


BIRDING THE BAY OF PIGS

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The crosses along the road were a sad reminder of past events. They were dedicated to Cubans killed during the US-supported invasion of Cuba known in our country as the Bay of Pigs, but elsewhere as the Invasion of Playa Girón.
(Photo by Tim Henson)

The failed invasion occurred in April 1961. Fifty-five years later, birders are invading. The village of Playa Larga was our base for exploring the nearby Zapata Swamp—the largest protected area in the Caribbean.

But, why go birding in Cuba?

Because it is an island!  Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson and his collaborator Robert MacArthur tested a theory of species equilibrium on a tiny island in the Florida Keys. All insect species were eradicated and they observed the re-population by new species. A book describing this experiment, The Theory of Island Biogeography, became a standard ecology text explaining how many species will populate islands of a certain size, and why many are endemics—that is, found nowhere else in the world.

While the exact number can be debated—if Hawaii (home to many island-endemics) is eliminated--the number of bird species found only in the United States during their entire life span is 16. The number found in Cuba and nowhere else is 24-- down from 26 because two are already extinct. The number of Cuban endemics may rise as more genetic testing is performed, but it may also fall because most of the 24 remaining endemics are rated endangered or vulnerable because of their small populations and dwindling habitat.

Besides, the “Cuba-only” birds, 21 others found on Cuba are found only in the West Indies—often on only one or two other islands. Some of these are also endangered.
One endemic we saw frequently was the Cuban Trojan or tocororo—a local name based on its call. Fortunately, this beautiful bird, unlike many trogons found in Central and South America, is adaptable, and has a stable population.

(Cuba's National Bird, the Cuban Trogan, photo by Tim Henson)

Why Cuba now?

Restrictions for travel by US citizens are still in place. Travel in a group and under a special license is required. The pretense is that the group is doing a Natural History Survey or engaging in some sort of educational or social outreach. What is driving birders, however, is the sense of "before it is too late.” There is fear that Western investment and too many visitors will overrun the limited habitat. For example, two major birding magazines recently published articles about birding on Cuba.

One morning, I asked our tour leader how many other birding groups he thought might be in the area. He said he'd be surprised if there were others. We arrived at our planned location only to be confronted with two large buses and two larger groups of birders. We had hoped to see the endangered Zapata Wren. Possibly less than 1000 still survive. With more than 50 birders and three guides trying to call one; is it any wonder none of us saw a Zapata Wren? Lack of infrastructure and lack of enforcement of existing law, rather than resorts and condos may be more likely to doom Cuba’s remaining fragile species. Indeed, our local guide thought major resort developments on the Western model would not happen because Cuba’s leaders have clung to their original paradigm and not used their power to enrich themselves.  Whatever one may think of the Cuban socioeconomic model, it is a good thing that money can't buy influence.

The people we met were delightful. Our food was tasty and plentiful. A five-inch piece of thick spiny lobster tail anyone? How about a plateful of fresh shrimp? 

However the future plays out, I hope there will be room for Fernandina’s Flicker. Perhaps only 600 individuals remain in isolated populations. We were lucky, two of them gave us a great view for many minutes. 

(Fernandina's Flicker, photo by Tim Henson)

[Populations of all Cuban endemics are believed to be decreasing. Other species in jeopardy include: Giant Kingbird (population possibly as low as 250, we saw two), Blue-headed Quail Dove (population possibly no more than 1000, we saw none), Zapata Sparrow (population possibly no more than 1000, we saw none).]

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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DOWNTOWN’S DEADLY KILLERS

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, February 28, 2016

My friend and I drove up 8th street early that morning. There on top of the tower was the killer. Not only had he killed, he was ripping the now lifeless body to shreds.
We were watching a Peregrine Falcon devour what appeared to be a Rock Pigeon. The pigeon probably had no chance. Peregrines can reach 200 mph when in one of their power dives, called a stoop.

That we see Peregrines at all is one of the Conservation movement's greatest success stories. The widespread use of organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, had caused thinning of the eggshells of Peregrines and other birds at the top of the food chain. This led to a widespread disappearance of Peregrines and to their listing as an endangered species. Once use of organochlorine pesticides was regulated, Peregrine Falcons, and other species (e.g. Bald Eagle, Brown Pelican) whose populations had plummeted, began to recover.

In recent years, it has become fashionable for some to portray Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, as a mass murderer because mosquitos continue to kill, and organochlorines are seldom used against them. This characterization of Carson is unfair and misleading. Her book was written, for example, before DNA was discovered. There was no EPA. There was no Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, no Superfund, no Toxic Substances Control Act, etc. Carson reacted to what was essentially fumigation. Clouds of DDT were doused on people and wildlife. She saw for herself an incident where fish died immediately after a large, indiscriminate application. Her overall warning was accurate.

Current naysayers also forget that DDT use had already been discontinued in some locations where it had formerly been effective, because the local mosquito population had developed resistance rendering applications ineffectual. Carson also did not call for DDT to be banned. “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides should never be used,” she wrote. “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm... I contend, furthermore, that we have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effects on soil, water, wildlife, or man himself.” She was right. And, indeed, DDT is still used, but in focused, careful applications, an approach that if used in the beginning, would have obviated the need for her book.

Grand Junction’s local Rock Pigeons may wish Rachel Carson had never written Silent Spring, but the rest of us can enjoy the resurgence of the fastest bird in the world. The last time I looked, there were a pair of falcons. (Check out the tower at 8th and Main.) As with many birds-of-prey, the female is slightly larger. Hopefully, they will nest on one of our downtown buildings and there will always be generations of Peregrines to keep the Rock Pigeons in check.

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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PRETTY IN PINK

By Nic.Korte
Friday, February 19, 2016

A month ago, I wrote about birding in Minnesota when it was twenty-two degrees below zero (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/what-next-for-the-sob). I am not always so crazy. A couple of weeks ago, here in Grand Junction, the day wasn’t as frigid, but it was cold and windy with blowing snow. My wife and I and a visiting friend had planned a day in the mountains. Instead, we went to the new “Star Wars” movie! Posted in the coming attractions, a Valentine’s Day special, was the coming-of-age classic, “Pretty in Pink.”

I thought of that movie’s title the next day when x-country skiing above the town of Collbran. Why? There was a beautiful flock of Pine Grosbeaks on a snow-flocked shrub. Their pink color was gorgeous, simply overwhelming the white and gray of the surroundings.


 (Male Pine Grosbeak by Jackson Trappett. Pine Grosbeaks show some color variation with some being distinctly pink. Check out images on the internet if you are curious.)


Lucky for my wife and I, this was our third encounter with Pine Grosbeaks in just a few weeks. On our visit to Northern Minnesota in January, we surprised our local guide by being so familiar with Pine Grosbeaks. He had forgotten that Colorado has its own boreal forests. Our other viewing was about two weeks later on the Skyway x-country trail on Grand Mesa. A group of six or eight Pine Grosbeaks were feeding in the top of a tall spruce as we skied by.

Pine Grosbeaks are widespread—breeding in boreal forests from Alaska to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as well as in the high mountains of the Western US. In that previous cold weather blog, I recounted searching for a Boreal Chickadee, and noted how that species proved proved 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). Similarly, Pine Grosbeaks are our largest finch.

 (Photo by Jackson Trappett. Female Pine Grosbeaks are less colorful than males.)

Finch? Didn’t I say they were grosbeaks? They do have a big beak, and once upon a time (but not in a kingdom far away), all of the Grosbeaks were classified as finches. Those Bird Guides on my shelves that are almost as old as I am, list all of them as finches. Recent research, made possible by advances in genetic research, has caused scientists to remove three “grosbeaks” from the Finch family. Two of the Grosbeaks are still finches. One is the Pine Grosbeak. No matter, what is most important is that pink color brightening up a snowbound world.

Typically, Pine Grosbeaks are not wary so while enjoying the snowy winter we are having, look for a flash of pink in the top of a pine or spruce.

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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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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