Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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Page 5 of 21


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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“SEVEN SWANS A SWIMMING”

By Nic.Korte
Monday, December 7, 2015

There are “seven swans a swimming” in Mesa County as I write this. With Christmas on everyone’s minds, the title was a natural. Christmas comes every year, but it is unusual to have so many swans in our local waters. What’s even more exciting is that five of these are Trumpeter Swans. I don’t have all the records, but a quick check indicates Trumpeters have been sighted in Mesa County on less than 20 occasions. The electronic data base, ebird.org, shows only two sightings since 1984. {These swans are at Highline Lake.}

One reason for a lack of reported sightings might be the difficulty of identification. “Oh, come on,” you might say. “Here’s a bird bigger than anything else on the water and it is pure white (if an adult), surely you can identify it!” I wish it were so easy. A few years ago, I was certain I had seen a Trumpeter Swan because the bird’s bill lacked a yellow spot characteristic of most Tundra Swans. I say most because when I returned home and read up on swan identification, I learned that 10% of Tundra swans do not have the yellow spot. LESSON LEARNED: DON’T BASE DIFFICULT IDENTIFICATIONS ON A SINGLE CHARACTERISTIC. I should have looked at the shape of the bill. I should have taken a photo. My camera was right next to me, but I was too excited to photograph the bird until I realized it was taking off.

Take off is quite a sight. For a Trumpeter Swan, becoming airborne requires lumbering across the water for about 100-yards. Trumpeter Swans can be distinguished from Tundra Swans on takeoff, if you know what to look for. It has to do with the neck position, but I was unfamiliar with that characteristic the time I thought I might have seen a Trumpeter. In the end, I had to consider that bird unidentified.

Trumpeter Swans are our biggest native waterfowl, stretching 6 ft in length and weighing more than 25 pounds—about twice the size of a Tundra Swan. If you are thinking, I should be able to tell the two swans apart by size, my response is that size is a notoriously difficult parameter to judge when viewing distant birds on the water. There is also a much greater difference in weight than in length. Tundra swans appear nearly 90% the size of a Trumpeter, so size when viewed at a distance, and without a comparison, is no help.(Two of the Trumpeter Swans at Highline Lake)

Trumpeter Swans are also a major conservation success story. In the 1930’s, there were <100 birds, all in the area of Yellowstone National Park. By 1968, numbers had rebounded to 3,700—by 2010, there were more than 46,000. The Federal Government established a refuge specifically for Trumpeters in Montana. Several state agencies also assisted in the recovery as did a private group, The Trumpeter Swan Society (http://www.trumpeterswansociety.org/). Their combined actions are responsible for the increase in population and the fact that these swans are reclaiming their former home range. A personal example exists in the St Louis, Missouri area, near where I was raised. Trumpeter Swans were unheard of until a few years ago. Now the combination of their population rebound and the establishment of the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (http://www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/RiversProjectOffice/RiverlandsMigratoryBirdSanctuary.aspx) has resulted in as many as 1000 swans spending the winter just North of St Louis on the Mississippi. Federal funds established the sanctuary which is now managed, in part, by a local Chapter of the Audubon Society. 

Tundra swans are more common, and are typically seen every year here in the Grand Valley, although often they are only present for a few days. As I am writing this, there are two in some ponds near Whitewater and the Gunnison River, which combined with the five trumpeters yield “seven swans a swimming.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the North American population could be as much as 200,000 with ~100,000 in the eastern population and 60,000 -110,000 in the west. There is even a hunting season for Tundra Swans—which unfortunately, is a risk factor for Trumpeter Swans--as you can imagine from my discussion of the difficulty with identification.

Tundra Swans breed primarily on lakes, ponds and pools situated along river deltas in Alaska and Canada. Breeding birds need large wetlands and lakes with long shorelines that support pondweed. Increasingly, Tundra Swans rely on agricultural fields for subsistence during migration and winter. Hopefully, humans can continue to provide sufficient habitat and care to maintain stable populations of both of our native swans.

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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REPRISE [FOR TIMELINESS]: TURKEYS, FEEDING BIRDS, BUYING FOR CHRISTMAS

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Honestly, this effort is not evidence of my being lazy or too busy.

At this time of year, certain things are on our minds: turkeys, bird-feeding, and Christmas presents. I decided my blog should be about one of those topics. But, I had already written on those themes. I liked what I wrote, so here, they are again!

TURKEY: The Violent Turkey of the Grand Canyon (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/not-another-turkey-story ),

WHY WOULD ANYONE (ME?) HAVE SEVEN BIRDFEEDERS? Which one should you have? Which should you buy for a friend?  (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/adventures-in-bird-feeding),

 

CHRISTMAS PRESENTS FOR NATURE LOVERS (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/gift-ideas-for-someone-interested-in-birds).

For Christmas, buy your friends Shade-grown coffee, a book about the Birds of Western Colorado, or a membership in Grand Valley Audubon or the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (http://www.birdconservancy.org/).

 

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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HOW MY DAD TAUGHT ME TO WATCH BIRDS

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, November 15, 2015

Anyone who knew my Dad is surprised by this title. As I recounted previously, my Dad never cared to learn that egrets and herons were not cranes (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/how-i-make-a-living-there-goes-a-crane).

(In honor of my Dad, lets call this Great Blue Heron a "crane.")

On the golf course, we would frequently see Killdeers, and no matter how many times I named them, he would say, “There goes a snipe!”


Dad enjoyed birds at his feeder, but to him I think there were three kinds: Cardinals, sparrows, and not-sparrows. When I was in Illinois to visit, I would often show him the difference between the non-native House Sparrows on the feeder, and the native White-throated Sparrows feeding underneath. He would nod appreciatively, but would have forgotten by my next visit. How could this man have taught me to watch birds?


I was raised in a small Southern Illinois farming community. My Dad had the only shoe store. He was from a large farming family. They were not well-off. In comparison, working at his store six-days and one evening a week was easy. There were no animals to care for. No outside chores on cold days. He never complained about all the hours he worked at the store, but I did. Like most of my peers, I wanted to go hunting whenever I could. I was gifted a 12-gauge shotgun for Christmas during my 8th grade year. My favorite hunting partner was my Dad, but he had almost no opportunity to go. My mom and two younger siblings also deserved his time. Sunday morning was for church leaving little or no time for Dad to go hunting with me. 

We did manage an occasional hunt for rabbits after church on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, my favorite hunting was for squirrels. Squirrel hunting is best if you are in position pre-dawn. Not only are squirrels more active at that time, but most days become breezy about 8:30 or 9 when seeing a squirrel moving in the trees becomes very difficult. Between church on Sunday and the store opening at 8AM every other day, squirrel hunting the way I wanted to do it, wasn’t possible for Dad.

(I "shot": this Illinois Fox squirrel with my camera.)


Dad and I went squirrel hunting only once.  It was before I left for my first or second year of college. I don’t recall if Dad opened late that day or, more likely, mom opened the store and my brother was left to watch our sister for a couple of hours.

I had hunted squirrels with friends, and a couple of times with one of Dad’s younger brothers. I was going to show Dad that I really knew what I was doing. After all, even if he’d hunted squirrels growing up, it had been more than 20 years by now.

We went to a “timber” that I knew well—or thought I did. With squirrel hunting, usually you hunt separately, as we did. I spent a lot of time describing the woods to Dad and telling him where he ought to try. We entered the woods and I suggested we meet back at the same place at a pre-determined time, probably about 9:30.

Here’s what I remember: I was excited. Squirrel hunting requires stealth with little movement. I knew that, but I had a difficult time sitting very long because after a few minutes of seeing nothing, I would begin to believe that the clump of hickory nut trees 50 yards away was probably better. I would move. I would see no squirrels for a few minutes, and begin to think that the oaks over the hill were better, and I would move again.

I kept in mind the locations I had told Dad to hunt so I didn’t move toward him.  After a while I heard a shot. I only have one good ear so I can’t tell direction of distant sounds. I assumed it was a hunter on an adjacent property. I kept moving from place-to-place. I never saw a squirrel. Eventually, I heard another shot. The idea that Dad might have taken these shots didn’t occur to me. My conviction was that on this morning, in this woods, the squirrels weren’t moving, or they had been hunted too hard and thinned out, or were too wary.  I was frustrated and anxious and a little late to our meeting location. I walked there, and looked for Dad. Then I saw him sitting—just where we had split up. I said, “Sorry, have you been waiting long?” He said, “No, I’ve just been sitting here.”  “Lousy hunting wasn’t it?” I said. To my amazement, he picked up two squirrels. 

How could this be? I was the mighty hunter who knew these woods. I quizzed him, “Where?” “How?” He said, “Right here.”  “Here?” I said in disbelief. It didn’t look a good place to me. I had told him where to find the Oaks and Hickories where the squirrels feed. There were big trees all around, but no nut trees.  Dad replied, “Well, this was a nice place to sit, and a nice morning, I liked just sitting and looking around. After a while, I saw a squirrel move. It came close enough so I shot it. I was comfortable, so I sat back down and after a while, another squirrel came into view so I shot that one too.”  

I had worn myself out trying every “great” place in the woods and had found only frustration. I hadn’t had a particularly good time. Dad clearly didn’t care if he saw or bagged a squirrel. Free time in the woods on a beautiful morning was a rare thing for him, and his priority was to enjoy being there.  I’ve never forgotten the lesson of that hunt. Sometimes when I’m watching or looking for birds, I get anxious, thinking the day may be a failure, or that I should be somewhere else. Often, I think of Dad and that squirrel hunt. I realize, I need to slow down. Sit down. Maybe this isn’t the best location, but sit down anyway. Something might happen. I’ve had some of my best bird and wildlife encounters that way. Thanks Dad!

 Our family lost this fine man a few weeks at the age of 91. He had a good life. We miss him.

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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