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By Nic.Korte
Sunday, November 23, 2014

Yesterday (November 22), an intrepid group of birders braved cold winds to survey waterfowl in the Grand Valley. It was the annual Grand Valley Audubon Society Waterfowl Field Trip.
When I think back on it, there seemed to be all sorts of points I could make. First, where would we be without our State Parks? Every stop was at a State Park: three units of the Colorado River State Park, Connected Lakes SP, and Highline Lake SP. I wish our legislature would fund our parks better; I believe even more people would use them.

The day started at the Corn Lake section of the Colorado River State Park where we frightened the attendant who came out to see why all of these cars suddenly appeared. After we assured her that we were only there to check out the waterfowl; she wished us luck and we began our day having “birder fun.” That would be discussing the finer points of identifying a winter-plumaged small grebe. (There are two very similar possibilities.) I think we settled on Eared Grebe, although not everyone was certain; we were just a bit too far away.

A second point I can make is that this year we have had an unusual number of rarities. The most prominent has been two Surf Scoters at the Fruita section of the Colorado River State Park. According to our local bird bible, “Birds of Western Colorado,”(, there have only been about 20 previous records for this part of the State. Indeed, birders from the Eastern Slope have visited to record this bird in Mesa County.

PHOTO OF SURF SCOTER by Carol Ortenzio

A third point is that I wish we could show more people the beauty of some of these waterfowl. At Connected Lakes we had beautiful male Wood Ducks in full sunlight. A few minutes later; we were spying two Common Loons in one of the other lakes. The loons may hang around awhile if they are finding enough to eat. Loons are like airplanes in that they need a runway for takeoff. They need from 30 yards up to a quarter-mile (depending on the wind) for flapping their wings and running across the top of the water in order to gain enough speed for lift-off.
PHOTO OF LOONS by Carol Ortenzio

Sure, it seemed like we saw too many coots, and too many mallards, but that was all forgotten when we had a beautiful male canvasback in the scope, as we did late afternoon at Highline Lake, and then looked up at an adult Bald Eagle sailing by.

Don’t forget our parks in the winter; and if you see a lot of dark looking waterfowl floating out there; grab some binoculars and take a better look. (And, buy your duck stamp:

To keep up with the activities of Grand Valley Audubon Society, check out our webpage at and “like” us on Facebook. Please send any questions to




By Nic.Korte
Friday, November 7, 2014


What sort of picture is this? It doesn’t take long to guess that the letters represent months of the year. The thick black line probably means something happens more often in October and November than the other fall and winter months, with another peak in April and May.

What this chart shows is the relative abundance of Redheads in Western Colorado. Unfortunately, the chart won’t increase your sightings of Amy Adams or Emma Stone. It will help, however, if you are looking for one of our more common and beautiful ducks, as shown in this photo by Jackson Trappett.

 (Redhead by Jackson Trappett)

The chart comes from the book “Birds of Western Colorado Plateau and Mesa Country,” which is published and distributed by Grand Valley Audubon. (The book makes a great Christmas gift, by the way:

Where did the data for the chart come from? From many, many years of record-keeping. Most birders are insatiable listers. Most of them have a record of when they saw every species for the first time, and a lot more. Annual counts have occurred nationwide for more than a century. Now, for nearly a decade, Cornell University has been maintaining, an easily searchable website designed for every birder’s use. Records of sightings are voluminous.

These records are part of the reason the National Audubon Society is so sure that nearly half the bird species seen in the US are imperiled by climate change ( Changes in timing of arrivals and departures, and changes in geographical distributions are supported by all of this record-keeping.

I would be hard-pressed to believe that any climate change denier is a serious birder.

The records also tell us that late November is a great time to study Grand Valley Waterfowl.

Please join Grand Valley Audubon Society for an all-day field trip on November 22. The group will meet at 8AM at the Corn Lake Section of the Colorado River State Park. There will be multiple spotting scopes along so you don’t need a good pair of optics. Beginners and non-members are encouraged to participate. You will need a State Parks Pass for your vehicle, and you should bring lunch, water, and snacks. The trip will end late afternoon at Highline Lake State Park. (Participants can feel free to drop in or out during the day. Other details and phone numbers are on the Grand Valley Audubon website at

We will see some beautiful birds: some Redheads, and other beautiful sights such as these Common Mergansers.

(Photo by Jackson Trappett)

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
Friday, October 24, 2014

Yep, that’s me standing next to some really long roots—and some really short ones.

 The long roots are from a native perennial prairie plant; the short ones are typical of our familiar grain crops such as wheat. Which plant do you think is least susceptible to drought? Which plant holds the soil in place—and actually helps build soil? You know the answer.

Losses of fertile topsoil in the US and throughout the world are staggering (—as are the necessary inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and fossil fuels. The negative effects of our current food-production, besides loss and contamination of fertile topsoil are enormous: thousands of square miles of contaminated groundwater, an ever larger dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ( ), and the prospect of future crop losses because of loss of topsoil. These problems, combined with continued population growth, increase pressure on our planet’s resources, and remaining wild and semi-wild habitat.

What to do? Here’s an answer. I recently visited The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. What is The Land Institute about? They are doing the painstaking research of trying to develop grain crops with the characteristics of native perennial prairie crops. Think what that would mean.

A farmer would plant a field once—and then stand back and harvest the grain every year for the life of the plant (presumably decades)—no re-planting, no annual fertilizing, no annual spraying. The plants would also tolerate a wider variety of growing conditions and would yield and survive whether the year was unusually wet or dry. Can we really produce our food without using so much fossil fuel, and without continued poisoning of the planet?

Is this a crazy dream?

That question can be answered by considering the origin of the annual varieties on which we now rely. The belief is that our ancestors created those plants year-by-year and century-by-century by saving seeds and selecting for the plants with the desired characteristics. Our ancestors were nomadic, and used slash-and-burn agriculture so they needed annual plants. In some cases, as with corn, the belief is that our annual variety was selected by our ancestors from a perennial corn still found barely hanging on in Mexico ( Land Institute researchers are working as our ancestors did—painstakingly cross-breeding plants and continuing to select, generation after generation for perennials with sufficient yield to provide farmers with sufficient yield and income. 

(Native prairie plants provide the foreground. Experimnental varities selected by The Land Institute grow in the background.)

Even with modern techniques, this project will take decades, but working with a “long” view is very rare these days. But that’s worth it, because this is a project that might just save the world.

If you want to learn more about The Land Institute, check this link ( ); Perhaps you will be interested enough to contribute and subscribe to their newsletter.

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
Sunday, October 5, 2014

I can't even use salad tongs without spilling half of it on the table. So, my wife always serves my salad.

I was thinking of my clumsy fingers while watching Amber West, a professional bird bander, carefully extricate a Saw-whet owl that had become badly tangled in a mist net. I would have either accidentally strangled the owl several minutes before, or cut a gaping hole in the net because of my frustration. In contrast, Amber calmly worked the owl mostly free. 

Finally, after about 20 minutes, she did need to make one small snip of the net to free the owl, which by the way, was the 7th and last of the night. It was after 10PM.

(photo by Tracy Baron)

Amber's day had started about 7AM at the RMBO/GVAS (Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory/Grand Valley Audubon Society) banding station at Connected Lakes State Park in Grand Junction. The Saw-whet netting and banding was being done North of Rifle. It had to be even more difficult to deal with that tangled owl at the end of a 16-hour day. (Amber had to be at Connected Lakes again the next morning too.).

After untangling the owl, and while holding it in a “bander’s grip,” Amber made all the necessary measurements (wing, beak, etc.) as carefully and meticulously as she did with the first bird way back in the morning.

This is how field biology gets done--carefully and slowly, often involving odd hours and physical discomfort. 

I am a scientist myself—a geochemist. I love science. I love what we can learn, and realizing how much more there is to learn. However, my work can be done in the daytime...often inside. You have to be careful with chemicals, but they don't have a mind of their own.

I hope it shows how much respect I have for those who do fieldwork. It is desperately important if we are going to maintain what we call our wildlife heritage. There has been a lot of recent publicity concerning the expected effects of climate change on North American bird species: 314 species will lose more than 50% of their habitat. 126 of these species will be in danger of extinction. ( Some of these species may disappear before we even know very much about them. At least thirty-three species that most people think are common, such as Bobwhite Quail and Eastern Meadowlarks, are in drastic decline ( 

Learning more of their life histories is one of the reasons for the bird- banding being done at Connected Lakes and in Rifle. The Saw-whet owl has a lot of unknowns. We know it migrates in part of its range, but not in other parts. Which is it in Western Colorado? What about nest fidelity? Do the owls return to where they were born? We can make some suppositions simply because in 12 years of banding near Rifle, there has never been a recapture.

Over the years, we have found a few Saw-whet owl nests. They have even used some of our nest boxes, but never two years in a row. (With the non-migratory Western Screech-owl, our banding program in Grand Junction has several times found the same owl in the same box in successive years.)

The other reason for these banding programs is for Education. More than 30 people witnessed the Saw-whet owls being banded, with nearly half being students. Similarly, Grand Valley Audubon's program at Connected Lakes regularly introduces more than a 1000 elementary students to the science of ornithology. They are able to see how small and fragile birds are. They are introduced to the great variety of species. And, they can watch how science is done: the careful handling of the bird, the meticulous measurements, the need for teamwork, and the careful record-keeping. (You can visit this operation: M-F, 8-12AM, through October 17 at the Kingfisher parking area in Connected Lakes SP. You will need a parks pass.)

(photo by Tracy Baron)

All of us who work with and enjoy birds, whether as a hobby or a profession, are desperately worried about the future of wildlife. We are also certain that more knowledge is a critical factor in saving wildlife. Perhaps, even more important is that all of us have witnessed that the more people know about a species, the more they appreciate it, and the more likely they are to want to protect it.

The Grand Valley Audubon Society banding program at Connected Lakes has become increasingly expensive. Keeping the program going uses most of the budget and is on a year-to-year financial basis. If you would like to make a contribution (tax-deductible), please send to GVAS Education Program, POB 1211, Grand Junction, CO. You can also contribute through the website at

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!]


Tuscany Is Just Like Grand Junction (Birding Under the Tuscan Sun)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, September 30, 2014

    If my title this week seems far-fetched, consider that four of the most common bird species in both areas are collared doves, starlings, house sparrows and pigeons. And, what is better on a beautiful fall Grand Valley afternoon than to go out for a little wine tasting? If we thank Europeans for wine, can we blame them for the introduced birds?

    In my previous blog (, I described visiting the South of France where I had some great luck birding two famous marsh areas. From there, my wife and I traveled for two and a half weeks in Western Italy and Northern Tuscany.

    When I told a birding friend that I was going to Italy, she replied, "I have been there. There aren't any birds! They eat them." Sadly, she’s right. Many of Italy and Central Europe's songbirds are trapped and eaten...more often in Africa and the Middle East, but in Europe as well. Check out this recent article from National Geographic for the sad fate of many European songbirds –even warblers and Golden Orioles (  A high level of persecution may explain why most of my bird sightings consisted of watching a bird’s tail-feathers disappear into the darkest recesses of a distant tree.

    The native forest birds were mostly drab and very shy. If there was a bird on a wire or on an open tree limb, it was a collared dove or a starling. Even the house sparrows seemed to hide.
(A Reed Warbler--showing the lack of field marks typical of most European Warblers)

    There were no specific times for birding on our Italian agenda, but we had planned hikes in Beguia and Alpi Apuane National Parks while spending about ten days in rural locations. I had time to look for birds, and I found it very difficult. I finally identified a beautiful Great-spotted Woodpecker. I did see the entire bird—but I needed three sightings. Once, I saw the head, once the rump and tail, and another time the bird’s middle. Each time, the bird seemed to immediately sense my presence and then flew far away.
The results of these games of hide-and-seek and partial sightings are that I have lots of notes but few identifications. My companions had to put up with my whining during our evening wine tastings—until the wine and food brought out my better nature.

    Fortunately, I did have some luck. High in the Apennines, north of Genoa, and in sight of the coast, a Chukar-sized bird allowed both a reasonably close approach and photos. I exulted to Mary. “Finally, something I will be able to identify.” I even thought I knew what it was. It was obviously a shorebird, and only a few of these, such as curlews, inhabit the mountains. But a quick look in my book indicated the eye color and feather pattern were wrong for my initial guess. “Oh well,” I’ll be able to figure it out tonight.” But, no! It wasn’t in my book. I tried the "search" feature on my European bird app. Nope! “Ok,” I told myself. You are supposed to be a birder. You can figure this out!” But I couldn't!

(The bird in the Apennines I had truble idenitfying.)
    I sort of chewed on my incompetence as I kept trying to decide that bird’s identity.

    A few days later, I had a very good look at three identical forest birds. They even hopped around in plain view at eye level in an olive tree. They were too active to photograph, but I wrote a careful description: sparrow-sized, bright red bills, lemon yellow throats, red tips on the secondaries, and an orange wash on their chests. With all of those field marks, I was certain I would find these in my book. Wrong again! Not in the book. Not in the app. I checked the Internet. Nothing. It was really a good thing there was wine to taste that evening.

    Subsequently, I invested a couple of more evenings trying to figure out these birds. I even considered that I’d been fooled by seeing them in good light. Maybe the bill wasn't red. Maybe the throat only seemed yellow because of the sunlight. Those ideas didn't bring me any closer to an identification. I was now about as frustrated as I’ve been as a birder.

   Then, three days later, I saw six more of the red-billed birds at even closer range. I also saw that my original description was perfect. What were these things? That night after another hour on the Internet, I finally identified the bird. It lives in Asia. More searching revealed that the Red-billed Leiothrix had become established near Lucca…in Northern Tuscany...precisely where I had found them. Both my bird book and my app had sections on introduced or exotic birds, but, perhaps, this population is so isolated they weren’t considered worth noting.  ( 

    What about the first mystery bird? That was the bird of the trip...a Eurasian Dotterel…a bird that is rare everywhere and nests chiefly in Russia and Scandinavia. I have a Swedish uber-birder. He identified it from my photo and said there was known to be a remnant population in the Apennines, and that I was very lucky to see one.  It turns out the Dotterel was in my book, but I thought it was a bird of the coasts not the mountains. In addition, this was a juvenile and I didn’t recognize the plumage. There’s always more to learn!

    So, I had a lot of fun birding in Europe, but it wasn't the best part. That would be the gelato. Have you ever tasted flavors such as lemoncello or fig? If it wasn’t the gelato, it was locally-made chestnut pesto on homemade pasta in the small village where we stayed. Or maybe it was watching sunset in the North Tuscan Hills. Or the wonderful dark red Super-Tuscan we bought from a small, local winery. Whatever! I feel very fortunate that my wife and I could make this trip. 

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!]

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