Grand Junction Audubon Society birders
Follow local birders in pursuit of their life lists. For more visit audubongv.org.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
A good friend of mine, and one of the best birders in Colorado--and the world--told me that he thought, of all the states, Colorado might have more great birders per capita. Why would that be true?
In my previous post, I talked about favorite birds in Western Colorado. As I write, my wife and I are driving to the Midwest where I have some consulting work near Kansas City. Later, we will visit my family in Illinois. (Many years of car-traveling together to work locations have made me more or less immune to car-sickness, and able to work/write while my wife drives. She also believes she is safer not having to risk my distractibility as I tend to look for birds when at the wheel.)
Although our destination tomorrow is Kansas City, we won't be taking the southward swing of I-70 east of Denver. Instead, we will continue due east on highway 36 heading for the tiny town of Idalia which isn't too far from where Colorado meets Kansas and Nebraska. Last year, south of Idalia, I found a Sprague's Pipit--a declining species of the prairie grasslands. I had some dissatisfying views of one in flight. I am hoping for a better view this time. Two days ago, someone reported seeing six.
(Sprague's Pipit [http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/birds/spraguespipit/index.html] Sprague's Pipits have been determined to be threatened or endangered, but are not listed because of lack of funding.)
Sprague's Pipits nest along the US-Canadian border and in Canada's Prairie Provinces. They mostly winter south of the US, and only pass through Colorado during migration. For several years, a reliable location during September and October has been a small hill on heavily-grazed state land a few miles from the Kansas border. The location even goes by the informal name of Pipit Hill. For some reason, the east side of this small hill has not been pulverized by the cattle, and consists of short-grass prairie and a tussock-like environment of tiny shrubs favored by the pipits.
In previous posts about our Grand Junction area, I mentioned birds that are difficult to find elsewhere in the state such as Chukar and Western Screech-owl. In between these Western species and my hoped-for pipits, are the mountains with their own complement of birds ranging from alpine obligates such as White-tailed Ptarmigan and the near-endemic Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/get-on-up-get-high) to lower elevation specialties such as American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Flammulated Owls, and Hammond's Flycatchers.
(This American Three-toed Woodpecker was photographed on Grand Mesa.)
Thus, it is Colorado's considerable biodiversity, ranging from high mountains to desert canyons to prairie grasslands, that accounts for the many expert birders choosing our state as a home base. The state's large reservoirs, perhaps a topic for a future blog, also provide habitat for many annual rarities.
How many species have been officially accepted on Colorado's state list? An impressive 499! Compared to the rest of the country, only Alaska, coastal states such as California and Oregon, and states with some tropical habitat such as Arizona, Texas and Florida exceed Colorado. Arguably we have as much or more diversity of landscape than virtually any other state; no wonder birders flock here.
Like most birdwatchers, I keep track of what birds I find, so I know how many species I have seen in Colorado--313. A quick perusal of ebird (www.ebird.org) shows me that the leader in the state has 468 (and counting!). I barely make the top 100, and there may well be 100 or more additional birders who don't use ebird, or haven't had time to update their records. Fortunately, birding is never a competition for me, but it is fun to live where I will always have the possibility of seeing something new.
Postscript: The Sprague's Pipits did not disappoint. I saw, perhaps a half-dozen identified by their call, their undulating flight, and their habit of folding their wings and dropping out of the sky when landing. Best of all, after many tries, I had some good views of one on the ground.
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to email@example.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!]
Thursday, October 8, 2015
I was lying awake a recent night. As I often do, I thought about potential topics for this blog. It occurred to me that most people have a favorite bird. Edward Abbey famously preferred vultures. I can think of other folks who prefer fried chicken.
So, what’s your favorite bird in Western Colorado? I suspect it won’t be a Magpie—probably the most conspicuous bird in our area. Colorado citizens have shown so much love for magpies that they have been the subject of bounties and even used in racial slurs.
(Black-billed Magpie by Jackson Trappett)
How about the state bird, the Lark Bunting? Well, although common on the Eastern Plains of our state, they are rare in Western Colorado and were supposedly selected as the state bird only because the males are black and white which saved printing costs for stationary and brochures. (Our lawmakers haven’t changed very much, have they?)
(Lark Bunting by Jackson Trappett)
Many people love hummingbirds, but here it is, early October; any additional sightings in 2015 can be considered unusual. Most don’t even arrive until May. I suggest your favorite Western Colorado bird ought to live here more than three or four months. By that criteria, I’ve now ruled out the beautiful Western Tanager and most of the warblers. (Only a few winter-drab Yellow-rumped Warblers spend the winter in Western Colorado).
How about ducks? There are many beautiful ducks. At least, they are about to be beautiful. They molt into a dull brown after breeding and are drab brown until late fall. Many can’t even fly during this period. So, ducks don’t make good candidates either.
My personal favorite is the Western Screech-owl (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/apple-picking-in-december). Some have referred to it as the Grand Valley’s “signature bird.” The downside is they are nocturnal. We have been introducing more and more valley residents to them, but a bird that is only active in the dark seems an unlikely choice.
Our year-around residents include Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Bald Eagles, and several species of woodpecker, but all of these are more representative and more common in other parts of the country.
I know! The local Audubon Society! They should have an opinion on Western Colorado’s favorite bird. Grand Valley Audubon Society was formed in the 1950s in my pre-school days. The founders developed a newsletter and named it the Chukar Chatter. Chukars are a very interesting species. They are year-around residents and seem to be uniquely adapted to the harsh high desert environment near Grand Junction. But—and it is a big “BUT”—Chukars are not natives. They are natives of Eurasia and were supposedly introduced to the US from Pakistan.
(Chukar by Jackson Trapett)
I conclude there is no perfect candidate. Hmm, sounds like the presidential election.
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon (and to read the latest Chukar Chatter), please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
Thursday, September 24, 2015
I sighed while looking at Elk Mountain that morning last week. It was so beautiful. The sun was just beginning to glow over the nearly 11,000 foot ridge to the east. Looking west, I could see the mountain’s shadow high on the opposite ridge. It would be another 20-30 minutes before I would feel the sun’s rays. The sky was all over blue. No clouds. No wind. No sound. Unconsciously, I took a sip of my coffee. My brain noticed it. “That’s really good coffee,” I thought.
I sighed again. Unfortunately, I’m not blessed with a quiet mind. I started to think of my grandchildren, now 5 and 1. What will they see? And taste?
The mountains will still be here, at least. Unfortunately, a close look at the aspen forests on the mountainside indicates many of the trees are dead and dying—apparently victims of recent drought. There is a lot of re-growth, but will the conditions be right to re-grow that forest or will changing temperatures cause the aspen to be overtaken by upslope migration of oak and sage?
(Photo from Eastern Mesa County July 2015. Low elevation aspen forests facing south and west may not persist.)
I like my light roast, Arabica, organic, shade-grown coffee. Maybe my grandkids will be able to enjoy that too. Maybe not. Arabica is the most flavorful coffee, and virtually the only variety grown in Central America where yields have dropped ~40% in the past few years because of a fungus called coffee rust. Scientists believe the fungus has spread virulently due to unusually high amounts of rain during what is normally the dry season over the past few years. Increasing temperatures and other effects of climate change have also played a role (http://www.vox.com/2014/5/30/5746272/why-youre-going-to-be-paying-more-for-coffee-soon).
I have mentioned before that I have visited Costa Rica on nearly twenty occasions over a 25-year period. To the citizens of that tiny country, there is no controversy regarding climate change. Warmer temperatures, drought during what is supposed to be the “wet” season, rain during the “dry,” these are common topics.
I had driven a nearby road the previous day and counted 8 industrial sites, mostly drill pads on public land—all within 6 miles. I knew from using Google Earth there were more not in sight of the road. Many more are planned nearby.
(Drill pad with access road on BLM land)
I have recounted previously how wildlife avoid roads and noise (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/noises-off-traveling-the-phantom-road ).
I can’t know whether the future might be characterized as good or bad. I do know. It will be different.
Two recent books give excellent overviews of recent and expected change. I recommend both: Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.
On October 3, Grand Valley Audubon Society is leading a field trip to Eastern Mesa County both to go birding at Vega Lake, but also to view some lands that may be heavily impacted by drilling in the near future. The public is invited. See www.audubongv.org for details.
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to email@example.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!]
Monday, September 14, 2015
It has been thirty years since the original publication of DEEP ECOLOGY: LIVING AS IF NATURE MATTERED by Bill Devall and George Sessions. This book, a copy of which remains on my shelf, spawned the Deep Ecology Movement (http://centerfordeepecology.org/). The truth is, I found the book a difficult read. The book’s only phrase with lasting resonance for me was the subtitle: “Living as if Nature Mattered!”
How do we live as if nature mattered? I can think of lots of things: drink shade-grown-organic coffee, use alternative energy, support conservation issues, etc... But, sometimes it is difficult to stay motivated. As the great writer and ornithologist Alexander F. Skutch said, “What we need is deeper, more grateful appreciation of the wonderful world in which we dwell…” These days “grateful appreciation” often has to take on a quantitative guise such as when we recount nature’s value in dollars of Ecosystem Services or with respect to the economic impact of tourism. So much of my recent thinking had been in those directions that it was a special pleasure to pick up local author Frank Coons’ fine book of poems entitled “Finding Cassiopeia.” The title poem epitomizes writing appreciatively “as if nature mattered.” Here’s the poem in its entirety illustrated by the excellent photography of Jackson Trappett.
FINDING CASSIOPEIA (by Frank H. Coons)
I had a couplet in mind when I started this—
something about mist over catkins, how the sharp
stalks were softened in half light, and blackbirds
with red and gold shoulders stood like exclamation marks
(Red-winged Blackbird by Jackson Trappett)
I had a place for a blue heron fishing for sculpins and drew
a parallel to patience. I knew then where this was going. Evening
came all too soon; by the next stanza, crickets, and the wood
rattle of bull frogs calling to a fried egg moon,
shanghaied my poem.
(Great Blue Heron by Jackson Trappett)
That we live less than half the time is clear.
Midnight, a wet meadow, a screech owl with his ping-pong
hoot, the near miss of a deer mouse, all belong to the cool
dark. On rare forays, we might hear them. We might not.
(Western Screech-owl by Jackson Trappett)
We have forgotten the Loon’s call; how the world feels,
how the sky sees with a million eyes what fine threads we are in an infinite universe.
We cannot find Cassiopeia.
We no longer howl at the moon.
(Common Loon by Jackson Trappett)
“Finding Cassiopeia” is available from Lithic Press and Gallery in Fruita. Check out this fine bookstore and gallery for “a fantastic selection of books, art, handmade goods and other curiosities" (lithicpress.com).
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org]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!]
Sunday, September 6, 2015
Imagine this. You are outside. The sky is dull gray. Above you, way up in the sky, there is an enormous swimming pool.
Hold that thought.
I just re-read what I have written the past few months and realized it has been a succession of how much fun it is to go birding, and what birds everyone should be seeing. That made me think: “What about when things go wrong?” “What was my worst birding day?”
It started when our guide and driver picked us up in the pre-dawn from our little hotel in Cuzco, Peru. I could see our young guide, Mari (not her real name), was distressed as soon as she saw me. “You are a birder,” she said.
Later she lamented, “as soon as I saw those big binoculars, I knew.” Through some mix-up, her company had not provided a birding guide, or maybe one wasn’t available and they failed to tell Mari what to expect. (I later suspected her company of assigning her because no one else wanted the job. She was a young guide on one of her first assignments. We were only two, so tips would not be what they could be with a larger group. It was the off-season. Bad weather was a possibility.)
Fortunately, we adapted readily. We didn’t discuss the mismatch. Mari had an engaging personality and was eager to please. Both of us worked hard to get along, and we did. Then a few more things went wrong. Enroute to a famous jungle lodge only reachable by boat, Mari told us she had been in contact with them. There had been a huge storm. The lodge was damaged, but we could still come.
The river, that was the route to our lodge, was in near flood so we had to cancel some birding and leave very early in the morning in order to spend extra time bouncing upriver in the small boat. Nonetheless, this was Peruvian Amazonia. We were exhilarated by the constant flyovers of macaws and the expansive view of massive thunderheads rising above the sea of green jungle.
We enjoyed the trip even if we had already missed many birding opportunities. Perhaps, because of fighting so much current we needed a fuel stop at the only small village on this part of the river. Remarkably, the proprietor of the small riverside fuel station couldn’t be bothered to fuel the boat during his lunch break. Or, maybe it was our boatmen who conspired with him to lengthen the interval with some food and drinks before we were once again headed up river.
Even though we were amidst truly trackless wilderness, there was a park entrance pass that was needed and a park ranger to be found. So we passed our lodge and motored upstream to find the small thatched roof structure that served as park headquarters. They already had our names on a list. No money was exchanged---that was probably taken care of back in Cuzco. The only reason I could fathom for the check-in was to waste another couple of hours.
At last, in the proverbial gathering darkness, we reached our lodge. The lodge was, perhaps, 200 yards from the river. The lodge dock consisted of a mudbank that required scrambling up 6-7 feet.
(The "dock" upon our arrival.)
Finally-the Amazonia jungle! Birds and wildlife were everywhere. We saw two types of monkeys almost immediately. I managed looks at some interesting birds. I only wished there had been more daylight. Being so near the equator, sunset comes quickly and we were soon in the dark, but not until we noticed the damage. The previous storm had brought down many trees. Luckily, the sleeping quarters, kitchen, and dining area were not damaged, but the separate bathroom/shower building had suffered a direct hit wiping out one-quarter of it. An outdoor cooking area and some storage buildings were demolished. We also learned that most of the trail system associated with the lodge was badly-damaged so our access to some of the surrounding habitat would be limited. The lodge workers, some of them life-long residents of the area, said it was the worst storm any had ever seen. The lodge was built on concrete pilings, and they had gone out during the storm to hang on to the pilings fearing that a tree would come down on them within the lodge.
We were the only guests, which was good. Rooms were small cubicles. Guests were not allowed to walk outside after dark because of snakes and caimans. [The Black Caiman is the most abundant native crocodilian and supposedly there was a 15-footer in the lake.] As for nature calls during the night, we were handed a bucket. But, there was beer and the food was good. Mari had apologized about her lack of knowledge of birds but she had already proven to be a good spotter and a hard worker. We planned a morning bird walk for 5:15AM. I went to bed expecting a great day.
Just before dawn the rain began. Birders will go out in almost anything. But this rain went beyond “almost.” I told you to imagine you were standing outside under a swimming pool. Now imagine instant disappearance of the bottom of the pool. No wind. Just thick, roaring rain. We didn’t even bother to find Mari to discuss our options. We stayed in bed.
Eventually, the rain let up, and we had some time in the forest. The trails were gone. Where blown-down trees didn’t block the way, the path was underwater so we sloshed rather than hiked. Birding often consisted of Mari spotting the bird which I would attempt to identify. This greatly limited the number of species checked off, but they were all new to me and I had a fine time. I remember lifting a glass of wine to my wife that night as I perused a guidebook on Peruvian birds and said, “What could be better than this?”
But that night, the roaring rain returned, and so, came THE DAY. Anyone with tropical birding knowledge would recognize the area we were in, Manu National Park, as one of the most biodiverse locations in the world. How could it be possible for me to find only three new birds and identify just a handful of birds in an entire day outside? Here’s how.
A prime objective of this trip was to see Giant Otters, an endangered species found only on oxbow lakes in Amazonia. Our lodge was on an oxbow lake, with Giant Otters—until the recent storm. Our original plan had been to watch them from the lodge. The lodge workers speculated that the otters had moved out because the high water had breached one end of the lake. An oxbow lake some miles upriver was considered a likely location. The otters are active in the early morning so we needed to leave just as it was light enough to see. I remember Mari telling us that she and the boatmen had discussed whether it was safe to go, and decided that it was. We should have taken that as a cue after hearing the roaring rain that night.
The trail to the dock was now mostly under a few inches of water. When we reached the “dock,” which you recall was a mudbank, we were shocked to see that the river had risen at least four feet. Instead of having to scramble down a 6-7 ft bank, we had to stand on the edge of the bank and step down about two feet into the boat. My wife and I both stepped in. Then came Mari. As soon as she stepped to the edge of the mudbank dock, it collapsed and she fell into the river. Fortunately, she was able to grab the side of the boat or it would have been a dangerous rescue situation. The boatman was holding the boat in place by gunning the engine against the current. The swift water would have quickly carried her downriver with few places to reach shore.
With the boatman’s help, Mari pulled herself into the boat. She threw her hair back to shake off the water and then turned on her camera. She looked through it and breathed a great sigh of relief. “It’s ok,” she said. But, I had noticed something else. “What about your binoculars?” I asked. She jumped up feeling all around. She had already told us that guides have to supply all of their own gear and that her binoculars were her biggest expense. (Binoculars that can stand up to the tropics, typically cost much more than a “good-enough” camera.) Now, they were gone. There would be no hope of even looking for them. Nothing to do now but head for the oxbow lake and the otters.
Mari sat glumly in the back of the boat, wet and cold in the early morning. I understood enough Spanish to hear her tell the boatman she wouldn’t make enough money from this trip to replace the binoculars.
I had been eagerly looking forward to this boat trip because the boatmen are adept at spotting wildlife, especially birds, and then maneuvering the boat so clients can have easy views. Not this time. The river was in major flood and there was so much flotsam that all attention had to be paid to navigation. Several times there was a loud “thump” as we hit a submerged log. The wild-eyed look in my wife’s eyes didn’t help. I too could visualize hitting something big enough to overturn the boat or break the propeller. The going was slow, but eventually, to our relief, we reached the trail to the oxbow lake. We knew we were a little late to see the otters, but we still had hope. The boatman, after tying off the boat, motioned for us to stay seated. He went off for a few minutes and returned to tell us that parts of the trail were three to four feet underwater. The boatman and Mari conferred. We understood later they debated whether to return to the lodge or to try another trail. We wished we had been able to vote to return. But, we weren’t asked.
More bumping upstream in the boat found us at a different trail. This trail had only a foot or two of water and we slogged to the lake—knowing now that we were probably too late in the day if the otters followed their normal behavior pattern.
Our conveyance at the lake was a platform balanced by a dugout canoe on each side—a jungle catamaran. Both dugouts, however, were full of water. Imagine my frustration at this point. It was now past noon. The best time for birding was over. I was thinking, “If we had stayed at the lodge, I would have seen 50 new species by now.” I had only seen a couple on the perilous boat ride. Instead, the boatman handed me a half-broken old milk jug for bailing. It promptly shattered. I bailed like a madman with my hands. I wanted to get into the lake to see something. Wasn’t that why we came? The boatman looked at me like I was crazy as he and Mari bailed the other side. Finally, the boat floated, after a fashion. The boat was clumsy and slow—more so now because it was so waterlogged.
Slowly, we turned the boat around and with the boatman in one of the dugouts and Mari paddling in the other, we headed into the lake. Almost immediately, Mari started to describe a bird we hadn’t seen. “Where?” I said. “There,” she said, as she jumped up and pointed. Except. I forgot to say there was an almost identical catamaran at the oxbow lake and lodge where we were staying. We had taken it out the evening before. That catamaran at our lodge lake was identical except it lacked the 2x4 frame over the back of the floating platform, the one into which Mari had just rammed her head.
Now she lay, crumpled on the platform. We tried to help her up. We tried to commiserate. She just kept her head down waving her hand to tell us to stay away. The night before she had described her guide training, and how she was a recent graduate. Now I was thinking, she’s been taught, “you must never cry in front of clients.” After several futile tries to help her, all of which elicited her waving response, she sat up, blinking back tears. She pointed the boatman onward. I said, “I’ll paddle.” She only nodded and sat forlornly on the platform.
(Our Boatman and I paddling the catamaran--and the fateful 2 x 4.)
You guessed it. We paddled all about the lake. I couldn’t paddle and look for birds and although a few flew by, no one was in any mood other than “to see the damn otters, and get out of here.” But, there were no otters to be seen. Hot and sweaty, we returned to the trail and slogged back to the boat. Mari revived and pointed out a few plants, but mostly we all wanted to get the boat ride over with, and return to the lodge. Our return was enlivened by the loss of the so-called dock, and the river having risen another foot or two. The boatman had to run the boat up near the bank, and with the motor revved, he could hold the boat in place for a few seconds. One person would jump into the arms of one of the waiting workmen. Then another circuit would be made, and then a third until we were all out. The boatman waved good-bye and motored off. Slogging back to the lodge in the near darkness, I was taunted, maybe haunted, by the cries of unfamiliar birds whose silhouettes I could barely make out against the darkening sky.
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to email@example.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!]