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By Nic.Korte
Sunday, January 5, 2014

Look at this photo. Is there something wrong with this bird’s beak?

   Nope. This bird is a red crossbill. Yep, it is a female. As with many species, the females are dull-colored so they can blend in with the vegetation during feeding and nesting. The males are brick-red. These are small birds, and typically rather common on Grand Mesa—especially some winters. (On our January 1, annual Grand Mesa Christmas Count, birders counted 68!)
   Why the funny bill? Well, it so happens these bills are designed to crack open pine cones—this species’ principal food. At other times of the year, they may eat some buds and insects.
   Crossbills, with a diet so dependent on conifers live at high elevations or high latitudes. What do they have in common with the Galapagos? The Galapagos are famous because much of what Charles Darwin observed there led to his Theory of Evolution. That’s why the finches that live on the various islands are called “Darwin’s Finches.” There are now 15 varieties. But, they look much the same. The principal difference is the size, shape and strength of the bills. The birds have separated themselves by eating various varieties of seeds. Painstaking work over many decades by researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant have shown how these birds have split into such specific niches. (Two wonderful books on this subject are: The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathon Weiner {winner of the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction} and How and Why Species Multiply by the Grants. The former is an entertaining “read” for the lay-person, while the latter is for biologists and bird-geeks.}
    The red crossbill has not had as much attention as Darwin’s Finches. The attention that has been paid, however, has shown that up to 8 species may be present because of differences in the “size, shape and strength” of the bills. The "species" have separated by living in different mountain ranges or "islands in the sky."  Ornithologists agree that there are more than one distinct species, but how many is being debated.
   Crossbills have adapted to remove seeds from cones. They start at the bottom of a cone and spiral upward, prying open each scale and removing the seeds with their tongues. The bills can cross in either direction, and the direction of the cross dictates the direction that the bird spirals up the cone. Each crossbill type has a distinct cone as a favorite food and a distinct flight call.
    The breeding cycle of Red Crossbills is more closely tied to food availability than it is to season. They can breed at almost any time of year including mid-winter if there is an abundant source of seeds. They are monogamous, and pairs form within flocks. The parents continue to feed the young for about a month after they hatch. The bills of young birds are not crossed at hatching, but cross as they grow. By 45 days they are crossed enough for the young to extract seeds from cones.

Enough details! Do you want to see some crossbills?

    A good way would be to participate in the Grand Valley Audubon Society annual x-country ski field trip to be held Sunday January 12th. Leaders are Lee Stigen and Cecelia Barr. Call 241-3905 or email for more information. Meet at 9AM at the Palisade High School Parking Lot. Everyone is invited. Cost is $5/person except for students who are free.
     The skiing will be easy. All you need to bring is binoculars, lunch, water, sunscreen and appropriate gear.

Other birds you may see include three-toed woodpecker, gray jay, red-breasted nuthatch and more.

Keep up with the activities of Grand Valley Audubon Society by checking our website (, and by following us on Facebook. Email with any questions or comments.



By Nic.Korte
Thursday, December 26, 2013

    In the previous blog, I said I wanted sixty-five Western Screech-owls for Christmas. That is, I was hoping we could count sixty-five during the annual Grand Junction Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on December 15. What we got was 52. Sounds well off the mark, but, let’s explore a bit more about the Grand Junction CBC.
    This was the 114th CBC held in the US. The first Grand Junction count was held in 1953. CBCs were started as a means of learning what birds were out there, how their populations were changing, and as a counterweight to annual Christmas-time hunts which, in some cases, had reputations as wintertime slaughter.
    Christmas counts are based on counting all of the birds within the same ten mile circle, year-after-year. The Grand Junction count is centered at H and 24 roads.

    Back to Screech-owls: Long-time Grand Junction birder, the late Rich Levad, essentially discovered the Western-screech owl in the Grand Junction area by deciding, “There must be more of them.” Rich set out to find them by rising very early morning after morning and going out calling for them. From that humble beginning, when previously only 2 or 3 Western Screech-owls were reported, our counts have risen and risen. We found so many that Rich began referring to the Western Screech-owl (or WESO in birder’s code), as the Grand Valley’s “signature bird.” This was back in the mid-1980s. Soon we had a program for installing nest boxes for WESOs at schools, cemeteries, golf courses and private yards. We had to do this because the valley’s growth was causing too much loss of the old cottonwoods that have the cavities WESOs need for nesting. We now have more than 100 WESO nest boxes in our count circle.

     More numbers perspective: Owls are not like house finches or mourning doves in terms of numbers. Typically, we count approximately a thousand each of the latter two species during our CBC. A good count of WESOs, on the other hand, was typically in the 30s with our highest counts being in the 40s. Still, this was enough to make us #1 in WESOs—at least sometimes. We all have to be number one in something, don’t we?

    Human population growth affects WESO numbers, but we have another problem. At least half of our count area is in the desert or in pinyon-juniper areas where no WESOs live. In contrast, there are count circles in California that are entirely WESO habitat. How do we beat them? Two reasons! First, we have a uniquely high population here. Grand Junction regularly counts more WESOs than the rest of Colorado and the States of Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming combined. We almost beat all of Arizona as well—with no count circles in any of those states approaching us. We don’t know what is special about Grand Junction versus the Glenwood Springs or Montrose areas. We can only speculate. Perhaps, our slightly-lower elevation and typically fewer days of snow cover are “just right.”

    The other reason we count a lot of WESOs is effort. On the Sunday morning of count day, if you had been out early—especially in the Fruita area where there is a lot of line-of-sight; you would have seen cars moving around in the pre-dawn and stopping every so often. Inside, were bundled up birders. Each had a list of 10 or so “stops.” At each one, they would get out, play the call (, and listen and record what happened. Most stops were unproductive where the only thing noticed was the numbing fingers. (Gloved hands don’t work so well fumbling with an iPod or iPhone to play the call.) But, every now and then, there would be the soft answer. Notice how the call is so different from the loud slow “hoots” that most people associate with owls. The “hoots” are from Great-horned owls—also common in the valley, and much more visible than WESOs.

    Sometimes, if the group was lucky, an answering WESO would fly into overhead branches. Sometimes, the owl would be only a voice in the darkness. Sometimes, one flew in silently. But, all were counted. Seventeen teams participated in this effort, and many groups had more than two participants. That’s right, approximately 50 of your friends and neighbors were out calling and listening—with hope for the dawn and a nice cup of organic coffee (couldn’t resist--
As the sun rose, everyone called me with their results. We had 34. How did we get to 52? Well that involves what Rich called “the peeper.”

    We have two, and two more volunteers from Rifle brought two more over. These two teams spent the entire day driving the count circle to look in most of the 100+ owl boxes that were not near areas where owls had been found in the pre-dawn. (We have to be honest to stay #1. No double-counting allowed.)  

    I think 52 was a spectacular number. We have no hard data, but our experience and preliminary research data elsewhere indicates that WESOs do not like to call when the moon is near-full—as it was on count day. This may be because of increased risk of predation. Great-horned owls, for example, will happily dine on WESO. It was also cold. It is difficult to call just a little longer at a spot on such a cold day. So, even though 52 is quite a few less than last year’s 64, there were good reasons, other than a drop in the owl population, why we counted fewer. Time, as always, will tell.
    52 was our third highest count ever—all in the last three years—coinciding with morning routes that now cover all of the valley’s areas—although not every likely WESO location. (We could do more with more volunteers!) The high numbers are also a result of the two camera crews out all day to check all of the boxes. Here’s what 52 means. Last year, 138 count circles reported at least one WESO. That’s one perspective. Now, in all of those 113 years of CBCs, more than 50 WESOs in a count circle has only been reported nine times—three by Grand Junction.

  (One we missed!  This owl was in the owl box in my own yard--but on Monday--the day after count day.)

    So, why do we do this? We do it for fun. It is exciting to hear an owl answer or see it fly in from the darkness. But we also do it for science. Here’s more number perspective from the Grand Junction CBC (Keep in mind, there is now more participation/effort than ever before): Lewis Woodpecker in 1995 was 10. This year: zero. Ring-necked pheasant 1999 was 84. This year 1. Why? Probably loss of orchard and agricultural habitat to development. Eurasian Collared Dove in 2004 was zero. This year 593! Whoa! What’s up with that? Yes, this invasive species has now become one of the most common birds in the valley.

    How about White-winged doves—common in Southern Arizona? We found three this year, and have reported them four of the past six years. Before that? Never! Why? We need more data, but perhaps the generally-warmer winters of recent decades are causing some to move north. CBCs have documented evidence for climate change over much of the US. So, even though it is just “citizen science,” the data in aggregate mean something, and provide a snapshot of how our valley and its birdlife are changing.
    Christmas bird counts are now an international effort. Everyone who helps is part of a huge scientific enterprise. You still have one more chance to participate in a CBC in our area. The Grand Mesa CBC is held January 1. Check our website ( for details or send an email to


No swans, geese, doves or partridges for me, I want screech-owls for Christmas!

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, December 8, 2013

I won't be looking in pear trees either--but in cottonwoods!

Unbeknowst to many Grand Valley residents, we have a uniquely high population of Western Screech-owls. Here’s a photo of one from Connected Lakes State Park.

(photo by Jackson Trappett)

Most people, when they think of owls, think of Great Horned Owls. We have those too, although not so many as the little screech-owls.


Little? A Great-Horned Owl is about 22 inches in length—nearly three times the 8 inches or so of a Western Screech-owl. One of our local owl enthusiasts says a screech-owl is the size of a soup can.
    Great-horned owls calls give the noisy and loud “whoo-whoo-huh-whoos,” often heard throughout the fall and winter. Western Screech owls give a soft hu-hu-hu-hu-hu. If you want to hear the difference yourself, there are plenty of examples on YouTube.
     Why do I want 65 screech-owls? Because that would be a national record. We tied the old record last year when we counted 64 during the annual Audubon Society Christmas Count. (This year’s count will occur on December 15.) Our population of Western Screech-owls is unusual. We always find far more than anyone else in the State of Colorado. Delta, Montrose, and Glenwood Springs, which have a lot of similar habitat, usually have only two or three. In fact, here in the Grand Valley, we find more screech-owls than in the rest of our state combined, and in the entire states of New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah—and almost more than in Arizona. Only in California are there more Western Screech-owls.
    Western Screech-owls prefer cottonwood trees because their old limbs provide a lot of nice cavities. The owls like to sun themselves from east or south facing holes in the fall/winter, but they prefer nesting in north and south-facing holes so they will be cool when the weather warms.
    Grand Valley Audubon Society has a project to keep the valley comfortable for screech-owls. It was noticed some years ago that more and more old cottonwoods were being cut down. When the old cottonwoods went down, so did the cavities screech-owls require. So GVAS began to put up nest boxes at golf courses, cemeteries, parks, schools, and farms between GJ and Fruita. Some owls even like settled neighborhoods with big trees in the city. More than 200 boxes are around the valley.

If you would like to help with counting or monitoring or if you want a box to see if you can attract a Western Screech-owl, send a note to Similarly, send any sightings to the same address. We’ll see if we can’t remain #1 with Western Screech-owls!


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, send us an email, and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Friday, November 29, 2013

   I love the Christmas season for its family time, but I’m always bothered by what to do about gifts. I like gifts, but I don’t like to receive things I don’t need. I also don’t like to give things someone else doesn’t want. For birders, however, there are options.
   My fallback gift as a birder, or for other birders, is shade-grown, organic coffee. If my recipient is not a birder, I can use it as a “teaching moment.” (Sorry, family, I know I can be tiresome.) If the recipient knows a little about wildlife, the gift will be appreciated for its own sake. Typical, sun-grown coffee plantations harbor few birds, while shade-grown plantations may have hundreds ( Many of the birds dependent on tropical habitats live and breed “here” in the summer so helping conserve “there,” is the same as helping conserve “here.”
   My favorite Costa Rican coffee farm ( will send it to you quickly and fresh. Here’s a scene from this farm. The coffee is gourmet, hand-picked at its prime, and managed by hand throughout the production process. Here it is being spread out to dry.  They will tell you the light roast is the most flavorful--and has the most caffeine--so you can get the most buzz for your buck.

Unwrapping a book at Christmas is always fun. How about buying GVAS’s own Birds of Western Colorado ($20 plus shipping/handling)? You can order it from Amazon or by contacting GVAS at


Written by Robert Righter, and our own Rich Levad, Coen Dexter and Kim Potter, this book allows birders in this area to check quickly whether a possible sighting is likely, whether the habitat is correct, and whether the season is correct. This is not a field guide, but is a superlative reference for gauging the reliability of your sighting and whether you will come under the scrutiny of an ebird or State of Colorado reviewer for your reported sighting. Sometimes birders are surprised by the scientific rigor that is required for accepting an unusual sighting. This book is a great reference for Western Slope birders and GVAS even has a few copies with signatures from some of the authors. We will sell and deliver to you direct if you contact us at (Feel free to send questions about other possible gifts for birders. We’ll be happy to try and answer.)
    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, check out and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Sunday, November 17, 2013

     I know, “Tis the season!” How many times are you going to have to read how stupid domestic turkeys are, and how smart are the wild ones? My story is different. Perhaps, a turkey as a human predator would have been better for Halloween.
     It started with my son yelling, “Dad, dad, there’s a huge bird here.” We were at Upper Tapeats campsite in the Grand Canyon. It was 6PM in early June. Our thermometer showed 120 degrees in the sun. Tapeats is a narrow canyon, and although a cold creek was roaring; we could feel the rock walls radiating heat as the sun set. Though tired and hot, I ran to where Adam called and there was the “huge bird”—a turkey. “What the heck,” I thought. “Turkeys on the rim for sure—even down in the oaks, but all the way down here in the cactus where it’s so hot?”
     “What an inquisitive turkey,” I thought, as it came toward us. Soon, it was walking around us. “What’s it doing?” It followed us. It stalked us. We realized it wanted a handout. All we had was a simple meal of bean burritos. We had just hiked more than ten miles. It was so hot! But, we couldn’t sit down. We ate standing with a burrito in one hand, and a long stick, for fending off the turkey, in the other. 

     After we finished eating, the turkey continued to harass us. Finally, in the twilight, the turkey roosted in a large tree above our camp. Having spent almost five months of my life in the Grand Canyon with a variety of companions and weather, the turkey was just a reminder that “things happen.” I don’t like to eat turkey, but I did wish mayhem on that one. 

     There are five subspecies of Wild Turkey. Ours (and Arizona’s) are Merriam’s, whereas Eastern Colorado has the Rio Grande variety. There may be a zone of hybridization west of us in Utah.
Turkeys are an amazing success story. For those who doubt the efficacy of conservation regulations in the US, consider: Game managers estimate that the entire population of wild turkeys in the United States was as low as 30,000 in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, they were almost totally extirpated from Canada and were found mostly in localized pockets in the US. Hunting was banned and conservation efforts began. These activities included protection, trapping and re-location. By 1973, the estimated population had rebounded to 1.3 million and hunting was resumed. Current estimates place the population at 7 million (  Unfortunately, this remarkable success story is under some stress.  Population declines are being noted once again--especially in the east and southeast.  Loss of habitat, and climate effects are being examined as possible causes.  

     Grand Valley birders will be looking for turkeys around Christmas time. We won’t be looking for any to eat, but to count. We have two annual Audubon Society Christmas counts in the area. One is the Grand Valley count which encompasses an area more or less from Fruita to Fruitvale and the same distance north-to-south. That “count” will occur on December 15. On January 1, we have the Grand Mesa Count. For all but a few species, we find more in the valley than in the mountains. On which do you think we’ll find the most wild turkeys?

    Last year we had zero turkeys in the valley and 71 in the mountains. Last August I saw a turkey on top of Elk Mountain at more than 10,000 ft. Earlier in the summer, we saw a hen and seven nearly-grown poults below Elk Mountain at 8400 ft. Turkeys may migrate 40 miles from high elevations where they breed, to lower elevations where they spend the winter. Which is why, if you want to see turkeys, check out the area around the town of Molina. 

(Photo by Jackson Trappett)

     Drive in and around Molina early some morning. The roads between there and the Grand Mesa are excellent for seeing turkeys in the winter. You might also try driving Peninsula Road (highway 330) from Collbran to Vega Lake. Check out the pastures down along Plateau Creek as you drive along.
     If you want to explore the types and numbers of birds seen on our Christmas Counts, here’s how. Go to and Click on “historical” and follow the directions. If you want to help us do the counting (we always need help!) this year, check our website ( or send an email
     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, send an email to and “like” us on Facebook!]

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