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The Environmental Hero Next Door

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, May 28, 2015

Most people have no idea of the perilous condition of our nation’s wildlife. Populations of the majority of species are under stress from loss of habitat. Public land and public land managers are recognized for protecting certain large tracts necessary for effective wildlife reproduction, but without private land to provide connectivity, seasonal resting places, and critical habitat much more of our wildlife would be in dire straits.

Another crucial factor preserving our wildlife is the work of volunteers. In this column I want to recognize one of those volunteers—Bob Wilson of Grand Junction.

Consider one of Colorado’s most iconic and familiar birds, the Mountain Bluebird. In a previous column (, I argued that not even the multi-hued beauty of tropical birds can surpass the beauty of our bluebirds.

(Mountain Bluebird by Bob Wilson)

We are accustomed to seeing bluebirds during any drive in the countryside. But, have you also noticed the many nest boxes sitting on posts? Some of those lines of boxes go on for many miles. What about them?

Find some photos or drawings of our nation’s three types of bluebirds—all of which live in Colorado. Look at the bills. They are short and stubby, and yet, bluebirds nest in holes in trees. How can they possibly drill a nest cavity with such a bill? They can’t!

Bluebirds rely on cavities excavated by other species, chiefly woodpeckers, for nest sites. Think about the sequence. Typically, a tree needs to be old, dying or diseased to attract a woodpecker. Even though a woodpecker’s chisel-like bill is perfect for excavating a hole, they aren’t going to bang on the strongest and best wood. That’s why so many woodpeckers nest in dead trees. Fortunately for bluebirds, woodpeckers have evolved a need to excavate cavities frequently, usually every year. Thus, last year’s woodpecker nest can become this year’s bluebird nest. Except! House wrens nest in the same cavities. Violet-green swallows nest in the same cavities. Tree swallows nest in the same cavities. Ash-throated flycatchers nest in the same cavities. The competition for these cavities is fierce because so many species need them. Worse yet, are two species I haven’t mentioned, the introduced Starling and House Sparrow. Both aggressively use cavities and chase away other species.

Let’s add another problem—man! Humans cut down old, dead trees for firewood. They cut them down for safety reasons. They cut them down because they think their forest or yard looks better without the dead tree. Humans have also taken up more and more habitat for housing and subdivisions. These factors combined to cause alarming reductions in bluebird populations in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, however, these populations have rebounded. Little is said anymore about problems with bluebird populations. You can thank Bob Wilson (aka Bluebird Bob).

(Here is Bob, tending a nestbox on his route.)

Volunteers such as Bob, throughout the country, are the reason that bluebird populations are stable. They took the time to build or buy bluebird nest boxes. They went to the trouble of obtaining permission to install the boxes. They purchased the materials needed. Then they took the time to check on the nest boxes during each nesting season. Afterwards, they cleaned out the boxes in preparation for next year. Here are some statistics showing what Bob has accomplished: During his 16-year effort, Bob’s nest boxes have fledged more than 2500 Mountain Bluebirds, more than 550 Ash-throated Flycatchers and more than 30 Western Bluebirds. 

This has been a huge undertaking and whenever you see a bluebird, you need to thank Grand Junction’s Bob Wilson and all of his colleagues throughout the country.

(Bob and volunteer Susan Longest having a close encounter with a couple of mountain bluebirds.)

Efforts such as these are critical if our wildlife is to be preserved for future generations. 

 This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments, including those about volunteering with Bluebirds, 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
Thursday, May 14, 2015

Visiting birder’s frequently ask, “Where is the best place to go birding near Grand Junction?” While the answer may depend on what birds one wants to see; a good answer is always Fruitgrowers Reservoir (aka Hart’s Basin) near the little town of Eckert. Viewing at the small reservoir is easy, and, much of the time, you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the abundant wildlife. Just the other day, a birder photographed an otter crossing the road. Often one can see thousands of cranes, and sometimes hundreds of White Pelicans. Most of the year, elegant Western Grebes are common—and, in the spring, they are dancing.

The Bureau of Reclamation website indicates the number of visitors per year is about 500. I found that laughable. It has to be higher than that. Whenever I talk to birders from the Eastern Slope, they all know about Fruitgrowers and many drive over for an annual visit. Most of the spring and much of the summer, it is uncommon not to find other birders in the area. 

The small reservoir and surrounding meadow can host thousands of Sandhill Cranes in the spring and fall. The bird-tracking website,, shows 150 species recorded. That number is not so impressive, but what is important is the high quality of the list. For example, if you want to see the uncommon Clark’s Grebe, where would you go? 

Clark’s Grebe’s are usually found in the company of the similar Western Grebe. The Western Slope’s largest colony of Western Grebe’s is found at Fruitgrowers. The two grebes are easy to distinguish if the observer is close enough. However, both species may rest well away from shore. In that case, you may need a long look with a spotting scope to determine that the bird you are viewing has a more yellowish bill and an eye surrounded by white feathers rather than the black of a Western Grebe. (Here is a previously-published photo of a Western Grebe:

(Clark's Grebe)

A more difficult-to-find bird—almost anywhere—but particularly in arid regions—is the American Bittern. I described other West Slope herons in a recent post (, but unlike the abundant and highly-visible Great Blue Heron, American Bitterns are secretive and non-descript. They are not habitat generalists but require dense freshwater marshes and extensive wet meadows. Fruitgrowers has just about the only suitable nearby habitat. 

Your best chance to see a bittern is to arrive near dawn and watch the edge of the marsh. If you are very fortunate, you will see one standing still at the edge of the water. As with most herons, bitterns capture prey with a sudden thrust of their bills. If you are doubly-lucky, you may hear their call—often described as sounding like a pump. The sound is produced by what one website termed “spectacular contortions performed with its air-filled esophagus.”
(This Fruitgrowers Bittern was next to the road.)
Because of their shy habits, not much is known about bitterns. Although widespread, their population is believed to be declining because by any measure, high quality marshlands continue to be lost throughout the Americas. 

Also common at Fruitgrowers are Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Don’t be put off by the word “blackbird.” The males are beautiful, even if their song has been compared to “to a heavy door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge.” 

(Yellow-headed Blackbird)

Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds are partners in an interesting evolutionary struggle. Research has shown that Red-winged Blackbirds often return first from migration and stake out territories in the best places—only to be kicked-out when the more dominant Yellow-headed Blackbirds return. If that’s the case, why are Red-winged Blackbirds so much more abundant? The reason is simple. Red-winged Blackbirds can successfully rear broods in marginal habitat—even a shallow ditch with a single, small patch of cattails. Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the other hand, require the deepest and best marshes. The flexibility of the Red-winged Blackbird assures its survival whereas the Yellow-headed needs the type of marsh that can also conceal an American Bittern—such as at Fruitgrowers. It is worth a visit!

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
Saturday, May 2, 2015

In Chile, saying “the Poet,” is the same as being in the Western US and saying “the Canyon.” Everyone knows the former is Pablo Neruda, and the latter is the Grand Canyon.

Some years ago, our daughter Ann lived in Santiago, Chile, providing my wife and I the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in the Cone of South America. Ann insisted that the one place we had to visit was Pablo Neruda’s former seaside home. It isn’t feasible to describe its collections and architecture which are eclectic, eccentric and ridiculous—much befitting this complicated man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, while also being a political leader, and, even to his death, something of a child. Although he was already ill, some say he died of a broken heart when the duly-elected leftist government he so strongly supported was overthrown by a CIA-engineered coup in 1973.

Neruda is renowned for his classic love poems, but, as you may have guessed, he also wrote a volume dedicated to birds.

A few of Neruda's birds are very familiar to Western Colorado Residents. He captures both the Kestrel and the now-returning House Wren very well in these verses.


(Photo by Jackson Trappett)
At that slender second
the hawk hammered its flight,
cut loose from the firmament,
and swooped like a sudden shiver.

The landscape remained serene
and the woodlands were not frightened,
Everything kept throbbing
except a hare, a bird,
something that flew or ran,
something that used to live
on that blood-spattered spot.


(Photo by Jackson Trappett)

Little round neighbor, all
dressed up in feathered finery,
always after your treasure:

a wren turns upside down and inside out:
its agile eyes sparkle,
its tiny tail cocked

leaving behind its minute eggs,
round little works of wonder
from which a wren’s curiosity
will eventually pop out
to investigate springtime.

(Photo by Jackson Trappett)

[If you would like to learn more about Neruda, I suggest the excellent biography by Adam Feinstein: Pablo Neruda-A Passion for Life, Bloomsbury Press, 2004.)

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
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

“Barn Owl has always specialized in devotional darkness, pushing desert rock into previously unexplored, murky territories. Their sound is a ghostly rhythm almost beyond reach.’

Those sentences describe the music group “Barn Owl.” Listen to their music if you like:

If you’ve ever seen a Barn Owl flying or perched, you can understand how the bird’s ethereal whiteness evokes “devotional darkness,” “murky territories,” and a “ghostly rhythm almost beyond reach.”
(Photo from GVAS archives)

This barn owl is about to land and devour a mouse.  One reason barn owls and man co-exist so well, is their diet is virtually 100% rodents.  

Barn Owls are also a favorite on beer labels. I had been gifted a bottle of an Imperial Brown Ale brewed in England. 

While looking up the Cotleigh variety shown in the photo, I found ales named after Barn Owls brewed in Maine and Oregon. So, I kept looking. I found a wine, Barn Owl Red, which is made here in Palisade at Mesa Park Vineyards.

Barn Owls are among the most beneficial of avian species. According to one website, “Adults will eat two rodents per night in warm weather and up to four rodents per night in cold weather. Young birds in the nest will eat up to six rodents per night during their rapid growth stage. A barn owl family will consume 2,000 to 3,000 rodents annually.” No wonder everyone wants barn owls. California orchards and vineyards have been using barn owls for integrated pest management for decades. A few local vineyards have installed boxes designed for barn owls, but so far there have not been any takers.

Likewise, Grand Valley Audubon Society had some boxes constructed and have placed them in silos, old barns and trees. So far, no GVAS box has been used either. In fact, we continue to have difficulty finding barn owls in the Grand Valley as I described previously. (  In that previous blog, I noted that several former arroyo-cavity nesting areas in the Grand Valley had been abandoned. In one case, it appeared that the hole, if not the owls, had been used for target practice. Another location was overrun with dirt bike usage. Our arroyos or washes or canals are vital habitat for Barn Owls and other owl species. Burning, cutting and dredging those watercourses limits available habitat. Fortunately, there is a barn owl roosting in an inaccessible cavity. We were able to show this owl to several folks during the Grand Valley Audubon Valley Owl Prowl held a couple of weeks ago. At this time, this is the Grand Valley’s only known nesting site. We hope that by educating more people, more habitat can be saved, fostered, or created and this “explorer of murky territories” can become more common in the Grand Valley.

If you have a high barn with a dark corner or an abandoned silo and would like to host a barn owl structure, please contact Grand Valley Audubon. And, be on the lookout and report any sightings of a large, mostly white owl that lacks ear tufts.

[If you would like to follow a barn owl through its nesting cycle, “Like” “Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute” on Facebook. There is a webcam in a barn owl nest box in the Front Range. The owl is sitting on eggs right now and you can watch!]

{This post was written by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to ]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, such as weekly bird walks (continuing through May), please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook!]


HOW I MAKE A LIVING (There goes a crane!)

By Nic.Korte
Friday, April 10, 2015

     Recently, I had an opportunity to practice my Spanish skills (such as they are) with a native speaker and workman at my home. When he asked where I learned Spanish, I described birding trips to Costa Rica and our close friends there. The man told me he had seen some Great Blue Herons that morning and asked if leading birding trips was my job. Sadly, I had to answer no—only an avocation. But, the conversation reminded me that I intended to write about herons—which many people call cranes (—which does relate to how I make a living.

     Until the past five decades or so, humans dumped most of their wastewater and waste (industrial or household) on the ground. Because the waste made the land worthless; it made sense to place it on lands already considered valueless. Like marshlands. Like seasonally-flooded lowlands. After many decades of denial, businesses and the government finally accepted the fact that dumping waste in wetlands had been the best way to ensure contamination of water supplies, groundwater and streams. A huge cleanup industry was born, and I’ve made my living assisting with the cleanup of sites such as these.  

     An example: My family often drove to nearby St Louis when I was a child. This meant driving through a series of lowlands being used as a massive garbage dump. These wetlands eventually became a Superfund Site. Although, I never worked there, the situation exemplifies how my career came to be. What this has to do with herons, is that the associated wetlands, despite the odor and the burning garbage, attracted Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets--never cranes. Even though I corrected him many times, my father always looked at them and said, “There are some cranes!” 
(Great Egrets are a widely -distributed heron, but are uncommon visitors to Western Colorado)

     Here in Western Colorado, we are fortunate to have cranes as well as herons. Other than being long-legged, herons and cranes have little in common. They belong to different taxonomic groups and have mostly different diets and habits.  Herons have unusual vertebrae which allow them to bend their neck into an S-shape. At the same time, the vertebrae can be retracted so the bird can be streamlined in flight. In the fall, Great Blue Herons seem particularly common because the juveniles disperse throughout Western Colorado’s aquatic habitats. In the spring, they are often seen in rookeries—collective nesting areas near bodies of water. Great Blue Herons appear awkward when landing on thin limbs and rocking back and forth on their long legs. Communal nesting is done for safety as the birds can squawk and flap and keep most predators away.

(Great Blue Heron)
     There are a number of accessible rookeries near Grand Junction. One example is on the west side of Highline Lake. Nesting has begun. Drive out and have a look.

     Consistent with life in the desert, our heron diversity is low. Of the sixty-four species, only the Great-Blue Heron is common here. Early fall is usually the best time to encounter the less-common species such as the aforementioned Great Egret, Green Heron, and Snowy Egret.

(Snowy Egrets, like Great Egrets, are widely-distributed herons, but uncommonly seen in Western Colorado.)

Other herons that may be encountered in Western Colorado include Black-crowned Night-herons, Cattle Egrets, and the secretive American Bittern. Keep your eyes open for these long-legged waders near water. They aren’t cranes. They are herons.

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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