Grand Junction Audubon Society birders
Follow local birders in pursuit of their life lists. For more visit audubongv.org.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
It was twilight. Some coyotes howled in the distance. “Look at all those bullbats,” someone said. I jumped up. What could be a bullbat?
I was out of my element here. I had once made my grandfather angry by asking him if the cows at his Illinois dairy farm were drinking milk. This was my first time on a big Western ranch. I didn’t want to say or do anything as foolish.
The ranch was in Northern Arizona—an extension of the pioneer ranching family from which my father-in-law had departed. Most of his family seemed to be big, raw-boned, quintessential cowboys. My father-in-law, diminutive of stature, had become a chemical engineer and moved to Illinois—where I met his daughter—who became my wife—and now I was on a real, old-time ranch visiting Great Uncle Bill and Great Aunt Gertrude. We were staying in a somewhat remodeled Navaho Hogan. I was living a fantasy. There really were people who resembled the cowboys I’d admired on TV in my youth.
Unfortunately, watching Bonanza on TV had not prepared me for this world of which I knew little. My father-in-law, who had left it, at least had the chaps he’d won at a junior rodeo. He could also easily ride a horse. My attempt on a horse had already been the source of some merriment. I had little success persuading my horse to walk very far from the corral where it had been happy before being saddled up. When I gave up and let it have its way; it galloped back to the corral as I awkwardly clung to the saddlehorn hoping the horse would stop before I fell off. There was an audience for my performance, and they all had a good laugh. Now, I didn’t even know what a bullbat was. All I could see were common nighthawks—of which there were plenty.
(COMMON NIGHTHAWK BY JACKSON TRAPPETT)
Finally, I asked, “Where are they?” “Right there,” is what I heard, as several fingers pointed at the nighthawks. “Those are the bullbats.” It was a term new to me.
The family to which nighthawks belong has been subject to more than this misnomer. European relatives were called goatsuckers—a term from the 1600s’ which, in turn, was translated from both Latin and Greek, because the birds were believed to suck milk from goats during the night.
In English, we now call this family of birds “nightjars.” Trying to find out where that name came from, I learned the term dates from the 1630’s and was supposedly descriptive of the harsh sound they made during flight. One of my bird books describes the sound as “hooom,” and another simply refers to a “booming sound.” How those sounds are translated as that of a nightjar (whatever that sounds like!) is still a mystery to me. Supposedly the term bullbat was applied in the early 1800’s, and also referred to their booming flight sound.
Nighthawks are crepuscular—meaning they appear at dusk. The rest of the day, they are sitting, possibly in full view, in a gravel area or on a tree branch. The problem is, they don’t move, and they are very well camouflaged so they are rarely seen except in flight.
(COMMON NIGHTHAWK BY JACKSON TRAPPETT)
So, finally, what has any of this to do with JUCO? It is simple. As a birder, I always enjoyed the many nighthawks that descended on JUCO games as the sun set. They weave about on stiff wings—not at all like the rapid flap of a bat. They have a small bill, but a wide gape—all the better for swallowing large insects and moths.
Unfortunately, where there used to be dozens, there are now only one or two or none. Common nighthawks have undergone a 60% decrease in their population in just a few decades (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/lifehistory). Because nighthawks are so widespread (found in each of the 48 contiguous states); they are not in danger of extinction, but as with so many once-common species—while not too difficult to find--there just aren’t as many anymore. The skies over JUCO will probably hold a few, but nothing like the dozen or more of a couple of decades ago.
The reasons for the loss of population are believed to be development and pesticides. These birds consume so much, that their decline may be telling us something about insect populations. Creating artificial nesting locations, by providing gravel areas on flat rooftops, is one approach being tried as a means of stopping the population decline. Meanwhile research continues in hopes of arresting the waning population of this interesting and valuable bird.
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!]
Thursday, May 8, 2014
My last blog was about the three most common types of dove in the United States, and our most common species, the Mourning Dove, whose North American population is estimated at 130 million.
That’s a lot! Or, is it? The population of the US is approximately 316 million so that means about every 3 of us, represents one Mourning Dove.
But once there was a population of another bird, a cousin of a Mourning Dove (Both are members of Columbidae family), that put their population to shame. This year is the 100th anniversary of the death of the last Passenger Pigeon. Amazingly, in the 1850’s there were reports of Passenger Pigeon flocks that darkened the sky for as long as two hours. The population has been estimated at three-to-five billion. That is nearly forty times our present population of Mourning Doves. Passenger Pigeons were, as noted by the famous conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold, “a biological storm.”
(photo from Wikipedia)
What happened to them? Humans killed them. They shot them for food. They shot them because they could. They destroyed their habitat. All, in just a few decades.
In less than 50 years, there were only a few individuals. Again, quoting Leopold: “Today the oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more.”
This is a sad story. Why I am I remembering it? Well, the 100-year anniversary of the extinction is one reason, but I’m also reminded of Sage Grouse. It is difficult to pick up the paper these days without discussion of what should be done. Should they be classified as endangered or only threatened? Will State and Local actions be better than Federal programs? I am not going to debate that question in this blog.
(photo from Wikipedia)
But what I will do, is quote an elderly friend of mine. She’s 86. She was raised on a ranch in Northwest Colorado. Recently, we were discussing her childhood. One of her jobs, she said, “was to keep the ‘sage chickens,’ that’s what we called them” she said, from eating the feed her family put out for their domestic chickens and other fowl.
“Nic,” she said, “there were so many, they darkened the sky.” So, you can see why, when I think of the rapid demise of the Passenger Pigeon, it is difficult not to think of the rapid demise of Sage Grouse. Here is a person, still alive, who remembers when they “darkened the sky.” No more. Now reservations are needed to visit the remaining dancing and mating grounds of Sage Grouse. Many locations are guarded or not even divulged.
So, when I think of what to do about Sage Grouse—I don’t know. I read the arguments on all sides. But, I do believe that it isn’t good enough to slow the habitat loss or to slow the population loss. As a friend of mine in favor of all preservation has said, “if somebody is beating you with a stick—do you want him to slow down or do you want him to stop?”
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.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
A lady called this week worried about a Mourning Dove’s nest built on her truck. Yes, on a truck! She wasn’t worried about the truck, but about the flimsy nest and the high spring winds. There were already young birds in the nest. What to do? It seems unkind to say, but the best thing to do is nothing. It is all part of their strategy.
Most everyone is familiar with a common reproductive strategy employed by many plants. Millions of seeds are produced because so few survive. Mourning Doves are similar. In warmer areas, these birds may attempt up to six broods in a season. This fast breeding is essential because mortality is high. Each year, as many as 60% of the adults succumb and only about 30% of the young even reach adulthood.
Nests usually contain two eggs which will hatch in about 14 days. Eleven days later, the young will fledge. If you happen to watch a Mourning Dove nest throughout its cycle, you might notice that soon after the doves fledge, they are tended by only a single parent. That would be the male. He has already impregnated the female who is already sitting on the next clutch of eggs. And, those young on the truck? If they survived the winds and made it to adulthood—they may breed themselves in a few weeks.
Despite their remarkable fecundity, Mourning Doves are monogamous and form strong pair bonds. Pairs typically reconvene in the same area the following breeding season, and sometimes may remain together throughout the winter. However, lone doves will find new partners if necessary.
One of my favorite sounds is the soft cooing of a Mourning Dove. That’s one way it attracts or keeps its mate. But, if you pay attention to them this time of year, you will often see them flying up somewhat and then going into a circling glide. That is a flight display—part of showing off to attract a mate. Once the birds have mated, they build their flimsy nest. Typically, the male brings the materials to the female, who does the building—if you can call it that. [I have also found Mourning Dove nests on the ground—at least that keeps them out of the wind.]
So, how is this reproductive strategy working out? According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, populations have slightly declined since 1966, Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 120 million with 81 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 19 percent in Mexico, and 5 percent in Canada.
Mourning Doves also remain the continent's most popular game bird: hunters shoot as many as 20 million Mourning Doves each year. Because of the birds' popularity, game managers monitor their numbers to set hunting limits.
Although Mourning Doves seem to do well in the face of hunting pressure, they also suffer from a less visible problem of lead poisoning. Mourning Doves forage on the ground, and in heavily hunted areas they may consume fallen lead shot with the grit they normally use in digestion. Because one lead pellet can kill a dove, the assumption is that, perhaps, 5% die of lead poisoning. Even worse, in many cases, the carcass may be scavenged by a hawk or eagle which can also be poisoned by the lead. [If you are a hunter or are friends with one, remember to help out wildlife by never using lead ammunition. There are alternatives!]
Anyone who lived in Western Colorado ten years ago or before would have observed Mourning Doves as our only representative of this group. No longer! There have been invaders. Every morning this spring, I am hearing the soft plaintive call of a white-winged dove. There have been some around my neighborhood for several years. I have yet to find a nest, but I have seen one juvenile during breeding season.
White-winged doves are very common in the borderlands of the United States and even more so in parts of Mexico and Central America. Currently, they are expanding their range northward—a possible consequence of global warming. But, the inroads of the white-winged dove are paltry. As I reported in a previous blog (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/fifty-two), during the Grand Junction annual Christmas count we found three this year, and have found them four of the past six years. Before that? Never.
The real invasion story, however, is the Eurasian Collared Dove. Less than forty years after its accidental introduction in Florida, this species is now one of the most widespread and abundant birds in the United States. In 2004, the Grand Junction annual Christmas count found zero. In 2013, we counted 593! These are the big doves in your yard that often sail around and land with a nasal hwahh.
Eurasian Collared Doves use a flight display very much like the Mourning Dove. Listen to their sound when they land and watch for the wide, white-tipped tail (http://www.bines/search?q=eurasian+collared+dove+invasion&qpvt=eurasian+collared+dove+invasion&FORM=IGRE). No one knows what to do about Eurasian Collared Doves. As an invasive, they are not protected. Hunters can harvest as many as they like. Unfortunately, they like living near people, and it can be difficult to find a location for safe hunting. Are they harming the populations of other birds—Mourning Doves in particular? This is a matter of much debate that probably won’t be settled until these species have lived together for a few more decades or longer. One thing is certain. Change in nature can be rapid, and man’s ability to conduct unplanned experiments seems to be unlimited.
Join one of Grand Valley Audubon’s Spring Bird Walks--every Wednesday and Saturday through May. Follow the GVAS Facebook page, the website (http://audubongv.org) or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out where to go and when to meet. There are “loaner” binoculars and checklists. You will learn a lot and have an enjoyable beginning to your day.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Some friends of mine really dislike the desert between Grand Junction and Delta—often referring to it as the “Stinking Desert.” They talk of poor scenery, heat, and gnats. For myself, I like it. I like the openness. I like the long views and the big sky. The creatures that live there seem to like it too—at least if you believe in song as a way of expressing happiness.
My wife and I took a little walk in this desert the other day and we enjoyed the sounds of spring. My favorite song was the western meadowlark. I only saw one, but he was singing lustily and the sweet trills (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o0FC7aqg94) accompanied us most of the way.
Once, we approached a rocky outcrop. The thin “tseet, tseet, tseet of a rock wren emanated from the rocks. This bird is well-named. There are no exposed rocks near some land my family owns at 8400ft here in Western Colorado. We had never seen a rock wren nearby. However, one year, we had a septic system installed, and the resulting excavation piled up quite a few boulders that remained for several weeks. After a few days—there was a rock wren claiming the rock pile for its territory. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsmSTmB7ssY). I like rock wrens. Unlike the winter-fleeing house wren, which sings most of the summer in the aspen woods, a few rock wrens spend the winter here if their territory is a warm, south-facing slope. There are a few locations I know where I can find one and be reminded that spring isn’t far away.
A bit later, my wife and I heard, what to me is the iconic western rangeland call, the down-slurred “peeuur” of the Say’s Phoebe (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEL_ZPVtHak). The call is meaningful to me because my father-in-law’s family were pioneer Western ranchers. I met the Say’s Phoebe long ago on Great Uncle Bill and Aunt Gertrude’s ranch in Northern Arizona. It was a poor spread. High desert—not exactly like our local “stinking” kind—but with lots of sage and some pinyon-juniper. Say’s Phoebe’s were always calling near the ranch buildings. I can’t hear one today without thinking of the ranch.
(Say's Phoebe by Jackson Trappett)
This is also a good time to visit the low desert because of the wildflowers.
Our bird list was short, but flowers and birds as well as grasshoppers and other insects were present. So, for them, despite a barren environment that seems too hot, too dry or too cold... for them it is a good place…reminding me of the words of one of my favorite authors who after studying the harsh habitats enjoyed by some diverse creatures, remarked, “Every single one of them is right” (Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert).
To keep up with the activities (such as Spring Bird Walks, Evening Programs, and Migratory Bird Day) of Grand Valley Audubon Society, check out our webpage at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook. Please send any questions to email@example.com.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
FOS is birder shorthand for "first of the season." What an exciting time it is! Just a few days ago the FOS black-chinned hummingbird was posted on the Western Slope Birding Network (Subscribe at: firstname.lastname@example.org). Black -chinned hummingbirds are common in Western Colorado. In another month, they will be seemingly everywhere. But, the FOS! That is something. Birds are migrating. All is right with the world.
Migration is the harbinger of spring, or as in Spanish...La Primavera...a beautiful word for those of us at northern latitudes. "La Primavera" connotes flowers, and bright colors and warmth.
Ironically, I am writing this in Costa Rica where La Primavera is supposed to be the onset of the rainy season. Instead, it is dry with record heat. Speaking of climate change as a fact...is a fact here. Some rains will undoubtedly come, but fewer and more severe storms seem to be the pattern.
So where am I going with this? Recent studies on a small scale, and anecdotal remembrances by some long-term birders suggest bird populations are down throughout Costa Rica, although diversity remains high. Which brings me to a major disappointment. I will never see a golden toad.
My first visit to Costa Rica in the late 1980s, was also in April. The rains of La Primavera were supposed to begin. They didn't...at least not right away. Some scientists were eagerly awaiting the first rains because that was when the famous golden toads...the symbol of the Monteverde Cloud Forest...came out to breed. The scientists were mildly concerned because so few had been seen the year before. One scientist I spoke with suggested the sparse rains of the previous year probably suppressed or prolonged breeding activities such that the toads were simply missed during the annual census. The general feeling was of optimism and excitement at the prospect of witnessing a marquee nature event...the emergence of golden toads for a night of unusual color and sound in the cold, dark cloud forest of Monteverde. Only, it didn't happen.
I read later that no golden toads were found that year...nor the next...nor ever again. The Golden Toad has been declared extinct. Studies eventually showed that a bacterial infection delivered the killer blow to the golden toad population, but several studies have also suggested links to climate change that either contributed to the drop in population or created a state of unusual vulnerability.
So, I am no longer as sanguine as I await FOS reports. We wait for that first hummingbird or yellow warbler or Swainson's thrush. Birds that remain abundant, such as these, are arriving earlier. http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/120326.html While change in nature is a constant, these changes are far more rapid than any shown in the fossil record http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/28/the-sixth-great-extinction-a-silent-extermination/. Let's not take FOS reports for granted. We need to appreciate and maintain all they represent...welcoming habitat here, productive habitat on the winter range, and a climate that takes care of all of nature...including us.
Join one of Grand Valley Audubon’s Spring Bird Walks--every Wednesday and Saturday through May. Follow the GVAS Facebook page, the website (audubongv.org) or send an email to email@example.com to find out where to go and when to meet. There are “loaner” binoculars and checklists. You will learn a lot and have an enjoyable beginning to your day.