Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

Follow local birders in pursuit of their life lists. For more visit audubongv.org.

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HOW TO SEE A NEW BIRD (FINDING LIFERS!)

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 25, 2015

If you are a birder, you know what a “lifer” is. That’s a “new” bird—one you haven’t identified before. If you aren’t a birder, but are acquainted with one, you may have heard he or she excitedly describe some new sighting. And, if you aren’t a birder, you may be in wonderment. What is the big deal? Don’t most of them look the same? Are they really worth the effort?

I know for me, there’s sort of a “possession” when I see something new. I now “posses” that bird, that memory. At my core, I’m a watcher of wildlife. I want to see what happens. What are they doing? Why is that bird here right now? I find these questions interesting, and they keep me entertained even when there aren’t new birds to be seen. That’s a very good thing. I’ve already done my share of traveling for the purpose of birding and it would get really expensive if adding to my “lifelist” was my sole driver.

Nonetheless, I like to see new birds. I’m recently returned from nearly five weeks in Costa Rica. This tiny country, the size of Western Colorado, is justly famous for birding-- having nearly 800 species on its country list—about equal to the ENTIRE United States. Over several decades, my total time in country is approaching a year of my life. Much of my time there has been spent looking for birds. Lifers have become hard to come by. But, on this recent trip I managed eight new ones. My experiences ran the gamut of how it is done, so I thought I’d describe how seeing new birds happens.

Here’s the easy way. Find someone who knows where they are and have them show you. We were going to spend time near the small town of San Vito near the Panamanian border. I had perused checklists from the area posted on ebird.org to see what people had been seeing. I also signed up to receive information from the San Vito Bird Club—a public-spirit minded group of mostly ex-Pats who, besides birding, work in the local schools and raised funds for an observation tower at the Las Cruces Biological Reserve, a nearby Organization of Tropical Studies (http://www.ots.ac.cr/) research station.

Three days before we were to go to San Vito, the Bird Club website (http://sanvitobirdclub.org/) announced a “bird walk,” with the primary quarry being a Masked Duck which had recently been seen at Finca Cantaros—a private nature reserve (http://fincacantaros.com/) which can be visited for a small fee, and is located about 10 minutes from the house we had rented. Plans can change! We made arrangements to arrive a day early so we could accompany the bird club. A few minutes after meeting the group, we had walked to the small natural pond and seen a pair of Masked Ducks. How easy was that?

It should be said that Masked Ducks are found from the Southern tip of the US (chiefly Texas) all the way to Argentina so their large geographic range suggests their populations are safe. Nevertheless, they seem to be nowhere common where many people (such as birders) are found. It is considered a tough find in Costa Rica--very “hit-or-miss,” in part, because it lives in thick, swampy, shady habitats which are often difficult to access. Masked Ducks also tend to be shy and may slink off into the reeds rather than allow themselves to be seen. Finca Cantaros has a natural pond that I suspect has sheltered Masked Ducks for eons. That’s the easy “lifer.” Combine local knowledge with local help and be led to where the bird is. Birders find that exciting and fun. Making friends of some of the Bird Club members was a trip highlight. (Here’s a nice little video about masked ducks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGCA4p2MswI)

(masked duck photo from wikipedia)

The other “lifer” I saw nearby was found the hard way.

The Costa Rican Brush-Finch lives in this same area. As its name implies, it has a small range. It is found from Central Costa Rica to Northern Panama—a range that isn’t even as wide as the State of Colorado. We were staying in the heart of their abundance and that gave me some hope, even though, as the name implies, this bird likes the brush. Thick, nasty tangles are its preferred habitat. Such locations can have quite a few birds, but aren’t the overall best birding locations. In addition, this bird is a skulker. It stays close to the ground, preferring not to show itself. It was on the list at the Biological Station and at Finca Cantaros. Our location was in between. I deduced that if the populations were continuous, the bird would use the ravines below the house we rented. Maybe I could stay “home” and still find the bird.

This part of Costa Rica, as with much of the country, contains almost no flat land. The property we were on was so steep that walking usually required having a foot braced against the slope. I was impressed how the owners had cut some trails to maintain some accessibility to most of their property. Nevertheless, even finding a place to sit quietly was nearly impossible because of the slope. And, this is the tropics. Sitting in a brush tangle is hot, humid and buggy. Even if there was a breeze, it was blocked in the ravine by the slope and the brush.

This is where the value of electronics comes in. Yes, I probably would not have seen the bird without my iPad. You see, I like to write. I had found a location where I could sit without too much discomfort. I was at the bottom of the ravine, but there was a small opening in the brush to give me a little viewing area. I covered myself up with bug spray, took a look around, and resumed working on an article I had promised on Western Screech-Owls. Writing kept me distracted despite my sweat and the insects buzzing around.

I moved around some, trying different locations and eventually invested 4 hours in the effort. I had accomplished some writing and I’d seen a few birds—but they were common and not hard-to-find elsewhere. It was a bit discouraging, but I had another free afternoon coming up. I would try again.

A couple of hours into the second afternoon, I noticed movement in the thick brush in front of me. One or two birds had passed by at ground level. On my Ipad, I had the Costa Rican Bird App (http://birdingfieldguides.com/) with the Costa Rican Brush Finch selected. I played the high-pitched squeaky call—which is almost impossible for me to hear. The movement, now a couple of yards past me, stopped. Next a bird flew out of the tangle onto a perch right in front of me. A Costa Rican Brush-finch looked me in the eye. I remained motionless. It flew to another perch. Then another. Not finding its presumed rival, it dropped back into the tangle and resumed its journey. As a birder, I was proud. I had deduced where the bird would have to be—if it were present. I concealed and prepared myself. I needed 4 to 5 hours, but I had distracted myself with my writing—something I valued no matter what happened with the bird. And, I was successful. Two lifers. One hard. One easy. One social. One solitary. Both fun. Both exciting. That’s what it is like being a birder.

 (Costa Rican Brush-Finch from wikipedia)

(In our area, if you want to find out what other birders are seeing and where, check out these two listserves: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/wsbn/info and https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!forum/cobirds. You can also see what has been posted for Mesa County on ebird.org)

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.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!]
 

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NOW YOU SEE THEM! SOON YOU WON’T!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, June 11, 2015

Get out in the woods! Now! Birds are singing. They are singing from prominent perches.
Soon, all territories will be established and the females will be sitting on eggs, and many will become difficult to see.

When you are in the woods this spring, stop and listen. Maybe set your phone or watch timer for five minutes. When it goes off, have you found out that you had “tuned out” bird song. It is easy to do. I have the problem, and I’m what most people would call a hard-core birder. It is a Zen thing. Pay attention!

Two common birds in Western Colorado’s Mountains are Green-tailed Towhees and Hermit Thrushes. Both, particularly the towhee, are relatively common in our forests. In June, both are relatively easy-to-see, because they sing.  (GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE)

The Green-tailed Towhee, a member of the sparrow family, lives in deep brush and shrubbery. Most of the local population arrives in early May after spending the winter along the border or in Mexico and most leave by late September. Now, they are looking for mates and proclaiming their territories. They sing often and loudly from exposed perches.

Songs sound different to everyone. Some characterize the towhee as a jumbled mix of clear whistles and trills (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Green-tailed_Towhee/sounds). Look for it singing from the top of a bush. It will be near some forest but in a relatively open area. It will be showing its handsome red/brown crest, white-throat and olivey tail from the top of a Great Sage or a Snowberry or other large bush.

My favorite North American bird songs are the flute-like trills of our two mountain thrushes: Hermit and Swainson’s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0mATRdzZSc) I hate to use the word “ethereal” for these songs, but I may as well because everyone else does. The songs are beautiful and other-worldly with the ability to evoke deep feelings of both joy and sadness at the same time.(HERMIT THRUSH)
I find the behavior of the thrushes remarkable because I have more familiarity with them in Central America where they spend more of their lives. Swainson’s Thrushes, while in Costa Rica seem abundant. I don’t know that there are more of them. It is just that they are tame. They commonly enter yards and gardens and are easily seen. It is different in Colorado. Most of our thrushes arrive on their breeding grounds in late May or early June. Soon after arrival they sing their lovely songs from prominent perches—often from the tops of trees or prominent snags. This behavior lasts about two weeks and then they are gone. Well, not exactly gone, but hard-to-find. They nest, raise their young, and by late August, most are on their way back to their homes in the tropics.

These thrushes nest inside brush in the forest. They are dark brown and spotted so they blend in with the trees and shrubs. If you happen to flush one, they often don’t fly far but stay low and concealed. With patience, good views can be had, but often not.

It is always a great time to be in the woods. Now is an even better time. Listen and look—the season is short.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.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!]

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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 (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/as-blue-as-i-can-be), 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 audubongv@gmail.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!]

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FRUITGROWERS

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, ebird.org, 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: http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/how-i-make-a-living-there-goes-a-crane).

(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 (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/how-i-make-a-living-there-goes-a-crane), 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 audubongv@gmail.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!]
 

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THE POET

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.

AMERICAN KESTREL 

(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.


HOUSE WREN

(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 audubongv@gmail.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!]
 

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