Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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SHRIKE TWO!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, March 9, 2017

Sounds like the cry of an umpire doesn’t it? These days, there’s lots about baseball in the Sports Pages. But I am thinking of shrikes, not strikes, although, if you know much about these birds, the word “strike” appears in most descriptions of their behavior.

As my title implies, there are only two species of shrikes in North America: the Loggerhead Shrike and the Northern Shrike. An interesting aspect to their distribution is that unlike so many of our species, there are no close relatives in Central and South America. The thirty-some species of shrikes originated in Eurasia or Africa.
(This Loggerhead Shrike has "struck" a cricket. Photo by Jacson Trappett)

Here in Western Colorado, early to mid-March may be the best time to encounter both varieties. More Loggerhead Shrikes begin arriving to augment the few that stayed the winter. Meanwhile, the Northern Shrikes that wintered here haven’t left for their breeding grounds near and on the taiga in the Far North.

The best places to see shirkes seems to be in the Pinyon-Juniper and associated grasslands. Often they will perch atop a shrub or tree looking for prey to “strike.”

Superficially, with their black, gray and white plumage, they can be reminiscent of a mockingbird, but not so their feeding habits. Shrikes are carnivorous and their family name, lanidae, comes from the latin word for butcher. Indeed, one of their habits is to impale prey on thorns or barbed wire so they can eat it later. If you google “images of shrikes with impaled prey,” you’ll see a variety of bodies including birds, rodents and insects.

Local poet Frank Coons, captures their fierce lifestyle and uncommon beauty in his poem “The Shrike:”

THE SHRIKE*
Black masked assassin
In white satin damask
to pedestal, to wing
to wing’s advantageous pinnacle
to parapet
gentility is a lie my love,
as in the cat bird song he sings,
the little thing’s a predator,
his shape is but a counterfeit

it’s the small hooked beak, the sudden swoop
that breaks their necks, the snake, the skink
and that which he doesn’t consume,
he treks back to his trophy room
where on wire strung between
rusted
barbs he displays for to see,
his charcuterie.

(Northern Shrikes are slightly larger than their relatives, have longer bills, and narrower masks in front of the eye. Photo by Jackson Trappett)


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!]


*The Shrike, reprinted with permission from Counting in Dog Years by Frank H. Coons, available from Lithic Press www.lithicpress.com
 

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STINK CREEK AND SWEETWATER: IN PRAISE OF REGULATIONS

By Nic.Korte
Friday, February 17, 2017

Recently, I watched our president sign an Executive Order that requires two regulations to be removed for each one added. That made me think of Stink Creek.

I grew up in quintessential “Make-America-Great”/middle-class/all-white/small-town/Midwest USA.
It was, indeed, the kind of town that I could start off in the morning on my bike and find some friends and go to the pool or the ball diamond or wherever. One place I was supposed to stay away from was Stink Creek—so named because it received the effluent from the local sewage plant, which, in those days, was not nearly so regulated as now. And, to be explicit, it stank.

The creek was a draw for us, however. Where else could we take our BB-guns and shoot at floating debris? I well remember being found there by the father of one of my friends. I recall my friend being drug along by the arm as his father admonished, “if you want to play in that creek, let’s go home and I’ll p___ in a bucket, and you can play in that!”

The years went by, I grew up and eventually moved to Tucson and the University of Arizona (Go Wildcats!), where my wife and I both received graduate degrees. I had been interested in birds all of my life, but those early years in Arizona are when my life-long hobby took-off. On our first camping trip, we went to Madera Canyon for its beauty and hiking, not realizing this canyon was a nationally-famous birding destination. We put up our little, too-small, pup tent. A lady walked by and said, “This looks like fun!” I could tell she really didn't mean it—a sentiment proven true by our poor sleep that night—mostly caused by inadequate padding for sleeping bags.

The next day we walked by the lady’s camp and she invited us into her luxurious trailer where she had recently baked cookies. She and her husband had placed hummingbird feeders all around their campsite and I, who had only glimpsed a hummingbird a few times while growing up in Illinois, was hooked. I still remember the lady’s excitement when a Magnificent Hummingbird appeared. “Oh, there's another big one,” she would exclaim.

The first thing I did after the camping trip was to buy a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. I have been birding in the Tucson area ever since. Although I have returned to Madera Canyon a number of times, my most frequent birding location in recent years has been the Sweetwater Wetlands. Sweetwater, with 296, has more species reported than any other birding-hotspot in heavily-birded Pima County. I never birded Sweetwater in the old days. It didn't exist.

It is interesting to consider what a wildlife paradise was Tucson in pre-settlement days. The Santa Cruz and Rillito Rivers, now channels for storm run-off, were perennial streams. Wetlands and cottonwood-lined streams provided miles of outstanding subtropical habitat. All that disappeared as settlers methodically cut down the trees, built dams and irrigation works, and eventually pumped so much groundwater that only desert remained.

A city, soon encompassing a million residents, needs a lot of waterworks, some of which result from treating sewage. In most locations, as in Grand Junction, treated water can be returned to a river. Many oceanside cities pump their treated effluent into the ocean. What could Tucson do with its “aguas negras” or black water as it is called in Spanish-speaking areas? How about a constructed wetland? Built in 1996, the wetland helps treat secondary effluent and backwash from a nearby reclaimed water treatment system. The City of Tucson, on its website, touts the area as follows: “Sweetwater Wetlands is a water treatment facility, an urban wildlife habitat, and an outdoor classroom.”
(This Sora, a wetland obligate species and usually secretive, was showing-off one morning while I visited Sweetwater.)  

Many birders visit Tucson and even in my infrequent visits to Sweetwater, I’ve encountered people from Colorado, and several birders from foreign countries. As for myself, Sweetwater is where I had my only western sightings of two eastern specialties: Baltimore Oriole, and Black and White Warbler. A quick check on ebird (an online site for listing birds seen) shows that nearly 10,000 checklists have been submitted for the area. Think about that. Ebird has only been available for about a decade, and while most birders use it, many still do not. Plus, birders serious enough to turn in checklists are only a fraction of the visitors to the Sweetwater Wetlands, most of whom are on a simple nature walk.

It isn’t a stretch at all to say that one of the City of Tucson’s most valuable resources resulted from sewage treatment regulations—which, brings me back to Stink Creek. I’ll bet my nieces and nephews living in my hometown have never heard of it. After those nasty regulations eliminated the smelly effluent, the creek was given a new name, and alongside it now lies my hometown’s most expensive real estate.

(Sweetwater is a great place to view a variety of ducks such as these Northern Shovelers.)

(Tucson is not unique. Many cities now include constructed wetlands as part of both their sewage treatment system and their park system.)

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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(IN) MESA LAND (WE) TRUST

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, February 2, 2017

The beginning of a year has everyone considering the future. Buddhism teaches there is only one thing we can rely on—change. Change can be difficult. It is especially difficult for wildlife when change is too rapid for species to adapt or so drastic that they cannot survive. That’s why preserving land for wildlife is essential.

In a recent blog, I discussed how Townsend’s Solitaires are doing well—in part, because their habitat is almost exclusively western and semi-high or high in the mountains (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/solitary-for-thanksgiving).  This land is owned by the public and sufficiently preserved (for now) to allow them to thrive. Many species, however, require private land because that is mostly where they live. Private lands also provide essential habitat for migration. Smaller areas, even if insufficient size for breeding, are important because they can provide links between large territories so that genetic diversity can be maintained.

 (A Bald Eagle fledged last summer from this private-land nest-site conserved by the Mesa Land Trust.) 

We have recently completed the Audubon Christmas count in the Grand Valley. The bulk of the birds counted were non-native: Starlings, Eurasian Collared-Doves and House Sparrows. Where did we find the bulk of our native species? Along the mostly privately-owned washes and ditches. (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/awash-in-habitat-sources-and-sinks)

One of the best means for preserving low-elevation, private land is through conservation easements. It is not an accident that groups that perform this activity are often called “trusts.” 

Trust can mean “faith, belief, hope, conviction, but it can also mean “care, protection, and responsibility”—and also a “consortium, a group or organization.” For a Land Trust, all of the definitions may apply. Why preserve land unless there is belief and hope in the future? Preserving land from development certainly means caring, protecting and being responsible for it. Finally, the word trust, refers to those people who are doing the actual work. 

Here in Western Colorado, landowners who wish to see their land preserved for historic uses and for wildlife, rely mostly on the Mesa Land Trust. Founded in 1982, the Land Trust holds over 200 conservation easements protecting over 64,000 acres in the Grand Valley, Glade Park, and Plateau Valley as well as Montrose and Delta Counties. Protected properties include orchards, vineyards, cropland, working ranches, and much vital habitat for wildlife. The federally “threatened” Gunnison Sage Grouse is the marquee species benefiting from the work of the Mesa Land Trust, but the reality is, the species that most benefits is man.

(Riverside wetlands and cottonwood gallery forest, such as this preserved by the Mesa Land Trust, are essential for much of Colorado’s wildlife.)

[If you are not a donor or member of the Mesa Land Trust, you should be. You can donate and join through their website: mesalandtrust.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!]
 

27 comments

GOING THROUGH A PHASE!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, January 19, 2017

“Going through a phase,” according to an internet definition I found, " tends to mean that the person who is going through said phase is exhibiting less than desirable behavior that society or the speaker assumes will eventually pass with time.” I have grandkids and luckily, when they are said to be “going through a phase,” I can send them home with their parents.

According to the definition, the idea that the “less than desirable behavior [of a given phase] will pass, often proves true, as the terrible twos and the teenage years do ultimately come to an end in most cases.” Unfortunately, for birders, some birds have phases they pass through, and also phases that are permanent.
Birding Field Guides make valiant attempts to deal with this problem. For example, some years ago, the grandparents of my daughter-in-law, Cara, became good friends with Don and Lillian Stokes. Birders recognize those names as authors of a popular series of birding field guides. Hence, I have been gifted personally-dedicated copies of the guide books. Their comprehensive book, “Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” has nearly 800 pages and purports to have photographs of all common “phases” of our birds.

Most other field guides rely on drawings and I often find the Stokes book, despite its size, a nice complement to the others. A few blogs ago, I wrote about the Townsend’s Solitaire—a relatively common, if not well-known, bird of our Western Mountains. I consulted the book and found two photographs. Our most common bluebirds, Mountain and Western, are nearby in the book, and there are four photographs each: a bright male, a dull male, a female, and a juvenile. 

I turned the pages to North America’s (and the Grand Valley’s) most common raptor, the Red-tailed Hawk. There are twenty-three photographs. What’s going on?

First of all, there are fourteen recognized subspecies, all looking at least slightly different than the others. Worse yet, some subspecies have various “phases,” usually referred to as “morphs” which may be “light,” “intermediate,” or “dark.” Finally, fledged juveniles old enough to be hunting on their own, may not resemble the adults.
Take a look at Jackson’s Trappett fine photo of a Red-tailed Hawk. Where’s the Red-tail? Doesn’t the Field Guide show that Western Red-tailed Hawks have a white chest and rusty-brown belly band? Well, this one is going through a phase. It is a juvenile.

Eventually, it will look a lot like this next bird which has the familiar rusty tail and mottled “V” on its back.

That was a passing phase. What about the bird below? This bird appears to be almost all dark—black even. It is also a Red-tailed Hawk.

Could it be the rare Harlan’s subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk? At this point, from this photo and angle, it is difficult to be sure because, just as I warned above, the typical Western subspecies has a dark morph described in one reference as “solidly-brownish-black.” That same reference, by the way, says a dark morph of the Harlan’s subspecies is “solid-brownish-black.” Unless you can explain to me the difference in “solid,” versus “solidly,” we haven’t come very far.

I read on. The breast on this bird is clearly visible and the reference says, “most Harlan’s show white-mottling on the breast.” There’s something. There is definitely not white mottling on this one. Unfortunately, continuing to read, I learn that adult Harlan’s, “can be solid-dark underneath.”

You can tell for sure what it is when it flies…

The “fingers," tips of the primaries, on this bird are all dark. If they were banded, it would be a Harlan’s. This is a tough one. As one major source notes, sometimes you can’t distinguish a dark-phase Western Redtail from a dark-phase Harlan’s.


What about the next one? Is it another Red-tail? You can see it doesn’t look like the other two redtails in this piece, but now you know that the Stokes book has some twenty more photos that we haven't discussed.

 Look at those wingtips! See how they almost reach the tip of the tail. The wings are not nearly so long on a Red-tailed Hawk. This is, indeed, something different. It is a Ferruginous Hawk, becoming increasingly rare because of destruction of their grassland habitat.

Ferruginous Hawks also have light and dark color morphs, but familiarity with their structure, as in their long wings, and big mouth (known to birders as the gape), are invariable and will result in a correct identification.

Would you like to view 30-40 raptors through a scope and discuss the fine points of their identification? Join one of Grand Valley Audubon Society’s Tumacanbac Raptor Field trips. There are five field trips occuring from the end of January through early February.  Everyone, especially beginners, are invited!  Details for signing up can be found on the website (audubongv.org) or facebook page.

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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SCRITCH-SCRITCH (HEY SWEETIE!)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Friends have asked me where my ideas for this blog come from. Ideas arise because I enjoy writing.

Because I enjoy writing, I've read several books on writing—not so much to improve, but because I like the way writers think. One thing I have in common with some of the writers whose books I've read is that I find my ideas “just come.” These writers also say, “When you think you have an idea, write it down immediately. In a few hours, even if you remember it, the freshness will be gone. You won't re-create your train of thought.” That's great advice and I often find myself writing some notes, or tapping out some random train of thought and emailing it to myself.

Those considerations came to mind recently while cross-country skiing near the rustic cabin we own on 20 acres adjacent to the Grand Mesa National Forest. Our property is at 8300 ft. Other than a nice meadow, the terrain is aspen woodland with a few Gambel Oaks on the uplands and some Narrowleaf Cottonwood by the small stream—a deciduous woods, that is. As I skied, I stopped every so often to listen for birds.

I stopped. Silence! Deep silence is all I heard. Once I heard a very distant raven. Another time an airplane. Otherwise it was stillness. While I skied, I heard only the rhythmic scritch-scritch of my skies.

With all due respect to the Grand Mesa Nordic Council and the racers and skaters on the groomed trails (which I often enjoy myself) on nearby Grand Mesa, my favorite cross-country skiing is when I'm breaking trail. I love watching my ski tips push through the clean snow. I love returning on my own trail, rapidly now because of the track I've made.

Scritch-scritch. An idea formed. In a cumulative couple of months up here in the winter, I suspect I've seen not even ten species of birds. There is more diversity in the conifers which dominate the forest somewhat higher in elevation. Especially when there is a good cone crop, one might see crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and other species I never find among the winter aspens.

My idea gelled. I would write about the lack of bird sound. I would write about how the summer-abundant flycatchers, warblers, and swallows are in Mexico and Central and South America. This would be interesting, because in doing my due diligence for the article, I could learn for myself which birds traveled farther, which wintered together, and which went separate ways before their annual summer convergence.

These thoughts worked through my mind as I skied along—enjoying the shadow of cone flower heads waving over the untracked snow, the contrast of red birch and yellowish alder branches against the snow covered hills. High above the valley, I could see the dark green of the Englemann Spruce and Subalpine Fir. Silence and beauty, I was thinking. Scritch-scritch. 

Then I heard it--a birdcall. I stopped. Listened. Silence. Again, I skied. Scritch-scritch. Again, I heard the sound—a soft two-note call. I didn't recognize it exactly, but decided the pitch was correct for a Black-capped Chickadee—the most likely bird for me to see here, if I were to see a bird.

I pulled out my iPhone and played a typical “dee-dee” call, knowing I didn't have the brief “toot-toot” I had heard. Within seconds, a Black-capped Chickadee popped out of some nearby brush making the same sound I had just played. I had to look at my phone to assure myself it had quit playing.

The use of calls to attract birds is controversial. I could write quite a lot about that. Some feel it is an unnatural stressor. Others believe responding to a call is such a normal part of a bird's day, that playing an imitation is meaningless in the context of most bird’s lives. Some even believe using a call allows a male to demonstrate his fitness to his mate because most birders, once the bird is seen, cease playing the call. The apparent intruder, in that case, has been vanquished, and the female is impressed. Most of the time, when a call elicits a response, the bird will zoom in. Everyone has a look, me at the bird, the bird at me, and the bird leaves.

Not this time. Chickadees are typically gregarious. I've experienced playing a call and having ten or more chickadees descend on me. Not this time! This individual landed overhead and kept repeating “dee-dee, dee-dee.”

I began to feel badly. This poor guy really wanted to find some of his fellows. Then he did it.
He switched calls.

“Hey sweetie.” A pause. “Hey sweetie”. He had stopped making the quarrelsome “dee-dee” call and was doing his spring territorial/mating song. He was so lonely he was advertising for a mate, here on the last day of December. (Here is a link to the “Hey Sweetie” call: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX48Xv09HBI )

“Hey sweetie!” Over and over, he called. I was feeling mortified. Virtually, never have I regretted using a call to attract a bird. I was regretful now. He stayed overhead and called repeatedly. Five minutes! Ten! “Hey Sweetie!”

I'd never had a single bird go off like this. He seemed so lonely. One of my heroes, the late Alexander Skutch, perhaps the greatest field/observational ornithologist who ever lived, was criticized for anthropomorphizing birds. How could he not, with behavior like this? I didn't want to chase the bird away. It didn't deserve to be frightened. Plaintively it repeated, “hey sweetie.”

Then, out of the corner of my eye, some movement. A chickadee! Then another! Just two! At least my bird had some company. The calling stopped. The three of them worked their way up and down and under aspen branches. It struck me then, how perfect they were for winter in the aspens. Their combination of gray, white, and black is ideal. Each chickadee resembled a lively piece of aspen bark flitting from branch to branch and twisting to and fro as if looking for a place to fit just right in an aspen bark jigsaw puzzle and stop and hide.

I felt better now. It occurred to me that the two arrivals might be a mated pair that would only depress my apparently lovesick loner, but at least, he now had company. I felt even a little better when I returned to the cabin. My wife had seen some chickadees. She also saw three. Maybe the groups will get together and everyone can have a mate.

What about my writing? Now I had another idea. I could write about the chickadee. Then I would have two winter blogs, saving me possible future stress about finding an idea for the next one. But I remembered, somewhere in my readings about writing, there was more advice about ideas. “Don't save them. “If you hoard ideas, they grow stale. If you save an idea in case you won't have one the next time you need one, it just stifles your creativity.” “Ok,” I thought: “Scritch-scritch (Hey Sweetie).”

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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