Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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BANDING TOGETHER: SCIENCE AND EDUCATION

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, October 5, 2014

I can't even use salad tongs without spilling half of it on the table. So, my wife always serves my salad.

I was thinking of my clumsy fingers while watching Amber West, a professional bird bander, carefully extricate a Saw-whet owl that had become badly tangled in a mist net. I would have either accidentally strangled the owl several minutes before, or cut a gaping hole in the net because of my frustration. In contrast, Amber calmly worked the owl mostly free. 

Finally, after about 20 minutes, she did need to make one small snip of the net to free the owl, which by the way, was the 7th and last of the night. It was after 10PM.

(photo by Tracy Baron)

Amber's day had started about 7AM at the RMBO/GVAS (Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory/Grand Valley Audubon Society) banding station at Connected Lakes State Park in Grand Junction. The Saw-whet netting and banding was being done North of Rifle. It had to be even more difficult to deal with that tangled owl at the end of a 16-hour day. (Amber had to be at Connected Lakes again the next morning too.).


After untangling the owl, and while holding it in a “bander’s grip,” Amber made all the necessary measurements (wing, beak, etc.) as carefully and meticulously as she did with the first bird way back in the morning.

This is how field biology gets done--carefully and slowly, often involving odd hours and physical discomfort. 

I am a scientist myself—a geochemist. I love science. I love what we can learn, and realizing how much more there is to learn. However, my work can be done in the daytime...often inside. You have to be careful with chemicals, but they don't have a mind of their own.

I hope it shows how much respect I have for those who do fieldwork. It is desperately important if we are going to maintain what we call our wildlife heritage. There has been a lot of recent publicity concerning the expected effects of climate change on North American bird species: 314 species will lose more than 50% of their habitat. 126 of these species will be in danger of extinction. (http://climate.audubon.org/article/storm-gathers-north-american-birds). Some of these species may disappear before we even know very much about them. At least thirty-three species that most people think are common, such as Bobwhite Quail and Eastern Meadowlarks, are in drastic decline (http://birds.audubon.org/species-by-program/cbid). 

Learning more of their life histories is one of the reasons for the bird- banding being done at Connected Lakes and in Rifle. The Saw-whet owl has a lot of unknowns. We know it migrates in part of its range, but not in other parts. Which is it in Western Colorado? What about nest fidelity? Do the owls return to where they were born? We can make some suppositions simply because in 12 years of banding near Rifle, there has never been a recapture.

Over the years, we have found a few Saw-whet owl nests. They have even used some of our nest boxes, but never two years in a row. (With the non-migratory Western Screech-owl, our banding program in Grand Junction has several times found the same owl in the same box in successive years.)

The other reason for these banding programs is for Education. More than 30 people witnessed the Saw-whet owls being banded, with nearly half being students. Similarly, Grand Valley Audubon's program at Connected Lakes regularly introduces more than a 1000 elementary students to the science of ornithology. They are able to see how small and fragile birds are. They are introduced to the great variety of species. And, they can watch how science is done: the careful handling of the bird, the meticulous measurements, the need for teamwork, and the careful record-keeping. (You can visit this operation: M-F, 8-12AM, through October 17 at the Kingfisher parking area in Connected Lakes SP. You will need a parks pass.)

(photo by Tracy Baron)

All of us who work with and enjoy birds, whether as a hobby or a profession, are desperately worried about the future of wildlife. We are also certain that more knowledge is a critical factor in saving wildlife. Perhaps, even more important is that all of us have witnessed that the more people know about a species, the more they appreciate it, and the more likely they are to want to protect it.

The Grand Valley Audubon Society banding program at Connected Lakes has become increasingly expensive. Keeping the program going uses most of the budget and is on a year-to-year financial basis. If you would like to make a contribution (tax-deductible), please send to GVAS Education Program, POB 1211, Grand Junction, CO. You can also contribute through the website at www.audubongv.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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Tuscany Is Just Like Grand Junction (Birding Under the Tuscan Sun)

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, September 30, 2014

    If my title this week seems far-fetched, consider that four of the most common bird species in both areas are collared doves, starlings, house sparrows and pigeons. And, what is better on a beautiful fall Grand Valley afternoon than to go out for a little wine tasting? If we thank Europeans for wine, can we blame them for the introduced birds?

    In my previous blog (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/bordeaux-and-provence), I described visiting the South of France where I had some great luck birding two famous marsh areas. From there, my wife and I traveled for two and a half weeks in Western Italy and Northern Tuscany.

    When I told a birding friend that I was going to Italy, she replied, "I have been there. There aren't any birds! They eat them." Sadly, she’s right. Many of Italy and Central Europe's songbirds are trapped and eaten...more often in Africa and the Middle East, but in Europe as well. Check out this recent article from National Geographic for the sad fate of many European songbirds –even warblers and Golden Orioles (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/songbird-migration/franzen-text.)  A high level of persecution may explain why most of my bird sightings consisted of watching a bird’s tail-feathers disappear into the darkest recesses of a distant tree.

    The native forest birds were mostly drab and very shy. If there was a bird on a wire or on an open tree limb, it was a collared dove or a starling. Even the house sparrows seemed to hide.
(A Reed Warbler--showing the lack of field marks typical of most European Warblers)


    There were no specific times for birding on our Italian agenda, but we had planned hikes in Beguia and Alpi Apuane National Parks while spending about ten days in rural locations. I had time to look for birds, and I found it very difficult. I finally identified a beautiful Great-spotted Woodpecker. I did see the entire bird—but I needed three sightings. Once, I saw the head, once the rump and tail, and another time the bird’s middle. Each time, the bird seemed to immediately sense my presence and then flew far away.
The results of these games of hide-and-seek and partial sightings are that I have lots of notes but few identifications. My companions had to put up with my whining during our evening wine tastings—until the wine and food brought out my better nature.

    Fortunately, I did have some luck. High in the Apennines, north of Genoa, and in sight of the coast, a Chukar-sized bird allowed both a reasonably close approach and photos. I exulted to Mary. “Finally, something I will be able to identify.” I even thought I knew what it was. It was obviously a shorebird, and only a few of these, such as curlews, inhabit the mountains. But a quick look in my book indicated the eye color and feather pattern were wrong for my initial guess. “Oh well,” I’ll be able to figure it out tonight.” But, no! It wasn’t in my book. I tried the "search" feature on my European bird app. Nope! “Ok,” I told myself. You are supposed to be a birder. You can figure this out!” But I couldn't!

(The bird in the Apennines I had truble idenitfying.)
    I sort of chewed on my incompetence as I kept trying to decide that bird’s identity.

    A few days later, I had a very good look at three identical forest birds. They even hopped around in plain view at eye level in an olive tree. They were too active to photograph, but I wrote a careful description: sparrow-sized, bright red bills, lemon yellow throats, red tips on the secondaries, and an orange wash on their chests. With all of those field marks, I was certain I would find these in my book. Wrong again! Not in the book. Not in the app. I checked the Internet. Nothing. It was really a good thing there was wine to taste that evening.

    Subsequently, I invested a couple of more evenings trying to figure out these birds. I even considered that I’d been fooled by seeing them in good light. Maybe the bill wasn't red. Maybe the throat only seemed yellow because of the sunlight. Those ideas didn't bring me any closer to an identification. I was now about as frustrated as I’ve been as a birder.

   Then, three days later, I saw six more of the red-billed birds at even closer range. I also saw that my original description was perfect. What were these things? That night after another hour on the Internet, I finally identified the bird. It lives in Asia. More searching revealed that the Red-billed Leiothrix had become established near Lucca…in Northern Tuscany...precisely where I had found them. Both my bird book and my app had sections on introduced or exotic birds, but, perhaps, this population is so isolated they weren’t considered worth noting.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-billed_leiothrix) 

    What about the first mystery bird? That was the bird of the trip...a Eurasian Dotterel…a bird that is rare everywhere and nests chiefly in Russia and Scandinavia. I have a Swedish friend...an uber-birder. He identified it from my photo and said there was known to be a remnant population in the Apennines, and that I was very lucky to see one.  It turns out the Dotterel was in my book, but I thought it was a bird of the coasts not the mountains. In addition, this was a juvenile and I didn’t recognize the plumage. There’s always more to learn!

    So, I had a lot of fun birding in Europe, but it wasn't the best part. That would be the gelato. Have you ever tasted flavors such as lemoncello or fig? If it wasn’t the gelato, it was locally-made chestnut pesto on homemade pasta in the small village where we stayed. Or maybe it was watching sunset in the North Tuscan Hills. Or the wonderful dark red Super-Tuscan we bought from a small, local winery. Whatever! I feel very fortunate that my wife and I could make this trip. 

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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Bordeaux and Provence

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Nope, you haven't made a mistake and started reading Dave Buchanan's wine blog. I recently returned from nearly two weeks in Southern France. We flew directly to Bordeaux where we were met by our friend Carole. It was a treat to be shown the Bordeaux region by a native. Carole and my wife Mary had become friends during Carole's lengthy stay at St Mary's Hospital after being involved in a tragic accident near Norwood. This trip wasn't about birds...but I managed to sneak in a few hours anyway.

Lucky for me, Carole had grown up near Arcachon Bay (approximately 30 miles from the City of Bordeaux), part of which is composed of Parc Ornithologie de Teich--a 300- acre protected area which encompasses several miles of trail and more than 20 viewing blinds--or "hides" as they are called in Europe. Carole had rented an apartment on a quiet harbor less than 10 miles from the park. So, less than 24-hours after landing in Bordeaux, I was looking for birds...and I found plenty...such as this curlew sandpiper...uncommon here and a mega-rarity when one appears in the US. 

From the Bordeaux region, Mary and I went to Southern France, where we explored Medieval French castles where some early Protestants (the Cathers) tried in vain to protect themselves from slaughter by Catholic crusaders. In Provence, just west of the ancient town of Arles, sits the Camargue--a large wetland that resides between the two arms of the Rhone River as they enter the Mediterranean Sea.

Provence is associated with great food, wine and the famous beaches of the French Riviera. Maybe I should have been checking out the famous topless beaches of St. Tropez. Instead, I saw Greater Flamingos. 

Nearly 15,000 of these pink birds with the upside down smile live in this area. The birds use their feet to stir up crustaceans, algae, brine shrimp, insects, and fish. The flamingo’s tongue helps pump the food-filled water in and out about three or four times a second while structures in their bill act as a filter.


We also saw many bee-eaters...which, as their name suggests, eat flying insects, especially bees and wasps. In fact, honeybees are said to comprise most of their diet. Before eating its meal, a bee-eater removes the stinger by repeatedly hitting and rubbing the insect on a hard surface. During this process, pressure is applied to the insect thereby extracting most of the venom.


Provence I associate with fine wines, exotic cheeses and famous beaches. Bee-eaters and flamingos are birds typical of Africa.  A flight across the water would encounter Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Geopolitical boundaries mean a great deal to humans...to birds...not so much.


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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WHY IS THERE A BIRD NAMED AFTER A COW? (People, beef, climate change and grassland birds)

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, August 31, 2014

In my last blog, I discussed how grasslands have changed drastically in the past century and a half. I mentioned the many birds whose populations have suffered enormous declines as a result. But, as always, “it is an ill wind that does nobody good.” Winners in this change of landscape are cowbirds—our local variety is called the brown-headed cowbird.

Now is a good time to discuss cowbirds because we will soon be seeing large flocks of birds—often dismissed as simply “blackbirds.” Although uncommon here in winter, flocks we will be seeing may contain thousands of cowbirds. The breeding population, confined to the US and parts of Mexico and Canada, is estimated at 120 million birds (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown-headed_Cowbird/lifehistory). 

(male brown-headed cowvbird by Jackson Trappett)

In the old, old days, this species was mostly restricted to the prairie and followed the buffalo. Their feeding habits involve eating whatever insects large animals kick up as they graze. They will also land on the animals and pick off whatever insects inhabit their coats. I recently saw a couple of cowbirds perched on some horses in a field near Collbran. 

Buffalo were nomadic. How could a bird that lays eggs in a nest raise young and follow wandering buffalo herds? Nesting seasons are too long. Cowbirds solved the problem by evolving into brood parasites. They don’t build a nest. They don’t rear their young. They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Typically, cowbirds hatch first and completely out-compete and kill their typically smaller nest-mates. 

The buffalo are gone, but cows make an excellent replacement. Any large livestock will do, and so will feedlots. Now that expansive forests are gone; large livestock and cowbirds are everywhere. Many species that did not evolve with cowbird resistance are in such serious trouble that cowbird control (trapping and shooting) has been necessary to stave-off extinction (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_1148.pdf).

An example of an endangered species thought to be especially vulnerable to cowbird parasitism is the black-capped vireo. Black-capped vireos are neotropical migrants that nest in the US and winter in Mexico.  This bird was mist-netted in January in the Mexican highlands (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/mexican-haiku).

(black-capped vireo, mist-netted in Jalisco, Mexico-January 2014)

Unfortunately, the raising and feeding of cattle brings more to this story than the creation of habitat for brown-headed cowbirds. It might surprise you to learn that many scientists believe if you want to reduce your personal greenhouse gas emissions, the best thing is to stop eating beef—the combined fossil fuel input for beef production may be the single biggest contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect (http://www.worldwatch.org/system/files/Care2%20041812.pdf).

The reason for the high fossil fuel input is that most beef cattle aren’t grazed. They are fed feed derived from grains--grown on dwindling grasslands. That means farm machinery emissions, fertilizer use and production, emissions from cattle themselves, and soil erosion—all contributors to climate change. Marginal grasslands, that is, those that are too rocky for a plow or where irrigation isn't feasible, well, they can be used for direct grazing (perfect for cowbirds) and much of this land has been overgrazed (http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/grazing.html).

I hate for this to sound so dire, so let’s not be pessimistic. I suggest there's another approach. It seems to me that having wildlife to view and having nice habitat for hunting, hiking, bike-riding etc. transcend politics and economics. We as a species, need to practice some restraint (See the previous blog to this one.). Cowbird over-population, declineof grassland birds, human consumption of beef, and climate change are intertwined. We can restrain ourselves. We don't have to eat beef every day or maybe every week. That will help!

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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ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY (THE SWEET SOUNDS OF AN ILLNOIS SUMMER!)

By Nic.Korte
Monday, August 18, 2014

"#%## $&#-&$#%," old Mel said to me, "Rome wasn't built in a day." I had just embarked on my summer career (all through high school) of helping "make hay" on Illinois farms. Having been admonished by my mother to work hard, I guess Mel thought I was overdoing it.

We went to the rusty old well to pump some cool water for a drink. With the tractor engine off, it was quiet...except for the birds—especially the sweet call of the Eastern Meadowlark.

I am a bit melancholy as I write this because I recently returned to my home town for a funeral. A lot has changed. My hometown is two and a half times larger. Old Mel's farm is now a subdivision. And the grassland birds of my youth, the Meadowlarks, Bobwhite Quail, and Dickcissels...well, they aren't so easy to find anymore.
It doesn’t matter where you are, birds of the grasslands and prairies are declining everywhere—as is true for Colorado’s Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks. (All but the latter are classified as Common Birds in Steep Decline by Partners In Flight: (http://rmbo.org/pifassessment/Database.aspx).

(Western Meadowlark by Jackson Trappett)

Compared to the steeply-declining Eastern Meadowlark, our Western Meadowlark is doing all right, even though its population has also generally declined for the past 50 years.

(Bobolink-photo from Routt County)

Much of the decline is a result of population increase. Where is it easiest to put a subdivision? On the flat former prairie. Not on hillsides or rocky soils.

Some of the decline is cultural. Truly, the sound of an Illinois summer, as I was reminded on my recent visit, is the sound of a mower. While at my parents’ house, I decided to walk around the nearby pond and baseball fields where there were some trees and adjacent farmland. Well, both areas were being mowed.
So, I thought I’d walk the other way, down a nearby hill to the City Park. Immediately, I noticed some birds moving along the hillside as I walked down the road. I stopped to watch—only to have a large tractor appear behind me at the top of the hill. I walked to the other side of the road to let the tractor pass. But it stopped. A mechanical arm extended—with a mower—and proceeded to mow down all of the vegetation along the steep hillside.

At the City Park, they weren’t mowing. They must have done the job day before. There was a small stream. They had mowed so close to the surface, that the mower had ripped into the soil on the streambank—not only removing any potential riparian habitat, but exposing the soil to erosion as well.

This all reminded me of another farmer I had worked for besides old Mel. This farmer had some land in the Conservation Reserve Program. He was a hard-worker with a prosperous farm...known for a modern milking barn. He was of German extract as is nearly everyone from my hometown area. He was so neat and orderly; he was almost a caricature of how precise and neat Germans are supposed to be.  That fallow land bothered him. His farm didn't look neat because of that field. He wasn't supposed to cut it--after all, he was being paid by the government not to farm it. What did he do? Well one evening while I was working for him. He said, “Let’s go out and mow it at dusk. There aren't many people on the road and no one will see us.” So we did. We mowed it all down so his farm would look neat. I didn’t know then, what I know now. The countrywide decline of grassland birds was part of this farmer’s desire to be “neat.”

(Grasshopper Sparrows can be found on Colorado's Eastern Plains)

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold suggested many years ago that a key to saving our wildlife was saving fence line and streamside habitat. Obviously, his suggestion not to plow one more row and leave a border of native plants mostly fell on deaf ears where I grew up. 

When Old Mel said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he could have been referring to the former prairie we were standing on. Prairie soils are incredibly productive for agriculture. It is safe to say that it is a “waste” to use them for houses. But, it ought to be a crime to let them wash away. It is said that “it takes a 1000 years to build one inch of topsoil,”—a generalization to be sure. Nonetheless, those Illinois prairie soils did take thousands of years to form. The associated wildlife, such as the birds, took equally as long. We are squandering this heritage. 

Increasingly, our wildlife can only be saved by what happens on private land. We have to save whatever we can. I like the exhortation of one prominent politician who says the answer is "restraint." We don't have to plant or build on every acre of grassland. If we restrain ourselves we can preserve what is left and start to restore other areas. Won't that take too long? Well, that isn't an excuse, “Rome wasn't built in a day.”
 

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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