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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: (

(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 [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
Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Later this month the Colorado Field Ornithologists ( will be holding their annual convention. I'm bummed. Because of other commitments, I won't be able to attend this year. What do you think happens at a convention of birders? The same thing that happens at other conventions. Beers are drunk. Toasts are made. Friendships and contacts are formed. And, at this one, there are many field trips. This convention is being held in Sterling because there are many wetlands, prairies and lakes and the timing coincides with the peak of shorebird migration--those birds that we see only in the spring and fall--many of which nest in the Arctic and winter in South America.

 (Marbled Godwit--a shorebird that might be seen at this year's CFO convention.)

This convention, which moves about the state annually, attracts approximately 150 attendees. In recent years, it has been held in Cortez, Trinidad, and before that, even in Grand Junction. While, it doesn't compare with JUCO, there's a significant economic impact of 150 conferees and their families--especially when the convention is held in smaller cities such as Alamosa, another conference town of a few years ago.

So, how many of your friends and neighbors are birders? CFO has more than 500 members. Besides their convention, their great website is the best online source for deciding where to go birding in our state. They also have a quarterly journal, maintain a state rare bird list, and manage all state records to determine which birds are really found in Colorado.
 (Many American Avocets will be seen at this year's convention.)

Locally, Grand Valley Audubon Society (GVAS) also boasts approximately 500 members. If you aren't a member, you should be. Although GVAS activities are open to everyone, members receive AUDUBON, the award-winning magazine. You can also receive the CHUKAR CHATTER, our local newsletter. You can subscribe to our list serve, Members and Friends of Audubon, and receive frequent examples of beautiful bird photography as well as notice of upcoming events such as field trips and monthly programs.

Perhaps most important is that as a member of GVAS, you will be supporting our education programs such as the upcoming (September 18 through October 10) month-long banding/education program for 4th graders. Students from all over the Western Slope travel to Connected Lakes State Park where GVAS volunteers help with capturing birds in mist nests.  A licensed bander, measures and bands the birds—both for the scientific information, and for the viewing and education of the students.
 (Students learning from the bander and educator at the GVAS banding station at Connected Lakes.)

Nothing is more important than giving our youth an appreciation for the natural world. More than 1200 students participated last year. Join GVAS and be part of these great programs (

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
Thursday, July 24, 2014

It is that time again. Time to go looking for butterflies. Actually, birding in July is not the doldrums many people say it is. Birds are easy to see because populations are probably at their maxima because there are so many recently-fledged juveniles, and even a few migrants already headed back south.
Nonetheless, this is a wonderful time to look for butterflies. For extra excitement, you might even try to find some satyrs (!

Learning to be good at butteflying is the same as for birding. Simply pay attention. Just as we often pay no attention to a passing bird or their songs emanating from a nearby forest, it is easy to ignore a fluttering insect passing by. But take a close look. It may be worth it. You may see something as beautiful as this Milbert’s Tortoiseshell.

Looking for and identifying butterflies is great fun. What do you need? Well, just like birding, you need a pair of binoculars and a field guide. A pair of close-focusing birding binoculars, something like 8 x 42 will work well. Many birders use 10x rather than 7 or 8. Because butterflies are small and close, the lower power is a bit easier to use.

I would also add, “Take your camera.” Butterflies often permit a close approach. That way, when you arrive at home, you can compare your photos to those in a field guide. Because I’m such an amateur and often, in the field, cannot tell a fritillary from a checkerspot; the photos give me time to look for field marks and figure out what I’ve seen.

For a field guide, I like Butterflies Through Binoculars: The West by Jeffery Glassberg. I’ve also learned that the internet has many resources for identifying butterflies. Probably thousands of photos are available for you to examine. You can type in something as simple as “blue butterflies” and find many photos. Beware, however, the differences among species are often subtle and may require many minutes (if not hours) for proper identification of some species. (Indeed, I hope my IDs’ are correct. I would appreciate corrections from readers.)

In a previous blog (, I included a photo of a pale swallowtail, one of the most abundant, large butterflies in our area—so that’s a good one to know. Once you know one or two, your eyes will adjust to picking up more fluttering flights and you may see, for example, one of the several varieties of “Blues” that navigate Western Colorado. This is a Reakirt’s blue—photographed a few days ago in a mountain meadow.

My last photo shows both a Painted Crescent and a White Checkerspot.

These four species were all found in Mesa County. Seeing them, photographing them, and, finally, identifying them added to the enjoyment of some recent hikes.

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
Friday, July 11, 2014

It's July. I have seen rufous hummingbirds. That means summer is over. Birds are already migrating southward. (


My first encounter with rufous hummingbirds was on the Bluebird Ranch in Northern Arizona. It was an unforgettable sight--dozens of orange hummingbirds zipping about in a large patch of pink bee plant.

When I met my wife-to-be, I had no idea she had close ties to a pioneer ranching family. A small town in south Texas was named after an ancestor—an early banker and judge. Mary's Great Aunt Gertrude (known as Missy) and Great Uncle Bill owned 36,000 acres in Northern Arizona. You read that right...their ranch encompassed more than 65 square miles.

We were fortunate enough to visit them annually for about a decade before old age led to retirement...and I mean old age. Bill was still working in the branding pen well into his 80s. In those latter years, a cow stepped on him and he didn't obtain medical treatment. He was badly hobbled, but he kept on working his cattle. It was poor  land...with all of that acreage they ran fewer than 100 head most years.


They were frugal. Losing money most years. I remember a visit from a neighbor who had a new truck, a large collection of Navajo Jewelry, and a swimming pool. Some years later that ranch was auctioned from the courthouse steps. Bill and Missy's land eventually sold for millions.

Bill's daughter in law always called him Daddy-Bill, and that still brings to mind the old cowboy sitting at the end of their big oak table chewing slowly on his dinner---inevitably beef. Taciturn hardly describes his slow speech and the difficulty that it required to get a story started. I knew at the time, that I should be recording those rare stories...that I should take a leave of absence from my job and stay on the ranch for six months and write them all down. I will always regret not doing so.

For Bill, it required many years of working as a hired hand to earn enough to buy his own ranch, and by then he was nearly 50, but his own ranch was his dream and he accomplished it, and he lived on that ranch for 40+ years. If you can find a copy of the 1971 USGS topographic map for the Tolapai Spring quadrangle. You will see it... there on the map--The Roberts Ranch, along with the Bluebird Well.

Missy always reminded us she was a city girl and that ranch life wasn't for her. And yet, here she was, nearly 60 miles from anything but a small village. They didn't have a telephone, relying on a radio for outside communication.

Missy had been city-bred, but even in her family, there were frontier stories. One of her earliest memories was living along the border and having to sleep on the roof of the local general store for a time. Her family and the rest of the townspeople climbed up with guns and pulled their ladders up after them. The reason? There were rumors Pancho Villa was in the area and might raid their town. It is easy to understand why I was so enthralled with "the ranch," as we referred to it.

Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew about ranching was from old TV shows. On my first visit, I noticed a bunch of planks floating in a stock tank. I asked Bill about them. "So the birds can get a drink," he said. Sure enough, I often saw mountain bluebirds alight on the planks and drink their fill while floating about in the breeze.


And now I wonder, Bill was a cattleman. I never saw him so excited as when “Old Jethro,” an old bull he thought had died, suddenly emerged from the brush and walked by the ranch house. Did Bill put those planks in the tanks to help out the birds, or to keep birds that might have drowned from fouling the water for his cattle? I will believe the former because this was after all, "The Bluebird Ranch" given the name by Missy, for the flocks of bluebirds flying about during the early winter when they moved in.

This was high desert pinyon and juniper...not that great for birding but I did retain a few memories besides floating bluebirds. I've already recounted the mystery of the bullbats ( But, as noted above, here is where I saw my first rufous hummingbirds. That vision of dozens flitting about on a sunny morning in a field of pink remains one of my most unforgettable sights in lifetime of nature watching.

Rufous hummingbird populations have dropped drastically since then. I can't guess if such sights are still possible. Bill and Missy are gone. The ranch is gone. It became part of the Navajo/Hopi resettlement if you recall that controversy. I heard the ranch house and buildings were dismantled. I hope someone still fills the stock tanks with water...and planks.

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 and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Saturday, June 28, 2014

     J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was one of the founders of the field of population genetics. He is famous among non-scientists for an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, that was reported in a 1959 issue of the American Naturalist: Haldane…found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude [regarding] the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”
     What the theologians thought of that sentiment is lost in history, but the basis of the statement is that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetles, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and slightly more than 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are more numerous than the species of any other insect order.
     The study of beetles might be a bit arcane, even crazy—even fodder for an existential novel and movie. Has anyone else read and/or watched "The Woman in the Dunes" in which life is compared to searching for a sand-colored beetle that lives in sand dunes? If there is a birder’s equivalent, it is flycatchers—especially the genus Empidonax.  Empidonax flycatchers are a small part of the large family called tyrant flycatchers (Tyrannidae)—a family which occurs throughout North and South America. 

There are a few flycatchers that are remarkably easy to identify—such as this long-tailed tyrant from Costa Rica.

(Long-tailed tyrant)

     Unfortunately, most flycatchters are drab such as the aforementioned and notorious genus Empidonax (“empid,” for short). In fact, for many birders, the word “Empid” is a pejorative. As in, “it’s another ##$#$ empid!” It does sound like a slander. Once I was traveling with some Brits. They had a good laugh at my expense when I asked them to define “twit” and “blighter;” two obvious insults I had noted in British media. Maybe I should have retaliated by telling them to “stop acting like a couple of empids!” (There are no empids in the UK!)
     The 15 species of empid are distributed throughout the Americas. I had to laugh when I looked up empidonax in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a genus of small olivaceous American flycatchers comprising several familiar birds (such as the least flycatcher and the Acadian flycatcher). Talk about an Eastern bias. Least and Acadians are common in sections of the Eastern US, but there are no Colorado records of an Acadian, and the Least Flycatcher is very rare at best.
     With a Western geographic bias, the definition might have been: a genus of small olivaceous American flycatchers comprising several familiar birds (such as the dusky flycatcher and the gray flycatcher). Both of the latter species are relatively common in our area. If you look in the right places, you should also be able to find other empids such as Hammond’s and Cordilleran flycatchers. Willow flycatchers nest in Northern Colorado and probably pass through the Grand Valley annually.

(Dusky flycatcher-I'm certain because I heard it calling--notice it is in oak.)

     How do I know those facts about empids? I read them in books. And, that is the state of things for many birders because these species can be very difficult to identify. Actually, I have personally identified 14 of the 15 species in my travels, and I learned a lot about birds and birding by doing so.

What did I learn?
1) No one can identify every bird they see. Sometimes I would examine a bird for a very long time simply insisting to myself that I could identify it. Then I went out with more experienced birders and noted that sometimes, especially during fall migration when birds seldom call and are not restricted to their common nesting habitats, they might spy an empid and simply call it an “unknown empid”—and leave it at that.
2) Learning a few calls or songs is invaluable. There are some empids that have very similar calls, but many are quite distinct, and even the difficult ones can be learned with a little time. So, for birds difficult to identify with your eyes; learn the call and you can be certain about your identification.
3) Learning a bird’s life history and habits are usually keys to identification. For empids, there isn’t a lot of nesting habitat overlap. If it is June and you find an empid in pinyon-junipers interspersed with sagebrush—it is almost undoubtedly a gray flycatcher. Higher up, where scrub oak meets aspen and/or Ponderosa pine—you can be relatively sure you have a dusky flycatcher. Something similar can be said about each species in the genus.

Those three “lessons” will help you correctly identify many more birds, not just empids!

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 and “like” us on Facebook!


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