Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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

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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!]
 

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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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A(WASH) IN HABITAT (SOURCES AND SINKS)

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, December 22, 2016

“We saw a car go by early in the AM and figured it was related to the bird count--either that or someone was scoping our place for a pre-Christmas burglary!” That was an email I received a couple of days ago.

How about you? Last Sunday, December 18, did you see carloads of strangers cruising your neighborhood? In the pre-dawn hours, did a car race by, only to stop with lights off, while the passengers quietly disembarked?

December 18 was, indeed, the 117th annual Christmas Bird Count organized by the National Audubon Society. Grand Junction has been a participant since the 1950s. During the daylight hours, teams are cruising the valley within a 15-mile diameter circle centered at H and 24 roads. These teams count every bird they can see. Over the decades a lot can be learned from these data—pheasants disappearing, and Eurasian Collared Doves becoming one of the most abundant birds are two examples. 

For me, it is all about Western Screech-Owls. I developed routes for 18 teams that were out in the pre-dawn driving to selected locations to play a call and see if an owl appeared. Although, the 75 we found this year was a significant decrease from the past two years, it was the third highest number of this owl ever reported. Yes, Grand Junction is number 1 in something—Western Screech-owls! (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/owlish-onslaught)


(Western Screech-owls rarely use a box like this, but last Sunday this one was sunning itself making counting easy.)


One of the volunteers helping me set up the calling routes a couple of days before the count commented to me, “Have you noticed most of the stops are near washes?” Well, I certainly had, but when I looked on a map, it was more striking than I had realized.

Many years ago, the great conservationist, Aldo Leopold, suggested that every farmer should leave the last row of his field for wildlife. That never happened. In the conservative part of the Midwest where I grew up, it was more common for adjacent farmers to wait for the other guy to plow first, so they could follow and take part of a row from the neighbor’s field. There was no such thing as a wildlife buffer. It might be the same here, except we, from a wildlife perspective, are blessed with washes. Some may call them canals, drainage ditches or arroyos, but without them, there would be only a fraction of the wildlife that we are accustomed to in this valley.

After I compared our calling locations with a map showing the washes, I immediately thought of the flat areas of Western Kansas where crops are grown property-boundary to property-boundary as I described near my hometown. There’s not much wildlife. Where would animals and birds hide? Where would they breed? That’s the problem.

(Grand Valley washes are both home and highway for our wildlife.  Photo courtesy of LeeGelattPhotography.com)

Habitat is often broadly characterized as “source,” that is, where wildlife may successfully breed, or “sink,” where those individuals in excess of what the source area can support live, but with a lower rate of survival and breeding success. Consider that fledgling Western Screech-Owls often flutter from the nest to low shrubs and even the ground for a day or two. If their nest site was urban/suburban, they are susceptible to cats, dogs and cars. If the nest is near one of the broad washes, despite the presence of some of the same predators and more, there is more cover, and hunting was probably better for their parents such that the fledglings might be just a bit more fit-for-survival. 

These extra surviving fledglings from the wash have to find their own place, and may be the ones you see in your backyard in town or in an owl box near Lincoln Park or East Middle School. We are happy to see them in our schools and parks, but we suspect their breeding success is limited. These are probably “sink” habitats.

This year may have revealed to us a local contraction of the Western Screech-Owl population. One year of data is not a scientific record, but I can speculate. My view of the data shows a decrease in owls within the more urbanized/suburbanized area. Western Screech-owls do not live long, and if their prey base (think mice in the winter) goes through a lower population cycle, fewer owls survive—especially fledglings. The survivors will take the best habitat—along the drainages—and we will see fewer in town.

Is that what happened? Maybe. Only more data will tell us for sure. We can say this, however, if you live near a wash, don’t burn it. Don’t spray it. That’s the most important habitat in the valley. And, next year, come join us. Your cup of organic coffee will taste even better after an early morning listening and looking for owls.

(It isn’t too late to join a local Christmas Bird Count. The Grand Mesa Count occurs every year on January 1. If you’d like to join us, check the website for details 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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PALS AND BIRDS IN RUIN

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, December 8, 2016

“Where are all the Orioles? This is my ‘go-to’ spot.”

While scouting in anticipation of my visit, Bev had seen three species of Orioles here just a couple of days ago. Later, we drove up and down several side roads looking for a Mexican Sheartail—an endemic hummingbird that is narrowly distributed along the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. “These roads have never failed to produce a Sheartail,” she had said. Well, they failed this time. We did glimpse a hummingbird, but it was flying away and could not be positively identified.

We drove on to where she had seen 70 Stilt Sandpipers a few days ago. They were gone--possibly a consequence of unusual high tides caused by the recent “supermoon.”

Lest I give the wrong impression, Bev had already been enormous help. Because she had free calling to the US, we had already conversed for a half hour before my wife and I arrived in Mexico. Because of her tips, several days before, I had found a rare and hard-to-see species that I would not have seen without local advice. She also reassured us about the safety of our travel and gave us useful advice about places we were visiting.

Bev helped me because we were “pals,”—“Birding Pals.” “Birding Pals” is a loosely-organized network of birders willing to help visitors to their area. For a small annual fee, one can join the network for the fun of helping visiting birders. That's how I contacted Bev, and hit the jackpot. Not only was she a fountain of excellent advice, she even offered to go birding with us.

Our birding destination was a small archaeological site known as Xcambo. You probably haven't heard of it. Most everyone has heard of Chichen Itza. A visit there is worth it, but it barely introduces you to the variety of Mayan sites which can be explored. Mary and I visited eight different Mayan ruins while we were in the Yucatan. Each had unique architectural features. We were fascinated as we contemplated the rise and fall of the Mayans by exploring what remains of their cities. Most scholars believe the Mayan civilization declined because population growth stressed their natural resources resulting in social upheaval and increased warfare. Perhaps, this example should be heeded as a cautionary tale for present-day humans. Hmm. Oh well, never mind that for now. We were going birding.

(Birding with Bev, at Xcambo ruin.)

Xcambo, like most of the ancient sites we explored, has marvelous habitat for birding. I already had a great bird list for this trip, in part, because I had persuaded one caretaker to arrive at work and open up an hour and a half early so I could take advantage of early morning birding. At another site, rarely-visited, I crawled through a locked gate and found the caretaker who was happy to let us in. He just hadn't bothered to unlock because visitation was so sparse this time of year.

Xcambo is a special place because it combines wetlands with forest. The access road bisects wetlands featuring small lagoons colored pink because of the high concentration of brine shrimp—which pass on their pigment to a major consumer: American Flamingoes.

(American Flamingoes are rarely seen in the US.  They are abundant in the Northern Yucatan.)

While birding at Xcambo, Bev and I saw numerous migratory warblers, and a nice mix of tropical species such as two types of mot-mot. (Check these out, and see why in Mayan they are called “toh”--because on occasion they seem to count time with their tails:( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mxson4QdLxU)

(This Palm Warbler was feeding on insects it found on stone laid by the Mayans.)


I am accustomed to birding exotic locales, but birding the Ruins added something special. Perhaps, most of all it reminded me that we, the birds, the habitat, are all ephemeral. Once upon a time, these cities were the grandest in the Americas. Now, they lie in ruins. Unfortunately, human hubris is not in decline. We need to be careful!

(The fears of Mexico which fill the US these days are not pertinent to the northern Yucatan. We based our travels from the colonial city of Merida, with time in Santa Elena and Chelem. People were gracious and friendly. Authentic Mexican food was inexpensive and plentiful. We drove everywhere, relying on a gps with a Mexico chip. We walked in the city after dark, and never felt fearful. All of this permitted us to make good use of a long layover on the flight home—we planned a return trip--counting on more excellent advice from our pal, Bev.)

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, check our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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