Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

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By Nic.Korte
Saturday, June 3, 2017

Annual owl prowls have long been a major activity of Grand Valley Audubon Society. What we have been calling the "Valley Owl Prowl" has existed for more than 30 years. Unfortunately, as with some of the birds we target on our many field trips, the owl prowls are in danger.

In designing this year's "Valley Prowl," I had located a Western Screech-owl (WESO) that seemed perfect. WESOs are common enough in our valley, but in April, when we do the "prowl," they are secretive, sitting on eggs, or hiding in the newly-green leaves. This particular owl was still sitting in the hole of a nest box. I liked the location because it was practically inaccessible unless one was let through the house or the locked gate by the landowner. We could also view the owl from a porch which would minimize any disturbance. The homeowner was happy, excited even, about having us. Then the spouse came home! "Knowing birders," I was told, "they'll come back. They'll try and look over the fence. They'll sneak in from behind the fence. Nothing doing!" That was it. I hadn't found another easily viewable WESO, and the field trip was the next day. No WESO this year.

Fortunately, I had suitable, and difficult-to-access locations for Great Horned Owl and the increasingly rare Barn Owl. What remained was the Burrowing Owl--also a rapidly-declining species. Once very common in our valley, Burrowing Owls have become more difficult to find with most of the migratory populations considered endangered, as in Canada and the US northern states. Indeed, Colorado may be the most northerly migratory population that has not been officially “listed” in some fashion. 

Burrowing Owls are tricky for our valley field trip because our early April date just coincides (or not) with their return from Mexico. Some years, we miss Burrowing Owls, because we are too early.

I had found a pair, just a few days before the "prowl" but it wasn't suitable to some of my co-workers. The owls were on public land in an easily accessible area. "You will be sacrificing them," said one of my friends. Fortunately, other owls were found on private land, behind a barbed wire fence where viewing was easy, albeit distant, from a road.

We had a successful field trip, although sans WESOs. Quite a few photographers were present, and some expressed disappointment at the distance at which we viewed the Burrowing Owls.

I should say here that I give all participants a handout describing how sensitive owls are during nesting season. Remember that female owls stay on the nest from the time the first egg is laid until the young no longer need brooding.  This means the female stays on the nest for weeks!  A few Great Horned Owls tolerate some disturbance, but most owls do not. We had already stopped showing Long-eared Owls at our owl prowls because of evidence of too much encroachment following our revealing of a nest location. The nests were abandoned or predated. If an owl is disturbed from its nest, it may abandon it. Plus, a daytime flight reveals the location to ravens and other predators.
(Long-eared Owls are no longer part of our owl prowls because they are so vulnerable to predation. and abandonment.)

After this year’s "owl prowl," I was told that photographers who learned of the Burrowing Owls from us either returned or informed others. They entered the private property to obtain better photos. My informant, also a photographer, was incensed. "Now the owls are gone!" I was told.

After hearing this, I spent an hour out there myself, viewing from the road with my scope. I found no owls.

Remember the "too accessible" location that we didn't reveal? Viewing with my scope at about 300 yards I could see both an adult and a juvenile on the mound. This evidence is circumstantial, but for us, it is probably case closed, and we won't show Burrowing Owls in the future.

(Burrowing Owls are declining over much of their range because of development, shooting, and off-road vehicles.)

Grand Valley Audubon Society is committed to educating the public, and that includes birders and photographers. Both groups contain individuals who exhibit the best and worst of sensitivity to wildlife. We will probably continue owl prowls but I don't think there will be Burrowing Owls next year.


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, send an email to and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Sunday, May 14, 2017

My thoughts are troubled as I write. I had planned something humorous and tongue-in-cheek about "migrant traps." Doesn't the term call to mind some manner of capturing wildlife such as raiding raccoons or nest-robbing ravens?

What I am referring to are actually the opposite of traps, but oases. Is there anything in nature more amazing than the annual migrations made by so many birds, mammals such as caribou, and sea turtles? I am always reminding everyone that "our" birds--our summer species that is-- such as the brightly colored oriole's and hummingbirds now showing up, and being excitedly reported by birders as FOS (first-of-season)--live most of their lives in other countries. I remind everyone how important it is to do everything possible to preserve the tropical homes of our birds. Examples include donating to international conservation organizations, and drinking only shade-grown coffee. Unfortunately, it seems we are not doing enough. Recent research has shown a nearly 30% decrease in autumn migrants in only 12 years. In the northeast, the decline in migrant biomass is 4% year (Living Bird, Spring 2017). Silent spring is approaching.

Migrant traps, the oases birds need for rest and refueling during their long migrations, are as vital as are the summer and winter homes. That's why, to my way of thinking, forest preserves along the Gulf Coast are so much more important than beach resorts. Millions of birds make the treacherous flight over the Gulf, and need safe and food-filled stopovers before continuing their migration. Here in the west, isolated areas of greenery are equally important.

Imagine you are a weary migrating bird flying high over our area. There is a lot of desert down below. How welcome the rare green spaces must appear. But it takes more than being green. There also has to be food, and for most species that means a dense understory.

Thickets and swamps, those are what birds migratory birds need. Yes, they might land in any park, maybe even your yard after a storm, but it is dense vegetation that provides the safety and food the birds are after. These sorts of areas are "migrant traps." Birders like to frequent them because that's often where there is maximum diversity. A favorite on the Western Slope is Loudy-Simpson, A small city park at Craig. Over the years it has been one of the most reliable West Slope locations for seeing rare migrants such as Northern Waterthrush. Just last week, there was a Northern Parula Warbler, very rare in Colorado. Finally, Least Flycatcher, rare on the West Slope, has nested there. To some, the Loudy-Simpson nature trail in the spring is a bug-infested thicket that is difficult to walk because the bog, filled with snowmelt, has overflowed onto the trail. To a migrating bird, that's a description of paradise.

(Warbling Vireos are one of our most songfull summer birds.  They are just now arriving from Mexico and Central America. Photo by Jackson Trappett)

But, as I said at the outset, my thoughts are troubled. Daily (or more) my in-box fills with new pleas to send a letter, make a call or donate because of another budget cut, another land protection rescinded, or another regulation helpful to wildlife under threat. What should we do? What can we do? I find my inspiration from one of my heroes, and a national leader in our current struggle to save what remains of wild America, the author Terry Tempest Williams. A friend of hers, commenting on William's relentless activism in the face of so many current reversals said, "You are married to sorrow." Williams replied, "No, I just choose not to look away. There is joy in facing the truth of our lives whether it is through beauty or terror. Perhaps it is about presence, choosing to be present with where we find ourselves at any given moment. I simply try to bear witness to what I see through the language of story.”

Williams is right. Don't look away. Look at the beauty of the birds and the grandeur in the process that has resulted in such wonders as a bird that weighs about 0.1oz flying nearly 3000 miles to breed. And, don't look away from the threats either. That's Williams’ message. We can see both. We can be part of the wonder, and part of the movement to preserve it. Both at the same time. We have to do it. (Calliope Hummingbirds are the smallest long-distance migrant in the world. Some pass through Colorado every year. Photo by Jackson Trappett)

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 send an email to and “like” us on Facebook!]



By Nic.Korte
Sunday, April 23, 2017

I'm writing on Earth Day, and saddened to recall the optimism I felt on the first one. This is the second time I've felt especially let-down by the occasion. The first was some ten years ago when I heard a speech by Denis Hayes who not only led the organization of the first Earth Day but then rose professionally to lead the National Renewable Energy Laboratory whose key programs were cancelled by the Reagan Administration. In that speech, he showed how, within a few years, the US could be energy independent with renewable energy without increasing the federal budget. He made his case showing actual data from installations that had already been built around the world. All that was needed was the political will. After hearing that speech, and seeing all the facts and figures, I was crushed to consider the lost opportunity. (A recent independent update of the same proposal has been reported by researchers at Stanford:

This year, I'm devastated as I witness the policies of the most anti-environmental administration in our history. Besides the anti-environmental appointments, there is no deference to science. Who would say that science and technology aren't critically-important to our nation's future? Yet, appointing a Presidential Science Advisor, often one of the first vacancies filled, seems to not even be contemplated. Apparently, the advice of scientists would be inconvenient.

If my rant sounds like the grunts and rattles of just another disaffected tree-hugger, maybe we should turn our attention to another sort of Chat--the yellow-breasted kind. Yellow-breasted Chats are just now returning from Mexico and Central America. If you've never heard one, here is an apt description of their own rant: "... streams of whistles, cackles, chuckles, and gurgles with the fluidity of improvisational jazz".

The reason you may not have seen a Yellow-breasted Chat, is that they live in dense, often low, thickets. If you've ever floated our nearby rivers in the spring, you've surely heard a Yellow-breasted Chat, but to see one might have required crawling through the kind of thick streamside shrubbery that humans avoid.

More than once, however, I've had spring-time river campers ask me "what was that noisy thing that woke us up so early and wouldn't stop all that racket?" For such a raucous bird, Chats are very secretive. Indeed, the protection provided by those deep thickets explains why they can get away with such a long and loud and non-musical rant. You can't see them and predators can't sneak up on them. (Here is a link if you'd like to listen: ). 

(This Chat posed in the open for my photo.)

Occasionally, they will deliver their cacophony of sound from an exposed perch during mating season, but often your best chance is watching for one to fly across the river during a float trip.

Fortunately for Chats, they may be observed in each of the 48 contiguous states, and their preferred habitat is not as desirable as that of some other species. Nonetheless, serious conflicts continue. An example in our valley is that the riverside shrub jungles and thick understory required by Chats block river views for walkers and cyclists.

As with most of our native species, there have been serious declines in parts of their range with a 37% overall population decrease in the past several decades. This species is not in serious trouble yet. Let’s retain sufficient stream-side thickets, and I won’t have to rant about Chats!

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, April 7, 2017

Recent news about the oceans has been uniformly somber. Humans are running an unplanned experiment to see what happens if every sample of beach sand contains plastic microparticles ( ). Humans are also running an experiment to determine what happens if we spew excess acid in the air (the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide) and change the temperature and pH of the ocean.

Early results from the latter experiment have scientists predicting loss of coral reefs worldwide including Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef. Were you still hoping to snorkel or dive there? Your time may have already run out (

We should all ask ourselves if either of these unplanned experiments demonstrate human wisdom.

Another Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross, has also been in the news. Fortunately, I didn’t wait too long to write about her. Sometimes I run across an item that may be worth using in this blog and I archive it in a file labeled “under construction.” Then I forget the idea until it is no longer usable. I was thinking I should write about problems with the ocean and I remembered I had a now-several year old item on a very old albatross raising a chick. I checked for an update. She’s still alive!

This is a happy story, but also a sad one. Wisdom, when she lands in order to raise a chick, nests at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, an NWR has been established or commercial operations of many sorts might have eliminated the nesting site. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” website ( ), “Laysan Albatrosses are numerous, but as with all albatross species there are serious threats to their population, and this species is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes “bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.” A 2009 estimate put the global breeding population at about 591,000 pairs, or just under 1.2 million breeding adults, with more than 90% of the total breeding at just two sites: Midway Atoll and Laysan Island.
( )
Nineteen of the world’s 21 albatross species are threatened with extinction. Albatross populations have crashed because of human activities. Long-line fishing is especially deadly. Albatrosses get hooked and drown when they try to feed on the bait. (If you want to ensure that the fish you eat are caught sustainably check out the website )

Scientists estimate that five tons of plastic are also unknowingly fed to albatross chicks each year by their parents. The lack of nutrition and resulting dehydration may lead to a slow death. Finally, invasive species, especially cats and rats, prey on eggs, chicks and nesting adults.

But back to Wisdom, the consummate survivor. There’s another amazing and ironic twist to this story. The reason Wisdom’s age is known, is that she was banded by Chandler Robbins, one of the greatest ornithologists of our time. Robbins was in his 40s when he put the first aluminum band on Wisdom’s ankle in 1956. Still working at age 81, he returned to the atoll in 2001 and, happened to pick up a bird with a tag that could be traced back to his original work nearly 45 years previously.

This year, Wisdom’s egg hatched on February 16. A month later, at the age of 98, Chandler Robbins died.

No one knows how old Wisdom really is. Laysan Albatross lay their first eggs typically at about three years old, but the first encounter didn't have to be her initial nesting.

Scientists thought that, like other birds, albatross females became infertile late in life and carried on without producing chicks. Wisdom, however, has raised chicks five times since 2006, and as many as 35 in her lifetime. Just as astonishing, she has used her 8-foot-long wingspan to fly up to 3 million miles since she was first tagged at Midway. Scientists estimate that she has flown the equivalent of “4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare.”

Unfortunately, research on albatrosses has many shortcomings. Scientists fear that too large of a percentage of the remaining populations are “too old.” Hopefully, we have enough time to ensure the continued existence of these long-lived inhabitants of distant oceans.

(To see more photos and to keep up with what else is happening on Midway, check out this Facebook page: Unfortunately, recent budget cuts have eliminated the possibility of visiting the NWR.)

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, March 24, 2017

It was a birding trip in Costa Rica.  Our guide directed everyone to lean well over in the van so that we could see the stream running in the valley below. “There’s been a rare bird here throughout the summer, “He said. “I haven’t had any recent reports, but maybe we’ll be lucky.” Those of us on the riverside of the van made room for our van-mates on the opposite side as we peered into the valley. Suddenly, “There it is!” he shouted—“the Marvelous Plunger-bird.” I was one of those fortunate enough to have already seen the familiar bathroom plunger stuck between two rocks where it had washed down from above. We played along, “Great sighting!” “A real lifer.” But one lady hadn’t seen it. Thinking we were serious, she yelled, “Where? I can’t find it.” She was new to tropical birding and already beleaguered trying to keep up with unfamiliar and real names such as chlorospingus, tapaculo and jacamar. That led to some good-natured teasing.

(Jacamars are relatively common in tropical Americal.)

After that incident, you would think everyone would have learned, but no. The next day we were up much higher in the mountains looking into a smoky valley. Someone mentioned the fires, and our guide said, “Yep, and over there you can see a Phoenix flying from the ashes.” Some laughed, but once again, a couple of people ran over, “Where? I don’t see it.”

The end of March can be a bit slow for birding in our area. Spring migration is only starting and some of our winter raptors and waterfowl have begun to move out. Maybe that’s what led to my perusing a new field guide a friend gave me. The guide has an intriguing name: A Field Guide to Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America.

True to its name, I hadn’t seen any of the birds depicted. Despite having lived in Arizona for quite a few years and visiting often, I’d never seen the Blunt-billed Woodpecker. Then I noted that the guide said it was only found in the Petrified Forest—a location I’ve only visited a couple of times. I just hadn’t had the good luck to spy the woodpecker.

Another bird I’ve missed is the Small Flycatcher. I related in a previous blog ( how difficult it is to distinguish flycatchers of the genus empidonax. The Small Flycatcher (empidonax smallii) has no field marks. Indeed, they are so nearly alike to other members of the genus that, according to the field guide, sometimes even they cannot determine if another bird is the same species or whether it is male or female. These problems drastically reduce mating opportunities and account for the bird’s tiny population.

The field guide also introduced me to some shorebirds I’ve apparently overlooked.  Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs are both regular migrants to Western Colorado, but the book introduced me to the slightly larger Greatest Yellowlegs, as well as the slightly-smaller Slightly-Lesser Yellowlegs. In between, is the Middle Yellowlegs. All of these are similar to the two familiar birds but with different sizes. The book suggests pushing rulers on-end all over mudflats so that birders can differentiate the various yellowlegs species by evaluating their relative height.

(Here is a Greater Yellowlegs. httpswww.allaboutbirds.orgguideGreater_Yellowlegsid)


(A Field Guide to Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America does exist. It is available from Peachtree Publishers Limited, Atlanta, GA.)


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!]

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