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Page 6 of 24


By Nic.Korte
Monday, June 6, 2016

Regular readers of this blog know that I put in a lot of time monitoring Western Screech-Owls. An unexpected benefit of that program has been the wonderful people with whom I’ve become acquainted. One is a lovely elderly lady who was raised in a pioneer ranching family in Northwest Colorado. I’m talking the far Northwest, as in Brown’s Park. I always ensure that I have a little time for a conversation when I visit her home to check on her Screech-Owl boxes.

Lily has told me some great stories over the years such as having to shoo the Sage Chickens (referring to Sage Grouse) from the family chicken feed. “Nic,” she said, “there were so many, they would darken the sky.” Imagine, as Sage Grouse continue to be the source of such controversy in Colorado and other western states, here is a lady who has memory of a sight no one will ever see again—no matter which side prevails in the current dispute.

The other day we happened to discuss Magpies, and she reminded me that Colorado, as many western states, formerly had a bounty. One way to collect it was to bring in their eggs. I’m not sure who the eggs were taken to, but she recalled the bounty being 1c/egg. Most of us are familiar with Magpie nests. They tend to be 6-10 feet off the ground, but in awful tangles. Plus, these birds are aggressive, very loud and have long pointed beaks. 

Nonetheless, a few pennies was a lot of money, and money for a five or six year old rancher’s daughter was not easy to come by. Lily was determined and received permission from her mother to take one of the horses to ride out and collect some eggs. She found the nests easily but remembers being frightened of the birds and becoming all scratched and bloody. Nonetheless, she did retrieve some eggs. Then she had a dilemma. She had forgotten to bring anything for carrying the eggs. She tried her pockets. The results were predictable. She arrived home, bloody and scratched with pockets full of broken eggs. She remembers crying over the loss of revenue. “My mother felt so bad for me,” she said, “she gave me the pennies herself.” [There are no more bounties—Magpies are protected under the Migratory Bird Act.]

This leads to an interesting question. Magpies are abundant in our area. Despite their long tails and iridescent feathers, almost no one likes them. What good are they?
There are reasons for their unpopularity. They will predate other birds, particularly their eggs. (Note: One reference I consulted says their reputation for eating other birds and eggs is overstated.) They are extremely noisy. Having a brood in a nearby tree will drive most nearby humans crazy with the loud early morning squawking.
(photo by Jackson Trappett.  Would you consider this a beautiufl bird if it was rare?)
On further consideration these reasons for hating Magpies are shallow. Almost everyone loves our local owls. Some of them eat lots of birds, including young and eggs of smaller owls. Maybe owls receive a pass because of their human-like face and secretive habits. A Magpie might be spotted taking the eggs from a Robin’s nest, but an owl snatching one of the young, after dark, won’t be noticed. The Magpie will be blamed. And, that same Robin may awaken you by singing outside your window in the pre-dawn.

I suspect Magpies are also unpopular here because they are so abundant. Familiarity does breed contempt. I was bemused a few years ago when I visited the local zoo in Kansas City, Missouri. They had Magpies on display as an example of western wildlife. Zoo visitors were stopping and looking at them in the cage as if they were an exotic rarity. 

Similarly, on a visit to Northern Minnesota this winter, my birding guide received a call and turned to me and said excitedly, “Someone has just spotted a Magpie a mile or two from here. Do you want to chase it?” Before I could say anything, he registered the look on my face and said, “Oh, I guess they are common where you live aren’t they?” Yes, as an extreme rarity anywhere in the Midwest, birders who travel to MN for winter owls often ask their guides to find them a Magpie.

In reality, I’m just as bad. You see, our Magpies are Black-billed Magpies. Did you know there are Yellow-billed Magpies? They are a distinct species that are almost identical to our common Magpies, except for the bill color. This species lives only in a narrow area in oak savannas in Central and Northern California. When I found myself nearby, there I was out hunting for them until I finally got to see a Yellow-billed Magpie. 

We do have to give Magpies one very important credit. They build their own nests. Long-eared Owls do not.(Long-eared Owls need Magpie nests.)

In Western Colorado, most Long-eared Owls rear their young in last year’s (or much older) Magpie nests. No Magpies—no Long-eared Owls.

Everything has a place. The great biologist E.O. Wilson was once asked about an insect, “What good is it?” His response? “Well, what good are you?” That is as good an explanation as any for our love-hate relationship with Magpies.

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



By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I was listening for those phrases while in the aspen woods these past two weekends. I wondered if the singer had returned from the tropics. Finally, I heard it once. Soon, that call will be incessant.

I find the song pleasant now, but for a time it was quite aggravating. Being mostly deaf in one ear, despite my interests in birds and birding, I had not invested much effort in learning bird calls. I also hadn't spent much time among the aspens.

My wife and I had found a sitter for our two young children. We were going away for a night--just the two of us. As I recall, it was our first such night since our daughter was born. She was now four, and as our son's second birthday approached, we had secured a night for ourselves in a nearby mountain cabin. It was early June and the aspens resounded with a warbler-like song. Serious birders reading this may be surprised by how little I knew of birdsong. I watched birds when I could, but it was only the "catch-as-catch-can" type of birding that could occur with a job that required heavy travel, and the demands of a young family.

We had a picnic and took a short hike. I continued to hear the song, and I looked and looked for a warbler. Most warblers have some color--in our area mostly a lot of yellow (e.g. Wilson's, MacGillivray's, or Yellow Warblers.). Another thing about warblers is they never sit still. Getting a good look can be difficult, but finding them moving about in the limbs and leaves is not so hard. This time, my frustration grew and grew as I saw no color, and no movement. Fortunately, our agenda was not about birds. Mary and I thoroughly enjoyed our overnighter--becoming a couple again while we had a few hours respite from parenthood.

Nonetheless, I didn't forget the frustrating bird that seemed so abundant but couldn't be found. Some years later, as I finally learned to recognize some bird calls, I encountered the song again. Yes, it was warbler-like, but the song was too long. Eventually, I was instructed by a more experienced birder. "Oh, that's a Warbling Vireo!" Now it all made sense. Vireos and warblers are both tiny birds, but unlike warblers, vireos tend to be mostly gray and slow-moving. No wonder my search for colorful movement was futile.

 (Warbling Vireo)

A few years later, another long-time birder told me he distinguished the song by applying the phrasing: "I will squeeze you, I will squeeze you, I will squeeze you until you hurt!" He was an eastern birder. Our western Warbling Vireos, to me, sound like "I will squeeze you, I will squeeze you, I will squeeze!" Now that I finally had the song anchored in my brain, I also recognized how abundant this bird is in our aspen woods. For much of the late spring through the summer, it is difficult to be in the aspens at any time of day without hearing this song repeated tirelessly by the many Warbling Vireos. 

 (Warbling Vireo in usual aspen woods pose)

My early struggles notwithstanding, this call is an easy one to learn. It does take a little imagination, and the “I will squeeze you's” are very fast, but after a few tries, you’ll get it and the bird will always be recognizable. Check out the song on YouTube: Give it a listen, and much of the sound of our summer aspen woods will no longer be a mystery.

[The other two common vireos in our area are the Gray Vireo, and the Plumbeous (another word for gray) Vireo. There is little habitat overlap, and the calls of these two are distinctly non-musical.]

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, check the website at and “like” us on Facebook!




By Nic.Korte
Thursday, May 12, 2016

What would you think if you looked out from your porch and spied 15 people walking slowly and stealthily. Even more, what would you think if one or more seemed to be peering at you or into your yard with binoculars or a spotting scope? 

(OK, not in a yard, but you get the idea. Photo by Mark Peterson)

I wondered about answers to those questions, being part of the 15, as we walked about various small towns in SE Colorado and NW Oklahoma. Ever been to Springfield or Kit Carson, Colorado, or Boise City, Oklahoma? These small rural towns are supposed to be deeply conservative and very gun-friendly. “Should I be worried?” I asked myself.

Apparently not. We were either ignored or received a friendly wave. You see, in this part of the country, there are almost no trees except those humans have planted. From late April through much of May, these small-town trees are havens for migratory birds needing both rest and a place to refuel as they fly north. These trees concentrate the migrants which concentrate the birders.

This is why the annual convention of the Colorado Field Ornithologists ( was held recently in the small town of Lamar. Lamar was invaded by more than 200 birdwatchers there for a four-day weekend. I always enjoy stressing a small town, as we clearly did, with our presence. Finding a venue for the convention dinner was a challenge. Similarly, 200+ people arising around 5AM challenged the hotel to provide enough coffee, muffins and cereal all at once.

How about these numbers, taken from a recent article in “Parks and Recreation” magazine?

• $15 billion: Estimated trip-related expenditures for birders in 2011.

• $26 billion: Estimated equipment expenditures for birders in 2011.

• $107 billion: Total birding industry output across the United States in 2011.

• 666,000: Number of part-time and full-time jobs created from birding expenditures in 2011.

• $31 billion: Estimated employment income created from birding expenditures, consisting of both employee compensation and proprietor income.

I only wish we had a political impact commensurate with our economic impact. It was clear they were happy to have us. We were welcomed by the mayor, and drawings of birds by local school children were included with our packed lunch.

We didn't descend on Lamar only because it was a small town with its own and nearby groves of trees. This general area is a crossroads. For example, among the birds observed on convention field trips was a Magnolia Warbler on its way to its nesting grounds in Canada. Especially fascinating to me was simultaneously observing a Red-headed Woodpecker and a Vermillion Flycatcher. The former is mostly associated with the east and the southeast, while the latter is a distinctly tropical species mostly found along the US/Mexican border.

Many Colorado birders associate Lamar with Mississippi Kites—handsome small raptors that for the most part are found only in Southern states. These kites have nested near or on the Lamar Community College campus for quite a few years. 

(Mississippi Kite by Bill Schmoker,

Finally, readers of this blog are well aware of my love of tropical birding. One US bird, also a species of the South and Southeast, can challenge any species I have seen in tropical jungles in a beauty contest.
(Painted Bunting by Bill Schmoker,

This handsome Painted Bunting was photographed just inside Colorado’s SE border. I was fortunate to be with the lucky few whose hike on a hot windy afternoon was rewarded with this view of a singing male. No wonder the residents of these small towns are accustomed to birders in their midst.

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, April 28, 2016

My wife, Mary, is almost perfect. But, there is one characteristic I would change. Her reactions to unpleasant events seem the same to me whether she believes my habit of birding while driving is about to cause a head-on or whether she’s realized we have run out of an ingredient she needed for cooking dinner.

So it was a couple of weeks ago when I heard her exclaim with horror in the small cabin we were renting in southern Costa Rica. She was preparing dinner. “She's cut or burned herself badly,” I thought. I ran to the room. No. It was ants! The two pañuelos we had selected for breakfast at the local panaderia were literally black with tiny ants. The sack containing a whole-grain bread, difficult-to-find here, had also been breached. The pañuelos were history. A heavily-covered poppy seed roll was never so black. We brushed off the bread and re-wrapped it. The ants were unpleasant, but not a catastrophe.

The next morning we went birding at the nearby Las Cruces Biological Station—part of the Organization for Tropical Studies ( This has been one of our favorite places to visit ( We were going birding, but what we really wanted to find were swarming ants! So why didn't we stay home and watch our baked goods?

Eciton burchellii are popularly known as army ants. Peaceful Costa Rica loves to point out that such ants are the only army in their country. It is true that they are a swarming army of sorts, but it is not true, as has been shown in old movies, that they eat everything in their path including humans.

Army ants live a nomadic life. They form armies of half a million ants that march from temporary nests or ‘bivouacs.’ For about three weeks, they march out and return to the same camp until the larvae hatch. Then for two weeks, the army moves to a new location every night. Finally, the larvae pupate and the horde selects another three-week bivouac.

(Army ants on the march.)

These ants forage as an army spreading out over the jungle floor, crawling up limbs and tree trunks, and hunting under every leaf. Insects of every kind flee frantically, and that’s what brings the antbirds. (Read more about the ecological importance of army ants at:

Found mostly in the lowland tropics, there is a large group of birds with “ant-“in their names: antbirds, antshrikes, antpittas, antthrushes, and more. While not all of these depend on army ants, some are obligate ant followers, meaning they forage not on the army ants themselves, but on the insects fleeing the army ants. When a large group of birds is attending foraging army ants, the event is called an antswarm. A good antswarm can have more than a dozen bird species with multiple individuals of each type. It is a feeding frenzy with usually-shy birds landing almost at your feet.

Most of the antbirds, particularly those that forage with army ants, are shy, and very difficult to see. Many have habits more like forest rodents, keeping quiet and close to the ground. All of them need large areas of mature forest. Despite more than twenty previous trips to the tropics, whether due to bad luck, being with too many other birders such that the birds were frightened, or being in the wrong location, I had never watched an antswarm. I still had never seen two of Costa Rica’s antswarm obligates, and had only fleeting glimpses of others. I wanted to see the new birds. I wanted long and satisfying views of the others. I wanted to experience this phenomenon that I had read and heard about for so many years.

We did find two small antswarms at the Las Cruces Biological Station. I saw the two birds I had never seen before, but I wasn't satisfied. There were not enough species or individuals. The birds were still shy, and sort of dropped in and out. “Is that all there is?” I wondered.

Two weeks later, at a more remote location, I finally realized my dream of encountering a king sized, fully-raucous, wildly-entertaining antswarm. I heard the feeding call of a Bicolored Antbird. I looked about and saw army ants all over the trail. I found a nice vantage point next to a tree and waited. I didn't wait long. Soon an Ocellated Antbird appeared, and then another.

(Ocellated Antbird by Pat O'Donnell. Check out Pat's blog to plan your Costa Rica trip:

Next a Ruddy Woodcreeper dove in, snatched a large insect, and clung to a nearby stem. Next came two more Ruddy Woodcreepers, two more kinds of antbirds, and three more species of Woodcreepers. Eventually I tallied 12 bird species. I watched the spectacle for more than an hour. I have been fortunate to have had many noteworthy wildlife experiences. This one was as good as any!

My wife and I make a good pair. We both have emotional reactions to ants!

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, April 14, 2016

If you are familiar with Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, you know their plumage is similar enough to cause identification problems. But, I will get back to that. What about their names? Birds can be “downy,” I guess, but “hairy?” Surely, I can find out from the internet.

I found this: “The Hairy Woodpecker's name is derived from the long, filamentous white or whitish feathers in the middle of its back.” And this: “This woodpecker looks a little hairy due to small feathers on its legs, head and over the upper mandible. That is why it is called a Hairy Woodpecker.”

For the Downy, I found this story: “One day a very large white & black woodpecker was looking for the perfect tree to start his noisy pecking. He wasn’t looking where he was going and flew right into some lady’s washer. The lady hadn’t noticed and she started the washer. While the woodpecker was in the washer he shrunk. Then he was put into the dryer. The lady used Downy fabric softener. So, when the woodpecker emerged, he was as soft as a baby. That is how the Downy Woodpecker got its name.”  

Well, that can’t be right. I suppose I should go with the Cornell University website “All About Birds,” which says the Downy was named because of the soft white feathers on its lower back.” That seems reasonable because it is consistent with the naming of the Hairy.

My yard is occasionally visited by a Downy Woodpecker. It will be attracted to my suet feeder or will poke about looking for insects amidst the bark on my apricot tree. The only time I have had a Hairy Woodpecker was when a dying peach tree had a large branch clearly infested with some large burrowing grubs. For days, a Hairy Woodpecker showed up every morning and feasted.

Because the Downy is a more of a yard bird and more commonly seen, the results of the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas surprised me. Rich Levad, one of the best birders ever known in Colorado, and a huge contributor to the Atlas, asked me, “Which do you think was found breeding in more locations in Colorado, the Downy Woodpecker or the Hairy Woodpecker.” I realized the only reason for him to ask the question was if the answer was unexpected. Yes, the Hairy Woodpecker breeds in more Colorado locations than the seemingly more familiar Downy.

(Here is a Downy with a white grub in her small bill)

Here’s something more interesting. Despite their resemblance, Downy and Hairy woodpeckers are not closely related. As one source notes, their “outward similarity is a spectacular example of convergent evolution.” Convergent evolution means the two species have analogous characteristics that have similar form and function. These characteristics, however, were not present in their last common ancestor. No one knows why the two species evolved to appear so alike; but it is relevant that they eat foods of different sizes and do not compete with each other ecologically.

(This Hairy Woodpecker has two insects in her bill.)

Now, telling them apart! You would think that would be easy. Hairy Woodpeckers are the size of a Robin, Downy Woodpeckers are the size of a House Sparrow. If they are nearby, identification is easy. Hairy Woodpeckers have a much larger bill, nearly the same length as the bird's head. Downy Woodpeckers have a small, chisel-like bill. Nonetheless, I’m not the only experienced birder to be fooled when trying to identify a woodpecker working high in a tree when size is difficult to distinguish. That is a good time to consider the marvel of evolution. They look so alike, but are, yet, so different.

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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