FLOATIN’ DOWN THE OLD GREEN RIVER
Maybe you aren’t familiar with the old Dixieland tune which is the title of this blog. The song salutes a particular alcoholic beverage with a few obvious double entendres. I learned the song off an old record as a youth growing up near the St Louis Riverfront where Dixieland music still hangs on. When I’m on a river, to the dismay of my family, I sing it to them. Fortunately, better music is made by all of the birdlife along the riverbanks. And, no matter that the river water might be brown; this interface of land and water, the riparian zone, is truly green and is the most important wildlife habitat in our area. Estimates are that 90% of all bird species, 72% of all reptiles, 77% of all amphibian species, and 80% of all mammals, which occur regularly in the Colorado Plateau region, routinely use riparian areas for food, water, cover or migration routes (http://cpluhna.nau.edu/Biota/riparian_communities.htm). Even if you are in an inner tube, listen and watch because there is much more to see than the great blue heron (not a crane!) flying ahead or the many ravens croaking nearby.
While floating rivers, I’ve been surprised that some experienced river runners were unaware of the Say’s Phoebe—a common flycatcher which may appear as frequently as every 50 to 100 yards.
Say’s phoebes are a good bird to learn because one of the first skills needed if you are going to learn birds is to be able to classify them to a family. Say’s phoebes are flycatchers and, as with most of their family, sit in the open and sally out to grab flying insects before returning to a conspicuous perch. These habits and their upright posture are a sign that says “flycatcher.” Say’s phoebes are not musical but they are very vocal. Listen for “pweeeer,” and watch for them as they frequently fly across the river.
As common as Say’s phoebe near our desert rivers are Ash-throated flycatchers—a little bigger and duller gray than the phoebe. These usually stay in the dry stuff—and not so close to the river bank. Not many minutes pass as you float without the sound of its calls, which can be described as “kabrik” and “breer”—the latter being a shorter version of the Say’s Phoebe.
More difficult to see, but easy to hear are two members of the warbler family. One night on a recent rafting trip, a song (?) began in the middle of the night and continued for hours. There were melodious whistles, interspersed with a variety of toots and squawks. As the song continued into the morning, one of the trip members asked, “What the heck is that?” Identifying it was easy—seeing it—not so much. The bird was a yellow-breasted chat. They are common wherever there is a tangled grouping of large tamarisk and willows. They will sit deep within thick vegetation while keeping up constant chatter…hence, their name. Away from the dry tangles, wherever there is a group of cattails, lives the common yellowthroat whose more musical “whichity-whichity-whichity” followed us down the river.
Both the chat and the yellowthroat (the male at least) are very striking birds, not always sitting up and easy to see, but if you listen for them—and watch, they’ll pop up eventually. The chat has a bright yellow throat and belly with a grayish green back and head with white spectacles. The male common yellowthroat has a striking black mask and also a bright yellow throat. The female is much duller and lacks the mask.
More surprising to my companions on a recent trip were blue grosbeaks. The male is deep blue with cinnamon-colored wing bars. These too are common residents of desert riparian areas but are often overlooked. Females are buffy-brown but retain the cinnamon wing bars.
So, the next time you are “Floatin’ Down the Old Green River,” pay attention to the "thin green lifeline" provided by flowing water. This post provided by Nic Korte, with photos by Jackson Trappett, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org]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!]