Rich Levad remembered for being one of Grand Valley’s best birders

The late Rich Levad takes notes while monitoring Black Swifts nests on West Fork of Parachute Creek. Levad’s book on Black Swifts recently was published as an e-book by the American Birding Association.

My initial experience with Black Swifts and the late Rich Levad’s insatiable curiosity about those fascinating birds came on a cool day in the grottoes around Hanging Lake east of Glenwood Springs.

Levad spent most of a day clambering up precarious slopes to peer behind waterfalls and into tiny crevices, hoping to spot the elusive birds and their nests.

Further adventures included the damp interior of Box Canyon above Ridgway, where Levad patiently explained to a shivering reporter that, yes, we would be standing in the mist for as long as it took for the birds to return to their nests from their feeding flights.

I’ve always thought people driven — even consumed — by their innate curiosity make the best scientists, whether they specialize in fish, ferrets, elk or birds.

Such a person was Rich Levad, a 30-year teacher of English at Central High School and for years perhaps the Grand Valley’s most recognized birder.

It’s arguable if he was the area’s best birder — he was one of several extremely talented birders at the time ranging the high desert — but he certainly was one of the most engaged birders.

His years shaping the pliable minds of high school students gave him a stage presence that played well with less experienced birders who at times had to run just to keep up with his knowledge.

And yet he was invariably patient, with a manner that surely turned many a would-be birder into a dedicated watcher of the feathered world.

During a post-teaching stint with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Levad became entranced by what he soon referred to as “the coolest bird,” the mysterious Cypseloides niger, North America’s largest swift and one that prefers to nest behind waterfalls or on damp cliffs, where safety is found in an environment that is dark, wet, steep, and inaccessible to predators.

Thanks to Levad’s pointers, many birders thrilled to see a Black Swift dash past a curtain of water and settle unconcerned into the nest after a day of foraging unseen on flying insects thousands of feet in the air.

Not surprisingly, Levad, who passed away in February 2008,  turned his passion into a book, spending the final two years of his life writing “The Coolest Bird:  A Natural History of the Black Swift and Those Who Have Pursued It.”

The book recently was published by the American Birding Association as an e-book and is available on the ABA website,

Ted Floyd, editor of ABA’s award winning Birding magazine said of Levad’s book, “It’s old school biology, modern science and true inspiration.”

Levad’s legacy continues. One of greatest mysteries in birding remains the destination of migrating Black Swifts, something that puzzled Levad and continues to frustrate today’s birders.

Perhaps the answer might come from the research being done by some of Levad’s birding colleagues and birding students, including Jason Beason, Kim Potter and Carolyn Gunn.

Or, perhaps, the coolest bird will keep its final secret just that.

California condors to get lead relief from Utah hunters: According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, California condors have been dying of lead poisoning after scavenging carcasses in southern Utah, and the agency has a possible solution.

Because it’s thought the large birds are eating carcasses containing lead fragments from hunting bullets, the Utah agency is asking big-game hunters in Zion game area in southern Utah to use non-lead ammunition and is offering a $25 rebate to help pay for the ammunition.

The agency recently mailed rebate coupons to more than 2,000 deer, elk and bighorn sheep hunters who indicated he or she planned to hunt in the area where condors are seen.

The $25 check will cover most of what the hunters spend to buy a box of non-lead bullets.

Keith Day, a regional sensitive species biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said 15 condors have died from lead poisoning since condors were reintroduced to northern Arizona and southern Utah in 1996.

He said lead poisoning is the greatest threat to the recovery of condors in the two states.

“More than 60 percent of the condors show signs of exposure to lead each year,” Day said.  “That’s dangerously high for a population that numbers about 75 birds.”


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