ON THE PR(OWL)
Grand Valley birders prove wise about counting owls
Grand Junction may be best known for its red-rock scenery, rivers, dinosaurs and mountain biking.
Among birders, however, we are becoming renowned for a seldom seen but common backyard resident: the western screech owl.
In 2014, the Grand Valley Audubon Christmas Bird Count recorded the highest number of western screech owls ever counted in the United States. This achievement is the result of extraordinary efforts by some exceptional birders and conservationists in our community. It also represents the Grand Valley’s contribution to the oldest citizen-science project in the United States and perhaps the world.
The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count tradition began in 1900. In the Christmas Bird Count, groups of birders count every bird they see on the designated count day in a designated area, the count circle. Their data is then submitted to the National Audubon Society and compiled into an open-access database on bird distributions, one of the best long-term data sets on wildlife in the world.
To date, this data has been used in more than 200 scientific papers.
The first Christmas Bird Count in the Grand Valley occurred in 1922. Counts were sporadic until the early 1960s, but since then the Grand Valley Audubon Society has organized a count every year.
Last year, 37,445 individual birds of 105 species were counted in the Grand Junction count circle, including 99 western screech owls. This record, the highest number ever recorded on a Christmas count in the U.S., certainly indicates the Grand Valley has a healthy population of western screech owls, but it does not necessarily mean we have more owls than anywhere else in the U.S.
What it does mean is the Grand Valley has some of the most passionate screech-owl lovers in the nation.
The Grand Valley birding community’s love of western screech owls began in the early 1980s with local birder Rich Levad. Because the owls are nocturnal and don’t move around or call much during the daytime, most Christmas bird counts record few, if any, owls. You need to make a special effort.
But Levad developed a particular affection for the little owls and decided to make that effort. He began keeping track of the natural cavities where the owls roosted, and he played the owls a recording of owl vocalizations in the predawn hours of the Christmas count. If they called back or poked their head out of their roost, they could be recorded in the count.
Levad soon realized as residential development increased, the Grand Valley was losing many of the large, old cottonwood trees that the owls relied on for nesting cavities. Grand Valley Audubon began installing nest boxes for the owls in promising habitat, monitoring the boxes and making a special effort to count the owls during the Christmas count.
It is this extraordinary concern and conservation effort that has generated the Grand Valley’s record counts of western screech owls.
Sadly, Rich Levad died in 2008, but his friends in the Grand Valley Audubon Society continued his work on western screech owls. Nic Korte has led the owl program and recently published an account of the next box-monitoring program and Christmas-count efforts in the journal “Colorado Birds.”
Korte was awarded the 2015 Richard G. Levad Memorial Award from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in recognition of his efforts.
The numbers from this year’s Christmas Bird Count, which took place Dec. 20, are still being tallied. According to Korte, 86 western screech owls were counted, a very respectable number.
Other highlights of the 2015 count included prairie falcons, canvasback ducks, flocks of cedar waxwings and a northern shrike. One group of birders witnessed a northern harrier (a type of hawk) swoop in and snatch up a horned lark. (Did they record that as minus one Horned Lark?)
The Christmas Bird Count is a venerable tradition that allows citizens to collect valuable scientific data, encourages a little friendly competition and reminds us that even in the darkest days of winter, getting outdoors and watching our magnificent wildlife will always brighten your day.