Rifle bird migration expert Kim Potter finds her way to dream job
A woman who helped determine the unlikely winter destination of a certain Colorado bird also took an improbable path to her current job.
Today, Kim Potter is a White River National Forest wildlife technician who has become a nationally acclaimed bird researcher due to her work involving northern black swifts. But the 58-year-old employee in the Forest Service’s Rifle Ranger District spent her 1980s in Vail skiing, doing carpentry and drywall work and running a snowplowing business.
Following that, “Before I was too old I wanted to do the obstacle course so I joined the (Army) Reserves.”
There, she was already old enough to become known as “Granny,” and during her reserve stint she received medical training that led to work in Denver at an organ transplant lab, helping match patients and donors.
It was while living there that she again began pursuing an interest in birds that dated back to her childhood, and that this year has earned her and two Western Slope colleagues widespread attention. Potter, Jason Beason of Paonia and Carolyn Gunn of Dolores joined two others in authoring a scientific paper outlining their discovery that the northern black swift winters in Brazil. The discovery has drawn coverage from publications as diverse as Audubon Magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
The reaction to their findings was “way bigger than I ever thought it would be,” Potter said.
But then she added, “It was one of the last birds that people didn’t know where it went for its wintertime home. It was one of the last big mysteries out there. I mean (researchers) really didn’t have a clue where it went.”
Lucky for Potter, and for black swifts, Colorado has proven to be a place still prime for discovery, at least in the birding world, and Potter brings a unique set of skills to that work.
“I have to say that Kim is one of the most competent and observant and capable field biologists that I’ve ever met,” said Gunn, who has a wildlife biology degree but works as a veterinarian for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
COOKING AND SEWING? NO THANKS
Potter began acquiring the necessary skills for such work, and showing an aptitude and love for it, at an early age.
She grew up in Wisconsin, where her dad was a dairy farmer. She became involved in 4-H, where she was expected to do more than just show cows. She didn’t want to sew or cook, and instead became involved in projects involving wildflowers and birds.
Potter fondly remembers her dad taking her out on a Sunday “after the Packers game” to work on her bird project.
“It was really nice being in the woods — not as many bugs,” she said.
While unsure what she wanted to do when she grew up, Potter enjoyed science and being outside from an early age. She remembers getting up with her dad before dawn and crawling around outside in the hay as the cows fed.
“You could look up and see the stars. You could talk to the cows; it was warm and snuggly in there,” she said.
Potter ended up getting a biology degree in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, but finding work was another matter. She had visited Vail while on a western road trip after graduating and ended up returning there after not finding a job in biology in Wisconsin.
Later, while in the Army Reserves, her medical training involved phlebotomy and blood banking, which subsequently has served her well because she does a lot of work involving drawing blood from birds, she said.
Potter met her partner in the Reserves and they moved to Denver. Potter, who studied some ornithology in college, “got really hooked on birds” after meeting other birders in Denver. She learned to band birds and went to places such as Mexico and Alaska to see them and work with them.
After about three years, she moved back to the Western Slope, where she appreciated the fact that not only was the pace of life a lot slower, but a lot less was known about birds. It was easier, for example, to rack up the first sighting of a bird in a given county.
“It was like being an explorer or pioneer,” she said. “Lots of times you could be the first one to find this or that or the other thing. There was a lot of gratification and adventure.”
Potter’s love of the outdoors served her well as she met Western Slope birders such as the late Rich Levad, a retired Mesa County teacher who got her involved in field work for the first Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas. This was Potter’s first paying birding job, and it involved what she called “block-busting” — visiting blocks of land that each consisted of a sixth of a 1:24,000-scale topographic map to survey for birds. The work took her to remote parts of western Colorado, which suited Potter’s adventurous nature.
Potter tried hiring on with the Forest Service in Rifle, but getting such jobs isn’t easy, so she began by volunteering, and then worked in seasonal and term employment capacities before finally being employed full-time in 2007.
Birds such as the black swift, flammulated owl and purple martin are designated as sensitive by the Forest Service, meaning the agency is trying to work to keep from being designated as threatened or endangered. Yet Potter said there wasn’t a lot of knowledge within the agency about some of these birds — especially black swifts.
“I thought it was really important and I was a field biologist. I could go find these things out, I could figure out where they were,” she said.
Working with Levad, “we started going after these birds no one knew anything about,” she said.
Among Potter’s successes was discovering black swifts at Rifle Falls. But she credits her dad for that finding, as he was visiting her once and noticed the birds flying at Fravert Reservoir, near Potter’s office.
“I said, ‘My God, they’re nesting here in Rifle and I never even knew it,’” said Potter, who quickly figured out the birds’ nesting place because they like to live near falls, and sometimes damp caves.
Looking for the swifts means getting to hang out around a lot of waterfalls.
“Just finding them in the first place is fun,” Potter said.
A lot of Potter’s recent black swift work has involved teaming up with Gunn and Beason, who is with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory nonprofit group. It’s volunteer work for Gunn, and often involves personal time for Potter and Beason as well, with grant funding sometimes helping out.
A MYSTERY SOLVED
They and other black swift researchers used to spend a lot of time wondering where black swifts went once they left Colorado for the winter. There was some scanty information, such as about some birds stopping off in Costa Rica, and it was commonly guessed that the species ended up in South America.
Eventually, Beason, Potter and Gunn began pursuing a means for trying to solve the mystery. The birds are too light for strapping satellite transmitters on them. But the trio decided to use geolocators, which weigh less than 5 percent of the bird’s body weight. Gunn devised a way to use string to strap the thimble-size devices onto the birds like backpacks after capturing them.
The geolocators have a light sensor to detect sunrise and sunset, and a clock. That provides enough information to be able to determine twice a day their location within about 100 miles — assuming you can catch the birds again to retrieve the devices and download the data.
Fortunately, black swifts like to return to the same nest sites. The team attached geolocators to four birds in 2009. The next year, they caught two that returned to a cave in the Flat Tops mountains in Garfield County, and a third that came back to the Box Canyon area of Ouray.
The researchers were surprised to learn the birds wintered in jungle lowlands rather than the mountainous terrain they favor here. But Potter said there should be a lot of insects for them to feed on there.
As is so common in science, the discovery just led to more questions Potter and other researchers want to try to answer. Do the birds possibly roost on the wing, as the common swift of Europe does when it’s not breeding? Do black swifts from elsewhere in western North America, which is the extent of their range, also go to the same place?
Luckily, Potter said, the birds appear to winter in a remote area with little road access or threat from logging.
“But they’ve had a couple years of really bad droughts down there and that’s going to hurt the birds,” she said.
Potter likewise is worried about threats to the bird in North America, such as disappearing glaciers drying up waterfalls black swifts have called home in Montana.
‘A FIELD-GOING MACHINE’
Potter hopes to remain in her current job for the rest of her career. Part of the joy of it comes from that love of the outdoors Potter has known since her youth.
“That’s the most fun part about it, is being out in the woods, I think, that time out there,” she said.
She said when the Forest Service hired her, “they had to rewrite the job description because nobody gets to be a field biologist.”
She said she’s chosen to work as a wildlife technician rather than a biologist so she’s not so tied down to office work.
“I’ve been working really, really hard to stay in the field,” she said.
“She is a field-going machine,” interjected Rifle District Ranger Glenn Adams as he walked by Potter’s desk during her interview for this story. “If the snow wasn’t out there you wouldn’t find her.”
He added, “She’s just a great biologist. She makes it happen. People respect her when she says something.”
Undertakings like the black swift research can be taxing. Working with the swifts at the Flat Tops cave involved early-morning drives, hiking down to the caves regardless of the weather, banding young birds in the afternoon and catching adults with nests at dusk, then hiking up 2,000 feet in the dark to camp.
Said Potter, “You’re tired and it’s hard but you’re usually pretty excited about what you did and that gets you home” — or at least to a tent.
Gunn said of Potter, “She’s pretty rugged. Hiking around the rain and snow and all that kind of stuff doesn’t really faze her. She’s strong physically, she works out, she’s strong mentally. She knows how to take care of herself out in the woods.”
Gunn said Potter has a natural curiosity that has served researchers well in trying to unravel some of the mysteries about the black swift. She also has keen observational skills— so much so that Gunn takes it as a point of personal pride that when the two once were looking for the Abert’s squirrel while in New Mexico, Gunn spotted some of the tuft-eared animals first.
“She doesn’t miss anything,” Gunn said.
Having discovered her own love of science and the outdoors at a young age, Potter works to introduce area kids to her passion through educational programs such as nighttime campfires where they call for owls and watch the International Space Station pass overhead.
Gunn, who became a veterinarian as a second choice after being told her only career option would be to teach in high school if she studied wildlife biology, hopes that people such as she and Potter might help inspire girls to consider careers once considered off-limits to them.
“Any women of Kim’s age and my age that kind of bucked tradition, hopefully we are sort of seen as groundbreakers and role models for young women coming up for professions that are normally dominated by men,” Gunn said.