This foursome – one Norwood and one Nucla couple, who are very high up in Western Colorado’s elite birding world – have just come back from their latest foray into the nearby forests. They’re part of a remarkable group of volunteers who are out there this summer counting “breeding birds.”
Mind you, this is no fly-by-night affair. It is precise and often rigorous, but if you love birds and adventures in the outdoors, it’s also quite wonderful.
My birder friends are Norwood’s Kathey Graaff and George Steele, and Brenda Wright and Coen Dexter of Nucla. They’re all vigorous retirees. George is a former Boise-based smokejumper and Coen was a Grand Junction high-school teacher. After each moved to this area, it’s not surprising that, as consummate, lifelong birders (dare I say “birds of a feather”) they linked up here. Some 20 years ago, Coen was a leading participant in the first Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, and is today a regional fieldwork coordinator for Atlas II.
Their assigned territory takes in parts of Paradox, the northern regions of San Miguel County (including Placerville and the Leopard Creek area) and large portions of Ouray County. Coen says they found perhaps the richest birding on the Leopard Creek trail, which follows the old Narrow Gauge Railroad line near Placerville. Carolyn Gunn, formerly a Telluride veterinarian and now a fish biologist living in Dolores, is the Atlas II coordinator for the Telluride area, and Placerville residents Judy and Howard Kennedy are enthusiastic new field volunteers.
Atlas II is the second Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas. It will provide an updated comparison to the findings published in the first Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, the result of fieldwork started in 1987. The project maps “the breeding birds of Colorado in a detailed scale never before attempted in the state,” according to the project’s Field Worker’s Handbook. The Colorado Bird Atlas Partnership heads this complex inventorying of bird species, and fieldworkers follow highly specific guidelines to establish their observations.
From topo maps, volunteer field workers are assigned certain “blocks” to cover. There they look and listen, recording what they hear and see on detailed “field cards.” Fieldworkers don’t have to find nests – although Kathey and Brenda both say finding nests with eggs, or better still, baby birds, makes for thrilling moments. Atlas II volunteers record their bird observations, categorizing them on their field cards as “confirmed, probably, or possible breeders,” according to the bird’s behavior. Breeding bird behavior can include seeing pairs, observing territorial or courtship behavior or spotting possible nests.
Brenda, acknowledged to possess perhaps the sharpest eyes, says she’s been doing fieldwork for eight summers, and this is the first time she’s seen an Olive-sided Flycatcher’s nest. These rather large, grayish birds nest on the ground, she explains. But, even when the Mama flycatcher flew up from the ground, directly in front of her feet, “it was so well camouflaged, I couldn’t see the nest on the ground.” Then – Bingo! – there it was. An “ah haa” moment in birding.
Flycatchers, it turns out, have been of special interest this summer – in particular, one species called the Cordilleran Flycatcher (they saw several pairs of Cordilleran Flycatchers in the Leopard Creek Trail area). Coen also mentions a Hammonds Flycatcher, and the much more spectacular male Western Tanninger, noting a fledgling with a red head and bright yellow body – then a spectacular and often overlooked Lazuli Bunting in a brilliant blue. Typically, this foursome spent 10 hours inventorying breeding birds on Hamilton Mesa, southwest of Norwood. That’s where they observed 52 species, actually the same number recorded 20 years ago. But, they “confirmed” many more species, by finding nests or seeing mama birds feeding the babies. Kathey says one of her “ah haa” moments was seeing a baby “Meadowlark – mouth open, wings flapping – begging food from a Mountain Bluebird.”
While volunteers by the hundreds will do the fieldwork for Atlas II, Brenda says that, with a little training, “anyone can try a block.” The work is expected to take five years to complete. This summer, Coen regularly holds instructional sessions for beginners – he calls them “Blockbusters” – at Antone Springs, a U.S. Forest Service campground on the Uncompahgre Plateau. Notices appear in local publications, along with the Black Canyon Audubon Society’s website.
When the fieldwork is completed, organized, and published, in about 2012, birders and others will be able to go to a new Atlas II website, and even register new sightings to add to this comprehensive study of breeding birds in Colorado Next to gardening, birding is universally recognized as the second-favorite hobby in America.
OK, birders in the San Juans, here’s your chance to have an expert “walk you through” this intriguing wildlife challenge. It could turn out to be your best summer yet.