Posts Tagged 'bird watching'

For the birds!

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

Photo from Audubon.com

One of my favorite annual events is happening this weekend (and no, I’m not talking about Valentine’s Day, although that event has its merits, too). I’m excited for the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). The GBBC is a continent-wide count of birds – each and every bird in North American that a volunteer spots is counted! The event helps ornithologists plot trends in bird populations and ranges. For example, the GBBC helped ornithologists realize the massive impact West Nile Virus had on American Crow populations about 7 or 8 years ago. In the last two years, they discovered a change in the overwintering habits of Pine Siskin, cute little birds that are common feeder birds here in Colorado but which are slowly pushing their winter range further south in winter time.

There are so many cool things about this event that it’s almost too many to name: anyone can participate, even if you aren’t a bird watcher; the information collected informs a real scientific research project; everyone who submits a checklist is entered into drawing for prizes; you can watch online as maps and birds counts are updated in real time during the four days of the count … as I said, very cool.

It’s really easy to join this very cool thing, too. All you have to do is count birds for 15 minutes in one place during one of four days, Friday, February 12 through Monday, February 15. As best you can, identify what bird species you are seeing. Log onto www.birdcount.org, complete the online checklist form and hit submit. That’s it. Of course, if you want to, you can count longer than 15 minutes, count on more than one day, and count in multiple locations.

If you are new to watching birds, the website has a photo gallery to help you with species identification. Even better, on your checklist, you can tell the ornithologists your level of confidence in your identification skills. They review everything – if you’ve submitted a bird that does not live in Colorado and you’ve checked “beginner bird watcher” on your form, they’ll be able to figure out what bird you likely DID see based on their knowledge of birds and their ranges.

That said, sometimes rare birds do show up on the count outside their normal ranges. For example, there’s a Red-shouldered Hawk living at the Poudre River Walk trailhead west of Windsor right now. That species of bird is just not found here in winter, except this year, we have one! When the count receives multiple checklists with this bird from a bunch of us marking “experienced bird watcher,” the ornithologists have greater confidence that is bizarre sighting is real. It will be fun to see if other Red-shouldered Hawks show up in the count outside their normal range.

The Museum is an official ambassador for the coordinators of this event, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Bird Canada.  We have information packets available for free at our front desk, now through Sunday, February 14. Stop by during business hours to pick one up! If you are interested in participating but unsure of the process, we are hosting “practice counts” in our Courtyard each day at 2 pm, Friday, February 12 through Sunday, February 14. Please join us.  It’s fun, it’s easy and it’s for the birds!

Science at home: Who did I see?

by Treloar Bower, Curator of Education

I rarely see or even hear one of my favorite animals, and, no, that’s not because I love elephants and can only see them in a zoo or on safari (which is a highly unlikely trip for me anyway). No, this critter is a native of Colorado but it’s a nocturnal carnivore with such specialized adaptations that even sensitive-eared prey animals like mice don’t hear it coming. So imagine my surprise when on an evening a couple of weeks ago, sitting in my car at a stoplight west of Windsor on 392, with the temperature hovering at 0º F, my favorite animal, an owl, emerged from the blackness of the night, flying slightly above the intersection right over my car! Just enough light was emitted from my headlights and the street lamps to cause its light-colored belly feathers and under-wings to faintly glow in the night. It was beautiful!

My mom, another bird-lover, was with me. We’ve been debating about what species of owl we saw. It was a large owl but I’ve certainly seen larger. I’d guess it had a wing span of 3 feet. Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) have a wing span range of 3 to 5 feet, and a wide range of color variation, but a white belly is one possibility. Barn Owls (Tyto alba) all have white bellies, with a wing span of 3 to 3.5 feet. We could have seen a small Great Horned Owl or an average-sized Barn Owl. In flight, the feathers on its head that give the Great Horned its “horned” appearance, are folded against the head, so that diagnostic feature was not visible to us (if it was a Great Horned). Barn Owls have distinctive heart-shaped faces, long legs and a squared tail but in all honesty, this sighting occurred so fast and in such dim light I didn’t really catch anything of those features.

Great Horned Owl. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

That said, I’m leaning towards Barn Owl simply because the owl, including its face, looked so white to me. Barn Owls are often called “ghost owls” because they are so eerily silent in flight and their faces and underbellies are so pale. I’m hoping we might see this owl again sometime. Owls are creatures of habit: they have roosts and hunting grounds they return to over and over again. You can spot these locations not by spotting the owl (my goodness, owls are hard to spot!) but the cough pellets and whitewash they leave behind over many, many visits to the same favored haunt. It’s possible my mom and I crossed the regular evening route of a hunting owl. I’m going to time my trips down 392 and keep my eyes open!

Barn Owl. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

If you ever have a chance to go on an “owl prowl” with a professional ornithologist, I highly encourage it. An owl prowl is a late night walk through an area where owls live. By using their own voices, or sometimes tape recordings or calls, these owl experts can call to owls that will sometimes respond with calls of their own or even a flight in to see what’s up. Owl prowls are not for the impatient, nor are they for cold-weather-averse folks. The best prowls I’ve been on are at 10 pm in freezing weather (less than 30º F) – shout out to Jerry Garden of the Chicago Audubon Society – thank you for all the prowls you lead that I attended while I lived in Chicago!

Be prepared to be amazed and totally surprised by the sight of the feathered hunter who sneaks up on you. I once saw a great raptor naturalist and educator, Ryan DePauw, formerly of Spring Brook Nature Center in Illinois, illustrate the sound a single hawk feather makes when flapped, versus the sound of an entire owl’s wing when flapped. There’s no comparison: the single hawk feather sounds like a herd of elephants tap dancing with the Rockettes, while the owl’s wing didn’t make a sound at all.

One thing I will never, never do is call an owl myself. If you call different species of owls in the wrong order, you will either fail to hear or see any owls, or worse, you may cause the death of a small owl. Great Horned Owls eat smaller species of owls, like saw-whets and screech owls. I would hate to call in a screech owl only to draw the attention of a Great Horned!

The best Fort Collins-area resource for learning about owls is the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program. Their mission is to rehabilitate and return to the wild injured and sick raptors, including owls. Some birds that cannot be released are used for educational programs. Check out their website: www.rmrp.org. See if you can identify the Great Horned Owl and the Barn Owl in the pictures on their homepage!

The sandhill crane migration – a phenomenon to experience

by Annette Geiselman, Executive Director, Discovery Science Center

Spring is the perfect time to get away and commune with nature. For the second spring break in a row, I traveled to Kearney, Nebraska and once again was stunned by the sandhill crane migration. There aren’t words to describe the connection to nature, and the connection to the ancient past, that this experience provides. For me, the chortling sound of the cranes is the characteristic that transports me back in time. It is truly indescribable. And the sheer incredible number of cranes that you hear and see is beyond quantification. The cranes migrate right off of I-80, and the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary will help even the most novice bird watcher have an extraordinary experience. At the sanctuary I learned that cranes have been in existence for 40 million years and are among the oldest living birds on the planet. The red color of the top of the head of the crane is not red feathers, but rather skin. The color changes from red to grayish depending on how excited or agitated the crane is. Even their descriptions are surprising — female adults are mares, male adults are roans, and baby cranes are colts. Millions of the birds, making up 80 percent of the world’s sandhill crane population, migrate through Nebraska each year. I met many people from around the United States who make this an annual pilgrimage, and I can see why. Here are a couple of links if you would like to learn more.

Rowe Audubon Sanctuary’s crane cam (through April 8th)

Nebraska Flyway (a really excellent website)


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