March 2007

From herons to hummingbirds: Four Corners a birder’s paradise, but  habitat loss, drought threaten species

By David Grant Long

EURASIAN COLLARED DOVESRegardless of how much members of the class aves are disparaged by us beastmasters — “bird brain,” “for the birds,” “give him the bird,” and so on — many homo sapiens find them endlessly fascinating.

Think of it. There are no widespread rabbit- or deer-watching societies, after all, even though those animals are fun to encounter. And while few of us other than hunters will willingly spend days sneaking around and waiting patiently for the chance — and only the chance — of seeing a rare or particularly beautiful example of other species, birders are known for braving inclement weather for these ethereal feathered attractions that may or may not appear . . . out of thin air.

Not to say other varieties of wildlife don't have their own aficionados — the dedicated, almost obsessive fans of Yellowstone National Park wolves, for instance — but birding in particular has become big business.

Bird-watching and other wildlifeviewing by 66 million Americans contributes $43 billion annually to the nation's economy, according to a press release from the American Bird Conservancy. “Retail sales of birding gear, birding trips, and state and federal tax receipts comprise a substantial portion of this.

CEDAR WAXWING“As well as a biological imperative, it makes good economic sense to conserve bird habitat,” points out ABC President George Fenwick.

However habitats from coast to coast are being ever more threatened by intrusive development. The Southwest riparian habitat in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and California is the fifth most threatened habitat in the nation, according to the American Bird Conservancy. The shortgrass prairie in Colorado, New Mexico, and some other states is No. 15 on the list.

The popularity of the Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival, which is now in its third year (it’s set for May 10- 13) is a welcome addition to the local economy. The diversity of habitats in the Four Corners makes this an excellent area for seeing all sorts of birds.

But the region certainly is not immune to the loss of habitat, with its rapidly expanding population and subdivisions blossoming like dandelions.

The Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival will take place May 10-13 throughout Montezuma County. Reservations are being taken and some tours are filling up fast.

The tours include trips to Mesa Verde, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, McElmo Canyon, and the Dolores River. A special overnight trip to the Bosque del Apache wetlands and Salinas Missions National Monument, both in New Mexico, is also available.

Registration for the festival is $35, which includes reception, lectures, and the banquet on Saturday. More information, including prices for tours, is available at www.utemountainmesaverdebirdingfestival. com or by calling the Cortez Cultural Center, 970-565-1151.

The impact of human development is graphically illustrated by the near total disappearance of the Gunnison sage grouse from the Four Corners, where it was once plentiful. Isolated populations near Dove Creek, Colo., and Monticello, Utah, have dwindled to minuscule numbers despite conservation plans formulated with the help of local citizens.

Southern invaders

Fred Blackburn, a local author and longtime bird fancier who takes part in annual bird counts in Montezuma County, said there is good news and bad news concerning the area's birds, both residents and transients migrating through.

“There's about the same number of species,” he said, “but numbers of individual birds are dropping and have been for the last probably 10 years. Some of that is caused by drought, but a lot of it's caused by habitat loss.

“Hummingbirds are definitely diminishing pretty much every year – they've dropped dramatically — and a lot of the warblers are being affected — the stuff coming out of Mexico are really the ones where the count is dropping.”

Climate change is also having an impact, he believes — causing problems for some species but also bringing new ones to the area.

“We're starting to see species that aren't here normally,” he said. On the Christmas bird count this year, watchers spotted two roadrunners, a species usually associated with the milder climes of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The roadrunner is an opportunist in its diet, consuming insects and small rodents when handy. but preferring more reptilian fare — lizards and small snakes. One roadrunner was spotted on Lebanon Road east of Highway 491, and the other off County Road G near the airport.

“What [biologists are] picking up with this global warming is that a lot of species are moving 150 miles north of their previous ranges . . . as their food sources change.”

Another relatively new arrival to the area is the ringnecked dove, which has established itself over the past five years.

“It kind of sounds like a turtledove but looks like a pigeon,” Blackburn said. “Those came in off the Caribbean and they’re settled in all over now — they're not just an intown species.” They first showed up in the Dove Creek area, and are now commonly seen in Cortez and Durango.

But unlike starlings and house sparrows, which “are pretty much tied to people,” the ring-necked dove is surviving in rural areas as well, he said.

Newcomers also include the eastern bluebird, which seems to be settling down in McElmo Canyon.

Raptors thrive

Many species are doing well in the Four Corners. Raptors such as eagles and hawks are thriving in this area, Blackburn said.

“I think they're doing pretty well overall,” he said. “They've increased from the ’60s [when DDT and other poisons had caused a decline] and continue to do so. Our bald-eagle population has definitely increased, and golden eagles go up and down with rodent counts — they generally do better here if there are a lot of groundhogs in the canyon systems.”

Last year during the salmon run on the Dolores River, Blackburn counted 45 bald eagles between Dolores and Stoner, he said, and more are nesting in the area.

EVENING GROSBEAKAside from those at Totten Lake, there aren’t many large groups of waterfowl around the largely arid county, he said, although some sandhill cranes were spotted in the Mancos area last November.

Blackburn explained that migratory birds can be blown off course by bad weather, which can be a boon to birders.

“Weather patterns disrupting stuff, that's when you get birds falling out of the air and you need to be out looking — bad weather is good news for birders during migration.”

Blackburn said he hasn't heard of any impacts from the West Nile virus or avian flu in this area yet, but there was a different virus that attacked ravens, crows, magpies and jays in the area during the drought. “It knocked them way back,” he said, “but it's mainly in those species.”

Threatened or Endangered

Jim Beatty, whom Blackburn described as “one of the top birders on the state” and one of the guides for the Ute Mountain Birding Festival, expressed more optimism than Blackburn about the state of local bird populations, saying he was “not aware of any unusual declines or increases — it seems to be fairly stable.”

But just as there is nationally and worldwide, he said, “There's pressure on all kinds of wildlife, mainly from expanding [human] populations.”

Still, some birds thrive amongst people, he noted, including starlings, robins and redwinged blackbirds.

“They like lawns and easy feeding as opposed to forests, so cultivation of areas in surburban-type settings is not necessarily a problem for them, but there are a lot of other birds — particularly what we call the neo-tropical migrants — the warblers, the vireos and the flycatchers that come up from the tropics, South America, Central America — some of those birds have specific habitat requirements and don't nest in suburban areas.

“They really prefer woods or forests, undisturbed land, and as those areas get carved up, they find less and less habitat.”

Still, Beatty expressed reservations about studies showing some birds may be threatened or endangered.

“If you're talking about the Endangered Species Act, there's some, I'll call them distortions, in that when you apply that to a large land mass like North America, you can come up with some meaningful conclusions, but when you start subdividing it into smaller and smaller political units, like states and counties, then all of a sudden some of these species become very uncommon or rare.”

The Four Corners is not home to many birds protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. The Gunnison sage grouse is regarded as being in danger of extinction, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has refused to list it, a decision that is being challenged.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife lists 19 bird species in the state as being on either the state or federal threatened or endangered lists, or as “species of special concern.” Not all of them occur in the Four Corners area.

One is the Mexican spotted owl, which is listed as threatened both federally and statewide. It likes warm desert habitat, but its primary range is in New Mexico and central Arizona.

The southwest willow flycatcher is on both the federal and state endangered lists. It likes riparian willow-cottonwood habitat, but 90 percent of that has been destroyed. Its traditional range includes New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, but not much of Colorado.

“It has very specific nesting habitat and likes riparian river corridors with a lot of willows, as the name implies, along the side,” Beatty said, “and as some of those areas get developed, then it loses some of that habitat.”

Beatty said the extended drought “certainly has an impact” on birds. “It's a simple matter of the food chain.” A good example is owls, which feed off mice, voles, moles and other small rodents whose populations plunged because of the lack of moisture in the ground.

“When that moisture isn't there and the rodents have trouble finding food, then birds like owls might move on to other areas . . . to find their food.

“So, yes, drought has had a major impact all up and down the food chain.”

Domestic and feral house cats also take a horrific toll on the small-bird population, particularly those that nest on the ground or in small bushes.

But birders at the festival probably won’t be thinking about the birds that aren’t here. They’ll just be enjoying their sightings of owls and waterfowl, eagles and ospreys, and hoping the songs and cries of their avian friends will be heard long into the future.