Birding festival has Cortez a-flutter

This April brings a new event to Montezuma County, the Ute Mountain Mesa Verde Birding Festival.

Offered through a partnership with the Forest Service, BLM, San Juan Mountains Association, Mesa Verde Country, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado Division of Wildlife, National Wild Turkey Federation, City of Cortez, Cortez Cultural Center and Cortez Chamber of Commerce, this is an opportunity for birders of all abilities to see birds at their best and learn more about the area.

It offers tours in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, McElmo Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park as well as tours specially geared to see raptors, owls and waterfowl. Lectures cover West Nile, building bluebird boxes, and other topics.

But while the festival has generated considerable buzz, even being featured in the Denver Post, and many of the events are sold out, local bird populations aren’t as healthy as naturalists would like.

Fred Blackburn, an area historian and naturalist, is one of the program’s organizers and teachers. Blackburn has been doing official bird counts here for over 20 years, since before the creation of McPhee Reservoir.

“I have always worked on the Breeding Bird Survey, which is typically done in late May/early June,” he said. “I have worked with Kip Stransky and Oppie Reams. Oppie is a blind woman who can tell every bird by sound – Kip and I have learned so much from her.”

Over the year, these folks have seen great changes in local bird populations. For example, the black-crowned night herons have completely disappeared from here and the sage thrasher is gone from its favorite area near Totten Lake and now resides in isolated locations west of the Sleeping Ute Mountain.

According to Blackburn, there are three major causes of such changes: massive growth and development; environmental changes, including drought and global warming; and the destruction of the rain forests in South America.

“Shifts in weather patterns have always occurred, but long-term shifts are now happening,” he said. “It’s the long-term stuff that really affects numbers.” And it’s not just numbers of different species, but also numbers within each species. “There is a huge movement of species. As the temperature warms up, they will shift to higher elevations and eventually you will lose certain species.”

Also, Blackburn said more nonnative invaders are moving in, including starlings, Eurasian doves and English sparrows. “Those are the little guys bopping around the McDonald’s parking lot.”

Another environmental change is the drought, which has affected many species, including the great horned owl. So far this year, Blackburn said, no active nests have been located. This lag time is associated with the drought. Also, the drought has had a major effect on the piñon-juniper forests. The deterioration of these forests has created major changes in avian populations. Temporarily, there has been an increase in white-breasted nuthatches and red-shafted flickers, but soon to come will be a “dramatic decrease in piñon jays,” he said.

Development has also hammered the bird population in this area (and all around the world). Increased development will result in decreased numbers unless new bird habitat is planted along with the development,” said Blackburn. Birds cannot stay in a place where there are no healthy breeding grounds.

According to Blackburn, the last major cause of declining bird populations is the destruction of the South American rain forests. “There is a worldwide drop in hummingbird numbers because their winter habitat is diminishing.”

On a more positive note, raptor counts are up. “Due to the continuous rains and warm weather, there is a heavy prairie dog count,” he said. “This brings in the birds that feed on pot guts, like the eagles and hawks.”

So far this season, 55 eagles have been identified in the area. The numbers of geese have also increased. Another plus for the birds is that since the ’80’s the use of DDT has stopped. DDT caused the thinning of egg shells, making many unable to hatch. For a while, there were no nesting pairs of bald eagles in the county; this year, five have been identified. A healthy bird population is a sign of a healthy ecosystem; changes in numbers show changes in the world in which we live.

Bringing this awareness to the public is one of the goals of the festival.

“This festival was designed with two main concepts in mind,” Blackburn said. “One is to host events that will enhance the experience for beginning birders and the second is to mix archaeology, history and birding.”

Most of the tours are full, although there are still some openings. Blackburn and his cohorts hope this will turn out to be an annual affair. The possibilities are endless when it comes to what may be seen — ibis, bald eagles, owls, loons.

Blackburn said what makes this festival special is diversity: “The diversity of birding sites, the diversity of habitat and the fact that we have snow-free locations that are open while everywhere else is still covered in snow.”

From April 2005, Arts & Entertainment.