Giving Up But Not Giving In

Well, for the second year in a row, I’m taking down my flicker house before the end of the breeding season. While “Flick” and “Beaky” were visiting the house pretty regularly for extended periods of time for the month or so, this last week I’ve only seen Beaky twice and both times for just a minute or two. I’m not sure what’s happened to change things, but since last Monday, the starlings have been visiting the house more and more. I’ve had to chase them away more times than I can count. I won’t raise a brood of starlings, so I’m forced to give up and take the box down. I’m not sure what I can do for next year to keep the starlings out and encourage the flickers to move in. Does anyone have any suggestions?

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Chicken Dance

You may have done the chicken dance at a friend or relative’s wedding, but did you know that some chickens really do dance? The male greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido), which is actually a type of grouse, is an accomplished dancer and singer that gathers on a grass dance floor this time of year in a big gathering called a “lek.” The word lek comes from the Swedish word for “play,” but while a prairie chicken lek may look like play, it’s really more of a single’s bar.

 Just before dawn, you find yourself sitting on a cushioned bench seat in a metal trailer in the middle of the prairie. You and a small group of maybe 20 others were driven here on a school bus from the nearby town of Wray, CO. As the sky slowly lightens, you begin to hear a strange 3-note hooting call. In prairie chicken parlance, this is called “booming,” and, it’s coming from several brown and white striped birds emerging from the tall grass at the edge of the flatter space in front of you. The booming is caused by a prairie chicken inflating two orange air sacs on the side of his neck. As he inflates the air sacs, he stomps the ground with his feet and two feathery patches on either side of his neck prick up like ears. These patches are called “pinnae.”

A male greater prairie chicken "booming" in Wray, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A male greater prairie chicken “booming” in Wray, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.

As you continue to watch, 2 of the males rush toward each other, cackling. One leaps into the air with a flash of wings and the duel quickly ends with one of the birds moving off to another area of the circle to find his own territory to display. A little later, the birds become even more animated, booming and cackling louder. A female prairie chicken, or hen, has arrived at the lek. Now several males dance past and in front of her, trying to interest her in mating. If she is interested, she may allow one of the males to mount her and breed, which takes only a few seconds. This mating will produce between 7 and 17 eggs, which hatch about a month later.

Male greater prairie chicken in Wray, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male greater prairie chicken in Wray, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.

This lek tour is extremely important for the greater prairie chicken. In the 1930’s, the bird was driven almost to extinction primarily due to the conversion of its tall grass prairie habitat into farmland. While today its numbers have increased, many of the greater prairie chicken’s lek grounds, areas they return to year after year, are on private land. This is especially true here in Colorado where all greater prairie chicken leks are on private land. Therefore, tourism dollars gives ranchers and farmers a reason to preserve a portion of their land for the continuation of this fascinating species.

"Dueling" male greater prairie chickens in Wray, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.
“Dueling” male greater prairie chickens in Wray, Colorado. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The greater prairie chicken breeding season is from late March through April so now is a prime opportunity to sign up for a tour to see them strut their stuff. There are several organizations that arrange greater prairie chicken tours, but probably one of the most well-known is coordinated by the Wray Chamber of Commerce. Tours in Wray are currently $100 and include a 2-hour prairie chicken viewing on land owned by the Kitzmiller Grazing Association followed by hot breakfast prepared at the association’s headquarters.

Seeing these birds dance is amazing and I urge you to consider a tour if you can. The sooner you sign up, the better since there are only a limited number of seats in the trailer and tours tend to fill up as the season goes on.

Spotlight on Parks: Sawhill Ponds

Aside from the many national, state, and county parks within Colorado, there are also many “open spaces” and “natural areas.” One of the best of these to visit, especially this time of year, is Sawhill Ponds in Boulder. Sawhill Ponds is designated as a wildlife preserve and is managed by Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks.

View of Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.
View of Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Like Golden Ponds, which I profiled last time, Sawhill Ponds was once a gravel quarry. When mining ended in the 1970’s, the pits filled with ground water and became the wetland there today. There are 18 ponds within the Sawhill Ponds area, which provide a great place for ducks and geese to stop over during fall and spring migrations.

In early spring, you’ll be treated to a multitude of different duck species. Early morning is a great time to see them. This past Sunday I went on a duck hike with Dave Sutherland, a park naturalist with Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks. We were not disappointed! Of the 21 duck species that have been seen at Sawhill Ponds and its sister park Walden Ponds, we saw 11. They were: mallard, green-winged teal, northern shoveler, northern pintail, redhead, common goldeneye, hooded merganser, ring-necked duck, American wigeon, wood duck, and gadwall.

A muskrat swimming at Sawhill Ponds. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A muskrat swimming at Sawhill Ponds. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Sawhill Ponds isn’t just a great place for seeing waterfowl, however. Riparian areas (areas immediately adjacent to bodies of water such as rivers, streams, or lakes) are extremely productive ecosystems, especially in the western U.S. where water is a precious resource. Less than 1 percent of the western U.S. can be considered a riparian area. Because of this, they typically contain a greater number and diversity of wildlife than surrounding arid regions.

A northern shrike at Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A northern shrike at Sawhill Ponds in Boulder, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.

My last two trips to the park definitely illustrated this. On a dusk trip last week, I saw a pair of great horned owls silhouetted against the sky, duetting with each other. A northern shrike surveyed the park from the top of a tree during that same trip and a pair of voles rustled through the underbrush in search of food. The smell of either skunk or a territorial fox was powerful in several places along the trail. On Sunday, a muskrat swam lazily toward shore before disappearing at the sight of our group and red-winged blackbirds and robins sang out challenges to all interlopers. Chorus frogs loudly serenaded each other.

Along with wildlife watching, the park is a good destination for fishing and horses are allowed on many of the trails, though bikes are prohibited. Dogs are also allowed as long as they’re on a leash. Entry to the park is free and so is parking, so what are you waiting for? Head to Sawhill Ponds to enjoy all of what springtime there has to offer!

Little Bird House on the Prairie

Spring is once again in the air and so too is my northern flicker house. If you’ll remember, last year I hung my flicker box on the side of my house, but became frustrated by the European starlings that seemed to want to lay claim to the property. Determined to try again, I hung the original house (the one without the plexiglass shield) in the same spot a couple of weeks ago once I heard the first flicker drumming on someone’s gutter.

My northern flicker house from Coveside. Photo by Jamie Simo.
My northern flicker house from Coveside. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Well, now that it’s warmed up a bit and the snow is melting, there’s been lots of activity! While a mob of European starlings expressed interest in the box last week by dumping the woodchips all over the ground below it, their interest seems to have waned (fingers crossed). The last few days, a male flicker has been on and in the box for much of the day. Yesterday and today he’s spent most of his time inside the box pecking away at the entry hole (probably trying to replace the woodchips the starlings dumped). His efforts are occasionally punctuated by his usual cry, but he’s been a lot quieter today. That might be because he’s already attracted a lady. She was hanging around on the tree across from the box for awhile.

Male northern flicker. I've named him Flick. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male northern flicker. I’ve named him Flick. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Northern flickers are notoriously shy so I don’t have any really good pictures of them on the house. I had to skulk around really quietly to get the pictures I did manage to get, but I’m considering ways to get around that if they do decide to nest there. Maybe I’ll buy a trail camera so I can get pictures of them coming and going. By the way, I’ve decided to nickname them Beaky (female) and Flick (male). More as things develop!

UPDATE: Here’s a picture of Flick on the box:

Flick on my flicker house. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Flick on my flicker house. Photo by Jamie Simo.

You Can Make a Difference

I don’t live in Texas obviously, but I just heard about this all-bird wildlife rehabilitation center there that’s about to close unless it can raise the funds to stay open.

From its website:

Rogers Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (RWRC) is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit wildlife organization whose purpose is to provide care and rehabilitation to injured, sick and orphaned birds with the goal of returning them to their natural environment. The objective of RWRC’s Outdoor Learning Center is to inspire all visitors to conserve and protect our native Texas wildlife.

RWRC is entirely dependent on private donations as it does not receive any Federal, State or Local government funding for its rehabilitation and conservation efforts.”

I’m a big birder myself and I’d hate to see something like this vanish. The center has a Go Fund Me account to raise the $50,000 needed to stay open. They’re currently at almost $10,000. I just donated. So can you. Every little bit helps! Let’s take care of our bird friends!

Home-Grown

It’s in the teens and lightly snowing (again), but I’m keeping the promise of spring alive. Sitting on my breakfast table is a row of potted seedlings (prairie coneflower, western yarrow, and blue flax) stretching their tiny leaves out toward the thin rays of sunlight streaming in through my kitchen window. More seeds rest in my refrigerator, undergoing cold stratification (scarlet gillia, purple poppy mallow, blue mist penstemon). If I’ve successfully broken their dormancy, they’ll sprout soon after I plant them in their own pots in 1-2 weeks. I’ve never started seeds indoors before, so this is an experiment, but an important one because these aren’t just any seeds, these seeds are Colorado natives.

Harebells in bloom. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Harebells in bloom. Photo by Jamie Simo.

“Native” plants are those that are indigenous to an area and that don’t require human propagation. However, they’re often passed over in favor of plants that are showier or “easier” to grow in commercial and residential landscaping. Given that more and more land is being turned into strip malls and subdivisions all across the country, the impacts of supplanting native plants with non-native ornamentals have become more evident. While there have always been proponents of using native plants in landscaping, the so-called native plant movement has exploded in the last few years to combat this growing problem.

“So what’s the big deal? I like my rose garden and my butterfly bushes. Why plant natives?”

Native plants have had hundreds or thousands of years to adapt to an area and the wildlife within that area. In Colorado, a semi-arid state, native plants are more drought-tolerant than most non-natives so they’ll save you money on your water bill as well as conserve a precious resource. Native plants also don’t require fertilizers or pesticides like non-natives often do, reducing chemical usage.

Tachinid fly on rabbit brush. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Tachinid fly on rabbit brush. Photo by Jamie Simo.

As mentioned, native plants also co-evolved with the native wildlife in the area. While adult insects such as butterflies may feed on many different types of plants, native and non-native alike, their larvae are more often host-specific. A great example of this is the monarch butterfly whose larvae can only thrive on native milkweed species. Without those native hosts, they aren’t able to reproduce. When insects aren’t able to find food, this causes a domino effect, driving down bird and mammal populations as well, which are already negatively effected by lost habitat when their native forests, marshes, or grasslands are replaced by concrete and brick.

The horticulture industry tends to promote the same plants everywhere. The problem with this is that what results is often a monoculture–an area with one dominant plant. In the event that a disease or pest outbreak occurs, the outbreak can travel more quickly. Because non-native plants are more susceptible to diseases and pests than native plants already, the impacts of such an introduction can be devastating. Planting a variety of native plants ensures that you won’t lose your entire landscape.

Male Bulloch's oriole eating a fritillary butterfly. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male Bulloch’s oriole eating a fritillary butterfly. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Another potential issue with non-native plants is that they may actually be invasive plants. Invasive plants are plants that actually crowd out and replace other plants. The kudzu vine is a classic example of this. With no natural predators or deterrents and its ability to spread rapidly, it has gobbled up much of the southeastern United States. Closer to home, butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) is also considered an invasive because it propagates quickly and tends to take over areas.

I’m not advocating entirely ditching your rose garden, but maybe consider planting some natives to go along with it. Planting native plants can just flat out be more fun. You’re almost guaranteed to have a yard that’s completely unique from your neighbors’ with all sorts of interesting textures and colors. You’ll probably see more wildlife too.

I can’t wait for the weather to warm up enough for me to plant my seedlings, but, until then, I’m entertaining myself thinking about what they’ll look like when they bloom and what sort of critters they’ll attract when they do.