Another spring storm with powerful wind gusts produced a fall-out of migrating songbirds on the ranch.  In a typical spring, I may see one or two Western Tanagers in the vicinity of the ranch.  This storms produced an unprecedented flock of 15-20 Western Tanagers that included both males and females, sub-adults as well as fully mature birds.  For several days they flocked to the "buffet" of nectar feeders, oranges, and grape jelly that I had previously set up for the orioles.  At first the tanagers were intimidated by the more aggressive Bullock's Orioles, but in no time at all, they learned to hold their own at the feeders.  At meal times we witnessed a Tanagers fighting.jpgfeeding frenzy with orioles, tanagers, hummingbirds, and grosbeaks going at the feeders and at each other in order to get to the feeders.  The action was intense and dizzying to watch.

The adult male Western Tanager in breeding plumage, with his showy yellow and black feathers and bright red head, is my pick for the prettiest bird to frequent the ranch (see previous blog entry "Bird Beauties.."- May, 2009). 
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 Some of the males in this flock were either sub-adults or had not yet attained their full breeding plumage; they appeared yellow-olive and dusky, with just a wash of red on the face.  
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The females display olive-green feathers on their upperparts, and yellow to grayish white feathers on their underparts.  Both male and females wear two yellowish-white wing bars.

In addition to the tanagers, a number of Black-headed Grosbeaks made a post-storm appearance at the feeders.  Like the male Bullock's Oriole, the male Black-headed Grosbeak's plumage sports orange, black, and white, but the orange of the grosbeak is darker than the oriole, and its beak is heavy and bulky, compared to the narrow, straight oriole bill.
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(Black-headed Grosbeak on left, Bullock's Oriole on the right)

The Black-headed Grosbeaks usually comes to the sunflower feeders, but the last few days, 
they have been competing with the tanagers and the orioles for the nectar, oranges, and grape jelly.                                                             
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It is no wonder I have trouble getting anything accomplished in the spring.  I am either distracted by the amazing display of flashy birds at my feeder or occupied with replenishing the feeders that these flashy birds are frequenting.  How fortunate can one bird-loving person be?!  

In a few days the Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks will move to higher grounds to nest.  In the meantime, I'm enjoying every minute of their visit to our ranch.
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"Wind Birds"

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Spring storms bring rain, snow, and wind to the ranch along with a fall-out of what the naturalist, Peter Matthiessen, calls the "wind birds".  Wet, flooded fields on and near the ranch provide feeding grounds for shorebirds and marsh birds.  Some, such as Willets, Marbled Godwits, White-faced Ibis, and Lesser Yellowlegs are just passing through on the way to their breeding grounds.  Others, such as Wilson's Snipe and Kildeer stay for the season and breed and raise their young on the Kildeer pair.jpg
ranch.  Still others, such as Long-billed Curlew,   
Cattle Egret, and Long-billed Dowitcher are vagrants- unexpected, out-of-range visitors who have blown off or strayed from their usual migration route.

-Kildeer pair nesting on the ranch

Last spring we briefly hosted a beautiful, but bewildered Cattle Egret in full breeding plumage.
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In early April of this year, I arrived home after the best ski day of the season (thanks to a storm that delivered a foot of champagne powder to the ski mountain) and was greeted by a total of 14 Wilson's Snipe scattered around the ranch.
Earlier this week, after a wind storm of epic proportion, a flooded field across from the ranch was teeming with "wind birds"- 11 White-faced Ibis, 131 Marbled Godwits, 4 Willets, 2 Lesser Yellowlegs, and a single Long-billed Dowitcher.  The ibis and godwits hung around for a few days before taking off, allowing me the opportunity to observe and photograph them.

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The White-faced Ibis is a funny-looking creature with his long legs and his long decurved bill that he uses to probe in the mud for worms, insects, and snails.  The "white-face" in his name consists of white feathers along the border of the bare facial skin of adults birds.  The white is difficult to see except at close range, but the metallic bronze plumage on the body of the bird knocks you out, especially in just the right light.

When the Marbled Godwit is standing still or foraging
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for bugs, his long, slightly upturned bicolored bill is my favorite feature.  The flock seems to  
enjoy socializing while they eat.  When I was observing them late in the day, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks flew overhead and startled the birds into flight.  As they took off, the bright cinnamon-buff of their underwings absolutely dazzled me.

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     The Marbled Godwits, like many of the "wind birds", stay for such a brief time that I consider their appearance on the ranch in the spring a highlight of the season. 

Rosy-finch Banding Project

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Last week the Yampavian Ranch had the honor of hosting researchers from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and the U.S. Forest Service.  In my previous blog entry, I discussed how rosy-finches began showing up at our feeders on New Years Day.  Their numbers grew over the weeks, until we were feeding close to 200 rosy-finches a day.  rosy-finch flock.jpgGray-crowned-regular & Hepburn.jpg
News of our flock traveled through the birding grapevine, and I was asked if I would allow researchers to band some of my rosy-finches as part of an on-going study of rosy-finches in Colorado. I was thrilled to give my consent; my dream for the ranch has always been both to attract and protect birds and to provide access to birders and researchers to learn more about the birds. 

Three species of rosy-finches are found in a limited range in North America- Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Block Rosy-finch.  All three frequent our ranch, with the Gray-crowned being the most numerous, by far.  The photo above on the right shows the two different types of Gray-crowned Rosy-finches we see on the ranch; the bird to the left is the "Interior" Gray-crowned, and the one on the right with the "helmet" of gray is the "Hepburn" Gray-crowned Rosy-finch.  Rosy-finches breed in high mountain tundra and migrate to lower elevations to feed on seed in winter months.  Little is known about actual numbers of each of these species and how they are faring with climate change.  Researchers from RMBO and the U.S. Forest Service are banding these birds to try to obtain more data on population numbers and movements of these species. 

Early one morning this past week, the researchers arrived and set up a mist net in the area where the rosy-finches were feeding.  Within a few minutes the first rosy-finches had flown into the net and were captured.  The birds were gently removed from the net, placed in small 
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cloth bags, and taken to the banding station inside our heated garage.  Each bird was then examined to determine age, sex, general feather condition, wing and tail length, and weight.
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All of this information was recorded for each bird captured.  Then each rosy-finch was banded with three different bands: a numbered, silver U.S. Fish and Wildlife band, a yellow plastic band indicating the bird had been banded in Routt County, and an orange plastic band which designates the year of the banding (2009-2010).  Finally, the bird was released back into the wild with the new bracelets on its legs.
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In addition to 46 rosy-finches (all Gray-crowned) captured over the two days of banding, we caught and banded a Black-capped Chickadee,  several American Goldfinches, two Tree Sparrows, and two Red-winged Blackbirds.
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These other birds were examined, measured, and weighed like the rosy-finches but were banded only with the single silver U.S. Fish and Wildlife band.  

In years to come, we will look for the banded rosy-finches to see if they return to the ranch.
Already, we have spotted several of the banded birds back at the feeders, seemingly, 
no worse for wear.
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I find it thrilling that our ranch has not only been the chosen feeding grounds for these birds this winter, but has also been the chosen site to help learn more about these beautiful birds and their conservation.

Rosy-finch Drama

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During some winters, we are inundated with flocks of rosy-finches.  This year they showed up on New Years Day as we were watching (appropriately enough) the Rose Bowl Parade. Three different species of rosy-finches populate Northwest Colorado- Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black. While all three species have made an appearance at our feeders this winter, the Gray-crowned Rosy-finches are, by far, the most numerous. Gray-cr.jpg

The first few days I counted only 6 or 7 at the feeders in the early morning hours.  Within a week at least two dozen visited each day. Now more than a hundred rosy-finches consistently are seen roosting and feeding around the yard.  They wait their turn on the roof of the buildings and on tree branches, then, fly to the feeder to gorge on sunflower seeds.

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When flocks of rosy-finches abound, a predator is likely to take notice.  Within the last few days, another visitor has shown up at our feeder- a beautiful, sleek Coopers Hawk.  

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And here is the inevitable result......


Sad, but part of what you have to expect when you feed birds!

Crane Count

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The Sandhill Cranes stage in our area in late summer and early fall before heading south to New Mexico and Arizona for the winter.  We flood one or more of our hay fields in late August to attract them to our ranch.  Every morning at sunrise they fly out from their roosting site along the river to feed in our fields and those of the surrounding ranches.  Every evening at sunset they fly back to the river to spend the night.  The Sandhill Cranes in our area are part of the Rocky Mountain Flock and are of the subspecies known as the Greater Sandhill Crane. Today I was asked to participate in a crane count for our ranch.  On the morning fly-out, I counted 203 cranes.   This evening i decided to photograph rather than count the cranes as they flew back to the river.  So here is a sampling of the Sandhill Cranes at the magic hour on the Yampavian Ranch.
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Berry Bush Bonanza

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 With all of the rain this spring, our berry bushes are bursting!  Each year we add more berry bushes around the ranch hoping to attract more birds.  Different species of shrubs provide berries for the birds throughout the seasons.  Here is a sampling of our berries as we move into the month of August.

Canada Cherry (not yet ripe)-                                
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Chokecherry- a favorite of the robin and waxwings.     

Currants- different varieties with  
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       different colored berries.  

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 Red-osier Dogwood- a personal                         
                       favorite of mine (and the birds).

Scarlet Elder- beautiful red berries             
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                                                                         that the birds never touch.

Honeysuckle- At least two different varieties- orange and red berries.                 

Raspberries- just planted last year.           
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Serviceberry- pronounced "Sarvisberry"
     and devoured by the most species
     of birds on the ranch.                        

More about Young Orioles

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This spring produced a bumper crop of young Bullock's Orioles.  All day long I hear them chattering and begging for food from the tired adults.  I can't resist photographing them from the balcony of our bedroom which is eye level with the trees where they spent most of their day.
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Baby Birds and Fledglings

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The first round of nesting on the ranch has been completed.  Some birds, such as the Barn Swallows and American Robins, will nest again, but most species have completed the nesting cycle for this year.  The fledglings perch awkwardly in the trees and shrubs, and all too often crash into windows, sometimes with catastrophic results.  Yesterday three young Bullock's Orioles visited our water feature and nectar feeders.young oriole.jpg                                                
They waited in the lilac tree until the adult oriole had drunk its fill at the feeder. 
Then they took turns eating at the feeder and bathing in the water feature.

Today, young Western Kingbird siblings appeared to be carrying on a conversation in the shrubs outside our dining room window. 
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I was not sure where the Kingbirds had nested this year on the property, but clearly they
had successfully raised a brood somewhere nearby.

Earlier in the week on my walk along the river, I spotted seven Common Merganser babies swimming in the irrigation ditch that flows through our property.  
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What cute little feathery puffs of joy! 

As I started snapping photos, Mama Merganser suddenly appeared and headed right toward me.  She was not happy that I was standing so close to her little flock.  

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I left quickly, hoping that these ducklings will stay safe in the waters around the ranch and grow up to nest somewhere nearby- perhaps in the duck box I installed two years ago by the banks of the river that, so far, has gone unoccupied.  

Nest Boxes and Their Occupants

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Almost as soon as we acquired the ranch, we began putting up nest boxes. Initially, our target bird for the nest boxes was the Mountain Bluebird- the only bluebird that breeds in our 
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area.  In 1999, I contacted the North American Bluebird Society and purchased ten Mountain Bluebird boxes; the holes in these boxes are sized specifically for Mountain, as opposed to Western or Eastern Bluebirds.  The installation of these boxes proved to be quite an ordeal.  Because we are located on river bottom land, our soil is incredibly rocky.  We had to pound rebar into the soil to make the holes for the poles to which the nest boxes were attached. When the job was completed, we discovered that the Mountain Bluebirds were happy to check out the boxes in the spring, but moved on to greener (or, more likely, higher) pastures to build their nests and raise their young.

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Instead, the Mountain Bluebird nest boxes became Tree Swallow boxes.  Every spring Tree Swallows in great numbers descend on the ranch and fight over the nest boxes.  The Tree Swallows have a beautiful, swooping flight and are prodigious insect-eaters, so they are welcome tenants.  They have successfully raised brood after brood of young, so that now Tree Swallows are the most numerous of any bird species to be found on the ranch. 

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Over the years we have put up nest boxes for Northern Flickers, American Kestrels, Wood Ducks, and House Wrens.  Although flickers are numerous on the ranch, they seem to prefer natural tree cavities to our nest boxes.  The kestrel box has been occupied for the last two years; the smallest of the falcons, the kestrels are thrilling to watch as they hover over the fields hunting for mice and voles.  The Wood Duck box has never been occupied, although we have seen Wood Ducks- a rare species in this area- on the ranch.

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The wren boxes get used year after year.  While the House Wren can be classified as an L.B.J. (Little Brown Job), he more than makes up for his plain looks with his bubbly, energetic song. 
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In the spring and summer, nothing makes me happier than watching our nest box occupants fly to and fro as they build their nests and raise their young inside the homes we have provided for them.

Bird Beauties of the Ranch

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As a rule, I dislike beauty contests.  In humans they tend to focus primarily on physical attributes and objectify the contestants.  In reality, the majority of humans are equivalent in beauty to what we classify in the bird world as L.B.J.'s ("Little Brown Jobs").  When it comes to birds, however, I admit to having no qualms about making judgments concerning the relative beauty of different species.  In the bird world, the male of the species is typically (but not always) flashier and prettier than the female. So in considering the bird beauties of the Yampavian Ranch, I will focus on the males, making this a kind of "Mr. Universe," rather than a "Miss America" contest. 

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In my bird beauty contest, third runner-up goes to the Mountain Bluebird, a breathtaking, brilliant, sky-blue bird who has migrated through, but never nested on the ranch, despite the ten bluebird boxes we have scattered around the property.

Second runner-up goes to the Bullock's Oriole, the orange, black, and white bird who is a regular at my nectar feeders in the spring and summer and whom I have discussed in one of my previous blog entries.
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First runner-up goes to the Lazuli Bunting, another strikingly beautiful "blue" bird with deep blue feathers covering his head and back, a red--orange chest, and a snow white belly.  He shows up occasionally at my feeder in the spring and can be found regularly throughout the summer foraging for insects in the cottonwood trees along the river.
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AND THE WINNER IS...................................
              WESTERN TANAGER!!!!

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With his brilliant red head, his bright yellow body, and his black wings, tail, and back, this bird looks as if he has been painted by a wildlife artists.  A relative of the Cardinal, he winters in the tropics and breeds as far north as Alaska.  He shows up on the ranch in late May and is attracted to my water feature and to the fruit that I set out for the orioles.  Last Thursday, a "season" of Western Tanagers (a group of tanagers is called a "season") appeared in my back yard and drank and bathed while I watched in awe.
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