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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Home On The Range

I got a really cool invite to camp out at The Nature Conservancy's Bohart Ranch last weekend, so the family & I joined Ted Floyd's crew for a bit of birding and tenting out on the plains. Due to the working nature of the property and lack of facilities, this Nature Conservancy asset is not open to the public but there are opportunities to visit it on special field trips or on volunteer work days. We had a nice hybrid trip with plenty of family time and some high-quality birding, and our contribution was a spring bird census for TNC. The kids did great, excepting an hour or so in the wee morning hours when our little boys Garrett (mine) and Andrew (Ted's) joined the coyotes for some nocturnal howling. This large (41,000 acre) working cattle ranch is home to some wonderful sand sage prairie, a habitat too often grazed to the nub instead of being allowed to flourish like it does here. Cows and bulls are scattered widely, on a rotating grazing schedule that mimics native nomadic species like Bison. Appropriate grazing followed by sufficient recovery time is critical to maintaining grassland habitat, and the Nature Conservancy now has several working ranches among their properties in Colorado that strive to balance sustainable natural livestock production with habitat protection. There are huge views on the Bohart in about every direction- the field station where we camped (formerly a ranch house) was near the top of the highest ground for miles around. The house was formerly located along a dry creek to the west years earlier until a flash flood encouraged the ranchers to jack it up, put it on wheels, and tow it to high ground. They certainly eliminated any threat of flooding with the new placement, not to mention gaining million-dollar views!
The grasses and sand sage were teeming with Cassin's and Brewer's Sparrows and surprisingly, a female Bobolink (undoubtedly a migrant wondering where her nice lush hay meadow went.) Scaled Quail trodded the grounds, and a nearby prairie dog town had Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plovers. Among the dry sand sage prairie, ranch houses and their planted windbreaks were very attractive to migrants and nesting species that need more structure than the grasses, sage, and cacti provide. For example, a Loggerhead Shrike was nesting in a Russian olive right outside the kitchen window of the field station. One bird (female?) stayed on the nest with at least one hatchling, while the other ferried in insects and lizards all day. There were also nesting Northern Mockingbirds and Western Kingbirds in the grove. While the ever hoped-for mega eastern vagrant or two didn't materialize, there were lots of migrants in the windbreaks and woodlots, particularly mountain birds awaiting the final push into the hills like Western Wood-Pewees, Cordilleran Flycatchers, Swainson's and Hermit Thrushes, MacGillivray's and Wilson's Warblers, Western Tanagers, Green-tailed Towhees, and White-crowned Sparrows. One bird that was a bit out of place was a Gray Flycatcher. They often turn up a bit east of target during migration, but this one was extra noteworthy because of its overgrown mandible. The phenomenon of bill abnormalities is being documented and studied by the USGS and the Rogue River Bird Observatory, both of which are soliciting sightings to add to their database. So if you see any birds with odd bills- send along the information on where, when, what, etc. (& pics if you can get them) to both labs.

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