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Spotlight: Finding the Last Piping Plovers in Colorado

“If I had one simple goal for the Big Day team, it’s that they would get 205 or 206 species, break the record, and have it be the Piping Plover that put them over.”

That’s local biologist Duane Nelson’s wish for the Sapsuckers this year. Nelson, has been studying Colorado’s tiny population of threatened Piping Plovers for the last 25 years. “I’m not one of those biologists who names their animals,” he said, “but I probably know them well enough that I could.”

Nelson is helping the Sapsuckers find one or two of the plover nests in advance of the Big Day, both to help them with their quest and to keep disturbance to a minimum. He’s known Wood since the Sapsucker captain was a teenager, and is pretty sure he was present when Wood saw his first Colorado Piping Plover.

Piping Plovers have a tenuous foothold in Colorado. Last year there were 9 breeding pairs, up from just 1 pair in 1998. But 2015’s floodwaters, which finally relieved Colorado’s 15-year drought, also flooded the Arkansas River and destroyed several precious plover nests—despite Nelson’s careful efforts to relocate nests upslope as the waters rose.

“It’s sort of like being a Cubs fan,” Nelson said, “You always think next year is going to be great and then you get a hailstorm or flooding that dashes your hopes. But why would I want to do something else when I can be in the field every day and make a difference with these threatened birds?”

flammulated owl by Gordon KarreFlammulated Owl is one of the team's most wanted owls, (out of an amazing 10 possible species!). Photo by Gordon Karre/Macaulay Library, eBird checklist S29288830.

Global Big Day: Be Part of the Biggest Birding Day Ever

While Team Sapsucker is in Colorado, the rest of the world will be banding together for the second annual Global Big Day. Last year’s effort saw 14,000 people from 135 countries join forces, tallying 6,085 species. Anyone can participate, and it’s free—learn more about Global Big Day.

Last year during their Big Day in Panama, Team Sapsucker recorded a whopping 320 species, and the year before that they covered a straight-line distance of 450 miles en route to 275 species in Arizona and California.

So it might seem like this year’s Colorado run—with around 205 species in the mix and a route spanning just 180 miles—would allow the Sapsuckers to relax their pace a little. Not so.

“Marshall is thinking about starting us in the San Luis Valley now,” said team leader Chris Wood, referring to Marshall Iliff, the team’s unofficial route guru. “He’s always pushing a little further than we think is possible, but that strategy seems to work for us.”

The team has been in Colorado for the last several days scouting out reliable locations for the species they’ll need to reach their goal (each species on their list helps raise more funds for conservation, thanks to your pledges). So far it looks like the mountains west of Pueblo will provide challenging conditions, especially for high-elevation species, while the Arkansas River valley to the east may rescue them with abundant ducks and unexpected migrants.

Snow is still thick on the ground in the high elevations, making it hard for the team to find alpine specialties like American Pipit, Pine Grosbeak, and Gray Jay. Added to that are high winds that threaten to shut down the owling the team has planned for 12:01 a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning. That could be a serious blow for species lists and owl fans alike, as this part of Colorado offers the tempting prospect of double-digit owl species. When the wind dropped on a recent evening, Wood managed to hear Northern Pygmy-Owls, Long-eared Owls, and an incredible 10 Flammulated Owls—a scarce Western owl with a soft hoot that dies away on even light winds.

As tricky as the mountains are, the elevational gradient of habitats will be the key to the team’s morning list. “It’s really fun coming from the East where it takes a long time to get to a different habitat,” said team member Jessie Barry, a Rochester, New York, native. “Here we have the opportunity to drive an hour or less and see a totally different habitat with new birds in it.”

Once the team emerges from the mountains they’ll drive eastward along the Arkansas River, where the land is just emerging from a 15-year drought. That means the conditions are great for waterfowl—Barry predicts they’ll get more duck species this year than in any of their past Big Days. But there’s a downside, too. With rain and meltwater filling reservoirs to the brink, there are almost no mudflats or shallows left to harbor shorebirds.

Iliff and teammate Tim Lenz took a small sigh of relief when they happened upon something of a shorebird convention that included Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, Willet, Long-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Plover, and others. These birds are in a hurry to get north right now and may not hang around until Saturday—but the spot gave the team hope that new arrivals will drop in for the day.

In between sweeping scopes and binoculars across whitecapped reservoirs, the team will take detours into the surrounding agricultural lands, which can feature cholla patches where Curve-billed Thrashers sing; prairie dog towns with Burrowing Owls, possible Ferruginous Hawks and Mountain Plovers; and oases of cottonwoods amid the sprawling ranchlands. The Chico Basin Ranch will be a key stop, as this working cattle ranch manages its lands to support bird habitat, according to Wood.

“One of the things that’s really fun when we’re birding the plains,” Barry said, “is there’ll be not a single tree for miles, and then any little cluster of trees is going to have migrants. Yesterday at Chico Basin, we had a cluster of trees with 30 Swainson’s Thrushes in it. You look around”—at the vast surrounding grasslands—”and it’s just like, How did they get here?”

Swarovski Optik is the team’s sponsor and optics provider. In addition to covering the team’s expenses so that each dollar of every pledge can go directly toward conservation, Swarovski lent the team their top-of-the-line 95 mm spotting scopes and pairs of 12×50 binoculars. Almost no bird watchers use such high-magnification binoculars, but both Wood and Barry said they found these models to be relatively light and extremely bright. “You just scan and see birds that were too far away to see,” Wood said, “It’s unbelievable.” He’s hoping the extra magnification nets them at least one faraway extra species on the day.

With the scouting help of local biologist Duane Nelson (see sidebar), the team hopes to see one of just four remaining Piping Plover breeding pairs in the state. As the day wanes toward a 7:54 p.m. sunset, the team will be near Lamar, Colorado, hoping to pick up eastern specialties like Red-bellied Woodpecker and Northern Cardinal. They’ll spend the night hours listening for marsh birds, hoping to close out the day with a rare Black Rail.

Whether or not the team breaks the existing 204-species state record, they hope their Big Day brings attention to the conservation needs of this drought-prone state where agriculture has to find a balance with diminishing remnants of grasslands, particularly shortgrass prairie.

On the other hand, they’re keen to spotlight the incredible birding opportunities of southeastern Colorado—a true birding crossroads that brings together east and west, north and south, desert and alpine, canyonland and grassland, and more.

“We may have no ocean on this route,” Wood said, “but you make up for it with the elevational gradient. It was 91 degrees down in the Arkansas River valley and then 2 days later scouting in the mountains it was 36 degrees and snowing. Usually [on past routes] we have this big burst of birds once we get out to the ocean, and this time it’s going to be a trickle all day. We just hope it’ll be a steady accumulation.”

Join us on Facebook during the day, May 14, 2016, for updates from the team. Remember to add your own sightings to the Global Big Day, and please pledge to support the Sapsuckers and the conservation work of the Cornell Lab.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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