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EAGLE COUNTY – It only takes a few minutes in the field with local guide Tom Wiesen to witness the diversity and abundance of bird life in Eagle County. Switching between binoculars and a tripod-mounted telescope, Wiesen follows birds with a boyish enthusiasm that’s infectious.”Listen! Do you hear that?” he says. “Who’s making that ‘peep-peep-peep?'”In this case, it’s a ground squirrel – an important food source for larger raptors such as eagles and hawks, Wiesen says. Soon, he’s pointing to other local bird species that live on a Minturn hillside above the river: a towhee, a bluebird, flycatchers and a western tanager. More common robins, magpies, swallows and hummingbirds swoop by, all bent on one of two tasks: mating and eating.Globally, songbird populations are on the decline – mostly due to habitat loss. It’s difficult to say how much the birds in Eagle County are being affected, although developments that replace native vegetation with lawns and pavement likely don’t help. The problem with birds is that they’re tough to count, and any reduction in population often isn’t noticed until it’s too late.”Birds are a keystone group, and the health of the bird population reflects the health of the overall environment,” says Norm Lewis, president of Colorado Field Ornithologists, a Lyons-based group of bird enthusiasts.In Colorado, Lewis says there’s a demonstrable decrease in birds on the eastern plains, where prairie lands are being replaced by agricultural operations. Along the Front Range, he says, sprawling suburbs are also contributing to a decline in birds while oil and gas development on the Western Slope threatens bird populations there.In the mountains, the large amount of protected public land and undevelopable steep areas help preserve land for birds to live. But development is still taking its toll.
Wiesen points to a Minturn townhome development where a large swath of the hillside’s natural growth has been bulldozed away. Many such developments, he says, replace what was there with turf grass, pavement and alien trees.”Native birds need native plants and shrubs,” he says with a shrug. “Everyone should be landscaping with native plants.”Won’t run out of birdsEagle County has a variety of different bird habitats. Those include the dry, open spaces in the western part of the county favored by eagles and vultures; the pine forests with their jays and ptarmigans; wetland areas that support kingfishers and blackbirds; and rivers that are hunting ground for species like the American dipper or the song sparrow.But while pine forests and wetlands seem to get the most attention, Wiesen says the unassuming shrublands represent key animal habitat.”Animals want to be in the same places people do,” he says, noting that the sunny slopes that support shrublands are also favored by developers. When those areas are bulldozed for housing developments or golf courses, there goes the neighborhood for most native species, he says. “When you take the plants away, it disrupts the balance,” Wiesen says.
Bill Heicher, Eagle’s open space coordinator, says there could be a lot more attention paid to habitat preservation.”It gets a lot of lip service and that’s about it,” he says. “If we do a prescribed burn, we might talk about how it affects the tweety birds, but there’s very little done when you start assessing land use decisions – unless you’re dealing with some kind of threatened or endangered species.”With the many habitats and different bird species, it’s tough to make generalized assessments of local bird populations, Heicher says.”Generalist species have the ability to put up with a lot of intrusions and changes,” he says, citing species like the robin, starling or cow bird. “But a specialist, like the sage sparrow, when you wipe out the sagebrush they’re hurting.”But, he adds, the changes have more to do with which species are where rather than indicate any overall drop in population.”It’s not like we’re ever going to run out of birds,” Heicher says.
‘Who are we surrounded by?’With some 300 to 400 different species of birds in Colorado, keeping up with who’s who is no simple task. While they may inspire loathing and disgust in some and idolatry in others, most people fall somewhere in the middle, Scott Gillihan says. “Making those people in the middle more aware of birds is the most important first step we take,” says Gillihan, executive director of the Brighton-based Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, a group that focuses on educating people about birds.”A big part of what we do is monitor bird populations throughout our region so we can see ahead of time if there’s a problem,” Gillihan says. “We’d rather do that than wait until someone says, ‘Gee, I haven’t seen such-and-such species in a long time.'”Birders are, in some ways, a tight-knit group, Lewis says. Through organizations, Web sites and contact with one another in the field, they share information. In the Vail area, though, he says there don’t appear to be many in-touch birders – although he says he’s sure they’re out there.From the Tom Wiesens of the world – who make a point of learning to identify different species – to more casual observers content to simply put up a feeder, birding in Eagle County is a viable pastime. Bald and golden eagles make their homes here, as do humbler species like jays and starlings, a European import. Brightly colored hummingbirds delight the most bird-deaf among us, and the sheer range of habitat makes for a rich birding environment.”I love to see the wildlife,” says Buddy Calhoun, a longtime Edwards resident who runs a couple of busy bird feeders outside his home. “People look out the window of my studio here and they’re just amazed. I can sit here some days and just watch them for an hour.”
It’s not unusual, says Lewis, for people to be transformed into birders simply by paying attention to what’s around them on that first outing.”Anyone who starts to learn a little is quickly captivated,” Lewis says. “Even if it’s just having a few feeders, the pleasure of watching them is real rewarding. Without birds, it would be a much poorer world.”Wiesen puts it another way, speaking of wildlife in general.”It’s nice, it adds richness to life,” he says. “Who are we surrounded by? It doesn’t just end with us.”Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado