Spend a little time with someone in the birding community and it quickly becomes apparent that the activity isn’t a world unto itself. It’s a universe.
The diversity of species, the calls and songs, the plumages and behaviors, diets and habitats — the ways to study birds seem nearly endless, and the valley’s varied terrain attracts myriad feathered fascinations.
Serious birding can aid, through crowd-sourcing, scientists who are studying species populations, highlight environmental concerns, and potentially impact legislation and one’s political views, said Rebecca Weiss, author of “Birds of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley,” calling it part of the “awareness-to-action continuum.” But it also forces the participant to keep quiet, listen and look. And in that way, birding is also meditative and therapeutic.
“You’re cranking up your sensory awareness in terms of vision and hearing,” she said. “You’re much more aware of everything around you.”
After an hour or two with Weiss, it’s quite easy to suddenly find yourself in the market for a pair of binoculars, a bird feeder and seed. The enthusiasm of the guide for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ birding program is contagious.
She said attendance at ACES’ birding events is steadily increasing, as is the number of people taking to the fields and forests of the valley on their own to spot a pygmy nuthatch, a Canada jay or, if they’re extraordinarily lucky, a goshawk or peregrine falcon.
She and Mark Fuller, who provided the photos for the book, and other bird fanatics spoke last week about their love of the activity, its importance, how the Lake Christine Fire may impact bird species — and why that magpie waking you up in the morning is mankind’s fault.
It’s a jungle out there in the yard
Weiss arrived at Diane Wallace’s West Buttermilk home last week with a large tome called “The Sibley Guide to Birds” and a few pairs of binoculars. The kitchen quickly filled with chatter about pine siskens, brown-capped rosy and Cassin’s finches, Steller’s jays and others being spotted on the back deck.
Wallace, who allows her home to be used in July for an ACES hummingbird study, has four feeders on her patio that birds were, well, flocking to on a recent morning. A 30-year resident, she said she’s been feeding birds in the wintertime about that long.
“I live in a great habitat for them,” she said as birds fluttered between the feeders and her chokecherry and scrub oak trees.
She stores the winter feeders away for the summer, and puts the hummingbird stations away every evening during the summer to avoid bear conflicts. It’s possible in the summer months to see 80 to 100 hummingbirds at once.
“The sound and energy in the air is amazing,” Weiss said.
“It’s gotten a little crazy,” Wallace laughed, adding she went through “530 pounds of sugar last year” for the sweet water concoction she makes for the tiny flyers.
She enjoys hosting Weiss’ study, as it allows people, some of whom may have never seen a hummingbird, to witness the spectacle in her front yard.
“And you get to learn about them,” Wallace said. “Having her come up is like a dream.”
Wallace said there was likely double the usual number during the Lake Christine Fire, when poor air quality might have led them to upvalley environs.
“Habitat is never destroyed, it’s only changed,” Weiss said when asked about how the fire may affect birds. “It’s not suitable for very much right now. But year after year, as the vegetation slowly recovers, [the area] will go through successional stages and hopefully back to piñon and juniper. But who knows?”
Grasses, fireweed and similar flora will arise first, plants that are suitable to bluebirds and insects. As insects get into dead, charred wood, that will attract certain woodpecker species, she said. ACES will be conducting multiple field visits to scorched areas, she added.
“It’ll change and be useful habitat for certain things,” she said. “Right now, though, I would expect it to be fairly birdless there right now.”
“Birds of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley,” with backing from ACES as the founding sponsor, has sold incredibly well.
“Four weeks after we released it [last summer], we were doing a second printing,” Weiss said. “We printed 1,000 copies, and they have just been going like hotcakes. We thought it would do pretty well in the valley, but it has completely blown all of our expectations, much to our delight.”
The book is available at Explore Booksellers, Ute Mountaineer, Bookbinders and Book Train, as well at ACES and U.S. Forest Service offices in Glenwood and Carbondale. It’s a compact, dense volume that chronicles 155 species, along with a handy map that shows birding hotspots in the valley, the flora and what birders can expect to find at each spot. Weiss also writes about conservation and birding etiquette (“Avoid anything that may prevent birds from carrying out vital activities, such as feeding, resting, incubating eggs or caring for their young.”).
The daughter of a naval officer, Weiss said that she’s always been interested in the natural world, everything from geology to botany.
“When I was growing up, my dad built nest boxes for eastern bluebirds,” she said. “They were kind of a species in decline at that time, and building nest boxes gave them habitat that they critically needed. That got me into birding. My dad would point out any bird that he saw — he wasn’t a birder, per se, he was just very aware and appreciated them.”
Fuller said a high school assignment sparked his interest in birding.
“When I was in high school, I had a biology teacher who required us to identify 50 species of birds,” he said. “So my dad would take me out on the weekends to get my 50 birds. It became a sort of father-son bonding thing. We both just really enjoyed it. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
A longtime local, Fuller is the former director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority and the Independence Pass Foundation. He acknowledged he’s been “very fortunate to have jobs that have allowed me to indulge my hobby from time to time.”
Fuller said birds are maddening subjects to photograph because most are constantly on the move.
“Getting them in focus and entirely within the frame, instead of just a tail, is a constant challenge,” he said. “Thank god for digital photography. If it was still film photography, I’d either be living under a bridge or would have given it up long ago. I’m lucky to be able to just click off a picture until I get what I want.”
A modern touch
Back in Wallace’s kitchen, Catherine Hagen was using an app called eBird, an international database which Weiss said is proving invaluable for both scientists and the public at large.
“You can consult it anywhere in the world to see what is showing up in any area,” said Hagen, who ought to know, having taken birding excursions all over the country, as well as in Fiji. “The more I report, the more it will build the database.”
She entered the sightings of 50 pine suskins, 16 Steller’s jays, one Woodhouse’s scrub jay and a white-breasted nuthatch, among other species. The data will be sent to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, which partnered to create the app, Weiss said.
“Basically, it’s crowd-sourcing bird data,” she said. “There are 45 million birders in North America, probably a lot more than that, actually, [who] are out birding on a regular basis. [The app] entices them to submit what they see.”
This helps scientists determine population dynamics, migration patterns and other areas of research. For example, if researchers determine that the entire population of wood thrushes migrates every year from North America to a section of the Yucatan Peninsula the size of Rhode Island, it may lead to calls to protect the area from logging and other manmade threats.
“It’s helping scientists and policy makers become more aware of migratory birds, what their needs are and where, so they can prioritize conservation efforts for the greatest good,” Weiss said.
‘The most watchable form of wildlife’
There are two other reasons, though, why birding is gaining in popularity: It’s fun and fascinating.
Even a person with little interest in birds usually can’t help but stop and peer upward as a crow dive-bombs a red-tailed hawk repeatedly. The behavior is called mobbing, and it is done possibly to protect the crow’s nest, protect or access food, or for other reasons. Weiss said crows can get quite bold as they know birds of prey are large and dangerous but cannot “just quickly turn around and grab them, so they’ll get in pretty close.”
“They realize they’re operating kind of within a safety margin because the larger birds aren’t as maneuverable,” she said.
As for those vocal magpies outside your window as you try to sleep in on the weekends, valley residents didn’t use to experience that.
“The backstory on magpies is they weren’t always here and nor were crows,” Weiss said. “Magpies and crows are relatively recent newcomers, and it’s all based on how we altered the landscape that has sort of paved the way for them to expand their range from where they were originally confined.”
This includes clearing forests — magpies and crows are not found in continuous stands of thick forest. But they thrive on the edges of forests, where man can be found building homes or clearing trees for pastures, for instance. Another reason they are so prolific around humans is that rodents follow us and our constant output of garbage, which attracts omnivores such as magpies and crows.
Both are intelligent species, with a curiosity “that lends itself well to pioneering new areas. So it’s all our fault that they’re here,” she said with a chuckle.
While Weiss possesses a wealth of knowledge about birding, she said she constantly encounters surprises in the field. And she’ll never stop because she can’t, she said.
“When you get into birding, you kind of learn how to see: You train your eyes and train your brain to see, and you notice so much more,” Weiss said. “Your sensory awareness cranks up, and all of a sudden you find that you can’t stop birding. You’re always birding.”