Keeping an eye on the birds

Our feathered friends in Northern Colorado have an active advocate in Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, a non-profit organization founded in 1988 and based at Barr Lake in Brighton. Most of the staff works out of Fort Collins, where they address the need for conservation and related public education, not only in our region but across the western United States.

This work is especially important because birds are lead indicators of environmental change. RMBO reports that many birds are currently in trouble. In the last few years, grassland bird populations have declined more than any other group of North American birds. RMBO works to conserve birds and their habitats through a three-pronged approach: science, education and stewardship.

The organization conducts research to learn how to best confront conservation issues, monitors trends among bird populations to determine necessary conservation action, and offers an education program to increase awareness among citizens.

Since 2006 RMBO has partnered with the City of Fort Collins to conduct breeding bird surveys and collect vegetation data through the Mountain and Plains Project. In 2013 they surveyed 4,000 acres of prairie dog towns and saltbush on Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and adjacent property owned by the city. The surveys took place during the bird breeding season between April and July.

Erin Youngberg, biologist in charge of the project, said, “It was a robust season.” She and field technician Denis Perez, who migrated along with the birds from her home in Chihuahua City, Mexico, saw the return of Cassin’s sparrows and an increase in mountain plovers and burrowing owls. These sightings indicated a healthy, intact grassland system according to Youngberg.

The pair also saw lark bunting, Western meadowlarks, horned larks, Brewer’s sparrows, Say’s phoebes, sage thrashers and vesper sparrows. The data they collected, in the form of distribution maps and management recommendations, assists the city in keeping these areas healthy. Youngberg said that surveys have not shown any major changes related to fire and flood episodes in the region.

During the summer of 2014, RMBO participated in the sixth season of an Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program which saw 59 technicians from five partner organizations in 12 Western states survey birds in habits from deserts to tundra. More than 350 species, 216,000, individual birds, were detected making a total of 1.2 million birds that have been detected over time in these surveys.

RMBO bird wachers were excited to spot a rare hepatic tanager, but even more important was their assessment of population trends over time in order to detect birds that are at risk or species that are declining.

In partnership with Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, RMBO is currently conducting a project to band non-resident birds in the midst of their migratory journeys. Geared for adults and children, the project is a great opportunity to see RMBO ornithologists at work, observe the birds up close and help release them after data collection. Located on the Poudre River Trail access sidewalk west of Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, banding takes place Tuesdays through Saturdays 7 to 10 a.m. through Oct. 11.

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