Grand Valley Audubon Society Speaks for the Birds

 Photos by Cat Mayer

Photos by Cat Mayer

Cary Atwood is proud to be a “bird nerd.” Decades ago, a mentor lit a spark in Atwood that over the years turned into a passionate fire. As the current president of the Grand Valley Audubon Society (GVAS), Atwood and her team of fellow volunteers are actively lighting that same spark throughout Mesa County, spreading a love of birds and an awareness of their value.

“We’re about more than watching and feeding birds,” says Atwood. “We focus on habitat conservation and education. Everyone loves birds. They are unifying and connect people with nature. We’re the voice of birds, since they can’t speak for themselves.”

A Unique Local Offering

GVAS is one of the nearly 500 Audubon chapters in the U.S. that lead nationwide ecosystem conservation initiatives — both protection and restoration. Local chapters enable people to share an appreciation of their common interests and create a vital wildlife habitat conservation culture.

Although it’s uncommon for communities to own property, the Audubon Nature Preserve is a sanctuary created from 57 acres of donated land. It is adjacent to Connected Lakes, with Colorado River frontage. The property offers walking paths, viewing opportunities, and awareness of riparian habitat. “We are extremely fortunate to have the preserve, but it comes with a lot of work, and many challenges and responsibilities too,” says Atwood. “The number of people who use the property is vast, and creates champions and advocates.”

Community Outreach and Projects

GVAS offers engaging monthly programs open to the public, September through May. Program topics include the magic of migration, wetlands for wildlife, climate change, and habitat concerns.

Additionally, each year nearly 1,000 District 51 fourth graders participate in the fall banding program at Connected Lakes. Numerous GVAS field trips and bird walks, both in our community and beyond, provide superior educational outdoor opportunities.

The Christmas Bird Count (occurring in the valley and on the Grand Mesa) offers the chance to join thousands of other bird enthusiasts across the United States in the nation’s longest-running citizen-science bird project. The average Mesa County count records 95 species and over 40,000 birds.

Noteworthy Species

Autumn is a great time to observe birds who make our valley their temporary home. Waterfowl such as the stunning hooded merganser, redheads, and buffleheads are abundant in the fall. Shorebirds such as greater and lesser yellowlegs, several species of sandpipers and warblers, dunlin and long-billed dowitchers also pass through the area.

The Grand Valley is also fortunate to have an abundance of a petite non-migrating owl species — the western screech owl.

“A couple decades ago, we noticed nest trees for screech owls were rapidly being removed because of development, so we instituted the nest box program to maintain and enhance the population,” says Nic Korte, GVAS conservation chair, and manager of the screech owl project for over 10 years. “There are now approximately 200 boxes in the valley.” Anyone wanting to put a screech owl box in their own yard can contact Korte through the GVAS website (information below).

In addition to the owl box project, screech owl banding is done every May as a way to educate and engage children and families about the birds’ presence, habits, survival, and habitat — as well as providing scientists with valuable data. Despite being on the edge of the western screech owl range, efforts by Korte and more than 50 volunteers have led to world-record totals in Mesa County during the annual Christmas count.

 Kim Potter, field biologist for the USFS, white River National Forest, is the only licensed owl bander in the area at this time. Kim is exceptional at handling the birds, showing her passion for them and in describing what she does to the public.

Kim Potter, field biologist for the USFS, white River National Forest, is the only licensed owl bander in the area at this time. Kim is exceptional at handling the birds, showing her passion for them and in describing what she does to the public.

Getting Involved

Partnerships with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Wild Birds Unlimited, Colorado Mesa University, Western Colorado Conservation Corps, and community members make spreading GVAS’s mission a reality. But many more individual volunteers are needed.

“I’d love to see us start a birding club for youth,” says Korte. “We need more field trip leaders, bird count compilers, and people to help with publicity and education – you name it.” GVAS also needs website design and data entry assistance, volunteers to monitor bluebird boxes along Unaweep Canyon, and extra hands on Audubon Nature Preserve workdays.

“You don’t have to be an expert birder to participate,” says Korte, “just have a desire to support nature.”

For $35 (individual) or $40 (family) per year, the community can support the local causes of GVAS and receive their quarterly newsletter full of valuable information about events, projects, and volunteer opportunities. Information about membership and GVAS programs can be found at audubongv.org.