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Blane Klemek column: Rocky Mountain birds are alive and well despite devastation

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The Colorado Rockies look much different today than the first time I saw the rugged snow-capped peaks, south-facing sagebrush slopes and pine-covered northern aspects six autumns ago. Instead of the vast evergreen mountain ranges that delighted my eyes in 2006, those same mountains are now covered with the gray skeletal ghosts of trees that once were.

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Indeed, because of a massive outbreak of pine beetles -- an unimaginable infestation -- few mature lodge pole pine trees have survived. At first the lodge poles hung on to their needles, but they soon shed them all as each heavily infested tree died one by one.

Yet despite the devastation, there are signs of forest renewal. Underneath the living canopies that once shadowed the ground below, thus preventing the shade intolerant seedlings from germinating or growing very large, there are lodge pole pine seedlings everywhere one looks. In time, the mountains will be green once again.

Still, no matter the condition of the forest, bird life appears to be as abundant as ever. In fact, I believe some species -- the Clark's nutcracker, for example -- might be benefitting from the current conditions. Plus, there are other birds I continued to encounter just as I did when most of the mountainsides were still green and lush.

One bird I especially enjoyed observing and listening to was the Steller's jay. Named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who supposedly "discovered" the bird in the 1700s, Steller's jays are closely related to our own blue jay. Steller's jays are also the only crested jay west of the Rockies.

Steller's jays behave similarly to blue jays. Not only are they instantly recognizable as a cousin of blue jays, they're noisy and anxious-acting, just like blue jays are. This Rocky Mountain species of jay, which is slightly larger than the blue jay, possesses a much more pronounced crest on its heads than the blue jays has.

Still, the Steller's jay is as uniquely colored as the blue jays. Its conspicuous looking blackish heads and upper body contrasts vividly with its bluish lower body and tail. To be sure, Steller's jays are very appealing to the eye.

Another interesting bird that many people might believe looks like any other run-of-the-mill Minnesota chickadee is the mountain chickadee. However, upon closer examination, the black cap that we Minnesotans immediately recognize about our black-capped chickadee includes white "eyebrows" above black eye stripes. Both species share otherwise similar markings and coloration, such as black bibs and basic plumage color and patterns.

And like black-capped chickadees, mountain chickadees are social and friendly birds that readily come to investigate anything that captures their curiosity. Mountain chickadees seem delightfully indifferent to one's presence and are a joy to have as company, though they usually will stay around for only a short period of time as they flit about, call to one another and forage for seeds and insects as they come and go.

Then there is the omnipresent Clark's nutcracker, one of my favorite Western mountain birds. Related to jays, crows and ravens, this nutcracker is named after the explorer William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, who, in 1805, was evidently the first to observe and record this fascinating species of bird.

Like their cousin the gray jay, Clark's nutcrackers are notorious caching birds. They have extraordinary spatial memories that enable them to relocate in the wintertime most of the pine nuts and various seeds they stored throughout the autumn months, even under several feet of snow. As many as 33,000 seeds are cached each fall by foraging Clark's nutcrackers.

The cones of several different pine trees are pried and hammered open by the powerful and sharp bills of Clark's nutcrackers. So loud and distinctive are the sounds produced from this foraging activity that one can readily hear the "knock-knock" sounds echoing throughout the mountains.

Another unique feature of the Clark's nutcracker is its lingual pouch, which is a pouch behind its tongue. This pouch enables the bird to store many seeds -- up to 90, depending on seed size -- which it collects while foraging. When its pouch becomes full, the bird transports its seeds to different hiding places -- typically beneath the soil of exposed slopes. A Clark's nutcracker can create as many as 2,500 caches, with five to 10 seeds inside each cache.

Luckily for the forest, nutcrackers don't remember where all their caches are. Therefore, leftover pine seeds are often a boon to a forest. If conditions are suitable, many of the cached seeds that are not found and consumed by nutcrackers or other animals will germinate and grow into trees.

Clark's nutcrackers, as it turns out, serve an important ecological role with the forest and the pine trees they depend on for their own survival. In the case of lodge pole pines, it's possible that Clark's nutcrackers are helping, albeit in a small way, to regenerate a forest devoid of lodge pole pine trees.

As such, the mountains and its trees, like most features of natural and functioning ecosystems subject to the whims of Mother Nature, are dynamic and ever-changing. And while massive beetle outbreaks occur from time to time -- plus wind, plus fire, plus disease -- resident bird life appears, by all accounts, to be alive and well as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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