LU Snyder 2017-05-20 05:15:08
For Summit County’s fragile mountain bluebird, hope for the future lies in the hands of The Bird Lady. March has just begun. Several feet of snow covers the ground, even after a long, unseasonable February thaw. Most locals eagerly cram whatever free time they have into what remains of the ski season. Others count the days until the snow melts and look toward the desert or beaches for respite from Summit County’s long winter. In Dillon, one woman walks alone along the rec path, beginning below the dam on the north end of town, heading up past the Dam Road and down by the Dillon Marina, she winds south along the east side of the reservoir, turns briefly toward the Dillon Peninsula and then south, again, to the Summerwood subdivision before turning back toward her home. She will walk this path at least once a day for the next eight months. Locals—and some repeat visitors—might recognize this slim, petite woman with bright green eyes, her wavy short hair the tawny grey of a female mountain bluebird’s breast. Her name is Bonnie Boex (rhymes with oaks), but to many, she is known as the Bird Lady. And with good reason: for more than 25 years, Boex has walked this path, or some version of it—her bluebird trail—every single day, from early March through the end of October to watch and tend to her bluebirds. At this elevation, the bigger, bolder birds get the bulk of our attention: the crafty, shiny-black raven and crow with their sharp cries; the long-tailed flashy black, white and iridescent blue feathered magpie; the brash but beautiful blue and black Steller’s jay with its proud crown. These common birds are well known here. The mountain bluebird is small and elusive in comparison. Though the mountain bluebird may travel in flocks during migration and throughout the winter, they arrive in Summit County ready to mate. Highly territorial during the spring and summer mating and nesting seasons, here, the birds are usually alone. Lacking the lustrous orange blaze across the chest of the more widely recognized Western and Eastern bluebirds, the slender mountain bluebird is no less magnificent than its cousins. “Our male mountain bluebirds beat the heck out of the Western and Eastern bluebird in coloration and beauty,” says Boex. Kevin Corwin, longtime volunteer and lead for the Colorado Bluebird Project, a volunteer-run conservation effort under the guidance of the Audubon Society of Greater Denver, agrees, “When you see a male mountain bluebird flying or darting about in the sun, it just takes your breath away.” Boex is among thousands of citizen scientists across the nation that donate their time and efforts to gather data that is then collected and analyzed by professional scientists, like Robyn Bailey, to determine how insect, bird and other wildlife populations are affected by climate change, urbanization, pesticide use and other factors. Bailey is the project leader of NestWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. Created in response to declining bird populations, NestWatch tracks bird reproduction trends to study the health of and changes in breeding bird populations. Bailey’s work is entirely dependent on data from people like Boex. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers,” she says. “They are the backbone of the whole project,” Corwin adds. Though she’s always loved animals and birds, Boex didn’t intend to become a citizen scientist or an advocate for birds. Now known as the Colorado Bluebird Project (CBP), Colorado’s bluebird conservation efforts first began under the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW). One day, as Boex jogged with friends, Alex Chappell of CDOW, and his wife, Carol, they told her about CDOW’s volunteer efforts to build and monitor bluebird nesting trails. Eager to help, Boex quickly installed her first nestbox. Now, nearly three decades later, she monitors and maintains about 50 nestboxes she’s installed in and around Dillon. “I started out with one bluebird pair and their nest kept getting rained and snowed out,” Boex says. “Now I’m up to 17 nesting pairs of bluebirds—that’s how long it took.” NestWatch and CBP volunteers are trained how to open nestboxes weekly to gather data without disturbing the birds, nest, eggs or chicks. Even if you don’t know the first thing about bluebirds, it’s hard not to get hooked once you’ve witnessed the life cycle first-hand, says Corwin. “You’ll see a partial nest one week, and a week later, a complete nest. Maybe there’s two or three eggs in there. When you see the eggs, you see potential. Then you’ll see mama sitting, brooding, incubating the eggs. A week or two later, when you look in there, you’ll see little baby birds. And if that doesn’t hook ya, I don’t think you have a soul.” He chuckles as he pauses to search for the right words to describe the experience. “It’s just something that tugs at your heart strings. And then a week later, you go back and you open it up and those little tiny things are now covered with feathers and their eyes are open and they’re almost half grown! And a week later you look in and they almost look like mom and dad. And you look in a week later, and they’re gone. They’re out there in the world learning how to be a bluebird.” Being a citizen scientist has other advantages, Bailey points out. “Even if you don’t know much about birds, it’s a great way to learn. You’re not just filling in your data sheets and mailing them in. In most cases, you’re really quite involved in different aspects of the project. You’ll hear about the results, you’ll hear from scientists, you get to communicate with them, you get to be an essential part of the scientific process, and you’re actively learning and participating in it.” You won’t find mountain bluebirds in areas of dense development. These terrestrial insect eaters need wide open spaces—mountain meadows, sagebrush steppes, even pastures—to hunt, and a few trees or snags in which to nest. (In the wild, mountain bluebirds typically nest in tree cavities created by woodpeckers.) The birds have adapted well to nestboxes in the absence of natural nesting cavities, but the nests of these territorial birds cannot be within sight of each other, so Boex reached out to the Denver Water Board and the Town of Dillon for permission to install birdhouses on their land over the years. At the end of each season, Boex sends each landowner a postcard with that year’s breeding results. She’s not sure if anyone reads it or if the water board or town is aware of the increasing numbers of bluebirds that return to their properties to breed each year. Though Boex is grateful to have permission to build a bluebird trail on their properties, she admits the verbal agreements make her feel vulnerable. “The Denver Water Board manager up here promised me they would never pull the plug,” she explains. “But that’s for the moment, until it’s not. The Town of Dillon could tell me to take the nestboxes down. They wouldn’t even need to ask.” Day after day, year after year, Boex works, with the hope that her nestboxes will still be there next year, ten years from now, long after she’s gone. It’s clear she’s passionate about her bluebirds. Ask her a question about them—or almost any bird, for that matter— and her eyes widen, her face lights up. That passion for nature is common among citizen scientists, Bailey says, and a project like this is a meaningful way for volunteers to channel their passion. But Boex’s dedication goes beyond that of the average volunteer. While most volunteers monitor nests in pairs, Boex has accomplished all of this alone. “Her dedication to the bluebirds and her concern about their wellbeing is unmatched by anybody I’ve ever met in this business,” says Corwin, himself a bird lover that has volunteered with various bird organizations for more than 30 years. Consider this: CBP volunteers must check their nestboxes and collect data just once a week, yet Boex logs an estimated ten miles a day observing her birds and watching for signs of trouble, from those first days in March, when the bluebirds begin to return to the high country, until October wanes and the last stragglers have left for lower elevations and warmer climates. When a snowstorm prevents the birds from hunting the insects they need to survive, Boex installs mealworm feeding stations—paid for out of her own pocket. Between her daily walks, weekly nest checks, data entry sessions and emergencies (she doesn’t stop at her bluebirds; she rescues waterfowl tangled in fishing line and other injured wildlife), Boex dedicates roughly 30 hours a week to the welfare of birds. Though she’s now retired, until two years ago Boex balanced these efforts with a full-time bookkeeping job. She has no one to help her if she is sick or wants a day off. Particularly during nesting season, “even Robert Redford could not draw me away,” she says. “Those are crucial times.” Boex admits the season can be long and though, at 72, she’s still incredibly fit and energetic, she does get tired. Ask Boex why she does this and she almost gushes, her thoughts rushing faster than she can articulate them. There is the excitement of mating season, the close-up view of the nesting process, the chicks, the fledglings. There is the bird’s song: a rarely heard, light-hearted, soft, sweet chortle. There are the birds that recognize Boex. “I’ll often be walking down the trail and they’ll fly to me,” she says. “It brings tears to my eyes—they remember me, they know me.” Her nestboxes provide homes for other cavity-nesting birds as well, including the gregarious tree swallows, which swoop down and click their beaks near her ear before soaring away again, and the sweet-songed, tiny black-capped and mountain chickadees. There was that evening in early March some years ago, when a flock of bluebirds arrived in the dusky sky. “They lit down on the trail and were landing at all the nest sites, then they’d fly back up so high in the sky they looked like mosquitos—that was a thrill.” Of course, it’s impossible to witness nature from this proximity without tears, too. There are injuries, there are deaths. There are bears, raccoons and other predators that attack the nests for food. Boex has collected the remnants of scattered nests and broken eggs more times than she can count. “I can’t save every one,” she says. “You have to let nature do its thing.” Her vigilance has made a difference. One early morning as Boex walked her trail, she found a nestbox broken—eggs and nest destroyed on the ground—after a bear attack. Fortunately, the bluebird pair was unharmed, resting nearby on a telephone wire. She rushed home, grabbed tools and materials, and within an hour had erected a new nestbox for the pair. The female laid eggs two days later. “It’s moments like this that assure me my constant presence on this trail is justified,” Boex says. “I just love helping the birds survive, because, without them, it would be a very sad, sad, lonely place to live.”
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