BIRD CONSERVANCY OF THE ROCKIES
2023 ANNUAL REPORT
A 30,000 Foot View

Message from the Executive Director and Board Chair

Taking the 30,000-foot view is essential to ensure we are headed in the right direction, contributing to the bigger picture and planning for the future. It forces us to zoom out to see how all the pieces come together, the people, birds and land that we are working so hard to inspire, conserve and protect for generations to come. This view has inspired us to take a harder look at how we magnify and catalyze our work across the region.

We are thinking bigger and broader and integrating our core disciplines of science, education and land stewardship to address our greatest challenges from habitat loss, to access to and application of data and knowledge to inform enduring conservation strategies, to ensuring everyone feels connected to and welcome in nature. This includes looking at conservation through a different lens.  Understanding who it includes, who it excludes and ways to make our mission inclusive and relevant to the broader community who call this region home.

There always is a push and pull, thinking and acting at scales that matter to birds, while inspiring change on the ground. For our work to endure, it has to integrate the core values and needs of local communities and lift all voices. We can’t do it alone, but through the power of partnerships, we can contribute to developing places and communities that are resilient and heathy for the future.

As we head into our fourth decade, you will see us in communities where we live and work, demonstrating and inviting people to take-action to make our places healthier. This includes increasing access to nature, restoring habitats and ecosystem processes, and providing more volunteer opportunities. This also includes integrating better with schools so students get exposure and engagement in nature earlier and can apply their learning to core classes including math, science, engineering, technology and art for future careers.

We look forward to partnering with you to catalyze the change that is needed, that supports the diverse cultures that live, work and depend on this region and protects the places and wildlife we treasure. Please join us in making a positive future.

Tammy Vercauteren,
Executive Director

BY THE NUMBERS

 

Overcoming Barriers and Building Connections

Camp Ecosystems Nurture Leaders

Camps are an ecosystem of their own. Many parts come together to create a whole, with pieces coming and going over time. This includes campers and our staff. In the succession of Bird Camps throughout many seasons, we have had a hand in mentoring thousands of youth. We take care to teach obvious topics like bolstering birding skills, teaching about ecological adaptations and seeking out new bird species for life lists. An argument could be made however, that the most important lessons and pivotal growth that occurs in our campers happens during the moments when they are challenged to grow in other ways. Moments when they are developing into leaders, mentoring others, exploring without fear of failure and impacting the next generation of youth following in their footsteps.

In recent years, we’ve had the amazing opportunity to foster the transition of campers becoming staff via our Leaders in Training (LIT) program. In 2023, our long time camper and LIT, Cory Hoit, stepped out of his camping hat and into a role as Seasonal Camp Instructor. As a former camper, Cory was now tasked with teaching the next generation of campers, while providing our staff with unique insight regarding the traditions and connections between campers and staff. We saw Cory connect birds and camp lessons to his own passion for engineering through lessons on flight. From giving back to their community, to learning how to care for themselves and others, our Leaders in Training are nurturing our camp ecosystem and the world around them. As the seasons change yet again, summer and spring brings forth a new cohort of Leaders in Training, and we are excited to watch them take flight!

Big Data Delivery Matters

Have you ever wondered how data collected in the field is transformed into successful  management of bird populations? That question focused our efforts during a redesign of the Rocky Mountain Avian Data Center (RMADC). Over the past 16 years of bird monitoring, we’ve amassed more than 3 million bird-related data points from the Great Plains to the Great Basin. This quantity of data can become unwieldy and can actually slow down “on-the-ground” conservation delivery. The goal of the redesign of the RMADC was to overhaul the web application used to organize our data so it can be shared more efficiently and have the greatest positive impact on bird populations.

Data stored in the RMADC are variable, and include information such as annual population metrics for over 300 species of birds. At the forefront of our application redesign were practical considerations like streamlining the filtering of available data, while enhancing speed and responsiveness of the user interface. However, where the new platform really shines is with the new interactive maps and dynamic data visualizations allowing users to explore and engage with the data like never before. The RMADC 2.0 serves as an information conduit, bridging the gap between data collection and conservation delivery, facilitating informed decision-making for the benefit of birds and their habitats across our vast conservation landscape.

Changing the Trajectory of Conservation

Grasslands are vital from a human livelihood and biodiversity perspective in that they provide vital socio-economic benefits, ecosystem services, and support diverse ecological communities. Despite this importance, this biome is rapidly declining from the interacting threats of agricultural conversion, woody plant encroachment, and climate-induced drought. Multiple indicators highlight the decline of this ecosystem, yet none are quite as dire as the loss of grassland birds, with some species having declined by 90%.

To date, our efforts to recover these species have focused squarely on biology (i.e., the when, where and whys of decline) with limited regard for the role of human dimensions. In a landscape predominantly privately owned, durable conservation solutions must account for the diverse needs of people and wildlife simultaneously. Building from the success of the Central Grassland Roadmap, Bird Conservancy has helped catalyze a multi-disciplinary working group to develop data products to help change the trajectory of steeply declining grassland birds. Specifically, this working group leverages the best available bird data and combines it with key threats, cultural will towards conservation, economics, etc., to identify where are the most strategic places to conserve and restore grasslands from Canada to Mexico. The working group has engaged diverse sectors from Indigenous nations, federal and state partners and joint ventures in a collaborative effort to simultaneously protect and restore the vital grassland habitat required to support diverse ecological communities. Bird Conservancy is proud of this partnership and the role that our bird data and scientific expertise are helping make a proactive difference in grasslands.

Español al Aire Libre: Enhancing Outdoor Classrooms with Spanish Language Learning

Language should never be a barrier to learning. Speaking Spanish in educational settings, particularly when educating students about conservation, a traditionally non-diverse field, is a powerful tool for promoting inclusivity and expanding the reach of environmental education initiatives. Via the Growing Scientist program, our Bilingual Environmental Educator, Xitlaly Avitia, has been able to reach a great number of students this year that otherwise would have not gotten the opportunity to better understand birds and nature. Bird Conservancy’s commitment to conserving birds and their habitats becomes more achievable as we extend our outreach to previously underserved communities. As we look ahead to the coming year, we are filled with anticipation at the prospect of engaging an even larger audience and forging new partnerships within our community. By embracing linguistic diversity and expanding our educational endeavors, we can ensure that the wonders of nature are accessible to all, regardless of language or background.

"The working group has engaged diverse sectors from Indigenous nations, federal and state partners and joint ventures in a collaborative effort to simultaneously protect and restore the vital grassland habitat required to support diverse ecological communities."

Brandt Ryder, Chief Conservation Scientist

"By embracing linguistic diversity and expanding our educational endeavors, we can ensure that the wonders of nature is accessible to all, regardless of language or background."

Xitlaly Avitia, Bilingual Environmental Educator

Birds Across Borders

Bridging the Gaps: Black Swift Annual Cycle Conservation

As spring approaches, many birds start their long journeys back to their breeding grounds. One particularly enigmatic species, the Black Swift (Cypseloides niger) is uniquely adapted to flight. Black Swifts returning to Colorado come from their wintering grounds in Amazonian Brazil. There, they remain near completely airborne for a period of nearly 8 months! Even more astounding is that Black Swifts undergo nocturnal flights during moonlit nights, a novel behavior discovered by Bird Conservancy and partners, and likely associated with increased feeding opportunities when insects are more visible.

Once back on the breeding grounds, Black Swifts nest in montane habitats near waterfalls and canyons. Again, they engage in unique flight patterns, leaving their nests during twilight hours to feed. Science has revealed these patterns of movement throughout the year through the deployment of GPS tags attached to individual birds. These tags have also revealed that some individuals fly an average of 117 miles/day and can live to 19 years of age. That’s pretty remarkable for such a small bird!

Bird Conservancy field technicians are busy combining this movement data with additional data from statewide monitoring efforts in Colorado. The hope is to cement a standardized protocol to produce better estimates of abundance and detection probabilities. All of this gives us greater insight into Black Swift population dynamics that will aid management recommendations. Linking movement patterns of Black Swifts with climate change and habitat loss across the full annual cycle helps scientists understand how these elements further interact to influence populations.

This information is especially important for species in decline. The Black Swift is a species of significant conservation concern, having experienced range-wide population declines in the United States and Canada of up to 94%. In Canada, this species is listed as endangered. The work Bird Conservancy and partners are conducting across the full annual cycle is filling a gap needed to deliver effective conservation plans and help a species in decline.

Crossing Landscapes and Making Connections

The Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is a unique finch found among the spruces, firs, pines, and hemlocks of coniferous woodlands. Unlike other bird species that fly north and south, to and from their breeding grounds, crossbills don’t follow regular migratory patterns. Instead, they move around the landscape in search of areas with large numbers of pine cones, a staple of their diet. Crossbills are truly a nomadic, wandering species. This type of non-regular migratory movement is called an irruption because the birds show up in large numbers, at seemingly random times.

Understanding the movements of crossbills and the habitats they utilize helps landowners and the general public understand the importance of coniferous forest conservation. This includes demonstrating the value of the Pine Ridge region of western Nebraska. Bird Conservancy is continually monitoring and learning more about the life history and movements of crossbills in this region from data collected at our bird banding stations in Nebraska. While the Red Crossbill is not necessarily a focal species for Bird Conservancy, it is unique in that it is typically only banded at our Nebraska stations. Since 2007, 990 Red Crossbills have been banded at our two western Nebraska stations, with 987 banded at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and the remaining three banded at Chadron State Park. With birds in hand at these stations, we can clearly demonstrate to visitors how crossbill bills are adapted to tweeze apart pine cones and extract the nutritious seeds within. These moments provide an excellent opportunity to connect Nebraska panhandle students to the biologically unique Pine Ridge landscape and the species that rely on its presence. Seeing these connections develop in real time is a real joy and an unforgettable experience for everyone.

"...even more astounding is this species undergoes nocturnal ascents surrounding moonlit nights, a novel behavior discovered by Bird Conservancy and partners."

Rob Sparks, Senior Spatial Ecologist - Spatial Analysis Coordinator

Boots on the Ground

Living our Mission

Private working farms and ranches comprise 70% of the western landscape, and are home to many of our imperiled grassland birds. That’s why, for more than 20 years, Bird Conservancy has operated a private lands program working alongside landowners and managers to raise awareness for bird conservation needs, enhance habitat at the local level and provide mutually beneficial conservation solutions. Our collaborative conservation landscape spans the central grasslands, from Canada to Mexico, and is fueled by the expertise of a network of strategically-placed Wildlife Habitat Biologists (WHBs) within six states. Our WHBs are members of the community where they live and work., meaning they are truly invested in the outcomes of their work. As such, they are a source of support, tools and resources for landowners and partners to enhance the health and productivity of working lands for the benefit of wildlife, people and economic realities.

Click one of the pins in the map above to learn more about our Stewardship team and the field offices where they are stationed.

What’s In a Name?

To conserve birds we must also conserve the habitat they use. This past year we made the decision to change the name of our Private Lands Wildlife Biologists to Wildlife Habitat Biologist to reflect the inclusive nature of our conservation approach.

Community Conservation at Scale

In 2023, Bird Conservancy’s Stewardship Team began implementing a new initiative: Community Conservation at Scale. The goal is to bring regional and local stakeholders, both private and public, together to collaboratively develop best practices and strategies to support rural communities, habitat, and wildlife. An integral part of implementing this project involves understanding the motivation and barriers within private landowners that drives participation in conservation programs. It also means identifying specific needs for individual ranching or farming operations, and discovering ways to strengthen relationships between a diverse set of stakeholders.

The first steps of this project included Bird Conservancy engaging with social scientists, Dr. Drew Bennett, Whitney MacMillan Professor of Practice within the Private Lands Stewardship Program at the University of Wyoming and Callie Merissa Berman, Post-doctoral Research Associate with the Ruckelshaus Institute. Drs. Bennett and Berman facilitated four focus groups composed of landowners and producers in Buena Vista, Alamosa, Fort Morgan, and Rocky Ford, Colorado. These focus groups worked to address the issues stated above. Community Conservation at Scale continues to be a priority initiative for Bird Conservancy and we look forward to continuing conversations among stakeholders to foster productive partnerships grounded in shared goals for stewardship of working lands, while incorporating meaningful solutions for regionally specific resource needs and wildlife concerns.

"Restoration efforts are aimed at building system resiliency, so that riparian areas, floodplain wetlands, and side channel habitats can persist during high and low flows."

Anna Greenberg, Wetlands Program Manager

Conejos River Restoration Project Brings Neighbors Together

When Bird Conservancy’s San Luis Valley Wildlife Habitat Biologist met a rancher concerned about streambank erosion along the Conejos River, it became clear the two were staring at a major concern. The Conejos River is the largest tributary feeding the Rio Grande, but it also has its own unique watershed. Years of hydrologic manipulation and climate change have driven this system to a tipping point towards collapse. It was clear action was needed. This conversation sparked a now fully planned restoration effort, targeting almost 4 miles of the Conejos River, engaging nearly 20 private landowners and 10 partner entities. This effort is called the Conejos River Restoration Project (CRRP). Bird Conservancy is leading the way.

The CRRP is being conducted in phases with many different elements. These efforts include streambank stabilization, riparian habitat restoration, side channel and backwater wetland restoration, in-channel stream morphology adjustments, and irrigation infrastructure updates. Phase one began with comprehensive surveying and planning. With that phase complete, Bird Conservancy launched into the implementation phase in partnership with a local non-profit, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project. 

Overall, the CRRP is focused on building system resiliency, so that riparian areas, floodplain wetlands, and side channel habitats can persist during high and low flow periods throughout the year. These systems provide important habitat for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), threatened Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus occidentalis), and numerous species of waterfowl. Additionally, the private landowners within the watershed rely on healthy riparian areas to provide windbreaks for livestock and resilient floodplains to maintain the water table for irrigation. Finally, most of the landowners in this region belong to historically underserved populations, and as such, this section of the Conejos River has received little conservation attention. These populations are finally getting the help they need to sustain their lifestyles. The CRRP is an exciting template for how large-scale river restoration projects can simultaneously support community and wildlife needs.

Habitat Restoration in our Forests

The Riverside Forest Restoration Project (RFRP) restored 388 acres of ponderosa pine woodlands, dry mixed-conifer forests, aspen stands, lodgepole pine forests and sagebrush shrublands on the west side of Highway 24, north of Buena Vista, Colorado. Due largely to the modern era of fire suppression, the structure and composition of these plant communities had departed greatly from pre-settlement conditions, leading to degraded wildlife habitat and a mismatch between species’ evolutionary history and habitat resources.

The RFRP had several goals informed by landscape-scale priorities across Chaffee County. The primary focus was to increase biodiversity, particularly of avian and understory plant communities. Secondary goals included improving resiliency to fire and other disturbances, and to enhance the quality and quantity of forage for big game during migration and winter. Dense forest stands that developed over time were thinned and restored to renew meadows filled with a diverse understory of plants, reduce the effects of severe wildfires and create a diversity of habitats and forest structure for wildlife.The project’s success was due in part to a collaborative effort of many partners including the National Forest Foundation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado State Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Larimer County Conservation District. Further demonstrating collaboration, the work spanned 5 private properties (304 acres) and Bureau of Land Management lands (84 acres).

Landowner Spotlight: Alejandro Carrillo, Las Damas Ranch

In a remote corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, Alejandro Carrillo created a desert oasis. Not the kind with pools and palm trees, but an oasis of tall, lush and green grass. This oasis fills the desert valleys, creeping up the rocky hillsides and softening the harsh environment. Here at Las Damas ranch, Alejandro changed the course of history. 

All around Alejandro, including on his own land, the desert was becoming drier, more eroded and less green. Decades of unsustainable grazing lead to the disappearance of grasslands – the lifeblood of this region. Once the grasses were gone, soil temperatures soared, killing microbes and insects. The ground hardened, seeds didn’t germinate, and the rain, when it fell, couldn’t penetrate the soil. Instead, it ran off the landscape into the ever widening gulleys, taking precious topsoil with it. This process is called desertification and can be unstoppable if left unchecked. But Alejandro stepped in and managed to stop and reverse the desertification of his property. After taking over the family ranch, he studied holistic and regenerative grazing. Through trial and error, and paying close attention to how the land responded to these practices, he has restored ecological productivity, built a successful livestock operation and created a haven for birds and wildlife. Alejandro’s efforts inspired Bird Conservancy to team up with him to continue this great work across our arid grasslands.

Bird Conservancy has been monitoring grassland birds on Las Damas since 2014.  The verdict?  Las Damas supports a diverse community of birds and has seen an increase in Baird’s and Grasshopper sparrows, and Sprague’s Pipits, over the last decade.  While we don’t know exactly what his secret ingredient is, we do know that we need more land stewards like him, making a difference for birds every day.

Alejandro Carrillo serves on the board of directors for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.  He is a rancher, a partner in our Sustainable Grazing Network in Mexico, and a much sought-after speaker and educator who travels the world sharing his experiences and keys to success with sustainable and profitable grazing.

Watch the video below to learn more about our accomplishments in 2023 and our plans for 2024. Thank you for your support!

ABOUT US

A People-Centered Conservancy

Building and Cultivating Partnerships

2023 was another great year for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. We are seeing an increase in our partnership agreements and support as well as foundations and individual dollars. The combined investments ensure our resiliency as an organization and bolsters our abilities to conserve birds and their habitats and be a leader for conservation.

We just completed our new strategic plan which continues to emphasize the integration and application of our core disciplines in science, education and land stewardship. It also highlights our catalyzing role with new initiatives that bring people, birds and the land together.

At the end of the day, people will decide our future so our plan emphasizes the role and inclusion of people from rural to urban, Indigenous to multi-cultural and all identities. We will continue to inspire, engage and ensure a future where we all feel welcome, included and connected to the land, and have a sense of shared responsibility to each other and our amazing wildlife.

Thank you for your investment, confidence and support. Together we make the future bright and the world a better place for people, birds and the land.

2023 FINANCIALS

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