Bluebird Seasons: Witnessing Climate Change in My Piece of the Wild

Among the owls hooting in the night, elk bugling in autumn, chorus frogs singing from the pond was a slowly growing record of species change, increasing drought and wildfire, pine forest dieoff.
bluebird art

My nature journal held a secret

Mary's nature journal, volume one

It was hidden among 25 years of entries, like a thread winding through the seasons. Among the owls hooting in the night, elk bugling in autumn, chorus frogs singing from the pond was a slowly growing record of species change, increasing drought and wildfire, pine forest dieoff. It was evidence of a changing climate. Not in a faraway place like Antarctica but right here in Colorado, in my piece of the wild. A story echoed in everyone’s backyard.

A Gathering Storm

Cabin Journal — October 1995. An enormous group of pinyon jays blows in from the southwest, a boisterous blue posse. Easily 100 birds, maybe 300 or more.

In 1995, climate change wasn’t yet on everyone’s radar, but it was a gathering storm. That year, my husband and I bought 37 acres in southern Colorado, tucked up behind Trinidad Lake State Park about 15 miles southwest of Trinidad. I began keeping a nature journal of our sightings.

It’s beautiful country, that part of Colorado. Not the snow-covered peaks of the high mountains, but ridges and foothills broken by rock-tumbled canyons. Open woodlands of piñon pine and juniper stand interspersed with meadows and dense oakbrush, ponderosa pines towering above. To the east, we have a panoramic view of Raton Mesa with boxy-shaped Fishers Peak at the north end, now the location and namesake of Colorado’s newest state park.

For me — nature writer, naturalist, zoologist, birder — the best part is the diverse wildlife this landscape supports. It’s a dry place, at the northern edge of the American Southwest, but the pine nuts, juniper berries, acorns and other wild foods offer rich habitat. There is no persistent water, but an old stock pond fills in the wet years, fading to a brown circle of dirt in the dry.

Over the years, our journal would grow to four volumes: records of the interesting and new, dramatic weather, when various plants flowered. We kept a running list of birds we saw — on our land and the surrounding area, including the nearby Wildlife Viewing Area within Trinidad Lake State Park. The list quickly surpassed 130 species.

In 1999, we built a cabin, stacking the logs ourselves with the help of wonderful friends, like a classic Amish barn raising.

Cabin at Dusk
The cabin at dusk.

Once our own “nest box” was built, we put up four bird nest boxes purchased from Denver Audubon Society’s Colorado Bluebird Project. Our bluebird trail would grow to 10 boxes, winding like beads in a necklace up through the small meadows that dot our land.

Over 25 years of bluebird seasons, we recorded what we witnessed, the joys and dramas of life in the natural world around us. Our journal entries are anecdotal, not scientific data, but over time they revealed a story of change.

Birds, Bears, and a Changing Climate

Cabin Journal — June 2000. At first, all I could see inside the nest box was a pile of grayish feathers. Then I noticed a bright yellow V. Then another, and another. The nest box held five western bluebird hatchlings, with stubs for wings, translucent skin and bright yellow beaks.

We monitored our nest boxes through the nesting season, logging numbers of eggs or young. For many years, bluebirds were the main nesters in the boxes, but other species also used them — ash-throated flycatchers, violet-green swallows, even mountain chickadees. By the 2010s, bluebird occupancy had dropped in some years to just 14 percent of all successful nests. By 2017, ash-throated flycatchers consistently averaged 40 percent of all nests.

Ash-throats are arid-country birds. While many birds are projected to decline with climate change, models show ash-throats increased their summer range by 42 percent, according to National Audubon Society’s 2019 report Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.

But western bluebirds are projected to lose 35 percent of their summer range and 64 percent of their winter range by 2080, under the most dire climate change model.

The most dramatic change we noticed was with hummingbirds. Hummers are the most visible birds because we attract them with feeders. Colorado’s classic, trilling hummer, the broad-tailed, was at first the dominant species. But over the years, things changed.

May 2008. We may have more black-chinned hummers than broad-tails. 

Early August 2014. Plenty of hummingbird action. Black-chins rule these days!

Black-chinned hummingbirds are more a Southwestern than Rocky Mountain hummer, but as an Audubon Society report stated in 2015, “The unassuming black-chinned hummingbird is thought to have begun a climate-mediated range shift already.”

We record other “new” birds.

July 1998. Saw a greater roadrunner along the shoulder of Interstate 25 just north of Trinidad.

Not unusual, as Trinidad is at the northern edge of the roadrunner’s range. But a few years later, I saw one in the meadow along our driveway, at 6,700 feet, 700 feet higher than Trinidad. More neighbors reported seeing them.

Roadrunners are projected to expand their range northward by 27 percent by 2080, becoming established throughout southeastern Colorado and north along the Front Range almost to Denver.

October 2016. The dogs spook a covey of scaled quail out of the brush. The “scalies” scurry through the grass alongside the road before flying off to the far side of the meadow.

Quail are a delight to watch, with their plump bodies and head-pumping strut. Scaled quail are a popular game bird in southeastern Colorado, ranging up to about 4,500 feet. We saw these birds at 6,700 feet.

Under the most dire warming scenario, scalies are projected to expand into foothills and higher elevations on the Eastern Slope. It seems their range expansion is already happening.

Cabin Journal — June 2001. Tuesday night, as we sat on the deck listening to a poorwill calling from the dark, we heard a loud crack! from the trees beyond the meadow. Then, a double crack! crack! We peered into the blue-black night, wondering what was out there, and what it was up to. In the morning we discovered the answer.

A battered nest box hung crookedly on the tree, cleaved in half like a watermelon, the victim of a bear. We’ve replaced many bear-bashed boxes over the years, during winter when the bears are sleeping. But in recent winters, we’ve found active bear sign — fresh tracks, scat — as late as January. Hibernating bears sometimes wake up and emerge, but scat is a sign they aren’t hibernating, their digestive systems still operating.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of climate warming is extended or increasing drought. Seasons alternating between wet and dry are normal in Colorado, but some summers our meadows were nothing but dust and crackling grass. Monsoon rains usually came eventually, but often too late to produce sufficient nuts and fruits needed by wildlife.

The drying trend is not our imagination. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Task Force Report on the 2020–2021 Southwestern U.S. Drought, lays out the dire truth.

“Climatologists predict drought in the Southwest in the 21st century will be driven by drying soils due to warmer global temperatures.” Warm temperatures that led to drought being so intense and widespread are going to continue and probably get worse, “until stringent climate mitigation is pursued and regional warming trends are reversed.”

And drought leads to a cascade of effects.

Hiking the mountain behind the cabin, I noticed the skeletal shapes of dead and dying piñon pines. Where the bark was missing, I saw the grooved trails left like calligraphy by insects munching into the inner wood.

The culprit is the ips beetle, a pine beetle that is devastating piñon forests throughout the Southwest. Like the various pine beetles attacking Colorado forests, ips are helped by a warmer, drier climate, which stresses the trees and makes them too weak to fight off the insects.

When a forest dies, the threat of wildfire grows. We worry about the increasing number of wildfires in our area. Sometimes the air gets so hazy with smoke that we cut our cabin stay short. If a fire does reach us, the acres of dry pines on the slopes around — from beetles plus a century of fire suppression — would burn hot and fast.

A Microcosm of the Climate Change Story

cabin with a brilliant sunrise behind Raton Mesa and Fishers Peak
The cabin with a brilliant sunrise – Raton Mesa and Fishers Peak in the distance.

Our land sits within a fossil fuel field. For a century, this area within the Raton Basin was the site of intense coal mining. The hollow galleries of abandoned coal mines spread beneath the land. At nearby Cokedale, the remnants of beehive-shaped ovens that reduced raw coal to hot-burning coke stretch like ancient ruins. A century ago, the coking process cloaked the region in hazy, toxic smoke, killing trees and probably people. Now, hundreds of natural gas wells extract coalbed methane from the old coal seams.

This landscape that shows so many impacts of climate change has for a hundred years been a party to creating it. Our land is a microcosm of the climate change story. As some scientists warn, the climate crisis is leading to Earth’s sixth mass extinction, the geologic mark of the fifth extinction is exposed here like a warning. A mile and a half away, in a cliff face at Trinidad Lake State Park’s Wildlife Viewing Area, is a 1-inch, chalky geologic layer known as the K-Pg boundary (formerly K-T boundary), fallout from the massive asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Sixty-six million years ago, debris blocked out the sun, making Earth cold and dark. Then carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere, causing a super-heated climate. So what killed off the dinosaurs? Climate change. And the marker for it is nearby, and probably on our land, hidden in a deep-cut arroyo.

Mary documents the K Pg Boundary geologic layer visible in Trinidad Lake State Park for social media.
Mary documents the K-Pg Boundary geologic layer visible in Trinidad Lake State Park for social media.

Telling Our Stories

It’s easy to be fatalistic about climate change. But I see climate change not as a story of loss, but of hope — in nature’s resilience, in the energy and determination of youth and in the human ability to overcome great challenges.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.”

In spite of fire and drought and so many questions about the future, the bluebirds still return every spring to begin the next bluebird season. Hope is imbedded in their DNA, as it is in ours.

For 35 years, I’ve written about the wonder of nature, moving readers to support conservation. But the threat of climate change is too great to just write about cool or fun or dramatic wildlife. So I’m sharing my story in my new book, Bluebird Seasons: Witnessing Climate Change in My Piece of the Wild.

It will take all of us to make sure Colorado’s natural heritage is there for future generations. I hope you will recognize and share your climate change story, about your own back yard or piece of the wild. It’s a great place to start.

Mary Taylor Young is a zoologist, nature writer and author of 22 books about wildlife and the outdoors. She received the 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Colorado Authors’ League and is a frequent contributor to Colorado Outdoors. Bluebird Seasons: Witnessing Climate Change In My Piece of the Wild, releases in May 2023.

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