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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory marks 25 years of working on all things avian

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By Crystal Nelson

BRIGHTON — Twenty five years after its inception, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory is making important strides in bird conservation. 

With a mission focused on the conservation of birds and their habitat, RMBO has played a part in the conservation of threatened and endangered species like the piping plover and least tern, created the first-ever conservation plan for grassland birds and recently discovered the black swift winters in Brazil. 

Executive Director Tammy VerCauteren cites the mountain plover as another species the observatory has been able to help. She said the mountain plover is a species that has been in decline — as the species likes to nest in bare, open landscapes — but that they’ve been working with landowners to mark nests so they can be avoided. 

“Because they’re out in crop fields, there’s actually less predation and we’re seeing higher survival compared to just out in nature with no sort of conservation measures,” she said. 

RMBO — originally the Colorado Bird Observatory — was founded in 1988 by Michael Carter through a challenge grant from the Colorado Division of Wildlife. According to Carter, the idea to start the organization came as scientist began to recognize the long-term declines of many bird species, especially prairie species. He said organizations like RMBO needed to exist to do the work necessary to try to reverse these population trends.

“At the time, there was lots of science and research coming out from long term monitoring programs that some of these species had declined by 30, 40, 50 percent and without people doing something, these declines would continue,” he said. 

He said initially the organization was reacting to populations that were declining, and although they did some monitoring, they mostly started programs to help with conservation. He said it included outreach to ranchers and farmers and working with different agencies to talk more about the song birds.

Since then, VerCauteren said RMBO has influenced more than 300,000 acres of habitat in the West working with ranchers and farmers in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska as well as down in the Michelin Desert in Mexico.

“What we do is we make people part of the conservation equation, so we’re trying to help them have their lands be more productive and healthy and sustainable for their business but also the wildlife because, ultimately, we need the land healthy for people, for wildlife and for all of us.”

VerCauteren started working at the observatory as Outreach and Geographic Information Systems Specialist in 1999 while headquarters were still at the trailer at Barr Lake State Park. She saw RMBO headquarters change to the Old Stone House the next year and became executive director in 2009.

When VerCauteren started at RMBO, she said there was a strong education and science arm with coordinated bird monitoring, bird banding programs and camps but that they started to branch out into land stewardship. A big component of land stewardship included the launching of an international program with Mexico.

“The majority of the birds that we enjoy here in the summer migrate, whether it’s grassland birds or forest birds, and Mexico is one of the most important countries for wintering habitats for our birds. They actually spend more time there than they do here,” VerCauteren said. 

During the next couple of years, VerCauteren said staff will work to take their breeding knowledge and combine it with their wintering knowledge to discover the weakest links in the conservation equation — whether its the breeding grounds, wintering grounds or the migration path. In doing so, RMBO will be able to identify the most critical places and stages in the birds life and the knowledge will help them be able to allocate their resources accordingly.

Communications and Membership Coordinator Teddy Parker-Renga said when RMBO was founded, monitoring bird population was the core function of the science and that they have become experts. He said they have gone from monitoring birds around Colorado to having programs in 13 states and that they’re model for monitoring is now being adopted by others.

For VerCauteren, it’s the organization’s foundation in science, connecting with people and building partnerships with landowners that she likes best about RMBO.

“I just feel to conserve birds you have to have sound data and good science, you have to have a public that cares and have to have people who are willing to change (land) management,” she said.