Bird Call: Learning to bird by ear at Colorado snow geese festival – Colorado Springs Gazette


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Alison Kondler will deliver her talk, “Birds Heard in Words,” at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival on Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. 012123 bird.jpg
Alison Kondler, a Denver Audubon Master Birder, once did stand-up comedy based on her ability to imitate birds. She’ll be at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. The festival’s main attraction is the hundreds of thousands of snow geese hanging out at Prowers County’s ponds, lakes and reservoirs. Courtesy Alison Kondler
Alison Kondler, a Denver Audubon master birder, is the keynote speaker at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. The festival’s main attraction is the hundreds of thousands of snow geese hanging out at Prowers County’s ponds, lakes and reservoirs.
Snow geese in Prowers County. Photo by Sue Keefer
Snow geese fly in Prowers County.
Two bird watchers photograph thousands of snow geese at the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area on March 24, 2017, outside Fairfield, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

Alison Kondler will deliver her talk, “Birds Heard in Words,” at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival on Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. 012123 bird.jpg
Alison Kondler, a Denver Audubon Master Birder, once did stand-up comedy based on her ability to imitate birds. She’ll be at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. The festival’s main attraction is the hundreds of thousands of snow geese hanging out at Prowers County’s ponds, lakes and reservoirs. Courtesy Alison Kondler
Alison Kondler, a Denver Audubon master birder, is the keynote speaker at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. The festival’s main attraction is the hundreds of thousands of snow geese hanging out at Prowers County’s ponds, lakes and reservoirs.
Snow geese in Prowers County. Photo by Sue Keefer
Snow geese fly in Prowers County.
Two bird watchers photograph thousands of snow geese at the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area on March 24, 2017, outside Fairfield, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)
When Alison Kondler imitates a raven, you’d be forgiven for thinking a real raven just popped on the phone call.
Not only is the Denver Audubon master birder a font of knowledge, she can create jaw- dropping realistic bird sounds with merely her mouth.
It all started with a mean water drop imitation — imagine a single droplet landing in a pool of water — a sound she cultivated at age 9, which prompted her mom to buy her Frederick Newman’s 1980 book “MouthSounds.” She practiced every day with the record that came with the book.
“I can talk to animals and have always been able to talk to birds,” Kondler said. “It’s my sole purpose. I know what they’re thinking in a strange way through their sounds. It’s because I studied them for so long. I just have this real connection with them.”
Kondler will be the keynote speaker at the High Plains Snow Goose Festival on Feb. 3-5 in Lamar. The festival’s main attraction is the hundreds of thousands of snow geese hanging out at Prowers County’s ponds, lakes and reservoirs.
“We’re in the migratory pattern, so you see the greatest showing of them and it’s quite the sight to behold,” said festival director Jessica Medina. “If there are 60,000 on a body of water and they take off, it’s noisy and a sight to see. It looks like a field covered with snow, but it’s actually geese taking off into the air.”
Of course, Medina reminds attendees, there is no guarantee of seeing the birds. They’re wildlife, after all, but festival organizers do receive regular intel from Colorado Parks and Wildlife about where the geese are and how many there are. Weather is the biggest determining factor. If it stays cold, they stick. If it warms up, they fly the coop.
The festival features a largely bird-focused itinerary, including field trips to Two Buttes Reservoir, John Martin Reservoir and other watering holes, but also incorporates programs about the heritage of southeastern Colorado, including Camp Amache, a Japanese internment camp.
In Kondler’s Feb. 4 talk, “Birds Heard in Words,” she’ll teach mnemonic-based learning techniques to help commit bird sounds to memory. A mnemonic (nuh-monic) is a way to help you memorize a phrase or idea with patterns. Techniques can include songs, poems, rhymes, outlines, images and acronyms.
One example involves the aforementioned common raven. Crows and ravens are notoriously challenging to tell apart, so Kondler came up with a visual mnemonic based on their calls to help decipher the difference between the two black birds.
“If you look at a picture of a raven, it has a larger throat and bill than the American crow,” she said. “That sound sounds like it has something in its throat versus what a crow sounds like. It’s guttural. Crows are more like caw caw. There’s the visual attachment that looks like something is in its throat.”

She also helps people identify the call of the sweet, little chickadee.
“Each beat of the song could be a word,” she said. “A common one for the black-capped chickadee is ‘hi sweetie.’ A funny one is ‘cheeseburger.’”
The chickadee uses its “hi sweetie” as a call for communication to other birds and species. And if you hear the bird’s “chick-a-dee-dee,” that’s a song used to attract a mate or defend territory, though it can also mean other things. Studies say the more upset a chickadee is the more dees it will add.
“It can be an alarm call,” Kondler said. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee is like here’s some food over here. If it’s dee-dee-dee-dee, it’s a big threat to them, like a small owl or Cooper’s hawk. But if it’s a great horned owl, it might say chick-a-dee-dee-dee. It’s not as big a threat. Great horned owls like larger prey.”
Kondler’s love for animals began as a kid. She even had a bug cemetery where each tiny insect got its own headstone. But she didn’t glom onto birds until her 20s, despite growing up with a mom who was an avid watcher of the birds outside their Aurora home: “I remember going, ‘Oh God, she’s talking about birds again.’”
But we all become our parents to some degree, and this is how Kondler morphed into her mom, by becoming a bird fanatic with a large following on social media. You can find her reels, including the crow versus raven mnemonic, on Instagram and TikTok at birding_by_ear. She also lists her upcoming bird watching field trips online at birdingbyear.com.
At 18, she took her talent for mimicry to the stage, and did stand-up for five years, basing her act on stories and her mouth sounds. She never got huge, she says, and mostly opened for other comics or did open mics.
In her 20s, she became a naturalist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and worked on Mount Evans, the fourteener near Idaho Springs, where bird lovers flocked to see the brown-capped rosy finch. But Kondler didn’t know anything about birds, which posed a dilemma when it came to the finch-infatuated masses.
Her passion for winged creatures didn’t kick in until 2003, when she went to Costa Rica on an ecotour with bird watchers: “That’s what opened my eyes to it all. That’s when it became almost an obsession.”
“It’s like treasure hunting,” Kondler said. “You don’t know what you’re going to find. It gets you out in nature and opens your ears and eyes. It’s mindfulness practice in many ways. Even if you’re in the city and see a bird and admire or like it, it can bring you straight to nature.”
Contact the writer: 636-0270
Contact the writer: 636-0270
High Plains Snow Goose Festival, Feb. 3-5, Lamar, field trips range in price, some programs are free; highplainssnowgoose.com
Something else: “Birds Heard in Words,” with keynote speaker Alison Kondler of BirdingByEar.com, 7 p.m. Feb. 4, Lamar Resource and Senior Center, 407 E. Olive St., Lamar, $15, $25 couple for presentation; $30, $50 couple for banquet and presentation; free 12 and younger with paid adult; highplainssnowgoose.com
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