Bird and wildlife books for winter reading & gift giving

2018-12How to be a Good CreatureTry these bird and wildlife books for winter reading and gift giving

By Barb Gorges

Several books published this year about birds and other animals I recommend to you as fine winter reading, or gift giving.

The first, “How to be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” is a memoir by Sy Montgomery, a naturalist who has written many children’s as well as adult books about animals.

Montgomery has been around the world for her research. Some of the animals she met on her travels and the animals she and her husband have shared their New Hampshire home with have taught her important life lessons: dog, emu, hog, tarantula, weasel, octopus.

This might make a good read-aloud with perceptive middle-school and older children.

2018-12 Warblers and Woodpeckers“Warblers & Woodpeckers, A Father-Son Big Year of Birding” by Sneed B. Collard III was a great read-aloud. For two weeks every evening I read it to my husband, Mark, while he washed the dishes–a long-standing family tradition.

Like Montgomery, Collard is a naturalist and author, though normally he writes specifically and prolifically for children. He lives in western Montana.

When his son is turning 13, Collard realizes he has limited time to spend with him before his son gets too busy. Birdwatching becomes a common interest, though his son is much more proficient. They decide to do a big year, to count as many bird species as possible, working around Collard’s speaking schedule and taking friends up on their invitations to visit.

There are many humorous moments and serious realizations, life birds and nemesis birds, and a little snow and much sunshine. Mark plans to pass the book on to our younger son who ordered it for him for his birthday.

2018-12Wild MigrationsTwo Wyoming wildlife biologists, Matthew Kauffman and Bill Rudd, who have spoken at Cheyenne Audubon meetings on the subject, are part of the group that put together “Wild Migrations, Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates.” I ordered a copy sight unseen.

We know that many bird species migrate, but Wyoming is just now getting a handle on and publicizing the migrations of elk, moose, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bison, thanks to improved, cheaper tracking technology.

Each two-page spread in this over-sized book is an essay delving into an aspect of ungulates with easy-to-understand maps and graphs. For example, we learn Wyoming’s elk feed grounds were first used in the 1930s to keep elk from raiding farmers’ haystacks and later to keep elk from infecting cattle with brucellosis.

Then we learn that fed elk don’t spend as much time grazing on summer range as unfed elk, missing out on high-quality forage 22 to 30 days a year. Shortening the artificial feeding season in spring might encourage fed elk to migrate sooner, get better forage, and save the Wyoming Game and Fish Department money.

This compendium of research can aid biologists, land managers and land owners in smarter wildlife management. At the same time, it is very readable for the wildlife enthusiast. Don’t miss the foreword by novelist Annie Proulx.

2018-12 Guide to Western Reptiles and AmphibiansThanks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for sending me a copy of the newly revised “Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians” by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel M. McGinnis to review. I now know that what friends and I nearly stepped on while hiking last summer was a prairie rattlesnake, one of 12 kinds of rattlers found in the west.

There are 40-plus Peterson field guides for a variety of nature topics, all stemming from Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 guide to the birds of eastern North America. I visited the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, this fall and saw his original art work.

The reptile and amphibian guide first came out in 1966, written and illustrated by the late Stebbins. In in its fourth edition, his color plates still offer quick comparisons between species. Photos now offer additional details and there are updated range maps and descriptions of species life cycles and habitats. It would be interesting to compare the maps in the 1966 edition with the new edition since so many species, especially amphibians, have lost ground.

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyI would be doing local photographer Pete Arnold a disservice if I didn’t remind you that you can find our book, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Depot Museum, Riverbend Nursery and PBR Printing. People tell us they are using Pete’s photos to identify local birds. I hope the experience encourages them to pick up a full-fledged bird guide someday by Peterson, Floyd, Sibley or Kaufman.

Advertisements

“Cheyenne Birds” book signing Dec. 9

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyDear Readers,

Photographer Pete Arnold and I are having a book signing for “Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds.” Join us this Sunday, Dec. 9 from 1 – 3 p.m. at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Drive, Cheyenne, Wyoming. People are telling us Pete’s photos are helping them identify birds!

Books are available at the Gardens’ Tilted Tulip gift shop Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 5 p.m. You can also find the books at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Riverbend Nursery and PBR Printing.

Immediately following the book signing is a reception for the new Cheyenne Botanic Gardens Artist in Residence exhibit, “Garden of Quilts,” featuring 10 of my flower and flower-bright quilts. My husband Mark is baking cookies for it. The exhibit will be up through Jan. 27.

Hope to see you,

Barb

 

 

Basic wild bird feeding

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

This Dark-eyed Junco checked out the garden before going for the birdfeeder. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Basic wild bird feeding increases avian appreciation

Also published at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/bird-banter-basic-wild-bird-feeding-increases-avian-appreciation

By Barb Gorges

Your backyard may look empty after the leaves fall, but you can fill it with birds by offering them shelter, water and food.

There is some debate on whether feeding wild birds is good for them. But in moderation—the birds find natural food as well—I think it is a great way to increase appreciation for birds.

A bird feeder is no substitute for providing trees and bushes for birds to perch on or take shelter from weather and predators. Birds can also pick the seeds and fruits—or pick dormant insects out of the bark. Provide evergreen as well as deciduous trees and shrubs plus native perennial wildflowers.

Water is nice to have out. The birds appreciate drinking it and bathing in it. But if you can’t scrub out the gunk regularly, it’s better not to bother with it. In winter you’ll want to skip concrete and ceramic baths in favor of plastic since freezing water might break them. The best winter bird bath we ever had was the lid of a heavy plastic trash can—we could pop the ice out.

Feeding seed-eating birds—house finch, goldfinch, junco, pine siskin—is as easy as scattering seed on the ground. But here are tips to benefit you and the birds more.

  1. Black oil sunflower seed is the one best bird seed for our area. Seed mixes usually have a lot of seed our birds won’t eat and then you must sweep it up before it gets moldy.
  2. Put out only as much seed as you can afford each day (and can clean up after). If it lasts your local flock only an hour, be sure to put the seed out at a time of day you can enjoy watching the birds. They’ll learn your schedule.
  3. Tube-type feeders and hopper feeders keep seed mostly dry. Clean them regularly so they don’t get moldy. Consider hanging them over concrete to make it easier to clean up the seed hulls.
  4. If you don’t like sweeping up sunflower seed hulls or are concerned that the hulls will kill your lawn, consider paying more for hulled sunflower seeds.
  5. Spilled seed under the feeder attracts the ground feeders, like juncos, those little gray birds. They like elevated platform feeders too.
  6. If you have loose cats in your neighborhood, consider outlining the spilled-seed area under your feeder with 2-foot-tall wire fencing all the way around. It’s enough of an obstacle to make approaching cats jump so the birds will notice the break in their stealthy approach.
  7. Put your feeder close to the window you will watch from. It’s more fun for you, and the birds are less likely to hit the window hard as they come and go. They get used to activity on your side of the glass.
  8. 2015-12goldfinchlessergoldfinch-by-barb-gorges1

    American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch enjoy a tube-type feeder full of nyjer thistle seed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

    Once you have the regulars showing up, probably the house finches—striped brown and the males have red heads—and house sparrows—pale gray breasts, chestnut-brown backs, consider putting up a special feeder for the nyjer thistle seed that goldfinches and pine siskins love so much.

  9. Seed cakes are popular with chickadees and nuthatches. They require a little cage apparatus to hold them.
  10. Suet-type cakes are popular with downy woodpeckers and flickers.
  11. Squirrels like bird seed too. You can add a cone-shaped deterrent above or below a feeder so they can’t get to it. Or ask your dog to chase the squirrels. If you get more than a couple squirrels, quit feeding birds for a week or so and see if the squirrels won’t move somewhere else. The birds will come back.
  12. A sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s hawk may be attracted to your feeder, though they are coming by for a finch or sparrow snack instead of seed. This means that you have successfully attracted animals from the next trophic level and contributed to the web of life.
  13. Take pictures. Look up the birds and learn more about them through websites like www.allaboutbirds.org.
  14. Take part in citizen science programs like www.eBird.org and Project FeederWatch. Check my Bird Banter archives for more information, www.CheyenneBirdBanter.wordpress.com.

Cheyenne bird book debuts

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyCheyenne bird book coming out late October

Also published at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/cheyenne-birds-by-the-month-to-debut and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Oct. 14, 2018.

By Barb Gorges

I’m very good at procrastinating. How about you? But I’ve discovered there are some advantages.

From 2008 to 2010, I wrote “Bird of the Week” blurbs for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle to run in those sky boxes at the top of the To Do section pages. But they needed photos.

I asked one of the Wyobirds e-list subscribers from Cheyenne, Pete Arnold. Pete invites people to join his own e-list, where he shares his amazing bird photos. He generously agreed.

Using the checklist of local birds prepared by Jane Dorn and Greg Johnson for the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society, I chose 104 of the most common species and set to work figuring out which weeks to assign them to. Pete perused his photos and was able to match about 90 percent.

We eventually met in person–at Holliday Park. Pete stopped on his way to work one morning to snap waterfowl photos and I was walking a friend’s dog and counting birds. We discovered we have several mutual friends.

By the time our two-year project was over, I’d heard about making print-on-demand books, uploading files via internet for a company to make into a book. I rashly promised Pete I’d make a book of our collaboration. After the paper published BOW, I had all the rest of the rights to the text. And I’ve had college courses in editing and publishing.

Here’s where my procrastination comes in. Over the next six years my family had three graduations, three weddings, three funerals and two households to disassemble, not to mention my husband Mark retired and wanted to travel more.

Finally, a couple years ago, I gave print-on-demand a trial run through Amazon, designing my small book about quilt care. I realized then the bird book would be beyond my talents and software. I considered learning InDesign but also started looking for a professional.

I discovered, through the social media site LinkedIn, that Tina Worthman designed books in her spare time. We’d started talking when she got the job as director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. No more spare time.

However, Tina recommended Chris Hoffmeister and her company, Western Sky Design. What a great match—she’s a birder! I didn’t have to worry about her mismatching photo and text. And she could speak to Pete about image properties and other technicalities.

Song Sparrow - Pete Arnold

Song Sparrow by Pete Arnold from “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.”

The book features a 6 x 6-inch image of each bird. Chris asked Pete to provide bigger image sizes, since the small ones he’d used for the paper would be fuzzy. He also had to approve all the cropping into the square format. But the upside of my procrastination is he had more photos to choose from.

There were still a few species Pete didn’t have and so we put out a call on Wyobirds. We got help from Elizabeth Boehm, Jan Backstrom and Mark Gorges.

Meanwhile, even though the WTE features editor at the time, Kevin Wingert, had originally edited BOW, I sent my text for each species, and all the other parts of the book (introduction, acknowledgements, word from the photographer, bird checklist, resources list), to Jane Dorn, co-author of the book Wyoming Birds. Another friend, Jeananne Wright, a former technical writer and editor, and non-birder, caught a few ambiguities and pointed out where I’d left non-birders wondering what I meant.

The title of the book was the last step. Instead of naming it Bird of the Week, two years’ worth of bird images and written bird impressions/trivia are organized differently. The title is “Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds.”

The book is being printed by local company PBR Printing—print-on-demand is too expensive for multiple copies.

While the book will be available late October at the Wyoming State Museum and other local outlets, our major marketing partner is the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, a natural fit since it is in the middle of Lions Park, a state Important Bird Area.

The Gardens will have the book available at their gift shop and at two book signings they are hosting: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 – 3 p.m., 710 S. Lions Park Dr.

You can get a sneak peak, and Pete’s behind the camera stories, at our presentation for Cheyenne Audubon Oct. 16, 7 p.m. in the Cottonwood Room at the Laramie County Library, 2200 Pioneer Ave.

For more information about the book and updates on where to find it, see Yucca Road Press, https://yuccaroadpress.com/. If you don’t live in Cheyenne but would like to order a copy, please email bgorges4@msn.com.

It took part of a village to make this book and we are hoping the whole village will enjoy reading it.

YRP_logo_black

Drawing by Jane Dorn and design by Chris Hoffmeister.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

2018-09-GREAT GREEN MACAW Mario Córdoba

Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

Published September 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

The back-to-school sales reminded me that I have some studying to do. In a few months, Mark and I are going to Costa Rica on our first international birding trip. We are going with Bird Watcher’s Digest with whom we’ve birded before in Florida and Texas.

Our friend Chuck Seniawski has been to Costa Rica five times and recommended, as did BWD, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. It shows 903 species in a country 20 percent the size of Wyoming, which has only 445 species. About 200 I’ve seen before because they migrate up here for the summer or their year round range includes parts of both North and Central America.

2018-09-LONG-TAILED SILKY-FLYCATCHER Mario Córdoba

Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

I asked local birder Greg Johnson, veteran of many international birding trips, how he learns the birds before heading to a new destination.

Greg said he starts with the country’s field guide, “I start reviewing it almost daily beginning several weeks or even months before the trip. For most trips, the tour company should be able to provide you trip reports from previous trips with the same itinerary. The trip reports should have a list of all birds they saw or heard. I then check those birds with a pencil mark in the book to focus only on those I am likely to see and ignore the rest. For example, if your trip to Costa Rica only includes the highlands and Caribbean slope, you can ignore those birds which only occur on the Pacific slope.”

Mario Córdoba of Crescentia Expeditions, trip leader, has provided a list of target bird species based on our travel route including several ecolodges we’ll stay at near national parks. No Pacific slope.

2018-09-RESPLENDENT QUETZAL (2) Mario Córdoba

Resplendent Quetzal, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Greg’s email continued, “If you spend enough time studying the birds you are most likely to see, you’ll surprise yourself at how easy it is to ID birds you have never seen before at first sight. There are always some groups that are still hard to ID without help from a guide [bird expert] because differences between species are very subtle. In Costa Rica these would include woodcreepers, some of the antbirds, elanias, tyrannulets, other flycatchers, etc.”

There are recognizable genera in Costa Rica: hummingbird, woodpecker, wren, warbler. But then the others seem straight from Alice in Wonderland: potoo, motmot, puffbird.

Mark and I also went to eBird and looked at the bird lists for the hotspots we will be visiting and filtered them for the month we are there. Of 421 species we found, 338 will be unfamiliar birds.

2018-09-FIERY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD Mario Córdoba

Fiery-throated Hummingbird, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

There is an alternative to thumbing through the field guide to study the birds. Our daughter-in-law, Jessie Gorges, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii, got a job one summer surveying birds across the Great Plains. She had a couple months to learn to recognize a few hundred birds by sight and sound.

Her solution is a free program called ANKI, https://apps.ankiweb.net. She created her own deck of digital flashcards with photos and birdsong recordings. It’s like a game and Jessie is the queen of complicated board and card games. The program prepares a daily quiz based on how much review and repetition it thinks you need.

But of course, even to make bird flashcards like I did 20 years ago for kids for Audubon Wyoming, printable from a CD, I need to find photographs. Finding them online or scanning pages of the field guide can help me study.

I take for granted the decades of familiarity I have with bird species in the U.S. There are groups in which I still can’t distinguish individual species well, for instance, flycatchers. But at least I know they are flycatchers. On this trip I’ll be leaving behind most of the birds I know.

2018-09-RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER Mario Córdoba

Red-legged Honeycreeper, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

But Greg assured me, “Once you go on an international birding trip, you’ll likely get hooked and won’t be able to stop. There are so many great birds that don’t occur in the U.S. I’ll never forget seeing my first keel-billed toucans in Belize or African penguins in South Africa.”

Preparing for this trip will make me appreciate the birds I do know when I meet their tropical cousins. I never thought about our northern rough-winged swallow having a counterpart, the southern rough-winged swallow. We could see both in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, excuse me while I begin studying in ornithological order: “Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Black Guan, Crested Guan, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Least Grebe, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Green Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Northern Jacana, White-throated Crake, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Tiny Hawk….”

2018-09-SCARLET MACAW Mario Córdoba

Scarlet Macaws, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Condors in Wyoming

2018-08Condor 832_edited-1-Brian Waitkus

California Condor T2 perches atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming in early July 2018. Photo courtesy Brian R. Waitkus.

Published Aug. 19, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/condor-visits-wyoming-next-condor-needs-to-find-steel-instead-of-lead.

Condor visits Wyoming; next condor needs to find steel instead of lead

By Barb Gorges

Exciting news in the Wyoming birdwatching community: A California condor, North America’s largest raptor with 9.5-foot wingspan, was sighted July 7 west of Laramie perched on Medicine Bow Peak. The reporting birder was Nathan Pieplow. He is the author of the Peterson guide to bird sounds. Maybe he recorded it.

Wing tags printed with a big T2 declared this was a female condor hatched and raised in 2016 at the Portland, Oregon, zoo and released in March at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona.

Several people from the Laramie Audubon chapter climbed up to see the condor. Brian Waitkus got excellent photos.

Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,014 feet, is a popular destination for hikers who want a challenge including lightning and boulder fields. As many as a dozen hikers were congregating near the condor July 9. The condor didn’t mind people but was flushed by three dogs off leash, observed Murie Audubon president Zach Hutchinson.

2018-08Condor T2Brian Waitkus

T2 was outfitted with wing tags and transmitter by the Peregrine Fund before her release in Arizona in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

T2 was one of many condors released into the wild by the Peregrine Fund working to re-establish the population of this officially endangered species. In 1982 there were only 22 birds left. Today there are 500, half flying free in Arizona, Utah, California and Baja Mexico. Some are now breeding in the wild. For more, read Condors in Canyon Country by Sophie A. H. Osborn and https://www.peregrinefund.org/.

The distance between the Arizona release site and the peak is only 440 miles as the condor flies, not difficult for a bird that can travel 200 miles a day. T2 was spotted earlier, on June 28, near Roosevelt, Utah.

The closest previous Wyoming condor sighting was 1998, in Utah at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which spans the Utah-Wyoming line.

T2’s visit was brief. A Peregrine Fund researcher following the condor using telemetry later got the signal 30 miles away indicating the bird was not moving. By the time he arrived, the bird was dead. It’s been sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for autopsy. Foul play was not suspected.

Serendipitously, soon after the first news broke about T2, Chris Parish, director of global conservation for the Peregrine Fund, was about to drop his daughter off in Laramie. He offered to give a talk on condors sponsored by the Laramie Audubon Society and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.

In his presentation, Chris touched briefly on the history of restoring the condor population.

Condors are tough. They survived the large mammal extinction 10,000 years ago. However, they are slow to reproduce, only one chick every two years. At propagation centers, experts can get a pair to lay an extra egg to put in an incubator.

Condors live 50 to 60 years by avoiding predators and finding new habitat. A few are still being shot, despite condors being as harmless as turkey vultures, eating only carrion–already dead animals. They fly into powerlines and get hit by vehicles too.

The biggest problem for condors is poisoning from lead ammunition, Chris said. When a deer is shot, the bullet disintegrates into hundreds of fragments. Often, the fragments are in the gut pile, or offal, that hunters leave in the field. Offal is the condor’s main dish.

All those little lead fragments add up and eventually cause lead poisoning. Some of those lead fragments also find their way into game meat people eat. Researchers try to check the blood lead levels of all free-flying condors once a year and treat them if necessary before releasing them again.

Our national symbol, the bald eagle, also feeds at carcasses. In 1991 lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned but upland animals—and birds like the eagle–are not protected.

Arizona Game and Fish Department a few years ago asked hunters on the Kaibab Plateau, where condors are released, to voluntarily use steel ammunition or to remove offal. They offered each participant two free boxes of steel ammunition. Participation is now at 87 percent. A similar program is nearly as successful in Utah. California has banned lead ammunition since 2008, said Chris.

The Peregrine Fund holds shooting trials and gives away steel ammunition for hunters to test. Chris, a lifelong hunter, spouts ballistic statistics with ease. The bottom line is that lead and steel ammunition of comparable quality are nearly the same cost. However, manufacturers need encouragement to offer more variety.

Chris also said that yes, steel ammunition takes a little practice for the hunter to become proficient with it, but practice is required any time a hunter switches to the same caliber ammunition made by a different manufacturer.

Steel bullets aren’t silver bullets for all wildlife problems. But maybe Wyoming can join the steel states. That way we’ll make it safer here for when more condors show up.

2018-08Condor head-Brian Waitkus

T2, a juvenile California Condor, hadn’t developed her red-skinned head yet. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands

.

By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.