Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 2017

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Mark and I rechecked Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 in the evening of the Big Day and caught a couple more bird species. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 18, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “Thrushes take over Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count”

By Barb Gorges

The spring bird migration of 2017 is leaving people scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Because of safety issues due to heavy snow the two days before —the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was postponed a week, to May 27. [The best spring bird watching/counting in Cheyenne is around the old cottonwoods and the snow broke branches and left large trees hazardous to walk under.]

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members who organize the count assume that the Saturday closest to the middle of May will be the closest to peak migration. However, while the event was held a week later this year, we counted 113 species compared to last year’s 110.

In the preceding weeks, we saw posts from Casper birders about sightings of spring migrants we hadn’t seen yet, as if they skipped Cheyenne and continued north.

At our house, we eventually had about one each of our favorite migrants (indigo bunting, black-headed grosbeak, MacGillivray’s warbler, Wilson’s warbler), but most were after the original Big Day date.

In early May, my husband, Mark, and I visited High Island, Texas, a famous landing spot for migrating songbirds crossing the Gulf. It was empty except for the rookery full of spoonbills, herons, egrets and cormorants. A birder we met had visited during the peak in April and said it was a disappointing migration.

Bill Thompson III, editor and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, posted similar thoughts about what he saw from his home in southeastern Ohio. Someone responding from New Hampshire said he saw only three species of warblers in the first 25 days of May when he would typically see a dozen.

Everyone hopes that the low number of migrating birds is due to weather patterns that blew them north without stopping over. We hope it isn’t a sign of problems on the wintering grounds, breeding grounds or somewhere in between.

For our Cheyenne Big Day, we have one group that birds the hotspots: Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the High Plains Grasslands Research Station and the adjacent arboretum. This year, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the group varied in size from five to 15. Even the most inexperienced birdwatcher was helpful finding birds.

Because we couldn’t change the date of the permit we had to access the research station, we contented ourselves with the road in front of the buildings, and that’s where we found two eastern bluebirds, a species showing up here more often in recent years.

The long-eared owl seen by two participants this year at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch is a species last recorded on the Big Day in 1996.

Besides the group canvassing an area roughly the same as the Christmas Bird Count’s 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Capitol, five people birded on their own. And though they sometimes visited places the main group did, it was at different times, counting different birds.

The most numerous species this year was the Swainson’s Thrush. The quintessential little brown bird, like a junior robin, was everywhere. Two days later, there were none to be seen.

Maybe there is no one-day peak of spring migration. Maybe there never was. But spending any day outdoors in Cheyenne in May you are bound to see more species of birds than if you don’t go out at all.

2017 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results: 113 species

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Gadwall

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Ring-billed Gull

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Long-eared Owl

Great Horned Owl

Common Nighthawk

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Warbling Vireo

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Horned Lark

Tree Swallow

  1. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

McCown’s Longspur

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

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A spotting scope is necessary to see the waterfowl on the far side of Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

California birding

2017-03-08 Sacramento NWR 9 Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, March 8, 2017: Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibises. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 30, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Coast comes through with great birds”

By Barb Gorges

If I added these bird species to my life list last month [March], where would you say I’d been?

Surf scoter, pelagic cormorant, western gull, band-tailed pigeon, Anna’s hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Nuttall’s woodpecker, California (formerly western) scrub-jay, California towhee, golden-crowned sparrow.

If you guessed California, you would be right. But it isn’t the birds with “California” in their names that is the best clue. That would be the Nuttall’s woodpecker, found entirely in the state and the northern tip of Baja California. We saw ours in the arboretum at the University of California Davis.

2017-03-05 Point Reyes NS-Western Gull-by Mark Gorges

Western Gull, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Five of the species new to me—the hummingbirds, pigeon, towhee and scrub-jay—were in the backyard of the bed and breakfast we stayed at in Olema, California. The host fills the feeders every morning at 8:15 a.m. just before serving breakfast and his guests are treated to a flurry that also includes numerous California quail, white-crowned sparrows and, just like home, Eurasian collared-doves.

2017-03-08 Olema-California Quail-by Mark Gorges

California Quail surveys feeding station at the B & B in Olema, California. Photo by Mark Gorges. 

The pelagic cormorant would tell you that we spent time at the ocean. Despite the “pelagic” part of its name, which should indicate it is found far offshore, this cormorant is a shore dweller. Mark and I saw it way below us, in the rocks, at the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore.

2017-03-06 Point Reyes Lighthouse 6

Point Reyes National Seashore Lighthouse, March 6, 2017. Photo by Barb Gorges.

At Point Reyes Beach North, we encountered signs warning us about the protected nesting area for the federally designated threatened western population of snowy plovers. The area of the beach to be avoided was clearly marked with 4-foot white poles and white rope. Mark and I, and our Sacramento friends, formerly of Casper, dutifully gave it a wide berth.

And then the birds flew up in front of us anyway. We watched as five or six of the little white-faced sand-colored shorebirds fluttered away and settled down again nearby—in human footprint depressions.

Snowy Plover close-up by Mark Gorges, and camouflaged on the beach by Barb Gorges.

The American Birding Association’s “Field Guide to the Birds of California” says that the snowy plovers breeding on beaches like to find depressions so they don’t cast as much of a shadow to avoid detection by predators. They like the depressions for nesting too. Makes me think someone should walk once or twice through the official nesting area to make some, but who wants to pay the fine for trespassing? Besides, human activity and loose dogs scare the birds and prevent them from breeding.

Snowy plover was not a lifer for us—our first ones were at Caladesi Island State Park, Florida [managed at the time by Bill Gruber, former Wyoming Tribune Eagle Outdoors editor]. There too, their nesting area was delineated and protected, though in Florida they are only on the state-level threatened species list.

Snowy plovers are more than oceanic beach birds. You might find nesting populations across the southwestern U.S. at shallow lakes with sand or dried mud.

One bird I wanted to see was the wrentit. California, western Oregon and northern Baja California are the only places to see it. At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, I found two cute little birds that seemed to match the field guide. Another visitor noticed them popping in and out of a two-foot-long hanging sack made of bits of vegetation woven together and a red flag went up in my mind.

2017-03-08 Sacramento NWR Bushtit-by Mark

Bushtit and nest, Sacramento NWR. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Didn’t this hanging nest remind me of one I’d seen before in Seattle? Made by bushtits? Well darn, those were bushtits. They are only 4.5 inches long, whereas wrentits are 6.5 inches long, and wrentits build cup-shaped nests instead. If you were to draw a line from Seattle to Houston, bushtits can be found south of it, anywhere brushy and woodsy.

This was our first trip to California as eBirders, recording birds we saw at eBird.org. As usual, it came about as the result of a family commitment, which almost all our traveling does. We might have seen more species had we been on a birding tour, like we’ve done in Texas and Florida, but I think we did well at 86 species. The birds just seemed to pop out and give us a good look. Or maybe you could say they took a good look at us. [Have you ever been scrutinized by three turkey vultures on three adjoining fence posts next to a trail?]

We’ll have to make a point of visiting our family and friends in California more often. There are 571 bird species left to see—and half would be life birds.

2017-03-07 Point Reyes Abbotts Lagoon 8 Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vultures roost next to a trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bird books worth reading

Published Mar. 12, 2017 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books worth reading.”

By Barb Gorges

If you are the books you read, here is what I’ve been this winter.

2017-3Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, c. 2016, Penguin Press

This was a Christmas present from my daughter-in-law, Madeleine, who teaches cognitive psychology. It’s an enthralling overview of the latest studies that show how much smarter birds are than we thought, sometimes smarter than us in particular ways. They can navigate extreme distances, find home, find food stashed six months earlier, solve puzzles, use tools, sing hundreds of complex songs, remember unique relationships with each flock member, engineer nests, adapt to new foods and situations. They can even communicate with us.

2017-3GoodBirds“Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, Passionate Birders Share the Joys of Watching Birds,” edited by Lisa A. White and Jeffrey A. Gordon, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The previous volume, in 2007, was “Good Birders Don’t Wear White, 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.”

One of my favorite essays is by our Colorado friend Ted Floyd, “Go Birding with (Young, Really Young) Children.” Having frequently accompanied him and his children, I can say he does a terrific job of making birdwatching appealing.

Many of the essays start out with “Why I Love…” and move on to different aspects of birding people love (seabirds, drawing birds, my yard, spectrograms, “because it gets me closer to tacos”), followed by tips should you want to follow their passions.

2017-3ABACalifornia“Field Guide to the Birds of California” by Alvaro Jaramillo, c. 2015

This is part of the American Birding Association State Field Guide Series published by Scott & Nix Inc. The series so far also includes Arizona, the Carolinas, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Each author writes their own invitation to the beginning birdwatcher or the birder new to their state.

While a few birding hotspots may be mentioned, the real service these books provide is an overview of the state’s ecological regions and what kind of habitats to find each species in, not to mention large photos of each. I’ll probably still pack my Sibley’s, just in case we see a bird rare to California.

2017-3PetersonGuidetoSong            “Peterson Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

While including the usual bird pictures and range maps, this book is about learning to identify birds by sound and corresponding audio files can be found at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Bird songs are charted using spectrograms, graphic representations of sound recordings.

You can think of spectrograms as musical notation. They read from left to right. A low black mark indicates a low-pitched frequency. A thin, short line higher up indicates a clear sound with few overtones, higher pitched and short-lived. But most bird sounds are more complex, some filling the spectrogram from top to bottom.

Pieplow explains how to read spectrograms, the basic patterns, the variations, the none-vocal sounds like wing-clapping, and the biology of bird sounds.

Once you can visualize what you are hearing, Pieplow provides a visual index to bird sounds to help you try to match a bird with what you heard.

Taking a call note I’m familiar with in my neighborhood, the one note the Townsend’s solitaire gives from the top of a tree in winter, I find that Pieplow categorizes it as “cheep,” higher than a “chirp” and more complex than “peep.” It’s going to take a while to train our ears to distinguish differences.

2017-3WarblerGuide            “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott White, c. 2015, Princeton University Press and The Warbler Guide App.

Spectrograms are a part of the 500 pages devoted to the 56 species of warblers in the U.S. and Canada.

The yellow warbler, whose song we hear along willow-choked streams in the mountains in summer, gets 10 pages.

Icons show its silhouette (sometimes it can be diagnostic), color impression (as it flies by in a blur), tail pattern (the usual underside view of a bird above your head), range generalization, habitat (what part of the tree it prefers) and behavioral (hover, creep, sally, walk).

Then there’s the spectrogram comparing it to other species and maps show migration routes and timing, both spring and fall. We can see the yellow warbler spends the winter as far south as Peru.

Forty-one photographs show all angles, similar species, and both sexes at various ages.

The companion app, an additional $13, has most of the book’s content, and lets you rotate to compare 3-D versions of two warblers at a time, filter identification clues and listen to song recordings.

This is a good investment for birding in Cheyenne where we have seen 32 warbler species over the last 20 springs.

Birding by app

img_5252Published Feb. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding by app: new adventures in tech”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I finally made the jump to smart phones last month. Our children are applauding.

What I was really looking forward to once I was in possession of a smart phone was eBird Mobile. My daughter-in-law, Jessie, was using it when we birded together over the holidays. It means that you can note the birds you see on your phone while you are in the field and then submit them as an eBird checklist.

The second day I had my phone, I went to eBird.org to find out how to downloaded it (in the Help section search for “eBird Mobile”). It’s free. If you aren’t signed up for eBird already, it will help you do that for free also. Then I prepared for a trial run birding out at F.E. Warren Air Force Base with Mark.

Because we are rather miserly with our monthly data allotment, I chose to use the app offline while in the field. But because I was establishing a new birding location for the mobile version, I established it while I was at home and could use our Wi-Fi.

The preparation for offline means you are downloading an appropriate checklist of birds possible for the area. Otherwise eBird Mobile will give you the world list, 10,414 species, to scroll through.

As we birded, I scrolled through the much shorter list of local possibilities and added the numbers of each species seen as I observed them. At the end of the trip, I hit the submit button.

However, on my next eBird Mobile attempt it was bitterly cold. Recording birds while holding a pencil in a mittened hand works, but it was too cold to risk a bare hand to manipulate the touch screen, though I have since invested in “touch screen” gloves.

The mobile app can’t do everything the regular checklist submission process does, like attach photos. But that upgrade may be coming soon. Meanwhile, you can edit your mobile-produced checklists on the eBird website whenever it’s convenient.

I’ve also downloaded the free Merlin Bird ID App, http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/ and tried it. I told Merlin where I was, what day it was, how big and what color the bird was and where it was (ground, bush, tree, sky) and up popped a photo of the most likely candidate, other possible species, general information and bird song recordings.

Both of these apps are Cornell Lab of Ornithology projects. Both are designed to get more people excited about birds. More data collected means more understanding, and more understanding means better conservation of birds.

The lab has even more up its sleeve. At a recent meeting, staff from far-flung places gathered to discuss making animated migration maps that will allow zooming in on particular locations. Recently, Audubon and CLO announced eBird Mobile is available on the dashboard of select Subaru models. That’s an update I wouldn’t mind seeing the dealer for.

CLO employs a lot of tech people. Job openings on the eBird website list required technical qualifications. Preferred qualifications include “An interest in birds, nature, biology, science, and/or conservation helpful.”

So maybe it doesn’t surprise you that our son Bryan, with a degree from the University of Wyoming in software engineering–and exposed to birdwatching from birth–has become not only a birder, but in October moved to Ithaca, New York, to work for CLO.

He can bird to and from work, walking through the famous Sapsucker Woods. He tells us the winter regulars include many of the same species we see in Cheyenne. However, he says he sees four kinds of woodpeckers: downy and hairy, which we see, but also red-bellied woodpecker and pileated woodpecker, eastern birds.

Surrounded by serious birdwatchers all week, perhaps on weekends you would be forgiven for picking up a different hobby. But no, on the Martin Luther King holiday, everyone from Bryan’s office went up near Seneca Falls and found snowy owls, a gyrfalcon, northern shrike and thousands of snow geese.

The next weekend Bryan and Jessie went back and found two more snowy owls and three kinds of swans.

eBird can help me predict the height of spring migration in Ithaca and I hope to time Mark’s and my visit accordingly. But we must fit in one last trip to Texas to visit our younger son, Jeffrey, before he and his wife move to Seattle for new jobs.

If your children aren’t moving back to Cheyenne, at least let them live in interesting places.

Eulogy for an indoor cat

joey-indoor-cat-by-barb-gorges

Joey the indoor cat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 1, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Eulogy for an indoor cat.”

By Barb Gorges

Today I write a eulogy for Joey, an ordinary orange and white house cat who lived with our family.

I offer the details of her life as an example of the advantages of an indoor cat.

Joey died in the fall at the age of 18 ½ years old. She was my writing companion, sometimes draped over my left shoulder, sometimes over my lap. She exuded enough cat hair to melt down my previous laptop by clogging up the fan.

She was opinionated. She talked about a lot of things, her self-assured gaze drilling into you, assessing you.

Joey and her brother were products of a liaison between an unknown father and a footloose mother belonging to a friend. Our boys, in grade school and junior high then, enjoyed building climbing gyms for the kittens and playing catch and release cat toy games with them.

We took the cats outside occasionally on harness and leash, but Joey’s brother soon refused after stepping on a bee and getting stung.

Joey was always the one to look for before opening a door. It wasn’t that she wanted to go outside. She just wanted to go to the other side, whether into the basement or into a closet. If she did get out the front door, all we had to do was quietly leave the door open, circle around behind her, where she was quivering under a bush, and gently herd her towards the door.

However, one time she escaped without us realizing it right away. It took three days for her to come home and start pounding on the aluminum storm door. We were the only happy people that week after 9/11.

One good reason to keep your cat indoors is so you don’t have to worry about them. Of course, you could build them a “catio”—safe enclosed space for them to enjoy the outdoors. The enclosure would also prevent your cat from hunting local wildlife.

Even if it isn’t important to you to save billions of animals each year—birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—from domestic cats, if you have children, you don’t want them in contact with cats that roam outdoors.

Cats are the hosts for toxoplasma gondii, a parasite with eggs that persist in soil. We know it causes serious health problems for pregnant women who come in contact with cat feces. But we now know that a large percentage of the global human population is infected and studies suggest toxoplasma gondii can cause behavioral and personality changes and is associated with disorders including schizophrenia.

Outdoor cats, whether owned or feral, are a bigger and more complicated problem than we ever expected. You’ll want to read “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer,” by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella, neither of whom are cat haters.

For an introduction to the book, see the video of Marra’s talk last month at www.AllAboutBirds.org. Search with the term “cat wars.”

One moment Joey was a tiny kitten, and the next moment an adolescent adventurer, then an unflappable middle-aged cat who would still perform amazing acrobatics to catch miller moths buzzing ceiling lights.

And then she became my elder, content to follow the daily rotation of sunny spots around the house, lounging among the house plants while watching birds at the feeder outside.

I believe Joey and her brother, who died of natural causes a few years ago, had better lives, longer lives, than if they had to roam outside in the hazardous world. I know I’ve had a better life because they were inside with me.

In Joey’s memory, please work to keep cats off the street.

xxx

 

Winter raptors

2016-12ferruginous-hawk-usfws

Ferruginous Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Published Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter raptor marvels, mysteries show up in southeast Wyoming.”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I drove over to join the Laramie Audubon Society on their mid-November raptor field trip on the Laramie Plains.

It was a beautiful day that makes you forget all the previous white-knuckle drives over the pass. However, what’s good weather for driving isn’t always good for finding raptors.

Trip leader Tim Banks checked his intended route the day before and found nary a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle. So instead, we drove across the Laramie Plains on a route his chapter frequently takes for general birding.

The reason for our first stop was a mystery, but then the broken branch stub of a lone cottonwood across the road became a great horned owl. However, a rough-legged hawk and a northern harrier were too distant to enjoy.

Finally, at Hutton Lake, out of the birdless sky, the wind picked up and kicked out a golden eagle, two bald eagles, and a ferruginous hawk.

Three weeks before, on a Cheyenne Audubon field trip at Curt Gowdy, we saw two bald eagles in the canyon. Another day at the park, Mark spotted three checking out his stringer of fish.

Bald eagles are marvelous looking, but I also marvel at their history, from endangered species to birds seen three times in three weeks.

Bald eagles were first federally protected in 1940. Later they were classified as endangered. Banning the pesticide DDT and educating people not to shoot them allowed their numbers to increase. In 1995 they were reclassified as merely threatened. They were completely delisted in 2007, though they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While bald eagles do breed in Wyoming, there are more here in the winter, migrating from farther north. Fish are their favorite food (carrion is second choice) so looking for them around reservoirs and Wyoming’s larger rivers is good strategy, especially if there are big cottonwoods for them to roost in.

We all recognize the adult bald eagle, dark brown with white head and white tail, but until they are about 4 or 5 years old, they are dark with splotchy white markings like those of young golden eagles.

Golden eagles never came quite as close to extinction as bald eagles, but they were targeted by stock growers. In 1971, one man confessed to killing many of the 700 found shot or poisoned near Casper.

Golden eagles live in Wyoming’s grasslands and shrublands year-round. They might choose to nest on cliffs. And they prefer eating rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the occasional new lamb if the rancher isn’t watching.

If you see a massive raptor flying in Wyoming in the winter, it is probably an eagle. Balds and goldens have wingspans about 80 inches long.

2016-12roughlegged_hawk-usfws

Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

But if it is a smaller dark bird, wingspan only 50-plus inches, with a neater black and white pattern under the wing, it might be a rough-legged hawk.

Every winter they come down from their Arctic breeding grounds, sometimes right into Cheyenne, wherever there’s a power pole perch, open land, and mice, voles or shrews. It’s a break from eating lemmings all summer.

They were also shot at, but like all migratory birds, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

For me, the most fascinating raptor we saw on the Laramie Plains is less common: a ferruginous hawk. Its name refers to the color of rusted iron because its top side is a reddish brown. Its belly is a creamy white, slightly spotted, compared to the streaky rough-legged’s. Both have feathers all the way down their legs.

However, some sources say the ferruginous shouldn’t have been in Wyoming in November. They are almost all supposed to migrate south in October and return in March.

Some field guides show the Colorado and Wyoming border as the north boundary of their winter range. I think that winter range boundary at the state line may have more to do with the greater number of birders in Colorado in the past who could distinguish between ferruginous and rough-legged. But there are now a dozen Laramie Plains and Cheyenne-area eBird records for ferruginous from November through February within the past three years.

Guess I can no longer assume in winter any large dark hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk is a rough-legged. It might be a ferruginous.

Meanwhile, we can all brush up on our hawk identification skills at www.AllAboutBirds.org or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.