Bird sound i.d.

It’s helpful to see the western kingbird sing if you want to learn its song. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Merlin’s “Sound ID” uncovers hidden birds

Published Aug. 5, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            Learning to identify birds by sight is simple: page through the field guide until you see a bird that matches or go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you.

            One shortcut to the process is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free Merlin app.

            You give it the bird’s specs–relative size, color, behavior/habitat–and it gives you a short, illustrated list of possibilities. You can also give it a bird photo from your phone (including a photo of the screen on the back of a camera) and hit “Get Photo ID.”

            Learning to identify a bird by song or call is easy here on the edge of the Great Plains. Our most common birds vocalize while walking on lawns and prairie, sitting on bare branches and fence posts, swimming on water or soaring above. I can see robins chirping, crows cawing, house finches singing, collared-doves moaning, house sparrows cheeping.

            It turns out I’m missing the birds that like to hide in vegetation but can still be heard. I’ve always thought that some winter I would sit down with a compilation of western bird song recordings and memorize them–hasn’t happened in the last 30 years.

            But now Merlin has a new feature, “Sound ID.” It came out last summer as part of the free app, but it’s this summer people are talking about it, even our Airbnb host, for whom it sounded like his gateway drug to birdwatching addiction.

            The first step is to download the Merlin app, for Android or iOS. Then open the menu (those three little lines stacked up) and choose Bird Packs. Install the one for “US: Rocky Mountains.” This helps Merlin give you better choices. You can change it if you visit elsewhere.

            Choose “Sound ID” from the home screen. Tap the microphone icon and hold out your phone towards the bird sound you hear. Closer is better, but start recording where you are first, in case moving closer scares the bird away. I found that Merlin doesn’t hear everything I hear.

            Merlin creates a spectrogram of what it hears, and it scrolls across the top of your screen. Eventually, it creates a list of the birds it is hearing, including a photo of each. Each time Merlin hears a species, it highlights the name so you can connect sound and name. Also, if you click on the bird, you’ll get a list of other recorded sounds you can compare for that species, to double check Merlin’s accuracy.

            Early one morning recently I stood on a corner in my neighborhood, recording and watched as half a dozen bird names filled my screen. But wait—great-tailed grackle? We have them in Cheyenne, usually at the country club and the air base, but I have not heard their loud, raucous calls on my side of town. How do I tell Merlin I heard common grackles instead? But I will still give every shiny blackbird’s tail a closer look.

            On the other hand, while I was hiking the Headquarters Trail at the end of July, Merlin told me I was hearing a warbling vireo. I hardly ever see them, so I have never perfected identifying them by sight, but now that musical warbling in trees along a creek will have me considering them when I hear it again.

            And there’s more. You can add these sound recordings to your eBird checklists. You can see if it’s a bird already on your life list. Or Merlin will generate lists of birds where you plan to travel. It can sort them by most common at the top of the list. And for the most competitive birders, it can generate a list of birds they haven’t seen in that area—their target species.

            The Cornell Lab of Ornithology can tell you how all this magic happens. Mostly, it is from the crowd-sourced data from its community scientists all over the world–us birdwatchers.

            Some 30 years ago, Beauford Thompson, a sixth-grade teacher at Davis Elementary School, told me we would have hand-held devices that would help us do all kinds of things. I was imagining typing notes, maybe a digital day planner. Now I use my smart phone for video calls, photographing and identifying flowers, reading books, tracking hikes, finding recipes and cafes, and counting birds.

            Recording birds could become another time-eater, but learning bird songs and calls and contributing to the global avian knowledge is worthwhile. But let’s not forget to sometimes go outside and enjoy the world empty-handed again.    

Fledge week

A robin in the Gorges backyard does some people watching. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 2, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Fledge week observations entertain local birdwatcher

By Barb Gorges

            This summer I miss the company of our dog of 16 years, Sally, while gardening in the backyard.

One day at the end of May, I stopped to take a flower photo, crouching down at eye level, a little glad that she wasn’t around to photobomb my efforts. When I glanced off to the side, I realized I was also eye level with one of our robins, three feet away. He was watching me intently. I took his picture and he didn’t even blink.

            At least once a spring I hear from folks who are being strafed by furious robins every time they try to use their front or back door because the robins have built their nest on the porch light and are very territorial about anyone coming near.

            This is the second year we’ve had robins nesting above our back door and where I was crouching was only a few feet away from it. We more often use the attached garage’s back door, but still, early June chores took me back and forth a lot, and the robins were courteous. I tried to return the favor, stopping whenever our paths were about to cross so as not to delay their delivery of worm meat to the young in the nest.

            Serendipitously, my garden digging coincided with the robins’ hunt for food—I brought lots of tiny critters closer to the surface and watering transplants brought out the worms. Mark saw the young minutes after they fledged, and I saw one just once. I hope the neighbor’s cat didn’t get them. Sally, the bird dog, would have tried. As of June 20, the robins were incubating another set of eggs.

            The week before, two avian families arrived at our feeders. The only food out, besides the thistle in case a goldfinch comes by, is a chunk of suet-type stuff we stuck in one of those hanging cage feeders. A plain dark brown bird landed on the cage and stabbed at the brown stuff. There was something familiar about it, the bill, the shape—oh, baby starling! And then its two siblings and a parent showed up and it was like watching a human family with small children visit the ice cream shop. A lot of shuffling and bumping and to-ing and fro-ing.

Millions of starlings must go through this feeding performance every year—how else could there be millions of starlings out there to perform those “murmurations,” clouds of birds performing sky-high arabesques captured on videos playing on the internet?

            A few minutes later a small, plump, light brown bird landed on the cage, fluttering its wings. Its parent quickly followed, a male house sparrow—they are the ones with the black goatees. He pecked the suet stuff and fed the slightly smaller bird. Soon he was besieged by two more young, all three rapidly fluttering their wings, apparently the “feed me” signal. Nearly as amusing to watch was both families navigating our bird bath at the same time. Sparrow and starling shoulders bumped together.

            The Swainson’s hawk pair nested again in the neighbor’s spruce tree. Every time I walk the neighborhood, I see at least one adult flying. We think the pile of sticks and whitewash in our driveway in May and early June was the adults searching one of our overhanging silver maples for the perfect nesting materials, breaking off green sticks and dropping rejects.

            I was concerned that the new apartment building in the field adjacent to our neighborhood would be a problem for the hawks’ hunting, but this year the church’s gravel parking lot is home to a new colony of ground squirrels.

On June 16, one of the young hawks was trying to perch in our trees and was getting mobbed by blue jays.

            The red-breasted nuthatches returned to the nesting cavity in the mountain ash tree across the street. The mountain chickadee seems to have nested somewhere else this year—but can sometimes be heard singing.

            Before our shrubs leafed out, I saw a house wren checking out a tree cavity across the alley. Now he sings nonstop all day.   

            It’s hard to make myself take a walk without Sally, but there are plenty of friends and neighbors I meet when I do, including the wild animals.

Big Day Arctic visitor

This juvenile red-throated loon spent several days on Sloans Lake in Lions Park. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count catches Arctic visitor

Published June 4, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            I’m sure our Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count compiler for Cheyenne Audubon, Grant Frost, was thinking to avoid cold, nasty weather when he picked May 21 instead of the 14th for the count. But it snowed the day before anyway. Our total of 125 species is not too shabby considering the weather was chilly, but not windy.

We had several highlights:

–Red-throated loon juvenile was seen at Sloans Lake for several days before and on the count. It is considered rare in Wyoming, wintering on either coast and nesting in the Arctic.

–Common loon juvenile same place.

–Broad-tailed hummingbird was trying to get nectar out of frozen crabapple blossoms at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

–Harris’s sparrow may winter next door in Nebraska but is seldom seen here.

–Red-headed woodpeckers showed up in two locations, including a pair in one.

–Baltimore oriole, the eastern counterpart to our Bullock’s, came by with a female.

–No eagles were seen.

            I came across the scan of a “Tribune Eagle” article about the 1982 Big Day, held a week earlier than this year’s, with 40 people counting. The total number of species seen was nearly the same, 124.

            The difference between which species were seen in 1982 but not this year, 29, was close to how many were seen in 2021 but not this year, 27. But if you look at eBird for the first three weeks of May this year in Laramie County, 185 species are listed. Some species passed through before our count day and some could have still been here count day but in less abundance and we missed them.

            Besides all the species name changes in the last 40 years, what’s interesting is what isn’t on the 1982 list but is in 2022:

–Cackling goose was split from Canada goose in 2004.

–Eurasian collared-dove was first observed in Wyoming here in Cheyenne in 1998.

–Great-tailed grackle in 2003 was my first Cheyenne observation.

–Common raven, though they have always been reliably seen starting about 10 or 15 miles west of town, my first Cheyenne observation wasn’t until 2010.

            The 1982 count lists five winter species we didn’t see this count: bufflehead (duck), rough-legged hawk, northern shrike and at the time what are now subspecies of dark-eyed junco listed as two species, Oregon junco and gray-headed junco. Maybe they migrated earlier this year thanks to weather or climate change.

            Evening grosbeak made the 1982 list, but it is hard to find them anywhere these days. They are listed as a globally threatened species.

Black-bellied plovers and mountain plovers, grassland species recorded in 1982, rarely make our count anymore, but eBird has sightings recorded for April 2020—when everyone was out birding more than usual.

            Our Big Day count area is essentially the same as our Christmas Bird Count, a 7.5-mile diameter circle centered on the Capitol building. There are more trees to attract birds than in 1982, or in 1956 when only 85 species were counted, according to early compiler May Hanesworth. But as the surrounding grasslands are built upon, mowed and invaded by free-roaming dogs and cats, the grassland birds will be harder to find.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 21, 2022

125 species, 19 participants  

Cackling Goose

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Common Goldeneye

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Marbled Godwit

Least Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Western Sandpiper

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Greater Yellowlegs

Willet

Ring-billed Gull

California Gull

Common Loon

Red-throated Loon

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Red-headed Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Warbling Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Black-capped Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Rock Wren

House Wren

European Starling

Gray Catbird

Northern Mockingbird

Townsend’s Solitaire

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

House Sparrow

House Finch

Pine Siskin

American Goldfinch

Chipping Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Lark Bunting

White-crowned Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Bullock’s Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivary’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Power underlies bird problems

Federal golden eagle (above) and bald eagle protection measures indirectly protect other kinds of birds as well. Photo by Elizabeth Jaffin, Audubon Photography Awards.

How power production underlies bird problems and other bird news

By Barb Gorges

            Last month you may have read that a subsidiary of NextEra Energy will be paying a hefty fine for killing eagles at its wind developments, including Roundhouse, on the southwest edge of Cheyenne. The company took a big gamble by not applying for an eagle “take” permit. The permit would have required expenditures, but now the company will have to spend money on remediation plus the fines.

            Three years ago, I signed up to be party to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s hearing on Roundhouse, representing Cheyenne Audubon. I still get the occasional registered letter with news about changes to the Roundhouse development plan.

            I wasn’t surprised to get a call from Ryan Fitzpatrick, my main Roundhouse contact. It sounds like the company may be installing a system to sense raptors approaching wind turbines so the turbines can be shut down before slicing an eagle. That’s the system at the Top of the World wind farm. Ironically, bald eagles are increasing in number, however golden eagles are not faring as well.

            Avian influenza reached Wyoming last month, in poultry and wild birds. I’ve been following the story day by day through my favorite birding institutions, including the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It seems to be travelling with migrating waterfowl, maybe affecting songbirds. It might be a good idea to put away the bird feeders for a while, instead of having to scrub them frequently. We usually take ours down for the summer anyway.

            If you find any dead birds, report them to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Pick them up the same way you do dog droppings: grasp the bird with your hand gloved in a plastic bag. Then pull the bag carefully inside out over the bird and seal the bag shut.

            I don’t know if bird flu is transmissible to cats, but this would be a good time to start keeping your cats indoors so they won’t eat dead birds.

            Good news for sage grouse and the diverse group of people who in 2015 worked so hard to come to an agreement on the policies to protect primary habitat areas in Wyoming. The number of oil and gas parcels offered for lease has been reduced on critical sage grouse habitat for the Bureau of Land Management’s next sale. There are scads of current leases that are not being drilled so don’t blame sage grouse for high gas prices.

            But we really need to drop the conventional use of fossil fuels as soon as possible, not just because it is getting too warm for cute little pikas living on our mountain tops.

Let’s consider the cost of air pollution to humans. It isn’t healthy to breathe emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks or smoke from the increasingly frequent wildfires attributed to warming climate.

            There’s wildfire destruction itself. I saw concrete examples recently while driving to Louisville, Colorado. On one side of four-lane-wide Dillon Road there is a very nice residential area that burned down to the concrete foundations that are now shaded by dead black trees. The houses on the other side of the street are safe, so far.      

            Mark’s and my sons are doing their part for fighting climate change. Both drive electric cars. We plan to follow suit as soon as we need to replace a car.

            Going electric is only going to help birds if the source of the power doesn’t produce climate-warming pollution or slice them with turbine blades or cover grasslands and deserts with solar panels. To me, it looks like the most harmless alternative is solar panels on existing infrastructure. There’s a million square feet of roof on our Lowe’s distribution center. There’s a nearly quarter-mile-long, south-facing wall on the new eastside Microsoft installation. Could Cheyenne be forward thinking enough to write building codes that require buildings to produce power?

            These are my daydreams this spring as I watch my first flock of white-crowned sparrows flit from shrub to shrub along Crow Creek on its way to the mountains to nest.

            May 21 is the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count and once again Cheyenne Audubon, www.CheyenneAudubon.org, will document the diversity of avian migration for the scientific record. Think about joining us. Someday, someone will examine our records, hopefully documenting increasing diversity here on out as we get a handle on our power problem.    

Farming gamebirds

In early spring, the nine acres of pens at Wyoming Game and Fish’s Downar Bird Farm hold only 1485 breeding ring-necked pheasants. By summer there will be 18,000 birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

WGFD bird farm pheasants recruit hunters; sage grouse farming appeases developers

Published April 9, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            It’s a matter of degrees when you are in charge of raising thousands of ring-necked pheasants.

            Ben Milner, bird farm coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Downar Bird Farm near Yoder, is also scrupulous about cleanliness, especially with the storm clouds of avian flu gathering on the eastern horizon.

            Grant Frost, field trip chair for the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, arranged for Ben to give us a tour in mid-March, before the eggs start rolling in. Before we could enter the facility, we had to step onto a soapy mat and squelch around a bit to kill any germs. Inside it looked clean enough to perform surgery.

            Each year, 18,000 pheasants are produced here, and another 16,000 at Game and Fish’s bird farm in Sheridan. Sheridan started in 1938 and Downar in 1963.

            Each fall, Ben holds back 135 roosters and 1350 hens for breeding while the rest are released for hunting. The breeders make their home in nine acres of enormous pens secured against predators.

            When the spring breeding season kicks in, each hen would normally stop laying after filling a nest with 12 to 15 eggs. But because employees go out every day to collect eggs, and hens have access to nutritious food, each averages 40-50.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Ben Milner, bird farm coordinator, explains how the Downar Bird Farm incubator will hold 6,700 ring-necked pheasant eggs until they need to be moved to the hatcher. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The eggs are sorted, cleaned and stored in racks sized for pheasant eggs, smaller than chicken eggs, at 55 degrees which suspends development of the embryos. When there are 6,700 eggs, they move to the giant incubator and 99.7 degrees. The racks tip every 1 to 3 hours to imitate the hen turning the eggs in her nest, keeping the embryos from sticking to the shells.

After 19 days, the eggs are placed in the hatcher, in chick-sized trays where they can hatch. After that, chicks move into brooder houses where heaters set at 100 degrees substitute for brooding hens. They are soon pecking at waterers and feed.

After two weeks the chicks are allowed to walk in and out of small outside pens, and then eventually into the larger pens. These pens are so large that they are farmed. The crop is kochia—an invasive weed in everyone’s garden, but it provides good cover and food in addition to the purchased feed.

The old brood stock is released in May at Springer and Table Mountain Wildlife Habitat Management Areas as well as several walk-in areas.

Wyoming has not allowed raising exotic or native game animals privately, except exotic birds. At Downar, Game and Fish settled on ring-necked pheasants, natives of Asian jungles. Private bird farms order eggs and raise pheasants and other exotic gamebird species. Very few escape and reproduce because they are hunted by sportspeople and predatory animals.

Why does Game and Fish continue to produce an artificial population of pheasants, basically for put and take hunting? Ben sees pheasants as a way to introduce hunting to kids and adults, including women who have traditionally made up a small percentage of hunters. Game and Fish sponsors three kids-only hunt days each season on the Springer WHMA and four in November at Glendo State Park to help recruit the next generation.

Historically, it was hunters who raised funds through licenses and tags and lobbied for wildlife so that it wouldn’t be extirpated by other interests such as farming, ranching, mining and energy extraction. So, thank those early hunters when you enjoy watching Wyoming wildlife.

Unfortunately, a few developers, alarmed by decreasing populations, think the bird farm method will make up for the loss of sage grouse habitat due to development. I’m discouraged that somehow influential people were able to convince the Wyoming legislature that this could be done by a private company.

Legislation gave Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds five years to give it a try, but this session they had to ask for and received another five, despite a large turnout against.

It turns out raising sage grouse is not like raising chickens—or pheasants.

First, there are no captive flocks to gather eggs from. Diamond Wings is allowed to steal up to 250 eggs per year from hens in the wild. So much for calling this captive “breeding.” Sage grouse hens do not lay more eggs when they lose them, like the pheasants do. Plus, sage grouse chicks apparently need more instruction from the hens to succeed, unlike the pheasants.

Studies in Utah and Colorado concluded that captive breeding is not a viable way to increase sage grouse populations. Wildlife biologists say protecting sagebrush habitat is best. And what’s good for sage grouse is good for other sagebrush-dependent wildlife.

People from many areas of expertise agreed on a Wyoming sage grouse management plan back in 2015 to keep them from being listed as threatened or endangered, avoiding a host of public land use restrictions.

For an update on sage grouse, please join Cheyenne Audubon April 19, 7 p.m., in the Cottonwood Room, Laramie County Library, 2200 Pioneer Ave. A Zoom link will be available at www.CheyenneAudubon.org close to the date.

Raptor Alley magic

Gary Lefko (white shirt) hands out raptor identification tip sheets to birdwatchers gathered in Nunn, Colorado, Feb. 19 before leading them on a tour of Raptor Alley. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Raptors entice birdwatchers to make cold, early start to follow “The Nunn Guy”

By Barb Gorges

            A Cheyenne Audubon field trip in mid-February, starting at a frosty 8 a.m., usually attracts only a handful of diehards. But throw the word “raptor” into the publicity and suddenly there are 20-some people milling around in the parking lot at Lions Park, anxious to go see eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.

            Or maybe it was the thought of travelling south to a balmier climate. Our destination, “Raptor Alley,” starts in Nunn, Colorado, 30 miles south of Cheyenne. And it was balmy—50 degrees, sunny, no wind and dry gravel roads.

            We met our tour guide, Gary Lefko, “The Nunn Guy,” at the Soaring V Fuels gas station/store. A seasoned trip leader knows how important it is to start a birding trip with empty bladders, especially in the nearly treeless farm fields of eastern Colorado.

            Gary was also prepared with raptor identification handouts, good thinking because Mark and I discovered just before we left Cheyenne that many in the group considered themselves novice bird watchers.

            Caravanning is not the ideal way to introduce people to birds. With carpooling, we pared down the number of vehicles to nine. When we joined Gary, he used handheld radios to tell our car what he was seeing and then I texted a message to one person in each vehicle, such as “Red-tailed on the pole on the right up ahead.”

            Our end point was Pierce, Colorado, 5 miles south on U.S. Highway 85, but 30 miles as we shuttled back and forth along the county roads spaced on a 1-mile grid.

            Gary later sent me his bird list from the trip and even though Mark and I were only two cars behind him, he counted more raptors than we did:

Northern Harrier 2

Bald Eagle 2

Red-tailed Hawk 6

Rough-legged Hawk 4

Ferruginous Hawk 3

Great Horned Owl 4

American Kestrel 2

Prairie Falcon 3

We also documented rock pigeon, Eurasian collared-dove, black-billed magpie, horned lark, European starling and western meadowlark—14 of them!

            Gary frequently pulled over and jumped out of his trusty Subaru to train his spotting scope on a raptor in a lone treetop, on top of a utility pole or floating in the sky, giving everyone a chance to take a look. We may not have walked any miles, but we had plenty of exercise climbing in and out of our vehicles.

Gary Lefko (white shirt) points out a raptor perched on a utility pole in the distance to some of the birdwatchers following him on a tour of Raptor Alley near Nunn, Colorado, Feb. 19. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Raptor Alley is Gary’s invention and the genesis can be traced back to his wife giving him a bird feeder nearly 25 years ago. He bought 14 more feeders, but what hooked him, made him go buy binoculars and a field guide, was seven Monk parakeets visiting his feeders. The feral, bright green, tropical birds made themselves at home in Colorado Springs for a while.

            Relocating to the outskirts of Nunn in 2002, Gary has now identified 135 bird species around his house. He’s also just a couple miles from the western border of Pawnee National Grassland, a 30 by 60-mile tract administered by the U.S. Forest Service that is famous in international birding circles.

            In some ways, Gary fits the stereotype of the birding loner, patrolling Weld County roads in search of avian rarities, but he also wants to spread the joy of birdwatching. When his mother told him years ago about the Florida birding trail, his first thought was, “Colorado needs one!”

            Birding trails, routes like Raptor Alley, are mapped with notes about accessibility, conditions and birding highlights. Modern versions are on the internet and who better than Gary, an IT professional and web designer, to provide it. He started out with a five-county area he called the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail. I have a t-shirt from that iteration.

            It evolved into the Colorado Birding Trail, https://coloradobirdingtrail.com/, run by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. You can find “Raptor Alley” on the map, click on the link and get mile by mile directions and helpful hints like, “Be careful pulling onto the shoulder of roads, as many are soft and you could get stuck.”

            Gary has identified 23 raptor species hanging out there in the winter. Why there? Good prey base—lots of rodents, and lots of perches for watching for them.

            Along the way, Gary picked up graduate courses from Colorado State University in conservation communication and a certificate in non-profit administration. Gary’s project for his certificate involved a whole new venture, setting up the Friends of the Pawnee National Grassland, https://www.friendsofthepawneegrassland.org/.

            Part of that is an iNaturalist project to document the plants and wildlife, https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/birds-and-more-of-the-pawnee-national-grassland. iNaturalist is global, community-based science, a perfect fit for a man with a personal mission to bring people to nature.

            Gary is also on the Wildlife and Biological Resources Committee advocating for new approaches to energy development’s relation to biological resources and habitat. He also hosts four Christmas Bird Counts, three that he started and the one for Nunn that’s been going for 55 years.

            Thanks, Gary, for taking us to visit your birding “patch.”   

Prairie bird safety

The Western Meadowlark, Wyoming’s state bird, nests on the ground, hidden in the prairie grasses. Photo by Mark Gorges.

How to keep prairie birds, and us, safe

“How to keep prairie birds, and us, safe” was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 5, 2022.

By Barb Gorges

            Nurturing the prairie was the theme of this year’s Cheyenne Habitat Heroes workshop held last month. For me, that includes the plants, animals and people.

            Cheyenne sits in the middle of the shortgrass prairie so what we “townies” do matters as well.

            Zach Hutchinson, workshop presenter and community science coordinator for Audubon Rockies, reminded us of the study showing North America has lost 2.9 billion birds, including 53 percent of grassland birds, since 1970. This means that for every 100 birds you could count along a certain distance of our county roads then, today you would only count 47.

            One of the biggest causes is loss of habitat, including the conversion of undeveloped land into subdivisions, commercial property or cropland. Cheyenne is going through a terrific building phase. The landscaping in new high density residential neighborhoods will soon draw in birds, but not the grassland birds. It is the ring of small-acreage landowners around the city who can make a difference.

            First, what shape is the acreage in? Is it full of native prairie grasses and what range managers call forbes, which the rest of us call wildflowers? Or was it overgrazed and is now full of invasive weeds like toadflax and needs renewal?

Another workshop speaker, Aaron Maier, range ecologist for Audubon Rockies, talked at length about regenerative agriculture and how farmers are changing their practices so they spend less on fertilizers and trips with the tractor yet sequester more carbon, capture more moisture and accumulate more beneficial soil microbes.

Aaron also talked about healthy grassland grazing practices benefitting wildlife as well, as laid out by the Audubon Conservation Ranching Initiative. Ranchers following Audubon’s guidelines for best practices for land, wildlife and livestock management are guaranteed premium prices for their product marked as “Audubon Certified.”

But the small acreage owner is probably not going to be grazing cattle. In fact, without 30-36 acres and a seasonal rotation plan, they can’t even graze one horse for one year (without supplemental feed) but must keep them much of the year in a corral to avoid making their entire property into a dust bowl.

Not to say that there aren’t grassland birds that sometimes enjoy bare ground—after all, they evolved alongside the buffalo, famous for creating mosaics of bare ground in their migrations.

A lot of small acreage owners don’t have livestock, but they do have cats and dogs that can be very detrimental to grassland birds. It’s easy to see how, once you realize grassland birds nest on the ground.

The Chestnut-collared Longspur is another grassland ground nester that depends on having vegetation to hide its nest. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Horned larks, western meadowlarks, vesper sparrows, savannah sparrows and other grassland bird species have come up with various ruses and camouflages to avoid native predators. However, they haven’t evolved yet to deal with what the American Bird Conservancy considers to be an invasive species: cats.

Cats kill more than a billion birds a year in the U.S. Zach pointed out that popular “trap, neuter and release” programs have a flaw—they allow cats to go back outside and kill more native birds and small mammals. It’s a touchy subject. I admit to having been the owner of an indoor/outdoor cat up until 1990 when I started keeping my cat indoors. Four cats later, I’m a proponent of catios—screened outdoor areas—and taking leashed cats for walks.

Grassland birds nest sometime between April and July. That’s a good time to keep dogs on a leash so they won’t find and eat bird eggs. And it’s an excellent time to abstain from mowing both the previous year’s and current year’s growth. If you value wildlife, mow only after consulting the professionals over at the Laramie County Conservation District.

However, you may want to forgo much vegetation around your house and outbuildings. The national Firewise program, firewise.org, has guidelines for protecting property from fire on the forest edges as well as in the grasslands.

And what can us townies do for grassland birds? Use less energy. Buy less new stuff. Every energy source I can think of has been detrimental to wildlife: harvesting whale oil, excavating peat, cutting firewood as well as producing the climate-changing fumes of coal, oil and natural gas and the toxic residue of nuclear, and building the cleaner but often habitat and migration-disrupting installments of hydro, wind and solar power.

It seems as soon as we come up with energy saving changes—like families having fewer children and more efficient appliances, someone invents something like the new energy-intensive game of cryptocurrency mining. Don’t mind me, I’m a trifle depressed after watching a new movie, the very dark comedy, “Don’t Look Up.”

But I plan to look up—spring bird  migration will commence any day now.

Barb Gorges is the author of “Cheyenne Birds by the Month,” www.YuccaRoadPress.com.

Horned Larks also are grassland ground nesters. Photo by Mark Gorges.

   

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Ghosts of Christmas Bird Counts past

Mark Gorges (left) and Dennis Saville (center) count geese Dec. 18, 2021, for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count on Sloan’s Lake at Lions Park. Pete Sokolosky (right) keeps a lookout for birds in the trees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 8, 2022, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Ghosts of Christmas Bird Counts past visit local birdwatcher

By Barb Gorges

Christmas 1989 was Mark’s and my first Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count and the first time we met most of the people attending the tally party afterwards.

May Hanesworth, then in her mid-80s, was the count compiler and we met at her apartment. It was a scary place for me, the mother of two boys, ages 1 and 4, because it was filled with breakable figurines of birds. But May, a retired music teacher, was not concerned, and the boys and I often visited on Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society business after that. Later, I learned that she and her husband, Bob, secretary of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Committee for 25 years, had had a gracious home on 8th Avenue.

When May could no longer handle the job of compiler, Jane Dorn took over. She and her husband, Robert, are the authors of “Wyoming Birds.” When Jane retired, they moved to Lingle and started the Guernsey – Fort Laramie CBC. We were planning to drive over to help this year, but both of our vehicles developed unroadworthy symptoms the day before.

Our next compiler was Greg Johnson, but he’s moved on to bigger things—he’s the CBC editor for our region. Grant Frost has the Cheyenne job now.

As the business end of the 1989 tally party got going, the Lebsack girls, maybe middle school age, took our boys into the kitchen to play. Their dad, Fred, was one of those birders who loved to geek out on subjects like the finer points of feather coloration. He died prematurely in 2011 and his widow, Judy, and his daughters now live in California.

The one person we had met previous to the tally party was Nels Sostrum, thanks to the regional Audubon director whom we knew through our old chapter in Miles City, Montana.

We always thought we would see more of Nels when he retired from the state, but he jumped straight into his other hobby, painting. And then he met Anne and through her he acquired stepchildren and step-grandchildren. I hadn’t seen him for a long time when his obituary showed up in the paper this fall. Nels’s painting of Battle Creek in the Sierra Madre Range hangs on our wall and will always remind me of birding with him.

John Cornelison was at that tally party, too. After tallying the birds, the discussion turned to electing a new chapter president. John volunteered. Mark volunteered to be vice president and me, program chair. Later, we learned that John was the founding president back in 1974.

For many years, John and his wife, Joanne, invited the chapter to hold the tally party at the Westgate community building where there is a large living room with plenty of space for tables and chairs and laying out potluck contributions. Mark and I saw John and Joanne at an event last fall and were saddened to learn of John’s death in December. The family asked that our chapter be one of two organizations receiving memorial donations.

I’m guessing that Jim and Carol Hecker were also at our first Cheyenne tally party. Jim was one of the pediatricians our boys saw at the Cheyenne Children’s Clinic. He encouraged me to drop the “Dr.” when addressing him outside the office and it took a while. When the boys were young, we had a CBC tradition to stop by mid-morning at their house to warm up, eat Christmas cookies and drink hot chocolate—and count the birds at their feeders. We still enjoy their hospitality.

In 1989 Mark and I were younger than the usual Audubon demographic. People with children spend most of their organized social time with kid-related groups. But there is something to be said for hanging out with people old enough to be your kids’ grandparents and great-grandparents, especially when the real relatives live far away. And yes, we raised two sons who are assets to the Cheyenne CBC, whenever their families’ Christmas travel schedules coincide with the date (not this year).

This Christmas, our toddler-aged granddaughter received her first pair of binoculars–from her maternal grandfather. This birding thing can be infectious!

Whatever your age and birding ability, look up www.CheyenneAudubon.org. Join us for hybrid programs, field trips and other activities such as the 8th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop Jan. 29 at Laramie County Community College, also available virtually.


Canada and cackling geese and mallards (and a lone northern shoveler, brown bird at center) crowd the only open water on Sloans Lake at Lions Park Dec. 18, 2021, during the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count

Dec. 18, 2021, 15 participants, 36 species observed count day and 5 count week. List compiled by Grant Frost.

CW – count week: species observed on one of the three days before or after, but not on the count day.

Snow Goose CW

Cackling Goose 781

Canada Goose 1512

Northern Shoveler CW

Mallard 226

Northern Pintail 2

Ring-necked Duck CW

Common Goldeneye 19

Common Merganser CW

Rock Pigeon 230

Eurasian Collared-Dove 162

Wilson’s Snipe 1

Cooper’s Hawk CW

Northern Goshawk 1

Bald Eagle 2

Red-tailed Hawk 7

Rough-legged Hawk 4

Ferruginous Hawk 1

Eastern Screech-owl 1

Great Horned Owl 3

Belted Kingfisher 1

Downy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 14

Northern Shrike 2

Blue Jay 11

Blacked-billed Magpie 53

American Crow 87

Common Raven 8

Mountain Chickadee 8

Horned Lark 13

Red-breasted Nuthatch 5

White-breasted Nuthatch 2

European Starling 233

Townsend’s Solitaire 14

American Robin 8

House Sparrow 170

House Finch 75

American Tree Sparrow 26

Dark-eyed Junco 53

Song Sparrow 2

Red-winged Blackbird 24

Bird feeding safety

A northern flicker enjoys pecking at a block of sunflower and millet seed. The block is also popular with downy woodpeckers, mountain chickadees and nuthatches. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Dec. 11, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Bird feeding safety: clean feeders, cat fencing, glass obstruction

By Barb Gorges

            Winter is the most popular season for feeding birds. The Project Feederwatch season runs early November into April. See https://feederwatch.org/ to join anytime and add your sightings.

The Christmas Bird Count has a feeder-watching component too. See https://cheyenneaudubon.org/ to find out how to take part for free in the local count Dec. 18.

            Watching birds from your window is an entertaining and affordable, even educational hobby to lighten long winters. But please keep safety in mind.

Cleanliness

            Whether you choose a tube feeder, hopper feeder (looks like a little house), cage (for blocks of seed or suet) or platform feeder, make sure it is scrubbable.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends every two weeks taking feeders apart and brushing out all the detritus and washing them in a diluted bleach solution. You can use your dishwasher instead. Rinse feeders well and let dry thoroughly before refilling.

Wear gloves when handling dirty feeders or wash your hands afterwards.

Seed that gets wet can harbor mold and bird diseases. If you notice any finches with disfigured faces, it’s time to take down all your feeders for a week to temporarily disburse (social distance) the flock while you get them clean.

The one best seed—most nutritious and most popular—for our local seedeaters is black oil sunflower seed. But unless you can afford to buy hull-less, you will have moldering hulls below the feeder. If you feed one of the bird seed mixes, there are a lot of seeds in it our birds won’t eat, and they also end up making a kind of mat you’ll want to rake up regularly. At our house we hang the feeders over the patio and sweep often.

Finches like nyjer (“thistle” that doesn’t sprout) seed. It is very fine, requiring tube feeders with smaller holes or a fabric “sock.” The hulls are tiny and blow away. If you put out suet, make sure the weather is cold to keep it from going rancid—or dripping.

Downy woodpeckers are usually seen searching tree bark for dormant insects, but they also enjoy pecking at blocks of seed. The red spot on the back of its head indicates this is a male. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Window strikes

            Birds have a hard time identifying glass. They see the reflection of sky and vegetation, smack into your window and die or are severely injured, becoming a snack for other animals. Or if two of your windows on opposite sides of your house line up, they may think they can fly through.

            Your regular window screens can break the reflection and soften the impact. There are other strategies and stickers that can be stuck to the outside of the glass (see https://abcbirds.org/glass-collisions/stop-birds-hitting-windows/).

The easy strategy is to place your feeders within three feet of your favorite bird-watching window—or even stick a suction-cup feeder on the window itself. That way, when the sharp-shinned hawk startles your flock, none of them will be moving fast enough to hurt themselves bumping into the window.

Cats

            Our cats love bird-feeding season. They sit on the windowsill for hours, entranced. But if you haven’t made your felines into indoor cats yet like Lark and Lewis, please don’t feed the birds.

 What about the neighbors’ cats? That’s tricky. You might be able to convince neighbors that indoor cats are safer, healthier and more fun and that they could then take up bird feeding like you.

Realistically, you are going to have to cat-proof your birdfeeding station. While it is good to have cover, shrubs and trees, near your feeder so seed-eating birds can escape hawks, you don’t want it so close cats can pounce on birds feeding on the ground.

You might try encompassing the area under the feeder, where the birds feed on the ground, with a short fence—one you can step over. The idea is that while a cat can sneak up on a flock unobserved, having to leap the fence will give the birds the visual warning they need to escape.

Water

            Water is another way to attract birds–if you can keep your winter birdbath clean. It also has to stand up to freezing and thawing (unless you add a heater) and it needs to be easy to remove ice from or clean, like a flexible plastic trash can lid.

            Birds should be able to reach the water when perched on the rim. Or if there is a sloping edge or sloping rock, birds will also be able to walk in for a bath.

Squirrels

            Our fox squirrels are entertaining, but they can destroy birdfeeders and scarf down all your birdseed. We have a tube feeder that shuts down when any animal heavier than a finch sits on it.

            Funnel-shaped barriers can be mounted on the pole below a feeder and/or placed over the top of a feeder, especially one that is hanging. Our feeders hang from the underside of our patio roof.

            You can also distract squirrels by feeding them peanuts nearby.

A white-breasted nuthatch approaches a feeding port on a tube-type bird feeder. The weight of squirrels or big birds like starlings on the feeder pulls the cage down and the metal leaves block the ports. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Timing

            Decide how much seed you can afford. Put seed out at the times of day you are most likely to enjoy watching your feeder. Being consistent will bring the most visitors, but if your seed isn’t available, the flock will move on to one of their other regular daily stops.

More information

            The Feederwatch.org website is a fantastic free resource. You can find out what birds are seen in our area, each species’ favorite foods and the best types of feeders for each.

Fall reservoir birding

Fossil Creek Reservoir’s low water level attracts shorebirds to the mudflats. Cheyenne Audubon members check it out. Photo by Barb Gorges.

“Fall reservoir birding is a leisurely affair, mostly black and white,” was published Nov. 13, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            Birds and birders are in a rush in spring. The birds are hurrying to get from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds. But fall birding is as leisurely as that of the birds’ migration south.

            On the fourth Saturday in October, the Cheyenne Audubon field trip was to Fossil Creek Reservoir Natural Area, Ft. Collins, Colorado, about 45 miles south of Cheyenne.

A reservoir during migration seasons is the avian equivalent of a truck stop, a crossroads with each species having its own itinerary. Birders are looking for the most interesting birds, the most exotic license plates.

Since ducks, geese and other water birds placidly rest or feed (unless a bald eagle passes by), every birder gets a chance to look through a spotting scope at them. We had five scopes on this trip.

            We were dismayed to see the low water level. Much of the reservoir was mudflats with Fossil Creek trickling from pond to pond. Then we realized there were four kinds of shorebirds probing in the mud.

            American avocets, shorebirds, waded in shallow water. These birds of the western Great Plains are ghostly white with black wings by the time they head south for a winter mostly on beaches, including those in southern U.S. and Mexico. In spring they have cinnamon-pink heads and necks.

American White Pelicans stick together on Fossil Creek Reservoir near Ft. Collins, Colorado. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            No need for special optics to enjoy the many American white pelicans we saw, also white with black wing markings. With wingspans of 90 to 120 inches, they fly in lines, like geese, and sometimes spiral with thermals. Another bird of the Great Plains and Intermountain West, they head south to water that stays open so they can fish.

            There were rafts of gulls, almost all ring-billed, also the most common gull around Cheyenne. It prefers to nest inland in the northern states and Canada and winter inland in the south and along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

We also found a lesser black-backed gull. In winter they are most common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, less common inland in the eastern half of the U.S. But the latest range map shows an influx into eastern Colorado. Perhaps the state tourism department invited them to make the trip from their summer homes located anywhere from Iceland to Siberia.

A raft of American coots, each bird the darkest slate gray accented with a bright white bill, was enjoying a day of rest in their migratory trip—or maybe not. Their range map (www.AllAboutBirds.org) shows some can be found year-round in a narrow strip along the east edge of the Rockies from Montana through Wyoming and Colorado.

Western grebes, dark gray from the top of their heads and down the back of their thin necks, but white from their chins to their breasts, were busy diving for small fish. They were stopping over, heading for the Pacific Coast, anywhere from Vancouver Island to Mexico. The range map shows them year-round inland in central Mexico too, but I don’t know if that’s a population of birds that doesn’t migrate or if some northern birds join the locals.

Buffleheads, small black and white ducks, were bobbing around, playing a game of one-upmanship, furiously beating their wings, “standing” on their toes to look large and menacing, while raising their crests of white, then diving. They breed up in western Canada and think much of the U.S., including Cheyenne, is a lovely place to spend the winter.

There was a handful of lesser scaup, another black and white duck, but with a pale blue bill. Breeding from Alaska down to Wyoming, they head south either for the Pacific Coast or the southern states, or even the southernmost tip of Central America, or the Caribbean. Definitely not as cold tolerant as the buffleheads.

Common mergansers, the females sporting their shaggy red-feather crests, mixed with other, sleeker, redheaded ducks, including those known as redheads, plus a few canvasbacks, distinguishable by combined forehead and bill silhouettes forming straight diagonals.

In Wyoming, common mergansers may be seen year-round. Whether the same individuals stick around all year, or the ones from farther north move down for the winter, I don’t know.

Redheads breed in Wyoming but this western species likes to go at least as far south as New Mexico.

Canvasbacks breed in central Colorado and north into Alaska, but they head south for winter, some only as far as southern Colorado.

Finally, yes, there were Canada geese and mallards, the most recognizable waterbirds. You will see their permanent flocks and the winter ducks like buffleheads—and birdwatchers—around Cheyenne reservoirs if there’s open water this winter.