Comparing southeastern Wyoming Christmas Bird Counts

December 2020 Southeastern Wyoming Christmas Bird Counts compared

By Barb Gorges

Mark Gorges, birding at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, participates in the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 19, 2020, with all the equipment of the modern birder, including binoculars, camera for documenting unusual birds and smart phone with eBird app for keeping the list of birds seen. Photo by Barb Gorges

            There are many variables affecting the number of birds and bird species seen on the Christmas Bird Count. Weather is a big one. Dec. 19, the Cheyenne counters met up with strong winds that put a damper on small bird numbers. None of us were mean enough to shake them out of the bushes.

Count compiler Grant Frost and some of the other 13 participants were able to find a few of the missing species count week (three days before and after the count day) when the wind moderated.

            A week later the weather was “spitty” with snow squalls, reported Jane Dorn, compiler for the Guernsey – Ft. Laramie Christmas Bird Count Dec. 27. Mark and I planned to drive up and help the five participants, but over the years we’ve had iffy weather like that turn into white-knuckle driving, so we stayed home.

Although both CBCs are in southeast Wyoming, Cheyenne is 80 miles south as the crow flies and, at 6063 feet, 1700-1800 feet higher than Guernsey and Ft. Laramie. The topography is different too. 

            As I read through Jane’s list, I could imagine where the birds were. The bald eagles and ducks would have been on Greyrocks Reservoir, which was open—unlike Cheyenne’s much smaller lakes which were pretty much completely frozen.

            The many robins and solitaires would be at Guernsey State Park, in the junipers and pines in the hills. Goldfinches, siskins and nuthatches would have congregated at feeders in Hartville and the belted kingfisher would be somewhere along the North Platte River or the Laramie River, at Fort Laramie National Historic Site or at the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site. Raptors could have been anywhere—there’s a lot of unobstructed sky in the 15-mile diameter count circle.

            The number of people, how long they are out counting and how much distance they cover, whether by human propulsion or vehicle, makes a difference. That’s why, if you get into the scientific use of CBC data, the bird numbers are statistically shaped by these effort factors.

            The lists for both counts are combined below, Guernsey-Ft. Laramie in italic numbers for species also seen in Cheyenne, and with names and numbers in italics for species not seen in Cheyenne. The abbreviation “cw” is for birds seen “count week.”

            The list starts out with one of the outstanding birds seen, the greater white-fronted goose (the forehead is white). Grant found it at Lions Park. It pays to examine every bird in a flock of Canada geese.

This individual was late in migrating from its Arctic breeding grounds. Since it is a nearly circumpolar arctic species, it would be interesting to see if any of them are found this late between breeding and wintering ranges—in the middle of Eurasia.     

Cheyenne CBC

Dec. 19, 2020

33 species total plus 8 count week

Guernsey-Ft. Laramie CBC

Dec. 27, 2020

47 species total plus 3 count week     

Greater White-fronted Goose 1

Cackling Goose 10, 48

Canada Goose 1339, 3,387

American Wigeon 2

Mallard 182, 441

Domestic (White) Mallard 1

Green-winged Teal 53

Common Goldeneye 3, 1

Hooded Merganser 5

Common Merganser 213

Wild Turkey 75

Rock Pigeon 145, 1013

Eurasian Collared-Dove 81, 138

Great Blue Heron 1, 1

Golden Eagle 1

Northern Harrier cw  

Sharp-shinned Hawk cw        

Northern Goshawk cw           

Bald Eagle 7

Red-tailed Hawk 4, 2

Rough-legged Hawk 1, 2

Great Horned Owl 1, cw

Belted Kingfisher 1, 3

Downy Woodpecker 3, 1

Hairy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 8, 21

American Kestrel 2, 5

Merlin 1

Prairie Falcon cw

Northern Shrike 1

Stellar’s Jay 8

Blue Jay 2, 22

Black-billed Magpie 26, 14

American Crow 90, 5

Common Raven 7, 1

Horned Lark 15

Black-capped Chickadee 48

Mountain Chickadee 7, 13

Golden-crowned Kinglet cw

Red-breasted Nuthatch 6, 11

White-breasted Nuthatch 1, 7

Pygmy Nuthatch 1

Brown Creeper 5

Canyon Wren 1

Marsh Wren 1

European Starling 167, 181

Townsend’s Solitaire 3, 81

American Robin cw, 541

House Sparrow 244, 9

House Finch 37, 60

Cassin’s Finch cw

Red Crossbill 2

Pine Siskin 4, 33

American Goldfinch cw, 38

American Tree Sparrow 9, 4

Dark-eyed Junco 30, 66

            Slate-colored – 9

            Oregon – 5

            Pink-sided – 19

White-crowned Sparrow cw, 12

Song Sparrow cw, 4

Red-winged Blackbird 23

First Cassin’s finch visit

Cassin’s finch female blends in with house finches except for the dark breast stripes, fluffier head feathers and white patches on either side of the eye. Photo by Mark Gorges.

First Cassin’s finch visits Gorges backyard

Published Dec. 5, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            By early November, our winter feeder birds are back.

House finches are the most abundant and show up every day. Juncos come when the weather’s bad. This year we are regularly hosting two red-breasted nuthatches and two mountain chickadees.

Occasionally a downy woodpecker, flicker or collared-doves fly in. The goldfinches are unreliable, but their close cousins, the pine siskins, are showing up every day. That’s unusual for them, but they are part of the flock pushed south this year due to a bad seed crop in the north.

            I was gazing out the window at the birds busily flitting about the feeders and patio paving below, then realized I was seeing an odd bird in the mix.

            House finches are the faded brown birds with faded stripes down their breasts. The males have pale pink heads that get redder in the spring. Pine siskins have stripes too but are smaller and their stripes are very dark—plus on their wings they have a white bar and a flash of yellow.

            The odd bird had the pine siskins’ dark breast stripes, but it was the size of the house finch. It couldn’t be dismissed as an aberrant house finch because there were light-colored markings on its head that house finches don’t have and the back of the top of its head was, well, kind of a pointy topknot. Time to get out the Sibley Field Guide to Birds: “Female Cassin’s Finch,” the 103rd species to fly over or into our yard.

            The males have pink/red heads like house finches, but with the topknot being the brightest. Unlike the female, their breast stripes are very faint, fainter than the house finch’s.

            To get an overview of everything known about a bird species, I go online to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America Online,” but it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been rolled into “Birds of the World,” https://birdsoftheworld.org/, where my subscription is still good ($49 per year, or by the month or discounted for three years).

            When I pulled up the Cassin’s finch page, I was surprised to find a notation that I’d recorded this species in eBird seven times. Clicking on that link showed my two current observations, August last year in the Snowy Range, April 2014 and December 2013 in Hartville, June 2013 in a canyon in Washington State, and July 2011 at Upper North Crow Reservoir.

            This is a finch that breeds in coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, from just over the Canadian border to northern New Mexico and Arizona.

It can migrate altitudinally, spending the winter at lower elevations (Hartville, in Platte County, is at only 4,600 feet and Cheyenne at 6,100, compared to 10,000 feet in the Snowies) or latitudinally, flying as far south as central Mexico. Sometimes they just hang out if the seed crop is good. The one that visited us must have lost her flock.

Cassin’s finch’s closest relative is the purple finch, an eastern species, diverging from it genetically 3 million years ago. It diverged from the house finch 9 million years ago.

Ornithologists have classified Cassin’s as a “cardueline” finch, a subfamily of finches of 184 species worldwide, including the Hawaiian honeycreeper species. In North America it includes the redpoll, pine and evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, goldfinches, rosy finches, crossbills and our “rosefinches”—house, purple and Cassin’s.

            Besides sharing similar skull formation, cardueline species feed their young regurgitated seeds. Other perching birds feed theirs insects. Cardueline species can grip a plant stem and extract seeds from flower heads. I see house finches and goldfinches do that in my wildflower garden all the time.

Sparrows wait until the seeds fall to the ground—I’ve never seen a junco, a species of sparrow, pluck seeds from plants or feeders, though one was experimenting last year.

            I was curious if “cardueline” came from the same origins as “card” in cardinals, named for the religious figures in red robes, but red wouldn’t hold for all the sub family species.

It’s from “carduus,” meaning wild thistle or artichoke. Artichoke is a giant thistle-type plant in the aster/sunflower family. And this makes perfect sense. These finches like to pluck seeds from flower heads, including thistle, coneflower, sunflower and aster.

            I’m glad my cardueline finches can also pluck black oil sunflower seed out of our hanging tube feeder since it doesn’t take long to clean out the seeds in our garden.

We look forward to hosting the birds during a winter we can’t host people.         

Project FeederWatch brightens winter

Project FeederWatch brightens winter with backyard birds

White-breasted Nuthatch by Errol Traskin, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

By Barb Gorges

            Nov. 14 marks the beginning of Mark’s and my 22nd season participating in Project FeederWatch. It’s a community/citizen science winter bird count endeavor started by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada back in 1987.

            It’s open to anyone, of any age, including classrooms, and of any expertise level, who is willing to put up a feeder and count the birds that visit and report them one to 21 times during the 21-week season. This year’s season ends April 9. Even if you don’t participate, there’s a wealth of free data, bird i.d. help and information about feeding birds available, https://feederwatch.org/ and fun stuff like the participants’ photo contests. 

            Here’s how Mark and I do it. Every year we update the description of our backyard—size doesn’t change but how many trees and shrubs may. We describe our birdbath and three bird feeders: sunflower seed tube, nyjer thistle seed tube and the cage that holds a block of pressed-together seed.

            For the two-day count period we choose Saturday and Sunday each week, even now that Mark is retired. There must be a minimum of 5 days between counts, so we stick with the same days each week—it’s easier to remember.

            We could print out an official tally sheet for each week, but we just use a scrap sheet of paper on the kitchen table. All our feeders, and the ground under them, are visible from the kitchen window.

            During the count we are looking for the largest number that can be seen at one time of each species—at the feeders and in our bushes and trees. We estimate snow depth and amount of time we watch. We don’t spend hours at the window. It’s less than one hour over the two days—checking as we walk by.

            By Sunday evening we can enter the count data online including any comments on bird interactions and observations of disease, and upload bird photos. There’s now a phone app for reporting counts too.

            It’s fun looking at our own data. CLO makes cool charts. I can see how the number of species and number of individuals changes during a season. I can compare all 21 seasons by species—back in 1999-2000, we were seeing goldfinches nearly every week, much less often in 2019-2000.

            Our yard’s landscaping has changed and matured. Over 1999-2000 we saw 12 species total. Over 2019-20, it was 21 species, though one week only one bird, a junco, was seen during the two-day count period.

            There were 20,000 participants last year, but only 27 in Wyoming, urban and rural. We could use more data to give scientists a more accurate view of our birds. Consider joining.

2019-20 FeederWatch Season:

25,679 participants

184,676 checklists

7,551,144 birds

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

            The participation fee of $18 ($15 for CLO members) funds nearly the entire endeavor, including mailing a research kit to first timers: instructions and bird i.d. poster. We all can opt for th e calendar, 16-page annual report and a digital subscription to Living Bird, a 70-page, full-color quarterly magazine normally available for the minimum $39 CLO membership fee.

            What will you see at your feeders? Here’s the list of the top 25 species based on the percentage of Wyoming participants reporting them last season:

Eurasian collared-dove 77

House finch 74

House sparrow 66

American goldfinch 66

Dark-eyed junco 66

Black-capped chickadee 66

American robin 59

European starling 55

Northern flicker 55

Red-breasted nuthatch 55

Downy woodpecker 48

Black-billed magpie 44

Blue jay 37

Mountain chickadee 37

Red-winged blackbird 33

American crow 33

Pine siskin* 33

Rosy finch species 25

Hairy woodpecker 25

Common raven 22

White-breasted nuthatch 22

Common grackle 22

Sharp-shinned hawk 22

Wild turkey 18

Song sparrow 18

*There’s an irruption of pine siskins this year because there isn’t a good seed crop in Canada. You may see more of them at your feeders.

House Finch by Maria Corcacas, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

            Here in Cheyenne we are unlikely to see wild turkeys or rosy finches, but the other species, and more, are all possible. If you go to Project FeederWatch’s “Common Feeder Birds Interactive,” https://feederwatch.org/learn/common-feeder-birds/, set it for “Northwest” and “Black oil sunflower seed” and you’ll find photos of most of our species. Click on each photo and discover what other kinds of food and feeders that species prefers.

            CLO has the free Merlin phone app for identifying birds. You answer simple questions about location, size, color, behavior and habitat for your unknown bird and it shows you photos of possible birds.

            For each species, CLO’s All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, will give you multiple photos, sound recordings, range map, habitat, food, nesting, behavior information, conservation status, cool facts, backyard tips and their names in both Spanish and French.

            I hope you’ll join Project FeederWatch this winter with me and Mark. It is one of the things I like about winter.  

Migration hazards & bonanzas

Fall migration: some birds hit hazards and others find feeding bonanzas

Goshen Hole Reservoir had large expanses of mudflats attracting migrating shorebirds in mid-September. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            Mark and I were camping in the Cascades with our granddaughter and her parents, watching American dippers fly up and down the Sauk River when the unseasonably early snowstorm hit Cheyenne September 8-9.

            The first rumor we heard about a bird migration catastrophe was from my sister and brother-in-law in Albuquerque who mentioned a lot of dead birds had been found in New Mexico after that same storm.

            Albuquerque dropped from a record high of 96 degrees for the date to a record low of 40 with high winds. Up on Sandia Crest overlooking the city there was snow. Dead bird reports started coming in including 300 carcasses at White Sands Missile Range and more in other parts of the region.

            Within a week, the major bird conservation organizations and the national media were writing about it. The best account is at the American Birding Association website, written by Jenna McCullough, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, https://www.aba.org/the-data-behind-mysterious-bird-deaths-in-new-mexico/.

            But there were also anecdotal reports of dead migratory birds in the west back in August, the possible culprit being the wildfires. Apparently, when smoke fills the air, the migratory birds leave, even if it is prematurely, so they may not have eaten enough to store enough fat for the journey.

Perhaps the birds can’t find the food they need along the way because the smoke is obscuring it. And breathing smoke weakens them. Mark and I had a taste of that on our drive back across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah. Cheyenne had even thicker smoke Sept. 26 when it was engulfed in the orange plume from the Mullen fire.

            Not all birds migrate. The non-migratory birds know their territory’s food sources well and are less likely to starve during rough times. However, many of the species that migrate are insect eaters, insectivores. They migrate south as far as Central and South America when it is too cold up north for insects.

There are birds that specialize in finding hibernating insects and their eggs in tree bark, like the brown creeper in winter in Cheyenne. But warblers and flycatchers want more lively insects, and swallows require flying insects.

No insects fly for a while after a freezing event. Even if the birds had stored fat for the journey, they would burn a lot trying to keep warm. Swallows are known to huddle together, and Jenna found crevices in the bank along the Rio Grande stuffed with emaciated, dead swallows.

What radar tells us

            Weather radar stations around the country can pick up the movements of migratory birds. At Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the BirdCast team, https://birdcast.info/, besides forecasting migratory activity, processes the data to show the amount and direction of migration over time in active maps.

            The night of September 8-9, you can see a hole in migratory activity centered on New Mexico, Colorado, and western Texas, Kansas and Nebraska—no bird movement. And none in much of Wyoming, but apparently no one reported high numbers of dead birds here.

            Conversely, on Sept. 21 as I walked the dog along the Henderson ditch in the morning, the vegetation was alive with small birds busily hunting. I checked BirdCast and sure enough, overnight there had been a major migration push from eastern Montana down through Cheyenne and down all along the Colorado Front Range, as well as in the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast. The night flyers had landed and were having breakfast.

Drought delight

            One upside to the drought is the drawdown of reservoirs. When reservoirs are full, there are few migrating shorebirds stopping to feed. We went up to Bump Sullivan mid-September and it was a cornucopia: Mudflats full of feeding birds stretched a hundred yards between shore and water.

We saw sandpipers: Baird’s, least, pectoral, and spotted, and long-billed dowitchers plus great blue herons and sandhill cranes probing for invertebrates with their bills. On the water, hundreds of American white pelicans were feeding in long strings, shoulder to shoulder.

            On Sept. 21 I also heard my first dark-eyed juncos in our neighborhood. While insectivorous birds abandon us for the winter, the seed-eating juncos join us. They aren’t quite ready to be bird feeder regulars yet—plenty of seed in the wild for now—but they haven’t forgotten how to find us. It would be interesting to do a banding study and find out which mountain ranges our juncos nest in.      

xxx

Migratory Bird Treaty Act comes back

Objection to the slaughter of great egrets and other birds so that women’s hats could be adorned with their feathers eventually led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Photo by Barb Gorges, Green Cay Wetlands, Boynton Beach, Florida.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act is back in full force

Also published Sept. 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Migratory Bird Treaty Act back in full force.”

By Barb Gorges

Canada is happy again. It was not happy in December 2017 when the solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior reinterpreted the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act so that it allowed industry to accidentally kill birds without any penalty—including birds that spend summers in Canada.

In August this year, the National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, other conservation organizations and eight states successfully sued to get that reinterpretation reversed by U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni.

It was the hat-making industry that early on ran afoul (afowl?) of people who value birds. Wading birds that grow luxurious plumes during the breeding season and other birds were being slaughtered so that the feathers could adorn women’s hats—and sometimes whole birds were stuffed and perched on women’s heads.

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, no slaves to fashion, organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds to save the birds from decimation. Ten years before, George Bird Grinnell organized a group he called the Audubon Society in New York City.

By 1898, 16 more state Audubon societies were formed, leading to the founding of the National Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds in 1905.

In 1916, the U.S. and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the Migratory Bird Treaty. In 1918 the U.S. enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to implement it. In later years, with bipartisan support, the treaty and the act were expanded to include agreements with Mexico, Japan and what is now Russia.

The snowy egret was one of the species targeted by the hat-making industry in the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s. Photo by Barb Gorges, Green Cay Wetlands, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency setting the MBTA policies and enforcing them.

Unless permitted by regulation, there’s a prohibition to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird…or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

Technically, teachers should not display abandoned robins’ nests or migratory bird feathers in their classrooms without license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Without the MBTA, BP (British Petroleum) would not have paid $100 million in penalties for killing an estimated one million birds in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fine went to wetland and migratory bird conservation as compensation.

Without the full protection of the MBTA between December 2017 and this August, snowy owls were electrocuted in four states, oil spills happened in three states and there were other examples of avoidable bird deaths that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated but could not penalize anyone for.

The potential for hefty fines has led to industry innovation, such as covering oil field waste pits and protecting birds from electrocution. There’s still work to be done. Recent numbers show up to 64 million birds per year are still killed by powerlines, seven million by communication towers, half to one million by oil waste pits and oil spills still happen.

It’s hard for industry leaders to understand why birds should matter more than their profits. Birds are not just pretty faces. They work. They perform ecological services, which means they do things like keep other species in balance that can become pests to humans otherwise.

According to the study published in September 2019, “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, U.S. Geological Survey, Bird Conservatory of the Rockies, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Georgetown University, North America has 3 billion birds fewer today than in 1970,  due to loss of habitat and other human-caused problems. What if they were all still with us? Would one advantage be that we would need fewer chemical pesticides and have fewer of their side effects?

We have a lot in common with birds. Birds are more like us than we ever expected. They learn, they plot, they communicate–even with other species. Jennifer Ackerman’s latest book, “The Bird Way,” explores what scientists are learning.

Environmental protection regulations have taken a hit in the last four years. As people who breathe air and drink water, more of us should be more concerned. At least the bird protections regained by the recent MBTA verdict will help people as well, if somewhat indirectly.

Next, the National Audubon Society is going to court to defend the National Environmental Policy Act. The birds will appreciate that.

Still listed as a “Species of Special Concern” by the state of Florida, roseate spoonbills were a target of hunters providing feathers to the hat-making industry in the late 1800s. Photo by Barb Gorges, Brazos Bend State Park, Needville, Texas.

Family time for birds

“Summertime is family time for birds,” was published August 2, 2020 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

A Rufous Hummingbird tests nectar production of a red variety of beebalm, or Monarda, I grow in our backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            I asked one of our sons if he’d done any interesting birdwatching lately. He said no, it isn’t as exciting as during spring migration.

            I would disagree. Return migration starts up in mid-July. Migrating shorebirds were at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 then, while low water levels made their favorite mudflats.

            One sure sign of impending autumn is the hummingbirds coming into town. My red beebalm’s first flower was in bloom for about two days when it attracted the first broad-tailed hummingbird July 11. It was finished nesting in the high country and it, or other broadtails, made daily visits for 10 days. Then, a male rufous hummingbird returning from breeding—maybe in northwest Canada—came by. As the beebalm reached its peak, we had a hummingbird buzzing in every daylight hour or so, checking the flowers’ recharge of nectar and mostly ignoring the hummingbird feeder.

            However, birdwatching in my neighborhood in July and August is more about family drama.

Kids are naturally noisy and the Swainson’s hawks in the nest two yards down are no exception. One of the young took a tumble and landed on a branch several feet below the nest, which is set in the top of a spruce. It cried all day, but I think it climbed back up because it looked like there were two young back on the nest July 24.

            One day I thought one of the young Swainson’s had fledged and was sitting in our tree. I could hear a slightly off rendition of the call, maybe like a young bird still practicing, but couldn’t spot it at all. Later, I realized it was a blue jay doing imitations. And then there were the three blue jays flitting through our backyard that didn’t sound like full-fledged blue jays. They weren’t. Husband Mark’s photo showed one still had puffy baby feathers on its rump.

            July and August are when many plants bear fruit here. Whole extended families of robins strip our chokecherries even though I don’t think the fruit is ripe yet.

In the neglected front yard around the corner there’s a wonderful crop of thistle. Usually it’s the American goldfinches helping themselves but the other day there was a lesser goldfinch, which is not as common. Both are species that nest later than other songbirds because they are waiting to feed their young chewed up thistle seed instead of insects, like the other songbird parents.

            If you keep your eyes open, you may see parents feeding young, even after they’ve fledged, like the yellow warblers we saw along Crow Creek. And, when you see five house wrens hanging around the same willow tree, you know they are siblings who haven’t dispersed yet.

            Young crows take longer to mature. One of the smarter species of birds, not everything they need to know is hard-wired in their brain. They must learn it. After my cleaning the other day, my dental hygienist and I peered out the window wondering just why the young crow was rolling a rock-like object around—sorry, didn’t think to bring binocs to my appointment.

            One surprise this summer has been the number of mourning doves. Within a few years of the first sighting of Eurasian collared-doves in Wyoming, here in Laramie County in 1998, we quit seeing mourning doves breeding in our neighborhood. But this summer if we look closely at the doves on the wires, many have the mourning dove’s pointy-tailed silhouette. Perhaps they’ve finally learned to compete with the collared-doves for nest sites.

            For some species, their parental duties are already finished and they are free to flock around Cheyenne with their pals. The other morning, I estimated there were 150 common grackles carrying on boisterously in treetops and on lawns. Eventually, they will head south.

            If bird behavior interests you, read Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, “The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent and Think.” Ackerman writes, in a very readable way, about the latest science that is discovering that birds approach those five kinds of behaviors in myriad ways.

            I flipped to the section on parenting. From egg shape to nest shape to who feeds the young and how they are protected, birds have evolved strategies to suit their environment.

But it isn’t always an eons-long process. If they aren’t successful with a nest in one location one year, they may move to a different location the next.

Or they knock people on the head if they suspect they’ve harmed their chicks, like the Australian magpie does. And those birds can remember people for 20 years. Yikes.

            Thankfully, our birds are easier to live with, especially when we preserve prairie habitat and enhance the city forest, letting them enrich our lives.    

New birding field trip strategies

Published July 10, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cheyenne Audubon tries a new field trip strategy”

Birders sign up for the Cheyenne Audubon socially distant field trip June 27 at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center.

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society has been adapting to pandemic life. We now Zoom for our board meetings and our fall lectures will probably also be via Zoom.

            Field trips are harder to adapt. Our field trip chair, Grant Frost, suggested a survey of the Cheyenne Greenway birds in late April and many of us signed up to individually bird a section. Our May  Big Day Bird Count was arranged similarly. At the end of June, we tried “separate but simultaneous” at Curt Gowdy State Park—choosing different trails.

            This time there was some pairing up—but it is much easier to keep two arms’-lengths away from one person than a group. However, the trails between the visitor center and Hidden Falls were practically a traffic jam of heavy-breathing bicyclists, reported the birders who headed that way. They had to continually step off the trail to allow bikes to pass.

            One of our Laramie Audubon friends took the trail from Crystal Reservoir towards Granite Reservoir and met up with the many participants of a footrace.

            Mark and I were lucky. We chose a trail with little shade, not very conducive to a summer stroll. But the trail passes along the lake shore and creek, through ponderosa pine parkland, grasslands (sad to say, much of it has gone over to cheatgrass in the last five years), mountain mahogany shrubland, cottonwood draws and across a cliff face in the stretch of about 2 miles.

We saw 29 species: gulls over the lake, a belted kingfisher along the creek, chickadee in the pines, meadowlarks in the grassland, green-tailed towhees in the shrubs, a lazuli bunting in the cottonwoods and rock wrens in the rocky cliff. The total for the morning, including what the other eight participants hiking in the forest saw, was 71 species.

            While we could see the runners on the trail across the water, Mark and I met only two people on our trail, a friendly father and son on their bikes. So, it was a little disconcerting to come back to the trailhead three hours later and find in addition to the two vehicles there when we started, 10 more. One was the park ranger’s truck, one from Colorado, one from Oregon and the rest from Laramie County, like us. They must have all gone the other way.

            A normal Audubon field trip serves at least two purposes besides recreation. One is to find birds and to report them now that there is a global data base, eBird.org. But the other is to learn from each other. Our local bird experts are happy to share their knowledge with newcomers. Even the experts discuss with each other their favorite field marks for identifying obscure birds.

            This time we did have someone new to birding show up and one of our members graciously allowed her to accompany her. As we finished our hikes, we reported back by the visitor center where we gathered with our lunches under a pine—spaced as required. There was general conversation about birds we’d seen and other topics dear to birdwatcher hearts. I almost canceled the Zoom tally party I’d suggested for the evening but decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Yellow Warbler, photo by Mark Gorges

            Five of us signed on, including our new birder—now a new chapter member. I’d invited people to share photos from the day and showed landscape shots of where Mark and I hiked. Mark shared his shots of a yellow warbler and a mountain bluebird. Someone photographed a nest of house wrens and Greg Johnson shared two photos we could use to compare the beaks of hairy and downy woodpeckers—the best field mark for telling them apart (the hairy’s is proportionately longer).

            Then it occurred to me, maybe we should have a tally party via Zoom after more field trips and not just during pandemics. It could be a way for bird photographers to show off their pictures and for all of us to learn more about identifying the birds we see. It’s a chance for birders to flock together, something we like to do as much as the birds.

            Our next socially distant field trip will be July 18. We’ll meet at the Pine Bluffs rest area to explore the natural area behind it and document what we find for the annual Audubon Rockies Wyoming Bioblitz. Check for details soon at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/.  

Mountain Bluebird, photo by Mark Gorge

2020 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count best in 18 years

Red-headed Woodpecker by Mark Gorges

By Barb Gorges

Cheyenne Audubon’s 61st Big Day Bird Count May 16 was the best in 18 years: 142 species, with 39 people contributing observations. In those 18 years, the total number of bird species counted ranged from only 104 to 132.

Thinking about the decline in North American birds over the past 50 years (https://www.3billionbirds.org/), it isn’t surprising that the average count for 1992-2002 is 147 species (range: 123 – 169) and the average count for 2009-2019 is 114 (range: 104 – 128).

In a way, I think the pandemic made a difference this year, plus a lucky break offset not being able to access F.E. Warren Air Force Base and part of the High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

The Cheyenne Big Day is held the third Saturday in May, as early as May 13 and as late as May 21, hopefully catching the peak of spring migration.

Sometimes migration runs late, as it apparently did in 1993 (record high total count 169 species), when wintering species like dark-eyed junco and Townsend’s solitaire were counted—but we also aren’t clear how far from the center of Cheyenne people were birding back then—some of our winter birds go only go as far as the mountains 30 miles to the west.

Sometimes, like 1993, we get interesting shorebirds, usually heading north earlier than songbirds. Or, if the reservoirs are full, we don’t have any “shore” and thus few shorebirds.

1993 and 2020 have some other interesting comparisons. Great-tailed grackles, birds of the southwest, were first reported breeding in Wyoming in 1998 and now their Cheyenne presence is spreading. Eurasian collared-doves, escaped from the caged bird trade and now nesting in our neighborhoods, were not recorded here before 1998.

But in 1993, we knew where to find burrowing owls. Now that location is full of houses.

The number of observers might matter, especially their expertise. Traditionally, we meet as a large group and hit the hotspots one at a time, Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the research station. The experienced birders might zero in on a vireo’s chirp buried in the greenery while the bored novice birder notices American white pelicans flying overhead at the same time.

But this year might be proof that birding on our own (at least by household) as we did, ultimate physical distancing, could be more productive. All the birding hotspots were birded first thing in the morning, when birds are most active and most easily detected.

In addition, it was a magnificent spring migration day. While home for breakfast, lunch and dinner between outings, Mark and I observed a total of 23 species in our backyard, more than any of the days before or after May 16, more than any day in the last 30 years.

Now that we have lots of local birders reporting to eBird, it is easy to see the 16th was the best birding day of May 2020 in Cheyenne. However, the next day we found species we missed, the pelicans and the American redstart.

The thrill of seeing colorful migrants and welcoming back local breeding birds was as wonderful as every year. But I missed the gathering of birders.


To see the 2020 species list broken out by location (Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, High Plains Grasslands Research Station and others) and the comparison with 1993, go to


Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 16, 2020

142 species  

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Chukar

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 

Eurasian Collared-Dove

White-winged Dove

Mourning Dove

Common Poorwill

Chimney Swift

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Sora

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Baird’s Sandpiper

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Lesser Yellowlegs

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk 

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk 

Ferruginous Hawk

Eastern Screech-Owl

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Red-headed Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker 

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Prairie Falcon

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird 

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow 

Common Raven

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

White-breasted Nuthatch

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Rock Wren

House Wren

European Starling 

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Northern Mockingbird

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin 

House Sparrow

House Finch

Red Crossbill

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Lark Sparrow 

Lark Bunting

White-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark  

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Yellow-breasted Chat

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Northern Parula

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

            I am living under the flight path of major construction. A Swainson’s hawk is plucking cottonwood branches from one neighbor’s tree and taking them over my house to another neighbor’s tree to build a nest.

            Lately, a gang of 60 or 70, puffed up and strutting around in shiny black feather jackets, shows up along our back wall—no motorcycles for them—they’re common grackles. They even scare away the bully robin that keeps the house finches from the black oil sunflower seed we’ve put out.

            A pair of northern flickers has been visiting the seed cake feeder. We know they are male and female—he has the red mustache. The black and white pair of downy woodpeckers are visiting regularly. The male has the red neck spots.

            One small, yellow-breasted stranger shows up every day at the nyger thistle seed feeder. It’s a female lesser goldfinch, not a regular species here. We recognize that her yellow, black and white feather scheme is arranged differently from the American goldfinch’s.

            I look forward to the springtime antics of birds in my backyard, but this year, millions of people are discovering them for the first time in their own yards and neighborhoods. Suddenly, it’s cool to notice birds and nature. It’s almost cool to be called a birdwatcher.

            Would you like to be a birdwatcher, or a birder? Here’s how.

Step 1Notice birds.

Watch for bird-like shapes in the trees and bushes and on lawns. Watch for movement. This time of year, birds are making a lot of noise and song. See if you can trace the song to the bird with his beak uplifted and open.

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

Are they looking for food like the red-breasted nuthatches climbing tree trunks and branches?

Are they performing a mating ritual like the Eurasian collared-dove males that launch themselves from the top of a tree or utility pole, winging high only to sail down again in spirals?

Are they picking through the grass like common grackles do, looking for grubs to eat? Are they flying by with a beak full of long wispy dead grasses for nest building like the house sparrows do?

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

But if you want to talk to other birdwatchers, you need to do a little studying.

You are in luck if you live in the Cheyenne area. In 2018, Pete Arnold and I put together a picture book of 104 of our most common birds, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” You’d be surprised how many birds you probably already know. Go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/ to examine current purchasing options.

You can also go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/. You can type in a bird name or queries like “birds with red breasts” (which covers all shades from pink and purple to orange and russet). If you click on “Get instant ID help” it will prompt you to download the free Merlin app. It will give you size comparison, color, behavior and habitat choices and then produce an illustrated list of possibilities—nearly as good as sending a photo to your local birder.

The best way to learn birds is to go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you. But since that probably isn’t possible this spring, settle for a pair of binoculars and honing your eye for noticing field marks—the colors and shapes that distinguish one bird species’ appearance from another’s.

Keep in mind that even expert birders can’t identify every bird—sometimes the light is bad and sometimes, and often for a species as variable as the red-tailed hawk, it doesn’t look exactly like it’s picture in the field guides by Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley.

Step 5Go where the birds are.

In Wyoming, that is generally wherever there is water—and trees and shrubs. At least that’s where you’ll find the most bird species per hour of birding. But the grasslands are special. Drive down a rural road, like nearby Chalk Bluffs Road, and watch to see what birds flock along the shoulders and collect on the barbwire fence: meadowlarks, lark buntings, horned larks. Watch out for traffic.

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/basic-wild-bird-feeding/.

Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities has information on transforming lawns into habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and other animals.

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

Some of the nerdiest birders I know will say they prefer to bird alone, but they still join their local Audubon chapter. In Cheyenne, that’s https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/. People of all levels of birding expertise are welcome. Sign up for free email newsletters today and join when you are ready.

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

People do not make life easy for birds. Our activities can affect birds directly and indirectly. Today, I read that the popular neonicotinoid pesticides affect birds’ abilities to successfully migrate if they eat even a small amount of treated seed, or an insect that has eaten treated plant material.

Writing letters to lawmakers is one option, but so is planting native plants and so is recording your bird observations through citizen or community science projects like www.eBird.org and taking part in other conservation activities.

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

You can do this as soon as you start Step 1, noticing birds. Not everyone does. Welcome to the world of birdwatching!           

Western Meadowlark
The Western Meadowlark, a grassland bird, is Wyoming’s state bird. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Flock of bird book reviews

Flock of bird books arrives this spring: Peterson, Heinrich, Kroodsma, Gilbert and Tallamy

Published April 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flock of bird books arrives this spring.”

By Barb Gorges

            Spring is when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt likes to send out bird books to review—completely forgetting that as spring migration gets going, birders have less time to read. Maybe we’ll have more time to read this year. Luckily, birding in Wyoming, without Audubon field trips, is a solitary experience perfect for ensuring huge social distances.

            I’ve suggested that we all get social sharing our bird sightings on the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society group Facebook page and through the Wyobirds Google Group. By posting sightings on eBird.org, everyone can “Explore” each other’s Laramie County bird sightings.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Roger Tory Peterson (and contributions from others), 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 505 pages, $29.99.

This latest edition of the classic field guides follows the 2008 edition, the first to combine Peterson’s eastern and western guides in one book. And now the birds of Hawaii have been added.

            Peterson died in 1996 so additional paintings, range map editing, etc. are the work of stellar artists and ornithologists. Bird names are updated, now showing the four species of scrub-jays, except that I heard last month it was decided to drop the “scrub” from their names.

            But, to be a birder, one must regularly invest in the most up-to-date field guide.

White Feathers, The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows, Bernd Heinrich, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pages, $27.

            If anyone can make eight springs of excruciatingly detailed observations interesting, Bernd Heinrich can. He wanted to know what purpose is served by tree swallows adding white feathers to their nests.

            Every spring, hour after hour, he observed the comings and goings of pairs using his nest box and noted when they brought in white feathers to line (insulate?) and cover (hiding eggs from predators?) the nest inside the box.

            Or, the white feathers might only advertise that a nesting cavity is taken. 

Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Your Guide to Listening, Donald Kroodsma, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 198 pages, $27.

            Here’s where you can find out what a tree swallow sounds like when it starts singing an hour before sunrise.

            In fact, you can skip this book and learn a lot by going to the associated free website, www.BirdsongForTheCurious.com. There are multiple songs each of most songbird species, as well as ideas for collecting your own data.

            The book has chapters explaining topics such as: “Why and How Birds Sing,” How a Bird Gets Its Song” and “How Songs Change over Space and Time.”

Unflappable, Suzie Gilbert, 2020, https://www.suziegilbert.com/.

            I read the first chapter for free online and I think it will be a very entertaining novel. Here’s the synopsis: “Wildlife rehabber Luna and Bald Eagle Mars are on a 2,300-mile road trip with her soon-to-be-ex-husband and authorities hot on their heels. What could possibly go wrong?”

Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy, 2019, Timber Press, 255 pages, $29.95.      

            Tallamy first wrote “Bringing Nature Home” in 2007 where, as a professor who studies insects and ecology, he explains that it is important for all of us to plant native plants to benefit native wildlife.

            Thirteen years later, Tallamy can cite a lot more research making his point: native plants support native insects which support other native wildlife (and support us). For instance, almost all songbird species, even if they are seed eaters the rest of the year, need to feed their young prodigious amounts of caterpillars plus other insects.

            These caterpillars of native butterflies and moths can’t eat just any old plant. They must chew on the leaves of the plants they evolved with—other leaves are inedible. Good news: rarely does the associated plant allow itself to be decimated.

            Native bees, except for some generalists, also have a nearly one on one relationship with the native nectar and pollen-producing plants they’ve evolved with. You may see bees working flowers of introduced plants, but chances are they are the introduced European honeybees.

            What’s a concerned backyard naturalist to do? Become part of Tallamy’s army of gardeners converting yards and wasted spaces of America into Homegrown National Park, http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/. A link there will take you to the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder which lists our local natives based on our zipcodes.

            It’s not necessary to vanquish every introduced plant, but we must add more natives. The best way is by replacing turf. Here in Cheyenne, the Board of Public Utilities is encouraging us to save water by replacing water-thirsty bluegrass with water-smart plantings. Plants native to our arid region (12-15 inches of precipitation annually) fit the bill perfectly—and they aid our native pollinators at the same time.

            In next Sunday’s Cheyenne Garden Gossip column, I will discuss exactly how to do that here.