Swainson’s hawks fledge

Neighborhood Swainson’s hawks fledge three; fall migration underway

One of the Swainson’s Hawk parents brings food to the young July 7, 2021, at a nest in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            Just as they did last year, a pair of Swainson’s hawks nested in the neighbors’ spruce tree two houses down.

            Thanks to some tree pruning in between, Mark and I had a perfect view of the nest from our bathroom window.

            I’m sure the hawks were a little put out this spring to discover after their long migratory haul from Argentina that the field adjacent now sports a three-story apartment building under construction. But about a quarter mile away is the Greenway and the railroad right of way, still plenty of open space and tasty ground squirrels.

            By July 7 we could see two fuzzy white heads in the nest. Nearly three weeks later they were mostly brown. And then the youngsters started climbing out of the nest and onto the tree branches. That’s when we realized there were three of them.

            We think the day one of the juveniles left the nest for the first time was July 25. At 6 a.m., it was sitting on a bare branch just over our back wall, looking straight back at us through the kitchen window.

There were a few days the youngsters cried a lot for parental attention. One day they landed in our tree and then all three circled low over our block. It’s become quieter, but they are still spending time in the neighborhood, sometimes on the nest tree.

            It amazes me that a large hawk, best suited for flying grasslands in search of rodents (summer) and large insects (winter), would choose to nest in a residential neighborhood. I’m glad we can provide the big trees they require to successfully breed.

Hummingbirds

            The hummingbirds are a mystery this year. Their favorite red beebalm was halfway through blooming the last week in July and I hadn’t seen them yet.  

I checked my records on eBird.org and saw since 2013 they have arrived for a three-week stay starting the last week of July or the first week of August. My beebalm is blooming ahead of schedule and they may miss it. I caught a glimpse of one hummingbird July 30 as it flitted quickly over other flowers.

Maybe the red beebalm is early this year because of all our earlier hot weather and moisture. Maybe the broad-tailed hummingbirds are later because our mountains, where they nest, have been unusually full of nectar-filled flowers and they are staying longer.

Maybe we should all put up our hummingbird feeders anyway. Remember, use a little heat to dissolve 1 part white sugar in 4 parts water. Use no other sugar types, use no red dye, and replace any nectar that gets cloudy-looking.

Weidensaul’s new book

Mark and I are reading “A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds” by Scott Weidensaul. A whole chapter is devoted to Swainson’s hawks and unraveling the mysteries of their breeding and migration using new tracking technology.

The book also discusses the number of ways migrating birds are killed by human actions, directly and indirectly, that are preventable.

            For instance, because many songbirds migrate at night, one of their navigational aids is starlight. Unfortunately, the glow from cities is attracting them and studies show more migrants in cities than there used to be. But when the small birds land in the mornings, are they finding the trees and shrubbery full of insects they need to eat to recharge? Sometimes, they find well-lit skyscrapers and become disoriented, circling until exhausted, falling to the ground, discovered dead on the sidewalk in the morning.

            City night light is detrimental to other life too, including plants and people without room-darkening shades. It increases with each porch and parking lot light left on. But it can also be decreased by one resident, one business owner and one municipality at a time.

For your home security lighting, see if you can use motion detection technology. You’ll save money on your electric bill. For parking lot lights and streetlights, chose those that are hooded, lighting only what’s below and not the sky. You’ll save money, too.

Without our own astronomical observatory, like Flagstaff, Arizona, I don’t think we will become an International Dark Sky City, asking Cheyennites to drive with only parking lights on, but it would be neat.

            Fall migration has already begun. The Swainson’s hawk family will head south sometime after the middle of September. Only six or eight weeks after fledging, the young Swainson’s all over western North America make a journey of as much as 7,000 miles to the Argentine pampas. I imagine it looks something like Wyoming grasslands there. Safe travels, kids and parents.

Robin close encounters

Robin family members pant on a hot day. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Close encounters of the robin kind

By Barb Gorges

            You could say that the robins in our backyard are benefitting from global warming this summer.

            After 32 years managing without it, Mark and I had air conditioning installed and the robins discovered it offered a good nesting location.

            We normally can keep things comfortable by closing windows before the outside temperatures get hotter than the inside, plus the basement stays chilly. But with warmer and sometimes smokier summers, it seemed like the right time to invest in heat pump technology, referred to as a mini-split. It also provides heat and can be hooked up to a solar electric system someday.

            The robins built their whole nest before we were aware. It is on top of the new conduit in the corner by the back door we don’t use much. With the roof overhang, it is well protected.

I’ve heard about robins building nests on porch lights and attacking anyone who goes in and out the associated door. Gardening takes us back and forth below this nest location, but neither robin parent divebombed us or the dog. Mark even put up our 8-foot stepladder once to take a photo and there were no complaints.

Every time I glanced at the nest when a parent was on it, incubating the eggs, staring at me, I’d apologize for another disruption.

Finally, the day came when I noticed, looking out the kitchen window, that one of the parents was pausing on one of our fence posts with a big juicy, bright green caterpillar in its beak. There were many more treats for the nestlings, but caterpillars seemed the most popular.

It takes a lot of herbivorous prey to raise baby robins and I wondered what plant damage the robins were averting this summer. Gosh, it might have been the right year for growing cabbages. My last efforts were aborted by caterpillars.

By June 19, there was one large nestling left in the nest, almost filling it. By June 20, the nest was empty. I didn’t see any speckle-breasted baby robins anywhere.

I went to the corner of the yard by the compost bins to re-pot houseplants. As I approached, a robin flew in, perching on a branch eye level with me. I stopped and we looked each other in the eye. I murmured congratulations in case it was one of our parent robins. Then it flew to a new perch a few feet away and I turned, and we locked eyes again.

Most wild animals are interested in staying away from people unless we are handing out food. Otherwise, they don’t encourage our attention because that is often dangerous.

The robin shifted position again, caught my eye, and then flew off around the upright junipers. I could hear again the quiet call it had been making, on the other side of the bushes, plus another odd one. So, I circled the junipers and when I got to the point where I could see into the interior, there was the fledgling.

Unlike a killdeer which tries to draw you away from its nest, I felt like the robin had led me to the fledgling. Minutes later the fledgling flashed away to another shrub, but I didn’t go in pursuit.

Within a week, June 26, I saw a robin sitting on the nest again. Less than three feet away, a male house sparrow with a beak full of dry grass waited patiently for the robin to take a break. His mate waited behind him. I know we have a housing shortage in Cheyenne, but does the robin have a spare room, or what?

We still have a feeder hanging over the patio, under the clear corrugated plastic roof. It’s one of those cage types that uses the blocks of seed that seem to be glued together. The red-breasted nuthatches visit it multiple times a day, pecking away.

A pair of these birds nested in a rotten stub on a tree across the street. We think these are the birds flying over our low house to our feeder. On June 25, I saw five nuthatches on the feeder, probably the whole family dining together. They are completely at home. In fact, as I walk back and forth doing chores, I sometimes remember to look up to where, two or three feet over my head, a nuthatch is completely unconcerned by my presence, or that I’ve stopped so close.

Maybe, like the geese in the park, they read body language and distinguish between danger and safety.    

2021 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count

The 2021 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was held May 15. Early morning fog at Lions Park obscured the views of birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 4, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “2021 Big Day brings in birds and birders”

By Barb Gorges

            It’s a chicken or the egg conundrum. Which comes first, lots of birds or lots of birders?

            It’s true that the more birders there are out looking, the more birds are seen. But the way to get more birders out to look for them is for there to be more bird reports coming in. That piques interest and more birders go out looking instead of doing mundane household chores.

            Mark, my husband, was out nearly every morning the first two weeks in May to one of several of his favorite hotspots: Wyoming Hereford Ranch, Lions Park (both are Wyoming Important Bird Areas), Laramie County Community College (the pond areas) or F.E. Warren Air Force Base (ponds there too).

            When he came home, he’d give me a report on what interesting migrants he’d seen and show me photos he’d taken before adding them to the checklists of birds he’d seen and entered through the eBird.org phone app. He’d tell me too, who else he’d met, mostly birding friends, but sometimes visitors.

            In the evening he liked to check eBird to see what sightings local birders had entered for the day. And he’d check birdcast.info to see if birds were going to be making a strong migratory push through our area overnight—and coming to earth here to rest and refuel in the morning.

            Every year, for 60-plus years, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society designates a date for its Big Day Bird Count and hopes to hit the biggest migratory push. It’s usually the third Saturday in May. Sometimes we’ve had icy storms and wonder if we should pick a later date. Sometimes eBird reports show that there just isn’t a peak to the migration. We wonder too if climate change means we should move it up a week.

            This year we had a good lead-up that encouraged more people to be out on our Big Day, May 15. We had a couple of sharper than average birders joining us too, Nathan Pieplow, author of the “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America,” and his friend, Will Anderson.

Nathan signed books the evening before. It was going to be an outdoor event but thank goodness the Hales family lent us one of the WHR barns as backup since a good gully washer blew in.

            Saturday morning was chilly and foggy, but the birds and birders were out. We weren’t all in one big group, but we would get the scoop on cool birds from each other when we met up.

            The next day, Mark started compiling the list of birds, looking at checklists on eBird for sightings in the Cheyenne vicinity.

            At least 30 people submitted, or were included on, 74 checklists. I submitted a couple just for our bird feeders when we took a break at home.

            It was one of the best Big Days in Cheyenne in a while: 136 species. And the warbler count was very good: 12 species.

            Sunday, there were still a lot of migratory birds in town including 50 pine siskins under our thistle feeder for an hour.

            But the show was over by Monday—both out in the field and at our now deserted feeder.

            This year, migration seems to have peaked on the Saturday we picked, making it like Christmas in May.   

May 16, 50-plus Pine Siskins and one American Goldfinch pick at thistle seed that spilled from the feeder overhead. While some birds attempt to use the dog’s water dish, there is a birdbath to the left, out of view. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 15, 2021

Compiled from 74 (51 unique) eBird lists. At least 30 people participated.

136 Species

Snow Goose

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

Mallard

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Horned Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

American Coot

Black-necked Stilt

American Avocet

Semipalmated Plover

Killdeer

Marbled Godwit

Least Sandpiper

Long-billed Dowitcher

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Willet

Ring-billed Gull

California Gull

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Great-horned Owl

Burrowing Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Plumbeous Vireo

Warbling Vireo

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

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Rock Wren

House Wren

European Starling

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Northern Mockingbird

Townsend’s Solitaire

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

House Sparrow

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinches like thistle seed (treated to not sprout). Photo by Mark Gorges.

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Bullock’s Orioles like orange pulp. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Northern Waterthrush

Common Yellowthroat

Orange-crowned Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Townsend’s Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Lazuli Buntings are seed eaters. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Mullen Fire changes habitats

“Mullen Fire changes forest habitats” was published May 1, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

View of Mullen Fire aftermath, courtesy Medicine Bow National Forest.

            It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. We can’t make moral judgements. It just is. This is the message Jesse McCarty had for us about the Mullen Fire.

            McCarty is a wildlife biologist and on the natural resources staff of the Medicine Bow – Routt National Forest’s Laramie Ranger District. The Mullen Fire started Sept. 17, 2020, on the forest in the Savage Run Wilderness Area.  The source of ignition is still under investigation.

From there, firefighters were able to keep it from burning an area around Rob Roy Reservoir critical to the safety of Cheyenne’s water supply. But on Sept. 26, the wind pushed the fire down and around on a one-day, 30,000 acre-run to the east. That’s a swath 6 miles wide and 8 miles long.

That was the day Cheyenne’s skies turned orange, even though we were 70 miles downwind of the fire. That is the day that if you breathed that orange air, your lungs didn’t feel right for a couple months afterwards.

To see the extent of the fire, go to the website that tracks wildland fires, https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/maps/7208/.

By Oct. 24, 2020, the Mullen Fire was contained within the boundaries marked in black.

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society invited McCarty to talk about what the effects of the fire were and will be on wildlife, especially birds, and what restoration work is planned.

            This forest has been using particular bird species as indicators of habitat. Not all bird species specialize in a narrowly described habitat, but each species monitored is tied to a particular one. For instance, the Lincoln’s sparrow is found around willows in wet mountain meadows. As the meadow fills in with trees over time, there will be more forest species such as the brown creeper.

            After a fire, the American three-toed woodpecker moves in. A species of the spruce-fir habitat, it is most numerous where insects are taking advantage of dying trees. When the flush of those insects is over and low growth is sprouting, another bird species will move in. On it goes until the spruce-fir forest is re-established and golden-crowned kinglets are at home again.

The Forest Service is continuing its bird surveys this summer. It also keeps an eye on threatened and endangered species and others in special, protective categories.

            Field biologist Don Jones of Laramie asked an important question. In view of the warming climate (the forest was experiencing another drought year in 2020), will areas that were once spruce-fir come back, or will the vegetation of a drier climate prevail, like pine-juniper? Jones is young enough that he may see the answer in his lifetime.

            The more than 55 people (not counting instances of more than one person per screen) around the state and beyond who were participating in the Zoom meeting were also concerned about other wildlife, such as the large mammals. McCarty said that there didn’t appear to be large mammal carcasses in the wake of the fire. The new vegetative growth after the fire will attract big game.

The insect life will have taken a hit where it couldn’t find moist places to hide, McCarty said, but there is not much fire science related to insects.

            When McCarty visited the forest in December, he found green growth. Sometimes, he said, this is from the caches of seeds squirrels and other small animals make. Also, the heat of the fire will have opened the serotinous cones of lodgepole pine, releasing seed. Aspen growth is also stimulated by fire.

            The spread of cheatgrass is a concern and so the forest is using applications of Rejuvra, an herbicide that keeps it from germinating. There will also be grass seeding and tree and shrub planting in critical areas such as steep slopes.

Burned areas in the Savage Run Wilderness Area will not be repaired—the definition of a national wilderness area is that people do not interfere with ecological processes there.

For most of us in the audience, the Medicine Bow is our forest, and we want to know how we can volunteer to help it recover. This year, the forest is not allowing volunteers within the burn area, but you can find other volunteer needs by contacting Aaron Voos, aaron.voos@usda.gov.

As the summer recreation season gets started, we will find trails and campgrounds in the fire area that are closed. Please honor the forest’s directives for your own safety until hazardous trees have been dropped and burnt slopes are stabilized.

And make sure you don’t cause the next forest fire.

For more on post-fire hazards: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbr/fire/?cid=FSEPRD889210.

Birds in the news

Birds in the news: salmonella, predator aversion, wind turbines, song identification

The House Finch is a common feeder bird susceptible to salmonella. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 3, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Update #1: Nearly 20 cases of salmonella have been recorded in people, possibly transmitted from bird feeders. Half of the people were hospitalized: (April 4, 2021) https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/cdc-salmonella-outbreak-is-linked-to-wild-birds-and-feeders/. Protect yourself when handling feeders.

Update #2: Cheyenne Audubon will be hosting a book signing for Nathan Pieplow the evening of May 14, 2021, at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch.

By Barb Gorges

            I get bird news in so many more ways now besides mail: Facebook, podcasts, blogs, emails. And even from friends and the radio.

            Kathy Jenkins asked if I’d heard the National Public Radio report on an outbreak of salmonella at bird feeders around the country. You can tell the bird victims because they will often sit quietly all fluffed up on a feeder perch when other birds have flown away. They are usually finches.

            It’s a disease passed around from bird to bird where they congregate at feeders. The cure, when you see sick birds, is as simple as taking down your feeder for a week and scrubbing it well with a solution of soapy water and a little bleach and rinsing it well before refilling.

            There are a variety of other communicable bird diseases and cleaning of feeders every couple of weeks—and bird droppings in the vicinity—is good preventive maintenance and avoids having to suspend feeding because there are signs of disease.  

            On the other hand, painting stinky stuff around the nesting territories of endangered shorebirds is a good idea.

            Researchers in New Zealand found that the enticing scent of chicken and other easily procured prey species mixed with petroleum jelly and slathered on rocks attracted predators. After a month of constant reapplication, the predators, ferrets and feral cats, learned that the smells offered no food rewards. They seemed to have moved on, before the double-banded plovers, wrybills and South Island pied oystercatchers came in to nest.

Successful hatching doubled for the plovers and wrybills and tripled for oystercatchers. Keeping up this aversion training each season may lead to population increase over time instead of the current decreasing numbers. Read more at https://www.audubon.org/news/false-scents-can-trick-predators-ignoring-nesting-shorebirds.

The impact on birds of a proposed wind turbine project in Albany County was recently incorrectly compared by someone quoted for a Wyoming Public Radio story.

Wind energy proponents frequently cite the statistics that more birds are killed by cats than by wind turbines. The problem is that the kinds of birds killed by cats are more likely to be common birds in urban and suburban areas than the long-distance migrants like shorebirds (though they are also at risk on breeding grounds), raptors and warblers.

And since wind generation continues to increase and companies are not required to make public how many birds are killed, we only have their word for the comparison. For more, see https://www.wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/albany-county-wind-debate-rife-misinformation.

I still think we should fill current infrastructure with solar panels before littering the landscape with turbines, especially with their massive concrete pedestals, miles of underground cables and unrecyclable components.  

            I’d like to apologize to everyone who tried to attend the virtual Cheyenne Audubon meeting in March and was stymied by our human-caused technical error.

            We hope to have the evening’s guest speaker, Nathan Pieplow, visit Cheyenne later this spring for birding and a book signing. [Book signing scheduled for May 14, 2021. Details to be announced at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com.]

            Pieplow is the author of the Peterson  Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Western North America (and the eastern version). You can learn to hear an unfamiliar bird and look it up in his field guide, or at least narrow it down to a category of sound type and then compare with the bird sounds at https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/peterson-field-guide-to-bird-sounds/.

            The field guide has spectrographs of bird sounds, very much like musical notation. The introduction gives you instructions on how to learn to “read” spectrographs. You can also use a phone app like Song Sleuth to record birds and see the spectrograph and get an identification suggestion.

            Pieplow’s March talk was on interpreting common bird sounds. Who knew that the sound of red-winged blackbirds in the spring in the cattails is actually a duet, the female joining in midway to declare “My mate is taken!”?

            The more bird sounds are studied, the more variation is found. Brown thrashers can go off on a riff for over an hour and never repeat themselves.

A group of red-winged blackbird males in a marsh will use a series of call notes to keep in touch and apprise each other of danger, but another group 50 miles away uses a different set of calls.

            Cowbird nestlings, hatched from eggs dropped in other bird species’ nests, don’t sound the same as the host nestlings, but get fed anyway.

We don’t hear what birds hear because their hearing is better and more discriminatory. Kind of like the way they can see more “frames per second” than we can, they can hear more nuances than we can.

            There is endless room for more research, including uploading your phone recordings of birds you hear to eBird.org. As Pieplow said, there are 10,000 bird languages— at least as many as there are bird species in the world.

Wildlife Conservation plate gives to Wyoming

“Wildlife Conservation license plate: One way to give to Wyoming” was published Mar. 5, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            I’ve always wanted a vanity license plate—or what the Wyoming Department of Transportation calls a “Personalized Prestige Plate.” It would be like a high quality bumper sticker that doesn’t leave residue when you pull it off.

            Wyoming has several categories of special license plates: Radio Amateur, Pioneer, EMT, Disabled Vet, University of Wyoming, among others. But with our county plates starting with “2,” I always thought it would be fun to have one that says, “2 BIRD.” Turns out someone has that one already—I once parked next to them at the dentist’s office.

            Finally, Wyoming came out with a special plate that supports wildlife conservation. It features a mule deer buck on the far left, then our Wyoming bucking horse and rider silhouette in highway-sign yellow, followed by “WC” and four digits. The governor issued a challenge that 2,020 license plates be sold by the end of 2020 and the goal was barely met. That leaves less than 7,979 available, until they start using letters.

            At http://www.dot.state.wy.us/wildlife_plate, you’ll find it costs $180, with $150 going to state wildlife conservation and $30 for the cost of the plate. It can be renewed each year for $50 in addition to your regular license fee. Because we’d barely touched our travel budget in 2020, thanks to the pandemic, Mark and I decided the WC plate would be a good investment for both our vehicles–and maybe an easy way to tell, when in parking lots, our blue Subaru from its many siblings.

            The funds go to wildlife conservation, specifically the Wildlife Crossing project.

            Currently, in Wyoming there is an average of 6,000 vehicle accidents per year involving large wildlife. We know where the favorite wildlife crossings are. Instead of being slaughtered, the animals can be funneled to wide bridges planted with native vegetation. These, as well as wildlife underpasses, make the highways 80 to 90 percent safer for both wildlife and people. See more numbers at https://wgfd.wyo.gov/wildlife-in-wyoming/migration/wildlife-crossing.

             You can donate directly to the Wildlife Crossing project to pay for these bridges and underpasses rather than buy a plate.

            Wyoming has a considerable number of anti-tax residents and legislators so it is good to see support for this project, although since it also saves human lives, you would think the funds should come from the state transportation budget.

            Hunting and fishing licenses are another way we tax ourselves. No one complains because the funds go to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. I don’t think of poachers being anti-tax. I think of them as vandals.

            According to an article in the March 2021 issue of Wyoming Wildlife, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department receives 85% of its revenue from hunting and fishing licenses and other fees, and federal taxes on firearms, fishing tackle and other outdoor equipment. The remaining 15% comes from grants for special projects. It does not receive any appropriated state funds.

            Years ago, when Wyoming first offered lifetime fishing licenses, Mark and I bought them for ourselves and our kids. We thought of it as an investment in Game and Fish. And it makes it easy to go ice fishing on January 1.

            I wish Wyoming had a way for people who enjoy watching wildlife to contribute to Game and Fish for the well-being of nongame species—including birds.

There are huge cuts in the state budget starting this year due to the downturn in the oil, gas and coal industries which paid the taxes that supported the state in the past. The global economy is modernizing, and it is unlikely these industries will boom again as they have after previous busts.   

            Because we have no state income tax, there isn’t an efficient way for Wyoming residents to contribute to the funding of other state entities, like health and education. Having no income tax has been considered a selling point for getting people to relocate here. But when government services are diminished or cut altogether, not many people will want to come.

            I suggest Wyoming start a 1% income tax everyone pays. Just like I’m proud to have a license plate that shows what I support, I would think all of us would be proud to support our state. To make it simple, we could all pay 1% of whatever amount our federal income tax is based on, before or after exemptions. I suppose you could prorate it for people who spend part of the year living elsewhere.

            Millions of people contribute money to what they believe in. Why can’t we residents have more ways to put money into Wyoming? Meanwhile, get your Wildlife Conservation license plates now!

Great Backyard Bird Count and diversity thoughts

“Great Backyard Bird Count causes columnist to ponder diversity” was published Jan. 30, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

For the 2020 Great Backyard Bird Count, Mark Gorges, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society member, set up his spotting scope for two young participants to get a close look at waterfowl on Sloans Lake in Lions Park. The waterfowl included Canada goose, northern shoveler, mallard and common goldeneye. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            The Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up Feb. 12-15. You can now take part by watching and reporting the birds you see at your bird feeders—or anywhere in the world, aka the real Great Backyard!

            Now that the GBBC has gone global, it has a fresh website, https://www.birdcount.org/. Becca Rodomsky-Bish, with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, charged with its redesign, wanted comments from a small group of reviewers and I was invited. I have in the past contacted CLO for information about their programs for these columns and I’ve taken part in the GBBC since nearly the beginning.

            This is also the year that major environmental organizations are looking at their lack of diversity—both staff and outreach—because of incidents like Black birder Christian Cooper’s experience in Central Park, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park_birdwatching_incident.

            I think CLO’s plan to invite GBBC participants around the world to submit photos of themselves and their families and friends birding during the event will do much to illustrate diversity.

            Normally, birders talk about bird species diversity and how to protect and improve it.

            To measure human diversity in the local birding community, we can look at our local Audubon chapter. This is what we see: participants in events, members and board members are evenly split between male and female. In photos from the chapter’s beginnings almost 50 years ago, it has always been like this. Human sexual orientation isn’t as visible and hasn’t come up during meetings and field trips.

            We usually have a diversity in age, at least between 50 and 90 years old with the occasional younger outlier. Mark and I were unusual, bringing our kids along on field trips starting when they were infants.

We’ve met teenagers occasionally who are into birds. But the lack of kids I think is more about how families choose to spend their limited time together. It’s when the kids leave home that parents finally look for new activities. In the 39 years I’ve been involved in Audubon chapters, we’ve never run out of people in the upper age bracket.

A few years ago, the chapter established a grant program for education and conservation projects in Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties. We’ve had several teachers successfully use our grants. Their students might be who will join when they are 50. But we could certainly use ideas and volunteers to help us reach more younger people.

Birding is adaptable for the disabled, though being able to see and/or hear a bird, however poorly, is rather necessary for birdwatching. No need to take a bird hike. A little black oil sunflower seed on the ground or in a feeder will help bring the birds in viewing range. You might start feeding the birds a couple weeks before the GBBC. 

What about socio economic diversity?

Birdwatching at its most basic doesn’t cost a thing. Birds are everywhere. You can check out a field guide from the public library. The CLO has many free resources online. I’m beginning to think of the internet as a public utility like water and everyone needs a device, a digital bucket, to capture some of the flow.

Old or cheap binoculars can be helpful, but not necessary for watching birds at a backyard feeder. Our local field trips are free and except during pandemics, carpooling is often available.

I’ve talked to people at every socio economic level who enjoy watching birds, whether it’s the flock that comes every afternoon for their black oil sunflower seed handout or the flock that flew over their tour group in some exotic location. Some birdwatchers tune in to backyard bird behavior, some strive to add to their global bird life list.

Birds attract people from all walks of life. However, there is a higher percentage of wildlife biologists among birders than in ordinary social circles. I’m happy to say over the years there is an increase in the percentage that are women.

Our Audubon chapter is not as racially diverse as Cheyenne. I’m not sure how to change that. We advertise our existence (www.cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com) and wait for people who have made a connection to birds and who want to meet other bird-happy people and learn from each other and share sightings and support the well-being of birds (and other wildlife and people).

Many birders point to a “spark bird,” the bird they noticed and then wanted to find out more about, eventually finding more and more interesting birds—and finding they are all interesting birds.

Birds bring together all sorts of people. Let’s put on our binoculars as birdwatching badges, whatever quality they are, and find each other where the birds and birders gather. Maybe we’ll see each other outside during the Great Backyard Bird Count. 

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.