Bird families

This somewhat shy Great Horned Owl family was a highlight in June at the Bioblitz held this year at Bear River State Park outside Evanston, Wyoming. The Bioblitz is sponsored by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy and other agencies and organizations. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Bird families expanding in summer

By Barb Gorges

            Early summer exploded with babies. In addition to our family adding the first baby of the new generation (do wild animals relate to their grand-offspring?), I noticed a lot of other baby activity.

            Driving past Holliday Park at twilight at the end of June I caught a glimpse of what looked like three loose dogs. They were a mother racoon and two young scampering across the lawn.

            Walking our dog around the field by our house I saw a ground squirrel mother herd a youngster out of the street and back to the safety of the grass. There’s also an explosion of baby rabbits in that field driving everyone’s dogs crazy.

            We have a pair of Swainson’s hawks nesting in our neighborhood and they are using the field as their grocery store. I’m not sure exactly where they are nesting, but I’m guessing it is one of the large spruce trees. Whenever I’m at the field, I catch a glimpse of at least one hunting. But I also glimpse them from my kitchen window soaring, meaning I can add them to my eBird.org yard list. The yard list is all the species I’ve seen from the window or while out in the yard. The Swainson’s have put me at 99 species so far—over about 12 years.

            When it warmed up, we spent more time in our backyard and I noticed other signs of family life. We always have a raucous community of tree squirrels, one generation indistinguishable from the next, chasing each other round and round in our big trees.

            This year I’ve been hearing a mountain chickadee sing. No, not the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call—that’s their alarm call—but a sweet three-note song (listen at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/).

            I’m also learning the various phrases American goldfinches use while they spend the summer with us. We’ve left our nyger thistle seed feeder up for them (no, nyger thistle is not our noxious weed and it is treated not to sprout). They sometimes come as a group of four, including two males and two females, and sometimes a younger one.

            The downy woodpeckers have been visiting as well. They go for one of those blocks of seed “glued” together that you buy at the store. You would think they would go for bugs hiding in the furrowed bark of the tree trunks. Maybe they do, in addition to the seed block.

            The robins have been busy. I observed a youngster walking through my garden as it tried to imitate the foraging action of the nearby adult, but it finally resorted to begging to be fed.

            Within the space of a couple days I was contacted about two problem robins attempting to build nests on the tops of porch lights. Porch lights, because they usually provide a shelf-like surface under the safety of the roof overhang, are quite popular. But not everyone trying to use the adjacent door likes getting dive-bombed by the angry robin parents.

            In the first situation, Deb, our former neighbor, said the robin was trying to build a nest on a porch light with a pyramidal top. The bird could not make her nest stick and all the materials from all her attempts slid off and accumulated on the porch floor. Providing another ledge nearby might not have worked for such a determined bird. Instead, Deb opted for screening off the top of the light. Hopefully Mama Robin found a better location in Deb’s spruce trees.

            Our current neighbor, Dorothy, texted me the next day, wondering what she and her family were going to do about being attacked by the robin which had built a nest on her (flat-topped) front porch light. Maybe avoid walking out the front door and walk out through the garage instead, I said. I asked her if she had a selfie stick so she could take pictures of the inside of the nest to show her two young boys.

            Down at Lions Park a new colony of black-crowned night-herons has been established. Listen for them behind the conservatory. The colony at Holliday Park is still going strong.

            In the far corner of Curt Gowdy State Park, I caught a glimpse of a bird family I hadn’t seen together before. Way up on the nasty El Alto trail, I saw a brown songbird I couldn’t identify readily. And then the parent came to feed it, a western tanager. The youngster has a long way to go before attaining either the look of its mother, if female, or if male, the bright yellow body with black and white wings and the orange head like its father.      

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2019 Cheyenne Big Day

The Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count May 18 got started at 6:30 a.m. at Lions Park, a Wyoming Important Bird Area. Canada Goose goslings were out, but not many leaves on trees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 23, 2019, “Cheyenne Big Day birders count 112 bird species.”

By Barb Gorges

            No two Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts at the height of spring migration have the exact same weather, people or bird list which is why it is so exciting to see what happens.

            This year, on May 18, we had decent weather. Last year we rescheduled because of a snowstorm—almost to be expected in mid-May lately. However, by afternoon we had a couple showers of “graupel”—soft hail or snow pellets.

            One of our best local birders, Greg Johnson, stayed home sick. Instead, we were joined by two excellent birders from out of town. Zach Hutchinson is the Audubon Rockies community naturalist in Casper. Part of his job is running five bird banding stations. In handling so many birds, he’s learned obscure field marks on species we don’t see often. If you shoot a bird with a digital camera, you can examine the photo closely for them.

            The other visiting birder was E.J. Raynor. He came up from Ft. Collins, Colorado, because he was our designated chaperone for birding the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. The south side of the station is now designated as the High Plains Arboretum and open to the public, but the area behind the houses is not. Normally we put in for a permit and this year we got E.J. instead.

            He works for the Agricultural Research Service which operates the station. I thought he might be bored walking around with us, but his recent PhD is in ornithology so I convinced him he should join us for as much of the day as possible, especially for the Wyoming Hereford Ranch part. People from all over the world visit it—including a Massachusetts tour guide and his 14 British birders a week before.

The historic Wyoming Hereford Ranch, also a Wyoming Important Bird Area, is always a good place to bird. It is private property, but birdwatchers are welcome on the roads. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            WHR put on a good show and E.J. and Zach were able to identify a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an eastern bird, which is nearly identical to a female black-headed grosbeak, a western bird.

            We didn’t get out to the station until early afternoon and then got graupeled and didn’t find a lot of birds so I’m glad E.J. came early.

            Counting as a group started at 6:30 a.m. at Lions Park. Surprisingly, we had people up at that hour who are new to birding. We hope they will join us again. I never get tired of seeing beginners get excited about birds.

            By dusk, after Mark and I checked some of our favorite birding spots, the total bird list for the day looked like it might be about 90 species. But the next day we held a tally party at a local restaurant and the contributions of all 25 participants, including those who birded on their own, brought the total up to 112. Dennis Saville, birded Little America, Chuck Seniawski birded F.E. Warren Air Force Base and Grant Frost covered some of the outer areas.

            Now that most birders in Cheyenne use the global database eBird.org every day to document their sightings, the picture of spring migration is even more interesting than the single Big Day held each of the last 60 years. Migration ebbs and flows. Maybe we need to declare a Big Month and go birding every day in May.

2019 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 112 Species

Canada Goose

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

Mallard

Northern Pintail

Redhead

Lesser Scaup

Common Goldeneye

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Wilson’s Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Ring-billed Gull

Caspian Tern

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Mountain Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

European Starling

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Chestnut-collared Longspur

McCown’s Longspur

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Worm-eating Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Magnolia Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

House Sparrow

By evening of the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count it was cloudy and chilly and we found few new bird species, even here on the road between the Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Lummis Ranch. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Bird News – May 2019

May 16 – Bird talk & book signing, May 18 – Big Day Bird Count, May 20 – Habitat Hero garden ribbon-cutting

“Cheyenne Birds by the Month” bird talk and book signing Thursday, May 16, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central Ave., with author Barb Gorges and photographer Pete Arnold. The talk will be about backyard bird safety. Books will be available for sale. To find where else the books are available in Cheyenne, Laramie and online, go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 18 – Join Cheyenne Audubon anytime between 6:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., birding with the group, to help us find as many bird species in one day around town as possible. We start at Lions Park, then bird Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Grasslands Research Station. Call Mark, 307-287-4953, to find us. Or bird on your own and report to Mark. Or come to the tally May 19, 4 p.m., Perkins Restaurant, 1730 Dell Range Blvd.

Wyoming Hereford Ranch birding, early May.

You are invited to the ribbon-cutting May 20, 3 p.m. for the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities headquarters, 2416 Snyder Ave. A few words from dignitaries and light refreshments.
The garden showcases Water Smart Landscapes that save water and are wildlife friendly. Bee Smart! Water Smart!
Contact Dena, BOPU, degenhoff@cheyennebopu.org, 637-6415.

C

Book reviews: Birds and bears

Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.

This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.

There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.

Did you know the pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger, in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858. Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.

About 40 years later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous forever on the internet.

Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s here, the western counterpart of Nathan Pieplow’s eastern book I reviewed in July 2017, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/.

Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird. 

Each species’ page has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible birds.

Then you go online to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird sounds, this is the field guide for you. 

A Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.

The larger part of this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.

It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.

Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided. 

Down the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.

Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.

Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.

“Cheyenne Birds” bird walk and book signing April 6

The Cheyenne Botanic Gardens is hosting a “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” bird walk and book signing April 6, 10 a.m. – noon, at the Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Dr.

Join me, Barb Gorges, and the book’s photographer, Pete Arnold, as we take a short walk around the Gardens looking for birds with Pete’s camera and my spotting scope.

Books will be available for sale. See https://yuccaroadpress.com/. for other locations selling books. We’ve recently added the Pink Boutique at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center and Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center.

We are also excited to have the book featured in the April 2019 issue of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wyoming Wildlife magazine.

BirdCast

BirdCast improves birding—and bird safety

By Barb Gorges

            Last year, the folks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology improved and enhanced BirdCast, http://birdcast.info/. You can now get a three-night forecast of bird migration movement for the continental U.S. This not only helps avid birders figure out where to see lots of birds but helps operators of wind turbines know when to shut down and managers of tall buildings and structures when to shut the lights off (birds are attracted to lights and collide), resulting in the fewest bird deaths.

            The forecasts are built on 23 years of data that relates weather trends and other factors to migration timing.

            Songbird migration is predominately at night. Ornithologists discovered that radar, used to detect aircraft during World War II and then adapted for tracking weather events in the 1950s, was also detecting clouds of migrating birds.

            There is a network of 143 radar stations across the country, including the one by the Cheyenne airport. You can explore the data archive online and download maps for free.

            CLO’s Adriaan Doktor sent me an animation of the data collected from the Cheyenne station for May 7, 2018, one of last spring’s largest local waves of migration. He is one of the authors of a paper, “Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna,” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4, based on radar information.

            At the BirdCast website, you can pull up the animation for the night of May 6-7 and see where the migrating birds were thickest across the country. The brightest white clouds indicate a density of as many as 50,000 birds per kilometer per hour—that’s a rate of 80,500 birds passing over a mile-long line per hour. Our flight was not that bright, maybe 16,000 birds crossing a mile-long line per hour. A strong flight often translates into a lot of birds coming to earth in the morning—very good birdwatching conditions. Although if flying conditions are excellent, some birds fly on.

            I also looked at the night of May 18-19, 2018, the night before last year’s Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count—hardly any activity. The weather was so nasty that Saturday, our bird compiler rescheduled for Sunday, which was not a big improvement. We saw only 113 species.

            Twenty-five years ago, the third Saturday of May could yield 130 to 150 species. Part of the difference is the greater number of expert Audubon birders who helped count back then. Birding expertise seems to go in generational waves.

            But we also know that songbird numbers are down. I read in Scott Weidensaul’s book, “Living on the Wind,” published in 1999, about Sidney Gauthreaux’s 1989 talk at a symposium on neotropical migrants. He used radar records to show that the frequency of spring migrant waves across the Gulf of Mexico was down by 50 percent over 30 years. Radar can’t count individual birds or identify species, but we know destruction or degradation of breeding and wintering habitat has continued as people develop rural areas.

            But I also wonder if, along with plants blooming earlier due to climate change, the peak of spring migration is earlier. A paper by scientists from the University of Helsinki, due to be published in June in the journal Ecological Indicators, shows that 195 species of birds in Europe and Canada are migrating on average a week earlier than 50 years ago, due to climate change.

            Would we have been better off holding last year’s Big Day on either of the previous two Saturdays? I looked at the radar animations for the preceding nights in 2018, and yes, there was a lot more migration activity in our area than on the night before the 19th. Both dates also had better weather.

           As much fun as our Big Day is—a large group of birders of all skill levels combing the Cheyenne area for birds from dawn to dusk (and even in the dark)—and as much effort as is put into it, there has never been a guarantee the Saturday we pick will be the height of spring migration.

           The good news is that in addition to our Big Day, we have half a dozen diehard local birders out nearly every day from the end of April to the end of May adding spring migration information to the eBird.org database. It’s a kind of addiction, rather like fishing, wondering what you’ll see if you cast your eyes up into the trees and out across the prairie.   I recommend that you explore BirdCast.info (and eBird.org) and sign up to join Cheyenne Audubon members for all or part of this year’s Big Day on May 18. See the chapter’s website and/or sign up for the free e-newsletter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/newsletters/.

Wind farm on the Belvoir Ranch

Be careful what you wish for: wind development on the Belvoir Ranch has its downsides

The prairie is green June 11, 2016, on Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch, 10 miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This edition of Bird Banter was published Feb. 10, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Bird Banter column for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. I wrote about cool birds seen on the ponds at the Rawhide coal-powered plant 20 miles south of Cheyenne, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/birding-the-colorado-coast/.

            This month’s topic is also connected to Rawhide. It’s NextEra’s 120-turbine Roundhouse Wind Energy Center slated partly for the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch.

           Roundhouse will stretch between I-80 south to the Wyoming border and from a couple miles west of I-25 on west 12 miles to Harriman Road. The Belvoir is within. It’s roughly a two-to-three-mile-wide frame on the north and west sides. All the power will go to Rawhide and tie into Front Range utilities.

            The 2008 Belvoir masterplan designated an area for wind turbines. In the last 10 years I’ve learned about wind energy drawbacks. I wish the coal industry had spent millions developing clean air technology instead of fighting clean air regulations.

            We know modern wind turbines are tough on birds. Duke Energy has a robotic system that shuts down turbines when raptors approach (https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/eagle-safety-collaboration/). Roundhouse needs one—a raptor migration corridor exists along the north-south escarpment along its west edge.

            But in Kenn Kaufman’s new book, “A Season on the Wind,” he discovers that a windfarm far from known migration hot spots still killed at least 40 species of birds. Directly south of the Belvoir, 125 bird species have been documented through eBird at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and 95 at Red Mountain Open Space. Both are in Colorado, butting against the state line.

           Only a few miles to the east, Cheyenne hotpots vary from 198 species at Lions Park to 266 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, with as many as 150 species overall observed on single days in May. With little public access to the Belvoir since the city bought it in 2003 (I’ve been there on two tours and the 2016 Bioblitz), only NextEra has significant bird data, from its consultants.

            There are migrating bats to consider, plus mule deer who won’t stomach areas close to turbines—even if it is their favorite mountain mahogany habitat on the ridges. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can only suggest mitigation and monitoring measures.

            There are human safety and liability issues. The Friends of the Belvoir wants a trailhead on the west edge with trails connecting to Red Mountain and Soapstone. Wind turbines don’t bother them. However, during certain atmospheric conditions, large sheets of ice fly off the blades–“ice throw.” Our area, the hail capital, could have those conditions develop nearly any month of the year.

            The noise will impact neighbors (and wildlife too) when turbines a mile away interfere with sleep. Disrupted sleep is implicated in many diseases.

            Low frequency pulses felt six miles away (the distance between the east end of the windfarm and city limits) or more cause dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations and pressure sensations in the head and chest. The Belvoir will have bigger turbines than those on Happy Jack Road, reaching 499 feet high, 99 feet higher.

            A minor issue is the viewshed. In Colorado, the public and officials worked to place the transmission line from the Belvoir to Rawhide so that it wouldn’t impact Soapstone or Red Mountain. What will they think watching Roundhouse blades on the horizon?

            Because this wind development is not on federal land, it isn’t going through the familiar Environmental Impact Statement process. I’d assume the city has turbine placement control written into the lease.

           The first opportunity for the public to comment at the county level is Feb. 19. And in advance, the public can request to “be a party” when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council meets to consider NextEra’s permit in March.

            NextEra held an open house in Cheyenne November 28. They expect to get their permits and then break ground almost immediately. This speedy schedule is so the windfarm is operational by December 2020, before federal tax incentives end.

            It doesn’t seem to me that we—Cheyenne residents—have adequate time to consider the drawbacks of new era wind turbines—for people or wildlife. Look at the 2008 Master Plan, http://belvoirranch.org.  Is it upheld by spreading wind turbines over the entire 20,000 acres, more than originally planned? People possibly, and wildlife certainly, will be experiencing low frequency noise for 30 years.

            At the very least, I’d like to see NextEra move turbines back from the western boundary two miles, for the good of raptors, other birds, mule deer, trail users, and the neighbors living near Harriman Road. The two southernmost sections are already protected with The Nature Conservancy’s conservation easement.            

           What I’d really like to see instead is more solar development on rooftops and over parking lots in Cheyenne. Or a new style of Wyoming snow fence that turns wind into energy while protecting highways.

Bioblitz participants look and listen for birds along Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch June 11, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.