Yampa Valley Crane Festival origins


Greater Sandhill Cranes. Photo courtesy of Abby Jensen, www.jensen-photography.com.

Published Oct. 9, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cranes are a “gateway bird”

[Yampa Valley Crane Festival story begins with snow]

By Barb Gorges

I visited the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with my husband, Mark, in early September.

Steamboat is known for world-class skiing, but how does that relate to the festival centered around the greater sandhill crane?

It starts with a couple of skiers. Nancy Merrill, a native of Chicago, and her husband started skiing Steamboat in the late ’80s. They became fulltime residents by 2001.

Merrill was already “birdy,” as she describes it, by that point. She was even a member of the International Crane Foundation, an organization headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin, only three hours from Chicago.

She and her husband wanted to do something for birds in general when they moved to Colorado. They consulted with The Nature Conservancy to see if there was any property TNC would like them to buy and put into a conservation easement. As it turns out, there was a ranch next door to TNC’s own Carpenter Ranch property, on the Yampa River.

The previous owner left behind a list of birds seen on the property, but it wasn’t until she moved in that Merrill discovered the amount of crane activity, previously unknown, including cranes spending the night in that stretch of the river during migration stop overs—which we observed during the festival.

Cheyenne folks are more familiar with the other subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane, which funnels through central Nebraska in March. It winters in southwestern U.S. and Mexico and breeds in Alaska and Siberia. It averages 41 inches tall.

Greater sandhill cranes, by contrast, stand 46 inches tall, winter in southern New Mexico and breed in the Rockies, including Colorado, and on up through western Wyoming to British Columbia. Many come through the Yampa Valley in the fall, fattening up on waste grain in the fields for a few weeks.

In 2012 there was a proposal for a limited crane hunting season in Colorado. Only 14 states, including Wyoming, have seasons. The lack of hunting in 36 states could be due to the cranes’ charisma and their almost human characteristics in the way they live in family groups for 10 months after hatching their young. Mates stick together year after year, performing elaborate courtship dances.

Plus, they are slow to reproduce and we have memories of their dramatic population decline in the early 20th century.

Merrill and her friends from the Steamboat birding club were not going to let hunting happen if they could help it. Organized as the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, they were successful and decided to continue with educating people about the cranes.

Out of the blue, Merrill got a call from George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, congratulating the CCCC on their work and offering to come and speak, thus instigating the first Yampa Valley Crane Festival in 2012.

Merrill became an ICF board member and consequently has developed contacts resulting in many interesting speakers over the festival’s five years thus far. This year included Nyambayar Batbayar, director of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and an associate of ICF, and Barry Hartup, ICF veterinarian for whooping cranes.

Festival participants are maybe 40 percent local and 60 percent from out of the valley, from as far away as British Columbia. Merrill said they advertised in Bird Watchers Digest, a national magazine, and through Colorado Public Radio.

It is a small, friendly festival, with a mission to educate. The talks, held at the public library, are all free. A minimal amount charged for taking a shuttle bus at sunrise to see the cranes insures people will show up. [Eighty people thought rising early was worthwhile Friday morning alone.]

This year’s activities for children were wildly successful, from learning to call like a crane to a visit from Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, who has designed a wonderful, larger-than-life whooping crane puppet.

There was also a wine and cheese reception at a local gallery featuring crane art and a barbecue put on by the Routt County Cattlewomen. Life-size wooden cut-outs of cranes decorated by local artists were auctioned off.

We opted for the nature hike on Thunderhead Mountain at the Steamboat ski area. Gondola passes good for the whole day had been donated. This was just an example of how the crane festival benefits from a wide variety of supporters providing in-kind services and grants. Steamboat Springs is well-organized for tourism and luckily, crane viewing is best during the shoulder season, between general summer tourism and ski season.

Meanwhile, the CCCC has a new goal. Over the years, grain farming has dropped off, providing less waste grain for cranes. Now farmers and landowners are being encouraged financially to plant for the big birds. It means agriculture, cranes and tourism are supporting each other.

Merrill thinks of the cranes as an ambassador species, gateway to becoming concerned about nature, “The cranes do the work for us, we just harness them.”

Eagle safety collaboration


Golden Eagle. Photo courtesy of Audubon Rockies.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Collaboration could keep eagles safe.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, while researching the wind energy/eagle issue, I learned about new technology that could help eagles survive encounters with wind farms.

IdentiFlight uses stereoscopic cameras to detect and identify eagles in flight far enough out to shut down a turbine, preventing a deadly collision.

The idea that cameras hooked up to a computer can learn to “see” eagles, using machine vision technology, is as remarkable as the collaboration behind it.

It starts with Renewable Energy Systems, started in 1982, and now a global company in the business of designing and installing as well as developing wind energy projects.

I spoke with Tom Hiester, vice president of strategy for RES Americas, whose office is in Broomfield, Colorado.

He said RES is funding the development of IdentiFlight and will own the rights to the technology and sell equipment. Other wind companies concerned with avoiding the fines for killing eagles will be the customers.

RES is working with Boulder Imaging, a Boulder, Colorado, tech company specializing in industrial precision applications.

Initial testing of the IdentiFlight system was done through the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its testing facility, the National Wind Technology Center, is south of Boulder on 300 acres up against the foothills, where the wind can be ferocious. Companies, universities and government agencies come to test their turbines for reliability and performance.

Machine vision requires training the computer. In this case, it needed to see how real eagles fly. A golden eagle and a bald eagle were brought in from the Southeastern Raptor Center, where birds of prey are rehabilitated. They also happened to be the mascots for Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama. You can see a video at www.energy.gov/eagles.

Hiester told me they have found that eagles are more susceptible to collisions when hunting. Their heads are down, eyes concentrating on the ground. Machine vision has to identify a moving object as an eagle at 1,000 meters to give the appropriate turbine the 30 seconds needed to shut down.

This summer, IdentiFlight is getting tested by a third party selected by the American Wind Wildlife Institute. AWWI was organized about eight years ago. Half its partners are a who’s who of wind energy companies. The other half are national environmental organizations such as Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as wildlife managers represented by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and scientists represented by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One of AWWI’s interests is minimizing eagle deaths. They expect to publish and share what they learn. Besides detecting and deterring eagles from wind turbine collisions, they are also looking at lead abatement (lead shot in carcasses left by hunters will poison eagles because eagles often eat dead animals), reducing vehicle strikes (by removing dead animals along roads), and improving the habitat of eagle prey species.

AWWI science advisors include Dale Strickland of Cheyenne. His environmental consulting firm, Western EcoSystems Technology, has studied wind and wildlife interactions across the country for a number of years.

AWWI selected the Peregrine Fund to conduct the testing. The Peregrine Fund, established in Idaho in 1970 to protect and reestablish peregrine falcon populations, also works now with other raptors around the world.

The test site is Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm outside Casper. In general, Wyoming has more eagles than other states, and some of our topographic features that cause strong wind also concentrate eagles.

For the test, IdentiFlight cameras have been set up on a tower with a 360-degree view. When motion is identified as an eagle, and velocity and proximity figured, human researchers in an observation tower confirm it. In the future, the system would be totally automated and the identification of an eagle would trigger the shutdown of the turbine in the eagle’s path. IdentiFlight can also be used to survey for eagles on prospective wind sites.

Hiester said the number of eagles actually killed by wind turbines is minor. There are more deaths from other causes. But as more and more wind projects are built, that could change, especially in Wyoming where there is a lot of wind and a lot of eagles.

Most other bird species flying through wind farms don’t have the federal protections that eagles do. IdentiFlight won’t do much for them unless they fly alongside the eagles. Hiester said that thermal imaging techniques could help identify them and bats.

Hiester has been invited to share the results of this summer’s IdentiFlight trials the evening of January 17, 2017, at the meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, which is expected to be held at the Laramie County Public Library.

Eagles and wind energy

2016-8Golden Eagle courtesy Audubon Rockies

Golden Eagle. Courtesy Audubon Rockies.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pondering how much eagles can take”


By Barb Gorges

Just when we thought eagles were safe (bald eagles were taken off the threatened and endangered species list in 2007) we discover that golden eagle numbers are still down.  And there are plans to build a massive wind farm in Wyoming which will take the lives of both bald and golden eagles.

I should have written a column about this earlier so you could send your comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but I was sidetracked by spring migration.

However, staff at Audubon Rockies, and their counterparts at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society, have written extensive comments backed by science and experience.

The Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) is developing the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry/Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. It is located on 500 square miles in Carbon County, southcentral Wyoming, where there is some of the best wind in the country. It will be the largest onshore wind farm in the U.S.

PCW is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on improving siting for turbines and has reduced the projected take to 10-14 golden eagles and 1-2 bald eagles per year. The definition of “take” is death incidental to industry activities.

The projected take numbers also account for the eagles that will live because PCW will retrofit 1,500-3,000 power poles per year for eagle safety. Eagles’ large wingspans can cause their electrocution when they perch on poles and they touch two electrical hotspots at the same time and cause a completed circuit.

PCW is applying for an eagle take permit for the first half of the development. It is voluntary, but good insurance. PCW saw a competitor without a permit get hit with a $1 million fine for killing eagles.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of updating the eagle take rule. It will probably apply to the second half of PCW’s development, the other 500 turbines.

The update would give wind power companies across the country 30-year permits, to cover the expected lifespan of a windfarm, rather than the current five years. However, Fish and Wildlife proposes a review every five years.

Audubon Rockies concedes that PCW needs some assurance that they can operate for a longer length of time that will make the investment worthwhile—they can’t get investors if there is a possibility eagle deaths will shut down part of the development after the first five years.

However, there are concerns. In the proposed rule update, any monitoring done by the company would be considered proprietary and not be required to be available to public scrutiny. Audubon feels more transparency is needed on what is happening with our eagles.

And there needs to be more flexibility to manage the windfarm/eagle interactions as more eagle research is done. We don’t know yet how eagles will deal with the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre development. It’s not just the spinning windmill blades, the tips of which can travel 150 mph. Eagles also collide with the transmission lines and towers.

Because it takes eagles five years to reach sexual maturity, we know their populations can’t quickly bounce back like rabbits.

The site of PCW’s Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project is gorgeous. The thought of developing it is heartbreaking. But the company has done a lot of work and spent a lot of money studying the wildlife problems. They deserve clear answers from the federal government on what they can and can’t do.

Eagles are just one of the items addressed in the draft environmental impact statement for the wind farm. Other wildlife, including bats and songbirds, are affected too.

By the end of the year, we will find out how Fish and Wildlife will react to public comments not only on Chokecherry/Sierra Madre, but also the proposed update of the eagle take rule.

Does clean energy have to come down to this? Do we have to fill Wyoming’s open spaces (they are not empty spaces) with industrial clutter? Why didn’t the coal companies spend millions on cleaner power plant emissions research instead of on litigation at every turn?

Why does alternative energy, specifically wind and solar, have to follow the old centralized, mega-production model? I still think disbursed [“distributed” is the frequently used term] power production would be better, safer—less of a target for troublemakers.

In comparison, look at how Mother Nature spreads oxygen-producing plants everywhere. Even where natural or man-made catastrophes have stripped the vegetation, it doesn’t take long for another little oxygen-producing factory to take hold.

Plus, wouldn’t you like to park in the shade of a solar panel while shopping at the mall? Adding solar panels to our rooftops and choosing energy efficient appliances will not only cut our personal utility bills, but in a way, save eagles in the future.


See http://powercompanyofwyoming.com/ for more information about this wind energy project.

Here are the Bureau of Land Management documents: http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/NEPA/documents/rfo/Chokecherry.html. The project is located in the “checkerboard” area, where  1-mile square areas of public land managed by BLM alternate with those owned privately.

Check the Audubon Rockies website for updates: http://rockies.audubon.org/.

Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

2016-7Bioblitz7 Barb Gorges

Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, is getting ready to let a young citizen scientist release a yellow warbler that was caught in a mist net during the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Kids explore nature of the Belvoir Ranch.”

By Barb Gorges

I was delighted to recognize my neighbor at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz last month. She is going to be a senior at Cheyenne East High in the fall and was there with two friends. All three were planning to spend the weekend looking for birds, mammals, herps (reptiles and amphibians), pollinators, macroinvertebrates and plants, to fulfill more hours required for their Congressional Award gold medals.

The weekend could have served for all four award areas: volunteer public service (we were all volunteer citizen scientists collecting data), personal development (the staff taught us a lot of new things), physical fitness (hiking up and down Lone Tree Creek in the heat was arduous), and expedition/exploration (many of us, including my neighbor and her friends, camped out and cooked meals despite being only 20 miles from Cheyenne).

Mark and I have attended other bioblitzes around the state, but this was the first one close to Cheyenne. With all of the publicity from the four sponsoring groups, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Geographic Alliance, a record 100 people attended, plus the staff of 50 from various natural science disciplines.

When I asked my neighbor why she and her friends had come, she said, “We’re science nerds.” That was exciting to hear.

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My neighbor and friends net aquatic invertebrates including dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  A blue and green pollinator trap is set up on the far side of the pond. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There were a lot of junior science nerds in attendance with their families. Small children enjoyed wading into the pond along the creek to scoop up dragonfly and damselfly larvae —and even crayfish.

A surprising number of children were up at 6 a.m. Saturday for the bird survey. The highlight was the raven nest in a crevice on the canyon wall, with three young ravens crowding the opening, ready to fledge.

Sunday morning’s bird mist netting along the creek was very popular. Several birds that had been hard to see with binoculars were suddenly in hand.

2016-7Bioblitz8 Barb Gorges

Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, discusses the captured bird he is holding in his left hand. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because it wasn’t at an official bird banding site, the mist netting was strictly educational and the birds were soon released. Several young children had the opportunity to hold a bird and release it, feeling how light it was, how fast its heart beat and feeling the little whoosh of air as it took flight. What I wouldn’t give to know if any of the children grow up to be bird biologists or birdwatchers.

The Belvoir Ranch is owned by the city of Cheyenne and stretches miles to the west between I-80 and the Colorado-Wyoming state line. The city bought it in 2003 and 2005 to protect our upstream aquifer, or groundwater, as well as the surface water.

2016-7Bioblitz6 Barb Gorges

Bioblitz birdwatchers head down along Lone Tree Creek at 6 a.m. on June 12 to survey the birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While limited grazing and hunting continues as it did under private ownership, other parts of the master plan have yet to come to fruition: wind farm, landfill, golf course, or general recreation development. It is normally closed to the public. However, progress is being made on trails to connect the ranch to Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and/or Red Mountain Open Space.

A good landowner takes stock of his property. The city has some idea of what’s out there, including archeological sites. But with budgets tightening, there won’t be funding to hire consultants for a closer look. But there are a lot of citizen scientists available.

The data from the Bioblitz weekend went into the Wyobio database, www.wyobio.org, a place where data from all over Wyoming can be entered. The bird data also went into eBird.org.

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A University of Wyoming graduate student and a citizen scientist filter water from the creek to prepare it for DNA analysis. The sample will show what amphibians have been swimming there. Photo by Barb Gorges.  

The data began to paint a picture of the Belvoir: 62 species of animals including 50 birds, 8 mammals, 4 herps, plus 13 taxa of macroinvertebrates (not easily identified to species) and 12 taxa of pollinators (bees and other insects), plus many species of plants. All that diversity was from exploring half a mile of one creek within the ranch’s total 18,800 acres–about 30 square miles.

2016-7Bioblitz3 Barb Gorges

This ground nest seems to have one smaller egg laid by an interloper. Many grassland bird species build their nests on the ground. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The members of the City Council who approved the ranch purchase are to be congratulated on making it public land in addition to protecting our watershed. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the federal and state governments to do the right thing.  The essence of Wyoming is its big natural landscapes and we are lucky to have one on the west edge of Wyoming’s largest city.

Let’s also congratulate the parents who encouraged their children to examine the critters in the muddy pond and pick up mammal scat (while wearing plastic gloves) on the trails among other activities.

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A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist introduces a Wandering Garter Snake to a young citizen scientist. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Someday, these kids will grow up to be like my high school neighbor and her friends. Someday they could be the graduate students, professors and land use professionals. No matter what they become, they can always contribute scientific data by being citizen scientists.

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Citizen scientists of all ages learned to identify types of aquatic invertebrates at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Caught up

2016-07-10 Snowy Range - Barb GorgesDear Cheyenne Bird Banter Followers,

The good news, from my point of view, is that I am finished archiving past Bird Banters, Bird of the Weeks and Roadside Attractions.

The good news for you and me is that the Wyoming Tribune Eagle will continue to run my freelance Bird Banter columns monthly. The columns will continue to be archived here after they are published in the paper.

Thanks for being a reader. I’ll have something new for you soon!


Photos: Snowy Range, Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming, July 8, 2016, by Barb Gorges. Flower: Alpine claytonia, 2 inches high.

2016-07-10 Snowy Range - Alpine claytonia - Barb Gorges


Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Expedition Island

18-Expedition Island

The city of Green River, where the Transcontinental Railroad crossed the Green River, became the departure point for many river adventures. Expedition Island commemorates them, beginning with John Wesley Powell’s in 1869. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 7, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Expedition Island commemorates historic Green River adventures.”

By Barb Gorges

Starting out as a stage station on the Overland Trail, the town of Green River became a division point on the Transcontinental Railroad and the jump off for many expeditions down the Green River.

William Ashley descended the Green in 1825, during the fur trapping era, but in 1869, just after the railroad was completed, John Wesley Powell wanted his trip to be a scientific survey. After him came attempts at navigating the river in a paddlewheeler, speed records, women steering their own craft and commercial float trips, before the river was dammed at Flaming Gorge.

The historical interpretive signs along the path around Expedition Island are worth reading, but after a long, probably hot drive, you and your family will appreciate the free splash park more. Afterwards, you can retire to the shade with something cold from the concession stand.

At the entrance to the footbridge on the other side of the parking lot, check out the map of local pathways that connect several local parks and natural areas.

Expedition Island Park

Directions: I-80 Exit 91, south on Uinta Dr. (State Hwy. 530), right on 2nd St.

Open: Year round, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Splash park open 10 a.m. 8 p.m. Memorial through Labor Day.

Admission: Free.

Address: 475 S. Second East

Phone: 307-872-6151

Web site: http://www.cityofgreenriver.org

Attractions: splash park, changing rooms, playground, concessions, picnicking, shade, historical interpretive signs around the edge of the island. Also, Green River Park and Tubing Channel.

Time: Allow at least 1 hour.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Point of Rocks

15-Point of Rocks

Recent restoration of the Point of Rocks Stage Station makes it easier to visualize pre-railroad days. Ruts to the left of the building mark the route of the Overland Trail. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published August 18, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Overland Trail relay stage station is a precursor to the truck stop.”

By Barb Gorges

The rocky cliffs rise high above the convenience store at the Point of Rocks exit, located on the north side of I-80. Stop there for gas, food, water and the restrooms since the original stagecoach stop has been out of business for over 100 years.

When you’re refreshed, cross under the Interstate and explore the precursor to the truck stop.

Imagine the hustle and bustle in the years before the railroad arrived. Around the barn, now only a sandstone foundation, new teams are being hitched to stagecoaches, and many passengers and supplies are transferred to wagons for the trip north to the gold mining districts.

Ben Holladay bought the overland mail delivery contract, but in 1862, the U.S. government asked him to find a safer alternative to the Oregon Trail across Wyoming. Even after the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868, the Overland Trail continued to be used, even as late as 1900.

The Overland Trail continued west, on to Ft. Bridger, Salt Lake City and California.

Point of Rocks Stage Station State Historic Site

Directions: I-80 Exit 130, south, then west on frontage road about ¼ mile, then south over railroad tracks.

Open: Year round.

Admission: Free.

Address: Point of Rocks

Phone: 307-332-3688

Web site: http://wyoparks.state.wy.us

Attractions: self-guided tour. No visitor amenities.

Time: Allow 1 hour.