Longspurs animate shortgrass prairie

This male thick-billed longspur was nearly invisible on the shortgrass prairie north of Hillsdale, Wyoming. Longspurs are named for the long claw on their backward-facing toe. Photo by Kirk Miller.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle May 5, 2023.

Longspurs animate local shortgrass prairie

By Barb Gorges

            Eastern Laramie County has no mountains, but it is not flat.

            We were looking for birds north of Hillsdale (a town name indicating the varied topography), walking across the shortgrass prairie on a very fine morning (meaning no wind) in late April. We were surrounded by small birds popping up, circling us and then, upon landing, becoming invisible.

            A nearby windbreak was full of robins and red-winged blackbirds, but up the hill, where the grass was well-grazed, barely an inch tall, it was full of grassland birds like western meadowlarks and horned larks. And lots of longspurs.

            Your field guide, if not brand-new, will show them as McCown’s longspurs. While John P. McCown was stationed with the U.S. Army in Texas along the Rio Grande, he collected several bird specimens. Presumably it was winter, when these longspurs are wintering there and in southern New Mexico and due south in Mexico.

            McCown sent the specimens back east and the ornithologists determined his longspur was a new-to-them species. In 1851, they named it in honor of McCown.

            However, by 2020, a closer examination of McCown’s career showed that he’d served on the frontier with less than perfect integrity and then joined the Confederate army. Altogether, he became someone the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society did not want to honor, and the bird’s name was changed to thick-billed longspur. The committee is considering removing people’s names from all bird names, which in North America would affect 150 species. You will need a new field guide when that happens.

            But out on the prairie, the birds have no nametags, only their markings. The thick-billed longspur has a heavy, seed-cracking bill. It is closely related to sparrows and eats seeds all winter. However, in spring, it eats insects and invertebrates and will feed them to its young.

            As we walked, the longspurs kept popping up and circling us. Perhaps we were kicking up insects as we walked, just like cows or buffalo. It’s also time for the males to do their aerial territorial mating display. They are marked with distinctive black bibs this time of year and with their tails fanned out, white with dark center stripe and black lower edge, they are, after seeing so many, easy to separate from the more numerous horned larks which have blacker tails.

            Over the last 50 years, the thick-billed longspur population is down 94%, mostly due to changes in their habitat. They are on Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” list which includes 80 bird species: https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Habitat/Habitat-Plans.  

            Wyoming has about 27% of the world’s thick-billed longspurs. Their breeding range is primarily eastern Wyoming, much of Montana and small extensions into Colorado, Nebraska, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

            Game and Fish attributes population declines to prairie fragmentation by agriculture (plowing), urbanization (subdivisions) and fire suppression. Stressors include energy development (including wind energy), invasive species (like cheatgrass), off-road recreation, altered fire and grazing regimes (longspurs prefer heavily grazed areas), drought and climate change.

            Maybe the academics can study how many houses per square mile can be built on the prairie before longspurs decamp. But not all homeowners take care of their property in the same way.

            First, to protect ground-nesting birds like longspurs, meadowlarks and horned larks, people are keeping their dogs off the prairie, or at least on a leash April through July.

            Second, people who value grassland species of all kinds refrain from mowing too often, especially April through July to protect the nesting birds, but also to reduce extreme fire risk.

            It seems counterintuitive. If the shortgrass prairie grasses are repeatedly cut back (some people erroneously believe they need to mow more than once every couple years), the grasses begin to struggle. The less-shaded soil gets too hot, and heat-loving species move in, such as the more combustible, non-native cheatgrass.

            Prairie grasses are so cool. They have deep roots so they can make a comeback from drought and grazing. Wanda Manley, who lives out on the prairie and has a master’s degree in range management, told me that even after a (normal) grass fire, the growing point of each grass plant stays green and recovery is rapid. But where the prairie has been abused, fires are so hot, the soil burns and recovery will take much longer.

            If you are someone who owns a patch of prairie and a riding mower and who enjoys a reason to get out there on a nice day, why not leave the mower parked and grab your binoculars?  Walk out, maybe to the top of one of the hills, and listen for the music of the longspurs, these small birds that have been visiting our prairie every spring for thousands of years.    

Birdman of the Senate

McLean biography traces politics of passage of Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Published April 7, 2023, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            It’s spring migration season.

            Mid-March, the mountain bluebirds were back and could be seen at the High Plains Arboretum, where we hope they will find the new nest boxes put up by Rustin Rawlings.

            Cheyenne Audubon’s March 18 field trip to Lingle to see northern cardinals was a success. I never expected to see one in Wyoming. They even produced a breeding record for the state last summer.

            We also checked out the reservoirs at the Springer Wildlife Habitat Management Unit, finding two trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes amid the usual ducks and geese. The following week, a storm of snow geese showed up.

            Studies show there are fewer birds in North America than 50 years ago. But the losses would be much worse if not for the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

            Because “our” birds cross international boundaries, it is important that there is international law. And we have the persistence of one man to thank for it, George P. McLean (1857-1932), former governor of and U.S. senator from Connecticut.

            McLean’s great-great nephew, Will McLean Greeley, has written his biography, “A Connecticut Yankee Goes to Washington, Senator George P. McLean, Birdman of the Senate.” An archivist by trade, Greeley inherited the story of a man who is a fascinating subject, with a well-documented life, too.

            I admit, I jumped right to Chapter 8, “Saving the Birds,” only skimming the previous chapters describing McLean’s rise from home-spun-wearing farm boy to governor. He was a champion of nature, especially birds.

            In the late 1800s wild birds were being harvested for feathers for women’s hats (the impetus for the founding of the National Audubon Society). Chickens were less available than wild birds, including songbirds, for putting on dinner tables. States had hunting regulations, but not well enforced.

            McLean’s first efforts, as a Republican elected to the Senate in 1911, were for federal protection of migratory gamebirds. But as he acquired supporters, including hunters, gun and ammo manufacturers, the U.S. Agriculture Department and conservation groups like the National Audubon Society, he extended protection to songbirds and insectivorous birds.

            In the era before chemical pesticides, protecting insect-eating birds protected crops. So it made sense to add the Weeks-McLean bird protection bill to the massive ag appropriations bill. President Taft was so tired on the last day of his administration that he signed it without reading it.

            The Weeks-McLean bill also defined bird hunting seasons, allowed federal laws to supersede state wildlife laws when more stringent, placed a five-year-ban on killing vulnerable species including whooping cranes, wood ducks and swans, and funded seven federal field agents and 172 local game wardens paid by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

            Protecting birds should be an easy sell, but Missouri Senator James Reed felt the need to oppose McLean at every stage, even though biographer Greeley discovered the two men and their families socialized outside work.

            McLean next had to work with a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, and the distractions of World War I, the 1918 pandemic, plus opponents wanting the Supreme Court to judge whether the federal government could usurp the states’ control of wildlife. Greeley points out that this was the Progressive Era and McLean was one in the best sense of progressivism, including federal regulations we take for granted today, like labor laws.

            Since international treaties are more impervious to Supreme Court decisions, McLean went after one next. In the final push, he had to let the president’s man take credit for the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Updated over the years but briefly tampered with during the 2017-2021 presidential term, it’s recovered its full effectiveness.

            Although George McLean became one of the wealthy elite, he was not miserly with his estate. He left substantial sums to all his nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews, employees and conservation groups like the Connecticut Audubon Society. His estate established the McLean Fund and the 4,400-acre McLean Game Refuge.

            Historical, political biographies are not my usual literary fare, but I was intrigued by the bird connection. And I was rewarded with a riveting story in which, under the leadership of one man, America and the other treaty signers were convinced to do the right thing for birds.

            Author Greeley found that McLean’s rationale for protecting birds was that he found them to be beautiful. So, get outside this spring and look for those beautiful birds. Or at least look out your window.

            Say a little thank you to George P. McLean that the robins weren’t all baked into pies, and that they are still patrolling your lawn.

eBird perks and processes

By summer, young black-crowned night-herons from the Holliday Park colony are fishing along the edge of the lake. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Birders get look behind the scenes, find more eBird perks

Published March 3, 2023, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            eBird has come a long way since its debut in 2002.

            As a means of collecting scientific bird data by offering birders a place to save their bird lists, Cornell Lab of Ornithology invented an ingenious bit of community (or citizen) science and it just keeps getting better.

            Anyone can go to eBird.org and sign up for free. The website, under the Help tab, has tutorials on how to enter your bird sightings.

            Don Jones, University of Wyoming graduate student studying sagebrush songbirds, and Cheyenne Audubon’s February guest speaker, said that for Wyoming, 15,000 different birdwatchers have submitted 200,000 checklists so far. Wyoming eBird data was recently added to the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.

            Globally, as of the 20th anniversary in May 2022, 820,000 eBirders contributed 1.3 billion observations.

            Since scientists are expected to use eBird data, there is a review process. Once, I received a polite email from the regional reviewer asking if I had indeed seen 49 black-crowned night-herons at Holliday Park, and if so, could I send more information.

            When I explained that it was a breeding colony that has been there for years (and is still there, but a bit diminished as the park loses the big cottonwoods), my report was accepted. Today, I can look up that night-heron sighting on eBird and tell you it started May 29 at 7:45 a.m. and I saw 220 birds of 15 species while walking 1.5 miles in an hour.

            Don, a volunteer eBird reviewer for 10 years, explained that if the reviewer doesn’t think you have enough information to verify the entry, the entry can stay on your list but it won’t be publicly available. Don’s been in that boat, especially when birding abroad when he’s discovered he’s made identification mistakes. But then he was able to fix them.

            The globe is divided into review areas. We are in the Laramie/Goshen counties area. Volunteer reviewers familiar with the bird life here, like Don, set a filter for each species specifying which months it might be seen and maximum number seen at one time. The number is higher for a migratory species during migration months than during breeding months when birds spread out and become secretive.

            Filters do change over time. Perhaps an invasive species like the Eurasian collared-dove has moved in or another species, like the dickcissel, is becoming rarer.

            In the last few years, eBird has added new perks for birdwatchers. One is signing up for notices for birds you’d like to see.

            For instance, I can generate a list of species I haven’t seen in Laramie County but others have – target species. My 87 target species seem to be a lot of rarities – species unlikely to be seen here, but maybe common elsewhere. For instance, eBird has only three reports of prairie warbler, an eastern species, in Cheyenne, in 2000 and 2001. I have a much better chance of finding native burrowing owls last reported in 2022.

            Once you know what birds you want to see, you can sign up for alerts. There are two kinds. Rare Bird Alerts are for species the American Birding Association considers rare for your area of interest. If I sign up for Needs Alerts for Laramie County, I’ll be alerted whenever someone reports a species I haven’t seen here yet.

            Note: When eBird says “Laramie,” they mean our county, not our neighboring town to the west.   

            eBird is handy for preparing for a birding trip to an area you aren’t familiar with by showing where publicly accessible hotspots are and generating a list of species for you. You can see the latest observations.

            You can even generate a multiple-choice species identification quiz for a location at a particular time of year, either with photos or bird sounds.

            After your trip, you can pull together all the checklists you submitted and add notes and photos to make a “Trip Report” to save and share.

            Under the Science tab are all sorts of wonderous interpretations of eBird data: Visualizations of bird abundance, abundance trends, migratory route animations plus improved range maps showing breeding, wintering and migration areas for each species.

            There’s the list of published studies using eBird data. There were 160 peer-reviewed publications in 2022, like this one: “Bai, J., P. Hou, D. Jin, J. Zhai, Y. Ma, and J. Zhao (2022) “Habitat Suitability Assessment of Black-Necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) in the Zoige Grassland Wetland Ecological Function Zone on the Eastern Tibetan Plateau.” Diversity 14(7).”

            It’s incredible to think we birdwatchers, while having fun watching birds all over the world, with just a little extra effort, maybe using the mobile app, can contribute knowledge that helps birds.

            For questions about eBird in Wyoming, contact Don Jones through the University of Wyoming online directory.

New conservation tool: Habitat leasing

Ranchland can provide important wildlife habitat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Habitat leasing to provide new tool for Wyoming conservation

By Barb Gorges

            Bob Budd dropped the name of a new conservation tool during his book talk for the Cheyenne–High Plains Audubon Society last month. So I asked Bob for more details a few days later.

            The new habitat leasing program Bob mentioned is like conservation easements but short term and lower price per acre.

            First, let’s look at what a conservation easement is. Wikipedia has an extensive definition showing it dates back to the 1950s or earlier, but to summarize, an interested landowner finds willing partners to pay him or her not to use their land for certain purposes.

            Those certain purposes are most often development or subdivision, especially on farm and ranch land. Because the acreage can no longer be subdivided under a conservation easement, the property loses the value associated with subdivision.

            The consenting landowner (it’s always a voluntary agreement) is paid for conserving the land. Who pays the landowner? In Bob’s experience as executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, a state agency, in setting up some of these, it can be a mix of money from a non-profit organization like The Nature Conservancy, a farm or ranch organization, and government agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS).

            The conservation easement becomes part of the property, passed along to the next owner.

            The landowner may recognize the conservation value of their land and seek the easement. The buyers of the easement confirm the conservation value and the financial value through an extensive appraisal process.   

The land could be valuable for wildlife. Or maybe for other ecological services such as absorbing precipitation to decrease flooding downstream, instead of increasing impervious pavement.

Around here, raising beef cattle doesn’t pay as well as selling land for homesites. A rancher may be lucky enough to improve their bottom line by leasing some of their property for windfarms, solar farms or oil and gas development. Up until now, a conservation easement was one of few ways to be paid for providing wildlife habitat. But they are a hard sell because they are forever.

Well, now we will have habitat leasing. The details are still being ironed out, but Wyoming will be piloting the concept this spring. Simply, a landowner can sign a contract for a period of years, maybe 10 or 15, and receive an annual payment in return for maintaining their acreage to benefit habitat, migration routes and/or other ecological services.

It could be habitat for a species of concern, with an agency contacting the landowner to see if they want to sign up.

For this pilot program, Bob has been working with NRCS and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The habitat they are interested in is the seasonal migration corridors that have caught the public’s attention.

The Wyoming Migration Initiative has identified routes that are used by deer and antelope year after year as they move north from their wintering grounds to higher elevation breeding grounds and back again in the fall.

These routes have to provide forage for the travelers, or they will fail to breed successfully. The animals don’t seem to find new routes when there are obstacles.

So, protecting the historic migration routes with habitat leasing seems like a fair transaction for both the rancher and the wildlife.

Forty years ago, when I was in college studying natural resources and then range management, environmentalists and ranchers seemed to be on opposite sides of the fence, especially on topics like wolf reintroduction. But the wildlife folks and the ranchers have found they have much in common. Here in Wyoming, for instance, they have been successful in collaborating on how to help sage-grouse.

Bob has been there on the sage-grouse work. He’s the ranch-raised kid who, as he explains in his new book, “Otters Dance,” used to run feral through the willows, watching the birds and frogs.

In his previous job as the ranch manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Bob worked out ways to keep cows and wildlife happy simultaneously. He knew his stream restoration worked when a family of otters moved in.

The ranchers Bob knows are knowledgeable about the wildlife on their places and always interested in learning more.

I remember Bob saying one time when Mark and I visited Red Canyon Ranch that when the environmentalists visited, they wanted to see the cows and find out how many there were. Visiting ranchers wanted to see the endangered plants.

Bob, himself, is a special kind of person. Pick up his book at the Wyoming State Museum, Game and Fish headquarters, the Cheyenne Frontier Days museum or online and see what I mean. He can take the fence down between two opposing camps. With him riding herd on this habitat leasing pilot, I’m pretty sure it can be successful.

Ranchland is vulnerable to being subdivided, which limits its value to wildlife. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count report

The bushtit made its first appearance on the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 17, 2022. A small flock has been hanging out at Lions Park this fall. Photo by Grant Frost.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count had several remarkable observations

By Barb Gorges

            Perhaps somewhere in the archives of Rocky Mountain National Park is my signature on a piece of paper from the cylinder on Hallett’s Peak, proving I made it to the top in August 1973.

            Short of birth, death and graduation records, most of us don’t lead a permanently, well-documented life. But if you participate in a Christmas Bird Count, you can look yourself up online, at least back to 2005. More important are the number of birds counted, distances traveled and the weather conditions. That data goes back to 1900 (1974 for Cheyenne).

Explore the data at https://netapp.audubon.org/cbcobservation/. The address changes whenever the sponsor, the National Audubon Society, reorganizes its website.

            This year was the 123rd Christmas Bird Count, straddling the year end of 2022-2023. The Cheyenne count was held Dec. 17, 2022, within a 7.5-mile-diameter count circle centered on the State Capitol.

            The 20 participants together walked 26 miles, drove 76 miles and watched feeders for 15 hours.

            Here is the list of 51 species and how many were seen of each, plus a few notes.

Cackling Goose 97

            These geese used to be lumped with Canada geese as four smaller subspecies, sometimes as small as a mallard, and are showing up more often.

Canada Goose 1,148

            These may be a mix of a non-migratory local flock and some migrating here when there’s open water.

Snow Goose 1

            Oh no – is this species of goose thinking about wintering here too?

Mallard 354

Northern Shoveler 8

Redhead 1

Ring-necked Duck 2

Green-winged Teal 22

Common Goldeneye 7

Gadwall 2

Rock Dove (pigeon) 129

            There’s a much larger flock in northeast Cheyenne that eluded us.

Eurasian-collared Dove 181

Wilsons’s Snipe 3

            They know where there’s a spring providing open water.

Northern Harrier 5

Sharp-shinned Hawk 2

Cooper’s Hawk 1

Bald Eagle 4

Red-tailed Hawk 12

Rough-legged Hawk 4

Ferruginous Hawk 2

Eastern-screech Owl 1

Great-horned Owl 2

            Good showing of raptors, including the merlin and kestrel listed below.

Belted Kingfisher 2

            Always a couple along Crow Creek.

Downy Woodpecker 5

Hairy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 15

American Kestrel 1

            Not all of them migrate farther south.

Merlin 1

Northern Shrike 2

Blue Jay 13

            This eastern bird continues to increase in numbers here.

Black-billed Magpie 80

            It should really be the state bird since it stays year round and cleans up carcasses.

American Crow 133

Common Raven 30

            Lorie Chesnut videoed a flock of 25. Jane Dorn, who studied ravens for her masters degree, said young birds may flock, otherwise, ravens hang out in ones and twos. To tell them apart from crows, listen for the raven’s croak compared to the crow’s caw. Also, when flying, the raven’s tail looks like the point of a diamond. The crow’s looks like a half-circle fan. Crows are only 17.5 inches from beak tip to tail, ravens are 24 inches.

Black-capped Chickadee 14

            I need to more careful in assuming all the chickadees I see are mountains and check for their white “eyebrows,” which the black-cappeds don’t have.

Mountain Chickadee 22

Horned Lark 9

Red-breasted Nuthatch 4

White-breasted Nuthatch 4

Brown Creeper 2

            These are very hard to see. They are like a moving piece of bark on a tree trunk.

European Starling 444

Townsend’s Solitaire 10

            This relation of the robin is more slender and is all gray. It likes to sit at the tip top of trees, especially junipers, eating their berries.

American Robin 5

            Every year there are a few that winter here. We aren’t sure if these birds spent the summer here or if these are birds that came from farther north.

Cedar Waxwing 6

            Waxwings only show up when they find fruit still on the tree or shrub so seeing them is very lucky.

House Sparrow 432

House Finch 119

American Goldfinch 2

American Tree Sparrow 42

            In summer, small flocks of sparrows are often chipping sparrows. But they leave in fall and the tree sparrows come for the winter.

Dark-eyed Junco 59

Song Sparrow 2

            They are almost always year round, by a creek.

Bushtit 10

            This is the flock our Christmas Bird Count compiler, Grant Frost, has been watching this fall. We are happy they stayed for their first count here. If they make it through the winter, they might decide to stay and make a state breeding record.

Pine Warbler 1

            This is the same bird that has been hanging out in Chuck Seniawski’s backyard this fall. Nice it could stick around and provide a count record.

Golden-crowned Kinglet count week

            Not an unusual bird in winter, but there are not many to be seen, plus they are tiny and not noticeable in the treetops where they hang out.

Barb Gorges is the author of “Cheyenne Birds by the Month,” www.YuccaRoadPress.com. Her previous columns are at https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com. Contact her at bgorges4@msn.com.

Vagrants visit this fall

Unusual birds “on the road” this fall, including around Cheyenne and southeastern Wyoming

Chuck Seniawski has been hosting this lost pine warbler, from Eastern North America, at his bird feeders nearly every day since early November and so far, through Dec. 5. It should have migrated south instead of west. Photo by Chuck Seniawski.

By Barb Gorges

            On Nov. 9, a friend called to tell me she heard a story on KUWR, Wyoming’s National Public Radio affiliate, about a Blackburnian warbler that blew across the Atlantic to an island off the southwest British coast, exciting birdwatchers.

            It’s ironic that this eastern North American bird was named by a German zoologist for an English naturalist, Anna Blackburne (1726-1793). She never saw a live specimen, but her name seems appropriate because the 5-inch-long male burns with a flaming orange throat and head on a body that is otherwise black and white.

This female Blackburnian warbler, photographed at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch May 28, is considered a “vagrant” in Wyoming because it is a long way from its normal range in eastern North America. The female’s throat is a paler orange than the male’s. Photo by Mark Gorges.

We’ve had a few Blackburnians accidentally find their way to Wyoming. At eBird.org, under the Explore tab, you’ll find that Mark Gorges, my husband, was the last to record one in Wyoming, a female, on May 28 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch.

Warblers typically eat insects, so the lost warbler Mark saw could find them in late May. Warblers leave the north in September and October when cold weather limits their food supply.

However, beginning Nov. 11, Chuck Seniawski has had a pine warbler visiting his Cheyenne feeder nearly every day through Nov. 27, so far. This is another lost eastern North American species – and it is way late for an insect eater.

Pine warblers, according to Doug Faulkner’s “Birds of Wyoming,” published in 2010, are “vagrants.” Their normal migration, breeding and winter ranges in the eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada are nowhere near Wyoming.

However, Doug wrote, every fall there is at least one reported in Wyoming, usually between mid-August and mid-September. Doug’s only winter report was a pine warbler that spent five days in December 1988 eating peanut butter at a feeder in Gillette.

Chuck says his pecks at his sunflower feeders, hunts on the ground underneath and uses the birdbath. He isn’t sure if the bird is eating seed bits or finding something else. When he posted a photo, Don Jones, eBird regional data reviewer in Laramie, who spent four years back East, agreed with his identification. Also, Chuck had just seen one in Central Park in New York City.

Pine warblers look a little like a female or a winter-plumage male American goldfinch, yellowish with dark wings with two white wingbars, so maybe we should all examine our feeder birds more closely.

Serious birders stake out reservoirs during fall migration, including the Laramie Plains Lakes. Jonathan Lautenbach was rewarded with being the first to record two king eiders, sea ducks, Nov. 12 through 18 at Lake Hattie. He reported they were a female and a juvenile male, plain brown. The adult male, not seen, would be half white and half black with a bright yellow-orange “bill-shield” on its forehead.

eBird shows these king eiders as the first to be recorded in Wyoming. Doug Faulkner does not list them at all in his 2010 book, which is a comprehensive review of bird sightings up until that point.

King eiders breed in the Arctic, across northern-most Canada. They winter around coastal Alaska and northeastern Canada, but there are frequent winter sightings in lower 48 states, most often coastal, and they are also usually female and juvenile birds.

Cheyenne birder Grant Frost was probably checking Sloans Lake in Lions Park for interesting ducks and other waterbirds when he came across a small flock of bushtits Nov. 3 and again Nov. 27. “Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America,” published in 2020, describes their habitat as brushy woodlands and pine-oak forests of the southwest.

But if you look closely at Peterson’s range map, it shows this thin line of purple (meaning year-round resident) drawn up the Front Range of Colorado, practically pointing to Cheyenne. More bushtits may be in our future. Look for pale brown and gray, 4.5-inch-long birds building sack-like hanging nests.

            Grant also found a blue-headed vireo at Lions Park Nov. 1, and it was last seen there Nov. 3 by Vicki Herren. Vireos are much like warblers, eating insects, but also fruit in winter. This species breeds across Canada, through New England and down through the Appalachians. It winters along the southeast coasts of the U.S. It’s possible that the birds from western Canada would head south through Wyoming to get to the Texas Gulf Coast. They are just hard to pick out from other vireos and warblers bouncing around in the trees.

            Unusual bird observations submitted to eBird automatically get flagged. You are asked to write a description of your observation and submit a photo if you can. Someone appointed by eBird for that area will decide whether your record becomes public.

            These days eBird and the Wyoming Bird Records Committee work together. Find out more about the committee at https://wybirdrecordscommittee.wordpress.com/.  

Female Blackburnian Warbler, May 28, feeding on insects in a cottonwood tree on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, outside Cheyenne. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Be a Community Scientist

At Lions Park last December while on the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, Mark Gorges uses a scope to count geese resting around open water on Sloans Lake, Dennis Saville looks for hawks in the distance and Pete Sokolosky checks overhead for songbirds on tree branches. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Audubon Rockies’ Zach Hutchinson discusses community science

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

By Barb Gorges

            Zach Hutchinson is Audubon Rockies’ community science coordinator. He is currently located in Casper, although he plans to relocate to Cheyenne as soon as local real estate prices are realistic.

            He spoke at Cheyenne Audubon’s October meeting about community science, which started out being called “citizen science.” The new name is more inclusive – you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to participate – or be a college-educated scientist.

            Zach said community science contributed to Bird Migration Explorer, https://explorer.audubon.org/. I’ll have more about this new endeavor in a future column.

            Community science has also contributed data to the State of the Birds 2022 report, www.stateofthebirds.org/2022.

            Most groups of birds, including our grassland birds, are still losing population, while others increased during the last couple decades. For instance, waterfowl increased because they benefitted from concentrated efforts by sporting groups, although you don’t have to be a hunter to buy a Federal Duck Stamp to contribute.

            This year’s report highlights North American species that are at the “tipping point” which means, after having lost 50% or more of their population since 1970, the report said, “These 70 species are on a trajectory to lose another 50% of their remnant populations in the next 50 years if nothing changes.”

            Thirteen of those tipping point species occur in Wyoming regularly, either as residents or migrants, some considered common and others uncommon on this scale: abundant, common, uncommon, rare. I didn’t include the species that are rare in our state in this list of 13:

Greater Sage-Grouse

Western Grebe

Rufous Hummingbird

Mountain Plover

Long-billed Dowitcher

Lesser Yellowlegs

Red-headed Woodpecker

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Pinyon Jay

Evening Grosbeak

Black Rosy-Finch

Chestnut-collared Longspur


The primary causes of downward population trends are:

1. Habitat loss.

2. Cats (2.6 billion birds a year).

3. Windows, (624 million).

4. Vehicle collisions (214 million).

5. Industrial collisions, including wind turbines (64 million).

Zach went over the seven ways we can help birds:

1. Make windows safer day and night.

2. Keep cats indoors.

3. Reduce lawn, plant natives.

4. Avoid pesticides.

5. Drink shade-grown coffee.

6. Protect our planet from plastic (Think of waterbirds mistaking floating plastic for food.).

7. Watch birds, share what you see.

For more about each point, see www.birds.cornell.edu/home/seven-simple-actions-to-help-birds/.

“Watch birds, share what you see,” means taking part in community science. Zach said this is how we find out about population trends, range expansion, and if there are losses, we can see where in the life cycle it happens so that action can be focused.

You’ve probably heard me talk about www.eBird.org before. Birdwatchers submit lists of birds they’ve seen, anywhere and anytime, using smart phones or computers.

I can delve into the data on the website and discover 272 species have been observed at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch headquarters, 216 at Lions Park and 151 at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station where the Cheyenne Arboretum is located.

Zach Hutchinson releases a hummingbird. Photo courtesy of Zach Hutchinson.

The Christmas Bird Count is the most famous annual community science project, with this year’s being the 123rd.

Two years ago, Zach said, 80,000 people took part, counted 2,355 species (world-wide), and travelled 500,000 miles on foot, by skis and by other means. Check https://cheyenneaudubon.org/  to find out about participating in the Cheyenne count in December.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, a snapshot of where birds are in late winter, celebrated its 24th anniversary last February. In 192 countries, 384,641 people participated and 7,099 species were counted on 359,479 checklists submitted. It’s held over Presidents’ Day weekend. 

Zach runs bird banding stations every summer and people sign up to help (https://rockies.audubon.org/). Birds are caught in fine “mist nets,” and then are measured and banded.

This year, 54 species were netted at Zach’s stations. Usually, 500 new birds are banded but this summer it was only 340, probably because the drought has affected breeding and recruitment, Zach said.

Audubon Rockies launched a new community science project last summer on the Yampa River in Colorado. People on commercial float trips, including Zach, counted birds: 55 species and 732 individual birds. Stopping for a few minutes in a calm eddy in otherwise inaccessible places to count birds will add richness to the tourists’ experiences and give science a new perspective.

There are other community science endeavors, such as iNaturalist, which is interested in plants as well as animals. Some have been very specific, such as The Lost Ladybug Project.

Bird banding provides data on demographics, productivity, recruitment (adding individuals to the population) and survival – when a bird previously banded is recaptured, or a band is recovered from a dead bird.

Consider becoming a community science participant in one or more ways.

Addendum: How could I forget Project FeederWatch? Go to feederwatch.org to sign up for reporting your backyard birds this winter. This year, Project FeederWatch tells me Mark and I have counted for 24 seasons.

Volunteering 40 years

The celebration of Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary in September 2014 included a birding field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Audubon volunteer reflects on last 40 years

By Barb Gorges

            Forty years ago this month, October 1982, I attended my first Audubon meeting—as president.

            My husband of one month, Mark, had been the first president the previous two years of a new chapter, the Rosebud Audubon Society. It covered Miles City and southeastern Montana.

            Mark and his friends wanted to start an environmental club and Audubon appealed to them, especially birdwatching field trips.

            Miles City in 1980 had 9,600 people (2020 census, 8,300). The closest other incorporated town is Forsyth, 46 miles west, population 1,600 today. The closest big city is Billings, 146 miles west, population 66,000 then and 117,000 today.

We were very creative in finding programs for our monthly meetings. We had natural resource professionals to call on from the offices in town: Custer County Conservation District, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Fort Keogh Research Station and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as Miles Community College.

We could also borrow films from Audubon’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Boulder, Colorado. First it was those big reels in metal cans, later VHS cassettes.

Our early newsletters were typed, duplicated, folded, stuffed into envelopes with address stickers and stamps applied. Later, we did without the envelope.

Mark took me on my first Christmas Bird Count two months later. We were covering some area near either the Tongue or Yellowstone rivers which converge outside town. It was zero degrees. Because Mark, the wildlife biologist, was better at bird i.d., I got to keep the list—with pencil and paper. I couldn’t manage them without taking off my mittens and it was soon painful. A few years later we took our older son along, using snowdrifts as diaper changing tables.

The chapter got involved in local projects, city parks, if I remember. I don’t have the old newsletters—but we used to mail a copy each month to the state archives.

Then in 1989, Mark took the fisheries biologist job with BLM’s state office here in Cheyenne, a big city which presumably would have a big Audubon chapter where we could simply volunteer for a committee or two.

Cheyenne High-Plains Audubon Society was founded in 1974 and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014. But in 1989 it was at a low point. The founders were tired. We finally met them at the 1989 Christmas Bird Count tally party.

To revive the chapter, Mark volunteered to be vice president, I volunteered to be program chair and 10 other people stepped in to fill other positions. In the 33 years we’ve been with Cheyenne Audubon, Mark has been president 9 years and me 7.

Cheyenne is a great location for finding speakers for monthly programs. In addition to all the county, state and federal offices corresponding to the ones in Miles City, we are less than an hour’s drive from the University of Wyoming and graduate students looking for audiences.

National Audubon’s regional office was still in Boulder in the 1990s and staff would come up to visit. Later, it was abolished and we had our own state office in Casper. That’s gone now and we work with staff at the regional Audubon Rockies office in Fort Collins.

We have members who can do travelogs of their nature-based trips. And there are staff from several other environmental organizations in town to speak about issues. We host speakers seven times a year.

I started writing this column in 1999 and thanks to Cheyenne Audubon, I’ve never lacked for topics beyond the birds in my backyard.

The chapter has grown. We now average 150 dues-paying members per year with another 300 friends on our email mailing list (see www.CheyenneAudubon.org).

We’ve lobbied local, state and federal governments on environmental issues. We add our expertise to city park and conservation district plans. We offer educational and conservation grants. We invite the public to join us for our programs and monthly birdwatching field trips. We are planning our ninth Habitat Hero workshop in February.

After 40 years, newsletters are digital, programs can be offered in-person and virtually, field trip bird lists are entered on the eBird phone app and grant money seems to be attracted to us. We work hard to get it spent on worthwhile projects that support our view that what is good for birds and other wildlife will be good for us too.

What hasn’t changed is the need to speak up for the welfare of birds, other wildlife and people. New threats to our mutual health and safety seem to show up every day. But at least watching birds gives us mental health breaks. Those birds and the people who love them have taught me a lot these last 40 years.

IRA effect on birds

Every farm and ranch had wind power once. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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

How will the IRA affect birds?

By Barb Gorges

            People affect birds–individual birds and whole populations–all the time.

            Sometimes, we have a negative effect on birds, such as glass walls and bright lights that steer migrating birds to their deaths.

            Sometimes we have a positive effect, such as growing windbreaks across the Great Plains that encouraged blue jays to follow the trees west. Or we create reservoirs to store water and the ducks and other water birds use them.

            I’ve been looking at what the environmental organizations have to say about the new Inflation Reduction Act and how it will affect birds.

            The IRA should help birds (and people) affected by climate change as it encourages actions for cleaner air. Clean air reduces climate change effects such as severe weather and the timing of seasonal changes.

            Encouraging the switch to electric vehicles is good. Electricity can come from any source of fuel. If the source is a fossil fuel power plant, then pollution controls can be centrally located rather than depending on gazillion vehicle owners to attend to maintenance. I don’t know about you, but diesel fumes from the truck ahead of me at the stop light is something I won’t miss.

It looks like the fossil fuel industries are losing out after spending the last 50 years fighting clean air regulations instead of finding technology to keep air clean.

            Birds will certainly benefit from clean air, but I wonder how much that will be offset by the drawbacks of solar and wind energy production—the emphasis of the IRA. Can we make smart changes?

            If you remember, in 2019, I signed up to testify on behalf of Cheyenne Audubon at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality hearing on NextEra’s Roundhouse wind development. It is located partly on the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch property.

            What I discovered was that NextEra was required to show the impact on wildlife of wind turbines and the numerous new roads. Yes, the state asks for certain information, but it seems to me that a state or federal agency, rather than the company, should be performing the field investigations on the public’s behalf, and doing so in much more depth. And the results should be put in context with nearby developments, like the other windfarm adjacent to Roundhouse on the north side of Interstate 80.

            Wyoming, famous for its wind, is slated to be covered with wind turbines. Our ‘big empty’ is also slated to be covered with industrial solar developments. Solar will affect grassland birds, though it will be an army of graduate students who discover exactly how.

            A new study on the effect of industrial solar fields on Wyoming’s hoofed wildlife was recently examined by a Wyofile reporter, https://wyofile.com/report-industrial-solar-disrupts-big-game-movements/. The study shows that the chain link fence required by the National Electric Code kept migrating antelope out, essentially losing that amount of habitat.

            Let’s say you don’t care about birds or other wildlife. Let’s say you care more about Wyoming’s economy. Keep in mind our second largest economic sector is tourism.

During the pandemic years, tourists have discovered more of Wyoming than the Tetons and Yellowstone. They are finding our favorite local recreation areas. The tourists I talk to appreciate our wide-open natural spaces and wildlife the way most of us do. But I don’t think thousands of acres of wind turbines and solar panels are going to enhance the views that tourists come here for, especially when they come from states that are already covered in industrial and agricultural development.

            I still think smart clean energy development is about integrating it with current infrastructure.

            Currently, solar is more people-friendly, the source to concentrate on. No possibility of flying blades or deep vibration noises.

            Think about the acres of parking lots that could be roofed with solar panels. Think about the acres of roofs everywhere, especially the giant warehouses we have in Cheyenne. And Walmart’s warehouse also has a lovely south-facing wall. Or maybe fill in the uninhabitable acres around wind turbines. The Germans are looking at solar canopies over their autobahns, https://www.rechargenews.com/transition/solar-panel-covered-autobahn-could-speed-german-energy-transition/2-1-854215.

            Even our (electric) cars could have solar energy-collecting skins someday. You would go to the carwash to wash away dirt to improve your energy production. Although I suppose then no one would want to park in a solar-panel-roofed parking lot.

            Yes, solar and wind have energy storage issues. But there are many brilliant minds in the world, and the rewards of the marketplace to spur them on. Let’s hope their solutions are bird-friendly, wildlife-friendly and at the very least, people-friendly.     

Bird sound i.d.

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

Merlin’s “Sound ID” uncovers hidden birds

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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