Migratory Bird Treaty Act comes back

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

Migratory Bird Treaty Act is back in full force

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family time for birds

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New birding field trip strategies

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellow Warbler, photo by Mark Gorges

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

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

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

Mountain Bluebird, photo by Mark Gorge

2020 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count best in 18 years

Red-headed Woodpecker by Mark Gorges

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 16, 2020

142 species  

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Chukar

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 

Eurasian Collared-Dove

White-winged Dove

Mourning Dove

Common Poorwill

Chimney Swift

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Sora

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Baird’s Sandpiper

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Lesser Yellowlegs

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk 

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk 

Ferruginous Hawk

Eastern Screech-Owl

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Red-headed Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker 

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Prairie Falcon

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird 

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow 

Common Raven

Mountain Chickadee

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Rock Wren

House Wren

European Starling 

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Northern Mockingbird

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin 

House Sparrow

House Finch

Red Crossbill

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Lark Sparrow 

Lark Bunting

White-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark  

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Yellow-breasted Chat

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Northern Parula

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1Notice birds.

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

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

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

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

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

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

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

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

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

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

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

Step 5Go where the birds are.

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

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

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

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

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

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

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

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

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

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

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

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

Flock of bird book reviews

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High-capacity water wells vs birds

High-capacity irrigation wells are not your great-grandparents’ Chicago Aermotor windmills. This one continues to pump water for livestock on the Lummis Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Mar. 8, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “High capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, wildlife”

Too many high capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, other wildlife and people

By Barb Gorges

            The relationship between groundwater and surface water is important to birds and other wildlife—and people.

            Some surface water is merely runoff from rain and snow that hasn’t yet soaked in and recharged the groundwater. Other surface water, like wetlands, is the result of high groundwater levels. Springs along a creek also depend on an adequate amount of groundwater.

            Groundwater and surface water along streams and in wetlands grow vegetation wildlife depends on for shelter and food. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species require these wetter areas.

            Precipitation can vary from year to year, but on average, it recharges the groundwater–the aquifer. Aquifers are geologically complicated, but mostly water flows through permeable layers much the same way surface water drains. In Laramie County both surface and groundwater flow somewhat west to east.

            If someone puts in a well and starts pumping, it will lower the water table—the top of the groundwater—for some distance from the well. If the water is for domestic use, it is filtered through a septic system and mostly returned to the groundwater. However, if it is used for irrigating lawns and gardens, much of it evaporates and is lost. If too many wells are sipping from the same aquifer, the water table drops, and people are forced to drill deeper wells.

            Another side effect of the water table dropping is wetlands and streams dry up, affecting wildlife.

            Wyoming has complex water laws for allocating surface water. The first person to homestead on a creek got the senior water rights. In a drought year, he might be the only one allowed to remove water from the creek.

            Groundwater rights are not as clear-cut, as far as I can tell. More than 25 or 30 years ago I remember being in eastern Laramie County putting on an Audubon presentation for the Young Farmers club. It was on the negative effects of human population growth. The farmers were already complaining then about the growing number of developments and the wells causing the water table to drop.

            In 2015, the Laramie County Control Area Order was established in eastern Laramie County to keep an eye on the situation.

            Before that, 2010-14, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, spent taxpayer funds to buy out 24 irrigation wells at $200,000 each within this same area, saving 1 billion gallons annually. The farmers could grow dryland wheat instead.

            And now, in the same area, the Lerwick family is asking for a permit to drill eight high-capacity wells for maximum production of 1.5 billion gallons per year for agricultural purposes. We assume it’s for irrigation and that irrigation water will not be recharging the aquifer much. I don’t get it. Permitting new high capacity wells after paying to retire others in the same area makes no sense at all.

            Neighboring farmers and ranchers are alarmed. Professional hydrologists can predict how it will negatively impact their water supplies. Creeks and wetlands, the few we have out here, will dry up and the neighbor’s wells will have to be re-drilled.

            Beginning March 4 and for 30 days, the state engineer is asking for comments about the effectiveness of the 2015 Laramie County Control Area Order which guides groundwater development in the area of the proposed wells. Call 307-777-6150 to find out exactly how to comment.

March 18, the state engineer will hold a hearing regarding the Lerwick permits and will hear from the affected neighboring farmers and ranchers, 17 of them.

            Is it fair for someone to get a new well permit that will cause all his neighbors the expense of drilling deeper? Instead, can a community, through governmental agencies, come to an agreement that an area is no longer suitable for irrigated agriculture?

The Ogallala Aquifer, of which this High Plains Aquifer is part, extends under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For several generations, farmers have been mining it. We can call it mining because more water is extracted than returned. It is not a sustainable situation for anyone.    

            Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society is speaking up for the birds and other wildlife, but it’s doubtful wildlife will be considered much in the calculation of acre-feet and gallons per minute and other details of water rights. We already know that in the last 50 years grassland birds have lost the most population of any North American habitat type. Unsustainable mining of water in Laramie County, should the new high-capacity wells be permitted, won’t help.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species can be found in Wyoming’s riparian areas like this one on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wyobirds and Wyoming Master Naturalists updates

Cheyenne Audubon field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, November 2019. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Feb. 16, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyobirds gets tech update and Wyoming Master Naturalists  gets initial discussion.”

By Barb Gorges

            Technology drives changes in the birding community as it does for the rest of the world. We always wonder how hard it will be to adapt to the inevitable.

            In January, the folks at Murie Audubon, the National Audubon Society chapter in Casper, announced that they would no longer pay the fees required for hosting the Wyobirds elist. There have been plenty of donations over the years to offset the $500 per year cost but, they reasoned, now that there is a no-cost alternative, why not spend the money on say, bird habitat protection or improvement? Also, the new option allows photos and the old one didn’t.

            But the new outlet for chatting about birds in Wyoming works a little differently and everyone will have to get used to it. We’ve changed before. We had the Wyoming Bird Hotline until 2006 for publicizing rare bird alerts only. No one called in about their less than rare backyard birds, their birding questions and birding related events like they do now on Wyobirds.

            The only problem with leaving the listserv is figuring out what to do with the digital archives. They may go back to 2004, the first time Wyobirds was mentioned in Cheyenne Audubon’s newsletter.

            Now the Wyoming birding community, and all the travelers interested in coming to see Wyoming birds, can subscribe to Wyobirds (no donations necessary) by going to Google Groups, https://groups.google.com/, and searching for “Wyobirds.” Follow the directions for how to join the group so that you can post and get emails when other group members post. I opted to get one email per day listing all the postings. That will be nice when spring migration begins and there are multiple posts each day.

            Google Groups, a free service from Google, is one way the giant company gives back and we might as well take advantage of it.

Wyoming Master Naturalists

            Wyoming is one of only five states that does not have a Master Naturalist program, however it’s in the discussion stage.

            What is a Master Naturalist and what do they do? Jacelyn Downey, education programs manager for Audubon Rockies who is based near Gillette, explained at the January Cheyenne Audubon meeting that programs are different in each state.

            Most are like the Master Gardener program, offering training and certification. Master naturalists serve by taking on interpretive or educational roles or helping with conservation projects or collecting scientific data. The training requires a certain number of hours and keeping up certification requires hours of continuing education and service. But it’s not a chore if you love nature.

            Master Gardeners is organized in the U.S. through the university extension program. Some Master Naturalist programs are too, as well as through state game and fish or parks departments or Audubon offices or other conservation organizations or partnerships of organizations and agencies.

            Colorado has at least two programs, one through Denver Audubon, and another in Ft. Collins to aid users of the city’s extensive natural areas.

            Dorothy Tuthill also spoke. She is associate director and education coordinator for the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. She pointed out that several of their programs, like the Moose Day surveys in which “community scientists” (another term for people participating in citizen science) gather data, are the kinds of activities a Master Naturalist program could aid.

            Audubon and the institute already collaborate every year with other organizations and agencies on the annual Wyoming Bioblitz. It’s one day during which scientists, volunteers, teachers, families and kids together gather data on flora and fauna in a designated area. This year’s Bioblitz will be July 17-19 near Sheridan on the Quarter Circle A Ranch, the grounds of the Brinton Museum.

            With a Wyoming Master Naturalist program, a trained corps of naturalists could be available to help agencies and organizations by visiting classrooms, leading hikes, giving programs and helping to plan and participating in projects and surveys.

            Audubon chapter volunteers are already involved in these kinds of things: adult and child education, data collection on field trips and conservation projects. Many of us might broaden our nature expertise beyond birds and learn more about connecting people to nature. But it would be nice to wear a badge that guarantees for the public that we know what we are talking about.

            Just how a Wyoming Naturalist Program would be set up is being discussed right now. Maybe a Google Group needs to be formed. If you’d like to be in on the discussion, please contact Dorothy Tuthill at dtuthill@uwyo.edu and Jacelyn Downey at jdowney@audubon.org.

Panayoti Kelaidis speaking Feb. 29, inspiring Wyoming gardeners to go native

International plant explorer Panayoti Kelaidis to speak Feb. 29 at Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop, to inspire Wyoming gardeners to go native

6th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop:

“Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Native Plant Gardening 101”

Feb. 29, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Laramie County Community College

$25 fee includes lunch. Register by Feb. 27 at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4463444, where the complete schedule can be read. Questions: Mark Gorges, 307-287-4953, mgorges@juno.com.


By Barb Gorges

            A couple weeks ago I was at the Denver Botanic Gardens to interview Panayoti Kelaidis who will be the keynote speaker at the 6th annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop Feb. 29.

            PK, as he suggests people call him, stepped out to pour us cups of Ceylonese tea. While I waited, I noticed his office had floor to ceiling shelves full of plant books for parts of the world he’s travelled.

Numerous plaques and certificates on one wall commemorated his contributions to horticulture over a lengthy career. His latest accolade is to be a judge at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The windowsill had a parade of small, unique succulents and cactuses, part of PK’s extensive personal plant collection at his Denver home. I toured the nearly half-acre garden on the Garden Bloggers Fling last summer.

            As part of his job as senior curator and director of outreach for the DBG, PK leads plant tours to foreign countries, most recently Tibet. A tour of the Sichuan, China, area planned for June will depend on world health concerns. He reads Chinese, having once been a student of the language.

             But PK is also enthusiastic about Wyoming, where he visited two favorite aunts as a child. In the 1980s he travelled our state for his native seed business. He likes to take people on plant tours to the Cody area. As the president-elect of the North American Rock Garden Society, he’s considering a future convention in Cheyenne—we have nearby natural rock gardens to show off.

            PK’s plant knowledge is extensive, especially grassland and alpine species. He co-authored the 2015 book “Steppes, the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions.” There are four major steppe regions in the world, including the Great Plains. He writes a blog called Prairiebreak, http://prairiebreak.blogspot.com/, and he established the Alpine Garden at the DBG.

            How does he describe himself? “Plant nerd.” He said a friend says he’s a plant geek. I think he’s both. He’ll tell you he is not a garden designer, but I’d say he looks at an even bigger picture. And that is why he’s been invited to be the Habitat Hero workshop’s keynote speaker.

            PK likens Douglas Tallamy and his book “Bringing Nature Home,” to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” He said both books mark sea changes in our relationship to nature. Carson’s, published in 1962, showed the devastation caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Tallamy, in his 2007 book, showed us our conventional landscaping and gardening practices are detrimental to native insects, birds, other wildlife, and consequently, people. We need to plant native plants to support native insects, including native bees and butterflies. They are the foundation of the healthy ecosystems we enjoy and require.

At first, PK thought Tallamy was a little too radical, saying all ornamental plants from elsewhere needed to be replaced with natives. For many generations, the goal of landscaping and ornamental gardening has been beauty, PK said. But now he recognizes the other goal must be “ecological services.”

“We really need to figure out how to create a garden that is part of the natural system, not an obstacle,” said PK. Can that be beautiful? Can we shift the paradigm completely?

Can we make beautiful gardens with native plants? What we mean by “native” varies. For some American gardeners, it means the species originated on our continent, even if 3000 miles away. Or “native” for Cheyenne could mean any Great Plains species, or even just those from the prairie outside town.

 Xeriscaping, gardening with less water, began about 45 years ago in the Denver area, PK related. With a growing population that could quickly run out of water, smart people realized changing from landscape plants popular in parts of the country with high rainfall to plants that need less water would help. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities promotes this philosophy as well. Many of the more xeric plants are natives.

PK works with the DBG and Colorado State University which partnered to form Plant Select, https://plantselect.org/. It develops plants native to our high plains and intermountain region for the nursery trade. It makes it easy for gardeners to grow beautiful plants by planting those that love to grow here—and use less water. Though, PK said, there’s still room to grow the occasional prized non-native, water-hungry ornamental.

The water-wise and pollinator-friendly movements were combined a few years ago by Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program. The five previous workshops in Cheyenne have been well-received. I think it’s because people enjoy doing something positive like gardening to support our environment.

 After PK’s keynote address, “Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Learning from the Natives,”designed to inspire us, the workshop’s other presenters will walk us through the steps to take to make a Habitat Hero garden.

Talks will include how to protect and maintain natural prairie if you have some already, deciding on a location for a garden, removing unwanted plants whether turf or weeds, choosing plants, proper planting techniques, maintaining plants and gardens, and how to apply to be a certified Habitat Hero. The two hands-on components will be about how to install drip irrigation and how to use the winter sowing technique to grow native plants from seed (seeds, soil and containers included).

Panayoti Kelaidis explores plants at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in northern Colorado.

Be a Citizen Scientist: Great Backyard Bird Count

House Finch photographed by Jeanette Tasey, Great Backyard Bird Count participant. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Published Jan. 19, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Be a Citizen Scientist in your backyard.”

By Barb Gorges

            Along with the news last fall that there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970, conservation organizations came out with a list of seven actions people can take (https://www.3billionbirds.org/).

            Number 7 on the list is “Watch birds, share what you see.” In fact, citizen science efforts, like the 120th annual Christmas Bird Count season that finished up Jan. 5, provided part of the data for the study that showed the bird decline.

            There aren’t enough scientists to collect data everywhere and so they depend on us informed lay people to help them.

There’s another organized opportunity coming up for you to count birds Feb. 14-17: the Great Backyard Bird Count.

GBBC history

            Begun in 1998 by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the GBBC dates always coincide with Presidents’ Day weekend. Scientists wanted to get a snapshot of where the birds are late winter, before spring migration begins.

            The difference between this public participation bird count and the others at the time is data reporting is entirely online. Some results are nearly real time on the website, like watching the participant map light up sporadically every few seconds as someone else hits “Send.”

            In 2002, Cornell started another online citizen science project, eBird, which collects data year-round from citizen scientists. In 2013 the GBBC was integrated with eBird. And now both have global participation from birdwatchers in 100 countries.

At the GBBC website you can find all kinds of interesting information about last year’s count and prepare for this year.

2019 broke records

There were 209,944 checklists submitted in 2019. A checklist is the list of birds seen by one person or a group birding together. GBBC asks participants to bird for a minimum of 15 minutes, and to not travel more than 5 miles for one checklist. Originally, the emphasis was on watching the birds in your backyard, but you can bird anywhere now.

There were 32 million birds counted, of 6,849 species. Columbia counted 1,095 species, the most of any country, even though only 1,046 checklists were submitted (there were 136,000 checklists for the U.S.). This time of year, a lot of our North American summer birds are in Columbia and other Central and South American countries.

The list of top 10 species most frequently reported starts with the cardinal, not native to Cheyenne, and the junco, common at our feeders, made second place. All the birds on this list were North American because the majority of 224,781 participants last year were from our continent. Birders in India are getting excited though and that might change someday.

California made the top of the list of states for most checklists submitted, 10,000. All the top 10 states were coastal, either Great Lakes or ocean. That’s where the most people live.

Trends in North America showed up during the 2019 count such as a high number of evening grosbeaks in the east. Canada had fewer finches because of a bad seed crop and apparently the finches went south because there were higher numbers of finch species–red crossbills, common redpolls, and pine grosbeaks–in the northern states.

You can prepare ahead

The GBBC website, https://gbbc.birdcount.org/, has links to websites to help you identify birds (if you don’t have a copy of my “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” already!):

–Merlin (also available as a free phone app) will ask you questions about the comparative size of the bird, color, activity, habitat, and give you a list of possibilities.

–All About Birds, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, and the Audubon Bird Guide, https://www.audubon.org/app, are both helpful.

–And if the weekend finds you in Central or South America, check out the link for Neotropical Birds Online, https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/.

Take photos

Don’t forget to take photos—there’s a contest with these categories:

–Birds in their habitat

–Birds in action

–Birds in a group

–Composition—pleasing arrangement of all features

–People watching birds.

Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 14-17

Count with CHPAS locally:

            Join Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members Feb. 15, 10 a.m. – noon, for free at the Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Road. We’ll bird a little around the park and then come back and enter our data. All ages are welcome. And we have binoculars to share. Contact bgorges4@msn.com if you have questions.

If you are new to GBBC and want to participate on your own:

            Participation is free. Instructions are at https://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

If you already eBird:

Submit checklists (15-minute minimum) to your account at http://ebird.org.

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Karen E. Brown, Great Backyard Bird Count participant. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.