Sage-grouse need your comments by Nov. 27

 

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Greater Sage-Grouse, photo by Dave Showalter.

 

Published Nov. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Wyoming’s Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plan is in jeopardy”

The deadline is Nov. 27, 2017, for sending your comments to BLM regarding whether you think amending the Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan is necessary. See instructions at the end of this column.

By Barb Gorges

Wyoming successfully addressed the sage-grouse issue through a collaboration of state and local government, sportsmen, conservationists, the oil and gas industry, and agricultural interests.

Over six years, the state was able to draw up a plan to establish protected core areas of habitat. Good habitat is the best protection for this species, which has declined 30 percent across the west since 1985.

The plan leaves a large majority of Wyoming open to oil and gas and other development.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state plans across the west were good enough that it wouldn’t start proceedings to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered.

Here in Wyoming, the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, headed by Bob Budd, is working hard. The team represents all the previous collaborators.

However, the new federal administration is intent on dismantling anything that happened under the previous president. It tasked new U.S. Department of Interior secretary Ryan Zinke with reviewing all state sage-grouse plans to either toss them or amend them.

None of the collaborators on Wyoming’s plan are happy with this—including the oil and gas people who desire certainty for their business plans. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is not happy either.

I went to the Bureau of Land Management’s public meeting Nov. 6 in Cheyenne to find out more about the proposed amendments to Wyoming’s plan.

I heard these criticisms:

–Switching to using sage-grouse population numbers to determine an oil and gas producer’s ability to drill and plan for mitigation (more sage-grouse, more leniency) would leave companies with a lot of unwanted uncertainty. Sage-grouse numbers vary enormously from year to year due to weather and other natural effects.

–Basing conservation plans on sage-grouse population numbers rather than habitat would discount the 350-plus other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including 22 “species of conservation concern.”

–Messing around with the plan could cause U.S. Fish and Wildlife to decide the sage-grouse warrants listing after all. That would close much more land to oil and gas drilling, as well as coal mining and other mineral extraction.

–The current Republican administration thinks states should have more say in issues like this, and the six years of collaboration Wyoming went through is a perfect example of how it can happen. Ironically, it’s the Republicans in Washington who now decree they know what is best for us.

–Wyoming’s conservation plan has been in effect for only two years—not enough time to gauge success. Instituting major changes now would cost a lot of taxpayer money that could be better spent in the field.

BLM invites us to comment during their scoping process. They want to know if we think they should amend the management plans that were developed by the states to protect sage-grouse.

They don’t make it easy, says my husband, a retired BLM wildlife biologist.

Go to http://bit.ly/GRSGplanning (case-sensitive). Click on “Documents and Reports.” This will give you a list of documents. Only “GRSG Notice of Intent” is available for commenting. “GRSG” is ornithological shorthand using initial letters of the parts of the bird’s common name.

After you read the document, click on “Comment on Document.” You’ll have to fill in the title of the document you are commenting on: “GRSG Notice of Intent.” And then you have 60 minutes to finish the procedure or everything you’ve written disappears. You may want to compose your comments elsewhere and then paste them in.

The deadline for comments is either Nov. 27 or Nov. 30—there’s a discrepancy in BLM’s handouts from the public meeting. Go with the earlier date if you can.

To educate yourself before commenting, you can visit the Wyoming State BLM office in Cheyenne, 5353 Yellowstone Road, or contact Erica Husse, 307-775-6318, ehusse@blm.gov, or Emmet Pruss, 307-775-6266, epruss@blm.gov.

But if you are most interested in what is best for sage-grouse, it may be easier to jump to the analysis provided by conservation groups like the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/sage-grouse. The former Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge was instrumental in the Wyoming collaboration and is still involved as NAS’s director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

Two other interested groups are Wyoming Wildlife Federation, http://wyomingwildlife.org/, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/.

All three organizations offer simple digital form letters that can be personalized, and they will send them to BLM. However, BLM says it gives more credence to comments sent via their own online form.

I hope you can take a few minutes to put in a good word for the bird that maybe should be our state mascot.

Next month I’ll look at what the Wyoming State Legislature did last session that may also negatively affect sage-grouse.

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Explore and enjoy Project FeederWatch

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A Dark-eyed Junco enjoys seed at a platform feeder. Because it shows no rust or “pink” coloration, no white wingbar and no pale head, it is the slate-colored subspecies. Photo by Bob Vuxinic/Project FeederWatch.

By Barb Gorges

Despite snow on the ground and pea soup fog at South Gap Lake in the Snowy Range (11,120 feet elevation), on Sept. 27 I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos. They like snow. Usually I see the first ones down in my yard mid-October, when alpine winter conditions get too rough.

Juncos are those little gray birds that come in five subspecies and multiple hybrid colorations in Cheyenne, but they all have white outer tail feathers. They are my sign of the start of the winter bird feeding season–and the Project FeederWatch bird counting season.

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science opportunity for people with bird feeders to count the birds they attract as often as once a week (or less) between November and early April. Begun in Canada in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1987, more than 20,000 people participated last year. Data are used in scientific studies, many of which are summarized on the project’s website.

Participation costs $18. You receive a research kit, bird identification poster, the digital version of Living Bird magazine and the year-end report.

If you feed wild birds or are considering it, you must visit the Project FeederWatch site, https://feederwatch.org/, whether you register for the program or not. It is now beautifully designed and packed with information.

For instance, in the “Learn” section, I can find out juncos prefer black-oil sunflower seeds–and seven other kinds. I personally stick with black-oil because it’s popular with many species in Cheyenne. I also learned juncos prefer hopper-style feeders, platform feeders or feeding on the ground.

Seventy-one species are listed as potential feeder birds in the Northwest region, which stretches from British Columbia to Wyoming. However, about 15 of those species have yet to be seen in Cheyenne, so click on the “All About Birds” link to check a species’ actual range.

The Project FeederWatch website addresses every question I can think of regarding wild bird feeding:

–Grit and water provision

–Feeder cleaning

–Predator avoidance

–Squirrel exclusion

–Window strike reduction

–Sick birds

–Tricky identification, like hairy vs downy woodpecker.

In the “Community” section you’ll find the results of last season’s photo contest, participants’ other photos, featured participants, tips, FAQs, the blog, and the FeederWatch cam.

I find the “Explore” section fascinating. This is where you can investigate the data yourself. The “Map Room” shows where juncos like to winter best.

Based on last season’s data, in the far north region of Canada, juncos were number 12 in abundance at feeders. In the southeastern U.S., they were number 13. However, in the southwest, which has a lot of cold high elevations, they were number two, as they were in the northeast region, and number three in the central region, the northern Great Plains. Here in the northwest region, they were number one. We have perfect junco winter conditions, not too cold, not too warm.

However, looking at the top 25 species for Wyoming in the same 2016-2017 season (based on percent of sites visited and the average flock size), juncos came in fifth, after house sparrow, house finch, goldfinch and black-capped chickadee. Other years, especially between the seasons beginning in 2007 and 2013, they have been number one.

I looked at my own Project FeederWatch data to see if I could spot any dark-eyed junco trends.

I get in 18-20 weekly counts per year. In the past 18 years, there were three when the juncos missed none or only one of the weeks, in 2001, 2005 and 2008. Those seasons also happened to be the largest average flock sizes, 8.65 to 9.72 birds per flock.

Later, there were three seasons in which juncos came up missing six or seven weeks, 2011, 2013 and 2016. Two of those were the seasons of the smallest average flock sizes, 1.6 to 2.5 birds per flock.

It appears my local junco population was in a downward trend between 2008 and 2016. Let’s hope it’s a cycle. Or maybe our yard’s habitat has changed or there are more hawks or cats scaring the juncos away. Or some weeks it’s too warm in town and they go back to the mountains.

One yard does not make a city-wide trend, but we won’t know what the trend is unless more people in Cheyenne participate.

How many FeederWatchers are there in Cheyenne? We’ve had as many as four, back in 1999-2004, but lately there’s only been one or two of us. Statewide, Wyoming averages 25 participants per year.

If you sign up, you’ll have your own red dot on the map (but your identity won’t be publicized). I hope you’ll become a FeederWatcher this season.

 

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

A photo taken through my Cheyenne, Wyoming, kitchen window shows a Dark-eyed Junco that is probably the pink-sided subspecies, or maybe a female of the Oregon subspecies–or maybe a hybrid. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Watch bird family dramas via window TV

2017-09 Lesser Goldfinch and young--Mark Gorges

A Lesser Goldfinch father prepares to feed his begging offspring Aug. 4, 2017, in our Cheyenne backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 17, 2017, “Kitchen window like TV peering into lives of birds”

By Barb Gorges

The view out our 4-by 6-foot kitchen window is the equivalent of an 85-inch, high definition television screen.

The daytime programming over the summer has been exceptional this year. Not many murder mysteries, thank goodness, and instead, mostly family dramas.

The robins always seem to get on screen first. Walking flat-footed through our vegetables and flowers, the speckle-breasted young, unlike some human teenagers, kept looking towards the adults for instruction and moral support.

Young birds have this gawky look about them. They have balance issues when they land on the utility line. Or they make a hard landing on a branch. They look around, tilting their heads this way and that. Maybe they are learning to focus.

The first hummingbird of the season showed up July 10, nearly a week earlier than last year. Luckily, their favorite red flower, the Jacob Cline variety of monarda, or beebalm, was blooming two weeks ahead of schedule.

We immediately put the hummingbird feeder up (FYI: 4 parts water to 1 part white sugar—don’t substitute other sugars—boiled together, no red dye, please, maybe a red ribbon on the feeder). Within a few days we had a hummingbird showing up regularly at breakfast, lunch and dinner—which is when we watch our window TV.

Sometimes we saw three at a time, often two, though by Aug. 25 sightings dropped off. It is difficult to distinguish between rufous and broad-tailed females and juveniles that come. Kind of like trying to keep track of all the characters in a PBS historical drama.

My favorite series this summer was “Father Knows Best.” Beginning July 1, a lesser goldfinch male, and sometimes a second one, and females, started joining the American goldfinches at our thistle tube feeder.

The lesser goldfinch is the American goldfinch’s counterpart in the southwestern U.S. and they are being seen more regularly in southeast Wyoming. They are smaller. Like the American, they are bright yellow with a black cap and black wings, but they also have a black back, although some have greenish backs.

Every day the lesser males showed up, pulling thistle seed from the feeder for minutes at a time. Unlike other seed-eating songbirds which feed their young insects, goldfinches feed their young seeds they’ve chewed to a pulp. After a couple weeks, we began to wonder if one of them had a nest somewhere.

August 4, the lesser fledglings made their TV debut. The three pestered their dad at the same time. My husband, Mark, got a wonderful photo of the male feeding one of the young. However, within five days the show was over, the young having dispersed.

Year-round we have Eurasian collared-doves. I’ve noticed one has a droopy wing, the tip of which nearly drags on the ground. She and her mate are responsible for the only X-rated content shown on our backyard nature TV—that’s how I know the droopy-winged bird is female.

One morning outside I noticed a scattering of thin sticks on the grass and looked up. I saw the sketchy (as in a drawing of a few lines) nest on a branch of one of our green ash trees, with the dove sitting on it. Every time I went out, I would check and there she was, suspended over our heads, listening in on all our conversations, watching us mow and garden.

Then one day I heard a frantic banging around where Mark had stacked the hail guards for our garden. It was a young dove. It had blown out of the nest during the night’s rainstorm. The sketchy (as in unreliable) nest had failed.

The presence of the trapped squab, half the size of an adult, would explain the behavior of the mother nearby, who had been so agitated that she attracted our dog’s attention.

I put the dog in the house and went to extract the young bird. It didn’t move as I approached and scooped it up. There is something magical about holding a wild bird, even one belonging to a species that has invaded our neighborhoods, sometimes at the expense of the native mourning dove. So soft, so plump. I set it down inside the fenced-off flower garden. Later, I checked and it was gone.

Within a few days, Droopy-wing and her mate were involved in another X-rated performance. Then I noticed one of them fly by with a slender stick. Sure enough, two days later she was back on her rehabbed throne, incubating the next generation.

Bird-finding improves

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Strycker’s book is due out Oct. 10, 2017.

Published August 20, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird-finding improves from generation to generation.”

By Barb Gorges 

When your interest in birds takes you beyond your backyard, you need a guide beyond your bird identification book. That help can come in many forms—from apps and websites to a trail guide book or local expert.

Noah Strycker needed a bird-finding guide for the whole world for his record-breaking Big Year in 2015. His book, “Birding without Borders,” due out Oct. 10, documents his travels to the seven continents to find 6,042 species, more than half the world total.

In it, he thoughtfully considers many bird-related topics, including how technology made his record possible, specifically www.eBird.org. In addition to being a place where you can share your birding records, it’s “Explore Data” function helps you find birding hotspots, certain birds and even find out who found them. Strycker credits its enormous global data base with his Big Year success.

Another piece of technology equally important was http://birdingpal.org/, a way to connect with fellow enthusiasts who could show him around their own “backyards.” Every species he saw during his Big Year was verified by his various travelling companions.

Back in 1968, there was no global data base to help Peter Alden set the world Big Year record. But he only needed to break just over 2,000 species. He helped pioneer international birding tourism through the trips he ran for Massachusetts Audubon. By 1981, he and British birder John Gooders could write “Finding Birds Around the World.” Four pages of the nearly 700 are devoted to our own Yellowstone National Park.

When I bumped into Alden at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (a birding hotspot) in 2011, he offered to send me an autographed copy for $5. I accepted, however, until I read Strycker’s book, I had no idea how famous a birder he was.

As Strycker explains it, interest in international birding, especially since World War II, has kept growing, right along with improved transportation to and within developing countries, which usually have the highest bird diversity. However, some of his cliff-hanging road descriptions would indicate that perhaps sometimes the birders have exceeded the bounds of safe travel.

For the U.S., the Buteo Books website will show you a multitude of American Birding Association “Birdfinding” titles for many states. Oliver Scott authored “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” for the association in 1992. Robert and Jane Dorn included bird finding notes in the 1999 edition of their book, “Wyoming Birds.” Both books are the result of decades of experience.

A variation on the birdfinding book is “the birding trail.” The first was in Texas. The book, “Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail,” enumerates a collection of routes connecting birding sites, and includes information like park entrance fees, what amenities are nearby, and what interesting birds you are likely to see. Now you can find bird and wildlife viewing “trails” on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website. Many states are following their example.

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The Wyoming Bird Trail app is available for Apple and Android smartphones.

People in Wyoming have talked about putting together a birding trail for some years, but it took a birding enthusiast like Zach Hutchinson, a Casper-based community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, to finally get it off the ground.

The good news is that by waiting this long, there are now software companies that have designed birding trail apps. No one needs to print books that soon need updates.

The other good news is that to make it a free app, Hutchinson found sponsors including the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Murie Audubon Society (Casper), Wyoming State Parks, and WY Outside – a group of nonprofits and government agencies working to encourage youth and families in Wyoming to spend more time outdoors.

Look for “Wyoming Bird Trail” app on either iTunes or Google Play to install it on your smart phone.

Hutchinson has made a good start. The wonderful thing about the app technology is that not only does it borrow Google Maps so directions don’t need to be written, the app information can be easily updated. Users are invited to help.

There is one other way enterprising U.S. birders research birding trips. They contact the local Audubon chapter, perhaps finding a member, like me, who loves an excuse to get out for another birding trip and who will show them around – and make a recommendation for where to have lunch.

Bird by ear, identify the unseen

2017-7Turtle Rock Trail beaver pond by Barb Gorges

Birds are hard to see, but easy to hear, around this beaver pond on the Turtle Rock Trail at the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 16, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird by ear to identify the unseen.”

By Barb Gorges

Here on the western edge of the Great Plains, our trees don’t grow so thick that you can’t walk all the way around one to see the bird that’s singing. But it is still useful to be able to identify birds by sound.

I’m a visually-oriented person, so over time I’ve learned to identify our local birds well enough to often figure out who they are as they flash by. I can only identify bird voices of the most common or unique sounding species.

At the big box stores in town, in the garden departments, there is almost always an incessant cheeping overhead from invading house sparrows.

If you get up at oh-dark-thirty on a spring or summer morning in town, you are likely to hear the cheerful “cheerio” of a robin.

Putting up a bird feeder may bring in house finches, with their different chatter. I especially like hearing the goldfinches around the thistle feeder which sound as if they are small children calling questions to each other.

Birding by ear becomes a more important skill in the mountains where the forest is thicker. The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s mid-June field trip was to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area on the Medicine Bow National Forest. We planned to hike the Turtle Rock trail. Since most of Wyoming’s birds are found near water (birdwatchers are most likely found there too), we focused on the beaver ponds.

Some birds, like the flocks of tree swallows flitting across the water, are never hidden away.

But one warbling bird was. It didn’t sound quite like a robin. I went through a mental list of birds that like riparian, or streamside, habitats and casually remarked, “Maybe it’s a warbling vireo.”

Then I realized I could check the free Merlin app on my phone and play a recording of a warbling vireo. Amazingly, it matched.

Yellow warblers are almost always somewhere around in the brush around water at upper elevations too and we could hear one. It has a very loud, unique call. Being bright yellow, it isn’t hard to spot singing in the willows.

There are species of birds that resemble each other so closely—the empidonax flycatchers—that it is necessary to hear them sing to tell them apart.

On the other hand, there are species that sound so much like each other, it causes the problem people used to have telling me and my mom apart on the phone.

For example, robin and black-headed grosbeak songs have a clear, babbling quality, but if you listen a lot while the grosbeaks are here during migration, you can tell who is the real robin.

On the trail, chapter member Don Edington picked out a bird at the tip top of an evergreen, singing away. It was yellow, with black and white wings, like an over-sized goldfinch. Its head had the lightest wash of orangey-red. It was another robin voice impersonator, the western tanager.

Visually, the sparrows are mostly a large brown cloud in my mind. The same can be said for distinguishing, much less remembering, many bird songs. I like birds with easy to remember songs, like the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird to expect in the forest. It is so tiny your chances are slim of seeing it on its favorite perches in large spruce trees.

After being inundated by Swainson’s thrushes this spring—but all completely mute while they inspected our backyard, it was a pleasure to catch the trill of one on the trail. But then I checked it against a recording on Merlin and realized we had the thrush that doesn’t trill upwards, but the other, trilling downwards, the hermit thrush.

It does help to study the field guides in advance of seeing a bird species for the first time—just knowing which ones to expect in a certain habitat is helpful. Studying bird songs before venturing into the woods again would be as useful.

I need to crack open that new book by Nathan Pieplow, “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America,” and the corresponding recordings at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Except, we’ll only find the species we share with eastern North America. We won’t find our strictly western bird species until he finishes the western edition. But I could work on his technique for distinguishing songs—before I spend too much more time in the woods.

Note: In addition to Merlin and Peterson, find more bird sound recordings at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, or try https://macaulaylibrary.org. For the latter, try filtering by location to get birds using Wyoming dialects.

2017-07-TurtleRockTrail by Barb Gorges

The Turtle Rock Trail offers a variety of habitat types–and weather–on a mid-June Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society field trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 2017

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Mark and I rechecked Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 in the evening of the Big Day and caught a couple more bird species. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 18, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “Thrushes take over Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count”

By Barb Gorges

The spring bird migration of 2017 is leaving people scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Because of safety issues due to heavy snow the two days before —the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was postponed a week, to May 27. [The best spring bird watching/counting in Cheyenne is around the old cottonwoods and the snow broke branches and left large trees hazardous to walk under.]

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members who organize the count assume that the Saturday closest to the middle of May will be the closest to peak migration. However, while the event was held a week later this year, we counted 113 species compared to last year’s 110.

In the preceding weeks, we saw posts from Casper birders about sightings of spring migrants we hadn’t seen yet, as if they skipped Cheyenne and continued north.

At our house, we eventually had about one each of our favorite migrants (indigo bunting, black-headed grosbeak, MacGillivray’s warbler, Wilson’s warbler), but most were after the original Big Day date.

In early May, my husband, Mark, and I visited High Island, Texas, a famous landing spot for migrating songbirds crossing the Gulf. It was empty except for the rookery full of spoonbills, herons, egrets and cormorants. A birder we met had visited during the peak in April and said it was a disappointing migration.

Bill Thompson III, editor and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, posted similar thoughts about what he saw from his home in southeastern Ohio. Someone responding from New Hampshire said he saw only three species of warblers in the first 25 days of May when he would typically see a dozen.

Everyone hopes that the low number of migrating birds is due to weather patterns that blew them north without stopping over. We hope it isn’t a sign of problems on the wintering grounds, breeding grounds or somewhere in between.

For our Cheyenne Big Day, we have one group that birds the hotspots: Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the High Plains Grasslands Research Station and the adjacent arboretum. This year, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the group varied in size from five to 15. Even the most inexperienced birdwatcher was helpful finding birds.

Because we couldn’t change the date of the permit we had to access the research station, we contented ourselves with the road in front of the buildings, and that’s where we found two eastern bluebirds, a species showing up here more often in recent years.

The long-eared owl seen by two participants this year at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch is a species last recorded on the Big Day in 1996.

Besides the group canvassing an area roughly the same as the Christmas Bird Count’s 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Capitol, five people birded on their own. And though they sometimes visited places the main group did, it was at different times, counting different birds.

The most numerous species this year was the Swainson’s Thrush. The quintessential little brown bird, like a junior robin, was everywhere. Two days later, there were none to be seen.

Maybe there is no one-day peak of spring migration. Maybe there never was. But spending any day outdoors in Cheyenne in May you are bound to see more species of birds than if you don’t go out at all.

2017 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results: 113 species

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Gadwall

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Ring-billed Gull

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Long-eared Owl

Great Horned Owl

Common Nighthawk

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Warbling Vireo

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Horned Lark

Tree Swallow

  1. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

McCown’s Longspur

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

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A spotting scope is necessary to see the waterfowl on the far side of Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.