Searching eastern woodlands for birds

Spotting an eastern bluebird in Pennsylvania was a treat for Cheyenne birders Barb and Mark Gorges. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Cheyenne birders search Pennsylvania and New York woodlands for eastern birds

By Barb Gorges

            Mark and I couldn’t hear any birds over the sound of wind in the leaves. That’s not unusual for Wyoming, but we were in Pennsylvania where the trees will grow a complete canopy without anyone planting them. Finding birds is dependent on hearing them, even more so than here.

            We were at the Churchville Nature Center in Bucks County, my favorite place to bird when visiting my aunt. The goldenrod and purple asters were in full bloom in the little meadow and robins were picking fruit from all kinds of shrubs. But in the trees, it seemed birdless until we reached a little swale protected from the wind and suddenly there was a swarm of chickadees, titmice and warblers for a few minutes.

            There were no birds to be seen on the reservoir. The waterbirds and shorebirds must have already tucked in for the coming storm, waiting for the afternoon’s deluge.

We counted only 11 species altogether. For the Saturday morning bird walk before our visit, 19 local birders listed 64 species. Timing and experience make a big difference. I keep forgetting to look into hiring local bird guides when we travel.

            In the Ithaca, New York, area, we had the help of our son Bryan and his wife, Jessie, both avid birders. They have experience identifying birds we rarely see in Cheyenne, like black-throated green warbler. They pointed out the sound of a Carolina wren, unseen in the brush. They also pointed out that sometimes one-note calls in the trees are chipmunks or tree frogs.

            The Finger Lakes region has a plethora of public land to explore and bird. We hiked the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park our first morning, as early as Jessie could get us on the road. It is black shale sculpted by water, dim and deep and deafening—no birds could be heard over the numerous waterfalls full of rain. The sun rarely reaches into the gorge at 9 a.m. but later the steep trail is crowded with people.

            Have you heard of Finger Lakes National Forest? It’s a scattering of parcels between Seneca and Cayuga lakes, tiny compared to any of the national forests in Wyoming, but then again, with all those trees in the way, the boundaries are not very noticeable. We hiked the Potomac trails where in late September fall color was just beginning to show.

Finger Lakes National Forest, late September. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Our second day of birding hikes began with the Dorothy McIlroy Bird Sanctuary northeast of Ithaca. A creek and wetlands attract a lot of birds to this property owned and managed by the Finger Lakes Land Trust. It commemorates a woman who had a significant role in the early days of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The shrub fen and peat swamp were bordered by hemlock trees, unusual for the immediate area, but old friends of mine from my central Wisconsin days.

            Next, we hiked and birded nearby Bear Swamp State Forest Park. Didn’t see any bears but found interesting mushrooms and Jessie found a red eft, the teenage stage of the eastern newt.

I’ve read that the overpopulation of deer has affected eastern forests, browsing the shrub and young tree understory layer of vegetation to the point that you can see quite a way through the tree trunks. It must negatively affect birds that specialize in that layer.

Where there was normal understory, I made a new friend, a small tree, striped maple, named for the vertical ridges on its stems. It is also known as moosewood. It’s a favorite moose food and the name of my favorite Ithaca restaurant.

One stop we made between Philadelphia and Ithaca was to see the Rodale Institute, a proponent of organic gardening and farming beginning in 1947. Back in 1978 I contributed a story to their magazine, an interview with the designer of a safer bluebird house. Mark and I opted for the self-guided tour of the fields and greenhouses, which you can hear at their website.

Rodale is now a proponent of organic regenerative agriculture, as well as planting for pollinators. However, they apparently haven’t banned outdoor cats yet, so they aren’t entirely bird-friendly. Ironically, in the shrubbery by the creek there were a lot of catbirds.

While we wistfully compared the unwanted extra precipitation the East has had lately with our western drought, we are still happy with our choice to live in Wyoming, where the horizon stretches much farther.

There are animals besides birds in the trees. Eastern Gray Squirrel by Mark Gorges.

    

Dry Creek habitat restoration

“Dry Creek restoration to improve hydrology, habitat” was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 4, 2021.

Jeff Geyer, Laramie County Conservation District water specialist, explains how a Beaver Dam Analog structure will redirect the flow of Dry Creek and improve the riparian habitat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            Jeff Geyer is fixing Cheyenne’s Dry Creek.

            First, how did it get its name? Jeff, Laramie County Conservation District water specialist, told me that unlike Crow Creek, our other stream that starts in the mountains, Dry Creek starts somewhere on the F.E. Warren Air Force Base. He said it never had much of a channel, with the water frequently spreading out in flat, temporarily marshy areas and percolating into the water table below as it flowed after a rain or snow event.

            Fast-forward 160 years. The Greenway now follows Dry Creek as it crosses northern Cheyenne west to east, parallel to Dell Range Boulevard. At North College Drive it heads southeast to the new East Park and crosses under I-80. It joins Crow Creek near where the sewage treatment plant is today on Campstool Road.

            What’s changed is the Dry Creek watershed which drains two-thirds of Cheyenne. More land surfaces surrounding the creek have been paved and built on over the last 30 to 40 years as Cheyenne expands. Jeff says you can see the change on Google Earth (use the free Pro version you can download).

            Snowmelt and rainfall aren’t absorbed by pavement and roofs, so they run off into Dry Creek, making much higher flows. Higher flows are faster. Faster flows are straighter. Straighter flows have more energy to erode the soil. Between Campstool and I-80, that energy cut 5-foot deep banks and sent good soil into Crow Creek where it gets deposited in the downstream reservoirs—not good for reservoirs, or the fish in Crow Creek.

            In 2019, Jeff started to fix a small section of Dry Creek that will make a difference. The idea is to slow the creek down by increasing its sinuosity which will reduce the energy of the water. The water flow needs to look more like a traveling snake—looping to one side and then to the other, rather than a straight stick.

            Mathematically, a straight stream has a sinuosity of 1—the ratio of the distance the water travels is 1 to 1 with the length of the valley. Jeff would like to see a sinuosity of 1.2 or 1.4, meaning that in a 100 feet of valley length, the water would loop an extra 20 to 40 feet.

            The banks of a sinuous stream will still erode a bit, but much of the dirt will be deposited in the next curve—slow moving streams can’t carry as much soil suspended in the water.

            While some earth work was required to reduce the 5-foot cutbank in places to give Dry Creek access to the flood plain during rainfall or snowmelt events, much of the sinuosity building is being done with willow stems, logs, posts and stakes.

            At just the right location and angle in the stream bottom, Jeff and volunteers pounded in stakes in a line and then wove willow stems, forming a “Beaver Dam Analog.” The willows were from a nearby location where they die back and new willows continue growing.

The woven willows are like snow fence that slows the wind, making the snow drop out into drifts. This structure slows water carrying dirt so the dirt will drop and form a bar where willows will grow, and their roots will stabilize the stream bed. There is already a nice stand of coyote willows in one spot.

            Up on the flood plain are “Post Assisted Log Structures.” Logs are pinned to the flood plain to make a rough passage that will also slow water down.

Jeff Geyer (left) explains to Mark Gorges (right), a volunteer from Cheyenne Audubon who helped place the Post Assisted Log Structures, how they will slow water flow in the flood zone of Dry Creek. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Long term, slower stream flow will allow more water around the creek to be absorbed and stored. That underground water flows like surface water and will eventually resurface in the creek, recharging it. Jeff is hoping for a little water to be always in Dry Creek—maybe it will need a new name.

            Changing Dry Creek’s hydrology, Jeff also expects to provide the moisture needed for more diverse vegetation for wildlife habitat. Mule deer and ermine have been seen. Cheyenne Audubon members have been making bird observations. Lorie Chesnut, a member, was instrumental in obtaining a $3000 grant through the National Audubon Society’s Western Water Network Grants this year that paid for the stakes and native plants.   

            As Jeff surveyed the conservation district-managed pasture that surrounds the first phase of the hydrology project (and a second phase that has just begun to the south), he frowned at all the 6-foot-tall mullein stalks and the other non-native weeds. Much more work will be required to transform the pasture into prairie  more useful to ground-nesting birds and other wildlife, bringing it back to its formerly lush and flower-filled self.

Swainson’s hawks fledge

Neighborhood Swainson’s hawks fledge three; fall migration underway

Published Aug. 14, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

One of the Swainson’s Hawk parents brings food to the young July 7, 2021, at a nest in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            Just as they did last year, a pair of Swainson’s hawks nested in the neighbors’ spruce tree two houses down.

            Thanks to some tree pruning in between, Mark and I had a perfect view of the nest from our bathroom window.

            I’m sure the hawks were a little put out this spring to discover after their long migratory haul from Argentina that the field adjacent now sports a three-story apartment building under construction. But about a quarter mile away is the Greenway and the railroad right of way, still plenty of open space and tasty ground squirrels.

            By July 7 we could see two fuzzy white heads in the nest. Nearly three weeks later they were mostly brown. And then the youngsters started climbing out of the nest and onto the tree branches. That’s when we realized there were three of them.

            We think the day one of the juveniles left the nest for the first time was July 25. At 6 a.m., it was sitting on a bare branch just over our back wall, looking straight back at us through the kitchen window.

There were a few days the youngsters cried a lot for parental attention. One day they landed in our tree and then all three circled low over our block. It’s become quieter, but they are still spending time in the neighborhood, sometimes on the nest tree.

            It amazes me that a large hawk, best suited for flying grasslands in search of rodents (summer) and large insects (winter), would choose to nest in a residential neighborhood. I’m glad we can provide the big trees they require to successfully breed.

Hummingbirds

            The hummingbirds are a mystery this year. Their favorite red beebalm was halfway through blooming the last week in July and I hadn’t seen them yet.  

I checked my records on eBird.org and saw since 2013 they have arrived for a three-week stay starting the last week of July or the first week of August. My beebalm is blooming ahead of schedule and they may miss it. I caught a glimpse of one hummingbird July 30 as it flitted quickly over other flowers.

Maybe the red beebalm is early this year because of all our earlier hot weather and moisture. Maybe the broad-tailed hummingbirds are later because our mountains, where they nest, have been unusually full of nectar-filled flowers and they are staying longer.

Maybe we should all put up our hummingbird feeders anyway. Remember, use a little heat to dissolve 1 part white sugar in 4 parts water. Use no other sugar types, use no red dye, and replace any nectar that gets cloudy-looking.

Weidensaul’s new book

Mark and I are reading “A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds” by Scott Weidensaul. A whole chapter is devoted to Swainson’s hawks and unraveling the mysteries of their breeding and migration using new tracking technology.

The book also discusses the number of ways migrating birds are killed by human actions, directly and indirectly, that are preventable.

            For instance, because many songbirds migrate at night, one of their navigational aids is starlight. Unfortunately, the glow from cities is attracting them and studies show more migrants in cities than there used to be. But when the small birds land in the mornings, are they finding the trees and shrubbery full of insects they need to eat to recharge? Sometimes, they find well-lit skyscrapers and become disoriented, circling until exhausted, falling to the ground, discovered dead on the sidewalk in the morning.

            City night light is detrimental to other life too, including plants and people without room-darkening shades. It increases with each porch and parking lot light left on. But it can also be decreased by one resident, one business owner and one municipality at a time.

For your home security lighting, see if you can use motion detection technology. You’ll save money on your electric bill. For parking lot lights and streetlights, chose those that are hooded, lighting only what’s below and not the sky. You’ll save money, too.

Without our own astronomical observatory, like Flagstaff, Arizona, I don’t think we will become an International Dark Sky City, asking Cheyennites to drive with only parking lights on, but it would be neat.

            Fall migration has already begun. The Swainson’s hawk family will head south sometime after the middle of September. Only six or eight weeks after fledging, the young Swainson’s all over western North America make a journey of as much as 7,000 miles to the Argentine pampas. I imagine it looks something like Wyoming grasslands there. Safe travels, kids and parents.

Robin close encounters

Robin family members pant on a hot day. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Close encounters of the robin kind

By Barb Gorges

            You could say that the robins in our backyard are benefitting from global warming this summer.

            After 32 years managing without it, Mark and I had air conditioning installed and the robins discovered it offered a good nesting location.

            We normally can keep things comfortable by closing windows before the outside temperatures get hotter than the inside, plus the basement stays chilly. But with warmer and sometimes smokier summers, it seemed like the right time to invest in heat pump technology, referred to as a mini-split. It also provides heat and can be hooked up to a solar electric system someday.

            The robins built their whole nest before we were aware. It is on top of the new conduit in the corner by the back door we don’t use much. With the roof overhang, it is well protected.

I’ve heard about robins building nests on porch lights and attacking anyone who goes in and out the associated door. Gardening takes us back and forth below this nest location, but neither robin parent divebombed us or the dog. Mark even put up our 8-foot stepladder once to take a photo and there were no complaints.

Every time I glanced at the nest when a parent was on it, incubating the eggs, staring at me, I’d apologize for another disruption.

Finally, the day came when I noticed, looking out the kitchen window, that one of the parents was pausing on one of our fence posts with a big juicy, bright green caterpillar in its beak. There were many more treats for the nestlings, but caterpillars seemed the most popular.

It takes a lot of herbivorous prey to raise baby robins and I wondered what plant damage the robins were averting this summer. Gosh, it might have been the right year for growing cabbages. My last efforts were aborted by caterpillars.

By June 19, there was one large nestling left in the nest, almost filling it. By June 20, the nest was empty. I didn’t see any speckle-breasted baby robins anywhere.

I went to the corner of the yard by the compost bins to re-pot houseplants. As I approached, a robin flew in, perching on a branch eye level with me. I stopped and we looked each other in the eye. I murmured congratulations in case it was one of our parent robins. Then it flew to a new perch a few feet away and I turned, and we locked eyes again.

Most wild animals are interested in staying away from people unless we are handing out food. Otherwise, they don’t encourage our attention because that is often dangerous.

The robin shifted position again, caught my eye, and then flew off around the upright junipers. I could hear again the quiet call it had been making, on the other side of the bushes, plus another odd one. So, I circled the junipers and when I got to the point where I could see into the interior, there was the fledgling.

Unlike a killdeer which tries to draw you away from its nest, I felt like the robin had led me to the fledgling. Minutes later the fledgling flashed away to another shrub, but I didn’t go in pursuit.

Within a week, June 26, I saw a robin sitting on the nest again. Less than three feet away, a male house sparrow with a beak full of dry grass waited patiently for the robin to take a break. His mate waited behind him. I know we have a housing shortage in Cheyenne, but does the robin have a spare room, or what?

We still have a feeder hanging over the patio, under the clear corrugated plastic roof. It’s one of those cage types that uses the blocks of seed that seem to be glued together. The red-breasted nuthatches visit it multiple times a day, pecking away.

A pair of these birds nested in a rotten stub on a tree across the street. We think these are the birds flying over our low house to our feeder. On June 25, I saw five nuthatches on the feeder, probably the whole family dining together. They are completely at home. In fact, as I walk back and forth doing chores, I sometimes remember to look up to where, two or three feet over my head, a nuthatch is completely unconcerned by my presence, or that I’ve stopped so close.

Maybe, like the geese in the park, they read body language and distinguish between danger and safety.    

2021 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count

The 2021 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was held May 15. Early morning fog at Lions Park obscured the views of birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 4, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “2021 Big Day brings in birds and birders”

By Barb Gorges

            It’s a chicken or the egg conundrum. Which comes first, lots of birds or lots of birders?

            It’s true that the more birders there are out looking, the more birds are seen. But the way to get more birders out to look for them is for there to be more bird reports coming in. That piques interest and more birders go out looking instead of doing mundane household chores.

            Mark, my husband, was out nearly every morning the first two weeks in May to one of several of his favorite hotspots: Wyoming Hereford Ranch, Lions Park (both are Wyoming Important Bird Areas), Laramie County Community College (the pond areas) or F.E. Warren Air Force Base (ponds there too).

            When he came home, he’d give me a report on what interesting migrants he’d seen and show me photos he’d taken before adding them to the checklists of birds he’d seen and entered through the eBird.org phone app. He’d tell me too, who else he’d met, mostly birding friends, but sometimes visitors.

            In the evening he liked to check eBird to see what sightings local birders had entered for the day. And he’d check birdcast.info to see if birds were going to be making a strong migratory push through our area overnight—and coming to earth here to rest and refuel in the morning.

            Every year, for 60-plus years, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society designates a date for its Big Day Bird Count and hopes to hit the biggest migratory push. It’s usually the third Saturday in May. Sometimes we’ve had icy storms and wonder if we should pick a later date. Sometimes eBird reports show that there just isn’t a peak to the migration. We wonder too if climate change means we should move it up a week.

            This year we had a good lead-up that encouraged more people to be out on our Big Day, May 15. We had a couple of sharper than average birders joining us too, Nathan Pieplow, author of the “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America,” and his friend, Will Anderson.

Nathan signed books the evening before. It was going to be an outdoor event but thank goodness the Hales family lent us one of the WHR barns as backup since a good gully washer blew in.

            Saturday morning was chilly and foggy, but the birds and birders were out. We weren’t all in one big group, but we would get the scoop on cool birds from each other when we met up.

            The next day, Mark started compiling the list of birds, looking at checklists on eBird for sightings in the Cheyenne vicinity.

            At least 30 people submitted, or were included on, 74 checklists. I submitted a couple just for our bird feeders when we took a break at home.

            It was one of the best Big Days in Cheyenne in a while: 136 species. And the warbler count was very good: 12 species.

            Sunday, there were still a lot of migratory birds in town including 50 pine siskins under our thistle feeder for an hour.

            But the show was over by Monday—both out in the field and at our now deserted feeder.

            This year, migration seems to have peaked on the Saturday we picked, making it like Christmas in May.   

May 16, 50-plus Pine Siskins and one American Goldfinch pick at thistle seed that spilled from the feeder overhead. While some birds attempt to use the dog’s water dish, there is a birdbath to the left, out of view. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 15, 2021

Compiled from 74 (51 unique) eBird lists. At least 30 people participated.

136 Species

Snow Goose

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

Mallard

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Horned Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

American Coot

Black-necked Stilt

American Avocet

Semipalmated Plover

Killdeer

Marbled Godwit

Least Sandpiper

Long-billed Dowitcher

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Willet

Ring-billed Gull

California Gull

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Great-horned Owl

Burrowing Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Plumbeous Vireo

Warbling Vireo

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

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Rock Wren

House Wren

European Starling

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Northern Mockingbird

Townsend’s Solitaire

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

House Sparrow

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinches like thistle seed (treated to not sprout). Photo by Mark Gorges.

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

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Bullock’s Orioles like orange pulp. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Northern Waterthrush

Common Yellowthroat

Orange-crowned Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Townsend’s Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Lazuli Buntings are seed eaters. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Mullen Fire changes habitats

“Mullen Fire changes forest habitats” was published May 1, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

View of Mullen Fire aftermath, courtesy Medicine Bow National Forest.

            It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. We can’t make moral judgements. It just is. This is the message Jesse McCarty had for us about the Mullen Fire.

            McCarty is a wildlife biologist and on the natural resources staff of the Medicine Bow – Routt National Forest’s Laramie Ranger District. The Mullen Fire started Sept. 17, 2020, on the forest in the Savage Run Wilderness Area.  The source of ignition is still under investigation.

From there, firefighters were able to keep it from burning an area around Rob Roy Reservoir critical to the safety of Cheyenne’s water supply. But on Sept. 26, the wind pushed the fire down and around on a one-day, 30,000 acre-run to the east. That’s a swath 6 miles wide and 8 miles long.

That was the day Cheyenne’s skies turned orange, even though we were 70 miles downwind of the fire. That is the day that if you breathed that orange air, your lungs didn’t feel right for a couple months afterwards.

To see the extent of the fire, go to the website that tracks wildland fires, https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/maps/7208/.

By Oct. 24, 2020, the Mullen Fire was contained within the boundaries marked in black.

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society invited McCarty to talk about what the effects of the fire were and will be on wildlife, especially birds, and what restoration work is planned.

            This forest has been using particular bird species as indicators of habitat. Not all bird species specialize in a narrowly described habitat, but each species monitored is tied to a particular one. For instance, the Lincoln’s sparrow is found around willows in wet mountain meadows. As the meadow fills in with trees over time, there will be more forest species such as the brown creeper.

            After a fire, the American three-toed woodpecker moves in. A species of the spruce-fir habitat, it is most numerous where insects are taking advantage of dying trees. When the flush of those insects is over and low growth is sprouting, another bird species will move in. On it goes until the spruce-fir forest is re-established and golden-crowned kinglets are at home again.

The Forest Service is continuing its bird surveys this summer. It also keeps an eye on threatened and endangered species and others in special, protective categories.

            Field biologist Don Jones of Laramie asked an important question. In view of the warming climate (the forest was experiencing another drought year in 2020), will areas that were once spruce-fir come back, or will the vegetation of a drier climate prevail, like pine-juniper? Jones is young enough that he may see the answer in his lifetime.

            The more than 55 people (not counting instances of more than one person per screen) around the state and beyond who were participating in the Zoom meeting were also concerned about other wildlife, such as the large mammals. McCarty said that there didn’t appear to be large mammal carcasses in the wake of the fire. The new vegetative growth after the fire will attract big game.

The insect life will have taken a hit where it couldn’t find moist places to hide, McCarty said, but there is not much fire science related to insects.

            When McCarty visited the forest in December, he found green growth. Sometimes, he said, this is from the caches of seeds squirrels and other small animals make. Also, the heat of the fire will have opened the serotinous cones of lodgepole pine, releasing seed. Aspen growth is also stimulated by fire.

            The spread of cheatgrass is a concern and so the forest is using applications of Rejuvra, an herbicide that keeps it from germinating. There will also be grass seeding and tree and shrub planting in critical areas such as steep slopes.

Burned areas in the Savage Run Wilderness Area will not be repaired—the definition of a national wilderness area is that people do not interfere with ecological processes there.

For most of us in the audience, the Medicine Bow is our forest, and we want to know how we can volunteer to help it recover. This year, the forest is not allowing volunteers within the burn area, but you can find other volunteer needs by contacting Aaron Voos, aaron.voos@usda.gov.

As the summer recreation season gets started, we will find trails and campgrounds in the fire area that are closed. Please honor the forest’s directives for your own safety until hazardous trees have been dropped and burnt slopes are stabilized.

And make sure you don’t cause the next forest fire.

For more on post-fire hazards: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbr/fire/?cid=FSEPRD889210.

Birds in the news

Birds in the news: salmonella, predator aversion, wind turbines, song identification

The House Finch is a common feeder bird susceptible to salmonella. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 3, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Update #1: Nearly 20 cases of salmonella have been recorded in people, possibly transmitted from bird feeders. Half of the people were hospitalized: (April 4, 2021) https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/cdc-salmonella-outbreak-is-linked-to-wild-birds-and-feeders/. Protect yourself when handling feeders.

Update #2: Cheyenne Audubon will be hosting a book signing for Nathan Pieplow the evening of May 14, 2021, at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch.

By Barb Gorges

            I get bird news in so many more ways now besides mail: Facebook, podcasts, blogs, emails. And even from friends and the radio.

            Kathy Jenkins asked if I’d heard the National Public Radio report on an outbreak of salmonella at bird feeders around the country. You can tell the bird victims because they will often sit quietly all fluffed up on a feeder perch when other birds have flown away. They are usually finches.

            It’s a disease passed around from bird to bird where they congregate at feeders. The cure, when you see sick birds, is as simple as taking down your feeder for a week and scrubbing it well with a solution of soapy water and a little bleach and rinsing it well before refilling.

            There are a variety of other communicable bird diseases and cleaning of feeders every couple of weeks—and bird droppings in the vicinity—is good preventive maintenance and avoids having to suspend feeding because there are signs of disease.  

            On the other hand, painting stinky stuff around the nesting territories of endangered shorebirds is a good idea.

            Researchers in New Zealand found that the enticing scent of chicken and other easily procured prey species mixed with petroleum jelly and slathered on rocks attracted predators. After a month of constant reapplication, the predators, ferrets and feral cats, learned that the smells offered no food rewards. They seemed to have moved on, before the double-banded plovers, wrybills and South Island pied oystercatchers came in to nest.

Successful hatching doubled for the plovers and wrybills and tripled for oystercatchers. Keeping up this aversion training each season may lead to population increase over time instead of the current decreasing numbers. Read more at https://www.audubon.org/news/false-scents-can-trick-predators-ignoring-nesting-shorebirds.

The impact on birds of a proposed wind turbine project in Albany County was recently incorrectly compared by someone quoted for a Wyoming Public Radio story.

Wind energy proponents frequently cite the statistics that more birds are killed by cats than by wind turbines. The problem is that the kinds of birds killed by cats are more likely to be common birds in urban and suburban areas than the long-distance migrants like shorebirds (though they are also at risk on breeding grounds), raptors and warblers.

And since wind generation continues to increase and companies are not required to make public how many birds are killed, we only have their word for the comparison. For more, see https://www.wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/albany-county-wind-debate-rife-misinformation.

I still think we should fill current infrastructure with solar panels before littering the landscape with turbines, especially with their massive concrete pedestals, miles of underground cables and unrecyclable components.  

            I’d like to apologize to everyone who tried to attend the virtual Cheyenne Audubon meeting in March and was stymied by our human-caused technical error.

            We hope to have the evening’s guest speaker, Nathan Pieplow, visit Cheyenne later this spring for birding and a book signing. [Book signing scheduled for May 14, 2021. Details to be announced at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com.]

            Pieplow is the author of the Peterson  Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Western North America (and the eastern version). You can learn to hear an unfamiliar bird and look it up in his field guide, or at least narrow it down to a category of sound type and then compare with the bird sounds at https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/peterson-field-guide-to-bird-sounds/.

            The field guide has spectrographs of bird sounds, very much like musical notation. The introduction gives you instructions on how to learn to “read” spectrographs. You can also use a phone app like Song Sleuth to record birds and see the spectrograph and get an identification suggestion.

            Pieplow’s March talk was on interpreting common bird sounds. Who knew that the sound of red-winged blackbirds in the spring in the cattails is actually a duet, the female joining in midway to declare “My mate is taken!”?

            The more bird sounds are studied, the more variation is found. Brown thrashers can go off on a riff for over an hour and never repeat themselves.

A group of red-winged blackbird males in a marsh will use a series of call notes to keep in touch and apprise each other of danger, but another group 50 miles away uses a different set of calls.

            Cowbird nestlings, hatched from eggs dropped in other bird species’ nests, don’t sound the same as the host nestlings, but get fed anyway.

We don’t hear what birds hear because their hearing is better and more discriminatory. Kind of like the way they can see more “frames per second” than we can, they can hear more nuances than we can.

            There is endless room for more research, including uploading your phone recordings of birds you hear to eBird.org. As Pieplow said, there are 10,000 bird languages— at least as many as there are bird species in the world.

Wildlife Conservation plate gives to Wyoming

“Wildlife Conservation license plate: One way to give to Wyoming” was published Mar. 5, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            I’ve always wanted a vanity license plate—or what the Wyoming Department of Transportation calls a “Personalized Prestige Plate.” It would be like a high quality bumper sticker that doesn’t leave residue when you pull it off.

            Wyoming has several categories of special license plates: Radio Amateur, Pioneer, EMT, Disabled Vet, University of Wyoming, among others. But with our county plates starting with “2,” I always thought it would be fun to have one that says, “2 BIRD.” Turns out someone has that one already—I once parked next to them at the dentist’s office.

            Finally, Wyoming came out with a special plate that supports wildlife conservation. It features a mule deer buck on the far left, then our Wyoming bucking horse and rider silhouette in highway-sign yellow, followed by “WC” and four digits. The governor issued a challenge that 2,020 license plates be sold by the end of 2020 and the goal was barely met. That leaves less than 7,979 available, until they start using letters.

            At http://www.dot.state.wy.us/wildlife_plate, you’ll find it costs $180, with $150 going to state wildlife conservation and $30 for the cost of the plate. It can be renewed each year for $50 in addition to your regular license fee. Because we’d barely touched our travel budget in 2020, thanks to the pandemic, Mark and I decided the WC plate would be a good investment for both our vehicles–and maybe an easy way to tell, when in parking lots, our blue Subaru from its many siblings.

            The funds go to wildlife conservation, specifically the Wildlife Crossing project.

            Currently, in Wyoming there is an average of 6,000 vehicle accidents per year involving large wildlife. We know where the favorite wildlife crossings are. Instead of being slaughtered, the animals can be funneled to wide bridges planted with native vegetation. These, as well as wildlife underpasses, make the highways 80 to 90 percent safer for both wildlife and people. See more numbers at https://wgfd.wyo.gov/wildlife-in-wyoming/migration/wildlife-crossing.

             You can donate directly to the Wildlife Crossing project to pay for these bridges and underpasses rather than buy a plate.

            Wyoming has a considerable number of anti-tax residents and legislators so it is good to see support for this project, although since it also saves human lives, you would think the funds should come from the state transportation budget.

            Hunting and fishing licenses are another way we tax ourselves. No one complains because the funds go to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. I don’t think of poachers being anti-tax. I think of them as vandals.

            According to an article in the March 2021 issue of Wyoming Wildlife, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department receives 85% of its revenue from hunting and fishing licenses and other fees, and federal taxes on firearms, fishing tackle and other outdoor equipment. The remaining 15% comes from grants for special projects. It does not receive any appropriated state funds.

            Years ago, when Wyoming first offered lifetime fishing licenses, Mark and I bought them for ourselves and our kids. We thought of it as an investment in Game and Fish. And it makes it easy to go ice fishing on January 1.

            I wish Wyoming had a way for people who enjoy watching wildlife to contribute to Game and Fish for the well-being of nongame species—including birds.

There are huge cuts in the state budget starting this year due to the downturn in the oil, gas and coal industries which paid the taxes that supported the state in the past. The global economy is modernizing, and it is unlikely these industries will boom again as they have after previous busts.   

            Because we have no state income tax, there isn’t an efficient way for Wyoming residents to contribute to the funding of other state entities, like health and education. Having no income tax has been considered a selling point for getting people to relocate here. But when government services are diminished or cut altogether, not many people will want to come.

            I suggest Wyoming start a 1% income tax everyone pays. Just like I’m proud to have a license plate that shows what I support, I would think all of us would be proud to support our state. To make it simple, we could all pay 1% of whatever amount our federal income tax is based on, before or after exemptions. I suppose you could prorate it for people who spend part of the year living elsewhere.

            Millions of people contribute money to what they believe in. Why can’t we residents have more ways to put money into Wyoming? Meanwhile, get your Wildlife Conservation license plates now!

Great Backyard Bird Count and diversity thoughts

“Great Backyard Bird Count causes columnist to ponder diversity” was published Jan. 30, 2021, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

For the 2020 Great Backyard Bird Count, Mark Gorges, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society member, set up his spotting scope for two young participants to get a close look at waterfowl on Sloans Lake in Lions Park. The waterfowl included Canada goose, northern shoveler, mallard and common goldeneye. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            The Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up Feb. 12-15. You can now take part by watching and reporting the birds you see at your bird feeders—or anywhere in the world, aka the real Great Backyard!

            Now that the GBBC has gone global, it has a fresh website, https://www.birdcount.org/. Becca Rodomsky-Bish, with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, charged with its redesign, wanted comments from a small group of reviewers and I was invited. I have in the past contacted CLO for information about their programs for these columns and I’ve taken part in the GBBC since nearly the beginning.

            This is also the year that major environmental organizations are looking at their lack of diversity—both staff and outreach—because of incidents like Black birder Christian Cooper’s experience in Central Park, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Park_birdwatching_incident.

            I think CLO’s plan to invite GBBC participants around the world to submit photos of themselves and their families and friends birding during the event will do much to illustrate diversity.

            Normally, birders talk about bird species diversity and how to protect and improve it.

            To measure human diversity in the local birding community, we can look at our local Audubon chapter. This is what we see: participants in events, members and board members are evenly split between male and female. In photos from the chapter’s beginnings almost 50 years ago, it has always been like this. Human sexual orientation isn’t as visible and hasn’t come up during meetings and field trips.

            We usually have a diversity in age, at least between 50 and 90 years old with the occasional younger outlier. Mark and I were unusual, bringing our kids along on field trips starting when they were infants.

We’ve met teenagers occasionally who are into birds. But the lack of kids I think is more about how families choose to spend their limited time together. It’s when the kids leave home that parents finally look for new activities. In the 39 years I’ve been involved in Audubon chapters, we’ve never run out of people in the upper age bracket.

A few years ago, the chapter established a grant program for education and conservation projects in Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties. We’ve had several teachers successfully use our grants. Their students might be who will join when they are 50. But we could certainly use ideas and volunteers to help us reach more younger people.

Birding is adaptable for the disabled, though being able to see and/or hear a bird, however poorly, is rather necessary for birdwatching. No need to take a bird hike. A little black oil sunflower seed on the ground or in a feeder will help bring the birds in viewing range. You might start feeding the birds a couple weeks before the GBBC. 

What about socio economic diversity?

Birdwatching at its most basic doesn’t cost a thing. Birds are everywhere. You can check out a field guide from the public library. The CLO has many free resources online. I’m beginning to think of the internet as a public utility like water and everyone needs a device, a digital bucket, to capture some of the flow.

Old or cheap binoculars can be helpful, but not necessary for watching birds at a backyard feeder. Our local field trips are free and except during pandemics, carpooling is often available.

I’ve talked to people at every socio economic level who enjoy watching birds, whether it’s the flock that comes every afternoon for their black oil sunflower seed handout or the flock that flew over their tour group in some exotic location. Some birdwatchers tune in to backyard bird behavior, some strive to add to their global bird life list.

Birds attract people from all walks of life. However, there is a higher percentage of wildlife biologists among birders than in ordinary social circles. I’m happy to say over the years there is an increase in the percentage that are women.

Our Audubon chapter is not as racially diverse as Cheyenne. I’m not sure how to change that. We advertise our existence (www.cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com) and wait for people who have made a connection to birds and who want to meet other bird-happy people and learn from each other and share sightings and support the well-being of birds (and other wildlife and people).

Many birders point to a “spark bird,” the bird they noticed and then wanted to find out more about, eventually finding more and more interesting birds—and finding they are all interesting birds.

Birds bring together all sorts of people. Let’s put on our binoculars as birdwatching badges, whatever quality they are, and find each other where the birds and birders gather. Maybe we’ll see each other outside during the Great Backyard Bird Count.