Cheyenne Audubon Apr. 20 program: “Effects of Mullen Fire on Wildlife”

Cheyenne Audubon free virtual program Apr. 20, 7 p.m.: Jesse McCarty, “The 2020 Mullen Fire and How it Might Change Wildlife Habitat in the Medicine Bow National Forest”

The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society invites the public to a free, virtual presentation, “The 2020 Mullen Fire and How it Might Change Wildlife Habitat in the Medicine Bow National Forest,” given by Jesse McCarty, Laramie-based wildlife biologist with the forest. The Zoom program will begin at 7 p.m., Apr. 20. Find the link at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com.

On September 17, 2020, smoke reports were received by the Laramie Ranger District of the Medicine Bow National Forest in the area near Mullen Creek in the Savage Run Wilderness in the Snowy Range Mountains, approximately 35 miles west of Laramie. 

The Mullen fire became the largest in the history of the Medicine Bow National Forest. The final acreage was 176,878 acres in Albany and Carbon counties in Wyoming and Jackson and Larimer counties in Colorado. What’s happening to the wildlife? What is the Forest Service doing after the wildfire?

View of the Medicine Bow National Forest after the 2020 Mullen Fire.

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. 

Comparing southeastern Wyoming Christmas Bird Counts

December 2020 Southeastern Wyoming Christmas Bird Counts compared

By Barb Gorges

Mark Gorges, birding at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, participates in the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 19, 2020, with all the equipment of the modern birder, including binoculars, camera for documenting unusual birds and smart phone with eBird app for keeping the list of birds seen. Photo by Barb Gorges

            There are many variables affecting the number of birds and bird species seen on the Christmas Bird Count. Weather is a big one. Dec. 19, the Cheyenne counters met up with strong winds that put a damper on small bird numbers. None of us were mean enough to shake them out of the bushes.

Count compiler Grant Frost and some of the other 13 participants were able to find a few of the missing species count week (three days before and after the count day) when the wind moderated.

            A week later the weather was “spitty” with snow squalls, reported Jane Dorn, compiler for the Guernsey – Ft. Laramie Christmas Bird Count Dec. 27. Mark and I planned to drive up and help the five participants, but over the years we’ve had iffy weather like that turn into white-knuckle driving, so we stayed home.

Although both CBCs are in southeast Wyoming, Cheyenne is 80 miles south as the crow flies and, at 6063 feet, 1700-1800 feet higher than Guernsey and Ft. Laramie. The topography is different too. 

            As I read through Jane’s list, I could imagine where the birds were. The bald eagles and ducks would have been on Greyrocks Reservoir, which was open—unlike Cheyenne’s much smaller lakes which were pretty much completely frozen.

            The many robins and solitaires would be at Guernsey State Park, in the junipers and pines in the hills. Goldfinches, siskins and nuthatches would have congregated at feeders in Hartville and the belted kingfisher would be somewhere along the North Platte River or the Laramie River, at Fort Laramie National Historic Site or at the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site. Raptors could have been anywhere—there’s a lot of unobstructed sky in the 15-mile diameter count circle.

            The number of people, how long they are out counting and how much distance they cover, whether by human propulsion or vehicle, makes a difference. That’s why, if you get into the scientific use of CBC data, the bird numbers are statistically shaped by these effort factors.

            The lists for both counts are combined below, Guernsey-Ft. Laramie in italic numbers for species also seen in Cheyenne, and with names and numbers in italics for species not seen in Cheyenne. The abbreviation “cw” is for birds seen “count week.”

            The list starts out with one of the outstanding birds seen, the greater white-fronted goose (the forehead is white). Grant found it at Lions Park. It pays to examine every bird in a flock of Canada geese.

This individual was late in migrating from its Arctic breeding grounds. Since it is a nearly circumpolar arctic species, it would be interesting to see if any of them are found this late between breeding and wintering ranges—in the middle of Eurasia.     

Cheyenne CBC

Dec. 19, 2020

33 species total plus 8 count week

Guernsey-Ft. Laramie CBC

Dec. 27, 2020

47 species total plus 3 count week     

Greater White-fronted Goose 1

Cackling Goose 10, 48

Canada Goose 1339, 3,387

American Wigeon 2

Mallard 182, 441

Domestic (White) Mallard 1

Green-winged Teal 53

Common Goldeneye 3, 1

Hooded Merganser 5

Common Merganser 213

Wild Turkey 75

Rock Pigeon 145, 1013

Eurasian Collared-Dove 81, 138

Great Blue Heron 1, 1

Golden Eagle 1

Northern Harrier cw  

Sharp-shinned Hawk cw        

Northern Goshawk cw           

Bald Eagle 7

Red-tailed Hawk 4, 2

Rough-legged Hawk 1, 2

Great Horned Owl 1, cw

Belted Kingfisher 1, 3

Downy Woodpecker 3, 1

Hairy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 8, 21

American Kestrel 2, 5

Merlin 1

Prairie Falcon cw

Northern Shrike 1

Stellar’s Jay 8

Blue Jay 2, 22

Black-billed Magpie 26, 14

American Crow 90, 5

Common Raven 7, 1

Horned Lark 15

Black-capped Chickadee 48

Mountain Chickadee 7, 13

Golden-crowned Kinglet cw

Red-breasted Nuthatch 6, 11

White-breasted Nuthatch 1, 7

Pygmy Nuthatch 1

Brown Creeper 5

Canyon Wren 1

Marsh Wren 1

European Starling 167, 181

Townsend’s Solitaire 3, 81

American Robin cw, 541

House Sparrow 244, 9

House Finch 37, 60

Cassin’s Finch cw

Red Crossbill 2

Pine Siskin 4, 33

American Goldfinch cw, 38

American Tree Sparrow 9, 4

Dark-eyed Junco 30, 66

            Slate-colored – 9

            Oregon – 5

            Pink-sided – 19

White-crowned Sparrow cw, 12

Song Sparrow cw, 4

Red-winged Blackbird 23

First Cassin’s finch visit

Cassin’s finch female blends in with house finches except for the dark breast stripes, fluffier head feathers and white patches on either side of the eye. Photo by Mark Gorges.

First Cassin’s finch visits Gorges backyard

Published Dec. 5, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            By early November, our winter feeder birds are back.

House finches are the most abundant and show up every day. Juncos come when the weather’s bad. This year we are regularly hosting two red-breasted nuthatches and two mountain chickadees.

Occasionally a downy woodpecker, flicker or collared-doves fly in. The goldfinches are unreliable, but their close cousins, the pine siskins, are showing up every day. That’s unusual for them, but they are part of the flock pushed south this year due to a bad seed crop in the north.

            I was gazing out the window at the birds busily flitting about the feeders and patio paving below, then realized I was seeing an odd bird in the mix.

            House finches are the faded brown birds with faded stripes down their breasts. The males have pale pink heads that get redder in the spring. Pine siskins have stripes too but are smaller and their stripes are very dark—plus on their wings they have a white bar and a flash of yellow.

            The odd bird had the pine siskins’ dark breast stripes, but it was the size of the house finch. It couldn’t be dismissed as an aberrant house finch because there were light-colored markings on its head that house finches don’t have and the back of the top of its head was, well, kind of a pointy topknot. Time to get out the Sibley Field Guide to Birds: “Female Cassin’s Finch,” the 103rd species to fly over or into our yard.

            The males have pink/red heads like house finches, but with the topknot being the brightest. Unlike the female, their breast stripes are very faint, fainter than the house finch’s.

            To get an overview of everything known about a bird species, I go online to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America Online,” but it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been rolled into “Birds of the World,” https://birdsoftheworld.org/, where my subscription is still good ($49 per year, or by the month or discounted for three years).

            When I pulled up the Cassin’s finch page, I was surprised to find a notation that I’d recorded this species in eBird seven times. Clicking on that link showed my two current observations, August last year in the Snowy Range, April 2014 and December 2013 in Hartville, June 2013 in a canyon in Washington State, and July 2011 at Upper North Crow Reservoir.

            This is a finch that breeds in coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, from just over the Canadian border to northern New Mexico and Arizona.

It can migrate altitudinally, spending the winter at lower elevations (Hartville, in Platte County, is at only 4,600 feet and Cheyenne at 6,100, compared to 10,000 feet in the Snowies) or latitudinally, flying as far south as central Mexico. Sometimes they just hang out if the seed crop is good. The one that visited us must have lost her flock.

Cassin’s finch’s closest relative is the purple finch, an eastern species, diverging from it genetically 3 million years ago. It diverged from the house finch 9 million years ago.

Ornithologists have classified Cassin’s as a “cardueline” finch, a subfamily of finches of 184 species worldwide, including the Hawaiian honeycreeper species. In North America it includes the redpoll, pine and evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, goldfinches, rosy finches, crossbills and our “rosefinches”—house, purple and Cassin’s.

            Besides sharing similar skull formation, cardueline species feed their young regurgitated seeds. Other perching birds feed theirs insects. Cardueline species can grip a plant stem and extract seeds from flower heads. I see house finches and goldfinches do that in my wildflower garden all the time.

Sparrows wait until the seeds fall to the ground—I’ve never seen a junco, a species of sparrow, pluck seeds from plants or feeders, though one was experimenting last year.

            I was curious if “cardueline” came from the same origins as “card” in cardinals, named for the religious figures in red robes, but red wouldn’t hold for all the sub family species.

It’s from “carduus,” meaning wild thistle or artichoke. Artichoke is a giant thistle-type plant in the aster/sunflower family. And this makes perfect sense. These finches like to pluck seeds from flower heads, including thistle, coneflower, sunflower and aster.

            I’m glad my cardueline finches can also pluck black oil sunflower seed out of our hanging tube feeder since it doesn’t take long to clean out the seeds in our garden.

We look forward to hosting the birds during a winter we can’t host people.         

Project FeederWatch brightens winter

Project FeederWatch brightens winter with backyard birds

White-breasted Nuthatch by Errol Traskin, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

By Barb Gorges

            Nov. 14 marks the beginning of Mark’s and my 22nd season participating in Project FeederWatch. It’s a community/citizen science winter bird count endeavor started by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada back in 1987.

            It’s open to anyone, of any age, including classrooms, and of any expertise level, who is willing to put up a feeder and count the birds that visit and report them one to 21 times during the 21-week season. This year’s season ends April 9. Even if you don’t participate, there’s a wealth of free data, bird i.d. help and information about feeding birds available, https://feederwatch.org/ and fun stuff like the participants’ photo contests. 

            Here’s how Mark and I do it. Every year we update the description of our backyard—size doesn’t change but how many trees and shrubs may. We describe our birdbath and three bird feeders: sunflower seed tube, nyjer thistle seed tube and the cage that holds a block of pressed-together seed.

            For the two-day count period we choose Saturday and Sunday each week, even now that Mark is retired. There must be a minimum of 5 days between counts, so we stick with the same days each week—it’s easier to remember.

            We could print out an official tally sheet for each week, but we just use a scrap sheet of paper on the kitchen table. All our feeders, and the ground under them, are visible from the kitchen window.

            During the count we are looking for the largest number that can be seen at one time of each species—at the feeders and in our bushes and trees. We estimate snow depth and amount of time we watch. We don’t spend hours at the window. It’s less than one hour over the two days—checking as we walk by.

            By Sunday evening we can enter the count data online including any comments on bird interactions and observations of disease, and upload bird photos. There’s now a phone app for reporting counts too.

            It’s fun looking at our own data. CLO makes cool charts. I can see how the number of species and number of individuals changes during a season. I can compare all 21 seasons by species—back in 1999-2000, we were seeing goldfinches nearly every week, much less often in 2019-2000.

            Our yard’s landscaping has changed and matured. Over 1999-2000 we saw 12 species total. Over 2019-20, it was 21 species, though one week only one bird, a junco, was seen during the two-day count period.

            There were 20,000 participants last year, but only 27 in Wyoming, urban and rural. We could use more data to give scientists a more accurate view of our birds. Consider joining.

2019-20 FeederWatch Season:

25,679 participants

184,676 checklists

7,551,144 birds

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

            The participation fee of $18 ($15 for CLO members) funds nearly the entire endeavor, including mailing a research kit to first timers: instructions and bird i.d. poster. We all can opt for th e calendar, 16-page annual report and a digital subscription to Living Bird, a 70-page, full-color quarterly magazine normally available for the minimum $39 CLO membership fee.

            What will you see at your feeders? Here’s the list of the top 25 species based on the percentage of Wyoming participants reporting them last season:

Eurasian collared-dove 77

House finch 74

House sparrow 66

American goldfinch 66

Dark-eyed junco 66

Black-capped chickadee 66

American robin 59

European starling 55

Northern flicker 55

Red-breasted nuthatch 55

Downy woodpecker 48

Black-billed magpie 44

Blue jay 37

Mountain chickadee 37

Red-winged blackbird 33

American crow 33

Pine siskin* 33

Rosy finch species 25

Hairy woodpecker 25

Common raven 22

White-breasted nuthatch 22

Common grackle 22

Sharp-shinned hawk 22

Wild turkey 18

Song sparrow 18

*There’s an irruption of pine siskins this year because there isn’t a good seed crop in Canada. You may see more of them at your feeders.

House Finch by Maria Corcacas, courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology

            Here in Cheyenne we are unlikely to see wild turkeys or rosy finches, but the other species, and more, are all possible. If you go to Project FeederWatch’s “Common Feeder Birds Interactive,” https://feederwatch.org/learn/common-feeder-birds/, set it for “Northwest” and “Black oil sunflower seed” and you’ll find photos of most of our species. Click on each photo and discover what other kinds of food and feeders that species prefers.

            CLO has the free Merlin phone app for identifying birds. You answer simple questions about location, size, color, behavior and habitat for your unknown bird and it shows you photos of possible birds.

            For each species, CLO’s All About Birds website, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, will give you multiple photos, sound recordings, range map, habitat, food, nesting, behavior information, conservation status, cool facts, backyard tips and their names in both Spanish and French.

            I hope you’ll join Project FeederWatch this winter with me and Mark. It is one of the things I like about winter.  

Migration hazards & bonanzas

Fall migration: some birds hit hazards and others find feeding bonanzas

Goshen Hole Reservoir had large expanses of mudflats attracting migrating shorebirds in mid-September. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            Mark and I were camping in the Cascades with our granddaughter and her parents, watching American dippers fly up and down the Sauk River when the unseasonably early snowstorm hit Cheyenne September 8-9.

            The first rumor we heard about a bird migration catastrophe was from my sister and brother-in-law in Albuquerque who mentioned a lot of dead birds had been found in New Mexico after that same storm.

            Albuquerque dropped from a record high of 96 degrees for the date to a record low of 40 with high winds. Up on Sandia Crest overlooking the city there was snow. Dead bird reports started coming in including 300 carcasses at White Sands Missile Range and more in other parts of the region.

            Within a week, the major bird conservation organizations and the national media were writing about it. The best account is at the American Birding Association website, written by Jenna McCullough, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, https://www.aba.org/the-data-behind-mysterious-bird-deaths-in-new-mexico/.

            But there were also anecdotal reports of dead migratory birds in the west back in August, the possible culprit being the wildfires. Apparently, when smoke fills the air, the migratory birds leave, even if it is prematurely, so they may not have eaten enough to store enough fat for the journey.

Perhaps the birds can’t find the food they need along the way because the smoke is obscuring it. And breathing smoke weakens them. Mark and I had a taste of that on our drive back across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah. Cheyenne had even thicker smoke Sept. 26 when it was engulfed in the orange plume from the Mullen fire.

            Not all birds migrate. The non-migratory birds know their territory’s food sources well and are less likely to starve during rough times. However, many of the species that migrate are insect eaters, insectivores. They migrate south as far as Central and South America when it is too cold up north for insects.

There are birds that specialize in finding hibernating insects and their eggs in tree bark, like the brown creeper in winter in Cheyenne. But warblers and flycatchers want more lively insects, and swallows require flying insects.

No insects fly for a while after a freezing event. Even if the birds had stored fat for the journey, they would burn a lot trying to keep warm. Swallows are known to huddle together, and Jenna found crevices in the bank along the Rio Grande stuffed with emaciated, dead swallows.

What radar tells us

            Weather radar stations around the country can pick up the movements of migratory birds. At Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the BirdCast team, https://birdcast.info/, besides forecasting migratory activity, processes the data to show the amount and direction of migration over time in active maps.

            The night of September 8-9, you can see a hole in migratory activity centered on New Mexico, Colorado, and western Texas, Kansas and Nebraska—no bird movement. And none in much of Wyoming, but apparently no one reported high numbers of dead birds here.

            Conversely, on Sept. 21 as I walked the dog along the Henderson ditch in the morning, the vegetation was alive with small birds busily hunting. I checked BirdCast and sure enough, overnight there had been a major migration push from eastern Montana down through Cheyenne and down all along the Colorado Front Range, as well as in the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast. The night flyers had landed and were having breakfast.

Drought delight

            One upside to the drought is the drawdown of reservoirs. When reservoirs are full, there are few migrating shorebirds stopping to feed. We went up to Bump Sullivan mid-September and it was a cornucopia: Mudflats full of feeding birds stretched a hundred yards between shore and water.

We saw sandpipers: Baird’s, least, pectoral, and spotted, and long-billed dowitchers plus great blue herons and sandhill cranes probing for invertebrates with their bills. On the water, hundreds of American white pelicans were feeding in long strings, shoulder to shoulder.

            On Sept. 21 I also heard my first dark-eyed juncos in our neighborhood. While insectivorous birds abandon us for the winter, the seed-eating juncos join us. They aren’t quite ready to be bird feeder regulars yet—plenty of seed in the wild for now—but they haven’t forgotten how to find us. It would be interesting to do a banding study and find out which mountain ranges our juncos nest in.      

xxx

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.