Wind energy for the birds

Vertical axis wind turbine

A vertical axis wind turbine and solar panels grace the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens in Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 16, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Let’s rethink mega wind farm on behalf of birds, efficiency.”

Note: This column ran in the same edition as “Firm in California seeks to harness Wyoming’s wind,” by Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times, about the Anschutz Corporation’s plans for the 500-square-mile ranch they bought south of Rawlins, Wyo., on which they plan to spread 1,000 turbines (the Chokecherry project) and build a 750-mile transmission line to take it all back to California. California environmentalists are not happy. Read his story here: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-wyoming-wind-20140209,0,3366359.story#axzz2tbMTmglR.

By Barb Gorges

David Yarnold is not happy.

The president of the National Audubon Society writes in the January/February issue of Audubon magazine that our country’s wind farms kill 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act should be protecting most of those birds, he says.

It’s illegal to kill them without a permit, but the Interior Department has only enforced the law once, he says. Apparently, wind farms don’t have permits for all the birds killed.

A new federal rule allows wind companies to get 30-year permits. But to Yarnold, that represents too many birds, with no incentives to cut the number of deaths.

Wind energy is a great idea. It’s been used for centuries to propel boats, to grind grain, to pump water.

A structure for catching the wind can be erected wherever the power is needed, though a backup system is essential for windless days. People are working on more efficient battery systems.

But leave it to American ingenuity to take a simple idea and enlarge upon it, making it industrial sized, much like family farming morphed into industrial agriculture.

Wind energy is clean, producing no pollution except whatever manufacturing the components entails and maintenance requires. We need cleaner energy sources like wind since the traditional fuel-burning, power-producing businesses are reluctant to make their energy production cleaner. Never mind the climate change debate–we all have to breathe.

But wind energy has an Achilles heel. Developers want to site numerous turbines in the windiest places, which also attract birds. Collisions with the blades, the towers and the transmission lines kill birds and bats. Wind farms have mazes of roads running over habitat, forcing out wildlife.

Audubon suggests targeting development for areas that are already disturbed or developed, avoiding areas known to be dense with birds, such as the Prairie Pothole region, the Texas Gulf Coast, and the Northeast’s raptor migration bottlenecks.

If you don’t care about birds, I suppose you wouldn’t see any of this as a problem. But you should care. To sum up Basic Ecology 101, every living thing, including you, is connected to every other living thing. It’s hard to predict how a loss of birds may affect you. It could be as simple as insect populations getting out of control and decimating crops.

But there are other reasons to rethink the concept of the mega wind farm.

I am a fan of dispersed power production, placing it among the structures where we live and work. For instance, solar panels over every roof, providing extra roof insulation and hail protection. Solar panels over parking lots would keep cars and asphalt cool. Small windmills could be placed along every highway where power lines are already strung. What if we were to place constellations of pinwheels on the outer walls of a skyscraper to produce power for that building?

The advantage of disbursed power production is we don’t lose the power consumed by transporting it over long distances. Plus, any power outages would affect fewer people at a time.

OK, so every location in the country isn’t terribly windy, but as a descendent, and mother, of engineers, I think we can engineer our way to more efficient turbines. It’s happening already.

Last month, a story in this paper mentioned in passing that Ogin Inc. has invented a wind turbine with cowling, or shrouding as they are calling it. I went online to www.oginenergy.com to see what it was about.

Compare the old-style propeller-driven plane with the more efficient, more powerful jet engine enclosed by cowling. This new wind turbine design is the same thing. According to their information, “energy output is increased up to three times per unit of swept area.”

Ogin turbines are smaller, at 200 feet versus the current 500-foot tall turbines, so they can fit into already developed landscapes more easily. Because they are shorter and the tips of the blades are outlined by the shrouding, it is believed fewer birds would be killed.

Testing of this new design will be happening at the infamous Altamont Pass in California, where some years ago, biologists helped engineers change turbine tower designs from open lattice work into the smooth cylinders we know today—taking away perches for raptors which were otherwise unwittingly launching themselves into the blades.

There are vertical axis wind turbines, identical to the one in Cheyenne at the Children’s Village, which at only 30 feet tall, have far less impact visually and environmentally.

Vertical turbines would even be a good replacement in wind farms, says California Institute of Technology professor John Dabiri. Placing them close together improves their efficiency by a factor of 10, using a much smaller footprint per kilowatt of production than current, giant horizontal axis turbines we see. [http://www.caltech.edu/content/caltechs-unique-wind-projects-move-forward]

Ever since we first felt the wind pushing at our backs, we have been refining ways for it to aid us. The challenge is to make our design choices work for other species as well.

Visit Sandhill Crane migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 9, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The great migration: Head east this spring to meet the famous sandhill cranes”

By Barb Gorges
One of the great annual events of the natural world, especially for North America, happens just down the road from Cheyenne every spring. Yet it isn’t as well-known, much less well-attended, by Wyomingites as it is by people from all over the country, even the world.

I’m talking about the spring migration of sandhill cranes.

Yes, there are millions of migrating birds, but most don’t stand nearly 4 feet tall in flocks of thousands, out in the open, making such a racket that they can’t be missed.

More than 500,000 birds, representing 80 percent of the entire sandhill population, come in for a landing along a stretch of the Platte River, between wintering in New Mexico and Texas and breeding in Canada and Alaska.

The peak time for Nebraska is the month of March into the first week in April, about when I get my annual spring urge to travel.

Driving Interstate 80 five hours east (and don’t forget to account for the lost hour entering the Central time zone[j1]), to an elevation 4,000 feet lower is to meet spring a couple weeks early. Central Nebraska has a Midwestern flavor with birds to match, so it’s even more like getting out of Dodge for a vacation.

When Mark and I first went to see the cranes, our boys were younger than 12, too young to be allowed in the blinds at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. Can you imagine how quickly the cranes would leave if small children staged a temper tantrum, echoing through the plywood construction? So we left them with a friend in Kearney for a few hours. We’ve been back a couple times since.

I love the openness. The only trees are in the river valley. But those trees are exactly what the cranes don’t want.

So the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, since its establishment in 1974, has worked diligently to remove trees from its stretch of the river, leaving unvegetated sandbars for the cranes to roost on at night, with no place for predators to skulk unseen. Damming the river upstream has eliminated spring floods that would normally clear the channels regularly.

The blinds at Rowe, near Gibbon, 20 minutes from Kearney, and at The Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center further east, near Grand Island, allow people to view cranes at sunrise and sunset.

While the cranes (even the occasional whooping crane) are scattered in the local fields and wetlands feeding on corn and invertebrates all day, great for photo ops, it’s the blinds that allow you to see the concentration of birds where they roost for the night.

If you want to get closer, sign up to stay overnight in the special photographers’ blinds – no heat or light allowed – and pay $200-$300 for the privilege.

It is a privilege to watch these magnificent birds from the blinds, but it may not seem like it if you don’t bring your warmest boots and layers of clothing. That’s the downside of being further east – the cold is damp.

Once you enter the blind, at 5 p.m. (6 p.m. after daylight saving time starts March 9), you aren’t allowed to leave for two to three hours, until it’s dark enough to sneak away. Alternatively, if you enter at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. DST, you must wait until after the birds have left. The blinds do have adjacent chemical toilets now, but the guides discourage their use.

Not only do you want to wear dark clothes to keep from spooking the birds, but regular flashlights are not allowed and bright LCD screens are frowned on.

And for heaven sake, leave your flash at home and make sure you deactivate the flash on your point and shoot or smart phone. If your flash triggers a mass bird departure, everyone in the blind, up to 31 other people, will hate you, because there won’t be a second chance to see sandhills that morning or evening.

Blaine McCartney, a photographer at the WTE, reccommends a 400mm lens to get close enough to the birds, along with a monopod.  Though everyone gets their own little window, there isn’t really room for tripods.

Judy Myer, a Cheyenne photographer, went on a shoot with the Fort Collins camera club last year. The club members used the Rowe blinds one morning and the Crane Trust blinds in the evening.

“The evening viewing was dark, but we could hear them,” she said. “Is one place better than the other? I can’t really answer that except to say I wouldn’t do (those blinds) again in the evening.”

Instead, she said, she would head to the bridge at the trust, where, for $15, you can watch the cranes fly overhead in the evening to their roosts.

But it goes to show everyone’s experience can be different. I’m not familiar with The Crane Trust blinds. We’ve had pretty good luck at Rowe, and it’s closer.

The Trust exists because of the settlement in 1978 of a lawsuit contending that the Grey Rocks Dam, built on the North Platte in Wyoming, had a negative impact on whooping cranes and other wildlife in Nebraska downstream on the Platte. Like Rowe, they do a lot of work to clear vegetation from the river channels and offer educational opportunities.

Yes, it’s half a day’s drive each way. Yes, it can be cold.

But no nature film can take the place of being surrounded by a crowd of birds continuing a ritual that’s tens of thousands, maybe millions of years old, that’s partly instinctual and partly learned from their parents.

Their calling fills your ears with a roar you never forget.

To visit or make blind reservations
Rowe Audubon Sanctuary
Located at 44450 Elm Island Road, near Gibbon, Neb. Visit http://www.rowe.audubon.org for details and rules. Call 308-468-5282 weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time. Reservations are available March 1-April 6. Cost is $25 per person and must be paid in advance. Reservations are refundable up to seven days in advance, with a 5 percent charge.

The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, 44450 Elm Island Road., Gibbon, Neb., is free. From Feb. 15 to April 15, it’s open daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center
The visitor center, at 6611 Whooping Crane Drive, Wood River, Neb., is free and open March [j6]1-April 7, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Normally, it is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are $25 a person and are available March 1-30. Another option is to view cranes from their bridge ($15) as they fly overhead in the evening to their roosts. Visit http://www.cranetrust.org or call 308-382-1820.

Crane festivals
Festivals are held all along the cranes’ Central Flyway migration route, and on their breeding and wintering grounds. The biggest (with the most cranes) is Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival (formerly Rivers and Wildlife Celebration), scheduled March 20-23 in Kearney, which includes speakers, kid activities, field trips, vendors, etc. See http://www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

Other Central Flyway crane festivals:
Whooping Crane Festival, Port Aransas, Texas, Feb. 20-23.
Monte Vista Crane Festival, Monte Vista, Colo., March 7-9.
Crane Watch Festival, Kearney, Neb., (includes Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival), March 21-30.
Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, Fairbanks, Alaska, August 22-25.
Yampa Valley Crane Festival, Hayden, Colo., September.
Festival of the Cranes, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, November.

Other crane festivals:
Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, Othello, Wash., March 28-30.
Sandhill Crane and Art Festival, Calhoun Co., Michigan, Oct. 11-12.
Sandhill Crane Festival, Lodi, Calif., November
Tennessee Crane Festival, Birchwood, Tenn., mid-January 2015.

Non-game wildlife funding needed in Wyoming

Non-game decal

Many states have fund-raising programs to support non-game wildlife.

Published Feb. 10, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Game and Fish needs our help.”

2014 Update: Requests for increased funding for Wyoming Game and Fish Department were not passed in 2013, are being sought again in 2014.

By Barb Gorges

It’s easy to support the work the Wyoming Game and Fish Department does. Just buy a hunting license. Or show up at the Capitol during the state legislative session to testify on the merits of license fee increases.

The department gets 80 percent of its funding from license fees, but it is the Legislature that has to approve any fee changes every six or seven years. By this session, the fees approved in 2007 had 20 percent less buying power, thanks to inflation, but the legislation did not pass.

Yet, there are more expenses. There are more people coming to work here who need education on Wyoming wildlife laws. And there’s more baseline data collection and monitoring work to be done in the face of more energy development.

Surprisingly at the committee meeting Feb. 1 to hear testimony on the second bill proposing increasing hunting fees, there was a lobbyist for a minor sportsman’s group opposed. His board members begrudge having to pay more to hunt, even when it is apparent that the cost of everyday agency work gets more expensive.

In my testimony, I mentioned that my husband and I hunt and fish, we enjoy nongame wildlife, and we made an investment to support the Game and Fish by buying lifetime fishing licenses for our family. Later, the lobbyist told me we birdwatchers ought to be paying something, too.

He is right. There are more people in Wyoming enjoying looking at nongame wildlife, including birds in their backyards, than are hunting it. We are indirectly benefitting from the 6 percent of hunting license fees spent on nongame species work.

However, grants and legislative funding cover most of the $9.5 million (14.5 percent of the total Game and Fish budget) spent on nongame species: programs to prevent aquatic invasive species invading; programs to prevent “sensitive species” from requiring listing as threatened or endangered; programs for wolves and sage-grouse; and work on brucellosis and chronic wasting disease.

There is also one biologist who tracks all the bird species not hunted.

How can a non-hunter support Game and Fish?

First, we need better terminology. Rather than “non-hunter,” say “wildlife watcher.” Rather than “nongame,” I like “watchable wildlife,” a term the department already uses, even if it does seem to include the huntable megafauna.

Some states sell special vehicle license plates to support wildlife. That was suggested here a few years ago, but apparently, the University of Wyoming is going to be the only entity with the sacred right to raise funds that way.

Some states have a check-off on their income tax forms to give people an easy option to contribute a few dollars, but it will be decades before any Wyoming legislator wants to prematurely end her career by suggesting instituting state income tax.

Colorado uses the majority of its lottery income to support its wildlife programs. Wyoming considers legislation to join one of the national lotteries every year. If it ever passes, could funds be earmarked for wildlife?

In other places, a special license allows a person access to special state land. With so much federal land available for recreation, that probably wouldn’t work in Wyoming, either.

The federal government once proposed a minor tax on outdoor gear that would be shared with states, but the gear companies nixed that.

Game and Fish does have a nice selection of items available in their gift shop here in Cheyenne and online, but seriously, who needs another mug or T-shirt if you already belong to one wildlife organization or another?

What we really need is a voluntary wildlife watching license: Something on the order of $25 per family, with the option of contributing more and being listed in the back of Wyoming Wildlife magazine, as supporters of other organizations are in their publications.

Besides being listed in the magazine, one’s support could be shown with a small sticker on the car window, maybe pasted right next to the annual state parks entrance pass. We could charge visitors non-resident fees if they also wanted a wildlife watching license.

And then, as sometimes happens, maybe third parties would offer perks for license holders—perhaps a discount from local purveyors of outdoor gear. Or maybe each year license holders would be put in a drawing for a pair of super-duper binoculars or a spotting scope.

But really, for some of us, just knowing we are contributing to the well-being of all the wildlife in Wyoming—and there are a lot more kinds of critters out there than the ones sportsmen hunt—would be worth it.

If you have any other ideas, please contact Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director John Emmerich, 777-4501.

Comparing robins and bluebirds as signs of spring

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird, photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 5, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Robins take up year-round residence.”

2014 Update: Check www.eBird.org for range maps for robins and bluebirds.

By Barb Gorges

What bird makes a good Wyoming sign of spring?

Spoiler alert: I’m about to disclose to you that one of the time-honored symbols of spring never entirely left last fall.

I’m talking about robins. I grew up in Wisconsin where the robin is the state bird and the prime grade-school example of avian seasonal migration. Imagine my surprise years later when I found my first wintering robin on a zero-degree day in December in southeastern Montana.

Wyoming has robins in winter, too, as does every one of the lower 48 states, with the greatest density in the southern states where we imagine robins should be in winter.

Range maps in bird field guides plainly show robins all across the lower 48, year round, with the exception of parts of the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Southwest being winter-only. Conversely, Canadians and Alaskans should see robins only during the spring/summer breeding season.

Do robins breeding in Wyoming migrate? After reading the species accounts in Birds of Wyoming by Doug Faulkner and The Birds of North America Online, I found no one has a definitive answer. Doug’s assessment: “Movements of American Robins in fall are highly complex and poorly understood in Wyoming.”

During September and October, we see large flocks of robins, but these may be northern robins passing through. We don’t know if some of the northern robins spend the winter here, thinking it’s balmier than Canada, or if they gather up some of our local robins and take them along to Florida.

It seems robins are fickle about where they spend their winters. Berries and other fruits are acceptable substitutes for their favorite warm-season food, earthworms, and so they will only stick around where there is fruit, and only while it lasts.

This winter, my neighbors’ junipers have a good crop of berries and just about every January afternoon I saw one or two robins over there snacking. In rural areas of the west, wintering robins are most likely to find food along rivers and creeks full of fruit-bearing shrubs or up in the junipers. The more fruit, the more robins.

So, why do we consider the robin a sign of spring? I think most people aren’t outside enough in winter, in the right place—near the fruit—to see the few robins around.

When spring comes, robins flocking during their migration peak in April are much more noticeable. People are spending more time outside then, or they might have the window open and hear the robins beginning to sing to establish territories and attract mates.

I’d like to suggest a different bird, and just as noticeable, as a better sign of spring in Wyoming. We need a sign of hope since winter weather spans as many as eight or nine months and February, the shortest month, drags on forever, especially this year being Leap Year.

Mountain bluebirds could work, except they fly past town. They cross our southern state border as early as the beginning of February, with migration picking up in March. The bright blue males are easiest to see. I see them west of town usually, flashing around fence posts as we go out for one last ice fishing trip to North Crow Reservoir or an early hike dodging snow drifts at Curt Gowdy State Park.

Interestingly, mountain bluebirds and robins are in the same family, the thrushes. Like robins, bluebirds concentrate on animals (invertebrates) for food during the breeding season and fruits in the winter.

If you check your field guide range map, you’ll see that there are mountain bluebirds wintering just south of Wyoming. With predicted climate changes, we could easily end up with bluebirds all winter too. Well, geez, that would leave the warblers as the only reliable, easy to see, true sign of spring. But they don’t show up until mid-April and May. That’s just too long a wait. For now, I’ll stick with looking for bluebirds.

House Finch disease

House FInch eye disease

House Finch with eye disease. Photo by Nicole Kennedy, courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published February 27, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird feeder quarantine was good for the birds, hard on the observer.”

2014 Update: Check for the latest updates at http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

By Barb Gorges

There he was, the lone house finch on the tube feeder, contentedly pulling black oil sunflower seeds out and munching them thoughtfully, left behind when the rest of the flock scattered.

I took a closer look and just as I feared, he showed outward signs that he was not a well bird, despite his glowing red head and chest. Eye disease. One eye was encircled in rings of crusty featherless wrinkles.

Sick birds conserve their strength. They don’t fly off with the flock for every little perceived threat. When they get really sick, I’ve seen them huddle on my windowsill.

There isn’t anything anyone can do for them, but I can protect the rest of the birds by taking down my feeders which will get the house finches to disperse and be less likely to pass diseases to each other or to other finch species.

This winter I’ve had quite a regular crew showing up every day: two Eurasian collared-doves, two mountain chickadees, two red-breasted nuthatches, a downy woodpecker, 10 or so house finches and a few juncos with occasional appearances by pine siskins and goldfinches. I really hated to disappoint them.

After I took the feeders down, dumped out the birdbath and swept all the seed debris off the patio, I watched later as the gang sat on the powerline while one or two individuals would sally forth and fly a circle around the last known location of the sunflower seed feeder. Then they left.

In a week, after Mark scrubbed the bird poop off the railing and patio and washed out the feeders with a mild bleach solution, he refilled the feeders and nearly all of the previous birds began to reappear within a day. The chickadees took five days.

I don’t know where the sick house finch contracted his disease, but I do know that we had gotten behind in cleaning up our feeders and the area around them.

Feeding birds is something we do because we enjoy watching birds up close. The birds usually don’t depend on feeding—they have plenty of naturally occurring seeds to forage, but they sure enjoy the convenience.

Songbirds can get a pox that affects their eyes. But there is also house finch eye disease, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, caused by a bacterium common to domestic turkeys and chickens, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It was first noticed in house finches in 1993 on the east coast, where house finches were introduced 50 years earlier.

The Lab has been studying the spread of the disease for the last 15 years using observations provided by birdwatching citizen scientists. After a major outbreak on the east coast a few years ago, the disease is no longer quite as prevalent. Some sick individual birds actually survive but apparently do not become immune to the disease.

The eastern house finches seem to be more susceptible and one reason might be that most of them are thought to be inbred descendents of a small group that was introduced in the east in the 1940’s from western North America where they are native. Inbreeding can cause susceptibility to disease.

The good news is this is one avian disease that does not pose a health risk to people, except that quarantining our feeders and losing “our” birds for a week felt like a mental hardship. But then again, perhaps I accomplished more in that time because I wasn’t distracted by the comings and goings I like to watch out the window above my laptop screen.

Some people watch fish swim in a bowl to reduce stress. Watching birds outside my window works for me. I’m glad the gang came back.

Patch birding

Flying Swallows

“Flying Swallows,” quilt and photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 13, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Patchwork birding benefits birds.”

2014 Update: Sign up to bird your patch on www.eBird.org.

By Barb Gorges

Patchwork. The word draws my eye the way “quilt” does because both describe my indoor hobby the way “bird” describes my outdoor hobby.

But why was Ted Floyd, editor of “Birding,” the American Birding Association magazine, making an obscure reference to patchwork in a recent issue? I emailed him and he sent a link to a blog post he’d written about it and how it relates to green, environmentally friendly, birding, http://blog.aba.org/2010/10/green-birding.html.

Patchwork birding refers to birding in your own patch—your yard or a local park where you go often, versus jumping in the car or on a jet to see a rare bird.

Ted is concerned that birding has evolved into the hobby of the affluent who indulge in expensive travel and equipment, as has quilting, I would add, leaving huge carbon footprints right across great bird habitat.  Of course, extreme birders wouldn’t know about most rarities if local birders weren’t regularly examining their local patches.

Just the week before reading Ted’s patch reference, I finished reading “Life List” by Olivia Gentile, a biography of Phoebe Snetsinger. Snetsinger was the woman determined to see as many of the world’s bird species as possible.

She started birdwatching in 1965, but became obsessive about it after being diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Aided by an inheritance from her father, she went on multiple foreign bird tours every year. She valiantly endured bad weather, bad trails, and bad men, finally dying in a vehicular accident in 1999 in Madagascar, leaving a worldwide record of nearly 8400 bird species, the most anyone had seen at that time.

We can charitably say Phoebe was birding before carbon footprints were in our vocabulary and that extreme birding kept her sane and kept professional bird guides and tour operators employed. I hope someone has transferred her carefully kept note cards to eBird, the digital  archive where scientists can make use of personal birding observations.

Soon after Ted’s reply I got an email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describing a new eBird feature: patch and yard birding record keeping set up to allow for friendly competition within one’s county. It will also give ornithologists more intensive information about birds. I imagine Ted knew all about this when he wrote his blog post—the world of professionals in birding is very small.

So now there is a name for the kind of birding most of us do. Most of us who begin to keep notes on the birds in our own backyards are already patchwork birding. I highly recommend http://www.eBird.org as a record keeping alternative to notebooks and scraps of paper.

Ted thinks patchwork birding is the responsible, green way to bird—no great amounts of fuel are wasted in long distance travel.

It’s amazing how many species of birds pass through my favorite patches: 50 in my backyard and a different 50 in Holliday Park here in Cheyenne since April 2010, when I began recording sightings on eBird. That’s not a lot of species among obsessed birders. However, frequently birding those areas helped me know exactly where to find an American kestrel for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count.

I’ve been thinking about how to control the size of my patchwork quilt making carbon footprint. Maybe I should spend less time quilting and more time walking around town watching birds.

Eurasian Collared-Doves invade

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Eurasian Collared-Dove, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Published Feb. 6, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Doves continue territory expansion, including here.”

2014 Update: They continue to expand. At www.eBird.org, click on the “Explore Data” tab and use the “Range and Point Maps” feature to see current global range. EUCD was eventually documented as breeding in Laramie County before 2011.

By Barb Gorges

I don’t know about your neighborhood, but mine has a gang of doves loafing around on the street corners and they all sport their distinctive gang insignia: black marks tattooed on their necks. They also wear their tails squared off.

I’ve witnessed a gathering of as many as 28 of these large, pale gray birds raiding my neighbor’s juniper hedge for berries.

I just hope the berries don’t ferment, causing gang members to fly drunk. It’s bad enough that they defecate in my driveway after every berrying spree!

The Eurasian collared-dove (the American Ornithologists’ Union code is “EUCD”) has been taking over neighborhoods for centuries. It is thought to have started as a native species in India, Sri-Lanka and present-day Myanmar (formerly Burma). In the 1600’s it expanded to Turkey and the Balkans.

Next, EUCD flew through Europe: Yugoslavia, 1912; Hungary, 1930; Germany, 1945; Norway, 1954; Britain, 1955; and Portugal, 1974.

Invasion of northern China and Korea is thought to have come through India. Japan was invaded via China in the 18th or 19th century.

In the mid 1970s, a breeder brought EUCD to the Bahamas where a few escaped and 50 were released.

They were seen in Florida in the late ’70s and verified there in 1986, quickly followed by sightings in Georgia and Arkansas.

The invasion of the U.S. continued: Alabama, 1991; Texas, 1995; South Dakota, 1996; Iowa and Montana, 1997; Minnesota and Wyoming 1998; and Oregon, 1999.

By the time the species account was published in 2002 for Birds of North America Online, EUCD had also been documented in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. There is evidence that some birds were intentionally released in California, Missouri and Texas.

The most up-to-date map available on http://www.ebird.org shows New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine are the only states where birders have yet to report EUCD to that data base.

Some birds introduced to North America, such as house sparrows, thrive at the expense of native species or, in the instance of European starlings, at the expense of agriculture. In Pakistan, EUCD is considered an agricultural pest. Other released species, such as the ringed-turtle dove (now to be known officially as the African Collared-dove), fail to thrive in our area.

EUCD appears to be prospering and enjoying our winters. There are no studies yet showing impacts on mourning doves returning in the spring looking for similar nesting habitat.

EUCD likes nesting in trees, preferably in urban areas. They hang out at bird feeders and at agricultural operations where spilled grain is available. And they will eat berries, as they do in my neighborhood. They roost on utility lines and in trees and other high places. They have a distinctly unmusical coo.

The federal government has classified EUCD as an unprotected species, just like house sparrows and starlings. In 2006, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department announced that EUCD can be hunted any season, anywhere, any method. Of course, with their fondness for urban landscapes, finding EUCD where the discharge of firearms is permitted could be a challenge.

And then pity the poor hunter in Nebraska. Jeff Obrecht of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told me Nebraska’s regulations refer only to “doves” and so any EUCD taken has to be counted towards a hunter’s bag limit. I’m sure Nebraska never figured on anything but mourning doves when its rules were written.

Even though the first three EUCD in Wyoming were documented outside Cheyenne at the Wyoming Herford Ranch between May 16 and Oct. 9, 1998, someone in the Cody area stole a march on us, submitting the first state breeding record in 2001. Since then, a second breeding record has been submitted for the Sheridan area for 2005.

Cheyenne birders, we must unite! Burns, Pine Bluffs, Albin, Carpenter, Meridan–please join us. The glory of the 28th Latilong is at stake! I’m sure EUCD is procreating in our latilong, defined by one degree of latitude and one degree of longitude, but we need to document it. We need evidence. Even though spring is a couple months away, we don’t have research to tell us how early EUCD will breed in Wyoming. Here’s your chance.

In winter EUCD is comfortable flocking. A pair from the previous year may still be bonded. But later, the doves get territorial. The male will give an advertising coo and then from his high perch he will fly up at a steep angle with a lot of wing-clapping (just like pigeons) before descending in a spiral, tail spread. The account in Birds of North America Online says he then gives the “excitement” call.

The male brings the female twigs, stems, roots, grasses and urban litter and in one to three days the female has a nest built in a tree, or sometimes, on a building.

Two eggs are laid, one after the other, and the parents take turns incubating for about two weeks. The young need around two and a half weeks to fledge, but aren’t fully independent for another two or three weeks.

In friendly climates, EUCD may start nesting as early as February and produce up to six broods. No one has documented what happens in Cheyenne.
If you observe Eurasian collared-doves sitting on a nest or feeding young, let me know and I’ll help you fill out the official paperwork. Who knows, those avian invaders could make you famous, at least in Latilong 28.

Turkey Vultures return again

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture, photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 21, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “This spring watch for ‘TVs’ soaring above the area.”

2014 Update: Keith Bildstein is still researching Turkey Vulture migration: http://www.hawkmountain.org.

By Barb Gorges

Do you know where Wyoming turkey vultures spend the winter? It could be Venezuela.

Keith Bildstein, director of the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, is working on a migration study in which turkey vultures wintering in northwestern Venezuela have been tagged. He predicts bird watchers in western North America will see them this spring and report back to him.

Little is known about the migration of the “TV,” as birders refer to it, and even though it is a species with a stable population that is increasing northward, it’s better to do your research in advance of problems, said Bildstein, when I talked to him recently. Also, sometimes the new information will translate to less fortunate species.

Bildstein studied raptors for his dissertation so it is quite natural to find him at Hawk Mountain, the famous place where so many hawks pass on migration. What bothered him was that observers would refer to “just another turkey vulture.” He thought they deserved more respect than that.

Turkey vultures in eastern North America don’t migrate much except to get out of the cold—it is hard to chip meat off frozen carcasses.

Bildstein said satellite studies show TVs travel independently and individual birds may not travel the same route each year. They stop along the way and share roosts and food with the local vultures. Maybe they pick up pointers on great Florida real estate.

Meanwhile, when birds of the western subspecies head south, they travel down through Mexico, Central America and into Columbia and Venezuela, possibly heading as far as Argentina. On the wintering grounds they raise the population of vultures to four times that of the year-round resident subspecies. The smaller resident birds are crowded into marginal habitat, Bildstein said.

Two of the places the “gringo” vultures like to hang out are the zoos in Barquisimeto and Maracay. Last winter zoo folks told Bildstein about a tagged TV they found, which turned out to be part of a study in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Bildstein and Adrian Naveda, a biologist from Maracay, put their heads together and designed the northward migration study, counting on the help of the legions of birdwatchers in North America.

It was easy to gather the visiting vultures. Zoo management cleared out one of the aviaries, stocked it with dead chickens from the market, waited for the vultures to walk in, closed the door and tah-dah, 100 vultures ready for tagging. However, grabbing birds with 67-inch wingspans probably wasn’t easy.

Bildstein has had one report of a tagged bird so far. It was found shot 45 miles north of the release site. The rest of the birds should be migrating along the coast. In early morning, the warm ocean creates small thermals near shore, giving the TVs an early start. Then it’s a matter of riding one thermal after another over land all day long, day after day. As many as 2,000,000 turkey vultures have passed by an observation point in one season.

Here in Cheyenne, we may see TVs as early as March and definitely will by April. They have favorite roosting spots in the Avenues and are often seen circling over the cemeteries. Recently they have been noticed far into the summer, however, the nearest nest is probably by Guernsey, according to Doug Faulkner, who is working on the definitive book about Wyoming birds for the University of Wyoming.

OK, this is where you come in. Let’s review TV i.d. The most common large birds flying over Cheyenne in the spring, summer and fall are the turkey vulture and the Swainson’s hawk, which, incidentally, spends the winter in Argentina and shares the vultures’ migration route.

As they soar overhead, look at the underwing patterns. The leading (front) edge of the Swainson’s is light and the trailing edge is dark. Turkey vultures have the reverse: dark on the leading edge and light, actually silvery, on the trailing edge. Seen up close, they have red-skinned, featherless heads.

If you see one of the marked birds, it will have either a red tag with white numbers or a blue tag with black numbers wrapped over the leading edge of the wing, visible from top or bottom.

If you see one of these birds, you need to make note of the date, specific location, color and number of the tag, which wing it is attached (the bird’s right or left) and the circumstances of the sighting, whether the bird was alone or in a group of vultures, flying, perched, feeding or roosting. Dead birds should also be reported.

Report sightings to: Keith Bildstein, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Acopian Center for Conservation Learning, 410 Summer Valley Road, Orwigsburg, PA 17961; Bildstein@hawkmtn.org; 570-943-3411, ext. 108. All reports will be recognized and individuals reporting tagged birds will receive summary information about the study.

If you would like to print your own copy of the “Wanted” poster, go to http://www.hawkmountain.org.

The February issue of Smithsonian magazine tells of the demise of millions of vultures in India in just ten years due to ingestion of a new livestock antibiotic while they feed on dead cattle. It has led to a terrific increase of wild dogs and, in turn, human cases of rabies. Valuable time was lost puzzling it out and there is no guarantee vulture populations will ever recover.

Though turkey vultures are the widest ranging of the vulture species, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, and probably the most numerous vulture species in this hemisphere, everything that can be learned about them helps keep them that way.

To learn more to marvel over about turkey vultures, such as their terrific sense of smell, the way the young protect themselves and the sounds they make, go online to All About Birds, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Turkey_Vulture.

Bird flu and you

chicken

Poultry can carry bird flu. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 1, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird flu and you, so far, so good.”

2014 Update: Bird flu continues to mutate into different strains

By Barb Gorges

Bird flu is everywhere I look. The virus keeps popping up in the news and has even become the punch line of jokes.

Bird flu is also, literally, everywhere. Wild birds can carry many subtypes of Influenza A without getting sick, but some can be deadly for poultry like chickens, turkeys and ducks. Wild ducks mingling with domestic ducks are thought to have sparked the ongoing bird flu epidemic in Asia and Eastern Europe.

Not all bird flu viruses are highly pathogenic, but the subtype making the news, H5N1, is deadly to poultry. Ninety to 100 percent of infected birds die within 48 hours. During the Asian outbreaks in 2003 and 2004, flocks were also killed by farmers and officials to try to control the spread of bird flu. It has not yet spread to birds in the United States.

In 1997 the first cases of humans infected by poultry surfaced in Hong Kong. The risk to people from bird flu is normally low, but of 140 reported cases of people with H5N1 since the beginning of 2004, about half have died. So far, no people have contracted it while in North America.
As of Jan. 7, human cases are being reported in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Turkey.

It’s a good idea to practice poultry hygiene, especially because of all the other avian-transmitted diseases. So don’t breath near a sneezing duck, don’t wipe a chicken’s nose and don’t touch your face with your hands after cleaning the chicken coop. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends poultry workers wear protective suits and treat all birds as if they are infected.

Most of us don’t come in contact with live chickens, a sad commentary on the disconnect between consumer and food source, but it is possible to contract bird flu from inadequately cooked poultry from countries presently dealing with outbreaks. You?d have to travel to those countries to eat it since the U.S. has embargoed their unprocessed poultry products.

Bird flu vaccines are in the works, but meanwhile people should get regular flu shots, say experts at the CDC. Should bird flu come to the U.S., you have a better chance of survival if you are in good health. Plus, there’s a slight chance if human flu and bird flu come together in the same host, the dreaded evolution may happen–bird flu transmissible from human to human. It has apparently happened only once so far, between a mother and closely-held child.

We backyard birders also concerned with the ramifications of bird flu. Two dozen Asian wild bird species are reported to have died from H5N1. However, there are no cases yet of the virus being transmitted from wild bird to human.

What does worry us is how migrating birds will spread H5N1. So far birds from “infected” countries have not spread it along migration routes through Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia.

We backyard birders also want to know if it’s safe to continue feeding birds. It is, as long as we follow the precautions we’ve always had to promote the health of birds and birdwatchers.

Keep birdfeeding areas and feeders clean. Disinfect them every few weeks with a mild bleach solution and rinse well.

If you notice a sick bird, stop feeding. A sick bird acts lethargic, has feathers out of place, is fluffed up more than other similar birds and might have crusts around its eyes. Clean up spilled seed and debris, then disinfect and put away your feeders for a week to encourage healthy birds to stay away.

Take precautions for your own health, remembering that there are other diseases carried by birds, including West Nile Virus and salmonella. Never handle birds dead or alive–or anything full of bird droppings–without disposable gloves or plastic bags over your hands.

Be careful not to breathe the dust when sweeping up old seed hulls and keep your hands away from your face until you can wash them well.
Now that I’ve assured you that you can safely eat chicken and feed birds in our country, that’s not to say that new wrinkles in bird flu won’t develop while this edition of the Outdoors section is going to press.

Since sound bites can be maddeningly uninformative for people with above average interest in a topic, let me recommend the CDC Web site, http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian. I found it to be informative, clearly written and frequently updated with advice, especially for poultry workers, travelers and people caring for bird flu patients.

For people who work with wild birds or hunt birds or mammals, information from the National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Health Bulletin #05-03 is extremely useful. Find it at http://www.nwhc.usgs.gov/research/WHB/WHB_05_03com.

The media and the experts frequently look back to the 1918 global flu pandemic to try to forecast what will happen when this strain of bird flu evolves the potential to transfer from human to human.

Hopefully, the disadvantages of our modern global mobility will be offset by the advantages of modern science, medicine and communications. Meanwhile, do something to protect yourself. Promote your personal health. Take a walk. Go birding.

Condors in Wyoming?

California Condor

California Condor with identification tags. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 16, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Are condors coming closer to home?”

2014 Update: Condors continue to recover, except for the problem of ingesting lead shot. No records of condors in Wyoming are mentioned in Faulkner’s “Birds of Wyoming,” c. 2010.

By Barb Gorges

If seeing is believing, can you believe what someone else is seeing?

In January someone reported seeing a California condor in the Alcova area. The news was reported second hand on the Wyobirds e-list with a follow up of another second hand report about a second person’s observation.

As I usually do when confronted with obscure or unusual species, I always check the latilong records in “Wyoming Birds,” by Jane and Robert Dorn.

No condors are listed in the Dorns’ second edition, or in the 2004 edition of the “Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles in Wyoming” available from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The Wyobirds posting refers to two Wyoming records, and although I’ve sent an inquiry about them to the author of the posting, I have yet to receive a reply. When I asked Jane, she thought one of the records referred to was one so very old that it was impossible to establish the credibility of the witness.

Greg Johnson, a local wildlife biologist with a good network of professional contacts, remembered hearing about a condor seen at Flaming Gorge awhile back.

The California condor is an endangered species. Ten thousand years ago it ranged across the southern United States, but by the time of European settlement it was found only in a coastal strip from British Columbia to Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

By the 1930s it was confined to central California. The last wild condor was trapped in 1987 and joined 26 others in a captive breeding and reintroduction program in California.

Some of the condor’s survival problems still exist: collisions with power lines, shootings, lead poisoning from feeding on carcasses of animals that have been killed with lead shot as well as the killing of young condors by eagles and coyotes.

However, a reintroduction effort in northern Arizona begun in 1996 has been very successful. Condors released there are courting, nest building and in the last two years have fledged three young birds.

Apparently, one of the Arizona birds, Condor 19, took a two-week trip north in August of 1998, following the Green River. In the Peregrine Fund’s archives of field notes, researcher Shawn Farry reports being contacted by Loren Casterline, an adult who was with Varsity Scout Troop 1834 at Kingfisher Island in Flaming Gorge Reservoir Aug. 6. The site is in Utah, five miles south of the Wyoming line.

While the scouts swam, the condor left a perch 100 meters away and landed within several meters of Mr. Casterline (condors are known to be curious about humans), but then his movement caused her to take off over the lake. A Fish and Wildlife Service news release mentions “Flaming Gorge, Wyoming,” so perhaps there was another observation.

Condor 19 returned to the Arizona release site seven days later, making a total round trip of at least 600 miles.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service agent in Casper, Dominic Domenici, contacted Arizona about the new reports and learned that the whereabouts of two immature condors was unknown.

Condors are fitted with two radio transmitters–one on each wing–but ordinary radio telemetry used for locating wildlife doesn’t work for a species capable of ranging as far as the condor. As funding becomes available, one of the transmitters is replaced by a solar-powered, satellite-based one that reports Global Positioning System fixes, or locations.

Locations are transmitted every hour through the day and then the data is e-mailed every evening to researchers, conveniently plotted on a topographic map. Apparently, the missing condors are not wearing the improved technology. How likely is it a condor has visited the middle of our state? Unlikely, say the Arizona researchers, but not impossible.

The second observer is said to have been able to make a direct comparison with a nearby eagle, but depth of field can play tricks. None of the other Casper birders combing the area saw any condors.

Turkey vultures have a wingspan of 5 1/2 f feet, eagles, 6 1/2, while the condors are at 9 1/2 feet. Though condors have a red-skinned head devoid of feathers like the vulture, their bodies are, at 46 inches long, 20 inches longer than the vulture’s.

Adult condors have a black and white color pattern under their wings that is the reverse of the silver and black pattern for vultures. Immature golden and bald eagles have white underwing markings, but an immature condor has none.

The way to make a rare bird report more creditable is to have more people see the bird and to photograph it. At this point, the sightings remain unconfirmed. If a formal report were to be submitted to the Wyoming Bird Records Committee and accepted, what would it mean? It would mean a condor has scouted the neighborhood. Whether or not it leads to return trips and breeding records for a future edition of the Atlas, only the condors can tell.

BOX

Wyobirds archive of postings, http://www.home.ease.Lsoft.com/archives/wyobirds

Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles in Wyoming, http://www.gf.state.wy.us, see nongame heading on the right side of the page. A CD of the Atlas can be requested by calling the Lander office, 800-654-7862.

Peregrine Fund, http://www.peregrinefund.org, see conservation projects

Arizona Department of Game and Fish, http://www.gf.state.az.us, see condor reintroduction

Ventana Wilderness Society, http://www.ventanaws.org, California reintroduction and condor natural history information