Florida is full of fabulous birds

Wood Stork

A Wood Stork balances on a snag at Green Cay Wetlands in Florida. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published March 17, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Florida in February is full of fabulous birds.”

2014 Update: Bill Gruber is now park manager at the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, near Bushnell, Florida.

By Barb Gorges

Florida is where people see their favorite Disney characters come to life. Florida is where I finally saw 14 species of birds that I’ve paged past in my field guide for 40 years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect last month when Mark and I went down to visit his relatives. Images of beaches with high-rise hotels from TV alternated with those of cattle ranches, alligator swamps and orange groves.

I was familiar with historical accounts of the first wardens hired by the precursor of the National Audubon Society to protect the wading birds of Florida being hunted for their plumes used to decorate ladies’ hats. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Pelican Island as the first unit of what became the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Those early efforts have led to preserving numerous other Floridian acres and so I was able to see those plumy wading birds 110 years later.

Our first bird outing was Caladesi Island State Park, on the Gulf about 1.5 miles offshore from Dunedin. You have to take a ferry since this is a barrier island without a bridge.

We were welcomed by the park manager, Bill Gruber, who back in 1999, was the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Outdoors editor who invited me to write this monthly bird column.

The day we were there, staff and volunteers were setting up poles to rope off part of the award-winning, white sand beach where four kinds of plovers would soon be nesting. I also met my first gopher tortoise. Florida lists it as a threatened species.

The island has a long human history, including a family who homesteaded from 1890 through the 1930s. The daughter, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, banded birds and had an island list of 158 species. Remarkably, Caladesi managed to avoid development, the fate of so many other Florida barrier islands. Betz’s book, “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise,” explains how and why.

On a whim, I bought a copy of the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for Florida. The amount of human development becomes quite plain—all those little blue lines in perfect grids are drainage canals. Florida’s peninsula would otherwise mostly be a freshwater swamp surrounded by saltwater ocean, which is exactly what makes it so interesting for birding.

At Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, on the north end of the swampy Everglades, we nearly managed a complete roster of all the large wading birds we saw on the whole trip: great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, little blue heron, tricolored heron, cattle egret, green heron, black-crowned night-heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, glossy ibis, white ibis (also seen on lawns everywhere), roseate spoonbill and wood stork. The reddish egret eluded us.

On our last day, at the Storm Water Treatment Area 1 East, adjacent to Loxahatchee, among many coots and common gallinules (known before their name change last year as common moorhens), we spied something that looked like a purplish-blue, over-sized gallinule. It was a purple swamphen! It is an exotic from Eurasia, but the week before, the powers that be decided it was countable for anyone pursuing an official life list.

We also picked up a copy of “A Birder’s Guide to Florida,” by Bill Pranty, published by the American Birding Association. It lists almost every good birding spot in Florida, explains Florida’s landscape history and its many habitats, and provides information about, and a checklist of, all the birds in the state, showing where and when they can be found.

Florida is, for me, upside down. We saw many familiar Wyoming summer birds there in February. Unlike Wyoming, summer is when Florida has its fewest bird species. The problem is that in winter, our familiar birds may not be in the breeding plumage we northerners are used to seeing them in.

Besides Caladesi Island, the ABA guide missed another fabulous birding spot, maybe because it was too new. We heard about it from another birder we met on a trail.

Palm Beach County acquired 100 acres of farmland in Boynton Beach for a third of its value from a couple who stipulated it must be made into wetlands. Construction of Green Cay Wetlands began in 2003. Besides catering to native wildlife and human visitors, the park is a water reclamation facility.

It has 1.5 miles of boardwalk so you don’t have to worry about alligator encounters, and the wildlife, including the alligators we saw, doesn’t have to worry about encounters with people. No birds flinched as we walked by and so the photo ops for my little point and shoot were fabulous.

I imagine we’ll go again next year—there are 300-plus other birdy parks and preserves to visit, and more of Florida’s 481 native bird species to find.

eBird’s occurrence maps animate migration

Mtn Bluebird occurrence eBird

Image of Mountain Bluebird occurrence for March 15, 2012 provided by eBird (www.ebird.org). Click on the map for a larger image.

Published March 23, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The bird migration picture gets animation.”

By Barb Gorges
This year, Feb. 19 marked the first report of mountain bluebirds for Cheyenne. This is early, but not unusual. I can’t help thinking the next batch of February snowstorms drove them back south again.

Recently, I discovered I can watch animated maps of bird migration. These maps on www.eBird.org take the data of 60 selected bird species and show their journeys across the country, week by week. (Click on “About,” then look for “Occurrence Maps” under “News and Features.”)

The data in these maps come from bird sightings that citizen scientists–you and me–have submitted over the years.
In a field guide, the mountain bluebird’s yearly movements are difficult to depict on a static range map that accompanies their descriptions.

They are settled mostly over the Rocky Mountain West, avoiding the Pacific Coast. But in winter they leave the northern Rockies and mountains and leak out over the Great Plains (eastern Colorado, Kansas, Texas panhandle), in addition to the interior of California and Oregon, the southwest and Mexico. Some even winter in southern Idaho.

To watch the animation of our sightings is fascinating. As you watch, you’ll see a spectrum of fire colors flicker across the map. These colors indicate their rate of occurrence, which is the probability of detection.

Areas with slight possibility of occurrence are a cold, ashy gray. As the possibility increases, the color warms to orange, finally heating up through yellow to white-hot—where the species is thickest.

As the animation cycles from week to week, the “flames” flicker across the land. As someone who was asked to drop statistics before the professor was forced to flunk me, this visualization of numbers, statistical modeling, is magic.

Watching the screen is like watching flocks of mountain bluebirds roaming the prairie. And I notice that even in January, there is a faint haze of orange in Wyoming. It means someone was outside, or at least looking out the window, noticing bluebirds in the depths of winter.

Other species are completely absent from the U.S. for six months.

In mid-April, the western tanager explodes over the Mexican border in a hurry to find the best breeding locations. Then it spreads out into little islands—islands of preferred breeding habitat scattered over western mountain ranges. Then it seems to drift slowly south beginning in mid-July as young birds explore. It is entirely gone, from the U.S. at least, by October.

Our state bird, the western meadowlark, a short-range migratory species, apparently overwinters in low numbers in southern Wyoming. I’m glad we picked a bird that doesn’t completely abandon us.

For each species with a map, there are notes that describe what is going on, and admission that sometimes the numbers have biases. One of those biases is detectability.

In the spring, birds, mostly the males, are often singing during migration. But by the time they head south, they can be rather quiet. The note for grasshopper sparrow, a small, drab, brown bird says, “it appears that the species just disappears when in fact thousands are passing southward….Ideally, future versions of these maps will be able to incorporate species-specific detectability variables and will start measuring abundance, not just occurrence.”

Another bias is caused by birders themselves, and their propensity to flock to where the most birds are. In the discussion of the blackpoll warbler map, the note says, “…there are biases in how birders sample the landscape. For this reason, we have tried to promote the use of random counts so that widespread habitats (with less rare bird potential) are sampled in a proportion that more closely resembles their percentage ‘on the ground.’”

Good luck with that!

Where would you prefer to spend a spring morning birdwatching? Along Crow Creek, among the cottonwoods where interesting warblers are known to show up? Or out on some treeless, nameless, numbered gravel road in the hinterlands of Laramie County? It could be worth a look, though.

Don’t forget to take your notebook and pencil (or your eBird reporting app) with you everywhere this spring and submit all of your bird observations to http://www.eBird.org.
You may be helping to re-write—and re-visualize—what we know about bird migration.

Note: It’s hard to understand how insectivorous birds like mountain bluebirds can find food in the winter and winter-like spring months of Cheyenne’s climate, but they also eat dried fruit, like juniper berries. And, I’ve read, on cold nights they will all pile together in old nesting cavities or nest boxes to keep warm. Most bird species only use their nests for breeding.

The haze of mountain bluebirds shown on the map for Wyoming in January is more likely the computer’s extrapolation of where they should be based on habitat because there is a lack of sightings in the data base. Somebody needs to go out and look next January to see if eBird’s prediction is right.

Snowy owls visit

Snowy Owl

Young Snowy Owls show dark horizontal barring. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published March 25, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Snowy owls’ visit a sight to behold.”

2014 Update: Snowy owls again irrupted this winter, 2013-2014, some as far south as Bermuda, but mostly in the east and Midwest.

By Barb Gorges

Thanks to Hedwig, millions of children may recognize a snowy owl.

She was Harry Potter’s companion in the books and movies. How many of those children, some now adult, have caught a glimpse of these nearly snow-white owls during this winter’s invasion?

Snowy owls in North America usually leave their summer breeding grounds by the Arctic Ocean and head south. Adult females travel the shortest distance before establishing winter territories, with males and juvenile females continuing on. Juvenile males travel farthest, especially if prey becomes scarce. Cold is not a problem. All snowies stay warm with feathers covering their toes and nearly engulfing the tips of their beaks.

There are migrant snowies to be seen every winter, according to Christmas Bird Count data, in south-central Canada, Montana, the Dakotas and New England. They will fan out a little further 50 percent of winters, to the Pacific Northwest and the upper Midwest, east through eastern Canada. They make it as far south as Wyoming and the central Great Plains 30 percent of winters. Experts admit they don’t know entirely what drives this species’ nomadic migration.

This year has been note-worthy for the number of sightings in 31 states as far south as Texas. It could be that birdwatchers are better connected than ever before, thanks to the Internet. Observations aren’t just scribbled in someone’s notebook—they are shared and mapped.

But there are also a lot of birds, sometimes in groups. The thought is that the lemmings were particularly fertile last summer and provided enough prey that a bumper crop of young snowy owls fledged. Each pair can raise up to 12 young, compared to the two or three chicks our resident, similarly-sized, great horned owls raise per year.

It’s most likely juvenile snowy owls people observed and photographed this winter. They have the brown barring—horizontal stripes—across their bodies, though adult females also have some. The adult males are pure white.

In the February issue of Prairie Fire, an alternative Nebraskan newspaper, Paul Johnsgard reports that in the previous 35 years, a total of 21 snowy owls had been brought in to the Raptor Recovery Nebraska facilities in Lincoln. However, between December and mid-January, 10 more snowy owls were picked up. Nine were emaciated and didn’t survive.

It makes me wonder how well the snowies compete with local hawks. Do they prey on the same species of rodents?

Or maybe the problem is their hunting techniques. Unless a landscape is totally snow-covered, snowies really stand out. I saw my first one in a spruce tree by Old Main on the University of Wyoming campus winter of 1980-81, but more typically people see them in the grasslands, perched on a rise, a fence post or a utility pole.

They sit motionless, waiting for prey, or walk about looking rather than flying. Unlike most owls, they are diurnal, active in the daytime. Their hearing is sharp. They can locate potential prey under the snow. They also take ducks and shorebirds.

Snowy owls are circumpolar, meaning they breed in the polar region from Alaska through Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia. The Birds of North America Online species account reports their conservation status, whether populations are increasing or decreasing, is unknown. Apparently, no one has spent enough time in the polar region to find out, though one scientist who went found snowy owls can seriously wound humans too close to their nests.

If you missed the invasion, probably ending at the end of March, take a look at a three-minute YouTube video at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s channel, www.youtube.com/user/LabofOrnithology for close-ups.

Visit http://www.allaboutbirds.org, another free CLO resource, to read about snowy owl natural history and hear one calling.

At CLO’s free Great Backyard Bird Count site, http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/, you can “Explore the Data” and see where snowy owls were seen Feb. 17-21.

And finally, if you are willing to register, at no cost, you can access www.eBird.org and its huge database to look at maps and compare sightings from year to year.

Most of what is know about sightings in Wyoming this winter, including one near Burns, appeared in posts to the Wyobirds e-list. Sign up for free at HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/archives. Click on Wyobirds. It’s a great way to keep in touch with birders across the state.

Greater Roadrunner heading north

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunners don’t like to fly. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 20, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Are roadrunners on route to our residential neighborhoods?”

2014 Update: Learn more about roadrunners at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

By Barb Gorges

Out for a walk with the dog in early February, I noticed when her attention was galvanized by wildlife on the lawn across the street.

The motionless animal was the same color and size as a cottontail, but not the same shape. It was a roadrunner, a long-legged, long-tailed, slender bird with a shaggy crest. We were in my mother’s neighborhood in Albuquerque and she had been telling us about the roadrunners that frequent her yard and nested last year in the neighbor’s pine tree.

Roadrunners are the classic symbol of the desert Southwest, but Mom’s neighborhood is a dead ringer for any of Cheyenne’s, except that the houses are flat-roofed and adobe-like and the shrubs and big trees, both coniferous and deciduous, are different species.

So when did the epitome of wide-open desert move to town?

I looked up “Greater Roadrunner” in my favorite compendium of avian research, The Birds of North America Online, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/, and found they have been expanding their range since early in the 20th century, north to southern Colorado and Kansas, and east to Arkansas and Louisiana. They often move into atypical habitat on the fringes. But since they also like desert riparian areas—shrubs and trees along creeks—they must find long established residential neighborhoods similar.

If roadrunners keep progressing northward, we might see them here. Cold doesn’t seem to be a problem. Albuquerque had subzero temperatures and this bird survived to walk across the street in front of us a week later.

Does Cheyenne have what a roadrunner wants?

Roads. Check. They really do prefer to travel roads, trails and dry creek beds, running as fast as 18 mph. They seldom fly, usually just taking short flaps to get to a perch or nest.

Food. Check. Some fruit and seeds in winter, but mostly snakes, lizards, spiders, scorpions, insects, birds, rodents, bats—well, we might be a bit short on lizards and scorpions and I might have a problem with their penchant for hanging around bird feeders and picking off songbirds, but we already provide prey for sharp-shinned hawks. Roadrunners can also nab hummingbirds which might explain why Mom hasn’t had as many at her feeders recently.

Shelter. Check. In cold weather, roadrunners roost in dense shrubs rather than migrate. Cheyenne has lots of spruce, pine and juniper that could fit the bill. Persistent snow cover over a large area could be a problem, but not often.

Dust and sun. Check. Roadrunners take dust baths, not water baths. They also like to sit with their backs to the sun, wings lifted a bit, for hours at a time.

Water. Check. They only need a drink if their food hasn’t been juicy enough. Their physiology has evolved to recycle water in their digestive tract, a handy thing for a desert dweller.

Nest sites. Check. Just need dense bushy shrubs or trees. As we might expect from their cartoon acting experience, not only can the adults draw a predator’s attention away from the nest by faking a broken wing, they can also fake a broken leg. I wonder what Cheyenne’s feral and loose cats would make of that?

Subscription to Equality State values. Check. Both parents build the nest, incubate the eggs and feed the nestlings, although the female makes a whining call if the male gets distracted in his search for twigs for nest building.

It might be awhile yet before roadrunners run this far north. In the next 20 years if you hear their distinctive coo calls—they are in the cuckoo family—don’t be surprised. After all, Native American tradition identifies roadrunners as symbols of courage, strength and endurance.

Book review: “Identifying and Feeding Birds,” by Bill Thompson III

2011dentifying amazonPublished Mar. 14, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book Review: New field guide is so much more than its title implies.”

2014 Update: This book is widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Identifying and Feeding Birds (Peterson Field Guides) by Bill Thompson III, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, paperback, 256 pages, $14.95.

“Identifying and Feeding Birds,” new in the Peterson Field Guides series, has a misleading title.

It is about so much more.

Author Bill Thompson III, also editor of BirdWatcher’s Digest, covers the four basics of what birds need: food, water, shelter and a place to nest. The chapter covering bird feeders and different kinds of bird food is what you would expect. He also talks about bird-friendly plants for your yard, the birdbaths rated most popular by birds and how to build a birdhouse and situate it properly.

Thompson writes in a breezy, fun-to-read style and includes his personal backyard bird experience, but he’s not afraid to point out it’s not enough to just hang the right feeder.

Birds don’t usually depend on us to supplement their wild food.

“Knowing (as we do now) that we feed birds so that we can enjoy them up close, we also need to understand that we owe it to our avian friends to feed them responsibly,” Thompson writes. “By this I do not mean simply that we feed them the proper foods in the correct feeders….Rather, I mean that we need to make sure our backyards—feeders and all—are safe for birds.”

Thompson covers safety issues such as cats, lawn pesticides and moldy seed.

Half the book is devoted to accounts, photos and range maps for 125 common backyard birds in North America. This means novice birders in Cheyenne need to check the maps before putting out food meant to entice a species we don’t normally see. Go to http://org.lonetree.com/audubon/cheyennechecklist06.pdf to get a better idea of birds in our area.

But otherwise, as someone frequently asked to give advice on attracting backyard bBillhighly recommend this book and Thompson’s catchphrase: “Feed more birds, have more fun.”

Hearing birds

Songfinder

Lang Elliot, author of “The Singing Life of Birds,” sports a SongFinder bird-hearing aid. Photo courtesy of SongFinder

Published Mar. 21, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Listening for birds doesn’t get any easier with age.”

2014 Update: Songfinder continues to be refined, www.nselec.com.

By Barb Gorges

Winter: a bit of icy snow crunching underfoot, a tiny breeze rattling dry leaves and the murmur of bird watchers on our field trip a couple months ago. When we stood perfectly still, straining our ears for a sound of bird life in the trees along Crow Creek, I finally hear the faintest whisper from a brown creeper, found the bird and pointed it out.

The creeper cooperated and everyone had a good look as it flitted to the base of a tree, spiraled up the trunk looking for dead and slumbering insects in the bark, and started over on the next tree.

Creepers have a very distinct, but faint call as they work and I want everyone to hear it, but almost no one else could, even though the 5-inch-long bird is close enough to see without binoculars, if you can pick out the bark-colored feathers from the bark.

I realized finally that nearly everyone on this field trip was older than me and perhaps they couldn’t physically hear the creeper.

A fact of aging is losing the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. It isn’t uncommon for an older birder to think that the population of kinglets in his favorite birding spot has decreased over time, only to discover it was his decreased hearing that diminished the number of the tiny, high-pitched voices he could hear.

Binoculars and spotting scopes are expected paraphernalia for birdwatchers. But if the birds aren’t out in the open, or if you don’t catch their movements flitting in the branches 50 feet overhead, hearing is the only way you’ll know which direction to point your binoculars.

Acute hearing partly explains the extraordinary abilities of hotshot young birders, especially if they have been too busy birding to ruin their hearing with loud music.

Unfortunately, many people pick up birding in mid-life. Optics make up for failing sight and field guides and all kinds of handheld devices make up for failing memory.

For failing hearing, there are a few choices. I don’t have any experience with any of these and if you do, tell me more about them.

The first step is to visit an audiologist and make sure the dearth of high-frequency birdsong can’t be attributed to a dearth of birds. Depending on the type of hearing loss, there are kinds of hearing aids that will help birdwatchers.

There are lots of ads in birding magazines for binoculars, but not for aids to hearing. One I came across is the Songfinder (see at http://www.nselec.com). It is a little case on your belt connected to slim headphones. It picks up sound and translates it to your ears at a lower frequency. You choose from three settings how much lower.

Songfinder presupposes the user can hear the frequency of the human voice well. At $750 it is cheaper than the audiologist’s special hearing aids mentioned by blogging birdwatchers. The drawback would be, if you’ve been birding for years, to suddenly hear a brown creeper sing alto, tenor, or even bass, relatively speaking.

The old-fashioned option is to get a parabolic microphone. You’ve seen photos of the scientist holding a big dish with a microphone in the middle connected to earphones. You can also connect it to a recorder so you can tell people you are recording birdsong and they will think you are a science nerd instead of hard of hearing.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is offering an eight-day course in wildlife sound recording in June out in California, but I found only one small advertisement for this kind of listening equipment in my birding magazines, http://www.stithrecording.com.

The problems with fancy microphones are you have to lug them around and they only amplify sound. You’ll get a lot of other amplified noise. But you’ll be in the same boat as the rest of us trying to pick out birdsong over traffic noise and wind.

There are bird sounds to be heard in winter. Some other soft, high frequency calls are Bohemian and cedar waxwings communicating as they search for another berry-full tree, the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets scampering high in evergreen treetops, and horned larks, blowing to and fro over country roads and fields.

When birds start thinking spring, they, mostly the males, bring out their songs for some practice. They need to be in top form if they are going to keep other males from invading their territory and also attract the attention of the best females.

Luckily for us, the birds still sing even after a spring snowstorm. Also luckily for us, when Wyoming’s state bird, the western meadowlark, projects its loud arias from roadside fences, it will be hard to miss no matter how old our ears get.

Book review: “Prairie Spring,” by Pete Dunne

"Prairie Spring" book

“Prairie Spring,” by Pete Dunne, is part of a seasonal quartet of books.

Published Mar. 27, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book review: “Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season.” East Coast naturalist records a memorable spring on our prairie.”

2014 Update: Pete Dunne has followed “Prairie Spring” with “Bayshore Summer” and “Arctic Autumn.”

By Barb Gorges

Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season, by Pete Dunne, published by Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 288 pages, $24. Publication date: March 19, 2009.

It’s the rare nature book that relates to us out here on the prairie. Even rarer is the nationally recognized author who leaves the east coast to write it.

It is always interesting to see familiar places through the eyes of a newcomer, especially one who has both an easy-to-read style and who has done his research, not only on prairie places but on spring itself. Author Pete Dunne even took time to interview locals while his wife Linda photographed their adventures.

In his first of a projected four-season, four-volume series, he has a way of personalizing history and ecology, in storyteller mode, that keeps you reading, even though you know the outcome of this plot.

The plot isn’t only about the advance of spring, but how European farming traditions, weather cycles, economic recessions and other human actions changed or might change the grasslands.

As director of New Jersey’s Cape May Bird Observatory, a famous spring migration Mecca itself, Dunne is able to rhapsodize about our spring, too.

Able to look for the mysteries and miracles of spring anywhere, why would Dunne choose the grasslands? Perhaps it is to bring attention to the strggling grassland birds and ecosystem.

Dunne chose particular locations to examine at particular times during the spring of 2007. You may remember it as the spring all those white evening primroses carpeted the pastures in May along I-25 between here and Fort Collins.

He visited Pawnee National Grasslands in Colo., just 25 miles southeast of Cheyenne, several times during the season, beginning on Ground Hog Day, the real beginning of spring. He also visited the sandhill crane migration in Kearney, Neb., Comanche National Grasslands in southeast Colorado, Milnesand Preserve in northern New Mexico and Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Hmm, he never mentioned Wyoming. Spring on our prairie is just as remarkable as the places spotlighted in this book but it will be our gladly-kept big secret. O.K.?