Trying out Texas birding trail

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate Spoonbills cluster in a dead tree at Brazos Bend State Park outside Houston, Texas in late March. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Trying out Texas birding trail rewards Wyoming birders.”

By Barb Gorges

The Texas Gulf Coast during spring migration is legendary among birders, especially if weather conditions cause a “fallout” of tired migrants that have just crossed the Gulf of Mexico.

We didn’t find birds dripping from branches on our first trip to Texas, since it bridged March and April, a bit ahead of the peak. We missed the 37 species of warblers, but some will arrive in Cheyenne next month.

However, my husband Mark and I did add several life-list birds.

When our younger son Jeffrey, and his fiancé, Madeleine, moved to Houston last fall, we started researching the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, part of the Great Texas Wildlife Trails.

The idea of a birding trail was born on the Texas Gulf Coast, where 450 species of birds might be seen. First established in 1994, the concept has since been applied to many other places. On the Gulf Coast, it is made up of many loop routes connecting 308 public places to see birds.

“Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail” (Eubanks, Behrstock and Davidson, c. 2008) is however, not the best guidebook, though it does work well in tandem with “A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast” (Cooksey and Weeks, c. 2006, published by the American Birding Association). This book has a bar chart listing all the bird species that shows what section of the coast and what months to find them, and other tips.

Mark went online and used www.eBird.org to find more recent information. Under “Explore Data” are two new and very useful functions, “Explore a Location” and “Explore Hotspots.”

Our son’s neighborhood in Houston, the Heights, is full of old bungalows and trees and the pleasant but unrelenting sound of mockingbirds and white-winged doves.

At the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, we found forest birds: cardinals, tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. However, the 155 acres are flanked by Interstate 610, making it impossible to hear any birds on the west edge.

The next day, all four of us headed for Brazos Bend State Park, 5,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, river, ponds and grasslands only an hour southwest of downtown.

As soon as we parked, we discovered an amazing sight, a dead tree full of roseate spoonbills, large pink wading birds. This was also where both Mark and I added “Black-bellied Whistling Duck” to our life lists.

This duck is primitive—it’s found at the beginning of the evolution-based taxonomic order of the North American birds. When it flies, its long legs stick out behind, reminding one of a cormorant. And yes, its voice is whistle-like.

It acts like a wading bird, chumming around with the white ibises, snowy egrets and spoonbills in shallow water, looking for aquatic plants to eat, but on the other hand, it nests in cavities in trees or in nest boxes, like a wood duck. It’s bright orange bill and pink legs add snap to its rich brown-colored body marked by large white wing patches—and a black belly.

A red-shouldered hawk at the park was another life bird for us and a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker was a first also. Altogether, we saw 27 bird species at the park—and several alligators.

The next two days, while the kids had to go to work and school, Mark and I headed for the coast. Luckily, Matagorda Island was not in our plans and we left cleanup of the recent oil spill to the experts.

Near Freeport are several notable stops, including the tiny Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, apparently a good place after a fallout. But it was while driving a farm-to-market road between industrial chemical facilities that Mark found another lifer for us, a scissor-tailed flycatcher perched way up on a high-tension power line. With a body the same size as the 8-inch kingbirds that perch on Wyoming fences, its extreme tail makes it twice as long.

At Baytown Nature Center, our life bird was the Neotropic cormorant. It was worth Mark lugging the spotting scope everywhere to have it on hand to see the diagnostic little white feathers on the sides of its head.

The nature center is the result of common sense. Back in the 1980s it was a high-class neighborhood—doctors, lawyers and oil company executives. But damage from subsidence from extensive oil drilling, severe storm surge flooding and hurricanes led to its abandonment. Local and national officials decided to return it to nature. And after sighting 38 bird species there, I’m glad they did.

Like so many other birders, we hope to return—300 Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail sites left to visit, 380 more species to find.

Wyoming Birding Bonanza strikes

Wyoming Birding Bonanza logo

Wyoming Birding Bonanza’s logo features an American Avocet

Published April 7, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming Birding Bonanza strikes again.”

2014 Update: Organizer James Maley moved on to another position this year.

By Barb Gorges

Are you ready for the second annual Wyoming Birding Bonanza? Polish your binoculars because you can be a winner.

The competition was dreamed up last year by James Maley and Matt Carling, both of the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and Physiology. James is collections manager of the Museum of Vertebrates and Matt is an assistant professor.

Their goal is to increase the number of bird observations for Wyoming during spring migration that are recorded in the www.eBird.org data base, and to get birders into the habit of submitting information. The data is used by scientists.

Last year, the contest ran from mid-April to mid-June but this year it is being pared back to May 1 – 31, concentrating on the peak weeks.

And again, thanks to the return of sponsors—the Audubon societies of Cheyenne, Laramie and Cody, UW’s Biodiversity Institute, Audubon Wyoming and eBird, there are prizes.

Registered contestants who enter at least 15 checklists will receive a WBB T-shirt. A checklist is a list of bird species and number of individuals of each, seen in a particular location during a period of time. James promises this year’s T-shirt will be a work of art. Everyone who turns in at least 10 checklists will be entered in a grand prize drawing.

Also, for each Wyoming county, the participant reporting the most species will win a prize. Last year, I was the Laramie County winner and received the latest edition of the National Geographic field guide. This year our county is up for grabs since I’m going to be out less often.

For better odds, try birding Big Horn, Converse and Sublette counties, where no checklists were turned in last year, James said.

“April, May, and June of 2012 are now the top three months of all time for number of checklists statewide,” he said. There were 1,282 turned in, compared to 424 for the same months in 2010. A total of 266 species was observed in 2012.

I know I paid closer attention to the birds around me because of the competition. I found a summer tanager in our backyard May 11, considered rare for Wyoming.

James passed on a list of other rare bird sightings from 2012:

–1 Glossy Ibis at Meeboer Lake (west of Laramie) on April 17

–1 Lesser Black-backed Gull also at Meeboer Lake on April 17

–1 Black-and-white Warbler at Holliday Park on April 21

–1 Juniper Titmouse at Guernsey State Park on April 22

–1 Long-tailed Jaeger at Hutton Lake NWR on May 3

–1 Northern Cardinal in Laramie on May 4

–5 Short-billed Dowitchers at Hutton on May 5

–1 Snowy Owl at Keyhole State Park on May 15

–1 Blackpoll Warbler at Hereford on May15

–1 Cattle Egret in Rock River on May 17

–1 White-eyed Vireo near Lander on May 28.

So, are you ready to earn that WBB T-shirt? You can do it by simply counting the birds in your backyard for a few minutes at least 15 different times. Here’s what you need to do.

First, sign up at www.eBird.org, if you haven’t already. It’s free. Click on the “About eBird” link, and then the “eBird Quick Start Guide,” the first link on that page.

When setting up your observation locations, select a hotspot marker if there is one at one of your locations already, such as Wyoming Hereford Ranch or Lions Park. Otherwise, on the map your personal marker may be hidden underneath the hotspot’s. You can view your data for a hotspot alone or collated with everyone else’s. If you have questions about eBird, call me.

Next, sign up for the Wyoming Birding Bonanza at http://www.uwyo.edu/biodiversity/vertebrate-museum/birding-bonanza/. It’s also free.

Here are the rules.

Counting:

1. Participants will count only full species as defined by the current American Birding Association checklist.

2. Birds identified to a taxonomic level above species may be counted if no other member of the taxonomic level is on the checklist. For example, duck sp. can be counted if no other ducks are seen.

3. Birds counted must be alive and unrestrained. Sick and injured birds are countable. Nests and eggs do not count.

4. Electronic devices are allowed, but see ABA’s Code of Ethics for guidelines.

Time: We will extract final eBird data for the Bonanza on 30 June 2013.

Area: Anywhere in Wyoming.

Conduct:

1. Participants must only count birds unquestionably identified. If in doubt, leave it out.

2. Know and abide by the rules.

3. Share information with other birders–they’ll thank you.

Good birding to all!

 

Warblers versus windows

BirdTape

BirdTape helps birds avoid hitting glass windows and being injured or killed.

Published April 15, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “It’s quite clear—birds losing war on the windows.”

2014 Update: Visit American Bird Conservancy, https://www.abcbirds.org, for more ways to protect migrating birds.

By Barb Gorges

Wyoming is a tourist destination. We love statistics on how many visitors come from how many other states and countries. We also try to keep visitors safe, reminding them to stay hydrated at our high, dry elevation, to stay away from dangerous wildlife and to avoid summer lightning storms.

Spring migration is like the beginning of tourist season for birds. On May 19 members of Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society and friends will again hit the local birding hotspots, hopefully at the peak of migration, to see how many different species of birds can be counted.

Some years we hit the shorebird migration just right and others it’s the flycatchers. But every year we hope will be a warbler year. We scour the tree branches for those smaller-than-sparrow-sized, color-coded birds which are scouring the same branches for insects to devour.

Over the previous 18 years we have had 31 of North America’s 50 warbler species visit. Only four have made it every year: yellow warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, common yellowthroat and Wilson’s warbler—probably because they are part of the 12 warblers breeding in Wyoming, and because they are abundant species.

Others we’ve seen only once because they breed in eastern North America and, for some reason take the scenic route through Cheyenne. They include golden-winged warbler, black-throated blue warbler, worm-eating warbler, prothonotary warbler, and six others.

Almost all of these were observed at one of Cheyenne’s two Wyoming Important Bird Areas, Lions Park and Wyoming Hereford Ranch. But there is reason to believe that all of Cheyenne, wherever there are trees and shrubs hosting insects, is hosting common and rare warblers, if only people look.

Casual observation of Mark’s and my yard has turned up nine species, including regular appearances of a Wilson’s or a yellow-rumped, sometimes a MacGillivray’s, and once, a chestnut-sided warbler.

Between mid-April and mid-June, who knows how many warblers pass through our yard? Maybe our retriever knows. Last year I caught her eating at least two after they were injured flying into our window.

While I’m fine with continuing to keep our remaining cat indoors year round (the other passed on last month at nearly 14 years old) we need the dog on squirrel defense duty. But even if we didn’t, there would still be injured birds.

Short of plywood over this one deadly window, how can we keep birds from hitting the glass? I tried a small sticker in the middle, but over the winter we collected a wreath all around it of lovely imprints of Eurasian collared-dove wings and tails, outlined in feather dust on the glass, where they tried to avoid the sticker.

Hanging dangly, shiny objects in front of the window probably wouldn’t work with the caliber of breezes we get—the objects would end up stuck in the gutter or perhaps banging on, and breaking, the window.

The American Bird Conservancy has come out with a new product this spring, BirdTape, which we are going to try. It sticks to the outside of the glass, breaks up the reflective surface that fools the birds, and is transluscent—like frosted glass.

The strips of ¾-inch-wide BirdTape can be applied vertically four inches apart, or horizontally two inches apart. Studies show that our backyard birds will try to zoom between obstacles spaced any greater distance. It obviously takes less tape to do the vertical arrangement.

The tape also comes in rolls three inches wide. These can be cut into squares placed in a pattern leaving spaces between them four inches horizontally and two inches vertically. I didn’t do the math to see which tape size’s pattern is more economical. Your choice might have more to do with whether you prefer bars or floating squares.

Currently, BirdTape is available through www.ABCBirdTape.org or call 1-888-247-3624.

I’m not sure I like the idea of anything impeding my view of our backyard, but with up to a billion birds hitting home windows each year, according to ABC, I want to give this product a try. It’s the least I can do to protect avian tourists on their annual spring, and fall, visits to Wyoming.

Book review: “Mariposa Road,” by Robert Michael Pyle

Mariposa Road book

Mariposa Road by Robert Michael Pyle

Published April 4, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A year in search of Butterflies: Butterfly “Big Year” captures the heart of one man’s passion.”

2014 Update: The Xerces Society is a good source of butterfly information, http://www.xerces.org, as well as other invertebrates.

By Barb Gorges

Mariposa Road, The First Butterfly Big Year, by Robert Michael Pyle, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 558 pages, $27.

Competitive birders will attempt a Big Year, but in 2008, Bob Pyle was the first to see how many butterfly species can be counted by one person in one year in the U.S. and he reports his results in “Mariposa Road.”

Bob is a writer, naturalist and lepidopterist who has authored several butterfly field guides and who, since the 1960s, has cultivated a shrewd knowledge of butterflies, their favorite plants, and people who know where to find both, and when.

He traveled on a shoestring, often camping along the roadside in his 1982 Honda Civic hatchback, affectionately named Powdermilk.

Bob has affectionate names for his favorite butterfly nets, too, Marsha and Akito, and has an endless supply of affection for every butterfly and butterfly lover he’s ever met.

Every sentence sparkles with optimism like a Florida purplewing bouncing across a swampy hammock. Every foray into the field holds hope for rarities and beauty, even if experience would point out the chiggers and thorns. There is always a refreshing mug of beer on tap afterward, or dinner with friends.

Bob did make it to Wyoming for a couple pages, mostly reminiscing about Karolis Bagdonas and his Flying Circus, a band of students that “careened around the Rockies doing butterfly counts and sampling little-known habitats, subsisting on Hamm’s and trout….” I remember hearing about them over 30 years ago.

Bob’s goal was to see 500 of the 800 known species in the U.S., including Hawaii. He made it to 478 species certified by three experts. He found 30 of the 40 “holy grails,” hard to find species he’d hoped for. And almost as a footnote in his appendix, he mentions 600 donors to his Butterfly-a-thon raised $46,000 for the Xerces Society which protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

At over 500 pages, this could be heavy reading if you aren’t already a butterfly fan. But if you like a good road trip, and have a butterfly field guide handy to supplement the color photos on the end papers, I think you’ll enjoy the read.

Book reviews: New regional Peterson bird guides

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America

Published April 23, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: There’s the field guide I take into the field, and then there are all the others on the shelf, which I consult when I get back.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 6th edition, by Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th edition, by Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Two years ago I wrote a review of the new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, which combined and updated Roger Tory Peterson’s eastern and western guides.

There were many improvements to the classic field guides to be excited about, but it is a larger book, harder to stow in a jacket pocket.

This spring Houghton Mifflin Harcourt presents the smaller Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (493 pages) and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America (445 pages).

I guess the publishers decided it was easy enough to cater to both birders who like the entire continent in one book and birders who like the regional field guides, having only to distribute the right species to the right book.

The boundary between the two new guides is the 100th Meridian, that famous and historical demarcation between civilization and the Great American Desert which vertically bisects the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, and cuts off the Oklahoma panhandle.

Unfortunately, unlike Sibley’s regional field guides, the individual species range maps cut off half the continent so you can’t get a feel for continent-wide distribution when a species has one.

Cheyenne is frequently visited by eastern warblers during spring migration. While the western guide has their pictures and descriptions, no range maps are provided to give you an idea how far away their normal range is.

The species accounts are not identical between guides. For the house finch, the combined field guide lists Cassin’s finch (a western species) and purple finch (an eastern species) under the subheading “Similar Species.” The eastern guide lists the purple finch but the western guide lists nothing, though it does mention both purple and Cassin’s in the descriptive notes.

 

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

If you live out here in the middle of the continent and you want a Peterson guide to birds, famous for its trademarked field identification system and Roger Tory Peterson’s classic illustrations, go for the big one, only $6 more than the $20 western guide. You’ll get a more complete view of our birds and be able to use it wherever you travel in North America.

Nebraska spring crane festival for the birds

 

Sandhill Cranes

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes outside Kearney, Neb., can be seen feeding and flying. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 18, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nebraska spring festival is for the birds.”

2014 Update: The name of the festival has been changed to Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival, scheduled in late March in Kearney. See www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

By Barb Gorges

If a late winter-early spring trip to Belize, Mexico, the Everglades, southern Arizona or Hawaii, destinations of our friends, wasn’t on Mark’s and my calendar this year, I thought why not central Nebraska instead?

At an elevation nearly 4000 feet lower than Cheyenne, spring would be farther along.

We packed our snow gear anyway and headed for Kearney for the first weekend of spring and the 40th Annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration.

I have always thought this was a weekend to avoid when planning a trip to view the spring migration of sandhill cranes. But having become increasingly intrigued with the idea of attending a birding festival, we paid the registration fee and signed up for one of the pre-conference, daylong field trips.

We didn’t sign up for the crane-viewing blinds. That just seemed futile with the number of people coming for the conference. Plus, we’ve done it before.

It was 70 degrees Thursday afternoon when we arrived in Kearney at the conference hotel. On the way out to Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, 12 miles further east, we stopped to admire a field full of cranes, as thick as cows in a feed lot, quietly dozing or picking up the odd bit of food. They seemed to be anticipating their evening performance.

Rowe’s educational displays provide the background to appreciate the Platte River, its history and the unique phenomenon of 600,000 sandhill cranes stopping over on their way to northern breeding grounds.

Forty years ago, the cranes could barely find the scoured river sandbars they need to roost on at night to avoid predators. The controlled flow of the Platte didn’t give it the flooding needed to keep it clean.

Ron Klataske, working for Audubon, inspired the troops during those early years and the original spring meetings were rallies for river protection. At lunch Ron, now director of Audubon of Kansas, reviewed the progress made.

A lobbying workshop featuring a panel of Nebraska lawmakers was scheduled Saturday afternoon, but Mark and I, after a morning learning about sandhill crane behavior and the state of whooping crane research, opted for a walk out to the river on the Ft. Kearny State Recreation Area’s Hike and Bike Trail.

An old railroad bridge spans a perfect treeless, crane-roosting stretch of the river, but we were too early for the evening performance of incoming cranes.

Instead, we’d paid to attend the banquet. At our table we met folks from New York and Nebraska, a few of the 150 people from 22 states registered for the weekend.

I was looking forward to the after dinner speaker and Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Weidensaul. I’ve enjoyed several of his two dozen books about birds and natural history.

It turns out he is good at speaking, too, with great photos. His theme was from his book, “Return to Wild America,” in which he retraces Roger Tory Peterson’s 1953 trip across North America and notes the changes.

Sandhill Crane model

At Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, a life-size, painted, cut-out of a Sandhill Crane gives a sense of their size. Photo by Barb Gorges

The family of the previous evening’s speaker, Nebraska photographer Michael Forsberg, was around all weekend selling his incredible photographs and his new book, “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild.” He gave us a look behind the scenes of the professional wildlife photographer’s life. Not only do you need to know your camera, you need to know your wildlife, more than a few landowners, and how to set up a camera trap or figure out other ways not to disrupt your subjects’ lives while shooting them.

Chris Wood came out all the way from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, to encourage us at breakfast Saturday to record our bird observations in eBird. More about that in a future column.

But how was the birding, you ask. Fine.

For $25 apiece, we rode a 20-passenger shuttle bus all day Friday with huge windows and Kent Skaggs from Rowe Sanctuary at the wheel. He knows every road and bird. [Hefty sack lunches were provided, plus plenty of interesting passengers, as well as enough potty stops at small towns.] It was cold and snowy and downright raw when we clambered out for stops to explore the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District south of Kearney, but other stops required only cozy armchair birding from the bus.

The highlights included greater prairie chicken, Lapland longspur, eastern meadowlark, and a rare glaucous gull. The other birds were all species we see regularly around Cheyenne, except for the flock of eastern bluebirds we saw Saturday afternoon—a great way to mark the first day of spring.

We’ll see what famous name in birdwatching or conservation is invited next year and maybe even risk registration roulette and sign up for a sunrise or sunset in the crane viewing blinds, too. Everyone needs a little inspiration after a long winter.

Important Bird Areas in Wyoming and Cheyenne

IBA sign 1

This is one of three signs at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, a Wyoming Important Bird Area located outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Apr. 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming has 48 places that are important to birds”

2014 Update: The number of approved Wyoming IBAs as of 2013 is 44. Find Alison Lyon-Holloran, and information about Audubon in Wyoming, at the Audubon Rockies office, in Fort Collins, Colo., http://rockies.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

Spring means a birder’s thoughts turn to migration and those hotspots where birds will be thickest.

Some spring hotspots are on a national list of Important Bird Areas. Two of those IBAs are right here in Cheyenne. No entrance fees required.

BirdLife International has identified places important to birds on every continent, in 100 countries and territories. Places like Fiji, Romania and Peru. They work with local agencies to help implement conservation and education plans.

In 1995, the National Audubon Society became the sponsoring organization for the IBA program in the U.S. While some places are rated as globally important, such as Yellowstone National Park, others are recognized as important at the national and state level.

Audubon Wyoming has recognized 48 places as important to birds in our state so far. Coordinator Alison Lyon-Holloran is still taking nominations. Contact her at aholloran@audubon.org. Check to see which sites are already in the program.

What makes a place important to birds? It is important to birds during migration, and/or breeding and/or wintering seasons for one or more species, meaning birds can find food, shelter and water and whatever else they require during a particular season. Alison also requires approval from the landowner before reviewing the nomination.

Nominating Lions Park was a no-brainer for my local chapter, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society. We have people traveling to Cheyenne from a 200-mile radius because the park’s trees, shrubs and lake attract so many species during spring migration. At the mid-May peak one year I counted 60 species in two hours.

The nomination stalled at first when the ornithologists on the technical committee countered that we only saw a lot of birds at the park because a lot of people birded there. Yes, but we could probably find the same diversity and abundance of songbirds, if not the waterfowl, in all of the old neighborhoods. We couldn’t very well walk through everyone’s yard.

 

IBA sign 2

Another informational sign at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Photo by Barb Gorges

CHPAS continues to monitor the park’s bird life through seasonal surveys and evaluates the impacts of new park developments.

The Wyoming Hereford Ranch has had a long and friendly relationship with the local birding community. Anna Marie and Sloan Hales welcome inspection by binocular, as long as no one disturbs the livestock, hops the fences or intrudes on the residents of the ranch.

Again, I’d venture to say that other properties along cottonwood-filled creeks in southeastern Wyoming might have similar abundance and diversity. The difference is the Hales.

Not only have they welcomed birders, but they were thrilled to be part of the nomination process. They’ve worked with the Laramie County Conservation District to improve wildlife habitat and in cooperation with Audubon Wyoming to install this spring educating visitors about why their ranch is an IBA. The Hales have also created a little nature trail.

The ranch, as an oasis of wildness on the edge of Cheyenne, will only become more and more important a refuge as high density housing and commercial enterprises continue to move into their neighborhood. Who knew more than 100 years ago when the ranch was established people would want to build houses in cow pastures 10 miles from the State Capitol building?

IBA sign 3

The third sign at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch Important Bird Area. Photo by Barb Gorges

IBA designation doesn’t bind any landowner to any course of action. But it does make people aware that their actions will have an impact on birds. It make us stop and think about beings besides ourselves and we get back to the original question: Does a bird have any value if you aren’t a birdwatcher?

Sometimes it has an obvious usefulness, such as keeping pests under control. If nothing else, birds are a part of nature and contact with nature is being scientifically proven to improve our mental health.

With the onset of spring and many of us are looking for excuses to get outside. Here in Cheyenne we don’t have to travel to Important Bird Areas, even our local ones, to see special birds. We just need to keep our eyes and ears open in our own backyards.

12 ways to keep birds safe

Chick in nest

There are many things people can do to keep birds safer. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 30, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “12 practical ways you can help keep birds safe.”

2014 Update: American Bird Conservancy is a good resource: http://www.abcbirds.org/. The current website for Audubon at Home is http://athome.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

All winter our relationship to wild birds is confined to observation and, perhaps, feeding them. But now with migration and breeding seasons intersecting with an increase in human outdoor activity, we need to think about bird safety.

1. Litter – The cigarette stubbed out in the driveway disappears, but probably blew onto the neighbor’s lawn where, if it isn’t picked up, it will, like other loose trash, break down and its unnatural components will pollute soil and water. Before that is able to happen, litter could end up in the digestive system of curious babies, puppies and other animals. And remember all those photos of birds hampered by fishing line and other plastic debris.

2. Windows – If you are dreading the annual cleaning chores, skip your windows and tell people dirty ones are not as dangerous for birds. If you do wash your windows and find that one is particularly prone to getting messed up by birds thumping into it, you need to put some stickers on the outside. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Student Conservation Association and Wyoming Public Radio send me those nice static cling type stickers every year so I can advertise my affiliations at the same time.

3. Cats – Nasty winter weather made it easy to keep your cat indoors. Just continue to keep it in and buy a harness and leash for little excursions or build an outdoor pen with a screened roof. If you put a bird feeder outside a window, your indoor cat will be very happy. Just make sure the window screen is strong enough to withstand your cat’s aborted bird attacks. If you don’t have a cat and are tired of the neighbor’s eating the birds that come to your feeder, borrow a cat trap from the animal shelter or get a dog to scare it off.

4. Feeders – Cold winters are marvelous for keeping bacteria in check around feeders. Don’t quit feeding now in warm weather when migrating birds will make feeder watching even more interesting. But be sure to clean your feeders and feeding areas with a mild bleach solution every few weeks. If you see any lethargic house finches, perhaps with warty growths around their eyes, quit feeding for at least a week so the healthy birds don’t come in and get infected.

5. Water – If you provide a bird bath, make sure it has sloping sides or a sloping rock in the middle so birds can wade in. Brush the scum out every day when you refill it. Think about disinfecting it periodically. If you have tanks for watering livestock, make sure they have bird ramps to avoid drownings.

6. Pesticides – If toxic chemicals are sprayed on your lawn, you can keep small children and pets off for the necessary period of time, but birds can’t read those cute little signs. Plus, pesticides wash into ground and surface water used by people and wildlife. Instead, try non-toxic lawn and garden care. Talk to Catherine Wissner and the Master Gardeners at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service, 633-4383, or check out Audubon at Home, www.audubon.org/bird/at_home/IPM_Alternatives.html.

7. Mowing – So you bought the house with five acres of prairie, and a riding mower, and you can’t wait to get out there. Please relax, take a hike or go fishing instead, and let the ground nesting birds, including the meadowlarks everyone enjoys, get the next generation started. Give them till at least mid-July.

8. Dogs – During the crucial season for ground nesting birds, late April to mid-July, keep dogs on a leash so they don’t raid nests.

9. Nest Boxes – A birdhouse that is meant to be safely used by birds will have certain crucial features. The opening will be sized precisely for the intended cavity-nesting species: house wren, mountain bluebird, tree swallow, flicker, etc. There’s no perch sticking out below, where starlings can stand while reaching in to raid the nest. Some kind of latch allows the nest box to be opened for cleaning. The box is the right dimensions, has proper ventilation, is not painted a dark color and is situated at the right height. Check the library for a book with particulars or go to www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/resources.

10. Baby Birds – Short of a catastrophe killing their parents, baby birds seldom need our help. It is best to leave them alone. If you watch long enough, you’ll probably see parents bringing food to the grounded fledgling until it gets up the gumption to fly. You can try setting featherless nestlings back in their nest or in a small bucket with twigs and grass hung somewhere safe near where you found them (but not if they are a ground-nesting species). Trying to feed baby birds yourself is usually not successful and deprives other wildlife species that depend on baby birds for their own food supply.

11. Shrubs and Trees – Cheyenne is in the midst of the grasslands and if we are to promote the welfare of the beleaguered grassland bird species which have lost habitat due to plowing and development, we shouldn’t promote planting trees and shrubs away from creeks and lakes. But up against our homes natural shade and windbreaks conserve energy, shelter migrating birds and attract birds we wouldn’t see otherwise out here on the plains. Choose native fruit and seed producing vegetation.

12. Energy – There is no energy source yet that doesn’t have some negative impact on wildlife. Remember, stuff you buy takes energy to produce so recycle and reuse, of course. And if you reduce the size of the house you need to heat and maintain and reduce the amount of stuff you buy that always seems to take additional energy and maintenance, guess what? You’ll save money and have more time to enjoy life and watch birds!

Book reviews: beginning birding, songbird silence, falcon fever, extraordinary encounters

Finding Your Wings

Finding Your Wings, by Burton Guttman

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Authors explore our fine feathered friends.”

2014 Update: All four books are still available, though you may have to look online.

By Barb Gorges

Frequently, this winter I filled frigid weekends and long dark evenings reading four books about birds. And since we can still expect a few blizzards between now and June, I thought you might want to look for and read one of them yourself.

No matter your taste in literature, one will suit you. The first is a “how to,” the second a “what to do,” the third is historical/travel and the fourth, spiritual.

Finding Your Wings: a Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers

By Burton Guttman, Houghton Mifflin, available March 2008, softcover, 75 color photos, 224 pp, $14.95.

This addition to the Peterson Field Guides series is not a field guide. It really is a workbook in which you are expected to write and draw. Drawing a rudimentary bird is a way to note distinctive features of an unknown bird to help you identify it later with a field guide.

Most of the workbook exercises require having either the “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” 5th edition, or “The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds,” 3rd edition (1990).

An example is Exercise 5-18. “Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles [E317 (eastern guide, p. 317) or W313 (western guide, p. 313)] are very similar and for a time were considered a single species. How do the wings of the males differ?” The answer is at the back of the book.

The three other kinds of activities are field exercises, such as studying crows in flight, quizzes and games.

Guttman, longtime teacher of birding workshops, wanted to write a book that will help people get to know and love nature so they’ll protect it.

He says beginners need to work on three goals at once: learn how to see as a birder sees, learn about the categories of birds, and learn as many of the easily identified common birds as possible.

My birding “sight” needs restoration after a long winter so I think I will work through the exercises myself.

Silence of the Songbirds

Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stuchbury

Silence of the Songbirds

By Bridget Stutchbury, Walker & Co., 2007, hardcover, 256 pp, $24.95.

A review copy of this book arrived in my mail last fall and it took me months to get past the ominous title and read it.

Stutchbury, a professor at York University, holds a Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology and divides her time between homes in Ontario and Pennsylvania.

Her book is a chapter by chapter description of songbird perils: deforestation, forest fragmentation, shade-grown versus sun-grown coffee, pesticides, lights, windows, cats and cowbirds. Adding her personal experiences highlighted by her animated prose style, Stutchbury explains exactly how each hazard affects birds. The facts are much more interesting than what the popular press has time for and the book is much more cohesive than a collection of journal articles.

Unlike other science writers, Stutchbury’s sentences do not need diagramming in order to extract their meaning. The citations for the underlying scientific studies are quietly listed in the back of the book, along with an index.

In the epilogue, Stutchbury reminds us how important birds are to people as pollinators, insect eaters, scavengers and nutrient recyclers.

Most importantly, helping readers avoid a feeling of hopelessness, she gives us a “to do” list: buy shade-grown coffee; buy organic if the produce is from Latin America where so many songbirds overwinter; and buy organic or try to avoid crops that are the greatest pesticide risk to birds: alfalfa, blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Also, buy wood and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; buy toilet paper, paper towels and tissues made from recycled paper to protect the northern forests where so many songbirds nest; turn off lights at night in city buildings during migration; and keep your cat indoors.

Be brave, buy the book and read it. Through the York Foundation, Stutchbury is donating proceeds to support research on migratory birds. Or don’t buy the book and borrow my copy. Then with the money you save, make a donation to a bird conservation organization. Or spend it on organic cotton handkerchiefs and shopping bags.Falcon Fever: A

Falcon Fever

Falcon Fever by Tim Gallagher

Falcon Fever: a Falconer in the Twenty-first Century

By Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin, available May 2008, paperback, 336 pp, $25.

The first thing you’ll recognize is that author Tim Gallagher is the one who recently wrote “The Grail Bird,” about his experience finding the ivory-billed woodpecker. However, you’ll get little insight into that venture here, even though the book begins in the autobiographical mode.

In mid-20th century in California, a 12-year-old Gallagher could read about falconry, roam the woods searching for hawk nests and meet adult falconers who generously offer to mentor him. In his teen years, reminiscent of Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway,” he might escape home and drive a rattletrap with a friend to a national falconry convention a thousand miles away.

Despite this idyllic life (not counting a truly tough home situation), Gallagher longs to be a contemporary of Frederick II, 13th century Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire known for the quintessential book on falconry still consulted today. Frederick was once accused of letting hunting with his hawks interfere with attending to a crucial bit of warfare.

While the beginning of the book is autobiographical, the latter part is travelogue, in which Gallagher spends a year visiting other falconers and makes a pilgrimage to Frederick’s Italian castles.

One chapter of interest to Wyoming folks documents Gallagher’s visit to falconer and filmmaker Steve Chindgren’s hunting lodge near Eden to witness hawking sage grouse.

Chindgren’s name may sound familiar since his sagebrush/sage grouse movie was shown at the Cheyenne Audubon meeting in March.

Falconry is a very different way to enjoy birds. You’ll know much more about it by the end of the book–its centuries of history as well as its modern day incarnation.

 

Sightings

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Sam Keen

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

By Sam Keen, illustrated by Mary Woodin, Chronicle Books, 2007, hardcover, 114 pp, $14.95.

Perhaps this book could be classified as a spiritual autobiography in essay form, in which Keen’s encounters with birds are the prompts for musings on the various elemental philosophical questions.

Keen is a former professor of philosophy and religion and now a lecturer, seminar leader and consultant. He is also a storyteller, evoking his childhood among staunch Presbyterians, as well as an historian. Consider this partly tongue in cheek sampling from the last essay.

“Careful observation has convinced me that birders, far from being just quaint old ladies in sensible shoes and nerdy zoology students, are involved in something strange, archaic, and clandestine–something more like a pagan religion than a hobby….I suspect that the growing number of enthusiastic birders are converts to an ancient cult of bird worship….”

And then Keen explains that bird worship goes back to the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Egyptians. “There is speculation that prior to 100,000 BCE (Before the Christian Era) a culture devoted exclusively to birds existed in America.”

Things haven’t changed much. For instance, the miracle of spring migration is still celebrated. The more science explains it, the more awe inspiring it is.

Grouse geology: find grouse, find oil

Greater Sage-Grouse

The Greater Sage-Grouse lives in sagebrush, which almost always grows atop Wyoming’s best oil and gas drilling prospects. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to get energy and save our sage grouse: Difficult task lies ahead to keep both resources valuable in Cowboy State.”

2014 Update: Accommodating sage-grouse continues to be a work in progress. The Audubon Wyoming office has now been rolled into the Audubon Rockies regional office in Fort Collins, Colo., http://rockies.audubon.org/.

By Barb Gorges

Is geology destiny? Geology is rocks. A particular weathered rock makes a particular kind of soil which, with water, grows particylar vegetation. Particular vegetation feeds and shelters particular animals.

Thus, a geologic formation rich in oil and gas can be associated with certain wildlife species.

Using overlays last month at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Alison Lyon-Holloran, conservation program manager for Audubon Wyoming, showed Wyoming’s oil, gas and coalbed methane fields almost perfectly align with greater sage-grouse habitat.

The sagebrush ecosystem, on which the grouse is entirely dependent, stretches across Wyoming in a wide swath from the northeast to the southwest, avoiding the mountains in the northwest and the grasslands of the southeast.

If you have not driven across the state, it may be hard to believe that so many acres of sagebrush exist, from the ankle-high species on the dry hills to the small forests along riparian (stream) corridors.

It’s hard to believe sage-grouse are so dependent on sage, from hiding their nests in a straggly old stand to grazing on the buds while keeping an eye out for predatory golden eagles.

It’s hard to believe a chicken-like 6-pound male or 3-pound female is so shy and easily distracted that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s drilling stipulations provide, on average, a 2-mile buffer zone around a lek during breeding season.

Those leks are collections of as many as 50-150 males, each spreading spikey tail feathers, popping white-feathered neck sacs and defending small territories. The females stroll through, looking for the best genetic material which, Alison said, may be the same one or two males for all of them.

Someone in the audience asked how sage-grouse are doing. Fine, Alison said, away from the energy development areas. Two wet years have really made a difference in what was a general decline during drought years. However, despite the moisture, they are not doing well in energy areas. It’s too crowded and noisy.

Several energy companies have committed millions of dollars to provide offsite mitigation for wildlife and other land users who have lost the use of lands now in oil and gas production.

It would be nice to think that people could enhance sagebrush habitat away from all the wells, but Alison, who studied sage-grouse for her master’s thesis and has been immersed in the research and issues for the last 10 years, said there are no studies showing how to produce scraggly 100-year old sagebrush stands.

The millions of dollars in mitigation money cannot be used to study why some sagebrush is not attractive to sage-grouse and what can be done to improve it.

It is conceivable, said Alison, that the few remaining healthy sage-grouse leks in Wyoming could be compromised, forcing the birds to be listed as either threatened or endangered—something neither energy companies nor environmentalists want to see happen.

If sage-grouse become threatened or endangered, it would mean more development restrictions for energy companies and much more work for the environmental community.

Of Wyoming’s total 62 million acres, the federal government owns, and BLM manages, 41 million acres of minerals below the surface (and 18 million acres of the surface).

So far, 14 million acres of federal minerals have been leased for oil and gas. Don’t forget state and private oil and gas leasing because 45 percent of Wyoming’s total oil and 37 percent of its natural gas production comes from them. See BLM’s 2007 annual report at www.blm.gov/wy.

In the old days, environmental groups would be preparing lawsuits. Instead, Alison and Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge came up with the Greater Sage-grouse Species Survival Plan. They have hired Kevin Doherty, who studied sage-grouse for his PhD, to give the issue the necessary rigorous, scientific statistical scrutiny.

The National Audubon Society has taken notice also, and has made sagebrush one of its top conservation concerns.

Key players from federal and state government have been working with energy and environmental groups to figure out how, in the melee of fluid mineral development, we can have our energy and our grouse, too, here in the state with the most grouse habitat of any in the country. And there are other sagebrush species that will benefit.

The highlight of Alison’s presentation was the Steve Chindgren film, “It’s Just Sagebrush,” a half hour un-narrated look at wildlife in the sage over a year’s time. It was filmed mostly between Farson and Pinedale.

If you haven’t yet traveled a two-track, sagebrush tickling the belly of your pickup, pungent sage smell (not the garden variety) wafting through your open window along with a fine wind of dust as you bump over badger holes and glimpse heavy-bodied sage-grouse taking flight, lumbering like World War II bombers, you should see the film.

And then you’ll be interested in Alison and Brian’s plans to begin an e-list to keep you up to date on this issue, letting you know how and when you can be an effective voice for the well-being of an ecosystem.

Contact Alison at aholloran@audubon.org.

So, is geology destiny? Yes, I think so. While geology (and climate) makes some states suitable for farming, geology has made Wyoming rich in fossil fuels and sagebrush. We just have to choose how to keep both resources valuable.