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 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 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, 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 It’s also free.

Here are the rules.


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.


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 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,, 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 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,, 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

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.,

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 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.