Owl family fascinates park visitors

young Great Horned Owl

One of three young Great Horned Owls in Lions Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was perched in a cottonwood tree May 10. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published May 11, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owl family draws visitors to Lions Park.”

By Barb Gorges

There’s been quite the parade of admirers trekking to Lions Park to see the pair of owls that nested there this spring, and their three owlets.

By mid-April, they became widely known within the Cheyenne birding community and among regulars at the park. Generally speaking, they can be found in the trees north of Sloans Lake and the Cheyenne-Kiwanis Community House.

I suspect someone aiming a long-lens camera at the top of a tree will have passersby surreptitiously looking in the same direction to figure out what they are shooting. Or, being Cheyenne-friendly, they’ll simply ask. Then they, too, become converted to the owl-watching cult.

The day I went to see them, my husband Mark and I could only find one adult and one young, but I’d heard that one of the owlets had been seen on the ground, toddling, like a Furby toy, to another tree—and climbing it. It takes a few weeks before owlets are strong enough to fly much.

The owlets will stay with their parents for the summer, so we hope everyone keeps their dogs leashed while in the park. The neighborhood red foxes present enough of a challenge.

When it comes to breeding, great horned owls get an early start in the year. The male can be heard hooting in February to establish its territory. Chances are, his mate from last year is still around. Other than courtship, they don’t roost close to each other during the year. They don’t build a nest. Instead, they use a tree cavity or an available nest in a tree made by a hawk, crow, heron or squirrel.

The female is the one who incubates the (typically) two eggs. She’ll lay more if food—prey animals—is very abundant. For more than 30 days between February and March, she can successfully incubate through winter conditions, even -27 degrees (-33C).

The male keeps her fed. Food found in our park could include rabbits, mice, waterfowl and other birds. This was not a good winter to find ducks, since Sloans Lake, in the park, stayed completely frozen until mid-March.

Research shows owls occasionally take squirrels, and with the overabundance available in the park, that would be my guess as to what they are eating. If anyone finds owl pellets—the compacted balls of bones that are regurgitate by the owls —we could find out for sure.

At 6 weeks old, and nearly equal to their 22-inch-tall parents, young owls climb out of the nest and take a stroll onto nearby branches. Over the next four weeks they practice flying short distances and may be found roosting on the ground.

The siblings hang out together, but the parents, except for occasionally dropping off food, prefer to roost away from the kids, to avoid hearing their incessant begging that starts up whenever the parents come near.

The owlets start out catching insects and eventually learn to catch mammals and birds by the perch and pounce method. By October, they are ready to fend for themselves.

Typically, young owls are 2 years old before they breed. But it really depends on the amount of prey available. If pickings are slim, many can’t find a big enough territory to support a family because there are probably more dominant owls in the area chasing them off. The researchers call the unpaired birds “floaters.”

Great horned owls don’t migrate seasonally. But the young disperse to find new territory, looking for some place that has an abundance of prey. Studies cited in Birds of North America Online show they moved a mean distance of 46 miles (75 km). Otherwise, they would have a long wait before they could take the place of their parents’ generation—this species has been documented to live more than 20 years. So, for the young, it’s about waiting for those years when rabbit reproduction is up.

Whether the current pair nests in the park again next winter depends on the nest they used still being in good shape—or if a replacement is found. But more importantly, is there still enough food?

Great horned owls across North America, the only continent where they are found, work out answers to these questions every year.

It seems, despite people feeding the park squirrels (even though they shouldn’t and the over-abundant population is chewing up and damaging park trees), the owls are here to bring balance. It’s another step in making a manmade landscape more natural.

FOY, First of Year birds, tell us about climate change

Indigo Bunting

The Indigo Bunting is one of my favorite birds that visits my Cheyenne, Wyoming, backyard nearly every spring, although it is considered an eastern species. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 5, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Early birds yield clues: First birds of the season can tell us about climate change.”

2014 Update: eBird is the best place to post your bird observations to help scientists see developing patterns and the big picture.

By Barb Gorges

The great joy of springtime, if you are a birdwatcher of any sort, is seeing your first robin, first bluebird or first mourning dove of the year.

There is sometimes a friendly bit of competition where serious birders gather– to see who is first to report their “FOYs,” first of the year observations, especially of more obscure migratory species, say “Greater Yellowlegs,” a long-legged shorebird.

Those of us in southeastern Wyoming have the advantage over the birders in the rest of the state posting on the Wyobirds e-list as many spring migrants often funnel up against Colorado’s Front Range and across Cheyenne before spreading out over the rest of Wyoming.

At eBird.org, where ordinary folks file their bird observations for free, for their own record-keeping and for use by scientists, FOY data is constantly updated and can be found in the Explore Data section under “Arrivals and Departures.”

A check of the Wyoming statistics shows that Del Nelson got the jump on all of us this year by birding January 1 near Crowheart, Wyo., and reporting 28 species—mostly birds we expect to see mid-winter.

However, Del’s list included a single western meadowlark. On occasion, individuals of migratory species like that miss the bus south in the fall and sometimes find a perfect pocket of habitat that allows them to survive the winter. Insectivorous birds like meadowlarks usually prefer live insects, not the foods of wintering birds: frozen bugs picked out by flickers, seeds preferred by finches, or warm-blooded creatures preyed on by hawks.

A few days later, Del reported a mountain bluebird, another bird uncommon in winter, which I always thought of as a sign of impending spring. Even robins aren’t reliable—one was listed for Wyoming Jan. 2.

Studying the “Birds of Wyoming” compendium by Doug Faulkner, I found that many migratory bird species often have a few individuals observed in Wyoming during Faulkner’s designated winter months of December through February. If you don’t count those species, the first true spring migrant (no over-wintering records so far), the 97th species listed by eBird for 2013 in Wyoming, is the group of sandhill cranes seen Feb. 12 in Riverton—by Del Nelson, the birder who must be spending more time afield than anyone else in the state.

Here in Laramie County, our signs of spring, our FOYs, were observed more seasonally: Killdeer – Mar. 5, robin – Mar. 6, mountain bluebird – Mar. 7, meadowlark – Mar. 16, turkey vulture – Mar. 29, mourning dove – Mar. 30, and two species not known to ever winter in Wyoming (so far), American avocet and Swainson’s hawk – Apr. 7.

Granted, in a state like Wyoming with a sparse population of birdwatchers, it is quite possible the first flock of anything to flit over the county line goes unnoticed. Sometimes we are hiding at home during snowstorms.

Brian Kimberling, a columnist writing for the New York Times, recently posed the idea that FOYs might help us track climate change the way tracking plants has. There is a website, www.BudBurst.org, asking citizen scientists (you and me) to track when particular perennial species bloom. Changes are already noticeable when historic records of eccentric gardeners and naturalists are examined, showing blooming times advancing as much as a week over a few decades.

I’m not sure the migrations of birds are as useful as the bloom times of plants. After all, plants sit in one place and accumulate degrees of heat necessary to bloom, while birds will push the envelope in their quest for food, sometimes losing their gamble when, after a pleasant spring weather spell, disaster hits. Many dead birds were reported after our April 15-17 snowstorm.

The opposite of FOY, what I think of as LOS, “Last of the Season,” might be more accurate a measure. Sometime in April, just when I think I’ve seen the last of the juncos until fall, another bout of cold blows in and they reappear briefly, pushed back into town from their summer homes in nearby mountains.

But there are whole groups of birds, mostly the insectivorous species, which have never been reported in winter in Wyoming: hummingbirds, vireos, most of the shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows, swifts, terns, dickcissels, bobolinks, and most warbler species.

When those birds begin to show up earlier and earlier, establishing a trend over the years, it will be one way we’ll know that global climate trends apply to us, too, right here in the Magic City.

Peregrines come back with help from friends

Peregrine Falcon

Without captive breeding techniques honed by centuries of falconers, the population of Peregrine Falcons may not have recovered. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 13, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Peregrines back with a little help from friends.”

2014 Update: eBird shows several peregrine observations in the area around Cheyenne, but nothing more recent than 2010.

By Barb Gorges

Peregrine falcons were listed as endangered in the U.S. two years before I opened my first bird field guide in 1972.

The guide, “The Birds of North America,” published by Golden Press in 1966, did not allude to the peregrine’s diminishing population. It only said it was “a rare local falcon.”

However, in the era of an awakening environmental consciousness, we all heard about the peregrine, a very handsome poster child for the drive to ban DDT, one of the pesticides responsible for poisoning birds of prey and causing their eggshells to be too thin for un-hatched young to survive.

One doesn’t expect to meet an endangered species in the wild, especially when ornithologists had declared it extirpated in the eastern U.S. by 1970 and in trouble in other parts of the world (peregrines are found everywhere except the Sahara, the Amazon and Antarctica). But I had another encounter with a peregrine last month, just outside Cheyenne.

My six peregrine observations, all since 2003, have been around Cheyenne, at either Wyoming Hereford Ranch or Lions Park. All but one were in spring.

I remember the first sightings, on Audubon field trips, for which I was relying on more experienced birders for identification. Once, at WHR Reservoir No. 1, we saw a peregrine in one of those legendary dives–once clocked by a scientist at 200 miles per hour.

It slammed into an unsuspecting duck standing on a sandbar. The peregrine’s former common name was “duck hawk”–ducks being a favorite among the many kinds of birds they eat.

Last month, my husband Mark and I saw a bird sitting in a cottonwood below the same reservoir, watching us. It had all the peregrine field marks, including the dark cheek patches, which must have been the inspiration for those cheek pieces for first-century Roman centurions’ helmets.

Peregrines have been favorites of falconers for 3,000 years. While the young can be taken from wild nests, they are also bred in captivity. In 1970, the founder of The Peregrine Fund, Tom Cade, began breeding them in earnest, as did Bill Burnham of Fort Collins, future president of TPF, beginning in 1974.

By 1984, TPF had opened the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. By 1997, 4,000 peregrines had been bred and released into the wild. By 1999, the peregrine was off the Endangered Species list. The fund continues to work to conserve raptor species around the world.

It isn’t quite the same as the old days for the peregrines. Someone thought of also introducing–or hacking–them into cities that have plentiful pigeon prey and tall buildings that would imitate their cliff-face nesting habitat. Urbanites could be seeing peregrines much more often than we do.

While peregrines went missing in the eastern U.S., what happened to them in Wyoming? I asked Bob Dorn, co-author with his wife, Jane Dorn, of the book, “Wyoming Birds.” From his research, he was able to give me a list of over a dozen observation dates back to 1929.

In 1939, Bob said O. C. McCreary categorized the peregrine as “a rather rare summer resident,” usually indicating that they are breeding, and “an uncommon migrant,” meaning not quite so rare during migration. As Bob put it, “When you’re at the top of the food chain, you are in scarce numbers.” (Somehow, that isn’t true of humans.)

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s species account states that by 1970 Wyoming had no viable breeding population. They formed a partnership with TPF and over 15 years, 1980-1995, introduced 384 captive-bred peregrines. It was successful. There were 90 breeding pairs recorded in 2009, the most recent information available.

Today, breeding peregrines tend to be found in the northwest part of the state. Down here in the southeast, we have the potential to see migrants from April through May.

The most recently published field guide I have, “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” (2009), does mention the peregrine was endangered—small concession to the idea that the hobby of bird identification can no longer be divorced from bird conservation.

The new “Peterson” range map shows there is still a big empty area in the middle of the country where the “Golden” guide had indicated wintering peregrines nearly 50 years before. But it also shows summer range, presumably breeding range, where the “Golden” guide did not.

Unfortunately, many threatened or endangered birds are not as charismatic as the peregrine. Experience with captive breeding may be nonexistent and the reason for a species’ plummeting population may not be as simple as a particular pesticide. The commonality however, is that human experiments with new technology often produce unexpected, bad consequences for some birds, while accidently promoting the unwanted reproduction of others–think starlings.

Meanwhile, birders continue to collect and share observations, causing range maps to continually be redrawn. Mark’s and my single peregrine sighting on April 8 becomes part of the larger story.

Keep your eyes open, too.

How to raise a birder

boy and binocs

Children are never too young to be introduced to birdwatching, even if it’s for only a few minutes at a time. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 22, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to raise a birder: take a child outside.”

2014 Update: Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, in partnership with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ Children’s Village, offers opportunities for children and adults to learn to birdwatch.

By Barb Gorges

There are three attributes most really good birders share: terrific eyesight, terrific hearing and a mind like a sponge. These attributes describe most children, too, unless they ruin their eyesight with too much screen time or their hearing with loud music or fill their minds with rules for arcane video games.

Can children become really good birders? Yes. Years ago our Audubon chapter received a call from a mother wondering if her junior-high-aged son, Jason, could come with us on a field trip. He had birded regularly with folks in California before the family moved to Cheyenne. So we said sure. If he’d been birding with adults before, he knew what he was getting into spending a day with us.

Jason turned out to be a very personable young man and his young eyes and ears helped us find species we might have missed otherwise. Plus he’d studied up on the birds in our area. Thanks to Jason, I saw my first green-tailed towhee.

Sad to say, he didn’t grow up to become an ornithologist. Last we heard, he was at Harvard and on his way to becoming a pediatrician, but even pediatricians have hobbies, as illustrated by famous Wyoming birder and pediatrician Oliver Scott. I wouldn’t doubt Jason is still adding to his life list.

How does a child become a birder? Famous birders usually point to a “spark” bird that sparked their interest as a child. For Roger Tory Peterson, famous for inventing the modern field guide, it was a blue jay he saw as a grade schooler.

RTP was an independent-minded boy who spent days roaming the local woods on his own and looking things up at the library. Eventually, he discovered other people interested in birds, finding that accompanying a birder better than him out in the field is faster than reading a book for improving birding skills.

The American Birding Association sponsors two summer birding camps for young people ages 13-18 and they don’t lack for applicants though it seems it would be much more difficult now for children to catch the spark, with parents less likely to let their children roam and more likely to over-schedule them for after school activities.

How does someone who may not know much about birds encourage a child to develop an interest in them?

First, children have to see that birds exist almost everywhere. The more time they spend outside, the more birds there are to notice. Wondering what kind of birds they are leads to looking them up in a field guide. Later, binoculars become important for seeing details.

A field guide is a most wonderous thing. Years ago our local Audubon chapter gave out plaques to winners we chose at the school district’s elementary science fair. But for the same cost, we started to and still do, give the winners “adult” field guides which are as full of colorful pictures as any children’s book.

Not every child with an interest in birds is going to grow up to be an ornithologist, just as every high school violinist isn’t going to go on to play with the New York Philharmonic. But that’s OK. They can still have a life-long love of birds (or music), and appreciation for people who make birds (or music) a career.


When not to rescue wildlife


Fawns are left on their own while their mothers feed nearby. Rarely have they been abandoned. Unless you can verify the mother is not coming back, there is no need to rescue fawns. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 30, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “When not to rescue wildlife. The scenario: You’re hiking in the woods and discover a fawn lying under a shrub, no mother in sight. Does it need your help?”

2014 Update: The Nestling Nursemaid program continues this season.

By Barb Gorges

It happened to our family once. We’d walked off the trail to admire wildflowers and practically tripped over a deer fawn lying partially obscured under a shrub, no mother in sight.

The fawn’s instinct was to sit tight. Ours was to beat a hasty retreat, but apparently not all people have the same reaction.

Every spring deer and antelope fawns are needlessly “rescued” by well-meaning people who want the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to take care of them. They don’t realize the young are normally, and often, left alone while the mother is feeding out of sight.

“They may seem abandoned but chances are that handling will cause them to be abandoned,” or human scent will attract predators said Reg Rothwell of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Biological Services Division. “Game and Fish has no facilities to care for abandoned wildlife.”

Rothwell said that the WGFD once again has an employee designated to answer questions brought about by the seasonal increase in interactions between people and wildlife.

Is a nest of rabbits or birds abandoned?

It takes hours of patient, non-disruptive observation to determine if parents are not returning.

What about the nest that blew out of the tree? Put the remains and young in a container back in the tree and the adults will be happy to continue caring for the nestlings. If you need additional nesting materials, use shredded newspaper or paper towel, not green plant material.

What about young birds on the ground, completely feathered but unable to fly? Put them up on a branch and keep them safe from dogs and cats. It will only take a couple more days for them to learn to fly, said Rothwell. If you have mallards nesting on your lawn, be patient. They’ll leave when the eggs hatch.

If there are no trees around, chances are you’ve discovered a grassland bird from a ground nest. Your only option is to put your dog on a leash and leave the bird to the care of its parents, members of a species that has been distracting would-be native predators for eons by faking a broken wing.

Even if a wild baby actually needs rescuing, you cannot legally take it home and take care of it yourself unless you are working directly under a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

What about injured wildlife? If it is a natural injury, caused by the natural environment or other wildlife, keep in mind that the misfortune of one animal is fortune, or dinner, for another and you needn’t do anything that changes the natural order.

But often the injury is human caused. While prevention is best (cats indoors, decals on windows, careful driving, little ramps out of window wells and stock tanks), we would not be human if we didn’t want to help.

The first rule is protect yourself during the rescue. Rothwell said rescuers are always at risk of being bitten or contracting diseases. Western grebes, he said, go for your eyes with their sharp beaks. Even the smallest songbird will nip or could carry interesting parasites.

For large birds and mammals it is best to call the experts for help. They will know the best way to safely transport the animal and where to take it.

For more advice on if or how to rescue wildlife:

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic has recruited 15 volunteer “Nestling Nursemaids” so far this season. Veterinarian Dr. Robert Farr is licensed to rehabilitate wildlife and his staff is very knowledgeable. Call them at 635-4121.

For various wildlife dilemmas, including nuisance wildlife, call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 777-4600, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. For after-hours emergencies, city police, the sheriffs’ department and the Wyoming Highway Patrol can reach WGFD officials. In the Cheyenne area, WGFD Warden Mark Nelson can also take calls at 638-8354.

For more preventive advice, look online at WGFD’s Website, http://gf.state.wy.us, and click on Wildlife. Under the heading Habitat Home Page, click on Extension Bulletins.

For more about when to rescue wildlife, an excellent tutorial is available from the Champaign (Ill.) County Humane Society. Go to http://cuhumane.org. Click on Resources, then CCHS Library, and then choose Wildlife.

“eBirding” our backyards for science

Wood Duck

eBird will help me remember which years a rare bird, like the Wood Duck, visited Cheyenne. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 16, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “’eBirding’ our backyards gives science important knowledge.”

2014 Update: eBird is now global. As of May 1, I have submitted 2001 checklists and have an eBird life list of 340 species. Reporting to eBird has become a habit.

By Barb Gorges

What year was it I saw seven western tanagers in our yard at one time? How often do lazuli and indigo buntings visit? I have a few notes scribbled on old calendars stored in the basement, but otherwise, 20 years’ worth of backyard spring migration sightings are just fond memories.

A few months ago I received an email from Brian Sullivan, eBird project leader, gently extolling the virtues of using eBird, the free online avian data system from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, to track my sightings and share them with scientists and birdwatchers. I’ve submitted a few in the past but didn’t get into the habit. However, this spring, I think eBird is finally becoming part of my routine.

I’m still jotting cryptic notes on scrap paper, but I’m taking them to my computer and entering information on the eBird website, www.eBird.org, before I forget. When I check “My eBird” I can see how many species I’ve observed so far in 2010, and how many I have total. I can look and see if I was the first one in Wyoming to report a species this year.

For the serious birder, eBird offers that kind of competition. It allows uploading records from other avian record keeping systems and downloading of personal records from eBird and viewing data in different ways. You can be alerted to sightings of birds seen in your area you haven’t got on your life list yet, or you can use the data base to find the best place and time to see target species.

For the rest of us, especially beginning birdwatchers, a look at the list of local, public birding hotspots and their respective checklists is invaluable.

It is also easy to mark a personal birdwatching location and then have eBird generate a list of potential species. If you accidently type in “300” for the number of peregrine falcons you saw, you’ll get a polite question. Or perhaps your sighting is unusual for the time of year. If you say you are sure it isn’t a mistake, eBird might ask for documentation. If you can’t provide enough, your observation can stay in your personal data but won’t be shared with the public—birders or scientists.

You can always go back and make corrections to your entries.

All the cool free tools eBird offers are inducements to get us to share our bird sightings. Our data is most useful if we take a little extra effort to record time spent observing, distance travelled or size of area birded and estimate the numbers of birds of each species seen. The hardest part is to notice all the birds where you are, including those annoying background species like starlings and house sparrows.

For instance, when I walk the dog around Holliday Park, my focus is looking for what is unusual. On different days in April the lake hosted a white pelican, half a dozen cormorants, hooded mergansers, a pair of wood ducks and a pair of redheads. The 60-70 Canada geese are just background, not to mention the starlings and pigeons, but eBird prefers I submit a checklist of all the birds I can identify.

The use of eBird data is free to ornithologists, conservation biologists, educators, land managers and anyone who likes to play with raw numbers.

Doug Faulkner cites eBird as a reference in his new book, “Birds of Wyoming.”

But don’t worry, no nosy scientist is going to knock on your door. No contact information for observers shows on the website. There are several ways to remain nearly anonymous.

But in looking through the lists of Wyoming data identified by observer, no one here has chosen “Anonymous” or a fake-sounding name. Many folks on vacation submit Wyoming sightings, too.

Because eBird only started in 2002, there are a lot of gaps, though historic data can be added. Bird life at Wyoming Hereford Ranch is fairly well documented for spring, but apparently local interest dies off in winter. For all the birds I’ve seen over the years in Lions Park, the checklist for it as a birding hotspot has few species.

Just how many people are taking part in eBird as it gets ready to go global? Here in Wyoming this year so far 41 observers have observed 152 species. Since 2002, 6,948 checklists (a checklist is a list of birds observed for a particular time and location) have been submitted for Wyoming. Natrona County (Casper) has the greatest number of checklists, 1,561. Our county, Laramie County, with similar population, is in 8th place, having only submitted 275. Now you know why Brian Sullivan emailed me and other Wyoming birdwatchers.

In the rest of the country, urban areas like Los Angeles County (23,000 checklists) have a lot of eBirders, as does a birding travel destination getting a lot of scientific research like the Aleutians Borough in Alaska, 39,000 checklists submitted. If you want to get your name in the records, there are a few counties in Alabama and other Southeastern states for which no checklists have ever been submitted.

Birdwatching is a satisfying hobby for many of us, and eBird allows us to make a contribution to serious science. Go to www.eBird.org and look around and register for free.

I look forward to seeing more balloon markers on the map, showing more Wyoming birders are “eBirding.”

Book review: “Birdsong by the Seasons” by Donald Kroodsma

Birdsong by the Seasons

Birdsong by the Seasons

Published May 26, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Figure out those chirps with Birdsong CD, book.”

2014 Update: This book is still widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Birdsong by the Seasons, A Year of Listening to Birds, by Donald Kroodsma, c. 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 366 pages, 2 CDs, hardcover, $28.00.

Four years ago, Donald Kroodsma wrote the book that documented his life’s work and won him wide acclaim, “The Singing Life of Birds.”

It was a big book, describing his passion for recording and studying birdsong plus how to record and read sonograms yourself and what it all means.

So what can Kroodsma do for an encore? Tell birdsong stories by the season. Although there’s still an index, two appendices, notes, a bibliography, and two CDs this time, this writing is more like a series of 24 short stories.

For instance, at the beginning of January, Kroodsma, like a detective, goes under cover with recording devices, in the center of a winter roost of hundreds of robins in western Massachusetts. He listens to every “piik” and “tut,” weaving together meanings, drawing conclusions, trying to stay awake and warm on his stakeout.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a recording is worth at least as many. After you read the robin thriller, immerse yourself in the robin tracks, imagining a dark night, hearing mysterious footsteps, hoot of a predatory great horned owl, rustle of wings of departing robins at dawn and follow along, if you want to, with the recording notes.

Or, listen to the CDs first, checking on the subheadings in Appendix 1 when you can’t figure out what you are hearing. I’ve never heard alligators growl, have you?

Kroodsma doesn’t always wait in one place for the seasons to pass. He often runs out to meet them, parabolic microphone in hand: the Everglades, the Platte River, Corkscrew Swamp, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Virginia, Pawnee National Grasslands (just over the state line southeast of Cheyenne), and various locations back home in Massachusetts.

This book is definitely not your typical linear reading experience. You, your kids–and your pets–will find many ways to enjoy it.

Why can’t we “glow locally”?

Wind turbines

Wind turbine “farms” on Wyoming’s plains and prairies harm flying birds as well as birds and other animals on the ground where access roads disrupt habitat. Why not insert wind turbines into areas already developed for industry?

Published May 31, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Why can’t we encourage the country to “glow locally”?”

2014 Update: So why can’t we?

By Barb Gorges

As the daughter of an engineer who installed turbines in power plants, I admire the sleek industrial-sized blades of a wind farm.

But, I am also your local “bird lady.” I have the usual concerns about birds flying into those blades. At least current designs are less lethal than when the Altamont Pass array was first installed in California.

I am also concerned about visual pollution. Cheyenne will soon be surrounded by wind farms, like giant picket fences, many producing energy for people outside Wyoming. Also, what about those industrial-sized solar arrays spreading over the “wastelands” of the West? I don’t think there are any natural landscapes we can afford to waste by covering them with solar panels.

Why do the power experts continue to use the point source model, useful for coal, nuclear and hydro plants, for sustainable power sources that occur, to some degree, everywhere? Shouldn’t the Department of Homeland Security be encouraging dispersed power production?

I think it is time to plan how we can “glow (as in turn on the lights) locally.” Locally grown energy has advantages similar to locally grown food.

Why put solar arrays over our deserts (which are actually full of life) when we already have asphalt deserts that are nearly barren? Instead, imagine parking in the shade of a solar array while shopping at WalMart. Imagine small windmills strung along existing utility corridors; their blades whipping so fast birds see and avoid the blurry disks.

solar panels

Solar panels don’t affect wildlife–unless acres and acres of land is cleared for industrial-sized installations. Why not fill the built environment with panels first?

Point source energy is sent long distances but the energy lost to transmission isn’t as much as I thought. Sadrul Ula, University of Wyoming professor of electrical and computer engineering, specializing in power, told me perhaps 10 percent would be lost over 800 miles, depending on the size of the lines.

He pointed out energy storage, guaranteeing 24-hour availability of electricity from intermittent power sources like wind and solar, is still problematic. But I don’t think that should keep us from using them wherever we can, tying them into the grid for now.

In nature prosperous animal and plant species use diversity and redundancy strategies.

The sage grouse in Wyoming is in trouble because it requires a certain type of sagebrush habitat that is disappearing. Conversely, crows are becoming more abundant here because they are smart enough to find new foods in new places, such as French fries in fast food parking lots. Developing diverse energy sources is our human equivalent.

The most prolific and widespread plants, such as dandelions, produce multiple, redundant seeds so some can be eaten by goldfinches and others can blow about and pioneer new land.

The energy equivalent is many small wind turbines and solar arrays. Siting small devices would be less problematic. If solar and wind collectors are spread everywhere, the sun will always be shining and the wind blowing on them somewhere.

I have complete confidence engineers will put their minds to improving sustainable energy production. They are already working on the “smart,” more efficient, power grid.

We don’t have to wait for a shortage of fossil fuels to drive innovation. We consumers can drive innovation ourselves. Witness the increased demand, production and improvement of fuel-efficient cars in the last five years.

I think we can look forward to solar technology that ekes out electricity from gloom (haven’t you gotten sunburned on a cloudy day?) and wind turbines that respond to the slightest breeze. Then all parts of the country can produce sustainable energy.

Bird lady that I am I would like to see sustainable energy production incorporated into the already built environment. I’d rather not see Wyoming continue its role as energy colony, giving up resources, again, to the detriment of its valuable, one-of-a-kind, wild landscapes.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results for 2008

American White Pelican

A flock of American White Pelicans is photographed (digiscoped) through a spotting scope on a reservoir in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in May. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 28, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: Check the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website for information on past and upcoming Big Day Bird Counts: http://home.lonetree.com/audubon.

To see Big Day Bird Count results for several years, click HERE.

For details of 2008, see below.


Cheyenne Big Day Count May 17, 2008
123 species overallL – Lions Park Wyoming Important Bird Area, 48 speciesW – Wyoming Hereford Ranch Wyoming Important Bird Area, 81 species

R – High Plains Grasslands Research Station, 28 species

B – F.E. Warren Air Force Base, 34 species

O – Other observations, 39 species

Canada Goose L W B O
Gadwall W B
American Wigeon W
Mallard L W R B
Blue-winged Teal L W R B O
Cinnamon Teal W O
Northern Shoveler W O
Northern Pintail W
Green-winged Teal W O
Redhead W B O
Ring-necled Duck W
Greater Scaup W
Lesser Scaup L W B
Bufflehead W
Ruddy Duck W B
Pied-billed Grebe R B
Eared Grebe W B
Western Grebe L W O
American White Pelican B O
Double-crested Cormorant L W O
Great Blue Heron O
Black-crowned Night Heron L O
White-faced Ibis W O
Turkey Vulture L
Cooper’s Hawk L
Broad-winged Hawk O
Swainson’s Hawk W R B
Red-tailed Hawk W R
American Kestrel W
Prairie Falcon W
Sora L W
American Coot W O
Killdeer W R
American Avocet W
Lesser Yellowlegs W
Willet W O
Spotted Sandpiper L W B
Marbled Godwit O
Baird’s Sandpiper O
Stilt Sandpiper W
Wilson’s Snipe W
Wilson’s Phalarope W
Red-necked Phalarope W
Ring-billed Gull B O
Black Tern O
Rock Pigeon L B
Eurasian Collared-Dove L W R B O
Mourning Dove L W R B O
Great Horned Owl W R
Chimney Swift L
Belted Kingfisher W
Downy Woodpecker L R
Hairy Woodpecker R
Northern Flicker L
Olive-sided Flycatcher R
Least Flycatcher W
Dusky Flycatcher L
Say’s Phoebe W
Cassin’s Kingbird R
Western Kingbird W
Eastern Kingbird W
Plumbeous Vireo L W
Blue Jay O
Black-billed Magpie R
American Crow L B O
Horned Lark W
Tree Swallow W
Violet-green swallow W
N. Rough-winged Swallow W R
Bank Swallow W R
Cliff Swallow W
Barn Swallow W
Black-capped Chickadee R
Mountain Chickadee O
Red-breasted Nuthatch R
House Wren L W
Ruby-crowned Kinglet L W
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher W R B
Eastern Bluebird R
Townsend’s Solitaire R
Veery W
Swainson’s Thrush L W B
American Robin L W B O
Gray Catbird L
Northern Mockingbird L
Brown Thrasher R
European Starling L W B O
Orange-crowned Warbler L W B
Virginia’s Warbler W
Yellow Warbler L W B O
Black-throated Blue Warbler L
Yellow-rumped Warbler L W R
Blackpoll Warbler L W R B
American Redstart W
Ovenbird W
Northern Waterthrush L
Mourning Warbler W
Common Yellowthroat L W O
Wilson’s Warbler W
Western Tanager L W
Spotted Towhee W
Chipping Sparrow L W B O
Clay-colored Sparrow R
Field Sparrow B
Lark Sparrow L R O
Lark Bunting W
Savannah Sparrow R O
Song Sparrow L W B
Lincoln’s Sparrow L W
White-throated Sparrow W
White-crowned Sparrow L W
Lazuli Bunting O
Red-winged Blackbird L W R B
Western Meadowlark W B
Yellow-headed Blackbird L B O
Common Grackle L W B O
Great-tailed Grackle O
Brown-headed Cowbird W B
Bullock’s Oriole L W
House Finch L B O
Pine Siskin L O
American Goldfinch L W O
House Sparrow L B O

Birding naked


Can birders enjoy birding without binoculars? Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 28, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding naked: It’s not nearly as fun as it sounds.”

2014 Update: Better fitting binoculars mean more comfortable birding, I’ve found.

By Barb Gorges

Birding naked is all the rage in southeastern Arizona. That’s what Gloria Lawrence of Casper told me May 17 while she and five other Casper birders helped local Audubon members with the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count.

Gloria was not enthusiastic about the birding naked field trips. Actually, going au natural is what most people do when they look at birds without optics. Birding without binoculars and scopes means using your naked eye—eye glasses and contacts excepted.

The morning of the count I put on my binoculars. With the elastic strap harness so many of us birders use, it really is like getting dressed.

And getting dressed the last two weeks has been complicated by having my right hand in a splint. After 23 years, I opted to have pregnancy-induced carpel tunnel syndrome repairs.

You know what? Binoculars, in addition to being made for two eyes, are made for two hands. While my left hand is pretty adept at many things, it couldn’t hold the binocs up and focus them too. I’d like to find a skinnier and lighter pair anyway.

When there was a blackpoll warbler directly overhead in a willow at Lions Park, I was able to lay the binocs on my face and use the focus barrel more easily. But every time the bird flitted, I had to lift them off and locate the bird again.

My usual technique of staring at the bird and then putting the binocs between me and the bird didn’t seem to be working.

At least the western tanager was close enough to be identifiable naked. Bright yellow body, black wings and red-orange head, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. But I soon gave up on any birds that had to be differentiated by spots and streaks. I just couldn’t get my binocs focused on them fast enough.

Finally, I found my useful niche and pointed out bird shapes to other people in the group, “I saw a flash of orange head up into that tree.” “Oh yes,” someone replied, “a Bullock’s oriole.”

I said, “A sparrow went into those reeds.” “Ah, a Savannah sparrow,” they said. Of course, I’ve never been able to tell that species apart from any of the other obscure sparrows anyway, so no loss.

A boss I had years ago was blind in one eye and bought himself a monocular. Imagine—you could afford twice the optical quality if you were buying only half a pair of binocs.

I looked forward to our stop at Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 where we’d set up spotting scopes to look for water birds. Once they are set up, it takes only one hand to use them though often the focus knob is on the right side.

For years Mark and I didn’t own a scope and pretty much bypassed checking out reservoirs on our own. The birds are always on the far side and it takes more imagination than I have to make blurs into birds. But the cheap scope (now selling for $300) we finally bought really made a difference. I can see the field marks and appreciate the variety of species.

There are still many birds to be enjoyed even if you are birding naked. As long as your ears are working, a spring morning is full of different birds, starting with robins at 3 a.m.

Many birds are large and unique. I can tell a turkey vulture (leading edge of the underside of wing is black, trailing edge is silver) from a Swainson’s hawk (trailing edge is dark, leading edge is light) from a red-tailed hawk (tail is “red”, reddish brown) even at 75 mph with sunglasses on providing the birds aren’t soaring too high.

Then there was the red-winged blackbird strolling toward me on the walk around Sloan’s Lake the morning of the count. I’d fallen behind the rest of the group and decided I might as well enjoy a bird close up if I could.

We stopped about two feet from each other, our eyes locking as if we were characters in a Harlequin romance. His black feathers were glossy and his fire-engine red epaulets were puffed out. His black eyes glinted in the sunshine. I hated to break our rapport, but I knew there was a female in stripy plumage who would appreciate him even more.

By evening Mark and I hit the lakes at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. I was tired of not really seeing birds and having to depend on everyone else to identify the blurs. It was such a good birding day otherwise—little wind, warm, sunny, trees hardly leafed out, the crabapples at their peak and the appearance of a mourning warbler that almost everyone else saw.

And then I saw them, a whole raft of sleeping white pelicans. The lake was small enough that they were close enough to enjoy.

All together I’d say birding naked is just about as frustrating as birding without clothes would be uncomfortable—imagine sunburn, bugs, and thorns. What I didn’t miss was my usual role as note taker for the group. But I missed having a close look at all my favorite little migrating feather balls and leaning to identify new ones.

Remind me to avoid scheduling surgery on my left hand too close to the Christmas Bird Count. It would be kind of cold for birding naked.