BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats, botany and much more Wyoming biota

Mist netting

Participants in the 2014 BioBlitz at Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming, watch as Jacelyn Downey, community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, untangles a Common Yellowthroat caught in a mist net. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats and more.”

By Barb Gorges

“A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteers, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible.” National Geographic Society

Microbes?! No one went looking for microbes during the Wyoming BioBlitz.

It was held last month on the longest day of the year at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. And hopefully, no one took home any unwanted microbes.

But we did find lots of other life. More than 70 people participated: putting out pollinator traps, extracting birds from mist nets, bouncing over a mountain meadow after butterflies and bees, dip netting for macroinvertebrates, electrofishing a stream, botanizing up the side of the canyon, searching for reptiles and amphibians, setting small mammal traps, attracting moths to blacklight, and until nearly midnight, netting bats, only to roll out of sleeping bags or beds in town the next morning to count birds before sunlight hit the canyon floor.

It’s one thing to have a scientist come and present their work in a lecture, as they do, for instance, for Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meetings. It’s quite another to find out firsthand how difficult it is to untangle a bird from a mist net in order to study breeding patterns and longevity.

Then there was the chance to perfect my butterfly net technique with Amy Pocewicz of The Nature Conservancy. It’s like tennis, but butterflies are more erratic and the court is littered with shrubby obstacles.

Sometimes field work is monotony. I went with Wyoming Natural Diversity Database’s (WYNDD) Ian Abernathy and his group to pick up small mammal traps in the sagebrush, little folding aluminum boxes baited with sweetened oats. Each had a tuft of polyester batting thoughtfully provided so the mouse or vole could bed down comfortably for the night in a place not as warm as their own burrow.

To check the traps, we all had to don disposable face masks and gloves to protect us from possible exposure to hantavirus.

We were led by an indefatigable 4-year-old who enjoyed marching ahead to pluck the pin flag marking the next trap.

No critters were captured in any of the 60 traps in the sagebrush and only one in the 20 traps along the creek. Too much human scent from the group setting traps the night before?

Martin Grenier, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game biologist, set a mist net over the creek in the evening and his group was able to catch four bats of three different species.

The same evening, Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with WYNDD, hung two white table cloths on the Learning Center’s patio, placing one small blacklight against each, and then turned off the regular lights. Moths and nocturnal wasps flocked in and extremely small insects were “vacuumed” into a glass bottle for close inspection.

One special moth will have to be identified by an expert in Florida.

Audubon Wyoming, now Audubon Rockies, is the originator of Wyoming’s BioBlitz, holding the first one in 2008, and has partnered with various organizations, agencies and companies to hold it in different locations around the state.

Wyoming teachers can receive continuing education credits—it’s a lot more fun, one teacher from Bighorn told me, than attending lectures.

This year, the Red Canyon BioBlitz sponsors and partners also included, in addition to those mentioned earlier, the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Native Plant Society. During a creative interlude, an artist from the Lander Art Center had us harvesting cheatgrass—an invasive plant—and making art out of it.

The very first BioBlitz was held in 1996 at a park in Washington, D.C., where National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy coined the term from the German word “blitz,” meaning lightning, or fast.

Search online for “BioBlitz” and you will find 20 more listed in this country plus Korea, Canada, New Zealand and especially, the United Kingdom. It’s a plot to infect people with the awareness and joy of biodiversity.

One of my favorite memories of the weekend, besides all the biota, is camping out on the lawn by the Learning Center and going to bed with the stars in my eyes and waking with birdsong in my ears. The other favorite memory is meeting old friends and new, all interested in the wonderful biodiversity of our home state.

You too, can come along next year, wherever BioBlitz may be.

Related websites:

Audubon Rockies,

Lander Art Center,

The Nature Conservancy,

UW Biodiversity Institute,


Wyoming Natural Diversity Database,

Wyoming Game and Fish Department,

Wyoming Native Plant Society,

Looking more closely at birds

Bear River refuge

White-faced ibis feed in shallow water at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 7, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birder learns to look more closely.”

2014 Update: We’ve had the opportunity to enjoy birding Seattle and Wenatchee, Wash., again, since.

By Barb Gorges

Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending more time outside, or maybe I’m becoming a better observer, but I’ve seen more bird nests and young birds this breeding season than years past.

It helps to know how different birds nest so you can recognize them. Knowing that belted kingfishers nest in burrows in stream banks helped me make sense of watching one disappear into rocky dirt, especially when another came to take its place. Surprisingly, the cliff with the nest burrow was 100 feet above, and a hundred yards from, our local stream.

For nearly half of June, Mark and I were on the road, to and from our younger son’s graduation (Master’s, mechanical engineering, from that other UW, the one in Seattle) and we checked out local birds whenever time allowed.

Our first stop was the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unit on the edge of the Great Salt Lake outside Brigham City, Utah. The 10-mile, one-way loop drive takes visitors along acres of shallow water that in mid-June has hundreds of wading birds and their nests, including white-faced ibis, black-necked stilts and American avocets. I was lucky enough to see one fuzzy avocet chick close up. Their nests are just vegetated high spots above the human-managed water level.

When we arrived at the beginning of the loop, we saw an open-sided shelter and thought it might be a shady place in the treeless landscape to eat our supper sandwiches—except cliff swallows had daubed half a hundred nests in the roof rafters. Old nests and droppings littered the benches below. Each gourd-shaped nest was built from probably a few hundred swallow-sized mouthfuls of mud from the nearby canal. We watched from inside the car while the cloud of swallows swooped after the cloud of horse flies. Later, down the road, when strong wind came up, we found young cliff swallows clinging to the gravel road surface for dear life.

Wood Ducks

A Wood Duck mother and ducklings keep us company as we cross a boardwalk at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. Photo by Barb Gorges.

In Seattle, at the north end of the Washington Park Arboretum, there is a board walk out over the edge of Lake Washington. We were enchanted by wood ducks, mom and seven ducklings, feeding around the lily pads.

It was clear the family was attracted to us, following us as we traveled the walk, but not in the begging-for-handouts way. After taking many pictures of them, we finally looked up to see the bald eagles and osprey overhead. Oh. We were being used as human shields. That’s OK.

Bushtits are common little brown birds in Seattle, but not common for us Wyomingites, so we stopped to get a better look at one, trying to follow it through the thick vegetation. It kept disappearing. Then we realized it was disappearing with its mouth full and reappearing with it empty. Sure enough, we soon spied the nest, a pendulous ball of plant material tucked in among the leaves. I learned later that spider web holds it together.

Bullock’s orioles also have elongated, but woven, hanging nests. One we saw was made mainly of fishing line. Discarded fishing line is dangerous for many kinds of wildlife, including the birds using that nest–they could get toes stuck in it and become trapped.

In Wenatchee, Wash., mitigation for a hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River has resulted in lovely parks and a natural area. Mark and I enjoyed the number of bird species from a variety of habitats: river, wetlands, grasslands and huge cottonwoods. I was thinking about how intelligent the land managers were to leave dead trees standing and what a nice hole that was in that big dead tree, and there it was, a motionless young American kestrel eyeing us—proof that dead trees are productive.

Also in Wenatchee, in Ohme Gardens, a manmade coniferous forest on a dry bluff overlooking the city, we observed an Oregon junco feeding a fledgling on the ground. But wait, the fledgling was decidedly larger than the junco. It was a cowbird, hatched from an egg left by its own parents in the junco’s nest for the junco to raise, something we’ve read about but never seen before.

Now, in July, the first flush of nesting is over here in Cheyenne, but the goldfinches are just beginning—they wait for the thistles to go to seed. Some birds, like robins, will attempt a second brood. If you missed the early days of the mallard ducklings and Canada goose goslings at Lions Park at the end of June, it will get harder and harder to tell them from adults. Just watch for that gawky teenage look.

Gardener reports from backyard: Bird life, death and allegiance

Eurasian Collared-Dove

An Eurasian Collared-Dove pair will nest as many as three times in one year in our Wyoming backyard. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 22, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Gardener reports from backyard: Bird life, death and allegiance.”

2014 Update: The more time spent outdoors, the more observations can be made.

By Barb Gorges

What I know about the birds in our backyard I’ve mostly learned from watching from the window.

It’s different being out there with them. This spring and summer, I’ve spent more time than usual out in the yard, working on my new vegetable garden,

We’ve always had robins, but now I’ve learned they recognize a person digging is not only non-threatening, she can be a source of earthworms. The male of our local pair waited just a few feet behind me, not even flinching when I turned to look at him.

A couple weeks later, our robins brought their speckle-breasted youngsters to show them how to wash up in the birdbath, how to find earthworms and how to pick the ripening Nanking cherries from our hedge.

This year we have a huge cherry crop, but it seems that only the local robin family is picking. It would be nice to think they are defending their territory and our cherries from other hungry wildlife. Whatever the reason, we are harvesting plenty since a flock hasn’t come in to eat them all in one day.

I’ve been trying to listen to “what the robin knows” since reading the book by that title. That means when I heard a robin squawking without ceasing very early one morning, I went out to investigate, finding a long-haired black cat–a potential nest robber–waiting under the bushes.

In return for food, water and cat eviction, our robins are not only defending the cherries, they perch on the garden fence posts, adding fertilizer and planting cherry pits.

We saw blue jays often in May and by early June, I observed one fly into the vegetable garden with something white in its bill. It hopped up to one of the tomato plants and carefully inserted the white object under the leaf mulch. It was a fecal sac, collected from one of its nestlings, removed to keep the nest clean, and buried so predators wouldn’t track down the nest. But it was also tomato fertilizer.

But I don’t think the blue jays were successful.

One evening while working outside, Mark and I heard a plaintive blue jay call high overhead in one of the big green ash trees. And then, several times, we could see a blue jay attack something in a clump of leaves, creating a ruckus.

After the third attack, four crows left the clump one at a time. I’m pretty sure the blue jay got the raw end of the deal, losing its nestlings. I try not to have favorites in the bird world–perhaps the crows were teaching their offspring how to feed themselves.

And then there was the incessant twittering one weekend. It’s a familiar background sound, but I finally connected it to downy woodpeckers.

Hour after hour as we worked out in the yard, I could hear this calling between three or four downies. It must have been the young fledging. A month before, we’d often seen a pair picking over the bark of our tree limbs for bugs, the male announcing his presence by hammering on some metallic part of the utility pole.

We sent the house finches and Eurasian collared-doves packing when we took down the sunflower seed feeder at the end of May. The doves had already produced one brood. You can tell the youngsters even though they are the same size as their parents—their black neck markings are a bit indistinct and they gaze around at the world wide-eyed.

But the thistle feeder is still up and we can count at least two pairs of goldfinches visiting multiple times a day. They nest later than other songbirds, waiting until the source of food for their nestlings, seed, especially wild thistle seed, is available.

Did you know that goldfinches are the only songbirds that feed mashed seed to their nestlings? Other seed eaters switch to insects—more protein for building bones. How do goldfinches manage without that source of protein?

On June 30 I saw my first hummingbird of the year in our neighborhood—two weeks early. It was time to do the hummers a favor and hang their feeder—our tubular-type red garden flowers weren’t blooming yet.

And the flickers came and worked on the ant invasion on the front lawn.

Isn’t it nice when we and the birds can help each other? It’s what it’s like to be part of a healthy ecosystem.

Book reviews: Bird books by Peterson, Howell and Dunne

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

Published July 26. 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Summer reading list for birders.”

2014 Update: All three books are classics and readily available.

By Barb Gorges

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

Two years ago the “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” was updated and combined Roger Tory Peterson’s eastern and western guides into one volume for the first time. This spring the information was published in separate guides again.

The publishers must have 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 which are divided by the 100th Meridian, vertically bisecting the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, and cutting off the Oklahoma panhandle.

Unfortunately, in the western edition, 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 and 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.

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, “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America,” only $6 more than this new $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– and get more muscles carrying it.

Molt in NA Birds

Molt in North American Birds

Molt in North American Birds, by Steve N. G. Howell, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series, this book addresses molt, the process of birds growing new feathers. It’s a confusing topic, but necessary for identifying birds beyond their characteristic breeding plumage.

When do birds grow new feathers, pushing out the old worn ones? Do all birds have different winter and summer plumages? Can they fly when they are molting wing feathers? What causes a molt cycle to begin? When is the best time to molt?

All birds molt, but not the same way or as often, which is why there is now a 267-page book to explain it. What’s even more confusing is that there are different systems used to talk about molt.

Howell has written 67 pages explaining the different classification systems as well as bird molt strategies. Once you’ve digested those pages with the help of Howell’s clear writing style, move on to the bird families such as the gulls, champion molt artists.

Even if you aren’t particularly interested in molt, this book is jam-packed with bird photos, almost all taken by Howell himself in the last five years. He leads birdwatching tours for WINGS, Inc., is affiliated with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and lives in California.

Bayshore Summer

Bayshore Summer

Bayshore Summer, Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place, by Pete Dunne, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Following his book, “Prairie Spring,” a three-month tour of the Great Plains, Pete Dunne has decided to stay home for this installment in his seasonal series.

Dunne is the director of the famous Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.

The Bayshore is southern New Jersey, where summers are marshy, hot, humid and swarming with insects.

Dunne provides a fascinating trip through an area mostly unfamiliar even to folks going to the Jersey Shore.

He explores the intricate relationship between the 400-year-old human adaptations to nature, and nature’s adaptation to man when he tries his hand at harvesting salt hay or goes out with the watermen to pull crab pots.

The heart of the red knot problem (knots are shorebirds) gets Dunne and his photographer wife, Linda, immersed in tidal flat mud. Later, he catalogs the many kinds of insect and arachnid agony locally available. He is a wallflower on a party boat searching for weakfish. He expounds on the Jersey tomato and why the state’s nickname is “the Garden State.” And he spends a night with a state game warden on a stakeout for a habitual deer poacher.

Dunne makes you feel all the summer sweat and all the itches, so maybe you’ll want to save this small book for next winter or your vacation in cool mountains. Despite the discomforts of his climate descriptions, it makes me want to visit the Bayshore myself, but maybe before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

Where to look for bird nests

bird in nest

A flycatcher nests above the picnic ground at Ayres Natural Bridge, Converse County, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 25, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Spotting nests isn’t easy, but here’s an idea of where to look.”

2014 Update: The island in the middle of the lake at Holliday Park was removed last winter, in part to prevent geese from nesting. Document nests you observe at

By Barb Gorges

Back in the dark ages of bird appreciation, people collected wild bird eggs and nests to display them. It’s illegal now, unless you have a permit. But what I’ve always wondered is how they found the nests.

Or how about the researchers that measure eggs and nests? How do they find enough to make statistically valid statements?

And then I started counting the number of nests I’ve seen this season, without really trying.

First, there were two different great horned owl nests. You can’t miss the big bulky affairs, though you could miss the bit of feathered head sticking up above the rim. Don’t get any closer or you could get a talon in the face.

Then there was the face-off between a robin and a squirrel on the roof of the house next door. Robins have nested between the houses before, but it wasn’t until early June I saw the bulky cup balanced on the rafter up under the roof overhang and got the hairy eyeball from one of the parents.

The island in the middle of the lake at Holliday Park was so crowded this spring that some of the 60-70 Canada geese were perching in the trees and on the picnic shelter, trying to figure out how to balance eggs on a branch or roof ridge. By the end of May, abandoned eggs littered the island and three families hatched two, seven and 17 goslings respectively.

One pair of mallards hatched seven ducklings, but after about a week there were only five. Another pair hatched eight and lost only one the first week. Ducklings are bite-sized compared to goslings.

Interestingly, it took the 15 white domestic geese until July to hatch four goslings.

The nests of the black-crowned night-herons became invisible as soon as the park’s trees leafed out. The occasional squawk during the nesting season didn’t begin to match the 49 birds counted earlier.

What about all the birds chirping around town? House sparrow nests are easy to spot—look for messy stick piles stuck into the letters of three-dimensional signs or anywhere they can squeeze themselves.

But what about interesting songbirds? Keep your eyes open. Memorial Day weekend Mark and I birded along Crow Creek just as the trees were finally getting fully leafed out. We were staring into a clump of willows, trying to i.d. small songsters. Familiar, noisy birds were flying in, a yellow warbler, a robin and a western kingbird. They distracted me and as I let my gaze follow them, I discovered their three nests, all in one spacious tree. What a treat.

A month later in similar habitat—mosquito infested—I saw an oriole’s nest freshly woven and heard household murmurings from a nest plastered under a deck by a pair of Say’s phoebes.

I might have to start a life nest list.

Nests aren’t always the quintessential robin’s cup of mud and twigs. Besides the oriole’s woven sack hanging from a tree branch, burrowing owls and belted kingfishers use burrows, many shorebirds barely scrape out a depression on the ground, flickers peck out holes in trees (and house siding), loons float their nests, herons build tree top rookeries and peregrines nest on cliffs and building facades.

Nests are used only temporarily. As soon as the young fledge, which may be before they even learn to fly, the nest is abandoned. Some species may fix it up and start a second clutch right away. Big sturdy hawk nests may be used again the next year—by owls. Songbird nests disappear, broken down by wind and weather. Other birds and animals may steal the building materials for their own nests.

The nest is not a permanent home. Home is where a bird can find food, water and shelter. And for migratory birds, is home where they spend the winter, or where they spend the short few months reproducing?

If you want to know more about how and where your favorite birds nest, visit

Book review: “Birds of Wyoming,” by Doug Faulkner

Birds of Wyoming book

Birds of Wyoming, by Douglas Faulkner

Published July 7, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “”Birds of Wyoming” is a must have treasure.”

2014 Update: Information about birds is always changing, especially information about where birds are and when, which is the topic of this book. While much current information about Wyoming’s birds can be gleaned from, this fills in historic information for all species and general information for less common birds.

By Barb Gorges

Birds of Wyoming by Doug Faulkner, c. 2010 by Roberts and Company Publishers, Greenwood Village, Colo., 404 pages, 8.25 x 10.25 inches, full color, $45.

The book, “Birds of Wyoming” by Doug Faulkner is here. You can find a copy at local and national booksellers.

The birdwatching community, state and national, has been waiting for this book ever since the University of Wyoming announced hiring Faulkner, a professional wildlife biologist and super birder, for the project enabled by a generous donation from Robert Berry.

This is not a field guide. Although it has color photos of our state’s 244 resident species, it won’t give you tips on identifying them. There are another 184 species, migrants and other regular visitors, with no photos.

Nor is it Oliver Scott’s “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” which gives directions to birding hotspots, but as you browse the new book, you’ll see some place names pop up again and again.

This book most resembles the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s bird atlas and Jane Dorn and Robert Dorn’s “Wyoming Birds,” but with much more discussion and information.

Each account will give you an idea of where, when and with what abundance a species occurs in Wyoming, and how wide spread it is in the world.

I found myself referring to the accounts in “Birds of Wyoming” often this spring as each migrating species made an appearance. I was able to find out if they breed in Wyoming and, if so, in what habitat, and found out just how uncommon it is to see a rose-breasted grosbeak in my backyard.

If you are new to birding in Wyoming, this book gives you much of that intimate knowledge of its avian life without having to be, or hang out with, an old timer.

In the first chapter Jane Dorn introduces the history of Wyoming ornithology, beginning with a French Canadian fur trader’s notes in 1805. Other chapters describe Wyoming bird conservation and management challenges. Robert Dorn neatly lays out the landforms of Wyoming and associated plants and birds. Unfortunately, unlike other scientific publications, no credentials are given for the eight authors of the chapters.

I hope the next edition comes with a more conventional map inside the covers, one with major landforms, cities, towns and public birding spots named on the map rather than numbered, with an accompanying alphabetical index with reference grid locations.

While Doug is listed as the author, he is quick to acknowledge the numerous people, including photographers, who contributed to the project. However, for many species he writes that more information is needed.

We need to get out and bird more and put our observations into a public database like, instead of in a shoebox, before the next edition comes out in five or 10 years.

This is a big book, but if you want to learn about the birds of Wyoming, you’ll want your own copy.


Wildlife in Alaska

Portage Glacier

Portage Glacier is one of the must-sees of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Wildlife watchers investigate Anchorage, Seward and Homer, Alaska.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated.

By Barb Gorges

It is impossible to escape wildlife in Alaska. It’s everywhere: bridge railings formed as a series of jumping salmon, business names, likenesses on every imaginable item and items made from fur, feathers, bones and tusks.

The good news is that you can also see the animals in person.

In mid-June my husband, Mark, and I met his brother, Peter, in Anchorage for a taste of the Kenai Peninsula during the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood.

If you imagine the outline of the southern border of the state, locate the Kenai Peninsula at the apex (Anchorage just above it) between the Aleutian Islands trailing to the southwest and the southeast coast bordering Canada.

Besides trying to eat as much fresh seafood as possible, our unstated goal was to see as much wildlife as possible. Here are some of our highlights.


We started with a couple days in Anchorage, finding a moose grazing next to a scenic overlook and waterfowl nesting half a foot from a busy bike and pedestrian path, both within city limits.

The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, 13 miles long, borders the city on the northwest, along Knik Arm. You can rent a bike and enjoy the long, colorful evenings. Sunset was 11:30 p.m. and sunrise at 4:30 a.m. while we were there, though Anchorage considers itself to have 24 hours of “functional” daylight at the summer solstice.

Chugach State Park covers the mountains at the eastern city limits. We chose the Flattop Mountain trail for a close look at the tundra. You need an early start because by noon on a summer weekday the parking lot is full of both residents and tourists.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center, admission $25 per adult (discounts available, small children free), is over-priced unless you spend the whole day investigating the work of onsite Native craftspeople, walking to replicas of Native life for five distinct regions and catching all of the performances of Native singing, dancing and game playing.

The Kenai Peninsula is a small percentage of Alaska, but don’t let that deceive you when figuring driving distances. To access it from Anchorage, one must drive east about an hour on a twisty two lane highway along the shore of Turnagain Arm. Try to avoid driving when the Anchorites are using it for a weekend escape route.

It’s a total of 127 miles, Anchorage to Seward. Be sure to schedule enough time for all the scenic turnouts and especially the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier. It was well-worth the U.S. Forest Service’s minimal admission fee to get an entertaining, hands-on education on local natural history.


In Seward we took a 6-hour boat trip with Kenai Fjords Tours to see a bit of Kenai Fjords National Park. Our captain took us through the brash ice to the foot of Holgate Glacier. On the way she pointed out three kinds of whales and other marine life. Mid-June is the season for seeing newborn sea lion pups and nesting kittiwakes and puffins on rocky islands.

Back on shore we saw the sea animals again (minus whales) up close at the Alaska SeaLife Center. It has a camera working the sea lion rookery and images can be viewed live on the Internet or on a local Seward TV station.

We took a hike up to look at Exit Glacier, part of the national park, and marveled at how far it has retreated since 1815, and even in the last 10 years. Because the Harding Ice Field, of which it is a part, is in the way, it is 174 circuitous miles to drive to Homer.


Don’t miss the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, not just because admission is free.

There are lots of jokes about Homer Spit, 5 miles of sand sticking out into Kachemak Bay, but that’s where you’ll find the water taxi, tour companies, seafood restaurants, Land’s End Resort, gift shops, fishing charters, and kayak rentals. If you are worried about tsunamis, don’t camp here.

We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast, “A Rosy Overlook,” half way up the bluff above town, with a wonderful garden and view of the bay. The hosts, Rosie and Erless Burgess, long-time Alaska residents, entertained us with local stories in the evenings.

We took a day-long boat trip across the bay to Seldovia, which is not accessible by highway. It was settled by the Russians in 1870 as a fishing village. The captain, again a woman, gave us historical background and great looks at nesting gull colonies.

It was 225 miles back to Anchorage, but again, it required a full day at 45 to 55, seldom 65, miles per hour and several stops, especially to see the line of at least 100 fishermen standing in the Russian River, perfectly spaced two rod lengths apart, trying to snag migrating sockeye salmon.

We saw lots of wildlife, ate lots of fresh salmon and halibut, and need to schedule another trip to see everything we missed.

General Information

Remember, Alaska is two hours behind Cheyenne. When it is 11 a.m. here, it is 9 a.m. there.

Alaska Geographic (nonprofit, trip planning help),

Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska,

Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council,


Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau,

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail,

Alaska Native Heritage Center,

Chugach State Park,

Portage Glacier:

Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, Chugach National Forest,


Kenai Fjords National Park,

Kenai Fjords Tours,

Alaska SeaLife Center,


Rainbow Tours,

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, free,

Bird variety in Alaska

Tree Swallow

A Tree Swallow at Potter Marsh in Anchorage enjoys custom homes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 5, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birders: If you want to see variety, visit Alaska.”

2014 Update: Take a look at when planning a trip—and post your bird observations there for safe keeping.

By Barb Gorges

I have a habit of unexpectedly running into old friends in my travels, miles and/or years from where we first met. A recent trip to south-central Alaska was no exception, though it was birds rather than people.

Also, it is funny how the local birdwatchers where I travel will speak reverently of a bird I think is common, but shrug at a bird I’ve always wanted to add to my life list. A species’ “high value” apparently depends on a bird’s lack of abundance in a particular area.

I didn’t check, but probably the bird hotline in Anchorage doesn’t get excited about multiple Arctic terns flitting over the city’s Westchester Lagoons, like over-sized white barn swallows. But they wintered in Antarctica and made a 12,000-mile journey back. Anchorites do brag about that on interpretive signs.

My husband Mark and I, and his brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, walked up to a group of obviously dedicated birders with an array of scopes pointing to a lagoon’s island where gulls were nesting (this was mid-June). Turns out they were on a multi-week Alaskan bird tour. One gentleman was excited about the mew gulls he had just learned to identify and carefully pointed out their chicks to me.

Mallards were in short supply at the lagoons and not looking for handouts. Two pairs were nesting six feet from the parking lot and completely immovable.

We saw the same reaction from the pair of red-necked grebes nesting two feet off the bike path, except in this case it gave us a very good look at a bird that rarely visits Wyoming.

Up in the Glen Alps in Chugach State Park, on the outskirts of Anchorage, Peter pointed out the one-note song of the varied thrush, a bird finding itself in Wyoming only accidentally. Another loud singer turned out to be an orange-crowned warbler, a regular, but quiet, spring visitor back home.

On another forest hike I recognized the sweet double notes of a hermit thrush, a species I’d recently heard on a recording. I stopped to watch it sing while at the same time wondering where the bears were.

At the bed and breakfast in Homer, decorated with a birdhouse theme, the hosts had a bird feeder out and I was finally able to put a name to the large sparrow I’d been catching glimpses of, the fox sparrow. The ranges of its four subspecies seem to bypass Cheyenne.

There was also a pair of familiar red-breasted nuthatches nesting in the yard (ours go to the mountains in the summer) and black-capped chickadees. I was hoping to find boreal and chestnut-backed chickadees on this trip, but they are hard to spot in all the foliage.

Down at the waterfront in Seward, the line of ducks bobbing in the waves and diving in synchrony were harlequin ducks. To see them in Wyoming, you have to go up by Yellowstone National Park.

The highlight of the trip for me was the seabirds. Last time we were out on Alaskan waters I was too sick to appreciate anything. This time we took two trips and the sea was nearly perfect, or maybe it was the ginger tablets, or staying outside, which worked.

It was nesting season and our boat captains took us right up to cliffs covered with nests of black-legged kittiwakes (Seward to Kenai Fjords National Park) and glaucous-winged gulls and common murres (Homer to Seldovia).

Horned Puffin

A Horned Puffin naps at the Alaska Sealife Center. Photo by Barb Gorges.

We even saw puffins, both tufted and horned. To draw them as cartoon characters is to draw them accurately. We watched one at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward and it flies underwater as well as it does the air.

One tour boat captain’s assessment was that finding bald eagles on forested hillsides was like looking for golf balls (their white heads show up well against the green forest), and we saw them everywhere, but they still seemed majestic to me.

If you love birds and are visiting the Kenai Peninsula, be sure to visit the free Islands and Ocean Visitor Center at Homer, operated by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.

They do a wonderful job of recounting the history of Alaskan seabird conservation (including Wyomingite Olaus Murie’s seabird surveys in the 1930’s) and the research being done in Kachemak Bay and along the Aleutian Islands. It might take a few seasickness-prevention patches, but I think the islands are where I’d like to go next.

Meanwhile, out behind the center there was a lone sandhill crane along the Beluga Slough trail and whimbrels on the beach.

Did I mention the black-billed magpies we saw everywhere? What a surprise. But it’s always nice to see familiar faces far from home.

Book Review: The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

The Young Birder's Guide to the Birds of North America

The Young Birder’s Guide to the Birds of North America

Published July 26, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A splendid book for curious kids.”

2014 Update: The book is widely available. Look for the updated version for the whole of North America (see cover photo).

By Barb Gorges

The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (Peterson Filed Guides series) By Bill Thompson III, illustrations by Julie Zickefoose, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, flexible cover, 300 color photos, 200 black and white drawings, 200 maps, 256 pp., $14.95.

Also: Young Birder’s Guide Companion, download for iPod or CD version, Mighty Jams, LLC, songs and more photos for 160 birds, $14.95.

Parents of curious children understand this dilemma: Adult books on a subject are too boring or simply too much, while non-fiction for children often seems not to have evolved beyond picture books.

Enter two exceptional parents, the editor of Birdwatcher’s Digest, Bill Thompson III, and his artist/author wife, Julie Zickefoose, whose work appears in the magazine and many other places.

Bill and Julie have put together a splendid bird guide for children within the standard field guide format.

I would recommend it for beginning bird watchers of any age, not just the suggested 8-12 year olds.

When you are ready for other field guides, pass on your copy of “The Young Birder’s Guide” to the grandchildren or the neighbor children.

I especially like the preliminary chapters that explain bird watching and bird conservation. “WOW!” sidebars highlight each species with cool info:

Did you know that black-capped chickadees actually grow extra brain cells to help them remember where they’ve stashed seeds?

About 40 of the 200 species in the guide are unlikely to be seen here in Wyoming (which has about 400 species total), but don’t wait for the western edition– kids grow up too fast.

Drive the Big Horn Mountains loop

Big Horn Mountains

Shooting stars and other flowers bloom in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 14, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Drive the Big Horn loop. Back-road drive has magnificent views, dino tracks, sacred Indian landmarks and more.”

2014 Update: For information about the Bighorn National Forest, go to For information about the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, go to Interestingly, in this area, the name is spelled two ways: Big Horn Mountains, Big Horn County, Bighorn National Forest, Bighorn Canyon and Bighorn Basin.

By Barb Gorges

As fascinating as the cities and towns along the east slope of the Big Horn Mountains are, and worth the 300-mile drive from Cheyenne, let me recommend a back-road excursion with no entrance fees my husband, Mark, and I recently took.

Ten miles north of Sheridan we took U.S. Highway 14, switchback by switchback, 40 miles to Burgess Junction.

On the way, Sand Turn Overlook has a magnificent view of the plains and is the last chance at cell phone reception for awhile. It’s where the Bighorn National Forest fire crew stationed at Burgess Junction, including our son, goes to make calls.

Two miles before the junction of U.S. 14 and Alternate 14 is the Burgess Junction Visitor Center. Get your bearings there and a forest map.

Three nearby resorts offer restaurants and rooms, or drive a mile of gravel to the North Tongue campground and picnic area.

Or maybe you stopped a few miles earlier at Sibley Lake to wet your fishing line.

In early July, there was still snow on the peaks, meadows stuffed with wildflowers, moose on the prowl and deer fawns making their first appearance. Watch out for black bears.

Continue on U.S. 14 down Shell Canyon early in the morning when shadows emphasize craggy canyon walls. The rest area at Shell Falls is closed this summer for reconstruction so substitute one of the campgrounds or picnic areas. There’s also a 10-mile hiking trail above the highway.

You are out of evergreens and the forest by the time you reach the dozen buildings making up Shell.

Four miles later, look for the sign for the Bureau of Land Management’s Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite. It’s worth the 5-mile detour on gravel on the Red Gulch/Alkali Back Country Byway.

Amazingly, you are allowed to walk the mudstone in soft-soled shoes. Ask the volunteer ranger for help finding the two kinds of petrified tracks.

Back on U.S. 14, drive through Greybull and take U.S. 310 north. It’s a chance to experience the Bighorn Basin’s solitude. See how many vehicles you can (or can’t) count in the next 34 miles.

At Lovell, visit the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Visitor Center which also has information on BLM’s Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range nearby.

Lovell to Burgess Junction via U.S. Alternate 14, about 60 miles, cuts across the end of Bighorn Lake.

About 10 miles later, when you spot the cliff-hanging highway ahead, turn off for BLM’s Five Springs Falls Campground, accessible via the old highway, a narrow road engineered in the 1930s. The potholes are large, but picnic tables are in deep shade. Hike the short trail to see the falls.

Back on the modern highway, back in the national forest, it’s all up hill, including a 1.5-mile hike to the peak experience of the day: Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark.

White rocks were laid out like a wagon wheel 300-800 years ago and no one in the 81 tribes that consider the site sacred can explain their meaning, but the 360-degree view is inspiration itself.

Additional information:

Bighorn National Forest,, 307-674-2600

Bureau of Land Management,

BLM Worland office (Tracksite) 307-347-5100

BLM Cody office (Five Springs Falls) 307-578-5900