Mind your birding manners

Hawk nest

A hawk keeps a close eye on its chicks. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 17, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Mind your manners to reduce bird stress.”

By Barb Gorges

I’m sure your parents taught you, as mine did me, that it is impolite to stare.

Does this rule apply, in some way, to birds? After all, the point of birdwatching is to watch them.

Know that whenever you enter a bird’s environment, it can bother a bird. For instance, even when you are on the other side of a window, it may react to your presence.

I recently heard an anecdote about a hawk nest so close to a public road that it was well-known. Birdwatchers regularly showed up to watch and photograph the chicks as they grew.

What these folks apparently missed was that the parents were agitated. The presence of the birdwatchers bothered them. The situation could easily have caused the parents to abandon the chicks. And even though it apparently didn’t, stress on the birds could cause some unintended consequences down the road—just as it does for people.

There is a new field guide that came out this spring, one that offers something a bit different from the rest.

The New Birder’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Bill Thompson III, is recommended if you are a casual backyard birdwatcher who wants to know more.

It explains the hobby of birdwatching, why it’s fun, to how to get into it, what to wear to be comfortable, how to adjust binoculars. What follows is a page per species with helpful information for identifying each one.

But one brief chapter bears on this column’s subject, titiled “Birding Manners.”

Some of it pertains to birding with others: keep your voice down, treat others as you’d like to be treated, stay with the group, share the spotting scope, help beginners, pish in moderation.

What is pishing? It’s an attempt to get a better look at a bird by getting it to come out of the vegetation by making a noise that sounds like “pish,” which happens to sound like a bird alarm call. The birds come out to see what’s wrong. Playing recorded bird songs to attract a bird that thinks he’s hearing a rival is another method to bring it out of hiding.

As Thompson asks new birders to use these techniques in moderation, he explains, “We owe it to the birds we love so much to respect their privacy.”

This is the beginning birdwatcher’s version of the American Birding Association’s Birding Code of Ethics. The part that pertains to the nesting hawks situation reads:

“1(b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming….

“Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.”

If the ABA members, vying to see as many bird species as possible, can restrain themselves, I think the rest of us can as well.

Given today’s optics and cameras, it might have been quite possible to observe the activity in the hawk nest from a less intimidating distance, since building a blind on the side of a public road probably isn’t feasible. Contacting the landowner for permission to erect a temporary blind might have been a solution.

But on the other hand, if we are observing the hawks for our own enjoyment and not as a part of scientific study, two minutes from inside our car would be quite enough, rather than hour after hour, day after day. Try to make part of your enjoyment of birds knowing that your actions haven’t endangered or distressed them.

There is so much interesting bird behavior to watch unobserved by the birds if you walk carefully and stop and stand still often, being the proverbial fly on the wall. If you don’t make noise or make sudden movements, birds in the bushes will continue to flit about feeding. If you sit as still as a rock at the shore, the shorebirds may pass close by.

And should a bird look you in the eye, acknowledge it as you would a person, with a nod.

And then look away, so it can continue with its important business of living.

Generosity of other birders improves travel experience


Young Bald Eagles fight over fish in Sitka, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Aug. 18, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Generosity of other birders improves travel experience.”

2014 Update: If you didn’t make it to Alaska this summer, start planning for next year. Go to http://www.eBird.org to research bird checklists, hotspots and recent sightings at your travel destination.

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I have yet to hire a birding guide or join an organized bird trip in our travels, but someday we may have to if we travel somewhere with unfamiliar birds.

Meanwhile, we find birding hotspots by using www.eBird.org. But then there is also the generosity of local birders.

Mid-July, Mark and I were walking the trails at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, overwhelmed by the sounds of small birds high in the rainforest canopy. We knew the singing was thrushes, but even though we’d gone online the night before to listen to the three possibilities, varied (definitely different), hermit and Swainson’s, our audio memory wasn’t very good.

This was supposed to be a vacation so I was trying to just let it go. I can’t reliably sort out Swainson’s and hermits by sight in my own backyard during migration, where they never sing, much less these invisible birds.

But enter Lucy. When you are wearing binoculars, it is not considered rude to walk up to a total stranger also wearing binoculars and ask “What are you seeing?”

Some birders, I have heard, are curmudgeons, but not this woman. We chatted more than 5 minutes before she invited us to come with her to an opening in the bushes along the shore where she’d seen four species of gulls the day before.

Lucy also explained an easy way to identify the singing thrushes: the Swainson’s fluting song spirals up and the hermit’s makes a little rise before spiraling down.

We were surprised any birds were still singing in mid-July, still advertising for mates and establishing territories. I later read that the Alaska Natives call the thrushes “salmonberry birds” because they sing at the time of year salmonberries are ripe.

They are right about that. Sitka’s brambles were full of these raspberry-type berries, either a deep gold or a deep red when ripe. Mark’s brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, pointed them out. They are kind of seedy so the best way to eat them is to pop one in your mouth, smash it with your tongue to get the juice and then swallow it whole. It was hard to concentrate on birding with so many berries to pick. Luckily, no bears were competing with us.

Lucy still had to get to work that morning so we bid adieu.

The next day we stopped by the Fishermen’s Eye Gallery where she works and gave her an update on the birds we’d seen, including nine young bald eagles checking out the first returning salmon of the season and glaucous-winged, mew and Bonaparte’s gulls.

We were very lucky to meet Lucy, a local, who has led bird tours in the past.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse seen on Mount Roberts, above Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Barb Gorges

In Juneau, it was a fellow traveler who alerted us to birds. We took the tram up Mount Roberts, hoping to see ptarmigan on the trail at the top. Instead, we got an unsolicited heads-up on a family of sooty grouse (formerly spruce grouse) from a man wearing all black—and binoculars.

At Mendenhall Glacier, we struck up a conversation with another man with binoculars. He said we should talk to his buddy, a “real birder,” an energetic, white-haired man who spent half our conversation promoting birding his own neighborhood and encouraged us to call him if we ever travel to Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

We watched for seabirds from the Alaska Marine Highway—the ferry—from Sitka to Skagway and all the way back to Bellingham, Wash., and from all our stops in between, but had better luck identifying whales. The fast-winging black dots remained inscrutable. They might be worth a guided trip.

One of the crew members did point out the flock of pink, plastic flamingos perched in a tree on Highwater Island, near Sitka.

These migrate from China, he said, by way of the U.S. Coast Guard’s training center.



Colorado’s Black Swift wintering grounds found in Brazil

Black Swft

Black Swift nestling on nest. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Published Aug. 26, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Colorado black swift wintering grounds are found in Brazil. Future research may lead to new Wyoming records.”

2014 Update: For the latest on Black Swift research, go to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, www.rmbo.org, and enter “Black Swift” in the search box.

By Barb Gorges

Imagine that in 2009 there was still one bird species whose wintering location was still unknown. And imagine that for that same bird species, few of its nesting colonies had even been found until the late 1990s.

Let me introduce the black swift, the North American subspecies (not that the southern subspecies is better known).

At 7.5 inches long, the black swift is longer than our local chimney swift by 2 inches and its wingspan is an 18-inch curve. Swifts are perpetual bug-eating flying machines that might be mistaken for swallows but look more like flying cigars with wings.

The first black swift was documented in 1857 on Puget Sound in Washington State, and the first nests in 1901 in California sea caves where ocean spray kept them moist. By 1919, intrepid egg collectors found their nests behind mountain waterfalls.

In the 1950s, Owen A. Knorr made the black swift his master’s thesis at Colorado University in Boulder, making a concerted effort to look for nests in Colorado by learning mountain climbing skills and developing a system for predicting which waterfalls would be nest locations. He found 25 colonies, each with a handful of mossy nests stuck to tiny rocky ledges, each one holding one nestling.

In 1997, Kim Potter was one of two biologists beginning a new swift search. A year later, Rich Levad got hooked on looking for them and joined her in organizing surveys through the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, infecting others with swift enthusiasm along the way.

I met Levad and Potter in 2005 when Wyoming Audubon members helped them find flammulated owls in Wyoming’s Sierra Madre range. Already one year into a diagnosis of Lou Gehring’s disease, Levad was soldiering on impressively.

When he had to cut back on field work, Levad started writing “The Coolest Bird, A Natural History of the Black Swift and Those Who Have Pursued It,” still making edits the day before his death in 2008. You can find the 152-page, free edition provided by the American Birding Association online at www.aba.org/thecoolestbird.pdf.

It’s a great read about an exciting bird and many memorable characters—check out the scathing exchange between Knorr and a dignitary in Arizona who believed a bird species only existed if he could hold the collected specimen, the dead body, in other words.

I spoke recently with one of Levad’s protégés, Jason Beason, director of special projects at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and lead author of an article about a black swift breakthrough published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology this past March, about finally discovering the black swift’s wintering grounds.

Black Swift

Black Swift nestling on nest. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Every August, black swift adults leave each morning to collect food and later, at twilight, they slip back to feed the young. This is when researchers hope to see them.

Levad learned that training field observers increased their abilities to find swifts, upping known Colorado colonies from 27, including Knorr’s found in the 1950s, to 86, but it wasn’t until mist netting was tried in a couple of narrow canyons that it became apparent how many swifts were eluding detection.

Banding the captured swifts and recapturing many of them the following years showed how loyal they are to nest sites.

Beason, Potter, and another of the paper’s authors, Carolyn Gunn, wanted to strap recorders on the birds to find out where they go in winter, but most equipment is designed to attach to a bird’s leg and swifts hardly have a leg. They never walk. If they land at all, they cling to vertical surfaces. It’s thought that for some swift species, non-breeders stay aloft for a year or two.

Enter the British Antarctic Survey, which had developed a micro geolocator that works off day length to determine location and archives the data every 10 minutes for a year. One was strapped on the back of each of four black swifts about to leave Colorado September 2009.

Beason and his team were able to recapture three of the four swifts in the fall of 2010 and download and process the data. If you want the technical description and don’t subscribe to the Wilson Journal, email Beason, jason.beason@rmbo.org, for the digital manuscript.

Beyond doubt, at least these black swifts, from two colonies in Colorado, winter in the Amazon basin of western Brazil. Next summer, Beason plans to outfit a few swifts from Idaho to see if they winter there, too.

There are also a few other documented black swift colonies in the West, including Montana and Utah, and of course, the gazillion in Colorado, but none in Wyoming, probably “just because nobody’s gotten out and looked up there,” Jason told me.

So I asked him how we could help, thinking of that flammulated owl survey, but also realizing that few of those same people are capable of climbing up to waterfalls off the beaten track, much less hiking out in the dark after the swifts come home.

Beason said to let him know of any small grants he could apply for. It wouldn’t take much, maybe $1000, to add a stop next summer on his way to Idaho, to check out where Knorr thought he once saw a black swift flying at Grand Teton National Park. Grants, schmantz. I have a better idea: crowd sourcing, or the Tinkerbelle solution. If all of us made a small contribution, we might add a breeding bird species to the Wyoming records.

To support next summer’s survey, please send contributions by the end of January 2013 to: The Richard Levad Memorial Fund (earmarked for Wyoming Black Swift Research), Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, P. O. Box 1232, Brighton, CO 80601-1232.

If you contribute online at www.rmbo.org, click on the “Chip in” button on the home page and then, in the first step’s drop-down menu, choose the “Other” option. Or call Rachel, 303-659-4348, ext. 17, during business hours.

Why glass windows kill birds and how to prevent it

Bird Safe manual

Audubon Minnesota’s Bird Safe Building Guidelines manual is available free online.

Published Aug. 7, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Killer kitchen window adds to national bird death toll.”

2014 Update: Check Audubon Minnesota’s website for more information about their Bird Safe program: http://mn.audubon.org/project-birdsafe.

By Barb Gorges

It became an almost daily occurrence this past May: a soft thump on the glass as another visitor to our backyard and bird feeders hit the kitchen window.

I tried putting up big stripes of blue painter’s tape and that helped a little. Mainly, we needed to remember to check the yard for dazed birds before letting our bird dog out. Luckily, the couple we saw her take seemed to be the only window fatalities—that we knew about.

Migration seemed to be over after the first week in June. With just the regulars now, including the house finch with the white head and her friends, there have been no more collisions.

It’s the visiting birds, 25 other species in our yard, mostly during spring migration and not so much in the fall, which get confused by a window that reflects the trees. At least with the feeders within only feet of the window, they didn’t have a lot of momentum when they hit. But it wasn’t always feeder birds, and it wasn’t always that window. In fact, it is windows everywhere.

Audubon Minnesota, a state office of the National Audubon Society, came out with a booklet available online for free, Bird-Safe Building Guidelines, that explains the problem and solutions at the architectural level. Go to www.mn.audubon.org, where there is a link to the 40-page pdf, or put the booklet title in the website’s search window.

People love buildings with lots of natural light. If they are well-insulated, windows can save energy on lighting. But those glass-sided high-rises, and even residential windows, are calculated to kill hundreds of millions of birds per year in the U.S. Spring and fall migration are the most problematic times of year.

Anything that breaks up the glass expanse, like my painter’s tape (engineered to peel off easily), or screening, helps. It has to be applied to the outside surface, though. Waiting to clean the dust off the outside of your windows until after migration might help, too, as can drawing drapes and shades to prevent birds from seeing straight through your house to a window on the other side.

Scaring the birds away with items hanging in front of the window, things that move in the breeze, like flagging, or that move and shine, like old CDs, might do the trick.

At the architectural level, Bird-Safe Building Guidelines discusses ideas for new buildings and retrofitted buildings: netting, fritted glass, films applied to glass, etched glass designs, glass sloping to reflect the ground, taking into account proximity to habitat and feeding sites, and special glass making use of birds’ ability to see ultraviolet patterns we can’t. Problems occur mostly at the ground level and first few stories of buildings.

Then there is the problem of lit up buildings attracting night-flying migrants, especially during bad weather, and all the ill effects of light pollution in general. Turning off interior building lights at night saves money and birds, and so does making sure outdoor lights are not needlessly lighting the sky.

Our killer kitchen window, a six-foot wide replacement with sliding halves, currently is only half screened. The track is still there for the full screen, so we should order one and put it in place from early April to mid-June. All of the glass will be less reflective then and birds still colliding may bounce off the screen.

But next spring, before we let Sally out, we’ll check the area below the window for dazed birds. No need to increase the dog’s “life list.”

Complacency may muddle bird i.d.

American Redstart

American Redstart. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Published Aug. 15, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird IDs can be tricky, so a photo is always welcome.”

2014 Update: Telling similar species apart is difficult no matter where you are.

By Barb Gorges

Spring and early summer are when I get the most bird calls, questions about woodpecker damage, inconvenient robins’ nests, but mostly bird identification.

Unless they can email me a defining photo, I usually give callers a few possibilities to look up and let them decide for themselves.

For instance, in spring Cheyenne regularly gets six species with dark or black heads, backs and wings and orange breasts, the most obvious being American robin, what we compare everything to.

The others are orchard oriole [long skinny beak, white wing bars], Bullock’s oriole [long skinny beak, yellow to orange face, white wing patches], black-headed grosbeak [huge conical beak, white wing spots], spotted towhee [large sparrow with orange sides, white belly and white wing spots], and the American redstart [small with white belly, orangey-red patches on sides, tail and wings].

In early May a friend mentioned having a flock of painted redstarts at her house. Was she misnaming American redstarts? She insisted on painted redstart.

At home I looked both up. They are both small (American is 5.25 inches and the painted is 5.75 inches) black-headed birds with red markings. The American has a white belly and red patches on its black wings and tail. The painted has a red belly and white patches on its black wings and tail. I saw it once in 1996 in southeastern Arizona.

There are no documented records for painteds in Wyoming as of 2008. Sibley’s shows them in Arizona and New Mexico, in oak and pine canyons, with records of sightings in north-central Colorado.

There are two possible scenarios here. One is familiarity breeds complacency on my friend’s part. She may have spent some time in the Southwest where she identified painted redstarts. When a similar bird showed up in her yard in Cheyenne, she assumed it was a species she knew and loved seeing previously. Who needs to look closely and look it up in the field guide again?

Me. I’ve been known to look through binoculars to enjoy common birds 15 feet outside my window, but I wouldn’t expect everyone does that, so a general impression of small bird flashing black, white and red could remain misidentified, causing no harm until the observer talks about it to someone with too many field guides, like me.

The second scenario is familiarity breeding complacency on my part. Although I see maybe one American redstart every other spring, I page past the entry every time I look up other warblers in my field guide. The Cheyenne bird checklist (compiled by more knowledgeable people than me) says they are uncommon migrants. They normally hang out around riparian (stream) areas.

Have there been lost painted or American redstarts out on the prairie before and no one to recognize them?

There is of course, a third scenario. The bird in question is not a redstart at all.

The future scenario I’d like is my friend gets a close look at and takes a photo of her visiting birds, double-checks her field guide, and based on her previous familiarity, is quite convinced she sees painted redstarts—and based on the species range map in her field guide, she realizes it is a rare species for Wyoming.

Next, she convinces the Wyoming Bird Records Committee she had painted redstarts. It’s a challenge. Observer credibility is as essential as good digital photos.

How does she get credibility? She becomes an active part of the birding community. By joining other birders on field trips, they will get a feel for her birding ability, and her ability to say, “Gosh, I guess that cerulean warbler was something else,” which is what one of Wyoming’s best birders said last month after some additional study.

There are advantages to birding with others. If everyone can see the same rare bird at the same time, they can confirm the identification. The records committee likes those kinds of reports, especially if a detailed description of the bird’s look and behavior is submitted, along with justification for not identifying it as a similar species.

The field guide is sort of a birder’s Bible, but with one main difference: the birds don’t read it. They have wings and travel intentionally, looking for new habitat, or unintentionally, caught by wind. The range maps are just a measure of likelihood.

Birdwatching as a hobby shares something with gambling and fishing. We go out hoping for the next big thing, the next rare bird, even while we enjoy all the other birds we see.

So, next time painted redstarts show up, take a photo and then give me a call and I’ll be right out.

AOU dictates new bird names and relationships

AOU logoPublished Aug. 8, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New order, new names and new species of birds dictated by AOU.”

2014 Update: The American Ornithologists’ Union continues to make changes.

By Barb Gorges

The American Ornithologists’ Union has come out with the 10th supplement to the seventh edition (1998) of the Check-list of North American Birds which means you can start penciling in changes in your current field guide or buy a new edition next year.

It can also mean that, like one subscriber to the Wyobirds e-list, you may be able to add two species to your life list without even looking out the window.

In the AOU’s first days in 1883, birds were classified by appearance and habit. With study, a fine distinction could be made between similar birds that together never produced fertile young–separate species–and similar birds that were variations within a species.

Similar species were grouped into a genus and similar genera were grouped into a family. It all made sense to birdwatchers in the field.

Then, as we became more globally aware, we tried to align the common and scientific names of birds with their counterparts overseas, thus, our “sparrow hawk” became the “American Kestrel” some years ago.

Now DNA testing has come into common use, and ornithologists are making discoveries and adjustments regularly to reflect the evolutionary relationship of species to each other.

The latest changes are documented in The Auk, the AOU’s journal, and they are meaningless to the casual birder who may have, like me, not learned the scientific bird names in Latin.

However, the American Birding Association has done somewhat of a translation that shows a lot of the changes are a shuffling of species between different genera and a shuffling of the order of species and genera. For instance, green-tailed and spotted towhees will still be in the genus “Pipilo,” but other towhees will be in “Melozone.”

The AOU goes through cycles of splitting and lumping species. This time the whip-poor-will has been split. This isn’t a big deal for us in Wyoming since we don’t get them here (we have poorwills), but if you saw one in the southwest and one in the eastern U.S., you can now amend your life list and have “Eastern Whip-poor-will” and “Mexican Whip-poor-will” instead.

The winter wren got both global and continental splits. Now there will be the Eurasian Wren and in North America there will be the Pacific Wren and the Winter Wren.

Luckily, “Birds of Wyoming,” by Doug Faulkner, refers to the now former subspecies by nearly the same name as the Pacific wren so we won’t be too confused. In Peterson’s field guides it is noted that west of the Rockies winter wrens sound different than in the east, which is part of the AOU’s justification for the split, as well as DNA differences.

This latest catalog of changes is all of the AOU’s decisions only between January 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010. I’m sure more will continue to come.

What is the point to being picky about bird names? For ornithologists, it’s scientifically precise labels in English and Latin. For the ABA listers, it’s an accurate count of species on their life list.

But for us backyard birdwatchers, it’s being able to communicate with each other, and with the scientists who want our observations for citizen science projects.

So my advice is to make it your priority to keep track of common names and the species getting split and lumped. Learning genera and families is secondary.

After awhile, when you talk to someone new about birds you’ll be able to tell how old their field guide is by what common bird names they use. That means in addition to learning the new names, you can’t forget any of the old names!

Young birds stage summer drama series

Mallard ducklings

Mallard ducklings squeeze together. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Aug. 23, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Young birds stage a summer drama series.”

2014 Update: While I don’t get to Holliday Park as often, the backyard stage is as entertaining as ever.

By Barb Gorges

Late summer is late to be hatching ducklings. Mama Mallard either lost her first brood or, having raised them, thought she could slip in another before fall.

I saw her swimming with her very young family in a corner of Lake Minnehaha, at Holliday Park early on a mid-August morning. Two ducklings suddenly propelled themselves forward, as if they were trying to catch flying insects. There was a flurry of peeps and I realized Mama was having a hissy fit, launching herself at a specific spot of water and then another and another while all five ducklings suddenly crowded together near shore.

That’s when I saw the snakelike head of a young double-crested cormorant emerge. I doubt its underwater intentions were merely to tickle the ducklings’ toes. I didn’t stay long enough to see if getting beat up by a mad mom discouraged it or if it was finally successful in grabbing a snack. Sometimes the final act of the play is just too sad to stay and watch.

A tragedy played out at the park earlier, but I missed the coup de grace. The four big white domestic geese are prominent park citizens. Back in July I counted four goslings in their midst, still in their fluffy grayish down. Considering the number of dogs being walked every day, I thought it brave of them to stand around on the mainland rather than on the island. But any dog with a brain would recognize their malevolent gaze and the damage their wedge-shaped bills can do to intruders.

So I was surprised the day I counted only two goslings. And no, the white birds sleeping down by the water’s edge are domestic ducks, not geese. You can tell because they have, umm, duck-shaped bills.

This brings up the latest chapter in an ongoing daytime drama. Since white domestic ducks are descendents of mallards and the mallards at Holliday Park act domesticated, not bothering to migrate any more since they learned people will feed them illegally, it wasn’t surprising that proximity would breed, well, hybrids.

Like a litter of stray kittens, no two of these hybrids seem to look the same. There’s been more than one beginning birder who has flipped through their new field guide in frustration. Some come out as giants with perfect mallard coloring. Some are almost black. Currently, one has a big white spot on the back of its head that gives it a daffy look as it stands around with the other young ducks.

Not all gawky teenagers want to hang out with the others. For several weeks I could depend on seeing one of the young black-crowned night-herons patrolling the lawn on the east side of the park, like a gargantuan sparrow. It didn’t budge an inch as long as I didn’t approach it directly and stayed on the sidewalk, even though I had a 125-pound dog walking beside me.

I don’t know what our unflinching hero was finding in the grass, but four or five of its cohorts, also born in the colony of nests overhead and wearing identical stripy brown plumage, could be found stooped over at the edge of the island waiting to stab fish. Where are their parents? Sleeping days, I expect, now that they don’t have to feed their young every minute.

It isn’t unusual to see small birds harassing large birds. But a couple days ago the David and Goliath story was a bit different. In front of Henderson Elementary School I saw a Eurasian collared-dove flying after a Swainson’s hawk. The hawk landed on the top of a utility pole and the dove on the attached street light, less than two feet away.

As I passed by I could see the hawk was ignoring the live bird in favor of the meat under its talons. I can’t imagine what would drive the dove to want to watch a hawk eat. Was it feeding on another dove or some other animal? I couldn’t tell.

Thousands of coming-of-age stories are playing out in our backyards in late summer. Every time you see a speckled breasted young robin on its own, somewhere is a parent getting down to the business of finding enough to eat to prepare itself for migration. Or notice the grackle being pursued by a youngster thinking it is entitled to a few more free meals.

Just this morning I heard, but didn’t see, two red-breasted nuthatches. Back from their summer in the mountains already? Were these the birds which visited my feeders all last winter, or their kids?

So many stories, so many conjectures, so little time.

Book Review: “Flights Against the Sunset,” by Kenn Kaufman

Flights Against the Sunset

“Flights Against the Sunset,” by Kenn Kaufman

Published Aug. 28, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird-lovers memoirs are tear-jerkers.”

2014 Update: Still available, new or used.

By Barb Gorges

Flights Against the Sunset: Stories That Reunited a Mother and Son By Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin, 2008, hardcover, 225 pp., $24.

Kenn Kaufman documented his teen years as an extreme birder in “Kingbird Highway” and has settled in as author of birding field guides and magazine articles.

This time, he is writing a memoir, relating his birding adventures to entertain his dying mother.

We learn in this small book that he did his best to keep his birding persona from his family, as young people do when they are establishing their separate identities. He didn’t share much of his birding knowledge and adventures with his family.

For years Kaufman gave short shrift to his mother’s tentative claims to have heard a chickadee in their nearly treeless, suburban Kansas neighborhood, but a lot can change in 30 years. You might need a hankie for some of the narrative between the essays.

Many of the 19 essays are adapted from Kaufman’s column in Birdwatcher’s Digest magazine. A couple, like “The Birder Who Came in from the Cold” might strike you as tall tales.

My favorite essay goes a long way towards explaining boys I knew in junior high, though their obsession was engineering rather than birds.

Imagine being a 13 year-old girl and meeting a boy from your class after school who can’t talk coherently about the latest TV episodes because he won’t tell you there’s no TV at his house. He admires your hair and says the color reminds him of a buff-breasted sandpiper. Yikes, he used a b-word!

And then, just when first base might be in view, he isn’t paying attention at all. He won’t mention he’s trying to identify the singer of a buzzy warbler song that he knows would make him the envy of the local Audubon members.

Other essays take the reader to Venezuela, Peru, the Amazon, Kenya, Mexico, across our country and into Kaufman’s own neighborhood.

The book is great to read aloud, just as Kaufman must have for his mother.

Should a landfill go here?

Belvoir Ranch

The Belvoir Ranch, owned by the City of Cheyenne includes the upper end of the Big Hole (foreground). The lower part, in the distance, is in Colorado, preserved as part of Fort Collins’ natural areas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 11, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Should a landfill go here? Public can chime in on plans for Belvoir Ranch.”

2014 Update: Six years later, Belvoir Ranch seems to be in limbo. No development has taken place and public access is not allowed except in certain cases. For more information see www.BelvoirRanch.org.

By Barb Gorges

Where wildlife and pre-historic people discovered an easy travel route, it isn’t surprising that everyone from stage coach drivers to fiber optic companies have followed.

And that route passes through the Belvoir Ranch, bought by the City of Cheyenne in 2003.

It begins five miles west of Cheyenne and stretches for 15 miles farther west, with Interstate Highway 80 as its northern boundary.

While some residents see the 18,000 acres as a boondoggle, others see it as acquiring water rights and sites for a landfill, wind turbine farm and recreation. It is also a chance to preserve a microcosm of western cultural history.

Chuck Lanham of the Cheyenne Historic Preservation Board, the guide for a recent ranch tour, pointed out tepee rings at least 140 years old and other archeological features that have yet to be studied.

Belvoir Ranch

Tipi (also spelled tepee) rings can be found at the Belvoir Ranch. The rings of large stones were used to hold down the edges of tipis. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Arapaho tribal elders have visited recently, sharing their knowledge of the land. Eastern Shoshone, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota tribes also have ties.

Ruts across the rolling, shortgrass prairie show the route of the Denver to Ft. Laramie stage line. Other ruts are thought to be Camp Carlin supply wagon tracks to frontier forts. There are vestiges, too, of the old Lincoln Highway, precursor to U.S. Highway 30 and Interstate 80.

When the Union Pacific Railroad came, it built water tanks and “columns” to fill its steam-powered engines. Today, the ranch is crisscrossed by three sets of rails.

Eventually, the early homesteads became part of the huge Warren Livestock Company holdings. F.E. Warren called the main ranch house his “cabin,” complete with tennis courts, pool and professional horse racing track. Remains are barely visible today.

Because of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Atlas missiles were installed on what soon became known as the Belvoir Ranch. The above-ground launching facilities were deactivated in 1965, but the concrete structures can be seen south of I-80 at exit 348.

Currently, the 1,800-acre Big Hole area is under a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy. Local ranchers hold grazing and haying leases on the rest. The fees they pay cover most of the ranch’s operating expenses.

A utility corridor provides easement for a power transmission line, four pipelines and two fiber optic lines. The Borie oil field continues operations, but mineral rights are not owned by the city.

A contract with Wyoming Game and Fish Department through their Hunter Management Area program provides limited hunting access, the only legal public access to the Belvoir Ranch at present.

Public comments on the plans for the Belvoir Ranch will be taken at the City Planning Commission meeting Aug. 18 [2008] at 6 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, 2101 O’Neil Ave.

Rosy-finch survey provides bird’s eye view

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch breeds in the Snowy Range in southern Wyoming. In winter it is more likely to be seen at lower elevations (even at feeders) in Colorado and northern New Mexico. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 8, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rosy-finch survey provides bird’s eye view.”

2014 Update: The annual Brown-capped Rosy-Finch survey in the Snowy Range has become a tradition.

By Barb Gorges

A bird’s eye view is not for the faint of heart—or the faint of leg or lung. I found myself seated at the edge of a precipice at Schoolhouse Rock, about 11,500 feet, in the middle of July. We had just hiked up the Medicine Bow Peak trail in the Snowy Range.

While not actually dangling my feet over, I was close enough to the edge to touch it and appreciate Lake Marie 1000 feet straight below.

To my left was the peak of The Diamond, another 500 feet higher.

No guard rails, no ropes and thankfully, no wind.

Five of us staunch members of the Audubon Society were looking for brown-capped rosy-finches (not to be confused with the other two species, black and gray-crowned) for the fourth year of a citizen science nesting survey.

You may remember me discussing it here the summer of 2004, when a University of Wyoming graduate student was seriously injured while using technical climbing equipment to reach one of the known nests hidden in a crack on the side of a cliff.

The three rosy-finch species breed at the highest altitude of any species in North America north of Mexico.

The brown-capped is the southernmost breeding of the three, found mostly in Colorado.

The nests in the Snowy Range, in southeastern Wyoming, mark the northern limits of its known breeding range.

If you want to add all three rosy-finch species to your life list at one time, visit the top of Sandia Crest outside of Albuquerque, N.M., between November and March.

You can take the tram up instead of navigating the road that rises 5000 feet in elevation. Check the website http://www.rosyfinch.com for more information.

While white-crowned sparrows accompanied us on this hike up, they seemed to be birds of terra firma. It was the juncos that were willing to explore bits of vegetation clinging to rocky cliffs. The violet-green swallows shot out over the edge into empty space, following flying insects.

One junco, exploring the face of our rocky observation point, flitted right over me as if my shoulder was a geologic continuation. Its wings nearly brushed my ear. We spooked each other I think.

While our survey party did hear the distinctive monotone call of the brown-capped rosy-finch, we were never able to pinpoint one of the milk-chocolate brown birds with raspberry tints, much less watch one slip into a crack.

The rosy-finch nest is inserted in rocky and inaccessible places, under large rocks in rock slides and moraines and on the walls of caves, abandoned mines and railroad tunnels, as well as cliff faces protected by overhangs. The nest itself is a cup shaped of woven grasses.

What was disturbing was that there were very few snowfields left in the vicinity. In summer, rosy-finches feed on the frozen insects exposed on melting snowfields and seeds surfacing along their margins.

There was lots of chittering noise from the swallows, making it tough to listen for finches. And then there was a human voice relaying information from across the lake, something about a broken leg.

With our binoculars and spotting scope (if your hiking party includes someone with younger legs and lungs like our son Bryan accompanying us this day, handicap them with equipment—they usually enjoy showing off their superior fitness), we found the harbinger of bad news heading for the Mirror Lake Picnic Area, just a glacial moraine beyond the far side of Lake Marie.

We watched vehicles of various agencies gather. Ant-sized rescuers wearing bright red and yellow hardhats scaled the boulders of the talus slopes and began climbing a smooth-faced peak.

I heard later that an experienced climber had fallen only 12 feet but landed hard on a rock ledge, breaking his leg. At the time we were pretty sure it wasn’t another rosy-finch survey member since none of the 20 of us divided into the four parties had had enough time to get that high up. I wonder if the victim distracted himself while waiting for rescue by watching birds, some of which may have been rosy-finches.

Summer is so short at 10,000 feet. That’s why rosy-finches can’t wait for the snow to completely melt.

Back on June 23, though Lake Marie was ice-free, Lookout Lake, two lakes up and also part of the rosy-finch survey, was still mostly ice-encrusted and the trail along it snow-drifted.

Glacier Lilies

As the snow in the mountains continues to recede well into July, fields of Glacier Lilies pop up. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bright yellow glacier lilies bloomed profusely wherever the snow had just melted.

By July 18, three days before the rosy-finch survey, the same hillsides the length of Lookout Lake were covered in columbine and there was no snow left to melt.

The columbine were pale looking and probably past their prime, but other flowers were brilliant rose, yellow, blue, purple or white.

Looking closely at the emerald green carpet of vegetation I could find the seed heads of previous blooms.

Every bird on the ground we saw seemed to be a white-crowned sparrow busy harvesting seeds.

Every flock in a tree seemed to be mostly pine siskins. Also working the conifer crop were jays and pine grosbeaks.

I hope to make another pilgrimage to the high country yet this season, barring nasty weather. It isn’t too soon to see snow falling up there.

I’m like a junco visiting the mountains in the summer, though I’m ingesting mountain scenery instead of mountain seeds. We’re both storing up for spending the long winter back in town.