Following flock to Colorado Field Ornithologists’ meeting

Unknown flycatcher

Here’s a candidate for the next Jeop-birdie quiz. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Sept. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following flock of birders to Sterling was fun.”

By Barb Gorges

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Mark and I decided to attend the annual meeting of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. The group’s name sounds so formal.

Their 51st annual meeting was held over Labor Day weekend in Sterling, Colorado, only two hours southeast of Cheyenne. Like other conventions, it included talks, vendors and a banquet with a keynote speaker, but unlike other conventions, there were dozens of field trips.

I worried I might feel out of place, even if the information on the website, http://cfobirds.org/, assured me that beginning birdwatchers were welcome. CFO is all about the study, conservation—and enjoyment of birds.

Enjoy we did. Our first trip leader, CFO member Larry Modesitt, not only patiently explained field marks for common birds to several trip members who needed help, but he was also able to discuss the finer details of flycatcher fall plumage with one of the other members who surveys birds for a living.

CFO takes birding quite seriously. Each day, 14 field trips left every 10 minutes beginning at 5:20 a.m. One even started at 4 a.m.

Each field trip had a designated leader who contacted all of their trip participants at least a week in advance to discuss routes, carpooling, rest and lunch stops, and even how much to reimburse drivers for gas.

Our third trip leader, Nick Komar, also a CFO member, consulted with other people on what had been seen where we were going, and then worked hard to help us find those birds.

It was while visiting a designated birdwatching bench along the South Platte River at the Brush State Wildlife Area that our group saw warblers in clear view, all in one bush, six to eight at a time: Wilson’s, orange-crowned and yellow-throat. They were flitting about gleaning bugs, sparkling like yellow ornaments. At the other river overlook nearby, we found a plethora of woodpeckers: a redhead family, several red-bellied woodpeckers, a hairy woodpecker and yellow-shafted flickers.

While our first trip was filled with flycatchers and our third highlighted woodpeckers and warblers, the second, with Mark Peterson, was about shorebirds.

The whole idea for Sterling as a convention site was to catch the shorebird fall migration. Usually, the CFO annual meeting is planned around the spring migration. This was only the third time for a fall gathering. The keynote speaker was John Dunn, co-author of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and shorebird expert.

But all the lovely summer rains keeping the prairie green around Cheyenne and Sterling kept the reservoirs full. And when they are full, there is no shore, no bare sand or mudflats for shorebirds to pick over. But we got lucky and found muddy shores at a small pond at the Red Lion SWA—and shorebirds.

Shorebirds are right up there on my list of difficult-to-identify species, partly because I don’t see them often and partly because I see them in migration when they aren’t very colorful. I thought John Dunn’s after dinner talk on shorebird identification might help. But it was definitely over my head.

However, if I keep looking at shorebirds in photos and in the flesh, eventually my identification skills will improve. Luckily, there was no quiz afterwards.

There was, however, a quiz the afternoon before: Jeop-birdie. Categories, among many, included identifying famous ornithologists, poorly photographed birds and types of bird nests. Very entertaining.

Larry Modesitt told me CFO began because Colorado needed an arbiter to sort through claims of unusual bird species seen in the state (Wyoming has a rare bird records committee). Many members also belong to Audubon.

CFO also supports bird research. A number of the papers given Saturday afternoon were partly supported by CFO funding. Many looked at facets of bird life that once understood, such as the impact of oil and gas drilling noise on nesting birds, might make it easier to make land use decisions.

It isn’t easy walking into a group of 200 unknown people, but when they are all dressed like me, in field pants, sun-protection shirts or T-shirts printed with birds, large-brimmed hats and binoculars, it’s less intimidating. It’s very easy to start a conversation with “What field trip are you going on tomorrow?”

And after birding together, sharing exciting bird observations, many faces become familiar over the course of the weekend.

Next year, the convention will be in Salida, Colorado, first weekend in June. Now, there’s a spot I might pick up some new life birds.

Gosh, did I just sound like a dyed-in-the-wool, serious species-nabbing-twitcher? Yikes!

Encourage birding as a lifelong addiction

Kids birding

Kids learn to use binoculars to look at birds. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 15, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Encourage birding as a lifelong addiction.”

2014 Update: 2014 is Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary.

By Barb Gorges

Ask a simple question of a man pulling weeds in a public garden in Juneau, Alaska. It is always possible you will discover you both know the same people.

Alaskans, like Wyomingites, are always interested in where visitors are from. They, like us, often are from somewhere else themselves.

This summer, when I told Merrill Jensen, manager of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum (the co-founder is no relation of his), that I was from Cheyenne, he said he graduated from Cheyenne’s East High.

We both graduated in 1974. But I graduated from a different East High, 1,000 miles east of Cheyenne. So the only person I could think of that might have graduated with him is actually one of Merrill’s old buddies—and the husband of the friend I walk with every morning.

As my husband Mark called our attention to a nearby pair of harlequin ducks in the bay just yards from the edge of the gardens, Merrill remarked that he is also an avid birder.

So that precipitated discovery of another mutual acquaintance, May Hanesworth.

May was the bird lady of Cheyenne when Mark and I moved here. We went to the 1989-90 Christmas Bird Count tally party held at her elegant apartment, and the next thing I knew, I’d been recruited to type bird lists from Christmas and spring counts for submission to the newspaper, which I still do.

May, born in 1900, was of the generation that believed real ladies didn’t type. But she had elegant hand-writing. And she must have been an elegant music teacher in the Cheyenne school district.

Merrill remembers going to Audubon meetings in her living room in the 1960s. His parents discovered he had led his 1st grade classmates on a “bird field trip” around his elementary school playground so they indulged his interest in birds by tracking down local Audubon folks.

In a recent email, Merrill remembered those early days.

“(May) gave me a lot of encouragement and was able to persuade my parents to install a bird feeder/bath in the back yard. It was one of my kid duties to keep it filled in the winter.  I remember we didn’t have much diversity coming through to the feeder; lots of house sparrows, house finches and juncos.

“I don’t remember going on any actual birding trips with May, just going to her home in the winter for meetings and watching birds out her window.  I was the youngest member of the group by a long shot!” Merrill wrote.

By the time I met May, she was entering her 90s. Though she no longer went out birding, she continued to compile the bird count lists, calling all her local contacts. She was the go-to person for bird questions, remembering where to find the regular species and the particulars of the rare bird sightings.

May was in her late 90s before she was willing to become “Bird Compiler Emeritus,” finally passing on in 1999 at age 99. But her influence lives on for Merrill.

“As I went through junior high and high school, there were too many other demands on my time and I didn’t go to any more meetings past probably 1968.  I have continued to be an avid birder and take my binoculars everywhere.

“As to my further Auduboning, I participated in the Christmas Bird Counts while I was at Washington State with the head of the zoology department and in the Boise area with staff from Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge.

“Here in Alaska, I’ve led several bird walks, do the CBC and I’ve just rotated off of the Juneau Audubon Society’s board where I served for 4 1/2 years.  Even though I’m the resident plant geek, birds still play a large part of my outdoor experiences and will continue as long as I’m able to.”

Here it is about 45 years after Merrill last sat in May’s living room and her example of the birding volunteer spirit lives on.

But let’s not forget those parents who recognized, indulged and enabled their son’s life-long birding addiction.

Do you know children who notice birds? Indulge them today. It will add a layer of richness to their lives, wherever they go.

Mother laid tinder for “spark” bird

Mom

Mom gave me my first field guide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 23, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Mother laid tinder for my ‘spark bird’.”

2014 Update: What was your “spark” bird?

By Barb Gorges

Birders talk about their spark bird: the one that hooked them on birdwatching, boosting their awareness of birds from background noise to center stage whenever they walk outdoors or even look out the window.

But I think that spark has to land on some tinder. In my case, that tinder was laid by my mother.

Both my parents enjoyed the outdoors. I remember many soggy camping trips in the 1960s flavored by the wet canvas smell of a great uncle’s hand-me-down, umbrella-style hunting tent, so old it featured a wooden center pole.

Dad always talked about his teenage escapade driving “out West” from Illinois with friends to climb Long’s Peak, while Mom referred to childhood visits to the family dairy farm near Madison, Wis.

We didn’t hunt or fish, but we did enjoy watching wildlife when it crossed our path–except for the black bear that raided our campsite in the Smoky Mountains. However, this alone doesn’t account for my sister and me getting degrees in natural resource management and consequently marrying wildlife biologists.

There was Girl Scouts. Mom signed us up for Brownies and became a troop leader. I stayed with it through high school, mostly for the summer camps and weekends in the woods.

There was also the spring of my junior year when Mom came home from a trip with a souvenir for me, “The Golden Guide to the Birds of North America.” I flipped through it thinking, “Nice, but none of these birds, besides the house sparrow and robin, are in our neighborhood.”

It was a month later while biking along the Menomonee River Parkway, which runs through my hometown of Wauwatosa, Wis., that two brightly colored birds caught my eye, an indigo bunting and a rose-breasted grosbeak, my spark birds. Then I identified a Canada warbler, bright yellow, perched on a branch hanging over the back door. Having a field guide made it easy to start my bird life list.

 

Mom and Sally

Mom and Sally come on ice fishing trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mom was also the one to clip a little notice about volunteering that summer with the Student Conservation Service (www.thesca.org). I was selected for a crew to rehabilitate backcountry trails and campsites at Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the 15 students, from all over the country, knew they wanted a career in conservation or biology. One was even a “bird nerd,” an entirely new species of male teenager, in my experience.

From then on, the outdoors, the natural resources, or the environment, as we began calling it in the 1970s, became a big part of my life.

Mom never became a birder, other than to enjoy the hummingbirds in her yard in Albuquerque, where she’d moved more than 30 years ago, or to try to follow our pointing fingers on trips. She had other interests, though, that demanded the same kind of research and attention to detail: knitting, needlepoint, gardening, doll collecting and repair, and her career as a registered nurse.

My sister and I spent most of this summer taking turns helping Mom through the aftermath of a severe stroke. The only bright spots for me were the birds in her backyard and, at sunrise, the dawn chorus along the nearby boulevard.

I’ve almost always avoided Albuquerque in summer because I thought it’d be too hot. It is. But I had also missed Mom’s summer birds—the family of kingbirds, the curved-billed thrasher, a flock of bushtits and the incessant cheeriness of lesser goldfinches calling to each other every day, unseen in the treetops.

Mom lived until the end of August, slipping away before I could return from another furlough home. I never said those last things I wanted her to know because during weeks of rehab it didn’t seem appropriate—we all thought there was more time.

But if you are a birdwatcher who can remember a spark bird, search your memory for those who laid the tinder and tell them thanks. Don’t wait for their last minute.

Mom and grandsons

Mom and her two grandsons, who know a thing or two about birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Crows come home to roost

American Crow

American Crow, photo courtesy Wikipedia

Published August 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: Young crows perched in our trees have been practicing cawing. It’s very repetitious.

By Barb Gorges

This summer, our street became the unwilling host to loud and raucous juveniles coming by at dusk and leaving messes in our driveways. They were young crows, coming home to roost in our neighborhood’s big trees.

Since they settled down shortly after sunset, I could live with the noise, but they were back at it at 5 a.m., as good as an alarm clock through our open windows.

Mid-spring this year I noticed crows flying with sticks. I think they made a nest in a neighbor’s spruce tree. It wasn’t too surprising in early July to hear inexpert cawing.

One evening three young crows put on a performance for us. Up on the cross arms of the utility pole they restlessly moved about, one having to flutter its wings every time it wanted to step over an obstacle. Another one, on the high wire, kept flapping crazily to keep its balance. All three kept up a conversation with inflections of babies learning their mother tongue.

With binoculars it was easy to see the young crows’ feathers weren’t fully grown out, but otherwise, their plain awkwardness gave them away. For a week or two, I could find four of them in our trees or somewhere on our street, walking together, inspecting lawns.

Walking out one day while an adult was with them I was suddenly the focus of a tirade of abusive adult language. What was the backstory? One should not daydream while walking the dog.

Last summer my bird dog quietly picked up a young crow out of tall grass on the side of the road while I wasn’t looking. It probably had been hit by a car. A study of banded nestlings in Illinois shows that the mortality rate within a crow’s first year is 57 percent.

The dog proudly carried the limp bird home and was all smiles all the way, even though the parent birds followed us, yelling. Was this current, irate parent one of the birds that followed me and the dog home last year?

At a recent meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society we’d watched a documentary, “A Murder of Crows,” about researchers proving that crows recognize faces and will convey to their young who to watch out for. I guess I am a marked woman except it wasn’t me that killed the young crow last year. I only provided it with a descent burial so it wasn’t left on the side of the road for the foxes to find.

Crows don’t migrate seasonally in the middle latitudes of North America so I’m wondering if the family now roosting in our neighborhood will continue to noisily welcome the day an hour before sunrise, or if they will make friends with the flock I noticed last winter at the VA hospital. I sure hope they aren’t so hospitable that they bring home friends, especially ones coming down from Canada for the winter.

Twenty years ago, crows were hard to find in Cheyenne. And then, like so many other immigrants to our fair city, they’ve decided it’s a good place to raise a family.

We’ve planted trees on the prairie and made it inviting for crows, just as we’ve planted oil and gas machinery in sage grouse habitat, giving ravens, close cousins to crows, hunting perches and greater success preying on sage grouse eggs. But that’s a story for another day. I hope our crows only provide entertainment and a little extra fertilizer for our neighborhood.

Book Reviews: “Hummingbirds and Butterflies” and “Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding”

Book: Hummingbirds and Butterflies

“Hummingbirds and Butterflies,” by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops.

Published Sept. 6, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Improve your bird and butterfly eye.”

2014 Update: Both books are widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (a Peterson Field Guides Backyard Bird Guide), by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops, c. 2011 by Bird Watcher’s Digest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 288 pages, softcover, $14.95.

Bill Thompson always writes with the casual birdwatcher in mind, the person who appreciates birds but is always saying, “Someday I want to know more.” And then he provides the hook.

This time he has concentrated on hummingbirds and his co-author, Connie Toops, brings us butterflies. First, there is everything you wanted to know about hummers, a few myths dispelled (no, they don’t hitch rides on geese during migration) and the basics of putting up a hummingbird feeder (4 parts water to 1 part white table sugar—no substitutes, additions or changes, please, and keep it clean).

But Bill offers not only a field guide to 15 North American hummer species, he has a chapter on plants hummingbirds like and ideas for your garden so you can maximize your views of them feeding on flower nectar.

Connie does the same things for butterflies in the second half of the book, including how to photograph them.

Is this book worthwhile for folks in southeastern Wyoming? Yes, even if we have mostly broad-tailed hummingbirds during the summer in higher country, along with rufous hummingbirds during migration in July. And keep in mind, only 17 butterflies profiled are expected here in the summer months. The plant information is sorted by parts of the country and as you might expect, all of the recommended species would be colorful additions to your yard.

If you already garden, you’ll find what a little tweaking might do to improve your chances of observing butterflies and hummingbirds. And if you don’t garden, you might be inspired to begin with a container of colorful flowers.

Field Guide to Advanced Birding

“Field Guide to Advanced Birding,” by Kenn Kaufman

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Understanding What You See and Hear, by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 448 pages, flexible cover, $21.

Kenn Kaufman has totally rewritten his 20-year-old guide to advanced birding. It’s not only because he has better ideas for identifying difficult species, but he understands better the kinds of mistakes birdwatchers make, though perhaps the most important lesson for an ardent birder to learn from this book is that sometimes a bird cannot be identified.

Anyone who has mastered identification of the common and colorful birds soon finds that there are groups that are difficult: gulls, sparrows, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows and seabirds.

And what about hybrids? Subspecies? Birds with white feathers where they shouldn’t be? Birds that are molting and missing feathers?

While there are chapters for each of the difficult bird groups and a reader might be tempted to jump right to his nemesis species, the first seven chapters of general information are worth studying, especially the list of 14 Principles of Field Identification and the 14 Common Pitfalls.

Study is key to improving bird identification skills, and not just studying books, but going outside and finding more birds, Kaufman points out frequently.

One frustration with this book is that there are more than a few photos of unidentified birds. The caption might say the four gulls pictured could be identified as five or six different species if compared to various field guide illustrations, but there is no key in the back to check to see if you can identify them correctly. And sometimes Kaufman’s sentences get long and twisty because some bird i.d. problems are as much about the exceptions as they are about the rules.

A lot of information is packed into this book and it can be overwhelming.

But Principle 14 says you don’t have to take on all of the challenges. You can note merely “Gull sp. (species).”

Kaufman says, “As long as you’re not causing serious disturbance to the birds, their habitat, or other people, there is no ‘wrong way’ to go birding.”

Amen.

Train travel: It beats driving

Denver Union Station

Denver Union Station. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Sept. 7, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “All Aboard! Get the lowdown on train travel: It definitely is better than driving.”

2014 Update: Everything you need to know about Amtrak is at http://www.amtrak.com/home. Or call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245) or TDD/TTY (1-800-523-6590)

By Barb Gorges

When our son asked if he could take the family clunker back to school we said O.K. When he asked me if I’d like to drive the 2000 miles with him, I said sure. And how would I return?

By plane was the expected choice, but I decided to try the train instead.

How was it, you ask?

It was fine, mostly. How does it compare to driving or flying?

Time:

We spent three days driving from Cheyenne to Worcester, Mass., averaging 660 miles per day.

I was able to get on the train in Worcester. One day and 21 hours later, including 6 hours for two scheduled layovers, my husband picked me up in Denver.

The plane takes between six and seven hours for a direct Boston to Denver flight, plus the two additional hours for security clearance. Add in an hour or more for the shuttle to the Boston airport.

Let’s not forget the bus. Greyhound can drive me from Worcester to Cheyenne in two days and five hours.

Cost:

Driving at $2.65 and 20-22 miles per gallon cost us $250. Add in the costs of food and lodging for three days and two nights.

My Amtrak train ticket, Worcester to Denver, coach class, cost $178. Many kinds of discounts are available. As the train fills, seat prices rise to as much as $349. Shorter trips cost less.

A “roomette” in the sleeper car, which includes meals on the train, would have been an additional $231 for the night between Worcester and Chicago. The roomettes sleep two but are priced by the room, so it would be half the cost per person if you share with a traveling companion. The bunks convert to your seats during the day, giving you privacy you don’t get in coach class.

Reasonably priced food was available on the train and at stations where I had layovers.

Airline ticket prices are notoriously fickle. At the moment, figure $200 to $400 or more round trip plus a meal or two. But figure another $40-$50 at each end, each way, for the shuttles to and from the airports.

Greyhound, Worcester to Cheyenne, runs as little as $94 (21 day advance booking) to $209 (refundable ticket).

Chicago Union Station

Chicago Union Station. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Carbon footprint comparison:

For one person to travel 2000 miles by:

Ford Explorer, 1.25 tons

Plane, 0.58 tons

Bus, 0.38 tons

Train, 0.06 tons

The calculator I used didn’t say how calculations were made but the numbers are proportionate.

Connectivity:

Take I-25 to Exit 213 along the south side of Coors Field for a few blocks to Union Station at 1701 Wynkoop. Parking on either side is available at $17/day. Call the station, 303-825-2583, to find out about other parking options.

Or, catch our local Greyhound-affiliated bus (1-800-231-2222). Depart Cheyenne on the 3 a.m. bus and arrive at their Denver station, 1055 19th St., at 6:30 a.m. and catch the 8:05 a.m. westbound (San Francisco) train. Or depart at 3:25 p.m. for the eastbound (Chicago) train leaving at 8:10 p.m. But you have to walk eight blocks to Union Station.

You can use your favorite method to get to Denver International Airport and then take an RTD bus (www.rtd-denver.com) to the station. SuperShuttle (1-800-258-3826), which takes Cheyennites to DIA for $40, has a Denver affiliate (303-370-1300) that can take you from DIA to the station door for $19.

The larger Amtrak stations have car rental offices and access to commuter rail lines. Amtrak itself frequently offers its own motorcoach option where it doesn’t have rail service.

Ottumwa, Iowa, train station

Ottumwa, Iowa, train station stop: Passengers are allowed to get off and stretch their legs. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Comfort:

With your car you have the ability to stop any time or anywhere or take a detour.

You can also take detours on the train. Schedule your trip in multiple legs and rent a car for a few days at any of your stops.

Since you don’t have to drive the train, obviously, or help navigate or keep the engineer awake or worry about snowstorms, you can nap, take a walk to the lounge car, read a book, listen to your iPod or watch movies on your laptop. One gentleman I saw was pursuing leatherwork and beading in the lounge car. And, you can make cell phone calls at any time you can get a signal.

Train seats are so spacious that they didn’t fit me ergonomically. Next time I’ll bring a sturdy carry-on I can put my feet up on, and one of those neck pillows.

Check on a particular train’s accommodations if you have a disability.

Eating:

The lounge or café car offers sandwiches and snacks. The dining car on long-distance routes offers real white table clothes and silverware, flowers and five or six dinner entrees in the $12-$22 range.

Dinner seating is by appointment and you share a table with other passengers. I met a woman returning from a job interview, a man in public relations who’d visited his mother and an aristocratic woman who takes train trips frequently for fun.

Breakfasts, such as “Classic Railroad French Toast,” run $6-$9, including beverages. Over orange juice I met a retired art teacher from St. Louis and a grandfather going to his granddaughter’s first birthday party. Other passengers included students, young families and a nurse and patient.

On my 4-hour layover in Chicago, I left the station (gasp!) and walked across the Chicago River to a normal restaurant for lunch.

Sleeping:

My first night in coach, the train was crowded. My seatmate went out for all the smoke breaks at stops across New York and Ohio. I’m a non-smoker.

The second night I got two seats to myself, flipped up the leg rests, curled up and got considerably more sleep.

Both nights the crew passed out little pillows to everyone and turned down the lights.

Worcester Union Station

Worcester, Mass., Union Station. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Security:

There is no mandatory security check of you or your baggage so you need only arrive more than 30 minutes in advance if you have baggage to check. They just want to see your picture I.D. Normal sharp objects and liquid amounts are allowed. Weapons and hazardous items are not. Check with Amtrak for more information.

Trains are nearly as safe as airplanes, which are many times safer per passenger mile than cars.

It’s nice the train crew circulates regularly—and makes sure you get off at your destination.

Baggage:

Amtrak is generous. It allows two carry-ons under 50 pounds, no larger than 28 x 22 x 14 inches (large suitcase), plus personal items like purses, laptops and coats.

You can check up to three pieces of baggage under 50 pounds each no larger than 36 x 36 x 36 inches at no extra charge.

Don’t lose your baggage claim check. You must present it at your destination.

Destinations:

Amtrak won’t be convenient for every trip. But a train ride is more than transportation. It’s sightseeing, too, including historic train stations. Amtrak even offers vacation packages.

The part of the California Zephyr route (each route has its own name) west of Denver is so scenic, Amtrak schedules it for daylight hours. They include a dome car and a couple of park rangers.

Hmm. Denver to Grand Junction is only $45 each way….

Book review: “Flyaway” by Suzie Gilbert

Flyaway by Suzie Gilbert

“Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings,” by Suzie Gilbert.

Published Sept. 2, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Gilbert’s ‘Flyaway’ captivates reader.”

2014 Update: This book is still available, new, used and Kindle version. Visit Suzie Gilbert’s website at http://www.suziegilbert.com/.

By Barb Gorges

“Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings” by Suzie Gilbert, illustrations by Laura Westlake, c. 2009, HarperCollins, $25.99, hardcover, 340 pages.

Author Suzie Gilbert is the kind person who never said no for five years when called about another injured bird.

She found rehabilitating birds at her home in upstate New York to be her life’s work, but work that could be overwhelming, even when approached with the same effervescent spirit that permeates her writing.

I enjoyed the book a lot and found myself wanting to read funny parts aloud to anyone who would listen and tearing up over the sad parts.

Suzie fielded some questions for the WTE by email.

What kind of bird-related work are you pursuing currently? Have you rehabbed any birds since George the crow? If so, did you find a way to specialize?

Post-George, I decided to specialize in raptors (hawks, owls, eagles) and crows – raptors because they don’t require the constant care of songbirds, crows because they’re so cool and I promised George I would. Supposedly I am now closed for a couple of months, in order to promote my book and to deal with two teenagers who are home and need to be driven everywhere. But as you might have gathered from my book, I have a hard time saying no, so I have one red-tailed hawk and three fledgling crows. Oh … and two grackles, but don’t tell anyone.
I love Laura Westlake’s bird illustrations. Is she someone you recommended to the publisher for the book?

I recommended Laura – she is a great friend, a fellow rehabber, and an incredible artist. They took one look at the two samples she sent and ordered twenty drawings! I sent Laura photos – so the illustrations you see really are the birds I’m talking about in the stories. You can see her work at www.hadleylicensing.com.

You mentioned 95 percent of the injuries suffered by wildlife are the direct result of human activity. Short of removing all vehicles, buildings and other structures, what one change in behavior would you most like to see people make that would help protect wildlife?

Keep your cats inside! Cats are safer and healthier inside. They are pets – they are not part of nature. Anyone who insists on letting their cat outside should be sentenced to work for a bird rehabilitator for one day, just to see what these pets do to the birds they catch. I guarantee they’d never let a cat outside again.

Have you met anyone else that tried combining raising children with rehabbing wildlife? You talked about how complicated it would be to have volunteers, but it seems like your kids were a big help. How do they see those five years now?

Oh yes, there are a few of us crazy rehabber/parents out there! My kids were a great help, and I think they have fond memories. We have a wonderful time re-telling stories about those years – the time a Canada goose ended up chasing our dog around the kitchen, the time one of their friends opened the bathroom door and came face to face with a great horned owl.

They will still help me if I need them, though neither seems to want to follow my footsteps. Skye is still into photography; two months ago Mac traded his guitar for a paintball gun, which I’m hoping is temporary.

You are quick enough to chase down an injured vulture, gentle enough to bandage a songbird and smart enough to research how to care for different species. What other qualities does a wildlife rehabber need?

Well, thank you! A rehabber also needs to be resourceful, flexible, and have an iron stomach, as well as a hardy sense of humor.

Many chapters read as short stories. Do you have a storytelling tradition in your family? Were you keeping a journal of rehabbing adventures in addition to the required reports?

My storytelling ability was honed in my home town of Oyster Bay, New York, where being a bore at dinner was considered a cardinal sin.

I kept (and still keep) the reports required for each bird which comes in, but every bird is so fascinating and has such unique quirks that each of my reports is several pages long.

When I started, I had no idea how handy this journal-keeping would be!

For several years Elizabeth T. Vulture, your alias, wrote a regular column for your local newspaper chain, giving everyone a piece of her mind on various environmental issues. Any chance she’ll make a comeback?

I’d love to get Elizabeth back to work again … I just need to figure out how to expand a day from 24 to 36 hours!

Book review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Published September 17, 2008 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: Still available

By Barb Gorges

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson, Houghton Mifflin, available Sept. 18, 2008, hardcover, 202 pp., $22.

When Houghton Mifflin sent me a copy of “A Guide to the Birds of East Africa,” I was miffed. How could I review a field guide for a part of the world I know nothing about?

But it’s actually a charming novel in which Everyman, Mr. Malik, can compete with Money, Harry Khan, and maybe win True Love, Rose Mbikwa, through a birding competition confined to one week in Kenya and its 1000 species.

The winner gets the right to ask Rose, the leader of the Tuesday morning bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society, to the Nairobi Hunt Ball.

Modern Kenya is a tricky place to live, as well as watch birds. There are plenty of geographical as well as political obstacles to overcome: mountains, storms, corrupt officials, highway men, muggers, soldiers and slavers.

It is interesting to see how the peace-loving, semi-retired Malik, happiest in his own Nairobi backyard, adds to his bird list, as compared to Khan and his methods. Khan, who is visiting from America where he is now a successful business man, spares no expense and takes with him everywhere two visiting birding experts from Australia.

It doesn’t help that Khan bullied Malik all through school and even now, white-haired, he wants to steal the woman of Malik’s dreams.

At least even in a country where one doesn’t dare report stolen vehicles, a good man like Malik can find unexpected resources.

As you begin to read “Guide to the Birds of East Africa,” Alexander McCall Smith’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series set in Botswana comes to mind, but author Nicholas Drayson is not hampered with solving murders.

On the surface, both Malik’s character and Drayson’s prose appear simple. However, by the time I finished reading, I realized I’d soaked up a lot more understanding of Kenya’s cultures, history and problems than I expected–not to mention a beginning knowledge of the birds of East Africa.

Fairbanks, Alaska, celebrates birds

Creamers Field boardwalk

Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge has a boardwalk through the forested area. The permafrost causes trees to tilt. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 5, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A refuge for birds in Alaska.”

2014 Update: Fairbanks advertises unusual winter-time tourist activities, but the birding wouldn’t be so interesting.

By Barb Gorges

Heading north in August runs counter to bird migration.

However, Mark and I enjoyed our trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

The city reminded me of Gillette, Wyo., home of hardworking pickup trucks, but with a sprinkling of white Princess Cruises tour buses and spruce trees in undeveloped areas instead of sagebrush.

Fairbanks has the patina of culture and academia thanks to the University of Alaska, but it is also the supply point for folks heading into the bush. There is a pond at the airport with a flotilla of float planes at anchor.

The city population is about 30,000, three-fifths of Cheyenne’s. The Fairbanks borough has 87,000 people spread over 7,631 square miles, compared to here in Laramie County which has 81,000 people in 2688 square miles.

With all that space available, there was a lot of local support for the state to establish Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge, expanded now to nearly 3000 acres on the edge of the city.

Creamer’s Field was a dairy farm from 1915 until the 1960’s. Now it is known for the annual Sandhill Crane Festival at the end of August, which celebrates the peak of crane and Canada goose migration. We visited too early to take part.

Mark and I, and Mark’s brother, Peter, joining us from Sitka, Alaska, opted for the free, daily, naturalist-led hike across a corner of the old pasture and into the forest. It was a quick way to learn the basics of the local ecology.

Interior Alaska is part of the boreal forest that stretches across Canada and into the northern Midwest and New England. Our guide, an Alaska Fish and Game biologist, said there are only six tree species in this part of the boreal forest: balsam poplar, aspen, paper birch, white spruce, black spruce and tamarack. The numerous willows and alders don’t count.

Permafrost is a building nightmare if you don’t keep it cold. In the forest it naturally creates six-sided potholes and tipsy-looking trees. The refuge has to rebuild the board walk along the boggy parts of the nature trail every few years.

It was too late in the morning for much bird activity in the woods, but in the field was a pond full of ducks that got buzzed by a peregrine falcon.

An offshoot of Creamer’s Field is the Alaska Bird Observatory. It has a permanent banding station, banding every suitable day April until October.

The mist nets are along a nature trail and identified with permanent signs. The station is a semi-permanent tent with steel arches and a plywood floor. There are three processing tables and a crew of employees, interns, college students and volunteers, including children under the tutelage of mentors.

While we visited Aug. 14, an American tree sparrow was the first of its species to be banded in the fall migration already underway. However, it is a migratory bird for Fairbanks rather than a winter bird as it is for us in Cheyenne.

On the board listed as the cool birds of the week were many warblers we see in Cheyenne during migration including yellow-rumped, orange-crowned, Wilson’s and Townsend’s.

The two coolest birds to be banded the week we were there were slightly off-course Arctic warblers. In 16 years these were only the 20th and 21st the ABO had banded. We’re unlikely to see them in Wyoming as they nest in the Arctic and winter in the Philippines!

However, Wyoming does share two famous naturalists and conservationists with Alaska, Mardy and Olaus Murie. They were mentioned more than once in various museums. Several gift shops carried Mardy’s book, “Two in the Far North,” which chronicles her early life in Fairbanks and the couple’s research in the Arctic beginning in the 1920’s. They later made their home in Moose, Wyo.

My list of bird sightings includes two willow ptarmigan—but they might have been rock ptarmigan. They were on the side of the road on the tundra at Denali National Park and Preserve. We also saw five grizzlies, numerous caribou and Dall sheep.

Even though we couldn’t leave the shuttle bus between official stops, our driver didn’t hesitate to make pauses for wildlife photography out the windows.

In Fairbanks, over at Pioneer Park, we saw something unexpected. Instead of begging mallards swimming in the pond at the re-creation of a gold mining sluice, we saw American wigeon. They haven’t learned to beg yet, but they weren’t too shy either.

Our last evening in Fairbanks, I stood out in the driveway of the bed and breakfast about 10 p.m. to admire the blue sky above, and to watch a large V of Canada geese coming from the other side of the Chena River, winging south.

The commentator on the Riverboat Discovery cruise had said that by Halloween Fairbanks would be dark early and the Chena would be frozen solid enough to become a landing strip for small planes equipped with skis.

Because Fairbanks’ high latitude produces extremely long days of summer sunshine, 45 pound cabbages, incredible flower gardens and lots of food for insectivorous birds, I think migration is a great strategy.

However, the chickadees, ravens and gray jays tough out the minus 45-degree winter temperatures, just like the remarkable people we met who choose to live in interior Alaska.

Creamers Field

Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Birding memories are souvenirs of East Coast visit

Mute Swan

A Mute Swan paddles a pond in Connecticut. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 13, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Small flat memories of East Coast visit.”

2014 Update: Our younger son selected an East Coast college and so we had a chance to visit Eastern birding hotspots during his four years.

By Barb Gorges

Our family vacation last month had way too much on its agenda—visiting family, colleges, historical attractions and quilt museums.

It would have been easy enough to look up birding hot spots and experts in the Adirondacks and New England, but why look them up if there wasn’t going to be enough time to make use of them?

We did, however, take binoculars and a field guide and we assembled a nice assortment of birds we can’t see at home and familiar birds in habitats we don’t have around here.

I think of them as my bird souvenirs with two valuable characteristics: they took up only as much room as paper and pencil and they were of no interest to airport security.

Here then, are a few of my mementos for you to look at, laid out in chronological order.

Cedar waxwing, High Peaks Trail, Adirondack Mountains, Newcomb, NY.

A whole flock was working over cedar trees, white pine and birch. We had a hot and humid hike with an abundance of raspberries to pick and toads and frogs to avoid stepping on.

Adirondack State Park, established as a preserve in 1892, is 6 million acres, though about half is privately owned. The park has long attracted vacationers, including Vice President Teddy Roosevelt who was climbing Mt. Marcy (highest New York peak at 5,344 feet) when he learned of President McKinley’s death.

Common loon, Oliver Pond, High Peaks Trail.

This quintessential bird of the northern woods is also found in the million acres of designated wilderness in the Adirondacks.

Olive-sided Flycatcher, High Peaks Trail.

When all you have to go on is the memorable “quick-three-beers,” song, it is hard to look up a bird’s identity in a field guide if you don’t remember who sings it.

Great blue heron, Minerva Lake, Adirondacks.

My brother- and sister-in-law have these nifty one-person, fiberglass canoes that weigh only 11 and 13 pounds. Wielding a kayak-style paddle, I was able to quietly observe the heron fishing.

American black duck, maybe, Minerva Lake and other water bodies.

Listed on the same field guide page as mallards, the black duck, an eastern species, looks the same as mallard females to my uneducated eye.

Minerva Lake with mist at dawn—sound recording.

It was a cacophony of nuthatches, chickadees and robins with squawking blue jay and heavy hammering, probably a pileated woodpecker.

Slate-colored junco, Blue Ledge, Hudson River, Adirondacks.

This race of the dark-eyed junco is the only one that occurs in the east. Cheyenne gets it, plus four others.

Osprey, near Fort Ticonderoga, on the shores of Lake Champlain.

All along our trip we saw man-made nesting platforms erected near power lines, and birds using them.

Double-crested cormorant, Harvard Bridge over the Charles River, between Cambridge and Boston.

Where there are fishing birds, there are fish with water clean enough to keep them alive.

Wild turkey and poults, National Monument to the Forefathers, Plymouth, Mass.

It’s serendipity that at this granite pillar commemorating the Pilgrims, the bird species most associated with them walks out of the brush and into view.

American Goldfinch, Marble House, Newport, RI.

For a house that features a drawing room with walls painted in gold leaf, why wouldn’t they have gold birds on the grounds?

Landscape of Saint Patrick’s Cemetery, on the Mystic River, Connecticut.

The yellow-shafted variety of northern flicker swooped through the trees. Cheyenne’s are red-shafted. A pair of kingfishers was working the river, as was a great egret.

Mute swan pair and two cygnets, tidal river, coast of Connecticut.

Last time I wrote about mute swans being an invasive species in North America, I was reprimanded by someone who believes they exist in this continent’s paleontological record. But if you ask a birder or biologist on the east coast, these birds are an increasing menace.

Gulls on the beach, Rocky Neck State Park, Long Island Sound, Connecticut.

There were big gulls with red spots on their bills—herring gulls, smaller gulls with black bill spots—ringed-bills like we have here, a big black-headed gull—most likely a laughing gull, and tons of people not worried about skin cancer.

Great horned owl, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

Among the campus’s Gothic crenellations and cornices, I spotted the familiar shape sitting on a crosspiece of a tall spire, except it had weathered copper for feathers.

Rock pigeons, Columbia University, New York City.

Although Columbia () is protecting its buildings and students from pigeon droppings by installing mesh over potential nest sites, the fountain in the square was attracting a multi-colored mob.

Did you know “Columbidae” is the family name for pigeons and doves? Also, we saw the lions guarding the New York City Public Library patiently enduring pigeon toes tickling their metal hides.

Northern cardinals, The Bronx, New York City.

My brother-in-law’s backyard is crammed with vegetation over which towers a sweetgum tree. Our last evening, sitting on the deck, we enjoyed the antics of several cardinals chasing each other from yard to yard. Who knows how long it will be before we see a cardinal in Cheyenne?

–Sandhill crane, I-25 just north of Denver International Airport.

In the twilight we saw the unmistakable silhouette fly over the highway. Mark and I looked at each other in surprise—fall migration already!

Where did the summer go?