Can birds save the world?

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, if predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 26, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Can birds save the world?”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the National Audubon Society publicized the result of a seven-year study to determine what would happen to North American birds if the change in climate continues as predicted.

The startling conclusion is that by 2080, nearly half our bird species, 314 (588 were studied), would have a hard time finding the food and habitat they need. They probably would not adapt, since evolution normally needs more than 65 years. So they could become extinct.

“OK,” some people say, “big deal, I’ve never seen more than three kinds of birds anyway.”

That attitude was prevalent in the 1960s when eagles began producing eggs with shells so thin, the weight of the incubating parent crushed them.

“So what?” people said back then, especially if eagles made them and their lambs nervous.

The culprit was discovered to be DDT. And it was discovered to do nasty things to people as well. So you might say that birds saved the world from DDT (except it continues to be produced to control malaria).

Last month, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was keynote speaker at the banquet: “How Birds Can Save the World.”

Fitzpatrick’s premise is that birds are so many species of canaries in the coal mine. Or, to localize the analogy, so many sage-grouse in the oil patch. We should pay attention to what they are trying to tell us, before we hurt ourselves.

The Audubon report makes predictions based on two long-term, continent-wide citizen science efforts: the Christmas Bird Count (begun in 1900) and the Breeding Bird Survey (begun in 1966).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology itself is well-known for citizen science projects such as Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. But the one that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon is eBird (www.eBird.org).

People who enjoy birdwatching have learned over the last 10 years to put just a little extra effort into it by counting birds they see and entering their notes online. Scientists can now see where bird species go and when, as if they have radar running year round. The more people enter observations, the clearer the picture emerges. And population changes are clearer, too.

When bird numbers change, or populations move, it’s due to one or more changes in the species’ environment. Some can be directly attributed to people, such as building a subdivision over a burrowing owl colony, and some indirectly, like climate change causing nectar-producing flowers to bloom too early for migrating hummingbirds.

Back in the 1970s, saving the environment always seemed to mean doing without, like hippies living off the grid. To some extent, curbing our desire for items built with planned obsolescence, like the latest smartphone, would preserve a little more landscape.

But Fitzpatrick’s contention is that we can live smarter, rather than poorer, have our cake and eat it too, have our lifestyle and our birds.

We need creative people. For instance, I read 400,000 acres of California cropland is barren for lack of water this year. Yet power companies are stripping vegetation in the Mohave Desert to build arrays of solar panels. What if farmers rented out those barren fields for temporary solar installations?

There’s work being done on solar paving. Imagine a sunny city like Los Angeles being able to power itself from all its lesser used streets, rather than depending on the transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles.

What if we put as much effort as we put into getting man on the moon into finding ways for every part of the country to produce energy in a way that keeps birds happy and us healthy?

I’m not an engineer, and probably neither are you. There is a shortage of them in this country. How can we raise more engineers and research scientists?

Take kids birdwatching. No, this isn’t exactly one of Fitzpatrick’s fixes. It’s mine.

What are your kids doing on Saturday mornings? Watching cartoons and competing in athletics are all well and good. But what birdwatching does for children, and the rest of us, is to make us ask questions about the birds and their behaviors, to research, to communicate with others, and now, to search the eBird database.

When children develop these habits of curiosity through birds–or other disciplines–they begin to see themselves in the sciences, in engineering, in technology, in all those “hard” subjects. And we will have the creative minds we need.

Our local Audubon chapter, now age 40, will continue with its traditional field trips (open to accompanied children and recorded for eBird, of course), educational meetings and projects, habitat improvements, and conservation advocacy. But watch for those special opportunities to introduce your children, grandchildren or neighbor children to birds. Because birds can save the world.

Fall bird migration kicks up kites

Mississippi Kite

The Mississippi Kite has been expanding its range. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Oct. 6, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Fall migration kicks up kites, but not the kind found on strings.”

2014 Update: No Great Crested Flycatchers or Mississippi Kites reported this fall by anyone in Cheyenne.

By Barb Gorges

Recently, we’ve discovered some new kids on the block—well, over the block to be precise.

Three Mississippi kites were soaring, fluttering, soaring, fluttering high up above our house Sept. 2. This is a type of hawk rarely recorded in Wyoming.

I’m not sure Mark and I would have run outside with binoculars as the crow-like birds soared overhead in view of our kitchen window had our friend, Chuck Seniawski, failed to mention seeing them on his way home just a day earlier, a mile away.

About three years ago, Wayne McNicholas told me about seeing one of these kites hanging around College and South Greeley Highway. He’s seen them elsewhere and was familiar with them.

The Birds of North America Online describes the Mississippi kite as a “sleek, acrobatic, crow-sized raptor,” so I wonder how many others we might have just shrugged off as odd-behaving crows, especially since they don’t look pale gray with the sky’s light behind them.

The BNA account describes the kite’s range as central and southern Great Plains, but I also checked www.eBird.org.

In Greeley, Colo. [50 miles away], in July 2012, seven birds were documented with photos, and in August 2013, two birds. Our only local sighting recorded was James Maley’s in August 2012 at the Cheyenne Airport Golf Course.

A number of other sightings in the last 10 years have been along the North and South Platte rivers in western Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. It’s no accident kites are seen along rivers—big trees are favorite nesting habitat.

As the kites expand their range, nesting in colonies in groves as well as in urban areas, more people have learned they eat insects on the wing, as well as small animals such as mice and snakes. That’s good. But kites also defend their nests when people get too close, and that has been a small problem in some urban areas.

We don’t know where exactly in South America they go in the winter, but the number of bird watchers there is increasing.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher, courtesy Wikipedia.

The other excitement was my identifying a great crested flycatcher, an eastern species, in our backyard Sept. 17. That day, after a week of rain, the backyard was suddenly full of birds.

There were several kinds of nearly identical gray flycatchers I’m not comfortable identifying. However, around 11 a.m., I noticed something larger than a warbler but not as hefty as a robin.

The bird had a bright yellow belly and a rufous (birder-talk for the color of an Irish setter) tail. The breast was a plain gray and the back was darker. I paged through my field guide, but then had to get on an Audubon conference call.

Mid-way through the call, the bird came back, a mere 15 feet from my window. When I looked through the field guide again, I came up with a perfect match. Two days later I spotted it again, briefly—and Mark missed it again.

Like the Mississippi kite, great crested flycatchers are seen regularly in western Nebraska and northeastern Colorado, but hardly in Wyoming. Doug Faulkner’s “Birds of Wyoming,” published in 2010, lists no reports for spring, a few for summer (including one in Cheyenne in 1967) and four reports for fall, but all in the northern part of our state.

Doug’s summary of great crested flycatcher distribution is, “They are most likely to occur at wooded migrant traps and along river systems characterized by a mature cottonwood overstory.”

That’s a good description of the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, on the edge of Cheyenne, where Ted Floyd also saw a great crested flycatcher a couple weeks earlier, and why the ranch was designated a state Important Bird Area. Thousands of migrating birds appreciate the big old trees along the creek as a place to rest and refuel on insects.

I don’t have Crow Creek running through my yard, but I am in a 50-year-old neighborhood where the first homeowners planted many trees, though not always in the right place. Lately, some have had to be removed.

There are many neighborhoods like ours that if more people were paying attention during spring and fall migration, we could prove my contention that Cheyenne is one big migrant trap.

So keep planting trees and shrubs (but not over sewer lines or under utility lines or too close to buildings and fences) and keep your eyes open for the next rare bird.

Interview with Smithsonian bird field guide author Ted Floyd

Smithsonian field guide

Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds of North America by Ted Floyd.

Published Oct. 28, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Celebrity field guide birder visits Cheyenne.”

2014 Update: Ted returned to Cheyenne this fall to guide a field trip and make a presentation at the 40th anniversary celebration for the founding of the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society. His newest book is the “American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Colorado.”

By Barb Gorges

In September, Ted Floyd was a guest of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society. He is the editor of the American Birding Association’s magazine, the author of the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and a really sharp birder.

On the field trip along Crow Creek, he was able to identify a first of the year female chestnut-sided warbler (rare in Cheyenne), in a treetop. It didn’t look very distinctive, but behavior and voice helped him identify it.

Ted has a rather humble attitude towards his birding and literary talents, as evidenced by the following interview.

What was your first field guide when you started birding in 7th grade?

Ted:        The fourth edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Eastern Birds. It was brand-new at the time.

How many bird field guides do you have in your collection?

Ted:          Hundreds. Literally.

When did you start dreaming about writing your own bird field guide?

Ted:          I’ve been thinking about writing a field guide almost from the very beginning. When I was in the eighth grade, I created my own “checklist sequence”–I thought it was better than Peterson’s.

How did you get to be the author of the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America?

Ted:          Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. The folks at Scott & Nix contacted me; then we had a long series of informal chats; and, eventually, we all agreed that we’d do the field guide. My name is on the front cover, but it’s been a collaborative effort.

How did Charles Nix and George Scott think this field guide could be different and better than all the North American guides currently available?

Ted:         The Smithsonian Guide is holistic. It encourages birders to employ a “whole-bird” approach to bird ID: Look at the bird, listen to the bird, pay attention to molt and behavior, take note of ecology and the environmental context–and do that all at once. It’s a very natural approach for beginners. For more experienced birders, who can be very rigid and compartmentalized about bird ID, some amount of reprogramming may be required.

How long was it after signing the contract before the books were on store shelves? How much of that time did it take you to actually write the field guide?

Ted:         The guys at Scott & Nix are slavedrivers, and I mean that in a good way. They were excellent at keeping the project on schedule. I would say the project took about a year of organization, and then it took me a year to write the book.

When you were writing the 28-page introduction to birdwatching and the species accounts, what kind of birdwatcher did you have in mind?

Ted:         Anybody who’s interested in nature and open-minded about new ways to engage the natural world.

In your research for this guide, what was the most surprising thing you learned about a bird you thought you knew?

Ted:         As I listened to recordings of duck vocalizations, I was enthralled by how beautiful they are. I have come to believe that the Redhead has one of the most arrestingly beautiful songs of any North American bird species–right up there with the Hermit Thrush or Winter Wren. I wonder how many birders even know that Redheads say anything at all.

If Paul Lehman is the go-to guy for range maps for North American field guides, including this plus National Geographic’s and the Sibley Guide, was your personal knowledge of bird ranges added to any of the maps?

Ted:         Yes, but it’s not as if I “overruled” Paul Lehman on anything. Rather, the folks involved with map production (including me) had conversations about range limits for certain species. We also had conversations about the best color scheme to use.

On pages where more than one species account appears, they are often laid out side by side, but when they are laid out one over the other, it is easy to miss the lower one when rapidly flipping pages to i.d. a bird from a large group such as warblers or shore birds. Am I the only one who has problems with that?

Ted:            You need to slow down when you read, Barb…        No, seriously, layout is a huge issue with this or any field guide. I can’t begin to convey to you how much time all of us labored over where to place the species. In the linear format of a book–you go from page 1 to page 2 to page 3–it’s impossible to present the multi-dimensional problem of comparing species. I think we got it right in most instances.

I’m grateful for comments like yours. That’s because a second edition is in the offing, and we’ll be tweaking the formatting in places. If you or anybody has suggestions, please tell me about it (tfloyd@aba.org). You’ll make a difference.

What other kinds of changes will you be making in the second edition?

Ted:          New taxonomy, a few new names even, and some changes to range maps.

We’ll also correct the single typo from the first edition…On a substantive note, look for some new photos. There will be more photos showing distinctive geographic variation and more photos showing cool bird behaviors.

Book Review: “Arctic Autumn” by Pete Dunne

Arctic Autumn

“Arctic Autumn” by Pete Dunne

Published January 2012, in The Flyer, newsletter of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, “Book Review: Third volume of this seasonal quartet is chilly and chilling.”

2014 Update: With the first three seasonal books published, we hope to see what Pete has up his sleeve for winter.

By Barb Gorges

Arctic Autumn, a Journey to Season’s Edge, by Pete Dunne, photos by Linda Dunne, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 258 pages, $24.

“Arctic Autumn” is the third volume in Pete Dunne’s seasonal quartet, so far including “Prairie Spring” and “Bayshore Summer.”

No simple drive through places known for autumn color for Pete. Instead, he has picked the Arctic: Alaska and northern Canada, where life responds as early as the summer solstice to shortening day length, which is where his book begins because by the fall equinox, an Inuit guide told Dunne, “All birds gone in September.”

As good naturalists can’t help but do, Pete and his wife Linda, who provides the photos, show how the tundra ecosystem operates and how life adapts, including the native humans, the Inuits.

But these days one can’t travel the Arctic without noticing that climate change, that 13-letter dirty word, is making inroads.

On a polar bear photography tour out of Churchill, Manitoba, that uses a structure on treads to move across the polar ice, Dunne reflects on the disappearance of that ice which will leave the bears on shore, without the sea ice they need to fish for seals. He attempts to explain to a bear peering at him from below, how these changes might fit into the larger time frame.

Read this book for the well-written overview of the Arctic ecosystem, as well as the poetic prose from a man who delights in the details.

As you read, keep in mind our winter birds in Cheyenne, some of which, like the American tree sparrow, come to us from the tundra.

Writing Bird of the Week educates author

Birds of North America Online

The Birds of North America Online is a great website for finding a summary of what is known about a species. However, there is a subscription fee.

Published Oct. 10, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “What the ‘Bird of the Week’ has taught me.”

2014 Update: When I finish archiving Bird Banter columns at the end of January 2015, I will begin archiving “Bird of the Week.”

By Barb Gorges

In the summer of 2008 I committed to writing “Bird of the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s ToDo section for two years.

My idea was to help readers learn about birds more often than this column, known informally as “Bird Banter,” with its publication dependent on the WTE’s available space.

Two other developments inspired this idea. The first was the redesign of the WTE which introduced “sky boxes” at the top of pages that feature paragraph-long bits of information accompanied by attention-grabbing headlines and photos.

The second was Pete Arnold’s bird photography which he shares via email. I asked him if he would be interested in sharing his photos via newspaper.

Next, I examined Pete’s list of bird photos (I really don’t know how bird photographers get shots of such “flighty” animals!), identified 104 species WTE readers might see easily in the Cheyenne area and then assigned them to a week in which they might actually be seen here. Naturally, there was a dearth of species for winter and an abundance of species for summer.

How to sum up such interesting creatures in few words is a challenge I faced about 10 years ago when I wrote an educational CD for the National Audubon Society and the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish called “Wyoming Birds.” It was easy to write for children who might never have noticed birds before.

However, “Bird of the Week” readers would span bird appreciators, owning no binoculars or field guides, and local bird experts.

I decided on a mix of generalization—a glimpse of the bird in its Cheyenne area habitat—plus some unsuspected trivia I was betting more experienced birders might not know or had at least never mentioned to me.

My reference was Birds of North America Online, www.bna.birds.cornell.edu, available for the annual subscription fee of $42 per year. Accounts include video, photo and sound files as well as updates and search capability. Glad I didn’t have $2000 to buy the original 18,000-page print version when it first came out.

So how long does it take to write 60-80 words? About five minutes. But first it takes one to two hours to read the BNA species account. And it took an infinite amount of time to edit each bird’s paragraph—I make changes every time I read through my own writing.

Eventually I learned to give preference to the interesting factoids appropriate to the season the bird was featured. If it was spring and I was writing about a warbler that only visits Cheyenne during migration, I might focus on its interesting migration facts rather than its nesting or wintering habits.

Sometimes the reading in BNA is pretty tough sledding, unraveling sentences that are little more than diagrams of technical terms. Bird of the Week was a lot like a two-year home-study course in ornithology. So now I have a much broader understanding of how different birds solve problems of survival of the individual and perpetuation of the species.

There are another 220 more obscure species on the Cheyenne bird checklist. However, the problem with continuing the series would be whether Pete has photos or if readers would be disappointed if a species is not as easily seen as the first group.

Reader feed-back has been positive. Once I heard from a reader who noticed her first green-tailed towhee the same day it was featured. I consider that “mission accomplished.”

Thanks to the cooperation of Pete and the WTE staff, more people are more aware of what’s around them.

I wonder what else readers would like to know—and what I would learn by researching it.

Making it to “Bird Mecca”

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

This is proof I made it to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published Oct. 18, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local birder makes it to “Bird” Mecca.”

2014 Update: This fall, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, John Fitzpatrick, gave the banquet speech in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you can’t get birders to Ithaca, bring John Fitzpatrick to them.

By Barb Gorges

“Mecca – a place that is an important center for a particular activity or that is visited by a great many people.” Encarta Dictionary

“The Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses the best science and technology—and inspires the widest range of people and organizations—to solve critical problems facing wildlife. Our mission: to interpret and conserve the Earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds (www.birds.cornell.edu).”

Any active birdwatcher, or anyone who has been reading my columns the last 10 years, has heard of the CLO, especially when I’m trying to recruit participants for Project FeederWatch or the Great Backyard Bird Count or the Christmas Bird Count or eBird, the free bird sighting archive.

The CLO’s address is quaint: 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY. I never thought I’d get a chance to visit.

In August, though, I drove with my younger son, Jeffrey, back to school. There are many ways to get to Massachusetts and I found the one that led through Ithaca. It wasn’t a hard sell to schedule a stop since his good friend Eric Keto is a student at Ithaca College, just across town from Cornell University.

Central New York State is marked with 11 long, skinny, very deep, north-south oriented natural lakes, the Finger Lakes, set in wooded hills. Ithaca is at the end of 40-mile-long Cayuga. It’s wine country, a vacation destination even if you aren’t a bird watcher.

Since Jeffrey and I were racing the calendar, we allowed ourselves only a morning in Ithaca, and most of that at Sapsucker Woods.

 

Sapsucker Woods

Sapsucker Woods is thick with vegetation, making it difficult to see birds so it is necessary to become better at identifying birdsong. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The woods are 225 acres just outside Ithaca, protected by the Lab while the surroundings are farmed and built on. The Lab has done some building, too.

The I.P. Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity is no down-home affair. It is a modern office building where 200 people work: staff, faculty, grad students and visiting scientists. And where 100,000 people visit per year, says their web site.

Luckily, the Lab understands its role as Bird Mecca and has provided a visitor center, complete with an in-house Wild Birds Unlimited store, an auditorium, gallery, multi-media presentation and a hands-on sound laboratory.

And there’s a two story bank of windows facing an incredible bird feeding station with pond and woods beyond. There are even spotting scopes set up. I took note of the eastern species, various woodpeckers and sapsuckers, black-capped chickadees, etc., but after so many days in the car, I was ready to hit the trails.

Jeffrey, Eric and I have been on many field trips in our Cub Scout days and they both appreciate the outdoors, even when we discovered how mosquitoey and humid it was. Eric was the one that noticed the submerged bullfrogs in the pond. Once you learned how to see one, you could see the others.

It just wasn’t much of a bird day—everything we could hear was hidden up in the leafy canopy. No wonder the CLO is so big into bird song recordings—there’s more to hear than to see in their country.

With a little more time and planning, we might have attended an educational program or hired someone listed in the American Birding Association directory to help us navigate the unfamiliar avifauna.

There were a lot of cars in the second, more remote parking lot (it probably makes for a nice walk in the woods on the way into the office each morning). I didn’t think the Citizen Science programs I mentioned earlier needed that many employees, so I did a little research.

Much of the CLO’s $16 million budget activity comes from research: Bird Population Studies, the Bioacoustics Research Program (58 staff around the world) and the Evolutionary Biology Program.

The Macaulay Library (21 staff) archives wild sounds. Sometimes they are featured on special segments on National Public Radio news. You can listen to thousands of snippets online for free at www.macaulaylibrary.org.

If you can’t get to Sapsucker Woods, the next best thing is go to www.birds.cornell.edu. The website is a gateway to an incredible amount of information. Even if you intend to only travel as far as your own backyard, check out the link to the Lab’s www.AllAboutBirds.org and get a taste of the birdwatcher’s Mecca.

As for me, I’m going to have to go back to see the natural features that result in the visitor’s bureau slogan, “Ithaca is Gorges.”

Bull frog

A bull frog also enjoys Sapsucker Woods. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Book review: “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West”

Book: Mustang

Mustangs and wild horses have a complicated past.

Published Oct. 16, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wild horses won’t let you put this book down.”

2014 Update: New and used copies of this book are still widely available. For information about viewing or adopting wild horses in Wyoming, visit http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/programs/Wild_Horses.html.

By Barb Gorges

Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West by Deanne Stillman, c. 2008, published by Houghton Mifflin, 348 pp., hardcover, $25.

No matter how long you live here, if you weren’t born here, you’ll never be a native. But you aren’t a tourist either.

Modern wild horses have the same problem. The current herds didn’t evolve in North America, although there were horses on our continent until the Ice Age.

Author Deanne Stillman elucidates the wild horse’s other identity problem: Not being native wildlife, it can’t be managed like big game, and because of North American cultural aversion to horsemeat, treating it like cattle has been outlawed.

Stillman was inspired to write this book because of the senseless massacre of wild horses in Nevada in 1998 by three good-old boys having fun. When she looked into the wild horse backstory she discovered a true saga.

Stillman takes us through horse paleontology and the reintroduction of horses to North America by the Spanish conquistadors in detail.

She writes in a comfortable style about American western historical events from the point of view of the wild horse: the Battle of the Little Big Horn (or Greasy Grass), Wild Bill Hickock and the era of Wild West shows, cow ponies, the life and times of Steamboat–the famous bucking bronco finally ridden at Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1908, and even about Hollywood westerns and TV shows.

When she takes up the story of Wild Horse Annie, the woman who finally got some respect for wild horses built into law and government management, she finally arrives at the purpose of her book: to discuss current wild horse problems. Basically, there are more wild horses than forage allotted to feed them.

My only quibble with Stillman is she seems to use the terms “wild horse” and “mustang” interchangeably when a mustang should be defined as a horse of nearly pure Spanish descent and a wild horse is, well, one that is fending for itself. A wild horse isn’t necessarily a mustang and a mustang isn’t necessarily a wild horse.

It’s easy to see by Stillman’s other word choices that this book is not an objective discussion of wild horse history or wild horse politics, as both continue to be divisive subjects. She is a wild horse advocate. However, her extensive bibliography is valuable for further study.

This is a book to read if, like me, you’ve seen wild horses in Wyoming and you want to know more about this aspect of your adopted state, and the American West.

Book review: “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America”

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

Published Oct. 7, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New Peterson’s Field Guide has it all together.”

2014 Update: This field guide is still available. There are so many field guides to the birds of North America. Check out a few from your library and compare them when you are trying to identify an unfamiliar bird. Chose the guide you like and buy a copy of the most recent edition.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Roger Tory Peterson, 2008, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 544 pages, $26.

This year publisher Houghton Mifflin celebrated the 100th anniversary of Roger Tory Peterson’s birth with a brand new edition of his flagship birding field guide. Without Peterson, who died in 1996, the updating took the skills of six people.

In 1934, Peterson was the first to publish a field guide for identifying birds. Before that there were books about birds, but the descriptions were so thorough, from beak to toe, it was hard to find what set one species apart from another.

Peterson was inspired by an Ernest Thompson Seton story in which a character was able to identify ducks at a distance using their easy to see markings. As a trained artist, Peterson could make simple illustrations of birds showing their color pattern—just what the modern birder needed who wanted to bird with binoculars rather than a shotgun.

The Peterson technique has since expanded to hundreds of natural history titles including field guides for identifying everything from shells to stars.

If you grew up using one of the famous blue or green-covered “Peterson’s,” you’ll soon realize this isn’t the same old, same old. This one is titled “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America.” That’s right. The eastern and western guides have been combined.

It’s about the same thickness, but each page, 6 inches by 9 inches, has 23 more square inches than previous editions– hardly a book to slip in a pocket anymore.

I’ve always had a problem using Peterson’s. The second western edition (1961) had all the plates of bird illustrations in the middle of the book and all the range maps at the end, unlike the Golden Guide of the same era where all information for a species was on the same page.

The third western edition (1990) finally put the pictures and descriptions together, but left the maps at the back of the book.

When I opened this new Peterson’s, I was looking not only for improvements, but innovations over other recently published field guides.

I looked up “Mountain Chickadee.” First is the family description which characterizes the size and behavior of chickadees and titmice and lists what they eat. It mentions the family’s worldwide range, which few other North American field guides do. Also, the family name appears on the bottom of each page, color coded for speedier referral.

In this larger format all six chickadee species are on one page, with their trademark (yes, actually trademarked) arrows pointing at the important field marks that distinguish each from the other. All the portraits seem more detailed than the last edition’s, but that’s because they’ve been digitally enhanced. The birds are bigger, which is good for those of us fighting the need for reading glasses.

Finally, there are thumbnail range maps right next to each bird’s description so those cryptic, written range notes, oversimplified and heavily abbreviated, are gone. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. The larger maps, with notes, are still in the back.

Also new, in the heading for each species, is an abundance rating. How common is the mountain chickadee within its range and preferred habitat? “Fairly common.”

Continuing the third western edition’s tradition is the habitat description—good for people out in the field working i.d. the other way around and searching for a species. The voice descriptions are more detailed, harking back to the first western edition. And when appropriate, names of similar species are listed.

One of the recent improvements in field guides is a one page index of bird names. In this guide it is inside the front cover rather than in the back which makes it much easier for right-handers to balance the guide while consulting the index.

Inside the back cover are all of Peterson’s original silhouettes for shorebirds, roadside birds, etc.

And here’s what no other major bird field guide has so far: 35 video podcasts. Even before you buy this book, you can go to www.petersonfieldguides.com and download these to your iPod or watch them on your computer.

Other sources have excellent free online bird information in a species by species format. These videos have family overviews that complement the field guide. I recommend also watching the videos with birding tips and Peterson’s biography. Bill Schmoker, a bird photographer from Colorado who spoke at a Cheyenne Audubon meeting once, is listed in the credits for many of the videos.

Field guides just keep getting bigger and better. For one, we know more about birds than we did when Peterson published the first edition of his eastern guide. And also, technology keeps improving, whether printing books or providing digital information.

But I still like the feel of the green, cloth-covered 1941 western edition. It is slim, but with the dense feel that promises so much. I like its creamy, uncoated pages of text and simple, schematic bird drawings.            Maybe someone could put a nice green cloth cover on one of those new fangled, hand-held electronic “bird finder” contraptions.

The measure of success of the new Peterson’s bird guide will be not how many copies are sold, but how many battered copies lie next to binoculars in years to come.

 

In search of Great Black-backed Gulls

Greater Black-backed Gulls

Great Black-backed Gulls line up along the Gloucester breakwater, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 31 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “In search of great black-backed gulls.”

2014 Update: While we no longer have a family member living in Massachusetts, we have many other family members scattered around the country to keep our birding interesting.

By Barb Gorges

I had a target bird for our trip to northeastern Massachusetts early in October. No, it wasn’t a clay pigeon, but it was a bird I wanted to see.

Houghton Mifflin sent me a review copy of the Peterson Reference Guides series volume “Gulls of the Americas” by Steve Howell and John Dunn.

It has 500 large pages–it’s not meant to be a field guide–of which multiple photos of the 36 gull species of this hemisphere in all their various plumages fill 300 pages.

Whenever I had to wait on the phone at my desk the last few months, I would peruse the photos, accounts and range maps.

Knowing a trip to the North Shore (north of Boston) was coming up, I checked for a new gull species I might see.

The great black-backed gull caught my attention because it might be easy to identify. It’s the largest gull in the world, according to Howell and Dunn. And of two black-backed gull species on the east coast, it’s the one with pink legs.

The upshot of reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull is that I noticed gulls, tried to identify gulls and gave up gulls by age 16. So it was much to my surprise that another literary connection gave me my first look at a great black-back.

We went to Salem for the day and walked over to the House of Seven Gables that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. Tickets were $13 each for a 30-minute tour. We balked and followed other tourists down a side street for a great view over the fence. We were also at the edge of the harbor and when I turned around, there were a couple of great black-backed gulls. Eureka!

The next day, out on the half-mile long breakwater in Gloucester Harbor, at Massachusetts Audubon’s Eastern Point Sanctuary, great black-backs were lined up on the slabs of granite, dozens of them imperturbable as people passed within five feet.

I overheard one woman tell another what pests they were, pooping on her boat cover.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Oh no, my target bird turned out to be a trash bird–too common and pesky to be appreciated by the locals.

Of the 33 photos of great black-backed gulls in the gull guide, I wonder if the photographers were able to stand as close to their subjects as we were.

Even the few herring gulls were patient, their yellow eyes glinting at me.

It was quite another experience to have a chickadee with a glint in its eye hover five inches from Mark’s nose later that day when we found our way to Ipswich River Audubon Sanctuary, a few miles southwest of Ipswich.

It was way too muggy and hot for the middle of an October afternoon–and autumn so far had been too warm for the trees to have changed color much.

We expected the birds to be quiet, but as soon as we stepped from field to forest, we were surrounded by a flock, including the one that inspected Mark.

How odd. Was it some kind of enchanted chickadee? And wasn’t that other inquisitive bird some kind of titmouse? Why couldn’t I find one like it in my field guide?

The next day, while waiting for our son to finish classes at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, we explored Mass Audubon’s (as the state organization is known informally) Broadmeadow Brook sanctuary near Worcester.

The woman at the desk explained the Ipswich River sanctuary was known for its tame chickadees that will eat out of your hand.

Oh no, if only we’d known the local custom! Now there’s a whole flock that thinks birders from Wyoming are stingy.

Broadmeadow Brook turned out to have invisible birds.

For 15 minutes we listened to a flock making loud chipping calls high in the trees, but we never caught sight of one single bird.

However, the bird checklist mentioned tufted titmouse. I looked in my field guide again-but no tufted titmouse listed.

Duh! At home, in my hurry to pack and get to the airport, I’d picked up my favorite field guide, Sibley’s western guide, which is not adequate back east.

For a week we explored the northeast quarter of Massachusetts, an area approximately the size of our Laramie County. And still, we didn’t see everything or spend enough time anywhere.

We avoided Boston and most museums and attractions this trip in favor of natural areas, accidentally finding Harvard Forest, where signs invite hikers to follow a trail through the hemlocks.

We visited four Mass Audubon sanctuaries, including the tiny one on Marblehead Neck surrounded by houses. There are 40 more, for a total of 32,000 acres. There are also a number of state parks and forests.

Away from the cities, along the small, winding roads, there is the occasional yellow sign cautioning “Thickly Settled” when approaching some tiny hamlet.

The area is thick with trees as well. I have to say that though I enjoy trees as much as anyone, I was happy to return to the Great Plains where they can be individually contemplated and birds are neither enchanted nor invisible.

And here at home, if the great black-backed gull chooses to make its first Wyoming visit, having already been as far as Colorado a few times, there aren’t a lot of yacht covers to ruin.

Rare birds don’t read field guides

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published October 3, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going by the book doesn’t prove bird’s existence.”

2014 Update: Rare bird sightings in Wyoming continue to be a source of amazement and a topic of discussion.

By Barb Gorges

If a bird flies through the forest and there is no one to see it, does it exist?

Conversely, if the annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union is held in your state, will birds be found never before seen there?

Yes and yes. Several of the 500 attendees of the conference held in Laramie in early August observed what may be the first two records of lesser black-backed gull for Wyoming, if accepted by the Wyoming Rare Bird Records Committee.

One of the gulls was hanging out at Lake Hattie on the Laramie Plains and the other at North Gap Lake high in the Snowy Range.

Wyoming does not have a huge number of resident ornithologists or expert birders to cover our vast plains and mountain ranges so one has to wonder how many lesser black-backeds have visited previously.

The lesser black-backed is essentially a European species, but gulls are likely to travel long distances scouting new territory. North American birders started seeing this species in the winter along the Atlantic coast in the early 1970s.

Field guide range maps indicate at least a single record up to a few sightings every year for states in the eastern half of the U.S., but with a heavy concentration along the Front Range of Colorado.

This makes me smile. Several years ago I went on a late fall field trip led by Tony Leukering and Doug Faulkner to look for gulls at the reservoirs around Fort Collins. We saw several rarities.

Are these guys gull magnets? Or do they have more knowledge of how to recognize species that aren’t expected?

So I asked Doug about the new gull in Wyoming. He wrote back:

“You should look at Sibley’s Lesser Black-backed range map.  That one is pretty accurate, although as with most publications, it was already out-of-date before it hit the printers.

“LBBG is annual in winter in Colorado in small numbers (about 8-12 per winter; I often see 6 or more).  In fact, it is regular enough that the Colorado Bird Records Committee no longer requests documentation.

“Colorado’s first record is from 1976.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that the species really took off and started to occur annually, then in the early 2000s in relatively high numbers for an inland state.

“The Wyoming Bird Records Committee is reviewing documentation of one at Casper from winter 2004.  If accepted, that would be the first state record.

“LBBG has been slowly expanding, geographically, westward as evidenced not only by Colorado’s records, but also those from other states.  More interestingly, the species has broken out of its “rut” of only occurring in winter inland. It is now being found more often in summer (Wyoming’s two birds this year, plus several for Colorado and Nebraska in recent years), as well as earlier in the fall and later in the spring.”

How many observations does it take before the field guide maps are altered? Last winter a lesser goldfinch, easily distinguished from our usual American goldfinch, was seen at a Cheyenne feeder almost daily, for months. The Sibley Guide to Birds shows a couple green dots meaning that there were already a few records for Wyoming.

But then came this summer. We had one visit our feeder. And so did people from Green River, Casper, Buford and Newcastle who posted their observations on Wyobirds, the e-list for learning about birds in Wyoming (http://HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/ archives).  Doug posted a report of small flocks around Guernsey when he birded the area.

Is this the beginning of a trend, an expansion of the lesser goldfinch range north or a one-time phenomenon? Time will tell.

Wyoming is woefully short of expert observers, though not short of people interested in watching birds. I take a lot of bird identification questions over the phone from people who want to know more about the birds in their yards.

On the other hand, I’ve also taken calls from visiting birders, who, having looked at the Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles of Wyoming edited by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (http://gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/nongame), are quite positive that they have seen a first Wyoming record for a species they are very familiar with back home.

Are these visitors making a familiar species out of one of our similar local species, or have we locals not recognized an unusual species because we aren’t familiar with it?

The Wyoming Bird Records Committee judges the credibility of all rare bird records for the state. A few folks looking to bag state records have been deeply disappointed at the slow speed of our committee, but it is staffed by volunteer experts with full-time jobs and they do the best they can.

Us average birdwatchers are as important as the expert in documenting changes in the ranges of species. So how do we make our observations useful?

Study birds. Participate in data collection efforts like Project FeederWatch and eBird. Learn when and how to file a rare bird form. To request one, call the Wyoming Game and Fish regional office in Lander, 307-332-2688. And keep looking.

After all, as birdwatchers are fond of pointing out, the birds don’t read the books.