Archiving bird columns shows changes


Hard copies of 16 years of Bird Banter columns published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle are filed away. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 11, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Archiving bird columns shows changes.”

By Barb Gorges

I’m afraid to mention this, lest the editor of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle think I’ve been doing this too long, but next month is the beginning of my 17th year writing this bird column.

It started because Bill Gruber, the Outdoors editor in 1999, asked me if I’d be interested.

I protested that there were people in town more knowledgeable—and there still are. But I had the time. And I could always research and ask the experts.

Besides Bill, I’ve worked with these other editors: Ty Stockton, Cara Eastwood Baldwin, Shauna Stephenson, Kevin Wingert and now Jodi Rogstad. All have been kind in their editing, catching style and grammatical errors.

A year ago, I had this great idea to archive all of my past columns as blog posts. I’d taken an online course in blogging as part of my teaching recertification and I was intrigued. For one thing, I could add a widget that allows me to search all my past posts. So I could find out how many times I’d written about say, the Christmas Bird Count (about a dozen times).

I decided to make it a publicly accessible blog, So far, I have 86 followers from all over the world without actively publicizing it.

Because bird topics are seasonal, and because there might be followers, strict chronological order wouldn’t be best. So I used chronological order within each month, starting with February. The first post was the column I wrote that month, in 1999, followed by the one from February 2000, and so on.

Then I realized that these old columns could be outdated. So each one is accompanied not only by the date it originally was published, but by a short update on the topic.

There are some things that just don’t change in the bird world, but technology has. I can now find an incredible amount of information online, and I can ask experts questions without having to call them long distance or mail a letter to them.

The most dramatic change in the bird world has been the advent of eBird, of course. The first column mentioning it was in 2003. It seems like every six months they come up with a new way for all of us citizen scientists to explore the eBird database—and more easily contribute to it. Amazing scientific studies are generated by it too.

The birds themselves continue to change. Mostly, it’s population numbers and distribution.

For instance, there are more crows in Cheyenne today. There are way too many more Eurasian collared-doves now than there were in 1999, a year after the first one in Wyoming was identified in Cheyenne.

Do we have fewer numbers of any species? Evening grosbeaks don’t seem to be visiting anymore. But a few years ago, lesser goldfinches started becoming regular, if still uncommon, visitors.

There is never a lack of topics to explore in the bird world. Feedback shows that a lot of WTE readers are willing to come along on these sometimes intellectual excursions with me.

Hearing from readers is what makes writing these columns better than merely writing in a diary or notebook.

Information from readers has driven me to investigate topics, especially when there are several calls about the same thing. What to do about flickers drilling holes in wood siding is a column I’ve forwarded often since writing it.

Interestingly, for a while if you googled my name, the column that seemed to come up most often—because a friend in Colorado reposts my columns to his blog—is the one I wrote about the University of Wyoming graduate student studying hummingbird metabolism. In fact, it has been included in some online science anthology I can’t access without buying a subscription.

There are now more than 300 Bird Banter columns posted. It has been fun looking back at them, seeing how, between the lines, they reflect my family’s life. And I’m happy to have become the community bird lady, a responsibility which I appreciate.

More conventionally, I can be classified as a science writer. Actually, that isn’t too far off from my course of study in college—and what one of my professors thought I should be.

Well, thanks, WTE editors and readers, for this monthly privilege. What’s up at your bird feeders these days?

Owls are among us

Great Horned Owls

What the crows fear most is that Great Horned Owls will move into the neighborhood and raise a family that needs a constant supply of prey. Courtesy USFWS.

Published Jan. 5, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owls are among us. Here’s how to tell if the elusive bird is lurking in your Cheyenne neighborhood.”

2015 Update: And spring brought reports of owlets, including three celebrities from a nest in Lions Park.

By Barb Gorges

In late November, Mark and I became aware that a flock of crows, also known as a murder of crows, was convening just before sunset in a neighbor’s big spruce tree.

They were very loud, very raucous, as if they were a lynch mob yelling for noose justice.

Our double-paned windows are somewhat of a sound barrier, but when we let the dog out, we were bombarded with enough noise to overwhelm a backyard cookout.

Was there an owl roosting in the spruce? It’s a big tree, probably planted when the neighborhood was new 50-60 years ago, so you can’t easily see inside, even when standing beneath it.

Or had the crows decided to establish a roost in our neighborhood? That was an unbearable thought.

Thanksgiving morning, while I was out sweeping up sunflower seed hulls from under our bird feeder and throwing the ball for the dog, the crows sounded even more agitated—gathered in a spruce even closer to our house. “There must be an owl within those thickly-needled branches,” I thought. “And he isn’t getting any sleep after a night of hunting.”

The next morning, just before sunrise, I lifted the window shade and saw a lump on the bare branch of our big green ash tree. Yep, a great horned owl. I told the dog she would have to wait a few minutes before she could go out.

The owl was perched about a foot away from a small squirrel nest made of dry leaves stuffed into a vortex of small branches. Leaving the kitchen lights off, I pulled out my binoculars and there was just enough light to see which way the owl was facing. It wasn’t surprising that it was facing the squirrel nest, bobbing its head up and down in a circular way, to get a better fix on a squirrel probably trying desperately not to be heard breathing.

There’s a bigger nest, or drey, on the other side of the alley. Ours looks like it is barely big enough for one squirrel, much less the three scampering around our yard every day, teasing the dog.

I was surprised that the owl didn’t just poke a taloned foot or sharp beak into that pile of leaves. But great horned owls prefer to feed in openings where they can perch and then wing after prey they hear or see, and pounce, pinning it to the ground. Eventually, this owl spread its wings and flew off.

No more mobbing crows here, however, owls have come up in recent conversations with two women I know, one living east of town and one on the northwest edge of Cheyenne. Both women were pretty sure their local owls were knocking off rabbits, the great horned’s favorite food. And both women seemed fine with that, noting that there seemed to be bunny abundance this year.

I’ve talked to my share of folks who complain when an avian predator grabs a meal, especially if the prey is a cute songbird or furry animal. So in addition to getting reports on owl activity, it was gratifying to hear people appreciate owls, even for their feeding habits.

If you are connected to any sources of birding news, you know that this winter there is another irruption of snowy owls, but in the Northeast and upper Midwest, rather than the Great Plains, as it was two years ago. Another shortage of lemmings in the Arctic, forcing them south, I guess.

Snowy owls like to be out in the open, being birds of the tundra, even if it’s the middle of the day, making them relatively easy to pick out when there isn’t too much snow acting as camouflage.

So how many great horned owls are among us, shrouded in a cloak of nocturnal invisibility or daytime coniferous cover? What about the smaller, less common owls of southeastern Wyoming: eastern screech-owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl?

Is there a great horned owl in your neighborhood? Look for the signs: angry crows, the odd rabbit leg on the sidewalk, a large bird flashing through the beam of your headlights, and even the chunky silhouette, the size of Harry Potter’s snowy owl, in a tree or on a fencepost at dawn or dusk.

Don’t begrudge your dog’s request to be let out on a winter’s evening or just before dawn. Follow and take a look around.

Winter good for unusual birds

Red-bellied Woodpecker

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is rarely found in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 20, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter is good time to spot unusual birds.”

2015 Update: To find out if there are any interesting irruptions this winter, visit the Project FeederWatch website:

By Barb Gorges

Last winter, snowy owls irrupted. Meaning, there were sightings all across the northern tier of the lower 48 states. Apparently, more owls fledged than usual and there weren’t enough small rodents to go around in their Arctic winter territories so they headed for more productive habitat.

This year in Cheyenne, it’s the seedeaters that are irrupting, or at least coming down from the mountains.

My first inkling was the Steller’s jays I saw at a friend’s, up on the north edge of Cheyenne, enjoying the pine-juniper windbreak and the birdfeeders. They are dark blue with black heads, unlike the usual blue and white blue jay. Five made an appearance for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 22, as they have eight out of the last 38 years.

Named for Georg Steller, the first to find this bird and describe it for science while serving as the naturalist traveling with Vitus Bering in 1740-42 to what became Alaska, Steller’s jay is found in western mountains down to Central America.

Both its usual plant (seeds, nuts, fruits) and animal (small vertebrates) foods must be in short supply in nearby mountains. Even if the Birds of North America lists cookies and other picnic provisions as preferred food, don’t be tempted. Give them black-oil sunflower seed.

Making its first-ever appearance on the Cheyenne bird count was the pygmy nuthatch. A flock was noted several weeks before on the west side of town and we were able to re-find it. The five individuals were mixed in with white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches and mountain chickadees, all in the same pine tree.

The pygmy nuthatch is another mountain species, but it seldom comes down. It needs dead or partially dead trees with cavities, not just for nesting, but also to stay warm. Studies show families, even whole flocks, will pile into a cavity when it’s cold. The birds at the bottom stay the warmest, but the entire space will be several degrees warmer than it is outdoors.

There must be empty food caches and a dire lack of frozen insects to pick out of the bark of mountain pine trees for pygmies to leave their known hollow trees for an urban area where we keep dead wood to a minimum.

I was thrilled to see evening grosbeaks on the Guernsey-Ft. Laramie Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 29. They were at a feeder between Guernsey and Hartville, looking like over-sized goldfinches. Another mountain species, they expanded their range east from the Rockies in the mid 1800s. It’s thought that the planting of box elder (their favorite seeds) and ornamental fruit-bearing trees, and the invasion of spruce budworms, led them on.

Today they are not quite so common back east—the reason they were brought to attention as the 2012 American Birding Association Bird of the Year. They are well known for their irruptive behavior, usually every other winter. We’ve had a handful of them on each of nine Cheyenne CBCs over the last 38 years.

The range map for common redpolls in Douglas Faulkner’s “Birds of Wyoming,” shows that every winter they will show up in the northeast corner of Wyoming. They breed in the Arctic. This year, they are all over the state, according to multiple reports on the Wyobirds e-list, with 24 present for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count.

Redpolls too, seem to show up at bird feeders on alternate winters. If you are familiar with house finches at your feeder, scan them closely for redpolls, slightly smaller, streaky brown birds with a small red spot on the forehead and sometimes a wash of pale pink on the breast.

On their home turf, redpolls eat the very small spruce and birch seeds. At your feeder, small seeds like white millet would be a good replacement.

In his report of the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, compiler Greg Johnson said the rarest sighting was a red-bellied woodpecker, a species of the eastern U.S., particularly the southeast. The first ever recorded sighting of one in Wyoming was in Cheyenne in 1992. Then there were two other sightings of single birds in eastern Wyoming in 1993 and 2002, followed by three sightings at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne in 2002, 2006 and 2008.

Irruptive is not the explanation for the appearance of this woodpecker in Cheyenne. Lost is more like it, though lost seems to be coming a regular habit. Officially, the term is “vagrant.” This individual may have gotten caught in some weather in October and was lucky enough to find Mike Schilling’s feeder, where it has been since.

There is only one way to see species uncommon for Cheyenne and that is to look. A well-stocked feeder helps, but the best way is to get outside and keep your eyes open. And when you see some unusual bird, tell someone.

Birds in fiction need facts too

Below Zero by CJ Box

The hero of Wyoming author C. J. Box’s mystery series is a Wyoming game warden.

Published Jan. 2, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birds in fiction need facts, too. Local author C.J. Box may write fiction, but his Wyoming-based books should still reference wildlife that is actually found in Wyoming.”

2015 Update: Check out these author websites:,,

By Barb Gorges

“Below Zero” by C.J. Box

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

“The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik

Cheyenne’s national best-selling crime novelist either needs to do more scenery research or needs to make a rare bird report. In “Below Zero,” C.J. Box’s hero, Joe Pickett, is hiking into the Hole in the Wall, Butch Cassidy’s famous hideout, and the description includes bluebirds and cardinals.

Cardinals are rare in Wyoming and no observations have been documented for Johnson County, where the Hole in the Wall is located.

If Box were from back east, cardinal country, I would say he added a splash of color to the scenery using a species he was familiar with. But Box is a Wyoming native, so he needs to contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s non-game bird biologist and report the cardinal if he saw it while researching the novel. Apparently Pickett, the fictional game warden, was too busy looking for trip wires to realize what he’d seen.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s novel features the plight of an endangered bird and the man trying to save it.

Can an author mention any but the most common birds in fiction or can they give unusual birds enough context so non-birdwatcher readers will understand their significance? In “Freedom,” a literary novel by Jonathan Franzen which I just finished reading, cerulean warblers are a bit more than scenery—they and their predicament, diminishing habitat, are both metaphor and plot device. And a main character is identified as a birdwatcher to explain his anti-social tendencies.

Realistic fiction has to be more believable than real life, it seems. Would it be believable that on the November Audubon field trip in the middle of Cheyenne we saw a Cooper’s hawk knock a mallard drake on its back, less than 50 feet from where we stood at the railing at the edge of Sloan’s Lake in Lions Park? They don’t usually go for ducks.

Of course, if it were fiction, we’d only include the anecdote to illustrate character or to move the plot along. I was all for leaving the duck, seemingly close to death, for the hawk. Pat wanted to tip it over onto its feet and Art tipped it. Fifteen minutes later it was walking with an occasional stumble. I suppose the three of us were characterized, even though we are not fictional: I think hawks deserve to eat, Pat is a retired nurse and Art has handled a lot of gamebirds.

The Big Year by Mark Obmascik

Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book about compulsive birders was later turned into a movie.

Some of the best storytelling I’ve read recently was about real birds and real birdwatchers: “The Big Year, a Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,” by Mark Obmascik, the featured author at this year’s Laramie County Library Foundation’s Booklover’s Bash.

In 1998 three men independently decide to break the record for the number of bird species seen by one person in one year in North America. It takes them half a year to realize they are competing against each other.

No Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with such craziness as these men risking their lives in storms on Attu, the farthest west point of Alaska, where lost Asian bird species blow onto our continent.

In fact, the story is so crazy that Hollywood bought it and made it into a movie to be released early in 2011, starring actors you’ve heard of: Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin.

What I like about Obmascik’s writing is how deftly he explains the birding world without bogging down the story. He knows what needs to be explained to non-birders because he was one, yet he understands birders, too, having recently become one.

For nonbirding authors of fiction, adding avian color to realistic fictional scenery is simple enough. Check a recently published field guide and then call the local Audubon chapter for confirmation on exactly what time of year and on what kind of bush your chosen bird species might be seen. Millions of birdwatchers, who tend to be well-read folks, will appreciate your effort.

Meditation on pine beetles

Pine beetle

Close-up of a Mountain Pine Beetle. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 31, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Meditation on pine beetles: Is there life after tree death?”

2015 Update: We are getting used to the idea that we need to bring our own shade when camping in National Forest campgrounds that have been cleared of hazardous, beetle-kill trees. For more information, see and See another column about pine beetles that was posted about a week ago, that was published in 2006.

By Barb Gorges

For anyone who doesn’t regularly recreate in or travel through the forests of south central Wyoming and north central Colorado, the photos of pine beetle damage shown at January’s Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society meeting might have been a shock. Especially the photos of grown trees blown down like straws and campgrounds denuded by the removal of hazardous trees.

Many of the 75 people in the audience, however, judging by their questions and comments, have mountain property and are in the midst of the battle field.

The largest mountain landowner, the U.S. Forest Service, was represented by the evening’s speaker, Steve Carrey, director of renewable resources for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. One irate audience member demanded to know why the Forest Service hadn’t headed this epidemic off when it started.

Pine beetle-infested forest

This photo was taken in 2008 at the YMCA near Winter Park, Colorado, shortly after dead pine trees were removed in an area that had been heavily forested. There are many more dead trees on the mountain sides. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The simple explanation is that pine beetles are always with us but were at a high point in their cycle when drought was weakening trees of an age beetles prefer and warm winters didn’t freeze any beetles dead following the initial outbreak in 1996 west of Denver. It created, as Steve said, a perfect storm. Lack of funding hasn’t helped either.

Even with limitless funds, one cannot spray every pine tree in the forest or change the climate quickly.

One can only clean up the mess, clearing dead trees before they fall across roads, trails, power lines and campgrounds and before they begin to burn.

No one seems to want the dead trees—the price of timber is still too low to reopen more than one of the local sawmills. Some are being turned into pellets for pellet stoves and there is talk of building a plant that uses wood to generate electricity.

Lodgepole pine is the main tree being killed. The stands we are used to seeing on the Medicine Bow are 80 to 150 years old, the regrowth after initial logging. Most of us in the audience will not be around to see this second regrowth reach maturity.

In fact, many people looked old enough to have been recreating on the forest over 50 years (30 for me) and may not be around in 10-15 years when the trees are finished falling over and are no longer hazardous except as fuel in wildfires. Even then, a stroll off the trail will entail climbing over the deadfall.

Downed trees may, happily, slow illegal off-road driving.

Pine beetle evidence

A lodgepole pine in the Medicine Bow National Forest tried to push pine beetles out with wellings of sap at multiple locations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

It tears at my heart to see ponderosa pines turning red between Cheyenne and Laramie, along my favorite Pole Mountain trails, knowing that soon it will be unsafe to roam there, for awhile. But I don’t feel the same about the mountain sides of lodgepole monoculture over west of Laramie and have never yearned for a cabin in that dense forest.

Having, on quests for elk, tramped through the endless monotony of tree trunks as far as the eye can see, with no underbrush, no bird song, only squirrel chatter and the occasional break for a birdy, spruce-lined creek and beaver pond, or rocky outcropping with a view of soaring hawks, I’m ready for a change.

Having driven endless miles of roads lined with future telephone poles right down to the shoulder, wondering when a deer will spring out to meet my bumper, I’ll appreciate the change.

A connoisseur of cloud formations and sunsets, I look forward to vistas opening up. Let’s just hope that all the mountain cabins and structures that come into view are picturesque.

There may be a lack of shade, but the forecast is that the sunny slopes will produce lots of grass and shrubs, even aspen, before the pines shade them out again, not unlike a clearcut or burn.

Just exactly which wildlife species will disappear and which will appreciate the change is ripe for research by a generation or two of grad students.

Doesn’t this remind you of the 1988 Yellowstone fires?

The difference is that the Medicine Bow isn’t quite done with the epidemic. For a few more years each year’s generation of beetles will fly to new trees mid-summer, where they’ll burrow under the bark and lay eggs that hatch into larva that eat the trees’ cambium layer, girdling and killing the trees over the winter, with the red needles showing the following summer as the next generation of adults flies off.

Pine beetle damage

Closeup of a spot where the pine beetle chewed into a pine and the tree responded with a clot of sap. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The year the new beetles can’t find any live trees to bore into and lay eggs will be the year their population plummets.

If you want to see how our forest will soon look, visit central Colorado. Visit the web site .

Losing the forest we know and love is like losing our old dog, the one whose body language we know so well he doesn’t even have to ask to be let outside. The new forest will be as dynamic as a puppy, full of surprises and excitement, anxious to grow.

“Hawaii The Big Island Revealed,” by Andrew Doughty, book review

Hawaii book

A series of these guide books covers the major Hawaiian Islands.

Published Jan. 28, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hawaii travel guidebook won’t disappoint.”

2015 Update: Look for the books in the series for all the Hawaiian Islands and the latest updates at “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed” is on its 7th edition.

By Barb Gorges

Hawaii The Big Island Revealed, by Andrew Doughty, 5th edition, 2008, Wizard Publications, Inc., 307 pages, $16.95.

I found the third edition of this guide at the Laramie County Public Library. My husband, Mark, and I found it so entertaining and packed with so much information that we ordered the latest edition to plan our trip to visit our son in Hawaii.

There’s also a lot of free information and updates available at the publisher’s Web site, If you aren’t going to the island of Hawaii, Wizard Publications also has guides for the islands of Oahu, Maui and Kauai.

I was a little worried that our vacation experience wouldn’t match up to the beautiful photography in the guidebook, but it did.

I also worried that “ground-truthing” the guidebook would show it full of over simplifications and generous ratings, but it wasn’t. In one case, it had more accurately drawn hiking trails than a government publication.

The author (and whomever he refers to as “we”) has investigated every trail, resort, restaurant and attraction anonymously and takes no advertisements or freebies.

He is enthusiastic about good experiences and good return for money spent. He points the way to less crowded, as well as spectacular beaches.

This guidebook is well-regarded by locals I talked to and we used it extensively to plan day trips from our base in Hilo in October.

The top five destinations we visited on Hawaii, in no particular order, were:

  1. Mauna Kea – home to world famous telescopes.
  2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – see flowing lava if you’re lucky.
  3. Waipi’o Valley –a remote valley beloved by Hawaiian kings.
  4. Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Garden – was spectacular even though the height of flowering was in June.
  5. Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park – features ancient Hawaiian structures.

My top five things to do on the Big Island next time are:

  1. Find flowing lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  2. See Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden in June.
  3. Go whale-watching during the December – March season.
  4. Take a submarine tour of the reef in Kailua Bay.
  5. Check out the Lyman Museum in Hilo.
  6. Check out additional beaches—there are no entrance fees!
  7. Hike into more birding hotspots in spring.
  8. Hike into Waipi’o Valley again and continue into the more remote Waimanu Valley.
  9. Oops, that’s more than five, isn’t it? What about a tour of a Kona coffee farm? Or the macademia nut factory? Or the famous Parker Ranch? Or taking out a kayak?

Luckily, “Hawaii The Big Island Revealed” has advice on finding the cheapest plane fare for our next visit.

Are wolves aiding songbird populations?

Yellowstone wolf

A wolf in Yellowstone National Park, wearing a radio collar, watches biologists. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Jan. 13, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “It’s possible wolves in Yellowstone are having a positive effect on songbirds.”

2015 Update: New studies show that wolves are not the only cog missing in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The park needs its beavers to build dams and recharge the subsurface water so the willows will grow better and the songbirds will multiply. See High Country News, Dec. 8, 2014, Vol. 46, No. 21, “Have returning wolves really saved Yellowstone?”

By Barb Gorges

Back in the early 1990s, the National Audubon Society lobbied for the reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Why, some folks wondered, would an organization with a name equated with bird conservation be interested in wolves?

An Audubon member myself, I agreed with the ecologists who were saying it was important to have all the pieces of an ecosystem, from top dog predator on down to burying beetle and I lobbied for wolves on ecological principles.

There were a couple people who thought wolves shouldn’t be reintroduced because, based on a few anecdotes, wolves might already be present.

If there were wolves in Yellowstone immediately before reintroduction, and not just casual stragglers or hybrids and captives dumped by people, they were nearly invisible, awfully quiet, well behaved and unproductive.

Today, commercial enterprises will take you on a wolf tour (www. Reintroduced wolves multiplied so quickly they also became a noticeable nuisance to livestock operators.

Wolves are apparently having an effect on the Yellowstone ecosystem that their predator stand-ins, the coyotes, were not able to achieve between early 20th century wolf eradication programs and wolf reintroduction in 1995. The willows are increasing, which means increasing numbers of songbirds.

Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for Yellowstone National Park, in a reply to my email query, was quick to point out that studies are still ongoing and that some people believe there is more than the wolf at work in the growth of willow shrubs. Papers are in the process of being written and Smith said, “As far as wolf impacts on songbirds, we are on our way to establishing the link that goes through willow and elk.”

Willow grows in riparian zones, the areas along creeks and rivers. A healthy riparian zone, with lots of vegetation, absorbs rainfall and snowmelt like a sponge and releases it slowly into creeks. In an unhealthy situation, with little vegetation present, water runs off quickly, eroding the surface, depositing sediment in the stream where it suffocates fish eggs and the invertebrates that feed fish.

In a healthy riparian zone, vegetation slows the runoff water. Slow water can’t carry as much sediment and organic matter and so it drops it on the plants adjacent to the stream, rather than in the stream. Riparian plants, such as willow, thrive on and grow through the sediment deposits, eventually providing more and more vegetation.

If the lack of vegetation in a riparian zone is from overgrazing by wildlife or livestock, managers can reverse the trend by either fencing the animals out for a period of time, or reducing the number of animals grazing and/or the time and amount they graze.

National park managers have restrictions that prevent them from removing elk, which have kept the willows trimmed too well while the wolves were out of the picture.

However, the willows seem to be recovering and expanding. One theory is that climate change is providing a longer growing season. Another theory is that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 provided a huge increase in forbs (non-woody plants including wildflowers) that elk like better than shrubs and they grazed the willows less.

A third theory is that elk no longer get to graze willows at their leisure since wolves are constantly nipping at their heels and running them off.

Range management scientists have spent years conducting studies of the effects of various grazing schemes and could probably make some predictions, but every ecosystem has its quirks.

Whether the wolves are totally or partly responsible for the regeneration of Yellowstone willows, we can reasonably predict healthier riparian zones.

From my birdwatcher’s perspective, this means more and greater diversity of songbirds which are attracted to the insects associated with the willows, and the shelter their shrubbiness provides. Smith listed willow flycatcher, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, Lincoln’s sparrow and song sparrow in particular.

Improved riparian habitat means improved fisheries. It also means ephemeral and intermittent streams will flow a little longer each year.

The increase in vegetation can support more critters (even livestock outside the park). Wyoming’s riparian zones are important to something like 70 percent of wildlife species.

Bureaucracy and politics will continue to plague the Yellowstone wolves, but if studies show wolves have helped repair an important part of their ecosystem, reintroduction has been worthwhile.

Birds stay warm despite cold

Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls are perfectly adapted for extreme cold, right down to their feathered toes. Painting by John James Audubon (male – top, female – lower).

Published Jan. 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birds stay warm, despite cold. Diving into snowdrifts just one strategy used to deal with winter.”

2015 Update: I wonder how bird physiology responds to sudden drops in temperature?

By Barb Gorges

Wool, fleece and down clothes; insulated rubber boots; vigorous shoveling and skiing; hot chocolate and soup; lap cat and household thermostat; quilts and down comforters; and maybe a trip to Albuquerque–that’s how I survive winter.

Birds have similar strategies. The chief one is migration, whether down from the mountains or down to South America. It’s about balancing food-as-fuel availability with air temperature. The colder the air, the more food birds must find to turn into calories to burn.

Insect eaters depart, except for the gleaners, like the brown creepers which are willing to eat frozen bug bodies found in bark crevices.

Seed, berry and bud eaters stay behind, as well as predatory species. Water birds stay as long as ice doesn’t prevent them from getting to the pond weeds and animals.

Migration is a matter of following the food. Snowy owls are perfectly happy wintering in the Arctic unless there aren’t enough lemmings to go around. Then they head south.

About 50 species out of a total of 325 on the Cheyenne bird checklist are observed regularly on the Christmas Bird Count. How do they survive?

First, there’s fat. Songbirds will put on enough on average to weather three days of storm. More fat than that and they would be too overloaded to evade predators. Sea ducks pack on as much as 10 days’ worth. That’s how long they can go without being able to eat before they run out of fuel and die.

Then there’s shivering. When the pectoral (breast) muscles contract and relax quickly, they produce heat.

That heat warms air trapped by feathers which work better as insulation than mammal hair. Most birds have some down feathers and birds of cold climates have especially good down. Think of eider down, which comes from eider ducks. But the more archaic species, ostrich, emu and kiwi, have none.

A cold bird’s other feathers will lift away from its skin and trap more warm air, making the bird a completely different shape in cold than in hot weather. Others, like the common redpoll, have more feathers in winter than summer. Some north country birds have feathers on their legs, like the rough-legged hawk.

Otherwise, birds keep their bare parts warm by burying their beaks under their wings or hunkering down, fluffing feathers over their feet. But you’ve seen the silly Canada geese at Holliday Park, the ones refusing to migrate because people in the past fed them. They walk on the ice. How do they stand it?

Cold adapted birds have a sophisticated heat exchange system. Warm, arterial blood, traveling from the heart to the feet, passes cooled venal blood returning from the feet and warms it before it is pumped back through the heart. Basically, birds have cold feet so we don’t have to worry about them getting stuck on cold metal perches on bird feeders.

Sometimes a sleeping bird’s core temperature will drop 20 degrees from 108 degrees (chickadee body temperature) for a fuel savings akin to turning down our thermostats at night. However, if we humans let our body temperatures drop from 98.6 to 78.6 degrees, we’d die. Somehow birds can pull it off and wake up for another day of foraging.

A few birds even manage to enter a deeper state of torpor for months. A study in the 1930’s of a poor-will over 85 days showed its body temperature fluctuating with air temperatures in the 60’s.

Birds search out warm microhabitats. Grouse dive into snow drifts and stay as toasty as any Boy Scout in a snow cave–unless the surface gets iced over and then they are toast–the birds, that is, not the boys.

Starlings standing around chimneys are smart–until the fumes knock them out and they topple over.

The higher a perching type of bird is in the flock’s pecking order, the closer to the trunk of an evergreen tree or the middle of a thicket it can roost and the more protected it will be from winter storms. So the more dominant a bird is, the more likely it is to survive. Besides, dominant birds eat better too and may have more fat going into a storm.

And then there’s the “dog pile” effect. A researcher in Maryland cut the top of a hollow wooden fence post where eastern bluebirds had nested so he could remove it from time to time over the winter. Once he found 13 bluebirds packed inside, and another time found more, but two of those were dead from suffocation.

Hawks and owls prefer winter solitude since they are in competition with every other raptor for the limited supply of prey animals.

But for some species, especially the songbirds, sociability is the key to survival. Secretive during the summer nesting season, in winter small birds–chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows–form what is referred to as “mixed species flocks.” It means more eyes watching for predators and potential food sources.

I think sociability is a good way for people to survive the winter, too. Members and friends of Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society will be gathering for the annual Christmas Bird Count and the tally party afterwards.

If you are interested in helping, the more of us there are, the warmer we’ll be!

“Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, book review

winter hike

Over 100 people of all ages hiked January 1, 2013, at Curt Gowdy State Park. The “First Day” hike tradition has now spread to other Wyoming state parks. See for a nation-wide list of hikes. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 24, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Out equals healthy.”

2015 Update: Richard Louv has written a new book (2011), “The Nature Principle.” “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.” See more at

By Barb Gorges

How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? Mine are the same as last year, but I hope to be more successful.

One was to go outside more often. This year I also want to see more birds and improve my birding skills.

The outdoors, with the addition of sunscreen, should be good for me. Studies show gazing at the natural contours of land and vegetation improves both our mental and physical health.

I’ve recently been reading “Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder,” by Richard Louv.

His main premise is that it’s a problem that today’s child is no longer allowed to, or even interested in, hanging out in the natural environment.

For parents, letting kids spend free time in front of a TV or computer screen is preferable to the outdoors where they might meet dangerous strangers, even if it is a statistically rare event. And, the woods may no longer be down at the end of the street or even within biking distance.

Supervised outdoor experiences are better than none, but are not the same as dinking around on one’s own, or building a tree house or fort with friends. Louv sees these experiences as developmentally necessary.

I mostly grew up in an inner suburb of Milwaukee, Wis., sometimes playing pioneer in the undeveloped end of the cemetery. But at my grandfather’s in Illinois there was a stream at the bottom of his hill just right for imaginative play.

One year we lived in Oak Park, Ill., with a city park across the street. We neighborhood kids spent hours there. The only time the woods were literally at the end of our street was the six months or so we lived in Paducah, Ky.

My own children played outside until we got a computer. Even though we limited its use, they turned instead to reading. Outdoor activity became confined to scouting and family outings.

Louv cites many studies that correlate lack of outdoor exposure with ill health in children, especially obesity. But the biggest loser may be the environment if children don’t make connections with it.

Why worry about clean air and water if you can filter everything before it comes into the house? Why worry about wildlife if you can clone them on the computer screen or see them on high definition TV?

Louv gives examples of school programs and housing developments that safely allow kids to explore nature on their own, but they sound impossibly utopian. How do you convince today’s young couples to choose those kinds of alternatives if they themselves are already part of the indoor generation?

Louv was amazed a group of university microbiology students he met couldn’t identify local fauna and flora. He says opportunities for microbiology study have flourished while the study of mega animals and plants, or natural history, has declined.

Bird watching is a bright spot, continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. Recently, 23 students signed up for the local Audubon chapter’s winter birding class. They wanted to know everything the instructor knew, not just identification. But most were from the outdoor generation.

Although one might never get further than backyard birding, it can lead to concern for the wider world, since for instance, the Swainson’s hawk soaring over Cheyenne in the summer eats grasshoppers in Argentina in winter.

However, an interest in birds doesn’t always lead to ecological enlightenment and advocacy as I would hope.

The other book I’ve been reading is “To See Every Bird on Earth, A Father, a Son and a Lifelong Obsession,” by Dan Koeppel. It finally explained for me the phenomenon of listing.

Listers keep records of the first time they identify a bird species for their life list. They may also keep a list by state or county, and a yard list, or a year list—or a country list, if they travel as much as Koeppel’s father did.

Richard Koeppel became addicted to adding birds to his life list. Unfortunately, he didn’t channel his interest into the field of ornithology, or pass it on to his sons, but followed his parents’ wishes to study medicine.

As an itinerant doctor, he had the money and the time to book passage on birding tours to become one of the world’s top ten listers competing for the longest list.

Koeppel saw 7,200 of 9,600 species found worldwide before health problems made him decide to quit a few years ago.

A mild obsession can give life more depth, but to take it to the depth of the “Big Listers” is unhealthy, I think. Sure they were outside, but it doesn’t seem like they saw the forest for the birds.

No chance I’ll get overly obsessed with birding now if I haven’t already in 25 years of Audubon field trips.

I have Richard Louv to thank for making my resolution a health prescription since he touts the benefits of green landscapes for all ages.

I hope “green” is just a synonym for “natural.” I’d hate to wait for my local landscape to turn green. This time of year, the prairie is mostly 29 shades of brown, with white accents, but it works for me.

Picking a New Year’s conservation resolution

Greater Sage-Grouse

The battle over protecting Greater Sage-Grouse and their habitat rages on. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Jan. 4, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Resolving to do better this year.”

2015 Update: Philosophical arguments can be trumped by Mother Nature.

By Barb Gorges

It seems New Year’s resolutions come in two categories. The first shows restraint—I won’t eat all the chocolate chips before they get in the cookies; I won’t waste money on junk and I won’t watch junk TV.

The other category shows motivation—I will get more exercise; I will work harder and save more and I will study that CD of bird songs so I’m prepared for spring.

If we don’t make resolutions, whatever time of year, then we are like willow twigs tossed in the creek. Depending on luck, we could be battered by boulders or become rooted in a fertile location where willow twigs can sprout or just go with the flow until we decay into nothing.

Personally, I’d rather be like a fish, determining for myself whether to go up or downstream. Or better yet, as a bird, I could find new streams.

Not all our resolutions are of the personal improvement kind. We can be altruistic and resolve to make that charitable contribution or teach that class for free or adopt the homeless dog because we were brought up to be responsible people.

One of my favorite charitable ways to spend time and money is bird conservation work. I think it is necessary because some of the changes in nature threaten the existence of birds.

But what is nature?

What is natural?

If ivory-billed woodpeckers are near extinction because people sawed down their trees, isn’t that natural? People are natural, aren’t they? If you aren’t a plant, mineral, fungus or bacteria, you must be an animal, same as birds and other wildlife.

By this reasoning, whatever people decide to do, it has to be natural. However, civilization has put legal boundaries on us, even extending protection to non-human life.

For instance, when people let loose European starlings in New York in 1890, they probably didn’t know starlings would crowd out bluebirds and other native cavity nesters. They thought they were adding variety. But biologists know better today and the introduction of exotic species into the wild is no longer allowed.

But why should we protect our native species? The world is not a static place. If man progresses from burning buffalo chips to burning natural gas and sage grouse are displaced by the intense drilling in their habitat, so what?

Whether they adapt or whether they move or die, isn’t it natural?

Surveys so far show they are not adapting to the disruption, nor are they leaving the only kind of sagebrush habitat that works for them. To wait for the total demise of sage grouse is to act like the powerless twig in the creek.

But I believe people can creatively resolve what looks like an either or situation, such as either energy or grouse.

People can make a resolution to show restraint in not mining an energy source just because it’s there.

We can be motivated to find better, less disruptive energy alternatives.

We can act responsibly for sage grouse well-being, even if we can’t see a direct benefit to ourselves.

Environmental philosophers tell me that even if I never see a sage grouse or ivory-billed woodpecker myself, just knowing they continue to exist improves the quality of my life.

Conservation biologists tell me that every species is one of the building blocks of life and if we remove too many, it will eventually affect my health and well being.

We also have to be careful what we wish and work for.

When a native species expands its range, how do the species already there respond?

Picking the proper conservation resolution is tricky, but not a lot different from making personal improvement resolutions.

What do I eat when I eat less?

What investments do I make when I save more?

If I’m not careful, my resolutions can have bad results.

I think we—at least some decision makers—are still stuck on the question of whether a few animals living above mineral reserves are as important as the nation’s energy needs. The debate is continually framed by the old idea that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

But I think you can have both, as long as you choose a cake that is a renewable resource.

We can have our energy and our sage grouse too. We just need resolve to act with restraint and motivation.

I wish I were the engineer that could put solar voltaic shingles on the market next week that are hail and windproof and affordable.

Just imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t have to drill or dig for or argue over energy, or have to scrub away pollution. Clean air!

We would all benefit directly—even the people who make smokestack filters have to breathe.

What are my New Year’s resolutions, besides the usual eat less and walk more—preferably while bird watching?

Well, after this discussion, maybe the best Mark and I can do is to install new energy efficient windows while we wait for the household-sized solar furnace to be invented.

In this case, what’s good for the grouse can be good for the goose and the gander.