Bird of the Week: White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Pairs keep territories year round and in Wyoming they are preferably located along creeks and in woodlands. While the critters they pick out of tree bark, as they head down the trunks head first, are their only food in summer, winter seeds, including those from feeders, become the majority. They like to wedge seeds or nuts into tree bark and then hammer them open with their bills.

Published Feb. 24, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Found world-wide in open country, this owl has crossed oceans to colonize islands, including Hawaii and Iceland. It is a ground nester and requires some ungrazed, unmowed grass for screening. Around here, loose dogs are a problem until the young begin to fly in early summer. This owl eats mainly voles, being able to hunt by flying low and slow, yet turning with agility or putting on speed when chasing intruders.

Published Feb. 17, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper. Photo by Pete Arnold.

For food this species depends on critters hiding in the furrowed bark of trees. It probes its way up the trunk, propping its stiff tail against the bark. In winter it can be found in Cheyenne. It may roost with others at night in some crevice. In spring it moves back to higher, coniferous forests where it likes to tuck its nest behind a piece of loose bark on dead or dying trees.

Published Feb. 10, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Often heard in streamside brush in southeast Wyoming, even in winter, this species was extensively researched by Margaret Morse Nice in the 1930s. Males can learn to sing in isolation, but in the wild they are tutored by other males and develop innovations. Each has five to 13 songs in its repertoire and, at the peak of breeding season, may sing 300 songs per hour, each lasting two to three seconds.

Published Feb. 3, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: American Crow

American Crow

American Crow. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Crows have become abundant in Cheyenne since the 1990s. They found big trees for nesting and roosting and tasty edible garbage to supplement a diet of seeds, fruits, insects, small birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Young birds like to play with objects and adults like to play in the wind. Pairs build a new nest every year, letting old ones be claimed by hawks, owls and squirrels.

Published Feb. 25, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website,, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

Bird of the Week: Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie. Photo by Pete Arnold.

“Rascals” an admiring researcher calls them. Robbers, too—they stole meat stored inside Lewis and Clark’s tents. Flocks mob hawks, owls and loose cats and steal their prey. But they also helpfully pick ticks off of moose and cattle. The magpie sitting at the top of a tall tree is displaying its rights to the surrounding territory.

Published Feb. 18, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Night vision, acute hearing and quiet, soft-edged feathers are the tools needed for successfully pouncing on nocturnal prey. Because owls regurgitate pellets of inedible parts, we know they prey on everything from insects to ducks. In mid-winter the normally solitary birds of a pair begin hooting, “duetting,” and claim the old nest of another species. There’s lots of work ahead since the owlets won’t be fully independent until fall.

Published Feb. 11, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Wherever thistles and sunflowers grow, look for these gregarious finches. Or fill a special feeder with non-sprouting nyger thistle seed. While most songbirds feed their nestlings insects, these vegetarians feed partially digested seed. So they wait until late June to early July to nest, waiting for flowers to go to seed. In winter males are as drab as females, but by spring they’ll be bright again.

Published Feb. 3, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week introduction

Newspaper heading

Bird of the Week was published in a “sky box” at the top of the ToDo section of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle each week for two years, 2008-2010.

By Barb Gorges

Between February 2014 and today, I have completed the posting of all of my Bird Banter columns I’ve written so far, beginning with the very first one published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle February 1999. So now, new columns will be posted once a month, matching the actual newspaper publication schedule.

This year, I will add in the Bird of the Week series I did for the paper over the course of two years, from 2008-2010, in cooperation with Cheyenne photographer Pete Arnold.

Rather than stretch the series over two years again, I’ve decided to feature a Bird of the Week on Mondays and a Bird of the Week (end) on Fridays.

Each bird species highlighted is one I thought observant people would be likely to find in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and vicinity, in the right place and right season. Given the text had to be less than 100 words, and often was under 80, the descriptions aren’t complete species accounts.

The Bird of the Week ran, usually in the “ToDo” section, in what the newspaper calls a “sky box”— a block of text with photo at the top of a page, reserved for short little human-interest stories.

My aim for these Bird of the Week profiles was to give a general impression of each species for the beginning backyard birdwatcher, drawing on my personal experience, and adding an interesting nugget of behavior the more experienced birder might not know, based on researching The Birds of North America Online accounts.

When we are finished with this re-publication, Pete and I hope to collect all the birds into a book to share with friends and family. When that is ready, we’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, thanks for being a Bird Banter reader!

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Another Bird of the Week article, featured in the ToDo section of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.