Bird of the Week: Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull

Franklin’s Gulls. Photo by Pete Arnold

Often seen in spring around Cheyenne, this small gull is known for following the plow, picking up earthworms, grasshoppers, seeds and the occasional mouse. It breeds in northwestern Wyoming and farther north, the male building a nest on floating vegetation amidst a noisy colony of its peers. Nesting is synchronized among colony parents. Each pair hatches three eggs and 32 days later the young can fly. Once they do, the entire colony is deserted within three to six days.

Published April 21, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe. Photo by Pete Arnold.            These duck-like birds, often seen around Cheyenne, are one of the species pictured swimming with young on their backs. But after 20 days, the chicks are on their own and the parents take off for Mono Lake in California or the Great Salt Lake where they feast on brine shrimp until they can’t fly. Their digestive organs increase in size to accommodate all the eating, but then slim down to 25 percent when it’s time to migrate.

Published April 14, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Redhead


Redhead. Photo by Pete Arnold.

By May the female will be weaving a nest over the water from cattails and rushes that grew last year in prairie pothole lakes and marshes, including those in our area. If water conditions are poor, she may lay eggs in other duck’s nests—even pushing aside the hen of another species. Otherwise, she incubates her 10 eggs for nearly four weeks and stays with her brood another six to eight while the males molt together elsewhere.

Published April 7, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: American Avocet

American Avocet

American Avocet. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Spend some time on the plains where the greasewood grows and not much else, near reservoirs where the ground is marked with a white crust and you may find this elegant, 18-inch tall shorebird warning you away from a whole colony of ground nests. Watch it scythe water with its recurved bill to find food. Selenium leaching into irrigation drain water is poisoning them, but mitigation efforts show promise.

Published April 29, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird quiz

Wood Duck

Do you know where the Wood Duck nests? Photo by Pete Arnold.

Published April 12, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Are you a bird expert?”

By Barb Gorges

Raise your hand if you’ve been reading my bird column for the 16 years I’ve been writing it for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Good for you!

And even if you haven’t been reading it that long, here’s a quiz to see what you’ve learned so far. All the birds mentioned are listed on the Cheyenne Bird Checklist posted at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website,


  1. What “sign of spring” shows up most often on Cheyenne Christmas Bird Counts?
    1. Western Meadowlark
    2. Red-winged Blackbird
    3. Mountain Bluebird
    4. American Robin

Answer: (d) The robin has been seen on almost every Cheyenne CBC since our first, 60 years ago, and the red-winged blackbird about half as often. Meadowlarks have been seen six times, and bluebirds never.

  1. Which large white birds visit Cheyenne in small flocks each spring to go fishing?
    1. Snow Goose
    2. American White Pelican
    3. Tundra Swan
    4. Great Egret

Answer: (b) While lone great egrets are seen occasionally, flocks of pelicans show up regularly. Snow geese and swans don’t eat fish.

  1. Which is the only blue bird that would have been seen here in pioneer times?
    1. Mountain Bluebird
    2. Blue Jay
    3. Blue Grosbeak
    4. Indigo Bunting

Answer: (a) Pioneers would have seen mountain bluebirds. Farmers planting windbreaks made our high plains friendly to blue jays, noticeable by 1939. Indigo buntings were recorded by the 1950s and blue grosbeaks by the 1960s.

  1. Which black-colored bird seen around Cheyenne never raises its own offspring?
    1. Common Grackle
    2. Red-winged Blackbird
    3. Yellow-headed Blackbird
    4. Brown-headed Cowbird

Answer: (d) Brown-headed cowbirds always leave their eggs in nests of other birds. Historically, they needed to be off right away to follow the buffalo.

  1. Which woodpecker is more often seen pecking Cheyenne lawns instead of trees?
    1. Downy Woodpecker
    2. Hairy Woodpecker
    3. Northern Flicker
    4. Red-headed Woodpecker

Answer: (c) I get more calls about strange, polka-dotted birds digging for grubs in people’s front lawns, but yes, the flicker is a woodpecker. Just ask anyone whose wood siding has been pecked.

  1. Which bird only nests on the ground?
    1. Western Meadowlark
    2. Wood Duck
    3. Black-crowned Night-Heron
    4. Great Blue Heron

Answer: (a) Wood ducks nest in tree cavities or nest boxes. Great blue herons and black-crowned night-herons almost always nest in colonies in trees. But the meadowlark, like many grassland birds, always nests on the ground. Don’t mow your prairie until July, after nesting season.

  1. Several species can be seen in both southeastern Wyoming and the Middle East. Which one didn’t require human help to get here?
    1. Caspian Tern
    2. Rock Pigeon
    3. Ring-necked Pheasant
    4. Eurasian Collared-Dove

Answer: (a) The Caspian tern, a rare visitor here, occurs naturally on all continents except Antarctica. Pigeons, pheasants and collared-doves started out as Eurasian (including the Middle East) species.

  1. Which big hawk likes the Magic City so well it flies from Argentina to nest in our neighborhoods?
    1. Red-tailed Hawk
    2. American Kestrel
    3. Swainson’s Hawk
    4. Northern Harrier

Answer: (c) The Swainson’s hawk winters in Argentina. The other three may get as far south as Panama.

  1. Besides Wyoming, what other states claim the Western Meadowlark as their state bird?
    1. Kansas
    2. Nebraska
    3. Montana
    4. North Dakota
    5. Oregon

Answer: (a, b, c, d and e) All claim the western meadowlark.

  1. How many warbler species have been observed since 1993 on the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, at the height of spring migration?
    1. 23
    2. 27
    3. 31
    4. 35

Answer: (c or d) There have been 31 warbler species on our Big Days, by my count. However there are 35 listed on the Cheyenne checklist. Take credit for either answer.

  1. What sandpiper likes nesting on our prairie, and even on football fields?
    1. Killdeer
    2. Greater Yellowlegs
    3. Lesser Yellowlegs
    4. Wilson’s Snipe

Answer: (a) Killdeer. Both yellowlegs pass through on their way to nest in Canada. Snipe nest here, but only on the edge of water.

  1. Three of these species spend only the winter in Cheyenne. Which one leaves?
    1. American Tree Sparrow
    2. Dark-eyed Junco
    3. Rough-legged Hawk
    4. Lark Bunting

Answer: (d) Lark buntings leave Wyoming to winter in the southwest and Mexico. The others arrive: juncos after nesting in the mountains, tree sparrows from Alaska and Canada, and rough-leggeds from the Arctic.

How did you do?

Whatever your score, by taking part in the quiz, you show you are part of the community of inquisitive birdwatchers.

Remember, whatever local wisdom about birds is cited here, your careful observation could turn it on its head. Birds never stop teaching us new things.

Bird of the Week: Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Back from Central and South America, this scavenger may hang out with others at favorite roost trees in town for a couple weeks before heading to nearby cliffs to nest. Its bare head is easy to keep clean after feeding on fresh carrion. It also has a cast-iron stomach, being rarely affected by diseases of decay, actually killing them in its digestive tract.

Published April 22, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Book review: “Mountains and Plains,” by Dennis Knight

"Mountains and Plains" cover

“Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes,” by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners and William H. Romme.

Published April 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Opinion page, “A must-read for all.”

Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes, second edition, by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners, William H. Romme, c. 2014, Yale University. Published by Yale University Press with assistance from the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. Softcover, 404 pages, $45.

By Barb Gorges

Blame the pine beetles for decimating pages of the first edition of Dennis Knight’s book, “Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes.”

Blame the wolves, sage-grouse and climate change and all of the other changes and new information since the book was published in 1994.

They caused Mr. Knight, University of Wyoming professor emeritus of the botany department, to give up four years of his retirement to write the second edition, published at the end of 2014.

He had help this time from three colleagues, George Jones, associate director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at UW (where the book’s royalties are going); William Reiners, professor emeritus, UW; and William Romme, professor emeritus, Colorado State University, an expert on Yellowstone’s ecology.

Despite its academic authors, “Mountains and Plains” is not intended as a textbook, though this book should be required reading for everyone graduating from UW, just as is the course in the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.

“The book was written for non-scientists who are interested in Wyoming’s environment, natural resources, and some of the controversial land management issues that decision makers are facing at the present time,” Mr. Knight said.

“My co-authors and I tried to provide an easy-to-read synthesis of peer-reviewed ecological research for people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the journals themselves.

“We hope the book is useful for those who enjoy spending time outdoors as well as teachers, students, and private, state, and federal land managers.”

How readable is this book? A background in the natural sciences is helpful.

But that can be overcome with familiarity with any of Wyoming’s landscapes, forest, grassland, sagebrush, sand dunes, alpine, meadows, wetlands, or the landscapes like Yellowstone, the Black Hills or the Laramie Basin described in special chapters.

Any curiosity about Wyoming’s landscapes will make this book a real page-turner, even if you don’t know what occasional words like “herbivory” mean. Check the Internet.

My recommendation is to flip through, enjoying the new, full-color photography until you find a compelling subheading, maybe “Aspen Forest,” on page 196.

Find out where aspen trees grow and why. Find out why they spread by sprouting from roots rather than growing from seed. Did you know aspen bark has chlorophyll and can photosynthesize?

But the ecologist, and that is what Mr. Knight is—as well as a botanist—asks what happens to aspens after a fire. What causes different results in different locations?

What triggered SAD, sudden aspen decline, beginning in 2000? What are the implications for us and other animals and other plants? What techniques have land managers tried to maintain current aspen abundance?

If some of the book’s statements seem hard to believe, look for the superscript number indicating the footnote at the back of the book that cites a study.

But studies in journals aren’t always easily available, so you can ask your question at the book’s website,

Rather than wait another 20 years for the third edition, the website started updating the book’s content in December. New studies are producing new information, but also, when the climate changes, and the way people interact with the landscape changes, ecologists must keep up.

I would add our state legislators to Mr. Knight’s list of recommended readers. This is especially so for the ones who will be on the committee studying how the state can wrest control of federally owned lands in the state—despite being an unpopular idea with 70 percent of Wyoming citizens–and the other federal land owners, the U.S. citizens living in the other 49 states who might also enjoy this book.

Mr. Knight’s epilogue sums up the whole idea of the book: that society needs to heed what ecologists know:

“Humans have been a presence in this part of the biosphere for a short time—most of the plants and animals existed a million years or more before Homo sapiens arrived—and we are still learning how to make a living from rugged western landscapes.

“As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1938, “the oldest task in human history (is) to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Learning to live gently and sustainably, to be good stewards, requires an understanding of both human nature and the nature of ecosystems.”

Barb Gorges writes the monthly bird and garden columns for the WTE. “Mountains and Plains” is available at the Wyoming State Museum store, the UW bookstore and from major online booksellers.

Bird of the Week: Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser YellowlegsAnother migration season visitor, this large sandpiper is on its way from Central or even South America to nest in Canada and Alaska, looking for marshes, bogs, fens and muskeg. At our local lakes it walks through shallow water looking for flies and beetles. A field guide will help you decide if you are looking at it or the equally common Greater Yellowlegs.

Published April 15, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Elizabeth Boehm.

Bird of the Week: Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk. Photo by FOB.

This raptor comes in many color phases so the best field mark is its red tail. Even then, some are very pale. A few may winter here, but most migrate. Red-tails find perches in open country from which to prey on small animals. They build nests on treetops, cliffs and even buildings. Their harsh screams echo frequently on TV and in movies depicting wilderness.

Published April 8, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by FOB.

Bird of the Week: Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Spring migration brings North America’s most abundant diving duck to Cheyenne area lakes. It is on its way from as far south as Central America, heading north to nest in the wetlands of the boreal forests in Alaska and Canada. It’s difficult to distinguish Lesser from Greater Scaup, but generally, the Greater is not often seen here.

Published April 1, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.