Mid-May at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, Cliff Swallows are picking up daubs of mud from the corrals to build their nests under the eaves of a nearby barn. Photo by Mark Gorges.
Published June 14, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Changes in spring bird count bring up questions.”
By Barb Gorges
A Virginia’s warbler was the celebratory guest at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s Big Day Bird Count May 16.
This southwestern bird is a rare migrant in our area. Two other rare migrants were broad-winged hawk, an eastern species, and black tern.
This year 110 species were counted. This is lower than a typical count the last several years—and way lower than the counts in the 1990s, averaging 140-150 species.
It could be the result of a change in the birders participating. For many years, the Murie Audubon Society put on a bird class in Casper every spring and many of the students made an overnight excursion to be here at the crack of dawn for the Big Day. More eyeballs equals more birds seen. This year only one person came down.
However, the Laramie Audubon Society has taken to scheduling a field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch on our Big Day. This year they brought 14 people to augment our 20.
Possibly another change is that back in the 1990s, Bob and Jane Dorn birded the High Plains Grasslands Research Station at 6 a.m. Now we don’t get there until nearly lunch time, after birding Lions Park and the ranch. Birds are more active early in the day.
In the world of birdwatching, a big day is a marathon to see how many species an individual or a small team can see in 24 hours. The area birded may be limited. The American Birding Association, for the sake of competition, has rules that describe how many people can be on the team and what percentage of the species counted have to be seen by all team members.
By contrast, Cheyenne’s count starts out as one big group and slowly dissolves into individuals by afternoon. Perhaps we should lean more toward the Christmas Bird Count model and have groups of people birding each hot spot simultaneously at dawn.
There’s also the possibility that the birds have changed over the years. While Cheyenne residents have planted more trees, inviting more songbird species, areas of prairie we used to check are now developed and thus, no burrowing owls or longspurs found on the day of the count.
Typically, spring migration is a short burst, compared to fall migration, which begins sometime in July with shorebirds and still finds some species straggling south in November and December.
Now we can look at observations for this May in Laramie County at www.eBird.org to see where the peak of migration was. There was a total of 173 species observed for the month. Keep in mind many pass through within a week’s time or less:
1st week – 79 species
2nd week – 99 species
3rd week – 145 species
4th week – 128 species.
The third week includes our Big Day, but had 35 more species than we saw on May 16, which was a cold day so perhaps birds were sitting tight and were more visible the rest of that week.
Even in the age of eBird, our Big Day is worth the effort, I think. It’s a chance to learn to identify, with the help of the best local birders, species that are here rarely or for a short time, like the Virginia’s Warbler.
Simply, it is a great time for birders to flock together and enjoy the magic of migration.
Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 2015
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Northern Rough-winged Swallow