Bird of the Week: European Starling

European Starling

European Starling. Photo by Pete Arnold.

They’ve gone from 100 individuals released in New York in the 1890s to 200 million across the continent because they are so good at raiding farmers’ fields and aggressively evicting native cavity-nesting birds such as woodpeckers, tree swallows and bluebirds. However, Europeans make this glossy, iridescent bird a pet. It can learn new songs throughout its life, mimicking noises and other animals, including humans. Flocks practice cool, precision flight maneuvers.

Published Dec. 3, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak. Photo by FOB.

Half again larger than the house finches usually at our feeders, this finch doesn’t leave the mountain forests for Cheyenne feeders unless there’s a shortage of seeds and fruits. In spring it adds buds of trees to its diet and will catch insects to feed its nestlings. Members of each small flock communicate with each other with similar flight calls, distinct from other flocks. Mated pairs have identical flight calls.

Published Nov. 25, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by FOB.

Bird of the Week: Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Chosen as our national emblem in 1782, this bird ungenerously prefers to steal from other predators or scavenge already dead animals rather than capture its own prey. It will eat just about any animal but prefers fish. In Wyoming in winter it is most likely to be found along the larger rivers and reservoirs with open water. By its fifth year it finally has its white (“bald” is an old word for white) head and tail.

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

Bird of the Week: Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk (juvenile). Photo by FOB.

A frequent visitor at bird feeders, this small hawk feeds on the birds rather than the seeds. Our tree-filled backyards mimic its forest habitat and it has the perfect rounded wings and long tail for dashing around trees and into bushes. Because its nests are so hard to find in dense vegetation and it is so secretive, much is yet to be learned about its basic breeding biology.

Published Nov. 11, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by FOB.

Bird of the Week: Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle. Photo by FOB.

Previously hunted, trapped and poisoned because it sometimes preys on deer and livestock, its usual fare is rabbits, prairie dogs and ground squirrels, and in winter, carrion. It is now protected by federal law and often seen in Wyoming’s wide-open spaces year round soaring, gliding, stooping, diving and “parachuting” –wings upraised and feet dangling. Four years are required to get adult plumage, including the golden feathers on the back of its head and neck.

Published Nov. 4, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by FOB.

Bird of the Week: Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkeys. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Native only to North America, wild turkeys in Mexico were already domesticated when explorers found them in the 16th century. Europeans introduced them around the world, even reintroducing them when colonizing our Atlantic seaboard. Wild turkeys are now in all lower 48 states and Hawaii, thanks to sportsmen. Turkeys yelp before jumping from their nightly roosts in trees and purr to keep proper spacing while walking abreast in a line searching for food. Toms, but not hens, gobble.

Published Nov. 26, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: House Finch

House Finch

House Finch. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Native to the West and introduced in 1940 on Long Island, the two populations have now spread and merged. The westerners tend not to migrate and are abundant at our feeders. Male color ranges from yellow to red, depending on how much red is in the food they eat. Females prefer the reddest males. For five days after the young hatch, the parents remove their fecal sacks. After that, the nestlings, uniquely, are toilet-trained to use the rim of the nest.

Published Nov. 19, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Bird of the Week: Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco, Pink-sided subspecies. Photo by Pete Arnold.

The “snowbird” summers so far north or high in the mountains most people won’t see it until it comes back down with the snow. Other birds take dust baths but it bathes in snow and it will eat snow if water is not available. Four of the five subspecies, slate-colored, white-winged, gray-headed and Oregon–and hybrids, visit Cheyenne. A variation of the Oregon, the pink-sided, was first described in 1897 using a specimen collected at Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

Published Nov. 12, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Virginia is for bird lovers

Shenandoah NP

How many warblers were hiding out in Shenandoah National Park in mid-October? Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 1, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Virginia is for bird lovers, but also makes Wyoming birder think about home”

By Barb Gorges

The greater sage-grouse could be the expected topic for this column, another in the flurry of opinions published since September about its non-listing as an endangered species.

We should be happy it wasn’t listed. A lot of hard work went into compromises and new concepts in cooperation, worked out between industry, government agencies and environmental organizations.

But there are biologists afraid the compromises are not enough to keep sage-grouse populations from continuing to fall. There will be more legal battles ahead, from both industry and environmental groups.

What I really wanted to talk about was exploring the birds of Virginia in mid-October. Our older son and his wife moved there last winter and Mark and I birded with them recently, attending the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Birding back east is often about birding by ear, especially with leaves still on the trees. I soon learned to appreciate the Carolina chickadee’s call—just like our mountain chickadee’s—but as if it had drunk too much coffee.

Small birds in autumn don’t sing much and their call notes are hard to distinguish. Who knows how many warblers we missed? Identifying them visually is difficult because they have molted out of their more identifiable spring plumage. Maybe that’s why I liked the black-throated blue warblers we saw—males have solid blue backs, white bellies, and black faces and throats year round. But, oh the “warbler-neck” pain from looking up into extremely tall trees of the deciduous forest.

Our daughter-in-law was hired this last summer to help The Nature Conservancy with bird surveys in the Allegheny Highlands in western Virginia, to see if the fire management plan for the rare montane pine barrens will give songbirds like the golden-winged warbler what they need.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the golden-winged as “near threatened.” It has declined in population 76 percent since 1966, and 95 percent in its historic range in Appalachia for a variety of reasons, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

We didn’t get up to TNC’s Warm Springs Mountain Preserve to see this warbler this time, but Mark and I did accumulate a nice list of birds in our numerous walks. To name a few, we walked about the grounds of Monticello, on a bit of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, through woods and meadows at the U.S. National Arboretum; across the swamp at Historic Jamestowne, and in the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge.

My favorite birds (maybe because they were easy to see) were the gulls on one of the islands along the 20-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which is a combination of bridges and tunnels. Where one of the bridges ends and one of the tunnels begins on a manmade island, there is a scenic view pullout. Gulls paraded around, posing for cameras and expecting tips—food scraps.

I liked the view of open water. It’s like home, where so much is out in the open, though much also goes on below the surface.

I thought about the difference between saving sage-grouse and saving golden-winged warblers.

I thought about how easy it is to count football-sized sage-grouse compared to surveying for 5-inch birds that play hide and seek in leaves that are bigger than they are.

I thought about our large tracts of public and private land in Wyoming that seem to be endless and changeless, compared to the eastern forest constantly under attack by invading plants and subdivisions. Use Google Earth to trace the path of our flight from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta, and trace the endless curlicues of brand new roads. It would be difficult to insert fire as a management tool outside of a remote, unfragmented place like the Allegheny Highlands.

Acres in Wyoming are not untrammeled. As a range management student at the University of Wyoming 35 years ago, I learned that sagebrush needed to be eradicated to increase cattle productivity. Land managers, especially in the livestock industry, took action.

And now we see the error: that for a few more pounds of beef we may have jeopardized not only the sagebrush, but the sage-grouse and the whole sagebrush community, above and below the soil surface.

In turn, that could jeopardize future kinds of agricultural and wildlife productivity (such as hunting) which we put dollar values on. Energy developers, whether mineral or alternative, despite reclamation and mitigation claims, have the same problem.

I think we are on the right track though, segregating incompatible land uses, just as we zone areas of a city. It’s a matter of figuring out, before it’s too late, how to have our sage-grouse, and energy too.

Gee, it’s great to be home.

Ring-billed gulls

Ring-billed Gulls visit on top of a barrier on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – Tunnel in mid-October. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bird of the Week: Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Canada Goose. Photo by Pete Arnold.

The four smallest, duck-sized, subspecies, sometimes seen in Cheyenne, are now the “Cackling Goose” species, the smallest goose in the world. Of the seven remaining subspecies of this North American goose, the largest is the largest goose in the world. See their aerodynamic “V” formation when they migrate, heading south nonstop in autumn or leisurely eating their way north in spring. But many in cities and suburbs, with grass to graze and grain in handouts or nearby fields, stay year round.

Published Nov. 5, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.