Watching one bird at a time

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“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published May 29, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following individual birds brings new insights.”

 

By Barb Gorges

            There’s more to birdwatching than counting birds or adding species to your life list. The best part of birdwatching is watching individual birds, observing what they are doing.

            Thank goodness it isn’t rude to stare at them.

            While some species may skulk in the undergrowth, most of our local birds are easily seen, even from our windows.

            Every morning I check the view out the bathroom window and often there’s a Eurasian collared-dove sitting in the tall, solitary tree two yards down. By March I was seeing collared-dove acrobatics. The males, like this one, like to lift off from their high perches and soar in a downward spiral. I’m not sure what that proves to the females, but one of them has taken up with him.

            I saw them getting chummy one day, standing together on the near neighbor’s chimney cover. I can imagine their cooing reverberates into the house below. Then they kept taking turns disappearing into the upright junipers where last year they, or another pair, had a nest.

            But one day I caught sight of a calico cat climbing the juniper. The branches are just thick enough that I couldn’t see if the cat found eggs. Eventually she jumped out onto the neighbor’s roof and sauntered across to an easier route down to ground level.

            More than a month later, I have not seen the calico here again, but have seen a collared-dove disappearing into the juniper once more. I’ll have to watch for more activity.

            If I were authors Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose, I would be making notes, complete with date, time and sketches. I would be able to go back and check my notes from last year and see if the birds are on schedule. I might climb up and look for a nest. And I might do a thorough survey of the academic literature to find out if anyone has studied the effects of loose cats on collared-dove populations.

            However, most of us have other obligations keeping us from indulging in intense bird study and we don’t sketch very well either.

            But Heinrich and Zickefoose do. Heinrich is liable to climb a tree (and he’s no spring chicken) or follow a flock of chickadees through the forest near his cabin in Maine. Zickefoose, who has a license to rehab birds at her Ohio home, can legally hold a bluebird in her hand.

            Both have new books out this spring which allow us to look over their shoulders as they explore their own backyards.

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“One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives” by Bernd Heinrich, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinrich is known for his books exploring many aspects of natural history (my most recent review was of “Life Everlasting”). His new one, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” has 17 birds, one chapter at a time, in a loose seasonal arrangement. He has also portrayed each species in watercolor, directly from sketches he’s made in the field. This is sometimes as close as his own bedroom where he was able to rig a blind when flickers drilled through his cabin siding and nested between the outer and inner walls.

 

            Though Heinrich is professor emeritus, his writing style is pure, readable storytelling.

            Zickefoose’s goal in her new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” is also somewhat encyclopedic. From the woodland surrounding her home, she was able to document nestling development for 17 species. Finding a songbird nest, she would remove a nestling every day to quickly sketch it in watercolors, feed it and return it. Her drawings are like full scale time-lapse photography. Don’t try this at home unless you are a licensed bird rehabber.

            Although she has handled lots of birds in the course of her work, following individual nestlings gave Zickefoose an insight into how those of different species grow at different rates—ground nesters are the fastest.

            Either of these books can serve as inspiration for becoming a more observant birdwatcher, but they are also great storytelling, with the benefit that the stories are true and full of intriguing new information.

            If you find a nest this spring, consider documenting it for science. See www.nestwatch.org. The site’s information includes lots of related information, including plans for building nest boxes.   

Big Day bird count big picture

2016-05BigDay2-byMarkGorges - CopyPublished in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Opinion section May 22, 2016, “Bird count day gives us big picture.”

By Barb Gorges

            May Hanesworth was ahead of her time. An active Cheyenne birder as early as the 1940s, she made sure the results of the local spring bird counts were published every year in the Cheyenne paper. She recruited me in the 1990s to type the lists for her. She felt that someday there would be a place for that data and she was right.

            A few years ago, members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society collected and uploaded that data to eBird.org, a global database for bird observations. The oldest record we found was for 1956.

            We refer to the count we make at the height of spring migration as the Big Day Bird Count. Elsewhere in the world, competitive birders will, as a small team or solo, do a big day to see how many species they can find in a specified area. But the idea of a group of unlimited size like ours going out and scouring an area is unusual, though closer to what the originator, Lynds Jones, an Oberlin College ornithology professor, had in mind back in 1895.

            Now eBird.org has started a new tradition as of last year, the Global Big Day. This year it was scheduled for May 14, the same day as ours. Results show 15,642 people around the world saw 6,227 bird species. For our local count, 20 people looked for birds around Cheyenne, and 107 species were counted [Results were published elsewhere in the paper. See the list below.].

            Finding our favorite birds in the company of friends is a good incentive for taking part, but there is the science too. Back in the spring of 1956, May saw 85 species. And when Mark and I started in the 1990s, 150 seemed to be the norm—perhaps because Cheyenne had more trees by then. However, the last 10 years, the average is lower, 118.

            Maybe we aren’t as sharp as earlier birders. Or we are missing the peak of migration. Or we have lost prime habitat for migrating birds as the surrounding prairie gets built over and elderly trees are removed in town. Or it’s caused by deteriorating habitat in southern wintering grounds or northern breeding grounds.

            But imagine where we would be without the Migratory Bird Treaty.

            This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first agreement, in 1916, between the U.S. and Great Britain (signing for Canada), followed by other agreements and updates. In summary: “It is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, offer for sale, purchase or barter any migratory bird, or parts, nests or eggs.”

            Even migrating songbirds, like our Wyoming state bird, the western meadowlark, are protected.

            But who would want to hurt a meadowlark?

            Look at the Mediterranean flyway. Birdlife International reports 25 million birds of all kinds along it are shot or trapped every year for fun, food and the cage bird trade. Perpetrators think the supply of birds is endless. But we can point to the millions of passenger pigeons in North America prior to the death in 1914 of the last one, to show what can happen.

            The city of Eliat, Israel, is the funnel between Africa and Europe/Asia on the Mediterranean flyway, and to bring attention to the slaughter, the annual Champions of the Flyway bird race is based there. A big day event, this year it attracted 40 teams, Israeli and international, which counted a combined total of 243 species during 24 hours.

            This year, funds raised by the teams are going to Greece, to support education and enforcement—killing migratory birds is already illegal. Some of the worst-hit areas are in forests above beaches popular with tourists. Attracting birdwatching tourists could pay better than killing and trapping birds, a kind of change that has been beneficial elsewhere.  

            Many factors affect how many birds we see in Cheyenne on our big day, but we do have control over one aspect: habitat. If you live in the city, plant more trees and shrubs in appropriate places. If you live on acreage, protect the prairie and its ground-nesting grassland birds. And then join us on future Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts and contribute to the global big picture of birds.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results affected by cold, wet weather

By Barb Gorges

            The 2016 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was held May 14. It was cold (33-43 degrees F), wet and foggy. Conditions kept down the number of birdwatchers participating as well as the number of birds observed.

            Thirteen Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members and friends birded as a group at Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. Seven others birded on their own and contributed to the total of 107 species observed. Last year’s total was 110 species.

            Few flycatchers, vireos and warblers were seen because few insects, their primary food, were around due to the cold. Few kinds of shorebirds were seen at area reservoirs. High water levels from previous rain and snowfall left few areas of shallow water and exposed sandbars for them.

            Although many of the species that migrate through Cheyenne were seen, including willet, broad-winged hawk, Forster’s tern, ruby-crowned kinglet and western tanager, the day, weather notwithstanding, may not have represented quite the peak of spring migration.

             A highlight of the count was a black-and-white warbler at the research station. It is considered an eastern warbler, rarely seen this far west, although it does nest in the Black Hills.

            The Cheyenne Big Day ran concurrent with the Global Big Day. For a look at local and global results, see www.eBird.org/globalbigday. 

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count

May 14, 2016

107 species total

Canada Goose

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Bonaparte’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Prairie Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Tree Swallow

N. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yelllow-rumped Warbler

Green-tailed Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Lark Bunting

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Bitter Creek

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The Overland Trail doesn’t get as much mention as the Oregon Trail, but present day highways and railroads follow it. Not much remains at the location of the Bitter Creek state station, named for the undrinkable alkali water in Bitter Creek. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

Published August 28, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Follow a few miles of the Overland Trail, sans pavement.”

By Barb Gorges

Bitter Creek, much of the time only a trickle of undrinkable alkali water, is responsible for providing the canyon followed by railroad, Interstate and the historic Overland Trail, between the old Bitter Creek stage stop and its confluence with the Green River at Green River.

Where the wide gravel road from the Interstate crosses the railroad, there was a livestock loading facility 30 years ago, complete with corrals, old boxcars and loading chutes. Today all that is left is a tipsy metal structure and a concrete skeleton.

As you follow the railroad and creek to the north and west, to Point of Rocks, you will be following the Overland Trail just as the stagecoaches did—without pavement.

From 1862-68 it was the official alternative to the Oregon Trail, which was plagued with Indian attacks. It branched off of the Oregon Trail at Julesburg, Colo. Coming from Laramie, as you drove across the flank of Elk Mountain on I-80, you followed another section.

Even after the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868, stagecoaches followed the Overland as late as 1900.

Overland Trail along Bitter Creek

Directions: I-80 Exit 142, south on Bitter Creek South Road for 6 miles to railroad tracks, then 18 miles, generally west, then north along tracks and creek, to Exit 130 at Point of Rocks. Keep tracks close, on your right, until then.

Open: Road may be impassable during inclement weather. High clearance vehicle preferred.

Admission: Free.

Attractions: Historic trail, operating oil and gas field.

Time: Allow 1 hour.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction:Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum

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The former Wyoming State Penitentiary building faces a residential street in Rawlins. Take a tour and get the inside story on executions, escapes and prison riots. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published August 31, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Scary is the word for this former state prison.”

By Barb Gorges

This is the prison to take your kids to as a deterrent to a life of crime.

I took a tour the year after the old state penitentiary closed in 1981 and it was hard to believe people had lived in it so recently, it was so run down. A few years later, it was used as a movie set.

But it was brand new in 1901. The massive sandstone structure looks medieval, complete with turrets.

If you decide to pay for the hour-long tour, you’ll see the cell blocks and the Death House, and hear the stories of escapes, hangings and riots.

There is no charge to tour the museum area at the entrance. It features inmate stories and their handiwork, plus a gift shop.

One room is dedicated to the Wyoming Peace Officers Museum and in another a video plays interviews with employees at the current prison.

At the back of the museum, a sign advertising a nature trail points to a door leading outside. Lucky for you, escaping the dreary surroundings is that easy.

Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum

Directions: I-80 Exit 211, east on Spruce, north on 7th to Walnut.

Open: Memorial through Labor Days, every day, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Off season tours Monday-Thursday (excluding holidays) at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. only.  Please check website for updates.

Admission: One-hour tours every hour on the half hour until 4:30 p.m., $8/adult, $7/senior or child, $30/family.

Address: 500 W. Walnut St., Rawlins.

Phone: 307-324-4422.

Web site: http://wyomingfrontierprison.org/

Attractions: Tours for a fee, free exhibits, gift shop, nature trail. Special off-season tours and hours available.

Time: Allow 1-2 hours.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Dugway

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There’s good fishing and floating at this access to the North Platte River. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 11, 2009 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Fish, float and find wildlife along the North Platte.”

By Barb Gorges

Presumably named for having had to dig out space for a road next to the North Platte River, there is no reason to recommend this site unless you are fishing and/or boating and love sun. Campsites have tables, but there is no shade. Consequently, it is very quiet, especially during the week.

The www.recreation.gov Website recommends putting in your canoe or kayak upstream (south) because of a control crest installed below the dugway. Put in at the Interstate bridge or Fort Steele.

Look up the Bureau of Land Management’s map of “Public Fishing Opportunities—South and West Central Wyoming.” Cheyenne folks can pick up a copy at BLM’s information desk, 5353 Yellowstone Road, during business hours Monday through Friday.

It shows rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout and walleye can be caught here.

If your boat is too big for the river, continue another 30 miles on up the road to Seminoe Reservoir, at Seminoe State Park.

The fishing map indicates Dugway is good for wildlife watching. We saw a pair of common mergansers swim by.

Dugway, Bureau of Land Management Recreation Site

Directions: I-80 Exit 219, north on Seminoe Road (County Road 351), about 8 miles.

Open: Year round, weather permitting.

Admission: Free.

Phone: Rawlins BLM field office, 307-328-4200.

Web site: http://www.recreation.gov/recFacilitySearch.do.

Attractions: Boating (canoeing and kayaking), camping, fishing (Wyoming fishing license required), picnicking, wildlife watching.

Time: Allow at least 1 hour, or more if the fish are biting.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Fort Steele

11-Fort Steele

Not much remains of Fort Steele or the town that came afterward. It was built on the banks of the North Platte River to protect crews building the Transcontinental Railroad. After the fort was decommissioned, the town reached its zenith during the heyday of the Lincoln Highway, until the highway was moved. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 28, 2009, Fort Steele isn’t just the rest area.”

By Barb Gorges

For frequent I-80 travelers, “Fort Steele” is the name of the rest area between Walcott and Rawlins. Be sure to stop and use the facilities first since the real fort is mostly building foundations or skeletons.

Since there are no picnicking or camping accommodations, and no large boat access for the North Platte River, you and the wildlife will likely be the only visitors.

You must walk from the parking area down the sidewalk to the river and under the railroad bridge to get to the site.

Fort Steele was established in 1868 to protect a section of the Transcontinental Railroad which was finished in 1869. It was named for Major General Frederick Steele, a Civil War hero, shortly after his death.

The troops also helped out with civilian law enforcement at nearby mining camps.

Abandoned by the military in 1886, Fort Steele reached its zenith when the Lincoln Highway passed through, beginning in the 1920s. But then the highway moved in 1939 and the site was abandoned again.

Don’t forget to walk into the Bridge Tender’s House for more information about the area’s historic economy.

Fort Fred Steele State Historic Site

Directions: I-80 Exit 228, north, then north on first road east of the exit.

Open: May 1 – Nov. 15, every day, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Admission: Free.

Phone: 307-320-3013.

Web site: http://Wyoparks.state.wy.us.

Attractions: Self-guided tours, river habitat.

Time: Allow at least 1 hour.