Condors in Wyoming

2018-08Condor 832_edited-1-Brian Waitkus

California Condor T2 perches atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming in early July 2018. Photo courtesy Brian R. Waitkus.

Published Aug. 19, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/condor-visits-wyoming-next-condor-needs-to-find-steel-instead-of-lead.

Condor visits Wyoming; next condor needs to find steel instead of lead

By Barb Gorges

Exciting news in the Wyoming birdwatching community: A California condor, North America’s largest raptor with 9.5-foot wingspan, was sighted July 7 west of Laramie perched on Medicine Bow Peak. The reporting birder was Nathan Pieplow. He is the author of the Peterson guide to bird sounds. Maybe he recorded it.

Wing tags printed with a big T2 declared this was a female condor hatched and raised in 2016 at the Portland, Oregon, zoo and released in March at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona.

Several people from the Laramie Audubon chapter climbed up to see the condor. Brian Waitkus got excellent photos.

Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,014 feet, is a popular destination for hikers who want a challenge including lightning and boulder fields. As many as a dozen hikers were congregating near the condor July 9. The condor didn’t mind people but was flushed by three dogs off leash, observed Murie Audubon president Zach Hutchinson.

2018-08Condor T2Brian Waitkus

T2 was outfitted with wing tags and transmitter by the Peregrine Fund before her release in Arizona in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

T2 was one of many condors released into the wild by the Peregrine Fund working to re-establish the population of this officially endangered species. In 1982 there were only 22 birds left. Today there are 500, half flying free in Arizona, Utah, California and Baja Mexico. Some are now breeding in the wild. For more, read Condors in Canyon Country by Sophie A. H. Osborn and https://www.peregrinefund.org/.

The distance between the Arizona release site and the peak is only 440 miles as the condor flies, not difficult for a bird that can travel 200 miles a day. T2 was spotted earlier, on June 28, near Roosevelt, Utah.

The closest previous Wyoming condor sighting was 1998, in Utah at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which spans the Utah-Wyoming line.

T2’s visit was brief. A Peregrine Fund researcher following the condor using telemetry later got the signal 30 miles away indicating the bird was not moving. By the time he arrived, the bird was dead. It’s been sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for autopsy. Foul play was not suspected.

Serendipitously, soon after the first news broke about T2, Chris Parish, director of global conservation for the Peregrine Fund, was about to drop his daughter off in Laramie. He offered to give a talk on condors sponsored by the Laramie Audubon Society and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.

In his presentation, Chris touched briefly on the history of restoring the condor population.

Condors are tough. They survived the large mammal extinction 10,000 years ago. However, they are slow to reproduce, only one chick every two years. At propagation centers, experts can get a pair to lay an extra egg to put in an incubator.

Condors live 50 to 60 years by avoiding predators and finding new habitat. A few are still being shot, despite condors being as harmless as turkey vultures, eating only carrion–already dead animals. They fly into powerlines and get hit by vehicles too.

The biggest problem for condors is poisoning from lead ammunition, Chris said. When a deer is shot, the bullet disintegrates into hundreds of fragments. Often, the fragments are in the gut pile, or offal, that hunters leave in the field. Offal is the condor’s main dish.

All those little lead fragments add up and eventually cause lead poisoning. Some of those lead fragments also find their way into game meat people eat. Researchers try to check the blood lead levels of all free-flying condors once a year and treat them if necessary before releasing them again.

Our national symbol, the bald eagle, also feeds at carcasses. In 1991 lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned but upland animals—and birds like the eagle–are not protected.

Arizona Game and Fish Department a few years ago asked hunters on the Kaibab Plateau, where condors are released, to voluntarily use steel ammunition or to remove offal. They offered each participant two free boxes of steel ammunition. Participation is now at 87 percent. A similar program is nearly as successful in Utah. California has banned lead ammunition since 2008, said Chris.

The Peregrine Fund holds shooting trials and gives away steel ammunition for hunters to test. Chris, a lifelong hunter, spouts ballistic statistics with ease. The bottom line is that lead and steel ammunition of comparable quality are nearly the same cost. However, manufacturers need encouragement to offer more variety.

Chris also said that yes, steel ammunition takes a little practice for the hunter to become proficient with it, but practice is required any time a hunter switches to the same caliber ammunition made by a different manufacturer.

Steel bullets aren’t silver bullets for all wildlife problems. But maybe Wyoming can join the steel states. That way we’ll make it safer here for when more condors show up.

2018-08Condor head-Brian Waitkus

T2, a juvenile California Condor, hadn’t developed her red-skinned head yet. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

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Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands

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By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.