Published October 3, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going by the book doesn’t prove bird’s existence.”
2014 Update: Rare bird sightings in Wyoming continue to be a source of amazement and a topic of discussion.
By Barb Gorges
If a bird flies through the forest and there is no one to see it, does it exist?
Conversely, if the annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union is held in your state, will birds be found never before seen there?
Yes and yes. Several of the 500 attendees of the conference held in Laramie in early August observed what may be the first two records of lesser black-backed gull for Wyoming, if accepted by the Wyoming Rare Bird Records Committee.
One of the gulls was hanging out at Lake Hattie on the Laramie Plains and the other at North Gap Lake high in the Snowy Range.
Wyoming does not have a huge number of resident ornithologists or expert birders to cover our vast plains and mountain ranges so one has to wonder how many lesser black-backeds have visited previously.
The lesser black-backed is essentially a European species, but gulls are likely to travel long distances scouting new territory. North American birders started seeing this species in the winter along the Atlantic coast in the early 1970s.
Field guide range maps indicate at least a single record up to a few sightings every year for states in the eastern half of the U.S., but with a heavy concentration along the Front Range of Colorado.
This makes me smile. Several years ago I went on a late fall field trip led by Tony Leukering and Doug Faulkner to look for gulls at the reservoirs around Fort Collins. We saw several rarities.
Are these guys gull magnets? Or do they have more knowledge of how to recognize species that aren’t expected?
So I asked Doug about the new gull in Wyoming. He wrote back:
“You should look at Sibley’s Lesser Black-backed range map. That one is pretty accurate, although as with most publications, it was already out-of-date before it hit the printers.
“LBBG is annual in winter in Colorado in small numbers (about 8-12 per winter; I often see 6 or more). In fact, it is regular enough that the Colorado Bird Records Committee no longer requests documentation.
“Colorado’s first record is from 1976. It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that the species really took off and started to occur annually, then in the early 2000s in relatively high numbers for an inland state.
“The Wyoming Bird Records Committee is reviewing documentation of one at Casper from winter 2004. If accepted, that would be the first state record.
“LBBG has been slowly expanding, geographically, westward as evidenced not only by Colorado’s records, but also those from other states. More interestingly, the species has broken out of its “rut” of only occurring in winter inland. It is now being found more often in summer (Wyoming’s two birds this year, plus several for Colorado and Nebraska in recent years), as well as earlier in the fall and later in the spring.”
How many observations does it take before the field guide maps are altered? Last winter a lesser goldfinch, easily distinguished from our usual American goldfinch, was seen at a Cheyenne feeder almost daily, for months. The Sibley Guide to Birds shows a couple green dots meaning that there were already a few records for Wyoming.
But then came this summer. We had one visit our feeder. And so did people from Green River, Casper, Buford and Newcastle who posted their observations on Wyobirds, the e-list for learning about birds in Wyoming (http://HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/ archives). Doug posted a report of small flocks around Guernsey when he birded the area.
Is this the beginning of a trend, an expansion of the lesser goldfinch range north or a one-time phenomenon? Time will tell.
Wyoming is woefully short of expert observers, though not short of people interested in watching birds. I take a lot of bird identification questions over the phone from people who want to know more about the birds in their yards.
On the other hand, I’ve also taken calls from visiting birders, who, having looked at the Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles of Wyoming edited by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (http://gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/nongame), are quite positive that they have seen a first Wyoming record for a species they are very familiar with back home.
Are these visitors making a familiar species out of one of our similar local species, or have we locals not recognized an unusual species because we aren’t familiar with it?
The Wyoming Bird Records Committee judges the credibility of all rare bird records for the state. A few folks looking to bag state records have been deeply disappointed at the slow speed of our committee, but it is staffed by volunteer experts with full-time jobs and they do the best they can.
Us average birdwatchers are as important as the expert in documenting changes in the ranges of species. So how do we make our observations useful?
Study birds. Participate in data collection efforts like Project FeederWatch and eBird. Learn when and how to file a rare bird form. To request one, call the Wyoming Game and Fish regional office in Lander, 307-332-2688. And keep looking.
After all, as birdwatchers are fond of pointing out, the birds don’t read the books.