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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Arizona fire damage softened by snow

Rodeo-Chediski fire

Smoke billows from the Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona in 2003. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 9, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Arizona fire damage softened by snow. The Chediski Fire left areas of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest looking like a New England winter scene.”

2015 Update: The Forest Service is using fuel treatments such as prescribed fires and thinning stands of trees. No update on the website, http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/asnf/home, on how the Rodeo-Chedeski fire area has recuperated.

By Barb Gorges

The view from my sister and brother-in-law’s house two weeks ago was of ponderosa pine forest decorated for Christmas in several inches of fresh snow.

Beth and Brian Dykstra live in Heber, which, like other small towns in the White Mountains of central Arizona, has been reduced to a vacation destination. Once one of the area’s logging communities, founded before the turn of the century, it is now a string of businesses along the highway backed by rural subdivisions built in second growth timber.

Last June the Chediski fire caused Beth and Brian and all their neighbors to evacuate for more than a week. Brian, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, had already headed to the Rodeo fire near Show Low, 40 miles east. He worked as a “dozer boss,” clearing fire lines and saving homes.

Beth, a Forest Service recreation planner, left the family pets with other evacuees before reporting back to the district office in Overgaard, Heber’s twin community, to field phone calls from distressed residents and deliver daily updates to evacuees.

Fire came within three-quarters of a mile of Beth and Brian’s house and within 500 yards of the office, but burned homes of several friends and coworkers.

Six months later it was only natural that while waiting for the Christmas turkey to roast we should tour the nearby burned areas.

The layer of snow prevented us from seeing ground damage. Beth said most of the ash disappeared during the annual “monsoon” rains later in the summer. In many places, without any assistance, tree seedlings were soon sprouting as thick as grass.

Volunteers wanting to plant trees have been turned away. What’s really needed, Beth said, only partly in jest, are people to stomp on some of the seedlings and keep the forest from growing back so thick again.

However, in other places where the fire burned too hot, the soil has become “hydrophobic” and won’t absorb moisture at all, putting off regrowth indefinitely.

Where we first turned off Highway 260 into the Black Canyon, some of the ponderosa had blackened trunks and their lower limbs held needles singed an orange color.

Beth said if a tree retains at least 30 percent of its needles undamaged, it may recover. However, the drought responsible for the severity of the fire may continue, adversely affecting survival.

For a stretch the road seemed to have contained the fire to one side of the canyon, but then there was a whole expanse devoid of green, orange or any other color except the blue sky silhouetting each charcoaled tree.

In another part of the country, New England for instance, this could be a typical winter landscape—except maples don’t have a ponderosa’s shape.

During an hour’s drive we saw over and over the mosaic pieces of unburned, singed and burned forest. Coming out on the highway again by Overgaard, Beth pointed out the mounds of snow marking foundations of houses unlucky enough to catch stray embers while neighboring houses survived.

Both Beth and Brian were, after the fire, immediately assigned to the Burned Area Emergency Rehab team to assess areas most in need of erosion control before the rainy season began. Brian said 50,000 acres (of the 176,000 acres of Forest Service land burned) were seeded aerially with a mix of native grass species and then mulched with hay.

“Bale bombing,” dropping 1000-pound bales from airplane cargo nets, tended to spread the hay unevenly. In other places, members of a four-wheeler club from Phoenix were happy to use their off-road vehicles to deliver 70-pound bales for other volunteers to spread.

Brian hopes the state game and fish department will take measures to reduce the elk herd before their grazing undoes the rehabilitation effort.

We saw mourning doves while on our tour. They too see the seeding effort as a food source when usually, by this time of year, they would have already migrated to the desert.

Beth has since been assigned to the salvage team. “Categorical exclusions,” actions excluded from analysis as in-depth as an environmental impact statement, are allowing the clearing of dead trees within 100 feet of roads, buildings, recreation areas and power lines. These are places where the trees could cause damage when they eventually topple. Burned forests are hazardous places to be on a windy day.

Many of the burned trees I saw were too small to be valuable timber. Beth said they would be knocked down to become soil amendments. The larger trees are salvageable for lumber up to 18 months after a fire.

Burned trees are generally regarded as too messy to be harvested for firewood, although someone is working to set up a power plant that could use them for fuel.

Damaged trees will attract insects and insects will attract birds. A researcher from Northern Arizona University has contacted the Forest Service about studying the effects of the fire on the hairy woodpecker, an insectivorous species.

Someday managers will figure out how to achieve natural ponderosa forest, those grassy parks dotted with mature “yellow pine,” yet still satisfy the nation’s lumber needs.

Meanwhile, months from now, the spring thaw will bring flooding to fishless streams, but it will also show what healing has taken place as it melts the gauze bandage of snow.

Forest fire aftermath

It will take a while for this burned area in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming to green up. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wildfire affects family and wildlife

Burned forest

A wildfire in Wyoming in Medicine Bow National Forest seems to have burned even the reservoir of seeds needed for quick regrowth. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 11, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Arizona fire affects family, wildlife.”

2014 Update: Big wildfires seem to make the news earlier every year, and there seem to be more of them. People who live next to fire-prone wildlands can learn how to prepare for fire season, http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/prev_ed/.

By Barb Gorges

Once, in just a few days I managed to add 20 birds to my life list.

We were visiting Arizona, where even the most common birds were species I’d never seen before, such as yellow-eyed juncos and acorn woodpeckers.

I would not have expected to travel to Arizona before reaching retirement age, but we were visiting my sister Beth who was working as a recreation planner for the Apache-Sitgraves National Forest and lived in Pinetop-Lakeside.

Many of the new birds were seen on a short trip further south, to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Madera Canyon near Tucson, but even Pinetop, up in the White Mountains, had a new, southwestern species for me, the black phoebe, and one I had yet to identify in Wyoming, the pygmy nuthatch.

At first, Beth rented a cabin so buried in the ponderosa pine she shivered even in summer. When she bought a house, she made sure it didn’t have a single pine on the lot. Though she’s worked a lot of fires in her career, I think she was considering solar heat more than fire safety.

Last year Beth relocated to the Forest Service office in Heber where her husband is a wildlife biologist. Their present house is in a piney neighborhood, but on a lot open except for a few small trees next to the house and a couple larger ones out by the road.

The small trees succumbed to some quick chainsaw work a couple weeks ago. After my brother-in-law left to work the Rodeo fire, Beth had to evacuate. Luckily, her office also had to evacuate, to an old field camp where Beth could leave the family pets.

Except for the day the Chediski (think “Cheddar Sky” when you pronounce it) fire singed the Heber office’s front lawn, Beth and her few remaining coworkers came back every day to man the phones.

Most of what I know about the fires I learned from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle’s coverage and secondhand from my mother who has been acting as family dispatcher. Beth is home now, however, the fire season is not over.

Many of the homes lost belonged to seasonal residents who can stay home in Phoenix while they decide what to do about rebuilding, but what about Beth’s coworkers and other year-round residents who lost their homes?

What happens to wildlife? If Bambi’s neighborhood burns and he escapes to the next valley, will the deer there share their scarce resources during this drought year, or will Bambi have to make do with the most marginal habitat? Or does he change the pecking order in the new valley and force some other deer to relocate, causing a ripple effect?

What about birds? I wouldn’t think your average bird could out-fly a crown fire racing through treetops. Do birds smell smoke and evacuate an area? Or, if there are any birds left after a fire, is it because their territory happened to be one of the many patches the fire skipped?

Coincidently, during the first week of the Rodeo-Chediski fires, I happened to read the May/June 2002 issue of the U.S. Department of Interior’s “People, Land and Water” magazine which was devoted to wildland fire and the new national fire management plan.

The article that caught my eye was “Birds and Burns in Ponderosa Pine Forests,” written by Natasha Kotliar from the Midcontinent Ecological Science Center. The MESC is one of 16 science centers in the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey and is headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo.

She described a plan to study the ecological consequences of three fire conditions: unburned forests, prescribed understory fire and wildfire, in three locations including Arizona.

The article didn’t list where the no burn areas were going to be, but there will be an abundance of burn areas to choose from.

Beth and her husband have worked plenty of fires before, but never so close to home that they needed to evacuate. This time they will have front row seats for studying the recovery of the land and wildlife—and the people.

Even though the fire isn’t completely contained as I write this, already both Beth and her husband are beginning forest rehabilitation work. Wish for them not so much rain that the soil washes away, but only enough that the seeds sprout.

Birding Arizona in spring

Scaled Quail

Scaled Quail, photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published March 29, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Spring break trip should be warm; Arizona mountains still chilly in March.”

2014 Update: For birding information in eas-central Arizona, visit the White Mountain Audubon Society website: http://www.whitemountainaudubon.org.

By Barb Gorges

Spring break is magic taking you from snow shovel, cold wind and icy roads south to warm up. On your return, hopefully spring weather has caught up with home and you effortlessly segue into tulips, green grass and warbler migration.

My spring break didn’t quite follow this plan, except for flying to Phoenix. I marveled over the palm trees people have planted everywhere and reveled in the delightful, 65-degree breeze while I waited for the airport shuttle.

It was St. Patrick’s Day and I was headed to Overgaard, Ariz., in the White Mountains, to the home of my sister, Beth, and brother-in-law Brian.

From Phoenix at an elevation of 1,072 feet, the van from the White Mountain Passenger Line climbed upward for three hours.

I wonder, in its years of operation since 1937, if the drivers ever tire of the progression from blooming bougainvillea sprawled along the interstate, to scrubby hills sprouting saguaro cactus to the pinyon- juniper woodland, to the ponderosa pine forest.

Overgaard is 450 miles south of Cheyenne, so in ecological terms, spring there should be nearly five days ahead, but at 6600 feet elevation, it is 500 feet higher than us so subtract five days, which makes it even with us.

The weekend before, Beth and Brian measured 29 inches of snowfall after an otherwise dry winter. But it melts fast late in winter so much farther south, and evidence of the traffic-stopping storm was hard to find.

I always get a kick out of the name of one area town, Snowflake. I heard during this trip that its name is actually the combination of the names of the founding families, the Snows and the Flakes.

On my first day we joined members of the White Mountain Audubon Society on their field trip to Petrified Forest National Park which is celebrating its centennial.

We found no snow at its treeless lower elevations except in protected gullies but the wind was equal to one of Cheyenne’s brisker days. The most numerous birds were horned larks flittering by. They weren’t too shy and we were able to get nice looks at the feathered “horns” of some of them.

The common raven is common there and each time one flew over, I had to examine it to make sure it wasn’t a hawk. Several raptors were identified: red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, northern harrier and merlin.

In the rabbit brush down by Agate Bridge—a huge petrified tree trunk spanning an eroding wash—we found a white-crowned sparrow. So far, nothing I wouldn’t see on a southeast Wyoming field trip.

But then we walked along a riparian area and things got more interesting. The first birds we saw were petroglyphs, but what species? Who knows what the artists were thinking 700 years ago.

Then ahead of us birds began to scamper across the road. Two larger birds in the brush were identified as curve-billed thrashers. Several people identified scaled quail. Now those are species I can’t find at home!

Back at Beth and Brian’s, we found more birds than we’d seen all morning. Pine siskins and juncos swarmed the feeders and ground underneath.

Every time I looked at the gnarly old juniper closest to the window I saw something new. The house is in a forested subdivision so pygmy nuthatches felt very comfortable working over the suet block—five at a time. In my backyard I might see the occasional red-breasted nuthatch.

Whereas I might find an American goldfinch, downy woodpecker or blue jay in my yard, in this yard I saw lesser goldfinches, a hairy woodpecker and both Stellar’s and pinyon jays.

Whereas I might hope to see a mountain bluebird west of town this time of year, Brian said the western bluebirds I saw, with their robin-like red breasts, are there all year round.
Whereas I might find a migrating spotted towhee once in my yard in May, Brian thinks the one I saw in their yard nests in a bush along the fence.

The rest of the feeder list included one each: red-naped sapsucker, house finch, white-crowned sparrow, northern flicker (red-shafted), mountain chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch plus several robins (also year rounders) and a few starlings. Except for the sapsucker, I might find any of these in my northern, manmade, backyard
forest.

But then the local tree squirrel came along and I remembered I wasn’t anywhere near Cheyenne. Our squirrels do not have fluffy white tails and ear tassels like the Abert squirrels.

Beth and I took a hike nearby the next day and found mourning doves, a killdeer and a turkey vulture, signs of spring for Wyoming. In Arizona, however, only the “TV” is a sign since the others are found year round.

We also drove over to Show Low Lake and found Arizona’s winter ducks: buffleheads, gadwalls, goldeneyes and a ruddy duck —signs that spring might be delayed. After all, it was snowing.

Of course here at home the day before I got back, despite being the Spring Equinox, there was enough fresh snowfall to require plowing.

Winter weather isn’t over till the fat Wilson’s warbler sings.