Migratory Bird Treaty Act comes back

Objection to the slaughter of great egrets and other birds so that women’s hats could be adorned with their feathers eventually led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Photo by Barb Gorges, Green Cay Wetlands, Boynton Beach, Florida.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act is back in full force

Also published Sept. 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Migratory Bird Treaty Act back in full force.”

By Barb Gorges

Canada is happy again. It was not happy in December 2017 when the solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior reinterpreted the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act so that it allowed industry to accidentally kill birds without any penalty—including birds that spend summers in Canada.

In August this year, the National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, other conservation organizations and eight states successfully sued to get that reinterpretation reversed by U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni.

It was the hat-making industry that early on ran afoul (afowl?) of people who value birds. Wading birds that grow luxurious plumes during the breeding season and other birds were being slaughtered so that the feathers could adorn women’s hats—and sometimes whole birds were stuffed and perched on women’s heads.

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, no slaves to fashion, organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds to save the birds from decimation. Ten years before, George Bird Grinnell organized a group he called the Audubon Society in New York City.

By 1898, 16 more state Audubon societies were formed, leading to the founding of the National Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds in 1905.

In 1916, the U.S. and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the Migratory Bird Treaty. In 1918 the U.S. enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to implement it. In later years, with bipartisan support, the treaty and the act were expanded to include agreements with Mexico, Japan and what is now Russia.

The snowy egret was one of the species targeted by the hat-making industry in the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s. Photo by Barb Gorges, Green Cay Wetlands, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency setting the MBTA policies and enforcing them.

Unless permitted by regulation, there’s a prohibition to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird…or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

Technically, teachers should not display abandoned robins’ nests or migratory bird feathers in their classrooms without license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Without the MBTA, BP (British Petroleum) would not have paid $100 million in penalties for killing an estimated one million birds in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fine went to wetland and migratory bird conservation as compensation.

Without the full protection of the MBTA between December 2017 and this August, snowy owls were electrocuted in four states, oil spills happened in three states and there were other examples of avoidable bird deaths that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated but could not penalize anyone for.

The potential for hefty fines has led to industry innovation, such as covering oil field waste pits and protecting birds from electrocution. There’s still work to be done. Recent numbers show up to 64 million birds per year are still killed by powerlines, seven million by communication towers, half to one million by oil waste pits and oil spills still happen.

It’s hard for industry leaders to understand why birds should matter more than their profits. Birds are not just pretty faces. They work. They perform ecological services, which means they do things like keep other species in balance that can become pests to humans otherwise.

According to the study published in September 2019, “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, U.S. Geological Survey, Bird Conservatory of the Rockies, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Georgetown University, North America has 3 billion birds fewer today than in 1970,  due to loss of habitat and other human-caused problems. What if they were all still with us? Would one advantage be that we would need fewer chemical pesticides and have fewer of their side effects?

We have a lot in common with birds. Birds are more like us than we ever expected. They learn, they plot, they communicate–even with other species. Jennifer Ackerman’s latest book, “The Bird Way,” explores what scientists are learning.

Environmental protection regulations have taken a hit in the last four years. As people who breathe air and drink water, more of us should be more concerned. At least the bird protections regained by the recent MBTA verdict will help people as well, if somewhat indirectly.

Next, the National Audubon Society is going to court to defend the National Environmental Policy Act. The birds will appreciate that.

Still listed as a “Species of Special Concern” by the state of Florida, roseate spoonbills were a target of hunters providing feathers to the hat-making industry in the late 1800s. Photo by Barb Gorges, Brazos Bend State Park, Needville, Texas.

How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

            I am living under the flight path of major construction. A Swainson’s hawk is plucking cottonwood branches from one neighbor’s tree and taking them over my house to another neighbor’s tree to build a nest.

            Lately, a gang of 60 or 70, puffed up and strutting around in shiny black feather jackets, shows up along our back wall—no motorcycles for them—they’re common grackles. They even scare away the bully robin that keeps the house finches from the black oil sunflower seed we’ve put out.

            A pair of northern flickers has been visiting the seed cake feeder. We know they are male and female—he has the red mustache. The black and white pair of downy woodpeckers are visiting regularly. The male has the red neck spots.

            One small, yellow-breasted stranger shows up every day at the nyger thistle seed feeder. It’s a female lesser goldfinch, not a regular species here. We recognize that her yellow, black and white feather scheme is arranged differently from the American goldfinch’s.

            I look forward to the springtime antics of birds in my backyard, but this year, millions of people are discovering them for the first time in their own yards and neighborhoods. Suddenly, it’s cool to notice birds and nature. It’s almost cool to be called a birdwatcher.

            Would you like to be a birdwatcher, or a birder? Here’s how.

Step 1Notice birds.

Watch for bird-like shapes in the trees and bushes and on lawns. Watch for movement. This time of year, birds are making a lot of noise and song. See if you can trace the song to the bird with his beak uplifted and open.

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

Are they looking for food like the red-breasted nuthatches climbing tree trunks and branches?

Are they performing a mating ritual like the Eurasian collared-dove males that launch themselves from the top of a tree or utility pole, winging high only to sail down again in spirals?

Are they picking through the grass like common grackles do, looking for grubs to eat? Are they flying by with a beak full of long wispy dead grasses for nest building like the house sparrows do?

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

But if you want to talk to other birdwatchers, you need to do a little studying.

You are in luck if you live in the Cheyenne area. In 2018, Pete Arnold and I put together a picture book of 104 of our most common birds, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” You’d be surprised how many birds you probably already know. Go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/ to examine current purchasing options.

You can also go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/. You can type in a bird name or queries like “birds with red breasts” (which covers all shades from pink and purple to orange and russet). If you click on “Get instant ID help” it will prompt you to download the free Merlin app. It will give you size comparison, color, behavior and habitat choices and then produce an illustrated list of possibilities—nearly as good as sending a photo to your local birder.

The best way to learn birds is to go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you. But since that probably isn’t possible this spring, settle for a pair of binoculars and honing your eye for noticing field marks—the colors and shapes that distinguish one bird species’ appearance from another’s.

Keep in mind that even expert birders can’t identify every bird—sometimes the light is bad and sometimes, and often for a species as variable as the red-tailed hawk, it doesn’t look exactly like it’s picture in the field guides by Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley.

Step 5Go where the birds are.

In Wyoming, that is generally wherever there is water—and trees and shrubs. At least that’s where you’ll find the most bird species per hour of birding. But the grasslands are special. Drive down a rural road, like nearby Chalk Bluffs Road, and watch to see what birds flock along the shoulders and collect on the barbwire fence: meadowlarks, lark buntings, horned larks. Watch out for traffic.

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/basic-wild-bird-feeding/.

Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities has information on transforming lawns into habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and other animals.

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

Some of the nerdiest birders I know will say they prefer to bird alone, but they still join their local Audubon chapter. In Cheyenne, that’s https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/. People of all levels of birding expertise are welcome. Sign up for free email newsletters today and join when you are ready.

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

People do not make life easy for birds. Our activities can affect birds directly and indirectly. Today, I read that the popular neonicotinoid pesticides affect birds’ abilities to successfully migrate if they eat even a small amount of treated seed, or an insect that has eaten treated plant material.

Writing letters to lawmakers is one option, but so is planting native plants and so is recording your bird observations through citizen or community science projects like www.eBird.org and taking part in other conservation activities.

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

You can do this as soon as you start Step 1, noticing birds. Not everyone does. Welcome to the world of birdwatching!           

Western Meadowlark
The Western Meadowlark, a grassland bird, is Wyoming’s state bird. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

High-capacity water wells vs birds

High-capacity irrigation wells are not your great-grandparents’ Chicago Aermotor windmills. This one continues to pump water for livestock on the Lummis Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Mar. 8, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “High capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, wildlife”

Too many high capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, other wildlife and people

By Barb Gorges

            The relationship between groundwater and surface water is important to birds and other wildlife—and people.

            Some surface water is merely runoff from rain and snow that hasn’t yet soaked in and recharged the groundwater. Other surface water, like wetlands, is the result of high groundwater levels. Springs along a creek also depend on an adequate amount of groundwater.

            Groundwater and surface water along streams and in wetlands grow vegetation wildlife depends on for shelter and food. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species require these wetter areas.

            Precipitation can vary from year to year, but on average, it recharges the groundwater–the aquifer. Aquifers are geologically complicated, but mostly water flows through permeable layers much the same way surface water drains. In Laramie County both surface and groundwater flow somewhat west to east.

            If someone puts in a well and starts pumping, it will lower the water table—the top of the groundwater—for some distance from the well. If the water is for domestic use, it is filtered through a septic system and mostly returned to the groundwater. However, if it is used for irrigating lawns and gardens, much of it evaporates and is lost. If too many wells are sipping from the same aquifer, the water table drops, and people are forced to drill deeper wells.

            Another side effect of the water table dropping is wetlands and streams dry up, affecting wildlife.

            Wyoming has complex water laws for allocating surface water. The first person to homestead on a creek got the senior water rights. In a drought year, he might be the only one allowed to remove water from the creek.

            Groundwater rights are not as clear-cut, as far as I can tell. More than 25 or 30 years ago I remember being in eastern Laramie County putting on an Audubon presentation for the Young Farmers club. It was on the negative effects of human population growth. The farmers were already complaining then about the growing number of developments and the wells causing the water table to drop.

            In 2015, the Laramie County Control Area Order was established in eastern Laramie County to keep an eye on the situation.

            Before that, 2010-14, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, spent taxpayer funds to buy out 24 irrigation wells at $200,000 each within this same area, saving 1 billion gallons annually. The farmers could grow dryland wheat instead.

            And now, in the same area, the Lerwick family is asking for a permit to drill eight high-capacity wells for maximum production of 1.5 billion gallons per year for agricultural purposes. We assume it’s for irrigation and that irrigation water will not be recharging the aquifer much. I don’t get it. Permitting new high capacity wells after paying to retire others in the same area makes no sense at all.

            Neighboring farmers and ranchers are alarmed. Professional hydrologists can predict how it will negatively impact their water supplies. Creeks and wetlands, the few we have out here, will dry up and the neighbor’s wells will have to be re-drilled.

            Beginning March 4 and for 30 days, the state engineer is asking for comments about the effectiveness of the 2015 Laramie County Control Area Order which guides groundwater development in the area of the proposed wells. Call 307-777-6150 to find out exactly how to comment.

March 18, the state engineer will hold a hearing regarding the Lerwick permits and will hear from the affected neighboring farmers and ranchers, 17 of them.

            Is it fair for someone to get a new well permit that will cause all his neighbors the expense of drilling deeper? Instead, can a community, through governmental agencies, come to an agreement that an area is no longer suitable for irrigated agriculture?

The Ogallala Aquifer, of which this High Plains Aquifer is part, extends under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For several generations, farmers have been mining it. We can call it mining because more water is extracted than returned. It is not a sustainable situation for anyone.    

            Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society is speaking up for the birds and other wildlife, but it’s doubtful wildlife will be considered much in the calculation of acre-feet and gallons per minute and other details of water rights. We already know that in the last 50 years grassland birds have lost the most population of any North American habitat type. Unsustainable mining of water in Laramie County, should the new high-capacity wells be permitted, won’t help.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species can be found in Wyoming’s riparian areas like this one on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wyobirds and Wyoming Master Naturalists updates

Cheyenne Audubon field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, November 2019. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Feb. 16, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyobirds gets tech update and Wyoming Master Naturalists  gets initial discussion.”

By Barb Gorges

            Technology drives changes in the birding community as it does for the rest of the world. We always wonder how hard it will be to adapt to the inevitable.

            In January, the folks at Murie Audubon, the National Audubon Society chapter in Casper, announced that they would no longer pay the fees required for hosting the Wyobirds elist. There have been plenty of donations over the years to offset the $500 per year cost but, they reasoned, now that there is a no-cost alternative, why not spend the money on say, bird habitat protection or improvement? Also, the new option allows photos and the old one didn’t.

            But the new outlet for chatting about birds in Wyoming works a little differently and everyone will have to get used to it. We’ve changed before. We had the Wyoming Bird Hotline until 2006 for publicizing rare bird alerts only. No one called in about their less than rare backyard birds, their birding questions and birding related events like they do now on Wyobirds.

            The only problem with leaving the listserv is figuring out what to do with the digital archives. They may go back to 2004, the first time Wyobirds was mentioned in Cheyenne Audubon’s newsletter.

            Now the Wyoming birding community, and all the travelers interested in coming to see Wyoming birds, can subscribe to Wyobirds (no donations necessary) by going to Google Groups, https://groups.google.com/, and searching for “Wyobirds.” Follow the directions for how to join the group so that you can post and get emails when other group members post. I opted to get one email per day listing all the postings. That will be nice when spring migration begins and there are multiple posts each day.

            Google Groups, a free service from Google, is one way the giant company gives back and we might as well take advantage of it.

Wyoming Master Naturalists

            Wyoming is one of only five states that does not have a Master Naturalist program, however it’s in the discussion stage.

            What is a Master Naturalist and what do they do? Jacelyn Downey, education programs manager for Audubon Rockies who is based near Gillette, explained at the January Cheyenne Audubon meeting that programs are different in each state.

            Most are like the Master Gardener program, offering training and certification. Master naturalists serve by taking on interpretive or educational roles or helping with conservation projects or collecting scientific data. The training requires a certain number of hours and keeping up certification requires hours of continuing education and service. But it’s not a chore if you love nature.

            Master Gardeners is organized in the U.S. through the university extension program. Some Master Naturalist programs are too, as well as through state game and fish or parks departments or Audubon offices or other conservation organizations or partnerships of organizations and agencies.

            Colorado has at least two programs, one through Denver Audubon, and another in Ft. Collins to aid users of the city’s extensive natural areas.

            Dorothy Tuthill also spoke. She is associate director and education coordinator for the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. She pointed out that several of their programs, like the Moose Day surveys in which “community scientists” (another term for people participating in citizen science) gather data, are the kinds of activities a Master Naturalist program could aid.

            Audubon and the institute already collaborate every year with other organizations and agencies on the annual Wyoming Bioblitz. It’s one day during which scientists, volunteers, teachers, families and kids together gather data on flora and fauna in a designated area. This year’s Bioblitz will be July 17-19 near Sheridan on the Quarter Circle A Ranch, the grounds of the Brinton Museum.

            With a Wyoming Master Naturalist program, a trained corps of naturalists could be available to help agencies and organizations by visiting classrooms, leading hikes, giving programs and helping to plan and participating in projects and surveys.

            Audubon chapter volunteers are already involved in these kinds of things: adult and child education, data collection on field trips and conservation projects. Many of us might broaden our nature expertise beyond birds and learn more about connecting people to nature. But it would be nice to wear a badge that guarantees for the public that we know what we are talking about.

            Just how a Wyoming Naturalist Program would be set up is being discussed right now. Maybe a Google Group needs to be formed. If you’d like to be in on the discussion, please contact Dorothy Tuthill at dtuthill@uwyo.edu and Jacelyn Downey at jdowney@audubon.org.

Panayoti Kelaidis speaking Feb. 29, inspiring Wyoming gardeners to go native

International plant explorer Panayoti Kelaidis to speak Feb. 29 at Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop, to inspire Wyoming gardeners to go native

6th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop:

“Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Native Plant Gardening 101”

Feb. 29, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Laramie County Community College

$25 fee includes lunch. Register by Feb. 27 at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4463444, where the complete schedule can be read. Questions: Mark Gorges, 307-287-4953, mgorges@juno.com.


By Barb Gorges

            A couple weeks ago I was at the Denver Botanic Gardens to interview Panayoti Kelaidis who will be the keynote speaker at the 6th annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop Feb. 29.

            PK, as he suggests people call him, stepped out to pour us cups of Ceylonese tea. While I waited, I noticed his office had floor to ceiling shelves full of plant books for parts of the world he’s travelled.

Numerous plaques and certificates on one wall commemorated his contributions to horticulture over a lengthy career. His latest accolade is to be a judge at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The windowsill had a parade of small, unique succulents and cactuses, part of PK’s extensive personal plant collection at his Denver home. I toured the nearly half-acre garden on the Garden Bloggers Fling last summer.

            As part of his job as senior curator and director of outreach for the DBG, PK leads plant tours to foreign countries, most recently Tibet. A tour of the Sichuan, China, area planned for June will depend on world health concerns. He reads Chinese, having once been a student of the language.

             But PK is also enthusiastic about Wyoming, where he visited two favorite aunts as a child. In the 1980s he travelled our state for his native seed business. He likes to take people on plant tours to the Cody area. As the president-elect of the North American Rock Garden Society, he’s considering a future convention in Cheyenne—we have nearby natural rock gardens to show off.

            PK’s plant knowledge is extensive, especially grassland and alpine species. He co-authored the 2015 book “Steppes, the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions.” There are four major steppe regions in the world, including the Great Plains. He writes a blog called Prairiebreak, http://prairiebreak.blogspot.com/, and he established the Alpine Garden at the DBG.

            How does he describe himself? “Plant nerd.” He said a friend says he’s a plant geek. I think he’s both. He’ll tell you he is not a garden designer, but I’d say he looks at an even bigger picture. And that is why he’s been invited to be the Habitat Hero workshop’s keynote speaker.

            PK likens Douglas Tallamy and his book “Bringing Nature Home,” to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” He said both books mark sea changes in our relationship to nature. Carson’s, published in 1962, showed the devastation caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Tallamy, in his 2007 book, showed us our conventional landscaping and gardening practices are detrimental to native insects, birds, other wildlife, and consequently, people. We need to plant native plants to support native insects, including native bees and butterflies. They are the foundation of the healthy ecosystems we enjoy and require.

At first, PK thought Tallamy was a little too radical, saying all ornamental plants from elsewhere needed to be replaced with natives. For many generations, the goal of landscaping and ornamental gardening has been beauty, PK said. But now he recognizes the other goal must be “ecological services.”

“We really need to figure out how to create a garden that is part of the natural system, not an obstacle,” said PK. Can that be beautiful? Can we shift the paradigm completely?

Can we make beautiful gardens with native plants? What we mean by “native” varies. For some American gardeners, it means the species originated on our continent, even if 3000 miles away. Or “native” for Cheyenne could mean any Great Plains species, or even just those from the prairie outside town.

 Xeriscaping, gardening with less water, began about 45 years ago in the Denver area, PK related. With a growing population that could quickly run out of water, smart people realized changing from landscape plants popular in parts of the country with high rainfall to plants that need less water would help. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities promotes this philosophy as well. Many of the more xeric plants are natives.

PK works with the DBG and Colorado State University which partnered to form Plant Select, https://plantselect.org/. It develops plants native to our high plains and intermountain region for the nursery trade. It makes it easy for gardeners to grow beautiful plants by planting those that love to grow here—and use less water. Though, PK said, there’s still room to grow the occasional prized non-native, water-hungry ornamental.

The water-wise and pollinator-friendly movements were combined a few years ago by Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program. The five previous workshops in Cheyenne have been well-received. I think it’s because people enjoy doing something positive like gardening to support our environment.

 After PK’s keynote address, “Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Learning from the Natives,”designed to inspire us, the workshop’s other presenters will walk us through the steps to take to make a Habitat Hero garden.

Talks will include how to protect and maintain natural prairie if you have some already, deciding on a location for a garden, removing unwanted plants whether turf or weeds, choosing plants, proper planting techniques, maintaining plants and gardens, and how to apply to be a certified Habitat Hero. The two hands-on components will be about how to install drip irrigation and how to use the winter sowing technique to grow native plants from seed (seeds, soil and containers included).

Panayoti Kelaidis explores plants at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in northern Colorado.

Conservation Ranching for the birds–and cows

Greater Sage-Grouse lekking with cattle in the background on sagebrush-steppe habitat on Bureau of Land Management land leased by Pathfinder Ranches in Natrona County, Wyoming. March 28, 2019. Photo by Evan Barrientos, Audubon Rockies. Courtesy.

Published Dec. 15, 2019, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Conservation Ranching is for the birds–and the cows”

By Barb Gorges

             You’ll run across arguments saying our farmlands would be put to better use raising food crops for people instead of forage crops for cattle. Maybe so—back east.

            But Wyoming’s remaining rangeland, its prairie grasslands and shrublands, is not suited to raising crops. We don’t have the water or the soils. But we do grow excellent native forage, originally for buffalo, now for cattle.

            And what a great system it is—no fossil fuels required to harvest that forage—the animals do it for you! On top of that, good range management is good for birds.

However, grassland birds were identified as the group having declined the most in the past 48 years, https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

At a recent Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Dusty Downey, Audubon Rockies’ lead for its Conservation Ranching Initiative, explained part of the problem is grassland conversion. When ranchers can’t make enough on cattle, they might try converting rangeland to cropland or to houses and other infrastructure. With hard work, cropland can be restored someday, but houses are a permanent conversion and wildlife suffers habitat loss.

Eighty-five percent of grasslands and sagebrush steppe is privately owned. So Dusty, raised on and still living on a ranch by Devils Tower, and his boss, Alison Holloran, a wildlife biologist, thought reaching out to ranchers about enhancing their operations could benefit both birds and cattle. Offering a financial incentive makes it attractive and might keep land in ranching.

National Audubon picked up the idea and made it a national program. The “Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land” logo can help ranchers get anywhere from 10 to 40 cents per pound more, depending on the market.

Conservation ranching is now popular in Dusty’s Thunder Basin neighborhood where ranchers know him and his family. Through the program, ranchers learn techniques for maximizing production over the long term that also benefit birds and they get help finding funding for ranch improvements. With third party certification, they earn the privilege of selling their meat at a premium price to people like me who value their commitment.

We also value meat free of hormones and antibiotics, so that is part of the certification. And we appreciate that cows eating grass produce less methane, part of the climate change problem, than if they eat corn.

Dusty said in the last 15 years, grass-fed beef sales have grown 400 percent, from $5 million a year to $2 billion.

Audubon-certified beef is available at Big Hollow Food Coop in Laramie, http://www.laramiecoop.com/, the Reed Ranch in Douglas, tombevreed@gmail.com, in Colorado, other western states and online. See https://www.audubon.org/where-buy-products-raised-audubon-certified-land#.

Grazing prairie looks simple. But grazing management is both art and science.

What does the vegetation need? How is it interacting with weather and grazers? Grassland vegetation needs grazing to stay healthy. Dusty cited a four-year study that showed an ungrazed pasture was not as productive or as diverse as one that had been grazed properly. Grazed plots showed five times more birds, two times more arthropods (food for chicks) and five times more dung beetles (the compost experts) than ungrazed plots.

Grazing grasslands down to bare ground like the buffalo did looks bad, but in the right context it allows highly nutritious plants to grow that can’t compete otherwise. It also aids bird species that require bare ground or very short grass somewhere in their lifecycle, between courtship and fledging.

My experience with prairie plants in the Habitat Hero demonstration garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens showed plants grazed down to ground level by rabbits rebounded the next spring. But you can’t let the rabbits in year-round or the same season year after year.

The gold standard when I was studying range management at the University of Wyoming was rest-rotation grazing. Now it’s producing a changing mosaic of plants by adjusting grazing timing on a multi-year cycle for any given pasture, tailored to the plants there and the rancher’s goals. Laramie County Conservation District helps local landowners figure it out, https://www.lccdnet.org/.

For an elegant explanation of the dance between animal and prairie plant, read a recent blog post by Chris Helzer, https://prairieecologist.com/2019/11/13/what-does-habitat-look-like-on-a-ranch/. He is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy-Nebraska.

Chris talks about growing a shifting mosaic of plants that will be more resilient through drought and other extremes. He also said, “Chronic overgrazing can degrade plant communities and reduce habitat quality, but a well-managed ranch can foster healthy wildlife populations while optimizing livestock production.”

Next time you meet a rancher, restaurant owner or grocery store manager, ask them if they’ve heard about Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative. Tell them it’s good for birds—and cows.

3 billion birds missing

Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks show declines.

We know how 3 billion breeding birds disappeared in last 48 years

By Barb Gorges

            “Decline of the North American avifauna” is the title of the report published online by the journal Science on Sept. 19, 2019.

            The bird conservation groups I belong to summed it up as “3 billion birds lost.”

            In a nutshell (eggshell?), there are three billion fewer, 29 percent fewer, breeding birds of 529 species in North America then in 1970.

            The losses are spread across common birds, like western meadowlark, as well as less common birds, in all biomes. While the grasslands, where we live, lost only 720 million breeding birds, that’s 53 percent—the highest percentage of the biomes. And 74 percent of grassland species are declining. Easy-to-understand infographics are available at https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

            Two categories of birds have increased in numbers: raptors and waterfowl. Their numbers were very low in 1970 due to pesticides and wetland degradation, respectively. Eliminating DDT and restoring wetlands, among other actions, allowed them to prosper.

                The 11 U.S. and Canadian scientists crunched data from ongoing bird surveys including the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count, the International Shorebird Survey, and the Partners in Flight Avian Conservation Database.

Weather radar, which shows migrating birds simply as biomass, shows a 14 percent decrease from 2007 to 2017.

            Two of the contributors to the study are scientists I’ve talked to and whose work I respect. Adriaan Dokter, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is working with me, Audubon Rockies and the Roundhouse developers. We want to see if weather radar can predict the best nights to shut down wind turbines for the safety of migratory birds passing through the wind farm they are buiding at the southwest corner of I80 and I25.

            I’ve met Arvind Panjabi, with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies headquartered in Ft. Collins, Colorado, on several occasions. BCR does bird studies primarily in the west as well as educational programs. 

            How does the number of birds make a difference to you and me? Birds are the easiest animals to count and serve as indicators of ecological health. If bird numbers are down, we can presume other fauna numbers are out of whack too—either, for instance, too many insects devouring crops or too few predators keeping pest numbers down. Ecological changes affect our food, water and health.

            The decline of common bird species is troubling because you would think they would be taking advantage of the decline of species less resilient to change. But even invasive species like European starling and house sparrow are declining.

The biggest reasons for avian population loss are habitat loss, agricultural intensification (no “weedy” areas left), coastal disturbance and human activities. Climate change amplifies all the problems.

A coalition including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Georgetown University have an action plan.

7 steps we can all take to help birds

            There are seven steps we can all take. The steps, with details, are at https://www.3billionbirds.org/. Most of them I’ve written about over the last 20 years so you can also search my archives, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/.    

1. Make windows safer. Turn off lights at night inside and outside large buildings like the Herschler Building and the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens during migration. Break up the reflections of vegetation birds see in our home windows during the day.

2. Keep cats indoors. Work on the problem of feral cats. They are responsible for more than two-thirds of the 2.6 billion birds per year cats kill.

3. Use native plants. There are 63,000 square miles of lawn in the U.S. currently only attractive to birds if they have pests or weeds.

4. Avoid pesticides. They are toxic to birds and the insects they eat. Go organic. Support U.S. bill H.R. 1337, Saving America’s Pollinators Act. Contact Wyoming’s Representative Liz Cheney and ask that registration of neonicotinoids be suspended. Birds eating seeds with traces of neonics are not as successful surviving and breeding.

5. Drink shade-grown coffee. It helps 42 species of migratory North American birds and is economically beneficial to farmers.

6. Reduce plastic use. Even here, mid-continent rather than the ocean, plastic can be a problem for birds. Few companies are interested in recycling plastic anymore.

7. Do citizen science. Help count birds through volunteer surveys like eBird, Project FeederWatch (new count season begins Nov. 9), the Christmas Bird Count (Cheyenne’s is Dec. 28), and if you are a good birder, take on a Breeding Bird Survey route next spring.

To aid grasslands in particular, support Audubon’s conservation ranching initiative, https://www.audubon.org/conservation/ranching.

In a related Science article, Ken Rosenberg, the report’s lead author, says, “I am not saying we can stop the decline of every bird species, but I am weirdly hopeful.”

Western Meadowlarks are also in severe decline. Audubon Photography Awards 2012, photographer’s name not available.

Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer

Greater Sage Grouse males fighting for dominance on a lek in Sublette County, Wyoming, covered with snow. These birds are always trying for a better spot on the lek in hopes that they are able to breed with the females. Photo by Elizabeth Boehm. Courtesy National Audubon Society.

Published Aug. 11, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as “Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer”

By Barb Gorges

            Last month, a familiar name appeared on my screen, “Elizabeth Boehm.”

            I was reading an email from the National Audubon Society listing the winners of the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards.

            I have never met Elizabeth in person. But she was one of the people who replied when I put out a request on the Wyobirds e-list for photos of the few bird species we didn’t have for photographer Pete Arnold’s and my book published last year, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” She generously shared six images.

            With my similar request on Wyobirds back in 2008 for “Birds by the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Pete supplied most of the 104 photos (the others were stock), and he contributed 93 for the book. Here’s the small world connection: Pete is Elizabeth’s neighbor whenever he and his wife visit his wife’s childhood home in Pinedale.

            Now here is the big world connection: Elizabeth won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards in the professional category. To qualify as a professional, you must make a certain amount of money from photography the previous year.

            A week later, Audubon magazine arrived and there, printed over a two-page spread, like the grand prize winner, was Elizabeth’s winning photo: two male sage-grouse fighting on an entirely white background of snow.

            I decided it was time to get to know Elizabeth better and interviewed her by phone about her prize-winning photography. Elizabeth won the Wyoming Wildlife magazine grand prize a couple years ago and one year she was in the top 10 for the North American Nature Photography Association. Her photos have been published in Audubon magazine. “I was totally surprised,” she said of her latest win.

            More than 8,000 images were submitted by 2,253 U.S. and Canadian photographers. Categories included professional, amateur, youth (13-17 years old), Plants for Birds (bird and a plant native to the area photographed together) and the Fisher Prize (for originality and technical expertise).

            Elizabeth started shooting landscapes and wildflowers 25 years ago, then started selling images 10 years later, adding wildlife to her subjects. Now she works her day job only two days a week.

            Of her winning image she said, “I usually go out in the spring. I know the local leks. I like snow to clean up the background. The hard part of photographing fights is they are spontaneous. It’s kind of a fast, quick thing.”

The males fight in the pre-dawn light for the right to be the one that mates with all the willing females. “I set up the night before or in the middle of the night. It’s better waiting and being patient,” she said.

Elizabeth visits leks one or two times a week March through April. This past spring was too wet for driving the back roads. Even the grouse weren’t on the leks until late. They don’t like snow because there is nowhere to hide from the eagles that prey on them.

            This winning photo is from three or four years ago. Elizabeth came across it while searching her files for another project and realized it could be special with a little work.

Audubon allows nothing other than cropping and a few kinds of lighting and color adjustments. At one point, Audubon requested Elizabeth’s untouched RAW image. See the 2019 rules, and 2019’s winning photos, at https://www.audubon.org/photoawards-entry. Her camera is a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon 500 mm EF f/4L IS USM lens. The photo was taken at 1/1500 second at f/5.6, ISO 800.

            In September, National Audubon will finalize the schedule for the traveling exhibit of APA winners.

            Elizabeth sells prints at the Art of the Winds, a 10-artist gallery on Pinedale’s Main Street. You can also purchase images directly from her at http://elizabethboehm.com. She offers guided local birding tours and is also the organizer for the local Christmas Bird Count.

Photographers are a dime a dozen in the Yellowstone – Grand Teton neighborhood where Elizabeth shoots. She works hard to have her work stand out. She also donates her work to conservation causes like Pete’s and my book which is meant to get more people excited about local birds and birdwatching.

            Look on the copyright page of “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” for the list of Elizabeth’s contributions. You can find the book online through the University of Wyoming bookstore, the Wyoming Game and Fish store and Amazon, etc.

In Cheyenne it’s at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Riverbend Nursery, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Pink Boutique, Barnes and Noble, PBR Printing and out at Curt Gowdy State Park.

2019 Cheyenne Big Day

The Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count May 18 got started at 6:30 a.m. at Lions Park, a Wyoming Important Bird Area. Canada Goose goslings were out, but not many leaves on trees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 23, 2019, “Cheyenne Big Day birders count 112 bird species.”

By Barb Gorges

            No two Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts at the height of spring migration have the exact same weather, people or bird list which is why it is so exciting to see what happens.

            This year, on May 18, we had decent weather. Last year we rescheduled because of a snowstorm—almost to be expected in mid-May lately. However, by afternoon we had a couple showers of “graupel”—soft hail or snow pellets.

            One of our best local birders, Greg Johnson, stayed home sick. Instead, we were joined by two excellent birders from out of town. Zach Hutchinson is the Audubon Rockies community naturalist in Casper. Part of his job is running five bird banding stations. In handling so many birds, he’s learned obscure field marks on species we don’t see often. If you shoot a bird with a digital camera, you can examine the photo closely for them.

            The other visiting birder was E.J. Raynor. He came up from Ft. Collins, Colorado, because he was our designated chaperone for birding the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. The south side of the station is now designated as the High Plains Arboretum and open to the public, but the area behind the houses is not. Normally we put in for a permit and this year we got E.J. instead.

            He works for the Agricultural Research Service which operates the station. I thought he might be bored walking around with us, but his recent PhD is in ornithology so I convinced him he should join us for as much of the day as possible, especially for the Wyoming Hereford Ranch part. People from all over the world visit it—including a Massachusetts tour guide and his 14 British birders a week before.

The historic Wyoming Hereford Ranch, also a Wyoming Important Bird Area, is always a good place to bird. It is private property, but birdwatchers are welcome on the roads. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            WHR put on a good show and E.J. and Zach were able to identify a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an eastern bird, which is nearly identical to a female black-headed grosbeak, a western bird.

            We didn’t get out to the station until early afternoon and then got graupeled and didn’t find a lot of birds so I’m glad E.J. came early.

            Counting as a group started at 6:30 a.m. at Lions Park. Surprisingly, we had people up at that hour who are new to birding. We hope they will join us again. I never get tired of seeing beginners get excited about birds.

            By dusk, after Mark and I checked some of our favorite birding spots, the total bird list for the day looked like it might be about 90 species. But the next day we held a tally party at a local restaurant and the contributions of all 25 participants, including those who birded on their own, brought the total up to 112. Dennis Saville, birded Little America, Chuck Seniawski birded F.E. Warren Air Force Base and Grant Frost covered some of the outer areas.

            Now that most birders in Cheyenne use the global database eBird.org every day to document their sightings, the picture of spring migration is even more interesting than the single Big Day held each of the last 60 years. Migration ebbs and flows. Maybe we need to declare a Big Month and go birding every day in May.

2019 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 112 Species

Canada Goose

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

Mallard

Northern Pintail

Redhead

Lesser Scaup

Common Goldeneye

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Wilson’s Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Ring-billed Gull

Caspian Tern

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Mountain Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

European Starling

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Chestnut-collared Longspur

McCown’s Longspur

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Worm-eating Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Magnolia Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

House Sparrow

By evening of the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count it was cloudy and chilly and we found few new bird species, even here on the road between the Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Lummis Ranch. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Bird News – May 2019

May 16 – Bird talk & book signing, May 18 – Big Day Bird Count, May 20 – Habitat Hero garden ribbon-cutting

“Cheyenne Birds by the Month” bird talk and book signing Thursday, May 16, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central Ave., with author Barb Gorges and photographer Pete Arnold. The talk will be about backyard bird safety. Books will be available for sale. To find where else the books are available in Cheyenne, Laramie and online, go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 18 – Join Cheyenne Audubon anytime between 6:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., birding with the group, to help us find as many bird species in one day around town as possible. We start at Lions Park, then bird Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Grasslands Research Station. Call Mark, 307-287-4953, to find us. Or bird on your own and report to Mark. Or come to the tally May 19, 4 p.m., Perkins Restaurant, 1730 Dell Range Blvd.

Wyoming Hereford Ranch birding, early May.

You are invited to the ribbon-cutting May 20, 3 p.m. for the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities headquarters, 2416 Snyder Ave. A few words from dignitaries and light refreshments.
The garden showcases Water Smart Landscapes that save water and are wildlife friendly. Bee Smart! Water Smart!
Contact Dena, BOPU, degenhoff@cheyennebopu.org, 637-6415.

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