Yampa Valley Crane Festival origins


Greater Sandhill Cranes. Photo courtesy of Abby Jensen, www.jensen-photography.com.

Published Oct. 9, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cranes are a “gateway bird”

[Yampa Valley Crane Festival story begins with snow]

By Barb Gorges

I visited the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with my husband, Mark, in early September.

Steamboat is known for world-class skiing, but how does that relate to the festival centered around the greater sandhill crane?

It starts with a couple of skiers. Nancy Merrill, a native of Chicago, and her husband started skiing Steamboat in the late ’80s. They became fulltime residents by 2001.

Merrill was already “birdy,” as she describes it, by that point. She was even a member of the International Crane Foundation, an organization headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin, only three hours from Chicago.

She and her husband wanted to do something for birds in general when they moved to Colorado. They consulted with The Nature Conservancy to see if there was any property TNC would like them to buy and put into a conservation easement. As it turns out, there was a ranch next door to TNC’s own Carpenter Ranch property, on the Yampa River.

The previous owner left behind a list of birds seen on the property, but it wasn’t until she moved in that Merrill discovered the amount of crane activity, previously unknown, including cranes spending the night in that stretch of the river during migration stop overs—which we observed during the festival.

Cheyenne folks are more familiar with the other subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane, which funnels through central Nebraska in March. It winters in southwestern U.S. and Mexico and breeds in Alaska and Siberia. It averages 41 inches tall.

Greater sandhill cranes, by contrast, stand 46 inches tall, winter in southern New Mexico and breed in the Rockies, including Colorado, and on up through western Wyoming to British Columbia. Many come through the Yampa Valley in the fall, fattening up on waste grain in the fields for a few weeks.

In 2012 there was a proposal for a limited crane hunting season in Colorado. Only 14 states, including Wyoming, have seasons. The lack of hunting in 36 states could be due to the cranes’ charisma and their almost human characteristics in the way they live in family groups for 10 months after hatching their young. Mates stick together year after year, performing elaborate courtship dances.

Plus, they are slow to reproduce and we have memories of their dramatic population decline in the early 20th century.

Merrill and her friends from the Steamboat birding club were not going to let hunting happen if they could help it. Organized as the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, they were successful and decided to continue with educating people about the cranes.

Out of the blue, Merrill got a call from George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, congratulating the CCCC on their work and offering to come and speak, thus instigating the first Yampa Valley Crane Festival in 2012.

Merrill became an ICF board member and consequently has developed contacts resulting in many interesting speakers over the festival’s five years thus far. This year included Nyambayar Batbayar, director of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and an associate of ICF, and Barry Hartup, ICF veterinarian for whooping cranes.

Festival participants are maybe 40 percent local and 60 percent from out of the valley, from as far away as British Columbia. Merrill said they advertised in Bird Watchers Digest, a national magazine, and through Colorado Public Radio.

It is a small, friendly festival, with a mission to educate. The talks, held at the public library, are all free. A minimal amount charged for taking a shuttle bus at sunrise to see the cranes insures people will show up. [Eighty people thought rising early was worthwhile Friday morning alone.]

This year’s activities for children were wildly successful, from learning to call like a crane to a visit from Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, who has designed a wonderful, larger-than-life whooping crane puppet.

There was also a wine and cheese reception at a local gallery featuring crane art and a barbecue put on by the Routt County Cattlewomen. Life-size wooden cut-outs of cranes decorated by local artists were auctioned off.

We opted for the nature hike on Thunderhead Mountain at the Steamboat ski area. Gondola passes good for the whole day had been donated. This was just an example of how the crane festival benefits from a wide variety of supporters providing in-kind services and grants. Steamboat Springs is well-organized for tourism and luckily, crane viewing is best during the shoulder season, between general summer tourism and ski season.

Meanwhile, the CCCC has a new goal. Over the years, grain farming has dropped off, providing less waste grain for cranes. Now farmers and landowners are being encouraged financially to plant for the big birds. It means agriculture, cranes and tourism are supporting each other.

Merrill thinks of the cranes as an ambassador species, gateway to becoming concerned about nature, “The cranes do the work for us, we just harness them.”

Watching one bird at a time


“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.


“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.   

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Find gifts for birders

Charley Harper puzzle

Environment for the Americas, the folks who organize International Migratory Bird Day, are offering this Charlie Harper puzzle titled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”

Published Dec. 6, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get creative with gifts for birders.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated. There are now newer editions of the field guides mentioned. Bird-friendly coffee and chocolate are more widely available now at natural food stores.

By Barb Gorges

A good gift is useful, educational or edible, if not homemade. If someone on your gift list truly cares about wild birds, they don’t want energy and resources harvested from sensitive bird habitats wasted on making junk.

Here’s my list, sorted somewhat by a recipient’s degree of interest in birds.

First, for anyone, armchair bird watcher to ornithologist, Houghton Mifflin has three new illustrated books.

“Letters from Eden, A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickefoose ($26) includes her watercolor sketches. A frequent contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, her bird and nature observations are often made in the company of her young children on their 80-acre farm in Ohio or from the 40-foot tower atop her house.

Zickefoose’s tower may have been her husband’s idea. He is Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and editor of “All Things Reconsidered, My Birding Adventures,” Roger Tory Peterson ($30).

Peterson was the originator of the modern field guide. From 1984 until his death in 1996, he wrote a regular column for the Digest. Peterson had the gift of writing about birds, bird places and bird people so anyone could enjoy his choice of topics. Anyone can enjoy this photo-illustrated book.

The third book, “The Songs of Wild Birds.” ($20) is a treat for eyes and ears. Author Lang Elliott chose his favorite stories about 50 bird species from his years of recording their songs. Each short essay faces a full page photo portrait of the bird. The accompanying CD has their songs and more commentary. My favorite is the puffin recording.

The field guide is the essential tool for someone moving up from armchair status. National Geographic’s fifth edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($24) came out this fall.

New are the thumb tabs for major bird groups, like old dictionaries have for each letter. It has more birds and more pages plus the bird names and range maps are updated.

Binoculars are the second most essential tool. If you are shopping for someone who hasn’t any or has a pair more than 20 years old, you can’t go wrong with 7 x 35 or 8 x 42 in one of the under $100 brands at sporting goods stores. You can also find an x-back-style harness ($20) there, an improvement over the regular strap.

Past the introductory level, a gift certificate would be better because fitting binoculars is as individual as each person’s eyes.

Spotting scopes don’t need fitting. However, if you find a good, low-end model, don’t settle for a low-end tripod because it won’t last in the field.

For extensive information on optics, see the Bird Watcher’s Digest Web site.

Bird feeders, bird seed, bird houses and bird baths are great gifts if the recipient or you are able to clean and maintain them. To match them with the local birds at the recipient’s house, call the local Audubon chapter or check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and Birdhouse Network sites.

You can make a gift of a Lab membership ($35), which includes several publications, and of course, there’s Audubon and its magazine ($20 introductory offer). Bird Watcher’s Digest ($20 per year), mentioned above, makes learning about birds fun, as does Birder’s World magazine ($25 per year).

For someone who wants to discuss identifying obscure sparrows and other topics of interest to listers, they might be ready for membership in the American Birding Association ($40). The ABA also has a great catalog available to everyone online. It’s filled with optics, gear and every bird book and field guide available in English for the most obscure places in the world.

The ABA tempts members with mailings for trips to exotic birding hotspots, as well as its annual meetings held in different parts of the country. Also check Bird Watcher’s Digest for nationwide bird festival listings.

One subscription valuable to an academic type who doesn’t already have access, is the Birds of North America Online ($40). Every species has as many as 50 pages of information and hundreds of references to studies.

For the computer literate, Thayer Birding Software’s Guide to Birds of North America, version 3.5 ($75), includes photos, songs, videos, life histories, quizzes and search functions.

After the useful and educational, there’s the edible. Look for organically grown products because they don’t poison bird habitat. The ABA sells bird friendly, shade grown coffee and organic chocolate through its Web site.

Coffee and other items are available also at the International Migratory Bird Day web site, and support migratory bird awareness and education.

If the person on your list is truly committed to the welfare of wild birds and wildlife in general, skip the trinkets such as the plush bird toys that sing and don’t add to their collection of birdy t-shirts.

Look for products that are good for the environment. These are items that are energy efficient, solar-powered, rechargeable, refillable, fixable, recyclable, made from recycled or organic materials, or are locally grown or manufactured.

Or make a donation in their name to an organization like Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy which work to protect bird habitat.

Presents along these lines would be great gifts for your friend or family member, and for birds and other wildlife, any time of year.

American Bird Conservancy: membership, research, advocacy, publications, gear, www.abcbirds.org.

American Birding Association: membership, publications, books, optics, gear, travel www.aba.org.

Birder’s World: magazine, http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com.

Bird Watcher’s Digest: magazine, bird info, bird festival listings and gear for sale, www.BirdWatchersDigest.com.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: membership, bird info, Citizen Science projects, www.birds.cornell.edu.

International Migratory Bird Day (Environment for the Americas): education, online store, www.birdday.org.

National Audubon Society: membership, magazine, research, advocacy, directory of chapters www.audubon.org.

North American Birds Online: Internet data base, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna.

Thayer Birding: software, www.thayerbirding.com.

The Nature Conservancy: membership, publications, gear, www.nature.org.

Crane Creek bird note cards the best

Crane Creek Graphics calendar

Crane Creek Graphics, of Wilson, Wyoming, offers several calendars each year. Photo of calendar by Barb Gorges, cover art by Wendy Morgan.

Published Dec. 7, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The best medium for bird notes.”

2014 Update: New artists and new artwork continue to be added to the Crane Creek Graphics catalog. Wendy is up to animal image number 294.

By Barb Gorges

Wendy Morgan’s bird art appeals to me. Over the years, every time I’d come across it at wildlife refuge and nature center gift shops, I bought it, even before I knew who Wendy was.

Luckily, note cards are very affordable art. But of course I’ve mailed all the cards to friends and family and only have those sent to me by other Morgan aficionados.

When I finally read the fine print on the back of a card, I was surprised to find that Crane Creek Graphics, the company producing the cards, was based in Wilson, Wyo., within the golden rectangle Rand McNally has drawn around the super-scenic northwest corner of our state.

I figured Crane Creek Graphics was just another case of someone locating a business to get the scenic address in the wildlife viewing capital of the west.

Not so, I discovered when I called recently.

Wendy Morgan is Crane Creek Graphics. She was born in Jackson and left to earn a degree in anthropology that included a few art classes and a minor in biology and then traveled before coming home and starting the business.

Wendy’s distinctive style, airbrush watercolor with stencils, fills the canvas of a note card with one or more birds. The background is sometimes a single color, with maybe a shoreline indicated. Props, if any, are a twig, a few leaves, berries or blooms.

The birds themselves are beautifully reduced to the simplest, most distinctive field marks.

In 1979 Wendy’s first designs started with birds which she silk screened on cards for sale at fairs. They were popular and in 1980 she started the business named after Crane Creek Ranch with a loan from her mom and a bit of advice from the Small Business Administration.

She was soon working with a printer in Salt Lake City who printed on post-consumer recycled paper. Her notecard menagerie expanded to include a few mammals.

“I pick critters I want people to know about,” she told me. On the back of each card is information about the featured species, including conservation status.

Wendy began going to trade shows and Crane Creek Graphics sales expanded all over the country. Now with 3000 wholesale customers and promotion by a fleet of sales reps, Wendy travels less often.

In the 1990’s, she added Wyoming artist Jocelyn Slack. Her watercolors feature North American fish, frogs and ocean life in a style distinct from Wendy’s, but share the simplicity.

Six other area artists are also carried by Crane Creek Graphics. Marty Anderson illustrates butterflies and other insects and Henry Evans specializes in grasses and garden and wildflowers on white that look like colorful pressed specimens. Foott Prints is a line of cards with wildlife photos, September Vhay focuses on wildlife and horses, Greta Gretzinger specializes in fish and Corrina Johnson illustrates a variety of wildlife.


Crane Creek Graphics note cards

Crane Creek Graphics offers a huge variety of note cards featuring birds and other wildlife. Photo of note card package by Barb Gorges, package art by Wendy Morgan.

The notecards are available singly, in boxes of the same image or assortments, or matted or framed, but they aren’t the only products. The artwork is also available on the covers of blank books and address books, coasters, tile boxes, holiday cards, magnets and three different 2006 calendars.

Morgan’s images offered for sale are not a static collection. One of the new ones this year, No. 239, features a pair of cardinals on a leafy background.

Only 92 of her images are currently available, so it looks like I’m now out of luck trying to start the definitive Wendy Morgan collection beginning with No. 1, though she said she might branch out into limited edition prints.

Blank cards are harder to sell than greeting cards, Wendy said. People are hesitant to express their own thoughts and have urged her to include the basic messages. So far, only holiday cards are inscribed with a simple generic greeting.

Card sales have dropped a bit, probably due to the Internet. But Wendy said running the company is still more than a full-time job for her. January through May is time for new product development. July through November is the busiest time, shipping product all over the country. Even though she has five employees, time for artwork is minimal.

She watches birds too, but more with an eye to the way they look and behave rather than trying to increase her life list. She also has a ranch to take care of.

One outlet in Cheyenne for Crane Creek Graphics products is the Wyoming State Museum Store, 2301 Central Ave., open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

The complete line of artwork can be seen in the Crane Creek Graphics online catalog, www.cranecreekgraphics.com, or call 800-742-7263 to order.

Other contact information: 307-733-3696 for business inquiries, FAX 307-739-0744, cranecreek@wyoming.com, Box 367, Wilson, WY 83014.

I always make sure to have Crane Creek Graphics note cards on hand. In this age of e-mail a hand-written note is a special occasion and deserves a special card.

But maybe I shouldn’t mail all of them. I’m rather fond of those early sandhill cranes. Luckily, I can get them singly or along with an assortment of egrets, herons and avocets in the “Longlegs” collection.

And then what about all those colorful butterflies, fish, frogs and flowers in the other collections?

Guess I’ll have to look for more birthdays, weddings, new babies and occasions to write thank you notes.

Cardinals are top Christmas card bird


The Northern Cardinal would be one eastern bird species we’d like to see in southeastern Wyoming. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 26, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Cardinals top Christmas cards, if not bird count.”

2014 Update: We keep hoping for cardinals here in southeastern Wyoming.

By Barb Gorges

There’s the Christmas Bird Count and then there’s the Christmas card bird count. As I write this Dec. 19, the tally is two chickadees, six cardinals, a cinnamon teal, five birds of undeterminable species—and two penguins.

Last year I identified Canada geese, blue jays and a junco plus the popular chickadees and cardinals.

The jackpot was provided by an Audubon card sent by Audubon friends featuring a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch.

John Hewston, compiler of the Thanksgiving count, has also noticed the northern cardinal seems to be a favorite on Christmas cards, “or of people who select them.”

I think cardinals are so popular because their bright red feathers fit the seasonal color scheme when they are depicted perched in an evergreen.

However, I was surprised to find a cardinal on the cover of this month’s issue of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s “Wyoming Wildlife” magazine.

What was Editor Chris Madson thinking? He’s a pretty astute student of nature and I would expect he’d be aware that cardinals are considered to be rare in Wyoming.

“Rare” is the technical term used in the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s “Wyoming Bird Checklist” and rates “1” on a scale of abundance from one to four. The Checklist also identifies the cardinal as a species seen in Wyoming only during spring and/or fall migration.

Of the 28 latilongs formed by the gridwork of degrees of latitude and longitude that biologists use to locate animal observations in this state, the cardinal has only been seen, and without any signs of breeding activity, in seven latilongs, as shown in the “Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians in Wyoming” also published by Game and Fish.

One of those seven latilongs contains Cheyenne. However there is no asterisk to indicate the observation has been scrutinized and accepted yet by the Wyoming Bird Records Committee.

And in the list published by the Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society, no cardinals have been seen in any of 40 years’ worth of data for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count.

Cardinals are most abundant in southeastern United States. Thirty or forty years ago I would see them at my grandparents’ feeder south of Chicago, but not at home a mere 100 miles to the north. Since then they have extended their range north through most of Wisconsin.

Cardinals are classified as permanent residents within their range, so the few observed in Wyoming were more likely to be juveniles on a road trip, now that their range extends as far west as the Wyoming-Nebraska border, than birds lost during migration

It appears Chris is another victim of a pretty passerine face. He explained to me that he’d had this particular cardinal in the photo file for several years and kept passing it over for each December issue, because he knew cardinals are not typical Wyoming wildlife.

He took as a sign the submission by a Wyoming photographer of another cardinal that he could finally justify using it on the cover.

Cardinals are also just over our southern border, in Colorado. It’s only a matter of time before they become common residents of eastern Wyoming too, like the blue jay, another formerly eastern U.S.-only species. Chris’s cover choice serves as a heads-up. When you hear that distinctive cardinal whistle, look up.

It would be neat if a cardinal made an appearance for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Jan. 4. Why not plan to join in the fun and look for cardinals—and maybe be part of a historic moment?

Other winter birds are drab by comparison, though close examination shows the beauty of their sophisticated, subtle coloration. Why is the chickadee motif nearly as popular as the cardinal? Maybe it’s because their black and white heads make them easy to depict. Or maybe it’s because in cold weather they fluff up into little round balls, multiplying their cuteness factor.

But there’s something even more appealing about a red bird in winter. When snow makes the landscape monochromatic, or as is the case most of the winter in Cheyenne, the snowless landscape is dull, red is a desirable accent. Our eyes are attracted to red-stemmed shrubs, red sumac, red berries and red bows.

How did red become a symbolic color for this time of year? There’s probably an anthropologic answer published somewhere explaining why people have a yen for red in winter. I suspect both our hunter-gatherer ancestors and animals today roaming the land had/have an eye out for the color that could mean dried rosehips or other fruit. Marketers of packaged foods certainly understand the use of the color red.

Christmas card designers no doubt have their own statistics showing the appeal of cardinals. So when you go out today to buy next year’s Christmas greetings on sale, don’t be surprised if the cardinal cards have already flown.

If you missed them, you could still buy cards with a nice winter landscape and ink in a small red dot on a distant tree branch. Everyone will know it could only be a cardinal.

Winning bluebird painting

Mountain Bluebird-Renee Piskorski

This is another of Renee Piskorski’s Mountain Bluebirds, purchased recently by me and my husband.

Published April 25, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Cheyenne artist earns conservation stamp honor.”

2014 Update: Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Competition winners are now exhibited in the lobby of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Cheyenne headquarters, 5400 Bishop Blvd. The annual competition exhibit opens and winners are announced mid-April each year. See http://wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/home.aspx. Renee Piskorski’s work can still be seen at Deselm’s, http://deselmsfineart.com/.

By Barb Gorges

For the first time since its inception in 1984, a Cheyenne artist has won the Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Competition sponsored by Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Artist Renee Piskorski’s winning portrayal of mountain bluebirds will be printed on 300,000 stamps for the 2003 hunting and fishing season and the original will be framed and added to the gallery of previous winners at the department’s Cheyenne headquarters.

Beginning January 1, anyone can own a print of the winning painting by purchasing the conservation stamp for $10 through the department or any outlet that carries hunting and fishing licenses, or by purchasing a full-size limited edition print.

In addition to being collectibles, the conservation stamps must accompany any Wyoming hunting or fishing license. The fees collected go into the Wildlife Trust Fund for habitat acquisition and improvement, non-consumptive use of wildlife and nongame projects.

Competition coordinator Mary Link said 97 artists from 29 states and Mexico entered and that more Wyoming artists than usual participated, 42 percent.

Of the other entries that placed or received honorable mention, three were from Wyoming, two from Utah, plus one each from Nebraska, Ohio and Connecticut. The judges included art and bird experts.

Piskorski said wildlife artists consider the Wyoming contest to be second in prestige only to the federal duck stamp competition, due to the quality of the competition and the prize money offered ($2,500 for first place).

“It’s important for me to get the correct anatomy and habitat,” said Piskorski, discussing her winning technique for painting wildlife. “I need to go to their environment to view them. I take lots of photographs and study videos. Then I do thumbnails, sketches.”

“For the stamp you have to remember it’s very small. It was difficult to paint them (mountain bluebirds) larger than life. It felt like a Hitchcock movie.”

“I’m always trying to keep in mind the mood I’m trying to create, using the light and the weather. And I keep a color palette in my mind while I’m sketching.”

Piskorski said she has never had formal art training, but has been painting most of her life, and seriously for 15 years, beginning with a request for her paintings from the gallery owner she worked for. Her career snowballed from there. Her entries in the competition in past years received third, fourth, and sixth place.

As a professional artist, she can justify trips to Yellowstone and the Tetons two or three times a year for research, continuing an outdoor lifestyle that began with hunting and fishing trips with her dad, who was an artist himself, an engineering draftsman with a bent for drawing political cartoons.

“In the end I hope the viewer will feel the same emotion that I felt while painting it,” said Piskorski of her work, “and maybe have an even greater appreciation for the natural world and want to preserve it.”

More of Piskorski’s work can be seen at Deselm’s Fine Art gallery.

Her winning oil painting, “Sagebrush Outlook,” will be on display at the Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central, upstairs with all the other entries until May 25. Then it will travel with the “Top 40,” to Cody, Thermopolis, Dubois and Pinedale. All of the entries, except the winner, are for sale.