Book Review: “Wyoming Birds”

Dorn's Wyoming Birds

“Wyoming Birds,” by Jane Dorn and Robert Dorn

Published Aug. 5, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding know-how a matter of degree.”

2014 Update: “Wyoming Birds” is still available. Send $19 (out-of-state orders) or $20.08 (Wyoming orders) to: Rocky Mountain Herbarium, Department of Botany Dept. 3165, University of Wyoming, 1000 E. University Ave., Laramie, WY 82071-3165, http://www.rmh.uwyo.edu.

By Barb Gorges

The phone rings. “Is this the Audubon Society?” I say yes and introduce myself to the caller.

“There’s this bird in my yard. It’s brown with red on its face.”

This is where I offer up my best guess, the house finch. Usually I can tell by the way callers word the question whether they are, in my mental hierarchy, working on their “first degree” of bird watching or working on a higher degree of proficiency.

Some of our bird knowledge seems to be genetic. I have yet to give a talk at a school where the children didn’t correctly name the robin. But after that the names seem to be generic categories: “blackbirds,” “seagulls,” or “ducks.”

The ordinary person does not look for birds. He only notices that some bird hit his windshield, the cat dragged in some feathers or some bird has left berry droppings on the front steps.

The first degree of bird watching begins when a person notices that some black birds have iridescent heads (grackles), parking lot sparrows come in two styles (male and female house sparrows) and not all birds swimming at Lions Park are ducks (coots and grebes).

To meet the requirement for this first degree, one must find a way to cross paths with birds intentionally. This usually means throwing seed or bread crumbs on the deck or patio. At our house we put up a bird feeder.

This naturally leads to trying to figure out what birds are visiting.

Bird watching isn’t just about identification of course. It’s also about observing behavior: a flock of goldfinches plays king of the hill on the thistle feeder; the mourning doves have a very peculiar walk; and blue jays grip sunflower seeds in their bills and hammer them against the feeder to break the hulls.

Bird watchers attempting the second degree are ready to look beyond their backyards. Birding with other people is the easiest. I started showing up for Audubon field trips. It’s so handy to point and ask, “What’s that?” And it’s even more fun when other people point out a bird and tell me facts not in the field guide.

But perhaps Audubon field trips aren’t scheduled as often as the budding birder would like. Here’s the first step of the third degree: He decides to plan his own field trip to some of the places he’s been before.

However, to really accomplish the third degree in my hierarchy, the birder must intentionally decide to explore a new place. It’s finally time to invest in a bird finding book like Oliver Scott’s “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” or, fresh out this spring, the second edition of “Wyoming Birds” by Jane L. Dorn and Robert D. Dorn. For those of you with the first edition, this one is worth getting. It has easier to read typeface, water-resistant cover, a new introduction with helpful subheadings and more maps and information.

Page of Wyoming Birds

In the Dorns’ book, “Wyoming Birds,” the range of each species that occurs in Wyoming is indicated by latilong. The grid is in increments of degrees of latitude and longitude. Key to observation status: R=resident (summer and winter, breeding confirmed), r=resident (breeding suspected but unconfirmed), B=summer (breeding confirmed), b=summer (breeding suspected but unconfirmed), Y=year round (summer and winter but probably non-breeding), W=winter, S=summer but probably non-breeding, M=migration seasons, O=observed but status indeterminable.

The Dorns have written up 437 Wyoming species, drawing on more than 30 years of personal observation and records going back 150 years. They have charted each species’ seasonal occurrence around the state using the latilong system, which divides Wyoming into 28 rectangles and have listed sites where each species has the best chance of being seen.

So, if a birder were to examine her life list for Wyoming and discover she’s missing Amphispiza belli, the sage sparrow, the entry in “Wyoming Birds” would tell her to look in medium to tall sagebrush between May and September. The best places to look would be 5 to 35 miles west of Baggs, 5 to 10 miles south of Rock Springs, the Fontenelle Dam area in Lincoln County and the Gebo area west of Kirby in Hot Springs County.

The Dorns’ book can also be used in reverse. At the back is a list of 124 birding hotspots listed by county. Each entry notes directions for getting there, expected species, best season for visiting and available amenities such as restrooms or campgrounds. Several maps help those of us who do better visualizing directions than reading them.

New to this edition is a section devoted to directions for day tours that link the most notable birding spots.

Just remember to be prepared for Wyoming weather and road conditions so that a day tour doesn’t become a week of winter camping.

The further degrees of my bird watching hierarchy pertain to how far one travels and how much time is spent birding. Even further up are the birders who volunteer to collect information for scientific studies or get involved in habitat conservation. Somewhere beyond are the people who share their knowledge, leading field trips and writing books. That’s where I find the Dorns, helping us all to reach the Nth degree.

Advertisements

“eBirding” our backyards for science

Wood Duck

eBird will help me remember which years a rare bird, like the Wood Duck, visited Cheyenne. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 16, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “’eBirding’ our backyards gives science important knowledge.”

2014 Update: eBird is now global. As of May 1, I have submitted 2001 checklists and have an eBird life list of 340 species. Reporting to eBird has become a habit.

By Barb Gorges

What year was it I saw seven western tanagers in our yard at one time? How often do lazuli and indigo buntings visit? I have a few notes scribbled on old calendars stored in the basement, but otherwise, 20 years’ worth of backyard spring migration sightings are just fond memories.

A few months ago I received an email from Brian Sullivan, eBird project leader, gently extolling the virtues of using eBird, the free online avian data system from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, to track my sightings and share them with scientists and birdwatchers. I’ve submitted a few in the past but didn’t get into the habit. However, this spring, I think eBird is finally becoming part of my routine.

I’m still jotting cryptic notes on scrap paper, but I’m taking them to my computer and entering information on the eBird website, www.eBird.org, before I forget. When I check “My eBird” I can see how many species I’ve observed so far in 2010, and how many I have total. I can look and see if I was the first one in Wyoming to report a species this year.

For the serious birder, eBird offers that kind of competition. It allows uploading records from other avian record keeping systems and downloading of personal records from eBird and viewing data in different ways. You can be alerted to sightings of birds seen in your area you haven’t got on your life list yet, or you can use the data base to find the best place and time to see target species.

For the rest of us, especially beginning birdwatchers, a look at the list of local, public birding hotspots and their respective checklists is invaluable.

It is also easy to mark a personal birdwatching location and then have eBird generate a list of potential species. If you accidently type in “300” for the number of peregrine falcons you saw, you’ll get a polite question. Or perhaps your sighting is unusual for the time of year. If you say you are sure it isn’t a mistake, eBird might ask for documentation. If you can’t provide enough, your observation can stay in your personal data but won’t be shared with the public—birders or scientists.

You can always go back and make corrections to your entries.

All the cool free tools eBird offers are inducements to get us to share our bird sightings. Our data is most useful if we take a little extra effort to record time spent observing, distance travelled or size of area birded and estimate the numbers of birds of each species seen. The hardest part is to notice all the birds where you are, including those annoying background species like starlings and house sparrows.

For instance, when I walk the dog around Holliday Park, my focus is looking for what is unusual. On different days in April the lake hosted a white pelican, half a dozen cormorants, hooded mergansers, a pair of wood ducks and a pair of redheads. The 60-70 Canada geese are just background, not to mention the starlings and pigeons, but eBird prefers I submit a checklist of all the birds I can identify.

The use of eBird data is free to ornithologists, conservation biologists, educators, land managers and anyone who likes to play with raw numbers.

Doug Faulkner cites eBird as a reference in his new book, “Birds of Wyoming.”

But don’t worry, no nosy scientist is going to knock on your door. No contact information for observers shows on the website. There are several ways to remain nearly anonymous.

But in looking through the lists of Wyoming data identified by observer, no one here has chosen “Anonymous” or a fake-sounding name. Many folks on vacation submit Wyoming sightings, too.

Because eBird only started in 2002, there are a lot of gaps, though historic data can be added. Bird life at Wyoming Hereford Ranch is fairly well documented for spring, but apparently local interest dies off in winter. For all the birds I’ve seen over the years in Lions Park, the checklist for it as a birding hotspot has few species.

Just how many people are taking part in eBird as it gets ready to go global? Here in Wyoming this year so far 41 observers have observed 152 species. Since 2002, 6,948 checklists (a checklist is a list of birds observed for a particular time and location) have been submitted for Wyoming. Natrona County (Casper) has the greatest number of checklists, 1,561. Our county, Laramie County, with similar population, is in 8th place, having only submitted 275. Now you know why Brian Sullivan emailed me and other Wyoming birdwatchers.

In the rest of the country, urban areas like Los Angeles County (23,000 checklists) have a lot of eBirders, as does a birding travel destination getting a lot of scientific research like the Aleutians Borough in Alaska, 39,000 checklists submitted. If you want to get your name in the records, there are a few counties in Alabama and other Southeastern states for which no checklists have ever been submitted.

Birdwatching is a satisfying hobby for many of us, and eBird allows us to make a contribution to serious science. Go to www.eBird.org and look around and register for free.

I look forward to seeing more balloon markers on the map, showing more Wyoming birders are “eBirding.”

Shouldering the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas

BBA logo

Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas logo

Published March 11, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird Banter.”

2014 Update: “Atlas I” is available online at: http://www.cobreedingbirdatlasii.org/. And they say, “Welcome to the website for the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas II Project (Atlas II). Atlas II was initiated in 2007 and will update the original Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, which was initiated 20 years earlier, in 1987. The purpose of Atlas II is to collect data on the distribution, abundance, habitat use, and breeding phenology of the avifauna breeding in Colorado, and to compare that data to data collected during the first Atlas project.”

By Barb Gorges

Atlas was the Greek god whose job for eternity was holding the world up on his shoulders. Putting together the new Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas took 1,295 volunteers a relative eternity. Following 73,000 hours of fieldwork over nine years beginning in 1987, it took another few years to turn all that data into the 636-page book that just came out.

Colorado’s atlas is a snapshot of avian breeding activity for 264 species in the state. The protocol called for studying a sample of 1,760 blocks of land out of a total of 10,000.  Each measured 10 square miles and needed to be visited at least four times for at least a half day, perhaps at night if owls or other nocturnal species are involved.

Besides volunteers, the atlas project depended on the good will of hundreds of landowners who allowed field workers access.

Wyoming hasn’t done a breeding bird atlas yet. Do we have the dedicated volunteers to accomplish a survey within the recommended 10 years?

One of the authors of the Colorado atlas, Ron Ryder, will speak at the next Cheyenne Audubon meeting about the rigors of undertaking such a project. The public is welcome at the meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 16, in the Exhibition Room at the Laramie County Library.

The Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas is available at bookstores or through the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation, PO Box 211512, Denver, CO 80221-0394.

Birders accompanying Ron to look for seabirds at the Rawhide power plant reservoir late last month did find one species that normally winters on either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, the red-necked Grebe, along with more common species such as common merganser, ruddy duck, and lesser scaup.

The highlight of the field trip was a stop to see a golden-crowned sparrow that’s been wintering at a feeder north of Fort Collins. Closely resembling our usual white-crowned sparrow, it was a long way from its winter home in California or its summer range in Alaska.

I had a poor showing at our bird feeder to report for the Second Annual Great Backyard Bird Count in February. Just a few house finches, house sparrows and juncos showed up. People from about 30 localities in Wyoming counted a total of 61 species. Most often was the black-capped chickadee (49 reports), followed by the black-billed magpie (35) and the house finch (35).

The species with the most individuals counted was the gray-crowned rosy finch (756), followed by the house sparrow (619) and the house finch (473).

Nationally, out of 39,000 reports, the top three most frequently reported birds were mourning dove, northern cardinal and dark-eyed junco.

The Favorite Bird Survey had 15,000 participants whose top three favorites were black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal and ruby-throated hummingbird. My personal favorite, the mountain bluebird, didn’t make the top ten. It isn’t cute or bright red. While I admire its unearthly blue color, the reason I like it is that it’s my favorite harbinger of spring. This is the time of year to see it migrating to the mountains.

Cheyenne Audubon plans a field trip to Pole Mountain to look for bluebirds March 27. As usual, the trip is free and open to the public. Double-check with Dave Felley, about plans to leave the Cheyenne Botanic Garden parking lot at 9 a.m.

Spring migration is underway in Wyoming. Please call in your sightings to Jane Dorn at . Don’t be alarmed if you get the family business answering machine. Please leave a message anyway.