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.
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.