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.
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Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

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Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, is getting ready to let a young citizen scientist release a yellow warbler that was caught in a mist net during the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Kids explore nature of the Belvoir Ranch.”

By Barb Gorges

I was delighted to recognize my neighbor at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz last month. She is going to be a senior at Cheyenne East High in the fall and was there with two friends. All three were planning to spend the weekend looking for birds, mammals, herps (reptiles and amphibians), pollinators, macroinvertebrates and plants, to fulfill more hours required for their Congressional Award gold medals.

The weekend could have served for all four award areas: volunteer public service (we were all volunteer citizen scientists collecting data), personal development (the staff taught us a lot of new things), physical fitness (hiking up and down Lone Tree Creek in the heat was arduous), and expedition/exploration (many of us, including my neighbor and her friends, camped out and cooked meals despite being only 20 miles from Cheyenne).

Mark and I have attended other bioblitzes around the state, but this was the first one close to Cheyenne. With all of the publicity from the four sponsoring groups, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Geographic Alliance, a record 100 people attended, plus the staff of 50 from various natural science disciplines.

When I asked my neighbor why she and her friends had come, she said, “We’re science nerds.” That was exciting to hear.

2016-7Bioblitz2 Barb Gorges

My neighbor and friends net aquatic invertebrates including dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  A blue and green pollinator trap is set up on the far side of the pond. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There were a lot of junior science nerds in attendance with their families. Small children enjoyed wading into the pond along the creek to scoop up dragonfly and damselfly larvae —and even crayfish.

A surprising number of children were up at 6 a.m. Saturday for the bird survey. The highlight was the raven nest in a crevice on the canyon wall, with three young ravens crowding the opening, ready to fledge.

Sunday morning’s bird mist netting along the creek was very popular. Several birds that had been hard to see with binoculars were suddenly in hand.

2016-7Bioblitz8 Barb Gorges

Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, discusses the captured bird he is holding in his left hand. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because it wasn’t at an official bird banding site, the mist netting was strictly educational and the birds were soon released. Several young children had the opportunity to hold a bird and release it, feeling how light it was, how fast its heart beat and feeling the little whoosh of air as it took flight. What I wouldn’t give to know if any of the children grow up to be bird biologists or birdwatchers.

The Belvoir Ranch is owned by the city of Cheyenne and stretches miles to the west between I-80 and the Colorado-Wyoming state line. The city bought it in 2003 and 2005 to protect our upstream aquifer, or groundwater, as well as the surface water.

2016-7Bioblitz6 Barb Gorges

Bioblitz birdwatchers head down along Lone Tree Creek at 6 a.m. on June 12 to survey the birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While limited grazing and hunting continues as it did under private ownership, other parts of the master plan have yet to come to fruition: wind farm, landfill, golf course, or general recreation development. It is normally closed to the public. However, progress is being made on trails to connect the ranch to Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and/or Red Mountain Open Space.

A good landowner takes stock of his property. The city has some idea of what’s out there, including archeological sites. But with budgets tightening, there won’t be funding to hire consultants for a closer look. But there are a lot of citizen scientists available.

The data from the Bioblitz weekend went into the Wyobio database, www.wyobio.org, a place where data from all over Wyoming can be entered. The bird data also went into eBird.org.

2016-7Bioblitz4 Barb Gorges

A University of Wyoming graduate student and a citizen scientist filter water from the creek to prepare it for DNA analysis. The sample will show what amphibians have been swimming there. Photo by Barb Gorges.  

The data began to paint a picture of the Belvoir: 62 species of animals including 50 birds, 8 mammals, 4 herps, plus 13 taxa of macroinvertebrates (not easily identified to species) and 12 taxa of pollinators (bees and other insects), plus many species of plants. All that diversity was from exploring half a mile of one creek within the ranch’s total 18,800 acres–about 30 square miles.

2016-7Bioblitz3 Barb Gorges

This ground nest seems to have one smaller egg laid by an interloper. Many grassland bird species build their nests on the ground. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The members of the City Council who approved the ranch purchase are to be congratulated on making it public land in addition to protecting our watershed. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the federal and state governments to do the right thing.  The essence of Wyoming is its big natural landscapes and we are lucky to have one on the west edge of Wyoming’s largest city.

Let’s also congratulate the parents who encouraged their children to examine the critters in the muddy pond and pick up mammal scat (while wearing plastic gloves) on the trails among other activities.

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A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist introduces a Wandering Garter Snake to a young citizen scientist. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Someday, these kids will grow up to be like my high school neighbor and her friends. Someday they could be the graduate students, professors and land use professionals. No matter what they become, they can always contribute scientific data by being citizen scientists.

2016-7Bioblitz1 Barb Gorges

Citizen scientists of all ages learned to identify types of aquatic invertebrates at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats, botany and much more Wyoming biota

Mist netting

Participants in the 2014 BioBlitz at Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming, watch as Jacelyn Downey, community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, untangles a Common Yellowthroat caught in a mist net. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats and more.”

By Barb Gorges

“A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteers, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible.” National Geographic Society

Microbes?! No one went looking for microbes during the Wyoming BioBlitz.

It was held last month on the longest day of the year at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. And hopefully, no one took home any unwanted microbes.

But we did find lots of other life. More than 70 people participated: putting out pollinator traps, extracting birds from mist nets, bouncing over a mountain meadow after butterflies and bees, dip netting for macroinvertebrates, electrofishing a stream, botanizing up the side of the canyon, searching for reptiles and amphibians, setting small mammal traps, attracting moths to blacklight, and until nearly midnight, netting bats, only to roll out of sleeping bags or beds in town the next morning to count birds before sunlight hit the canyon floor.

It’s one thing to have a scientist come and present their work in a lecture, as they do, for instance, for Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meetings. It’s quite another to find out firsthand how difficult it is to untangle a bird from a mist net in order to study breeding patterns and longevity.

Then there was the chance to perfect my butterfly net technique with Amy Pocewicz of The Nature Conservancy. It’s like tennis, but butterflies are more erratic and the court is littered with shrubby obstacles.

Sometimes field work is monotony. I went with Wyoming Natural Diversity Database’s (WYNDD) Ian Abernathy and his group to pick up small mammal traps in the sagebrush, little folding aluminum boxes baited with sweetened oats. Each had a tuft of polyester batting thoughtfully provided so the mouse or vole could bed down comfortably for the night in a place not as warm as their own burrow.

To check the traps, we all had to don disposable face masks and gloves to protect us from possible exposure to hantavirus.

We were led by an indefatigable 4-year-old who enjoyed marching ahead to pluck the pin flag marking the next trap.

No critters were captured in any of the 60 traps in the sagebrush and only one in the 20 traps along the creek. Too much human scent from the group setting traps the night before?

Martin Grenier, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game biologist, set a mist net over the creek in the evening and his group was able to catch four bats of three different species.

The same evening, Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with WYNDD, hung two white table cloths on the Learning Center’s patio, placing one small blacklight against each, and then turned off the regular lights. Moths and nocturnal wasps flocked in and extremely small insects were “vacuumed” into a glass bottle for close inspection.

One special moth will have to be identified by an expert in Florida.

Audubon Wyoming, now Audubon Rockies, is the originator of Wyoming’s BioBlitz, holding the first one in 2008, and has partnered with various organizations, agencies and companies to hold it in different locations around the state.

Wyoming teachers can receive continuing education credits—it’s a lot more fun, one teacher from Bighorn told me, than attending lectures.

This year, the Red Canyon BioBlitz sponsors and partners also included, in addition to those mentioned earlier, the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Native Plant Society. During a creative interlude, an artist from the Lander Art Center had us harvesting cheatgrass—an invasive plant—and making art out of it.

The very first BioBlitz was held in 1996 at a park in Washington, D.C., where National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy coined the term from the German word “blitz,” meaning lightning, or fast.

Search online for “BioBlitz” and you will find 20 more listed in this country plus Korea, Canada, New Zealand and especially, the United Kingdom. It’s a plot to infect people with the awareness and joy of biodiversity.

One of my favorite memories of the weekend, besides all the biota, is camping out on the lawn by the Learning Center and going to bed with the stars in my eyes and waking with birdsong in my ears. The other favorite memory is meeting old friends and new, all interested in the wonderful biodiversity of our home state.

You too, can come along next year, wherever BioBlitz may be.

Related websites:

Audubon Rockies, http://rockies.audubon.org

Lander Art Center, www.landerartcenter.com

The Nature Conservancy, http://www.nature.org/wyoming

UW Biodiversity Institute, www.wyomingbiodiversity.org

WyoBio, www.wyobio.org

Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, www.uwyo.edu/wyndd

Wyoming Game and Fish Department, www.wgfd.wyo.gov

Wyoming Native Plant Society, www.wynps.org

Early birder gets to help band birds

Red-naped Sapsucker

A Red-naped Sapsucker has been captured in a mist net for banding. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 18, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The early birder gets the bird in hand. Taking part in banding provides one with a rare and incredible experience.”

2014 Update: The Laramie banding station continues to operate every summer. Check with Audubon Rockies to observe or be trained to participate, www.audubonrockies.org. The Audubon Center at Garden Creek in Casper closed this year.

By Barb Gorges

A songbird in the hand is such an incredible thing, yet insignificant, a bit of tiny feathered flutter against your fingers–or a painful pinch of a beak.

Bird banding allows one to hold what normally can only be held from a distance with optics. It is a gift to hold these 1-ounce wonders and contemplate just how far they might have flown to nest in Wyoming, possibly from as far as South America.

The morning of July 1 friends and I volunteered to help with the MAPS banding station west of Laramie.

MAPS, the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship Program of the Institute for Bird Populations, has over 500 banding stations across the country. While there is an internship program that provides some of the labor, for 80 percent of the stations trained volunteers are essential.

At this station, even the site has been volunteered, by landowners Fred and Stephanie Lindzey. Ten 12-meter-long mist nets have been set up in the same locations deep in the riparian zone along the Little Laramie River each year beginning in 2000.

The nets are unfurled six or seven times during the breeding season, late May through early August, from sunrise to noon each banding day.

This is also mosquito breeding season and they were whining as I followed volunteer Larry Keffer across a soggy hay meadow and into thick willows and cottonwoods to check nets.

Larry is a retired welder from Casper and got into banding three years ago there, up at the Audubon Center at Garden Creek.

The center is currently managed by his nephew, Ken, who, along with Larry’s wife, also was working with us. Larry never thought he could do more than record data since his hands are crippled with arthritis, but he found he had plenty of dexterity with the fine crochet hook used to extract the birds from the nets.

Mist nets are made from very fine black threads. Set up in thick vegetation, the nets are invisible and birds fly into them. Feisty species like the black-capped chickadee can manage to wrap several threads around their necks and feet in the 30-40 minutes between net runs.

Retrieving birds from a mist net is not for the squeamish. Kim Check, the Audubon Wyoming Community Naturalist now responsible for this MAPS site under the guidance of a master bander, took on a chickadee so deeply embedded, she was afraid it would die from stress.

At one point in the 15-minute ordeal, she asked me to lift one of the tiny threads hung up on the bird’s emerging pin feathers. That’s when I realized I hadn’t brought my reading glasses. For bird outings I usually think binoculars.

Since the chickadee’s life was more important than having to repair a hole in the net, the minute it quit fighting and seemed to go into a stupor, Kim didn’t hesitate to start snipping. She decided not to take it back to the processing table which would stress it even more.

However, since this bird already had a band, we copied the numbers before Kim let it go. The chickadee flew into the bushes and disappeared with only one backward glance.

Most of the morning’s other species–yellow warbler, house wren, veery, red-naped sapsucker, gray catbird, various sparrows–were much easier to extract.

Back at the picnic table, the birds, transported in white cloth bags, were identified by species, sex and age.

 

Bird banding

In addition to putting a metal band on a captured bird’s leg, banders make many measurements before releasing it. Photo by Barb Gorges.

It is surprisingly difficult to identify some species of birds in the hand. Behavior and song are so much help in field identification.

Aging songbirds is particularly difficult. Two fat handbooks, Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1 and 2, by Peter Pyle, help. But when you get right down to the nitty gritty, sometimes it just says, “more study is needed to tell the difference,” Kim quoted.

The females, and the males of some species, have a brood patch on their belly, a big, bare patch of skin so that they can more directly transfer their body heat to incubating eggs. The condition of the brood patch skin, especially any sign of feather re-growth, tells how long ago the eggs hatched.

When a female cowbird was checked, she had no brood patch. But then we realized she wouldn’t since cowbirds are parastic nesters–dropping their eggs in other birds’ nests for them to incubate, hatch and feed.

All kinds of information are recorded and eventually get into the hands of scientists.

Data for this MAPS station has been entered for 2000-2003 and some is published at www.birdpop.org. It shows 79 species have been banded or observed, of which 33 have been classified as breeding.

Another page shows that, as of 2003 (I think they must need data entry volunteers also) there have been 11 other MAPS sites in Wyoming.

You can wade through scientific discourse and learn the value of the data collected and how it is used to inform management decisions to combat what seemed to be a drastic drop in songbird populations around 1989 when the program began.

But if you prefer to wade through wet meadows, sign up to help at one of the remaining banding sessions.

It is an incredible experience.

Bird banding volunteers aid research

Mist net and chickadee

Bird banding involves first capturing birds in a mist net, and then untangling them before putting an identification band on their leg. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 6, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Banding volunteers aid research, get up-close contact with birds.”

2014 Update: Andrea (now Orabona) and Audubon Rockies’ Community Naturalists continue to operate two banding stations in Wyoming. Find out more at http://rockies.audubon.org/maps-bird-banding.

By Barb Gorges

Volunteering to band song birds supports science. It’s also a chance to hold a wild creature in your hand and feel its beating heart.

The volunteers on a recent June morning shared these reasons for gathering on the banks of Deep Creek, but otherwise we were an eclectic bunch:

Donnabelle Leonhardt, retired dairy farmer; Eva Crane, keen birder; J.R. Horton, state parole and probation officer—all from the Lander/Riverton area—and me and my 11-year old son, Jeffrey, from Cheyenne. Two high school students, Joe Scott and Peter Cook, drove over from Casper.

Andrea Cerovski, Lander-based nongame bird biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, was in charge of the banding station, assisted by Laurie Van Fleet of Game and Fish.

Situated on Red Canyon Ranch outside Lander, the Deep Creek banding station is one of nearly 500 across the country that are part of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship program begun in 1989 by the Institute for Bird Populations.

A cooperative effort of agencies and organizations, MAPS provides basic data about birds for land conservation and management planning.

In the predawn darkness we divided into three teams and headed off in different directions. Heading into the willows, we opened 10 mist nets, each 12 meters long, in likely bird thoroughfares.

Forty-five minutes later, we hiked back to check the nets. Irrigation boots were indispensible for getting to nets four and five, which stood in mud next to a beaver pond.

Extracting tangled birds from the fine, hairnet-like threads is difficult. I used a tiny crochet hook to lift a noose-tight filament over the head of a goldfinch.

After being released from the net, birds are slipped into white cotton bags and carried back to the processing table, where they are banded and information such as wing, tail and culmen (nostril to beak tip) measurements, fat deposits and brood patches are recorded.

Determining age sometimes requires using “the Bible,” a thick reference book containing esoteric data such as how feathers change with age.

Many of the birds on the recent operation were recaptures, most having been banded there within the last two years. One yellow warbler was banded in 1995, the first year Deep Creek was in operation.

After the first two runs, breezes began to blow away horse flies, but they also billowed the nets, making them visible to birds and making the other six runs less productive.

This was Deep Creek’s second banding day of the summer, and there will be more every 10 days or so until the beginning of August.

Cerovski doesn’t lack for volunteers despite the 4 a.m. start time, and she does require prior banding experience or attendance at a training session at the beginning of the season to participate.

Visitors are welcome, however; that day they included home schoolers from down the canyon and third- and fourth-grade students from Ft. Washakie who, along with the volunteers, get the chance to hold and release the birds.