Family time for birds

“Summertime is family time for birds,” was published August 2, 2020 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

A Rufous Hummingbird tests nectar production of a red variety of beebalm, or Monarda, I grow in our backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            I asked one of our sons if he’d done any interesting birdwatching lately. He said no, it isn’t as exciting as during spring migration.

            I would disagree. Return migration starts up in mid-July. Migrating shorebirds were at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 then, while low water levels made their favorite mudflats.

            One sure sign of impending autumn is the hummingbirds coming into town. My red beebalm’s first flower was in bloom for about two days when it attracted the first broad-tailed hummingbird July 11. It was finished nesting in the high country and it, or other broadtails, made daily visits for 10 days. Then, a male rufous hummingbird returning from breeding—maybe in northwest Canada—came by. As the beebalm reached its peak, we had a hummingbird buzzing in every daylight hour or so, checking the flowers’ recharge of nectar and mostly ignoring the hummingbird feeder.

            However, birdwatching in my neighborhood in July and August is more about family drama.

Kids are naturally noisy and the Swainson’s hawks in the nest two yards down are no exception. One of the young took a tumble and landed on a branch several feet below the nest, which is set in the top of a spruce. It cried all day, but I think it climbed back up because it looked like there were two young back on the nest July 24.

            One day I thought one of the young Swainson’s had fledged and was sitting in our tree. I could hear a slightly off rendition of the call, maybe like a young bird still practicing, but couldn’t spot it at all. Later, I realized it was a blue jay doing imitations. And then there were the three blue jays flitting through our backyard that didn’t sound like full-fledged blue jays. They weren’t. Husband Mark’s photo showed one still had puffy baby feathers on its rump.

            July and August are when many plants bear fruit here. Whole extended families of robins strip our chokecherries even though I don’t think the fruit is ripe yet.

In the neglected front yard around the corner there’s a wonderful crop of thistle. Usually it’s the American goldfinches helping themselves but the other day there was a lesser goldfinch, which is not as common. Both are species that nest later than other songbirds because they are waiting to feed their young chewed up thistle seed instead of insects, like the other songbird parents.

            If you keep your eyes open, you may see parents feeding young, even after they’ve fledged, like the yellow warblers we saw along Crow Creek. And, when you see five house wrens hanging around the same willow tree, you know they are siblings who haven’t dispersed yet.

            Young crows take longer to mature. One of the smarter species of birds, not everything they need to know is hard-wired in their brain. They must learn it. After my cleaning the other day, my dental hygienist and I peered out the window wondering just why the young crow was rolling a rock-like object around—sorry, didn’t think to bring binocs to my appointment.

            One surprise this summer has been the number of mourning doves. Within a few years of the first sighting of Eurasian collared-doves in Wyoming, here in Laramie County in 1998, we quit seeing mourning doves breeding in our neighborhood. But this summer if we look closely at the doves on the wires, many have the mourning dove’s pointy-tailed silhouette. Perhaps they’ve finally learned to compete with the collared-doves for nest sites.

            For some species, their parental duties are already finished and they are free to flock around Cheyenne with their pals. The other morning, I estimated there were 150 common grackles carrying on boisterously in treetops and on lawns. Eventually, they will head south.

            If bird behavior interests you, read Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, “The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent and Think.” Ackerman writes, in a very readable way, about the latest science that is discovering that birds approach those five kinds of behaviors in myriad ways.

            I flipped to the section on parenting. From egg shape to nest shape to who feeds the young and how they are protected, birds have evolved strategies to suit their environment.

But it isn’t always an eons-long process. If they aren’t successful with a nest in one location one year, they may move to a different location the next.

Or they knock people on the head if they suspect they’ve harmed their chicks, like the Australian magpie does. And those birds can remember people for 20 years. Yikes.

            Thankfully, our birds are easier to live with, especially when we preserve prairie habitat and enhance the city forest, letting them enrich our lives.    

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.

Flock of bird book reviews

Flock of bird books arrives this spring: Peterson, Heinrich, Kroodsma, Gilbert and Tallamy

Published April 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flock of bird books arrives this spring.”

By Barb Gorges

            Spring is when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt likes to send out bird books to review—completely forgetting that as spring migration gets going, birders have less time to read. Maybe we’ll have more time to read this year. Luckily, birding in Wyoming, without Audubon field trips, is a solitary experience perfect for ensuring huge social distances.

            I’ve suggested that we all get social sharing our bird sightings on the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society group Facebook page and through the Wyobirds Google Group. By posting sightings on eBird.org, everyone can “Explore” each other’s Laramie County bird sightings.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Roger Tory Peterson (and contributions from others), 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 505 pages, $29.99.

This latest edition of the classic field guides follows the 2008 edition, the first to combine Peterson’s eastern and western guides in one book. And now the birds of Hawaii have been added.

            Peterson died in 1996 so additional paintings, range map editing, etc. are the work of stellar artists and ornithologists. Bird names are updated, now showing the four species of scrub-jays, except that I heard last month it was decided to drop the “scrub” from their names.

            But, to be a birder, one must regularly invest in the most up-to-date field guide.

White Feathers, The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows, Bernd Heinrich, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pages, $27.

            If anyone can make eight springs of excruciatingly detailed observations interesting, Bernd Heinrich can. He wanted to know what purpose is served by tree swallows adding white feathers to their nests.

            Every spring, hour after hour, he observed the comings and goings of pairs using his nest box and noted when they brought in white feathers to line (insulate?) and cover (hiding eggs from predators?) the nest inside the box.

            Or, the white feathers might only advertise that a nesting cavity is taken. 

Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Your Guide to Listening, Donald Kroodsma, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 198 pages, $27.

            Here’s where you can find out what a tree swallow sounds like when it starts singing an hour before sunrise.

            In fact, you can skip this book and learn a lot by going to the associated free website, www.BirdsongForTheCurious.com. There are multiple songs each of most songbird species, as well as ideas for collecting your own data.

            The book has chapters explaining topics such as: “Why and How Birds Sing,” How a Bird Gets Its Song” and “How Songs Change over Space and Time.”

Unflappable, Suzie Gilbert, 2020, https://www.suziegilbert.com/.

            I read the first chapter for free online and I think it will be a very entertaining novel. Here’s the synopsis: “Wildlife rehabber Luna and Bald Eagle Mars are on a 2,300-mile road trip with her soon-to-be-ex-husband and authorities hot on their heels. What could possibly go wrong?”

Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy, 2019, Timber Press, 255 pages, $29.95.      

            Tallamy first wrote “Bringing Nature Home” in 2007 where, as a professor who studies insects and ecology, he explains that it is important for all of us to plant native plants to benefit native wildlife.

            Thirteen years later, Tallamy can cite a lot more research making his point: native plants support native insects which support other native wildlife (and support us). For instance, almost all songbird species, even if they are seed eaters the rest of the year, need to feed their young prodigious amounts of caterpillars plus other insects.

            These caterpillars of native butterflies and moths can’t eat just any old plant. They must chew on the leaves of the plants they evolved with—other leaves are inedible. Good news: rarely does the associated plant allow itself to be decimated.

            Native bees, except for some generalists, also have a nearly one on one relationship with the native nectar and pollen-producing plants they’ve evolved with. You may see bees working flowers of introduced plants, but chances are they are the introduced European honeybees.

            What’s a concerned backyard naturalist to do? Become part of Tallamy’s army of gardeners converting yards and wasted spaces of America into Homegrown National Park, http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/. A link there will take you to the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder which lists our local natives based on our zipcodes.

            It’s not necessary to vanquish every introduced plant, but we must add more natives. The best way is by replacing turf. Here in Cheyenne, the Board of Public Utilities is encouraging us to save water by replacing water-thirsty bluegrass with water-smart plantings. Plants native to our arid region (12-15 inches of precipitation annually) fit the bill perfectly—and they aid our native pollinators at the same time.

            In next Sunday’s Cheyenne Garden Gossip column, I will discuss exactly how to do that here.

Alaska bird behavior intrigues

Gulls form a white edge on the beach at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, in early October on a rare sunny day. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”

By Barb Gorges

            Our family lost its guide to Alaska in October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska for 51 years, died at age 84.

            Peter was an inveterate explorer, from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20 years.

            Whenever we visited, Peter was our tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com). Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.

            Peter became more interested in birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls, ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship visitors.

            Spend time among ravens that walk within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might share food.

            One raven I met after the memorial mass for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping I had a key to food inside.

            I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again. Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent generations to recognize the masks.

            Crows have many human-like behaviors because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree, jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).

            Because ravens and crows do not have bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.

            Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.

            Southeast Alaska is not particularly cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald eagles.

The pilings by the breakwater on Crescent Bay are a favorite perch for Sitka, Alaska, bald eagles. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Sitka’s bald eagles are not as chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.

            Neither of us had binoculars, if you can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.

            Then there was a flash of white. Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like oars on a rowboat?

            We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.

            I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.

Nestling ID crowd sourced

Two nestlings were photographed by Matthew Gill Aug. 6, 2019, at a well pad near Greeley, Colorado.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 15, 2019, “Nestling ID benefits from crowd sourced help.”

By Barb Gorges

            Cheyenne resident Priscilla Gill emailed me a bird photo that her son, Matthew Gill, took Aug. 6. Could I identify the birds?

            Digital technology is wonderful. Thirty years ago, I would get phone calls asking for ID help (and I still do) but it can be difficult to draw a mental picture. I must figure out how familiar with birds the callers are so I can interpret the size and color comparisons they make.

            At least with an emailed photo, the ease of identifying the bird is only dependent on the clearness and how much of the bird is showing. In this case, the photo clearly showed two little nestlings so ungainly they were cute. They were black-skinned, but all a-prickle with yellow pin feathers and had large, lumpy black bills. They were nestled on top of a platform of sticks balanced high up on the pipe infrastructure at a well pad.

            Those bills first made me think ravens. However, the nest was near Greeley, Colorado, where ravens are rarely seen.

            Digital photos are easy to share. I forwarded the photo to Greg Johnson, my local go-to birder who enjoys ID challenges. But after a couple days without a reply, I figured he was somewhere beyond internet contact, so I sent the photo on to Ted Floyd, Colorado birder and editor of the American Birding Association magazine.

            He had no idea. No one has ever put together a field guide for nestlings. Julie Zickefoose comes close with her book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” (my review: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/watching-one-bird-at-a-time/), where she sketched nestlings of 17 species at regular intervals.

            Ted suggested I post the photo to the ABA’s Facebook group, “What’s this bird?”

            Meanwhile, Greg was finally able to reply: mourning dove. They only have two young per nest, and they build stick nests.

            By this time, I had joined the Facebook group and was starting to get replies. It’s a little intimidating—there are 39,000 people in the group.  There were 13 replies and 37 other people “liked” some of those replies, essentially voting on their ID choice.

I was surprised to see a reply from someone I knew, my Seattle birding friend, Acacia. Except for the person who suggested pelicans (based on the enormous bills), the replies were split between mourning dove and rock pigeon. I was most confidant about the reply from the woman who had pigeons nest on her fire escape.

            On reflection, “pigeon” seemed to make more sense, and Greg agreed. Pigeons are known for adapting to cities because the buildings remind them of cliffs they nest on in their native range in Europe and Asia. It seems odd to think of them nesting in the wild, but there’s a flock around the cliffs on Table Mountain at the Woodhouse Public Access Area near Cheyenne. Mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves, on the other hand, are more likely to hide their nests in trees.

            But birds can sometimes adapt to what we humans present them with. Short of following the nestlings until they can be identified via adult plumage, or comparing them to photos of nestlings that were then followed to adulthood, we can’t say for sure which species they were.

            Out there in the open, did these two make it to maturity? I wonder how easy it would be for hawks to pick off both the parents and young.

            Here in Cheyenne at the end of August, I’ve noticed the field by my house has gotten very quiet at ground level—virtually no squeaking ground squirrels anymore. However, many mornings I’m hearing the keening of the two young Swainson’s hawks probably responsible for thinning that rodent population. The youngsters and parents sit on the power poles and watch as my friend Mary and I walk our dogs past.

            The two kids have even been over to visit at Mark’s and my house. One evening while out in the backyard I happened to look up and see the two sitting on opposite ends of the old TV antenna that still sways atop its two-story tower. That gives new meaning to the term “hawk watching.” They leave white calling card splats on the patio so I know when I’ve missed one of their visits.

Two young Swainson’s hawks find balance on TV antenna tower. Note two house finches also on the antenna. They were very vocal about the large intruders. Photo by Mark Gorges.
Young Swainson’s hawk finds a perch on 50-year-old TV antenna in the Gorges backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Another day, as I did backyard chores accompanied by the dog, one of them sat in one of our big green ash trees, sounding like it was crying its heart out—maybe it was filled with teenage angst, knowing how soon it needed to grow up and fly to the ancestral winter homeland in the Argentinian grasslands.

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.

Bird families

This somewhat shy Great Horned Owl family was a highlight in June at the Bioblitz held this year at Bear River State Park outside Evanston, Wyoming. The Bioblitz is sponsored by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy and other agencies and organizations. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Bird families expanding in summer

By Barb Gorges

            Early summer exploded with babies. In addition to our family adding the first baby of the new generation (do wild animals relate to their grand-offspring?), I noticed a lot of other baby activity.

            Driving past Holliday Park at twilight at the end of June I caught a glimpse of what looked like three loose dogs. They were a mother racoon and two young scampering across the lawn.

            Walking our dog around the field by our house I saw a ground squirrel mother herd a youngster out of the street and back to the safety of the grass. There’s also an explosion of baby rabbits in that field driving everyone’s dogs crazy.

            We have a pair of Swainson’s hawks nesting in our neighborhood and they are using the field as their grocery store. I’m not sure exactly where they are nesting, but I’m guessing it is one of the large spruce trees. Whenever I’m at the field, I catch a glimpse of at least one hunting. But I also glimpse them from my kitchen window soaring, meaning I can add them to my eBird.org yard list. The yard list is all the species I’ve seen from the window or while out in the yard. The Swainson’s have put me at 99 species so far—over about 12 years.

            When it warmed up, we spent more time in our backyard and I noticed other signs of family life. We always have a raucous community of tree squirrels, one generation indistinguishable from the next, chasing each other round and round in our big trees.

            This year I’ve been hearing a mountain chickadee sing. No, not the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call—that’s their alarm call—but a sweet three-note song (listen at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/).

            I’m also learning the various phrases American goldfinches use while they spend the summer with us. We’ve left our nyger thistle seed feeder up for them (no, nyger thistle is not our noxious weed and it is treated not to sprout). They sometimes come as a group of four, including two males and two females, and sometimes a younger one.

            The downy woodpeckers have been visiting as well. They go for one of those blocks of seed “glued” together that you buy at the store. You would think they would go for bugs hiding in the furrowed bark of the tree trunks. Maybe they do, in addition to the seed block.

            The robins have been busy. I observed a youngster walking through my garden as it tried to imitate the foraging action of the nearby adult, but it finally resorted to begging to be fed.

            Within the space of a couple days I was contacted about two problem robins attempting to build nests on the tops of porch lights. Porch lights, because they usually provide a shelf-like surface under the safety of the roof overhang, are quite popular. But not everyone trying to use the adjacent door likes getting dive-bombed by the angry robin parents.

            In the first situation, Deb, our former neighbor, said the robin was trying to build a nest on a porch light with a pyramidal top. The bird could not make her nest stick and all the materials from all her attempts slid off and accumulated on the porch floor. Providing another ledge nearby might not have worked for such a determined bird. Instead, Deb opted for screening off the top of the light. Hopefully Mama Robin found a better location in Deb’s spruce trees.

            Our current neighbor, Dorothy, texted me the next day, wondering what she and her family were going to do about being attacked by the robin which had built a nest on her (flat-topped) front porch light. Maybe avoid walking out the front door and walk out through the garage instead, I said. I asked her if she had a selfie stick so she could take pictures of the inside of the nest to show her two young boys.

            Down at Lions Park a new colony of black-crowned night-herons has been established. Listen for them behind the conservatory. The colony at Holliday Park is still going strong.

            In the far corner of Curt Gowdy State Park, I caught a glimpse of a bird family I hadn’t seen together before. Way up on the nasty El Alto trail, I saw a brown songbird I couldn’t identify readily. And then the parent came to feed it, a western tanager. The youngster has a long way to go before attaining either the look of its mother, if female, or if male, the bright yellow body with black and white wings and the orange head like its father.      

Book reviews: Birds and bears

Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.

This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.

There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.

Did you know the pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger, in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858. Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.

About 40 years later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous forever on the internet.

Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s here, the western counterpart of Nathan Pieplow’s eastern book I reviewed in July 2017, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/.

Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird. 

Each species’ page has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible birds.

Then you go online to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird sounds, this is the field guide for you. 

A Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.

The larger part of this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.

It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.

Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided. 

Down the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.

Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.

Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.

BirdCast

BirdCast improves birding—and bird safety

By Barb Gorges

            Last year, the folks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology improved and enhanced BirdCast, http://birdcast.info/. You can now get a three-night forecast of bird migration movement for the continental U.S. This not only helps avid birders figure out where to see lots of birds but helps operators of wind turbines know when to shut down and managers of tall buildings and structures when to shut the lights off (birds are attracted to lights and collide), resulting in the fewest bird deaths.

            The forecasts are built on 23 years of data that relates weather trends and other factors to migration timing.

            Songbird migration is predominately at night. Ornithologists discovered that radar, used to detect aircraft during World War II and then adapted for tracking weather events in the 1950s, was also detecting clouds of migrating birds.

            There is a network of 143 radar stations across the country, including the one by the Cheyenne airport. You can explore the data archive online and download maps for free.

            CLO’s Adriaan Doktor sent me an animation of the data collected from the Cheyenne station for May 7, 2018, one of last spring’s largest local waves of migration. He is one of the authors of a paper, “Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna,” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4, based on radar information.

            At the BirdCast website, you can pull up the animation for the night of May 6-7 and see where the migrating birds were thickest across the country. The brightest white clouds indicate a density of as many as 50,000 birds per kilometer per hour—that’s a rate of 80,500 birds passing over a mile-long line per hour. Our flight was not that bright, maybe 16,000 birds crossing a mile-long line per hour. A strong flight often translates into a lot of birds coming to earth in the morning—very good birdwatching conditions. Although if flying conditions are excellent, some birds fly on.

            I also looked at the night of May 18-19, 2018, the night before last year’s Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count—hardly any activity. The weather was so nasty that Saturday, our bird compiler rescheduled for Sunday, which was not a big improvement. We saw only 113 species.

            Twenty-five years ago, the third Saturday of May could yield 130 to 150 species. Part of the difference is the greater number of expert Audubon birders who helped count back then. Birding expertise seems to go in generational waves.

            But we also know that songbird numbers are down. I read in Scott Weidensaul’s book, “Living on the Wind,” published in 1999, about Sidney Gauthreaux’s 1989 talk at a symposium on neotropical migrants. He used radar records to show that the frequency of spring migrant waves across the Gulf of Mexico was down by 50 percent over 30 years. Radar can’t count individual birds or identify species, but we know destruction or degradation of breeding and wintering habitat has continued as people develop rural areas.

            But I also wonder if, along with plants blooming earlier due to climate change, the peak of spring migration is earlier. A paper by scientists from the University of Helsinki, due to be published in June in the journal Ecological Indicators, shows that 195 species of birds in Europe and Canada are migrating on average a week earlier than 50 years ago, due to climate change.

            Would we have been better off holding last year’s Big Day on either of the previous two Saturdays? I looked at the radar animations for the preceding nights in 2018, and yes, there was a lot more migration activity in our area than on the night before the 19th. Both dates also had better weather.

           As much fun as our Big Day is—a large group of birders of all skill levels combing the Cheyenne area for birds from dawn to dusk (and even in the dark)—and as much effort as is put into it, there has never been a guarantee the Saturday we pick will be the height of spring migration.

           The good news is that in addition to our Big Day, we have half a dozen diehard local birders out nearly every day from the end of April to the end of May adding spring migration information to the eBird.org database. It’s a kind of addiction, rather like fishing, wondering what you’ll see if you cast your eyes up into the trees and out across the prairie.   I recommend that you explore BirdCast.info (and eBird.org) and sign up to join Cheyenne Audubon members for all or part of this year’s Big Day on May 18. See the chapter’s website and/or sign up for the free e-newsletter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/newsletters/.

Cheyenne bird book debuts

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyCheyenne bird book coming out late October

Also published at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/cheyenne-birds-by-the-month-to-debut and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Oct. 14, 2018.

By Barb Gorges

I’m very good at procrastinating. How about you? But I’ve discovered there are some advantages.

From 2008 to 2010, I wrote “Bird of the Week” blurbs for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle to run in those sky boxes at the top of the To Do section pages. But they needed photos.

I asked one of the Wyobirds e-list subscribers from Cheyenne, Pete Arnold. Pete invites people to join his own e-list, where he shares his amazing bird photos. He generously agreed.

Using the checklist of local birds prepared by Jane Dorn and Greg Johnson for the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society, I chose 104 of the most common species and set to work figuring out which weeks to assign them to. Pete perused his photos and was able to match about 90 percent.

We eventually met in person–at Holliday Park. Pete stopped on his way to work one morning to snap waterfowl photos and I was walking a friend’s dog and counting birds. We discovered we have several mutual friends.

By the time our two-year project was over, I’d heard about making print-on-demand books, uploading files via internet for a company to make into a book. I rashly promised Pete I’d make a book of our collaboration. After the paper published BOW, I had all the rest of the rights to the text. And I’ve had college courses in editing and publishing.

Here’s where my procrastination comes in. Over the next six years my family had three graduations, three weddings, three funerals and two households to disassemble, not to mention my husband Mark retired and wanted to travel more.

Finally, a couple years ago, I gave print-on-demand a trial run through Amazon, designing my small book about quilt care. I realized then the bird book would be beyond my talents and software. I considered learning InDesign but also started looking for a professional.

I discovered, through the social media site LinkedIn, that Tina Worthman designed books in her spare time. We’d started talking when she got the job as director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. No more spare time.

However, Tina recommended Chris Hoffmeister and her company, Western Sky Design. What a great match—she’s a birder! I didn’t have to worry about her mismatching photo and text. And she could speak to Pete about image properties and other technicalities.

Song Sparrow - Pete Arnold

Song Sparrow by Pete Arnold from “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.”

The book features a 6 x 6-inch image of each bird. Chris asked Pete to provide bigger image sizes, since the small ones he’d used for the paper would be fuzzy. He also had to approve all the cropping into the square format. But the upside of my procrastination is he had more photos to choose from.

There were still a few species Pete didn’t have and so we put out a call on Wyobirds. We got help from Elizabeth Boehm, Jan Backstrom and Mark Gorges.

Meanwhile, even though the WTE features editor at the time, Kevin Wingert, had originally edited BOW, I sent my text for each species, and all the other parts of the book (introduction, acknowledgements, word from the photographer, bird checklist, resources list), to Jane Dorn, co-author of the book Wyoming Birds. Another friend, Jeananne Wright, a former technical writer and editor, and non-birder, caught a few ambiguities and pointed out where I’d left non-birders wondering what I meant.

The title of the book was the last step. Instead of naming it Bird of the Week, two years’ worth of bird images and written bird impressions/trivia are organized differently. The title is “Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds.”

The book is being printed by local company PBR Printing—print-on-demand is too expensive for multiple copies.

While the book will be available late October at the Wyoming State Museum and other local outlets, our major marketing partner is the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, a natural fit since it is in the middle of Lions Park, a state Important Bird Area.

The Gardens will have the book available at their gift shop and at two book signings they are hosting: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 – 3 p.m., 710 S. Lions Park Dr.

You can get a sneak peak, and Pete’s behind the camera stories, at our presentation for Cheyenne Audubon Oct. 16, 7 p.m. in the Cottonwood Room at the Laramie County Library, 2200 Pioneer Ave.

For more information about the book and updates on where to find it, see Yucca Road Press, https://yuccaroadpress.com/. If you don’t live in Cheyenne but would like to order a copy, please email bgorges4@msn.com.

It took part of a village to make this book and we are hoping the whole village will enjoy reading it.

YRP_logo_black

Drawing by Jane Dorn and design by Chris Hoffmeister.