Bird and wildlife books for winter reading & gift giving

2018-12How to be a Good CreatureTry these bird and wildlife books for winter reading and gift giving

This column was also posted at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/try-these-bird-and-wildlife-books-for-winter-reading-and-gift-giving. It appeared Dec. 16, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Several books published this year about birds and other animals I recommend to you as fine winter reading, or gift giving.

The first, “How to be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” is a memoir by Sy Montgomery, a naturalist who has written many children’s as well as adult books about animals.

Montgomery has been around the world for her research. Some of the animals she met on her travels and the animals she and her husband have shared their New Hampshire home with have taught her important life lessons: dog, emu, hog, tarantula, weasel, octopus.

This might make a good read-aloud with perceptive middle-school and older children.

2018-12 Warblers and Woodpeckers“Warblers & Woodpeckers, A Father-Son Big Year of Birding” by Sneed B. Collard III was a great read-aloud. For two weeks every evening I read it to my husband, Mark, while he washed the dishes–a long-standing family tradition.

Like Montgomery, Collard is a naturalist and author, though normally he writes specifically and prolifically for children. He lives in western Montana.

When his son is turning 13, Collard realizes he has limited time to spend with him before his son gets too busy. Birdwatching becomes a common interest, though his son is much more proficient. They decide to do a big year, to count as many bird species as possible, working around Collard’s speaking schedule and taking friends up on their invitations to visit.

There are many humorous moments and serious realizations, life birds and nemesis birds, and a little snow and much sunshine. Mark plans to pass the book on to our younger son who ordered it for him for his birthday.

2018-12Wild MigrationsTwo Wyoming wildlife biologists, Matthew Kauffman and Bill Rudd, who have spoken at Cheyenne Audubon meetings on the subject, are part of the group that put together “Wild Migrations, Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates.” I ordered a copy sight unseen.

We know that many bird species migrate, but Wyoming is just now getting a handle on and publicizing the migrations of elk, moose, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bison, thanks to improved, cheaper tracking technology.

Each two-page spread in this over-sized book is an essay delving into an aspect of ungulates with easy-to-understand maps and graphs. For example, we learn Wyoming’s elk feed grounds were first used in the 1930s to keep elk from raiding farmers’ haystacks and later to keep elk from infecting cattle with brucellosis.

Then we learn that fed elk don’t spend as much time grazing on summer range as unfed elk, missing out on high-quality forage 22 to 30 days a year. Shortening the artificial feeding season in spring might encourage fed elk to migrate sooner, get better forage, and save the Wyoming Game and Fish Department money.

This compendium of research can aid biologists, land managers and land owners in smarter wildlife management. At the same time, it is very readable for the wildlife enthusiast. Don’t miss the foreword by novelist Annie Proulx.

2018-12 Guide to Western Reptiles and AmphibiansThanks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for sending me a copy of the newly revised “Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians” by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel M. McGinnis to review. I now know that what friends and I nearly stepped on while hiking last summer was a prairie rattlesnake, one of 12 kinds of rattlers found in the west.

There are 40-plus Peterson field guides for a variety of nature topics, all stemming from Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 guide to the birds of eastern North America. I visited the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, this fall and saw his original art work.

The reptile and amphibian guide first came out in 1966, written and illustrated by the late Stebbins. In in its fourth edition, his color plates still offer quick comparisons between species. Photos now offer additional details and there are updated range maps and descriptions of species life cycles and habitats. It would be interesting to compare the maps in the 1966 edition with the new edition since so many species, especially amphibians, have lost ground.

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyI would be doing local photographer Pete Arnold a disservice if I didn’t remind you that you can find our book, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Depot Museum, Riverbend Nursery and PBR Printing. People tell us they are using Pete’s photos to identify local birds. I hope the experience encourages them to pick up a full-fledged bird guide someday by Peterson, Floyd, Sibley or Kaufman.

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Yampa Valley Crane Festival origins

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

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

[Yampa Valley Crane Festival story begins with snow]

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall festivals welcome birds back

Bird festival

Bird festivals happen wherever and whenever people notice birds are meeting and decide to celebrate it. Photo Southwest Wings Festival.

Published Oct. 4, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Fall festivals welcome birds back.”

2014 Update: Birding festivals continue to proliferate across the country. See this website for a listing: http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/festivals.

By Barb Gorges

“Nearly 40 field trips, including pelagics, shorebirds, neotropical migrants and Florida specialties. Last year’s species list–173!” Florida Birding Festival and Nature Expo, Clearwater, Oct. 4 – 7.

“Birding and wildlife watching field trips; raptor watch and banding.” Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival, Marathon, Oct. 12 – 14.

“Pelagic birding trips, field trips, seminars and workshops, boat trips, nature and art exhibits; featuring Debra Shearwater, keynote speaker.” Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, Titusville, Fla., Nov. 8 – 11.

“….featuring Pete Dunne; over 100 workshops and field trips.” Festival of the Cranes 2001, Socorro, N. M., Nov. 15 – 18.

“Field trips, seminars, trade show and more!” Rio Grande Valley 8th Annual Birding Festival, Harlingen, Texas, Nov. 14 – 18.

An informal survey of the September/October 2001 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest shows a number of bird festivals happening this fall.

Why would someone plan a bird festival in the fall? Then I looked at the locations: Florida, Texas and New Mexico, where birds might spend the winter.

Maybe festival planners think of them as welcome back parties for birds that were away breeding up north all summer.

Maybe folks in the south consider their birds to be just away for the hot summer months, while we northerners consider our birds to be just away for the inclement winter months.

We do have a couple species that return to Wyoming in the fall.

Maybe we should have a rough-legged hawk festival, celebrating their return from their summer sojourn along the Canadian coast of the Arctic Ocean.

However, juncos, instead of flying south, fly down in elevation.

Like people with nearby mountain cabins, they return to town in the fall–if they are the Oregon race. The slate-colored juncos, like American tree sparrows, have to fly back from Canada for the winter.

It is as hard to state a truism about migration that holds true for all birds, even birds of the same species, as it is fall bird festivals. I don’t consider Delaware to be very southern, but there’s the Snow Goose Festival Oct. 27 and 28. They have a population of snow geese that come back to spend the winter at local national wildlife refuges while most head for the Gulf or the Pacific coast.

“Congregate….where the birds migrate.” The 55th Annual Cape May (New Jersey) Autumn Weekend, Oct. 4 – 7 is more of a bon voyage party.

Cape May, on the southern tip of the peninsula between Delaware Bay and the Atlantic, is the narrow point of a funnel that collects birds from the Atlantic flyway before spouting them out over the water.

I thought the Great Louisiana Birdfest was following the southern pattern, but I noticed it’s scheduled for April. Spring seems to me to be a logical time to celebrate, when the birds return singing and in colorful breeding plumage.

Then there’s the “2nd Annual Wild Bird, Wildlife and Backyard Habitat Expo” scheduled for West Bend, Wis. Nov. 2-4. I suppose they are welcoming birds back to their feeders. I wonder, what nickname do they have for this event?

Any issue of any bird magazine has dozens of ads for travel at any season: Costa Rica, Spain, Venezuela, southeastern Arizona, Alaska, the Amazon, Trinidad, Tobago and the Galapagos.

The ads for Texas are as “booster-ous” as any Texan I’ve ever met. “Bay City, Texas – come see why we were No. 1 in 1997, 1998, 1999 in the North American Christmas Bird Counts.”

“Top 5 reasons to bird in the Texas Hill Country River Region, 5. Painted Bunting, 4. Barred Owl, 3. Curve-billed Thrasher, 2. Black-capped Vireo, 1. Golden-cheeked Warbler.”

There’s only one problem with travel. You miss what’s going on at home. It seems whatever week I take a vacation in the summer, it’s at a crucial time for the garden or when the robins are fledging.

If I were to leave in the fall, I’d miss the warblers passing through in migration. If I were a really good birder, which I’m not yet, I’d miss the migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, but so far I can’t tell them apart when they’re in their blah non-breeding plumage, so I don’t have as much to miss.

Travel, even with a really good bird watching guide, though it may add to your life list, won’t give you the familiarity you get with the birds at home. There’s something to be said about knowing one place from season to season and year to year.

On the other hand, you can’t really appreciate where you live until you’ve been around. So, if you offer me a pelagic birding trip (pelagic refers to ocean-going birds like shearwaters, frigates and albatrosses), I’ll go pack my Dramamine right away–even if I’m gone the same time as the Cheyenne spring bird count!

Meanwhile, you and I can keep our eyes open right here at home. A friend last week reported 30 turkey vultures have been roosting in an evergreen in the Avenues. On a recent Saturday morning, I saw 12 of them circling downtown office buildings. Do you suppose they were using thermals created by the hot air generated all week?

Following flock to Colorado Field Ornithologists’ meeting

Unknown flycatcher

Here’s a candidate for the next Jeop-birdie quiz. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Sept. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following flock of birders to Sterling was fun.”

By Barb Gorges

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Mark and I decided to attend the annual meeting of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. The group’s name sounds so formal.

Their 51st annual meeting was held over Labor Day weekend in Sterling, Colorado, only two hours southeast of Cheyenne. Like other conventions, it included talks, vendors and a banquet with a keynote speaker, but unlike other conventions, there were dozens of field trips.

I worried I might feel out of place, even if the information on the website, http://cfobirds.org/, assured me that beginning birdwatchers were welcome. CFO is all about the study, conservation—and enjoyment of birds.

Enjoy we did. Our first trip leader, CFO member Larry Modesitt, not only patiently explained field marks for common birds to several trip members who needed help, but he was also able to discuss the finer details of flycatcher fall plumage with one of the other members who surveys birds for a living.

CFO takes birding quite seriously. Each day, 14 field trips left every 10 minutes beginning at 5:20 a.m. One even started at 4 a.m.

Each field trip had a designated leader who contacted all of their trip participants at least a week in advance to discuss routes, carpooling, rest and lunch stops, and even how much to reimburse drivers for gas.

Our third trip leader, Nick Komar, also a CFO member, consulted with other people on what had been seen where we were going, and then worked hard to help us find those birds.

It was while visiting a designated birdwatching bench along the South Platte River at the Brush State Wildlife Area that our group saw warblers in clear view, all in one bush, six to eight at a time: Wilson’s, orange-crowned and yellow-throat. They were flitting about gleaning bugs, sparkling like yellow ornaments. At the other river overlook nearby, we found a plethora of woodpeckers: a redhead family, several red-bellied woodpeckers, a hairy woodpecker and yellow-shafted flickers.

While our first trip was filled with flycatchers and our third highlighted woodpeckers and warblers, the second, with Mark Peterson, was about shorebirds.

The whole idea for Sterling as a convention site was to catch the shorebird fall migration. Usually, the CFO annual meeting is planned around the spring migration. This was only the third time for a fall gathering. The keynote speaker was John Dunn, co-author of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and shorebird expert.

But all the lovely summer rains keeping the prairie green around Cheyenne and Sterling kept the reservoirs full. And when they are full, there is no shore, no bare sand or mudflats for shorebirds to pick over. But we got lucky and found muddy shores at a small pond at the Red Lion SWA—and shorebirds.

Shorebirds are right up there on my list of difficult-to-identify species, partly because I don’t see them often and partly because I see them in migration when they aren’t very colorful. I thought John Dunn’s after dinner talk on shorebird identification might help. But it was definitely over my head.

However, if I keep looking at shorebirds in photos and in the flesh, eventually my identification skills will improve. Luckily, there was no quiz afterwards.

There was, however, a quiz the afternoon before: Jeop-birdie. Categories, among many, included identifying famous ornithologists, poorly photographed birds and types of bird nests. Very entertaining.

Larry Modesitt told me CFO began because Colorado needed an arbiter to sort through claims of unusual bird species seen in the state (Wyoming has a rare bird records committee). Many members also belong to Audubon.

CFO also supports bird research. A number of the papers given Saturday afternoon were partly supported by CFO funding. Many looked at facets of bird life that once understood, such as the impact of oil and gas drilling noise on nesting birds, might make it easier to make land use decisions.

It isn’t easy walking into a group of 200 unknown people, but when they are all dressed like me, in field pants, sun-protection shirts or T-shirts printed with birds, large-brimmed hats and binoculars, it’s less intimidating. It’s very easy to start a conversation with “What field trip are you going on tomorrow?”

And after birding together, sharing exciting bird observations, many faces become familiar over the course of the weekend.

Next year, the convention will be in Salida, Colorado, first weekend in June. Now, there’s a spot I might pick up some new life birds.

Gosh, did I just sound like a dyed-in-the-wool, serious species-nabbing-twitcher? Yikes!

Nebraska spring crane festival for the birds

 

Sandhill Cranes

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes outside Kearney, Neb., can be seen feeding and flying. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 18, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nebraska spring festival is for the birds.”

2014 Update: The name of the festival has been changed to Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival, scheduled in late March in Kearney. See www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

By Barb Gorges

If a late winter-early spring trip to Belize, Mexico, the Everglades, southern Arizona or Hawaii, destinations of our friends, wasn’t on Mark’s and my calendar this year, I thought why not central Nebraska instead?

At an elevation nearly 4000 feet lower than Cheyenne, spring would be farther along.

We packed our snow gear anyway and headed for Kearney for the first weekend of spring and the 40th Annual Rivers and Wildlife Celebration.

I have always thought this was a weekend to avoid when planning a trip to view the spring migration of sandhill cranes. But having become increasingly intrigued with the idea of attending a birding festival, we paid the registration fee and signed up for one of the pre-conference, daylong field trips.

We didn’t sign up for the crane-viewing blinds. That just seemed futile with the number of people coming for the conference. Plus, we’ve done it before.

It was 70 degrees Thursday afternoon when we arrived in Kearney at the conference hotel. On the way out to Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, 12 miles further east, we stopped to admire a field full of cranes, as thick as cows in a feed lot, quietly dozing or picking up the odd bit of food. They seemed to be anticipating their evening performance.

Rowe’s educational displays provide the background to appreciate the Platte River, its history and the unique phenomenon of 600,000 sandhill cranes stopping over on their way to northern breeding grounds.

Forty years ago, the cranes could barely find the scoured river sandbars they need to roost on at night to avoid predators. The controlled flow of the Platte didn’t give it the flooding needed to keep it clean.

Ron Klataske, working for Audubon, inspired the troops during those early years and the original spring meetings were rallies for river protection. At lunch Ron, now director of Audubon of Kansas, reviewed the progress made.

A lobbying workshop featuring a panel of Nebraska lawmakers was scheduled Saturday afternoon, but Mark and I, after a morning learning about sandhill crane behavior and the state of whooping crane research, opted for a walk out to the river on the Ft. Kearny State Recreation Area’s Hike and Bike Trail.

An old railroad bridge spans a perfect treeless, crane-roosting stretch of the river, but we were too early for the evening performance of incoming cranes.

Instead, we’d paid to attend the banquet. At our table we met folks from New York and Nebraska, a few of the 150 people from 22 states registered for the weekend.

I was looking forward to the after dinner speaker and Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Weidensaul. I’ve enjoyed several of his two dozen books about birds and natural history.

It turns out he is good at speaking, too, with great photos. His theme was from his book, “Return to Wild America,” in which he retraces Roger Tory Peterson’s 1953 trip across North America and notes the changes.

Sandhill Crane model

At Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, a life-size, painted, cut-out of a Sandhill Crane gives a sense of their size. Photo by Barb Gorges

The family of the previous evening’s speaker, Nebraska photographer Michael Forsberg, was around all weekend selling his incredible photographs and his new book, “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild.” He gave us a look behind the scenes of the professional wildlife photographer’s life. Not only do you need to know your camera, you need to know your wildlife, more than a few landowners, and how to set up a camera trap or figure out other ways not to disrupt your subjects’ lives while shooting them.

Chris Wood came out all the way from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, to encourage us at breakfast Saturday to record our bird observations in eBird. More about that in a future column.

But how was the birding, you ask. Fine.

For $25 apiece, we rode a 20-passenger shuttle bus all day Friday with huge windows and Kent Skaggs from Rowe Sanctuary at the wheel. He knows every road and bird. [Hefty sack lunches were provided, plus plenty of interesting passengers, as well as enough potty stops at small towns.] It was cold and snowy and downright raw when we clambered out for stops to explore the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District south of Kearney, but other stops required only cozy armchair birding from the bus.

The highlights included greater prairie chicken, Lapland longspur, eastern meadowlark, and a rare glaucous gull. The other birds were all species we see regularly around Cheyenne, except for the flock of eastern bluebirds we saw Saturday afternoon—a great way to mark the first day of spring.

We’ll see what famous name in birdwatching or conservation is invited next year and maybe even risk registration roulette and sign up for a sunrise or sunset in the crane viewing blinds, too. Everyone needs a little inspiration after a long winter.

Visit Sandhill Crane migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 9, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The great migration: Head east this spring to meet the famous sandhill cranes”

By Barb Gorges
One of the great annual events of the natural world, especially for North America, happens just down the road from Cheyenne every spring. Yet it isn’t as well-known, much less well-attended, by Wyomingites as it is by people from all over the country, even the world.

I’m talking about the spring migration of sandhill cranes.

Yes, there are millions of migrating birds, but most don’t stand nearly 4 feet tall in flocks of thousands, out in the open, making such a racket that they can’t be missed.

More than 500,000 birds, representing 80 percent of the entire sandhill population, come in for a landing along a stretch of the Platte River, between wintering in New Mexico and Texas and breeding in Canada and Alaska.

The peak time for Nebraska is the month of March into the first week in April, about when I get my annual spring urge to travel.

Driving Interstate 80 five hours east (and don’t forget to account for the lost hour entering the Central time zone[j1]), to an elevation 4,000 feet lower is to meet spring a couple weeks early. Central Nebraska has a Midwestern flavor with birds to match, so it’s even more like getting out of Dodge for a vacation.

When Mark and I first went to see the cranes, our boys were younger than 12, too young to be allowed in the blinds at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. Can you imagine how quickly the cranes would leave if small children staged a temper tantrum, echoing through the plywood construction? So we left them with a friend in Kearney for a few hours. We’ve been back a couple times since.

I love the openness. The only trees are in the river valley. But those trees are exactly what the cranes don’t want.

So the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, since its establishment in 1974, has worked diligently to remove trees from its stretch of the river, leaving unvegetated sandbars for the cranes to roost on at night, with no place for predators to skulk unseen. Damming the river upstream has eliminated spring floods that would normally clear the channels regularly.

The blinds at Rowe, near Gibbon, 20 minutes from Kearney, and at The Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center further east, near Grand Island, allow people to view cranes at sunrise and sunset.

While the cranes (even the occasional whooping crane) are scattered in the local fields and wetlands feeding on corn and invertebrates all day, great for photo ops, it’s the blinds that allow you to see the concentration of birds where they roost for the night.

If you want to get closer, sign up to stay overnight in the special photographers’ blinds – no heat or light allowed – and pay $200-$300 for the privilege.

It is a privilege to watch these magnificent birds from the blinds, but it may not seem like it if you don’t bring your warmest boots and layers of clothing. That’s the downside of being further east – the cold is damp.

Once you enter the blind, at 5 p.m. (6 p.m. after daylight saving time starts March 9), you aren’t allowed to leave for two to three hours, until it’s dark enough to sneak away. Alternatively, if you enter at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. DST, you must wait until after the birds have left. The blinds do have adjacent chemical toilets now, but the guides discourage their use.

Not only do you want to wear dark clothes to keep from spooking the birds, but regular flashlights are not allowed and bright LCD screens are frowned on.

And for heaven sake, leave your flash at home and make sure you deactivate the flash on your point and shoot or smart phone. If your flash triggers a mass bird departure, everyone in the blind, up to 31 other people, will hate you, because there won’t be a second chance to see sandhills that morning or evening.

Blaine McCartney, a photographer at the WTE, reccommends a 400mm lens to get close enough to the birds, along with a monopod.  Though everyone gets their own little window, there isn’t really room for tripods.

Judy Myer, a Cheyenne photographer, went on a shoot with the Fort Collins camera club last year. The club members used the Rowe blinds one morning and the Crane Trust blinds in the evening.

“The evening viewing was dark, but we could hear them,” she said. “Is one place better than the other? I can’t really answer that except to say I wouldn’t do (those blinds) again in the evening.”

Instead, she said, she would head to the bridge at the trust, where, for $15, you can watch the cranes fly overhead in the evening to their roosts.

But it goes to show everyone’s experience can be different. I’m not familiar with The Crane Trust blinds. We’ve had pretty good luck at Rowe, and it’s closer.

The Trust exists because of the settlement in 1978 of a lawsuit contending that the Grey Rocks Dam, built on the North Platte in Wyoming, had a negative impact on whooping cranes and other wildlife in Nebraska downstream on the Platte. Like Rowe, they do a lot of work to clear vegetation from the river channels and offer educational opportunities.

Yes, it’s half a day’s drive each way. Yes, it can be cold.

But no nature film can take the place of being surrounded by a crowd of birds continuing a ritual that’s tens of thousands, maybe millions of years old, that’s partly instinctual and partly learned from their parents.

Their calling fills your ears with a roar you never forget.

To visit or make blind reservations
Rowe Audubon Sanctuary
Located at 44450 Elm Island Road, near Gibbon, Neb. Visit http://www.rowe.audubon.org for details and rules. Call 308-468-5282 weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time. Reservations are available March 1-April 6. Cost is $25 per person and must be paid in advance. Reservations are refundable up to seven days in advance, with a 5 percent charge.

The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, 44450 Elm Island Road., Gibbon, Neb., is free. From Feb. 15 to April 15, it’s open daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center
The visitor center, at 6611 Whooping Crane Drive, Wood River, Neb., is free and open March [j6]1-April 7, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Normally, it is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are $25 a person and are available March 1-30. Another option is to view cranes from their bridge ($15) as they fly overhead in the evening to their roosts. Visit http://www.cranetrust.org or call 308-382-1820.

Crane festivals
Festivals are held all along the cranes’ Central Flyway migration route, and on their breeding and wintering grounds. The biggest (with the most cranes) is Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival (formerly Rivers and Wildlife Celebration), scheduled March 20-23 in Kearney, which includes speakers, kid activities, field trips, vendors, etc. See http://www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

Other Central Flyway crane festivals:
Whooping Crane Festival, Port Aransas, Texas, Feb. 20-23.
Monte Vista Crane Festival, Monte Vista, Colo., March 7-9.
Crane Watch Festival, Kearney, Neb., (includes Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival), March 21-30.
Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, Fairbanks, Alaska, August 22-25.
Yampa Valley Crane Festival, Hayden, Colo., September.
Festival of the Cranes, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, November.

Other crane festivals:
Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, Othello, Wash., March 28-30.
Sandhill Crane and Art Festival, Calhoun Co., Michigan, Oct. 11-12.
Sandhill Crane Festival, Lodi, Calif., November
Tennessee Crane Festival, Birchwood, Tenn., mid-January 2015.

Birding festivals

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles are popular focuses for bird festivals. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Feb. 6, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bald eagles attract commercial interest, festivals.”

2014 Update: There are even more festivals now. For a list, check the American Birding Association’s website, www.aba.org.

By Barb Gorges

This time of year, between mid-December and the end of February, interior-nesting (as opposed to coastal-nesting) bald eagles are attracted to large lakes and rivers with open water where they feed on fish and waterfowl, etc.

This time of year bird watchers are attracted to large lakes and rivers with open water where they feast their eyes on bald eagles. Purveyors of goods and services have learned how to feast on the bird watchers.

Business often has some natural resource at its root, though a hole in the ice doesn’t usually bring to mind profits.

However, a plethora of bird festivals have now come into being, capitalizing on the highlights of bird behavior. Bird Watcher’s Digest (www.birdwatchersdigest.com/festivals/festivals) lists 24 eagle festivals in January and February alone.

By March, festivals concentrate on welcoming migrating birds, or in the case of West Palm Beach, Fla., wishing them farewell. I’m a little alarmed at the thought of the Bethel (Alaska) Bunting Bash. I think organizers were intent on alliteration rather than whether potential visitors might envision attacks on flocks of rare McKay’s buntings.

Bald eagles make a good focus for a festival. They are large, easy to see, distinctive looking and they gather in particular places in the winter.
A good reason for celebration is the bald eagle’s tremendous comeback from the days when DDT poisoning was about to cause its extinction. It has moved from endangered species status to merely threatened and is presently proposed for delisting altogether.

Also, why not celebrate our national bird? Ben Franklin, who proposed the turkey instead, was never happy with the bald eagle as our national symbol. Countries  may have chosen eagles for their reputation for using formidable beaks and talons to defend nest and hunt vermin.

However, our founding fathers picked the wrong eagle. Ours is as fond of carrion as fresh meat. So maybe a national symbol willing to clean up the environment is not so bad, Ben.

Bald eagle festivals I looked up were sponsored by chambers of commerce, Audubon societies and other conservation groups, park departments, state conservation departments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps, with a reputation for flooding prime farmland and wildlife habitat, has with its dams, ironically and inadvertently provided many instances of open water coveted by the eagles.

What does one do at an eagle festival? You look at eagles. Take part in guided tours by land or boat, or look through spotting scopes set up by sponsors.

There are talks about eagles, maybe a parade, photo contest, art exhibit, poster contest, poetry contest, storytelling, souvenirs, book signings, music, theater, conservation displays, games, crafts, and Volksmarching.

At one festival there’s the quintessential Methodist pancake breakfast billed as “Breakfast with the Eagle” because a live eagle named Emi presides.

A well advertised bird festival can mean a lot to a small town like Concrete, Wash., on the banks of the Skagit River. Visitors infuse the town with money spent for food and lodging, etc.

But the real value is the new value local residents now place on eagles. I don’t care whether it’s because they have their own interests or the eagles’ at heart. Either way, eagles will be protected.

Here in Wyoming we don’t have an eagle festival, but we do have the long-running Lander Bird Festival in May. The second annual Platte Valley Festival of Birds slated for the end of May in Saratoga.

Though we have eagles spending the winter in the state, I don’t think they are in high enough concentrations yet to warrant the tourism industry making up full-color brochures.

Well, maybe there are other options: the Crow Counting Convention, Flicker Festival, Siskin Celebration, Blue Jay Jubilee, Flycatcher Fair, Gull Extravaganza, Pelican Party, Swan Symposium, Hummingbird Holiday, Swallow Soiree, Warbler Wingding, Gadwall Gala, Junco Jamboree, Falcon Fiesta, Goldfinch Gathering, House Finch Forum, Plover Powwow or Shoveler Shindig. But please, no Bluebird Bash.