How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

2018-09-GREAT GREEN MACAW Mario Córdoba

Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

Published September 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

The back-to-school sales reminded me that I have some studying to do. In a few months, Mark and I are going to Costa Rica on our first international birding trip. We are going with Bird Watcher’s Digest with whom we’ve birded before in Florida and Texas.

Our friend Chuck Seniawski has been to Costa Rica five times and recommended, as did BWD, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. It shows 903 species in a country 20 percent the size of Wyoming, which has only 445 species. About 200 I’ve seen before because they migrate up here for the summer or their year round range includes parts of both North and Central America.


Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

I asked local birder Greg Johnson, veteran of many international birding trips, how he learns the birds before heading to a new destination.

Greg said he starts with the country’s field guide, “I start reviewing it almost daily beginning several weeks or even months before the trip. For most trips, the tour company should be able to provide you trip reports from previous trips with the same itinerary. The trip reports should have a list of all birds they saw or heard. I then check those birds with a pencil mark in the book to focus only on those I am likely to see and ignore the rest. For example, if your trip to Costa Rica only includes the highlands and Caribbean slope, you can ignore those birds which only occur on the Pacific slope.”

Mario Córdoba of Crescentia Expeditions, trip leader, has provided a list of target bird species based on our travel route including several ecolodges we’ll stay at near national parks. No Pacific slope.

2018-09-RESPLENDENT QUETZAL (2) Mario Córdoba

Resplendent Quetzal, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Greg’s email continued, “If you spend enough time studying the birds you are most likely to see, you’ll surprise yourself at how easy it is to ID birds you have never seen before at first sight. There are always some groups that are still hard to ID without help from a guide [bird expert] because differences between species are very subtle. In Costa Rica these would include woodcreepers, some of the antbirds, elanias, tyrannulets, other flycatchers, etc.”

There are recognizable genera in Costa Rica: hummingbird, woodpecker, wren, warbler. But then the others seem straight from Alice in Wonderland: potoo, motmot, puffbird.

Mark and I also went to eBird and looked at the bird lists for the hotspots we will be visiting and filtered them for the month we are there. Of 421 species we found, 338 will be unfamiliar birds.


Fiery-throated Hummingbird, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

There is an alternative to thumbing through the field guide to study the birds. Our daughter-in-law, Jessie Gorges, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii, got a job one summer surveying birds across the Great Plains. She had a couple months to learn to recognize a few hundred birds by sight and sound.

Her solution is a free program called ANKI, She created her own deck of digital flashcards with photos and birdsong recordings. It’s like a game and Jessie is the queen of complicated board and card games. The program prepares a daily quiz based on how much review and repetition it thinks you need.

But of course, even to make bird flashcards like I did 20 years ago for kids for Audubon Wyoming, printable from a CD, I need to find photographs. Finding them online or scanning pages of the field guide can help me study.

I take for granted the decades of familiarity I have with bird species in the U.S. There are groups in which I still can’t distinguish individual species well, for instance, flycatchers. But at least I know they are flycatchers. On this trip I’ll be leaving behind most of the birds I know.


Red-legged Honeycreeper, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

But Greg assured me, “Once you go on an international birding trip, you’ll likely get hooked and won’t be able to stop. There are so many great birds that don’t occur in the U.S. I’ll never forget seeing my first keel-billed toucans in Belize or African penguins in South Africa.”

Preparing for this trip will make me appreciate the birds I do know when I meet their tropical cousins. I never thought about our northern rough-winged swallow having a counterpart, the southern rough-winged swallow. We could see both in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, excuse me while I begin studying in ornithological order: “Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Black Guan, Crested Guan, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Least Grebe, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Green Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Northern Jacana, White-throated Crake, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Tiny Hawk….”

2018-09-SCARLET MACAW Mario Córdoba

Scarlet Macaws, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

A bird by any other name still looks the same

AOU logoPublished Sept. 18, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A bird by any other name still looks the same.”

2014 Update: The American Ornithologists’ Union continues to change bird species’ classifications, and consequently their names and or families, based on new science.

By Barb Gorges

It’s a bird book author’s nightmare and a marketer’s dream. It’s the American Ornithologists’ Union’s third supplement to their 1998 checklist of official bird names and taxonomic order as recently published in The Auk (and available online at

All bird publications, including the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD I finished making last year, are seriously out of date.

Most of the AOU’s new changes don’t affect us in Wyoming, but this time there are some doozies.

The AOU has three goals when making changes to its official checklist. It wants each bird’s scientific name to reflect its relationship to closely related birds. It wants to comply with standardized common names for birds around the world. And it wants to list all birds in ornithological order, based on evolutionary development.

Because people in different locations have had different names for the same plants and animals—not to mention different languages, about 150 years ago scientists started using Latin, the historical universal language of scholars, to give them each unique names.

The Latin, or scientific, names are also part of the taxonomic system developed by Linnaeus to categorize living things. Each scientific name starts with the genus, which is shared with a plant or animal’s closest relatives. The second part is the species name, the plant or animal’s individual name.

On the other hand, common names for birds were originally whatever people observing them wanted to call them. There was some confusion as to which small yellow bird the name “yellow canary” referred to.

Evidently ornithologists gave up on the idea of all of us learning the Latin names because now organizations like the AOU are working hard to standardize common bird names—even from continent to continent. That is why our robins are listed by the AOU as “American Robin” because lurking out there are “European Robin” and “Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin.”

Ornithologists try to find the oldest common name and since ornithological study is comparatively young here in North America, we frequently have to give up our own bird names, such as sparrow hawk, pigeon hawk and chicken hawk for names based on older European terms: “American Kestrel,” “Merlin” and “Peregrine Falcon.”

So now the bird almost every English speaker anywhere would call a pigeon, and for which the AOU’s former common name was “Rock Dove,” will now be known as “Rock Pigeon.” I guess we commoners were right all along. “Rock” just distinguishes it from other pigeon species.

Three-toed woodpeckers, also found in Wyoming, used to be split into two subspecies, but those subspecies have been elevated to genus level. So now we’ll have the American three-toed woodpecker and across the Atlantic they will have the Eurasian three-toed woodpecker.

Genetic studies drive most AOU changes. Comparing DNA is more precise than examining the expression of genes, such as a bird’s internal structure and external looks, as was done previously.

Since new information comes to light constantly, conclusions often have to change. So in this supplement the AOU has also done additional shuffling, but luckily, most associated common names have stayed the same.

Finally, ornithologists worldwide have decided loons, long the first group of birds listed in North American field guides arranged in ornithological order, are no longer the most primitive. Geese, ducks, swans, quail and grouse will now come before loons.

I wonder how field guide authors feel about this—especially David Allen Sibley, who just came out this spring with his first eastern and western field guides. As usual, we’ll just have to remember all the previous names of each bird and look them up in the index.

So now “90 of Wyoming’s Most Noticeable Birds,” as listed on the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD-ROM, are no longer in correct ornithological order either.

But the CD will need revision before its next printing anyway since the Wyoming Department of Education has rewritten its educational standards for which I wrote bird-related activity ideas.

[Flachcard CD availability—check with Audubon Rockies,, or contact me at

Bird flashcards get technological twist

Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD

The Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD, though formatted in HTML, was designed for teachers to print out 8.5 x 11-inch bird flashcards, complete with species information on the back. CD project designed by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 9, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird flashcards get a technological twist.”

2014 Update: I was able to successfully make the CD of flashcards and other bird education information with the help of about 40 other people volunteering their expertise. These days, even though there is so much information about birds online, my Audubon chapter still uses 8.5 x 11-inch flashcards occasionally when teaching bird i.d. classes.

By Barb Gorges

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has approved a “Wildlife Worth the Watching” grant to Audubon Wyoming for a joint educational project titled, “Wyoming Bird Flashcards.”

So yours truly, the (unpaid) project coordinator, has to get to work.

The first task is to find photos of 30 more species of birds.

Back in January I perused Game and Fish’s slide bank and found images of the 55 other species we’ll be considering as “Wyoming’s most noticeable birds.”

If you or anyone you know takes pictures of birds, please call or e-mail me for the list. I can use clear slides, prints and maybe even digital images (I’ll have to check with the technical guru).

Everyone who donates an image will be listed in the credits.

“Flashcards?” you’re thinking. Well, with a twist.

When I first started visiting classrooms to introduce birds before leading field trips, I took a slide projector. But it took almost as long to set up the equipment as it did to give the talk. And it’s hard to interact with a class when they are sitting in the dark.

So a few years ago when someone gave me an Audubon calendar, I started my collection of 8×10-inch bird flashcards.

Unlike slides, flashcards can be viewed without equipment. They can be passed around, grouped by type, compared side by side, put up on the board or set up in a tree.

As I was blowing up pictures from my field guide one day at Kinko’s to fill in some gaps (copies for educational or personal use are legal), I ran into Chris Madson, editor of “Wyoming Wildlife,” and I had a flash of inspiration.

Game and Fish probably had lots of bird pictures! Perhaps we could prepare bird flashcards to distribute to educators around the state.

But I found out traditional printing of large color pictures on cardstock is prohibitively expensive. Even the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when I talked to them, said it was too costly.

Then I had another “aha” moment, derived from my student teaching experience. Modern textbooks now provide worksheet and test masters on CD-ROM so the teacher can print out what they need, and perhaps print out flashcards of just the birds the class will study before a field trip.

CD images can be viewed on computer, of course, so teachers may choose to use them in the computer lab, and community educators can use them with computers hooked up to projectors, as I have done at Laramie County Community College.

So I started looking into the technical angle of producing CDs. I took a giant shortcut last October when I attended the Wyoming Literacy Conference here in Cheyenne and met Joe LaFleur, the author of the Better Birdwatching CD-ROMs.

He did all the technical work on his CDs, and he is a wildlife biologist. What luck!

Then I asked Audubon Wyoming to be the organizational sponsor when I applied for grants and so here we are.

The project will be more than just 85 pretty bird pictures. We’ll also have information on each species, a list of birding hotspots around the state, species lists for different habitat types (so teachers can figure out what birds to study for their area or field trip) and a list of bird-related resources and how to find them. This is where birders around the state can contribute to the project.

However, instructional materials are practically useless in Wyoming these days if they haven’t been translated as ways to fulfill state educational standards.

So along with flashcard activity ideas and lesson plans will be correlations to standards, not only in science, but geography, math, language arts, and maybe even music. Anyone out there working on their Master’s in curriculum design need a project?

Finally, what Game and Fish has learned is, don’t send valuable instructional materials out to every school or teacher, unsolicited. It’s like giving away puppies. They’ll be perceived as more valuable and more desirable, and treated better, if you ask, say, $25 each.

So Audubon Wyoming and Game and Fish plan to show teachers how to use the flashcards in workshops offered for recertification credit next summer and every participant will get their own Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD.

Each Wyoming school district will get one for their instructional materials center, too, as well as Audubon chapters, bird clubs and any education-minded, non-profit organizations that request one.

Perhaps we’ll have to send a CD to Cornell.

I love synergy, when seemingly unrelated things we know suddenly realign and combine to become something new and useful.


How to raise a birder

boy and binocs

Children are never too young to be introduced to birdwatching, even if it’s for only a few minutes at a time. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 22, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to raise a birder: take a child outside.”

2014 Update: Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, in partnership with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ Children’s Village, offers opportunities for children and adults to learn to birdwatch.

By Barb Gorges

There are three attributes most really good birders share: terrific eyesight, terrific hearing and a mind like a sponge. These attributes describe most children, too, unless they ruin their eyesight with too much screen time or their hearing with loud music or fill their minds with rules for arcane video games.

Can children become really good birders? Yes. Years ago our Audubon chapter received a call from a mother wondering if her junior-high-aged son, Jason, could come with us on a field trip. He had birded regularly with folks in California before the family moved to Cheyenne. So we said sure. If he’d been birding with adults before, he knew what he was getting into spending a day with us.

Jason turned out to be a very personable young man and his young eyes and ears helped us find species we might have missed otherwise. Plus he’d studied up on the birds in our area. Thanks to Jason, I saw my first green-tailed towhee.

Sad to say, he didn’t grow up to become an ornithologist. Last we heard, he was at Harvard and on his way to becoming a pediatrician, but even pediatricians have hobbies, as illustrated by famous Wyoming birder and pediatrician Oliver Scott. I wouldn’t doubt Jason is still adding to his life list.

How does a child become a birder? Famous birders usually point to a “spark” bird that sparked their interest as a child. For Roger Tory Peterson, famous for inventing the modern field guide, it was a blue jay he saw as a grade schooler.

RTP was an independent-minded boy who spent days roaming the local woods on his own and looking things up at the library. Eventually, he discovered other people interested in birds, finding that accompanying a birder better than him out in the field is faster than reading a book for improving birding skills.

The American Birding Association sponsors two summer birding camps for young people ages 13-18 and they don’t lack for applicants though it seems it would be much more difficult now for children to catch the spark, with parents less likely to let their children roam and more likely to over-schedule them for after school activities.

How does someone who may not know much about birds encourage a child to develop an interest in them?

First, children have to see that birds exist almost everywhere. The more time they spend outside, the more birds there are to notice. Wondering what kind of birds they are leads to looking them up in a field guide. Later, binoculars become important for seeing details.

A field guide is a most wonderous thing. Years ago our local Audubon chapter gave out plaques to winners we chose at the school district’s elementary science fair. But for the same cost, we started to and still do, give the winners “adult” field guides which are as full of colorful pictures as any children’s book.

Not every child with an interest in birds is going to grow up to be an ornithologist, just as every high school violinist isn’t going to go on to play with the New York Philharmonic. But that’s OK. They can still have a life-long love of birds (or music), and appreciation for people who make birds (or music) a career.


Bird flashcards evolve into full-service CD-ROM

Western Meadowlark

The Western Meadowlark is Wyoming’s state bird. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 6, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird flashcards evolve into full-service CD-ROM.”
2014 Update: Now that schools have better access to the Internet, the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD would make a wonderful website–after a few updates. For more information, please contact me at And who knew saving things to CD, or DVD, would become a DIY activity?

By Barb Gorges

Beauford Thompson, formerly a Davis sixth grade teacher, is at the root of the origination of the Wyoming Bird Flashcards CD-ROM, produced jointly last year by Audubon Wyoming and Wyoming Game and Fish Department with a Wyoming’s Wildlife Worth the Watching grant.

About 10 years ago Beauford invited Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society members to go bird watching with his class. Several of us were available for the ensuing field trips with him and other teachers, but I was the one to visit classes the day before to introduce birds we might see.

It’s hard to make eye contact with students sitting in the dark while using a slide projector, so I switched to 8½ x 11″ flashcards. They are actually more versatile, allowing for comparison and individual

The next evolutionary step came at Kinko’s where I was making another flashcard when Chris Madson, editor of WGFD’s Wyoming Wildlife magazine, walked in. I asked him if Game and Fish had any bird photos that could be used for flashcards. What if we had sets printed and distributed to teachers?

Color printing is prohibitively expensive, but then I remembered my recent student teaching experience with Kathryn Valido at Afflerbach, and how many workbooks are now on CD. The teacher selects worksheets to print out and duplicate.

With a western meadowlark image borrowed from Chris, Rainbow Photo was able to put it and accompanying text on CD. I showed that and the flashcard printout to the other Audubon Wyoming board members when I asked them to sponsor the project in order to search for grant money.

The Wyoming’s Wildlife Worth the Watching grant became the first and only grant applied for.

I soon realized the CD format, not only cheap to produce and distribute, lent itself to being used by students and teachers like other software on school computers and in labs.

In addition to the bird images and information, I added:
— A guide to using the CD
–Suggestions for introducing birds and bird watching
–A model for planning a field trip
–135 places around the state to watch birds
–Bird checklists to identify what birds may be seen when and where
–300-term glossary
–Standards-based activity ideas for students K-12 in all content areas
–Additional resources including Wyoming organizations and agencies, books, CDs and Internet sites.

It’s taken me awhile to realize I’ve essentially compiled a book—with the help of about 45 other people. I hesitate to single out particular contributors, but without Dave Lockman, now retired from Game
and Fish, and Mike Randall, the tech consultant, no one else’s contributions would have made it to disk.

This first run of the CD is serving as a beta copy. There are a couple technical gremlins, mostly for users who need to update their Internet browsers (the CD operates like a Web page, though it isn’t necessary to be online to use it unless you want to click on the links in the resources section).

Also, some of the photo credits got scrambled; new bird books and Web sites are coming out; teachers have great ideas to share; and the state is updating its science education standards. I’m working on a Web site to hold this additional information until we come out with WBF 2.0.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate the CD, third-grade teacher Kathy Hill and I are offering “Birds in Your Classroom,” a workshop for K-12 teachers at Jessup School March 22 which has been approved for recertification credit (see below to contact me for more information before March 14).

Several years ago Kathy built a school bird habitat at Jessup, also with a Wyoming’s Wildlife Worth the Watching grant.

The Flashcards CD is available free to Wyoming educators through Audubon Wyoming or Game and Fish. To get a copy, give me a call or send an e-mail (see below) including your mailing address, email address, school and grade level/subject area.

The CD is available to non-educators who send $12.50 to Audubon Wyoming, 400 East 1st, Suite 308, Casper, WY 82601.

Because the intent of the CD is to educate people about birds in Wyoming, there are no restrictions for loading it on multiple computers or school computer networks, or making additional free copies for teachers or students.

Unlike other authors, in this instance I’m receiving no royalties or pay for my work, but I am eagerly anticipating feedback from readers—or should I say, users: more resources to post, useful comments for improvement, great ideas for lesson plans—and maybe even a noticeable increase in everyone’s understanding of the natural history of this great state we call home.