New birding field trip strategies

Published July 10, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cheyenne Audubon tries a new field trip strategy”

Birders sign up for the Cheyenne Audubon socially distant field trip June 27 at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center.

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society has been adapting to pandemic life. We now Zoom for our board meetings and our fall lectures will probably also be via Zoom.

            Field trips are harder to adapt. Our field trip chair, Grant Frost, suggested a survey of the Cheyenne Greenway birds in late April and many of us signed up to individually bird a section. Our May  Big Day Bird Count was arranged similarly. At the end of June, we tried “separate but simultaneous” at Curt Gowdy State Park—choosing different trails.

            This time there was some pairing up—but it is much easier to keep two arms’-lengths away from one person than a group. However, the trails between the visitor center and Hidden Falls were practically a traffic jam of heavy-breathing bicyclists, reported the birders who headed that way. They had to continually step off the trail to allow bikes to pass.

            One of our Laramie Audubon friends took the trail from Crystal Reservoir towards Granite Reservoir and met up with the many participants of a footrace.

            Mark and I were lucky. We chose a trail with little shade, not very conducive to a summer stroll. But the trail passes along the lake shore and creek, through ponderosa pine parkland, grasslands (sad to say, much of it has gone over to cheatgrass in the last five years), mountain mahogany shrubland, cottonwood draws and across a cliff face in the stretch of about 2 miles.

We saw 29 species: gulls over the lake, a belted kingfisher along the creek, chickadee in the pines, meadowlarks in the grassland, green-tailed towhees in the shrubs, a lazuli bunting in the cottonwoods and rock wrens in the rocky cliff. The total for the morning, including what the other eight participants hiking in the forest saw, was 71 species.

            While we could see the runners on the trail across the water, Mark and I met only two people on our trail, a friendly father and son on their bikes. So, it was a little disconcerting to come back to the trailhead three hours later and find in addition to the two vehicles there when we started, 10 more. One was the park ranger’s truck, one from Colorado, one from Oregon and the rest from Laramie County, like us. They must have all gone the other way.

            A normal Audubon field trip serves at least two purposes besides recreation. One is to find birds and to report them now that there is a global data base, eBird.org. But the other is to learn from each other. Our local bird experts are happy to share their knowledge with newcomers. Even the experts discuss with each other their favorite field marks for identifying obscure birds.

            This time we did have someone new to birding show up and one of our members graciously allowed her to accompany her. As we finished our hikes, we reported back by the visitor center where we gathered with our lunches under a pine—spaced as required. There was general conversation about birds we’d seen and other topics dear to birdwatcher hearts. I almost canceled the Zoom tally party I’d suggested for the evening but decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Yellow Warbler, photo by Mark Gorges

            Five of us signed on, including our new birder—now a new chapter member. I’d invited people to share photos from the day and showed landscape shots of where Mark and I hiked. Mark shared his shots of a yellow warbler and a mountain bluebird. Someone photographed a nest of house wrens and Greg Johnson shared two photos we could use to compare the beaks of hairy and downy woodpeckers—the best field mark for telling them apart (the hairy’s is proportionately longer).

            Then it occurred to me, maybe we should have a tally party via Zoom after more field trips and not just during pandemics. It could be a way for bird photographers to show off their pictures and for all of us to learn more about identifying the birds we see. It’s a chance for birders to flock together, something we like to do as much as the birds.

            Our next socially distant field trip will be July 18. We’ll meet at the Pine Bluffs rest area to explore the natural area behind it and document what we find for the annual Audubon Rockies Wyoming Bioblitz. Check for details soon at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/.  

Mountain Bluebird, photo by Mark Gorge

High-capacity water wells vs birds

High-capacity irrigation wells are not your great-grandparents’ Chicago Aermotor windmills. This one continues to pump water for livestock on the Lummis Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Mar. 8, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “High capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, wildlife”

Too many high capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, other wildlife and people

By Barb Gorges

            The relationship between groundwater and surface water is important to birds and other wildlife—and people.

            Some surface water is merely runoff from rain and snow that hasn’t yet soaked in and recharged the groundwater. Other surface water, like wetlands, is the result of high groundwater levels. Springs along a creek also depend on an adequate amount of groundwater.

            Groundwater and surface water along streams and in wetlands grow vegetation wildlife depends on for shelter and food. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species require these wetter areas.

            Precipitation can vary from year to year, but on average, it recharges the groundwater–the aquifer. Aquifers are geologically complicated, but mostly water flows through permeable layers much the same way surface water drains. In Laramie County both surface and groundwater flow somewhat west to east.

            If someone puts in a well and starts pumping, it will lower the water table—the top of the groundwater—for some distance from the well. If the water is for domestic use, it is filtered through a septic system and mostly returned to the groundwater. However, if it is used for irrigating lawns and gardens, much of it evaporates and is lost. If too many wells are sipping from the same aquifer, the water table drops, and people are forced to drill deeper wells.

            Another side effect of the water table dropping is wetlands and streams dry up, affecting wildlife.

            Wyoming has complex water laws for allocating surface water. The first person to homestead on a creek got the senior water rights. In a drought year, he might be the only one allowed to remove water from the creek.

            Groundwater rights are not as clear-cut, as far as I can tell. More than 25 or 30 years ago I remember being in eastern Laramie County putting on an Audubon presentation for the Young Farmers club. It was on the negative effects of human population growth. The farmers were already complaining then about the growing number of developments and the wells causing the water table to drop.

            In 2015, the Laramie County Control Area Order was established in eastern Laramie County to keep an eye on the situation.

            Before that, 2010-14, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, spent taxpayer funds to buy out 24 irrigation wells at $200,000 each within this same area, saving 1 billion gallons annually. The farmers could grow dryland wheat instead.

            And now, in the same area, the Lerwick family is asking for a permit to drill eight high-capacity wells for maximum production of 1.5 billion gallons per year for agricultural purposes. We assume it’s for irrigation and that irrigation water will not be recharging the aquifer much. I don’t get it. Permitting new high capacity wells after paying to retire others in the same area makes no sense at all.

            Neighboring farmers and ranchers are alarmed. Professional hydrologists can predict how it will negatively impact their water supplies. Creeks and wetlands, the few we have out here, will dry up and the neighbor’s wells will have to be re-drilled.

            Beginning March 4 and for 30 days, the state engineer is asking for comments about the effectiveness of the 2015 Laramie County Control Area Order which guides groundwater development in the area of the proposed wells. Call 307-777-6150 to find out exactly how to comment.

March 18, the state engineer will hold a hearing regarding the Lerwick permits and will hear from the affected neighboring farmers and ranchers, 17 of them.

            Is it fair for someone to get a new well permit that will cause all his neighbors the expense of drilling deeper? Instead, can a community, through governmental agencies, come to an agreement that an area is no longer suitable for irrigated agriculture?

The Ogallala Aquifer, of which this High Plains Aquifer is part, extends under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For several generations, farmers have been mining it. We can call it mining because more water is extracted than returned. It is not a sustainable situation for anyone.    

            Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society is speaking up for the birds and other wildlife, but it’s doubtful wildlife will be considered much in the calculation of acre-feet and gallons per minute and other details of water rights. We already know that in the last 50 years grassland birds have lost the most population of any North American habitat type. Unsustainable mining of water in Laramie County, should the new high-capacity wells be permitted, won’t help.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species can be found in Wyoming’s riparian areas like this one on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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/.

Bird-finding improves

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Strycker’s book is due out Oct. 10, 2017.

Published August 20, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird-finding improves from generation to generation.”

By Barb Gorges 

When your interest in birds takes you beyond your backyard, you need a guide beyond your bird identification book. That help can come in many forms—from apps and websites to a trail guide book or local expert.

Noah Strycker needed a bird-finding guide for the whole world for his record-breaking Big Year in 2015. His book, “Birding without Borders,” due out Oct. 10, documents his travels to the seven continents to find 6,042 species, more than half the world total.

In it, he thoughtfully considers many bird-related topics, including how technology made his record possible, specifically www.eBird.org. In addition to being a place where you can share your birding records, it’s “Explore Data” function helps you find birding hotspots, certain birds and even find out who found them. Strycker credits its enormous global data base with his Big Year success.

Another piece of technology equally important was http://birdingpal.org/, a way to connect with fellow enthusiasts who could show him around their own “backyards.” Every species he saw during his Big Year was verified by his various travelling companions.

Back in 1968, there was no global data base to help Peter Alden set the world Big Year record. But he only needed to break just over 2,000 species. He helped pioneer international birding tourism through the trips he ran for Massachusetts Audubon. By 1981, he and British birder John Gooders could write “Finding Birds Around the World.” Four pages of the nearly 700 are devoted to our own Yellowstone National Park.

When I bumped into Alden at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (a birding hotspot) in 2011, he offered to send me an autographed copy for $5. I accepted, however, until I read Strycker’s book, I had no idea how famous a birder he was.

As Strycker explains it, interest in international birding, especially since World War II, has kept growing, right along with improved transportation to and within developing countries, which usually have the highest bird diversity. However, some of his cliff-hanging road descriptions would indicate that perhaps sometimes the birders have exceeded the bounds of safe travel.

For the U.S., the Buteo Books website will show you a multitude of American Birding Association “Birdfinding” titles for many states. Oliver Scott authored “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” for the association in 1992. Robert and Jane Dorn included bird finding notes in the 1999 edition of their book, “Wyoming Birds.” Both books are the result of decades of experience.

A variation on the birdfinding book is “the birding trail.” The first was in Texas. The book, “Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail,” enumerates a collection of routes connecting birding sites, and includes information like park entrance fees, what amenities are nearby, and what interesting birds you are likely to see. Now you can find bird and wildlife viewing “trails” on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website. Many states are following their example.

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The Wyoming Bird Trail app is available for Apple and Android smartphones.

People in Wyoming have talked about putting together a birding trail for some years, but it took a birding enthusiast like Zach Hutchinson, a Casper-based community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, to finally get it off the ground.

The good news is that by waiting this long, there are now software companies that have designed birding trail apps. No one needs to print books that soon need updates.

The other good news is that to make it a free app, Hutchinson found sponsors including the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Murie Audubon Society (Casper), Wyoming State Parks, and WY Outside – a group of nonprofits and government agencies working to encourage youth and families in Wyoming to spend more time outdoors.

Look for “Wyoming Bird Trail” app on either iTunes or Google Play to install it on your smart phone.

Hutchinson has made a good start. The wonderful thing about the app technology is that not only does it borrow Google Maps so directions don’t need to be written, the app information can be easily updated. Users are invited to help.

There is one other way enterprising U.S. birders research birding trips. They contact the local Audubon chapter, perhaps finding a member, like me, who loves an excuse to get out for another birding trip and who will show them around – and make a recommendation for where to have lunch.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 2017

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Mark and I rechecked Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 in the evening of the Big Day and caught a couple more bird species. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 18, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “Thrushes take over Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count”

By Barb Gorges

The spring bird migration of 2017 is leaving people scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Because of safety issues due to heavy snow the two days before —the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was postponed a week, to May 27. [The best spring bird watching/counting in Cheyenne is around the old cottonwoods and the snow broke branches and left large trees hazardous to walk under.]

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members who organize the count assume that the Saturday closest to the middle of May will be the closest to peak migration. However, while the event was held a week later this year, we counted 113 species compared to last year’s 110.

In the preceding weeks, we saw posts from Casper birders about sightings of spring migrants we hadn’t seen yet, as if they skipped Cheyenne and continued north.

At our house, we eventually had about one each of our favorite migrants (indigo bunting, black-headed grosbeak, MacGillivray’s warbler, Wilson’s warbler), but most were after the original Big Day date.

In early May, my husband, Mark, and I visited High Island, Texas, a famous landing spot for migrating songbirds crossing the Gulf. It was empty except for the rookery full of spoonbills, herons, egrets and cormorants. A birder we met had visited during the peak in April and said it was a disappointing migration.

Bill Thompson III, editor and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, posted similar thoughts about what he saw from his home in southeastern Ohio. Someone responding from New Hampshire said he saw only three species of warblers in the first 25 days of May when he would typically see a dozen.

Everyone hopes that the low number of migrating birds is due to weather patterns that blew them north without stopping over. We hope it isn’t a sign of problems on the wintering grounds, breeding grounds or somewhere in between.

For our Cheyenne Big Day, we have one group that birds the hotspots: Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the High Plains Grasslands Research Station and the adjacent arboretum. This year, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the group varied in size from five to 15. Even the most inexperienced birdwatcher was helpful finding birds.

Because we couldn’t change the date of the permit we had to access the research station, we contented ourselves with the road in front of the buildings, and that’s where we found two eastern bluebirds, a species showing up here more often in recent years.

The long-eared owl seen by two participants this year at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch is a species last recorded on the Big Day in 1996.

Besides the group canvassing an area roughly the same as the Christmas Bird Count’s 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Capitol, five people birded on their own. And though they sometimes visited places the main group did, it was at different times, counting different birds.

The most numerous species this year was the Swainson’s Thrush. The quintessential little brown bird, like a junior robin, was everywhere. Two days later, there were none to be seen.

Maybe there is no one-day peak of spring migration. Maybe there never was. But spending any day outdoors in Cheyenne in May you are bound to see more species of birds than if you don’t go out at all.

2017 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results: 113 species

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Gadwall

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Ring-billed Gull

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Long-eared Owl

Great Horned Owl

Common Nighthawk

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Warbling Vireo

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Horned Lark

Tree Swallow

  1. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

McCown’s Longspur

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

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A spotting scope is necessary to see the waterfowl on the far side of Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Texas ecotourism

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Bill Thompson III, editor and co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, talks about the birds of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on the first day of the Reader Rendezvous in Texas held in March 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle April 3, 2016, “Ecotourists enjoy Texas border birds.”

By Barb Gorges

At the beginning of March, Mark and I indulged in five days of ecotourism in South Texas after visiting our son and his wife in Houston.

We met up with avid birders for another Reader Rendezvous put on by the Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine staff. Last year we met them in Florida.

I’d heard about the fall Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, but had no idea how well bird-organized the entire lower Rio Grande Valley is until a woman from the Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke to us.

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A stretch of North 10th Street in McAllen, Texas, is an eBird hotspot for hundreds of Green Parakeets coming to roost in the evenings. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I was expecting McAllen, Texas—where we stayed, to be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but its population is 140,000 in a metropolitan area of 800,000, with a lot of high-end retail businesses attracting shoppers from Mexico.

Outside of the urban and suburban areas, nearly every acre is farmed. But in the 1940s, two national wildlife refuges were set aside and another in 1979, as well as a number of state parks. This southern-most point of Texas is an intersection of four habitat types and their birds: desert, tropical, coastal and prairie, and it is a funnel for two major migratory flyways.

One of our local birding guides, Roy Rodriguez, has compiled a list of 528 bird species (we have only 326 for Cheyenne), including 150 accidentals seen rarely—though our group saw two, northern jacana and blue bunting.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Green Jay byBarbGorges

The Green Jay visited feeding stations at several of the national wildlife refuges and state parks visited. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Many of Roy’s common species that we saw are South Texas specialties like plain chachalaca, green parakeet and green jay. We also saw uncommon Texas specialties including white-tailed hawk, ringed kingfisher and Altamira and Audubon’s orioles.

From the rare list, some of the species we saw were ferruginous pygmy-owl, aplomado falcon and red-crowned parrot. Interestingly, several Texas rarities we saw are not rare in Wyoming: cinnamon teal, merlin and cedar waxwing.

Most of the Texas specialties have extensive ranges in Mexico. Thus, a species can be rare in a particular location, or just plain rare like the whooping cranes Mark and I saw further east on the Gulf Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

What is rare is the cooperative effort shown by nine entities to establish the World Birding Centers, www.theworldbirdingcenter.com, including four city parks, three state parks, a state wildlife management area and a national wildlife refuge. Another partnership has produced a map of the five-county area which locates and describes those and 76 additional public birding sites. The map is helpful even if you are proficient using www.eBird.org to check for the latest sightings.

Wyoming will be coming out with something similar soon, the Great Wyoming Birding Trail map app.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Plain Chachalaca byBarbGorges

The Plain Chachalaca also enjoys citrus fruit put out at feeding stations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The concentration of birds in south Texas draws people from around the world. We saw the natural open spaces drawing local families too. But it’s the visitors who spend money which the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau counts. They estimate bird-related business is the third biggest part of their economy, after shopping and “winter Texans.”

Roy said birdwatchers contributed $1 million to the economy when a rare black-headed nightingale-thrush spent five months in Pharr, Texas, and $700,000 in just a few weeks while a bare-throated tiger-heron could be seen.

The International Ecotourism Society says ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

We mostly think in terms of ecotourists going to third world countries, but it applies here in the U.S. as well.

“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel,” continues the description. At each of the seven locations the Reader Rendezvous visited, staff or volunteers gave us historical and conservation background. And each location is managed by conservation principles. I’m not sure about the sustainable travel aspect, though we did travel by van and bus, minimizing fuel and maximizing fun.

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Bill Thompson III (vest and blue shirt) helps Reader Rendezvous participants home in on a rare bird at Estero Llano Grande State Park in South Texas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Short of staying home, travel will not be sustainable until modes of transportation have clean fuel and restaurants and hotels are more conservation-minded. But experiencing and building understanding of other places and cultures is worthwhile. At Anzalduas County Park we stood on the edge of the Rio Grande, looking across at a Mexican park, close enough to wave. If a bird flew more than half way across the river, would we have to document it for eBird as being in Mexico? Is there any place to tally the number of Border Patrol trucks, blimps and helicopters we saw at that park?

Besides a few extra pounds from enjoying the always enormous and delicious portions of Texan and Mexican food, I brought home other souvenirs as well: a list of 154 species, 37 of them life birds for me (at least on eBird), photos, great memories and new birding friendships.

Now we’re back in time to welcome the avian “winter Texans” to Cheyenne as they migrate north.

Finding birds in California

White-tailed Kite

The White-tailed Kites we saw in California’s Coyote Hills were a treat for us. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 5, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to find birds in strange places.”

2014 Update: The best way to find where to bird at your travel destination is now www.eBird.org. Besides a map of hotspot locations, you can see lists of recent observations.

By Barb Gorges

Travel is a good way to add bird species to your life list. Conversely, birding is a great way to enrich your travels—even if it’s as simple as watching brown pelicans at sunset across the street from your nephew’s apartment in late October, and that street happens to run alongside San Francisco Bay (pre-oil spill).

Serendipity is nice, but birders like to improve their chances. Mark took a look at the map and noticed another park on the bay, Coyote Hills, managed by the East Bay Regional Park District. Water is always a good place to look for birds.

With Mark’s brother Mike showing us the way, we found the park and a bird list in the visitor center, but the list didn’t have any indication of species seasonality or abundance.

One of the rangers put us on alert for golden eagles. I suppose the white-tailed kites were too common a raptor for him to be excited about, but they made our day—and our life lists.

Another way to find birds in an unfamiliar locale is by recommendation from someone who has already been to the area. Taking the auto tour through the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge with our longtime friends Pam and Dave was a great way to spend the day together.

The refuge has the perfect bird checklist. After each bird name is a space divvied up by month and if a species appears on the refuge during a particular month of the year, there is a horizontal line. If it shows up in great abundance, it is a very thick line. It was easy to see that the thousands of ducks, geese and coots we saw were going to be spending the winter at the refuge.

Following another outdoor pursuit usually produces bird sightings. We chose to hike where one of the nephews is a ranger, the Sunol Regional Wilderness, also managed by the park district.

A hot, weekday morning left us pretty much alone with the cows as we trudged the water department’s access road. But it was inspiring to be in the middle of 6800 acres of hill country that wasn’t decorated with houses or other buildings, something the City of Cheyenne should keep in mind as it looks to “develop” its own ranch.

 

Acorn Woodpecker

The Acorn Woodpecker was one of the interesting birds we found in California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Our favorite observation was the seven acorn woodpeckers disappearing one after the other into the top of a dead snag. There was such a ruckus of squeaks before they popped out through side openings.

If you were traveling an area without the benefit of friends and family, you could look for a local to give advice. I am that local half a dozen times a year because I allow my phone number and email address to be published in the American Birding Association directory.

While some members indicate that they charge for giving tours, sometimes I have time to invite a birding friend along to meet the visitors at Lions Park, one of our local hotspots.

It’s always surprising what visitors get excited about. Two women from California were entranced by the only bird we could find on a windy day, a yellow-headed blackbird. The man and wife from Texas this spring were excited to see migrating birds in their breeding plumage–birds they otherwise only see in their dull-colored winter feathers.

People visiting the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society Web site, http://org.lonetree.com/audubon, make inquiries. A man calling from Britain asked if he and his friend could join us for the spring sharp-tailed grouse field trip the next week. Certainly. And so they did, and after ticking off that bird on their list of most wanted species, they drove off to find another.

Occasionally, travelers find the Wyobirds elist, http://home.ease.Lsoft.com/archives, and post a request for information on finding a particular species or birding a particular area. If I can be of help, I reply and invariably, I get a report later about what birds they saw and how much they enjoyed the trip.

Many states have a similar list. If you search “Wyoming bird” instead of “Wyoming birds” however, you may get references to the University of Wyoming coach’s recent notorious hand signal.

If you are too shy–or in a hurry–there’s another way to find birding destinations. Go to www.eBird.org. It’s a great place to store your personal birding records for free.  It’s also a great resource for planning a trip. Observer information is not available to anyone looking at the data, but the lists of hotspots and the corresponding bird lists are almost as good as meeting one of the locals.

While the list of 1400 names of hotspots in California is probably not meaningful to visitors, a new map feature does allow you to see where they are. At this time you can access the maps by pretending you are going to enter data and choosing the option to select a pre-existing hotspot. Those areas that are parks or sanctuaries probably have more information on the Internet about hours and access.

Since eBird is relatively new, the checklists generated may be a little sketchy, but at least you can see where the local birders like to go.

Many birds are great travelers themselves, some migrating thousands of miles. I wonder how they pass on information about good places for wintering, eating and breeding. With their bird’s-eye view of the world, perhaps it’s easier for them to recognize a bird-friendly spot than it is for us.

Big Bend hosts surprises for Wyoming birders

Vermilion Flycatcher

We found the Vermilion Flycatcher perched on a grill at the Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Nov. 30, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Big Bend hosts surprises for local birders.”

By Barb Gorges

Have you heard the rumor that Texas has mountains?

It does. The ranges I saw weren’t the Grand Tetons, and I doubt they are ever snow-capped. But in terms of size, they remind me of many of Wyoming’s smaller ranges.

Earlier this month, Mark and I visited Big Bend National Park, which entirely encompasses the famous (especially for birders) Chisos Mountains, where the Colima warbler nests. It breeds only in those mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental.

If you look at Texas as your left hand, palm down, fingers pointing south, Big Bend is the end of your thumb. It is above a big bend in the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico.

The north park entrance station is 39 miles from the closest town, Marathon (pop. 436) and the northwest entrance is 76 miles from Alpine (pop. 6,000). We were able to reserve a room three months in advance at Chisos Mountains Lodge, in the heart of the park, because we were a tad early for the height of the tourist season. Summer, with temperatures over 110 degrees, is the off season.

It is the only lodging in the park, unless you bring your own. It isn’t fancy, but it’s clean, comfortable and the food is good. We learned that reservations for the lodge for 2016 will open this January.

The lodge is tucked into the Chisos Basin, closed in by peaks, including Emory, which is 7,832 feet high. Centrally located, we were 30 miles from Rio Grande Village to the east at an elevation of 1,850 feet, with visitor amenities and scenic attractions on the river, and 38 miles in the opposite direction from the other visitor amenities near the river at Castolon. It’s a big park.

Like the rest of the Southwest, Big Bend has a monsoon season—heavy rainstorms at the end of summer. It wasn’t supposed to be raining in early November. But it did. So I wore my rain suit in the desert because after all that driving, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

However, it was so foggy the two days we were there that we never saw the tops of the Chisos Mountains. And we couldn’t go down to see the famed Santa Elena Canyon because too much water was flowing over the road and it was closed.

But we did find birds. These days it is easy to use eBird.com to find birding hotspots. Mark identified Cottonwood Campground. It was a little intimidating reading all the signs warning how to stay safe in encounters with javelinas, bears and mountain lions, but the big old cottonwoods were all a-twitter.

It sounded familiar—a flock of yellow-rumped warblers frantically feeding in trees and on the ground during a break in the rain, just like I’ve seen them behave in Cheyenne during migration.

But we also found uncommon Southwestern species. A vermilion flycatcher—incredibly red—alternately perched on tree tops and signs. Nicely perched on a picnic table was a black phoebe, another flycatcher. The flicker-like bird was a golden-fronted woodpecker.

We stopped at nearly every pullout, walked out on many trails, and added a few more southwest specialties like cactus wren and pyrrhuloxia (faded version of a cardinal), Inca dove, black-throated sparrow, and roadrunner.

And we found familiar birds escaping winter: mockingbird, loggerhead shrike, Wilson’s snipe, blue-gray gnatcatcher—although for these species, individual birds may make the park home year round.

There are plenty of trails for the adventurous who have real 4-wheel-drive trucks—not SUVs built on car chassis. I’ll bet Big Bend has little trouble with people driving off road due to the multitude of tire-piercing cactus.

And what interesting vegetation is out there in the Chihuahuan Desert: 20-foot-tall century plants and other rosettes of sharp-pointed leaves putting up tall flower stalks, along with tiny flowers tucked beneath spiny neighbors, and higher up, southwest versions of oak, juniper and pine, even Douglas fir.

In addition to the one-volume edition of Sibley’s field guide to birds of North America (some Texas birds are in the eastern edition and some in the western), the most valuable publication for visiting birders is the park’s bird checklist available at the visitor centers. It’s by Mark Flippo, one of the local birding guides. The 28-page booklet lists the more than 450 species found in the park, preferred habitat for each and how likely you are to find them each season. It also points out the specialties, birds that are easier to find in Big Bend than in the rest of the U.S. and Canada.

The only question I have for Mark is, can we go back for another stay in the Chisos Basin maybe during spring migration 2016?

Book Review: “Wyoming Birds”

Dorn's Wyoming Birds

“Wyoming Birds,” by Jane Dorn and Robert Dorn

Published Aug. 5, 1999, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding know-how a matter of degree.”

2014 Update: “Wyoming Birds” is still available. Send $19 (out-of-state orders) or $20.08 (Wyoming orders) to: Rocky Mountain Herbarium, Department of Botany Dept. 3165, University of Wyoming, 1000 E. University Ave., Laramie, WY 82071-3165, http://www.rmh.uwyo.edu.

By Barb Gorges

The phone rings. “Is this the Audubon Society?” I say yes and introduce myself to the caller.

“There’s this bird in my yard. It’s brown with red on its face.”

This is where I offer up my best guess, the house finch. Usually I can tell by the way callers word the question whether they are, in my mental hierarchy, working on their “first degree” of bird watching or working on a higher degree of proficiency.

Some of our bird knowledge seems to be genetic. I have yet to give a talk at a school where the children didn’t correctly name the robin. But after that the names seem to be generic categories: “blackbirds,” “seagulls,” or “ducks.”

The ordinary person does not look for birds. He only notices that some bird hit his windshield, the cat dragged in some feathers or some bird has left berry droppings on the front steps.

The first degree of bird watching begins when a person notices that some black birds have iridescent heads (grackles), parking lot sparrows come in two styles (male and female house sparrows) and not all birds swimming at Lions Park are ducks (coots and grebes).

To meet the requirement for this first degree, one must find a way to cross paths with birds intentionally. This usually means throwing seed or bread crumbs on the deck or patio. At our house we put up a bird feeder.

This naturally leads to trying to figure out what birds are visiting.

Bird watching isn’t just about identification of course. It’s also about observing behavior: a flock of goldfinches plays king of the hill on the thistle feeder; the mourning doves have a very peculiar walk; and blue jays grip sunflower seeds in their bills and hammer them against the feeder to break the hulls.

Bird watchers attempting the second degree are ready to look beyond their backyards. Birding with other people is the easiest. I started showing up for Audubon field trips. It’s so handy to point and ask, “What’s that?” And it’s even more fun when other people point out a bird and tell me facts not in the field guide.

But perhaps Audubon field trips aren’t scheduled as often as the budding birder would like. Here’s the first step of the third degree: He decides to plan his own field trip to some of the places he’s been before.

However, to really accomplish the third degree in my hierarchy, the birder must intentionally decide to explore a new place. It’s finally time to invest in a bird finding book like Oliver Scott’s “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” or, fresh out this spring, the second edition of “Wyoming Birds” by Jane L. Dorn and Robert D. Dorn. For those of you with the first edition, this one is worth getting. It has easier to read typeface, water-resistant cover, a new introduction with helpful subheadings and more maps and information.

Page of Wyoming Birds

In the Dorns’ book, “Wyoming Birds,” the range of each species that occurs in Wyoming is indicated by latilong. The grid is in increments of degrees of latitude and longitude. Key to observation status: R=resident (summer and winter, breeding confirmed), r=resident (breeding suspected but unconfirmed), B=summer (breeding confirmed), b=summer (breeding suspected but unconfirmed), Y=year round (summer and winter but probably non-breeding), W=winter, S=summer but probably non-breeding, M=migration seasons, O=observed but status indeterminable.

The Dorns have written up 437 Wyoming species, drawing on more than 30 years of personal observation and records going back 150 years. They have charted each species’ seasonal occurrence around the state using the latilong system, which divides Wyoming into 28 rectangles and have listed sites where each species has the best chance of being seen.

So, if a birder were to examine her life list for Wyoming and discover she’s missing Amphispiza belli, the sage sparrow, the entry in “Wyoming Birds” would tell her to look in medium to tall sagebrush between May and September. The best places to look would be 5 to 35 miles west of Baggs, 5 to 10 miles south of Rock Springs, the Fontenelle Dam area in Lincoln County and the Gebo area west of Kirby in Hot Springs County.

The Dorns’ book can also be used in reverse. At the back is a list of 124 birding hotspots listed by county. Each entry notes directions for getting there, expected species, best season for visiting and available amenities such as restrooms or campgrounds. Several maps help those of us who do better visualizing directions than reading them.

New to this edition is a section devoted to directions for day tours that link the most notable birding spots.

Just remember to be prepared for Wyoming weather and road conditions so that a day tour doesn’t become a week of winter camping.

The further degrees of my bird watching hierarchy pertain to how far one travels and how much time is spent birding. Even further up are the birders who volunteer to collect information for scientific studies or get involved in habitat conservation. Somewhere beyond are the people who share their knowledge, leading field trips and writing books. That’s where I find the Dorns, helping us all to reach the Nth degree.

Hutton Lake NWR is treasure hidden in plain sight

Hutton Lake NWR

Birders look for waterbirds as well as hawks and eagles in early June at Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Laramie, Wyoming.

Published June 22, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming refuge is a treasure hidden in plain sight.”

By Barb Gorges

In early June, Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge birds are busy reproducing. They barely notice birders.

The refuge is southwest of Laramie. It’s small by national refuge standards, just under 2,000 acres, and relatively unknown, compared to others in Wyoming like Seedskadee or the National Elk Refuge.

Hutton Lake has little to offer people: no visitor center, no restrooms, no picnic tables, no fishing, no hunting, no camping, no off-road vehicles, horses or dogs allowed anywhere, no trees, no dramatic landscape, and no decent road–until recently.

Instead, it caters to wildlife, attracting 29 mammal species, six amphibian and reptile species and 146 kinds of birds, including 60 species that have been known to nest there.

What do avian visitors find at Hutton Lake?

Five small lakes, including namesake Hutton, have a variety of wet habitats—shallow water for puddle ducks and wading birds, deeper water for diving ducks, muddy shores for shorebirds and thick reed beds for nesting. On land, there are greasewood thickets perfect for nesting songbirds like the sage thrashers. The short grass of the surrounding plains, as green as a golf course this spring, will have its share of bird nests on the ground—grassland species do without trees.

The comparatively flat (the Snowy Range glimmers in the distance) and nearly featureless topography of the Laramie River Valley does have a few rocky outcrops and ridges. The astute birder will find eagles and hawks perched on them, or soaring overhead.

Hutton is part of a complex

Ann Timberman is the project manager for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Hutton Lake and two other small refuges nearby but which are closed to the public because of endangered species work. There’s also Pathfinder near Casper, and Arapaho, the main refuge, is where the complex’s headquarters are located, outside Walden, Colo.

In some ways, Ann’s job, which she’s had for 10 years now, is easy. The National Wildlife Refuge System doesn’t have to manage for multiple, and often conflicting, uses like the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. Its mission is to benefit wildlife. Hutton Lake was established in 1932 “to provide resting and breeding habitat.” Livestock grazing permits are available only in years when it’s been determined it will benefit wildlife.

Ann and I toured Hutton Lake together June 2 on a wonderfully windless day. Bringing along the spotting scope did not make for the most efficient interview—we kept losing our conversational focus while focusing on the differences in field marks for immature bald and golden eagles and other birdwatching matters.

Improvements welcomed

The tour was to show off improvements made last year, the biggest being the roadwork, tons of gravel filling the deep ruts I remembered from my last visit. The road improvement also extends to the two-track across state land, between Sand Creek Road, which is the closest county road, and the boundary of the refuge.

Even a small car with minimal clearance can navigate the single lane road, as we found when we saw one at the new gravel parking spot at the end of the road.

One improvement was unglamorous, but very expensive—replacing the infrastructure that regulates the flow of water from one of the lakes to another.

This summer, an interpretive trail and observation platform will be built at one of the lakes.

There’s a birdwatching blind now, too, built last year by an Eagle Scout candidate, with funding for materials provided by Laramie Audubon Society.

I went out again to Hutton five days later with some of the chapter members on a field trip. As much as they appreciate the improved road, they are a little sad to lose vehicle access to some of the roads that are now for pedestrians only. Tim Banks, trip leader, pointed out that some of their older chapter members are not going to be hiking in to regain closer views of the lakes.

Laramie Audubon members are just about the only regular visitors and the only interest group which keeps tabs on the refuge. They worked to have it designated as a Wyoming Important Bird Area.

Partnerships benefit wildlife

In fact, two bird lovers, Gere and Barbara Kruse, were responsible for the recent improvements. In their memory, their daughter, Babs, brought $42,000 to Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, asking for help finding an appropriate wildlife/public use habitat project in Albany County.

The Trust matched the donation. Laramie Rivers Conservation District’s Martin Curry, resource specialist, wrote the grant and oversaw most of the work. Other cooperators were the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the refuge, as well as its parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A total of $111,000 will have been spent when improvements are finished.

There are drawbacks to having a better road. Back in January, kids started a fire even though fires are not allowed, and it got out of control. Thankfully, the refuge is on local law enforcement’s beat and Albany County firefighters put it out. Ann decided to lock the gate for the winter, allowing only walk-in access.

With only 3.5 staff members for the whole Arapaho refuge complex, locals become Ann’s eyes and ears at Hutton Lake. There are few birds and few people on the windswept plains in winter. But, for instance, deciding when in spring to open the gate will depend on local birders apprising her of conditions. Visitors can also report suspicious or illegal activities–impossible to hide on the open plains.

For Ann, from a management perspective, making the refuge more accessible is a double-edged sword of sorts, allowing in vandals as well as visitors. But, she said, in the long run, it pays to make friends and develop partnerships. In this case, sharing Hutton Lake with people who appreciate it benefits the wildlife. And that fits the refuge’s mission.

If you go

The refuge is open to driving on established roads as conditions permit, and to hiking on roads and trails year round. Wildlife watching and photography are the recreational activities allowed. Spring, especially April, is a great time for birdwatching.

There is no drinking water and no restroom. Please pack out trash. Hunting, shooting, fishing, fires and camping are not permitted.

How to get there

From Laramie, drive south on U.S. 287. When the huge cement plant comes up on your right less than two miles south of I-80, aim for the plant’s front office using one of the crossroads, but instead of entering the plant, veer left (south) and you will be on Sand Creek Road. After about 8 miles you will see a brown sign for Hutton Lake pointing to the right. Turn and follow the gravel trail to the refuge entrance, which is marked by a large sign and a small parking area.

More information is available at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/hutton_lake/.