May 16 – Bird talk & book signing, May 18 – Big Day Bird Count, May 20 – Habitat Hero garden ribbon-cutting
“Cheyenne Birds by the Month” bird talk and book signing Thursday, May 16, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central Ave., with author Barb Gorges and photographer Pete Arnold. The talk will be about backyard bird safety. Books will be available for sale. To find where else the books are available in Cheyenne, Laramie and online, go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/.
Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 18 – Join Cheyenne Audubon anytime between 6:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., birding with the group, to help us find as many bird species in one day around town as possible. We start at Lions Park, then bird Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Grasslands Research Station. Call Mark, 307-287-4953, to find us. Or bird on your own and report to Mark. Or come to the tally May 19, 4 p.m., Perkins Restaurant, 1730 Dell Range Blvd.
You are invited to the ribbon-cutting May 20, 3 p.m. for the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities headquarters, 2416 Snyder Ave. A few words from dignitaries and light refreshments. The garden showcases Water Smart Landscapes that save water and are wildlife friendly. Bee Smart! Water Smart! Contact Dena, BOPU, email@example.com, 637-6415.
Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
By Barb Gorges
Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.
This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.
There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.
Did you know the
pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian
collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger,
in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858.
Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow
identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.
About 40 years
later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided
junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous
forever on the internet.
Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.
Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird.
Each species’ page
has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different
from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In
addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is
an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven
categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible
Then you go online
to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring
migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional
accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by
Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird
sounds, this is the field guide for you.
Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.
The larger part of
this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in
droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.
It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.
Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided.
the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.
Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.
Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.
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
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
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/.
This month’s topic is also connected
to Rawhide. It’s NextEra’s 120-turbine Roundhouse Wind Energy Center slated partly
for the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch.
Roundhouse will stretch between I-80 south to the Wyoming border and from a couple miles west of I-25 on west 12 miles to Harriman Road. The Belvoir is within. It’s roughly a two-to-three-mile-wide frame on the north and west sides. All the power will go to Rawhide and tie into Front Range utilities.
The 2008 Belvoir masterplan
designated an area for wind turbines. In the last 10 years I’ve learned about wind
energy drawbacks. I wish the coal industry had spent millions developing clean
air technology instead of fighting clean air regulations.
But in Kenn Kaufman’s new book, “A
Season on the Wind,” he discovers that a windfarm far from known migration hot
spots still killed at least 40 species of birds. Directly south of the Belvoir,
125 bird species have been documented through eBird at Soapstone Prairie
Natural Area and 95 at Red Mountain Open Space. Both are in Colorado, butting against
the state line.
Only a few miles to the east, Cheyenne hotpots vary from 198 species at Lions Park to 266 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, with as many as 150 species overall observed on single days in May. With little public access to the Belvoir since the city bought it in 2003 (I’ve been there on two tours and the 2016 Bioblitz), only NextEra has significant bird data, from its consultants.
There are migrating bats to consider,
plus mule deer who won’t stomach areas close to turbines—even if it is their
favorite mountain mahogany habitat on the ridges. The Wyoming Game and Fish
Department can only suggest mitigation and monitoring measures.
There are human safety and liability
issues. The Friends of the Belvoir wants a trailhead on the west edge with trails
connecting to Red Mountain and Soapstone. Wind turbines don’t bother them.
However, during certain atmospheric conditions, large sheets of ice fly off the
blades–“ice throw.” Our area, the hail capital, could have those conditions
develop nearly any month of the year.
The noise will impact neighbors (and
wildlife too) when turbines a mile away interfere with sleep. Disrupted sleep
is implicated in many diseases.
Low frequency pulses felt six miles away (the distance between the east end of the windfarm and city limits) or more cause dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations and pressure sensations in the head and chest. The Belvoir will have bigger turbines than those on Happy Jack Road, reaching 499 feet high, 99 feet higher.
A minor issue is the viewshed. In
Colorado, the public and officials worked to place the transmission line from
the Belvoir to Rawhide so that it wouldn’t impact Soapstone or Red Mountain. What
will they think watching Roundhouse blades on the horizon?
Because this wind development is not
on federal land, it isn’t going through the familiar Environmental Impact
Statement process. I’d assume the city has turbine placement control written
into the lease.
The first opportunity for the public to comment at the county level is Feb. 19. And in advance, the public can request to “be a party” when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council meets to consider NextEra’s permit in March.
NextEra held an open house in
Cheyenne November 28. They expect to get their permits and then break ground almost
immediately. This speedy schedule is so the windfarm is operational by December
2020, before federal tax incentives end.
It doesn’t seem to me that
we—Cheyenne residents—have adequate time to consider the drawbacks of new era
wind turbines—for people or wildlife. Look at the 2008 Master Plan, http://belvoirranch.org.
Is it upheld by spreading wind turbines
over the entire 20,000 acres, more than originally planned? People possibly,
and wildlife certainly, will be experiencing low frequency noise for 30 years.
At the very least, I’d like to see NextEra move turbines back from the western boundary two miles, for the good of raptors, other birds, mule deer, trail users, and the neighbors living near Harriman Road. The two southernmost sections are already protected with The Nature Conservancy’s conservation easement.
What I’d really like to see instead is more solar development on rooftops and over parking lots in Cheyenne. Or a new style of Wyoming snow fence that turns wind into energy while protecting highways.
“Rufous Motmot, Collared Aracari,
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Yellow-throated Toucan,
Golden-browed Chlorophonia, White-collared Manakin”—these were some of the
names that rolled off our tongues as my husband, Mark, and I spotted birds in
Costa Rica on a trip in early November.
I saw two species endemic to Costa
Rica found nowhere else (remember, it’s only 20 percent the size of Wyoming):
Coppery-headed Emerald, a hummingbird, and Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, on the
edge of a new clearing for an apartment building.
We saw 32 regional endemics, often
meaning the species is found only in Costa Rica and neighboring Panama. My
favorite, the Slaty Flowerpiercer, cleverly pierces the base of large flowers
to extract nectar. Later, hummingbirds come by and get nectar too.
We drove up Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), to 11,400 feet where all the communications towers are, to find the Volcano Junco. It’s another regional endemic, cousin of the juncos under our feeders in winter. It obligingly hopped around in front of us.
Of the 234 species I saw in seven
straight days of birding, 187 were life birds. The others, mostly migrants, I’d
seen in North America previously.
The top six bird groups I saw were
hummingbirds (27 species), flycatchers (23), warblers (17), tanagers (12),
woodpeckers (10) and wrens (9). Mario Cordoba H., our guide, explained Costa
Rica has a lot of bird diversity (922 species), but not a lot of any one
species—no big flocks.
Mario, a native of Costa Rica, has
been in the guiding business more than 20 years. Bird Watcher’s Digest
contracted with his company, Crescentia Expeditions, to plan and guide the
trip. Mario included a variety of habitats and alternated hikes in the forest
to see elusive birds like Streak-headed Woodcreepers with stops for nectar
feeder stations where bright-colored birds like the Fiery-throated Hummingbird
were the target of everyone’s cameras.
Feeding stations filled with fruit at one ecolodge attracted the turkey-sized, prehistoric-looking Great Curassow. A frequent feeder visitor everywhere was the Blue-gray Tanager. It reminded me of our Mountain Bluebird. I even saw it buzzing around our bus, checking out the sideview mirrors and roof, the way the bluebirds do in spring.
There are many aspects to travelling
in Central America beyond birding. For instance, lodging. Our first and last
nights we stayed at two different boutique hotels. Hotel Bougainvillea is the
one with 10 acres of bird-filled gardens.
The three ecolodges in between were in rural areas and a little more rustic: Arenal Observatory Lodge, Selva Verde and Paraiso Quetzal. Mario picked these for their proximity to bird diversity. There are more independently owned lodges scattered across the country.
For lunch and dinner, we often had
“Typical Plate” – rice, beans, vegetables and meat (chicken, beef, pork). Up in
the mountains, trout was an option because people farm trout there.
Some of our travelling companions
tired of beans and rice, and tired of the rain—we were maybe a little early
anticipating the dry season—but otherwise, we were a congenial group of 12,
plus Mario, Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest’s managing editor, and Ricardo,
our fearless bus driver. He was also great at spotting birds and taking photos through
the spotting scope with our smart phones without an adaptor. I’m going to have
to learn that art. There were no bird snobs. Everyone wanted to help everyone
Costa Rica has been a leader in
eco-tourism. Its map shows a large percentage of land in national parks and
Mountain farmers have been encouraged to hang on to their wild avocado trees, providing the favorite food and habitat of the resplendent quetzal. It is the green bird with the nearly 3-foot-long tail feathers revered by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. In return, the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation’s quetzal project brings birdwatchers out to see them, paying the farmer $5 a head—not a small sum in the local economy.
We saw dangerous animals. In the dim
light along the trail at La Selva Biological Station there was a bright yellow
Eyelash Pit Viper arranged on the side of a log. The Mantled Howler Monkeys
overhead were watching visitors as much as being watched. Mosquitoes, however,
were nearly non-existent. Mark and I wore our permethrin-treated field clothes anyway.
I think how neat it would be if
Wyoming too, had a cadre of trained naturalist guides and ecolodges in the
vicinity of more of our interesting wildlife—not just the elk and wolves.
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.
“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.
Two 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.
Thanks, 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.
I 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.
Your backyard may look empty after the leaves fall, but you can fill it with birds by offering them shelter, water and food.
There is some debate on whether feeding wild birds is good for them. But in moderation—the birds find natural food as well—I think it is a great way to increase appreciation for birds.
A bird feeder is no substitute for providing trees and bushes for birds to perch on or take shelter from weather and predators. Birds can also pick the seeds and fruits—or pick dormant insects out of the bark. Provide evergreen as well as deciduous trees and shrubs plus native perennial wildflowers.
Water is nice to have out. The birds appreciate drinking it and bathing in it. But if you can’t scrub out the gunk regularly, it’s better not to bother with it. In winter you’ll want to skip concrete and ceramic baths in favor of plastic since freezing water might break them. The best winter bird bath we ever had was the lid of a heavy plastic trash can—we could pop the ice out.
Feeding seed-eating birds—house finch, goldfinch, junco, pine siskin—is as easy as scattering seed on the ground. But here are tips to benefit you and the birds more.
Black oil sunflower seed is the one best bird seed for our area. Seed mixes usually have a lot of seed our birds won’t eat and then you must sweep it up before it gets moldy.
Put out only as much seed as you can afford each day (and can clean up after). If it lasts your local flock only an hour, be sure to put the seed out at a time of day you can enjoy watching the birds. They’ll learn your schedule.
Tube-type feeders and hopper feeders keep seed mostly dry. Clean them regularly so they don’t get moldy. Consider hanging them over concrete to make it easier to clean up the seed hulls.
If you don’t like sweeping up sunflower seed hulls or are concerned that the hulls will kill your lawn, consider paying more for hulled sunflower seeds.
Spilled seed under the feeder attracts the ground feeders, like juncos, those little gray birds. They like elevated platform feeders too.
If you have loose cats in your neighborhood, consider outlining the spilled-seed area under your feeder with 2-foot-tall wire fencing all the way around. It’s enough of an obstacle to make approaching cats jump so the birds will notice the break in their stealthy approach.
Put your feeder close to the window you will watch from. It’s more fun for you, and the birds are less likely to hit the window hard as they come and go. They get used to activity on your side of the glass.
American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch enjoy a tube-type feeder full of nyjer thistle seed. Photo by Barb Gorges.
Once you have the regulars showing up, probably the house finches—striped brown and the males have red heads—and house sparrows—pale gray breasts, chestnut-brown backs, consider putting up a special feeder for the nyjer thistle seed that goldfinches and pine siskins love so much.
Seed cakes are popular with chickadees and nuthatches. They require a little cage apparatus to hold them.
Suet-type cakes are popular with downy woodpeckers and flickers.
Squirrels like bird seed too. You can add a cone-shaped deterrent above or below a feeder so they can’t get to it. Or ask your dog to chase the squirrels. If you get more than a couple squirrels, quit feeding birds for a week or so and see if the squirrels won’t move somewhere else. The birds will come back.
A sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s hawk may be attracted to your feeder, though they are coming by for a finch or sparrow snack instead of seed. This means that you have successfully attracted animals from the next trophic level and contributed to the web of life.