Book signing and bird talk Dec. 14 at Riverbend Nursery, noon – 2 p.m.
Pete and I will be doing a “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” book signing and winter bird feeding talk at Riverbend Nursery, 8908 Yellowstone Road, Cheyenne, Dec. 14 from noon – 2 p.m. Our talk will be at 1:30 p.m. –Santa shows up at noon, I think.
Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”
By Barb Gorges
Our family lost its guide to Alaska in
October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska
for 51 years, died at age 84.
Peter was an inveterate explorer,
from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt
Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His
extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20
Whenever we visited, Peter was our
tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali,
Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com).
Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But
he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in
Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.
Peter became more interested in
birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For
instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls,
ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship
Spend time among ravens that walk
within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven
again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep
croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might
One raven I met after the memorial mass
for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It
chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping
I had a key to food inside.
I’ve been reading John Marzluff and
Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of
Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that
captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again.
Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent
generations to recognize the masks.
Crows have many human-like behaviors
because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of
technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree,
jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local
indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and
Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).
Because ravens and crows do not have
bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead
predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.
Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.
Southeast Alaska is not particularly
cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so
everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at
the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald
Sitka’s bald eagles are not as
chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is
a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the
waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a
glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.
Neither of us had binoculars, if you
can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have
better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown
animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual
animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.
Then there was a flash of white.
Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles
catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like
oars on a rowboat?
We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.
I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.
We know how 3 billion breeding birds disappeared in last 48 years
“Decline of the North American
avifauna” is the title of the report published online by the journal Science on
Sept. 19, 2019.
The bird conservation groups I
belong to summed it up as “3 billion birds lost.”
In a nutshell (eggshell?), there are
three billion fewer, 29 percent fewer, breeding birds of 529 species in North
America then in 1970.
The losses are spread across common
birds, like western meadowlark, as well as less common birds, in all biomes.
While the grasslands, where we live, lost only 720 million breeding birds,
that’s 53 percent—the highest percentage of the biomes. And 74 percent of
grassland species are declining. Easy-to-understand infographics are available
categories of birds have increased in numbers: raptors and waterfowl. Their
numbers were very low in 1970 due to pesticides and wetland degradation,
respectively. Eliminating DDT and restoring wetlands, among other actions,
allowed them to prosper.
The 11 U.S. and Canadian scientists
crunched data from ongoing bird surveys including the North American Breeding
Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count, the International Shorebird Survey, and the
Partners in Flight Avian Conservation Database.
radar, which shows migrating birds simply as biomass, shows a 14 percent
decrease from 2007 to 2017.
Two of the contributors to the study
are scientists I’ve talked to and whose work I respect. Adriaan Dokter, Cornell
Lab of Ornithology, is working with me, Audubon Rockies and the Roundhouse developers.
We want to see if weather radar can predict the best nights to shut down wind turbines
for the safety of migratory birds passing through the wind farm they are buiding
at the southwest corner of I80 and I25.
I’ve met Arvind Panjabi, with Bird
Conservancy of the Rockies headquartered in Ft. Collins, Colorado, on several
occasions. BCR does bird studies primarily in the west as well as educational
How does the number of birds make a
difference to you and me? Birds are the easiest animals to count and serve as
indicators of ecological health. If bird numbers are down, we can presume other
fauna numbers are out of whack too—either, for instance, too many insects
devouring crops or too few predators keeping pest numbers down. Ecological
changes affect our food, water and health.
The decline of common bird species
is troubling because you would think they would be taking advantage of the
decline of species less resilient to change. But even invasive species like
European starling and house sparrow are declining.
biggest reasons for avian population loss are habitat loss, agricultural
intensification (no “weedy” areas left), coastal disturbance and human
activities. Climate change amplifies all the problems.
coalition including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of
Ornithology, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Conservancy of the
Rockies and Georgetown University have an action plan.
1. Make windows safer. Turn off lights at night inside and outside large buildings like the Herschler Building and the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens during migration. Break up the reflections of vegetation birds see in our home windows during the day.
2. Keep cats indoors. Work on the problem of feral cats. They are responsible for more than two-thirds of the 2.6 billion birds per year cats kill.
3. Use native plants. There are 63,000 square miles of lawn in the U.S. currently only attractive to birds if they have pests or weeds.
4. Avoid pesticides. They are toxic to birds and the insects they eat. Go organic. Support U.S. bill H.R. 1337, Saving America’s Pollinators Act. Contact Wyoming’s Representative Liz Cheney and ask that registration of neonicotinoids be suspended. Birds eating seeds with traces of neonics are not as successful surviving and breeding.
5. Drink shade-grown coffee. It helps 42 species of migratory North American birds and is economically beneficial to farmers.
6. Reduce plastic use. Even here, mid-continent rather than the ocean, plastic can be a problem for birds. Few companies are interested in recycling plastic anymore.
7. Do citizen science. Help count birds through volunteer surveys like eBird, Project FeederWatch (new count season begins Nov. 9), the Christmas Bird Count (Cheyenne’s is Dec. 28), and if you are a good birder, take on a Breeding Bird Survey route next spring.
Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 15, 2019, “Nestling ID benefits from crowd sourced help.”
By Barb Gorges
Cheyenne resident Priscilla Gill
emailed me a bird photo that her son, Matthew Gill, took Aug. 6. Could I
identify the birds?
Digital technology is wonderful.
Thirty years ago, I would get phone calls asking for ID help (and I still do)
but it can be difficult to draw a mental picture. I must figure out how
familiar with birds the callers are so I can interpret the size and color
comparisons they make.
At least with an emailed photo, the
ease of identifying the bird is only dependent on the clearness and how much of
the bird is showing. In this case, the photo clearly showed two little
nestlings so ungainly they were cute. They were black-skinned, but all
a-prickle with yellow pin feathers and had large, lumpy black bills. They were
nestled on top of a platform of sticks balanced high up on the pipe
infrastructure at a well pad.
Those bills first made me think
ravens. However, the nest was near Greeley, Colorado, where ravens are rarely
Digital photos are easy to share. I
forwarded the photo to Greg Johnson, my local go-to birder who enjoys ID
challenges. But after a couple days without a reply, I figured he was somewhere
beyond internet contact, so I sent the photo on to Ted Floyd, Colorado birder
and editor of the American Birding Association magazine.
Ted suggested I post the photo to
the ABA’s Facebook group, “What’s this bird?”
Meanwhile, Greg was finally able to
reply: mourning dove. They only have two young per nest, and they build stick
By this time, I had joined the
Facebook group and was starting to get replies. It’s a little
intimidating—there are 39,000 people in the group. There were 13 replies and 37 other people
“liked” some of those replies, essentially voting on their ID choice.
was surprised to see a reply from someone I knew, my Seattle birding friend,
Acacia. Except for the person who suggested pelicans (based on the enormous
bills), the replies were split between mourning dove and rock pigeon. I was
most confidant about the reply from the woman who had pigeons nest on her fire
On reflection, “pigeon” seemed to
make more sense, and Greg agreed. Pigeons are known for adapting to cities
because the buildings remind them of cliffs they nest on in their native range in
Europe and Asia. It seems odd to think of them nesting in the wild, but there’s
a flock around the cliffs on Table Mountain at the Woodhouse Public Access Area
near Cheyenne. Mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves, on the other hand,
are more likely to hide their nests in trees.
But birds can sometimes adapt to
what we humans present them with. Short of following the nestlings until they can
be identified via adult plumage, or comparing them to photos of nestlings that
were then followed to adulthood, we can’t say for sure which species they were.
Out there in the open, did these two
make it to maturity? I wonder how easy it would be for hawks to pick off both
the parents and young.
Here in Cheyenne at the end of
August, I’ve noticed the field by my house has gotten very quiet at ground
level—virtually no squeaking ground squirrels anymore. However, many mornings I’m
hearing the keening of the two young Swainson’s hawks probably responsible for thinning
that rodent population. The youngsters and parents sit on the power poles and
watch as my friend Mary and I walk our dogs past.
The two kids have even been over to
visit at Mark’s and my house. One evening while out in the backyard I happened
to look up and see the two sitting on opposite ends of the old TV antenna that
still sways atop its two-story tower. That gives new meaning to the term “hawk
watching.” They leave white calling card splats on the patio so I know when
I’ve missed one of their visits.
day, as I did backyard chores accompanied by the dog, one of them sat in one of
our big green ash trees, sounding like it was crying its heart out—maybe it was
filled with teenage angst, knowing how soon it needed to grow up and fly to the
ancestral winter homeland in the Argentinian grasslands.
Aug. 11, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as “Audubon Photography Awards
feature Pinedale photographer”
Last month, a familiar name appeared
on my screen, “Elizabeth Boehm.”
I was reading an email from the
National Audubon Society listing the winners of the 2019 Audubon Photography
I have never met Elizabeth in
person. But she was one of the people who replied when I put out a request on
the Wyobirds e-list for photos of the few bird species we didn’t have for
photographer Pete Arnold’s and my book published last year, “Cheyenne Birds by
the Month.” She generously shared six images.
With my similar request on Wyobirds
back in 2008 for “Birds by the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Pete
supplied most of the 104 photos (the others were stock), and he contributed 93
for the book. Here’s the small world connection: Pete is Elizabeth’s neighbor
whenever he and his wife visit his wife’s childhood home in Pinedale.
Now here is the big world
connection: Elizabeth won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards in the
professional category. To qualify as a professional, you must make a certain
amount of money from photography the previous year.
A week later, Audubon magazine
arrived and there, printed over a two-page spread, like the grand prize winner,
was Elizabeth’s winning photo: two male sage-grouse fighting on an entirely
white background of snow.
I decided it was time to get to know
Elizabeth better and interviewed her by phone about her prize-winning
photography. Elizabeth won the Wyoming Wildlife magazine grand prize a couple
years ago and one year she was in the top 10 for the North American Nature
Photography Association. Her photos have been published in Audubon magazine. “I
was totally surprised,” she said of her latest win.
More than 8,000 images were
submitted by 2,253 U.S. and Canadian photographers. Categories included
professional, amateur, youth (13-17 years old), Plants for Birds (bird and a
plant native to the area photographed together) and the Fisher Prize (for originality
and technical expertise).
Elizabeth started shooting
landscapes and wildflowers 25 years ago, then started selling images 10 years
later, adding wildlife to her subjects. Now she works her day job only two days
Of her winning image she said, “I
usually go out in the spring. I know the local leks. I like snow to clean up
the background. The hard part of photographing fights is they are spontaneous.
It’s kind of a fast, quick thing.”
males fight in the pre-dawn light for the right to be the one that mates with
all the willing females. “I set up the night before or in the middle of the
night. It’s better waiting and being patient,” she said.
visits leks one or two times a week March through April. This past spring was
too wet for driving the back roads. Even the grouse weren’t on the leks until
late. They don’t like snow because there is nowhere to hide from the eagles that
prey on them.
This winning photo is from three or
four years ago. Elizabeth came across it while searching her files for another
project and realized it could be special with a little work.
allows nothing other than cropping and a few kinds of lighting and color
adjustments. At one point, Audubon requested Elizabeth’s untouched RAW image. See
the 2019 rules, and 2019’s winning photos, at https://www.audubon.org/photoawards-entry.
Her camera is a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon 500 mm EF f/4L IS USM lens. The photo
was taken at 1/1500 second at f/5.6, ISO 800.
In September, National Audubon will
finalize the schedule for the traveling exhibit of APA winners.
Elizabeth sells prints at the Art of
the Winds, a 10-artist gallery on Pinedale’s Main Street. You can also purchase
images directly from her at http://elizabethboehm.com.
offers guided local birding tours and is also the organizer for the local
Christmas Bird Count.
are a dime a dozen in the Yellowstone – Grand Teton neighborhood where
Elizabeth shoots. She works hard to have her work stand out. She also donates
her work to conservation causes like Pete’s and my book which is meant to get
more people excited about local birds and birdwatching.
Look on the copyright page of
“Cheyenne Birds by the Month” for the list of Elizabeth’s contributions. You
can find the book online through the University of Wyoming bookstore, the
Wyoming Game and Fish store and Amazon, etc.
Cheyenne it’s at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Cheyenne Depot
Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Riverbend Nursery,
Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Pink Boutique, Barnes
and Noble, PBR Printing and out at Curt Gowdy State Park.
Pete Arnold and I will be doing a book signing Aug. 10 at the Barnes & Noble store in Cheyenne, 1851 Dell Range Blvd. The signing will be 1 – 5 p.m.
At 1:30 p.m. I’ll do a talk, “What Birds Want from Your Backyard” followed by Pete talking about wildlife photography.
You are welcome to bring a book you have already purchased or buy one at the store.
While we’ve had several book signings around town at the different shops that carry our book, this is the first one at a book store. And it’s Barnes & Noble. Back in 1979, before B & N opened stores everywhere, I visited the flagship store in New York City. It was overwhelming. Multiple floors crammed with books on every subject. I wanted to read them all. And now “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” has joined the catalog!
P.S. Books are also available in Cheyenne at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Riverbend Nursery, Cheyenne Pet Clinic and PBR Printing. And also at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center and the University of Wyoming bookstore in Laramie. And online at the UW bookstore, Game and Fish, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.