Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at http://www.HabHero.com.

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website, www.HabHero.org, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at www.BrownPaperTickets.org, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

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Book Reviews: “Hummingbirds and Butterflies” and “Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding”

Book: Hummingbirds and Butterflies

“Hummingbirds and Butterflies,” by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops.

Published Sept. 6, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Improve your bird and butterfly eye.”

2014 Update: Both books are widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (a Peterson Field Guides Backyard Bird Guide), by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops, c. 2011 by Bird Watcher’s Digest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 288 pages, softcover, $14.95.

Bill Thompson always writes with the casual birdwatcher in mind, the person who appreciates birds but is always saying, “Someday I want to know more.” And then he provides the hook.

This time he has concentrated on hummingbirds and his co-author, Connie Toops, brings us butterflies. First, there is everything you wanted to know about hummers, a few myths dispelled (no, they don’t hitch rides on geese during migration) and the basics of putting up a hummingbird feeder (4 parts water to 1 part white table sugar—no substitutes, additions or changes, please, and keep it clean).

But Bill offers not only a field guide to 15 North American hummer species, he has a chapter on plants hummingbirds like and ideas for your garden so you can maximize your views of them feeding on flower nectar.

Connie does the same things for butterflies in the second half of the book, including how to photograph them.

Is this book worthwhile for folks in southeastern Wyoming? Yes, even if we have mostly broad-tailed hummingbirds during the summer in higher country, along with rufous hummingbirds during migration in July. And keep in mind, only 17 butterflies profiled are expected here in the summer months. The plant information is sorted by parts of the country and as you might expect, all of the recommended species would be colorful additions to your yard.

If you already garden, you’ll find what a little tweaking might do to improve your chances of observing butterflies and hummingbirds. And if you don’t garden, you might be inspired to begin with a container of colorful flowers.

Field Guide to Advanced Birding

“Field Guide to Advanced Birding,” by Kenn Kaufman

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Understanding What You See and Hear, by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 448 pages, flexible cover, $21.

Kenn Kaufman has totally rewritten his 20-year-old guide to advanced birding. It’s not only because he has better ideas for identifying difficult species, but he understands better the kinds of mistakes birdwatchers make, though perhaps the most important lesson for an ardent birder to learn from this book is that sometimes a bird cannot be identified.

Anyone who has mastered identification of the common and colorful birds soon finds that there are groups that are difficult: gulls, sparrows, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows and seabirds.

And what about hybrids? Subspecies? Birds with white feathers where they shouldn’t be? Birds that are molting and missing feathers?

While there are chapters for each of the difficult bird groups and a reader might be tempted to jump right to his nemesis species, the first seven chapters of general information are worth studying, especially the list of 14 Principles of Field Identification and the 14 Common Pitfalls.

Study is key to improving bird identification skills, and not just studying books, but going outside and finding more birds, Kaufman points out frequently.

One frustration with this book is that there are more than a few photos of unidentified birds. The caption might say the four gulls pictured could be identified as five or six different species if compared to various field guide illustrations, but there is no key in the back to check to see if you can identify them correctly. And sometimes Kaufman’s sentences get long and twisty because some bird i.d. problems are as much about the exceptions as they are about the rules.

A lot of information is packed into this book and it can be overwhelming.

But Principle 14 says you don’t have to take on all of the challenges. You can note merely “Gull sp. (species).”

Kaufman says, “As long as you’re not causing serious disturbance to the birds, their habitat, or other people, there is no ‘wrong way’ to go birding.”

Amen.

BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats, botany and much more Wyoming biota

Mist netting

Participants in the 2014 BioBlitz at Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming, watch as Jacelyn Downey, community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, untangles a Common Yellowthroat caught in a mist net. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats and more.”

By Barb Gorges

“A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteers, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible.” National Geographic Society

Microbes?! No one went looking for microbes during the Wyoming BioBlitz.

It was held last month on the longest day of the year at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. And hopefully, no one took home any unwanted microbes.

But we did find lots of other life. More than 70 people participated: putting out pollinator traps, extracting birds from mist nets, bouncing over a mountain meadow after butterflies and bees, dip netting for macroinvertebrates, electrofishing a stream, botanizing up the side of the canyon, searching for reptiles and amphibians, setting small mammal traps, attracting moths to blacklight, and until nearly midnight, netting bats, only to roll out of sleeping bags or beds in town the next morning to count birds before sunlight hit the canyon floor.

It’s one thing to have a scientist come and present their work in a lecture, as they do, for instance, for Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meetings. It’s quite another to find out firsthand how difficult it is to untangle a bird from a mist net in order to study breeding patterns and longevity.

Then there was the chance to perfect my butterfly net technique with Amy Pocewicz of The Nature Conservancy. It’s like tennis, but butterflies are more erratic and the court is littered with shrubby obstacles.

Sometimes field work is monotony. I went with Wyoming Natural Diversity Database’s (WYNDD) Ian Abernathy and his group to pick up small mammal traps in the sagebrush, little folding aluminum boxes baited with sweetened oats. Each had a tuft of polyester batting thoughtfully provided so the mouse or vole could bed down comfortably for the night in a place not as warm as their own burrow.

To check the traps, we all had to don disposable face masks and gloves to protect us from possible exposure to hantavirus.

We were led by an indefatigable 4-year-old who enjoyed marching ahead to pluck the pin flag marking the next trap.

No critters were captured in any of the 60 traps in the sagebrush and only one in the 20 traps along the creek. Too much human scent from the group setting traps the night before?

Martin Grenier, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game biologist, set a mist net over the creek in the evening and his group was able to catch four bats of three different species.

The same evening, Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with WYNDD, hung two white table cloths on the Learning Center’s patio, placing one small blacklight against each, and then turned off the regular lights. Moths and nocturnal wasps flocked in and extremely small insects were “vacuumed” into a glass bottle for close inspection.

One special moth will have to be identified by an expert in Florida.

Audubon Wyoming, now Audubon Rockies, is the originator of Wyoming’s BioBlitz, holding the first one in 2008, and has partnered with various organizations, agencies and companies to hold it in different locations around the state.

Wyoming teachers can receive continuing education credits—it’s a lot more fun, one teacher from Bighorn told me, than attending lectures.

This year, the Red Canyon BioBlitz sponsors and partners also included, in addition to those mentioned earlier, the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Native Plant Society. During a creative interlude, an artist from the Lander Art Center had us harvesting cheatgrass—an invasive plant—and making art out of it.

The very first BioBlitz was held in 1996 at a park in Washington, D.C., where National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy coined the term from the German word “blitz,” meaning lightning, or fast.

Search online for “BioBlitz” and you will find 20 more listed in this country plus Korea, Canada, New Zealand and especially, the United Kingdom. It’s a plot to infect people with the awareness and joy of biodiversity.

One of my favorite memories of the weekend, besides all the biota, is camping out on the lawn by the Learning Center and going to bed with the stars in my eyes and waking with birdsong in my ears. The other favorite memory is meeting old friends and new, all interested in the wonderful biodiversity of our home state.

You too, can come along next year, wherever BioBlitz may be.

Related websites:

Audubon Rockies, http://rockies.audubon.org

Lander Art Center, www.landerartcenter.com

The Nature Conservancy, http://www.nature.org/wyoming

UW Biodiversity Institute, www.wyomingbiodiversity.org

WyoBio, www.wyobio.org

Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, www.uwyo.edu/wyndd

Wyoming Game and Fish Department, www.wgfd.wyo.gov

Wyoming Native Plant Society, www.wynps.org

Book review: “Mariposa Road,” by Robert Michael Pyle

Mariposa Road book

Mariposa Road by Robert Michael Pyle

Published April 4, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A year in search of Butterflies: Butterfly “Big Year” captures the heart of one man’s passion.”

2014 Update: The Xerces Society is a good source of butterfly information, http://www.xerces.org, as well as other invertebrates.

By Barb Gorges

Mariposa Road, The First Butterfly Big Year, by Robert Michael Pyle, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 558 pages, $27.

Competitive birders will attempt a Big Year, but in 2008, Bob Pyle was the first to see how many butterfly species can be counted by one person in one year in the U.S. and he reports his results in “Mariposa Road.”

Bob is a writer, naturalist and lepidopterist who has authored several butterfly field guides and who, since the 1960s, has cultivated a shrewd knowledge of butterflies, their favorite plants, and people who know where to find both, and when.

He traveled on a shoestring, often camping along the roadside in his 1982 Honda Civic hatchback, affectionately named Powdermilk.

Bob has affectionate names for his favorite butterfly nets, too, Marsha and Akito, and has an endless supply of affection for every butterfly and butterfly lover he’s ever met.

Every sentence sparkles with optimism like a Florida purplewing bouncing across a swampy hammock. Every foray into the field holds hope for rarities and beauty, even if experience would point out the chiggers and thorns. There is always a refreshing mug of beer on tap afterward, or dinner with friends.

Bob did make it to Wyoming for a couple pages, mostly reminiscing about Karolis Bagdonas and his Flying Circus, a band of students that “careened around the Rockies doing butterfly counts and sampling little-known habitats, subsisting on Hamm’s and trout….” I remember hearing about them over 30 years ago.

Bob’s goal was to see 500 of the 800 known species in the U.S., including Hawaii. He made it to 478 species certified by three experts. He found 30 of the 40 “holy grails,” hard to find species he’d hoped for. And almost as a footnote in his appendix, he mentions 600 donors to his Butterfly-a-thon raised $46,000 for the Xerces Society which protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

At over 500 pages, this could be heavy reading if you aren’t already a butterfly fan. But if you like a good road trip, and have a butterfly field guide handy to supplement the color photos on the end papers, I think you’ll enjoy the read.