Raptors popular; new book celebrates them

2018-02BaldEagle-RockyMountain ArsenalNWRbyMarkGorges

A bald eagle is eating lunch at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver in late January. The upside-down v’s on the power pole keep it from perching where its outstretched wings would complete an electrical circuit and electrocute it. Photo by Mark Gorges.



Raptors are popular birds; new book celebrates them

By Barb Gorges

Also published at Wyoming Network News and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Raptors were the stars of a late January field trip taken by the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society.

We visited the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on the outskirts of Denver, only 90 minutes from Cheyenne.

The man at the visitor center desk told us the bald eagles were at Lower Derby Lake. He was right.

Farther down the road we found a bald eagle on top of a utility pole calmly eating something furry for lunch, either one of the numerous prairie dogs or a rabbit. Several photographers snapped away. No one got out of their cars because we were still in the buffalo pasture where visitors, for their own safety, are not allowed out of their vehicles. But vehicles make good blinds and the eagle seemed unperturbed.


Several chapter members get out for a better look at a hawk, before the Wildlife Drive enters the buffalo pasture where visitors must stay in their vehicles. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Winter is a good time to look for raptors. They show up well among naked tree branches and on fence posts, though we noticed mature bald eagles look headless if they are silhouetted against a white winter sky—or the snow-whitened peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Our checklist for the Arsenal included rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, and some unidentifiable hawks.

On the way home, we stopped in Fort Collins because a Harris’s hawk, rare for the area, was reported hanging around the Colorado Welcome Center at the East Prospect Road exit. The center volunteers told us all about it—and that we were several days late. But they knew where the local bald eagle nests were and were proud of the other hawks that could be seen right outside the window.

Raptors, generally defined as hawks, eagles, falcons and sometimes vultures, sometimes owls, are a popular category of bird. When our Audubon chapter sponsored the Buffalo Bill Center for the West’s Raptor Experience last spring, more than 100 people crowded into the biggest meeting room at the library to see live hawks, falcons and owls.

Maybe we are fascinated by raptors because their deadly talons and powerful beaks give us a little shiver of fear. Or maybe it’s because they are easy to see, circling the sky or perched out in the open. Even some place as unlikely as the I-25 corridor makes for good hawk-watching. I counted 11 on fence posts and utility poles in the 50 miles between Ft. Collins and Cheyenne on our way home from the field trip.

Since I was driving, I didn’t give the birds a long enough look to identify them. But I bet I know who could—Pete Dunne.

Dunne watches hawks at Cape May, New Jersey, during migration. After more than 40 years, most as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, he can identify raptor species when they are mere specks in the sky—the way motorists can identify law enforcement vehicles coming up from behind. It’s not just shape. It’s also the way they move.

2018-02BirdsofPreyDunne&Karlson            Dunne is co-author of “Hawks in Flight: A Guide to Identification of Migrant Raptors.” Last year he authored a new book with Kevin T. Karlson, “Birds of Prey, Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America.”

This is not your typical encyclopedia of bird species accounts. Rather, it is Dunne introducing you to his old friends, including anecdotes from their shared past.

You will still find out the wingspan of a bald eagle, 71-89 inches, and learn about the light and dark morphs (differences in appearance) of the rough-legged hawk.

But Dunne also gives you his personal assessment of a species. For instance, he takes exception to the official description of Cooper’s hawk (another of our local hawks) in the Birds of North America species accounts as being a bird of woodlands. After years of spending hunting seasons in the woods, he’s never seen one there.

Dunne is even apt to recite poetry, such as this from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle”:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

This is not a raptor identification guide, but since there are photos on nearly every page—an average of 10 per species showing birds in all kinds of behaviors, you can’t help but become more familiar with them—and more in awe.

At 300 pages, this is not a quick read, but it is perfect preparation for a trip to the Arsenal or for finding out more about the next kestrel you see.

Recognizing celebrity birders

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne’s preferred habitat is the hawk watching platform at the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May, New Jersey. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 16, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nationally known birders have nothing on birds, the true celebs.”

2014 Update: In September our local Audubon chapter celebrated its 40th anniversary and was fortunate to be joined by John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine, flagship publication of the American Birding Association.

By Barb Gorges

Studying birds in your field guide will help you identify them when you finally see them in the field. But don’t neglect to study the author photo on the back cover—you never know when you’ll have a chance to identify them as well.

Over Thanksgiving, Mark and I attended a family wedding in Philadelphia. One of my new shirttail relations, John, is a birder and came with us to Cape May for a day.

The southern tip of New Jersey has long been recognized for its numerous and varied migrating birds and has lots of public access for birding. We stopped at the Cape May Bird Observatory hawk-watching platform first, figuring that official migration observers might still be around and help us Westerners and John, an Irishman living in England, identify local birds.

The first ID I made was that the observer on deck was Pete Dunne, author of several books I’ve reviewed for this paper, including “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion” and the first three of his seasonal quartet beginning with “Prairie Spring.” He’s also a co-author of “Hawks in Flight,” along with other entertaining books and articles for birding magazines.

Pete’s day jobs are director of CMBO and chief communications officer for New Jersey Audubon Society. But they let him out of the office to count birds. He can distinguish a turkey vulture from a black vulture, even when they are mere specks overhead. Without his help, we would not have identified the red-shouldered hawk or determined that the Cooper’s hawk in flight was not a sharp-shinned.

If you go to bird festivals, you too, will meet nationally recognized birders. Nearly 30 years ago, I shook hands with Roger Tory Peterson at a National Audubon convention. A few years later at another one, I correctly identified, from a distance, without using binoculars, the man in the middle of a flock of middle-aged women as author Kenn Kaufman.

But we met Pete at home, in his own habitat, with no printed agenda or groupies to indicate his status.


Mill Grove

John James Audubon explored the bird life around Mill Grove in 1803. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The next day we visited the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, in Audubon, Penn., where one of the world’s most famous bird artists lived when he first came to the U.S. in 1803 at age 18. Hiking the trails around the house, now a museum, through the woods and fields overlooking Perkiomen Creek, I was able to add a singing Carolina wren to my life list, imagining Audubon first hearing it here as well.

A week later, the wedding couple, my uncle and my new aunt–both knowledgeable birders–were able to refind Pete on the same deck at Cape May.

Pete remembered the three of us from the week before, and conversely, said the sighting of Wyoming birders was a lot rarer event than meeting John, even though he came further. There are just over half a million Wyomingites, after all, compared to 62 million Brits. Many of us from the Cowboy State, by nature of our choice of residence, and especially those attracted to birding, prefer travelling to remote places rather than congested coasts.

We were too late to meet superstar storm Sandy, luckily. Cape May was untouched because Sandy landed some miles up the coast at Atlantic City where she devastated Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge and the barrier islands.

We still noticed Sandy’s damage in the suburban-rural area north of Philadelphia, mostly toppled pines and hardwoods, including one that impaled the second story of a house.

What happens to birds in severe storms? My aunt forwarded a New York Times article by Natalie Angier, published Nov. 12, reporting how perching birds have toes that automatically lock around a branch when they bend their legs. So they are as safe as the branch they sit on.

Angier reported birds feel the changes in air pressure from an approaching storm and those migrating may steer around it or correct course afterwards. Some get a boost, having been documented as flying into a storm at 7 mph and coming out the other side at 90.

No matter how many well-known birders I may meet, the birds are the true celebrities. The migrants propelling themselves over dangerous distances, as well as the ordinary house finch weathering another winter, are to be celebrated.

So if I attend the National Audubon convention in Stevenson, Wash., in July, I will be sure to identify the keynote speakers, but the local birds will be the real stars.

Day at Cape May whets birder’s appetite

Cape May Hawk Watch

Cape May Bird Observatory’s Hawk Watch platform is famous among birders for the number of raptors that are counted flying overhead in the fall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 14, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Day at Cape May whets birder’s appetite.”

2014 Update: Find out about visiting the Cape May Bird Observatory at http://www.njaudubon.org/SectionCapeMayBirdObservatory/CMBOHome.aspx. For a great history, read “Seasons at the Point, The Birds and Birders of Cape May” by Jack Connor, published in 1991.

By Barb Gorges

I have been to Mecca. But it’s Cape May, where bird watchers raise their binoculars to the sky in exaltation of migration.

Midday Sept. 22 did not have a wave of raptors flying over the Hawk Watch platform that overlooks the Atlantic at Cape May Point State Park. I saw only a couple osprey and kestrels.

The best numbers at this southern tip of New Jersey come from passing cold fronts and this day was in the 80’s and sunny. The trip, begun with my mother and sister to visit my aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, miraculously coincided with a lull in damaging storms generated by hurricanes.

Pete Dunne, in 1976 the first to start counting hawks officially for the Cape May Bird Observatory operated by New Jersey Audubon Society, relates the legendary day a year later when unique weather conditions produced 21,800 hawks, almost all sharp-shinneds and broad-wings, giving Cape May the nickname “Raptor Capitol of North America.”

The cape, or peninsula, is formed by Delaware Bay on the west and the Atlantic on the east, making a funnel that gathers the birds on their southward trip into a narrow stream at Cape May Point before they reluctantly cross open water.

Clay Sutton, author of an article in this month’s Birding magazine, published by the American Birding Association, relates another legend. In 1970, 24,875 American kestrels were counted in a single day! However, in 2001 and 2002, kestrels barely broke 5000 for the entire count season, September 1-November 30, though they normally average about 10,000.

While kestrel numbers have declined overall, peregrine falcon counts have improved, from 60 in 1977 to a high of 1,791 twenty years later. Sharp-shinned hawks are the most common, averaging 28,512 per year.

Swainson’s hawks average three, with never more than 10 counted in a year, so far. Being a western species (the hawk most commonly seen over Cheyenne in the summer), one has to wonder how they get so far off course.

A CMBO intern was on hand at the Hawk Watch platform to document any hawks and answer questions, but I was wondering about the white birds in the pond below, and approached another birder for help instead.

Turns out he was also a CMBO intern, hired to count five days a week at the Avalon Sea Watch, a few miles up the beach. It was his day off.

The white birds were a mute swan (an invasive, non-native species that has somehow achieved protection under the Migratory Bird Act, I recently learned), great egret, snowy egret and a mixed flock of laughing gulls (no longer sporting their black head feathers of the breeding season), Forster’s terns and herring gulls, the ubiquitous gull of my Alaskan trip in August.

The Sea Watch was started in 1993 and runs mid-September to mid-December, with mid-October to mid-November being the migration peak. The most abundant species are red-throated loon, northern gannet, double-crested cormorant, brant, surf scoter, black scoter, white-winged scoter and parasitic jaeger.

My relatives and I did not make it to Avalon. But now I understand which migrations CMBO’s late October bird festival targets. It would be a great time to visit again.

There’s also the option of hiring a guide through the observatory. The price is reasonable if you have a small group to share it. It would be worth the help sorting over a dozen other birding hotspots in Cape May County, including national wildlife refuges, Nature Conservancy holdings, and state and private lands open to birders.

The CMBO has a long list of educational and recreational opportunities also, some of which are free.

The daily “Monarch Tagging Demo” coincided with our visit.

Staff and volunteers demonstrated how a small patch of orange scales on the forewing is brushed away and the tiny sticker is placed on the clear membrane, then folded over the edge. The sticker has a unique number plus contact information for the Monarch Monitoring Project.

Monarchs produce several generations over the summer, but only the last one is of the individuals that will head south and hopefully make it to the mountains of central Mexico. Of thousands of tagged butterflies, about 30 have been caught there and others have been documented in places in between.

Monarch spring migration is not as direct. The first generation to leave Mexico stops to mate along the way where milkweed is growing and it is their progeny or later generations that make it the rest of the way north.

Afterward, we stopped at CMBO’s Northwood Center, buried in the trees, where we saw an incredible display of bird watching and feeding equipment. The woman running the gift shop cleaned and adjusted my binoculars for free—as advertised—but told me I really should get new ones. The pay from about a year’s worth of Bird Banter columns would buy a nice pair I saw on display.

We were only in Cape May a few hours, long enough to get my feet wet in the Atlantic (and my shoes and socks—thanks, Sis!) and vow to come back someday. However, it is good to be home again in the land of broad landscapes and straight-forward highways—and where wet things dry out in a quarter of the time.

Pacific coast birding down, Atlantic coast yet to go

Cape May lighthouse

The Cape May lighthouse marks the location of the Cape May Bird Observatory hawk watching platform.

Published Sept. 30, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pacific coast down, Atlantic coast yet to go.”

2014 Update: I’ve been fortunate to travel to Cape May in the fall two more times since, but never quite at the peak.

By Barb Gorges

By the time you read this I’ll be back from the East Coast.

Only once before have I made it ocean to ocean in one year. That year I started out in spring as a naturalist-in-training on Staten Island, N.Y., then spent the summer in Wyoming as a soils tech in Rock Springs, and when the field season finished, drove up to Seattle to visit my aunt and uncle.

These same relatives now live in Philadelphia, the destination of this latest trip. My sister and I had asked our mother where we could take her to celebrate her 70th birthday and she chose her brother’s.

Since I travel these days with an eye for the birds, it didn’t take long for the realization (perhaps it was with help from Aunt Pat) that Cape May, N.J., is only two hours south of Philly. Don’t you just love the miniature geography back east? People measure travel by hours rather than miles because of the traffic congestion. If the East Coast had Wyoming’s unimpeded highways, most of it would be within a day’s drive of Philadelphia.

Cape May is a Mecca for observing migration. Located on the southern tip of New Jersey, it is a natural stopping place for birds during both spring and fall. Capitalizing on this, the Cape May Bird Observatory was established in 1975 to count the birds. In addition to research and conservation projects, it has extensive education and recreational birding programs.

Judging by the CMBO’s advertising in birding magazines for its seasonal festivals, I would gather the height of spring migration is mid-May and in the fall it’s Oct. 29-31. Rats.

Our trip to Sitka, Alaska, in August was on the late side of migration up there, and September at Cape May will be on the early side. Someday I may be lucky enough to travel to bird and slip in visits to nearby relatives, rather than the other way around.

As far as I’m concerned, except for Cape May, the itinerary is totally up to Mom. From the looks of my Internet search, the 16 antique stores should provide her plenty of entertainment anyway.

Cape May is apparently full of quaint Victorian-era architecture and is preserved intact as a National Historic Landmark City. Of course local businesses capitalize on the fact. In addition, the local entrepreneurs have always encouraged their reputation as a seaside resort—for the last couple hundred years.

Though Southeast Alaska has been a destination for adventurous vacationers since the late 19th century, it seems only since the closing of its pulp mill over 10 years ago has Sitka gotten more serious about the tourism industry.

When we visited the Alaska Raptor Center, we were astounded by the $12 per person entrance fee, and the new million-dollar visitor-office-rehabilitation facility with permanent staff of five and hundreds of volunteers. It’s a far cry from Lois and Frank Layton’s new but just as effective pole building flight barn outside Casper.

By the way, congratulations to Lois and Frank for being in the first group, including Curt Gowdy and Olaus and Mardy Murie, inducted into the Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming’s Outdoor Hall of Fame earlier this month. The Laytons were honored for their 45-year commitment to bird rehabilitation.

At the ARC we joined a group of 50 or 60 cruise ship passengers bused in for a tour of the facility and a presentation with a resident, permanently injured, bald eagle. Then we were shepherded towards the gift shop.

Busload after busload all summer long gives the place a commercial air. At least the entrance fees help pay for the grand facility to accommodate so many visitors as well as public education and rehab of birds.

For a family like ours, familiar with facilities in Cheyenne, Casper, Laramie and Ft. Collins, it seemed like overkill. But perhaps for the majority of the visitors, it was their first exposure. One should never discount the influence of 30 minute tours on the future welfare of wildlife.

The Cape May Bird Observatory, conveniently located in another tourist destination, may be similar. Operated by New Jersey Audubon (not affiliated with and predating establishment of the National Audubon Society), it does have a gift shop, according to the Web site www.njaudubon.org/centers. I just hope that at the end of the summer season they still have t-shirts my size.

In the next column you’ll find out if I did actually get to Cape May—after all, it is hurricane season. However, Philadelphia itself has a good reputation for bird watching.

I don’t expect to add a lot of birds to my life list as I did in Alaska. The birds of my Midwestern youth are pretty much the same species as in the east, except for the seabirds that might overfly the cape, though I still may pick up species I wasn’t paying attention to 30 years ago.

Checking out the Cape May Rare Bird Alert Web site, I was surprised to see some familiar, but normally western, birds listed—American white pelican, American avocet and lark sparrow. Just visiting, like me. Just a long way from home for a short while.

CMBO hawk watching platform

Cape May Bird Observatory hawk watching platform. Photo by Barb Gorges.