Two Christmas Bird Counts 80 miles apart compared

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Not many birds on the high plains outside town for the Cheyenne, Wyoming, Christmas Bird Count when it is barely 10 degrees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

 

 

 

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 14, 2018, “Two Christmas Bird Counts–80 miles apart–compared,

Also published at Wyoming Network News

By Barb Gorges

I took part in two different Christmas Bird Counts last month.

The Guernsey-Fort Laramie 7.5-mile diameter count circle is centered where U.S. Hwy. 26 crosses the line between Goshen and Platte counties, halfway between the towns. Guernsey’s population is 1,100, Fort Laramie’s is 230, while the Cheyenne count is centered on the Capitol amidst 60,000 people.

All of the species in the combined list below have been seen on previous CBCs in Cheyenne, except for the canyon wren.

Guernsey is 80 miles north of Cheyenne, but 1600 feet lower. Cheyenne’s few small reservoirs were nearly entirely frozen this year. However, within the other count circle are Guernsey Reservoir, on the North Platte, and part of Grayrocks Reservoir on the Laramie River There was more open water on the day of that count, Dec. 17, so you’ll see more ducks listed compared to Cheyenne’s, held Dec. 30.

The cliffs along the North Platte have juniper trees with berries, attracting lots of robins and solitaires. Cheyenne, on the other hand, has lots of residential vegetation and more bird feeders.

There were 16 people on the Cheyenne count, about 10 on the other. We take the same routes every year and statistical analysis of time and distance travelled smooths things out for scientists using our data.

Jane Dorn, the compiler for the Guernsey-Fort Laramie count, includes certain subspecies in her reports when possible. Of her 14 northern flickers, one was yellow-shafted (yellow wing-linings), like the flickers in eastern North America.

Dorn also sorts out dark-eyed juncos. Of the 33 on her count, eight were slate-colored (the junco of eastern North America), one was white-winged (range centered on the Black Hills) and three were Oregon. The other 21 were either difficult to see or hybrids—the reason there are no longer multiple species of juncos with dark eyes.

Dorn had four adult and two immature bald eagles. Those of us coming up from Cheyenne missed a chance for seeing them when we skipped Greyrocks Reservoir while delaying our trip two hours for black ice on I-25 to melt.

The weather for the Cheyenne count put a damper on the number of songbirds out in the morning when we have the most people participating. Dec. 30 was when everything was thickly covered in fluffy ice crystals. Serious birders shrugged off the 7-degree temperature and were rewarded with beauty. By lunch time, I was shrugging off layers to keep cool when the day’s high reached 56 degrees.

Cheyenne count compiler Greg Johnson noted raptors were well represented this year, with 10 species observed, the rough-legged hawk the most abundant with 13 seen, and the two merlins the most unusual.

Johnson said, “Three lingering red-winged blackbirds were visiting a feeder at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Otherwise, no unexpected or rare species were observed.”

Guernsey – Fort Laramie (Dec. 17, 2017) and Cheyenne (Dec. 30, 2017) Christmas Bird Count Comparison

Bold – species seen both counts

Regular – species seen Cheyenne only

Italic – species seen Guernsey – Fort Laramie only

G-FL   Chey.

6          —        Western Grebe

2877    1259    Canada Goose

2          —        Cackling Goose

67        76        Mallard

2          1          Common Goldeneye

45        —        Green-winged Teal

1          —        Bufflehead

285      —        Common Merganser

cw        —        Killdeer

6          1          Bald Eagle

cw       5          Northern Harrier

3          6          Red-tailed Hawk

—        1          Ferruginous Hawk

—        13        Rough-legged Hawk

1          1          Sharp-shinned Hawk

—        1          Cooper’s Hawk

1          —        Golden Eagle, Adult

6          3          American Kestrel

—        2          Merlin

1          1          Prairie Falcon

11        —        Wild Turkey

7          —        Ring-billed Gull

333      463      Rock Pigeon

159      83        Eurasian Collared-Dove

—        1          Great Horned Owl

1          —        Eastern Screech Owl

4          1          Belted Kingfisher

7          2          Downy Woodpecker

1          —        Hairy Woodpecker

14        5          Northern Flicker

2          —        Northern Shrike

1          4          Blue Jay

3          46        Black-billed Magpie

11        168      American Crow

2          32        Common Raven

12        37        Horned Lark

31        —        Black-capped Chickadee

3          3          Mountain Chickadee

2          1          White-breasted Nuthatch

7          7          Red-breasted Nuthatch

—        1          Pygmy Nuthatch

cw        —        Brown Creeper

1          —        Canyon Wren

58        6          Townsend’s Solitaire

144      5          American Robin

202      353      European Starling

—        35        Unidentified waxwing

7          —        Cedar Waxwing

8          —        American Tree Sparrow

3          —        Song Sparrow

33        30        Dark-eyed Junco

—        7          Unidentified blackbird

—        3          Red-winged Blackbird

27        40        House Finch

16        —        Pine Siskin

102      10        American Goldfinch

cw       139      House Sparrow

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Cottonwood trees full of birds held our attention along a slough off the North Platte River on the Guernsey – Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

Keeping citizen scientists happy

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Citizen scientists were recruited by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to look for Flammulated Owls in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming in the summer of 2005. Mark and I are standing in front of the sign.

Published Nov. 13, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Turning Citizens into Scientists”

Note: The first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference is being held Dec. 1-3, 2016, in Lander. All current and would-be citizen scientists studying birds or any other natural science are welcome. See http://www.wyomingbiodiversity.org.

How to keep a citizen scientist happy

By Barb Gorges

A year after I married my favorite wildlife biologist, he invited me on my first Christmas Bird Count.

It was between minus 25 and minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that day in southeastern Montana, with snow on the ground. He asked me to take the notes, which meant frequently removing my thick mittens and nearly frostbiting my fingers.

I am happy to report that 33 years later, my husband is the one who takes the notes and the Christmas Bird Count has become a family tradition, from taking our first son at eight months old and continuing now with both sons and their wives joining us.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and is one of the oldest examples of citizen science, sending ordinary people (most are not wildlife biologists) out to collect data for scientific studies.

In 1999, I signed up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and have continued each year. Last season 22,000 people participated. In 2010 I started entering eBird checklists and now I’m one of 327,000 people taking part since 2002. And there are nearly a dozen other, smaller, CLO projects.

It is obvious CLO knows how to keep their citizen scientists happy. Part of it is that they have been at it since 1966. Part of it is they know birdwatchers. That’s because they are birdwatchers themselves.

How do they keep us happy? I made a list based on my own observations—echoed by an academic paper I read later.

First, I am comfortable collecting the data. The instructions are good. They are similar to something I do already: keeping lists of birds I see. The protocol is just a small addition. For instance, in eBird I need to note when and for how long I birded and at least estimate how many of each species I saw. It makes the data more useful to scientists.

Second, I am not alone. The Christmas Bird Count is definitely a group activity, which makes it easy for novice birders to join us. I especially love the tally party potluck when we gather to share what the different groups have seen that day.

Project FeederWatch is more solitary, but these days there are social aspects such as sharing photos online. Over President’s Day weekend when the Great Backyard Bird Count is on, I can see animated maps of data points for each species. On eBird, I can see who has been seeing what at local birding hotspots.

Third, I have access to the data I submitted. Even 33 years later, I can look up my first CBC online and find the list of birds we saw, and verify my memories of how cold it was in December 1983.

The eBird website keeps my life list of birds and where I first saw them (OK, I need to rummage around and see if I can verify my pre-2010 species and enter those). It compiles a list of all the birds I’ve seen in each of my locations over time (89 species from my backyard) and what time of year I’ve seen them. All of my observations are organized and more accessible than if I kept a notebook. And now I can add photos and audio recordings of birds.

A fourth item CLO caters to is the birdwatching community’s competitive streak. I can look on eBird and see who has seen the most species in Wyoming or Laramie County during the calendar year, or who has submitted the most checklists. You can choose a particular location, like your backyard, and compare your species and checklist numbers with other folks in North America, which is instructive and entertaining.

I would take part in the CBC and eBird just because I love an excuse to bird. But the fifth component of a happy citizen scientist is concrete evidence that real scientists are making use of my data. Sometimes multiple years of data are needed, but even reading a little analysis of the current year makes me feel my work was worthwhile and helps me see where my contribution fits in.

What really makes me happy is that I have benefitted from being a citizen scientist. I’m a better birder, a better observer now. I look at things more like a scientist. I appreciate the ebb and flow of nature more.

If you have an interest in birds, I’d be happy to help you sort through your citizen science options. Call or email me or check my archival website listed below, or go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

Bird count results diminished by snow

Guernsey Reservoir

Guernsey State Park, Wyoming, makes up part of the count circle for the Guernsey-Fort Laramie Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 8, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Snow diminishes results of Christmas Bird Count.”

2015 Update: See http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

If someone was counting the human population of Cheyenne last Saturday, based on the number of pedestrians observed, they might have come up with only 14 of the 53, 011 reported by the Census Bureau – those of us foolish enough to be outside on the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Birds visible in the blowing snow underrepresented actual numbers as well. Most were hunkered down, waiting out the storm. Where one might expect the twitter and movement of juncos and other sparrows in tangles of shrubs, or the rhank-rhank of nuthatches in trees, most often there was only the steady tisp-tisp of tiny snow pellets hitting Gore-tex outerwear. Some years we see more than 50 species. This year it was 35, plus three observed week of the count (the three days before and three days after count day, Jan. 3).

Canada geese, however, were easy to find, bunched up in open water, unwilling to fly out to snow-covered fields to feed as usual. Water in this dry country is easy to pinpoint. Between Hereford Reservoir #1, Lake Minehaha and Sloans Lake, 2092 geese were counted, up from 1451 last year.

House sparrows were in great abundance if you knew where to look. At Avenue C-1 and Jefferson Street, a couple hundred swarmed between feed at one house and cozy bushes at another.

Over at the South Fork subdivision west of South Greeley Highway, what at first looked like another flock of house sparrows feeding on the ground between homes turned out to be 40 horned larks. The presence of grassland birds wasn’t too surprising since the subdivision was recently carved out of the surrounding prairie.

Lapland Longspur

A Lapland Longspur was found on the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Jan. 3, 2004. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lapland longspurs are not found often, but a birder joining us from Ovid, Colo., who has lots of longspur experience from living in Kansas, was able to identify their peculiar call as they flew over with flocks of horned larks.

House sparrows and European starlings don’t seem to limit activity during snowy weather and I would think American crows wouldn’t either, but on this count we were hard put to find them and their close relations, the black-billed magpies. Last year we counted 250 crows and 48 magpies. This year we were down to 41 crows and six magpies. Since crows and magpies are among the most noticeable birds to be affected by West Nile Virus, this decrease isn’t too unexpected after a summer when the first human cases occurred here.

Warblers don’t normally show up on our Christmas count. In 29 years of available data, only twice have they been observed. The yellow-rumpeds seen Saturday are the most likely to winter here since they are one of the few warbler species that can change from a summer insect diet to an after-frost berry diet.

In great contrast was the Guernsey – Fort Laramie count held Dec. 20. This is a new count designed by the Cheyenne count’s former compiler, Jane Dorn, who, with her husband Bob, has retired to the Lingle area.

The center point of this count circle is the Platte-Goshen county line where the railroad tracks cross it. The 7.5-mile radius stretches from the east end of Guernsey State Park to the west side of Fort Laramie National Historic Site. A map shows no mountain ranges on this far eastern edge of Wyoming, but the land is a wonderful jumble of geology and habitats.

Ten of us met at the main entrance to Guernsey State Park, drove along the reservoir edge and hiked up Fish Canyon. There was snow in the old road tracks in the shade, but otherwise, we were shedding layers as we went. The high for the day was 61 degrees.

There was some activity in the junipers and pines, but it always seemed to turn into Townsend’s solitaires or robins.

After lunch at the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site, we explored Hartville, an old mining town set in a narrow, winding canyon. We parked by the churches for a better look at a downy and a hairy woodpecker in the same tree and were greeted by two locals—two inquisitive black dogs. Further up, we were entranced by a front yard feeder full of goldfinches.

Lucky for us, the open water at Grayrocks Reservoir was at the lower end, within the count circle. A thousand mallards attracted 31 adult bald eagles and 3 immatures. Most of the eagles merely stood around on the ice, but one aerialist performed, stooping to slam into, then eat a duck.

We ended the count at Fort Laramie, the historic site, not the town, hiking the Laramie River in two groups in opposite directions and finding great blue herons.

While the group I was with waited back at the cars for the other, the sunset turned the hills pink and two bald eagles flew low overhead, along with skeins of geese so high they could have been mistaken for wisps of cloud.

We missed the expertise of Barbara Coustopolous of Guernsey, whose husband’s funeral and burial was that same day. We counted 31 species this year (plus seven week of the count), but with her help next year, who knows?

Christmas Bird Count

A Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count “field party” checks out Lions Park. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, Jan. 3, 2004

14 observers

35 species

4579 individuals count day

cw – count week only, 3 species

[Species names and order reflect the AOU checklist as of 2004.]

Canada Goose 2092

Mallard 796

Northern Shoveler cw

Green-winged Teal 3

Common Goldeneye 10

Common Merganser 1

Sharp-shinned Hawk 1

Rough-legged Hawk 4

American Kestrel 1

Wilson’s Snipe 2

Rock Pigeon 133

Belted Kingfisher 1

Downy Woodpecker 4

Northern Flicker 8

Blue Jay 3

Black-billed Magpie 6

American Crow 41

Horned Lark 305

Red-breasted Nuthatch 9

White-breasted Nuthatch cw

Brown Creeper 5

Golden-crowned Kinglet 6

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1

Townsend’s Solitaire cw

American Robin 60

Brown Thrasher 1

European Starling 369

Yellow-rumped Warbler 2

American Tree Sparrow 16

Song Sparrow 7

Harris’s Sparrow 1

White-crowned Sparrow 2

Dark-eyed Junco, race unknown 50

White-winged Junco cw

Slate-colored Junco 35

Gray-headed Junco 8

Oregon Junco 10

Pink-sided Junco 54

Lapland Longspur 2

Common Grackle 1

House Finch 74

Pine Siskin 1

House Sparrow 454

Guernsey State Park

Birders hike Guernsey State Park for the Guernsey-Fort Laramie Christmas Bird Count

Guernsey – Ft. Laramie Christmas Bird Count Results, Dec. 20, 2003

31 species and 2907 individuals count day

cw – count week only, 7 species

Canada Goose 938

Mallard 1528

Green-winged Teal 2

Common Goldeneye 4

Common Merganser 1

Hooded Merganser cw

Wild Turkey 12

Great Blue Heron 2

Bald Eagle, adult 31, imm. 3

Sharp-shinned Hawk 1

Rough-legged Hawk 1

American Kestrel cw

Merlin cw

Killdeer 1

Ring-billed Gull cw

Herring Gull cw

Rock Pigeon 2

Belted Kingfisher 3

Downy Woodpecker 3

Hairy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 3

Northern Shrike 2

Blue Jay 8

Black-billed Magpie 9

American Crow cw

Horned Lark 6

Black-capped Chickadee 9

Townsend’s Solitaire 35

American Robin 70

European Starling 131

American Tree Sparrow 20

Song Sparrow cw

Dark-eyed Junco 26

Red-winged Blackbird 13

House Finch 4

Pine Siskin 5

American Goldfinch 26

House Sparrow 7

Bird count finds four new species

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Eurasian Collared-Doves were observed on the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count for the first time Jan. 4, 2003. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 9, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird count picks up four new species.”

2015 Update: See http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

[This article was updated with two Steller’s Jays after it appeared Jan. 9 in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.]

No snow, no wind to speak of and temperatures ranging from 32 to 50 degrees made comfortable conditions for 21 observers participating in the annual Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Jan. 4.

The tally was 5650 individual birds of 48 species, plus one species observed during the week of the count but not count day.

Mild weather this winter may be responsible for the number of robins still here and the absence of northern or high altitude species such as the rosy finches.

In the eastern U.S., West Nile Virus has decimated crow populations, but in the 15-mile diameter count circle centered on Cheyenne, 250 crows were counted, up from 97 last year.

Crows were not observed on counts before 1987.

Four species appeared on the count for the first time: Eurasian collared-doves have been showing up regularly at a south-side feeder; the northern bobwhite was observed feeding on food scraps thrown by crows from a trash container; the white-throated sparrow, considered an eastern U.S. species, was visiting a north-side feeder; and the wood duck has been observed at Lions Park for several months.

Five species have been seen on this and the 40 previous counts: northern flicker, horned lark, Townsend’s solitaire, house finch and house sparrow.

Ten other species have been seen on this and at least 35 other counts: mallard, rough-legged hawk, great horned owl, downy woodpecker, blue jay, black-billed magpie, mountain chickadee, American robin, European starling and dark-eyed junco (slate-colored and Oregon races).

The redhead (duck) has been recorded only once before. Ruby-crowned kinglets have been observed on two other counts and Harris’ sparrow on three.

Christmas Bird Count data for previous years and other locations is available online, http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, Jan. 4, 2003

21 observers

48 species

[Species names and order reflect the AOU checklist as of 2003.]

*Species observed week of the count, but not count day.

Canada Goose 1451

Green-winged Teal 2

Mallard 1776

Northern Shoveler 9

American Wigeon 2

Redhead 1

Common Goldeneye 20

Wood Duck 1

Northern Harrier 2

Sharp-shinned Hawk 4

Northern Goshawk 1

Red-tailed Hawk 3

Ferruginous Hawk 1

Rough-legged Hawk 7

American Kestrel *

Merlin 1

Northern Bobwhite 1

Wilson’s Snipe 2

Rock Dove (pigeon) 265

Eurasian Collared-Dove 3

Great Horned Owl 3

Belted Kingfisher 2

Downy Woodpecker 11

Northern Flicker, red-shafted 9

Horned Lark 74

Stellar’s Jay 2

Blue Jay 5

Black-billed Magpie 10

American Crow 250

Black-capped Chickadee 4

Mountain Chickadee 22

Red-breasted Nuthatch 34

White-breasted Nuthatch 7

Brown Creeper 10

Golden-crowned Kinglet 6

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 3

Townsend’s Solitaire 7

American Robin 11

European Starling 687

American Tree Sparrow 4

Song Sparrow 5

White-crowned Sparrow 1

Harris’ Sparrow 3

White-throated Sparrow 1

Dark-eyed Junco, race unknown 48

Dark-eyed Junco, slate-colored 12

Dark-eyed Junco, white-winged 1

Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon 8

Dark-eyed Junco, pink-sided 10

Dark-eyed Junco, gray-headed 4

Red-winged Blackbird 138

House Finch 129

American Goldfinch 8

House Sparrow 515

Looking for birds in all the right places

Golden-crowned-Kinglet

A Golden-crowned Kinglet was found on the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 29, 2001. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 10, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Looking for birds in all the right places.”

2015 Update: See the previous post for the particulars of this Christmas Bird Count.

By Barb Gorges

Turnout for the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count Dec. 29 was better than any other year we can remember….for number of observers participating.

Despite the bank’s temperature proclamation of 17 degrees at 7:30 a.m., 20-odd people (and maybe we did look odd to early post office patrons) were gathered in the downtown post office lobby, ready to beat the bushes.

We had enough people to choose three teams so we could hit our three favorite birding spots simultaneously. But unlike choosing up grade school kickball teams, team members chose which team they wanted to join.

The downtown, Capitol complex buildings were not very exciting this year. I can tell you where we’ve seen a great horned owl, brown creepers and Townsend’s solitaires in previous years, but this time we didn’t have much to show the folks new to our count except for the three species federal law allows to be “controlled” without special permits: pigeons, starlings and house sparrows.

By 8:30 a.m. we were at Lions Park, and luckily it was early enough or cold enough the mallards and Canada geese were still on the ice sleeping, their heads tucked under their wings, instead of swimming in the open water. Counting sleeping birds is so much easier.

Ten common goldeneyes dropped in, their white breasts and sides making them easy to pick out from the 700 mallards and geese.

A tree full of goldfinches delighted us, along with a downy woodpecker, over by the old greenhouse. On the west side of the park, the cottonwoods gave us eight brown creepers, flickers and both kinds of chickadees.

The highlight was six golden-crowned kinglets playing a fast-paced game of hide and seek among the branch tips of a spruce, frequently hanging upside down for a moment.  Their constant frenetic movement in search of bugs and their size of about three and a half inches long combined to make trying to glass their best field mark, golden head stripes, quite a challenge.

As our group straggled around Discovery Pond on our way back to the parking lot, I found myself alone, and attracting squirrels. Did you know the fox squirrels in the park have gotten so tame they will approach and sniff a stick you hold out to them?

As one squirrel and I re-enacted Columbus meeting a New World native (no shared spoken language, just lots of eye contact and gestures), I was aware the tribe was gathering around us. Not only six or eight more squirrels, but a dozen mallards were quietly moving in.

Just call me St. Francis of Assisi–courtesy of the folks who feed wildlife in the park.

Luckily I rejoined the birders in time to have a solitary Townsend’s solitaire pointed out to me before it flew over the Botanic Gardens’ greenhouse roof.

As I traversed our traditional routes I was remembering birds we’ve seen other years and bird watchers who’ve died or moved away. I was even thinking fondly of trees and bushes the parks department has removed.

The bush where we unexpectedly found the sage thrasher several years ago was taken out when the sunken garden was filled in. I know the park people think shrubbery can hide people with nefarious agendas and is not safe, but I hope they will replant some.

The trip out to the base in the afternoon was a little different this year, due to security concerns. My family, including my visiting sister and brother-in-law, had to show photo identification, even though we had a vehicle sticker.

I’m not sure all the fuss was worthwhile. Where Crow Creek runs through the family camping area, it looks like good, brushy bird habitat with great big cottonwoods overhead. But all we counted were about a dozen magpies and a flock of pigeons in the distance.

As we tromped through the fresh skiff of snow all the way down to the bridge and then back up and around to the nature trail, I wondered if we were just visiting at the wrong time.

Maybe we need a fourth group first thing in the morning to check the base when birds are most active.

Finally, just after 4 p.m., as we skirted the backside of the mall in the van, I saw black birds in the cattails. Mark obligingly backtracked through the parking lot and we were able to tell that they were four red-winged blackbirds.

I wonder if those birds decided belatedly to head south to join the rest of their species after we saw them on a day so much colder than any up until then. I always think of the red-winged blackbird’s song as an element that proves it’s spring, even if we’re due for a few more snow showers.

Then again, along with the robins, one of the other groups counted, perhaps red-wings are only a sign of spring to those of us who stay inside too much all winter.

Bird count finds state record bird

Hermit Thrush

A Hermit Thrush is rare in winter in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but was seen on the Christmas Bird Count December 29, 2001 . Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Jan. 10, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird Count identifies second winter state record for hermit thrush.”

2015 Update: See http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

A hermit thrush, aptly named for its shy and retiring ways, was the star of the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count held Dec. 29.

Birder Bob Luce, new to the Cheyenne count, pointed it out, and with help from experienced Cheyenne birders, was able to identify the robin-like bird with the spotted breast.

Jane Dorn, count compiler, said there has been only one other winter record of the thrush in Wyoming, which is otherwise a somewhat common bird in summer in the state’s coniferous forests.

Normally the hermit thrush winters no farther north than central Arizona and New Mexico.

Total number of birds counted, 4,138, and total number of species counted, 36, were down from last year’s 5,686 birds and 43 species despite 24 observers, nearly double the number for previous counts.

The weather was colder than last year, with a high of 29 degrees, and a low of 11 degrees.

There was no precipitation and only a trace of snow on the ground.

The wind was out of the northeast and fairly calm, with gusts reaching only 18 mph.

Though the 1,536 Canada geese counted were not as many as last year, only one other CBC has recorded over 1,000 geese. In the 1980s geese were sometimes not observed on the CBC at all.

Crows also seem to be following the same pattern. While 97 were seen this year compared to 109 last year, crows used to be scarce. Only by the 1994 CBC did numbers counted exceed 10.

The pine siskin was reported only during the week of the count (the three days either before or after the count) and not on the count day. However, their winter populations are irruptive, meaning they go where the food is. So apparently some other location had a better seed crop.

Neither white-winged nor red crossbills, other irruptive species, were seen on the count this year.

Rough-legged hawks, as expected, continued to be the most numerous raptors in winter.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 29, 2001

24 observers

36 species, plus one other species seen week of the count.

[Species names and order reflect the AOU checklist as of 2001.]

Canada Goose 1536

Mallard 574

Green-winged Teal 3

Common Goldeneye 12

Northern Harrier 2

Red-tailed Hawk 2

Rough-legged Hawk 18

Golden Eagle 2

American Kestrel 1

Common Snipe 1

Rock Dove (pigeon) 376

Great Horned Owl 1

Belted Kingfisher 5

Downy Woodpecker 12

Northern Flicker 11

Blue Jay 4

Black-billed Magpie 41

American Crow 97

Horned Lark 21

Black-capped Chickadee 3

Mountain Chickadee 10

Red-breasted Nuthatch 6

Brown Creeper 10

Golden-crowned Kinglet 14

Townsend’s Solitaire 29

American Robin 24

Hermit Thrush 1

European Starling 792

American Tree Sparrow 14

Song Sparrow 5

White-crowned Sparrow 1

Dark-eyed Junco (total: 78)

Gray-headed 3

Oregon 14

Pink-sided 20

Slate-colored 8

unspecified 33

Red-winged Blackbird 42

House Finch 41

Pine Siskin (week of the count only)

American Goldfinch 19

House Sparrow 330

Unusual weather makes unusual bird count

American Tree Sparrow

The American Tree Sparrow is a winter-only species in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which shows up on the Christmas Bird Count. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 11, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Calm, cloudy weather makes for unusual count.”

2015 Update: See http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

The Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, held Dec. 30, was an unusual day: It was windless. Having skies overcast for a whole winter day was uncommon too.

After lunch the clouds began leaking snow. The flakes fell to the ground instead of being slammed sideways by the wind.

Without sunshine, the birds seemed reluctant to move around, except for what I think of as the “background birds:” pigeons (rock doves, as they are known on the count list), starlings and house sparrows. These non-native interlopers seem unaffected by the cold, which is one reason they interlope so successfully.

Downtown provided some of our group’s best birds: a Townsend’s solitaire next to the State Museum (attracted by berry-producing junipers) and two brown creepers working tree trunks in front of the Capitol.

Unlike the spring count where we count just the number of species of birds, on the CBC we count individuals. So all day long every passing starling had to be counted.

Bob and Jane Dorn counted their 600-plus starlings mostly in one huge flock west of F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

While our group was standing on Capitol Avenue, we noticed mallards passing overhead. As one small flock disappeared to the southeast over the tops of buildings, another would materialize from out of the northwest until we’d counted more than 50.

After some more urban birding at Holliday Park (590 mallards, 557 Canada geese, six Goldeneyes); Martin Luther King, Jr. Park (another solitaire, juncos, starlings and crows); and the end of the Greenway by the refinery (Cooper’s hawk, kestrel and kingfisher), we headed for the Hereford Ranch.

Getting there via Crow Creek was more interesting than being there. We counted nine rough-legged hawks, two northern harriers and a song sparrow, compared to a few mallards, starlings and pigeons. I couldn’t help thinking about the wonderful warblers we see there in the Creekside brush in the spring.

After lunch our group dwindled to just our family and Art Anderson, president of Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society. Because our van has an entrance sticker, we all piled in and headed for the air force base.

Not a bird to be seen out by the lakes. Just a few ice fishermen– one with Hawaiian license plates!

By the time we reached the “FamCamp,” the boys opted for naps. Mark, Art and I tromped up one side of Crow Creek and down through the willows on the other side. Not one chirp or flash of feathers as the snow began to fall.

Nearing the van we finally picked up a little bird talk and followed it to a flock of 27 American tree sparrows chattering in the treetops–right over the van.

By the end of the day our group had counted 23 species. At the tally party the other groups’ observations gave us a total of 37 species and 5,695 individuals, an average CBC for Cheyenne.

Four additional species were seen during “count week,” the three days before and the three days after the official count day.

Wyoming has 17 count areas, not very dense coverage compared to say, the 11 on skinny little Long Island or 10 counts around greater Los Angeles. They probably have more counters per area as well.

Each count has its own mix of species. I looked up the Sitka count, done on an island in southeastern Alaska where my brother-in law lives. Their recent counts list at least two kinds of grebes, cormorants, shorebirds, gulls, four kinds of loons and 19 kinds of ducks. But their land birds boil down to mostly crows, ravens, juncos and chestnut-backed chickadees.

The Cheyenne count has, over the span of 40 counts, listed 106 species.

This year’s total of 37 doesn’t sound like much until notice that about 20 species have only been seen once, and 45 species have been seen five or fewer times.

Some species, like this year’s western meadowlark—seen only once in the previous five counts–are seasonally out of place. Others, like the owls, are not numerous to begin with and are hard to find.

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 30, 2001

14 participants

37 species

[Species names and order reflect the AOU checklist as of 2001.]

Canada Goose 2,188

Green-winged Teal 4

Mallard 1,067

Common Goldeneye 17

Northern Harrier 5

Cooper’s Hawk 1

Red-tailed Hawk 1

Rough-legged Hawk 19

Golden Eagle 2

American Kestrel 3

Common Snipe 2

Rock Dove 420

Great Horned Owl 1

Belted Kingfisher 1

Downy Woodpecker 1

Northern Flicker 4

Horned Lark 102

Black-billed Magpie 28

American Crow 76

Black-capped Chickadee 5

Mountain Chickadee 25

Red-breasted Nuthatch 30

Brown Creeper 14

Townsend’s Solitaire 12

American Robin 3

Northern Shrike 2

European Starlings 861

American Tree Sparrow 29

Song Sparrow 4

Dark-eyed Junco, unspecified 23

Dark-eyed Junco, Slate-colored 10

Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon 2

Dark-eyed Junco, Pink-sided 20

Red-winged Blackbird 67

Western Meadowlark 1

House Finch 84

Red Crossbill 20

White-winged Crossbill 1

American Goldfinch 7

House Sparrow 521

Bird count uncovers treasures

Canada Geese

Canada Geese wait to be counted for the Cheyenne Christmas bird Count. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 20, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird count uncovers hidden treasures.”

2015 Update: Everything you want to know about Christmas Bird Counts is at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

Cheyenne’s 1999 Christmas Bird Count, actually held Jan. 1 [2000], was like an expedition to a dusty attic to unearth treasures.

Except the attic was missing the usual white sheets of snow covering the landscape furniture.

A total of 42 species of birds were seen, compared to 50-plus on colder, snowier counts when birds have to spend more time out in the open, foraging for food to stay alive.

At 7:30 a.m., Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society members divided into small groups to cover, before sunset, as much as possible of the 7.5-mile-radius count circle centered on the state Capitol building.

Pete Gardner, of Wheatland, became our group’s “Hawkeye.” Without him, we may have missed the red-tailed hawk sitting in a tree where Westland Road crosses over Crow Creek. Or we might have overlooked some of the kestrels perched on telephone wires, looking like slightly over-sized berry-eating robins rather than the meat-eating raptors they really are.

According to Jane Dorn, count compiler, we had a lot of northern harriers (formerly known as marsh hawks) “because there isn’t any snow and they are able to hunt.”

Rough-legged hawk numbers were also high, but not unusual for a raptor that migrates to Wyoming for the winter.

Speaking of unusual sightings, we thought we might have had two Ross’ geese at Lions Park. Conveniently, the two white birds hung around for more than a week after the count. Alas, after closer scrutiny, we determined they were only snow geese.

Although snow geese occasionally visit Cheyenne, I noticed they hadn’t been reported in any of the last 26 Christmas counts posted on the CBC Web page.

You too can compare CBC data for past counts anywhere in the country. Go to the Web site, http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count. Just remember, the count number is one more than the year the count was held. For instance, 1999 is the year of the 100th CBC.

Two changes in individual species populations of which I’ve become aware over the 11 years I’ve lived in Cheyenne show up in the CBC data.

Between 1973, the earliest Cheyenne count shown online, and 1982, Canada geese show up only twice. But since 1988, they appear consistently and in ever-increasing numbers, a phenomenon common in many urban areas, where the geese become fearless when people feed them.

The other species, the American crow, didn’t make the CBC reports until 1986. With hard work, one or two could be found each year after that. By about 1994, we started counting 25 or more on each CBC.

Finally, this year, with a count of 109, we didn’t have to look hard at all. Crows were everywhere, teasing squirrels and playing with trash. Jane thinks the high numbers mean crows are breeding here now.

Most of the other species counted on this year’s CBC are the result of careful examination of Cheyenne’s backwaters: brushy habitat along Crow Creek and Dry Creek, abandoned lots, industrial neighborhoods and every other damp and weedy spot visible with binoculars.

 

Snipe

Snipe can spend the winter in Cheyenne if they find a marshy spot that doesn’t freeze. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Who would have thought a snipe would turn up? I always thought they were mythical creatures of “snipe hunt” shenanigans. But Jane says, “We almost always turn up one or two. They’ll stay as long as there’s a little open, marshy water.”

Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, Jan. 1, 2000

11 participants

43 species

[Species names and order reflect the AOU checklist as of 2000.]

Snow Goose 1

Ross’s Goose 1

Canada Goose 945

Green-winged Teal 2

Mallard 725

Canvasback 1

Common Goldeneye 15

Northern Harrier 14

Red-tailed Hawk 1

Rough-legged Hawk 11

Golden Eagle 1

American Kestrel 4

Merlin 2

Common Snipe 1

Rock Dove 294

Great Horned Owl 1

Belted Kingfisher 3

Downy Woodpecker 7

Northern Flicker (red-shafted) 6

Horned Lark 151

Blue Jay 2

Black-billed Magpie 68

American Crow 109

Common Raven 3

Black-capped Chickadee 4

Mountain Chickadee 1

Red-breasted Nuthatch 25

Brown Creeper 4

Golden-crowned Kinglet 6

Townsend’s Solitaire 8

American Robin 104

Northern Shrike 2

European Starling 827

American Tree Sparrow 5

Song Sparrow 2

Dark-eyed Junco 62, including:

slate-colored 5

white-winged 4

Oregon 11

race undetermined 42

Red-winged Blackbird 41

Brewer’s Blackbird 2

Common Grackle 3

House Finch 37

Pine Siskin 25

American Goldfinch 19

House Sparrow 249

Christmas Bird Count debunks stereotypes

Bananaquits

These Bananaquits will be showing up on Christmas Bird Counts from South America. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 22, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Christmas Bird Count debunks stereotypes.”

2014 Update: This year the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count will be January 3, 2015. Check the Cheyenne Audubon chapter website at http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/ for information about the count and the tally party potluck. Or look for a CBC close to you at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

By Barb Gorges

What comes to mind when you hear the words “Christmas Bird Count”? A snowy, Grandma Moses, New England winter scene peopled by eccentrics bundled in wooly scarves, craning their necks to study treetops at the break of day?

There have been changes since the first count held in 1900, especially in the distribution of individual counts. Even that first year, though most of the 25 were in the northeast, there were counts in California—so much for the snow part of the stereotype—and Canada.

The publication American Birds, analyzing last year’s count, shows nearly 2000 counts were held across North America and new ones are showing up further south.

Amazilia Hummingbird

The Amazilia Hummingbird could show up on Christmas Bird Counts in Peru and Ecuador. Courtesy WIkipedia.

Counts in Brazil, Chili, Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Peru as well as Bahamas, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands help us discover more about where “our” summer birds migrate to for the winter.

We also still have a lot to learn about species that don’t migrate.

What began as a replacement for the Christmas “side hunt,” a traditional competition to see who could kill the greatest number of birds and small mammals, has become an increasingly valuable tool for monitoring bird populations, even though it is conducted by non-scientists, or citizen scientists, as we are called by the National Audubon Society, sponsor of the Christmas Bird Count.

A panel of scientists has concluded that the count data is scientifically useful. Though they would like to see the protocol be more standardized, for instance, observers of equal ability putting in equivalent effort on equal length routes by the same means of transportation on the same day each year within 15-mile-diameter count circles that are representative of local habitat, they sensibly realized that we birders are too tied to tradition to go for that. Plus, the new data wouldn’t have any statistical relation to the previous hundred years’ worth collected in its own haphazardly consistent way.

So, scientists will adjust our results with statistics to give them important information on population trends and movements. The panel recommends more research results be posted on the official Web site.

Now, about that perception that people taking part in a Christmas Bird Count are somewhat eccentric, a government survey showed bird watching is one of the most popular outdoor pursuits. No longer only the domain of scholarly gentlemen and little old ladies in tennis shoes (I admit, I have a gray hair), birding is an easy way for those of us no longer making a living on the land to connect with the outdoors.

The great thing about birds is they are everywhere year round. However, comparing last year’s results, all locations are not equal. The Chesterfield Inlet count in Nunavet, northwestern Canada, recorded only two species, compared to 231 species in Corpus Christi, Texas. And then there was an Ecuadorian count with 423 species.

There will always be a few eccentrics such as Kelly McKay of Hampton, Ill., determined last year to participate in one count during each day of the CBC season, December 14 through January 5. The problem is most counts are scheduled for weekends, when birders are available. So he had to drive 7100 miles and slept only a total of 32 hours. What a highway menace.

There are some things about the count here that don’t change. We still start early, when the birds are most active. We still wear warm clothes, and we still warm up in the evening at the tally party where we share anecdotes and totals.

You are welcome to take part in the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count, scheduled January 1.

There are three ways to participate. The most fun is to meet with Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society members in the lobby of the downtown Post Office, 22nd and Capitol, at 7:30 a.m. There you can join a group that is headed for one of the local hotspots and you can stay with them as long as you can stay warm. Even if you aren’t a birding whiz, extra eyes are always helpful.

If you want to bird on your own within the 7.5-mile radius count circle based on the Capitol Building, contact compiler Greg Johnson, 634-1056, gjohnson@west-inc.com, for maps, data sheets and instructions.

Counting birds at feeders is also important. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to drive or walk around town, observing your own feeder as little as a few minutes may be the perfect way to participate.

You can call or e-mail results to Greg, but it’s more fun to come to the tally party potluck.

If you won’t be in Cheyenne on Jan. 1, go to www.audubon.org/cbc for the date and location of other counts, as well as past years’ results.

The Christmas Bird Count is a fun way for the appreciative person to make a scientific contribution to understanding the natural world, that world on which human health and well-being is dependent.

Whether wearing wooly scarves or not, we birders get a start on personal well-being resolutions when we get up and out of the house to follow in the footsteps of those first counters.