BirdCast

BirdCast improves birding—and bird safety

By Barb Gorges

            Last year, the folks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology improved and enhanced BirdCast, http://birdcast.info/. You can now get a three-night forecast of bird migration movement for the continental U.S. This not only helps avid birders figure out where to see lots of birds but helps operators of wind turbines know when to shut down and managers of tall buildings and structures when to shut the lights off (birds are attracted to lights and collide), resulting in the fewest bird deaths.

            The forecasts are built on 23 years of data that relates weather trends and other factors to migration timing.

            Songbird migration is predominately at night. Ornithologists discovered that radar, used to detect aircraft during World War II and then adapted for tracking weather events in the 1950s, was also detecting clouds of migrating birds.

            There is a network of 143 radar stations across the country, including the one by the Cheyenne airport. You can explore the data archive online and download maps for free.

            CLO’s Adriaan Doktor sent me an animation of the data collected from the Cheyenne station for May 7, 2018, one of last spring’s largest local waves of migration. He is one of the authors of a paper, “Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna,” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4, based on radar information.

            At the BirdCast website, you can pull up the animation for the night of May 6-7 and see where the migrating birds were thickest across the country. The brightest white clouds indicate a density of as many as 50,000 birds per kilometer per hour—that’s a rate of 80,500 birds passing over a mile-long line per hour. Our flight was not that bright, maybe 16,000 birds crossing a mile-long line per hour. A strong flight often translates into a lot of birds coming to earth in the morning—very good birdwatching conditions. Although if flying conditions are excellent, some birds fly on.

            I also looked at the night of May 18-19, 2018, the night before last year’s Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count—hardly any activity. The weather was so nasty that Saturday, our bird compiler rescheduled for Sunday, which was not a big improvement. We saw only 113 species.

            Twenty-five years ago, the third Saturday of May could yield 130 to 150 species. Part of the difference is the greater number of expert Audubon birders who helped count back then. Birding expertise seems to go in generational waves.

            But we also know that songbird numbers are down. I read in Scott Weidensaul’s book, “Living on the Wind,” published in 1999, about Sidney Gauthreaux’s 1989 talk at a symposium on neotropical migrants. He used radar records to show that the frequency of spring migrant waves across the Gulf of Mexico was down by 50 percent over 30 years. Radar can’t count individual birds or identify species, but we know destruction or degradation of breeding and wintering habitat has continued as people develop rural areas.

            But I also wonder if, along with plants blooming earlier due to climate change, the peak of spring migration is earlier. A paper by scientists from the University of Helsinki, due to be published in June in the journal Ecological Indicators, shows that 195 species of birds in Europe and Canada are migrating on average a week earlier than 50 years ago, due to climate change.

            Would we have been better off holding last year’s Big Day on either of the previous two Saturdays? I looked at the radar animations for the preceding nights in 2018, and yes, there was a lot more migration activity in our area than on the night before the 19th. Both dates also had better weather.

           As much fun as our Big Day is—a large group of birders of all skill levels combing the Cheyenne area for birds from dawn to dusk (and even in the dark)—and as much effort as is put into it, there has never been a guarantee the Saturday we pick will be the height of spring migration.

           The good news is that in addition to our Big Day, we have half a dozen diehard local birders out nearly every day from the end of April to the end of May adding spring migration information to the eBird.org database. It’s a kind of addiction, rather like fishing, wondering what you’ll see if you cast your eyes up into the trees and out across the prairie.   I recommend that you explore BirdCast.info (and eBird.org) and sign up to join Cheyenne Audubon members for all or part of this year’s Big Day on May 18. See the chapter’s website and/or sign up for the free e-newsletter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/newsletters/.

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Wind farm on the Belvoir Ranch

Be careful what you wish for: wind development on the Belvoir Ranch has its downsides

The prairie is green June 11, 2016, on Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch, 10 miles west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This edition of Bird Banter was published Feb. 10, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

            This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Bird Banter column for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. I wrote about cool birds seen on the ponds at the Rawhide coal-powered plant 20 miles south of Cheyenne, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/birding-the-colorado-coast/.

            This month’s topic is also connected to Rawhide. It’s NextEra’s 120-turbine Roundhouse Wind Energy Center slated partly for the City of Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch.

           Roundhouse will stretch between I-80 south to the Wyoming border and from a couple miles west of I-25 on west 12 miles to Harriman Road. The Belvoir is within. It’s roughly a two-to-three-mile-wide frame on the north and west sides. All the power will go to Rawhide and tie into Front Range utilities.

            The 2008 Belvoir masterplan designated an area for wind turbines. In the last 10 years I’ve learned about wind energy drawbacks. I wish the coal industry had spent millions developing clean air technology instead of fighting clean air regulations.

            We know modern wind turbines are tough on birds. Duke Energy has a robotic system that shuts down turbines when raptors approach (https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/eagle-safety-collaboration/). Roundhouse needs one—a raptor migration corridor exists along the north-south escarpment along its west edge.

            But in Kenn Kaufman’s new book, “A Season on the Wind,” he discovers that a windfarm far from known migration hot spots still killed at least 40 species of birds. Directly south of the Belvoir, 125 bird species have been documented through eBird at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and 95 at Red Mountain Open Space. Both are in Colorado, butting against the state line.

           Only a few miles to the east, Cheyenne hotpots vary from 198 species at Lions Park to 266 at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, with as many as 150 species overall observed on single days in May. With little public access to the Belvoir since the city bought it in 2003 (I’ve been there on two tours and the 2016 Bioblitz), only NextEra has significant bird data, from its consultants.

            There are migrating bats to consider, plus mule deer who won’t stomach areas close to turbines—even if it is their favorite mountain mahogany habitat on the ridges. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department can only suggest mitigation and monitoring measures.

            There are human safety and liability issues. The Friends of the Belvoir wants a trailhead on the west edge with trails connecting to Red Mountain and Soapstone. Wind turbines don’t bother them. However, during certain atmospheric conditions, large sheets of ice fly off the blades–“ice throw.” Our area, the hail capital, could have those conditions develop nearly any month of the year.

            The noise will impact neighbors (and wildlife too) when turbines a mile away interfere with sleep. Disrupted sleep is implicated in many diseases.

            Low frequency pulses felt six miles away (the distance between the east end of the windfarm and city limits) or more cause dizziness, tinnitus, heart palpitations and pressure sensations in the head and chest. The Belvoir will have bigger turbines than those on Happy Jack Road, reaching 499 feet high, 99 feet higher.

            A minor issue is the viewshed. In Colorado, the public and officials worked to place the transmission line from the Belvoir to Rawhide so that it wouldn’t impact Soapstone or Red Mountain. What will they think watching Roundhouse blades on the horizon?

            Because this wind development is not on federal land, it isn’t going through the familiar Environmental Impact Statement process. I’d assume the city has turbine placement control written into the lease.

           The first opportunity for the public to comment at the county level is Feb. 19. And in advance, the public can request to “be a party” when the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council meets to consider NextEra’s permit in March.

            NextEra held an open house in Cheyenne November 28. They expect to get their permits and then break ground almost immediately. This speedy schedule is so the windfarm is operational by December 2020, before federal tax incentives end.

            It doesn’t seem to me that we—Cheyenne residents—have adequate time to consider the drawbacks of new era wind turbines—for people or wildlife. Look at the 2008 Master Plan, http://belvoirranch.org.  Is it upheld by spreading wind turbines over the entire 20,000 acres, more than originally planned? People possibly, and wildlife certainly, will be experiencing low frequency noise for 30 years.

            At the very least, I’d like to see NextEra move turbines back from the western boundary two miles, for the good of raptors, other birds, mule deer, trail users, and the neighbors living near Harriman Road. The two southernmost sections are already protected with The Nature Conservancy’s conservation easement.            

           What I’d really like to see instead is more solar development on rooftops and over parking lots in Cheyenne. Or a new style of Wyoming snow fence that turns wind into energy while protecting highways.

Bioblitz participants look and listen for birds along Lone Tree Creek on the Belvoir Ranch June 11, 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Year of the Bird celebrates Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Painted Bunting.

This Painted Bunting was Jack Rogers’ Audubon Photography Awards entry in 2015. Photo courtesy National Audubon Society.

Year of the Bird celebrates 100th anniversary of Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Barb Gorges

This is the Year of the Bird. It’s been declared by four august organizations: the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International. A hundred other organizations have joined them.

My husband Mark and I have been members for years of the first three, and I’m on the email list for the fourth so I’ve heard the message four times since the first of the year.

The Year of the Bird celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects birds. Read the act at https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php (remember “take” is a euphemism for “kill”).

The Year of the Bird is also about advocating for birds. Today you can go to the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird/, and sign the Year of the Bird pledge. You’ll receive monthly instructions for simple actions you can take on behalf of birds. The official Year of the Bird website, www.birdyourworld.org, will take you to the National Geographic page, and the other sponsors’ websites will get you there as well.

You may not be aware of National Geographic’s bird credentials. When the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America came out in the 1980s, it was a must-have sensation. You can find the latest edition at local bookstores and online.

The National Audubon Society, http://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird, is your portal to these articles so far: How Birds Bind Us, The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The United States of Birding and Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report. My favorite–Why Do Birds Matter? – quotes dozens of well-known authors and ornithologists.

BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/flyway, offers ways to think about birds. When you see your next robin, think about where it’s been, what it’s flown over. Think about the people in other countries who may have seen the bird too. Think about the work being done to protect its migratory flyways.

On the other hand, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology begins the year addressing bird appreciation. At one of their websites, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/6-resolutions-to-help-you-birdyourworld-in-2018/, Hugh Powell recommends getting a decent pair of affordable binoculars after reading this guide on how to shop for them, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/six-steps-to-choosing-a-pair-of-binoculars-youll-love/.

Powell also recommends CLO’s free Merlin Bird ID app to get to know your local birds better (or see http://www.AllAboutBirds.org). Then you can keep daily bird lists through CLO’s free eBird program, including photos and sound recordings.

While you watch birds from your kitchen window, drink bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee. There’s an in-depth article at https://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Or play CLO’s new Bird Song Hero game to help you learn how to match what you hear with the visual spectrograph, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org.

Finally, Powell suggests “pay it forward”—take someone birding and join a bird club or Audubon chapter (locally, I’d recommend my chapter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/).

Here in Wyoming our lone U.S. Representative, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, has attempted to take the teeth out of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with H.R. 4239. She thinks protecting birds should not come at the expense of business.

Earlier threats to birds caused conservationist Aldo Leopold to write in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanack, “We face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

I would say that people who appreciate birds are not a minority. And many of us agree with biologist and biodiversity definer Thomas Lovejoy, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”

If it is too cold for you to appreciate the birds while outside, check out National Geographic’s January issue with photos by Joel Sartore. More of his bird photos for National Geographic’s Photo Ark project, studio portraits of the world’s animals, will be in a book coming out this spring written by Noah Strycker, “Birds of the Photo Ark.” Strycker will be speaking in Cheyenne May 14.

Now go to www.BirdYourWorld.org and take the pledge and find out each month what simple action you can take on behalf of birds.

Addendum: Because the paragraph about Liz Cheney was omitted from the column when it was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, I submitted a letter to the editor that was published four days later:

Migratory Bird Treaty Act under attack

Dear Editor,

2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The U.S., along with co-signers Mexico, Canada, Japan and Russia, agree to protect birds that cross our borders and theirs.

A hundred years ago there was a battle between conservationists and industrialists and the birds won. Industry is now held accountable for “incidental take” – birds killed unintentionally during the course of business. That has included birds hooked by long-line ocean fishing, birds attracted to oily evaporation ponds in oil and gas fields and birds hit by wind turbines.

These kinds of hazards can add up and make a population-threatening dent. Instead, the MBTA has forced industries to pay fines or come up with ingenious solutions that save a lot of birds.

However, Wyoming’s Congresswoman Liz Cheney is backing U.S. House Resolution 4239 which would remove the requirement to take responsibility for incidental take. Here we are, 100 years later, fighting the battle again.

If you would like to speak up for the birds, please call Cheney’s office, 202-225-2311. The polite person who answers the phone only wants to know your name, address and your opinion, so they know which column to check, anti-bird, or pro-bird and the MBTA.

Barb Gorges

Cheyenne

Book review: “Mountains and Plains,” by Dennis Knight

"Mountains and Plains" cover

“Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes,” by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners and William H. Romme.

Published April 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Opinion page, “A must-read for all.”

Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes, second edition, by Dennis H. Knight, George P. Jones, William A. Reiners, William H. Romme, c. 2014, Yale University. Published by Yale University Press with assistance from the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. Softcover, 404 pages, $45.

By Barb Gorges

Blame the pine beetles for decimating pages of the first edition of Dennis Knight’s book, “Mountains and Plains, The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes.”

Blame the wolves, sage-grouse and climate change and all of the other changes and new information since the book was published in 1994.

They caused Mr. Knight, University of Wyoming professor emeritus of the botany department, to give up four years of his retirement to write the second edition, published at the end of 2014.

He had help this time from three colleagues, George Jones, associate director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at UW (where the book’s royalties are going); William Reiners, professor emeritus, UW; and William Romme, professor emeritus, Colorado State University, an expert on Yellowstone’s ecology.

Despite its academic authors, “Mountains and Plains” is not intended as a textbook, though this book should be required reading for everyone graduating from UW, just as is the course in the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions.

“The book was written for non-scientists who are interested in Wyoming’s environment, natural resources, and some of the controversial land management issues that decision makers are facing at the present time,” Mr. Knight said.

“My co-authors and I tried to provide an easy-to-read synthesis of peer-reviewed ecological research for people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the journals themselves.

“We hope the book is useful for those who enjoy spending time outdoors as well as teachers, students, and private, state, and federal land managers.”

How readable is this book? A background in the natural sciences is helpful.

But that can be overcome with familiarity with any of Wyoming’s landscapes, forest, grassland, sagebrush, sand dunes, alpine, meadows, wetlands, or the landscapes like Yellowstone, the Black Hills or the Laramie Basin described in special chapters.

Any curiosity about Wyoming’s landscapes will make this book a real page-turner, even if you don’t know what occasional words like “herbivory” mean. Check the Internet.

My recommendation is to flip through, enjoying the new, full-color photography until you find a compelling subheading, maybe “Aspen Forest,” on page 196.

Find out where aspen trees grow and why. Find out why they spread by sprouting from roots rather than growing from seed. Did you know aspen bark has chlorophyll and can photosynthesize?

But the ecologist, and that is what Mr. Knight is—as well as a botanist—asks what happens to aspens after a fire. What causes different results in different locations?

What triggered SAD, sudden aspen decline, beginning in 2000? What are the implications for us and other animals and other plants? What techniques have land managers tried to maintain current aspen abundance?

If some of the book’s statements seem hard to believe, look for the superscript number indicating the footnote at the back of the book that cites a study.

But studies in journals aren’t always easily available, so you can ask your question at the book’s website, www.mountainsandplains.net.

Rather than wait another 20 years for the third edition, the website started updating the book’s content in December. New studies are producing new information, but also, when the climate changes, and the way people interact with the landscape changes, ecologists must keep up.

I would add our state legislators to Mr. Knight’s list of recommended readers. This is especially so for the ones who will be on the committee studying how the state can wrest control of federally owned lands in the state—despite being an unpopular idea with 70 percent of Wyoming citizens–and the other federal land owners, the U.S. citizens living in the other 49 states who might also enjoy this book.

Mr. Knight’s epilogue sums up the whole idea of the book: that society needs to heed what ecologists know:

“Humans have been a presence in this part of the biosphere for a short time—most of the plants and animals existed a million years or more before Homo sapiens arrived—and we are still learning how to make a living from rugged western landscapes.

“As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1938, “the oldest task in human history (is) to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Learning to live gently and sustainably, to be good stewards, requires an understanding of both human nature and the nature of ecosystems.”

Barb Gorges writes the monthly bird and garden columns for the WTE. “Mountains and Plains” is available at the Wyoming State Museum store, the UW bookstore and from major online booksellers.

Can birds save the world?

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Audubon climate change study shows that by 2080, Black-billed Magpies, a common species in Wyoming, would lose 86 percent of its summer range and 51 percent of its winter range, if predictions prove true. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 26, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Can birds save the world?”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the National Audubon Society publicized the result of a seven-year study to determine what would happen to North American birds if the change in climate continues as predicted.

The startling conclusion is that by 2080, nearly half our bird species, 314 (588 were studied), would have a hard time finding the food and habitat they need. They probably would not adapt, since evolution normally needs more than 65 years. So they could become extinct.

“OK,” some people say, “big deal, I’ve never seen more than three kinds of birds anyway.”

That attitude was prevalent in the 1960s when eagles began producing eggs with shells so thin, the weight of the incubating parent crushed them.

“So what?” people said back then, especially if eagles made them and their lambs nervous.

The culprit was discovered to be DDT. And it was discovered to do nasty things to people as well. So you might say that birds saved the world from DDT (except it continues to be produced to control malaria).

Last month, the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was keynote speaker at the banquet: “How Birds Can Save the World.”

Fitzpatrick’s premise is that birds are so many species of canaries in the coal mine. Or, to localize the analogy, so many sage-grouse in the oil patch. We should pay attention to what they are trying to tell us, before we hurt ourselves.

The Audubon report makes predictions based on two long-term, continent-wide citizen science efforts: the Christmas Bird Count (begun in 1900) and the Breeding Bird Survey (begun in 1966).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology itself is well-known for citizen science projects such as Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count. But the one that has mushroomed into a global phenomenon is eBird (www.eBird.org).

People who enjoy birdwatching have learned over the last 10 years to put just a little extra effort into it by counting birds they see and entering their notes online. Scientists can now see where bird species go and when, as if they have radar running year round. The more people enter observations, the clearer the picture emerges. And population changes are clearer, too.

When bird numbers change, or populations move, it’s due to one or more changes in the species’ environment. Some can be directly attributed to people, such as building a subdivision over a burrowing owl colony, and some indirectly, like climate change causing nectar-producing flowers to bloom too early for migrating hummingbirds.

Back in the 1970s, saving the environment always seemed to mean doing without, like hippies living off the grid. To some extent, curbing our desire for items built with planned obsolescence, like the latest smartphone, would preserve a little more landscape.

But Fitzpatrick’s contention is that we can live smarter, rather than poorer, have our cake and eat it too, have our lifestyle and our birds.

We need creative people. For instance, I read 400,000 acres of California cropland is barren for lack of water this year. Yet power companies are stripping vegetation in the Mohave Desert to build arrays of solar panels. What if farmers rented out those barren fields for temporary solar installations?

There’s work being done on solar paving. Imagine a sunny city like Los Angeles being able to power itself from all its lesser used streets, rather than depending on the transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles.

What if we put as much effort as we put into getting man on the moon into finding ways for every part of the country to produce energy in a way that keeps birds happy and us healthy?

I’m not an engineer, and probably neither are you. There is a shortage of them in this country. How can we raise more engineers and research scientists?

Take kids birdwatching. No, this isn’t exactly one of Fitzpatrick’s fixes. It’s mine.

What are your kids doing on Saturday mornings? Watching cartoons and competing in athletics are all well and good. But what birdwatching does for children, and the rest of us, is to make us ask questions about the birds and their behaviors, to research, to communicate with others, and now, to search the eBird database.

When children develop these habits of curiosity through birds–or other disciplines–they begin to see themselves in the sciences, in engineering, in technology, in all those “hard” subjects. And we will have the creative minds we need.

Our local Audubon chapter, now age 40, will continue with its traditional field trips (open to accompanied children and recorded for eBird, of course), educational meetings and projects, habitat improvements, and conservation advocacy. But watch for those special opportunities to introduce your children, grandchildren or neighbor children to birds. Because birds can save the world.

Book Review: “Arctic Autumn” by Pete Dunne

Arctic Autumn

“Arctic Autumn” by Pete Dunne

Published January 2012, in The Flyer, newsletter of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, “Book Review: Third volume of this seasonal quartet is chilly and chilling.”

2014 Update: With the first three seasonal books published, we hope to see what Pete has up his sleeve for winter.

By Barb Gorges

Arctic Autumn, a Journey to Season’s Edge, by Pete Dunne, photos by Linda Dunne, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 258 pages, $24.

“Arctic Autumn” is the third volume in Pete Dunne’s seasonal quartet, so far including “Prairie Spring” and “Bayshore Summer.”

No simple drive through places known for autumn color for Pete. Instead, he has picked the Arctic: Alaska and northern Canada, where life responds as early as the summer solstice to shortening day length, which is where his book begins because by the fall equinox, an Inuit guide told Dunne, “All birds gone in September.”

As good naturalists can’t help but do, Pete and his wife Linda, who provides the photos, show how the tundra ecosystem operates and how life adapts, including the native humans, the Inuits.

But these days one can’t travel the Arctic without noticing that climate change, that 13-letter dirty word, is making inroads.

On a polar bear photography tour out of Churchill, Manitoba, that uses a structure on treads to move across the polar ice, Dunne reflects on the disappearance of that ice which will leave the bears on shore, without the sea ice they need to fish for seals. He attempts to explain to a bear peering at him from below, how these changes might fit into the larger time frame.

Read this book for the well-written overview of the Arctic ecosystem, as well as the poetic prose from a man who delights in the details.

As you read, keep in mind our winter birds in Cheyenne, some of which, like the American tree sparrow, come to us from the tundra.

FOY, First of Year birds, tell us about climate change

Indigo Bunting

The Indigo Bunting is one of my favorite birds that visits my Cheyenne, Wyoming, backyard nearly every spring, although it is considered an eastern species. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 5, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Early birds yield clues: First birds of the season can tell us about climate change.”

2014 Update: eBird is the best place to post your bird observations to help scientists see developing patterns and the big picture.

By Barb Gorges

The great joy of springtime, if you are a birdwatcher of any sort, is seeing your first robin, first bluebird or first mourning dove of the year.

There is sometimes a friendly bit of competition where serious birders gather– to see who is first to report their “FOYs,” first of the year observations, especially of more obscure migratory species, say “Greater Yellowlegs,” a long-legged shorebird.

Those of us in southeastern Wyoming have the advantage over the birders in the rest of the state posting on the Wyobirds e-list as many spring migrants often funnel up against Colorado’s Front Range and across Cheyenne before spreading out over the rest of Wyoming.

At eBird.org, where ordinary folks file their bird observations for free, for their own record-keeping and for use by scientists, FOY data is constantly updated and can be found in the Explore Data section under “Arrivals and Departures.”

A check of the Wyoming statistics shows that Del Nelson got the jump on all of us this year by birding January 1 near Crowheart, Wyo., and reporting 28 species—mostly birds we expect to see mid-winter.

However, Del’s list included a single western meadowlark. On occasion, individuals of migratory species like that miss the bus south in the fall and sometimes find a perfect pocket of habitat that allows them to survive the winter. Insectivorous birds like meadowlarks usually prefer live insects, not the foods of wintering birds: frozen bugs picked out by flickers, seeds preferred by finches, or warm-blooded creatures preyed on by hawks.

A few days later, Del reported a mountain bluebird, another bird uncommon in winter, which I always thought of as a sign of impending spring. Even robins aren’t reliable—one was listed for Wyoming Jan. 2.

Studying the “Birds of Wyoming” compendium by Doug Faulkner, I found that many migratory bird species often have a few individuals observed in Wyoming during Faulkner’s designated winter months of December through February. If you don’t count those species, the first true spring migrant (no over-wintering records so far), the 97th species listed by eBird for 2013 in Wyoming, is the group of sandhill cranes seen Feb. 12 in Riverton—by Del Nelson, the birder who must be spending more time afield than anyone else in the state.

Here in Laramie County, our signs of spring, our FOYs, were observed more seasonally: Killdeer – Mar. 5, robin – Mar. 6, mountain bluebird – Mar. 7, meadowlark – Mar. 16, turkey vulture – Mar. 29, mourning dove – Mar. 30, and two species not known to ever winter in Wyoming (so far), American avocet and Swainson’s hawk – Apr. 7.

Granted, in a state like Wyoming with a sparse population of birdwatchers, it is quite possible the first flock of anything to flit over the county line goes unnoticed. Sometimes we are hiding at home during snowstorms.

Brian Kimberling, a columnist writing for the New York Times, recently posed the idea that FOYs might help us track climate change the way tracking plants has. There is a website, www.BudBurst.org, asking citizen scientists (you and me) to track when particular perennial species bloom. Changes are already noticeable when historic records of eccentric gardeners and naturalists are examined, showing blooming times advancing as much as a week over a few decades.

I’m not sure the migrations of birds are as useful as the bloom times of plants. After all, plants sit in one place and accumulate degrees of heat necessary to bloom, while birds will push the envelope in their quest for food, sometimes losing their gamble when, after a pleasant spring weather spell, disaster hits. Many dead birds were reported after our April 15-17 snowstorm.

The opposite of FOY, what I think of as LOS, “Last of the Season,” might be more accurate a measure. Sometime in April, just when I think I’ve seen the last of the juncos until fall, another bout of cold blows in and they reappear briefly, pushed back into town from their summer homes in nearby mountains.

But there are whole groups of birds, mostly the insectivorous species, which have never been reported in winter in Wyoming: hummingbirds, vireos, most of the shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows, swifts, terns, dickcissels, bobolinks, and most warbler species.

When those birds begin to show up earlier and earlier, establishing a trend over the years, it will be one way we’ll know that global climate trends apply to us, too, right here in the Magic City.