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/.

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