Migration hazards & bonanzas

Fall migration: some birds hit hazards and others find feeding bonanzas

Goshen Hole Reservoir had large expanses of mudflats attracting migrating shorebirds in mid-September. Photo by Barb Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            Mark and I were camping in the Cascades with our granddaughter and her parents, watching American dippers fly up and down the Sauk River when the unseasonably early snowstorm hit Cheyenne September 8-9.

            The first rumor we heard about a bird migration catastrophe was from my sister and brother-in-law in Albuquerque who mentioned a lot of dead birds had been found in New Mexico after that same storm.

            Albuquerque dropped from a record high of 96 degrees for the date to a record low of 40 with high winds. Up on Sandia Crest overlooking the city there was snow. Dead bird reports started coming in including 300 carcasses at White Sands Missile Range and more in other parts of the region.

            Within a week, the major bird conservation organizations and the national media were writing about it. The best account is at the American Birding Association website, written by Jenna McCullough, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, https://www.aba.org/the-data-behind-mysterious-bird-deaths-in-new-mexico/.

            But there were also anecdotal reports of dead migratory birds in the west back in August, the possible culprit being the wildfires. Apparently, when smoke fills the air, the migratory birds leave, even if it is prematurely, so they may not have eaten enough to store enough fat for the journey.

Perhaps the birds can’t find the food they need along the way because the smoke is obscuring it. And breathing smoke weakens them. Mark and I had a taste of that on our drive back across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah. Cheyenne had even thicker smoke Sept. 26 when it was engulfed in the orange plume from the Mullen fire.

            Not all birds migrate. The non-migratory birds know their territory’s food sources well and are less likely to starve during rough times. However, many of the species that migrate are insect eaters, insectivores. They migrate south as far as Central and South America when it is too cold up north for insects.

There are birds that specialize in finding hibernating insects and their eggs in tree bark, like the brown creeper in winter in Cheyenne. But warblers and flycatchers want more lively insects, and swallows require flying insects.

No insects fly for a while after a freezing event. Even if the birds had stored fat for the journey, they would burn a lot trying to keep warm. Swallows are known to huddle together, and Jenna found crevices in the bank along the Rio Grande stuffed with emaciated, dead swallows.

What radar tells us

            Weather radar stations around the country can pick up the movements of migratory birds. At Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the BirdCast team, https://birdcast.info/, besides forecasting migratory activity, processes the data to show the amount and direction of migration over time in active maps.

            The night of September 8-9, you can see a hole in migratory activity centered on New Mexico, Colorado, and western Texas, Kansas and Nebraska—no bird movement. And none in much of Wyoming, but apparently no one reported high numbers of dead birds here.

            Conversely, on Sept. 21 as I walked the dog along the Henderson ditch in the morning, the vegetation was alive with small birds busily hunting. I checked BirdCast and sure enough, overnight there had been a major migration push from eastern Montana down through Cheyenne and down all along the Colorado Front Range, as well as in the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast. The night flyers had landed and were having breakfast.

Drought delight

            One upside to the drought is the drawdown of reservoirs. When reservoirs are full, there are few migrating shorebirds stopping to feed. We went up to Bump Sullivan mid-September and it was a cornucopia: Mudflats full of feeding birds stretched a hundred yards between shore and water.

We saw sandpipers: Baird’s, least, pectoral, and spotted, and long-billed dowitchers plus great blue herons and sandhill cranes probing for invertebrates with their bills. On the water, hundreds of American white pelicans were feeding in long strings, shoulder to shoulder.

            On Sept. 21 I also heard my first dark-eyed juncos in our neighborhood. While insectivorous birds abandon us for the winter, the seed-eating juncos join us. They aren’t quite ready to be bird feeder regulars yet—plenty of seed in the wild for now—but they haven’t forgotten how to find us. It would be interesting to do a banding study and find out which mountain ranges our juncos nest in.      


Basic wild bird feeding

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

This Dark-eyed Junco checked out the garden before going for the birdfeeder. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Basic wild bird feeding increases avian appreciation

Also published at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/bird-banter-basic-wild-bird-feeding-increases-avian-appreciation

By Barb Gorges

Your backyard may look empty after the leaves fall, but you can fill it with birds by offering them shelter, water and food.

There is some debate on whether feeding wild birds is good for them. But in moderation—the birds find natural food as well—I think it is a great way to increase appreciation for birds.

A bird feeder is no substitute for providing trees and bushes for birds to perch on or take shelter from weather and predators. Birds can also pick the seeds and fruits—or pick dormant insects out of the bark. Provide evergreen as well as deciduous trees and shrubs plus native perennial wildflowers.

Water is nice to have out. The birds appreciate drinking it and bathing in it. But if you can’t scrub out the gunk regularly, it’s better not to bother with it. In winter you’ll want to skip concrete and ceramic baths in favor of plastic since freezing water might break them. The best winter bird bath we ever had was the lid of a heavy plastic trash can—we could pop the ice out.

Feeding seed-eating birds—house finch, goldfinch, junco, pine siskin—is as easy as scattering seed on the ground. But here are tips to benefit you and the birds more.

  1. Black oil sunflower seed is the one best bird seed for our area. Seed mixes usually have a lot of seed our birds won’t eat and then you must sweep it up before it gets moldy.
  2. Put out only as much seed as you can afford each day (and can clean up after). If it lasts your local flock only an hour, be sure to put the seed out at a time of day you can enjoy watching the birds. They’ll learn your schedule.
  3. Tube-type feeders and hopper feeders keep seed mostly dry. Clean them regularly so they don’t get moldy. Consider hanging them over concrete to make it easier to clean up the seed hulls.
  4. If you don’t like sweeping up sunflower seed hulls or are concerned that the hulls will kill your lawn, consider paying more for hulled sunflower seeds.
  5. Spilled seed under the feeder attracts the ground feeders, like juncos, those little gray birds. They like elevated platform feeders too.
  6. If you have loose cats in your neighborhood, consider outlining the spilled-seed area under your feeder with 2-foot-tall wire fencing all the way around. It’s enough of an obstacle to make approaching cats jump so the birds will notice the break in their stealthy approach.
  7. Put your feeder close to the window you will watch from. It’s more fun for you, and the birds are less likely to hit the window hard as they come and go. They get used to activity on your side of the glass.
  8. 2015-12goldfinchlessergoldfinch-by-barb-gorges1

    American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch enjoy a tube-type feeder full of nyjer thistle seed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

    Once you have the regulars showing up, probably the house finches—striped brown and the males have red heads—and house sparrows—pale gray breasts, chestnut-brown backs, consider putting up a special feeder for the nyjer thistle seed that goldfinches and pine siskins love so much.

  9. Seed cakes are popular with chickadees and nuthatches. They require a little cage apparatus to hold them.
  10. Suet-type cakes are popular with downy woodpeckers and flickers.
  11. Squirrels like bird seed too. You can add a cone-shaped deterrent above or below a feeder so they can’t get to it. Or ask your dog to chase the squirrels. If you get more than a couple squirrels, quit feeding birds for a week or so and see if the squirrels won’t move somewhere else. The birds will come back.
  12. A sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s hawk may be attracted to your feeder, though they are coming by for a finch or sparrow snack instead of seed. This means that you have successfully attracted animals from the next trophic level and contributed to the web of life.
  13. Take pictures. Look up the birds and learn more about them through websites like www.allaboutbirds.org.
  14. Take part in citizen science programs like www.eBird.org and Project FeederWatch. Check my Bird Banter archives for more information, www.CheyenneBirdBanter.wordpress.com.

Explore and enjoy Project FeederWatch

BobVuxinic-Project FeederWatch

A Dark-eyed Junco enjoys seed at a platform feeder. Because it shows no rust or “pink” coloration, no white wingbar and no pale head, it is the slate-colored subspecies. Photo by Bob Vuxinic/Project FeederWatch.

By Barb Gorges

Despite snow on the ground and pea soup fog at South Gap Lake in the Snowy Range (11,120 feet elevation), on Sept. 27 I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos. They like snow. Usually I see the first ones down in my yard mid-October, when alpine winter conditions get too rough.

Juncos are those little gray birds that come in five subspecies and multiple hybrid colorations in Cheyenne, but they all have white outer tail feathers. They are my sign of the start of the winter bird feeding season–and the Project FeederWatch bird counting season.

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science opportunity for people with bird feeders to count the birds they attract as often as once a week (or less) between November and early April. Begun in Canada in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1987, more than 20,000 people participated last year. Data are used in scientific studies, many of which are summarized on the project’s website.

Participation costs $18. You receive a research kit, bird identification poster, the digital version of Living Bird magazine and the year-end report.

If you feed wild birds or are considering it, you must visit the Project FeederWatch site, https://feederwatch.org/, whether you register for the program or not. It is now beautifully designed and packed with information.

For instance, in the “Learn” section, I can find out juncos prefer black-oil sunflower seeds–and seven other kinds. I personally stick with black-oil because it’s popular with many species in Cheyenne. I also learned juncos prefer hopper-style feeders, platform feeders or feeding on the ground.

Seventy-one species are listed as potential feeder birds in the Northwest region, which stretches from British Columbia to Wyoming. However, about 15 of those species have yet to be seen in Cheyenne, so click on the “All About Birds” link to check a species’ actual range.

The Project FeederWatch website addresses every question I can think of regarding wild bird feeding:

–Grit and water provision

–Feeder cleaning

–Predator avoidance

–Squirrel exclusion

–Window strike reduction

–Sick birds

–Tricky identification, like hairy vs downy woodpecker.

In the “Community” section you’ll find the results of last season’s photo contest, participants’ other photos, featured participants, tips, FAQs, the blog, and the FeederWatch cam.

I find the “Explore” section fascinating. This is where you can investigate the data yourself. The “Map Room” shows where juncos like to winter best.

Based on last season’s data, in the far north region of Canada, juncos were number 12 in abundance at feeders. In the southeastern U.S., they were number 13. However, in the southwest, which has a lot of cold high elevations, they were number two, as they were in the northeast region, and number three in the central region, the northern Great Plains. Here in the northwest region, they were number one. We have perfect junco winter conditions, not too cold, not too warm.

However, looking at the top 25 species for Wyoming in the same 2016-2017 season (based on percent of sites visited and the average flock size), juncos came in fifth, after house sparrow, house finch, goldfinch and black-capped chickadee. Other years, especially between the seasons beginning in 2007 and 2013, they have been number one.

I looked at my own Project FeederWatch data to see if I could spot any dark-eyed junco trends.

I get in 18-20 weekly counts per year. In the past 18 years, there were three when the juncos missed none or only one of the weeks, in 2001, 2005 and 2008. Those seasons also happened to be the largest average flock sizes, 8.65 to 9.72 birds per flock.

Later, there were three seasons in which juncos came up missing six or seven weeks, 2011, 2013 and 2016. Two of those were the seasons of the smallest average flock sizes, 1.6 to 2.5 birds per flock.

It appears my local junco population was in a downward trend between 2008 and 2016. Let’s hope it’s a cycle. Or maybe our yard’s habitat has changed or there are more hawks or cats scaring the juncos away. Or some weeks it’s too warm in town and they go back to the mountains.

One yard does not make a city-wide trend, but we won’t know what the trend is unless more people in Cheyenne participate.

How many FeederWatchers are there in Cheyenne? We’ve had as many as four, back in 1999-2004, but lately there’s only been one or two of us. Statewide, Wyoming averages 25 participants per year.

If you sign up, you’ll have your own red dot on the map (but your identity won’t be publicized). I hope you’ll become a FeederWatcher this season.


2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

A photo taken through my Cheyenne, Wyoming, kitchen window shows a Dark-eyed Junco that is probably the pink-sided subspecies, or maybe a female of the Oregon subspecies–or maybe a hybrid. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Keeping juncos straight isn’t for bird-brains


The different races of Dark-eyed Junco can be difficult to identify because they can hybridize. This appears to be the Slate-colored type. Photo by Bob Vuxinic, courtesy Project FeederWatch.

Published Dec. 13, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keeping juncos straight isn’t for bird-brains.”

2014 Update: The juncos remain lumped into one species and ornithologists keep hoping we citizen scientists will differentiate between the types and all the hybrids.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that Christmas Bird Count time of year again. Jane Dorn, our local count compiler, is going to ask me what kind of juncos I counted.

Sometime between the 1966 and 1985 editions of my favorite field guide, four species of juncos were lumped into one, the “Dark-eyed Junco.”

On the off chance that the American Ornithologists’ Union could someday split them out again, we should keep track of all the different kinds. But it isn’t easy.

Let Roger Tory Peterson refresh your memory. “Juncos are unstriped, gray, sparrow-shaped birds with conspicuous white outer tail feathers, gray or black heads, pale bills.

“Species with gray sides: White-winged Junco (white wing bars); Slate-colored Junco (fairly uniform gray); Gray-headed Junco (rusty back).

“Species with rusty or ‘pinkish’ sides: Oregon Junco (rusty or brown back).” The pink-sided junco, a paler version of the Oregon, was lumped with it prior to 1961.

But even if you can remember all these side and back color combinations, consider that the Oregon female, paler than the male, looks an awful lot like the pink-sided, except the pink-sided has an even paler throat.

One junco species didn’t get lumped, the former Arizona or Mexican junco. It was renamed the “Yellow-eyed Junco.” You have to go to Mexico or southeastern Arizona to find one.

Cheyenne in winter, however, is a great crossroads for the other juncos.

The white-winged breeds in the Black Hills and winters in southeastern Wyoming and eastern Colorado.

The slate-colored breeds in Canada and the northeastern states, but winters just about everywhere between our borders with Canada and Mexico.

The Oregon breeds in the Pacific Northwest and may travel in winter as far as the western Great Plains. The pink-sided sub population breeds in Montana and northwestern Wyoming and winters in the southern Rockies.

However, according to Sibley’s range maps, the gray-headed breeds only as far north as Colorado and Utah and winters south into Mexico.

But birds don’t read field guides so I can understand why Jane is interested in knowing exactly which juncos we see. Recorded observations are what continually redefine a bird’s actual range.

What makes it tough to identify the juncos feeding under my kitchen window is that they hybridize. Peterson said, “There is frequent hybridization or integration; therefore it is impossible to name all individuals.”

When Dave McDonald, University of Wyoming zoology professor, spoke at the Cheyenne High Plains Audubon Society meeting last month, he described his work with rosy finch species: black, brown-capped and gray-crowned.

To my untrained eye, they look like another group ready to be lumped, and in the past they sometimes have been. But genetic comparisons of blood drawn from birds captured and released shows they are quite distinct.

Dave thinks it might have to do with their preferred breeding habitat being high mountains which act like isolating islands, or maybe a predilection for breeding in the same place they were hatched.

On the other hand, one of Dave’s graduate students did extensive genetic comparisons of burrowing owls and found those living as far apart as California and eastern Wyoming were genetically indistinguishable.

I wonder, are their wintering grounds like Club Med and they leave in spring with new friends for locations other than their birth place?

In the discussion after Dave’s presentation, he mused on what genetic testing for juncos might show. I hope, should he ever get funding, he remembers I volunteered the flock in my backyard.

So Jane, until I get the blood tests back, I’m afraid many of the little gray birds I count on the CBC will merely be listed as “Dark-eyed Junco, subspecies unknown.”