How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

            I am living under the flight path of major construction. A Swainson’s hawk is plucking cottonwood branches from one neighbor’s tree and taking them over my house to another neighbor’s tree to build a nest.

            Lately, a gang of 60 or 70, puffed up and strutting around in shiny black feather jackets, shows up along our back wall—no motorcycles for them—they’re common grackles. They even scare away the bully robin that keeps the house finches from the black oil sunflower seed we’ve put out.

            A pair of northern flickers has been visiting the seed cake feeder. We know they are male and female—he has the red mustache. The black and white pair of downy woodpeckers are visiting regularly. The male has the red neck spots.

            One small, yellow-breasted stranger shows up every day at the nyger thistle seed feeder. It’s a female lesser goldfinch, not a regular species here. We recognize that her yellow, black and white feather scheme is arranged differently from the American goldfinch’s.

            I look forward to the springtime antics of birds in my backyard, but this year, millions of people are discovering them for the first time in their own yards and neighborhoods. Suddenly, it’s cool to notice birds and nature. It’s almost cool to be called a birdwatcher.

            Would you like to be a birdwatcher, or a birder? Here’s how.

Step 1Notice birds.

Watch for bird-like shapes in the trees and bushes and on lawns. Watch for movement. This time of year, birds are making a lot of noise and song. See if you can trace the song to the bird with his beak uplifted and open.

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

Are they looking for food like the red-breasted nuthatches climbing tree trunks and branches?

Are they performing a mating ritual like the Eurasian collared-dove males that launch themselves from the top of a tree or utility pole, winging high only to sail down again in spirals?

Are they picking through the grass like common grackles do, looking for grubs to eat? Are they flying by with a beak full of long wispy dead grasses for nest building like the house sparrows do?

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

But if you want to talk to other birdwatchers, you need to do a little studying.

You are in luck if you live in the Cheyenne area. In 2018, Pete Arnold and I put together a picture book of 104 of our most common birds, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” You’d be surprised how many birds you probably already know. Go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/ to examine current purchasing options.

You can also go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/. You can type in a bird name or queries like “birds with red breasts” (which covers all shades from pink and purple to orange and russet). If you click on “Get instant ID help” it will prompt you to download the free Merlin app. It will give you size comparison, color, behavior and habitat choices and then produce an illustrated list of possibilities—nearly as good as sending a photo to your local birder.

The best way to learn birds is to go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you. But since that probably isn’t possible this spring, settle for a pair of binoculars and honing your eye for noticing field marks—the colors and shapes that distinguish one bird species’ appearance from another’s.

Keep in mind that even expert birders can’t identify every bird—sometimes the light is bad and sometimes, and often for a species as variable as the red-tailed hawk, it doesn’t look exactly like it’s picture in the field guides by Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley.

Step 5Go where the birds are.

In Wyoming, that is generally wherever there is water—and trees and shrubs. At least that’s where you’ll find the most bird species per hour of birding. But the grasslands are special. Drive down a rural road, like nearby Chalk Bluffs Road, and watch to see what birds flock along the shoulders and collect on the barbwire fence: meadowlarks, lark buntings, horned larks. Watch out for traffic.

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/basic-wild-bird-feeding/.

Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities has information on transforming lawns into habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and other animals.

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

Some of the nerdiest birders I know will say they prefer to bird alone, but they still join their local Audubon chapter. In Cheyenne, that’s https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/. People of all levels of birding expertise are welcome. Sign up for free email newsletters today and join when you are ready.

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

People do not make life easy for birds. Our activities can affect birds directly and indirectly. Today, I read that the popular neonicotinoid pesticides affect birds’ abilities to successfully migrate if they eat even a small amount of treated seed, or an insect that has eaten treated plant material.

Writing letters to lawmakers is one option, but so is planting native plants and so is recording your bird observations through citizen or community science projects like www.eBird.org and taking part in other conservation activities.

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

You can do this as soon as you start Step 1, noticing birds. Not everyone does. Welcome to the world of birdwatching!           

Western Meadowlark
The Western Meadowlark, a grassland bird, is Wyoming’s state bird. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Watch bird family dramas via window TV

2017-09 Lesser Goldfinch and young--Mark Gorges

A Lesser Goldfinch father prepares to feed his begging offspring Aug. 4, 2017, in our Cheyenne backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 17, 2017, “Kitchen window like TV peering into lives of birds”

By Barb Gorges

The view out our 4-by 6-foot kitchen window is the equivalent of an 85-inch, high definition television screen.

The daytime programming over the summer has been exceptional this year. Not many murder mysteries, thank goodness, and instead, mostly family dramas.

The robins always seem to get on screen first. Walking flat-footed through our vegetables and flowers, the speckle-breasted young, unlike some human teenagers, kept looking towards the adults for instruction and moral support.

Young birds have this gawky look about them. They have balance issues when they land on the utility line. Or they make a hard landing on a branch. They look around, tilting their heads this way and that. Maybe they are learning to focus.

The first hummingbird of the season showed up July 10, nearly a week earlier than last year. Luckily, their favorite red flower, the Jacob Cline variety of monarda, or beebalm, was blooming two weeks ahead of schedule.

We immediately put the hummingbird feeder up (FYI: 4 parts water to 1 part white sugar—don’t substitute other sugars—boiled together, no red dye, please, maybe a red ribbon on the feeder). Within a few days we had a hummingbird showing up regularly at breakfast, lunch and dinner—which is when we watch our window TV.

Sometimes we saw three at a time, often two, though by Aug. 25 sightings dropped off. It is difficult to distinguish between rufous and broad-tailed females and juveniles that come. Kind of like trying to keep track of all the characters in a PBS historical drama.

My favorite series this summer was “Father Knows Best.” Beginning July 1, a lesser goldfinch male, and sometimes a second one, and females, started joining the American goldfinches at our thistle tube feeder.

The lesser goldfinch is the American goldfinch’s counterpart in the southwestern U.S. and they are being seen more regularly in southeast Wyoming. They are smaller. Like the American, they are bright yellow with a black cap and black wings, but they also have a black back, although some have greenish backs.

Every day the lesser males showed up, pulling thistle seed from the feeder for minutes at a time. Unlike other seed-eating songbirds which feed their young insects, goldfinches feed their young seeds they’ve chewed to a pulp. After a couple weeks, we began to wonder if one of them had a nest somewhere.

August 4, the lesser fledglings made their TV debut. The three pestered their dad at the same time. My husband, Mark, got a wonderful photo of the male feeding one of the young. However, within five days the show was over, the young having dispersed.

Year-round we have Eurasian collared-doves. I’ve noticed one has a droopy wing, the tip of which nearly drags on the ground. She and her mate are responsible for the only X-rated content shown on our backyard nature TV—that’s how I know the droopy-winged bird is female.

One morning outside I noticed a scattering of thin sticks on the grass and looked up. I saw the sketchy (as in a drawing of a few lines) nest on a branch of one of our green ash trees, with the dove sitting on it. Every time I went out, I would check and there she was, suspended over our heads, listening in on all our conversations, watching us mow and garden.

Then one day I heard a frantic banging around where Mark had stacked the hail guards for our garden. It was a young dove. It had blown out of the nest during the night’s rainstorm. The sketchy (as in unreliable) nest had failed.

The presence of the trapped squab, half the size of an adult, would explain the behavior of the mother nearby, who had been so agitated that she attracted our dog’s attention.

I put the dog in the house and went to extract the young bird. It didn’t move as I approached and scooped it up. There is something magical about holding a wild bird, even one belonging to a species that has invaded our neighborhoods, sometimes at the expense of the native mourning dove. So soft, so plump. I set it down inside the fenced-off flower garden. Later, I checked and it was gone.

Within a few days, Droopy-wing and her mate were involved in another X-rated performance. Then I noticed one of them fly by with a slender stick. Sure enough, two days later she was back on her rehabbed throne, incubating the next generation.

New doves coming to a feeder near you

Eurasian Collared-Dove

The first Eurasian Collared-Dove was observed in Wyoming in 1998. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published March 2, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New doves coming to a feeder near you.”
2014 Update: No sign of White-winged Doves in Cheyenne yet, but the Eurasian Collared-dove keeps us company year-round now.

By Barb Gorges

Pine Bluffs has that clean, scrubbed look of a small town on the treeless Great Plains—the look that comes from the cleansing effect of strong wind.

But on the side of the Lincoln Highway, 40 miles east of Cheyenne, is a small house cozily set in a thicket, a haven for birds.

Velma Simkins said she’s lived there since 1933, when she and her husband bought the house as a young married couple. They planted the trees and shrubs.

She called me the other day for help identifying strange doves feeding on the seed she puts out. She’s familiar with the Johnny-come-lately species, the Eurasian collared-dove, but thought these were different. Since a traveling birder reported white-winged doves in nearby Burns last year, my husband Mark and I decided it was worth looking into, but by the time we could check a week later, the strange doves were gone. We decided to make the drive anyway and meet Velma.

It wasn’t hard to find her house, across from huge steel grain elevators. Sixteen Eurasian collared-doves were perched on nearby utility lines. A few blocks down another dozen of the pale gray doves with black marks across the backs of their necks were perched near another grain storage facility. Not a pigeon in sight. Have the doves run
the pigeons off?

Velma said the only pigeon she sees is a pet belonging to the neighbors. There haven’t been any pigeons since the old elevators were replaced. I imagine new, tighter facilities probably give pigeons less access to food and means may have been taken to eliminate them entirely, since they are one of three introduced bird species that can be controlled (the others are house sparrow and European starling).

So why are there Eurasian collared-doves in the vicinity? Are they hardier or smarter? We are still learning about this Middle East species that successfully colonized Europe, was brought to the Bahamas as a caged bird where it escaped in 1974 and soon made its way to Florida and beyond. The similar looking ringed turtle-dove has escaped frequently but has not prospered or expanded its range beyond a few urban areas.

The first Cheyenne record for Eurasian collared-dove was the Big Day Count, May 1998. Now they can be found regularly. I counted a flock of 20 in my neighborhood last summer, but there seemed to be fewer mourning doves. Perhaps the collared-doves, year round residents, are getting the jump on the native migrating morning doves when it comes to claiming good nesting habitat.

Eurasian collared-doves first show up on the 87th (1986-87) Christmas Bird Count, but in only two count circles. By the 103rd count they were observed in 263 circles. The earliest observation for Project FeederWatch, an annual, winter-long count, was 1995, but another was not recorded again until 1998, and then every year after that.

The Great Backyard Bird Count held in February 1999 recorded collared-doves in eight southeastern states. This year’s map shows the western frontier as a curve stretching from southern California up through Idaho and points east, though it seems to have skipped Nevada.

Kenn Kaufman notes in his book, Lives of North American Birds, that in Europe, in warm climates, this species raises up to six broods a year. That’s only one or two young each, but the young have a habit of dispersing long distances. They feel at home wherever there are large trees and open ground.

What about that other dove, the white-winged dove? It is a bulkier, darker gray bird with large white wing patches that become crescents when the wings are folded. It is a native species expanding its northern most limits, traditionally the southern edge of the southwestern states. Kaufman mentions it as an important pollinator of giant saguaro cactus.

There are a few records for Wyoming, one going back to 1954. But if the observations in northern New Mexico and Colorado are any indication, we’ll probably be seeing more of them.

I visited with Ron Ryder, retired Colorado State University wildlife professor, and he said scientists are looking into this explosion of doves. Eurasian collared-doves have been observed in just about every county in his state, even in inhospitably cold places like Gunnison and the San Luis Valley.

They are flocking to grain elevators like pigeons, Ron said, noting a recent posting on Cobirds, the Colorado bird watchers’ e-mail list. It mentioned a flock of 200 Eurasian collared-doves, along with a few white-wings, in Flagler, Colo. He also mentioned wildlife managers are discussing listing the Eurasian collared-dove as a game bird. As an introduced species, it is not protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The word “invasive” conjures up rapacious, economically debilitating species like kudzu, zebra mussels and leafy spurge. But other than apparently displacing a few mourning doves and pigeons, no one is sure yet what this wave of immigration will mean if it continues.

Kaufman said in his 1996 book, “If it spreads in North America as it did in Europe, the Eurasian Collared-Dove may soon be among our most familiar backyard birds.”

Gosh, what will the robins think?

Eurasian Collared-Doves invade

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Eurasian Collared-Dove, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Published Feb. 6, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Doves continue territory expansion, including here.”

2014 Update: They continue to expand. At www.eBird.org, click on the “Explore Data” tab and use the “Range and Point Maps” feature to see current global range. EUCD was eventually documented as breeding in Laramie County before 2011.

By Barb Gorges

I don’t know about your neighborhood, but mine has a gang of doves loafing around on the street corners and they all sport their distinctive gang insignia: black marks tattooed on their necks. They also wear their tails squared off.

I’ve witnessed a gathering of as many as 28 of these large, pale gray birds raiding my neighbor’s juniper hedge for berries.

I just hope the berries don’t ferment, causing gang members to fly drunk. It’s bad enough that they defecate in my driveway after every berrying spree!

The Eurasian collared-dove (the American Ornithologists’ Union code is “EUCD”) has been taking over neighborhoods for centuries. It is thought to have started as a native species in India, Sri-Lanka and present-day Myanmar (formerly Burma). In the 1600’s it expanded to Turkey and the Balkans.

Next, EUCD flew through Europe: Yugoslavia, 1912; Hungary, 1930; Germany, 1945; Norway, 1954; Britain, 1955; and Portugal, 1974.

Invasion of northern China and Korea is thought to have come through India. Japan was invaded via China in the 18th or 19th century.

In the mid 1970s, a breeder brought EUCD to the Bahamas where a few escaped and 50 were released.

They were seen in Florida in the late ’70s and verified there in 1986, quickly followed by sightings in Georgia and Arkansas.

The invasion of the U.S. continued: Alabama, 1991; Texas, 1995; South Dakota, 1996; Iowa and Montana, 1997; Minnesota and Wyoming 1998; and Oregon, 1999.

By the time the species account was published in 2002 for Birds of North America Online, EUCD had also been documented in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. There is evidence that some birds were intentionally released in California, Missouri and Texas.

The most up-to-date map available on http://www.ebird.org shows New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine are the only states where birders have yet to report EUCD to that data base.

Some birds introduced to North America, such as house sparrows, thrive at the expense of native species or, in the instance of European starlings, at the expense of agriculture. In Pakistan, EUCD is considered an agricultural pest. Other released species, such as the ringed-turtle dove (now to be known officially as the African Collared-dove), fail to thrive in our area.

EUCD appears to be prospering and enjoying our winters. There are no studies yet showing impacts on mourning doves returning in the spring looking for similar nesting habitat.

EUCD likes nesting in trees, preferably in urban areas. They hang out at bird feeders and at agricultural operations where spilled grain is available. And they will eat berries, as they do in my neighborhood. They roost on utility lines and in trees and other high places. They have a distinctly unmusical coo.

The federal government has classified EUCD as an unprotected species, just like house sparrows and starlings. In 2006, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department announced that EUCD can be hunted any season, anywhere, any method. Of course, with their fondness for urban landscapes, finding EUCD where the discharge of firearms is permitted could be a challenge.

And then pity the poor hunter in Nebraska. Jeff Obrecht of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told me Nebraska’s regulations refer only to “doves” and so any EUCD taken has to be counted towards a hunter’s bag limit. I’m sure Nebraska never figured on anything but mourning doves when its rules were written.

Even though the first three EUCD in Wyoming were documented outside Cheyenne at the Wyoming Herford Ranch between May 16 and Oct. 9, 1998, someone in the Cody area stole a march on us, submitting the first state breeding record in 2001. Since then, a second breeding record has been submitted for the Sheridan area for 2005.

Cheyenne birders, we must unite! Burns, Pine Bluffs, Albin, Carpenter, Meridan–please join us. The glory of the 28th Latilong is at stake! I’m sure EUCD is procreating in our latilong, defined by one degree of latitude and one degree of longitude, but we need to document it. We need evidence. Even though spring is a couple months away, we don’t have research to tell us how early EUCD will breed in Wyoming. Here’s your chance.

In winter EUCD is comfortable flocking. A pair from the previous year may still be bonded. But later, the doves get territorial. The male will give an advertising coo and then from his high perch he will fly up at a steep angle with a lot of wing-clapping (just like pigeons) before descending in a spiral, tail spread. The account in Birds of North America Online says he then gives the “excitement” call.

The male brings the female twigs, stems, roots, grasses and urban litter and in one to three days the female has a nest built in a tree, or sometimes, on a building.

Two eggs are laid, one after the other, and the parents take turns incubating for about two weeks. The young need around two and a half weeks to fledge, but aren’t fully independent for another two or three weeks.

In friendly climates, EUCD may start nesting as early as February and produce up to six broods. No one has documented what happens in Cheyenne.
If you observe Eurasian collared-doves sitting on a nest or feeding young, let me know and I’ll help you fill out the official paperwork. Who knows, those avian invaders could make you famous, at least in Latilong 28.