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.
Advertisements

Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands

.

By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.

Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

2018-05abcbirdtape

Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

2018-05hummingbirds-Sandia Crest-Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Sage-grouse need your comments by Nov. 27

 

Greater-Sage-Grouse_DaveShowalter_340x300

Greater Sage-Grouse, photo by Dave Showalter.

 

Published Nov. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Wyoming’s Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plan is in jeopardy”

The deadline is Nov. 27, 2017, for sending your comments to BLM regarding whether you think amending the Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan is necessary. See instructions at the end of this column.

By Barb Gorges

Wyoming successfully addressed the sage-grouse issue through a collaboration of state and local government, sportsmen, conservationists, the oil and gas industry, and agricultural interests.

Over six years, the state was able to draw up a plan to establish protected core areas of habitat. Good habitat is the best protection for this species, which has declined 30 percent across the west since 1985.

The plan leaves a large majority of Wyoming open to oil and gas and other development.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state plans across the west were good enough that it wouldn’t start proceedings to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered.

Here in Wyoming, the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, headed by Bob Budd, is working hard. The team represents all the previous collaborators.

However, the new federal administration is intent on dismantling anything that happened under the previous president. It tasked new U.S. Department of Interior secretary Ryan Zinke with reviewing all state sage-grouse plans to either toss them or amend them.

None of the collaborators on Wyoming’s plan are happy with this—including the oil and gas people who desire certainty for their business plans. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is not happy either.

I went to the Bureau of Land Management’s public meeting Nov. 6 in Cheyenne to find out more about the proposed amendments to Wyoming’s plan.

I heard these criticisms:

–Switching to using sage-grouse population numbers to determine an oil and gas producer’s ability to drill and plan for mitigation (more sage-grouse, more leniency) would leave companies with a lot of unwanted uncertainty. Sage-grouse numbers vary enormously from year to year due to weather and other natural effects.

–Basing conservation plans on sage-grouse population numbers rather than habitat would discount the 350-plus other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including 22 “species of conservation concern.”

–Messing around with the plan could cause U.S. Fish and Wildlife to decide the sage-grouse warrants listing after all. That would close much more land to oil and gas drilling, as well as coal mining and other mineral extraction.

–The current Republican administration thinks states should have more say in issues like this, and the six years of collaboration Wyoming went through is a perfect example of how it can happen. Ironically, it’s the Republicans in Washington who now decree they know what is best for us.

–Wyoming’s conservation plan has been in effect for only two years—not enough time to gauge success. Instituting major changes now would cost a lot of taxpayer money that could be better spent in the field.

BLM invites us to comment during their scoping process. They want to know if we think they should amend the management plans that were developed by the states to protect sage-grouse.

They don’t make it easy, says my husband, a retired BLM wildlife biologist.

Go to http://bit.ly/GRSGplanning (case-sensitive). Click on “Documents and Reports.” This will give you a list of documents. Only “GRSG Notice of Intent” is available for commenting. “GRSG” is ornithological shorthand using initial letters of the parts of the bird’s common name.

After you read the document, click on “Comment on Document.” You’ll have to fill in the title of the document you are commenting on: “GRSG Notice of Intent.” And then you have 60 minutes to finish the procedure or everything you’ve written disappears. You may want to compose your comments elsewhere and then paste them in.

The deadline for comments is either Nov. 27 or Nov. 30—there’s a discrepancy in BLM’s handouts from the public meeting. Go with the earlier date if you can.

To educate yourself before commenting, you can visit the Wyoming State BLM office in Cheyenne, 5353 Yellowstone Road, or contact Erica Husse, 307-775-6318, ehusse@blm.gov, or Emmet Pruss, 307-775-6266, epruss@blm.gov.

But if you are most interested in what is best for sage-grouse, it may be easier to jump to the analysis provided by conservation groups like the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/sage-grouse. The former Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge was instrumental in the Wyoming collaboration and is still involved as NAS’s director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

Two other interested groups are Wyoming Wildlife Federation, http://wyomingwildlife.org/, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/.

All three organizations offer simple digital form letters that can be personalized, and they will send them to BLM. However, BLM says it gives more credence to comments sent via their own online form.

I hope you can take a few minutes to put in a good word for the bird that maybe should be our state mascot.

Next month I’ll look at what the Wyoming State Legislature did last session that may also negatively affect sage-grouse.

Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

2016-7Bioblitz7 Barb Gorges

Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, is getting ready to let a young citizen scientist release a yellow warbler that was caught in a mist net during the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Kids explore nature of the Belvoir Ranch.”

By Barb Gorges

I was delighted to recognize my neighbor at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz last month. She is going to be a senior at Cheyenne East High in the fall and was there with two friends. All three were planning to spend the weekend looking for birds, mammals, herps (reptiles and amphibians), pollinators, macroinvertebrates and plants, to fulfill more hours required for their Congressional Award gold medals.

The weekend could have served for all four award areas: volunteer public service (we were all volunteer citizen scientists collecting data), personal development (the staff taught us a lot of new things), physical fitness (hiking up and down Lone Tree Creek in the heat was arduous), and expedition/exploration (many of us, including my neighbor and her friends, camped out and cooked meals despite being only 20 miles from Cheyenne).

Mark and I have attended other bioblitzes around the state, but this was the first one close to Cheyenne. With all of the publicity from the four sponsoring groups, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Geographic Alliance, a record 100 people attended, plus the staff of 50 from various natural science disciplines.

When I asked my neighbor why she and her friends had come, she said, “We’re science nerds.” That was exciting to hear.

2016-7Bioblitz2 Barb Gorges

My neighbor and friends net aquatic invertebrates including dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  A blue and green pollinator trap is set up on the far side of the pond. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There were a lot of junior science nerds in attendance with their families. Small children enjoyed wading into the pond along the creek to scoop up dragonfly and damselfly larvae —and even crayfish.

A surprising number of children were up at 6 a.m. Saturday for the bird survey. The highlight was the raven nest in a crevice on the canyon wall, with three young ravens crowding the opening, ready to fledge.

Sunday morning’s bird mist netting along the creek was very popular. Several birds that had been hard to see with binoculars were suddenly in hand.

2016-7Bioblitz8 Barb Gorges

Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, discusses the captured bird he is holding in his left hand. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because it wasn’t at an official bird banding site, the mist netting was strictly educational and the birds were soon released. Several young children had the opportunity to hold a bird and release it, feeling how light it was, how fast its heart beat and feeling the little whoosh of air as it took flight. What I wouldn’t give to know if any of the children grow up to be bird biologists or birdwatchers.

The Belvoir Ranch is owned by the city of Cheyenne and stretches miles to the west between I-80 and the Colorado-Wyoming state line. The city bought it in 2003 and 2005 to protect our upstream aquifer, or groundwater, as well as the surface water.

2016-7Bioblitz6 Barb Gorges

Bioblitz birdwatchers head down along Lone Tree Creek at 6 a.m. on June 12 to survey the birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While limited grazing and hunting continues as it did under private ownership, other parts of the master plan have yet to come to fruition: wind farm, landfill, golf course, or general recreation development. It is normally closed to the public. However, progress is being made on trails to connect the ranch to Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and/or Red Mountain Open Space.

A good landowner takes stock of his property. The city has some idea of what’s out there, including archeological sites. But with budgets tightening, there won’t be funding to hire consultants for a closer look. But there are a lot of citizen scientists available.

The data from the Bioblitz weekend went into the Wyobio database, www.wyobio.org, a place where data from all over Wyoming can be entered. The bird data also went into eBird.org.

2016-7Bioblitz4 Barb Gorges

A University of Wyoming graduate student and a citizen scientist filter water from the creek to prepare it for DNA analysis. The sample will show what amphibians have been swimming there. Photo by Barb Gorges.  

The data began to paint a picture of the Belvoir: 62 species of animals including 50 birds, 8 mammals, 4 herps, plus 13 taxa of macroinvertebrates (not easily identified to species) and 12 taxa of pollinators (bees and other insects), plus many species of plants. All that diversity was from exploring half a mile of one creek within the ranch’s total 18,800 acres–about 30 square miles.

2016-7Bioblitz3 Barb Gorges

This ground nest seems to have one smaller egg laid by an interloper. Many grassland bird species build their nests on the ground. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The members of the City Council who approved the ranch purchase are to be congratulated on making it public land in addition to protecting our watershed. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the federal and state governments to do the right thing.  The essence of Wyoming is its big natural landscapes and we are lucky to have one on the west edge of Wyoming’s largest city.

Let’s also congratulate the parents who encouraged their children to examine the critters in the muddy pond and pick up mammal scat (while wearing plastic gloves) on the trails among other activities.

2016-7Bioblitz5 Barb Gorges

A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist introduces a Wandering Garter Snake to a young citizen scientist. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Someday, these kids will grow up to be like my high school neighbor and her friends. Someday they could be the graduate students, professors and land use professionals. No matter what they become, they can always contribute scientific data by being citizen scientists.

2016-7Bioblitz1 Barb Gorges

Citizen scientists of all ages learned to identify types of aquatic invertebrates at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Book review: “Birds of the Great Plains”

Birds of the Great Plains

“Birds of the Great Plains”

Published Aug. 17, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New field guide is a useful tool on the road.”

2014 Update: This book is still available, at www.lonepinepublishing.com.

By Barb Gorges

It’s been about a dozen years since our last summer family trip across the ocean by car. Whether it’s called the sea of grass or the Great American Desert, crossing the Great Plains is a test of endurance even in the modern age.

Speeding along at 75 mph keeps the tedium to a minimum. Books on tape keep us awake and air conditioning keeps the exhaustion from hot weather at bay, but we are never truly on the Plains, only passing over them.

Now here’s a way to help us slow down and enjoy. Put out in time for planning our excursion was “Birds of the Great Plains,” published by Lone Pine Publishing International.

Though there is a plethora of bird field guides for North America, a regional guide is useful. The bird descriptions concentrate on local plumage variations and the range maps have more detail.

The book defines the Great Plains as a large vertical rectangle including the eastern parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and northeastern New Mexico plus all of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas, and the western edges of Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.

Though the Great Plains extend into Canada, Lone Pine, a Canadian company, does not include them because they are covered in their provincial guides.

Within the given geographic boundaries, the introduction maps three major ecosystems from west to east, short-grass prairie, tall-grass prairie and tall-grass savanna. There is also the island that is the Black Hills and oak-pine woodland in the southeast corner of Oklahoma. Unfortunately, there are no descriptions of these areas.

The range maps accompanying each species only show the Great Plains, so I have the same complaint I have for even the general North American bird guides—I want to know everywhere a species goes. [Some warblers spend more time in South America than here.]

But minor matters aside, “Birds of the Great Plains” has features other guides would do well to emulate. It begins with a color-coded reference guide with thumbnail pictures of each species covered, sorted by taxonomic group. On the back cover are thumbnails representing each group, again color-coded and with page numbers.

The color for each group also marks the top edge of the pages where the pictures are repeated in a large, easy to see format, one species per page.

At the bottom of each page are the finer points of identification, size, habitat, nesting and feeding behavior, voice, and comparison to similar species.

What I like about this guide is the long introductory paragraph for each species, the story teller’s approach that includes gee whiz facts, literary references, even how the bird was named—everything that distinguishes it from others—and makes you care about it.

These mini-essays would make a book in themselves. They are unique in the world of field guides, but not surprising when the major author, Bob Jennings, had a 30 year career as a naturalist and interpreter in addition to being an avid birder. The other two authors, Ted T. Cable and Roger Burrows, also have extensive credentials in nature interpretation.

“Birds of the Great Plains” would make a good first field guide for our area. It isn’t cluttered with east and west coast species we’ll never see here. It acknowledges using less than scientific terms when describing birds, but it has a glossary and the requisite diagram of a bird’s parts.

It also has, separate from the index, a checklist of all 457 birds that have been officially recorded in the Great Plains states. It indicates which are introduced or threatened or endangered.

How useful is this field guide here in Cheyenne, on the west edge of the plains?

I compared it to the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon chapter checklist. Only 24 Cheyenne species, out of 324, were missing in the guide, and all of those are rare or uncommon, except for the mountain chickadee. But at least the descriptions of other chickadees mention it as a similar species. On the other hand, the book has 50 eastern species not on the Cheyenne list so you’ll be set for future immigrating species–and that visit back to the grandparents in Nebraska.

In case you don’t have “relative” destinations on the Great Plains, this field guide gives you 91 top birding sites, highlighting 20 with descriptions of the landscapes and the species to be seen.

In Wyoming, Devils Tower National Monument, Thunder Basin National Grassland, Keyhole State Park, Glendo Reservoir and Table Mountain Wildlife Habitat Management Area make the general list.

If we weren’t also visiting relatives in the Great Lakes states (and Lone Pine has bird guides for Chicago, Michigan and Wisconsin), “Birds of the Great Plains” could easily be the only field guide we’d throw in the car.

Lone Pine publications, with their tough and flexible, plastic-coated covers, are good for throwing around. My copy of “Plants of the Rocky Mountains” survived last summer as a well-thumbed reference book at Camp Laramie Peak.

Whether or not we get time to bird, Bob Jenning’s essays will make good reading in whatever spare minutes come along.

Hutton Lake NWR is treasure hidden in plain sight

Hutton Lake NWR

Birders look for waterbirds as well as hawks and eagles in early June at Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Laramie, Wyoming.

Published June 22, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming refuge is a treasure hidden in plain sight.”

By Barb Gorges

In early June, Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge birds are busy reproducing. They barely notice birders.

The refuge is southwest of Laramie. It’s small by national refuge standards, just under 2,000 acres, and relatively unknown, compared to others in Wyoming like Seedskadee or the National Elk Refuge.

Hutton Lake has little to offer people: no visitor center, no restrooms, no picnic tables, no fishing, no hunting, no camping, no off-road vehicles, horses or dogs allowed anywhere, no trees, no dramatic landscape, and no decent road–until recently.

Instead, it caters to wildlife, attracting 29 mammal species, six amphibian and reptile species and 146 kinds of birds, including 60 species that have been known to nest there.

What do avian visitors find at Hutton Lake?

Five small lakes, including namesake Hutton, have a variety of wet habitats—shallow water for puddle ducks and wading birds, deeper water for diving ducks, muddy shores for shorebirds and thick reed beds for nesting. On land, there are greasewood thickets perfect for nesting songbirds like the sage thrashers. The short grass of the surrounding plains, as green as a golf course this spring, will have its share of bird nests on the ground—grassland species do without trees.

The comparatively flat (the Snowy Range glimmers in the distance) and nearly featureless topography of the Laramie River Valley does have a few rocky outcrops and ridges. The astute birder will find eagles and hawks perched on them, or soaring overhead.

Hutton is part of a complex

Ann Timberman is the project manager for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Hutton Lake and two other small refuges nearby but which are closed to the public because of endangered species work. There’s also Pathfinder near Casper, and Arapaho, the main refuge, is where the complex’s headquarters are located, outside Walden, Colo.

In some ways, Ann’s job, which she’s had for 10 years now, is easy. The National Wildlife Refuge System doesn’t have to manage for multiple, and often conflicting, uses like the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service. Its mission is to benefit wildlife. Hutton Lake was established in 1932 “to provide resting and breeding habitat.” Livestock grazing permits are available only in years when it’s been determined it will benefit wildlife.

Ann and I toured Hutton Lake together June 2 on a wonderfully windless day. Bringing along the spotting scope did not make for the most efficient interview—we kept losing our conversational focus while focusing on the differences in field marks for immature bald and golden eagles and other birdwatching matters.

Improvements welcomed

The tour was to show off improvements made last year, the biggest being the roadwork, tons of gravel filling the deep ruts I remembered from my last visit. The road improvement also extends to the two-track across state land, between Sand Creek Road, which is the closest county road, and the boundary of the refuge.

Even a small car with minimal clearance can navigate the single lane road, as we found when we saw one at the new gravel parking spot at the end of the road.

One improvement was unglamorous, but very expensive—replacing the infrastructure that regulates the flow of water from one of the lakes to another.

This summer, an interpretive trail and observation platform will be built at one of the lakes.

There’s a birdwatching blind now, too, built last year by an Eagle Scout candidate, with funding for materials provided by Laramie Audubon Society.

I went out again to Hutton five days later with some of the chapter members on a field trip. As much as they appreciate the improved road, they are a little sad to lose vehicle access to some of the roads that are now for pedestrians only. Tim Banks, trip leader, pointed out that some of their older chapter members are not going to be hiking in to regain closer views of the lakes.

Laramie Audubon members are just about the only regular visitors and the only interest group which keeps tabs on the refuge. They worked to have it designated as a Wyoming Important Bird Area.

Partnerships benefit wildlife

In fact, two bird lovers, Gere and Barbara Kruse, were responsible for the recent improvements. In their memory, their daughter, Babs, brought $42,000 to Bob Budd, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, asking for help finding an appropriate wildlife/public use habitat project in Albany County.

The Trust matched the donation. Laramie Rivers Conservation District’s Martin Curry, resource specialist, wrote the grant and oversaw most of the work. Other cooperators were the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the refuge, as well as its parent agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A total of $111,000 will have been spent when improvements are finished.

There are drawbacks to having a better road. Back in January, kids started a fire even though fires are not allowed, and it got out of control. Thankfully, the refuge is on local law enforcement’s beat and Albany County firefighters put it out. Ann decided to lock the gate for the winter, allowing only walk-in access.

With only 3.5 staff members for the whole Arapaho refuge complex, locals become Ann’s eyes and ears at Hutton Lake. There are few birds and few people on the windswept plains in winter. But, for instance, deciding when in spring to open the gate will depend on local birders apprising her of conditions. Visitors can also report suspicious or illegal activities–impossible to hide on the open plains.

For Ann, from a management perspective, making the refuge more accessible is a double-edged sword of sorts, allowing in vandals as well as visitors. But, she said, in the long run, it pays to make friends and develop partnerships. In this case, sharing Hutton Lake with people who appreciate it benefits the wildlife. And that fits the refuge’s mission.

If you go

The refuge is open to driving on established roads as conditions permit, and to hiking on roads and trails year round. Wildlife watching and photography are the recreational activities allowed. Spring, especially April, is a great time for birdwatching.

There is no drinking water and no restroom. Please pack out trash. Hunting, shooting, fishing, fires and camping are not permitted.

How to get there

From Laramie, drive south on U.S. 287. When the huge cement plant comes up on your right less than two miles south of I-80, aim for the plant’s front office using one of the crossroads, but instead of entering the plant, veer left (south) and you will be on Sand Creek Road. After about 8 miles you will see a brown sign for Hutton Lake pointing to the right. Turn and follow the gravel trail to the refuge entrance, which is marked by a large sign and a small parking area.

More information is available at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/hutton_lake/.