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.

High-capacity water wells vs birds

High-capacity irrigation wells are not your great-grandparents’ Chicago Aermotor windmills. This one continues to pump water for livestock on the Lummis Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Mar. 8, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “High capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, wildlife”

Too many high capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, other wildlife and people

By Barb Gorges

            The relationship between groundwater and surface water is important to birds and other wildlife—and people.

            Some surface water is merely runoff from rain and snow that hasn’t yet soaked in and recharged the groundwater. Other surface water, like wetlands, is the result of high groundwater levels. Springs along a creek also depend on an adequate amount of groundwater.

            Groundwater and surface water along streams and in wetlands grow vegetation wildlife depends on for shelter and food. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species require these wetter areas.

            Precipitation can vary from year to year, but on average, it recharges the groundwater–the aquifer. Aquifers are geologically complicated, but mostly water flows through permeable layers much the same way surface water drains. In Laramie County both surface and groundwater flow somewhat west to east.

            If someone puts in a well and starts pumping, it will lower the water table—the top of the groundwater—for some distance from the well. If the water is for domestic use, it is filtered through a septic system and mostly returned to the groundwater. However, if it is used for irrigating lawns and gardens, much of it evaporates and is lost. If too many wells are sipping from the same aquifer, the water table drops, and people are forced to drill deeper wells.

            Another side effect of the water table dropping is wetlands and streams dry up, affecting wildlife.

            Wyoming has complex water laws for allocating surface water. The first person to homestead on a creek got the senior water rights. In a drought year, he might be the only one allowed to remove water from the creek.

            Groundwater rights are not as clear-cut, as far as I can tell. More than 25 or 30 years ago I remember being in eastern Laramie County putting on an Audubon presentation for the Young Farmers club. It was on the negative effects of human population growth. The farmers were already complaining then about the growing number of developments and the wells causing the water table to drop.

            In 2015, the Laramie County Control Area Order was established in eastern Laramie County to keep an eye on the situation.

            Before that, 2010-14, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, spent taxpayer funds to buy out 24 irrigation wells at $200,000 each within this same area, saving 1 billion gallons annually. The farmers could grow dryland wheat instead.

            And now, in the same area, the Lerwick family is asking for a permit to drill eight high-capacity wells for maximum production of 1.5 billion gallons per year for agricultural purposes. We assume it’s for irrigation and that irrigation water will not be recharging the aquifer much. I don’t get it. Permitting new high capacity wells after paying to retire others in the same area makes no sense at all.

            Neighboring farmers and ranchers are alarmed. Professional hydrologists can predict how it will negatively impact their water supplies. Creeks and wetlands, the few we have out here, will dry up and the neighbor’s wells will have to be re-drilled.

            Beginning March 4 and for 30 days, the state engineer is asking for comments about the effectiveness of the 2015 Laramie County Control Area Order which guides groundwater development in the area of the proposed wells. Call 307-777-6150 to find out exactly how to comment.

March 18, the state engineer will hold a hearing regarding the Lerwick permits and will hear from the affected neighboring farmers and ranchers, 17 of them.

            Is it fair for someone to get a new well permit that will cause all his neighbors the expense of drilling deeper? Instead, can a community, through governmental agencies, come to an agreement that an area is no longer suitable for irrigated agriculture?

The Ogallala Aquifer, of which this High Plains Aquifer is part, extends under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For several generations, farmers have been mining it. We can call it mining because more water is extracted than returned. It is not a sustainable situation for anyone.    

            Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society is speaking up for the birds and other wildlife, but it’s doubtful wildlife will be considered much in the calculation of acre-feet and gallons per minute and other details of water rights. We already know that in the last 50 years grassland birds have lost the most population of any North American habitat type. Unsustainable mining of water in Laramie County, should the new high-capacity wells be permitted, won’t help.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species can be found in Wyoming’s riparian areas like this one on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Panayoti Kelaidis speaking Feb. 29, inspiring Wyoming gardeners to go native

International plant explorer Panayoti Kelaidis to speak Feb. 29 at Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop, to inspire Wyoming gardeners to go native

6th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop:

“Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Native Plant Gardening 101”

Feb. 29, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Laramie County Community College

$25 fee includes lunch. Register by Feb. 27 at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4463444, where the complete schedule can be read. Questions: Mark Gorges, 307-287-4953, mgorges@juno.com.


By Barb Gorges

            A couple weeks ago I was at the Denver Botanic Gardens to interview Panayoti Kelaidis who will be the keynote speaker at the 6th annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop Feb. 29.

            PK, as he suggests people call him, stepped out to pour us cups of Ceylonese tea. While I waited, I noticed his office had floor to ceiling shelves full of plant books for parts of the world he’s travelled.

Numerous plaques and certificates on one wall commemorated his contributions to horticulture over a lengthy career. His latest accolade is to be a judge at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The windowsill had a parade of small, unique succulents and cactuses, part of PK’s extensive personal plant collection at his Denver home. I toured the nearly half-acre garden on the Garden Bloggers Fling last summer.

            As part of his job as senior curator and director of outreach for the DBG, PK leads plant tours to foreign countries, most recently Tibet. A tour of the Sichuan, China, area planned for June will depend on world health concerns. He reads Chinese, having once been a student of the language.

             But PK is also enthusiastic about Wyoming, where he visited two favorite aunts as a child. In the 1980s he travelled our state for his native seed business. He likes to take people on plant tours to the Cody area. As the president-elect of the North American Rock Garden Society, he’s considering a future convention in Cheyenne—we have nearby natural rock gardens to show off.

            PK’s plant knowledge is extensive, especially grassland and alpine species. He co-authored the 2015 book “Steppes, the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions.” There are four major steppe regions in the world, including the Great Plains. He writes a blog called Prairiebreak, http://prairiebreak.blogspot.com/, and he established the Alpine Garden at the DBG.

            How does he describe himself? “Plant nerd.” He said a friend says he’s a plant geek. I think he’s both. He’ll tell you he is not a garden designer, but I’d say he looks at an even bigger picture. And that is why he’s been invited to be the Habitat Hero workshop’s keynote speaker.

            PK likens Douglas Tallamy and his book “Bringing Nature Home,” to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” He said both books mark sea changes in our relationship to nature. Carson’s, published in 1962, showed the devastation caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Tallamy, in his 2007 book, showed us our conventional landscaping and gardening practices are detrimental to native insects, birds, other wildlife, and consequently, people. We need to plant native plants to support native insects, including native bees and butterflies. They are the foundation of the healthy ecosystems we enjoy and require.

At first, PK thought Tallamy was a little too radical, saying all ornamental plants from elsewhere needed to be replaced with natives. For many generations, the goal of landscaping and ornamental gardening has been beauty, PK said. But now he recognizes the other goal must be “ecological services.”

“We really need to figure out how to create a garden that is part of the natural system, not an obstacle,” said PK. Can that be beautiful? Can we shift the paradigm completely?

Can we make beautiful gardens with native plants? What we mean by “native” varies. For some American gardeners, it means the species originated on our continent, even if 3000 miles away. Or “native” for Cheyenne could mean any Great Plains species, or even just those from the prairie outside town.

 Xeriscaping, gardening with less water, began about 45 years ago in the Denver area, PK related. With a growing population that could quickly run out of water, smart people realized changing from landscape plants popular in parts of the country with high rainfall to plants that need less water would help. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities promotes this philosophy as well. Many of the more xeric plants are natives.

PK works with the DBG and Colorado State University which partnered to form Plant Select, https://plantselect.org/. It develops plants native to our high plains and intermountain region for the nursery trade. It makes it easy for gardeners to grow beautiful plants by planting those that love to grow here—and use less water. Though, PK said, there’s still room to grow the occasional prized non-native, water-hungry ornamental.

The water-wise and pollinator-friendly movements were combined a few years ago by Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program. The five previous workshops in Cheyenne have been well-received. I think it’s because people enjoy doing something positive like gardening to support our environment.

 After PK’s keynote address, “Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Learning from the Natives,”designed to inspire us, the workshop’s other presenters will walk us through the steps to take to make a Habitat Hero garden.

Talks will include how to protect and maintain natural prairie if you have some already, deciding on a location for a garden, removing unwanted plants whether turf or weeds, choosing plants, proper planting techniques, maintaining plants and gardens, and how to apply to be a certified Habitat Hero. The two hands-on components will be about how to install drip irrigation and how to use the winter sowing technique to grow native plants from seed (seeds, soil and containers included).

Panayoti Kelaidis explores plants at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in northern Colorado.

Conservation Ranching for the birds–and cows

Greater Sage-Grouse lekking with cattle in the background on sagebrush-steppe habitat on Bureau of Land Management land leased by Pathfinder Ranches in Natrona County, Wyoming. March 28, 2019. Photo by Evan Barrientos, Audubon Rockies. Courtesy.

Published Dec. 15, 2019, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Conservation Ranching is for the birds–and the cows”

By Barb Gorges

             You’ll run across arguments saying our farmlands would be put to better use raising food crops for people instead of forage crops for cattle. Maybe so—back east.

            But Wyoming’s remaining rangeland, its prairie grasslands and shrublands, is not suited to raising crops. We don’t have the water or the soils. But we do grow excellent native forage, originally for buffalo, now for cattle.

            And what a great system it is—no fossil fuels required to harvest that forage—the animals do it for you! On top of that, good range management is good for birds.

However, grassland birds were identified as the group having declined the most in the past 48 years, https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

At a recent Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Dusty Downey, Audubon Rockies’ lead for its Conservation Ranching Initiative, explained part of the problem is grassland conversion. When ranchers can’t make enough on cattle, they might try converting rangeland to cropland or to houses and other infrastructure. With hard work, cropland can be restored someday, but houses are a permanent conversion and wildlife suffers habitat loss.

Eighty-five percent of grasslands and sagebrush steppe is privately owned. So Dusty, raised on and still living on a ranch by Devils Tower, and his boss, Alison Holloran, a wildlife biologist, thought reaching out to ranchers about enhancing their operations could benefit both birds and cattle. Offering a financial incentive makes it attractive and might keep land in ranching.

National Audubon picked up the idea and made it a national program. The “Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land” logo can help ranchers get anywhere from 10 to 40 cents per pound more, depending on the market.

Conservation ranching is now popular in Dusty’s Thunder Basin neighborhood where ranchers know him and his family. Through the program, ranchers learn techniques for maximizing production over the long term that also benefit birds and they get help finding funding for ranch improvements. With third party certification, they earn the privilege of selling their meat at a premium price to people like me who value their commitment.

We also value meat free of hormones and antibiotics, so that is part of the certification. And we appreciate that cows eating grass produce less methane, part of the climate change problem, than if they eat corn.

Dusty said in the last 15 years, grass-fed beef sales have grown 400 percent, from $5 million a year to $2 billion.

Audubon-certified beef is available at Big Hollow Food Coop in Laramie, http://www.laramiecoop.com/, the Reed Ranch in Douglas, tombevreed@gmail.com, in Colorado, other western states and online. See https://www.audubon.org/where-buy-products-raised-audubon-certified-land#.

Grazing prairie looks simple. But grazing management is both art and science.

What does the vegetation need? How is it interacting with weather and grazers? Grassland vegetation needs grazing to stay healthy. Dusty cited a four-year study that showed an ungrazed pasture was not as productive or as diverse as one that had been grazed properly. Grazed plots showed five times more birds, two times more arthropods (food for chicks) and five times more dung beetles (the compost experts) than ungrazed plots.

Grazing grasslands down to bare ground like the buffalo did looks bad, but in the right context it allows highly nutritious plants to grow that can’t compete otherwise. It also aids bird species that require bare ground or very short grass somewhere in their lifecycle, between courtship and fledging.

My experience with prairie plants in the Habitat Hero demonstration garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens showed plants grazed down to ground level by rabbits rebounded the next spring. But you can’t let the rabbits in year-round or the same season year after year.

The gold standard when I was studying range management at the University of Wyoming was rest-rotation grazing. Now it’s producing a changing mosaic of plants by adjusting grazing timing on a multi-year cycle for any given pasture, tailored to the plants there and the rancher’s goals. Laramie County Conservation District helps local landowners figure it out, https://www.lccdnet.org/.

For an elegant explanation of the dance between animal and prairie plant, read a recent blog post by Chris Helzer, https://prairieecologist.com/2019/11/13/what-does-habitat-look-like-on-a-ranch/. He is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy-Nebraska.

Chris talks about growing a shifting mosaic of plants that will be more resilient through drought and other extremes. He also said, “Chronic overgrazing can degrade plant communities and reduce habitat quality, but a well-managed ranch can foster healthy wildlife populations while optimizing livestock production.”

Next time you meet a rancher, restaurant owner or grocery store manager, ask them if they’ve heard about Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative. Tell them it’s good for birds—and cows.

3 billion birds missing

Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks show declines.

We know how 3 billion breeding birds disappeared in last 48 years

By Barb Gorges

            “Decline of the North American avifauna” is the title of the report published online by the journal Science on Sept. 19, 2019.

            The bird conservation groups I belong to summed it up as “3 billion birds lost.”

            In a nutshell (eggshell?), there are three billion fewer, 29 percent fewer, breeding birds of 529 species in North America then in 1970.

            The losses are spread across common birds, like western meadowlark, as well as less common birds, in all biomes. While the grasslands, where we live, lost only 720 million breeding birds, that’s 53 percent—the highest percentage of the biomes. And 74 percent of grassland species are declining. Easy-to-understand infographics are available at https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

            Two categories of birds have increased in numbers: raptors and waterfowl. Their numbers were very low in 1970 due to pesticides and wetland degradation, respectively. Eliminating DDT and restoring wetlands, among other actions, allowed them to prosper.

                The 11 U.S. and Canadian scientists crunched data from ongoing bird surveys including the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Christmas Bird Count, the International Shorebird Survey, and the Partners in Flight Avian Conservation Database.

Weather radar, which shows migrating birds simply as biomass, shows a 14 percent decrease from 2007 to 2017.

            Two of the contributors to the study are scientists I’ve talked to and whose work I respect. Adriaan Dokter, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is working with me, Audubon Rockies and the Roundhouse developers. We want to see if weather radar can predict the best nights to shut down wind turbines for the safety of migratory birds passing through the wind farm they are buiding at the southwest corner of I80 and I25.

            I’ve met Arvind Panjabi, with Bird Conservancy of the Rockies headquartered in Ft. Collins, Colorado, on several occasions. BCR does bird studies primarily in the west as well as educational programs. 

            How does the number of birds make a difference to you and me? Birds are the easiest animals to count and serve as indicators of ecological health. If bird numbers are down, we can presume other fauna numbers are out of whack too—either, for instance, too many insects devouring crops or too few predators keeping pest numbers down. Ecological changes affect our food, water and health.

            The decline of common bird species is troubling because you would think they would be taking advantage of the decline of species less resilient to change. But even invasive species like European starling and house sparrow are declining.

The biggest reasons for avian population loss are habitat loss, agricultural intensification (no “weedy” areas left), coastal disturbance and human activities. Climate change amplifies all the problems.

A coalition including Audubon, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Georgetown University have an action plan.

7 steps we can all take to help birds

            There are seven steps we can all take. The steps, with details, are at https://www.3billionbirds.org/. Most of them I’ve written about over the last 20 years so you can also search my archives, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/.    

1. Make windows safer. Turn off lights at night inside and outside large buildings like the Herschler Building and the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens during migration. Break up the reflections of vegetation birds see in our home windows during the day.

2. Keep cats indoors. Work on the problem of feral cats. They are responsible for more than two-thirds of the 2.6 billion birds per year cats kill.

3. Use native plants. There are 63,000 square miles of lawn in the U.S. currently only attractive to birds if they have pests or weeds.

4. Avoid pesticides. They are toxic to birds and the insects they eat. Go organic. Support U.S. bill H.R. 1337, Saving America’s Pollinators Act. Contact Wyoming’s Representative Liz Cheney and ask that registration of neonicotinoids be suspended. Birds eating seeds with traces of neonics are not as successful surviving and breeding.

5. Drink shade-grown coffee. It helps 42 species of migratory North American birds and is economically beneficial to farmers.

6. Reduce plastic use. Even here, mid-continent rather than the ocean, plastic can be a problem for birds. Few companies are interested in recycling plastic anymore.

7. Do citizen science. Help count birds through volunteer surveys like eBird, Project FeederWatch (new count season begins Nov. 9), the Christmas Bird Count (Cheyenne’s is Dec. 28), and if you are a good birder, take on a Breeding Bird Survey route next spring.

To aid grasslands in particular, support Audubon’s conservation ranching initiative, https://www.audubon.org/conservation/ranching.

In a related Science article, Ken Rosenberg, the report’s lead author, says, “I am not saying we can stop the decline of every bird species, but I am weirdly hopeful.”

Western Meadowlarks are also in severe decline. Audubon Photography Awards 2012, photographer’s name not available.

Birder tilts at windmills

Speaking on behalf of birds at Roundhouse windfarm industrial siting hearing was intense experience

The 120 turbines of the Roundhouse wind farm will spread between I-80 and the Colorado border (indicated here as the Larimer and Weld county lines) and from Highway 218 to I-25 (red line on the east side).
The wind farm includes the Belvoir Ranch owned by the City of Cheyenne (yellow), Wyoming State Land (dark blue–each square is 1 square mile) and private land (light blue). The Big Hole, located on the Belvoir south of the railroad tracks, is under The Nature Conservancy conservation easement and will have no turbines.

Published July 5, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as a guest editorial, “Participating at the Roundhouse hearing was an intense adventure”

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society agrees clean energy is needed. However, wind energy is deadly for birds when they are struck by turbine blades.

            Beginning last December, CHPAS discussed its concerns about the Roundhouse Wind Energy development with company, city and county officials. The 120-turbine wind farm will extend from Interstate 80 south to the Colorado state line and from I-25 west to Harriman Road.

            The Wyoming Industrial Siting Council hearing for the approval of the Roundhouse Wind Energy application was held June 13 in a quasi-legal format.
          Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society filed as a party, preparing a pre-hearing statement. The other parties were the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Division, Roundhouse, and Laramie County, also acting on behalf of the city of Cheyenne.
            We all presented our opening statements. Then the Roundhouse lawyer presented her expert witnesses, asking them leading questions. Then I, acting in the same capacity for CHPAS as the lawyer for Roundhouse, cross-examined her witnesses. One was a viewshed analysis expert from Los Angeles, the other a biologist from Western EcoSystems Technology, the Cheyenne consulting firm that does contract biological studies for wind energy companies across the country.
            Then CHPAS presented our expert witness, Daly Edmunds, Audubon Rockies’ policy and outreach director. Wind farm issues are a big part of her work. She is also a wildlife biologist with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming.
            We were rushed getting our testimony in before the 5 p.m. cutoff for the first day because I was not available the next day. I asked permission to allow Mark Gorges to read our closing statement the next day, after the applicant had a chance to rebut all the conditions we asked for.
            The seven council members chose not to debate our conditions. Some conditions were echoed by DEQ. But it was a hard sell since Wyoming Game and Fish Department had already signed off on the application.
            Here are the conditions we asked for:
1) Some of the recommended wildlife studies will be one and a half years away from completion when turbine-building starts in September. Complete the studies first to make better turbine placement decisions.
2) Do viewshed analysis from the south and share it with adjacent Colorado open space and natural area agencies.
3) Get a “take permit” to avoid expensive trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if dead eagles are found.
4) Use the Aircraft Detection Lighting System so tower lights, which can confuse night-migrating birds, will be turned on as little as possible. This was on DEQ’s list as well.
5) Use weather radar to predict the best times to shut down turbines during bird migration.
6) Be transparent about the plans for and results of avian monitoring after the turbines start.
7) Relocate six of the southernmost turbine locations because of their impact on wildlife and the integrity of adjacent areas set aside for their conservation value.
            The second half of the hearing dealt with county/city requests for economic impact funds from the state. The expected costs are from a couple hundred workers temporarily descending on Cheyenne requiring health and emergency services.
            At the June CHPAS board meeting, members approved staying involved in the Roundhouse issue. The Roundhouse folks have a little mitigation money we could direct toward a study to benefit birds at this and other wind farms. There is a Technical Advisory Committee we need to keep track of. And we need to lobby to give Game and Fish’s recommendations more legal standing so they can’t be ignored.
            It’s too bad I don’t watch courtroom dramas. The hearing would have been easier to navigate. But everyone—DEQ employees, the Roundhouse team, council members, hearing examiner, court reporter—was very supportive of CHPAS’s participation. They rarely see the public as a party at these hearings. I just wish we could have had one or more conditions accepted on behalf of the birds.

Barb Gorges is the most recent past president of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society which represents Audubon members in Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties.      

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society took a tour of the Belvoir Ranch fall 2008. This photo looks northwest from the rim of the Big Hole. Photo by Barb Gorges.
On the southernmost edge of the Belvoir Ranch sits the rim of the Big Hole. This is the view to the south, into Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space. Concentrated nocturnal songbird migration through this area can be seen with weather radar (see a previous post about BirdCast). It is not known if the 499-foot-tall Roundhouse wind turbines will be visible from below. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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.