Alaska bird behavior intrigues

Gulls form a white edge on the beach at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, in early October on a rare sunny day. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”

By Barb Gorges

            Our family lost its guide to Alaska in October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska for 51 years, died at age 84.

            Peter was an inveterate explorer, from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20 years.

            Whenever we visited, Peter was our tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.

            Peter became more interested in birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls, ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship visitors.

            Spend time among ravens that walk within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might share food.

            One raven I met after the memorial mass for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping I had a key to food inside.

            I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again. Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent generations to recognize the masks.

            Crows have many human-like behaviors because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree, jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).

            Because ravens and crows do not have bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.

            Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.

            Southeast Alaska is not particularly cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald eagles.

The pilings by the breakwater on Crescent Bay are a favorite perch for Sitka, Alaska, bald eagles. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Sitka’s bald eagles are not as chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.

            Neither of us had binoculars, if you can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.

            Then there was a flash of white. Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like oars on a rowboat?

            We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.

            I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.

Going where the gulls are

Ring-billed Gull

The Ring-billed Gull, one of the medium-sized gulls, is the most common gull to be seen around Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Nov. 25, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going where the gulls are adds species to life list.”

2014 Update: Another gull guide was published in 2007 in the Peterson Reference Guides series: Gulls of the Americas, by Steve N.G. Howell and Jon Dunn, published by Houghton Mifflin.

By Barb Gorges

It was obvious, based on time of which day and the location–early morning Saturday near a wetland in Fort Collins, Colo.–that the flock of four Subaru Outbacks and five other fuel efficient vehicles gathering belonged to birders, especially since one bore the plate “Skuas,” referring to a type of oceanic bird.

Another clue was that about half the vehicles were then left behind in the parking lot.

Birders carpool not only to lessen the necessity of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but because we’re sociable, and it’s easier to share sightings while enroute. It’s also easier to park where there isn’t a lot of room to pull off the road, which was the case at our first stop at the edge of Long Pond.

A local resident stopped to inquire what we were looking for. With nearly a dozen scopes on tripods set up, we were either peering through the windows of the waterfront homes on the far side or checking out the birds on the water.

We were on a gull trip this mid-November day. Our leaders, Doug Faulkner and Tony Leukering, had the expertise and the optics to find something beyond the most common species of the plains, the ring-billed gull.

My expertise lags far behind, but at least I don’t refer to them as seagulls. However, I wished I’d studied up the night before. Instead, I had to juggle my notes and my field guide with frozen fingers while gray chill also found my toes.

Squinting through my scope made my eyes water, increasing the difficulty of picking out how much black and gray marked the inside of a wingtip of a floating gull surrounded by a flock of common mergansers.

Birders sharing observations of particular feathers seen from about 400 yards away had it slightly easier because of the landmarks on the opposite shore, such as the green canoe, the overturned red canoe and the collection of chaise lounges.

Three gull species, herring, California and Thayer’s, were identified. The Thayer’s, normally an Arctic breeder wintering on the west coast, is considered rare in Colorado and has not yet made the records in Wyoming. I could add it to my life list, but not to my list of birds I can identify by myself.

Someone also picked out a large gull, white head with marbled brown body, and determined it to be a young great black-backed gull. It certainly was larger than the other gulls, and also far from home, the Atlantic seaboard.

As we wandered from lake to lake, we found a very pale gull normally seen along the northeastern and northwestern coasts of North America. The back of the glaucous gull lives up to its name which is Latin for a silvery, bluish color. I think I can add that species to my self-identifiable list, unless of course someday I have to compare it to the glaucous-winged gull, which strays much less often to Colorado and Wyoming from the west coast.

If you’ve only buzzed by Fort Collins on the Interstate admiring the snow on the peaks, or only shopped College Avenue, you might find it incredible that it’s a hot spot for rare gulls. However, one look at a map more detailed than a road atlas shows you are in lake country. The area at the foot of the foothills is pockmarked with ponds. All are manmade. Some reservoirs cover almost a square mile, making lakefront developments common.

Luckily, lakefront has been set aside in the Open Space system. One of our stops, Fossil Creek Reservoir, just west of the Windsor exit, has recently been developed for wildlife viewing.

No rare gulls at Fossil Creek, but I did pick up a new life species. The American Ornithologists’ Union has very recently determined that the four smallest of the 11 races of Canada goose are now to be known as a separate species, the cackling goose.

Without DNA testing equipment, birders will have to depend on relative size, color and location for identification. Doug said the geese we were seeing were cackling, migrating through from their tundra breeding grounds. For a long goose discussion, go to

I also saw a species that I thought was a genuine life bird for me, only to discover once home that I saw it in New Mexico 10 years ago. The greater white-fronted goose’s name refers to its white face. Otherwise it is blah gray-brown. But it’s the orange bill, and orange legs if you can see them, which stand out in a crowd of cackling/Canadas. We counted six of them swimming in a line like the ducks on that pull-along toy I had as a toddler.

Like so many other field trips, this one was open-ended. A couple folks from Casper turned back around noon and a couple more of us from Cheyenne headed home around 2 p.m., the rest disbursing later. No new gulls were added without us, but we missed the trumpeter swan.

Tony said an increase in the sightings of rare gulls is partly due to increasing population and range thanks to people inadvertently providing more food sources, but also because more people are looking for gulls and more people are capable of picking out the rare species.

To become a gull expert, I should probably invest in that huge book, Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia by Olsen and Larsson. But nothing takes the place of field observation and the patient mentors I’ve met so far.

In search of Great Black-backed Gulls

Greater Black-backed Gulls

Great Black-backed Gulls line up along the Gloucester breakwater, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 31 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “In search of great black-backed gulls.”

2014 Update: While we no longer have a family member living in Massachusetts, we have many other family members scattered around the country to keep our birding interesting.

By Barb Gorges

I had a target bird for our trip to northeastern Massachusetts early in October. No, it wasn’t a clay pigeon, but it was a bird I wanted to see.

Houghton Mifflin sent me a review copy of the Peterson Reference Guides series volume “Gulls of the Americas” by Steve Howell and John Dunn.

It has 500 large pages–it’s not meant to be a field guide–of which multiple photos of the 36 gull species of this hemisphere in all their various plumages fill 300 pages.

Whenever I had to wait on the phone at my desk the last few months, I would peruse the photos, accounts and range maps.

Knowing a trip to the North Shore (north of Boston) was coming up, I checked for a new gull species I might see.

The great black-backed gull caught my attention because it might be easy to identify. It’s the largest gull in the world, according to Howell and Dunn. And of two black-backed gull species on the east coast, it’s the one with pink legs.

The upshot of reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull is that I noticed gulls, tried to identify gulls and gave up gulls by age 16. So it was much to my surprise that another literary connection gave me my first look at a great black-back.

We went to Salem for the day and walked over to the House of Seven Gables that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. Tickets were $13 each for a 30-minute tour. We balked and followed other tourists down a side street for a great view over the fence. We were also at the edge of the harbor and when I turned around, there were a couple of great black-backed gulls. Eureka!

The next day, out on the half-mile long breakwater in Gloucester Harbor, at Massachusetts Audubon’s Eastern Point Sanctuary, great black-backs were lined up on the slabs of granite, dozens of them imperturbable as people passed within five feet.

I overheard one woman tell another what pests they were, pooping on her boat cover.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Oh no, my target bird turned out to be a trash bird–too common and pesky to be appreciated by the locals.

Of the 33 photos of great black-backed gulls in the gull guide, I wonder if the photographers were able to stand as close to their subjects as we were.

Even the few herring gulls were patient, their yellow eyes glinting at me.

It was quite another experience to have a chickadee with a glint in its eye hover five inches from Mark’s nose later that day when we found our way to Ipswich River Audubon Sanctuary, a few miles southwest of Ipswich.

It was way too muggy and hot for the middle of an October afternoon–and autumn so far had been too warm for the trees to have changed color much.

We expected the birds to be quiet, but as soon as we stepped from field to forest, we were surrounded by a flock, including the one that inspected Mark.

How odd. Was it some kind of enchanted chickadee? And wasn’t that other inquisitive bird some kind of titmouse? Why couldn’t I find one like it in my field guide?

The next day, while waiting for our son to finish classes at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, we explored Mass Audubon’s (as the state organization is known informally) Broadmeadow Brook sanctuary near Worcester.

The woman at the desk explained the Ipswich River sanctuary was known for its tame chickadees that will eat out of your hand.

Oh no, if only we’d known the local custom! Now there’s a whole flock that thinks birders from Wyoming are stingy.

Broadmeadow Brook turned out to have invisible birds.

For 15 minutes we listened to a flock making loud chipping calls high in the trees, but we never caught sight of one single bird.

However, the bird checklist mentioned tufted titmouse. I looked in my field guide again-but no tufted titmouse listed.

Duh! At home, in my hurry to pack and get to the airport, I’d picked up my favorite field guide, Sibley’s western guide, which is not adequate back east.

For a week we explored the northeast quarter of Massachusetts, an area approximately the size of our Laramie County. And still, we didn’t see everything or spend enough time anywhere.

We avoided Boston and most museums and attractions this trip in favor of natural areas, accidentally finding Harvard Forest, where signs invite hikers to follow a trail through the hemlocks.

We visited four Mass Audubon sanctuaries, including the tiny one on Marblehead Neck surrounded by houses. There are 40 more, for a total of 32,000 acres. There are also a number of state parks and forests.

Away from the cities, along the small, winding roads, there is the occasional yellow sign cautioning “Thickly Settled” when approaching some tiny hamlet.

The area is thick with trees as well. I have to say that though I enjoy trees as much as anyone, I was happy to return to the Great Plains where they can be individually contemplated and birds are neither enchanted nor invisible.

And here at home, if the great black-backed gull chooses to make its first Wyoming visit, having already been as far as Colorado a few times, there aren’t a lot of yacht covers to ruin.