Family time for birds

“Summertime is family time for birds,” was published August 2, 2020 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

A Rufous Hummingbird tests nectar production of a red variety of beebalm, or Monarda, I grow in our backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

            I asked one of our sons if he’d done any interesting birdwatching lately. He said no, it isn’t as exciting as during spring migration.

            I would disagree. Return migration starts up in mid-July. Migrating shorebirds were at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 then, while low water levels made their favorite mudflats.

            One sure sign of impending autumn is the hummingbirds coming into town. My red beebalm’s first flower was in bloom for about two days when it attracted the first broad-tailed hummingbird July 11. It was finished nesting in the high country and it, or other broadtails, made daily visits for 10 days. Then, a male rufous hummingbird returning from breeding—maybe in northwest Canada—came by. As the beebalm reached its peak, we had a hummingbird buzzing in every daylight hour or so, checking the flowers’ recharge of nectar and mostly ignoring the hummingbird feeder.

            However, birdwatching in my neighborhood in July and August is more about family drama.

Kids are naturally noisy and the Swainson’s hawks in the nest two yards down are no exception. One of the young took a tumble and landed on a branch several feet below the nest, which is set in the top of a spruce. It cried all day, but I think it climbed back up because it looked like there were two young back on the nest July 24.

            One day I thought one of the young Swainson’s had fledged and was sitting in our tree. I could hear a slightly off rendition of the call, maybe like a young bird still practicing, but couldn’t spot it at all. Later, I realized it was a blue jay doing imitations. And then there were the three blue jays flitting through our backyard that didn’t sound like full-fledged blue jays. They weren’t. Husband Mark’s photo showed one still had puffy baby feathers on its rump.

            July and August are when many plants bear fruit here. Whole extended families of robins strip our chokecherries even though I don’t think the fruit is ripe yet.

In the neglected front yard around the corner there’s a wonderful crop of thistle. Usually it’s the American goldfinches helping themselves but the other day there was a lesser goldfinch, which is not as common. Both are species that nest later than other songbirds because they are waiting to feed their young chewed up thistle seed instead of insects, like the other songbird parents.

            If you keep your eyes open, you may see parents feeding young, even after they’ve fledged, like the yellow warblers we saw along Crow Creek. And, when you see five house wrens hanging around the same willow tree, you know they are siblings who haven’t dispersed yet.

            Young crows take longer to mature. One of the smarter species of birds, not everything they need to know is hard-wired in their brain. They must learn it. After my cleaning the other day, my dental hygienist and I peered out the window wondering just why the young crow was rolling a rock-like object around—sorry, didn’t think to bring binocs to my appointment.

            One surprise this summer has been the number of mourning doves. Within a few years of the first sighting of Eurasian collared-doves in Wyoming, here in Laramie County in 1998, we quit seeing mourning doves breeding in our neighborhood. But this summer if we look closely at the doves on the wires, many have the mourning dove’s pointy-tailed silhouette. Perhaps they’ve finally learned to compete with the collared-doves for nest sites.

            For some species, their parental duties are already finished and they are free to flock around Cheyenne with their pals. The other morning, I estimated there were 150 common grackles carrying on boisterously in treetops and on lawns. Eventually, they will head south.

            If bird behavior interests you, read Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, “The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent and Think.” Ackerman writes, in a very readable way, about the latest science that is discovering that birds approach those five kinds of behaviors in myriad ways.

            I flipped to the section on parenting. From egg shape to nest shape to who feeds the young and how they are protected, birds have evolved strategies to suit their environment.

But it isn’t always an eons-long process. If they aren’t successful with a nest in one location one year, they may move to a different location the next.

Or they knock people on the head if they suspect they’ve harmed their chicks, like the Australian magpie does. And those birds can remember people for 20 years. Yikes.

            Thankfully, our birds are easier to live with, especially when we preserve prairie habitat and enhance the city forest, letting them enrich our lives.    

Costa Rica birding

Slaty Flowerpiercer. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Costa Rica birds amaze Wyoming birders

By Barb Gorges

            “Rufous Motmot, Collared Aracari, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Yellow-throated Toucan, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, White-collared Manakin”—these were some of the names that rolled off our tongues as my husband, Mark, and I spotted birds in Costa Rica on a trip in early November.

            I saw two species endemic to Costa Rica found nowhere else (remember, it’s only 20 percent the size of Wyoming): Coppery-headed Emerald, a hummingbird, and Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, on the edge of a new clearing for an apartment building.

            We saw 32 regional endemics, often meaning the species is found only in Costa Rica and neighboring Panama. My favorite, the Slaty Flowerpiercer, cleverly pierces the base of large flowers to extract nectar. Later, hummingbirds come by and get nectar too.

Snowcap, a type of hummingbird, is a regional endemic, ranging from southern Honduras to western Panama, including Costa Rica. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            We drove up Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), to 11,400 feet where all the communications towers are, to find the Volcano Junco. It’s another regional endemic, cousin of the juncos under our feeders in winter. It obligingly hopped around in front of us.

            Of the 234 species I saw in seven straight days of birding, 187 were life birds. The others, mostly migrants, I’d seen in North America previously.

            The top six bird groups I saw were hummingbirds (27 species), flycatchers (23), warblers (17), tanagers (12), woodpeckers (10) and wrens (9). Mario Cordoba H., our guide, explained Costa Rica has a lot of bird diversity (922 species), but not a lot of any one species—no big flocks.

Silvery-throated Tanager. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Mario, a native of Costa Rica, has been in the guiding business more than 20 years. Bird Watcher’s Digest contracted with his company, Crescentia Expeditions, to plan and guide the trip. Mario included a variety of habitats and alternated hikes in the forest to see elusive birds like Streak-headed Woodcreepers with stops for nectar feeder stations where bright-colored birds like the Fiery-throated Hummingbird were the target of everyone’s cameras.

Mario Cordoba, Crescentia Expeditions owner/guide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Feeding stations filled with fruit at one ecolodge attracted the turkey-sized, prehistoric-looking Great Curassow. A frequent feeder visitor everywhere was the Blue-gray Tanager. It reminded me of our Mountain Bluebird. I even saw it buzzing around our bus, checking out the sideview mirrors and roof, the way the bluebirds do in spring.

Yellow-throated Toucan. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            There are many aspects to travelling in Central America beyond birding. For instance, lodging. Our first and last nights we stayed at two different boutique hotels. Hotel Bougainvillea is the one with 10 acres of bird-filled gardens.

            The three ecolodges in between were in rural areas and a little more rustic: Arenal Observatory Lodge, Selva Verde and Paraiso Quetzal. Mario picked these for their proximity to bird diversity. There are more independently owned lodges scattered across the country.

            For lunch and dinner, we often had “Typical Plate” – rice, beans, vegetables and meat (chicken, beef, pork). Up in the mountains, trout was an option because people farm trout there.

            Some of our travelling companions tired of beans and rice, and tired of the rain—we were maybe a little early anticipating the dry season—but otherwise, we were a congenial group of 12, plus Mario, Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest’s managing editor, and Ricardo, our fearless bus driver. He was also great at spotting birds and taking photos through the spotting scope with our smart phones without an adaptor. I’m going to have to learn that art. There were no bird snobs. Everyone wanted to help everyone see birds.

            Costa Rica has been a leader in eco-tourism. Its map shows a large percentage of land in national parks and preserves.

            Mountain farmers have been encouraged to hang on to their wild avocado trees, providing the favorite food and habitat of the resplendent quetzal. It is the green bird with the nearly 3-foot-long tail feathers revered by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. In return, the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation’s quetzal project brings birdwatchers out to see them, paying the farmer $5 a head—not a small sum in the local economy.

            We saw dangerous animals. In the dim light along the trail at La Selva Biological Station there was a bright yellow Eyelash Pit Viper arranged on the side of a log. The Mantled Howler Monkeys overhead were watching visitors as much as being watched. Mosquitoes, however, were nearly non-existent. Mark and I wore our permethrin-treated field clothes anyway.

            I think how neat it would be if Wyoming too, had a cadre of trained naturalist guides and ecolodges in the vicinity of more of our interesting wildlife—not just the elk and wolves.

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

By Barb Gorges

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


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,

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,, 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

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Watch bird family dramas via window TV

2017-09 Lesser Goldfinch and young--Mark Gorges

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood”

Fastest Things on Wings

“Fastest Things on Wings” by Terry Masear

Published Aug. 30, 2015, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Hummingbird rescue reveals beauty and mystery”

Book review: “Fastest Things on Wings, Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,” by Terry Masear, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 306 pages, indexed, $25 hardcover.

By Barb Gorges

Terry Masear has a soft spot for hummingbirds, yet has survived the hard realities of rescuing and rehabbing them for 10 years.

Her new book is destined to wet your eyes now and then, as well as open them to the beauty and mystery of hummingbird life. She talks about her work in this interview by email. You can also listen to her NPR interview at

First, we should note in Cheyenne, hummingbirds typically visit only during migration, nesting at higher elevations.

Q. How is your 2015 season going? How about your success rate? Any favorite stories from this year?

A. Southern California hummingbird rehabilitators admit over 500 injured and orphaned birds into rescue centers annually. I release between seventy and eighty percent of my intakes. Due to promotional events for the book, I could not participate in hands-on rehabilitation this year, but I answered 2,000 calls, saved 200 birds over the phone, and sent another two hundred to rehab centers in the Los Angeles area. I helped rescue a pair of Allen’s nestlings that got entangled in a bizarre drama between their mother and her frustrated hybrid daughter (named Rosie by webcam viewers) from last year. This fascinating event, along with footage of several webcam nests and fledges this year, can be seen on Bella Hummingbird clips posted on YouTube.

Q. Have you noticed the drought affecting your hummingbird work?

A. The drought is leading to more mite-infested nests. But we have been able to save and keep most of these nestlings in their natural environment by having finders dust the nests and chicks with diatomaceous earth, which in no way deters the mothers from continuing to feed their young.

Q. What makes bird rescue in Hollywood different from other places?

A. Los Angeles has a larger and more diverse hummingbird population than any city in the world. Females often nest in backyards and near houses, which leads to encounters with humans and makes rescue more necessary. We see seven species–Allen’s, Anna’s, black-chinned, rufous, Costa’s, broad-tailed, and calliope— in rescue. Rehabbers also believe the Allen’s and rufous have hybridized in Southern California as we are noticing extensive rust coloration in many young males.

Q. What makes hummingbird rescue different from other bird rescue?

A. Hummingbird babies are extremely high-maintenance. They have to be hand fed every 30 minutes for 15 hours a day until they fledge and can be feeder trained. So a lot of bird rescue centers refuse to take them, which is why private rehabbers stay busy.

Q. What are the biggest hazards for hummingbirds in L.A.?

A. Tree trimmers and weekend gardeners are by far the greatest threats to young hummingbirds. So we are trying to educate the city and private citizens to refrain from trimming trees in the spring when birds are nesting. Also, a lot of well-meaning finders pick up grounded fledglings and carry them home, which takes the young birds away from their mothers who are still feeding them. Other dangers to hummingbirds include windows, domestic cats, termite tenting, and weather hazards like heavy wind and torrential rain.

Q. All things considered, do you think hummingbird feeders are good for hummingbirds?

A. As long as people keep them clean, sugar feeders benefit hummingbird populations and, along with introduced vegetation, have allowed species like the Anna’s and rufous to expand their ranges considerably.

Q. Which is more difficult, dealing with emotionally distraught callers that have found an injured or abandoned hummingbird, or dealing with the birds?

A. Of course, serious injuries present challenges for the rehabber and some losses will haunt you. But ask any rehabber on the front lines what the most difficult part of their work is and they will say dealing with the public. The majority of callers are compassionate and caring, but a certain percentage does not have the wildlife’s best interests in mind. Some callers don’t want to make any effort and will let helpless nestlings die if rehabbers don’t show up immediately. Others insist on keeping young birds as pets. When we explain why they cannot do this, legally or in good conscience, some get abusive. These conversations strain the patience of even the most forgiving rehabber, especially during peak season when the pressure is on.

Q. Record keeping is required for your permit, but are you also keeping notes that helped you write this book—all the anecdotes about particular birds and their personalities and challenges?

A. As far as overall intakes and releases, my records are pretty precise, so I referred to those when writing “Fastest Things on Wings.” And through these records I can recall certain birds because of their unique histories. Other remarkable characters, like Pepper, Gabriel, Iris, and Blacktop, are easy to remember because their stories are so extraordinary.

Q. A PhD in English doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a riveting story, as you have. What writing experience did you have before writing this book?

A. I taught research writing at UCLA for years and wrote a textbook for ESL students. Five years ago, ironically, I wrote a nonfiction book about a unique and mysterious experience my husband and I had with our cats. While I was trying to sell that manuscript, editors kept asking about hummingbird rehab, which led to this book.

Q. Were you out on book tours this spring and summer, and if so, who held down the fort?


I have been doing book signings and interviews all summer, which is why I could not do rehab. But my phone hasn’t stopped ringing for six months, so I’ve been deeply involved in the rescue business. And as exhausting as it is, I miss the powerfully rewarding experience of rehab and can’t wait to get back to it.

Habitat Heroes wanted to grow native

Habitat Hero banner

“Be a Habitat Hero” – find out more about the program at

Published Feb. 8, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Habitat Heroes’ wanted to grow native plants.”

By Barb Gorges

Sometimes, wildlife issues seem to be out of the hands of ordinary people, people like those of us who are not wildlife biologists, land managers or politicians. Often, it seems futile to write a letter or email stating my opinion.

Connie Holsinger has devised a way for us to do something for wildlife right in our own backyards–literally.

Connie is the founder of the Habitat Hero program which shows people in the Rocky Mountain area how to turn all or part of their yards, no matter what size, even a container or an apartment balcony, into wildlife habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and, may I add, even bats, and other wildlife.

A popular term for this is “wildscaping.” Add to that the term “waterwise” and Connie immediately grabs the attention of everyone who pays an increasing amount for watering their lawns as well as those who recently read the articles in the paper about Laramie County’s finite water supply.

Connie is a native of Maine, in a zone that enjoys 50 inches of precipitation each year, compared to Cheyenne’s 10-15 inches. When she moved to Massachusetts, she discovered birds, as well as the fact she can plant what would attract them to her yard. She volunteered with Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary on habitat improvements.

Next, at her home on Sanibel Island, Florida, she discovered if she ripped out all the invasive vegetation and planted natives, her once quiet yard was suddenly full of birds.

Relocating to the Front Range of Colorado in 1998, she learned what semi-arid means, especially when a major drought was just getting started. And she also learned that some native plants like the semi-arid life–after she killed her plantings of native penstemons two years in a row because she was rotting their roots with too much water.

It’s no surprise that a smart woman like Connie then put “waterwise” with “wildscaping,” a natural fit here in the arid West.

Also, the decline in the numbers of bees and butterflies documented in recent years makes even more important the idea of converting conventional urban/suburban landscapes into nectar and pollen havens, in addition to providing seeds and berries and cover for birds. Not to mention that native plants can take less work and water (read money) than a lawn.

With funding from the Terra Foundation, her private foundation that supports projects restoring the Colorado River Basin, Connie launched the “Be a Habitat Hero” campaign in 2013.

Anyone who would like to pursue the designation of “Habitat Hero” can apply through the website,, in September to see if their yard measures up. Last fall, 28 people, including Laramie County master gardener Michelle Bohanan, earned the designation.

While most of Cheyenne’s home owners and renters have mastered the basics of lawn care and keeping shrubs and trees alive, and many have a flair for flowers and vegetables, wildscaping requires a little change in horticultural practices, and a little change in mindset.

Explaining exactly how to transform all or part of a conventional yard or commercial landscape into a wildscape will be the topic of a Habitat Hero workshop scheduled March 28 at Laramie County Community College, 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The $15 registration fee covers lunch, handouts and a tote bag for each participant full of donated items.

The three speakers will be Susan Tweit, plant biologist and author of “Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide;” Jane Dorn, co-author of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area” (a digital version will be given to each participant); and Clint Basset, Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities water conservation specialist.

The major sponsors are Laramie County Master Gardeners, Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Audubon Rockies (which now administers the Habitat Hero program), Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and the Laramie County Conservation District.

One of the fun parts of the day will be the panel discussion, when the three speakers take a look at selected yards submitted by participants in advance and make recommendations on how to transform them into wildlife destinations.

Registration is available online at, key words “Habitat Hero Cheyenne.” Registration will also be available at the door, provided there are seats left. The workshop is limited to 100 participants.

“Plant it and they will come,” Connie has said often.

This approach to landscaping benefits wildlife, but Connie said it speaks to her soul too when she sees the birds, bees and butterflies.

Her biggest aha moment came when she realized, “I can create a habitat in my yard, and take it beyond looking pretty”–making a difference in the world–in her own backyard.

Book Reviews: “Hummingbirds and Butterflies” and “Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding”

Book: Hummingbirds and Butterflies

“Hummingbirds and Butterflies,” by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops.

Published Sept. 6, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Improve your bird and butterfly eye.”

2014 Update: Both books are widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (a Peterson Field Guides Backyard Bird Guide), by Bill Thompson III and Connie Toops, c. 2011 by Bird Watcher’s Digest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 288 pages, softcover, $14.95.

Bill Thompson always writes with the casual birdwatcher in mind, the person who appreciates birds but is always saying, “Someday I want to know more.” And then he provides the hook.

This time he has concentrated on hummingbirds and his co-author, Connie Toops, brings us butterflies. First, there is everything you wanted to know about hummers, a few myths dispelled (no, they don’t hitch rides on geese during migration) and the basics of putting up a hummingbird feeder (4 parts water to 1 part white table sugar—no substitutes, additions or changes, please, and keep it clean).

But Bill offers not only a field guide to 15 North American hummer species, he has a chapter on plants hummingbirds like and ideas for your garden so you can maximize your views of them feeding on flower nectar.

Connie does the same things for butterflies in the second half of the book, including how to photograph them.

Is this book worthwhile for folks in southeastern Wyoming? Yes, even if we have mostly broad-tailed hummingbirds during the summer in higher country, along with rufous hummingbirds during migration in July. And keep in mind, only 17 butterflies profiled are expected here in the summer months. The plant information is sorted by parts of the country and as you might expect, all of the recommended species would be colorful additions to your yard.

If you already garden, you’ll find what a little tweaking might do to improve your chances of observing butterflies and hummingbirds. And if you don’t garden, you might be inspired to begin with a container of colorful flowers.

Field Guide to Advanced Birding

“Field Guide to Advanced Birding,” by Kenn Kaufman

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Understanding What You See and Hear, by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 448 pages, flexible cover, $21.

Kenn Kaufman has totally rewritten his 20-year-old guide to advanced birding. It’s not only because he has better ideas for identifying difficult species, but he understands better the kinds of mistakes birdwatchers make, though perhaps the most important lesson for an ardent birder to learn from this book is that sometimes a bird cannot be identified.

Anyone who has mastered identification of the common and colorful birds soon finds that there are groups that are difficult: gulls, sparrows, hawks, shorebirds, flycatchers, swallows and seabirds.

And what about hybrids? Subspecies? Birds with white feathers where they shouldn’t be? Birds that are molting and missing feathers?

While there are chapters for each of the difficult bird groups and a reader might be tempted to jump right to his nemesis species, the first seven chapters of general information are worth studying, especially the list of 14 Principles of Field Identification and the 14 Common Pitfalls.

Study is key to improving bird identification skills, and not just studying books, but going outside and finding more birds, Kaufman points out frequently.

One frustration with this book is that there are more than a few photos of unidentified birds. The caption might say the four gulls pictured could be identified as five or six different species if compared to various field guide illustrations, but there is no key in the back to check to see if you can identify them correctly. And sometimes Kaufman’s sentences get long and twisty because some bird i.d. problems are as much about the exceptions as they are about the rules.

A lot of information is packed into this book and it can be overwhelming.

But Principle 14 says you don’t have to take on all of the challenges. You can note merely “Gull sp. (species).”

Kaufman says, “As long as you’re not causing serious disturbance to the birds, their habitat, or other people, there is no ‘wrong way’ to go birding.”


How to host hummingbirds

hummingbirds at feeder

Hummingbirds gather around a feeder full of clear-colored sugar water. The red base attracts them. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published August 2000 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: It’s very important to follow the recipe for making nectar for feeders—4 parts water to 1 part white sugar, boiled together. Don’t add red dye—add something like a red bow to the feeder if doesn’t already have red parts. And keep your feeder clean—the sugar solution can easily become moldy.

By Barb Gorges

Go anywhere in Wyoming’s mountains in summer and you’re bound to hear the ringing sound of the broad-tailed hummingbird as it skims your hat or nearby flowers. Every mountain cabin seems to be festooned in hummingbird feeders.

A few broad-tailed hummingbirds may be seen in Cheyenne during spring migration, but a hummingbird feeder set out here for the summer is more likely to be emptied by the wind, yellow jackets and house finches.

However, around about August, especially when drought diminishes wildflower blooming in the mountains as it has this year, we may see hummingbirds hanging out in town around our bountiful, irrigated gardens.

A few years ago during another dry summer I saw something hovering over my marigolds I thought at first was an insect. Now that we’re better at spotting them, this August we’ve had a couple more glimpses of hummingbirds. Maybe it’s time to put up our feeder.

To approximate natural nectar for hummers, dissolve one part white table sugar to four parts boiling water. Don’t use other kinds of sugar and don’t increase the amount of sugar.

Don’t bother adding red food coloring because the feeders themselves have enough red coloring. If yours has faded, add some red nail polish.

Be sure to keep your feeder clean. Bill Thompson, author of “Bird Watching for Dummies” recommends cleaning the feeder with hot soapy water before refilling it. During particularly hot weather it may take only a couple days for mold to sprout.

His recommendations for where to put the feeders include where they can be seen easily by you and the hummers, where they are out of direct sunlight so the sugar solution won’t get moldy so fast and where they are easy to reach for cleaning and refilling.

There are two species of hummingbirds you may see in Cheyenne. The most likely is the broad-tailed which has been known to summer here but usually breeds in the mountains.

The rufous hummingbird is less common here. It winters in Mexico and migrates north along the Pacific coast as far as Alaska to nest. By June it is heading southeast, through the Rocky Mountains.

According to Jane and Robert Dorn’s records in “Wyoming Birds,” the rufous has been merely a migrant in the latilong that includes Cheyenne.

There are other hummers that are seen in other parts of the state: Ruby-throated (northeastern Wyo., rare migrant), Black-chinned (western Wyo. during migration) and Calliope (uncommon summer resident western Wyo.) though we are hardly known to be a hummingbird mecca like southeastern Arizona.

Meanwhile, I plant bright tubular types of flowers for the day the broad-taileds decide to spend the summer: Bee balm, columbine, four o’clocks, penstemons, petunias, phlox, snapdragons.

I’ll have to think about adding bleeding heart, dahlia, nasturtium, zinnias or vines like morning glory. Some of the other plants listed for hummingbirds are less familiar and may not thrive here.

Hummingbirds shed light


Hummingbirds gather at a feeder on Sandia Crest, with the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, 5,000 feet below. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 25, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “UW researchers seek hummingbird secrets.”

2014 Update: Bradley Hartman Bakken, Ph.D., is a comparative and environmental animal physiologist. His principal research interests concern osmoregulation and the renal, gastrointestinal, and hepatic mechanisms that vertebrates use to cope with their environment. For information about his current work and a list of his publications, see This article has been collected in several online archives.

By Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds are captivating creatures.

Bradley Hartman Bakken, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming, can entertain an audience for an hour with his PowerPoint show of fascinating hummingbird facts.

For instance, hummingbirds can beat their wings 30 to 80 times per second. Their tiny hearts beat 500 times per minute at rest and 1200 times when active. They are the only birds or vertebrates that can fly backwards.

But Bakken didn’t come to the study of hummingbirds through the pursuit of trivia. His interest is in the physiology of kidneys and he began working with hummingbirds as an undergraduate under the guidance of Carlos Martinez del Rio, a professor in the Zoology and Physiology Department.

Bakken discovered that hummingbirds use–or actually don’t use–their kidneys in a unique way.

They live almost entirely on flower nectar, except for the occasional bit of protein from a passing insect.

Because nectar is mostly water and hummingbirds need a lot of sugar, they must expel a lot of water. Bakken said if humans drank as much water as hummingbirds in proportion to their body size, they would die—their kidneys would be overwhelmed.

But hummingbirds and humans are both able to lose water through breathing and evaporation through their skin.

Hummingbirds are just much more efficient. Because they are so small, their proportion of skin surface to body volume is high. Humans, being bigger, have a much lower ratio so sweating doesn’t help us as much.

In fact, hummingbirds give off so much sweat, another hummingbird researcher, Ken Welch, visiting UW from the University of California – Santa Barbara, said they smell like wet dogs.

The only time hummingbird kidneys actually kick in is when the birds are feeding, Bakken said. They don’t use their kidneys overnight since they can lose as much as 11 percent of their body weight just by evaporation during that time anyway.

If humans lost as much, they’d be in a coma.

Bakken has been working with captive broad-tailed hummingbirds. His next step will be to determine the effect of a lower surface to volume ratio in a larger hummingbird. He travels this fall to Santiago, Chile, for three months to study the giant hummingbird. This larger bird weighs 21 grams and is similar in size to a sparrow–dwarfing Wyoming’s broad-tailed hummingbirds that only weigh about 3.5 grams. [Later, he’ll look into nectar-feeding bats in Mexico.]

Scott Carleton, another UW doctoral candidate, also works with hummingbirds to explore the physiology of energy use.

“They have the highest mass specific metabolic rate of birds,” he said, “and they’re easy to study—it’s all nectar.”

Carleton wanted to know whether hummingbirds operate more on stored energy or on the energy that comes directly from nectar.

Because the sugar from sugar beets has a different carbon isotope signature than cane sugar, the breath of a hummingbird can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer to determine how much of which sugar it is burning.

The hummingbird is fed one kind of sugar and then switched to the other. The first sugar, stored as fat, produces one isotope and the other, burned as it is consumed, shows the other.

Welsh traveled to Wyoming to spend three weeks here this spring to answer a similar question. He demonstrated how his research subject takes a sip of nectar from within a mask that analyzes the carbon dioxide and oxygen in its breath. The results appear instantly on a computer graph.

What fuels a hummingbird when it takes its first sip of the day?

It appears that within five minutes the bird fuels its hovering flight totally on the sugar it is ingesting. Humans also make use of sugar quickly when exercising intensely, but still have to get 50 percent from stored energy.

The researchers also found that caged hummingbirds, which are less active than those in the wild, are able to maintain their weight when tempted with a constant source of sugar water. Except twice a year, Bakken said.

Even though day length is controlled and never changes for his hummingbirds in the laboratory, they tend to put on a little extra weight in the spring and fall as if in preparation for migration.

Bakken said this could be in their genetics and not just a response to day length or temperature.

Hummingbird facts

–331 hummer species are found only in North, Central and South America, but fossils of modern-type hummingbirds from 30 million years ago have recently been found in Germany.

–Ecuador has the most species, 163, and the U.S. has 19. Wyoming has black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed and rufous hummingbirds.

–The rufous migrates farther than any animal when comparing distance to body weight. In spring they migrate from Mexico along the coast of California to southeastern Alaska, then return south via the Rocky Mountains in July and August. If a six-foot man took as long a journey, proportionate to his size, he could make 13 trips to the moon and back.


It’s difficult to distinguish some species of hummingbirds, especially mid-summer when this photo was taken above Albuquerque, New Mexico, when the females and juveniles look nearly identical. The male bird on the left appears to be a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. What do you think? Photo by Barb Gorges.

What to feed hummingbirds

Wyoming wildflower nectar is 80 percent water, so make yours four parts water to one part sugar. Use red feeders, but don’t dye the nectar. Use only regular table sugar–cane or beet sugar, hummingbirds love both, but not honey since it’s too waxy and could carry mold spores.