Condors in Wyoming

2018-08Condor 832_edited-1-Brian Waitkus

California Condor T2 perches atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming in early July 2018. Photo courtesy Brian R. Waitkus.

Published Aug. 19, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/condor-visits-wyoming-next-condor-needs-to-find-steel-instead-of-lead.

Condor visits Wyoming; next condor needs to find steel instead of lead

By Barb Gorges

Exciting news in the Wyoming birdwatching community: A California condor, North America’s largest raptor with 9.5-foot wingspan, was sighted July 7 west of Laramie perched on Medicine Bow Peak. The reporting birder was Nathan Pieplow. He is the author of the Peterson guide to bird sounds. Maybe he recorded it.

Wing tags printed with a big T2 declared this was a female condor hatched and raised in 2016 at the Portland, Oregon, zoo and released in March at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona.

Several people from the Laramie Audubon chapter climbed up to see the condor. Brian Waitkus got excellent photos.

Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,014 feet, is a popular destination for hikers who want a challenge including lightning and boulder fields. As many as a dozen hikers were congregating near the condor July 9. The condor didn’t mind people but was flushed by three dogs off leash, observed Murie Audubon president Zach Hutchinson.

2018-08Condor T2Brian Waitkus

T2 was outfitted with wing tags and transmitter by the Peregrine Fund before her release in Arizona in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

T2 was one of many condors released into the wild by the Peregrine Fund working to re-establish the population of this officially endangered species. In 1982 there were only 22 birds left. Today there are 500, half flying free in Arizona, Utah, California and Baja Mexico. Some are now breeding in the wild. For more, read Condors in Canyon Country by Sophie A. H. Osborn and https://www.peregrinefund.org/.

The distance between the Arizona release site and the peak is only 440 miles as the condor flies, not difficult for a bird that can travel 200 miles a day. T2 was spotted earlier, on June 28, near Roosevelt, Utah.

The closest previous Wyoming condor sighting was 1998, in Utah at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which spans the Utah-Wyoming line.

T2’s visit was brief. A Peregrine Fund researcher following the condor using telemetry later got the signal 30 miles away indicating the bird was not moving. By the time he arrived, the bird was dead. It’s been sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for autopsy. Foul play was not suspected.

Serendipitously, soon after the first news broke about T2, Chris Parish, director of global conservation for the Peregrine Fund, was about to drop his daughter off in Laramie. He offered to give a talk on condors sponsored by the Laramie Audubon Society and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.

In his presentation, Chris touched briefly on the history of restoring the condor population.

Condors are tough. They survived the large mammal extinction 10,000 years ago. However, they are slow to reproduce, only one chick every two years. At propagation centers, experts can get a pair to lay an extra egg to put in an incubator.

Condors live 50 to 60 years by avoiding predators and finding new habitat. A few are still being shot, despite condors being as harmless as turkey vultures, eating only carrion–already dead animals. They fly into powerlines and get hit by vehicles too.

The biggest problem for condors is poisoning from lead ammunition, Chris said. When a deer is shot, the bullet disintegrates into hundreds of fragments. Often, the fragments are in the gut pile, or offal, that hunters leave in the field. Offal is the condor’s main dish.

All those little lead fragments add up and eventually cause lead poisoning. Some of those lead fragments also find their way into game meat people eat. Researchers try to check the blood lead levels of all free-flying condors once a year and treat them if necessary before releasing them again.

Our national symbol, the bald eagle, also feeds at carcasses. In 1991 lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned but upland animals—and birds like the eagle–are not protected.

Arizona Game and Fish Department a few years ago asked hunters on the Kaibab Plateau, where condors are released, to voluntarily use steel ammunition or to remove offal. They offered each participant two free boxes of steel ammunition. Participation is now at 87 percent. A similar program is nearly as successful in Utah. California has banned lead ammunition since 2008, said Chris.

The Peregrine Fund holds shooting trials and gives away steel ammunition for hunters to test. Chris, a lifelong hunter, spouts ballistic statistics with ease. The bottom line is that lead and steel ammunition of comparable quality are nearly the same cost. However, manufacturers need encouragement to offer more variety.

Chris also said that yes, steel ammunition takes a little practice for the hunter to become proficient with it, but practice is required any time a hunter switches to the same caliber ammunition made by a different manufacturer.

Steel bullets aren’t silver bullets for all wildlife problems. But maybe Wyoming can join the steel states. That way we’ll make it safer here for when more condors show up.

2018-08Condor head-Brian Waitkus

T2, a juvenile California Condor, hadn’t developed her red-skinned head yet. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

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Bird by ear, identify the unseen

2017-7Turtle Rock Trail beaver pond by Barb Gorges

Birds are hard to see, but easy to hear, around this beaver pond on the Turtle Rock Trail at the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 16, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird by ear to identify the unseen.”

By Barb Gorges

Here on the western edge of the Great Plains, our trees don’t grow so thick that you can’t walk all the way around one to see the bird that’s singing. But it is still useful to be able to identify birds by sound.

I’m a visually-oriented person, so over time I’ve learned to identify our local birds well enough to often figure out who they are as they flash by. I can only identify bird voices of the most common or unique sounding species.

At the big box stores in town, in the garden departments, there is almost always an incessant cheeping overhead from invading house sparrows.

If you get up at oh-dark-thirty on a spring or summer morning in town, you are likely to hear the cheerful “cheerio” of a robin.

Putting up a bird feeder may bring in house finches, with their different chatter. I especially like hearing the goldfinches around the thistle feeder which sound as if they are small children calling questions to each other.

Birding by ear becomes a more important skill in the mountains where the forest is thicker. The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s mid-June field trip was to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area on the Medicine Bow National Forest. We planned to hike the Turtle Rock trail. Since most of Wyoming’s birds are found near water (birdwatchers are most likely found there too), we focused on the beaver ponds.

Some birds, like the flocks of tree swallows flitting across the water, are never hidden away.

But one warbling bird was. It didn’t sound quite like a robin. I went through a mental list of birds that like riparian, or streamside, habitats and casually remarked, “Maybe it’s a warbling vireo.”

Then I realized I could check the free Merlin app on my phone and play a recording of a warbling vireo. Amazingly, it matched.

Yellow warblers are almost always somewhere around in the brush around water at upper elevations too and we could hear one. It has a very loud, unique call. Being bright yellow, it isn’t hard to spot singing in the willows.

There are species of birds that resemble each other so closely—the empidonax flycatchers—that it is necessary to hear them sing to tell them apart.

On the other hand, there are species that sound so much like each other, it causes the problem people used to have telling me and my mom apart on the phone.

For example, robin and black-headed grosbeak songs have a clear, babbling quality, but if you listen a lot while the grosbeaks are here during migration, you can tell who is the real robin.

On the trail, chapter member Don Edington picked out a bird at the tip top of an evergreen, singing away. It was yellow, with black and white wings, like an over-sized goldfinch. Its head had the lightest wash of orangey-red. It was another robin voice impersonator, the western tanager.

Visually, the sparrows are mostly a large brown cloud in my mind. The same can be said for distinguishing, much less remembering, many bird songs. I like birds with easy to remember songs, like the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird to expect in the forest. It is so tiny your chances are slim of seeing it on its favorite perches in large spruce trees.

After being inundated by Swainson’s thrushes this spring—but all completely mute while they inspected our backyard, it was a pleasure to catch the trill of one on the trail. But then I checked it against a recording on Merlin and realized we had the thrush that doesn’t trill upwards, but the other, trilling downwards, the hermit thrush.

It does help to study the field guides in advance of seeing a bird species for the first time—just knowing which ones to expect in a certain habitat is helpful. Studying bird songs before venturing into the woods again would be as useful.

I need to crack open that new book by Nathan Pieplow, “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America,” and the corresponding recordings at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Except, we’ll only find the species we share with eastern North America. We won’t find our strictly western bird species until he finishes the western edition. But I could work on his technique for distinguishing songs—before I spend too much more time in the woods.

Note: In addition to Merlin and Peterson, find more bird sound recordings at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, or try https://macaulaylibrary.org. For the latter, try filtering by location to get birds using Wyoming dialects.

2017-07-TurtleRockTrail by Barb Gorges

The Turtle Rock Trail offers a variety of habitat types–and weather–on a mid-June Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society field trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Keeping citizen scientists happy

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Citizen scientists were recruited by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to look for Flammulated Owls in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming in the summer of 2005. Mark and I are standing in front of the sign.

Published Nov. 13, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Turning Citizens into Scientists”

Note: The first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference is being held Dec. 1-3, 2016, in Lander. All current and would-be citizen scientists studying birds or any other natural science are welcome. See http://www.wyomingbiodiversity.org.

How to keep a citizen scientist happy

By Barb Gorges

A year after I married my favorite wildlife biologist, he invited me on my first Christmas Bird Count.

It was between minus 25 and minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that day in southeastern Montana, with snow on the ground. He asked me to take the notes, which meant frequently removing my thick mittens and nearly frostbiting my fingers.

I am happy to report that 33 years later, my husband is the one who takes the notes and the Christmas Bird Count has become a family tradition, from taking our first son at eight months old and continuing now with both sons and their wives joining us.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and is one of the oldest examples of citizen science, sending ordinary people (most are not wildlife biologists) out to collect data for scientific studies.

In 1999, I signed up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and have continued each year. Last season 22,000 people participated. In 2010 I started entering eBird checklists and now I’m one of 327,000 people taking part since 2002. And there are nearly a dozen other, smaller, CLO projects.

It is obvious CLO knows how to keep their citizen scientists happy. Part of it is that they have been at it since 1966. Part of it is they know birdwatchers. That’s because they are birdwatchers themselves.

How do they keep us happy? I made a list based on my own observations—echoed by an academic paper I read later.

First, I am comfortable collecting the data. The instructions are good. They are similar to something I do already: keeping lists of birds I see. The protocol is just a small addition. For instance, in eBird I need to note when and for how long I birded and at least estimate how many of each species I saw. It makes the data more useful to scientists.

Second, I am not alone. The Christmas Bird Count is definitely a group activity, which makes it easy for novice birders to join us. I especially love the tally party potluck when we gather to share what the different groups have seen that day.

Project FeederWatch is more solitary, but these days there are social aspects such as sharing photos online. Over President’s Day weekend when the Great Backyard Bird Count is on, I can see animated maps of data points for each species. On eBird, I can see who has been seeing what at local birding hotspots.

Third, I have access to the data I submitted. Even 33 years later, I can look up my first CBC online and find the list of birds we saw, and verify my memories of how cold it was in December 1983.

The eBird website keeps my life list of birds and where I first saw them (OK, I need to rummage around and see if I can verify my pre-2010 species and enter those). It compiles a list of all the birds I’ve seen in each of my locations over time (89 species from my backyard) and what time of year I’ve seen them. All of my observations are organized and more accessible than if I kept a notebook. And now I can add photos and audio recordings of birds.

A fourth item CLO caters to is the birdwatching community’s competitive streak. I can look on eBird and see who has seen the most species in Wyoming or Laramie County during the calendar year, or who has submitted the most checklists. You can choose a particular location, like your backyard, and compare your species and checklist numbers with other folks in North America, which is instructive and entertaining.

I would take part in the CBC and eBird just because I love an excuse to bird. But the fifth component of a happy citizen scientist is concrete evidence that real scientists are making use of my data. Sometimes multiple years of data are needed, but even reading a little analysis of the current year makes me feel my work was worthwhile and helps me see where my contribution fits in.

What really makes me happy is that I have benefitted from being a citizen scientist. I’m a better birder, a better observer now. I look at things more like a scientist. I appreciate the ebb and flow of nature more.

If you have an interest in birds, I’d be happy to help you sort through your citizen science options. Call or email me or check my archival website listed below, or go to http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

Caught up

2016-07-10 Snowy Range - Barb GorgesDear Cheyenne Bird Banter Followers,

The good news, from my point of view, is that I am finished archiving past Bird Banters, Bird of the Weeks and Roadside Attractions.

The good news for you and me is that the Wyoming Tribune Eagle will continue to run my freelance Bird Banter columns monthly. The columns will continue to be archived here after they are published in the paper.

Thanks for being a reader. I’ll have something new for you soon!

Barb

Photos: Snowy Range, Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming, July 8, 2016, by Barb Gorges. Flower: Alpine claytonia, 2 inches high.

2016-07-10 Snowy Range - Alpine claytonia - Barb Gorges

 

Wyoming Roadside Attractions: Lake Marie

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A view of Lake Marie July 4, 2010, from the east, shows some of the snowdrifts blocking area trails. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 1, 2010, Wyoming Tribune Eagle: Breathtaking views abound at 10,000 feet at Lake Marie

By Barb Gorges

The Snowy Range rises out of the Medicine Bow Range. Along the juncture, a series of lakes collect snowmelt.

Lake Marie, named by an early government surveyor for his wife who later became the first woman elected to the state legislature, is the most photogenic and accessible. Small parking lots on each end are connected by a flat, paved walk.

On the west end are the restrooms and the trailhead for climbing Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,013 feet. Following the trail a little way will give you some great views, but hiking the peak demands preparation, physical fitness and a very early start.

On the other side of the highway is a nice sample of the trail system alongside a mountain stream.

From the smaller parking lot on the east end you can find the trail up to the Mirror Lake Picnic Area for different views of Lake Marie. Mirror Lake is also accessible by vehicle from the next turnoff east. The trailhead there leads to views of more alpine lakes.

If you hike, leaving your dog at home is easier than following the leash regulation, and safer. Visit early in the day so you aren’t caught by thunderstorms and remember you’ll be out of breath just standing along the highway at 10,000 feet.

But the wildflowers are breathtaking, too.

If you go:

Lake Marie, Snowy Range Scenic Byway

Directions: From I-80 Exit 311 at Laramie, drive about 35 miles on State Hwy. 130 west through Centennial. Distance from Cheyenne: about 90 miles.

Open: June to September, whenever the road is snow-free.

Admission: Free.

Address: Laramie Ranger District, Medicine Bow National Forest, 2468 Jackson St., Laramie.

Phone: 307-745-2300.

Web site: http://www.fs.usda.gov

Attractions: Scenery, hiking, fishing with Wyoming fishing license, wildlife viewing, picnicking at adjacent Mirror Lake Picnic Area.

Time: 20 minutes to 2 hours.