Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016-7Bioblitz3 Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

2016-7Bioblitz1 Barb Gorges

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

Pot and pan-free cooking perfect for camping

paper cup

You can boil an egg in a paper cup full of water set in the coals of a cooking fire.


Use a large onion, hollowed out, to cook your hamburger dinner in the campfire coals.


The skin of an orange makes a great impromptu campfire cooking pot.

Published August 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

2014 Update: I’m sure there are now dozens more recipes on the Internet.

By Barb Gorges

Mike Randall, Scoutmaster of Troop 102 said the boys would be doing some utensil-less cooking at summer camp, maybe including hamburgers Philmont-style: “Add cornflakes to the hamburger, slap it on a standing rock by the fire and when it falls off, it’s done.”

I quizzed my two Boy Scouts when they got home about the cooking methods they tried. My younger Scout demonstrated in the back yard the fine art of cooking using oranges, onions and paper cups as cooking pots. If you have a couple spare coals on a grilling occasion, you may want to try them too.

We used charcoal briquettes rather than a wood fire because they are easy to start, easy to move and burn uniformly.

At camp the briquettes were started in the campfire. At home we used a charcoal starter chimney. It’s like an old fashioned coffeepot. We poured the charcoal in the upper chamber. In the lower, vented chamber we stuffed a few crumpled sheets of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and lit them with a match.

We carefully extracted white-hot coals with long-handled utensils and placed them where we wanted to cook, on bare ground where people wouldn’t be walking. When we were finished cooking, we put the coals back in the chimney or the grill. At camp they were thrown back in the fire pit.

Here’s how to cook if you happen to be out in the woods without a pot, but with a few eggs, oranges, onions, a pound of ground hamburger and a couple paper cups.


A chilly morning outdoor breakfast should start with a hot drink. Fill a plain paper cup, unwaxed and uncoated, with water. Pull out three hot charcoal briquettes and push them together, forming a platform to place your cup on directly. Only the bottom rim will burn. Soon the water will be hot enough to make instant coffee, hot chocolate or tea.

For orange juice, cut an orange in half with your trusty pocket knife, either lengthwise or crosswise, and scoop out and eat the insides.

Crack an egg into each of your two small orange bowls, or perhaps use one for sausage. Lay each bowl on three coals. Be sure to turn the eggs and sausage so they cook evenly. If you are truly utensil-less except for your knife, you’ll have to cut a twig from a non-poisonous source like a nearby willow to use as a flipper.

If you happen to have along the wooden skewers they sell at the grocery store, you can skewer a raw egg end to end and then fashion forked sticks into a rotiserrie over a few coals. We set our baking egg over a few coals in the chimney.

Randall is a proponent of the twizzle-stick method of biscuit making: “cut open the side of a box of Bisquick (the way those individual servings size boxes of cold cereal are turned into bowls), stick your finger in and make a hole in the flour. Fill the finger hole with water.”

Next, stick the peeled end of a thick twig in the hole and “twizzle” the other end back and forth between your palms. Dough will collect on the end of the stick. You can then prop the dough end over the coals, resting it in the crook of a small forked stick stuck in the ground.


Put a cup of water on to heat, this time for mixing your instant soup course. The main entree is meat loaf, ground hamburger mixed with any seasonings at hand, including some of the insides of the onion you will be hollowing out for a cooking pot. You can cook meat loaf meatballs in oranges like you did the eggs, but some of us didn’t like the flavor.

Remember when you’re adding seasoning that sagebrush is only edible if you’re an antelope. It isn’t the sage used in cooking.

Prepare the onion like a jack-o’lantern. Cut off the top and scoop out the insides, leaving at least two layers intact. To keep your eyes clear while working on onions, try to breath through your nose and keep your mouth shut. Of course you may first want to explain to your fellow cooks why you won’t be talking to them for a few minutes.

Fill the onion with hamburger and skewer the lid on with wood skewers from the store, splinters from chopping firewood or whittled twigs. Set the onion on three coals and turn it often so all sides, including the top get exposed to the coals.

Bigger is not better, we discovered. No matter how often we turned the big onion, it wouldn’t cook in the middle. We finally threw it in the microwave in a fit of hunger. A three or four-inch diameter onion is best. Otherwise, we could have tried burying the big onion in coals.

Ready for dessert? After experiencing all this exotic cooking, your kids may be ready for you to just hand over the marshmallows.

BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats, botany and much more Wyoming biota

Mist netting

Participants in the 2014 BioBlitz at Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming, watch as Jacelyn Downey, community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, untangles a Common Yellowthroat caught in a mist net. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats and more.”

By Barb Gorges

“A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteers, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible.” National Geographic Society

Microbes?! No one went looking for microbes during the Wyoming BioBlitz.

It was held last month on the longest day of the year at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. And hopefully, no one took home any unwanted microbes.

But we did find lots of other life. More than 70 people participated: putting out pollinator traps, extracting birds from mist nets, bouncing over a mountain meadow after butterflies and bees, dip netting for macroinvertebrates, electrofishing a stream, botanizing up the side of the canyon, searching for reptiles and amphibians, setting small mammal traps, attracting moths to blacklight, and until nearly midnight, netting bats, only to roll out of sleeping bags or beds in town the next morning to count birds before sunlight hit the canyon floor.

It’s one thing to have a scientist come and present their work in a lecture, as they do, for instance, for Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meetings. It’s quite another to find out firsthand how difficult it is to untangle a bird from a mist net in order to study breeding patterns and longevity.

Then there was the chance to perfect my butterfly net technique with Amy Pocewicz of The Nature Conservancy. It’s like tennis, but butterflies are more erratic and the court is littered with shrubby obstacles.

Sometimes field work is monotony. I went with Wyoming Natural Diversity Database’s (WYNDD) Ian Abernathy and his group to pick up small mammal traps in the sagebrush, little folding aluminum boxes baited with sweetened oats. Each had a tuft of polyester batting thoughtfully provided so the mouse or vole could bed down comfortably for the night in a place not as warm as their own burrow.

To check the traps, we all had to don disposable face masks and gloves to protect us from possible exposure to hantavirus.

We were led by an indefatigable 4-year-old who enjoyed marching ahead to pluck the pin flag marking the next trap.

No critters were captured in any of the 60 traps in the sagebrush and only one in the 20 traps along the creek. Too much human scent from the group setting traps the night before?

Martin Grenier, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game biologist, set a mist net over the creek in the evening and his group was able to catch four bats of three different species.

The same evening, Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with WYNDD, hung two white table cloths on the Learning Center’s patio, placing one small blacklight against each, and then turned off the regular lights. Moths and nocturnal wasps flocked in and extremely small insects were “vacuumed” into a glass bottle for close inspection.

One special moth will have to be identified by an expert in Florida.

Audubon Wyoming, now Audubon Rockies, is the originator of Wyoming’s BioBlitz, holding the first one in 2008, and has partnered with various organizations, agencies and companies to hold it in different locations around the state.

Wyoming teachers can receive continuing education credits—it’s a lot more fun, one teacher from Bighorn told me, than attending lectures.

This year, the Red Canyon BioBlitz sponsors and partners also included, in addition to those mentioned earlier, the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Native Plant Society. During a creative interlude, an artist from the Lander Art Center had us harvesting cheatgrass—an invasive plant—and making art out of it.

The very first BioBlitz was held in 1996 at a park in Washington, D.C., where National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy coined the term from the German word “blitz,” meaning lightning, or fast.

Search online for “BioBlitz” and you will find 20 more listed in this country plus Korea, Canada, New Zealand and especially, the United Kingdom. It’s a plot to infect people with the awareness and joy of biodiversity.

One of my favorite memories of the weekend, besides all the biota, is camping out on the lawn by the Learning Center and going to bed with the stars in my eyes and waking with birdsong in my ears. The other favorite memory is meeting old friends and new, all interested in the wonderful biodiversity of our home state.

You too, can come along next year, wherever BioBlitz may be.

Related websites:

Audubon Rockies,

Lander Art Center,

The Nature Conservancy,

UW Biodiversity Institute,


Wyoming Natural Diversity Database,

Wyoming Game and Fish Department,

Wyoming Native Plant Society,

How to raise a birder

boy and binocs

Children are never too young to be introduced to birdwatching, even if it’s for only a few minutes at a time. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 22, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to raise a birder: take a child outside.”

2014 Update: Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, in partnership with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens’ Children’s Village, offers opportunities for children and adults to learn to birdwatch.

By Barb Gorges

There are three attributes most really good birders share: terrific eyesight, terrific hearing and a mind like a sponge. These attributes describe most children, too, unless they ruin their eyesight with too much screen time or their hearing with loud music or fill their minds with rules for arcane video games.

Can children become really good birders? Yes. Years ago our Audubon chapter received a call from a mother wondering if her junior-high-aged son, Jason, could come with us on a field trip. He had birded regularly with folks in California before the family moved to Cheyenne. So we said sure. If he’d been birding with adults before, he knew what he was getting into spending a day with us.

Jason turned out to be a very personable young man and his young eyes and ears helped us find species we might have missed otherwise. Plus he’d studied up on the birds in our area. Thanks to Jason, I saw my first green-tailed towhee.

Sad to say, he didn’t grow up to become an ornithologist. Last we heard, he was at Harvard and on his way to becoming a pediatrician, but even pediatricians have hobbies, as illustrated by famous Wyoming birder and pediatrician Oliver Scott. I wouldn’t doubt Jason is still adding to his life list.

How does a child become a birder? Famous birders usually point to a “spark” bird that sparked their interest as a child. For Roger Tory Peterson, famous for inventing the modern field guide, it was a blue jay he saw as a grade schooler.

RTP was an independent-minded boy who spent days roaming the local woods on his own and looking things up at the library. Eventually, he discovered other people interested in birds, finding that accompanying a birder better than him out in the field is faster than reading a book for improving birding skills.

The American Birding Association sponsors two summer birding camps for young people ages 13-18 and they don’t lack for applicants though it seems it would be much more difficult now for children to catch the spark, with parents less likely to let their children roam and more likely to over-schedule them for after school activities.

How does someone who may not know much about birds encourage a child to develop an interest in them?

First, children have to see that birds exist almost everywhere. The more time they spend outside, the more birds there are to notice. Wondering what kind of birds they are leads to looking them up in a field guide. Later, binoculars become important for seeing details.

A field guide is a most wonderous thing. Years ago our local Audubon chapter gave out plaques to winners we chose at the school district’s elementary science fair. But for the same cost, we started to and still do, give the winners “adult” field guides which are as full of colorful pictures as any children’s book.

Not every child with an interest in birds is going to grow up to be an ornithologist, just as every high school violinist isn’t going to go on to play with the New York Philharmonic. But that’s OK. They can still have a life-long love of birds (or music), and appreciation for people who make birds (or music) a career.


Book reviews: Four good guides for great outdoors

insect field guide

Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some good guides for days exploring in great outdoors.”

2014 Update: All four books continue to be available.

By Barb Gorges

“Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America” by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, 2007, Houghton Mifflin, 392 pages, flexible cover, $18.95.

The ideas Kenn Kaufman brought to his bird field guide have been applied to this new book to great advantage, especially for someone beginning to study insects.

Four pages at the beginning show photographic examples of every group of insects. Each is color coded to correspond with pages featuring species in that group. Every entry has a full color photo and commentary written by entomologist Eric R. Eaton whose prose is lively, yet succinct.

Kaufman indicates the actual size of insects without numbers. All insects illustrated on one page are in proportion to each other. Whatever insect is featured in the upper right hand corner, next to it is a gray silhouette of that insect life-sized.

On page 35 it took a second to realize the tiny gray smudge was the actual size of a human flea. In another case the silhouette of a lubber grasshopper is much larger, and scarier, than the photo.

One disappointment is that this field guide cannot picture all of the 90,000 known insect species in North America, but it has 2350 photos. You can narrow your search down to a family, perhaps identifying an “Ebony Boghaunter” or “Alabama Shadowdragon.”

The 15-page introduction covers finding insects, their life history and anatomy, identification and classification, conservation, activities with insects and importantly, how to keep healthy and safe while insect watching.

Songs of Insects

Songs of Insects by Lang Elliot

“The Songs of Insects” by Lang Elliot and Wil Hershberger, 2007, Houghton Mifflin, 227 pages plus CD, softcover, $19.95.  

Last year Lang Elliot came out with “The Songs of Wild Birds.” This new book features insects that sing, 77 species of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and cicadas. While the emphasis is on eastern species, small maps show that 17 range as far as Wyoming.

Each species gets at least two portraits, one on white background and one full page in its habitat. They are all quite wonderful to look at, in a book. In fact, you can order note cards with photos of six of them.

Applied to insects, the meaning of the word “song” is stretched a bit, especially if you consider the “Slightly Musical Conehead” found in southeastern states.

But when you listen to number 11 on the included CD, the “Snowy Tree Cricket,” it brings back memories of late summer evenings.

There is a lot of information about these insects, including how to collect and maintain your own orchestra. You can also find more at

Singing Life of Birds book

“The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma.

“The Singing Life of Birds, the Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong” by Donald Kroodsma, 2005, Houghton Mifflin, 482 pages plus CD, softcover, $16.95.

Now out in softcover edition, Kroodsma’s book is a detailed study of birdsong even the casual birder can afford.

Kroodsma gives an account of how he came to be interested in birdsong, how it is recorded, how songs can be compared through transcription into sonograms, and what singing means in the life of a bird.

The CD of birdsong recordings is as enthralling as any story Kroodsma tells in the book. Together, they were awarded the John Burroughs 2006 Medal Award.


Why Don't Woodpeckers GetHeadaches?

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches?

“Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask” by Mike O’Connor, 2007, Beacon Press, 212 pages, softcover, $9.95.

Most of Beacon Press’s catalog is heavy reading. This is the only book with a cartoon on its cover: Little chickadees hold their wings over their ears as a pileated woodpecker drills a hole in a tree.

Author Mike O’Connor dispenses all of his bird advice with a solid dash of humor. He writes answers to readers’ bird questions for the Cape Codder, his local weekly newspaper.

“Dear Bird Folks: I want to get a new birdbath for my wife. Do you have any suggestions? -Mel”

“A question for you Mel, how big is your wife? She might be more comfortable in a hot tub.”

O’Connor then proceeds to cover the topic of birdbaths with good, honest information, such as, “Animals love to knock over birdbaths and because of this, birdbaths tend to break. You may want to just buy a top and simply place the top on the ground. Birds are used to drinking on the ground (from puddles, ponds, etc.) and they probably rather come to a bath that’s low. Placing a bath on a pedestal is more for the esthetic benefit than for the bird’s benefit. There is nothing wrong with using a pedestal, just remember to buy a few dozen extra tops.”

Having answered scores of bird questions myself, I can admire O’Connor’s thoroughness and realistic approach. Most of the advice is suitable for Cheyenne birdwatchers. However, don’t get excited about purple martins. We don’t have them here. Yet.

And finally, O’Connor reminds Mel to keep his new birdbath clean, “If that is too much work, you could always hire a pool boy to do it. I’m sure your wife wouldn’t mind.”

Scouting outdoors

Boy Scouts

Boy Scouts learn to build a campfire.

Published May 4, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Scouting gets youngsters in touch with outdoors.”

2014 Update: Both of our sons earned their Eagle Scout award and continue to pursue outdoor activities, including birding when we come to visit.

By Barb Gorges

A big part of the word “Scouting,” as well as the organizations it represents, is “outing.”

Both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, in addition to teaching children outdoor skills, also emphasize nature study and the importance of environmental actions such as tree planting, recycling and conservation.

Both programs introduce children to the outdoors at a tender age. Local Daisy Girl Scouts, kindergarten-aged, will be going to camp May 20 for a few hours with their parents to play games, sing songs and try nature crafts, said Judy Di Rienzo, program spcialist for Laramie County Girl Scouts.

Mark Palmer, Tiger Cub leader for Cub Scout Pack 221, said his first-grade boys work on earning “Tiger Paws” with their parents, with activities like “Discover Nature and Energy” or “Go See It!” taking them outside.

At the next age level, Brownie (grades 1-3) and Junior (grades 4-6) Girl Scouts and Wolf, Bear and Webelos Cub Scouts (grades 2-5), begin building their outdoor skills under the guidance of leaders.

Brownies learn pocket knife safety, knots, safe hiking techniques, fire building, outdoor cooking, and map reading, then they try sleeping outside.

Cub Scouts learn camping basics as well. Their handbooks include instructions on how to fish and how to identify poisonous plants.

All Scouting programs, for whatever age, depend on enthusiastic parents who, with training, well-tested program materials and experienced mentors, can successfully lead a troop, den or pack.

Locally, day camps are available in the summer for elementary school-aged Scouts. Girl Scouts offer resident camps in locations around the state.

Cub Scouts can camp overnight with a parent or guardian at special “Partner and Pal” weekend events.

By the time children reach Boy Scouts or Cadet and Senior Girl Scouts, outdoor opportunities–many merit-badge driven–are myriad: backpacking, boating, camping, canoeing, climbing, fishing, orienteering, rifle and shotgun shooting, sailing, snow sports, and wilderness survival.

[This last February, 20 Girl Scouts attended “Survival Saturday” and learned from Anna Wertz of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department how to survive by finding water and shelter and preparing survival kits for the car or camping.]

Boy Scout troops routinely camp, even in the winter, when they attempt to earn “frost points,” one point for each degree below freezing per night camped out in a tent or snow cave.

Boy Scouts aspire to “High Adventure” camps like mountainous Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Last summer Troop 102 sent ten boys and two fathers there on a 100-mile backpacking trip.

Older Girl Scouts aspire to go on “treks.” Boy Scouts aspire to “High Adventure” camps like mountainous Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Last summer, Troop 102 sent 10 boys and two fathers there on a 100-mile backpacking trip.