Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands


By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.

Winter raptors


Ferruginous Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Published Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter raptor marvels, mysteries show up in southeast Wyoming.”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I drove over to join the Laramie Audubon Society on their mid-November raptor field trip on the Laramie Plains.

It was a beautiful day that makes you forget all the previous white-knuckle drives over the pass. However, what’s good weather for driving isn’t always good for finding raptors.

Trip leader Tim Banks checked his intended route the day before and found nary a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle. So instead, we drove across the Laramie Plains on a route his chapter frequently takes for general birding.

The reason for our first stop was a mystery, but then the broken branch stub of a lone cottonwood across the road became a great horned owl. However, a rough-legged hawk and a northern harrier were too distant to enjoy.

Finally, at Hutton Lake, out of the birdless sky, the wind picked up and kicked out a golden eagle, two bald eagles, and a ferruginous hawk.

Three weeks before, on a Cheyenne Audubon field trip at Curt Gowdy, we saw two bald eagles in the canyon. Another day at the park, Mark spotted three checking out his stringer of fish.

Bald eagles are marvelous looking, but I also marvel at their history, from endangered species to birds seen three times in three weeks.

Bald eagles were first federally protected in 1940. Later they were classified as endangered. Banning the pesticide DDT and educating people not to shoot them allowed their numbers to increase. In 1995 they were reclassified as merely threatened. They were completely delisted in 2007, though they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While bald eagles do breed in Wyoming, there are more here in the winter, migrating from farther north. Fish are their favorite food (carrion is second choice) so looking for them around reservoirs and Wyoming’s larger rivers is good strategy, especially if there are big cottonwoods for them to roost in.

We all recognize the adult bald eagle, dark brown with white head and white tail, but until they are about 4 or 5 years old, they are dark with splotchy white markings like those of young golden eagles.

Golden eagles never came quite as close to extinction as bald eagles, but they were targeted by stock growers. In 1971, one man confessed to killing many of the 700 found shot or poisoned near Casper.

Golden eagles live in Wyoming’s grasslands and shrublands year-round. They might choose to nest on cliffs. And they prefer eating rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the occasional new lamb if the rancher isn’t watching.

If you see a massive raptor flying in Wyoming in the winter, it is probably an eagle. Balds and goldens have wingspans about 80 inches long.


Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

But if it is a smaller dark bird, wingspan only 50-plus inches, with a neater black and white pattern under the wing, it might be a rough-legged hawk.

Every winter they come down from their Arctic breeding grounds, sometimes right into Cheyenne, wherever there’s a power pole perch, open land, and mice, voles or shrews. It’s a break from eating lemmings all summer.

They were also shot at, but like all migratory birds, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

For me, the most fascinating raptor we saw on the Laramie Plains is less common: a ferruginous hawk. Its name refers to the color of rusted iron because its top side is a reddish brown. Its belly is a creamy white, slightly spotted, compared to the streaky rough-legged’s. Both have feathers all the way down their legs.

However, some sources say the ferruginous shouldn’t have been in Wyoming in November. They are almost all supposed to migrate south in October and return in March.

Some field guides show the Colorado and Wyoming border as the north boundary of their winter range. I think that winter range boundary at the state line may have more to do with the greater number of birders in Colorado in the past who could distinguish between ferruginous and rough-legged. But there are now a dozen Laramie Plains and Cheyenne-area eBird records for ferruginous from November through February within the past three years.

Guess I can no longer assume in winter any large dark hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk is a rough-legged. It might be a ferruginous.

Meanwhile, we can all brush up on our hawk identification skills at www.AllAboutBirds.org or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.

Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Owls are among us

Great Horned Owls

What the crows fear most is that Great Horned Owls will move into the neighborhood and raise a family that needs a constant supply of prey. Courtesy USFWS.

Published Jan. 5, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owls are among us. Here’s how to tell if the elusive bird is lurking in your Cheyenne neighborhood.”

2015 Update: And spring brought reports of owlets, including three celebrities from a nest in Lions Park.

By Barb Gorges

In late November, Mark and I became aware that a flock of crows, also known as a murder of crows, was convening just before sunset in a neighbor’s big spruce tree.

They were very loud, very raucous, as if they were a lynch mob yelling for noose justice.

Our double-paned windows are somewhat of a sound barrier, but when we let the dog out, we were bombarded with enough noise to overwhelm a backyard cookout.

Was there an owl roosting in the spruce? It’s a big tree, probably planted when the neighborhood was new 50-60 years ago, so you can’t easily see inside, even when standing beneath it.

Or had the crows decided to establish a roost in our neighborhood? That was an unbearable thought.

Thanksgiving morning, while I was out sweeping up sunflower seed hulls from under our bird feeder and throwing the ball for the dog, the crows sounded even more agitated—gathered in a spruce even closer to our house. “There must be an owl within those thickly-needled branches,” I thought. “And he isn’t getting any sleep after a night of hunting.”

The next morning, just before sunrise, I lifted the window shade and saw a lump on the bare branch of our big green ash tree. Yep, a great horned owl. I told the dog she would have to wait a few minutes before she could go out.

The owl was perched about a foot away from a small squirrel nest made of dry leaves stuffed into a vortex of small branches. Leaving the kitchen lights off, I pulled out my binoculars and there was just enough light to see which way the owl was facing. It wasn’t surprising that it was facing the squirrel nest, bobbing its head up and down in a circular way, to get a better fix on a squirrel probably trying desperately not to be heard breathing.

There’s a bigger nest, or drey, on the other side of the alley. Ours looks like it is barely big enough for one squirrel, much less the three scampering around our yard every day, teasing the dog.

I was surprised that the owl didn’t just poke a taloned foot or sharp beak into that pile of leaves. But great horned owls prefer to feed in openings where they can perch and then wing after prey they hear or see, and pounce, pinning it to the ground. Eventually, this owl spread its wings and flew off.

No more mobbing crows here, however, owls have come up in recent conversations with two women I know, one living east of town and one on the northwest edge of Cheyenne. Both women were pretty sure their local owls were knocking off rabbits, the great horned’s favorite food. And both women seemed fine with that, noting that there seemed to be bunny abundance this year.

I’ve talked to my share of folks who complain when an avian predator grabs a meal, especially if the prey is a cute songbird or furry animal. So in addition to getting reports on owl activity, it was gratifying to hear people appreciate owls, even for their feeding habits.

If you are connected to any sources of birding news, you know that this winter there is another irruption of snowy owls, but in the Northeast and upper Midwest, rather than the Great Plains, as it was two years ago. Another shortage of lemmings in the Arctic, forcing them south, I guess.

Snowy owls like to be out in the open, being birds of the tundra, even if it’s the middle of the day, making them relatively easy to pick out when there isn’t too much snow acting as camouflage.

So how many great horned owls are among us, shrouded in a cloak of nocturnal invisibility or daytime coniferous cover? What about the smaller, less common owls of southeastern Wyoming: eastern screech-owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl?

Is there a great horned owl in your neighborhood? Look for the signs: angry crows, the odd rabbit leg on the sidewalk, a large bird flashing through the beam of your headlights, and even the chunky silhouette, the size of Harry Potter’s snowy owl, in a tree or on a fencepost at dawn or dusk.

Don’t begrudge your dog’s request to be let out on a winter’s evening or just before dawn. Follow and take a look around.

Owl is new neighbor

Great Horned Owl

If you hear a mob (or “murder”) of crows in your neighborhood, look to see if they found an owl. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 24, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some birds aren’t crowing about neighbor.”

2015 Update: Use the search box or the list of topics to the right to find the column about owls written last year.

By Barb Gorges

As I turned off the hairdryer a little after 7 a.m. one morning recently, I heard the end of a ring. Hoping it wasn’t the last, I grabbed the phone. It was my neighbor across the alley, Sue.

“That owl is in the tree again, just west of you and the crows are picking on it.”

Naturally, I immediately abandoned my comb, grabbed binoculars and headed for the alley.

Sue was there and coached me until I was able to see the great horned owl myself, ensconced in spruce branches.

One cawing crow flew at the owl, waggling its claws in its face, but the owl didn’t budge.

The crow returned to a safe perch on the powerline, flaring its fan-shaped tail. Ravens have wedge-shaped tails and haven’t, apparently, moved into our neighborhood yet.

Sue’s neighbor across the street thinks this might be the owl they had hanging around a couple years. Sue thought maybe it liked our alley because there’s a yard light that can illuminate scurrying rodents, though a nocturnal hunter like the owl is well adapted for working in the dark.

Great horned owls prey on wildlife as large as Sue’s small dog, but she was more concerned about the owl’s welfare and us disturbing it. So after another good look at the avian Buddha, I returned to my yard and morning chores.

Meanwhile, the lone crow had succeeded in attracting at least five others to its cause (get the pun?).

Two were in my tree, heckling from the back row. Two swayed on the cable TV line, trying to catch their balance and dignity without missing their timing for hurling invectives.

I couldn’t see the spruce any more, but it sounded like two more crows were in there with the owl. They carried on for at least another half hour.

A few weeks before, before Christmas, Sue had left an owl message for me about 7:15 a.m. which I didn’t pick up until much later, but I could remember hearing a mob of crows right about then.

The best part of this owl experience has been to find someone happily excited about having a natural predator in the neighborhood, though the crows are not.

Often enough I get calls from people concerned that hawks are eating the birds at their feeder. Isn’t that what sharp-shinned hawks are supposed to do? Isn’t a hawk a bird too?

I just figure, when I put out seed, I’m feeding herbivores directly and indirectly feeding carnivores, whether they come to my yard or not.

Great horned owls prefer bigger prey than finches and sparrows. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s on-line field guide mentions they especially like hares and rabbits.

I know we have plenty of cottontails hopping around the neighborhood at 5 a.m. The dog is always trying to drag me along after one whenever we get to do the paper route.

Squirrels are on the list too. We have plenty of those. Five of them come by every morning to sample our sunflower seed.

“….and the occasional domestic cat,” adds the CLO. With my luck it would be my cat on her annual accidental outdoor foray whose bones and hair get turned into owl pellets, instead of the loose cats that defile neighborhood gardens and terrorize wildlife.

Mammals make up three-quarters of the average great horned owl’s diet, though 50 species of birds have been recorded as prey, from songbirds to grouse, herons, ducks, geese, hawks, and even other owls.

I wonder if the owl I saw was house-hunting as well. Mid-winter is when owls announce their territories and some may begin nesting in February. They have to start early because incubation takes a month and getting the young airborne takes another two and a half to three months.

However, great horned owls are lazy. They prefer to use old hawk nests in big trees and I haven’t noticed any around here. Otherwise they are comfortable in a greater variety of habitats than any other owl.   Wouldn’t it be fun to have owls for neighbors? It would mean our 50-year-old suburbanized neighborhood has an original piece of the natural mosaic, even though the prairie and its creek-side cottonwood fringe have been swapped for lawns and evergreens.


Bird Alert [2002]: Two sightings of the red-bellied woodpecker have been reported in the Pioneer Park neighborhood.

This woodpecker, which is normally seen in eastern Nebraska and further east, has a wide red patch covering the entire back of its neck, but has barely any red on its belly.

Please report additional sightings.

Flamm Fest finds record number of owls

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owls are very small, 6.75 inches, and prey on insects. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published July 20, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flamm Fest finds record number.”

2014 Update: The annual Wyoming Audubon campouts have been replaced by Audubon Rockies’ (and formerly Audubon Wyoming’s) Bioblitzs held in different parts of the state each June. A birding friend was able to find Flammulated Owls mid-June this year in the same area surveyed by Flamm Fest.

By Barb Gorges

Kim Potter undeniably deserved to be crowned Queen of Flamm Fest earlier this month. Like other queens, she displayed talent—a talent for finding flammulated owl nests.

Having honed her skills in Colorado, Kim was able to find a large aspen with a hole 20 feet above ground. By lightly scratching the bark she got a female flammulated owl to come to the entrance. The time of year, second weekend in July, made it certain Kim found the first documented nest in Wyoming.

Flamms are tiny, less than 7 inches long and just over 2 ounces. They are less than half the weight and 5 inches shorter than the northern flickers that make many of the holes they nest in. Flamms prey on insects, especially moths, by inspecting infested trees.

Their name probably comes from an old word that means “with flame” as some appear to have a reddish brown color. Flamms are a western mountain species, although they are seen at low elevations during migration. The U.S. Forest Service considers them a sensitive species.

Several years ago Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory biologists Doug Faulkner and Rich Levad made a list of bird species that had not been documented in Wyoming, but which they felt should be here because of similar habitat used by the species in neighboring states.

With their knowledge of preferred flammulated owl nesting habitat in Colorado, Rich and Doug made an educated guess that was confirmed when other RMBO biologists found a flamm in the Battle Creek area three years ago.

Historically, these owls have been considered rare, but most likely their camouflage coloration, small size and quiet hoots made them easy to overlook.

Thus, we had Flamm Fest, the nickname given to the fifth annual Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society campout. Our mission was to spread out and see how many more flamms we could find.

Just about every one of the 31 participants, ages 11 and up, got a good look at one, either the female or, on Friday night, a male responding to Kim’s tape. She was demonstrating the survey techniques we would be using the following evening.

We divided into nine teams and each assigned a route to drive. At half mile intervals the recording was played and surveyors waited for an answering hoot.

The road our group was to travel was closed to vehicles so we set off on foot at twilight, only to discover a culvert was missing over a wide stretch of icy water. Everyone crossed with different degrees of dryness. On the way back we walked without turning on flashlights and stopped every 500 paces to call for owls. We did have a response from a saw-whet owl, but no flamms.

Five of the teams were luckier and counted a total of 10 flammulated owls. At a lot of the survey points it was too windy or too close to running water to hear return hoots. At some points the habitat was very different. But it is just as important to know where the owls are not as it is to know where they are.

Other owls that responded or were seen were long-eared, eastern screech, great horned and possibly a pygmy.

During daylight Saturday we checked out the only known colony of purple martins in Wyoming. They also like old flicker holes in old aspen.

The whole grove was aflutter with several other cavity-nesting species: mountain bluebird, red-naped sapsucker, house wren and tree swallow.

Purple martins in the west are a different subspecies than those in the eastern part of the country. The westerners don’t use manmade apartment-style bird house complexes—but then no one has ever put one up near where they live in the forest. We looked for other colonies but didn’t find any.

One unexpected bird was a bushtit down along the shrubby lowlands of the Little Snake River valley. Both tiny round bird and the spruce tree it nested in were completely out of their normal forest habitat.

We were also very close to the state line. A GPS reading may show the nest is a latilong breeding record for Colorado, but the bushtit itself, since it flew over the fence marked “Wyoming State Line,” will at least be a Wyoming observation record.

Our Flamm Fest campers were from an unexpected diversity of locations. From Wyoming, 19 people represented Cheyenne, Casper, Lingle, Riverton and Saratoga. We also had birders from the Denver area, western Colorado, Salt Lake City, Rapid City, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

If a simple Cheyenne chapter outing and the lure of flammulated owls can draw this group, who knows whom we’ll find on next year’s campout to the Bear Lodge in the northeast corner of the state.

Also, what species might we find? Broad-winged hawk, golden-winged warbler, yellow or black-billed cuckoos and black-backed woodpecker are some of the Black Hills specialties not found elsewhere in Wyoming.

We’ve got to find another catchy title–and maybe a trophy if Kim joins us again and proves to be Most Valuable Birder.

Mark your calendars for June 23-25, 2006.

Owl family fascinates park visitors

young Great Horned Owl

One of three young Great Horned Owls in Lions Park, Cheyenne, Wyoming, was perched in a cottonwood tree May 10. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published May 11, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owl family draws visitors to Lions Park.”

By Barb Gorges

There’s been quite the parade of admirers trekking to Lions Park to see the pair of owls that nested there this spring, and their three owlets.

By mid-April, they became widely known within the Cheyenne birding community and among regulars at the park. Generally speaking, they can be found in the trees north of Sloans Lake and the Cheyenne-Kiwanis Community House.

I suspect someone aiming a long-lens camera at the top of a tree will have passersby surreptitiously looking in the same direction to figure out what they are shooting. Or, being Cheyenne-friendly, they’ll simply ask. Then they, too, become converted to the owl-watching cult.

The day I went to see them, my husband Mark and I could only find one adult and one young, but I’d heard that one of the owlets had been seen on the ground, toddling, like a Furby toy, to another tree—and climbing it. It takes a few weeks before owlets are strong enough to fly much.

The owlets will stay with their parents for the summer, so we hope everyone keeps their dogs leashed while in the park. The neighborhood red foxes present enough of a challenge.

When it comes to breeding, great horned owls get an early start in the year. The male can be heard hooting in February to establish its territory. Chances are, his mate from last year is still around. Other than courtship, they don’t roost close to each other during the year. They don’t build a nest. Instead, they use a tree cavity or an available nest in a tree made by a hawk, crow, heron or squirrel.

The female is the one who incubates the (typically) two eggs. She’ll lay more if food—prey animals—is very abundant. For more than 30 days between February and March, she can successfully incubate through winter conditions, even -27 degrees (-33C).

The male keeps her fed. Food found in our park could include rabbits, mice, waterfowl and other birds. This was not a good winter to find ducks, since Sloans Lake, in the park, stayed completely frozen until mid-March.

Research shows owls occasionally take squirrels, and with the overabundance available in the park, that would be my guess as to what they are eating. If anyone finds owl pellets—the compacted balls of bones that are regurgitate by the owls —we could find out for sure.

At 6 weeks old, and nearly equal to their 22-inch-tall parents, young owls climb out of the nest and take a stroll onto nearby branches. Over the next four weeks they practice flying short distances and may be found roosting on the ground.

The siblings hang out together, but the parents, except for occasionally dropping off food, prefer to roost away from the kids, to avoid hearing their incessant begging that starts up whenever the parents come near.

The owlets start out catching insects and eventually learn to catch mammals and birds by the perch and pounce method. By October, they are ready to fend for themselves.

Typically, young owls are 2 years old before they breed. But it really depends on the amount of prey available. If pickings are slim, many can’t find a big enough territory to support a family because there are probably more dominant owls in the area chasing them off. The researchers call the unpaired birds “floaters.”

Great horned owls don’t migrate seasonally. But the young disperse to find new territory, looking for some place that has an abundance of prey. Studies cited in Birds of North America Online show they moved a mean distance of 46 miles (75 km). Otherwise, they would have a long wait before they could take the place of their parents’ generation—this species has been documented to live more than 20 years. So, for the young, it’s about waiting for those years when rabbit reproduction is up.

Whether the current pair nests in the park again next winter depends on the nest they used still being in good shape—or if a replacement is found. But more importantly, is there still enough food?

Great horned owls across North America, the only continent where they are found, work out answers to these questions every year.

It seems, despite people feeding the park squirrels (even though they shouldn’t and the over-abundant population is chewing up and damaging park trees), the owls are here to bring balance. It’s another step in making a manmade landscape more natural.

Bird i.d. at a distance–and close up

White-faced Ibis

The White-faced Ibis’s white face markings are difficult to discern from a distance when trying to distinguish if from the similar Glossy Ibis. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 16, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Learn to appreciate birds from a distance.”

2014 Update: Andrea Orabona is still the Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame bird biologist.

By Barb Gorges

Identification of birds in the field is based on patterns: color, shape, behavior, location, and voice, because even with binoculars, an impression is all we get.

The skillful birder knows just what to key in on for each kind of bird. To distinguish two of the large, soaring birds around Cheyenne this summer, key in on the black and white pattern on the underside of the wings.

Swainson’s hawks have the forward half, or leading edge of the wing light and the trailing edge of the wing dark. Turkey vultures, which seem to be sticking around instead of migrating through Cheyenne, are just the opposite. Plus their wings tilt upward in a shallow “v.”

The sparrows I like best are the ones with distinct markings. Half a dozen white-crowned sparrows, their heads marked with alternating black and white stripes, were in our backyard the last week of April and first week of May, singing non-stop all day until they continued their migration to spend summer in the mountains.

Some birds are so distinct, a silhouette is enough. Such is the case for white-faced ibis, several of which have been reported the last couple weeks at reservoirs around southeastern Wyoming. I glimpsed one wading in Crystal Reservoir on May 5.

Certainly the white on this ibis species’ face is hardly enough to justify its name. You’d think it would be named for that incredible bill. Look up a picture of this exotic-looking shorebird to understand how amazed I am when I see one.

Short of putting bird food on the windowsill or getting trained or licensed to handle live wild birds for research or rehabilitation, birders don’t usually get very close to birds, especially to owls.

If you are very lucky, you may notice one imitating a lump of tree trunk as it naps during the day. Otherwise, all you have to go on are signs and sounds: a hoot in the dark, a rabbit leg on the lawn, wing marks in the snow or pellets under the tree.

Andrea Cerovski, Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame bird biologist, is on tour this year with Jupiter, a great horned owl.

During their appearance at the April Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon meeting, Jupiter viewed the room from his position on Andrea’s glove.

His eyes were huge and black and he stared back at the audience. He is new to the lecture circuit and was finding everything to be of interest, especially the Cub Scout den that came in. Perhaps the high voices of young children reminded him of squeaking prey.

Jupiter’s feet, with their huge talons, restlessly renewed their grip on the glove. His beak, though short, has to be sharp enough to shred flesh. His soft-edged feathers, were he to hunt, break the sound of his flight so prey wouldn’t hear his approach until too late.

Hissy, the resident great horned owl at the Wyoming Children’s Museum in Laramie, has had a lot more public exposure and seemed rather bored when introduced at the Audubon Wyoming reception there a few days later.

Because their mottled coloring camouflages the contours of their closed wings, it takes a close look to see why these two birds are not in the wild. Each has a mangled, unusable wing, due to collisions with man-made obstacles.

I’m like many people who wish they could communicate with wild animals. I want them to respond to me, yet when I sat still enough that a mountain bluebird foraged three feet away, as happened recently and unexpectedly, I was happy to be accepted as nothing but a nonthreatening part of the landscape.

But I’m glad the law bans people from making pets of wild birds. We’ve interfered enough already, especially by changing many of their habitats.

When identification is especially vexing, I want to hold the bird in my hand. But if you’ve ever taken ornithology and studied bird skins, or “birds on a stick,” you know that a bird in hand, out of context, can be just as vexing.

Then there’s the occasional dead bird. For any dead bird, anytime of year, bag it. Pull a plastic bread bag over your hand like a glove. Pick up the bird and pull the bag inside out over the bird and tie the bag shut. Then double-bag it and take a close look at it if you like, before disposing of it.

After June 1 the county environmental health department’s system will be in place for examining dead birds, especially black birds, for West Nile virus.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to see live wild birds, some preparing to nest and some just passing through in migration, join Audubon members on the Big Count this Saturday. You’ll never believe how many kinds of birds there are here unless you see them for yourself.

Snowy owls visit

Snowy Owl

Young Snowy Owls show dark horizontal barring. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published March 25, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Snowy owls’ visit a sight to behold.”

2014 Update: Snowy owls again irrupted this winter, 2013-2014, some as far south as Bermuda, but mostly in the east and Midwest.

By Barb Gorges

Thanks to Hedwig, millions of children may recognize a snowy owl.

She was Harry Potter’s companion in the books and movies. How many of those children, some now adult, have caught a glimpse of these nearly snow-white owls during this winter’s invasion?

Snowy owls in North America usually leave their summer breeding grounds by the Arctic Ocean and head south. Adult females travel the shortest distance before establishing winter territories, with males and juvenile females continuing on. Juvenile males travel farthest, especially if prey becomes scarce. Cold is not a problem. All snowies stay warm with feathers covering their toes and nearly engulfing the tips of their beaks.

There are migrant snowies to be seen every winter, according to Christmas Bird Count data, in south-central Canada, Montana, the Dakotas and New England. They will fan out a little further 50 percent of winters, to the Pacific Northwest and the upper Midwest, east through eastern Canada. They make it as far south as Wyoming and the central Great Plains 30 percent of winters. Experts admit they don’t know entirely what drives this species’ nomadic migration.

This year has been note-worthy for the number of sightings in 31 states as far south as Texas. It could be that birdwatchers are better connected than ever before, thanks to the Internet. Observations aren’t just scribbled in someone’s notebook—they are shared and mapped.

But there are also a lot of birds, sometimes in groups. The thought is that the lemmings were particularly fertile last summer and provided enough prey that a bumper crop of young snowy owls fledged. Each pair can raise up to 12 young, compared to the two or three chicks our resident, similarly-sized, great horned owls raise per year.

It’s most likely juvenile snowy owls people observed and photographed this winter. They have the brown barring—horizontal stripes—across their bodies, though adult females also have some. The adult males are pure white.

In the February issue of Prairie Fire, an alternative Nebraskan newspaper, Paul Johnsgard reports that in the previous 35 years, a total of 21 snowy owls had been brought in to the Raptor Recovery Nebraska facilities in Lincoln. However, between December and mid-January, 10 more snowy owls were picked up. Nine were emaciated and didn’t survive.

It makes me wonder how well the snowies compete with local hawks. Do they prey on the same species of rodents?

Or maybe the problem is their hunting techniques. Unless a landscape is totally snow-covered, snowies really stand out. I saw my first one in a spruce tree by Old Main on the University of Wyoming campus winter of 1980-81, but more typically people see them in the grasslands, perched on a rise, a fence post or a utility pole.

They sit motionless, waiting for prey, or walk about looking rather than flying. Unlike most owls, they are diurnal, active in the daytime. Their hearing is sharp. They can locate potential prey under the snow. They also take ducks and shorebirds.

Snowy owls are circumpolar, meaning they breed in the polar region from Alaska through Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia. The Birds of North America Online species account reports their conservation status, whether populations are increasing or decreasing, is unknown. Apparently, no one has spent enough time in the polar region to find out, though one scientist who went found snowy owls can seriously wound humans too close to their nests.

If you missed the invasion, probably ending at the end of March, take a look at a three-minute YouTube video at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s channel, www.youtube.com/user/LabofOrnithology for close-ups.

Visit http://www.allaboutbirds.org, another free CLO resource, to read about snowy owl natural history and hear one calling.

At CLO’s free Great Backyard Bird Count site, http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/, you can “Explore the Data” and see where snowy owls were seen Feb. 17-21.

And finally, if you are willing to register, at no cost, you can access www.eBird.org and its huge database to look at maps and compare sightings from year to year.

Most of what is know about sightings in Wyoming this winter, including one near Burns, appeared in posts to the Wyobirds e-list. Sign up for free at HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/archives. Click on Wyobirds. It’s a great way to keep in touch with birders across the state.

Calling owls can be harassment

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl, photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 16, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Callers: Give a hoot; Birders need to know etiquette of calling.”

2014 Update: I’m still reluctant to call owls.

By Barb Gorges

A windless winter night is a good time to call for owls. Their response is only muffled by traffic, barking dogs, shifting feet and blood rushing in your eardrums.

The February evening the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society sponsored an owl outing attracted a field trip record of 31 local listeners. I’m guessing popularity was due partly to owl mystique and partly because the evening followed an unseasonably warm day.

Calling owls has been immortalized by the children’s picture book, Owl Moon, the story of father and child crunching over the snow on a moonlit night. On our outing, starlight was soon washed out by a huge orange moon just past full, however, snow was hard to come by.

We also didn’t have anyone willing to imitate an owl, so we used recordings. First we played the northern saw-whet owl several times, with pauses in between to listen for responses. We then moved on to long-eared, eastern screech and great horned owls. Starting with the largest would have inhibited smaller owls.

The chapter had another owl outing five years ago, but this time I heard concerns about its effect on the owls.

Calling owls or any other bird is actually a form of avian harassment. It works because birds respond to an intruder on their territory. Songbirds tucked away in leafy shrubbery will respond to the vocal sound birders make, “pish, pish.” It sounds like the avian alert signal, so they come out to see what’s going on.

You can understand why frequently antagonizing birds into alarm mode is not good. The American Birding Association states in its Code of Birding Ethics, “Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas or for attracting any species that is threatened, endangered or of special concern, or rare in your local area.”

Cheyenne birders hardly ever resort to pishing or recordings, and I was surprised once when a birder from out of state on one of our field trips started playing calls. As a birder friend said, “It seems like a cheesy way to bird,” in a recreational situation.

Calling owls is a time-honored way of surveying for them, however. Jennifer Bowers, a local wildlife biologist, told me about her experience listening for Mexican spotted owls in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona.

From the end of April to the end of July, her work day started at 4:30 p.m. with a hike into the backcountry, arriving at the beginning of one of many survey routes about 7 p.m. One kind of survey involved stopping at predetermined intervals and hooting. I can just imagine the interview for this job. Jennifer said it’s difficult to demonstrate hooting over the phone—it’s rather loud.

The other type of survey was to hoot where a pair of owls was known to nest. By the end of the season, the young were noticeable.

The surveys took about an hour or two, depending on the amount of paperwork generated by responding owls. The biologists were usually back at the field camp around midnight, only to get up and do a willow flycatcher survey at 4:30 a.m.

Inconveniencing Cheyenne owls once every few years for the sake of education is worthwhile, I think. But this time we decided to limit our calling to areas we visually survey on the Christmas and spring counts.

Apparently, we weren’t disturbing very many owls. We tried calling among the big trees at Lions Park. We tried out Crow Creek where we’d seen great horned owls last year. Nothing. By then some of the neophyte owlers must have thought we were crazy.

We had one more stop to make, the High Plains Grasslands Research Station, where we had written permission to visit that evening. We parked along the road near the entrance and before the last car door closed, people with better hearing than me heard a saw-whet.

We walked along the road until the calls became more distinct. While great horned owls are often seen on our counts on the piney island of the station, Jane Dorn, who has surveyed it for about 25 years, recalls only one other saw-whet. She said this time of year they are migrating through to their preferred nesting habitat in the mountains, so that’s why we wouldn’t find them on the Christmas count or the spring count in May.

Saw-whets are tiny, only eight inches long and not even three ounces. The great horned owl is 22 inches and three pounds. I can only surmise that an owl that calls constantly as this saw-whet did, is advertising for a mate and unconcerned with a larger owl making a midnight snack of it.

We had a beautiful moonlit evening outdoors and we gained new information. Also, it will be a long time before any of us forget the northern saw-whet owl’s call. Now that we know it, we may start hearing what we would have otherwise missed before we could distinguish it from all the other night sounds.