Published Oct. 2, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding not just a springtime joy anymore.”
2014 Update: Doug Faulkner is the author of “Birds of Wyoming,” a compendium of species distribution and status and other information published in 2010 by Roberts and Company. Doug currently works for an environmental consulting firm.
By Barb Gorges
The next time Doug Faulkner plans to come up from Colorado to bird Cheyenne, I hope to tag along again.
He’s one of those people who, after scanning acres of ducks, can look around and say, “Gee, it’d be nice to see a peregrine,” and wham, something nails a duck and seconds later we all get a chance to see a peregrine falcon standing on its prize on a sandbar in the middle of a drought stricken reservoir, only a mile south of Cheyenne’s city limits.
By the way, the colloquial name for the peregrine was duck hawk. Chicken hawk, a name I mentioned in my last column, referred to red-tailed hawks.
For whatever reason, perhaps years of attending children’s soccer games on Saturday mornings, I’ve never done much purposeful birding in the fall. Besides, it didn’t seem appealing because many birds are more difficult to identify than in the spring. They’ve molted out of their distinctive breeding plumage or they are the young of the year and haven’t acquired adult feathering.
Fall birding for me has always been just a matter of what crosses my path. So it was interesting to revisit spring birding haunts and see what was flitting. Technically, this excursion was during fall migration, even though it was the last weekend of summer.
Doug, who is a bird specialist for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory located at Barr Lake State Park outside Brighton, Colo., gathered up a group of six other birders for a second annual fall foray to Cheyenne.
First stop, where I met the group, was at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch by the horse barn, overlooking the riparian thicket of Crow Creek. I arrived earliest, but the vista was pretty quiet. Two big bird lumps were sitting in the treetops, one a turkey vulture and the other an unidentifiable hawk showing me only a speckled shoulder.
A lone car pulled into the avenue of cottonwoods and then stopped—a birder, of course. It was Gary Lefko, part of Doug’s group. He was studying a small bird lump in one of the trees, which in turn studied us. It had a faded red breast, white belly and a face like a bluebird. It hunched like a bluebird, but had its wings tight across its back where we couldn’t examine them for blueness.
Was it an eastern or a western bluebird? Mountain bluebirds have no red markings. When Doug came along at last, he pointed out the obvious field mark. Easterns have a red breast that comes up to their chins like a turtleneck sweater while westerns have the equivalent of a v-neck. So we had an eastern.
“O.K., we can go home now!” said Doug. Eastern bluebirds are rare enough here to be celebrated as the find of the day.
Back at the creek overlook, the turkey vulture took off, the hawk had gone and small birds were jumping. “Western tanager, western wood peewee, Townsend’s solitaire, ruby-crowned kinglet, Wilson’s warbler!” Everyone was calling something.
Some of these species, such as the tanager and later, the green-tailed towhee we saw by the office, come through my neighborhood in the spring on route to the mountains, but I had never seen them in the fall before.
The Wilson’s warblers were the most numerous. At Lions Park, they seemed as thick as butterflies in the garden. Over the course of the morning we also saw yellow-rumped, orange-crowned, Townsend’s and MacGillivray’s warblers plus a chestnut-sided warbler which had none of its chestnut-colored field markings this time of year.
Undoubtedly, any neighborhood in Cheyenne with mature trees is hosting these travelers. The week before I’d glimpsed a Townsend’s warbler in my own bushes as it fueled up on bugs in order to continue its trip from breeding grounds somewhere between southeast Alaska and Washington State to wintering grounds stretching from California into Mexico and Central America.
At the reservoir, the coots were easily identifiable, with the same all-black plumage. Pintails still had pointy tails and gadwalls were still black behind. We’d seen blue-winged and green-winged teal in the creek.
The birds that had lost the most coloring were the phalaropes, those sandpipers that swim in circles to churn up food. In the spring, the Wilson’s phalaropes are marked with red and black, but now they have winter plumage that is gray and white.
Then it was pointed out that these particular little whirling dervishes were red-necked phalaropes instead. They were just passing through from a summer spent high in the Arctic.
Since my North American bird field guides don’t show where these phalaropes winter, I had to do a little more research to discover that they prefer the open ocean, south of the Equator, off western South America. It’s amazing the endurance of a 1.2 ounce bird with a wingspan of only 15 inches.
I’m glad the visiting Colorado birders took me along for a bit. Birding in the fall, though challenging, turns out to be just as exciting as in the spring.