Fall birding is as exciting as spring

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebirds are an unusual find in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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.

Peregrines come back with help from friends

Peregrine Falcon

Without captive breeding techniques honed by centuries of falconers, the population of Peregrine Falcons may not have recovered. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 13, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Peregrines back with a little help from friends.”

2014 Update: eBird shows several peregrine observations in the area around Cheyenne, but nothing more recent than 2010.

By Barb Gorges

Peregrine falcons were listed as endangered in the U.S. two years before I opened my first bird field guide in 1972.

The guide, “The Birds of North America,” published by Golden Press in 1966, did not allude to the peregrine’s diminishing population. It only said it was “a rare local falcon.”

However, in the era of an awakening environmental consciousness, we all heard about the peregrine, a very handsome poster child for the drive to ban DDT, one of the pesticides responsible for poisoning birds of prey and causing their eggshells to be too thin for un-hatched young to survive.

One doesn’t expect to meet an endangered species in the wild, especially when ornithologists had declared it extirpated in the eastern U.S. by 1970 and in trouble in other parts of the world (peregrines are found everywhere except the Sahara, the Amazon and Antarctica). But I had another encounter with a peregrine last month, just outside Cheyenne.

My six peregrine observations, all since 2003, have been around Cheyenne, at either Wyoming Hereford Ranch or Lions Park. All but one were in spring.

I remember the first sightings, on Audubon field trips, for which I was relying on more experienced birders for identification. Once, at WHR Reservoir No. 1, we saw a peregrine in one of those legendary dives–once clocked by a scientist at 200 miles per hour.

It slammed into an unsuspecting duck standing on a sandbar. The peregrine’s former common name was “duck hawk”–ducks being a favorite among the many kinds of birds they eat.

Last month, my husband Mark and I saw a bird sitting in a cottonwood below the same reservoir, watching us. It had all the peregrine field marks, including the dark cheek patches, which must have been the inspiration for those cheek pieces for first-century Roman centurions’ helmets.

Peregrines have been favorites of falconers for 3,000 years. While the young can be taken from wild nests, they are also bred in captivity. In 1970, the founder of The Peregrine Fund, Tom Cade, began breeding them in earnest, as did Bill Burnham of Fort Collins, future president of TPF, beginning in 1974.

By 1984, TPF had opened the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. By 1997, 4,000 peregrines had been bred and released into the wild. By 1999, the peregrine was off the Endangered Species list. The fund continues to work to conserve raptor species around the world.

It isn’t quite the same as the old days for the peregrines. Someone thought of also introducing–or hacking–them into cities that have plentiful pigeon prey and tall buildings that would imitate their cliff-face nesting habitat. Urbanites could be seeing peregrines much more often than we do.

While peregrines went missing in the eastern U.S., what happened to them in Wyoming? I asked Bob Dorn, co-author with his wife, Jane Dorn, of the book, “Wyoming Birds.” From his research, he was able to give me a list of over a dozen observation dates back to 1929.

In 1939, Bob said O. C. McCreary categorized the peregrine as “a rather rare summer resident,” usually indicating that they are breeding, and “an uncommon migrant,” meaning not quite so rare during migration. As Bob put it, “When you’re at the top of the food chain, you are in scarce numbers.” (Somehow, that isn’t true of humans.)

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s species account states that by 1970 Wyoming had no viable breeding population. They formed a partnership with TPF and over 15 years, 1980-1995, introduced 384 captive-bred peregrines. It was successful. There were 90 breeding pairs recorded in 2009, the most recent information available.

Today, breeding peregrines tend to be found in the northwest part of the state. Down here in the southeast, we have the potential to see migrants from April through May.

The most recently published field guide I have, “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” (2009), does mention the peregrine was endangered—small concession to the idea that the hobby of bird identification can no longer be divorced from bird conservation.

The new “Peterson” range map shows there is still a big empty area in the middle of the country where the “Golden” guide had indicated wintering peregrines nearly 50 years before. But it also shows summer range, presumably breeding range, where the “Golden” guide did not.

Unfortunately, many threatened or endangered birds are not as charismatic as the peregrine. Experience with captive breeding may be nonexistent and the reason for a species’ plummeting population may not be as simple as a particular pesticide. The commonality however, is that human experiments with new technology often produce unexpected, bad consequences for some birds, while accidently promoting the unwanted reproduction of others–think starlings.

Meanwhile, birders continue to collect and share observations, causing range maps to continually be redrawn. Mark’s and my single peregrine sighting on April 8 becomes part of the larger story.

Keep your eyes open, too.