Condors in Wyoming

2018-08Condor 832_edited-1-Brian Waitkus

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

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

2018-08Condor T2Brian Waitkus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018-08Condor head-Brian Waitkus

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

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Texas ecotourism

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Bill Thompson III, editor and co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, talks about the birds of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on the first day of the Reader Rendezvous in Texas held in March 2016. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle April 3, 2016, “Ecotourists enjoy Texas border birds.”

By Barb Gorges

At the beginning of March, Mark and I indulged in five days of ecotourism in South Texas after visiting our son and his wife in Houston.

We met up with avid birders for another Reader Rendezvous put on by the Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine staff. Last year we met them in Florida.

I’d heard about the fall Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, but had no idea how well bird-organized the entire lower Rio Grande Valley is until a woman from the Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke to us.

2016-3-11a McAllen Green Parakeets byBarbGorges

A stretch of North 10th Street in McAllen, Texas, is an eBird hotspot for hundreds of Green Parakeets coming to roost in the evenings. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I was expecting McAllen, Texas—where we stayed, to be a small town in the middle of nowhere, but its population is 140,000 in a metropolitan area of 800,000, with a lot of high-end retail businesses attracting shoppers from Mexico.

Outside of the urban and suburban areas, nearly every acre is farmed. But in the 1940s, two national wildlife refuges were set aside and another in 1979, as well as a number of state parks. This southern-most point of Texas is an intersection of four habitat types and their birds: desert, tropical, coastal and prairie, and it is a funnel for two major migratory flyways.

One of our local birding guides, Roy Rodriguez, has compiled a list of 528 bird species (we have only 326 for Cheyenne), including 150 accidentals seen rarely—though our group saw two, northern jacana and blue bunting.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Green Jay byBarbGorges

The Green Jay visited feeding stations at several of the national wildlife refuges and state parks visited. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Many of Roy’s common species that we saw are South Texas specialties like plain chachalaca, green parakeet and green jay. We also saw uncommon Texas specialties including white-tailed hawk, ringed kingfisher and Altamira and Audubon’s orioles.

From the rare list, some of the species we saw were ferruginous pygmy-owl, aplomado falcon and red-crowned parrot. Interestingly, several Texas rarities we saw are not rare in Wyoming: cinnamon teal, merlin and cedar waxwing.

Most of the Texas specialties have extensive ranges in Mexico. Thus, a species can be rare in a particular location, or just plain rare like the whooping cranes Mark and I saw further east on the Gulf Coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

What is rare is the cooperative effort shown by nine entities to establish the World Birding Centers, www.theworldbirdingcenter.com, including four city parks, three state parks, a state wildlife management area and a national wildlife refuge. Another partnership has produced a map of the five-county area which locates and describes those and 76 additional public birding sites. The map is helpful even if you are proficient using www.eBird.org to check for the latest sightings.

Wyoming will be coming out with something similar soon, the Great Wyoming Birding Trail map app.

2016-3-10 Laguna Atascosa NWR - Plain Chachalaca byBarbGorges

The Plain Chachalaca also enjoys citrus fruit put out at feeding stations. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The concentration of birds in south Texas draws people from around the world. We saw the natural open spaces drawing local families too. But it’s the visitors who spend money which the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau counts. They estimate bird-related business is the third biggest part of their economy, after shopping and “winter Texans.”

Roy said birdwatchers contributed $1 million to the economy when a rare black-headed nightingale-thrush spent five months in Pharr, Texas, and $700,000 in just a few weeks while a bare-throated tiger-heron could be seen.

The International Ecotourism Society says ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

We mostly think in terms of ecotourists going to third world countries, but it applies here in the U.S. as well.

“Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel,” continues the description. At each of the seven locations the Reader Rendezvous visited, staff or volunteers gave us historical and conservation background. And each location is managed by conservation principles. I’m not sure about the sustainable travel aspect, though we did travel by van and bus, minimizing fuel and maximizing fun.

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Bill Thompson III (vest and blue shirt) helps Reader Rendezvous participants home in on a rare bird at Estero Llano Grande State Park in South Texas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Short of staying home, travel will not be sustainable until modes of transportation have clean fuel and restaurants and hotels are more conservation-minded. But experiencing and building understanding of other places and cultures is worthwhile. At Anzalduas County Park we stood on the edge of the Rio Grande, looking across at a Mexican park, close enough to wave. If a bird flew more than half way across the river, would we have to document it for eBird as being in Mexico? Is there any place to tally the number of Border Patrol trucks, blimps and helicopters we saw at that park?

Besides a few extra pounds from enjoying the always enormous and delicious portions of Texan and Mexican food, I brought home other souvenirs as well: a list of 154 species, 37 of them life birds for me (at least on eBird), photos, great memories and new birding friendships.

Now we’re back in time to welcome the avian “winter Texans” to Cheyenne as they migrate north.

Rare birds don’t read field guides

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published October 3, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going by the book doesn’t prove bird’s existence.”

2014 Update: Rare bird sightings in Wyoming continue to be a source of amazement and a topic of discussion.

By Barb Gorges

If a bird flies through the forest and there is no one to see it, does it exist?

Conversely, if the annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union is held in your state, will birds be found never before seen there?

Yes and yes. Several of the 500 attendees of the conference held in Laramie in early August observed what may be the first two records of lesser black-backed gull for Wyoming, if accepted by the Wyoming Rare Bird Records Committee.

One of the gulls was hanging out at Lake Hattie on the Laramie Plains and the other at North Gap Lake high in the Snowy Range.

Wyoming does not have a huge number of resident ornithologists or expert birders to cover our vast plains and mountain ranges so one has to wonder how many lesser black-backeds have visited previously.

The lesser black-backed is essentially a European species, but gulls are likely to travel long distances scouting new territory. North American birders started seeing this species in the winter along the Atlantic coast in the early 1970s.

Field guide range maps indicate at least a single record up to a few sightings every year for states in the eastern half of the U.S., but with a heavy concentration along the Front Range of Colorado.

This makes me smile. Several years ago I went on a late fall field trip led by Tony Leukering and Doug Faulkner to look for gulls at the reservoirs around Fort Collins. We saw several rarities.

Are these guys gull magnets? Or do they have more knowledge of how to recognize species that aren’t expected?

So I asked Doug about the new gull in Wyoming. He wrote back:

“You should look at Sibley’s Lesser Black-backed range map.  That one is pretty accurate, although as with most publications, it was already out-of-date before it hit the printers.

“LBBG is annual in winter in Colorado in small numbers (about 8-12 per winter; I often see 6 or more).  In fact, it is regular enough that the Colorado Bird Records Committee no longer requests documentation.

“Colorado’s first record is from 1976.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that the species really took off and started to occur annually, then in the early 2000s in relatively high numbers for an inland state.

“The Wyoming Bird Records Committee is reviewing documentation of one at Casper from winter 2004.  If accepted, that would be the first state record.

“LBBG has been slowly expanding, geographically, westward as evidenced not only by Colorado’s records, but also those from other states.  More interestingly, the species has broken out of its “rut” of only occurring in winter inland. It is now being found more often in summer (Wyoming’s two birds this year, plus several for Colorado and Nebraska in recent years), as well as earlier in the fall and later in the spring.”

How many observations does it take before the field guide maps are altered? Last winter a lesser goldfinch, easily distinguished from our usual American goldfinch, was seen at a Cheyenne feeder almost daily, for months. The Sibley Guide to Birds shows a couple green dots meaning that there were already a few records for Wyoming.

But then came this summer. We had one visit our feeder. And so did people from Green River, Casper, Buford and Newcastle who posted their observations on Wyobirds, the e-list for learning about birds in Wyoming (http://HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/ archives).  Doug posted a report of small flocks around Guernsey when he birded the area.

Is this the beginning of a trend, an expansion of the lesser goldfinch range north or a one-time phenomenon? Time will tell.

Wyoming is woefully short of expert observers, though not short of people interested in watching birds. I take a lot of bird identification questions over the phone from people who want to know more about the birds in their yards.

On the other hand, I’ve also taken calls from visiting birders, who, having looked at the Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles of Wyoming edited by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (http://gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/nongame), are quite positive that they have seen a first Wyoming record for a species they are very familiar with back home.

Are these visitors making a familiar species out of one of our similar local species, or have we locals not recognized an unusual species because we aren’t familiar with it?

The Wyoming Bird Records Committee judges the credibility of all rare bird records for the state. A few folks looking to bag state records have been deeply disappointed at the slow speed of our committee, but it is staffed by volunteer experts with full-time jobs and they do the best they can.

Us average birdwatchers are as important as the expert in documenting changes in the ranges of species. So how do we make our observations useful?

Study birds. Participate in data collection efforts like Project FeederWatch and eBird. Learn when and how to file a rare bird form. To request one, call the Wyoming Game and Fish regional office in Lander, 307-332-2688. And keep looking.

After all, as birdwatchers are fond of pointing out, the birds don’t read the books.

Bird record requests can ruffle feathers

Connecticut Warblers

A Connecticut Warbler is a rare bird in Wyoming and should be documented for the Wyoming Bird Records Committee. Courtesy WIkipedia.

Published June 13, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Records request ruffles feathers.”

2014 Update: For questions about the Wyoming Bird Records Committee or how to file a rare bird report, contact Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame bird biologist Andrea Orabona, andrea.orabona@wyo.gov.

By Barb Gorges

One of the fringe benefits of writing this column is hearing from other people watching birds.

In the last month there have been reports of robins building a nest on a ladder and nesting on a porch light fixture plus one report of a robin attacking what it thought was its rival—its own reflection in a clean window.

The rest of the year the most common calls are requests for help identifying birds.

Luckily there aren’t many calls from people with rare bird sightings. If someone were to insist, for instance, that they have a pink flamingo in their garden—and it’s not plastic, I would refer them to Jane Dorn, whose training and expertise in birds extends far beyond our local backyards.

Jane compiles the reports for our local Christmas Bird Count, the Big Day spring count and local reports for American Birds, a quarterly journal.

If a species is unusual for Wyoming or for the time of year, Jane will ask the observer for more information because she is also a member of the Wyoming Bird Records Committee.

A photograph of the bird in question is extremely useful, or verification by one or more knowledgeable birders. It boils down to credibility and the honor system, unless Jane gets a chance to run out and see the bird herself.

An observer can send a report directly to the committee, in care of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame bird biologist, but there are advantages to working with Jane for rare birds in our area.

First, she is intimately knowledgeable about the birds here and second, she may be able to vouch for your credibility and birding ability when your report is being reviewed for inclusion in official state records.

Eventually, the accepted reports are used to revise the “Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Reptiles and Amphibians in Wyoming,” published by Game and Fish.

Some rare bird observations indicate nothing more than a migrant blown off course, while for other species, reports begin to accumulate, showing they are changing their migration patterns or expanding breeding ranges.

Imagine my surprise and dismay when a request for documentation after last month’s Big Day count was met with hostility and suspicion.

The best birding on the Big Day count starts at sunrise, so it helps to have birders in our hottest bird spots simultaneously.

Each year, while Jane and her husband Robert, also an expert birder, are scoping the Grasslands Research Station first thing, birders from Casper and our local Audubon chapter and I start at Lions Park. We can’t wait to see what unusual migrants will turn up.

This year two out-of-state birders met up with us for a little while and were the first to spot a Connecticut warbler, a first record for the Cheyenne latilong (a latilong is an area one degree of latitude by one degree of longitude). The two enthusiastic birders helped many people get a chance to see it.

Each year, before the Casper birders leave town, I try to record their observations, but with so many people participating this year, I didn’t get a chance to check with everyone.

Knowing most of the Casperites and the two out-of-state birders subscribe to the Wyobirds listserv, Jane and I compiled a preliminary list and sent it over the Internet with a request for documentation of two rare species, including the warbler (I only saw a few of its feathers).

The responses of the two out-of-state birders, who have evidently birded the Cheyenne area frequently on their own, appeared quickly. One asked, who is Jane Dorn and why should he report anything to her? The other complained that the state records committee had never acknowledged other reports he’d sent in and he wasn’t going to send in any more.

Since then, two Casper birders have sent Jane excellent documentation for the warbler and one of our local birders may be able to do so for the other bird, a glossy ibis.

This whole episode brings up two points. One, if visitors have the ability to identify rare birds and they take the time to befriend and share their talent with the locals, it is time and expertise that is greatly appreciated. Otherwise they appear to be roving rare-bird baggers.

Second, the all-volunteer records committee needs to figure out how to deal with its backlog of reports. Modern communications technology would benefit the scattered members who find it difficult to meet in person.

There’s also a third point to make. As willing as birders are to serve as citizen scientists, there is an increasing amount of data organization and processing needed for wildlife planning and management purposes. The state wildlife agency is the logical institution to handle it.

Game and Fish should consider increasing its nongame bird staff so data can be prepared in a useful and timely way.