Keeping citizen scientists happy


Citizen scientists were recruited by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (now the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies) to look for Flammulated Owls in the Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming in the summer of 2005. Mark and I are standing in front of the sign.

Published Nov. 13, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Turning Citizens into Scientists”

Note: The first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference is being held Dec. 1-3, 2016, in Lander. All current and would-be citizen scientists studying birds or any other natural science are welcome. See

How to keep a citizen scientist happy

By Barb Gorges

A year after I married my favorite wildlife biologist, he invited me on my first Christmas Bird Count.

It was between minus 25 and minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that day in southeastern Montana, with snow on the ground. He asked me to take the notes, which meant frequently removing my thick mittens and nearly frostbiting my fingers.

I am happy to report that 33 years later, my husband is the one who takes the notes and the Christmas Bird Count has become a family tradition, from taking our first son at eight months old and continuing now with both sons and their wives joining us.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 and is one of the oldest examples of citizen science, sending ordinary people (most are not wildlife biologists) out to collect data for scientific studies.

In 1999, I signed up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and have continued each year. Last season 22,000 people participated. In 2010 I started entering eBird checklists and now I’m one of 327,000 people taking part since 2002. And there are nearly a dozen other, smaller, CLO projects.

It is obvious CLO knows how to keep their citizen scientists happy. Part of it is that they have been at it since 1966. Part of it is they know birdwatchers. That’s because they are birdwatchers themselves.

How do they keep us happy? I made a list based on my own observations—echoed by an academic paper I read later.

First, I am comfortable collecting the data. The instructions are good. They are similar to something I do already: keeping lists of birds I see. The protocol is just a small addition. For instance, in eBird I need to note when and for how long I birded and at least estimate how many of each species I saw. It makes the data more useful to scientists.

Second, I am not alone. The Christmas Bird Count is definitely a group activity, which makes it easy for novice birders to join us. I especially love the tally party potluck when we gather to share what the different groups have seen that day.

Project FeederWatch is more solitary, but these days there are social aspects such as sharing photos online. Over President’s Day weekend when the Great Backyard Bird Count is on, I can see animated maps of data points for each species. On eBird, I can see who has been seeing what at local birding hotspots.

Third, I have access to the data I submitted. Even 33 years later, I can look up my first CBC online and find the list of birds we saw, and verify my memories of how cold it was in December 1983.

The eBird website keeps my life list of birds and where I first saw them (OK, I need to rummage around and see if I can verify my pre-2010 species and enter those). It compiles a list of all the birds I’ve seen in each of my locations over time (89 species from my backyard) and what time of year I’ve seen them. All of my observations are organized and more accessible than if I kept a notebook. And now I can add photos and audio recordings of birds.

A fourth item CLO caters to is the birdwatching community’s competitive streak. I can look on eBird and see who has seen the most species in Wyoming or Laramie County during the calendar year, or who has submitted the most checklists. You can choose a particular location, like your backyard, and compare your species and checklist numbers with other folks in North America, which is instructive and entertaining.

I would take part in the CBC and eBird just because I love an excuse to bird. But the fifth component of a happy citizen scientist is concrete evidence that real scientists are making use of my data. Sometimes multiple years of data are needed, but even reading a little analysis of the current year makes me feel my work was worthwhile and helps me see where my contribution fits in.

What really makes me happy is that I have benefitted from being a citizen scientist. I’m a better birder, a better observer now. I look at things more like a scientist. I appreciate the ebb and flow of nature more.

If you have an interest in birds, I’d be happy to help you sort through your citizen science options. Call or email me or check my archival website listed below, or go to

Warbler migration coming through a town near you

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s race), first to show up in spring, last to leave in fall. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 16, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Warblers winging their way through on migration path.”

2014 Update: The spring migration Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count total warbler species count is now at 31. Click  warblers-1993-2016 for the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count Warbler List.  It would be fun to peruse eBird records for the fall species count.

By Barb Gorges

Early mornings mid-August get a chill snap to them that foreshadows September and indicates warbler weather—warbler migration weather.

A trickle slowly builds through the last week of August. By then you can stare at almost any deciduous tree and see the flutter of the leaves, branch by branch, as these small passerine birds hunt for insects and other arthropods.

The migration will continue into October. The last warblers to leave will probably be the yellow-rumpeds. They don’t mind eating berries when the insects die off. The other warbler species are stricter insectivores.

The best time to look for warblers is early morning. They migrate at night and come to earth by dawn quite ravenous. They flit frantically, as if they’ve had three cups of coffee on an empty stomach. It makes them hard to track with binoculars, especially since they all seem to be shades of yellow, greenish yellow or olive green—the same colors as leaves losing chlorophyll.

Identifying fall warblers can be tough since the adult males are no longer in their distinctive breeding plumage, the young don’t have all their adult feathers and the females are so subtly marked, they tend to look all alike. But if you identify them as Wilson’s warblers around here, you could be right as often as fifty percent of the time.

The last weekend in August, our family attended the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory member’s picnic at their headquarters in Barr Lake State Park near Brighton, Colo. One of the activities was visiting a bird banding station in the park.

With newly banded birds in hand, RMBO staff member Arvind Panjabi was able to compare male Wilson’s of different ages. The younger the bird, the more yellow-green feathers are interspersed with the cap of black feathers on the top of its head. For the females, the cap is just a gray-green smudge.

Arvind didn’t think the Wilson’s warblers being caught in the mist nets that day were the ones that spent the summer in the mountains. He suggested that these were the birds that nested in Alaska and Canada and the mountain populations migrate later. No one will know for sure until more banded birds begin to be recaptured at other banding stations.

The different populations of Wilson’s probably winter in different areas as well. Some go only as far south as the Gulf Coast and Florida and some are found throughout Central America. Other warbler species spread out into South America.

Another activity at the picnic was a talk by RMBO volunteer Bill Schmoker about learning to recognize bird songs and calls. He claims bird songs aren’t any harder to remember than snippets of popular songs, even bird calls of just one note.

It helps to see the bird which is singing or calling when learning new vocalizations. I had that opportunity to make a connection at the banding station when some of the Wilson’s chipped loudly while being held. When released, they didn’t fly far and continued their one-note chips from cottonwood branches overhead.

Back at home, with a window open one morning, my subconscious identified the same chip and sure enough, there was a Wilson’s in the tree outside. However, even if it had never made a sound, I could have found it by following the stares of my two indoor housecats.

Warblers weren’t the only species to be caught in the mist net while we visited. A young western wood-peewee modeled its cream-colored wingbars which will turn whiter with age. We were also afforded the treat (well, maybe you have to be a birder to enjoy it) of watching a Hammond’s flycatcher, a petite bird, work to swallow a moth.

We have spring migration records for about 25 warbler species in Cheyenne from our Big Day bird counts, but we don’t have a comprehensive count like that in the fall, and because there’s no guarantee that what flies north will fly the same route south, we can’t suppose all the same species will be here now in the fall.

However, we do have observations accumulating through e-mail postings to Wyobirds. One e-mail posted last week by Ted Floyd, editor of the American Birding Association’s magazine, after a visit to Cheyenne, listed yellow, yellow-rumped, Townsend’s and MacGillivray’s warblers and the common yellowthroat. Also, Vicki Herren, a Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society member, identified a Nashville warbler, considered a rare migrant here.

September is the height of the warbler season, so it isn’t too late to get out and look for activity in the tree branches. By October the show will be over except for a few stragglers and some of those berry-eating yellow-rumpeds hanging out as late as November.

The Sibley bird books are probably the best at elucidating the different species at this time of year. There’s also the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers, though I haven’t seen it yet myself.

But like not knowing the name of the driver on a country road who gives you a happy wave of the hand in passing, it isn’t necessary to know a bird’s name to enjoy that brief moment when it examines you with its bright black eyes before turning to clean another beetle from the branch.

Colorado’s Black Swift wintering grounds found in Brazil

Black Swft

Black Swift nestling on nest. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Published Aug. 26, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Colorado black swift wintering grounds are found in Brazil. Future research may lead to new Wyoming records.”

2014 Update: For the latest on Black Swift research, go to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory,, and enter “Black Swift” in the search box.

By Barb Gorges

Imagine that in 2009 there was still one bird species whose wintering location was still unknown. And imagine that for that same bird species, few of its nesting colonies had even been found until the late 1990s.

Let me introduce the black swift, the North American subspecies (not that the southern subspecies is better known).

At 7.5 inches long, the black swift is longer than our local chimney swift by 2 inches and its wingspan is an 18-inch curve. Swifts are perpetual bug-eating flying machines that might be mistaken for swallows but look more like flying cigars with wings.

The first black swift was documented in 1857 on Puget Sound in Washington State, and the first nests in 1901 in California sea caves where ocean spray kept them moist. By 1919, intrepid egg collectors found their nests behind mountain waterfalls.

In the 1950s, Owen A. Knorr made the black swift his master’s thesis at Colorado University in Boulder, making a concerted effort to look for nests in Colorado by learning mountain climbing skills and developing a system for predicting which waterfalls would be nest locations. He found 25 colonies, each with a handful of mossy nests stuck to tiny rocky ledges, each one holding one nestling.

In 1997, Kim Potter was one of two biologists beginning a new swift search. A year later, Rich Levad got hooked on looking for them and joined her in organizing surveys through the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, infecting others with swift enthusiasm along the way.

I met Levad and Potter in 2005 when Wyoming Audubon members helped them find flammulated owls in Wyoming’s Sierra Madre range. Already one year into a diagnosis of Lou Gehring’s disease, Levad was soldiering on impressively.

When he had to cut back on field work, Levad started writing “The Coolest Bird, A Natural History of the Black Swift and Those Who Have Pursued It,” still making edits the day before his death in 2008. You can find the 152-page, free edition provided by the American Birding Association online at

It’s a great read about an exciting bird and many memorable characters—check out the scathing exchange between Knorr and a dignitary in Arizona who believed a bird species only existed if he could hold the collected specimen, the dead body, in other words.

I spoke recently with one of Levad’s protégés, Jason Beason, director of special projects at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and lead author of an article about a black swift breakthrough published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology this past March, about finally discovering the black swift’s wintering grounds.

Black Swift

Black Swift nestling on nest. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Every August, black swift adults leave each morning to collect food and later, at twilight, they slip back to feed the young. This is when researchers hope to see them.

Levad learned that training field observers increased their abilities to find swifts, upping known Colorado colonies from 27, including Knorr’s found in the 1950s, to 86, but it wasn’t until mist netting was tried in a couple of narrow canyons that it became apparent how many swifts were eluding detection.

Banding the captured swifts and recapturing many of them the following years showed how loyal they are to nest sites.

Beason, Potter, and another of the paper’s authors, Carolyn Gunn, wanted to strap recorders on the birds to find out where they go in winter, but most equipment is designed to attach to a bird’s leg and swifts hardly have a leg. They never walk. If they land at all, they cling to vertical surfaces. It’s thought that for some swift species, non-breeders stay aloft for a year or two.

Enter the British Antarctic Survey, which had developed a micro geolocator that works off day length to determine location and archives the data every 10 minutes for a year. One was strapped on the back of each of four black swifts about to leave Colorado September 2009.

Beason and his team were able to recapture three of the four swifts in the fall of 2010 and download and process the data. If you want the technical description and don’t subscribe to the Wilson Journal, email Beason,, for the digital manuscript.

Beyond doubt, at least these black swifts, from two colonies in Colorado, winter in the Amazon basin of western Brazil. Next summer, Beason plans to outfit a few swifts from Idaho to see if they winter there, too.

There are also a few other documented black swift colonies in the West, including Montana and Utah, and of course, the gazillion in Colorado, but none in Wyoming, probably “just because nobody’s gotten out and looked up there,” Jason told me.

So I asked him how we could help, thinking of that flammulated owl survey, but also realizing that few of those same people are capable of climbing up to waterfalls off the beaten track, much less hiking out in the dark after the swifts come home.

Beason said to let him know of any small grants he could apply for. It wouldn’t take much, maybe $1000, to add a stop next summer on his way to Idaho, to check out where Knorr thought he once saw a black swift flying at Grand Teton National Park. Grants, schmantz. I have a better idea: crowd sourcing, or the Tinkerbelle solution. If all of us made a small contribution, we might add a breeding bird species to the Wyoming records.

To support next summer’s survey, please send contributions by the end of January 2013 to: The Richard Levad Memorial Fund (earmarked for Wyoming Black Swift Research), Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, P. O. Box 1232, Brighton, CO 80601-1232.

If you contribute online at, click on the “Chip in” button on the home page and then, in the first step’s drop-down menu, choose the “Other” option. Or call Rachel, 303-659-4348, ext. 17, during business hours.

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.

“Prairie Ghost” bird protected by farmers

Even though the Mountain Plover's preferred nesting habitat is nearly completely bare ground--like farmer's fields--it can still be very difficult to pick out. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Even though the Mountain Plover’s preferred nesting habitat is nearly completely bare ground–like farmer’s fields–it can still be very difficult to pick out. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published June 13, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “‘Prairie Ghost’—the Where’s Waldo of the wilderness. The mountain plover has its disappearing act perfected—so much so that some people were convinced it was an endangered species.”

2014 Update: “Larry Snyder started in 2002 with the Nebraska Prairie Partners as a seasonal field technician. Now as the full-time Nebraska Prairie Partners Assistant, Larry is responsible for implementing the Mountain Plover nest protection program and wildlife escape ladder project, and he is involved in the Nebraska Prairie Partners Education and Outreach programs. Larry continues to help conduct special species surveys and has begun the implementation process of playa restoration projects in the southern panhandle.”—from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory website,, 5-8-2014. The mountain plover nest-marking program has gained in popularity with farmers.

By Barb Gorges

If you stare really hard at the rocky soil, you may see a ghost of a bird, the “prairie ghost,” but only if it moves.

If you are good at it, you can distinguish its white belly from a pale-colored rock. But if it turns its light brown back to you, it is indistinguishable from the surrounding tilled earth.

The nickname for the mountain plover is apt. Its disappearing act may be partly responsible for people thinking there were so few of them that the species would be a good candidate for listing as threatened or endangered.

On a damp morning in late May, just 50 miles east of Cheyenne and a few miles north of Bushnell, Neb., mountain plovers were present, right in the middle of alternating, mile-long strips of winter wheat, millet and fallow ground.

Not only were they present, but the plovers were nesting on the stony ridges of the fallow strips. A nest is harder to find than the birds though because the eggs are on bare ground between the stones and they don’t move. It’s like playing “Where’s Waldo?”

A mountain plover nest is a mere scrape made by the male with his feet. He makes several. The female lays three eggs in one and three eggs in another and then each parent incubates a nest. The parents will flick small pebbles at the eggs occasionally, but that’s as far as nest building goes here.

Larry Snyder is good at seeing ghosts. His first encounter was about six years ago. While working one of his own fields, what he thought was an odd looking killdeer, one without the usual double neck band markings, flew up in front of him. He was able to find its nest and avoid driving over it.

A short time later, on a fishing trip with his daughters, he bumped into Chris Carnine of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. She was setting up the Nebraska Prairie Partners program, which was to include mountain plover nest surveys.

Chris identified the mystery bird. Its nest in Larry’s field became the first documented mountain plover nest in the NPP program and also for Nebraska Game and Parks.

Chris found that Larry had a good eye for plovers and he was hired to find more.

He still farms, but weekdays he works for RMBO. In the spring he rides his neighbors’ fields searching for nests. He also does burrowing owl and raptor surveys.

The first farmer to sign up for the plover program was Larry’s friend and neighbor, Bernie Culek.

As the third generation of his family on his farm south of Kimball, Neb., Bernie is always looking for better ways to make farming pay.

In 1992, when he came back to the farm, he changed it to a certified organic operation producing wheat, millet and several other grains.

Funding of the NPP program from a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant and Nebraska Game and Parks makes each mountain plover nest on his place worth $100. He allows RMBO to find and mark nests and then he plows around them. He feels he should take some responsibility for wildlife.

Signing up for the program is a risk some of Bernie’s farming neighbors have not been willing to take, he said.

The reluctant think the federal government might get too interested in plovers found on their land, even though the petition to list them was rejected in 2003 because there were more plovers than originally thought.

Bart Bly, currently in charge of the NPP program, said the long-term goal is to turn the program over to the landowners. They found a fifth of the nests last year.

But, said Bernie, for farmers like him, spring is very busy, and it is unlikely that spending hours to find a nest would be a good use of his time.

It can take two days–the longest interval Larry and summer field technician Cameron Shelton have had between nests this spring.

However, on the morning of my visit we found two nests.

Larry put out an invitation for volunteers a couple months ago. I thought it would be a good chance to see another mountain plover, my first being last summer on a field trip with Larry and the folks from the Wildcat Audubon Society of Scottsbluff, Neb. Five other volunteers have been or will be out this spring.

The catch was learning how to drive a four-wheeler. It rates right up there with snowmobiles in obnoxiousness in my book. But it’s a tool, a modern-day mule.

We rode half the length of the mile-long fallow strip at 6 miles per hour, three abreast, about 30 feet apart from each other, Larry, me, then Cameron. Then we rode back and out again, eventually sweeping the whole width of the strip.

I was watching the ground for rocks and hills instead of birds when a plover flew across in front of me, like a deer in the headlights.

Larry said “she” seemed to have shot out from under his front tire. It is impossible to tell the sex of a mountain plover sitting on a nest, but Larry and Cameron refer to them as “she” anyway.

The only time in the field one can be certain of gender, Larry said, is when birds are copulating or the male is performing a courtship display or scraping a nest site.

Larry carefully examined the ground to make sure he hadn’t run over the nest and wasn’t going to step on it.

At a short distance he found three pale olive eggs with black splotches, each about an inch and a half long. He marked the nest with florescent orange stakes set 40 feet out in four directions.

Meanwhile, Cameron brought over a plastic jar of water for a float test. He examined each egg closely for any signs of pipping, where the hatchling might have picked a hole in the shell. If there was a hole, the float test could drown the chick. The test determines the age of the egg—the higher it floats in the water, the closer it is to hatching.

Incubation takes about 30 days, but the parents aren’t tied to the nests.

If it isn’t too cold, they let solar energy work for them. But if it gets too hot, they stand, casting a shadow over the eggs, even holding out their wings sometimes, Larry said.

So temperature plays a big part in how successful nest hunting is on any given day.

On a cold day or a hot day, where the adult flies up from is likely to be the nest. Otherwise, they might be out anywhere, stalking beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and ants–the extent of their food diversity.

After Larry took a location reading and filled out a nesting record form, he explained that we couldn’t walk back from the nest to our four-wheelers the way we came. We must continue past the nest and circle back so that predators finding our scent later will also circle away.

A second plover flew, but when a little investigation didn’t get a nest, we backed off and waited for the bird to return. Larry is a patient person. He just hunkered down with his binoculars and waited.

He said some birds have an attitude. While some are straightforward, others fly off over the hill and then sneak back.

Even though he sent Cameron around to the other side of the strip, neither of them could re-find the bird until Larry changed location.

And then I saw a pale rock move. It was the bird again and the nest could be found. This one had only two eggs.

Larry said 13-lined ground squirrels are the most common nest predators, along with snakes.

Overall, Fritz Knopf, author of the Birds of North America Online account for mountain plover and the one who originated the “field clearing” idea in Colorado, told me the survival rate is very good, greater than 50 percent, sometimes even 90 percent, compared to maybe 25 percent for another ground nester, the mallard.

Last year the RMBO crews found 87 nests. This year, they are already up to 54. Larry hopes they break 100.

With his eye for prairie ghosts and the help of Cameron and the other two-man crew, they probably will.

A bird of contradictions

The mountain plover is a bird of the prairies. The naming mistake can be attributed to John James Audubon. The species was first collected by John Kirk Townsend along the Sweetwater River in Wyoming in 1832, said retired plover researcher Fritz Knopf.

Townsend shipped the specimen back to Audubon who thought that Townsend’s description of the bird’s location near the Continental Divide must mean it was found among mountain peaks. But the divide in Wyoming often runs through desert and wide-open prairie.

Also, even though classified as a shorebird, it doesn’t spend time at the shore.

Historically, mountain plover breeding habitat is the short-grass prairie of the Great Plains, from Montana to New Mexico, but today populations can be found on tilled fields.

Even on the prairie, the mountain plover prefers disturbed ground, such as burns or areas overgrazed by cattle or trimmed by prairie dogs. Thus, what may be considered good ranching practice in Wyoming, which Fritz considers the major breeding landscape for plovers, may not be compatible with the plover’s bare ground nesting requirements.

Researchers are also looking into the effects of pesticides on mountain plovers, not only on their breeding grounds, but in California’s Imperial Valley where most of them winter.

Fritz said mountain plover populations were decimated by an outbreak of plague in prairie dogs in the late 1800’s, but they prospered during the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Bare ground to a mountain plover means no predator ambushes. The hordes of grasshoppers must have been like manna from heaven.

Prairie Partners provides for plains birds

Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory logo

The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory studies birds and provides educational opportunities.

Published March 18, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Prairie Partners provides for plains birds.”
2014 Update: Tammy VerCauteren is now executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, The Prairie Partners program continues.

By Barb Gorges

Say “observatory” and we think of astronomy.

Say “bird observatory” and first thing to come to a birder’s mind is Point Reyes Bird Observatory, established in California in 1965. However, an Internet search last week gave me 27 more bird observatories in the first 50 hits.

The one closest to home is the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (formerly the Colorado Bird Observatory), founded in 1988 and headquartered in Brighton, Colo., at Barr Lake State Park.

The purpose of a bird observatory is the conservation of birds. Last month, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory biologist Tammy VerCauteren gave a presentation in Cheyenne about her work as coordinator of the Prairie Partners program which exemplifies the observatory’s mission of research, monitoring, partnership, education and outreach.

The shortgrass prairie, the western part of the Great Plains stretching from Canada to Mexico, including eastern Wyoming, was overlooked when concern was raised over the decline of bird populations nationwide—until recently when it was discovered that prairie species are declining the most rapidly.

Research documenting the decline doesn’t in itself help birds. Research that shows what is causing declines still won’t help unless the information is passed on to the people who make land use decisions.

In this case, 70 percent of the shortgrass prairie is privately owned so Prairie Partners works not only with state and federal land agencies, but must work to reach farmers, ranchers and other land owners and managers.

Of course, land management suggestions need to be economically feasible to be taken seriously. With funding from various agencies and private foundations, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory was able to publish “Sharing Your Land with Shortgrass Prairie Birds,” a 36-page manual that describes the region’s ecology, birds and management recommendations.

Some suggestions are as simple as not mowing at night during the time for two or three months ground-nesting prairie birds are resting on their nests. Others are more elaborate instructions for grazing strategies depending on whether the birds to be benefited prefer taller grass or no grass.

Mountain plover, a species once petitioned for listing as threatened or endangered, prefers to nest in heavily grazed, nearly bare situations and even in plowed fields. Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory offers to survey and flag plover nests two to three days before farmers cultivate. Advertising the Mountain Plover Number  brought a good response last year. Tammy expects even more calls as word gets out. Just lifting machinery or avoiding the nest by a few inches is all that is necessary.

My favorite win-win recommendation is directions for building an escape ladder that allows birds that have fallen into stock tanks to climb out instead of drowning and contaminating the water.

In addition to consulting on bird-friendly practices, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory knows where the assistance and money is for habitat improvements. While most farmers and ranchers are familiar with the 20 or so Farm Bill programs and working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, there are also private lands programs through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as cost-sharing assistance from the Prairie Partners program itself.

Of course, the most convincing information comes from peers. Tammy has organized workshops hosted by ranchers in which friends and resource professionals meet on the land. In addition to grazing and farming operation suggestions, one might hear about economic diversification, such as tapping into the cultural and wildlife resources.

For instance, getting listed as a site on the Colorado Birding Trail helps make more people aware of the benefit of maintaining land in agricultural production and brings revenue to rural communities offering services to travelers.

Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory’s urban workshops, which bring people out to farms and ranches so they will understand where food comes from, have been immensely popular.

Also very popular is another Prairie Partners publication, “Pocket Guide to Prairie Birds.” Measuring about three by four inches, it truly is a pocket field guide. Nearly all of 23,000 copies printed so far have been distributed for free and Tammy is looking for funding to print more. Each of 86 prairie species has a clear photo, a range map covering the prairie states, a few of the most diagnostic markings needed for identification, and most importantly, a description of the species’ favorite habitat and feeding practices.

A quick glance at the food icons on the bottom of each page shows that prairie birds are big on insects and rodents—the bane of farmers and ranchers. Perhaps we will be rewriting that song from “Oklahoma” about farmers and cowmen to read “Oh, the farmer and the plover (or harrier and the cowman) should be friends.”

The folks at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory are definitely the friends to make when it comes to doing something for birds on the prairie.