Bird-finding improves

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Strycker’s book is due out Oct. 10, 2017.

Published August 20, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird-finding improves from generation to generation.”

By Barb Gorges 

When your interest in birds takes you beyond your backyard, you need a guide beyond your bird identification book. That help can come in many forms—from apps and websites to a trail guide book or local expert.

Noah Strycker needed a bird-finding guide for the whole world for his record-breaking Big Year in 2015. His book, “Birding without Borders,” due out Oct. 10, documents his travels to the seven continents to find 6,042 species, more than half the world total.

In it, he thoughtfully considers many bird-related topics, including how technology made his record possible, specifically www.eBird.org. In addition to being a place where you can share your birding records, it’s “Explore Data” function helps you find birding hotspots, certain birds and even find out who found them. Strycker credits its enormous global data base with his Big Year success.

Another piece of technology equally important was http://birdingpal.org/, a way to connect with fellow enthusiasts who could show him around their own “backyards.” Every species he saw during his Big Year was verified by his various travelling companions.

Back in 1968, there was no global data base to help Peter Alden set the world Big Year record. But he only needed to break just over 2,000 species. He helped pioneer international birding tourism through the trips he ran for Massachusetts Audubon. By 1981, he and British birder John Gooders could write “Finding Birds Around the World.” Four pages of the nearly 700 are devoted to our own Yellowstone National Park.

When I bumped into Alden at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (a birding hotspot) in 2011, he offered to send me an autographed copy for $5. I accepted, however, until I read Strycker’s book, I had no idea how famous a birder he was.

As Strycker explains it, interest in international birding, especially since World War II, has kept growing, right along with improved transportation to and within developing countries, which usually have the highest bird diversity. However, some of his cliff-hanging road descriptions would indicate that perhaps sometimes the birders have exceeded the bounds of safe travel.

For the U.S., the Buteo Books website will show you a multitude of American Birding Association “Birdfinding” titles for many states. Oliver Scott authored “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” for the association in 1992. Robert and Jane Dorn included bird finding notes in the 1999 edition of their book, “Wyoming Birds.” Both books are the result of decades of experience.

A variation on the birdfinding book is “the birding trail.” The first was in Texas. The book, “Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail,” enumerates a collection of routes connecting birding sites, and includes information like park entrance fees, what amenities are nearby, and what interesting birds you are likely to see. Now you can find bird and wildlife viewing “trails” on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website. Many states are following their example.

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The Wyoming Bird Trail app is available for Apple and Android smartphones.

People in Wyoming have talked about putting together a birding trail for some years, but it took a birding enthusiast like Zach Hutchinson, a Casper-based community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, to finally get it off the ground.

The good news is that by waiting this long, there are now software companies that have designed birding trail apps. No one needs to print books that soon need updates.

The other good news is that to make it a free app, Hutchinson found sponsors including the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Murie Audubon Society (Casper), Wyoming State Parks, and WY Outside – a group of nonprofits and government agencies working to encourage youth and families in Wyoming to spend more time outdoors.

Look for “Wyoming Bird Trail” app on either iTunes or Google Play to install it on your smart phone.

Hutchinson has made a good start. The wonderful thing about the app technology is that not only does it borrow Google Maps so directions don’t need to be written, the app information can be easily updated. Users are invited to help.

There is one other way enterprising U.S. birders research birding trips. They contact the local Audubon chapter, perhaps finding a member, like me, who loves an excuse to get out for another birding trip and who will show them around – and make a recommendation for where to have lunch.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Big Bend hosts surprises for Wyoming birders

Vermilion Flycatcher

We found the Vermilion Flycatcher perched on a grill at the Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Nov. 30, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Big Bend hosts surprises for local birders.”

By Barb Gorges

Have you heard the rumor that Texas has mountains?

It does. The ranges I saw weren’t the Grand Tetons, and I doubt they are ever snow-capped. But in terms of size, they remind me of many of Wyoming’s smaller ranges.

Earlier this month, Mark and I visited Big Bend National Park, which entirely encompasses the famous (especially for birders) Chisos Mountains, where the Colima warbler nests. It breeds only in those mountains and Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental.

If you look at Texas as your left hand, palm down, fingers pointing south, Big Bend is the end of your thumb. It is above a big bend in the Rio Grande which forms the border with Mexico.

The north park entrance station is 39 miles from the closest town, Marathon (pop. 436) and the northwest entrance is 76 miles from Alpine (pop. 6,000). We were able to reserve a room three months in advance at Chisos Mountains Lodge, in the heart of the park, because we were a tad early for the height of the tourist season. Summer, with temperatures over 110 degrees, is the off season.

It is the only lodging in the park, unless you bring your own. It isn’t fancy, but it’s clean, comfortable and the food is good. We learned that reservations for the lodge for 2016 will open this January.

The lodge is tucked into the Chisos Basin, closed in by peaks, including Emory, which is 7,832 feet high. Centrally located, we were 30 miles from Rio Grande Village to the east at an elevation of 1,850 feet, with visitor amenities and scenic attractions on the river, and 38 miles in the opposite direction from the other visitor amenities near the river at Castolon. It’s a big park.

Like the rest of the Southwest, Big Bend has a monsoon season—heavy rainstorms at the end of summer. It wasn’t supposed to be raining in early November. But it did. So I wore my rain suit in the desert because after all that driving, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

However, it was so foggy the two days we were there that we never saw the tops of the Chisos Mountains. And we couldn’t go down to see the famed Santa Elena Canyon because too much water was flowing over the road and it was closed.

But we did find birds. These days it is easy to use eBird.com to find birding hotspots. Mark identified Cottonwood Campground. It was a little intimidating reading all the signs warning how to stay safe in encounters with javelinas, bears and mountain lions, but the big old cottonwoods were all a-twitter.

It sounded familiar—a flock of yellow-rumped warblers frantically feeding in trees and on the ground during a break in the rain, just like I’ve seen them behave in Cheyenne during migration.

But we also found uncommon Southwestern species. A vermilion flycatcher—incredibly red—alternately perched on tree tops and signs. Nicely perched on a picnic table was a black phoebe, another flycatcher. The flicker-like bird was a golden-fronted woodpecker.

We stopped at nearly every pullout, walked out on many trails, and added a few more southwest specialties like cactus wren and pyrrhuloxia (faded version of a cardinal), Inca dove, black-throated sparrow, and roadrunner.

And we found familiar birds escaping winter: mockingbird, loggerhead shrike, Wilson’s snipe, blue-gray gnatcatcher—although for these species, individual birds may make the park home year round.

There are plenty of trails for the adventurous who have real 4-wheel-drive trucks—not SUVs built on car chassis. I’ll bet Big Bend has little trouble with people driving off road due to the multitude of tire-piercing cactus.

And what interesting vegetation is out there in the Chihuahuan Desert: 20-foot-tall century plants and other rosettes of sharp-pointed leaves putting up tall flower stalks, along with tiny flowers tucked beneath spiny neighbors, and higher up, southwest versions of oak, juniper and pine, even Douglas fir.

In addition to the one-volume edition of Sibley’s field guide to birds of North America (some Texas birds are in the eastern edition and some in the western), the most valuable publication for visiting birders is the park’s bird checklist available at the visitor centers. It’s by Mark Flippo, one of the local birding guides. The 28-page booklet lists the more than 450 species found in the park, preferred habitat for each and how likely you are to find them each season. It also points out the specialties, birds that are easier to find in Big Bend than in the rest of the U.S. and Canada.

The only question I have for Mark is, can we go back for another stay in the Chisos Basin maybe during spring migration 2016?