How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

2018-09-GREAT GREEN MACAW Mario Córdoba

Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

Published September 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

The back-to-school sales reminded me that I have some studying to do. In a few months, Mark and I are going to Costa Rica on our first international birding trip. We are going with Bird Watcher’s Digest with whom we’ve birded before in Florida and Texas.

Our friend Chuck Seniawski has been to Costa Rica five times and recommended, as did BWD, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. It shows 903 species in a country 20 percent the size of Wyoming, which has only 445 species. About 200 I’ve seen before because they migrate up here for the summer or their year round range includes parts of both North and Central America.

2018-09-LONG-TAILED SILKY-FLYCATCHER Mario Córdoba

Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

I asked local birder Greg Johnson, veteran of many international birding trips, how he learns the birds before heading to a new destination.

Greg said he starts with the country’s field guide, “I start reviewing it almost daily beginning several weeks or even months before the trip. For most trips, the tour company should be able to provide you trip reports from previous trips with the same itinerary. The trip reports should have a list of all birds they saw or heard. I then check those birds with a pencil mark in the book to focus only on those I am likely to see and ignore the rest. For example, if your trip to Costa Rica only includes the highlands and Caribbean slope, you can ignore those birds which only occur on the Pacific slope.”

Mario Córdoba of Crescentia Expeditions, trip leader, has provided a list of target bird species based on our travel route including several ecolodges we’ll stay at near national parks. No Pacific slope.

2018-09-RESPLENDENT QUETZAL (2) Mario Córdoba

Resplendent Quetzal, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Greg’s email continued, “If you spend enough time studying the birds you are most likely to see, you’ll surprise yourself at how easy it is to ID birds you have never seen before at first sight. There are always some groups that are still hard to ID without help from a guide [bird expert] because differences between species are very subtle. In Costa Rica these would include woodcreepers, some of the antbirds, elanias, tyrannulets, other flycatchers, etc.”

There are recognizable genera in Costa Rica: hummingbird, woodpecker, wren, warbler. But then the others seem straight from Alice in Wonderland: potoo, motmot, puffbird.

Mark and I also went to eBird and looked at the bird lists for the hotspots we will be visiting and filtered them for the month we are there. Of 421 species we found, 338 will be unfamiliar birds.

2018-09-FIERY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD Mario Córdoba

Fiery-throated Hummingbird, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

There is an alternative to thumbing through the field guide to study the birds. Our daughter-in-law, Jessie Gorges, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii, got a job one summer surveying birds across the Great Plains. She had a couple months to learn to recognize a few hundred birds by sight and sound.

Her solution is a free program called ANKI, https://apps.ankiweb.net. She created her own deck of digital flashcards with photos and birdsong recordings. It’s like a game and Jessie is the queen of complicated board and card games. The program prepares a daily quiz based on how much review and repetition it thinks you need.

But of course, even to make bird flashcards like I did 20 years ago for kids for Audubon Wyoming, printable from a CD, I need to find photographs. Finding them online or scanning pages of the field guide can help me study.

I take for granted the decades of familiarity I have with bird species in the U.S. There are groups in which I still can’t distinguish individual species well, for instance, flycatchers. But at least I know they are flycatchers. On this trip I’ll be leaving behind most of the birds I know.

2018-09-RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER Mario Córdoba

Red-legged Honeycreeper, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

But Greg assured me, “Once you go on an international birding trip, you’ll likely get hooked and won’t be able to stop. There are so many great birds that don’t occur in the U.S. I’ll never forget seeing my first keel-billed toucans in Belize or African penguins in South Africa.”

Preparing for this trip will make me appreciate the birds I do know when I meet their tropical cousins. I never thought about our northern rough-winged swallow having a counterpart, the southern rough-winged swallow. We could see both in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, excuse me while I begin studying in ornithological order: “Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Black Guan, Crested Guan, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Least Grebe, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Green Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Northern Jacana, White-throated Crake, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Tiny Hawk….”

2018-09-SCARLET MACAW Mario Córdoba

Scarlet Macaws, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

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World birder Noah Strycker to visit Cheyenne

World-record-setting birder and author to visit Cheyenne—and Wyoming—for the first time

Also published at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/world-record-setting-birder-and-author-to-visit-cheyenne-and-wyoming-for-the-first-time.

By Barb Gorges

World-record birder Noah Strycker is coming to speak in Cheyenne May 14, 2018, sponsored by the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society and the Laramie County Library (7 p.m., 2200 Pioneer Ave., Cottonwood Room, free admission, open to the public).

Strycker is the author of the book Birding Without Borders, An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World. His talk, humorous and inspiring, will reflect the subject of his book.

stryckerwithfieldguidesImagine travelling non-stop for a year, the year you are turning 30, taking only a backpack that qualifies as carry-on luggage. At least in this digital age, the maps Strycker needed and the six-foot stack of bird field guide books covering the world could be reduced to fit in his laptop.

Also, it was a year of couch surfing as local birders in many countries offered him places to stay as well as help in locating birds. There were knowledgeable bird nerds everywhere that wanted him to set the world record. First, he used https://eBird.org to figure out where the birds would be and then he looked up http://birdingpal.org/ to find the birders.

Strycker planned to see 5,000 species of birds, nearly half the 10,365 identified as of 2015, to break the old record of 4,000-some. But he hit that goal Oct. 26 in the Philippines with the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker and decided to keep going, totaling 6,042 species.

Strycker is looking forward to visiting Wyoming for the first time. The day after his talk, on Tuesday, May 15, his goal is to see 100 species of birds in our state. This is not an impossible feat at the height of spring migration.

He’ll have help from Wyoming’s best-known birders, Jane and Robert Dorn, who wrote the book, Wyoming Birds.

Robert has already plotted a route for an Audubon field trip that will start in Cheyenne at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch at 6 a.m. and move onto Lions Park by 8:30 a.m. Soon after we’ll head for Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge west of Laramie and some of the Laramie Plains lakes before heading through Sybille Canyon to Wheatland, to visit Grayrocks and Guernsey reservoirs.

There’s no telling what time we’ll make the 100-species goal, but we expect to be able to relax and have dinner, maybe in Torrington. Anyone who would like to join us is welcome for all or part of the day. Birding expertise is not required, however, brownbag lunch, water, appropriate clothing and plenty of stamina is. And bring binoculars. To sign up, send your name and cell phone number to mgorges@juno.com. See also https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/ for more information.

I don’t know if Strycker is going for a new goal of 100 species in every state, but it will be as fun for us to help him as it was for the birders in those 40 other countries. I just hope we don’t find ourselves stuck on a muddy road as he was sometimes.

Anyone, serious birder or not, can enjoy Strycker’s Birding Without Borders, either the talk or the book. The book is not a blow by blow description of all the birds he saw, but a selection of the most interesting stories about birds, birders and their habitat told with delightful optimism. But I don’t think his only goal was a number. I think it was also international insight. Although he’s done ornithological field work on six continents, traveling provides the big picture.

Strycker is associate editor of Birding magazine, published by the American Birding Association. He’s written two previous books about his birding experiences, Among Penguins and The Thing with Feathers.

You can find Strycker’s Birding Without Borders book at Barnes and Noble and online, possibly at the talk. He will be happy to autograph copies.

His latest writing is the text for National Geographic’s “The Birds of the Photo Ark.” It features 300 of Joel Sartore’s exquisite portraits of birds from around the world, part of Sartore’s quest to photograph as many of the world’s animals as possible. The book came out this spring.

Bird-finding improves

2017-08BirdingwoBorders-Strycker

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.

2017-08WyoBirdTrailApp

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.

Bird by ear, identify the unseen

2017-7Turtle Rock Trail beaver pond by Barb Gorges

Birds are hard to see, but easy to hear, around this beaver pond on the Turtle Rock Trail at the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in the Medicine Bow National Forest west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 16, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird by ear to identify the unseen.”

By Barb Gorges

Here on the western edge of the Great Plains, our trees don’t grow so thick that you can’t walk all the way around one to see the bird that’s singing. But it is still useful to be able to identify birds by sound.

I’m a visually-oriented person, so over time I’ve learned to identify our local birds well enough to often figure out who they are as they flash by. I can only identify bird voices of the most common or unique sounding species.

At the big box stores in town, in the garden departments, there is almost always an incessant cheeping overhead from invading house sparrows.

If you get up at oh-dark-thirty on a spring or summer morning in town, you are likely to hear the cheerful “cheerio” of a robin.

Putting up a bird feeder may bring in house finches, with their different chatter. I especially like hearing the goldfinches around the thistle feeder which sound as if they are small children calling questions to each other.

Birding by ear becomes a more important skill in the mountains where the forest is thicker. The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s mid-June field trip was to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area on the Medicine Bow National Forest. We planned to hike the Turtle Rock trail. Since most of Wyoming’s birds are found near water (birdwatchers are most likely found there too), we focused on the beaver ponds.

Some birds, like the flocks of tree swallows flitting across the water, are never hidden away.

But one warbling bird was. It didn’t sound quite like a robin. I went through a mental list of birds that like riparian, or streamside, habitats and casually remarked, “Maybe it’s a warbling vireo.”

Then I realized I could check the free Merlin app on my phone and play a recording of a warbling vireo. Amazingly, it matched.

Yellow warblers are almost always somewhere around in the brush around water at upper elevations too and we could hear one. It has a very loud, unique call. Being bright yellow, it isn’t hard to spot singing in the willows.

There are species of birds that resemble each other so closely—the empidonax flycatchers—that it is necessary to hear them sing to tell them apart.

On the other hand, there are species that sound so much like each other, it causes the problem people used to have telling me and my mom apart on the phone.

For example, robin and black-headed grosbeak songs have a clear, babbling quality, but if you listen a lot while the grosbeaks are here during migration, you can tell who is the real robin.

On the trail, chapter member Don Edington picked out a bird at the tip top of an evergreen, singing away. It was yellow, with black and white wings, like an over-sized goldfinch. Its head had the lightest wash of orangey-red. It was another robin voice impersonator, the western tanager.

Visually, the sparrows are mostly a large brown cloud in my mind. The same can be said for distinguishing, much less remembering, many bird songs. I like birds with easy to remember songs, like the ruby-crowned kinglet, another bird to expect in the forest. It is so tiny your chances are slim of seeing it on its favorite perches in large spruce trees.

After being inundated by Swainson’s thrushes this spring—but all completely mute while they inspected our backyard, it was a pleasure to catch the trill of one on the trail. But then I checked it against a recording on Merlin and realized we had the thrush that doesn’t trill upwards, but the other, trilling downwards, the hermit thrush.

It does help to study the field guides in advance of seeing a bird species for the first time—just knowing which ones to expect in a certain habitat is helpful. Studying bird songs before venturing into the woods again would be as useful.

I need to crack open that new book by Nathan Pieplow, “Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America,” and the corresponding recordings at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Except, we’ll only find the species we share with eastern North America. We won’t find our strictly western bird species until he finishes the western edition. But I could work on his technique for distinguishing songs—before I spend too much more time in the woods.

Note: In addition to Merlin and Peterson, find more bird sound recordings at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, or try https://macaulaylibrary.org. For the latter, try filtering by location to get birds using Wyoming dialects.

2017-07-TurtleRockTrail by Barb Gorges

The Turtle Rock Trail offers a variety of habitat types–and weather–on a mid-June Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society field trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Expedition Island

18-Expedition Island

The city of Green River, where the Transcontinental Railroad crossed the Green River, became the departure point for many river adventures. Expedition Island commemorates them, beginning with John Wesley Powell’s in 1869. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 7, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Expedition Island commemorates historic Green River adventures.”

By Barb Gorges

Starting out as a stage station on the Overland Trail, the town of Green River became a division point on the Transcontinental Railroad and the jump off for many expeditions down the Green River.

William Ashley descended the Green in 1825, during the fur trapping era, but in 1869, just after the railroad was completed, John Wesley Powell wanted his trip to be a scientific survey. After him came attempts at navigating the river in a paddlewheeler, speed records, women steering their own craft and commercial float trips, before the river was dammed at Flaming Gorge.

The historical interpretive signs along the path around Expedition Island are worth reading, but after a long, probably hot drive, you and your family will appreciate the free splash park more. Afterwards, you can retire to the shade with something cold from the concession stand.

At the entrance to the footbridge on the other side of the parking lot, check out the map of local pathways that connect several local parks and natural areas.

Expedition Island Park

Directions: I-80 Exit 91, south on Uinta Dr. (State Hwy. 530), right on 2nd St.

Open: Year round, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Splash park open 10 a.m. 8 p.m. Memorial through Labor Day.

Admission: Free.

Address: 475 S. Second East

Phone: 307-872-6151

Web site: http://www.cityofgreenriver.org

Attractions: splash park, changing rooms, playground, concessions, picnicking, shade, historical interpretive signs around the edge of the island. Also, Green River Park and Tubing Channel.

Time: Allow at least 1 hour.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Point of Rocks

15-Point of Rocks

Recent restoration of the Point of Rocks Stage Station makes it easier to visualize pre-railroad days. Ruts to the left of the building mark the route of the Overland Trail. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published August 18, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Overland Trail relay stage station is a precursor to the truck stop.”

By Barb Gorges

The rocky cliffs rise high above the convenience store at the Point of Rocks exit, located on the north side of I-80. Stop there for gas, food, water and the restrooms since the original stagecoach stop has been out of business for over 100 years.

When you’re refreshed, cross under the Interstate and explore the precursor to the truck stop.

Imagine the hustle and bustle in the years before the railroad arrived. Around the barn, now only a sandstone foundation, new teams are being hitched to stagecoaches, and many passengers and supplies are transferred to wagons for the trip north to the gold mining districts.

Ben Holladay bought the overland mail delivery contract, but in 1862, the U.S. government asked him to find a safer alternative to the Oregon Trail across Wyoming. Even after the arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868, the Overland Trail continued to be used, even as late as 1900.

The Overland Trail continued west, on to Ft. Bridger, Salt Lake City and California.

Point of Rocks Stage Station State Historic Site

Directions: I-80 Exit 130, south, then west on frontage road about ¼ mile, then south over railroad tracks.

Open: Year round.

Admission: Free.

Address: Point of Rocks

Phone: 307-332-3688

Web site: http://wyoparks.state.wy.us

Attractions: self-guided tour. No visitor amenities.

Time: Allow 1 hour.

Wyoming Roadside Attraction: Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop Tour

17-Wild Horse Loop BLM photo

Wild horses roam on 392,000 acres of the White Mountain Wild Horse Herd Management Area. A scenic drive takes you through its heart. Photo courtesy of the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management State Office.

Published Aug. 6, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “See wild horses on loop drive or in Rock Springs corrals.”

By Barb Gorges

Whatever your beliefs are about wild horses, prized native species or feral cow ponies, you should also drive this loop tour for the wildflowers and vistas. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to find horses and give some feeling of depth to views of distant ranges as you drive the long crest of White Mountain.

The White Mountain Wild Horse Herd Management Area covers 392,000 acres of checkerboard lands. Square miles alternate between private ownership and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, but there are no fences and few other man-made structures, although a wind farm is planned.

You can’t miss evidence of horses along the road. Stud horses build up piles of droppings to mark their territory and locating them on the road gives the stud piles better visibility.

If the horses stay off in the distance, or the weather or your vehicle make the road unsuitable to drive, check out the Wild Horse Viewing Area in Rock Springs. The corrals can have as many as 500 horses after a roundup, with many available through BLM’s adoption program.

Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop Tour

Directions: I-80 Exit 104 north on State Hwy 191 for 14 miles from Rock Springs, then left on Co. Rd. 4-14 for 2.5 miles, left on Co. Rd. 4-53 for 21.5 miles to Green River, coming out east of I-80 Exit 89. Return to Rock Springs on I-80.

Wild horse corral viewing area: I-80 Exit 104, north on Elk St., right on Lionkol Road and 1.2 miles to corral overlook. Free, open year round.

Open: Year round, weather permitting. High clearance vehicle preferred.

Admission: Free.

Phone: Rock Springs Bureau of Land Management office, 307-352-0256

Web site: www.blm.gov/wy

Attractions: Wild horses. Bring your binoculars. Also views of Rock Springs and Green River from the top of White Mountain, and 8 interpretive signs.

Time: Allow at least 1 hour just for driving.

17-Pilot Butte Wild Horse Loop 1

Indian paintbrush is one of the wildflowers found along the loop. Photo by Barb Gorges.