Bird and wildlife books for winter reading & gift giving

2018-12How to be a Good CreatureTry these bird and wildlife books for winter reading and gift giving

This column was also posted at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/try-these-bird-and-wildlife-books-for-winter-reading-and-gift-giving. It appeared Dec. 16, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Several books published this year about birds and other animals I recommend to you as fine winter reading, or gift giving.

The first, “How to be a Good Creature, A Memoir in Thirteen Animals” is a memoir by Sy Montgomery, a naturalist who has written many children’s as well as adult books about animals.

Montgomery has been around the world for her research. Some of the animals she met on her travels and the animals she and her husband have shared their New Hampshire home with have taught her important life lessons: dog, emu, hog, tarantula, weasel, octopus.

This might make a good read-aloud with perceptive middle-school and older children.

2018-12 Warblers and Woodpeckers“Warblers & Woodpeckers, A Father-Son Big Year of Birding” by Sneed B. Collard III was a great read-aloud. For two weeks every evening I read it to my husband, Mark, while he washed the dishes–a long-standing family tradition.

Like Montgomery, Collard is a naturalist and author, though normally he writes specifically and prolifically for children. He lives in western Montana.

When his son is turning 13, Collard realizes he has limited time to spend with him before his son gets too busy. Birdwatching becomes a common interest, though his son is much more proficient. They decide to do a big year, to count as many bird species as possible, working around Collard’s speaking schedule and taking friends up on their invitations to visit.

There are many humorous moments and serious realizations, life birds and nemesis birds, and a little snow and much sunshine. Mark plans to pass the book on to our younger son who ordered it for him for his birthday.

2018-12Wild MigrationsTwo Wyoming wildlife biologists, Matthew Kauffman and Bill Rudd, who have spoken at Cheyenne Audubon meetings on the subject, are part of the group that put together “Wild Migrations, Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates.” I ordered a copy sight unseen.

We know that many bird species migrate, but Wyoming is just now getting a handle on and publicizing the migrations of elk, moose, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and bison, thanks to improved, cheaper tracking technology.

Each two-page spread in this over-sized book is an essay delving into an aspect of ungulates with easy-to-understand maps and graphs. For example, we learn Wyoming’s elk feed grounds were first used in the 1930s to keep elk from raiding farmers’ haystacks and later to keep elk from infecting cattle with brucellosis.

Then we learn that fed elk don’t spend as much time grazing on summer range as unfed elk, missing out on high-quality forage 22 to 30 days a year. Shortening the artificial feeding season in spring might encourage fed elk to migrate sooner, get better forage, and save the Wyoming Game and Fish Department money.

This compendium of research can aid biologists, land managers and land owners in smarter wildlife management. At the same time, it is very readable for the wildlife enthusiast. Don’t miss the foreword by novelist Annie Proulx.

2018-12 Guide to Western Reptiles and AmphibiansThanks, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for sending me a copy of the newly revised “Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians” by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel M. McGinnis to review. I now know that what friends and I nearly stepped on while hiking last summer was a prairie rattlesnake, one of 12 kinds of rattlers found in the west.

There are 40-plus Peterson field guides for a variety of nature topics, all stemming from Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 guide to the birds of eastern North America. I visited the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, this fall and saw his original art work.

The reptile and amphibian guide first came out in 1966, written and illustrated by the late Stebbins. In in its fourth edition, his color plates still offer quick comparisons between species. Photos now offer additional details and there are updated range maps and descriptions of species life cycles and habitats. It would be interesting to compare the maps in the 1966 edition with the new edition since so many species, especially amphibians, have lost ground.

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyI would be doing local photographer Pete Arnold a disservice if I didn’t remind you that you can find our book, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Depot Museum, Riverbend Nursery and PBR Printing. People tell us they are using Pete’s photos to identify local birds. I hope the experience encourages them to pick up a full-fledged bird guide someday by Peterson, Floyd, Sibley or Kaufman.

How well do birds tolerate people?

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Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

Also published here: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/do-birds-tolerate-people

Every soaring bird I saw in early February along 1300 miles of interstate highway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a black vulture or turkey vulture.

However near Vero Beach, Florida, where we were visiting Cheyenne snowbirds Karen and Fred Pannell, there was a black bird of a different shape, a magnificent frigatebird, a life bird for both me and my husband Mark.

But about those vultures, were they really more abundant along the interstate than away from it? Were they waiting for roadkill? We passed a couple landfill “mountains” that were big vulture magnets too.

We think wild birds go about their lives oblivious to people, or at least avoiding us. Except for birds coming to feeders. Or ducks at the park looking for handouts. Or Canada geese that enjoy eating the grass on park lawns and the leftover grain in farmers’ fields.

We know that some human activities are detrimental to birds. But how many are beneficial to them? Chimney swifts have experienced both. We took down the old hollow trees they used to build their nests in and they moved into our chimneys.

The speaker at February’s Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Cameron Nordell, relayed interesting research results on nesting ferruginous hawks and their reactions to people. Nordell, Raptor Fellow at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, is with the Wyoming Raptor Initiative.

In his previous work in southern Alberta, Nordell and his colleagues experimented in part to see at what distance hawks would flush from their nests as researchers approached by vehicle or on foot to check the nests for other aspects of the study.

Southern Alberta is a mix of agriculture, oil and gas and other development. The farmers and home owners have planted trees on the prairie and the ferruginous hawks have found them to be great for nesting—they are a ground-nesting hawk otherwise. The trees give them better protection from predators.

However, along with people came another species that climbs trees—and raids nests—racoons. Barns and other structures have helped increase the population of great horned owls and they too prey on the nestlings.

Ferruginous hawks nesting near the busiest roads were more tolerant than birds that had not seen as much traffic. Approaching vehicles were tolerated better than approaching people.

Raptors have been shown to hang out by roads, looking for injured prey species. The problem is that they risk getting hit by vehicles too.

The Wyoming Raptor Initiative (see https://wyomingbiodiversity.org/Initiatives-Programs) wants to understand the state’s raptors better, including the road problem. It has two goals:

“(1) To synthesize our scientific understanding of raptors in Wyoming so that the public, scientists, land managers and energy companies will be better informed in developing and implementing future conservation strategies and land mitigation efforts.

“(2) To foster appreciation of raptors in Wyoming and the world through education and outreach efforts.”

Nordell and his colleagues will be looking at previous studies of raptors in Wyoming, gathering more data, talking to all kinds of people to get more information, and then they’ll relay what they learn.

What will they discover about Wyoming’s ferruginous hawks, for instance? What human activities help them or harm them?

Nordell also studied arctic peregrine falcons near Hudson Bay, where there were few direct human impacts. However, the weather was ferocious. Too much rain, and a young bird, poorly nourished, could succumb to the cold rainwater collecting in the cliff-face nest. Better-fed youngsters had better survival rates.

The next questions: What affects the availability of peregrine prey species and the peregrine parents’ ability to bring food back to the nest? Is there any human influence on their success? Are humans linked in any way to that Arctic location getting demonstrably rainier?

What will be discovered about peregrines in Wyoming? I watched one nail a duck on a ranch reservoir just outside Cheyenne once. The human-made lake attracted the peregrine’s food target—southeastern Wyoming doesn’t have many natural water bodies.

I look forward to answers from the Wyoming Raptor Initiative. I’m sure they will also discover many more questions.

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Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Citizen science makes difference

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“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

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Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, is getting ready to let a young citizen scientist release a yellow warbler that was caught in a mist net during the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Kids explore nature of the Belvoir Ranch.”

By Barb Gorges

I was delighted to recognize my neighbor at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz last month. She is going to be a senior at Cheyenne East High in the fall and was there with two friends. All three were planning to spend the weekend looking for birds, mammals, herps (reptiles and amphibians), pollinators, macroinvertebrates and plants, to fulfill more hours required for their Congressional Award gold medals.

The weekend could have served for all four award areas: volunteer public service (we were all volunteer citizen scientists collecting data), personal development (the staff taught us a lot of new things), physical fitness (hiking up and down Lone Tree Creek in the heat was arduous), and expedition/exploration (many of us, including my neighbor and her friends, camped out and cooked meals despite being only 20 miles from Cheyenne).

Mark and I have attended other bioblitzes around the state, but this was the first one close to Cheyenne. With all of the publicity from the four sponsoring groups, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Geographic Alliance, a record 100 people attended, plus the staff of 50 from various natural science disciplines.

When I asked my neighbor why she and her friends had come, she said, “We’re science nerds.” That was exciting to hear.

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My neighbor and friends net aquatic invertebrates including dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  A blue and green pollinator trap is set up on the far side of the pond. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There were a lot of junior science nerds in attendance with their families. Small children enjoyed wading into the pond along the creek to scoop up dragonfly and damselfly larvae —and even crayfish.

A surprising number of children were up at 6 a.m. Saturday for the bird survey. The highlight was the raven nest in a crevice on the canyon wall, with three young ravens crowding the opening, ready to fledge.

Sunday morning’s bird mist netting along the creek was very popular. Several birds that had been hard to see with binoculars were suddenly in hand.

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Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, discusses the captured bird he is holding in his left hand. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because it wasn’t at an official bird banding site, the mist netting was strictly educational and the birds were soon released. Several young children had the opportunity to hold a bird and release it, feeling how light it was, how fast its heart beat and feeling the little whoosh of air as it took flight. What I wouldn’t give to know if any of the children grow up to be bird biologists or birdwatchers.

The Belvoir Ranch is owned by the city of Cheyenne and stretches miles to the west between I-80 and the Colorado-Wyoming state line. The city bought it in 2003 and 2005 to protect our upstream aquifer, or groundwater, as well as the surface water.

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Bioblitz birdwatchers head down along Lone Tree Creek at 6 a.m. on June 12 to survey the birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While limited grazing and hunting continues as it did under private ownership, other parts of the master plan have yet to come to fruition: wind farm, landfill, golf course, or general recreation development. It is normally closed to the public. However, progress is being made on trails to connect the ranch to Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and/or Red Mountain Open Space.

A good landowner takes stock of his property. The city has some idea of what’s out there, including archeological sites. But with budgets tightening, there won’t be funding to hire consultants for a closer look. But there are a lot of citizen scientists available.

The data from the Bioblitz weekend went into the Wyobio database, www.wyobio.org, a place where data from all over Wyoming can be entered. The bird data also went into eBird.org.

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A University of Wyoming graduate student and a citizen scientist filter water from the creek to prepare it for DNA analysis. The sample will show what amphibians have been swimming there. Photo by Barb Gorges.  

The data began to paint a picture of the Belvoir: 62 species of animals including 50 birds, 8 mammals, 4 herps, plus 13 taxa of macroinvertebrates (not easily identified to species) and 12 taxa of pollinators (bees and other insects), plus many species of plants. All that diversity was from exploring half a mile of one creek within the ranch’s total 18,800 acres–about 30 square miles.

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This ground nest seems to have one smaller egg laid by an interloper. Many grassland bird species build their nests on the ground. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The members of the City Council who approved the ranch purchase are to be congratulated on making it public land in addition to protecting our watershed. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the federal and state governments to do the right thing.  The essence of Wyoming is its big natural landscapes and we are lucky to have one on the west edge of Wyoming’s largest city.

Let’s also congratulate the parents who encouraged their children to examine the critters in the muddy pond and pick up mammal scat (while wearing plastic gloves) on the trails among other activities.

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A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist introduces a Wandering Garter Snake to a young citizen scientist. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Someday, these kids will grow up to be like my high school neighbor and her friends. Someday they could be the graduate students, professors and land use professionals. No matter what they become, they can always contribute scientific data by being citizen scientists.

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Citizen scientists of all ages learned to identify types of aquatic invertebrates at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bird brains

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Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 28, 2016, “UW songbird brain studies shed light”

By Barb Gorges

We are used to thinking about many animals standing in for humans in studies that will benefit us: rats, chimps, rabbits. But should we add songbirds to that list? They apparently work well for studying how we learn to speak.

At the February Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Karagh Murphy, a University of Wyoming doctoral candidate in the Zoology and Physiology Department, explained how Bengalese finches help her study how brains learn.

Learning by example, whether bird or human, takes place in two parts. First the student observes, or in the case of male birds learning to sing so they can defend their territory and attract mates, they listen. Then they attempt imitation, practicing by listening to themselves and getting feedback.

What Karagh wanted to know is if HVC neurons in the birds’ brains are active at both stages, hearing and doing. It’s just a simple matter of plugging a computer into the right place in a bird’s brain.

First though, you have to wrangle your subjects, capturing them in the walk-in-sized aviary, and then get them used to having the wispiest of cables attached to the tiny instrument on their heads. Otherwise, they are too stressed to sing.

Karagh recorded the firing pattern of the HVC neurons, producing something like the electrocardiogram that shows heart beats, and compared it to the spectrogram, another linear graph of peaks and valleys that visualizes the frequencies of the song she played for the bird to hear, and then the song the bird sang. Both spectrograms matched the peaks and valleys of the HVC neuron pattern, essentially showing the neurons are used for both auditory and motor output, the action of singing.

Recently, something very similar has been found in humans, called mirror neurons.

The second speaker was Jonathan Prather, an associate professor in the department’s neuroscience program. While Karagh has been studying males learning to sing, Jonathan has been figuring out what the female Bengalese finches want to hear.

Female birds don’t sing. At most, they produce call notes to communicate. But they enjoy listening to males sing and they judge them by their song to determine which one is the fittest potential mate, which will give them the fittest young.

Jonathan thought there might be a “sexy syllable,” some part of the song that would get the females excited, measured by how often the females call in response. He measured their responses as he played back songs he had manipulated.

Or maybe it was tempo, so he manipulated the recording to go faster in some trials, then slower in others. Or maybe the female birds would react differently to songs at different pitches. That would be similar to human women who, studies have shown, are attracted to men with deeper voices (connected to higher testosterone levels).

Apparently, female finches are looking for quantity and complexity, for males who sing in the most physically (neuromuscular-wise) demanding way. That means sweeping from high to low notes a lot, and really fast. Think how opera stars singing the most demanding repertoire get the biggest applause. A bird that can sing well is well-fed, healthy and of good breeding—perfect father material.

The field of neurobiology is more about figuring out human brains, but when birds are used as models, birdwatchers find it intriguing. The questions from the Audubon audience reflected their familiarity with birds.

Our songbirds in Wyoming are only seasonal singers, so birds from equatorial locations that sing year round are used to make trials more efficient. Would there be a difference?

Are female bird brains different from the male brains? Yes, because learning songs increases one part of the male brain, however, females have other roles that increase the size of other parts of their brain.

If a young bird never hears another bird sing, will it eventually sing? Not really, it will only babble in an unformed way, as human babies do when they start out.

If a young bird hears only the singing of a different species, will it learn that song instead? Yes, although not completely perfectly—there is some genetic influence on bird song.

And what about the mimics? What about birds like starlings and mockingbirds that learn to imitate lots of other birds’ songs and even some human vocalizations and mechanical noises? Karagh broke out in a grin. That line of study could keep her busy for her entire career.