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.

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Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 2017

20170527_184654

Mark and I rechecked Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1 in the evening of the Big Day and caught a couple more bird species. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 18, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “Thrushes take over Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count”

By Barb Gorges

The spring bird migration of 2017 is leaving people scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Because of safety issues due to heavy snow the two days before —the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was postponed a week, to May 27. [The best spring bird watching/counting in Cheyenne is around the old cottonwoods and the snow broke branches and left large trees hazardous to walk under.]

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members who organize the count assume that the Saturday closest to the middle of May will be the closest to peak migration. However, while the event was held a week later this year, we counted 113 species compared to last year’s 110.

In the preceding weeks, we saw posts from Casper birders about sightings of spring migrants we hadn’t seen yet, as if they skipped Cheyenne and continued north.

At our house, we eventually had about one each of our favorite migrants (indigo bunting, black-headed grosbeak, MacGillivray’s warbler, Wilson’s warbler), but most were after the original Big Day date.

In early May, my husband, Mark, and I visited High Island, Texas, a famous landing spot for migrating songbirds crossing the Gulf. It was empty except for the rookery full of spoonbills, herons, egrets and cormorants. A birder we met had visited during the peak in April and said it was a disappointing migration.

Bill Thompson III, editor and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, posted similar thoughts about what he saw from his home in southeastern Ohio. Someone responding from New Hampshire said he saw only three species of warblers in the first 25 days of May when he would typically see a dozen.

Everyone hopes that the low number of migrating birds is due to weather patterns that blew them north without stopping over. We hope it isn’t a sign of problems on the wintering grounds, breeding grounds or somewhere in between.

For our Cheyenne Big Day, we have one group that birds the hotspots: Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the High Plains Grasslands Research Station and the adjacent arboretum. This year, between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., the group varied in size from five to 15. Even the most inexperienced birdwatcher was helpful finding birds.

Because we couldn’t change the date of the permit we had to access the research station, we contented ourselves with the road in front of the buildings, and that’s where we found two eastern bluebirds, a species showing up here more often in recent years.

The long-eared owl seen by two participants this year at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch is a species last recorded on the Big Day in 1996.

Besides the group canvassing an area roughly the same as the Christmas Bird Count’s 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Capitol, five people birded on their own. And though they sometimes visited places the main group did, it was at different times, counting different birds.

The most numerous species this year was the Swainson’s Thrush. The quintessential little brown bird, like a junior robin, was everywhere. Two days later, there were none to be seen.

Maybe there is no one-day peak of spring migration. Maybe there never was. But spending any day outdoors in Cheyenne in May you are bound to see more species of birds than if you don’t go out at all.

2017 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results: 113 species

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Gadwall

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Ring-billed Gull

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Long-eared Owl

Great Horned Owl

Common Nighthawk

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Warbling Vireo

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Horned Lark

Tree Swallow

  1. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Cedar Waxwing

McCown’s Longspur

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Brewer’s Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

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A spotting scope is necessary to see the waterfowl on the far side of Wyoming Hereford Ranch Reservoir #1. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bird books worth reading

Published Mar. 12, 2017 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books worth reading.”

By Barb Gorges

If you are the books you read, here is what I’ve been this winter.

2017-3Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, c. 2016, Penguin Press

This was a Christmas present from my daughter-in-law, Madeleine, who teaches cognitive psychology. It’s an enthralling overview of the latest studies that show how much smarter birds are than we thought, sometimes smarter than us in particular ways. They can navigate extreme distances, find home, find food stashed six months earlier, solve puzzles, use tools, sing hundreds of complex songs, remember unique relationships with each flock member, engineer nests, adapt to new foods and situations. They can even communicate with us.

2017-3GoodBirds“Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, Passionate Birders Share the Joys of Watching Birds,” edited by Lisa A. White and Jeffrey A. Gordon, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The previous volume, in 2007, was “Good Birders Don’t Wear White, 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.”

One of my favorite essays is by our Colorado friend Ted Floyd, “Go Birding with (Young, Really Young) Children.” Having frequently accompanied him and his children, I can say he does a terrific job of making birdwatching appealing.

Many of the essays start out with “Why I Love…” and move on to different aspects of birding people love (seabirds, drawing birds, my yard, spectrograms, “because it gets me closer to tacos”), followed by tips should you want to follow their passions.

2017-3ABACalifornia“Field Guide to the Birds of California” by Alvaro Jaramillo, c. 2015

This is part of the American Birding Association State Field Guide Series published by Scott & Nix Inc. The series so far also includes Arizona, the Carolinas, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Each author writes their own invitation to the beginning birdwatcher or the birder new to their state.

While a few birding hotspots may be mentioned, the real service these books provide is an overview of the state’s ecological regions and what kind of habitats to find each species in, not to mention large photos of each. I’ll probably still pack my Sibley’s, just in case we see a bird rare to California.

2017-3PetersonGuidetoSong            “Peterson Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

While including the usual bird pictures and range maps, this book is about learning to identify birds by sound and corresponding audio files can be found at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Bird songs are charted using spectrograms, graphic representations of sound recordings.

You can think of spectrograms as musical notation. They read from left to right. A low black mark indicates a low-pitched frequency. A thin, short line higher up indicates a clear sound with few overtones, higher pitched and short-lived. But most bird sounds are more complex, some filling the spectrogram from top to bottom.

Pieplow explains how to read spectrograms, the basic patterns, the variations, the none-vocal sounds like wing-clapping, and the biology of bird sounds.

Once you can visualize what you are hearing, Pieplow provides a visual index to bird sounds to help you try to match a bird with what you heard.

Taking a call note I’m familiar with in my neighborhood, the one note the Townsend’s solitaire gives from the top of a tree in winter, I find that Pieplow categorizes it as “cheep,” higher than a “chirp” and more complex than “peep.” It’s going to take a while to train our ears to distinguish differences.

2017-3WarblerGuide            “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott White, c. 2015, Princeton University Press and The Warbler Guide App.

Spectrograms are a part of the 500 pages devoted to the 56 species of warblers in the U.S. and Canada.

The yellow warbler, whose song we hear along willow-choked streams in the mountains in summer, gets 10 pages.

Icons show its silhouette (sometimes it can be diagnostic), color impression (as it flies by in a blur), tail pattern (the usual underside view of a bird above your head), range generalization, habitat (what part of the tree it prefers) and behavioral (hover, creep, sally, walk).

Then there’s the spectrogram comparing it to other species and maps show migration routes and timing, both spring and fall. We can see the yellow warbler spends the winter as far south as Peru.

Forty-one photographs show all angles, similar species, and both sexes at various ages.

The companion app, an additional $13, has most of the book’s content, and lets you rotate to compare 3-D versions of two warblers at a time, filter identification clues and listen to song recordings.

This is a good investment for birding in Cheyenne where we have seen 32 warbler species over the last 20 springs.

Big Day bird count big picture

2016-05BigDay2-byMarkGorges - CopyPublished in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Opinion section May 22, 2016, “Bird count day gives us big picture.”

By Barb Gorges

            May Hanesworth was ahead of her time. An active Cheyenne birder as early as the 1940s, she made sure the results of the local spring bird counts were published every year in the Cheyenne paper. She recruited me in the 1990s to type the lists for her. She felt that someday there would be a place for that data and she was right.

            A few years ago, members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society collected and uploaded that data to eBird.org, a global database for bird observations. The oldest record we found was for 1956.

            We refer to the count we make at the height of spring migration as the Big Day Bird Count. Elsewhere in the world, competitive birders will, as a small team or solo, do a big day to see how many species they can find in a specified area. But the idea of a group of unlimited size like ours going out and scouring an area is unusual, though closer to what the originator, Lynds Jones, an Oberlin College ornithology professor, had in mind back in 1895.

            Now eBird.org has started a new tradition as of last year, the Global Big Day. This year it was scheduled for May 14, the same day as ours. Results show 15,642 people around the world saw 6,227 bird species. For our local count, 20 people looked for birds around Cheyenne, and 107 species were counted [Results were published elsewhere in the paper. See the list below.].

            Finding our favorite birds in the company of friends is a good incentive for taking part, but there is the science too. Back in the spring of 1956, May saw 85 species. And when Mark and I started in the 1990s, 150 seemed to be the norm—perhaps because Cheyenne had more trees by then. However, the last 10 years, the average is lower, 118.

            Maybe we aren’t as sharp as earlier birders. Or we are missing the peak of migration. Or we have lost prime habitat for migrating birds as the surrounding prairie gets built over and elderly trees are removed in town. Or it’s caused by deteriorating habitat in southern wintering grounds or northern breeding grounds.

            But imagine where we would be without the Migratory Bird Treaty.

            This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first agreement, in 1916, between the U.S. and Great Britain (signing for Canada), followed by other agreements and updates. In summary: “It is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, offer for sale, purchase or barter any migratory bird, or parts, nests or eggs.”

            Even migrating songbirds, like our Wyoming state bird, the western meadowlark, are protected.

            But who would want to hurt a meadowlark?

            Look at the Mediterranean flyway. Birdlife International reports 25 million birds of all kinds along it are shot or trapped every year for fun, food and the cage bird trade. Perpetrators think the supply of birds is endless. But we can point to the millions of passenger pigeons in North America prior to the death in 1914 of the last one, to show what can happen.

            The city of Eliat, Israel, is the funnel between Africa and Europe/Asia on the Mediterranean flyway, and to bring attention to the slaughter, the annual Champions of the Flyway bird race is based there. A big day event, this year it attracted 40 teams, Israeli and international, which counted a combined total of 243 species during 24 hours.

            This year, funds raised by the teams are going to Greece, to support education and enforcement—killing migratory birds is already illegal. Some of the worst-hit areas are in forests above beaches popular with tourists. Attracting birdwatching tourists could pay better than killing and trapping birds, a kind of change that has been beneficial elsewhere.  

            Many factors affect how many birds we see in Cheyenne on our big day, but we do have control over one aspect: habitat. If you live in the city, plant more trees and shrubs in appropriate places. If you live on acreage, protect the prairie and its ground-nesting grassland birds. And then join us on future Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts and contribute to the global big picture of birds.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results affected by cold, wet weather

By Barb Gorges

            The 2016 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was held May 14. It was cold (33-43 degrees F), wet and foggy. Conditions kept down the number of birdwatchers participating as well as the number of birds observed.

            Thirteen Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members and friends birded as a group at Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. Seven others birded on their own and contributed to the total of 107 species observed. Last year’s total was 110 species.

            Few flycatchers, vireos and warblers were seen because few insects, their primary food, were around due to the cold. Few kinds of shorebirds were seen at area reservoirs. High water levels from previous rain and snowfall left few areas of shallow water and exposed sandbars for them.

            Although many of the species that migrate through Cheyenne were seen, including willet, broad-winged hawk, Forster’s tern, ruby-crowned kinglet and western tanager, the day, weather notwithstanding, may not have represented quite the peak of spring migration.

             A highlight of the count was a black-and-white warbler at the research station. It is considered an eastern warbler, rarely seen this far west, although it does nest in the Black Hills.

            The Cheyenne Big Day ran concurrent with the Global Big Day. For a look at local and global results, see www.eBird.org/globalbigday. 

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count

May 14, 2016

107 species total

Canada Goose

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Bonaparte’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Prairie Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Tree Swallow

N. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yelllow-rumped Warbler

Green-tailed Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Lark Bunting

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Yellow-rumped warbler last to leave

Yellow-rumped Warbler

In the fall, Yellow-rumped Warblers are not this bright. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 11, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The last to go, warblers put on a late season show.”

2014 Update: The spring migration Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count total warbler species count is now at 31. Click HERE for the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count Warbler List.

By Barb Gorges

As the leaves turned yellow-green in late summer, you may have noticed them shaking without benefit of a breeze.

Did you see small, greenish yellow warblers picking through the foliage for insects?

Since 1993, Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society has documented 29 species of warblers on its Big Day counts held mid-May, at the peak of spring migration.

We haven’t given the same scrutiny to fall migration since warblers trickle through Cheyenne beginning late August and on into October. In the spring, the timing of their migration is more concentrated.

Most of the reports I’ve received this fall are for easily recognized warblers: Townsend’s with its mask, Wilson’s with its black cap and beady black eyes and yellow-rumpeds with their yellow rump in contrast to blue-gray back and wings.

The yellow-rumped warbler stands out in many ways. First, it’s just about the most common wood warbler species, which is probably why it has a well-known nickname.

Can’t you just hear the ornithologist tracking the quick-flitting unknown bird deep in the bushes and finally exclaiming, “It’s just another butter butt!”

The yellow-rumped comes in two forms that were previously two separate species. One, the myrtle warbler, has a white throat, and is considered the eastern form. The other, Audubon’s warbler, has a yellow throat. It breeds in the Rocky Mountains and winters in southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

We see both forms in Cheyenne so it is always worthwhile to scrutinize this common bird.

The yellow-rumped has odd habits for a warbler. Last month friends and I hiked up to Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, elevation 10,000 feet. Although there was fresh snow on the peaks and aspen in full color lower down, we found yellow-rumpeds busy catching flying insects in a most unwarbler way.

They perched on a picturesque dead tree at the lake’s edge, then flew out over the water after their prey and circled back to their perches. This activity is called hawking and flycatchers are the group of birds that use it most often. According to my books, it’s a recognized feeding behavior for yellow-rumpeds too, but not for most warbler species.

What also sets the yellow-rumped apart is its wide range of gastronomic preferences. Other warblers have to head south when it is too cold to find live insects, but the yellow-rumped starts picking berries. That’s how the myrtle got its name—it likes to eat wax myrtle berries.

Apparently, yellow-rumpeds have a digestive system that can deal with the berries’ waxy coating. I don’t think around here we have any myrtle, or bayberry, its other favorite food.

But both Audubon’s and Myrtle forms stick around Cheyenne quite late, eating other kinds of berries and seeds. Robert and Jane Dorn list records as late as the first week in December.

Other warbler species’ latest dates are in mid-October.

Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion calls yellow-rumpeds “The Swarm Warbler.” I have seen this phenomenon myself, in Lions Park.

Warblers migrate at night. By morning they are ready to come to earth and refuel.

As I walked the dog one spring morning, between the new community house and the lake, yellow-rumped warblers tumbled across the path at my feet like wind blown leaves.

While they may swarm during migration, yellow-rumpeds prefer to spread out for breeding in the coniferous forests of the mountains and the north. Little is known about this part of their lives compared to that of other more gregarious songbirds.

David Flaspohler, one of the authors of the extensive account in Birds of North America, made a lot of observations while completing his dissertation on metapopulation dynamics and reproductive ecology of northern forest songbirds in the upper Great Lakes.

Yellow-rumpeds are considered to be monogamous. The female is usually the sole nest builder though the male may sing and keep her company while she works.

Flashpohler was able to watch at least eight nests in northern Wisconsin in 1996 and documented that incubation is almost entirely done by the female.

“Male often sings in vicinity of nest during incubation,” he wrote.

When it’s time to feed the young, the male helps, in between bouts of singing. In other species, parent birds are very quiet near the nest because they don’t want to attract predators.

Many other sections of the account, however, state “No information.” It looks like aspects of butter butt life history could provide many more topics for theses and dissertations.

For instance, the last time yellow-rumpeds were tested for the effects of spruce budworm pesticides was 1987, in only one place and for only one kind of pesticide.

Or, why was the yellow-rumped the most abundant warbler found in collisions with towers in Florida, but rarely in Pennsylvania?

Yellow-rumped populations are said to be stable or increasing, but standard avian demographic data is lacking.

Another species, the greater sage-grouse, is suffering from rampant oil and gas development in Wyoming today and is finally attracting lots of research funds.

Had more research been done earlier, wildlife biologists may have been able to make better recommendations sooner to stave off the disastrous situation we have now. Then again, sound biological recommendations need to fall on willing Administration ears to have any effect.

Meanwhile, enjoy warbler watching. Consider posting your bird observations on eBird.com. Every little bit helps us figure out the puzzle that is life on Earth.

Following flock to Colorado Field Ornithologists’ meeting

Unknown flycatcher

Here’s a candidate for the next Jeop-birdie quiz. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Sept. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following flock of birders to Sterling was fun.”

By Barb Gorges

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Mark and I decided to attend the annual meeting of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. The group’s name sounds so formal.

Their 51st annual meeting was held over Labor Day weekend in Sterling, Colorado, only two hours southeast of Cheyenne. Like other conventions, it included talks, vendors and a banquet with a keynote speaker, but unlike other conventions, there were dozens of field trips.

I worried I might feel out of place, even if the information on the website, http://cfobirds.org/, assured me that beginning birdwatchers were welcome. CFO is all about the study, conservation—and enjoyment of birds.

Enjoy we did. Our first trip leader, CFO member Larry Modesitt, not only patiently explained field marks for common birds to several trip members who needed help, but he was also able to discuss the finer details of flycatcher fall plumage with one of the other members who surveys birds for a living.

CFO takes birding quite seriously. Each day, 14 field trips left every 10 minutes beginning at 5:20 a.m. One even started at 4 a.m.

Each field trip had a designated leader who contacted all of their trip participants at least a week in advance to discuss routes, carpooling, rest and lunch stops, and even how much to reimburse drivers for gas.

Our third trip leader, Nick Komar, also a CFO member, consulted with other people on what had been seen where we were going, and then worked hard to help us find those birds.

It was while visiting a designated birdwatching bench along the South Platte River at the Brush State Wildlife Area that our group saw warblers in clear view, all in one bush, six to eight at a time: Wilson’s, orange-crowned and yellow-throat. They were flitting about gleaning bugs, sparkling like yellow ornaments. At the other river overlook nearby, we found a plethora of woodpeckers: a redhead family, several red-bellied woodpeckers, a hairy woodpecker and yellow-shafted flickers.

While our first trip was filled with flycatchers and our third highlighted woodpeckers and warblers, the second, with Mark Peterson, was about shorebirds.

The whole idea for Sterling as a convention site was to catch the shorebird fall migration. Usually, the CFO annual meeting is planned around the spring migration. This was only the third time for a fall gathering. The keynote speaker was John Dunn, co-author of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and shorebird expert.

But all the lovely summer rains keeping the prairie green around Cheyenne and Sterling kept the reservoirs full. And when they are full, there is no shore, no bare sand or mudflats for shorebirds to pick over. But we got lucky and found muddy shores at a small pond at the Red Lion SWA—and shorebirds.

Shorebirds are right up there on my list of difficult-to-identify species, partly because I don’t see them often and partly because I see them in migration when they aren’t very colorful. I thought John Dunn’s after dinner talk on shorebird identification might help. But it was definitely over my head.

However, if I keep looking at shorebirds in photos and in the flesh, eventually my identification skills will improve. Luckily, there was no quiz afterwards.

There was, however, a quiz the afternoon before: Jeop-birdie. Categories, among many, included identifying famous ornithologists, poorly photographed birds and types of bird nests. Very entertaining.

Larry Modesitt told me CFO began because Colorado needed an arbiter to sort through claims of unusual bird species seen in the state (Wyoming has a rare bird records committee). Many members also belong to Audubon.

CFO also supports bird research. A number of the papers given Saturday afternoon were partly supported by CFO funding. Many looked at facets of bird life that once understood, such as the impact of oil and gas drilling noise on nesting birds, might make it easier to make land use decisions.

It isn’t easy walking into a group of 200 unknown people, but when they are all dressed like me, in field pants, sun-protection shirts or T-shirts printed with birds, large-brimmed hats and binoculars, it’s less intimidating. It’s very easy to start a conversation with “What field trip are you going on tomorrow?”

And after birding together, sharing exciting bird observations, many faces become familiar over the course of the weekend.

Next year, the convention will be in Salida, Colorado, first weekend in June. Now, there’s a spot I might pick up some new life birds.

Gosh, did I just sound like a dyed-in-the-wool, serious species-nabbing-twitcher? Yikes!

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.