New birding field trip strategies

Published July 10, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cheyenne Audubon tries a new field trip strategy”

Birders sign up for the Cheyenne Audubon socially distant field trip June 27 at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center.

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society has been adapting to pandemic life. We now Zoom for our board meetings and our fall lectures will probably also be via Zoom.

            Field trips are harder to adapt. Our field trip chair, Grant Frost, suggested a survey of the Cheyenne Greenway birds in late April and many of us signed up to individually bird a section. Our May  Big Day Bird Count was arranged similarly. At the end of June, we tried “separate but simultaneous” at Curt Gowdy State Park—choosing different trails.

            This time there was some pairing up—but it is much easier to keep two arms’-lengths away from one person than a group. However, the trails between the visitor center and Hidden Falls were practically a traffic jam of heavy-breathing bicyclists, reported the birders who headed that way. They had to continually step off the trail to allow bikes to pass.

            One of our Laramie Audubon friends took the trail from Crystal Reservoir towards Granite Reservoir and met up with the many participants of a footrace.

            Mark and I were lucky. We chose a trail with little shade, not very conducive to a summer stroll. But the trail passes along the lake shore and creek, through ponderosa pine parkland, grasslands (sad to say, much of it has gone over to cheatgrass in the last five years), mountain mahogany shrubland, cottonwood draws and across a cliff face in the stretch of about 2 miles.

We saw 29 species: gulls over the lake, a belted kingfisher along the creek, chickadee in the pines, meadowlarks in the grassland, green-tailed towhees in the shrubs, a lazuli bunting in the cottonwoods and rock wrens in the rocky cliff. The total for the morning, including what the other eight participants hiking in the forest saw, was 71 species.

            While we could see the runners on the trail across the water, Mark and I met only two people on our trail, a friendly father and son on their bikes. So, it was a little disconcerting to come back to the trailhead three hours later and find in addition to the two vehicles there when we started, 10 more. One was the park ranger’s truck, one from Colorado, one from Oregon and the rest from Laramie County, like us. They must have all gone the other way.

            A normal Audubon field trip serves at least two purposes besides recreation. One is to find birds and to report them now that there is a global data base, eBird.org. But the other is to learn from each other. Our local bird experts are happy to share their knowledge with newcomers. Even the experts discuss with each other their favorite field marks for identifying obscure birds.

            This time we did have someone new to birding show up and one of our members graciously allowed her to accompany her. As we finished our hikes, we reported back by the visitor center where we gathered with our lunches under a pine—spaced as required. There was general conversation about birds we’d seen and other topics dear to birdwatcher hearts. I almost canceled the Zoom tally party I’d suggested for the evening but decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Yellow Warbler, photo by Mark Gorges

            Five of us signed on, including our new birder—now a new chapter member. I’d invited people to share photos from the day and showed landscape shots of where Mark and I hiked. Mark shared his shots of a yellow warbler and a mountain bluebird. Someone photographed a nest of house wrens and Greg Johnson shared two photos we could use to compare the beaks of hairy and downy woodpeckers—the best field mark for telling them apart (the hairy’s is proportionately longer).

            Then it occurred to me, maybe we should have a tally party via Zoom after more field trips and not just during pandemics. It could be a way for bird photographers to show off their pictures and for all of us to learn more about identifying the birds we see. It’s a chance for birders to flock together, something we like to do as much as the birds.

            Our next socially distant field trip will be July 18. We’ll meet at the Pine Bluffs rest area to explore the natural area behind it and document what we find for the annual Audubon Rockies Wyoming Bioblitz. Check for details soon at https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/.  

Mountain Bluebird, photo by Mark Gorge

2020 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count best in 18 years

Red-headed Woodpecker by Mark Gorges

By Barb Gorges

Cheyenne Audubon’s 61st Big Day Bird Count May 16 was the best in 18 years: 142 species, with 39 people contributing observations. In those 18 years, the total number of bird species counted ranged from only 104 to 132.

Thinking about the decline in North American birds over the past 50 years (https://www.3billionbirds.org/), it isn’t surprising that the average count for 1992-2002 is 147 species (range: 123 – 169) and the average count for 2009-2019 is 114 (range: 104 – 128).

In a way, I think the pandemic made a difference this year, plus a lucky break offset not being able to access F.E. Warren Air Force Base and part of the High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

The Cheyenne Big Day is held the third Saturday in May, as early as May 13 and as late as May 21, hopefully catching the peak of spring migration.

Sometimes migration runs late, as it apparently did in 1993 (record high total count 169 species), when wintering species like dark-eyed junco and Townsend’s solitaire were counted—but we also aren’t clear how far from the center of Cheyenne people were birding back then—some of our winter birds go only go as far as the mountains 30 miles to the west.

Sometimes, like 1993, we get interesting shorebirds, usually heading north earlier than songbirds. Or, if the reservoirs are full, we don’t have any “shore” and thus few shorebirds.

1993 and 2020 have some other interesting comparisons. Great-tailed grackles, birds of the southwest, were first reported breeding in Wyoming in 1998 and now their Cheyenne presence is spreading. Eurasian collared-doves, escaped from the caged bird trade and now nesting in our neighborhoods, were not recorded here before 1998.

But in 1993, we knew where to find burrowing owls. Now that location is full of houses.

The number of observers might matter, especially their expertise. Traditionally, we meet as a large group and hit the hotspots one at a time, Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, the research station. The experienced birders might zero in on a vireo’s chirp buried in the greenery while the bored novice birder notices American white pelicans flying overhead at the same time.

But this year might be proof that birding on our own (at least by household) as we did, ultimate physical distancing, could be more productive. All the birding hotspots were birded first thing in the morning, when birds are most active and most easily detected.

In addition, it was a magnificent spring migration day. While home for breakfast, lunch and dinner between outings, Mark and I observed a total of 23 species in our backyard, more than any of the days before or after May 16, more than any day in the last 30 years.

Now that we have lots of local birders reporting to eBird, it is easy to see the 16th was the best birding day of May 2020 in Cheyenne. However, the next day we found species we missed, the pelicans and the American redstart.

The thrill of seeing colorful migrants and welcoming back local breeding birds was as wonderful as every year. But I missed the gathering of birders.


To see the 2020 species list broken out by location (Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, High Plains Grasslands Research Station and others) and the comparison with 1993, go to


Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 16, 2020

142 species  

Canada Goose

Wood Duck

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Chukar

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 

Eurasian Collared-Dove

White-winged Dove

Mourning Dove

Common Poorwill

Chimney Swift

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Sora

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Baird’s Sandpiper

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Lesser Yellowlegs

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Double-crested Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Sharp-shinned Hawk 

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk 

Ferruginous Hawk

Eastern Screech-Owl

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Red-headed Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker 

American Kestrel

Peregrine Falcon

Prairie Falcon

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Gray Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird 

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow 

Common Raven

Mountain Chickadee

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Ruby-crowned Kinglet 

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Rock Wren

House Wren

European Starling 

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Northern Mockingbird

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin 

House Sparrow

House Finch

Red Crossbill

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Chestnut-collared Longspur

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Lark Sparrow 

Lark Bunting

White-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark  

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Yellow-breasted Chat

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Northern Parula

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

            I am living under the flight path of major construction. A Swainson’s hawk is plucking cottonwood branches from one neighbor’s tree and taking them over my house to another neighbor’s tree to build a nest.

            Lately, a gang of 60 or 70, puffed up and strutting around in shiny black feather jackets, shows up along our back wall—no motorcycles for them—they’re common grackles. They even scare away the bully robin that keeps the house finches from the black oil sunflower seed we’ve put out.

            A pair of northern flickers has been visiting the seed cake feeder. We know they are male and female—he has the red mustache. The black and white pair of downy woodpeckers are visiting regularly. The male has the red neck spots.

            One small, yellow-breasted stranger shows up every day at the nyger thistle seed feeder. It’s a female lesser goldfinch, not a regular species here. We recognize that her yellow, black and white feather scheme is arranged differently from the American goldfinch’s.

            I look forward to the springtime antics of birds in my backyard, but this year, millions of people are discovering them for the first time in their own yards and neighborhoods. Suddenly, it’s cool to notice birds and nature. It’s almost cool to be called a birdwatcher.

            Would you like to be a birdwatcher, or a birder? Here’s how.

Step 1Notice birds.

Watch for bird-like shapes in the trees and bushes and on lawns. Watch for movement. This time of year, birds are making a lot of noise and song. See if you can trace the song to the bird with his beak uplifted and open.

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

Are they looking for food like the red-breasted nuthatches climbing tree trunks and branches?

Are they performing a mating ritual like the Eurasian collared-dove males that launch themselves from the top of a tree or utility pole, winging high only to sail down again in spirals?

Are they picking through the grass like common grackles do, looking for grubs to eat? Are they flying by with a beak full of long wispy dead grasses for nest building like the house sparrows do?

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

But if you want to talk to other birdwatchers, you need to do a little studying.

You are in luck if you live in the Cheyenne area. In 2018, Pete Arnold and I put together a picture book of 104 of our most common birds, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” You’d be surprised how many birds you probably already know. Go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/ to examine current purchasing options.

You can also go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/. You can type in a bird name or queries like “birds with red breasts” (which covers all shades from pink and purple to orange and russet). If you click on “Get instant ID help” it will prompt you to download the free Merlin app. It will give you size comparison, color, behavior and habitat choices and then produce an illustrated list of possibilities—nearly as good as sending a photo to your local birder.

The best way to learn birds is to go birdwatching with someone who knows more than you. But since that probably isn’t possible this spring, settle for a pair of binoculars and honing your eye for noticing field marks—the colors and shapes that distinguish one bird species’ appearance from another’s.

Keep in mind that even expert birders can’t identify every bird—sometimes the light is bad and sometimes, and often for a species as variable as the red-tailed hawk, it doesn’t look exactly like it’s picture in the field guides by Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley.

Step 5Go where the birds are.

In Wyoming, that is generally wherever there is water—and trees and shrubs. At least that’s where you’ll find the most bird species per hour of birding. But the grasslands are special. Drive down a rural road, like nearby Chalk Bluffs Road, and watch to see what birds flock along the shoulders and collect on the barbwire fence: meadowlarks, lark buntings, horned larks. Watch out for traffic.

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/basic-wild-bird-feeding/.

Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities has information on transforming lawns into habitat for birds, bees, butterflies and other animals.

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

Some of the nerdiest birders I know will say they prefer to bird alone, but they still join their local Audubon chapter. In Cheyenne, that’s https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/. People of all levels of birding expertise are welcome. Sign up for free email newsletters today and join when you are ready.

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

People do not make life easy for birds. Our activities can affect birds directly and indirectly. Today, I read that the popular neonicotinoid pesticides affect birds’ abilities to successfully migrate if they eat even a small amount of treated seed, or an insect that has eaten treated plant material.

Writing letters to lawmakers is one option, but so is planting native plants and so is recording your bird observations through citizen or community science projects like www.eBird.org and taking part in other conservation activities.

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

You can do this as soon as you start Step 1, noticing birds. Not everyone does. Welcome to the world of birdwatching!           

Western Meadowlark
The Western Meadowlark, a grassland bird, is Wyoming’s state bird. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

High-capacity water wells vs birds

High-capacity irrigation wells are not your great-grandparents’ Chicago Aermotor windmills. This one continues to pump water for livestock on the Lummis Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Mar. 8, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “High capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, wildlife”

Too many high capacity water wells can negatively affect birds, other wildlife and people

By Barb Gorges

            The relationship between groundwater and surface water is important to birds and other wildlife—and people.

            Some surface water is merely runoff from rain and snow that hasn’t yet soaked in and recharged the groundwater. Other surface water, like wetlands, is the result of high groundwater levels. Springs along a creek also depend on an adequate amount of groundwater.

            Groundwater and surface water along streams and in wetlands grow vegetation wildlife depends on for shelter and food. Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species require these wetter areas.

            Precipitation can vary from year to year, but on average, it recharges the groundwater–the aquifer. Aquifers are geologically complicated, but mostly water flows through permeable layers much the same way surface water drains. In Laramie County both surface and groundwater flow somewhat west to east.

            If someone puts in a well and starts pumping, it will lower the water table—the top of the groundwater—for some distance from the well. If the water is for domestic use, it is filtered through a septic system and mostly returned to the groundwater. However, if it is used for irrigating lawns and gardens, much of it evaporates and is lost. If too many wells are sipping from the same aquifer, the water table drops, and people are forced to drill deeper wells.

            Another side effect of the water table dropping is wetlands and streams dry up, affecting wildlife.

            Wyoming has complex water laws for allocating surface water. The first person to homestead on a creek got the senior water rights. In a drought year, he might be the only one allowed to remove water from the creek.

            Groundwater rights are not as clear-cut, as far as I can tell. More than 25 or 30 years ago I remember being in eastern Laramie County putting on an Audubon presentation for the Young Farmers club. It was on the negative effects of human population growth. The farmers were already complaining then about the growing number of developments and the wells causing the water table to drop.

            In 2015, the Laramie County Control Area Order was established in eastern Laramie County to keep an eye on the situation.

            Before that, 2010-14, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, spent taxpayer funds to buy out 24 irrigation wells at $200,000 each within this same area, saving 1 billion gallons annually. The farmers could grow dryland wheat instead.

            And now, in the same area, the Lerwick family is asking for a permit to drill eight high-capacity wells for maximum production of 1.5 billion gallons per year for agricultural purposes. We assume it’s for irrigation and that irrigation water will not be recharging the aquifer much. I don’t get it. Permitting new high capacity wells after paying to retire others in the same area makes no sense at all.

            Neighboring farmers and ranchers are alarmed. Professional hydrologists can predict how it will negatively impact their water supplies. Creeks and wetlands, the few we have out here, will dry up and the neighbor’s wells will have to be re-drilled.

            Beginning March 4 and for 30 days, the state engineer is asking for comments about the effectiveness of the 2015 Laramie County Control Area Order which guides groundwater development in the area of the proposed wells. Call 307-777-6150 to find out exactly how to comment.

March 18, the state engineer will hold a hearing regarding the Lerwick permits and will hear from the affected neighboring farmers and ranchers, 17 of them.

            Is it fair for someone to get a new well permit that will cause all his neighbors the expense of drilling deeper? Instead, can a community, through governmental agencies, come to an agreement that an area is no longer suitable for irrigated agriculture?

The Ogallala Aquifer, of which this High Plains Aquifer is part, extends under parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. For several generations, farmers have been mining it. We can call it mining because more water is extracted than returned. It is not a sustainable situation for anyone.    

            Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society is speaking up for the birds and other wildlife, but it’s doubtful wildlife will be considered much in the calculation of acre-feet and gallons per minute and other details of water rights. We already know that in the last 50 years grassland birds have lost the most population of any North American habitat type. Unsustainable mining of water in Laramie County, should the new high-capacity wells be permitted, won’t help.

Seventy percent of Wyoming’s bird species can be found in Wyoming’s riparian areas like this one on the Wyoming Hereford Ranch outside Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wyobirds and Wyoming Master Naturalists updates

Cheyenne Audubon field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, November 2019. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Feb. 16, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyobirds gets tech update and Wyoming Master Naturalists  gets initial discussion.”

By Barb Gorges

            Technology drives changes in the birding community as it does for the rest of the world. We always wonder how hard it will be to adapt to the inevitable.

            In January, the folks at Murie Audubon, the National Audubon Society chapter in Casper, announced that they would no longer pay the fees required for hosting the Wyobirds elist. There have been plenty of donations over the years to offset the $500 per year cost but, they reasoned, now that there is a no-cost alternative, why not spend the money on say, bird habitat protection or improvement? Also, the new option allows photos and the old one didn’t.

            But the new outlet for chatting about birds in Wyoming works a little differently and everyone will have to get used to it. We’ve changed before. We had the Wyoming Bird Hotline until 2006 for publicizing rare bird alerts only. No one called in about their less than rare backyard birds, their birding questions and birding related events like they do now on Wyobirds.

            The only problem with leaving the listserv is figuring out what to do with the digital archives. They may go back to 2004, the first time Wyobirds was mentioned in Cheyenne Audubon’s newsletter.

            Now the Wyoming birding community, and all the travelers interested in coming to see Wyoming birds, can subscribe to Wyobirds (no donations necessary) by going to Google Groups, https://groups.google.com/, and searching for “Wyobirds.” Follow the directions for how to join the group so that you can post and get emails when other group members post. I opted to get one email per day listing all the postings. That will be nice when spring migration begins and there are multiple posts each day.

            Google Groups, a free service from Google, is one way the giant company gives back and we might as well take advantage of it.

Wyoming Master Naturalists

            Wyoming is one of only five states that does not have a Master Naturalist program, however it’s in the discussion stage.

            What is a Master Naturalist and what do they do? Jacelyn Downey, education programs manager for Audubon Rockies who is based near Gillette, explained at the January Cheyenne Audubon meeting that programs are different in each state.

            Most are like the Master Gardener program, offering training and certification. Master naturalists serve by taking on interpretive or educational roles or helping with conservation projects or collecting scientific data. The training requires a certain number of hours and keeping up certification requires hours of continuing education and service. But it’s not a chore if you love nature.

            Master Gardeners is organized in the U.S. through the university extension program. Some Master Naturalist programs are too, as well as through state game and fish or parks departments or Audubon offices or other conservation organizations or partnerships of organizations and agencies.

            Colorado has at least two programs, one through Denver Audubon, and another in Ft. Collins to aid users of the city’s extensive natural areas.

            Dorothy Tuthill also spoke. She is associate director and education coordinator for the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. She pointed out that several of their programs, like the Moose Day surveys in which “community scientists” (another term for people participating in citizen science) gather data, are the kinds of activities a Master Naturalist program could aid.

            Audubon and the institute already collaborate every year with other organizations and agencies on the annual Wyoming Bioblitz. It’s one day during which scientists, volunteers, teachers, families and kids together gather data on flora and fauna in a designated area. This year’s Bioblitz will be July 17-19 near Sheridan on the Quarter Circle A Ranch, the grounds of the Brinton Museum.

            With a Wyoming Master Naturalist program, a trained corps of naturalists could be available to help agencies and organizations by visiting classrooms, leading hikes, giving programs and helping to plan and participating in projects and surveys.

            Audubon chapter volunteers are already involved in these kinds of things: adult and child education, data collection on field trips and conservation projects. Many of us might broaden our nature expertise beyond birds and learn more about connecting people to nature. But it would be nice to wear a badge that guarantees for the public that we know what we are talking about.

            Just how a Wyoming Naturalist Program would be set up is being discussed right now. Maybe a Google Group needs to be formed. If you’d like to be in on the discussion, please contact Dorothy Tuthill at dtuthill@uwyo.edu and Jacelyn Downey at jdowney@audubon.org.

Panayoti Kelaidis speaking Feb. 29, inspiring Wyoming gardeners to go native

International plant explorer Panayoti Kelaidis to speak Feb. 29 at Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop, to inspire Wyoming gardeners to go native

6th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero Workshop:

“Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Native Plant Gardening 101”

Feb. 29, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Laramie County Community College

$25 fee includes lunch. Register by Feb. 27 at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4463444, where the complete schedule can be read. Questions: Mark Gorges, 307-287-4953, mgorges@juno.com.


By Barb Gorges

            A couple weeks ago I was at the Denver Botanic Gardens to interview Panayoti Kelaidis who will be the keynote speaker at the 6th annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop Feb. 29.

            PK, as he suggests people call him, stepped out to pour us cups of Ceylonese tea. While I waited, I noticed his office had floor to ceiling shelves full of plant books for parts of the world he’s travelled.

Numerous plaques and certificates on one wall commemorated his contributions to horticulture over a lengthy career. His latest accolade is to be a judge at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach for the Denver Botanic Gardens.

The windowsill had a parade of small, unique succulents and cactuses, part of PK’s extensive personal plant collection at his Denver home. I toured the nearly half-acre garden on the Garden Bloggers Fling last summer.

            As part of his job as senior curator and director of outreach for the DBG, PK leads plant tours to foreign countries, most recently Tibet. A tour of the Sichuan, China, area planned for June will depend on world health concerns. He reads Chinese, having once been a student of the language.

             But PK is also enthusiastic about Wyoming, where he visited two favorite aunts as a child. In the 1980s he travelled our state for his native seed business. He likes to take people on plant tours to the Cody area. As the president-elect of the North American Rock Garden Society, he’s considering a future convention in Cheyenne—we have nearby natural rock gardens to show off.

            PK’s plant knowledge is extensive, especially grassland and alpine species. He co-authored the 2015 book “Steppes, the plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions.” There are four major steppe regions in the world, including the Great Plains. He writes a blog called Prairiebreak, http://prairiebreak.blogspot.com/, and he established the Alpine Garden at the DBG.

            How does he describe himself? “Plant nerd.” He said a friend says he’s a plant geek. I think he’s both. He’ll tell you he is not a garden designer, but I’d say he looks at an even bigger picture. And that is why he’s been invited to be the Habitat Hero workshop’s keynote speaker.

            PK likens Douglas Tallamy and his book “Bringing Nature Home,” to Rachel Carson and her book “Silent Spring.” He said both books mark sea changes in our relationship to nature. Carson’s, published in 1962, showed the devastation caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Tallamy, in his 2007 book, showed us our conventional landscaping and gardening practices are detrimental to native insects, birds, other wildlife, and consequently, people. We need to plant native plants to support native insects, including native bees and butterflies. They are the foundation of the healthy ecosystems we enjoy and require.

At first, PK thought Tallamy was a little too radical, saying all ornamental plants from elsewhere needed to be replaced with natives. For many generations, the goal of landscaping and ornamental gardening has been beauty, PK said. But now he recognizes the other goal must be “ecological services.”

“We really need to figure out how to create a garden that is part of the natural system, not an obstacle,” said PK. Can that be beautiful? Can we shift the paradigm completely?

Can we make beautiful gardens with native plants? What we mean by “native” varies. For some American gardeners, it means the species originated on our continent, even if 3000 miles away. Or “native” for Cheyenne could mean any Great Plains species, or even just those from the prairie outside town.

 Xeriscaping, gardening with less water, began about 45 years ago in the Denver area, PK related. With a growing population that could quickly run out of water, smart people realized changing from landscape plants popular in parts of the country with high rainfall to plants that need less water would help. The Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities promotes this philosophy as well. Many of the more xeric plants are natives.

PK works with the DBG and Colorado State University which partnered to form Plant Select, https://plantselect.org/. It develops plants native to our high plains and intermountain region for the nursery trade. It makes it easy for gardeners to grow beautiful plants by planting those that love to grow here—and use less water. Though, PK said, there’s still room to grow the occasional prized non-native, water-hungry ornamental.

The water-wise and pollinator-friendly movements were combined a few years ago by Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program. The five previous workshops in Cheyenne have been well-received. I think it’s because people enjoy doing something positive like gardening to support our environment.

 After PK’s keynote address, “Rethinking Wyoming Landscaping – Learning from the Natives,”designed to inspire us, the workshop’s other presenters will walk us through the steps to take to make a Habitat Hero garden.

Talks will include how to protect and maintain natural prairie if you have some already, deciding on a location for a garden, removing unwanted plants whether turf or weeds, choosing plants, proper planting techniques, maintaining plants and gardens, and how to apply to be a certified Habitat Hero. The two hands-on components will be about how to install drip irrigation and how to use the winter sowing technique to grow native plants from seed (seeds, soil and containers included).

Panayoti Kelaidis explores plants at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in northern Colorado.

Conservation Ranching for the birds–and cows

Greater Sage-Grouse lekking with cattle in the background on sagebrush-steppe habitat on Bureau of Land Management land leased by Pathfinder Ranches in Natrona County, Wyoming. March 28, 2019. Photo by Evan Barrientos, Audubon Rockies. Courtesy.

Published Dec. 15, 2019, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Conservation Ranching is for the birds–and the cows”

By Barb Gorges

             You’ll run across arguments saying our farmlands would be put to better use raising food crops for people instead of forage crops for cattle. Maybe so—back east.

            But Wyoming’s remaining rangeland, its prairie grasslands and shrublands, is not suited to raising crops. We don’t have the water or the soils. But we do grow excellent native forage, originally for buffalo, now for cattle.

            And what a great system it is—no fossil fuels required to harvest that forage—the animals do it for you! On top of that, good range management is good for birds.

However, grassland birds were identified as the group having declined the most in the past 48 years, https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

At a recent Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Dusty Downey, Audubon Rockies’ lead for its Conservation Ranching Initiative, explained part of the problem is grassland conversion. When ranchers can’t make enough on cattle, they might try converting rangeland to cropland or to houses and other infrastructure. With hard work, cropland can be restored someday, but houses are a permanent conversion and wildlife suffers habitat loss.

Eighty-five percent of grasslands and sagebrush steppe is privately owned. So Dusty, raised on and still living on a ranch by Devils Tower, and his boss, Alison Holloran, a wildlife biologist, thought reaching out to ranchers about enhancing their operations could benefit both birds and cattle. Offering a financial incentive makes it attractive and might keep land in ranching.

National Audubon picked up the idea and made it a national program. The “Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land” logo can help ranchers get anywhere from 10 to 40 cents per pound more, depending on the market.

Conservation ranching is now popular in Dusty’s Thunder Basin neighborhood where ranchers know him and his family. Through the program, ranchers learn techniques for maximizing production over the long term that also benefit birds and they get help finding funding for ranch improvements. With third party certification, they earn the privilege of selling their meat at a premium price to people like me who value their commitment.

We also value meat free of hormones and antibiotics, so that is part of the certification. And we appreciate that cows eating grass produce less methane, part of the climate change problem, than if they eat corn.

Dusty said in the last 15 years, grass-fed beef sales have grown 400 percent, from $5 million a year to $2 billion.

Audubon-certified beef is available at Big Hollow Food Coop in Laramie, http://www.laramiecoop.com/, the Reed Ranch in Douglas, tombevreed@gmail.com, in Colorado, other western states and online. See https://www.audubon.org/where-buy-products-raised-audubon-certified-land#.

Grazing prairie looks simple. But grazing management is both art and science.

What does the vegetation need? How is it interacting with weather and grazers? Grassland vegetation needs grazing to stay healthy. Dusty cited a four-year study that showed an ungrazed pasture was not as productive or as diverse as one that had been grazed properly. Grazed plots showed five times more birds, two times more arthropods (food for chicks) and five times more dung beetles (the compost experts) than ungrazed plots.

Grazing grasslands down to bare ground like the buffalo did looks bad, but in the right context it allows highly nutritious plants to grow that can’t compete otherwise. It also aids bird species that require bare ground or very short grass somewhere in their lifecycle, between courtship and fledging.

My experience with prairie plants in the Habitat Hero demonstration garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens showed plants grazed down to ground level by rabbits rebounded the next spring. But you can’t let the rabbits in year-round or the same season year after year.

The gold standard when I was studying range management at the University of Wyoming was rest-rotation grazing. Now it’s producing a changing mosaic of plants by adjusting grazing timing on a multi-year cycle for any given pasture, tailored to the plants there and the rancher’s goals. Laramie County Conservation District helps local landowners figure it out, https://www.lccdnet.org/.

For an elegant explanation of the dance between animal and prairie plant, read a recent blog post by Chris Helzer, https://prairieecologist.com/2019/11/13/what-does-habitat-look-like-on-a-ranch/. He is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy-Nebraska.

Chris talks about growing a shifting mosaic of plants that will be more resilient through drought and other extremes. He also said, “Chronic overgrazing can degrade plant communities and reduce habitat quality, but a well-managed ranch can foster healthy wildlife populations while optimizing livestock production.”

Next time you meet a rancher, restaurant owner or grocery store manager, ask them if they’ve heard about Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative. Tell them it’s good for birds—and cows.

Nestling ID crowd sourced

Two nestlings were photographed by Matthew Gill Aug. 6, 2019, at a well pad near Greeley, Colorado.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 15, 2019, “Nestling ID benefits from crowd sourced help.”

By Barb Gorges

            Cheyenne resident Priscilla Gill emailed me a bird photo that her son, Matthew Gill, took Aug. 6. Could I identify the birds?

            Digital technology is wonderful. Thirty years ago, I would get phone calls asking for ID help (and I still do) but it can be difficult to draw a mental picture. I must figure out how familiar with birds the callers are so I can interpret the size and color comparisons they make.

            At least with an emailed photo, the ease of identifying the bird is only dependent on the clearness and how much of the bird is showing. In this case, the photo clearly showed two little nestlings so ungainly they were cute. They were black-skinned, but all a-prickle with yellow pin feathers and had large, lumpy black bills. They were nestled on top of a platform of sticks balanced high up on the pipe infrastructure at a well pad.

            Those bills first made me think ravens. However, the nest was near Greeley, Colorado, where ravens are rarely seen.

            Digital photos are easy to share. I forwarded the photo to Greg Johnson, my local go-to birder who enjoys ID challenges. But after a couple days without a reply, I figured he was somewhere beyond internet contact, so I sent the photo on to Ted Floyd, Colorado birder and editor of the American Birding Association magazine.

            He had no idea. No one has ever put together a field guide for nestlings. Julie Zickefoose comes close with her book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” (my review: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/watching-one-bird-at-a-time/), where she sketched nestlings of 17 species at regular intervals.

            Ted suggested I post the photo to the ABA’s Facebook group, “What’s this bird?”

            Meanwhile, Greg was finally able to reply: mourning dove. They only have two young per nest, and they build stick nests.

            By this time, I had joined the Facebook group and was starting to get replies. It’s a little intimidating—there are 39,000 people in the group.  There were 13 replies and 37 other people “liked” some of those replies, essentially voting on their ID choice.

I was surprised to see a reply from someone I knew, my Seattle birding friend, Acacia. Except for the person who suggested pelicans (based on the enormous bills), the replies were split between mourning dove and rock pigeon. I was most confidant about the reply from the woman who had pigeons nest on her fire escape.

            On reflection, “pigeon” seemed to make more sense, and Greg agreed. Pigeons are known for adapting to cities because the buildings remind them of cliffs they nest on in their native range in Europe and Asia. It seems odd to think of them nesting in the wild, but there’s a flock around the cliffs on Table Mountain at the Woodhouse Public Access Area near Cheyenne. Mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves, on the other hand, are more likely to hide their nests in trees.

            But birds can sometimes adapt to what we humans present them with. Short of following the nestlings until they can be identified via adult plumage, or comparing them to photos of nestlings that were then followed to adulthood, we can’t say for sure which species they were.

            Out there in the open, did these two make it to maturity? I wonder how easy it would be for hawks to pick off both the parents and young.

            Here in Cheyenne at the end of August, I’ve noticed the field by my house has gotten very quiet at ground level—virtually no squeaking ground squirrels anymore. However, many mornings I’m hearing the keening of the two young Swainson’s hawks probably responsible for thinning that rodent population. The youngsters and parents sit on the power poles and watch as my friend Mary and I walk our dogs past.

            The two kids have even been over to visit at Mark’s and my house. One evening while out in the backyard I happened to look up and see the two sitting on opposite ends of the old TV antenna that still sways atop its two-story tower. That gives new meaning to the term “hawk watching.” They leave white calling card splats on the patio so I know when I’ve missed one of their visits.

Two young Swainson’s hawks find balance on TV antenna tower. Note two house finches also on the antenna. They were very vocal about the large intruders. Photo by Mark Gorges.
Young Swainson’s hawk finds a perch on 50-year-old TV antenna in the Gorges backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Another day, as I did backyard chores accompanied by the dog, one of them sat in one of our big green ash trees, sounding like it was crying its heart out—maybe it was filled with teenage angst, knowing how soon it needed to grow up and fly to the ancestral winter homeland in the Argentinian grasslands.

Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer

Greater Sage Grouse males fighting for dominance on a lek in Sublette County, Wyoming, covered with snow. These birds are always trying for a better spot on the lek in hopes that they are able to breed with the females. Photo by Elizabeth Boehm. Courtesy National Audubon Society.

Published Aug. 11, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as “Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer”

By Barb Gorges

            Last month, a familiar name appeared on my screen, “Elizabeth Boehm.”

            I was reading an email from the National Audubon Society listing the winners of the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards.

            I have never met Elizabeth in person. But she was one of the people who replied when I put out a request on the Wyobirds e-list for photos of the few bird species we didn’t have for photographer Pete Arnold’s and my book published last year, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” She generously shared six images.

            With my similar request on Wyobirds back in 2008 for “Birds by the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Pete supplied most of the 104 photos (the others were stock), and he contributed 93 for the book. Here’s the small world connection: Pete is Elizabeth’s neighbor whenever he and his wife visit his wife’s childhood home in Pinedale.

            Now here is the big world connection: Elizabeth won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards in the professional category. To qualify as a professional, you must make a certain amount of money from photography the previous year.

            A week later, Audubon magazine arrived and there, printed over a two-page spread, like the grand prize winner, was Elizabeth’s winning photo: two male sage-grouse fighting on an entirely white background of snow.

            I decided it was time to get to know Elizabeth better and interviewed her by phone about her prize-winning photography. Elizabeth won the Wyoming Wildlife magazine grand prize a couple years ago and one year she was in the top 10 for the North American Nature Photography Association. Her photos have been published in Audubon magazine. “I was totally surprised,” she said of her latest win.

            More than 8,000 images were submitted by 2,253 U.S. and Canadian photographers. Categories included professional, amateur, youth (13-17 years old), Plants for Birds (bird and a plant native to the area photographed together) and the Fisher Prize (for originality and technical expertise).

            Elizabeth started shooting landscapes and wildflowers 25 years ago, then started selling images 10 years later, adding wildlife to her subjects. Now she works her day job only two days a week.

            Of her winning image she said, “I usually go out in the spring. I know the local leks. I like snow to clean up the background. The hard part of photographing fights is they are spontaneous. It’s kind of a fast, quick thing.”

The males fight in the pre-dawn light for the right to be the one that mates with all the willing females. “I set up the night before or in the middle of the night. It’s better waiting and being patient,” she said.

Elizabeth visits leks one or two times a week March through April. This past spring was too wet for driving the back roads. Even the grouse weren’t on the leks until late. They don’t like snow because there is nowhere to hide from the eagles that prey on them.

            This winning photo is from three or four years ago. Elizabeth came across it while searching her files for another project and realized it could be special with a little work.

Audubon allows nothing other than cropping and a few kinds of lighting and color adjustments. At one point, Audubon requested Elizabeth’s untouched RAW image. See the 2019 rules, and 2019’s winning photos, at https://www.audubon.org/photoawards-entry. Her camera is a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon 500 mm EF f/4L IS USM lens. The photo was taken at 1/1500 second at f/5.6, ISO 800.

            In September, National Audubon will finalize the schedule for the traveling exhibit of APA winners.

            Elizabeth sells prints at the Art of the Winds, a 10-artist gallery on Pinedale’s Main Street. You can also purchase images directly from her at http://elizabethboehm.com. She offers guided local birding tours and is also the organizer for the local Christmas Bird Count.

Photographers are a dime a dozen in the Yellowstone – Grand Teton neighborhood where Elizabeth shoots. She works hard to have her work stand out. She also donates her work to conservation causes like Pete’s and my book which is meant to get more people excited about local birds and birdwatching.

            Look on the copyright page of “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” for the list of Elizabeth’s contributions. You can find the book online through the University of Wyoming bookstore, the Wyoming Game and Fish store and Amazon, etc.

In Cheyenne it’s at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Riverbend Nursery, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Pink Boutique, Barnes and Noble, PBR Printing and out at Curt Gowdy State Park.

Aug. 10 “Cheyenne Birds” book signing at B & N

Pete Arnold and I will be doing a book signing Aug. 10 at the Barnes & Noble store in Cheyenne, 1851 Dell Range Blvd. The signing will be 1 – 5 p.m.

At 1:30 p.m. I’ll do a talk, “What Birds Want from Your Backyard” followed by Pete talking about wildlife photography.

You are welcome to bring a book you have already purchased or buy one at the store.

While we’ve had several book signings around town at the different shops that carry our book, this is the first one at a book store. And it’s Barnes & Noble. Back in 1979, before B & N opened stores everywhere, I visited the flagship store in New York City. It was overwhelming. Multiple floors crammed with books on every subject. I wanted to read them all. And now “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” has joined the catalog!

Barb

P.S. Books are also available in Cheyenne at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Riverbend Nursery, Cheyenne Pet Clinic and PBR Printing. And also at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center and the University of Wyoming bookstore in Laramie. And online at the UW bookstore, Game and Fish, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.