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.

Birder tilts at windmills

Speaking on behalf of birds at Roundhouse windfarm industrial siting hearing was intense experience

The 120 turbines of the Roundhouse wind farm will spread between I-80 and the Colorado border (indicated here as the Larimer and Weld county lines) and from Highway 218 to I-25 (red line on the east side).
The wind farm includes the Belvoir Ranch owned by the City of Cheyenne (yellow), Wyoming State Land (dark blue–each square is 1 square mile) and private land (light blue). The Big Hole, located on the Belvoir south of the railroad tracks, is under The Nature Conservancy conservation easement and will have no turbines.

Published July 5, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as a guest editorial, “Participating at the Roundhouse hearing was an intense adventure”

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society agrees clean energy is needed. However, wind energy is deadly for birds when they are struck by turbine blades.

            Beginning last December, CHPAS discussed its concerns about the Roundhouse Wind Energy development with company, city and county officials. The 120-turbine wind farm will extend from Interstate 80 south to the Colorado state line and from I-25 west to Harriman Road.

            The Wyoming Industrial Siting Council hearing for the approval of the Roundhouse Wind Energy application was held June 13 in a quasi-legal format.
          Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society filed as a party, preparing a pre-hearing statement. The other parties were the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Division, Roundhouse, and Laramie County, also acting on behalf of the city of Cheyenne.
            We all presented our opening statements. Then the Roundhouse lawyer presented her expert witnesses, asking them leading questions. Then I, acting in the same capacity for CHPAS as the lawyer for Roundhouse, cross-examined her witnesses. One was a viewshed analysis expert from Los Angeles, the other a biologist from Western EcoSystems Technology, the Cheyenne consulting firm that does contract biological studies for wind energy companies across the country.
            Then CHPAS presented our expert witness, Daly Edmunds, Audubon Rockies’ policy and outreach director. Wind farm issues are a big part of her work. She is also a wildlife biologist with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming.
            We were rushed getting our testimony in before the 5 p.m. cutoff for the first day because I was not available the next day. I asked permission to allow Mark Gorges to read our closing statement the next day, after the applicant had a chance to rebut all the conditions we asked for.
            The seven council members chose not to debate our conditions. Some conditions were echoed by DEQ. But it was a hard sell since Wyoming Game and Fish Department had already signed off on the application.
            Here are the conditions we asked for:
1) Some of the recommended wildlife studies will be one and a half years away from completion when turbine-building starts in September. Complete the studies first to make better turbine placement decisions.
2) Do viewshed analysis from the south and share it with adjacent Colorado open space and natural area agencies.
3) Get a “take permit” to avoid expensive trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if dead eagles are found.
4) Use the Aircraft Detection Lighting System so tower lights, which can confuse night-migrating birds, will be turned on as little as possible. This was on DEQ’s list as well.
5) Use weather radar to predict the best times to shut down turbines during bird migration.
6) Be transparent about the plans for and results of avian monitoring after the turbines start.
7) Relocate six of the southernmost turbine locations because of their impact on wildlife and the integrity of adjacent areas set aside for their conservation value.
            The second half of the hearing dealt with county/city requests for economic impact funds from the state. The expected costs are from a couple hundred workers temporarily descending on Cheyenne requiring health and emergency services.
            At the June CHPAS board meeting, members approved staying involved in the Roundhouse issue. The Roundhouse folks have a little mitigation money we could direct toward a study to benefit birds at this and other wind farms. There is a Technical Advisory Committee we need to keep track of. And we need to lobby to give Game and Fish’s recommendations more legal standing so they can’t be ignored.
            It’s too bad I don’t watch courtroom dramas. The hearing would have been easier to navigate. But everyone—DEQ employees, the Roundhouse team, council members, hearing examiner, court reporter—was very supportive of CHPAS’s participation. They rarely see the public as a party at these hearings. I just wish we could have had one or more conditions accepted on behalf of the birds.

Barb Gorges is the most recent past president of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society which represents Audubon members in Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties.      

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society took a tour of the Belvoir Ranch fall 2008. This photo looks northwest from the rim of the Big Hole. Photo by Barb Gorges.
On the southernmost edge of the Belvoir Ranch sits the rim of the Big Hole. This is the view to the south, into Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space. Concentrated nocturnal songbird migration through this area can be seen with weather radar (see a previous post about BirdCast). It is not known if the 499-foot-tall Roundhouse wind turbines will be visible from below. Photo by Barb Gorges.

2019 Cheyenne Big Day

The Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count May 18 got started at 6:30 a.m. at Lions Park, a Wyoming Important Bird Area. Canada Goose goslings were out, but not many leaves on trees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 23, 2019, “Cheyenne Big Day birders count 112 bird species.”

By Barb Gorges

            No two Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts at the height of spring migration have the exact same weather, people or bird list which is why it is so exciting to see what happens.

            This year, on May 18, we had decent weather. Last year we rescheduled because of a snowstorm—almost to be expected in mid-May lately. However, by afternoon we had a couple showers of “graupel”—soft hail or snow pellets.

            One of our best local birders, Greg Johnson, stayed home sick. Instead, we were joined by two excellent birders from out of town. Zach Hutchinson is the Audubon Rockies community naturalist in Casper. Part of his job is running five bird banding stations. In handling so many birds, he’s learned obscure field marks on species we don’t see often. If you shoot a bird with a digital camera, you can examine the photo closely for them.

            The other visiting birder was E.J. Raynor. He came up from Ft. Collins, Colorado, because he was our designated chaperone for birding the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. The south side of the station is now designated as the High Plains Arboretum and open to the public, but the area behind the houses is not. Normally we put in for a permit and this year we got E.J. instead.

            He works for the Agricultural Research Service which operates the station. I thought he might be bored walking around with us, but his recent PhD is in ornithology so I convinced him he should join us for as much of the day as possible, especially for the Wyoming Hereford Ranch part. People from all over the world visit it—including a Massachusetts tour guide and his 14 British birders a week before.

The historic Wyoming Hereford Ranch, also a Wyoming Important Bird Area, is always a good place to bird. It is private property, but birdwatchers are welcome on the roads. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            WHR put on a good show and E.J. and Zach were able to identify a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, an eastern bird, which is nearly identical to a female black-headed grosbeak, a western bird.

            We didn’t get out to the station until early afternoon and then got graupeled and didn’t find a lot of birds so I’m glad E.J. came early.

            Counting as a group started at 6:30 a.m. at Lions Park. Surprisingly, we had people up at that hour who are new to birding. We hope they will join us again. I never get tired of seeing beginners get excited about birds.

            By dusk, after Mark and I checked some of our favorite birding spots, the total bird list for the day looked like it might be about 90 species. But the next day we held a tally party at a local restaurant and the contributions of all 25 participants, including those who birded on their own, brought the total up to 112. Dennis Saville, birded Little America, Chuck Seniawski birded F.E. Warren Air Force Base and Grant Frost covered some of the outer areas.

            Now that most birders in Cheyenne use the global database eBird.org every day to document their sightings, the picture of spring migration is even more interesting than the single Big Day held each of the last 60 years. Migration ebbs and flows. Maybe we need to declare a Big Month and go birding every day in May.

2019 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 112 Species

Canada Goose

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Gadwall

Mallard

Northern Pintail

Redhead

Lesser Scaup

Common Goldeneye

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Wilson’s Phalarope

Spotted Sandpiper

Ring-billed Gull

Caspian Tern

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Northern Harrier

Cooper’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Great Horned Owl

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Mountain Bluebird

Swainson’s Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

European Starling

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

Chestnut-collared Longspur

McCown’s Longspur

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Worm-eating Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

MacGillivray’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Magnolia Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lazuli Bunting

House Sparrow

By evening of the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count it was cloudy and chilly and we found few new bird species, even here on the road between the Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Lummis Ranch. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Habitat Hero workshop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a great success

The Habitat Hero logoHabitat Heroes — Bee Bird Friendly,
Learn to Garden for Bees, Birds and Butterflies workshop March 17, 2018, was a great success.

To learn more about the Habitat Hero program sponsored by Audubon Rockies, geared for those of us gardening in Wyoming and Colorado, see http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society also has information at its website, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/habitat-hero/.

Plans are in the works for the 5th Annual Cheyenne Habitat Hero workshop spring 2019.

 

Bird-finding improves

2017-08BirdingwoBorders-Strycker

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

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

By Barb Gorges 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017-08WyoBirdTrailApp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eagles and wind energy

2016-8Golden Eagle courtesy Audubon Rockies

Golden Eagle. Courtesy Audubon Rockies.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pondering how much eagles can take”

 

By Barb Gorges

Just when we thought eagles were safe (bald eagles were taken off the threatened and endangered species list in 2007) we discover that golden eagle numbers are still down.  And there are plans to build a massive wind farm in Wyoming which will take the lives of both bald and golden eagles.

I should have written a column about this earlier so you could send your comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but I was sidetracked by spring migration.

However, staff at Audubon Rockies, and their counterparts at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society, have written extensive comments backed by science and experience.

The Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) is developing the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry/Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project. It is located on 500 square miles in Carbon County, southcentral Wyoming, where there is some of the best wind in the country. It will be the largest onshore wind farm in the U.S.

PCW is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service on improving siting for turbines and has reduced the projected take to 10-14 golden eagles and 1-2 bald eagles per year. The definition of “take” is death incidental to industry activities.

The projected take numbers also account for the eagles that will live because PCW will retrofit 1,500-3,000 power poles per year for eagle safety. Eagles’ large wingspans can cause their electrocution when they perch on poles and they touch two electrical hotspots at the same time and cause a completed circuit.

PCW is applying for an eagle take permit for the first half of the development. It is voluntary, but good insurance. PCW saw a competitor without a permit get hit with a $1 million fine for killing eagles.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of updating the eagle take rule. It will probably apply to the second half of PCW’s development, the other 500 turbines.

The update would give wind power companies across the country 30-year permits, to cover the expected lifespan of a windfarm, rather than the current five years. However, Fish and Wildlife proposes a review every five years.

Audubon Rockies concedes that PCW needs some assurance that they can operate for a longer length of time that will make the investment worthwhile—they can’t get investors if there is a possibility eagle deaths will shut down part of the development after the first five years.

However, there are concerns. In the proposed rule update, any monitoring done by the company would be considered proprietary and not be required to be available to public scrutiny. Audubon feels more transparency is needed on what is happening with our eagles.

And there needs to be more flexibility to manage the windfarm/eagle interactions as more eagle research is done. We don’t know yet how eagles will deal with the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre development. It’s not just the spinning windmill blades, the tips of which can travel 150 mph. Eagles also collide with the transmission lines and towers.

Because it takes eagles five years to reach sexual maturity, we know their populations can’t quickly bounce back like rabbits.

The site of PCW’s Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project is gorgeous. The thought of developing it is heartbreaking. But the company has done a lot of work and spent a lot of money studying the wildlife problems. They deserve clear answers from the federal government on what they can and can’t do.

Eagles are just one of the items addressed in the draft environmental impact statement for the wind farm. Other wildlife, including bats and songbirds, are affected too.

By the end of the year, we will find out how Fish and Wildlife will react to public comments not only on Chokecherry/Sierra Madre, but also the proposed update of the eagle take rule.

Does clean energy have to come down to this? Do we have to fill Wyoming’s open spaces (they are not empty spaces) with industrial clutter? Why didn’t the coal companies spend millions on cleaner power plant emissions research instead of on litigation at every turn?

Why does alternative energy, specifically wind and solar, have to follow the old centralized, mega-production model? I still think disbursed [“distributed” is the frequently used term] power production would be better, safer—less of a target for troublemakers.

In comparison, look at how Mother Nature spreads oxygen-producing plants everywhere. Even where natural or man-made catastrophes have stripped the vegetation, it doesn’t take long for another little oxygen-producing factory to take hold.

Plus, wouldn’t you like to park in the shade of a solar panel while shopping at the mall? Adding solar panels to our rooftops and choosing energy efficient appliances will not only cut our personal utility bills, but in a way, save eagles in the future.

Note:

See http://powercompanyofwyoming.com/ for more information about this wind energy project.

Here are the Bureau of Land Management documents: http://www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/info/NEPA/documents/rfo/Chokecherry.html. The project is located in the “checkerboard” area, where  1-mile square areas of public land managed by BLM alternate with those owned privately.

Check the Audubon Rockies website for updates: http://rockies.audubon.org/.

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.

Local park receives IBA status

Sloans Lake

Sloans Lake is part of what attracts migrating birds to Lions Park, a Wyoming Important Bird Area located in Cheyenne. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published October 31, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local park receives IBA designation.”

2014 Update: The Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society members continue to monitor both the Lions Park and Wyoming Hereford Ranch IBAs. Alison Lyon Holloran is now executive director of Audubon Rockies (Colorado and Wyoming). Check this link for more about Wyoming Important Bird Areas: http://rockies.audubon.org/wyoming-ibas.

By Barb Gorges

Lions Park is finally an official state Important Bird Area. Those of us who start our annual spring bird count there thought it deserved recognition as soon as we heard the definition of an IBA.

However, it was not easy to convince the technical review committee.

The idea of identifying places important to birds, publicly or privately owned, was started in Europe in the mid-1980s by Birdlife International. The National Audubon Society translated it for the U.S. in 1995.

Audubon Wyoming began soliciting for nominations a few years later and hired an IBA director, Alison Lyon, in 2001 with help from Partners in Flight and other grantors.

Alison, who earned her Master’s at the University of Wyoming studying sage grouse, is developing a program that can directly improve the welfare of birds in Wyoming.

When Alison asked Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members if we had a site to nominate, we immediately thought of Lions Park.

Art Anderson, chapter president and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, took charge of the nomination, setting up a meeting in the spring of 2001 with Dave Romero, head of the park and recreation department, now retired.

Dave and his staff were very enthusiastic about the nomination and provided maps. IBA designations can be touted in civic and tourism advertising and funding may be available for conservation improvements. There is no regulatory component.

An IBA must meet at least one of four criteria and Lions Park meets numbers one, two and four.

The first criterion includes importance for a species of concern in Wyoming, which in this case would be the western grebe that nests at the lake.

The second criterion, a site important to species of high conservation priority, is met by several of the species on that list that have been seen at the park.

The fourth is the park’s strongest suit: a site where significant numbers of birds concentrate for breeding, during migration or in the winter.

 

Lions Park

Lions Park’s cottonwoods and willows also attract migrating birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Lions Park has a reputation during spring migration for diversity and numbers of birds. I once recorded 60 species in two hours. Migration was also Gloria Lawrence’s arguing point in getting the nomination accepted.

Gloria and her husband Jim drive down from Casper every spring to join our chapter in birding the park. She is one of the seven members of the Wyoming IBA technical review group made up of a cross-section of our state’s ornithological experts.

The members are Stan Anderson, University of Wyoming, Laramie; Tim Byer, Thunder Basin National Grasslands, Douglas; Andrea Cerovski, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Lander; John Dahlke, consultant and raptor expert, Pinedale; the Lawrences, Murie Audubon Society, Casper; and Terry McEneaney, Yellowstone National Park.

The nomination originally included all Cheyenne’s city parks and the Greenway. However, some technical review group members argued that a city park’s intense human use couldn’t possibly be compatible with bird use. Maybe, they suggested, Lions Park is more important to bird watchers than to birds.

In reality, the parks are microcosms of the city. Cheyenne is an oasis for migrating birds that funnel along the Front Range.

While Lions Park has gotten a close inspection every year for one day mid-May, turning up all sorts of warblers thought to be unusual for this area, undoubtedly these same warblers can be found in any neighborhood with large trees and many bushes. That was true this spring when a chestnut-sided warbler visited my backyard and a magnolia warbler visited the neighbors’.

Lions Park does have one characteristic that our backyards don’t have—a lake. So in addition to neotropical migrants like warblers, it gets a variety of shorebirds and waterbirds.

Funding from Partners in Flight, passed through Audubon Wyoming, has become available to our local Audubon chapter for monitoring work.

Many of the previous records are from Christmas Bird Counts and spring Big Day Counts which lump observations from around the city.

Now the chapter needs to plan for making more detailed surveys, training volunteers in survey protocol and compiling databases useful to science. Then we can figure out what conservation projects might be of benefit to both birds and the park.

While Lions Park will never achieve global IBA status like Yellowstone National Park may, the information we collect at least gives us more understanding about where we live.

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens

Lions Park is also home to the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Photo by Barb Gorges.