Alaska bird behavior intrigues

Gulls form a white edge on the beach at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, in early October on a rare sunny day. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Nov. 10, 2019, “Alaskan bird behavior intrigues birdwatchers.”

By Barb Gorges

            Our family lost its guide to Alaska in October. My husband Mark’s brother Peter, a Catholic priest in southeast Alaska for 51 years, died at age 84.

            Peter was an inveterate explorer, from his days growing up in the Bronx a block from 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park—larger than Central Park—to voluntarily relocating to Alaska. His extensive foreign travels with parishioners took him many places the last 20 years.

            Whenever we visited, Peter was our tour guide: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haynes, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer (search “Alaska” at https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com). Like his father and three brothers, he was a fisherman and camped and hiked. But he also was interested in botany and Native cultures. He didn’t just reside in Alaska. He knew the state’s history, political and natural.

            Peter became more interested in birds after he retired. It’s hard to ignore them in southeast Alaska. For instance, Sitka Sound, opening onto the Pacific, has an abundance of gulls, ravens and bald eagles that mingle with Sitka townsfolk and summer cruise ship visitors.

            Spend time among ravens that walk within ten feet of you unafraid and you will never mistake a crow for a raven again: enormous bills, bushy cowls of neck feathers, bouncy landings, deep croaking voices. And you know they are staring at you, calculating if you might share food.

            One raven I met after the memorial mass for Peter accompanied me to the Sitka National Historical Park parking lot. It chose a dark blue car and fussed at its door, all the while looking over at me hoping I had a key to food inside.

            I’ve been reading John Marzluff and Tony Angell’s book, “Gifts of the Crow.” Marzluff’s study on the University of Washington campus revealed that crows remembered the faces of researchers that captured and banded them and mobbed them whenever they saw the researchers again. Luckily, the researchers wore masks. The original crows taught subsequent generations to recognize the masks.

            Crows have many human-like behaviors because their brains operate in ways very similar to ours. The book is full of technical explanations. Crows especially, and the other corvids to some degree, jays, ravens and magpies, have developed a relationship with people. The local indigenous people, the Tlingit, divide their clans into two groups, Raven and Eagle/Wolf (there’s a north-south divide for the second group).

            Because ravens and crows do not have bills strong enough to break the skin of other animals, they are known to lead predators, including hunters, to prey and then feast on the leftovers.

            Perhaps the parking lot raven updated the tradition, finding park visitors have food. I think all the other cars in the lot were white National Park Service vehicles because the visitor center was closed. And you know that the agency forbids feeding wildlife in its parks, so that’s why the raven chose a blue car. And maybe it picks out people who aren’t wearing park service uniforms.

            Southeast Alaska is not particularly cold, but it is darker in winter than the lower 48, and much rainier, so everyone has enormous windows to maximize natural light. From Peter’s rooms at the rectory he had a panoramic view of Crescent Bay and its resident bald eagles.

The pilings by the breakwater on Crescent Bay are a favorite perch for Sitka, Alaska, bald eagles. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Sitka’s bald eagles are not as chummy as its ravens, but they have their favorite perches around town. One is a piling outside the marina breakwater. On our last day, Mark and I walked the waterfront out far enough to look back at the rocky structure and I caught a glimpse of something in the distance swimming towards it.

            Neither of us had binoculars, if you can believe it. Mark didn’t have his camera with the zoom lens either. I have better than 20/20 distance vision but still, all I could tell was some brown animal was swimming. But it wasn’t a consistent movement forward like the usual animal paddling. More like the jerkiness of the breaststroke.

            Then there was a flash of white. Hmm, maybe a bald eagle? Have you seen any of the online videos of bald eagles catching fish too heavy to fly to land and instead swimming, using their wings like oars on a rowboat?

            We waited and sure enough, the brown animal climbed onto the rocks and it became an eagle, white head and tail visible—but not what it beached. At least one raven flew over to inspect it. I wonder if Peter ever observed this behavior.

            I don’t think this will be our last trip to Alaska, now that two generations of our family reside nearby in Seattle. But we will have to find a new guide—or do more homework.

Raptors popular; new book celebrates them

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A bald eagle is eating lunch at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver in late January. The upside-down v’s on the power pole keep it from perching where its outstretched wings would complete an electrical circuit and electrocute it. Photo by Mark Gorges.

 

 

Raptors are popular birds; new book celebrates them

By Barb Gorges

Also published at Wyoming Network News and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Raptors were the stars of a late January field trip taken by the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society.

We visited the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on the outskirts of Denver, only 90 minutes from Cheyenne.

The man at the visitor center desk told us the bald eagles were at Lower Derby Lake. He was right.

Farther down the road we found a bald eagle on top of a utility pole calmly eating something furry for lunch, either one of the numerous prairie dogs or a rabbit. Several photographers snapped away. No one got out of their cars because we were still in the buffalo pasture where visitors, for their own safety, are not allowed out of their vehicles. But vehicles make good blinds and the eagle seemed unperturbed.

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Several chapter members get out for a better look at a hawk, before the Wildlife Drive enters the buffalo pasture where visitors must stay in their vehicles. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Winter is a good time to look for raptors. They show up well among naked tree branches and on fence posts, though we noticed mature bald eagles look headless if they are silhouetted against a white winter sky—or the snow-whitened peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Our checklist for the Arsenal included rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, and some unidentifiable hawks.

On the way home, we stopped in Fort Collins because a Harris’s hawk, rare for the area, was reported hanging around the Colorado Welcome Center at the East Prospect Road exit. The center volunteers told us all about it—and that we were several days late. But they knew where the local bald eagle nests were and were proud of the other hawks that could be seen right outside the window.

Raptors, generally defined as hawks, eagles, falcons and sometimes vultures, sometimes owls, are a popular category of bird. When our Audubon chapter sponsored the Buffalo Bill Center for the West’s Raptor Experience last spring, more than 100 people crowded into the biggest meeting room at the library to see live hawks, falcons and owls.

Maybe we are fascinated by raptors because their deadly talons and powerful beaks give us a little shiver of fear. Or maybe it’s because they are easy to see, circling the sky or perched out in the open. Even some place as unlikely as the I-25 corridor makes for good hawk-watching. I counted 11 on fence posts and utility poles in the 50 miles between Ft. Collins and Cheyenne on our way home from the field trip.

Since I was driving, I didn’t give the birds a long enough look to identify them. But I bet I know who could—Pete Dunne.

Dunne watches hawks at Cape May, New Jersey, during migration. After more than 40 years, most as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, he can identify raptor species when they are mere specks in the sky—the way motorists can identify law enforcement vehicles coming up from behind. It’s not just shape. It’s also the way they move.

2018-02BirdsofPreyDunne&Karlson            Dunne is co-author of “Hawks in Flight: A Guide to Identification of Migrant Raptors.” Last year he authored a new book with Kevin T. Karlson, “Birds of Prey, Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America.”

This is not your typical encyclopedia of bird species accounts. Rather, it is Dunne introducing you to his old friends, including anecdotes from their shared past.

You will still find out the wingspan of a bald eagle, 71-89 inches, and learn about the light and dark morphs (differences in appearance) of the rough-legged hawk.

But Dunne also gives you his personal assessment of a species. For instance, he takes exception to the official description of Cooper’s hawk (another of our local hawks) in the Birds of North America species accounts as being a bird of woodlands. After years of spending hunting seasons in the woods, he’s never seen one there.

Dunne is even apt to recite poetry, such as this from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle”:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

This is not a raptor identification guide, but since there are photos on nearly every page—an average of 10 per species showing birds in all kinds of behaviors, you can’t help but become more familiar with them—and more in awe.

At 300 pages, this is not a quick read, but it is perfect preparation for a trip to the Arsenal or for finding out more about the next kestrel you see.

Winter raptors

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Ferruginous Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Published Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter raptor marvels, mysteries show up in southeast Wyoming.”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I drove over to join the Laramie Audubon Society on their mid-November raptor field trip on the Laramie Plains.

It was a beautiful day that makes you forget all the previous white-knuckle drives over the pass. However, what’s good weather for driving isn’t always good for finding raptors.

Trip leader Tim Banks checked his intended route the day before and found nary a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle. So instead, we drove across the Laramie Plains on a route his chapter frequently takes for general birding.

The reason for our first stop was a mystery, but then the broken branch stub of a lone cottonwood across the road became a great horned owl. However, a rough-legged hawk and a northern harrier were too distant to enjoy.

Finally, at Hutton Lake, out of the birdless sky, the wind picked up and kicked out a golden eagle, two bald eagles, and a ferruginous hawk.

Three weeks before, on a Cheyenne Audubon field trip at Curt Gowdy, we saw two bald eagles in the canyon. Another day at the park, Mark spotted three checking out his stringer of fish.

Bald eagles are marvelous looking, but I also marvel at their history, from endangered species to birds seen three times in three weeks.

Bald eagles were first federally protected in 1940. Later they were classified as endangered. Banning the pesticide DDT and educating people not to shoot them allowed their numbers to increase. In 1995 they were reclassified as merely threatened. They were completely delisted in 2007, though they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While bald eagles do breed in Wyoming, there are more here in the winter, migrating from farther north. Fish are their favorite food (carrion is second choice) so looking for them around reservoirs and Wyoming’s larger rivers is good strategy, especially if there are big cottonwoods for them to roost in.

We all recognize the adult bald eagle, dark brown with white head and white tail, but until they are about 4 or 5 years old, they are dark with splotchy white markings like those of young golden eagles.

Golden eagles never came quite as close to extinction as bald eagles, but they were targeted by stock growers. In 1971, one man confessed to killing many of the 700 found shot or poisoned near Casper.

Golden eagles live in Wyoming’s grasslands and shrublands year-round. They might choose to nest on cliffs. And they prefer eating rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the occasional new lamb if the rancher isn’t watching.

If you see a massive raptor flying in Wyoming in the winter, it is probably an eagle. Balds and goldens have wingspans about 80 inches long.

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Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

But if it is a smaller dark bird, wingspan only 50-plus inches, with a neater black and white pattern under the wing, it might be a rough-legged hawk.

Every winter they come down from their Arctic breeding grounds, sometimes right into Cheyenne, wherever there’s a power pole perch, open land, and mice, voles or shrews. It’s a break from eating lemmings all summer.

They were also shot at, but like all migratory birds, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

For me, the most fascinating raptor we saw on the Laramie Plains is less common: a ferruginous hawk. Its name refers to the color of rusted iron because its top side is a reddish brown. Its belly is a creamy white, slightly spotted, compared to the streaky rough-legged’s. Both have feathers all the way down their legs.

However, some sources say the ferruginous shouldn’t have been in Wyoming in November. They are almost all supposed to migrate south in October and return in March.

Some field guides show the Colorado and Wyoming border as the north boundary of their winter range. I think that winter range boundary at the state line may have more to do with the greater number of birders in Colorado in the past who could distinguish between ferruginous and rough-legged. But there are now a dozen Laramie Plains and Cheyenne-area eBird records for ferruginous from November through February within the past three years.

Guess I can no longer assume in winter any large dark hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk is a rough-legged. It might be a ferruginous.

Meanwhile, we can all brush up on our hawk identification skills at www.AllAboutBirds.org or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.

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/.

Bird of the Week: Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Chosen as our national emblem in 1782, this bird ungenerously prefers to steal from other predators or scavenge already dead animals rather than capture its own prey. It will eat just about any animal but prefers fish. In Wyoming in winter it is most likely to be found along the larger rivers and reservoirs with open water. By its fifth year it finally has its white (“bald” is an old word for white) head and tail.

Published Nov. 18, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Birding festivals

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles are popular focuses for bird festivals. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Feb. 6, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bald eagles attract commercial interest, festivals.”

2014 Update: There are even more festivals now. For a list, check the American Birding Association’s website, www.aba.org.

By Barb Gorges

This time of year, between mid-December and the end of February, interior-nesting (as opposed to coastal-nesting) bald eagles are attracted to large lakes and rivers with open water where they feed on fish and waterfowl, etc.

This time of year bird watchers are attracted to large lakes and rivers with open water where they feast their eyes on bald eagles. Purveyors of goods and services have learned how to feast on the bird watchers.

Business often has some natural resource at its root, though a hole in the ice doesn’t usually bring to mind profits.

However, a plethora of bird festivals have now come into being, capitalizing on the highlights of bird behavior. Bird Watcher’s Digest (www.birdwatchersdigest.com/festivals/festivals) lists 24 eagle festivals in January and February alone.

By March, festivals concentrate on welcoming migrating birds, or in the case of West Palm Beach, Fla., wishing them farewell. I’m a little alarmed at the thought of the Bethel (Alaska) Bunting Bash. I think organizers were intent on alliteration rather than whether potential visitors might envision attacks on flocks of rare McKay’s buntings.

Bald eagles make a good focus for a festival. They are large, easy to see, distinctive looking and they gather in particular places in the winter.
A good reason for celebration is the bald eagle’s tremendous comeback from the days when DDT poisoning was about to cause its extinction. It has moved from endangered species status to merely threatened and is presently proposed for delisting altogether.

Also, why not celebrate our national bird? Ben Franklin, who proposed the turkey instead, was never happy with the bald eagle as our national symbol. Countries  may have chosen eagles for their reputation for using formidable beaks and talons to defend nest and hunt vermin.

However, our founding fathers picked the wrong eagle. Ours is as fond of carrion as fresh meat. So maybe a national symbol willing to clean up the environment is not so bad, Ben.

Bald eagle festivals I looked up were sponsored by chambers of commerce, Audubon societies and other conservation groups, park departments, state conservation departments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps, with a reputation for flooding prime farmland and wildlife habitat, has with its dams, ironically and inadvertently provided many instances of open water coveted by the eagles.

What does one do at an eagle festival? You look at eagles. Take part in guided tours by land or boat, or look through spotting scopes set up by sponsors.

There are talks about eagles, maybe a parade, photo contest, art exhibit, poster contest, poetry contest, storytelling, souvenirs, book signings, music, theater, conservation displays, games, crafts, and Volksmarching.

At one festival there’s the quintessential Methodist pancake breakfast billed as “Breakfast with the Eagle” because a live eagle named Emi presides.

A well advertised bird festival can mean a lot to a small town like Concrete, Wash., on the banks of the Skagit River. Visitors infuse the town with money spent for food and lodging, etc.

But the real value is the new value local residents now place on eagles. I don’t care whether it’s because they have their own interests or the eagles’ at heart. Either way, eagles will be protected.

Here in Wyoming we don’t have an eagle festival, but we do have the long-running Lander Bird Festival in May. The second annual Platte Valley Festival of Birds slated for the end of May in Saratoga.

Though we have eagles spending the winter in the state, I don’t think they are in high enough concentrations yet to warrant the tourism industry making up full-color brochures.

Well, maybe there are other options: the Crow Counting Convention, Flicker Festival, Siskin Celebration, Blue Jay Jubilee, Flycatcher Fair, Gull Extravaganza, Pelican Party, Swan Symposium, Hummingbird Holiday, Swallow Soiree, Warbler Wingding, Gadwall Gala, Junco Jamboree, Falcon Fiesta, Goldfinch Gathering, House Finch Forum, Plover Powwow or Shoveler Shindig. But please, no Bluebird Bash.