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.
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BirdCast

BirdCast improves birding—and bird safety

By Barb Gorges

            Last year, the folks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology improved and enhanced BirdCast, http://birdcast.info/. You can now get a three-night forecast of bird migration movement for the continental U.S. This not only helps avid birders figure out where to see lots of birds but helps operators of wind turbines know when to shut down and managers of tall buildings and structures when to shut the lights off (birds are attracted to lights and collide), resulting in the fewest bird deaths.

            The forecasts are built on 23 years of data that relates weather trends and other factors to migration timing.

            Songbird migration is predominately at night. Ornithologists discovered that radar, used to detect aircraft during World War II and then adapted for tracking weather events in the 1950s, was also detecting clouds of migrating birds.

            There is a network of 143 radar stations across the country, including the one by the Cheyenne airport. You can explore the data archive online and download maps for free.

            CLO’s Adriaan Doktor sent me an animation of the data collected from the Cheyenne station for May 7, 2018, one of last spring’s largest local waves of migration. He is one of the authors of a paper, “Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna,” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4, based on radar information.

            At the BirdCast website, you can pull up the animation for the night of May 6-7 and see where the migrating birds were thickest across the country. The brightest white clouds indicate a density of as many as 50,000 birds per kilometer per hour—that’s a rate of 80,500 birds passing over a mile-long line per hour. Our flight was not that bright, maybe 16,000 birds crossing a mile-long line per hour. A strong flight often translates into a lot of birds coming to earth in the morning—very good birdwatching conditions. Although if flying conditions are excellent, some birds fly on.

            I also looked at the night of May 18-19, 2018, the night before last year’s Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count—hardly any activity. The weather was so nasty that Saturday, our bird compiler rescheduled for Sunday, which was not a big improvement. We saw only 113 species.

            Twenty-five years ago, the third Saturday of May could yield 130 to 150 species. Part of the difference is the greater number of expert Audubon birders who helped count back then. Birding expertise seems to go in generational waves.

            But we also know that songbird numbers are down. I read in Scott Weidensaul’s book, “Living on the Wind,” published in 1999, about Sidney Gauthreaux’s 1989 talk at a symposium on neotropical migrants. He used radar records to show that the frequency of spring migrant waves across the Gulf of Mexico was down by 50 percent over 30 years. Radar can’t count individual birds or identify species, but we know destruction or degradation of breeding and wintering habitat has continued as people develop rural areas.

            But I also wonder if, along with plants blooming earlier due to climate change, the peak of spring migration is earlier. A paper by scientists from the University of Helsinki, due to be published in June in the journal Ecological Indicators, shows that 195 species of birds in Europe and Canada are migrating on average a week earlier than 50 years ago, due to climate change.

            Would we have been better off holding last year’s Big Day on either of the previous two Saturdays? I looked at the radar animations for the preceding nights in 2018, and yes, there was a lot more migration activity in our area than on the night before the 19th. Both dates also had better weather.

           As much fun as our Big Day is—a large group of birders of all skill levels combing the Cheyenne area for birds from dawn to dusk (and even in the dark)—and as much effort as is put into it, there has never been a guarantee the Saturday we pick will be the height of spring migration.

           The good news is that in addition to our Big Day, we have half a dozen diehard local birders out nearly every day from the end of April to the end of May adding spring migration information to the eBird.org database. It’s a kind of addiction, rather like fishing, wondering what you’ll see if you cast your eyes up into the trees and out across the prairie.   I recommend that you explore BirdCast.info (and eBird.org) and sign up to join Cheyenne Audubon members for all or part of this year’s Big Day on May 18. See the chapter’s website and/or sign up for the free e-newsletter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/newsletters/.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results for 2003

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warblers are considered an abundant species in Cheyenne during spring, summer and fall, near water. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 29, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Low numbers, a few surprises at Big Day count.”

2014 Update: Check the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website for information on past and upcoming Big Day Bird Counts: http://home.lonetree.com/audubon.

To see Big Day Bird Count results for several years, click HERE.

At 130, the total number of bird species counted on Cheyenne’s Big Day on May 17 was lower than most years, but included a few special birds.

Thirteen species of warblers were counted, down from 17 the last two years. However, three of the warbler species had not been seen before on any of the Big Days in the last 10 years. The first, the black-throated gray warbler, seen at Lions Park, is a western species, but commonly found in Wyoming only in the western half of the state. The worm-eating warbler seen along Crow Creek usually breeds in southeastern U.S., east of the Missouri. The third, also an easterner, the golden-winged warbler, was found in the arboretum at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station.

Other unusual birds this year were a great egret and great-tailed grackle south of the Hereford Ranch, and at Lions Park, a broad-winged hawk and a northern parula, another warbler species rare for this area.

The weather was predicted to be first windy and then stormy, but instead it was relatively calm with a high of 79 degrees. Thirty birders started out at Lions Park, including 10 from Casper. Later in the morning half a dozen Laramie birders added to the count.

Wild(life) night life

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-Herons fish at dawn and dusk at the edges of ponds and creeks, including those in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 17, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nighttime right time for fauna to frolic.”

2014 Update: Add Great Horned Owls to the list of neighborhood wildlife out after dark.

By Barb Gorges

There’s wild nightlife in Cheyenne in the spring.

The other night, on the way home from quilt club, I had to brake for a fox at Converse at Dell Range. You don’t suppose we could get him to use the pedestrian bridge, do you?

Another night, after a Cheyenne Little Theatre production, we were driving a friend home along Windmill when I noticed an upright animal shape in the borrow pit.

The object was still there on the way back. Since there was no traffic my son and I stopped to look. An eye glinted in the street light and glared back at us. We were interrupting a fisherman: a black-crowned night-heron.

Reminiscent of its cousin, the great blue heron, but with short neck and short legs, this 2-foot-tall bird was stalking the edge of a puddle, looking for unwary frogs to stab with its long, strong, black bill.

It’s predictable that the open space east of the airport has become a red-light district–brake lights, I mean. Maybe that’s why that section of Windmill was festooned with street lights recently; so we won’t run over the low life—low profile, that is—such as foxes, birds, mice and frogs.

Even in my respectable neighborhood it’s common to see a couple of cottontails loitering on the lawn by the light of the moon.

Later, in the greyness before sunrise, they move from damp lawns to the warmth and dryness of the asphalt streets where they become nearly invisible–until the dog and I spook them.

If it weren’t for rabbits, walking wouldn’t give me the upper-body workout I get from hanging onto the leash of my 100-pound dog as he lunges after his instinctual prey.

There’s a lot going on during daylight hours too. Here are some reports I received the first ten days of May:

–Velma Simkins, in Pine Bluffs, has been getting unusual doves, possibly domestic escapees or maybe Eurasian collared doves, which are spreading rapidly since being accidently released in Florida.

–Wayne Neemann reported a rose-breasted grosbeak in his north-side yard. This grosbeak is an eastern bird normally, but some stray out here during migration.

–Beth Easton wanted to know how to keep a robin from building a nest on top of her wall-mounted porch light. I suggested temporarily hanging chickenwire around the light.

–Belinda and Don Moench were at Twin Buttes Lake on the Laramie Plains when they identified common loons. The little island in the middle of the lake has a colony of nesting great blue herons. Down at Holliday Park, Belinda saw an eared grebe.

–Eileen Poelma had Canada geese in her yard south of Carpenter.

–Caroline Eggleston described sparrows with rusty brown caps in her yard in Orchard Valley, probably chipping sparrows.

–Betty Wagner has pine siskins and American goldfinches eating her out of house and home in Sun Valley. Her four feeders have a total of 24 ports and often each will have a bird.

–Fred Lebsack visited Lions Park May 8 and reported a Tennessee warbler (another stray), a wood duck and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

–Joanne Mason of Wheatland, one of the students in “Bird Watching for Fun” class Jane Dorn and I taught this spring at Laramie County Community College, came to class with the longest list of any of the students of birds she’d seen. The planting she did about 12 years ago are beginning to really bring in the birds, including a Bullock’s oriole, lesser goldfinch, vesper sparrow and clay-colored sparrow.

Things are still slow in my yard. Perhaps too much of our green ash trees got pruned last fall, or maybe there’s a hawk roosting on the TV antennae tower, where we can’t see it from the window.

I did see a yellow-rumped warbler of the “Myrtle” race (white-throat instead of yellow) on May 9, and the next day two red-breasted nuthatches came in. The nuthatches may be the two that spent several winter months debugging our trees.

I’m looking forward to the Big Count on Saturday (see Calendar…). It’s a chance to renew acquaintances with spring migrants–and with bird watching friends who come down every year from Casper for the event.

Every year we find some stray warbler, shorebird or gnatcatcher I’ve never seen before. It’s as if, for us homebodies, migrating birds bring us a bit of more exotic lands for a few days.