Flock of bird book reviews

Flock of bird books arrives this spring: Peterson, Heinrich, Kroodsma, Gilbert and Tallamy

Published April 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flock of bird books arrives this spring.”

By Barb Gorges

            Spring is when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt likes to send out bird books to review—completely forgetting that as spring migration gets going, birders have less time to read. Maybe we’ll have more time to read this year. Luckily, birding in Wyoming, without Audubon field trips, is a solitary experience perfect for ensuring huge social distances.

            I’ve suggested that we all get social sharing our bird sightings on the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society group Facebook page and through the Wyobirds Google Group. By posting sightings on eBird.org, everyone can “Explore” each other’s Laramie County bird sightings.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Roger Tory Peterson (and contributions from others), 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 505 pages, $29.99.

This latest edition of the classic field guides follows the 2008 edition, the first to combine Peterson’s eastern and western guides in one book. And now the birds of Hawaii have been added.

            Peterson died in 1996 so additional paintings, range map editing, etc. are the work of stellar artists and ornithologists. Bird names are updated, now showing the four species of scrub-jays, except that I heard last month it was decided to drop the “scrub” from their names.

            But, to be a birder, one must regularly invest in the most up-to-date field guide.

White Feathers, The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows, Bernd Heinrich, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pages, $27.

            If anyone can make eight springs of excruciatingly detailed observations interesting, Bernd Heinrich can. He wanted to know what purpose is served by tree swallows adding white feathers to their nests.

            Every spring, hour after hour, he observed the comings and goings of pairs using his nest box and noted when they brought in white feathers to line (insulate?) and cover (hiding eggs from predators?) the nest inside the box.

            Or, the white feathers might only advertise that a nesting cavity is taken. 

Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Your Guide to Listening, Donald Kroodsma, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 198 pages, $27.

            Here’s where you can find out what a tree swallow sounds like when it starts singing an hour before sunrise.

            In fact, you can skip this book and learn a lot by going to the associated free website, www.BirdsongForTheCurious.com. There are multiple songs each of most songbird species, as well as ideas for collecting your own data.

            The book has chapters explaining topics such as: “Why and How Birds Sing,” How a Bird Gets Its Song” and “How Songs Change over Space and Time.”

Unflappable, Suzie Gilbert, 2020, https://www.suziegilbert.com/.

            I read the first chapter for free online and I think it will be a very entertaining novel. Here’s the synopsis: “Wildlife rehabber Luna and Bald Eagle Mars are on a 2,300-mile road trip with her soon-to-be-ex-husband and authorities hot on their heels. What could possibly go wrong?”

Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy, 2019, Timber Press, 255 pages, $29.95.      

            Tallamy first wrote “Bringing Nature Home” in 2007 where, as a professor who studies insects and ecology, he explains that it is important for all of us to plant native plants to benefit native wildlife.

            Thirteen years later, Tallamy can cite a lot more research making his point: native plants support native insects which support other native wildlife (and support us). For instance, almost all songbird species, even if they are seed eaters the rest of the year, need to feed their young prodigious amounts of caterpillars plus other insects.

            These caterpillars of native butterflies and moths can’t eat just any old plant. They must chew on the leaves of the plants they evolved with—other leaves are inedible. Good news: rarely does the associated plant allow itself to be decimated.

            Native bees, except for some generalists, also have a nearly one on one relationship with the native nectar and pollen-producing plants they’ve evolved with. You may see bees working flowers of introduced plants, but chances are they are the introduced European honeybees.

            What’s a concerned backyard naturalist to do? Become part of Tallamy’s army of gardeners converting yards and wasted spaces of America into Homegrown National Park, http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/. A link there will take you to the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder which lists our local natives based on our zipcodes.

            It’s not necessary to vanquish every introduced plant, but we must add more natives. The best way is by replacing turf. Here in Cheyenne, the Board of Public Utilities is encouraging us to save water by replacing water-thirsty bluegrass with water-smart plantings. Plants native to our arid region (12-15 inches of precipitation annually) fit the bill perfectly—and they aid our native pollinators at the same time.

            In next Sunday’s Cheyenne Garden Gossip column, I will discuss exactly how to do that here.

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.

Nestling ID crowd sourced

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird families

This somewhat shy Great Horned Owl family was a highlight in June at the Bioblitz held this year at Bear River State Park outside Evanston, Wyoming. The Bioblitz is sponsored by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy and other agencies and organizations. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Bird families expanding in summer

By Barb Gorges

            Early summer exploded with babies. In addition to our family adding the first baby of the new generation (do wild animals relate to their grand-offspring?), I noticed a lot of other baby activity.

            Driving past Holliday Park at twilight at the end of June I caught a glimpse of what looked like three loose dogs. They were a mother racoon and two young scampering across the lawn.

            Walking our dog around the field by our house I saw a ground squirrel mother herd a youngster out of the street and back to the safety of the grass. There’s also an explosion of baby rabbits in that field driving everyone’s dogs crazy.

            We have a pair of Swainson’s hawks nesting in our neighborhood and they are using the field as their grocery store. I’m not sure exactly where they are nesting, but I’m guessing it is one of the large spruce trees. Whenever I’m at the field, I catch a glimpse of at least one hunting. But I also glimpse them from my kitchen window soaring, meaning I can add them to my eBird.org yard list. The yard list is all the species I’ve seen from the window or while out in the yard. The Swainson’s have put me at 99 species so far—over about 12 years.

            When it warmed up, we spent more time in our backyard and I noticed other signs of family life. We always have a raucous community of tree squirrels, one generation indistinguishable from the next, chasing each other round and round in our big trees.

            This year I’ve been hearing a mountain chickadee sing. No, not the “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call—that’s their alarm call—but a sweet three-note song (listen at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/).

            I’m also learning the various phrases American goldfinches use while they spend the summer with us. We’ve left our nyger thistle seed feeder up for them (no, nyger thistle is not our noxious weed and it is treated not to sprout). They sometimes come as a group of four, including two males and two females, and sometimes a younger one.

            The downy woodpeckers have been visiting as well. They go for one of those blocks of seed “glued” together that you buy at the store. You would think they would go for bugs hiding in the furrowed bark of the tree trunks. Maybe they do, in addition to the seed block.

            The robins have been busy. I observed a youngster walking through my garden as it tried to imitate the foraging action of the nearby adult, but it finally resorted to begging to be fed.

            Within the space of a couple days I was contacted about two problem robins attempting to build nests on the tops of porch lights. Porch lights, because they usually provide a shelf-like surface under the safety of the roof overhang, are quite popular. But not everyone trying to use the adjacent door likes getting dive-bombed by the angry robin parents.

            In the first situation, Deb, our former neighbor, said the robin was trying to build a nest on a porch light with a pyramidal top. The bird could not make her nest stick and all the materials from all her attempts slid off and accumulated on the porch floor. Providing another ledge nearby might not have worked for such a determined bird. Instead, Deb opted for screening off the top of the light. Hopefully Mama Robin found a better location in Deb’s spruce trees.

            Our current neighbor, Dorothy, texted me the next day, wondering what she and her family were going to do about being attacked by the robin which had built a nest on her (flat-topped) front porch light. Maybe avoid walking out the front door and walk out through the garage instead, I said. I asked her if she had a selfie stick so she could take pictures of the inside of the nest to show her two young boys.

            Down at Lions Park a new colony of black-crowned night-herons has been established. Listen for them behind the conservatory. The colony at Holliday Park is still going strong.

            In the far corner of Curt Gowdy State Park, I caught a glimpse of a bird family I hadn’t seen together before. Way up on the nasty El Alto trail, I saw a brown songbird I couldn’t identify readily. And then the parent came to feed it, a western tanager. The youngster has a long way to go before attaining either the look of its mother, if female, or if male, the bright yellow body with black and white wings and the orange head like its father.      

Watch bird family dramas via window TV

2017-09 Lesser Goldfinch and young--Mark Gorges

A Lesser Goldfinch father prepares to feed his begging offspring Aug. 4, 2017, in our Cheyenne backyard. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Sept. 17, 2017, “Kitchen window like TV peering into lives of birds”

By Barb Gorges

The view out our 4-by 6-foot kitchen window is the equivalent of an 85-inch, high definition television screen.

The daytime programming over the summer has been exceptional this year. Not many murder mysteries, thank goodness, and instead, mostly family dramas.

The robins always seem to get on screen first. Walking flat-footed through our vegetables and flowers, the speckle-breasted young, unlike some human teenagers, kept looking towards the adults for instruction and moral support.

Young birds have this gawky look about them. They have balance issues when they land on the utility line. Or they make a hard landing on a branch. They look around, tilting their heads this way and that. Maybe they are learning to focus.

The first hummingbird of the season showed up July 10, nearly a week earlier than last year. Luckily, their favorite red flower, the Jacob Cline variety of monarda, or beebalm, was blooming two weeks ahead of schedule.

We immediately put the hummingbird feeder up (FYI: 4 parts water to 1 part white sugar—don’t substitute other sugars—boiled together, no red dye, please, maybe a red ribbon on the feeder). Within a few days we had a hummingbird showing up regularly at breakfast, lunch and dinner—which is when we watch our window TV.

Sometimes we saw three at a time, often two, though by Aug. 25 sightings dropped off. It is difficult to distinguish between rufous and broad-tailed females and juveniles that come. Kind of like trying to keep track of all the characters in a PBS historical drama.

My favorite series this summer was “Father Knows Best.” Beginning July 1, a lesser goldfinch male, and sometimes a second one, and females, started joining the American goldfinches at our thistle tube feeder.

The lesser goldfinch is the American goldfinch’s counterpart in the southwestern U.S. and they are being seen more regularly in southeast Wyoming. They are smaller. Like the American, they are bright yellow with a black cap and black wings, but they also have a black back, although some have greenish backs.

Every day the lesser males showed up, pulling thistle seed from the feeder for minutes at a time. Unlike other seed-eating songbirds which feed their young insects, goldfinches feed their young seeds they’ve chewed to a pulp. After a couple weeks, we began to wonder if one of them had a nest somewhere.

August 4, the lesser fledglings made their TV debut. The three pestered their dad at the same time. My husband, Mark, got a wonderful photo of the male feeding one of the young. However, within five days the show was over, the young having dispersed.

Year-round we have Eurasian collared-doves. I’ve noticed one has a droopy wing, the tip of which nearly drags on the ground. She and her mate are responsible for the only X-rated content shown on our backyard nature TV—that’s how I know the droopy-winged bird is female.

One morning outside I noticed a scattering of thin sticks on the grass and looked up. I saw the sketchy (as in a drawing of a few lines) nest on a branch of one of our green ash trees, with the dove sitting on it. Every time I went out, I would check and there she was, suspended over our heads, listening in on all our conversations, watching us mow and garden.

Then one day I heard a frantic banging around where Mark had stacked the hail guards for our garden. It was a young dove. It had blown out of the nest during the night’s rainstorm. The sketchy (as in unreliable) nest had failed.

The presence of the trapped squab, half the size of an adult, would explain the behavior of the mother nearby, who had been so agitated that she attracted our dog’s attention.

I put the dog in the house and went to extract the young bird. It didn’t move as I approached and scooped it up. There is something magical about holding a wild bird, even one belonging to a species that has invaded our neighborhoods, sometimes at the expense of the native mourning dove. So soft, so plump. I set it down inside the fenced-off flower garden. Later, I checked and it was gone.

Within a few days, Droopy-wing and her mate were involved in another X-rated performance. Then I noticed one of them fly by with a slender stick. Sure enough, two days later she was back on her rehabbed throne, incubating the next generation.

Yampa Valley Crane Festival origins

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Greater Sandhill Cranes. Photo courtesy of Abby Jensen, www.jensen-photography.com.

Published Oct. 9, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Cranes are a “gateway bird”

[Yampa Valley Crane Festival story begins with snow]

By Barb Gorges

I visited the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with my husband, Mark, in early September.

Steamboat is known for world-class skiing, but how does that relate to the festival centered around the greater sandhill crane?

It starts with a couple of skiers. Nancy Merrill, a native of Chicago, and her husband started skiing Steamboat in the late ’80s. They became fulltime residents by 2001.

Merrill was already “birdy,” as she describes it, by that point. She was even a member of the International Crane Foundation, an organization headquartered in Baraboo, Wisconsin, only three hours from Chicago.

She and her husband wanted to do something for birds in general when they moved to Colorado. They consulted with The Nature Conservancy to see if there was any property TNC would like them to buy and put into a conservation easement. As it turns out, there was a ranch next door to TNC’s own Carpenter Ranch property, on the Yampa River.

The previous owner left behind a list of birds seen on the property, but it wasn’t until she moved in that Merrill discovered the amount of crane activity, previously unknown, including cranes spending the night in that stretch of the river during migration stop overs—which we observed during the festival.

Cheyenne folks are more familiar with the other subspecies, the lesser sandhill crane, which funnels through central Nebraska in March. It winters in southwestern U.S. and Mexico and breeds in Alaska and Siberia. It averages 41 inches tall.

Greater sandhill cranes, by contrast, stand 46 inches tall, winter in southern New Mexico and breed in the Rockies, including Colorado, and on up through western Wyoming to British Columbia. Many come through the Yampa Valley in the fall, fattening up on waste grain in the fields for a few weeks.

In 2012 there was a proposal for a limited crane hunting season in Colorado. Only 14 states, including Wyoming, have seasons. The lack of hunting in 36 states could be due to the cranes’ charisma and their almost human characteristics in the way they live in family groups for 10 months after hatching their young. Mates stick together year after year, performing elaborate courtship dances.

Plus, they are slow to reproduce and we have memories of their dramatic population decline in the early 20th century.

Merrill and her friends from the Steamboat birding club were not going to let hunting happen if they could help it. Organized as the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, they were successful and decided to continue with educating people about the cranes.

Out of the blue, Merrill got a call from George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation, congratulating the CCCC on their work and offering to come and speak, thus instigating the first Yampa Valley Crane Festival in 2012.

Merrill became an ICF board member and consequently has developed contacts resulting in many interesting speakers over the festival’s five years thus far. This year included Nyambayar Batbayar, director of the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia and an associate of ICF, and Barry Hartup, ICF veterinarian for whooping cranes.

Festival participants are maybe 40 percent local and 60 percent from out of the valley, from as far away as British Columbia. Merrill said they advertised in Bird Watchers Digest, a national magazine, and through Colorado Public Radio.

It is a small, friendly festival, with a mission to educate. The talks, held at the public library, are all free. A minimal amount charged for taking a shuttle bus at sunrise to see the cranes insures people will show up. [Eighty people thought rising early was worthwhile Friday morning alone.]

This year’s activities for children were wildly successful, from learning to call like a crane to a visit from Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, who has designed a wonderful, larger-than-life whooping crane puppet.

There was also a wine and cheese reception at a local gallery featuring crane art and a barbecue put on by the Routt County Cattlewomen. Life-size wooden cut-outs of cranes decorated by local artists were auctioned off.

We opted for the nature hike on Thunderhead Mountain at the Steamboat ski area. Gondola passes good for the whole day had been donated. This was just an example of how the crane festival benefits from a wide variety of supporters providing in-kind services and grants. Steamboat Springs is well-organized for tourism and luckily, crane viewing is best during the shoulder season, between general summer tourism and ski season.

Meanwhile, the CCCC has a new goal. Over the years, grain farming has dropped off, providing less waste grain for cranes. Now farmers and landowners are being encouraged financially to plant for the big birds. It means agriculture, cranes and tourism are supporting each other.

Merrill thinks of the cranes as an ambassador species, gateway to becoming concerned about nature, “The cranes do the work for us, we just harness them.”