How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1Notice birds.

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

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

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

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

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

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

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

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

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

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

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

Step 5Go where the birds are.

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

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here:

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

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

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

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

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

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

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

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

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

Book reviews: Heinrich, Walden, bird i.d.

2018-04booksHeinrich_Naturalist-loEnjoy reading nature writing in three styles: essays, trail guide and guide to field guides

Also published at

By Barb Gorges

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has three very different new nature books out this spring: a compilation of nature essays; a cross between trail, travel, nature and history guides; and a guide to using field guides.

A Naturalist at Large, The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich, 2018, $26, 285 pages.

I am a fan of this man who finds so many questions to ask and then looks for the answers, even if it means climbing a tree and waiting hours to see where the ravens come back from, or spending hours watching a dung beetle make its ball.

You’ll recognize Bernd Heinrich’s topics of interest if you’ve read his other books including “Mind of the Raven,” “Racing the Antelope” and “Life Everlasting.”

The essays in this new collection were published in various magazines, mostly in recent issues of Natural History Magazine. So, the book title also means the older Heinrich gets, the better his writing. I agree. If his subjects appeal to you, soil, plants, trees, insects, bees, birds, mammals and how living things cope with the universe, you’ll enjoy this book.

I especially liked his investigation of the mechanics of how yellow iris instantly pop from bud to bloom.

2018-04booksThorson_GuideWalden_loThe Guide to Walden Pond, An Exploration of the History, Nature, Landscape, and Literature of One of America’s Most Iconic Places, Robert M. Thorson, 2018, $17, 250 pages, full color.

This book won’t mean much if you aren’t familiar with Henry David Thoreau, essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. Or his two-year experiment begun in 1845 living in a tiny, bedroom-sized house he built himself at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. You may want to first find a copy of his book, “Walden.”

Thoreau’s fame helped the state set aside 335 acres as the Walden Pond State Reservation (see And he has inspired many conservationists with words such as, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Robert Thorson sets up his book as a trail guide and while taking a Thoreau-styled amble around the pond the reader gets a mix of history, natural history, biography and lots of beautiful photography.

2018-04BooksHowell_12STEPS_cvr_choice_loPeterson Guide to Bird Identification—in 12 Steps, Steve N.G. Howell and Brian Sullivan, 2018, $18 152 pages, full-color.

This is a small book full of well-illustrated information that should be at the beginning of every bird field guide.

The intended audience is everyone, the authors say, “We include some things that may be challenging for beginning birders, and others that may seem too basic for those more advanced, but this is intentional.” And that’s why you’ll want your own copy to study over and over.

Step 1 – Make sure you are looking at a bird. What kind? Duck, hawk, songbird?

Steps 2, 3, 4 – Where are you geographically, habitat-wise and seasonally? Despite some birds getting spectacularly lost (and becoming the rarities birders dream of), you can assume a species of bird will show up when and where field guides say it will.

Step 5 and 6 – Is the lighting good enough and the bird close enough to identify?

Step 7 and 8 – Is the bird behaving as its presumed species does? What does it sound like? Getting a handle on birdsong will make you a terrific birder.

Step 9 – Structure–size and shape–makes an easy identifier for birds you already know. Think about those plump robins in your yard. But I would argue it is difficult to use on birds you aren’t familiar with.

Step 10 – Finally, plumage! What color feathers?

Step 11 – Be aware of plumage variations.

Step 12 – Take notes—and photos.

Howell and Sullivan’s book makes a good introduction or review as we fly into spring migration. And you can fit in reading it between field trips.

Complacency may muddle bird i.d.

American Redstart

American Redstart. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Painted Redstart

Painted Redstart. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Published Aug. 15, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird IDs can be tricky, so a photo is always welcome.”

2014 Update: Telling similar species apart is difficult no matter where you are.

By Barb Gorges

Spring and early summer are when I get the most bird calls, questions about woodpecker damage, inconvenient robins’ nests, but mostly bird identification.

Unless they can email me a defining photo, I usually give callers a few possibilities to look up and let them decide for themselves.

For instance, in spring Cheyenne regularly gets six species with dark or black heads, backs and wings and orange breasts, the most obvious being American robin, what we compare everything to.

The others are orchard oriole [long skinny beak, white wing bars], Bullock’s oriole [long skinny beak, yellow to orange face, white wing patches], black-headed grosbeak [huge conical beak, white wing spots], spotted towhee [large sparrow with orange sides, white belly and white wing spots], and the American redstart [small with white belly, orangey-red patches on sides, tail and wings].

In early May a friend mentioned having a flock of painted redstarts at her house. Was she misnaming American redstarts? She insisted on painted redstart.

At home I looked both up. They are both small (American is 5.25 inches and the painted is 5.75 inches) black-headed birds with red markings. The American has a white belly and red patches on its black wings and tail. The painted has a red belly and white patches on its black wings and tail. I saw it once in 1996 in southeastern Arizona.

There are no documented records for painteds in Wyoming as of 2008. Sibley’s shows them in Arizona and New Mexico, in oak and pine canyons, with records of sightings in north-central Colorado.

There are two possible scenarios here. One is familiarity breeds complacency on my friend’s part. She may have spent some time in the Southwest where she identified painted redstarts. When a similar bird showed up in her yard in Cheyenne, she assumed it was a species she knew and loved seeing previously. Who needs to look closely and look it up in the field guide again?

Me. I’ve been known to look through binoculars to enjoy common birds 15 feet outside my window, but I wouldn’t expect everyone does that, so a general impression of small bird flashing black, white and red could remain misidentified, causing no harm until the observer talks about it to someone with too many field guides, like me.

The second scenario is familiarity breeding complacency on my part. Although I see maybe one American redstart every other spring, I page past the entry every time I look up other warblers in my field guide. The Cheyenne bird checklist (compiled by more knowledgeable people than me) says they are uncommon migrants. They normally hang out around riparian (stream) areas.

Have there been lost painted or American redstarts out on the prairie before and no one to recognize them?

There is of course, a third scenario. The bird in question is not a redstart at all.

The future scenario I’d like is my friend gets a close look at and takes a photo of her visiting birds, double-checks her field guide, and based on her previous familiarity, is quite convinced she sees painted redstarts—and based on the species range map in her field guide, she realizes it is a rare species for Wyoming.

Next, she convinces the Wyoming Bird Records Committee she had painted redstarts. It’s a challenge. Observer credibility is as essential as good digital photos.

How does she get credibility? She becomes an active part of the birding community. By joining other birders on field trips, they will get a feel for her birding ability, and her ability to say, “Gosh, I guess that cerulean warbler was something else,” which is what one of Wyoming’s best birders said last month after some additional study.

There are advantages to birding with others. If everyone can see the same rare bird at the same time, they can confirm the identification. The records committee likes those kinds of reports, especially if a detailed description of the bird’s look and behavior is submitted, along with justification for not identifying it as a similar species.

The field guide is sort of a birder’s Bible, but with one main difference: the birds don’t read it. They have wings and travel intentionally, looking for new habitat, or unintentionally, caught by wind. The range maps are just a measure of likelihood.

Birdwatching as a hobby shares something with gambling and fishing. We go out hoping for the next big thing, the next rare bird, even while we enjoy all the other birds we see.

So, next time painted redstarts show up, take a photo and then give me a call and I’ll be right out.

Brown bird i.d. unraveled

White-crowned Sparrow

The White-crowned Sparrow is a “brown bird” that is easy to identify. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 30, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Brown bird mix-up worth unraveling.”

2014 Update: Still haven’t run out of obscure brown birds to try to identify….

By Barb Gorges

Lazuli bunting, indigo bunting, rose-breasted grosbeak, green-tailed towhee, yellow-rumped warbler, yellow warbler: the birds of spring migration are a colorful bunch.

Less obvious are the “LBJs” – “Little Brown Jobs,” as they are sometimes called.

To appreciate the visiting LBJs, we must first distinguish them from the usual brown riff-raff, so let’s review.

First and most prominent in the cityscape is the house sparrow. They build messy nests in three-dimensional signs or any other cavity, pick miller moths out of car radiators in parking lots and are seen wherever there’s urban detritus to peck.

This time of year the male house sparrow is a rich chestnut brown pattern on the back and wings, with a black goatee and bib and gray crown (top of head). The female has no black markings. Both have pale gray breasts and bellies.

The second most common brown bird in Cheyenne is the house finch. They like big trees and bird feeders stocked with black oil sunflower seed.

Both male and female are about the same size as the house sparrow, but appear more slender and have breasts streaked with grayish brown lines.

The male in prime breeding plumage right now has a bright red forehead, red breast and red rump. Lesser males and males at other times of the year have faded pink or even yellowish hues.

As members of the finch family, house finches have big thick bills for cracking seeds.

House finches and house sparrows are here year round. Once you can reliably distinguish them, male and female, you’ll discover there are other brown birds eating at your feeder or flitting through the parks.

The pine siskin is a streaky brown bird easy to mistake for a female house finch. When it flies, a little yellow shows in its wings and tail.

Siskins can show up in Cheyenne any time of year. They are smaller than a house finch by three quarters of an inch, and have a smaller bill suited to eating the tiny niger thistle seeds they love.

Some people in town had siskins all winter, but our tube-style thistle feeder was untouched until the beginning of May. Now it’s crowded with siskins and the closely related goldfinches, one for each of the eight perches and a dozen waiting for openings. Their cheerful songs get a bit strident as they retreat to the trees while I refill the feeder.

Occasionally I will see one kind of sparrow often enough that I begin to distinguish and remember its unique field markings. Such is the case with the clay-colored sparrows showing up in our backyard this month.

As small as a siskin, the clay-colored sparrow will head at least as far north as Montana to nest. It has a very pale gray breast that sort of glows from a distance. The rest of it is a non-descript brown pattern with darker streaks over the head, through the eye and in front of the eye.

Luckily it has a unique song, four buzzes in each phrase, like an insect.

There’s another petite, nondescript sparrow in my yard, the chipping sparrow.

Chippies have one notable field mark, a rusty brown crown. They will spend the summer here, especially in weedy places, so there is plenty of time to get to know them well.

Sometimes a birdwatcher has to be able to identify parts of a bird because it won’t come out for a clear view.

This spring I think Mark and I have identified a new (for us) brown bird. As it skulked in the bushes there was a flash of brown, then an eye and a leg. The pale breast had markings.

The best identification we could make using our field guide was the veery. But there are three or four other thrushes that look similar. I’ll have to learn more about them before my next encounter.

So far I’ve been discussing backyard brown birds. Don’t forget the bigger migration picture and the bigger brown birds.

Shorebirds are on their way north to breed and stop briefly at our local reservoirs. Identifying the different species is a real art. For me, it’s like trying to distinguish identical triplets.

One must find the slight differences in brown plumage, body shape, length and tilt of bill, length and color of legs. Heaven forbid their legs or bills are discolored by mud from probing the shoreline for edibles.

The problem is the sandpipers, dowitchers, yellowlegs and the other shorebirds that nest in the far north are that they are never here long enough in one season to become as familiar to me as their relations that nest here, such as the killdeer.

I guess that means at my present rate I’ll never run out of obscure brown birds to learn to identify.