Birder tilts at windmills

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

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at http://ebird.org.)

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716301689.] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet breeding?

Ruby-crowned_Kinglet-wikipedia

Male Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle June 19, 2016, “New bird on the block singing, maybe breeding.”

By Barb Gorges

There is a new bird on our block. It’s a loud bird. That’s how I know it is here, even though it is tiny, 4.25 inches long, and prefers to hang out unseen around the tops of mature spruce trees while gleaning insects and spiders.

The ruby-crowned kinglet, despite its name, is not a brightly-colored bird. It is mostly an olive-gray-green, with one white wing-bar. Only the male has the red crown patch and he may show it when singing, but the red feathers really stand up like a clown’s fright wig when he’s around other male ruby-crowneds.

We get a variety of small migrating songbirds in our Cheyenne yard in May: lazuli bunting, pine siskin, clay-colored sparrow, and even our first ever yellow-breasted chat this year.

This isn’t the first time for a ruby-crowned kinglet in our yard. I recorded one at www.eBird.org on April 25, 2012, and another April 24, 2015. They are usually on their way to the mountains to nest in the coniferous forest of spruce, pine and fir.

The difference this year is that beginning May 8 I’ve been hearing one every day. My hopes are up. Maybe it is going to nest. My neighborhood has the requisite mature spruce trees.

I talked to Bob Dorn May 27, but he thought that it was still too early to suspect breeding. They might have been waiting out cold spring weather before heading to the mountains. Bob is the co-author of “Wyoming Birds” with his wife, Jane Dorn. Their map for the ruby-crowned kinglet shows an “R” for the Cheyenne area, “Resident”—observed in winter and summer with breeding confirmed.

The Dorns’ breeding record is from the cemetery, where they saw kinglet nestlings being fed July 18, 1993. They also suspected breeding was taking place at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station just west of the city June 2, 1989 and June 15, 1990.

For more recent summer observations that could indicate breeding in Cheyenne, I looked at eBird, finding three records between July 3 and July 7 in the last five years, including Lions Park. There were also a couple late June observations at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch and Lions Park in 2014.

I first learned the ruby-crowned kinglet’s distinctive song in Wyoming’s mountains. You’ve probably heard it too. Listen at www.allaboutbirds.org. It has two parts, starting with three hard-to-hear notes, “tee-tee-tee”, as ornithologist C.A. Bent explained it in the 1940s, followed by five or six lower “tu or “tur” notes. The second half is the loudest, and sometimes given alone, “tee-da-leet, tee-da-leet, te-da-leet.”

Those who have studied the song say it can be heard for more than half a mile. The females sing a version during incubation and when nestlings are young. The males can sing while gleaning insects from trees and while eating them. Neighboring kinglets have distinctive signature second halves of the song and males can apparently establish their territories well enough by singing that they can avoid physical border skirmishes.

Actual nesting behavior is not well documented because it is hard to find an open cup nest that measures only 4 inches wide by 5 to 6 inches deep when it is camouflaged in moss, feathers, lichens, spider webs, and pieces of bark, twigs and rootlets—and located 40 feet up a densely branched spruce tree.

The female kinglet builds the nest in five days, lining it with more feathers, plant down, fine grass, lichens and fur. She may lay as many as eight eggs. The nest stretches as both parents feed the growing nestlings tiny caterpillars, crickets, moths, butterflies and ant pupae.

Ruby-crowned kinglets winter in the Pacific coast states and southern states, but breed throughout the Rockies and Black Hills and in a swath from Maine to Alaska. If my neighborhood kinglet stays to breed, it will be one more data point expanding the breeding range further out onto the prairie.

While kinglets are not picky about habitat during migration, for breeding they demand mature spruce-fir or similar forest. Particular communities of kinglets decrease in the wake of beetle epidemics, salvage logging and fires. However, the 2016 State of the Birds report, www.2016stateoftheBirds.org, shows them in good shape overall, scoring a 6 on a scale from 4 to 20. High scores would indicate trouble due to small or downward trending population, or threats to the species and its habitats during breeding and non-breeding seasons.

As of June 13 [now June 19], the kinglet is still singing—all day long. If it is nesting on my block this summer, I must thank the residents who planted spruce trees here 50 years ago. What a nice legacy.

We should plant some more.

Cheyenne Big Day 2015—changes?

Cliff Swallows

Mid-May at Wyoming Hereford Ranch, Cliff Swallows are picking up daubs of mud from the corrals to build their nests under the eaves of a nearby barn. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published June 14, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Changes in spring bird count bring up questions.”

By Barb Gorges

A Virginia’s warbler was the celebratory guest at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s Big Day Bird Count May 16.

This southwestern bird is a rare migrant in our area. Two other rare migrants were broad-winged hawk, an eastern species, and black tern.

This year 110 species were counted. This is lower than a typical count the last several years—and way lower than the counts in the 1990s, averaging 140-150 species.

It could be the result of a change in the birders participating. For many years, the Murie Audubon Society put on a bird class in Casper every spring and many of the students made an overnight excursion to be here at the crack of dawn for the Big Day. More eyeballs equals more birds seen. This year only one person came down.

However, the Laramie Audubon Society has taken to scheduling a field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch on our Big Day. This year they brought 14 people to augment our 20.

Possibly another change is that back in the 1990s, Bob and Jane Dorn birded the High Plains Grasslands Research Station at 6 a.m. Now we don’t get there until nearly lunch time, after birding Lions Park and the ranch. Birds are more active early in the day.

In the world of birdwatching, a big day is a marathon to see how many species an individual or a small team can see in 24 hours. The area birded may be limited. The American Birding Association, for the sake of competition, has rules that describe how many people can be on the team and what percentage of the species counted have to be seen by all team members.

By contrast, Cheyenne’s count starts out as one big group and slowly dissolves into individuals by afternoon. Perhaps we should lean more toward the Christmas Bird Count model and have groups of people birding each hot spot simultaneously at dawn.

There’s also the possibility that the birds have changed over the years. While Cheyenne residents have planted more trees, inviting more songbird species, areas of prairie we used to check are now developed and thus, no burrowing owls or longspurs found on the day of the count.

Typically, spring migration is a short burst, compared to fall migration, which begins sometime in July with shorebirds and still finds some species straggling south in November and December.

Now we can look at observations for this May in Laramie County at www.eBird.org to see where the peak of migration was. There was a total of 173 species observed for the month. Keep in mind many pass through within a week’s time or less:

1st week – 79 species

2nd week – 99 species

3rd week – 145 species

4th week – 128 species.

The third week includes our Big Day, but had 35 more species than we saw on May 16, which was a cold day so perhaps birds were sitting tight and were more visible the rest of that week.

Even in the age of eBird, our Big Day is worth the effort, I think. It’s a chance to learn to identify, with the help of the best local birders, species that are here rarely or for a short time, like the Virginia’s Warbler.

Simply, it is a great time for birders to flock together and enjoy the magic of migration.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count 2015

Canada Goose

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Ruddy Duck

Ring-necked Pheasant

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Turkey Vulture

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Kestrel

American Coot

Killdeer

American Avocet

Spotted Sandpiper

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Franklin’s Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Black Tern

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Eastern Screech-Owl

Great Horned Owl

Chimney Swift

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Western Wood-Pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Cordilleran Flycatcher

Say’s Phoebe

Cassin’s Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Loggerhead Shrike

Plumbeous Vireo

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Tree Swallow

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Swainson’s Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Northern Waterthrush

Orange-crowned Warbler

Virginia’s Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

American Redstart

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Green-tailed Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Lark Bunting

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Western Tanager

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Orchard Oriole

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Red Crossbill

Pine Siskin

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Day at Cape May whets birder’s appetite

Cape May Hawk Watch

Cape May Bird Observatory’s Hawk Watch platform is famous among birders for the number of raptors that are counted flying overhead in the fall. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 14, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Day at Cape May whets birder’s appetite.”

2014 Update: Find out about visiting the Cape May Bird Observatory at http://www.njaudubon.org/SectionCapeMayBirdObservatory/CMBOHome.aspx. For a great history, read “Seasons at the Point, The Birds and Birders of Cape May” by Jack Connor, published in 1991.

By Barb Gorges

I have been to Mecca. But it’s Cape May, where bird watchers raise their binoculars to the sky in exaltation of migration.

Midday Sept. 22 did not have a wave of raptors flying over the Hawk Watch platform that overlooks the Atlantic at Cape May Point State Park. I saw only a couple osprey and kestrels.

The best numbers at this southern tip of New Jersey come from passing cold fronts and this day was in the 80’s and sunny. The trip, begun with my mother and sister to visit my aunt and uncle in Philadelphia, miraculously coincided with a lull in damaging storms generated by hurricanes.

Pete Dunne, in 1976 the first to start counting hawks officially for the Cape May Bird Observatory operated by New Jersey Audubon Society, relates the legendary day a year later when unique weather conditions produced 21,800 hawks, almost all sharp-shinneds and broad-wings, giving Cape May the nickname “Raptor Capitol of North America.”

The cape, or peninsula, is formed by Delaware Bay on the west and the Atlantic on the east, making a funnel that gathers the birds on their southward trip into a narrow stream at Cape May Point before they reluctantly cross open water.

Clay Sutton, author of an article in this month’s Birding magazine, published by the American Birding Association, relates another legend. In 1970, 24,875 American kestrels were counted in a single day! However, in 2001 and 2002, kestrels barely broke 5000 for the entire count season, September 1-November 30, though they normally average about 10,000.

While kestrel numbers have declined overall, peregrine falcon counts have improved, from 60 in 1977 to a high of 1,791 twenty years later. Sharp-shinned hawks are the most common, averaging 28,512 per year.

Swainson’s hawks average three, with never more than 10 counted in a year, so far. Being a western species (the hawk most commonly seen over Cheyenne in the summer), one has to wonder how they get so far off course.

A CMBO intern was on hand at the Hawk Watch platform to document any hawks and answer questions, but I was wondering about the white birds in the pond below, and approached another birder for help instead.

Turns out he was also a CMBO intern, hired to count five days a week at the Avalon Sea Watch, a few miles up the beach. It was his day off.

The white birds were a mute swan (an invasive, non-native species that has somehow achieved protection under the Migratory Bird Act, I recently learned), great egret, snowy egret and a mixed flock of laughing gulls (no longer sporting their black head feathers of the breeding season), Forster’s terns and herring gulls, the ubiquitous gull of my Alaskan trip in August.

The Sea Watch was started in 1993 and runs mid-September to mid-December, with mid-October to mid-November being the migration peak. The most abundant species are red-throated loon, northern gannet, double-crested cormorant, brant, surf scoter, black scoter, white-winged scoter and parasitic jaeger.

My relatives and I did not make it to Avalon. But now I understand which migrations CMBO’s late October bird festival targets. It would be a great time to visit again.

There’s also the option of hiring a guide through the observatory. The price is reasonable if you have a small group to share it. It would be worth the help sorting over a dozen other birding hotspots in Cape May County, including national wildlife refuges, Nature Conservancy holdings, and state and private lands open to birders.

The CMBO has a long list of educational and recreational opportunities also, some of which are free.

The daily “Monarch Tagging Demo” coincided with our visit.

Staff and volunteers demonstrated how a small patch of orange scales on the forewing is brushed away and the tiny sticker is placed on the clear membrane, then folded over the edge. The sticker has a unique number plus contact information for the Monarch Monitoring Project.

Monarchs produce several generations over the summer, but only the last one is of the individuals that will head south and hopefully make it to the mountains of central Mexico. Of thousands of tagged butterflies, about 30 have been caught there and others have been documented in places in between.

Monarch spring migration is not as direct. The first generation to leave Mexico stops to mate along the way where milkweed is growing and it is their progeny or later generations that make it the rest of the way north.

Afterward, we stopped at CMBO’s Northwood Center, buried in the trees, where we saw an incredible display of bird watching and feeding equipment. The woman running the gift shop cleaned and adjusted my binoculars for free—as advertised—but told me I really should get new ones. The pay from about a year’s worth of Bird Banter columns would buy a nice pair I saw on display.

We were only in Cape May a few hours, long enough to get my feet wet in the Atlantic (and my shoes and socks—thanks, Sis!) and vow to come back someday. However, it is good to be home again in the land of broad landscapes and straight-forward highways—and where wet things dry out in a quarter of the time.

Film review: “Winged Migration”

Winged Migration

Winged Migration is an incredible film. It is still available online.

Published Oct. 16, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Filmmaker catches magic of migration.”

2014 Update: People still talk about this movie. It’s still available, online.

By Barb Gorges

Last week, “Winged Migration” made a one-night stopover at the Lincoln Movie Palace.

The film, by French director Jacques Perrin, released in 2001 and then in the United States in 2002, features a cast of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and cranes filmed up close as they make their way through spring and fall migration. Cameras were so close, viewers are able to overhear the birds’ every utterance, as though listening in on airline pilots’ communications.

This was not a documentary explaining migration. In fact, with its occasional subtitles and the ambiance of its cinema club showing here in Cheyenne, it reminded me of watching other foreign films, especially since a majority of the birds featured were not North American.

You know how it is when you watch a foreign film. The subtitles at least give you the gist of the story line, but you know that if the characters were from your neighborhood, speaking your language, you’d get all the inside jokes.

Some of the jokes in this film, for instance the elegant crane that kept slipping and landing on its chin, were broad enough humor to transcend cultural — and species differences.

One of the disconcerting things about foreign films though, is when they portray Americans. The accent never seems to ring quite right. In this case, the flock of Canada geese traversing what looked like Monument Valley desert left us birders in the audience scratching our heads. However, the footage of sandhill cranes along the Platte River was exactly my experience there.

Though I knew I wanted to review the movie, pencil and paper were left at home on purpose. And, as much as possible, I shut down the analytical part of my brain that was looking for information about unfamiliar birds.

This was a movie to enjoy for its ballet of avian performance. One difference between this and TV wildlife documentaries was the relief from constant narration. It was almost all close-ups of beautiful birds in flight moving over (mostly) beautiful landscapes, with occasional touches of ethereal music.

There was a plot. Birds fly north in spring. Then they nest. Later, the narrator, in his thick French accent, explained simply that birds fly south for the winter, to where food sources are still available.

There were the antagonists, the obstacles to success: the hunters, the predators, the fatal accidents and the tar pit in the nightmarish industrial zone. But there was also the deus ex machina, the boy who frees the trapped goose.

“Winged Migration” is by no means a complete exploration of the phenomenon. The movie focused entirely on large species, ducks, geese, cranes and large seabirds, probably because they are easier to find with the camera than a four-inch kinglet.

It did not explain that not all bird species migrate nor even all individuals in migratory species (witness the comfortable geese on our local ponds). The details of migration are not cut and dried, north and south.

If watching the movie has piqued your interest in migration, let me recommend one of my favorite books, “Living on the Wind, Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds,” by Scott Weidensaul, a satisfying piece of literature.

Paul Kerlinger’s book, “How Birds Migrate,” is a very useful and readable reference. You may also enjoy the lengthy review of “Winged Migration” in the October 2003 issue of “Birding,” the American Birding Association’s publication.

What is needed is one of those accompanying coffee table books that give the background on how the film was made and the life history and conservation status of the avian stars. I’m sure, as this becomes a cult classic for birdwatchers, someone will publish one.

Then we’ll learn more about bar-headed and red-breasted geese, and about the gliders, balloons and Ultra Light Motorized aircraft that were used over all seven continents, and the hundreds of people listed in the credits. If you want to film a particular migration between Europe and Greenland, you have to contact the locals to know when and where to find the birds.

Perhaps the DVD version has all that extra information. Sony Pictures has also made “Winged Migration” available on VHS, but really, you can’t fully enjoy the amazing cinematography on any small screen, including the usual cinema multi-plexes. The Lincoln’s huge screen was perfect.

Whichever way you can find it, this is a fabulous 89 minutes of birdwatching. Forget the field guides. Just fly along for the ride.