“Cheyenne Birds” available online and in Laramie

Pete Arnold’s and my book, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds,” is now available in Laramie at the University of Wyoming University Store.

                For those of you neither in Laramie nor Cheyenne, you can find it at the UW University Store’s uwyostore.com website: https://www.uwyostore.com/search_index_results.asp?search_text=Cheyenne+Birds&pageaction=redirect.

                And if you are in Cheyenne, there are copies available at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne Depot Museum, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, PBR Printing, Riverbend Nursery and the Wyoming State Museum.

                If you know of a store that would like to carry the book, have them contact me. The season for warmer birding is approaching and we’ve heard that readers who profess to be non-birders think of this as a field guide! It’s two-thirds Pete’s great photos and one-third text.


“Cheyenne Birds” book signing Dec. 9

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyDear Readers,

Photographer Pete Arnold and I are having a book signing for “Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds.” Join us this Sunday, Dec. 9 from 1 – 3 p.m. at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Drive, Cheyenne, Wyoming. People are telling us Pete’s photos are helping them identify birds!

Books are available at the Gardens’ Tilted Tulip gift shop Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 5 p.m. You can also find the books at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Riverbend Nursery and PBR Printing.

Immediately following the book signing is a reception for the new Cheyenne Botanic Gardens Artist in Residence exhibit, “Garden of Quilts,” featuring 10 of my flower and flower-bright quilts. My husband Mark is baking cookies for it. The exhibit will be up through Jan. 27.

Hope to see you,




Yampa Valley Crane Festival origins


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.”

Birdwatching with a camera

Canon PowerShot SX50 HS

The Canon PowerShot SX50 HS is popular with birders. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 3, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “New camera technology can help birders get perfect shot.”

By Barb Gorges

I have often wished the view through my binoculars could be a photograph of that colorful warbler high in the tree, the distant hawk or the swimming phalarope.

Then digiscoping was invented—a digital version of trying to take a photo through a scope. The idea is that you don’t need a camera with a big lens if you can use your scope instead.

But who wants to carry around the heavy tripod and scope, plus a camera to attach to it? Not me.

But a couple years ago the Cheyenne Audubon chapter had members Greg Johnson and Robin Kepple give a talk on their birding trip to Australia. The bird photos were fabulous. What camera was used? Canon PowerShot SX50 HS.

The PowerShot series of cameras is really a collection of point and shoots—I have an early one, but it doesn’t zoom like the SX50. They all have lots of manual and partially manual ways to adjust speed, aperture and color. You can do a surprising number of things, including macro and video. Some will even connect to your smart phone to transmit photos.

The SX50 (and now there is an SX60 and rumors of an SX70, not to mention Nikon’s cameras in this class) is moderately priced, between $300 and $600. That price might get you another lens for a digital single lens reflex camera, the type the professionals use.

And the SX50 weighs only 1 pound 6 ounces, whereas my Brunton 8 x 42 binocs weigh 4 ounces more. A recent publication of the American Birding Association, “Birder’s Guide to Gear,” features four men who did a photographic Big Day. They could only count bird species they photographed. All of them carried multiple camera bodies and lenses. Imagine the weight.

Among our birding friends, my husband, Mark, was the first to follow Greg and Robin’s lead by buying an SX50 in the fall of 2014. By spring of 2015, there were three or four people carrying these cameras on a local field trip. Even our friend, ABA magazine editor Ted Floyd, has one now. It makes his Facebook posts even more entertaining.

Ted mentioned that young birders seem to be forsaking binoculars for these “compact ultra-zooms” as they’ve been referred to. They have one big advantage over binocs. If you snap a photo of an unusual bird, you can then show it to your birding companions using the 2.8-inch screen on the back, beginning a good half hour or more’s discussion of the finer points of feathers.

And it is really handy to have a photo when you submit your field trip checklist to the eBird database, where the experts want proof of the rare bird you saw.

Are Mark and his friends practicing the art of photography? I’m not sure. They all seem to be using the camera on the automatic setting. Their goal is to get the bird. They don’t worry about whether the background contrasts nicely.

Often the camera’s automatic setting determination is matched by the location’s lighting for a really nice shot. Fixing the framing of the subject can be accomplished back on the computer with cropping. Putting the camera on a tripod would probably improve the number of well-focused shots. Though these cameras come with image stabilization technology, it is sorely tested by flighty birds.

Mark has taken 7,500 photos so far. I asked him if he thought about bringing just the camera on birding trips, since it zooms farther than our scope. It’s kind of a pain carrying camera, scope and binocs.

No, he said, the camera lacks a wide field of view. It makes it difficult to re-find that speck of distant movement you saw with your naked eye.

With the steady advancement of technology in my lifetime alone, computers have gone from room-sized to hand-sized. Cameras have gone from the wooden box my grandmother used in 1916 to who-knows-what in the next 10 years.

Equally amazing is how birders take the latest technology and use it for learning more about birds. We’ve learned so much from eBird, for instance–all those observations from birdwatchers being sent in via Internet from all over the world.

And how about geolocators? Attached to birds, they allow scientists to track them during migration.

But let’s not forget the thrill of photography itself. Like artist John James Audubon, you can see the bird you shot today displayed for posterity on your computer screen.

Visit Sandhill Crane migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 9, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The great migration: Head east this spring to meet the famous sandhill cranes”

By Barb Gorges
One of the great annual events of the natural world, especially for North America, happens just down the road from Cheyenne every spring. Yet it isn’t as well-known, much less well-attended, by Wyomingites as it is by people from all over the country, even the world.

I’m talking about the spring migration of sandhill cranes.

Yes, there are millions of migrating birds, but most don’t stand nearly 4 feet tall in flocks of thousands, out in the open, making such a racket that they can’t be missed.

More than 500,000 birds, representing 80 percent of the entire sandhill population, come in for a landing along a stretch of the Platte River, between wintering in New Mexico and Texas and breeding in Canada and Alaska.

The peak time for Nebraska is the month of March into the first week in April, about when I get my annual spring urge to travel.

Driving Interstate 80 five hours east (and don’t forget to account for the lost hour entering the Central time zone[j1]), to an elevation 4,000 feet lower is to meet spring a couple weeks early. Central Nebraska has a Midwestern flavor with birds to match, so it’s even more like getting out of Dodge for a vacation.

When Mark and I first went to see the cranes, our boys were younger than 12, too young to be allowed in the blinds at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. Can you imagine how quickly the cranes would leave if small children staged a temper tantrum, echoing through the plywood construction? So we left them with a friend in Kearney for a few hours. We’ve been back a couple times since.

I love the openness. The only trees are in the river valley. But those trees are exactly what the cranes don’t want.

So the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, since its establishment in 1974, has worked diligently to remove trees from its stretch of the river, leaving unvegetated sandbars for the cranes to roost on at night, with no place for predators to skulk unseen. Damming the river upstream has eliminated spring floods that would normally clear the channels regularly.

The blinds at Rowe, near Gibbon, 20 minutes from Kearney, and at The Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center further east, near Grand Island, allow people to view cranes at sunrise and sunset.

While the cranes (even the occasional whooping crane) are scattered in the local fields and wetlands feeding on corn and invertebrates all day, great for photo ops, it’s the blinds that allow you to see the concentration of birds where they roost for the night.

If you want to get closer, sign up to stay overnight in the special photographers’ blinds – no heat or light allowed – and pay $200-$300 for the privilege.

It is a privilege to watch these magnificent birds from the blinds, but it may not seem like it if you don’t bring your warmest boots and layers of clothing. That’s the downside of being further east – the cold is damp.

Once you enter the blind, at 5 p.m. (6 p.m. after daylight saving time starts March 9), you aren’t allowed to leave for two to three hours, until it’s dark enough to sneak away. Alternatively, if you enter at 5 a.m., 6 a.m. DST, you must wait until after the birds have left. The blinds do have adjacent chemical toilets now, but the guides discourage their use.

Not only do you want to wear dark clothes to keep from spooking the birds, but regular flashlights are not allowed and bright LCD screens are frowned on.

And for heaven sake, leave your flash at home and make sure you deactivate the flash on your point and shoot or smart phone. If your flash triggers a mass bird departure, everyone in the blind, up to 31 other people, will hate you, because there won’t be a second chance to see sandhills that morning or evening.

Blaine McCartney, a photographer at the WTE, reccommends a 400mm lens to get close enough to the birds, along with a monopod.  Though everyone gets their own little window, there isn’t really room for tripods.

Judy Myer, a Cheyenne photographer, went on a shoot with the Fort Collins camera club last year. The club members used the Rowe blinds one morning and the Crane Trust blinds in the evening.

“The evening viewing was dark, but we could hear them,” she said. “Is one place better than the other? I can’t really answer that except to say I wouldn’t do (those blinds) again in the evening.”

Instead, she said, she would head to the bridge at the trust, where, for $15, you can watch the cranes fly overhead in the evening to their roosts.

But it goes to show everyone’s experience can be different. I’m not familiar with The Crane Trust blinds. We’ve had pretty good luck at Rowe, and it’s closer.

The Trust exists because of the settlement in 1978 of a lawsuit contending that the Grey Rocks Dam, built on the North Platte in Wyoming, had a negative impact on whooping cranes and other wildlife in Nebraska downstream on the Platte. Like Rowe, they do a lot of work to clear vegetation from the river channels and offer educational opportunities.

Yes, it’s half a day’s drive each way. Yes, it can be cold.

But no nature film can take the place of being surrounded by a crowd of birds continuing a ritual that’s tens of thousands, maybe millions of years old, that’s partly instinctual and partly learned from their parents.

Their calling fills your ears with a roar you never forget.

To visit or make blind reservations
Rowe Audubon Sanctuary
Located at 44450 Elm Island Road, near Gibbon, Neb. Visit http://www.rowe.audubon.org for details and rules. Call 308-468-5282 weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central time. Reservations are available March 1-April 6. Cost is $25 per person and must be paid in advance. Reservations are refundable up to seven days in advance, with a 5 percent charge.

The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, 44450 Elm Island Road., Gibbon, Neb., is free. From Feb. 15 to April 15, it’s open daily 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center
The visitor center, at 6611 Whooping Crane Drive, Wood River, Neb., is free and open March [j6]1-April 7, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Normally, it is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are $25 a person and are available March 1-30. Another option is to view cranes from their bridge ($15) as they fly overhead in the evening to their roosts. Visit http://www.cranetrust.org or call 308-382-1820.

Crane festivals
Festivals are held all along the cranes’ Central Flyway migration route, and on their breeding and wintering grounds. The biggest (with the most cranes) is Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival (formerly Rivers and Wildlife Celebration), scheduled March 20-23 in Kearney, which includes speakers, kid activities, field trips, vendors, etc. See http://www.nebraskacranefestival.org.

Other Central Flyway crane festivals:
Whooping Crane Festival, Port Aransas, Texas, Feb. 20-23.
Monte Vista Crane Festival, Monte Vista, Colo., March 7-9.
Crane Watch Festival, Kearney, Neb., (includes Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival), March 21-30.
Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, Fairbanks, Alaska, August 22-25.
Yampa Valley Crane Festival, Hayden, Colo., September.
Festival of the Cranes, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, November.

Other crane festivals:
Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, Othello, Wash., March 28-30.
Sandhill Crane and Art Festival, Calhoun Co., Michigan, Oct. 11-12.
Sandhill Crane Festival, Lodi, Calif., November
Tennessee Crane Festival, Birchwood, Tenn., mid-January 2015.

Mystery bird photographer

cameraPublished Feb. 22, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Photographer’s identity a mystery.”

2014 Update: See the solution published March 8, 2001 and posted as “Mystery bird photographer identified.” Check archives for March.

By Barb Gorges

Let us call this “The Case of the Unidentified Photographer” or “Who Shot Those Birds?!”

It was late on a dark and stormy night in January when I finally checked my phone messages. I had an urgent call from Claus Johnson, assistant director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

Would I, for the sake of bird lovers everywhere, be willing to take on two carousel slide trays labeled “Birds, No. 1” and “Birds, No. 2?” No one, as far as he knew, had ever investigated the contents. Perhaps the local Audubon chapter could make use of them.

Certainly, I said when I called back the next day.

The Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society has a birding class beginning in April at Laramie County Community College. Last year we had to pay $3 apiece for slides to fill out our collection.

More is better. Different lighting conditions or stages of plumage must be compared to help the beginning bird watcher learn identification tricks.

The dark brown cardboard boxes holding the trays sat on my kitchen counter for two weeks like unopened jewel cases. I wanted to wait and share the riches with someone who could truly appreciate them – someone like expert birder Jane Dorn.

Also, as my sweet spouse pointed out, these slide trays wouldn’t fit our Kodak projector. This was my first clue to the origins of the slides.

Kodak-style carousel projection has become standard amongst institutions, while these other carousel styles persist in homes.

On a cloudy winter afternoon, I pulled slides while Jane peered at them through an antiquated viewer.

It soon became apparent we were looking at the work of a backyard bird photographer. The same platform feeder showed up again and again, with different birds perched on it each time.

The backdrop was either the backside of the neighbor’s house, a modest one-story with grayish-greenish siding and a hipped roofed shingled in green, or the alleged photographer’s house, with white siding.

Most of the feeder shots were in winter, showing some leafless trees (maybe a crabapple), a juniper, a sturdy clothesline of the type supported by metal pipe, a wire fence and a metal gate opening to the alley.

Jane and I agreed it could be a neighborhood in Cheyenne, most likely one old enough to have mature trees pictured in slides the most recent of which was labeled with the year 1980.

Some of the slide frames had dates back to 1961. There was no personal notation on any of the slides except for an occasional discrete “LC” in a corner.

Several different slide processors were represented: Agfa, Kodak, GAF, Perutz (German, c. 1963), Ansochrome and RGM Denver. One said “Arizona Color,” which led me to wonder if our photographer was retired and sometimes traveled to Arizona.

The birds represented could be from Cheyenne, even the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which appears to be caught in a typical late April/early May snowstorm. The summer tanager, though, would be a state record if we knew when and where it was photographed.

After viewing fifty or so slides, we found a silver-haired woman wearing a dress and a red-and-black plaid wool shirt, hand feeding a gray jay while sitting on a log in a forest, c. 1970. Perhaps she was the photographer’s wife?

The shots must have been made with decent equipment—the birds are more than mere specks. Retired men frequently take up hobbies involving lots of technical gadgets.

There were 175 slides between the two bird trays,  plus another tray labeled “Animals, No. 1” which we didn’t have time to investigate. (I’ve looked since: elk being fed up by Jackson, zoo animals, etc.)

The last dozen bird slides proved the most interesting. Part of a man wearing plaid pants appeared in a shot meant to feature a peacock at a picnic area, perhaps the Denver Zoo? One shot featured a pink flamingo walking a manicured lawn.

Then the silver-haired woman reappeared in two shots. This time she was feeding a Clark’s nutcracker, possibly at a scenic overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park.

And then – a-ha! The photographer himself, a smiling, silver-haired gentleman dressed as if for a Sunday drive, feeding birds at the same overlook. Perhaps he handed the camera to his wife. The slide is dated 1978.

My scenario could be wrong. Not all the bird slides feature that particular backyard. I have to wonder about the shots of a pair of cardinals and some backgrounds that look suspiciously like rural Iowa.

We could be dealing with multiple photographers. We could be dealing with a photographer who took pictures of silver-haired people.

Unlike fictional mysteries, this one doesn’t have a solution yet. If you recognize the alleged photographer and his wife, please call me at 634-0463.

I hope it’s not too late. I hope their children didn’t all move to California. Maybe the photographer and his wife instilled a love of birds in someone younger than themselves who yet survives to read this bird column.

Not only do I want to satisfy my curiosity, but when we use the slides in our bird classes, I’d like to be able to give credit to the photographer(s).

And remember: Label and sign your own work!