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/.

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Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

2018-05abcbirdtape

Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

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Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Close encounters of the bird kind

Goldfinches

In late summer the male American Goldfinch begins to lose some of his bright breeding plumage. A juvenile begs to be fed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 29, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Close encounters of the bird kind.”

2014 Update: See my other columns on bird safety about how to keep birds from hitting windows.

By Barb Gorges

It was cold enough to freeze water in the birds’ water dish (my friend Marta recommends I get one of those heated dog water dishes), but not so cold a morning I thought I needed shoes just to grab the dish to bring it in when I let the dog out.

However, Lincoln made a beeline for a spot on the patio and I forgot all about the water dish.

Huddled on the concrete was a stunned American goldfinch, a male in winter plumage, just the lightest wash of yellow on his feathers.

Birds thumping into our kitchen window rarely happens anymore.

Between the pair of feline faces nearly always present in the window when the birds are active, and the dust on the glass, few birds think our window reflects a continuation of our backyard.

My first impulse was to rescue the goldfinch from the onslaught of the breath of a 100-pound dog, so I scooped him up and cupped him in my hands, leaving his face free.

His toes were just a tickle on my skin, his black eye, alert and unblinking.

“Oh, I am so sorry about the window,” I thought. The bird was so light it was as if I held my imagination.

But my bare feet were standing on cold reality.

Bird feet are engineered differently. A goldfinch weighing less than half an ounce feels less cold. First, bird feet are mostly bone, sinew and scale, with few nerves.

Also, as Bill Thompson, author of “Bird Watching for Dummies” explains it, the arteries carrying warm blood from the heart to the toes are interwoven in the legs and feet with the veins, so the arteries warm the cold, returning blood. And because bird feet don’t have sweat glands, they don’t stick to metal perches when it’s cold.

After a few minutes, even after moving to the doormat, I realized it might take longer for the bird to recover than to frostbite my feet.

By this time, the rising sun was eye level, and shining on the bird feeder.

Our sunflower seed tube feeder has a saucer attached to the bottom and a wire cage around it that keeps squirrels out and lets small birds in. So I carefully placed the goldfinch on the feeder, safe from cats, close to food, facing the sun.

Twenty or thirty minutes later he was gone, though he may have been back later as one of the flock emptying the thistle feeder.

Of the disciplines available to me in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point where I was getting my degree 25 years ago, studying wildlife was far more popular than measuring trees, digging soil pits or analyzing water samples.

It seems to me most people have an urge to touch an animal (especially furry ones) or interact with it. For some people pets or livestock are good enough. For others, only wild animals will do.

For some of us, observation is fine, but there are always crazy tourists trying to pet the buffalo.

Some of the legitimate ways to handle live wildlife are catch and release fishing, helping band birds, getting certified for rehabilitation work or becoming a wildlife field biologist.

But sometimes wildlife comes to you. I heard of two incidences this fall where birds chose to interact with people.

The beginning of October I got a call from a friend who’d been sitting on her deck with out-of-town visitors when a blue jay convinced them to feed it by hand.

A few weeks later another friend told me about having a blue jay light on her shoulder as she was carrying seed out to fill the feeder.

Our consensus was that these must have been young birds who didn’t know better than to trust humans, but being from a relatively smart species, they’d learned it was possible to manipulate food sources.

I once read how to train chickadees to eat from your hand. It involves sitting as still as a bird feeder until they get used to you.

But I don’t get chickadees in my yard very often, and I don’t think the most prevalent birds, house finches, are as smart.

We have some sort of relationship anyway. They know when the backdoor opens, they don’t need to fly very far. Within a few minutes the disturbance is over, more seed’s been spread and it’s time to get back to eating.

What more trust could a birdwatcher ask for?

Why glass windows kill birds and how to prevent it

Bird Safe manual

Audubon Minnesota’s Bird Safe Building Guidelines manual is available free online.

Published Aug. 7, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Killer kitchen window adds to national bird death toll.”

2014 Update: Check Audubon Minnesota’s website for more information about their Bird Safe program: http://mn.audubon.org/project-birdsafe.

By Barb Gorges

It became an almost daily occurrence this past May: a soft thump on the glass as another visitor to our backyard and bird feeders hit the kitchen window.

I tried putting up big stripes of blue painter’s tape and that helped a little. Mainly, we needed to remember to check the yard for dazed birds before letting our bird dog out. Luckily, the couple we saw her take seemed to be the only window fatalities—that we knew about.

Migration seemed to be over after the first week in June. With just the regulars now, including the house finch with the white head and her friends, there have been no more collisions.

It’s the visiting birds, 25 other species in our yard, mostly during spring migration and not so much in the fall, which get confused by a window that reflects the trees. At least with the feeders within only feet of the window, they didn’t have a lot of momentum when they hit. But it wasn’t always feeder birds, and it wasn’t always that window. In fact, it is windows everywhere.

Audubon Minnesota, a state office of the National Audubon Society, came out with a booklet available online for free, Bird-Safe Building Guidelines, that explains the problem and solutions at the architectural level. Go to www.mn.audubon.org, where there is a link to the 40-page pdf, or put the booklet title in the website’s search window.

People love buildings with lots of natural light. If they are well-insulated, windows can save energy on lighting. But those glass-sided high-rises, and even residential windows, are calculated to kill hundreds of millions of birds per year in the U.S. Spring and fall migration are the most problematic times of year.

Anything that breaks up the glass expanse, like my painter’s tape (engineered to peel off easily), or screening, helps. It has to be applied to the outside surface, though. Waiting to clean the dust off the outside of your windows until after migration might help, too, as can drawing drapes and shades to prevent birds from seeing straight through your house to a window on the other side.

Scaring the birds away with items hanging in front of the window, things that move in the breeze, like flagging, or that move and shine, like old CDs, might do the trick.

At the architectural level, Bird-Safe Building Guidelines discusses ideas for new buildings and retrofitted buildings: netting, fritted glass, films applied to glass, etched glass designs, glass sloping to reflect the ground, taking into account proximity to habitat and feeding sites, and special glass making use of birds’ ability to see ultraviolet patterns we can’t. Problems occur mostly at the ground level and first few stories of buildings.

Then there is the problem of lit up buildings attracting night-flying migrants, especially during bad weather, and all the ill effects of light pollution in general. Turning off interior building lights at night saves money and birds, and so does making sure outdoor lights are not needlessly lighting the sky.

Our killer kitchen window, a six-foot wide replacement with sliding halves, currently is only half screened. The track is still there for the full screen, so we should order one and put it in place from early April to mid-June. All of the glass will be less reflective then and birds still colliding may bounce off the screen.

But next spring, before we let Sally out, we’ll check the area below the window for dazed birds. No need to increase the dog’s “life list.”