Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands


By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.

Find gifts for birders

Charley Harper puzzle

Environment for the Americas, the folks who organize International Migratory Bird Day, are offering this Charlie Harper puzzle titled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”

Published Dec. 6, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get creative with gifts for birders.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated. There are now newer editions of the field guides mentioned. Bird-friendly coffee and chocolate are more widely available now at natural food stores.

By Barb Gorges

A good gift is useful, educational or edible, if not homemade. If someone on your gift list truly cares about wild birds, they don’t want energy and resources harvested from sensitive bird habitats wasted on making junk.

Here’s my list, sorted somewhat by a recipient’s degree of interest in birds.

First, for anyone, armchair bird watcher to ornithologist, Houghton Mifflin has three new illustrated books.

“Letters from Eden, A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickefoose ($26) includes her watercolor sketches. A frequent contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, her bird and nature observations are often made in the company of her young children on their 80-acre farm in Ohio or from the 40-foot tower atop her house.

Zickefoose’s tower may have been her husband’s idea. He is Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and editor of “All Things Reconsidered, My Birding Adventures,” Roger Tory Peterson ($30).

Peterson was the originator of the modern field guide. From 1984 until his death in 1996, he wrote a regular column for the Digest. Peterson had the gift of writing about birds, bird places and bird people so anyone could enjoy his choice of topics. Anyone can enjoy this photo-illustrated book.

The third book, “The Songs of Wild Birds.” ($20) is a treat for eyes and ears. Author Lang Elliott chose his favorite stories about 50 bird species from his years of recording their songs. Each short essay faces a full page photo portrait of the bird. The accompanying CD has their songs and more commentary. My favorite is the puffin recording.

The field guide is the essential tool for someone moving up from armchair status. National Geographic’s fifth edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($24) came out this fall.

New are the thumb tabs for major bird groups, like old dictionaries have for each letter. It has more birds and more pages plus the bird names and range maps are updated.

Binoculars are the second most essential tool. If you are shopping for someone who hasn’t any or has a pair more than 20 years old, you can’t go wrong with 7 x 35 or 8 x 42 in one of the under $100 brands at sporting goods stores. You can also find an x-back-style harness ($20) there, an improvement over the regular strap.

Past the introductory level, a gift certificate would be better because fitting binoculars is as individual as each person’s eyes.

Spotting scopes don’t need fitting. However, if you find a good, low-end model, don’t settle for a low-end tripod because it won’t last in the field.

For extensive information on optics, see the Bird Watcher’s Digest Web site.

Bird feeders, bird seed, bird houses and bird baths are great gifts if the recipient or you are able to clean and maintain them. To match them with the local birds at the recipient’s house, call the local Audubon chapter or check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and Birdhouse Network sites.

You can make a gift of a Lab membership ($35), which includes several publications, and of course, there’s Audubon and its magazine ($20 introductory offer). Bird Watcher’s Digest ($20 per year), mentioned above, makes learning about birds fun, as does Birder’s World magazine ($25 per year).

For someone who wants to discuss identifying obscure sparrows and other topics of interest to listers, they might be ready for membership in the American Birding Association ($40). The ABA also has a great catalog available to everyone online. It’s filled with optics, gear and every bird book and field guide available in English for the most obscure places in the world.

The ABA tempts members with mailings for trips to exotic birding hotspots, as well as its annual meetings held in different parts of the country. Also check Bird Watcher’s Digest for nationwide bird festival listings.

One subscription valuable to an academic type who doesn’t already have access, is the Birds of North America Online ($40). Every species has as many as 50 pages of information and hundreds of references to studies.

For the computer literate, Thayer Birding Software’s Guide to Birds of North America, version 3.5 ($75), includes photos, songs, videos, life histories, quizzes and search functions.

After the useful and educational, there’s the edible. Look for organically grown products because they don’t poison bird habitat. The ABA sells bird friendly, shade grown coffee and organic chocolate through its Web site.

Coffee and other items are available also at the International Migratory Bird Day web site, and support migratory bird awareness and education.

If the person on your list is truly committed to the welfare of wild birds and wildlife in general, skip the trinkets such as the plush bird toys that sing and don’t add to their collection of birdy t-shirts.

Look for products that are good for the environment. These are items that are energy efficient, solar-powered, rechargeable, refillable, fixable, recyclable, made from recycled or organic materials, or are locally grown or manufactured.

Or make a donation in their name to an organization like Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy which work to protect bird habitat.

Presents along these lines would be great gifts for your friend or family member, and for birds and other wildlife, any time of year.

American Bird Conservancy: membership, research, advocacy, publications, gear, www.abcbirds.org.

American Birding Association: membership, publications, books, optics, gear, travel www.aba.org.

Birder’s World: magazine, http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com.

Bird Watcher’s Digest: magazine, bird info, bird festival listings and gear for sale, www.BirdWatchersDigest.com.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: membership, bird info, Citizen Science projects, www.birds.cornell.edu.

International Migratory Bird Day (Environment for the Americas): education, online store, www.birdday.org.

National Audubon Society: membership, magazine, research, advocacy, directory of chapters www.audubon.org.

North American Birds Online: Internet data base, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna.

Thayer Birding: software, www.thayerbirding.com.

The Nature Conservancy: membership, publications, gear, www.nature.org.

Writing Bird of the Week educates author

Birds of North America Online

The Birds of North America Online is a great website for finding a summary of what is known about a species. However, there is a subscription fee.

Published Oct. 10, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “What the ‘Bird of the Week’ has taught me.”

2014 Update: When I finish archiving Bird Banter columns at the end of January 2015, I will begin archiving “Bird of the Week.”

By Barb Gorges

In the summer of 2008 I committed to writing “Bird of the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s ToDo section for two years.

My idea was to help readers learn about birds more often than this column, known informally as “Bird Banter,” with its publication dependent on the WTE’s available space.

Two other developments inspired this idea. The first was the redesign of the WTE which introduced “sky boxes” at the top of pages that feature paragraph-long bits of information accompanied by attention-grabbing headlines and photos.

The second was Pete Arnold’s bird photography which he shares via email. I asked him if he would be interested in sharing his photos via newspaper.

Next, I examined Pete’s list of bird photos (I really don’t know how bird photographers get shots of such “flighty” animals!), identified 104 species WTE readers might see easily in the Cheyenne area and then assigned them to a week in which they might actually be seen here. Naturally, there was a dearth of species for winter and an abundance of species for summer.

How to sum up such interesting creatures in few words is a challenge I faced about 10 years ago when I wrote an educational CD for the National Audubon Society and the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish called “Wyoming Birds.” It was easy to write for children who might never have noticed birds before.

However, “Bird of the Week” readers would span bird appreciators, owning no binoculars or field guides, and local bird experts.

I decided on a mix of generalization—a glimpse of the bird in its Cheyenne area habitat—plus some unsuspected trivia I was betting more experienced birders might not know or had at least never mentioned to me.

My reference was Birds of North America Online, www.bna.birds.cornell.edu, available for the annual subscription fee of $42 per year. Accounts include video, photo and sound files as well as updates and search capability. Glad I didn’t have $2000 to buy the original 18,000-page print version when it first came out.

So how long does it take to write 60-80 words? About five minutes. But first it takes one to two hours to read the BNA species account. And it took an infinite amount of time to edit each bird’s paragraph—I make changes every time I read through my own writing.

Eventually I learned to give preference to the interesting factoids appropriate to the season the bird was featured. If it was spring and I was writing about a warbler that only visits Cheyenne during migration, I might focus on its interesting migration facts rather than its nesting or wintering habits.

Sometimes the reading in BNA is pretty tough sledding, unraveling sentences that are little more than diagrams of technical terms. Bird of the Week was a lot like a two-year home-study course in ornithology. So now I have a much broader understanding of how different birds solve problems of survival of the individual and perpetuation of the species.

There are another 220 more obscure species on the Cheyenne bird checklist. However, the problem with continuing the series would be whether Pete has photos or if readers would be disappointed if a species is not as easily seen as the first group.

Reader feed-back has been positive. Once I heard from a reader who noticed her first green-tailed towhee the same day it was featured. I consider that “mission accomplished.”

Thanks to the cooperation of Pete and the WTE staff, more people are more aware of what’s around them.

I wonder what else readers would like to know—and what I would learn by researching it.

Backyard hosts lively bird theater


The backyard can be the stage for many bird observations if it has what birds are looking for: food, water, shelter and lots of perches. This yard, pictured in May, has water, leaf mulch for towhees to kick through, flowering shrubs full of insects for insect-eating birds that are also thick enough to provide cover from predators. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published June 22, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Backyard hosts lively bird theater.”

2014 Update: The theatrics continue. BNA Online’s annual subscription fee is now $42 for 1 year, $75 for 2 years and $100 for 3 years.

By Barb Gorges

I could spend all day at the kitchen table this time of year. It has a great view of the backyard where avian dramas unfold by the minute.

The neighbor’s row of crabapple trees and our shrubs form the stage backdrop. Dappled sunlight shines through boughs overhead like spotlights. We’ve scattered props, most recently adding a birdbath.

Within minutes of filling it the first time, a house finch perched on the rim. It dipped to scoop up a drink and tilted its head back to swallow. I haven’t caught the mourning doves drinking yet. Doves and pigeons are the only birds that can suck water. However, they prefer their water at ground level, not on a pedestal.

Since it is a birdbath, a lot of splashing goes on. But most of the action is center and front, where we have the sunflower tube feeder. We go through more seed in May and June than we do the rest of the year.

It’s an energy intensive season. Laying eggs and feeding young takes a lot of calories. By the first of June I have a hard time telling streaky brown female house finches from streaky brown juveniles because both indulge in begging behavior.

I researched the differences through my new subscription to The Birds of North America Online (www.bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA). It’s the definitive modern compilation of bird information. A few years ago the 18,000-page hard copy was offered for $2000. Now all the information is available, searchable and constantly updated, for $40 a year.

Compare “Begging often so intense that to a casual observer, fledglings and parent may appear to be fighting,” with “Courtship feeding—female assumes a distinctive begging posture by fluttering her drooped wings, tilting her head up and giving excited call notes.”

When house finch parents feed young or males feed females, it’s normally regurgitated stuff. One day I observed another, more equal feeding strategy.

A female sat on a perch feeding. The activity around her was like Grand Central Station. Often birds would maybe get one seed before being replaced by an aggressor. Since the feeder is encased in grill work, birds frequently land on it before grabbing a perch.

This time I watched a male land above the feeding female but instead of scaring her off, he reached past her and took a seed, then she took one. They alternated several times.

An American Goldfinch (left) and a Lesser Goldfinch (right) inspect the thistle feeder before reaching down to the seed ports located below the perches. Photo by Barb Gorges.

An American Goldfinch (left) and a Lesser Goldfinch (right) inspect the thistle feeder before reaching down to the seed ports located below the perches. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Our thistle feeder didn’t get much action over the winter. It’s one of those that attempts to exclude house finches by placing the ports below the perches. One of the target species, goldfinches, didn’t arrive in our yard until May. It took a little practice for them to feel comfortable feeding while hanging upside down like bats.

One observant male house finch decided to give it a whirl. He actually was able to peck at the seed before losing his grip. Other house finches were watching and soon mobbed the feeder, tying up all six perches.

But none of them got further than a fluttering of wings. Finally, they all took off, leaving the thistle to the goldfinches. None have given the feeder another try.

Some of the seed-eating players prefer to wait for the chow to hit the ground. Lazuli buntings and mourning doves are fond of millet scattered on the patio. It gets to be quite a mess though.

Of course the day it was swept clean, two Eurasian collared-doves stopped in and didn’t find anything to eat. Since they live in the neighborhood year-round now, maybe they’ll give us another chance.

A migrating black-headed grosbeak also found no food. They always enjoy our shelf feeder, but with all the rain, I had decided to clean it and let it dry out.

Not all yard visitors are attracted to seed and feeders. A brown thrasher picked over our lawn and tree debris one day, looking for insects, as has a Swainson’s thrush we’ve seen several times.

A drawback to feeding a flock of house finches is that their constant squabbling drowns out other birdsong. By concentrating, I’ve been able to pick out the melody of a vireo in the background a couple times. One morning a green-tailed towhee was in full throat right outside the bathroom window, which also overlooks the backyard.

Lately, our dinner-time companion has been a western wood-pewee. It perches very uprightly on a wire, making finch posture look poor by comparison. Its head constantly turns watching for flying insects. Then it swoops out to nab one and returns to its perch.

Over the course of the summer the dinner theater productions will change. The crows have been quiet, but they’ll be back when their young fledge. Another month or so and those won’t all be large insects hovering over flowers. Some will be hummingbirds stopping by on their journey south.

Gazing at an aquarium is, I heard once, a way to lower one’s stress level. The antics of birds aren’t nearly as smooth and quiet as swimming fish, but gazing into our backyard aviary works for me.

Comparing robins and bluebirds as signs of spring

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird, photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 5, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Robins take up year-round residence.”

2014 Update: Check www.eBird.org for range maps for robins and bluebirds.

By Barb Gorges

What bird makes a good Wyoming sign of spring?

Spoiler alert: I’m about to disclose to you that one of the time-honored symbols of spring never entirely left last fall.

I’m talking about robins. I grew up in Wisconsin where the robin is the state bird and the prime grade-school example of avian seasonal migration. Imagine my surprise years later when I found my first wintering robin on a zero-degree day in December in southeastern Montana.

Wyoming has robins in winter, too, as does every one of the lower 48 states, with the greatest density in the southern states where we imagine robins should be in winter.

Range maps in bird field guides plainly show robins all across the lower 48, year round, with the exception of parts of the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Southwest being winter-only. Conversely, Canadians and Alaskans should see robins only during the spring/summer breeding season.

Do robins breeding in Wyoming migrate? After reading the species accounts in Birds of Wyoming by Doug Faulkner and The Birds of North America Online, I found no one has a definitive answer. Doug’s assessment: “Movements of American Robins in fall are highly complex and poorly understood in Wyoming.”

During September and October, we see large flocks of robins, but these may be northern robins passing through. We don’t know if some of the northern robins spend the winter here, thinking it’s balmier than Canada, or if they gather up some of our local robins and take them along to Florida.

It seems robins are fickle about where they spend their winters. Berries and other fruits are acceptable substitutes for their favorite warm-season food, earthworms, and so they will only stick around where there is fruit, and only while it lasts.

This winter, my neighbors’ junipers have a good crop of berries and just about every January afternoon I saw one or two robins over there snacking. In rural areas of the west, wintering robins are most likely to find food along rivers and creeks full of fruit-bearing shrubs or up in the junipers. The more fruit, the more robins.

So, why do we consider the robin a sign of spring? I think most people aren’t outside enough in winter, in the right place—near the fruit—to see the few robins around.

When spring comes, robins flocking during their migration peak in April are much more noticeable. People are spending more time outside then, or they might have the window open and hear the robins beginning to sing to establish territories and attract mates.

I’d like to suggest a different bird, and just as noticeable, as a better sign of spring in Wyoming. We need a sign of hope since winter weather spans as many as eight or nine months and February, the shortest month, drags on forever, especially this year being Leap Year.

Mountain bluebirds could work, except they fly past town. They cross our southern state border as early as the beginning of February, with migration picking up in March. The bright blue males are easiest to see. I see them west of town usually, flashing around fence posts as we go out for one last ice fishing trip to North Crow Reservoir or an early hike dodging snow drifts at Curt Gowdy State Park.

Interestingly, mountain bluebirds and robins are in the same family, the thrushes. Like robins, bluebirds concentrate on animals (invertebrates) for food during the breeding season and fruits in the winter.

If you check your field guide range map, you’ll see that there are mountain bluebirds wintering just south of Wyoming. With predicted climate changes, we could easily end up with bluebirds all winter too. Well, geez, that would leave the warblers as the only reliable, easy to see, true sign of spring. But they don’t show up until mid-April and May. That’s just too long a wait. For now, I’ll stick with looking for bluebirds.