How to become a birdwatcher

Published May 2, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Common Grackles, Robin LaCicero, Audubon Photography Awards 2018

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1Notice birds.

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

Step 2Watch the birds for a while.

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

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

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

Step 3Make notes about what you see.

Or sketches, if you are inclined.

Step 4Bird ID

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

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

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

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

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

Step 5Go where the birds are.

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

Step 6Invite the birds to visit you.

Plant trees and shrubs and flowers and use no pesticides. Put out a bird bath, put out a feeder. Keep them clean. Keep cats indoors. I have more detailed advice on bringing birds to your backyard here: https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/basic-wild-bird-feeding/.

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

Step 7 – Join other birdwatchers.

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

Step 8 – Give back to the birds.

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

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

Step 9 – Call yourself a birdwatcher or a birder.

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

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

“Cheyenne Birds” book signing and bird talk Dec. 14

Book signing and bird talk Dec. 14 at Riverbend Nursery, noon – 2 p.m.

Pete and I will be doing a “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” book signing and winter bird feeding talk at Riverbend Nursery, 8908 Yellowstone Road, Cheyenne, Dec. 14 from noon – 2 p.m. Our talk will be at 1:30 p.m. –Santa shows up at noon, I think.

You may bring an already purchased copy to be signed or buy one at Riverbend Nursery or other outlets–see https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/.

Local Author Day, Cheyenne

Saturday, September 14, 2019, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Laramie County Library

2200 Pioneer Ave., Cheyenne, Wyoming

I will be one of the authors from around the region selling and signing my books:

Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds and my other book,

Quilt Care Construction and Use Advice, How to Help Your Quilt Live to 100.

This year the library is partnering with Arts Cheyenne for the Cheyenne Arts Celebration “to celebrate a large and diverse collective of local artists.”

Make a day of it–get your lunch or snack at the Library Cafe! The entire event closes at 4 p.m.

Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer

Greater Sage Grouse males fighting for dominance on a lek in Sublette County, Wyoming, covered with snow. These birds are always trying for a better spot on the lek in hopes that they are able to breed with the females. Photo by Elizabeth Boehm. Courtesy National Audubon Society.

Published Aug. 11, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as “Audubon Photography Awards feature Pinedale photographer”

By Barb Gorges

            Last month, a familiar name appeared on my screen, “Elizabeth Boehm.”

            I was reading an email from the National Audubon Society listing the winners of the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards.

            I have never met Elizabeth in person. But she was one of the people who replied when I put out a request on the Wyobirds e-list for photos of the few bird species we didn’t have for photographer Pete Arnold’s and my book published last year, “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.” She generously shared six images.

            With my similar request on Wyobirds back in 2008 for “Birds by the Week” for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Pete supplied most of the 104 photos (the others were stock), and he contributed 93 for the book. Here’s the small world connection: Pete is Elizabeth’s neighbor whenever he and his wife visit his wife’s childhood home in Pinedale.

            Now here is the big world connection: Elizabeth won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards in the professional category. To qualify as a professional, you must make a certain amount of money from photography the previous year.

            A week later, Audubon magazine arrived and there, printed over a two-page spread, like the grand prize winner, was Elizabeth’s winning photo: two male sage-grouse fighting on an entirely white background of snow.

            I decided it was time to get to know Elizabeth better and interviewed her by phone about her prize-winning photography. Elizabeth won the Wyoming Wildlife magazine grand prize a couple years ago and one year she was in the top 10 for the North American Nature Photography Association. Her photos have been published in Audubon magazine. “I was totally surprised,” she said of her latest win.

            More than 8,000 images were submitted by 2,253 U.S. and Canadian photographers. Categories included professional, amateur, youth (13-17 years old), Plants for Birds (bird and a plant native to the area photographed together) and the Fisher Prize (for originality and technical expertise).

            Elizabeth started shooting landscapes and wildflowers 25 years ago, then started selling images 10 years later, adding wildlife to her subjects. Now she works her day job only two days a week.

            Of her winning image she said, “I usually go out in the spring. I know the local leks. I like snow to clean up the background. The hard part of photographing fights is they are spontaneous. It’s kind of a fast, quick thing.”

The males fight in the pre-dawn light for the right to be the one that mates with all the willing females. “I set up the night before or in the middle of the night. It’s better waiting and being patient,” she said.

Elizabeth visits leks one or two times a week March through April. This past spring was too wet for driving the back roads. Even the grouse weren’t on the leks until late. They don’t like snow because there is nowhere to hide from the eagles that prey on them.

            This winning photo is from three or four years ago. Elizabeth came across it while searching her files for another project and realized it could be special with a little work.

Audubon allows nothing other than cropping and a few kinds of lighting and color adjustments. At one point, Audubon requested Elizabeth’s untouched RAW image. See the 2019 rules, and 2019’s winning photos, at https://www.audubon.org/photoawards-entry. Her camera is a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon 500 mm EF f/4L IS USM lens. The photo was taken at 1/1500 second at f/5.6, ISO 800.

            In September, National Audubon will finalize the schedule for the traveling exhibit of APA winners.

            Elizabeth sells prints at the Art of the Winds, a 10-artist gallery on Pinedale’s Main Street. You can also purchase images directly from her at http://elizabethboehm.com. She offers guided local birding tours and is also the organizer for the local Christmas Bird Count.

Photographers are a dime a dozen in the Yellowstone – Grand Teton neighborhood where Elizabeth shoots. She works hard to have her work stand out. She also donates her work to conservation causes like Pete’s and my book which is meant to get more people excited about local birds and birdwatching.

            Look on the copyright page of “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” for the list of Elizabeth’s contributions. You can find the book online through the University of Wyoming bookstore, the Wyoming Game and Fish store and Amazon, etc.

In Cheyenne it’s at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Riverbend Nursery, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s Pink Boutique, Barnes and Noble, PBR Printing and out at Curt Gowdy State Park.

Aug. 10 “Cheyenne Birds” book signing at B & N

Pete Arnold and I will be doing a book signing Aug. 10 at the Barnes & Noble store in Cheyenne, 1851 Dell Range Blvd. The signing will be 1 – 5 p.m.

At 1:30 p.m. I’ll do a talk, “What Birds Want from Your Backyard” followed by Pete talking about wildlife photography.

You are welcome to bring a book you have already purchased or buy one at the store.

While we’ve had several book signings around town at the different shops that carry our book, this is the first one at a book store. And it’s Barnes & Noble. Back in 1979, before B & N opened stores everywhere, I visited the flagship store in New York City. It was overwhelming. Multiple floors crammed with books on every subject. I wanted to read them all. And now “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” has joined the catalog!

Barb

P.S. Books are also available in Cheyenne at the Cheyenne Depot Museum, Wyoming State Museum, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, Cheyenne Pet Clinic, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Riverbend Nursery, Cheyenne Pet Clinic and PBR Printing. And also at the Curt Gowdy State Park visitor center and the University of Wyoming bookstore in Laramie. And online at the UW bookstore, Game and Fish, as well as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Cheyenne Bird News – May 2019

May 16 – Bird talk & book signing, May 18 – Big Day Bird Count, May 20 – Habitat Hero garden ribbon-cutting

“Cheyenne Birds by the Month” bird talk and book signing Thursday, May 16, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m., Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central Ave., with author Barb Gorges and photographer Pete Arnold. The talk will be about backyard bird safety. Books will be available for sale. To find where else the books are available in Cheyenne, Laramie and online, go to https://yuccaroadpress.com/books/.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, May 18 – Join Cheyenne Audubon anytime between 6:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., birding with the group, to help us find as many bird species in one day around town as possible. We start at Lions Park, then bird Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the Grasslands Research Station. Call Mark, 307-287-4953, to find us. Or bird on your own and report to Mark. Or come to the tally May 19, 4 p.m., Perkins Restaurant, 1730 Dell Range Blvd.

Wyoming Hereford Ranch birding, early May.

You are invited to the ribbon-cutting May 20, 3 p.m. for the Habitat Hero Demonstration Garden at the Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities headquarters, 2416 Snyder Ave. A few words from dignitaries and light refreshments.
The garden showcases Water Smart Landscapes that save water and are wildlife friendly. Bee Smart! Water Smart!
Contact Dena, BOPU, degenhoff@cheyennebopu.org, 637-6415.

C

“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.