Going where the gulls are

Ring-billed Gull

The Ring-billed Gull, one of the medium-sized gulls, is the most common gull to be seen around Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Nov. 25, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going where the gulls are adds species to life list.”

2014 Update: Another gull guide was published in 2007 in the Peterson Reference Guides series: Gulls of the Americas, by Steve N.G. Howell and Jon Dunn, published by Houghton Mifflin.

By Barb Gorges

It was obvious, based on time of which day and the location–early morning Saturday near a wetland in Fort Collins, Colo.–that the flock of four Subaru Outbacks and five other fuel efficient vehicles gathering belonged to birders, especially since one bore the plate “Skuas,” referring to a type of oceanic bird.

Another clue was that about half the vehicles were then left behind in the parking lot.

Birders carpool not only to lessen the necessity of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but because we’re sociable, and it’s easier to share sightings while enroute. It’s also easier to park where there isn’t a lot of room to pull off the road, which was the case at our first stop at the edge of Long Pond.

A local resident stopped to inquire what we were looking for. With nearly a dozen scopes on tripods set up, we were either peering through the windows of the waterfront homes on the far side or checking out the birds on the water.

We were on a gull trip this mid-November day. Our leaders, Doug Faulkner and Tony Leukering, had the expertise and the optics to find something beyond the most common species of the plains, the ring-billed gull.

My expertise lags far behind, but at least I don’t refer to them as seagulls. However, I wished I’d studied up the night before. Instead, I had to juggle my notes and my field guide with frozen fingers while gray chill also found my toes.

Squinting through my scope made my eyes water, increasing the difficulty of picking out how much black and gray marked the inside of a wingtip of a floating gull surrounded by a flock of common mergansers.

Birders sharing observations of particular feathers seen from about 400 yards away had it slightly easier because of the landmarks on the opposite shore, such as the green canoe, the overturned red canoe and the collection of chaise lounges.

Three gull species, herring, California and Thayer’s, were identified. The Thayer’s, normally an Arctic breeder wintering on the west coast, is considered rare in Colorado and has not yet made the records in Wyoming. I could add it to my life list, but not to my list of birds I can identify by myself.

Someone also picked out a large gull, white head with marbled brown body, and determined it to be a young great black-backed gull. It certainly was larger than the other gulls, and also far from home, the Atlantic seaboard.

As we wandered from lake to lake, we found a very pale gull normally seen along the northeastern and northwestern coasts of North America. The back of the glaucous gull lives up to its name which is Latin for a silvery, bluish color. I think I can add that species to my self-identifiable list, unless of course someday I have to compare it to the glaucous-winged gull, which strays much less often to Colorado and Wyoming from the west coast.

If you’ve only buzzed by Fort Collins on the Interstate admiring the snow on the peaks, or only shopped College Avenue, you might find it incredible that it’s a hot spot for rare gulls. However, one look at a map more detailed than a road atlas shows you are in lake country. The area at the foot of the foothills is pockmarked with ponds. All are manmade. Some reservoirs cover almost a square mile, making lakefront developments common.

Luckily, lakefront has been set aside in the Open Space system. One of our stops, Fossil Creek Reservoir, just west of the Windsor exit, has recently been developed for wildlife viewing.

No rare gulls at Fossil Creek, but I did pick up a new life species. The American Ornithologists’ Union has very recently determined that the four smallest of the 11 races of Canada goose are now to be known as a separate species, the cackling goose.

Without DNA testing equipment, birders will have to depend on relative size, color and location for identification. Doug said the geese we were seeing were cackling, migrating through from their tundra breeding grounds. For a long goose discussion, go to www.sibleyguides.com.

I also saw a species that I thought was a genuine life bird for me, only to discover once home that I saw it in New Mexico 10 years ago. The greater white-fronted goose’s name refers to its white face. Otherwise it is blah gray-brown. But it’s the orange bill, and orange legs if you can see them, which stand out in a crowd of cackling/Canadas. We counted six of them swimming in a line like the ducks on that pull-along toy I had as a toddler.

Like so many other field trips, this one was open-ended. A couple folks from Casper turned back around noon and a couple more of us from Cheyenne headed home around 2 p.m., the rest disbursing later. No new gulls were added without us, but we missed the trumpeter swan.

Tony said an increase in the sightings of rare gulls is partly due to increasing population and range thanks to people inadvertently providing more food sources, but also because more people are looking for gulls and more people are capable of picking out the rare species.

To become a gull expert, I should probably invest in that huge book, Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia by Olsen and Larsson. But nothing takes the place of field observation and the patient mentors I’ve met so far.

Rare birds don’t read field guides

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Lesser Black-backed Gull. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published October 3, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Going by the book doesn’t prove bird’s existence.”

2014 Update: Rare bird sightings in Wyoming continue to be a source of amazement and a topic of discussion.

By Barb Gorges

If a bird flies through the forest and there is no one to see it, does it exist?

Conversely, if the annual conference of the American Ornithologists’ Union is held in your state, will birds be found never before seen there?

Yes and yes. Several of the 500 attendees of the conference held in Laramie in early August observed what may be the first two records of lesser black-backed gull for Wyoming, if accepted by the Wyoming Rare Bird Records Committee.

One of the gulls was hanging out at Lake Hattie on the Laramie Plains and the other at North Gap Lake high in the Snowy Range.

Wyoming does not have a huge number of resident ornithologists or expert birders to cover our vast plains and mountain ranges so one has to wonder how many lesser black-backeds have visited previously.

The lesser black-backed is essentially a European species, but gulls are likely to travel long distances scouting new territory. North American birders started seeing this species in the winter along the Atlantic coast in the early 1970s.

Field guide range maps indicate at least a single record up to a few sightings every year for states in the eastern half of the U.S., but with a heavy concentration along the Front Range of Colorado.

This makes me smile. Several years ago I went on a late fall field trip led by Tony Leukering and Doug Faulkner to look for gulls at the reservoirs around Fort Collins. We saw several rarities.

Are these guys gull magnets? Or do they have more knowledge of how to recognize species that aren’t expected?

So I asked Doug about the new gull in Wyoming. He wrote back:

“You should look at Sibley’s Lesser Black-backed range map.  That one is pretty accurate, although as with most publications, it was already out-of-date before it hit the printers.

“LBBG is annual in winter in Colorado in small numbers (about 8-12 per winter; I often see 6 or more).  In fact, it is regular enough that the Colorado Bird Records Committee no longer requests documentation.

“Colorado’s first record is from 1976.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that the species really took off and started to occur annually, then in the early 2000s in relatively high numbers for an inland state.

“The Wyoming Bird Records Committee is reviewing documentation of one at Casper from winter 2004.  If accepted, that would be the first state record.

“LBBG has been slowly expanding, geographically, westward as evidenced not only by Colorado’s records, but also those from other states.  More interestingly, the species has broken out of its “rut” of only occurring in winter inland. It is now being found more often in summer (Wyoming’s two birds this year, plus several for Colorado and Nebraska in recent years), as well as earlier in the fall and later in the spring.”

How many observations does it take before the field guide maps are altered? Last winter a lesser goldfinch, easily distinguished from our usual American goldfinch, was seen at a Cheyenne feeder almost daily, for months. The Sibley Guide to Birds shows a couple green dots meaning that there were already a few records for Wyoming.

But then came this summer. We had one visit our feeder. And so did people from Green River, Casper, Buford and Newcastle who posted their observations on Wyobirds, the e-list for learning about birds in Wyoming (http://HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM/ archives).  Doug posted a report of small flocks around Guernsey when he birded the area.

Is this the beginning of a trend, an expansion of the lesser goldfinch range north or a one-time phenomenon? Time will tell.

Wyoming is woefully short of expert observers, though not short of people interested in watching birds. I take a lot of bird identification questions over the phone from people who want to know more about the birds in their yards.

On the other hand, I’ve also taken calls from visiting birders, who, having looked at the Atlas of Birds, Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles of Wyoming edited by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (http://gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/nongame), are quite positive that they have seen a first Wyoming record for a species they are very familiar with back home.

Are these visitors making a familiar species out of one of our similar local species, or have we locals not recognized an unusual species because we aren’t familiar with it?

The Wyoming Bird Records Committee judges the credibility of all rare bird records for the state. A few folks looking to bag state records have been deeply disappointed at the slow speed of our committee, but it is staffed by volunteer experts with full-time jobs and they do the best they can.

Us average birdwatchers are as important as the expert in documenting changes in the ranges of species. So how do we make our observations useful?

Study birds. Participate in data collection efforts like Project FeederWatch and eBird. Learn when and how to file a rare bird form. To request one, call the Wyoming Game and Fish regional office in Lander, 307-332-2688. And keep looking.

After all, as birdwatchers are fond of pointing out, the birds don’t read the books.

Fall birding is as exciting as spring

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebirds are an unusual find in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Oct. 2, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding not just a springtime joy anymore.”

2014 Update: Doug Faulkner is the author of “Birds of Wyoming,” a compendium of species distribution and status and other information published in 2010 by Roberts and Company. Doug currently works for an environmental consulting firm.

By Barb Gorges

The next time Doug Faulkner plans to come up from Colorado to bird Cheyenne, I hope to tag along again.

He’s one of those people who, after scanning acres of ducks, can look around and say, “Gee, it’d be nice to see a peregrine,” and wham, something nails a duck and seconds later we all get a chance to see a peregrine falcon standing on its prize on a sandbar in the middle of a drought stricken reservoir, only a mile south of Cheyenne’s city limits.

By the way, the colloquial name for the peregrine was duck hawk. Chicken hawk, a name I mentioned in my last column, referred to red-tailed hawks.

For whatever reason, perhaps years of attending children’s soccer games on Saturday mornings, I’ve never done much purposeful birding in the fall. Besides, it didn’t seem appealing because many birds are more difficult to identify than in the spring. They’ve molted out of their distinctive breeding plumage or they are the young of the year and haven’t acquired adult feathering.

Fall birding for me has always been just a matter of what crosses my path. So it was interesting to revisit spring birding haunts and see what was flitting. Technically, this excursion was during fall migration, even though it was the last weekend of summer.

Doug, who is a bird specialist for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory located at Barr Lake State Park outside Brighton, Colo., gathered up a group of six other birders for a second annual fall foray to Cheyenne.

First stop, where I met the group, was at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch by the horse barn, overlooking the riparian thicket of Crow Creek. I arrived earliest, but the vista was pretty quiet. Two big bird lumps were sitting in the treetops, one a turkey vulture and the other an unidentifiable hawk showing me only a speckled shoulder.

A lone car pulled into the avenue of cottonwoods and then stopped—a birder, of course. It was Gary Lefko, part of Doug’s group. He was studying a small bird lump in one of the trees, which in turn studied us. It had a faded red breast, white belly and a face like a bluebird. It hunched like a bluebird, but had its wings tight across its back where we couldn’t examine them for blueness.

Was it an eastern or a western bluebird? Mountain bluebirds have no red markings. When Doug came along at last, he pointed out the obvious field mark. Easterns have a red breast that comes up to their chins like a turtleneck sweater while westerns have the equivalent of a v-neck. So we had an eastern.

“O.K., we can go home now!” said Doug. Eastern bluebirds are rare enough here to be celebrated as the find of the day.

Back at the creek overlook, the turkey vulture took off, the hawk had gone and small birds were jumping. “Western tanager, western wood peewee, Townsend’s solitaire, ruby-crowned kinglet, Wilson’s warbler!” Everyone was calling something.

Some of these species, such as the tanager and later, the green-tailed towhee we saw by the office, come through my neighborhood in the spring on route to the mountains, but I had never seen them in the fall before.

The Wilson’s warblers were the most numerous. At Lions Park, they seemed as thick as butterflies in the garden. Over the course of the morning we also saw yellow-rumped, orange-crowned, Townsend’s and MacGillivray’s warblers plus a chestnut-sided warbler which had none of its chestnut-colored field markings this time of year.

Undoubtedly, any neighborhood in Cheyenne with mature trees is hosting these travelers. The week before I’d glimpsed a Townsend’s warbler in my own bushes as it fueled up on bugs in order to continue its trip from breeding grounds somewhere between southeast Alaska and Washington State to wintering grounds stretching from California into Mexico and Central America.

At the reservoir, the coots were easily identifiable, with the same all-black plumage. Pintails still had pointy tails and gadwalls were still black behind. We’d seen blue-winged and green-winged teal in the creek.

The birds that had lost the most coloring were the phalaropes, those sandpipers that swim in circles to churn up food. In the spring, the Wilson’s phalaropes are marked with red and black, but now they have winter plumage that is gray and white.

Then it was pointed out that these particular little whirling dervishes were red-necked phalaropes instead. They were just passing through from a summer spent high in the Arctic.

Since my North American bird field guides don’t show where these phalaropes winter, I had to do a little more research to discover that they prefer the open ocean, south of the Equator, off western South America. It’s amazing the endurance of a 1.2 ounce bird with a wingspan of only 15 inches.

I’m glad the visiting Colorado birders took me along for a bit. Birding in the fall, though challenging, turns out to be just as exciting as in the spring.

Fall bird migration infiltrates Cheyenne

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 19, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some migratory birds more obvious than others.”

2014 Update: I keep working on my warbler and shorebird identification skills in hopes I’ll find more migrating bird species.

By Barb Gorges

It isn’t a good idea to park in the shade in our driveway this time of year. Splatters of orange fruit are augmented with crunchy seeds. The robins are fattening up for migration.

The neighbors across the street have a lovely old mountain ash full of orange berries. The robins seem to know better than to defile a tree that provides their food source, so they come across to ours to perch and defecate.

It’s really not a problem. We park in the garage and the fruit stains disappear with a snowfall or two. The seeds get swept away with each pass of the snow shovel.

We’ve actually benefited because mountain ash trees have sprouted in our garden and last year one was big enough to transplant.

The robins are very obvious as they swoop back and forth across the street. If we’re lucky, they won’t eat all the berries right away and there will still be some for the Townsend’s solitaire if it spends the winter in our neighborhood again.

Just when the leaves begin turning yellowish is the right time of year to keep an eye open for leaf-sized yellowish birds flitting among them. I’ve already seen a couple Wilson’s warblers (black spot on top of the head) inspecting the bushes for insects.

Many migrating birds merely infiltrate the local landscape, the way warblers do. Others, such as the shorebirds, stop over in wet places that are only on the regular routes of committed bird watchers.

Doug Faulkner of Denver is one of those birders. Here’s the list he reported on the Wyobirds listserv for Cheyenne, Sept. 8. It includes local wet areas such as Lions Park.

 

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The sightings include: Wilson’s warbler, Townsend’s warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Cassin’s vireo, Empidonax sp. (flycatcher species), hermit thrush, Swainson’s thrush, black-headed grosbeak, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, pectoral sandpiper, stilt sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, least sandpiper, Baird’s sandpiper, red-necked phalarope, Wilson’s phalarope, Franklin’s gull, ring-billed gull, California gull, ducks, mostly mallard and northern shoveler.

I’m sure Doug saw other, more common species, including the Canada geese at Lions Park, but because they are common, they didn’t catch his interest.

I’m impressed by the list of sandpipers. These are the little brown birds with long legs that skitter at the edge of the water, probing the muck with their long bills, looking for invertebrate animals to eat.

Spotted sandpipers, which breed here in the summer, are not on Doug’s list and may have migrated already. However, the pectoral, stilt and Baird’s sandpipers are on their way back from nesting above the Arctic Circle.

When those three species migrate, they bustle right through here to spend the winter in southern South America.

The least and solitary sandpipers also breed in Alaska and Canada, but not quite as far north.

The least winters from the southern U.S. into the northern half of South America. The solitary prefers to winter further south, from the tip of Texas into Argentina.

“Our” sandpiper, the spotted, breeds all across the U.S., except for the southeast and far southwest, and doesn’t winter nearly as far south as the others mentioned above.

It’s really a pity that none of my six bird watching field guides have range maps that extend farther than central Mexico.

Instead, I depend on the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Ontario website, http://wildspace.ec.gc.ca/, to find out the rest of the story.

This oversight on the part of the field guides is either because the information wasn’t available at the time they were written, or because they are, after all, merely North American field guides.

But it leads to this provincial feeling that migratory birds are “our” birds and they merely visit lands to the south during inclement winter weather.

In truth, some species spend more time away than here, especially migrants passing through.

We don’t have an international airport in Cheyenne, but if you know where to hang out, where the travelers come to roost, this is a good time of year to catch a glimpse of a few fascinating foreigners.

Our berries, our insects and our muck are our gifts of hospitality.

Book review: “Birds of Wyoming,” by Doug Faulkner

Birds of Wyoming book

Birds of Wyoming, by Douglas Faulkner

Published July 7, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “”Birds of Wyoming” is a must have treasure.”

2014 Update: Information about birds is always changing, especially information about where birds are and when, which is the topic of this book. While much current information about Wyoming’s birds can be gleaned from www.eBird.org, this fills in historic information for all species and general information for less common birds.

By Barb Gorges

Birds of Wyoming by Doug Faulkner, c. 2010 by Roberts and Company Publishers, Greenwood Village, Colo., 404 pages, 8.25 x 10.25 inches, full color, $45.

The book, “Birds of Wyoming” by Doug Faulkner is here. You can find a copy at local and national booksellers.

The birdwatching community, state and national, has been waiting for this book ever since the University of Wyoming announced hiring Faulkner, a professional wildlife biologist and super birder, for the project enabled by a generous donation from Robert Berry.

This is not a field guide. Although it has color photos of our state’s 244 resident species, it won’t give you tips on identifying them. There are another 184 species, migrants and other regular visitors, with no photos.

Nor is it Oliver Scott’s “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” which gives directions to birding hotspots, but as you browse the new book, you’ll see some place names pop up again and again.

This book most resembles the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s bird atlas and Jane Dorn and Robert Dorn’s “Wyoming Birds,” but with much more discussion and information.

Each account will give you an idea of where, when and with what abundance a species occurs in Wyoming, and how wide spread it is in the world.

I found myself referring to the accounts in “Birds of Wyoming” often this spring as each migrating species made an appearance. I was able to find out if they breed in Wyoming and, if so, in what habitat, and found out just how uncommon it is to see a rose-breasted grosbeak in my backyard.

If you are new to birding in Wyoming, this book gives you much of that intimate knowledge of its avian life without having to be, or hang out with, an old timer.

In the first chapter Jane Dorn introduces the history of Wyoming ornithology, beginning with a French Canadian fur trader’s notes in 1805. Other chapters describe Wyoming bird conservation and management challenges. Robert Dorn neatly lays out the landforms of Wyoming and associated plants and birds. Unfortunately, unlike other scientific publications, no credentials are given for the eight authors of the chapters.

I hope the next edition comes with a more conventional map inside the covers, one with major landforms, cities, towns and public birding spots named on the map rather than numbered, with an accompanying alphabetical index with reference grid locations.

While Doug is listed as the author, he is quick to acknowledge the numerous people, including photographers, who contributed to the project. However, for many species he writes that more information is needed.

We need to get out and bird more and put our observations into a public database like www.eBird.org, instead of in a shoebox, before the next edition comes out in five or 10 years.

This is a big book, but if you want to learn about the birds of Wyoming, you’ll want your own copy.

 

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.

Turkey Vultures return again

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture, photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published Feb. 21, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “This spring watch for ‘TVs’ soaring above the area.”

2014 Update: Keith Bildstein is still researching Turkey Vulture migration: http://www.hawkmountain.org.

By Barb Gorges

Do you know where Wyoming turkey vultures spend the winter? It could be Venezuela.

Keith Bildstein, director of the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, is working on a migration study in which turkey vultures wintering in northwestern Venezuela have been tagged. He predicts bird watchers in western North America will see them this spring and report back to him.

Little is known about the migration of the “TV,” as birders refer to it, and even though it is a species with a stable population that is increasing northward, it’s better to do your research in advance of problems, said Bildstein, when I talked to him recently. Also, sometimes the new information will translate to less fortunate species.

Bildstein studied raptors for his dissertation so it is quite natural to find him at Hawk Mountain, the famous place where so many hawks pass on migration. What bothered him was that observers would refer to “just another turkey vulture.” He thought they deserved more respect than that.

Turkey vultures in eastern North America don’t migrate much except to get out of the cold—it is hard to chip meat off frozen carcasses.

Bildstein said satellite studies show TVs travel independently and individual birds may not travel the same route each year. They stop along the way and share roosts and food with the local vultures. Maybe they pick up pointers on great Florida real estate.

Meanwhile, when birds of the western subspecies head south, they travel down through Mexico, Central America and into Columbia and Venezuela, possibly heading as far as Argentina. On the wintering grounds they raise the population of vultures to four times that of the year-round resident subspecies. The smaller resident birds are crowded into marginal habitat, Bildstein said.

Two of the places the “gringo” vultures like to hang out are the zoos in Barquisimeto and Maracay. Last winter zoo folks told Bildstein about a tagged TV they found, which turned out to be part of a study in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Bildstein and Adrian Naveda, a biologist from Maracay, put their heads together and designed the northward migration study, counting on the help of the legions of birdwatchers in North America.

It was easy to gather the visiting vultures. Zoo management cleared out one of the aviaries, stocked it with dead chickens from the market, waited for the vultures to walk in, closed the door and tah-dah, 100 vultures ready for tagging. However, grabbing birds with 67-inch wingspans probably wasn’t easy.

Bildstein has had one report of a tagged bird so far. It was found shot 45 miles north of the release site. The rest of the birds should be migrating along the coast. In early morning, the warm ocean creates small thermals near shore, giving the TVs an early start. Then it’s a matter of riding one thermal after another over land all day long, day after day. As many as 2,000,000 turkey vultures have passed by an observation point in one season.

Here in Cheyenne, we may see TVs as early as March and definitely will by April. They have favorite roosting spots in the Avenues and are often seen circling over the cemeteries. Recently they have been noticed far into the summer, however, the nearest nest is probably by Guernsey, according to Doug Faulkner, who is working on the definitive book about Wyoming birds for the University of Wyoming.

OK, this is where you come in. Let’s review TV i.d. The most common large birds flying over Cheyenne in the spring, summer and fall are the turkey vulture and the Swainson’s hawk, which, incidentally, spends the winter in Argentina and shares the vultures’ migration route.

As they soar overhead, look at the underwing patterns. The leading (front) edge of the Swainson’s is light and the trailing edge is dark. Turkey vultures have the reverse: dark on the leading edge and light, actually silvery, on the trailing edge. Seen up close, they have red-skinned, featherless heads.

If you see one of the marked birds, it will have either a red tag with white numbers or a blue tag with black numbers wrapped over the leading edge of the wing, visible from top or bottom.

If you see one of these birds, you need to make note of the date, specific location, color and number of the tag, which wing it is attached (the bird’s right or left) and the circumstances of the sighting, whether the bird was alone or in a group of vultures, flying, perched, feeding or roosting. Dead birds should also be reported.

Report sightings to: Keith Bildstein, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Acopian Center for Conservation Learning, 410 Summer Valley Road, Orwigsburg, PA 17961; Bildstein@hawkmtn.org; 570-943-3411, ext. 108. All reports will be recognized and individuals reporting tagged birds will receive summary information about the study.

If you would like to print your own copy of the “Wanted” poster, go to http://www.hawkmountain.org.

The February issue of Smithsonian magazine tells of the demise of millions of vultures in India in just ten years due to ingestion of a new livestock antibiotic while they feed on dead cattle. It has led to a terrific increase of wild dogs and, in turn, human cases of rabies. Valuable time was lost puzzling it out and there is no guarantee vulture populations will ever recover.

Though turkey vultures are the widest ranging of the vulture species, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, and probably the most numerous vulture species in this hemisphere, everything that can be learned about them helps keep them that way.

To learn more to marvel over about turkey vultures, such as their terrific sense of smell, the way the young protect themselves and the sounds they make, go online to All About Birds, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Turkey_Vulture.