Winter raptors


Ferruginous Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Published Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter raptor marvels, mysteries show up in southeast Wyoming.”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I drove over to join the Laramie Audubon Society on their mid-November raptor field trip on the Laramie Plains.

It was a beautiful day that makes you forget all the previous white-knuckle drives over the pass. However, what’s good weather for driving isn’t always good for finding raptors.

Trip leader Tim Banks checked his intended route the day before and found nary a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle. So instead, we drove across the Laramie Plains on a route his chapter frequently takes for general birding.

The reason for our first stop was a mystery, but then the broken branch stub of a lone cottonwood across the road became a great horned owl. However, a rough-legged hawk and a northern harrier were too distant to enjoy.

Finally, at Hutton Lake, out of the birdless sky, the wind picked up and kicked out a golden eagle, two bald eagles, and a ferruginous hawk.

Three weeks before, on a Cheyenne Audubon field trip at Curt Gowdy, we saw two bald eagles in the canyon. Another day at the park, Mark spotted three checking out his stringer of fish.

Bald eagles are marvelous looking, but I also marvel at their history, from endangered species to birds seen three times in three weeks.

Bald eagles were first federally protected in 1940. Later they were classified as endangered. Banning the pesticide DDT and educating people not to shoot them allowed their numbers to increase. In 1995 they were reclassified as merely threatened. They were completely delisted in 2007, though they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While bald eagles do breed in Wyoming, there are more here in the winter, migrating from farther north. Fish are their favorite food (carrion is second choice) so looking for them around reservoirs and Wyoming’s larger rivers is good strategy, especially if there are big cottonwoods for them to roost in.

We all recognize the adult bald eagle, dark brown with white head and white tail, but until they are about 4 or 5 years old, they are dark with splotchy white markings like those of young golden eagles.

Golden eagles never came quite as close to extinction as bald eagles, but they were targeted by stock growers. In 1971, one man confessed to killing many of the 700 found shot or poisoned near Casper.

Golden eagles live in Wyoming’s grasslands and shrublands year-round. They might choose to nest on cliffs. And they prefer eating rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the occasional new lamb if the rancher isn’t watching.

If you see a massive raptor flying in Wyoming in the winter, it is probably an eagle. Balds and goldens have wingspans about 80 inches long.


Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

But if it is a smaller dark bird, wingspan only 50-plus inches, with a neater black and white pattern under the wing, it might be a rough-legged hawk.

Every winter they come down from their Arctic breeding grounds, sometimes right into Cheyenne, wherever there’s a power pole perch, open land, and mice, voles or shrews. It’s a break from eating lemmings all summer.

They were also shot at, but like all migratory birds, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

For me, the most fascinating raptor we saw on the Laramie Plains is less common: a ferruginous hawk. Its name refers to the color of rusted iron because its top side is a reddish brown. Its belly is a creamy white, slightly spotted, compared to the streaky rough-legged’s. Both have feathers all the way down their legs.

However, some sources say the ferruginous shouldn’t have been in Wyoming in November. They are almost all supposed to migrate south in October and return in March.

Some field guides show the Colorado and Wyoming border as the north boundary of their winter range. I think that winter range boundary at the state line may have more to do with the greater number of birders in Colorado in the past who could distinguish between ferruginous and rough-legged. But there are now a dozen Laramie Plains and Cheyenne-area eBird records for ferruginous from November through February within the past three years.

Guess I can no longer assume in winter any large dark hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk is a rough-legged. It might be a ferruginous.

Meanwhile, we can all brush up on our hawk identification skills at or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.


Bird of the Week: Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl. Photo by Pete Arnold.

Night vision, acute hearing and quiet, soft-edged feathers are the tools needed for successfully pouncing on nocturnal prey. Because owls regurgitate pellets of inedible parts, we know they prey on everything from insects to ducks. In mid-winter the normally solitary birds of a pair begin hooting, “duetting,” and claim the old nest of another species. There’s lots of work ahead since the owlets won’t be fully independent until fall.

Published Feb. 11, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Text by Barb Gorges, photo by Pete Arnold.

Owls are among us

Great Horned Owls

What the crows fear most is that Great Horned Owls will move into the neighborhood and raise a family that needs a constant supply of prey. Courtesy USFWS.

Published Jan. 5, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Owls are among us. Here’s how to tell if the elusive bird is lurking in your Cheyenne neighborhood.”

2015 Update: And spring brought reports of owlets, including three celebrities from a nest in Lions Park.

By Barb Gorges

In late November, Mark and I became aware that a flock of crows, also known as a murder of crows, was convening just before sunset in a neighbor’s big spruce tree.

They were very loud, very raucous, as if they were a lynch mob yelling for noose justice.

Our double-paned windows are somewhat of a sound barrier, but when we let the dog out, we were bombarded with enough noise to overwhelm a backyard cookout.

Was there an owl roosting in the spruce? It’s a big tree, probably planted when the neighborhood was new 50-60 years ago, so you can’t easily see inside, even when standing beneath it.

Or had the crows decided to establish a roost in our neighborhood? That was an unbearable thought.

Thanksgiving morning, while I was out sweeping up sunflower seed hulls from under our bird feeder and throwing the ball for the dog, the crows sounded even more agitated—gathered in a spruce even closer to our house. “There must be an owl within those thickly-needled branches,” I thought. “And he isn’t getting any sleep after a night of hunting.”

The next morning, just before sunrise, I lifted the window shade and saw a lump on the bare branch of our big green ash tree. Yep, a great horned owl. I told the dog she would have to wait a few minutes before she could go out.

The owl was perched about a foot away from a small squirrel nest made of dry leaves stuffed into a vortex of small branches. Leaving the kitchen lights off, I pulled out my binoculars and there was just enough light to see which way the owl was facing. It wasn’t surprising that it was facing the squirrel nest, bobbing its head up and down in a circular way, to get a better fix on a squirrel probably trying desperately not to be heard breathing.

There’s a bigger nest, or drey, on the other side of the alley. Ours looks like it is barely big enough for one squirrel, much less the three scampering around our yard every day, teasing the dog.

I was surprised that the owl didn’t just poke a taloned foot or sharp beak into that pile of leaves. But great horned owls prefer to feed in openings where they can perch and then wing after prey they hear or see, and pounce, pinning it to the ground. Eventually, this owl spread its wings and flew off.

No more mobbing crows here, however, owls have come up in recent conversations with two women I know, one living east of town and one on the northwest edge of Cheyenne. Both women were pretty sure their local owls were knocking off rabbits, the great horned’s favorite food. And both women seemed fine with that, noting that there seemed to be bunny abundance this year.

I’ve talked to my share of folks who complain when an avian predator grabs a meal, especially if the prey is a cute songbird or furry animal. So in addition to getting reports on owl activity, it was gratifying to hear people appreciate owls, even for their feeding habits.

If you are connected to any sources of birding news, you know that this winter there is another irruption of snowy owls, but in the Northeast and upper Midwest, rather than the Great Plains, as it was two years ago. Another shortage of lemmings in the Arctic, forcing them south, I guess.

Snowy owls like to be out in the open, being birds of the tundra, even if it’s the middle of the day, making them relatively easy to pick out when there isn’t too much snow acting as camouflage.

So how many great horned owls are among us, shrouded in a cloak of nocturnal invisibility or daytime coniferous cover? What about the smaller, less common owls of southeastern Wyoming: eastern screech-owl, long-eared owl, short-eared owl?

Is there a great horned owl in your neighborhood? Look for the signs: angry crows, the odd rabbit leg on the sidewalk, a large bird flashing through the beam of your headlights, and even the chunky silhouette, the size of Harry Potter’s snowy owl, in a tree or on a fencepost at dawn or dusk.

Don’t begrudge your dog’s request to be let out on a winter’s evening or just before dawn. Follow and take a look around.

Owl is new neighbor

Great Horned Owl

If you hear a mob (or “murder”) of crows in your neighborhood, look to see if they found an owl. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 24, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some birds aren’t crowing about neighbor.”

2015 Update: Use the search box or the list of topics to the right to find the column about owls written last year.

By Barb Gorges

As I turned off the hairdryer a little after 7 a.m. one morning recently, I heard the end of a ring. Hoping it wasn’t the last, I grabbed the phone. It was my neighbor across the alley, Sue.

“That owl is in the tree again, just west of you and the crows are picking on it.”

Naturally, I immediately abandoned my comb, grabbed binoculars and headed for the alley.

Sue was there and coached me until I was able to see the great horned owl myself, ensconced in spruce branches.

One cawing crow flew at the owl, waggling its claws in its face, but the owl didn’t budge.

The crow returned to a safe perch on the powerline, flaring its fan-shaped tail. Ravens have wedge-shaped tails and haven’t, apparently, moved into our neighborhood yet.

Sue’s neighbor across the street thinks this might be the owl they had hanging around a couple years. Sue thought maybe it liked our alley because there’s a yard light that can illuminate scurrying rodents, though a nocturnal hunter like the owl is well adapted for working in the dark.

Great horned owls prey on wildlife as large as Sue’s small dog, but she was more concerned about the owl’s welfare and us disturbing it. So after another good look at the avian Buddha, I returned to my yard and morning chores.

Meanwhile, the lone crow had succeeded in attracting at least five others to its cause (get the pun?).

Two were in my tree, heckling from the back row. Two swayed on the cable TV line, trying to catch their balance and dignity without missing their timing for hurling invectives.

I couldn’t see the spruce any more, but it sounded like two more crows were in there with the owl. They carried on for at least another half hour.

A few weeks before, before Christmas, Sue had left an owl message for me about 7:15 a.m. which I didn’t pick up until much later, but I could remember hearing a mob of crows right about then.

The best part of this owl experience has been to find someone happily excited about having a natural predator in the neighborhood, though the crows are not.

Often enough I get calls from people concerned that hawks are eating the birds at their feeder. Isn’t that what sharp-shinned hawks are supposed to do? Isn’t a hawk a bird too?

I just figure, when I put out seed, I’m feeding herbivores directly and indirectly feeding carnivores, whether they come to my yard or not.

Great horned owls prefer bigger prey than finches and sparrows. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s on-line field guide mentions they especially like hares and rabbits.

I know we have plenty of cottontails hopping around the neighborhood at 5 a.m. The dog is always trying to drag me along after one whenever we get to do the paper route.

Squirrels are on the list too. We have plenty of those. Five of them come by every morning to sample our sunflower seed.

“….and the occasional domestic cat,” adds the CLO. With my luck it would be my cat on her annual accidental outdoor foray whose bones and hair get turned into owl pellets, instead of the loose cats that defile neighborhood gardens and terrorize wildlife.

Mammals make up three-quarters of the average great horned owl’s diet, though 50 species of birds have been recorded as prey, from songbirds to grouse, herons, ducks, geese, hawks, and even other owls.

I wonder if the owl I saw was house-hunting as well. Mid-winter is when owls announce their territories and some may begin nesting in February. They have to start early because incubation takes a month and getting the young airborne takes another two and a half to three months.

However, great horned owls are lazy. They prefer to use old hawk nests in big trees and I haven’t noticed any around here. Otherwise they are comfortable in a greater variety of habitats than any other owl.   Wouldn’t it be fun to have owls for neighbors? It would mean our 50-year-old suburbanized neighborhood has an original piece of the natural mosaic, even though the prairie and its creek-side cottonwood fringe have been swapped for lawns and evergreens.


Bird Alert [2002]: Two sightings of the red-bellied woodpecker have been reported in the Pioneer Park neighborhood.

This woodpecker, which is normally seen in eastern Nebraska and further east, has a wide red patch covering the entire back of its neck, but has barely any red on its belly.

Please report additional sightings.

Bird i.d. at a distance–and close up

White-faced Ibis

The White-faced Ibis’s white face markings are difficult to discern from a distance when trying to distinguish if from the similar Glossy Ibis. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 16, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Learn to appreciate birds from a distance.”

2014 Update: Andrea Orabona is still the Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame bird biologist.

By Barb Gorges

Identification of birds in the field is based on patterns: color, shape, behavior, location, and voice, because even with binoculars, an impression is all we get.

The skillful birder knows just what to key in on for each kind of bird. To distinguish two of the large, soaring birds around Cheyenne this summer, key in on the black and white pattern on the underside of the wings.

Swainson’s hawks have the forward half, or leading edge of the wing light and the trailing edge of the wing dark. Turkey vultures, which seem to be sticking around instead of migrating through Cheyenne, are just the opposite. Plus their wings tilt upward in a shallow “v.”

The sparrows I like best are the ones with distinct markings. Half a dozen white-crowned sparrows, their heads marked with alternating black and white stripes, were in our backyard the last week of April and first week of May, singing non-stop all day until they continued their migration to spend summer in the mountains.

Some birds are so distinct, a silhouette is enough. Such is the case for white-faced ibis, several of which have been reported the last couple weeks at reservoirs around southeastern Wyoming. I glimpsed one wading in Crystal Reservoir on May 5.

Certainly the white on this ibis species’ face is hardly enough to justify its name. You’d think it would be named for that incredible bill. Look up a picture of this exotic-looking shorebird to understand how amazed I am when I see one.

Short of putting bird food on the windowsill or getting trained or licensed to handle live wild birds for research or rehabilitation, birders don’t usually get very close to birds, especially to owls.

If you are very lucky, you may notice one imitating a lump of tree trunk as it naps during the day. Otherwise, all you have to go on are signs and sounds: a hoot in the dark, a rabbit leg on the lawn, wing marks in the snow or pellets under the tree.

Andrea Cerovski, Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame bird biologist, is on tour this year with Jupiter, a great horned owl.

During their appearance at the April Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon meeting, Jupiter viewed the room from his position on Andrea’s glove.

His eyes were huge and black and he stared back at the audience. He is new to the lecture circuit and was finding everything to be of interest, especially the Cub Scout den that came in. Perhaps the high voices of young children reminded him of squeaking prey.

Jupiter’s feet, with their huge talons, restlessly renewed their grip on the glove. His beak, though short, has to be sharp enough to shred flesh. His soft-edged feathers, were he to hunt, break the sound of his flight so prey wouldn’t hear his approach until too late.

Hissy, the resident great horned owl at the Wyoming Children’s Museum in Laramie, has had a lot more public exposure and seemed rather bored when introduced at the Audubon Wyoming reception there a few days later.

Because their mottled coloring camouflages the contours of their closed wings, it takes a close look to see why these two birds are not in the wild. Each has a mangled, unusable wing, due to collisions with man-made obstacles.

I’m like many people who wish they could communicate with wild animals. I want them to respond to me, yet when I sat still enough that a mountain bluebird foraged three feet away, as happened recently and unexpectedly, I was happy to be accepted as nothing but a nonthreatening part of the landscape.

But I’m glad the law bans people from making pets of wild birds. We’ve interfered enough already, especially by changing many of their habitats.

When identification is especially vexing, I want to hold the bird in my hand. But if you’ve ever taken ornithology and studied bird skins, or “birds on a stick,” you know that a bird in hand, out of context, can be just as vexing.

Then there’s the occasional dead bird. For any dead bird, anytime of year, bag it. Pull a plastic bread bag over your hand like a glove. Pick up the bird and pull the bag inside out over the bird and tie the bag shut. Then double-bag it and take a close look at it if you like, before disposing of it.

After June 1 the county environmental health department’s system will be in place for examining dead birds, especially black birds, for West Nile virus.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to see live wild birds, some preparing to nest and some just passing through in migration, join Audubon members on the Big Count this Saturday. You’ll never believe how many kinds of birds there are here unless you see them for yourself.