Bird-finding improves

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Strycker’s book is due out Oct. 10, 2017.

Published August 20, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird-finding improves from generation to generation.”

By Barb Gorges 

When your interest in birds takes you beyond your backyard, you need a guide beyond your bird identification book. That help can come in many forms—from apps and websites to a trail guide book or local expert.

Noah Strycker needed a bird-finding guide for the whole world for his record-breaking Big Year in 2015. His book, “Birding without Borders,” due out Oct. 10, documents his travels to the seven continents to find 6,042 species, more than half the world total.

In it, he thoughtfully considers many bird-related topics, including how technology made his record possible, specifically www.eBird.org. In addition to being a place where you can share your birding records, it’s “Explore Data” function helps you find birding hotspots, certain birds and even find out who found them. Strycker credits its enormous global data base with his Big Year success.

Another piece of technology equally important was http://birdingpal.org/, a way to connect with fellow enthusiasts who could show him around their own “backyards.” Every species he saw during his Big Year was verified by his various travelling companions.

Back in 1968, there was no global data base to help Peter Alden set the world Big Year record. But he only needed to break just over 2,000 species. He helped pioneer international birding tourism through the trips he ran for Massachusetts Audubon. By 1981, he and British birder John Gooders could write “Finding Birds Around the World.” Four pages of the nearly 700 are devoted to our own Yellowstone National Park.

When I bumped into Alden at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (a birding hotspot) in 2011, he offered to send me an autographed copy for $5. I accepted, however, until I read Strycker’s book, I had no idea how famous a birder he was.

As Strycker explains it, interest in international birding, especially since World War II, has kept growing, right along with improved transportation to and within developing countries, which usually have the highest bird diversity. However, some of his cliff-hanging road descriptions would indicate that perhaps sometimes the birders have exceeded the bounds of safe travel.

For the U.S., the Buteo Books website will show you a multitude of American Birding Association “Birdfinding” titles for many states. Oliver Scott authored “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” for the association in 1992. Robert and Jane Dorn included bird finding notes in the 1999 edition of their book, “Wyoming Birds.” Both books are the result of decades of experience.

A variation on the birdfinding book is “the birding trail.” The first was in Texas. The book, “Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail,” enumerates a collection of routes connecting birding sites, and includes information like park entrance fees, what amenities are nearby, and what interesting birds you are likely to see. Now you can find bird and wildlife viewing “trails” on the Texas Parks and Wildlife website. Many states are following their example.

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The Wyoming Bird Trail app is available for Apple and Android smartphones.

People in Wyoming have talked about putting together a birding trail for some years, but it took a birding enthusiast like Zach Hutchinson, a Casper-based community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, to finally get it off the ground.

The good news is that by waiting this long, there are now software companies that have designed birding trail apps. No one needs to print books that soon need updates.

The other good news is that to make it a free app, Hutchinson found sponsors including the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, Murie Audubon Society (Casper), Wyoming State Parks, and WY Outside – a group of nonprofits and government agencies working to encourage youth and families in Wyoming to spend more time outdoors.

Look for “Wyoming Bird Trail” app on either iTunes or Google Play to install it on your smart phone.

Hutchinson has made a good start. The wonderful thing about the app technology is that not only does it borrow Google Maps so directions don’t need to be written, the app information can be easily updated. Users are invited to help.

There is one other way enterprising U.S. birders research birding trips. They contact the local Audubon chapter, perhaps finding a member, like me, who loves an excuse to get out for another birding trip and who will show them around – and make a recommendation for where to have lunch.

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Follow a birding trail

Colorado Birding Trail logo

Check out the Colorado Birding Trail.

Published Nov. 13, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birding trails increasing in popularity.”

2014 Update: The Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail has been incorporated into http://coloradobirdingtrail.com. Gary Lefko maintains a blog website at http://coloradobirder.ning.com. Wyoming still does not have a birding trail. The Indigo Bunting is on the Oak Leaf Birding Trail bird checklist, http://county.milwaukee.gov/Birding9202.

By Barb Gorges

There was quite a display of birding trail maps and brochures from all over the country on the table at the recent Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society meeting at the YMCA.

Guest speaker, as well as founder and director of the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail, Gary Lefko of Nunn, Colo., had quite a collection to share. One was for the Oak Leaf Birding Trail. In smaller letters it said “Milwaukee County Parks, The Great Wisconsin Birding Trail.” That county includes Milwaukee and many suburbs, including my hometown.

Excitedly, I unfolded a big map showing the trail, a brown line connecting green park and parkway spots.

As a teenager, I discovered my closest county parks by bicycle and observed, without benefit of binoculars, my first two interesting birds, rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting.

My exploration was also done without benefit of a map. In a city of nearly perfectly gridded streets, wherever a meandering path beside the Menomonee River led me, the nearest corner street sign instantly plotted my location.

So it was with some surprise that I studied the map and realized how close I grew up to an extensive parkway, now identified as part of a birding trail.

This concept seems to have originated in Texas as The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. There are many birding hotspots along the Gulf coast and someone finally put them all together on a map for the benefit of visitors.

Someone also understood that these visitors might be of interest to the local tourism industry and thus was born a partnership model, combining nature and economics, used by most subsequent birding trails. Many also make use of Federal highway enhancement funds from ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act).

Nothing says a visitor has to stop at all the sites along a particular trail. A birder might spend all of a morning’s prime time at just one site, especially if it’s a state park with hiking trails.

Sites are not limited to public lands. Anyone can nominate any site for the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail. Gary uses a nomination form and a set of criteria to determine listing worthiness, but no sites are listed without permission of the land owner. Many have access restrictions, for instance, The Nature Conservancy requests birders arrange and pay for guided tours. In northwest Minnesota, there are sites you might not expect, such as three wastewater treatment plants.

Gary started his fascination with birds years ago, and while living in Colorado Springs, Colo., became intrigued with the birding trail concept. He enlisted the aid of his local chapter, Aiken Audubon Society, and now Audubon Colorado, under contract with the state game and fish agency, is poised to expand Gary’s work into a statewide system.

A techie by interest and occupation, Gary has developed a very deep Web site to support the trail, www.GreatPikesPeakBirdingTrail.org. For each trail site he has a list of birds of interest, a checklist, bird photos, photos of the area and all the directions and contact information for planning a visit, including the nearest food, accommodations and services.

Colorado, being a destination for outdoor recreation pursuits, will be able to use this information to entice people to extend their visits, i.e., spend more money. So, the Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail is funded in part by the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau and local businesses and towns.

I think Cheyenne and southeastern Wyoming have the same potential. We have bird species that out-of-state birders salivate over, such as burrowing owls and sharp-tailed grouse. Even those obnoxious yellow-headed blackbirds at the south end of Sloan’s Lake in Lions Park are on the wanted lists of many ardent birders. And fables of our spring and fall warbler migrations are spreading and attracting the attention of folks beyond our city limits.

Talk is stirring at the Audubon Wyoming office of developing a statewide birding trail. We can wait and see what form that will take before setting up something for Cheyenne. Meanwhile, check out some of these other resources:

“Wyoming Wildlife Viewing Tour Guide” available through Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“Access to Wyoming’s Wildlife” also available from WGFD.

“Wyoming Birds,” by Robert and Jane Dorn, available through the University of Wyoming’s Herbarium.

“A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming” by Oliver Scott and available through bookstores or the American Birding Association, 1-800-634-7736.

While we wait for direction from AW, our local chapter is working on a Cheyenne-area bird checklist that could mention some of our favorite hotspots and be something for area businesses, the library, the visitor’s bureau, Game and Fish, etc., to hand out.

Wish I’d had a checklist for Milwaukee County 30 years ago. The Oak Leaf map has one now, but funny thing, the indigo bunting isn’t listed. Maybe it’s too uncommon to be mentioned and I was very lucky to see one there, next to the golf course at Hansen Park.

Trying out Texas birding trail

Roseate Spoonbills

Roseate Spoonbills cluster in a dead tree at Brazos Bend State Park outside Houston, Texas in late March. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Trying out Texas birding trail rewards Wyoming birders.”

By Barb Gorges

The Texas Gulf Coast during spring migration is legendary among birders, especially if weather conditions cause a “fallout” of tired migrants that have just crossed the Gulf of Mexico.

We didn’t find birds dripping from branches on our first trip to Texas, since it bridged March and April, a bit ahead of the peak. We missed the 37 species of warblers, but some will arrive in Cheyenne next month.

However, my husband Mark and I did add several life-list birds.

When our younger son Jeffrey, and his fiancé, Madeleine, moved to Houston last fall, we started researching the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, part of the Great Texas Wildlife Trails.

The idea of a birding trail was born on the Texas Gulf Coast, where 450 species of birds might be seen. First established in 1994, the concept has since been applied to many other places. On the Gulf Coast, it is made up of many loop routes connecting 308 public places to see birds.

“Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail” (Eubanks, Behrstock and Davidson, c. 2008) is however, not the best guidebook, though it does work well in tandem with “A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast” (Cooksey and Weeks, c. 2006, published by the American Birding Association). This book has a bar chart listing all the bird species that shows what section of the coast and what months to find them, and other tips.

Mark went online and used www.eBird.org to find more recent information. Under “Explore Data” are two new and very useful functions, “Explore a Location” and “Explore Hotspots.”

Our son’s neighborhood in Houston, the Heights, is full of old bungalows and trees and the pleasant but unrelenting sound of mockingbirds and white-winged doves.

At the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, we found forest birds: cardinals, tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. However, the 155 acres are flanked by Interstate 610, making it impossible to hear any birds on the west edge.

The next day, all four of us headed for Brazos Bend State Park, 5,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, river, ponds and grasslands only an hour southwest of downtown.

As soon as we parked, we discovered an amazing sight, a dead tree full of roseate spoonbills, large pink wading birds. This was also where both Mark and I added “Black-bellied Whistling Duck” to our life lists.

This duck is primitive—it’s found at the beginning of the evolution-based taxonomic order of the North American birds. When it flies, its long legs stick out behind, reminding one of a cormorant. And yes, its voice is whistle-like.

It acts like a wading bird, chumming around with the white ibises, snowy egrets and spoonbills in shallow water, looking for aquatic plants to eat, but on the other hand, it nests in cavities in trees or in nest boxes, like a wood duck. It’s bright orange bill and pink legs add snap to its rich brown-colored body marked by large white wing patches—and a black belly.

A red-shouldered hawk at the park was another life bird for us and a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker was a first also. Altogether, we saw 27 bird species at the park—and several alligators.

The next two days, while the kids had to go to work and school, Mark and I headed for the coast. Luckily, Matagorda Island was not in our plans and we left cleanup of the recent oil spill to the experts.

Near Freeport are several notable stops, including the tiny Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary, apparently a good place after a fallout. But it was while driving a farm-to-market road between industrial chemical facilities that Mark found another lifer for us, a scissor-tailed flycatcher perched way up on a high-tension power line. With a body the same size as the 8-inch kingbirds that perch on Wyoming fences, its extreme tail makes it twice as long.

At Baytown Nature Center, our life bird was the Neotropic cormorant. It was worth Mark lugging the spotting scope everywhere to have it on hand to see the diagnostic little white feathers on the sides of its head.

The nature center is the result of common sense. Back in the 1980s it was a high-class neighborhood—doctors, lawyers and oil company executives. But damage from subsidence from extensive oil drilling, severe storm surge flooding and hurricanes led to its abandonment. Local and national officials decided to return it to nature. And after sighting 38 bird species there, I’m glad they did.

Like so many other birders, we hope to return—300 Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail sites left to visit, 380 more species to find.