Winter raptors

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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.

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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 www.AllAboutBirds.org or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.

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Big Day bird count big picture

2016-05BigDay2-byMarkGorges - CopyPublished in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Opinion section May 22, 2016, “Bird count day gives us big picture.”

By Barb Gorges

            May Hanesworth was ahead of her time. An active Cheyenne birder as early as the 1940s, she made sure the results of the local spring bird counts were published every year in the Cheyenne paper. She recruited me in the 1990s to type the lists for her. She felt that someday there would be a place for that data and she was right.

            A few years ago, members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society collected and uploaded that data to eBird.org, a global database for bird observations. The oldest record we found was for 1956.

            We refer to the count we make at the height of spring migration as the Big Day Bird Count. Elsewhere in the world, competitive birders will, as a small team or solo, do a big day to see how many species they can find in a specified area. But the idea of a group of unlimited size like ours going out and scouring an area is unusual, though closer to what the originator, Lynds Jones, an Oberlin College ornithology professor, had in mind back in 1895.

            Now eBird.org has started a new tradition as of last year, the Global Big Day. This year it was scheduled for May 14, the same day as ours. Results show 15,642 people around the world saw 6,227 bird species. For our local count, 20 people looked for birds around Cheyenne, and 107 species were counted [Results were published elsewhere in the paper. See the list below.].

            Finding our favorite birds in the company of friends is a good incentive for taking part, but there is the science too. Back in the spring of 1956, May saw 85 species. And when Mark and I started in the 1990s, 150 seemed to be the norm—perhaps because Cheyenne had more trees by then. However, the last 10 years, the average is lower, 118.

            Maybe we aren’t as sharp as earlier birders. Or we are missing the peak of migration. Or we have lost prime habitat for migrating birds as the surrounding prairie gets built over and elderly trees are removed in town. Or it’s caused by deteriorating habitat in southern wintering grounds or northern breeding grounds.

            But imagine where we would be without the Migratory Bird Treaty.

            This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first agreement, in 1916, between the U.S. and Great Britain (signing for Canada), followed by other agreements and updates. In summary: “It is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, offer for sale, purchase or barter any migratory bird, or parts, nests or eggs.”

            Even migrating songbirds, like our Wyoming state bird, the western meadowlark, are protected.

            But who would want to hurt a meadowlark?

            Look at the Mediterranean flyway. Birdlife International reports 25 million birds of all kinds along it are shot or trapped every year for fun, food and the cage bird trade. Perpetrators think the supply of birds is endless. But we can point to the millions of passenger pigeons in North America prior to the death in 1914 of the last one, to show what can happen.

            The city of Eliat, Israel, is the funnel between Africa and Europe/Asia on the Mediterranean flyway, and to bring attention to the slaughter, the annual Champions of the Flyway bird race is based there. A big day event, this year it attracted 40 teams, Israeli and international, which counted a combined total of 243 species during 24 hours.

            This year, funds raised by the teams are going to Greece, to support education and enforcement—killing migratory birds is already illegal. Some of the worst-hit areas are in forests above beaches popular with tourists. Attracting birdwatching tourists could pay better than killing and trapping birds, a kind of change that has been beneficial elsewhere.  

            Many factors affect how many birds we see in Cheyenne on our big day, but we do have control over one aspect: habitat. If you live in the city, plant more trees and shrubs in appropriate places. If you live on acreage, protect the prairie and its ground-nesting grassland birds. And then join us on future Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts and contribute to the global big picture of birds.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results affected by cold, wet weather

By Barb Gorges

            The 2016 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was held May 14. It was cold (33-43 degrees F), wet and foggy. Conditions kept down the number of birdwatchers participating as well as the number of birds observed.

            Thirteen Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members and friends birded as a group at Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. Seven others birded on their own and contributed to the total of 107 species observed. Last year’s total was 110 species.

            Few flycatchers, vireos and warblers were seen because few insects, their primary food, were around due to the cold. Few kinds of shorebirds were seen at area reservoirs. High water levels from previous rain and snowfall left few areas of shallow water and exposed sandbars for them.

            Although many of the species that migrate through Cheyenne were seen, including willet, broad-winged hawk, Forster’s tern, ruby-crowned kinglet and western tanager, the day, weather notwithstanding, may not have represented quite the peak of spring migration.

             A highlight of the count was a black-and-white warbler at the research station. It is considered an eastern warbler, rarely seen this far west, although it does nest in the Black Hills.

            The Cheyenne Big Day ran concurrent with the Global Big Day. For a look at local and global results, see www.eBird.org/globalbigday. 

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count

May 14, 2016

107 species total

Canada Goose

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Bonaparte’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Prairie Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Tree Swallow

N. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yelllow-rumped Warbler

Green-tailed Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Lark Bunting

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow