Migratory Bird Treaty Act comes back

Objection to the slaughter of great egrets and other birds so that women’s hats could be adorned with their feathers eventually led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Photo by Barb Gorges, Green Cay Wetlands, Boynton Beach, Florida.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act is back in full force

Also published Sept. 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Migratory Bird Treaty Act back in full force.”

By Barb Gorges

Canada is happy again. It was not happy in December 2017 when the solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior reinterpreted the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act so that it allowed industry to accidentally kill birds without any penalty—including birds that spend summers in Canada.

In August this year, the National Audubon Society, American Bird Conservancy, other conservation organizations and eight states successfully sued to get that reinterpretation reversed by U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni.

It was the hat-making industry that early on ran afoul (afowl?) of people who value birds. Wading birds that grow luxurious plumes during the breeding season and other birds were being slaughtered so that the feathers could adorn women’s hats—and sometimes whole birds were stuffed and perched on women’s heads.

In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, no slaves to fashion, organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds to save the birds from decimation. Ten years before, George Bird Grinnell organized a group he called the Audubon Society in New York City.

By 1898, 16 more state Audubon societies were formed, leading to the founding of the National Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds in 1905.

In 1916, the U.S. and Great Britain, on behalf of Canada, signed the Migratory Bird Treaty. In 1918 the U.S. enacted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to implement it. In later years, with bipartisan support, the treaty and the act were expanded to include agreements with Mexico, Japan and what is now Russia.

The snowy egret was one of the species targeted by the hat-making industry in the U.S. and Europe in the late 1800s. Photo by Barb Gorges, Green Cay Wetlands, Boynton Beach, Florida.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency setting the MBTA policies and enforcing them.

Unless permitted by regulation, there’s a prohibition to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, cause to be shipped, deliver for transportation, transport, cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried by any means whatever, receive for shipment, transportation or carriage, or export, at any time, or in any manner, any migratory bird…or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.”

Technically, teachers should not display abandoned robins’ nests or migratory bird feathers in their classrooms without license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Without the MBTA, BP (British Petroleum) would not have paid $100 million in penalties for killing an estimated one million birds in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The fine went to wetland and migratory bird conservation as compensation.

Without the full protection of the MBTA between December 2017 and this August, snowy owls were electrocuted in four states, oil spills happened in three states and there were other examples of avoidable bird deaths that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated but could not penalize anyone for.

The potential for hefty fines has led to industry innovation, such as covering oil field waste pits and protecting birds from electrocution. There’s still work to be done. Recent numbers show up to 64 million birds per year are still killed by powerlines, seven million by communication towers, half to one million by oil waste pits and oil spills still happen.

It’s hard for industry leaders to understand why birds should matter more than their profits. Birds are not just pretty faces. They work. They perform ecological services, which means they do things like keep other species in balance that can become pests to humans otherwise.

According to the study published in September 2019, “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Bird Conservancy, Environment and Climate Change Canada, U.S. Geological Survey, Bird Conservatory of the Rockies, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Georgetown University, North America has 3 billion birds fewer today than in 1970,  due to loss of habitat and other human-caused problems. What if they were all still with us? Would one advantage be that we would need fewer chemical pesticides and have fewer of their side effects?

We have a lot in common with birds. Birds are more like us than we ever expected. They learn, they plot, they communicate–even with other species. Jennifer Ackerman’s latest book, “The Bird Way,” explores what scientists are learning.

Environmental protection regulations have taken a hit in the last four years. As people who breathe air and drink water, more of us should be more concerned. At least the bird protections regained by the recent MBTA verdict will help people as well, if somewhat indirectly.

Next, the National Audubon Society is going to court to defend the National Environmental Policy Act. The birds will appreciate that.

Still listed as a “Species of Special Concern” by the state of Florida, roseate spoonbills were a target of hunters providing feathers to the hat-making industry in the late 1800s. Photo by Barb Gorges, Brazos Bend State Park, Needville, Texas.

Be a Citizen Scientist: Great Backyard Bird Count

House Finch photographed by Jeanette Tasey, Great Backyard Bird Count participant. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Published Jan. 19, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Be a Citizen Scientist in your backyard.”

By Barb Gorges

            Along with the news last fall that there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America than in 1970, conservation organizations came out with a list of seven actions people can take (https://www.3billionbirds.org/).

            Number 7 on the list is “Watch birds, share what you see.” In fact, citizen science efforts, like the 120th annual Christmas Bird Count season that finished up Jan. 5, provided part of the data for the study that showed the bird decline.

            There aren’t enough scientists to collect data everywhere and so they depend on us informed lay people to help them.

There’s another organized opportunity coming up for you to count birds Feb. 14-17: the Great Backyard Bird Count.

GBBC history

            Begun in 1998 by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the GBBC dates always coincide with Presidents’ Day weekend. Scientists wanted to get a snapshot of where the birds are late winter, before spring migration begins.

            The difference between this public participation bird count and the others at the time is data reporting is entirely online. Some results are nearly real time on the website, like watching the participant map light up sporadically every few seconds as someone else hits “Send.”

            In 2002, Cornell started another online citizen science project, eBird, which collects data year-round from citizen scientists. In 2013 the GBBC was integrated with eBird. And now both have global participation from birdwatchers in 100 countries.

At the GBBC website you can find all kinds of interesting information about last year’s count and prepare for this year.

2019 broke records

There were 209,944 checklists submitted in 2019. A checklist is the list of birds seen by one person or a group birding together. GBBC asks participants to bird for a minimum of 15 minutes, and to not travel more than 5 miles for one checklist. Originally, the emphasis was on watching the birds in your backyard, but you can bird anywhere now.

There were 32 million birds counted, of 6,849 species. Columbia counted 1,095 species, the most of any country, even though only 1,046 checklists were submitted (there were 136,000 checklists for the U.S.). This time of year, a lot of our North American summer birds are in Columbia and other Central and South American countries.

The list of top 10 species most frequently reported starts with the cardinal, not native to Cheyenne, and the junco, common at our feeders, made second place. All the birds on this list were North American because the majority of 224,781 participants last year were from our continent. Birders in India are getting excited though and that might change someday.

California made the top of the list of states for most checklists submitted, 10,000. All the top 10 states were coastal, either Great Lakes or ocean. That’s where the most people live.

Trends in North America showed up during the 2019 count such as a high number of evening grosbeaks in the east. Canada had fewer finches because of a bad seed crop and apparently the finches went south because there were higher numbers of finch species–red crossbills, common redpolls, and pine grosbeaks–in the northern states.

You can prepare ahead

The GBBC website, https://gbbc.birdcount.org/, has links to websites to help you identify birds (if you don’t have a copy of my “Cheyenne Birds by the Month” already!):

–Merlin (also available as a free phone app) will ask you questions about the comparative size of the bird, color, activity, habitat, and give you a list of possibilities.

–All About Birds, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/, and the Audubon Bird Guide, https://www.audubon.org/app, are both helpful.

–And if the weekend finds you in Central or South America, check out the link for Neotropical Birds Online, https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/.

Take photos

Don’t forget to take photos—there’s a contest with these categories:

–Birds in their habitat

–Birds in action

–Birds in a group

–Composition—pleasing arrangement of all features

–People watching birds.

Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 14-17

Count with CHPAS locally:

            Join Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members Feb. 15, 10 a.m. – noon, for free at the Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, 710 S. Lions Park Road. We’ll bird a little around the park and then come back and enter our data. All ages are welcome. And we have binoculars to share. Contact bgorges4@msn.com if you have questions.

If you are new to GBBC and want to participate on your own:

            Participation is free. Instructions are at https://gbbc.birdcount.org/.

If you already eBird:

Submit checklists (15-minute minimum) to your account at http://ebird.org.

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Karen E. Brown, Great Backyard Bird Count participant. Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Conservation Ranching for the birds–and cows

Greater Sage-Grouse lekking with cattle in the background on sagebrush-steppe habitat on Bureau of Land Management land leased by Pathfinder Ranches in Natrona County, Wyoming. March 28, 2019. Photo by Evan Barrientos, Audubon Rockies. Courtesy.

Published Dec. 15, 2019, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Conservation Ranching is for the birds–and the cows”

By Barb Gorges

             You’ll run across arguments saying our farmlands would be put to better use raising food crops for people instead of forage crops for cattle. Maybe so—back east.

            But Wyoming’s remaining rangeland, its prairie grasslands and shrublands, is not suited to raising crops. We don’t have the water or the soils. But we do grow excellent native forage, originally for buffalo, now for cattle.

            And what a great system it is—no fossil fuels required to harvest that forage—the animals do it for you! On top of that, good range management is good for birds.

However, grassland birds were identified as the group having declined the most in the past 48 years, https://www.3billionbirds.org/.

At a recent Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Dusty Downey, Audubon Rockies’ lead for its Conservation Ranching Initiative, explained part of the problem is grassland conversion. When ranchers can’t make enough on cattle, they might try converting rangeland to cropland or to houses and other infrastructure. With hard work, cropland can be restored someday, but houses are a permanent conversion and wildlife suffers habitat loss.

Eighty-five percent of grasslands and sagebrush steppe is privately owned. So Dusty, raised on and still living on a ranch by Devils Tower, and his boss, Alison Holloran, a wildlife biologist, thought reaching out to ranchers about enhancing their operations could benefit both birds and cattle. Offering a financial incentive makes it attractive and might keep land in ranching.

National Audubon picked up the idea and made it a national program. The “Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land” logo can help ranchers get anywhere from 10 to 40 cents per pound more, depending on the market.

Conservation ranching is now popular in Dusty’s Thunder Basin neighborhood where ranchers know him and his family. Through the program, ranchers learn techniques for maximizing production over the long term that also benefit birds and they get help finding funding for ranch improvements. With third party certification, they earn the privilege of selling their meat at a premium price to people like me who value their commitment.

We also value meat free of hormones and antibiotics, so that is part of the certification. And we appreciate that cows eating grass produce less methane, part of the climate change problem, than if they eat corn.

Dusty said in the last 15 years, grass-fed beef sales have grown 400 percent, from $5 million a year to $2 billion.

Audubon-certified beef is available at Big Hollow Food Coop in Laramie, http://www.laramiecoop.com/, the Reed Ranch in Douglas, tombevreed@gmail.com, in Colorado, other western states and online. See https://www.audubon.org/where-buy-products-raised-audubon-certified-land#.

Grazing prairie looks simple. But grazing management is both art and science.

What does the vegetation need? How is it interacting with weather and grazers? Grassland vegetation needs grazing to stay healthy. Dusty cited a four-year study that showed an ungrazed pasture was not as productive or as diverse as one that had been grazed properly. Grazed plots showed five times more birds, two times more arthropods (food for chicks) and five times more dung beetles (the compost experts) than ungrazed plots.

Grazing grasslands down to bare ground like the buffalo did looks bad, but in the right context it allows highly nutritious plants to grow that can’t compete otherwise. It also aids bird species that require bare ground or very short grass somewhere in their lifecycle, between courtship and fledging.

My experience with prairie plants in the Habitat Hero demonstration garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens showed plants grazed down to ground level by rabbits rebounded the next spring. But you can’t let the rabbits in year-round or the same season year after year.

The gold standard when I was studying range management at the University of Wyoming was rest-rotation grazing. Now it’s producing a changing mosaic of plants by adjusting grazing timing on a multi-year cycle for any given pasture, tailored to the plants there and the rancher’s goals. Laramie County Conservation District helps local landowners figure it out, https://www.lccdnet.org/.

For an elegant explanation of the dance between animal and prairie plant, read a recent blog post by Chris Helzer, https://prairieecologist.com/2019/11/13/what-does-habitat-look-like-on-a-ranch/. He is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy-Nebraska.

Chris talks about growing a shifting mosaic of plants that will be more resilient through drought and other extremes. He also said, “Chronic overgrazing can degrade plant communities and reduce habitat quality, but a well-managed ranch can foster healthy wildlife populations while optimizing livestock production.”

Next time you meet a rancher, restaurant owner or grocery store manager, ask them if they’ve heard about Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Initiative. Tell them it’s good for birds—and cows.

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.

Year of the Bird celebrates Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Painted Bunting.

This Painted Bunting was Jack Rogers’ Audubon Photography Awards entry in 2015. Photo courtesy National Audubon Society.

Year of the Bird celebrates 100th anniversary of Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Barb Gorges

This is the Year of the Bird. It’s been declared by four august organizations: the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International. A hundred other organizations have joined them.

My husband Mark and I have been members for years of the first three, and I’m on the email list for the fourth so I’ve heard the message four times since the first of the year.

The Year of the Bird celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects birds. Read the act at https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php (remember “take” is a euphemism for “kill”).

The Year of the Bird is also about advocating for birds. Today you can go to the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird/, and sign the Year of the Bird pledge. You’ll receive monthly instructions for simple actions you can take on behalf of birds. The official Year of the Bird website, www.birdyourworld.org, will take you to the National Geographic page, and the other sponsors’ websites will get you there as well.

You may not be aware of National Geographic’s bird credentials. When the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America came out in the 1980s, it was a must-have sensation. You can find the latest edition at local bookstores and online.

The National Audubon Society, http://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird, is your portal to these articles so far: How Birds Bind Us, The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The United States of Birding and Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report. My favorite–Why Do Birds Matter? – quotes dozens of well-known authors and ornithologists.

BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/flyway, offers ways to think about birds. When you see your next robin, think about where it’s been, what it’s flown over. Think about the people in other countries who may have seen the bird too. Think about the work being done to protect its migratory flyways.

On the other hand, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology begins the year addressing bird appreciation. At one of their websites, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/6-resolutions-to-help-you-birdyourworld-in-2018/, Hugh Powell recommends getting a decent pair of affordable binoculars after reading this guide on how to shop for them, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/six-steps-to-choosing-a-pair-of-binoculars-youll-love/.

Powell also recommends CLO’s free Merlin Bird ID app to get to know your local birds better (or see http://www.AllAboutBirds.org). Then you can keep daily bird lists through CLO’s free eBird program, including photos and sound recordings.

While you watch birds from your kitchen window, drink bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee. There’s an in-depth article at https://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Or play CLO’s new Bird Song Hero game to help you learn how to match what you hear with the visual spectrograph, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org.

Finally, Powell suggests “pay it forward”—take someone birding and join a bird club or Audubon chapter (locally, I’d recommend my chapter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/).

Here in Wyoming our lone U.S. Representative, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, has attempted to take the teeth out of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with H.R. 4239. She thinks protecting birds should not come at the expense of business.

Earlier threats to birds caused conservationist Aldo Leopold to write in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanack, “We face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

I would say that people who appreciate birds are not a minority. And many of us agree with biologist and biodiversity definer Thomas Lovejoy, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”

If it is too cold for you to appreciate the birds while outside, check out National Geographic’s January issue with photos by Joel Sartore. More of his bird photos for National Geographic’s Photo Ark project, studio portraits of the world’s animals, will be in a book coming out this spring written by Noah Strycker, “Birds of the Photo Ark.” Strycker will be speaking in Cheyenne May 14.

Now go to www.BirdYourWorld.org and take the pledge and find out each month what simple action you can take on behalf of birds.

Addendum: Because the paragraph about Liz Cheney was omitted from the column when it was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, I submitted a letter to the editor that was published four days later:

Migratory Bird Treaty Act under attack

Dear Editor,

2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The U.S., along with co-signers Mexico, Canada, Japan and Russia, agree to protect birds that cross our borders and theirs.

A hundred years ago there was a battle between conservationists and industrialists and the birds won. Industry is now held accountable for “incidental take” – birds killed unintentionally during the course of business. That has included birds hooked by long-line ocean fishing, birds attracted to oily evaporation ponds in oil and gas fields and birds hit by wind turbines.

These kinds of hazards can add up and make a population-threatening dent. Instead, the MBTA has forced industries to pay fines or come up with ingenious solutions that save a lot of birds.

However, Wyoming’s Congresswoman Liz Cheney is backing U.S. House Resolution 4239 which would remove the requirement to take responsibility for incidental take. Here we are, 100 years later, fighting the battle again.

If you would like to speak up for the birds, please call Cheney’s office, 202-225-2311. The polite person who answers the phone only wants to know your name, address and your opinion, so they know which column to check, anti-bird, or pro-bird and the MBTA.

Barb Gorges

Cheyenne

Sage-grouse need your comments by Nov. 27

 

Greater-Sage-Grouse_DaveShowalter_340x300

Greater Sage-Grouse, photo by Dave Showalter.

 

Published Nov. 12, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle: “Wyoming’s Greater Sage-Grouse conservation plan is in jeopardy”

The deadline is Nov. 27, 2017, for sending your comments to BLM regarding whether you think amending the Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Plan is necessary. See instructions at the end of this column.

By Barb Gorges

Wyoming successfully addressed the sage-grouse issue through a collaboration of state and local government, sportsmen, conservationists, the oil and gas industry, and agricultural interests.

Over six years, the state was able to draw up a plan to establish protected core areas of habitat. Good habitat is the best protection for this species, which has declined 30 percent across the west since 1985.

The plan leaves a large majority of Wyoming open to oil and gas and other development.

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said state plans across the west were good enough that it wouldn’t start proceedings to list the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered.

Here in Wyoming, the Sage-Grouse Implementation Team, headed by Bob Budd, is working hard. The team represents all the previous collaborators.

However, the new federal administration is intent on dismantling anything that happened under the previous president. It tasked new U.S. Department of Interior secretary Ryan Zinke with reviewing all state sage-grouse plans to either toss them or amend them.

None of the collaborators on Wyoming’s plan are happy with this—including the oil and gas people who desire certainty for their business plans. Wyoming Governor Matt Mead is not happy either.

I went to the Bureau of Land Management’s public meeting Nov. 6 in Cheyenne to find out more about the proposed amendments to Wyoming’s plan.

I heard these criticisms:

–Switching to using sage-grouse population numbers to determine an oil and gas producer’s ability to drill and plan for mitigation (more sage-grouse, more leniency) would leave companies with a lot of unwanted uncertainty. Sage-grouse numbers vary enormously from year to year due to weather and other natural effects.

–Basing conservation plans on sage-grouse population numbers rather than habitat would discount the 350-plus other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem, including 22 “species of conservation concern.”

–Messing around with the plan could cause U.S. Fish and Wildlife to decide the sage-grouse warrants listing after all. That would close much more land to oil and gas drilling, as well as coal mining and other mineral extraction.

–The current Republican administration thinks states should have more say in issues like this, and the six years of collaboration Wyoming went through is a perfect example of how it can happen. Ironically, it’s the Republicans in Washington who now decree they know what is best for us.

–Wyoming’s conservation plan has been in effect for only two years—not enough time to gauge success. Instituting major changes now would cost a lot of taxpayer money that could be better spent in the field.

BLM invites us to comment during their scoping process. They want to know if we think they should amend the management plans that were developed by the states to protect sage-grouse.

They don’t make it easy, says my husband, a retired BLM wildlife biologist.

Go to http://bit.ly/GRSGplanning (case-sensitive). Click on “Documents and Reports.” This will give you a list of documents. Only “GRSG Notice of Intent” is available for commenting. “GRSG” is ornithological shorthand using initial letters of the parts of the bird’s common name.

After you read the document, click on “Comment on Document.” You’ll have to fill in the title of the document you are commenting on: “GRSG Notice of Intent.” And then you have 60 minutes to finish the procedure or everything you’ve written disappears. You may want to compose your comments elsewhere and then paste them in.

The deadline for comments is either Nov. 27 or Nov. 30—there’s a discrepancy in BLM’s handouts from the public meeting. Go with the earlier date if you can.

To educate yourself before commenting, you can visit the Wyoming State BLM office in Cheyenne, 5353 Yellowstone Road, or contact Erica Husse, 307-775-6318, ehusse@blm.gov, or Emmet Pruss, 307-775-6266, epruss@blm.gov.

But if you are most interested in what is best for sage-grouse, it may be easier to jump to the analysis provided by conservation groups like the National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/sage-grouse. The former Audubon Wyoming executive director Brian Rutledge was instrumental in the Wyoming collaboration and is still involved as NAS’s director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

Two other interested groups are Wyoming Wildlife Federation, http://wyomingwildlife.org/, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council, https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/.

All three organizations offer simple digital form letters that can be personalized, and they will send them to BLM. However, BLM says it gives more credence to comments sent via their own online form.

I hope you can take a few minutes to put in a good word for the bird that maybe should be our state mascot.

Next month I’ll look at what the Wyoming State Legislature did last session that may also negatively affect sage-grouse.

Find gifts for birders

Charley Harper puzzle

Environment for the Americas, the folks who organize International Migratory Bird Day, are offering this Charlie Harper puzzle titled, “Mystery of the Missing Migrants.”

Published Dec. 6, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Get creative with gifts for birders.”

2014 Update: The websites listed at the end of this column have been updated. There are now newer editions of the field guides mentioned. Bird-friendly coffee and chocolate are more widely available now at natural food stores.

By Barb Gorges

A good gift is useful, educational or edible, if not homemade. If someone on your gift list truly cares about wild birds, they don’t want energy and resources harvested from sensitive bird habitats wasted on making junk.

Here’s my list, sorted somewhat by a recipient’s degree of interest in birds.

First, for anyone, armchair bird watcher to ornithologist, Houghton Mifflin has three new illustrated books.

“Letters from Eden, A Year at Home, in the Woods” by Julie Zickefoose ($26) includes her watercolor sketches. A frequent contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, her bird and nature observations are often made in the company of her young children on their 80-acre farm in Ohio or from the 40-foot tower atop her house.

Zickefoose’s tower may have been her husband’s idea. He is Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and editor of “All Things Reconsidered, My Birding Adventures,” Roger Tory Peterson ($30).

Peterson was the originator of the modern field guide. From 1984 until his death in 1996, he wrote a regular column for the Digest. Peterson had the gift of writing about birds, bird places and bird people so anyone could enjoy his choice of topics. Anyone can enjoy this photo-illustrated book.

The third book, “The Songs of Wild Birds.” ($20) is a treat for eyes and ears. Author Lang Elliott chose his favorite stories about 50 bird species from his years of recording their songs. Each short essay faces a full page photo portrait of the bird. The accompanying CD has their songs and more commentary. My favorite is the puffin recording.

The field guide is the essential tool for someone moving up from armchair status. National Geographic’s fifth edition of its Field Guide to the Birds of North America ($24) came out this fall.

New are the thumb tabs for major bird groups, like old dictionaries have for each letter. It has more birds and more pages plus the bird names and range maps are updated.

Binoculars are the second most essential tool. If you are shopping for someone who hasn’t any or has a pair more than 20 years old, you can’t go wrong with 7 x 35 or 8 x 42 in one of the under $100 brands at sporting goods stores. You can also find an x-back-style harness ($20) there, an improvement over the regular strap.

Past the introductory level, a gift certificate would be better because fitting binoculars is as individual as each person’s eyes.

Spotting scopes don’t need fitting. However, if you find a good, low-end model, don’t settle for a low-end tripod because it won’t last in the field.

For extensive information on optics, see the Bird Watcher’s Digest Web site.

Bird feeders, bird seed, bird houses and bird baths are great gifts if the recipient or you are able to clean and maintain them. To match them with the local birds at the recipient’s house, call the local Audubon chapter or check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and Birdhouse Network sites.

You can make a gift of a Lab membership ($35), which includes several publications, and of course, there’s Audubon and its magazine ($20 introductory offer). Bird Watcher’s Digest ($20 per year), mentioned above, makes learning about birds fun, as does Birder’s World magazine ($25 per year).

For someone who wants to discuss identifying obscure sparrows and other topics of interest to listers, they might be ready for membership in the American Birding Association ($40). The ABA also has a great catalog available to everyone online. It’s filled with optics, gear and every bird book and field guide available in English for the most obscure places in the world.

The ABA tempts members with mailings for trips to exotic birding hotspots, as well as its annual meetings held in different parts of the country. Also check Bird Watcher’s Digest for nationwide bird festival listings.

One subscription valuable to an academic type who doesn’t already have access, is the Birds of North America Online ($40). Every species has as many as 50 pages of information and hundreds of references to studies.

For the computer literate, Thayer Birding Software’s Guide to Birds of North America, version 3.5 ($75), includes photos, songs, videos, life histories, quizzes and search functions.

After the useful and educational, there’s the edible. Look for organically grown products because they don’t poison bird habitat. The ABA sells bird friendly, shade grown coffee and organic chocolate through its Web site.

Coffee and other items are available also at the International Migratory Bird Day web site, and support migratory bird awareness and education.

If the person on your list is truly committed to the welfare of wild birds and wildlife in general, skip the trinkets such as the plush bird toys that sing and don’t add to their collection of birdy t-shirts.

Look for products that are good for the environment. These are items that are energy efficient, solar-powered, rechargeable, refillable, fixable, recyclable, made from recycled or organic materials, or are locally grown or manufactured.

Or make a donation in their name to an organization like Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy or The Nature Conservancy which work to protect bird habitat.

Presents along these lines would be great gifts for your friend or family member, and for birds and other wildlife, any time of year.

American Bird Conservancy: membership, research, advocacy, publications, gear, www.abcbirds.org.

American Birding Association: membership, publications, books, optics, gear, travel www.aba.org.

Birder’s World: magazine, http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com.

Bird Watcher’s Digest: magazine, bird info, bird festival listings and gear for sale, www.BirdWatchersDigest.com.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: membership, bird info, Citizen Science projects, www.birds.cornell.edu.

International Migratory Bird Day (Environment for the Americas): education, online store, www.birdday.org.

National Audubon Society: membership, magazine, research, advocacy, directory of chapters www.audubon.org.

North American Birds Online: Internet data base, http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna.

Thayer Birding: software, www.thayerbirding.com.

The Nature Conservancy: membership, publications, gear, www.nature.org.

Carrying on the Christmas Bird Count tradition

Common Goldeneye

The Common Goldeneye is often seen in winter in Cheyenne, Wyoming, sharing local lakes with open water with Mallards and Canada Geese. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 25, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Local tradition carried on with 104th bird count.”

2014 Update: Here’s another invitation to participate in the Christmas Bird Count. This year it will be January 3, 2015. Check the Cheyenne Audubon chapter website at http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/. Or look for a CBC close to you at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count. There is no longer a fee to participate.

By Barb Gorges

Two family Christmas traditions at our house are baking stollen like my German grandmother’s and using my grandfather’s icebox cookie recipe. To those, I have added participation in a tradition that stretches back further than their immigration to America, the Christmas Bird Count.

The original bird count participants burned off holiday calories by hiking through the woods and fields to shoot as many birds as possible. In 1900, an informal network of 27 birdwatchers, mostly on the East Coast, decided to compete with each other counting live birds instead of dead ones. From 25 locations they toted up 18,500 birds of 90 species.

Now the count is a little more formal and much more widespread. To make competition fair, each count area is a 15-mile diameter circle. In Cheyenne, ours is centered on the Capitol building.

There are more than 1,900 counts now, involving 50,000 people, mostly throughout North America. This year, the usual CBC partnership of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada welcomes the National Network Bird Observers and Instituto Humboldt, both of Columbia, and the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory of Mexico.

Though there remains some competitive spirit—who saw the most species, the most individual birds or the most unusual birds—the collected information is becoming more interesting as data to track trends such as population abundance and range and migratory behavior. Data for Cheyenne is available online back to 1974.

I’ve been helping the Cheyenne count compilers for 14 years, but this will the first as compiler myself. However, I expect lots of help from the members of Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon, which sponsors our count.

A lot has changed since May Hanesworth used to write the results longhand and I would type them for her to send to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and CBC headquarters. During Jane Dorn’s years as compiler, the CBC went online and we used my computer to fill in the checklist of birds.

This year, count compilers had the choice of allowing participants to sign up online and pay the $5 per person fee for field observers or closing their count to new observers or, what I chose, potential participants can contact the compiler for more information. The High Plains chapter traditionally pays everyone’s fee, but asks for donations.

The Cheyenne count is a little less structured in other ways also. Many compilers will hold an organizational meeting a few weeks in advance. They assign people to parties and each party is assigned to a particular route. I suppose this is necessary if, like the Point Reyes, Calif., count last year, you have 184 people showing up. But they had more species to count, 205 compared to our 48, since they host a lot of wintering migratory birds.

Here in Cheyenne, we don’t worry about bumping into each other. Traditionally, we’ve met at 7:30 a.m. at the Post Office lobby on Capitol Avenue and then walked the Capitol district before heading to Lions Park and other hotspots.

The last few years we’ve had enough folks to simultaneously hit the park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch, High Plains Grasslands Research Station and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, dividing into groups based on who has permits for the station and the base. This makes sense because birds are more active and easier to find at the beginning of the day.

After the first few hours, the groups break down. People have toes to warm and other obligations. A few folks continue to nose around the creeks, Little America and other spots that may have open water.

It’s important to stop at home and check the bird feeder. There is no fee for people who only participate by watching their feeders. The protocol is to report the highest number of individuals of a species seen at one time. Otherwise a very busy chickadee becomes a flock of fifty.

No birdwatching experience is necessary for becoming an observer with one of our field parties. Each needs someone to record numbers, someone to help count the starlings on the wire, and someone to turn around and say, “What’s that over there?”

Perusing the CBC Web site ahead of time to see what birds are typical for Cheyenne counts (our code is WYCH) is good preparation. But nothing beats being at the elbows of good birdwatchers.

If you go out to count birds on your own, also keep track and report how long, how far and by what means you traveled.

Although you can call or email your observations in to me, it’s more fun to come to the tally party and potluck afterwards. That’s when you find out who saw what and where. The final results archived on the CBC Web site won’t include stories.

If the birds stick to their own traditions, we’ll find the belted kingfisher on Crow Creek and rough-legged hawks on the prairie. As for me, I’ll pack along the traditional hot chocolate and left-over Christmas baking to share.

Keep up with birding news

Audubon magazine

“Audubon” is published by the National Audubon Society and is part of the benefits of being a member at the national level. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 11, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to keep up with birding news.”

2014 Update: All the birding organizations and publications are now on social media as well.

By Barb Gorges

I am an amateur watcher of birds. Other than a college ornithology class, the bird knowledge I have has been gained informally, by observation, by talking to people and by reading.

I’ve picked up a lot from Audubon chapter members, many of whom are experts on local birds. Some are even formally educated and employed bird biologists.

My library has expanded from a single field guide to about two dozen reference books plus the whole Internet—sometimes very useful when local experts aren’t available to answer my questions or the questions I get from readers.

But no science is static, so it’s important to read the periodicals. My husband, Mark, and I have been reading Audubon magazine for years, but it deals with conservation issues affecting birds more so than birdwatching, which is of high interest to local chapter members.

So, a few years ago I responded to subscription offers from Bird Watcher’s Digest and Birder’s World. Both magazines are informative as well as entertaining, written so even novice bird watchers can enjoy articles about attracting birds to backyards or anecdotes from the field.

 

Living Bird magazine

“Living Bird” is published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Then, after several years of participation in Project FeederWatch, I finally joined the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Now in addition to the quarterly newsletter, Birdscope, I get the quarterly magazine, Living Bird. Both focus on the Lab and its far-ranging research.

And then there’s the American Birding Association. Because people who are my fonts of local birding wisdom belong to the ABA, I always figured it was over my head. But when it sent me a membership offer this fall, I reconsidered. After nearly five years of exploring birdwatching topics through this column, I decided I needed to expand my horizons.

As I suspected, the ABA (Birding magazine) is geared for the serious birdwatcher, though it is still accessible for us aspiring to higher expertise. Shortly after I joined, however, I had an encounter that personified the elitist stereotype I feared. It started with a phone call from an impatient visitor from the Midwest who’d left his directory of ABA contacts at home, but got my number from someone at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens.

I have had many nice people with bird questions referred to me, but this man was in a hurry. He was sure he’d seen a kingbird at Lions Park that had a bill too big to be just a western. Could it be a Couch’s or a tropical kingbird?

Having never heard of either of these species, I quickly scrambled through my Sibley’s and found that they range from Mexico a little ways into Arizona and Texas, and they are almost indistinguishable from our western kingbird, except they lack white outer tail feathers.

 

Birding magazine

“Birding” is the American Birding Association’s flagship publication, but they are also very active in social media. Photo by Barb Gorges.

My very apparent ignorance made the caller even more snappish. Wasn’t there anyone else who could come down immediately and verify his rarity? I gladly passed him off to a more knowledgeable birding friend who actually went to the park, but didn’t see the bird.

Later, my friend, who also belongs to the ABA, told me that our western kingbird sometimes loses the white color of the outer tail feathers in the fall before migrating. And he agreed that this particular specimen of ardent birder came off as rather unpleasant.

Luckily for the ABA, the members I know are much kinder and more patient with those of us of lesser experience. Half the members, according to a 1999 ABA survey, can identify over 300 species by sight and 75 species by sound. About 40 percent bird more than 50 times a year, and for half the 20,000 members, birding is their main leisure activity.

The ABA, in addition to promoting birding skills and ornithological knowledge, even for those under 18, also provides volunteer opportunities using birders’ expertise. Among its programs is support of a conservation project at the location of each annual convention, plus involvement in issues directly affecting birds.

Too often birdwatchers are reluctant to get involved in the politics of conserving birds. They would rather run out to get a last glimpse of the endangered spotted owl than ask for an alternative to cutting the whole forest.

Birdwatchers can also be consumers of products of which the collection or manufacture can have negative impacts on birds. How can one lament the effects on wildlife of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, yet purchase a new SUV that gets less than 10 miles to the gallon?

It isn’t possible to live without any impact on the world’s resources, but it is irresponsible to race after elusive life list birds and ignore the health of those birds and their environment. So I’m glad to find that an organization like the ABA caters to listers, but reminds them of their responsibilities.

Audubon and Cornell, with their partnership on the Christmas Bird Count, Project Feederwatch and other BirdSource programs, are also making the connection between birdwatching and bird conservation.

But before Ted Williams’ latest piece in Audubon magazine can cause too much heartache, or the latest article in the ABA’s Birding magazine, describing the feather-length difference between longspurs, gives me a headache, it’s not a bad idea to step outdoors and hear the twitter of the plainest juncos and remember why I was attracted to birdwatching in the first place.

Gifts for birdwatchers and birds

Bird-friendly coffee

Try some bird-friendly coffee from the folks who bring you the International Migratory Bird Day catalog, Environment for the Americas.

Published Dec. 12, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Make this Christmas a holiday for the birds.”

2014 Update: All the phone numbers originally listed in this column have been converted to website addresses for your convenience. The prices, however, have not been updated, and there are many new bird books.

By Barb Gorges

Satisfying the wild bird lover on your Christmas gift list can be as easy as buying a sweatshirt decorated with chickadees, a clock with bird song chimes or chirping plush toys, not to mention fine bird art in all kinds of media.

However, none of these gifts do much for the birds themselves unless part of the profits benefits bird conservation.

Consider turning the wild bird lover into a knowledgeable bird watcher who can contribute to citizen science bird counting efforts such as the Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count or Project Feederwatch.

You could start by picking up the basic field guide, “Birds of North America” by Kenn Kaufman, for about $15 at a local bookstore and a pair of 7 x 35 Bushnell binoculars at Kmart for about $25.

If your bird watcher is more advanced, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. Do they already have a copy of “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior” or “A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies” by James Bond?

Don’t try to pick out binoculars for the advanced birder. Pricey models have too many variables that must fit the individual user’s eyes.

Does your bird watcher subscribe to Bird Watcher’s Digest, http://www.birdwatchersdigest.com, or Birder’s World [now called BirdWatching magazine], http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com?

Both magazines are filled with advertising for all kinds of bird identification and observation gizmos, even special clothing such as field vests with pockets designed to fit field guides.

 

Chocolate

Organically grown chocolate is good for bird habitats.

However, all the latest bird watching accoutrements advertised in those magazines are merely trappings of a personal hobby and won’t help the birds if the bird watcher doesn’t share their observations and knowledge.

Feeding wild birds can be a hobby that benefits some kinds of birds directly. The gift ideas range from a simple shelf and a bag of black oil sunflower seed to elaborate spring-loaded, squirrel-proof dispensers and custom seed blends.

Don’t forget water. A large plastic dog dish filled less than 2 inches deep is easy to bring in and thaw under the kitchen tap if you aren’t ready to finance a heated bird bath.

There are other gifts that delight the bird lover/watcher and benefit birds. Three major bird conservation organizations provide informative and colorful magazines as part of membership: National Audubon Society (find your local chapter, http://www.audubon.org/search-by-zip), Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.birds.cornell.edu, and American Birding Association, http://aba.org.

Perhaps the person on your gift list is already a member and is ready for a more altruistic gift. You can make a donation in their name to that organization or pick one of the many others such as the American Bird Conservancy http://www.abcbirds.org.

Maybe you are the kind person who remembers your pets at Christmas and would like to do something for the birds too. Here are suggestions.

–Avoid planting trees in grassland bird habitat. Plant more fruiting trees in town.

–Keep your cat indoors or on a leash or in a kennel at all times.

–Lobby for bird-friendly legislation and policies. It isn’t as much fun as counting birds for scientific study, but protecting habitat is the most efficient way to help wild birds.

–Conserve resources, “reduce, recycle, reuse.” Owning too much stuff wastes energy and resources which require mining, drilling, timbering, spraying – all activities usually detrimental to birds. Besides, the simple life will give you more time to enjoy bird watching.

Actually, these suggestions would all make good New Year’s resolutions.

When your shopping is done and you can finally put your feet up, you’ll be happy to know there are things you can consume, of which every ounce helps birds.

Shade-grown coffee and organic chocolate are grown in the shade of forest trees, the time-honored family farmer’s method, in Central and South America, where our neotropical birds spend the winter. The mega-farms use new varieties that require sun, which requires cutting the forests and spraying the crops, leaving no place for birds.

Jane Dorn was telling me last week that she read that the particular bee that pollinates coffee plants prefers shade, so shade-grown plants are also much more productive than those receiving chemical fertilizers.

Locally, organic coffee is offered by Coffee Express, Starbucks and sometimes City News.

If you do an Internet search, the key phrases are “organic chocolate,” which will give you mouth-watering sites like Dagoba Organic Chocolate http://www.dagobachocolate.com, and “shade-grown coffee,” where I found gourmet blends offered by Grounds for Change, http://www.groundsforchange.com.

Finally, one of the best gifts you can give someone is your time. Arrange to take your friend or family on a little bird watching field trip, either your own itinerary or with a group. The memories of real birds will be more valuable than any flock printed on a sweatshirt.