Wyobirds and Wyoming Master Naturalists updates

Cheyenne Audubon field trip to the Wyoming Hereford Ranch, November 2019. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Feb. 16, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyobirds gets tech update and Wyoming Master Naturalists  gets initial discussion.”

By Barb Gorges

            Technology drives changes in the birding community as it does for the rest of the world. We always wonder how hard it will be to adapt to the inevitable.

            In January, the folks at Murie Audubon, the National Audubon Society chapter in Casper, announced that they would no longer pay the fees required for hosting the Wyobirds elist. There have been plenty of donations over the years to offset the $500 per year cost but, they reasoned, now that there is a no-cost alternative, why not spend the money on say, bird habitat protection or improvement? Also, the new option allows photos and the old one didn’t.

            But the new outlet for chatting about birds in Wyoming works a little differently and everyone will have to get used to it. We’ve changed before. We had the Wyoming Bird Hotline until 2006 for publicizing rare bird alerts only. No one called in about their less than rare backyard birds, their birding questions and birding related events like they do now on Wyobirds.

            The only problem with leaving the listserv is figuring out what to do with the digital archives. They may go back to 2004, the first time Wyobirds was mentioned in Cheyenne Audubon’s newsletter.

            Now the Wyoming birding community, and all the travelers interested in coming to see Wyoming birds, can subscribe to Wyobirds (no donations necessary) by going to Google Groups, https://groups.google.com/, and searching for “Wyobirds.” Follow the directions for how to join the group so that you can post and get emails when other group members post. I opted to get one email per day listing all the postings. That will be nice when spring migration begins and there are multiple posts each day.

            Google Groups, a free service from Google, is one way the giant company gives back and we might as well take advantage of it.

Wyoming Master Naturalists

            Wyoming is one of only five states that does not have a Master Naturalist program, however it’s in the discussion stage.

            What is a Master Naturalist and what do they do? Jacelyn Downey, education programs manager for Audubon Rockies who is based near Gillette, explained at the January Cheyenne Audubon meeting that programs are different in each state.

            Most are like the Master Gardener program, offering training and certification. Master naturalists serve by taking on interpretive or educational roles or helping with conservation projects or collecting scientific data. The training requires a certain number of hours and keeping up certification requires hours of continuing education and service. But it’s not a chore if you love nature.

            Master Gardeners is organized in the U.S. through the university extension program. Some Master Naturalist programs are too, as well as through state game and fish or parks departments or Audubon offices or other conservation organizations or partnerships of organizations and agencies.

            Colorado has at least two programs, one through Denver Audubon, and another in Ft. Collins to aid users of the city’s extensive natural areas.

            Dorothy Tuthill also spoke. She is associate director and education coordinator for the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute. She pointed out that several of their programs, like the Moose Day surveys in which “community scientists” (another term for people participating in citizen science) gather data, are the kinds of activities a Master Naturalist program could aid.

            Audubon and the institute already collaborate every year with other organizations and agencies on the annual Wyoming Bioblitz. It’s one day during which scientists, volunteers, teachers, families and kids together gather data on flora and fauna in a designated area. This year’s Bioblitz will be July 17-19 near Sheridan on the Quarter Circle A Ranch, the grounds of the Brinton Museum.

            With a Wyoming Master Naturalist program, a trained corps of naturalists could be available to help agencies and organizations by visiting classrooms, leading hikes, giving programs and helping to plan and participating in projects and surveys.

            Audubon chapter volunteers are already involved in these kinds of things: adult and child education, data collection on field trips and conservation projects. Many of us might broaden our nature expertise beyond birds and learn more about connecting people to nature. But it would be nice to wear a badge that guarantees for the public that we know what we are talking about.

            Just how a Wyoming Naturalist Program would be set up is being discussed right now. Maybe a Google Group needs to be formed. If you’d like to be in on the discussion, please contact Dorothy Tuthill at dtuthill@uwyo.edu and Jacelyn Downey at jdowney@audubon.org.

Encourage birding as a lifelong addiction

Kids birding

Kids learn to use binoculars to look at birds. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 15, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Encourage birding as a lifelong addiction.”

2014 Update: 2014 is Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary.

By Barb Gorges

Ask a simple question of a man pulling weeds in a public garden in Juneau, Alaska. It is always possible you will discover you both know the same people.

Alaskans, like Wyomingites, are always interested in where visitors are from. They, like us, often are from somewhere else themselves.

This summer, when I told Merrill Jensen, manager of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum (the co-founder is no relation of his), that I was from Cheyenne, he said he graduated from Cheyenne’s East High.

We both graduated in 1974. But I graduated from a different East High, 1,000 miles east of Cheyenne. So the only person I could think of that might have graduated with him is actually one of Merrill’s old buddies—and the husband of the friend I walk with every morning.

As my husband Mark called our attention to a nearby pair of harlequin ducks in the bay just yards from the edge of the gardens, Merrill remarked that he is also an avid birder.

So that precipitated discovery of another mutual acquaintance, May Hanesworth.

May was the bird lady of Cheyenne when Mark and I moved here. We went to the 1989-90 Christmas Bird Count tally party held at her elegant apartment, and the next thing I knew, I’d been recruited to type bird lists from Christmas and spring counts for submission to the newspaper, which I still do.

May, born in 1900, was of the generation that believed real ladies didn’t type. But she had elegant hand-writing. And she must have been an elegant music teacher in the Cheyenne school district.

Merrill remembers going to Audubon meetings in her living room in the 1960s. His parents discovered he had led his 1st grade classmates on a “bird field trip” around his elementary school playground so they indulged his interest in birds by tracking down local Audubon folks.

In a recent email, Merrill remembered those early days.

“(May) gave me a lot of encouragement and was able to persuade my parents to install a bird feeder/bath in the back yard. It was one of my kid duties to keep it filled in the winter.  I remember we didn’t have much diversity coming through to the feeder; lots of house sparrows, house finches and juncos.

“I don’t remember going on any actual birding trips with May, just going to her home in the winter for meetings and watching birds out her window.  I was the youngest member of the group by a long shot!” Merrill wrote.

By the time I met May, she was entering her 90s. Though she no longer went out birding, she continued to compile the bird count lists, calling all her local contacts. She was the go-to person for bird questions, remembering where to find the regular species and the particulars of the rare bird sightings.

May was in her late 90s before she was willing to become “Bird Compiler Emeritus,” finally passing on in 1999 at age 99. But her influence lives on for Merrill.

“As I went through junior high and high school, there were too many other demands on my time and I didn’t go to any more meetings past probably 1968.  I have continued to be an avid birder and take my binoculars everywhere.

“As to my further Auduboning, I participated in the Christmas Bird Counts while I was at Washington State with the head of the zoology department and in the Boise area with staff from Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge.

“Here in Alaska, I’ve led several bird walks, do the CBC and I’ve just rotated off of the Juneau Audubon Society’s board where I served for 4 1/2 years.  Even though I’m the resident plant geek, birds still play a large part of my outdoor experiences and will continue as long as I’m able to.”

Here it is about 45 years after Merrill last sat in May’s living room and her example of the birding volunteer spirit lives on.

But let’s not forget those parents who recognized, indulged and enabled their son’s life-long birding addiction.

Do you know children who notice birds? Indulge them today. It will add a layer of richness to their lives, wherever they go.

Mother laid tinder for “spark” bird


Mom gave me my first field guide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Sept. 23, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Mother laid tinder for my ‘spark bird’.”

2014 Update: What was your “spark” bird?

By Barb Gorges

Birders talk about their spark bird: the one that hooked them on birdwatching, boosting their awareness of birds from background noise to center stage whenever they walk outdoors or even look out the window.

But I think that spark has to land on some tinder. In my case, that tinder was laid by my mother.

Both my parents enjoyed the outdoors. I remember many soggy camping trips in the 1960s flavored by the wet canvas smell of a great uncle’s hand-me-down, umbrella-style hunting tent, so old it featured a wooden center pole.

Dad always talked about his teenage escapade driving “out West” from Illinois with friends to climb Long’s Peak, while Mom referred to childhood visits to the family dairy farm near Madison, Wis.

We didn’t hunt or fish, but we did enjoy watching wildlife when it crossed our path–except for the black bear that raided our campsite in the Smoky Mountains. However, this alone doesn’t account for my sister and me getting degrees in natural resource management and consequently marrying wildlife biologists.

There was Girl Scouts. Mom signed us up for Brownies and became a troop leader. I stayed with it through high school, mostly for the summer camps and weekends in the woods.

There was also the spring of my junior year when Mom came home from a trip with a souvenir for me, “The Golden Guide to the Birds of North America.” I flipped through it thinking, “Nice, but none of these birds, besides the house sparrow and robin, are in our neighborhood.”

It was a month later while biking along the Menomonee River Parkway, which runs through my hometown of Wauwatosa, Wis., that two brightly colored birds caught my eye, an indigo bunting and a rose-breasted grosbeak, my spark birds. Then I identified a Canada warbler, bright yellow, perched on a branch hanging over the back door. Having a field guide made it easy to start my bird life list.


Mom and Sally

Mom and Sally come on ice fishing trip. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mom was also the one to clip a little notice about volunteering that summer with the Student Conservation Service (www.thesca.org). I was selected for a crew to rehabilitate backcountry trails and campsites at Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the 15 students, from all over the country, knew they wanted a career in conservation or biology. One was even a “bird nerd,” an entirely new species of male teenager, in my experience.

From then on, the outdoors, the natural resources, or the environment, as we began calling it in the 1970s, became a big part of my life.

Mom never became a birder, other than to enjoy the hummingbirds in her yard in Albuquerque, where she’d moved more than 30 years ago, or to try to follow our pointing fingers on trips. She had other interests, though, that demanded the same kind of research and attention to detail: knitting, needlepoint, gardening, doll collecting and repair, and her career as a registered nurse.

My sister and I spent most of this summer taking turns helping Mom through the aftermath of a severe stroke. The only bright spots for me were the birds in her backyard and, at sunrise, the dawn chorus along the nearby boulevard.

I’ve almost always avoided Albuquerque in summer because I thought it’d be too hot. It is. But I had also missed Mom’s summer birds—the family of kingbirds, the curved-billed thrasher, a flock of bushtits and the incessant cheeriness of lesser goldfinches calling to each other every day, unseen in the treetops.

Mom lived until the end of August, slipping away before I could return from another furlough home. I never said those last things I wanted her to know because during weeks of rehab it didn’t seem appropriate—we all thought there was more time.

But if you are a birdwatcher who can remember a spark bird, search your memory for those who laid the tinder and tell them thanks. Don’t wait for their last minute.

Mom and grandsons

Mom and her two grandsons, who know a thing or two about birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.