Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

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Owl is new neighbor

Great Horned Owl

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

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

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

By Barb Gorges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Please report additional sightings.

Flamm Fest finds record number of owls

Flammulated Owl

Flammulated Owls are very small, 6.75 inches, and prey on insects. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published July 20, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flamm Fest finds record number.”

2014 Update: The annual Wyoming Audubon campouts have been replaced by Audubon Rockies’ (and formerly Audubon Wyoming’s) Bioblitzs held in different parts of the state each June. A birding friend was able to find Flammulated Owls mid-June this year in the same area surveyed by Flamm Fest.

By Barb Gorges

Kim Potter undeniably deserved to be crowned Queen of Flamm Fest earlier this month. Like other queens, she displayed talent—a talent for finding flammulated owl nests.

Having honed her skills in Colorado, Kim was able to find a large aspen with a hole 20 feet above ground. By lightly scratching the bark she got a female flammulated owl to come to the entrance. The time of year, second weekend in July, made it certain Kim found the first documented nest in Wyoming.

Flamms are tiny, less than 7 inches long and just over 2 ounces. They are less than half the weight and 5 inches shorter than the northern flickers that make many of the holes they nest in. Flamms prey on insects, especially moths, by inspecting infested trees.

Their name probably comes from an old word that means “with flame” as some appear to have a reddish brown color. Flamms are a western mountain species, although they are seen at low elevations during migration. The U.S. Forest Service considers them a sensitive species.

Several years ago Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory biologists Doug Faulkner and Rich Levad made a list of bird species that had not been documented in Wyoming, but which they felt should be here because of similar habitat used by the species in neighboring states.

With their knowledge of preferred flammulated owl nesting habitat in Colorado, Rich and Doug made an educated guess that was confirmed when other RMBO biologists found a flamm in the Battle Creek area three years ago.

Historically, these owls have been considered rare, but most likely their camouflage coloration, small size and quiet hoots made them easy to overlook.

Thus, we had Flamm Fest, the nickname given to the fifth annual Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society campout. Our mission was to spread out and see how many more flamms we could find.

Just about every one of the 31 participants, ages 11 and up, got a good look at one, either the female or, on Friday night, a male responding to Kim’s tape. She was demonstrating the survey techniques we would be using the following evening.

We divided into nine teams and each assigned a route to drive. At half mile intervals the recording was played and surveyors waited for an answering hoot.

The road our group was to travel was closed to vehicles so we set off on foot at twilight, only to discover a culvert was missing over a wide stretch of icy water. Everyone crossed with different degrees of dryness. On the way back we walked without turning on flashlights and stopped every 500 paces to call for owls. We did have a response from a saw-whet owl, but no flamms.

Five of the teams were luckier and counted a total of 10 flammulated owls. At a lot of the survey points it was too windy or too close to running water to hear return hoots. At some points the habitat was very different. But it is just as important to know where the owls are not as it is to know where they are.

Other owls that responded or were seen were long-eared, eastern screech, great horned and possibly a pygmy.

During daylight Saturday we checked out the only known colony of purple martins in Wyoming. They also like old flicker holes in old aspen.

The whole grove was aflutter with several other cavity-nesting species: mountain bluebird, red-naped sapsucker, house wren and tree swallow.

Purple martins in the west are a different subspecies than those in the eastern part of the country. The westerners don’t use manmade apartment-style bird house complexes—but then no one has ever put one up near where they live in the forest. We looked for other colonies but didn’t find any.

One unexpected bird was a bushtit down along the shrubby lowlands of the Little Snake River valley. Both tiny round bird and the spruce tree it nested in were completely out of their normal forest habitat.

We were also very close to the state line. A GPS reading may show the nest is a latilong breeding record for Colorado, but the bushtit itself, since it flew over the fence marked “Wyoming State Line,” will at least be a Wyoming observation record.

Our Flamm Fest campers were from an unexpected diversity of locations. From Wyoming, 19 people represented Cheyenne, Casper, Lingle, Riverton and Saratoga. We also had birders from the Denver area, western Colorado, Salt Lake City, Rapid City, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

If a simple Cheyenne chapter outing and the lure of flammulated owls can draw this group, who knows whom we’ll find on next year’s campout to the Bear Lodge in the northeast corner of the state.

Also, what species might we find? Broad-winged hawk, golden-winged warbler, yellow or black-billed cuckoos and black-backed woodpecker are some of the Black Hills specialties not found elsewhere in Wyoming.

We’ve got to find another catchy title–and maybe a trophy if Kim joins us again and proves to be Most Valuable Birder.

Mark your calendars for June 23-25, 2006.

Calling owls can be harassment

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl, photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 16, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Callers: Give a hoot; Birders need to know etiquette of calling.”

2014 Update: I’m still reluctant to call owls.

By Barb Gorges

A windless winter night is a good time to call for owls. Their response is only muffled by traffic, barking dogs, shifting feet and blood rushing in your eardrums.

The February evening the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society sponsored an owl outing attracted a field trip record of 31 local listeners. I’m guessing popularity was due partly to owl mystique and partly because the evening followed an unseasonably warm day.

Calling owls has been immortalized by the children’s picture book, Owl Moon, the story of father and child crunching over the snow on a moonlit night. On our outing, starlight was soon washed out by a huge orange moon just past full, however, snow was hard to come by.

We also didn’t have anyone willing to imitate an owl, so we used recordings. First we played the northern saw-whet owl several times, with pauses in between to listen for responses. We then moved on to long-eared, eastern screech and great horned owls. Starting with the largest would have inhibited smaller owls.

The chapter had another owl outing five years ago, but this time I heard concerns about its effect on the owls.

Calling owls or any other bird is actually a form of avian harassment. It works because birds respond to an intruder on their territory. Songbirds tucked away in leafy shrubbery will respond to the vocal sound birders make, “pish, pish.” It sounds like the avian alert signal, so they come out to see what’s going on.

You can understand why frequently antagonizing birds into alarm mode is not good. The American Birding Association states in its Code of Birding Ethics, “Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas or for attracting any species that is threatened, endangered or of special concern, or rare in your local area.”

Cheyenne birders hardly ever resort to pishing or recordings, and I was surprised once when a birder from out of state on one of our field trips started playing calls. As a birder friend said, “It seems like a cheesy way to bird,” in a recreational situation.

Calling owls is a time-honored way of surveying for them, however. Jennifer Bowers, a local wildlife biologist, told me about her experience listening for Mexican spotted owls in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona.

From the end of April to the end of July, her work day started at 4:30 p.m. with a hike into the backcountry, arriving at the beginning of one of many survey routes about 7 p.m. One kind of survey involved stopping at predetermined intervals and hooting. I can just imagine the interview for this job. Jennifer said it’s difficult to demonstrate hooting over the phone—it’s rather loud.

The other type of survey was to hoot where a pair of owls was known to nest. By the end of the season, the young were noticeable.

The surveys took about an hour or two, depending on the amount of paperwork generated by responding owls. The biologists were usually back at the field camp around midnight, only to get up and do a willow flycatcher survey at 4:30 a.m.

Inconveniencing Cheyenne owls once every few years for the sake of education is worthwhile, I think. But this time we decided to limit our calling to areas we visually survey on the Christmas and spring counts.

Apparently, we weren’t disturbing very many owls. We tried calling among the big trees at Lions Park. We tried out Crow Creek where we’d seen great horned owls last year. Nothing. By then some of the neophyte owlers must have thought we were crazy.

We had one more stop to make, the High Plains Grasslands Research Station, where we had written permission to visit that evening. We parked along the road near the entrance and before the last car door closed, people with better hearing than me heard a saw-whet.

We walked along the road until the calls became more distinct. While great horned owls are often seen on our counts on the piney island of the station, Jane Dorn, who has surveyed it for about 25 years, recalls only one other saw-whet. She said this time of year they are migrating through to their preferred nesting habitat in the mountains, so that’s why we wouldn’t find them on the Christmas count or the spring count in May.

Saw-whets are tiny, only eight inches long and not even three ounces. The great horned owl is 22 inches and three pounds. I can only surmise that an owl that calls constantly as this saw-whet did, is advertising for a mate and unconcerned with a larger owl making a midnight snack of it.

We had a beautiful moonlit evening outdoors and we gained new information. Also, it will be a long time before any of us forget the northern saw-whet owl’s call. Now that we know it, we may start hearing what we would have otherwise missed before we could distinguish it from all the other night sounds.

Night birding: looking for owls

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls establish breeding territories in late winter. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published March 2, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Night birding offers unique experience on quiet evenings.”

2014 Update: The chapter gave up owling a couple years later because it seemed too intrusive if it wasn’t for a scientific survey.

By Barb Gorges

Have you ever tried night birding? The term “bird watching” doesn’t really apply, though “bird listening” might.

It wasn’t exactly a scene from “Owl Moon,” the Caldecott-winning picture book by Jane Yolen, but a nearly full moon was glistening on patches of snow on the mid-February owling expedition.

Members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society who planned the outing were surprised by the number of people interested in tromping around in the dark and cold on a weeknight.

Kelly Johnson had her Girl Scouts bundled up and Catherine Symchych, a raptor rehabilitator, came all the way over from Laramie.

Owling means listening for owls. Unfortunately, the wind was still going strong, which meant “low audibility” as well as night’s normal low visibility.

During the mating season in late February and March, owls hoot a challenge to territorial trespassers. Researchers improve their odds of hearing owls by speaking up first. And just to make sure the accent is right, they use tape-recorded owl calls.

There are a variety of owls that can occur in Wyoming, so it’s important to start calling the smallest owls first. Once the bigger owls, like the great horned, are played everyone else in the vicinity stays mute, for fear of being eaten.

It’s easy enough to copy for your own use specific calls from one of the commercially available bird song tapes. Get the “Wyoming Bird Checklist” available from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, to decide which of the 15 owl species to put use.

When playing the tape, it’s important to be in a woodsy area, have warm batteries in the tape player, and allow for quiet between calls so you can listen for responses.

The night we were out on the road by Lummis Reservoir, the taped calls were carried far downwind, but responses couldn’t be heard because we were standing upwind by the tape player. At the second stop, outside Lakeview Cemetery the wind was less boisterous.

Still no owls.

Windless early spring nights are uncommon here, so I’ll just have to get up and go owling the next time I notice one.

I did hear birds at night once this winter. Low clouds and a thick fall of snowflakes trapped the streetlights’ orange glow and spread it everywhere so bright I could have read the paper.

It was windless and very quiet, no traffic. And then I heard birds twittering in the bushes across the street. Later I heard more somewhere in the back yard.

I’ve heard that songbirds will huddle together at night to keep warm.

Was I hearing the equivalent of snoring birds, birds trying to get comfortable, or birds confused by the unnatural bright light at 10 p.m.?

If birding in snow and dark doesn’t appeal to you, try morning. Check the recording of the night’s activities left in the snow.

In the forest I’ve found rabbit tracks that suddenly stop between two large owl wing imprints and have been surprised by a late-awakening grouse exploding from their snow caves.

Early one morning recently, a scant quarter inch of snow covered the sidewalks. Whereas in deeper snow footprints just dark holes, this time even the juncos left prints on the patio, so clean, toe joints were visible.

Cottontails left tracks to show where they congregate in the middle of the street. A single-minded cat left a single-file string of paw prints down the sidewalk. Down by the ditch, tiny mouse-sized prints emerged from under the concrete barriers and circled back again.

Every snow print was as if what dogs smell was suddenly made visible.

I’m not sure Lincoln, our dog, is very good at reading smells though. For some reason he got most excited on the way home sniffing the tracks he left when we started out.