Raptors popular; new book celebrates them

2018-02BaldEagle-RockyMountain ArsenalNWRbyMarkGorges

A bald eagle is eating lunch at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver in late January. The upside-down v’s on the power pole keep it from perching where its outstretched wings would complete an electrical circuit and electrocute it. Photo by Mark Gorges.



Raptors are popular birds; new book celebrates them

By Barb Gorges

Also published at Wyoming Network News and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Raptors were the stars of a late January field trip taken by the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society.

We visited the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge on the outskirts of Denver, only 90 minutes from Cheyenne.

The man at the visitor center desk told us the bald eagles were at Lower Derby Lake. He was right.

Farther down the road we found a bald eagle on top of a utility pole calmly eating something furry for lunch, either one of the numerous prairie dogs or a rabbit. Several photographers snapped away. No one got out of their cars because we were still in the buffalo pasture where visitors, for their own safety, are not allowed out of their vehicles. But vehicles make good blinds and the eagle seemed unperturbed.


Several chapter members get out for a better look at a hawk, before the Wildlife Drive enters the buffalo pasture where visitors must stay in their vehicles. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Winter is a good time to look for raptors. They show up well among naked tree branches and on fence posts, though we noticed mature bald eagles look headless if they are silhouetted against a white winter sky—or the snow-whitened peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Our checklist for the Arsenal included rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, and some unidentifiable hawks.

On the way home, we stopped in Fort Collins because a Harris’s hawk, rare for the area, was reported hanging around the Colorado Welcome Center at the East Prospect Road exit. The center volunteers told us all about it—and that we were several days late. But they knew where the local bald eagle nests were and were proud of the other hawks that could be seen right outside the window.

Raptors, generally defined as hawks, eagles, falcons and sometimes vultures, sometimes owls, are a popular category of bird. When our Audubon chapter sponsored the Buffalo Bill Center for the West’s Raptor Experience last spring, more than 100 people crowded into the biggest meeting room at the library to see live hawks, falcons and owls.

Maybe we are fascinated by raptors because their deadly talons and powerful beaks give us a little shiver of fear. Or maybe it’s because they are easy to see, circling the sky or perched out in the open. Even some place as unlikely as the I-25 corridor makes for good hawk-watching. I counted 11 on fence posts and utility poles in the 50 miles between Ft. Collins and Cheyenne on our way home from the field trip.

Since I was driving, I didn’t give the birds a long enough look to identify them. But I bet I know who could—Pete Dunne.

Dunne watches hawks at Cape May, New Jersey, during migration. After more than 40 years, most as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, he can identify raptor species when they are mere specks in the sky—the way motorists can identify law enforcement vehicles coming up from behind. It’s not just shape. It’s also the way they move.

2018-02BirdsofPreyDunne&Karlson            Dunne is co-author of “Hawks in Flight: A Guide to Identification of Migrant Raptors.” Last year he authored a new book with Kevin T. Karlson, “Birds of Prey, Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America.”

This is not your typical encyclopedia of bird species accounts. Rather, it is Dunne introducing you to his old friends, including anecdotes from their shared past.

You will still find out the wingspan of a bald eagle, 71-89 inches, and learn about the light and dark morphs (differences in appearance) of the rough-legged hawk.

But Dunne also gives you his personal assessment of a species. For instance, he takes exception to the official description of Cooper’s hawk (another of our local hawks) in the Birds of North America species accounts as being a bird of woodlands. After years of spending hunting seasons in the woods, he’s never seen one there.

Dunne is even apt to recite poetry, such as this from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle”:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

This is not a raptor identification guide, but since there are photos on nearly every page—an average of 10 per species showing birds in all kinds of behaviors, you can’t help but become more familiar with them—and more in awe.

At 300 pages, this is not a quick read, but it is perfect preparation for a trip to the Arsenal or for finding out more about the next kestrel you see.


Recognizing celebrity birders

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne’s preferred habitat is the hawk watching platform at the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May, New Jersey. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 16, 2012, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Nationally known birders have nothing on birds, the true celebs.”

2014 Update: In September our local Audubon chapter celebrated its 40th anniversary and was fortunate to be joined by John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine, flagship publication of the American Birding Association.

By Barb Gorges

Studying birds in your field guide will help you identify them when you finally see them in the field. But don’t neglect to study the author photo on the back cover—you never know when you’ll have a chance to identify them as well.

Over Thanksgiving, Mark and I attended a family wedding in Philadelphia. One of my new shirttail relations, John, is a birder and came with us to Cape May for a day.

The southern tip of New Jersey has long been recognized for its numerous and varied migrating birds and has lots of public access for birding. We stopped at the Cape May Bird Observatory hawk-watching platform first, figuring that official migration observers might still be around and help us Westerners and John, an Irishman living in England, identify local birds.

The first ID I made was that the observer on deck was Pete Dunne, author of several books I’ve reviewed for this paper, including “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion” and the first three of his seasonal quartet beginning with “Prairie Spring.” He’s also a co-author of “Hawks in Flight,” along with other entertaining books and articles for birding magazines.

Pete’s day jobs are director of CMBO and chief communications officer for New Jersey Audubon Society. But they let him out of the office to count birds. He can distinguish a turkey vulture from a black vulture, even when they are mere specks overhead. Without his help, we would not have identified the red-shouldered hawk or determined that the Cooper’s hawk in flight was not a sharp-shinned.

If you go to bird festivals, you too, will meet nationally recognized birders. Nearly 30 years ago, I shook hands with Roger Tory Peterson at a National Audubon convention. A few years later at another one, I correctly identified, from a distance, without using binoculars, the man in the middle of a flock of middle-aged women as author Kenn Kaufman.

But we met Pete at home, in his own habitat, with no printed agenda or groupies to indicate his status.


Mill Grove

John James Audubon explored the bird life around Mill Grove in 1803. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The next day we visited the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, in Audubon, Penn., where one of the world’s most famous bird artists lived when he first came to the U.S. in 1803 at age 18. Hiking the trails around the house, now a museum, through the woods and fields overlooking Perkiomen Creek, I was able to add a singing Carolina wren to my life list, imagining Audubon first hearing it here as well.

A week later, the wedding couple, my uncle and my new aunt–both knowledgeable birders–were able to refind Pete on the same deck at Cape May.

Pete remembered the three of us from the week before, and conversely, said the sighting of Wyoming birders was a lot rarer event than meeting John, even though he came further. There are just over half a million Wyomingites, after all, compared to 62 million Brits. Many of us from the Cowboy State, by nature of our choice of residence, and especially those attracted to birding, prefer travelling to remote places rather than congested coasts.

We were too late to meet superstar storm Sandy, luckily. Cape May was untouched because Sandy landed some miles up the coast at Atlantic City where she devastated Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge and the barrier islands.

We still noticed Sandy’s damage in the suburban-rural area north of Philadelphia, mostly toppled pines and hardwoods, including one that impaled the second story of a house.

What happens to birds in severe storms? My aunt forwarded a New York Times article by Natalie Angier, published Nov. 12, reporting how perching birds have toes that automatically lock around a branch when they bend their legs. So they are as safe as the branch they sit on.

Angier reported birds feel the changes in air pressure from an approaching storm and those migrating may steer around it or correct course afterwards. Some get a boost, having been documented as flying into a storm at 7 mph and coming out the other side at 90.

No matter how many well-known birders I may meet, the birds are the true celebrities. The migrants propelling themselves over dangerous distances, as well as the ordinary house finch weathering another winter, are to be celebrated.

So if I attend the National Audubon convention in Stevenson, Wash., in July, I will be sure to identify the keynote speakers, but the local birds will be the real stars.

Book Review: “Arctic Autumn” by Pete Dunne

Arctic Autumn

“Arctic Autumn” by Pete Dunne

Published January 2012, in The Flyer, newsletter of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, “Book Review: Third volume of this seasonal quartet is chilly and chilling.”

2014 Update: With the first three seasonal books published, we hope to see what Pete has up his sleeve for winter.

By Barb Gorges

Arctic Autumn, a Journey to Season’s Edge, by Pete Dunne, photos by Linda Dunne, c. 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 258 pages, $24.

“Arctic Autumn” is the third volume in Pete Dunne’s seasonal quartet, so far including “Prairie Spring” and “Bayshore Summer.”

No simple drive through places known for autumn color for Pete. Instead, he has picked the Arctic: Alaska and northern Canada, where life responds as early as the summer solstice to shortening day length, which is where his book begins because by the fall equinox, an Inuit guide told Dunne, “All birds gone in September.”

As good naturalists can’t help but do, Pete and his wife Linda, who provides the photos, show how the tundra ecosystem operates and how life adapts, including the native humans, the Inuits.

But these days one can’t travel the Arctic without noticing that climate change, that 13-letter dirty word, is making inroads.

On a polar bear photography tour out of Churchill, Manitoba, that uses a structure on treads to move across the polar ice, Dunne reflects on the disappearance of that ice which will leave the bears on shore, without the sea ice they need to fish for seals. He attempts to explain to a bear peering at him from below, how these changes might fit into the larger time frame.

Read this book for the well-written overview of the Arctic ecosystem, as well as the poetic prose from a man who delights in the details.

As you read, keep in mind our winter birds in Cheyenne, some of which, like the American tree sparrow, come to us from the tundra.

Book reviews: Bird books by Peterson, Howell and Dunne

Peterson field guide

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

Published July 26. 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Summer reading list for birders.”

2014 Update: All three books are classics and readily available.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th edition, by Roger Tory Peterson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Two years ago the “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” was updated and combined Roger Tory Peterson’s eastern and western guides into one volume for the first time. This spring the information was published in separate guides again.

The publishers must have decided it was easy enough to cater to both birders who like the entire continent in one book and birders who like the regional field guides which are divided by the 100th Meridian, vertically bisecting the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, and cutting off the Oklahoma panhandle.

Unfortunately, in the western edition, the individual species range maps cut off half the continent so you can’t get a feel for continent-wide distribution when a species has one.

Cheyenne is frequently visited by eastern warblers during spring migration and while the western guide has their pictures and descriptions, no range maps are provided to give you an idea how far away their normal range is.

If you live out here in the middle of the continent and you want a Peterson guide to birds, famous for its trademarked field identification system and Roger Tory Peterson’s classic illustrations, go for the big one, “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America,” only $6 more than this new $20 western guide.

You’ll get a more complete view of our birds and be able to use it wherever you travel in North America– and get more muscles carrying it.

Molt in NA Birds

Molt in North American Birds

Molt in North American Birds, by Steve N. G. Howell, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series, this book addresses molt, the process of birds growing new feathers. It’s a confusing topic, but necessary for identifying birds beyond their characteristic breeding plumage.

When do birds grow new feathers, pushing out the old worn ones? Do all birds have different winter and summer plumages? Can they fly when they are molting wing feathers? What causes a molt cycle to begin? When is the best time to molt?

All birds molt, but not the same way or as often, which is why there is now a 267-page book to explain it. What’s even more confusing is that there are different systems used to talk about molt.

Howell has written 67 pages explaining the different classification systems as well as bird molt strategies. Once you’ve digested those pages with the help of Howell’s clear writing style, move on to the bird families such as the gulls, champion molt artists.

Even if you aren’t particularly interested in molt, this book is jam-packed with bird photos, almost all taken by Howell himself in the last five years. He leads birdwatching tours for WINGS, Inc., is affiliated with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and lives in California.

Bayshore Summer

Bayshore Summer

Bayshore Summer, Finding Eden in a Most Unlikely Place, by Pete Dunne, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Following his book, “Prairie Spring,” a three-month tour of the Great Plains, Pete Dunne has decided to stay home for this installment in his seasonal series.

Dunne is the director of the famous Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.

The Bayshore is southern New Jersey, where summers are marshy, hot, humid and swarming with insects.

Dunne provides a fascinating trip through an area mostly unfamiliar even to folks going to the Jersey Shore.

He explores the intricate relationship between the 400-year-old human adaptations to nature, and nature’s adaptation to man when he tries his hand at harvesting salt hay or goes out with the watermen to pull crab pots.

The heart of the red knot problem (knots are shorebirds) gets Dunne and his photographer wife, Linda, immersed in tidal flat mud. Later, he catalogs the many kinds of insect and arachnid agony locally available. He is a wallflower on a party boat searching for weakfish. He expounds on the Jersey tomato and why the state’s nickname is “the Garden State.” And he spends a night with a state game warden on a stakeout for a habitual deer poacher.

Dunne makes you feel all the summer sweat and all the itches, so maybe you’ll want to save this small book for next winter or your vacation in cool mountains. Despite the discomforts of his climate descriptions, it makes me want to visit the Bayshore myself, but maybe before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

Book review: “Prairie Spring,” by Pete Dunne

"Prairie Spring" book

“Prairie Spring,” by Pete Dunne, is part of a seasonal quartet of books.

Published Mar. 27, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book review: “Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season.” East Coast naturalist records a memorable spring on our prairie.”

2014 Update: Pete Dunne has followed “Prairie Spring” with “Bayshore Summer” and “Arctic Autumn.”

By Barb Gorges

Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season, by Pete Dunne, published by Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 288 pages, $24. Publication date: March 19, 2009.

It’s the rare nature book that relates to us out here on the prairie. Even rarer is the nationally recognized author who leaves the east coast to write it.

It is always interesting to see familiar places through the eyes of a newcomer, especially one who has both an easy-to-read style and who has done his research, not only on prairie places but on spring itself. Author Pete Dunne even took time to interview locals while his wife Linda photographed their adventures.

In his first of a projected four-season, four-volume series, he has a way of personalizing history and ecology, in storyteller mode, that keeps you reading, even though you know the outcome of this plot.

The plot isn’t only about the advance of spring, but how European farming traditions, weather cycles, economic recessions and other human actions changed or might change the grasslands.

As director of New Jersey’s Cape May Bird Observatory, a famous spring migration Mecca itself, Dunne is able to rhapsodize about our spring, too.

Able to look for the mysteries and miracles of spring anywhere, why would Dunne choose the grasslands? Perhaps it is to bring attention to the strggling grassland birds and ecosystem.

Dunne chose particular locations to examine at particular times during the spring of 2007. You may remember it as the spring all those white evening primroses carpeted the pastures in May along I-25 between here and Fort Collins.

He visited Pawnee National Grasslands in Colo., just 25 miles southeast of Cheyenne, several times during the season, beginning on Ground Hog Day, the real beginning of spring. He also visited the sandhill crane migration in Kearney, Neb., Comanche National Grasslands in southeast Colorado, Milnesand Preserve in northern New Mexico and Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Hmm, he never mentioned Wyoming. Spring on our prairie is just as remarkable as the places spotlighted in this book but it will be our gladly-kept big secret. O.K.?