How well do birds tolerate people?

2018-03TurkeyVulturebyMarkGorges-1

Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

Also published here: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/do-birds-tolerate-people

Every soaring bird I saw in early February along 1300 miles of interstate highway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a black vulture or turkey vulture.

However near Vero Beach, Florida, where we were visiting Cheyenne snowbirds Karen and Fred Pannell, there was a black bird of a different shape, a magnificent frigatebird, a life bird for both me and my husband Mark.

But about those vultures, were they really more abundant along the interstate than away from it? Were they waiting for roadkill? We passed a couple landfill “mountains” that were big vulture magnets too.

We think wild birds go about their lives oblivious to people, or at least avoiding us. Except for birds coming to feeders. Or ducks at the park looking for handouts. Or Canada geese that enjoy eating the grass on park lawns and the leftover grain in farmers’ fields.

We know that some human activities are detrimental to birds. But how many are beneficial to them? Chimney swifts have experienced both. We took down the old hollow trees they used to build their nests in and they moved into our chimneys.

The speaker at February’s Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Cameron Nordell, relayed interesting research results on nesting ferruginous hawks and their reactions to people. Nordell, Raptor Fellow at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, is with the Wyoming Raptor Initiative.

In his previous work in southern Alberta, Nordell and his colleagues experimented in part to see at what distance hawks would flush from their nests as researchers approached by vehicle or on foot to check the nests for other aspects of the study.

Southern Alberta is a mix of agriculture, oil and gas and other development. The farmers and home owners have planted trees on the prairie and the ferruginous hawks have found them to be great for nesting—they are a ground-nesting hawk otherwise. The trees give them better protection from predators.

However, along with people came another species that climbs trees—and raids nests—racoons. Barns and other structures have helped increase the population of great horned owls and they too prey on the nestlings.

Ferruginous hawks nesting near the busiest roads were more tolerant than birds that had not seen as much traffic. Approaching vehicles were tolerated better than approaching people.

Raptors have been shown to hang out by roads, looking for injured prey species. The problem is that they risk getting hit by vehicles too.

The Wyoming Raptor Initiative (see https://wyomingbiodiversity.org/Initiatives-Programs) wants to understand the state’s raptors better, including the road problem. It has two goals:

“(1) To synthesize our scientific understanding of raptors in Wyoming so that the public, scientists, land managers and energy companies will be better informed in developing and implementing future conservation strategies and land mitigation efforts.

“(2) To foster appreciation of raptors in Wyoming and the world through education and outreach efforts.”

Nordell and his colleagues will be looking at previous studies of raptors in Wyoming, gathering more data, talking to all kinds of people to get more information, and then they’ll relay what they learn.

What will they discover about Wyoming’s ferruginous hawks, for instance? What human activities help them or harm them?

Nordell also studied arctic peregrine falcons near Hudson Bay, where there were few direct human impacts. However, the weather was ferocious. Too much rain, and a young bird, poorly nourished, could succumb to the cold rainwater collecting in the cliff-face nest. Better-fed youngsters had better survival rates.

The next questions: What affects the availability of peregrine prey species and the peregrine parents’ ability to bring food back to the nest? Is there any human influence on their success? Are humans linked in any way to that Arctic location getting demonstrably rainier?

What will be discovered about peregrines in Wyoming? I watched one nail a duck on a ranch reservoir just outside Cheyenne once. The human-made lake attracted the peregrine’s food target—southeastern Wyoming doesn’t have many natural water bodies.

I look forward to answers from the Wyoming Raptor Initiative. I’m sure they will also discover many more questions.

2018-03TurkeyVulturebyMarkGorges-2

Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Advertisements

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.

2018-02RockyMtnArsenalNWRbyBarbGorges

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.

Winter raptors

2016-12ferruginous-hawk-usfws

Ferruginous Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Published Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Winter raptor marvels, mysteries show up in southeast Wyoming.”

By Barb Gorges

Mark and I drove over to join the Laramie Audubon Society on their mid-November raptor field trip on the Laramie Plains.

It was a beautiful day that makes you forget all the previous white-knuckle drives over the pass. However, what’s good weather for driving isn’t always good for finding raptors.

Trip leader Tim Banks checked his intended route the day before and found nary a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle. So instead, we drove across the Laramie Plains on a route his chapter frequently takes for general birding.

The reason for our first stop was a mystery, but then the broken branch stub of a lone cottonwood across the road became a great horned owl. However, a rough-legged hawk and a northern harrier were too distant to enjoy.

Finally, at Hutton Lake, out of the birdless sky, the wind picked up and kicked out a golden eagle, two bald eagles, and a ferruginous hawk.

Three weeks before, on a Cheyenne Audubon field trip at Curt Gowdy, we saw two bald eagles in the canyon. Another day at the park, Mark spotted three checking out his stringer of fish.

Bald eagles are marvelous looking, but I also marvel at their history, from endangered species to birds seen three times in three weeks.

Bald eagles were first federally protected in 1940. Later they were classified as endangered. Banning the pesticide DDT and educating people not to shoot them allowed their numbers to increase. In 1995 they were reclassified as merely threatened. They were completely delisted in 2007, though they are still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

While bald eagles do breed in Wyoming, there are more here in the winter, migrating from farther north. Fish are their favorite food (carrion is second choice) so looking for them around reservoirs and Wyoming’s larger rivers is good strategy, especially if there are big cottonwoods for them to roost in.

We all recognize the adult bald eagle, dark brown with white head and white tail, but until they are about 4 or 5 years old, they are dark with splotchy white markings like those of young golden eagles.

Golden eagles never came quite as close to extinction as bald eagles, but they were targeted by stock growers. In 1971, one man confessed to killing many of the 700 found shot or poisoned near Casper.

Golden eagles live in Wyoming’s grasslands and shrublands year-round. They might choose to nest on cliffs. And they prefer eating rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs and the occasional new lamb if the rancher isn’t watching.

If you see a massive raptor flying in Wyoming in the winter, it is probably an eagle. Balds and goldens have wingspans about 80 inches long.

2016-12roughlegged_hawk-usfws

Rough-legged Hawk, courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

But if it is a smaller dark bird, wingspan only 50-plus inches, with a neater black and white pattern under the wing, it might be a rough-legged hawk.

Every winter they come down from their Arctic breeding grounds, sometimes right into Cheyenne, wherever there’s a power pole perch, open land, and mice, voles or shrews. It’s a break from eating lemmings all summer.

They were also shot at, but like all migratory birds, they are now protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

For me, the most fascinating raptor we saw on the Laramie Plains is less common: a ferruginous hawk. Its name refers to the color of rusted iron because its top side is a reddish brown. Its belly is a creamy white, slightly spotted, compared to the streaky rough-legged’s. Both have feathers all the way down their legs.

However, some sources say the ferruginous shouldn’t have been in Wyoming in November. They are almost all supposed to migrate south in October and return in March.

Some field guides show the Colorado and Wyoming border as the north boundary of their winter range. I think that winter range boundary at the state line may have more to do with the greater number of birders in Colorado in the past who could distinguish between ferruginous and rough-legged. But there are now a dozen Laramie Plains and Cheyenne-area eBird records for ferruginous from November through February within the past three years.

Guess I can no longer assume in winter any large dark hawk that isn’t a red-tailed hawk is a rough-legged. It might be a ferruginous.

Meanwhile, we can all brush up on our hawk identification skills at www.AllAboutBirds.org or download the free Merlin Bird ID app for help. It will make winter more interesting.

Wind energy for the birds

Vertical axis wind turbine

A vertical axis wind turbine and solar panels grace the Paul Smith Children’s Village at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens in Cheyenne, Wyo. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published Feb. 16, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Let’s rethink mega wind farm on behalf of birds, efficiency.”

Note: This column ran in the same edition as “Firm in California seeks to harness Wyoming’s wind,” by Ralph Vartabedian of the Los Angeles Times, about the Anschutz Corporation’s plans for the 500-square-mile ranch they bought south of Rawlins, Wyo., on which they plan to spread 1,000 turbines (the Chokecherry project) and build a 750-mile transmission line to take it all back to California. California environmentalists are not happy. Read his story here: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-wyoming-wind-20140209,0,3366359.story#axzz2tbMTmglR.

By Barb Gorges

David Yarnold is not happy.

The president of the National Audubon Society writes in the January/February issue of Audubon magazine that our country’s wind farms kill 573,000 birds, including 83,000 raptors.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act should be protecting most of those birds, he says.

It’s illegal to kill them without a permit, but the Interior Department has only enforced the law once, he says. Apparently, wind farms don’t have permits for all the birds killed.

A new federal rule allows wind companies to get 30-year permits. But to Yarnold, that represents too many birds, with no incentives to cut the number of deaths.

Wind energy is a great idea. It’s been used for centuries to propel boats, to grind grain, to pump water.

A structure for catching the wind can be erected wherever the power is needed, though a backup system is essential for windless days. People are working on more efficient battery systems.

But leave it to American ingenuity to take a simple idea and enlarge upon it, making it industrial sized, much like family farming morphed into industrial agriculture.

Wind energy is clean, producing no pollution except whatever manufacturing the components entails and maintenance requires. We need cleaner energy sources like wind since the traditional fuel-burning, power-producing businesses are reluctant to make their energy production cleaner. Never mind the climate change debate–we all have to breathe.

But wind energy has an Achilles heel. Developers want to site numerous turbines in the windiest places, which also attract birds. Collisions with the blades, the towers and the transmission lines kill birds and bats. Wind farms have mazes of roads running over habitat, forcing out wildlife.

Audubon suggests targeting development for areas that are already disturbed or developed, avoiding areas known to be dense with birds, such as the Prairie Pothole region, the Texas Gulf Coast, and the Northeast’s raptor migration bottlenecks.

If you don’t care about birds, I suppose you wouldn’t see any of this as a problem. But you should care. To sum up Basic Ecology 101, every living thing, including you, is connected to every other living thing. It’s hard to predict how a loss of birds may affect you. It could be as simple as insect populations getting out of control and decimating crops.

But there are other reasons to rethink the concept of the mega wind farm.

I am a fan of dispersed power production, placing it among the structures where we live and work. For instance, solar panels over every roof, providing extra roof insulation and hail protection. Solar panels over parking lots would keep cars and asphalt cool. Small windmills could be placed along every highway where power lines are already strung. What if we were to place constellations of pinwheels on the outer walls of a skyscraper to produce power for that building?

The advantage of disbursed power production is we don’t lose the power consumed by transporting it over long distances. Plus, any power outages would affect fewer people at a time.

OK, so every location in the country isn’t terribly windy, but as a descendent, and mother, of engineers, I think we can engineer our way to more efficient turbines. It’s happening already.

Last month, a story in this paper mentioned in passing that Ogin Inc. has invented a wind turbine with cowling, or shrouding as they are calling it. I went online to www.oginenergy.com to see what it was about.

Compare the old-style propeller-driven plane with the more efficient, more powerful jet engine enclosed by cowling. This new wind turbine design is the same thing. According to their information, “energy output is increased up to three times per unit of swept area.”

Ogin turbines are smaller, at 200 feet versus the current 500-foot tall turbines, so they can fit into already developed landscapes more easily. Because they are shorter and the tips of the blades are outlined by the shrouding, it is believed fewer birds would be killed.

Testing of this new design will be happening at the infamous Altamont Pass in California, where some years ago, biologists helped engineers change turbine tower designs from open lattice work into the smooth cylinders we know today—taking away perches for raptors which were otherwise unwittingly launching themselves into the blades.

There are vertical axis wind turbines, identical to the one in Cheyenne at the Children’s Village, which at only 30 feet tall, have far less impact visually and environmentally.

Vertical turbines would even be a good replacement in wind farms, says California Institute of Technology professor John Dabiri. Placing them close together improves their efficiency by a factor of 10, using a much smaller footprint per kilowatt of production than current, giant horizontal axis turbines we see. [http://www.caltech.edu/content/caltechs-unique-wind-projects-move-forward]

Ever since we first felt the wind pushing at our backs, we have been refining ways for it to aid us. The challenge is to make our design choices work for other species as well.