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.

How well do birds tolerate people?

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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.

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Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Bioblitz at the Belvoir Ranch

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Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, is getting ready to let a young citizen scientist release a yellow warbler that was caught in a mist net during the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 17, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Kids explore nature of the Belvoir Ranch.”

By Barb Gorges

I was delighted to recognize my neighbor at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz last month. She is going to be a senior at Cheyenne East High in the fall and was there with two friends. All three were planning to spend the weekend looking for birds, mammals, herps (reptiles and amphibians), pollinators, macroinvertebrates and plants, to fulfill more hours required for their Congressional Award gold medals.

The weekend could have served for all four award areas: volunteer public service (we were all volunteer citizen scientists collecting data), personal development (the staff taught us a lot of new things), physical fitness (hiking up and down Lone Tree Creek in the heat was arduous), and expedition/exploration (many of us, including my neighbor and her friends, camped out and cooked meals despite being only 20 miles from Cheyenne).

Mark and I have attended other bioblitzes around the state, but this was the first one close to Cheyenne. With all of the publicity from the four sponsoring groups, Audubon Rockies, The Nature Conservancy, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Geographic Alliance, a record 100 people attended, plus the staff of 50 from various natural science disciplines.

When I asked my neighbor why she and her friends had come, she said, “We’re science nerds.” That was exciting to hear.

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My neighbor and friends net aquatic invertebrates including dragonfly and damselfly larvae.  A blue and green pollinator trap is set up on the far side of the pond. Photo by Barb Gorges.

There were a lot of junior science nerds in attendance with their families. Small children enjoyed wading into the pond along the creek to scoop up dragonfly and damselfly larvae —and even crayfish.

A surprising number of children were up at 6 a.m. Saturday for the bird survey. The highlight was the raven nest in a crevice on the canyon wall, with three young ravens crowding the opening, ready to fledge.

Sunday morning’s bird mist netting along the creek was very popular. Several birds that had been hard to see with binoculars were suddenly in hand.

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Zach Hutchinson, Audubon Rockies Community Naturalist, discusses the captured bird he is holding in his left hand. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Because it wasn’t at an official bird banding site, the mist netting was strictly educational and the birds were soon released. Several young children had the opportunity to hold a bird and release it, feeling how light it was, how fast its heart beat and feeling the little whoosh of air as it took flight. What I wouldn’t give to know if any of the children grow up to be bird biologists or birdwatchers.

The Belvoir Ranch is owned by the city of Cheyenne and stretches miles to the west between I-80 and the Colorado-Wyoming state line. The city bought it in 2003 and 2005 to protect our upstream aquifer, or groundwater, as well as the surface water.

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Bioblitz birdwatchers head down along Lone Tree Creek at 6 a.m. on June 12 to survey the birds. Photo by Barb Gorges.

While limited grazing and hunting continues as it did under private ownership, other parts of the master plan have yet to come to fruition: wind farm, landfill, golf course, or general recreation development. It is normally closed to the public. However, progress is being made on trails to connect the ranch to Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and/or Red Mountain Open Space.

A good landowner takes stock of his property. The city has some idea of what’s out there, including archeological sites. But with budgets tightening, there won’t be funding to hire consultants for a closer look. But there are a lot of citizen scientists available.

The data from the Bioblitz weekend went into the Wyobio database, www.wyobio.org, a place where data from all over Wyoming can be entered. The bird data also went into eBird.org.

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A University of Wyoming graduate student and a citizen scientist filter water from the creek to prepare it for DNA analysis. The sample will show what amphibians have been swimming there. Photo by Barb Gorges.  

The data began to paint a picture of the Belvoir: 62 species of animals including 50 birds, 8 mammals, 4 herps, plus 13 taxa of macroinvertebrates (not easily identified to species) and 12 taxa of pollinators (bees and other insects), plus many species of plants. All that diversity was from exploring half a mile of one creek within the ranch’s total 18,800 acres–about 30 square miles.

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This ground nest seems to have one smaller egg laid by an interloper. Many grassland bird species build their nests on the ground. Photo by Barb Gorges.

The members of the City Council who approved the ranch purchase are to be congratulated on making it public land in addition to protecting our watershed. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the federal and state governments to do the right thing.  The essence of Wyoming is its big natural landscapes and we are lucky to have one on the west edge of Wyoming’s largest city.

Let’s also congratulate the parents who encouraged their children to examine the critters in the muddy pond and pick up mammal scat (while wearing plastic gloves) on the trails among other activities.

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A Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist introduces a Wandering Garter Snake to a young citizen scientist. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Someday, these kids will grow up to be like my high school neighbor and her friends. Someday they could be the graduate students, professors and land use professionals. No matter what they become, they can always contribute scientific data by being citizen scientists.

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Citizen scientists of all ages learned to identify types of aquatic invertebrates at the Belvoir Ranch Bioblitz. Photo by Barb Gorges.

BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats, botany and much more Wyoming biota

Mist netting

Participants in the 2014 BioBlitz at Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, Wyoming, watch as Jacelyn Downey, community naturalist for Audubon Rockies, untangles a Common Yellowthroat caught in a mist net. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published July 20, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “BioBlitz finds birds, butterflies, bees, bats and more.”

By Barb Gorges

“A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteers, scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi and other organisms as possible.” National Geographic Society

Microbes?! No one went looking for microbes during the Wyoming BioBlitz.

It was held last month on the longest day of the year at The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. And hopefully, no one took home any unwanted microbes.

But we did find lots of other life. More than 70 people participated: putting out pollinator traps, extracting birds from mist nets, bouncing over a mountain meadow after butterflies and bees, dip netting for macroinvertebrates, electrofishing a stream, botanizing up the side of the canyon, searching for reptiles and amphibians, setting small mammal traps, attracting moths to blacklight, and until nearly midnight, netting bats, only to roll out of sleeping bags or beds in town the next morning to count birds before sunlight hit the canyon floor.

It’s one thing to have a scientist come and present their work in a lecture, as they do, for instance, for Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meetings. It’s quite another to find out firsthand how difficult it is to untangle a bird from a mist net in order to study breeding patterns and longevity.

Then there was the chance to perfect my butterfly net technique with Amy Pocewicz of The Nature Conservancy. It’s like tennis, but butterflies are more erratic and the court is littered with shrubby obstacles.

Sometimes field work is monotony. I went with Wyoming Natural Diversity Database’s (WYNDD) Ian Abernathy and his group to pick up small mammal traps in the sagebrush, little folding aluminum boxes baited with sweetened oats. Each had a tuft of polyester batting thoughtfully provided so the mouse or vole could bed down comfortably for the night in a place not as warm as their own burrow.

To check the traps, we all had to don disposable face masks and gloves to protect us from possible exposure to hantavirus.

We were led by an indefatigable 4-year-old who enjoyed marching ahead to pluck the pin flag marking the next trap.

No critters were captured in any of the 60 traps in the sagebrush and only one in the 20 traps along the creek. Too much human scent from the group setting traps the night before?

Martin Grenier, Wyoming Game and Fish Department non-game biologist, set a mist net over the creek in the evening and his group was able to catch four bats of three different species.

The same evening, Lusha Tronstad, invertebrate zoologist with WYNDD, hung two white table cloths on the Learning Center’s patio, placing one small blacklight against each, and then turned off the regular lights. Moths and nocturnal wasps flocked in and extremely small insects were “vacuumed” into a glass bottle for close inspection.

One special moth will have to be identified by an expert in Florida.

Audubon Wyoming, now Audubon Rockies, is the originator of Wyoming’s BioBlitz, holding the first one in 2008, and has partnered with various organizations, agencies and companies to hold it in different locations around the state.

Wyoming teachers can receive continuing education credits—it’s a lot more fun, one teacher from Bighorn told me, than attending lectures.

This year, the Red Canyon BioBlitz sponsors and partners also included, in addition to those mentioned earlier, the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and the Wyoming Native Plant Society. During a creative interlude, an artist from the Lander Art Center had us harvesting cheatgrass—an invasive plant—and making art out of it.

The very first BioBlitz was held in 1996 at a park in Washington, D.C., where National Park Service naturalist Susan Rudy coined the term from the German word “blitz,” meaning lightning, or fast.

Search online for “BioBlitz” and you will find 20 more listed in this country plus Korea, Canada, New Zealand and especially, the United Kingdom. It’s a plot to infect people with the awareness and joy of biodiversity.

One of my favorite memories of the weekend, besides all the biota, is camping out on the lawn by the Learning Center and going to bed with the stars in my eyes and waking with birdsong in my ears. The other favorite memory is meeting old friends and new, all interested in the wonderful biodiversity of our home state.

You too, can come along next year, wherever BioBlitz may be.

Related websites:

Audubon Rockies, http://rockies.audubon.org

Lander Art Center, www.landerartcenter.com

The Nature Conservancy, http://www.nature.org/wyoming

UW Biodiversity Institute, www.wyomingbiodiversity.org

WyoBio, www.wyobio.org

Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, www.uwyo.edu/wyndd

Wyoming Game and Fish Department, www.wgfd.wyo.gov

Wyoming Native Plant Society, www.wynps.org