Friday, December 20, 2013

Snowy Owl Irruption in Eastern North America

The eastern United States and Canada are in the midst of a massive Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) invasion. Unlike the irruption a couple years ago, this event seems to be limited to the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes region, with large numbers of owls showing up as far west as Minnesota, Illinois, and North Dakota. Snowy Owls are even showing up as far south as North and South Carolina, with one report even coming from Bermuda!  Despite the restricted range of this winter's irruption, incredible numbers of birds are showing up.  One particularly impressive report comes from Bruce Mactavish in Newfoundland, where over 300 Snowy Owls were found in a small area of coastline (you can read more about this here).

This Snowy Owl invasion has caught the attention of many people, with articles even appearing in the New York Times, which you can see here.  Another extremely informative and interesting article about the impressive Snowy Owl flight is on the eBird homepage.  In this article, you can see the extent of this year's Snowy Owl distribution compared with last winter, which was not an invasion year.  The maps are striking.

I was lucky enough to see some of the Snowy Owl excitement on a recent trip home to New York for the holidays.  The first bird we encountered in the early morning light was still actively hunting from atop a power pole right next to the road. We were able to watch the bird from a respectable distance without disturbing it while it actively searched the dunes for prey before eventually taking flight to roost for the day.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) - Suffolk Co., NY

The second bird picture below was encountered roosting in the dunes along the beach.  This was one of two birds we saw at this site. Many of these coastal sites throughout the Northeast are currently harboring one or more Snowy Owls, where they haven been observed preying on mice, rats, rabbits, and even birds such as pigeons and ducks (Parmelee 1992).

Snowy Owl - Nassau Co., NY

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman


Parmelee, David F. 1992. Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fall Migration: A Recap

Fall migration in the Laramie area was very busy this year. The fun kicked off as early as July, with the earliest migrants, shorebirds, started moving. The earliest shorebird migrants that show up in July are generally failed breeders. Shorebird migration peaks in mid to late August, but continues well into September and even October.

Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii) - Albany Co. 
Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) - Albany Co.
Besides shorebirds, songbirds and other land birds made a good appearance as well.  Wilson's Warblers (Cardellina pusilla) were very this year, with smaller number of other warblers such as MacGillivray's (Geothlypis tolmiei), Orange-crowned (Oreothlypis celata), Townsend's (Setophaga townsendi), and Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia), and rarities including Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus), Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) and American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). Sparrow diversity was also impressive, with good numbers of White-crowned (Zonotrichia leucophrys), Lincoln's (Melospiza lincolnii), and Clay-colored Sparrows (Spizella pallida).  Hummingbirds, which start moving by late July, lingered into September, with especially good numbers of Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus), and smaller numbers of Broad-tailed (Selasphorus platycercus) and Calliope Hummingbirds (Selasphorus calliope).

Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla) - Albany Co.
Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) - Albany Co.
Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)
Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) - Albany Co.
Laramie was also host to some more unusual birds this fall.  While not completely unexpected, two Lewis's Woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) were found at the Greenhill Cemetery, while Williamson's Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) were found elsewhere in town.

Lewis's Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) - Albany Co.
In late October and November, gulls and waterbirds started pushing through in good numbers. Lake Hattie and Hutton Lakes National Wildlife Refuge were particularly productive, with huge concentrations of waterfowl that included both Surf and White-winged Scoters. Gull highlights included Wyoming's second record ever of Little Gull at Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, several Sabine's Gulls, and a single Thayer's Gull at Lake Hattie.

Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) - Albany Co.
Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica) - Albany Co.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman

The latest binocular review from CLO is out

If you are looking for a holiday gift for a birder in your life or if you are considering a personal upgrade, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's latest binocular review is out. This is a one-stop shop for comparing many models in difference price categories so you can hone in what you need. They've added a new price category and reviewed over 100 binoculars. Check out their top picks here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Christmas Bird Count - December 14th


The Laramie Audubon Society will again take part in a 100-year-old Christmas tradition, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, which mobilizes more than 70,000 volunteer bird counters in more than 2,300 locations. This wildlife survey effort provides important information about birds and their habitats to scientists and conservationists.

Volunteers are welcome to join in the count with the Laramie Audubon Society chapter as it conducts the Albany County Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 14 This will be the 36th count of the Albany County circle. Volunteers are needed to help count every bird present in a 15-mile diameter circle around Laramie on the day of the count. Novices are welcome and will be paired with more experienced bird watchers.

Volunteers can call ahead (307-286-1972) or meet at Coal Creek Coffee (110 E. Grand) at7:30 am on the day of the count to get data forms and team assignments. Some teams walk while others drive through portions of the count circle. Volunteers will reconvene at The Grounds Internet and Coffee Lounge (171 N. 3rd St.) at 12:00 pm to drop off morning reports and to regroup if continuing in the afternoon.

Volunteers should wear warm, layered clothing and boots, and bring water, snacks and binoculars if they have them. Bird feeder watchers are also welcome. Volunteers are invited to a chili supper where results will be compiled beginning at 4 pm at the home of Shay Howlin, event organizer. Potluck items welcome, but not required.  Please contact Shay Howlin if you would like to be assigned a route early, would like forms for feeder watching, or have any questions (

Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, Laramie Co., WY (2013)
Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sage Spirit Program on Wednesday, November 20

Wednesday, November 20th. Sage Spirit Project Update by Dave Showalter. This program is sure to be a visual delight!

Dave Showalter is a conservation photographer who is in his fifth year of working on a book and multi-media project—the Sage Spirit Project—that features our imperiled sagebrush ecosystem. LAS has served as fiscal sponsor for the project, enabling funders to make tax-deductible donations.

Dave is not unique in his belief that the "sagebrush is the beating heart of the Intermountain West" but he does have a remarkable ability to capture its beauty and highlight the diversity of species that call this habitat home. He also has photographed the industrial development that threatens this region and has worked with conservation groups to draw attention to these threats and foster protection for this ecosystem.

Come and see spectacular photographs and support this important work to highlight and protect the sagebrush ecosystem.

UW Berry Biodiversity Center, 10th & Lewis Street intersection. Bird chat and refreshments at 6:30 pm in the lobby. Program begins at 7 pm in the auditorium.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Fall Raptor Trip--Sat, Nov 9th

Saturday, Nov. 9th, 8:30am.  Fall Raptor Field Trip led by our local raptor expert Chad Olson.  We will search high and low for Golden and Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks,  Red-tailed Hawks, owls, American Kestrels, Merlins, and whatever else is out there.  We are always successful on this fall trip.  If you want to know about the various stages of coloration, age, and other characteristics of raptors, this trip is for you!  Very little walking is involved in this trip, but when we step out into the cold wind to spot the birds overhead or on the ground, you'll want to be dressed very warmly.

Laramie Audubon field trips are free and open to birders of all levels.  We will meet at Night Heron Books and Coffee, 107 E. Ivinson, downtown Laramie, to caffeinate and carpool.  Please dress for the worst weather and bring your birding paraphenalia, water and snacks.  This particular trip involves a lot of driving in search of raptors in our plains near Laramie, so gas up ahead of time.

Alternate date, in case of inclement weather (rain or blizzard counts as inclement), is Nov. 16th.  Call 307-760-8546 if you have questions.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fuzz to Feathers to Flight: Geology Museum Exhibit Unveiling

Late notice, but thought this would be of interest to many Laramie Audubon members. Tonight at the UW Geology Museum, a new exhibit, entitled "Fuzz to Feathers to Flight: how birds arose from dinosaurs and took to the air" will be unveiled tonight, with a presentation by Katrina van Grouw (author of The Unfeathered Bird). Event starts at 6, and goes until 8.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October Public Talk: Reproduction in Hybrid Gulls

Reproductive success of gulls in a hybrid zone
Libby Megna, PhD student at UWYO

Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens) and Western Gulls (L. occidentalis) hybridize extensively where their ranges overlap along the coasts of Washington and Oregon, producing a continuum of phenotypic intergrades between the two parental species. This zone typically is considered an example of geographically bounded hybrid superiority, but studies have not consistently supported this model. I'll talk about mating patterns and hatching success of these gulls, and how such data help us to understand how this hybrid zone works.

When: Wednesday, Oct. 30
6:30pm Bird Chat and refreshments in the lobby
7:00pm Presentation in the auditorium

Where: UW Berry Biodiversity Center, 10th St. & Lewis St. (free parking after 5pm)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Field Trip Oct 12th to Plains Lakes

We will be heading out tomorrow morning to the Plains Lakes. Hutton Lakes NWR is closed due to the government shutdown. Meet at Night Heron Books at 8am. We will carpool and be back in Laramie at about noon. If you can't join us for the entire morning, please drive separately. Dress for the weather and bring plenty of water and snacks. All ages and abilities welcome.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Swifts in Migration

I just came across this blog post today by Ed Young about swifts staying on the wing for 200 days straight. Remarkable.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Oct 5 Field Trip Canceled

Due to inclement weather, the field trip for Saturday, Oct 5th, to Hutton Lakes has been canceled. We will reschedule for next Saturday, weather permitting.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Public Seminar Tomorrow Night - Sept 25

LAS and the UWYO Zoology & Physiology Department are hosting a guest lecture by Dr. Harry Greene from Cornell University. His talk is titled "Natural History, Aesthetics, and Conservation" and will begin at 7:30 pm in the Berry Center Auditorium. Refreshments and BirdChat will begin at 7 pm in the lobby. Afterwards, Dr. Greene will be holding a book signing for his book Tracks and Shadows.

Please join us tomorrow evening, Sept 25th at 7:30 pm, for an engaging natural history talk!

Field Trip Report - Sept 21

This morning, the Laramie Audubon Society field trip checked a couple of songbird migrant sites in and around Laramie. We had pretty good success, and although it is getting late for many birds, there were still good numbers of migrants around. Along the Greenbelt, we had two MacGillivray's Warblers, a late Western Wood-Pewee, and some other good migrants.

Our eBird list from the Greenbelt is here:

We ended with a walk through Greenhill Cemetery, where the highlight was a *Cassin's Vireo*. It was seen feeding in the pines along the south edge of the cemetery. A late *Olive-sided Flycatcher* was also actively feeding from the tops of the Black Poplars. We also had a female *Williamson's Sapsucker*, many Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two each of Orange-crowned and Townsend's Warblers.

Our complete eBird list from Greenhill Cemetery is here:

Good birding,
Shawn Billerman

Cassin's Vireo by Shawn Billerman

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Field Trip to in-town hotspots -- Sat Sept 21

This weekend we will take a field trip to some birding hotspots within Laramie City limits. We will meet at Night Heron books 8 am to fuel ourselves and carpool. We will start with a short walk at Optimist Park and the Laramie Greenbelt, head over to see what is hanging out at LaBonte Park, and finish at the cemetery. The community garden and trees at the cemetery have hosted some great birds in the past week, including lots of Wilson's Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows with rarer sightings of Tennessee Warbler and Lewis's Woodpecker.

All ages and abilities are welcome. Please dress appropriately for the weather.

Wilson's Warbler by Shawn Billerman

Sunday, September 15, 2013

LAS Field Trip - Laramie Plains Lakes - Sabine's Gulls ++

Frank, Chad, and Kristina birding at Twin Buttes by Julie Hart
Today (September 14), 10 people joined the Laramie Audubon Field Trip to the Laramie Plains Lakes in Albany County.  We had fantastic weather, and many great birds.  Ducks appear to be accumulating on all of the major lakes, with good numbers of both dabblers and divers.  Songbirds continue to make a strong showing, and we had many Wilson's Warblers, along with smaller numbers of Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers in the few scattered trees.  Four *Great-tailed Grackles* continue near Blake's Pond. There are also good numbers of raptors continuing, with Ferruginous,
Swainson's, and Red-tailed Hawks, Prairie Falcon, and both Bald and Golden
Eagles.  Small numbers of shorebirds continue, with Baird's and Semipalmated
Sandpipers, both yellowlegs, and Long-billed Dowitchers.

The true highlights of the day came at Lake Hattie, where we found 5 *Sabine's
Gulls* far out over the lake, best viewed from near the dam.  There was a
single adult, but the rest were juvenile.  The incredible wing pattern was
clearly visible when they would fly.

After the official LAS trip ended, four of us returned to Lake Hattie to
try and get better views of the Sabine's Gulls, and to try to document them
better.  We were not disappointed, and we were able to re-find 3 of the
juvenile birds.  One flew by fairly close to where we were standing.  In
addition to the gulls, we also found an adult *Parasitic Jaeger* that
mostly kept to itself, but gave chase to some Black Terns briefly.  There
was also an adult *Lesser Black-backed Gull* with the California and
Ring-billed Gulls.

Good birding!
Shawn Billerman
American White Pelicans on Lake Hattie by Julie Hart

Friday, September 13, 2013

Field Trip to the Plains Lakes - Sat Sept 14th

The recent weather system has brought in lots of migrants to the area and we will be heading out tomorrow, rain or shine, to see what is around on the Plains Lakes. We will likely spend a lot of time looking at waterfowl, but there are bound to be small migrating passerines fueling up for a long migration. People of all ages and birding levels are encouraged to participate, but please dress appropriately.

Meet at 8 am at Night Heron Books, downtown. We will carpool from there.

Canada and Greater White-fronted Geese by Shawn Billerman

Friday, September 6, 2013

Meet the Sagebrush Sparrow

In Wyoming, many birders have become familiar with the Sage Sparrow, which is a common sagebrush obligate species that breeds across much of the state.  However, the Sage Sparrow as we know it no longer exists.  In July 2013, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) published their annual supplement to the Check-list of North American Birds.  In this update, the AOU decided, based on extensive research, to split the Sage Sparrow into two species (Chesser et al. 2013).  The first, the Bell's Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli), is found in chaparral dominated habitat in western California south to central Baja California.  It reaches east-central California, where it has limited contact with the second species (Cicero and Johnson 2007, Cicero and Koo 2012).  The second species, which is widely distributed through the Great Basin in sagebrush steppe, and is especially common through much of Wyoming, is the Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis).

Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis) - Albany Co.
The decision to split the Sage Sparrow into two species was based on genetic evidence, ecological data, and morphological differences between Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrow.  These two species come into contact in a narrow region of east-central California.  Where they meet, there is limited interbreeding, meaning each species prefers members of its own species, resulting in few hybrids and little gene flow (Cicero and Johnson 2007, Cicero and Koo 2012).  Further, there are strong niche differences between the two sparrows, with Sagebrush Sparrow preferring the cooler, wetter Great Basin desert sagebrush, and Bell's Sparrows favoring hotter, drier regions with less variability in temperature through the year (Cicero and Johnson 2007, Cicero and Koo 2012).

While this decision has relatively little impact on us here in Wyoming, it does add a new species of bird to the already diverse class, Aves.  It also means that the next time you're in California and see a Sage Sparrow, it is now recognized as a distinct, new species, the Bell's Sparrow.  This new research also adds to our understanding of how species boundaries are formed, and what factors may be important in the constant evolution of species.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman


Chesser, RT, RC Banks, FK Barker, C Cicero, JL Dunn, AW Kratter, IJ Lovette, PC Rasmussen, JV Remsen, Jr., JD Rising, DF Stotz, and K Winker. 2013. Fifty-fourth supplement to the American Ornithologists' Union Check-list of North American Birds. The Auk 130(3): 1-14

Cicero, C and NK Johnson. 2007. Narrow contact of desert sage sparrows (Amphispiza belli nevadensis and A.b. canescens) in Owens Valley, eastern California: evidence from mitochondrial DNA, morphology, and GIS-based niche models. Ornithological Monographs 27: 78-95

Cicero, C and MS Koo. 2012. The role of niche divergence and phenotypic adaptation in promoting lineage diversification in the Sage Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli, Aves: Emberizidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 107: 332-354

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

eBird talk tonight!

Please join us for a special talk tonight about eBird!

WHERE:  UWYO Berry Center auditorium, corner of 10th and Lewis St
WHEN: Refreshments and birdchat begin at 6:30 pm, talk starts at 7:00 pm
WHAT: Brian Sullivan, program leader for eBird, will present a stimulating talk about how you can get involved with eBird, an international repository for bird sightings. Learn how eBird can help you keep track of your life list, find new places to birdwatch, and contribute to scientific endeavors!

American White Pelican by Shawn Billerman

Friday, August 23, 2013

Bird research in the news

I came across two articles highlighting bird research this week. The first is related to the public talk we are co-hosting Sept 4th on eBird, and the second is on shearwater movements being tracked during their non-breeding season.


published in The New York Times August 19, 2013
Photo from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Helena, Mont. — On a warm morning not long ago on the shore of a small prairie lake outside this state capital, Bob Martinka trained his spotting scope on a towering cottonwood tree heavy with blue heron nests. He counted a dozen of the tall, graceful birds and got out his smartphone, not to make a call but to type the number of birds and the species into an app that sent the information to researchers in New York.

Mr. Martinka, a retired state wildlife biologist and an avid bird-watcher, is part of the global ornithological network eBird. Several times a week he heads into the mountains to scan lakes, grasslands, even the local dump, and then reports his sightings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a nonprofit organization based at Cornell University. 

Read the rest of this article here.


published on Constantine Alexander's blog and LinkedIn August 18, 2013

Photo copyright NOAA
Researchers at NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are using satellite technology to learn more about the movement, life cycle, feeding and foraging habits of Great Shearwater seabirds in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. Scientists have attached satellite transmitters to 10 birds and are tracking their movements this summer.

Shearwaters are one of more than 30 species of seabirds that can be found in the sanctuary. The birds winter and nest in the southern hemisphere, usually appearing in the Gulf of Maine in April to feed. However, little is known about how they spend their time in the Gulf of Maine.

Read the rest of the blog entry here. You can read about the research directly and track individual birds at the NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary page.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Webinar Series on Shorebird Identification

Willet by Shawn Billerman
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is offering a series of webinars this fall to help people learn shorebird and waterfowl identification. This is a great opportunity for those wanting to advance in this difficult area. Kevin McGowan is a great teacher and helped me become the birder I am today. The series starts this Friday and each webinar is only $10. Space is limited.

For more information, click here.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Threatened IBA in the Dominican Republic

For those that were present for my LAS presentation on Bicknell's Thrush a few years ago (2009 I think?), you may remember that I conducted research on this thrush in the Dominican Republic. The place where I conducted this research is an Important Bird Area is now under severe threat. Please read below for more information.
Sunset in the Sierra de Bahoruco by Julie Hart
Excerpt from the Birding Community E-bulletin by Paul Baicich and Wayne Peterson.


In December we ran a quick review of a new bird finding guide for the Dominican Republic, RUTA BARRANCOLI, by Steven C. Latta and Kate J. Wallace (2012, National Aviary).

Now there is news from the Dominican Republic that the Sierra de Bahoruco, an Important Bird Area (IBA) in that country is currently under increasing threat.

The area has long been suffering due to burning for charcoal production and illegal agricultural practices, and in mid-July a dry forest area on its northern foothills an area formally protected as Loma Charco Azul Biological Reserve, is starting to be cleared to make way for an agricultural settlement. This is occurring despite the fact that the area is supposed to be protected as a Biological Reserve.

The Dominican Agrarian Institute has approved this activity, and about 260 acres are slated for immediate destruction. Multiple species are at risk. The Loma Charco Azul Biological Reserve, which falls under the larger Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Biosphere Reserve which has been ratified by UNESCO, is habitat for the endangered Bay-breasted Cuckoo (Coccyzus rufigularis), an endemic species with a very limited distribution in Hispaniola.

You can get more details on this threat and actions being taken here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

State of the Birds 2013

The 2013 report on the state of the birds focuses on birds on private lands. Approximately 60% of land in the U.S. is privately owned. Highlights of the report include:

  • Through the Farm Bill’s Working Lands for Wildlife Program, more than 700 ranchers are enhancing 2.5 million acres of aridland habitat for the benefit of sage‐grouse.
  • Regional spring counts of Henslow’s Sparrows are now about 25 times higher than 30 years ago, prior to the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program.
  • Through Mountain Plover Nest Conservation Programs in Nebraska and Colorado nearly 250 private landowners have protected more than 1,000 nests of the imperiled Mountain Plover.
Download the State of the Birds 2013.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Restless Nights for Relocated Birds

When managers try to move a species to a new environment, many of the animals often die soon after being released. Now scientists have found one possible reason for the high failure rate. According to a study in Biology Letters, birds don’t get enough sleep when they’re in an unfamiliar place.

Read the rest of the commentary from Conservation Magazine here.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Breeding Birds of the Laramie Plains

By mid-July here in Laramie, breeding season is well under way, and for some species, already over.  While early summer can be a slow birding time in many parts of the country, things are still quite interesting and exciting here in Albany County.

Out on the plains around Laramie, many songbirds are busy feeding nestlings and fledglings.  I recently took a trip up to the Old Laramie River Road, which runs through a variety of grassland types, from the typical dry shortgrass prairie to wetter, longer grass habitats closer to the Laramie River.  This variety of grassland habitats means that this area has some of the best diversity of grassland species in Albany County, including both longspurs, Lark Buntings, and Vesper Sparrows, among many others.

Many species, including Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), and McCown's Longspurs (Rhyncophanes mccownii) have fledged young, and already seem to be flocking in preparation for their southward migration toward the end of August.

McCown's Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii) fledgling - Albany Co.
In addition to McCown's Longspurs, Old Laramie River Road is probably the best spot in Albany County to see Chestnut-collared Longspur (Calcarius ornatus).  In wetter, longer grass, this species is quite easy to find as they sing from any elevated perch.  Like McCowns, Chestnut-collared Longspurs also skylark, singing in flight, although their skylarking display is not as impressive as that of McCown's Longspur.

Chestnut-collared Longspur (Calcarius ornatus) - Albany Co.
Chestnut-collared Longspur fledgling - Albany Co.
Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys) - Albany Co.
In addition to the great songbird activity, Old Laramie River Road has also had an exciting diversity of raptors, with many fledgling Swainson's Hawks foraging across the plains.  There have also been Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks, American Kestrels, and Prairie Falcons.

Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) juvenile - Albany Co.
Despite the heat of the summer, there is still quite a bit of bird activity out there, so get out there and see what you can find.  This is a really interesting time of year, and you never know what might show up.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Brown-capped Rosy-finch Survey

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch Survey in the Snowy Range Important Bird Area

July 20, 2013

Please join us for a day of hiking and bird surveying in the beautiful Snowy Mountains! We will be conducting the Laramie Audubon Society’s annual Brown-capped Rosy-Finch survey in the Snowy Range on July 20, 2013this year.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch in Snowy Mountain IBA
In 2003, Audubon Wyoming designated a site within the Snowy Range as one of Wyoming’s Important Birds Areas because its alpine habitat supports Wyoming’s only breeding population of the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. This bird is a species of concern because it breeds only in the Snowies and on mountain peaks in Colorado and northern New Mexico. If the current global warming trend continues, its mountain habitat islands are likely to shrink and to be invaded by other avian species that are currently excluded by the harsh conditions. Documenting how many Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are in the area and where they are feeding and nesting can help us to monitor this population and determine how the birds are faring.

This year, the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database has teamed up with Laramie Audubon to develop additional survey routes so we can get a more accurate picture of where rosy-finches occur and are nesting in the Snowies. We also will be attempting to make our data collection slightly more rigorous by using GPS units to mark our observation points and our nest locations. If you have a GPS and are willing to use it, please bring it along on the survey.

Please let Sophie know if you will be joining us on the survey and if you plan to bring your own GPS unit at 307-742-6138 or at

We will meet on July 20, 2013 at 8:30am at the Forest Service Visitor Center, on WY 130, approximately 1-2 miles west of Centennial WY. After a brief orientation session, we will divide the group into teams and will divide up the survey routes.

Medicine Bow Peak area in the Snowy Mountain IBA
What to expect: Be prepared to spend the day hiking and looking for rosy-finches. The birds are not in predictable locations so considerable walking may be required. Some of the trails have fairly steep portions and the elevation can be challenging for some people. You may also spend time sitting in certain areas to search for or observe birds. Most survey routes are along established trails; a few of the new routes will be off-trail.

What to look for: In spring and summer, Brown-capped Rosy-Finches often feed at the edge of snowdrifts, where seeds that were blown onto the snowpack during winter emerge from the melting snow cover. Spring winds also blow insects from lower elevations that settle onto the snow where they can be found by birds that are gathering food for their nestlings. Nests are well hidden in talus and in shallow crevices in rock faces. When seen feeding on bright snow, rosy-finches may appear to be a solid dark color. In better light, their light-pink flanks and rumps are visible and they show a flash of pink in their wings when in flight. 

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch in Snowy Range IBA
What to bring: Binoculars and/or spotting scope, a field guide, warm clothes (including wind protection), lunch and snacks, water, and sunblock. Please bring a GPS unit if you have one. We will provide route maps.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman

Monday, July 8, 2013

Brush Creek Trail, Medicine Bow National Forest

I recently had a very lovely walk along the Brush Creek ski trail loop system which starts at the visitor center along W. C130 just west of the T intersection with Hwy C130 North. From Laramie take the C130 Centennial Snowy Range Scenic Byway all the way to the end where it bottoms out just east of  Brush Creek. (approx 1 hour)  It is a low damp area lined with spruce providing lots of cover for birds and wildlife. Clark's Nutcrackers were very common as they tamely flit just ahead of you, along with RC Kinglets. Also present were hermit thrush, chickadees, and a probable (plumbeous?) vireo. There were also quite a few butterflies including many checkered skippers, tiny blues, sulphurs, a cabbage and a mourning cloak. Also a sprinkling of some mostly white and yellow wildflowers along the wet path. All in all making for a very nice  nature hike and a good spot  for LAS  birders and butterfliers to explore. It took about 4 hours to casually hike the entire loop of about 10 miles of easy level terrain, damp and a bit muddy requiring boots. The intersections of the trail are well marked with signs and maps but bring a pocket compass to be sure of correct path to take.  Be aware of elk ( saw several) and possibly black bear. Have a real nice walk on this pretty and quiet trail.

Frank Piraino, June 2013

Sunday, June 16, 2013

White-tailed Ptarmigan

One of only a few species that breeds exclusively in the alpine tundra, the White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) is a highly sought after bird for many visitors to the Rocky Mountains.  Unlike the other species of Lagopus, the Willow and Rock Ptarmigans which have a circumpolar distribution, the White-tailed Ptarmigan is restricted to North America.  Thought to have diverged from the Rock Ptarmigan after being isolated during the Ice Age, the White-tailed Ptarmigan is similar in many respects to other ptarmigan, with cryptic plumage appropriate for each season, being pure snowy white in the winter, and mottled brown, gray, and white during the summer (Braun et al. 1993).

White-tailed Ptarmigan (male)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Laramier County, CO (June 2013)
 The White-tailed Ptarmigan has the most southerly distribution of any of the ptarmigan in North America (Rock Ptarmigan gets at least as far south in Japan), with their native range reaching as far south as the mountains of northern New Mexico.  Found in alpine habitats at or above treeline, White-tailed Ptarmigan can be found in areas with stunted willows, sedge meadows, and other alpine habtiats (Braun et al. 1993)  They are widely distributed across alpine tundra habitat in Colorado, and are also found in southwestern Montana and the Cascades of Washington.  Ptarmigan have also been introduced into mountains in northern Utah, the Sierra Nevada in California, and the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon.  However, despite this extensive range throughout the Rocky Mountains, White-tailed Ptarmigan are strangely absent from Wyoming.  A range map shows a large gap in their distribution in Wyoming.  Why is this the case?  Have they always been absent?

White-tailed Ptarmigan (male)
White-tailed Ptarmigan (female)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Larimer County, CO (June 2013)
A bit of research into the history of this species reveals that White-tailed Ptarmigan used to be found in the Snowy Range, just outside of Laramie.  Regular reports of the species go back as far as the mid-1970's, with a single documented record from 2005 which may represent a dispersal event from Colorado (Hoffman 2006, Faulkner 2010, Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2012).  Anecdotal sight evidence from the Wind River Range and the Bighorns have been presented from the 1930's, but this is unverified, and subsequent searches of these areas have found no evidence of ptarmigan anywhere else in the state, despite extensive suitable habitat (Hoffman 2006). 

View of the alpine zone in the Snowy Range
 So, if White-tailed Ptarmigan were in the Snowy Range as recently as the mid-1970's, why are they no longer there?  A report prepared by Hoffman (2006) for the USDA Forest Service suggests several reasons for their absence.  First, the available habitat is very limited, and may be unable to support a sustainable population.  While there may be immigration from Colorado occasionally (as the 2005 record suggests), they are unlikely to persist.  Second, the area has high recreational usage, both from extensive snowmobiling in the winter, and hiking in the summer, which may degrade habitat.  Finally, the alpine tundra habitat was extesnsively grazed by sheep until 1997, which may have also degraded the habitat to a point that it is unable to sustain a population of ptarmigan (Hoffman 2006). 

White-tailed Ptarmigan (male)
Rocky Mountain National Park, Laramier County, CO (June 2013)
Despite there being sustainable populations of ptarmigan only 50 kilometers from the Snowy Range, and less than 10 kilometers from the Wyoming border, it is unlikely that White-tailed Ptarmigan will again have a sustained population in southeast Wyoming due to continued habitat degradation.  Why ptarmigan have never been conclusively found in the other Wyoming ranges, however, remains a mystery.  Until we learn more, we will have to be content with hopping across to Colorado and enjoying this spectacular grouse there.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman


Braun, CE, K Martin, and LA Robb (1993) White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology (2012) eBird. Avian Knowledge Network. Ithaca, NY.

Faulkner, D (2010) Birds of Wyoming. Roberts and Company Publishers, Greenwood Village, Colorado

Hoffman, RW (2006) White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus): a technical conservation assessment [Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Available

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Nightjar Surveys June 16-30--Volunteers Needed!

Dear Auduboners,

It’s time to start planning for this year’s nightjar surveys! Our nightjar surveys must be conducted between June 16th and June 30th. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this effort, the Laramie Audubon Society is a yearly participant in a National Nightjar Survey that was initiated in 2007 by the Center for Conservation Biology.

Nightjars are enigmatic, nocturnally-active birds whose populations are thought to be declining throughout North America. Wyoming has two species of nightjars: Common Nighthawk and Common Poorwill. In 2009, Laramie Audubon adopted five survey routes in the vicinity of Laramie (Sybille Canyon, Buford, Harmony, Fox Park, and Rock River). We will be surveying these same routes in 2013 during the established survey period.

The night surveys are fairly easy and really enjoyable. It’s great to be able to spend a few hours collecting data for an important national bird conservation effort. Surveys take no more than two hours and consist of making 10 stops along an established route. At each stop, we count the number of nightjars heard during a 6-minute period and fill out our observations on a data sheet. It is important to have good hearing to conduct these surveys. Surveys have to take place on a relatively clear night when the moon is more than 50 percent full and when there is not too much wind (these requirements can be challenging for the Laramie area!). Surveys begin at least 30 minutes after sunset and must be completed after moonrise and before moonset.  You can do the surveys alone, but it’s easier to work in teams.

If you are interested in participating in these surveys please e-mail me to let me know at For those who would like to participate, I will explain the protocols and data collection, and hand out data sheets, sunset/moonrise/moonset times, and survey route maps on Tuesday June 11 at 6 pm and Wednesday June 12 at 6 pm in the Student Union – at the seating area across from the coffee shop on the main level. Hopefully anybody who is interested will be able to make one of those dates. If not, you can call me at 307-742-6138 to set up an alternate time to meet with me.

Thanks to those who decide to participate and let’s hope the weather cooperates this year!


P.S. For those who prefer hiking and doing daytime bird surveys, we will be conducting our annual Brown-capped Rosy-Finch survey on July 20, 2012 this year. More information about that survey to come soon...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hutton NWR & Chimney Rock Field Trip Report

On Saturday, June 1st, 14 people showed up to bird around Hutton Lake and on down to the Colorado border at Chimney Rock. It was a decent day of birding, despite not finding any active raptor nests along the ridge on the way to Chimney Rock. An unexpected bird for some was a Veery, heard at two stops adjacent to wetlands. The four checklists from the day are below.
Listening for a Veery at Chimney/Camel Rock

-------Hutton Lake NWR, Albany, US-WY-------
Jun 1, 2013 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM
Protocol: Traveling
2.0 mile(s)
Comments:     With Laramie Audubon, mild-moderate wind, 40F, mostly cloudy.
37 species

Canada Goose  45
Gadwall  2
Mallard  12
Green-winged Teal  1
Canvasback  8
Redhead  6
Lesser Scaup  8
Ruddy Duck  16
Pied-billed Grebe  2
Eared Grebe  40
Western Grebe  20
Double-crested Cormorant  2
American White Pelican  2
White-faced Ibis  1
American Coot  60
American Avocet  20
Spotted Sandpiper  2
Willet  5
Short-billed Dowitcher  6     We (Chad, Sophie, and I) spent a long time determining to species. Short-billed because of short, straight bill and barring down the sides of the flanks.
Wilson's Phalarope  200     A large raft was floating in the middle of Hutton Lake (easily over 150 in this raft alone) and many others spinning around near the shores of all the lakes.
Forster's Tern  2
Common Raven  2
Horned Lark  4
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  1     Only saw one fly by, but probably more were present.
Tree Swallow  100     Probably more.
Bank Swallow  1     Only saw one fly by, but probably more were present.
Barn Swallow  3
Cliff Swallow  100     Probably more.
Sage Thrasher  1
Yellow Warbler  2
Brewer's Sparrow  2
Savannah Sparrow  3
Red-winged Blackbird  5
Western Meadowlark  2
Yellow-headed Blackbird  14     Many fewer than a week ago. The large migrating flocks seem to have moved on and only residents are left.
Brewer's Blackbird  6
Common Grackle  5

-------Sand Creek Rd between Hutton NWR and Sportsmans Lake Rd, Albany, US-WY-------
Jun 1, 2013 11:00 AM - 11:25 AM
Protocol: Traveling
8.2 mile(s)
Comments:     With Laramie Audubon, mild-moderate wind, 40F, mostly cloudy.
3 species

Northern Harrier  1
Swainson's Hawk  1
Horned Lark  X

-------Wetlands at Sand Creek & Sportsmans Lake Roads Intersection, Albany, US-WY-------
Jun 1, 2013 11:25 AM - 11:50 AM
Protocol: Stationary
Comments:     With Laramie Audubon, mild-moderate wind, 40F, mostly cloudy. Also a Mourning Cloak, boreal chorus frogs, and 2 mule deer.
14 species

Mallard  1     On nest with 3 eggs between north side of road and river.
Turkey Vulture  1
Red-tailed Hawk  1     Probably nesting in tall cottonwoods on south side of road.
Barn Swallow  1
Cliff Swallow  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Veery  1
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  1
European Starling  2
Yellow Warbler  2
Song Sparrow  1
Red-winged Blackbird  2
American Goldfinch  2

-------WY-Chimney Rock, Albany, US-WY-------
Jun 1, 2013 11:50 AM - 1:00 PM
Protocol: Traveling
5.7 mile(s)
Comments:     With Laramie Audubon, mild-moderate wind, 40F, mostly cloudy. Also 14 elk (incl one calf) seen en route. A possible Cordilleran Flycatcher along the cliff edge, but too far to verify.
10 species

White-throated Swift  15
American Kestrel  1
Rock Wren  2
Veery  1
Gray Catbird  1
Yellow Warbler  2
Green-tailed Towhee  5
Brewer's Sparrow  7
Western Meadowlark  2
Brewer's Blackbird  4

Disappearing Toucans and Smaller Palm Seeds

One of the many uses of birds to humans is that they are pollinators and seed distributors. A recent article in Science magazine documented a decline in the size of palm tree seeds due to the decline of large-billed birds.

"As toucans and other large-beaked birds have vanished from Brazilian forests, the seeds of palm trees have shrunk, scientists report." Read more here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Baikal Teal in Montana!

At the end of April, a birder in Montana found a Baikal Teal hanging out with some Wood Ducks near Missoula. This bird is named after where it is usually found this time of year--Lake Baikal in Russia. For some great photos by the person that found the bird, check out his webpage here.

You never know what you might find out there!