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!