Nature Sounds Society Workshop (Part 2)

Sandhill Cranes

Of course, the biggest part of the workshop was getting out to appreciate nature sounds! We were fortunate to have great weather for the morning recording sessions- the heat didn’t really take over until late morning when we were mostly done.  For more about the sessions at the field station, check out Part 1.



Eric listening to the dawn chorus

The first full day saw us waking up at 2:45AM to drive from the field station to Sierra Valley on the other side of the pass. Our caravan parked along a gravel road in a marshy area at about “nautical twilight”- that time before sunrise when the sky lightens enough to accurately discern the horizon line. We spread out along the road as the eerie pulsing “winnow” of Wilson’s snipe sounded out of the darkness. Gradually the sky became lighter, and we were treated to a whole range of sounds including bullfrogs, sandhill cranes, 3 kinds of blackbirds, meadowlarks, cows, and one of the most powerful and prolonged coyote chorus that I’ve ever heard. I can only speak for myself, but it took every ounce of restraint not ruin 18 people’s sound recordings by yelling “Holy crap that was amazing!” (we were specifically warned not to do this the night before)

A Brewer's Blackbird pauses on a fence line in Sierra Valley

Our next stop was a one-lane bridge a little farther up the road. The bridge hosts a large colony of cliff swallows, so we were treated to the sights and sounds of hundreds of swallows darting and wheeling around us.

Cliff Swallows, Sierra Valley

After a quick stop to eat (coffee, breakfast sandwiches, fruit, homemade muffins and granola- the organizers spared no effort to keep us happy and powered up!), we headed to a forest meadow site called Carmen Valley. It was getting hot and summer insect sounds started to replace bird vocalizations before too long, although we did see some of the typical Sierra Nevada birds like White-headed Woodpecker, Lincoln Sparrow, and Mountain Chickadee. Most exciting was surprising a young bear with unusually blonde fur. The bear was definitely more scared of us than we were of it.

Brewer's Blackbird

The next morning we woke up at the leisurely hour of 3:15 AM to check out the dawn chorus at the Yuba Pass summit just a few miles up the road from the field station. The mosquitoes finally found us up here, but even so, it was well worth it to hear the forest come alive. There’s not much that beats hearing the ethereal flute-like song of hermit thrushes in a towering forest or the sounds of a sapsucker’s drumming echoing among the trunks. It was also a treat to see several flocks of Evening Grosbeaks along the side of the road.

Dawn light, Yuba Pass Summit

Male Evening Grosbeak

Beautiful scenery, great wildlife, and intellectual and aesthetic stimulation. What could be better than that! I definitely hope to return one day, and would recommend others with similar interests in nature sounds and soundscapes to check out the Nature Sounds Society and the field recording workshop in particular.

Wyoming Bird Bonanza

Apart from the habitat and climate, there is another thing that separates birding in Wyoming compared with birding in California, and that is the community of birders out there actually looking at birds. The Bay Area has several Audubon Societies and a balkanization of email lists that distribute bird sighting to their members. In contrast, Wyoming has one email list (with ~250 members) for the entire state! Why does this matter? As citizen science projects such as eBird start to fill in our knowledge of bird distribution and abundance, Wyoming could be left as a blank spot on those maps.

Towards that end, two folks at the University of Wyoming, James Maley and Matt Carling, are again putting out a call for the few of us out there to submit our spring bird sightings to eBird. Hence the Wyoming Bird Bonanza.

One correction to the article I’ve copied below- there is no other registration needed aside from eBird. Matt and James will scour the statewide submissions themselves.


This edition of Bird Banter, about the upcoming Wyoming Birding Bonanza, was
published April 7, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Feel free to disperse
it to anyone interested in participating. Thanks to James Maley,, for the information. Contact the author at

Wyoming Birding Bonanza strikes again

By Barb Gorges

Are you ready for the second annual Wyoming Birding Bonanza?
Polish your binoculars because you can be a winner.

The competition was dreamed up last year by James Maley and Matt
Carling, both of the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and
Physiology. James is collections manager of the Museum of Vertebrates and
Matt is an assistant professor.

Their goal is to increase the number of bird observations for Wyoming during
spring migration that are recorded in the data base, and to get
birders into the habit of submitting information. The data is used by

Last year, the contest ran from mid-April to mid-June but this
year it is being pared back to May 1 – 31, migration peak weeks.

Thanks to sponsors like last year’s, Cheyenne – High Plains,
Laramie and Meadowlark Audubon societies, as well as UW’s Biodiversity
Institute, Audubon Wyoming and eBird, there are prizes. [Author's note: If
you would like to be a sponsor, contact James Maley,]

Registered contestants who enter at least 15 checklists will
receive a WBB T-shirt. A checklist is a list of bird species and number of
individuals of each, seen in a particular location during a period of time.
James promises this year’s T-shirt will be a work of art. Everyone who turns
in at least 10 checklists will be entered in a grand prize drawing.

Also, for each Wyoming county, the participant reporting the most species
will win a prize. Last year, I was the Laramie County winner and received
the latest edition of the National Geographic field guide. This year our
county is up for grabs since I’m going to be out less often.

For better odds, try birding Big Horn, Converse and Sublette
counties, where no checklists were turned in last year, James said.

“April, May, and June of 2012 are now the top three months of
all time for number of checklists statewide,” he said. There were 1,282
turned in, compared to 424 for the same months in 2010. A total of 266
species was observed in 2012.

I know I paid closer attention to the birds around me because of
the competition. I found a summer tanager in our backyard May 11, considered
rare for Wyoming.

James passed on a list of other rare bird sightings from 2012:

–1 Glossy Ibis at Meeboer Lake (west of Laramie) on April 17

–1 Lesser Black-backed Gull also at Meeboer Lake on April 17

–1 Black-and-white Warbler at Holliday Park on April 21

–1 Juniper Titmouse at Guernsey State Park on April 22

–1 Long-tailed Jaeger at Hutton Lake NWR on May 3

–1 Northern Cardinal in Laramie on May 4

–5 Short-billed Dowitchers at Hutton on May 5

–1 Snowy Owl at Keyhole State Park on May 15

–1 Blackpoll Warbler at Hereford on May15

–1 Cattle Egret in Rock River on May 17

–1 White-eyed Vireo near Lander on May 28.

So, are you ready to earn that WBB T-shirt? You can do it by
simply counting the birds in your backyard for a few minutes at least 15
different times. Here’s what you need to do.

First, sign up at, if you haven’t already. It’s
free. Click on the “About eBird” link, and then the “eBird Quick Start
Guide,” the first link on that page.

When setting up your observation locations, select a hotspot marker if there
is one at one of your locations already, such as Wyoming Hereford Ranch or
Lions Park. Otherwise, on the map your personal marker may be hidden
underneath the hotspot’s. You can view your data for a hotspot alone or
collated with everyone else’s. If you have questions about eBird, call me.

Next, sign up for the Wyoming Birding Bonanza at It’s
also free.

Here are the rules.


1. Participants will count only full species as defined by the current
American Birding Association checklist.

2. Birds identified to a taxonomic level above species may be
counted if no other member of the taxonomic level is on the checklist. For
example, duck sp. can be counted if no other ducks are seen.

3. Birds counted must be alive and unrestrained. Sick and
injured birds are countable. Nests and eggs do not count.

4. Electronic devices are allowed, but see ABA’s Code of Ethics for

Time: We will extract final eBird data for the Bonanza on 30 June 2013.

Area: Anywhere in Wyoming.


1. Participants must only count birds unquestionably identified.
If in doubt, leave it out.

2. Know and abide by the rules.

3. Share information with other birders–they’ll thank you.

Good birding to all!


Great Backard Bird Count this Weekend

This Stellar's Jay is just one species I might get to see in by backyard this weekend.

I am a regular participant in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which is one probably it’s most well-known and longest running citizen science project (you can read more about this here). Audubon has a number of other citizen science efforts, including one taking place this weekend: the Great Backyard Bird Count. I see the GBBC as something of a cross between the CBC (targeted searching in a limited area during a specified time of the year, repeated year after year) and eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is the more flexible bird-sightings platform for reporting (and viewing) bird occurrences from anywhere in the world at any time. So consider keeping track of your bird sightings this weekend, even if it’s just the birds seen at the feeders in your yard or at your neighborhood park, and help put together a robust snapshot of late-winter bird populations.

I’ll also say eBird is a great general tool *for* birding, as it maintains lists for you and allows you to see what species people are finding.

2012 Christmas Bird Counts

Intrepid birders braving the rain.

I’m back to the blog- I do have a bit to catch up on. First, the 2012 Christmas Bird Count. I’ve talked a bit about these counts in the past, so you can read a bit more background in an older post.

I was able to continue my new tradition of helping census birds in two of the nearby count circles. The first count was in the Oakland area, and once again I met up with fearless leader Kevin along with regulars Steve, Phil (and some newcomers) to find birds in our part of the map. We have a fantastic territory in the northern edge of the overall count circle; it stretches from the south side of Pt. Isabel down to Gilman St. and Golden Gate fields, and up through Albany and El Cerrito more or less to the top of the ridge in the Berkeley Hills. This area covers a surprising variety of habitats including the open bay and shoreline with it’s mudflats and marsh, some ponds in the horse track infield, some oak woodland with a stream on the back side of Albany Hill, and a mix of trees in the Sunset View Cemetery.

Black-and-White Warbler, Albany, CA

We had unusually nice weather, and at least one pretty good bird, a Black-and-White warbler that Kevin found between Albany Hill and the Ranch 99 parking lot. This is a migrant that isn’t typically found here even during the breeding season, so finding one in the winter is pretty uncommon. I had my camera along and managed to get a couple of decent photos that Golden Gate Audubon was able to use for a number of their press releases for the event. The day ended with a grand total of 116 species of birds- pretty good number for a square mile or two of extremely urbanized real estate. The total for all territories in the Oakland count circle was around 177 or so, which seemed to be “good but not great” in terms of species diversity.

River Otter in Pleasant Hill

The second count was Central Contra Costa County (it’s 15 mile circle is centered in Walnut Creek). It started out much less promising- it was pouring buckets as I drove out to meet leaders Hugh and Rosita in Pleasant Hill. This territory isn’t quite as productive as the Albany site, but we were just happy that the rain let up. No particular highlights as rare as the black-and-white warbler, but we ended up with close to 90 species, including several that were relatively rare for our area (Peregrine Falcon, White-throated Swift, Least Sandpiper to name a few). The entire count circle had around 154 species seen that day- getting more than 150 is seen as good for the this count so I’d guess the organizers were happy with the outcome. The highlight for me was seeing a river otter in downtown Pleasant Hill next to Diablo Valley College.

A few other photos from the two days.

Of course, it’s the data that are important, and if you are interested in learning more about one of the longest running and most popular citizen science programs in existence, you can go to the Audubon Christmas Bird Count website.



NAOC 2012 Recap

View from UBC

I’m back from Vancouver and the great joint meeting of many ornithological societies. Although there were a few issues, it was, all in all, a great meeting. The venue was beautiful; the University of British Columbia is perched on the end of a peninsula, with stunning views of water, mountains, and downtown Vancouver. The weather was pretty incredible as well: sunny and warm for most of the conference.


We had a packed schedule for the four-day meeting. We started at 8:30 with plenary talks from well-known biologists. In the opening plenary, Fiona Schmiegelow gave an overview of research on boreal songbird conservation. Unfortunately I missed the second plenary by Irby Lovette, but the last two were excellent: Roxanna Torres from UNAM led us through 20 years of research on color signaling in Blue-footed Boobies, and Peter Marra from the Smithsonian gave an impassioned plea for the importance of studying winter behavior in migrant birds, and the importance of linking breeding, migration, and wintering ecology.

The talks were all really high quality, not like it was 15 years ago when people were still transitioning into Powerpoint and presentations were still a mix of slides, overheads, and computer. There were 10(!) concurrent sessions, so at times it was a hard choice of which talk to attend. I think the ISBE meetings in Sweden drew away some of the bird song and behavior people. That said, I still saw a number of great talks on sexual selection, bird song, noise impacts, acoustic monitoring, genomics, life history trade-offs, color, and a number of other topics. Sometimes the most unusual talks are the ones that are most memorable- in this case I might give the award to the talk by Mu-Chun Yao (National Tawain University) on how the endangered Fairy Pitta uses monkey poo as a predator deterrent on its nest.

At 5PM, the talks ended and the poster sessions began. The room was fairly spacious for two hundred posters and hundreds of presenters and browsers, although some nights it was on the warm side. I felt pretty good about the response to our poster on lateral biases in sage-grouse behaviors- I was talking to people about it for the entire session on both nights my poster was up. I was hoping someone who specialized in brain asymmetry or behavioral lateralization might stop by to offer criticism or advice on publishing, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. It’s really hard to see every poster even when you aren’t standing their explaining your own, so I’m not terribly surprised.

A real highlight of the meeting was the Bird Band Jam- basically a concert at a local bar featuring several talented musicians from the conference.  I missed the first act, but caught a solo guitarist singing comical songs about birds and birding, then a wonderful sequence of bluegrass/Americana tunes that started with one group and slowly morphed over the course of several songs into another group. The night was capped by a more contemporary rock band that certainly got an A for effort. This was the first time I’ve seen this at a bird meeting (I know Ecological Society of America has something similar), and I think the consensus was to repeat this event in the future.

Closing Banquet in the Anthropology Museum

Meetings are always a good place to start up collaborations, and this one seemed particularly fruitful. I don’t know that I have anything to report right now but hopefully my conversations may have sparked a few projects that I will report on once they get a little closer to being concrete.




Meetings are also a good chance to catch up with old friends. I was pleased to run into four of my former sage-grouse assistants, including Conor Taff (now in our lab), Megan Jones (Florida State), Eli Rose (N.C. State), and the biggest blast from the past Jennifer Sheppard (U. Saskatchewan). I hadn’t seen Jenn since 2006 when she was part of our very first field crew in Wyoming. At that time she hadn’t even completed her undergraduate degree, so it was great to see her doing great work as a full fledged graduate student! I also got to see several former Acorn Woodpecker and Western Bluebird assistants from Hastings. Danika Kleiber is now in graduate school at UBC, and took Sarah Knutie, Lauryn Benedict and I to a waterfowl park south of Vancouver. We enjoyed getting EXTREMELY close looks at some neat birds like Cackling Goose and Sandhill Crane, which clearly warranted a celebratory fresh blueberry smoothie from a blueberry farm on the way back to Vancouver.

And again, congrats to Conor and Jim for their awards!