Over a period of years I have attempted to capture the birds that we see at the feeders, in the meadows, perched in trees and flying overhead. It is a tough assignment as anyone who attempts to photograph birds can attest. Rarely do they sit still or pose for you with the possible exception of owls. I had to comb my photo files dating back to 2012 when I received my first digital camera and dared to keep snapping away knowing I could just delete my wasted shots and retain a few (very few) good ones.
I do not believe we see the volume of birds that I recall from my childhood. Early mornings then would be filled with a cacophony of melodious bird song coming from the cotton wood trees that could literally awaken the household with the clamor of competing birds. The cotton wood trees remain, but the roar of birdsong has subsided. This is not a scientific appraisal, just my personal testimony to the state of birds along Dry Creek.
I chose my favorite bird to begin this series–one which my mother favored–the Mourning Dove. A “hollow, mournful coah, cooo, cooo, coo” could be heard high in the cottonwoods above the old ranch house and used to be quite soothing as we lay down to nap on a hot summer day. (My mother did the napping, I would sneak outside and find something interesting to do.) These birds will always remind me of Mother.
Crested Blue Jay
We don’t see many of these showy, noisy jays. The white spots on wings and tail, and the black necklace differentiate it from Stellar’s Jay. They are widespread throughout eastern Rockies and according to my bird book, expanding northwestward and hybridizing with Stellar’s Jay. Whatever brought him to the old elm stump in the yard only he knows for sure. We would love to see more of them.
Locally known as “fool hens,” these gentle, trusting birds show no signs of fear and can be easily approached. I photographed this female at my brother’s cabin in the Big Horns and included her in my collection because I admired her so.
The Rodney Dangerfield of birds, vultures clean up the remains of dead animals and for this they get no respect. They have a wing span nearly as large as an eagle (6 feet) and roost up high in the cottonwood trees. Their small red head, somewhat similar to a turkey, must be how they earned their name.
This gathering of vultures overhead one evening was quite unusual. Typically we have two to three roosting on a continual basis over the summer and the congregation of these big birds was startling. What did they know? Was there a massive die-off somewhere nearby? It remains a mystery.
Another mystery is this bird sitting above the feeder one day. It sent us to the bird book and we still haven’t figured out precisely what it is. Our best guess is the Pyrrhuloxia. The grey back, buff breast and touch of red in the wings and crest separate it from the female Cardinal which has a black patch at the base of its bill and around the eyes.
Pyrrhuloxia vs. Northern Cardinal??
Rough Legged Hawk
We were walking and came upon this hawk in the grass. He seemed stunned and uncoordinated, as though he had struck a branch overhead and fallen to the ground. He is very similar to a Ferruginous Hawk and may very well be one. We left him and when we came back to check on him, he was gone. Whatever his ailment, he apparently overcame it and was back in flight. We see many hawks sitting atop fence posts and power line poles. Their habitat is prairie and plains.
More yellow than other warblers, this female has olive coloring across her back and lacks the rusty breast streaks of the male. Her song is a bright, cheerful tsee-tsee-tsee-tsee-titi-wee and caught my attention. I finally located her and she remained still for a few moments, long enough for me to catch a so-so photo of her.
My brother’s old camping skillets laid around for years until we decided they would make a nice perch for the birds. Seeds drop from the feeders above and the skillets make a great place to open sunflower seeds or catch a nap. These two male Grosbeaks appear to be juvenile birds just out for a good time. Their breast, collar and rump are dull orange and they can be recognized by their prominent broad bill.
Easily confused with a grosbeak, this towhee’s head and tail are black, sides Robin-red, belly white, back heavily spotted with white and eyes fiery red. Arriving in early spring, the towhee rummages in dead leaves and hangs around the feeders.
These handsome gamecock-like birds get all the breaks. The females are mottled brown and have none of the splendor of color or exotic markings these guys enjoy. I know, I know, it is to camouflage them from predators while nesting and caring for their young but the ladies like to have fun too!
American Gold Finch
Typically seen in groups on the lawn (they like dandelions) they gather in the spring and are a colorful sight. They are distinguished from Warblers by their short, conical bills. They frequent the feeders and entertain us with their song and bright color.
American Gold Finch
American Gold Finch
Perched in the grass, on the fence or at the feeders, these pretty little birds arrive in spring to brighten our day.
Prettier than its cousin the Indigo Bunting, this little turquoise-colored finch visits us in the spring and can be seen at the feeders or in the meadow. The two white wing bars distinguish it from a Bluebird. It migrates to Mexico for the winter.
Similar to a Peregrine Falcon, this handsome bird was sitting on a post overlooking the vegetable garden and appeared to be taking its time to survey the grounds. I ran for the camera expecting it to take flight before I could capture it, but it just sat quite still for me. I have never seen another hawk or falcon perch in the yard, and this was a special treat. Prairie Falcons range in the western U.S., Canada and Mexico and are found in mountainous grasslands, open hills, plains and prairies.
Baby Great Horned Owls
Each spring we have been delighted by the arrival of baby owls. Nests usually have two babies, but one year there were three, which did not end well. One of the babies fell from the nest (or was pushed?) and languished on the ground for a couple of days. It was heartbreaking for us to watch and we knew we could not interfere. We prayed that the parents would care for it and help it back into the nest, but we saw no indication that they attempted to come to its aid.
Sad little owl baby
The little owl stayed close to where he fell, huddled up in his downy feathered coat and awaited his fate. I did a search for a bird rescue facility but came up with nothing within a day’s drive. We could do nothing to save the little creature.
Time to fly
On this occasion, we watched as the mother owl leads the fledgling to a perch for its first flight. She seems to be saying “watch me, you can do this.” They would do touch and go flights over to a nearby hill where they would rest, explore, and then fly back to the nest. This goes on for a couple weeks, and then the family moves on to a greater range of tree tops nearby. We spent many evenings listening to the juvenile owls call out to the parents from the tree tops.
Female Downy Woodpecker
The male Downy Woodpecker has a red patch on the back of his head, which this female lacks.
It is a delight to capture these colorful little birds, which do not visit that often. Their range extends from Alaska and the western U. S. Quite similar to the Hairy Woodpecker.
Wyoming’s state bird, the Meadowlark, is my other favorite of all the birds we experience here on Dry Creek. Their melodious song of 7-10 flutelike notes is a welcome to springtime. They can usually be seen sitting on fence posts as they sing, typically in the morning or evening and what a wonder it is to listen!
This is a rare sighting of a Blue Heron on our pond. We occasionally see them on the North Fork of Powder River a couple of miles south of us, but it is unusual to catch them here. They stand about 4 feet tall, so it is hard to miss them! We have tried adding minnows and even goldfish to the pond and likely that would bring a few more of our feathered friends to stop in for lunch.
Black Bird Babies
About six babies were in this hole in a Cottonwood tree, all vying for attention and tumbling over each other. The adults appeared to be common, or Brewer’s Blackbirds and are tireless parents. Feeding this hungry group is a full-time job!
Just as their name implies, these grouse have long, pointed tails. They are similar in coloration to prairie chickens, with pale chest and speckled brown backs. During breeding season the male displays a purplish neck sack. These grouse have been spotted in a row of Russian Olive trees along our driveway and we believe they hang out in a pasture nearby. I am hoping to get a better shot of them.
About six of these little roley-poleys landed in the snow underneath the feeders one recent winter day. They were puffed up against the cold, but appear to be broad-chested naturally. We have searched the bird reference guide, but the answer came from a friend – thanks, Marilyn!
America’s national bird, the Bald Eagle migrates from Canada and Alaska to winter in our area. They can be spotted throughout the year, but their numbers increase during winter. They are a massive bird, with a wing span of 7-8 feet. The mature Bald Eagles have a white head and tail. We see them along the highway, usually with a cluster of ravens, lunching on road kill deer, rabbit or other unfortunate animal. They perch high in the bare branches of trees for a vantage point to spot prairie dogs, rabbits, voles and whatever else they can make a meal of, including spring lambs which make them unpopular with local sheep ranchers.
Try as I might, I can never get these giant birds to sit still for a photo. Taken while we were doing the eagle survey for the Bureau of Land Management, he saw our Jeep arrive and soon took flight from his perch on a power pole. Oh well, next time!
I seem to recall Ben Franklin thought the Wild Turkey should become the national bird, but the turkeys lost out to the Bald Eagle. We used to get seasonal visits from a flock of wild turkeys who would roost high up in the cottonwood trees. Dad kept a sack of corn around to feed them and made pets of them. For some unexplained reason they stopped coming, perhaps due to predators. They do still thrive in the area and I photographed these recently while we were conducting our eagle survey.
These little birds climb down the tree headfirst and scamper around searching for bugs in the tree bark. They are entertaining to watch as they circle around and climb up and down the tree.
Considered a garrulous creature, this unfortunate Starling flew down our chimney and raised a ruckus in the fireplace. It took some time to sort out where the noise was emanating from or what was the cause. Fortunately for this bird, there was no fire when it decided to make an entrance in our living room. It created a considerable amount of chaos before we were able to capture it in a plastic bag and set it free outdoors.
The heated birdbath seems just right for this gathering of Starlings and they appear to be having a good time drinking, bathing and singing.
Prairie Sage Grouse
Somewhat reclusive, sage grouse live in sagebrush country and Wyoming has the largest concentration of them in the western U.S. Not long ago one flew into the yard, barely missing Michael’s head, and landed in the grass. A hawk was in pursuit of the grouse but soared up and away once its prey escaped. The grouse was stunned and disoriented, so Michael gathered it up and set it free on the hill above the house. We hope it made it home before the hawk returned. In spring, the sage grouse gather at leks to mate and the males display fine plumage and make a “booming” courtship call to the females.
Immature Bald Eagle
This immature eagle hasn’t reached the age for his head and tale to become white. A keen hunter, he will wait patiently for an opportunity to materialize.
We hang feeders around the end of June and have quite a few little Hummingbirds pay us a visit. I am always amazed at how many we see in the mountains early in spring when there is nothing blooming and we have so few down below with flowers and fruit trees covered in blossoms. They migrate to Mexico in winter and for such a tiny bird to cover so great a distance is one of nature’s miracles.
White Crowned Sparrow
A little undecided on this identification, but this is our best guess. There are many types of sparrows and we get a variety at the feeders.
White Crowned Sparrow . . . .
A later shot confirmed our identification of this pair of birds who paid a visit to the feeder recently.
Very similar to the Purple Finch but less red on chest and back. We see these fairly often at the feeders.
Wearing his black bib, this “Red Shafted” Flicker is a beautiful bird with a red patch under his bill and at the tip of its tail. Brown spots along a white chest, and black stripes across a brown back lend a richness to its coat. They make their homes in tree trunks or wherever they can use their long beak to drill a hole – sometimes in the siding on a barn or house.
Named for its loud, noisy kill-deeah song, this leggy bird can be found near reservoirs, streams and, in this case, our pond. They nest on the ground and will go to great lengths to divert any disturbance from their young, prancing down the road or path to capture your attention. Wide ranging, they can be found in So. Alaska, Canada, Mexico, W. Indies, also coastal Peru and, of course, Wyoming.
Known for its brick-red breast, the American Robin is also a favorite. They are the first to arrive in spring, and some winters we have sighted them as early as February. The last bird song at the end of the day, I often walk down the creek bottom in summer to listen to their clear caroling at dusk. They signal their goodnight with sharp, staccato chirps and then it grows quiet until the owls begin their conversation.
Robins love to bathe and will frequently jump in for a splash.
The first Tanager we have sighted, it was an exciting discovery underneath the feeders in July, 2019. The males are most colorful, with red heads. My bird reference book says the red disappears in autumn and winter. This is the only U.S. tanager with strong wing bars.
Small in size, these little wrens dart quickly from branch to branch, making it hard to photograph them. We usually hear them singing before we see them. It is our hope they will nest in some of the bird houses we hung designed for small birds.
Whoa, what’s this? Not the usual fowl found along Dry Creek. This fine fellow is a visitor from next door who has not found his way home. He has been managing to survive in the tall grasses and cover provided by Russian Olive trees. He enjoys a snack of seeds and will allow me to come fairly close if he is truly hungry, but otherwise he is very elusive and impossible to catch without a major effort on the part of maybe half a dozen determined bird catchers. He has survived the cold, snow and wind without shelter and refuses to go in with the chickens and guineas at night. Hard to predict how this story will end.
A few months later, the peacock still survives, and this day he brought his date to lunch. The white P-hen lives nearby and apparently escaped from her pen to have a little excitement. The male drifts up and down the creek bottom, eating here for a day or two then returning home for a spell. He has obviously been able to overcome weather and predators and is enjoying the good life.
Ringed Turtle Dove . . . .
Near the size of the Mourning Dove, this species has moved into our area only recently and seem to have replaced the Mourning Doves to an extent in the habitat. Considered a nuisance bird, they coo much like a pigeon and hang around the feeders close in to the yard. They have a distinctive “ring around the collar” and a paler beige color , with a band of white on the underside of their tail feathers. Occasionally some of them will show up in the chicken house which creates pandemonium as they try to escape and they raise enough dust to quickly become one of my least favorite birds. This one is enjoying a soak in the heated bird bath and creating quite a display.
Pinyon Jays . . . .
A bird my father declared as a “damn nuisance” arrived here in winter in the early 90’s soon after we hung feeders for my mother to enjoy outside a large window in the living room. They made fast work of the sunflower seeds in the feeders and Dad became so frustrated with empty feeders he perched himself outside with his shotgun to scare them away. That strategy was dubious from the start. Mom protested when he scared all the birds away, and when he lost his balance due to the mighty kick of his old shotgun, things got interesting. He landed against the stub of an old radio tower still embedded about 10 feet from the edge of the house and bruised his hip quite badly. He hobbled around for a few days, muttering at the jays. His next venture was to tap on the window with a rock he prized and kept on a shelf nearby, thereby spooking the birds for at least a few minutes. He chipped and nicked the glass in a variety of places – thankfully he didn’t break the window! We subsequently replaced it with a bay window where we can observe the birds along with mom. We lost her in 2007, but she is still here in spirit watching the birds with us.
A pair . . . .
These Canada Geese are having a blissful afternoon floating across our pond. They didn’t seem to mind my presence, which is unusual as their typical behavior is to fly as we approach.
Mallard Ducks . . . .
We have been watching this pair of Mallards for a couple of weeks. One or the other, sometimes both visit Dry Creek for a swim and browsing for food. Our hope is that they have a nest in the area, however their odds of raising young ones are against them. A fox, coyote, or feral cats will likely have the advantage but we will enjoy them as long as they stick around.
Stranger in our midst . . . .
This bird arrived recently and began causing a stir in the sagebrush and on the open meadows. At first I could see no bird and mistook the short, pwit, repeated over and over, as a prairie dog or other rodent wandering through the sage. The sound was moving over the ground quickly and on the second day, I sighted a couple birds sitting on a sagebrush very briefly but at a distance I could not see clearly enough to identify them.
Another day passes and we were standing near a pasture replacing emitters in a drip system when I heard the repeated pwit of a bird calling, moving fairly rapidly over the area. I could see half a dozen spread along the ground, moving forward and walking, rather than hopping, which is normally how birds move on the ground. We decided they were hunting grasshoppers, which have arrived in a horde lately, and we welcomed any help from the birds. I immediately headed back to the house and grabbed my camera, hoping to catch a photograph to help with identification.
A thorough review of the much worn and tattered copy of Peterson Field Guide to western birds revealed only one candidate, although none of the illustrations is exactly the same as the bird identified. We settled on Pipit and the Red Throated Pipit seemed the closest. My sense is these birds are traveling through and I hope I can continue to photograph them before they leave us.
The flashy colors of the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak who arrived in early May was a delight to see and remained calm as if posing for his picture. His range is southern Canada and central United States.
A world traveler, he winters in West Indies, Mexico and Peru.
There are many more birds to add to this story, and hopefully I will be able to add better photographs of some of these and find new subjects to include.