Seena Spencer stepped away from a morning of birdwatching at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch to take a phone call.
This came at a somewhat inconvenient time, because just five minutes into talking with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, she spotted a great blue heron slipping by.
It was a busy morning for her – she had already spotted 38 different species – though this isn’t anything new. She’s logged all of these birds before.
“I got out here at 7:30 a.m., but normally I’m not this ambitious,” she said, laughing. But she will be spending just about every morning of the month of May, if not here, then in a place just like it.
There are about 900 different species of birds to be seen in North America. In her five solid years of birding experience, Spencer has logged around 400 bird species total, and 200 in Wyoming alone.
She keeps track of 109 different species at the Hereford Ranch.
That number will hopefully increase next Saturday when birders from the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society and newcomers gather for the Big Day Bird Count. Before the sun has fully risen, birders will move from Lions Park to the Hereford Ranch, then finish their day of birdwatching at the High Plains Grassland Research station just outside of Cheyenne.
May mornings are special for Spencer. The same goes for any birders living in southeast Wyoming. Birds aren’t too different from Wyomingites – they favor water, hate the cold and avoid wind, making the winter months a mostly terrible time to spot something other than a goose or crow.
May is different. Many unique, non-native birds are at the height of their migration pattern and pass right over the plains of Wyoming, especially Hereford Ranch. Birders from around the country stop here and hope to add a notch to their birding belt.
Spencer said that she recently saw a vehicle with a New Jersey license plate parked on the land.
“Early this year, we met somebody from Iowa that was looking for sage grouse, which he wouldn’t find here,” she said. “He was on his way to Arizona. Birding people know about this place.”
This hobby isn’t necessarily about boosting her numbers. If it were, she wouldn’t be so engrossed by it.
“There’s always a new bird to be seen,” she said. “With only less than half of the U.S. species (logged), there’s always always a chance of finding a new one to add to the list. Today, I didn’t get anything new, but it’s just nice to see what else is showing up.”
Though she will participate in the Big Day, Spencer actually prefers to bird alone. She adopts the tactic of listening for bird calls, whether she recognizes them or not. This can be difficult when there’s chatter amongst a larger group.
But there is a major advantage to being with others while birdwatching, especially when someone is new to the hobby.
When Spencer became interested in identifying birds some 10 years ago, she remembers taking nearly 45 minutes to identify a common Northern Mockingbird. The best part about having a group is being at the disposal of years of expert birding knowledge. Before a novice can spot a bird, a veteran can identify it based off its call.
Grant Frost, the field trip chairman for the Cheyenne Audubon Society, structures each birding trip based on the focus of the day. If the objective is to see a rare bird, then the trip is more focused and the group sticks around one area.
The Big Day is designed to take birders through a diverse group of locations, which optimizes the chances of seeing a variety of species.
“I think it’s a good way for people to get introduced to birding,” he said. “We’re more than happy to have new birders come along, and hopefully they can pick up some pointers from people that have done it for quite a while.”
In the past, an average of 25 people have participated in the day, and it’s Frost’s job to plan and oversee all of it. Frost has taken his birdwatching hobby seriously for the past 10 years, and knows how to direct an outing.
He works as a field biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and recently conducted a bird survey in the wild, so he jokes that he had a natural inclination to become a birdwatcher. Though it isn’t the main focus of the event, the Audubon Society will be logging the species they do spot for the purpose of documenting avian migration.
For newcomers participating in the Big Day, it’s recommended that they have a good pair of binoculars – it isn’t worth skimping on these just to save some money. A cheap pair will be more frustrating than no pair at all. If binoculars are out of their budget, the Audubon Society will have several pairs to lend out.
Bring good walking shoes, and be prepared to put them to use.
If someone is hesitant about stepping out into the wild to go birdwatching, know that one can never start too young. Spencer is in the process of turning her 2-year-old granddaughter into a birder, and, so far, the process is moving along without a hitch.