LARAMIE, Wyo.— The highlight of the birding life of Tim Banks happened in 1986.
He was working for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department as a field technician charged with following whooping cranes and sandhill cranes in western Wyoming. The whooping crane is one of the rarest birds in North America, and Banks was attempting to reintroduce them into a flock of sandhill cranes.
"As part of that project, they needed some seasonal person to try and find them when they're here in the summer time. It was great. I got a pickup truck and a gas card and instructions to go forth and see what you can see," Banks said.
He was instructed to get close enough to the whooping cranes to see whether any were wearing identifying leg bands, but not close enough to startle the endangered birds.
"I was warned to be very careful. Don't approach any closer than you absolutely have to, to read this band," he said.
Early one morning somewhere in the Green River drainage, with the Wind River Range in the background, he saw a whooping crane off in the distance. He crawled through a wet meadow, stalking the bird, until he was close enough to spy on it with a spotting scope attached to a rifle stock.
While Banks was a few hundred yards away, the bird took off, flew a few circles in the air and landed 50 yards away together with a couple of sandhill cranes. Banks didn't move.
"I'm terrified. If I move, I spook it," he said.
All of a sudden, the birds pointed their heads at the sky and began to call. Their trumpeting broke the early morning silence, the primal noise stirring something inside Banks as it reverberated across the meadow and lost itself against the mountains.
"All I can think is I am so privileged to see this and hear this thing. How many people get to see a sight like this? You could image a sight like this happening 500 years ago in this very same meadow, unchanged through time. It just sends a chill down your spine and you feel so fortunate to witness it," Banks said.
Banks moved to Laramie from New York City in 1971 as a teenager attending the University of Wyoming. He studied wildlife and aimed for a career in the field.
Like many of us, he had to adjust his ambitions to fit the needs of the moment, probably never anticipating he would one day become the University of Wyoming Police Chief instead of a wildlife biologist. But since retiring from the UWPD, Banks has returned to his first passion and now guides birding trips around the country.
"Like a lot of people, it turns out there were a lot more people in wildlife than there were wildlife jobs. So I gravitated to law enforcement," he said of his early career.
He started as a security guard in 1975 and moved up from there, taking a five-year detour with the Albany County Sheriff's Office and even earning a master's degree in natural resource management.
He worked a few seasonal jobs for land management agencies, but a family to support forced him to put his long-term plans on hold.
"That's when the job came open at the University of Wyoming at the (police department). I went back to work there and stayed another 20 years," he said. "I ended up for some reason as chief. I don't know what possessed them to do that."
Banks said his law enforcement career was interesting and gave him the chance to help others.
"You get to see a lot of things that most people don't get to see in a community, and you have the opportunity to help people at times. That's one of the big attractions. You have an opportunity, in some ways, to make a difference."
He also got to work with people in departments across campus.
"There was a collaborative effort within the university community to make it a better place," he said.
Upon retiring in 2006, Banks finally jumped into the wildlife world full time.
He served as president of the Laramie Audubon Society and does seasonal work for organizations such as the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. He also started an ecotourism business and leads tours for a group called Road Scholar, which used to be known as Elderhostel.
Banks guides trips focused on birding in southeast Wyoming, Kearney, Neb., and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico.
The latter two focus on sandhill cranes, which allow Banks to share the passion for the bird he developed while working with them in the 1980s. He remembers thinking then that people would pay money to see the sights he was seeing.
The 4-foot-tall birds, with 5-foot wingspans, interact with each other in all kinds of ways.
"They're a really social species. They dance to reinforce pair bonds. They'll dance to show, 'We're together.' They're kind of territorial. They have personal space. If another family gets too close, they squabble and fight and do all these behaviors to communicate with the other cranes: back off," he said. "They're really enjoyable to watch. You never quit learning new things."
His favorite trip, though, takes travelers in a loop through southeast Wyoming, starting in Fort Collins, Colo. Banks takes them to popular local spots such as Vedauwoo and Happy Jack, and his personal favorite birding spot, Hutton Lake National Wildlife Refuge south of town. Travelers pass through the Snowy Range and spend a few days exploring the North Platte River around Saratoga before hitting the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge near Walden, Colo., on their way back to Fort Collins.
"It really introduces people to a nice, diverse set of habitats here, and it also introduces them to a corner of Wyoming often overlooked by tourists," he said.
Last year, they spotted 115 different species during the trip.
Banks said he's always been interested in wildlife and the outdoors, and birds are a big part of that. He's not as interested in counting up how many species he sees as he is exploring the natural world.
"You see a bird and you think, 'What kind of bird is that?' You want to put a name to it. And in the process of trying to ID all the birds you see, you learn about their life cycle, their critical habitat, the plant communities they're associated with and the whole ecosystem. I find all of that really interesting," he said.
Information from: Laramie (Wyo.) Daily Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com