Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brightly Black

Some birds are so common as to be frequently overlooked and unappreciated, but when we take the time to enjoy those feathered friends that are around us most often, we see new beauty in each of them. Such was the case with the red-winged blackbirds that I made acquaintance with while in Michigan - so often I pass over them at home in the search for something more unusual, more colorful or just that elusive "more" so many birders seek. Yet when I finally had the opportunity to take a semi-birding walk while in a different area, these birds stood out - but not necessarily for the reason you might expect.

It wasn't their uniqueness that struck me - I see these birds often, nearly everywhere I manage to go birding. It wasn't their coloration either, though I do appreciate the stark colors of the males' plumage and the adept camouflage of the females. And it wasn't their raucous calls, often considered less than musical but just as distinct as any warbler.

What did strike me was simply their location. I may see them in many places, but you wouldn't expect any birds in an area of wetland less than seventy-five yards long and barely half as wide, next to a busy highway, with no other wetland or typical red-winged blackbird habitat for miles. Yet there they were, several pairs in fact, raucously proclaiming their territory with a cacophony of calls from high atop the scanty section of reeds. Happily at home, they made it clear where their boundaries were, and boy did anyone get an earful who dared to cross those borders.

Birds are simply amazing, and so adaptable. So many lessons we can learn from them - adapt to your surroundings, but defend your space (whether physical or psychological) fiercely. Work together as needed, but don't force yourself on others, and don't allow yourself forced upon. And most of all, fly free - no matter where you may be.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A New Tribute to Scrub-Jays

In writing my latest post, Happy About the Blues, I shared how much I enjoy my western scrub-jays, but in doing so, I realized how long it has been since I've taken photos of my favorite corvids.

It was not hard to rectify that oversight, as they are daily visitors to my never-full-enough peanut dish. They weren't happy that I stayed out on the deck (as evidenced by the suspicious glare), but their desire for peanuts was greater than their trepidation. They didn't pose long - just long enough to grab a peanut - but after I proved that I wasn't about to move from my chair and was happy to let them sort through the dish, they didn't mind as much. They wouldn't quite come to the additional peanuts I scatter around the deck furniture (to their credit, my legs were up on the table and that was probably too close for comfort), but one bold jay did snatch a peanut I'd placed on the top of the dock box where my seed is stored.

They are demanding, and loud, and never satisfied with even the most generous handful of nuts, but they are still treasured visitors to my yard. I talk to them, and I fancy that they talk back - at least they have learned to recognize me and my voice, and get more vocal themselves when I'm out filling the feeders and announcing that peanuts are now available. They've learned all the places I set out the peanuts, and they've found some ingenious hiding places to cache the nuts themselves, including inside sprinklers, deep in bushes, and of course, all over the lawn. I think we've both learned a lot from one another, and I look forward to both giving and receiving many more lessons from my jays!

Check out my latest article on western scrub-jays, and share your own sightings in the comments!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Happy About the Blues

The blue jay has always been one of my favorite birds, though when I was a kid and they insisted on perching outside my bedroom window every summer morning at 6 a.m., I may have thought differently. After moving to the west, however, and leaving the blue jay's range, I learned how much I miss them - even their arrogant attitudes and raucous voices. When I was in Michigan several weeks ago I did have the opportunity to enjoy blue jays again, and even to get a photo - not the best, but still the best I've taken of the colorful corvids.

It's not as though living in Utah is without jays, however, and I've come to love my western scrub-jays just as much, if not more because of the intimate experiences I've had with them. Each morning I fill an appropriately blue dish with peanuts, and in time I can hear the squawking and scrabbling as the neighborhood jay family argues over who gets what nut in what order. This year the family has at least four siblings that are just now establishing dominance over one another. One of them is exceptionally loud - we call that one Mouthy - and another is exceptionally quiet. One is more aggressive than the others, and another - Hoppy - bounces enthusiastically along the deck rail and into the feeder at each visit. And of course there's Billy, an older jay we've seen around for at least two years, whom we can identify because of his broken upper bill. It's just a stub, but it hasn't slowed him down - he just turns his head sideways to pick up seeds and peanuts, and he's adapted just fine.

I don't take enough photos of the scrub-jays, but whenever they visit I'm much more interested in interacting with them than struggling with my lack of photography skills. I talk to them, and they recognize my voice (at least they recognize the voice that accompanies the peanuts). I put peanuts in different places on the deck, not just in their dish but on the table and chairs so they can play a bit more, and they inevitably find every nut I've laid out. It's fascinating to watch them choose just the right nut, then bury it in the yard (despite my pleas that they choose another location - Not in the grass!), adroitly covering it with a leaf, a billful of grass clippings, or another bit of camouflage, and hopping from side to side to be sure it's properly concealed. And of course, the more nuts they cache, the more I put out! There will always be more peanuts waiting for my jays, whenever they visit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sing

Walks through quiet, undisturbed riparian habitats inevitably yield some amazing birds, and on my trip to northern Michigan last month, on the one such walk I was able to take, a song sparrow was one of the avian ambassadors that greeted me. Alert and adventurous, this somewhat scruffy sparrow (perhaps just fresh from a bath) was singing with a fervor few of us put into our daily tasks, but it was clear that to sing - and to have its song be heard - was the entirety of this bird's purpose.

How often do we devote so much energy and drive to a single, simple purpose? Far too rarely for me, I'm troubled to admit. Our lives today, certainly my life at least, are a web of interconnected goals, multi-tasking, and diluted energies that, more often than not, result not in more productivity, but less. We can be overwhelmed by a mountain of a to-do list (my work list typically has in excess of 70 items per week, not including the daily tasks of life, family, and home), pulled in conflicting directions by too many commitments, and drown in an unceasing flood of demands, criticisms, and essentials. And we never have time to sing.

A significant date is fast approaching for me; two of them, in fact. It is a time for reflection and repurposing, and perhaps, to fit a bit more joy and music into a schedule that, just maybe, doesn't need to be so crowded.

I hope you find time to sing.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gold Medal

Earlier this summer, I spent a few days in northern Michigan on family matters; a relatively surprise trip, but one that still managed to have a few moments for minor birding. While I wasn't able to visit new locations, identify lifers, or relax in the field, I was able to take some short but productive walks. My hometown has, in the 20 years since I moved away, built up its network of hiking and biking trails, and the habitat along the local river leading to the bay is ideal for a number of species. This gave me - a birder with precious few photography skills - the opportunity for some gold medal shots, particularly of a bright, breeding male American goldfinch.

Perched on flowering weeds, he was one of a flock foraging for early seeds, and they paused on different weedtops as I stood not too many yards away, partially concealed by tall grasses and scrub vegetation. Active little birds that they are, they didn't linger for long, but long enough for me to not only enjoy the view, but to get a stunning photo. I've always said that I can take fantastic bird photos if a bird cooperates by landing just a few feet away and remaining still for several minutes, but how often does that really happen? On this early morning, it did, and this golden gleam was more beautiful even than the sunrise.

Several other birds also posed along that walk; I'll share their portraits and stories in the days to come. But for now, let this amazingly golden finch remind us all to appreciate the beauty of the familiar, which we too often fail to recognize.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Growing Brood

Summer is baby bird season, and in the backyard, that means coveys of baby California quail. Earlier this summer we thought we'd missed the neighborhood quail family, but it seems they were just a bit later than usual, for one day we were inundated with a flock of fluff - at least seven or eight chicks trailing along with their overly cautious parents. Barely tall enough to investigate the flowers along the neighbor's wall, they still skittered energetically over the grass, peeping all the way.

As the weeks have progressed, so have the quail. While not all have survived - the covey has dwindled to six healthy chicks that seem to be doing well, which is still a good survival rate for the flock - they are growing, and each week they are larger and show clearer markings. They now come onto the deck readily, pecking about for seed and hopping up and down, up and down on the stairs. They haven't yet mastered getting onto the taller feeders or up on the railing where the largest platform feeder rests, but that's a good lookout point for daddy quail, while mummy generally stays closer to the brood. Not quite teenagers, they're in that awkward adolescent stage that is no less endearing than chickhood.

Soon enough the youngsters will be indistinguishable from their parents, though the flock will remain together through the cooling autumn and into winter's snows. They're all welcome, and I hope that next summer they all manage to raise even more chicks to come for a visit.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Fabulous New Feeder

 A few months ago, I lost my largest bird feeder - a 2-in-1 Triple Tube Feeder - that featured a huge capacity, attractive design, and many feeding ports. I wasn't too upset with its demise, since it had been in constant service for close to three years, in weather conditions ranging from full sun in up to 100 degree heat in the summer, to zero degree temperatures and covered with snow in winter, and it served me well. The threading on the screw holding the top to the rest of the feeder finally cracked enough that it couldn't be hung, and it was time to choose a new feeder.

Reviewing bird feeders is part of my work with About.com, and I regularly examine different sizes, styles, and designs, but despite my familiarity with many feeders, it's difficult to choose a new one for my own yard. After a long time examining the options, I finally selected the Bird-Safe Platform Feeder from Duncraft, and even though I was familiar with the feeder after having reviewed it, putting it up in my yard has drastically surpassed all my expectations.

I hung the feeder from the rain gutter at the edge of my covered deck, and it took less than a day for the birds to discover the new bounty (I have other feeders in the same area). And discover it they have! I fill it with a half-cup of hulled sunflower each morning, and all day the feeder is patronized by a variety of species, including:


Interestingly enough, to date I have never seen a single house sparrow at this feeder, though I have dozens of them at my other feeders (including on the deck not five feet away), and the slant of the roof apparently also keeps the Eurasian collared-doves and mourning doves away from the feeding tray, allowing the smaller birds to enjoy the food without unfair competition. For anyone who may be troubled by bully birds, I strongly recommend giving this feeder a go. Admittedly, I haven't had it in strong rain or a cold winter yet, but it has so far been outstanding. I can't wait to see what birds arrive for the next meal!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

New Birds in New Mexico

Spring is always a hot birding season, and this past spring I finally got to take advantage of some minor spring birding with a trip to New Mexico. While the trip was not primarily for birding, there was still time for a few minor birding stops in Albuquerque and slightly south of the city. A good many southwestern birds - Gambel's quail, greater roadrunners, and others - were part of the scene, but while it was a shade too early for most migrants to make an appearance, much to my dismay, one local resident did make my life list.

Of course, it happened as it has all too frequently - too much time straining for unsatisfying views that finally result in a disappointing lifer, for while I'd seen all the requisite field marks, I didn't feel I'd really enjoyed a good view of the bird. Then, naturally, the next day in a far easier place, the bird reappeared with tantalizingly good views and a far more cooperative nature. Either way, though, I was able to add the black-throated sparrow as a lifer. It's an attractive sparrow and one I've been eager to see for years, and I'm glad for the opportunity.

In addition to a wide range of birds, particularly at a grand city park that was far more enjoyable than I'd anticipated, I also saw an amazing coyote, a variety of turtles, and great New Mexico culture and nuclear history. From hot air balloons to arroyos to distinguished architecture to nuclear test sites to radio telescopes, this is an area of the country I hope to visit again, for longer, and in more detail.