Friday, April 17, 2015

Anything But Gross

Despite the turmoil of the past few months, I've had some minor opportunities to procure major lifers. The first was in late January, when on a local tip, I was able to finally see a bird I've coveted for years - the elusive evening grosbeak.

I say elusive because these are heavily nomadic birds that travel between food sources, but because they travel, it can be hit-or-miss to see them. Apparently, however, they are regular winter visitors at Evergreen Cemetery in Springville, a short drive away - and well worth it for the views. The healthy, hearty stand of mature juniper trees in the cemetery provide abundant fruit for these large finches, and they're easily viewable there, when they do visit.

I was at the cemetery twice, and managed sightings both times. The first was adequate, though less than satisfying - the day was overcast so the birds' colorful plumage was not as readily visible in all its flourescent glory, and the flock of 15-20 birds was only present for a few minutes after I arrived. The next day, however, was sunny and fair, and when I returned the birds were there as well - many more (a rough estimate of likely 50 birds or more). Not only was their plumage practically glowing in the sunlight, but the combined sounds of their voracious appetites munching on juniper berries sounded like a rain shower sprinkling through dense foliage, an amazing and unexpected experience.

On that second day, the birds were more than cooperative, and were much more interested in their berries than in the attentions of an enthralled birder. I was also able to meander around the property a bit, and saw mountain chickadees, a juniper titmouse, white-breasted nuthatches, and Eurasian collared-doves. Quite the day!

The evening grosbeak gets its name from its plumage coloration evocative of sunset, as well as its heavy, thick bill. For me, however, the experience was more akin to an enlightening dawn and the delicate thrill of discovering more of nature's beauty - an experience I look forward to repeating many times to come. After all, there are 10,000 bird species in the world, and I've only seen 381. That leaves me 9,619 beautiful birds to enjoy that same discovery with.

Sounds like a challenge.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Defining the Yard

The past few weeks have been filled with challenges - death and deadlines, decisions and demands, doubts and dithering. But through it all, when a loved one passes, when work piles up, when changes must be made... The birds are here. Even in the new yard, the birds are here.

The yard list is growing. I've added a few favorite species, including one spring visitor, the Cassin's finch, to the list, and I'm thrilled with that visitation; multiple males and several females stopped by for a few days, and while I haven't seen them regularly, they know where the feeder is an are always welcome to return. Old favorites - the California quail and American robin - have also finally made their appearances.

The hardest part of growing a yard list is defining just what that yard should encompass. Some birders define their yard by whatever birds they can see from the boundaries of that yard. Others include airspace above the yard, or may include an entire neighborhood. It's a personal choice, but I'm far more restrictive in my definition. My "yard" is just my property and the bordering fence, and while I might admire adjacent yards and the birds they host, I don't personally count a bird in my yard until it has actually and unequivocally visited MY yard - my turf, my feeders, my habitat. With such a restrictive definition, I never doubt the veracity of my yard list - there's no question the bird has been in my yard, by any definition.

While I'm thrilled with my little patch, it lacks trees and varied plantings that birds need; instead, I often see birds visiting the neighbor's yard, which I can easily see from my elevated office window. The birds perch and forage in nearby mature fruit trees, and eschew my feeders for those natural treats. Of course, I plan to add fruit trees to my own yard to tempt the birds across that fence border, but it will be some time before any new additions would be mature enough to interest more birds. I also intend to add evergreens to the yard for year-round shelter, as well as berry bushes, seed-bearing flowers and more bird-friendly foliage, along with a dust patch and plenty of sunning space.

All things in time. Just as it will take weeks, months, or years for me to adjust to a range of changing circumstances, it takes weeks, months, or years for a yard to become a new, more wildlife-friendly habitat. One thing I've learned in the past weeks, however, is that time is more finite than we may realize, so it's better to take advantage of every minute you have.

It's time I take advantage of more minutes.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Just as the past few weeks have been a time of turbulence, it has also been a time of newness - a new year, a new house, and a new yard. The relocation, while unexpected and abrupt, was very, very welcome, but the transition period has been challenging simply because of the unexpectedness and abruptness. Still, birds have been there through it all.

It was difficult to say goodbye to the backyard birds I'd known so well, in particular the covey of California quail that I've loved seeing grow each year, as well as this year's family of western scrub-jays - quite the quarrelsome group, but all the more engaging because of it. Moving right before the holidays meant added stress and prioritizing what had to get done, what should get done, and what could be done without, and it wasn't until January 1 that the first of the new bird feeders were added to the new yard.

My first guests, the first day they arrived.
The new yard may not look like much for now (an empty palette I am thrilled to be able to remake as a bird-friendly sanctuary and certified wildlife habitat), and it did take a few days for the feeders to be noticed. I'd already noted, of course, that the new neighborhood was better suited to birds - the old, stuffy neighborhood relied far too greatly on chemical assistance for immaculate lawns and precise pruning for showy landscaping, neither of which is bird-friendly - and I eagerly awaited the first visitors. The wait, while agonizing for me, wasn't actually that long, and I'm thrilled to say that house finches were the first visitors to the new house, followed swiftly by dark-eyed juncos, a winter visitor I'm glad to have in greater abundance than ever, since I'd sorely miss them if they weren't in evidence.

In just over a month of tracking the birds in this new backyard, I've welcomed almost all the usual visitors (in order of appearance):
While I haven't yet seen all the visitors I'd like (the quail being the most conspicuous absentees, and American robins overdue for an appearance as well), I'm pleased with this beginning. May it be just the start of a a fantastic flock, one I'm eager to welcome and hope to treasure for years.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Life Interfering With Lifers

It's been a crazy time for the past few weeks - time that you never believe you'd endure, for reasons you never thought would come true. In the end, you carry on and do what must be done, but each day can be a struggle. To that end, a planned vacation was fraught with unplanned stress and will be long remembered as one of the worst getaways, but for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the getaway itself.

Yet birds always seem to be there to remind me that life, and lifers, go on.

I don't remember much about the getaway, save the official details of where, when, how. A few snatches of delicious meals, of rambling walks, of beautiful water, but nothing more - except for one splash of bright yellow wing patches, a shaggy black crest and a long tail with yellow outer feathers. Standing on the Lido deck of the Carnival Miracle, I noticed those distinctive markings from a few birds mixed in with a grackle flock as we were docked in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and because they were so distinctive, the investigative birder in me just had to puzzle it out.

Study the field guide, peer through the binoculars. Study some more. Another tree, another glimpse. Ooops, there's one flying for a moment, yup, look at those wings. Come on, baby, come into the sunlight - thank you, there's that pale bill. Oh, yes, stretch those wings and show me that yellow rump, you sexy lifer you! Turn your head - note the shaggy, thin crest. Check the field guide again, compare range maps - yup, only one bird it could be.

With that dedicated Lido deck study (I'd have left the ship to get closer to the adjacent trees where the birds were gathering at sunset, but we were due to depart and passengers were no longer allowed to disembark), I added the yellow-winged cacique to my life list; an unexpected and pleasant surprise for a cruise I've done before, when I wasn't expecting any lifers at all. With all that overshadowed that vacation, this one bird still remains a bright, clear point of the trip, and a reminder that amid all the turmoil life can throw at us, and even as the sun sets on one part of life, there is still reason to spread our wings, to take flight, to fly.

I hope, one day soon, I can leave the ground again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

White in the Yard

There was a burst of white in the yard recently, but despite the time of year, it's not what might be expected. It wouldn't be unusual for a quick dusting of snow to appear these days, but the dusting of white I saw wasn't fluffy flakes in the air or chiseled frost on the ground - it was a slash of white on a dove's wing.

It was on a hopper feeder, a popular snack spot for a flock of Eurasian collared-doves, and at first - in the flurry of my own activity - I didn't quite register the new bird. But even in a quick glance with a dozen other things on my mind, something different did register - maybe it was the spot on the neck rather than the half-collar, the extra blue skin around the eyes, the brighter red on the feet, or yes, the white slash on the edge of the wing. Together, those markings pulled me up short and I turned back to the window - no, I wasn't dreaming, it was a white-winged dove.

To birders in further southern areas, particularly Florida, Texas, and throughout much of the deep southwest, a white-winged dove is a common feeder bird, even an unwanted bully at times, but in Utah they are only typically present in the summer in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, and rather rare at that. This far north, and at this time of year, it's an unexpected and welcome surprise, and certainly caught me off guard. Fortunately, I've seen these birds before - they were common and omnipresent during my trip to Texas, and I've regularly seen them during my trips to Las Vegas - so I could identify this unusual guest quickly.

What a treat, a new yard bird. But a bittersweet one at that, considering what was to come - the dozen other things on my mind - but that's a story for another day. For today, it's wonderful to enjoy a new and unique visitor.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

First Snow and Dreaming of the Tropics

Today we are getting our first snow for the 2014-15 winter, a somewhat steady fall of medium-wet flakes accumulating in soggy sheets under a dreary gray sky. Fortunately, I've been saving up for this day, and instead of reflecting on the drab, I'm remembering a rainbow - rich green jungle foliage, stunning creamy hibiscus blooms, sweetly yellow pineapple wedges, russet red cacao pods, and wow, the shades of plumage... Turquoise, magenta, gold, chestnut, neon blue, iridescent purple, stark white, scarlet, and every shade between all of them.

Collared Aracari
But where can you find this rainbow? The Lodge at Pico Bonito in La Ceiba, Honduras. I was privileged to be invited on a press trip to this luxury birding destination in early May, and even months later, my life is more colorful for the experience. For five days, it was all birding, all the time, and in just those few days, 25 new lifers joined my list, including wading birds, tropical passerines, toucans, hummingbirds, and more.
  • Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron
  • Boat-Billed Heron
  • Grey Hawk
  • Northern Jacana
  • Red-Billed Pigeon
  • White-Crowned Parrot
  • Mottled Owl
  • Violet Sabrewing
  • White-Necked Jacobin
  • Violet-Crowned Woodnymph
  • Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird
  • Black-Headed Trogon
  • Violaceous Trogon
  • Blue-Crowned Motmot
  • Turquoise-Browed Motmot
  • Collared Aracari
  • Keel-Billed Toucan
  • Social Flycatcher
  • Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher
  • Lovely Cotinga
  • Brown Jay
  • Yellow-Winged Tanager
  • White-Collared Seedeater
  • Montezuma Oropendola
  • Black-Cowled Oriole
Of course, my standards for actually counting lifers are very strict. There were dozens of other birds I saw on the trip without being acutely convinced of the proper identification, and dozens more were already familiar to me. But wow, the diversity and beauty of avifauna in Honduras is phenomenal, and I didn't even have all the opportunities to explore different habitats in the region, and it wasn't even close to the local peak birding season.

Despite being the off season and coping with my inexperience with tropical species, the birding was spectacular - in particular, the hummingbird feeders on all the public buildings of the lodge, including the restaurant, lobby, and connecting boardwalks attracted all manner of flying jewels within just feet of visitors. Feeding stations in the gardens offered snacks to birds as well as other local wildlife, and different birds were nesting in nearby trees.

That much fantastic birding can leave you famished, but you won't be starving for long. Whether you opt for fresh fruit, comfortable pastas or chicken (I highly recommend the chicken cordon bleu), Mesoamerican fusion dishes, or local specialties including fresh tacos and seafood, the restaurant is superb. And if you'd like some liquid libations, the bar is at your service from the moment you arrive and are greeted with a tropical welcome cocktail. And of course, the bedtime truffle waiting back in your cabin is a deliciously decadent way to end any day.

After a full day of activities - snorkeling, hiking, different birding tours, a visit to the Serpentarium and Butterfly Farm, a night hike for owling or looking for all manner of nocturnal natives (I found it very unnerving to get an up close look at how bloody fast a scorpion can be, though the tarantula stayed reassuringly still) - the cabins are the ultimate in restful escapes. From the hammock on the porch (ideal for a cozy nap or thumbing through your field guide while waiting for the afternoon rain to pass) to the comfortable beds and spacious rooms, you have the perfect options for stretching out and rejuvenating for another day's delights. And if your muscles are a wee bit sore from having so much to explore, an in-room massage can always be arranged.

Lodge Entrance - Lobby

Five days was a terrifically long time to be immersed in the tropics of this gorgeous lodge, but it wasn't nearly long enough. There are more tours I want to take, more delicious dishes I want to sample, and of course, always more birds to see. And more tales to come as I revisit these fantastic experiences to escape from Utah's winter doldrums!

For more information about The Lodge at Pico Bonito, see my complete birding destination review!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Season's First Junco

Every autumn, I eagerly await the return of the dark-eyed juncos. While I'm not entirely thrilled that these birds foretell winter, I can't help but adore their perky behavior, sleek plumage, and energetic personalities - they are the perfect birds to brighten any winter day. This year, however, the very first junco I saw was absolutely the last way I wanted to see one.

I was backing out of the garage, and I routinely stop in the driveway to ensure the door lowers and fasten my seatbelt. While doing so, I glanced up at the roof, and saw a bird sitting all too still and in too unusual a posture to be a positive sign - it must have hit one of the vaulted windows at the roof's peak, windows that I alternately love for their uniqueness and brightness, but hate for instances such as this.

Unwilling to leave the bird languishing on the roof - though by the stillness I assumed it was too late for any help - I stopped the truck and stepped out onto the running board for a better view. I realized the bird hadn't been killed by the impact; I could see slight motion that indicated breathing, though the bird was bowed and its bill was resting on the roof. Despite having an appointment to keep, I didn't hesitate to turn off the truck, reopen the garage, and wrestle with the ladder to reach that part of the roof. I had a bird rescue kit standing by, and quickly I was just a few feet away, examining the first dark-eyed junco I'd seen in months.

The bird was indeed breathing, and its left eye was open (I couldn't see the right side). While its bill was resting on the shingles, there was no apparent discharge or visible injury other than a single mussed feather. The wings were not drooping, and the bird seemed aware of my presence, though unwilling to move much. That changed in an instant, however, as I reached out to gently cup the bird (while balanced on the ladder, mind you), and it protested - vigorously - with chirping and fluttering. I released it, and it flew further up the roof, lightly bonking on the window again before resting on another section of the roof. As this new perch gave me a view of its other side, I finished climbing the ladder so I could examine the bird further. There were still no signs of obvious injuries, and the fact that it could fly, however unsteadily, was an excellent sign.

I stayed on the roof with the bird for several minutes, speaking to it gently and noting its breathing and posture. After a few minutes, the bird was more alert, and finally fluttered up to a branch where it was better concealed than on the roof - our neighborhood does have resident hawks, and I was worried that a stunned junco would be an easy breakfast. I watched for another minute or two to be sure it was able to balance and cling well, then made my way down the ladder and only slightly late to my appointment. When I got home a couple of hours later, the bird had vanished, but within hours it - or another junco - appeared at the feeders, fit and healthy.

Windows can be fatal to birds, and I take all the steps I can to keep mine safe. No system is perfect, and we must always be ready when an accident happens. In this case, the ending was a happy one - may it be so for others.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Your Bird Feeding Is Now Irrelevant

Hand-feeding birds is perhaps one of the most amazing experiences any backyard birder can have, but recently, I went beyond offering a peanut to a western scrub-jay or a handful of Nyjer to a flock of pine siskins (both of which I've done, successfully). I fed an emu.

Okay, admittedly, the emu wasn't in my backyard (wow, what a yard bird that would be!), but one could consider Tracy Aviary just as much a part of my extended backyard as anywhere in the state of Utah. My family has an annual membership to the aviary - an organization we are always happy to support - and we visit frequently. Each visit is a treat, exploring the different exhibits, and often feeding the ducks as we leave.

We have stayed for the aviary's regular shows a couple of times, and have seen different demonstrations and acts; I even once was the perch for Phoenix, the aplomado falcon. But during this visit, we were approached by one of the keepers and asked if we'd like to help out without the show. The seasonal shows have ended, but one bird in particular - Sydney, the aviary's star emu - still needs to practice his act. It's a simple bit, when he runs out from a holding area to munch out of his bowl, then returns to the holding area. But as the keeper explained, if Sydney doesn't have regular practice, he forgets his routine and may refuse to eat otherwise, since he's not used to snacking in other ways.

What a treat! I held the bowl and offered Sydney his fruit, and I was all a-quiver to be so close to such an amazing bird (and grateful that we'd actually brought along the camera that day!). Incidentally, he eats a variety of chopped up fruit - apples, blueberries, grapes and the like. Being so close, I was also able to see the visual acuity he uses in choosing food, as he opted almost exclusively for lighter-colored foods (that would be more visible in the black bowl) first. Of course, he did pick it clean!

I love all my backyard birds, of course, and offering food to them is never dull. But somehow, the experience isn't quite the same when the bird's head is as large as your hand and it's fixated on whamming its bill into the bowl as quickly as possible... Ah, birds.