Wednesday, July 23, 2014


My family and I travel to Las Vegas frequently, and while Sin City is well known for lost wages and loose morals, it's always a jackpot for birding, as it was earlier this summer. While I'm long past the stage of hoping for any lifers in the city (I've traveled there multiple times and often bird in the same regular hotspots), it's always a treat to see the southwestern birds that don't make it as far north as my Utah backyard.

On the way south, we typically enjoy a leg-stretching stop at Tonaquint Nature Park in St. George, a small but thriving property with beautiful habitat for a wide variety of birds. While the pond was surprisingly overrun with algae this time, the ducks and mute swans didn't mind, and the Indian peafowl roaming the park were a loud surprise. The adjacent cemetery is a relatively reliable spot to see Say's phoebes, and fledgling American robins were abundant near the playgrounds and picnic areas. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Abert's towhees, and the blue grosbeak was a rare surprise just before getting back in the truck to continue the drive - after a brief stop for gas and watching a family of rock wrens near the station.

Once in Vegas, there was good opportunity to study a greater roadrunner that was hanging out at Sunset Park, and a flurry of active verdins were scattered all over the park as well. A crissal thrasher was another great sighting, and I enjoyed the black-tailed gnatcatchers and the Gambel's quail, so similar to my backyard California quail. And Vegas wouldn't be Vegas without great-tailed grackles making a racket. While the waterfowl weren't as numerous as I'd hoped at the pond section of Sunset Park, the double-crested cormorants, American coots, and Canada geese were still pleasant to see, and the western grebe out in the center of the pond was a treat.

Birding in Las Vegas changes from season to season, and while one's luck may change with what species are seen, if you visit the right places in the city, you'll be sure to come away a birding winner.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

(Sage) Grousing

Spot the greater-sage grouse.
Despite the inner darkness, there have been moments of lucid light in the past few months when the birds fly into my consciousness. One of the briefest was in April, when I finally managed to add the greater sage-grouse to my life list.

Getting these wary gamebirds as lifers isn't so much birding as it is a quest. For me, it began at four in the morning (so not my idea of a good birding time), with a nerve-wracking drive through pitch black canyons and with somewhat vague directions. Admittedly, the directions were fairly spot-on, but to me, being unfamiliar with the area they led me to, they were vague enough for apprehension. Yet I did manage to arrive at the Henefer lek as dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon, and as I crept closer to the marked fence - windows rolled down - I could hear the distinctive "popping" of the air sacs as males vied for the admiration of the all-too-uninterested females.

The one-way drive took roughly 75 minutes, but within two minutes of arrival, I had the lifer I sought. Good thing, too, because less than five minutes later, an asshole of a golden eagle overflew the field, and the grouse scattered to the southeast, not to return. I'm glad I arrived when I did, and I'm glad I got at least a minor view and heard the birds as well, giving me the lifer to count. And for the record, I don't really think golden eagles are assholes, but he couldn't have waited a few more minutes?

I did stay in the area for a bit after the grouse had flown their figurative coop, and was rewarded with a few other good birds - some beautiful morning songs from western meadowlarks, and the early morning foraging of a variety of sparrows. It was disappointing to make the long drive home after such a brief birding, but still, the birds and I did manage to cross paths at least for a moment.

I'll be back on this quest next spring, I think. While I have the lifer, it's what is known as a BVD - better view desired. I'd love to see the birds more closely, and for more than a few moments. The drive might be harrowing, but in the end worthwhile.

Henefer lek at sunrise, through a dirty windshield (don't get out of the truck, it might disturb these sensitive birds).

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Very Dark Place Without Birds

I miss birds, and I miss blogging about them. But there are very few nocturnal birds in my area, and I've been in a very dark place for many months now - my own, personal nighttime where birds don't fly. There have been a lot of issues and both major and minor crises recently with work, family, and health that have sapped energy and drained enthusiasm, yet along the way the memory of birds does still make me smile, and I hope to fly again. It won't be today, and it likely won't be for a few weeks yet.

That isn't to say that there haven't been birds in the interim; there have been lucid moments when my backyard birds make me laugh - the oblivious house sparrow interrupting the amorous advances of a Eurasian collared-dove, the brief appearance of this year's spring hatch of California quail, the incessant demands of western scrub-jays when there are never enough peanuts - and I treasure those moments. I've been privileged to enjoy a rare press trip to a new destination and add lifers to my ongoing list, and I've also seen how birds help others, with pet bird aviaries in nursing homes and feeders that brighten elderlies' days. It makes me consider how helpful birds can be to all of us.

My wings are broken, the sky is out of reach, the wind not strong enough to lift my bruised and battered body. But I will heal, and I will stretch my wings again.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Owl Action

Admittedly, it's been a long time since I've posted, and my bird action has been erratic at best, while the flight paths of my thoughts are equally erratic. But there have been good moments, learning moments, and teaching moments. One of them in recent weeks comes to mind...

There is a western screech owl in our neighborhood, and I've seen him a few times. Most recently, he visited my yard in a most insistent manner - despite my curiosity and enthusiasm for photos (which didn't turn out particularly well, as you can see), he was determined to stay nearby, flitting between the fence on the property line, to the pole that holds a feeder or two, to a tree near the kitchen window that holds another feeder. But owls don't eat birdseed, so why wouldn't he leave? Mind you, I was thrilled for the guest, but confused about his unusual behavior.

Confused, that is, until another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I have mouse traps on the deck regularly (mice are a fact of life with platform feeders), and after watching the owl for several minutes and several angles, I thought to glance at one of those traps - and it wasn't empty. It wasn't filled, either, not completely - a mouse had been caught by the tail but was still alive, and the owl was obviously aware of the prey and its availability. What amazing hearing owls have, as I was far closer to that trap several times than the bird, yet I never heard the mouse nor suspected its presence. Yet the owl knew, and wasn't giving up!

Obviously, both the bird and the mouse couldn't win the standoff. I had to give props to the bird, but I gave the mouse the tiniest bit of a fighting chance, and we released it in the yard, enough of a distance from the owl that it could run. It didn't run far, but it chose the exact wrong direction, and the owl got an easy meal that night.

What a wonderful experience, and one few birders get without provocation. I was in no way baiting the owl and deliberately attempting to draw it in with incapacitated prey (the mouse was genuinely caught, though I'd far prefer not to have mice nearby at all), but with the opportunity, I had to enjoy it. I'm sure the mouse didn't, but you win some and lose some.

Owl - 1, Mouse - 0.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Little Thinking on Juncos

It has been a strange winter - very early and fierce in December, then holding back for just a few random storms, but we haven't had much snowfall or bitter cold in over a month. This does not bode well for summer - fire risk and drought are sure to be extreme - but for now, I'm thinking beyond the snow, to the snowbirds.

Some areas are privileged to have visits from dark-eyed juncos year-round, but these small, perky sparrows only seem to visit my deck and feeders when there is snow on the ground. It is amazing how well they match their snowbird nickname - when the snow vanishes, so do they, but if there is just a little dusting of white powder, they will be back, with a vengeance. For now, it seems as though they're gone for the season, and I miss their feathery tracks on the deck, their energetic hopping on the stairs and their voracious appetites for small seeds. It may be months before they reappear, but when they do, I'll happily brave the snow and cold to keep their feeders full.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Glint of Gold

It has been a strange winter. Western mountains are usually known for harsher weather and a longer cold season, but this season has been far from white - brown and drab has ruled the landscape, and with the absence of the more colorful birds of summer, it can be quite drearier. Fortunately, though, the landscape glittered a few days ago with the random passing of a flock of goldfinches.

Both American goldfinches and lesser goldfinches like to make themselves known at my feeders, and while they will casually peck at the Nyjer seed in its mesh sock, their preferred repast is the hulled sunflower I offer in several hopper feeders. For a few days it was a crowded buffet with multiple goldfinches, as well as the resident house finches and house sparrows, not-so-patiently waiting their turn to munch.

And munch they do - snagging seeds and briskly breaking them into bite-sized pieces, as often as not tossing chips and bits to the ground, where the juncos, quail, doves, and other ground-feeders will appreciate them. Nothing goes to waste in such a bleak landscape, when the next food source may be unknown or unreliable.

While the goldfinches have already moved on to different areas, that soft glint of gold at the feeders helps make winter seem much less drab, and serves as a reminder of the colorful season that may be closer than it seems.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Wasted Time?

Time is precious, particularly in today's fast paced, high pressure culture. Earlier this month, I put aside several hours for the explicit purpose of birding, with the hopes of adding the barn owl to my life list (a gross lack among the birds I've seen). I made sure my work was caught up, planned my route carefully, researched recent sightings at an appropriate hotspot, and gauged my timing to coincide with the times others had reported these elusive raptors.

It was an exciting moment, setting off for the first time in months to travel a distance - nearly an hour's drive one way - with the hopes of successful birding. It was a race against the sun as well, as it crept closer to the mountains and the light dwindled. I'd need sufficient light for proper identification, but if I arrived too early, the birds wouldn't be active.

I arrived right on time, with a glorious pink sunset lighting up the fields in great relief. My skin tingled with more than cold as I donned my gear - camera bag on the left, field bag on the right, binns in their harness. Hat - check. Fingerless gloves - check. Warm boots - check. I could see every hummock of snow, broken chunk of ice, and frost-covered fence post as I picked my way over the uneven ice onto the roadway (gated on a Sunday, but publicly accessible) and began scanning for birds.

That's what I didn't see - birds. There was a long-tailed flutter near the parking area that might have been a sparrow or a towhee, but it vanished and was not inclined to reappear no matter how much I pished. Further on, in a solitary tree, an unusual lump might have been a large raptor, but it was gone by the time I was close enough for a decent look. Far to the west I saw a large bird flying away, already too distant for identification. To the north, on a radar tower, another large raptor perched, but the distance was far too great in the failing light to note any markings. In three hours - mostly driving, and the rest during a darkening, temperature dropping walk - that was the sum total of my sightings: four might-be-birds that couldn't be identified.

This is the discouraging side of birding. Birds have wings and will use them, and no matter how prepared we may be to see them, they don't always care to be seen. Unfortunately in the these particular circumstances, I didn't have the time or inclination (bloody cold it was) to instead appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, and it felt very much like time wasted, time when I could have been doing many other things on my never-ending must-do list. It's hard enough to carve out a bit of time by myself, and harder still when that time isn't as productive as the anticipation.

Still, as the year continues, I hope to find more time to waste. Maybe one time there'll be a bird in it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thoughts on Albatrosses

On our trip to Hawaii, I had faint hopes of lifers, but one burning desire among the birds I wished to see most - I wanted to add an albatross to my life list. I had no true seabirds to my name, and in my eyes, the albatross - any albatross - is the pinnacle of pelagic birding.

For five days as our cruise ship sailed toward the islands, I scoured the horizon several times a day, hoping for one of these birds that I know spend their lives well out to sea, but to no avail. Then in Hawaii, at a new port of call each day, I scoured the coasts hoping to see one soaring above the cliffs and beaches, but nothing then either.

It seemed like seeing an albatross was to be an unfulfilled wish of this trip, until we docked in Kauai, our third port of call. That day, we'd planned a tour that included a visit to Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, a recognized bird sanctuary. I spent a great deal of effort to keep my hopes grounded, but within moments of entering the refuge's grounds, they took flight.

First, it was the nene - several of these endemic geese were lounging about the roadways, casually watching the van pass by. Then, it was the red-footed booby colony - a tremendous cliff snow-covered in their white plumage and fluttering. But within seconds, a great shadow passed above me, and there it was - an albatross.

To be rendered speechless in the field is quite a feat, but there you have it. I could only stare at the bird's gracefulness, its speed, its sleek plumage, its dramatic air. And its proximity - there was one point where it couldn't have been more than 20 feet above me. I fumbled clumsily with my field guide to confirm the wing patterns as the Laysan albatross (already my suspicion based on color and range), and tried for a few minutes to get a photo, but I was wholly unprepared for the bird's intense speed. When the wings don't flap and the bird appears imperturbable, you don't realize just how fast it goes when soaring on wind currents - while there's no mistaking the views I got, they were only fleeting. Instead, I contented myself with a photo of the informational sign overlooking the coast, the only photo I could manage and the only time the bird was still enough for better than an awed glimpse. But bird or not, it stands as proof that I was there - I saw an albatross.

That shadow, the bird's elegance, the brief encounter I had on a tour that was all too short - these are birding moments I'll never forget, and those feelings are something I need to remember more: the discovery, the excitement, the amazement, the sheer joy.

This is why I bird.