Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Flicker of Spring

Despite having little snow and relatively mild temperatures, it has still been a long winter. These days I'm continually scanning for the small signs that spring is arriving, and there have been more than a few in recent days...
  • Increasing morning songs, a prelude to the full-fledged dawn chorus to come
  • Peeking greenery in flowerbeds, shoots that will become daffodils, hyacinths and tulips
  • Swelling tree buds and some fuzzy bursts on different bushes and shrubs
  • Warming temperatures and balmy breezes across a rich blue sky
  • More American robins in the neighborhood and visiting the backyard bird bath
  • Gradually lengthening days and gloriously rich sunsets
While there are still a few indications of winDark-eyed juncos are still visiting in droves, though perhaps not quite as numerous as they were just a few weeks ago. Sandhill cranes were migrating northward just this past weekend, yet there are no new spring migrants yet appearing at the feeders. Lesser goldfinches are more prominent and active, but American goldfinches are still wearing their dull winter coats. Northern flickers are pairing off and more actively foraging on the no-longer-quite-frozen ground, but California quail are still huddled in their winter coveys.
ter - a decidedly icy nip in the nighttime air, dormant lawns tamped down from the snowfall and ice packs, the need for heaters or furnaces in the morning cool - each day spring is drawing closer. The bird activity at this time of year is interestingly varied, with winter birds dominating the feeders, but the hope of spring birds in the air as well.

Spring is coming, and with it, many changes. Some are seasonal, some will be permanent. Some will be about birds, some will not. But like the flowers peeking from the mulch or the gradually rising temperatures, it is coming, and inevitable.

Embrace it, and enjoy.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Superb Owl - The Rematch

Four years ago on this dubious football holiday (I do not count myself among the fans), I was privileged to welcome a darling northern pygmy-owl to my life list. The search was tipped from from a listserv and led me to a mountain hideaway and an hour's walk, only to be treated to a very winning sighting just barely in the opposite direction from my path, a stone's throw from the parking lot. Still, I considered it a win.

Today, in an eerie parallel, was an even bigger win and a much more sought-after victory. For a pleasant Sunday walk, my husband and I revisited a patch of the Provo River Trail we have trod many times before, in all seasons and at all times a day. I doubt, however, any time will be so memorable as today.

We arrived just before noon, the only vehicle in the small lot, and took a few moments to adjust my field bag and binocular harness. Just steps from the truck, I looked to the north, where I'd been hearing intermittent calls from a black-billed magpie. I smiled to see one of my favorite corvids, when another wingspan just slightly to the east caught my eye. It was broad, with rounded tips, white below and richly golden-brown above. The head was flattened and stunted, the body bullet-like with a tapered rear and powerful legs. It could only be one thing.

Barn owl.

For years, I have longed to see these graceful, elegant birds, and I've tried many times, even driving significant distances in dubious conditions and failing light levels to get that elusive lifer. I did see a nest once, including owlets, but my own exacting (and overly picky) counting standards did not permit me to "officially" add the lifer without having seen an adult in all its glory. It seemed for so long that these owls, so easy to see in many places, would remain a nemesis bird for me.

No longer.

No birder could ask for a more spectacular sighting than what I witnessed today. The day was sunny, the bird coursing over open fields in excellent light that set its plumage aglow. Time and again it passed great fields of view while hunting, and several times it perched for a minute or two in large trees as it scanned for prey. Once it even looked precisely in my direction, showing its distinctive heart-shaped facial disc, dark eyes and tapered bill. Several times I watched it dive to the ground, once it even came so close that my binoculars were unnecessary, even a hindrance. So great was the sighting, so powerful and perfect the experience, tears trickled down my cheeks.

Barn owl.

Of course, the one thing that made this once-in-a-lifetime even just the tiniest bit less spectacular was my camera. As in, where was my camera? On the shelf, in my closet, in my office, upstairs in my house, ten miles away - naturally.


Honestly, I'm not all that upset about the lack of a photo - my mind's eye has captured images of this stunning owl far more clearly than my non-existant photography skills could (I've always said I can take great bird photos if the bird lands six feet in front of me and sits still for a half hour). It is ironic that some of my best sightings have occurred sans-camera (a violet-green swallow did land six feet in front of me and sit still for a half hour, but I still didn't have my camera), but that's a lot of what birding is - happy accidents, unexpected miracles, and seeing a bird you've yearned to see for years in a place you've visited the most.

Superb, indeed.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Star Struck

I am by no means a celebrity aficionado: I barely recognize celebrity names, have none I'd claim fandom of and have never watched any award show nor read a celeb-oriented magazine, but there are times when I am indeed star struck by a bird that seems, to me, to be a celebrity. Many of these are target birds, species I long to see, and last May I had the opportunity to see a spectacular one on a trip to California.


I've passed through California frequently as a cruise departure port or airline layover, but rarely take the time to visit the state - a sore deficiency on my part, as there are many lovely birding areas in the Golden State. Yet on this trip I wasn't birding per se, but was enjoying some of the more commonplace - and not so commonplace - tourist attractions in a brief couple of days. One of those days yielded far more birding than I'd have thought possible.

With just a few hours available, my husband and I planned to visit one southern California destination we both desired to see - Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. In mapping out how to drive there, I discovered some trails that might be good for a brief birding walk, but I had no idea how good they would be. By luck alone, this one stop would truly be a star-studded experience.

First, we were able to get outstanding views (smog notwithstanding) of the famed Hollywood sign, an icon I'd been wanting to see for years. Second, the observatory - a free facility to visit - was far more comprehensive and beautifully laid out than we'd imagined. And third, for me - the birds. I'd hoped to see an acorn woodpecker, an easily recognized and distinctive species, and I'd have been content just to add that one bird to my life list. Little did I know that I'd also be adding several others to my list in just that stop in a very small portion of Griffith Park. Among the birds I saw were not only a dozen or more acorn woodpeckers with incredible, easy views, but I also added the wrentit and rufous-crowned sparrow to my life list that day. The next day, I'd also add the white-throated swift to my list, albeit in a different location.

I'd not have expected such amazing birding in such a dense urban area, but it serves as a reminder that anywhere can be a great birding destination. I can't wait to return to the same area and explore the park - and other birding hotspots in southern California - more thoroughly, and who knows, maybe I'll see a few more feathered celebrities.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Frenzy

There are many words for a flock of quail - drift, flush, rout, covey, pack, bevy - but in my yard this winter, the term frenzy best describes their antics.

I do love my California quail, and I've never been shy about welcoming a few to the yard. Until this yard and this winter, however, I've never had the occasion to welcome a few dozen at once. They've discovered that my broad, deep deck provides exceptional shelter, and they regularly roost beneath it (as evidenced by the maze of tracks that lead about the yard but all return to the deck - some of their trails are so popular they've carved their own tunnels through the snowfall), but they're not shy about coming out to feast. At any popular mealtime, I've had up to 30 or more quail feeding, split among the different feeding areas in the yard. The first area they typically encounter is the elongated bench on the deck where I have three levels of cracked corn - on the bench itself, on the deck, and on the ground under the edge of the deck. After sampling that, the quail move to the back fence and particularly enjoy scratching beneath the three hanging feeder stations, especially the two filled with hulled sunflower seed. They also eagerly scratch around the platform ground feeder sheltered underneath an oversized glass patio table in the middle of the yard, even uprooting tufts of grass in their eagerness to find the next morsel that may be mixed seed or additional hulled sunflower seeds.

Of course, I'm happy to oblige in providing those morsels. Not only do I refill the feeders every 2-3 days at least, but when I do, I sprinkle extra handfuls of seed directly on the ground for the quails' convenience and feeding pleasure. Of course, it's my pleasure too, and I delight in seeing the covey visit. They spread out with each feeding area hosting a dozen or more birds at once, and their plump little bodies are sometimes so thick beneath the feeders that neither snow nor grass is visible, it's just a roiling mass of quail and quivering topknots.


It's hard to get a photo that accurately shows the extent of the flock, but I'm so amazed at its size that I count it nearly every time they all arrive - and each time I'm stunned to have so many visitors. All are welcome, of course, and I'm glad I've found a good deal on cracked corn... I'm going to need it!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Christmas Carnivore

Birds can give us wonderful gifts, and my latest - other than the nearly daily joy of their visits - was a sharp-shinned hawk that first arrived in the yard on Christmas Day.

Of course, that's just when I was able to first confirm the raptor's identity and verify its presence in the yard. The neighbor's yard that adjoins our rear fence has been visited by several raptors - both Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks - but I don't count a new yard bird until it actually touches my property (picky, I know). Then, of course, I have to know precisely which species it is, and these urban accipiters can be particularly tricky.

For once, this bird wasn't so hard to identify, thanks to its lack of a contrasting nape, shorter tail, barely visible white tail tip and relatively small head, all of which are fairly confident signs of a sharp-shinned hawk. This bird was fairly large for a sharpie, however, but that likely indicates it as female - females are larger than their male counterparts.

Not only did I get great views as the bird settled on one of my feeder hooks looking particularly grumpy, but she returned for several consecutive days looking for more meals. Once, we saw her pluck her prey right from a branch - a branch about 15 feet above and maybe 25 feet behind where she'd been perched - an amazing hunting feat and a well-deserved meal (most likely of sparrow or finch). Admittedly, there may be several sharpies frequenting the yard, since they show slightly different white mottling on the mantle, but that could be a factor of posture, feather position and wind ruffling as well.

I feel privileged and honored to have a raptor in the yard - while the random piles of feathers, amputated feet and bloody bill remnants I've found occasionally tell me it's not the first, it's the first I'm certain of, and a new visitor is always welcome.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Life on Fire

New is always a chance for optimism, whether it is a new year, new month, new week, or simply a new day. With that optimism, however, has to come a new attitude.

I gave up a great deal in 2015 - time, energy, hope, emotions. I gave it up to grief, to work, to depression. I gave up enjoyment, relaxation and pleasure to deadlines, expectations and accusations. Gone were good meals, small indulgences, smiles, laughter, and most of all, gone was the fierceness that threads its way through all of me. I gave up, in the end, too much of myself.

Not so for 2016. I'm through living my life on terms I did not set, for dampening the fire I know smolders within me. I'm through seeing my dreams from afar rather than striding toward them, and I'm through giving up on living the life I can. I look out my office window and see the mountains burn twice a day - with the new rays of the sunrise and the last embers of the sunset, and each day I want this to remind me that the light of what living ought to be is never finished. No matter when, or where, or how, it can and always should be new.



There is much that will be a part of this - health, satisfaction and birding, travel and music and books. Stamps in the passport, scars on the hands, tears of joy. The wind snarling my hair, sore muscles, awestruck smiles, study sessions, new tastes and exotic sensations. But what will be part of it most of all is me - the me I've lost for far too long.

Let's fly.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Taking a Thrashing

It's hard to be enthusiastic about birding - one of the small pleasures of life - when life continues to give you a thrashing. Between dramatic shifts in family dynamics, increased work loads from contract alterations, uncommunicative communities, rampant societal entitlement and all the little catastrophes that occur on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, there never seems time left for even the least of birding.

Still, birds are there, and while I may not have time to get out into the field to see more of them, I can still remember with great fondness my favorite of birding walks. It's a roughly two mile loop, stretching from my childhood home, along a very familiar route to what was once my grandparents' house (and is now my uncle's), then along a delightful trail alongside Bear River. The trail winds through a variety of riparian habitats with varied vegetation that nurtures a wide range of avifauna, to the waterfront of Little Traverse Bay, which provides delightful inland coastal habitats. The return leg is through the charming downtown area, where different urban species often make an appearance.


The route may be short and the area compact, but I can easily spend hours enjoying the birds it hosts, and still I often feel rushed with obligations that keep me from lingering as long as I would like. My greatest regret is that during my childhood when I had nearly unlimited time to spend along those trails, I was more interested in getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, often biking without regard for the feathered life that would surely have been flying all about me, even then.

Still, the only thing we can do with past regrets are to keep them past, and strive to make the future a better one. Every time I return to my old habitat, I take advantage of the opportunity to walk that trail again, and it never disappoints. During an emotionally turbulent visit this past spring, the trail nurtured me as much as the birds, and when paused in a clearing to watch warblers flitting in the trees or stepping into a thicket for a better view of the riverbank, I was still able to appreciate its wonders. It still didn't disappoint, as I saw a lifer palm warbler along the trail, reminding me that no matter what type of beating life has in store for you, there is always more of life to discover and enjoy.

We just need to take a walk - into our future, into the possibilities, into birding.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Long Overdue Yard Update

There has been so much happening in the yard - both with birds and with other issues - that it's crazy to think how long it has been since I last wrote about all my feathered guests. In the past few months, so much has happened, including...
  • Several spates of travel which have yielded wonderful new lifers and great bird sightings on top of other travel necessities, even though it takes me out of the yard.
  • A shift in job circumstances and changing clients, opening new opportunities and easing out of obligations that no longer fit my work preferences and career goals.
  • Dramatic backyard changes not all of our choice, at least not in the timing, but changes that will improve the landscaping and value nonetheless.
Above all, there has been so much introspection and thoughtfulness, so much to consider, it has wrought havoc with birding, and it is at these times that yard birds may be all I have left. And I'm glad I have so many! I've had a wide variety of new feathered visitors since May, including...
  •  The random band-tailed pigeon that descended on the open tray feeder and its offering of mixed birdseed. A solitary guest, it was immediately recognizable by its yellow bill and legs, overall darker plumage and large size. I only got a glimpse of its namesake tail band, but it was without a doubt a new and exciting visitor. Unusual as well - while these birds are regular summer residents in the area, they generally stay higher in the foothills, but I hope its appearance one time may mean it will one day return more regularly.
  • The quick glimpse of a lazuli bunting that flitted between a freestanding feeder pole and a feeder hook attached to the wood fence. While this bird didn't stay for long, the rich, cheerful blue it showed was unmistakable, and it changed position enough for me to see the rusty bib that helps clearly identify the species. This visit was more fleeting than most, but memorable because it's a bird I always look for in late spring and early summer. That is the only time they appear in the yard, and I hope it will return next year.
  • The hungry visit of a pair of black-headed grosbeaks that availed themselves of the hulled sunflower seed without hesitation. These birds are shy at first, but once they realize the quality of the food source, they happily finish their meal. I wish they would stay around longer, but even a brief visit is a satisfying one when I can see that characteristic black hood, thick conical bill and orange-white-and-black plumage. Despite always appearing in the summer, these birds remind me of Halloween, and it's always a treat to see them.
  • The first hummingbirds to the yard - from an overeager female who first flew nearly in the basement window to alert me that I was overdue putting out nectar feeders, to at least two different confirmed species I enjoyed throughout the summer, both the black-chinned hummingbird and the rufous hummingbird. I'm sure the broad-tailed was likely here as well, but I never managed to spot that brilliant rose gorget, so that's a new yard bird I'll have to look forward to next summer.
And of course, there's always more to look forward to in the yard, particularly a yard that is still so new and growing. Leaves are changing and temperatures are (barely) dropping now, and a new season will undoubtedly bring even more beauty to this small patch of bird-friendly land. I'm glad I'm here to see it.