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.

Monday, October 6, 2014


If you've been reading this blog for some time, it can't have escaped you how much I enjoy my resident California quail - from the visiting coveys that pick over my deck, to the summertime family flocks with darling chicks, to the crazy antics of various individuals I can come to recognize. Yet no matter how much I watch these birds, or how much I think I know them, they can always surprise me.

One such surprise was just a few days ago on the walk leading up to our front door. The sidewalk is wide and separated from the driveway by a thick bed of evergreen plantings that numerous birds like to take advantage of, and I've often seen the quail scurry for cover into the pines. I've even witnessed them occasionally pluck berries for a quick snack, or scratch in the dirt seeking out insects and other random seeds.

What I hadn't seen before, however, was a sentinel so dedicated as to not move for nearly an hour. An adult male was standing guard in the middle of that walk, perfectly still, as other quail were quietly roosting in the scrub. My husband and I were working in our large family room and could peer out the front window to check, and the quail was looking about, but not overly concerned. There were no signs of injury, disorientation, or trauma, and indeed, he was just watching out for the covey.

I've seen guard birds before, keeping watchful eyes and a tense demeanor as a flock forages, but the rest of the quail were roosting, and this lone bird was in no way stressed or anxious; he was just there. In the middle of the sidewalk, out in the open and highly visible, but highly content.

It thrills me no end that the quail are so at peace while visiting my yard that they can feel so secure and unmolested. To see wild birds so gentle and relaxed can't help but be relaxing to me, and it is why I work so hard to keep my yard a safe place for them to visit. And while they're welcome to stand guard as long as they deem it necessary, I'll always be watching out for them as well.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Autumn Beginnings

Fall is finally arrived, in paper if not in practice. The days are still relatively scorching, the grass is still thriving, and the mountains are still bare of the first autumn snow. But there are small signs of autumn, clues so subtle that you might miss them if you don't take the time to stop and realize the wonder of the changing season.
  • A whiff of ripe concord grapes in the air
  • Gently colored tips on leaves
  • Soft blushes of color on mountain forests
  • Nippy air if you're up early enough to feel it
Of course, bird migration is a great clue for autumn, but it can be hard to see in the backyard as well. Oh, the black-headed grosbeaks are long since departed, and the baby California quail are definitely growing up, but my yard isn't one migrants frequent as much as I'd like. Still, there are more rufous hummingbirds about, and when watching them at the feeders, they're certainly putting on the grams in preparation for their departure. The western scrub-jays are caching peanuts with more than their usual vengeance, and the black-billed magpies - so often absent in summer as they nest - have returned for their peanut ration as well.

These brief clues can be easily overlooked if we don't take time to pause and appreciate the season. This weekend I hope to do more appreciation in the guise of heading off to view some of the area's most beautiful fall spots, and there is always the hope of more fantastic fall birds to enjoy as well. Happy autumn!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dancing Hawk

A lot of birders don't enjoy having a hawk visit their yard and prey on birds they feed, but I always consider it a privilege. It's a privilege I've had a number of times, but one earlier this month stands out as one of the oddest visits...

We have both sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks in the neighborhood, and when I checked my backyard feeders and noticed them empty at a prime feeding time, I looked around and saw one of the juvenile Cooper's hawks out by the grapevine. It's not typical to see a hawk on the ground unless it has prey, so I wanted to watch and see if this young bird had been successful in his hunt. He seemed to be, but didn't seem to know what to make of it.

At first, I thought his inexperience had only injured the house sparrow he'd caught, because he was fidgeting with the smaller bird and it appeared to be struggling. After watching for a few moments, however, I realized this wasn't the case. The sparrow was more than dead, but the hawk wasn't convinced, apparently. He would pounce on the smaller bird, hold or squeeze it for a moment, then hop away, even at times flinging the limp body into the air as he jumped. Over and over this dance continued, with the hawk at times moving several feet away and looking away from his sparrow, then leaping on it again, as if practicing his attack moves.

Perhaps that is what he was doing, or perhaps this was just one of his first successful hunts and he was making sure the prey was decidedly dead, or perhaps he was just proving his prowess to anyone who might be watching. Eventually he seemed convinced of the sparrow's demise, and carried it into a nearby tree to feast. Given how long he played with it, he certainly must have been hungry by then! He was still a bit nervous, and when I went out into the yard to see if I could get clearer photos (rather than shooting through the windows at an awkward angle) he decided to carry his meal further away - as if I hadn't already gotten a delightful show.

This is one of those "wild kingdom" moments that I love, and of course juvenile hunters provide the best viewing because they can be so unpredictable and expressive. While it's never nice for any bird to meet its end (even a house sparrow, as those who know me know I love all birds), raptors need to eat as well, and it's an absolute treat to see such unusual and entertaining behavior just feet away from my deck. I hope this young bird of prey returns for another meal soon, and he's welcome to any bird he can catch!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fall Hummingbirds

Black-Chinned Hummingbird
I enjoy visits from a variety of hummingbirds as early as mid-spring, but I have to admit that the fall hummingbirds are my favorites to watch as they buzz about the feeders. In late summer and early fall, I can have up to three species frequenting the trio of nectar feeders dangling above my deck: black-chinned hummingbirds (the most common in our backyard), broad-tailed hummingbirds (rare but still regular guests), and rufous hummingbirds (late-summer arrivals that strive to take over).

Despite their tiny size, it's quite easy to tell these hummingbirds apart - and not just because the feeders are less than a dozen feet away from good viewing windows. The black-chinned hummingbirds have an iridescent purple band low on their throats, and their wings make a low hum. The broad-tailed hummingbirds have bright red throats and make a loud, metallic buzzing in flight. The rufous hummingbirds have bright orange plumage, including rusty-orange flanks and shiny orange throats, and they are the most aggressive of the hummers.

Females are more challenging to tell apart, especially because not all the gals are really gals - young males resemble females at first, but gradually develop their mature gorgets. As that color develops, I can tell who is who more effectively.

No matter which species, these tiny birds have the same goals at this time of year - claim the most nectar for themselves, gain weight quickly, and prepare for migration. It's amusing to see how tubby they can get, yet they still chase one another around the yard, diving and buzzing to defend the feeders that they all think belong exclusively to them. The females tend to be slightly more mellow - I might actually have two feeding at one time with only wary glares exchanged rather than vigorous chases - but even they have little tolerance for interference. I may even get buzzes and dirty looks when I step out onto the deck - how dare I get too close! But of course some individuals are more tolerant than others; two or three weeks ago, a female rufous hummingbird was so nonplussed about  my presence that I was able to gently approach the feeder while she sat sipping, and she even let me lightly touch her tail before I got told off.

It's magical moments like those that make feeding birds all the more exciting. From one day to the next, you never know what birds may visit or how they will behave, and it's always worth watching and wondering. I know the hummingbirds will be gone in another two or three weeks, not to return until next spring, but when they do, their feeders will be waiting.

Are your hummingbirds still visiting? Learn when hummingbird migration is!