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!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Second Covey

In Utah, September isn't usually considered the breeding season, but one of my California quail hens is disproving that assumption this year. Just a week or two ago, she showed up on the deck, accompanied by three tiny chicks - no more than two or three days out of the shell. Soft, fluffy, and at the time, too small to even get on any of the steps, they were still pecking industriously through the grass while mama took a well-deserved break by investigating the series of dish feeders three too-tall steps away.

Like any children, the chicks didn't stay small, and within a day or two they could climb onto the lowest step, and within a week, they managed to make it all the way up to the deck. They were still uncertain about this new environment, but since mama was perfectly at ease, they settled in to learn what birdseed is and how good it is for eating. I've seen them around a few times, and the chicks are rapidly growing, though after that first day, only two chicks have visited - bird mortality is always high, particularly later in the season when older broods are also competing for scarce resources and more predators are preparing for autumn.

It is interesting that with this covey, no male was attached to the brood for several days, but when I've seen them more recently, one seems to have adopted the flock. He does stay a bit more distant, however, keeping a protective watch slightly apart from mama and her chicks, but they don't mind his presence. Perhaps, in the spring, he'll be joining her in an even closer watch over a brood they share.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


I adore birds, I do, but there is more to life than living on the wing, and each of us has additional interests, hobbies, and passions. One of mine is reading, and I want to take just a quick moment to share with you another blog I have begun, Eclectic Shelves. I read voraciously - more than 100 books each year - and this new blog is my effort at sharing the wide range of topics, authors, genres, and titles that grace my shelves. Book reviews are a large part of the new blog, but additional posts will cover the reading life, libraries, and literacy in general. I hope you might take a moment to check it out - and yes, occasionally you'll find books about birds on my shelves as well! (There is one bird-related review right near the top of the blog at the moment.)

Happy birding, happy reading, happy at whatever makes you happy!

Can you spot the three bird-related titles in this stack of some of my favorites?

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.