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.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Aloha! One word with so many meanings - goodbye, hello, love. In the past few weeks it has come to mean all of that - and more - for me. For our fifteenth wedding anniversary, my husband and I said aloha to work, children, winter weather, stress, and to-do lists to take a 15-night cruise to Hawaii, where we said aloha to relaxation, discovery, exploration, great food, fun games, volcanoes, and yes, birds. In that time, I added 16 amazing lifers to my list, and as picky as I am with adding any species to my list, I can truly say aloha to each one...

  • Surf Scoter
  • Nene
  • Laysan Albatross
  • Great Frigatebird
  • Red-Footed Booby
  • White-Tailed Tropicbird
  • White-Rumped Shama
  • Brown Booby
  • Red-Vented Bulbul
  • Red-Crested Cardinal
  • Common Waxbill
  • Spotted Dove
  • Common Myna
  • Japanese White-Eye
  • Zebra Dove
  • Java Sparrow

What an amazing experience, with lifers for the picking. We took several tours to different state and national parks, including a bird sanctuary at Kilauea Point, but this was by no means a birding-specific trip, and I was not trying particularly hard to visit top habitats or scout for elusive species. Before the trip, I'd been hoping to see just a few new lifers, but my expectations were exceeded in flocks.

More important, however, is saying aloha to other things in my life. Aloha to bitterness, betrayal, and past - goodbye. Aloha to adventure, exploration, and future - hello. But most of all, aloha to my husband and my family - flesh, feathered and other, all of which are part of me - I love you. Aloha.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sometimes The Birds Come to You

I may not be getting out to see the birds as much as I'd like - that is to say, not at all of late, and not for some time to come - but that doesn't stop the birds from coming to me. Those feathered visitors help me keep my sanity in a life gone crazy.

The normal craziness is here in abundance, of course, with house finches and house sparrows monopolizing the feeders, as well as the more or less regular visits from jays, magpies, chickadees, quail and doves. It is the occasional, unusual visitors that really make me remember the excitement of birding however, and as fall migration has advanced there has been some of that excitement. A western wood-pewee opted to use the fence as a rest stop for a few sallying forage flights several weeks ago, and more recently a ruby-crowned kinglet picked over the insects on the aspen tree with single-minded ferocity. In the past couple of weeks, the dark-eyed juncos have begun to return, foraging on the deck and under the shrubbery, and reminding me of the importance of increasing the millet in my seed mix and sprinkling some seed kernels under my office shrubs. It's not much, but at the moment it's about all I have.

Times will change, as they always do, but it is also equally important to remember the ordinary and appreciate its extraordinariness. Several vital dates are coming up in the next few weeks that will create quite the upheaval, and I hope I'm able to keep my balance. But even if a bird falls, it doesn't stop flying, and neither shall I.

Take flight, each day, no matter where your migration takes you.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Am I Still a Birder?

It's hard to believe that not only is November already here, but that it's well advanced. This year is especially poignant for me, what with different family, work, and school issues that have arisen in the past months, and it has me questioning whether or not I can still fly.

Fly, that is, as a birder. In all the year, I've only gotten two new lifers, and the most recent was more than four months ago. My schedule is such that there are too many demands on what little time I have, and I rarely get out into the field at all. On a recent trip when I did manage some time with my field equipment, my binocular harness felt strange and my binns didn't seem to fit in my hand any longer. I still greatly enjoy my backyard birds and have marveled at a few brief fall visitors different from my normal guests, yet even refilling feeders, cleaning the bird bath, or organizing my store of birdseed seems too daunting a task for the rare minutes I have.

But how many minutes must be spent with wing and feathers to truly be a birder? I'm fortunate that my career leads me along internet connections and through published pages to all corners of the globe, spending a great deal of time with many birds in spirit. I long to see them in person, to spread my own wings even as I watch them spread theirs.

Obligations - work, family, home, school, community - are heavy weights for me to carry, and a burden that few share to help me lift higher. I can lift them, and I do, but what burdens one carries often keep them anchored to what they never wanted. Some I want, some I never realized I wanted, some I just plain never wanted. But how to choose between them? How do birds find their way?

It may be prophetic that these thoughts come to me in fall, a time of migration when I long to migrate myself, in more ways than one.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Too Many Legs to Be a Bird

I haven't been able to get out into the field in weeks - floods, work deadlines, illnesses, family commitments, and other interferences have kept me from birding the way I want to. The last time I did, however, I wasn't able to find the lifer short-eared owls I was hoping for, but I did find a lifer of another kind - with way too many legs.

We stopped at the side of the road on the west side of Utah Lake while I scanned over the shore with my binoculars, and as I turned back toward the front of the truck and told my husband we could continue on, I found him staring at the road ahead and he commented "that's one hell of a spider." I'm not a fan of arachnids, not by any means, but yes, it was one hell of a spider - a western tarantula.

I've never seen one before, and while it may not have feathers, it was certainly fascinating. I've learned that these arachnids are primarily nocturnal, but come out earlier during the late summer and fall as they're seeking mates - this particular specimen was male, and he was wandering about looking for a female's den and hoping she'd invite him in.

Tarantulas won't attack humans, but I certainly wasn't going to get any closer to test that fact. My husband suggested I should have put a nickel down next to the spider so the scale of its size would be more clear... Yeah, that wasn't going to happen. Thank goodness for zoom lenses.

Next time out, whenever that may be, I hope I see more birds. I don't mind the occasional exposure to other unique Utah wildlife, but let's just leave this one in the arid field where he belongs.