Monday, December 29, 2008

Winning for the Birds

Earlier this year, I entered the "Celebrate Urban Birds" contest for creating safe city habitats for backyard birds, and I've recently learned that my scruffy, unsightly brush pile was one of their finalist winners; I've won the "Bird and Butterfly Attractor Station" from the Ion Exchange. When it arrives in the spring, it will include dozens of live plant plugs for me to attract new guests to the yard, as well as a butterfly guide and a feeding station. How amazing! Given that the brush pile is nothing spectacular to behold, I'm quite pleasantly surprised.

The real winners, however, are undoubtedly the birds -- both those who live in the brush pile (even as it is mostly covered with snow at the moment), and those who may soon have brush piles inspired by my winning entry into this contest. Anyone who thinks birds are impressed by carefully manicured gardens and meticulously tended landscaping needs to think again. In fact, the amount of maintenance (lawn care, pruning, chemicals, etc.) to keep such gardens at their finest is often unhealthy for birds, when they'd much prefer a more natural, less fussy setting. If my scrub brush pile inspired even one person in one city somewhere to add a brush pile of their own from miscellaneous branches, prunings, or a discarded Christmas tree, then we've both done the birds a favor.

Does your yard need a brush pile? Learn how to build one!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merriest Wishes

Just a quick Merry Christmas to all the birders in Utah and everywhere. The birds bring us joy all year, and even now their cozy feathers and sweet songs decorate our yards and warm our hearts. Be sure to give something back -- an extra handful of seed, some tasty scraps, fresh warm water -- to celebrate the season with every creature.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Seed Cents

As any birder knows, supporting a ravenous flock of even small birds can be expensive, particularly once they develop gourmet tastes for pricier seeds. Fortunately, I found a fabulous deal recently and was able to store 100 pounds of black oil sunflower seed for just $40; quite the bargain. The key is to look in unexpected places for bargains -- in this case, our local Sears Grand store is closing and everything is heavily discounted, including birdseed and feeders that are part of the garden center.

Other places to find great discounts include:
  • Nurseries
  • Home improvement stores
  • Pet stores
  • Farm stores
  • Garden centers

At this time of year, sales on birdseed, feeders, and other accessories are common because many birders slow down or cease feeding their backyard birds in the winter and stock moves more slowly. Savvy birders can take full advantage to keep their feathered friends fed at a great price!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lighting Up

Despite the birds' initial protests, the outdoor lighting is complete and finally illuminated: nearly 5,000 multi-colored twinkle lights adorn every window, gutter, and eave of the house, along with each tree in the front, and more than two dozen smaller lit trees are placed around borders for the season. While a halogen streetlight in front of the house washes out some of the seasonal glow, our home is a beacon to holiday revelers just as it is a beacon to birds.

And yet, the birds must appreciate the lights as well, because as soon as the project was completed the guest populations in the backyard soared. In the past week, in addition to the regular house sparrow and house finch residents, dark-eyed juncos, American goldfiches, and pine siskins have resumed their regular visits to our tasty feeders, and Spook -- our sharp shinned hawk -- has flown by looking for some tasty feed of his own. A voluable flock of robins also paused for a respite in the yard.

While some days are more barren in the backyard than others, on the days when the feeder is popular it seems as though the small trees and the brush pile are decorated all on their own, with living, breathing ornaments with fluttering feathers and chirping carols. Tis the season.

There are only a few days left before Christmas: what birding gifts are on your wish list? Vote in the December poll!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Snowbird Visit

Yesterday was an eventful day: the weather became decidedly winterish with several inches of snow in just a few hours, and my feeders -- once I cleared the snow and stirred up the seed to be more accessible -- became a popular hangout for house sparrows, house finches, and dark eyed juncos. This is the first time the juncos have visited this season, and I quickly put out a few handfuls of millet (one of their favorites) along the edge of the patio where the snow couldn't reach. Several of them discovered it and enjoyed a less blizzard-y dining experience, while others perched happily on the platform feeder to partake of the black oil sunflower seeds.

Too often, we relish the birds of spring and summer -- when their colors are brightest and their songs most joyful -- without realizing that bird populations are dynamic all year round. We must be ever vigilant to ensure all our backyard visitors can enjoy fresh and delicious seeds, appropriate shelter, clean water, and protection from the elements when necessary, no matter what the weather may be.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

High Flying Hazards

Over the past few days, my husband and I have begun stringing Christmas lights on our house -- this seemingly quaint holiday tradition is actually an enduring test of nerves involving a 28-foot aluminum extension ladder, more than 40 strands of multi-colored twinkle lights, countless binder clips and gutter hooks, frozen fingers, precarious balance, and more than one thought about the effectiveness of renting a cherry picker or scissor lift. This year, however, has brought a new hazard to the holiday season: anxiously agitated house finches and sparrows.

The west side of the house is perhaps the most difficult on which to string lights. The steeply angled roof reaches its utmost highest point there, right above a patch of particularly rocky and uneven ground that is less than forgiving to the intrusions of a fully-extended ladder. Furthermore, that western patch of scrub ground -- just a few feet between the house and the fence, guaranteeing the steepest ladder angle possible -- is also home to the birds' new favorite habitat, the brush pile.

Whether they were curious or furious is unclear, but it is a whole new challenge stringing delicate lights with dozens of small birds insistently flocking around your head, shoulders, and legs as they flit to and from their shelter. They whiz back and forth, chittering in a most uncivilized fashion, berating you for disturbing their very haphazard pile. Where's the holiday spirit, the appreciation, the good will toward man or bird? And I'd even refilled the feeders with tantalizing, rich black oil sunflower seeds.

Those birds have no holiday spirit. Yet most of my holiday list is filled with birding supplies -- feeders, treats, nesting material, and other objects I can't wait to share. Ah, well, at least they're keeping us company. Kind of like the relatives you see every holiday season whom you can't tell whether to hate or love, but you enjoy seeing them anyway. And I suppose that's the real holiday spirit -- tolerance.

Now, if they could only help put up the lights...

My holiday wish list has lots of birding items on it -- does yours? Share in the December poll!

Friday, December 5, 2008

All About Birds

Fabulous news to share today -- I am the new About.com Guide to Birding and Wild Birds. About.com, for those of you unfamiliar with the site, is part of The New York Times Company and is organized as a neighborhood of expert guides who share information, advice, news, events and more about individual topics with more than 35 million visitors per month. On my Birding and Wild Birds site, you will find detailed bird profiles, tips for attracting and feeding birds, equipment recommendations and reviews, birding travel ideas, conservation efforts, and other bird-related information.

It has been wild to get this job -- About.com has a nearly two month training and initial site building process -- but I'm thrilled to be able to share my expertise with a wider audience than just Utah birders. My first love will always be the birds in the backyard, however, and even when my birding takes me beyond the fences, I will always fly home.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Magnificence in Motion

There is nothing more peaceful or graceful than gentle flight, and no bird has this mastered better than the magnificent frigatebird. This beautiful seabird can glide effortlessly on air currents for hours, seemingly without a single flap of its long, tapered wings. I witnessed this throughout my recent traveling, as these birds quickly became familiar sights in the skies each morning. In fact, their flight was the only behavior I was able to witness, as they glide to and fro without cease, unlike other seabird species that frequently dive into the water to feed or find shoreline perches to rest. The magnificent frigatebirds, on the other hand, were content to simply soar.

The female birds have the white breast, while adult males are a rich, deep black. Juvenile birds have a white breast and head. All three have long, slender tails with a strong fork, though many times while flying the tail is held in a point. Each of the birds graced the skies throughout my travels, adding peaceful companionship to a much-needed getaway.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gifts for Birders

This year, my holiday wish list is filled with bird-related items, from new, high-quality tube feeders to a beautiful stained glass with songbirds to a whimsical wild bird crossing sign to specialized field guides. But I've not forgotten the backyard birds as well; quality seed mixes, nesting material, and a new feeder setup are highly desired, though I'm sure at least the house sparrows and house finches would be thrilled with a few more branches to add to their brush pile. I may just be able to find that, particularly as the neighborhood begins discarding cut Christmas trees in a few weeks.

When you are shopping this season, don't forget your backyard guests. Many pet stores and bird supply stores offer seasonal seed bells and wreaths, suet stockings, and other fun and tasty gifts for birds. Add a little extra special seed and kitchen scraps to the feeders, and enjoy the natural decorations of bright plumage and the carols of birdsong all through the season.

What birding items are on your holiday wish list? Vote in the December poll and let everyone know!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bird Rich Baja

For the past week I've been enjoying a relaxing cruise along Baja, and finding birds along the way. Three new species have joined my life list -- the Heermann's gull, the magnificent frigatebird, and the great tailed grackle -- none of which are easily found in Utah. It was a joy to find new birds, even though there were several others I wasn't able to identify to my satisfaction. Even though this wasn't a birding trip, there are always birds to be had. I hope everyone (including the turkeys) had a wonderful Thanksgiving; stay tuned for more updates and a new December poll!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Exploding Trees

While checking the seed in the feeders this afternoon (I'm about to travel for the holiday -- hopefully to see new birds!), I was walking along the side of the garage when our neighbor's apple tree exploded. Or at least, one branch exploded in a noisy burst of leaves and action.

Sharp shinned hawks are small birds of prey, and don't make very big explosions.

Our juvenile hawk was lurking in the tree, waiting for his moment to dine. He was literally on the tail of either a house finch or house sparrow -- at the speeds they were flying it was impossible to tell -- and they veered between the houses, reappearing a second or two later in the opposite direction. Across our yard and just barely above trees across the property line they flew, the smaller bird darting and obviously terrified, but the hawk keeping up with precise determination. He dove, but missed, and the smaller bird flew rapidly away frantically chirping a warning while the hawk caught a small updraft and glided more leisurely in the opposite direction, ostensibly to find his next meal elsewhere.

In these few seconds of wild kingdom action, it was fascinating to observe the hawk's beautiful and acrobatic flight. Though he was unsuccessful in this attempt, his skills are obviously advancing from what they were earlier in the season. Our dear Spook is growing up.

Just one week left to vote in November's poll: How many species are on your life list?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Pruny Project

Even before the last leaves have fallen and despite the warm temperatures of the past few days, it is time to prune back unruly trees so the coming winter's weight of ice and snow does not endanger a roof, street, or pedestrian. Instead of letting the clippings -- some of which were substantial from the quaking aspens in the front yard -- go to waste, I added a lengthy section to my backyard brush pile in the hopes of providing tempting winter shelter to our backyard birds.

Already, the new pile is a success and has been frequented by both house sparrows and house finches. Not too many other species are currently enjoying the backyard buffet as the nights grow longer and chillier, but hopefully this new shelter will entice more visitors to linger. Throughout even the coldest of winter days, the feeders will remain filled and the seed abundant, so I hope the short days will not be long with loneliness.

Don't forget to cast your vote in November's poll: How long is your life list?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

High Speed Birding

Lately, illness and a hectic schedule have kept me from doing too much birding, other than what species can be spotted while whizzing along on the interstate. While it is exciting to see the birds, passing a hawk perched on an electric pole at 70 miles per hour doesn't afford much opportunity for identification. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see such a range of birds of prey staking out sections of the highway -- clearly, carrion and road kill have become a valued and consistent part of their diet. Of course, drivers should always be aware of birds feeding at the roadside and be cautious not to injure any of the scavengers. Life is a highway, and we're all just along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Birding in the Rain

Birding in the rain, I'm birding in the rain... And if you can imagine that sung to a popular, happy rain tune, you'll have an idea of how I felt during yesterday's constant drizzle. But it wasn't the rain that was exciting, it was the close-to-home birding that was a thrill.

Walking through the city arboretum on my way home from working at the library (such is the life of a freelance writer), I noticed a group of American robins flitting from tree to tree, looking much perturbed at the wet weather. One robin, however, appeared none the worse for the sprinkling as it foraged eagerly beneath a pine tree, looking for what I assumed would be worms forced to the surface. But as I got closer -- that tree was near my path across the park -- the bird flew away, and I knew instantly by the rich cinnamon under its wings and the bold white patch on its rump that it was no robin. It was, in fact, a rogue bird I'd spotted several times before, but had never been able to get close enough to in order to properly identify.

It didn't fly far, and naturally I followed, my rainsuit making the loudest scuffing noises I could imagine -- exactly what you don't need when you're approaching a fidgety bird. I followed it from tree to tree to tree, and in that third tree I managed to get close enough to watch its behavior and see, without a doubt, its distinctive markings. The heavy spotting on the back and abdomen, long straight bill, red cheek swipe, double spiked tail, and curved black bib left no doubt -- I've added the Northern Flicker to my life list.

This woodpecker is the only one that regularly feeds on the ground, and it wasn't worms I saw it feasting upon -- it was ants. The northern flicker has an antacid saliva that neutralizes the acidity that is ants' natural protection. I also saw the distinctive undulating flight pattern, and watched the bird use its powerful bill to delicately pry beneath bark for morsels. Such a thrill to be able to identify a bird not only by its appearance, but by its behavior -- both of which left me unconcerned about the rain dripping down the back of my neck after craning for 15 minutes to observe this latest addition to my confirmed life list.

My life list is up to 45 -- how many bird species are on your list? Share your total in the November poll!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tracy Aviary

An important piece of legislation for all Utah birders was passed by a greater than 2-to-1 margin in this week's election: Proposition 1 will provide up to $19 million for the renovation and expansion of Tracy Aviary in Liberty Park, Salt Lake City. The aviary is home to more than 130 species of birds and has a variety of educational programs that stress the importance of bird and wildlife conservation. While I have not yet had the privilege of visiting the aviary, I plan to in the near future and hope to become a regular patron.

Truly, this election was for the birds!

Speaking of voting, don't forget the November poll -- How many bird species are on your life list?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

November Poll - Life Lists

The October poll -- "What type of feeder(s) do you use?" -- has closed, and the results are in. The most popular feeder used by Backyard Birds Utah visitors is a tube feeder (83 percent), followed by a nectar feeder (66 percent). These are not surprising statistics, as tube feeders attract goldfinches and other small songbirds while nectar feeders are used primarily for hummingbirds and occasionally for orioles. All of these bird species are extremely colorful and attractive, making them some of the most coveted backyard visitors.

November's poll is about life lists, as in, how many birds are currently on your list? Not all birders keep a tally of the species they have seen, and it is something I have only recently begun to track myself. While I've seen dozens more than the 44 birds that are currently on my list, I am very meticulous about being positive of my identification before adding another bird to the total. How about you? Start counting, and vote today! For those of you with exceptional lists (or anyone interested in sharing), comments are always welcome!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Crazy Coot

Another bird to add to the life list -- the American coot. This is a dark water bird with a distinctive white bill with a small patch of black near the end. The most unusual characteristic of the bird, however, is its long, lobed toes that are a yellow-green or grayish-yellow color. I've seen these birds along the river for weeks, but wasn't able to get a good enough identification to feel comfortable adding them to my life list until my husband and I enjoyed a walk down near Utah Lake last weekend.

During our walk, we were disappointed in the birds at the lake itself -- they were incredibly shy and paddled quickly away whenever we came near. After walking along the lake shore, however, we went up the Provo River Trail for a piece and spotted more American coots in the river. One turned to face us just at the right moment, and a shaft of autumn sun struck down through the water and I very clearly saw the two long toes on one foot. Voila, a positive identification and another species to easily add to my life list. A bit of patience and keen observation was all that was needed, and perhaps this weekend I'll go be patient along another trail to discover even more birds.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

October Poll Reminder

Just a quick reminder, there are only three days left to vote in the October poll -- What feeder(s) do you use?
  • Hopper: A feeder with a reservoir that feeds into a tray.
  • Platform: Easy tray that can hold all types of seed and scraps.
  • Ground: It can't get easier than tossing seed on the ground, and the California quail love it.
  • Nectar: Liquid feeders for hummingbirds, orioles, and hopeful house finches.
  • Suet: Log, bag, or cage feeders with suet cakes.
  • Tube: Narrow feeder for finches.
  • Dish: Perfect for peanuts - or so my western scrub jays would tell you.

Personally, I use several types of feeders -- the only one I don't use, in fact, is a suet feeder. I did at one time, until the suet went rancid without ever having tempted a single bird. My urban backyard is not the best place for woodpeckers and other suet fans, at least not yet. Perhaps after the trees mature a bit and more birds learn of the buffet I offer, a suet feeder will be more welcome. What feeders do you use? Vote today!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Simple Pleasures

Far too often, in our quest to find more and different species to add to our life lists, we forget the simple pleasures that come with loving birds. Over the weekend my husband and I took a bag of stale bread -- seasoned focaccia and hot dog buns -- to a large park in Salt Lake City to feed to water fowl that reside there. Our diners were Canada geese, mallard ducks, and one eager California gull, all of whom enjoyed the meal. One goose, in particular, fed willingly from my hand while growling at other birds in an attempt to keep the morsels for himself. Fortunately, there was plenty to share with all.

Many of us got into birding for different reasons, but they all come back to simply enjoying birds. Whether we crave the personal interaction with familiar birds, enjoy the majestic beauty of a falcon's flight, or admire the beauty of a rainbow of songbirds, birding brings us all pleasure. We would do well to remember that the next time the feeders are empty, the bird bath needs cleaning, or there's an unwelcome stain on our windshield. After all, they're still our friends. Let's enjoy their simple company as much as they enjoy the simple care a bag of bread can bring.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Frozen

There can be no clearer indication of the change of seasons than when, in the early morning hours that have previously been filled with avian activity, your backyard is met with silence and the chill of a frozen birdbath. Several days this week froze the pedestal birdbath, though the ground bath remains fluid despite its shallower basin, all due to the unique properties of thermal conduction of the air versus the ground.

There are heated birdbaths available, either fully heated models or heater attachments for standard baths, and I will be investing in one shortly. That will give birds easy access to fluid water throughout the season, and hopefully will keep tempting them to return to the backyard even when the weather is dismal. Thus far the brush pile seems to be a preferred shelter, situated as it is in a quiet, hidden corner sheltered by the house and fence from fiercer winds. There will always be food available, and if water can be added to the menu even during the coldest of days, perhaps the backyard birding this winter will be just as intriguing as it is during the warmest of weather.

Only a few days left to vote in the October poll - What feeder(s) do you use?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Size is Relative

Having been awed by the golden eagle last weekend, I was amused to see the sharp-shinned hawk near the backyard again this week. Just a few weeks ago, the sharp shinned hawk was an awesome, inspiring visitor who amazed by his sheer size, keen eye, and regal bearing. Upon spotting him struggling with some turbulent air I had to smile -- he looks so small now.

I was so startled by this observation that I was compelled to check my field guides for measurements, and what I found was astonishing. I've been fortunate enough to quite literally see the two ends of the size spectrum for birds of prey. With a seven foot wingspan, the golden eagle is one of the largest birds of prey in North America (only California condors and bald eagles can be larger), while the less than two foot wingspan of the sharp shinned hawk is the smallest of the accipiter family.

Both birds, however, share the confidence of being fit, agile predators who dominate their territories. While the smaller hawk is more likely to practice stealth to approach his next meal and the eagle more calmly surveys all in his path with bold assurance, both are stunning examples of magnificent birds that I feel fortunate to observe.

Don't forget to vote in the October poll: What feeder(s) do you use?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Life List - 43

What a weekend for birding this has been; I've added three new species to my life list. First, I took the time while grocery shopping to observe a flock of gulls in the parking lot, and while they were arguing over the scraps of some abandoned fast food, I noted their gray-blue legs, mottled necks, small patch of lower bill color, and wing spotting. Those details were enough to identify them as California Gulls in their winter plumage.

Today, as my husband and I took a leisurely walk along the Provo River, digital camera in hand, I was privileged to spot two additional species to add to my list. The first is the Steller's Jay, the western equivalent to the Blue Jay (which I am very familiar with, having spent my childhood being harassed by their calls just outside my bedroom window too early on weekend and summer mornings). The Steller's jay has a tall head crest, but where the blue jay has white markings, the Steller's jay has black ones. The bird is darker overall, though just as querulous as other jays, including the western scrub jays that are frequent backyard visitors. As I live in a relatively urban area, western scrub jays are much more apt to visit, while Steller's jays are more likely to remain in the mountains and canyons further from human interaction. Nonetheless, it was a treat to see them flitting among the pine trees, breaking nuts free and cracking them to eat. Unfortunately, because of the dense foliage and their hyperactive behavior, I was unable to capture a better photograph, but they are so distinctive that even a poor photo is easily identifiable.

The real treat, however, was the next new bird -- a Golden Eagle. This is one of the largest birds of prey in North America, and the solitary bird is a magnificent hunter. Readily identifiable by his huge size (roughly 30 inches tall with an 80 inch wingspan), his rich brown plumage, powerfully hooked bill and talons, and golden-tinted head and neck coloration, he is a regal and beautiful sight. We observed him for several minutes, first perched on a utility post where he was watching the river carefully, then later after he flew downstream, we were able to get even closer as he perched on a dead tree. Clearly at the top of the food chain, he was unconcerned with several people along the trail who crept closer to see him better, and he calmly continued watching the river for his next meal. He waited, occasionally itched, and once in awhile graced us with a condescending glare. We, of course, were thrilled.

It is amazingly rewarding to see such rich, varied avian life so close to home. While the golden eagle will not become a backyard visitor, that he is nearby illustrates the wonderful birding climate I live in. Any birder can easily discover the wider variety of birds beyond their backyard if they only take the time occasionally to enjoy a lovely walk in an unsullied area, keeping their eyes to the sky for new birds to see.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Return of the Jays

After last weekend's abruptly heavy snow, I was dismayed to learn that the western scrub jays that provide so much backyard entertainment had vanished. Their dish of peanuts was buried beneath a mound of white on the patio table, but even after the snow melted, they failed to return. I dug out the dish as soon as it was partly visible, and once the table had dried I spread out the soggy nuts so they would be visible as well as be able to dry themselves.

Still, there were no visitors for days. Until this afternoon, that is, when once again I heard argumentative screeches and calls from the backyard. The jays have returned, with a vengeance.

Quickly I added another handful of nuts to the dish, and waited for the first brave bird. I was not to wait long, and at least two jays participated in quickly emptying the dish. As I returned with the camera to snap a few pictures, one of them was boldly caching a nut in the grass just a few feet away, and his next morsel went into the flowerbed mulch. Before the snow we had at least five jays vigorously arguing over the nuts I put out each morning, and not all of them seem to have braved the cooler temperatures to visit the feeder. Still, I'm pleased to have them back and as long as they continue to perch on the rain gutter above the door where I refill the feeder, I'll happily add more peanuts to the dish.

These jays feed from a dish. What feeders do you use? Share your choices in the October poll!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A List for Life

Many birders keep life lists of all the species they've positively identified, and this is one area where I have been seriously remiss. While I've enjoyed observing birds for more than 25 years, it is only recently that I've become meticulous about ensuring that my identification is correct, and only those birds that I am 100 percent certain about now appear on my life list. Currently, my list stands at a paltry 40 species, but there are dozens more I'm fairly certain about but just can't quite guarantee accuracy.

When I seek to identify a bird, I use a minimum of two field guides and one website to check my observations on appearance, markings, behavior, habitat, size, and more, including a cross comparison with similar species. If a species has distinctive markings, I must have included those in my observations for a positive identification as well, which isn't always easy with birds I haven't seen in years. If even one of my sources disagrees or sheds serious doubt on my identification, I don't feel that I can include the species as a permanent member on my life list. While this may seem overly detailed, it is important to remember that there are approximately 10,000 species of birds in the world, and just a few incorrect assumptions can vastly inflate one's life list. This can have a devastating impact on bird watch projects, such as the annual Backyard Bird Count and Project FeederWatch.

It can be thrilling to add new species to my list, and for the time being I occasionally have the opportunity to make armchair additions as I browse through my field guides and verify identifications of birds I've seen in the past. Even as the temperatures continue to drop, however, I'm eagerly awaiting the opportunity to travel as well as the arrival of spring so my life list can grow and prosper just as the birds I hope to see in the backyard.

Have you voted in the October poll? Tell us about the types of feeders you use!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Winter Weather, for a Moment

True to the forecast, winter arrived with a vengeance on Saturday night. From sleety rain to firm crystals and eventually to large, fluffy flakes, the snow fell for hours, leaving an accumulation that coated the hopper feeder, filled both the hanging and freestanding platforms, and froze in the bird bath. That didn't, however, stop the eager house finches and house sparrows from enjoying a meal, but it did change their attitude toward the seeds available. Perhaps sensing that natural seed sources might be harder to come by or just grateful for a food source they didn't have to scrounge, the birds were much more aggressive at the feeder and were apt to chase away others whom they felt might be impinging on their dining experience. While they're still very social birds, they are certainly more territorial about the feeder they feel is theirs (and rightly so, as they're welcome to it).

The finches and sparrows aren't the only birds that have been more aggressive lately, however. The western scrub jays have been particularly vehement about caching their peanuts and not sharing with others. They have violently defended the small dish where I place the peanuts, even to the point of snapping at intruders and flying after them to see them out of the vicinity. Undoubtedly these birds are siblings or at least familiar with one another, but as the weather cools their self-preservation instincts come to the fore.

It is fascinating to see how the birds react to the turning weather, both for gradual changes (less light each day and gradually lower temperatures) as well as abrupt shifts. They have definitely been eating more than they were a week or two ago, and several of the finches and sparrows have put on enough weight to draw amazed stares from this birder -- the term "butterball" comes to mind. But whether they're rifling through the seed to find their favorite tidbits, perching on a frozen bird bath as they munch, or peering through the patio doors in hopes of more seed, they're welcome and I will oblige.

Be sure to vote in the October poll and share the types of feeders you use!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Birds and Bees

Have you voted yet? October's poll (at right) is about the types of feeders you use. Vote today!

The hummingbird feeder finally came down last night; for the past few days it has been frequently only by an increasing number of bees, rather than the summertime buzz of black chinned, broad tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. Bees' eagerness to mill around the nectar ports indicates that not only are there no hummingbirds to defend their food source, but there also are no flowers blooming any longer to provide sustenance to the bees. If there are no flowers for the bees, there will be none for hummingbirds.

When taking down a hummingbird feeder, it is necessary to clean it thoroughly (a bottle brush is very effective), including not only the reservoir but by using a small brush to clean any accumulation from the feeding ports. The feeder should be left to dry thoroughly so it does not gather mold or mildew during the winter months, and it should be stored in a safe place where it will not be stressed, cracked, or otherwise damaged.

Never fear, hummingbird lovers, in just a few months the spring flowers will be blooming again and it will be time to refill the nectar more and more frequently as migration and summer breeding begins. Knowing that, then, can take the sting out of winter's lack of hummingbird visitors.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Head Games

Remember to vote in the October poll: What types of feeders do you use?

While it is never nice for a bird to collide with a window, it is good when birders can help them recover from the impact and fly on their way again. One evening a few days ago, a male house finch collided with our patio doors (the window clings have helped, and we're going to put them up with less distance between them to be more effective), stunning himself badly. He fell to the patio chair, where he clung to the netting and hung there, dazed.

To ensure he was all right, we went around the chair to see if he reacted to our presence, but he didn't at first. Wearing gloves -- always a wise precaution with wild birds, particularly those who may be injured -- we plucked him off the chair out of fear that his talons may have become entangled. I held him for several minutes, gently and quietly, just keeping him safe from falling or flying again into the glass doors. Gradually he became more aware of his surroundings, hopping a bit on my arm and eventually fluttering down to the concrete, where he was much more wary of our presence. After a few more minutes, off he flew.

What a privilege to help a sweet bird at such close range, to interact with him in this way. Window collisions are a fact of birding, but they don't always have to be tragic. If a bird is dazed after a collision...
  1. Do not startle the bird or otherwise excite it; if they are aware enough to flee from your attentions, they should be fine.
  2. Keep them still and quiet, ideally in a loosely closed paper bag or cardboard box where they can recover. Don't forget air holes!
  3. Check on them after 10 to 15 minutes and release them if they are alert and active. If they are not, keep them still for another 10 minutes.
  4. Do not offer them feed or water; stillness and quiet is the best remedy.

These gentle ministrations won't always be effective and there will be times where dazed birds are injured more gravely than we realize. Nonetheless, not all collisions have to end poorly, and the opportunity to share a moment with our feathered friends should never be taken for granted.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Chill in the Air

The season is rapidly changing: nights are growing more cold than cool, the rainbow of autumnal colors is giving way to dingier browns and bare branches, and many species of birds are migrating and disappearing from the backyards where they have been honored guests all summer. For birders, this does not mean the end of backyard birdwatching, however.

Transitional regions have the delight this time of year of being visited by many migratory birds as they pass from summer homes to winter getaways, flitting briefly to bring life to autumn feeders. In all areas, many adult birds have shed their worn summer feathers and now sport fresh, brilliant colors and crisp feather patterns. Fledglings and juvenile birds are growing more confident about their abilities and appear more frequently, while some species, particularly jays, are vigorously caching food against the coming cold.

It is because that cold is coming, however, that birders must change their habits just as their avian guests change theirs. Now is the time to do several things to ensure happy, healthy birdfeeding throughout the winter months.
  1. Clean all feeders thoroughly so they do not have the dust and debris from the summer clogging feeding ports or seed flow.
  2. Put away feeders that will not be used during the winter months; nectar feeders, for instance, or duplicate feeders that are not needed for smaller bird populations.
  3. Stock up on seed while suppliers have fall clearance sales; many general retailers will only carry a limited variety and supply during winter months.
  4. Clean underneath feeders thoroughly and discard seed shells, decaying mulch, and other debris.
  5. Clean birdbaths thoroughly and change to winter, heated models if necessary.
  6. Move feeders and baths closer to sheltered areas gradually, allowing for easy refilling and care in harsh weather.

The further north your backyard, the earlier you will need to take these steps to prepare for a winter of backyard birding. Here in Utah, the first substantial snowfall is predicted for the mountains this weekend, and it is only a matter of time before my backyard is again covered in white. With a bit of preparation, however, it will also be covered with winter visitors all the same.

Don't forget to vote in the October poll, a new monthly feature of Backyard Birds Utah!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Failing Vision

It is difficult for any birder to watch their feathered friends have difficulty and know there is nothing they can do to assist. As I discussed earlier, I've noted a harsh case of avian conjunctivitis with a female house finch, and another bird appears to be infected with the disease. In fact, the swelling around the eye is so pronounced it can be seen from a formidable distance, and this bird -- also a female house finch -- is unbalanced when hopping, landing, or perching. The other birds are aware of her condition and chase her away from the feeders. This may seem cruel, but in the end it is a defensive mechanism that can help inhibit the spread of the disease.

It is heartbreaking for birders to observe these less than ideal conditions, but it is just as crucial to remember that it is part of the cycle of the lives of all creatures. Just as humans ail, so do birds. By providing food, shelter, and water, we can help birds protect themselves and live long, healthy lives. Not all of the birds will be able to, but we can't let that dissuade us from enjoying a hobby that enriches both our lives and the lives of the birds who share it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Urban Birds Contest

Many people mistakenly believe that to properly feed backyard birds, you must have a sizeable plot of land, extensive foliage, and a rural area suitable for many species, but nothing could be further from the truth. As my own landscaping endeavors demonstrate, if your backyard habitat features elements the birds need -- food, shelter, and water -- they will be happy to visit.

For example: while waiting for our planted seedlings to grow and provide adequate shelter, we have constructed an unobtrusive brush pile in an unseen corner beside our house that has become a favored hiding space for many small sparrows and finches. It may not look like much and the weeds have certainly flourished, but many times each day I see skittish flocks take wing directly to its ragged shelter. This is just one type of small and easy alteration anyone can make to help birds feel safe, secure, and welcome in the backyard.

If you have a favorite small green space for your urban backyard birds, share that idea with the Little Green Places contest sponsored by Celebrate Urban Birds. There are quite a few prizes available, and each entry offers a glimpse of different strategies that can be used to attract and shelter backyard birds, no matter where you live or what natural backyard features you may have. The contest runs through October 31, but the stories and ideas share can benefit backyard birds for many years.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fall Flee

Just as the hummingbirds are beginning their long migrations, so too are other bird species vanishing from backyard feeders, but not all for the same reasons. During the fall, seed heads, fruits, and other food sources ripen, offering greater natural abundance in addition to the helping hands of humans. Because of this, it may seem that birds are less plentiful, but the truth is that they are exploring more culinary options than just mixed seeds and other treats offered at feeders. While some do take to the skies and won't return for months, others are merely expanding their epicurian tastes.

It is crucial that backyard birders do not abandon their feeding efforts at this juncture. Many of the birds who are still visiting feeders are storing seed -- either in caches or through layers of body fat -- for the coming cold, and others are eager to get quick energy sources as they pass through on their way to warmer winter homes. In preparation for winter, it is suitable for birders to slowly reduce the supplies of seed they offer as feeders are not emptied as quickly, but maintaining a good supply will give birds a reference and the knowledge that they can rely on these resources. If they know that, they will be welcome friends when winter's need strikes.

My own feeders are less frequented of late, though the lesser goldfinches, house finches, sparrows, and Eurasian collared doves are still steady guests, though perhaps in lesser numbers than weeks past. For however long they remain -- and I know a good few of them will not leave -- they will be welcome, as will be any friends who might be passing through our skies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fading Hum

Summer is quickly fading, as are the visits from the hummingbirds. Many hummingbirds migrate vast distances seasonally, and it appears they have moved on from their summer nesting grounds in Utah, or at least from this backyard. The nectar feeder has hung alone for more than a week without any discernible visits, and in just a few more days it will be time to take it down, clean it, and store it for winter.

Many hummingbird species are migratory through Utah, often more heavily so in the late summer than in the spring since they generally head north along the coast and then return south along the mountain ranges. This year we had a great number of hummingbirds, though fewer of the territorial roufous hummingbirds than last year. Particularly through the month of August they were feeding frequently, perhaps steeling themselves against their long flight to come.

The feeder will remain out for a few more days, perhaps until the end of the month, in case a late straggler is in need of a drink. Then away until the first sign of spring, when it will return to its hook from the rear gutter, ready to welcome the first humming arrivals. May their journeys be swift and safe, in all seasons.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dinner Visit

What a difference being in the right position with different camera settings can make. Our juvenile sharp shinned hawk has returned -- frequently -- for dinner visits, though with poor success from our menu of finches and sparrows. There is a tree just over our property line that he tends to perch in, moving to the same spot on the fence occasionally for a better view. Still, the smaller birds can spot his immature, unrefined approach from enough of a distance to seek shelter quickly, and he's left without a bite.

Twice today he's visited, ironically once at lunch and once at dinner, neither time to any avail. With a clearer picture, however, there is no doubt remaining that he is a sharp shinned hawk. The pale stripe over his eye is clearly visible, a trait that is lacking in both adult species as well as juvenile cooper's hawks. The thinness of his legs is also startlingly apparent. Whereas some birdwatchers would find his appearance unwelcome and unattractive, I find him noble and graceful. It's a delightful treat to have him so near, though I will refrain from putting meat in the feeders; the buffet I set for the smaller birds is undoubtedly enough to supply food for all visitors, even if not in the way intended.

If you have trouble identifying your own hawks between these two species, I highly recommend the accipiter identification table and other resources from Project Feederwatch. Happy hawking!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Aw, Nuts

Proof positive that western scrub jays are persistent birds: all summer, one particular jay has tried -- and been frustrated at his failure -- to cache a peanut in a small tree in the backyard. Frequently he'd try to position a nut correctly, only to watch it fall to the grass below, at which time he'd glare at it for a moment before retrieving it to hide in an easier location.

This week, however, his persistence paid off and for a few hours, one small nut was firmly wedged among the narrow branches and fluttering leaves. It took several minutes of hopping about the top of the tree and pounding on the nut to keep it steady, but he accomplished the feat. It is not his fault, certainly, that the first windstorm of autumn relocated the nut later that evening.

Watching the jays cache their nuts is fascinating. They will meticulously hide the nut among grasses, mulch, weeds, or other debris, even to the point of picking up stray pieces of grass or bark to cover it. They manage to hide them so effectively that even if I approach the area moments later, it can be difficult if not impossible to find the nut. Other jays, however, are more skilled at finding the nuts, and often I've watched one follow a sibling moments later to unearth what the first has just cached, usually amid much squawking and arguing.

At this point, there must be hundreds of peanuts hidden around the neighborhood lawns, flowerbeds, and indeed, even trees. Having watched these antics, we all know who to blame -- after all, I keep putting peanuts out each morning.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Sight for Sore Eyes

It is easy for backyard birders to believe that their flighty populations of eagerly eating guests are happy, healthy, and content, but unfortunately that is not always the case. With some birds, such as Fluffy, illness is apparent through listless, uncharacteristic behavior, while others may visually appear different yet act in no way apart from their peers. That is the case with another distinctive guest at my feeders, Cyclops.

That may seem a cruel name for a bird, but this female house finch suffers from Mycoplasma gallisepticum, better known as house finch eye disease or avian conjunctivitis. First reported in eastern house finch populations in 1994, the disease has spread to western populations and is highly contagious. Symptoms include:
  • Swollen or crusty eyes, possibly swollen shut
  • Excessive wiping of eyes (not beak) on branches
  • Respiratory distress, including coughs or sneezes
  • Disoriented behavior from lack of sight

As the birds grow ill, they have difficulty feeding and are more likely to become scruffy and scraggly, and will often fall prey to predators because they cannot see well enough to seek shelter when necessary to hide. They may seem more approachable at feeders, if only because they do not feel well enough to flee or cannot see well enough to recognize dangers.

Cyclops does not appear to suffer the more pronounced ill effects of this disease; she eats heartily and is as alert and active as her cohorts. While she does feed more frequently alone or away from other birds in the flock, she has no trouble fleeing from any sign of danger. The disease flares and recedes at times, as the swelling may become more or less pronounced. As yet I have not noted any other house finches affected, but the disease is highly contagious. To some birders, this may be a warning sign of failing house finch populations, but the proclivity of the birds precludes that and there is no need to fear that the population numbers will be drastically affected. There are precautions to take in one's backyard, however, including:

  • Regularly clean and disinfect all feeders -- inside and out -- to inhibit the spread of the disease. Tube feeders are especially apt to harbor bacteria because of the limited perching space. If infected birds are observed, clean feeders with a bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water.
  • Clean beneath feeders frequently to remove infected seeds or droppings.
  • Remove any dead birds quickly, but do not bury them or dispose of bodies in areas where other birds may come into contact with the remains.
  • Space feeders widely to discourage crowding that could promote the spread of the disease.

I am following my own advice to protect my flock of house finches, I encourage all backyard birders to do the same to keep their own flocks healthy. For more information including additional pictures of infected birds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hawk Revealed

Thanks to generous assistance both from CapeCodAlan and now Bill Fenimore, a well-respected Utah birder and owner of the Wild Bird store in Layton, my accipiter visitor has been throughly identified as a sharp shinned hawk. Some tidbits about this graceful bird of prey:
  • They feed by catching other birds on the wing.
  • They have quite thin legs, sometimes described as "pencil thin."
  • While they do migrate in other states, they are year-round residents in Utah.
  • They are the smallest of the accipiter family.
  • Their rounded wings and long tail make them extremely agile.

I hope to see him again soon, now that I know well what details to check, and with camera in hand to capture his poise and beauty. He's a rare treat, all the better for familiarity.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who's the Hawk?

I have recently been paid a pair of puzzling visits by an as-yet-unknown hawk. He looks like he could be either a sharp shinned or a Cooper's hawk, but the two are so similar that identification is gravely challenging (see this lovely comparison by Project Feederwatch). At first glance he bears characteristics similar to both hawks, and it's maddening trying to ascertain which he really is. The only positive characteristic I can note is age; he has lighter colored, nearly yellow eyes, which according to CapeCodAlan of ebirdseed.com, indicates the bird is a juvenile.

His behavior also indicates inexperience. Twice in the past two weeks he has arrived with great fanfare at our backyard feeders, but neither time has he been successful in securing a meal. The first time he landed near the hopper feeder and waited there for a minute or two, stretching his wings and looking about as if wondering where the buffet had disappeared to. The second time, just this past weekend, I went to our patio doors to look out at the yard and he was perched on the platform feeder we keep just a few inches from the house. He stayed there for a period, eyeing me with caution but not concern.

Unfortunately, I have no superb pictures by which to determine a clear identification. I am wondering if indeed this is the same bird -- I believe so, but the first to visit may have been larger. CapeCodAlan believes he may be a sharp shinned hawk, and any fellow birders who have leads as to his identity are welcome to chime in; I'd love to know for certain who is preying in the backyard.

Which brings up the question of welcome. To some backyard birders, these birds of prey are most unwelcome -- our neighbors would prefer to chase him away when he frightens the smaller species. To me, however, it is a rare treat and privilege to have this unusual visitor grace my yard. And if, in doing so, smaller birds fall victim to his dives, then that too is a type of backyard birdfeeding. Perhaps not what I'd intended when refilling the seed feeders, but it is all part of the migration of life I'm happy to be a part of.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Jammin' About Jays

One of my very favorite bird species is also a very colorful backyard visitor: western scrub jays. Not only is their bright blue plumage with gray markings a vibrant addition to the backyard rainbow, but their stubborn and insistent personalities add colorful comedy to the regular interactions of all the species who regularly dine at my feeders.

Take this year's scrub jay family, for example. One has a rather noticeable white spot on its crown and is absolutely bold, not minding to come within inches of me as he seeks a favorite treat. Another, with a beak rather thicker than his cohorts, has a raucous call several decibels above what you'd normally hear in the backyard. Another has scruffier plumage and tends to be more reticent about approaching a feeder, particularly when a sibling is present. Each of these birds interacts in a characteristic way, often chasing one another or slyly secreting their cache in one spot while a sibling cleverly pilfers another cache recently stowed.

And their preferred foods? Peanuts, of course. Whole, in the shell nuts never last long in the small terra cotta dish I've dedicated as a peanut feeder. I buy a new bag of nuts (mine are roasted and salted as being the least expensive and most readily available, and they certainly don't mind) nearly every week, but if they aren't out on the table in the early morning or late afternoon I will certainly hear about it with screeches and angry calls. They're also apt to call if there aren't enough peanuts in the dish, though when a half dozen or more jays are scrambling to claim their share of the bounty, even a large handful doesn't last long. If the peanuts are not forthcoming, seeds from the platform feeder will do, but I've learned just how favored peanuts truly are -- once, seeing a scrub jay scrabbling around in the feeder to load up on seeds, I hurried to put out a handful of peanuts. He was grateful, and indeed he flew right over to the patio table to choose a choice nut. Before selecting a nut, however, he bent over and spit out all the seeds he'd just taken from the feeder, squawked at me (a reprimand for not having peanuts available in the first place?), and flew off with a nut. I guess jays don't have the best table manners.

One cannot doubt their intelligence, however. The jays that frequent my backyard have learned to recognize me and they're also familiar with the peanut replenishment schedule. If I'm out on the patio - usually typing away - and there are not peanuts to be had, one will land on the gutter and softly "murp" at me to remind me that they're not the most patient of birds. I, of course, oblige, proving that I'm perfectly trained and a capable protector of peanuts for a flock of hungry jays.
I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Sunny September

Temperatures are falling and gardens are ripening, including a bird garden patch in the backyard. That birds love sunflower seed is no surprise, but while they may enjoy dry seed offered in a feeder, they're positively ecstatic over fresh seeds ripening on the plants. In the spring, I initially planted thirteen sunflower seeds -- simply picked from a random bag of birdseed -- and with regular waterings, eleven of them sprouted and grew into generous plants with multiple seeding flower heads. In addition to the seeds I planted, two more plants grew at the side of the driveway where random seeds blew during summer storms.

The largest heads measures more than twelve inches in diameter and have hundreds of seeds for the birds to enjoy. Because of their weight, the largest heads bow and become virtually unreachable, even for the most agile birds. To offer them as special treats, every few days I clip off the flowers and set them on the concrete wall so the birds can easily access them. It certainly doesn't take long for them to discover the heads and strip them as clean as the feeders. House finches, sparrows, and scrub jays have all partaken from the garden, and the smaller birds are particularly adept at finding seeds. In preparation for next spring, I have already chosen the plumpest seeds from one of the largest heads and have stored them in a glass jar in a dry, dark area to keep them safe for future planting.

Growing these sunflowers has an additional benefit for the birds. The plants grow quickly and with enough strength for the birds to land upon them, providing summer cover and shelter among a rich feed source. This is why I've not trimmed the plants and won't until all the seed heads have been removed. For as long as possible, I want the birds to be able to enjoy this autumn bounty of delicious seeds, and they're certainly doing their best to ravish the feast. This is a simple project anyone can do at the side of a flowerbed, in a garden, or even in a planter, and its rewards are generous. The birds can enjoy the bounty, and the birdwatchers enjoy not only beautiful flowers and the company of birds, but also a selection of fresh, free seed to nourish their flocks. The sun may be setting on summer, but it's just rising on the harvest for backyard birders.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Farewell Fluffy

Another tragedy, a very personal one, has struck the backyard, though ironically it is completely unrelated to the window collisions of the past. This summer, we have come to know a particular house finch whom we named Fluffy because of his preference to fluff his feathers at all times. Always smaller than his peers, Fluffy constantly sought the shade and seemed more suseptible to heat and distress than other birds. He would not flit away, and in fact would often sit drowsy and content near the feeders and birdbath. On several occassions, my husband was even able to fill the birdbath while Fluffy sat quietly in the shower, enjoying the wet.

This afternoon, after speaking to Fluffy and gently touching his feathers - which he permitted in his quiet way - I was forced to say goodbye to him. He'd flown up to the roof and nestled beneath the eaves of a window, again in the shade, but several minutes later he fell from the roof onto the patio. I was with him as he died, and we've taken care that no predators will benefit from his passing.

It is unfortunate that the birds we can most easily identify as individuals are also those who have the least likely odds of survival. Their charming characteristics often come from bizarre behavior, unnatural colorations, or other genetic aberrations that ultimately make them more vulnerable to predation and natural selection - Fluffy undoubtedly had such disorders that made him less able to adapt and react to his surroundings. For a few weeks, however, they bring joy and wonder to our backyards as we grow to know their personalities and observe their behavior, and it is with fondness tinged with inevitable sadness that we remember them. Farewell, Fluffy.

Clinging to Safety

As more and more birds frequent my feeders, the hazards of window collisions with our glass patio doors grow more insidious. To deter such tragic accidents, over the weekend I installed Whispering Pines window clings to the interior surface of the doors. Birds have a wider visual spectrum than humans, and the white clings will appear to them as white materials would to humans under black light -- the bright, glowing white is an unmistakable symbol that this surface is not passable. I chose the leaves pattern so it blends in well with my home and sense of aesthetics, though there are several bird patterns available as well. They are quick and easy to install, and I have already seen two birds -- a broad tailed hummingbird and a house finch -- flying toward the window yet veer away as they noticed the clings. Should this simple addition to my backyard bird habitat prevent even a single bird's demise, it is an investment well worthwhile.

There are, of course, other options to deter birds from hitting windows and glass doors, and I use several. The patio furniture is placed in front of one of the doors to minimize airspace where birds could gain enough momentum to cause themselves injury; any barriers like this can be helpful. Feeder placement is also crucial: a feeder or birdbath should ideally be placed no more than three feet from a window or glass door, or if it is further in the yard, it should be at least twelve feet away (further is better). The former placement restricts how much speed birds can gain before they would accidentally hit a window, and the latter placement gives them enough room to manuever and avoid obstacles once they are in flight.

I highly encourage all backyard birders to invest in some method of control to reduce window collisions and needless bird injuries; these simple adaptations can help save the lives of our avian friends.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Diversity of Guests

Two new visitors have made fleeting appearances at the hopper feeder's catch platform in the past few days. The first, several days ago, was a vibrant black headed grosbeak, easily identifiable by his distinctive orange hue, bold white markings, and characteristically scruffy appearance. While he did not linger, I was also able to distinguish his unusual bill shape and his fondness for cracking seeds with it. I am particularly thrilled at his visit because I'd hoped to attract an orange bird this summer, for no real reason other than they seem more vibrant yet less common at many backyard feeders in this area. Certainly the house finches with their orange color variants are a pleasant addition to my avian rainbow, but the black headed grosbeak is a truly orange species.

The second new visitor was even more fleeting, but for a few moments as I sat working at our patio table, I heard a hauntingly familiar stacatto call and moments later a black capped chickadee flitted to the feeder and snuck a few bites before flittering away. I haven't heard that call in years, for while these small yet hyper birds were common in the north woods where I frequently spend childhood summers, they are absent from the southeast where I lived for several years. I have seen them on some walks here in Utah, and I'm thrilled to have one as a guest at my backyard feeder, however brief the visit.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Migrations and Mutations

As most birds eventually migrate, so too have I for the past two months. While I returned to an earlier nesting ground of my own, I was able to observe many different species with vastly different behavioral patterns than those that flit through my backyard from time to time.

I saw a rare treat, an albino sparrow with creamy yellow coloring. Another sparrow conspicuously lacked a tail but had no trouble surviving on the richly abundant food sources available -- though I doubt they were the same nutritious fare that their wilder cousins would dine upon. I saw different species of birds take advantage of fountains, waterfalls, and lagoons to keep cool in the relentless summer heat. During nesting periods, birds of all species fiercely defended the territory they had deemed their own, regardless of the constant intrusions (and woe upon us whose necessary attire was mistaken for aggression). Fearless enthusiasm was rampant both among the birds and the humans who unwittingly increased their food supply through casual discards of fries, breads, and crackers.

Naturally, these birds and their antics are not part of my typical backyard observations, though I have enjoyed comparing the differences between the more aggressive, decadently fed birds in a less wild atmosphere and the equally entertaining birds that thrive in my growing sanctuary. While they are different species separated by hundreds of miles, the joy and determination they all find in life is identical. At times we all need a migration out of the ordinary to appreciate that.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Feral Foreigners

Birds are incredibly adaptable species, a fact I witnessed firsthand during a recent visit to San Francisco. Not only is the city alive and vibrant with its human residents, but it is also home to an astonishing colony of feral parrots, the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

The first night of our visit, my husband and I were walking through the bold skyscrapers of the financial district, heading toward the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. As we approached a small park near the waterfront, we were assaulted with a wild screeching, a cacophany of sound that clearly wasn't human. Nor was it originating from the pigeons and mallard ducks calmly browsing along the manicured lawn. Intrigued, we crossed into the park and were startled to see what appeared to be a mass of angry leaves, so perfectly did the birds blend into their surroundings. As we observed them, we discovered a tremendous flock of parrots with brilliant green plumage, bright red caps, and creamy yellow bills.

Our visit was cut short; after a quick photograph or two, it was clear that these parrots were exceedingly territorial and did not appreciate guests in what I would later discover was their roosting ground. Further research revealed that these were cherry-headed conures and a variety of interbred parrot species initially native to Ecuador and Peru. The birds had been imported in large numbers as exotic pets, but their loud, raucous voices and impatient mannerisms make poor companions and many birds were released by frustrated owners. Over the years (importing these tropical birds is now heavily restricted), the released birds gathered and flocked near Telegraph Hill, a region of the city rich in lush foliage and abundant food sources. The flock has grown and interbred, and today they are firmly established as somewhat unique residents of the city.

While they are a marvel to watch and hear for residents and visitors of San Francisco, this is also a clear lesson on the dangers of choosing birds as pets without fully understanding their habitat and behavioral needs. It is wonderful to feed the birds, but interfering with their natural lives should never be condoned.

For more information on the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, I highly recommend the book and film of the same name, as well as information posted by the book's author, Mark Bittner.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Motion Blur

In a brief burst of hovering, at least two hummingbirds have returned to our backyard. The nectar feeder has been out for a short period of time and it is not frequently visited by a somewhat anonymous friend who is both camera shy and frustratingly devoid of identifying features. While I have been able to snap his picture with a wingstroke of luck, one distant shot only shows his baleful glare amid of a fluff of gossamer white and green feathers, and the other, while a delightful close up, is on such a cloudy day that no light source is available to give me better odds of learning his true identity. My best guess is that he may be a Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird in North America and not unknown in this region, but he may also be a fledgling of several hummingbird varieties, and thus the indentification difficulties.

He is a bizarre puff of feathers, however. Last summer, the hummingbirds who regularly visited sipped well at the feeder but rarely stayed on the property beyond using it as a fruit-flavored bar. This new friend is hesitated at the feeder but will perch in the nearby tree for long periods while he scopes out the vicinity. Should he spot anyone other than a fellow avian nearby, he is gone in a burst of wingbeats.

Being nestled between mountain ranges, Utah does not get as many hummingbirds in spring and early summer as will visit in later summer and fall. This is because many of the migratory paths of these tiny birds take them north along the Pacific Coast, while their autumnal routes are more inland and hence through Utah. By August, I should see a great number of hummingbirds in clearly identifiable plumage visiting the yard.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bread and Quackers

I know an anomaly in my Confirmed Backyard Species list is the Mallard Duck; though a common bird, they're not typically found in urban backyards. Our neighbors, however, have a stunning pond complete with a rock waterfall, koi, and aquatic plants, and just a few blocks away is a reservoir canal that drains from the mountains. These water sources successfully attract ducks, and now they've ventured into our backyard as well.

We actually first had the hen visit last year, when she was raising ducklings in an abandoned yard to the west of our backyard. The pond is in the yard to the east, and our yard was a convenient thoroughfare -- at least initially. Because of the fence construction and garden area (both landscaping projects that will be changed), the ducklings last spring were able to enter our yard but became lost and bewildered when they couldn't get back up into the elevated garden to return to the safety of their nest. Squeaking and scattering, they roamed the yard as my husband and I gently rounded them up and gave them a helping boost back to the section of fence they could scurry under.

There have been no ducklings yet this year, but both the hen and the drake have become regular visitors foraging beneath the platform feeder in search of seeds. As honored guests, I also treat them to regular bread handouts -- which now they seem to expect rather vehemently, and the hen will peek boldly through the patio door in search of such deliciousness. The cool shade of the house has also become a favored resting spot on occasion, and I've recently put out a saucer bird bath to allow them to sip demurely whenever desired.

It is fascinating to have such varied visitors, even with no more than two still bird baths in the yard to attract superb swimmers. I will be watching for the ducklings, hoping they appear, but even if the pair opts to keep them better hidden this year, the visits from the two ducks -- as well as an additional hen who also uses her deep, brown eyes to entreat my heart for handouts (and yes, she gets them too) -- has been a rare wonder and a welcome addition to my varied flocks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Definition of a Backyard

With the sighting of another new visitor -- a boldly colored male Western Tanager in his vibrant breeding plumage -- I'm coming to question the definition of where, precisely, the boundaries of one's backyard are. This bird, for example, did not alight within the invisible property lines that border my backyard. Instead, several of the birds perched in a tree in an adjacent yard, barely across the fence and easily visible from both the upstairs and downstairs windows where I sought a better view. The bold red head, brilliant yellow body, and strong black wings with thick markings made identification easy, yet still, were the birds truly in the backyard?

So what, then, defines a backyard for birding purposes? At first, one might say feeding. If a bird regularly stops for a bite, it could be considered a proper addition to a backyard roll call. But what of the Cooper's hawk? I've yet to spot him having a quick munch in the yard, yet he's a regular visitor, perching on the fence as he calculates the likelihood of his next meal coming from the smaller birds who regularly visit my feeders.

Frequency might be another determining factor. Migrating birds, then, pose special challenges as they may only be seen for a few days each year as they pass by on their way to breeding grounds or winter homes. The dark eyed juncos, for example, have moved on to their more northern homes and won't return for months, if they even recall this small sanctuary. Yet I would say that they, too, are legitimate backyard birds even if they aren't always evident.

At this time, I'm considering the western tanagers to have been a fleeting visit and a wild confirmation rather than a positive backyard sighting, yet I'll keep a keen watch for them in the coming days and they may even be pleased to find dried and fresh fruit in my feeders to help tempt them to a longer stay.