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.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Walking Observations

On a picnic near the Provo River at Mt. Timpanogos park, just at the mouth of Provo Canyon, I spotted a new wild friend with easy identification: a Bullock's Oriole, a brilliant orange and black bird somewhat smaller than an American Robin and a cousin similar to the Baltimore Oriole of the east. He has a sharply defined black mask with a chin stripe that does not continue to his chest, and his vibrant color makes him easy to spot. This one was foraging in trees, nibbling off the leaf buds far above our heads, chattering randomly as he enjoyed his own picnic.

Spotting birds while walking trails is a great joy, but one that takes some practice in order to identify the wild wanderers. I would recommend going at a time when the light is good so any color variations in plumage are easily spotted, and try to get as close to the birds as possible so you can see details in their markings. Especially note the bill size and shape, head colorings, body size, wing markings, and rear view. If possible, also note what the bird is doing and any sounds you can clearly identify as coming from them.

When possible, snap a digital picture of the bird, one that you can zoom in on at a later date in order to compare the bird to books, field guides, websites, and other identification resources. Binoculars can also be a help, particularly for more reclusive species, if you have them available. My camera and zoom has helped me discover new species on several occasions, though with the clear and distinctive markings of the Bullock's Oriole, it wasn't necessary. I wouldn't recommend taking field guides with you while birding casually on a trail, since you'll waste valuable behavior observation time flipping through pages and making comparisons you can easily make after the bird has moved on.

With care and practice, you can easily find new and remarkable species no matter where you are, if you're prepared to observe them adequately. The best observation tools you have are your eyes, and with them, new birds can reveal a world you may never have known existed, a world that you share with many other intelligent and remarkable species.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Memorial, Revisited

Sadly, another tragedy has struck, this time the victim being a male house finch who, in a fit of aggressive pique and fluttering, struck the patio doors not hard, but at such an angle as to cause devastating injury. A brief flurry ensued and a moment later, he was flying without wings.

It is a sad moment but serves to demonstrate the absolute necessity for protective measures. I have investigated different options and will be taking the strongest possible steps this week. As more birds are attracted to the bounty of my back yard buffet, it is apparent that this may become more of a concern and necessary measures must be taken. When the landscaping is resolved feeders will be slightly better positioned (they are already close to optimal), but in the meantime the windows must be concealed.

Until the protective films can be applied, I've positioned chairs immediately inside the glass doors to help disrupt the reflections that may cost more precious birds their lives. While this is not an ideal solution, any small assitance may save a bird, making it more than worthwhile.

Fly free, little finch.

Two New Species

Wonderful news to report today, confirmation of two new species now added to my lists. One is finally identified for the wild list, while the other is a new and unexpected visitor -- and voracious feeder -- to the backyard.

The newly identified wild bird is the Downy Woodpecker, whom I've seen regularly on a particular trail walk by the Provo River but whom I've been unable to identify without the zoom-and-freeze aid of a digital camera. While this is a common wild bird, identification can be challenging because of its similarity to the Hairy Woodpecker; truly they look like twins, though the downy woodpecker is smaller with a shorter bill. Because those are the only ways to truly distinguish this bird from its larger cousin, the camera was necessary to help freeze the moment and make the positive identification.

The new backyard visitor is a Lazuli Bunting, or rather quite a few of them. The beautiful blue, cinnamon, and white coloring of this songbird made him easy to identify, and it's apparent that they travel in flocks for in the course of less than an hour, the feeder was visited by at least three males and one rusty-buff female. Somewhat more skittish and hyperactive than the Cassin's finches and house finches that were feeding alongside, the Lazuli buntings appear to prefer niger seed and other mixed seeds (though not the black oil sunflower) on the platform feeder. This makes me doubly glad that I've opted to include niger seed in the custom mix I fill the large hopper feeder with, if it is indeed attracting such a stunning variety of visitors.

Welcome, all.