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


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!