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 Guide to Birding and Wild Birds., 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 -- 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!