Sunday, December 6, 2009

Return of the Jays

Western scrub jays are one of my favorite birds, and I put whole peanuts out for them frequently in the summer. For the past few weeks, however, the peanuts have sat forgotten in their small dish on the patio table, only occasionally being disturbed or vanishing, though each time I've missed the perpetrator. Walking outside to finish putting up Christmas lights earlier this week, however, I saw one lone jay hunkered in our neighbor's apple tree, just surveying the neighborhood. I immediately replenished the peanut supply, and within just a few minutes that jay and one of his friends were eagerly picking over the nuts and caching them wherever they could.

Too often, birders remove feeders long before they should, leaving birds one more food source short as winter approaches. I urge you to keep your feeders filled and fresh, even if you don't see the birds as often or if your favorite species seem to have vanished. They are around, even if they visit less or are more unseen, and different foods in a ready supply will be very welcome. Once they realize they can continue to count on you for a tasty meal, they may return even more frequently, as noted by the jays that have visited much more often in the last day or two - always picking clean the peanut dish I'm keeping filled.

Granted, many birds migrate and you won't see them again until spring, but in the meantime, why not share your backyard buffet with their winter cousins? Keep those feeders filled!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sparrow Spa Day

Winter is slowly descending upon northern Utah, and despite warmer temperatures for the past few weeks the nights are positively chilly and I’ve had my birdbath heater in position for several weeks. After all, there’s nothing more pathetic than watching a house finch peck at a frozen birdbath and look at it as if puzzling why they can’t drink the ice, but fortunately my backyard flock of sparrows and finches has a ready supply of water.

Of course, they haven’t treated that water quite as I anticipated. Within days of putting out the heater, my birdbath became quite the spa getaway and the surrounding patio is frequently splashed from flocks of bathing birds - and splashed more because they are so skittish that no bath lasts longer than a few seconds. Now, it’s important to note that while the temperatures have been decidedly warmer than normal for late fall, the birdbath is in the shade on a north facing patio. The resulting 40 degree or lower temperatures there aren’t what I’d call perfect for a cooling dip at any time, but the birds, especially the sparrows, can’t seem to get enough. It’s hilarious to watch them juggle positions in the basin and along the rim of the birdbath, and I’ve seen as many as a dozen birds at once crowded around what becomes an increasingly shallow puddle.

Of course, this does mean that you’ll see me several times a week shivering on the patio as I refill the birdbath with a bowl from the kitchen – the outdoor spigots having been sealed for the winter some time ago. Cleaning the birdbath is also an ongoing necessity, what with the leaves, dirt, and other debris getting into it from so many eager bathers. Nonetheless, it’s a thrill to watch the birds enjoy their makeshift spa, and I can’t recommend enough that you get your own birdbath heater or fully heated model so you can invite your backyard flock for a fun spa day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Up Front Feeding Fun

I had a birdfeeder epiphany a few weeks ago - all my feeders are in the backyard, and while I'm working studiously on upgrading the landscaping to create a bird sanctuary, it is obviously a long-term project and a slow process. Meanwhile, I have mature aspen trees, small blue spruce trees, boulders, and a few shrubs already in my front yard, but no birdfeeders. Why not?

Most people tend to put all their birdfeeders in the backyard because that is a center of outdoor activity for play areas, a grill, deck, spa, or whatever may be available, making backyard birding convenient for backyard feeders. While it is the same for us, I miss out on much of the bird activity because my office faces the front yard. So why, then, don't I have feeders in my front yard? Last weekend, I changed that by purchasing another feeder pole and wooden hopper feeder from Bill Fenimore at the Wild Bird Center in Layton (can I possibly recommend him enough?). Installing it was a hassle, as our soil is quite rocky and the pole is difficult to sink straight, but we managed.

For a day or two the feeder and its bounty of sunflower chips sat lonely and desolate. I was concerned that perhaps the busy street we live on was too much of a disruption that the birds wouldn't appreciate, but that was not to be. Within two days one female house finch had found the feeder, and the next day she returned with a male house finch and a male house sparrow. Today, the feeder's popularity has boomed and a boisterous flock of house finches and house sparrows was waiting turns to feed -- the nearby boulder, the small shrubs, and even my office windowbox became perches for hungry birds. The level of seed is dropping quickly, and I look forward to filling it. I may not have brought birds all the way into my office, but they're just a glance away.

If you only have feeders in one spot in your yard, I highly recommend adding more in different areas. Watch where the birds congregate - long before I considered adding feeders to the front yard, I'd seen the popularity of the blue spruce trees as flock hangouts. Check your bird activity, and plan accordingly to expand your own feeder selections. Happy birding!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Storing Up for Winter

The weather is definitely cooling off, the days are getting much shorter, and there's a nip in the air whenever I go out to refill the feeders. Just as so many animals cache food for the winter -- even birds -- so too should birders be sure they're ready for the change in seasons. In the past couple of weeks, I have...

  • Swapped out some larger capacity summer feeders for smaller, more sheltered winter designs
  • Rigged a way to shelter my ground feeders beneath the patio table to keep them free from snow
  • Installed my birdbath heater
  • Inventoried my store of seed and added to the stock with extra millet and sunflower chips

At this point, I have more than 150 pounds of birdseed ready to go, of many different types: sunflower chips, millet mix, straight nyger, straight black oil sunflower seed, whole peanuts, cracked corn, and a nyger and sunflower chip mix. But where is it all? One of the landscaping improvements this summer was to add a birdseed shed at the edge of the patio, very conveniently located for refilling feeders. In it I not only stock my seed (all in appropriate plastic containers, transparent for easy choice), but also feeder and birdbath cleaning supplies, my filling cup, gloves, a pitcher to refill the birdbath, a broom for sweeping up the patio, and a step stool for reaching the higher feeders hanging from our gutter. I also have a bin that holds miscellaneous supplies, such as small cups, extra chains, and various accessories.

Storing birdseed and supplies properly can make a world of difference for enjoying refilling your feeders instead of making it into a chore. While not everyone will need - or want - a dedicated shed, if you find a way that works for you you'll be sure to keep the feeders filled and the birds happy all winter long.

Check out this article on storing birdseed properly for more tips!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mountains of Lifers

It's easy for birders to assume that the waning autumn is a poor time to find new and unusual birds, particularly if you are not located along a major migration flyway. To my delight, however, I've discovered just the opposite. Twice in the past weeks I've been hiking in the mountains and been fortunate enough to add new lifers to my ever growing life list.

The most recent additions come with their own startling observations. First, I've added the first bluebird to my life list - the mountain bluebird. While driving past a field that had recently been plowed under, I spotted several birds flitting about a small stand of trees, and we stopped to investigate. The birds were perching, then diving to the ground and rooting for worms in the soft soil, which they'd then take back to their perch to feed upon. Watching carefully, the faint field marks of a pale eye ring, dusky blue-gray back, buff wash on the chest, and brighter blue wing edges and tail feathers were obvious, and the mountain bluebird was confirmed, specifically a flock of female birds. The most fascinating part of the sighting is that they were completely unafraid of my presence as I crept closer and closer, and they simply went about their business.

The second lifer I stumbled upon quite literally as we were hiking along Mt. Nebo in search of Devil's Kitchen, a rare and stunningly beautiful formation. After viewing the fabulous red rocks, we came back down the short trail and not five feet away was a juvenile dusky grouse - the bird's camouflage was most complete, but the mottled flanks, plainer back of the neck, and wide gray strip at the tip of the tail identified the bird quite well.

Both of these new lifers came upon me when I wasn't seriously birding - while I did have my field bag and binoculars available (as a serious birder always will), we were more interested in seeing the brilliant fall colors and the unique geological formations of our neighboring mountains. It just goes to show, however, that you're best off never stopping your birding habits - even in the autumn weather or on a short walk, you never know what new lifers you may find - or that may find you!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hunting Hawk

I'm always thrilled when my backyard birds put on a wild kingdom act, whether it's feeder aggression threat displays, begging fledglings, bathing, preening, or stretching out in the sun. The most exciting events, however, are hunting hawks, and I've been priviledged recently to have my Cooper's hawk, Dart, attack in my yard.

Many birders have a soft spot for their backyard birds and despair if a hawk scatters the flock or manages to catch a songbird. I look at the hunt a bit differently: these birds don't hunt for fun or sport, and only about one tenth of the time are they successful in catching their dinner. They don't waste food, and they're just as vital a part of ecological health as any bird. The birds a hawk catches are often sick, weak, or simply have slower reflexes than their peers, and thus a flock is strengthened whenever one of these weaker links falls prey to a hawk.

This hunt seemed to be one of Dart's most successful. While Cooper's hawks regularly feed on birds, including larger birds such as doves, her juvenile reflexes and strength aren't as sharpened as an adult's would be. After catching this unfortunate Eurasian collared dove (you can tell by the size and coloration of the bird), she fluttered with it for several feet in ungainly hops before finally getting good enough purchase with her talons to carry it over the fence and to a more secluded spot to dine. I particularly like the photo I managed to snap of her regarding the dove, as if wondering just what to do next.

Hawks are outstanding creatures, and both sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are regular visitors to backyards here in Utah. For more information, I highly recommend...

Most of all, remember to enjoy the hawks when they grace your yard with a visit. It may not be the ideal image you have of backyard birdfeeding, but any visit from a less frequent bird is a sighting to be enjoyed and treasured. Happy birding!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Making Plans

While the birds may be heading south now, I'm already making plans for their return next spring: specifically, I'm on the planning committee for the 2010 Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, which will be May 13-17, 2010, right in the midst of spring migration. The festival will include numerous workshops, bird-related vendors and artwork, expert guest speakers, and dozens of field trips to prime birding locations in northern Utah, including some of my favorites -- Antelope Island, Farmington Bay, and more. The spotlight bird is the burrowing owl, a western owl with long legs, bright eyes, and a mild disposition.

If you'd like to learn more about the Festival, there will be an information booth this Saturday (10/10) at the Wild Bird Center in Layton, as part of the store's ninth anniversary celebration. There will also be live birds of prey, Audubon chapters, prize giveaways, and more. I will be manning the information booth from 10 a.m. until noon, but it will be there in the afternoon as well with other members of the planning committee. If you've never attended a bird festival and would like to know what one is all about, please do stop by!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Birds a Brewin'

Fall migration is always a wonderful time, even more so when it makes stops in your backyard as it did with mine this week. I was working at the dining table, always watching the sparrows and house finches munch at the platform feeders, when I noticed that one of the sparrows looked different than the rest of my dinner guests. It had a distinct pale eye ring, very fine streaking on the head, a clear breast and abdomen, long tail, beige-washed cheeks, and the faintest black moustache. A Brewer's sparrow had come to visit! Not a new bird for my life list, but definitely a new backyard visitor.

He only stayed the one afternoon, but returned to the feeders several times to snack on millet and black oil sunflower seeds. I had some great looks through my new binoculars, even when he retreated to the neighbor's tree (several branches overhang our fence), and I enjoyed his company, however brief it may have been.

We need to enjoy the fall migration and enjoy the new visitors it brings to our feeders; it's yet one more way to appreciate the outstanding diversity that fills our skies. Keep your feeders full and your resident flocks will catch a visitor's eye, bringing them in for a bite. I can't wait to see who arrives next!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fun in the First of Fall

Fall is upon us here in Utah, or at least it seems that way to gaze up at the mountains as they turn brilliant shades of orange and red. The yellow coloration isn't quite here completely yet, but it will come as the season blazes to a spectacular finish.

It can't get much more spectacular than the nearly four hour hike through the mountains I did today, with two new lifer birds joining my list. The first was the mountain chickadee, a perky, active bird of high pine forests that is much like its more familiar cousin, the black capped chickadee. Easily distinguishable by the bold white eyebrow that the black capped variation lacks, the mountain chickadee is still a beautiful and feisty bird that I was thrilled to see. That was at the beginning of the hike, which eventually led to the stunning Stewart Falls waterfall cascade.

On the return hike I again spotted the mountain chickadees flitting through the same area of trees, and when I was raising my binoculars to watch them once more I commented to my husband that what I really wanted to see was a nuthatch, a type of bird completely lacking from my life list. To my surprise, however, it wasn't just mountain chickadees flitting in the pines this time - they were joined by at least two red-breasted nuthatches. Ask and ye shall receive! Not only could I observe them quite well, but their distinctive "henk-henk-henk" call couldn't have been clearer.

In addition to these fabulous new lifers, the walk yielded some other great sightings...

  • Steller's Jay - Calling through the woods and pecking furiously at the pines.
  • Red Tailed Hawk - A dark morph soaring over the mountainside, as well as a clear, vibrant call.
  • American Robins - Pecking away at berries in a high mountain grassland clearing.
  • Black Capped Chickadees - Toiling away in the grasses and aspens as they flitted for food, though one brave little bird posed beautifully for a moment.

Chipmunks and squirrels rounded out the sightings, though there were other unidentified birds that continually taunted me both with their calls and with brief glimpses too quick for confirmations.

Thus ends a beautiful fall weekend; I'm already looking forward to next weekend, when we'll likely scout a different location and who knows what we may find.

These fall birding tips can help you make the most of this season's birds!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Corny Visitor

I haven't been birding much in the past couple of weeks, but the action locally has been exquisite. Not only have I continued to see Dart around our neighborhood, but during a drive near the Provo Airport this evening, I spotted a pair of lovely Swainson's hawks hanging out on power poles. The birds - new on my life list - are unmistakable with their white chins and brown bibs, and these were bold enough not to be afraid of me getting out of the car for a better look (I really do need to remember to bring my binoculars whenever I leave the house), though they got agitated enough for a grumpy screech before flying away. The flying is good, however, since it gave me a chance to check under their wings and be sure of their identity.

Even bigger is the backyard news, though it's not so birdy. I've heard many a tale of birders lamenting the visits from squirrels in their backyard - fuzzy, uninvited guests who clean out birdfeeders in a flash while preventing any birds from sharing a bite. Living in an urban area without mature trees, however, I've never been pestered by squirrels. This week, I was thrilled to see a fluffy, fuzzy tail scamper across my patio, and more thrilled still to see it attached to a squirrel with a fondness for cracked corn. I feed the corn in a shallow, wire mesh platform for the sparrows and doves, but this squirrel was even more entranced by the offering as his cheeks puffed out further and further as he munched. When he spotted me watching and snapping pictures, he flashed away, vanishing into my neighbor's woodshed where, I'm sure, he has a nice stash of corn. While I may change my mind if my yard becomes a squirrel sanctuary, for now I'm happy to have yet another guest at the feeders.

If you have problems with squirrels, check out this article about how to squirrel-proof a birdfeeder!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cool as a Cooper's

Exciting news from the backyard this week: after careful study, consultation with Bill Fenimore, and more than a little research, I've concluded that this year's mystery hawk is a juvenile Cooper's hawk. I'm thrilled, as my earlier hawk visitors have most definately been sharp shinned hawks, but from the outset this one looked different. Not so much in general coloration - though the slight red tinge on the cheek and the differences in the spotting are clues - but the fact that this bird just seemed immediately larger and with a longer tail, thicker legs, and larger head.

It is a joy to watch juvenile hawks, however; they're so certain of what they need to do (catch birds) but so clumsy as to how they go about it. This one, whom I've christened Dart, landed in the yard on the birdbath, then wondered why the birds were gone. She strutted around the birdbath for several minutes, still looking both hungry and confused, before flying to the back fence and waiting concealed by overhanging branches. She's not patient, however, and after just a bit of waiting flew off beyond the fence, then later to another yard. She's a fine, big bird, however, and will undoubtedly find her dinner eventually.

I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity to observe her (and I use the gender pronoun randomly - last year's sharp shinned hawk, Spook, I'd christened male), since this month is Raptor Month on my About.com site and I am planning a feature on telling the difference between sharp shinned and Cooper's hawks. Be sure to sign up for the free weekly newsletter for all the raptor happenings!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Seeing Through New Eyes

I had a visual revelation last weekend during a birdwalk with Bill Fenimore of the Wild Bird Center in Layton - what a difference new optics makes for a birder's enjoyment, particularly one with my sometimes questionable eyesight! Bill was generous enough to let me take a pair of binoculars (8x42) from the store to try in the field as we visited the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, and while the walk was about two hours long (during which time I added the western sandpiper and lesser yellowlegs to my life list) it only took a few minutes for me to be sold on the new optics. My old binoculars were also 8x magnification, but their field of view was much smaller and the lenses were smaller, admitting less light and creating a much poorer image. I had a blast with the new binoculars, and promptly bought them when we returned to the store. Should anyone in northern Utah need new optics, or any birding supplies for that matter, I can't recommend Bill Fenimore highly enough - his birding knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm are unmatched.

Back in my own Orem backyard, I hadn't had my new binoculars for more than three hours when I spotted a raptor soaring over the yard. I promptly grabbed my new eyes and managed to identify my first raptor on the wing - an osprey. How glorious!

Even more backyard news - I have another species to add to the backyard list, a female downy woodpecker. While it's not a new species on my life list, it's an exciting visitor to the backyard, especially considering that we have no large trees. What I've learned from the brief observation of this guest, however, is that downy woodpeckers love black oil sunflower seeds. At least, this one must, to show the tenacity to cling to an upright sunflower head and munch away.

Thus, it's been an exciting week. New birds, new binoculars, and a whole new avian world to see. Let's get looking!

Need to learn more about binoculars to choose a new pair? Check out my latest About.com article!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Getting a Life

Summer is a superb birding time, but unfortunately that also means it's not the best time for blogging. For the past several weeks I've been busy cleaning and refilling feeders, traveling to see new birds, taking regional birdwalks, and otherwise getting out into the birding world instead of sharing my experiences here in the virtual one.

The best news is that I've added quite a few birds to my life list, both from my travels and from a phenomenal trip to Antelope Island. There, the new birds I spotted were:

  • Franklin's Gull
  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Red Necked Phalarope
  • Chukar
  • Say's Phoebe
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Lark Sparrow

In addition to these new lifers, we saw dozens of other species: burrowing owl, western tanager, sandhill crane, white faced ibis, black necked stilts, eared grebes, killdeer, California quail, willets and more. Antelope Island is truly a birder's paradise, not only for the wide variety of species, but for the wonderful behaviors you can observe. We saw the phalaropes herding brine shrimp on the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake and Franklin's gulls bobbing their heads to feed on brine flies in the morning breeze, as well as a peregrine falcon calmly observing the world after breakfast and western meadowlarks singing their greeting to the day. What a treat to live so close to this wonderful location; I cannot wait to go again.

Outside of Utah, my travels have introduced me to another lifer: the elegant tern. I was able to watch these agile fliers dive into the waters off Long Beach, California while they fished, often getting mobbed by Heerman's gulls who wanted a taste.

Back home again, my backyard and its new landscaping is continuing to draw in birds. Not only have my mourning doves, house finches, western scrub jays and lesser goldfinches been enjoying the full feeders all summer, but a female black headed grosbeak discovered the black oil sunflower seed and the black chinned hummingbirds have been monopolizing their nectar feeders quite frequently. Just this week the first of the migrating rufous hummingbirds appeared, and I can add a barn swallow to my backyard list after watching them perch and preen on our defunct television antenna.

Birding is truly amazing, whether at home or abroad, and summer is a special time to find new birds, nestlings, fledglings, and many other friends at your feeders. I hope your summer has been as avian rich as mine!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Too Much, Too Long

I'm ashamed to realize and admit how long it's been since I've posted here, more than a month in fact, but June was a very full and very hectic time. The highlight of the month was a wonderful trip to northern Michigan, where I grew up and first developed my interest in birds from the seagulls we used to feed at the waterfront to the blue jays that perched outside my bedroom window demanding peanuts.

It is amazing, returning to an area I've lived for decades, only to realize just how much birding life I missed while I was there. The trip began well, with a stop in Elk Rapids at a roadside park I remembered from my youth because of its huge concrete swan. Appropriately enough, this is were my family used to stop on trips downstate not only to stretch our legs, but also to feed the Canada geese and mute swans that live there. The swans and geese are there still: we saw a family of geese (just as aggressive as I remember) crossing the road, and the swans were out in the lake peacefully and gracefully feeding.

Once in northern Michigan, I was privileged to participate in a birding field trip with the local Audubon chapter. Trekking through the woods, I was able to add several new bird species to my life list, birds that don't live here in Utah. In addition to that trip, we took several long walks through my hometown and along a beautifully wooded trail near the Bear River that leads to Little Traverse Bay. All told my new birds for the trip -- even without much dedicated birding -- are:
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • White Throated Sparrow
  • Rose Breasted Grosbeak
  • Common Grackle
  • Baltimore Oriole
In addition, I saw many more familiar and welcome birds, including blue jays, American robins, cardinals, house sparrows, ring billed gulls, northern flickers, European starlings, and many others. In truth, it was a refreshing and amazing trip, not only to find new birds but to realize how many had always been there that I'd simply never seen.

Don't neglect your own backyards, local parks, and scenic walks when you're interested in adding to your life list. You never know what may be there, and you don't have to go far to find new feathered friends to enjoy. The Baltimore orioles I saw, a brilliant pair of birds, were chasing one another through a stand of aspen trees near the river less than a mile from my childhood home, yet in all my years there I'd never bothered to notice. How I wish I had!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

I'm fortunate in that while I live in a moderate desert climate, the Provo River, Utah Lake, and Great Salt Lake are nearby and draw in millions of birds of hundreds of different species that I can observe quite easily. In the next week, I'm traveling to even better water attractors -- the Great Lakes region -- where I hope to do some magnificent eastern birding that will be just as exciting as the birds I find here at home. When I return, I will undoubtedly have updates for my life list as well as stories and photos about the birding life in the Midwest.

This leads, however, to the June poll on water. Summer is a thirsty season for birds, especially with Utah County temperatures regularly reaching 90 degrees, and my concrete birdbath can dry out in the course of a day if I don't refill it regularly. I'm happy to do so, of course (and a neighbor will be keeping an eye on it while I'm away), but I can't wait to add more water features to the yard as part of my bird sanctuary landscaping. Birds love water, and as wiser birders than I have mentioned, not all birds will eat seed or nest in birdhouses, but they all need water. In a recent poll on improving your backyard, water features were the top response for landscaping wish lists, so now I'm curious: what types of water features would you like to add to your backyard?

Personally, my plans are for a small waterfall with appropriate basins for birds to bathe and drink. I don't want the upkeep of a large pond, but I wouldn't mind adding a few more birdbaths as well, though they can be a hassle to keep clean and filled. What water would you like to see in your backyard? Vote in the poll today!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Caught Cameraless

As I started out for a birding walk over the weekend - heading for a holiday picnic breakfast and early morning sightings - I realized I'd forgotten to toss my camera into my field bag. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but it always seems as though the one time you don't have a piece of equipment you need it the most. During this walk we spotted many beautiful birds that we see frequently: mourning doves, American robins, European starlings, and house finches. Several less common and equally beautiful birds were also in evidence, though they would never have presented themselves well for a photograph even if I'd had the camera on hand: yellow warblers, a northern flicker, western kingbirds, a bullock's oriole, a soaring red tailed hawk, and a synchronized flock of soaring American white pelicans.

Ironically, the last two birds we spotted were also the most amazingly photogenic. Pulling out of the parking area, I saw dozens of swallows diving beneath the road bridge and begged my husband to stop so I could get a closer look, owing that swallows are notoriously difficult to identify unless you have a chance to see them up close and still. I slid down the embankment to find that we'd discovered a colony of cliff swallow nests, and it was awe-inspiring to see not only the exquisite architecture of their many nests, but to also see their amazing aerobatics as they flew to and from each cavity.

Further down the road, we stopped at what we'd noticed should be another canyon trail access point in a less popular area, giving it all the best properties of a birding location. No sooner had I walked to the guardrail than I saw another flock of swallows darting and diving near the river, but of course with their quick motion they're often no more than blurs. To my delight, however, one bird fluttered nearby and perched on a dead branch not ten feet away. It posed, preened, and turned about offering a most excellent view and positively identifying itself as a violet green swallow, arguably the most beautiful of the swallows with its iridescent green and purple plumage, white underparts, and sleekly tapered wings. Even better, it is yet another new bird for my life list, bringing my total to 135 unique birds.

How I wish I'd had my camera! Never would I dream of seeing such a beautiful swallow so close and in the perfect light. But even though I didn't have my camera and don't have a digital souvenir of the encounter, this beautiful bird is one that will be forever captured in my memory.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Better Than Expected

With constantly dripping weather, today began as a disappointment with little promise of good birding, but once again the birds were a surprise. Early in the morning, after I'd about given up hope of venturing into the canyons for a bit of weekend birding, I saw a most welcome guest on my platform feeder: a male red crossbill. I'd wondered earlier this week what had become of the two pairs of crossbills that had visited several weeks ago, as I haven't seen them since. Yet today, within minutes, the platform feeder was under siege by a most hungry flock of at least ten crossbills, males and females. They didn't say for long, but I was gratified to see them and happy that they seem to recognize my backyard - despite its lack of vegetation in the new flower beds - as a good place to visit.

Shortly afterwards, the rain cleared up enough for an experimental foray into my favorite birding areas. First, we went to a small marsh wetland area, which proved to be a mistake. While I was happy to see the song sparrow and catch a glimpse of a hummingbird, the mosquitoes were aggressive and hungry. My husband and I quickly moved on, heading for a steep canyon in Provo that we've not yet gotten up to this spring. And what a wonderful choice it was!

The scenery was outstanding; rough, steep cliffs and a furious mountain stream alongside the steep asphalt and gravel trail. But the birds were most exciting of all: a stunning flock of western tanagers, plenty of American robins, a pair of spotted towhees, one proud male lazuli bunting, and a new one for my life list, a Townsend's solitaire.

The Townsend's solitaire is remarkable in that it is a purely plain bird of undistinguished medium gray plumage. The white eye ring is neither bold nor striking, and the white outer tail feathers are not easily visible while the bird is perched. We watched the bird, comparing it to my field guide, for fifteen minutes hoping to see something more distinctive, until it flew off down the river, fortunately in the direction we were heading. Around the next bend, we found the same bird in a pathside tree, flitting about as it foraged for insects. It would perch on an open branch for a moment, then dart up to a tree, snap at an insect, and return to the perch, repeating that action over and over as it fed. In doing this it afforded me most excellent views, and there is no doubt about its identity.

It just goes to show that even a day that may not seem conducive to the best birding can be more rewarding than you imagine. I hope your weekend visitors and birding walks are just as exciting!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Reason to Celebrate

A festival is, by definition, a celebration, and I certainly have reason to celebrate after last weekend's Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. I participated in a trio of amazing field trips -- one to a large, local pond that featured a great blue heron rookery, another to a private duck club (a birding destination not available to the general public except during these special events), and a third as a marathon sprint around desert and mountainous habitats. All told, I saw well over 100 species during the three trips and cumulative thirteen hours of birding, an outstanding 25 of which were new to my life list. My new life birds are...

  • Western Kingbird
  • Marsh Wren
  • Snowy Egret
  • Forster's Tern
  • Western Grebe (pictured, top)
  • Cliff Swallow
  • Tree Swallow
  • Long Billed Curlew
  • Willet
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Snowy Plover (the festival's target bird)
  • Bobolink
  • White Faced Ibis
  • Blue Winged Teal
  • Osprey (nesting)
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Wilson's Phalarope
  • Red Breasted Merganser
  • Ash Throated Flycatcher
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Juniper Titmouse
  • Black Throated Gray Warbler
  • Yellow Breasted Chat
  • Green Tailed Towhee
  • Brewer's Sparrow

It is amazing to see the tremendous variety of bird species that can be found locally, as well as the diversity of habitats. During the thirteen hours of birding spread across three consecutive days, I visited riparian habitats, deserts, juniper and pinyon pine forests, elevated forests, wetlands, salt marshes, ponds, and grasslands. In each place the birds thrive, all cleverly adapted to their unique niches.

It is also amazing to see the diversity in different species' behavior and personalities. The yellow breasted chat, for example, is secretive and shy, while the juniper titmouse is an inquisitive and perky bird, boldly flitting around even a large group of birders. Some water fowl and shorebirds, such as the snowy egret, are comfortable in communities, while others, like the western grebe, are more solitary, even while they both share the same pond.

Of course, these are not the only birds I saw during the festival. I was also thrilled to spot other beautiful birds such as the yellow headed blackbird, lazuli bunting, cinnamon teal, American avocet, and golden eagle, along with dozens of other species. Yet despite all of this birding success, I know I missed out by not participating in more field trips and taking better advantage of the available events. Perhaps next year I will enjoy the urban birding field trips to see Salt Lake City's peregrine falcons, or maybe a trip to more northern Utah birding destinations.

In the meantime, happy birding to all! Summer is nearly here, eggs are hatching, and feeders are getting emptied more quickly. Time to make your own birding festival right in your backyard!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Landscaping - After

After a long delay in finishing the fencing portion of the landscaping renovation, I'm thrilled to share the transformation of the backyard. Without delay...

The feeder station adjacent to the patio, instead of poking from grass that became saturated with spilled seeds, sunflower shells, and other unpleasant detritus, is now surrounded by expanded curbing and wide, rich planting beds (thus reducing the grass area of the yard and giving more room for planting shrubs, trees, and flowers). These beds continue around the small tree, eliminating the problem of mowing around it without damage. The new feeders in this station include a hanging platform feeder with sunflower chips and nyger, a nyger sock with a seed hoop to catch spillage, and a larger capacity tube feeder with six feeding ports. There are two platform feeders on the patio, one of which has black oil sunflower seed and millet and the other with cracked corn and in-shell peanuts, and other tube feeders and a hanging hopper are forthcoming once I've secured more seed hoops.

Touring around the yard to the northwest, we find the October glory maple. Instead of standing lost in the yard, it is now anchoring one lobe of a curved triangular "bird bed" that will be home to multiple feeders. At the moment, all that is in this bed is a large hopper feeder filled with sunflower hearts and chips and its associated platform, but eventually there will be additional feeders branching off from the deeply sunk pole until the tree has matured enough to support hanging feeders. This bed actually has a double layer of weed control fabric (this fabric is now in all the planting beds), and I intend to only use zero-growth seed in the feeders here. You can also see, looking in the corner, that the fence is now level and even.

That takes us to the next point of view, the old cinderblock garden. It has been fully removed, replaced with wider curving planting beds and mulch. The grapevines are also gone, though I hope to replant a new one once we plan the different shrubs, bushes, and flowers for these beds. There are two features of this lengthy bed along the northern property line, however, that are specifically designed for the birds. The first concrete framed oval, in the foreground, is a dedicated birdseed garden. I've already planted more than a dozen sunflower seeds - saved from the plants I had last year - and some black-eyed susans that will hopefully flourish and provide a rich, natural food source for the birds. The second oval - barely visible at the other end - is slightly smaller, and is a dedicated dust bath that I am grooming to be fine and light for the birds to enjoy.

Our last turn, facing the driveway, takes us to what was a weed-choked flowerbed and thin mulch bed spilling onto the concrete. Now, as with the other planting beds, it is layered with weed control fabric and fresh mulch, and much wider than before. We've also added a low retaining wall along the driveway - our neighbor's property is slightly higher than ours - filled with topsoil and ready for planting with bird-friendly annuals.

I still have many plans for the yard. Next spring, after the underlying soil has richened, we will begin planting small trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers perfect for the birds. I am also working on a seasonal hummingbird feeding station for the patio, and there will eventually be a waterfall in the northwest corner of the planting beds. Still, this is a prosperous and exciting beginning, and already the birds are enjoying their new feeders and more delicious seed. The dust bath has been tried out, and the sunflower seeds are only today poking up in the birdseed garden. It is quite the beginning!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Birds in Opposition

I found a new place for lovely birding today, along a section of the Provo River that is only infrequently familiar to birders, hikers, and other guests. While it is following along a section of an historic railroad track (one unused on Sundays), it is a lush riparian zone that is home to many birds. Along the way, I spotted American robins, song sparrows, American dippers, European starlings, at least two annoying varieties of swallows that wouldn't slow down nor fly straight enough for a positive identification, and a new bird on my life list - the absolutely lovely yellow warbler. If you haven't yet seen this bird, it's a must to find with its vibrant yellow plumage and lovely red streaking on the chest. Its bright color is coupled with an equally perky personality, as it too doesn't sit still for long periods and seems to enjoy flitting about just out of camera (and often binocular) range. Still, I managed to nab a passable shot of this beautiful songbird.

As we drove home - I'm so fortunate in that these lovely birding trails are not too distant - my husband spotted what he though was a falcon or hawk soaring nearby, and he pulled over to let me take a closer peek. While I do love raptors, I was even more thrilled that it was a bit larger than either a hawk or falcon -- it was a turkey vulture, and another new addition for me to positively identify. The ironic part, however, is that there really isn't any other bird that could be more diametrically opposed to the yellow warbler.

Whereas the yellow warbler is brightly adorned, the turkey vulture is a slaty gray and black. The yellow warbler is a tiny bird that measures just five inches in length, the turkey vulture is five times that size. The yellow warbler is an active, mobile bird that flits through bushes and trees, while the turkey vulture soars slowly at great heights and carefully scrutinizes the ground below.

It's a great pleasure to see such unique and beautiful birds whenever I manage to go for a birding walk. I'm especially excited for next weekend and the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, but even if those field trips are not as adventurous, it's always grand to know that I have such a diversity of avian life near to home.

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sign up for my free newsletter today for tons of info on these tiny birds!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

One Good "Tern"

After days of hectic scheduling and steady, dreary rain, the weather cleared today enough for a bit of local birding, and I wasn't disappointed in the results. My husband and I spent an hour on the Brigham Young University campus, watching ducklings and mallards in the botany pond as well as exploring the gentle paved trails along a heavily wooded and carefully maintained hillside. There, I spotted a lively, hyperactive little bird that is none other than a ruby crowned kinglet, and despite the bird's aversion to sitting still I managed to capture a quick picture as well as add another bird to my life list.

After several days of birding drought, however, one new bird - even a fun one - wasn't enough, and we visited a favorite pond where earlier this season we'd spotted dozens of American white pelicans. The pelicans have moved on, and at first the area seemed sadly devoid of birds until I noted what looked like gulls whirling and diving in the distance. After tromping through a sandy construction zone toward a dredge pond, I spotted what weren't gulls after all, but what were Caspian terns, and another newcomer to my life list. Terns can be challenging to identify, but the thick, dark red bill, black legs, and hefty size of these birds pinpointed their identity.

Even the backyard yielded a surprise today: the first lazuli bunting of the season has returned for the briefest of visits. Last spring these colorful blue, white, and cinnamon colored songbirds descended on the yard in large numbers for several weeks, and I hope they will do so again. The new feeders are gradually being put in place, and it is my hope that the last bit of the landscaping will be finished early this week so I can begin planting and adding new feeders in earnest. The birds are coming, and I must be ready!

Friday, May 1, 2009

May is the Month

I've been waiting for May for a very long time. Spring is arriving in good force, the flowers are blooming, and the birds are singing with more intensity each day. Not only do I have a wonderful mixed flock in the backyard - mourning doves, American robins, pine siskins, house finches, Eurasian collared doves, California quail, and lesser goldfinches just today - but the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is just two weeks away. While I'm not as involved as perhaps I'd wish and I'm only participating in three field trips, it will be a wonderful opportunity to see many of the outstanding bird species that live in my region.

Too often, we assume that birding festivals must be exotic trips far from home, but in fact all states have some form of birding festival throughout the year. True, depending on where you live it might be a lengthy drive to get to the festival, but the experience will be well worth it.

This leads to the May poll; how many bird festivals will you attend this year? My organized festival total is likely to be just two: the St. George Winter Bird Festival I attended in January (where I saw such lovely water fowl as the American wigeon and gained a much greater appreciation of ponds as superb birding habitats), and the Great Salt Lake Festival this month. While I'd love to do more, I'm also planning at least three traveling stints that will include substantial birding: a return trip to Las Vegas (I was there just two weeks ago and can't wait to return to the fabulous birding near the city), a lengthy trip to the Midwest, and hopefully a trip to New York City this fall, though that is as yet in the very early planning stages.

I cannot urge strongly enough that you attend a bird or birding festival if ever you get the chance. They have many things to enjoy, including...
  • Organized field trips with expert guides
  • Lectures and informational sessions on all things birding
  • Vendor booths with unique gifts, field guides, and other items
  • Craft opportunities for making birdhouses or feeders
  • Rehabilitated bird releases, falconry demonstrations, and other live bird events

Naturally, the exact composition of each festival may vary, but there are always birds to see, and that is why we all flock to them. Happy May, and happy birding!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Dumpster Diving Siskins

In the midst of replacing feeders for the new landscaping (not quite finished yet - one project to go before I unveil the "after" pictures), I've had the old feeders balanced precariously on a pole stuffed into a trash can of discarded sod. The birds haven't minded, and for the past two weeks I've been treated to the frugal and unfinicky behavior of my dumpster diving pine siskins, who have thought nothing of hopping onto the sod pile to take advantage of the spilled seed -- both nyger and black oil sunflower.

Unfortunately for the eager and undiscriminating birds, that trash can is now gone, and none too soon as rotting sod after rainy days is none too pleasant to have in the backyard. Still, some of the new feeders have been placed and they're getting a mildly welcome reception from the house finches, pine siskins, American goldfinches, and lesser goldfinches. A couple of modifications to the birdbath have been enthusiastically received by all, and other parts of the new landscaping are equally popular. I'm currently waiting on some parts before erecting the remaining new feeders, and I should have that phase of the project complete within the next two to three weeks.

The transformations to the yard have been outstanding, and I couldn't be happier with the work. That one last piece keeps getting delayed (twice already this week, perhaps it will be done tomorrow or perhaps on Monday) is frustrating, but it's a minor part of the overall work.

Frankly, I'm glad that May is nearly here - April has been too frenetic, work-wise, for me to spend as much time birding as I'd like. The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is coming May 14-18, during which time I'll participate in three field trips, as possibly more as I consider the schedule. This year's spotlight bird is the snowy plover, which I'm very much hoping to add to my life list during the festival.

Spring is a beautiful time for birding, and I hope that everyone -- myself included -- can slow down to appreciate the birds that share this season in our backyards.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Landscaping - Before

It seems like sweet coincidence that this is my 100th blog post, just over a year since I first began my project of converting the backyard to a bird sanctuary complete with dedicated feeding stations, appropriate landscaping, bird-friendly flora, and water features. In just a few more days, the first tremendous phase of that project will be completed as the foundation for the altered yard is completed. But just how drastic are the changes?

There were several things that I wanted to change about the yard, and I'm pleased to be able to have done them all. Before unveiling the exact nature of the changes, however, I'd like to give you the grand tour of the old backyard.

We start at the feeding station adjacent to the patio. The old hopper feeder - a smallish, jury-rigged design with a planter tray suspended for a makeshift platform feeder and seed catcher - was sprouting from a none-too-sturdy pole in the grass, one that we'd cemented into a buried tube for greater stability. The finch feeders were on a curved pole in the mulch, and a hanging feeder was suspended from the gutter above the edge of the patio. The small tree is the only one that was initially in the backyard, and there is a difficult pit next to it that makes mowing challenging.

Moving on, we find ourselves at the tree we planted when we first purchased the house. It is an October glory maple, and while it may not seem glorious quite yet, it has actually grown significantly and will eventually be a beautiful shade tree and a happy home for hanging feeders. For now, however, it sways if the birds land on it too quickly and it, too, is easily damaged by lawn care.

The next stop is the narrow cinderblock garden that parallels the back fence. While useful if one chooses to grow vegetables, it's an unattractive and blunt feature I've never cared for. It was a happy sunflower seed garden last summer, however, and that proves its usefulness for a bird-friendly landscape. Two concord grape vines took up residence in the soil there, one abundantly and the other with more of a struggle. The birds also like the fact that this is a dusty area, and over the summer little hollows develop where dozens of dust baths take place.

At a right angle to the garden was a meager flower bed heavily choked with grass and weeds. Lacking weed control fabric, this sunny spot was a haven for sprouting pests, and yet it is too narrow for serious planting. The mulch continued along the side of the driveway but was constantly spilling out onto the concrete, giving the area a grubby, ragged look, but still too narrow of a section for strong plantings. In fact, we'd ripped out overgrown hedges from the driveway bit when we first moved in.

Very shortly I will unveil the sweeping changes that have transformed this plain, urban backyard into a far more appealing layout for both birds and birders. Each day as I look out at the yard, I'm still astonished by the breadth of the changes, and I'm eagerly anticipating building on this foundation to create a paradise for my backyard visitors. It will take some time, of course, but what you're about to see is a very beautiful beginning.

You don't have to remake your backyard to attract more birds; just a few changes can make a huge difference
for your feathered friends if you follow the right techniques for bird-friendly landscaping!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jackpot

There are times when a birder ventures to a new location in the hopes of getting lucky and finding a new species for their life list. I hit the birders' jackpot on a trip to Las Vegas in the past few days, where I was fortunate to visit the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve as well as Sunset Park. Between several hours at those two locations, I managed to add 15 new species to my life list...

  • Greater White Fronted Goose (pictured, bottom)
  • Ross's Goose
  • Cinnamon Teal
  • Redhead
  • Ring Necked Duck
  • Greater Scaup (pictured, top)
  • Bufflehead
  • Gambel's Quail
  • Eared Grebe
  • Double Crested Cormorant
  • Common Moorhen
  • Northern Rough Winged Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Verdin
  • Northern Mockingbird

In addition to these new-to-me birds, I also spotted Canada geese, mallards, an entire flock of northern shovelers, ruddy ducks, many American coots, one shy Wilson's snipe, many color variations of rock pigeons, several mourning doves, a pompous greater roadrunner, yellow rumped warblers, one yellow headed blackbird in a flock of Brewer's blackbirds and brown headed cowbirds, the ubiquitous house sparrows, and a great number of great tailed grackles. There were also at least two species of hummingbirds, a type of egret or heron, several other swallows, a largeish hawk, and other ducks and songbirds that I was unable to identify.

Frankly, I cannot recommend these two birding locations strongly enough. Easy and free to access, they are just a few miles from McCarran International Airport and an easy drive from the Las Vegas Strip. The Bird Viewing Preserve was wonderfully unpopulated - in fact, my husband and I were the only two in spacious facility for most of our visit - and while nearby Sunset Park is more crowded, the birds are also more accustomed to human presence and don't mind eager birders getting closer. I'm already planning a return trip in different seasons so I may see what other visitors are present. I'm also planning a full review of the Bird Viewing Preserve on About.com, so stay tuned for tips on hitting your own birding jackpot!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dual List Update

Lately there have been wonderful changes to both my life list and my backyard bird list. Not only was I able to add six new species to my life list during last weekend's amazing birdwalk in Layton, but the following day I visited several marshy areas and ponds closer to home and spotted several new-to-me birds. In one small, marshy wetland area, a northern harrier was casually hunting low over the scrub, and the wing and rump markings couldn't have been more clear. The next stop was a lengthy pond alongside a golf course, and it turned into a rich birding area as I was awed by the large flock of American white pelicans. Also in the pond were American avocets, American coots, mallards, Canada geese, and another newcomer to my life list, the northern shoveler. I can hardly wait to return to that pond this weekend for more observation.

The backyard has had new bird excitement as well. Every backyard birder dreads the resonant "bong" of a bird impacting on a window, but I don't hesitate to check the window areas so I may have the chance to help the injured bird recover. When I saw a bird with dark wings and a bold yellow rump precariously tipped in the flower bed, I didn't hesitate to grab my bird rescue box to give it someplace quiet and safe to recover, but it wasn't until I had the bird in my gloved hands that I realized it wasn't an American goldfinch or a pine siskin - it was a female red crossbill. She recovered quickly and well, and later that day I saw both males and females visiting the feeders to snack on the black oil sunflower seeds. They've returned for a few days now, and I hope they do stay; even though they're not new on my life list, it's always a treat to have more birds in the backyard.

Spring is definitely in the air - as evidenced by the fact that it is raining rather than snowing today - and with the warm breezes and blooming flowers come more visitors to the backyard. Be sure your feeders are clean and full, plant flowers to attract hummingbirds, and refill the birdbath to offer a cool drink on these warming days, and you too will be rewarded with ever more backyard guests.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sunshine

So much has been happening in the backyard in the past few days - the landscaping has finally begun - that I've fallen a bit behind in sharing all the great backyard bird news. The tidbit I want to share today has been a ray of sunshine into my yard several times now, in the form of an extremely rare yellow Cassin's finch.

Cassin's finches are most notably red, with a bold red cap and a lighter red or rose wash along their flanks. They are slightly larger than house finches, but they are often confused for them by unwary birders. I saw my first Cassin's finches just last year when they visited the yard in droves in early spring, and I was delighted to see them return a couple of weeks ago, albeit in small numbers (and still few at the moment). What surprised me most, however, was the yellow member of the flock.

House finches regularly appear in shades from red to yellow, including a bold orange, so I'm never surprised to find them in a rainbow of colors, but the yellow Cassin's variant is so rare that it isn't mentioned in most field guides. The only one - after hunting through several that I already own as well as at local bookstores - that gave even a minor mention of a yellow Cassin's finch is the complete Sibley Guide to Birds, which I've promptly ordered and am now eagerly awaiting its arrival.

This new visitor is most welcome, as are all backyard birds - even while my backyard is, at the moment, indisposed with landscaping projects half completed. There is a lesson here for all birders: no matter how well you may think you know a bird species, they can always surprise you, whether with unusual plumage, unique behavior, or just by bringing you a smile when you least expect it. As for me, Sunshine still makes me smile whenever he visits.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Beautiful Day in the Birding Neighborhood

I had such a lovely time birding this morning, I just had to share! I joined a birdwalk with Bill Fenimore, owner of the Wild Bird Center in Layton, Utah, and we went to the Nature Conservancy. Bill is an absolute encyclopedia of birding lore and expertise, and I was thrilled to add six new species to my life list:
  1. Western Meadowlark: Saw the bird, heard the song, and saw the bird singing.
  2. Red Winged Blackbird: A male in scruffy but identifiable winter plumage.
  3. Green Winged Teal: Lovely ducks enjoying a pond and walking on the shore.
  4. Northern Pintail: Extraordinarily beautiful ducks with distinctive crisp plumage.
  5. Yellow Headed Blackbird: Perching on a fence and proudly displaying his colors.
  6. American Avocet: Flying and swimming, graceful and elegant.

We also saw numerous other species during the birdwalk, including sandhill cranes, Canada geese, American coots, an American kestrel (hovering!), American robins, a northern shoveler, northern flickers, a northern harrier, and tundra swans. Unfortunately, neither my binoculars nor my eyes were fine enough to pinpoint field markings on all the species, so I'm unable to count them all on my list to my satisfaction, but there is always the excitement of the next birdwalk. I highly recommend these events to all Utah birders, and I will definitely be at the next event on April 25. I hope you can join us then, or check out the birdwalks calendar for other upcoming events.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Snapshot

It's amazing what different bird behaviors you can capture with a camera that you just might miss with your eyes or binoculars. Several days ago, when the outrageous mixed horde of birds descended on my meager backyard, I was fascinated by watching multiple American robins take turns sipping from the concrete birdbath. I snapped several pictures of them drinking, but it wasn't until I was reviewing the pictures that I noticed one was different. I knew I'd hit the shutter button as each bird was sipping, so why was this one robin so fixated on something other than the birdbath? She was, in fact, watching the timely arrival of her friend (both birds are female, as shown by their gray rather than black heads - see the American robin profile for more), whom I also caught unwittingly in the same frame. Had I been watching more closely, rather than birdwatching through a digital lens, I might have witnessed the bird's arrival and the subsequent reshuffling at the birdbath, rather than only noticing it in hindsight.

When we spend too much time watching just one bird, whether we are attempting to identify a new visitor, capture that perfect photograph, or just admiring a single bird's beauty, we miss the overall richness of the bird life all around us. I urge everyone to take a few moments to step back from the lenses of their binoculars and cameras to just watch the birds, and you'll be surprised at what you see. Threat displays, mates begging, shy birds, meticulous eaters, sentries, dominant individuals, problem solvers, reckless fliers, daring intruders, and curious individuals will all visit your feeders - but will you see them if you don't look?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

No Fooling, an April Poll

It's fascinating to see that not only is all birdseed not the same, but different bird species have very strong preferences for what types of seed they prefer. I've discovered several bird preferences by observing my very mixed and very hungry flock...

  • Pine siskins and lesser goldfinches prefer almost exclusively nyger seed, most frequently from sock feeders or ground feeding.

  • American goldfinches prefer nyger seed but will also indulge in black oil sunflower seeds. They will feed from mesh socks, tube feeders, or platforms, as well as spilled seed.

  • House finches prefer black oil sunflower seeds and eat from the hopper feeder and spilled seed. They do try to balance on the tube feeders, but the size isn't quite right for their comfort.

  • House sparrows are more likely to take millet but will also eat black oil sunflower seeds. Platform feeders are their favored buffet line.

  • Eurasian collared doves will eat milo, millet, and black oil sunflower seeds; it just seems to depend on what is readily available on the ground for them, and they swallow it without removing the shell.

  • Mourning doves prefer millet but will also swallow black oil sunflower seeds.

  • Dark eyed juncos are exclusively millet diners, perferably on the ground but also on open platform feeders.

  • American robins don't care for seed but enjoy the bread scraps on the ground.

  • Mallards will gorge on black oil sunflower seeds and millet from beneath feeders or on the ground. That they will also sample treats from low platform feeders seems to be quite the eccentricity from my neighborhood ducks.

  • Cassin's finches prefer black oil sunflower seed but will also taste nyger in hopper and platform feeders.

Seeing such varied dining preferences reinforces the idea that a backyard will be filled with richer bird life if we offer a range of unique foods and different ways for the birds to eat. That, then, is the crux of this month's poll -- what bird foods do you offer in your backyard? Cast your votes!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chilled Duck

It seems as though Mother Nature has been playing April Fool's jokes on the neighborhood ducks in the past few days. Despite the earlier spring weather, we've receded into winter and have been getting regular snowfall. During the deepest fall, the mallards and wood duck looked positively perturbed, but that didn't stop them from visiting my yard to forage.

Watching ducks waddle through the snow is more amusement than I've seen in weeks - they looked like legless boats rocking precariously on the surface of a white, powdery sea. What's more, their expressions were undeniably disgruntled, yet they persisted. The wood duck and one of the mallard hens stationed themselves beneath my hopper feeder; she proceeded to shovel through the snow with her bill in order to vacuum up spilled millet and black oil sunflower seeds, while he kept a close eye on the mallard drake roaming the patio. Eventually, however, the hen decided that a better bet for sustenance would be the bread scraps I obligingly tossed onto the patio - in fact, it was so tasty she didn't bother to shake the snow from her bill.

While the calendar may say it's spring, in many places winter weather still prevails and we must not get disgruntled ourselves when the birdbath needs cleaning or the feeders need refilling. While I'm not about to put my hummingbird feeders out and the landscaping is currently on hold until the weather clears for more than a few hours, I can't help but notice how faithful - or at least how greedy - the backyard birds are when they know they can count on a rich food source. Will you be faithful to them?

Birdseed getting too expensive? Check out these 10 ways to save on seed!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Backyard Bonanza

Today was quite the day for visitors to the backyard, despite the fact that I refused to refill the six now empty feeders only one day after they were all bursting with seed. (For small birds, pine siskins are absolutely voracious.) Nonetheless, the bright but chilly day, the spilled seed on the ground, the dregs in the mesh nyger sock, and the heated birdbath attracted quite the menagerie:

  • Cedar Waxwings
  • Pine Siskins
  • Lesser Goldfinches
  • American Goldfinches
  • American Robins
  • Mourning Doves
  • Eurasian Collared Doves
  • House Finches
  • Cassin's Finches
Despite the fact that the ducks did not come calling today, I don't believe I've had a birdier day in the backyard. And there are amazing observations that accompany such a flock...
  • You never know when, nor for how long, a unique visitor will appear. I happened to be working at the dining table this morning, and while doing so I'd moved my chair to easily see the feeders and watch the fun. I was astonished to notice a small flock of cedar waxwings alight in the trees bordering our northern fence, and even more astonished when they came into the yard to visit the birdbath. They were only there for a few minutes, and if I'd been working in my office on the other side of the house I'd have been none the wiser.

  • Water is an irresistible attractor. Every one of the bird species that visited today stopped for a sip from the concrete birdbath, but the cedar waxwings and American robins weren't the least bit interested in the available seed. If you truly want to attract the widest variety of species to your yard, you definitely need to have water available. And this was just from a still birdbath (and one that was none too clean at the time) - I can hardly wait to see what happens in a couple of weeks when the new fountain is installed.



  • The smaller the bird, the bigger the attitude. The pine siskins are some of the smallest to visit my feeding areas, yet they are the most vicious and temperamental of the entire mixed flock. They will snap at other birds, including other siskins, as well as beat them with their wings and engage in spectacular aerial dogfights (birdfights?) complete with an unrelenting barrage of buzzes, chirps, and chatters. The result? A momentary monopoly on the feeder - almost invariably the nyger sock - until another siskin decides to take on the challenge for feeder dominance.

The most important thing to learn from so many visitors, however, is that there is always something new to observe and you can always care for every bird. Every day I'm amazed at the birds that will make eye contact with me, chirp at me, and even buzz me while I'm refilling the feeders or scrubbing the birdbath. While some may think they're simply being territorial and reacting to a perceived menace, I believe they do recognize me and our fondness is - at least at times - mutual.

That, or I simply need to refill the birdfeeders more often. Happy birding!