Thursday, January 29, 2009

Flying South

To be more accurate, I should specify that I'm driving south, but the result will be the same no matter how I get there: I'm attending the sixth annual St. George Winter Bird Festival this weekend in southern Utah. The event includes quite a few really interesting presentations -- I'm especially looking forward to "Bird Brained" this evening about birds' intelligence, as well as "Bird Photography" on Friday and "Binoculars and Scopes" on Saturday. The true highlight, however, will undoubtedly be the four or five field trips I'll be able to participate in after the presentations.

Because St. George is significantly lower than Utah County in terms of elevation, the climate can be quite different and there are many bird species there that do not make it this far north. Ponds, rivers, desert brush, trails, and other habitat options are sure to yeild an amazing variety of wildlife. I hope to see a number of new species to add to my life list, and whatever other tidbits I learn along the way will be most welcome.

Wherever your birding travels may take you this weekend, whether across the country, across your state, or simply into your backyard, I wish you a pleasant "flight!"

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Hawk's Life

Over the weekend we were struck by yet another winter storm, this one with wet, heavy snow in varying intensities throughout the day. Yet even a heavy snow does not dampen bird activity, and in the midafternoon we discovered that our yard was under strict surveillance: Spook had returned.

It is fascinating to really watch a sharp shinned hawk, or any bird of prey. For long periods of time he perched attentively where he had good visibility -- at the top of a power pole, on the peak of a nearby garage, or in a tree along the property line. Once, for a moment, he alighted on our fence, but only for as long as it took to regain his balance before finding a more comfortable perch. The smaller birds: the finches, sparrows, and siskins, were conspicuous by their absence, but eventually the American goldfinches began to taunt our accipiter friend. One finch, or several, would fly erratically near the hawk, just out of reach of a quick strike but clearly meant to be seen. Spook might shift his weight, eyeing this seemingly easy prey, but he did not easily take the bait. Only when the finches would venture just a tad too close would he launch and dive after them, testing both his and their agility to the limit.

After less than a minute of frenetic activity, Spook would find another perch and rest there, his head continually scanning the landscape in a methodical pattern, searching for a morsel. After a time, the finch taunting would begin again only to culminate in another intense chase of aerobatics.

In the hour or more that he lurked around our yard, Spook's appetite must only have grown because his attacks were unsuccessful. Yet this juvenile hawk (clearly marked by the white feathers still showing through his darker plumage) is succeeding at survival, because even in the coldest, most unforgiving winter weather, he continues to hunt, to live, and ultimately, to soar. In the midst of the darkest winter days, if we can remember his perseverance, we too shall grow stronger and wiser as we survive until spring.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Seeing Birds with New Eyes

It's amazing what new equipment can do to make birding even more amazing. In planning for a trip to my first birding festival, I knew there was at least one piece of equipment I was in desperate need of: new binoculars. Lacking time to do the proper research for elaborate optics, I instead visited my favorite birding supply store, the Wild Bird store in Layton. There, I examined several pairs of binoculars specialized for birding, comparing them to the old hand-me-down pair I've been using with little success.

Imagine my surprise when, for just $20, I was able to purchase a much smaller, lighter pair with far better magnification and resolution. While my schedule has been such that birding has been forced to a back seat for the past few days, I have enjoyed trying them out on my backyard visitors with great success. What's more, the most important thing for me is that they're easier to use when sighting birds, instead of endless searching through a small field of view.

It goes to show that just any pair of optics is not acceptable; you need to find one that works well for your birding needs and preferences when using binoculars, monoculars, or scopes. Eventually I hope to have even better optics, but these are a fine step for now, bringing me into more intimate contact with the birds I see.

Just a few more days are left in January's poll; vote for your favorite birding spots today!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Life List Latecomer

After some meticulous observation and a lucky coincidence of visitors, I've added another bird to my life list. Initially, I believed I'd only seen lesser goldfinches, common in the west, at my feeders. In the past few weeks, however, I've been a regular stop for a flock of what I now know to be American goldfinches in their winter plumage.

At first, I'd assumed that the winter plumage of the lesser goldfinches was what made the American goldfinches more dull than the brilliant canary yellow they prominently display in spring and summer (first mistake, never make assumptions - lesser goldfinches do not molt so boldly). What should have clued me in are the white wing bars, which are far more prominent and clearly defined than any markings on the lesser goldfinches. Yet just recently, I spotted what is unmistakably a male lesser goldfinch, complete with his brighter plumage and scruffy black cap, feeding alongside the muted finches. As they were feeding beneath my niger feeders (and you wouldn't believe the mess I'm going to have to clean up in the spring), I noted a very discernible size difference between the two species. A bit of cross referencing later, including the note that American goldfinches are notoriously unfaithful to any particular feeding spot which would explain their sudden and sporadic appearances, I've concluded that my backyard has now been discovered by both species of goldfinches.

It pays to observe birds carefully. What you at first believe to be one type of bird may actually be something very different, or you may discover that what you've been assuming were two different types of birds are actually different genders or ages of the same species. While some birds do change appearance more obviously with the seasons, even small changes can be worthwhile to note and will lead to a richer birding experience. Happy feeding!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Singing for New Species

Yet another walk by the Provo River, and yet another bird to add to the life list. On Sunday, my husband and I enjoyed a two hour walk along the river, albeit in a more wooded area in the canyon, not near the lake shore. I am a fortunate birder in that I have a very patient husband, who didn't mind the twenty minutes I spent observing, photographing, and making notes on one small sparrow. That tiny bird is a song sparrow, and the most recent addition to my life list.

Song sparrows are relatively solitary birds, and this one was quite content to feed along the rocks in a narrow throat of the river. His long tail, facial markings, and quick two-footed hop to feed were very distinctive and also made him a joy to observe.

Far too often, birders fail to appreciate the diversity of birds in their own regions. We may all wish to see what to us seem like more exotic species from other geographical areas, but we are each privileged to share space with a wide variety of birds in our own backyards. Whether you define "backyard" as being anywhere close enough for a leisurely walk or just within the confines of your property, you can befriend many birds to share that space.

What are your favorite birding spaces? Vote in the January poll!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Warm Drinks on Cool Days

It is a wonderful experience to be able to provide the birds with the resources they need, and now I can do more thanks to a lovely Christmas gift from my husband: a thermostat controlled heating element for my concrete birdbath. We installed it a few days ago, and I've already seen both house finches and American goldfinches sipping from the now liquid pool. While the bulky heater and its cords may not be pretty, it is a beautiful sight to see the birds so appreciative of the water.

For some birders, it seems incongruous to provide heated water (and it's not warm water, just heated enough to stay liquid) when the ground is covered with frozen water -- after all, can't the birds just melt the snow to drink? Many of them do, but it takes a good deal of energy and caloric heat to melt snow for drinking. If liquid water is available, birds can better use their limited food supplies for body heat and survival. This will help build a happier, healthier backyard flock throughout the year, and the birds' bright plumage and perky personalities are a pleasure during every winter day.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Towhee Mystery Solved

After careful examination of the one photo I managed to take of the mystery towhee this past weekend along the Provo River, I've definitively concluded that it must be a spotted towhee. The first photo, as you can see, shows the bird's head and breast clearly, with the clear coloration of the towhee, but what might be spots along its dark flanks might also be a trick of that day's bright sunlight.

Having looked at the whole photo, rather than just the cropped section, more closely, however, I've found that I actually took a picture of two birds in that flock rather than just one. The "rear view" presented by this shier towhee is more in shadow, and clearly shows the white markings lining its wings and flanks. A spotted towhee it is, making my life list grow to 51 and marking a very prosperous birding beginning to the new year. I wish everyone as much enjoyment birding this year as these puzzlers give me!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Year, New Birds

Happy New Year to every bird, birder, and bird watcher; may this year be one filled with the joys of finding new species, nurturing backyard birds, and learning more than ever about these fascination creatures who share our skies, brush piles, barns, trees, bushes, and ultimately, our lives.

This morning, one of the coldest we've had this winter, was also a fine day for birding along the Provo River. I spotted two new species to add to my life list already in 2009: white crowned sparrows and common goldeneyes. The former are distinctive sparrows with bold white and dark streaks on their heads that seemed content to keep company with the dark eyed juncos. They flitted quickly from bushes to trees, staying maddeningly out of camera reach, but not out of close enough sight for proper identification.

The second official new bird is the common goldeneye, a water fowl found keeping company with the mallards and American coots that favor the section of the river I enjoy visiting. These winter guests have somewhat oblong heads, and the males have distinctive white bodies and a white oval in front of their yellow eyes. Easily identified, they're a welcome addition to my list.

A third contender, however, has given me grief -- it could be a spotted towhee, a relatively common resident in Utah, but its coloration is more suggestive of the eastern towhee, a much more rare guest. Unfortunately, my camera and the birds in question were not cooperative enough to result in a definitive photo, and I'll have to wait until I visit the river again to be sure of the birds' identities. But that is also just another excuse to enjoy a morning walk along the river among old friends. Also out in force today were the dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers, mallards, American coots, and black billed magpies. No wonder this is a magnificent birding spot; if there are any birders here in Utah -- or eager birders passing through on their own migrations -- I'd love to share it.

The Provo River is one of my favorite birding spots - what are yours? Share in the January poll!