Friday, February 27, 2009

I'll Be Dipped

Another walk along the Provo River, another bird for the life list! This past weekend's walk was not too productive, and in fact I didn't spot a single bird until pausing on a bridge on the way back down the snow packed trail. While gazing out over the river, however, I noticed a small bird bobbing along near the rocks, and I was startled to see it dive into the river and pop up several feet away. Given the temperature of that mountain-fed water, I certainly wouldn't have gone for a dip.

Twenty minutes of observation later -- including trudging through the knee-deep snow to get closer to the bank -- I knew I'd added the American Dipper to my life list. This small bird is a solitary individual that flies low along rivers and waterways before alighting and examining the water. It can "fly" underwater, much like penguins, as it hunts for insects and other sustenance. When on rocks or riverbanks, it will "dip" up and down quickly as it watches the river. The stubby tail, round body, pale legs, and white eyelids are very easily identifiable, as is the distinctive behavior.

It always amazes me to discover new birds in old spaces. You never know when a new species will appear, whether it is in your backyard, along a favorite walk, or in a neighborhood park. As long as we stay observant, we will always be able to see the great avian diversity around us.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Count the Rings

I've tallied up my totals for the 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count, and the winners are...
  • Canada Goose: 4
  • Mallard: 43
  • Common Goldeneye: 2
  • American Coot: 29
  • Northern Flicker: 1
  • Black Billed Magpie: 4
  • Black Capped Chickadee: 2
  • Spotted Towhee: 1
  • House Finch: 16
  • Pine Siskin: 58
  • American Goldfinch: 16
  • House Sparrow: 3
  • Lesser Goldfinch: 4
  • American Wigeon: 1

Altogether, the total is 184 birds representing 14 different species found during four separate counts in three unique locations. I'm thrilled with the results, and it is fascinating to see the changes in some birding populations; pine siskins, in particular, are much more populous this year than last.

Ironically, on the final day of the count -- the one day when I did not submit a checklist -- I added a new bird to my life list, the ring billed gull. During a casual stroll through Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, I was idly watching the mallards, Canada geese, and gulls that I'd mistakenly assumed were California gulls, Utah's state bird. After a closer look, however, I realized that their legs were yellow rather than a pale gray blue, which is the coloration of California gulls' winter plumage. A closer observation revealed a few other details, and the ring billed gull flew onto my list.

You never know when you might find a new bird, or where. An area you regularly visit may suddenly be attractive to a passing migrant, or you may discover that a previous identification was in error. Just as the Great Backyard Bird Count encourages birders to reevaluate their local bird populations annually, we can all benefit from keeping vigilant about the birds we see every day. You never know when their identities, populations, or behavior might surprise you.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wilder Kingdom

The past few days have been exciting ones. While absently watching the American goldfinches feeding as I walked across the room, I was startled when one of them flew up and swiped the window. At first I thought the bird was merely agitated -- the pine siskins have been getting more and more aggressively lately -- but as it swirled away I realized it was panicked, and with good reason. A flash of red tail and razor sharp wings burst past the feeder, and I thought Spook had again come to visit. Still, while he's no longer strictly a juvenile sharp shinned hawk, he's not quite as adept as he'd undoubtedly wish to be, and the attack was unsuccessful. I went about my business and the birds went about theirs, eventually returning for their late afternoon feed.

At dinner that evening less than an hour later -- my place at the table faces the patio door -- I smiled indulgently while a house finch fluttered toward the one small tree we have. Within seconds, however, my indulgent smile became an open-mouthed gasp as that red tailed fiend again dove, apparently from the roof of the house, perhaps from the aerial antenna we've never bothered to remove. The attack was vicious, with a very determined bird of prey and a hapless finch who managed, how I haven't a clue, to escape despite being terrorized within the branches of larger neighboring trees before his pursuer flew to a nearby electrical pole. The pace of the attack, the agility of the attacker, and the burst of red, white, and grayish blue plumage immediately had me suspicious -- this wasn't Spook. Only a brief observation through my field binoculars was necessary to see the prominent eye streaks, heavy spots, and bold coloration of a new backyard guest and a new addition to my life list -- an American kestrel.

It's fascinating to see the differences between the two birds' attacks. The kestrel is much more aggressive and less patient, waiting for just a few moments on one perch before seeking a better vantage point. Spook, on the other hand, will wait for long periods to observe his territory before making a move. Perhaps, as a slightly larger bird, he knows his agility -- while always exceptional -- is just a fraction slower than a kestrel's, and his behavior needs to be a bit different if he will be successful finding dinner.

Spook has returned to the yard for the past two days, resting both in the adjacent tree and coming all the way into our yard on the small tree where the kestrel staged that blatant attack. He looks disgruntled -- this is, after all, his territory -- and perhaps he'll be around a bit more frequently now to ensure that any meals found within its borders are his own. Whomever manages to dine here will be welcome, of course, whether they prefer seeds or larger fare. Will Kess return? I can't say, but if Spook finds out, our backyard wild kingdom is sure to get even wilder still.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Happy Anniversary

It has been one year to the day since this blog first took flight and I found my wings as a backyard birder. In that time I've discovered many new birds for my life list, added new feeders to the backyard, built an elongated brush pile, participated twice in the Great Backyard Bird Count, bought a field bag, expanded my birding library with both references and guides, traveled to see new bird species, become the Guide to Birding and Wild Birds, held a house finch and pine siskin in my hands, and become ever more enamoured with the feathered friends who share my yard. There are many new flights still to come, however, including...
  • Building the site even bigger and better (have you signed up for my free newsletter?)
  • Redoing the landscaping to shrink the grass and better accommodate birds
  • Adding more feeders in a dedicated feeding bed
  • Growing a birdseed garden for natural feed
  • Adding feeders to the front yard
  • Continuing to add birds to my life list by traveling across the country
  • Seeking publication in additional birding and bird watching magazines

That's a lot to do, but there is also a lot of time to do it in. The joy is not in the final product, but in the journey during which we share the skies with the birds we love. Happy flying!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Get Your Count On

The 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count has begun! This afternoon, just keeping a watchful eye on my feeders, I recorded 35 visitors in only twenty minutes; American goldfinches, house finches, pine siskins, and a pair of somewhat lonely house sparrows. The count continues through Monday (February 16), and participants can submit as many different checklists as they need to record the birds they see in different areas and at different times. When you record birds, there are other observations you will need to make for an accurate report, including:
  • Time and length of observation
  • Number of participants counting
  • Snow depth (if applicable)
  • Location type
  • Habitat type

You enter your geographic location by zip code or city and state, and that generates an easy to fill in list of species in the area, grouped by type of bird. You simply fill in the totals of each species you observed (no need to enter zeros for those you did not see), and you've successfully added to a wealth of birding research.

In 2008, I observed a grand total of 33 birds during the bird count; I hope to at least triple that number this year now that I know more places to go and more species that I can easily identify. I hope to count each day in a different place, but the weather forecast isn't necessarily promising. Still, it's time to get your count on, so grab a notebook, your binoculars, a trusty field guide, and make every bird count!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Up Close and Personal

It is always amazing when you can get up close and personal with wild birds, though sometimes they may not seem so wild at all, as is the case when visiting well populated ponds. Some birds, such as this mallard hybrid I befriended in St. George, are more than eager to invade a visiting birder's personal space in the hopes of charming them out of a tasty tidbit or mouth watering morsel. Fortunately, I had bread with me on this occasion, or else he may not have been so friendly.

Getting close to one's backyard birds is not always so easy. I'm fortunate in that I have plantation shutters on the picture window that faces my backyard birdfeeders, and I can keep the blinds partially shut to block the birds' view of me. In this way, I can often get within inches of visiting pine siskins, American goldfinches, house finches, California quail, and other guests without them wising up to my presence.

There are ways to get close to birds without blinds, however. Birders who provide a generous food or water source will find that birds grow more bold as they become more comfortable with the surroundings, and if they feel safe they will often disregard your presence even if you aren't that far away. Window feeders can also bring the birds up close, though I'd recommend a design with a back mirror to keep the birds from noticing your observation. Of course, good binoculars or a spotting scope can make you seem as if the birds are mere inches away, regardless of how physically close you are.

Getting close to the birds truly brings this hobby alive and makes it all the more fascinating. I'm often close to pond birds (we feed ducks and geese regularly), I have my faithful -- and famished -- backyard guests, I was privileged to be less than twenty feet from a wild golden eagle, and I've fed western scrub jays from my fingers. As I draw closer to each new bird, they become closer to my heart, and that connection is a birder's greatest privilege.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


There are a lot of unpredictable factors about backyard birding: which birds will visit when, how much they'll eat, whether they'll prefer a new seed or treat, if predators will be lurking nearby, if they'll nest in the yard, how they'll behave with one another, and even if they'll react the same way to the dedicated birder who fills their feeders and scrubs their birdbath in the cold of winter, during a snowstorm, or when a soggy rain is lazily dripping from dingy clouds. This week has been a disappointing one in my backyard, as many of the birds vanished for several days during our poor weather. This weekend the flock of American goldfinches and pine siskins has returned as the sun peeked from behaind the clouds, however, and they are as starving as ever. If there's one thing I can predict about this hobby, it's that I'll be out to fill the feeders again, whether the birds seem to appreciate my efforts or not, because I always appreciate their companionship.

It is also amazing to me how you can begin to recognize specific birds if you observe them long enough. There are two American goldfinches that I can easily recognize at the moment -- one fat, fluffy bird I've christened Teresa (she looks like a Teresa, though it could as easily be a male bird), and another male named Scruffy. I know he's male, and his moniker is appropriate, because he's begun his spring molt and his bland plumage is interspersed with shockingly bold yellow patches that are but a prelude to his mating glory. Granted, in another week or two many of his companions will likely appear scruffy as well and I'll probably lose him in the flock, but for the moment he's an old friend I'm glad to see occasionally, even if his visits are unpredictable.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Playing at the Pond

I'll admit, I've not been a fan of water fowl before, but after the St. George Bird Festival and visiting different ponds in the area to see a wide range of species, I'm intrigued. I find it very interesting how so many different birds can share the same habitat, intermingling and feeding together without reservations. At one particular pond, mute swans, mallards, American coots, American wigeons, geese, ruddy ducks, and wood ducks all shared the waters, while a great blue heron prowled the shore (and yes, ate the goldfish).

I've been a snob. I've gravitated automatically toward the songbirds because of their frequent visits to the backyard, and to the raptors because of their innate grace and power, eschewing water fowl as awkward and clunky instead of recognizing them as the graceful, colorful, and amusing birds they can be. Yet the community of birds and their easy diversity has shown me more than ever how ecology is all connected, and we all share the same resources. If they can do it so easily and with such grace, so too can all birders share their joyous hobby with all wings. Now, I can't wait to visit more ponds and shores to find many more species to enjoy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

New Month, New Birds, New Poll

What a wonderful weekend for birding in southern Utah; I've now added 16 new species to my life list, for a total of 69 different birds that I can definitively say I've been privileged to observe. The new arrivals are:
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Great Blue Heron
  • American Wigeon
  • Wood Duck
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Black Crowned Night Heron
  • Canvasback
  • Common Raven
  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Red Tailed Hawk
  • Pied Billed Grebe
  • Burrowing Owl
  • Prairie Falcon
  • Wilson's Snipe
  • Abert's Towhee
  • Bald Eagle

Many of these species I've actually observed before, but not been able to spot enough of their unique characteristics for a sure and confident identification -- though the wood ducks were by far the easiest to identify due to their bright colors and distinctive markings. I also saw many species already on my list, including mourning doves, lesser goldfinches, mallards, mute swans, Eurasian collared doves, American robins, white crowned sparrows, golden eagles, and more. It was a true treat to spend the weekend in the field, and I can't recommend such an experience highly enough for any birder. I will share more thoughts on the St. George Winter Bird Festival later this week.

As it is now a new month, it is also time for a new poll. The January poll results proved that the majority of birders who visit here prefer to birdwatch in their own backyard, so this month let's see what number of feeders is most common. I have six feeders currently filled, though I'll have eight or more in the summer months. What about your backyard feeding stations? Share your totals in the poll or the comments!