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!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Just Ducky

I've always been thrilled that our neighbors, whose backyard is far more developed than ours, have a pond, but never more so than today. Not only have the mallards returned, but they've brought a friend: a wood duck. All four, for the wood duck has apparently paired up with one of the mallard hens in a cozy way, visited our yard today, and I obligingly provided a treat of whole grain bread.

Wood ducks are stunning creatures, quite possibly one of the most beautiful native duck species in North America. Aptly named, their exotic coloring and stark, bold markings make them appear to have been carved from fine wood. As I learned from this afternoon's observation, however, they can also have quite the territorial attitude and do not tolerate any other male's attention to their perceived companions. Time will tell, of course, if this pairing is meant to last.

While all four of the ducks enjoyed the bread scraps, they also proceeded to snack on the black oil sunflower seed and millet. Not only would they take it from the ground, but one pair quickly found the recently filled platform feeder and decided that it was more convenient than ground feeding. They both tasted the peanuts, but wisely decided they weren't as tantalizing and left them for the scrub jay, who also visited this afternoon for his own treat.

The backyard excitement didn't end there, either. Earlier today, I spotted the first of the returning Cassin's finches. There is also an unusual yellow marked bird that has stumped my identification techniques; I've asked Bill Fenimore for assistance on that one and will spread the word as soon as I know. With all the excitement that I've had today, I hope your backyards are just as entertaining!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sandhill Sighting

Today began as a rather lackluster day birding -- a few mallards, Canada geese, and American coots at a large pond a few miles south of home, then more coots, mallards, and a song sparrow along the Provo River. The real treat, however, came when driving home through an agricultural area. I saw several large, reddish gray birds lurking in an old corn field, obviously feeding on the leftover grain from last autumn's harvest. After an abrupt stop (luckily this isn't a very busy road) and a few minutes of observation, a new species flew onto my life list: the Sandhill crane.

These tall birds can appear mostly gray, or their feathers may be stained a reddish or brownish shade from iron salts and other deposits in the water when they preen. They have a bold red cap on the head, a dark, sharply pointed bill, a white cheek streak, and drooping feathers that overhang the rear. Once spotted, they're quite easy to identify, and it is the spotting and finding a new species that is always so rewarding.

Just as we may come to gradually overlook our backyard birds and miss surprise guests, we may also overlook unique visitors to our area because we're looking where we want them to be, not where they want to be. Birds aren't always in the riparian corridors, forest glades, and marshy wetlands where we go searching with our binoculars and field guides. They can be in untended fields, in drainage ditches, along landfills, and in many other places that are just as useful and suitable for them. As birders, we must always be willing to look everywhere, and more often than not we'll be rewarded with another feathered friend. Migration season is upon us, and now more than ever we can find more birds all around us.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Landscape in Need

This week I finally got a detailed estimate for all the preliminary landscaping work to begin the now bare backyard's complete transformation to a viable and attractive bird sanctuary. The work I plan to have done includes:

  • Removing all old curbing and widening existing flowerbeds by approximately two feet. This will provide more room for tiered vegetation to attract birds.

  • Adding a centralized "bird bed" feeding station with appropriate curbing to accommodate multiple feeders at different levels. A static bird bath may also be placed here, while a fountain bath is going to be installed on the patio.

  • Removing cinder block wall and replacing it with curbing. The garden area is not in use, but this will add more space for vegetation. I do plan on preserving two sections, however: one for a birdseed garden (sunflowers and millet), and another as a dust bath area.

  • Dropping a section of the vinyl fence once the garden is removed. Otherwise, it will be an open invitation and ready access for predators.

  • Creating a decorative retaining wall along the edge of the driveway to use as a low planter. This will be an area of flowers to attract hummingbirds and to add color and beauty to the landscape.

  • Recycling old bark chips in all flowerbeds and adding new bark on top of landscaping fabric for weed control. This will be a more organic, bird-friendly way to have attractive landscaping instead of relying on herbicides.

There won't be any new plantings this year; for now the focus is on creating a suitable foundation for designing the sanctuary. Fortunately, all this work is well within my budget -- far more so than I'd anticipated -- and I'm eager to get the work done so the birds can acclimate to the new yard. All that remains is to choose the style for the decorative retaining wall, and after that the work can begin.

What one change would you most want to make to your yard to benefit the birds? Vote in the March poll!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Back in Black

With a little identification help from Bill Fenimore (owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Layton, my very favorite birding supply store), I've added another bird to my life list -- the Brewer's blackbird. This is a lovely glossy black bird (as if you couldn't have guessed) that closely resembles grackles but is significantly smaller. I spotted several of them during our walk last weekend at Liberty Park, but monochrome birds without distinct markings are quite challenging to identify. Nonetheless, I'm thrilled to add yet another bird to my list.

These are the types of birds that many birders miss, in fact. We so often focus on the rare, exceptional, and unusual that we fail to notice the devoted everyday visitors all around us. Is that a sparrow in your backyard, or might it be a house finch? Could that cedar waxwing really be the more unusual bohemian waxwing? Are you mistaking that rare winter wren for a more common house wren? Good birders will be observant every day, even when it seems they have seen the birds a thousand times before. You never know when you'll be rewarded with a surprise visit from someone new.

To bring new birds to your yard, how would you change it? Vote in the March poll today!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Life List - 76

Liberty Park in Salt Lake City is rapidly becoming one of my favorite spots for urban birding. Though it is in the middle of the state's largest metropolitan area, it is a refuge for many bird species with its mature trees, lake, open spaces, natural plants, and other attractive features, not to mention being the home of Tracy Aviary. Today on a leisurely walk -- after feeding a stale loaf of bread to the mixed flock of California gulls and ring billed gulls -- we ventured down a path lined with pine trees and soon came to a dangerous area of falling cones and other projectiles. Out came the binoculars and field guide, and the culprits were soon identified: red crossbills.

The name red crossbills aptly describes the male birds, who indeed resemble a strongly colored red house finch with a peculiar bill shape with curved, crossed tips. The female birds are yellow instead of red but they share the crossed bill characteristic, which I was fortunate enough to see. Take care standing beneath these birds, however. While there are always good reasons not to stand underneath birds, when the red crossbills are feeding they are clumsy and falling pine cones are plentiful. They use their specialized bills to dig deeply into the cones and extract the seeds, but they're just as likely to drop the cone onto unwary birders as they are to enjoy a tasty morsel.

As exciting as it is to add another postively identified species to my life list, it is also a joy to be in any location with as much birding life. Black capped chickadees, Canada geese, mallards, and gulls are all regular residents in Liberty Park, and I hope to become an even more frequent guest to their backyard, even as all birds are welcome to become guests in mine.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sock It to Me

With more and more pine siskins mobbing the small tube feeders I use -- the larger versions will go out on the first day of spring -- I decided to try out a nyger sock feeder. I knew birders had success with the design, but I was not prepared for the wild popularity the sock would find instantly in my backyard. It took only a few minutes before the first siskin chose the sock over the tube feeders, and by the end of the day they were already battling over who could usurp the prime feeding positions on the mesh.

It's clearly a preferred type of feeder, and I've had up to eight individual siskins on it at once. The lesser goldfinches will also use it, though they're often driven off by the very territorial siskins. I'm amazed at how effective the sock design is, as the birds can cling to it every which way without needing to crane their necks for each bite. I'm already planning to buy more, and more garden hooks, to provide a larger and more flock-friendly feeding station. If you don't yet have a sock feeder, I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where in the World

Where in the world are all the birders? Based on the visitors to BackyardBirdsUtah from data compiled by ClustrMaps, birders are everywhere. I'm thrilled that birders from six continents and more than twenty countries have visited this blog, including guests from South Africa, Italy, Honduras, Brazil, Poland, Turkey, France, Serbia, Australia, and the Bahamas. It is my hope that one day I'll be able to visit all those fine places myself to enjoy their local birds.

As the Guide to Birding and Wild Birds, I get numerous requests to help identify birds, both in North America and abroad. Too often, we assume that our backyard birds and those locally known to us are the only species, but in fact there are many beautiful and entertaining birds all over the world. Ornithologists estimate that there are approximately 10,000 species of birds today, which makes my pathetic life list -- including recent update for the brown pelican -- seem woefully inadequate and incomplete. Wherever we go, we can find birds, just as they find us at our backyard feeders and bird baths. So long, then, as we can find each other, we shall always be birders.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Wild Rescues

Twice in the past week I've been startled by the unwelcome yet distinctive thud of an unfortunate bird hitting our glass patio doors with significant speed and force. Both times, I've found the victims -- pine siskins -- dazed and limp on the concrete. And both times, I've been able to create a happy ending to what could have been a tragedy.

Window collisions are no rarity for backyard birders, but a swift and compassionate reaction can help the birds survive if they are not too gravely injured. With both of these birds, they were still obviously breathing, though disoriented and severely stunned. The first managed to flap his wings weakly, while the second could only sag against the concrete, his bill the only thing keeping his head off the ground.

With the cold, windy weather we've had recently, I couldn't leave the birds outside. I grabbed my bird rescue box -- a sturdy, spacious cardboard box prepped with a newspaper lining -- and a pair of garden gloves, gentle picked up the bird, and placed it in the box. Lowering the lid to give it darkness and quiet, I kept the birds sequestered for nearly an hour each, checking their condition several times to be sure they were recovering. When the birds appeared alert, active, and anxious to be on their own again, it was time to let them go.

The first pine siskin was quiet, even as I took the box out to the now deserted patio to release him. He peered up at me from his cardboard sanctuary for a few moments, then gently lifted off and fluttered to a nearby tree. He stayed around the yard for some time, getting a drink at the warmed birdbath and rejuvenating himself with black oil sunflower seeds from the open platform.

The second siskin, a guest in my office just this morning, was more active and eager to be away. When I opened the box carefully (and I don't dare lift the lid completely) to check his condition, he flitted out into the office, heading first for the wide mirrored closet doors that were reflecting the large curved window, then to the window itself. He flew back and forth between the two several times, anxious to leave but unable to fly away. Fortunately, the window screens are still off for the winter, and I was able to open one side of the window for him to make his exit. He alighted in one of the quaking aspen trees in the front yard for quite awhile to get his bearings.

This shows that even birds of the same species have vastly different temperaments and will react differently to similar situations. I'm just glad that I was able to successfully aid both birds, and that they are none the worse for their brief respite in my box and my office. Of course, it was a thrill to have the little darling free in my office, it is even more of a thrill to set free a bird you know you've helped recover.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fatal Wind

Yesterday was a blisteringly windy day, fatally so for one American goldfinch. While most birders are aware of the grave danger of window collisions, the truth is that collisions can -- and do -- happen with anything. My guess is that this poor bird was knocked off course by a gust and hit our back fence at the wrong angle. An untimely end, but fortunately a relatively fast one.

Birds can also hit the sides of buildings, tree trunks, rocks, and any other obstacle. While we may want to protect them from such accidents, in truth it is a natural part of their cycle no matter what we may do. I recommend that all birders regularly check their yards for dead or injured birds, particularly along fences, walls, and in confined spaces. You may not be able to save them, but you can be more aware of danger zones. Furthermore, if feral cats or other predators consistently find weak, injured, or dead birds in one area, they will be more likely to prowl around and attack the other birds in your yard. Those incidents we can prevent by being ever vigilant to protect our backyard birds.

All the same, whenever it does happen I am saddened. We feed the birds to help them, nurture them, and enjoy them, never to harm or hurt them. Fly free, goldfinch.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Marching On With a New Poll

Last month's poll, "How many feeders are in your backyard?" was the most popular yet, with more than 20 votes. Nearly one third of readers have 3-5 feeders in their yard, which can be a delightful feeding station for backyard birds. I envy the three participants with more than 10 feeders -- what a wonderful diversity of choices for the birds! As for the three voters with none, spring is a great time to add a new feeder, so pick up a small one and try it out! I will be adding more feeders in the next few weeks and swapping out my junkier winter feeders for larger spring and summer models that can hold more seed and offer more ports for birds to choose from. What will you be doing to be sure your birds have a grand buffet?

This month's poll is also close to my heart and to my backyard. If money, time, and effort were no barriers, what one thing would you most want to change about your backyard? Eventually, I will do it all through the different landscaping projects we have planned, but this year's focus is to reduce the grass, thereby prepping the flowerbed areas and borders for more plants (or any plants, rather) that will attract the birds. There may be a little planting as well, but likely nothing major this year. What about you? Vote today!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tweet, Tweet

In an effort to connect with more birders -- after all, the flock is outside my house, not in my office -- I've become a twit. Rather, I've joined Twitter as "AboutBirdies" to share birding news, backyard birding tips, and all the small birding facts of everyday life that don't quite make it into a longer blog post. I hope you'll join me there!