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


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, 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


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


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!