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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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!