Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mountains of Lifers

It's easy for birders to assume that the waning autumn is a poor time to find new and unusual birds, particularly if you are not located along a major migration flyway. To my delight, however, I've discovered just the opposite. Twice in the past weeks I've been hiking in the mountains and been fortunate enough to add new lifers to my ever growing life list.

The most recent additions come with their own startling observations. First, I've added the first bluebird to my life list - the mountain bluebird. While driving past a field that had recently been plowed under, I spotted several birds flitting about a small stand of trees, and we stopped to investigate. The birds were perching, then diving to the ground and rooting for worms in the soft soil, which they'd then take back to their perch to feed upon. Watching carefully, the faint field marks of a pale eye ring, dusky blue-gray back, buff wash on the chest, and brighter blue wing edges and tail feathers were obvious, and the mountain bluebird was confirmed, specifically a flock of female birds. The most fascinating part of the sighting is that they were completely unafraid of my presence as I crept closer and closer, and they simply went about their business.

The second lifer I stumbled upon quite literally as we were hiking along Mt. Nebo in search of Devil's Kitchen, a rare and stunningly beautiful formation. After viewing the fabulous red rocks, we came back down the short trail and not five feet away was a juvenile dusky grouse - the bird's camouflage was most complete, but the mottled flanks, plainer back of the neck, and wide gray strip at the tip of the tail identified the bird quite well.

Both of these new lifers came upon me when I wasn't seriously birding - while I did have my field bag and binoculars available (as a serious birder always will), we were more interested in seeing the brilliant fall colors and the unique geological formations of our neighboring mountains. It just goes to show, however, that you're best off never stopping your birding habits - even in the autumn weather or on a short walk, you never know what new lifers you may find - or that may find you!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hunting Hawk

I'm always thrilled when my backyard birds put on a wild kingdom act, whether it's feeder aggression threat displays, begging fledglings, bathing, preening, or stretching out in the sun. The most exciting events, however, are hunting hawks, and I've been priviledged recently to have my Cooper's hawk, Dart, attack in my yard.

Many birders have a soft spot for their backyard birds and despair if a hawk scatters the flock or manages to catch a songbird. I look at the hunt a bit differently: these birds don't hunt for fun or sport, and only about one tenth of the time are they successful in catching their dinner. They don't waste food, and they're just as vital a part of ecological health as any bird. The birds a hawk catches are often sick, weak, or simply have slower reflexes than their peers, and thus a flock is strengthened whenever one of these weaker links falls prey to a hawk.

This hunt seemed to be one of Dart's most successful. While Cooper's hawks regularly feed on birds, including larger birds such as doves, her juvenile reflexes and strength aren't as sharpened as an adult's would be. After catching this unfortunate Eurasian collared dove (you can tell by the size and coloration of the bird), she fluttered with it for several feet in ungainly hops before finally getting good enough purchase with her talons to carry it over the fence and to a more secluded spot to dine. I particularly like the photo I managed to snap of her regarding the dove, as if wondering just what to do next.

Hawks are outstanding creatures, and both sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are regular visitors to backyards here in Utah. For more information, I highly recommend...

Most of all, remember to enjoy the hawks when they grace your yard with a visit. It may not be the ideal image you have of backyard birdfeeding, but any visit from a less frequent bird is a sighting to be enjoyed and treasured. Happy birding!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Making Plans

While the birds may be heading south now, I'm already making plans for their return next spring: specifically, I'm on the planning committee for the 2010 Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, which will be May 13-17, 2010, right in the midst of spring migration. The festival will include numerous workshops, bird-related vendors and artwork, expert guest speakers, and dozens of field trips to prime birding locations in northern Utah, including some of my favorites -- Antelope Island, Farmington Bay, and more. The spotlight bird is the burrowing owl, a western owl with long legs, bright eyes, and a mild disposition.

If you'd like to learn more about the Festival, there will be an information booth this Saturday (10/10) at the Wild Bird Center in Layton, as part of the store's ninth anniversary celebration. There will also be live birds of prey, Audubon chapters, prize giveaways, and more. I will be manning the information booth from 10 a.m. until noon, but it will be there in the afternoon as well with other members of the planning committee. If you've never attended a bird festival and would like to know what one is all about, please do stop by!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Birds a Brewin'

Fall migration is always a wonderful time, even more so when it makes stops in your backyard as it did with mine this week. I was working at the dining table, always watching the sparrows and house finches munch at the platform feeders, when I noticed that one of the sparrows looked different than the rest of my dinner guests. It had a distinct pale eye ring, very fine streaking on the head, a clear breast and abdomen, long tail, beige-washed cheeks, and the faintest black moustache. A Brewer's sparrow had come to visit! Not a new bird for my life list, but definitely a new backyard visitor.

He only stayed the one afternoon, but returned to the feeders several times to snack on millet and black oil sunflower seeds. I had some great looks through my new binoculars, even when he retreated to the neighbor's tree (several branches overhang our fence), and I enjoyed his company, however brief it may have been.

We need to enjoy the fall migration and enjoy the new visitors it brings to our feeders; it's yet one more way to appreciate the outstanding diversity that fills our skies. Keep your feeders full and your resident flocks will catch a visitor's eye, bringing them in for a bite. I can't wait to see who arrives next!