Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mixing It Up With a Lifer

Patience certainly pays off with birding, and no matter how many times you visit the same area, you never know if you'll spot something new. I couldn't tell you how often I've birded the section of the Provo River Trail from the lakeside trailhead to the first loop, but this past weekend, during my most recent visit, I added a new lifer to my list: the white-breasted nuthatch. These aren't very rare birds here, though they've eluded me (and continue to elude my camera), but I had the privilege of superb views of at least three different birds foraging in the loop area of that trail section.

They weren't the only birds I spotted at that moment, however. In winter, many birds form mixed flocks, and the trio of white-breasted nuthatches was joined by a number of black-capped chickadees, two brown creepers, and one ruby-crowned kinglet. It was a rare pleasure to observe the species in such close proximity and to have the opportunity to see their vastly different personalities.
  • The black-capped chickadees were highest in the trees, flitting rapidly but staying along branches near the upper third of the winter-denuded canopy.
  • The brown creepers preferred to stay low on the trunks of trees, working their way up as they hunted for insects, but rarely getting further than halfway up the tree.
  • The ruby-crowned kinglet stayed out of the largest trees altogether and instead foraged in nearby brushy areas at low and mid-range heights.
  • The white-breasted nuthatches started three-quarters of the way up the trees and quickly worked their way down as they foraged, but only down to the last quarter of the tree, and not often to the base.

Though they forage together, each bird has a different niche to fill and different ways to go about it. Together they can all keep watch for predators or better potential food sources, but they rarely intrude on one another's personal space.

Too often birders get too taken with seeing a new bird - and I was thrilled at the chic colors and swift grace of the nuthatches - and fail to see the amazing behaviors of their more familiar species. I'm glad I had the chance to watch all these birds together and note both their similarities and their differences, and when I next go into the field I'll be watching all the birds I know a bit more closely to see their unique personalities in action.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Snipe Hunt

Okay, so the title is a misnomer - I wasn't actually looking for a snipe when I was birding this past weekend, but the Wilson's snipe near the Provo River trailhead was an astonishing surprise. I was watching a few chilly mallards and a pair of winter-plumaged pied-billed grebes when I saw a bit of movement on a sandbar island in the river. A quick check through the binoculars was all that was necessary to confirm the Wilson's snipe with its long, probing bill and distinctive striped upperparts.

This wasn't a new bird for my life list, but I haven't seen one in nearly two years. That first view was a close but quick encounter at the St. George Winter Bird Festival in January 2009, but because this bird is so beautifully marked, it was easy to identify even then. This past weekend, I was able to watch it for several minutes as it probed along the edges of the sandbar. I had very satisfying, close-range views, as the bird was only about 35 feet away. Given that an arm of the very frigid river separated us, the snipe was utterly unconcerned with my presence, and only flew off down the waterway after it had probed all areas of the sandbar that looked promising.

I'd initially gone birding hoping for a lifer, and while I didn't see anything new, who can be disappointed with such an unexpected surprise?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy Anniversary

This past Sunday marked my two-year anniversary as the About.com Guide to Birding / Wild Birds, and what a flight it's been. In December 2008, I was fresh from initial training and introductions, and overwhelmed with how much lay ahead. Two years later I'm no less overwhelmed, and I'm still learning more every day. Today there is even more ahead of me, despite two years of content, daily bird blogs, featured profiles, weekly newsletters, forum contests, and more. I'm anticipating some hefty changes to my work arrangements in the coming weeks (by choice), and to that end I'm planning even more exciting content - more bird profiles, range maps, bird crafts, product reviews, an extensive listing of field guides... The list goes on, and I'm pleased to keep flying.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tale of a Tail

Sometimes you can look at a familiar bird for quite some time before realizing just why the bird looks "off." This happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I noticed an unusual house finch at my Nyjer feeder. Now, for a lot of backyard birders, the fact that this male is orange rather than red would be enough to bring him to notice, but I've actually had all three male house finch color variations in my yard - red, orange, and yellow. It took me a few minutes of watching this bird to realize the reason he looked different was he's missing something quite important to a bird - he has no tail.

There can be a few reasons why a bird might lose its tail. It could be a natural part of that bird's molting cycle, or the tail feathers could have been shed because of illness or parasites. It could even have been pulled off by a predator the bird was fortunate enough to escape from or be a genetic anomaly. For this bird specifically, there are no strong indicators as to why he doesn't have his tail feathers. While he does show a touch of swelling around the eye (I regularly have outbreaks of house finch eye disease - avian conjunctivitis - at my feeders, despite my best efforts to keep the feeders clean), losing tail feathers isn't a typical symptom of that disease. He has no other signs of illness, and the condition of the rest of his plumage indicates he isn't molting. If he had a close call with a predator, he shows no other signs of it. All of those factors considered, and given that he's well able to fly and isn't lacking in any way, I'm inclined to believe this may be a genetic condition for this bird.

Still, it is interesting to see, and more interesting still when those unusual conditions help us learn to recognize individual birds. Terry the tail-less house finch has been around for a few days off and on, feeding with the other members of my house finch flock without detriment. Tail or no tail, he's as welcome as any.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Death of a Dove

The mourning doves I enjoy so much have been having a rough time since they returned to the yard just a couple of weeks ago. First, the weather changed drastically from hot to cold very quickly, and then, just another day or two later, the Cooper's hawk made a meal of one.

I always do enjoy seeing backyard hawks, despite the fact that when I do it often means my backyard flock has suffered a loss. The most recent casualty was just after the snow began to fall and my sparrows and finches were huddled in their brush pile; the mourning doves, however, do not frequent the shelter that profile provides, and the Cooper's hawk found that weakness. The hawk attacked and landed on the dove, but since the dove is so large and the hawk still young, it wasn't a fatal blow. The hawk was prepared for that, however, and it sunk its talons into the dove to wait. As the dove struggled, the hawk massaged its talons gently, driving them deeper into the dove until the struggle ended.

Staying out in the open for that long as the prey expires, however, is stressful to the hawk. It kept looking around, watching carefully for raiders or other potential predators. As soon as it could - as soon as its meal was less resistant - it flew off to eat in peace in a more secluded, secure place. The evidence of the dove's struggle was left behind in a bright splash of blood on the concrete curbing and a few scattered feathers, all that remained of one of the mourning doves I've been so happy to welcome back to the yard.

While this story has a tragic ending for one dove, I'm also pleased that it wasn't the only dove to have returned recently. While the flock may now be one smaller, I'm still happy to have the company of at least three more mourning doves, feeding and roosting in their patient way. Time will tell if the hawk is even more patient.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hot and Cold Doves

At this time of year, the weather in Utah is ultimately unpredictable, as my mourning doves have discovered in the last week. At first, it was wonderful lazy dove weather - perfect for sunning and stretching out in the toasty mulch beds. The doves will do that for hours, shifting position now and then as the sun shifts in the sky, but always just calmly enjoying its warm rays. Occasionally there will be a tail stretch, a wing stretch, or a feather ruffle, but for the most part it is a lazy and relaxing activity.

Overnight, however, the weather can change, and those same mulch beds are blanketed with snow. The mourning doves seem to appreciate this less, as they will be forced to perch and huddle on branches or the fence as the snow builds up around them. Still, they are stoic about it, and even a temperature drop or sudden snowfall doesn't faze their gentle countenance.

It is fanciful to think that perhaps the doves - or any sunning birds - store up heat to use in the winter, but they do have many ways to keep warm. Their feathers are better insulation than anything we can devise, and by offering good food - my hopper feeders are filled with hulled sunflower hearts - we can help them have enough energy to maintain a strong body heat for survival in the coldest weather. Providing liquid water is also essential, and I'm happy that my heated bird bath is out and available for everyone to sip. Shelter will help the birds keep warm, and my pine brush pile is a welcome haven for many finches and sparrows, though the doves rather disdain its prickly cover.

This time of year can be hard on the birds and mortality rises, but if you provide good food, water, and shelter, you can help your backyard birds survive. What's more, you'll be able to enjoy hot and cold birds year round, always marveling at their adaptations in any season.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Return of the Mallards

Even as the weather gets colder and the leaves drop to earth, I'm reminded of spring birds. Our neighbor has a beautiful pond with a boardwalk path and a rock waterfall (I'm totally jealous of the water feature), and every spring a pair of mallards arrives for a few days. They will feed on the algae and cracked corn - which we provide in both our yards - for several weeks before disappearing to incubate eggs, and we usually have the young hatchlings return for just a day or two several weeks later. After that appearance, the rest of the summer passes without a quack, and we don't see the ducks again until the following spring.

This autumn has been different, however, and the mallards have returned even while ice begins to form at the edges of the pond. We've had up to three drakes and two hens foraging at once, likely part of this summer's brood, all keeping a wary eye on me across the fence. It is lovely to see them again, but I don't expect they'll stay for long - the pond does freeze in the winter, and there are other water sources they can better use when that happens. Still, I'm glad to see them, and glad to have their company even as so many birds are hurrying south.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Welcome Home, Friend

Over the weekend I was thrilled to have a familiar bundle of feathers once again at my feeders. All summer I had dozens of mourning doves - feeding, sunning, stretching, preening, and trying to get laid - all through the yard, but they've been sadly absent for the past few weeks. Instead, the Eurasian collared-doves have taken over, but I've missed the gentle mourning doves.

When I went to take out the trash on Sunday, however, a tawny gray bundle of feathers moved about in the flower bed near my weeping tree, and slowly a solitary mourning dove walked onto the patio, pecking here and there at a loose seed or bit of grit. Though I've been used to these doves and they are larger than most of my backyard birds, I was surprised to see how small they look in comparison to the Eurasian collared-doves to which I've become accustomed.

It was a cold day for this dove, however, and it stayed on the concrete, puffed up and still, keeping well insulated against the bitter breezes, though it was beautiful to watch with its fawn-colored plumage and pink breast wash. It stayed for awhile, and was eventually joined by another mourning dove who wasn't so bold as to come onto the patio. Still, they are welcome to stay, and the feeders are refilled this morning for whomever may be interested in a meal or a snack. Welcome home, friend!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Time for Tracy

Living in Utah, I'm fortunate to be near to one of the best (and one of the few) freestanding aviaries in the country - Tracy Aviary. Several weeks ago we joined as members of Tracy Aviary, and have visited several times since. While it's not the same as one's backyard and I'd never count the captive birds on any sort of list, it is still an amazing facility and well worth visiting.

There is a diverse group of birds that call the aviary home, and among my favorites are the saffron finch, the laughing kookaburras, and the white-faced whistling-ducks. I also greatly enjoy feeding the waterfowl; healthy pellets are dispensed from machines for a mere quarter. During my most recent visit just last week, the hooded mergansers were particularly aggressive in feeding and a joy to watch as they dove literally under my feet as I tossed pellets from a footbridge near the aviary's entrance. The visit previously, I hand-fed the Canada goose and tossed pellets to one of my favorite waterfowl, the bar-headed goose.

If you haven't been to Tracy Aviary, you're missing out. While I wouldn't call it birding per se, it is a wonderful bird experience to enjoy, and a great facility to support. Admission is inexpensive (under $10), and there are frequent special deals and discount offers. What are you waiting for? Make Tracy Aviary and honorary part of your backyard birding!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Daily Diner

For the past few days, between 3 and 5 p.m., I've had a new guest for dinner - a sharp-shinned hawk. He's tried different tables in the backyard, first on the fence, then on the feeder stump, and today in the hawthorn tree, but never seems to have luck choosing what he wants from the menu. On the first day dinner very nearly came to him as after ten minutes of waiting for the server, a Eurasian collared-dove sought to land at the same table but quickly realized that if he did, he'd likely be an appetizer. The hawk seemed surprised at that level of service, but quickly opted for take-out as the dove flew away and he pursued. Thus far, the hawk hasn't gotten any appetizers, entrees, or desserts, but it's not for lack of trying nor for lack of watchfulness.

A lot of backyard birders prefer not to have hawks dine in their yard, but I enjoy the close encounters I get with these winged predators. Only when you have a yard that is rich in birds will you get hawks, because they don't tend to stake out areas where the pickings are slim. Unlike many human predators, hawks don't hunt for sport nor do they waste any of the prey they do catch, and many of their hunts go unfulfilled with hungry bellies to follow. I always feel privileged when one of these birds graces any part of my yard, and it's a thrill to have them as daily dinner guests. I'm sure my house finches, house sparrows, and other backyard birds would disagree, but it's all about finding balance in your life and in your feeders. All the birds, no matter what - or who - they may eat, are welcome at my backyard buffet.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

60 Degree Freeze

While I haven't been out for much dedicated birding in recent weeks (migration is over and the work schedule is crippling), my husband and I did manage a casual walk at Skipper Bay near Utah Lake a few days ago. As the sun was setting and light draining from the sky, the birding wasn't phenomenal - a northern flicker, small flocks of red-winged blackbirds, a great blue heron on the osprey's now vacant nesting tower. Then in a flash of feathers and a dart through the trees, the action picked up in a lovely wild kingdom moment.

Far more agile than you could believe until you've witnessed it, a sharp-shinned hawk darted through the thick, brushy trees on the west of the path. We saw it perched a few moments later, then flying off toward the south. We thought it had ventured elsewhere in search of a meal until it burst back out of the brush and swooped toward an unwary covey of California quail just on the edge of the path. The quail scattered and the hawk, certainly disgruntled, flew on. We were thrilled to see this just a dozen yards in front of us, but it wasn't until we got to the site of the attack that it was most thrilling.

Still frozen on the side of the trail were two of the quail, both males, sitting utterly still just a scant five feet away. So perfectly were they still that you could scarcely tell they hadn't been victims of the hawk until one blinked. They were crouched low near rocks, and didn't even turn their heads as we approached, then paused to watch them. It wasn't until after I'd taken a few photos and we began to move again that the birds flushed.

Bird camouflage is amazing. Many game birds may seem to have bold plumage when you see them in the open, but when they are still and silent, those same bold markings break up their silhouettes and help them become invisible. A birder can feel even more triumphant for such a sighting, because not only does it bring one a great look at a bird, but often far closer than you can imagine.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Snow, Celebrations, and Stocking Up

Today brought a surprise - after an unseasonably warm autumn, the first snowflakes fell across the yard just before noon. While they didn't stick nor did they actually seem to make it all the way to the ground, the sight of them made me glad that two weeks ago I bought a good supply of necessary winter seed. It was a special occasion - celebrating the ninth anniversary of Bill Fenimore's Wild Bird Center in Layton - and a good opportunity to stock up on millet, cracked corn and peanuts. I bought large bags of each, and I'm sure the birds will welcome the supply as winter begins.

The celebration was a good one, as Bill always hosts fine events. Several organizations brought live birds, and I got the most hypnotic looks from a northern saw-whet owl. I've never seen a bird blink so slowly, and I could stare into those eyes for days. Also in attendance were a great horned owl and several diurnal raptors. There were door prizes, refreshments, and as always, fantastic merchandise to tempt even the most budget-conscious birder. In addition to the seed, I bought the stand for my heated bird bath, and my husband did some early holiday shopping that I hope to see underneath the Christmas tree in a couple of months.

Now is the time to stock up on birdseed and to ensure you have the proper equipment to keep your wild birds cared for in the coming winter months. Some birders will change the foods they offer at this time of year, and swapping out a summer bird bath for a winter model is a necessity in my backyard - I'm not quite to that stage yet, but should those flakes return, I soon will be.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Giving Poor Landscaping New Life

A couple of weeks ago I had to make a tough decision for my front landscaping and took out one of its most bird-friendly features: two Colorado blue spruce trees. The trees were put in before we ever bought the house, and they were poorly positioned - one within two feet of the sidewalk and the other two feet from our garage. These are trees that will grow to forty feet tall and a twenty foot diameter, and even as young trees they were crowding into where they shouldn't be and were taking damage from it. While they could have been trimmed, that is only a temporary fix and the best option was to remove them completely. I did ask my landscaper about the possibility of transplanting them, but he was frank in giving the odds as poor at best for their survival.

That doesn't mean there isn't a bird friendly solution, however. For several years I've maintained a brush pile on the west side of the house, out of sight and protected from the winds and weather between the house and fence. Those pine trees are now a part of that much larger brush pile, and the house sparrows couldn't be happier - just when I walk out to check on any given day, two dozen or more birds will flutter up from the branches to perch on the fence and keep a wary eye on me. One branch, in particular, is a favorite - the cut end is poised at the top of a small section of pile right near one of the house windows, and the birds are always perching on that tip and peering inside.

Evergreens are critical for bird-friendly habitat, as they provide a year-round sheltered location for roosting, nesting, and as general protection from predators. In the spring, I do plan on replanting the areas that are now denuded - low growing evergreen shrubs will go near the sidewalk, and a much smaller, more appropriate tree will take up residence near the garage. Until then, however, the sparrows will have to make do with their brush pile, and they don't seem unhappy about it at all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Stumped for a Feeder

Despite their ravenous appetites and often demanding nature, birds really aren't that picky. I've noticed this in the past few months as one of my least chic feeders has become my most popular - a simple section of old stump.

I'd been eyeing it for weeks this spring when someone in our neighborhood removed a tree and left several generous sections of thick trunk by the curb, and eventually my husband succumbed to my pleadings and brought home a chunk for me. We did nothing to it other than use a spade drill bit to drill a few dozen half inch deep depressions in the surface - initially that drilling was to check the hardness of the wood in order to hollow out a bowl, but before I got to that hollowing we moved the stump into position near my large backyard hopper feeder and I began using it. To my surprise, those small holes work very well to keep seed from blowing away, and the birds have no trouble removing the tasty bits of hulled sunflower.

Whenever I refill the hopper, I spread a half cup or more of seed directly onto the stump, but it never stays there for long. I've seen quite a few birds make use of this nondescript feeder: house finches, house sparrows, mourning doves, California quail, western scrub-jays, and even one brave black-capped chickadee that briefly clung to the side just as it would have to a live tree. Not only is it a popular feeding spot, but it becomes a queue for the hopper feeder as well.

Discovered first on a whim and quite by accident found to be a great choice, this is now one of my favorite feeders. I've even asked my landscaper to keep an eye open for other trunk sections if he's called to remove trees, and to save them for me. It's an easy way to recycle the wood, and the birds love it! Inexpensive, convenient, and naturally attractive, what's not to love?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quick Flick

This is the time of year when birds can come and go quickly as they stop by our yards on migration or just for a snack as they go about their lives. Sitting in my office working away today, I glanced out the window at just the right moment for a fantastic view of such a visitor - a northern flicker who has happily discovered the sunflower hearts in my feeder.

Northern flickers (the red-shafted variety, which you can see under the bird's tail and on the wings in flight) are year-round residents here in Utah, but only rarely do they stop by my yard. I've seen them both at my front yard feeders and in the backyard, but I always feel privileged by their infrequent visits. This bird stayed at precariously balanced at the feeder for several minutes, pecking and licking at the oily seed, much to the dismay of the house sparrows, house finches, and Eurasian collared-doves that feel the feeder belongs solely to them. They didn't quite know what to make of this large visitor, particularly since she was not inclined to share and would lunge and nip at the smaller birds that tried to land near her powerful bill.

The photo here isn't the best, taken as it was through my less than sparkling office window with its screen and shutters, but it does capture the beauty of this bird and its inquisitive nature. I'm very pleased she's discovered my feeders again, and I hope she returns.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kettling

The weather has been unseasonably warm here, and dry even for Utah, which has put a bit of a damper on birding in the last few weeks. Migration should be well underway, but warmer weather tends to slow the birds down as they see no need to rush toward the south. A lot of birders look for a sign that migration has well and truly begun - the appearance of a known migrant, or perhaps the disappearance of regular residents. As most of my backyard birds are not migrants at all, it's hard to see migration from my backyard.

Until this week. When refilling my feeders a few days ago, facing to the northwest, I saw a speck of movement in the sky and looked up to see a raptor - large, dark, with white under the wings - a turkey vulture. I don't see them in the skies above my urban backyard frequently, so I smiled.

That smile quickly turned to a dropped-jaw stunned look as that first speck was followed by two, three, then five more. I glanced back at the first bird, which had been soaring toward the southeast, and was even more startled to see these birds' destination: a whirling, circling kettle of vultures poised nearly right above my house. I dashed for my camera and binoculars, confirming the birds' identities and capturing a sight like I've never seen.

For the next twenty minutes, I was enraptured by roughly 100 turkey vultures wheeling and soaring in my skies, banking and turning lazily in the warm autumn sun on a thermal that had the grace to know where an avid birder lives. Eventually I was privileged to see the birds reach the top of their thermal and turn, in unison, toward the southeast and the mountain ridges they will follow on their migration. I bade them goodbye and good journey, with well wishes to see them next spring.

There can be no denying that migration has begun here in Utah.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Survivor

It can be brutal to be a bird, especially to be a nervous mourning dove in a backyard regularly visited by Cooper's hawks. Such was the case several weeks ago, when I looked out my patio doors and saw what appeared to be the remnants of another hawk hunt - a pile of feathers pressed into the grass. This is a relatively common occurence in my yard, and typically one or two birds fall prey to my hawks every week. Walking closer, however, I realized this time it wasn't simply remnants - the entire bird was still there, as still as death, or so I thought. Coming to within five feet of the bird proved it wasn't death after all, as the bird burst from the battered hollow and flew a few feet away.

Curious about the dove I followed, watching its behavior. It clearly didn't want to fly, but nor did it want to venture far. While it was wary of me it wasn't exhibiting the fear most of my mourning doves do when I step outside, but instead it wandered onto the concrete driveway and it wasn't until the dove paused by the garage door that I realized just how close to death this bird had come. Blood was flowing thickly down its leg, obviously draining from a chest wound where the hawk had begun its interrupted meal. Further examination showed just how many feathers the bird had lost around its neck and chest, giving it a mangled, battered appearance.

I had a choice of what to do; I could have traumatized the bird further by capturing it, keeping it confined until I was able to get it to a rehabilitator several hours later, or I could let it be. Given that it was still capable of flight, was breathing and walking well, and knew that the best thing to do was to keep still and slow, I let it be. I kept checking it throughout the day, and it moved locations, seeking shade and shelter which I was happy to give it. When it roosted under the lilac in the evening, I left a dish of water a few inches away and sprinkled some seed nearby for a meal.

Never having known a hawk to pull down its prey but abandon the meal when the bird was so gravely injured, I reexamined the scene of the attack. Sure enough, lightly tossed on the grass I found a clue - one tawny feather obviously from the chest of the hawk itself. This dove had fought back, forcing the hawk to abandon its meal if for nothing more than aggravation - dinner shouldn't bite.

Sad to say, the dove did not survive the night; I found it the next morning still beneath the lilac bush, though it had obviously fed and drank as best it could during the night. One might question, then, why I consider this mourning dove a survivor when it did not, in fact, survive. It may have died, but it was never prey. It might not have lived, but it didn't die under a hawk's talons. If that's not surviving when you're a bird in a world filled with predators, what is?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mind Your Own Pishness

To pish or not to pish is an aggravating question for many birders. Pishing, the practice of making subtle noises to encourage reclusive birds to move into a better viewing position, can give birders a clearer view of an otherwise hidden bird, but it can also agitate the birds and keep them from foraging, preening, incubating nests, caring for hatchlings, and doing other necessary things.

Personally, I pish, but as with all things, in moderation. It can be rewarding, as it was this past weekend on a walk down to Skipper Bay. The short section of trail I enjoy has changed character drastically over the summer: irrigation water has dried up, reeds have skyrocketed, and most of the waterfowl have moved on. There are still quite a number of black-capped chickadees about, as well as a few hardy mallards and great flocks of European starlings, but other birds appear only haphazardly. If not for my pishing, the best bird I saw might not have appeared at all.

Walking along the beginning part of the trail just a few dozen yards from where I'd parked, I heard rustling and a buzzy "chuk" call from the reeds to the east. Watching carefully, I saw a bit of flitting accompanied by tail flicking, and knew there was a wren hopping about. But which wren? After just a pish or two, the curious bird poked out of the reeds to watch me as intently as I was watching it, and a few minutes of pishing later, the beautiful marsh wren came into full view. It was a delight to interact with such an inquisitive and responsive bird, and that is why many birders do enjoy the occasional pish.

This time of year, when juveniles are maturing and birds are prepping for their long flights or frigid winters, a moderate amount of pishing does no harm. I try to avoid pishing in the spring and early summer, however, when young birds might be left defenseless as parents respond to the threat my calls may sound like. And while this wren may have been simply curious and willing to play, many birds wish birders would just mind their own pishness.

Monday, September 6, 2010

An Uncommon Encounter

Sitting out on my patio a couple of evenings ago, I was treated to an aerial show as a half dozen common nighthawks were feeding at twilight. Their grace, speed, and agility is unmatched, and seeing them led me to muse how glad I was that the common nighthawk is already on my life list. Close study of them on the wing would be an incredible challenge.

I was reminded of how I added this beautiful bird to my life list, earlier this summer. It was a hot day in mid-June and I was idly staring out one of my upstairs windows, contemplating my very dirty bird bath and half empty feeders, knowing I ought to tend to them, when a quick dart of a tapered wing with a bold white slash caught my eye. I recognized it instantly as many birders would, though they might never have had the pleasure of seeing one before, but I couldn't believe that a common nighthawk might be flitting about my neighborhood in mid-morning. It had appeared to land in a tree in the adjacent condominium development, however, so I grabbed a field guide, my binoculars, my camera, and took a quick constitutional.

What a stunning sight I found. Not only was the common nighthawk roosting in a nearby tree - less than thirty feet from my backyard - but it was only six feet from the sidewalk and resting on a branch almost precisely at eye level. I couldn't get better views if I birded for nothing but nighthawks for a hundred years, and I was able to examine the bird from every angle and for as long as I wished (I have tolerant neighbors who don't mind a slightly psychotic birder circling a tree on their front lawn). It patiently kept an eye on me, never even ruffling a feather. Of course, I did keep my distance - a zoom lens is easy for brilliant photos when the bird doesn't move - and kept from stressing it.

Close observation of a bird - any bird, but especially one so rare to see at close range - ultimately reveals details you never could have imagined. No field guide can compare to intimate study that reveals the intricate mottling of the common nighthawk's plumage, the delicate curvature of its bill, and the deep pools of its eyes. I was awed at the experience, and will remember it unceasingly.

Indeed, there was nothing common about adding the common nighthawk to my life list.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Reacquainting, and a Reward

Sunday morning, while the sun was still low and the air still cool, I headed out for my first bird walk in several months. My only intention was to refresh myself with one of my favorite walks - a loop from Canyon Glen Park east along the Provo River - and hopefully to see some of my favorite birds in the area, including American dippers, song sparrows and black-billed magpies. What I got was far more than I expected.

I did see my familiar birds, all enjoying their regular spots. I heard western scrub-jays calling vociferously and watched their family busily foraging at a fallen log. I pished at a young song sparrow and sparked its curiosity, and I shook my head at the energetic antics of the western wood-pewee that refused to sit still for good observations. I watched a family of young American dippers plunging in and out of the river, swimming and flying simultaneously. I even smiled at the upside down foraging of the athletic black-capped chickadees.

Just over halfway through my loop, I paused near a stand of brushy berry bushes. I'd seen a silhouette I didn't recognize, something between the size of a sparrow and a robin. The initial bird I'd spotted moved deeper into the brush and out of view, but another quickly popped up just to the left, and I was able to get a crystal clear view through my binoculars - and my jaw dropped.

A gray catbird. A lifer.

This area of Utah is on the extreme western edge of the gray catbird's summer range, and they're quite rare and unexpected here. I certainly wasn't expecting it, no more than I was expecting to get a new lifer on my first bird walk in so very long. Several of the birds were foraging in those bushes, and I got very clear views of the black cap, rusty undertail coverts, gray plumage, and black eye. I couldn't ask for better views, even if they were all too brief.

I went out on that bird walk to just refresh my memory of how much I enjoy being out in the field rather than in front of a screen, and instead of just refreshed, I ended up rejuvenated, energized, and ready for more. You never do know what you'll see whenever you visit a favorite birding spot, and I can't wait to go to another of my personal favorites this coming weekend.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Taking Flight for Fall

I know I haven't blogged much in recent weeks, but in truth I haven't birded much either. Summer in Utah is viciously hot, with unrelenting sun and no relief even from the occasional thunderstorm or brief shower. The birds are less active, and so are the birders.

I have been less active as well, only keeping up my feeders and caring for my backyard birds. They appreciate the attention for sure, and I appreciate seeing them visit my feeders, peek in my window, and splash in my bird bath. I still long for the morning bird walks when I'd see amazing warblers, or the visits to the local pond with widely varied waterfowl, but it is the birds here at home that are amazing companions with their fun personalities and energetic lives.

In the next few weeks, as fall gets underway and bird activity increases, I hope to increase my posting as well. The actions of birds are erratic and you never know when something may happen, or how long a period may pass when it seems you only refill the feeders and never have any avian excitement. It is time, however, to learn to re-appreciate all the birds around you, every one.

I may have landed for a bit, but it's time to take flight again.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting a Life, Getting More Birds

Part of getting a life is giving yourself time to live it. As a freelance writer, I work continuously - it's always easy to do just a bit of work in the evening, tend to one task on the weekend, or take a few moments on a holiday to cross one more thing off the to do list. My work is such that for over a year I've not taken a real vacation or holiday - every day, all 365, I've worked in some way. That includes on birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, and in the end, none of the days feel special. This past month, however, has been different.

For the first half of July it was work as usual - in fact, more than usual as I crammed in a whole month's worth of work into less than three weeks. At the end of that time, though, the computer was turned off, the notebooks put away, and the laptop unpowered. They would sit unused for more than a week as my husband and I explored Portland and the Oregon Coast. We rented a luxury condo with a private hot tub, enjoyed Pacific sunsets, poked carefully into tidepools, tasted cheese curds, walked along the beach, and just had time to relax, to talk, to decompress.

For a birder, though, no relaxation is complete without birds. We visited Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock, walked through Portland's public parks, found trails around Lincoln City, and along the way, I added a dozen new birds to my life list...

  • Black Oystercatcher
  • Common Murre
  • Pigeon Guillemot
  • Tufted Puffin
  • Pelagic Cormorant
  • American Crow
  • Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
  • Brown Creeper
  • Black Turnstone
  • Brant
  • Hermit Warbler
  • Fox Sparrow

Since this wasn't a dedicated birding trip and we didn't take any lengthy birding walks, I was surprised to add as many lifers as I did. The hermit warbler, chestnut-backed chickadee, brown creeper, brant, and fox sparrow were the most exciting - each one took some study on my part from different views, but I was rewarded with really being able to see the birds and enjoy them. What I learned was more important, however -- just like the birds, we all need time to let ourselves fly.

I won't be working myself to death anymore, nor will I be working 24/7/365 again. Oh, my lists are just as long as they ever were, and there is just as much to accomplish, but priorities have to be made. It's time I made myself one, and took flight again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Longer List, But No Life

It's been far too long since I've blogged, but as the time gets longer so does my life list. I've had a range of fantastic sightings this spring, from more than 40 birds in Jamaica to a few new western birds on a press trip to Fallon, Nevada, to a common nighthawk sighting within feet of my backyard. My new lifers are...
  • American Redstart
  • Arrow-Headed Warbler
  • Bananaquit
  • Black and White Warbler
  • Black-Billed Streamertail
  • Black-Faced Grassquit
  • Black-Throated Blue Warbler
  • Black-Throated Gray Warbler
  • Black-Whiskered Vireo
  • Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
  • Cattle Egret
  • Chestnut-Bellied Cuckoo
  • Clark's Grebe
  • Common Ground-Dove
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Crested Quail-Dove
  • Gray Kingbird
  • Greater Antillean Bullfinch (pictured)
  • Greater Antillean Grackle
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Green Heron (pictured)
  • Harris's Sparrow
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Jamaican Becard
  • Jamaican Blackbird
  • Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo
  • Jamaican Mango
  • Jamaican Oriole
  • Jamaican Pewee
  • Jamaican Spindalis
  • Jamaican Tody
  • Jamaican Vireo
  • Jamaican Woodpecker
  • Loggerhead Kingbird
  • Northern Parula
  • Orangequit
  • Ovenbird
  • Red-Billed Streamertail
  • Ring-Tailed Pigeon
  • Rufous-Tailed Flycatcher
  • Rufous-Throated Solitaire
  • Sad Flycatcher
  • Smooth-Billed Ani (pictured)
  • Sora
  • Tricolored Heron
  • Vervain Hummingbird (pictured)
  • Western Wood-Pewee
  • White-Chinned Thrush
  • White-Collared Swift
  • White-Crowned Pigeon
  • White-Eyed Thrush
  • White-Winged Dove
  • Wilson's Warbler
  • Yellow-Billed Parrot
  • Zenaida Dove

That's quite a few new members of my life list flock, but it's been fun getting them all. Some were easy sightings that just needed a good look for verification, while others needed a long time studying swapping hands with a field guide and my binoculars. All are welcome, however, and I'm thrilled to be up to 230 on my life list -- more than 60 new birds since the beginning of the year.

Of course, without the trip to Jamaica I'd not have seen nearly as many; not only was I able to see more than 20 of the island's endemic species, but the trip was in the midst of spring migration and a lot of neotropical migrant warblers were around as well. The biggest lesson I learned from it (and there were many) is how richly diverse birds can be, if only you seek out something different that what you're accustomed to. You have to fly past your comfort zone, stretch your wings, and keep gaining height, but you can soar.

A good lesson for all birders, then, not just for listing, but for life. It's time I go get one.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Lens, New Looks

Every time I try out new optics for birding, I'm amazed at how much of the avian world I've been missing. Last year I purchased a new pair of binoculars, and recently I purchased an upgraded camera. Instead of my pocket point-and-shoot, now I'm capturing birds with a Canon PowerShot SX20 IS. Granted, I couldn't tell you what all those numbers and letters mean, nor have I deciphered all the camera's settings and buttons, but I do know the optical zoom is much better, the shutter speed is faster, and the photos I'm taking now are much clearer. A few weeks ago, I'd never have gotten such a nice shot of a bullock's oriole along the Skipper Bay Trail, for example.

The right equipment is so critical when birding. Not only do you need optics to see the birds well, but higher quality sight will make identification easier and less frustrating. An updated field guide will show regional variations of plumages as well as different ages and genders, and a good field bag can hold all your equipment in easy reach. Good outdoor clothing will keep you comfortable for hours in the field, and good records will let you savor all your birding experiences for years.

Of course, getting started is simple and you only need the basics. As you get more into birding, however, you'll start to crave better equipment, and when you do upgrade you'll find this hobby truly taking flight. Let's soar!

Friday, May 7, 2010

An April Fool

All last month I was an April fool -- a birding fool, that is. In the past few weeks (and I'm including the first week of May in the update), I've taken two birding press trips to review outstanding field locations, purchased a new and better digital camera for better birding photos, welcomed at one new yard bird, added at least 48 birds to my life list, and been in more airports than I can care to count. On the home front, I've also started working with our landscapers again to put plants and trees into the empty flowerbeds this year, choosing native species that are highly bird-friendly.

As if that all isn't birding foolish enough, I've also hit different trails, renewed my National Audubon Society membership, and upped the frequency of my feeder refills to accommodate the growing backyard flock. Hopefully, however, this frantic place will slow a bit in the next few weeks, so I don't have to be quite so foolish and frustrated. Work-wise, I'd dropped some of my most aggravating, non-bird-related work, and I can already feel the difference.

More updates and details are to come, including life list updates, trip reports, and more. For now, I'll leave you with one of the most memorable lifers of my recent travels - the Jamaican tody. Yes, Jamaica... And that's just the start of the birding adventures.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sandhills in Spring

Spring weather in Utah can be unpredictable, with a chilly start to a morning that leads to a warm day that leads to a fluffy snowstorm in the afternoon that finishes with a clear sunset and balmy breeze. On such days, one has to take advantage of birding whenever possible, and it is always possible to get lucky.

I got lucky last weekend, but it wouldn't seem so at first. We began our walk at one of the easternmost parks in Provo Canyon, beyond Bridal Veil Falls, but the partially cleared path was quickly obscured by avalanche debris. Not to worry, it was solid enough for sturdy footing, but along the entire way we only spotted a few mallards in the river reeds and quite a few song sparrows merrily singing. While that is pleasant, I'd been hoping for a few different birds, but no. The scenery was gorgeous, but the birds were absent.

Next, we drove down Center Street in Provo looking for a roost of turkey vultures I'd heard about, but either we missed the area or the birds were absent there as well. Strike two.

At the end of Center Street by Utah Lake, we turned toward Skipper Bay Trail. We were already down there, I reasoned, so we might as well investigate the recent sightings of the Harris's sparrow. Despite scrutinizing the area where the bird has been seen, however, I was only able to see European starlings, black billed magpies, American robins, and a lone killdeer. While this was an improvement on the paltry birding earlier in the morning, it still wasn't so exciting as I'd hoped.

As luck would have it, we drove a different way home, through back roads and recent developments interspersed with as yet unworked agricultural fields. Around a curve in the least likely of places, there was my treasure of the day: a pair of beautiful sandhill cranes, the first I've seen this year. They were quite close to the road and unperturbed by my presence, and I watched them forage for several minutes while they obliquely watched me in return.

Some birding days are better than others, but it pays well not to give up. Try a new location, look for different birds, and enjoy all those you see, and you'll have a very bird-iful spring. Happy birding!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Swans and Songs

What a difference a week can make for birding. Two weeks ago, I participated in Utah's annual Tundra Swan Day with a birdwalk to see these lovely birds. The trip didn't quite turn out as planned - Utah's unpredictable spring weather intervened, and we spend quite some time on a ridge overlooking what we knew to be a flock of thousands of tundra swans, but seeing white birds through a white snowstorm floating on gray water under a gray sky doesn't lend itself to magnificent views. Fortunately, our leader - Bill Fenimore - kindly took us to another property where we were able to get much better views. Other sightings on that leg of the trip included dozens of bald eagles, different gulls, and a very cooperative horned lark that became the latest bird added to my ever-growing life list, bringing the total to 176.

Just a week later, the climate couldn't be more different. I went again to the Skipper Bay Trail near Utah Lake - one of my new favorite birding spots - and had the most enchanting encounter with a gregarious flock of red-winged blackbirds, watched flocks of foraging robins, laughed at agitated killdeer, and had a wonderful solo performance by a cooperative song sparrow. Rather than a snowstorm, the temperatures that day were mild and the weather pleasant; a truly beautiful weekend for the first weekend of spring.

So what will the next few weekends bring? Hopefully more opportunities for birding and more lifers for an eager birder!

If you're going into the field soon, these spring birding tips can help you make the most of it!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Brush Thrush

In the past few weeks I've been discovering just how valuable local listservs and field reports can be for sharing new bird sightings and tips for finding rare vagrants. While adding the long-eared owl to my life list in January was the first time I've used such tips, it certainly won't be the last, and I've been fortunate to have several more opportunities.

Of course, just because you have a tip and the time to take it doesn't mean finding the bird will be easy. Recently I learned about a varied thrush visiting Utah County just a few miles from my home, and I was eager to see the bird, since they don't appear in Utah that frequently. Every tip I read noted how the bird was near the paved pathway and how the location was easy to find, so I set out with high hopes for some easy and rewarding birding.

The location was easy to find, but only if you're familiar with the trail system it was on. I walked around a superfluous part of the path for nearly half an hour before getting onto the right loop to find the abandoned pump house, next to which the varied thrush was apparently happy to forage regularly. Once I got to that pump house (which is in the photo if you look hard enough), however, I realized it wouldn't be an easy sighting - the brush was so thick and tangled that it was only possible to see small patches of ground, and it took great patience to wait long enough for the bird to forage in just the right spot and at just the right angle for a positive view. Fortunately I had another birder attempting the same task, and together we were able to spot the varied thrush - a beautiful male bird with bold colors and industrious behavior - and I added another lifer to my list.

Even with modern technologies, high power optics, and the best foreknowledge, it can still be a challenge to find new birds. That challenge is what keeps us going into the field, hopeful and watchful, waiting for the next sighting.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Suddenly Snowy

For the past few days, spring seems to have been lurking just over the mountains, waiting to descend upon the valley in a rush of warm winds, green grass, and birdsong. That was not to be earlier this week, however, when four inches of heavy, wet snow fell overnight, burying feeders and shattering branches all over the neighborhood.

In the backyard, the nets I keep beneath Nyjer feeders to catch spilled seed quickly became floating snowdrifts, but that was not to stop industrious house finches, American goldfinches and lesser goldfinches from nibbling away. Instead of needing to dangle on the feeders, they simply stood on the snow to eat their fill. In the front yard, the lee side of the feeders was protected from most of the snow accumulation and thus became a popular dining spot, though when birds landed in the nearby aspens they were nearly buried among the branch drifts.

Just as quickly as it came, it was gone. Even that same day the snow melted away from the feeders (much to the delight of more hungry birds), and now it is gone from the grass as well. That hasn't stopped my life list from getting a bit snowier, however - just today I had the most marvelous walk along the Skipper Bay Trail near Utah Lake, and in two hours of birding a mere 1.25 mile stretch I spotted 26 species, including a common raven, plenty of black-billed magpies, several northern flickers, a flock of white-crowned sparrows, two playful northern harriers, and thousands of ducks: American wigeon, northern pintails, cinnamon teals, and green-winged teals, not to mention dozens of mallards. A tremendous flock of red-winged blackbirds also yielded a pair or two of Brewer's blackbirds, and song sparrows, house finches, and black-capped chickadees were also in evidence, along with one industrious downy woodpecker.

The highlight of the walk, however, were the two snow geese feeding among a flock of Canada geese. Their brilliant white plumage, thick bills and black wingtips were beautiful to see, all the more so because they are the newest addition to my life list.

The signs of spring aren't in whether the snow falls or melts, but in the behaviors of the birds. Just two days ago I was snowed under, but this morning I was surrounded by birdsong. Despite sometimes questionable weather, there is no doubt that spring is one the way when you begin to see new species migrating and birds pairing off to prepare their nests. Snowy or not, it's a great season to be birding!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Getting Lucky

Every birder knows that the more they visit one location, the less likely they are to see new birds. Of course, the occasional rarity or vagrant is always possible, but still uncommon.

With that in mind, I didn't have high hopes for our recent trip to Las Vegas, and my return to the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve and Sunset Park. When I'd visited these same areas last year, birding extensively, I hit the jackpot with 15 new species to add to my life list, and while I'm always hoping for a new lifer, I didn't think I'd see anything extraordinary on this visit.

During several hours of birding at the two sites combined, I identified 44 species, including an astonishing five new lifers:

  • Gadwall: I'm fairly certain I've seen these dabblers before, but never clearly enough for a positive identification.
  • Lesser Scaup: Finally I was able to clearly identify one of these diving ducks, adding it to my life list next to its near twin, the greater scaup, which I saw for the first time in Vegas last year.
  • Great Egret: Beautifully poised on the island at Sunset Park, this is a stunning bird to behold.
  • Crissal Thrasher: It took a half hour of wandering through sand dunes and desert brush before I got a clear look at this bird; then go figure after I'd identified it, it kept coming closer and into better light.
  • Muscovy Duck: This was an exciting find, a pair of these rare ducks. While they may be escapees, they didn't have the white plumage you'd often find on domestics. Neither the male nor female will win beauty contests, but their coloration is extraordinary.
Of course, just seeing new lifers is only part of the fun of birding in a new - or infrequent - place. It was a joy to see many other species I don't get at home, including verdins, common moorhens, and great-tailed grackles. Other popular species at the two sites included yellow rumped warblers, ruby crowned kinglets, marsh wrens, and many species of ducks such as northern pintails, northern shovelers, pied billed grebes, and ruddy ducks.

Seeing different bird behavior is also a treat. Shovelers pinwheeling, grackles staring up like grackles do, warblers warbling - it's all a pleasure, and reminds me that even if you don't see new species, you're always lucky to be seeing birds.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Accounting Error

Finally I've begun keeping my life list in a more systematic way, rather than adding to the lists here and manually counting each bird to discern my total. I copied my list into a spreadsheet, which I eventually hope to expand from just an alphabetical listing to several variations, including family and species groupings. Nonetheless, looking at the list this way is enlightening.

One benefit, of course, is that it gives me an accurate total of the birds I've seen - I'm afraid my accounting has been off and I'm two birds lower than I'd previously totalled. The relieving part of this is that at least I've not duplicated any birds on the list, so I can move forward updating with assurance. With recent additions to my birds - which I'll detail soon - I'm now at 173 species, and hoping to grow as often as I can.

I highly recommend some uniform way to keep a life list. Whether you choose a birding journal with an integrated list, a checklist in your favorite field journal, a computer spreadsheet, or some other variation, as long as it works for you it can be a valuable and interesting tool for your birding. I've been petrified that this blog, which has been the only complete record of my sightings, would become disrupted, but now my life list is safe and free to expand. Let's get birding!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Tripping

It's been crazy for the past few weeks, both with work and with birds, and twice in just under three weeks I've traveled hundreds of miles to see fantastic birds. Much to my delight, on both trips I've discovered new lifers.

The first trip was to the St. George Winter Bird Festival in southern Utah, at the end of January. I've been to the festival before - last year - and came home with a wide range of new lifers. I wasn't so optimistic about adding new birds to my list this year, given that I've birded there previously, but to better my odds I chose field trips to unique habitats ranging from open waters to the edge of the Mojave Desert. I was not disappointed, and came home with eight new lifers.

The most memorable - though all will hold their special places in my birding lore - is the vermilion flycatcher. I'd hoped to see this bird last year but missed out, and this year I followed a tip not on a field trip, but to a small park a mile or two from my hotel. There the male vermilion flycatcher was a brilliant jewel just a few yards away, seemingly uninterested in the birders - and I wasn't the only one - who came to gawk. Again and again he flitted about for insects, showing off his spectacular plumage in the late afternoon sun. It's a sight I'll never forget, and a bird that is stunning in its beauty.

My other lifers were neither so colorful nor so close, but each one afforded me excellent views for identification:
  • Ferruginous Hawk: We saw several of these roving through fields northeast of St. George, and one in particular gave spectacular views as it perched on a power pole, awaiting the opportunity for its next meal.
  • Red-Naped Sapsucker: This was a challenge to identify, as the bird never stopped moving in and out of thick branches high above us. Still, the cheek patterns and coloration were strong clues that identified it.
  • Rock Wren: This buffy, curious bird behaved true to its name as it foraged among rocks in a riparian area a few miles from the Tonaquint Nature Center.
  • Western Bluebird: These were brilliant to see at Lytle Ranch as they visited a pond to drink, males and females both dipping to the edge for sips.
  • Phainopepla: Another bird at Lytle Ranch, these glossy black flycatchers resemble nothing so much as a black northern cardinal. They're not related, but just as gorgeous.
  • American Pipit: At first these unremarkable birds would seem to pass for sparrows, until closer observation shows marked differences in plumage, bill, and behavior. They were foraging in active, eager groups in the same field where the vermilion flycatcher was feeding.
  • Black Phoebe: This was my last lifer of the trip, found at the Tonaquint Nature Center as I was idly visiting the pond for one last look. At first I wasn't going to add it to my checklist as I'd finished with all my field trips, but when I reviewed my life list and discovered that it wasn't yet accounted for, I was glad to have made the notation.

While these birds were all spectacular and are very welcome additions to my life list, they're by no means the only birds I was able to observe during the festival. Other notable birds on my different field trips include the loggerhead shrike, mountain bluebird, bald eagle, Abert's towhee, western meadowlark, wood duck, bufflehead, common merganser, great blue heron, and greater roadrunner. All told, I successfully spotted 49 different species in two days of birding. It may not be as great a total as some birders would wish for, but given that migration hasn't yet begun in full, it was a most enjoyable trip.

Little was I to know that two weeks later, I'd be adding even more lifers to my list with another trip, again to places I'd birded before. The lesson learned, then, is never assume you've seen all there is to see even at your most familiar places - birds have wings and they will use them, so you never know who may be flying by.

Never been to a birding festival? Learn what to expect if you go!