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!

1 comment:

Kathiesbirds said...

Good for you! Congrats on the lifers! I fell in love with the vermilion flycatcher the first time I saw one.