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.