Monday, September 27, 2010


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.