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


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.