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.