Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mixing It Up With a Lifer

Patience certainly pays off with birding, and no matter how many times you visit the same area, you never know if you'll spot something new. I couldn't tell you how often I've birded the section of the Provo River Trail from the lakeside trailhead to the first loop, but this past weekend, during my most recent visit, I added a new lifer to my list: the white-breasted nuthatch. These aren't very rare birds here, though they've eluded me (and continue to elude my camera), but I had the privilege of superb views of at least three different birds foraging in the loop area of that trail section.

They weren't the only birds I spotted at that moment, however. In winter, many birds form mixed flocks, and the trio of white-breasted nuthatches was joined by a number of black-capped chickadees, two brown creepers, and one ruby-crowned kinglet. It was a rare pleasure to observe the species in such close proximity and to have the opportunity to see their vastly different personalities.
  • The black-capped chickadees were highest in the trees, flitting rapidly but staying along branches near the upper third of the winter-denuded canopy.
  • The brown creepers preferred to stay low on the trunks of trees, working their way up as they hunted for insects, but rarely getting further than halfway up the tree.
  • The ruby-crowned kinglet stayed out of the largest trees altogether and instead foraged in nearby brushy areas at low and mid-range heights.
  • The white-breasted nuthatches started three-quarters of the way up the trees and quickly worked their way down as they foraged, but only down to the last quarter of the tree, and not often to the base.

Though they forage together, each bird has a different niche to fill and different ways to go about it. Together they can all keep watch for predators or better potential food sources, but they rarely intrude on one another's personal space.

Too often birders get too taken with seeing a new bird - and I was thrilled at the chic colors and swift grace of the nuthatches - and fail to see the amazing behaviors of their more familiar species. I'm glad I had the chance to watch all these birds together and note both their similarities and their differences, and when I next go into the field I'll be watching all the birds I know a bit more closely to see their unique personalities in action.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Snipe Hunt

Okay, so the title is a misnomer - I wasn't actually looking for a snipe when I was birding this past weekend, but the Wilson's snipe near the Provo River trailhead was an astonishing surprise. I was watching a few chilly mallards and a pair of winter-plumaged pied-billed grebes when I saw a bit of movement on a sandbar island in the river. A quick check through the binoculars was all that was necessary to confirm the Wilson's snipe with its long, probing bill and distinctive striped upperparts.

This wasn't a new bird for my life list, but I haven't seen one in nearly two years. That first view was a close but quick encounter at the St. George Winter Bird Festival in January 2009, but because this bird is so beautifully marked, it was easy to identify even then. This past weekend, I was able to watch it for several minutes as it probed along the edges of the sandbar. I had very satisfying, close-range views, as the bird was only about 35 feet away. Given that an arm of the very frigid river separated us, the snipe was utterly unconcerned with my presence, and only flew off down the waterway after it had probed all areas of the sandbar that looked promising.

I'd initially gone birding hoping for a lifer, and while I didn't see anything new, who can be disappointed with such an unexpected surprise?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy Anniversary

This past Sunday marked my two-year anniversary as the Guide to Birding / Wild Birds, and what a flight it's been. In December 2008, I was fresh from initial training and introductions, and overwhelmed with how much lay ahead. Two years later I'm no less overwhelmed, and I'm still learning more every day. Today there is even more ahead of me, despite two years of content, daily bird blogs, featured profiles, weekly newsletters, forum contests, and more. I'm anticipating some hefty changes to my work arrangements in the coming weeks (by choice), and to that end I'm planning even more exciting content - more bird profiles, range maps, bird crafts, product reviews, an extensive listing of field guides... The list goes on, and I'm pleased to keep flying.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tale of a Tail

Sometimes you can look at a familiar bird for quite some time before realizing just why the bird looks "off." This happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I noticed an unusual house finch at my Nyjer feeder. Now, for a lot of backyard birders, the fact that this male is orange rather than red would be enough to bring him to notice, but I've actually had all three male house finch color variations in my yard - red, orange, and yellow. It took me a few minutes of watching this bird to realize the reason he looked different was he's missing something quite important to a bird - he has no tail.

There can be a few reasons why a bird might lose its tail. It could be a natural part of that bird's molting cycle, or the tail feathers could have been shed because of illness or parasites. It could even have been pulled off by a predator the bird was fortunate enough to escape from or be a genetic anomaly. For this bird specifically, there are no strong indicators as to why he doesn't have his tail feathers. While he does show a touch of swelling around the eye (I regularly have outbreaks of house finch eye disease - avian conjunctivitis - at my feeders, despite my best efforts to keep the feeders clean), losing tail feathers isn't a typical symptom of that disease. He has no other signs of illness, and the condition of the rest of his plumage indicates he isn't molting. If he had a close call with a predator, he shows no other signs of it. All of those factors considered, and given that he's well able to fly and isn't lacking in any way, I'm inclined to believe this may be a genetic condition for this bird.

Still, it is interesting to see, and more interesting still when those unusual conditions help us learn to recognize individual birds. Terry the tail-less house finch has been around for a few days off and on, feeding with the other members of my house finch flock without detriment. Tail or no tail, he's as welcome as any.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Death of a Dove

The mourning doves I enjoy so much have been having a rough time since they returned to the yard just a couple of weeks ago. First, the weather changed drastically from hot to cold very quickly, and then, just another day or two later, the Cooper's hawk made a meal of one.

I always do enjoy seeing backyard hawks, despite the fact that when I do it often means my backyard flock has suffered a loss. The most recent casualty was just after the snow began to fall and my sparrows and finches were huddled in their brush pile; the mourning doves, however, do not frequent the shelter that profile provides, and the Cooper's hawk found that weakness. The hawk attacked and landed on the dove, but since the dove is so large and the hawk still young, it wasn't a fatal blow. The hawk was prepared for that, however, and it sunk its talons into the dove to wait. As the dove struggled, the hawk massaged its talons gently, driving them deeper into the dove until the struggle ended.

Staying out in the open for that long as the prey expires, however, is stressful to the hawk. It kept looking around, watching carefully for raiders or other potential predators. As soon as it could - as soon as its meal was less resistant - it flew off to eat in peace in a more secluded, secure place. The evidence of the dove's struggle was left behind in a bright splash of blood on the concrete curbing and a few scattered feathers, all that remained of one of the mourning doves I've been so happy to welcome back to the yard.

While this story has a tragic ending for one dove, I'm also pleased that it wasn't the only dove to have returned recently. While the flock may now be one smaller, I'm still happy to have the company of at least three more mourning doves, feeding and roosting in their patient way. Time will tell if the hawk is even more patient.