Friday, December 16, 2011

Three Years Already?

Last week I celebrated my third anniversary of becoming the About.com Guide to Birding / Wild Birds, and I can't believe how the time has passed so swiftly, and how the site has grown and developed. In the past three years, not only have I provided hundreds of articles on bird species, feeding birds, attracting birds, birding travel, conservation and more, but I've also done weekly newsletters, range maps, photo galleries, weekly forum contests and now the latest addition, a monthly bird photo contest.

When I took this job three years ago, my biggest worry was that one day I might grow bored with birds and that I wouldn't be able to come up with enough new information and new ideas to keep writing about with a frantic fascination. I'm astonished, however, that today I have an even longer list of "must-dos" than I had three years ago, and without exaggeration, it seems as if each week I have more ideas I can't wait to put into practice. In the coming year I hope to add even more detailed bird identification diagrams, more comprehensive lists of related content, more highlights of birding hotspots around the world, and in general just more, more, and more about birds.

Even more astonishing, however, is that each day - whether I write an article, help a reader identify a bird, respond to a forum post, or plan out my next piece - I'm always learning more about birds. I'm so glad I started on this crazy flight, and I can't imagine ever wanting to land.

Don't miss your chance to enter the December 2011 Bird Photo Contest!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

No Junk Here

I always know it's getting near to winter when the dark-eyed juncos make an appearance at my feeders. In previous years at the old house, I might only see these sleek little sparrows a few times during the entire season, but this year at the larger, more bird-friendly abode they've made an early appearance and are now regulars. As ground-feeders, they often prefer either foraging around my deck feeders and slightly under the deck, or else they're poking about near my office window, which peeks out at ground level under evergreen shrubs near a sunflower feeder.

Feisty and perky, these are quick, agile birds that don't hesitate to flash their white outer tail feathers just to let everyone know this is their feeding area. I love to see that quick glimpse of white, knowing that they'll be around to brighten up many winter days. I've seen as many as three or four at once, both males and females, and I hope they continue their visits - the feeders will stay full, just in case.

My juncos are the Oregon variety - see the gallery of all junco species!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Golden Days

These are the golden days of autumn, and while much of Utah's migration has concluded, the birds that remain are gilded in fantastic light and beauty. I saw this firsthand a couple of weeks ago when we visited a local park that is home to a generous flock of ducks, including mallards and a wide range of hybrids. Just at the right time of evening, the setting sun washed over the pond, and even those very common, very ordinary birds can be extraordinary.

Too often we overlook the birds we see everyday in favor of finding something new, exotic, rare, vagrant, or otherwise "special" and we fail to see what is special about the birds we already know well as they blend into the background of our birding consciousness. Every bird has its own personality and uniqueness, and as we observe them closely in every season, we learn their quirks and what makes them stand out even in the largest flock.

As birders, if we can appreciate these golden days of autumn and the beauty of all our birds, we will have an even richer connection to every feather.

Make the most of autumn with these fall birding tips!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Screech of Delight

Last week, I had the most amazing birding experience, completely by accident. As my husband and I were making popcorn in preparation for watching Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, I turned toward our large kitchen window and saw what looked to be a large leaf flutter upwards and out of view. That might not be so unusual given the season, except it was not windy enough that night for any leaf of that size to be blown upwards. Curious (and more than a little hopeful), I stepped onto the deck and into our yard to take a peek at what I believed would be a neighborhood bat.

I never expected what I saw; perched above the kitchen window, neat as you please, was an owl. I do believe my heart actually stopped, and I watched him for a moment on the roof before he winged to a nearby tree, giving me another great view from less than 20 feet away. It was only a minute later, when he flew off to the north along the property line, that I realized I'd been too shocked to take the requisite mental notes for proper identification. But what an experience!

Two hours later, after the movie (not too bad as anthropomorphized bird movies go), I couldn't resist bundling up against the freezing temperatures, grabbing my field bag, and heading into the neighborhood for a bit of hopeful owling. Once I got outside, though, I really didn't know where to start, so I went back to the beginning, where I'd seen the owl earlier. Even before I lit my flashlight, I saw a suspicious lump above the kitchen window, and lo and behold, it was the same owl, in the same spot, with the same mildly disgruntled look to give me. Again he perched on the roof for a few moments before flying to another tree, but this time, I was able to observe him from only a dozen feet away for several minutes - enough time to note the brilliant yellow eyes, gray and black streaked plumage, rounded tail, and overall field markings that positively identified him as a western screech-owl.

Not only a remarkable new yard bird (well worth the cost of moving, in my opinion), but a tremendous new lifer I'd never have expected. And all because I saw a "leaf" outside and opted to investigate. Never miss an opportunity to look for birds, no matter how unlikely the situation might seem - you never know what might be flying by.

Do you know these 20 Fun Facts About Owls?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Return to the Field

What with home selling and buying, moving, work changes, health concerns, and more this year, I haven't been into the field to enjoy birds in months, but this past weekend I took two hours to reacquaint myself with the joys of binns hanging around my neck, my field bag and camera bag bumping on opposite hips, and the feel of cold fingers in the autumn breeze as I fiddled with a focus wheel. I'd forgotten how good it truly feels to be out birding.

I felt I was rewarded, though with only spotting six species on one of my favorite loops in Provo Canyon, other birders might not agree that it was a productive morning. Still, the birds I saw were most memorable...
  • American Dipper: Dipping along in the river, and falling off a rock in its haste to secure what must have been a very tasty morsel.
  • Black-Billed Magpie: Elegantly flying through the picnic area of the park where I began my walk, sunlight glinting off its regal plumage.
  • Song Sparrow: Twittering back at me and eagerly responding to simple pishing as it hopped and skittered through thick brush.
  • Belted Kingfisher: Irately buzzing along the river in a never-ending quest for food, strong wing beats giving it both power and speed.
  • Black-Capped Chickadee: Frantically foraging for insects in the last remaining autumn leaves, never sitting still for an instant.
  • Spotted Sandpiper: Walking and probing along an exposed sandbar from the drained reservoir, meticulously pacing the shore while foraging.
No matter what birds you may or may not see, it pays to get out into the field to enjoy them all. I won't be so long away from the trails, paths, forests, fields, and feathers again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Flick and Flack

While I'm still adjusting to the new house and yard, it is always sheer joy to see a new bird species visit. Earlier this month I had a special visit from a pair of northern flickers (red-shafted as they are in the west), and these large woodpeckers spent quite some time foraging around a series of decaying stumps near the back fence. They would peck around the ground, cling to the sides of the stumps, and perch on top while looking for the next morsel.

At this point, I don't have many woodpecker-friendly features in the backyard, but soon enough the suet feeder will be out for them to enjoy. In the meantime, the flickers - now at least three - have visited several times and seem quite content to have a browse along and beneath our honey locust trees. Once or twice I've also spotted a downy woodpecker in the vicinity, and I hope he sticks around as well. I might only get a quick flick of a view, but the woodpeckers are always welcome.

Like woodpeckers? Learn these 15 Fun Facts About Woodpeckers!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Growing Up

Seeing as I haven't been in the new house for many months and the yard is not as bird-friendly as it could be as yet, I'm thoroughly enjoying the "easy" birds that visit. Some of the most treasured are the California quail; large coveys live in the neighborhood and may visit my platform feeding area several times a day.

In the past few weeks I've delighted in watching the chicks mature; from fluffy balls of down, now they're getting closer to their adult size and their markings are starting to be apparent. They know much better how to feed now and happily kick up seed and corn just like the adults, and they're quick to flee from any perceived danger. They still stick closely together as a brood, and it won't be until next spring that they'll seek out mates of their own. I'm taking great care to keep the feeders full so they will adopt my yard and deck as a reliable food source, and hopefully I'll have even more broods to enjoy next year. Of course, with as many as 15 or so quail crowding the feeders at once, I'd best stock up on cracked corn, black oil sunflower seed, and white proso millet to sate all their appetites!

The visits from the quail have made me rethink part of my landscaping plans, and I'm glad I haven't blundered too quickly into making changes. Many times, the brood has taken shelter under the deck itself - most notably one time when the neighborhood hawk was hunting in the yard. I had planned to block off the underside of the deck and make it inaccessible, but I've seen firsthand how even that type of artificial shelter can be beneficial for birds. I may still block it off to keep cats or other animals from taking up residence, but I'll be sure the birds always have that safe spot for a fast retreat. And when I need a retreat from the stresses of life, all I have to do is remember the joy my quail bring. May your birds bring you the same.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Examining Birds

I'm happy to announce that earlier this month I took on a new role in the online birding world - I'm now the official National Examiner for Bird Watching and the local Utah County Bird Watching Examiner on Examiner.com. This gives me the opportunity to explore even more local birding as well as share my experiences with a wider national audience, in addition to my work as the About.com Guide to Birding / Wild Birds. It may seem repetitive or redundant, but there is always more to learn about birds, and the more ways we have to share what we learn, the more we can share our love of birding with others. Furthermore, the two sites are quite different - my work on About.com is much more robust, while the Examiner.com pieces are a faster read. Please be sure to tune in to whichever interests you most! Of course, I hope to continue with this blog as well - my backyard birds will always have a special place here, as will all my birding adventures - locally, nationally, and worldwide. Always more to learn about birds, always more birds to see, always more birding to be done - I wish you as much success with your birding endeavors as I have been experiencing!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cuteness Overload

I've been besieged with backyard cuteness recently; several coveys of California quail have discovered my extensive platform feeding station on the corner and stairs of my deck, complete with white proso millet and cracked corn, two of their favorite foods. The excitement starts with a flurry of chipping from the parents as they lead their brood into the yard - I can hear their calls from almost anywhere in the house, particularly with the windows open on these fine late summer days.

When they reach the feeders, the frantic feeding begins. At first the youngsters were just idly pecking about, but they've quickly learned from their parents where the food is best (on the big tray feeder) and how to get it most efficiently (quick scratches and pecks). Now, during any visit, I may have a dozen or more young quail and three or four adult birds enjoying the feast, jostling for the best positions, and taking advantage of what seed may fall through the deck into the safe sheltered space below. Given the relative sizes of the young birds, and the fact that some of the adults are snippier with some chicks more than others, it's clear that more than one covey is joining in.

I can't get enough of enjoying them, really. Quail are some of my favorite birds, with their round physiques, jaunty crests, and straight-line, fast running. How can you not be enchanted when birds such as this come high-stepping across your grass?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Negotiating With Neighbors

It was over a week ago that I had to be the hand of mercy at the end of a black-capped chickadee's life after it suffered at the paws of a neighborhood cat. I spoke with the neighbor who owns the animal, expressing my concerns and my wish that the cat was to be kept strictly indoors. While I disagree with their assertion that "no one can keep a cat indoors 100 percent of the time" (I know a fair few responsible, compassionate cat owners who do just that), I appreciate their willingness to do their best to keep the cat secure.

That said, in the past week I've twice seen the cat back in our yard. She may be learning her lesson, however, as she is not lingering and tends to skedaddle quickly as soon as she is spotted. I've seen no further evidence of her predatory instincts, and whenever I do see her I make loud, mean shouts and chase her off right away. She may, perhaps, be learning her lesson about not being welcome in my yard.

I'm going to give it a bit more time, and will likely be speaking to the neighbors again - gently, but with compassion I hope they will share. I will certainly speak with them should I find another dead bird that defies other causes (window strikes, disease, etc.). It is hard, negotiating in this way, for on one hand I want to protect my birds and it is their cat doing the trespassing - against both city and neighborhood laws - yet neighborly is another matter. I'm looking into other deterrent methods, but the mixed reviews motion-detector sprinklers and other devices have aren't promising. Perhaps my scare tactics on the cat will help her learn permanently that she needs to keep away, and I can keep away from less than neighborly conflicts.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Chickadee I Wish I Never Had

Just a day or two after we moved to this house, I was thrilled to find black-capped chickadees a plenty. They've staked out several of my trees as their own, given my husband a thorough bawling out for daring to come near them when mowing the lawn, and nicked countless seeds from my feeders. Today, however, I wished we'd never had a single one in the yard.

We also happen to have a Siamese cat that roams the neighborhood, based from our neighbors two doors down. The cat is well groomed and sweet-tempered, but I've been anxious about its presence outdoors without any collar or control. My suspicions began when I found a dead bird or two nearby, but no obvious markings that would denote them as cat prey. Today, however, I saw the cat lounging in my backyard, toying with one paw. There was no fluttering beneath that paw and no sign of feathers, so I went out to see what it might have - a mouse, perhaps, or nothing at all, given the predilection of some cats toward dramatic play.

It had a chickadee. My worst suspicions were confirmed; I chased the cat out of the yard with a none-too-gentle swat - to keep it frightened from returning, not to harm it - and gathered a bag and small hand rake to take care of the bird. When I returned, however, I was aghast to see it still breathing rapidly, trembling with fear and pain. I've never been so horrified and distraught in my life.

I feed the birds only the best seed, keep their feeders clean, disinfect their bird baths, and have a career where I teach others how to care for and appreciation our wild feathered friends. All of these things could be considered good, and in that, I'm the good guy. Today I had to be the bad guy when, with tears running down my cheeks and a sob in my throat, I had to get my husband's shovel to bludgeon the chickadee and end its suffering. I would have used the tip of the shovel's blade for a faster end, but the shovel is broken and I had to be more blunt to accomplish the task. As I raised the shovel above the bird to bring it down abruptly, the chickadee opened its eyes and looked into my tears. I can only hope it understood what it may have seen there - compassion, heartbreak, agony, and sorrow.

I plan to speak to the neighbors - their home is currently getting an addition, and it may be that the cat is only outdoors temporarily. Nevertheless, allowing a pet free roam is a violation of both our city's laws and the neighborhood homeowners' association. While there are things I can do to protect my birds from cats, it is this type of instance that makes me wish - for a moment - that I never had birds at all.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Here Kitty, Kitty

Just about one year ago, I added the gray catbird as a lifer and felt lucky to do so - I'd seen a bare glimpse of a trio of the birds foraging in Provo Canyon, and while the look was adequate for identification, it wasn't as memorable as I would have liked. Just a few weeks ago, then, we were walking again in the canyon, yet in a much more popular location, and I couldn't turn around without seeing the distinctive flash of gray with a black cap and rusty undertail coverts. Gray catbirds abound!

We never kno
w what birds we will and won't see, and the birds that are scarce in one location may be abundant just a short distance away. What we can do, however, is try our best to create a bird-friendly landscape, to preserve birds in the wild, to practice an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, and to support wildlife organizations that also follow those goals. I do it to the best of my ability, and while the heat of the summer is slowing down the conversion of the new yard into a bird's paradise (I do have two bird baths and multiple feeders out, however), it is a process that will continue as long as birds are in the skies above my yard. Maybe one day I'll even attract a gray catbird - after all, they're only a few miles away.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Blank Slate, Blank Mind

Ever look at a new space to put a birdfeeder and draw a blank as to how to best attract birds to it? I've been drawing a blank on the new yard now for several weeks. Part of it is because we haven't yet sorted the interior completely (waiting on furniture deliveries, upgrades, and design), and while I do have some feeders up in the interim, I haven't developed the plan I want for all the feeders I hope to use.


The good news is that I have a lot of fantastic features I can incorporate well, including:


  • Multiple mature trees of different varieties

  • Evergreen borders and accents

  • A garden bed ideal for feeders

  • Wide, spacious deck for hanging feeders

  • Ample space to expand landscaping beds for more plants

  • Wooden structure for mounting bird houses and nesting platforms

With so much to choose from, it's the choosing that is proving difficult. In the meantime, I have a simple concrete bird bath available as well as several simple feeders that are already attracting a hungry flock of local residents. Hopefully in the next few days I'll find time to puzzle out where to put even better feeders, but for now, the birds aren't picky and I enjoy their company all the same.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Goodbye

An era comes to an end - I have moved to a different home, leaving behind all my work to create a backyard habitat for birds in the old house, my first house. The curbing that expanded the beds, the fruit trees for birds (hawthorn and crabapple), the perennials chosen for their nectar and seed-bearing natures to provide ample food, the integrated dust bath, the window box feeders... All gone. It was a wonderful yard that brought me more than 30 backyard species to enjoy, and enjoy them I did. But the space needs of my family have grown, as have our preferences, and we've moved on.


It was hard, however, leaving the house and taking down the feeders. The rock pigeons I was so excited to attract in the last few months visited even after the feeders were removed, foraging in the bed and looking around for their missing hopper and platform feeders. My female mallard also stopped by after the feeders were removed, and her incessant quacking let there be no mistake about her feelings. The house sparrows and house finches foraged around in the emptiness, picking up the last few seeds, and one black-chinned hummingbird buzzed up to the patio window, indignant that no nectar feeders were out.


I look forward to the challenges of turning a new landscape into one the birds will appreciate and thrive in, and the new neighborhood has potential that the old did not. It is up to me (and my ever indulgent landscaper) to turn that potential into a bird-friendly backyard that will attract even more species of a wider variety to each feeder I put up.


No matter where your backyard is, make it home - both for you and the birds.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lessons From Ducks

There are many things to be learned from backyard birds, and I'm fortunate to have mallards that regularly visit my platform and tray feeders - they've taught me a lot. The past few weeks have been some of the most stressful, most hectic of my life, but you can always learn from ducks...


  • Take time to savor the moment, whether it is a warm patch of grass and sun or a cool dip in a nearby pond.

  • Try new foods; if the cracked corn isn't available, you might just discover that you like millet too.

  • Be willing to cooperate and watch over one another, taking turns taking care of one another.

  • Learn to trust the ones who help you and offer you a treat, even if you still need to be cautious.

  • Say thank you and you'll reap the rewards of a stronger, more fulfilling relationship.
I've observed all of these behaviors in my mallards, both between the mated pair and Sheila's (the hen) interaction with me. Such simple things, but so much to learn from all the birds in our lives.

May your lessons be as meaningful, and help you out when your life needs it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Millet Mania

It has always interested me how certain birds have very precise feeding preferences; they will only visit a certain type of feeder, will sort through a mixed seed to find their favorites, and may even eat in a very particular way. This is never so apparent at my backyard feeders than when the lazuli buntings come to visit.

These beautiful spring birds are mad for millet - they will swarm over my platform feeder frantically feeding, and they quickly discover other feeders offering millet or mixed seed they can pillage. They staunchly ignore other feeders, however, even with the choicy hulled sunflower seeds or more expensive Nyjer.

I'm thrilled that the lazulis have returned this spring; I've had a dozen or more males feeding at once, with a smaller but no less voracious number of females. Fortunately, my platform feeder is still housed beneath the patio table for shelter from the spring rains, but even chilly, unseasonable weather hasn't deterred their appetites - I'm adding another heap of millet to the feeder every couple of days. I know they won't stay around for long and will probably leave for more elevated nesting areas in another couple of weeks, but while they're here I'm happy to host a millet-heavy buffet.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Duck Drama

This spring has been a dramatic one for the resident mallards in our neighbor's pond. Each year a pair scouts the pond in early nesting season, and invariably we see the ducklings for a day or two before they graduate to wilder surroundings than a cultivated backyard pond. This year, however, two drakes have been contending for the affections of one female, and one of the drakes has been the clear victor - that is, he has retained his tail feathers while the other has been ceremoniously unmanned. For several days he sulked around our patio (not too wounded to ignore the cracked corn), and even now he occasionally flits over to the pond until he is chased away by the mated mallard. The female, in the meantime, ignores them both for the most part. There has been a second female visiting on occasion and while the two gals will get together for a good gossip, only one stays nearby.

Then, just a few days ago, the ducklings arrived. Always adorable, these small balls of fluff were not at all tentative in trying out the water this year, and when they tired they curled up under mom's feathers to stay warm and snuggle. Their early lives were not without drama as well, however, as one of the drakes started to chase the brooding female all around the pond. She was frantic - unwilling to fly and leave her babies, she kept circling around her brood even while the male was quite literally on her tail. Fortunately, our neighbor intervened and chased away the drake several times, and eventually he got the idea that he wasn't welcome for the time being.

Now the ducklings have moved on, but one adult pair is still visiting occasionally, including raiding our cracked corn dishes - to which they are most welcome. My best thought is that it is likely the second female and the earlier rejected drake - now graciously regrowing his tail feathers, which are coming in but notably shorter than average. Perhaps later this spring we'll have visits from another young brood, but hopefully without as much drama.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Looking for Loons in All the Wrong Places

It's getting harder and harder to easily see new birds in Utah as my life list keeps growing, but earlier this month I had the best of luck looking for loons on the mountain reservoirs. While most spring birds have not made extended appearances yet, the common loons are most gracious as they pass through the mountain west, and they readily rest on the deep, chilled reservoirs before continuing their flights north.

I have always wanted to see a loon and add these unique and distinctive birds to my life list, and it was far easier than I'd imagined. We'd no sooner driven to the westernmost edge of the Deer Creek Reservoir when I spied a distinctive head and low-riding back in the water, and we quickly turned to park alongside the edge and enjoy views as the bird floated serenely on the choppy waves, occasionally dipping its face into the water to spy fish before diving to hunt.

Further up the canyon and deeper into the reservoir, we saw even more loons, all placidly enjoying a swim. Their checkered plumage, banded necks, and rich, dark heads are unmistakable, and I could have looked at them all day. In total, at least two dozen of the birds were widely spaced on the water, keeping well away from early spring fishers.

The most interesting thing is that no field guide mentions that common loons can be commonly seen in Utah. Granted, the timing has to be perfect - they only pass through this area for a short time on migration, and one has to know where to look to get these privileged views. For several years now, I've tried loon-spotting on the wrong days or in the wrong areas, always to go home disappointed.

Not this year; the loons were beautiful, my life list is one longer, and spring is getting off to a great start.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

A First Sign of Spring

Despite it now being mid-April, winter has been protracted this year and spring isn't as advanced as you would expect. The weather is warming and flowers are beginning to bloom, however, but most trees are holding tight to their winter hibernation, at least for the moment.

Still, I saw the first sign of spring in my backyard several days ago with the reappearance of the Cassin's finches - at least two pair, with the brightly colored males and boldly marked females both visiting the feeders and snacking on hulled sunflower seed. Theoretically, Cassin's finches are found in Utah year-round, but that has never been the case in my yard. They will visit for a few weeks to take advantage of the food and shelter I provide, but as the trees begin to embrace the warming season they will disappear to better nesting areas and more natural food sources.

Despite the season's delay, migrants are starting to appear - I've noticed a few yellow-rumped warblers flitting about the trees nearby, and the numbers of birds at my feeders are beginning to rise. Hopefully this pause in the season will be over soon, and I'll have more than the one rosy sign of spring my yard has thus far seen.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rock On!

Having a very urban, relatively bland backyard can make backyard birding a challenge, but I was thrilled to add a new yard bird to my list this weekend: a rock pigeon. The irony is that these birds are often one of the most common in urban areas, but they've never before graced my feeders. Two of the beauties - a matching pair of classically plumaged birds with iridescent necks - found my feeders and enjoyed foraging beneath them, hunting for seeds and insects that may have spilled.

A lot of birders don't appreciate the rock pigeon for what it is: a remarkably adaptable, unflappable bird that has survived and thrived in some of the widest ranging habitats and most variable conditions on the planet. From their native European cliff nesting grounds to urban habitats around the world, rock pigeons are the ultimate success story in avian fitness. Granted, I'm privileged in that I've only had a single pair of these birds at my feeders rather than a ravenous flock, but even in areas where I am surrounded by these birds they remain among my favorites.

I'm also thrilled for their visit for another reason; their appearance at my feeders completes the trio of common dove species to visit my yard: Eurasian collared-doves, mourning doves, and rock pigeons. These three species are found throughout Utah, and while several other species do make cameo appearances in the state, these three are the only ones likely in my area and certainly at my feeders, where all three are most welcome.

It was gratifying, too, to have the opportunity to compare the rock pigeon's behavior to that of my more familiar doves. It is curious that they fall between the magnanimous, laid back personalities of the mourning doves and the highly skittish, always-on-alert personalities of the Eurasian collared-doves. Whey they were startled by noises and unusual movements, rather than flushing immediately as the collared-doves are prone to do, they froze, evaluated the situation, then resumed foraging when they saw no further threat.

They didn't stay long, but I do hope they'll return. Rock on, rock pigeons.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Diamond Duck

Spring still hasn't quite arrived here in my part of Utah, but it is getting closer. Ice has receded on many ponds and shores, and for a short visit today we strolled along one of those shores in American Fork, at a pond where mallards and their manky relatives stay the winter. In a dirty little secret of mine, we took along a very small hunk of bread to feed the flock - just a rare treat, and never so much to foul the water - and it was well received.

One of the flock, a white domestic duck that appeared to have clipped wings but is no less brave and curious for his affliction, was bold enough to nibble from - and on - my fingertips for a few scraps. As I was feeding him, it was to my astonishment that he kept trying to take bread when I had no more to give at that moment, until I realized he wasn't actually nipping at my fingertips, but rather at my left ring finger and the diamond that glitters there. He was quite insistent even after I'd moved my finger away - a duck with very good taste.

Two notes about such visits to a pond, whether you're in Utah or anywhere your pond may rest - never feed bread frequently to the birds, as it offers no more nutrition to them than a candy bar would to you, and too much bread is unhealthy and unwise. Second, always keep an eye open for fishing line that could strangle and injure waterfowl and other birds; we collected quite the clump today. For a quick treat and a quick rescue from what could have been, it was a very lovely lazy Sunday walk.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March Madness

Sometimes, birds aren't at all appreciative of the effort you make to provide a comfortable, safe, backyard habitat for them to enjoy. I have a heated bird bath that I've tried to keep meticulously filled and clean all winter, yet earlier this week the American robins that stopped by for a refreshing dip were far more interested in the scummy, filthy water that has accumulated on the base of our basketball hoop from random spring sprinkles and snow melt. Granted, the puddle on the basketball hoop is much shallower than the bird bath, but the mild depth of the bath has never deterred either bathers or drinkers.

Maybe these robins just wanted their own March Madness - mad for bathing, mad for spring to arrive and mad to look their best for the ladies. Soon enough the mating madness will take over (my Eurasian collared-doves are getting a head start), but for now I'll appreciate any and all visits the birds make to my backyard, even if my bird bath stays lonely.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Good-Bye Juncos

The weather is warming, the snow is melted, and spring is most definitely advancing on northern Utah, so I was surprised last weekend to see a pair of foraging dark-eyed juncos near Skipper Bay in Provo. These birds are rare in my backyard but I see them quite regularly through the winter as I hit the wooded trails, but I don't recall seeing them quite so late in the past couple of years. It was a pleasure to see them, with the warm colors the lowering sun cast on their plumage were an ironic contrast to their preference for chillier climates.

Having watched their energetic foraging along the trail for a few minutes, I was fairly sure that would be my last sighting of these dark-eyed, light-billed beauties this winter, but this afternoon I was proven wrong. I heard the spring chorus of an eager male house finch looking for a mate from one of the trees near my backyard and when I looked for him, I saw a sprightly visitor bouncing around the same tree. A quick glance through the binns and I knew the juncos had come to say good-bye: they flitted through the trees for a few minutes before flying off.

See you next winter.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Vegas Sunset

Sunset Park is one of my very favorite birding spots in Las Vegas, and after this last trip, it is even more impressive. Previously, the park has consisted of an extensive area of playgrounds and ball fields that aren't very enticing to birds, and the highlight has been Sunset Lake - the artificial pond that hosts many different types of waterfowl. Around the lake is a wide stretch of open ground and trees where songbirds can be found, and beyond that was undeveloped scrub desert where the most adventurous birders might find dry-loving species.

In the past year, however, that scrub desert has been beautifully renovated and preserved, and a small area of natural spring marsh is now able to be accessed. Wide, accessible walking trails stroll through the extensive area, and information stations offer tidbits about local ecology, climate, habitats, and wildlife, including birds. The area has been leveled a bit to give clear, unobstructed views, but the native vegetation is thriving, and so are the birds. In just that area, I spotted...

Mind you, this was before migration has really begun and later in the morning, but still the birding was exquisite. Both the Costa's hummingbird and the Bewick's wren were unexpected lifers - unexpected because I've been to Sunset Park several times, and I'd not anticipated any new birds. The Costa's hummingbird was displaying in his dizzying courtship flights, and the Bewick's wren was singing greetings to all passersby.

This park is always a Vegas jackpot for birding, and I highly recommend it - it's not a gamble to get great birding here!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Black Beauty

On our recent weekend in Las Vegas, I had a quick glimpse of Down Under, thanks to a tip and some hotspot advice from a couple of different birders. I recently had a reader ask me about black swans and whether or not they were migratory, as he's seen them in Vegas, and to follow up on the sighting I asked a contact I have in Vegas about the birds. Sure enough, they were still around - and happily so - when we arrived in Sin City.

The birds are most often seen at a planned community development that includes a large recreational lake. It is that lake - an oasis in the city - that has drawn the swans, and they're content to stay nearby. I was pleased that when we saw them, the birds were completely unperturbed and unconcerned about my nearby presence, even when I approached within just a few feet to photograph them and see them more clearly. That speaks very highly of the community in that the birds are not molested and feel quite comfortable with their human neighbors.

This gave me the unparalleled opportunity to observe them closely, and they're quite stunning birds. Their sooty black plumage is striking, as are the curls their long back feathers make. The red bill stands out beautifully as does the flash of white on the wings, and I find the red-and-black combination of their colors to be very appropriate for Las Vegas, even though they're a world away from their native Australian range. I was surprised that they're so much smaller than the mute swans I'm more familiar with, but they're just as elegant. They're also more magnanimous, as I've always found mute swans to have an easily provoked aggressive side.

Though it wasn't a hard lifer to find nor to observe, I still feel privileged to add these black beauties to my life list.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lost Lifer

I learned a harsh lesson last week visiting the Tonaquint Nature Center in St. George. I've birded the area several times previously and it's a pleasant and productive area for a relatively brief stop - not too large to be unmanageable in less than an hour, but not so small or plain that it doesn't attract a range of birds. In fact, in the 45 minutes or so I was there, I positively identified 17 different species, with really spectacular views of many of them. The ring-necked duck was particularly nice to see, and the Abert's towhees are always fun to watch there, as are the brazen white-crowned sparrows.

It was the one bird I couldn't identify that broke my heart, but it's entirely my fault. So casual was I about this brief stop along the road - the area is conveniently close to I-15 - that I didn't check my field bag as we left the truck, and my trusty Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America was left sitting in the back. After we'd watched the varied waterfowl on the pond, strolled the scrub trail, and trekked through the open flats at the back of the property, I heard an odd thudding from a small section of deep brush. Closer observation showed an industrious woodpecker, obviously not a downy woodpecker or a hairy woodpecker, both of which I'm familiar with. I was fairly confident it was a red-naped sapsucker, and as I've seen them in the area before, I failed to watch too closely but did snap a couple of quick photos. We finished our walk and I didn't think more of it until returning to the truck and my absent field guide.

A quick turn to page 217, however, and my heart sank. That was no red-naped sapsucker I'd seen. Puzzling over the rest of the woodpecker pages and comparing it to my all-too-inadequate photos, it's likely the bird was a ladder-backed woodpecker, which would have been a new addition to my life list. I'm picky, though, and because I couldn't identify the bird in the field and couldn't confirm all the field marks, I do not feel justified in adding it. It's my fault - it's my field guide I left behind.

It's a mistake I've never made before and one I'll never make again. One lost lifer is enough.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Butter-Butts Are Back

The first sign of spring flew through my yard this week - or more accurately, through my neighbor's yard to feed on the leftover apples - a butter-butt, or for the less colloquial, a yellow-rumped warbler. I noticed the bird hawking around the tree a bit and its behavior wasn't at all sparrow- or finch-like, which are my two most frequent visitors this time of year. A quick peek through the binoculars was all that was needed, however, to see the distinct warbler profile, yellow flank patch, dainty bill, and eye ring. A quick turn of a pose and I saw a flash of its bright rump as well, and there's no denying what bird it is.

What an exciting moment it was, to realize spring is on the way and perhaps closer than believed. Yellow-rumped warblers are the earliest migrating warblers in North America, and in some places they may overwinter. Admittedly, they don't stay through Utah's bitterly cold winters, so this bird's persistent appearance is a sure sign that the weather is warming.

There is another lesson here: just how valuable fruit trees are in the spring. If this particular golden delicious apple tree had been thoroughly harvested and stripped of its fruit to avoid the "hassle" of fallen apples over the winter, there would have been no food source for this early warbler to take advantage of. Throughout the long cold season, I've also seen American robins, European starlings, Eurasian collared-doves, and house finches taking advantage of the bounty to varying degrees. Certainly some birds prefer the fruit while others may just be giving it an idle sample or searching for insects on the fruit, but nonetheless it is a critical resource for many winter and early spring birds. My crabapple trees, still new to the landscaping, haven't been getting as much attention, but I anticipate that in the next few weeks they too will be fed upon by returning birds, and all are welcome at the buffet.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Crowning Glory

On my recent trip to Powder Mountain - where I added the hairy woodpecker to my life list - I also added another bird, and given that I saw it last on the trip, it would qualify as my most recent tick. An elusive, high mountain bird with stunning colors, it really is a crowning glory to a successful bird outing: the gray-crowned rosy-finch.

I've rarely seen a bird so aptly named. This finch has some of the most stunning plumage I've ever seen - milk chocolate brown overall, with a bright pink wash on the wings, a silvery gray head, and a bold black crown. The white eye ring and yellow bill complete its rainbow.

While standing still these birds are beautiful enough, they're even more astounding in flight. As the flock of nearly fifty we were watching swooped in to the feeder and soared over the roofs of the Powder Mountain resort, their wings shown silvery-white, nearly glowing in the snowy sun. Combined with the glittery cold of the day, it was a breathtaking sight.

Too often, however, birders get absorbed in the breathtaking birds they see and fail to fully appreciate their surroundings. While walking around a small area of the resort, we came to an overlook by one of the ski trails. Looking out across the mountain range with the low-lying clouds that made it a drab day in the valley, I couldn't help having the feeling of being at the very top of the world. Birding is a beautiful hobby, not only in the diversity of color, shape, and style of the birds you see, but in the beautiful places you visit to see them. The next time you're out birding, take a few moments away from the binoculars to truly see where you are. The subtle play of light along a river, the ancient crooks and curves of tree branches, the aquatic waving of meadow grasses... A beautiful setting can be the crowning glory on a day of birding, with or without lifers.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Hairy Lifer

I wrapped up January's birding with two fantastic new lifers, though one of them may not seem so spectaculary: the hairy woodpecker. Not an uncommon bird, the hairy woodpecker has nonethless eluded me whenever I'm in the appropriate habitat, but with this bird walk to Powder Mountain in northern Utah, it was an easy bird to spot.

First, the bird was in the middle of the road near the ski resort's lodge entrance, happily pecking away at some unknown source of interest on the icy surface. Later, it - and its partner - flitted among trees to forage, and occasionally dropped down to visit the suet feeder I was observing with a group of other birders brave enough to venture into the mountains' bitter cold.

Through my research, I knew of the similarities between downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, and how challenging it can be to tell the two similar species apart. Having now seen them both in the field, I can say it may not be as hard as believed, once you have the honor of seeing both yourself. The hairy woodpecker is noticeably larger, and the long bill stands out as a formidable tool, whereas the downy woodpecker's bill is little more than a pointed nub among its nasal bristles. While both species have black and white plumage, the hairy woodpecker is much darker overall, with less white mottling on the wings. The behavior of the two birds is also markedly different: while the downy woodpecker is more active and flighty, I found the hairy woodpecker to be very deliberate. It's a bird that knows what it wants.

And to that end, I know what I want: the opportunity to see even more lifers and observe their fascinating behavior as it should be - in the wild, doing what wild birds do. There is no comparison with books, field guides or secondhand sightings. Let's get birding.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

National Bird Feeding Month

If you haven't heard, February is National Bird Feeding Month, and this year the birds need those extra tasty tidbits more than ever. The extreme snowfall over much of the country and even the bitter cold here in Utah make it harder for birds to find food just at a time they need more calories to maintain enough body heat to survive.

I have over a dozen feeders around my two yards - front and back - as well as the new crabapple and hawthorne trees. Most of my feeders have hulled sunflower seeds for fantastic energy without any residual mess, and I also feed Nyjer, cracked corn and mixed seed. Even more important than just feeding, though, is taking care of your feeders even in the harshest weather conditions - keep feeding trays clear and snow away from feeding ports and perches so the birds can access the food easily.

Every step you go beyond just feeding the birds can also help them survive these harsh storms. Keep a heated bird bath clean and filled for fresh water, and provide shelter in a brush pile, roosting boxes, or sheltered niches for roosting birds. You'll be rewarded as even in the most wicked part of winter, your yard is alive with energetic, healthy birds. I know mine is, and even on the days when the weather keeps me indoors, I am able to enjoy that touch of nature as my birds flit back and forth through the yard.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Awarded

I generally don't pay attention to awards in the so-called blogosphere, as many of them are tacky gimmicks designed to do nothing more than to garner a few more visitors to the awarding website rather than the blogs supposedly awarded. This week, however, Backyard Birds Utah was included on what I truly believe to be an impressive list - 30 Terrific Bird Blogs - hand-picked and assembled by Guide to Online Schools.

Still a pessimist, I did check out the list, and was amazed by what I found. Not only are several birding blogs I myself follow included in this ranking, but there are a wide range of hidden gems that I could easily spend all day reading. I've been meaning more and more to get involved with other birding blogs - birders are a gregarious group and do tend to flock together - and this list is a key starting point that I highly recommend for all who enjoy bird blogs.

Just make sure you keep coming back to #10!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shining Stars

I had some welcome guests in the yard a few days ago, guests that many backyard birders scorn and shun but who are always appreciated in my yard: European starlings. Colorful, energetic, and perky, they were amusing to watch as they poked through the exposed mulch from melting snow and their cacophony of chatter was a welcome din to mask the bland traffic noises to which I am so accustomed in this urban area. While part of the flock foraged in my yard, another part feasted on the bounty that is my neighbor's golden delicious apple tree and the leftover fruit that has nicely over-ripened through the winter (which is a fantastic reason to have fruit trees for birds as part of your wildlife landscaping).

I know I'm fortunate with European starlings; I don't ever succumb to the massive flocks that many birders face, and for the most part, my starling visitors rarely touch my bird feeders - even when they're stocked with tempting hulled sunflower seeds, as they are all winter. I can completely understand the frustration of putting out plentiful seed only to have it vacuumed up by these greedy gobblers, but even with their voracious appetites they're still fine birds to witness. At the very least, they were a welcome addition to my backyard for the little while they stayed, particularly when my local flocks are quite bland and predictable this time of year. Spring may be on the way, but until it arrives the starlings do tend to be some shining stars in my avifauna assembly.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter Sips

A winter wonderland may be filled with frozen water, but it's liquid water that birds crave. By providing water in your backyard via a heated bird bath all winter long, you'll see a wide range of thirsty birds visiting the bar for a quick drink.

I love my heated bird bath - a very simple plastic basin with a concealed heating element (to prevent shorts and increase the lifespan of the heater) mounted in a plain metal frame. The house finches, lesser goldfinches, and American goldfinches all enjoy simple sips, but it is the house sparrows that truly enjoy the bath - in every way. More than once this winter I've spied my sparrows happily splishing and splashing, even on the chilliest of days. Many backyard birders worry that bathing birds might freeze in winter, but in fact they're quite well insulated and moderately wet feathers are not harmful on most days. The birds themselves don't tend to bathe in the most severe cold, and after a bath they often sunbathe or otherwise dry themselves off and warm up.

Even in winter, never forget to clean your bird baths and keep them freshly filled. This is especially important with heated baths, since a dry bath can cause the heating element to malfunction. I need to remember to refill mine more frequently, but whenever I see the birds balancing nearly headfirst for a quick sip, it's a great reminder!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Playing at a New Pond

It's always nice to discover a new birding location, a great spot to see different birds with a different view than your very familiar local trails. Over the weekend, I joined a bird walk with Bill Fenimore of the Wild Bird Center in Layton, and we visited Beus Pond in Ogden. It's a nice, medium-sized pond with a rich riparian habitat: open water and flowing streams even in the winter, many nesting boxes for the local waterfowl, marshy and reedy areas for cover, and crabapple trees for winter food along the park's perimeter - all ideal for birds. The park is even well planned for birders: ample parking that won't disturb the birds, a well groomed path around the pond and through some forested patches, feeders kept filled to attract numerous songbirds to great views, and a small dock projecting slightly into the pond for excellent waterfowl views and interaction.

Over the course of the hour-long visit, we spotted more than a dozen species on even a drab winter day, with some remarkable views of wood ducks and mallards swimming and preening, black-capped chickadees stealing seeds from the feeders, spotted towhees foraging in the brush, a brown creeper flitting up tree trunks, and a sharp-shinned hawk poised for a hopeful lunch. It's a lovely spot, and I can't wait to visit again, particularly during migration seasons and spring, when the ducks are fledging.

Bill Fenimore is a wealth of birding knowledge and local history of wildlife management, and his bird walks are always a pleasure. On this occasion, he shared with us some of the history of Beus Pond and its magnificent population of wood ducks. Wood ducks are not widespread in Utah, and not much habitat is suitable for them locally. Beus Pond, however, is an ideal location, and about 20 years ago a group of wood ducks with clipped wings (to prevent them from leaving) was introduced to the pond. The birds were well cared for with the nest boxes and careful monitoring, and they have thrived. In recent years, reports of wood ducks have been confirmed in adjacent areas, proving that the introduction has been successful and the duck population is growing.

Beus Pond is a wonderful birding location, and I can't wait to go play again when even more birds will join the game.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Trip to Alaska

This weekend I took a trip to Alaska and back, at least with birding spirit. On a listserv tip, I visited a new-to-me park along the Jordan River in West Valley City to observe some winter waterfowl, including the 245th bird to be added to my life list - the Barrow's goldeneye. The black-and-white males have elegant, chic plumage with a distinct crescent-shaped patch on the cheek, while the more camouflaged females sport their mostly orange bills with pride. At this location, the males were in full masculine form trying to impress their chosen females with a series of craning necks, fluffed heads, and short, pleading honks. The girls seemed not to watch, but undoubtedly they're sizing up the competing males before deciding who will be their mate when they arrive back at their northern breeding grounds in just a few weeks.

I've wanted to add this duck to my life list for some time, ever since I saw the common goldeneye with its circular cheek patch. At first glance there doesn't seem to be much else different between these two types of ducks, but this sighting gave me an unmatched opportunity to see both species in close proximity. They are actually quite different in their coloration, with the Barrow's goldeneye being a darker bird with more prominent black. The head shapes of the two species are also bit different, though that's hard to tell because they change postures frequently.

In behavior, they do act similar - both goldeneyes were very skittish as I watched, even though the path I was on is set a bit back from the riverbank, and the river itself is wide and open in that area, providing good visibility. In contrast, the mallards, northern shovelers, and Canada geese that were also in the floating flock didn't mind my presence at all.

What a treat to add this bird to my life list; the first of many I hope to see in 2011. May your birding be as productive all year long!
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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pining for Winter

Anyone who might doubt the need for evergreen trees in a winter landscape as part of a bird habitat need only to watch my trees on any chilly day. My house sparrows flit back and forth from the feeders to their favorite winter perches, which include a dwarf mugo and two Colorado blue spruces, and at times it can look like the trees are strung with feathered ornaments. On a stormy day, they will duck deeper into the branches, and a whole flock of small birds may be sheltering in quite a small tree.

As I continue planning my landscaping, I intend to add more pines. They're relatively hardy trees and provide fantastic cover, not to mention being attractive in all seasons. Birds can nest in them, some birds will eat the seeds, and they don't require too much maintenance (and no raking for the short-needled varieties!). At this time of year, they provide critical shelter, so long as you do continue to care for the smaller varieties. Just today - as I was refilling my front yard bird feeders - I took some of the iced over snow off the mugo so it would straighten up, fluff out, and be better shelter than an icy pancake. Larger pines and mature trees, of course, don't need that type of quick care and are perfectly usable even in the harshest winter weather or deepest snowfall.

For now, I'm happy that my pine trees can entice my shivering flock to safer shelter, and they're welcome to decorate it anytime.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Got Doves?

I may not have great bird diversity in my backyard during the wicked Utah winter, but there's no denying that I have great numbers of birds. That is never more obvious than when the flock of Eurasian collared-doves comes to feed. My backyard doves, in particular, never seem to have learned that doves are typically ground feeding birds, and instead they've learned how to attack the hopper feeder from my flocks of sparrows and finches. They crowd one another out, land on one another, and occasionally nip one another in order to get at the hulled sunflower I feed. Some are more patient, however, and will stake out positions on top of the feeder, on the nearby stump, or in the adjacent hawthorn tree to wait their turns (or just because they won't fit at the feeding ledge). I've had as many as a dozen or more at once, and these are not small doves by any means.

I never tire of watching these birds, and Eurasian collared-doves hold a special place for me. I had never seen one before moving to Utah, and the first day I saw one on our patio I dismissed it at a quick glance, believing it to be a mourning dove. Something about it caught my eye, however, and I looked closer - it didn't have the spotty wings of a mourning dove, it was much too big, and no mourning dove had that ring on the back of the neck. After a quick consultation with my favorite field guide (Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America), I had a new lifer on my list, and it's been a favorite bird of mine ever since.

Over the years, I've marveled at these doves' personalities - they tend to be more skittish and nervous than mourning doves and they're frantic eaters, which stems from that nervousness and a wariness of any potential predators. Their harsh coos remind me of owls, and like all birds, they are distinct individuals. I've had one that would smack its comrades with a wing if they got too close when feeding, and another one is a definite nipper. I've even had one visit that was partially leucistic, with patches of much paler feathers and an overall lighter coloration that made it distinctive.

A lot of backyard birders may feel that doves - particularly ones with such voracious appetites - are less than welcome at their feeders, but these beautiful birds will always be welcome at mine.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Welcoming 2011

When this first day of the new year dawned bright, cold, and clear, I could think of no better way to welcome 2011 than with a birding walk. My husband and I headed down to the Provo River trailhead near Utah Lake, a stretch we've walked several times in the past couple of weeks, but every walk is a surprise. This morning's birding was among the best I've had there in the past weeks, and twenty fun and fantastic species joined me in the new year.

What a wonderful turnout, despite no new lifers. I had particularly good views of many of the songbirds, including the brown creeper and ruby-crowned kinglet, and the bald eagle was a juvenile roosting in the same trees where we saw two adults earlier in the week. This is deservedly one of my favorite birding spots, and each time I visit I'm always hopeful for even more avian friends. With a bit of birding luck, the new year will bring even more species along this and my other favorite birding walks.

To all of you, best wishes for a very happy, very birdy new year.