Saturday, January 29, 2011


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!

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.