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.