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.