Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ringing the Birdie Bell

We all have that one bird feeder we love; it might not be the most attractive, or the most popular, but it is just our favorite to watch. For me, it is my Birdie Bell, and it has hosted a wide range of species over the years. Most recently, a female downy woodpecker has discovered the molded seed bells it holds and practices her best impression of a bell clapper to munch.

Other birds that have enjoyed the musical treats of the bell include...
 At times, more than one species will be busy on the bell, despite its smaller size, and they typically get along well as they wriggle into a good position to nick a seed or two. From my perspective, it is always entertaining to watch as a bird clings to the side and stretches to reach the seed, and some birds have cleverly figured out how to get inside the feeder and will perch as if in a jail cell while they enjoy a "last meal" easily and conveniently. Of course, escape is no problem!

It is harder to get out into the field in the winter, and this is the time of year when our feeders may provide most of our birding enjoyment. I hope you have a feeder to enjoy just as much as I enjoy this one!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


I love all my backyard birds and cherish the days an entire flock comes to feed (never mind the decimation to my seed stocks), but it's the birds I can recognize as individuals that really become noticeable and heartwarming.

One such individual has been visiting for a few weeks; a house finch I've christened Droopy for the right wing he holds more loosely (see the photo; poor quality, but the best I could get to show his affliction). I suspect some type of nerve damage is the culprit for this bird's distinction, as he shows no other signs of illness and is otherwise healthy and perky. Though often alone - and recent studies have revealed how house finches, in particular, are unforgiving of ill or injured birds - he feeds well and is quite mobile, hopping about the deck and flying without discernible difficulty, if the tiniest bit lopsided. He seems quite content to rest often, but perks up as needed when disturbed and is well able to stay out of harm's way.

Too often we only notice individual birds once they are too drastically ill to be helped - swollen eyes, excessive lameness, obvious pox, etc. - but occasionally we see a bird that can stand out to us. That recognition gives us the chance to learn that bird as an individual, to study its behavior and discover its quirks, to smile when we see it and to miss it when it doesn't visit. These opportunities are rare, but should be treasured.

All my birds are friends, but it is nice to have a friend known by name and one whose company I can look forward to recognizing. I haven't seen him about in a few days, but I wish Droopy well and look forward to his next visit.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Striking Out

This hasn't been a very birdy few weeks for me, as other issues have required focus and time to head into the field has been scarce. Still, when multiple reports of bohemian waxwings surfaced locally, pinning the birds in one spot less than an hour away day after day, I had to take the chance.

Unfortunately, the day I headed to "the U" (University of Utah) to scour fruit trees for the foraging flock proved to be quite chilly and windy, and very few birds were to be found. A flock of rock pigeons was calmly foraging on the ground and it was fascinating to watch them gradually make their way around President's Circle, taking startled flight with every car that passed. After wandering among buildings looking for other possible hideouts for the waxwings, I did find a particularly cooperative black-capped chickadee that was holding a free concert with his liquid warble, though he wouldn't deign to pose for photos. The only other bird in the vicinity was a lone American robin, the only bird perched in the branches where I'd hoped to find the waxwings.

Too often, we believe birds to be reliable fixtures whenever they've been regularly reported, but as a birding friend once told me, "birds have wings and they will use them." Obviously, the waxwings used their wings and didn't manage to fly into my sights, but I'll keep scanning the listservs in the hopes of another sighting to bring a spark of birding into my hectic schedule.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Time to Winterize

Indian summer can come unexpectedly in Utah, and cool nights can quickly be followed by warm days even in October and November. The clue I use to know when winter is truly on the way, however, is the first time the bird bath freezes. It did so several weeks ago but a crowded schedule kept me relying on morning sunshine to melt the water, until last week when an afternoon of winterizing was at hand.

Preparing my backyard for winter birds is more than just plugging in my heated bird bath. To be sure my birds are well cared for even in the coldest temperatures, winterizing includes...
  • Removing the concrete bird bath and putting it in storage.
  • Stacking the deck furniture in a sheltered corner.
  • Moving deck feeders further under shelter to protect them from snowfall.
  • Vacuuming the deck and under feeders to remove excess hulls and debris.
  • Swapping my deck bird bath for the heated bath.
  • Checking my bird seed storage for good quantities to last all season.
Of course, refilling the feeders is part of the task as well! With so many changes at hand, it often takes a few days for the birds to lose their wariness and return to the feeders, but they're now coming back in flocks - finches, juncos, sparrows, jays, magpies, and doves. The sharp-shinned hawk has buzzed the yard a few times, and without a doubt other birds have flitted by. Whenever they want a rest spot on a cold day, I'm ready!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Falling Temperatures, Falling Birds

The past week has been rough on the birds, or at least it would seem in the backyard. Our temperatures have been wildly swinging but are now steadily dropping, as are the few remaining leaves clinging to our sumac and honey locust trees. The sharp-shinned hawk made a startling appearance, the bird bath has been icing over each night, and the deck has been winterized with the furniture piled up in a sheltered corner and the feeders moved slightly to be out of the snowfall range. To a bird, each of these changes adds up to more uncertainty in an already uncertain season.

For several days the birds have been absent, and only today have more been returning to sample the new offering of seeds, but they are doing it with gusto. The California quail are still conspicuous in their absence, but they roam throughout the neighborhood and are sure to return as the season progresses and word gets out about the piles of cracked corn awaiting their scratching toes on my deck.

But even as birds seems to leave in winter, more will arrive. Birders are abuzz with the thought of this year's irruptions, and just today I spotted a flock of cedar waxwings in a neighbor's tree, the first time I've seen them so close in the neighborhood. Who knows what feathered friends may be about this winter, but I'm ready - and waiting.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Snow and Snowbirds

It's an event I've been looking forward to for months - the first snow, and the first snowbirds. Sure enough, with the snowstorm we had over the weekend, the dark-eyed juncos descended on my feeders in flitty flocks. While some areas are fortunate to have these small sparrows year-round, they are absent from much of Utah in spring, summer and fall, with the exception of one subspecies that has never yet found my yard to its liking. Fortunately, the more common Oregon subspecies appreciates my birdscaping efforts and is happy to spend the winter enjoying my buffet.

The weather may be cooling and migration is all but over, but there is still plenty of wonderful birding about if you appreciate the birds winter brings flying in! I hope just as many welcome visitors join in your backyard flock no matter how frozen the days may become.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Varied Views

Last month we enjoyed a short getaway to northern Utah, including a visit to the Golden Spike National Historic Site as well as Spiral Jetty. There were birds about in both places, and while I enjoyed the variety and the grand views I had of several species I don't have occasion to see frequently, it was the varied thrush at the Golden Spike visitor center that offer the most thoughtful view.

This bird was patently uninterested in my presence, or in the presence of other guests going in and out of the visitor center, and instead continued to forage in the grassy patch right near the entrance. In and out of sunlight, coming closer and further away, turning to every angle - no birder could ask for better views of this colorful thrush that isn't often seen in Utah. How different this was from my first view of my lifer varied thrush over two years ago, when the bird stayed deep in tangled brush and only came out for quick views,  never staying in the clear.

Just because we've seen a bird before doesn't mean we can't enjoy each view we get, especially when the bird tempts us with its gorgeous color and spectacular views, unique behavior, or other treats. Each sighting is just as memorable, and these varied views certainly add to a varied life list!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Firebox Flicker

I had a rather unique wildlife experience today, one I'd not hoped to have and hope not to repeat.

Yesterday evening, my husband heard a visitor in the pipe for our wood-burning fireplace's chimney; a chimney we've never used, and the fireplace is inactive, but somehow, something got inside, despite caps on the chimney outside and no real way for entrance. We weren't sure what to do, and fearing an unpleasant rodent, we opted to leave it overnight in the hopes that whatever found its way in would find its way back out.

It didn't; this morning, the scufflings and scratchings were more insistent, driving me to distraction in my office in the next room. I called several pest control companies that could deal with wildlife, but either didn't get my calls returned or else found their prices in the hundreds of dollars range, far outside the budget I was willing to spend, despite my sincere wish to end the creature's captivity and certain misery, whatever it might be.

Without a solution, I returned to work, but in an hour or so I went to check on the fireplace again. The flue had been closed and the firebox empty; we knew the creature was trapped in the chimney itself. I took the flashlight to check and be sure it hadn't escaped into a worse prison, and the first thing I noticed was tracks - the soot in the firebox had been obviously disturbed. In a few seconds, flashing out of the sooty gloom, a northern flicker flew to the glass doors, anxious to escape but trapped in a gloomy metal box.

(Note: That is not flame in the fireplace, just reflection from the morning's sunlight. And the dust? Soot debris from the bird's escape attempts.)

No way could I leave the bird inside the box - hungry, stressed, scared. But if it got loose in the house, it would be confronted with 20-foot ceilings and innumerable perches constituting a much larger prison and one it would be much harder for me to help it escape from. First, all the doors were closed to limit the scope of area the bird could access; then a shower curtain was strung along the hallway door to remove that egress. A blanket draped from the upper bannister helped block off the stairway, at least in part. The closest outer door (just a few feet from the fireplace) was opened wide, and it was time - all my preparations were accompanied by the bird's increasingly frantic desire to escape.

Cautiously I unlatched the fireplace doors, then flung them quickly wide and stepped back to give the bird easy room to leave. A few seconds later, out he flew - straight out at first, then curving quickly for the open door and out into the blue sky, a soft shower of soot to mark his trail and my cheers echoing behind him.

Quite the traumatic experience for both of us, to be sure. My priority this weekend is to get on the roof and examine the chimney to be sure this cannot happen again, that no unfortunate bird suffers a similar spate of captivity. And as a warning to all readers out there; be sure your chimneys are equally safe!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

This is Not a Bird

We get so caught up in seeing different birds visit our feeders, we often forget that other wildlife can take advantage of the bounty as well. In the past few weeks, several mice have snacked at my deck feeders, cleaning up the debris spilled by birds and helping themselves to a few choice morsels. While I don't mind mice in the abstract and the occasional sighting doesn't bother me, they've been getting a bit too familiar for my taste... Yes, the traps had to come out. Fortunately, while a few of their brethren have gone to the Great Cheese Wedge in the sky, the rest of the rodent population has decided that my deck may not be the easiest spot for a meal after all, and have abandoned the buffet. More for the birds, then.

In addition to all my backyard birds, the mice are only the latest of wildlife to join the ranks in my yard and feeders. Other transient guests have included deer (noted by the gifts they left behind), snails (which loved the smorgasboard), snakes (which loved the mice), the occasional neighborhood cat (which didn't love my reaction to their presence), one of our neighbor's dogs (just exploring), and most intriguing of all, the American mink (had to look that one up) earlier this summer.

It isn't always easy to strike a balance between what wildlife you will welcome and what you will not. The snakes and mice are most unwelcome in my yard and I take steps to discourage and trap them whenever necessary. Feral cats - or cats of any variety - are likewise unwelcome. Other critters, however, are always welcome for a passing visit, though granted, I don't know how I'd feel about their constant company.

What critters keep you company at your feeders, and how welcome are they?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bearly Birding

Last weekend, on a short 36-hour break, I had the opportunity to return to one of the most impressive wildlife refuges I've ever seen, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. In Brigham City, this facility has an extensive and exceptionally lovely visitor center, and the 12-mile auto tour loop is a dozen miles of fantastic habitat and even more fantastic birds. While my husband and I weren't in the area strictly for birding, I couldn't resist, and even just a couple hours of driving amounted to a right pretty list of birds, among them...
Perhaps the best of the birds was one of those I've seen most infrequently - the great horned owl. But it was a bittersweet sighting; I'd been hoping its roosting spot at the start of the auto tour loop would instead be occupied by a barn owl, a raptor long missing from my life list. But just because we don't always see the birds we hope for, doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy the birds we do see. That's something that in the hustle of daily life and the stress of everyday that we too often forget.

I need to remember to get out more, no matter how short the break, and not to forget the birds.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Mirror for Life

Getting into a back-country, isolated spot is always a peaceful, reflective experience, none more so than last weekend's trip to Mirror Lake, high in the Uinta Mountains. Right at the treeline, this calm lake sits at the base of Bald Mountain and features a fine path completely around the lake, great for birding. Granted, the wind was up a bit when we visited which meant the birds were down, but we got great looks at mountain chickadees and saw a passing flock of gray jays - a new lifer for me. But what's more, along the shores of a lake named for reflection, we had a chance to reflect on ourselves.

There is a lot of hate in today's society, whether in small degrees or large reserves, and immersion in it has kept me from birding for far too long as I deal with the consequences and make attempts to mend fences that are not only broken, but battered, shattered, and abused. There is far too much to love instead - the brilliant warbler-yellow trees in autumn, the gentle yet solid feeling of a well-worn path beneath your feet, the liquid chattering of chickadees overhead, the richness of decadent brownies given by a friend - and we're done with hating. Are there people we hate? Absolutely, and that won't go away, not by a long stretch. They know who they are, and despite what they may have deluded themselves and convinced others to believe, I can only hope they also know what they've done. When a hand is reached out only to be slapped away with lies and accusations, don't expect it to be reached out again.

May you find time to reflect this autumn, whether along the shores of a solitary lake, under the foliage of a colorful tree, or in the warmth and comfort of your own home. Reflect, let go, and let live. Then, go birding.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Last Hummingbird

For the past few weeks I've happily refilled my hummingbird feeders with a slightly richer than typical nectar solution to help my local hummingbirds get a bit more energy for their long, demanding migrations. Several birds have taken advantage of it, but in the past week only two visited, and while they argued briefly over who should have the right of way at each perch, both took the opportunity for delicious sips and brief rests but have now vanished into the southern skies.

I've not seen any hummingbirds in several days, and as the temperatures continue to drop and the days shorten, it grows increasingly unlikely that I will see any again until next spring. Still, my feeders remained full just in case a late traveler needs a quick snack, and no matter where they may be flying or how far they have yet to go, I wish them good journey.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

New Birding Spot, New Bird

Utah is filled with magnificent hidey-hole birding spots that the locals know, but those of us who are still relative newcomers are unaware of. I do keep a casual eye on local hotline sightings, however, and when, late last week, news of a vagrant prothonotary warbler was being spread, I couldn't resist the temptation. A few online inquiries, a round with Google Maps, and a full tank of gas later, I was on my way to River Lane in Springville, for an obscure, out of the way edge of Provo Bay known as Sandy Beach.

When I arrived, the name was apt - the area at the tip of this small promontory is quite sandy, and a favorite for local dirt bikes and ATVs, though fortunately I had the area to myself as I began birding, watching for a quick flash of yellow. I didn't have long to wait, actually, and quickly spotted what had to be a male prothonotary warbler deep in the brush - too deep, to my dismay, for a view I'd be happy to confirm for my life list. For the next three-quarters of an hour, I wandered around the area's many short winding trails, hoping to relocate the warbler and tallying up a pleasant list of other sightings.

Finally, I was on a small rise overlooking a scrubby patch to the east and more open trees to the south, when out popped the warbler in the open trees, no more than thirty feet away. He didn't stay long, but long enough for a full, satisfying view - and another lifer for my list. I indulged in a moment of happy dance, and a few more minutes of birding about, before heading in, glad to have gotten my wings wet at birding once again.

Not only did the scrubby brush and trees of the area provide a good number of birds, but the open mudflats at the mouth of the Springville River were teeming with foraging birds. The day's bird list - casually kept with only those I could identify - included:
There were also a number of gulls, an indeterminate falcon, at least one more type of warbler, and either a Clark's grebe or western grebe present. Quite the day, and a lifer to boot - I'll certainly be back again!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Snail Smorgasbord

While I love watching the birds, and autumn is a fantastic time at my feeders - the black-capped chickadees, in particular, have been around much more lately, and yesterday I narrowly missed identifying a new warbler for the year (oh well, next time) - it's not just birds that enjoy the handouts I provide. We had some welcome drizzles a couple of evenings ago, and the snails took full advantage all over our walk and driveway. I was surprised, however, to find the platform feeders on my deck had become a smorgasbord to a dozen snails by morning.

The feeders on my deck are a range of terra cotta dishes of different heights and sizes, and the snails had eagerly found their way into the largest, lowest dish where I offer mixed seed for the house sparrows and house finches (millet, milo, and sunflower seeds). They were deliberately making their way over the seeds, and while plant matter is food for snails, I'm not sure how much they actually ate. Fortunately, they didn't linger over the meal too long and were gone as the morning advanced, or else they'd likely have ended up as snacks themselves for the western scrub-jays and black-billed magpies.

Of course, they are welcome - I'm fascinated by snails and their deliberateness. They are great pollinators and do more good than harm in my yard, so as long as they're willing to climb the steps to the deck and tempt the appetites of the birds that might find them, they're welcome to take their place in the buffet line.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Double Dip

As the weather cools down from a scorching hot summer, I'm finally able to go out birding just a bit more, and a couple of weekends ago I went again on one of my favorite canyon jaunts. The area I visit has a bit of everything - a  lovely riparian scrub corridor, more mature trees set further back, small patches of grassland, and even a slow moving reservoir. As for birds, well, they weren't quite as varied, but I did see one of my favorites - the American dippers that are ubiquitous in that area, two of them. They love the more rushing parts of the Provo River, and often oblige me with great views. This time, I was thrilled to see the paler edging on their feathers, which indicates these are younger birds hatched just this summer. They've learned the ropes quite well and were foraging briskly, diving in and out of the splashing water to nip at bugs along the way.

These birds may be here year-round, but perhaps because of their dull gray plumage I always consider them more as autumn or winter birds. They are also more secretive in summer, but get much more visible this time of year. No matter whether it is the early flush of spring, the rage of summer heat, the retreat of autumn, or the dead of winter, however, these sweet dippers never fail to enliven a bird walk and make me smile.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Swallows of Summer

This summer has been brutally hot and wickedly dry, and I won't be sorry to bid the season farewell officially in just a few weeks - even now, on rare evenings, we get the briefest breath of cool to savor before the heat returns. Birders who look around, however, know that the signs of the season's end are all around us, every day. Over the weekend, I saw those signs myself. Not only was an annual Labor Day festival being set up at one of my favorite birding locations, but the birds were out in force - but not the same birds I saw this spring.

Oh, the species were the same, but the birds themselves are scruffier and more daring - they're teenagers. Nests are abandoned now (though I did see one late nesting pair), and instead,  families are gathering on wires and in favorite roosts, stretching their wings and building muscles for the long migration that is poised to begin. In fact, many of my favorite summer birds - the male rufous hummingbirds and the black-headed grosbeaks most noticeably - have already flown to warmer climes, and other species will soon be following. On this bird walk, it was the barn swallows that were getting restless, and the juvenile birds were most notable with their muddled plumage, indistinct markings, and shorter tails.

It seems hard to realize that while I wish them well on their journey now, in just a few months I'll be eagerly waiting their return, and these same scruffy teens will be sleek adults finding mates of their own. Birds are fabulous for marking the turning of the seasons, and even with their familiarity they always remind us of each season's renewal and change. Fly well, swallows, and return safely!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hummingbird Wars

Hummingbirds can be so very peaceful and beautiful, sipping sweetly at nectar, gently hovering near flowers, curiously glancing to and fro, and swiftly flying in graceful lines across the yard. If you watch the hummingbirds at my feeders for more than a minute or two, however, you'll learn just how deceptive all those behaviors can be. It's hummingbird war season.

Drinks are swiftly gulped either before another hummingbird chases the first away from the feeder, or to refuel after bullying every other hummingbird away. Hovering is a means of staking territory and denying other visitors access to those flowers. Curious glances are really suspicious glares, watching every inch of the yard looking for intruders. Swift flight, more often than not, is chasing away another bird that got just a feather too close.

I've been closely buzzed more than once even as I refill feeders or enjoy my deck, but I'm happy to have a sideline view of these battles. While I may need to take steps to curb hummingbird aggression so more birds can feed, it's still amazing behavior to observe. For now, the battle lines are drawn between the black-chinned hummingbirds and the rufous hummingbirds, with the rufous far more often on the attack. All too soon, both species will continue their migration and my deck will seem far more lonely in peacetime, but I'm already planning tactics for next year's wars - more flowers, more feeders, and more fun to observe.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Blooming Babies

It's the time of year again when baby quail are running about, and I'm thrilled to have a family of California quail that regularly visits the yard. We saw the chicks when they may only have been hatched for a few hours, but it's as they get just a little older that their cuteness really comes out. They explore the entire yard, foraging in bushes and checking out the neighbors' flowers and plants. Of course, many of the blooms at this time of summer can be bigger than the birds!

The family has been back a few times and continues to visit my various feeding areas in search of seed. There are five chicks this year, tended by four parents - presumably the mated pair, plus a pair of surrogate uncles. All the adults diligently watch the chicks, and one of the males is inevitably standing guard as the rest of the flock forages. As yet, the chicks are a bit too small to come up on the deck for the bounty of platform feeders, but they are happy to forage under the deck (there's plenty of space) for spilled seed, and they've discovered where I put seed in the bushes as well.

It's always wonderful to have these chicks explore the yard, and I look forward to a future filled with quail!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Swing Low, Sweet Hummingbird

Part of my job as the Guide to Birding / Wild Birds is to review products such as field guides, bird feeders and unique backyard birding items, and a few weeks ago I reviewed one of the most unique I've seen yet - the Copper Hummingbird Swing from Songbird Essentials. It is deceptively simple but quite attractive, and after I'd finished examining it I put it out on our deck adjacent to the trio of hummingbird feeders I have in use this summer. For a while it swung empty, but soon the birds discovered how useful it could be, and since then it's been a regular perch. It is especially popular with the territorial rufous hummingbird that insists on guarding "his" feeders, and each day I get spectacular views as he perches, swings, preens, and chitters at all the feathered passersby.

I'll admit, at first I thought the swing might be no better than a gimmick, but I've been proven wrong dozens of times now and I love the unbeatable views I have gotten of the several hummingbirds that have used the swing. While the rufous is dominant in the backyard, the black-chinned hummingbirds have also taken a swing or two, and more than one has peered curiously up at the glass bead that adorns the swing as they settle on the perch. If you want great views of hummingbirds, get into the swing of things!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Awesome Osprey

In Florida last month, I was astonished to find a familiar Utah bird in awesome numbers - the osprey. We have them in Utah; in fact, I once spotted an osprey hunting along the river a mile from our old house, and a pair used to nest on nearby Utah Lake, but they're not so common here. In Utah, ospreys are only summer guests, and fairly uncommon to sight regularly, but in Florida they're year-round residents and much more thickly populated within that range.

We were along the central coast of Florida, and as we traversed the Indian River on one causeway after another, it seemed there was an osprey perched at regular intervals along the electric poles, or else on the bordering rocks or soaring over the river looking for its next meal. At the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, there was a family of ospreys near the visitor center (including one very insistent youth badgering its parents for more food), and we saw several along one of the refuge's auto tour loops, including one perched no more than 30 feet away that seemed perfectly content to pose for photos. On another sighting, we saw an osprey with its prey at the top of a pole, patiently squeezing the fish it had caught (the fish was not happy with it quite yet).

These are lovely, powerful birds of prey, equipped with long wings and vicious talons. They are piscivorous (eating almost exclusively fish), and are excellent fishers. I'm thrilled that even far from my own backyard, I got the chance to study and delight in a bird from home!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Return to Jamaica

On our recent summer travels, one stop took us back to Jamaica - a lovely Caribbean island with a flair for birding with more than two dozen endemic species. While I was privileged to see many of those endemics on a press trip several years ago, it's always worth returning to such a unique location for another look.

Our visit this time was to Ocho Rios, where we took in the sights at Mystic Mountain. I was thrilled to discover, after the lengthy chairlift ride to the top, that Mystic Mountain is also home to a cozy hummingbird garden that is well planted with nectar-rich flowers, supplemented with suitable feeders. During this visit, there were several red-billed streamertails buzzing about (albeit without their namesake streamers, as mid-July is well after the breeding season), but more impressive were the Jamaican mangos. These large, endemic hummingbirds may at first look simple dark and dull, but in the proper light their plumage is riot of subtle color and iridescence. Even on the press trip with the help of experienced guides, I wasn't able to get such wonderful looks at these hummingbirds. In the hour or two we were atop the mountain, I strolled through the hummingbird habitat a half dozen times or more and still didn't get my fill, though they were there with each pass. It's a shame that any visit has to end.

Just seeing a life bird once may be enough to include it on a list, but we can never forget that a quick glimpse is far from really looking at the bird, and there is always more beauty to discover.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Old Habitat, New Lifers

For the first time since Utah became my backyard in 2005, I went back to my old habitat, or close thereof, in Florida. I wasn't a strong birder while living in Florida, and I cringe to think of the birds I missed the easy opportunity to see when a trip to a tropical refuge would be a quick drive away rather than involve crossing two time zones and multiple airports.

This trip wasn't a birding focus - just a family summer vacation - but of course I squeezed a little birding into the mix. My most memorable moments...
  • An osprey on every pole along the central coast; gorgeous birds of prey that I can see in Utah, but never with such amazing frequency.
  • A black skimmer skimming mere feet away as we walked along Cocoa Beach; too fast for a photograph, but the image will never be forgotten.
  • Enjoying the interest my husband showed in my passionate hobby; he's the one person in the world I love to share it with most of all.
  • Three new lifers: red-bellied woodpecker, glossy ibis, and wood stork, with great views of each, though photos only of the stork.
 For just a few hours of birding, it was a wonderful few hours and an amazing birding experience. There are so many birds everywhere, no matter where you travel, it can be your backyard for a few hours!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Catching a Kirtland's

Earlier this month I was visiting family in northern Michigan and had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a Kirtland's warbler habitat tour offered by the Michigan Audubon near Grayling. This was a unique chance to go into protected jack pine habitat favored by these precocious and particular birds, and I wasn't about to pass it up.

Good thing, too; it was a fabulous viewing opportunity and our group of about a dozen birders saw not one, not two, but at least half a dozen of these endangered warblers. They prefer the young growth of this forest, and monitored lumber harvest in the area ensures an ongoing available range of young trees for the birds to use. Ironically, most of the Kirtland's warblers we saw were not perched in the jack pines, but were taking advantage of scattered deciduous trees that were taller and offered better views for their territorial defense. That worked to birders' benefit as well, and we were treated to unobstructed, clear views of boldly singing birds. I was struck by the intense volume of their song and their overall size, hefty for a warbler, that made the viewing all the better to see markings and colors.

It is always a treat to see a new lifer, better still when a bird is as endangered and has as restricted of a range as this beautiful warbler.

Monday, June 18, 2012

New Yard, New List

Given that we have recently celebrated our one year anniversary of the new house, it's about time I update my yard list to reflect the new property. It's hard to say goodbye to some of my old yard birds - I still miss the mallards that visited whenever they were at our neighbor's pond - but it is always exciting to welcome new guests that had never been at our old house. While I hope to welcome even more species to my feeders, landscaping, and bird baths, to date the birds that have already joined my backyard flock include...
Some of these beauties have only been casual visitors or one-time guests, while others are regular residents. In just one year, that amounts to 26 species, and it took five years at the old house to get to 33 - who knows where I'll be a year from now! All are welcome, of course, and as I build up our landscaping to be more bird friendly and continue to add more feeders, I hope even more species will join the flock.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Unwelcome at Church

Swallows are amazing birds, and I was privileged recently to have an amazing experience with them, owing to a fortuitous turn down a street we don't normally drive. We passed a local church that was surrounded by a cloud of flight, and quickly I urged my husband to pull into the empty, weekday parking lot so we could have a better look.

From the skies to the walls, in and out, a colony of cliff swallows was industriously building their mud nests along the bricks below the eaves of the church. The chirping and other high-pitched murmurs were a constant background to the frantic activity, and we watched the busy birds bring back mouthful after mouthful of mud and dirt to build up and cement their nests. In the air, their flight was aerobatic and precise, whirling and diving with grace and beauty.

Every beautiful story has a dark side, however, and I'm ashamed to share this one. Evidence was clear from mottling on the walls that the nests had been knocked down and destroyed over and over. While this is legal (the Migratory Bird Act offers no protection unless there are eggs are chicks in the nests, and there were not), I find it no less abominable that a church - an institution devoted to honoring God and all His creation - would destroy the life efforts of one of God's creatures. The birds were working to build homes to raise their families, and in a state where family is so very sacred, it is horrific to deny that to other creatures. Yes, there were droppings on the walkways, but wouldn't that be worth the opportunity to witness the miracle of life for another living being? Even more abysmal is the fact that the statement "Visitors Welcome" is so prominently displayed on every LDS church - but clearly that doesn't apply to other visitors God might send to share creation with his devotees.

I'm still grateful to have had the opportunity to see the birds myself, and I only hope that I wasn't the only one ashamed at how they were persecuted (funny enough, the Mormons moved to Utah because they themselves were persecuted). The colony did move on, and I hope they found another, more welcoming home to enjoy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Humming Along in Texas

It's a challenge to sort through all the fantastic birds I saw in Texas, but sometimes, you have just have to start with small steps - or small birds. On the trip, I added two new hummingbirds to my life list: the buff-bellied hummingbird and the ruby-throated hummingbird.

The buff-bellied hummingbird is a south Texas specialty, and I saw my first one at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen; a wonderful urban birding oasis with 20 acres of gardens to explore for up close views of some fantastic species. The birds are so used to visitors, in fact, they don't seem to mind a bit of close interaction, and the buff-bellieds posed beautifully for me both times I visited the property.

The ruby-throated hummingbird is far more widespread and passes through south Texas in huge numbers during migration (and more than a few linger for breeding), but has been a nemesis for me ever since I became a birder. I grew up in the east and I clearly remember seeing hummingbirds at my grandmother's feeders, but because I wasn't a birder at that time and wasn't watching for field marks and good views, I was unable to add the bird to my very picky life list once I started counting. Fortunately, on the last day of my trip while we spent time at Estero Llano Grande State Park, a gorgeous male ruby-throat was staking out his territory near one of the feeding stations, and while I wasn't quite so close to get a good photo, there's no mistaking the glowing red gorget. Another lifer!

It is interesting how the smallest birds can be some of the most rewarding to see; not only these hummingbirds, but the black-chinned hummingbirds recently arrived at the feeders dangling off my deck. Now I just have to manage a photo of those beauties as well!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Everything's Bigger in Texas

I spent a week earlier this month as a guest of the McAllen Convention and Visitors' Bureau in south Texas, visiting more than a dozen local birding hotspots to review them. I knew the birding life was different so far from Utah, but within just a day or two, I was overwhelmed. Each day brought new lifers, new habitats, and new features to explore in a wide range of stunning locations. It is going to take me some time to sort out all that I gleaned from the trip, but one thing is certain: with more than 130 birds seen (this despite early afternoon finishes, no night birding, time spent taking notes rather than dedicated birding, and a lack of visits to the western, drier region and its unique birds) and an amazing 66 lifers, there is no denying that everything is bigger in Texas!

Some random highlights from the trip...
  • Outstanding views of many south Texas specialty birds, including plain chachalacas, green jays, and buff-bellied hummingbirds.
  • My first exposure to real Mexican food, igniting a passion for refried beans, guacamole, and chorizo that I'm going to find it hard to quench at home.
  • Learning  to go birding in jeans even in high heat and humidity, given the scores of mosquitoes that take advantage of any bare skin.
  • Meeting a wide range of outstanding people, all of whom love birding in some way and help to bring it to their individual communities.
  • Seeing the Rio Grande River and walking through the infamous border fence (not that it was all that hard to do, given the huge gap right in the road).
Of course, now I have my work cut out for me to complete each review (which I'm happy to do), along with several other articles on local birding books, tips for birding in the region, and other information that will be helpful to anyone planning to go birding in the Rio Grande Valley. Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Forgotten Lifer

Earlier this month my husband and I returned to the sea, enjoying a getaway cruise to Mexico and Cabo San Lucas - our first sailing in several years as family obligations, school schedules, and work schedules never quite coincided in the meantime. What I'd hoped would coincide on the trip was an opportunity for birding, and I wasn't disappointed.

On one of our days in Cabo San Lucas, we toured to San Jose del Cabo, including a stop at one of the city's missions. As any birder knows, urban birding is never as prolific as scouting wild areas, but anywhere there are trees and shelter there is the possibility of feathered sightings. And sight I did - as we approached the mission and listened to the background provided by our guide, a small dove - nothing so much as a hyperactive, miniature mourning dove - foraged nearby. As I watched, its perky steps brought it closer, and after we were allowed to explore the mission on our own, I stepped toward it in return. It let me approach quite closely, then fluttered off several yards away to resume its industrious scrounging. In that brief flight I was still able to observe the rusty color beneath its wings, and I'd already noted the red-and-black bill, spotted wings, and scaly pattern over the head and breast. A quick consult to my field guide led to the conclusive identification: a common ground-dove.

Not a bird I ever see in Utah, of course, and at first I was thrilled to have added an unlikely lifer to my list - despite frequent cruises in the past, I've never excelled at birding on the sea, and sighting a bird on land was my only hope for a lifer on this trip. Yet after reviewing my records at home, I realized that I had seen this bird before, and based on the notes I made, it must have been during my press trip to Jamaica. It must have only been a fleeting view, however, to have not made as strong an impression on me, but I'll never forget the excitement of seeing this dove in Mexico.

Even a forgotten lifer can be amazing when it is rediscovered, common or not.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Oh, Deer

In late winter, as natural food supplies dwindle and spring migrants have not quite arrived, backyard birding can be quite sparse. Oh, I always have the company of my house finches and house sparrows, as well as the mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves, but more colorful visitors are few and far between. One morning, however, I discovered that I'd had a visitor of a non-feathered variety when I found some friendly droppings scattered on the lawn, in four different places.

We have deer in our neighborhood, though we've not seen them so close to our house - they typically stay down in the river bottoms (our neighborhood is on a precipice above) and further away from active areas, though our exact location can be quite quiet and peaceful. After finding their "gift" I checked my feeders, but they showed no damage or disturbance - fortunately, for deer will pry at feeders to access seed and have been known to empty feeders quickly if they become used to the easy snack.

I haven't seen more evidence of the deer since, with the exception of discovering a few more leavings in our front yard - though they may have been there all along. I don't mind their visits, and I hope they return at a time when I might actually see them. They aren't new on the life list, but a new guest on the yard list nonetheless!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Spotting a Towhee

Ground cover is vitally important to backyard birds, more so than many birders realize. At the old house, the only cover I was able to have was a brush pile in the backyard and some widely spaced mugo in the front yard; not nearly enough to make ground-feeding birds feel secure. As a result, I rarely had any ground-feeding birds make appearances.

This house is a different story entirely. The landscaping is mature, including plenty of low shrubs and ground cover - too mature, in some places, which is a problem I plan to work on this spring and summer. In the meantime, however, the birds enjoy it, and I enjoy their company. One such visitor a few weeks ago was a spotted towhee, a large, colorful sparrow that had discovered the cache of sunflower hearts I toss outside my office window periodically - right underneath a low bush that provides a safe, sheltered feeding spot. While the bird didn't stay for long, its hopping, scratching behavior was clearly evident in the disturbed soil, and the brief glimpse I caught showed off its red eye, rusty flanks, and striking plumage.

Other birds have taken advantage of the cover as well - dark-eyed juncos were frequent guests throughout the winter (and only migrated away in the last few days), and the house sparrows are year-round visitors, as are the California quail, though recently they've dispersed for nesting. I can hardly wait to see what birds might be spotted next - whether they have spots on their plumage or not.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Worst Photo, Best Sighting

Sometimes the worst photo you take can be one of the best birds you see. On our trip to Las Vegas a few weeks ago, the last place I expected any good birding was from the window of our 23rd floor room at The Mirage. Yet one afternoon, after a busy morning out in wilder spaces, my husband asked me what bird was outside the window - anticipating one of the ever-present grackles, I took an indulgent look, but was startled to see not a blackbird, but a raptor.

On the sign across from our volcano-view room, two raptors were calmly watching the street scene below. Through a dirty window and from that distance, I couldn't get a clear view, but the thick malar stripes, dark upperparts, and barred underparts made identification almost too easy - peregrine falcons. On close inspection, the "bloomer" leg feathers and hooked bill were also noticeable, and when one of the birds launched into flight, the sharply pointed wings were one final clue.

These raptors are one of the most successful stories of urban nesting in the world. Natural cliff dwellers, they have adapted well to the urban cliffs of skyscrapers, and the ready availability of pigeons, rats, and other urban wildlife make for easy hunting. Truth be told, I've never had an easier sighting of one of these marvelous raptors than from the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel room!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Superb Owl

It's taking me awhile to get through photos and write about my birding experiences, which have both been many recently. And while I'm not a football fan, I can certainly say that I enjoyed Super Bowl Sunday last month - though for me, Superb Owl Sunday is more correct.

On a tip from a local listserv, I had learned of a northern pygmy-owl not that far from my home, just up Provo Canyon at South Fork, through Vivian Park. I'd never been there before and was unfamiliar with the birding conditions it might present, but since our winter has been mild, I thought to give it a chance while much of the rest of the population was roosting indoors to watch the game. A lifer would be well worth any effort.

I found the parking area without difficulty, and immediately I loved the isolation of the habitat - nestled in the mountains but not mountainous itself, it was strikingly beautiful even on a barren winter day. I spent the better part of an hour hiking from the parking area further east along the road, checking the spots where the owl had been recently reported and looking for whatever other birds I might see. A Steller's jay gave me an earful for coming too close to his tree, and a flock of wild turkeys was less than impressed at my presence, but for the distance I went, I was owl-less.

Getting back to the parking lot, however, a pair of birders who had passed me driving (and stopped to ask if I'd found the owl) waved at me to hurry when I was a hundred yards away, and to my dismay, surprise, and delight, the owl was just west of the parking area - literally perhaps 15 yards west, if that. He was perched dutifully in a branch, unafraid of our presence because he was over the river and well aware that we could not approach any closer. For a full quarter of an hour or more I was able to observe him - the long tail, the clear patterns of his plumage, his piercing yellow eyes. I've had the privilege to see other wild owls before, but never so closely or so clearly.

A super day indeed, and a winning one.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

At Least a Lifer

On our trip to Las Vegas last month - a getaway we typically take in winter - I was able to get in some good birding, including discovering a new park to explore. At one of my favorite hotspots - the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve - I hit a jackpot of lifers, including one that seemed least of all but turned out to be a great sighting, a least sandpiper.

A short boardwalk at the preserve leads out into a shallow pond, and along the muddy shore a single peep was busy peeping his way through every crevice and cranny, searching for the next tidbit. I was able to get quite close to the bird, which was fortunate, for it was tiny! That alone is a good field mark for this species; the least sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in North America. The buff feathers with dark cores, the bright yellow legs, and the dark, slightly decurved bill were all additional clues, and a new lifer was added to my list.

It wasn't the only bird I saw for the first time on this trip; the black-tailed gnatcatcher and orange-crowned warbler also joined my life list in Vegas, and also at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve - what a winning streak of birding! I'm always amazed at the incredible diversity of birds in Las Vegas, and I have never yet failed to get a lifer when visiting that fabulous city. I can't wait to go back!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


A feeding flock of finches is a joy to watch, and I've had much of that joy in recent weeks. I have a nylon mesh sock filled with Nyjer, and while it took a couple of weeks for the birds to discover it, they have done so - with a vengeance. At first is was just a lonely lesser goldfinch or two, but their compatriots quickly joined in. Fast on their tail feathers were the American goldfinches, and shortly thereafter, the pine siskins. Now I have a hearty flock feeding daily, but fortunately, the bin of Nyjer is a generous size and there's plenty for all.

If you want to feed Nyjer to your backyard birds, I strongly recommend a heavyweight sock specially designed to hold these tiny seeds. It may look simple, but a less expensive sock will quickly be shredded under the birds' talons, and a stronger sock not only withstands more abuse, but holds more seed as well. I also have a mesh hoop beneath my feeder to catch spilled seed, and more birds are able to feed there as well - I've had up to 15 or more birds feeding at once, with room for more to join in. I hope more will visit; I've missed these birds in recent months as they've been absent from the new yard, and I'm grateful they're absent no longer.

May you have similar sock-tastic joy in your backyard!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Birdy Goal

I can't imagine a better topic for my 200th blog post than lifers, lifers, lifers. First, my first lifer of 2012...

On one of the very few snowy days we've had this winter, I struck out to find the famed Lewis's woodpeckers not all that far from home. I'd been warned that they could be temperamental and might take awhile to show themselves in the isolated ridge they frequented, but I was eager for a lifer nonetheless and took my chances. While clear skies were evident when I left, but the time I reached the site large, fluffy snow was falling fast and my hopes were dim. Dim only for a few moments, however, because as we drove up to the ridge where the birds were noted, a suspicious lump on the side of a telephone pole resolved itself into the dark, upright shape of a woodpecker.

Only a quick glance would have been necessary to prove its identity, what with the beautiful pink plumage of the bird's underparts and the bold gray collar on the neck, but I was instantly entranced and stayed in the snow until my hair was wet and limp, my teeth chattering, and my binns protesting the poor weather. All the same, I was rewarded with spectacular views and even clear chitterings and chatterings to listen to as the bird called to its compadres, perhaps to let them know the foraging was fine, even if the snow was thick.

It is my hope that this will be only the first of many lifers I manage to add to my list this year, and I have a goal in mind - "mopping up" many of the Utah species I've not yet seen. There are quite a few to go, but if the Lewis's woodpecker is any indication, the chase will be well worthwhile.
If only all the birds could be so easily counted...

Thursday, February 16, 2012


I haven't posted in the past month not for want of bird action to share, but for too much to choose from. Amid new lifers, birding travel, and new species in the backyard, though, one constant has remained my companion - the backyard hawks.

Both sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks regularly visit this neighborhood, and both have found the bounty of my backyard feeders. The larger, more taciturn Cooper's hawk will stake out a spot in the yard and sit for long periods, hoping for prey to come inquisitively, incautiously, close. The sharp-shinned hawks, and I do have more than one, are less patient and will move from fence, to tree, to feeder looking for the best vantage point for dinner. I've even seen them dive into the bushes while hunting, but the bushes are thick enough to deny them dinner.

A lot of birders prefer to shoo away hawks to safeguard their more colorful, friendlier backyard birds, but I feel much the opposite. Raptors, even small urban hawks, will not visit a yard that is not a thriving environment for birds - otherwise, they'd have no prey to find. I'm always delighted to see them visit, and in the past week I've seen a pair of courting sharp-shinned hawks in my willow tree, so it's likely I'll be seeing much more of them in the weeks to come.

I hope so.