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!