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!