Friday, November 15, 2013

Sometimes The Birds Come to You

I may not be getting out to see the birds as much as I'd like - that is to say, not at all of late, and not for some time to come - but that doesn't stop the birds from coming to me. Those feathered visitors help me keep my sanity in a life gone crazy.

The normal craziness is here in abundance, of course, with house finches and house sparrows monopolizing the feeders, as well as the more or less regular visits from jays, magpies, chickadees, quail and doves. It is the occasional, unusual visitors that really make me remember the excitement of birding however, and as fall migration has advanced there has been some of that excitement. A western wood-pewee opted to use the fence as a rest stop for a few sallying forage flights several weeks ago, and more recently a ruby-crowned kinglet picked over the insects on the aspen tree with single-minded ferocity. In the past couple of weeks, the dark-eyed juncos have begun to return, foraging on the deck and under the shrubbery, and reminding me of the importance of increasing the millet in my seed mix and sprinkling some seed kernels under my office shrubs. It's not much, but at the moment it's about all I have.

Times will change, as they always do, but it is also equally important to remember the ordinary and appreciate its extraordinariness. Several vital dates are coming up in the next few weeks that will create quite the upheaval, and I hope I'm able to keep my balance. But even if a bird falls, it doesn't stop flying, and neither shall I.

Take flight, each day, no matter where your migration takes you.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Am I Still a Birder?

It's hard to believe that not only is November already here, but that it's well advanced. This year is especially poignant for me, what with different family, work, and school issues that have arisen in the past months, and it has me questioning whether or not I can still fly.

Fly, that is, as a birder. In all the year, I've only gotten two new lifers, and the most recent was more than four months ago. My schedule is such that there are too many demands on what little time I have, and I rarely get out into the field at all. On a recent trip when I did manage some time with my field equipment, my binocular harness felt strange and my binns didn't seem to fit in my hand any longer. I still greatly enjoy my backyard birds and have marveled at a few brief fall visitors different from my normal guests, yet even refilling feeders, cleaning the bird bath, or organizing my store of birdseed seems too daunting a task for the rare minutes I have.

But how many minutes must be spent with wing and feathers to truly be a birder? I'm fortunate that my career leads me along internet connections and through published pages to all corners of the globe, spending a great deal of time with many birds in spirit. I long to see them in person, to spread my own wings even as I watch them spread theirs.

Obligations - work, family, home, school, community - are heavy weights for me to carry, and a burden that few share to help me lift higher. I can lift them, and I do, but what burdens one carries often keep them anchored to what they never wanted. Some I want, some I never realized I wanted, some I just plain never wanted. But how to choose between them? How do birds find their way?

It may be prophetic that these thoughts come to me in fall, a time of migration when I long to migrate myself, in more ways than one.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Too Many Legs to Be a Bird

I haven't been able to get out into the field in weeks - floods, work deadlines, illnesses, family commitments, and other interferences have kept me from birding the way I want to. The last time I did, however, I wasn't able to find the lifer short-eared owls I was hoping for, but I did find a lifer of another kind - with way too many legs.

We stopped at the side of the road on the west side of Utah Lake while I scanned over the shore with my binoculars, and as I turned back toward the front of the truck and told my husband we could continue on, I found him staring at the road ahead and he commented "that's one hell of a spider." I'm not a fan of arachnids, not by any means, but yes, it was one hell of a spider - a western tarantula.

I've never seen one before, and while it may not have feathers, it was certainly fascinating. I've learned that these arachnids are primarily nocturnal, but come out earlier during the late summer and fall as they're seeking mates - this particular specimen was male, and he was wandering about looking for a female's den and hoping she'd invite him in.

Tarantulas won't attack humans, but I certainly wasn't going to get any closer to test that fact. My husband suggested I should have put a nickel down next to the spider so the scale of its size would be more clear... Yeah, that wasn't going to happen. Thank goodness for zoom lenses.

Next time out, whenever that may be, I hope I see more birds. I don't mind the occasional exposure to other unique Utah wildlife, but let's just leave this one in the arid field where he belongs.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Late Summer Surprises

Most birders associate spring with when birds mate and raise their families, but little known is that one of the most colorful backyard birds - the American goldfinch - is also one of the latest to build a nest, lay eggs, and nurture its young. I was reminded of this with a pleasant surprise just a couple of weeks ago when, while mowing the lawn, my husband spotted a recently fledged goldfinch resting in the front yard mugo pine.

While the bird's coloration, pattern, and bill shape clearly identified it as a young American goldfinch, the sparse feathers - still with bare spots on the face - and the stubby tail testified to its young age. Its behavior was also a clue - while it was able to cling well to the branches and had no trouble perching upright, it was still exercising its wings without strong flights. It displayed the classic young bird behavior of staying very still and calm, just as it would in the nest, rather than trying to flee when it was closely approached, because it instinctively understood that it wasn't yet strong enough to escape.

Not that it was in danger; I made sure of that. Once my husband showed it to me, I insisted that the grass in that area of the yard wasn't nearly long enough to be mowed, at least until the bird had moved on. I watched it carefully for several minutes to be sure it was healthy and not in distress, and I ensured there were no predators or other hazards nearby. Sure enough, all he needed was a bit of rest, and shortly thereafter, the bird disappeared, undoubtedly flying along on its way. (And the mowing did get finished.)

A close encounter of the baby bird kind is an amazing experience that can remind us how much every bird is to be treasured, even when it may be a bird we've seen hundreds of times before. Summer may be coming to an end, but for all the birds hatched just this year, the adventure is just beginning.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


There's a lot of fluff in birding at this time of year - the fluff that makes up a soft bird's nest, the fluff of gentle down on a baby bird, the fluff of summer seed pods that birds may munch or gather for late season nesting. The cutest fluff I've seen in a long time is Floyd Jr., a baby Chilean flamingo at Tracy Aviary. He is one of two chicks to successfully hatch this year and is a resident in the public exhibit, slowly learning how to be a flamingo from the adults of the flock - balancing on one leg (only for a short time - it's tiring!), poking at water to sample algae (but right now his diet is crop milk), and standing tall (also tiring).

Mortality is always high for baby birds, and it's a rare treat to see one so unique. Tracy Aviary has had a great baby boom this year, with many other young birds gracing the grounds, both from their captive birds as well as wild residents who appreciate the bird-friendly landscaping.

There have been baby birds around the neighborhood as well - young barn swallows perching on wires, teenage American robins foraging in the lawn, juvenile European starlings demanding attention, immature rufous hummingbirds learning which feeders are theirs. I have seen ducklings and goslings at local ponds, and young hawks perched on poles along the highway. It always amazes me that there are so many more birds around this time of year, a buildup just before so many leave for warmer regions. But while they're here, they're welcome, and I'll enjoy their company.

Have some fun with these 20 Fun Facts About Flamingos!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Crazy About Captivity

Captivity is the name of the game this summer. A lot of different factors have kept me captive for the past few weeks - work, deadlines, scheduling, health matters, heat waves - and my best birding for some time has been with birds just as captive as myself. On a visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, I had the cutest of captive moments: my first encounter with a piping plover.

It was a smaller bird than I'd expected, despite my familiarity with it through a range of field guides, news stories, and other resources. But it was fierce, chasing around its exhibit to discourage any other birds from usurping its space, and diligently guarding the space it had decreed as its own. Just like the black-capped chickadee that boldly guards its tree in my backyard and loudly warns off all intruders, or the rufous hummingbird that aggressively chases away all interlopers near any of the hummingbird feeders, it seems the smaller the bird, the bigger the attitude, and the bigger the impression it can make on any birder. I won't soon forget this little plover, and I look forward to the day - whenever it may be - that I can add it to my life list.

Do you know where to see captive birds to enjoy more exotic species?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Life in Pigeons

Life gets away from us all too often, with days spent in offices and in front of computer screens, and we begin to think that any venturing outside those artificial constraints is a waste of time. What we forget, however, is how little time it can take to spread our wings.

It took me less than an hour to stretch my wings a bit, just a couple miles from my office but sufficiently into the nearby foothills to find a new lifer - my first this year. Each year, there are reliable but faint reports of pigeons nearby; not the common rock pigeon, not the Eurasian collared-dove that is omnipresent in my own backyard, not escaped pet pigeons, but the southwestern specialty that is the colorful band-tailed pigeon.

Finally, I couldn't resist. Up a half hour earlier than my normal already early time, I tossed my field guide in the bag, checked my too-little-used binoculars, and took note of the directions to the exact neighborhood where these birds had been casually reported. The drive took just a few minutes and the parking was on an easy suburban street. Bag in hand and binns around neck, I strolled through a few streets, watching the wires and poles that are favored perches for most pigeons. Then there it was - a large, obvious pigeon-like bird at the top of a sunlit electrical pole, just basking in the morning and benevolently surveying its territory. It only took a glance through the bins to confirm the black-tipped yellow bill and the iridescent nape that identified my lifer band-tailed pigeon.

I watched the bird for a few minutes as it looked around and even turned position to give me a clear view of the dark band on its tail. The sun continued to rise over the valley as I made my way back to my truck, and in less than an hour from the time I left, I was back home. Less than an hour, but with weeks' worth of frustrations and stress fading just a bit in the light of a pleasant birding walk.

The stress will be back, the frustrations won't go away, and more hours need to be spent in the office than in the field. But the next time you're feeling the urge, don't ignore it - take a lesson from a lifer pigeon and enjoy a morning in the sun.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Birding in the Neighbor's Yard

May has been a busy month - not that there isn't always a lot of work, but prepping for travel has kept me in my office more than I'd care to be. Still, it's worthwhile, because the travel itself brings me closer to birds.

The first trip, just last weekend, was to a neighboring birding hotspot - Fallon, Nevada. I was part of a group of talented and diverse journalists invited to explore the Spring Wings Festival, and a delightful exploration it was. I've visited the area before, but despite the similarities of northern Nevada to my own northern Utah backyard, it's always a treat to visit such a diverse area and reacquaint myself with all my western favorites. Just a few species highlights of the visit include...
And not to forget the western rattlesnake; my first encounter with a rattlesnake, and though he was just a little one, he was far less than pleased with the attention of a bunch of journalists. I suppose you have to be a bird to want the fame...

Fallon is rich in avifauna and its birding experiences can change on a daily basis depending on the water levels of the various lakes and rivers, as well as the time of year, temperatures, and weather patterns. Just as rich, however, are the experiences of the Spring Wings Festival, and our itinerary included a detailed lecture about falconry (complete with avian ambassadors), birding by kayak (the birding was easy, the kayaking wasn't - at least at first), a daytime owl prowl (visiting daytime roosts and nest boxes), and a tour around Carson Lake Wetlands, one of my favorite birding spots in the area.

As birders, of course, we tend to focus on the feathered attractions of a region, but a word of caution - every community you visit, whether just to twitch a rare species, to join in a festival, or as part of a larger birding trip - had a greater history and culture beyond its birds. In Fallon, we had delicious pizza at the rustic Pizza Barn, toured amazing historic homes at the Douglass House and Williams House, examined intriguing artwork at the Barkley Theater, and enjoyed local dishes and exquisite cuisine at The Slanted Porch. But why should this matter? Because birding is big business - that's why press trips are available and festivals are planned. When you go to an area birding, whether it's a neighboring city, an adjacent state, or a far-flung country, you're helping raise awareness of just how valuable their local birds are. That can encourage businesses to support local bird conservation and habitat preservation, creating a cycle that will allow you to return again to see even more wonderful birds. So get out there and explore your "neighbor's" backyard!

Want to learn more about birding in Fallon? Check out what 10,000 Birds, Nevada Magazine, and National Geographic have to say about the festival!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Crowning Glory

The juncos have finally departed, but spring birds are continuing to arrive and bring more color to the yard and feeders. One I've been happy to see, one that may seem common to many, is the newly-arrived white-crowned sparrow.

The bold stripes on the head, the yellow bill tipped with black, and the perky behavior characterize this sparrow, but to me it's more than that. These sparrows are not unusual in Utah, and in fact are year-round residents in this part of the state. To me, however, this is one more sparrow species that enjoys the mature shrubbery around the house and the ground-feeding areas I've established. Indeed, this bird was content scouting around for spilled sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn on the deck, and I also spotted it outside my ground-eye-level office window, happily scratching in the dirt for more seeds and early spring insects.

Attracting any new bird is always an achievement. A new species is a testament to a healthy backyard ecosystem that meets birds' needs, and welcomes them to a safe, comfortable environment. For some backyard birders, the appearance of a rare bird or passing migrant may be an exciting moment - and it is to me as well - but even more exciting is knowing that a resident bird has come to prefer my yard. This means that my landscaping, my feeders, and my water sources have become more attractive than other yards and natural features, and each new bird is a promise that what one bird discovers, others will as well.

This white-crowned sparrow truly is a crowning glory.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring Fever

Spring has been a long time in coming this year, but in just a few days it has made its mark and is truly here to stay. I've been eagerly awaiting migrants at the feeders, and over the weekend only just put up the hummingbird feeders - barely in time, it seems. Two days ago the first of the migrants arrived - the male of my black-headed grosbeak family, and yesterday his lady also appeared. Today has been wild with migrants just in the not-yet-as-bird-friendly-as-it-could-be backyard, with a rainbow of visitors arriving for the first time:
To be truthful, the white-crowned sparrow is a year-round resident in this part of Utah, but not one that has graced my feeders and yard before now. I hope he has felt welcome enough to continue returning! In fact, of the five new migrants today, four of them are also new records for my yard, and I can barely tear myself away from the window as I watch for more.

I don't know what the next few days of frantic migration may bring, but I'll continue to refill the feeders, refresh the bird bath, and otherwise keep my binoculars and camera poised for more seasonal sweetness. As the weather heats up the fever for spring birding sets in, and I'm burning with it bad!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nothing Lesser About It

Far too often we overlook the most common of our backyard birds, always seeking a new lifer, a rare bird or an unusual visitor. On a dreary day that was more winter than spring last week, however, one wonderful bird perched so pretty to remind me that there's nothing common about a bird.

It was a lesser goldfinch - lesser in size than its goldfinch cousins, perhaps, and lesser in the extent of its range, lesser even in its notoriety with regards to state birds and symbolism, but not at all lesser in itself. Though the day was drab and gray, this guest was brilliant yellow and black in his breeding plumage. Despite cold temperatures and a biting breeze, he was beautifully fluffed to show off his vitality and the chill didn't bother him a bit. His delicate talons had a strong grip on a twig barely swelling with spring sap, and he was alert and vibrant.

In just a minute or two, this one "lesser" bird reminded me that all birds are beautiful, no matter how often we see them or how frequently we enjoy their company. As birders, we need to take the time to pause and admire our most familiar feathered friends - not only their physical beauty, but their liveliness and adaptability to be so comfortable around us. For if we become too comfortable around them, we may forget to clean the feeders or refill the bird baths, and once we neglect our most familiar birds, it becomes too easy to neglect all birds. Do that, and soon we might be wondering where our backyard birds have gone, why the mornings are quiet, and what happened to the rich birdlife we used to enjoy.

I refilled my feeders today; have you?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Undecided Spring

Spring weather can never seem to make up its mind in Utah; a couple of weeks ago we had as balmy and sunny a day as any ideal spring, yet a week later we woke up to two inches of heavy, wet snow on lawns that should have needed mowing. One day the sunny warmth encourages singing birds and blooming flowers, the next a bitter wind is racing down the canyons and encouraging warm comfort foods and blazing fireplaces.

Still, spring is clearly on the way, and the birds know it. Up early each morning, I hear the dawn chorus in fully harmony, and everywhere I look in the neighborhood American robins are busy seeking worms and chasing away intruders. The local killdeer are bobbing in their usual field and calling agitatedly as they fly over the neighborhood, and the black-capped chickadees are sounding off from every tree. But I'm undecided myself - great changes are coming, I hope, but change is frightening. In that, birds are both lucky and unlucky - they adapt well to the seasonal changes, but they adapt because their very survival depends on it and they have no other choice. When we choose the changes in our lives, we are beset with indecision, fear, anxiety, and second-guessing. Yet, like the birds, our very survival depends on change and adaptation.

Embrace the spring, the highs and lows it brings to you, and the life you'd never live without it.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jaunty Juncos

Dark-eyed juncos have been a favorite winter backyard bird of mine for years; their perky behavior and energetic movements make icy winter days a bit warmer. This spring has been surprising, however, as the juncos have remained in the backyard for much longer than typical, and in fact, I startled one that was foraging under the deck just yesterday.

Some areas are privileged to be home to juncos year-round, but my backyard is not one of them. While the gray-headed subspecies will stay in the area all year, I've never yet had one of them in my yard - my typical visitors are Oregon juncos, and once or twice a rare (for this area) slate-colored junco. But with their continual flitting around my yard even weeks after the snow has gone and the temperatures are rising, I am wondering just how long they may stay around.

Thus far, despite the first signs of spring appearing - I'm especially thrilled at the hint of flowers forming on my new lilac bush - other spring migrants have not yet arrived. I eagerly await the lazuli buntings and black-headed grosbeaks, and I know that in just a few weeks I need to put out feeders for the black-chinned and broad-tailed hummingbirds. For the time being, however, every day I see a dark-eyed junco is another day at the end of winter to enjoy.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Breaking Even

Spring Mountain Ranch State Park
Another spring, another trip to Las Vegas... It's a trip we take just about every year, generally more in winter than spring, yet still a lovely getaway and opportunity to see things that aren't the norm in Utah. For me, that means a variety of lovely birds that just don't appreciate the cooler, more mountainous terrain I call home, or at least not my vicinity of it. Among the species I was able to appreciate on this trip...
All told, there were more than 40 species I saw during roughly four hours of casual, primarily urban birding. Many of these will stretch further toward my home range as spring advances, but it was pleasant to get a preview of their breeding beauty. Others will never venture so far north, and it is up to me to strike into their range to become reacquainted. No new lifers on this trip, unfortunately, but not for lack of trying - I especially enjoyed the newest place I visited, Spring Mountain Ranch State Park - a lovely facility with an extensive picnic area with plentiful trees as well as scrub desert to explore. I had hoped that hiking through the Mojave Desert on this trip would have yielded a new desert species or two, but now I just have more reason to return.

For now, back home and back to work, I wait for spring to return to me for the next birding adventure.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Walking 1,000 Miles

For the past few months I've been focusing on a lot of goals, including the idea of walking 1,000 miles in 2013 - walks I hope will soon take me along mountain trails and other pathways to intersect more birds. While I was maintaining another blog about that journey for several months, I've decided to sprinkle the occasional walking updates here instead, bringing together two things I'm passionate about in a venue that makes most sense - after all, much of the walking is in hopes of birding.

There won't be much of a noticeable change here; my focus will always be on all things feathered. You will note the new mileage box on the right hand side - a cumulative total of the miles I've walked in 2013. That total will be updated with each blog post, and very rarely posts will focus on that journey more exclusively.

Consider this a migration - birds are always in motion, and if we want to keep up and be in the physical shape necessary to be the best birders we can be, we need to stay moving as well. Let's take a walk!

Monday, March 18, 2013


This month, while only half past, has been trashed with deadlines, cramped schedules, illness, and injury, all of which add up to keep me pinned down and unable to venture far from home for the wonders of early spring birding. Nonetheless, I've enjoyed visits in the backyard - the moody glare of the sharp-shinned hawk, a brief appearance by one of my California quail, the incessant demands of the western scrub-jays, and other familiar guests - and also enjoyed short neighborhood walks.

What is not enjoyable, however, is finding litter along the way, and one piece in particular caught my eye at the end of last month. A dash of pink in a muddy gutter caught my eye, and the first day I saw it I didn't think much of it. A couple of days later, however, it was still there, and I recognized it for the threat it is - a latex balloon. Oh, the pink color sprinkled with quaint white hearts may seem innocuous, but it got me thinking... In the late winter when fruits and flowers are scarce but migrant birds are returning with hungry appetites after their long migration, how might such a tempting morsel look to them?

A dash of pink might look like a tasty nectar flower, or the ripe flesh of a sweet fruit. In a wet and muddy gutter, it might seem to be a succulent worm, or an industrious bird might see it as a useful bit of nesting material.

A balloon is none of these things, however, but it is a grave threat to birds. It is a toxic piece of litter that can clog a bird's digestive tract, gradually starving them as they are unable to take in more food with a litter-filled stomach. It can stifle nestlings and get tangled among the legs of brooding adults, and the abrasive nature of the material can cause sores.

This one balloon, at least, is no more of a threat, however. On that second walk when it caught my eye again, after I'd walked past and it sunk into my consciousness what that pink, squidgy splotch in the gutter really was, I walked back and picked it up, carrying it all the way home to dispose of in a tightly tied trash back and heavy plastic garbage can, well out of reach of any curious birds.

What litter have you picked up along a birding walk? Every scrap you might collect can be helpful in preserving the habitats you enjoy the most, so take a plastic bag along on your next birding walk and do the birds a favor!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sharply Beautiful

It's always a privilege to have raptors in my backyard, but last week I had a very unique experience. Coming into the kitchen I looked out my huge picture window and was instantly dismayed to see fluffy snowflakes - again! - but my dismay vanished as quickly as any thoughts of spring when I saw the guest gracefully perched in the aspen tree: a sharp-shinned hawk.

I've had sharpies in the yard before, quite frequently, and have occasionally seen evidence of their hard-fought meals, but what struck me was how very tiny this hawk truly was. I've not had the honor of seeing one quite so close - he was perched only about a foot or two from the window - and he was definitely diminutive. And I say "he" because among these raptors, the female is the larger gender, and owing to his fantastically small size I have no doubt the bird was a male. The overall proportions and tail length also clearly identified him as a sharp-shinned hawk, for while I've also had Cooper's hawks nearby, they are significantly larger with a much longer tail. This bird was quite similar in size to my Eurasian collared-doves, and while they're on the large size for doves, that's amazing tiny for a hawk.

He watched me for several minutes as I stayed deep inside the kitchen snapping photos; it wasn't until I moved closer to the window that he decided enough was enough and moved along. He didn't move all that far, however, just to my nearby sumac tree, where he stayed for quite some time, watching over the yard. I could occasionally hear chatter from my other backyard residents, but while the hawk was nearby they elected to stay hidden.

I do hope Tiny returns (not, perhaps, the name he'd have chosen, but still). We have a nesting pair of sharp-shinned hawks in the neighborhood and while I don't know if he's the patriarch of that particular nest or a still-growing offspring, he's always welcome to visit. It's amazing how one "small" bird can make any day seem bigger and brighter.

And it helped that the snow didn't last, too.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Birds I Miss

It hasn't been a very birdy time lately; the season is deeply entrenched in cold and scarcity, and the birds are making themselves scarce as well - as is any time I might have to venture outside my property lines to see what other birds might be in the area. So for now, my birding is mostly limited to the antics of the house sparrows as they compete for seed on the deck, feeders, and wherever I've sprinkled a little treat.

Honestly, I do love my house sparrows - I've never had the misfortune to witness their less savory sides, and many times they're the first or only feathered company I might have. Their colors are warmer and richer than many people realize, and their behavior can be just as entertaining as any other bird as they flit about with an excess of energy. But while I might enjoy their visits, at this time of year I'm missing the visits of some other guests who have been absent or much less conspicuous for months...
  • The relatively cautious black-headed grosbeak family that nips at the hulled sunflower seed.
  • The lovestruck antics of the Eurasian collared-doves eager to get busy anywhere and everywhere.
  • The scuttling scratches of a hungry covey of California quail at the feeders and in the grass.
  • The obsessive-compulsive peanut caching by western scrub-jays, including the meticulous hiding of any evidence of their stash.
  • The suspicious glances of the rufous hummingbirds as they sit on their swing, eyeballing the yard for any intruder to chase away.
I know all these birds will return - and more I hope - and I keep them in my heart until they do. But a birder's heart has a wide range and enough seed for all, so until the days warm and migration ensues, I'll continue to love my house sparrows all the same.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Pretty Posing

I admit it, I'm a twitcher - always looking for my next lifer. Yet, too often we overlook the beauty of our far more common avian visitors, and once in awhile one still takes our breath away.

Earlier this week I was trying to get photos of an industrious black-capped chickadee (who was completely uninterested in sitting still for my amateur photography skills), when I noticed a far calmer, far more agreeable bird perched nearby - but it was "just" a house finch. But look closely - the rich strawberry wash on the head and breast, the feathers fluffed a touch to keep warm but still keeping the streaking clear and visible, the intelligence and curiosity in the eye. If I didn't stop to look, I'd have missed a striking, beautiful bird, and a wonderful photo to remind me of one of my favorite backyard guests. They may visit every day, and on nearly every feeder I stock, but there's nothing common about the beauty, joy, and entertainment backyard birds bring us. I'll be looking closer now!

What birds have you overlooked lately? Maybe one of the most common backyard birds in the United States,
or maybe just a bird that is common to you. Look closer, and you may be amazed at what you see!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Starling Stuff

A lot of birders cringe when European starlings appear at their feeders, but in this deep part of winter, I welcome their diversion. Not only is it wonderful to have another winged visitor, but one with such spritely energy and industriousness is inspiring when the winter doldrums settle in.

A week or two ago, a flock of starlings descended on the yard for a few minutes, focusing their attention on the bare patch of ground that had appeared on the south side of the neighbors' yard, just north of my kitchen window. Maybe they were finding insects, or unearthing seeds, or just exploring grass - where has it been for so long? - but every inch of the terrain came under their probing scrutiny. They were climbing and stumbling over one another in their rush to check another patch, yet none got agitated or annoyed; they just kept looking for stuff, as finding stuff is the goal of a starling's existence. A few ventured into my shadier and still snow-covered patch, including getting a sip at the heated bird bath, but within just a few minutes, they'd satisfied themselves in their treasure hunting and moved on to greener - and presumably more stuff-filled - pastures.

I'm sure my pastures will be greener soon, and seeing how the starlings make do so fabulously with so little, I'll be sure to make my yard even more bird-friendly so they have more to explore and more to find when they return. Stuff awaits!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Winter Storms, Winter Foods

The past couple of days have seen nearly nonstop snow - light but relentless. The snow is only heavier in sudden flurries near the feeders, as the finches, sparrows, chickadees, and doves land, snatch a seed, snap at one another, shuffle for position, munch another seed, and abruptly yield position to another hungry bill.

Birds can easily find food in winter and there are many things winter birds eat, but there is no doubt that feeders are helpful and appreciated. Just before a storm, or during a lull in inclement weather, activity at the feeders is more than busy, it has a frantic, frenetic pace as the birds stock up, adding a few more calories to their diet before snow and cold keep them more confined. I feed a range of different winter foods to my backyard flock, including...
Without a doubt, the most popular item on the menu is the hulled sunflower seed - rich in fat and calories but easy to eat even with smaller bills. I have three large hopper feeders filled with these nutritious kernels, but they're all emptied every 2-3 days, and every bird seems to fight for a sample. I happily refill them, even tromping through snowdrifts, moving branches and covering myself in loose snow, and slipping into a gully to reach each feeder and increase its bounty. Depending on the time of day when I am able to tend the feeders, the birds may be visiting one before I even finish filling the others. I'm happy to do it, and always happy to see how popular it is. I've even recently stocked up, and have nearly 50 pounds of hulled seeds waiting to be served up - and in this weather, that will be soon enough!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Life in the Gutter

When we say someone's mind is in the gutter, they woke up in the gutter, or just feel like they're in the gutter, it's always a negative meaning - but for birds, a gutter can be a wonderful thing. After his adventure in the firebox, I wouldn't have thought my neighborhood northern flicker (or one of them) would want to be anywhere near my house again, but while it's not technically my house, he is dropping by occasionally to the neighbor's gutter. But why?

Gutters can be bountiful for birds. In summer, a gutter may have delicious insects, fresh water or nesting material collected in its corners. In winter, a bit of water may be there, as well as windfall fruit, nuts, or other food. This was a southeastern corner, and it's my bet that the bird was probing about for food, since she and her mate haven't been shy about visiting my heated bird bath whenever they need a drink.

Birds adapt. Take away the trees or stumps where they would hunt for insects, and instead they'll search chimneys and gutters. Remove snags perfect for nesting cavities and they'll investigate bird houses. Destroy habitat with development and they'll learn to seek out bird feeders and flowerbeds. Of course I'd rather see birds as "natural" as possible, but the birds in our backyard, doing what backyard birds do, are just as natural in their way. I just wish being in the gutter was as good for me some days as it is for my flickers.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Sparrow That Shouldn't Be Here

I have several platform and dish feeders on my covered deck, where I offer a variety of foods - millet, cracked corn, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and dried sunflower heads. A wide range of birds take advantage of this sheltered restaurant, most notably house finches, house sparrows, mourning doves, Eurasian collared-doves, California quail, and at this time of year, dark-eyed juncos. For the past few weeks, however, I've caught scattered glimpses of another visitor - a little brown job that looks the same as but different from my regular patrons.
It took a few views to verify the sighting, but a song sparrow has added my deck to its repertoire of fine dining. The breast spot, malar patches, longer tail, and warmer colors are all evident, though the bird is quite shy and always flits away as soon as it has been spotted, so it was difficult to see it clearly enough to be certain. Ever since that first quick view I've been trying to get a photo, and only managed when the bird hunkered down in our western neighbor's tree long enough for me to snap a shot.

It might be "just" a song sparrow, but its an interesting guest in my backyard, far from the wetter, marsh-like habitats this bird typically prefers. I do have one overgrown section of yard that I've seen it flitting to, and I intend to preserve that area of the yard and add to it (the less lawn to mow, the better). Who knows what other surprise guests might visit?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Empty List

The holidays were too hectic with packed schedules, illness, and deadlines, and unfortunately birding and birds fell by the wayside more than I would have liked. But as I settle in to 2013, I just know this will be a lucky birding year, despite the less than lucky connotations many people give to this year's numerals.

I'm going to make it lucky, and that starts with a list. I have a beautiful poster - The Birds of Utah Checklist - from the Utah DNR that I won for a great bird sighting (red-breasted merganser) during a field trip with the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival several years ago. That poster is framed without glass in my office, with the idea that I can use the checklist to mark off the species I've seen. Granted, it won't be a complete life list - there is no record of the Jamaican tody, green jay, or black vulture ever in Utah - but it will be a fun way to keep track of how many of Utah's birds I've seen, even if I haven't seen them in Utah.

Beginning the year I have a meager (or at least I consider it meager) 333 birds on my life list; as I haven't yet filled out my poster Utah list, I can't count those (watch for a future update) quite yet. But how many will I end the year with?

Let's get lucky, '13!