Tuesday, December 9, 2014

White in the Yard

There was a burst of white in the yard recently, but despite the time of year, it's not what might be expected. It wouldn't be unusual for a quick dusting of snow to appear these days, but the dusting of white I saw wasn't fluffy flakes in the air or chiseled frost on the ground - it was a slash of white on a dove's wing.

It was on a hopper feeder, a popular snack spot for a flock of Eurasian collared-doves, and at first - in the flurry of my own activity - I didn't quite register the new bird. But even in a quick glance with a dozen other things on my mind, something different did register - maybe it was the spot on the neck rather than the half-collar, the extra blue skin around the eyes, the brighter red on the feet, or yes, the white slash on the edge of the wing. Together, those markings pulled me up short and I turned back to the window - no, I wasn't dreaming, it was a white-winged dove.

To birders in further southern areas, particularly Florida, Texas, and throughout much of the deep southwest, a white-winged dove is a common feeder bird, even an unwanted bully at times, but in Utah they are only typically present in the summer in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, and rather rare at that. This far north, and at this time of year, it's an unexpected and welcome surprise, and certainly caught me off guard. Fortunately, I've seen these birds before - they were common and omnipresent during my trip to Texas, and I've regularly seen them during my trips to Las Vegas - so I could identify this unusual guest quickly.

What a treat, a new yard bird. But a bittersweet one at that, considering what was to come - the dozen other things on my mind - but that's a story for another day. For today, it's wonderful to enjoy a new and unique visitor.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

First Snow and Dreaming of the Tropics

Today we are getting our first snow for the 2014-15 winter, a somewhat steady fall of medium-wet flakes accumulating in soggy sheets under a dreary gray sky. Fortunately, I've been saving up for this day, and instead of reflecting on the drab, I'm remembering a rainbow - rich green jungle foliage, stunning creamy hibiscus blooms, sweetly yellow pineapple wedges, russet red cacao pods, and wow, the shades of plumage... Turquoise, magenta, gold, chestnut, neon blue, iridescent purple, stark white, scarlet, and every shade between all of them.

Collared Aracari
But where can you find this rainbow? The Lodge at Pico Bonito in La Ceiba, Honduras. I was privileged to be invited on a press trip to this luxury birding destination in early May, and even months later, my life is more colorful for the experience. For five days, it was all birding, all the time, and in just those few days, 25 new lifers joined my list, including wading birds, tropical passerines, toucans, hummingbirds, and more.
  • Bare-Throated Tiger-Heron
  • Boat-Billed Heron
  • Grey Hawk
  • Northern Jacana
  • Red-Billed Pigeon
  • White-Crowned Parrot
  • Mottled Owl
  • Violet Sabrewing
  • White-Necked Jacobin
  • Violet-Crowned Woodnymph
  • Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird
  • Black-Headed Trogon
  • Violaceous Trogon
  • Blue-Crowned Motmot
  • Turquoise-Browed Motmot
  • Collared Aracari
  • Keel-Billed Toucan
  • Social Flycatcher
  • Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher
  • Lovely Cotinga
  • Brown Jay
  • Yellow-Winged Tanager
  • White-Collared Seedeater
  • Montezuma Oropendola
  • Black-Cowled Oriole
Of course, my standards for actually counting lifers are very strict. There were dozens of other birds I saw on the trip without being acutely convinced of the proper identification, and dozens more were already familiar to me. But wow, the diversity and beauty of avifauna in Honduras is phenomenal, and I didn't even have all the opportunities to explore different habitats in the region, and it wasn't even close to the local peak birding season.

Despite being the off season and coping with my inexperience with tropical species, the birding was spectacular - in particular, the hummingbird feeders on all the public buildings of the lodge, including the restaurant, lobby, and connecting boardwalks attracted all manner of flying jewels within just feet of visitors. Feeding stations in the gardens offered snacks to birds as well as other local wildlife, and different birds were nesting in nearby trees.

That much fantastic birding can leave you famished, but you won't be starving for long. Whether you opt for fresh fruit, comfortable pastas or chicken (I highly recommend the chicken cordon bleu), Mesoamerican fusion dishes, or local specialties including fresh tacos and seafood, the restaurant is superb. And if you'd like some liquid libations, the bar is at your service from the moment you arrive and are greeted with a tropical welcome cocktail. And of course, the bedtime truffle waiting back in your cabin is a deliciously decadent way to end any day.

After a full day of activities - snorkeling, hiking, different birding tours, a visit to the Serpentarium and Butterfly Farm, a night hike for owling or looking for all manner of nocturnal natives (I found it very unnerving to get an up close look at how bloody fast a scorpion can be, though the tarantula stayed reassuringly still) - the cabins are the ultimate in restful escapes. From the hammock on the porch (ideal for a cozy nap or thumbing through your field guide while waiting for the afternoon rain to pass) to the comfortable beds and spacious rooms, you have the perfect options for stretching out and rejuvenating for another day's delights. And if your muscles are a wee bit sore from having so much to explore, an in-room massage can always be arranged.

Lodge Entrance - Lobby

Five days was a terrifically long time to be immersed in the tropics of this gorgeous lodge, but it wasn't nearly long enough. There are more tours I want to take, more delicious dishes I want to sample, and of course, always more birds to see. And more tales to come as I revisit these fantastic experiences to escape from Utah's winter doldrums!

For more information about The Lodge at Pico Bonito, see my complete birding destination review!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Season's First Junco

Every autumn, I eagerly await the return of the dark-eyed juncos. While I'm not entirely thrilled that these birds foretell winter, I can't help but adore their perky behavior, sleek plumage, and energetic personalities - they are the perfect birds to brighten any winter day. This year, however, the very first junco I saw was absolutely the last way I wanted to see one.

I was backing out of the garage, and I routinely stop in the driveway to ensure the door lowers and fasten my seatbelt. While doing so, I glanced up at the roof, and saw a bird sitting all too still and in too unusual a posture to be a positive sign - it must have hit one of the vaulted windows at the roof's peak, windows that I alternately love for their uniqueness and brightness, but hate for instances such as this.

Unwilling to leave the bird languishing on the roof - though by the stillness I assumed it was too late for any help - I stopped the truck and stepped out onto the running board for a better view. I realized the bird hadn't been killed by the impact; I could see slight motion that indicated breathing, though the bird was bowed and its bill was resting on the roof. Despite having an appointment to keep, I didn't hesitate to turn off the truck, reopen the garage, and wrestle with the ladder to reach that part of the roof. I had a bird rescue kit standing by, and quickly I was just a few feet away, examining the first dark-eyed junco I'd seen in months.

The bird was indeed breathing, and its left eye was open (I couldn't see the right side). While its bill was resting on the shingles, there was no apparent discharge or visible injury other than a single mussed feather. The wings were not drooping, and the bird seemed aware of my presence, though unwilling to move much. That changed in an instant, however, as I reached out to gently cup the bird (while balanced on the ladder, mind you), and it protested - vigorously - with chirping and fluttering. I released it, and it flew further up the roof, lightly bonking on the window again before resting on another section of the roof. As this new perch gave me a view of its other side, I finished climbing the ladder so I could examine the bird further. There were still no signs of obvious injuries, and the fact that it could fly, however unsteadily, was an excellent sign.

I stayed on the roof with the bird for several minutes, speaking to it gently and noting its breathing and posture. After a few minutes, the bird was more alert, and finally fluttered up to a branch where it was better concealed than on the roof - our neighborhood does have resident hawks, and I was worried that a stunned junco would be an easy breakfast. I watched for another minute or two to be sure it was able to balance and cling well, then made my way down the ladder and only slightly late to my appointment. When I got home a couple of hours later, the bird had vanished, but within hours it - or another junco - appeared at the feeders, fit and healthy.

Windows can be fatal to birds, and I take all the steps I can to keep mine safe. No system is perfect, and we must always be ready when an accident happens. In this case, the ending was a happy one - may it be so for others.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Your Bird Feeding Is Now Irrelevant

Hand-feeding birds is perhaps one of the most amazing experiences any backyard birder can have, but recently, I went beyond offering a peanut to a western scrub-jay or a handful of Nyjer to a flock of pine siskins (both of which I've done, successfully). I fed an emu.

Okay, admittedly, the emu wasn't in my backyard (wow, what a yard bird that would be!), but one could consider Tracy Aviary just as much a part of my extended backyard as anywhere in the state of Utah. My family has an annual membership to the aviary - an organization we are always happy to support - and we visit frequently. Each visit is a treat, exploring the different exhibits, and often feeding the ducks as we leave.

We have stayed for the aviary's regular shows a couple of times, and have seen different demonstrations and acts; I even once was the perch for Phoenix, the aplomado falcon. But during this visit, we were approached by one of the keepers and asked if we'd like to help out without the show. The seasonal shows have ended, but one bird in particular - Sydney, the aviary's star emu - still needs to practice his act. It's a simple bit, when he runs out from a holding area to munch out of his bowl, then returns to the holding area. But as the keeper explained, if Sydney doesn't have regular practice, he forgets his routine and may refuse to eat otherwise, since he's not used to snacking in other ways.

What a treat! I held the bowl and offered Sydney his fruit, and I was all a-quiver to be so close to such an amazing bird (and grateful that we'd actually brought along the camera that day!). Incidentally, he eats a variety of chopped up fruit - apples, blueberries, grapes and the like. Being so close, I was also able to see the visual acuity he uses in choosing food, as he opted almost exclusively for lighter-colored foods (that would be more visible in the black bowl) first. Of course, he did pick it clean!

I love all my backyard birds, of course, and offering food to them is never dull. But somehow, the experience isn't quite the same when the bird's head is as large as your hand and it's fixated on whamming its bill into the bowl as quickly as possible... Ah, birds.

Monday, October 6, 2014


If you've been reading this blog for some time, it can't have escaped you how much I enjoy my resident California quail - from the visiting coveys that pick over my deck, to the summertime family flocks with darling chicks, to the crazy antics of various individuals I can come to recognize. Yet no matter how much I watch these birds, or how much I think I know them, they can always surprise me.

One such surprise was just a few days ago on the walk leading up to our front door. The sidewalk is wide and separated from the driveway by a thick bed of evergreen plantings that numerous birds like to take advantage of, and I've often seen the quail scurry for cover into the pines. I've even witnessed them occasionally pluck berries for a quick snack, or scratch in the dirt seeking out insects and other random seeds.

What I hadn't seen before, however, was a sentinel so dedicated as to not move for nearly an hour. An adult male was standing guard in the middle of that walk, perfectly still, as other quail were quietly roosting in the scrub. My husband and I were working in our large family room and could peer out the front window to check, and the quail was looking about, but not overly concerned. There were no signs of injury, disorientation, or trauma, and indeed, he was just watching out for the covey.

I've seen guard birds before, keeping watchful eyes and a tense demeanor as a flock forages, but the rest of the quail were roosting, and this lone bird was in no way stressed or anxious; he was just there. In the middle of the sidewalk, out in the open and highly visible, but highly content.

It thrills me no end that the quail are so at peace while visiting my yard that they can feel so secure and unmolested. To see wild birds so gentle and relaxed can't help but be relaxing to me, and it is why I work so hard to keep my yard a safe place for them to visit. And while they're welcome to stand guard as long as they deem it necessary, I'll always be watching out for them as well.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Autumn Beginnings

Fall is finally arrived, in paper if not in practice. The days are still relatively scorching, the grass is still thriving, and the mountains are still bare of the first autumn snow. But there are small signs of autumn, clues so subtle that you might miss them if you don't take the time to stop and realize the wonder of the changing season.
  • A whiff of ripe concord grapes in the air
  • Gently colored tips on leaves
  • Soft blushes of color on mountain forests
  • Nippy air if you're up early enough to feel it
Of course, bird migration is a great clue for autumn, but it can be hard to see in the backyard as well. Oh, the black-headed grosbeaks are long since departed, and the baby California quail are definitely growing up, but my yard isn't one migrants frequent as much as I'd like. Still, there are more rufous hummingbirds about, and when watching them at the feeders, they're certainly putting on the grams in preparation for their departure. The western scrub-jays are caching peanuts with more than their usual vengeance, and the black-billed magpies - so often absent in summer as they nest - have returned for their peanut ration as well.

These brief clues can be easily overlooked if we don't take time to pause and appreciate the season. This weekend I hope to do more appreciation in the guise of heading off to view some of the area's most beautiful fall spots, and there is always the hope of more fantastic fall birds to enjoy as well. Happy autumn!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dancing Hawk

A lot of birders don't enjoy having a hawk visit their yard and prey on birds they feed, but I always consider it a privilege. It's a privilege I've had a number of times, but one earlier this month stands out as one of the oddest visits...

We have both sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks in the neighborhood, and when I checked my backyard feeders and noticed them empty at a prime feeding time, I looked around and saw one of the juvenile Cooper's hawks out by the grapevine. It's not typical to see a hawk on the ground unless it has prey, so I wanted to watch and see if this young bird had been successful in his hunt. He seemed to be, but didn't seem to know what to make of it.

At first, I thought his inexperience had only injured the house sparrow he'd caught, because he was fidgeting with the smaller bird and it appeared to be struggling. After watching for a few moments, however, I realized this wasn't the case. The sparrow was more than dead, but the hawk wasn't convinced, apparently. He would pounce on the smaller bird, hold or squeeze it for a moment, then hop away, even at times flinging the limp body into the air as he jumped. Over and over this dance continued, with the hawk at times moving several feet away and looking away from his sparrow, then leaping on it again, as if practicing his attack moves.

Perhaps that is what he was doing, or perhaps this was just one of his first successful hunts and he was making sure the prey was decidedly dead, or perhaps he was just proving his prowess to anyone who might be watching. Eventually he seemed convinced of the sparrow's demise, and carried it into a nearby tree to feast. Given how long he played with it, he certainly must have been hungry by then! He was still a bit nervous, and when I went out into the yard to see if I could get clearer photos (rather than shooting through the windows at an awkward angle) he decided to carry his meal further away - as if I hadn't already gotten a delightful show.

This is one of those "wild kingdom" moments that I love, and of course juvenile hunters provide the best viewing because they can be so unpredictable and expressive. While it's never nice for any bird to meet its end (even a house sparrow, as those who know me know I love all birds), raptors need to eat as well, and it's an absolute treat to see such unusual and entertaining behavior just feet away from my deck. I hope this young bird of prey returns for another meal soon, and he's welcome to any bird he can catch!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fall Hummingbirds

Black-Chinned Hummingbird
I enjoy visits from a variety of hummingbirds as early as mid-spring, but I have to admit that the fall hummingbirds are my favorites to watch as they buzz about the feeders. In late summer and early fall, I can have up to three species frequenting the trio of nectar feeders dangling above my deck: black-chinned hummingbirds (the most common in our backyard), broad-tailed hummingbirds (rare but still regular guests), and rufous hummingbirds (late-summer arrivals that strive to take over).

Despite their tiny size, it's quite easy to tell these hummingbirds apart - and not just because the feeders are less than a dozen feet away from good viewing windows. The black-chinned hummingbirds have an iridescent purple band low on their throats, and their wings make a low hum. The broad-tailed hummingbirds have bright red throats and make a loud, metallic buzzing in flight. The rufous hummingbirds have bright orange plumage, including rusty-orange flanks and shiny orange throats, and they are the most aggressive of the hummers.

Females are more challenging to tell apart, especially because not all the gals are really gals - young males resemble females at first, but gradually develop their mature gorgets. As that color develops, I can tell who is who more effectively.

No matter which species, these tiny birds have the same goals at this time of year - claim the most nectar for themselves, gain weight quickly, and prepare for migration. It's amusing to see how tubby they can get, yet they still chase one another around the yard, diving and buzzing to defend the feeders that they all think belong exclusively to them. The females tend to be slightly more mellow - I might actually have two feeding at one time with only wary glares exchanged rather than vigorous chases - but even they have little tolerance for interference. I may even get buzzes and dirty looks when I step out onto the deck - how dare I get too close! But of course some individuals are more tolerant than others; two or three weeks ago, a female rufous hummingbird was so nonplussed about  my presence that I was able to gently approach the feeder while she sat sipping, and she even let me lightly touch her tail before I got told off.

It's magical moments like those that make feeding birds all the more exciting. From one day to the next, you never know what birds may visit or how they will behave, and it's always worth watching and wondering. I know the hummingbirds will be gone in another two or three weeks, not to return until next spring, but when they do, their feeders will be waiting.

Are your hummingbirds still visiting? Learn when hummingbird migration is!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Second Covey

In Utah, September isn't usually considered the breeding season, but one of my California quail hens is disproving that assumption this year. Just a week or two ago, she showed up on the deck, accompanied by three tiny chicks - no more than two or three days out of the shell. Soft, fluffy, and at the time, too small to even get on any of the steps, they were still pecking industriously through the grass while mama took a well-deserved break by investigating the series of dish feeders three too-tall steps away.

Like any children, the chicks didn't stay small, and within a day or two they could climb onto the lowest step, and within a week, they managed to make it all the way up to the deck. They were still uncertain about this new environment, but since mama was perfectly at ease, they settled in to learn what birdseed is and how good it is for eating. I've seen them around a few times, and the chicks are rapidly growing, though after that first day, only two chicks have visited - bird mortality is always high, particularly later in the season when older broods are also competing for scarce resources and more predators are preparing for autumn.

It is interesting that with this covey, no male was attached to the brood for several days, but when I've seen them more recently, one seems to have adopted the flock. He does stay a bit more distant, however, keeping a protective watch slightly apart from mama and her chicks, but they don't mind his presence. Perhaps, in the spring, he'll be joining her in an even closer watch over a brood they share.

Sunday, August 31, 2014


I adore birds, I do, but there is more to life than living on the wing, and each of us has additional interests, hobbies, and passions. One of mine is reading, and I want to take just a quick moment to share with you another blog I have begun, Eclectic Shelves. I read voraciously - more than 100 books each year - and this new blog is my effort at sharing the wide range of topics, authors, genres, and titles that grace my shelves. Book reviews are a large part of the new blog, but additional posts will cover the reading life, libraries, and literacy in general. I hope you might take a moment to check it out - and yes, occasionally you'll find books about birds on my shelves as well! (There is one bird-related review right near the top of the blog at the moment.)

Happy birding, happy reading, happy at whatever makes you happy!

Can you spot the three bird-related titles in this stack of some of my favorites?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brightly Black

Some birds are so common as to be frequently overlooked and unappreciated, but when we take the time to enjoy those feathered friends that are around us most often, we see new beauty in each of them. Such was the case with the red-winged blackbirds that I made acquaintance with while in Michigan - so often I pass over them at home in the search for something more unusual, more colorful or just that elusive "more" so many birders seek. Yet when I finally had the opportunity to take a semi-birding walk while in a different area, these birds stood out - but not necessarily for the reason you might expect.

It wasn't their uniqueness that struck me - I see these birds often, nearly everywhere I manage to go birding. It wasn't their coloration either, though I do appreciate the stark colors of the males' plumage and the adept camouflage of the females. And it wasn't their raucous calls, often considered less than musical but just as distinct as any warbler.

What did strike me was simply their location. I may see them in many places, but you wouldn't expect any birds in an area of wetland less than seventy-five yards long and barely half as wide, next to a busy highway, with no other wetland or typical red-winged blackbird habitat for miles. Yet there they were, several pairs in fact, raucously proclaiming their territory with a cacophony of calls from high atop the scanty section of reeds. Happily at home, they made it clear where their boundaries were, and boy did anyone get an earful who dared to cross those borders.

Birds are simply amazing, and so adaptable. So many lessons we can learn from them - adapt to your surroundings, but defend your space (whether physical or psychological) fiercely. Work together as needed, but don't force yourself on others, and don't allow yourself forced upon. And most of all, fly free - no matter where you may be.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A New Tribute to Scrub-Jays

In writing my latest post, Happy About the Blues, I shared how much I enjoy my western scrub-jays, but in doing so, I realized how long it has been since I've taken photos of my favorite corvids.

It was not hard to rectify that oversight, as they are daily visitors to my never-full-enough peanut dish. They weren't happy that I stayed out on the deck (as evidenced by the suspicious glare), but their desire for peanuts was greater than their trepidation. They didn't pose long - just long enough to grab a peanut - but after I proved that I wasn't about to move from my chair and was happy to let them sort through the dish, they didn't mind as much. They wouldn't quite come to the additional peanuts I scatter around the deck furniture (to their credit, my legs were up on the table and that was probably too close for comfort), but one bold jay did snatch a peanut I'd placed on the top of the dock box where my seed is stored.

They are demanding, and loud, and never satisfied with even the most generous handful of nuts, but they are still treasured visitors to my yard. I talk to them, and I fancy that they talk back - at least they have learned to recognize me and my voice, and get more vocal themselves when I'm out filling the feeders and announcing that peanuts are now available. They've learned all the places I set out the peanuts, and they've found some ingenious hiding places to cache the nuts themselves, including inside sprinklers, deep in bushes, and of course, all over the lawn. I think we've both learned a lot from one another, and I look forward to both giving and receiving many more lessons from my jays!

Check out my latest article on western scrub-jays, and share your own sightings in the comments!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Happy About the Blues

The blue jay has always been one of my favorite birds, though when I was a kid and they insisted on perching outside my bedroom window every summer morning at 6 a.m., I may have thought differently. After moving to the west, however, and leaving the blue jay's range, I learned how much I miss them - even their arrogant attitudes and raucous voices. When I was in Michigan several weeks ago I did have the opportunity to enjoy blue jays again, and even to get a photo - not the best, but still the best I've taken of the colorful corvids.

It's not as though living in Utah is without jays, however, and I've come to love my western scrub-jays just as much, if not more because of the intimate experiences I've had with them. Each morning I fill an appropriately blue dish with peanuts, and in time I can hear the squawking and scrabbling as the neighborhood jay family argues over who gets what nut in what order. This year the family has at least four siblings that are just now establishing dominance over one another. One of them is exceptionally loud - we call that one Mouthy - and another is exceptionally quiet. One is more aggressive than the others, and another - Hoppy - bounces enthusiastically along the deck rail and into the feeder at each visit. And of course there's Billy, an older jay we've seen around for at least two years, whom we can identify because of his broken upper bill. It's just a stub, but it hasn't slowed him down - he just turns his head sideways to pick up seeds and peanuts, and he's adapted just fine.

I don't take enough photos of the scrub-jays, but whenever they visit I'm much more interested in interacting with them than struggling with my lack of photography skills. I talk to them, and they recognize my voice (at least they recognize the voice that accompanies the peanuts). I put peanuts in different places on the deck, not just in their dish but on the table and chairs so they can play a bit more, and they inevitably find every nut I've laid out. It's fascinating to watch them choose just the right nut, then bury it in the yard (despite my pleas that they choose another location - Not in the grass!), adroitly covering it with a leaf, a billful of grass clippings, or another bit of camouflage, and hopping from side to side to be sure it's properly concealed. And of course, the more nuts they cache, the more I put out! There will always be more peanuts waiting for my jays, whenever they visit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


Walks through quiet, undisturbed riparian habitats inevitably yield some amazing birds, and on my trip to northern Michigan last month, on the one such walk I was able to take, a song sparrow was one of the avian ambassadors that greeted me. Alert and adventurous, this somewhat scruffy sparrow (perhaps just fresh from a bath) was singing with a fervor few of us put into our daily tasks, but it was clear that to sing - and to have its song be heard - was the entirety of this bird's purpose.

How often do we devote so much energy and drive to a single, simple purpose? Far too rarely for me, I'm troubled to admit. Our lives today, certainly my life at least, are a web of interconnected goals, multi-tasking, and diluted energies that, more often than not, result not in more productivity, but less. We can be overwhelmed by a mountain of a to-do list (my work list typically has in excess of 70 items per week, not including the daily tasks of life, family, and home), pulled in conflicting directions by too many commitments, and drown in an unceasing flood of demands, criticisms, and essentials. And we never have time to sing.

A significant date is fast approaching for me; two of them, in fact. It is a time for reflection and repurposing, and perhaps, to fit a bit more joy and music into a schedule that, just maybe, doesn't need to be so crowded.

I hope you find time to sing.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Gold Medal

Earlier this summer, I spent a few days in northern Michigan on family matters; a relatively surprise trip, but one that still managed to have a few moments for minor birding. While I wasn't able to visit new locations, identify lifers, or relax in the field, I was able to take some short but productive walks. My hometown has, in the 20 years since I moved away, built up its network of hiking and biking trails, and the habitat along the local river leading to the bay is ideal for a number of species. This gave me - a birder with precious few photography skills - the opportunity for some gold medal shots, particularly of a bright, breeding male American goldfinch.

Perched on flowering weeds, he was one of a flock foraging for early seeds, and they paused on different weedtops as I stood not too many yards away, partially concealed by tall grasses and scrub vegetation. Active little birds that they are, they didn't linger for long, but long enough for me to not only enjoy the view, but to get a stunning photo. I've always said that I can take fantastic bird photos if a bird cooperates by landing just a few feet away and remaining still for several minutes, but how often does that really happen? On this early morning, it did, and this golden gleam was more beautiful even than the sunrise.

Several other birds also posed along that walk; I'll share their portraits and stories in the days to come. But for now, let this amazingly golden finch remind us all to appreciate the beauty of the familiar, which we too often fail to recognize.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Growing Brood

Summer is baby bird season, and in the backyard, that means coveys of baby California quail. Earlier this summer we thought we'd missed the neighborhood quail family, but it seems they were just a bit later than usual, for one day we were inundated with a flock of fluff - at least seven or eight chicks trailing along with their overly cautious parents. Barely tall enough to investigate the flowers along the neighbor's wall, they still skittered energetically over the grass, peeping all the way.

As the weeks have progressed, so have the quail. While not all have survived - the covey has dwindled to six healthy chicks that seem to be doing well, which is still a good survival rate for the flock - they are growing, and each week they are larger and show clearer markings. They now come onto the deck readily, pecking about for seed and hopping up and down, up and down on the stairs. They haven't yet mastered getting onto the taller feeders or up on the railing where the largest platform feeder rests, but that's a good lookout point for daddy quail, while mummy generally stays closer to the brood. Not quite teenagers, they're in that awkward adolescent stage that is no less endearing than chickhood.

Soon enough the youngsters will be indistinguishable from their parents, though the flock will remain together through the cooling autumn and into winter's snows. They're all welcome, and I hope that next summer they all manage to raise even more chicks to come for a visit.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Fabulous New Feeder

 A few months ago, I lost my largest bird feeder - a 2-in-1 Triple Tube Feeder - that featured a huge capacity, attractive design, and many feeding ports. I wasn't too upset with its demise, since it had been in constant service for close to three years, in weather conditions ranging from full sun in up to 100 degree heat in the summer, to zero degree temperatures and covered with snow in winter, and it served me well. The threading on the screw holding the top to the rest of the feeder finally cracked enough that it couldn't be hung, and it was time to choose a new feeder.

Reviewing bird feeders is part of my work with About.com, and I regularly examine different sizes, styles, and designs, but despite my familiarity with many feeders, it's difficult to choose a new one for my own yard. After a long time examining the options, I finally selected the Bird-Safe Platform Feeder from Duncraft, and even though I was familiar with the feeder after having reviewed it, putting it up in my yard has drastically surpassed all my expectations.

I hung the feeder from the rain gutter at the edge of my covered deck, and it took less than a day for the birds to discover the new bounty (I have other feeders in the same area). And discover it they have! I fill it with a half-cup of hulled sunflower each morning, and all day the feeder is patronized by a variety of species, including:

Interestingly enough, to date I have never seen a single house sparrow at this feeder, though I have dozens of them at my other feeders (including on the deck not five feet away), and the slant of the roof apparently also keeps the Eurasian collared-doves and mourning doves away from the feeding tray, allowing the smaller birds to enjoy the food without unfair competition. For anyone who may be troubled by bully birds, I strongly recommend giving this feeder a go. Admittedly, I haven't had it in strong rain or a cold winter yet, but it has so far been outstanding. I can't wait to see what birds arrive for the next meal!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

New Birds in New Mexico

Spring is always a hot birding season, and this past spring I finally got to take advantage of some minor spring birding with a trip to New Mexico. While the trip was not primarily for birding, there was still time for a few minor birding stops in Albuquerque and slightly south of the city. A good many southwestern birds - Gambel's quail, greater roadrunners, and others - were part of the scene, but while it was a shade too early for most migrants to make an appearance, much to my dismay, one local resident did make my life list.

Of course, it happened as it has all too frequently - too much time straining for unsatisfying views that finally result in a disappointing lifer, for while I'd seen all the requisite field marks, I didn't feel I'd really enjoyed a good view of the bird. Then, naturally, the next day in a far easier place, the bird reappeared with tantalizingly good views and a far more cooperative nature. Either way, though, I was able to add the black-throated sparrow as a lifer. It's an attractive sparrow and one I've been eager to see for years, and I'm glad for the opportunity.

In addition to a wide range of birds, particularly at a grand city park that was far more enjoyable than I'd anticipated, I also saw an amazing coyote, a variety of turtles, and great New Mexico culture and nuclear history. From hot air balloons to arroyos to distinguished architecture to nuclear test sites to radio telescopes, this is an area of the country I hope to visit again, for longer, and in more detail.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


My family and I travel to Las Vegas frequently, and while Sin City is well known for lost wages and loose morals, it's always a jackpot for birding, as it was earlier this summer. While I'm long past the stage of hoping for any lifers in the city (I've traveled there multiple times and often bird in the same regular hotspots), it's always a treat to see the southwestern birds that don't make it as far north as my Utah backyard.

On the way south, we typically enjoy a leg-stretching stop at Tonaquint Nature Park in St. George, a small but thriving property with beautiful habitat for a wide variety of birds. While the pond was surprisingly overrun with algae this time, the ducks and mute swans didn't mind, and the Indian peafowl roaming the park were a loud surprise. The adjacent cemetery is a relatively reliable spot to see Say's phoebes, and fledgling American robins were abundant near the playgrounds and picnic areas. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Abert's towhees, and the blue grosbeak was a rare surprise just before getting back in the truck to continue the drive - after a brief stop for gas and watching a family of rock wrens near the station.

Once in Vegas, there was good opportunity to study a greater roadrunner that was hanging out at Sunset Park, and a flurry of active verdins were scattered all over the park as well. A crissal thrasher was another great sighting, and I enjoyed the black-tailed gnatcatchers and the Gambel's quail, so similar to my backyard California quail. And Vegas wouldn't be Vegas without great-tailed grackles making a racket. While the waterfowl weren't as numerous as I'd hoped at the pond section of Sunset Park, the double-crested cormorants, American coots, and Canada geese were still pleasant to see, and the western grebe out in the center of the pond was a treat.

Birding in Las Vegas changes from season to season, and while one's luck may change with what species are seen, if you visit the right places in the city, you'll be sure to come away a birding winner.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

(Sage) Grousing

Spot the greater-sage grouse.
Despite the inner darkness, there have been moments of lucid light in the past few months when the birds fly into my consciousness. One of the briefest was in April, when I finally managed to add the greater sage-grouse to my life list.

Getting these wary gamebirds as lifers isn't so much birding as it is a quest. For me, it began at four in the morning (so not my idea of a good birding time), with a nerve-wracking drive through pitch black canyons and with somewhat vague directions. Admittedly, the directions were fairly spot-on, but to me, being unfamiliar with the area they led me to, they were vague enough for apprehension. Yet I did manage to arrive at the Henefer lek as dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon, and as I crept closer to the marked fence - windows rolled down - I could hear the distinctive "popping" of the air sacs as males vied for the admiration of the all-too-uninterested females.

The one-way drive took roughly 75 minutes, but within two minutes of arrival, I had the lifer I sought. Good thing, too, because less than five minutes later, an asshole of a golden eagle overflew the field, and the grouse scattered to the southeast, not to return. I'm glad I arrived when I did, and I'm glad I got at least a minor view and heard the birds as well, giving me the lifer to count. And for the record, I don't really think golden eagles are assholes, but he couldn't have waited a few more minutes?

I did stay in the area for a bit after the grouse had flown their figurative coop, and was rewarded with a few other good birds - some beautiful morning songs from western meadowlarks, and the early morning foraging of a variety of sparrows. It was disappointing to make the long drive home after such a brief birding, but still, the birds and I did manage to cross paths at least for a moment.

I'll be back on this quest next spring, I think. While I have the lifer, it's what is known as a BVD - better view desired. I'd love to see the birds more closely, and for more than a few moments. The drive might be harrowing, but in the end worthwhile.

Henefer lek at sunrise, through a dirty windshield (don't get out of the truck, it might disturb these sensitive birds).

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Very Dark Place Without Birds

I miss birds, and I miss blogging about them. But there are very few nocturnal birds in my area, and I've been in a very dark place for many months now - my own, personal nighttime where birds don't fly. There have been a lot of issues and both major and minor crises recently with work, family, and health that have sapped energy and drained enthusiasm, yet along the way the memory of birds does still make me smile, and I hope to fly again. It won't be today, and it likely won't be for a few weeks yet.

That isn't to say that there haven't been birds in the interim; there have been lucid moments when my backyard birds make me laugh - the oblivious house sparrow interrupting the amorous advances of a Eurasian collared-dove, the brief appearance of this year's spring hatch of California quail, the incessant demands of western scrub-jays when there are never enough peanuts - and I treasure those moments. I've been privileged to enjoy a rare press trip to a new destination and add lifers to my ongoing list, and I've also seen how birds help others, with pet bird aviaries in nursing homes and feeders that brighten elderlies' days. It makes me consider how helpful birds can be to all of us.

My wings are broken, the sky is out of reach, the wind not strong enough to lift my bruised and battered body. But I will heal, and I will stretch my wings again.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Owl Action

Admittedly, it's been a long time since I've posted, and my bird action has been erratic at best, while the flight paths of my thoughts are equally erratic. But there have been good moments, learning moments, and teaching moments. One of them in recent weeks comes to mind...

There is a western screech owl in our neighborhood, and I've seen him a few times. Most recently, he visited my yard in a most insistent manner - despite my curiosity and enthusiasm for photos (which didn't turn out particularly well, as you can see), he was determined to stay nearby, flitting between the fence on the property line, to the pole that holds a feeder or two, to a tree near the kitchen window that holds another feeder. But owls don't eat birdseed, so why wouldn't he leave? Mind you, I was thrilled for the guest, but confused about his unusual behavior.

Confused, that is, until another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I have mouse traps on the deck regularly (mice are a fact of life with platform feeders), and after watching the owl for several minutes and several angles, I thought to glance at one of those traps - and it wasn't empty. It wasn't filled, either, not completely - a mouse had been caught by the tail but was still alive, and the owl was obviously aware of the prey and its availability. What amazing hearing owls have, as I was far closer to that trap several times than the bird, yet I never heard the mouse nor suspected its presence. Yet the owl knew, and wasn't giving up!

Obviously, both the bird and the mouse couldn't win the standoff. I had to give props to the bird, but I gave the mouse the tiniest bit of a fighting chance, and we released it in the yard, enough of a distance from the owl that it could run. It didn't run far, but it chose the exact wrong direction, and the owl got an easy meal that night.

What a wonderful experience, and one few birders get without provocation. I was in no way baiting the owl and deliberately attempting to draw it in with incapacitated prey (the mouse was genuinely caught, though I'd far prefer not to have mice nearby at all), but with the opportunity, I had to enjoy it. I'm sure the mouse didn't, but you win some and lose some.

Owl - 1, Mouse - 0.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Little Thinking on Juncos

It has been a strange winter - very early and fierce in December, then holding back for just a few random storms, but we haven't had much snowfall or bitter cold in over a month. This does not bode well for summer - fire risk and drought are sure to be extreme - but for now, I'm thinking beyond the snow, to the snowbirds.

Some areas are privileged to have visits from dark-eyed juncos year-round, but these small, perky sparrows only seem to visit my deck and feeders when there is snow on the ground. It is amazing how well they match their snowbird nickname - when the snow vanishes, so do they, but if there is just a little dusting of white powder, they will be back, with a vengeance. For now, it seems as though they're gone for the season, and I miss their feathery tracks on the deck, their energetic hopping on the stairs and their voracious appetites for small seeds. It may be months before they reappear, but when they do, I'll happily brave the snow and cold to keep their feeders full.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Glint of Gold

It has been a strange winter. Western mountains are usually known for harsher weather and a longer cold season, but this season has been far from white - brown and drab has ruled the landscape, and with the absence of the more colorful birds of summer, it can be quite drearier. Fortunately, though, the landscape glittered a few days ago with the random passing of a flock of goldfinches.

Both American goldfinches and lesser goldfinches like to make themselves known at my feeders, and while they will casually peck at the Nyjer seed in its mesh sock, their preferred repast is the hulled sunflower I offer in several hopper feeders. For a few days it was a crowded buffet with multiple goldfinches, as well as the resident house finches and house sparrows, not-so-patiently waiting their turn to munch.

And munch they do - snagging seeds and briskly breaking them into bite-sized pieces, as often as not tossing chips and bits to the ground, where the juncos, quail, doves, and other ground-feeders will appreciate them. Nothing goes to waste in such a bleak landscape, when the next food source may be unknown or unreliable.

While the goldfinches have already moved on to different areas, that soft glint of gold at the feeders helps make winter seem much less drab, and serves as a reminder of the colorful season that may be closer than it seems.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Wasted Time?

Time is precious, particularly in today's fast paced, high pressure culture. Earlier this month, I put aside several hours for the explicit purpose of birding, with the hopes of adding the barn owl to my life list (a gross lack among the birds I've seen). I made sure my work was caught up, planned my route carefully, researched recent sightings at an appropriate hotspot, and gauged my timing to coincide with the times others had reported these elusive raptors.

It was an exciting moment, setting off for the first time in months to travel a distance - nearly an hour's drive one way - with the hopes of successful birding. It was a race against the sun as well, as it crept closer to the mountains and the light dwindled. I'd need sufficient light for proper identification, but if I arrived too early, the birds wouldn't be active.

I arrived right on time, with a glorious pink sunset lighting up the fields in great relief. My skin tingled with more than cold as I donned my gear - camera bag on the left, field bag on the right, binns in their harness. Hat - check. Fingerless gloves - check. Warm boots - check. I could see every hummock of snow, broken chunk of ice, and frost-covered fence post as I picked my way over the uneven ice onto the roadway (gated on a Sunday, but publicly accessible) and began scanning for birds.

That's what I didn't see - birds. There was a long-tailed flutter near the parking area that might have been a sparrow or a towhee, but it vanished and was not inclined to reappear no matter how much I pished. Further on, in a solitary tree, an unusual lump might have been a large raptor, but it was gone by the time I was close enough for a decent look. Far to the west I saw a large bird flying away, already too distant for identification. To the north, on a radar tower, another large raptor perched, but the distance was far too great in the failing light to note any markings. In three hours - mostly driving, and the rest during a darkening, temperature dropping walk - that was the sum total of my sightings: four might-be-birds that couldn't be identified.

This is the discouraging side of birding. Birds have wings and will use them, and no matter how prepared we may be to see them, they don't always care to be seen. Unfortunately in the these particular circumstances, I didn't have the time or inclination (bloody cold it was) to instead appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, and it felt very much like time wasted, time when I could have been doing many other things on my never-ending must-do list. It's hard enough to carve out a bit of time by myself, and harder still when that time isn't as productive as the anticipation.

Still, as the year continues, I hope to find more time to waste. Maybe one time there'll be a bird in it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thoughts on Albatrosses

On our trip to Hawaii, I had faint hopes of lifers, but one burning desire among the birds I wished to see most - I wanted to add an albatross to my life list. I had no true seabirds to my name, and in my eyes, the albatross - any albatross - is the pinnacle of pelagic birding.

For five days as our cruise ship sailed toward the islands, I scoured the horizon several times a day, hoping for one of these birds that I know spend their lives well out to sea, but to no avail. Then in Hawaii, at a new port of call each day, I scoured the coasts hoping to see one soaring above the cliffs and beaches, but nothing then either.

It seemed like seeing an albatross was to be an unfulfilled wish of this trip, until we docked in Kauai, our third port of call. That day, we'd planned a tour that included a visit to Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, a recognized bird sanctuary. I spent a great deal of effort to keep my hopes grounded, but within moments of entering the refuge's grounds, they took flight.

First, it was the nene - several of these endemic geese were lounging about the roadways, casually watching the van pass by. Then, it was the red-footed booby colony - a tremendous cliff snow-covered in their white plumage and fluttering. But within seconds, a great shadow passed above me, and there it was - an albatross.

To be rendered speechless in the field is quite a feat, but there you have it. I could only stare at the bird's gracefulness, its speed, its sleek plumage, its dramatic air. And its proximity - there was one point where it couldn't have been more than 20 feet above me. I fumbled clumsily with my field guide to confirm the wing patterns as the Laysan albatross (already my suspicion based on color and range), and tried for a few minutes to get a photo, but I was wholly unprepared for the bird's intense speed. When the wings don't flap and the bird appears imperturbable, you don't realize just how fast it goes when soaring on wind currents - while there's no mistaking the views I got, they were only fleeting. Instead, I contented myself with a photo of the informational sign overlooking the coast, the only photo I could manage and the only time the bird was still enough for better than an awed glimpse. But bird or not, it stands as proof that I was there - I saw an albatross.

That shadow, the bird's elegance, the brief encounter I had on a tour that was all too short - these are birding moments I'll never forget, and those feelings are something I need to remember more: the discovery, the excitement, the amazement, the sheer joy.

This is why I bird.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Aloha! One word with so many meanings - goodbye, hello, love. In the past few weeks it has come to mean all of that - and more - for me. For our fifteenth wedding anniversary, my husband and I said aloha to work, children, winter weather, stress, and to-do lists to take a 15-night cruise to Hawaii, where we said aloha to relaxation, discovery, exploration, great food, fun games, volcanoes, and yes, birds. In that time, I added 16 amazing lifers to my list, and as picky as I am with adding any species to my list, I can truly say aloha to each one...

  • Surf Scoter
  • Nene
  • Laysan Albatross
  • Great Frigatebird
  • Red-Footed Booby
  • White-Tailed Tropicbird
  • White-Rumped Shama
  • Brown Booby
  • Red-Vented Bulbul
  • Red-Crested Cardinal
  • Common Waxbill
  • Spotted Dove
  • Common Myna
  • Japanese White-Eye
  • Zebra Dove
  • Java Sparrow

What an amazing experience, with lifers for the picking. We took several tours to different state and national parks, including a bird sanctuary at Kilauea Point, but this was by no means a birding-specific trip, and I was not trying particularly hard to visit top habitats or scout for elusive species. Before the trip, I'd been hoping to see just a few new lifers, but my expectations were exceeded in flocks.

More important, however, is saying aloha to other things in my life. Aloha to bitterness, betrayal, and past - goodbye. Aloha to adventure, exploration, and future - hello. But most of all, aloha to my husband and my family - flesh, feathered and other, all of which are part of me - I love you. Aloha.