Thursday, November 19, 2015

Taking a Thrashing

It's hard to be enthusiastic about birding - one of the small pleasures of life - when life continues to give you a thrashing. Between dramatic shifts in family dynamics, increased work loads from contract alterations, uncommunicative communities, rampant societal entitlement and all the little catastrophes that occur on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, there never seems time left for even the least of birding.

Still, birds are there, and while I may not have time to get out into the field to see more of them, I can still remember with great fondness my favorite of birding walks. It's a roughly two mile loop, stretching from my childhood home, along a very familiar route to what was once my grandparents' house (and is now my uncle's), then along a delightful trail alongside Bear River. The trail winds through a variety of riparian habitats with varied vegetation that nurtures a wide range of avifauna, to the waterfront of Little Traverse Bay, which provides delightful inland coastal habitats. The return leg is through the charming downtown area, where different urban species often make an appearance.

The route may be short and the area compact, but I can easily spend hours enjoying the birds it hosts, and still I often feel rushed with obligations that keep me from lingering as long as I would like. My greatest regret is that during my childhood when I had nearly unlimited time to spend along those trails, I was more interested in getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, often biking without regard for the feathered life that would surely have been flying all about me, even then.

Still, the only thing we can do with past regrets are to keep them past, and strive to make the future a better one. Every time I return to my old habitat, I take advantage of the opportunity to walk that trail again, and it never disappoints. During an emotionally turbulent visit this past spring, the trail nurtured me as much as the birds, and when paused in a clearing to watch warblers flitting in the trees or stepping into a thicket for a better view of the riverbank, I was still able to appreciate its wonders. It still didn't disappoint, as I saw a lifer palm warbler along the trail, reminding me that no matter what type of beating life has in store for you, there is always more of life to discover and enjoy.

We just need to take a walk - into our future, into the possibilities, into birding.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Long Overdue Yard Update

There has been so much happening in the yard - both with birds and with other issues - that it's crazy to think how long it has been since I last wrote about all my feathered guests. In the past few months, so much has happened, including...
  • Several spates of travel which have yielded wonderful new lifers and great bird sightings on top of other travel necessities, even though it takes me out of the yard.
  • A shift in job circumstances and changing clients, opening new opportunities and easing out of obligations that no longer fit my work preferences and career goals.
  • Dramatic backyard changes not all of our choice, at least not in the timing, but changes that will improve the landscaping and value nonetheless.
Above all, there has been so much introspection and thoughtfulness, so much to consider, it has wrought havoc with birding, and it is at these times that yard birds may be all I have left. And I'm glad I have so many! I've had a wide variety of new feathered visitors since May, including...
  •  The random band-tailed pigeon that descended on the open tray feeder and its offering of mixed birdseed. A solitary guest, it was immediately recognizable by its yellow bill and legs, overall darker plumage and large size. I only got a glimpse of its namesake tail band, but it was without a doubt a new and exciting visitor. Unusual as well - while these birds are regular summer residents in the area, they generally stay higher in the foothills, but I hope its appearance one time may mean it will one day return more regularly.
  • The quick glimpse of a lazuli bunting that flitted between a freestanding feeder pole and a feeder hook attached to the wood fence. While this bird didn't stay for long, the rich, cheerful blue it showed was unmistakable, and it changed position enough for me to see the rusty bib that helps clearly identify the species. This visit was more fleeting than most, but memorable because it's a bird I always look for in late spring and early summer. That is the only time they appear in the yard, and I hope it will return next year.
  • The hungry visit of a pair of black-headed grosbeaks that availed themselves of the hulled sunflower seed without hesitation. These birds are shy at first, but once they realize the quality of the food source, they happily finish their meal. I wish they would stay around longer, but even a brief visit is a satisfying one when I can see that characteristic black hood, thick conical bill and orange-white-and-black plumage. Despite always appearing in the summer, these birds remind me of Halloween, and it's always a treat to see them.
  • The first hummingbirds to the yard - from an overeager female who first flew nearly in the basement window to alert me that I was overdue putting out nectar feeders, to at least two different confirmed species I enjoyed throughout the summer, both the black-chinned hummingbird and the rufous hummingbird. I'm sure the broad-tailed was likely here as well, but I never managed to spot that brilliant rose gorget, so that's a new yard bird I'll have to look forward to next summer.
And of course, there's always more to look forward to in the yard, particularly a yard that is still so new and growing. Leaves are changing and temperatures are (barely) dropping now, and a new season will undoubtedly bring even more beauty to this small patch of bird-friendly land. I'm glad I'm here to see it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Lucky Crown

So much of birding is luck - being in the right place at the right time. A matter of a few minutes can make a difference for seeing a new bird, observing unusual behavior or hearing a new song, and it was just a few minutes earlier this month that made the difference for me adding a new yard bird to my list.

More than luck, birders need the ability to notice unusual details, and it was one particular detail that led me to recognize a new visitor. It was a bright, sunny day - the type of light that can wash out plumage and make colors brighter and more glaring. But no bird I'd yet seen in the yard should have been showing a flash of white on its head, no matter how bright the sun was glaring. But it wasn't a fluke; again and again, this bird's head flashed as it fed along the top of the fence railings where I often sprinkle treats of hulled sunflower for house finches, house sparrows and other interested parties. This bird was most definitely interested in those treats, just as I was interested in its identity.

It wasn't hard to identify - the black and white stripes on its head, its long tail and its streaked body are key clues to the white-crowned sparrow. I've had these birds at my feeders previously in both former backyards, but to have this one appear so eager in the spring was more of a treat for me than the seeds were a treat for the hungry bird.

Will he be back? I haven't seen him since, but his first visit was so fleeting, it's entirely possible he has already been back and forth at times when my eyes aren't trained on the feeder; bad luck on my part. I hope he does revisit, and I hope he knows just how welcome he is, and how lucky he makes me feel.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Anything But Gross

Despite the turmoil of the past few months, I've had some minor opportunities to procure major lifers. The first was in late January, when on a local tip, I was able to finally see a bird I've coveted for years - the elusive evening grosbeak.

I say elusive because these are heavily nomadic birds that travel between food sources, but because they travel, it can be hit-or-miss to see them. Apparently, however, they are regular winter visitors at Evergreen Cemetery in Springville, a short drive away - and well worth it for the views. The healthy, hearty stand of mature juniper trees in the cemetery provide abundant fruit for these large finches, and they're easily viewable there, when they do visit.

I was at the cemetery twice, and managed sightings both times. The first was adequate, though less than satisfying - the day was overcast so the birds' colorful plumage was not as readily visible in all its flourescent glory, and the flock of 15-20 birds was only present for a few minutes after I arrived. The next day, however, was sunny and fair, and when I returned the birds were there as well - many more (a rough estimate of likely 50 birds or more). Not only was their plumage practically glowing in the sunlight, but the combined sounds of their voracious appetites munching on juniper berries sounded like a rain shower sprinkling through dense foliage, an amazing and unexpected experience.

On that second day, the birds were more than cooperative, and were much more interested in their berries than in the attentions of an enthralled birder. I was also able to meander around the property a bit, and saw mountain chickadees, a juniper titmouse, white-breasted nuthatches, and Eurasian collared-doves. Quite the day!

The evening grosbeak gets its name from its plumage coloration evocative of sunset, as well as its heavy, thick bill. For me, however, the experience was more akin to an enlightening dawn and the delicate thrill of discovering more of nature's beauty - an experience I look forward to repeating many times to come. After all, there are 10,000 bird species in the world, and I've only seen 381. That leaves me 9,619 beautiful birds to enjoy that same discovery with.

Sounds like a challenge.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Defining the Yard

The past few weeks have been filled with challenges - death and deadlines, decisions and demands, doubts and dithering. But through it all, when a loved one passes, when work piles up, when changes must be made... The birds are here. Even in the new yard, the birds are here.

The yard list is growing. I've added a few favorite species, including one spring visitor, the Cassin's finch, to the list, and I'm thrilled with that visitation; multiple males and several females stopped by for a few days, and while I haven't seen them regularly, they know where the feeder is an are always welcome to return. Old favorites - the California quail and American robin - have also finally made their appearances.

The hardest part of growing a yard list is defining just what that yard should encompass. Some birders define their yard by whatever birds they can see from the boundaries of that yard. Others include airspace above the yard, or may include an entire neighborhood. It's a personal choice, but I'm far more restrictive in my definition. My "yard" is just my property and the bordering fence, and while I might admire adjacent yards and the birds they host, I don't personally count a bird in my yard until it has actually and unequivocally visited MY yard - my turf, my feeders, my habitat. With such a restrictive definition, I never doubt the veracity of my yard list - there's no question the bird has been in my yard, by any definition.

While I'm thrilled with my little patch, it lacks trees and varied plantings that birds need; instead, I often see birds visiting the neighbor's yard, which I can easily see from my elevated office window. The birds perch and forage in nearby mature fruit trees, and eschew my feeders for those natural treats. Of course, I plan to add fruit trees to my own yard to tempt the birds across that fence border, but it will be some time before any new additions would be mature enough to interest more birds. I also intend to add evergreens to the yard for year-round shelter, as well as berry bushes, seed-bearing flowers and more bird-friendly foliage, along with a dust patch and plenty of sunning space.

All things in time. Just as it will take weeks, months, or years for me to adjust to a range of changing circumstances, it takes weeks, months, or years for a yard to become a new, more wildlife-friendly habitat. One thing I've learned in the past weeks, however, is that time is more finite than we may realize, so it's better to take advantage of every minute you have.

It's time I take advantage of more minutes.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Just as the past few weeks have been a time of turbulence, it has also been a time of newness - a new year, a new house, and a new yard. The relocation, while unexpected and abrupt, was very, very welcome, but the transition period has been challenging simply because of the unexpectedness and abruptness. Still, birds have been there through it all.

It was difficult to say goodbye to the backyard birds I'd known so well, in particular the covey of California quail that I've loved seeing grow each year, as well as this year's family of western scrub-jays - quite the quarrelsome group, but all the more engaging because of it. Moving right before the holidays meant added stress and prioritizing what had to get done, what should get done, and what could be done without, and it wasn't until January 1 that the first of the new bird feeders were added to the new yard.

My first guests, the first day they arrived.
The new yard may not look like much for now (an empty palette I am thrilled to be able to remake as a bird-friendly sanctuary and certified wildlife habitat), and it did take a few days for the feeders to be noticed. I'd already noted, of course, that the new neighborhood was better suited to birds - the old, stuffy neighborhood relied far too greatly on chemical assistance for immaculate lawns and precise pruning for showy landscaping, neither of which is bird-friendly - and I eagerly awaited the first visitors. The wait, while agonizing for me, wasn't actually that long, and I'm thrilled to say that house finches were the first visitors to the new house, followed swiftly by dark-eyed juncos, a winter visitor I'm glad to have in greater abundance than ever, since I'd sorely miss them if they weren't in evidence.

In just over a month of tracking the birds in this new backyard, I've welcomed almost all the usual visitors (in order of appearance):
While I haven't yet seen all the visitors I'd like (the quail being the most conspicuous absentees, and American robins overdue for an appearance as well), I'm pleased with this beginning. May it be just the start of a a fantastic flock, one I'm eager to welcome and hope to treasure for years.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Life Interfering With Lifers

It's been a crazy time for the past few weeks - time that you never believe you'd endure, for reasons you never thought would come true. In the end, you carry on and do what must be done, but each day can be a struggle. To that end, a planned vacation was fraught with unplanned stress and will be long remembered as one of the worst getaways, but for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the getaway itself.

Yet birds always seem to be there to remind me that life, and lifers, go on.

I don't remember much about the getaway, save the official details of where, when, how. A few snatches of delicious meals, of rambling walks, of beautiful water, but nothing more - except for one splash of bright yellow wing patches, a shaggy black crest and a long tail with yellow outer feathers. Standing on the Lido deck of the Carnival Miracle, I noticed those distinctive markings from a few birds mixed in with a grackle flock as we were docked in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and because they were so distinctive, the investigative birder in me just had to puzzle it out.

Study the field guide, peer through the binoculars. Study some more. Another tree, another glimpse. Ooops, there's one flying for a moment, yup, look at those wings. Come on, baby, come into the sunlight - thank you, there's that pale bill. Oh, yes, stretch those wings and show me that yellow rump, you sexy lifer you! Turn your head - note the shaggy, thin crest. Check the field guide again, compare range maps - yup, only one bird it could be.

With that dedicated Lido deck study (I'd have left the ship to get closer to the adjacent trees where the birds were gathering at sunset, but we were due to depart and passengers were no longer allowed to disembark), I added the yellow-winged cacique to my life list; an unexpected and pleasant surprise for a cruise I've done before, when I wasn't expecting any lifers at all. With all that overshadowed that vacation, this one bird still remains a bright, clear point of the trip, and a reminder that amid all the turmoil life can throw at us, and even as the sun sets on one part of life, there is still reason to spread our wings, to take flight, to fly.

I hope, one day soon, I can leave the ground again.