Monday, January 18, 2016

Star Struck

I am by no means a celebrity aficionado: I barely recognize celebrity names, have none I'd claim fandom of and have never watched any award show nor read a celeb-oriented magazine, but there are times when I am indeed star struck by a bird that seems, to me, to be a celebrity. Many of these are target birds, species I long to see, and last May I had the opportunity to see a spectacular one on a trip to California.

I've passed through California frequently as a cruise departure port or airline layover, but rarely take the time to visit the state - a sore deficiency on my part, as there are many lovely birding areas in the Golden State. Yet on this trip I wasn't birding per se, but was enjoying some of the more commonplace - and not so commonplace - tourist attractions in a brief couple of days. One of those days yielded far more birding than I'd have thought possible.

With just a few hours available, my husband and I planned to visit one southern California destination we both desired to see - Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. In mapping out how to drive there, I discovered some trails that might be good for a brief birding walk, but I had no idea how good they would be. By luck alone, this one stop would truly be a star-studded experience.

First, we were able to get outstanding views (smog notwithstanding) of the famed Hollywood sign, an icon I'd been wanting to see for years. Second, the observatory - a free facility to visit - was far more comprehensive and beautifully laid out than we'd imagined. And third, for me - the birds. I'd hoped to see an acorn woodpecker, an easily recognized and distinctive species, and I'd have been content just to add that one bird to my life list. Little did I know that I'd also be adding several others to my list in just that stop in a very small portion of Griffith Park. Among the birds I saw were not only a dozen or more acorn woodpeckers with incredible, easy views, but I also added the wrentit and rufous-crowned sparrow to my life list that day. The next day, I'd also add the white-throated swift to my list, albeit in a different location.

I'd not have expected such amazing birding in such a dense urban area, but it serves as a reminder that anywhere can be a great birding destination. I can't wait to return to the same area and explore the park - and other birding hotspots in southern California - more thoroughly, and who knows, maybe I'll see a few more feathered celebrities.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


There are many words for a flock of quail - drift, flush, rout, covey, pack, bevy - but in my yard this winter, the term frenzy best describes their antics.

I do love my California quail, and I've never been shy about welcoming a few to the yard. Until this yard and this winter, however, I've never had the occasion to welcome a few dozen at once. They've discovered that my broad, deep deck provides exceptional shelter, and they regularly roost beneath it (as evidenced by the maze of tracks that lead about the yard but all return to the deck - some of their trails are so popular they've carved their own tunnels through the snowfall), but they're not shy about coming out to feast. At any popular mealtime, I've had up to 30 or more quail feeding, split among the different feeding areas in the yard. The first area they typically encounter is the elongated bench on the deck where I have three levels of cracked corn - on the bench itself, on the deck, and on the ground under the edge of the deck. After sampling that, the quail move to the back fence and particularly enjoy scratching beneath the three hanging feeder stations, especially the two filled with hulled sunflower seed. They also eagerly scratch around the platform ground feeder sheltered underneath an oversized glass patio table in the middle of the yard, even uprooting tufts of grass in their eagerness to find the next morsel that may be mixed seed or additional hulled sunflower seeds.

Of course, I'm happy to oblige in providing those morsels. Not only do I refill the feeders every 2-3 days at least, but when I do, I sprinkle extra handfuls of seed directly on the ground for the quails' convenience and feeding pleasure. Of course, it's my pleasure too, and I delight in seeing the covey visit. They spread out with each feeding area hosting a dozen or more birds at once, and their plump little bodies are sometimes so thick beneath the feeders that neither snow nor grass is visible, it's just a roiling mass of quail and quivering topknots.

It's hard to get a photo that accurately shows the extent of the flock, but I'm so amazed at its size that I count it nearly every time they all arrive - and each time I'm stunned to have so many visitors. All are welcome, of course, and I'm glad I've found a good deal on cracked corn... I'm going to need it!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Christmas Carnivore

Birds can give us wonderful gifts, and my latest - other than the nearly daily joy of their visits - was a sharp-shinned hawk that first arrived in the yard on Christmas Day.

Of course, that's just when I was able to first confirm the raptor's identity and verify its presence in the yard. The neighbor's yard that adjoins our rear fence has been visited by several raptors - both Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks - but I don't count a new yard bird until it actually touches my property (picky, I know). Then, of course, I have to know precisely which species it is, and these urban accipiters can be particularly tricky.

For once, this bird wasn't so hard to identify, thanks to its lack of a contrasting nape, shorter tail, barely visible white tail tip and relatively small head, all of which are fairly confident signs of a sharp-shinned hawk. This bird was fairly large for a sharpie, however, but that likely indicates it as female - females are larger than their male counterparts.

Not only did I get great views as the bird settled on one of my feeder hooks looking particularly grumpy, but she returned for several consecutive days looking for more meals. Once, we saw her pluck her prey right from a branch - a branch about 15 feet above and maybe 25 feet behind where she'd been perched - an amazing hunting feat and a well-deserved meal (most likely of sparrow or finch). Admittedly, there may be several sharpies frequenting the yard, since they show slightly different white mottling on the mantle, but that could be a factor of posture, feather position and wind ruffling as well.

I feel privileged and honored to have a raptor in the yard - while the random piles of feathers, amputated feet and bloody bill remnants I've found occasionally tell me it's not the first, it's the first I'm certain of, and a new visitor is always welcome.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Life on Fire

New is always a chance for optimism, whether it is a new year, new month, new week, or simply a new day. With that optimism, however, has to come a new attitude.

I gave up a great deal in 2015 - time, energy, hope, emotions. I gave it up to grief, to work, to depression. I gave up enjoyment, relaxation and pleasure to deadlines, expectations and accusations. Gone were good meals, small indulgences, smiles, laughter, and most of all, gone was the fierceness that threads its way through all of me. I gave up, in the end, too much of myself.

Not so for 2016. I'm through living my life on terms I did not set, for dampening the fire I know smolders within me. I'm through seeing my dreams from afar rather than striding toward them, and I'm through giving up on living the life I can. I look out my office window and see the mountains burn twice a day - with the new rays of the sunrise and the last embers of the sunset, and each day I want this to remind me that the light of what living ought to be is never finished. No matter when, or where, or how, it can and always should be new.

There is much that will be a part of this - health, satisfaction and birding, travel and music and books. Stamps in the passport, scars on the hands, tears of joy. The wind snarling my hair, sore muscles, awestruck smiles, study sessions, new tastes and exotic sensations. But what will be part of it most of all is me - the me I've lost for far too long.

Let's fly.