Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Silly Cowbirds

Near end of the work day yesterday my eight year old son and six year old daughter got off the bus and came to visit me in my office. They wanted to check out all the bird nests on the walk home. I boosted Kyle and Anne up on my shoulders to peer into the nests. We found several finch nests with small white, barely speckled eggs, and even one finch nest with light blue eggs. Two of the nests had larger white eggs, but heavily speckled with brown. Instantly I remembered what I had read about Brown-headed Cowbirds and their parasitic nesting practices. I just had never seen it for myself until then.

Here is an interesting note from All About Birds related to Brown-headed Cowbirds:

The Brown-headed Cowbird is a stocky blackbird with a fascinating approach to raising its young. Females forgo building nests and instead put all their energy into producing eggs, sometimes more than three dozen a summer. These they lay in the nests of other birds, abandoning their young to foster parents, usually at the expense of at least some of the host’s own chicks. Brown-headed Cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of more than 220 species of birds. Recent genetic analyses have shown that most individual females specialize on one particular host species. Cowbird eggs hatch faster than other species eggs, giving cowbird nestlings a head start in getting food from the foster parents. Young cowbirds also develop at a faster pace than their nest mates, and they sometimes toss out eggs and young nestlings or smother them in the bottom of the nest.

I remember in our Arizona backyard we had a large flock of House Sparrows feeding at our seed block every day, but there was always one young male Brown-headed Cowbird hanging out with them. The poor guy was probably raised by House Sparrows and thought he was one. The story of the Ugly Duckling was a reality to him.

Because of the parasitic nature of Cowbirds I have come to discover that many birders despise them and blame them for the decline of other species. While that may be true, I am simply fascinated by the mode of survival that they have developed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Next year I'll plan to participate in The Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch project. I invite you to join me!

Check out their website here!

Nesting Activity Continues at Avimor

This afternoon on my walk back to work from my lunch break at home, I determined to remove the finch nest on the fireplace vent of a home we recently sold. I stepped up on to a chair to look into the nest to make sure the house finch chicks had fledged last week. They had successfully fledged, but there are already now a few more eggs in the same nest. This is the fourth brood attempt at the same location. Two sets of eggs have hatched while one set of eggs was destroyed by a predator. I believe the first set of hatchlings were also taken by a predator as they were gone well before they were fully developed.

I decided to check all the coniferous trees along the back of the model homes and I discovered three more active finch nests with eggs or recently hatched chicks. In the little pine behind our sales office back door there is a third finch nest with eggs. Amazing!

I also found two more Robin's nests with chicks and eggs in the deciduous trees. In just about every small pine tree along our greenbelt you'll find an active finch nest. We have a Barn Swallow nest with eggs in the entry of one home. I prevented the nest from being built above the door of another home. I have observed Say's Phoebe's and Western Kingbird's gathering nesting materials. I know one pair of Say's Phoebe's already successfully nested on the light behind the Avimor Water Reclamation building, but it looks like they are building another nest somewhere. I am not sure if it is the same pair or another.

It appears the Bullock's Orioles have hatched as I see mother Orioles taking food to the hanging sock nests.

The mother Swainson's Hawk sits steadily on her eggs. She occasionally cries out and the male brings her a snack.

Common Nighthawk at Avimor

Avimor resident Shon Parks and his son Ian observed a Common Nighthawk last night. They were up on one of the hills when they saw it. They report that they were close enough to hear the sound of the air through its wings.
This is the Cool Fact from All About Birds about the sound:

The male Common Nighthawk has a dramatic booming display used during the breeding season. He flies around at a moderate height, then dives straight toward the ground. Somewhere just about two meters from the ground he turns upward. At the bottom of the dive he flexes his wings downward, and the air rushing through his wingtips makes a deep booming sound. The dives are directed at females, young nighthawks, intruders, and even people.
This is the first official record of the Common Nighthawk on Avimor's life list. The long wings with the prominent white patch on the underside of the wing make this bird easy to identify. They are usually seen at dawn or dusk. If you are lucky, you might find one nesting or resting on the ground, on a branch perched parallel, on a power line, or a post. In spite of its name, it is not a hawk at all.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Birding Spring Valley Creek

I was delighted to welcome reknown Idaho birder, RL Rowland to Avimor this morning. We hiked along Spring Valley Creek Trail all the way to Cartwright Rd (trail #9 on the Avimor Trail Map) and enjoyed almost 40 species of birds. It helps to have a great birder with you to identify a few species that otherwise would allude a novice like myself.

The highlights for me were:

* pair of Cooper's Hawks that we are sure were defending a nest
* a couple Warbling Vireos which were a first for Avimor's official life list
* some little baby chicks that we are pretty sure were Chukar chicks.
* three Canyon Wrens and at least a dozen Rock Wrens.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tracking Your Yard Birds

One way to be a birder and to contribute to science without becoming a crazed-birding-nut-job-nerd like me, is to simply keep track of the birds you see in your yard and submit your observations to eBird. In the birding world we call these "Yard Birds". Scientists recognize the value of what normal people see at their homes. The Audubon Society has partnered with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to create a program called "The Great Backyard Bird Count" to encourage people to count birds at home and to submit those observations to science.

Since moving to Avimor my family has been enjoying the new mix of birds we get to our backyard feeders and bird bath and we have started our count. Everywhere we have lived has had a different variety of yard birds. At our home in Arizona we had almost 70 different species. Michael Wiegand, who lives up in Pearl, Idaho has had over 100 species at his place. The dozens of feeders he puts out plus his geographic location has created his own little birding hotspot.

Here is what we have seen so far at our Avimor home:

1. Mallard - flyover
2. Canada Goose - flyover
3. California Quail - love the seeds that fall from the feeder
4. Red-tailed Hawk - flyover
5. Swainson's Hawk - flyover
6. American Kestrel - slope behind our home
7. Mourning Dove - love the seeds that fall from the feeder
8. Black-chinned Hummingbird - feeder
9. Western Kingbird - slope
10. Eastern Kingbird - landed on our pine tree last Sunday
11. Black-billed Magpie - slope
12. Bank Swallow - regular fly thru yard, but also land on slope
13. Barn Swallow - fly thru
14. American Robin - regular visitors, but don't eat seeds
15. Cedar Waxwing - visited our main tree this morning and prompted this blog entry - not a feeder-eater as far as I know.
16. Black-headed Grosbeak - feeder
17. Red-winged Blackbird - feeder
18. Western Meadowlark - slope
19. Brown-headed Cowbird - feeder
20. House Finch - feeder, especially thistle sock type feeder
21. Pine Siskin - thistle sock feeder
22. American Goldfinch - thistle sock feeder
23. House Sparrow - seeds on patio
24. Killdeer - vist the yard frequently but not to eat
25. Bullock's Oriole - flyover
26. American Crow - flyover
27. Common Raven - flyover
28. Say's Phoebe - regular visitor to the tops of the surveying stakes next door

Some people like to impose upon themselves certain rules for counting yard birds, like "the bird must land on my property" or "the bird must land or flyover my property". When it comes to "yard birds" I am a little more lax in my personal rules. I have always counted any bird that I can "see" from my yard without the aid of binoculars. I hear many other types of birds from around the community from my home, and if I used my 8 x 42 Eagle Optics SRT Rangers, I could look down at the creek and count a lot more birds, but I had to draw the line somewhere. As you can see from my list above, I do qualify my sightings when sharing with others who may be more strict about what they count.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some Avimor Bird Firsts

Now I am sure that these birds have been to Avimor before, but this is the first time that I have seen them and made an official record of their presence.

On Saturday, we observed the Eastern Kingbird. I have seen at least one every day since. The Eastern Kingbird is pictured at the top of the previous blog post.

During the Saturday bird walk, we walked past my home and we observed a House Sparrow feeding on the seed on my patio.
"The House Sparrow was introduced into Brooklyn, New York, in 1851. By 1900 it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. Two more introductions in the early 1870s, in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, aided the bird’s spread throughout the West. House Sparrows are now common across all of North America except Alaska and far northern Canada." (All About Birds).
I suppose as we add more homes and buildings we will get more and more House Sparrows.

I regularly see Brewer's Blackbirds, with their distinct yellow-eye along the side of Highway 55 around Shadow Valley Golf Course and this morning I saw a male and female pair feeding on the walk and grass around Avimor Town Lake.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Avimor Bird Walk - June 2009 Report

Shon & Aiden joined me for a hike up Spring Valley Creek Trail this morning bright and early at 7am. Right around the Avimor Town Lake we observed a Eastern Kingbird. The hike was incredible. We had a little bit of drizzling rain, but the abundance of birds and wildflowers made it fantastic. There was some great rocky and steep terrain which is ideal for Rock Wrens. I played some Rock Wren calls on my Zune and one flew right to the rock next to us, much to Aiden's delight.
On the way back, we heard a Canyon Wren in the same area. Up above on the rocks we saw a lone Chukar.

Here is the complete list of what we saw on the hike:

Chukar 1
California Quail 12
Red-tailed Hawk 3
Mourning Dove 2
Western Kingbird 1
Eastern Kingbird 1
Black-billed Magpie 2
Bank Swallow 36
Rock Wren 3
Canyon Wren 1
American Robin 2
Cedar Waxwing 12
Yellow Warbler 4
Yellow-breasted Chat 5
Chipping Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 3
Black-headed Grosbeak 3
Lazuli Bunting 8
Red-winged Blackbird 2
Bullock's Oriole 4
American Goldfinch 1

Ian and Peggy joined me at 9am for the walk along the Greenbelt. We enjoyed Gray Catbirds and Bullock's Orioles along with the pair of Swainson's Hawks. Here is the list we saw during this walk:

Mallard 1
California Quail 4
Swainson's Hawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Killdeer 5
Mourning Dove 8
Black-chinned Hummingbird 1
Western Wood-Pewee 4
Western Kingbird 1
Bank Swallow 24
Barn Swallow 6
American Robin 9
Gray Catbird 4
European Starling 1
Cedar Waxwing 1
Yellow Warbler 6
Yellow-breasted Chat 3
Western Tanager 2
Song Sparrow 10
Black-headed Grosbeak 4
Lazuli Bunting 1
Red-winged Blackbird 20
Western Meadowlark 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 8
Bullock's Oriole 7
House Finch 3

Friday, June 12, 2009

Distinguishing Idaho Flycatchers

With experience, a birder goes from "identifying" birds to "recognizing" them. When it comes to the Flycatcher family, I am still in "identifying" mode. I have to make notes of the field marks of each bird, and then look in my Sibley's Field Guide to figure it out.

Several flycatchers in the Epidonax genus are so hard to tell apart looking through binoculars that their unique sound is often the only way. I've been pulling out my Zune MP3 player recently with the BirdJam software on it to help me. So far at Avimor I am pretty confident in "identifying" Western Wood-Pewees, Willow and Dusky Flycatchers. I now "recognize" the call of the Western Wood-Pewee very well.

Check out these tips to identifying Idaho Flycatchers. Click on the name of the bird to go to All About Birds where you can also listen to the calls they make.

Olive-Sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-PeweeWillow FlycatcherDusky FlycatcherHammond's FlycatcherGray FlycatcherOther Flycatcher's you may see regularly in Idaho are Say's Phoebe, Western Kingbird, and Eastern Kingbird. Less frequently you may spot a Cordilleran, Pacifc-Slope, Ash-throated or Least Flycather.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Idaho Hummingbirds at Avimor

Hummingbirds are a blast to watch and they are some of the most beautiful birds. We have a couple feeders up at our Avimor home and we have several Black-chinned Hummingbirds visit every day. Sunday afternoon I sat on the patio with two of my girls and watched as a male perched atop our tree and would buzz down and run off any other hummer that approached the feeder. In his hot pursuit they would almost run into us as we sat there. My girls laughed and laughed as that little bully chased off the other hummers.

Idaho may not have the variety of hummingbirds that Arizona and Mexico have, but they are still fun. They can be tricky to identify, so a little study helps. Here are five species that you may see in Idaho in the order of probability based on my own experience. If you see anything other than the Black-chinned at Avimor, please let me know when and where!






Friday, June 5, 2009

Great Horned Owlets - Coyote - Spotted Towhee

This morning I took a hike up Burnt Car Draw. There were lots of Lazuli Buntings, Lark Sparrows and Meadow Larks. A few Bullock's Orioles and Robins too.

I enjoyed watching a coyote stalking rodents and bounding around the tall grasses in the meadow. It didn't notice me until I got within about 30 yards and then it scampered up the rocky bluff to observe me from a safe distance.

I had a Spotted Towhee that didn't seem too afraid of me as I was within a few feet of it.

I was delighted to find two juvenile Great Horned Owls. They got spooked when I got near them and in turn spooked me as they flew out of the tree I was standing right next to. They flew down the draw to another tree. I'm glad to see that they made it through the critical stage of their lives. Sorry I wasn't able to get any photos of them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Avimor Nesting Activity - June 2009

Janis' Finch Nest

Avimor resident, Janis Lafluer, has been keeping tabs on a House Finch nest built in her hanging silk plant on her balcony.

She submitted some photos of the nest to Cornell's Celebrate Urban Birds Funky Nests in Funky Places challenge. Her pictures are now online as entry number 20. Check it out here

Thanks for sharing your Avimor bird experience with us Janis and we hope you win something from Cornell.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burnt Car Draw - Avimor

The family and I took an impromtu hike a little ways up Burnt Car Draw this evening. It was nice and cool after the days rain. It is kind of nerdy, but fun for me that even my young kids are starting to identify a few species very well.

Getting up in the hills takes you to another bird habitat, which means different species. This evening we were treated with a Chipping Sparrow perched on top of some bitter brush just singing away (kind of buzzing actually). We saw lots of Meadow Larks, Horned Larks, and even a few Lark Sparrows. All three have the name Lark, but they are very different birds. Here are some pictures so you can tell the difference:

Western Meadow Lark

Horned Lark

Lark Sparrow

Gray Catbird Update: I observed three separate Gray Catbirds this morning along Spring Valley Creek. Pretty cool that I've been able to see a new life bird so frequently in the last week.