Sunday, June 19, 2011

Birding is Fun! - Blogger Vacation

It is that time of year again where I take a self-imposed six-week vacation from the birding blogosphere (no blogging, no tweeting, and no reading other birding blogs...yeah it hurts!)...almost like a religious fast.  This is not because I get burned out our anything, but exactly the opposite.  This time off helps me battle my natural tendency toward narcissism, helps me maintain a strong connection with my family, reminds me of my priorities in life, refreshes my spirit, allows me time to read a lot, and to develop new talents and skills.  I'll still be birding and taking photos during this time so I should come back sometime around the beginning of August with tons of new stuff to share with you.  (Please don't drop me from your blog roll because I haven't posted anything new during this blog vacation.  I will be back!)

I've been having a blast with this website and I really enjoy your comments and feedback. Heartfelt thanks to all my birding friends in Utah, Idaho and all you wonderful Birding is Fun! blog readers and Twitter followers worldwide! In the meantime, feel free to drop me an e-mail, check out my reviews, read about other enthusiastic birders in the Birder Profiles, or take the survey about birding apps.  Below the blog posts, you'll find a list of the most popular posts at Birding is Fun!, so you can check those out too.  There are some fantastic bird and nature bloggers out there, so visit them in the side bar!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Recent Bird Photos from my Patch

My birding patch list is up to 77 species.  My bar chart in eBird is starting to take shape and is beginning to show the patterns of migration in and out of my patch.  Here are some recent photos I've taken of birds at my patch!
Gray Catbird
The Gray Catbird has a range very similar to the Eastern Kingbird.  It is a regular bird in Utah and Idaho, but seems to avoid being seen by a lot of birders.  This one was singing away at my patch and I spend most of my lunch hour trying to get decent photos without much success.
My patch is still flooded in portions going both north and south on the trail.  I used to have ways around, but now there is standing water pretty much everywhere as the river is running so high.
Warbling Vireo
Western Kingbird
Bullock's Oriole

Friday, June 17, 2011

What does eBird tell us about "Birder" behavior?

Cedar Waxwing
I've noticed that for every species for which I've created animated eBird sightings maps that June and July bird distribution appears wide-spread continentally, but more localized.  In the past I have attributed this to the birds having found their preferred nesting grounds and therefore not seen by as many birders.  But now I am wondering if these animated maps show as much about "birder" behavior as they do about bird behavior.

The eBird Team has in the past mentioned that birders tend to report their bird sightings less often during the summer.  I can think of a few reasons that this behavior pattern might be occurring:

1.  Birders get excited about Spring and Fall migrations and therefore are out birding more often and are more excited about reporting their sightings.
2.  By the time mid-June rolls around, birders (and their non-birding friends and family) might be a bit burned out.
3.  It's often hot outside and their are tons of mosquitoes and the lure of the outdoors is tempered.
4.  If other families are similar to mine, July is one busy month, with family reunions, scout camps, etc.  Maybe people just don't have as much time to be birding.

Well, I hope to encourage all of you to buck that trend of the Summer birding blues.  Live the mantra of "Always be Birding" and please take on my challenge of submitting an average of at least one birding checklist to eBird per day.  Why don't you test out the new eBird data entry system!
Black-chinned Hummingbird

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorants are the most widespread of the Cormorants in North America.  I often see them on tall tree snags overlooking large ponds, lakes, or slow moving water.  They are also interesting to watch as they fish.  They tend to sit very low in the water.  I read somewhere that their feathers don't naturally repel water so that is why you may seem them perched with wings open drying out.  I think they look pretty cool with their emerald eye and awkward body shape.  Check out those webbed finger-like toes!  Every once in awhile you will be fortunate to see their double-crest made up of either black or white feathers.

Looking over my eBird records, I have seen them in every month of the year, but much more so during the summer.  I wondered what their migration pattern might look like, so I created another animated range map using eBird sightings maps.

make a gif

Though I have seen Double-crested Cormorants in every month in the places I have lived, they do indeed migrate.  Most of the Double-crested Cormorants spend winter in the more temperate zones, but then in Spring disperse across the center of the continent.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Crossword Puzzle: Birds of North America

I created this crossword puzzle myself, so see if you can figure out the words from the clues.

Each time you play you might get a couple new words to solve and a new arrangement, so I invite you to play at least twice!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Leupold Yosemite 8x30 Binoculars

I recently made a compulsive binocular purchase.  For some time, I've been wanting to have a spare binocular for my wife and kids and to have in the house for viewing the backyard feeders.  When I found these on sale at Big 5 Sporting Goods for $89, tested them out a bit in the store, I went ahead and bought them.

These are actually pretty decent multi-purpose optics.  They fit comfortably in the hand, are easily adjustable between adults and children, and have roll-out eye cups for non-eye-glass wearers.

7x35 or 8x40 would transmit a little more light and would significantly improve these optics for birding.  The close-focus of 16.4 feet is not ideal when you are on the birding trail looking in the bushes, but is okay for most birdwatching.

These porro prism Leopold Yosemite binoculars are well armored, waterproof, nitrogen filled, and have a warranty which are important traits for field birders.

The binoculars I purchased may have been discontinued as Yosemite now is promoting an upgrade with BX-1 in the title.  This new version has coated lenses, so will be even better.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Eastern Kingbirds out West

Monochromatic beauty.
Aerial dexterity.

Named the "Eastern" Kingbird because of its strong eastern population in North America, yet it is seen with some regularity in all the western states and provinces too.  Looking at the eBird sightings map below, it looks like the highest concentration of reports of the Eastern Kingbird comes from a swath through the Great Plains down to Louisiana.

I've always known it to be a flying insect eating-machine, but informs me that along the Amazon in winter they eat fruit.  Kinda ruins their street cred.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rare Bird Report

Last Friday, about noon, on the trail north of Germania Park along the Jordan River Parkway Trail, I observed a Plumage-less Double-breasted Hip-swinger being a photographed in the bushes.  As I approached, this rare species attempted to conceal itself in the thicket while the photographer nonchalantly rummaged in his equipment bag.  I was still able to quickly identify it as belonging to the "plumage-less" family.  On my way back to my car, the species was not so shy and was out in the open and standing on stilts for the photographer.  

Now the provenance of this species is questionable. Judging by the few sounds I heard it make, I am figuring this was a Russian or at least eastern European species, possibly obtained by way of mail-order by the photographer to be used in a specialized internet trade. I am hopeful that it was indeed an adult as it was obviously of breeding age.

I intentionally avoided reporting this sighting earlier so as to protect the pristine habitat from being overridden by twitchers. Anyway, I don't think this species will be "countable" on the ABA checklist anytime soon and you are not likely to find it lingering in the same area.  My sincere apologies to the Utah Bird Review Committee for my lack of photo documentation.  I was all nervous, like a 12-year-old boy, and lost my birding focus due to sensory overload.

Ode to the Cowbird - a sonnet

Brown-headed Cowbird
Behold the glorious Brown-headed Cowbird
Nary a nest built by power of its own
For which birders disdain is soundly absurd
Orphaning its eggs, seeds of wrath hath it sown
Polyandrous females so filled with lust
Three dozen ovums each season she lays
"Evolutionary genius" is more just
Hatching early, the advantage it plays
Cowbird chicks nurtured with fostering care
Displacing their broodmates with growth and girth
Their method is strange, but not without flair
Princes were not always of noble birth
     And this, my ode to the cowbird is sung.
     Anybody want to raise my four young?!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Makeshift Backyard Bird Photography Blind

I'm still working with only a 150mm lens and I've been frustrated that all these beautiful birds were visiting my backyard and I was unable to get any crisp quality photos of them.  I'd love to have a professional camo photo blind, but I'm too cheap to spend the hundred bucks.  Why not use what I already have?

1. 6' Step Ladder - the rung makes for a nice camera platform
2. A few yards of camo material my wife had given me for Christmas
3. My camo print gators.
4. My camo Army surplus jacket
5. My light-weight camo folding stool

Doing this I am able to sit within about 10' of the feeders and the birds don't seem to mind.  My hands and head are mostly shaded so my movements are less detectable, especially if I move slowly.  Sound doesn't seem to bother the birds at all.  I've been able to yell at my kids to do their chores carry on loud conversations with my kids from the patio while I sat in the blind.  It is sudden movement that seems to spook the birds.

By inserting the shepherd's hooks at an angle I would have a better vantage point for photos as the feeders were significantly lower than normal.  I position the sun to my back to hopefully get that eye-glint in the photo which seems to give the bird "life", but careful not to put my shadow right on the perch areas. As the sun moves around the sky, I move the blind.  I've also been leaving the blind out in the yard so that birds get used to it.

I also later added a tree branch between the two feeders hoping that I can get some quality images that don't show the feeders.  I'm okay with good feeder shots of wild birds, but I definitely like the setting to at least "appear" more natural.

Using this makeshift blind last weekend was a lot of fun.  Do you have any goofy makeshift photo or viewing blinds?  Send me your pics and I'll post them here!

Friday, June 10, 2011

These Wonderful Birding Days!

This last week of birding has just been spectacular for me!  Nope, I haven't gone down to Central America racking up 300+ life birds.  I haven't been on any field trips or anything of the sort.  I've only been birding my backyard and my patch...oh I guess I did make that quick little trip down to Provo to see an awesome life bird Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.  In my backyard I've been enjoying photographing Western Tanagers and I got a life bird too, the female Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  I've added several birds to my Utah life list recently and a couple were without even trying...a Northern Mockingbird and six Common Grackles at Lagoon, a popular theme park just north of Salt Lake City.  Neither of those species are especially common in my area and as such are always a treat to see.

Today at work I was swamped with an urgent project and worked right through my typical lunch-hour birding.  I was kinda bummed.  When I came home, I hugged my beautiful bride then went out to check the bird feeders as is my custom.  I went to turn on the garden hose to refill the birdbath when I spooked a larger bird from off the fence.  I saw the white-wing patches as it awkwardly flew and knew the bird instantly.  My heart gave a flutter. Luckily, it landed on the neighbors fence and I was able to take the photo below.  Yep, another great bird to add to my yard and Utah list!  And its not the "adding to my list" that is so important, its really the enjoyment of the variety and total awesomeness of each bird.

Sometimes I just feel like the birding gods are smiling down upon me.

Happy birding everyone and have a great weekend!

Common Nighthawk

Fun with Mealworms!

This post is dedicated to Bill Fenimore of Wild Bird Center of Layton.  (You said mealworms would be fun and you were right!!!)  

I've been feeding wild birds in the backyard for several years now, but I had never tried feeding them mealworms until now.  So far I have seen Western Tanagers, American Robins, and Black-capped Chickadees dining on mealworms.  The finches, sparrows, and grosbeaks don't seem to pay them any attention.

Eying Breakfast!
The Glutton!  American Robins tend to pick up every single mealworm they can in their bills.  Amazing how they hang on to the grubs they already have when they go for the next one.  After it can't hold any more (which is much more than you'd think) they fly off to feed their hungry brood.
Western Tanagers are much more dainty eaters than American Robins.  They delicately pick up one mealworm at a time and politely swallow it.
This fantastic photo was taken by my son Kyle, age 10.  All of these photos were taken from inside a make-shift photo-blind which I will blog about later.
Okay, one more photo of The Glutton!  I used to believe and even taught others that Robins were not feeder birds.  I guess it all depends on what you offer them in the feeders!  I have found that American Robins are readily feeder birds when I offer grape jelly and mealworms.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

California Quail

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Wednesday's Western Tanagers

This last weekend I set up a makeshift photo blind near my feeders and took hundreds of photos.  I had so many cool Western Tanager photos that I had to put together this short slide show.

For the last three years we've had incredible numbers of Western Tanagers in the intermountain west.  I thought we just had two irruptive years in a row, but maybe we are seeing a cyclical trend on the high side right now.  Yet, many old time birders have said that they had never in their lives seen so many Tanagers as they have in the last couple of years.  Who knows?

As you view the pictures, note the variable amounts of red-orange on the faces of the males.  See if you can pick out the females too.  Females also have variable amounts of green-yellow on their bodies, with some almost having a gray belly.  One of the tanagers photographed had been spending a lot of time with his head in the grape jelly and has a bit of grape gel in his head feathers!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Utah - Rare Bird Alert!

Yesterday morning, Eric Huish, found a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at his birding patch, the Provo Airport Dike on Utah Lake.  His sighting was confirmed shortly by Tim Avery of the Utah Birders Blog. As you might imagine, a cool vagrant bird like this has the local listservs all abuzz.  I was ready to go twitching yesterday, but alas, my wife needed the family minivan so I was dropped off at work car-less.  I'm glad I wasn't able to go yesterday as all of my fellow Utah bird chasers were not able to relocate the stunning flycatcher.  A terrific windstorm rolled in during the afternoon and once I saw that storm I was sure the vagrant Scissor-tail would be gone.

To my delight, Eric reported the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher again this morning.  I went ahead and took an early lunch to make the chase.  When I arrived at the Provo Airport Dike road I found Milt Moody and Barbara Watkins who told me that the bird had not been seen for about 15 minutes.  After half an hour, an anxious group of twitchers grew to about ten people and we were all scanning every which way and chatting it up a bit.  A newly arriving birder, Dan Hunsaker said he thought he had just seen it heading our way, so we spread out a bit and started watching with renewed vigor.

Suddenly the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher flew over head and started flycatching out airport runway field.  Most of us got good looks as it flew this way and that.  With the sun behind it, it was beautiful in flight; its under-wings appearing a translucent buffy color.  We could also see the reddish flanks, white breast and light-gray head.  It occasionally perched on a tall plant or on the ground, but was most often in the air out over the open area of the airport runway field.  At one point it perched on the fence near the airport tower and a few of us took some long distance photos.  The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was back-lit, but I think the photos will be diagnostic enough to support Eric's rare bird report.

This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is presumed to be a juvenile as it has not yet developed the two long tail plumes, but does have a long forked tail.

To establish how cool a sighting this is in Utah, below are a couple maps showing the typical range and where the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has been seen by eBirders.  The Utah Bird Records Committee shows eight previously accepted sightings going back to 1948, with 15 total reports on record.  There are just four accepted reports in the past decade, the most recent being in May 2005 in Wayne County (southern Utah).

Again, it was great to meet in real life those leading Utah birders whose names I have been seeing online.  The guys behind Westwings Birding Tours: David Wheeler and Mark Stackhouse.  David was recently mentioned here on this blog for the Palm Warbler sighting in Salt Lake.  Mark Stackhouse, currently lives in Mexico, but visits family in Utah regularly and leads tours when he is here too.  Milt Moody - the webmaster of  Bryant Olsen - a regular reporter on Utah listservs.  Larene Wyss - who sports one of Utah's largest life lists. Barbara Watkins - who I've been told has an enormous world life list. LeIla Ogden and another gentleman who I asked his name, but with all the excitement it didn't stick with me.

The Provo Airport Dike is also an amazing Utah Birding Hotspot.  eBird records currently show 230 species reported here, and that list is obviously growing! A road runs along the dike which separates Utah Lake on the west from the airport runway.  An irrigation canal also runs along the road to the east.  Utah Lake State Park is adjacent to the airport.  There is a wonderful corridor of trees, brush, marsh, and wild grasses, plus lots of fence line for perching birds.  No wonder it has been getting so many rarities this spring!

Map created by Tim Avery

Pine Siskin & Lesser Goldfinch

This Pine Siskin allowed me to approach the edge of the feeder without the slightest concern.  I'm thinking it was a pretty recent fledgling.  It was much plumper than the adult Pine Siskins, which is a common attribute of fledglings among many types of birds.  Their parents just spent all their stores of fat migrating, incubating, and feeding their chicks.  So, the chicks often look huge next to their exhausted parents.  The other less scientific reason I am confident this is a young Pine Siskin - look at all the food on its face!

Check out the bill deformity on this female Lesser Goldfinch!  A little cross-bill action with a sword for a bottom lip.

Monday, June 6, 2011

even more Random Bird Photos

Sage Thrasher - Antelope Island, UT
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher - Garr Ranch, Antelope Island
Barn Swallow and nest - Antelope Island Visitors Center

Sunday, June 5, 2011

more Random Bird Photos

Horned Lark - on the edge of the road as they are often found - Antelope Island State Park
Great Horned Owlet - Garr Ranch, Antelope Island State Park
Can you identify this Empidonax Flycatcher?
Garr Ranch, Antelope Island

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Utah: Updated!

Birding friends across Utah have been reporting and photographing random Rose-breasted Grosbeaks; nice gorgeous males that leave no question as to identification.  I've been having several Black-headed Grosbeaks visit my feeders recently and have been hoping and wishing that a Rose-breasted Grosbeak might show up. This morning, I looked out on the feeder and saw three Grosbeaks, one male Black-headed, and two females, but one female looked quite different than the other.  

The 'different' female gave the general impression of black & white, while the female Black-headed Grosbeak showed some color; an obvious buffy breast.  Once I saw that, I immediately looked at the bill color.  I have studied the difference between the two grosbeaks enough to know that B-H's have a bi-colored bill and R-B's have pinkish bills.  

I crept back into the house and grabbed the camera and got off a couple shots before it flew off.
The next photo I share only because it best shows the coarse streaking that continues across the breast. Female Black-headed Grosbeaks may have some finer streaking on their flanks and breasts, but it fades toward the center of the breast.
For comparison purposes, below is a close-up of a female Black-headed Grosbeak that I also took this morning.  Note the bi-colored bill - the top mandible is almost a metallic color.  Also note the amount or buffy-orange compared to the grosbeak pictured above.
There is always the possibility of it being a hybrid or intergrade, but nothing in the photos or in my arsenal of field guides seems to indicate that.  I am hoping some of you east coast birders or expert Grosbeak identifiers can help me confirm whether or not I had a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in my Utah backyard.  It would be a life bird for me!

UPDATE:  Later this afternoon I set up a make-shift blind and was able to get a much better photograph of what I am now confident is a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Life bird in my own backyard.  Oh yeah!!!

Random Bird Photos

Yellow Warbler
Photo taken at Memory Grove Park in Salt Lake City
Tiny, but fierce-looking guard of a closed section of Antelope Island State Park, UT
Barn Swallow at the Antelope Island Visitors Center

Friday, June 3, 2011

A new Memorial Day Birding Tradition?

My wife and I both are descendants of Mormon Pioneers; those hardy families who migrated across the plains and mountains in covered wagons or pulled handcarts to Utah between 1847 and 1868.  That being the case, we both have several ancestors buried all across Utah.  This year for Memorial Day we decided to take the family to area cemeteries and see if we could find the graves of some of our ancestors.  Another one of my nerdy hobbies is genealogy and family history.  My secondary ambition with this family adventure would be seeing how many species of birds I could find in those cemeteries.  If you haven't learned already, cemeteries are often fantastic birdwatching locations!

Memorial Day 2011 in the Salt Lake area will be most memorable because of the amount of rain we were getting.  In spite of the rain and localized flooding, I was impressed to find that the cemeteries were bumper-to-bumper with families paying their respects to fallen soldiers and their kindred dead.  Because of the weather and the amount of traffic, the birding was not all that spectacular, though I did net 30 or so species and we did find several headstones of our forefathers and mothers.

While we were trying to locate the headstone of one of my wife's progenitors in the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery, this Mourning Dove flew right over our heads and landed behind us.  I started taking photos of it and recognized immediately the name on the monument, Ebenezer Beesley (photo at the top of the post).  Ebenezer Beesley happens to be the composer of several of the most popular hymns sung in LDS churches around the world.  Kinda cool, I think!

My kids at the grave marker of my 4th Great Grandparents - Evan Melbourne Greene and Susan Kent.  Evan and Susan's mothers were sisters, and sisters to Brigham Young.  First cousins getting married in those days was not all that uncommon.  It still is kinda weird from today's perspective and understanding of the increased risk of passing along genetic defects.  Evan was a pioneer, a school teacher, farmer, the mayor and postmaster of Provo, Utah and also served in the Utah Territory legislature where he compiled the book of laws.  Yep, there is a second wife's name on that headstone.  He was also a polygamist and had possibly three or four other wives too.  All kinds of interesting history!
My family has more plans to visit cemeteries and the towns where our ancestors lived, and of course I will combine that family history research with birding across Utah!

If you are interested in genealogy and family history here are some helpful links:

To find my ancestors graves, apart from my own personal records, I used the Utah Burials Index and