Monday, February 28, 2011

My new birding patch

A continuation of the previous post about how to pick a patch for birding...

Check out the photo captions and see how I employed my selection criteria even in the middle of winter and without help from local birders to identify this as a place with birding potential.  I'll also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of my new birding patch.

I found this new birding patch by using Google maps and looking for water and trees within a reasonable distance of my Salt Lake office.  The bends in the river and the public trail made it look promising for being a good birding location before I ever visited.
On my short drive to my new patch there is an old now unused pasture.  In the last months I've seen Red-tailed Hawks,  Canada Geese, Black-billed Magpies, and hundreds of Rock Pigeons and European Starlings here.  I lump this area into my patch as it adjacent to the trail, but only viewable from the drive in.
The trailhead starts at General Holm Park which is traditional community park with playset, picnic shelter, and perpetually closed restrooms.  I don't spend much time birding here, but I have seen several species including the geese in this photo, Northern Flickers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Dark-eyed Juncos.
Trailhead sign, complete with hoodlum spray-painted "tags". I'm sure General Holm could have whipped those boys into shape!
Magpie nest in the trees.  There are dozens of them here...a good sign that birds do inhabit this area.  Magpie nests are often used by other birds.  I have already found these trees occupied by Robins, Chickadees, Brown Creepers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Flickers.
Nice patch of dense scrub brush, trees, and pines.  I've already found these types of patches full of Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and more.
Every patch has something unique that gives it character like this section of leaning trees. I tried for some time to get a close-up of a Brown Creeper right in those trees and I never got a single photo.
A nice patch of sage brush along the trail which gives some nice variety to the habitat.
The Jordan River winds its way through my new birding patch.  There seems to be plenty of willows and cottonwoods along its banks.  I've seen Belted Kingfisher hunting its waters and few species of waterfowl floating its surface, while Bald Eagles fly over head.  I like that the trail provides me an elevated view
Some open areas above which perch American Kestrels hunting for voles and deer mice.
I knew the Jordan River was directly west of my office, and I was delighted to discover a park and trail head as I zoomed in on the online map. It was important for the location to be within a 5 minute drive so that I could spend an enjoyable amount of time birding rather than driving.  This location is 1.7 miles from my office.  If you can find a birding patch within walking distance, even better!

I could tell that this location was publicly accessible, and there was safe parking.  Sometimes you will find on the map places that you know are perfect birding locations, but when you arrive, you discover that they are private property with no public access or that the place is just to darn scary to park or walk.

This trail gets used by walkers, joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers.  I have found everyone to be courteous and friendly and they have not interfered with my birding.  I am concerned with the apartments which are right above the bank of trees and brush where the birds seem to congregate in poorer weather.  Really, I'm just afraid that people will look down from their windows and see this strange dude looking up in their general direction with binoculars or a camera.  It is important for birders to be sensitive to concerns about peeping and avoid false accusations.  A couple of annoyances I have about my new birding patch is the amount of litter and of feral or neighborhood cats.  Birding patches may also have other dangers, for example this location has a steep river bank that collapses regularly, so it is wise to stay on the trail.

I've added this location to the eBird Hotspots and I signed up to participate in eBird's My Patch program.  This page tells you what your life, year, and month list is for your patch, and it ranks your patch in comparison with other participants (if you care about such competitions..and sometimes I do).
My eBird bar chart for this location is well underway with 27 species.  Darn it!  I missed the first two weeks January and the first two week of February, so I won't be able to have a complete bar chart until next year.  I may miss another week or two during the year, but after a couple years I should have a great bar chart giving anyone a pretty good understanding of the comings and goings of birds in my patch.

I am excited about the birding possibilities at my new birding patch.  I'm sure my blog will include posts and photos of my lunch-hour birding adventures here.  I'll keep you updated on the species I see there.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How to pick a patch! ...for birding

My new Utah lunch-hour birding patch - Jordan River Parkway trail system.
Every birder should have his or her own special birding patch or two.  A birding patch is a place a birdwatcher can visit regularly, know intimately, and enjoy deeply.

When I lived in Arizona, my Saturday morning birding patch was the Granite Reef Recreation Area along the Salt River just a minute's drive from my home.  My lunch-hour patch was the Desert Botanical Garden near my office.  In Idaho, for a time we officed along the Boise River in the Eagle area, so my lunch-hour birding patch was a stretch of trails along the river there starting at Merrill Park.  When we moved our home and office into the Boise foothills to the Avimor community, all the creeks and hills in the area became my birding patch.

Now that I've moved to Utah, I am starting fresh and needing to find my own birding patch.  I have a method for picking a new birding patch, but never written it out until now.  Here's how to pick a patch for birding:

Step One:  Use Online Maps

By locating my office on Google Maps (red-box with yellow "x"), I then looked for dark green (trees) and water near it on the satellite image (I added the green border).  I have used this method to discover dozens of great local birding hotspots.  Short driving and walking distance is important as it will dramatically increase the frequency with which you can visit the site.

You will need to find out by the map, or by visiting the site if it is publicly accessible and safe.  I am not one to shy away from asking private land owners if I can have on-going permission to visit their property.  Some say no, but many are proud of the habitat they have or have created and are delighted to know somebody might be interested in looking at birds on their land.

Step Two: Visit the Site

Look for the key characteristics of topography and habitat that are conducive to a bird's lifestyle:  Food, Water, Shelter, Nesting.  Even in winter, you can still identify a potentially great birding location just by knowing what to look for.

Well groomed parks with lots of grass and spaced out trees don't often have very many birds.  Parks can be good if they have plenty of "wild" habitat zones.  Brush and shrubs in combination with trees of varying sizes with some amount of density provide greater food sources and shelter.  I prefer ecosystems that have both coniferous and deciduous trees just because I think it increases the variety of birds I will see.  Trees with natural or woodpecker-made cavities is always a good sign.  If you see nests in the trees and shrubs, you'll know you have a decent birding patch.  Having water nearby is essential.  I love trails along good flowing creeks or slow moving small rivers.  Ponds and lakes are always nice too.  Man-made canals with dirt road banks aren't usually very good for a large variety of birds.

When I visit the site, another thing I am looking for is the ease of bird viewing what I call "viewing windows".  I've been to some places loaded with birds, but it was so frustrating because you couldn't see any of the birds.  The reeds, trees, or bushes were just too thick and blocked any view of the birds.  Because of this, I like to bird at places that give me a somewhat elevated view, where I can look down into the trees, brush, and water.  Decent trails and ease of walking and hiking the area are also very important.

Elevated view over the trees, shrubs, and water.  
Step Three:  Add the location to eBird... 

...and start submitting a checklist to eBird for every visit your patch.  If the location is public, please consider adding it as an eBird Hotspot.  Public or private, you can add it as your Patch on eBird to join in a friendly comparison to other birder's special patches.

The data you collect over time will provide you with fascinating information for your own pleasure, but it also contributes to science.  Whenever I establish a new birding patch I try to visit the location at least weekly so that my eBird bar chart will be 100% covered for the entire year.

A snippet of the bar chart from my Avimor Patch in Idaho.  It shows that I have submitted a checklist for each week of the year.  If you've missed a week, that week's column will be grayed out, giving you motivation to make sure and bird your patch that week the next year.
It is so cool to be able to see the comings and goings of the birds through your patch and to have evidence of it on an eBird bar chart.  Over time it will help you anticipate the arrivals and departures of the migrants.  You can also look for trends in the abundance of species throughout the year.

My next post will be about my new lunch-hour birding patch in Salt Lake City, Utah and how I used this method to select it and track it.

Please feel free to share in the comments what criteria you have for selecting your birding patches.  From my experience in the eastern United States last fall, the strategy may be a little different.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Always be birding!

My new job has me bound to a desk with three computer monitors staring me in the face at all times.  These screens each have a separate program up which allows me to efficiently manage a couple hundred home repairs in the eastern half of the United States...all with the clicks of my wireless mouse and a few key strokes on my ergonomic keyboard.

Recently, a property came up to bid in Salt Lake, just five blocks from my office so I was asked to oversee the repair bidding process on this home.  I was so excited for the opportunity to break free from the cubical farm and have a little field time.  I had an appointment to meet a heating contractor and in my haste to get out of the office I arrived five minutes early.  I discovered the yard to be severely overgrown as it had been abandoned for about a year, but the birds were plentiful.  I thought I'd play a little game and see how many bird species I could see before my contractor arrived.  My binoculars were left at home that day (a terrible mistake for anyone who truly calls oneself a birder), so this was going to be bare-naked birding at its is best!

Here's how the game went down:

A half dozen House Sparrows in the front rose bushes right off the bat.
I did a little pishing in the front yard..........nothin'.  Movin' on.
When I walked around to the backyard, instantly a whole flurry of wing-beats erupted almost from under my feet...Three Red-shafted Northern Flickers, a few California Quail, and a dozen American Robins.
The Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos and the male Downy Woodpecker didn't seem to mind me being next to their brush pile.  I enjoyed watching the Juncos up close as they hopped around scratching for food like little chickens.  The Downy zoomed up and down short little branches protruding from the brush pile just feet from me.
This backyard abutted another large untamed yard where House Finches and European Starlings frolicked in the shrubs.
I thought that would be all the birds I would see, but just as my appointment arrived, a flock of Canada Geese flew noisily overhead.
Bam! Nine species in just a four short minutes. At lunchtime I submitted the checklist to eBird.

I had my camera with me to photograph the property, so I snapped a few shots of the birds while I played my little game.  Here are a couple photos that were decent enough to share...

Male Downy Woodpecker with the fantastic red patch on the back of his head.
A majestic American Robin seeking worms in the leaf litter freshly exposed to sunshine after a snow melt.
I'm not sure if this is a 1st year Robin or a female, but I thought the texture on its belly and throat was pretty neat.
House Sparrow in the overgrown rose bush.  Even House Sparrows are fun when playing this little game.

Live the birder's mantra and
Always Be Birding!

 (I've been inspired to play this little game regularly after reading Pete Dunne's articles "Ten Birds for Walter" and "Friendly Skies" in Birder's World Magazine, now called BirdWatching.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gilbert Water Ranch: Ground-doves

My life bird Ruddy Ground-dove!

I believe this is a Common Ground-dove, but I do have some reservations that make me question the i.d..  The head doesn't show any scaliness.  The picture below shows the rufous primaries that both Ruddy Ground-doves, Common Ground-doves, and Inca's have.  The bill as seen in the photograph doesn't have a pinkish or orange color as shown in Sibley's, but it is close enough in color to those shown in photographs in Stokes'.  The tail looks a bit long for a Common in the photo below, but the color pattern is right.  Hmmm...a lighter colored Ruddy Ground-dove? a hybrid perhaps?  Any Ground-dove experts out there?
Rufous wing feathers shown in flight

Below are Ground-dove range maps according to eBird recording sightings.  I am very excited about all the Central and South America sightings showing up in eBird.  Over time, this will significantly increase our understanding of where our birds go during the North American winter.

You can see that the two species of Ground-dove have a similar range, but the Ruddy doesn't get into North America all that frequently.  Inca Doves share similar range and habitat to Common Ground-doves.  I was priviledged to have Inca Doves visit my yard regularly when we lived in Mesa, AZ.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Gilbert Water Ranch: Eurasian Collared-dove

Eurasian Collared-dove with Least Sandpiper
There were a lot of Eurasian Collared-doves at Gilbert Water Ranch.  A few years ago, I never saw a one there.  They just keep on expanding their range and getting more numerous.

Doves just drink so differently than other birds.  Other birds at my bird bath dip their beak in the water, lift their heads with bill pointed to the sky and swallow.  Well, doves dunk, suck, and slurp and can therefore drink much faster than other birds.

Gif Created on Make A Gif
Animated eBird map showing Eurasian Collared-dove Expansion from 2000 to 2010.  Data may be slightly skewed as eBird participation and therefore geographic coverage was increasing at about the same rate or faster than Eurasian Collared-doves.  The data shown on the maps is consistent with anecdotal evidence of expansion that I have read about and personally witnessed.

The chart below shows that eBirders are reporting EC-doves each year with greater frequency.  Interestingly enough, their detectability seems to follow a similar pattern each year with greatest numbers being reported in April and August.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gilbert Water Ranch: Green-winged Teal

Cool green head stripe
Dainty little female
When I saw the dozens upon dozens of Green-winged Teal in Arizona this January, I realized that I hadn't seen any in Utah this winter, nor in Idaho.  This got me to wondering about the migration patterns of Green-winged Teal.  Looking at my own eBird records, I recorded them all the time in Arizona during Fall and Winter.  In Idaho I recorded them regularly in April and May, and again in November, but not any other months.  So I pulled up the eBird maps and this is what I found:

Notice how in winter they are general hanging out in the warmer climates? They are all but absent from Alaska.  No wonder I saw them in Arizona so often during these months.  
Spring time shows a substantial shift northward on the continent, which accounts for why I was seeing them in April and May in Idaho.
Breeding and rearing of young looks like it takes place in higher cooler climates to avoid the heat of summer.  Birders are fewer and further between in northern Canada and Alaska, otherwise we'd probably see more density of reports across their full range.  Green-winged Teal must not enjoy the humidity of summer in the southeastern United States.
And the shift southward begins again, but still covers the entire United States.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gilbert Water Ranch: Rosy-faced Lovebirds

First off, when did the change from Peach-faced Lovebird to Rosy-faced Lovebird happen? Anyway, these lovebirds have established themselves pretty solidly in the Phoenix metro area of Arizona.  They've also been seen in Florida, but as far as I know have not established feral populations there, so those sightings may have been recently escaped pets.  We used to get these Lovebirds at our backyard feeders when we lived in Mesa and I could count on their fly-bys on Sunday morning in the church parking lot.  They can be loud and raucous, but they are just so darn pretty.  The Red-winged Blackbirds on the right in the photo above seem to be looking on with jealousy. The Gilbert Water Ranch has been a pretty consistent place to see them.

These lovebirds are often kept in cages as pets, and those that you see in Arizona are feral populations of escaped pets.  They seem to be quite self-sustaining and the Arizona desert is a pretty decent replica of their native African habitat.  I prefer to see them in the wild acting like wild parrots should act, even if they are in a foreign land.
eBird sightings map of Phoenix metro area for Rosy-faced Lovebirds from 2003-present

I was hoping to see if their range or numbers had grown since I lived there, but the data was inconclusive for me because eBird use was growing a lot during that time too.  I also figured that the Rosy-faced Lovebirds would be seen pretty consistently throughout the year, but I was surprised that they are seen and reported far less in the summer than in the cooler parts of the year.  I don't know if that means that the lovebirds are hiding in the shade or if the birders are hiding in the shade during the blazing summers in Phoenix, but probably a little of both.
Rosy-faced Lovebird's native ranch in southwestern Africa - Namib Desert - similar in elevation and climate to Phoenix, Arizona (map from Wikipedia)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Lovebirds!

Rosy-faced Lovebirds at the Gilbert Water Ranch, Arizona, January 2011
Black-necked Stilts - male on left (solid black and white), female (shows more brown on the back) on right.  Taken at the Gilbert Water Ranch, Arizona January 2011.
Great Horned Owl couple at Avimor, north of Boise, Idaho December 2011
Happy Valentine's Day to my sweetheart and bride of almost 12 years!

I also want to share a very cute Valentine over Red and the Peanut Blog!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Should birder's wear camouflage?

When I first got into birding with my father-in-law Lynn, we always wore camouflage articles of clothing while birding.  He was a National Guard officer and a hunter, so maybe it was in his blood.  I just thought it was part of getting closer to the birds without spooking them.  Lynn joined me in southeastern Arizona in March of 2006 for a weekend birding trip.  We wore our camos.  I noticed that all the other birders were noticing us.  They were all dressed like preppie weekend hikers with khaki shorts, fleece jackets, and expensive trail shoes, right out of the Eddie Bauer catalog.  Not to mention, they were all skinny folks, and we...we'll we're both on the cuter side of of chubby.  Ironically, in spite of wearing camos, we stood out like Willets among peeps.

With binoculars strapped to our chests and spotting scopes mounted on tripods with legs fully extended at-the-ready we appeared a force to be reckoned with.  At the Ramsey Canyon visitors center, one birder commented to us, quite condescendingly through a snigger, "You must be serious birders!"  I soon came to realize that the military or hunting association with camouflage clothing is looked down upon by a certain class of snooty judgmental birders.  In order to blend in with the birders rather than nature I started wearing my everyday clothing when birding.

As my birding addiction waxed stronger and my birding experience broadened, I began to gather anecdotal evidence that I could get closer to birds when wearing navy blue and even royal blue.  Am I insane? or can anyone else confirm my non-scientific evidence?

Now that I have added amateur photography to my birding, and currently limited to a 150mm lens, I am trying to be more stealthy in my approach to birds.  I have gone back to occasionally wearing some articles of camouflage clothing, but never the full camo fatigues that I wore when I started birding.  For Christmas, my wife got me a few yards of the new digital camouflage.  I drape it over myself like a long flowing cloak and so far I feel like I've had pretty good results.  I am my own blind. (see at the top of this post)

My recent family expedition to Farmington Bay in Utah revealed dozens of photographers in full camouflaged get-up, including camo lenses.  They were fully exposed on the dike and the birds could probably see them just fine, so I'm not sure how much the camo helped in this particular situation.  The birds seems oblivious to people dressed in everyday street cloths.

Maybe its emotionally safe to wear camo in places like Utah and Idaho, but not so much in other societies.  So, what is your experience with birding and camouflage? Is there a negative stereotype associated with camouflage clothing that birders should be aware of? Does camo help you get closer to birds?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gilbert Water Ranch: Curve-billed Thrasher

The Curve-billed Thrasher was so common to me in when I lived in Arizona that I took them for granted.  Seeing their grumpy faces while they scratched around in the dirt was like seeing old friends.

Awkward pose while it scracthed its head on the branch, but I share the photo simply because of the cool translucent eyelid.