Sunday, January 27, 2013

Exercising The Ol' Birding Brain

Living up here in the migratory north, Canadian birdwatchers actually need two separate birding brains. We have a winter one, and then a summer one. Each spring you can almost hear the creaks as the summer brain comes to life, straining to identify that strange bird that turns out to be (AGAIN) a female Red-winged Blackbird.

The winter brain is more relaxed. We know these birds as they're with us all year. About the end of December though, birders start longing for a glimpse of different birds. The summer brain is stirring below the surface...

The obvious answer is a vacation. Somewhere warm, sunny, and filled with birds you a) haven't seen for months or b) have never seen before. Welcome vacation birder brain.

For most of the winter I had been living in redpoll land, with daily visits from Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and Black-capped chickadees. Tiny birds everywhere.
The last week of December, my husband and I made a quick trip to Sedona, Arizona. A three hour flight, and we were once again in the land of those beautiful red rocks, eager for some winter sunshine and Arizona birds.

Our first morning there, I hopped out of bed and looked out the window for a bird check. It was snowing. My birding brain stalled. Should I be looking for Arizona birds or Snow Buntings? With my mind still on redpoll alert, it took a few minutes to realize I wasn't going to find any.

Feeling like three kinds of a wimp, we hardy Canadians whined about the cold wet weather for three days. Then we made a break for it and went south to Phoenix.

By this time, my husband's cold had really settled in so he wasn't keen on a lot of activity. We made a short visit to the Desert Botanical Garden and were greeted by a Curve-billed Thrasher. At last! My birding brain finally began to catch up with where it was.
The day before we had to return home though, we hit bird nirvana at the Gilbert Water Ranch (GWR). We have been to Phoenix many times, and had somehow managed to miss this wondrous spot. Thanks to Laurence Butler who has written some excellent blog posts on this amazing place, it's now very high on my must-visit list.

The GWR is a water reclamation site with 8 large ponds, all surrounded by thick shrubs. We've been to similar sites in other locations, and the birding is always great. The key element at GWR though, is that at any given time, some of the ponds may be drained, or draining, or even dry. Mudflats! Water! Shrubs! Dirt!
Great Egret
Fluffy lil Black-chinned Hummingbird
Butter Buns
Gambel's Quail
They even have House Finches with their head on backwards. What a place!
It was brain (all of them) overload. The place was alive with birds, and I hardly knew where to look. I made a firm mental note to never again visit a new birding spot the day before going home. Being unable to return the following day was almost physically painful.

Now back in Calgary, the creaky old birding brain had to change course yet again. Did I just hear a mockingbird? Is that a Great Egret? No's a lump of snow. Oh look. A redpoll.

Having to change seasonal birding brains is hard enough, but try doing winter-summer-winter brain in the space of ten days.

Now I'm back in the land of frozen lakes.
Back in the land of snow covered mountains.
Back in the land of Snowy Owls.
Poor me.


  1. I love your brown creeper photo. My favorite bird =)

  2. I can see where butter buns got it's name, lol.

  3. Wonderful sightings and birds. Gorgeous shot of the Snowy owl. I would love to see a Redpoll, could you send one my way? Great post!

  4. I enjoyed reading your post, love the Great Egret

  5. I'm glad that you got to visit the Gilbert Water Ranch. It is one of my all time favorite birding locations. I miss living near it. Every time I go birding in a new location I get brain cramps, especially if there are huge amounts of birds. Sensory overload. It's nice to kind of ease into a new area.

  6. I've definitely got a case of winter brain right now. Observing the beautiful sights featured in this post certainly brightened my day. I especially love the Black-chinned Hummingbird and Gambel's Quail. How lucky you are to be able to see gorgeous Snowy Owls during the winter. I truly enjoyed this wonderful post, Pat!

  7. Ah Pat! Sorry I missed you in Phoenix.
    Mentioning these seasonal birding brain disorders is an important breakthrough in analyzing the bird nerd condition. Thank you for your important work on this subject.

  8. Looks like Hell on Earth! The Snowy owl is wonderful!

    Stewart M

  9. Pat,

    This post made me smile, I get winter and summer brain too and I am glad I am not alone! Seeing your images from Arizona woke my summer brain up for a bit but the snow outside is pushing the winter one back into place as I type this.