Tuesday, April 29, 2008

No More Wall

I just discovered David Sibley’s Blog (try to keep in mind I’m new!)…and while I’ve been using his guides for some time I was absolutely tickled to find on his site a different angle regarding Chertoff and that ridiculous wall he’s having built along our boarders. I’d like to quote Mr. Sibley as there is no way I would come up with his eloquent message:

More on Texas Border Wall

Prompted by some good discussion I've read on TexBirds and elsewhere: I want to stress the point
that the danger to birds is not so much the height of the wall, but more the wide swath of habitat
that would be cleared for the wall and service roads. Chachalacas, Pygmy Owls, Green Jays, etc
will fly over a wall, but they're less likely to cross 100 yards of barren gravel. This project might as
well be a 4-lane highway.So let's try to take immigration completely out of the picture for a
moment and imagine that, instead of a wall, the federal government was proposing to build a 4-lane
expressway along the river from Brownsville to Laredo. Wouldn't there be a unified grassroots
uprising against it? What if they revealed that it would cut right through parts of the LRGV Wildlife
Corridor, which has been so carefully patched together and cultivated over the last 20+ years?
And what if there would be no exit or overpass anywhere near the Sabal Palm sanctuary and
other sites, effectively cutting those places off from the existing road system? And, on top of all
that, what if they announced that, in order to speed construction, all environmental review
would be waived? Wouldn't we all be outraged? People may feel conflicted or uncommitted
about the border wall because it is tangled up in hot-button issues of immigration and National
Security. But those issues are irrelevant to the birds. The reality is that the wall (like an expresswa) would be catastrophic for birds and birding in the valley (and what's bad for birding is generally bad for the birds), and we need to speak out to demand that those concerns be addressed. Congress allowed all this to happen, and they can change it, but they need to hear from lots of us. See: No Border Wall for more information.

I have written my state representative and hope you do so as well! If you live in the US, you can find the address of your representative by clicking here. Regarding this post…I have set aside the issue if keeping people in or out of a walled country and am ONLY discussing the matter of what a wall does to wildlife. Thank you.

I have made use of the above website’s banner and Silbey’s writing. I hope this cause and my quotations will mitigate any improprieties. Thanks again.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Lovely New Book...

As a new birder, the first book I picked up was a Sibley's Field Guide...but I wanted more and found it in a new book (March, 2008) that I've recommended to others. Their reactions have caused me to mention it here:

Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers by Burton Guttman is a lovely, interactive book that teaches how to look at birds; how to see them and how to recognize different types of birds. While the book references Peterson Field Guides regularly, I used my Sibley’s and was easily able to complete the exercises and quizzes offered.

As a new birder, one of the most interesting concepts the author teaches is to study a bird’s silhouette, which strikes me as valuable when an awful lot of birds are viewed in just that manner. Another is his suggestion to study movement and jizz, the impression a bird gives with the subtle, characteristic combination of it’s size and shape, it’s posture and its ways of moving.

From what to wear and polite birding manners to how to buy binoculars, from types of bills to shapes of tails and what these things mean to the kind of bird that carries them and from behavior to habitat ...the author teaches how to really see birds.

A fine bibliography is included.
At Amazon.com from <$9 to $15.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What a Day

What a day for a birdwalk.

My new friends Stirling and Lyn picked me up just before our scheduled meeting at 6:30 a.m. and caught me filling up bird feeders. I hurried out the door; we got as far as the end of my block when we realized I’d forgotten my Sibley’s…they graciously insisted we turn around so I could retrieve the field guide and we were off on our adventure.

Two of us had never been ‘birding’ before, so we were quite excited. We were to meet up with the AVAS group and their 4th Saturday Birdwalk at the Greenway and Nature Center of Pueblo. I was looking forward to meeting the group leader, Donna, who has been instrumental in helping me get started birding and meeting other birders. I met several other members of AVAS, including Leon, who brought his scope and tripod and shared it with everybody and Bill (always nice to meet the President!). Also with us was Skip, who Stirling had tried to plan as our guide to Wood Ducks last week…another really nice and experienced birder. It’s true…birders are nice people!

As we arrived at the meeting spot and did introductions all around, we noticed there was a plant sale going on at the center. It was very hard for me to stay on task…I love a good plant sale! But, off we went down the trail to water’s edge where we immediately saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler…a first for me; first Warbler, even! Standing in the same spot, we also saw White-crowned Sparrows, which seem to have become ‘my bird’ as I was able to spot them several many more times throughout the hike. I had so much fun! In addition to a beautiful hike on a fabulous day full of so many firsts in the bird-department, I also saw blooming daffodils and wild iris, bright yellow forsythia, several crabapples and one of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen; the Redbud…in full bloom; a cloud of pink. Donna pointed out another pretty little bush with small yellow flowers that were clove-scented. She told us they were currants and that the birds love the fruit. I loved the scent.

Leon set up his scope so we could see a whole line of Violet-green Swallows sitting pretty and preening; stunning birds…and another first for me. I imagine I’ve seen them flying about before, but I’ve never had the opportunity to actually see them and they are a picture of loveliness. The row of them on the power line looked like a painting of cute, little, white birdies…splashed in neon-green and tails dipped in purple.

Down by the river we also saw evidence of mud-nests under the pylons that held up an overpass. I’m not at all sure if these were nests of the Violet-greens or the Barn Swallow someone saw in the area.

Moving along the path along the river, we saw several Grebes, a Scaup and a single female Bufflehead, as well as some Canada Geese and the ubiquitous Mallards.

It took us awhile to identify the Grebes; as we’d see a small raft of them on the water and move to scope them…they’d dive and there was no telling where they’d pop back up on the surface. Finally Leon had them though; a beautiful dark bird with a long snowy white front to its neck and breast. The difference between the Western and Clark’s Grebe is subtle…but we saw both birds. I think it was Bill who spotted the Eared Grebe, but I missed it, darnit.

There were several dark, snaky-necked Double-creasted Cormorants both in the water and the air. I read that somewhere in the world, fishermen tie a cord around the necks of ‘trained’ Cormorants who dive for fish but are unable to swallow until, after keeping several for themselves, the owner removes the leash and allows the bird to gulp it's dinner.

On the other side of the path, in a large, dry pasture we saw several Killdeer…still another first for me! Those funny, long-legged things remind me of shore-birds.

Another rather interest-ing sight were the several felled trees we saw, each pointy stump surrounded by a pile of wood-chips; beavers are active on the river. Who knew?

Probably the highlight of the trip were the many Wood Ducks we observed. They seem shy creatures and would try to keep the width of the river between us and sometimes took to the sky. Several times small groups of males flew by, just above the water. They look quite different in flight than the ‘paint-by-number birds’, as Lyn called them, did paddling on the water.

As he did several times, along our hike, Leon set up and spotted birds on the water for us…I’ve not often seen Wood Ducks and think Lyn has it right, they do look like someone created a paint-by-number image. I’d like to go back sometime and see if I can’t find the Mandarin Ducks that apparently breed in the area; talk about an exotic-looking bird. Leon tells us they’ve been in the area for years and have established a regular little colony…enough to call them feral rather than escapees.

Our little group had to leave early, but just before we left the others and while we were all watching more of the Yellow-rumps, I believe I saw a Black Phoebe; tiny little dark charcoal-gray thing with a snowy white breast and a beak so tiny I knew instinctively knew it is a fly-catcher, too.

Yes, it was a fine day for birding and it just got better and better. I came home to find yet another first to add to my list! I found a Rose-breasted Grosbeak at my feeders…about the most romantic-looking bird I think I’ve ever seen; totally black head, flashy black and white back and wings and yet a pure white breast stained blood-red right over its heart. Wow.

This is the list of birds we saw (though surely incomplete for the whole group, as most kept going as we left):

American Robin
Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Audubon's
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Myrtle Population
Black Phoebe
White-crowned Sparrow
Northern Flicker
Mourning Dove
Ring-billed Gull
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Clark’s Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Northern Shoveler
Lesser or Greater Scaup
Red-tailed Hawk
Turkey Vulture

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another New Yard Bird!

No, not a movie set, just a bunch o' black birds enjoying the corn I put out for them. And the number of Yellow-headed Blackbirds is increasing!

I had a lovely day capturing the Yellow Headed Blackbirds…digitally, of course.

They are such flashy birds, bigger than the other blackbirds by almost an inch in length, two inches in wingspan and a half an ounce heavier…quite a bit for a songbird; nearly as big as a Grackle.

The Yellow-heads have a large white-patch, primary coverts, which one doesn’t see when they are eating. It's awesome to see when they posture like the picture here.

Red-wings, Great-tailed and Common Grackles, Yellow-heads and yet another bird, often flock together. I must say, they make a stunning group; quite colorful.

For awhile I was confusing the Common Grackles with that smaller bird that, in my untrained mind at least, has similar markings and I’d not yet figured out it was a lot smaller. Both have a dark bodies and a contrasting color on the head; but where the Grackles have glossy-dark bodies with a, blue head…this bird has a glossy-dark body and a brown head. I knew I was seeing something different, but I’d seen this ‘different bird’ only once or twice and never long enough to run down field notes in my head. But I finally found it in a photo of other birds in my yard. It’s a stocky thing and much smaller than the Blackbirds.

To be honest, adding another bird to my Backyard List is fun…I just sort of wish it wasn’t a Brown Headed Cowbird! Do you see it? [shudder]

Parasites, they are; Obligate brood parasites to be specific. The thing is, the Cowbird evolved following buffalo around on the Great Plains. When the great herds moved on, so did the Cowbird; it didn’t have the time to sit on a nest so it evolved a handy little trick…depositing its eggs in another bird’s nest and letting that bird raise the young. Clever, but disgusting by our standards, and sad to watch when a small host-parent tries valiantly to keep the freakishly-large hatchling fed. Cowbird nestlings usually hatch at least a day earlier then its adopted siblings and are generally 3-4 times larger as well…often making it the only nestling to survive. Click here for more information. The sad thing is that while the buffalo have dissappeard, this bird has not...nor it's bad habbits.

I’m sad to see this particular bird in
my yard; the thing even looks evil.

Evil incarnate...it’s a Brown-headed Cowbird!
[update] Make that a dozen or more in my yard! ...sigh

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Please clean those feeders!

Just get a big tub (don't clean feeders in your kitchen sink), some liquid soap, a couple brushes, some rubber gloves and a cup or so of bleach (or vinegar). What you can do: from National Wildlife.

What to do when you have sick birds at your feeders. Even when your birds look healthy, please clean your feeders regularly; once per month, year round. Fungus caused by mold in food or water will cause fatal respiratory illnesses. Discard seed that has become wet or moldy. Clean humingbird feeders every three to four days...same with bird-baths.

This is House Finch Disease...directions on how to report it here. Keep your feeders clean!

What else can you do...and help science, too?

This is Avain Pox, it is spread by direct contact, dirty feeders and infected water. If you find such birds at your feeders...please clean them regularly!
Sometimes sick birds just look cold; puffed up, lethargic and easy to approach..they often act like they have a cold, too, with swollen eyelids and lots of sneezing. These birds might have Salmonellosis, a bacteria infection that might be passed to pets; cats who eat the birds as well as the people who handle them.

Keeping the birds safe is really pretty easy. If you're like me and have multiple feeders, rotate your cleaning schedule to keep a potentially huge job, simple. No chemicals are necessary; just brush out debris and soak for a couple minutes in some bleach-water. Vinegar in water works for wood feeders. Spread the word!

It is a fallacy that once you begin feeding wild birds, you can't quit. Of course you can...science has shown they only take about 25% of their daily intake from feeders; if yours are empty (or missing), they'll just dine down the street.

Two things I do to mitigate feed loss: add sand or dry, uncooked rice to the bottom of a feeder, to bring the level up to the first feeding port. That will help keep the feed dry and will waste a lot less feed when you’re ready to clean. Secondly, I just let the feeders ‘run dry’…yet another reason to ‘rotate feeder-cleaning’…so you’ll always have full feeders to draw your birds in. I like that part.

Spring Unfurls

warm earth
smells of spring
flowers are a party dress

I inherited several many herbaceous peonies when I bought this place. They’ve got to be at least 50 years old…every year I find they've spread further into the grass. I find it interesting that one of them is quite short and fat, even the shoots are much thicker and more squat than the other peonies; the leaves are wider and the plant has flowers before the others are even fully budded out. I’ll show how different they are, as they continue to grow this season. Sprouts; Peonies are a lot like potatoes; they totally disappear in the late fall (I leave the cages on them just so I know where they are later!). Under the surface, there is a big tuber with eyes, they’re called, which send up shoots every spring. These are about the most care-free, least time-consuming plants; they require nothing from me, really. Later, they will have ants crawling over their flowers, which eat the sugar that weeps there. The ants don’t hurt the plant at all, in fact grandmothers used to say your peony flowers wouldn’t open, unless it had ants.

Raspberries are another pretty care-free plant that I totally enjoy. The patch I have is a bit overgrown with grass and is not staked at all, but it offers up the most delectable red berries twice a year; a huge crop in the summer and again later in the fall. I harvest the ones that the birds don’t get and spread them out on a cookie sheet. I put them in the freezer for an hour or two and then pour the frozen nuggets into a bag that I can dig into when I feel the need for a sweet snack. I don’t mind sharing my bounty with the birds at all, I get so much pleasure watching them all year; it seems paying for the entertainment is the least I can do.

Bleeding Heart disappears in summer heat, but returns in early spring. I’m so tickled to see this plant…and the one I bought with it. They look to be a fragile looking, fern-like plant, but they’re really quite hardy. They prefer a cool spot and some shade but the variety I planted flowers like there is no tomorrow; pretty pink heart-shaped flowers…each with a pink tear dripping from its pointed edge. I love the green leaves and beautiful red stems.

A tiny sedum in pink glory. What a lovely little ground cover this plant is. It needs little to no water from me and protects the earth in a blanket of pink-edged green. Need more? This plant will darn near root itself if you just throw a piece anywhere. I like that about it...ease of use! And look at that color...we're talking leaves here, yanno.

The almost shocking blue of Grape Hyacinth; this little bulb is available in many shades of blue; from a pretty deep purple to a clear white and a few bi-colors to boot. They are funny little plants that do look a bit like clusters of grapes when they first appear, but as the flowers mature, you will find they look more like tiny little bells. The bees love them, too.
Purple Smoke Bush sends out leaves along its slender twigs, not unlike Witch Hazel I think. I have a large dog...no, a VERY large dog; male. I am always tickled to find my new shrubs each spring...a few have succumed to my dog's watering efforts. By summertime the small bush will be a Purple Haze.

Evergreens get into the act; this one is a Dwarf Mugo Pine. While I won't have to do so with this particular pine which stays under three feet tall, I understand one way to slow the growth of a pine is to break it's 'candles', as the new shoots are called, in half. I may experiment with this as I continue fleshing out my yard. I'm planting for wildlife...and need more evergreens.

This plant is a Columbine I discovered growing near my front door. It self-seeded in a pot, which I rather appreciate and it appears to be coming back again. Yes, this is the kind of gardening I do; plant once and come-again types take so much less work. I like that about a plant. Mine are yellow, just like the wild ones that grew at my cabin.

The Vinca is already flowering; it’s such a sweet, well mannered plant that just keeps on trying. My big ol’ dog enjoys laying on it; it offers a soft, cool bed. Well, perhaps it doesn’t offer that and endures a struggle under it is more the case.

There were several very old apple trees in this big yard and I wince to admit I cut down two of them the second year I lived here. One was a large tree with a beautiful silhouette, that must have been 100 feet tall and a canopy at least half that wide. Someone pruned badly, which hardly mattered; the apples were mealy and not very tasty…except to the wasps and the bears. Every fall this town is invaded by at least a few bears, some-times as many as thirty. The last year this tree lived, I picked up five nearly-full 30-gallon cans of apples off the ground...two weekends in a row! Not only do I need to beat the bears (no, I don’t believe in baiting bears nor punishing them for showing up when we do) to the bounty, but if one leaves them too long they rot and offer the wasps a drunken banquet. I had the tree cut down.

The other one I cut down was actually a 5-1 grafted tree that usually I like; in fact I’ve given more than one as a wedding gift or house-warming present. But this one was old, diseased, broken…and about three steps outside my back door. It had to go. I am a firm believer in insisting the plants and animals one keeps earn their keep. Okay, if one doesn’t eat them…then they should at least entertain or beautify our world; and they should be low-maintenance. There, I said it. I’m heartless…and lazy. I love the 5-6 I have left, and do not spray them…ever. While the apples are too big for the birds and attract the damn tree-rats (no, I’m not fond of squirrels), they do feed the bees and butterflies and are drop-dead gorgeous in the springtime; aren’t they?

Little Brown Bird

I got a new bird the other day…I’m calling it LBB, for Little Brown Bird, until I know what it is.

I got a few shots (through the old, glass door), but not a single Full Frontal, so some of the clues are missing.

I thought it might be a ‘First Year Bird’, due to the mosaic-pattern of little clarity on its head. I could find nothing in the books that would indicate such a bird…so I hadn’t a clue which little brown bird it might be.

Then, another showed up. Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s another bird, but Gary, over at Colorado Birder, suggested what the new bird might be, as well as saying the first is probably the same type. This is way cool…I learn even more by doing the research; like the fact that White-crowned Sparrows have brown crown-stripes until they mature a bit. Hence the mosaic-look; I’m betting the first bird is almost adult.

Perhaps I’m learning something after all…my bird is a White-crowned Sparrow with an immature companion. Thanks, Gary!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Oh, What a Wonderful Morning

What an exciting morning I’ve had. I was busy doing household chores when I realized the birds had gotten quiet. As I have discovered the reason often lies high in the trees, I looked up: yup, a shadow…very high up in the Cottonwoods. Now, I generally wander around my house sans the glasses that I need to watch television or to drive…I don’t need them for close-up work, after all. However birding, when one can’t see things at a distance, is iffy at best…all I knew was that I was looking at a very large bird. I was thinking Golden Eagle or Great Horned Owl, both frequent this area.

But no, looking through my little binoculars, I realize the bird is neither an owl, nor an eagle…but it was much larger than the little Sharp-shinned Hawks I’ve seen in my yard. These fast, little Accipiter hunt regularly in my yard; I’ve been startled by the rapid blur, moving just a few feet off the ground, racing through my yard and around the corner of the house; clearly chasing a bird that had been at my feeders. I don’t mind this at all; hawks have to eat too.

The bird I watched in the tree this morning was even larger than the Red-Tailed Hawk I watched rise up off my lawn yesterday, after hearing a rapid ‘thump, thump, thump’ on the window…something I just don’t hear since draping the windows with bird netting that moves in the breeze. While I didn’t see what was in its grasp, it clearly had a successful strike and likely had either an Eurasian Dove (they feed here, two to three dozen at a time), a Red-Winged Blackbird or one of the Grackles that hangs with them; they all feed on the corn I toss for them. They come in great numbers, I’ve counted close to fifty on the ground at one time…I’ve also found feathers in nearly the same place I watched this Hawk fly up in my direction, distinctive red-tail what I noticed most.

Buteos like to hunt from the big trees around my yard, I’ve watched one in the tree where I watched this bird, but this bird was larger yet, though it had what looked to be the short, fast wings of the Buteo. I studied this big bird, noting it had a grayish head and darker back; yet the throat and breast were quite light. The tail was not at all red and there was little to no streaking on the breast, either. For that reason I checked to make sure I was not looking at an Osprey, which I’ve seen in this area though closer to open water. No, no funny little cow-lick at the back of the head, nor that dark eye-mark Ospreys show. Finally I looked away and grabbed my Sibley Field Guide; I was watching the first Swainson's Hawk I’ve ever identified. I’m so tickled with myself. LOL (I also crack myself up...for the longest time I insisted it was a Ferruginous Hawk, which clearly it is not!)

Finally I took a chance to go outside and try for a photograph. I’ve decided my 7-year old digital camera (Canon PowerShot G3), telephoto lens or no, is just not equipped to handle subjects at such a distance…and the height where this bird was sitting increased the distance a good deal. Of course, then there is the fact that I’m trying, blindly, to learn how to use the camera to my advantage. I don’t want to always leave it on automatic…but maybe I should. So many of my shots turn out so badly, it’s disappointing, to say the least. And I want a spotting scope, too!

I have been studying a marvelous little book, Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers, by Burton Guttman. The book teaches the way I learn. It includes information regarding how to look at birds and offers activities and quizzes that help learn what to look for when watching them. Probably the best thing I’ve learned so far is to study the field guides before I go out to find birds; study silhouettes, learn to look at beaks and recognize size and shape as a clue to the kind of bird you might be watching, learn to note wing and tail shapes and finally particular markings or colors the bird exhibits. Also studying how a bird lives, how and where it moves and when it might be in an area in a particular season.

Having done my homework, I also think I got another first-bird while watching the hawk. An unusual flash of color pulled my eye higher up the tree where I spied a small bird alone in the treetop. I could not clearly make it out other than to note the color that drew me to it; a red head and bright yellow breast. My first Tanager? This would be their breeding season, they do come through this part of the country about now and they like high tree-tops. What other bird could this be but a Western Tanager, all by itself in my little woods?

Yes, it was a beautiful day. I even got a better shot of that Yellow-headed Blackbird! (such as it was through the window). I'll get better ...I mean it, too.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Springtime in the Rockies

Just as I thought spring had finally arrived, I woke up to a world of white and at least three inches of snow. It will melt fast; green grass is already peeking though. This will be good for the lawn-seed I scattered awhile ago. I don’t water lawns much, and mine is getting thin so perhaps this will help. Generally, I conduct what I call are Turf Wars…and dig up great swaths of the water-wasting lawn and plant perennials and native plants that take both less water and care, to keep up.

Because I’m over anxious for flowers to come, I thought I’d show off some pictures I took last year. I like to pick a theme, Camera-Pics' is the one today. I am frustrated with my digital camera, after trying for several hours to get a shot of the Yellow-headed Blackbird that is hanging around with the hundreds of Red-wings who frequent my yard, I got a fine shot of dead grass. Dang, those birds are skittish; ever so slight a movement, and they’re all off and into the tall cottonwoods. Trying to learn how to use this camera, I finally got one clear shot of the yellow fronted bird…and it’s a mess. [sigh] This is what the Yellow-headed Blackbird actually looks like; a stunning bird. By the time I got my camera right, the birds were busy...and then they were gone.

As far as the camera-phone goes, I’ll have to learn to keep my finger out of the way, too. They can be pretty nice to have in case of emergency, like the very last time I hiked around on my property in the woods and saw my very first lizard in Colorado; an Horned Toad. Of course, I was camera-less at the time (not yet being into birds), but I got a shot of the little lizard to remember him by. Yes, it had been a dry couple of years, this was taken at nearly 9000’.

The Indian Paintbrush was taken on the roadside coming down the mountain. I only just discovered that Castilleja, as it is properly called, is a semi-parasitic plant which needs the roots of certain grasses and forbs to survive. Perhaps that’s why they make such poor plants in the garden. The plant is used by several butterflies, exclusively in some instances. In fact, I read…the flowers are edible and were eaten by Native Americans as a condiment with other greens. The plant can concentrate selenium, especially in alkaline soils, (the loco in locoweed!) and was eaten in moderation…but eating only the flowers offers similar health benefits as does garlic. The first Americans also made a hair wash from the plant and used it as a treatment for rheumatism; the selenium content being cited as the reason for it’s effectiveness for this purpose. Who knew? Doncha just love Google?

These other camera pics are flowers from my yard. A bright orange, Oriental Poppy with purple stamen, three of the large and likely quite old Peonies I inherited here and one of a Chrysanthemum sort of thing from Africa that was the most gaudy, shocking pink I’ve ever seen on a flower. I loved it.

Spring will be here soon...in the meantime, if you forget your camera, use your phone!