Thursday, February 24, 2011

Backyard Birds (A GBBC Retrospective)

I didn't do the Great Backyard Bird Count this year for the simple reason that I spaced out and forgot it was taking place. But I've been thinking a lot about my backyard birds and the pleasure they give me. I work at home, and as I type away at my laptop, I can look out my window at just about any time and see a Northern Cardinal or even a Baltimore Oriole flitting around my feeders. What's not to like?

But the best thing about backyard birding is the sense of place it gives me. The inventory of birds in my yard reminds me of where I am in time and space, and connects me to the physical world in an intimate and tangible way. When I see Yellow-throated Warblers on my feeder in January, I am reminded that I am now in Florida, not back in California, nor anywhere else in the eastern U.S. The birds tell me this is home now. This is where I am, and where I have to make all the new connections in my life.

The birds tell me not only where I am now, but where I've been. As a thought experiment, I've compiled cumulative bird lists for the last few places I've called home, and I'm giving them below. The differences among them are stunning.

My Current Backyard Bird List (Gainesville, Florida)

Birds seen or heard in my back yard, or seen or heard flying overhead:
Northern Cardinal
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Wren
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Indigo Bunting
American Crow
Fish Crow
Boat-tailed Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
Pine Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)
Blue Jay
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Red-shouldered Hawk
Barred Owl
Mississippi Kite
Swallow-tailed Kite
Downy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Eastern Phoebe
Brown-headed Cowbird
strange greenish thing that may or may not have been a female Painted Bunting

Bonus birds: Seen or heard within 100 yards of home:
Sandhill Crane
Whooping Crane (no, really!)
White Ibis
Cattle Egret
Northern Shrike
Northern Mockingbird
Summer Tanager
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Flicker

Where I hang out on vacation: Bird list for my parents' place in Los Angeles:

Birds seen or heard in or flying over their back yard:
Mourning Dove
California Quail
House Finch
Lesser Goldfinch
Anna's Hummingbird
Rufous/Allen's Hummingbird
California Towhee
Spotted Towhee
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
California Thrasher
Western Scrub-Jay
American Crow
American Raven
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Great Horned Owl
Hooded Oriole
Bullock's Oriole
Mountain Chickadee
Greater Roadrunner
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)
House Wren
Bewick's Wren
Black Phoebe

Bonus Bird: Seen or heard within 100 yards of the house:
Zone-tailed Hawk (seen by my husband)

Bird list for my last home: Costa Mesa, California:

Birds seen in the public areas immediately adjacent to our apartment, or seen flying overhead:
Mallard (wild)
Mallard (domestic)
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black Phoebe
Mourning Dove
American Crow
Townsend's Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)
House Finch
Black-headed Grosbeak
Western Tanager
Tree Swallow
Great Horned Owl
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Anna's Hummingbird

Bonus Birds (seen or heard within 100 yards of the apartment complex):
American Wigeon
Double-crested Cormorant
Downy Woodpecker
House Sparrow
Northern Mockingbird
Rock Pigeon

What's in your back yard?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Good Birds, Near and Far

Usually, when I don't post for a while, it's because I'm either too busy or haven't seen any birds worth writing about. But lately, I've found myself in a novel predicament: I've been too busy to blog but have seen TONS of good stuff -- way more than than can be done justice in a single post.

But some sightings are too fun not to share. So here is an abbreviated highlight reel of my last few weeks of birding.

1. Do You Want To Get Bitten by an Endangered Bird?

So said the conservationist leading our Alachua Audubon field trip through the Tall Timbers Research Station and the nearby Wade Tract, near Tallahassee, last Sunday morning. It was just after sunrise, and he had just caught and banded a very grumpy female Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which people couldn't resist trying to pet:

We had arrived at Tall Timbers on Saturday afternoon, just in time for a miserable downpour. This didn't stop us from our planned afternoon bird walk through the reserve, where we saw and heard two kinds of nuthatches: Brown-headed and White-breasted. The former are rare in Gainesville and the latter have long been extirpated, so this was worth getting wet. After a cozy night in Tall Timbers' very rustic bunkhouse (as a veteran of last year's trip told me, "it costs five dollars a night and is worth every penny") we got up way before sunrise, waited for the world's slowest drip coffee maker to do its job, then took off to the Wade Tract, just over the Georgia border, for a morning of sparrow and woodpecker banding.

Besides the RCW, our wrangling and banding efforts yielded a surprisingly colorful Bachman's Sparrow:

Worth getting up at 5 a.m. and slogging through the woods in 30 degree weather? Absolutely.

2. Snow Day in Florida

Yesterday's Alachua Audubon field trip was also to an out-of-town destination: Matanzas Inlet, near St. Augustine. One of the things Glenn and I have missed since moving to Gainesville is regular access to shorebirds -- back in California, we hit the beach just about every weekend to look for and photograph sandpipers, ducks, and waders. So we were looking forward to the opportunity to walk around on a real beach once again.

We also learned in the days leading up to the trip that a couple of rarities had been lingering there: a Snow Bunting and an Iceland Gull, which would be lifers for both of us.

We were SO there.

So we woke up at 5 a.m. yet again, joined up with the rest of the group at a local meeting spot, and carpooled to St,. Augustine -- where it was, once again, way colder than anyone had expected.

After half an hour checking out gulls and terns (including several Greater Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls) we saw something promising: another group of birders about 100 yards from us staring intently at something nearby .

"They must have the Snow Bunting!" someone said, and we moved towards them as quietly and discreetly as a dozen really hyped-up people possibly could. Glenn was photographing gulls a distance away from us and I wondered if I should fetch him to find the Snow Bunting.

"Guys, watch where you're going; from where they're looking, the bird must be really close to you!" our trip leader yelled.

"Omigod, there it is!" screamed someone just in front of me.


"THERE!!" She pointed at a cream-colored pouf that shot into the air, fluttered across the beach -- and landed right in front of Glenn!

A few minutes later, we all the bird in our sights. We explained to a curious bystander that the bird we were looking at normally lives in the far north, and rarely appears in Florida. "You guys drove 90 miles to see a bird?" he asked.

Hell, yes.

3. The Orange Revolution

I love my backyard birds, but I always thought my visitors were kind of boring. Lots of usual-suspect birds: Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees. I always envied my friends who regularly got cool and locally rare birds at their feeders, such as Painted Buntings and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

But over the past two years, I've noticed that things tend to pick up in my back yard in the winter. Then, we get flocks of American Goldfinches, Pine Warblers, and a persistent Palm Warbler and a Yellow-throated Warbler.

Two weeks ago, we had a new visitor: a large, dusky orange bird lighted on our peanut feeder, and I realized it was a juvenile Baltimore Oriole! They winter here, but are extremely local and not often seen outside a few privileged neighborhoods -- and ours, until now, wasn't one of them.I told Glenn, who immediately set out an orange half impaled on an old chopstick. We waited a few days, but the bird didn't return. Then, early last week, I heard unfamiliar chattering outside and saw flashes of orange by our feeders: not one, but THREE Baltimore Orioles -- a juvenile and two adults!

The next day, I saw yet more orioles: an adult male and three female/juvenile birds. And they have been sucking down oranges and chomping on peanuts in our yard ever since. I love how they really get into fruit that's the exact same color they are.

The best part is I don't have to leave the house to see them.