Birding at My Place

Birding at My Place
My favorite pastime is enjoying the birds of my one acre paradise in southeastern Arizona.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Insomnia Has Its Benefits

It is not unusual for me to wake in the middle of the night. Sometimes I cannot easily get back to sleep. Depending on the situation, this is not necessarily wasted time.

When we spent a week in Costa Rica ten years ago, insomnia at 3 am rewarded me with an outstanding meteor shower and the sound of rays jumping out of the ocean and slapping back down in the water. A year and a half ago, almost daily stress-induced insomnia at 3:30 am allowed me to complete all the work necessary to get our house set up for my mother-in-law to move in so we could be her caregivers. This morning, though, may take the cake when it comes to a good pay-off for being wide awake before dawn.

When I woke at almost 10 minutes before 4 am, I was not unhappy. I'd hoped to get up early enough to listen for our local Great Horned Owl so I could add the bird to this month's yard list. After taking care of the dog, I went back outside with the lights out to listen. It was blessedly quiet with none of the neighborhood dogs, roosters, or donkey making a bit of noise. I waited as one car passed by in the distance and then puzzled over the bright light shining in my eyes.

As I tried to figure out why a helicopter would be flying straight towards me with a spotlight on - although there was no noise, the light exploded into a starburst and fell. In those couple of seconds, my brain registered that I had just seen a meteor fireball! There continued to be a bright vertical line on the horizon although I wasn't sure what I was seeing after being blinded by the bright light. I had time to run inside and grab my binocular so that I could confirm that I wasn't imagining it. There was indeed a smoke trail from the fireball.

I watched for a couple more minutes to see if there were any other meteors but saw nothing. I checked the back yard for owls and heard one almost immediately. After listening for a couple more minutes, time enough to hear the Vermilion Flycatcher and a Northern Mockingbird singing, I checked the sky again to the north. Amazingly, ten minutes after the fireball, smoke still lingered in the air, albeit beginning to disperse.

It's not a bad morning when you get to make a report to a meteor sighting website as well as to eBird.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Touch of OCD

Is it a bad sign when you find yourself standing in a store parking lot with your ‘car bins’ in hand? (For those not in the know, ‘car bins’ are the cheap pair of binoculars you leave in your car at all times so that when you are out on errands and think you see something interesting, you have binoculars available without having to worry about valuable ones being stolen out of your vehicle while you are in the grocery store.)

Yesterday, I had to pick up some items at Home Depot so I also arranged to meet someone by the outdoor garden plant enclosure for a craigslist sale. While visiting with her, I kept hearing and seeing birds flying around the trees planted for shade in the parking lot. I grabbed my bins to see what was present.

I used to worry about what people would think if they saw me wearing binoculars in odd locations like a store parking lot. I decided I’d rather enjoy myself and not worry about whether they think I’m a total geek. In fact, I got several positive responses yesterday from people that asked what I was seeing.

You might not think that a parking lot would have many birds in it, other than the usual House Sparrows and maybe some sort of blackbird. However, I rather easily found 11 species while standing by my car.

  • 3 White-winged Doves
  • 2 White-throated Swifts – flying over the building.
  • 1 Anna’s Hummingbird male – flyby
  • 1 Broad-billed Hummingbird male – visiting blue Salvia flowers in flower display by entrance.
  • 2 hummingbird females seen at a distance before I got my bins.
  • 1 Gila Woodpecker – visiting mesquite trees in the parking lot.
  • 1 Bell’s Vireo – singing in trees in the parking lot.
  • 1 Common Raven – soaring over the building.
  • 1 Barn Swallow – flying over and near the building. Wouldn’t be surprised to find a nest.
  • 1 Wilson’s Warbler – singing in the parking lot trees.
  • 6 Lesser Goldfinches – flying back and forth among parking lot trees.
  • 5 House Sparrows - counted only the ones I could see from my spot. There were more as I headed to the store, including birds in the landscaping department (and inside the store itself).

This location is well-situated for birds to show up in the parking lot. Just behind the store on the west side is the Canada del Oro wash. Water only runs in the wash during heavy rains but this undeveloped dry riparian zone provides plenty of habitat and space for wildlife. The Catalina Mountains are east of the store, across Oracle Road behind a small housing development. Several cliff faces are clearly visible from the parking lot and the entrance to Catalina State Park is only about a mile north.

The many trees planted in the parking lot for shade provide food, cover, and nesting opportunities for birds. They include mesquite, oak, and eucalyptus, with Palo Verdes lining the east side along Oracle Road. The parking lot’s fenced garden display and the additional displays set up right outside the landscaping department include a variety of blooming flowers at this time of year. I’ve seen hummingbirds visit the salvias, lobelias, and bottlebrush.

There is a water feature inside the outdoor landscaping section, along with bird seed for sale. The House Sparrows tear holes in the plastic bags and gobble up the bird seed. Several were visiting the water feature yesterday, too, entrancing a small boy watching the turtles. Other birds may also be finding their way in for a quick drink. In other words, the parking lot and outdoor landscaping department both offer a bit of usable habitat for birds even in an urban setting.

Despite all that, though, the fact that I felt compelled to keep a checklist from my shopping trip yesterday does make me wonder if I’ve got a touch of OCD.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Coming Home to Birding

I used to bird frequently, both for myself and for work. Then somehow, I drifted away from birding as life was filled with other activities, jobs, and concerns. Now that I've returned to birding, I find it incredible that I could have allowed it to slip away for so long.

When we bought this house on an acre, we were not thinking about what kinds of birds might be here. We moved in on April 1, 2010, and began keeping a yard list but we didn't spend much time or effort on it. We'd jot down each new species we saw here, rarely noting anything else such as the date seen. We knew basic information such as that most of the warblers moved through in spring migration and weren't here year-round, and that the kestrel numbers increased in the winter, but we didn't keep detailed records.

Fast forward to last fall when we were recuperating from a very stressful period of caregiving for my husband's mother and then dealing with her passing. We found that going out birding was a recuperative activity. Just being outdoors was relaxing and the attention needed to look and listen for birds took our minds off everything else. We started getting out more and noticing what was in our own yard.

Believe it or not, we were not aware of the eBird website. That's how far out of touch we'd gotten with the birding world! As we started checking the weekly Rare Bird Alerts for Arizona and then the Arizona-New Mexico Bird News listserv, we noticed mentions of eBird. I checked it out and found it a very useful tool for seeing what birds were being seen in the places we were visiting, such as Catalina State Park and Sweetwater Wetlands.

Eventually I decided to start entering my own checklists, which meant keeping better records. Because checklists entered on eBird are also used for science and research, more detail is better. Rather than simply checking whether a bird species is present, noting the number of birds seen and/or heard at a specific location on a specific date is better. Noting sexes, age, and breeding information provides even more useful data.

I had not kept these kinds of records for our property but I started doing so as soon as I signed up for an eBird account. I entered the information we did have, as well as checklists (without numbers) from Christmas and New Year's Day birding efforts at home and around Pima County. For our yard list, I pinpointed our location on their map and named it. We chose "Angel's Corner" in honor of our dog who passed away a few years after we moved here. While she wasn't a bird dog, we do miss her noisy alerts letting us know when the local coyotes were passing through her yard.

As we paid more attention to what was happening at our place, we kept finding more birds. We left the front yard and started wandering around the entire acre. And we began to watch for birds by the mountains off in the distance. The variety was probably always here but we simply had not noticed. Our casual list has grown by more than half just in a few months of birding frequently and at different times of day in our entire yard.

The basic yard list was 63 birds at the beginning of this year. On May 2, we added our 100th species. This morning, I found #101! Check out the current list here to see what we've found so far.