April 16, 2009

Throwing Pooh for Love

I got your attention with that header, didn't I? Yep, it's a little something called marketing writing.

Just about two weeks ago, I got up early and drove to Layton in order to see newly arrived sandhill cranes on a field trip with the Wild Bird Center. These beautiful birds winter in southern states (like retired RVers) and return to Utah to mate every spring (I have no idea whether retired RVers do this as well, but, if the trailer is a rockin'...).

Ick, let's get that image out of our minds. Instead, let's talk about Your (graceful yet goofy) Bird of the Week, the Sandhill Crane.

Fact: The sandhill crane is a large bird, standing as tall as your average 4th grader (about 3 to 5 feet). It sports a slate gray body, black legs, red forehead, and white cheeks.
Fact: The sandhill crane has some serious booty, with large, tufted feathers on its rump known as a "bustle."
Fact: The sandhill crane often colors its gray feathers during mating season, preening iron-rich, red mud through its feathers for a stained, rusty appearance. (It brings to mind a bad dye job on...hate to say it...retired RVers.)
Fact: The sandhill crane can be found in high altitude marshy areas and meadows, especially where cows graze.
Fact: The sandhill crane is the oldest known bird species still in existence. A fossil in Nebraska from about 10 million years ago is structurally identical to the cranes we know and love today. Maybe that's why cranes look like pterodactyls in the air.
Fact: The sandhill crane isn't just old as a species, individual birds also live a very long time--up to 20 years in the wild.
Fact: Sticking around that long may be one of the reasons that these birds mate for life. Once paired, a sandhill crane couple rarely leave each other, migrating back and forth from wintering grounds to mating grounds.
Fact: Despite the fact that they've often "been there, done that," cranes still perform mating rituals to woo each other in the spring. They have loud, chortling unison calls. And, then there is their famous mating dance, which is what I was hoping to see in Layton. I didn't, but there are plenty of good videos out there.

Fact: A lesser known mating ritual is the one I referred to in the title of this post. In meadows where there are lots of cow pies, sandhill cranes will often pick one up and fling it in the air, scattering dried pooh and dung beetles around the meadow. A crane will then select a particularly juicy beetle and offer it to its mate. Ahhh.
Fact: All of this must get pretty complicated, because the sandhill crane won't typically mate until it is at least 2 years old (sometimes not until it's 6 or 7).
Fact: If all goes well, that romantic dancing and pooh-flinging will ultimately result in one or two chicks. They are pretty damned adorable (looking like downy dinosaurs) and need a lot of care from their parents for the first year or so. In fact, the whole family stays together through winter migration.

This has been Your Bird of the Week.

P.S. I recently purchased a scope from Bill Fenimore at the Wild Bird Center! And, I might experiement with a little digiscoping in the coming months. Who knows, maybe some day I can stop stealing photos off the Internet!

Photo credits: International Crane Foundation

April 4, 2009

It's Business Time

Humans are complicated. At least the sexual part of us is. We have morals and phobias and self-esteem issues. Missed cues and misinterpreted words. Needy kids and late-night television. It's kind of amazing we actually manage to do it once in a while.

That's why I like seeing birds in spring. There's no guessing in the avian world. Take a look around, and you realize that all of them have sex on the brain. Tim and I drove by a pond of American avocets the other day, and I turned to him and said: "Somebody's lookin' to get some." Once I clarified that I was referring to the birds, I explained that avocets are black and white most of the year but get a bright red streak down their necks during mating season. They look like hot and bothered teenagers after a makeout session.

As part of my springtime voyeurism, I went on a short field trip this weekend with Bill Fenimore of the Wild Bird Center in hopes of seeing the lovely sandhill crane do its famous mating dance. It didn't feel like spring, considering we were all shivering under three layers of clothing, but the birds at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve didn't seem to know the difference. Yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds were calling, American avocets were blushing, a meadowlark was singing, northern flickers were flashing, and the sandhill cranes were croaking.

Yes, I said croaking. But it's a very sexy croak. I'll let Bill Fenimore tell you a bit more about the trip:

While we didn't see the sandhill crane's actual mating dance, as Bill mentioned, we got some very good looks at the cranes--in the sky and on land. They really are cool, kooky birds, which is why an honest-to-goodness Your Bird of the Week featuring the sandhill is on its way.

Until then, thanks to Bill, Phil Douglass of the Utah Division of Wildlife (your gloves saved me!), and my fellow birders who braved the elements.

March 11, 2009

Flicker Got Your Tongue?

We're right in the middle of a Wii boxing tournament at work right now. (Go Cameron and Doug!) After seeing a pretty vicious bird picture on Twitter, though, I decided that people are going about their boxing strategy all wrong. Sure, punching your opponent in the solar plexus works. But you could really do some damage if you could manage somehow to grab...his tongue?

Check out this National Geographic action shot of two members of the woodpecker family squaring off, and you'll see what I mean. The Northern flicker (on the left) isn't afraid of playing dirty. I just hope the red-headed woodpecker (on the right) didn't damage his tongue too much. He needs it to lick bugs out from under dead bark.

Don't feel too bad for him, though. The redhead is known as a big bully in the woodpecker family, and he often catches grasshoppers and wedges them alive into wood crevices for a "fresh" snack later.

And you thought Wii boxing was brutal.

March 4, 2009

Wish They All Could Be California Gulls

Originally sent 03/10/08

We're hitting that time at work again, when it seems like everyone is getting sick. Flu, colds, strep, icky viruses--you want it, we've got it. It made me think of a Your Bird of the Week post that went out to just a few readers (over e-mail) at this time last year. Now that I have more than 3 people reading this stuff, I figured I may as well use it again...

First, my apologies to everyone who waited with bated breath for Your Bird of the Week. My time unfortunately was consumed when I was forced to run a department devastated by a mysterious, tuberculosis-like illness. Like all biblical plagues, it struck down the vile and sinful masses and spared the few among us who are good, innocent, and virtuous.

What does this have to do with the Bird of the Week, you ask? Well, my workplace plague had me thinking of a similar incident that struck Utah not so long ago. However, the unfortunate victims of that plague were saved not by Nyquil and daytime television; no, they were saved—in every sense of the word—by birds.

Ladies and gentleman, I am pleased to introduce Your Bird of the Week, the California Gull.

Fact: Utah’s official state bird is the California gull. Although it’s a little lame to give the special title of “Utah’s bird” to a species with another state in its name, we must give our most esteemed legislators the benefit of the doubt (if only in this instance).

Fact: Why? Well, early Mormon settlers in Utah in 1848 were horrified to discover a plague of their very own. Millions upon millions of "crickets" (actually a member of the katydid family) had descended upon their crops.

This lovely member of the katydid family is now known as the Mormon Cricket.

Fact: The cricket swarms weren't just really gross, they also were eating everything in sight and threatening the newly established Mormon population with starvation.

Fact (and maybe a little lore):
The settlers surely would have been defeated, if not for an unlikely hero—the California gull. I’ll let Orson Whitney’s firsthand account (taken from the State of Utah site) give you the gory details:

“When it seemed that nothing could stay the devastation, great flocks of gulls appeared, filling the air with their white wings and plaintive cries, and settled down upon the half-ruined fields...All day long they gorged themselves, and when full, disgorged and feasted again, the white gulls upon the black crickets, like hosts of heaven and hell contending, until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved.”

Fact: Host of heaven or not, the California gull today can be found at dumps, Wal-Mart parking lots, and sewer ponds throughout our great state, saving Utahns from all matters of detritus and bugs. Yep, they’re noisy and sometimes annoying, but they continue in their dirty service.

Fact: A “Sea Gull Monument,” featuring two bronze, sculptured gulls, was unveiled in 1913 and still stands in Salt Lake City's Temple Square today.

Fact: Gulls are notorious for having many different "looks" depending on their age and region. And, I ain’t going through all of them. But fully grown California gulls are medium-sized with a yellow bill that has a black ring near the tip and a red spot on the lower mandible. Their head and underparts are white and their back is dark gray. Their legs are a yellow-green.

Fact: California gulls nest in a scrape in the sand or dirt, sometimes lining the nest with vegetation, feathers, and bones. Both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Although we have a valid reason for picking the California gull as the Utah State Bird, I have yet to hear an explanation for our most esteemed legislators picking the Colorado Blue Spruce as the state tree. Quick—send an e-mail to Sen. Chris Buttars today! I'm sure he'll have an open mind on this subject.

This has been Your Bird of the Week.

All photos: Wikimedia Commons

March 2, 2009

Birding: An Introduction

Sorry, I know I've been playing a lot of videos lately, but I couldn't resist this one. Just know that a new post is coming soon!

In recent weeks, Conan O'Brien has been wrapping up his late night show with some of his "best-of" moments. One of the segments he played was this one, in which he was introduced to birding in Central Park. Sigh, I love me some geeky comedians. What will I do when I have to choose between Dave and Conan? (Not that I usually stay up late enough to pick either, but still.)

February 27, 2009

Here Fishy, Fishy

Wow, I'm getting a lot of cool videos by following people on Twitter. This one shows a kingfisher grabbing a minnow from a stream. You remember the kingfisher, right? I think our discussion about it included something about Brad Pitt in a River Runs Through It? Not following me? Oh well, it's a very cool bird that dives headfirst into lakes and streams to catch fish. One of my favorite birds, actually. And this video shows it from the perspective of the minnow. Enjoy!

Bird Strikes Fish In Water - Watch more Funny Videos

February 25, 2009

Spring cleaning

This video from Jeffrey Gordon was just posted on Birdchick today. It's a brown-headed nuthatch cleaning up its home for the breeding season. I've got to say, a nuthatch can make just about anything look adorable, including spring cleaning. (Except for the carrying stuff out in your mouth part.) As Jeffrey pointed out, we should all be grateful for hands and mops.

February 22, 2009

The envelope please...

While watching the Oscars tonight (with the requisite glass of champagne in hand), I decided it was time to hear from some of the "stars" of the birding world. Tipsy blogging...hmm, sounds like a good combination to me!

And the award for best supporting bird goes to: The Cattle Egret

"Oh, wow, I cannot believe this! I would like to thank the many water buffalo and cattle who allowed me to eat flies off their backs. What an honor! I'm glad I could keep you, the real stars of the story, tick-free. Sure, I'm sort of pretty. But I realize that I'm sort of a "poopy pastures" bird, while my cousin, the great egret, enjoys ocean views. No problem. This supporting award is everything I could hope for."

And the award for best costume goes to: The Painted Bunting

"I've always felt I was the most brilliantly colored bird in North America, but it's an honor to be recognized by this little awards show. Really! And, I'm glad the academy could look past the fact that I'm highly territorial, often fighting other males to the death. They realize that it takes work to look this beautiful. To all my fans--you sad, little brown birds--please know how much I love you. Really! Oh, and XOXO to my agent. Really!"

And the award for best score goes to: The Wood Thrush

"Who could imagine that a little, brown bird from the backwoods could make it big like this?! Thank you so much. I have a bit of an advantage here, of course, with a song box that allows me to sing two notes at a time. Now, I hate to get political, but I ask you join me in fighting against the horrific nest parasitism of cowbirds. We must take a stand before they kill the wood thrush's beautiful song. Wait! Please don't play me off! Ooh, um, I want to thank my parents, my siblings, everyone who supported me in the meadow where I grew up...oh dear, I know I'm forgetting people! This has gone on far too long, hasn't it?" [awkwardly walks off stage]

And the award for best foreign language bird goes to: The Green Woodpecker

Subtitles: "Merci, merci. I appreciate this opportunity to inform American citizens there are so many beautiful birds with lovely songs throughout the world. Sigh, none of you can understand me anyway, you uni-lingual buffoons. Your country could only hope to attain France's culture and beauty. You gorge on trash at McDonald's parking lots while I dine on delectable French ants. I cannot believe the cattle egret chose to move here. What? Another Die Hard sequel? Send the script to my vacation home in Orange County."

And, finally, the award for best bird goes to: The Yellow-headed Blackbird

"This award has been a long time in coming, believe me. First, let me thank my sponsor, the Your Bird of the Week blog. You've always supported me, even in the face of bigger and more pretentious birds. I'd also like to thank my eight wives and 30 children (at least this season), who are back in the marsh watching this. Make daddy proud and harass a few marsh wrens before you go to bed. I'll be home in Utah to celebrate with you soon!"

Well, I'm not Hugh Jackman, but I felt like a bit of a celebrity myself last week on the Birdchick blog. So, as your Birding Oscars host, I want to thank my husband, Tim, for his willingness to pretend to be interested with this geeky avian stuff. Now, we're off to the after-parties. Good night everyone! Kiss, kiss.

Was your favorite bird totally robbed? Nominate it in comments.

Photo credits

Cattle egret: Honolulu Star Bulletin
All other photos: Wikimedia Commons

February 18, 2009

Welcome Birdchick Readers!

I was excited and surprised to see my What Kind of Bird Are You quiz on Birdchick this morning. It's pretty cool that someone as awesome as Birdchick thought my quiz was fun. Anyway, welcome to my little blog. It's mostly basic facts for my non-birding friends, but we have a good time!

February 17, 2009

Little Dipper

For those of you who have sat in meetings with me, watching as I nervously break one pen lid (and necklace) after another, I bring you a bird that seems to share my issue with holding still. It's actually a bird with talents that would wow even you non-birding folks, but for some reason it was named for its odd habit of bobbing up and down.

Well, a coworker was lucky enough to see one of these avian nervous Nellies recently, and I decided it was time to give it its due on this blog. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you Your BOTW, the American dipper.

Fact: The American dipper is a chunky, dark gray songbird with short wings and tail and a large head. It has white eyelids that are quite obvious when it blinks.

Fact: The American dipper is named for its habit of dipping—basically bending its legs and bouncing its body up and down. Now whether this is a nervous tic like my pen tapping or necklace twisting, scientists really aren’t sure. But dippers do tend to dip more when disturbed, approached by humans, or even aroused.

Fact: Don’t be fooled by its anxious habits or monastic garb. The American dipper has extreme skills for a little songbird. It makes its life in rushing mountain streams, literally riding the rapids and walking along icy streambeds to find food.

Fact: Dippers can dive and swim under water by flapping their wings. They can even walk along the bottoms of streams using their long toes to grasp rocks.

Fact: I probably don’t have to tell you that mountain streams are cold (refreshingly cold, if you believe Coors commercials). But the American dipper is well-equipped to handle icy waters even in the winter with its thick coat of feathers (including a layer of down, much like that on ducks) and its ability to decrease blood flow to vital organs.

Fact: The American dipper has nasal flaps to help prevent water from entering its nostrils, large glands that produce its very own waterproofing oil, and strong eye muscles that help it see underwater. This is a great video to show you what the dipper does underwater. (It's professionally produced by National Geographic.) Twenty or 30 seconds should give you a good idea.

Fact: Just what is the American dipper seeking at the bottom of those icy streams? Mostly insects and insect larvae, and occasionally tiny fish and fish eggs.

Fact: Streams plays a major role even in the dipper’s sexual and nesting habits. They copulate on rocks in the middle of streams. And, according to The Birds of North America Online, one dipper couple was even observed having aerial sex a few meters above the stream, tumbling into the water, and continuing to copulate as they floated downstream. Is that an extreme bird or what?!

Fact: American dippers build nests of moss and grass right alongside streams, but they need places that aren’t threatened by flooding, are inaccessible to predation, and have some sort of horizontal support. The undersides of bridges are a popular spot.

Fact: Both parents usually feed the nestlings after they hatch. Within 16 days, nestlings can dive, swim, and pull themselves out of the water.

Fact: Perhaps in an attempt to utilize limited resources, parents will sometimes split up, each taking half of the nestlings to establish their own territory. No weekend visitations, here. Once territories are established, the once happy family will rarely cross any unmarked borders.

Fact: I’ve gone on too long about the American dipper (because it's so cool). But, if you’ve read all the way to the end, congratulations!

This has been Your BOTW!

February 3, 2009

What Happens on the Way to Wendover...

Tim and I drove to Wendover this weekend to bet on the big game. And, as usual, I lost all my money. I did win one decent bet, though, when I took a tip from a drunk guy in the sports book and placed $20 on the Cardinals scoring more than 20 points. Thanks, drunk dude, whoever you are. The $18.75 I made on that bet helped me play slots for about five minutes.

I am considerably unlucky when it comes to gambling, but I counted myself a lucky birder on the drive to Wendover when I saw a very cool bird at 80 mph. (I was the one going 80 mph, just so we’re clear.) The bird was heading east along the side of the freeway as we were traveling west. It was a hawk, and I’m usually not so great at identifying those. But this hawk was different. Even while passing it at 80 mph, the way it was flying—and where it was flying—were pretty big clues. And then, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw its very distinctive rear end and knew—it was Your BOTW, the Northern harrier.

Fact: The Northern harrier is a medium-sized hawk with long wings and a long tail and a bright, white rump. (So bright and white, you could see it in a rearview mirror on the freeway.) Now, we need to get into coloring at this point, but that brings me to one of the reasons harriers are unique…
Fact: The Northern harrier is one of the few hawks in which the sexes look very different. They share similar body shapes and that distinct white rump, but the male has a light gray back and hood while the female is a dark, mottled brown. The female is also considerably bigger. This great photo I found on Flickr shows just how different they look. The male, which is sometimes referred to as the "gray ghost," is in the front. (We passed a male, if you were wondering. You totally weren’t though, huh?)

Photo credit: Bob Lewis

Fact: If you get a chance to see a Northern harrier for longer than three seconds, you’ll notice it has stiff feathers around its face known as facial disks (making its head look much like an owl). These facial disks help it listen for prey in fields and undergrowth. (Most hawks just hunt by sight.)
Fact: Now, if a bird uses hearing to help locate prey, you know it’s not going to be 100 or 200 feet in the air while it’s hunting. (This was my first clue in identifying my Wendover bird.) The Northern harrier flies extremely low to the ground, often over fields and marshes, in a very distinct, slow glide, occasionally wheeling sharply. It will even hover before pouncing on prey. This video captures its beautiful flight very well, so please forgive the music. (Most videos out on YouTube and elsewhere could barely keep up with these birds. Please be patient if this takes a while to load.)

Fact: The Northern harrier mostly hunts rodents, like field mice and voles, but it is also known to take small songbirds and waterfowl.
Fact: A duck is a lot bigger than a field mouse, obviously, so harriers sometimes deal with the size issue by drowning a duck before taking it.
Fact: The Northern harrier is often a polygynous breeder, with up to five or six females breeding with a single male. (Another fact that makes harriers unique among hawks.)
Fact: The male Northern harrier will attempt to take care of his entire harem throughout the egg laying and incubation process, bringing food to all of the females and their young after hatching. Fortunately for him, female Northern harriers in a single harem will generally nest close to each other.
Fact: The male Northern harrier attracts his mate or mates by performing an elaborate sky-dancing display. He will also often give the female a gift of food right before copulation.
Fact: The Northern harrier nests on the ground in tall, dense clumps of vegetation. It will defend its nest if you get too close by giving a high-pitched kek and/or diving at your head.
Fact: According to the Nevada Gaming Commission, the average slot machine payout last year was 94%. According to my calculations, the average payout for any slot machine I play is about 3%. According to common sense, the fact that I continue to gamble despite those odds is sort of stupid. According to my calendar, I plan to return to Wendover in early July.

This has been Your BOTW.

January 18, 2009

From the Goose's Mouth

The airplane that went down last week in the Hudson River has placed the lovely Canada goose in the national spotlight. And, as usual, it's not for good reasons. Usually it's about the species' skyrocketing population or their tendency to poop all over golf courses. Now, they're known for taking down airplanes, too.

While I can admit the Canada goose has some issues, I feel like it has been unfairly maligned in the press. That's why I was pleased to see that at least one news program gave it the chance to tell its side of the story. Please watch with an open mind.

January 12, 2009

Backstreet Bird

So, Your BOTW doesn't usually focus on pet birds. (Mostly because I don't know anything about them.) But Kelly, an oh-so-faithful reader, sent me a video clip I cannot resist. I've got a lot of friends who LOVE Backstreet Boys, and, apparently, so does this cockatoo named Snowy. This bird has way better rhythm than I do. (Not that that's hard.) Still, aren't birds cool?

Thanks, Kelly for the great video! And, Ashley, if this doesn't make you like birds, I don't know what will. Be sure to watch for a minute or two to really let Snowy and the Backstreet Boys get going.

January 9, 2009


I really don't have much to say about this bird news article, other than that, as a writer, I had to crack up at the headline. Some copy editor must really hate these "rare bird" new stories. What a bunch of geeks we are, clamoring to see some "dinky" bird.

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