Birding Big Year 2016

January 24, 2016

West of Eden – A Birder’s Path to Paradise

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 11:27 pm

Winter Birding for Red-breasted Nuthatches

The blitz is over; my birding buddies are gone; the vast majority of local winter birds have been listed; and now begins the arduous task of hunting the stragglers one by one.  I have my hit list.  I review it each morning and fantasize that today is the day to log a Cassin’s Finch, Bushtit, or Kinglet (Ruby or Golden – I’ll take either).  They come slowly.  First a Western Scrub-Jay appears at the home feeder – tick #65 on January 3…too easy.  A few days later, while hunting titmice off a snowy road in the Reserve, I hear what the Audubon App calls a guttural kraaaa.  Ahhhh, #66, Clark’s Nutcracker! And so it goes, day by day, habitat by habitat, I methodically “work the problem” of finding hidden species.

There is a risk, being so transparent with my findings.  The longer I am out of touch with my birding friends, the more suspicious I become of their malicious sandbagging, that is to report fewer birds for their year list, when in fact they are likely soaring past me in the count.  I’ve got to keep the edge. My employees sense the agitation, restlessness, single-minded obsession.  Right or wrong, I have assigned one of my temporary employees the collateral duty of looking out the visitor center window for any bird with red crown-feathers….hoping for a Cassin’s.  He is to buzz me immediately should that hue appear at the west-side feeders.  It doesn’t appear; he doesn’t buzz.

Furthermore, my employees instinctively know that a good evaluation hinges on this critical performance: if a visitor walks in and happens to mention the word bird, birder, birding, bird checklist, or the actual name of a bird, they are to press the red button behind the counter that immediately alerts me of the emergency.  Before the unsuspecting visitor can inhale, I am down a flight of stairs, front and center and asking, “So!  You a birder?”  Just such an incident occurred on Thursday, January 7.

Not a single visitor entered the City of Rocks Visitor Center that day, until just minutes before closing.  In walks Russell, a senior citizen, traveling alone across the country. He waits a few seconds patiently while I chat with Josh, a seasonal ranger who is in the final minutes of his term of service here.  Josh had asked me about which bird field guide he should buy.  When it comes to birds, my advice tends to be ridiculously thorough.

Our attention turns to Russell who is browsing the brochure rack.  “How can we help?”  As if entertaining angels unaware, I quickly discover that Russell is a birder and has traveled down our 50-mile, icy, dead-end road for two purposes: to get his National Parks passport stamped….and to look for a few life birds.  We talk well-past closing, and I give him some insider info on birding locales.  Russell is the perfect gentleman, he listens to me pontificate about where to find the good birds as if I were the resident expert, and he a novice birder looking for a mentor.  Something inside me decides to ask the all-important question, “what’s your life list these days?”  Russell sheepishly admits a number north of 600.  All the wind under my primaries are knocked out.  I am in the presence of greatness.

I happen to mention to Russell that I am headed east for birding tomorrow.  Russell is as well.  I reveal my need for Sharp-tailed Grouse, and he confesses that’s a lifer for him too.  I share with him a number of hotspots between City of Rocks and his Friday evening destination – Fossil Butte National Monument.  “Maybe I’ll see you at one of those places,” I say with honest enthusiasm.

Friday, January 8, I tuck the hit list into my Sibley’s Field Guide and slip off toward a secret canyon I recently read about on Facebook.  My birding expedition takes me the long way via the Narrows Road and across the vast Raft River Valley. North 81 out of Malta, I take Yale Road to a Chukar hotspot near an LDS Ward, but only Gray Partridge and Ring-necked Pheasants will play the game.  On to Lane’s Gulch and out to the Snake at Coldwater.  Nothing new, and no Bald Eagles along the Osborne Loop.

I had hoped to bird the American Falls dam before lunch, but when the stomach growls, not even a lifer can compete.  I push on to Pocatello and the only real sandwich in town – a Schlotzsky’s Original on sourdough.  With a mouth soured from salt and vinegar chips that even Dr. Pepper can’t cut, I return west I-86 for the purpose of this trip – Michaud Creek Road and Sharp-tails.

What are the odds?  Russell is parked just off the road in the last wide spot before entering the Michaud Creek drainage.  I pull up alongside, invite him to leave the RV parked, and join me for a jeep tour up the canyon.  Two sets of eyes are better than one, and he gladly accepts.  Our strategy plays out, I concentrate on the icy canyon drive, while Russell scours the willows.  Our first pass yields no birds, except a large flock of Wild Turkey grazing fallen seed from a resident feeder.  The drive back down….nothing.  We turn around and repeat.  Ebird and Facebook both list this as the Sharp-tail Grouse hotspot.  On the second trip up the creek, we periodically park and take a more aggressive approach known as the serendipitous flush.  The birds won’t reveal, and doubtful a birddog could do better. Fortunately the canyon offers us a parting gift – 30+ Redpolls anxious to be photographed.

Russell and I part ways, but not before promising to stay in touch for a potential meet in Texas this spring.  It seems both of us have plans to bird the Edwards Plateau when the Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos return.  I fully expect to drive over 2,ooo miles and find Russell holding a pair of binoculars on a warbler as I pull into the Kerr Wildlife Management Area.  The day ends with Hooded Mergansers below the American Falls Dam, and one lonely American White Pelican below Lake Walcott.

Sunday, January 17, I wrap up the sermon, usher the Albion congregation out the door and race up Mount Harrison for Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Red Crossbills.  Only the nuthatch is faithful.  The following day “I have a dream” that American Tree Sparrows are waiting east of Almo.  I celebrate MLK along the Narrows Road with #76 Harris’s Sparrow.  January 20, a half day in Hagerman yields nothing new, but a return to the Twin Falls area the following day proves unforgettable.

Genesis records that after the fall of man, the Lord God drove Adam out of the garden, east of Eden.  He placed a cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life.  Paradise lost.  As if guided by the Spirit, I find myself exiting I-84 to bird the backroads of Hazelton and Eden.  Tonight I speak to the Loasa Chapter of the Native Plant Society, but this afternoon, I am hunting Merlin, my nemesis bird.  Indeed, east of Eden the tree of life is bare.  Hazelton is unproductive.  From there, Hwy 25 proceeds west to Eden. Kestrels perch on power lines like imps of confusion, masquerading as angels of light.  And then suddenly, west of Eden, I find the secret portal to paradise. A slightly larger falcon dives from a pole and flies toward the setting sun.  Size can be deceiving, but there is something about this bird that differs.  I pull over and watch him fly for a quarter mile into an ancient grove.  Minutes later, I am parked below the tree of life, watching with amazement as #77  Merlin – my third sighting ever – rocks back and forth in the winter wind. A birder’s paradise found….west of Eden.

Winter continues undeterred, and the path of life for a snow birder is one of perseverance and hope. The first birds of spring are still three weeks away.

January 15, 2016

If Jim Sage was a Birder

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 6:00 pm

The Jim Sage Mountains under a Birder’s Sky

One of the benefits of living in a state with over a hundred mountains is that some go almost completely unnoticed, unvisited, and unappreciated.  I prefer my mountains to be forgotten by the world, completely neglected, and unexplored.  There are three mountain ranges easily within view of my office in downtown Almo (an unincorporated village of about 120 souls spread out over 120 square miles).  All three to some degree meet my criteria.


The Albion Range to my left (west) rises 10,339-feet and boasts Cache Peak as the highest mountain in Idaho south of the Snake River.  But with so many mountains in the state higher than 10,000 feet, that distinction fails to impress.  The Albions are nowhere near as dramatic as the Sawtooths, or as well known as the Boulders, White Clouds, Salmon River Mountains, or Lost River Range, the latter of which contains Idaho’s highpoint, Mount Borah, at 12,668.  But the Albions do attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the City of Rocks on the south end, and to Mount Harrison on the north end with its Pomerelle ski slopes and the scenic cirque (du soleil) called Lake Cleveland.

To the south of my office, stands the Raft River Mountains – a range as secret as the polygamous families that once lived in its winter shadow.  The Raft Rivers run east and west as only a handful of ranges do, such as the Unitas in Utah and the Ouachitas in Arkansas.  Like Cache Peak to the north, the Raft River Range was named by fur trappers. I have only summited this range once in the nearly 18 years that I have gazed upon it.

It is the range to the east that strangely draws my heart – Jim Sage.  Unlike most mountain ranges, the Jim Sage are not overlaid with a National Forest or even a wilderness designation.  Most of the range is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and there are no developed recreation areas or even advertised access points. I am still discovering routes to its secret precipices.  According to Almo historian Janice, Jim Sage was a bachelor who lived near the mouth of the canyon also called by his name.  The 1880 census records him as being 50 years old and originally from Arkansas, my adopted home state.  Janice also informs me that near the end of his life, he lived at the base of Castle Rock.  A small headstone in Sunny Cedar Rest marks the final resting place of old Jim.

I first attempted a solo traverse of the 12-mile Jim Sage crest on April 12, 1996.  My eagerness was rebuffed by a late season winter storm.  After a frigid night, huddled alone on the massif and waking to fresh snow over my tent, I bailed off the mountain early the next morning and hitch-hiked back to Almo.  My second ascent occurred on May 16-17, 1997.  Thanks to the synergy of hiking comrade Dale, we succeeded in traversing the crest in two easy days.  The third and most recent attempt (May 26, 2012) included hiking companions Trace, Alice, and Joyce – all seasoned mountaineers.  Unfortunately, a freak storm moved in and buried us all day in heavy rains and impenetrable fog.  After wandering around in cloudy circles, lost in the steep west-facing canyons, we admitted defeat.

Most of my forays into the Jim Sage these days have been up the southern-facing Jim Sage Canyon, not to summit, but to seek out the mountain’s birds. And there be good birds! Black-throated Gray Warblers, Gray Flycatchers, Plumbeous Vireos, Western Scrub-Jays, Bushtits, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Rock Wrens, nesting Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, and many more.  I visit the canyon often in summer, hoping to find another location in Idaho for the geographically restricted Scott’s Oriole.  This bird invades Idaho for a few summer months each year to breed in the cedar hills west of Stone.

Today, January 2, 2016, the Jim Sage Mountains are the central hub of yet another Christmas Bird Count and another full day of birding.  Its 6:55 a.m., minus nine degrees, and very dark, and yet three vehicles are already in the visitor center parking lot, waiting for me to unlock the building and get the bird count organized.  By 7:15 a.m. all parties are assembled: Kathy, Sharon, and Rich from the Trapper Creek count earlier in the week have joined me, as well as Rob and Cindy who birded with my yesterday in Hagerman.  Melody, who we ran into yesterday while giving her car a jump in Hagerman, is also here.  Dick from the Boise area, who birded with me on last year’s count, is offering his vehicle for the carpool, and two retired fellows from the Twin Falls area also volunteer to drive.  Ten birders, three vehicles, two scopes and binoculars all around, we head out to look for the Short-eared Owls I encountered yesterday.  I hop in the vehicle with Bob and John – admittedly, two amateurs who read about the count in the Times-News, and decided it is never too late to learn the birds.

We strike out on the owls, and patrol the Narrows Road up and back for the first birds at first light.  The darkness and lack of birds allows Bob and I to get to know each other.  His friend John sits quietly in the back.  Like Joseph yesterday, Bob drills me with great questions about birding in general, and identification techniques for the hard groups of birds – like sparrows, or buteos.  When talk turns to weather, a conversation is likely to die a quick death; but when bird surveys and science are the topic, you can bet things will get animated.  Before I know it, Bob is sneaking in questions about global warming and Tea Party politics.  He admits that Ted Cruz is way too liberal for him, and I am left wondering where the conversation could possibly go from here.  Fortunately, it is all good natured, and I remain in their good graces once they realize I am a state employee and not federal.  Birds transcend politics, religion, and even weather.

Talk returns to birds, as well it should – we have magpies and ravens to count!  The vehicles take turns leading the other two, and periodically, we all stop and exit the vehicle to bird the brush or to scope a perching bird a quarter-mile away.  Our scoping techniques yield kingfisher, bald eagle, and a handful of mallards on an unfrozen hole in the Raft River ice.

Heading east on the Narrow’s Road, we agree to a new strategy.  Six of us walk ahead along the road, and the vehicles follow about 30 yards behind.  Brilliant idea Wallace….I breath to myself.  Quickly we flush a Spotted Towhee, and then three more.  Towhee’s are thick in these parts from Spring to Fall, but very few overwinter here.  The big lens comes out, and I click off a few close-ups of Big Year Bird #58. Down the road another mile, we repeat the process below the volcanic cliffs. We hope to see Barn Owls here, but after checking the usual alcoves, none appear.

“Check again,” Kathy calmly chides.  There’s a Barn owl in there.  “No,” I reply.  “I checked several times.  You are confusing the white-wash from last year’s nest as this year’s bird.”  Kathy, steady as a golden eagle on her nest, repeats, “check again, that’s an owl.”  I launch into a series of “I’ll eat my hat if,” or “I’ll buy lunch if that’s an owl.”  Rob takes a side and ups the ante.  “That’s not only a bird, that’s two!”  Out comes the scope and Melody gives steady aim.  Seconds later I am eating crow and choking down bits of hat.  On the plus side, I get to add Big Year Bird #59.

A quarter mile down the road, we give chase to #60 Prairie Falcon, and then scour the reeds and brambles of the Stanrod Road crossing of the Raft River to find #61 Black-capped Chickadee.  Three miles later we run into the largest flock of the day, an estimated 700 Red-winged Blackbirds (#61).  Just beyond, we stopped to scope out a pond fed by thermal springs.  Every year it produces 2-3 species of waterfowl.  Just before the tripods are set, I perform a quick scan of a pool near the pond that appears to contain one American (aka Skinny) Dipper splashing in the rising steam. “Uh, put your scopes away.  Nothing to see here folks.”  This is just the kind of incident that gives birders a bad name.  Fortunately, just outside of Malta, we find all the ducks and geese we want – in fact too many to count.

For the past few years, our birding teams would plan a 30-minute break at the Cattleman’s Restaurant for hot cocoa, pie, and compiling.  This year we find it closed and relocate to Bake Central for turkey sandwiches (since domestic birds don’t count on the survey).  Kathy, Sharon, Melody and I go over the numbers.  As usual mine are too conservative.  Apparently we’ve seen a lot more magpies and ravens than I have recorded.

The second half of the day is always shorter than the first, according to my fuzzy math.  We hit a few more trusty birding hotspots, before the journey takes us south again around the west side of Jim Sage.  Before leaving the wide valley of Malta, we add one Ferruginous Hawk and yet another Prairie Flacon.  Conner Junction gives us the gift of 14 Pinyon Jays, and the Elba Cemetery produces an explosion of half-buried Gray Partridge. By 4 p.m. we are back to the visitor center and posing for a group photo.

My eyes are shot from eight hours of squinting into glass, but I am able to tally 39 species for the day, seven new birds for the Big Year, and a total body count of 1,986.  All we really did was circumnavigate the mountain in vehicles.  I can’t help but wonder at all the species we might have seen up the mountain on foot.  If Jim Sage was a birder, he would have stepped out of his 1880 cabin on a cold winter day and flush a Greater Sage Grouse.  Ole Jim would have enjoyed a Juniper Titmouse disrupting the silence with his incessant picking at an old pine nut. He would have savored a pair of noisy scrub-jays hurrying up the canyon for no particular reason.  If Jim Sage was a birder, he’d likely ask me kindly to put down my pen, stop for a minute and just be in the moment.  Jim Sage would never win a Big Year…if he was a birder.

January 10, 2016

Binge Birding (Part 2) – The Big Year begins with a Big Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 9:48 pm
0198 - Barrow's Goldeneye1

Barrow’s Goldeneye

It all comes down to this. After months of talking a good game, scheming, and dreaming, the Big Year is here.  Every birder knows, A Big Year begins with a Big Day.  I have to set the pace and let everyone know that I am serious, especially myself.  I will list 300 species of birds this year, and at least 50 of those will be this day, January 1, 2016.

4:00 a.m.  The Champaign bubbles are playing racquetball in my head.  What was I thinking?  For the past few years, I have gone to bed long before the giant potato dropped in Boise; but somehow Susan talked me into staying up past midnight.  I ease into the morning, make coffee, check Facebook, slurp down a bowl of Corn Chex, then stumble into the shower for a proper wake-up.

5:55 a.m., the Jeep is loaded, extra snacks are packed.  Susan gives me that “Go get ’em” look.  It’s time.  Somewhere under these four layers of clothing is a sweating, courageous heart ready to face the dark, the minus seven degrees, 300 miles of driving, and 12 hours of binge birding.

6:00 a.m. Bird up! Great Horned Owl.  Check! I am off and running.  (Note to the non-birder: No, I do not have to see the bird to count it if I can properly identify it by call or song and have seen the bird at least once in my life.  No, I do not have to photograph the bird to prove I saw it.  Yes, the Big Year is a competition that relies completely on the honor system.  Since I am competing against myself, there would be no point in getting up at 4:00 a.m. just to cheat).

7:20 a.m., driving around the Almo Valley in the frigid dark for 80 minutes would have been miserable if not for the frequent Facebook notifications from friends, wishing me Godspeed.  At this speed, I’ll be lucky to list nine birds.  But then there is movement in the Darn (my invented term for that period between Dark and Dawn where you can see just enough to be frustrated that you can’t see a darn thing).  There is something perched on a fence post 15 yards from me.  I roll down the window, cut the engine and wait for another 5% sunrise.

The bird on the post is hawk-size, so I patiently expect to be listing a Red-tailed or Rough-legged Hawk within minutes.  Just beyond the perched bird are two similar-sized avians airborne in moth-like flight.  I decide to test a theory and cue up the Audubon call on my cell phone app for Short-eared Owl.  Bingo! The birds in flight turn and rush right toward me.  Yikes!  Right toward me!  The first flies within inches of my jeep window, veering off at the last second.  The blood is pumping now, and the dawn is breaking.

Over the next hour, all the usual suspects make the list – raven, magpie, harrier, those previously mentioned buteos, a starling, and a robin.  Before leaving the valley for the unfrozen pastures and open water of the Snake River Plain, I list 22 species, including Northern Shrike, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and White-breasted Nuthatch.  Its time to bird my way through Elba, Albion, and Declo to pick up Joseph, a Burley High School senior whom I have agreed to mentor into the addiction.

Joseph and I met during the City of Rocks Big Day Birding Blitz last June. Even then Joseph was discipling his own flock of would-be birders.  For his senior project, he is planning to teach a birding class this spring.  His life list is already significantly past the century mark, a feat I did not reach until after college.  I am afraid the only thing I might teach him is that this is what your brain looks like on birds – after a 30-year binge that is.  Perhaps I can scare him straight, and to reconsider a milder form of the vice such as bird “watching.”

The drive through town is productive, finally listing House Sparrow, Great-tailed Grackle, and American Crow.  We drive out to Lake Walcott and quickly add another ten birds, including a Barrow’s Goldeneye, a duck that is far less common than the aptly-named Common Goldeneye.  I shout to Joseph, “Did you see that Barrow’s?  “No, just the Common,” he says.  I saw the key field marks.  I am going back to attempt a photo.  Joseph gives it another look as well and agrees.

There is no time to look for song birds in the large hardwood trees that make Lake Walcott State Park an oasis in the desert.  We’re headed to Hagerman for the motherlode.  Hagerman is the ultimate winter birding destination in southern Idaho.  The mostly unfrozen waters of the mid-Snake are a waterfowl magnet, and waterfowl attract Bald Eagles.  Joseph makes good use of the 45-minute interstate drive by peppering me with questions about birding, identification techniques, and a dozen others that I never thought to ask at his age.

Before Hagerman, I must stop in Twin to pick up two other birders – Rob and Cindy, who are also doing a Big Year.  In fact, this is Rob’s third Big Year (at least), and he has come up through the ranks of birding faster than anyone else I know.  Rob is resolute, well-traveled, and well-funded; therefore, he is dangerous competition.  The bug has also bitten his wife, and now the two make quite the dynamic duo.  In birding, it is important to keep your friends close, and your competitors even closer.

By 3 p.m. we reach the Hagerman stretch of the Snake, and begin listing birds so fast that the ink lags behind the stroke. Coot, Bufflehead, three species of Grebe, and ducks galore.  A California Quail calls from the scrub a hundred yards behind us, and Tundra Swans cruise the Bell Rapids impoundment.  Ruddy, Ring-necked, and Redhead….Canvasback, Cormorant, and Common Goldeneye…. Within the hour we have easily added 18 birds.  Four sharp birders can make short work of the task.

As the sunrays hit us sideways and the temperature takes a dive, we proceed to the final stop, the famous Eagle Tree of Hagerman (although technically, the locally popular eagle roost is only slightly closer to Hagerman than Buhl).  Neither Joseph nor Cindy have seen the roosting tree that can sometimes hold over 50 Bald Eagles.  Rob and I talk up the locale for several miles, but the high praise is unwarranted tonight.  Only a handful of eagles are seen.  Near Box Spring Canyon, Rob, who is half buried in the backseat of the Jeep, hollers “Pheasant!” All three of my companions see it, but my eyes are fixed on the distant road ahead.  Quickly, I turn the jeep around and watch the pheasant run across the road – Bird #56!

The lack of food (or perhaps I should be more clear – the lack of healthy food) is calling in the chips on my stamina.  It’s getting “Duck” (that period between Dusk and Dark where you can see just enough to be frustrated that you can’t see much). My functionality is quickly waning, and I still have a two-hour drive home.  A pair of Mourning Doves cling to the frozen power line alongside one of Jerome County’s magnificent dairies.  That does it, Bird #57, I am calling that the last bird of a respectable Big Day.

The shuttle stops in Twin and Burley.  My birding buds and I will be at it again in less than 13 hours.  The Jim Sage Mountain Christmas Bird Count starts at 7 a.m. in Almo, and they have agreed to help with the census. Somewhere on the drive south of Burley, my salty fingers fumble with extra large fries and cell phone.  “Hey Susan, I’m headed home…..I couldn’t possibly list another bird…..I’m stuffed.” “Take your time,” she says. “I’m still watching season 4 of Downton Abbey on Amazon Prime.”  Apparently we all have our secret little binges, but I’m not one to judge.


December 27, 2015

Corvids are so Raven

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 5:03 pm
1346 Common Raven38

Common Ravens

In the Disney sitcom That’s so Raven, teenager Raven Baxter can see the future. Raven draws on her psychic powers, ingenuity, and talent to get into and out of amusing situations. Sounds like the Corvids I know.  (Corvid – short for Corvidae, the taxonomic family of birds that includes jays, magpies, crows, nutcrackers, and ravens). Corvids are considered to be the smartest of birds and among the most intelligent of all living creatures.  They use tools, are reportedly “self-aware,” and their brain to body mass ratio is off the charts.  Don’t be calling them bird-brained, unless you hold them in the highest regard.


I have great respect for ravens.  On the absolute worst weather day and most extreme condition, I can always find a Common Raven playing in the wind, laughing at lesser birds.  Watch them for a minute.  They are not hunting, they are not trying to get from here to there.  They are more whimsical than expedient. Ravens ply the wind like a child sails a kite or skates on ice. Perhaps it was precisely this characteristic that led Noah to opened the window of the ark and send forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. …And he no doubt had a wonderful time doing it.  But unless I portray the Raven as mere devil-may-care, I admit, I am respectful if not fearful of ravens.

The Hebrew proverb warns, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley…” No doubt Hitchcock borrowed and expounded upon that fear with raven’s diminutive cousin, (the equally sinister crow) in the 1963 cinematic thriller.  Who can forget the image of crows amassed and attacking children at the playground in The Birds?  Quoth the raven nevermore? But I simply must! Could Poe have picked a more perfect creature for that eerie and dark poem? “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’  Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’  Dan Fogelberg the balladeer  picks up where his fellow artists left off.  He portrays a succubus as the darkest of Corvids:

I see the raven’s made
Her nest in your eyes
She’s got you thinking that
Her love is a prize
And you’ll go under from
The weight of her lies
As the raven flies

Corvids do not only portray harbingers of death and messengers of judgement, but also servants of life.  While mankind may depict the raven as dark and devious; The Creator paints him differently, thus he retains my respect.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Not only does He feed them, but he once commanded them to feed a man given psychic power. God directed the prophet Elijah,  Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.  You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”  So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. … And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening…”

My Pinyon Jays are back.  Their seed-filled beaks hammering against the deck rails are keeping rhythm with my fingers on the keyboard.  They split the sunflower shells on impact.  More than a dozen are fast at work, and the sound is loud, annoying, if not haunting.  And yet I have adopted them, and to a large extent am lonely without them.  These jays, like crows and magpies are very gregarious; whereas my scrub jays prefer the company of no more than two or three.  Ravens will on occasion gather in groups, but like the scrub jay seem most content alone or with few.  All are extroverts compared to most passerines.

Last week I stood in the heart of the snow-piled City of Rocks – not another human in sight, nor a sound to my ear save one: a raven’s laugh. On similar junctures the voice was that of my favorite Corvid the Clark’s Nutcracker.  Almost exclusively his cranky call is heard at 6,000 feet sea level or higher.  The higher the better.  He is my companion of the mountain.  My Pinyon Jays and scrub jays prefer the lower altitudes, so that I am never deprived of the family.  Ravens have no preference or mortal allegiance, they are omnipresent and it would seem omniscient.  They know where they are to be and when, as if the Master shares His secrets and then bids them go.

The Big Year is but four days hence.  I know I can count on listing within the first hour of daylight the Black-billed Magpie and Common Raven.  I am reasonably assured of checking off the American Crow, Western Scrub Jay and Pinyon Jay.  Should I be so blessed by the Master of the birds, I pray He sends me a Clark’s Nutcracker.  That would be the ultimate Corvidae (pun intended), or as the kids say, that would be so raven’.

December 24, 2015

Now There’s a Good Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 8:50 pm
Good Bad Bird

One of these is a good bird

Standing at the large picture window of the Old Cahoon house, I peer through the inch-thick glass, looking for a good bird.  The circa 1912, two-story brick house (aka City of Rocks Visitor Center) provides the perfect hunting blind for up close birding and photography.  Outside, three separate feeders are strategically positioned for maximum visitation.  At the moment, at least 75 birds have settled in for a meal.  To date, nearly a dozen species have discovered the sunflower seed buffet, spread daily thanks to the generous donations of park patrons.  Unfortunately, the majority of these feathered friends fail to qualify as a “good bird.”

Before I am accused of making value judgements regarding birds, let me just come right out and confess it.  There are good birds, and there are, well, birds of a lesser assessment.  It’s not their fault really, and the reasons date back to creation itself. For God created some things for noble purposes and some for ignoble, and this is the right of the creator.  Who is man to question his purposes? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  Did not the creator declare to the children of Israel that some birds were “clean” and could be eaten, but others like the vulture, raven, and cormorant were “unclean” and to be left untouched and despised?” Was not the dove a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the eagle a representation of strength and honor? On the other hand, have you ever heard the coot being spoken of in a positive light?

I know a good bird when I see one. Dark-eyed Juncos are ok, but there are just too many of them at the feeders.  The beloved male goldfinch is a good bird in full spring plumage, but in the dead of winter – not so much. House Sparrows, seriously? No.  I’ll take a House Finch sighting, only because they force me to discern the subtleties that differentiate the Cassin’s Finch.  A Ring-necked Pheasant dropped in a few days ago.  But what is considered a good bird on Tuesday, might not be so the rest of the year.  Pheasants are colorful and all, but they’re an introduced species from Eurasia (note upturned nose here). Three Eurasian Collared-Doves land near the northernmost feeder, scaring the crap out of the juncos…literally.  This dove species arrived to the Almo Valley about 2004.  I wonder if their ancestors were neighbors with the pheasants.

Twenty-five years ago I was an interpretive naturalist at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas.  As a pious birder there, I did my best to proselytize the field-tripping school children to embrace the religion of birding.  I recall one hike where we all had a close-up encounter with a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring just above us.  “Look!” I exclaimed and pointed like all rangers are trained to do.  Some looked, some shuffled their feet, and one raised his imaginary twelve gauge and pumped two rounds into him.  Horrified, I chastised the boy – “That bird is federally protected!  You can’t do that!”  He nonchalantly replies, “My dad say’s they kill our chickens. What good is a chicken hawk anyway?”

Despite what some snot-nosed kid in Arkansas thinks, Red-tailed Hawks are “good” birds. Take my word for it.  And so is this Harris’s Sparrow that just crawled out from beneath a giant, undisciplined rosebush at the corner of the parking lot!  This species is most often at home on the east side of the Rockies, in the Great American Desert to be exact. The past three years it seems one (and only one) pays the park a visit. I will have to post the big news on Facebook later.  Just over 4,000 people follow the City of Rocks Facebook page, and I know at least a handful of them will be as excited as I.

So you might be wondering, how can I tell a good bird from a bad one.  It’s easier than sexing a chicken.  First you eliminate all of the bad ones: too ubiquitous, non-native, annoying call, ugly, drab plumage, occurs over all of North America in every habitat…need I go on?  Then, considering what is left, you have the good birds: colorful, few in number, hard to find, has a great song like “Quick three beers!” “Drink your tea,” or Jose Maria.”  Of course the absolute best birds are the ones not yet on my life list.  The funny thing is, however, when preparing for a Big Year, even a trash bird is loved the first time he is observed.  I’ll be counting on these Eurasian Collared-Doves to be right here on January 1st.

A Facebook friend recently asserted that there is no such thing as a bad bird, only a bad birder.  He must be one of those guys who likes to watch House Sparrows.  Clearly he is not one of the faithful. But I think I could convert him by the end of a Big Year.  Oh look!  Downy Woodpecker!  He just flew into the base of that Siberian Elm.  Now there’s a good bird!

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