Whether it’s bitter winter weather or just an overly rainy day, you can’t always be outside. I can’t, anyway. My body doesn’t deal with cold well, but I don’t like withdrawing from nature, either. So I find ways to keep birding even though I can’t be outside as much as I would like.
1) Keep a yard list. We have feeders in our yard so I can watch birds by looking out my window. A surprising variety of birds (39 species) visit our suburban yard, and I wouldn’t have realized it if I hadn’t taken the time to really look. Some of the more surprising birds that I’ve seen in our yard: green-tailed towhee, Steller’s jay, great horned owl and common nighthawk. Even on the days that it’s just the usual crowd (house finches, goldfinches, chickadees, and robins), I take the time to look closely. You never know when someone interesting is hiding in the flock.
2) Use eBird to identify local hot spots. While I am waiting for better weather, I try to find new places to bird. The eBird website is a great resource for finding hot spots and for locating rare birds in the area. Thanks to eBird and other online resources, I’ve seen a Harris’s hawk, greater white-fronted geese, and a black-and-white warbler this winter. I’ve gone looking for common redpolls and loons without success, but saw lots of other birds in the process.
3) Study up. I belong to several Facebook birding groups, including Raptor ID and the Colorado Bird Photography group. Both are teaching me how to identify species I see irregularly or have never seen at all by providing photos and talking about field marks. I look at the photos and guess at the species, then look to see what the photographer says. Sometimes the photographer has the ID wrong, so any time I am uncertain, I get out my field guide for help.
4) Study up some more. Being able to recognize a bird’s song can help you identify it as well as locate it, so I am using Larkwire to learn more bird songs. This is an online game that makes memorizing different bird songs more fun. It also includes beautiful photos of each bird which helps you learn their appearance as well as their sounds.
5) Research birding vacation destinations. When it’s too cold to watch birds, I read about them. I just finished Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Borders, and his stories about birding all over the world are guaranteed to get you excited about traveling to see new birds. I also love Bird Watcher’s Digest which includes articles about domestic and international birding hotspots.
This winter, we’ve had an unusual visitor to northeastern Colorado: a Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus). Normally a resident of southernmost Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, this chocolate-brown and chestnut-red hawk is far from home. Back in December, a friend told me about this vagrant* after the hawk had been reliably sighted roosting in trees belonging to a recycling center adjacent to a local natural area. Having only seen Harris’s hawks in captivity, I was eager to see one in the wild so I could add it to my life list.
It took me four separate trips to the natural area in order to spot the hawk. When Guy Turenne, photographer, said the same thing (“four visits before I saw him”), I jokingly named the bird “Four Visit Harry.” That is how I think of him, even though I don’t know whether the bird is male or female.
My weekend trips to see Harry were both several hours long, and I met lots of friendly birders who like me did not get to see him then. I made a mid-day stop at the natural area on a weekday and had the place to myself. Again, I failed to see Harry, but was encouraged by several false alarms. The first was a dark shape in one of the trees others identified as a favorite perch for the hawk. I saw it a few minutes after arriving and thought “gotcha!” only I was wrong. As I got closer, the “bird” climbed down the branch, morphing into a squirrel. As I walked the trail, I spotted red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) overhead, but they didn’t fool me for long.
On the way back, I again got a “That’s it!” shock when a hawk with white on the tail erupted out of the grass ahead of me. Fortunately, I got a really good look at it, even though there was a tree between us most of the time, and I realized at once it was missing the other key markings — the nearly dark brown back with red-brown wing patches. So I knew I was looking at a juvenile northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) and not a Harris’s hawk within a few minutes. Still, I found it exciting rather than disappointing. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a harrier. I had to go home for lunch and thought: This is a great day for hawks. So I ran some Christmas errands, then went back to the natural area for the fourth time.
After scanning the big patch of trees in the recycling area and seeing nothing, I took the trail that ran behind the center. There, I met two young men with binoculars and a spotting scope. For the first time, my question (“Have you seen the Harris’s?”) was met with a yes. They pointed back to the trees I had just scanned and then I saw it, a dark blob with red-brown wing patches, sitting lower in the trees than I had originally looked. It flew off only a few minutes later, so I had only just caught it. The birders asked me if it was a lifer (if I would count this as my first Harris’s hawk for the list of all the bird species I’ve seen in my life). I was excited to be able to say it was. What I didn’t realize is not everyone would agree with me about that.
A bird like this Harris’s hawk is often referred to as “vagrant” or “accidental.” Usually, birds far from home get lost during migration, blown off course by a storm, or losing their way because they are inexperienced or sick. But Harris’s hawks don’t migrate. They are considered permanent residents of their range, so any individual very far outside that range is hard to explain. In fact, National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America is rather adamant that a Harris’s hawk out of its territory escaped from or was released by a falconer. Period.
After I read that, I realized my “lifer” was in jeopardy. The American Birding Association (ABA) has rules for keeping a life list, and one of those rules is that the bird you count can’t have been transported by humans to the place where you saw it. Understandably, they consider this an unnatural situation, even though the bird is flying free at the time of sighting. If Four Visit Harry is a falconer’s bird, then I can’t count him. But there’s no way for me to tell if he is or isn’t. And I confess I find myself miffed at the thought that someone who trained, maybe even raised, a hawk for falconry would release it nearly 700 miles from its natural habitat. Surely falconers are more responsible and ethical than that.
Harris’s hawks do not migrate, but they must disperse after fledging, which is the one time they might move into new territory. eBird maps show these hawks are being spotted much farther north in New Mexico and Texas then their historical range allows for, and I doubt all of these are lost falconry birds. There are even rare individuals who have been seen as far north as Montana.
I would rather think these out-of-range hawks are pioneers moving out into new territory, that Four Visit Harry is a maverick with wanderlust, rather than some falconer’s escaped bird. But I have no proof either way. Maybe he did hitch a ride here, but Harry is making a living on the prairie despite being away from home and without other hawks to help him hunt. (Harris’s hawks hunt in groups.) And my sighting of him (though it required some help from other birders) felt natural to me. Fortunately, I am not actually submitting my life list to the ABA. I am keeping it for my own pleasure. Considering our long and colorful history, I’ve decided that Four Visit Harry is a lifer.
*Vagrant is one of the terms birders use to describe birds far out of their recognized range. I prefer the term “maverick.”
The Swetsville Zoo in Timnath, CO is actually a sculpture garden showcasing the wild imagination of Bill Swets. Filled with creatures made from metal scraps including parts from cars, tractors, and motorcycles, this “zoo” includes dinosaurs, birds, insects, reptiles, dragons, even people and flowers. The two things all Swets’ creations have in common: they are all made from recycled materials and they all make you smile.
The first thing I saw when we arrived should have told me what was in store. I’m not sure if you have to keep your dinosaurs under 5 mph or you drive under 5 mph because of the dinosaurs. Either way, I was in.
There were LOTS of dinosaurs. This was one of my favorites (complete with a bird’s nest in its mouth):
There were quite a few dragons as well.
While I liked his ants and other smaller insects, his giant praying mantis was my favorite.
I found his birds charming, too.
Last but not least, here’s something that reminded me of the goblins from the movie Labyrinth (note the little driver in the mechanized monster’s open mouth):
All the articles I found online talk about the looming demise of this unusual garden. Big box stores have been built right next door and there are plans for more development in the near future. But the Swetsville Zoo is still open (no entry fee! Donations welcome) for your enjoyment and I am hoping it will last. Get there while you can.
Paper collage fascinates me. Most styles of quilting are a form of collage — putting together pieces of many different fabrics to build up a pattern or picture — but the limitations caused by the need to sew seams* keeps me from achieving the truly detailed results I want from my animal art. While looking at animal pieces by other art quilters, I stumbled across a paper-collage dog portrait and got curious. Here are the artists I discovered while surfing the web.
My favorite is Dawn Maciocia, who lives in Scotland. Her lively animal portraits balance realism with whimsy and her use of line suggests that she can draw quite well. Her subjects are mostly mammals and birds, with an emphasis on the wild. To get a sense of how complex and time-consuming her process is, check out this short video:
Laura Yager’s work is also whimsical, but much more in-your-face. She strives to make the world a better place with her “happy art” and her neon animals do the trick. Her strongly colored papers are also high in pattern making her work more like a quilt than any of the other artists listed here.
The work of Samuel Price is much more realistic, though his realism is noticeably pixellated. Using pieces of photographic images, he builds up a new photographic image with the fuzzy edges of a newspaper photo. His main subjects are dogs and horses.
Last, but definitely not least, is Elizabeth St. Hilaire. Her charming art work includes goats wearing blossoms, sheep highlighted with rainbow colors, and tiny birds perched on flower stems. She uses papers with both printed and hand-written text as well as painted and color papers to achieve her naturalistic animals.
Who did I miss? Let me know in the comments.
*I know I could be fusing (gluing) the fabric instead of sewing it, but that’s not really my thing.
In a world where everyone carries a camera everywhere they go, taking the time to stop and draw the natural world can seem like an old-fashioned and even pointless pastime. Snapping a picture takes a few seconds. Drawing takes a few minutes at least, and a lot longer in some cases. Besides, a drawing is less accurate than a photo and can’t capture all the information a photo can. So why bother to draw?
1) It forces us to slow down. This supposed drawback to drawing is actually one of the benefits. When I draw, I am in one spot longer than I would be if I just took a photo and moved on. As a result, I get to see more and learn more about the animals I watch. Because I spent nearly an hour sketching at a prairie dog town, I got to see a burrowing owl chase a prairie dog that got too close to its den. Similarly, I got to see barn swallows feed their chicks while I was drawing their nest.
2) It makes us really look at what is in front of us. On a hike, I sat down to draw a wildflower so I would be better able to identify it when I got home. Shortly after I started, I realized what I thought was eight petals was really four large overlapping lobed petals. I would never have been able to identify this evening primrose if I hadn’t taken the time to draw it.
3) It increases our appreciation of the natural world. In our day-to-day observations of plants and animals, we tend to gloss things over. We see a bird, think “That’s a robin” and we’re done. In fact, birds vary from one another as much as humans do, as I discovered when I was painting the barn swallows that grew up on our porch this summer. Every time I draw the horse skull I own, I am in awe of the amount of detail and complexity in the bony part of a horse’s head. Nearly every drawing of nature I do leads me to a greater appreciation of the wonder all around me.
4) It helps us to be in the moment and to remember what we saw and heard. Flipping through my sketch books, I remember vividly where and when I made a drawing, other things that went on around me, the individual animals I drew, even the people I was with. When we draw, we can look like we are removed from our surroundings, but it makes us aware in a special way, one we can appreciate when we look at our drawings later.
5) It is a great opportunity to improve our drawing skills. I have drawn cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens for the first time in my life this year. My brain thinks it knows what these animals look like, but it is wrong. Seriously wrong. This is the essence of drawing from life: getting past our know-it-all brains, connecting our hand movements directly to what our eyes see. Taking the time to draw the world around us gives us more practice developing these skills.
There is a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) nest right outside our front door, on top of the porch light. We had swallows last year, too. I would hear their chittering song through the open window, but I didn’t really watch them. This year, I was ready to try nature journaling. I made an effort to draw them daily. As a result, I learned a lot.
July 2: Barn swallows nesting on our front porch. The parents are flying around and chittering at me and sitting on the neighbor’s roof.
The babies are pretty big before I even notice them. I see their heads poking out over the edge of nest and point them out to Kurt. He takes pictures. I stand on the porch as far from the nest as I can to draw the nest. It’s surprising how fond I am of these grumpy looking birds. Their white frowns and slanting brows give them a permanent angry scowl. I love them anyway.
July 4: The nest is like a layer cake of straw with white fecal frosting. Feeding: Mom and Dad fly in one at a time. All the babies open their mouths, but the parent already knows who will be fed. They are in and out in an instant. One of the parents came in at least three times before realizing I was here. Now they are calling and the babies have hunkered down to hide. Mom and Dad were on top of the wind chimes. Flew off when I moved.
The parents do not like it when I’m on the porch and take off whenever they see me. I’m afraid I am keeping them from feeding their family, so I keep my sketching sessions under thirty minutes and draw as fast as I can. We stop going out the front door. Keeping the birds’ stress level low is one of our priorities.
July 5: The babies are flapping! Extended periods of beating their wings while sitting on the edge of the nest. Getting ready to fly. Note: sit inside with the door cracked. Better view of the nest and the parents don’t mind.
It’s a challenge to draw the birds because they move so much, but I do my best. Looking through the cracked door or the front window is makes it easier to draw the birds, but I still keep my sessions short, because I know that they can see me. These are wild birds. I don’t want them to get used to me. Some people will be kind to them, but some won’t, and how are they supposed to tell the difference?
July 6: They look like hoodlums. Waiting for food from Mom and Dad — and snapping on their own at any insects that come close.
I read about people knocking swallow nests off their cabin porch with the helpless nestlings inside. I am horrified. There is a downside to swallows on the porch: bird poop everywhere. But it’s not really everywhere. Mostly the mess is directly under the nest and their favorite perches. We usually live with it, but it’s bad enough that I scrape and wash the porch before company comes. While I think the work is worth the joy of sharing my porch with swallows, I start thinking about ways to make this job easier in the future.
July 7: This morning at 8 AM, one of the fledglings was on our porch bench. Haven’t seen any of them out of the nest since. More wing flapping today despite the crowded nest — they will stand on a sibling to do it!
I can’t get over the fact that there are five baby birds in such a little nest. Our field guide says barn swallows lay from three to seven eggs at a time. I try to imagine seven birds crammed in that little cup and can’t do it.
July 8: The fledglings are leaving the nest. I saw them fly as far as the neighbor’s roof and then back again, but their favorite destination is our wind chimes.
July 9: The fledglings have been flying all over today, spending more time out of the nest than in. Preening, stretching, and begging.
With the birds out of the nest, I do my best to capture their shape and colors. I experiment with my new watercolor paints. I’m still learning how things work, just like the birds I am watching.
July 10: Woke to an empty nest. Are the barn swallows gone for good?
My heart breaks when I see the empty nest. The grumpy faces that have been making me smile every day are suddenly nowhere to be seen. There’s a quiet hole where feathered lives used to be. It reminds me of the hush in the house after a beloved pet dies. The empty air where I expect to see a dog wagging her tail — or a nest full of swallows — feels like a cold vacuum.
I share my dismay on Facebook. Friends assure me the swallows will be back next year, and I know they are right. Last year, the swallows managed to raise two clutches of eggs in a single summer. Secretly, I cross my fingers, hoping for more nestlings before this summer is over.
July 18: Lots of activity at the BARS* nest on the porch this morning which is unusual because the kids have been gone for a week or so. Wondering if the breeding pair have new eggs…
There are only two swallows, so I assume the parents are back to try again. Because of the height of the nest, I can’t see into it without help. I have to stand on a step stool and use a telescoping mirror to check for eggs. I take the time to find the tools I need. I must be hopeful because I also buy a plastic tarp to lay on the door step so it will be easier to clean up the mess.
July 22: There is one brown-speckled tan egg in the barn swallow nest on the porch!
When I look out, the mother swallow is usually sitting on the nest, watching me warily. On the rare occasions when she’s off foraging, I check the nest. The female lays one tiny egg a day, until she has a total of four. Now she is on the nest more often than not, so I know we will have hatchlings soon.
I can’t wait for the fun to start all over again. I wonder what else I will learn about them?
UPDATE: August 10: I finally got to peek in the nest this morning, and the eggs have hatched! I think the babies are a few days old at most — pink, gray, bald, and tiny. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them and drawing again as soon as I can see them without the mirror and stool.