7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.

Beyond Raptors: Other Birds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

I may have given you the impression that the only birds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are raptors, like the barn owl and Harris’s hawks I saw in their daily Raptor Free-Flights. But visitors to the ASDM see plenty of other interesting birds, all native to some part of Arizona.

When I was there in February, I was greeted by a desert favorite of mine, the cactus wren. A little smaller than a robin, this feisty bird actually nests inside dead saguaro. I heard them calling throughout the day, and they hopped past me even in the parking lot. One came out in the open and sang his heart out for me.

Singing cactus wren, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Singing cactus wren, photo by Kit Dunsmore

When I saw a bird a top a saguaro skeleton, I half-expected it to be another wren. Instead, it was a the more common mockingbird.

Mockingbird, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Mockingbird, photo by Kit Dunsmore

The museum has two walk-in aviaries. One includes a mix of birds. I caught sight of quail, hummingbirds, pyrrhuloxia, and a beautiful black-bellied whistling duck.

Black-bellied whistling duck, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Black-bellied whistling duck, photo by Kit Dunsmore

The second aviary is smaller, and dedicated to hummingbirds alone. My photographs did not turn out well, but the most striking hummingbird we saw was Costa’s. Even in my fuzzy picture, you can see the brilliant purple neck frill this hummingbird sports.

A Costa's hummingbird, fuzzy photo by Kit Dunsmore
A Costa’s hummingbird, fuzzy photo by Kit Dunsmore

Raptors Fly Free at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

While I was in Tucson in February, I was fortunate enough to spend a day that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Despite the name, the Museum is really a bunch of things: botanical garden, zoo, aquarium, and museum, all dedicated to species that are native to Arizona. I’d visited once before when I was living in Phoenix in the 80s and what I remembered were the remarkable aviaries — huge netted areas you could walk through, observing the birds up close. But this trip, I was struck by the birds that truly fly free.

The Museum has two Raptor Free-Flights a day, and they are exactly what they sound like. The birds fly into an open desert area and perch on the trees and cacti there, encouraged to do so by trainers who leave them treats.

An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there.
An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

There are no nets, no jesses, no hoods, nothing to constrain or hold the birds in any way. The only fence is a railing to keep people on the section of path that the raptors fly over. Visitors are warned to keep their hands and cameras below their heads in case the birds come near, and it was good advice. The birds swooped right over us, close enough to touch.

During the Free Flight we watched, they let out a barn owl, and then a family group of Harris’s hawks.

A barn owl perching during a Raptor Free Flight.
A barn owl perching during the Raptor Free Flight program. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
One of the four Harris's hawks that came out for the Free Flight.
One of the four Harris’s hawks that came out for the Free Flight. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

While one of the trainers told us about them, the raptors perched nearby, flew overhead, and otherwise captivated those watching. The birds sleep in cages, but are let out daily. Sometimes they come out, sometimes they don’t. They aren’t forced to do anything. They are fed well, live comfortably, and given the chance to fly away and never return on a daily basis. But they don’t. Some were raised in captivity, but others started out wild, became injured and were rehabilitated. The trainer who spoke after the Free Flight was over told us that the birds have it cushy and know it. Apparently their instincts aren’t strong enough to inspire them to leave the museum for good.

A Harris's hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases.
A Harris’s hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Just because it’s comfy in their cages doesn’t mean the birds come back right away. Occasionally, a bird will hunt and spend a few hours on top of a saguaro picking at the kill, or will spend an entire night sleeping out in the desert, ignoring the signal that tells the raptors that invites them to return to their home base.

I was awe-struck by the faith the trainers showed in the raptors. They let them choose what they will do and trust them to come home again when they are ready. Watching the hawks circling together overhead and sensing how natural it was for them only made the fact that they do come back day after day all the more remarkable. They clearly love to fly. But life at the Museum is not to be discarded lightly. As long as they keep getting time to fly free and hunt if they wish, the raptors are content to return to their cages when day is done. They seem to know that the choice is theirs.

Harris's hawk perched on a saguaro.
Harris’s hawk perched on a saguaro. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Wildlife Art: Grama Tortoise Glass Beads And Sculpture

One of the great things about helping my sister Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan (aka Grama Tortoise) at the Best Bead Show in Tucson is getting to see her latest work. Since we live in different parts of the country, I hear about her new lampwork glass pieces long before I get to see them. Her photos on Etsy are wonderful, but there’s nothing like seeing them in person. Here are some of the pieces that caught my attention this year.

Cleo is known for her owl and raptor beads, but she also makes other birds, including chickens and geese.

Sultan chicken bead by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Sultan chicken bead by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Canada goose glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Canada goose glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan

Her interest in animals has also lead to a line of romance horses in unusual colors. These borosilicate horse heads have loops on the back for stringing and make surprisingly comfortable necklaces (I got to wear one while I was in Tucson).


Cleo has also added glass sculpture to her repertoire. Some of her pieces can be treated as cabochons: worked into bead embroidery, or wired into a necklace or brooch. Others, like the Yoga Frog and the Canada Goose, are designed for display on a shelf or in a case.

Hawk's bill sea turtle glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Hawksbill sea turtle glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Yoga Frog: Tree Pose, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Yoga Frog: Tree Pose, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Tortoise, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan
Tortoise, glass sculpture by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan (This guy is tiny. He can sit in the palm of your hand.)

She also makes cute little furry animals: rabbits, mice, squirrels, even possums and sloths, but I’ve run out of room for pictures. You can see more of her work at her website and in her Etsy store. Definitely take the time to go look through her galleries. I’ve barely scratched the surface of her latest work here.

A Blue Jay Reminds Me Not To Take Things for Granted

The first Thanksgiving after my divorce, I wound up at my sister’s in-laws’ for dinner. Along with their immediate family, they had gathered in other strays like myself, including three people from Britain.

There were bird feeders in the backyard, and we talked about the fact that I worked at the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell. Later, one of the Brits pulled me by the sleeve to the window.

“What,” she asked in a breathless voice, “is that?”

She pointed out the window and I looked, expecting some bland and difficult to recognize “little brown bird”, afraid I would disappoint her with my ignorance.

Sitting on the feeder was a blue and white bird with black markings on its face and a tall crest of blue feathers.

“It’s a blue jay,” I said in a tone of complete indifference. Where I grew up, blue jays are as common as coffee shops in Seattle.

She was undaunted by my world-weary attitude. “Wow.” A northern cardinal arrived and she asked me its name. She was just as excited to see it as she had been to see the jay. She grabbed her friends and they all stared out the window with their mouths hanging open as the jays and cardinals came and went.

Those red and blue birds that were so familiar to me looked exotic and tropical to the visitors from England. My ordinary was their extraordinary.

As I stared at the bright plumage of the birds and listened to their gasps of wonder, I promised myself I would remember that jays and cardinals are beautiful. I wouldn’t let the fact that I saw them all the time dull me to their beauty. I would not take them for granted ever again.

Only I did. I lived in New England for ten more years, and I saw jays and cardinals all the time without thinking back to the wonder those British travelers had felt.

I now live on the very western edge of the eastern blue jay’s territory, in a place where there are no cardinals at all. There are other lovely jays to see here, but they aren’t as striking as the blue jay I grew up with.

I was lucky enough to see an eastern blue jay last week. I spent a lot of time watching it through my binoculars, admiring the crisp black and white markings and the brilliance of the blue feathers on its head and back.

Eastern Blue Jay  photo by Kurt Fristrup
Eastern Blue Jay photo by Kurt Fristrup

I gloried in getting such a good look at it. We have feeders up, but jays rarely come in to them. I often hear them calling when I take Dory on our walks, but to actually see one clearly is a treat.

I have learned again that blue jays are extraordinary. Now when I see one, I remember those Brits at Thanksgiving, and share their wonder at the beauty of a jay. I promise myself that I won’t take them for granted ever again.

I can’t wait until I get to see a cardinal.

The Casual Bird-Watcher, Part 2: Tips for the Beginning Birder

As I have slowly developed my bird-watching skills over the years, some simple tips have really helped me learn new birds despite my casual approach.

I started out just by looking at birds and asking others what they were. Eventually I got some binoculars and a field guide, tools that definitely make it easier to see the details that distinguish the differences between similar species, like the notorious LBBs (Little Brown Birds). One other tool I’ve found helpful is a camera with a zoom lens. A good picture can show you details you didn’t see at first and help with identification.

But you don’t need any of these things to enjoy bird watching. You can just look out the window.

Here are the simple things I have done to improve my birding skills.

1) I do most of my birding in my own neighborhood. When I eat my breakfast, walk the dog, get the mail, run an errand, or just take a break, I will keep my eyes and ears open and watch the birds.  And I’m not alone.

This red-tailed hawk lives in my neighborhood.  Photo by Kurt Fristrup
This red-tailed hawk lives in my neighborhood. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

2) I didn’t realize just how many different kinds of birds lived in my own backyard until we put up feeders. I keep a pair of binoculars by the window and a field guide handy so I can ID new birds when they appear.

House finches are one of the most common birds at our  feeder.  Photo by Kurt Fristrup
House finches are one of the most common birds at our feeder. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

3) I started looking at birds in different ways. There’s more to identification than markings. There’s silhouette, behavior, and seasonal range (those little colored maps in the field guide). The maps in particular save me a lot of time, because if I’m not in the common black-hawk’s range, then I probably didn’t see one.

4) I spend time watching birds that I already know. It’s easy for me to dismiss an American robin, one of the more common birds in the area. But the more time I spend watching robins hopping in the grass, flying, or singing in a tree, the easier it is for me to identify the robins I see. Not only can I say with some certainty that the bird that flashed by was a robin, but I intuitively know when something is not a robin, which is how I saw my first Say’s phoebe just last week.

4) If I can’t find the bird in my field guide, I don’t despair. Birds vary in their plumage with age, sex, season, and region. The guides are forced to simplify things, only showing the most common appearances for a particular species. Also, the guide can be wrong, which is why we own so many field guides. I try my best to identify the birds I see, but if I can’t figure it out in a reasonable amount of time, I let it go. A juvenile or moulting bird can make you crazy if you let it.

5) I use my ears as well as my eyes. When I can, I pair the sound with the bird and as a result I can sometimes ID a bird even though I didn’t see it. (You can get bird song apps for your phone to help you out.)

One of the few ducks I can ID: a mallard.  Photo by Kurt Fristrup.
One of the few ducks I can ID: a mallard. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

7) I keep it simple. I work on one thing at a time. Right now I am trying to get better at the differences between our local doves both in appearance and sound. There are groups of birds that are still pretty mysterious to me, like sparrows, finches, and ducks. But they can wait for now. When I am ready, I will focus on a few at a time.

Are you a casual or amateur birder, or are you just getting started? Do you have any tips on how to enjoy birding more? Which birds live in your neighborhood?

The Casual Bird-Watcher, Part 1: How I Learned to Name That Bird

I’ve loved animals of all kinds all my life. When my parents asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, the answer was always “go to the zoo”. I loved getting a close look at all the different mammals, reptiles, fish, insects, and birds. But my interest in animals has always been as an amateur. I’ve never even had a class in basic biology. I was too scared. I knew there would be dissections and I didn’t think I could handle it. So I studied other sciences and paid attention to animals in my off hours.

The closest I got to having a job related to wildlife was working for the Bioacoustics Research Program, which is part of Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology. The job was not what you might think. I spent most of my time in front of computers. I started out analyzing recordings of whale sounds, then became a computer programmer, developing software to help analyze all the sound recordings the researchers brought back from the field. Over the years, I listened to hours of tapes of whale songs and frog calls, but never birds.

So when people assume that working for the Laboratory of Ornithology means I know my birds, I want to laugh. I did learn to recognize some bird species while working at the Lab, but it was entirely an informal process. I would see or hear a bird out in the sanctuary and ask someone standing nearby what it was. Fortunately, most of the people who work at CLO are avid bird watchers and could answer my questions.

Red-winged blackbird
Red-winged blackbird; photo by Kurt Fristrup

If I was lucky, I’d learn a bird in one try. That’s what happened when I heard red-winged blackbirds calling on the pond behind the lab, because I had heard those same bird calls thousands of times when fishing with my grandfather in South Dakota. I knew the sound well, I just didn’t know what was making it.

But some birds were harder to learn than others. When on a weeklong visit to the Sierra Nevadas as part of a workshop, I kept seeing huge birds wheeling in the sky. Certain that I was seeing something rare and western — a hawk? a falcon? an eagle?! — I would ask the nearest person what it was. For some reason, the nearest person was always Greg, and the answer was always “turkey vulture”. (Greg would be relieved to know that today I can actually recognize a vulture when I see one.)

Not a vulture. I'm positive!
Not a vulture. I’m positive!   photo by Kurt Fristrup

Since I’ve left the lab, I rely on my husband and my field guides to help me learn new birds. The Colorado prairies are full of birds I never saw or heard before, right along with some old familiars I’ve known since childhood. Some birds are obvious: the western meadowlark’s song and yellow front are easy to spot. Others are more challenging, like the slew of sparrows that are all small and brown, with minor variations in plumage. I still have to tackle learning their markings and their songs.

Western Meadowlark, feeling safe.
Western Meadowlark, feeling safe; photo by Kurt Fristrup

Overall, I am amazed to think how many birds I can identify today. Sure, I don’t really know that many species, but I know most of the birds that live where I do. A slow and relaxed approach to learning to identify birds has worked just fine for me. There’s no need to rush or obsess about learning them all at once, as I thought when I was in college. My casual, almost accidental, education in bird watching has been effective and fun. With that in mind, I will share my tips on how to get started watching birds in my post on Wednesday.