How to Name a Bird, Part 1

Golden-crowned Sparrow_CosumnesRiverPreserve-CA_LAH_0338What in the world is that bird? Birding someplace new is fun and exciting, but it’s also a challenge. How do you make a trip list if you can’t identify the birds you are seeing?

I normally post a bird ID quiz on the first Monday of the month. Today and next week, I thought I’d share about the mental checklist I go through when I’m trying to ID a bird I don’t immediately recognize.

I get to travel a bit. In addition to field trips here in Colorado, I’ve been birding in southern Texas, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and the west coast. I was really excited when we went to Puerto Rico several years ago. We stayed at a friend’s time share ideally situated between a wildlife refuge and a bird sanctuary. I was having so much fun, I almost didn’t notice the 99° temperatures or the 99% humidity. Almost.


Taking Your Garden’s Temperature

soil thermometerThe calendar says late April, the weekend forecast is warm and sunny, but there’s still snow melting off the trees and loitering in the shadows. With our off-again, on-again spring, how can a gardener possibly know when to plant?

There’s no foolproof formula, but a soil thermometer can help take much of the guesswork out of gardening in Colorado.


What Time Should I Expect You?

Mourning Dove_FCNC-CO_LAH_0385.nefWhen does migration bring new birds to Colorado? I’ve been pondering that question ever since I started birding. As a gardener with years of experience, I know when to plant each crop or flower. I know that 70° afternoons can be followed by 3° nights. Yes, April is like that—don’t be fooled.

But migration varies from species to species, and even sometimes from year to year. Instead of learning when to set out a dozen veggie varieties, I have to become familiar with the timing of hundreds of birds. For the most part, that’s still a huge mystery to me.


Plant Some Spring Sunshine

Forsythia_DBG_20100417_LAH_2764Just when you don’t think you can stand another minute of bare branches or dead, brown-gray foliage, spring heralds its arrival in a burst of dazzling yellow. All over town, forsythias reassure us that the growing season really is at hand.

Originally from eastern Asia, where they have been cultivated for centuries, forsythias were collected for western gardens in the early 1800s. Most current garden varieties are hybrids of two species, Forsythia suspensa and F. viridissima. The problem is that the resulting cultivars aren’t reliably hardy in much of Colorado.


Going Nature-ing

MtDiablo-CA_LAH_8608As birders, our goal when going birding is to see—birds! We may or may not have a target species we’re seeking, but a trip is generally rated as a success or a dud by the number of species we see. Rarities are a bonus.

But there’s another part of birding we might overlook. Just being out in the field means we have a shot at seeing other aspects of nature. Wildflowers and insects (especially butterflies and dragonflies) are garnering much attention these days, and for good reason. They’re just as interesting as birds, and more of a challenge. (Have you ever tried ID-ing a moth or beetle?)


The Bluebird Effect—Not Just Another Nature Book

The Bluebird Effect, by Julie Zickefoose

Maybe birding results from having a “collection gene.” (At least a bird collection—aka a “life list”—doesn’t take up any space on a shelf, and as a bonus, it never needs dusting.) I don’t just collect birds, I seem to also accumulate books. Like many birders I have a shelf full of delightful books, each chronicling the nature experiences of an author. From a Victorian lady’s garden journal to the a thin volume exploring the seasons of the north woods, I can immerse myself in the great outdoors from the comfort of my favorite chair.

I have to admit, however, that many of these books work equally well as sleeping pills. Reading detailed descriptions of the weeds on someone’s farm just doesn’t generate the page-turning anticipation of a good adventure story.


In With the Old?

Lettuce @BF 2008may30 LAH 003
Heirloom ‘Freckles’ Lettuce

“Heirloom seeds are better, right?” It’s a question I hear a lot when I’m teaching classes on growing your own veggies. Just the term “heirloom” makes us think of precious family treasures, fine antiques. “Heirloom seeds” is a phrase that sells and many seed companies take full advantage of it.

Heirloom vegetables (or flowers) are varieties that have been in cultivation a long time—decades, if not centuries—and are still being grown today. They’re what your great grandmother would have sown in her garden. They’re the antiques of the gardening world.


Mnemonics Fun

American Goldfinch, molting into breeding plumageTwo weeks ago I talked about bird song mnemonics, and how helpful they can be. Today being April 1, I thought we’d have some fun. Instead of my usual monthly bird quiz, I’ve assembled a list of 15 popular bird songs, translated into English. Can you identify the bird that says each phrase?

If that proves to be too much of a challenge, click on the “continued reading” button for a list of candidates. Answers are at the end, no fooling. Enjoy!