Birds have been one of the greatest sources of enjoyment in my life, besides my family. (My wife sometimes wonders, I know) I share this passion with some 20% of North Americans who spend more than 32 billion dollars on the hobby of watching birds.[i] They are colorful, melodic, comedic, diverse and never too far from where we are. There are many ways to get close to these wonderful animals and one of them is to walk out your back door. You may have a head start in the shape of a space that attracts birds just like it is, or you may have to do some work to get it just right. Be careful, the whole process may become addicting.
Ever since I was a little boy I marveled at the aerial speed of hummingbirds as well as the ability to hover for so long. I used to read, in my animal fact books, about how they were the only bird to be able to fly backwards and how the bee hummingbird was the smallest bird in the world and how it could fit entirely in the eyeball of the largest bird in the world. It wasn't until I started watching birds close up that I realized the beauty of the iridescent jewels. I now love to have hummingbirds in the yard and am always interested in knowing more about what would attract them. Obviously, flowers and feeders, but not just any flower will do. We are going to explore some flowering plants, feeders and more which you can add to your outdoor space to increase the chance of having the little flying powerhouses visit you.
The Fake Flower
Hummingbirds will take nectar from just about any port in a flower. This makes it very simple to hang a feeder alongside your porch and have the little birds visit. There are a couple items to remember, when setting out a feeder, that are very literally life or death for the hummingbird. The red dyes that are found in the commercial nectars are not good for the health of these guys. The red coloring is used as a marketing gimmick to attract us humans to buy more of the hummer juice. In reality, sugar water is all you need and is made with a 4:1 mixture of water to sugar. This is exactly the same formula as most store-bought elixirs. They do sell clear nectar now which is perfectly fine to feed your guests. The other part of the equation here is, the feeder that the birds are attracted to. The most common are the four-flower, upside down bottle versions, which work very well. Don’t forget to look for a feeder with a moat so that ants are somewhat deterred. Try not to use the yellow cages or flowers like shown in the picture, it only makes a wasp problem worse. Yellow is an attractant for these bothersome freeloaders. It is always nice to have a perch as well, as it gives the bird some rest while restoring energy. Be sure to clean your feeder regularly as a neglected feeder may grow unwanted bacteria and harm the birds. Cleaning should happen twice a week in the warmer weather. See more on Hummingbird Feeders here. Feeders are a great way to keep track of which birds are visiting your yards and gardens. There are 5 common types of Hummingbirds in The United States and Canada and several places in the south have several more. Don't forget to keep a list on eBird!
Bird fountains and baths can add amazing sights and sounds to your garden. The water feature itself may hold some captivating beauty, but the birds that visit will be even more stunning. You will be amazed at the amount of visitors your fountain brings to your yard just from the sound of a drop of water. There may be all sorts of birds that will come who may have been as close as the neighbors hedge, but just didn’t have the right reason to visit. Fountains can be as simple as “just add water” or as complex as calling the local pond contractor but they all have a place and they all bring something more to your outside living space including a bird and a smile.
The Location, Location, Location
How do you pick a pair of binoculars? If you have unlimited funds and don’t mind carrying a large set of glasses around, it will be easy to choose. For those of us that have a budget and don’t need the night vision, there are still choices. There are more styles of binoculars than a person can count and they come in all manner of different sizes, shapes, quality, optics and price range. Read on and we can sort out what might be right for you while leaving some pennies in your pocket.
There are small sets of binoculars that are used for sporting events and operas and medium to large size sets that usually sit on a sill to a backyard window, but bigger is not always better when it comes to your optical assistance. The smaller binoculars are very easy to carry around and stow away but the downside is that these are usually not that great for magnification or light. There are the standard sets of binoculars which are the very same ones that you might find on a Boy Scout outing and they are the ones that I started my glamorous bird watching career with. This what you would call the Goldie Locks set, not to big, not to small ………. and you know the rest. There are larger pairs of glasses that allow a good deal of light in due to their large lense openings, but sometimes these can be very bulky. With the introduction of digital, you can view your subjects on a screen or record the image. What ever the look, you want something that fits your needs and the question is, what exactly do you want to do with them?
Recently, I shared a couple of videos of cool hummingbird feeders on my webpage. I noticed there was a good deal of interest and questions that came up as we all like to see these little gems up close as they are so fascinating. Everyone has their preferences, but there are somethings that don’t change when it comes to our little feathered friends and what to put out, to bring them into our worl. Hummingbirds have an amazingly fast metabolism and must feed constantly to supply their little bodies with nutrients. This is why they love the quick and ready feeders but they do require more than just sugar water. We all love the buzz of a hummingbird in our gardens and I hope the next part of this story benefits not just you but the little birds that we all love so much.
Panama is a beautiful country with a multitude of interesting sights to take in during a visit there, with birding being one of their specialties. The country is about the same land area as West Virginia who has just over 300 species of birds that live or visit there. Panama is home to more than 978 distinct birds and the exciting realization that there are new species in some of the more remote areas. To put that in perspective, there are 914 recognized species in United States and Canada combined! There is a fantastic mix of North and South American birds with some being migratory and others that are resident species. There are also several endemic species which means that they can only be found in within the borders of Panama. The Panama Canal is something to see as the large ships are moving through the locks, but more importantly, you must see the jungles around the canal that have been protected as green spaces and are relatively untouched since the building of the canal. This buffer around the canal is an amazing place to see some of the lowland birds in this tropical country. Other excellent birding areas of the country are the mountains extending out of Costa Rica, the grasslands on the pacific coast, the mountain chain extending out of Columbia, the lowland forests and the vast shoreline on both the Pacific coast and the Atlantic Coast as well as desert climates complete with cacti.
The amazing colors of Panama's Birds are something that you notice immediately, with some of the birds looking like rainbows. There are several different species of Toucan, all with different painted bills, Trogons with their bright colors and pattern coded tails, Hummingbirds with the iridescent feathers only showing when the sun is hitting them just right and the Tanagers filling all colors of the spectrum in all corners of the country. There are birds with cryptic coloration so well camouflaged, they have white speckles on their wings to imitate the look of filtered sunlight sitting on a leaf. Some birds look so similar to a branch that they are undetectable even when passing by within a couple feet. The niches that birds fill here are also incredibly far ranging with that reason being, the diversity of the landscape. There are birds that dwell here that have a special symbiotic relationship with plant species as well and have adapted a bill that is so specialized it is only suited to collecting nectar from a handful of flowers. The beak adaptation matches the length and curve of a flower’s tube virtually making that bird the only pollinator. The are also the Antbirds that have forged a binding relationship with army ants and are found only in the presence of these fierce insects. The Frigate birds, “pirates of the sky” who are canal residents who's main source of food is by stealing from other sea birds. The overwhelming diversity of birds in this little country makes it a birders paradise.
It is pretty tough to find a better vacation spot than Maui. Life is just more relaxed and anyone you meet all seem to have smiles. The birds on Maui however are not on vacation and are busy looking for the necessities in life, just like anywhere else in the world. For such a small area, there are a surprisingly large amount of ecosystems here. This is due to the height of the volcanos, the direction of the prevailing wind, the valleys and lowlands and of course, the ocean surrounding it all. There is bird life everywhere on the island, unfortunately, the native populations gets the short end of the stick. Most of the native birds have gone extinct on the island since the 1700’s. Before that, another massive change when Polynesians landed on the islands somewhere around 400 AD. There are still some fortresses higher up on the island that support the local populations and they are certainly worth the trek. Have a read on what Maui has to offer the fair weather birder.
As part of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui is surrounded by ocean water which makes a perfect stop over for any birds that are migrating on to places south or just makes a great home for the winter. There are perfect sandy beaches for the peeps and waders, who probe the sand for buried treasure, like Sanderlings and Curlews. There are also the rocky shores consisting of pitted lava which are the favorite place of birds like the Wandering Tattler and the Ruddy Turnstone. During the breeding months there are birds that use the rocky islands for nesting such as the Black Noddy and occasionally you will see a Booby or two…… the bird variety of course. The Road to Hana offers fantastic places to stop and see the different beaches along the way.
One weekend in February changed the way I saw birding, and I owe, in part, my full commitment to birding to The Great Backyard Bird Count. Bold statement? Maybe, but in 2006 I saw a link to a website that appealed to my inner birder. The website said I would be helping out by keeping track of the birds that I saw over four days during a weekend in February and best yet, I would get to call myself a citizen scientist! It felt like I was back in university, fighting the good fight and at the same time, take my birding to a whole new level. This all led to the world of eBird, but that is for another story. I hope this article will spark a little something in your inner citizen scientist and you join me with over a 140,000 other folks on the four day event held February 12-15.
We can talk to someone half way around the world while watching a live image of them. A doctor can let you know what ails your internal organs by taking a 3 dimensional image without so much as making a nic in your skin. And now, there is a program that can tell you what North American bird you are looking at with a couple clicks of the mouse! Have you ever seen a bird and thought, “I wish I knew what kind of bird that is?” I know I get at least one call or email a week asking me “what bird is this.” Well, technology has caught up with that need. The Cornell Lab has come up with a new and fancy identification program called Merlin Photo ID, that lets you upload a picture and with a couple clicks of your mouse, will tell you which bird you are looking at. If that isn’t as good as a CAT scan machine, I don’t know what is.
Not only is Vancouver one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it also boasts world class bird watching. This country is spread out over a multitude of Micro ecosystems, from the spectacular snow-capped mountains to the north, to the farmlands in the south and east. All of it is transected by the mighty Fraser River meandering through marshland, multi-armed, to the Pacific Ocean to the west. This little portion of heaven is also one of the major stops on the Pacific Flyway giving it one of the best spots for migration birding. It rarely freezes solid along the coast in the winter months, which makes it one of the only spots in Canada for winter birding of terrestrial migrants. Vancouver is solidly in the Temperate Rain Forest as well as having areas that are in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island. These two environmental facts give it an average yearly rainfall difference of 55 inches. In the south, near the border, there is just 45 inches of rain contrasting with the 99 inches that fall along the mountains to the north, all of which is located within an hour’s drive. If you are looking for an amazing birding experience, Vancouver is one of the world’s best and as a bonus, you will get the amazing scenery thrown in for free.