Utah County Birders Newsletter
April 2004


Wednesday, April 21st.

Meet at 7:00 PM in the Bean Museum Auditorium on the BYU Campus.

Julia Tuck will talk speak to us about Landscaping for Birds.


Saturday, April 17th.
Strutting Sharp-Tailed Grouse
Meet at 3:45 a.m. at the Orem center street Park and Ride off I-15.

Reed’s Ramblings
by Reed Stone

 I am really enjoying gardening this spring. I got my tiller out a couple of weeks ago and frightened the Robins out of the garden in doing so. When I took a break from tilling I unfolded a chair that I keep handy and sat myself down. The Robins came back and began digging for worms. I was then attracted to a Rat a-tat-tat. I searched the direction from which it came and soon discovered a male Downey Woodpecker doing it’s territorial "drumming" and letting any females in the vicinity know he was available.. Boy do I love gardening.

Another beautiful spring morning. While planting peas in a shallow furrow I was listening to the twittering and calls from American and Lesser gold finches accompanied with the calls of the Black Capped Chickadee. While engrossed in the planting I was brought to attention with a very unmusical sound. It was the distant call, or squawks, resonating from a pair of Sandhill Cranes. I focused my eyes and ears to the direction hoping to add another species to my yard list.

It was not in the cards.

A short time later, time for another break, some movement caught my eye. It was a pair of Downies "playing tag" up and down the trees and from tree to tree. I’m thinking they may set up residence nearby. A day or two later there were three Downies, two males and a female. This is the best kind is gardening.

Today I scattered feed near my "forest" of evergreens. Most birds appreciate nearby cover in case of danger. This method of feeding attracts Quail, Doves and quite a few trash species. It also makes gardening more interesting.

It’s a few days later and Mourning Doves have become regular visitors. Yesterday a pair of California Quail came feeding.

The peas and spinach are up now. A pair of Robins have started a nest in a plumb tree right next to the garden. Other pairs of birds are chasing each other through the yard and trees.

The Downies seem to have claimed a residence in a big dead tree right at the head of the garden.

I see the male sitting guard and occasionally tapping out his territorial proclamation.

Northern Flickers come and go. Today one is drilling a hole in the dirt. I think it is finding ants, at least I hope it is. There are Mallards calling from the river and there are almost always some flying over. I just think gardening is great. Pretty soon I am going to plant some tomatoes. You never can tell white might show up.

Blackbirds and Orioles
Challenge Installment #4:
by Merrill Webb

Fifteen members of the Family Icteridae have been recorded in Utah. I will be addressing eleven of these species because four are listed as rare and don't have to be seen to qualify as meeting the requirements for the birding challenge this year.

Introduction: The following are quotes excerpted from the Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, 2001, pages 542 -546. “North American icterids fall into three main groups. Orioles are boldly marked with black and orange or yellow plumage and have a sharply pointed bill. The meadowlarks are cryptically colored with a mixture of browns, tan, black, and yellow, and have a long, straight bill and a short tail. The remaining species are predominantly black or dark brown, are gregarious, and have straight, pointed bills.”

“Most icterids are common birds that have adapted well to human-created habitats...The Hooded Oriole, for example, has a specific fondness for palms; in California it almost entirely depends on the availability of Washingtonia fan palms for nesting. The planting of this palm as an ornamental has allowed the Hooded Oriole to expand its range northward significantly.”

“In icterids, such as Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, the male defends a territory where multiple females will nest, while the male mates with all of them in a polygynous mating system. Recent DNA fingerprinting work has revealed that while the territorial male in most species fathers the majority of the young in his territory, the females do sneak off and copulate with neighboring males; these copulations sometimes produce offspring. In polygynous situations females do not defend the territory against other males, but they will chase off foreign females from the vicinity of their nest site.”

With this information as an introduction let's now turn our attention to where to go in Utah to find these eleven species of icterids.

1. Bobolink - The distinctive, bubbling, rapid song is one of the best ways to locate this bird as it sings while flying over grassy meadows and hayfields. One of the most consistent locales for finding this bird in Utah County has been the wet meadows north of Goshen. In Wasatch County the damp meadows north of Heber City and south of Midway have usually yielded 5-10 pair of breeding birds. Begin looking for them in May when they return from their 12,500 mile roundtrip from wintering in South America. Bobolink numbers have declined since the 1960s, based on Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data. The cutting of hay early in the summer has devastated some Bobolink populations, as the early haying destroys the nest with its young.

2. Red-winged Blackbird - This permanent resident is widespread throughout Utah wherever there are cattails and/or bulrushes in which to nest. I especially enjoy watching the males show off their bright red epaulets as they perform their territorial or mate-attraction display during the breeding season. In Utah County the area around Utah Lake is one of the best places to watch this display.

3. Western Meadowlark - The meadowlark, also a permanent resident, needs no introduction as to identification or distribution. Widespread throughout the west in grasslands and fields its song, given from fence posts or other elevated perches, is well known and distinctive. Some of you readers may have been told by your elders that the song of the meadowlark proclaimed the beauty of your hometown. A very reliable source (my father) informed me that the song is in fact interpreted as, "St. George, pretty little town." However, due to the recent destruction of favorable meadowlark habitat by developers in that area, I seriously doubt that appellation now applies. In Utah County the roads out through the agricultural areas of Lake Shore and Palmyra, where there is still a lot of wide open spaces, are excellent places to observe this species.

4. Yellow-headed Blackbird - This blackbird is a common summer and rare winter resident where it competes with Red-winged Blackbirds for nesting territories in cattail marshes. Easily identified by its striking yellow head and white wing patches it can also be located by its song which has been characterized as the sound made by the opening of a rusty gate. In Utah County look for it around the margins of Utah Lake. After nesting season it can be found mixed together in flocks of other blackbirds as it forages in fields and barnyards.

5. Brewer's Blackbird - Listed as a common permanent resident this species is not as numerous as the preceding birds. Seems to be more urban where it occurs in city parks, shopping centers on sidewalks and parking lots as well as agricultural areas. Look for it at the Sam's Club parking lot in Provo, or any of the aforementioned agricultural localities.

6. Common Grackle - Listed as a rare summer resident this species has recently expanded its range in Utah. I first saw it in eastern Utah at Vernal in the conifers near the Museum of Natural History. Couple of years later, I saw it at the city park in Heber City and then in the large conifers in the middle of the town of Midway. It has also been found nesting in the conifers at the city parks of Charleston in Wasatch County and Orem. During the last couple of years it has been found most reliably in Utah County in the large trees to the west of Salem Pond.

7. Great-tailed Grackle - I first observed the Great-tailed Grackle in Utah June 6, 1978 as it was flying up the Virgin River channel south of St. George. It was the second verified sighting of this species in the state. Since that time its numbers have increased and it has been reported from many Utah counties. The 1999 Christmas Bird Counts reveal interesting disparities in numbers for this species: Provo, 20; St. George, 224; and the highest number in the United States: Wichita Falls, Texas, 500,000. So, if you want to find this species in Utah, the most reliable locality is St. George. In Utah Valley try the marshlands at the University Avenue - I-15 Interchange, or at the McDonalds parking lot in the east part of Lehi.

8. Brown-headed Cowbird - The cowbird is listed as a common summer resident and a rare winter resident. Cowbirds are widely distributed throughout the state. In fact, this species is now sufficiently numerous to pose a major threat to the survival of several species due to its successful habit of parasitizing their nests. Quoting from pages 619 and 621 of The Birder's Handbook, a Field Guide to The Natural History of North American Birds, by Paul R. Ehrlich, et. al.: “The Brown-headed Cowbird now has been recorded as successfully parasitizing 144 of 220 species in whose nests its eggs have been observed.” Songbirds especially targeted are flycatchers, warblers, finches and vireos. “Each female's laying cycle appears adapted to take advantage of a continuous supply of host nests for about a two-month period. An average female lays about 80 eggs, 40 per year for two years...A female Brown-headed Cowbird often locates a potential host nest during its construction. She then regularly visits the nest prior to laying while the owners are absent. One day prior to, or on the day she lays her egg, the female cowbird usually removes (and occasionally eats) one host egg from the nest. This cowbird is the only wild passerine ever reported not to show regression of ovaries and oviducts following clutch completion” which “leads ornitholo-gists to characterize female cowbirds as `"passerine chickens!'” Cowbirds can be observed during the breeding season in “open areas with scattered trees, cultivated areas, pastures, riparian thickets, swamps, and around human habitation.”

9. Hooded Oriole - The Hooded Oriole is one of the most beautiful songbirds found in Utah. Found only in southern Utah, it has actually extended its range into the St. George area due to the planting of ornamental palm trees (as previously mentioned in the introduction). The nest is woven of wiry green grass blades or shredded palm or yucca fibers. This oriole regularly occurs in the Beaver Dam Wash at the Lytle Ranch Preserve. From 1974 to the present I have 33 records from the ranch, the earliest being April 4 and the latest September 17. The majority of these records are during April, May and June. Another consistent location for observing this species is near the south entrance (700 West Diagonal) to the Red Hills Golf Course in St. George where there are a couple of large palm trees in which it nests. Dixie College has added some palm trees to its landscape, also, and I have seen this oriole (on occasion) along 700 East between 200-300 South in St. George.

10. Bullock's Oriole - This is another beautiful bird that has a much wider distribution (than the previously described species) in Utah where it is listed as a "common summer" resident. “It is usually associated with riparian woodland, open areas with scattered trees and around human habitation” (Ehrlich, et. al., 1988). In Utah County look for it beginning the latter part of April along the Provo and Spanish Fork Rivers. The Baltimore Oriole and this species were formerly "lumped together" as the Northern Oriole.

11. Scott's Oriole - This beautiful yellow and black oriole is listed as an "uncommon summer" resident. “It appears that a limited but consistent population occurs in that region that lies between Rangley, Colorado, and Ouray, Utah, and probably has been there at least in the 40-year period since Twomey described it in 1942.” (White, Clayton, Et Al., Great Basin Naturalist, Vol. 43, No. 4, page 726, October 1983,). Indeed, the Utah Bird Latilong Distribution, published in 1981 by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources indicates a persistent population in desert and pinion-juniper habitats all along the eastern part of Utah adjacent to Colorado. From my own experience with this species I have 12 records from the Lytle Ranch Preserve in southwestern Utah, the earliest dated April 17 and the latest August 17. The best times to observe this species at this location is during the months of May, June and July. I have observed it along the Beaver Dam Slope on the road in to the Lytle Preserve where I presume it is nesting in the Joshua Trees. After nesting is over I assume some of them move into the Beaver Dam Wash area where I have observed them feeding on the figs and the mulberries at the preserve.

Utah Breeding Bird Atlas Project

 Last year, several hardy birders from the Utah County Birders attempted to survey breeding birds as an experiment to determine if it was feasible to do a Breeding Bird Atlas Project in Utah, and to determine what processes and procedures would work for our state.

Utah is large, and birders are few, placing a special burden on the project to make the surveys accurate and as easy as possible.

The Breeding Bird Atlas project is an attempt to identify the state's breeding birds and their distribution. To make the effort possible, 3 mile by 3 mile survey squares have been selected uniformly across the state. Volunteers are asked to select a square or two each year and survey them to determine the birds that breed and rear young there.

The experiment caused refinements in the atlas process and produced some surprising results. One of the biggest surprises was how big a 3 by 3 mile square really is, and how different the habitat on one side can be from the other side. The next surprise was how difficult it is to find and identify the birds and then determine their behavior. (The behavior is needed to prove the bird actually breeds in the square.)

Another of the surprises was how enjoyable it is to visit places in Utah. Having an assigned square meant going to it several times trying to find the birds that were there. The squares were places we might normally drive right on past while going to other places, but spending time within them caused us to see them in new ways. Most everyone came to enjoy their square and look forward to going out into it.

So that I might more completely understand the survey experience, I assigned myself a square at Soldier Summit, about 70 miles from home. Over the course of the spring and summer breeding season, I visited 'my' square 5 times, camping there overnight once. I was along the White River riparian zone which was bordered by 6 different habitat types. It was beautiful, and my experiences were memorable. Since I never went alone, one day, Julia and I hiked up a draw and came to a spring trampled with hoof prints. Continuing another hundred feet, we found ourselves in the middle of an Elk herd and caused the Elk to scatter in all directions, bugling as they went. A beautiful sight. Birds were all over and I saw them and recorded my sightings.

Now we are doing the Utah Breeding Bird Atlas project for real. If you would like to participate this year, either repeating last year's experiment or beginning new, please visit the Utah BBA web site at www.utahnature.com/utahnature/utahbba.php.

Robin Tuck, Utah BBA Chairman

Utah Ornithological Society Update

The Utah Ornithological Society (UOS) is sponsoring a fall conference September 10-12, 2004 in Cedar City, Utah. Dr. Kate Grandison of Southern Utah University has agreed to host this event for the UOS and will be helping to organize fieldtrips to surrounding areas and arranging meeting places on or near campus. This conference will provide birders from across the state a chance to mingle with each other, exchange bird sightings, and learn from guest lecturers. It will be nice to put a face to the birders who have submitted sightings to the bird net. So please mark this date on your calendar and make an effort to attend at least one day or more.

A journal of the UOS will also be published and members will be receiving this at least twice a year. Informative articles about birding as well as records of birds approved by the records committee will be included in the journal.

Plans are to provide meaningful fieldtrips to various parts of the state and to have representatives from each of the birding clubs/Audubon chapters co-host these trips. Spontaneous trips to observe rare birds would also be organized by the fieldtrip chairman with cooperation from organizations or individual birders to help locate the bird.

An official 2004 checklist to the birds of Utah has been updated and completed by four members of the records committee and can be obtained from government agencies and local bird organizations. More information about this checklist can be found at the utahbirds.org website.

An effort is being made by the UOS to coordinate with the Utah State Division of Wildlife Resources in gathering data for a Breeding Bird Atlas. Competent observers are needed to help in gathering data about the status of nesting birds across this state. Many states have completed this Atlas and Utah needs to begin this year. Interested birders should contact Robin Tuck at utahnature.org website to obtain more information.

Merrill Webb, UOS President