Archive for the ‘Entries by Lu Giddings’ Category

Throwback Thursday: Turkey Day!

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Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys © Lu Giddings

Throwback Thursday Originally Posted 11/24/10: Turkey Day! by Lu Giddings

Things to be thankful for: snow tires, four-wheel drive, insulated boots, long johns, and a down parka. Snow began to fall last night and has continued intermittently throughout the day. If weathermen are correct storms will assail us until Wednesday evening, leaving behind as much as a foot of snow in the valley, significantly more as one ascends into the hills.

Snow continues to fall. The canyon road begins wet but becomes slushy as it climbs. I finally turn onto the snow-covered lane that leads through a locked gate to the wild turkeys. A friend fed them daily all last winter. He started again a few weeks ago. Weather has forced the birds to move from higher elevations to lower country where the snow is not too deep to keep them from feeding.

I cannot at first see the birds but can hear them calling from the wooded hillside across the stream. I watch from my truck. The turkeys move over the water and out of the woods, congregating at its edge. Some wander purposefully across the pasture toward the feeder. We changed the feeding cycle two days ago, setting it forward by an hour so the birds were not foraging in darkness. They have already learned the new routine.

They wait. I wait. The time for the first of five scheduled broadcasts comes and goes. The feeder should be throwing corn to the birds. Nothing is happening. I wait a bit longer and swear. The feeder is jammed.

The closest birds back off as I grumble my way toward the device but they do not bolt. The fouled mechanism is cleared as quickly as conditions permit. I reassemble the feeder, hit “run,” and hold my breath. The electric motor growls. It works properly. As I return to the truck I hear chaos behind me, a mad scramble as the birds near the trees rush to join those already enjoying the shower of corn. The second of the broadcasts begins a few minutes later. The feeder jams a second time. Again I leave the truck, my presence testing the limits of their wary patience, but they remain. After clearing the jam I hit the “run” button, standing still as stone beside the machine. The turkeys ignore me and feed, cooing as they eat. Attempting to count the birds is as futile as trying to count the kernels thrown by the feeder. I estimate sixty birds, seemingly all hens although first year males have not yet begun to show the breast beard, spurs, and facial coloration typical of adult males.

The feeder finally completes the last of its cycles. A small but significant pile of corn has accumulated on the ground near my boots, the aftermath of clearing the jammed machine. The turkeys can see it. One brave hen walks cautiously forward and begins to feed. She is joined by another, then a third and a fourth. I wait until they are finished and have moved away before I shift, covered with corn dust and snow. I don’t care for winter. But I know I have something to look forward to, until the snows melt and the birds return to higher country.

Throwback Thursday: Whisky Jacks

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Wednesday, November 7th, 2012
Gray Jay

Gray Jay © Lu Giddings

There is no such thing as Indian Summer at eleven thousand feet. There is life and then, with the storms, there is the long, long sleep from which a few warm days can neither revive nor rescue. The sun is shining brightly but the breeze, when it blows, has teeth. There are a few holes in the snow blanketing the ground, but the next storm will mend these and the earth beneath will slumber, shrouded in ice, until June. During the few warm months montane birds abound, but they now are mostly gone. The year-long residents remain. An American Three-toed Woodpecker drums on a nearby spruce. Mountain Chickadees squabble in the vicinity. A Common Raven flies overhead while Clark’s Nutcrackers call in the distance. I sit atop a picnic table beneath an azure sky, bundled in down, relishing the bits of life that remain, like sitting with a dying friend as he gasps his few last words.

There is a rustle in a nearby fir. I am being watched. Carefully, moving as little as possible, I nonchalantly flick a few cashews to the ground at my feet. It does not take long. A blur darts out of the tree as a gray jay descends upon the nuts. I watch it pack one, then two, and finally three cashews in its mouth. It cannot completely close its bill but it flies determinedly away. It soon returns, with friends, and as I continue to toss nuts and pieces of cracker to the ground I find myself in the midst of a group of nine or so of the brazen beggars. Gray Jays are well known, and deservedly so,  for their unabashed audacity. For over a century the birds have been denominated in both the avian and popular literature as “camp robbers,” “meat birds,” “grease birds,” “meat hawks,” “moose birds,” “lumber jacks,” and “venison hawks.” To an unknown tribe of Native Americans they were “wis-ka-tjon,” which was anglicized to “Whisky John” and later corrupted to “Whisky Jack.”

This reputation is well deserved. I have watched their kleptomania in the past and today is no different. I do not throw my offerings fast enough to the ground to keep the birds happy and they manifest their annoyance. On three occasions as I am looking one way, a gray jay comes from my blindside, flies straight at my head, and brushes me with its feathers as it passes. Their boldness emboldens me. I stop throwing nuts to the ground, pour several in my hand, and rest it on the table top.  The assaulters pause briefly and then one glides to the table’s edge, hops across to my hand, takes two nuts, and flies unhurriedly away. A second bird quickly replaces it at the edge. Hopping across to my hand, it briefly scorns the nuts. Instead, it bites down impertinently on my finger, tugging several times before it relents and settles for cashews. The experience is surprising, not painful. And yet, I am not surprised in the least. The ability to thrive in this beautiful but hostile place is not simply a function of physical adaptation, but a matter of moxy as well.

Whisky Jacks

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Friday, November 11th, 2011
Gray Jay

Gray Jay

There is no such thing as Indian Summer at eleven thousand feet. There is life and then, with the storms, there is the long, long sleep from which a few warm days can neither revive nor rescue. The sun is shining brightly but the breeze, when it blows, has teeth. There are a few holes in the snow blanketing the ground, but the next storm will mend these and the earth beneath will slumber, shrouded in ice, until June. During the few warm months montane birds abound, but they now are mostly gone. The year-long residents remain. An American Three-toed Woodpecker drums on a nearby spruce. Mountain Chickadees squabble in the vicinity. A Common Raven flies overhead while Clark’s Nutcrackers call in the distance. I sit atop a picnic table beneath an azure sky, bundled in down, relishing the bits of life that remain, like sitting with a dying friend as he gasps his few last words.

There is a rustle in a nearby fir. I am being watched. Carefully, moving as little as possible, I nonchalantly flick a few cashews to the ground at my feet. It does not take long. A blur darts out of the tree as a gray jay descends upon the nuts. I watch it pack one, then two, and finally three cashews in its mouth. It cannot completely close its bill but it flies determinedly away. It soon returns, with friends, and as I continue to toss nuts and pieces of cracker to the ground I find myself in the midst of a group of nine or so of the brazen beggars. Gray Jays are well known, and deservedly so,  for their unabashed audacity. For over a century the birds have been denominated in both the avian and popular literature as “camp robbers,” “meat birds,” “grease birds,” “meat hawks,” “moose birds,” “lumber jacks,” and “venison hawks.” To an unknown tribe of Native Americans they were “wis-ka-tjon,” which was anglicized to “Whisky John” and later corrupted to “Whisky Jack.”

This reputation is well deserved. I have watched their kleptomania in the past and today is no different. I do not throw my offerings fast enough to the ground to keep the birds happy and they manifest their annoyance. On three occasions as I am looking one way, a gray jay comes from my blindside, flies straight at my head, and brushes me with its feathers as it passes. Their boldness emboldens me. I stop throwing nuts to the ground, pour several in my hand, and rest it on the table top.  The assaulters pause briefly and then one glides to the table’s edge, hops across to my hand, takes two nuts, and flies unhurriedly away. A second bird quickly replaces it at the edge. Hopping across to my hand, it briefly scorns the nuts. Instead, it bites down impertinently on my finger, tugging several times before it relents and settles for cashews. The experience is surprising, not painful. And yet, I am not surprised in the least. The ability to thrive in this beautiful but hostile place is not simply a function of physical adaptation, but a matter of moxy as well.

Birding Tip Series #1: Probability Birding

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Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

When I first began to bird I imagined that if, for example, I wished to find a cactus wren, it was sufficient to drive down into the desert – the appropriate habitat – and look. It was through the kind suggestions of the local birding community I learned that to see cactus wrens I needed to travel to the Beaver Dam Mountains. This is the only desert area in Utah in which the birds have ever been reported. The same holds true for many other species of interest. If I want to see pine grosbeaks I have to visit certain mountains but should not waste my time at others. Purple martins are only found in a handful of the state’s quaking aspen forests, not all. Greater roadrunners are found in southwestern Utah but rarely in southeastern Utah, even though both areas are mostly desert. And so on. In short, birds are not always where you think they should be, even when the habitat is apparently ideal. They are in fact where you find them, or, where others find them for you.

I learned that many birds are seasonal. Common ravens are always around but American crows are usually seen only during winter. Herring gulls and bald eagles visit during the cold months but are almost never seen during summer. Black-headed grosbeaks and Bullock’s orioles appear every spring but disappear well before the beginning of fall. And many species, like Nashville warblers and Cassin’s vireos, only stop here briefly as they pass through during the great migrations.

I also struggled with species that looked, to my unpracticed eye, almost exactly like other birds. How did I know whether I was looking at a house finch, a Cassin’s finch, or a purple finch? A Swainson’s thrush or a Bicknell’s thrush? A black-capped chickadee or a Mexican chickadee? A cedar waxwing or a Bohemian waxwing? Subtle differences in field marks aside, I discovered that reliable state checklists and species range maps are valuable tools in the decision making process.

These fundamental notions of habitat, time of year, and range are all essential in making birding simpler, more enjoyable, and more correct. They aid in determining the probability of what a particular bird may or may not be. The finch on the feeder outside my window is probably a house finch, given that purple finches are almost never seen in Utah and Cassin’s finches are usually found in montane habitat, not the scrub oak that flourishes around me. That thrush is likely a Swainson’s thrush, given that Bicknell’s thrushes are rarely seen outside of New England. The chickadee I’m watching is almost certainly not a Mexican chickadee, given their limited range in southeastern Arizona and their need for different habitat. And unless it’s cold and snowy outside, those waxwings in my neighbor’s tree are almost certainly cedar waxwings. Certainly a given bird can wind up almost any place at any time. But by carefully considering the probability of a bird given its known range, habitat, and season, many misidentifications can be avoided.

Gray Squirrels?

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Thursday, April 28th, 2011


A quiet Sunday afternoon in the hills. The sun tries bravely to shine through dark clouds, heavy with rain, but is only occasionally successful. The peaks towering above remain ice-entombed, seeming to glower down disapprovingly, jealously, on the riot of green beginning to emerge at their feet. The stream rumbles, turbid, turgid with rain and melting snow but above it one can still hear the birds, for they are many.

A pair of gray squirrels scurry back and forth from a rocky hillside to a large pile of corn lying on the ground near the barn. They seem to be trying to shuttle the enormous pile to their den, one large mouthful at a time. But I find myself wondering, while these squirrels are gray, are they truly Gray Squirrels?

The Sciuridae family includes squirrels, chipmunks, marmots and prairie dogs. At least 67 species are known in North America. Of these, 35 are squirrels and 22 are chipmunks. Not entirely sure as to the technical distinction between the two, I make the mistake of looking it up. Chipmunks are described as small striped squirrels.

I persist. I find myself amazed by the volume of squirrelly information available online. There are three Gray Squirrel species, Western, Eastern, and Arizona, none of which are found in Utah. There are however twelve squirrel and five chipmunk species that are observed in the state. I find myself checking photographs, range maps, and reading specie reports. It’s a bit too much like work for a lazy afternoon but curiosity compels me and it must be done. At last my persistence pays a dividend. I find that I am watching rock squirrels, which are gray squirrels, but which are not Gray Squirrels. I am not sure how long it has been since they emerged from hibernation, but breeding season is already here or nearly so. They continue their trips at a frenetic pace. It is wearying to watch. The sun peaks through the clouds and warms the air, just for a few moments but it is enough. Exhausted vicariously, I fade into a few moments of well-earned slumber. Meanwhile, the squirrels work on.

In Hot Water

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Wednesday, April 13th, 2011


Fumarole Butte rises up above the surrounding Sevier Desert but only just. A shield volcano active about a million years ago, its lava flowed smoothly from its fiery mouth for several miles in every direction. The volcano is only a few hundred feet high but easily seen from a distance of miles, its black rock in conspicuous contrast to the pale alkali flats that surround it.

While the volcano has been silent for many millennia the ground around it remains very hot not too far beneath the surface. Melting snow percolates downward and is heated before it emerges from springs on the volcano’s flanks. The volume of water released by even the largest of the numerous seeps is small, but they are perennial and the water is scalding hot. Plants resistant to the heat and high mineral concentrations line the small channels formed as the water flows from its sources and accumulates in larger puddles and pools. The community is an oasis, not only a source of water in the desert but also a refuge from the cold during winter. There are few trees and little brush aside from an occasional salt cedar, but it is home to a multitude of birds, small mammals, and other animals.

Many of the hot pools and rivulets are adorned with brightly colored mats that form around their edges and on their bottoms or as streamers that grow in their flowing water. They appear to be algae but in most cases, especially in the hottest water, these mats and streamers are colonies of thermophiles, primitive bacteria-like single-celled organisms that thrive in extreme conditions. The ability of life to exist in this hostile world is a discovery made in the last fifty years. The implications are still under study but much of interest has been learned. Thermophiles often violate the laws of chemistry that govern the lives of higher plants and animals. There are those that may, for example, use sulfur for respiration rather than oxygen. Some produce sulfuric acid, a substance that can erode rock and that is typically inimical to life. The ability of thermophiles to withstand temperatures that kill higher plants and animals is of especial interest. It is thought that this may reflect their early appearance in Earth’s history, while the planet was far too hostile a place for the more highly evolved species that now are commonplace. I am struck by the irony of walking in a place where the rocks are very young but the creatures providing the color are unimaginably old, even by geological standards.

Au Revoir, My Friends

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Tuesday, March 29th, 2011


A second winter of feeding the local turkeys is near its end. The spring hunt begins on April 9th and continues through the end of May. If the hunt doesn’t scatter them the primal call to breed and nest will soon irresistibly send them up into the surrounding hills. They won’t go far, but go they will. We hoped that the offer of free corn would keep them around last summer. We were utterly disappointed.

Still, two days ago I re-filled the feeder with 250 pounds of corn. I also spread another fifty pounds on the ground but there’s no trace of it today. There is such a thing as a free lunch and the turkeys take advantage of it while they can.

It’s a blustery March afternoon, too warm to be Winter, too cold to be Spring. It snowed half-heartedly last night but all that fell has melted, leaving the ground damp and cold. The skies look as though they’d like to try again but haven’t the energy to do anything more than threaten. The sun is barely visible through the clouds and will drop below the west rim of the canyon in less than an hour. A northern flicker whinnies and drums atop a tree that stands on the banks of the creek. Magpies squawk back and forth to each other from the oak brush. A robin calls, house finches sing, a pair of ravens fly silently overhead, but the turkeys are quiet and not to be seen.

I walk to the barn, remove a fifty pound bag of corn from the tack shed, slit a long gash in it and then heave it over my shoulder, leaving a trail of corn where ever I wander. I throw the empty bag in the back of my truck, walk to the feeder and activate it. The feeder makes a noise the turkeys well know and they respond promptly. Nearly two dozen birds emerge from the brush along the creek and sprint across the pasture to the feeding ground. I know there are more but they make me wait. Turkeys are remarkably bright but seem to be very much creatures of habit.

At 6:30 p.m. the feeder begins the first of its three scheduled evening broadcasts. Chaos erupts. A horde of turkeys emerge from the creek bottom, dozens more whoosh in from the east, and a multitude of the birds scamper through the oak brush, down the steep hillside to the west. This west-hill group seems to have the largest toms. Based on the length of their beards and the size of their spurs, some of these males are at least four years old. I marvel, thinking of the hunts they’ve survived, of the winters they’ve endured. Most of the birds, male and female alike, are content to eat but one of the toms begins to strut, and then another. It’s too dark to use my camera but I refuse to let the laws of physics deter me. I do not know if the birds will remain when I next return. I want photographs as well as memories. The birds are many and they devour everything: all of the corn thrown by the feeder, all of the corn I dropped from the bag, any stray kernels that might have been missed from earlier feedings, heaven only knows how. I watch them wander away, through the growing gloom, and I wonder which of these birds and how many will return in November, when food again becomes scarce and winter again lays claim to the canyon.

The Big Dance

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Friday, March 18th, 2011

Winter is dying. If sap is flowing in the trees it does not yet show. There are no flowers, no green grass yet peeking through the snow. But the birds know. Hen turkeys gather every afternoon in the flats in the canyon bottom just over the hill from our home to watch the toms strut, just like giddy school girls ogling the football team in their letter jackets at a pep rally. Greater sage grouse have also begun to respond to their rising blood. They assemble well before dawn at leks, places to see and be seen, strutting grounds that may have been used for generations by the birds. The males watch each other and the females so intently that they sometimes forget to keep an eye skyward for marauding golden eagles that come commonly cruising for breakfast.

Their smaller cousins, sharp-tailed grouse, also feel the call of Spring in their bones. These birds were once found across much of the Great Basin but loss of habitat to cultivation and grazing has reduced their numbers severely in the region. A few leks remain in Utah and Nevada. They are isolated and often inaccessible during breeding season, deeply drifted snow blocking the roads, protecting them from human intrusion.

If the roads are open and passable you must arrive early at a lek, an hour or more before dawn. Some birds will already be present, and they will not appreciate your appearance, but if you sit quietly, patiently, and do not disturb them more will come. You sit in your car with the engine off until the birds disperse, sometimes an hour or more after sunrise. Dress warmly and bring blankets. You’ll probably still be cold, even with the sun. Be sure to make that last “pit stop” before you arrive at the lek and be very attentive to the volume and types of fluids you drink. A three hour wait with a full bladder will be as memorable as the birds but far less pleasant. You do not for any reason exit your car, start your engine, make loud noises or sudden movements. The males are generally difficult to deter but wary all the same. A loud voice, a slammed car door, even the appearance of an ignoramus with a camera hanging too far out a window can be enough to spook the birds and bring an abrupt, premature end to the morning.

Sit quietly, patiently, watch, and listen. The birds call to each other, sounding a bit like turkeys exhaling helium. Their tails rattle like paper fans. They stomp their feet. Pairs of males will circle each other, staring. At times they fly at their adversary, beating each other with their wings. But more often they circle until they stop and then they sit, still staring, often for minutes at a time until one or the other grows bored or distracted and wanders away.

Eventually the birds disperse. You start your engine, roll up your windows, turn the heater on high, stamp your feet and wiggle your toes until their tingling assures you they have not frozen off, and you begin to pick your way through deep mud and snow drifts to a world too loud and fast and brash for dancing grouse. And if their magic has touched you, you may just find yourself wondering why you cannot stay.

Snow Geese

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Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

One of the marvels of migration is the precision and the predictability with which certain species move toward their nesting grounds. Late in January the snow geese that winter in California’s Imperial Valley begin the journey to their nesting territories on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The birds are strong fliers. Flocks have been tracked in the air non-stop for up to 60 hours, covering distances in excess of 1,700 miles. But as vegetarians it makes little sense to fly directly to a land entombed in ice. Instead, they follow winter as it retreats to the north, often stopping for lengthy periods in snow-free areas to forage for seeds, stems, leaves, tubers, roots, and newly sprouting shoots. Every year large flocks of snow geese spend the last days of February and the first days of March at the ranches and farms of Delta, Utah. The town may host as many as ten to fifteen thousand geese at one time during these few weeks. Their arrival is always celebrated although, in the end, the hordes of hungry birds are “encouraged” to continue northward by hunters. The large flocks are loud and cacophonous but visually overwhelming, even at times sublime.

Within the enormous flocks snow geese often travel as families. The birds are monogamous and breed for life, usually pairing during their second winter or second spring migration. They may live together for ten to fifteen years or longer. Young geese remain with their family through winter and during spring migration, dispersing only after their parents begin to nest and incubate. However, if they fail to breed or lose their clutch, the young may return and spend a second winter with their parents.

The urge to move northward is relentless, even without human encouragement. There is a direct correlation between nesting success and starting as early as possible. The first returning snow geese begin to arrive at their nesting territories in mid-May, as the arctic ice beings to melt and life reanimates the tundra. Nests are often simple and hasty, at times little more than scrapes in the ground. Incubation lasts a few weeks. The young are born precocious, down-covered, almost immediately able to walk, swim, dive, and feed themselves. Their parents lead them away from the nest within twenty-four hours of hatching, wandering as far as several miles in a day in search of food. They fledge at about six weeks. Earlier hatching birds enjoy a greater availability of food. Better fed goslings mature more rapidly, reach larger adult sizes, are overall healthier, and are far more likely to survive the brutal conditions and multitudes of predators from which their parents cannot protect them.

But all of this is in the back of my mind as I watch them, ten thousand strong or more, socializing on a small desert reservoir just outside of Delta. Flock after flock after flock of the birds come into view, beginning as tiny, noisy white specks in an iron gray sky, growing larger as they approach, and then they descend, noisily, dropping casually from the winter sky to the cold gray water and their waiting families and friends. Is their appeal the promise of spring they carry with them? their enthusiasm in spite of the wintery conditions? their good-natured garrulity? I cannot say. I only know that next February they will return, as will I to witness their passage.

Not Yet, But Soon

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Thursday, February 24th, 2011


On a typical day, a drive across the causeway to Antelope Island is like a trip across the Serengeti. As you look to the north an uncountable number of birds stretch across the Great Salt Lake, all the way to the horizon. The view to the south is the same. But today was like birding on Mars. The rocks and dirt were cold and dead. The lake, despite its high salinity, had frozen along its edges and far out, where the ground showed bare, the ice had formed as well. There was much open water but no birds swam on it, in every direction, as far as the eye could see. A bald eagle flew past, solitary, heading intently east. An American kestrel perched on a mile marker. A small flock of horned lark wheeled indecisively over one dead patch of grass, then another, before finally touching down. Two ravens poked forlornly, futilely through the storm-washed stones of the beach, looking for lunch.

It is the lull between one migration and the next. The late staying Fall birds finally have left. The early birds of Spring are on their way but not yet arrived. Snow geese are moving in from the south. They will be flying overhead by the thousands in the upcoming weeks, as will other waterfowl. Swallows will follow, as will waders and peeps. The terns will return and gulls will descend on the lake like a Biblical plague. Pelicans will soar, stately, sedately, back and forth between the lake’s eastern shore and the island. And kingbirds soon will scold from every bush top, minding everyone’s business but their own. Winter will not last forever. It only seems that way today.