Monday, August 26, 2019

Adventures In Geri Birding

I was once what they call a "young birder"...but no longer. I may still be younger than the average birder - much younger - but I can't identify with being a young birder anymore, or even just young. As my youth and vitality slowly drain from my body and mind, leaving aches and pains and codgery notions and inclinations in their wake, I am reminded more and more each year that middle age has crested the distant horizon and is quickly coming for me.

The past few years have bore all the signs of being left by the wayside of youth. I have worked the same job for over five years. There has been less travel...less socializing...finding a new band to embrace has become a huge challenge...and whether I care or not, I am really losing track of what is, or is supposed to be, remotely cool. Of course, there are more responsibilities too, even a child!

Are you there, Perpetual Weekend? It's me, Steve.

But there are benefits to being 37 and not 27. Like I am hungover way less, I'm not broke, I drink better bourbon, 5MR birding exists now, I'm a little wiser, and with Annie here with us I am never, ever bored. But one benefit that I am now reaping every day at this age is GERI BIRDING.

Yes, geri birding. Although some people scoff at geri birding, I have always reveled in it. Really, the main downside (which can also be an upside, depending on your sense of humor or appreciation of irony) of geri birding is that you are often forced to do it in a confined space with other birders, and you have to overhear their conversations or unwillingly get sucked into them. Something that has always stuck in my mind (I think it was from some standup comedy bit) for years now is that almost every random snippet of conversation you overhear from strangers ends up sounding completely idiotic. I have found that anecdote to be unnervingly accurate - most conversations I overhear sound somewhere between incredibly boring, trite, recycled, or utterly moronic, and that percentile is no different when you gather a bunch of birders together at some fact, it is probably worse, and all but impossible to tune out. Satre said "Hell is other people!" and that is hard to argue with if you spend enough time geri birding where other birders congregate. You are going to hear some excruciatingly vapid exchanges, people who live to hear themselves talk, incorrect scientific and bird facts, abhorrent misidentifications...often, all at the same time!

But geri birding is not just something you only do in southeast Arizona or at some rainforest lodge, there are geri birding opportunities almost anywhere...if you build it, they will come. In the sanctuary of your own yard, you don't have to deal with all of those, well, geris. Although I definitely miss going to cool places for field jobs, I have found in my increasingly middling age that having a yard to bird from is pretty great. Yes, Rancho de Bastardos happens to be situated in a uniquely awesome location for yard birding purposes (the ponds behind my fence really ups my yardbirding game), but the feeders and garden bring a lot of species in too, often just as many species or more than the ponds. Geri birding is what you make it, and I'd like to focus on that aspect for most of this post. So in that spirit, here are some anecdotes and lessons I have learned over the last couple years, since I got serious about geri birding in my own yard.

Many geri birders welcome back a host of migratory species to their feeders in spring and summer - that is unfortunately not the case at my house, but one obvious migrant species we get for about 5 months a year are Hooded Orioles, which nest in various neighborhood palms. I always put out this leaky, hard to clean hummingbird feeder for them because they can actually nectar from it - the ports in our other feeders are too small. I did try putting up orange wedges at one point, but the rats got to them...maybe I'll spring for an actual oriole feeder before next year. The adult males are super skittish for some reason so I'm still waiting for the crush of a lifetime, but the females and HY birds are a bit more confiding.

I'm still trying to figure out the deal with hummingbirds at my house. So far, it does not seem like hanging up a grip of hummingbird feeders is actually going to attract more hummingbirds than a couple feeders, though I'm tempted to try it - I think they would still be dominated by one or two super territorial Anna's. My current hypothesis is that the Rancho is not located on a major hummingbird flyway and/or lacks an adjacent area that draws in large numbers of them (i.e. a park with a lot of blooming plants/eucalyptus, for example). Perhaps one day, at a future Rancho de Bastardos, I will bring in swarms of them.

Before I embarked on this voyage that we call geri birding, I would have raised an eyebrow if you told me that Bewick's Wren was a frequent denizen of feeders. I also didn't think of them as being terribly confiding for a wren. But my yard wrens have shown me that it was I who was mistaken...about a great many things. Bewick's Wrens are fearless and cannot say no to either suet or seed....huh! Geri birding...easy, fulfilling, and educational!

This year I finally put up a suet feeder. I waited a long time to do this. For some reason, I just assumed that it wouldn't really get put to use by the local yardbirds...I was wrong again. The suet feeder is MAGIC. I haven't lured in anything rare with it, but it just gets absolutely hammered by the yard birds. The wrens love it. The chickadees love it. The titmice love it. The nuthatches love it.

The nuthatches. White-breasted Nuthatch was a yard rarity the first year we were here. Now? The yard is straight nuthatch-mania. As Frank might say if he were here, "nuthatches galore!"

It has been interesting to see what locally common species have "found" the yard as time has gone on. The first year here, White-breasted Nuthatch and Spotted Towhee only came in to the yard once or twice. Now nuthatches are one of the most reliable visitors, and I counted three different Spotted Towhees this morning. Of course, birds do different things year to year...this year, though they could care less about what is happening in my yard, Vaux's Swifts have been much more uncommon overhead than 2017 and 2018.

Yup, as easy as geri birding can be, it's not quite as easy to do everything you can to maximize the geri birding potential of you own yard. Reaching maximum geri birding potential is not as easy as you might think, especially if you are working with a modest budget. Having the correct feeders up (and the correct feed to offer) can make all the difference, as mentioned above with the oriole-accommodating hummingbird feeder and the suet feeder. In fact, just last week I went from a very small tray-style feeder to something much larger, figuring birds will find something roomier more inviting. The result? Within a week of trading feeders, my high count of Black-headed Grosbeak in the yard went from 1 to 3...and all three were seen on the feeder together! Not bad for a yard in suburban tract housing with no native trees.

Everybody knows that birds love bird baths. I was dead set (unnecessarily) on getting something that I could put on the ground, which turned out to be a little more challenging than I thought it would be. I settled on this rocky looking basin thing, which could be purchased without the accompanying standard bird bath pedestal. I wish it was a bit bigger but it performs well, along with a bubbling rock thingy (fake rock with a small pump inside) to add some movement to the water. It gets hella use, though mostly from birds that are towhee-sized or smaller. Lincoln's Sparrow likes it.

One day, when I am a homeowner, I will build the water feature to end all water features. Birds will be falling out of the sky to use it. Well, maybe not, but it will be a couple of steps up from the current situation, and it will be situated to maximize crushing opportunities, which is currently not really possible with our small yard combined with less-than-ideal lighting conditions. Having a south-facing house is a positive thing in many circles but from a birding or photography perspective, it sucks. Why would you want to maximize the amount of time spent looking into the sun? Ugly, ugly light.

Right. The water feature of my geri birding fantasies may one day become the bane of my existence, but I look forward to the challenge and subsequent avian rewards (cough VAGRANTS cough cough).

Hey, is this the first Rock Pigeon I've ever posted? Only took almost a thousand posts! But this isn't just any old pigeon...its someone's homing/racing pigeon! What are the chances we would be visited by a pigeon of such honor? Such calibre? It stayed around the house a few days before resuming its voyage home. In that vein of weirdness, we've also had two different Budgerigars at Rancho de Bastardos, and just recently there was a mysterious, tiny blue dove with a short tail in the yard very briefly...the brain paralysis that thing induced was swift and total. I still don't know what the hell that was but am confident it was an escapee.

Crushing opportunities must be maximized, even when having to deal with harsh lighting much of the time. When it comes to geri birding, any zealous bird photographer will tell you it is all about fake perches. Fake, as in natural looking perches set up in artificial about keeping it real. I don't really obsess over this sort of thing (as I've said a hundred times, I'm not a photographer, I just take pictures) but I will readily admit that a picture of a bird on a stick usually looks better than a bird on a feeder. So, to facilitate crushing, I've got several sticks ziptied to things around the yard, and I think the birds appreciate the additional spots to wait their turn if a feeder is filled with a pile of doves or Band-tailed Pigeons. The Chestnut-backed Chickadees here readily use these perches and now only have a modicum of fear of me (I often reach to refill a feeder and am surprised to find a chickadee still sitting on it, only a couple feet away) so make ideal photo targets, although they don't exactly sit still much. They are also the best looking chickadee of them all, so might as well go to town.

I currently have this perch up. It's an interesting one, I'm not sure what to think of it. It's kinda too girthy to be real popular for songbirds to perch on it very much, but I had Accipiters in mind when I put it up. This Cooper's Hawk made my vision complete. It's nice to have raptors in our little yard pretty often, though the Mourning Doves don't agree. The perch manipulation is also a fun experiment just from a behavior's interesting to see how a perch is almost completely ignored in one spot, but moved a couple feet over gets used 3 or 4 times as much by birds wanting a good waiting spot before landing on a feeder.

Although I always knew in my heart of hearts that I would be a geri birder someday, I didn't quite realize how much gardening that would entail, or that I would kind of like gardening. The gardening aspect really makes gerifying your yard feel even more geriatric than just hanging up a bunch of feeders. Since we are renting and will never buy the home we are in, we haven't planted any trees, but it is tempting! Instead, we've most planted shrubs; a lot of sages, native and otherwise. The hummingbirds love many of them but I'm still waiting to see them get a ton of use by other birds, though I suspect once they mature more they will at least provide good cover. This is another geriatric activity I can see myself getting really into someday...gardening with native plants and landscaping. How embarrasing, can't believe I just admitted that.

Just dump me in a grave already.

I have to say though, it is a few of the *nonnative* trees in/just outside the yard that seem to bring in a lot of birds. Birds love our random backyard juniper and the Peruvian pepper trees (Schinus molle) just outside our yard. Pepper trees are notorious in California for being sapsucker magnets , and I owe my yard list's Red-breasted Sapsuckers entirely to a neighbor's pepper tree. But a lot of other species are drawn to them as well, including a number of neotropical migrants, and even Western Screech-Owl, which spent one very vocal night in said pepper tree.

Of course, if you are going to put food and water out, you are going to attract some unwanted visitors. These can range from Brown-headed Cowbirds (above) to cats to rodents (native and otherwise) to bears, depending on where you live. Here at Rancho de Bastardos, we have to contend with native and nonnative squirrels, the occasional cat, Norway rats, House Sparrows and cowbirds.

I hate the rats. I hate the cowbirds.

The cats are infrequent enough that chasing them off by yelling with a hose in hand like a senile old man seems to deter them most of the time. Rats and squirrels have to contend with a squirrel proof feeder and a squirrel baffle for another feeder - incredibly, both of those deterrents work perfectly. The presence of House Sparrows and cowbirds have motivated me to experiment with seed mixes: black oil sunflower and safflower go in the feeders, smaller seeds get sprinkled on the ground. For whatever reason, this has worked pretty well and the feeders don't get overrun by the House Sparrows, though the cowbirds have grown fond of the feeders lately...a source of much brow-furrowing and hand-wringing.

But enough about shitbirds...I will leave you with my greatest geri birding accomplishment to date. The hands-down highlight of geri birding here in the last couple of years came in June, and I can safely say it had nothing to do with all of the plants we've planted, or the feeders, or really anything else going on in the yard. I had been out grocery shopping and was bringing bags of groceries in...without binoculars, of course...when I glanced up at the power lines behind the house. There sat a passerine facing me with a black head, white throat and white breast. For an instant I thought it was odd that a Tree Swallow was sitting there, that isn't normal, but then I saw the Mourning Dove next to it and realized the bird was much bigger than a Tree Swallow, and there was only one thing it could possibly be...a VAGUE RUNT EASTERN KINGBIRD!!! Almost as soon as this dawned on me, the kingbird took flight, flew overhead and disappeared far to the west...I assumed it would never be seen again.

I was astounded. Not only is Eastern Kingbird a very good rarity in the state, it was particularly good for Santa Clara County, where no one had seen one in many years. And this bird was sitting above my yard!

Miraculously, Billy refound the bird later in the day while looking out Annabelle's window, foraging from the neighbor's pepper tree. I got some acceptable photos and a few local birders were able to see it from a nearby public path. Pretty sick that one of my best self found county vagues came in my own yard...a geri birder's dream come true! For one day, I got to live my best geri birding life.

So there you have it, the comprehensive geri birding update from Rancho de Bastardos. The yard list currently stands at 138 species after being here for less than two and a half years, with the most recent additions being an "overdue" Bullock's Oriole and a true gift from the geri birding gods in the form of a flock of Western Sandpipers. May the lords of geri birding continue to smile upon me, and you.


  1. Water really brings 'em in. Best migrant visitors in Nipomo at ground basins have been Lazuli Bunting and Yellow breasted Chat. Most seed mixes are based on GMO corn, so I've stopped feeding it. Geri-gardening with natives for pollinators has paid off, though. And a clean tuna can filled with grape jelly hung on a twisted coat hanger works a charm for orioles. Geri birding at its best.

    1. Chat in birdbath is excellent. I haven't even seen one in my current county yet. Had a couple flyover Lazulis above the yard at least.

      I imagine finding an organic mix would be not only very hard, but also crazily expensive :/

  2. so I guess I'm a big time geri birder, at least when it comes to my backyard fountain, which is definitely in the vague-producing category. Here's one of my recent blog posts about it:

    1. Damn Steve those are some excellent results! Well done. Where did you get the prefab pond liner from?

  3. How about a diamond dove for your escapee? Tiny, blue and fairly common in aviculture.

    1. I have looked into that - the bird I saw had a very short tail, which a diamond dove would only have if it was heavily molting or damaged by cagewear. Still an utterly baffling bird.

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