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New Bird in My Nature Journal – Fox Sparrow

Fox sparrow spring bird study @handbookofnaturestudy

We have had a new regular bird under our birdfeeders this past Project Feederwatch season. I wasn’t able to identify it right off the bat since sparrows are some of the more difficult birds to distinguish in my feeders. I was finally able to take a really good photo of him and that certainly helped.

Fox Sparrow nature journal

He is actually a Sooty Fox Sparrow which is found here on the West Coast. This was the bird that kept flying into my back window…in fact I got to look at one really close because it was dead on my back deck from a crash into the window. (That was a sad day!) I used a photo of the bird this time in my journal just to make it easy. I followed the prompt from last month’s newsletter Nature Journal Topper to list at least five things we observed about our bird. My rule is to get the page done in your journal and not worry about how fancy or creative it is…

This website has some excellent images of this bird: Sooty Fox Sparrow.

Have you observed any new birds yet this spring?




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Project Feederwatch and Autumn Birds
Time for Project Feederwatch to begin for the season! I am ready to go this year and have me days planned for observing our feeders. It only takes a few minutes on two consecutive days each week to participate. If you miss a week, that is okay too…just pick up when you can.

Watch a video on how to get started.

I love weaving a citizen science project like this into our lives. We have several feeders we can see from our windows and keeping them filled with seed is easy. Those feeders become the focal point of our bird observations because for Project Feederwatch you only count birds that come to eat.

We have participated for the last two years and it is interesting to compare our numbers from year to year.

We are already seeing some of our winter residents arriving from their summer migration areas.

What are you seeing at your feeders this month? Are you anticipating the return of any birds to your feeders?

Here is what we had at our feeders this week:
Dark eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
House Finches
Anna’s Hummingbirds
Spotted Towhee
Western Scrub Jays
Starlings (in the trees, not the feeder though)
White-breasted nuthatches

Plus a NEW BIRD!!!

This is the first time ever I spotted a Bewick’s Wren in my backyard! I was out trying to capture my Spotted towhee when this little guy caught my eye. He was flitting around in the shrubs and he ended up on the lilac branches in my butterfly garden. I wasn’t sure if I could get him because he was fast! But, there he is and the image is clear enough that I was able to go in and identify him using WhatBird? and He is new on my life list and he will be going into my nature journal soon.

I will be sharing my bird lists each month and if you do the same you can drop me a comment and I will come and take a look.

You may be interested in following my Nature Study-Birds Pinterest board!

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Things We Learn with the Great Backyard Bird Count – Our 2013 List


This is our fifth year of participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count in our Northern California home. It is the highlight of our February nature study and has led to our becoming better birders every year.

Things We Learn With The Great Backyard Bird Count
  • Learning to identify our backyard birds-an obvious skill that comes directly from recording our observations.
  • Refining our skills as observers-knowing the difference between male and female specimens, subtle differences between species like the House finch and the Pine siskin.
  • Careful record keeping-counting and tallying each bird for the best data to share with the GBBC
  • Better at understanding changes over time-comparing numbers of birds from year to year, anticipating migratory birds, knowing a new bird
  • Learning to use our binoculars better and to take better bird photos
  • Becoming part of an online birding community-reading other family’s experiences and lists, seeing their photos
  • Value of contributing to a citizen science project- realizing our small part in this really important big project as a partner with Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Our2013 List of Birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count
  1. Western Scrub Jay 2
  2. Oak Titmouse 2
  3. White-breasted Nuthatch 1
  4. Spotted Towhee1
  5. White-crowned Sparrow 4
  6. Dark Eyed Junco 6
  7. House Finch 15
  8. House Sparrow 4
  9. California Towhee 1
  10. American Robin 20
  11. Anna’s Hummingbird 2
  12. Mourning Dove 4
  13. Lesser Goldfinches 2
  14. Northern mockingbird 1
  15. Steller’s Jay 1
  16. Pine Siskin 4

Not the impressive numbers we usually have and a few of our old favorites are missing like the woodpeckers and flickers and Cedar waxwings. We did have two new birds this year which was a thrill. The Steller’s jay and the Pine siskin are newcomers to our GBBC list.

I of course spent lots of time running from window to window to try to capture some of our backyard bird visitors….this is normal behavior from me at all times but especially during the GBBC. But this time I didn’t get an really super images so I will indulge you with my Mourning dove and California towhee….some of our regular year-round residents.

Did you count birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count?
Feel free to share your GBBC entries with the Outdoor Hour Challenge Blog Carnival this month or you can leave a comment here in this entry with the most exciting or interesting bird you saw during the GBBC.

Don’t forget that everyone who enters the OHC Carnival this month is entered to win a DVD from Crowe’s Nest Media – either the Monarch Butterfly or the Backyard Bird DVD! They are both wonderful resources for your nature study that your children will want to watch over and over again.

Our February Blog Sponsor….Thanks to the Crowe Family for providing such wonderful DVD’s and study guides for our science and nature study!

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Outdoor Hour Challenge – Starting a Bird Life List

Outdoor Hour Challenge:
For this challenge, I encourage you to start a life list of birds. A bird life list is a cumulative list of birds that a birder sees and identifies.There are a variety of ways to do a life list including a handwritten list in your nature journal, using a pre-made book, checking off birds and noting the dates in your field guide or from a checklist, keeping an online list at eBird, or using an app on your phone. 

Don’t get stuck on picking the “perfect” way to keep your list. Review the choices and then get started. My only regret is that I did not start my personal life list sooner. 

I have found that I like to keep multiple lists including one for our yard and neighborhood (by month), by location when you travel (like my Oregon and Yosemite lists), and perhaps even lists by the month or season. You can see my entry on Nature Journal Organization for more information.

You can also start a bird “wish list” and keep track of birds you would like to see in the future. This is especially helpful if you are traveling and can do some preparation before you leave noting the birds you may encounter. 

Special Activity:Life List Printable

Bird Life List Printable
I have attempted to create a Life List Printable that will be flexible for you to use in your nature notebook. I am in the process of testing it out in my everyday bird sightings.

Your list can be as detailed as you wish.
Things to include: Date and Time of Day. Location. Gender. Weather. Bird Sounds. Number of birds seen.

Additional resources:
Printable Checklists by Country or Region (updated the link with one that should get you started)

Getting Started Suggestion:
If you already own the Getting Started ebook, complete Outdoor Hour Challenge #5. I love the quotes in this challenge from Charlotte Mason. Remind yourself that you are the key to a successful outing and follow your child’s lead as much as possible. After your outdoor time, start or add to your running list of birds you see in your backyard. You can use the notebook page from the ebook for further information.

Blog Logo 1

You can see and download a sample challenge and notebook pages: OHC Getting Started Ebook Sample.

Please note that this ebook is included in every level of membership here on the Handbook of Nature Study.



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How to Be a Better Birder: Learning Bird Calls

“When a bird sings, it’s telling you what it is and where it is. Learn bird calls and open a new window on your birding.”
All About Birds website, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

It all started last year with our visit to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology…a desire to be a better birder. I have known that my listening skills are not as sharp as they could be and I made it a goal to learn more of my local bird’s songs and calls, one bird at a time.

We have been at it for about ten months and I have found that just paging through The Backyard Birdsong Guideand listening to the songs has greatly helped me learn to distinguish between a House sparrow and a House finch, a Titmous and a Nuthatch. I think it is like learning a whole new language and as you work on it your ears get accustomed to hearing subtle differences.

This page on All About Birds has some wonderful tips for learning to recognize bird songs: Songs and Calls. I highly recommend it for anyone who is trying to learn this skill. My boys pick up on it faster than I do so don’t hesitate to share the tips with your children.

Last summer I was able to identify a Hermit thrush during our Oregon camping trip by listening and repeating in my head the song he cried out in the forest. I followed the advice to put the bird song into words that I could remember. I now can immediately identify it with no question.

The Steller’s jay that has moved into my neighborhood in the last few months can be heard easily and distinguished from the Western scrub jay with ease.

The titmouse, the Spotted towhee, the Cedar waxwing…all are easily identified now by their sound.

It feels good. You can do it too by taking one bird at a time and making your own memory or aid to remembering.

During my recent trip to Florida, I used my camera video to capture some bird calls for later identifying.

Do I think it is worth the effort to learn the various bird songs of my neighborhood birds? Yes! It has given our family so much more enjoyment in our birding and has helped us to be more skilled at listening. You can use the ideas in last week’s challenge to help you get started: Birding by Ear.

Do you know any of your local bird’s songs? Widgets

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Backyard Birds – Hawks and Their Calls

Bird watching year after year, you begin to have favorite birds that visit your feeders. You know the comings and goings of the common feeder birds as they stop by to eat each day; sparrows early in the day, scrub jays perched on top, the titmouse speeding in and out.

But sometimes you have birds that bless you with a rare visit…not even to the feeder but still close to your yard and within binocular range of your front window. We have had several hawk visitors over the years that we have observed in this way. This week there was a bird on the telephone wire across the street from our house. I spotted it from the window and then grabbed my binoculars. I grabbed my “big” camera with the really good zoom lens and stepped outside and across the street to see if I could capture him in an image.

It was as if he was posing for me. The look on his face was cautiously curious. I snapped away and here are a couple of frames that really give you a feel for this beautiful hawk.

I think he is a Red-shouldered hawk, both from the description in my field guide, looking at AllAboutBirds, and listening to him as he later soared up in the sky.

Isn’t this a magnificent bird? Look at all those colorful feathers and the patterns are amazing. All hawks are beauties but this one is especially beautiful…I am in awe.

Here is what says about the call of the Red-shouldered hawk:

“A Red-shouldered Hawk’s most common call is a plaintive, rising whistle that sounds like kee-ahh. The call tends to be repeated 5–12 times, with each note lasting about half a second. Hawks use it to claim their territory and when alarmed.”

So now that I can listen for the two syllable call (kee-aah) of the Red-shouldered hawk, I will easily be able to identify it when I hear it while on hikes. There are several other hawks I hear from time to time and they are much different:
Sharp-shinned hawk – which says kik-kik-kik.
Red-tailed hawk – which says keee-eeeek-aar (like a scream)
Cooper’s hawk – which says cak-cak-cak-cak-cak

Do you have hawks in your neighborhood? Can you identify them by their call?

According to the Cornell website, many hawks are now stalking backyard birdfeeders and finding a meal of smaller birds to be much easier than hunting in the wild. I thought that was interesting.

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European Starling Mimics a Hawk

We were out for our afternoon walk with the dog when we thought we heard a red-tailed hawk. We stopped to listen and take a good look but what we saw were two smaller dark birds in the top of the evergreen. They were chattering and I was thinking it was a myna bird….somewhere I had heard one before and I remembered its distinctive whistles and calls.

Starlings 2 11
I tried to zoom in and get a good look but they were too far away. They flew away.

Starling 2 13 11
We continued on the trail and then we heard the chattering again. This time I was able to get a little closer and take another photo. I cropped this one so it is a tad blurry but you can see what the basic shape is for this bird.

When we got home we pulled out the field guide and it told us that the starling and the myna are related. What was the most fascinating fact we learned is that the starling will mimic the red-tail hawk. You can hear it on
European Starling (scroll down and listen)
This is exactly what we heard!

Still learning after all this time!

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Meet My New Friends-The Goldfinches

Lesser Goldfinch 1

We have had a hard time attracting goldfinches to our yard. We tried thistle feeders before but the goldfinches never came. I decided two weeks ago to try again and this time….they arrived right outside my window!

Lesser Goldfinch 2
I can’t tell you how thrilled we were to see them in the feeder, lined up along the branches, and sitting in the top of the tree. Their bright yellow color is amazing to see flash across the yard and their sweet little song is so beautiful coming in the windows.

Lesser Goldfinch 4
Mr. B came in yesterday with a gift for me.

Lesser Goldfinch feather
He found a goldfinch feather under the feeder and brought it in for me to see. Doesn’t it look as if someone dipped the tip in yellow paint?

This is going in my nature journal! We found the goldfinch in the Handbook of Nature Study and now we are going to read up on them and do some of the suggestions in Lesson 10.

“Goldfinches are seen at their best in late summer or September, when they appear in flocks wherever the thistle seeds are found in abundance.”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 57

Hopefully they are here for awhile so we can get our fill of finches.

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My Favorite Little Binoculars

Per request, here is information on the binoculars I carry in my purse….yes they are that small but they are mighty powerful as well. They are easy to use and lightweight. I can very easily carry them in a jacket pocket or around my neck when we are hiking. You can see me wearing them in the photo above from our trip last week to the desert. Can you guess where we are?

Big clue in the background.

You can read more at Eagle Optics-Energy.

They come in a variety of colors too so you can pick your favorite.

Eagle Optics Energy Binoculars
I have the green pair. They come with a pouch and the pouch can clip onto your belt if you like to carry things that way.

This is an affiliate link…love and own this product.

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Bird Songs: Our New Area of Interest

Photo by my son Mr. A of Cedar waxwings in our front yard.

This is our blog entry for the Spring Series of Outdoor Hour Challenge-Bird Study #3.

I have discovered that learning about birds comes in layers.

  • You start noticing the birds in your yard or neighborhood.
  • You discover that you indeed have birds in your yard and then develop a desire to know their name.
  • Start to notice the colors, beaks, sizes, etc so you can identify the bird using your field guide.
  • Find yourself reading the field guide just for fun.
  • Start noticing birds as you drive around town for your daily activities. Begin to see birds everywhere and wonder what their story is. The story becomes part of the fun of birding. Does this bird live in your neighborhood or is it a visitor? What does the bird eat? How does it makes its nest? How does it fit into the habitat of your neighborhood?
  • Now you want to take a few special day trips to places you might see new birds. You notice a pond and you look for water birds. You visit a park with a wooded area and you go on the hunt for some new birds, perhaps a woodpecker.
  • You pack a compact pair of binoculars in your purse just in case you might need them.
  • You get a second copy of the field guide to carry in the car.
  • Now you want to keep track of your birds, listing those you have seen and identified.
  • You dream of seeing certain birds you have only studied in the field guide. It is like a treasure hunt only with birds.

Now in our family, we are at the point where we can hear lots of unidentified birds and we want to know who they are. As we hike along, many times the birds are high up in the trees and they are well hidden from sight but we can hear them loud and clear.

This is where this challenge has really challenged our family.

Red tailed hawk A
We chose three birds to learn the calls for this week, keeping them in mind as we go outdoors. We picked the Red-tailed hawk, the American robin, and the Oak titmouse.

We decided that the hawk we hear many times each week is not the Red-tailed hawk but the Red-shouldered hawk. We are now going to take our good binoculars with us to see if we can get a good visual of the hawk the next time we see him soaring overhead. Now that we have armed ourselves with some good visual descriptions, we feel that we can tell the two hawks apart.

The boys surprised me when they said they didn’t know the song of the robin so they now know what to listen for in our yard. I hear the robin’s song early in the morning and I will point it out to them next time I hear it. The titmouse is one that I hear before I actually see him. His flight is so fast that it is easy to miss him but if we can listen for him in the trees, we will know he is there.

We have already picked out our next three birds to learn the songs for and it will fun as the weeks go by to increase our skill at identifying birds by their calls.

I purchased these two items last year and I have not used them as much as I would like to.

The IFlyer Wand and ScanBook: I saved up for this gadget and purchased it to help us identify birds by their calls. The wand reads the bar code of the bird in the book and it plays the bird call for you to listen to. You can also purchase stickers with the bar codes to put into your own bird field guide and scan those instead of the ScanBook that comes with the wand. This gadget isn’t as easy to use as I would like and I’m not sure at this point if it was worth the money. It is definitely fun to use but very expensive.

Someone told me that you can buy an app for your iPhone that does the same thing: iBird. They thought it was a great app but since I don’t have an iPhone, I haven’t checked it out personally.

Western Birding By Ear: This set of CDs helps you systematically work through bird calls. There are three CDs to listen to and a booklet to go along with the CDs. I think in the long run these CDs will be very beneficial and make the learning of bird calls much easier.

My boys have learned to use the iFlyer after going through this challenge. The CDs are now in our car and we will be listening to them as we do our weekly driving.

I look forward to hearing about your bird studies!