In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were over 46 million birdwatchers in the United States—almost one in every five persons. A very large percentage of these people put out bird feeders and watch birds in their yards. Many delight in keeping a yard list that registers the different species that visit over the years. That’s certainly the case with John and Lisa Harris.
The Harrises moved to the Valley in 2006. They found a place near Oakdale that has a range of plantings varied enough to attract the birds both love to watch. Both John and Lisa are scientists, and their scientific background and lifelong love of nature have given them plenty of lessons on how to maximize the pleasure from their visiting avian friends.
When asked why he enjoys yard birding so much, John replies,
“I think of birding in my yard, and keeping a yard list, as a form of what many birders call ‘patch-birding,’ that is, finding a favorite place to which one returns frequently to look for birds. That might be a local park, like the sections of Modesto’s Dry Creek, or the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge trail system. Or it could be your own yard. It’s a great way to be connected to the natural environment and its seasonal changes.”
John taught general biology, ecology, vertebrate zoology, and other science courses at Mills College for twenty-seven years. His profession left him with plenty of resources in the way of reference books and equipment, but most everything he uses now is readily available to anyone with an interest in identifying local birds.
“My favorite field guides are the National Geographic 6th edition and David Sibley’s guide,” he says. “Other favorites would be the books on sparrows by Rising, the warbler guide by Garrett and Dunn, the Howell and Dunn gull book, and others. I also have a good collection of distributional works and books on bird biology.”
After field guides, “distributional works” are the most important sources for people who really want to know their local birds. Often in the form of a pamphlet or bird list, distributional sources show what birds occur locally and when. They are extremely useful for narrowing down difficult identification problems and for eliminating species that just don’t occur in your region or season.
For example, anyone who thinks he’s seen an Eastern Bluebird in Stanislaus County can quickly learn from the Stanislaus County Bird List that there has never been a verified record of Eastern Bluebird for the region. However, the very similar Western Bluebird occurs often, and that’s most likely what our observer saw.
The Harris yard has a nice variety of trees, including several fruit trees, Deodar, Incense Cedar, and Elderberry, all of which attract birds.
“Our neighbors’ trees are also a big part of attracting birds to the area,” says John, “including many oaks, cottonwoods, and some standing dead trees that attract woodpeckers. We replaced a hedge along one side of the house with a mixture of Salvia and Zauschneria, both of which are very attractive to hummingbirds.”
In addition to the plants and trees, John puts out bird feeders year round.
“I keep a thistle feeder and sunflower seed feeder, and also distribute mixed bird seed on the ground” he says. “I use the most seed in the winter, when wintering sparrows are abundant. We also maintain hummingbird feeders. During spring and fall migration, I have as many as 5 hummingbird feeders in operation. We also have a couple of simple bird baths which attract as much or more attention than the feeders.”
When he’s outside working in the yard, John always carries an inexpensive pair of binoculars. He keeps a pair of better binoculars inside, and uses them when he needs stronger and more precise magnification.
In John’s case, there have been several occasions when he needed these fine optics and even photographic documentation of what he’d seen. Ironically, one winter visitor was a rare Harris’s Sparrow, so named by John James Audubon to honor his friend Edward Harris (no relation).
Harris’s Sparrows are generally found in the middle portion of the United States. When John saw this rare visitor, it was only the second recorded occurrence of this species in Stanislaus County. John was able to get a definitive photograph, which always helps confirm the presence of rare birds.
Another rare visitor required even more in the way of optics and knowledge. Last June, John and Lisa noticed a brightly colored hummingbird at their feeders. This bird was significantly different from the common Black-chinned and Anna’s Hummingbirds which frequent the feeders throughout the summer.
John’s knowledge of bird distribution and his familiarity with problems caused by similar species made him very cautious as he attempted to key the bird’s identity using his various field guides. The bird looked very much like an Allen’s Hummingbird, but John knew there had never been a confirmed sighting of Allen’s Hummingbird in Stanislaus County. He also knew Allen’s Hummingbirds are often confused with the much more common Rufous Hummingbird.
As he studied the bird with his ten power Swarovski binoculars, he realized that almost every detail fit Allen’s Hummingbird. He also realized the only way he could be certain of the bird’s identity was by having a close look at the hummingbird’s inner and outer tail feathers.
Fortunately, John had just purchased a Canon digital SLR camera with a telephoto lens. After patient waiting and many attempts, he was able to get a fairly sharp picture of the tail feathers, and they revealed the bird’s identity definitively: It was the first documented presence of Allen’s Hummingbird in Stanislaus County.
While John and Lisa enjoy the infrequent visitations of rare birds, their ongoing delight is in the year round presence of our wide variety of common birds. Their yard list total now stands at 120 species, including common birds that most people never realize are present until they put up some feeders and start watching the show.
“I have vivid memories of encountering my first Scarlet Tanager while walking in the woods on a scout trip in eastern Wisconsin,” says John today.
And while we have yet to document the presence of a Scarlet Tanager in Stanislaus County, we do have birds as spectacular. Just have a look a John’s photos of the Hooded Oriole and Black-headed Grosbeak, both of which can turn up in just about anyone’s yard during the summer months. These brilliant birds can provide their own vivid memories, and they are just two of the Valley’s multitude of avian residents and visitors which often find food and refuge in people’s yards.
Editor’s note: All photos by John Harris