Bird brained

Spring brings out the want-to-be birder in me

Likely ruby-crowned kinglet

Likely ruby-crowned kinglet


Learn more about the upcoming Birds of the Truckee Meadows class series by visiting the Lahontan Audubon Society’s website:

Outside of my condo in northwest Reno, springtime mornings are a pleasantly noisy affair, filled with the sounds of chirping and singing birds. When I walk the dog, I see tiny birds—some variety of flycatcher—flitting about the railings of upper-story condos. The dog snuffles around, flushing mourning doves from the shrubs. And then there are these scrub jays of some variety. I couldn’t tell you if they’re Woodhouse’s or California scrub jays—but they’re my favorite. I love them because they pester my dog—a little black and white chihuahua—relentlessly for a few weeks each spring. They followed him around on his morning walks, squawking down at him from rain gutters and landing to dance feet in front of him on the sidewalk. He hates it. And he kind of loves it, too, I think.

Male American robin


I’m not a birder, but every spring I find myself wishing I were. I do, however, count among my acquaintances an actual birder. Kathy Oakes is a retired field biologist and a long-time member of the Lahontan Audubon Society. I’ve interviewed her for the paper before—back in December of last year, when the Audubon Society was conducting its annual Christmas Bird Count (“For the birds,” RN&R Winter Guide, Dec. 14, 2017).

Photographing birds at a condo can result in spooked neighbors wondering why you’re roaming the complex in the morning hours with a camera, so, when I reached out to Oakes, it was for advice on places to go for some good bird shots. I figured I’d visit Crystal Peak Park in Verdi and Dorostkar Park, just down the street from my home. Oakes suggested I also visit Rancho San Rafael Park and Virginia Lake. She also agreed—generously—to help me identify the birds in any photographs I took. I would definitely need the help but was also curious to know what Oakes recommended as a next step if I caught some kind of birding bug.

Double-crested cormorant


It turns out the Lahontan Audubon Society is preparing to kick off a series of bird identification classes on April 18.

The first one, Oakes said, is an introduction to birding. (I wondered if perhaps this course might address assuaging neighbors’ fears when birding in a condo complex.) The class after that will be about identifying backyard birds. (If any class is going to cover condo birding, I figured it would be this one.) Another class will address methods for identifying raptors and birds of prey. And there will even be a class on identifying the myriad varieties of flycatchers.

Lesser goldfinch


“Don Molde, who’s our conservation chair, is going to give the class on identifying flycatchers, which—oh, my goodness—good luck with that,” Oakes said. “Although, this time of year, it’s easier.”

There are many varieties of these quick, often tiny birds in the region. But, Oakes explained, they’re easier to identify during this time of year, when their plumage turns to bright “breeding colors.”

Male hairy woodpecker


Oakes pointed me to the Audubon Society’s website for more information on the birding classes and said it’s also a good place to look for a birding guide. An area birding guide can be viewed online. Its information is taken from A Birding Guide to Reno and Beyond, the second edition of which can be purchased through the society’s online store.

Oakes also recommended field trips led by Jeff Bleam, whom she said takes people out every other Friday, rain or shine. (On the website, a photo of him shows that both his dog and his camera are impressively larger than mine.)

Male mallards



Four hours of photography at four locations yielded about 20 photos I wasn’t too embarrassed to send to Oakes for possible identification.

California gull


Some of the birds she was able to identify easily: a male American robin, a male hairy woodpecker, a red-tailed hawk, a Steller’s jay. Some she couldn’t be sure about, like the potential ruby-crowned kinglet that flitted about so quickly, frustrating and amusing me at Crystal Peak Park.

At Virginia Lake, I’d captured shots of slower birds—an American coot, a female mallard, a ruddy duck, a female common merganser and—excitingly—some kind of ornamental “exotic domestic Goose,” which Oakes said had probably been “released to the wild … and found its way to Virginia Lake.”

But it was Oakes’ response to photo number 19, also taken at Virginia Lake, that really felt like—ahem—a feather in my cap.

“Great shot,” she wrote. “The black bird flying in on the left is a Double-crested Cormorant bringing a twig in its mouth to add to a nest. Also, see the other cormorants sitting on their nests. The gulls are all California Gulls. There is one Canada Goose resting among the cormorants on the right.”