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Sat, Jan. 25

Column: Try these tips for identifying bunting, bluebird

Two species commonly seen in the Prescott area that are often confused by individuals new to birding are western bluebirds and Lazuli buntings. Male bluebirds and male buntings have similar markings, but several clues exist that will aid you in identifying them correctly.

Interestingly, when these two species are mistakenly identified, it is almost always the case that Lazuli buntings are identified as being a western bluebird, but not the other way around. I don't know that I have ever had a customer identify a western bluebird as a Lazuli bunting.

One key to successful identification is behavior, and another is habitat.

Generally speaking, western bluebirds are primarily insect- and berry-eaters. During the warm summer months when the supply of insects is abundant, western bluebirds exploit this food source. In winter, once we begin to experience freezing temperatures on a regular basis and the insect population dies off, bluebirds change their diet from insects to a diet of berries.

Western bluebirds are a common, permanent resident of the Prescott area. During breeding season, they are typically found in or near a Ponderosa Pine habitat where there are large, old trees with cavities for nesting.

In winter, western bluebirds move down in elevation and are frequently seen in residential settings around town. They are especially fond of water, be it a simple bird bath or an elaborate water feature.

Lazuli buntings are primarily a "transient" species, passing through Prescott during migration. There are two months of the year when you are likely to encounter them - in May on their way north in the spring, and in August as they are headed south for the winter.

Lazuli buntings are primarily seed-eaters. In a natural setting they are found in grassy, weedy habitats. An excellent place to see Lazuli buntings right now is in Watson Woods, adjacent to the Peavine Trail. I was walking on the Peavine earlier this week, and I saw and heard a lot of Lazuli buntings.

In residential settings, buntings' seed of choice is white-proso millet. They frequent feeders, but also are comfortable feeding directly down on the ground like other ground-feeding species.

If you see a brilliantly colored "blue bird" at a seed feeder in your yard, more than likely you are seeing a Lazuli bunting and not a western bluebird. If you see a flock of "blue birds" at your bird bath, you are probably seeing western bluebirds.

As I drove by Willow Lake Thursday morning, I saw two great egrets and five snowy egrets on the south shore of the lake closest to Willow Lake Road. All seven birds were within 30 to 40 feet of each other. As I mentioned in my column this past week, this is a good time of year to check out Willow Lake on a regular basis. With migration activity under way, the variety of species occurring at the lake can change daily.

For the year, I am at 207 species on my 2009 County List, just two species shy of my goal of 209 species. One of the species that I missed in the spring as it came through was the white pelican. I want to be sure to see this bird this fall as it passes through on its way south, so I am checking out the lake on a regular basis.

Also on Thursday morning, right here at Jay's Bird Barn on Willow Creek Road, I watched a zone-tailed hawk flying over the parking lot. Seeing a zone-tailed hawk in town just goes to show that you can bird watch wherever you are. Happy birding!

Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, located at 1046 Willow Creek Road in Prescott. Eric has been an avid birder for more than 40 years.

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