Under the Open Sky: Try Birding from Your Mobile Bird Blind

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
After cashing my monthly paycheck on Monday, I headed straight for a local fast food joint to enjoy my monthly treat of a bacon cheeseburger.
(For those of you that live near “town” — as we in the rural areas call Chehalis or Centralia — you might not think of a cheap and fast burger as a “treat.” But since I’m a country living girl, fast food is a rarity in my diet.)
I parked the car, rolled down the window and settled in for a slow, savoring, sinful nosh.

Moments later, a small mixed flock of city birds including European Starlings, Red-Winged Blackbirds and an American Crow flew in and landed near the car — obviously looking for a handout.
I happily obliged the little beggars.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. First year female European Starlings (shown left) begin their fall Prebasic molt later in the season than young males. Juvenile starlings are almost entirely brown, a bit paler underneath, with a white chin and cinnamon-edged wing and tail feathers.

As I tossed my little bits of bread on the ground, I was especially delighted by a close-up view of the European Starlings.
The country starlings in my own backyard don’t let me get within 40 yards of them before they fly off. I hear them; I can see them in the distance.
But to enjoy a close-up view of their brilliant, interesting and iridescent plumage? That view is rarer in my life than a fast food burger.
At this time of year, European Starlings are in their annual Prebasic molt. The young birds change from a youthful hair brown with cream and cinnamon accents to their bold winter wear. The adult birds beaks darken from yellow-gold to black and they also gain a new sprinkling winter white spots scattered throughout their feathers.

Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. This bird, his family and friends were found begging for handouts at behind the Wendy's Restaurant in Chehalis earlier this week. The European Starlings have already begun to shed their summer breeding plumage and don whited-spotted winter coats. After the Prebasic molt, which occurs from late August through mid-October, it's harder to determine the age and sex of the birds, but it can be done. First year birds are more heavily spotted throughout the black and iridescent feathers of the body and the shape of the spots are more heart-shaped than the V-shape of the adults. The hackle feathers under the throat of the adult males are longer and more prominent than the first year birds and females.

(The whitish terminal spots are later lost through wear, especially on head and breast, which is the reason why the adults are mostly black by springtime.)
I know that starlings are known as the invasive scourge of the bird world, but I love them. I think they are beautiful, charming to watch, and very interesting to listen to. I’ve heard a starling imitate a Mallard duck, a Red-tailed Hawk, and make many other strange and wonderful noises.
Take some time this week to visit a local store parking lot and see the birds — maybe even toss them a pinch or two of bread and enjoy the scramble.
But keep in mind that the fast food you are tossing their way isn’t any more nutritious for them as it is for you. I have given serious consideration to bringing a pocketful of seeds and berries to toss to the city birds.
(I have to wonder, though, maybe a hamburger bun a nice treat and a good change up from the usual seeds and bugs? After all, how can I preach good nutrition to the birds when I’m enjoying my own junk food?)
I know it may sound silly to sit in your car to bird, but cars make great birding blinds — especially for viewing the city living birds. Urban birds are accustomed to seeing people in cars and are smart enough to know that people aren’t a threat to them while they are still in their unmoving vehicle.
Now, go outside and play! It’s going to be a beautiful weekend.

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website at almostdailynews.com, find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason – The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.