Snowy Owls

snowiesSeveral Snowy Owls have been reported recently from Fort Stevens State Park, so I made the trek out to see them. I walked around the marsh at Parking Lot C, snapped a few photos from a respectful distance and then moved on. I mention this as a reminder of how one ought to enjoy any bird. Snowy Owls seem to bewitch a lot of people. For some unknown reason, the presence of a Snowy Owl can turn normally sane people into blithering idiots. What power do these birds have?

I understand that Snowies are great birds. They are big and beautiful, they sit out in the open in the middle of the day, and most of us in the Lower 48 don’t get to see them that often (these birds were my 4th and 5th Snowy Owls ever). But is that it? I know people who don’t know a Pine Siskin from a Black-footed Albatross, but they are crazy about Snowy Owls. Many Snowies that visit the Lower 48 are constantly harassed by birders and photographers (like there aren’t already several million good shots of Snowy Owls).

The worst case of Snowy Owl Insanity that I have witnessed occurred in Ohio. An Owl was hanging out on the utility poles near a farm, and many birders, including me, went out to see him. One birder parked her minivan in the farmers field (not along the public road, but IN THE FIELD) and left the engine running ALL DAY. Whenever the owl would fly down to hunt, the woman jumped out of her van and ran at the owl in an attempt to get a photo. This behavior was unethical, illegal, and just a little batshit crazy.

So it would seem that Snowy Owls have magical powers. But I would argue that we have the ability to resist these forces. When a Snowy Owl appears in your area, by all means enjoy the show. Watch them from a respectful distance, for a reasonable amount of time, taking great care not to affect their behavior. They are already dealing with the stress of a long migration away from their normal range. Don’t succumb to the desire to see how close you can get, or to the illusion that you will get rich with the photo you take with your Coolpix camera. Take a breath, recite the ABA Code of Ethics, appreciate the opportunity to see a cool bird, and give the Snowies a break.

Feeding Frenzy

For the past few weeks I have been enjoying a large flock of Pine Siskins at my feeder. But as often occurs during years of high siskin numbers, I started noticing a few sick birds. So I stopped feeding for a few days. With the feeder empty, the large flocks of birds dispersed, reducing the risk of disease spreading from bird to bird.

Packing birds into unnaturally high densities at a bird feeder can create risks for the birds we are trying to help. While many of us enjoy feeding birds and other wildlife, it is important to do so mindfully. We have to be aware that feeding birds is something we do for our own entertainment, not something that the birds actually need. My feeder is outside my window for the sole purpose of drawing birds in close so that I can enjoy watching them from the comfort of my home. If the feeder wasn’t there, the birds would do just fine. It is my responsibility to be aware of how my bird feeding impacts the birds.

It was reported recently that Scotts Miracle-Gro was selling bird food treated with pesticides known to be harmful to birds (see story here). A few years ago, it was revealed that sunflower farmers in the Dakotas have taken such measures as destroying cattail marshes and poisoning and/or shooting birds to reduce the impact of blackbirds feeding in their fields. These stories illustrate how the seemingly innocuous hobby of feeding birds can have broader implications. We need to know where the food comes from and what is in it.

My feeder is filled again and, with the large flock of siskins gone, other species are becoming more visible.


Lesser Goldfinches, our smallest finch, are coming more frequently now that things have quieted down.


Two Purple Finches have appeared this week.


A few Pine Siskins stayed behind when the main flock left. A Purple Finch towers in the background.

To Bird or to Twitch?

I finally had a few hours to get out birding, and had planned to visit some of the Washington County wetlands. But a Brambling visiting a feeder in Woodburn presented me with a dilemma. Should I spend my birding time standing around in someone’s back yard hoping to see a particular bird, or should I explore large areas of habitat and find birds on my own?

The Brambling, an uncommon visitor from Asia, was only a 30 minute drive from home, well within my “chase radius.” (I will drive up to an hour and a half to chase a rarity, although it had better be a darned good bird if it is over an hour away.) The species would be a lifer for me, a nice tick on my Oregon list, and this would perhaps be my only chance to see this species. Then again, if the bird didn’t show up, I would have spent my limited birding time not looking at birds. With some reluctance, I decided to go for the twitch.

When I arrived at the stake-out site, a small group of birders informed me that I had just missed the Brambling. How typical is that? So I began my wait, hoping that the bird would maintain her schedule of repeated visits to her favorite feeder. I had come this far, so I might as well stick it out.


As luck would have it, this yard was very birdy. A small flock of Evening Grosbeaks was a rare treat. Several species of finches and sparrows worked the feeders, interrupted occasionally by a hungry Cooper’s Hawk. After about an hour of waiting, three things happened; my cell phone rang, the owner of the home came out to offer me a cup of coffee, and the Brambling appeared.


So with one hand holding my phone (it was an important call), I used the other hand to hold my binocular to get a brief look at the bird, then snap a few photos, all while thanking my host for the coffee (he didn’t realize that I was on the phone, and didn’t know that I don’t drink coffee). Then the Brambling flew away.

So now what? I had gotten a brief glimpse of the Brambling, although not a very satisfying view of a lifer, and had no idea if any of my photos would be usable or not. The bird had established a pattern of visiting the yard about once an hour for less than a minute. Do I hang out for another hour (did I mention it was really cold?), or do I cut my losses and go do some real birding? I was leaning toward the latter when an acquaintance of mine arrived to look for the bird. The prospect of visiting with him, along with the general birdiness of the this yard, convinced me to stay and try for another look at the Brambling.


This Downy Woodpecker worked on the suet feeder.


Notice that the Dark-eyed Junco on the left has some dark gray on the sides and a darker back than the typical Oregon race birds.

Here is the same bird from the back. The brownish cast on the bird’s back is not right for a pure Slate-colored Junco, so I think this bird is an intergrade Slate-colored/Oregon.


After about an hour, the Brambling returned for less than twenty seconds. I spent the entire time watching her with my binocular, making up for the fleeting view of the previous visit.

So I had gotten my lifer, adding my twitch to the checklist, but I had also gotten some actual birding in, as well. I had seen about 20 species in that little yard, and had a nice visit with some other birders. While I really enjoy getting out and finding large numbers of species, there is often birding to be had in confined situations such as this. I will still struggle with the choice of birding or twitching, but hopefully I will allow myself to find the joy in either.

Eastern Kingbird

A few years ago I blogged on birding and aesthetics , describing how beautiful birds and beautiful scenery do not always occur together. I saw another example of this recently.


Tucked away in this scene of power lines and invasive Himalayan Blackberries is a lovely Eastern Kingbird. This species is very hard to find in the Portland area, regularly occurring in small numbers only at the Sandy River Delta.

Part of birding’s appeal is the fact that birds can show up just about anywhere. No matter how badly we have degraded the landscape, there is still a chance that some wonderful creature might fly in, at least for a brief stop.

Seen it all

A birder recently told me that he didn’t do much local birding because he had “seen it all.” I understand what he meant; once you have birded an area long enough, it becomes increasingly unlikely that you are going to see any new species. But I will never reach the point where I have seen everything there is to see, no matter how small an area we are talking about.

feeder

As I am currently being held captive by our new puppy, I haven’t been able to get out into the field to bird for about two weeks. The bird feeder has been busy, but with the same half-dozen species that I normally see. Yet I continue to look out the window at every opportunity, just to see what is going on. Why? Because you never know. If a Brambling or a Xantus’s Hummingbird or a Rustic Bunting shows up around here, it will probably be at a backyard bird feeder. Even if the mega-rarity never shows, there is still plenty to see and much to learn about the more mundane. When will the Pine Siskins arrive this year, or will they? Will there ever be a Common Redpoll among them? Just the other day, a Pileated Woodpecker flew over the property. This is a new bird for the yard list. I happened to see this bird when I was taking the puppy out for the gazillionth time and noticed a shadow pass over us. I turned to glimpse this large woodpecker flying over and then disappear. What other species have flown over when I didn’t happen to glance up? In the eight years I have lived here, there have been noticeable changes in the bird species that use the property. The Northern Saw-whet Owl was a one-day wonder eight years ago. Completely absent a few years ago, both Lesser Goldfinches and Western Screech Owls are now regular visitors. Population dynamics will continue to change. New species will continue to appear from time to time. There will always be something new to see or learn, even in my little yard, let alone the county or the state. Seen it all? Not in my lifetime.

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Nala, future Birding Dog

Duckzilla

Domestication is a strange thing. It enhances certain traits while diminishing others, usually not for the better. A classic example is the Muscovy Duck. In its wild form, this large duck is black with green iridescence and white wing panels. It nests and roosts in trees along tropical rivers, reaching the U.S. only along the Rio Grande River in Texas. The domesticated form is found in parks and farms throughout the country, and bears little similarity to its wild ancestors.

duckzilla

This photo shows two domestic Muscovy Ducks, a female on the left and a gargantuan male on the right. For a size comparison, note the Wood Duck in the background. The male weighs close to 20 pounds, larger than most Wild Turkeys I have seen. This is not a bird that will be flying to a tree cavity any time soon. While some might admire this bird for his formidable size and brightly colored facial skin, I think domestication has robbed him of his true nature and, if I may be anthropomorphic (and I may because this is my blog), his dignity. If ducks dream, I hope this bird envisions himself sleek and black, flying along a tropical river and roosting in a hollow tree.

Wild Turkey

Unique to the Americas, the two species of turkey are beautiful, huge birds.  Wild Turkeys are native to North America, while Oscillated Turkeys can be found in Central America. Close to extinction in the early part of the 20th Century, Wild Turkeys have made a tremendous comeback in their original range, and have been widely introduced elsewhere. While not native to Oregon, the Rio Grande race of Wild Turkey was introduced in 1975 and is faring well in much of the state.

Turkeys are known to most people not as a wild creature, or even so much as a food, but as a centerpiece on the table at Thanksgiving. It is tradition to serve these birds on that day. But when does a tradition become a ritual? It seems a bit creepy to me to sacrificially kill and eat a particular species on a particular day, just because we have always done so. Most people have never seen a Wild Turkey, or even a living domesticated one, and yet they perpetuate this rite without considering it.

I think turkeys can be far better appreciated in the field than on the table.  On a day set aside to acknowledge the abundance of life, we should celebrate living beings, not sacrificial ones.

turkey
These are free-ranging Wild Turkeys in northeastern Oregon.

freerangeturkeys
These are “free range” domestic turkeys. Selective breeding has made them into obese, pale shadows of their wild ancestors.