Broughton Beach, Portland

Broughton Beach is along the Columbia River, right next to the Portland airport. It can be a challenging place to bird, with dogs and children chasing the birds, police carrying body bags down the beach, etc. But if you catch it on a good day you can find some excellent birding. The great attraction this past week was a Pacific Golden Plover, which spent two days there, avoiding me with great success (thus that specie’s designation as one of my nemesis birds).  I tried for the plover twice with no luck, but found several other goodies along the way.

red phalarope 1The most unexpected species was this Red Phalarope. At first glance, I wrote this bird off as a Red-necked, since Reds are very unusual inland in August, and Red-neckeds are expected. Once I looked at the photographs, however, I saw my error and got a good reminder to LOOK AT THE BIRD! That heavy bill with the light-colored base is a dead giveaway for Red Phalarope.
red phalarope 2
Another coastal species along Broughton Beach was Sanderling.
sanderling 2
sanderlings 2
sanderling 7It is nice to see Sanderlings at inland locations, since you can often get closer to them there than you can at the coast.

semipalm 1Another nice find was this Semipalmated Sandpiper. You can see the partial webbing between the outer toes that gives this species its name. Ten years ago, a Semipalmated Sandpiper anywhere in Oregon was a pretty big deal, but now quite a few individuals are reported every year. Either the bird has become a more common migrant in this state, or people are just better at recognizing them.
semipalm 9
semipalm and westernSemipalmated Sandpiper (r) and Western Sandpiper (l)

western 3Western Sandpipers were present in small numbers. . .
western 2

least 2as were Least Sandpipers.
least 6
california gullCalifornia Gulls like to hang our on a little sand spit that extends into the river at low tide. A few Glaucous-winged Gulls have arrived, and will become more common as autumn approaches.

common loonThis Common Loon seemed a little out of place for August. In the winter months, this species is often seen at this site with large rafts of grebes and diving ducks. There are fewer kids and dogs then, too.

Sauvie Island

mixed flockI took my waterfowl class out to Sauvie Island. The trip produced a nice variety of ducks and geese, and the weather was freakishly nice for February. Here are some Ring-necked Ducks, Dusky Canada Geese, and a couple of Buffleheads.

dusky canada geeseSome more Dusky Canada Geese. The red neck collars help to clinch the ID. Lesser Canada Geese are fitted with blue collars, while Ridgeway’s Cackling Geese have yellow ones.

hybrid goose 1One of the more interesting birds of the day was this hybrid Greater White-fronted X Cackling Goose.
hybrid goose 2

satyr commaThis Satyr Comma was basking in the sun. While the early spring is enjoyable in the short term, it may have negative effects on the flora and fauna in the long term.

Broughton Beach

Nala and I walked along the Columbia River from Broughton Beach to the Sea Scout base.

scaup flock 2Greater Scaup was the most numerous species on the river, with smaller numbers of Lesser Scaup (fifth bird from the right)
scaup flock 1Great Scaup (upper left) with Lesser Scaups, showing a nice comparison of size and head shape.

western grebeA few Western Grebes were snoozing on the water.

common goldeneye 1A Common Goldeneye came close enough to shore for some great looks.
common goldeneye 2
common goldeneye 3

song sparrow 4Broughton Beach usually holds some interesting songbirds, but this Song Sparrow was the only one I saw on this visit.
song sparrow 3

beaverA Beaver had been nibbling willow saplings when we approached. He swam out just a few feet offshore and continued downstream.

Baby Towhees

towhee topYoung Spotted Towhees have been showing up at the feeder. It is always fun to see them, as they look so different from their parents. This plumage can be confusing to those unfamiliar with it, but there are clues to the bird’s identity, other than the parents that are usually nearby.
towheeDespite the overall dark coloring, they still show spots on their wing coverts, like their parents. By the time they leave the nest, they possess the large size and long tail of the adults.  Like most fledgelings, the young towhees show yellow at the gape (corner of the mouth).

Westmoreland Park

Westmoreland Park, in southeast Portland, is always worth a quick visit in winter.

canvasbackThis Canvasback has a mud on her face from rooting around in the bottom of the pond.

canvasback scratching

lesser scaupLesser Scaup

eurasian wigeon2At least two female Eurasian Wigeons have been spending the winter at Westmoreland. No males have been reported yet this year.

herring gullThis park is one of best gull sites in Portland, although by this time the gull flock is starting to thin out. This is a sleepy Herring Gull.

taverner's cackling gooseWestmoreland is also a good spot for studying the various subspecies of the white-cheeked goose complex. This is a Taverner’s Cackling Goose, identified by her medium bill (covered in down for some reason), blocky head, and pale breast.

ridgeway's cackling goose leftRidgeway’s Cacking Goose (stubby bill, round head, dark breast)

canada goose 1Western Canada Geese have long snakey necks, long bills, and pale breasts. While common in Cackling Geese, it is unusual to see such a distinct white neck ring on a Western Canada.

western canada goose bathingWestern Canada Goose bathing

Individualism: All of these things are not like the others

There are two statements that will immediately and significantly damage a birder’s credibility: “I’m sure of the ID, because the bird looked exactly like the picture in my field guide.” and “It couldn’t be that species because it doesn’t look like the bird in my field guide.”

The fact is, no bird looks exactly like the picture in the field guide. Field guide illustrations are either an artist’s interpretation or a photo of a particular individual at one moment in time. Every bird is slightly different from every other bird. Rather than looking for birds that are an exact match to a picture, our goal in field identification is to combine elements of size, shape, color, pattern, sound, and behavior into a recognizable species.


Here we have a “textbook” Thayer’s Gull in winter plumage. The head is round, giving the bird a petite or gentle expression.  The eye is dark, the underside of the primaries show a lot of white, and the bill is that characteristic greenish-gray color with a bright yellow tip.


This Thayer’s Gull is not quite as round-headed as the previous bird, and the the bill is more yellow, but everything else seems OK. Head shape will vary with the bird’s position, and males tend to be more “robust” than females. So we have a little variation on this bird, no need to panic.



The forehead on this bird is really flat, like that of a Herring Gull, and the bill is noticeably longer. The white underside of the outer primaries is still good for Thayer’s. If you zoom in, you can see the pink orbital ring, also good for Thayer’s. While some Herring Gulls show dark flecks on the iris, their eyes never appear this dark.  It appears that we have a very butch Thayer’s Gull.


And now we know why some birders avoid gulls. The pale eye suggests Herring Gull, but up to 20 percent of Thayer’s Gulls can have a pale iris. The head is pretty round, suggesting Thayer’s. The bill is neither too big or too small, and is very yellow. No orbital ring is visible. What we can see of the underside of the primaries is white, but we can’t see it all. So do we have a robust Thayer’s Gull with a light iris, or a very demure Herring Gull?


Here is a similar bird, but the bill is a little smaller and you can see a pink orbital ring, making this a good pale-eyed Thayer’s Gull.

All this variation cannot be covered in a standard field guide. For complicated groups like gulls, more detailed identification guides are very useful. Then you can say, “The bird looked similar to the one in the gull guide.”

Gull Season


Winter is the time to study gulls in the Willamette Valley. If you feel a little overwhelmed by some of the fine plumage details described in birding references, consider looking at the shape of the bird. The silhouette above can be identified to species with reasonable certainty. The three things to consider are 1. the shape of the bill (small and slender, but with a noticeable gonydeal bulge), 2. the shape of the head (fairly large with a sloping forehead), and 3. how far the wings extend beyond the tail.

I’m teaching a class on Willamette Valley gulls for Portland Audubon on January 18, 2012, with a local field trip on January 21. We will discuss plumage details, but also the shape of each species. Shape is much more useful when trying to ID distant birds, birds in bad light, or birds in my typically grainy photos. For information on the class, or to register, click here.