After 13 years in Oregon, I finally had the opportunity to see a Northern Spotted Owl. This subspecies continues its decline, so I was losing hope of ever seeing one. But this female and her fluffy baby gave me great, albeit distant, looks. For the record, I did not call this bird in, nor did I leave the trail to attempt a closer look. The habitat these birds were using was marginal at best. One one hand, it is encouraging that the birds were making use of younger fragmented forest, since large tracts of old growth are now so rare. On the other hand, using this habitat increases the chances of encountering Great Horned and Barred Owls, both of which can prey on Spotteds. Doing a little preening fuzzy baby owl, cuteness in the forest
While I recognize the serious nature of the current drought, it is hard to be unhappy about sunshine in January. So after many weeks of not birding, I finally got out and spent a day on the coast. On the path around the Cannon Beach wastewater ponds, I came across a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese. This Eurasian Wigeon was hanging out with the Mallards at the wastewater treatment plant.
In the surf around Haystack Rock, there were lots of Surf Scoters and Black Scoters, but they kept out of camera range. This is a Harlequin Duck. No, really.
The mouth of Ecola Creek, at the north end of Cannon Beach, is a favorite hangout of the local gulls. I found Western, Glaucous-winged, California, Mew, Herring, and Thayer’s. Unfortunately, photographing white birds in bright sunshine against a dark background is beyond my rudimentary skills. Most of my shots consisted of glowing white blobs surrounded by lovely blue water. This shot of a third-cycle Thayer’s Gull bathing in the creek is at least recognizable.
This Red-shouldered Hawk was at Mill Ponds Park in nearby Seaside. The same bird in the middle of a roust I couldn’t get a flight shot of the Red-shouldered in focus, but this at least shows this species’ beautiful pattern.
I made another trip to see the Rusty Blackbird that has been hanging out behind the Hillsboro Public Library for the past month. This species nests in boreal wetlands across Alaska, Canada, and the northeastern states. They typically winter in the southeastern U.S., so they are extremely rare in Oregon.
Unfortunately, they are becoming extremely rare in their normal range, as well. Since the 1960s, the population of Rusty Blackbirds has declined by between 85 and 95 percent. Probable causes include the drying of boreal wetlands due to climate change, mercury contamination, changes in breeding habitat caused by logging and farming, changes to bottomland forests in the birds’ winter range, and poisoning of “nuisance” blackbird flocks. Information on the situation can be found here and here.
So even though I have seen Rusty Blackbirds before, and added this one to my Oregon list a few weeks ago, it was worth another trip to appreciate an encounter with a species that has become increasingly hard to find.
Nala and I went out to Dawson Creek Park in Hillsboro to look for a Rusty Blackbird reported the day before. This site, a private park associated with the office park behind the public library, is a manicured park with paved trails around a series of small ponds. It attracts good numbers of waterfowl in winter, some migrant songbirds, and a few resident Acorn Woodpeckers.
Wood Ducks are common in the ponds. Some of the males were displaying to the females, swimming around slowly with their heads lowered. Such a handsome boy
Cackling Geese were grazing on the lawns.
American Kestrel The same bird later, with lunch
There were just a few American Wigeons in one of the ponds. I expect their numbers to increase at this site within the next couple of weeks.
Just as I was finishing my tour of the site, I finally saw my target bird (the Rusty Blackbird, not the Mallard). It would have been nice to get some full-frame photos like some other birders were able to get about three minutes earlier, but I was glad to add this species to my Oregon list. There are less than 20 accepted records of this species in the state. Rusty Blackbirds have experienced drastic population declines in the last few decades.
While scouting for the upcoming Birding and Blues Festival, I found this Ferruginous Hawk soaring over the Clay Myers State Natural Area (aka Whalen Island). This appears to be the first record of the species in Tillamook County. Ferruginous Hawks are normally found in the sage steppe east of the Cascades, and are rare visitors to the Willamette Valley in winter.
The bird was loosely associated with a kettle of Turkey Vultures, and serves as a valuable reminder to check every bird in the flock for something different.
I took my Little Brown Birds class to Sauvie Island. The sparrow flock along Rentenaar Road is thinning out, but all the expected species are still there. For the third year in a row, the star of the day was a Harris’s Sparrow. There is a White-throated and a Golden-crowned Sparrow in the background.
Harris’s Sparrow with Golden-crowned Sparrows
A sparrow mix of White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Song Sparrow, along with a Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird, surrounded by Golden-crowned Sparrows and a White-crowned in the background
One of four White-throated Sparrows that came to our seed slick
An Ovenbird has been spending the past few weeks in a little yard in northeast Portland. This wood-warbler, which breeds east of the Rocky Mountains, normally winters in Central America and Florida. Most of the few Ovenbirds that have been found in Oregon have occurred in spring and summer, mostly in the eastern part of the state.
Rentenaar Road, on Sauvie Island, is one of the better sparrow patches in the Portland area. I found ten species this morning, about typical for this time of year. This boldly patterned White-throated Sparrow was one of the prettier ones.
Golden-crowned Sparrows are the most common sparrows along this stretch of road.
Lincoln’s Sparrow, one of my favorites and one of the hardest to photograph
Spotted Towhee with two Golden-crowned Sparrows
The rarest bird of the day was this Harris’s Sparrow. This is the third winter in a row that a Harris’s (perhaps the same bird) has been wintering at this location.
Harris’s Sparrow with Golden-crowns
Harris’s with White-crowned
and finally, the Harris’s with a tan-morph White-throated Sparrow in the background. It’s nice that this visitor from the Great Plains gets along with everyone.
While certainly not a sparrow, this American Robin was just begging to be photographed, so here you go.
Several 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.