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.
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.
While the winter weather pattern along the Oregon Coast, a seemingly endless string of storm systems coming in off the Pacific, is not the most comfortable for birders, it does bring some interesting birds into view. Species that normally spend the winter many miles out at sea are sometimes blown in to shore. This is not always good news for the birds, since it takes them away from their normal food sources and into the range of land-based predators, but it does provide birders an opportunity to see these species that are usually out of reach.
This Northern Fulmar was swimming right along the shore at The Cove in Seaside (Birding Oregon p. 121). He didn’t seem too perky, so he may have been ill. Fulmars are fairly common sights on pelagic trips, but are not visible from shore too often.
Red Phalaropes are more commonly blown in during early winter storms. These little shorebirds spend most of the year on the open ocean. It amazes me that such a small bird can survive in such a harsh environment. But when they do occur in the calm waters of tidal ponds and inlets close to shore, they often fall victim to predators, and sometimes cars. This individual was found near the Hammond Boat Basin.
The universe has conspired to keep me out of the field for far too long. My one link to sanity, if you can actually call birding sanity, is the activity at the bird feeders.
The Portland area has seen a massive invasion of Pine Siskins in recent weeks. Numbers at my feeders have tapered off in the past week, but the nyjer feeder is still popular. This photo shows six Pine Siskins, a colorful male Lesser Goldfinch, and an American Goldfinch peeking around from the back.
The color on the Lesser Goldfinch seems especially intense at this time of year, when the other finches are so dull.
I never tire of Chestnut-backed Chickadees.
This little guy has been the avian star of our property for the past month. There seems to be an irruption of Mountain Chickadees in western Oregon this year, with many reports from the Portland area, and some from as far as the coast. Even when he is turned away, he stands out from the common Black-capped Chickadees by his gray back and the narrower band of black on the nape.
The white stripe above the eye is the characteristic field mark for this species. Most reports of Mountain Chickadees in the area have been of birds with thick white eyebrows and white lores, which suggests birds from the eastern half of Oregon and into the Rockies. This bird has a narrow white brow and black lores, suggesting a bird from the nearby Cascades. While it is tempting to assign birds to subspecies (especially since Mountain Chickadee might be split into two species in the future), David Sibley warns against trying to make such distinctions, as there is a lot of overlap of characteristics between subspecies. His essay on this topic can be seen here.
I had three species of chickadees attending my feeder recently. The Black-capped Chickadees are year-round residents and visit every day.
Chestnut-backed Chickadees appear occasionally, most often in winter, although I have been seeing them more often in recent months.
The star attraction on this day was a Mountain Chickadee. While common along the crest of the Cascades and points east, they are a rare treat in the Willamette Valley. This bird is the seventh record for Washington County.
I believe the Pacific Northwest is the only place where you might find three species of chickadees in one flock. Range maps indicate that in southeastern Alaska, you might be able to find four species in the same area. That sounds like a worthy birding challenge.