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.
I guided a group of birders to the north coast this week. We saw a lot of good birds, but the rainy weather forced me to keep my camera in the car most of the time. The best surprise of the day was this bird, hanging out in the middle of the high school soccer field in Seaside. As we drove by, I thought we had a Marbled Godwit, but when got out to take a better look, we discovered he was a Long-billed Curlew. This is a common nesting species in southeastern Oregon, but is uncommon along the coast in migration.
This is a young bird, with fresh plumage and a bill that isn’t all that long for a Long-billed Curlew.
Here he is showing the cinnamon buff color under the wings, typical for this species.
I don’t know what he was finding to eat in the soccer field, but he seemed to be content there.
On my recent trip to Arizona, I had the pleasure of watching this Mexican Spotted Owl preening and snoozing near his nest cavity. Spotted Owl has been a nemesis species for me since moving to Oregon twelve years ago. The subspecies that breeds in Oregon, Northern Spotted Owl, has been in steady decline for decades, as its old-growth forest habitat continues to be harvested for lumber, and its close relatives, Barred Owls, continue to expand their range, eating or interbreeding with the Spotteds as they go. As a result, the locations of Northern Spotted Owls in Oregon tend to be kept secret, to protect the birds from unemployed lumberjacks with shotguns or overzealous birders.
The culture surrounding Spotted Owls in Arizona is very different. Email lists describe the exact location of roosting owls, making it easy for birders from around the country, and around the world, to have a look. The habitat of the Mexican Spotted Owl is not as commercially valuable as the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The money brought in to southeast Arizona by visiting birders probably far exceeds the value of any timber harvest in this area. So the Mexican Spotted Owl, while still rare, seems to be doing OK while being admired by adoring throngs of birders.
This Hooded Merganser, found at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Reserve, had a brood of 10 little ones. The young birds were spread out over a large area, so I could never get them all in the same frame. They were actively feeding among the emergent vegetation, and a few of them were diving.
Hooded Mergansers nest in hollow trees or nest boxes, just as Wood Ducks do.
One consolation to the dreary wet weather of winter is the occasional appearance of a Varied Thrush. These are birds of the shadows, nesting in mature forests of the Coast Range and Cascades. In winter, they move to lower elevations, where they rummage through the leaf litter looking for insects.
Along with a flash of pumpkin orange from their bellies, Varied Thrushes reveal themselves through their odd song. Like other thrushes, Varied Thrushes produce sounds consisting of two pitches at once. This polyphony is made possible by the syrinx, the birds sound organ, located at the branch of the trachea. Since each branch has its own membrane, multiple pitches are produced at the same time. The result is a single buzzy tone, often described as ethereal (or just eerie).
I saw my first Varied Thrush in a back yard in Ohio. While it is always fun to see a vagrant, I much prefer seeing Varied Thrushes in Oregon, either in the deep forests in summer, or in the winter gloom of my Portland yard. Perhaps it is in their native gloom that these colorful thrushes shine brightest.
A pair of Lesser Goldfinches (female above) has been visiting the garden lately to feed on rainbow chard. Goldfinches eat a lot of foliage, in addition to seeds and buds. This vegetarian diet makes goldfinches poor hosts to cowbirds, whose young require plenty of insect protein to grow and thrive.
male Lesser Goldfinch
A pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees has been lingering in the yard this week. They will soon leave for the summer, as this species prefers large conifers and higher elevation, unlike the more suburban Black-capped Chickadees.
While the Chestnut-backs readily take sunflower seeds from the feeder, these birds were especially fond of a vegan suet block, currently in development by Nepo Suet Company . It is made from coconut oil. While not available yet, it promises to be a great alternative for those of us who don’t buy animal products.
This La Nina weather pattern shows no sign of abating, making outings miserably wet and not so productive, so I was delighted to see a Purple Finch in the yard this week. About once a year I see a Purple Finch at my feeder. They breed in mixed woodlands in the Portland area, but not in my neighborhood.
Many years ago, before House Finches had spread across the entire continent, separating House and Purple Finches was considered quite a challenge. But here, with the benefit of a few decades experience, they don’t look all that similar. There are clear differences in color, and the Purple Finch shows quite a bit more heft than the more slender House Finch. While the House Finch has patches of red, the Purple Finch is pinkish-purple all over.
Those dorsal view of the Purple Finch shows the pinkish color washed over the upperparts, including the wings.
Like all finches, they have no trouble popping open sunflower seeds.
I was headed to the coast early last Friday when I heard on the radio that the area was under a tsunami warning. While a true hard-core birder might have continued on, I decided to turn around and ended up walking parts of Sauvie Island instead. This Lincoln’s Sparrow was preening in a blackberry thicket along Rentenaar Road (Birding Oregon p.57). The dark spot and line on the bird’s breast are a result of the feathers being fluffed out.
This stretch of dirt road is one of the spots we will visit for my upcoming Little Brown Birds class for The Audubon Society of Portland. The Saturday field trip is full, but a few spaces remain on the Friday trip. For information, go to http://audubonportland.org/trips-classes-camps/adult/classes/lbbs2011.