This is that long awkward time of year between winter and spring. The big winter flocks have broken up, but the spring migrants haven’t returned yet. As I have said before, there is always something to see, but we have to find simple pleasures until the full decadence of spring migration commences in a month or so.
On a recent sunny day, this Varied Thrush perched outside the living room window. I don’t often see this species in sunlight. They are usually muted by the gloom of a rainy day or the shadows of the forest.
Pine Siskin at the nyjer feeder
For some reason, songbirds just look weird when viewed from the front.
The male American Goldfinches are starting to get their summer color.
Golden-crowned Sparrow, Vanport Wetlands
This fairly large tree has been felled by Beavers at Smith and Bybee Wetlands. None of the branches appear to have been eaten, so I don’t know why the Beavers felled it, perhaps because it was there.
Northwestern Garter Snake, Tualatin Hills Nature Park. I am making the identification based on the small head, although I am not completely comfortable differentiating Northwestern Garter from Common Garter.
We are in that late winter season when birding seems to slow. I don’t know whether there are actually fewer birds around this time of year or we have just already seen the local winter residents so they don’t hold our attention. In any case, the best birding is usually found in and around wetlands. Here are some recent shots from area wetlands from the past couple of weeks.
Great Blue Herons are always around, and have started hanging out in their nesting colonies.
This Dusky Canada Goose was enjoying the sunshine at Ankeny NWR.
Coyote, Vanport Wetlands
Another Coyote, at Ankeny NWR
This Nutia at Fernhill Wetlands seemed unconcerned with the group of birders walking by.
Here is a Red-winged Blackbird sharing a nyjer feeder with a Lesser Goldfinch at Jackson Bottom. I don’t recall seeing blackbirds eating nyjer before.
Spotted Towhee, Jackson Bottom
In honor of the winter solstice, in a month that brought Portland 7″ of rain, here are a few dark grainy images from recent weeks.
Here is a nice comparison of American (foreground) and Lesser Goldfinches. Notice that the American Goldfinch has white undertail coverts, while the Lesser has yellow.
Here is a very dull American Goldfinch (probable first-year female) in front of a Lesser (probable first-year male).
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, looking ever perky
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.
Exciting changes continue at Fernhill Wetlands (Birding Oregon p. 61). This photo is from the drying lake bed of Fernhill Lake. Low water levels this summer have created some great shorebird habitat. Notice the clump of cottonwood trees that have sprung up already. The construction (note the equipment in the background) will create rocky waterfalls that will cool and aerate the water that flows into the lake. I will be leading a free tour of the site on Saturday, October 6, at 10:00 AM as part of the Birds and Beer at Fernhill Wetlands event. Click on the Classes page for more details.
In addition to creating shorebird flats this summer, the low water levels are also helping to purge the lake of carp, which compete with birds for aquatic prey and muddy the waters with their feeding habits.
Greater Yellowlegs, sinking into the soft mud
In the Mitigation Marsh, two Wilson’s Snipe were feeding out in the open, which is rather uncharacteristic of this species.
On this visit, a flock of Lesser Goldfinches was working the weedy patches. It is always a treat to get close looks at these birds.
The coming weeks should see increases in sparrows, shorebirds, waterfowl and raptors.
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.
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
Here are a few shots of random songbirds seen on recent outings.
Lesser Goldfinch at the feeder. The Lessers arrive early in the morning before the American Goldfinches take over.
Brown Creeper, Ankeny NWR
Song Sparrow, Ankeny NWR
American Pipit, along the Columbia River in Portland
I recently came across a small flock of Lesser Goldfinches. This species has become much more common in the northern Willamette Valley in the past decade.
This species really stands out in the winter with their bright yellow underparts and cold greenish backs. Note the white wing bar and the little white patch at the base of the primaries. The more common American Goldfinch has a warmer golden brown cast in winter, and has buffy, not white, wing bars.
This is a male, probably a young bird given the lack of an extensive black cap. Notice the white patch on the spread tail feather. Females do not have white patches on their tails.
Pale females, like the top bird, are harder to distinguish from female American Goldfinches, as they lack the bright yellow underparts. Note the cold greenish back (not golden brown) and the white (not buffy) wing bars.
Compare this female American Goldfinch to the Lessers above and below.
The great advantage to being a slovenly gardener is the chance to see the local wildlife using your plants long after they have died. A mixed flock of resident finches passed through recently, feeding on seeds from neglected flower corpses.
This American Goldfinch was munching on Purple Coneflower seeds.
a seldom-studied, but diagnostic view of a male House Finch
A Bewick’s Wren often hunts for insects in the dead leaves of the clematis, but I doubt he will ever sit still long enough for a photograph.