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.
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.
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.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge includes about a quarter million acres in Lake County, OR. It is not close to anything, but is definitely worth the trip. The weather here in early June tends to be cool and breezy, and my recent visit was true to form.
In the morning, I parked at the campground and walked up toward the top of the large fault block that is Hart Mountain. It was a four-hour round trip through low sage steppe with aspen groves along the creeks. The riparian areas held MacGillivray’s and Yellow Warblers, Dusky Flycatchers, Bullock’s Orioles, and lots of Robins. In the more open habitats, the most common birds were Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows, Rock Wrens, and Horned Larks.
Pronghorns are the main reason this refuge came into being. Not actually antelope, Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America, having evolved alongside the now-extinct American Cheetah. Most of the Pronghorns I saw that day were rather skittish, keeping a good distance from me.
Near the top of the ridge is this large cairn, which stands almost eight feet tall. I’m not sure why some people are compelled to stack things. Monty Python addressed this issue with their Royal Society for Putting Things On Top of Other Things.
On my way back down the mountain, I again passed the unconcerned Pronghorn.
Despite the cold, he has already started to shed his winter coat. If you look closely, you can see just a bit of a yellow tag in his left ear. This identifies this animal as part of a study tracking Pronghorn migration between Hart Mountain and Sheldon NWR in Nevada.
Farther south on the refuge lies a little patch of Ponderosa Pine forest known as Blue Sky. Since the habitat is so different from the surrounding sage steppe, it is worth exploring for different bird species, especially in migration. On this cold blustery day, I found Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Warbling Vireo, and White-crowned Sparrows. The large trees are attractive to various owls, I am told.
Before shutting down my computer for the night, I sometimes play the video pinball game that came with the machine. Typically, I score about 400,000 points. On rare occasions, I have scored around 4 million points, through no skill or knowledge of my own. Last night, I scored 8,166,000 points, again, through no control on my part.
And what does this have to do with birding? The experience was actually amazingly similar. How many times have you walked through the same patch of woods looking for a bird you haven’t seen before? Experience tells you what species are likely to be at that location, just as experience tells me what my pinball score will likely be. But you keep hoping for something different, and sometimes, you get lucky.
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But that is exactly what birders do. We cover the same birding sites over and over, year after year, hoping for something different. It is that hope that keeps us going. If we accepted the likelihood that each trip to a given site will produce the same species, we would be less likely to go into the field. It is the insanity of expecting something different that makes birding such a joy.
I approached this nest box at Hart Mountain with the expectation, or at least hope, of finding a Flamulated Owl. Instead, this large nest box was occupied by a pair of Mountain Chickadees.
Pelagic birding is the epitome of insanity. You cover hundreds of square miles of open ocean, hoping to run across a rare bird that just happens to be at the same spot you are. Here are two Laysan Albatrosses swimming with the abundant Black-footed Albatrosses off the Oregon coast.
Am I insane for engaging in this hobby/sport/avocation/obsession that we know as birding? Heck yes, and loving it.