On this first day of summer, I was surprised to see a Pine Siskin on the feeders. Siskins are normally seen here in the Willamette Valley from November through April, before heading to higher elevations to nest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last summer I posted about Lesser Goldfinches eating the chard in my garden. This week I saw one of the many visiting Pine Siskins doing the same thing.
This makes the third species out of the four in the genus Spinus that have eaten chard in my garden. Maybe a Lawrence’s Goldfinch will show up one day and make it a clean sweep.
As luck would have it, a recent streak of clear sunny days has coincided with my battle with an influenza virus. So rather than traversing the state enjoying birds in the sunshine, I have been stuck on the couch and at my work station watching the birds at the feeder. The feeder has been very busy, however, thanks to a new batch of large clean sunflower hearts and an influx of ravenous finches.
I am hoping the weather holds and my lungs clear so I can go a little farther afield next week.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most popular birding destinations in Oregon, not just for the abundant expected species, but also for the eastern vagrants that turn up there every year. Our Birdathon team from the Audubon Society of Portland visited the area June 7-9.
The grounds around Pittock Mansion in northwest Portland are a favorite spot for spring migrants. Most people visit this park to tour the ostentatious limestone house, but birders prefer the brushy hillsides and the woods around the parking lot.
Since we are still locked into a cold, damp weather pattern, most of the spring migrants have not yet arrived, but good numbers of winter residents were flocking and ready to move out.
The birds have been taking advantage of occasional breaks in the rain lately to stock up on sunflower seeds.
This has been a good winter for Pine Siskins at the feeders. Unfortunately, when you have large flocks of siskins, it is not uncommon to find sick individuals. These birds are susceptible to both respiratory and eye diseases, both of which can be transmitted to other birds through close contact. It is important to keep your feeders clean and remove debris from underneath on a regular basis. If you see more than a few sick birds, take the feeders down for a couple of weeks so the birds will disperse.
In this photo, the sick individual stands out by being much more “fluffy” than the other birds. Sick birds will also be lethargic, sometimes going to sleep at the feeder.