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.
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.
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.
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.
Prior to this week, I had only seen a few Pine Siskins this winter. But now a flock of several dozen are present most of the day.
The American Goldfinches are starting to show some summer color.
One Purple Finch has been joining the fray. I only see them once or twice a year at the feeder.
The resident House Finches have had a hard time finding room at the feeder, and have been waiting until the flock of smaller finches move on for the day.
Two male Varied Thrushes are competing with the squirrels for seeds under the feeder.
With the increased activity, the local Dark-eyed Juncos have given up trying to use the feeder, opting to scratch around the periphery instead.
As always, the Black-capped Chickadees sneak in and grab the occasional seed.
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 trees and shrubs around the refuge headquarters are very attractive to birds.
Western Tanagers were abundant in the trees and in the sagebrush.
The lawn at headquarters hosts a large colony of Merriam’s Ground Squirrels.
The view from Buena Vista, with Steens Mountain in the background
In warmer weather, this part of the state is great for herps, like this Western Fence Lizard.
Northern Flicker, nesting in the town of Frenchglen, near the southern end of the refuge
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.
Several species of thrush were common today. Here is a blurry Hermit Thrush.
an equally blurry male Varied Thrush
female Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush and American Robin feeding together
The birds have been taking advantage of occasional breaks in the rain lately to stock up on sunflower seeds.
Pine Siskins have not been plentiful this year, with only a few individuals appearing at the feeder.
This Pine Siskin has more yellow in the wings than the bird pictured above. There is a lot of individual variation with this field mark, not necessarily related to gender.
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.
While we are officially in the winter season, with the passing of the solstice we can now look forward to lengthening days. It doesn’t take the birds long to catch on. Bird song will start to pick up soon and the Anna’s Hummingbirds will be nesting in about a month. Snows in the mountains have brought good numbers of Pine Siskins to the valley; a nice treat for the holidays.
I wish you blessings of the season. If you would like to treat yourself, find a copy of the 1952 recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors. I have yet to hear a production of this Christmas classic as good as the original. Cheers.