Early Spring

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Spring is kicking into gear. Lots of birds have starting pairing up in anticipation of nesting. These Tree Swallows were checking out a tree cavity.
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Yellow-rumped Warblers are becoming more common and some have acquired full breeding plumage.
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There are still a lot of “winter” sparrows in the Willamette Valley. Here is a typical view of a Lincoln’s Sparrow. This bird had no interest in posing out in the open.
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Green-winged Teal do not nest in western Oregon, but they have started to pair up and are looking very dapper.
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This Double-crested Cormorant has caught a Rainbow Trout. When the county parks department stocked this lake with trout, I doubt that cormorants were the intended recipients, but I always like to see native wildlife benefiting whenever they can.
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I have found just a few Long-toed Salamanders so far this year. Amphibians should become more active in the next week or so.

Happy Spring

Getting into Shape

Shape is one of the most important field marks you should consider when identifying a bird. While color and plumage condition will fluctuate, shape and proportion are much more consistent throughout the year and between individual birds of a given species.

That being said, the shape of a bird can change at any given moment due to the way they hold their feathers.

cooper's fluffy instaThis Cooper’s Hawk had just bathed and was helping their feathers dry by fluffing them out. From a distance, this bird appeared to show a broad breast with rusty barring and a broad, banded tail. The drooping wings made the tail seem shorter. These are all great marks for a Red-shouldered Hawk.

cooper's instaAfter a while, the bird smoothed their feathers down, revealing a slender build and a long rounded tail typical of a Cooper’s Hawk. So shape alone is enough to identify this bird, but we had to observe the bird long enough to see what their shape actually was. This is another reason to take the time to study every bird you come across. A quick glance or a single photo can be misleading. (How many times have plastic bags been identified as Snowy Owls?)

Happy Winter

Tualatin River NWR

Like other national wildlife refuges in the Willamette Valley, Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge has limited access in autumn and winter. But the trail that is open can provide some good birding.

The highlight of this trip was a fresh sapsucker well that was attracting both Anna’s Hummingbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Sapsucker wells are an important source of nectar and insects for birds in the colder months.

Bewick’s Wrens spend much of their time buried in the depths of brush piles, but this individual popped up and posed for a few photos.

It is always worth the time to check out brushy hedgerows this time of year.

California Scrub-Jay
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Spotted Towhee

I don’t normally think of Dark-eyed Juncos as having a camouflage pattern, but this individual was doing a great job of blending in with his environment.

Happy Autumn

How to Watch an Owl

great horned owl 2

A lot of people, both birders and non-birders, are fascinated by owls. I personally don’t get more excited by owls than any other group of birds, but some folks just lose all ethics and common sense when they come within close proximity of an owl. As I have often said, owls make people stupid.

Much of the worst birder behavior I have witnessed has been around owls. When people get too close, the results can range from simply annoying the animal to putting the bird at serious risk. So, I would like to offer a guide to enjoying these birds is such a way that keeps everyone involved safe from stress and harm.

Ethical owling is achieved by starting with two clear premises:

  1. Owls don’t like you.

To most species of wildlife, humans are perceived as a clear and present danger. Despite being predators themselves, owls are preyed upon by other species. The best defense employed by many owls is camouflage and just staying hidden during the day. If a large predator, like you, approaches an owl, the bird may become stressed, even to the point of flushing from their hidden perch. This in turn puts the owl at increased risk of being attacked by another predator.

  1. If an owl is looking right at you, you are changing that bird’s behavior, which may be putting the bird at risk.

That owl could have been sleeping, watching for potential prey, or preening. Your presence is preventing all of those natural behaviors. By observing and interpreting an owl’s behavior, you can effectively judge your potential impact on the bird and adjust your actions accordingly.

Smaller species of owls rely on their camouflage to keep them safe, and may remain completely still if you approach. So just because the bird is not flying away, it doesn’t mean that you are not causing stress. With larger species, you may be interfering with hunting activities or alerting other animals to the owl’s location.

If an owl is paying any attention to you, you are too close. When you encounter an owl, even if the bird does not seem affected by you, enjoy them briefly from a respectful distance and then move on.

A longer version of this post, complete with photos of various owl behaviors, is available on my Patreon Account.

Happy Autumn

September Shorebirds

Greater Yellowlegs

Shorebirds have been trickling through the Portland area all month. Finding proper habitat can be challenging. As wetlands dry up during the summer, we have to hope that deeper bodies of water recede enough to create mudflats for shorebirds to feed on. This Greater Yellowlegs was at Force Lake in north Portland.

g yellowlegs trioTypically seen wading, Greater Yellowlegs will occasionally swim in groups to catch small fish.
greater yellowlegs swimming

westernThis juvenile Western Sandpiper, showing the characteristic rusty suspenders, was taking advantage of low water levels at Smith and Bybee Wetlands.

pectoral sandpiperThe main lake at Fernhill Wetlands has receded enough to create some nice mudflats, here being enjoyed by a Pectoral Sandpiper.

long-billed dowitcherjuvenile Long-billed Dowitcher, showing the characteristic solid dark tertials

short-billed dowitcher smalljuvenile Short-billed Dowitcher, showing the characteristic tiger-striped tertials

spotted sandpiper smallSpotted Sandpipers nest in the Portland area. Juveniles, like this one, can be recognized by the barring on the wing coverts.

semipalmated plover smallSemipalmated Plovers are surely one of the cutest shorebirds. The scaly pattern on the wings tells us that this is a juvenile.

Happy Autumn

Low Tide

trestle bay 2Trestle Bay, just off Parking Lot D at Fort Stevens State Park, can be one of the more productive shorebird spots on the north coast. Timing is critical, as the bay fills completely with the high tide.

trestle bay 1When the tide is out, the bay provides extensive mudflats. With this much exposed mud, the birds can be quite distant, so timing your visit when the tide is coming in can produce some nice viewing.

sea lion 1On this visit we observed what we thought was a California Sea Lion carcass way out on the flat.

sea lionLater we noticed the the sea lion had rolled over and extended a flipper. Apparently he was just hanging out on the mudflat catching some sun.

sea lion stretchI normally see these animals basking on rocks, but the mud was apparently working for this guy.

mergansersSouthbound shorebird migration tends to come in waves, and we were between waves on this visit. Our consolation birds were this flock of Common Mergansers with a California Gull.

Happy last days of summer.

Some Non-avian Sightings

While I am usually looking specifically for birds, I enjoy whatever wildlife I encounter along the way.

l admiralI don’t spend a lot of effort looking for butterflies, but I do appreciate it when one poses for me. This is a Lorquin’s Admiral.

nw garter smallThis Northwestern Garter was hiding under a piece of bark near a stump. The cloudy eyes indicate that the snake is about to shed. Snakes in this condition cannot see well, so I generally avoid handling them.

rabbitI am having trouble distinguishing Brush Rabbits from the introduced Eastern Cottontail. I have recently learned that the two species will hybridize, making identification even harder. The rusty nape on this individual makes me think it is an Eastern Cottontail.

One of the highlights of my most recent outing was the opportunity to watch a Long-tailed Weasel hunting. This is the first time I have seen this species for more than a few seconds. The weasel’s hunt was successful, so don’t go any farther if you find images of predation disturbing.

Long-tailed Weasel with a Brush Rabbit may be disturbing to some

lt weasel closeupI first saw this Long-tailed Weasel chasing a Brush Rabbit down the trail and into the vegetation. After a brief tussle, the rabbit was subdued.

w and r smallThe weasel then dragged the rabbit across the trail and into the brush, despite the fact that the rabbit was significantly heavier than the weasel. These are impressive little predators.

Happy Summer

Random Summer Birds

black-headed grosbeakSpring migration has come and gone, and many birders agree that it was a dud. Numbers and diversity seemed quite low in the Portland area this spring. So now we concentrate on the summer residents, like this Black-headed Grosbeak.

Golden-crowned SparrowMost Golden-crowned Sparrows are gone by late May, so this bird found on June 2 was noteworthy.

lazuli small singingAt Tualatin River NWR, this Lazuli Bunting was singing in the same patch of Nootka Rose that has hosted them in previous years. lazuli small

Blue-winged Teal pairTualatin River NWR is hosting at least two pairs of Blue-winged Teal this summer.

purple martinsPurple Martins at Fernhill Wetlands

bewick's smallBewick’s Wren are usually working heavy cover, so it was a treat to find this one dust bathing in the middle of a gravel road.

hoodieHooded Merganser preening at Fernhill Wetlands

Spotted Sandpiper 1Spotted Sandpiper

gadwall smallThis Gadwall is already starting to molt into his dull summer alternate plumage. I often refer to late summer as Ugly Duck Season. It seems a little early for ducks to be losing their sharp breeding colors.

Now is the time to seek out local nesters. It will only be about four weeks before southbound shorebird migration starts up. I hope the autumn migration is a little more eventful than this spring was.

Happy Summer

Random Images

Here are some random birds from recent weeks. This Great Blue Heron was wading deep at Commonwealth Lake. The white face and yellow eye really popped, giving her a creepy look.

A Black-capped Chickadee was excavating a cavity in a dead tree at Commonwealth Lake. It is a little early for nesting, but birds will be pairing up soon.

This is a lousy photo, but it documents the Yellow-billed Loon that hung out at Hagg Lake for a few days in early January. Lifers are few and very far between for me, so it is great when one shows up relatively close to home.

This Black Turnstone was taking shelter from the high tides on the little lawn at the Seaside Cove.

Western Gull at the Seaside Cove

The marbled pattern on the bill and the bit of dark smudging on the tail suggests this is a third cycle Western Gull.

Varied Thrush at Summer Lake Park in Tigard

Black-crowned Night-Herons have been regular at Koll Center Wetlands for several years now. They used to be a little more accommodating, but lately they have remained in dense cover most of the time.

This Bushtit was hanging out in the back yard for quite a while. I hope the extreme puffiness of this bird was due to it being cold and was not an indication of illness.

Happy Winter

Force Lake

Force Lake, a small lake at the edge of a golf course in north Portland, is not a terribly attractive site, but it can be quite birdy at times. On this visit, a large flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows was feeding in a little patch of lawn.

When startled, the birds would take cover in a patch of blackberries, but would soon come out again to resume feeding.

I only found two birds in the flock that weren’t Golden-crowned Sparrow. One was this White-crowned Sparrow.

The other was this White-throated Sparrow. This species has become increasingly common in Oregon over the past couple of decades, but I am still stoked to find one. This bird was especially cooperative.

The lake hosted a decent variety of waterfowl, but I was intrigued by the Canvasbacks.

This male would dive down to root around in the muck at the bottom of the lake, then come up and do this little dance on the surface. He didn’t seem bothered by the mud facial.

Happy autumn