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

Gull Season

Late autumn and early winter is the time to find the biggest diversity of gulls in Oregon. I led a field trip to the coast at the end of October. Strong storms from the west had moved a lot of birds close to shore earlier in the week, but on the day we arrived, strong east winds had driven a lot of birds back out to sea. At least we didn’t get rained on.

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At the Seaside Cove, a few gulls posed for us in the sun. This gull is mostly Western, but the streaking on the head and neck suggest some Glaucous-winged ancestry.

This is a fairly robust Iceland Gull (Thayer’s subspecies).

A closer look at the Iceland. The yellow bill will fade as the season progresses.

There aren’t a lot of places in the Portland area to get close looks at gulls anymore. This group was hanging out on a bar in the Willamette River. The flock was a mix of California, Ring-billed, Herring, Iceland, Glaucous-winged, Western, and a mass of messy hybrids.

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While scanning the genetic soup of confusing hybrids, it was refreshing to land on a Ring-billed Gull.

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California Gull

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While this bird ticks most of the boxes for Herring Gull, the bill seemed a little too heavy to me. This, combined with the primaries which were slightly less than jet black, suggest this might be a Cook Inlet Gull (Herring X Glaucous-winged).

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This Glaucous-winged Gull was hanging out in a flock of Cackling Geese at Amberglen Park. I am guessing that the grazing geese were stirring up worms for the gull.

Happy Gulling!

Winter Birding

We finally had a bout of winter weather in the Portland area. The west side of town got more ice than actual snow, so travel conditions were not ideal. Since we had an appointment in Hillsboro anyway, I made a quick stop at Amberglen Park. This Ring-necked Duck was putting on a nice show.

This Bufflehead spent much more time below the surface of the water than above it, but I managed a quick photo. Note the streaks of sleet.

This habitat doesn’t seem right for Hooded Mergansers, but I often see them here.
The Portland area doesn’t seem to have a good winter gull roost these days. Amberglen attracts a few, mostly Ring-billed Gulls.

I think gulls are really attractive in the snow. Note the slight pinkish tones on this bird.

Here are some Ring-billed Gulls swimming with an “Olympic” Gull (Western X Glaucous-winged hybird).

This is a “Cook Inlet” Gull (Herring X Glaucous-winged hybrid). The bill pattern is classic winter Herring Gull. The eye is dark and the primaries are not quite true black. It gives the impression of a Thayer’s Iceland Gull with a giant bill.
On the home front, snow often brings Varied Thrushes to the yard. We had four at one time cleaning up seeds under the feeder.

I am always grateful for the splash of color provided by this Townsend’s Warbler.

The snow is gone now, and birds are starting move. Spring will be here any minute.

Happy Winter

Mew Gulls

mew rightI made a quick trip to Amberglen Office Park in Hillsboro to check the lawn for gulls. Along with a small flock of Ring-billed Gulls were four Mew Gulls. Mews are one of my favorite gulls. They are easy to pick out of a mixed flock, they seldom if ever hybridize, and they possess a cuteness not found in most Larids.

Mew Gulls are found in Oregon from October to March. They are most common in estuaries along the coast, but you can find them in decent numbers in the Willamette Valley.

IMG_2306As gulls go, Mews are pretty petite with their short slender bills and round pigeon-like heads. Eye color variable, but tends toward the dark side. Like Ring-bills, Mews show very long wing projection beyond the tail.

dark mew leftThis individual is heavily marked on the head and breast compared to the bird above.

IMG_2320Amberglen is a good spot for waterfowl and attracts a few songbirds. Several sparrow species, including this Song Sparrow, were foraging around the main pond.

nutriaHere is my obligatory photo of a Nutria. Cuteness transcends their invasive species status.

Happy Winter

Tualatin River NWR

I visited Tualatin River NWR last week. The weather has been very hot and dry, so I started early in the morning. There was a surprisingly large diversity of species for mid-summer. I ended the trip with 55 species. I didn’t pay too much attention to waterfowl, so there may have been more. This Savannah Sparrow was backlit by rising sun.

Here is one reason I don’t pay too much attention to waterfowl this time of year. There are a lot of young birds and molting adults around in Ugly Duck Season. Some birders love the challenge of studying these birds, but since ducks are not migrating during their summer molt, the likelihood of finding anything other than the local breeders is slim to none. I’m calling this an immature Wood Duck, but I could be wrong.

Willow Flycatchers were still singing from prominent perches.

This Lazuli Bunting was singing from a little thicket.

There is not a lot of shorebird habitat at the refuge right now, but Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, and Western Sandpipers were present in small numbers along with hundreds of Killdeer. As water levels drop, shorebird numbers should increase.

Happy Summer!

Taverner’s Cackling Goose vs. Ridgeway’s Cackling Goose

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On a recent trip to Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton, I had the opportunity to observe Taverner’s and Ridgeway’s Cackling Geese side-by-side. Taverner’s are larger, with pale breasts and slightly longer bills. Ridgeway’s have dark, iridescent breasts (on adults) and stubby little bills.

taverner
Here is a close look at a Taverner’s Cackling Goose, the subspecies most likely to be confused with Lesser Canada Goose. Lesser Canada Geese have thinner necks and slightly longer bills.

ridgeway's
The bill on a Ridgeway’s Cackling Goose is thick and stubby, and the neck often appears very short and thick. This subspecies is generally regarded as the most adorable.

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Another fun goose at Commonwealth that day was this Greater White-fronted Goose. A few of these have been hanging out at Commonwealth the past few winters.

cormorant
Not a goose, but a gorgeous bird when you get a close enough view, is this Double-crested Cormorant. You can expect to see a few of these whenever you visit this site.

The American Wigeon flock was pretty small this day, but I expect the wintering birds to increase in the coming weeks.

Fernhill Wetlands

With the ongoing renovations taking place at Fernhill Wetlands, each visit throughout the year is a new experience. Most of the breeding species have done their thing, and the resident waterfowl have molted into ugly duck season. Water levels are still a little too high to provide shorebird habitat, but that should change soon enough.

brush rabbit
Afternoon temperatures have been getting quite warm, so the brush rabbits come out early in the morning to enjoy the cool. The backlighting on this guy highlights the blood vessels in his ears.

purple martin
Purple Martins are a new addition to Fernhill this year. A new nesting box installed beside the main lake has attracted at least one pair. If you build it, they will come.

cinnamon teal
These Cinnamon Teal were plowing through a thick mat of algae. Note the very large bills on these ducks, which help identify them in their summer plumage.

merg
This hatch-year Hooded Merganser was hanging out in the middle of the lake. The unusual habitat choice and the unfamiliar juvenile plumage caused many birders, myself included, to initially call this a bird a Red-breasted Merganser. While a Red-breasted had been documented at this site in May, closer inspection of this bird reveals the solid head shape and the slightly smaller bill of a Hooded. Another reminder to actually look at every bird and don’t rely on others to identify them for you. 

turkey vulture
Turkey Vulture, experiencing some wing molt

red-winged
This Red-winged Blackbird was one of a large flock feeding in the cattails.

barn swallow chicks
Some of the local breeders are working on a second clutch. These young Barn Swallows are waiting for someone to come feed them. Soon the power lines will be crowded with young swallows preparing for their first migration. 

Broughton Beach, Portland

Broughton Beach is along the Columbia River, right next to the Portland airport. It can be a challenging place to bird, with dogs and children chasing the birds, police carrying body bags down the beach, etc. But if you catch it on a good day you can find some excellent birding. The great attraction this past week was a Pacific Golden Plover, which spent two days there, avoiding me with great success (thus that specie’s designation as one of my nemesis birds).  I tried for the plover twice with no luck, but found several other goodies along the way.

red phalarope 1The most unexpected species was this Red Phalarope. At first glance, I wrote this bird off as a Red-necked, since Reds are very unusual inland in August, and Red-neckeds are expected. Once I looked at the photographs, however, I saw my error and got a good reminder to LOOK AT THE BIRD! That heavy bill with the light-colored base is a dead giveaway for Red Phalarope.
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Another coastal species along Broughton Beach was Sanderling.
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sanderling 7It is nice to see Sanderlings at inland locations, since you can often get closer to them there than you can at the coast.

semipalm 1Another nice find was this Semipalmated Sandpiper. You can see the partial webbing between the outer toes that gives this species its name. Ten years ago, a Semipalmated Sandpiper anywhere in Oregon was a pretty big deal, but now quite a few individuals are reported every year. Either the bird has become a more common migrant in this state, or people are just better at recognizing them.
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semipalm and westernSemipalmated Sandpiper (r) and Western Sandpiper (l)

western 3Western Sandpipers were present in small numbers. . .
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least 2as were Least Sandpipers.
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california gullCalifornia Gulls like to hang out on a little sand spit that extends into the river at low tide. A few Glaucous-winged Gulls have arrived, and will become more common as autumn approaches.

common loonThis Common Loon seemed a little out of place for August. In the winter months, this species is often seen at this site with large rafts of grebes and diving ducks. There are fewer kids and dogs then, too.

Sauvie Island

mixed flockI took my waterfowl class out to Sauvie Island. The trip produced a nice variety of ducks and geese, and the weather was freakishly nice for February. Here are some Ring-necked Ducks, Dusky Canada Geese, and a couple of Buffleheads.

dusky canada geeseSome more Dusky Canada Geese. The red neck collars help to clinch the ID. Lesser Canada Geese are fitted with blue collars, while Ridgeway’s Cackling Geese have yellow ones.

hybrid goose 1One of the more interesting birds of the day was this hybrid Greater White-fronted X Cackling Goose.
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satyr commaThis Satyr Comma was basking in the sun. While the early spring is enjoyable in the short term, it may have negative effects on the flora and fauna in the long term.

Broughton Beach

Nala and I walked along the Columbia River from Broughton Beach to the Sea Scout base.

scaup flock 2Greater Scaup was the most numerous species on the river, with smaller numbers of Lesser Scaup (fifth bird from the right)
scaup flock 1Great Scaup (upper left) with Lesser Scaups, showing a nice comparison of size and head shape.

western grebeA few Western Grebes were snoozing on the water.

common goldeneye 1A Common Goldeneye came close enough to shore for some great looks.
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song sparrow 4Broughton Beach usually holds some interesting songbirds, but this Song Sparrow was the only one I saw on this visit.
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beaverA Beaver had been nibbling willow saplings when we approached. He swam out just a few feet offshore and continued downstream.