Birds vs. Birding

We spent close to a week in northern Wasco County, OR, to get our dogs away from the barrage of illegal fireworks that plague the Portland area every July. While the property where we stayed provided some nice hiking opportunities, there is little public land in the northern part of Wasco County. I drove a few country roads looking for birds, but there were no public areas to really explore on foot. We were too ambitious with our hiking the first couple of days and ended up pushing Nala (who turns 10 next month) too far. She couldn’t walk on her own for two days, so we didn’t get out at all on those days.

Looking back on the trip, I got a total of one bird photo for the week, and never really got good views of any birds. It is tempting to say that the birding was bad, but thinking back, I really did see a lot of birds. Most were flybys, or birds seen without optics, but the diversity was actually pretty good. There were Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, and Say’s Phoebes. Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, and Lewis’s Woodpeckers were common. The hummingbird feeder at the house where we stayed was visited by Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. A Wild Turkey crossed the road in front of me one morning. There were a lot of birds that I don’t get to see in the Portland area. Granted, views were often fleeting, but one of the advantages of being an experienced birder is the ability to recognize many species with less-than-stellar views. So given the fact that I didn’t actually do a lot of birding, the birding wasn’t too bad after all. We are always birding. Sometimes the views and species diversity are better than others, but there is always something to see.

Horned Lark, perched on a barbed wire fence, the only bird photo from the week

California Ground Squirrels were EVERYWHERE.

Not quite as common as the ground squirrels, Black-tailed Deer were seen on every outing.

These two fawns were “hiding” in the tall grass.

Here Bodhi contemplates his first cow. Nala cares not for such beasts.

Looking west toward Mt. Hood

In a pasture of mostly browns and pale olives, a few Blanket Flowers provided some intense color.

Happy Summer

Posted in birding philosophy | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

My Love/Hate Relationship with My 5MR

It has been six months since I joined the Five Mile Radius movement, concentrating on finding as many species of birds as possible within five miles of my home. My 5MR has a pretty good mix of habitats. I have access to several small wetlands, mature woodlands, and a small stretch of the Willamette River. Some species I missed in January are very likely to be seen in November or December. Without working too hard, I would expect to find 150 species this year. That is not great compared to coastal sites or sites with a better mix of habitats, but not too bad for an inland site predominated by high-density housing and shopping centers. The benefits of the 5MR are many, and have been lauded by myself and others. But it has slowly dawned on me that, in some ways, my 5MR has made me a bad birder.

Like many birders, I have worked my 5MR hard, exploring new sites and repeatedly visiting the better ones in the circle. I have only birded outside my 5MR four times all year, twice for classes I was teaching, once for leading a birding trip for a church group, and once for Portland Audubon’s Birdathon. No one has forced me to stay in my circle, but when you introduce such a challenge to someone with a borderline obsessive/compulsive personality (a.k.a. a typical birder), that imaginary border can be hard to cross.

So far this year, I have found eight species of shorebird in my circle. That is not terrible. But by not going to the coast for shorebird migration this spring I have missed out on the large flocks of Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits that feed in the surf, the uncommon Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, and the adorable Semipalmated Plovers. I missed my best chance for finding a Pacific Golden Plover, one of my nemesis birds.

It is not just the coast that I have neglected. I did not visit Mt. Tabor, one of the better spots for spring migrants in the Portland area. I didn’t bother chasing several unusual birds in Portland simply because they were outside my 5MR and I didn’t need them for my state list.

I have let the competition of the 5MR interfere with my larger birding goals. This really hit home when an Eastern Phoebe turned up on Sauvie Island and remained at a reliable location for a couple of weeks. An Eastern Phoebe is not a sexy bird, rather dull in fact. But it is a species I haven’t seen in Oregon and one that is very rare in the state. My main birding goal is to see 400 species in Oregon. I am close, but there are not enough regularly occurring species that I haven’t seen for me to reach this goal; I need vagrants. I am not much of a chaser, so when a vagrant shows up in the greater Portland area I really can’t afford to pass it up. But I let the phoebe go. It would have eaten up the limited time I had to bird during those two weeks, and it was out of my circle.

Not only have my birding locations changed, but so has my birding behavior.

I am normally fairly conservative in my birding. I don’t count birds unless I am very sure of the ID. My number estimates for eBird are always on the low side. When birding my 5MR, I have found that my standards for ID have relaxed a bit. I am still reasonably sure of my IDs, but if I “need” a particular species for my circle, I am slightly more inclined to call the ID even if the view is not ideal or if there is some doubt.

On three occasions this year, I have used audio playback in the field, either to elicit a response from a bird or to verify an ID. I don’t do this. I have prided myself in not risking the undo harassment of birds by playing their songs in the field, especially during breeding season. Somehow my birding ethics have weakened.

So this relationship with my 5MR has turned a bit sour. The 5MR is great. There are lots of advantages to concentrating on my circle and I chose to invest my efforts there, but I think I need to see other birding sites. I need to reconnect with some local areas that lie outside my circle, great birding sites that I have neglected this year. I need to go farther afield to visit different biomes; the mountains, the high desert, the coast.

I will continue to try to rack up a good total for my 5MR. But I am going to spend more time enjoying the great avian diversity that Oregon offers, keeping my ID skills sharp and increasing my familiarity with species that I don’t get to see every week. I am still not a big chaser, but I need to appreciate the opportunities that come my way.

Happy Solstice.

Posted in birding philosophy | Tagged | 2 Comments

Random Spring Migrants

Our sunny warm spring has turned cool and wet. This is a good thing, as we continue to be far below average in rainfall amounts, but the weather has put a bit of a damper on birding and photography. This Tree Swallow put on a nice show at Koll Center Wetlands. I believe this is a young male, hatched last summer and just now molting into full adult plumage.

Most Golden-crowned Sparrows have returned north by now, but the few that remain are in full breeding plumage.

This past winter was not a big year for Pine Siskins, but one or two have recently been showing up at my feeder.

Mourning Dove at Tualatin Hills Nature Park

This singing Orange-crowned Warbler was actually displaying his orange crown at Pittock Mansion.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird, singing in the rain at Pittock Mansion

This next week will see spring migration winding down and the local nesting season kick into high gear. The slower pace will provide an opportunity to really study the local nesters, provided the rain stops.

Happy Spring

Posted in seasonal movements | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Inland Shorebirds

From the end of April through the middle of May, migrant shorebird numbers peak along the Oregon coast. I haven’t made it out to the coast yet this spring, but my local inland sites have produced a few species. There isn’t much shorebird habitat in the Portland area in the spring since most bodies of water are full and thus lack mudflats. Muddy edges and flooded soccer fields have to do.

The most unusual find so far has been this Solitary Sandpiper. Solitaries are quite rare in spring (They are pretty rare in autumn, too.) so this bird was a nice surprise.

Least Sandpipers have been passing through in small flocks. This individual is modeling all the classic marks of the species; yellowish legs, upperparts that are brown but not too rusty, and a tiny drooping bill.

On the coast, Western Sandpipers travel in flocks of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. In my 5-mile radius so far, I have seen two. Note the dark legs, longer bills, and more rusty coloration.

Other shorebirds seen but not photographed include a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers, the local Killdeer, and my first Spotted Sandpiper of the year.

A trip to the coast next week should give me a good taste of spring shorebird migration. It will seem odd venturing out of my 5MR, but sometimes you have to go to where the birds are.

Happy Spring

Posted in seasonal movements | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Early Spring in the 5MR

The weather has gone from winter rain to spring rain, still rather gloomy but definitely more pleasant overall. Spring migration is slowly picking up with new species gradually accumulating in my 5-Mile Radius.

Most of the new sites that I have explored in my 5MR have been very underwhelming, but I was recently introduced to Cedar Mill Wetlands in Beaverton. This little site has produced 45 species in two short visits, as well as this encounter with a Coyote.

Sharp-shinned Hawk at Cedar Mill Wetlands

Great Egret, sporting their nuptial plumes

The little wetland associated with Commonwealth Lake Park continues to be a favorite site with local birders. The flock of Wilson’s Snipes has thinned out a bit.

This Greater Yellowlegs was a nice surprise at Commonwealth. Hopefully the habitat will attract other shorebirds as the spring progresses.

Commonwealth is the only reliable spot in my 5MR for House Sparrow.

Bufflehead, Commonwealth Lake

Koll Center Wetlands in Beaverton is not the most pleasant place to bird. You are basically peering into the wetlands from various parking lots. But there are a few species here that are hard to find elsewhere. This Black-crowned Night-Heron was barely visible through the brush.

A small flock of Band-tailed Pigeons is reliable at Koll.

Yellow-rumped Warblers have been common all year at Koll, but some are just now molting into breeding plumage.

I have only birded outside my 5MR twice so far this year, both times while teaching Little Brown Bird Classes. This Rufous Hummingbird was at Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro. I have yet to find this species in my 5MR, but it is one of many that I expect to see in the coming weeks.

Happy Spring

Posted in mammals, OR Birding Sites, seasonal movements | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Virginia Rail


As many people are jumping on the “bird local” bandwagon, little Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton has been getting a lot of birding attention and producing an increasing array of interesting species. One of the stars of this winter is this Virginia Rail. While Virginia Rails are scarce in winter, and almost always hard to see, this individual has been venturing out into the open to feed, sometimes onto the athletic field.


We should appreciate the value of little parks like Commonwealth Lake to wildlife. But we should also remember that the reason birds can be easy to see in such places is because the habitat is so limited. This park is a small isolated patch of wetland surrounded by high-density housing. Wildlife thrives in large tracts of habitat. Since large tracts are no longer available in many areas, we should at least strive to preserve corridors between smaller parks to allow wildlife to safely travel from site to site, and to allow young to disperse.

Posted in behavior, conservation issues, OR Birding Sites | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Dreary February

February weather can be the most challenging, with cold temperatures and frequent rain. We desperately need the moisture so I am not complaining, but it is harder to get motivated to get out into the cold and damp. I continue to concentrate on my 5-mile radius, with my total currently sitting at 70 species for the year. I expect that to jump up a bit this week.

This lovely American Wigeon has been hanging out at Commonwealth Lake Park. Birds with this much white on the head are known as Storm Wigeon.

This Killdeer, along with two others, was doing a pretty good job hiding in a little clump of leaves.

Wilson’s Snipes continue to be common at Commonwealth. That long bill helps him blend in with the sticks.

Red-winged Blackbird in fresh spring plumage. I imagine those rusty fringes will wear off to reveal a more uniform black outfit soon.

Happy winter

Posted in seasonal movements | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

5MR: The First Month

For the month of January, virtually all of my birding has been conducted within my 5 Mile Radius. This included dedicated birding trips and keeping track of birds while at the dog park and on family hikes.  (This Red-breasted Sapsucker was at Greenway Park.) Some birds came quite easily, like the Barred Owls that sang in my yard and at the dog park, while others were hard to find, like Rock Pigeon which I didn’t see until January 30.

The purpose of the 5 Mile Radius challenge, in addition to reducing your gas consumption, is to explore under-birded sites close to home. I visited several sites I had never birded before, and explored some familiar sites in greater detail.

The hope is that you will find previously unknown great birding spots, but this was not my experience. Of the new places I visited so far, all of which are eBird “Hotspots,” none of them are sites I am particularly motivated to visit again.

My circle has a few great birding sites that include wetlands, mixed forest, and hilltop migrant traps. If I concentrate my birding on five sites, I will have the opportunity to see the vast majority of species likely to occur within my circle. Yes, great birds can show up anywhere. If you are lucky enough to be able to go birding every day, then it makes a lot of sense to visit as many different sites as possible. But if your birding time is limited because you have a life (oops, did I say that out loud?), I think it makes more sense to spend your time in the best habitats. I also enjoy my birding more when the habitat is more pleasant. I have peeked into people’s back yards to see rare birds (Brambling, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Ovenbird, Costa’s Hummingbird), but I would much rather hike around a nice park.

Here are a few photos from the past month.

Brown Creeper, Greenway Park

Nutria at Koll Wetlands

Wilson’s Snipes at Commonwealth Lake

I dipped on the American Dipper that has been hanging out in my circle this winter, but I did see lots of dipper poop, so that should count, right?

Onward to February.

Posted in birding philosophy, mammals, OR Birding Sites | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In the Bleak Midwinter

Between the holidays, work, and family activities, there has been very little birding in recent weeks. One of the more enjoyable outings was a hike on Larch Mountain. The dogs loved the snow and it was great to get outside and hike around for four hours. Birds, as expected this time of year at this location, were very few. But we did hear a few kinglets, chickadees, and a flock of Red Crossbills.

The big new thing in 2019 is the Five Mile Radius, the brainchild of Jen Sanford of I Used to Hate Birds. This is where you concentrate your birding efforts to within five miles of your home and see how many species you can find within that circle. Not only does this reduce your gas consumption, but it forces you to explore many areas close to home that you normally wouldn’t. Who knows what avian goodies and birdy little patches you can discover?

Most of my 5MR efforts so far have been keeping track of birds I see at the dog park and at home, but I have already exceeded 50 species, and have yet to visit any wooded habitats or open fields. 

If the recent gale-force winds ever die down, I look forward to getting out and racking up some more local species.

Happy Winter


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Fernhill Wetlands

I visited Fernhill Wetlands in Forest Grove on a rare sunny December day. The sun is so low at this time of year that if there is no cloud cover the sun is either at your back or directly in your eyes. The latter makes birding very challenging, but the former can produce some lovely light, as seen on this Mourning Dove.

At least one Black Phoebe has been hanging out near the ponds behind the picnic shelter this fall. Black Phoebes were unheard of in Washington County a few year ago.

Any shorebird seen at this time of year is a treat. This lone Greater Yellowlegs was one of four shorebird species found on this trip. (Long-billed Dowitchers and Wilson’s Snipe were flybys.)

This Killdeer was probing with her foot to try to stir up food in one of the new gravel filtration tanks.

The main lake at Fernhill is hosting a nice variety of waterfowl, but most were distant or in the harsh sunlight. A  Swamp Sparrow was a nice find, but stayed in the cattails to avoid being photographed.

Happy Autumn.

Posted in OR Birding Sites | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment