Spring Shorebirds

I had hoped to get to the coast this week, but a big weather system was blowing in so I  visited Fernhill Wetlands and Jackson Bottom. Both sites had a few shorebirds sporting their breeding plumage.

semipalmated plover fluffySemipalmated Plover

semipalmated plover 1


least sandpipersLeast Sandpipers

western sandpiperWestern Sandpiper

long-billed dowitchersLong-billed Dowitchers at Jackson Bottom. The sticks in the foreground are willow stakes planted by Clean Water Services. As these willows grow, they form a canopy over the mud flats, making the habitat useless to migrating shorebirds. Birders have been complaining about the practice at this site for years, to no avail.

Fernhill Wetlands

fernhillFernhill Wetlands, south of Forest Grove, is a great place to see the onset of autumn. Water levels on the main lake are still very low, but the recent rains will soon change that.

westernsMigrant shorebirds, like these Western Sandpipers, are enjoying the mudflats. Shorebird numbers are starting to thin out.

pectoralThis Pectoral Sandpiper was checking out the new vegetation on the lake bed.
pectoral walking

cacklersThe first Cackling Geese have arrived. They will soon be joined by a few thousand more.

merganserThis Common Merganser was resting on an exposed mud bar. I don’t get to see mergansers out of the water very often.

pelicansAmerican White Pelicans, once considered rare in the Willamette Valley, are now an expected species in late summer.

collared dove 1Eurasian Collared-Doves are another species that are increasingly common in the area.
collared dove 2

The annual Fernhill Wetlands Birds and Brew Festival will be held on October 12. I will be leading the 8:00 tour for that. Here is a link for more info.

Smith and Bybee Wetlands

westernsSmith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area (aka Smith and Bybee Lakes) in northeast Portland is a great spot in late summer as the water levels drop. Large flocks of American White Pelicans, California Gulls, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and various shorebirds gather to feed in the shallow water and on the mudflats. On this visit, most birds were pretty far away, but could be scanned with a scope. Western and Least Sandpipers were the only shorebirds I could pull out of the distant flocks, but other species have been reported recently.

green heronThis juvenile Green Heron was hanging out at the canoe launch on Smith Lake.

peregrine 2In the same area, this Peregrine Falcon was surveying the mudflats for tasty shorebirds.

egretsOn Bybee Lake, large numbers of Blue Herons and Great Egrets were gathered. At the edge of the group was this Snowy Egret, an uncommon visitor to the Portland area. Here is a nice comparison with the larger Great Egret.

egrets 2The lumps on the shoreline are dead and dying waterfowl, mostly Northern Shovelers. Warm temperatures and low water levels sometimes lead to outbreaks of avian botulism. Outbreaks usually subside with cooler temperatures and rain, which we are now getting in Portland.

Shorebird Class

My Shorebirds of the Willamette Valley class had their first field trip on Saturday. We found nine species of shorebirds, a nice collection of the expected species. We missed the Semipalmated Sandpiper that had been reported earlier in the week. All the migrants we saw were adults. The juveniles should be arriving soon, hopefully in time for our next field trip. Since I was leading the trip, I didn’t have much opportunity to seek out photos, but here are a few back-lit images.

leastLeast Sandpiper was the most common species of the day.

lesser yellowlegsWe found one Lesser Yellowlegs at Jackson Bottom and one at Fernhill Wetlands. The one at Jackson very cooperatively posed next to some Greater Yellowlegs for direct comparison.

western and semipalmThis Semipalmated Plover, to the right of the Western Sandpiper, was the only one of the day. He nestled down into the mud, perhaps to cool off.

bald eagleA blurry Bald Eagle at Fernhill Wetlands didn’t pose much of a threat to the shorebirds, but did make the waterfowl nervous.

westernWestern Sandpiper at Fernhill Wetlands

spottedLots of Spotted Sandpipers remain at both Jackson Bottoms and Fernhill.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

A couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers have been staging at the Necanicum Estuary (Birding Oregon p.121) in Gearhart. I have wanted to see this species in Oregon for some time, but I have been unable to connect until this year. Buff-breasteds are uncommon to begin with, and most of the population migrates through the center of the continent or over the Atlantic. A few (almost always juveniles) are found in Oregon in September most years, and the Necanicum Estuary seems to be one of the more reliable sites for this species.

After nesting in the Arctic, Buff-breasted Sandpipers fly to southern South America for the winter. Such a long migration requires that the birds occasionally stop off for a week or so to build up fat reserves before continuing their long flight. Thankfully for us birders, these long rest stops give us a good chance to go see these rare beauties when they are reported.

The algae mats that are hosting the Buffy are also attracting good numbers of other shorebirds. Several Baird’s Sandpipers were present on this visit. Pictured above are a Western Sandpiper and a Semipalmated Plover. Shorebird viewing at this location should remain good throughout September.

Jackson Bottom 4/26/12

I took a client to Jackson Bottom Wetlands Reserve in Hillsboro (Birding Oregon p. 60).  Continuing restoration efforts at that site are creating some nice habitat, and the birds are responding.

Cinnamon Teal were actively courting.

There was lots of head bobbing and chasing of rival males.

taking a break

Jackson Bottom is swarming with swallows. Tree Swallows claim most of the many nest boxes.

Cliff Swallow

Restoration work has created shallow ponds and open mud, which is attractive to migrant shorebirds like these Western Sandpipers.

Three Dunlins in various states of molt. The front bird is least advanced, while the bird in back is in full breeding plumage.

Two Dunlins on the left, Western Sandpipers on the right.

Western Sandpiper, with Dunlin in the background

Least Sandpipers

This Solitary Sandpiper was a nice surprise. They are an uncommon spring migrant.

The resident Canada Geese have already hatched their broods.

Fernhill Wetlands

While certainly not one of the more scenic sites in Oregon, Fernhill Wetlands (Birding Oregon p. 61) always attracts some noteworthy birds.

least and western sandpipers
Least Sandpiper (left) and Western Sandpiper (right) are two of the more common shorebirds that use the mudflats at Fernhill. Both birds are juveniles (brightly colored fresh plumage, scapulars are small and rounded). The Least has a small, finely-pointed bill, yellowish legs, breast streaks, and feeds while squatting low to the mud. The Western has a longer drooping bill, dark legs (hidden in the mud),  is grayer overall, and looks “front heavy,” like he might tip forward.

pelican swimming
Two American White Pelicans have been at Fernhill lately. This species doesn’t nest in the Willamette Valley, but small flocks are often present in late summer/early autumn.
american white pelican

gb heron with catfish
A Great Blue Heron with a species of bullhead. Catfish have sharp spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins, so the heron has to position the fish carefully before swallowing.

Western Sandpipers

I took a client to Cannon Beach this week to see the Tufted Puffins nesting on Haystack Rock (Birding Oregon p. 124). While he was photographing his lifer Heerman’s Gull, I had a chance to study a small flock of Western Sandpipers. Cannon Beach is a very popular tourist town, so the crowded beach usually holds very few shorebirds. But this flock had found a particularly slimy patch of rocks that was effectively repelling the tourists, so I was able to watch the birds feeding undisturbed.

western sandpiper
This individual, probably a female, given the long bill, was still in full breeding plumage. Note the rufous, black, and white upperparts and the streaks and chevrons extending along the sides.

western sandpiper profile
This bird is probably a male. The bill is short and straight, but still tapers to the tip. He is already starting to molt into his gray winter (basic) plumage, although he still retains a few colorful scapulars.

western sandpiper front
This probable female shows bold streaks and chevrons on the breast and sides.

western sandpiper palmation
Here we see the partial webbing between the outer toes. Western Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper are the only two species of stints (or “peeps”) that show this trait.

I will be teaching a class on autumn shorebirds at Portland Audubon on September 16. For more information, click here.

Shorebirds at Grays Harbor, WA

I took my shorebird class to Grays Harbor in Washington, one of the prominent staging areas for migrant shorebirds on the West Coast. The cold wet spring continues, so diversity was a little low, but there were lots of birds to see.

At Damon Point State Park, near the mouth of the bay, we found good numbers of Marbled Godwits and Short-billed Dowitchers.

At Bowerman Basin, part of Grays Harbor NWR, a long boardwalk extends along the edge of the mudflats. As the basin fills with the rising tide, the birds are pushed closer to shore for excellent views.

Here we can see a Black-bellied Plover, a couple of Semipalmated Plovers, two Caspian Terns, lots of Dunlin, and some Western Sandpipers.

Here is a closer look at the lovely Semipalmated Plovers mixed in with Western Sandpipers.

I didn’t notice the bird at the time, but when I downloaded this shot of Western Sandpipers I immediately noticed the Least Sandpiper among them. Least Sandpipers feed in a crouched position with their feet far forward. On closer inspection, you can see the tiny bill and the pale legs. (lower right corner, if you are still looking)

Here’s a closer look at the Least Sandpiper between two Westerns.

North Coast Shorebirds

I birded Fort Stevens and Seaside on the coast today. I met a birder from the east who asked me when the shorebirds would be coming through. I explained that shorebirds were on the move now, but they tended to trickle through. The northern part of the Oregon coast doesn’t currently have any big shorebird staging areas. The birds stage at Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay in Washington, then tend to head straight for California. Oregon gets its share of migrants, but you have to be at the right place at just the right time to see them.

I found a few shorebirds today.

This Western Sandpiper had an injured right wing and foot. The line of rusty-fringed scapular feathers is part of this specie’s juvenal plumage.


Here are two species in the “rockpiper” group of shorebirds, named for their preferred habitat. The bird on the left is a Black Turnstone. On the right is a Surfbird.