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Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Woodpecker Kinda Day

My original, admittedly lofty, goal was to see 100 bird species in the month of January. After sitting at 84 for a while as the days of the month tick down, it was clear I wasn't going to reach that, but maybe I could still break 90?

Today I got a chance to pursue a few recent bird sightings outside of the city. First up was to try and track down some western bluebirds my dad saw near his office a couple of days ago, but no luck there. Then it was off to Carlton, Oregon to try and see Lewis's woodpeckers.

Success! Right at the exact oak grove where several birders have recently reported Lewis's woodpeckers, I added year bird 85, and, more excitingly, another life bird for me! It only took a moment after stepping out of the car before spotting the floppy wingbeats of this bizarre woodpecker named after Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark. There were several of them flying around, and I got some decent looks that revealed their forest green backs and heads, gray napes, pinkish breast, and red cheeks. Sound strange-looking? It kind of is! They were too far away for photos but its worth checking out the photo on their Wikipedia article if you haven't seen them before. Old-time birders remember the days when the Lewis's woodpecker was common here in the Willamette Valley, but the fact that I've grown up here and never seen the species until today tells you how much that has changed.

Next stop was Gaston, Oregon where a rare hooded oriole was picked up the day of our Forest Grove Christmas Bird Count. No luck there, so it was on to Pacific University campus where there is a resident colony of the clownish acorn woodpeckers (86). They store shelled acorns in caches in trees to feed on during the winter, and there were a couple flitting about the tree tops. The Lewis's woodpecker is bizarre, but the acorn woodpecker is comical, with its white eyes and black and white face. Again, too far for pictures from me, but here's a good one.

Fernhill Wetlands yielded the last year bird of the day - the killdeer (87). It's amazing that it's taken this long to see one, and also that it's the first shorebird on the year list!

Overall, a pleasant day's birding, with 43 species sighted, but nothing else unexpected was seen. The sighting of a northern flicker made it a three woodpecker species day, never a bad thing! The highlight was of by far the life bird, the Lewis's woodpecker. Sorry for another post with no photos - it was gloomy and the birds were all pretty distant today. It seems a lot of bloggers have been having that issue during the gray days of January! I'll see if I can't find something photo-worthy this week.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Squirrels in Portland

Since I've been back in Portland I've been pondering what's going on with local squirrel populations. As long as I can remember, I've noticed two main squirrel species in the area: the introduced eastern fox squirrel (by far the most common) and the smaller, native Douglas squirrel. Both are reddish-brown squirrels.

Eastern fox squirrel

In recent months, I've also noticed an increased number of gray squirrels in the Portland area. This of course gets the naturalist in me wondering, and I've been trying to figure out what type of squirrels these are and where they've come from.

There are two main possibilities: the eastern gray squirrel and the western gray squirrel. The western gray squirrel is native to the region but is described as having dramatically reduced populations in the region. The eastern gray squirrel has been introduced to the west, and the Audubon Society states that they have been established in Vancouver, WA for over a decade and have recently been expanding into the Portland area. After looking at images of both species in field guides and online I have to say they look pretty similar, though the eastern gray squirrel is described as being significantly smaller than the western gray squirrel.

Eastern (?) gray squirrel

My tentative conclusion is that I've been seeing eastern gray squirrels. My main reasons for this are the fact that they don't seem very skittish, as the western gray squirrel is described, and the amount of red the permeates their otherwise silvery-gray fur. I'm going to continue looking into the squirrel species distributions in Portland, but if anyone has any insight or knowledge about differentiating between eastern/western gray squirrels, your thoughts would be much appreciated!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sauvie Island in the Rain

After a great day of birding on Saturday (42 species, 10 year birds, 1 life bird!) I was tempted to get out again on Sunday even though the rainy weather had returned. Sauvie Island was the destination based on recent reports of Snow and Ross' geese, both of which would be new to the year list.

The rain didn't let up one bit all afternoon, but the birding was still pretty good regardless. Once of the first birds spotted was a merlin (81), the first of five raptor species on the day as I also saw American kestrels, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and yet another peregrine falcon. I can't believe I've seen three falcons already this year!

The snow geese (82) were spotted where expected, but they were too far way to pick out any Ross' geese among them. There were lots of cackling geese and Canada geese mixed in nearby, however, including many dusky Canada geese. You may recall duskies are a relatively rare sub-species that overwinter here in the Willamette Valley. At least three of the birds we saw had red tags around their necks, too.

The other main highlight of the 29 species seen on the day was the surprisingly elusive mourning dove (83) - definitely would have expected those sooner on the year list - and, a little more unexpected, a couple of Eurasian collared-doves (84). Some have predicted the Eurasian collared-doves will be the next European starling; in other words, a massively invasive species here in the United States. I hope not! They are definitely spreading as new county records are occurring all over the Pacific Northwest. It will be interested to see what happens.

Sorry, no photos from the Sauvie Island was way too rainy and gray to pull the camera out, and all the birds were pretty far away too. There have been a few sun breaks in the last couple of days so hopefully well get another sunny day here before too long.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Birding Tillamook County

Today turned out to be a great day's birding at the Oregon Coast. The weather report had looked somewhat iffy as far as rain, but it held off and was sunny for most of the afternoon. Additionally, this birder is on a limited walking regimen for the next few weeks after fracturing a bone in her foot during Thursday night's hockey game (ouch!), so I was a little worried about covering ground, so today ended up being a nice mostly-driving tour of Tillamook county.

The original plan was to help my dad conduct a COASST survey, but walking the kilometer beach was out for me, so I birded the bay while he did the survey. Some highlights included common goldeneyes, surf scoters, pelagic cormorants, and common loons, all new birds to the year list. Once my dad returned from his survey, he got the scope on a large flock of brant, another new year bird. Across from the bay was this great blue heron, who had a stunning reflection in this calm pond:

Nearby I spotted a peregrine falcon perched in a snag. It was a good opportunity to try digiscoping with my new camera - my first attempt! Nothing fancy but it turned out pretty cool:

A couple of other birders stopped while we had the scope on the falcon, and it turned out to be Max from The Apartment Biologist with his wife. Funny to run into other bloggers in the field like that! They were also interested in spotting the snowy owl that has been seen on Netarts Spit of late, but we took two good scans of the peninsula and couldn't find it. There were hundreds of harbor seals hanging out on a sand bar, though!

Next stop was Oceanside, where a bald eagle perched on top of the rocks probably scared off any shorebirds that may have been lurking there. Also soaring the skies were three paragliders:

By the time we finished scanning the hundreds of sea lions hauled out on the rocks (it's amazing how high they climb up!) one of the paragliders was coming down for a landing on the beach:

Tillamook Spit was relatively quiet, but I did add the red-breasted merganser to the year list. It was actually a three-merganser day, as hooded and common mergansers were also seen. I also got a nice look here at a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers:

By then, the sun was starting to get low in the sky, but we decided to end the birding at Fenk Road which heads out into the field between a creek and a couple of farms. It turned out to be a birding hot spot, adding several species to the daylist such as gadwall and white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows. It also yielded the highlight of the day, a life bird, a palm warbler!!

Palm warblers are primarily an eastern US bird, found on the other side of the Rockies, but there is a small contingent of the western sub-species that winters along the Pacific coast. There is a lot of variation within the species, and this one was relatively dull (typical for both western birds and wintering birds) except for the bright yellow undertail coverts. It also exhibited the characteristic constant bobbing of its tail. It was very cooperative, allowing us several spectacular views:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Birds in the City: From the Eagle to the Hummingbird

The other day I chased after a report of a Eurasian green-winged teal (also known as the common teal) at a local city park. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't find it, because then I would have had to decide whether or not to count it as a separate species from the American green-winged teal on the year list, an issue that is still hotly debated. Even without the Eurasian teal sighting, I was amazed at how many different species were using the relatively small park right in the middle of the bustling suburbs. All in all I saw 21 species there, including eight species of waterfowl.

Probably the most surprising find for me was a bald eagle. I was able to locate it because it was being dive-bombed by an annoyed group of crows:

After a while the eagle had enough and took off:

I also got a nice look at a northern flicker. We get the red-shafted (as opposed to the yellow-shafted) variety here in the western US, so in the flight the underwings are red. You can tell this perched bird is a male red-shafted flicker because his moustache is red, whereas it would be black in the yellow-shafted variety:

In stark contrast to the large bald eagle seen earlier was this tiny Anna's hummingbird, also perched at the very top of a tree:

Sorry all the pictures are practically just silhouettes today - that gives you an idea of the dreary gray weather we've been having! No new year birds were added to the list during the visit to this city park, but yesterday a walk around the neighborhood did yield a couple chestnut-backed chickadees (70). It looks like there is a clearing in the weather forecasted for this weekend so the plan is to head to the coast, where I should definitely be able to boost the year count while conducting another beached bird survey. Don't worry - only the live species observed will be counted on the year list!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ridgefield NWR

Rain, rain, and more rain! That's what we've had here in the Portland area for the last week. While the temperatures have been fairly mild (mostly around a warmish 50 degrees), the damp weather has limited the birding excursions a little bit as its nicer to bird from the car than hike too far in the wet. This weekend, the perfect place to go birding was thus Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. It's in southwest Washington about 15 miles north of the Oregon border, and includes a spectacular auto tour route that is one of my all-time favorite places to bird.

Over the course of a couple hours my dad and I spotted a respectable 46 species in the refuge and while driving the surrounding country roads. Six of those species were new for the year list: herring gull, rough-legged hawk, sandhill crane, western meadowlark, northern harrier, and white-crowned sparrow. The rough-legged hawk was probably the coolest of the bunch, being a fairly rare sighting for this birder. Altogether the year list now stands at 69.

Using the car as a blind often results in some great photographic opportunities, and is also a great way to keep the camera dry in the rain! Below are some photographic highlights of the day, starting with this western scrub-jay that met us at the entrance to the refuge:

We saw quite a few bald eagles, including a pair of adults and at least 3-4 different immatures. This sub-adult had caught a bird of some sort and was seen in a tree plucking feathers out and dropping them. If you look closely here it has torn a piece off of its prey (which is clutched in its talons), which it swallowed in one gulp right after this picture was taken:

Golden-crowned sparrows are among the most common winter sparrows we see in Oregon, often seen in large flocks. The adults don't have as bold of a golden crown in the winter as they do during the breeding season, but I believe this is a first-winter bird since the beak is gray rather than bi-colored:

In addition to the bird, we also saw a couple of nutria out in the wetlands. While we didn't spot any beavers, we did see some of their handywork, like the chew on these large trees in a swampy area:

Check out this headless, one-legged great blue heron. Okay, not quite, but it was so hunkered down to try and get out of the rain that's what it looked like:

It couldn't be bothered with much, but everyone once and a while it would take a peek to see what's going on, before hiding its face again beneath its wing:

Northern pintail are another bird that occur in great abundance here this time of year. I often see flocks of hundreds of them, but so far they've always been too far away for photos. I finally got a decent shot of a pair of pintails. The male's chest isn't even fully above water because he was repeatedly dipping forward to dabble:

Another nice find was a group of three western meadowlarks. I was lucky I spotted them as they flew low across the road, because otherwise they can be very difficult to spot among the grasses. Look at how well their back camouflages them:

As soon as they turn around, however, there's no missing them with that bright yellow front and black bib. These guys are the Oregon state bird, though since their numbers have declined significantly they aren't seen nearly as often as they used to be.

We saw pretty much all of the expected waterfowl on the refuge, including 400++ tundra swans. While we saw a small group of cackling geese on the main lake, we found a huge flock of them on a field just outside the refuge as we were leaving:

It was an unexpectedly great day of birding given the weather!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gull ID Quiz Answers

"Gulls - a word of inherent paradox. Almost anyone can recognize a gull - or "seagull" - as such, but to identify certain gulls to a species can vex the most experienced observers. Gull identification offers something for everyone - form studying the different plumages of Laughing Gulls at a beach parking lot to puzzling over winter flocks of large gulls at a river mouth or reservoir. You can take identification to any level you choose, and there's still an unknown, a new frontier, another question to be answered. That's what makes gulls so much fun."
- from the Gulls of the Americas field guide

Gulls can be difficult enough to identify as purebred adults, but add in all the cycles they go through before they reach adulthood and all the hybridization that occurs and distinguishing one species from another becomes downright complicated. I knew this already, but it was reinforced by spending time with gull field guides and the varying answers I received on the quiz both in the comments on my last blog post and in the several e-mail answers people sent me. Thanks to everyone who responded, particularly the ace birders who gave some great insight into how to ID gulls.


The only thing everyone agreed on was that the gull in photo #3 (click on the images or refer to the previous post to see larger photos) was a glaucous-winged gull. The pale gray wingtips and dark eye are key field marks for this species. Most also pegged it as a third winter bird, which is where I placed it as well. While the plumage is fairly clean, this one is clearly not yet in adult in part because of the black tip to the beak, since adults have a red spot on the bill.


For the bird in photo #2, several people guessed it was an adult Thayer's gull, and others an adult western gull, but I concluded it was an adult Western x Glaucous-winged hybrid. The legs are actually relatively pale (Thayer's have deep pink legs) and appear a bit darker in the photo because they are cast in the shadow of the bird. As Greg pointed out, the bill is fairly stout, which also points away from the Thayer's which has a smaller bill that's more yellow-green than yellow-orange in color....or so the field guides tell me! There are many paler western gulls, but the fact that the mantle is light combined with the dark (but not quite black) wing tips led me to conclude this was a hybrid with the glaucous-winged gull. The western x glaucous-winged hybrid is very common in the Pacific Northwest.


Everyone knew this wasn't an adult bird, but the species suggestions ranged from Thayer's gull to mew gull to ring-billed gull. I had concluded this was a first winter ring-billed gull, an identification helped, I admit, by the fact that there were many adult ring-billed gulls around and no mew gulls when the photo was taken. I didn't know to look for the "dark anchors" as pointed out by Greg and Dave - they're referring to the dark centers on the feathers in the brownish wing coverts, which are uniformly pale brown on the immature mew gulls.

I definitely learned a lot more about the nuances of gull identification with this little quiz, and I hope you did too. I think it's an experiment that bears repeating sometime in the future with some new gull photos!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Gull ID Quiz

I've added four species to the year list in the last couple of days, the most exciting of which was a peregrine falcon at Jackson Bottom Wetlands on Tuesday. It's been raining for days straight but there seems to be a break in the weather today so I'll get out there and see what I can find.

In the meantime, here is a short gull ID quiz. It may not be too difficult for some of you, but it's also a quiz of my ability to correctly ID gulls (I'm pretty certain I have all three of these correct), so I'll be very interested in your answers. I'll post my answers in the comments section in a couple of days.




Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eurasian Wigeon and Other Waterfowl

No more outdoor ice skating at Westmoreland Park, which means it has returned to being a winter birding hotspot. Someone had reported a Eurasian wigeon there a couple days ago, so yesterday I decided to head out to try and find it. It wasn't until I reread the sighting report a little more carefully that I realized it was a single female Eurasian wigeon, which was going to make the task of finding it a little tougher. Female ducks aren't nearly as difficult as immature gulls, but they are not my specialty! So, I consulted the Sibley's on the nuances of female wigeon identification and off I went.

There were hundreds of wigeon at the park, but I found her! I was lucky that she was in a flock that was grazing on the grass rather than in the middle of the lake. I was able to pick her out of the crowd by her head, which was obviously a warmer brown color than the grayish heads of the female American wigeons. Check out this comparison shot, with the Eurasian in front:

The above photo neatly shows all three of the (admittedly subtle) field marks. First of all, the difference in head color as I mentioned above. As a result, the American wigeon has a starker contrast between the neck (gray) and chest (brown) plumage, while on the Eurasian its all a cinnamon brown color and blends together. Secondly, the forehead is steeper on the Eurasian and more sloped on the American. Finally, and you may have to click to enlarge the picture to try and see this one, the gape (the base of the bill where the two mandibles come together) is black on the American wigeon and there is no black on the Eurasian. Here's another nice photo showing just the female Eurasian:

In addition to birding Westmoreland and I head over to the nearby Crystal Springs Rhododendron Gardens which is another great place to view and photograph wintering waterfowl. Over the course of the afternoon I saw 20 species, eight of which were new to the year list bringing me up to 49 species on the year. The new species included three ducks and my first gulls of the year (since Dave requested it a while back, stay tuned for a gull quiz coming up in the next post!). Here are a few other photographic highlights from the day:

A bathing male bufflehead

A beautiful male wood duck - their plumage always looks almost painted to me

A male lesser scaup

A pair of gadwall

A pied-billed grebe that somewhat uncharacteristically wasn't shy and didn't just swim straight away from me

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tualatin Hills NWR and Indoor Insect

With a break in the rain yesterday it was a nice time to go out birding, so my dad and I went to see what was happening at Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. Turns out we weren't the only ones with the same idea....the parking lot was packed! I wonder if people were inspired by the article in The Oregonian over the weekend that featured winter birding in the Portland area.

Perhaps as a result of all the people, there were hardly any birds along the trails, but the overlook of the lakes from the visitor's center proved to be well worth the trip in itself. We saw a total of 19 species and I added 5 waterfowl and 2 raptors to the year list. Here's part of the view from the visitor's center overlook:

Later on in the day I was surprised my wildlife viewing wasn't over when this stinkbug nymph fell out of a plant that had just been brought indoors. The fact that it landed on the newspaper makes for a nice built-in scale to the photo:

Also, I've decided that when I don't get out birding anywhere else I'll at least try to walk Moonshadow Park, the little path in the neighborhood that I mentioned in the last post, where I saw the red-breasted sapsucker. I added a list in the side bar to the right where I'll keep track of how many different species I've seen there on my visits, so keep an eye on that over the next few months.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Birding in the Rain

I've been inspired by so many of the other blogs I've read where people are keeping year bird lists, so I decided to do the same for 2010. My list sat at a paltry 11 species a week into the year, so I went out birding for the first time in the new year today and the result was tripling my year count. (I'm jealous of some of you who are already at 70+! Circumstances have kept me from getting out much early this year but I hope to catch up soon.)

I started out walking at a local park where I saw a lot of the usual suspects but was pleased to see numerous northern flickers and downy woodpeckers. The other real unexpected highlight was a pair of lesser goldfinches.

It really started to rain by the end of the walk so I stayed in the car to view Koll Center Wetlands. There were surprisingly few ducks on the lake, and aside from the American coot and a pair of pied-billed grebes the only other bird of note was a group of eight ruddy ducks.

In the real marshy part of the preserve I was pleased to spot a great egret:

Egrets aren't uncommon here but I'm still excited to find them, whereas their counterparts, the great blue heron, are absolutely everywhere:

Neither the egret nor the heron seemed to be in hunting mode, and the only bird I saw that caught something was a common merganser that flew by with a squirming frog in its beak!

When I got home it was still raining but I decided to check out one more short nature path that's in the neighborhood and it turned out to be well worth the wet. Right at the entrance to the trail was a red-breasted sapsucker being followed by an Anna's hummingbird. This is an association I've seen a couple of times before, including once in my parents' front yard, but it never ceases to amaze me. The Anna's hummingbird, which overwinters in the Pacific Northwest, obviously can't be sustaining itself on flower nectar this time of year. In addition to insects, it also follows sapsuckers around and then ducks in to drink the sap from holes the woodpecker has recently been working on. It's remarkable enough that the hummingbird survives the cold, but the woodpecker association is truly awesome.

Unfortunately I had to dash back to the house for the camera (I didn't think I'd see much and didn't want to carry it in the rain - you think I'd have learned by now!) and when I got back the hummingbird had moved on. But luckily the woodpecker was still present.

As I moved around to get a different angle the woodpecker ended up almost completely silhouetted against the gray skies, so I turned this image into a grayscale to enhance the effect.

The only other bird I ended up seeing on the whole path was a single varied thrush. All the others must have been smartly tucked out of the rain, so I took a hint and went back home and did the same.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

New Calf, Vessel Regulation Comments, Blog Honor

I have three things of note to blog about, so I thought I would combine them all into one post. First, and most excitingly, there has been another new calf born to J-Pod! On January 3rd it was confirmed that J47 is a new calf born to young first-time mom J35 Talequah. This makes for six calves born in the last year (!!!) and no deaths (!!!), so the Southern Resident population now stands at 88.

From left to right: J17, J35, and J28

What makes this calf's birth especially interesting is the fact that all three members of the J17 matriline (J17 Princess Angeline and her daughters J28 Polaris and J35 Talequah) have now had calves in the last year. Since J35's birth in 1998, this matriline has just been made up of these three females. Now, in the span of just twelve months, their family group has doubled in size! Rather than describe in words who was born to whom and when, here is a little family tree graphic I made that shows how this matriline has changed:

You may recall that I was lucky enough to be on scene the very first time J46 was seen with mom J28 Polaris back in November. I can just imagine the excitement and mayhem of having three youngsters all in one family. I can't wait to see them next season!

Secondly, I've posted before about the new proposed vessel regulations in response to the endangered listing of the Southern Resident orcas by sharing my opinion and my comments from the public meeting. NOAA extended the original deadline of the comment period to January 15th - so if you haven't yet submitting your comments this is your reminder that now is the time to do so! You can find all the relevant info from NOAA here.

Finally, I wanted to share that my blog was honored on this list of Top 50 Marine Biology blogs. I blog for fun and to share my sightings and photos with others around the world with similar interests and passions, and it's always special to receive feedback (that's why I love your comments!) and recognition. So, let me just take this as an opportunity to say: thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Western Screech-Owls

Western screech-owls are the only owl that I commonly hear (and occasionally see) in the Portland area. One year we had them nest in a tree right in our front yard. From the neighbor's second story window you could see one of the parents sitting in the entrance to the nest, and after the owlets fledged we watched them take their first flights, call back and forth to their parents in strange, screeching calls, and we had one reluctant flier sitting on our fence during for a couple of days. It made for some great photo ops (I'll see if I can't dig up those photos in the near future - that was back in my film days) and luckily it evaded any cats or other predators.

Off and on throughout the year we can hear the characteristic rapid, whistle-like hoots from inside our house at night. Tonight was one of those nights, and I stepped outside to get a better listen. Here is a little recording I made so you can hear them too. Sorry about the background noise - it was a bit windy/rainy out. I'm actually still hearing them now, about half an hour after I made the recording.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Portland Snow Storm

Just before the end of the calendar year, Portland got an unexpected snow storm. It accumulated quickly into about 3-4 inches of snow, and while it only lasted for about 18 hours, it was long enough to get out and snap some photos. It started snowing a couple of hours before dark, so my daylight shots show it just starting to collect on the trees in the yard:

The true beauty was after dark when it had stopped snowing and everyone had made it safely home (the afternoon had nightmarish traffic - neither Portland nor Portland drivers are ever prepared for the snow). By the evening, though everything was white and most folks were hunkered down inside, making for a magical walk around the local neighborhoods:

Since it was close to freezing the snow as fairly wet, and it piled up anywhere it was able. Some branches that I wouldn't have expected to hold much snow were piled up in every way imaginable:

Most everyone still had their Christmas lights on, too, which made for some neat effects as the lights shone through the snow. The white lights lit up the snow:

While the colored lights cast unexpected glows across whole yards:

I was a little sad it didn't last a bit longer, but I'm glad we at least got some snow this year. (You may remember last year we had an unusually long arctic blast, which made traveling to Portland tough, great bird-watching at the feeders, and a white Christmas!) Before the snow arrived I had some fun playing around with my camera and taking pictures of all the holiday lights, so I'll feature some of my abstract shots in my next post.