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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cooper Mountain Wildflowers

The weather has been chilly, wet, and occasionally windy all of this week so far, which makes last Saturday's day spent outside that much nicer considering how mild and sunny it was! In my last post, I focused on the animals seen at Cooper Mountain Nature Park and Ridgefield NWR. Here are photos of all the wildflowers that were in bloom at Cooper Mountain. Going through my photos reminded me that spring is still alive even though it feels more like February again outside!

Tall oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium)


An as-yet unidentified wildflower. These little purple, four-petaled flowers were everywhere, mostly in drooping clusters. Any ideas?


Common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)


Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia spp.)


Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)


Purple death nettle (Not self-heal as previously labeled)


Saxifrage species (Saxifraga spp.)


Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)


Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)


Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.)


Common storks-bill (Erodium cicutarium)


Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)


Saskatoon (Amalanchier alnifolia)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Birding Cooper Mountain, Ridgefield NWR

With the nice weather yesterday, the weekend chores got postponed til Sunday and my parents, Keith, and I all went birding instead. In the morning we went to Cooper Mountain Nature Park, a beautiful preserve in the outskirts of the city that thankfully was protected from development. It was opened to the public only within the last year or so, and this was my first visit to hike the trails that overlook the Tualatin River valley.

It never ceases to amaze me the abundance of wildlife you can find in parks like this that are otherwise surrounded by metropolitan areas. Near the beginning of the hike I couldn't walk more than 10 yard before something stopped me - a wildflower, a bird song, a fungus, a butterfly. It seemed like life was thriving in all its diversity around every bend of the trail! There's so much to share that I'll save the wildflowers for my next post, and focus on the animals today.

As soon as I stepped out of the car I heard my first year bird of the day, the savannah sparrow (125). A lesser goldfinch flew right through the parking lot, and tree swallows swooping over the hillside. Along the trail I heard another familiar call, and even saw a couple of the drab orange-crowned warblers (126) which are now back in force. Lots of birds were singing, including white-crowned sparrows and ruby-crowned kinglets. We also found two pairs of western bluebirds (127). One pair was hanging out near a tree cavity that looked like a likely nest site for them, and nearby were also a couple of foraging white-breasted nuthatches and a solitary yellow-rumped warbler. Here's a photo of one of the western bluebird pairs:


It was a great spot to see raptors soaring overhead, and while there we spotted a turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, Cooper's hawk, northern harrier, and two American kestrels.

In the last week or two the first butterflies have been emerging, and at Cooper Mountain there were Sara orangetips (Anthocharis sara) all over the place. Their bright orange wingtips were evident in flight, which helped us identify them at home, but unfortunately none of them would settle down to have their photo taken. You can see what one looks like here.

After a stop for a bite of lunch at a local pub, where we shared a few morsels of our meal with a curious spotted towhee, it was north up to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The auto-tour route at this refuge is one of my all-time favorite places to bird, and at the entrance kiosk there is always a white board where visitors can share their latest sightings. Of course you never locate all the fantastic birds you read about there, but it certainly whets your appetite for the birding trip to come!

The great raptor sightings continued, as we saw an osprey (128) and bald eagle soaring over Rest Lake, bringing the raptor count for the day up to seven species. Pretty much all the expected duck species were still present, though most of them in much smaller numbers as many of headed north and others are pairing off for the season. Most numerous were the American coot and northern shovelers, a pair of which are pictured below:


Now for a somewhat controversial sighting - we saw a single common teal among the green-winged teals! You may recall I've pursued a couple other sightings of this Eurasian version of the duck this year, but had come up dry. Today we knew where to look for this bird based on a sighting reported on the white board, and as we searched among the green-wings for one with a horizontal instead of a vertical white shoulder stripe we spotted one that seemingly had no stripe at all. It took flight, and shortly resettled back to the same spot, at which point its white horizontal stripe (key field mark for the common teal) was clearly visible.

The reason this sighting is controversial is because I was debating whether or not to include it on the year list as its own species. The green-winged teal and Eurasian green-winged teal used to be considered separate species, but now most of our North American field guides list them as different races of the same bird. My dad yesterday was adament that I cannot count it as another tick for the year list! However, I remember Dave saying they are considered separate species in Europe, so I decided to research it further, and the conclusive evidence for me comes from the world bird list put out by the IOC. On this waterfowl page, the green-winged teal (Anas carolinensis) and Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) are listed as distinct species. So, I'm counting the common teal (129)!

Getting back to the wildlife sightings, it wasn't just birds. The western painted turtles (Chrysemys picta bellii) have come out of hibernation and were sunning themselves on the logs in the creek:


The highly invasive nutria (Myocastor coypus) were also abundant. At one point through the scope we located what looked like a nutria den, with 8+ animals romping along the shoreline and wresting with each other. Here's one that swam through the water-filled ditch right outside the car window:


Towards the end of the auto tour loop we spotted a large flock of 20+ white birds circling over the lake. From the way they were carthweeling they looked like gulls, but they were pure white. Through the binoculars it was evident they were actually all great egrets! I have never seen so many flying together, or flying in such a manner, so it was quite a sight. Unfortunately no photos of that spectacle as it was too far away, but here is a great blue heron who seemed to have something to say:


On the last stretch of the loop the red-tailed hawk pictured below soared over the car, just before we stopped to look for the reported great horned owl nest that I have been unable to locate on my last couple of visits to the refuge. Today we finally made out which lump in the trees was the active nest, and a look through the scope confirmed that there was an adult owl on the nest! That boosted the raptor species total up to 8.


Finally, it was somewhat of a disappointment not to see any yellow-headed blackbirds at Ridgefield, one of the few locations we regularly see them. I know I won't see them on San Juan Island so I wanted to find one before heading north again next week! Luckily on the way home was Vanport wetlands, where my dad had seen a couple just a few days before. We didn't get a great view, but one did show itself (130). Keith, a relatively new birder, was using the scope to check out a flock of mew gulls resting on a sand bar when he said, "Is that a greater yellowlegs?" I was doubtful, but he had just looked it up in the field guide while at Ridgefield since one had been reported there. Guess what, he was right! Nice find, a greater yellowlegs (131) to conclude the year bird list for the day at seven species.

Close to Vanport wetlands is Force Lake, an odd lake right next to a golf course that always seems to have an abundance of ducks, including several species not often seen elsewhere. While it didn't turn up the hoped-for redhead, there were a dozen or more canvasback there. In the end, we listed 60 species on the day, and a good photo to end this post is this male canvasback in the late afternoon light:

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tree Swallows At Fernhill Wetlands

Yesterday was the warmest, most beautiful day yet this season; the temperatures were in the 70s and there was not a cloud in the sky. (Don't worry for those of you still dwelling in the grayness of early spring, we're back to overcast and drizzly today!) It was perfect weather for taking a walk around Fernhill Wetlands, where the tree swallows that just returned a week or two ago are now out in force and in the process of claiming nest boxes for the season.


It was magical to step out of the car in the parking lot and be immediately surrounded by dozens of swallows, all dipping and swirling with amazing grace and speed. I remember my dad asking me once when I was younger if I could be any bird for a day, what would I be? Yesterday I remembered why my answer was tree swallow! I can only imagine what it must be like to fly like that.


Of course it was nearly impossible to capture in-focus photos of the swallows in flight, but they were very protective of their nest boxes and once perched on one would stay put for a couple of photos. You can really see in the above photo how the dark green coloration covers the eye, unlike in violet-green swallows where the white goes above the eye. Despite some violet-greens having been reported at this location just a few days earlier and some close looking on my part, I saw only tree swallows yesterday.


After moving on from the swallows (which took a while, I'll admit), the rest of the birding at Fernhill was pretty good too. I saw or heard 27 species, including about 2000 cackling and Canada geese. Another highlight was getting a brief glimpse of a single Wilson's snipe (124). The other best photographic opportunity was this male Brewer's blackbird that was making all kinds of metallic noises while perched in this poplar:


Just a few days ago I was reminding myself to look for rusty blackbirds among flocks of Brewer's blackbirds. In general, rusty blackbirds are an eastern bird while Brewer's are what we see out here in the west, but occasionally an individual will cross over - indeed, there was a rusty seen up in Washington within the last week. It's pretty difficult to tell them apart, but the male in this photo is undoubtedly a Brewer's - note the purplish iridescent sheen on the head, while the wings have a green sheen. The rusty are, overall, less glossy, and sport an entirely bluish-green sheen, without the purple. As you can imagine, distinguishing one from another is no easy task.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Searching for Wrentits ~ Second Time's the Charm

Yesterday afternoon I spent two hours at the Sandy River Delta where a pair of wrentits had been reported for the last week or so. Normally an elusive coastal species, this sighting in Multnomah County is somewhat out of its normal range and has been an excitement for local birders. After reading report after report of people getting within ten feet of these secretive birds, my hopes were high as I made the drive to Troutdale.

The directions that had been provided were precise and it was easy to locate the region where the birds have been sighted. Not so easy is locating a sparrow-sized bird in acres of blackberry bramble. I walked up and down among the paths along with several other birders who were also in pursuit of the wrentits. We heard song sparrows and Bewick's wrens, which after an hour or so started to fool you as you asked yourself if that could possibly be the song of the unfamiliar wrentit. Bushtits and towhees also made their way through the brambles, so every now and then I would pause to examine a motion in the brush. But, no luck. I had to content myself with seeing my first rufous hummingbird of the season (121). I went home and reported my no-find to the local birders list only to read a report several hours later that some of the other birders had found them....15 minutes after my departure.

Not willing to give up that easily, I decided to visit in the morning today and listened to recordings of the call over and over again during breakfast to make sure I would recognize it. Upon arriving, I felt that my fortunes would be better, and indeed I was only partway down the path when I heard the now-familiar call. Another birder was already on scene and had located the birds, which made finding the wrentits (122 on the year, and also a life bird) all too easy compared to yesterday's excursion.


Both birds were present, and would occasionally sing and obligingly hop out onto a visible branch, only to disappear back into the bushes and fall silent for a length of time. It was easy to see that if you walked up at the right time, they would be right in front of you, but if your timing was off, they would give you no sign of their presence.

The wrentit is a remarkably distinct species for falling into the category of "little brown bird". The long tail, often held cocked like in the photo below, the light eye, and the slightly down-curved bill are the field marks, but overall it just looks and acts somehow different from the bushtits, sparrows, and wrens it might otherwise be confused with. It's also easy to see how it could easily disappear among the brambles, isn't it?


It definitely made my day to find these birds this morning! I even heard some California quail (123) to top it off.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tillamook COASST survey and birding

Last Friday I went with my dad to Tillamook on the Oregon Coast to conduct a beached bird survey for COASST and do some birding. On his beach at Happy Camp we discovered one dead bird - a somewhat gory-looking headless brown pelican, so I'll spare you the photos today. It does represent the fact that brown pelicans are still persisting on the Oregon Coast throughout the winter and spring, an unusual time for them to be here, especially since many are not finding enough to eat and are dying off.

The weather at the coast was fantastic. We were able to walk along the shoreline wearing T-shirts and no jackets - something you aren't always able to do in the Pacific Northwest in the summertime, let alone on the last full day of winter. After doing the survey while we went birding for three hours, we were also able to do so with the windows on the car rolled down. It was so pleasant and mild out, and while it was still breezy it was a very warm wind.

First we drove around Netarts Bay, where we still saw a few bufflehead, common loons, and surf scoters, but in noticeably diminishing numbers. We also stopped by Cape Meares Lighthouse, where in addition to spotting a lone live brown pelican, a pair of black oystercatchers, and one of the resident peregrine falcons, we also saw about five gray whales heading north on their spring migration. They were quite a ways offshore, but their spouts were visible with the naked eye, and through binoculars you could see their lumpy backs and once even the flukes (unusual for a gray whale) as a whale went down on a deeper dive.

Next up was Bay Ocean Spit, which often turns up some good waterfowl and occasionally good shore birds. My dad really wanted to find a tern among the gulls, and said, "I bet there's one out there," pointing to a condensed flock of gulls on a sand bar way out in the middle of the bay. His insight was spot-on, as once he got the scope on the clump of white birds he found a lone Caspian tern (117) hanging out among the western and glaucous-winged gulls. [I guess this is a good time mention that last week I also saw my first turkey vulture (116) of the season soaring over Highway 26 in Portland!]

As we continued along the spit, we saw about a half-dozen brant as well as many northern pintail, mallards, ring-necked ducks, and lesser scaup. There were also two great egrets, four great blue herons, and a northern harrier hanging out in the same area. The biggest surprise, however, was a pair of marbled godwits (118), who were both standing one-legged in the surf and only occasionally would look up, revealing their remarkably long, up-turned bills.

While driving along Tillamook Bay I saw a small, black bird deftly catch an insect and alight on a wire overhanging a creek. "Stop! Stop!" I told my dad, recognizing something out of the ordinary before getting a good look at it. It turned out to be not one, but two, black phoebes (119) - occasionally reported this far north but the first time I've ever seen this species in Oregon. They were hanging out near a big red barn and looked likely to be a nesting pair, so they may be hanging out there for some time.

Our last stop before heading to the COASST social pizza dinner was a drive along Fenk Road, which goes through some farms along a creek and always seems to turn up something good. We saw a pair of American coot, some green-winged teal, four tree swallows, and our third belted kingfisher of the day along the water. On the farm side of the road were about a thousand Canada geese out in the fields, as well as mixed flock of new fewer than four different blackbird species: European starlings, red-winged blackbirds, Brewer's blackbirds, and a couple of brown-headed cowbirds (120).

No pictures of any of the 40 species we saw that afternoon - it was a great days birding but most species were too far away to pull out the camera. Next up, I'm going to try my luck at finding a pair of wrentits reported near the Sandy River delta about 25 miles east of Portland. They have been spotted regularly over the last week, but I'm a little skeptical, as locating the small brown birds admist acres of blackberry brambles will be somewhat like finding a needle in a haystack. Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oaks Bottom Wildflowers

As I count down the days until the official changing of the season, it continues to feel more and more like spring. Daylight savings time went into effect last weekend, so it is now light until 7 PM - this definitely lifts the spirits more than when it feels like dusk at 4 PM! Yesterday the temperatures reached the 60s, so several times this week I've been able to go out without a jacket, including on a visit at the beginning of the week to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in southeast Portland. While there, I was pleased to find several different species of wildflowers, which means when I got home I got to pull the flower field guide off the shelf for the first time in 2010! Here are some photo highlights:

Stream violet (Viola glabella)


Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)


Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)


Tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium)


Western trillium (Trillium ovatum)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Flock of finches at Beaverton Creek Wetlands

Today while out doing errands I stopped by Beaverton Creek Wetlands to see what was happening and take a quick walk in the drizzly weather. I haven't been there in a couple of years, and it's amazing how much the trees and shrubs have grown up, largely blocking the view of the wetlands from the path. I only turned up 13 species in the half hour I was there, but the highlight was right at my turn-around point where there was a mixed flock of house finches and American goldfinches (115):


It's interesting to me that I hadn't seen American goldfinches yet this year, while I had seen lesser goldfinches on several occasions. In the past, I considered lesser goldfinches a real rarity. A recent discussion on the local bird-watching listserv focused on the recent rise of lesser goldfinches in the area, so this seems to be a general trend in the region.

At the other end of the park several red-winged blackbirds were singing, including this male who was flashing his bright shoulder patches:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Koll Center Cedar Waxwings

I stopped by Koll Center Wetlands yesterday afternoon, and was pleased to see close to 30 species in the half hour or so I spent there. One highlight was three long-billed dowitchers (114), a species I had been expecting to see there at some point, but hadn't as of yet because the water level has been too high to expose much in the way of mudflats. There was only a thin sand bar showing, but the dowitchers were busy probing the ground like sewing machines, making their way around the common merganser, green-winged teal, northern shoveler, and killdeer that were also using the exposed land as a place to rest.

The other highlight were two flocks of cedar waxwings that together probably totaled more than 50 birds. One group was perched in some willows and were flycatching insects over the water. There were some yellow-rumped warblers doing the same thing. With the number of bugs about and the fact that tree swallows are now starting to come back, it was somewhat surprising not to see any swallows over the lake.


I love the look of cedar waxwings, with their black masks and crests. They always remind me of little bandits. This one raised its crest, giving it quite the stylish look:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Signs of Spring at Steigerwald NWR

Today there was a break in the rain we've been having and my family took advantage of the nicer weather to check out the newly opened trail at Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge about 10 miles east of Vancouver, Washington. There were little signs of spring everywhere, like these pussy willows:


There were some gloomy looking clouds, but also some sun breaks, which made for beautiful cloud patterns in the sky and reflecting in the water:


Also flying over the water was my first year bird of the day, a tree swallow (109)! Actually, while I was expecting to just see one or two, there were several dozen swallows about the refuge. We also spotted the single mute swan that has been hanging out at the refuge. I'm very tempted to count it on the year list, but since it is undoubtedly an escapee I've decided against it. Besides, I know Dave would give me too much flak!

I made up for it on the rest of the hike around the refuge by spotting a hairy woodpecker (110), and my dad also found a very well-camouflaged American bittern (111). We had heard it was in the area, but it still amazes me how much they can look like a clump of grass. All in all, we saw 28 species on the refuge, including a small flock of yellow-rumped warblers:


There were hundreds of canada and cackling geese around, but the other oddity was this single Canada goose perched more than fifty feet off the ground in this tree! It seemed to be eating buds off the limbs:


After hiking the refuge trail, we continued east about another 30 miles on highway 14 to Drano Lake on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. The goal was to locate the coveted tufted duck that has been reported there in the last week or two. Upon arriving at the boat ramp overlooking the lake we saw two common mergansers and....nothing else. We set up the scope and across the lake spotted two ring-necked ducks and a pair of horned grebes. Disappointing so far!

Next we took the access road that goes around part of the lake and found some more birds hanging out towards the back end of the lake: more mergansers as well as bufflehead, common goldeneyes, and best of all, a pair of barrow's goldeneyes (112). Still, the large flock of scaup where the tufted duck was likely hanging out was no where to be seen. So it was time to pull back on the highway to head up to Hood River to grab a late lunch....but wait! As we headed down the highway alongside the lake I spotted some ducks close to the shoreline that we couldn't make out from the boat ramp. We slowed down, and in the closest group of ducks, visible right under the guard rail, was a beautiful male tufted duck (113)! By the time we pulled over properly the ducks had moved away from the shore so no pictures were possible, but we got a longer look to confirm what is not only the fifth bird to add to the year list today, but also a life bird for me!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

KGW Raptor Cam

Right now we're experiencing colder temperatures than in February - both Portland and Friday Harbor had some snow flurries earlier in the week - but there are still signs that spring is just around the corner. The cherry blossoms are now in bloom, and birds are continuing to partner up for the year. One cool example is a pair of red-tailed hawks that nest on a downtown office building, which you can follow via live streaming video on the KGW Audubon raptor cam.


The above is a still photo I captured from the web cam just a few minutes ago. The hawk is currently incubating two eggs - one laid March 3rd and one laid March 7th. In addition to seeing what's going on live, you can also read the blog which shares highlights and answers questions. The blog is kept up by Bob Sallinger of the Portland Aubudon Society (a fellow Reed alum!).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Snow Geese in Skagit County

Before heading back south to Portland we did some birding in Skagit County, which is great in the winter for seeing raptors and waterfowl. One of the most impressive sights of winter birding in the Northwest are the huge flocks of snow geese. Here's a close up of some adults and first-year birds:


Something spooked them and they took off in a cacophony of honking and wing flapping - a truly remarkable spectacle that the photos barely convey:




Whatever it was, only the geese were scared by it, and after they took off the trumpeter swans and mallards that had been mixed in with them were revelaed:


A recent article featuring winter birding in the Skagit said it's a good thing the waterfowl don't eat daffodil bulbs, because that keeps them from having a conflict with the local farmers. The daffodil fields were in full bloom, which was a beautiful sight in its own right, especially with the dreary gray clouds looming overhead: