Saturday, August 16, 2014

Of Hawks and Hummers

We’re only an hour south of Portland, so we try to take the occasional trip up, maybe once or twice a month (mostly for the restaurants). It actually took us until late July before we headed up to do any birding, though. With so many parks and so little time, we needed some expert advice, and Sarah of Must-see Birds was ready with some great suggestions.

So our first destination was Mt. Tabor, an extinct volcano within Portland city limits, and a prime spot for songbirds. The birding was lively from the get-go, and right away we starting finding things we haven’t seen in Salem since May (Yellow-rumped Warblers, Lesser Goldfinches, Vaux’s Swifts).

Tolkienesque: "Through the fiery throat of this volcano exploded glowing
cinders which cooling formed the ground on which you stand"

Western St. John's Wort

Bull Thistle

Not far along the trail was was a pair of juvenile Cooper’s Hawks sitting side-by-side, looking completely forlorn and helpless. There was no sign of any adult ready to take them by the wing and teach them to fend for themselves. So unimposing were they that even the hummers showed no more restraint than if they’d been only so much topiary. First an Anna’s, and then a Rufous Hummingbird, buzzed back and forth, photobombing the hawks left and right.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawks, with pestering Rufous Hummingbird

Juvenile Cooper's Hawks, with pestering Anna's Hummingbird

"What just happened?"

Later, as we rounded the reservoirs, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk stood guard over its prey in the grass. Some folks looked on, reveling in the awesome alongside us. Others passed within feet of it, sparing only a disdainful glance, as if it were a noisome pest. The hawk soon moved up to an electrical box, where it, too, attracted a hummer.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Where there were hawks, there were hummers

Hummingbirds weren't the only ones peeved by the hawks. Here, an American Robin makes a pass

After it flew, we continued a little further until we encountered the hawk again, but in a tree this time, and with a sibling. It still had its prey grasped tightly in one talon, which it would snack on from time to time. Finally the tree seemed to offer a rare respite from attention-hungry hummingbirds. One of the hawks let out a screech, which didn’t sound quite like a Red-tail. In the distance, an adult called back, as if to say, “No, no… like this.”

Red-tailed Hawk

Just as we approached the car, there was a burst of activity above us. I was trying to direct Maureen’s attention to some Chestnut-backed Chickadees, but she did me one better. We’d heard a Cassin’s Vireo earlier in the summer, but never got an eye on it. Here was our first-ever look at one. A lifer is not a bad parting gift from Mt. Tabor.

Cassin's Vireo

Afterward, we gave Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge a try. The wetlands here seemed lively enough, but we just didn’t have the time to explore the area as thoroughly as it deserved; we soon had to switch gears from birdwatching to Shrew-watching (as in, a Shakespeare in the Park performance of The Taming of the Shrew). But our brief stay did give us the chance to see a lovely bird mural that graces the Portland Memorial Mausoleum, overlooking the refuge.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: Latin for Bird Lovers

We here at Hipster Birders love words, and bird names, in particular, have been at the heart of many a pun throughout our blogging careers. But the fact is that many bird names have obscure meanings, and scientific (“Latin”) names, doubly so. Take the common Rock Pigeon, for instance — Columba livia. As familiar as we all are with this species, few of us have the tools to translate the Latin into something comprehensible that we can relate back to the bird (Columba from kolumbis, meaning diver; livia from livor, referring to the bluish-gray color).

Fortunately, Timber Press recently published a really stunning volume, Latin for Bird Lovers, by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr. In over 3,000 entries, the authors describe the root words that make up either the genus or species name for a given bird. Not all of them are based on classical Latin — many are Greek, while others are French, German, Swedish, or from an indigenous people’s language. Some are named for individuals, and others for places, or myths. The book doesn’t go into depth for every entry, but it covers a vast territory.

Even without a lot of detail, though, there’s room for big surprises. Here’s the entry for Excalfactoria, for instance:

"Ex, out of, cal, heat, and factoria, place of production, because Chinese used these birds as hand-warmers, as in Excalfactoria chinensis, the King Quail"
And while we closely associate the Ammodramus sparrows with marshes, the word actually translates to something like sand-runner (Ammos = sand, and dramos = to run).

But a small subset of genera do get a full-page treatment, covering everything from the life history and distribution of its constituent species, to the etymology for various sub-groups. Two other types of features also get longer spreads: “famous birders,” describing the contributions to ornithology, or achievements in listing by such people as Alexander Wilson and Phoebe Snetsinger; and “bird themes,” discussing different aspects of birds, like their beaks, feathers, or coloration. We also get to see some of the Latin behind other bird-related words, like “cline” and “cere.”

While it wasn’t necessarily an intent of the book, I was fascinated to be able to identify some of these root words in everyday language, helping me understand lots of non-bird etymology, too. For instance, there are at least seven entries that include the root fuscus, meaning dark — also the root in “obfuscate.” Catharis, as in the genus of thrushes, comes from kathartes, meaning cleanser — also the basis for the word “catharsis.” Before reading this book, I’d usually thought of these difficult thrushes as inducing stress, not relieving it!

There’s no wrong way to use this book. I found myself flipping back and forth quite a lot: when told a genus or species name for a bird, I often wanted to know the other part right away. But you won’t always find both parts of an example species’ binomial. For example, Sasia abnormis is shown as an example under abnormis, but Sasia is never defined. Again, Calidris is never defined, although Dunlin, Red Knot, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper are all given as examples in other sections. The book isn’t intended to be comprehensive, and it does include quite a lot of international birds (see Hoopoe, Kakapo), but while we might quibble about some of their choices, you’ll find many of the names most interesting to American birders (e.g. Empidonax, Dendroica, Setophaga).

Another reason it’s a pleasure to flip through this book are the illustrations. Nearly every page includes works by Audubon, John Gould, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and others. These are gorgeous, classic illustrations that are every bit as compelling as the text, and are some of the best representations of the birds being treated. Sadly, though, the artists haven’t been given any attribution within these pages (the picture credits are only noted for works still under copyright).

Latin for Bird Lovers is a terrific read, and works as either a reference book or a coffee table book. It’s for anyone who loves birds, and anyone who loves words. Whether you want to gain insight into a bird’s defining characteristics, or into some of the words we encounter everyday, this is a book for you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Featured Feathered Friend: Barn Swallow

To continue with the hype from my last post from Finley NWR, I have a FFF (Featured Feathered Friend) for you. Or perhaps, it’s a FFFF (Finley Featured Feathered Friend). Well, no matter how many F’s I include, all I can say is that I got pics of one gorgeous bird. 

On the stretch of drive leaving the refuge on our first trip, an ever-so-tame Barn Swallow landed on a wooden fence just feet away from us and stayed for quite a while as we reveled in its proximity to us. These aerial acrobats seem to almost always be on the wing, and when they do land, usually they’re a bit far away on reeds or spindly branches on a tiny island in a lake or marsh. Or maybe they’re a little high above us on utility wires so that all you see is their belly, or maybe just their silhouettes with their prominent forked tails lending their ID. 

If you recall what I said about swallows in my previous post, in our area, these guys do not minding landing close. As evident from these shots, I wasn’t kidding. This Barn Swallow was especially ridiculously close. This one just plopped right in front of us and even let me inch closer and closer to get these amazing photos. I even thought for a moment that the Barn Swallow would let me have it perch on my finger like Snow White does so easily. Alas, it did not perch upon my finger, but it’s ok. I have these photos to adore its striking metallic blue and chestnutty brown colors that make it the gorgeous specimen that it is.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Finding My Spirit Bird: The Panda-faced Woodpecker

One of the things I love about Oregon are the numerous natural areas within a reasonable drive – state parks, national forests, the coast, mountains and national wildlife refuges. We’ve already talked about Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) that is just a few minutes away from our home. And just a bit farther south is Finley NWR.

View from Woodpecker Trail
When we first set out to go there, I was way more excited about this trip than many of the other birding trips we’ve had so far because of our target species – the Acorn Woodpecker. This bird, in hippy talk, is what I consider to be my “spirit bird.” I’ve loved this bird from afar for so many years, and honestly thought it would be much a very long time until I’d finally see one, as I didn’t foresee when we’d make it out west. So why is the Acorn Woodpecker my spirit bird? Well, if you don’t already know, Acorn Woodpeckers have a delightful behavior of drilling holes, or using the natural spaces in tree bark, to store huge caches of acorns, and sometimes other nuts. They can fill one tree, called the granary tree, with up to 50,000 holes! Now that’s impressive. Their OCD-like tendency to place acorns into these holes, and then continuing to move them around when the acorns shrink from drying out and get loose, speaks to my quirky, bordering obsessive, tendency of organizing and placing objects in just the right way.

Woods' Rose, maybe?
*Correction: California Poppy
Disonycha sp.
Upon first arriving at Finley NWR, we naturally walked The Woodpecker Trail hoping to find our target bird. We actually didn’t see it there, but we still had great birds that we couldn’t complain about, including SIX lifers! Right as we got to the trailhead, we had an adorable group of California Quail scuttle across the path in front of us. And before we could even continue along the trail, a gorgeous little male Rufous Hummingbird buzzed by us and obligingly landed on a tiny bare branch to allow great looks at him. 

California Quail
Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Hitting the trail, we picked up the other 4 lifers: Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Pacific Wrens, and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. When we found the Gray Jays, there was a cacophonous battle going on between Steller’s Jays and the Gray Jays. They flew back and forth at each other through the treetops, squawking as loudly as they could. I wish I had gotten good shots of the Gray Jays – they make me laugh. They’re so thick and stocky, and a bit Danny Devito-like, unlike the usual svelte other jays we’re used to seeing. This trail was so full and we had seen so much out there that after taking our time going through, Nick swore we had traveled at least 3, maybe 5, miles, but the trail was only 1.1 miles!

Pacific-Slope Flycatcher
Pacific Wren
Red-Breasted Sapsucker
The wonders of Finley NWR didn’t stop there. Not only would we walk away from our first trip out there with about half a dozen lifers, but we’ve also had some great views of non-lifers, like a gorgeous male Lazuli Bunting, singing so sweetly in the treetops. And the swallows around this area in general, especially Tree Swallows, seem to not mind landing and taking a rest in close view while letting you soak in their awesomeness, especially since they’re nesting.

Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting
Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow
But did we find our target species after all – my spirit bird? Why yes, yes we did! They were not on Woodpecker Trail as we had suspected (with that name, and all), but they were a little drive over to the visitor center. Our first time there, as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were warmly greeted by the residents there – no, not the staff, but a family of none other than Acorn Woodpeckers!!! Finally, my moment had arrived as I encountered my spirit bird. They are as magnificent in person as I had imagined. With their black and ever so slightly cream-colored faces, they kinda look like panda bears. But with their bold red crowns and rad, rock-n-roll black pattern on their white bellies (and their ‘tude), they are no docile panda.

Acorn Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
We observed with awe and amazement these fantastic birds as they flew around the large oaks calling to each other. And we even got a nice glimpse of one of their caches. Since there are plenty of bugs to eat right now (which they actually prefer if they’re available) we didn’t see any acorn storing, but we’ll definitely have to watch them in autumn when they’ll be storing for the winter, showing off their incredible talent for hoarding seeds.

Acorn Woodpecker acorn cache
Acorn Woodpecker