Friday, February 20, 2015

Winter at the Coast

I really can never quite get enough of the coast. It seems like we go at least once if not twice a month. We’d probably go more often if it weren’t a bit of a drive. But when we get there, it’s totally worth it. We have yet to explore more of the northern coast and any of the southern coast of Oregon, but we’ve been very happy with the central coast in our usual spots in Lincoln County. (And we're totally psyched about an upcoming pelagic trip!!! But more of that another time.)

One cool Surf Scoter

Rocky cliffs at Depoe Bay

We usually make a run to three nice birding spots – the Hatfield Marine Science Center estuary trail, the jetty on the Yaquina River, and Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. And we’ll also pop over to a few of the many bays and state parks along Highway 101 if there’s time.

Northern Pintails coming in for a landing

Pintails and Brant

The last time we headed over to the coast, we were on a mission to find a lifer and a state bird. The first was a reported Ross’s Goose that had been hanging out in a little lake at Beaver Creek State Natural Area. I looked at every “big white bird,” but all I could find were Great Egrets. We waited awhile and checked out a little fussy Marsh Wren and the other geese and ducks around. Finally, in a big flock of Canada Geese that rose up and over to the little lake, I scanned and found THE big white bird I was looking for! The Ross’s Goose was too far to get good photos, but he’s on our list, and that’s what matters.

Marsh Wren in the reeds seeing what all the fuss is about

Although nothing else new at this spot, we did get a great view of a Fox Sparrow and a reliable little Anna’s Hummingbird that zipped by us and politely posed while at the feeder at the nature center at Beaver Creek.

Fox Sparrow looking foxy

Male Anna's Hummingbird

(by Nicholas)

Onward we went to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area where a Burrowing Owl has been hanging out since about November. Although they are not rare for the state, they are rare on the coast. They usually hang out in Eastern Oregon, but this one has strayed away, but seems content. We dipped or missed finding him our trip to the coast the time before, but with a little help from one of the naturalists on staff at the nature center, we were able to locate the Burrowing Owl in a little nook in the rocks. We have a special place in our hearts for Burrowing Owls as they are the mascot of our grad school alma mater.

Digiscoped pic of the Burrowing Owl

Although the coast of the Pacific Northwest is amazing, one thing I miss about birding the beaches of Florida and Georgia is seeing dolphins just about every time we went out. Luckily, I can get a marine mammal fix with the Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions here. The Harbor Seals are especially adorable and playful. And who couldn’t swoon over an adorable seal pup? Seals and sea lions seem to really know how to live the beachy life – lounging around in the sun or splashing around for fun in the water.

Harbor Seal

Harbor Seals frolicking

The waters have been dominated by black and white and gray this winter, with a splash of brown and buff every so often. We’ve enjoyed watching and hearing the odd sounds of Brants along the estuary trail. They are such dapper geese indeed. And we’ve also picked up a long sought-after duck this winter – the Common Goldeneye. We’ve seen both male and females, but the females usually seem to swim closer. They aren’t as flashy as their male counterparts, and not nearly as devious as their James Bond character-like name suggests. ;-)


Female Common Goldeneye

I have also loved seeing so many grebes – Eared, Horned, Red-Necked, Western, and good ole Pied-Billed. Of course they’re not showing off their spectacular breeding plumage right now, but still a treat to see so many out and about.

Eared Grebe

Two Horned Grebes and One Eared Grebe

Western Grebes up front, Red-Necked Grebes in the back

The Loons have also been awesome to see so close. The first time we ever saw one was for a split second on a pelagic trip, and other times we saw them off of the beach in Savannah, but far away and not very numerous. But this winter, we’ve seen them fairly close, and up to about a dozen of them along the jetty. Again, their keeping things muted with their winter plumage, but who can complain when they show off the way they do?

Common Loon Splashing about

Common Loon

*Common Loon

And then there are gulls – the bane of my birding life! Well, we recently attended a gull ID workshop to try to get a better handle of the multitude of gulls we see here in the west, which has helped a great deal. But then there are those pesky oddballs that make me pull my hair in frustration! (Figuratively, that is). The parking lot at the jetty is a great place to look at gulls that sit still for you while you study them as they wait for food to fall to the ground.

Brown Pelican 

"Look into my staring lemon eyes!"

We could easily identify an adult Herring Gull with its “staring lemon eye” as stated in Gulls of the Americas by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn. And we were almost sure we had a first cycle Thayer’s Gull in our midst. But when we posted the photo below to a North American Gull ID Facebook page, we caused quite a stir amongst gull experts. Amongst the seventeen comments, some were fine calling it a Thayer’s Gull, others say that the field marks visible were not completely reliable, and then there was the proposition that it was a Glaucous-Winged x Herring Gull Hybrid… WTF?!?! Ugh, I give up! Ok, I don’t really. But gulls are and will probably always be an enigma.

Thayers or Glaucous-WingedxHerring Gull Hybrid… Eh, who knows for sure!?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds

Birders are familiar with a lot of names. We have to be: we're obsessed with identification, classification, distribution, and every other conceivable manner of parsing and juxtaposing all 10,000 extant bird species, and we need to know what to call each separate type. While some birds' names clue you in to a field mark or a characteristic behavior, thousands(!) of them bear the name of an actual historical person. This latter group includes homages to such titans of ornithology as John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson. Many more contain references to lesser known figures, whose names are so unfamiliar to us that we rarely, if ever, stop to think about the person behind the name.

But I'm happy to report that this particular form of apathy now has a cure. Bloomsbury has published an excellent and comprehensive new resource for anyone who has ever wondered about some of our most familiar birds' namesakes: The Eponym Dictionary of Birds. Over the more than 4,100 entries, you can find information on everyone who's been immortalized in this way, whether in a bird's common name, genus, species, or subspecies. For all of those names we use so often, this is the go-to reference for getting to know the "who" and "why" of the people that birds have been named for.

The entries are short (they have to be, with 4,100 of them), but they almost always contain the person's occupation, contributions, and/or an anecdote or two. This book is filled with fascinating historical footnotes, like Queen Victoria's contribution to bird conservation; the connection between Darius Couch (Couch's Kingbird) and the Gettysburg Address; and the occupational hazard that killed both John Cassin and John Townsend. To me, this all adds another layer of appreciation for the birds, by understanding more about the context of their discovery, and the relationships between the great naturalist-explorers of the 19th century.

We might be tempted to assume that the names behind our common birds all came from accomplished ornithologists, or intrepid collectors. One surprise for me was in finding how often this isn't the case. Anna's Hummingbird, for instance, is named for the wife of the son of one of Napoleon's marshals (her husband, Prince Victor Massena, owned a bird collection that contained the specimen used to describe the species). Then there's La Sagra, Bullock, and Wurdemann, who were an economist, goldsmith, and a meteorologist, respectively. A further surprise was learning that Ross's Gull and Ross's Goose are named for different people; ditto (probably) for Le Conte's Sparrow and Le Conte's Thrasher.

It's not always clear when reading this book quite what the connection is between the bird and an individual (in the introduction the authors state that this information simply isn't available in some cases). For example, the entry for William Swainson demonstrates beyond doubt that he had an adventurous and accomplished life (among other things, he served as Australia's first Attorney General, and his contributions to ornithology were many). It's wonderful to learn more more about a man whose name is so familiar, and no one can doubt that he deserves to have had birds named for him, but unfortunately we're not told why the Swainson's Warbler (named by Audubon) or the Swainson's Thrush (named by Nuttal), in particular, bear his name, nor do we learn what his relationship to these other great men was.

Still, I had so much fun flipping through these pages. Keeping a Sibley guide next to me to feed me suggestions of who I should look up next, I excitedly made my way through our ABA-area birds, before venturing into unknown territory. The characters and the stories behind birds' names are engrossing, and the brevity of the entries will keep you buzzing from entry to entry like one of Louis Marie Panteleon Costa's namesake hummingbirds.

The retail price ($86.00; currently $55.55 on Amazon) is steep, and is sure to dissuade plenty of would-be buyers. Not everyone will be able to squeeze that much value out of a reference book of this sort, but there are certainly others who will come back to it again and again. The Eponym Dictionary of Birds is an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the history of natural history. It's a book I had wanted to see published for a long time and one that is sure to give new significance to familiar names that I use nearly every day.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Making the Rounds on New Year's Day

After an epic 2014 we wanted to start the new year off on the right foot. We hit the ground running by visiting some of our favorite local hotspots to give a quick jolt to our year lists, and hopefully find some good county birds in the process. Maureen and I had exchanged camera gear to each other for Christmas, and the gorgeous weather was the perfect opportunity to play with our new toys.

But first we needed a muse, and sparrows were more than happy to oblige. A mixed flock at Minto-Brown Island Park gave us our choice between Golden-crowned, White-crowned, and (Sooty) Fox. A couple dozen individuals churned around and around the piles of Himalayan blackberry plants, taking turns starring as the main attraction in our viewfinders.

Fox Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Golden-crowns are the predominant sparrow right now, and it's a shame to think of how they'll leave us behind in a few short months. These pudgy Zonotrichia are one of my favorite winter birds, I think partly because they migrated away only a week after we arrived in Oregon last year -- tantalizing us with just a taste of their antics, and leaving us wanting much, much more.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

In the afternoon we stopped by Ankeny NWR to load up on waterfowl, and met with several happy surprises in the process. Oregon has spectacular number mammal species that we're becoming acquainted with, and some that I can barely believe even exist in the state at all (I'm looking at you, Mountain Goats). On the other hand, some mammals are ubiquitous, yet, despite finding their telltale signs everywhere we go, are nearly impossible to turn up.

Tundra Swans

Townsend's Chipmunk

Myriad mounds of loose soil litter nearly every park we visit, but this was the first time we've managed to identify the culprit: a buck-toothed little pocket gopher. After watching one of the mounds pulsate for several minutes, he finally poked his head aboveground and showed us with his winning smile. Two varieties share the Willamette Valley; I think this one was a Western, but it could very well be a Camas, for all I know of pocket gophers.

Pocket gopher

A couple of good county birds were cause for further celebration. The first was a Canvasback, which hadn't been reported in Marion County since the previous June. It was too far to photograph, but just a few minutes later we managed decent looks at a beautiful male Eurasian Wigeon. This one was significantly closer than the one we'd found on the coast in November, and digiscoped a lot better.

Eurasian Wigeon

Our previous post featured an American Wigeon with too much buff on its face -- here's one that hasn't got enough!

An American Coot running -- a rare and hilarious sight

Ruddy Duck

Thousands of Geese, both Canada and Cackling, winter in and around Ankeny. Most of them either pass overhead or congregate out in the water, but today a half-dozen Cackling Geese marched right in front of our position in the observation gazebo, just as setting sun cast some of that sweet, sweet evening light on them. And with that, we called it a day -- the end of the first of 2015, and the start of a whole new set of adventures for the coming year.

Assorted waterfowl

Bald Eagle

Cackling Goose