Thursday, March 15, 2018

Enjoying an Early Spring at Sauvie Island and Newport

A welcome bout of warmish, sunny days meant we had a couple of days last weekend to plan a couple of semi-ambitious daytrips (ie, we left town). On Saturday we drove up to Sauvie Island to get our crane fix. Sandhill Cranes bugled away in big numbers, while we also counted Snow Geese in the hundreds, and Canvasbacks in the dozens. It’s always worth a winter tirp to Sauvie, even though we typically only make it up there once or twice a year.

Sandhill Cranes

The view of Mt. Saint Helens from Rentenaar Road

Afterwards, we decided to take a look for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that had been found earlier in the week, not far from there. Not to be confused with the one in Beaverton that’s been hanging around reliably for months. This new one, in Columbia County, had been found along a paved trail that runs just behind the residential area. Sure enough, it turned up at the precise intersection (with Bird Rd., appropriately enough) where others had seen it.

It was nice to get YBSA for the state to complete our sapsucker set for Oregon. I miss seeing them reliably like we did when we lived back East, but at least we still manage to see them every year when we travel to Texas for the holidays. This one flew a circuit between only three or four trees, and never left the tiny perimeter it established for itself.

The sapsucker sees a couple of saps

While the sapsucker was busy sucking sap on high, the lower trunk had a couple of Brown Creepers creeping, until one of them stopped creeping and started sunning. It found a cushy patch of moss and spread itself to soak up some rays. It's hard enough just to catch one staying in one spot for more than a second, it was unprecedented that we found one in good light and posing in all its Certhiid glory.

Brown Creeper

We were heading to Beaverton next to run some errands and pay a visit the best noodle house around (Frank’s), so we figured we might as well pull a twofer, and see if we could turn up the other Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. We pulled up to Commonwealth Lake Park, and found the sweet gum trees easily enough. We even spotted a sapsucker right off the bat, but it ended up being a Red-breasted. We walked the path around the lake and found the resident ducks and grebes totally, ludicrously photogenic.

Pied-billed Grebe

American Wigeon

The American Wigeon were as tame as domestic Mallards, either swimming right up to the edge of the lake, or feeding en masse on the lawn and chasing breadcrumbs. A pair of Green-winged Teal even got into the action and rooted around in the mud and the puddles while I crouched down a few feet away.

Green-winged Teal

The following day we drove over to Newport for a quick coast trip. We strolled around Hatfield Marine Science Center where we picked up some year birds, but nothing mind-blowing. Our best find of the day came later at Ona Beach State Park, and it did actually blow our minds, even if it looked like it had been dead awhile (R.I.Petrel). From a distance it looked like a sub-adult gull, but up close we made out the naricorn. The bill was too short and stout for a shearwater, and eventually we figured out we had a Northern Fulmar on our hands. Pretty damn cool.

Northern Fulmar

From there we visited the Beaver Creek Natural Area where the clever Steller's Jays were finding a way of getting around the suet baffle

Just a couple of birds hanging out

We wrapped up the weekend by heading over to Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, where you can always see the pair of Peregrine Falcons that call the cliffs outside the visitor's center home. One of them had a small bird that it spent some time plucking and tucking into. Not a bad finale to a pretty packed weekend.

Peregrine Falcon

Underneath its tail you can see a leg and foot of its prey sticking out

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Review: Mariposas Nocturnas, by Emmet Gowin

In June 2015 Maureen and I took a belated honeymoon vacation in Honduras, spending an exhausting and immensely rewarding week at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. Although technically the “off-season” we planned the trip with birds in mind and our days were filled with hiking steep, muddy slopes through saturated rainforest air in addition to various day-trips into dry forest, river, and botanical garden habitats. While the high points of our trip were certainly the many charismatic birds and mammals we’d craved, one my most enduring memories is of our nightly visits to the mothing station. Beneath the lodge’s mercury vapor lighting we meticulously photographed each and every species we encountered, hundreds of individuals. Knowing nothing about their taxonomy, life history, status or distribution, we were merely captivated by the wild and wide-ranging diversity of colors and forms.

For weeks afterward I’d tried to put names to each moth, despite the lack of a really good, comprehensive reference. But those attempts at cataloging were beside the point for me. What it really boiled down to was an excuse to carefully study our photos again and again, to organize and reorganize them. Which brings me to Emmet Gowin’s Mariposas Nocturas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity. This coffee table book is a celebration of everything that so captivated us during our hours at the mothing station in Honduras. It provides a showcase for hundreds of these nocturnal Neotropical Lepidoptera; moths of every size, shade, posture, texture.

Each page is laid out in a grid, 25 photos to a grid. Unlike a field guide, this book is presented with an almost entirely aesthetic approach to organization; the arrangement was determined by whatever photos happened to work well together (though, generally, each grid represents the time and place in which the photographs were taken). The moths themselves are living subjects that Gowin manually oriented against a background of his choosing – backgrounds often selected from art history, including works by Degas, Matisse, William Blake – thus setting up spectacular color contrasts between the moth and its background, producing a work that is visually stunning, page after page.

Of course the main attractions of the book are the Neotropical moths themselves, in their near-infinite variety. Sphinx moths, geometers, flannel moths, wasp-mimics, saturniids – they’re all so different from one another, and all marvelous in their own way! Gowin’s artistic eye captures this diversity wonderfully. To reiterate, this isn’t a field guide. In fact, the only information you will find about each moth is its scientific binomial, along with family and subfamily names, the year it was first described to science, and the person who described it. Moths that are arranged near one another on the page are probably not closely related, and may not even be found in nature together. Instead, this book is about appreciating moths as natural works of art, something you’re bound to start doing from the moment you first look inside.

The book’s introduction by author and activist Terry Tempest Williams is…odd. Williams has an impressive resume, and I admire her advocacy on behalf of public lands in particular. But her interest in moths verges on the mystical. At various points she invokes priests, spiritualists, prayer, the Virgin Mary, and sacred texts, all of which I found entirely unncessary, even distracting. Much more interesting is Gowin’s afterward. Here the photographer chronicles how this project developed in partnership with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and how his vision of it evolved over 15 years of gathering material, providing behind-the-scenes insight for this labor of love.

For me, this book will always remind me of that mothing station in Honduras where we first stood transfixed by the overwhelming beauty and diversity of Neotropical moths. Hopefully Mariposas Nocturnas will be the beginning of a journey for others, helping foster a passion for these insects that are too often and unfairly overlooked or maligned. Or, if nothing else, Emmet Gowin’s book looks great on a coffee table.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

All I Want for Christmas... are Some Year Birds

Guess what, folks – New Year’s resolutions work. If they didn’t there’s little chance you’d be reading this. Back in August we took an epic road trip throughout California, and around the same time we bought our first house, so there’s been plenty to keep us busy over here in Hipsterland. We’ll tackle CA in due course, but recently we’ve been sorting through photos from our holiday circuit, which brought us over to Upstate NY to visit my parents, and then down to Houston to see Maureen’s family.

Black-capped Chickadee

(Slate-colored) Dark-eyed Junco

We usually don’t have a lot of time to bird when we fly to NY, but the one patch we visit reliably is Schodack Island State Park, which BirdLife International deems an Important Bird Area because of its status as a breeding ground for Cerulean Warblers. No chance of seeing them in December – someday we’ll have to make it up there in spring – but we can usually turn up an American Tree Sparrow or two. Or in this case, 30.

American Tree Sparrow

In Texas we stayed in Missouri City, a bit southwest of Houston-proper. The manmade ponds in the local neighborhood are a sure bet for scads of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and assorted herons. The herons are a special treat, since we don’t get to spend much time with Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, or Tricolored Herons these days – also herons are what got me into birding initially, given the diversity of the eastern varieties.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

Little Blue Heron

Snowy Egret

Bad hair day, or best hair day?

On our way out to the ponds, a pair of Black Vultures were picking over the remains of a roadkill squirrel. The vultures were crushed in turn by Maureen, who mercilessly slayed them with her lens. Circle of life. The vultures scarfed down their Sciurid lunch in the road, but scooted out of the way whenever a car passed. Seems like a crow would know better, and maybe remove the corpse to a sidewalk where it could enjoy its squirrel guts in peace. Vutures: they’re no crows.

Black Vulture

"Have Fun"

A stroll through Sienna Plantation is a major boon to our year lists and we can generally turn up birds we won't see anywhere else in our annual travels. Neotropic Cormorants are present in smaller numbers than the Double-cresteds, but we've been able to find them pretty reliably over our past few visits. As for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds -- I can't believe we used to live where we only had one species of hummingbird. As spoiled as we are to live out west now, I sure miss these guys. At least we still have a chance to find them now and again.

Neotropic Cormorant
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

One Houston park we’ve enjoyed in the past is Bear Creek Park where we visited last spring and picked up some good stuff, like Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Prothonotary Warbler. When I was looking through eBird reports this time around, I saw there were recent sightings of Couch’s Kingbird, LeConte’s Sparrow, and, oh yeah… Greater Pewee! (Spoiler, we didn’t find any of those)

Pileated Woodpecker

Pine Warbler

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

But we did still manage to leave perfectly satisfied with ourselves after tracking down a female Vermilion Flycatcher. We saw our first and only Vermilions in 2014 during our cross-country move. We’d hoped to find some at Joshua Tree this summer without luck, so this was a bit of a redemption.

Next time we'll pick up with a day-trip to Brazos Bend State Park to finish off our Texas trip.

Northern Mockingbird with a cutworm of some kind. Maybe we should import some mockingbirds to our yard while we still have some grass left.

Northern Cardinal