Sunday, September 7, 2014

Into the Mountains, Part 1

Mountains! That’s what we’ve been missing in our lives. We’d seen them in the distance, but hadn’t hadn’t actually explored the mountains themselves until we made a camping expedition out of the long Labor Day weekend. Our ultimate destination on Saturday was Prineville Reservoir State Park, but we left ourselves ample birding time on the way up, spending several hours in a town called Sisters.

White-breasted Nuthatch was part of the nuthatch trifecta we accomplished in Sisters

Sisters was a quaint little stop, with the heart of the town’s activity running right alongside Deschutes National Forest. Even without pushing deep into the forest, we turned up some great birds in unconventional places. Our first stop was actually at a Best Western hotel, Ponderosa Lodge, that we’d read can attract a number of incredible mountain species to its feeders. At first it was all Golden-mantled Squirrels and penned-up llamas (this was an unconventional place!), but before long the party really got started.

Either a Least or a Yellow Pine Chipmunk

Golden-mantled Squirrel

It had been overcast all morning, and they were pretty high up, but Pygmy Nuthatches soon arrived at the very tops of the pines. It was far from an ideal look, but here was our first lifer of the trip, and we were plenty excited about it. Things picked up quickly, though, once they dropped all the way down to the ground, and their numbers suddenly multiplied. We were swimming in Pygmy Nuthatches now.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The nuthatches were joined by Mountain Chickadees, and the two species danced frenetically all around us. These were our first Mountain Chickadees, too, and I was glad to see they lacked none of the energy or sociality of their eastern cousins. They even look like a Carolina or Black-capped Chickadee, albeit one that’s cultivating a tough-guy image. A chickadee that’s joined a motorcycle gang, with an added touch of rugged sensuality in its voice, Barry White-style.

Mountain Chickadee

There are so many incredible woodpecker species in this part of the country, and picids made up a good portion of our target list. We knew we’d have to locate recently burned areas for some, but others we just hoped we would stumble into. Fortunately, we found ourselves in White-headed Woodpecker territory, and a first-year bird was ready to introduce himself. He mostly hung around the feeders, but we found another, later in the afternoon as we explored a Sisters campsite.

White-headed Woodpecker

A drive down a rough dirt road turned up a family a mule deer. We were pulled over to take some pictures, when a another car drove up to see what we were looking at. I noticed they were hunters, and the passenger had a quiver of arrows in his lap. I was mortified at the thought that our curiosity might indirectly have cost a deer its life, but the hunters were only in spectator mode, same as us.

Mule Deer 

Most of our trip I’ll leave for another post, but we did pass through Sisters again on the way home. Pinyon Jay was one of the species we’d previously looked for at the feeders at Best Western, but without luck. We intended to have go back for another look, but first, it was imperative that we stop for ice cream cones. I still had my bins on while we waited in line, thankfully, so when I spotted a jay way high up and across the street, we were able to ID it confidently.

Juvenile Western Bluebird

We definitely could have used a much better look, so, after we’d had our ice cream fix we headed on over with the rest of our equipment. There was no Pinyon Jay anymore, but we can’t complain about the consolation prize. Instead we got to spend some quality time with a Townsend’s Solitaire. It was everything a life bird should be, but almost never is: perfectly abiding, and only leaving just before we would have turned away ourselves. We racked up some other great birds during trip, but this was one of the more satisfying.

Townsend's Solitaire

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: Woodpeckers of the World

Woodpeckers have fascinated me since before we became birders. I remember looking up Red-bellied Woodpecker in a general field guide of Florida's wildlife a few weeks before I officially met my “spark” bird. I suppose it served as the kindling. And Pileated Woodpecker was one of the first species we set ourselves as a target to find. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb (pun intended) in thinking that this fascination is nearly universal among birders (and even non-birders), and that woodpeckers are truly among the most captivating groups of birds.

A comprehensive new photographic guide, Woodpeckers of the World, by Gerard Gorman, capitalizes on this interest by treating each of the world’s 239 woodpecker species individually, with detailed information provided about each, covering different aspects of their life history. Within each species account, usually two or three photos are shown, most of which are are absolutely stunning. Alongside these are brief sections exploring field marks, vocalizations, drumming, status, habitat, range, taxonomy, similar species, and foraging.

Within these pages, we learn just how astoundingly diverse the family Picidae really is. American birders are most familiar with variations of red, white, and black, with occasional splashes of yellow (Lewis’s Woodpecker excepted). Contrast this with the warm, tropical tones of a White-browed Piculet, or the rich colors of a Chestnut Woodpecker. We don’t have anything here that even compares with the hypnotic patterning of a Buff-rumped Woodpecker. Discovering all of this variety is the real joy of flipping through the pages of this book. 

The book’s introductory chapters discuss woodpeckers as a whole, describing what they have in common, and what sets them apart from other groups. The species accounts are organized taxonomically, with each genus introduced in a single paragraph relating some facts about its member species that make the genus unique. These introductory sections are all narrative, and make for great reading. It’s here that we we learn how truly bizarre (for woodpeckers) the Wrynecks are, with their weak bills and soft tails, which don’t excavate their own holes, and perch rather than climb. On the other hand, the individual species accounts, tend to be a bit dry because of the way information is broken up into sections, rather than flow as a compelling story about the bird. 

But while this isn’t necessarily a book that you can read straight through from cover to cover, it’s handy if you want to reference a particular species. This past weekend, for instance, we took our first trip into the Oregon mountains, where we hoped to see new species like White-headed, Black-backed, and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Williamson’s Sapsuckers. Before heading out, I reviewed the species accounts for each, which helped me to understand the best habitats for finding them, and what to listen for. It also explained how to differentiate between Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and described which subspecies occur in our area.

But the pictures are the real draw of this book, and what really make it worth owning. The photographs are beautiful, and wonderfully illustrate the incredible diversity of woodpeckers. You won’t find every plumage, or every subspecies shown, but across the over 750 photos there’s plenty of variety to salivate over. Considering the number of woodpecker species that are still difficult to access, or are simply not well understood, it’s easy to see that this book was a huge and impressive undertaking. Most birders, no matter how ambitious, will only ever see a fraction of these species in real life; those who share my fascination with this family will want to check out Woodpeckers of the World, and start fantasizing about what they’re missing.

Images used with permission from Woodpeckers of the World A Photographic Guide by Gerard Gorman (Firefly Books 2014)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Acorn Woodpeckers, Grass Skippers, and Moon Trees

Over the past month or so I’ve taken several little “field trips” to visit the campus where Maureen works, at a huge public university. The campus is plenty scenic, and plenty historic, and it’s as good a place as any to while away 8 or 9 hours (filling the interim until my new job starts). Not looking for anything in particular, and not sure what I’d find anyway, I set out with Maureen’s camera in a bid to contribute some eye candy of my own to the blog.

The first marvel I met with was a Douglas-fir “moon tree”. The tree was grown from one of 500 seeds that accompanied the Apollo 14 mission during its 1971 lunar orbit. While this was certainly one of the more accomplished trees I’ve ever come across, it seemed modest enough, not letting the fame get to its canopy.

As a seed, this tree orbited the moon. You might say it was an astro-nut

Next, we’d heard it rumored that a family of Acorn Woodpeckers lives on campus, near the veterinary school. I started out in that direction, hoping to scope them out before Maureen’s lunch, so we could head there directly once she was free. The road was by with a stand of oaks, where, after just a couple minutes’ wait, a hyperactive set of five or six woodpeckers bounced from oak to oak, often fairly low and close.

When lunchtime rolled around we headed back over together. Now we discovered not only the nest hole they returned to again and again, but their stash spot, where they hoarded hundreds and hundreds of their namesake nut. The family was busy storing up for the dreary, barren winter months. They were also meticulously tending their inventory, sometimes removing an acorn from its cubby, and fitting it into a different hole.

The woodpecker photos above are all Maureen’s; my photographic efforts were decidedly lepidopterous. The only butterflies I found in good numbers, who were patient enough to put up with my obtrusion, were assorted members of the challenging “grass skipper” clade. Amid a patch of coneflowers, I found a handsome pair of Sachem.

As I watched them, the male performed a rather remarkable display: rapidly flying off diagonally, about eight inches, and flying right back at his mistress, as if connected by an elastic band. The dance lasted a total of about 10 seconds, with each round trip journey taking only half a second. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any video.

During a subsequent “field trip”, I came across another type of grass skipper, Woodland Skipper, gathering nectar from the lavender. These skippers look an awful lot like Sachem to my novice eye, except for the patterning on the underwing, and they lack the big boxy stigma on the upperwing. These skippers didn’t dance for me like their cousins, but being able to give them at least a tentative ID gave me satisfaction enough.