Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fall at Finley NWR

Ever since we announced our move to Oregon, it seemed like everyone we told who was even slightly familiar with the state told us, “Ohhh, it rains a lot!” We don’t mind the rain much, as we faced plenty of rain before in Florida, albeit a much different type of rain. We were told that it was the dreariness that might get us. However, I can’t say we faced much typical “Oregon weather” until just recently in December. The end of spring was an absolute delight, summer was warm but with no humidity (a foreign thing to me), and fall was nice and crisp, and even sometimes downright freezing. Winter has given us a bit of that typical rain and dreariness – including a full day of rain during the Salem Christmas Bird Count. Yikes. 

Northern Harrier over the Marsh

But who wants to think about that right now? I want to think about those lovely, sunny and crisp fall days, particularly at Finley National Wildlife Refuge. You may recall that Finley NWR was where we had our first encounters with my beloved Acorn Woodpecker. Knowing that there is a resident family there makes me very happy, and the sight of these fastidious woodpeckers always tickles me.

We were able to visit Finley before most of the trails closed for the winter for the birds’ protection. Geese and ducks were starting to gather in the lake, but not yet in big numbers during the peak of winter. Nonetheless, we were treated by a few American White Pelicans that swam by – bold splashes of white in a sea of greens, grays, and browns. 

American White Pelicans
The colors of fall Lungwort lichen
Can you spot the moth?
The feeders at the visitor center were especially busy. Groups of Golden-Crowned Sparrows and Juncos were scattered about. A nice Fox Sparrow made a very brief appearance. It’s always a treat to see these very sleek and handsome sparrows. Everyone was coming out to enjoy some solid sunshine, which would seen be a rarity for the upcoming winter season. 

Golden-Crowned Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Western Scrub-Jay 

Although most of Cabell Marsh Trail was closed, the short path to the observation deck was open and full of fun birds. Waterfowl are great, but it was the little guys that were stealing the show that day. Golden-Crowned Kinglets were chirping all over the place and giving great close looks. A Brown Creeper stayed still long enough for me to capture a shot of him in a somewhat still position. A darling little Marsh Wren jumped up and out from the reeds to show off a bit. These are one of my favorite wrens – such tough guys in small bodies. If you ever use playback to call one out, he will fuss at you for quite a while, making you feel like you’re being berated.

Golden-Crowned Kinglet 

Brown Creeper
Marsh Wren

There were still fall apples on the trees, which made for a lovely setting for a Spotted Towhee. And I couldn’t have asked for a more cooperative and gorgeous Varied Thrush. These birds are unreal – such gorgeous hues of burnt orange and slatey grayish-blue. There was a pair of them munching on the apples (or maybe the bugs and grubs in the apples). 

Spotted Towhee
Varied Thrush

Even the undertail of the Varied Thrush is lovely.
We’re always thrilled to see these relatively new birds, but the surprise of the day was a ninja-like Wrentit. We spotted him and watched him for about 30 seconds before he flew off never to be seen again. We had only seen one once just barely in a little wooded area just off the coast, and we were surprised to see one this far inland, but I guess it’s not out of the question. In any case, it was fun to catch even a fleeting glance at this Kabuki mask-faced little bird. He was a lovely way to end our last fall trip to Finley. 

Skulky Wrentit

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review: Hummingbirds

As recent transplants from the Southeast, we've been mostly bereft of hummingbirds for the duration of our lives as birders. Our one consolation was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a gorgeous member of the "bee" group whose fiery gorgets gleam a radiant red in the sunlight when viewed head on. If you're limited to only one hummingbird species it's not a bad one to have, but hummingbirds are so varied, so specialized, and so brilliant that they practically compel us to seek them out. Even having added three new species to our life lists since heading west last Spring, it still feels like we're only just getting started.

Fortunately, for those of us who need more hummingbird in our lives, Firefly Books recently published a well-researched treatment of the family, chockablock with incredible photos. The aptly named Hummingbirds explores everything from their evolution and their uniqueness, to the impressive amount of diversity they exhibit in appearance and in their ways of making a living. The book's text was written by zoologist Ronald Orenstein, and includes chapters titled "How Hummingbirds Fly," "How Hummingbirds Refuel," and "How Hummingbirds Glow." These short, readable entries explore those aspects of hummingbird biology that set them apart from the rest of the bird world.

The rest of the book (and most of the book's bulk) is a portfolio of hummingbird photographs contributed by Michael and Patricia Fogden. This collection features some really spectacular shots of gorgeous birds. The more bizarre-looking speciesm like the Booted Racket-tail and the Wire-crested Thorntail, are some of my favorites, but overall we see a decent sample of the variation exhibited among hummingbirds. While a few photographs are mixed in with Orenstein's text, the portfolio is essentially a second book within the same volume, although many of the pictures do have informative captions reinforcing points Orenstein had made earlier.

One of the themes reinforced throughout the book is the interrelationship between hummingbirds and their environments. Everything from territory size, to foraging strategy, to bill size and shape is influenced by the abundance and nutritional profile of the flowering plants each species co-evolved with. Additionally, hummingbird brains have had to evolve a specialized set of information processing mechanisms that allow it to "calculate how long it will take for an empty flower to restore its nectar supply, and to time their visits accordingly" (p. 33). Orenstein does a great job of driving this theme home throughout his text, which really helps explain the *why* of hummingbirds: not just that they're unique, but that their uniqueness is in response to the particular adaptive problems they have had to solve. 

Along the way readers are treated to illustrative examples of how some species make their living. Not surprisingly the section on courtship displays details some of the more unusual behaviors, like how the male Sombre Hummingbird clenches his prospective mate's vent feathers in his bill, and then sways back and forth, hanging on all the while. Equally amusing is a brief section on how hummingbirds feature in Native American mythology, and early European attempts to describe them scientifically.

While Orenstein successfully stoked my interest in hummingbirds, I wish that some of the sections were longer. The text is broken into seven chapters, with the shortest at only two or three pages. The author obviously knows his subject extremely well, and I definitely got the sense that he could have developed each topic more fully without sacrificing the book's readability. 

With regard to the Fogdens' portfolio, the photographs seems to be organized for maximum aesthetic appeal. This isn't a criticism, obviously, but it may not appeal to everyone's tastes. Species aren't grouped taxonomically, nor do photographs of the same species necessarily appear near each other, as you would expect them to be if the organization were driven by scientific considerations. More importantly, while the photographs are beautiful, the species represented in the book are only a small fraction of the world's existing species. The vast majority of species are omitted from the portfolio, while some, such as White-necked Jacobin and Violet Sabrewing, appear again and again.The photographers live in Costa Rica, and so the birds from this region are likely overrepresented -- unfortunately, this is never made explicit, as the location of the photographs is not provided.

If you're looking for a primer on hummingbirds, or a collection of (200+) beautiful hummingbird photographs, Hummingbirds should be definitely be near the top of your list. Anybody fascinated by this family is sure to find that fascination grow after exploring these pages. It makes for a great introduction to the versatility and uniqueness of these tiny, charismatic birds, and is sure to stir a strong sense of wanderlust for those more adventurous readers who will want to chase down as many of these species as they can.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Featured Feathered Friend: Bird of the Year Edition - Green Heron

Well, as you all may know by now, the American Birding Association (ABA) has announced its Bird of the Year for 2015 – the ever-lovely Green Heron. So here is a FFF featuring this BOTY or BOY. These are some older pictures from back in our early Florida days (most of them from our point-and-shoot), and they tell a little story. 

I’ve always had trouble thinking about what was my “spark bird” – what was that one bird that made me realize “Aha! I love birding!” I could just never really pinpoint just one bird that did me in. And when I thought about it some more, I recalled one special little bird that caught me by surprise in an ever so good way, and it was the Green Heron. It’s funny that I was actually thinking about this recently even before the BOTY announcement.

So why was it the Green Heron? Well, when we first started exploring birding, before we even really knew what we were getting ourselves into, I remember that we’d see such a variety of herons and egrets just dotting our little manmade pond behind our apartment building. There was one little funny one that stood out amongst the others because it was so short and stoutish compared to the long and graceful Great Egret and Great Blue Heron we’d often see, or even the smaller, but still lean Tri-Colored Heron and Snowy Egret. 

But it wasn’t just its unique shape that made it stand out. I distinctly remember a time when walking by another little pond that we saw such a peculiar bird that looked sort of familiar, but different at the same time. What took us a somewhat embarrassingly good while to figure out in our novice days was that we were looking at a Green Heron with its neck extended! When we finally figured this out and laughed at ourselves for not realizing this was the same bird we had seen other times before, it just made me realize that birds are such funny little creatures with such quirky and wondrous ways about them, that I wanted to know more, see more, and learn more. 

The Green Heron always has a special place in my heart. I love its colors and its behavior. I even love it although I could never get a good shot of one flying no matter how hard I tried. Oh, and who couldn't love a darling little ball of fuzz baby Green Heron like the one I captured photos of back in the day.

We were spoiled with seeing these skulky herons quite regularly in Florida, and then less so in the Savannah area. And now it seems to be a rare treat here in Oregon, but they still make me smile and yell out “Greenie!” every time I see or hear one.

I even sketched out a Baby Green Heron as one of the several mini sticky-note bird sketches I've drawn for Nick. ;)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A November to Remember: Tundra Bean-Goose and Other Rarities

"Chasing," or "twitching" -- whatever you call it, we haven't done much of it. In the past it would have taken a pretty extraordinary specimen to make us travel even an hour out of our way. Two times that come to mind are an unsuccessful run at a Snowy Owl in 2012, and a Northern Lapwing just a couple of months later that had a happier ending. My, how things have changed!

While I'd never thought of Oregon as a particularly big state, it's nearly twice the size of New York. I like to brag that we're about an hour from desert, rainforest, ocean, or mountains… but when you try to see these things as often as you can, as well as do a fair amount of exploring, it adds up to quite a bit of driving. Throw in my ridiculously long daily commute, and it makes for a radically altered sense of how far is too far to be worthwhile.

Black Turnstones

We had the chance to put this new perspective into action in November, when a couple of drool-worthy rarities popped up along the coast, an hour-and-a-half to two hours away. The first was a Brown Booby, down in one of our favorite coastal hotspots, Newport. This was a banner year for Brown Boobies, and Oregon had hosted at least two this past fall. This one was waiting for us on a big green range marker, in precisely the spot it had been reported a week earlier.

Brown Booby

At first, it was almost entirely obscured by a big white panel, but sometime after Maureen spotted it it took off and put on a magnificent show for us. It flew around and around in sweeping circles between the pier and the range marker, plunge-diving wherever it zeroed in on sufficiently tasty prey. It would pass right over a big pile of oblivious California Sea Lions ingeniously disguised as the very jetty they lazed on, before turning in toward us, and restarting the route along its aerial track. It must have circled for for whole five minutes before resuming its perch on the range marker, and sat where we could see it much more clearly than before. A Double-crested Cormorant struck its most regal pose beside it, but to no avail -- we only had eyes for the booby.

That's one acrobatic sulid

A closer group of sea lions provided an incongruous barking soundtrack. Dozens of males (only the males migrate to Oregon) laid out on the temporary docks provided for them, and belted out a riotous chorus to an appreciative audience that couldn't get enough. The most raucous among them were the star performers, who had everyone in hysterics for the entire hour we were there.

California Sea Lion

"I'm gonna bite you"

"Ahh, you really bit me!"

Afterward we moved on to the Mark Hatfield Marine Science Center, hoping to catch flocks of Brant that had been reported there. There were no Brants, but as we were scanning through thousands of Northern Pintails and American Wigeon, we chanced upon something we knew statistically that we had a decent chance of finding sooner or later, but it was another thing entirely to actually come across one in the field. A cinnamon-headed wigeon stood from the drab grayish-brown crowd, even at a distance, and in the gloom of an impending rain. Eurasian Wigeons pop up along the coast with some regularity, but this, our first, was a pleasant surprise after freshly coming off our lifer Brown Booby.

Eurasian Wigeon

Our November was already shaping up to be a memorable month of birding when the listservs exploded. A Tundra Bean-Goose -- the second ever recorded in the lower 48 and first in Oregon -- was reported at Nestucca Bay NWR. We had camped nearby over the summer, but the refuge hadn't been on our radar. Even when we did visit, we didn't actually get very far since Maureen managed to spot the goose from the road on the way in. It was on an open field among a lot of Cackling and Dusky Canada Geese, right where it had first been seen a week earlier.

Tundra Bean-Goose

Striking its best Audubon pose

We moved up the road to the refuge's observation deck, which gave us a commanding view looking down on the geese. Our new station brought us even closer to the Tundra Bean-Goose, but with a lot of bare branches in the way. Still, we could see well enough each time it assumed a threatening posture to scare off non-bean geese, lesser beings that they are. Without a doubt, this is the rarest bird we've ever seen. I feel spoiled, since even the expected birds are still new to us, but I'm glad that, throughout November, we were able to share in the common excitement generated by some awesome rarities.