Monday, July 24, 2017

Malheur 2017 - Day 1, Part 1

One thing we have done consistently over the past three years that we’ve lived in Oregon is go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I’m sure you all remember the occupation last year that threatened our beautiful piece of public land, but that was not enough to deter birders. We still went last year shortly after the refuge roads opened back up, although the headquarters was still closed for another year. However, this spring, the headquarters reopened with the great efforts of diligent workers and volunteers, and we were ready for another annual trip. 

White-Faced Ibis

Tree Swallow in a nest box

Desert Paintbrush

Upland Larkspur

This place is truly a natural wonder and unlike anything else. Each time we go, we are truly in awe of this place – its geology, the wildlife, the views, and, of course, the birds.

Sagebrush sea


Juvenile Sage Thrasher

Before we arrived to Malheur, we spent the night in Bend and birded that area our first morning. We hit up the sagebrush areas in search of Green-tailed Towhees, Sage Thrashers, and Sagebrush Sparrows. We got the first two, but dipped once again on the sparrows – a sagebrush nemesis of ours. We also picked up Gray Flycatcher, watching it dip its tail and give its distinctive “chibit” call.

Gray Flycatcher

Green-Tailed Towhee

Green-Tailed Towhee blowing in the wind

Next stop was the Sage Hen Rest Area – a seemingly regular rest stop, but definitely far from it. There are nesting Mountain Bluebirds all over as there are several nest boxes posted around the grassy areas. It's hard to find any bluer blue than Mountain Bluebirds. It's almost impossible to truly capture their vibrant color in a photo. 

Male Mountain Bluebird

Female Mountain Bluebird

Male Mountain Bluebird

Juvenile Mountain Bluebird

This year, we were pleasantly surprised to find nesting Say’s Phoebes, too! There was a pair working hard to gather lots of grubs and bugs to feed three hungry nestlings. Their nest was perched atop the light fixture above the women’s restroom. They surely did not mind the comers and goers that passed through the rest stop. There were also quite a few of these huge and beautiful Columbia Silkmoths - they were a beautiful red velvet color with bold patterning. I couldn't believe the Phoebes hadn't snatched them all up to feed their chicks!

Say's Phoebe

Say's Pheobe with a butterfly snack
Sweet baby Say's Phoebe - look at that precious gape!

Say's Phoebe chicks snuggling

Columbia Silkmoth

Columbia Silkmoth - Ain't it a beauty!

In the back of the rest stop is a lovely little loop trail. It’s a nice hike to see some wildflowers, butterflies, and songbirds. We picked up Brewer’s Sparrow buzzily singing away. We were caught off guard when I heard this little nasaly call up in a tree. I know it sounded kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then out in front of our eyes popped a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher! We were used to seeing plenty of these guys in the Southeast, but this was an Oregon first for us.

Brewer's Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow

Nelson's Hairstreak

Anicia Checkerspot
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Macro shot of a flower

After our rest stop hike, we were ready for the big leagues and headed over to the headquarters of the refuge. It was great to see this place back in action – plenty of birds and birders mulling about. There did seem to be a lack of hummingbirds compared to when we came the same time of year two years ago. Bullock’s Orioles were enjoying the nectar feeders with fewer hummers to hoard them. 

A peaceful moment at the Malheur NWR HQ
Black-Chinned Hummingbird

Bullock's Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

Red Admiral

Lazuli Buntings and Tree Swallows dazzled us with bright shades of blue. There seemed to be more Lazuli Buntings this year than our past two visits. The little females were plentiful - muted in color but still cute as a button.

A vibrant Male Lazuli Bunting

Male Lazuli Bunting

Female Lazuli Bunting

Female Lazuli Bunting

Tree Swallow

Steel blue Tree Swallow

There were plenty of pops of yellow all around the refuge. Bright and cheery Yellow Warblers and Western Tanagers lined the trees. And the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were a lovely sight, although they sound like demons from hell – but still delightful.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

Juba Skipper

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-Headed Blackbird - beautiful bird, haunting call

Yellow-Headed Blackbird

It was so great to be back at the Malheur NWR Headquarters. Although some tension lingers amongst the locals, I know the naturalists and the birders can all agree that it's great to have this treasure up and running again. 

Juba Skipper

Juba Skipper

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Review: A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America

Earlier this year I decided to step up my butterfly game, honing my ID skills and seeking out new species more deliberately. For the most part, I’d call myself a casual enthusiast, in that, for as long we we’ve been birding, I’ve been keen to get photos of butterflies as well, but as a secondary activity – something to focus on when the birds are quiet. And even when I managed a decent photo, I hadn’t always doggedly worked out difficult IDs or learned what diagnostic features I should key in on next time. 

We own a copy of the Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, which is a great resource on its own, but just as we own multiple bird field guides, it’s worth exploring how other authors and publishers choose to present similar information. Fortunately, Princeton University Press has a brand new edition of A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America, by Jeffrey Glassberg, President of the North American Birding Association (NABA). The first edition of this guide was only published in 2012, so it’s surprising that a second edition should follow so soon after. Not being familiar with the earlier edition, I obviously can’t address what updates have been made, but I do have plenty of thoughts how well it meets my expectations as a reference.

Firstly, this is a photo-based field guide, and the photos are stunning. Each species entry has a large primary image, with supporting images surrounding it. Notably, the butterflies haven’t been isolated by cropping out non-essential details, but are left in the context of their immediate environment. Field guides often remove these to help make more direct comparisons between species, but Swift Guide selected images, and oriented them, in such a way that similar species are usually shown in comparable poses. Species entries typically take about a half-page, but sometimes run multiple pages, meaning that a lot of variation is shown, and in nearly every case the photos are larger than those shown in Kaufman, allowing you to see more detail.

But a field guide is more than just images. As for the supporting information in Swift Guide… well, there’s a lot to unpack. Before checking out the book’s introductory text, I flipped through the species accounts to get a first impression, and really didn’t know what to make of it. In order to conserve space and keep the text as close to the images as possible, the layout ends up hiding some details in plain sight. To illustrate, here’s the sample entry for Hawaiian Blue. Without scrolling ahead, try and determine on your own how large this butterfly is. 

Now look directly above the name, Hawaiian Blue, and you’ll see a short white line. That line represents the size of the butterfly’s forewing, from its base to the apex. Not only is this not intuitive, it’s difficult to use in practice. But in the field you’re going to see an entire individual, comprised of more than one dimension. Contrast this with Kaufman, which shows you the life-size silhouette of one species per page, and keeps all species on that page in proportion to one another. This gives me a much clearer picture of what to expect when I actually see a butterfly. A line is too abstract, too far removed from the actual, living butterfly, and for species that commonly hold their wings out to the sides, doesn’t convey how large it will appear to you when you encounter it.

I wanted to put this field guide to the test so I looked back at some photos of butterflies I haven't been able to ID yet, including difficult groups such greater fritillaries, and buckwheat blues. To be clear, it may not even be possible to ID some of these species without examining them in hand, so it's not a reflection on the field guide where I haven't been successful, but I was able to narrow down my options based on the information provided, including features that aren’t discussed in the Kaufman guide.

For the Dotted Blue complex, Swift Guide very helpfully provides a separate range map for each subtype, allowing you to see which varieties appear in different regions. Throughout the field guide, I was able to find lots of other examples where subtypes received their own entries (and with their own range maps), too.

While, on the whole, it’s super helpful to have separate entries for different subtypes, it does create some confusion where the book’s organization is concerned. For instance, there’s an entry for Aphrodite Fritillary on p. 165. At first glance you wouldn’t know that there are other entries for the same species: the page before and the page after are both for Great Spangled Fritillary! If you live in the west you’ll have to flip ahead to p. 171 to see what “your” Aphrodite looks like.

Although this book is difficult to navigate at times, it’s an absolutely lovely field guide. If you’re looking for a photo-based reference, with lots of large, high-resolution photos, Swift Guide is for you. This is a wonderful addition to our library, and has already proved a handy resource.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


It's momentarily calm here, now that we’ve exhausted ourselves with several consecutive weekends of high adventure. Two weekends ago was our annual trip to Malheur, which you’ll see in a forthcoming series of posts once we come to terms with the ~4,100 photos we took. The more recent adventure was no less exhilarating, but perhaps less daunting to recap, so let’s start there and work backwards: The 2017 Dean Hale Woodpecker Festival was incredible!

We set up camp Friday evening at Cold Springs Campground, which we’ve visited several times before to see nesting White-headed Woodpeckers, but this was our first stay. We set out immediately after setting up the tent and soon found ourselves surrounded by singing Thick-billed Fox Sparrows. Good butterflies, too.

Thick-billed Fox Sparrow

Hammond's Flycatcher

Western Tailed-blue

After dinner we took another little excursion and were halted by a high-pitched raptor-y squeal. About halfway up a tall pine was the floofiest Great Horned owlet imaginable. Neither the nest nor its parents were anywhere in sight, but when it stretched, we could see how surprisingly well its wings were developed, and that it was more mobile than might be assumed from looking at this bundle of cotton balls. We were happy when, the next day, it had stayed put and we were able to share it with the rest of the crew from our field trip.

Great Horned Owlet

The festival runs for four days, but we’d only booked one (full) day’s worth of trips, including our best chance of seeing Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Early in the morning the group was polled for their top-priority target, and we were surprised that about half the group said Pileated. After living in southeast U.S. where they’re abundant and in western Oregon, I hadn’t realized how many people are deprived of their awesomeness. Our first stop was at an older burn where we hoped for Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Williamson’s Sapsuckers.

Lewis's Woodpecker and Williamson's Sapsucker habitat

Female Williamson's Sapsucker

This was an older burn, no longer used by Black-backed or Three-toed, who depend on the insects (bark and wood-boring beetles) that invade forests after they’ve been devastated by fire. We found our first Williamson’s Sapsuckers sometime last year, a female. Since the male and female were once thought to represent different species, the male that our guides had staked out at his nest cavity was a semi-lifer, of sorts. He had been inside incubating and after about an hour of waiting, the female flew in to relieve him and we watched them switch places.

Getting ready for the switcharoo

At Calliope Crossing there was, appropriately enough, a gorgeous male Calliope Hummingbird perched at the top of some short, dead willows. We couldn’t have asked for a better warm-up act as we waited, looking past the hummingbird, for activity at a Red-naped Sapsucker nest. Sisters, OR is right in the Red-naped x Red-breasted Sapsucker hybrid zone, and one of the nesting pair did look a little questionable to us, while the other seemed, at least from a distance, to be pure Red-naped. We had good luck with flycatchers at this stop, also, with both Dusky and Gray Flycatchers vocalizing, and a Western Wood-pewee who’s nest Maureen spotted.

Calliope Hummingbird

Western Wood-pewee nest

From there it was on to a White-headed Woodpecker pair making frequent visits to a cavity to feed their nestling(s). As we would learn, nests with hatched young are far less trouble (for us, the group) than those with birds still incubating eggs.

White-headed Woodpecker

Townsend's Solitaire

Next, we headed out to a recent burn (~5 years) where our guides had staked out an American Three-toed Woodpecker nesting cavity. We had a long time waiting, and one of the guides expressed some anxiety that they may have abandoned their nest. After close to an hour I noticed the female sticking her head out slightly – either to scrutinize us interlopers, or to try an spy her tardy partner. I called it out, but she pulled herself back inside before most of the group could get on her, including Maureen. The brief encounter was enough to bolster our guides’ hopes, who decided to stay another 30 minutes.

American Three-toed Woodpecker habitat

California Tortoiseshells were everywhere in this habitat, including landing on people's hats and fingers

That extra 30 turned into 60, and still no luck. At the two-hour mark the guides polled the group on our next move, and there was near-unanimous support for pushing on to the Black-backed site. I should note that for the past hour Maureen, determined not to miss another chance, had been GLUED to the scope. I mean she had not moved an inch. She couldn’t leave empty-handed now! I appealed to the group that it was only a matter of time, and (thank goodness) a mere five minutes later the male flew in to feed the incubating, and probably famished female. This was definitely the longest we’ve ever waited in one place for a bird. What a wait; what a payoff!

American Three-toed Woodpecker

In contrast to the last stop, the Black-backed Woodpecker was comparatively quick and easy. Our guides had us on a female within 20 minutes. Against the black char of the scorched tree trunks, she was nearly invisible. All around us the trees bore signs of the woodpeckers having ravaged the blackened bark for beetles, which will be a useful clue in the future when we venture to find Black-backs on our own.

"Black-backed Woodpecker wuz here"

Black-backed Woodpecker

With 11 woodpecker species possible in Deschutes County, our field trip turned up all 11 (I think it may have been the only one to do so this weekend – at least up through Saturday). Obviously we were riding a woodpecker high, and anything else we found that day was gravy. With an owl prowl scheduled for that evening, we were about to have some of the richest, fattiest bird gravy you can imagine. Obviously, the light was not conducive to photography, but I’ll give a brief rundown of the evening. Early on we had Northern Pygmy-owl and Common Nighthawks before venturing into Deschutes National Forest where we had a Flammulated Owl respond to playback. We would also had two separate stops with Northern Saw-whet Owl, and at least a couple of Common Poorwills that were heard, but never seen despite our guide’s best efforts. So yeah, good gravy.

Our sunset view while Northern Pygmy-owl was calling nearby

We were on our own the next day and decided we wouldn’t mind another look at a Black-backed Woodpecker, so we returned to the burns. No woodpeckers this time, but a booming Sooty Grouse kept luring us farther into the forest. Afterward we drove to Shevelin Park in Bend, where we’d heard about four woodpecker species nesting right in the parking lot. We weren’t so lucky (we were probably in the wrong parking lot), but were able to find a pair of Lewis’s Woodpeckers who looked as if they were investigating various nest cavities like prospective homebuyers.

Lewis's Woodpecker

 One last stop on the way out of Sisters is the Best Western in town, which is among the most reliable places anywhere for White-headed Woodpecker, not to mention Pinyon Jay, and other mountain specialties. This time the area just over the fence (which becomes Deschutes National Forest) was chockablock with deer. The preponderance of them were just chilling in the shade in a ring. We paid our respects to the Mountain Chickadees and Pygmy Nuthatches one last time and then headed the rest of the way home.

Black-tailed Deer

Mountain Chickadee

Pygmy Nuthatch

Silver-spotted Skipper