Saturday, July 19, 2014

Camping and Birding at Detroit Lake

Oregon has a laudable tradition of opening up all of its state parks for free camping during the first Saturday of every June. That we would take advantage of our first State Parks Day was a total no-brainer, but settling on only one of Oregon’s 170 state parks took some consideration. Since we’d be staying for one-night-only we decided to stay relatively close to home, but far enough away that we could see a new side of Oregon, and wouldn’t be tempted to pop back to our apartment for whatever we’d left behind. Detroit Lake fit every criteria, and offered some pretty breathtaking views, to boot.

The view of Mt. Jefferson behind Detroit Lake

Since we arrived well before check-in time, we headed over to an nearby area called Detroit Flats. It’s a place that often shows up on my eBird county needs alert email, so it seemed like a good opportunity for boost our Marion Co. numbers. And we did have get a singing Willow Flycatcher, a couple of Band-tailed Pigeons that appeared briefly before disappearing over the trees, and a male Rufous Hummingbird who gave us some great looks.

Rufous Hummingbird

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

As we headed down the trail alongside the lake, we heard snake after snake slipping away through the grasses, on either side of us. Eventually, we found one that stayed put long enough for Maureen to snap some shots of it, and I *think* we were dealing with Common Garter Snakes. I always thought garter snakes were garter snakes, but later on we’d come across a different-looking specimen at a roadside stop called Tumble Creek Trail. This little fella was much more drab, and I’m inclined to call it a Northwestern Garter Snake. Garter snakes species are all extremely variable, though, and I’m certainly no herpetologist. If anyone had a better handle on snakes, please go ahead and correct me.

Common Garter Snake

Common Garter Snake

Northwestern Garter Snake

Once we’d successfully navigated all the snakes and emerged at the end of the trail we found a female Common Merganser and her nine tiny ducklings. All ten of them were huddled together on a rock hardly bigger than the group of them, and with the mother trying to tuck all the little ones in underneath her. It was a sweet sight, and when we came back the next day to check up on them, the family was in the same area, but swimming. The precocious ducklings were feeding on their own, and all keeping pace with mama… except for one rascal who hitched a ride on her back instead.

Common Merganser and brood

Merganser duckling hitching a ride on his mother's back

A different merganser family, with somewhat older ducklings

We discovered Tumble Creek Trail on the way over to our campsite, which is an uphill hike that runs alongside a fairly steep, rocky stream. Right at the trailhead we could hear a warbler, but weren’t able to place the song, or even locate it, close as it was. We decided to push on up the trail, but before getting very far, I realized that I’d left our scope in the car and ran back down to get it.

Since I had to pass the warbler again and it was still singing, I gave it another go and came up with a Hermit Warbler! A West Coast warbler that had so far eluded us. I managed to catch Maureen’s attention for her to join me, but by the time she had it had vanished. Disappointed, we trudged on up the hill, but within just a couple of minutes Maureen found us a different lifer warbler — MacGillivray’s Warbler! He was on the other side of the water from us, and high up in the trees, but at least I’d gone back for the scope. Plus, he was singing and he stuck around for a good long while, so there was plenty to be excited about.

MacGillivray's Warbler

Even though neither of us had ever seen salamanders in the wild, Maureen somehow got the idea that this stream would be a perfect place to look for salamanders. And she was right — she found one under only the third rock she lifted! Maybe it was beginner’s luck, because we never found any others, but we both got a good look at it. Before we could get any photos, though, it vanished instantaneously, seemingly dissolving into the rock. Luckily, not all slimy creatures are quite so fast, and I found a Pacific Banana Slug patient enough to stick around and pose with me.

Pacific Banana Slug (bottom)

This looked like some kind of fungus mimicking dead oak leaves

Our butterflies that weekend included the widespread Silver-spotted Skipper, which we’ve found previously when we’d visited Atlanta, but is always a welcome sight. Juba Skipper and Pacific Fritillary are two species with more limited ranges (the latter being restricted to the Pacific Northwest), and both were lifers. One other arthropod I want to mention was a sharp-looking ground spider (Sergiolus sp.), decked out in argyle, that we found on the campground. As an argyle fancier myself, I approve of this spider’s sartorial choices. I prefer to wear it in my socks, but if I had eight feet to dress every morning, I might settle for a vest, too.

Juba Skipper

Silver-spotted Skipper

Pacific Fritillary

Pacific Fritillary

Ground spider (Sergiolus sp.)

Back over on our actual campsite, we were sitting at the picnic table when we saw two MacGillivray’s Warblers — a male and female — just behind our tent. They were sticking pretty closely to the bushes, and never stayed put for very long. But they helped get us off our asses, and start exploring. Not long after we turned up a pair of Hermit Warblers. And then another pair. And another.

Hermit Warbler

We were surrounded by Hermit Warblers now, more than compensating for the one Maureen had missed a day earlier. We also turned up a Black-throated Gray Warbler, completing the trifecta of breeding warblers in the county. Black-throated Gray, like the others, is an awesome western warbler that we’re glad to have around, but is actually a species we saw in 2010 as a stray to south Florida, and was one of the very first vagrants we chased.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Featured Feathered Friend: Swainson's Warbler

I’m delighted to bring back a “Featured Feathered Friend” segment in which I showcase a story and photos of a great encounter with one particular avian beauty. This FFF is the one and only Swainson’s Warbler. As you may recall from a recent post a single Swainson’s Warbler almost magically appeared in Forsyth Park in Savannah one of the last times we birded in Georgia before heading west. It was a glorious sighting, especially as we knew we’d be parting ways with many awesome warbler species.

One of the only other times we had seen a Swainson’s Warbler was when we saw a flash of our lifer bird in the leaf litter under the azalea bushes. That little magician disappeared for good – never to be found again, no matter how hard we looked, even if it meant ruining a family portrait session in the park.

Luckily, a few weeks after this brief sighting, we found another individual, and it was spectacular! Nick and I had joined our friend, birding expert and THE local “bird lady,” Diana Churchill, in scouting for this target species for a guided tour that we were going to give to a gentleman and his wife in a couple of weeks, specifically seeking the elusive Swainson’s Warbler.

When we hit the buggy, swampy trail at Ogeechee Canal, we were graced with not only a gorgeous Swainson’s Warbler, but he was up in the trees and singing his heart out! He gave us nice, long looks as we semi-silently squealed with delight, high-fived, and fist-pumped at this amazing experience we were having. These birds are notorious for being hard-to-find skulkers, and we found quite a boisterous one acting like he was Elton John in concert.

Upon looking at this bird, most people would wonder what the big fuss is all about. It’s just an LBJ (Little Brown Job), right? Well, as stated on the Swainson’s Warbler’s entry on Cornel Lab’s “All About Birds” page:
One of the most secretive and least observed of all North American birds, the Swainson's Warbler is a skulking bird of the southern canebrakes and rhododendron thickets. If it weren't for its loud, ringing song, the presence of the species in many areas would go completely undetected.

So this was an incredibly successful scout outing! Unfortunately, when we brought the couple to this very spot a couple of weeks later, there was no Swainson’s Warbler. No singing. No tree-hopping. Not even silent skulking. Nada. I felt bad for them, but also felt grateful that we had been able to find this magnificent yet understated bird with the experience that we had.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Chasing Waterfalls for American Dippers

One of the reasons we moved out West was to see different birds. Granted, some of these are just Western analogs of birds that we found regularly in Georgia or Florida: Black Oystercatcher, instead of American Oystercatcher; or Western Wood-pewee, instead of Eastern Wood-pewee. But the ones we get most excited about are the birds that are make their living in ways that are very different to the what we’re used to (birds that nest in deserts and along rocky shorelines come to mind). And more than any other bird, the one I just wouldn’t shut up about from the moment we arrived in Oregon was our only aquatic songbird: the American Dipper.

Dippers nest behind or near waterfalls, using the spray to keep their mossy nests moist and verdant. Silver Falls State Park seemed like our best bet nearby for finding the our target bird, and so, cavalierly defying TLC’s sage and timeless advice, we went chasing American Dippers. The park itself is a temperate rainforest in the foothills of the Cascades (how do we only live half an hour from rainforest?!). It’s best known for it’s “Trail of Ten Falls”, a 9-mile loop that takes you past all manner of waterfall, ranging between from between 27 ft. and 178 ft. We managed to knock four miles off our hike by cutting out two of the falls, but five miles is plenty far to lug a spotting scope, let me tell you.

The caves here were formed after the organic matter underneath ancient lava flows eroded, leaving only basalt

Close-up of the basalt

Lichen-covered rocks

Our first good bird of the day was from an observation lookout on the road in: two Common Ravens circled us overhead, close side by side one another. Other than a fleeting glimpse of a raven on our drive up Oregon two months ago, these were our first, and our first opportunity to really study and enjoy them. I’ll admit that I may have jumped the gun once or twice before this, when I let myself believe that a distant crow might — just might — have been a raven. Now we could clearly make out their wedge-shaped tails, and hear the reverberation of their hollow, throaty croaks. Not to mention that we could finally fully appreciate just how huge they really are.

Common Ravens

Once we got inside the park grounds, we were delighted to see a handsome Violet-green Swallow resting atop the bathroom roof. Of all the swallows species out here, this one seems to be the one we see perched the least often. Then again, maybe that’s only been our perception because it’s a new swallow for us, and we’ve been anxious to get a good look at it. In any case, this was our chance, and we happily seized it.

Violet-green Swallow

After we finally started along the Trail of Ten Falls, we heard Pacific Wrens singing everywhere. The entire day they gave the American Robins stiff competition for most numerous bird, but they rarely popped up for us to see them well. A strong contingent of Wilson’s Warblers was out, too, and mostly concentrated around a single bridge, flying circles all around us while somehow managing to keep their little toupee’s securely fastened.

Wilson's Warbler

Steller's Jay

Non-birds included an adorable Townsend’s Chipmunk. In New York there’s only one species (Eastern Chipmunk), and so growing up I always just thought chipmunks were chipmunks, but in the West there is a huge diversity of species, and in all of North America there are as many as two dozen altogether.

Townsend's Chipmunk

Another group we’re becoming more familiar with are crane flies. Most crane flies look like gigantic mosquitos. I mean HUGE, prehistoric-looking mosquitos. But they’re not mosquitos, and they’re actually quite harmless. This Tiger Crane Fly doesn’t look much like a mosquito at all, but rather more like a robber fly. Notable Leps. we saw on our hike were a worn Echo Azure, and a neat black and white Rheumaptera moth.

Tiger Crane Fly

Echo Azure

Rheumaptera sp.

Salmonberries! There were quite a lot of these along the trails (and they're delicious)

When we eventually did see an American Dipper, we were lucky enough to find two together. One of them was feeding the other, and we’d naturally assumed in the moment that we were watching an adult and a juvenile, but now I’m not so sure: as part of Dippers’ courtship, “the male may feed the female after she begs from a crouched position with quivering wings, following which the male often sings with neck and bill stretched upward” (Knight, 2001, p. 447). I think this is what we witnessed (it was in late May) — it doesn’t look to me like a juvenile, but it’s hard to say with certainty. This is supposed to be followed by a flight chase, but unfortunately a group of rowdy teenagers (does that make me sound old?) went down into the stream to splash around, and scared the Dippers off.

American Dippers

But the Dippers didn’t disappoint my crazy high expectations for them to dazzle and amaze; we were even able to make out those bright white feathered eyelids of theirs from our spot high above them. We encountered a couple more Dippers farther along, but only in flight, and we didn’t manage looks that were nearly as satisfying. By the end of the day the narrow 5-mile trail we were on started to feel like the line for Splash Mountain, with so many thousands of people coming to see the waterfalls. Somebody forgot to tell them that there’s something that makes waterfalls even more spectacular, and that’s American Dippers.

White, feathered eyelids!

I have the wingspan of a Turkey Vulture...

... and Maureen's is the same as a Great Blue Heron


The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Illustrated by David Allen Sibley. Edited by Chris Elphick, John B. Dunning, and D. A. Sibley. 2001 by Chanticleer Press. Essay written by Thomas Knight.