Monday, May 18, 2015

Review: Tales of Remarkable Birds

The avian world abounds with examples of remarkable species. For many of us, our spark bird was visually remarkable - one whose appearance caught us off guard, whose bright colors, size or shape lingered in our thoughts long after that first encounter. But no less compelling are the stories of how birds make their living. Their mastery of flight, their complex social structures, and the myriad other physiological and behavioral adaptations for solving problems of survival and reproduction are absolute wonders in their own right.

In Tales of Remarkable Birds, Dominic Couzens takes it all on, relaying stories of the bizarre and extraordinary birds from around the world. Couzens' engaging volume relates aspects of 40 species or families, with selections covering a range of behaviors related to mating, breeding, foraging, navigation, and competition from within and between species. Some entries highlight iconic, no-brainer choices for inclusion; others are compelling precisely because you have to read on to find out what's so remarkable about them.

And these birds are truly remarkable. As in, I would literally remark on them to Maureen: "Apparently bowerbirds are the only non-human instance of giving forced perspective" or "Did you know that swiftlets can echolocate, but only use it to navigate in caves?" This book is filled with trivia that you'll want to share with other birders, or possibly harass your non-birder friends with. Although birds' appearances aren't the principle focus of this book, it's chockablock with gorgeous photographs that are every bit as worth sharing as the stories.

Tales samples birds from across the globe, with five entries for every continent. North America is represented by such species as Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, and White-throated Sparrow. While these will be familiar to many U.S. readers, the book is an opportunity to dig below the surface and learn something new about their backyard visitors. For instance, while I was familiar with "tan-striped" vs. "white-striped" White-throated Sparrows and the behavioral differences expressed by the two color morphs, I hadn't realized that the alleles responsible for the differences have been around for ~2.2 million years - even before White-throated Sparrow even split from its parent species!

The entries are all very accessible for a wide audience, including beginning and young birders, and Couzens is an engaging storyteller. His tongue-in-cheek style helps make the birds relatable, although this does occasionally veer toward anthropomorphism (e.g. "courageous" jacanas), and even moralizing about bird behavior (e.g. "good" vs. "bad" cuckoos, or "sinister" or "repellent" birds). While it's true that I've joked about "sinister" birds on this very blog, it seems a questionable direction to take for a reference book, even one that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Still, we might forgive these solecisms because his enthusiasm for his subjects is so evident. As Couzens notes in his introduction:
"It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that almost every bird in the world has the capacity to amaze and surprise scientists. It just depends what species and aspects are chosen for study. You could write a book with exactly the same title and premise, and choose 40 completely different stories to the ones chosen here." (p. 13)
He'll get no argument from me. And while there are certainly avian characteristics that outshine some of the ones described in the book, there's no question that there's something remarkable about each of the 40 he discusses.

Tales of Remarkable Birds is perfect for kindling a nascent passion for birds (I can easily imagine an eager youngster reading it under the covers with a flashlight). However, it's no less suited for long-time birders keen to learn more about how far birds can stretch the limits of diversity and adaptability. The global focus of the book will make you want to grab your passport to visit some of these wonders, while at the same time helping gain an appreciation for one's hometown birds, each remarkable in it's own way.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


I've become fairly taken with all things arachnid lately, starting from the time Maureen bought me a macro lens clip for my iPhone. During our weekend and evening outings, we try to keep our eyes out for spiders whenever things quiet down bird-wise, and every new find has been a fascination even though, 9 times out of 10, I simply haven't got a clue what I'm looking at. Most times they're patient subjects, but a spooked spider can make a quick getaway when it uses its eight legs to full advantage.

Sure, this post is an excuse to show off some the better spider shots I've taken over the past months, but I hope it will also serve as a resource for helping to identify some of the spider species around Oregon, and particularly the Willamette Valley. I'm working with volunteers at to put names these, and I'll continue to revise and update this page as my spider portfolio grows and we learn more about spider identification, life history, taxonomy, etc. So, without further ado, I say to our non-squeamish readers: enjoy!

Cross orbweaver - Araneus diadematus
Cyclosa conica

Running crab spider

Larinioides sp.

This is likely the same species as in the previous photo, but with a much better look at the "V" pattern on the abdomen

Pirata / Piratula

Wolf spider? We found this one running around a dirt path at Basket Slough NWR. It caught our eye because it looked like it was towing something along with it. That something was dozens of baby spiders clinging tightly to the adult's abdomen.

Tibellus sp. 
Jumping spider. Not sure what it's lugging around here, whether it's lunch or its offspring

Yellow sac spider?

Metellina curtisi

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Solo Birding, or An Easy-to-Swallow Outing to Ankeny NWR

Last weekend Maureen had to travel to San Diego for a conference, leaving me to figure what to do with myself for a few days. Saturday, I thought I'd venture out and take some macro shots, hoping the weather would cooperate. But at every point during the day, it threatened to rain. I'd been keeping myself cooped up for fear the storm clouds would break open, but at a certain point I just got tired of waiting, so late in the day I headed down to Ankeny NWR to take my chances.

A sinister-looking Brewer's Blackbird greeted me in the parking lot

Northern Flicker

Ankeny's mostly off-limits between October and March to give "Dusky" Canada Geese and other waterfowl undisturbed wintering habitat. With spotting scope you can scan a good portion of the area from the parking lots, but Pintail Marsh also has a 1.8 mile loop trail and it's been ages since we've been able to walk it. A couple of times since it's opened back up, we've taken short trips after work and checked in some of the willows along the trailhead without getting very far. I hadn't expected to get far this time either, but the birds kept drawing me in.

Red-winged Blackbird
Savannah Sparrow

By far the most active were the Yellow-rumped Warblers. Both the "Myrtle" and "Audubon's" Yellow-rumps are sporting their fancy breeding costumes and flycatching left and right. "Myrtle" seem like they're outnumbering their brighter, fancier-looking brothers and sisters right now, which is still surprising to an easterner like me who thought we were swapping Myrtles for Audubon's when we moved out here. Maureen's been waiting and hoping for a handsome male Audubon's to show off for her, but so far hasn't found any cooperative volunteers. But the minute she leaves town, this happens… and with her own camera no less.

"Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler

"Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler

A gentle warbling emerged from the same willows where the Yellow-rumps were frolicking. Even if it was more shy than the warblers, it was great to see my first Warbling Vireo of the year. Other FOYs included Yellow and Wilson's Warblers, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. At around this same point in the trail as the vireo I noticed the damselflies were swarming a certain kind of grassy seed heads. One of them let me get close enough to snap a photo with my macro.

Warbling Vireo


Least Sandpiper
The other major source of activity was the swallows. From the parking lot, you can see them swirling around and around over a cluster of snags, occasionally landing on them in tight groups. Now that I was able to get farther along the trail, I came across a nesting box complex, and the Tree Swallows were getting to work.

It was mostly Tree Swallows I should say, but there was at least one Violet-green getting ready to nest, and, as you can see, we were fast friends. Cliff and Barn Swallows are also making their way to Ankeny, although the Cliffs are likely to nest in other parts of the refuge, where there are structures for them to build on.

Violet-green Swallow

While the swallows and other songbirds are preparing their nests and pairing off, the Canada Geese are already busy raising their first brood. I'm pretty sure these were the first baby birds either of us have seen so far this year. Lets home some of these little guys survive the inevitable onslaught of the eagles, harriers, red-tails, and other raptors that use the marsh as their hunting grounds. Good luck, little ones.

Canada Goose family

Red-tailed Hawk

Friday, April 24, 2015

Celebrating Our Oregoniversary

As hard as it is to believe, today marks the 1-year anniversary of our arrival in Oregon — our Oregoniversary, if you will. After a wearying, but unforgettable 5-day adventure that took us literally from coast to coast, we first set foot together in our new home state on April 24, 2014. It was a decisive moment, but an uncertain one. We had just moved 3,000 miles to a region that we had never even visited, and knew relatively little about. The natural history, the geography, and the culture were all unknowns for us. It was a lot to take in all at once; it was both fraught and exciting. 

But when it comes down to it, there's only one thing to do when faced with uncharted territory: start exploring at once. So that's what we did. Though, to be honest, it wasn't completely novel. I like to tell people that we moved here with a very accurate stereotype of Oregon, and to a large extent that's true. Exactly as expected, there's a young, active vibe up around Portland; people appreciate good food, and care about how it's produced; there's a killer music scene; and the outdoors are celebrated, engaged with, and utilized like no other place we've lived.

Where the stereotype falls apart is in how vast and how varied Oregon is. No matter what direction we travel, whatever the distance, we're always bound to find something worthwhile, something unexpected. As you can see from the map below, we've been off to a quick start in trying to take in as much as we can. Not once during these 365 days have we looked back regrettingly on our decision to move here — we haven't had time to! We've been too busy birding, hiking, driving, and otherwise exploring not to be thankful for our fateful, impulsive move. In homage to our adopted home, here's a look back at some of our adventures from the past year in Oregon.

Every place in Oregon that we've submitted an eBird checklist from

The first time I remember having our minds truly blown was on our first visit to the coast in Newport. Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area is home to a massive breeding colony of Common Murre, which, along with the nesting Pigeon Guillemots, were the first alcids we'd ever seen. Add to that Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, Black Oystercatchers, Harlequin Ducks, and a Wandering Tattler, and we were hooked. Hardly a month passes that we don't take a trip down this way. Whether for the birds, the shellfishing, or the tidepooling the coast is always extraordinary.

John Day National Monument is one of those places that you can hardly expect to accommodate in your stereotype of Oregon. For one thing, it's out in the desert — not the first thing people think of when they think Oregon. Secondly, the Painted Hills are a baffling and beautiful mix of red, green, and gold unlike anything else. Not surprisingly, there's great birding out that way of which we've only scratched the surface.

Last fall we attended our first hawk watch at Bonney Butte. Besides Golden Eagles galore and a host of other raptors, including Merlins, Peregrin Falcons, and Cooper's Hawks, Maureen and I each had the opportunity to release Sharp-shinned Hawks from the banding station set up there. Bonney Butte may not get the numbers that some other hawk watch sites do, but it makes up for it in variety: 7 raptor species throughout the day. And with the views of nearby Mt. Hood in the background, it made for some the most spectacular birding we've ever had sitting down.

The Willamette Valley is the heart of Oregon. It's where most people live and encompasses Salem, Portland, and Eugene. To think that just down the street from us are Acorn Woodpeckers, Band-tailed Pigeons, Varied Thrushes, and Wrentits! We're fortunate to have such great birds around at every time of year, and especially to have a great refuge system to support them in. Just a few minutes away, Ankey NWR hosts some of everything, from birds, to butterflies, to frogs, to dragonflies. A little bit farther, and Finley NWR is always good for day trip to hear Pacific Wrens babbling, or possibly run across a rowdy band of Gray Jays.

Klamath Falls was our first impression of Oregon, which we experienced from the car on our drive up one year ago today. When we returned there this February to attend the Winter Wings Festival we got explore the area in much more fully. Prairie Falcons, Oak Titmouse, and Lewis's Woodpeckers were among the highlights from that memorable trip, not to mention great looks at birds like this Evening Grosbeak. As if we needed further incentive to keep coming back to visit the Klamath Basin, it's also apparently one of the best places to catch Western and Clark's Grebes performing their courtship displays in April and May. 

Although I just recounted it in our most recent post, I'd be remiss if I didn't include our pelagic trip in this round-up. As I did earlier, I want to stress again because it bears repeating: we live in a state with albatrosses offshore. I will never tire of this fact, because it's an extraordinary thing. Seabirds are extraordinary things. Hell, the Pacific Ocean itself is an extraordinary thing.

While we've gotten around a good deal in the past year, there's still plenty more to see, and we'll keep on filling up that map. We've got plans over the next months to visit Malheur, Crater Lake, and the Columbia River Gorge. Meanwhile, we'll keep exploring, learning, and making up for lost time (from talking to people, it seems like we've already seen more of Oregon than many native Oregonians have in their entire lives). For two people who have moved around quite a bit, it's a relief to finally feel settled in a place, especially after taking such a risk in coming out here. We're glad to have been able to share so many of our experiences from the past year with you, and we're equally excited about all of the adventures to come!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Here Be Albatrosses: Our First Pacific Pelagic

Ah, the Pacific Ocean. Our longing eyes have scanned your vast and mighty waters endlessly, searching, without hope, for glimpses of Captains Nemo, Hornblower, Ahab, or Wolf Larsen. Somewhere out there are are Blue Whales, Mola mola, and Giant Squid. More to the point, there are albatrosses. That there are albatrosses off the Oregon coast is something that my brain has only barely managed to register as fact, and yet we were certain to see some once we got out on the open sea for our first ever pelagic on the Pacific.

Yaquina Bay Bridge at sunrise

This would be the inaugural voyage for a new company, Oregon Pelagic Tours, setting out from Yaquina Bay around 7:30a. This was in mid-February, and the earliest molting Red-necked Grebes were starting to take on a cleaner, more dapper look. Large numbers of Surf Scoters and Western Gulls combined with lesser numbers of assorted cormorants, loons, and diving ducks close to the rock jetty. As we made our way out of the harbor, we started seeing more and more alcids: Common Murres, Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets.

Red-necked Grebe looking handsome

One of the first good birds seen on the trip was a Parakeet Auklet, which both Maureen and I were able to see, but only poorly. It was certainly an auklet -- we can swear to that much -- although we wouldn't have been able to say which kind, since it stayed relatively distant, and the waves insisted on keeping it hidden 80% of the time. Oh well, it'll have to be a lifer for another day.

But soon, the main attraction was upon us. Our expected albatross for the day was Laysan, with hopes of maybe (fingers crossed) finding a Short-tailed or two. What was not expected was that we'd be swamped by roughly two dozen Black-footed Albatrosses over the course of the day, outnumbering Laysans by a comfortable margin. Seeing an albatross at all was one of the pinnacles of our birding careers, especially out west, and here we had absolute beauties from two different species. 

Black-footed Albatross

Just a ridiculous number of Black-footed Albatrosses. Six in this photo alone.
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!
Laysan Albatross

Joining them in good numbers were Northern Fulmars, dwarfed by the albatrosses, and with almost half the wingspan. For us, these were nearly as exciting. They were always a remote possibility during the pelagics we've taken out of Florida, but they'd always eluded us. I hadn't imagined that we would find them in such abundance once we got out on the Pacific, but it was fantastic watching them zip every which way, threading the space between the other pelagic species.

Northern Fulmar

Black-footed Albatrosses come in for a landing, while the indefatigable fulmar threads the air on the left side of the photo

Laysan Albatross and Northern Fulmar

The other bird that we were practically guaranteed during the trip, and that we were no less excited about for it's local abundance, was Black-legged Kittiwake. It's a really striking gull, and an awesome compliment to the menageries that gathered in the chum slicks. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that we short-changed them attention-wise, since they had to compete with the most perfect gliding machines ever to grace the skies. 

Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-footed Albatrosses and Black-legged Kittiwake

Before we left Savannah, we were warned that even if we never got seasick on the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific would surely do us in. Precautions were taken, but they proved inadequate for one of us, putting our principle photographer out of commission for some stretches of time (unfortunately, only one of us saw a Pink-footed Shearwater). On top of that, we missed some species that were seen briefly, or by only a few (neither of us saw a Parasitic Jaeger or Thayer's Gull). I casually heard one of the spotters mentioned that he'd seen a Mola mola earlier… well, thanks a lot, buddy.

Still, this trip completely lived up to our expectations. We didn't see a huge number of new species, but we did see the expected ones. They were new, and they were magnificent. Albatrosses are no longer merely the stuff of dreams (particularly laudanum-induced ones; see Coleridge, above), but are no less the stuff of legend for their being real and present. As the boat made it's way back into the harbor, we checked the jetty for Rock Sandpipers, which never turned up. We did get one last lifer for the day, though: out on one of the buoys was a solitary Steller's sea lion, clearly much more blonde than the California sea lions that laze on the docks all winter long. Soon afterward we disembarked, partly reminiscing about an amazing day, and partly fantasizing about what we'd see next time.