Sunday, November 16, 2014

Into the Mountains, Part 2

Let us return now to the Labor Day camping excursion we took in the mountains (see Part 1 here). The great birds we had in passing through Sisters each way were but the appetizer and dessert for an epic trip. While we would have more great birds throughout the long weekend, it was the unforgettable scenery that made for some truly mind-blowing moments. Among our destinations would be two of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. Among our oft-repeated refrains would be “I can’t believe this is in Oregon.”

We made camp at Prineville Reservoir State Park in the early evening, with enough sunlight left for us to do a bit of exploring. It was around the reservoir that we picked up a lifer lagomorph: about a dozen Black-tailed Jackrabbits spread out along the edge of a clearing. Huge animals, compared with their cuddly cousins the cottontails. And fast. Later, a group of them would pass in an instant through the campground, at but a fraction of the top speed (30-35 mph).

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

The next morning we slipped out early to start on the long drive to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. John Day has three units, spread far apart from one another, and each with its own unique natural attractions. It was to see the Painted Hills that we planned our holiday around this region of the state, checking off one of the 7 Wonders in the process. Although we’d seen a whole lot of landscape this year during our roadtrip across the country, there’s just nothing that compares to the bizarre beauty of the Painted Hills. 

Red and gold clays layered on top of one another, with flecks of black thrown in for good measure. It’s an extraterrestrial-looking sight. “I can’t believe this is in Oregon,” we’d say for the hundredth time. We could barely keep in mind that it was on Planet Earth. It was here, too, that we found a striking female Snakeweed Grasshopper, one of the coolest, most boldly patterned grasshoppers we’ve seen anywhere.

Snakeweed Grasshopper

From here we passed on to another of John Day’s units: Sheep Rock. While there wasn’t much birding to do at the Painted Hills, we set ourselves a couple of target species at Sheep Rock, being in range for both Rock and Canyon Wrens. The view here wasn’t colorful like at the Painted Hills, but it was extraordinary nonetheless, and decidedly eerie. The hike through the steep greenish-blue claystone gave the impression of wandering through the Forbidden Zone, stranded on the Planet of the Apes.

Along the Blue Basin trail was some tricky uphill climbing. To get as high up as we managed was worth it just for the views, although it was pretty quiet by that time in the afternoon. After unsuccessfully straining to identify a distant eagle we climbed back down to try a more level path, right through the claystone formations. A hyperactive Rock Wren bobbed and fed and jumped around near a burrow entrance, dug or molded into the clay. It seemed such a desolate place to make a living, but there are much worse, to be sure.

On the drive back to Prineville, just a few miles outside of the campsite, a flash of sky blue alongside the road convinced me to pull over. We found ourselves at the entrance to an RV park of all places, where had had some of the best birds of the day. A flurry of Mountain Bluebirds mixed in with equal numbers of Cassin’s Finches represented some damn fine mountain birding, which is precisely what we'd wanted. 

Mountain Bluebird

Common Ravens were much more common in the mountains than they are west of the Cascades

These Ravens were not on speaking terms

We left nice and early the next morning, but not before we spotted another Rock Wren on the way out of the campground. This one was much more cooperative than the one at John Day, but like the one a day earlier, mostly kept near the entrance to a little hideaway in the rocks. 

Rock Wren

Lark Sparrow

And in keeping with the rock theme of the post, we made one last stop before returning to Sisters, where we began and ended our adventure. Smith Rock State Park was the second of the great Wonders of Oregon this trip. Renowned as a rock-climbing playground for adrenaline junkies, it also turns up White-throated Swifts (as it did for us), Black-billed Magpies, and some of the most acrobatic Canada Geese we've ever seen -- the place inspires daredevilry in the even most unlikely creatures. 

Black-billed Magpie

Smith Rock State Park

Wherever we looked we would find people dotted along the tops of all these massive rock formations, having pulled themselves up by means entirely beyond my understanding. Our understanding was further stretched when we encountered our first lizard since moving here ("I can't believe this is in Oregon"). West of the Cascades, where we live, it's a very, very different place from the desert country we found ourselves in now, and lizards were just not on our radar. 

Western Fence Lizard?

One final critter I'll mention is a would-be hitchhiker that tried to abscond in Maureen's hat. She had it in her hands for a minute and a tiger moth flew in. Tiger moths are a beautiful group, and I've been wanting to see one since I started my moth kick last year. What I didn't realize is how difficult the group can be to identify: I posted this one on for ID help three different species were suggested.

Grammia sp.

This trip gave us a sense for how much bigger Oregon is than you might suspect from looking at a map. There's more to see and do here than we even guessed than when we first moved out here, and this adventure over the mountains has got us wondering what we'll find the next time we go exploring!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects

A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects by David Callahan takes you through time, starting with early depictions of birds in ancient artwork to the development of modern-age technology. This is a delightful read as you peruse through the history of birdwatching through 100 objects selected for their significant contributions to the birding world. It has a hybrid feel of a charming coffee table book mixed with a series of quick, thought-provoking history lessons. I could picture this as being a great museum display in a timeline form, yet here it is readily available at your fingertips.

The book provides quick 1.5 to 2 page snippets of interesting information and photos of objects related to birding in some way. One hundred objects is a lot to go through, but Callahan does a great job of giving you the “elevator speech” version of the history and description of an object to make you feel generally satisfied and well-informed with the fun facts you learn, yet piquing your interest to encourage you to possibly seek out even more information should you so desire. Although the book was published in England and has a few objects more related to British birding, it definitely has cross-cultural appeal and is relatable to birding audiences around the globe.

Some of the objects listed are not directly related to birding, but represent a symbol of a person or thing that led to the advancement of birding. Inevitably, the book highlights the co-evolution of birding and technology – showing how advancements in technology have really brought birding into its current state. Technology, including seemingly simple things now, like the telephone and the answering machine, has made birding more accessible and gave twitchers and chasers the edge in getting the info they need to find that golden bird. The airplane, the television, and the newspaper made birds more tangible and people took notice. The telephone and bird alert pagers jump started the modern era of reporting bird sighting information quickly, but the internet exponentially increased visibility and awareness – from birding organizations’ websites and bird blogs like this one to sites like eBird to input sightings and keep track of citizen science data. And MP3 players and the iPhone made bird songs and data portable and instantly available.

There are some items that may make you cringe with discomfort or shake your head – like the swiftlet’s nest which has been overharvested as a Asian delicacy or the bird-nesting pots with “robber holes” to snatch the eggs and chicks of oblivious sparrows and starlings, again, for delicacy consumption. But as the book notes, it’s items like these and trendy items like an egret plume hat that really brought upon the conservation movement to protect the very birds that humans put in danger of extinction. And then there are other objects are just so wildly bizarre and fascinating, like the “Hummingbird cabinet of curiosities,” which sounds more like something you’d find in a Lemony Snicket story.

The scientist in me appreciated the objects demonstrating the use of high tech methods for bird identification, such as using a mass spectrometer to determine the abundance of certain isotopes to indicate the origin of a sample, figuring out if a bird is a natural vagrant or perhaps an escapee. Tools for DNA analysis can take seemingly identical birds and allow us to distinguish them as distinct species. 

With the shift from the shotgun to the binoculars and camera, A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects shows you how birdwatching has transformed to be not just a sport, but a hobby that encourages scientific exploration and artistic expression. To be able to condense birdwatching history was probably not an easy feat, but it was done in a fun yet informative way. This is definitely a pleasurable read, and I think birders will enjoy it and relate to it, and it may intrigue non-birders or bird appreciators who flip through it to possibly look at birding in a new light after seeing how art, history, and technology have really grown and co-evolved with birding.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Happy Halloween from Hipster Birders!

Birding Cthulhu wishes you a Happy Halloween! (and so do we)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Banner Day at Bonney Butte Hawk Watch

For once, I finally live in a place with real seasons – not just where it’s either really hot, hot, or not-so-hot. The leaves are changing color and there is a definite crispness in the air, not to mention all of the pumpkin products lining the shelves. And with this lovely change in seasons comes migrating birds, perhaps the best part about fall. One fall bird activity on our to-do list has been to go to a hawk watch, and luckily there’s one not too far away from here. We actually had meant to go the weekend before, but the threat of rain kept us away a week, and we’re so glad it did because we had the most beautifully clear day with mild temperatures.

Mount Hood

It took two and a half hours (and several missed turns and bumpy roads) to get to Bonney Butte, an open hilltop with a fantastic view of Mount Hood that lends for great views of hawks passing by and heading south. This hawk watch doesn’t have nearly the number of birds that form large kettles as in many other hawk watch sites, but it does have pretty good variety.

Accipiters were the most numerous, as Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks zoomed by. Falcons (Merlins and Peregrines) were few but awesome with their sword-like wings cutting through the air. But one of the most amazing things from this trip had to be the burst of Golden Eagles. This was actually a lifer for us, and when it rained, it poured! We saw a couple scattered towards the beginning of our watch, but then midway through – bam, bam, bam! SIX Golden Eagles flew across the sky one after the other practically in a line. (I guess I should have written out 6 bams). Since we were new to these incredible raptors, it was only from hearing from the seasoned hawk watchers that we knew that this was an amazing occurrence that just happened. Not only was this number of Golden Eagles great for this site, but to have them stream in like that was also unprecedented.

Sharp-Shinned Hawk

But the highlight of this gorgeous day has to be getting to release sharp shinned hawks and observing a Golden Eagle up close. A short-ish hike from Bonney Butte is a banding station that uses bird lures (Starlings and Pigeons) that are eventually released and humanely treated (expect for being scared out of their mind for a minute as a hawk comes diving towards it). A net is cast over said hawk and then a small team bands the birds and then allows willing participants to release the bird. Nick and I each got our own Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawks) to release after they were brought up in their homemade tube. The experience was simply amazing.


We then got to see a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Merlin released, too. Neither bird seemed to pleased to be held, but hopefully their short-term annoyance will lead to some good data. And I know the rest of us definitely appreciated this great close-up opportunity. We've seen a few Red-Tails in our day sort of up close in captivity, but I can't say that we've been this close to a Merlin. This Taiga subspecies of Merlin was especially striking with his deep, dark blue-gray color contrasting those bright yellow lores.

And then there was the juvenile Golden Eagle, who after close inspection, was deemed healthy enough to don a satellite tracker on its back. It took some time for the team to properly affix the tracker onto the eagle. There was even a close call as the eagle wriggled and nearly took off. But the handler, who seemed dangerously close to having his nether regions ripped up by this giant raptor’s magnificent talons, kept him from flying off too soon. After some readjusting of his backpack, the Golden Eagle was released, pushing off with such power and grace.

We almost thought the day couldn’t have anything more to offer, but we were graced with the presence of a new lifer – a flyby Clark’s Nutcracker and a band of Gray Jays that came up so close just to check us out as we were on our way out. One even swooped inches from my head, perhaps looking for a snack handout. They’re so endearing like many other jays, but they’re so round and plump unlike any other jays we’ve seen. It was a fun way to end such a spectacular day – perfect weather, a great variety of birds, getting to release Sharpies, and a rare close encounter with a Golden Eagle who was just one of many. Truly outstanding!