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.

Hawk-in-a-Tube






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!







Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Swirling Swarm of Sleepy Swifts Slowly Subside Inside a Smokestack to Slumber

We were happy to see a familiar face early in September: our friend Diana Churchill traveled all the way from Savannah to come do some birding in the Pacific Northwest. We rendezvoused at the wildlife sanctuary operated by the Audubon Society of Portland, our first visit, and were smitten with the lush trails holding lots of old-growth firs. Secluded up in the quiet hills it was easy to forget that we were only a few minutes’ drive from downtown Portland (I should note, though, that the birds that we saw downtown later in the day surely constitute one of the great natural phenomena of the entire region).

The morning was mostly quiet, except for a wild burst that turned up Hutton’s and Warbling Vireos, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Wilson’s and Townsend’s Warblers. Townsend’s Warblers don’t nest in Salem, and the only other individual we’ve ever seen was during our first outing in Oregon, right at the tail-end of spring migration.

Townsend's Warbler

Cross Orbweaver

The visitor center also turned up a treat, in the form up a Hairy Woodpecker lounging on one of the suet feeders. Hairy has always been a rarity where we’ve lived, and our handful of encounters up to now had been fleeting and not entirely satisfactory. While maybe not an ideal backdrop for nature photography, the feeder gave us the chance to study it in close detail. Like the western Downy Woodpeckers, the western Hairys have ashy-colored underparts, whereas eastern members of this Picoides pair are clean white underneath.

Hairy Woodpecker

Chestnut-backed Chickadee


Steller's Jay just wants to know what's going on

Afterward, we stayed in the Portland metro area. The occasion was our wanting to witness a truly spectacular avian spectacle: an incredible number of Vaux’s Swifts settling in to roost for the night. We arrived at Chapman Elementary School a little after 6pm, when there were only a few dozen swifts hawking insects overhead. For nearly two hours swifts gathered in increasing numbers until there were thousands and thousands. Eventually they would all end up inside the same giant chimney, but in the meantime they swirled around one another, in an apparently aimless, patternless routine.

Vaux's Swifts



We were waiting for the real show to start — the time when these tiny flying cigars that were dispersed over the entire sky would all begin shooting down the same hole. Occasionally a handful of swifts would venture near the chimney, only to decide at the last second that they didn’t want to be the ones to go first. Collectively, they probably spent 30-40 minutes faking out the hundreds of people who came to watch. During every night in September, volunteers from Portland Audubon set up an information booth to answer questions, and generate interest. It’s an awesome public relations opportunity, and Portland Audubon orchestrates it beautifully.




We learned that in past years, raptors have come and ordered up the swift buffet. Unfortunately, the Peregrine that used to terrorize them was disastrously outmaneuvered last year or the year before, and flew right into the chimney. Cooper’s Hawks have been known to come, too, but abstained during the night we attended. Another thing I learned is that I’d been mispronouncing “Vaux”: apparently it’s not nearly as French-sounding as I’d thought.




The flight of the swifts gradually become more and more orderly. By the time some intrepid bird finally trailblazed its way into the roosting den, the thousands of birds had self-organized into a single, churning machine. Funneling down into the same finite space, it seemed that they couldn’t possibly all fit. But after 20 glorious minutes, the last group crammed inside and the audience erupted in applause.

Monday, September 22, 2014

When Hipster Birders Get Married

Almost one year ago, these two Hipster Birders got hitched! Being both hipstery and birdy, of course our wedding incorporated those two lifestyles. You may remember that our engagement photo shoot incorporated our love of birding and the outdoors, too. Although I loved the idea of a wedding in the woods, logistically it would have been slightly inconvenient for guests and setup and food and the reception, etc. (If you’ve planned a wedding, you probably understand). In any case, when we found our venue, we knew it was the one, and we could still bring the woodsy feeling into it.


We had an intimate wedding at the Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah. As you may know, neither Nick nor I are from Savannah, but when we visited on our first romantic getaway 7 years before our nuptials, I knew it was the place I wanted to marry Nick (even though he didn’t know that until much later). A series of fortunate events led us to live in Savannah, which made it perfect to have our dream wedding there. Savannah really is the ideal romantic city, full of southern charm and natural beauty.



We clean up real nice, don't we? ;-)

Because Savannah has so many beautiful locations for a wedding, it was hard to narrow it down – the lush, green parks and squares, historic homes, art museums – they all had such loveliness to offer. We knew we wanted something rustic and outdoors yet also something that captures the history of this town. When we visited the railroad museum, we knew it was exactly what we wanted. The rustic, exposed brick walls and antique train cars and large machinery were begging for the contrast of bright colors, lace, and pretty details.



Photos from each year we've been together

The wedding theme was “Rustic Vintage Chic.” What does this mean, exactly? Well, this meant a lot of DIY craft projects, antique and vintage accessories and props, while still keeping it pretty and classy without getting cheesy with a bird theme. And without meaning to, we did end up following almost all of these “10 Ways You Know You’re at a Hipster Wedding.” Instead of a barn, it was a railroad museum, and there were pickled vegetables and amazing food!

We loved incorporating bird details, DIY crafts, and vintage & feminine touches: Gold Birdcages with home crafted nests; Mini nests on vines in the flower arrangements; Yarn wrapped bottles; Antique bottles and books; and Bird table numbers on wooden stands.



Because I’m very much a creative type who loves to do my own projects, it was a dream come true to craft my own lovelies for our wedding, such as the yarn-wrapped bottles and letters and the moss frames. Owl and bird details were sprinkled here and there: the custom invitations and table numbers made by my sister, the goodie bags, the bar napkins, the escort/name cards for our guests, the vases, gold birdcages, cute mossy nests made by my mother-in-law & filled with chocolate eggs, and our guest book. I really wanted to incorporate earthy textures like moss and yarn and natural wood grain mixed in with a bit of sparkle and gold. 

Woodsy Owl-themed invitations designed by me and my sister



Custom carved tree monogrammed champagne flutes 

One of the things I was most excited about was our cake that I designed – an ode to the beautiful live oak trees lining Savannah streets, complete with lichen and mushrooms. Coral colored anemones and other little flowers just made it more pretty and feminine, and it was of course topped with some fancy owls – the lady with her blush veil and the gentleman in a signature Hipster Birder fedora. Come on… Can you get any more adorable than this?!?! The former Tier Luxury Cakes did an amazing job bringing my idea to life, and it tasted amazing, too (peach cake with peach buttercream for two layers, and apple spice cake with dulce de leche filling in the other… mmm).




It wasn’t just the decorations and cake that had birdies on them. The supremely talented Audrey of French Knot Studios who crafted our owl toppers’ accessories also created darling fabric bouquets for my bridesmaids with little gray and peachy titmouse-like birds I found, as well as incorporated our favorite birds in my bouquet and Nick’s boutonniere. I surprised Nick by having a Northern Gannett on his boutonniere, which was specially ordered and crafted out of clay, and Audrey surprised me with a lovely Belted Kingfisher taking the spotlight in my bouquet. I almost couldn’t stand how fantastic these came out!


Adorable birdy bridesmaids bouquets - photo by one of my bridesmaids

Why should the ladies get all the colorful fun?

We brought in some grander vintage pieces from Ever Thine Vintage Rentals + Event Design like the weathered, minty-colored doors for our ceremony backdrop, that sweet, Georgia peach-colored sofa and the antique luggage that went ever so well with the railroad station to give it a classy, old-timey feel. Although our wedding colors were navy and coral, I couldn’t’ resist incorporating other accent colors in our colorful palette with the homemade pom-poms and pinwheels, flowers, place settings, and even the homemade peach jam favors that rounded everything out to bring in a splash of fun and whimsy. And speaking of whimsy, we were quite proud of our creative jam labels that we made up: “I Jam What I Jam,” “You’ve Been Jammed,” “Jam It Up,” and “Jamma Lamma Ding Dong.” Instead of everything looking mismatched and out of place, our coordinator (and florist) Ivory and Beau made sure everything came together beautifully with all of our personal touches.






We Hipster Birders had a very fitting wedding to our moniker. Did I forget to mention that we also provided hand car (old-timey rail car) rides for our guests? Yeah, that happened, and it was awesome. All in all, we had a perfect day – great music, fantastic food, and having a blast with our loved ones!

Even our getaway car (a 1949 Bentley - an inside joke of sorts) had wings on it!



All Photos credited to Once Like A Spark Photography unless otherwise noted.