Jackson Bottom

Despite air temperatures in the 40s, the sunshine brought out some signs of spring on a recent visit to Jackson Bottom Wetlands Reserve in Hillsboro.

tree swallowTree Swallows are usually the first swallow species to arrive in spring. When the weather is still cold, they hunt for insects close to the water’s surface.

tree swallo perchedSome Tree Swallows were already laying claim to the many nest boxes at this site.

ca ground squirrel smallThis California Ground Squirrel was singing (screaming) from a log perch.

Northwestern Garters instaThe sunshine brought out a good number of snakes, despite the cold temperature. These are Northwestern Garters.

Common Garter instaThis is a typical Common (Red-spotted) Garter.

pale Common Garter left instaThis Common Garter is lacking the red pigment shown by most members of this subspecies.

Long-toed SalamanderThis Long-toed Salamander was hanging out under a big piece of bark.

Happy last days of winter.

Getting into Shape

Shape is one of the most important field marks you should consider when identifying a bird. While color and plumage condition will fluctuate, shape and proportion are much more consistent throughout the year and between individual birds of a given species.

That being said, the shape of a bird can change at any given moment due to the way they hold their feathers.

cooper's fluffy instaThis Cooper’s Hawk had just bathed and was helping their feathers dry by fluffing them out. From a distance, this bird appeared to show a broad breast with rusty barring and a broad, banded tail. The drooping wings made the tail seem shorter. These are all great marks for a Red-shouldered Hawk.

cooper's instaAfter a while, the bird smoothed their feathers down, revealing a slender build and a long rounded tail typical of a Cooper’s Hawk. So shape alone is enough to identify this bird, but we had to observe the bird long enough to see what their shape actually was. This is another reason to take the time to study every bird you come across. A quick glance or a single photo can be misleading. (How many times have plastic bags been identified as Snowy Owls?)

Happy Winter

Rentenaar Road

white-crownedRentenaar Road on Sauvie Island remains one of the better sites in the Portland area to find a nice diversity of winter sparrows, along with other songbirds and waterfowl. While this trip did not produce any rarities, there were plenty of birds and sunshine to make the trip worthwhile. White-crowned Sparrows, pictured above, are among the more common species.

golden-crownedGolden-crowned Sparrows are usually the most common sparrow in the winter flocks.

foxThis Fox Sparrow kept close to the heavy cover.

white-throatedOnce considered a rarity in this area, White-throated Sparrows are now reliable winter residents.

red-winged blackbirdsRed-winged Blackbirds
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Another Red-winged Blackbird, showing off her colors

red-shoulderedThis Red-shouldered Hawk was the most unusual find of the day.

finchesSeveral birds were bathing in puddles in the road. Here a male Purple Finch cavorts with a female House Finch.

swansWaterfowl numbers were a little low on this trip. Ducks and geese face pretty heavy hunting pressure on Sauvie Island. Numbers should increase in the next month as hunting seasons expire and some birds start moving north. This flock of Tundra Swans kept their distance from the road.

mt. st. helensAs the weather was clear on this day, there were nice views of Mount St. Helens, here with a lenticular cloud.

Happy Winter.

New year’s birds

The end of the year brings cold wet weather and busy schedules, so I look forward to the start of the new year to get back out in the field. The weather is still bad most of the time, but schedules allow a better chance to get out if there is a dry patch.

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This White-breasted Nuthatch put on a nice show in the back yard.

golden-crowned leftThis Golden-crowned Sparrow was foraging around the shrubs at the Hillsboro library.

white-crowned smallHere’s a young White-crowned Sparrow for comparison.

ring-billedWe still have about a month to enjoy a good diversity of gull species before they start to disperse. This first-cycle Ring-billed Gull was swimming with two adults.

gullsThis Olympic Gull (Glaucous-winged X Western hybrid) was hanging out with the Ring-billed Gulls.

At least in western Oregon, January provides some really good winter birding. Get out and enjoy it before the February doldrums kick in.

Happy Winter

Tualatin River NWR

Like other national wildlife refuges in the Willamette Valley, Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge has limited access in autumn and winter. But the trail that is open can provide some good birding.

The highlight of this trip was a fresh sapsucker well that was attracting both Anna’s Hummingbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Sapsucker wells are an important source of nectar and insects for birds in the colder months.

Bewick’s Wrens spend much of their time buried in the depths of brush piles, but this individual popped up and posed for a few photos.

It is always worth the time to check out brushy hedgerows this time of year.

California Scrub-Jay
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Spotted Towhee

I don’t normally think of Dark-eyed Juncos as having a camouflage pattern, but this individual was doing a great job of blending in with his environment.

Happy Autumn

Gull Season

Late autumn and early winter is the time to find the biggest diversity of gulls in Oregon. I led a field trip to the coast at the end of October. Strong storms from the west had moved a lot of birds close to shore earlier in the week, but on the day we arrived, strong east winds had driven a lot of birds back out to sea. At least we didn’t get rained on.

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At the Seaside Cove, a few gulls posed for us in the sun. This gull is mostly Western, but the streaking on the head and neck suggest some Glaucous-winged ancestry.

This is a fairly robust Iceland Gull (Thayer’s subspecies).

A closer look at the Iceland. The yellow bill will fade as the season progresses.

There aren’t a lot of places in the Portland area to get close looks at gulls anymore. This group was hanging out on a bar in the Willamette River. The flock was a mix of California, Ring-billed, Herring, Iceland, Glaucous-winged, Western, and a mass of messy hybrids.

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While scanning the genetic soup of confusing hybrids, it was refreshing to land on a Ring-billed Gull.

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California Gull

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While this bird ticks most of the boxes for Herring Gull, the bill seemed a little too heavy to me. This, combined with the primaries which were slightly less than jet black, suggest this might be a Cook Inlet Gull (Herring X Glaucous-winged).

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This Glaucous-winged Gull was hanging out in a flock of Cackling Geese at Amberglen Park. I am guessing that the grazing geese were stirring up worms for the gull.

Happy Gulling!

Wet (land) Birds

Here are some non-waterfowl that I’ve seen in various wetlands recently.

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I often struggle with photographing white birds, but this Great Egret came out OK.

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Most of the shorebirds have moved on, but a few Least Sandpipers are still around.

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The winter sparrow flocks are building up. This Golden-crowned Sparrow was still sporting their breeding plumage.

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Golden-crowned Sparrow taking a bath

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Song Sparrow

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I remember when it was hard to find Lesser Goldfinches in the Portland area, but they usually outnumber American Goldfinches now.

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Lesser Goldfinch taking a bath

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Belted Kingfisher sharing a perch with a European Starling

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Red-winged Blackbird striking a pose

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The numbers of Nutria in the Willamette Valley have exploded in recent years. The are indeed non-native and invasive, but the babies are so cute.

Happy Autumn

Waterfowl

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Waterfowl numbers have been increasing in the Willamette Valley as the rains have begun. This male Northern Shoveler is still in his drab summer plumage.

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This Emperor Goose is currently a local celebrity in the Beaverton area, hanging out with the local ducks and Cackling Geese.

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This Gadwall was hanging out at Koll Center Wetlands. A brick building at the edge of the pond creates those brown reflections in the water, which complement the colors on this duck.

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American Coot having a snack

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Green-winged Teal at Fernhill Wetlands

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Common Merganser at Fernhill

Numbers of ducks and geese should continue to increase into November.

Happy Autumn.

How to Watch an Owl

great horned owl 2

A lot of people, both birders and non-birders, are fascinated by owls. I personally don’t get more excited by owls than any other group of birds, but some folks just lose all ethics and common sense when they come within close proximity of an owl. As I have often said, owls make people stupid.

Much of the worst birder behavior I have witnessed has been around owls. When people get too close, the results can range from simply annoying the animal to putting the bird at serious risk. So, I would like to offer a guide to enjoying these birds is such a way that keeps everyone involved safe from stress and harm.

Ethical owling is achieved by starting with two clear premises:

  1. Owls don’t like you.

To most species of wildlife, humans are perceived as a clear and present danger. Despite being predators themselves, owls are preyed upon by other species. The best defense employed by many owls is camouflage and just staying hidden during the day. If a large predator, like you, approaches an owl, the bird may become stressed, even to the point of flushing from their hidden perch. This in turn puts the owl at increased risk of being attacked by another predator.

  1. If an owl is looking right at you, you are changing that bird’s behavior, which may be putting the bird at risk.

That owl could have been sleeping, watching for potential prey, or preening. Your presence is preventing all of those natural behaviors. By observing and interpreting an owl’s behavior, you can effectively judge your potential impact on the bird and adjust your actions accordingly.

Smaller species of owls rely on their camouflage to keep them safe, and may remain completely still if you approach. So just because the bird is not flying away, it doesn’t mean that you are not causing stress. With larger species, you may be interfering with hunting activities or alerting other animals to the owl’s location.

If an owl is paying any attention to you, you are too close. When you encounter an owl, even if the bird does not seem affected by you, enjoy them briefly from a respectful distance and then move on.

A longer version of this post, complete with photos of various owl behaviors, is available on my Patreon Account.

Happy Autumn

Random Birds

Here are some random bird images from the last couple of weeks.

belted kingfisher smallBelted Kingfisher on a very fancy perch

bonaparte's gull 1 smallBonaparte’s Gull in first winter plumage
bonaparte's gull 2 smallGull Season is just around the corner.

white-crowned sparrow smalljuvenile White-crowned Sparrow

Green Heron with tadpoleGreen Heron with an American Bullfrog tadpole. It is nice when the native species eat the invasive ones. It is often the other way around.

teal smallThis is an odd duck. It is a teal, probably Cinnamon, but is either leucistic or is going through a brutal molt.

American White PelicanAmerican White Pelicans are now common in the Portland area in late summer.

American White Pelican flightAmerican White Pelican coming in for a landing

Happy Autumn