Birds vs. Birding

We spent close to a week in northern Wasco County, OR, to get our dogs away from the barrage of illegal fireworks that plague the Portland area every July. While the property where we stayed provided some nice hiking opportunities, there is little public land in the northern part of Wasco County. I drove a few country roads looking for birds, but there were no public areas to really explore on foot. We were too ambitious with our hiking the first couple of days and ended up pushing Nala (who turns 10 next month) too far. She couldn’t walk on her own for two days, so we didn’t get out at all on those days.

Looking back on the trip, I got a total of one bird photo for the week, and never really got good views of any birds. It is tempting to say that the birding was bad, but thinking back, I really did see a lot of birds. Most were flybys, or birds seen without optics, but the diversity was actually pretty good. There were Ash-throated Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, and Say’s Phoebes. Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, and Lewis’s Woodpeckers were common. The hummingbird feeder at the house where we stayed was visited by Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. A Wild Turkey crossed the road in front of me one morning. There were a lot of birds that I don’t get to see in the Portland area. Granted, views were often fleeting, but one of the advantages of being an experienced birder is the ability to recognize many species with less-than-stellar views. So given the fact that I didn’t actually do a lot of birding, the birding wasn’t too bad after all. We are always birding. Sometimes the views and species diversity are better than others, but there is always something to see.

Horned Lark, perched on a barbed wire fence, the only bird photo from the week

California Ground Squirrels were EVERYWHERE.

Not quite as common as the ground squirrels, Black-tailed Deer were seen on every outing.

These two fawns were “hiding” in the tall grass.

Here Bodhi contemplates his first cow. Nala cares not for such beasts.

Looking west toward Mt. Hood

In a pasture of mostly browns and pale olives, a few Blanket Flowers provided some intense color.

Happy Summer

My Love/Hate Relationship with My 5MR

It has been six months since I joined the Five Mile Radius movement, concentrating on finding as many species of birds as possible within five miles of my home. My 5MR has a pretty good mix of habitats. I have access to several small wetlands, mature woodlands, and a small stretch of the Willamette River. Some species I missed in January are very likely to be seen in November or December. Without working too hard, I would expect to find 150 species this year. That is not great compared to coastal sites or sites with a better mix of habitats, but not too bad for an inland site predominated by high-density housing and shopping centers. The benefits of the 5MR are many, and have been lauded by myself and others. But it has slowly dawned on me that, in some ways, my 5MR has made me a bad birder.

Like many birders, I have worked my 5MR hard, exploring new sites and repeatedly visiting the better ones in the circle. I have only birded outside my 5MR four times all year, twice for classes I was teaching, once for leading a birding trip for a church group, and once for Portland Audubon’s Birdathon. No one has forced me to stay in my circle, but when you introduce such a challenge to someone with a borderline obsessive/compulsive personality (a.k.a. a typical birder), that imaginary border can be hard to cross.

So far this year, I have found eight species of shorebird in my circle. That is not terrible. But by not going to the coast for shorebird migration this spring I have missed out on the large flocks of Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits that feed in the surf, the uncommon Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, and the adorable Semipalmated Plovers. I missed my best chance for finding a Pacific Golden Plover, one of my nemesis birds.

It is not just the coast that I have neglected. I did not visit Mt. Tabor, one of the better spots for spring migrants in the Portland area. I didn’t bother chasing several unusual birds in Portland simply because they were outside my 5MR and I didn’t need them for my state list.

I have let the competition of the 5MR interfere with my larger birding goals. This really hit home when an Eastern Phoebe turned up on Sauvie Island and remained at a reliable location for a couple of weeks. An Eastern Phoebe is not a sexy bird, rather dull in fact. But it is a species I haven’t seen in Oregon and one that is very rare in the state. My main birding goal is to see 400 species in Oregon. I am close, but there are not enough regularly occurring species that I haven’t seen for me to reach this goal; I need vagrants. I am not much of a chaser, so when a vagrant shows up in the greater Portland area I really can’t afford to pass it up. But I let the phoebe go. It would have eaten up the limited time I had to bird during those two weeks, and it was out of my circle.

Not only have my birding locations changed, but so has my birding behavior.

I am normally fairly conservative in my birding. I don’t count birds unless I am very sure of the ID. My number estimates for eBird are always on the low side. When birding my 5MR, I have found that my standards for ID have relaxed a bit. I am still reasonably sure of my IDs, but if I “need” a particular species for my circle, I am slightly more inclined to call the ID even if the view is not ideal or if there is some doubt.

On three occasions this year, I have used audio playback in the field, either to elicit a response from a bird or to verify an ID. I don’t do this. I have prided myself in not risking the undo harassment of birds by playing their songs in the field, especially during breeding season. Somehow my birding ethics have weakened.

So this relationship with my 5MR has turned a bit sour. The 5MR is great. There are lots of advantages to concentrating on my circle and I chose to invest my efforts there, but I think I need to see other birding sites. I need to reconnect with some local areas that lie outside my circle, great birding sites that I have neglected this year. I need to go farther afield to visit different biomes; the mountains, the high desert, the coast.

I will continue to try to rack up a good total for my 5MR. But I am going to spend more time enjoying the great avian diversity that Oregon offers, keeping my ID skills sharp and increasing my familiarity with species that I don’t get to see every week. I am still not a big chaser, but I need to appreciate the opportunities that come my way.

Happy Solstice.

5MR: The First Month

For the month of January, virtually all of my birding has been conducted within my 5 Mile Radius. This included dedicated birding trips and keeping track of birds while at the dog park and on family hikes.  (This Red-breasted Sapsucker was at Greenway Park.) Some birds came quite easily, like the Barred Owls that sang in my yard and at the dog park, while others were hard to find, like Rock Pigeon which I didn’t see until January 30.

The purpose of the 5 Mile Radius challenge, in addition to reducing your gas consumption, is to explore under-birded sites close to home. I visited several sites I had never birded before, and explored some familiar sites in greater detail.

The hope is that you will find previously unknown great birding spots, but this was not my experience. Of the new places I visited so far, all of which are eBird “Hotspots,” none of them are sites I am particularly motivated to visit again.

My circle has a few great birding sites that include wetlands, mixed forest, and hilltop migrant traps. If I concentrate my birding on five sites, I will have the opportunity to see the vast majority of species likely to occur within my circle. Yes, great birds can show up anywhere. If you are lucky enough to be able to go birding every day, then it makes a lot of sense to visit as many different sites as possible. But if your birding time is limited because you have a life (oops, did I say that out loud?), I think it makes more sense to spend your time in the best habitats. I also enjoy my birding more when the habitat is more pleasant. I have peeked into people’s back yards to see rare birds (Brambling, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Ovenbird, Costa’s Hummingbird), but I would much rather hike around a nice park.

Here are a few photos from the past month.

Brown Creeper, Greenway Park

Nutria at Koll Wetlands

Wilson’s Snipes at Commonwealth Lake

I dipped on the American Dipper that has been hanging out in my circle this winter, but I did see lots of dipper poop, so that should count, right?

Onward to February.

Twitching in the rain

One of the more popular avian celebrities in Portland this fall is a Virginia’s Warbler that has been visiting the suet feeders at a home for the past several weeks. This is a great bird for Oregon, and the bird has been very cooperative.

Like many area birders, I went to see this bird. It was early in morning and raining. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, and in a few minutes I was rewarded with nice looks at a Virginia’s Warbler. It was too dark for decent photos, so I left. This was a twitch; Going to see a bird reported by others, adding the species to your list (Oregon state list in my case) and moving on.

Twitching is not my favorite style of birding, but one I am increasingly reliant on. I would like to bring my Oregon bird list to 400 species. A couple of years ago I sat down with a state checklist and figured out what species I needed to bring my list up to that magical (and totally arbitrary) goal. To my surprise, I discovered that there were only about six regularly occurring species that I hadn’t seen. I could conceivably just go to where those species are regularly found and add them to my list, but that would not get me to my goal. Any other species I added would be a rarity, like, for example, a Virginia’s Warbler.

If I had unlimited time and funds, I could travel around Oregon and find a good number of rare birds on my own. But lacking both of those things, I must take advantage of any opportunity to see an Oregon rarity that shows up close to home. I still want to take my time enjoying a birding site and finding my own birds, but I am not above the occasional twitch.

Virginia’s Warbler, at dawn in the rain. I never claimed to be a photographer. I kept my camera in its bag until after I had gotten good looks at this bird. I have seen this species before, but it had been a long time.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler was a better poser.

After twitching the warbler, I went to Broughton Beach to enjoy the Mew Gulls.

Ring-billed Gull, Mew Gulls, and a Western/Glaucous-winged hybrid

After waiting out a downpour at Smith and Bybee Wetlands, I was treated to this brief rainbow. A nice end to damp morning.

Snowy Owls

snowiesSeveral Snowy Owls have been reported recently from Fort Stevens State Park, so I made the trek out to see them. I walked around the marsh at Parking Lot C, snapped a few photos from a respectful distance and then moved on. I mention this as a reminder of how one ought to enjoy any bird. Snowy Owls seem to bewitch a lot of people. For some unknown reason, the presence of a Snowy Owl can turn normally sane people into blithering idiots. What power do these birds have?

I understand that Snowies are great birds. They are big and beautiful, they sit out in the open in the middle of the day, and most of us in the Lower 48 don’t get to see them that often (these birds were my 4th and 5th Snowy Owls ever). But is that it? I know people who don’t know a Pine Siskin from a Black-footed Albatross, but they are crazy about Snowy Owls. Many Snowies that visit the Lower 48 are constantly harassed by birders and photographers (like there aren’t already several million good shots of Snowy Owls).

The worst case of Snowy Owl Insanity that I have witnessed occurred in Ohio. An Owl was hanging out on the utility poles near a farm, and many birders, including me, went out to see him. One birder parked her minivan in the farmers field (not along the public road, but IN THE FIELD) and left the engine running ALL DAY. Whenever the owl would fly down to hunt, the woman jumped out of her van and ran at the owl in an attempt to get a photo. This behavior was unethical, illegal, and just a little batshit crazy.

So it would seem that Snowy Owls have magical powers. But I would argue that we have the ability to resist these forces. When a Snowy Owl appears in your area, by all means enjoy the show. Watch them from a respectful distance, for a reasonable amount of time, taking great care not to affect their behavior. They are already dealing with the stress of a long migration away from their normal range. Don’t succumb to the desire to see how close you can get, or to the illusion that you will get rich with the photo you take with your Coolpix camera. Take a breath, recite the ABA Code of Ethics, appreciate the opportunity to see a cool bird, and give the Snowies a break.

Feeding Frenzy

For the past few weeks I have been enjoying a large flock of Pine Siskins at my feeder. But as often occurs during years of high siskin numbers, I started noticing a few sick birds. So I stopped feeding for a few days. With the feeder empty, the large flocks of birds dispersed, reducing the risk of disease spreading from bird to bird.

Packing birds into unnaturally high densities at a bird feeder can create risks for the birds we are trying to help. While many of us enjoy feeding birds and other wildlife, it is important to do so mindfully. We have to be aware that feeding birds is something we do for our own entertainment, not something that the birds actually need. My feeder is outside my window for the sole purpose of drawing birds in close so that I can enjoy watching them from the comfort of my home. If the feeder wasn’t there, the birds would do just fine. It is my responsibility to be aware of how my bird feeding impacts the birds.

It was reported recently that Scotts Miracle-Gro was selling bird food treated with pesticides known to be harmful to birds (see story here). A few years ago, it was revealed that sunflower farmers in the Dakotas have taken such measures as destroying cattail marshes and poisoning and/or shooting birds to reduce the impact of blackbirds feeding in their fields. These stories illustrate how the seemingly innocuous hobby of feeding birds can have broader implications. We need to know where the food comes from and what is in it.

My feeder is filled again and, with the large flock of siskins gone, other species are becoming more visible.

Lesser Goldfinches, our smallest finch, are coming more frequently now that things have quieted down.

Two Purple Finches have appeared this week.

A few Pine Siskins stayed behind when the main flock left. A Purple Finch towers in the background.

To Bird or to Twitch?

I finally had a few hours to get out birding, and had planned to visit some of the Washington County wetlands. But a Brambling visiting a feeder in Woodburn presented me with a dilemma. Should I spend my birding time standing around in someone’s back yard hoping to see a particular bird, or should I explore large areas of habitat and find birds on my own?

The Brambling, an uncommon visitor from Asia, was only a 30 minute drive from home, well within my “chase radius.” (I will drive up to an hour and a half to chase a rarity, although it had better be a darned good bird if it is over an hour away.) The species would be a lifer for me, a nice tick on my Oregon list, and this would perhaps be my only chance to see this species. Then again, if the bird didn’t show up, I would have spent my limited birding time not looking at birds. With some reluctance, I decided to go for the twitch.

When I arrived at the stake-out site, a small group of birders informed me that I had just missed the Brambling. How typical is that? So I began my wait, hoping that the bird would maintain her schedule of repeated visits to her favorite feeder. I had come this far, so I might as well stick it out.

As luck would have it, this yard was very birdy. A small flock of Evening Grosbeaks was a rare treat. Several species of finches and sparrows worked the feeders, interrupted occasionally by a hungry Cooper’s Hawk. After about an hour of waiting, three things happened; my cell phone rang, the owner of the home came out to offer me a cup of coffee, and the Brambling appeared.

So with one hand holding my phone (it was an important call), I used the other hand to hold my binocular to get a brief look at the bird, then snap a few photos, all while thanking my host for the coffee (he didn’t realize that I was on the phone, and didn’t know that I don’t drink coffee). Then the Brambling flew away.

So now what? I had gotten a brief glimpse of the Brambling, although not a very satisfying view of a lifer, and had no idea if any of my photos would be usable or not. The bird had established a pattern of visiting the yard about once an hour for less than a minute. Do I hang out for another hour (did I mention it was really cold?), or do I cut my losses and go do some real birding? I was leaning toward the latter when an acquaintance of mine arrived to look for the bird. The prospect of visiting with him, along with the general birdiness of the this yard, convinced me to stay and try for another look at the Brambling.

This Downy Woodpecker worked on the suet feeder.

Notice that the Dark-eyed Junco on the left has some dark gray on the sides and a darker back than the typical Oregon race birds.

Here is the same bird from the back. The brownish cast on the bird’s back is not right for a pure Slate-colored Junco, so I think this bird is an intergrade Slate-colored/Oregon.

After about an hour, the Brambling returned for less than twenty seconds. I spent the entire time watching her with my binocular, making up for the fleeting view of the previous visit.

So I had gotten my lifer, adding my twitch to the checklist, but I had also gotten some actual birding in, as well. I had seen about 20 species in that little yard, and had a nice visit with some other birders. While I really enjoy getting out and finding large numbers of species, there is often birding to be had in confined situations such as this. I will still struggle with the choice of birding or twitching, but hopefully I will allow myself to find the joy in either.

Eastern Kingbird

A few years ago I blogged on birding and aesthetics , describing how beautiful birds and beautiful scenery do not always occur together. I saw another example of this recently.

Tucked away in this scene of power lines and invasive Himalayan Blackberries is a lovely Eastern Kingbird. This species is very hard to find in the Portland area, regularly occurring in small numbers only at the Sandy River Delta.

Part of birding’s appeal is the fact that birds can show up just about anywhere. No matter how badly we have degraded the landscape, there is still a chance that some wonderful creature might fly in, at least for a brief stop.

Seen it all

A birder recently told me that he didn’t do much local birding because he had “seen it all.” I understand what he meant; once you have birded an area long enough, it becomes increasingly unlikely that you are going to see any new species. But I will never reach the point where I have seen everything there is to see, no matter how small an area we are talking about.


As I am currently being held captive by our new puppy, I haven’t been able to get out into the field to bird for about two weeks. The bird feeder has been busy, but with the same half-dozen species that I normally see. Yet I continue to look out the window at every opportunity, just to see what is going on. Why? Because you never know. If a Brambling or a Xantus’s Hummingbird or a Rustic Bunting shows up around here, it will probably be at a backyard bird feeder. Even if the mega-rarity never shows, there is still plenty to see and much to learn about the more mundane. When will the Pine Siskins arrive this year, or will they? Will there ever be a Common Redpoll among them? Just the other day, a Pileated Woodpecker flew over the property. This is a new bird for the yard list. I happened to see this bird when I was taking the puppy out for the gazillionth time and noticed a shadow pass over us. I turned to glimpse this large woodpecker flying over and then disappear. What other species have flown over when I didn’t happen to glance up? In the eight years I have lived here, there have been noticeable changes in the bird species that use the property. The Northern Saw-whet Owl was a one-day wonder eight years ago. Completely absent a few years ago, both Lesser Goldfinches and Western Screech Owls are now regular visitors. Population dynamics will continue to change. New species will continue to appear from time to time. There will always be something new to see or learn, even in my little yard, let alone the county or the state. Seen it all? Not in my lifetime.

Nala, future Birding Dog


Domestication is a strange thing. It enhances certain traits while diminishing others, usually not for the better. A classic example is the Muscovy Duck. In its wild form, this large duck is black with green iridescence and white wing panels. It nests and roosts in trees along tropical rivers, reaching the U.S. only along the Rio Grande River in Texas. The domesticated form is found in parks and farms throughout the country, and bears little similarity to its wild ancestors.


This photo shows two domestic Muscovy Ducks, a female on the left and a gargantuan male on the right. For a size comparison, note the Wood Duck in the background. The male weighs close to 20 pounds, larger than most Wild Turkeys I have seen. This is not a bird that will be flying to a tree cavity any time soon. While some might admire this bird for his formidable size and brightly colored facial skin, I think domestication has robbed him of his true nature and, if I may be anthropomorphic (and I may because this is my blog), his dignity. If ducks dream, I hope this bird envisions himself sleek and black, flying along a tropical river and roosting in a hollow tree.