Virginia Rail


As many people are jumping on the “bird local” bandwagon, little Commonwealth Lake Park in Beaverton has been getting a lot of birding attention and producing an increasing array of interesting species. One of the stars of this winter is this Virginia Rail. While Virginia Rails are scarce in winter, and almost always hard to see, this individual has been venturing out into the open to feed, sometimes onto the athletic field.


We should appreciate the value of little parks like Commonwealth Lake to wildlife. But we should also remember that the reason birds can be easy to see in such places is because the habitat is so limited. This park is a small isolated patch of wetland surrounded by high-density housing. Wildlife thrives in large tracts of habitat. Since large tracts are no longer available in many areas, we should at least strive to preserve corridors between smaller parks to allow wildlife to safely travel from site to site, and to allow young to disperse.


birdathonAfter taking a break for a few years, I am once again helping with the Audubon Society of Portland’s annual fundraiser, Birdathon. I am leading a team, The Weekday Warblers, on a trip to the coast on Thursday, May 12. We will be birding sites from Cannon Beach to Fort Stevens, with a few inland sites thrown in.

The Audubon Society of Portland lobbies for the protection of wildlife and wild places throughout the Pacific Northwest. They provide classes and field trips for children and adults, and operate the Wildlife Care Center, which treats over 3000 injured and orphaned animals each year.

Please consider making a contribution at my Birdathon web page. If you would like to go birding with us, join our team!

Rusty Blackbird

rusty left 1I made another trip to see the Rusty Blackbird that has been hanging out behind the Hillsboro Public Library for the past month. This species nests in boreal wetlands across Alaska, Canada, and the northeastern states. They typically winter in the southeastern U.S., so they are extremely rare in Oregon.

Unfortunately, they are becoming extremely rare in their normal range, as well. Since the 1960s, the population of Rusty Blackbirds has declined by between 85 and 95 percent. Probable causes include the drying of boreal wetlands due to climate change, mercury contamination, changes in breeding habitat caused by logging and farming, changes to bottomland forests in the birds’ winter range, and poisoning of “nuisance” blackbird flocks. Information on the situation can be found here and here.

rusty rightSo even though I have seen Rusty Blackbirds before, and added this one to my Oregon list a few weeks ago, it was worth another trip to appreciate an encounter with a species that has become increasingly hard to find.

Mexican Spotted Owl

spotted owlOn my recent trip to Arizona, I had the pleasure of watching this Mexican Spotted Owl preening and snoozing near his nest cavity. Spotted Owl has been a nemesis species for me since moving to Oregon twelve years ago. The subspecies that breeds in Oregon, Northern Spotted Owl, has been in steady decline for decades, as its old-growth forest habitat continues to be harvested for lumber, and its close relatives, Barred Owls, continue to expand their range, eating or interbreeding with the Spotteds as they go. As a result, the locations of Northern Spotted Owls in Oregon tend to be kept secret, to protect the birds from unemployed lumberjacks with shotguns or overzealous birders.

spotted owl closeupThe culture surrounding Spotted Owls in Arizona is very different. Email lists describe the exact location of roosting owls, making it easy for birders from around the country, and around the world, to have a look. The habitat of the Mexican Spotted Owl is not as commercially valuable as the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The money brought in to southeast Arizona by visiting birders probably far exceeds the value of any timber harvest in this area. So the Mexican Spotted Owl, while still rare, seems to be doing OK while being admired by adoring throngs of birders.

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.

Not Endangered Enough

The Department of the Interior recently announced that it would not be listing Greater Sage-Grouse as threatened or endangered, even though the bird, whose population has declined by at least 90 percent in the past century, “warranted” listing. This species joins a long list of birds and other wildlife that are in danger of extinction, but are not quite endangered enough to protect under The Endangered Species Act.

The problems revolve around money. First of all, if a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Dept. of the Interior must develop and implement a recovery plan for that species. This takes a lot of money, and the department already has more species listed than it can afford to protect. Secondly, when a species is listed, that severely restricts the activities that can take place within that species’ habitat. In the case of Greater Sage-Grouse and other prairie birds, cattle ranching, oil and gas development, and wind power development are all limited, with substantial financial repercussions.

And so only those species who are the most critically endangered are listed for protection, and then a mad scramble begins to try to pull these species from the brink of extinction. Sometimes it is too late. In any case, it is much more difficult and expensive to try to save a tiny population than it is to protect a larger one.

So will this process continue as it has, or will we come up with a better plan? Will it get to the point where we will just have to let some species die out so resources can be channeled to other species that have a better chance? Maybe we will decide to work on saving large pieces of ecosystems, rather than concentrating on individual species.

In the meantime, a growing list of species continues on the path to extinction, waiting to reach that critically endangered point where drastic measures will be taken to keep the species from disappearing completely. One of my favorite birds, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, is on that path. Their population is about five percent of what it was, and continues to drop. Their numbers are a small fraction of that of Greater Sage-Grouse, but the species continues to be denied protection under the Endangered Species Act. Their time of listing may be coming, but I fear it will be too late.

Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Morton Co., KS 2007

Helping evolution along

Anna’s Hummingbird was first reported in Oregon in 1944. The first specimen wasn’t collected until 1966. But today, this species is a common year-round resident in western Oregon. They winter as far north as coastal British Columbia, and have even successfully wintered in central Oregon, where they get actual winter weather.

What has caused this rapid range expansion to the north? Climate change is having a measurable effect on some species, but Anna’s Hummingbird has undoubtably been helped along by the presence of bird feeders and exotic winter-blooming plants. While most of a hummingbird’s nutrition comes from the insects he eats, a reliable source of calories provided by a feeder of sugar solution can enable a bird to survive episodes of severe winter weather that would prove fatal without this supplemental food source. A higher winter survival rate provides more birds to breed in the spring, thus establishing the species in new areas.

Bird feeding is credited with helping other species expand their ranges. Northern Cardinal is a prime example in this country. In England, bird feeding is reportedly changing the evolution of one species. The European Blackcap historically migrated to Spain for the winter. With the increasing popularity of bird feeding, this species has stopped migrating south, opting instead to winter in the UK. In just 50 years, the bird has developed shorter wings (longer wings are useful in migration) and a narrower bill (better suited to eating out of bird feeders). These British birds are well on their way to becoming a new species. Read the story here.

Powell Butte

Located on the east side of Portland, Powell Butte Nature Park (Birding Oregon p. 66) offers a variety of birds and some nice views of the nearby mountains.

The butte is tall enough to produce its own rain shadow, so the western slope is forested with a dense understory.

The top of the butte is drier and dominated by grassland and small scattered trees. Mount Hood looms in the distance.

Fox Sparrows are among the birds found in the brushy patches.

The open habitat is very attractive to raptors, like this American Kestrel. Northern Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks are also frequently seen.

I love to see these guys. Urban and suburban Coyotes are a songbird’s best friend. Studies have repeatedly shown that the presence of Coyotes coincides with larger populations of songbirds, since Coyotes reduce the number of free-roaming domestic cats. For more information on the effects of domestic cats on wildlife, check out the American Bird Conservancy site.

Sad Anniversary, September 4, 1963

The date was September 4, 1963. I was two months shy of my second birthday. So in my little world, the most profound events involved soiling myself and chugging baby root beers at the A&W Drive-In.

But on the island nation of Barbados, something much more grave occurred. A hunter shot and killed an Eskimo Curlew. Aside from the abominable act of shooting migrant shorebirds (which still occurs every year on Barbados), this incident is especially noteworthy, as it marks the last instance when we had physical evidence that Eskimo Curlews still existed.

Once one of the most common species of shorebird, Eskimo Curlews were a favorite target of market hunters in the latter half of the 19th Century (Passenger Pigeons had already been effectively eliminated). By 1900, the large flocks were gone. A few scattered birds persisted into the mid-20th Century. Reports of Eskimo Curlew sightings still trickle in occasionally. But since that fateful day in Barbados, there has not been a single specimen or photograph that proves the species still exists.

There is very little hope that any Eskimo Curlews remain. I cling to that hope, at least on some level.

Sabal Palm Audubon Center to be fenced off?

The New York Times ran an article on the Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville, TX. There is a frightening chance that a border fence may be built north of the sanctuary, thus shutting off access to one of the most famous birding hot-spots in the U.S., and in effect ceding that 500+ acres to Mexico. While some argue that we need a fence to protect us from the illegal housekeeping and lawn care specialists invading our country from Mexico, I hope clearer heads will prevail and stop this project. The tropical palm forest ecosystem is one of the rarest in the country, and really can’t tolerate a major construction project like this fence. As a birder, my feathers get very ruffled at the prospect of being fenced out of one of the more important bird sanctuaries in my own country.

Here are some photos I took at Sabal Palm in April of 2007. I hope we all have the opportunity to visit this place in the future.
Couch's Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird

Plain Chachalacas and White-tipped Doves

Neotropic Cormorant

White-eyed Vireo