Chestnut-backed Chickadee

A pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees has been lingering in the yard this week.  They will soon leave for the summer, as this species prefers large conifers and higher elevation, unlike the more suburban Black-capped Chickadees.

While the Chestnut-backs readily take sunflower seeds from the feeder, these birds were especially fond of a vegan suet block, currently in development by Nepo Suet Company . It is made from coconut oil. While not available yet, it promises to be a great alternative for those of us who don’t buy animal products.

Purple Finch

This La Nina weather pattern shows no sign of abating, making outings miserably wet and not so productive, so I was delighted to see a Purple Finch in the yard this week. About once a year I see a Purple Finch at my feeder. They breed in mixed woodlands in the Portland area, but not in my neighborhood.

Many years ago, before House Finches had spread across the entire continent, separating House and Purple Finches was considered quite a challenge. But here, with the benefit of a few decades experience, they don’t look all that similar. There are clear differences in color, and the Purple Finch shows quite a bit more heft than the more slender House Finch. While the House Finch has patches of red, the Purple Finch is pinkish-purple all over.

Those dorsal view of the Purple Finch shows the pinkish color washed over the upperparts, including the wings.

Like all finches, they have no trouble popping open sunflower seeds.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

I was headed to the coast early last Friday when I heard on the radio that the area was under a tsunami warning. While a true hard-core birder might have continued on, I decided to turn around and ended up walking parts of Sauvie Island instead. This Lincoln’s Sparrow was preening in a blackberry thicket along Rentenaar Road (Birding Oregon p.57). The dark spot and line on the bird’s breast are a result of the feathers being fluffed out.

This stretch of dirt road is one of the spots we will visit for my upcoming Little Brown Birds class for The Audubon Society of Portland. The Saturday field trip is full, but a few spaces remain on the Friday trip. For information, go to

Mew Gull

As gulls go, Mew Gulls are very petite. They are instantly recognized by their round head, dark eye with a brick-red orbital ring, long wings, yellow legs, and thin bill with just a hint of a “ring” in winter.

Mew Gulls have a very large white mirror on the outermost primary (P10) and a fairly large one on P9. On flying birds, the amount of white in the wingtips helps to differentiate Mew Gulls from Ring-billed Gulls from quite a distance.

Mew Gull bathing.

Mew Gulls are common in winter along the Oregon Coast (usually at river mouths and in meadows) and in the Willamette Valley. Due to their small size, they normally form single-species flocks or associate with Ring-billed and California Gulls, avoiding concentrations of larger gull species.

Lesser Goldfinch

I recently came across a small flock of Lesser Goldfinches. This species has become much more common in the northern Willamette Valley in the past decade.

This species really stands out in the winter with their bright yellow underparts and cold greenish backs. Note the white wing bar and the little white patch at the base of the primaries. The more common American Goldfinch has a warmer golden brown cast in winter, and has buffy, not white, wing bars.

This is a male, probably a young bird given the lack of an extensive black cap. Notice the white patch on the spread tail feather. Females do not have white patches on their tails.

Pale females, like the top bird, are harder to distinguish from female American Goldfinches, as they lack the bright yellow underparts. Note the cold greenish back (not golden brown) and the white (not buffy) wing bars.

Compare this female American Goldfinch to the Lessers above and below.

Gray Jays

While exploring areas around Mt. Hood, my Portland Audubon class encountered a flock of Gray Jays at the Little Crater Lake Campground (Birding Oregon p. 75). When I find this species in the woods, they seem rather shy to me. But when the birds have been enjoying the easy pickings at a campground, one can quickly see how they got the nickname, Camp Robber. Jays were landing on fingers, binoculars, and hats in hopes of getting a handout. Their efforts were rewarded with nuts and crackers, a small price to pay for such an enjoyable close encounter with a beautiful bird.

Studies in Gray; Heerman’s Gull

The rocky shore of The Cove in Seaside (Birding Oregon p. 121) is a favorite loafing spot for Heerman’s Gulls. The gray stones match the velvety gray of the gulls, and make the flash of brilliant red from the gulls’ bills even more stunning. Heerman’s Gulls are certainly among the most beautiful birds in North America.

Black Turnstones also blend in with the rocky shore.

American White Pelican

In late summer, American White Pelicans become increasingly common in the Willamette Valley. These are post-breeding or non-breeding birds that have left their nesting areas in eastern Oregon and other sites throughout the interior West.

Sturgeon Lake, on Sauvie Island (Birding Oregon p. 55), is a popular lounging area for these birds.

This small flock at Fernhill Wetlands (Birding Oregon p. 61) has surrounded a school of fish and herded it toward the shoreline. Unlike the Brown Pelicans at the coast, American White Pelicans do not dive. These larger birds swim along and dip their bills in the water to capture fish.