I went to Fort Stevens to look for shorebirds this week. The main push of spring migrants hadn’t arrived yet, but numbers were definitely on the increase. I was pleased that I timed the tide correctly at Parking Lot D. This little bay fills quickly when the tide comes in, so it was nice to have extensive mudflats on this visit.
Semipalmated Plovers enjoying the mud
This spot often hosts good numbers of Caspian Terns. Several birds were seen courting.
Of the six Black-bellied Plovers I saw that day, only one was in full breeding plumage. The others, including this bird, were still in molt.
The beach hosted good numbers of Whimbrels.
The most common shorebird on the beach that day was Sanderling. Most were still in winter plumage.
Shorebird migration should peak within the next week.
Late summer is a challenging time to bird. The local nesters have finished raising their families and have grown quiet and harder to see. Most southbound migrants have not arrived yet. The weather is hot and many parks are crowded. The biggest return on your birding investment this time of year is shorebirds. Southbound migrants are showing up in good numbers and species diversity is increasing. Here are few shorebirds from the past week.
Baird’s Sandpiper, Gearhart. Most individuals of this species migrate through the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, but Oregon always gets a few juveniles that head a little too far west.
Semipalmated Plover, Fort Stevens SP. While these adorable little plovers can be found anywhere in migration, a great many are found working the coastal beaches.
Black Turnstone, Seaside. A quick stop at the Seaside Cove will usually turn up a lot of Black Turnstones.
Surfbird, Seaside. Surfbirds are also regular at the Cove, still sporting a little of their breeding plumage.
Ruddy Turnstone, Seaside. Scanning the flocks of Black Turnstones will often produce one or two Ruddy Turnstones.
Killdeer, Fernhill Wetlands. Not a migrant, but Killdeer still counts on a shorebird list.
Pectoral Sandpiper, Fernhill Wetlands. I have seen several Pectoral Sandpipers lately. It seems a little early for them, as they are often found well into October.
Shorebird numbers should continue to build for the next couple of weeks, and by then we should start seeing some other migrants as well.
Racetrack Lake, located on Sauvie Island, sort of in between the end of Rentenaar Road and the east shore of Sturgeon Lake, has been quite good for shorebirds recently. Good shorebird habitat has been very hard to find in the Willamette Valley this summer, with conditions either too dry or too wet, so this patch of mud has been quite attractive to southbound migrants. Unfortunately, birds were pretty distant so they didn’t present great photo opportunities.
Long-billed Dowitchers were one of the more common shorebirds on this visit.
There were a few Short-billed Dowitchers mixed in, although the distance made identification challenging. Note the whitish belly, the spotted sides of the breast, and the tiger-striped tertials.
Semipalmated Plovers rank near the top of the most adorable shorebird category.
American White Pelicans were considered pretty rare in the Portland area not that long ago. Now you can expect 100 or more around Sauvie Island in the late summer.
Great Egrets are also very common this time of year.
Water levels continue to drop at Racetrack Lake, so there should be some decent mud for a while longer. Happy Summer.
There isn’t much going on bird-wise in mid-summer besides shorebirds. It is nice to have an opportunity to really focus on a single group of birds. Here are a few images from recent weeks.
This Long-billed Dowitcher, to the right of the Killdeer, really caught my eye since she was still in nearly pristine breeding plumage.
The bright cinnamon color goes all the way down through the undertail coverts. This bird was at Jackson Bottom Wetlands.
more Long-billed Dowitchers at Jackson Bottom. These birds are already fading into their duller winter plumage.
Spotted Sandpiper, still in breeding plumage, perched on a spotted log
From the cuteness department comes this fuzzy baby Killdeer. Seeing a young Killdeer with his single breast band this late in the summer might suggest a Semipalmated Plover. But the fluffy plumage and the long legs (not to mentions the tiny wings) let us know we are looking at a fledgling.
Take the time to look at shorebird specimens whenever you have the chance. The first thing you will notice is just how small these birds are. Since we usually look at shorebirds through powerful optics, we tend to think they are actually larger than they are. (A Least Sandpiper is a little smaller than a House Sparrow.) Here we have a nice comparison of a Greater and a Lesser Yellowlegs. Note the differences in the proportions of the bills.
A trip to the coast provided good numbers of Semipalmated Plovers, seen here with a Western Sandpiper.
Several hundred Marbled Godwits spent a couple of weeks at the beach in Fort Stevens State Park.
Dragonflies provide a nice burst of color in the summer. I believe this a Blue Dasher, but please correct me if I am wrong.
This Black-tailed Deer was behind the visitor center at Jackson Bottom.
Shorebird migration will be the big thing for another few weeks, but it will be gull season before you know it.
I made two trips to the coast this week, once to scout for my Portland Audubon shorebird class, and again for the class itself. It is amazing how much difference a couple of days can make in the make-up of bird life in a given area. On Thursday, I found a total of 11 shorebirds of two species. During the class we found hundreds of individuals of 10 species. I am so glad it was not the other way around. This is the view from the Necanicum River Estuary, looking south. The tiny bump in the middle is Haystack Rock, about 12 miles away.
Whimbrel, Necanicum Estuary
Caspian Terns are common and very vocal all along the coast.
Elk, Necanicum Estuary
This Semipalmated Plover was the only shorebird at the tidal ponds at Fort Stevens.
Raccoon, on the mudflats near Parking Lot D, Fort Stevens (with a Caspian Tern and a California Gull)
This is one of two Ruddy Turnstones we found with a flock of Black Turnstones at the Seaside Cove.
White-crowned Sparrow, Necanicum Estuary
California Ground Squirrel, Hammond Boat Basin
Here is a good example of why this time of year may not be the best for learning gull ID. The plumage on this gull is bleached out and very worn. Judging from the size, shape, and pink legs on this bird (next to a normal non-breeding California Gull) I’m guessing this is a Glaucous-winged Gull, perhaps in his second cycle. I hope he grows some new feathers soon, or it will be a very cold autumn and winter.
When the tides are right, the area around Parking Lot D at Fort Stevens State Park can be very productive.
On my recent visit, I found about 400 Caspian Terns in the bay. Many of the birds were presenting fish to their lady loves, and a few were rewarded accordingly (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). A Bald Eagle would occasionally take a pass at the flock, sending the terns off in a big swirling mass, but the birds would quickly settle down again.
One of my favorite birds of the day was this breeding plumaged Bonaparte’s Gull. I watched the bird fly in and settle on the mud flat. I snapped a couple of frames from a great distance, planning on getting better views. But, as is often the case, the bird took off before I could get any closer.
Over the past few years, this site has been become a productive spot for shorebirds. The spring shorebirds migration is well past its peak, but there were still a few birds around. This little flock was actively feeding along the shore, so I sat on my knees in the sand and waited for the birds to come to me. Shorebirds are very wary of people standing upright, but if you sit down, or better yet, lie down, the birds will come quite close.
This blurry Dunlin was the only member of her species in the flock.
Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Plovers made up the bulk of this flock.
While the spring shorebird movement is about done, the southbound migration begins in about six weeks, so we don’t have too long to wait for another shorebird fix.
I had hoped to get to the coast this week, but a big weather system was blowing in so I visited Fernhill Wetlands and Jackson Bottom. Both sites had a few shorebirds sporting their breeding plumage.
Long-billed Dowitchers at Jackson Bottom. The sticks in the foreground are willow stakes planted by Clean Water Services. As these willows grow, they form a canopy over the mud flats, making the habitat useless to migrating shorebirds. Birders have been complaining about the practice at this site for years, to no avail.
I took my shorebird class to the north coast. We ended the day with 14 species of shorebirds, plus one that got away unidentified. Our first stop was The Cove in Seaside. The tide was very low so the birds were far away, but we still found a nice selection of rockpipers. Here is a large flock of Black Turnstones with a couple of Surfbirds.
Stanley Lake hosted two Pectoral Sandpipers.
Semipalmated Plover, also at Stanley Lake
We visited the Hammond Boat Basin, hoping for Whimbels and Marbled Godwits. Instead, we had to “settle” for several hundred Heerman’s Gulls (above), along with Brown Pelicans and Elegant Terns. It was a lovely sunny day at the coast.
My Shorebirds of the Willamette Valley class had their first field trip on Saturday. We found nine species of shorebirds, a nice collection of the expected species. We missed the Semipalmated Sandpiper that had been reported earlier in the week. All the migrants we saw were adults. The juveniles should be arriving soon, hopefully in time for our next field trip. Since I was leading the trip, I didn’t have much opportunity to seek out photos, but here are a few back-lit images.
Least Sandpiper was the most common species of the day.
We found one Lesser Yellowlegs at Jackson Bottom and one at Fernhill Wetlands. The one at Jackson very cooperatively posed next to some Greater Yellowlegs for direct comparison.
This Semipalmated Plover, to the right of the Western Sandpiper, was the only one of the day. He nestled down into the mud, perhaps to cool off.
A blurry Bald Eagle at Fernhill Wetlands didn’t pose much of a threat to the shorebirds, but did make the waterfowl nervous.
Western Sandpiper at Fernhill Wetlands
Lots of Spotted Sandpipers remain at both Jackson Bottoms and Fernhill.
A couple of Buff-breasted Sandpipers have been staging at the Necanicum Estuary (Birding Oregon p.121) in Gearhart. I have wanted to see this species in Oregon for some time, but I have been unable to connect until this year. Buff-breasteds are uncommon to begin with, and most of the population migrates through the center of the continent or over the Atlantic. A few (almost always juveniles) are found in Oregon in September most years, and the Necanicum Estuary seems to be one of the more reliable sites for this species.
After nesting in the Arctic, Buff-breasted Sandpipers fly to southern South America for the winter. Such a long migration requires that the birds occasionally stop off for a week or so to build up fat reserves before continuing their long flight. Thankfully for us birders, these long rest stops give us a good chance to go see these rare beauties when they are reported.
The algae mats that are hosting the Buffy are also attracting good numbers of other shorebirds. Several Baird’s Sandpipers were present on this visit. Pictured above are a Western Sandpiper and a Semipalmated Plover. Shorebird viewing at this location should remain good throughout September.