Monday, March 30, 2009

At the pond... Tree Swallow

Tree SwallowTree Swallow, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 12 April 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The Tree Swallow is generally the first swallow to arrive in the Pacific Northwest in spring. In fact, in northern California it regularly winters in small numbers in the Central Valley and along the coast. West of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington it arrives in late January. Additional birds arrive throughout the Pacific NW through March and into April, when they can be found over many ponds hawking insects and inspecting nest boxes placed there for them or inspecting holes in trees over water for suitable natural nest sites. Most migrate south from August to October, but there are some mid winter reports in the Pacific NW, primarily along the coast.

Tree Swallows are widespread across North America. In summer they occur from the edge of the treeless tundra in Alaska and across northern Canada south to just the northern edge of southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and the Gulf States. In winter, as discussed, they occur along both US coastlines from Virginia to Florida to Texas, and southern California and along the Colorado River in Arizona, and from there south throughout Mexico to Guatemala, Honduras, and also in Cuba.

The Tree Swallow is a metalic blue above with blackish-brown wing and tail feathers and white underparts. They show a black mask. Females are duller than males. Juveniles and first year birds can appear quite brownish, but show the darker mask. The photo above shows an adult male in brilliant breeding plumage.

A similar bird in the West is the Violet-green Swallow. The back of Violet-green Swallow, seen at close range, is a shocking bright lime green. The side of the face is white (lacking the black mask surrounding the eye that Tree Swallow shows). In flight, the Violet-green Swallow has shorter, more triangular wings, and white rump patches that almost meet at the base of the upperside of the tail. Violet-green Swallows are much more likely to make their home in nest boxes in your backyard than Tree Swallows--unless you live right on the water.

Juveniles and dull first year birds might be mistaken for Bank or Rough-winged Swallows. Indeed, some Tree Swallows show a hint of dusky breast band. But the dark, well-defined mask is a primary clue to identification if well seen. Bank and Rough-winged Swallows do not nest in nest boxes, so any brownish swallows doing so are likely Tree (or Violet-green) Swallows.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

In the backyard... Bushtit

BushtitBushtit, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 26 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Outside of the breeding season, these tiny, long-tailed balls of gray fluff stay in family flocks and small groups of rarely more than 35 individuals. In the backyard, they search for spiders and small bugs among the leaves of ferns, bushes, trees, and even in crevices in the window sills or siding of the house. Here the constantly twittering birds seem to crawl in short jerky flight from one bush to another, a couple of birds at a time; rarely does the whole flock take flight at once.

In spring they search for bugs among willow catkins, getting covered with yellow pollen, as shown on the bird above. Some birds with excessively pollen-covered heads have been mistaken for Verdin, a similar yellow-headed bird found in the cactus deserts of the Southwestern United States.

Bushtits are residents from extrmeme SW British Columbia, southward from California to Texas. They also occur south in the mountains through Mexico to Guatemala.

In the Pacific NW they are scarce and local east of the Cascades in south-central Washington, more widespread, but still local east of the Cascades of Oregon along rivers and in juniper rimrock canyons and in towns. They are found in southern and southwestern Idaho, and southward. These birds have extended their range and become more common in many areas east of the Cascades through the Great Basin deserts in recent years.

West of the Cascades they are common residents in lower elevations throughout western Washington and Oregon, south through northern California, and from there south.

There are several races, each differing only slightly from one another. The bird in the photo above is typical of those west of the Cascades, quite brownish, especially the crown. Birds east of the Cascades and southward through the Great Basin are a much flatter pale gray, including the crown.

You can attract Bushtits to your yard with a suet feeder. On the small block of suet, a dozen or more birds may cover every inch as they feed!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In the backyard... Spotted Towhee

Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 8 December 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Blackish above with rufous sides and a white belly, this large sparrow with a red eye and white spots on the back, wing, and tail corners is a widespread and common bird in the Pacific Northwest.

It has been about 10 years since the American Ornithologists' Union split the former Rufous-sided Towhee into two species, the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee of the West. Spotted Towhees breed in brushy areas from extreme southern Canada from British Columbia to Alberta and south through California east to west Texas, and in the mountains of Mexico to Guatemala. In winter the Rocky Mountain and western Great Plains populations move south.

In the Pacific Northwest, birds west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas are resident or only weakly migratory. Birds are found throughout the year in brushy woods, clear cuts, riparian habitats, and backyard hedges. They are not found in the deep woods or open fields, but take up residence in any open brushy areas edging these larger habitats.

On the other hand, east of the Cascades, Spotted Towhees are restricted to brushy areas in mountains and along riparian corridors, such as stream and lake sides. They are also found in backyards in most towns throughout the Pacific Northwest. In winter, most Spotted Towhees east of the Cascades migrate south. A few remain in backyards in towns.

The song of Spotted Towhees vary by population, but most Pacific NW birds start with a sharp note and then a long trill, for which they are named: tow-eeeeeee. Birds in the Great Plains have 1 to 8 introductory notes before the trill. The common call note is a nasal rising, zhreeee. Besides differences in migratory patterns and songs, birds west of the Cascades have smaller and fewer spots than more easterly and southern populations. The photo above is of this less-spotted form west of the Cascades. This bird's upperparts are more brownish, an indication that it is a female, though the differences between the sexes are slight.

In the backyard, towhees hop on the ground under bushes kicking up leaf litter looking for insects, grubs, and seeds. They will eat at tray feeders, but rarely venture out far from cover.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

At the coast... Black Oystercatcher

Black OystercatcherBlack Oystercatcher, Seal Rock, Oregon on 25 March 2007 by Greg Gillson.


These crow-sized shorebirds are rarely found away from rocky shores. Here, they expertly use their long, knife-like bills to pry limpets, mussels, and other marine mollusks from the rocks where they are quickly gobbled up. Paul A. Johnsgard (The Plovers, Sandpipers, and Snipes of the World, 1981) says, "The birds immobilize open mussels (Mytilus) by a stab through the posterior adductor muscles and spread them apart by inserting the closed bill and forcing the valves open. Closed mussels are struck with the bill until a hole is made and the muscles are cut."

Black Oystercatchers are easily identified by their blackish-brown plumage, thick pink legs, long orange-red bill, and orange eye. They have loud piercing calls, easily heard above the roaring surf.

The range of these birds is from the Aleutian Islands south to mid Baja California. They retract a bit from the Aleutians in winter down to southern Alaska, but are residents in most of their range, including the Pacific Northwest coast.

The next time you are at the coast, look for these striking birds at low tide on mussel beds or on basalt headlands, cobble beaches, and jetties.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the backyard... Northern Flicker

Northern FlickerNorthern Flicker, Rood Bridge Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 13 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Like the tale of the blind men describing an elephant, a new birder seeing this bird for the first time may be confused as to the identity of this unusual woodpecker. Will they note the robin-sized brown bird with black bars on the back probing on the ground with a long bill? Will they note the flashing orange wing and tail linings and white rump as it flushes away? Will they see a large white-breasted bird with round black spots and a black crescent on the chest sitting on their fence? Or will a person only "discover" this bird as an unwelcome spring dawn alarm clock, declaring its territory by drumming loudly and incessantly on their home's downspouts or siding?

This widespread woodpecker breeds in woods and forests across North America from the treeline of Alaska and northern Canada south to Cuba and through Mexico. They retreat from northern areas in winter. Two forms formerly considered separate species, Yellow-shafted Flicker and Red-shafted Flicker, were lumped in the 1970's into one species, Northern Flicker.

The breeding form in the Pacific NW is the "Red-shafted" form, with salmon-colored (pinkish-orange) wing and tail linings. The face is gray with brownish crown. Males, such as the one pictured above, have a red malar (moustache) stripe. The form found in eastern North America has yellowish wing and tail linings. The face is brownish with a gray crown and a red nape mark. Males have a black malar stripe. These forms intergrade in the Great Plains and western Canada. Birds from these intergrade zones show odd or contradictory combinations of facial markings or yellow-orange wing linings. These appear in the Pacific Northwest primarily in fall and winter. "Pure" Yellow-shafted Flickers are rare in the West.

Flickers spend as much time on the ground eating ants as they do on trees. You may attract flickers to your backyard feeders by offering suet or a peanuts. Flickers readily accept nest boxes built about 18-24 inches tall, with a floor of 7.25 x 7.25 inches, and an entry hole with a diameter of 2-1/2 inches about 14 inches from the bottom. Place nest boxes in the shade at a height of 8 feet or more. Search the web for "flicker nest box plans."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Backyard birds of... Portland, Oregon

Song SparrowSong Sparrow, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 7 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


[Updated: 7 July 2011: For over 2 years this 4th post to this blog has been by far the most popular. Since it was written I have posted photos and life history information on each bird listed. Thus, it only makes sense to update this post. Now you can click on each bird name listed to read these more in-depth articles. I hope this update will make this post even more useful. Enjoy! - Greg]

This article begins what I hope will be a regular feature. My intent is to list the most common backyard birds of towns throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The following common yardbirds are found in Portland, Oregon. To a large degree this list applies to all towns in the Willamette Valley eco-region. However, this list is specifically for towns from Portland in the north to Wilsonville in the south, and from Forest Grove in the west to Gresham in the east.

The seasons listed are those when most common, though some individuals may occur at other seasons. Special habitats are listed for those species that might not be found in every yard. In general, flyover birds including waterfowl and raptors are not included.

California Quail, year round, local in brushy country settings
Mourning Dove, year round
Rock Pigeon, year round
Eurasian Collared-Dove, year round, local in rural and residential areas
Band-tailed Pigeon, spring, summer, fall, woodlands
Rufous Hummingbird, spring, summer
Anna's Hummingbird, year round
Vaux's Swift, spring, summer, fall, chimneys and open sky
Downy Woodpecker, year round
Northern Flicker, year round
Western Wood Pewee, summer, fall
Cliff Swallow, spring, summer, large barns and concrete overpasses
Violet-green Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Barn Swallow, spring, summer, fall
American Crow, year round
Western Scrub-Jay, year round
Steller's Jay, year round, conifers
Black-capped Chickadee, year round
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, year round, conifers
Bushtit, year round
White-breasted Nuthatch, year round, oaks
Red-breasted Nuthatch, year round, conifers
Bewick's Wren, year round
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, fall, winter, spring
American Robin, year round
Varied Thrush, winter, especially during snow storms
Cedar Waxwing, spring, summer, fall
European Starling, year round
Orange-crowned Warbler, spring
Yellow-rumped Warbler, fall, winter, spring
Townsend's Warbler, winter, spring, conifers
Wilson's Warbler, spring
Western Tanager, spring, summer
Black-headed Grosbeak, spring, summer
Spotted Towhee, year round
Song Sparrow, year round
Fox Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Golden-crowned Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
White-crowned Sparrow, spring, summer, fall, winter (rare)
Dark-eyed Junco, fall, winter, spring, summer (rare)
Red-winged Blackbird, year round
Brewer's Blackbird, year round
Brown-headed Cowbird, spring, summer, fall
House Finch, year round
Purple Finch, year round, forested areas
American Goldfinch, spring, summer, fall, winter (rare)
Lesser Goldfinch, year round
Pine Siskin, winter, spring, irregular from year to year, conifers
Evening Grosbeak, spring, irregular from year to year, maples
House Sparrow, year round

Thursday, March 19, 2009

At the pond... Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked DuckRing-necked Duck, Dawson Creek Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 16 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The male Ring-necked Duck is highly distinctive with its black chest and back, and gray sides with a leading white bar. The male's head is blackish with a purplish iridescent sheen. The blue bill with white ring before the black tip is unique. In summer the male molts into a plumage like the female--rather dusky brown with a gray face, slightly pale at the base of the bill with a white eye ring. The tell-tale bill, though, is a give-away in any plumage, as is the highly peaked crown.

This fairly common duck is widespread across North America. It breeds in shallow ponds with emergent vegetation, generally in the mountains, across Canada to central Alaska, southward along the northern tier of states in the US, and then sparsely south in the Rocky Mountains to Colorado. A few isolated breeders may be found in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. They winter along the US West Coast and from middle latitudes of the US south through Mexico.

In the Pacific Northwest this bird breeds in shallow lakes in the Cascades, from the summit eastward. It also breeds in mountains in NE Oregon, northern Washington, northern and eastern Idaho, and northern California. It also nests in some lakes in the Great Basin. There are scattered irregular breeding records west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon. In winter, birds move out of the frozen Pacific NW mountains and Great Basin lakes. More northerly breeders move into the valleys west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon in October and leave in April, but are rare on salt water.

Similar species include Greater and Lesser Scaup, which have paler backs and pale blue bills with black tips. The rare (in our region) Tufted Duck has bright white sides.

These birds can be found in large ponds throughout most areas of the Pacific NW in fall and spring, often by the dozens. Therefore this duck is familiar to most bird watchers who visit local duck ponds.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In the backyard... American Robin

American RobinAmerican Robin, Dawson Creek Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 16 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


It's mid March. There is frost on the ground and the eastern sky has not even a foregleam of the dawn to come. As I head out the door to work, though, I hear the melodic caroling refrains of the American Robin, beginning its spring breeding song.

The American Robin is a familiar yard bird in nearly all of North America. It breeds from the treeline at the Arctic Circle south throughout most of the US, except in southern Florida and some desert areas of Arizona and southern Texas. It breeds in the high mountains of northwestern Mexico. In winter it retreats from most of Canada and interior Alaska and winters throughout the lower 48 states and extends well into Mexico.

Locally, in the Pacific Northwest, the American Robin is one of the most widespread breeding birds, from the coast to high into the mountains, from wet valleys and forest clearings, throughout any water courses through the high desert of the Great Basin east of the Cascades. This species is common in lawns and meadows in towns or country settings. In winter, in the frozen and dry eastern Great Basin of Oregon and Washington, fewer birds remain. Large flocks migrate through lowlands west of the Cascades in January and February, as the northern birds wintering in the south head back to Alaska and Canada.

Robins are common in yards and gardens where they hop on the ground and feed on earthworms. They also eat fruit, such as holly berries and the berries of trees such as hawthorn. They are attracted to backyards by water features where they like to drink and bathe. Early risers, they begin singing well before dawn and often sing well into the evening, April through June. They weave a grass nest in the crotch of a low tree or tall bush, or sometimes place their nests on corners of buildings, carports, or porches. American Robins may raise up to three batches of nestlings in a single season--especially if the first brood fails (dies).

The brick red breast and gray-brown back is familiar to most people. The white and black streaked throat and white lower belly and undertail add to the field marks. However, similar species in the West include the Varied Thrush, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Spotted Towhee.

For more information, read about this species in the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's online field guide All About Birds.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In the backyard... Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eye Junco, Stub Stewart State Park, Manning, Oregon on 23 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


The Dark-eyed Junco may be found in winter in nearly every town in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, according to Project FeederWatch they are the most common bird at feeders in the Pacific Northwest, present at over 96% of feeders reporting and with an average of over 8 birds per feeder. They are one of the top 10 most numerous feeder birds throughout the United States. No wonder they are well-known colloquially as "snowbirds" throughout much of North America (though other species, too, may also be called snowbirds).

As noted, juncos are common birds at seed feeders, though they may prefer to feed on the ground under the feeders, rather than from the tube feeders themselves. A tray feeder, lower to the ground, amply supplied with black oil sunflower seeds will readily attract this small, active bird.

Yards with small, dense conifers and a variety of evergreen broadleafs, such as rhododendrons, camellias, and azaleas may prove attractive places of protective cover for juncos. Some juncos may remain for the summer and breed in yards or parks with such habitat in forested areas, though many populations migrate or move upslope to breed in damp conifer forests with brushy undergrowth. The nest is placed on or near the ground, usually concealed by a bunch of grass, ferns, or bushes.

Flocks of juncos smack and twitter as they feed and fly about on or near the ground. The breeding song is a simple bell-like trill on a single pitch of about 2-3 seconds that they start singing in March from a high perch.

The white outer tail feathers contrast with the dark gray tail as they flit about on the ground. The wings are dark gray and the belly white, but there is much variation among individuals and among populations. Populations also tend to breed together where their ranges meet. Thus, in the 1970's, five former species of juncos were lumped together by biologists into one species with many races, the Dark-eyed Junco.

The photo above shows the form known as the "Oregon" Junco. That is the most common form in the Pacific Northwest. The sides are pink, the back is brown contrasting with the dark hooded head. Males have jet black heads, females--such as the bird above--have paler gray heads (many much more pale than this bird). You can note some brown colored feathers on the back of the head and crown, another indication that this bird is a female.

Other forms sometimes reported from the Pacific Northwest include the "Slate-colored" Junco, "Pink-sided" Junco, "Gray-headed" Junco, and "White-winged" Junco. Consult a field guide for the identification of these various forms, remembering that "cross-breeds" are frequent and many individuals can be confusing.

Dark-eyed Juncos are a joy to watch because of their bold and active manner and attraction to feeders. As they are often the first birds to visit your feeder, they serve to attract the more shy birds into view.