Thursday, April 30, 2009

In the backyard... Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted NuthatchRed-breasted Nuthatch, Tillamook, Oregon on 16 January 2009 by Greg Gillson.


This tiny bird is a backyard favorite where it occurs in the Pacific Northwest. It breeds in northern and montane forests, from coast-to-coast across southern Canada, from coastal Alaska to northern California, in the Rocky Mountains south to Arizona and New Mexico, and in the Appalachians to Tennessee. In the winter it can irrupt southward, irregularly visiting backyards in any of the contiguous states in the United States, but very rarely as far south as Mexico.

Exactly what is an irruption, and why do birds do this? John K. Terres, in his 1980 book, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds describes an irruption in this way. He says an irruption is "an irregular migration... often a spectacular mass movement southward in fall and winter of birds that normally live year-round in parts of Alaska and Canada." Red-breasted Nuthatches may do this periodically when their populations are high and their food sources become scarce.

The seeds of pine and spruce cones are a large component of this bird's diet in the winter. They supplement this with insects they glean from the bark as they actively forage over the trunk and limbs, often crawling upside down! Most of the summer food is composed of insects. Thus, the range of this species is restricted to conifers. So, these birds are missing from extensive grasslands in the Pacific northwest and sage lands of the Great Basin. However, they are found in towns throughout these regions where a few conifers have been planted. Their food preference means they are found from sea level shore pines to the alpine fir of treeline on the highest mountains.

If there are conifers in your neighborhood then this little bird will probably find your feeder. They often come to the feeder to take one sunflower seed at a time and fly away with it to a tree branch. They lack the side-to-side chewing ability of the bills of sparrows and finches. Instead, they hold the seed between their feet and pound it open with blows from their sharp bill. They are also attracted to peanut butter and suet cakes.

The larger White-breasted Nuthatch generally prefers deciduous trees. In the ponderosa pine forests of the West, the smaller Pygmy Nuthatch is found. While they all behave the same, and have blue-gray backs and very short tails, neither of these other nuthatches have the rusty breast and white eyebrow. When you see the distinctive coloring and unique behavior of the Red-breasted Nuthatch you will know it!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

At the pond... Great Blue Heron

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron, Dawson Creek Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 11 January 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The widespread Great Blue Heron is found near water from southern Alaska and across the mid-latitudes of Canada, south to Florida, Texas, and northwestern Mexico. Most birds move out of the frozen north and interior in winter and are found well into Mexico.

This bird is found in all sorts of wet habitats. In the Pacific Northwest you may see one hunting voles out in a flooded grass seed field, stabbing at fish in a small puddle or backyard goldfish pond, walking the mudflats of the estuary, perched on jetties in the ocean, or even hunting frogs or snakes in the freeway median. In fact, this bird is so well known in the Pacific Northwest that it is the official City Bird of Portland, Oregon!

Many persons are quite surprised the first time they see herons perched in trees! These herons nest in small colonies quite high in trees near water. They build large stick nests 2-3 feet across and lay 2-6 eggs, March to May.

As for similar species, Green Herons are 1/3 the size and colored differently. "White Herons" in the West are the slightly smaller Great Egrets or the much smaller Snowy or Cattle Egrets. Many people call Great Blue Herons "cranes." However, the Sandhill Crane is a larger, sandy-colored bird with a red crown with populations nesting in agricultural grasslands of the Great Basin. Flocks of these local cranes, supplemented by birds that nest in Alaska and Canada, winter locally in the Willamette Valley (Sauvie Island NWR, Oregon and Ridgefield NWR, Washington) and the Central Valley of California. Herons may congregate in wetlands, but do not migrate in noisy flocks as do the cranes. While Great Blue Herons fly and rest with their long necks crooked under their breast with the head resting on the back (as shown above), cranes always walk and fly with their long necks held straight out.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

In the backyard... White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned SparrowWhite-crowned Sparrow, Timber, Washington County, Oregon on 28 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The handsome White-crowned Sparrow is not overly common at backyard feeders in the Pacific Northwest in winter. But migrant birds pass through in April and September, often visiting backyard feeders in good numbers. West of the Cascades and especially along the coast these are common summer birds.

But this is an over-simplification of a fascinating population dynamic. If you look at the range map of White-crowned Sparrow in North America, you'll see birds breed from Newfoundland and across northern Canada through Alaska. From there they breed in the Rocky Mountains to northern Arizona and New Mexico, and also along the West Coast to southern California. Northern birds winter to the south, to the central latitudes of the interior US, along both US coasts, and into Mexico.

Ornithologists divide the White-crowned Sparrow into 5 populations. Each has a slightly different range, plumage, and song.

It is a bit complicated, but in the Pacific Northwest the birds breeding in the Rocky Mountains and mountains in the Great Basin are the "Mountain White-crowned Sparrow." This form has black lores (feathers between the bill and eye). All other regular forms in the Pacific Northwest have pale lores. They depart for southern regions in winter.

Spring (April) and fall migrants and occasional wintering birds, primarily east of the Cascades, are the "Gambel's" form nesting in Alaska. These winter in the deserts of the American Southwest and into Mexico.

West of the Cascades from southern British Columbia to northwestern California breeds the "Puget Sound" form (as photographed above). Some birds remain to winter, but most migrate south into southern California.

From Mendocino County, California, south along the immediate coast lives the non-migratory "Nuttall's White-crowned Sparrow".

Many of the birds in fall and winter are immatures with rusty brown and white stripes, rather than black and white. These young birds can be confused with immature Golden-crowned Sparrows. Likewise, the rather rare-in-the-West White-throated Sparrow is very similar, but with a blackish bill and white throat clearly set off from a grayish breast.

White-crowned Sparrows eat black oil sunflowers and other seeds at your backyard feeder. This may allow you to examine them more closely, perhaps noticing differences related to age or population as discussed above. For more details see especially the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Friday, April 24, 2009

In the countryside... California Quail

California QuailCalifornia Quail, Shevlin Park, Bend, Oregon on 13 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Originally, the California Quail was, indeed, restricted primarily to California, with birds spilling over into all of Baja California, southwestern Oregon, and western Nevada. In the mid 1800's sportsmen began introducing these quail widely into western Oregon and Washington. Today they are common from southern British Columbia, south through all of Washington and Oregon, eastern Idaho, northern Nevada, and locally in Utah, as well as in the traditional range in California and Baja.

California Quail are instantly recognizable with their scaled bellies, white-bordered black face, and drooping top-knot. In the southwest deserts live the similar Gambel's Quail. But in the Pacific Northwest the look-a-like bird is the Mountain Quail. These birds have chestnut and white barred sides and long straight head plumes. The usually secretive Mountain Quail are usually found in forest clearings in the hills, not in agricultural areas.

In fact, California Quail are found in a wide variety of habitats, often near water. They like agricultural lands, brushy woodlands, lower clear cuts and forest edges, rimrock and sage lands, chaparral, and even some suburbs with brushy cover and open feeding areas. They are found in most open areas of the Pacific Northwest, but are not found in the high mountains or deep forest. They are generally rare in the Coast Range and along the coast north of southern Oregon.

Scurrying around the brush in coveys of family groups, they can be quite secretive. When pressed, or surprised, they burst into flight, the wings making a loud whirring sound while they utter cackling notes. Often a single male will act as sentinel as the rest of the covey feeds (as the bird photographed above).

In spring the coveys break up and birds pair off. It is during this time the males crow their familiar chi-ca-go song.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

At the pond... Killdeer

KilldeerKilldeer, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 11 April 2009 by Greg Gillson.


While the Killdeer does frequent mudflats around ponds, this upland shorebird is just as likely on a gravel farm road, golf course, plowed field, or even in a parking lot with a grassy median.

It is in the breeding season that this bold, robin-sized bird comes to the attention of casual observers and the general public. Because it lays its eggs in gravel--often the center or edge of a lightly-traveled gravel road--it has a unique way to protect its nest and young. When a potential threat (human or animal) approaches too near, the nesting bird sneaks a distance away from the nest and begins a distraction display. Screaming loudly and feigning a broken wing, fanning its tail and exposing its bright orange rump, the parent bird drags itself along--apparently severely injured--and leads the predator away. When it has led the intruder far enough away from the nest or young, it "miraculously" recovers and flies off, seeming to laugh: kill-dee! kill-dee!

The young are precocial, leaving the nest within a day or two of hatching. The fuzzy, golf ball sized chicks follow their parents about. When danger appears, the chicks freeze, and the parents go into the distraction display to lead the danger away. Interestingly, the chicks and juveniles have only one black chest band, rather than the two of the adult. In such a case, an inexperienced birder may mistake the young Killdeer for a Semipalmated Plover, or even something rare like the Wilson's Plover.

The Killdeer breeds across North America, from southern Alaska eastward, and south from California to Florida and the northern half of Mexico. It migrates out of the northern and frozen interior to the coast and south, joining other birds that are apparently non-migratory. A separate population is resident in the West Indies, and a third population is resident in Peru.

In the Pacific Northwest the Killdeer is found in grasslands, meadows, wetlands, farms, and similar human-altered open spaces. They are absent from forests, high mountains, sage flats, deserts, and ocean beaches. However, they are found along shores of rivers, ponds, and lakes throughout these other habitats.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Send your queries about Pacific Northwest bird identification or behavior or other topics. I'll do my best to figure out what you saw. I'll do some research. Then I'll write an article to answer your question. If you have a certain question, no doubt others will, too, and appreciate knowing the answer. My goal will be to do one Q & A article each week, answering all the questions I receive that week. I'll just use your first name and city in my answers. If you send photos I will likely use them (perhaps cropping and adjusting exposure for the web) so others can see what you are seeing.

Send questions to me using this link: PNWBB Q & A

This week's questions seem to have repeating themes. All four questions this week came from Washington, two from Bellingham, two were American Robins, and two were birds nesting in evergreen wreaths on the front door!

Question: "Our fresh Christmas [wreath] did great through the winter so we left it hanging on our front door. About 3 to 4 weeks ago I noticed activities of a robin around the wreath. I thought it was picking up tweaks to build its nest until later I found out that it was actually building a nest on the Wreath. There were 3 eggs in the nest and the mother bird has been with them at times... We restrained from using our front door but. The garage door is located in the front of the house. Every time the garage door opens and closes it still alarms the bird and it flies away. With the bird being gone so often and at times for a prolonged period of time would the eggs hatch? I thought about bringing the nest with the wreath to show my daughter's kindergarten class. I hesitated because she hasn't given up her eggs yet. Sound pretty silly questions but please educate me on this. Thank you!"

A mom in Olympia, WA

Answer: Robins are quite tolerant of human disturbance. Once the eggs are laid the mother bird will be less likely to leave the nest. You are correct, though, that the eggs may fail if they cool off too much while the adults are flushed away from their nest. Robins may attempt to renest up to 3 times in a season. It is their way of assuring offspring as, on average, only 2 nestlings live to adulthood to replace the parents every 4-6 years or so--the average life span of an adult bird. One thing to keep in mind, though. It is illegal to possess the nest, eggs, feathers, or body of birds in the US without a license. Thus, taking the old nest to your child's school, while an excellent nature lesson, is a bad citizen lesson! Perhaps you can find a volunteer at a local Audubon Society that has the proper permits and collection for a fun school assembly show-and-tell.

Question: "Hi Greg - I have a wreath on my front porch a small brown/beige bird has made a nest in. There are three blue eggs in the nest. Is there any way to identify what kind of bird it is? Thanks."

Linda in Seattle, WA

Answer: I believe your bird--if not an American Robin as above--is the House Finch. The female is all brown, while the male has a red forehead and breast. The eggs will hatch about 3 weeks after they are laid and the young will leave the nest about 3 weeks after that. See: In the backyard... House Finch.

Question: "I live in Bellingham and have heard a distinct pre dawn song for years. I used to listen it when I was burning the midnight oil in college, when I heard it I knew I needed to kick it up a notch to complete my paper. Recently I was walking to my car at 4:30 and noted the same measured warble. What bird would most likely produce this pre-dawn song in this area? I wish I had a recording of it but I don't."

W in Bellingham, Washington

Answer: The earliest riser and one of the first singers in spring, is the American Robin. See: In the backyard... American Robin. You can find a recording of the song on the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's web site: All about birds: American Robin. Another bird that might sing early in the pre-dawn in April is White-crowned Sparrow.

Question: "Can you help identify a bird for us? We live in a rural area outside Bellingham and have several different types of birds from small to the larger Robins and even ducks and some geese. The bird in question is a "robin" sized greyish bird, that looks in many ways like a dove, with a distinctive black bib on its chest and robin red colors under its wings."

David outside Bellingham, WA

Answer: David, your bird is In the backyard... Northern Flicker.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

In the backyard... Steller's Jay

Steller's JaySteller's Jay, Marion Forks, Linn County, Oregon on 15 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Dark blue with a black head and crest, and harsh "shack, shack" calls, this larger jay is a permanent resident in the West. It prefers mixed conifer and deciduous woods, broken conifer forests from coastal promontories to high mountain peaks, residential areas with ample conifer trees, stream edges with occasional conifers, and even nut orchards.

This species is found from southeast Alaska south from the coast to the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains into Mexico and Central America. It is absent from the Great Basin sage flats, extensive grasslands, and deserts.

There are several races, or subspecies--distinctive populations. The form on the Queen Charlotte Islands off of British Columbia is largest and darkest on the face. Most Pacific forms (as shown above) have pale blue streaks on the forehead. Inland birds of the Rocky Mountains may have white streaks on the forehead and a partial white eyering.

Steller's Jays eat seeds, nuts, and small animal matter (insects, grubs, bird eggs and nestlings). To attract jays offer them peanuts. But you might be alarmed as they quickly gulp down all the nuts and sunflower seeds you have to offer and go bury them throughout the neighborhood as a winter cache of food.

You may think the Steller's Jay to be a stellar jay, but it was named after its discoverer, the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746). Steller joined Vitus Bering (think Bering Sea) on Russian voyages of discovery to Alaska, Siberia, and Kamchatka. Other birds named for Steller include Steller's Eider, and Steller's Sea Eagle, along with Steller's Sea Lion and some other plants and animals of the Arctic Ocean of Russia and present-day Alaska (then belonging to Russia).

Friday, April 17, 2009

In the backyard... Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed ChickadeeChestnut-backed Chickadee, Timber, Oregon on 28 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


If one were to describe the typical habitat of the Chestnut-backed Chickadee, it would likely be the dark, cool, foggy, moss-covered coastal forests of ancient western hemlock and Sitka spruce. But these birds are equally at home in residential neighborhoods with conifer cover whether in Seattle or San Francisco.

In the western Cascades, they can be found from lowlands to high elevations. However, the Black-capped Chickadee is more common in the lowland valleys until the oaks and maples give way to solid Douglas-fir. Likewise, the Mountain Chickadee is the more expected species in the lodgepole pine and silver fir forest at the summit of the Cascades. The Chestnut-backed Chickadee is more common between them in the western Hemlock and Douglas-fir forest.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are found from coastal Alaska south to coastal central California, west of the Cascades and northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains. They also occur in a limited area of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern Oregon, eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and southern British Columbia. They are absent in the Great Basin and most of the Central Valley of California.

The Chestnut-backed Chickadee is a very small chickadee. The bright chestnut back is an obvious field mark along with the black cap and throat and white side of face. The voice is a soft wheezy "tzick-a-dzee-dzee." Unlike other chickadees in the Pacific Northwest, these birds do not have a whistled song. From San Francisco southward, Chestnut-backed Chickadees lack the broad chestnut sides that birds to the north (as pictured above) show.

Like other chickadees, you can attract these birds to your backyard with black oil sunflower seeds and suet cakes. They will also use nest boxes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

At the pond... Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon TealCinnamon Teal, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 30 May 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The aptly named male Cinnamon Teal is a beautiful little duck in breeding plumage. In flight, the upperwing has a broad pale blue leading edge and green speculum (flight feathers on the inner wing). The male has a distinctive red eye. The brown mottled female, on the other hand, is extremely similar to the female Blue-winged Teal.

Male ducks molt into a cryptic "eclipse" plumage resembling the female from July to September. They will be flightless for a few weeks as they molt all their flight feathers at once, thus the need for this camouflaged plumage.

Interestingly, the Cinnamon Teal is the only duck with breeding populations in both North and South America. The North American population breeds in the West from southern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, south through California, extreme western Texas and into northern Mexico. In winter, birds withdraw from the frozen northern areas and extend well into Mexico.

Cinnamon Teal nest in marshes and shallow ponds throughout the Pacific Northwest. They are generally rare in the mountains and along the immediate coastline. A few birds may winter west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, and west of the Sierra-Nevadas of northern California. Migrant birds arrive by March, with some birds as early as January along the coast. In the Great Basin, birds arrive in April and May, where they become common in the marshlands of the high desert.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

In the backyard... European Starling

European StarlingEuropean Starling, Forest Grove, Oregon on 11 April 2009 by Greg Gillson.


It's too bad that the European Starling is such a pest. The breeding adult, as in the photo above taken yesterday, with the yellow bill, metallic purple and green iridescence, and white spangles, is actually quite a pretty bird. However, because of its overwhelming numbers and harmful behavior to North America's native birds, this introduced bird is universally hated by American birders.

Birds were released in New York City in 1890. They swarmed the continent, reaching Oregon by 1943. By the 1960's they were abundant, with counts of a million birds or more in Portland, Oregon during winter Christmas Bird Counts.

Starlings nest in tree cavities, throwing out whatever bird may be nesting there, and are blamed for the decline of populations of Lewis's Woodpeckers, Western Bluebirds, Purple Martins, and other cavity nesting species in the Pacific Northwest and across North America. For instance, Gabrielson and Jewett wrote in their 1940 book, Birds of Oregon, that the Western Bluebird in western Oregon, "vies with the robin for first rank as a dooryard bird." By the 1970's the Western Bluebird was eliminated as a backyard bird in western Oregon, and only the tireless efforts of individuals to create "Bluebird Trails" of specially designed bird houses, has returned the bluebird to many lowland areas west of the Cascades.

Not all the blame should be placed at the feet of the Starling, however. Certainly the introduction of another cavity nesting bird from Europe, the House Sparrow (North America releases from 1850-1870), pesticide spraying, expansion of towns and the elimination of family farms and orchards, as well as eliminating standing dead trees in timber harvesting practices, all contributed to the decline in bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds.

In the non-breeding season, the plumage of European Starling is less bright. The bill turns black and the white spangles disappear. Huge fall and winter flocks of slate gray juveniles and blackish adults roost at night in orchards or bridge structures. Black clouds of thousands of birds are often noted in the sky at dusk as birds make their way to the night roost.

Starlings are not related to the New World blackbirds. For one thing, starlings have short tails and shorter, triangular wings. Starlings are closely related to mynas and are fairly good mimics, adding the calls of killdeer, meadowlark, quail, pewee, and other birds to their repertoire, which consists primarily of unmusical squeals, grating cackles, and loud whistles.

Pretty or not, the European Starling is an example of why non-native plants and animals should not be released into the wild.

Friday, April 10, 2009

In the countryside... American Kestrel

American KestrelAmerican Kestrel, Tualatin River NWR, Sherwood, Oregon on 7 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


One of the frequent open country roadside birds in the Pacific Northwest and, indeed, most of North and South America, is the American Kestrel. These small falcons perch on isolated tree tops, telephone lines, and roadside signposts adjacent to grassy fields, prairies, and even the grassy meridian between Interstate freeways.

In the Pacific NW they are found throughout the region, but are typically scarce along the immediate coastline, in heavy forests, and in extensive grasslands that lack elevated hunting perches. In winter they move out of the mountain clearings and are much reduced in the Great Basin, but then move to the interior valleys in larger numbers. They nest in old flicker holes and will readily use nest boxes.

Like other falcons they have pointed wings and a fairly long tail. The male American Kestrel, as pictured above, has bluish-gray wings and rusty red tail ending in a black band, tipped narrowly in white. The female has rusty wings matching the back. The rusty tail of the female is barred throughout its length with thin black bars and a black terminal band as the male.

Unlike other North American falcons, the American Kestrel hovers in place while hunting, then drops to its prey. These birds are easily spotted hovering in place over fields, summer or winter. Their preferred food is grasshoppers, supplemented in winter with small mammals (mice, shrews, voles) and occasionally small birds. They are not too proud to eat angleworms, either.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

You have questions. Lots of questions!

This article starts a new feature. Send your queries about Pacific Northwest bird identification or behavior or other topics. I'll do my best to figure out what you saw. I'll do some research. Then I'll write an article to answer your question. If you have a certain question, no doubt others will, too, and appreciate knowing the answer. My goal will be to do one Q & A article each week, answering all the questions I receive that week. I'll just use your first name and city in my answers. If you send photos I will likely use them (perhaps cropping and adjusting exposure for the web) so others can see what you are seeing.

Send questions to me using this link: PNWBB Q & A

To get this started, and serve as a template for future Q & A's, Johnny in Sandy, Oregon agreed to help with the first batch of questions and he even supplied photos. Thanks, Johnny. Here we go...

Click for larger view "I had the arrival of a group of about 8 or 9 birds that I believe to be Pine Siskins, the day after the first Lesser Goldfinches came to my Njer seed feeder. The Goldfinches have not returned since the new guys took over. And they are constantly bickering and trying to keep everyone else from eating (see photos). Also these guys really put away the grocerys. They eat, go get a drink and eat some more. I don't know how they can fly the eat so much. Are they always like this, or is my flok simply a bunch of hooligans?"

Sandy, Oregon

The tiny, goldfinch-sized Pine Siskins are heavily streaked with a strongly notched tail. In flight you can see the yellow wing stripe (Click photo for larger view). They are irruptive in nature, following food sources (seeds and budding trees); they can be unpredictably abundant one year, but perhaps absent or uncommon the next. They breed in the pine forests in mountains in the Pacifc NW, but descend to the lowland regularly in spring for the tree and flower buds. They may occasionally remain through the summer in the lowlands to breed if there is a reliable food source. They are highly social throughout the year, foraging in large flocks, often driving other larger birds from the feeder. In a few weeks they will likely disappear to the mountains. For more information, see Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's web site on the Pine Siskin Irruption of 2008-09 that is happening primarily in the East. This article has many additional interesting facts about Pine Siskins.

Click for larger view "I had several new birds in my back yard yesterday. This one is a dead ringer for the female version of the Red Winged Blackbird, (even though it doesn't look at all like a black bird to me) that is on my backyard birds chart. Is It a Blackbird?"

Sandy, Oregon

This is, indeed, a female Red-winged Blackbird. Although it may look like a large sparrow at first, its shape reveals its identity. The long, very pointed bill and flat forehead is common to the blackbirds, cowbirds, meadowlarks, and orioles, which are all in the same family. Sparrows have shorter, conical beaks and most have rather rounded heads. I will unabashedly point you to my Red-winged Blackbird photo album. Compare the head and bill shape of the males with the females. Then go over to my Song Sparrow photo album and compare the bill shape to that of the blackbirds.

Click for larger view "I had both of these guys in my yard yesterday. I'm pretty sure the yellow one is just a House Finch, but the other bird doesn't look like any I've been able to find. Look closely at the color around the eye."

Sandy, Oregon

You are correct, Johnny, these are House Finches. The male is yellowish-orange and within normal range of color variation for this species. See our recent article on House Finches. The other bird is a female. I'm no expert on this, but the female appears to be suffering from the disease, avian conjunctivitis. Birds suffering from this disease display "red, swollen, watery, or crusty eyes; in extreme cases the eyes are so swollen or crusted over that the birds are virtually blind." This disease was first noted in the Eastern population of House Finches in the Washington D.C. area in 1994. It broke out in the West in 2004. For more information see the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's web page, House Finch Disease Survey.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

At the pond... American Coot

American CootAmerican Coot, Tualatin River NWR, Sherwood, Oregon on 4 August 2007 by Greg Gillson.


At first blush the American Coot appears to be a duck. However, it has a strange white, almost chicken-like bill. One look at the green legs and lobed toes, though, and one quickly realizes it is not a duck!

Rather than a duck-like foot with webbing between the front three toes, each of the coot's long toes have individual web-like flaps to aid in swimming! In this way the feet are lobed similar to those of grebes. However, coots are not closely related to ducks or grebes. Instead, they are more closely related to rails--those secretive marsh dwellers. Coots are very closely related to birds called moorhens or gallinules. Moorhens, though, lack lobes on their very long toes.

There are 11 species of coots in the world, all very similar in appearance. The American Coot has a dark gray body with darker head and neck. The white bill has a dark reddish ring near the tip, and a dark red spot on the forehead frontal shield. The undertail coverts are blackish with white outer patches.

These birds breed widely in marshy wetlands from Alaska to southeastern Canada and southward through Mexico and the West Indies, locally in Central American and Columbia. They build mound nests in the water of cattails and rushes. In winter they use a wider variety of lakes and ponds, withdrawing from the northern portion of their range as these water sources freeze over. During the winter the American Coot becomes even more abundant in the Pacific Northwest, wherever open water remains, especially in coastal estuaries and valleys west of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevada mountains.

To view the feet of coots, visit grassy city parks with a pond in winter. Here American Coots and American Wigeon often graze together on the lawns and become accustomed to close approach by people.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In the backyard... House Finch

House FinchHouse Finch, Sawyer Park Bend, Oregon on 13 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The House Finch enlivens any backyard with the bright red plumage and cheerful rollicking song of the male, and the high-energy antics of the flock at the bird feeder.

Today this species is found in towns across extreme southern Canada and southward across the United States to southern Mexico (Oaxaca). Most birders, however, would be surprised to learn that 70 years ago this finch was restricted to the dry lands of the West. Prior to the 1940's the range of this bird was the arid lands of southeastern Washington, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, and Wyoming, south through California and New Mexico, and through Mexico.

Wherever towns sprouted up in the West, the House Finch followed. In addition, the House Finch was introduced in the East in the 1940's, and it spread there, as well. Today they can be found in all 48 contiguous states in the US.

While the historical range of House Finch included the Pacific NW, they were not common west of the Cascades until the 1960's, where they are now abundant. They are found in most open habitats, only missing from the deep forests, higher mountains, and extensive grasslands.

Male House Finches are grayish brown above and pale below with strong brown flank streaking, and weak buffy wingbars. Males have red foreheads that wrap around on the eyebrow, red rumps, and red on the throat that often extends to the center of the chest. The amount of red varies between males, as does the exact color, ranging from yellowish to bright red, but usually appears more orangish-red than the look-a-like male Purple and Cassin's Finches, which lack the strong flank streaking. The whole head and shoulders are more pinkish-red on these latter species.

Females are similar to males but lack any red; their faces are rather evenly streaked, without strong eyebrow, ear covert, or moustache stripes that the very similar female Purple and Cassin's Finches show.

House Finches are attracted to seed feeders and may be the primary feeder species throughout the summer in most areas of the Pacific Northwest. Likewise, they form flocks of up to 50 birds in winter, and are a major component of backyard birds in the region.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

In the backyard... Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned SparrowGolden-crowned Sparrow, Tualatin Hills Nature Park, Beaverton, Oregon on 13 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


For most of the fall and winter this large sparrow occurs in rather drab plumage. The first year birds show a diffuse yellow forehead and brownish crown. Winter adults aren't much brighter. But, then, beginning in March (as in the photo above), the birds develop the wide black lateral crown stripe with the golden yellow median for which this bird is named. The birds begin singing in spring, as they make their way north into the mountains. Their song is a three-note plaintive whistle in descending notes, weee peee peer, which some render quite appropriately as: "oh dear me."

In fall and winter, first year Golden-crowned Sparrows might be confused with first year White-crowned Sparrows. However, the White-crowned Sparrows have a more definite brown lateral crown stripe and pale center crown stripe. Also note that the upper mandible of the bill of Golden-crowned Sparrow is dark, while the bill of White-crowned Sparrow is yellow or pink.

Golden-crowned Sparrows breed in willow bogs and dwarf conifers at or above timberline in mountains from western Alaska and Yukon south to southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, rarely in the extreme northern Cascades of Washington state.

In winter, birds occur from coastal southeastern Alaska south, primarily west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas, in lesser numbers to northern Baja California. They are found in brush piles, blackberry tangles, and deciduous woodland edges, as well as in residential areas with similar dense brushy edges.

They are more widespread in migration, occurring in towns in the Great Basin deserts and mountain foothills to southeastern Idaho, though in much diminished numbers.

Their primary foods are seeds and plant material. The bird in the photo above is eating the new buds of Oregon Grape. They are attracted to backyard bird feeders from September to April.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Backyard birds of... Burns, Oregon

photo by Larry HammondRed-winged Blackbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird, Hines, Oregon on 10 May 2008 by Larry Hammond.

The following common yardbirds are found in Burns and Hines, Oregon. To a large degree this list applies to many towns in the Great Basin eco-region.

The seasons listed are those when most common, though some individuals may occur at other seasons.

California Quail, year round
Red-tailed Hawk, year round
Rufous Hummingbird, spring, summer
Black-chinned Hummingbird, spring, summer
Eurasian Collard-Dove, year round
Rock Pigeon, year round
Mourning Dove, summer
Say's Phoebe, spring, summer, fall
Steller's Jay, winter
American Crow, spring, summer, fall
Townsend's Solitaire, winter
American Robin, year round
Varied Thrush, winter
Cedar Waxwing, fall, winter, spring
European Starling, year round
Orange-crowned Warbler, spring, fall
Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler, spring, fall
Spotted Towhee, spring, fall
Lark Sparrow, spring
Lincoln's Sparrow, spring, fall
Song Sparrow, spring, fall
White-crowned Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco, winter
Bullock's Oriole, summer
Yellow-headed Blackbird, spring
Red-winged Blackbird, spring, summer, fall
Brewer's Blackbird, spring
House Finch, year round
Cassin's Finch, spring, summer, fall
Lesser Goldfinch, year round
American Goldfinch, year round
House Sparrow, year round

Less common birds:
Cooper's Hawk, fall, winter
Sharp-shinned Hawk, fall, winter
Great Horned Owl, year round
Western Kingbird, summer
Western Scrub-Jay, year round
Black-capped Chickadee, winter
Mountain Chickadee, winter
Bohemian Waxwing, winter
Nashville Warbler, spring
Golden-crowned Sparrow, spring, fall
Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco, winter
Pine Siskin, winter (irruptive, not common every year)

Because Burns and Hines are on the edge of huge wetlands, there are many birds often seen flying over local backyards:
Canada Goose, year round
Ross's Goose, spring
Snow Goose, spring
Turkey Vulture, spring, summer, fall
Northern Harrier, summer
Bald Eagle, winter
Golden Eagle, year round
Swainson's Hawk, spring, summer, fall
Prairie Falcon, year round
American Kestrel, year round
Greater and Lesser Sandhill Crane, spring
Ring-billed Gull, spring, summer, fall
Franklin's Gull, spring, summer, fall
Northern Raven, year round

This list was provided by Steve Dowlan who lives in Hines, Oregon. Be sure to visit Steve's photo site at Dowlan's Photography Log.

Thanks, also, to Larry Hammond for his great photo of the blackbirds from his backyard in Hines, Oregon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bird feeding... Hummingbirds

Anna's HummingbirdFemale Anna's Hummingbird, Rood Bridge Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 13 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The joy of hummingbird watching can be yours quite inexpensively. The Pacific NW has 6 regular species of hummingbirds. Rufous Hummingbirds arrive along the coast in February, and the other inland migrant species return by April. In northern California and from there northward to British Columbia west of the Cascades, the Anna's Hummingbird is a year round resident. It is even found through the year in several towns east of the Cascades with flowering ornamental plants.

Hummingbird nectar is simple: 4 parts water plus 1 part sugar.

Bring water nearly to a boil, then stir in normal table sugar. Make sure all the sugar dissolves. Allow to cool to room temperature. Then fill your hummingbird feeder and hang.

Some tips and myth debunking:

1) Empty the feeder and clean and wash every 3-5 days. Bring down the feeder immediately if the water becomes cloudy (bacteria) or grows dark mold. Use hot soap and water to clean your feeder. If necessary, soak feeder in a mild bleach solution to remove all mold from feeder. Rinse very well before refilling.

2) Fill feeders only full enough to last 2-3 days (bacteria will grow in 3 days if in sun or hot weather). The sugar solution you make will last in the refrigerator a week or two for refills.

3) Never use honey in your hummingbird feeder. The microbes that grow in honey when it goes bad are fatal to hummingbirds.

4) Red food coloring may or may not be bad for hummingbirds, but is totally unnecessary. Most hummingbird feeders have red on them. Do not use food coloring.

5) Feeding birds, including hummingbirds, will not over-power a bird's genetic code to migrate. Remember, Anna's Hummingbirds are year round residents in much of the Pacific NW and can survive several days of snow and freezing weather. Despite all the time they spend at your nectar feeder, the main diet of hummingbirds is insects.

6) Bring hummingbird feeders in at night in subfreezing weather, or hang near a porch bulb to keep it from freezing. But remember, hummingbirds feed most often at dawn and dusk. So wait until dark to take down, and put back up before it becomes light in the morning.

7) Finally, in case you ever were tempted to believe..., no, hummingbirds do not migrate on the backs of geese.