Saturday, May 30, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Question: "We were visiting San Juan Island this last week and saw an orange bird with brown/olive wings. I am wondering if you can help me identify it. I have attached a picture of the orange bird and another one that came to the feeding tray at the same time and I am wondering what the identification is of this bird as well. Thank you."


Answer: Yes, Joanna. The larger birds are Red Crossbills. The red one is the male and the olive one is the female. The smaller striped bird is Pine Siskin. These are both common birds throughout the Pacific NW--especially near forested areas. [Click photos above for larger view.]

Question: "Feel a bit sheepish posting this question, since I've been paying attention to birds around Portland for a number of years now, think maybe I'm supposed to know.... but I don't know what these were, I couldn't get binoculars on them on time, then they were gone.

Flock of around 15-20 medium-sized birds flying to the tops of firs at SE 71st and Clinton (ish) in Portland. I only saw them from underneath; they had short tails and their bellies appeared pale and unmarked (not streaky) from where I was (which was on a lawn two houses away from the very tall firs, so possibly too far away to say they weren't streaky). The tail looked darker; the tail was fairly straight across, just a mild convex curve. They were making sharp calls (not whistling like cedar waxwings). These seemed consistent with everything I've heard about red crossbills - the call could have been described as "jip," the flocking, the fir (they hung out on the fir and appeared to be feeding, then flew off as a group) - but I've never actually been certain I've seen a crossbill before, and they didn't look reddish from below. Also, no one on OBOL is talking about seeing crossbills, and I feel like people like to post crossbill sightings if flocks are around.

So.... since I admire the way you identify birds from scanty data... thought I'd impose and provide my meager description.

Thanks for any relief you can provide."

Susan in Portland, Oregon

Answer: Well, my first guess was going to be Cedar Waxwings. I saw my first flock this spring just yesterday, though some hang around Portland most winters.

The reason I don't think your description fits Red Crossbill is that crossbills are generally small and streaked underneath. They are plump, House Finch-sized, but quite short tailed with strong fork or notch, not squared as you describe.

That leaves Evening Grosbeaks. Evening Grosbeaks are everywhere right now, making sharp loud calls. Because they are so common right now I recently wrote In the backyard... Evening Grosbeaks.

Question: "Yesterday I found a nest right next to the house where I was weed eating..., contained very small eggs (2 cm X 1 cm) with many brown speckles. Main color - rather tanish. No birds around. what is this bird ? thank you for your time."

"The nest was rather hidden beside the house, very small nest, eggs in a small round nest with dry grass and a few hairs or fur of another animal."

Sandra in Port Townsend, Washington

Answer: Sandra, one hundred years ago a birder was likely to be one who collected eggs and nests of birds. Birding has changed since then, and it is now illegal to possess nests, eggs, feathers, or any other part or whole wild bird without a permit. Thus, most modern field guides no longer describe the nest and eggs. However, my first bird book does--Peterson's 1969 Field Guide to Western Birds. It is nearly worn completely out, and held together with tape, but I wouldn't be without it, for I wrote in it voice descriptions and other helpful ID tips. But I digress.... Based on the placement of the nest on or near the ground and made of grass, as well as the small speckled eggs, my guess is Dark-eyed Junco. Peterson describes the nest as: "a well-lined cup on ground in woods. Eggs (4-5) spotted)." More information about juncos is in the article In the backyard... Dark-eyed Junco.

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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

At the pond... Common Yellowthroat

Common YellowthroatCommon Yellowthroat, Tualatin River NWR, Sherwood, Oregon on 9 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


About the first of April, Common Yellowthroats arrive in the Pacific Northwest and within days are found skulking about most wetlands habitats. Favorite habitat in much of the Pacific NW is blackberry tangles along water courses and ditches, but they are found in reeds and sedges and cattails out in the marsh, as well. Fewer numbers may be found in wet brushy meadows or low elevation clear cuts that have a lot of herbaceous undergrowth. Despite their secretive actions, their presence is exposed by their loud and distinctive song, given throughout the day: "witch-i-ty, witch-i-ty, witch-i-ty, witch." The call note is a husky: "chep."

Yellowthroats are small with a longer rounded tail. They are colored olive-green above, whitish on the belly, and with bright yellow throat and undertail coverts. The males have a black domino mask with a pale border on the forehead. Throughout their range males of the 13 different populations differ slightly in the width and color of the border above the mask (white, gray, yellow), the intensity and extent of the yellow on the underparts (more yellow in most southern populations), and the song arrangement.

These birds breed across Canada and the entire 48 states of the US, and into north-central Mexico. In winter, northern populations retreat south to coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico, SE US, southern California, through the Caribbean and Mexico to Panama.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bird Festival... Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua

American Avocets, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Box Elder County, Utah, 2003. Copyright 2009, Rosalie Winard. Used with permission.


The Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua will be held on June 19-21, 2009.

Choose from among several field trips, presentations, and workshops. Enjoy an evening of dinner and music.

Check out the Lee Vining Chamber of Commerce for details on where to stay. Lee Vining is about 170 miles east of Stockton, California, traveling through Yosemite National Monument. Or, it is about 140 miles south of Reno, Nevada.

The 2008 species list included 153 bird species.

Presenters and field trip leaders: Karen Amstutz, Don Banta, Ted Beedy, Peter Bergen, Jon Dunn, Margaret Eissler, Lisa Fields, Nancy Hadlock, Tom Hahn, John Harris, Justin Hite, Debbie House, Ann Howald, Quresh Latif, Jack Laws, Burleigh Lockwood, Jeff Maurer, Chris McCreedy, Paul McFarland, Peter Metropulos, Stella Moss, Lisa Murphy, Kristie Nelson, Richard Potashin, Bob Power, Sarah Rabkin, Ane Carla Rovetta, Dave Shuford, Rich Stallcup, Bob Steele, Susan Steele, Erik Westerlund, David Wimpfheimer, and Ben Winger. Keynote presenter: Rosalie Winard

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bird feeding... types of food

Black-headed Grosbeak, American Goldfinches, and Purple Finch enjoying black oil sunflower seeds, Hagg Lake, Washington County, Oregon on 7 July 2007 by Greg Gillson.


The Southwestern Idaho Birders Association has this list of backyard bird foods.

They also have a table of common birds attracted to various types of food.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Birding technique... The early bird gets the worm; the early birdwatcher gets the bird!

Wood DuckAmerican Robin searching for worms, Rood Bridge Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 13 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Yesterday (22 May 2009), David Bailey made an interesting observation on the Oregon Birders On-Line (OBOL) mailing list. The post concerned migrant seabirds, but applies to birds on land, as well--perhaps even your own backyard.

Bailey said:

"I have been conducting morning surveys in the upland forest of the Coast Range since 1 May and visiting Boiler Bay most days around 0800. Comparing my numbers and species richness to Phil Pickering's and Wayne Hoffman's counts during the same period has shown ample evidence that counting within two hours of sunrise rather than in the third hour produces much higher numbers of individuals and species. Today was no exception, though the northward flights of birds were still occurring while nearly completely tapering off by 0900."

Indeed, birders arriving in later morning and seeing only a few birds floating offshore from this Oregon coast State Wayside, wonder about the reports they read online. I've even been asked if certain regular Boiler Bay bird reporters were making up those large shearwater, murrelet, and auklet numbers. No, I assure them, the birds are definitely there near shore, very early in the morning.

Since sunrise in May is about 5:30 AM, that means that birders arriving after 8:00 AM will likely NOT see any of the target species of seabirds. In fact, they are not likely to see very many birds at all. Migration for the day is over and birds sit on the water farther offshore, unseen.

Tim Rodenkirk added:
It is certainly the same for passerine species and birds like Black Swift which are regular coastal migrants this time of year. I have posted bird lists at the learning center at New River Area of Critical Environmental Concern (SW Coos Co- BLM land) after point counts only to hear, "I didn't see any of those species"-- well of course, they were looking later AM and even worse, in the PM when the winds typically howl on the Oregon Coast (if you don't want to see birds, always arrive a few hours after sunrise) However, if you are out at sunrise, and the first couple hours after sunrise, you'll hear and see all sorts of birds, but by even 8 or 9AM on the coast, the show is over and the winds begin howling.

It's true. Birds are most active at dawn. Many neotropical migrants fly all night and land at dawn, sing, eat, and then sleep or rest in the shade as the sun crawls higher in the sky. Early birders see more birds. In fact, it is often light enough to see birds a half an hour before official sunrise. And, certainly, the dawn chorus starts well before sunrise and tapers off an hour or so after sunrise. As Rodenkirk reproached: "If you don't want to see birds, always arrive a few hours after sunrise."

To see the most birds, get up while it's dark and be where you want to be birding when the sun rises.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Question: "Hi Greg: I just posted some yard bird photos on my blog. Can you confirm if the last bird photo on the recent post is a Warbling Vireo? Thanks!"

Michele (aka NW Nature Nut)

Warbling Vireo Answer: Yes, Michele, your bird is Warbling Vireo. It is a common migrant in the Pacific NW in May. It nests in cottonwoods, ash, alders, willows along streamsides and in alder thickets in the mountains about 10-15 years following a clear cut, before the fir grows too thick. The Warbling Vireo pictured here I obtained at Calliope Crossing, Sisters, Oregon on 28 May 2005. I need a better photo.

Question: "Hello, This is being written to you to see if you would have any knowledge of what has happened to our bird population, they are all missing this spring. We have a very large back yard and put out bird feeders for our feathered friends, we feed many populations that come through our yard all seasons. We are not hearing anything about this on the news anywhere... [additional text cut] Could you please look into this as we do not have the sources that you do, some enlightenment would be very nice. Thank you,

Chuck & Chris in Oak Grove, Oregon

Answer: I'm sorry to hear that birds seem fewer in your backyard this year. Is there some severe population disaster of which you have not heard? No. At least, nothing that affects all yardbirds and that would be noticeable within just one year. Of course, your habitat (yard) constantly changes, as does the neighborhood, just like any wild place. For instance, over centuries, ponds dry up to become pastures, then savannahs, then forests. During this time the bird populations are changing ever so slightly from year to year. Weather patterns can affect where birds migrate and when, from one year to the next, so they may have skipped your yard this spring. But as for the summer residents, I cannot say why they are less common in your yard this year. I hope they come back! Please see the next Question and Answer.

Question: "Hi, This is probably a very common question. The only birds our yard seems to attract is blue jays and crows. Do you have any advice or could point me in the right direction with a link/contact? I am willing to plant anything to attract something else. We live on 1/2 acre in city limits of Salem, Oregon. Thank you!"

Amy in Salem, Oregon

Answer: Food, water, shelter.

Set up hummingbird feeders, seed feeder (tube or tray) using only black oil sunflower seeds for finches, thistle sock for goldfinches, suet block (until it gets too hot and it melts or it attracts too many starlings) for several winter species.

Set up a simple bird bath or an outdoor fountain or pond.

Plant trees and scattered deciduous and evergreen shrubs for perching and protection. Some native fruit trees are crab apples, elderberry, hawthorn, cherry. Check a local nursery for native plants.

Go to and type in: 'attracting birds to your backyard'

Here are a couple sites to get you started.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary

Oregon State University Extension Service: Wildflowers that attract birds and butterflies

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In the backyard... Evening Grosbeak

Evening GrosbeakEvening Grosbeak, male, Forest Grove, Oregon on 15 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


This large, stocky finch breeds widely in the forested mountains of the Pacific Northwest, where they feed on pine cones and other fruit, seeds, and insects. In winter, these birds often move to lowland towns throughout the region. However their winter travels are irregular and unpredictable. Some winters they may be common at backyard feeders. In other winters they may be absent.

Each May, however, these birds descend en mass to the lowlands west of the Cascades. Here they feed on the buds and young seeds of native maples and imported elm trees. At this time, they will move in and eat a tremendous amount of sunflower seeds at your feeder. By mid-June, most are gone back to the mountains, probably following the budding of the maples upslope as spring moves up the mountains.

Throughout the year, their loud, descending whistles (both clear and buzzy) announce their presence. However, many times they are glimpsed only in noisy flocks of 6-30 birds flying high overhead.

The bold white patches on the black wings really stand out on both sexes. The males have a smoky black head that pales into the yellow underparts. There is a blaze of yellow across the forehead. The huge bill is bone white, but has a slightly greenish hue in summer. Females lack the black head, and the body plumage is more of a pale gray with only a hint of yellow.

The breeding range of Evening Grosbeaks is the Rocky Mountains from northern British Columbia south through western Mexico, across the boreal forests of Canada to the Atlantic provinces, south to the northern portions of the northern states. The also breed in Western mountains from British Columbia south to central California, including the Coast Range. In winter, they move south, regularly to Pennsylvania and Iowa and other states at that latitude, irregularly to the southern states in the United States.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Backyard birds of... Seattle, Washington

Chestnut-backed ChickadeeChestnut-backed Chickadee, Newport, Oregon on 15 September 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The following common yardbirds are found in Seattle, Washington.

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

Rock Pigeon, year round
Band-tailed Pigeon, spring, summer, fall
Mourning Dove, year round
Anna's Hummingbird, year round
Rufous Hummingbird, spring, summer
Downy Woodpecker, year round
Northern Flicker, year round
Western Wood-Pewee, summer
Warbling Vireo, spring, summer
Steller's Jay, year round
American Crow, year round
Violet-green Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Barn Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Black-capped Chickadee, year round
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, year round
Bushtit, year round
Red-breasted Nuthatch, year round
Bewick's Wren, year round
Winter Wren, year round
Golden-crowned Kinglet, year round
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, fall, winter, spring
Swainson's Thrush, summer, fall
American Robin, year round
Varied Thrush, year round
European Starling, year round
Cedar Waxwing, spring, summer, fall
Orange-crowned Warbler, spring, summer
Yellow-rumped Warbler, fall, winter, spring
Black-throated Gray Warbler, spring, summer
Townsend's Warbler, fall, winter, spring
Wilson's Warbler, spring, summer
Western Tanager, spring, summer
Spotted Towhee, year round
Fox Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Song Sparrow, year round
White-crowned Sparrow, year round
Golden-crowned Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Dark-eyed Junco, year round
Black-headed Grosbeak, spring, summer
Red-winged Blackbird, year round
Brewer's Blackbird, year round
Brown-headed Cowbird, spring, summer, fall
Purple Finch, year round
House Finch, year round
Red Crossbill, year round
Pine Siskin, winter, spring
American Goldfinch, spring, summer, fall
Evening Grosbeak, winter, spring
House Sparrow, year round

This list was compiled based on information on the Seattle Audubon's BirdWeb site, as well as Seattle Audubon's Backyard Bird Feeding web site, and Seattle-area Backyard Birds by Christine Vadai.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bird festival... Puffin Watch

Haystack Rock National Wildlife Refuge is on the beach at Canon Beach, Oregon, 60 miles west of Portland. As the most accessible Tufted Puffin colony on the West Coast, how inappropriate would be beach fireworks on Independence Day. How forward-looking of city officials to enforce the state ban on beach fireworks displays and, instead, promote wildlife viewing, creating the Great Canon Beach Puffin Watch!

Thus, on July 3-6, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program and the Friends of Haystack Rock will offer information and set up spotting scopes on the beach. This allows visitors to view the puffins nesting unmolested high up on the 235 foot monolith's grass-covered slopes. Tours are arranged at low tide to visit the tide pools of the designated Marine Gardens and nearby bird watching areas.

The schedule of events is here: Great Canon Beach Puffin Watch, Thursday-Sunday, July 3-6, 2009.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Patti's nesting House Finch saga...

Question: "A house finch built a nest in the wreath on my front door. It is against the glass window on the door so I have been watching the progress of the nesting female. The eggs hatched about a week ago and the mother bird has been attentive and feeding the babies until today. I haven't seen her at all. Has she abandoned the nest? Also, there have been two male house finches hanging around. Any info would be appreciated."


Patti writes back on May 9: "I've seen her a few times since my original email to you. I'm not really familiar with bird behavior so was worried. The babies appear to be growing so I guess she's feeding them. Are the males involved in feeding the young also?"

Answer: I looked it up and it seems the male in all finches feed the young, sometimes even feed the female while she is incubating.

Patti writes back on May 10: "This is all new to me - and fascinating! This morning, the mother bird is in the nest with the babies -- is that common behavior at this point (10 days give or take after they've hatched)? I greatly appreciate your info!"

Answer: In general, the birds lay one egg a day until the whole clutch is complete before beginning incubation. Thus, all the eggs can hatch the same day. That takes about 3 weeks. Then, about 3 weeks later the young will fledge.

Patti writes back on May 13: "Yesterday it appeared the nest was empty! That's approx. 2 weeks after hatching. However, both male and female are still hanging around and occasionally look into the nest. That's the wildlife report for now...."

Answer: This seemed a little soon to me, but John K. Terres writes in "The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds" (1980) that incubation in House Finch is 12-16 days and that fledglings leave the nest 11-19 days after hatching. So it seems that fledging took place right on schedule... and faster than I had expected! Rarely do we have a chance to follow the entire nesting cycle. But, now, thanks to Patti, we've all been able to experience it from beginning to end. Thanks!

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

Saturday, May 16, 2009

At the pond... Wood Duck

Wood DuckWood Duck, Dawson Creek Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 16 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Wood Ducks are medium-sized ducks--smaller than Mallards, larger than teal. The male's brightly-colored plumage gives off an iridescent sheen of blue, green, and violet. The sides are butterscotch. The chest is maroon. Bold white outlines separate the head, chest, and wings from each other. The head sports a large crest that can be laid back or erected prominently (as in the photo above). They eye is reddish-orange.

The female is similar in shape, but mottled brown. It does show a hint of a ragged crest. It has a unique white triangular mask around the eyes. Thus, while not as colorful as the male, it is striking in its own right.

Though unquestionably a colorful and exotic looking duck, the Wood Duck has an equally interesting lifestyle.

For one thing, this duck nests in tree cavities! It is sometimes quite shocking to be walking around in the maple woods near a lake in summer and hear the startling burst of wing beats overhead and hear the rubber duck-like squeaking of this bird flying away. Overhead, this duck displays a rather long squared-off tail in flight. Most ducks have short pointed tails.

Amazingly, when only a few days old, the tiny downy chicks drop ungracefully to the ground from their tree nest--sometimes more than 50 feet in the air! Then they run and waddle along the forest floor to the nearest water where their mother cares for them until they are older.

Wood Ducks breed widely near lakes, river backwaters, and ponds in lowlands from southern Canada to the southern United States, except not in the southern Rocky Mountains or Southwest deserts. In winter many migrate into Mexico. However, in the Pacific Northwest they are found in lower numbers in winter wherever water remains unfrozen. That pretty much means in ponds west of the Cascades and in the Central Valley of California. In the Great Basin they are found in winter along the unfrozen backwaters of the Columbia River and larger tributaries. They are found in Puget Sound, but not along the immediate coast or in salt water.

Wood Ducks readily accept specially-built nest boxes erected near ponds. These boxes may attract Hooded Mergansers, too, as they nest in very similar situations. Nest box plans provided by Ducks Unlimited.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Surfing the web... online field guides

Hammond's FlycatcherHammond's Flycatcher, Timber, Washington Co., Oregon on
18 May 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Online field guides are an incredible resource. Now, whatever field guide you buy for home use, you have others as close as your computer. Here are four covering North American birds. was the first online field guide, covering plants and animals in North America. The bird guide has 1-2 photos of each bird, audio voice recordings, and a written range description. is basically a Sibley Guide to Birds online, with several drawings by David Sibley, audio voice recordings, and range map in North America. is the online inspiration for the iBird portable field guide application for the iPhone and iPod Touch. This guide has features to aid one to more easily find an unknown bird. There is much information here including a growing archive of photos from users. It displays a range map in North America. from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is clearly trying for the best online field guide. The range map shows both North and South American ranges for birds found in North America. Plus, it links to actual sightings in North America showing density as determined from the eBird data collection application. The site has audio voice recordings and there are over 12,000 bird photos (and growing) on the Flickr BirdShare site. It has a Birding Basics section with tutorials on introductory bird identification and photography.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

In the backyard... Bewick's Wren

Bewick's WrenBewick's Wren, Hayward, Washington Co., Oregon on 16 May 2008 by Greg Gillson.


During those rare sunny Northwest mornings in March one can hear the cheerful clear whistled notes and trills of the Bewick's Wren emanating from the roadside blackberry tangles. This can give residents (false) hope that winter may actually end in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Along with the Song Sparrow, Brown Creeper, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, this wren is one of the first birds to start singing their spring breeding song.

While the Eastern populations of this spunky wren are declining, the range of the populations in the Pacific Northwest is expanding. It is quite common west of the Cascades from southwestern British Columbia to northern California. From northern California it is found eastward to Missouri and south well into Mexico. Additional populations occur east into the Appalachians. Though generally absent from the Great Basin, birds follow the Columbia River eastward through the Cascade range into the Columbia River Basin and tributaries in Oregon and Washington (Seattle Audubon BirdWeb), and the Snake River to Idaho (IdahoBirds.Net).

Bewick's Wren is a small bird with a long curved bill. It has a long, floppy, barred tail often held up high at right angles to its reddish-brown back. Most noticeable is the white eyebrow stripe. This bird differs from the buffy-chested Carolina Wren in the East by Bewick's grayish-white chest. The upper parts of Bewick's Wrens tend to be redder in the East, grayer in the Southwest, and darker rufous-brown in the Northwest (as in the photo above).

The habitat of this wren is brushy tangles in woodlots and over-grown backyards, chaparral-oak communities in northern California, brushy stream edges, and clearcuts in lower elevation forests. Bewick's Wrens nest in natural cavities and woodpecker holes, and will readily use nest boxes placed lower than 7 feet from the ground. They eat insects they glean by crawling through brushy tangles. They will come to your bird feeder if it is not too far out in the open... and if you offer suet.

Wednesday, May 13, 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

Question: "Sending photo of what I am pretty sure is a Purple Finch?? It had a very white belly. Is it: 'plain belly-Purple Finch, striped underside-House Finch'???? Thanks so much for your help."

Betty at Foster Lake, Oregon

Answer: You got it right, Betty! That is a male Purple Finch. One way to help separate Purple and House Finches is that the House Finch has most of its orange-red concentrated on the forehead, upper breast, and rump. As you can see on your photo (click photo for larger view), your bird is generally washed with pinkish-red across the top of the head and all down the back and wing coverts--too much reddish wash for House Finch. Another clue. Purple Finches have a pale eyebrow that wraps around the back of the ear coverts. This is obvious on females, but on the male (including your photo) these are pinkish red, but still obvious. House Finches are rather streaky on the head, but without any obvious pattern wrapping around the ear coverts. This photo of Purple Finch shows the relatively unstreaked flanks. As shown in our previous post, In the backyard... House Finch, these birds have heavily streaked sides and flanks.

Question: "I am sending you a photo I took today--I think there were actually two different birds very similar to this one. This bird was black, not brown, and when it flew it had the red wing bar above the obvious yellow bar. It would seem to me to be a male red-wing but it is so striped as the females."

Betty at Foster Lake, Oregon

Answer: In a previous Question and answer column, Johnny sent in a photo of a female Red-winged Blackbird. Your bird is similar, a bit darker, but showing a bit of red and yellow wing stripe (click photo for larger view). What is it? Well, Betty, this is a first-year male Red-winged Blackbird. It is almost a year old, having hatched out some time last year between May and July. While in many species, birds-of-the-year molt into adult-like plumage in fall and winter, some species--like this Red-winged Blackbird--have a distinctive first-year plumage. You can tell that this bird has fresh, new plumage because the feather edges of the back and wing feathers are all outlined with crisp, pale feather edges. These soon wear off. By mid summer this bird will be solid black throughout and look quite like an older adult male.

Question: "I am attaching a photo I put on flickr for OBOL ID. They confused me because of the different head color I was thinking male/female but found out it was possibly age difference on the birds so I couldn't identify them originally. Another good lesson learned."

Betty at Foster Lake, Oregon

Answer: Thanks for the additional photos, Betty. The bird on the left with the buffy or ruddy eyebrow and throat is an adult female Red-winged Blackbird (click photo for larger view). As it is too early in the year for juvenile blackbirds, the bird on the right is a one-year-old female Red-winged Blackbird. In my previous answer I mentioned the fresh feathers with the crisp, pale edges, remember? Can you see that this right hand bird has fresher feathers? Notice especially the pale edges that almost create wingbars on that younger bird. Then see how those pale tips are not so obvious on the older bird. You know, most experienced birders don't look at these common birds as closely as you have. Well done. We have certainly learned a lot about Red-winged Blackbird plumage. Thank you for your questions, Betty!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Surfing the web... bird photography

Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) WarblerYellow-rumped (Audubon's)
Warbler, Jackson Bottom
Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on
26 March 2009 by Greg Gillson.


My bird photos have improved measurably over the past few months thanks to suggestions I have put to use using these web sites.

Rich Ditch's Photography Blog: Rich started this great bird photography blog in January 2009 and posts nearly every day. About 80% of his photos are birds, and most of these are taken in locales near his home in Phoenix, Arizona. He describes composition, technique, light--everything that goes into making a good bird photo--and explains his own personal style.

Nature Photographers Online Magazine: My primary interest in this site is the Avian Image Critique Gallery. Here members post bird photos and give and receive helpful criticism on what they like and how to make it better. I especially enjoy "reposts," where a photographer takes the suggestions and re-adjusts his photograph using the recommendations given.

Bird Photographers.Net: This site also has a photo critique site and a monthly eZine, with helpful articles by some of the world's best nature photographers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

In the woods... Western Tanager

Western Tanager, male, 28 May 2008 by Lois Miller.


"I saw this bird...." Many of my non-birding friends and acquaintances begin their conversations with me with these words. After 35 years of obsessing over birds this is to be expected, I guess. In the Pacific Northwest, it is often the Northern Flicker which generates the most notice and questions among casual nature observers... except in May.

In May, with the Neo-tropical migration in full swing, the unstable weather patterns in the Pacific NW cause birds to migrate in pulses. Nearly every spring migration, there will be a few days in May in which Western Tanagers arrive over night and drip from the trees and bushes in the local backyards. "I saw this amazing yellow bird with a bright red head! What was it?" is what I expect to hear for the next few weeks.

I've already heard the husky "pit-er-rik!" call of the first migrant Western Tanagers this week on my walk into work. It won't be long until this first trickle of birds signals a release of the main floodgates of tanager migration.


Western TanagerWestern Tanager, female or immature male, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 7 July 2007 by Greg Gillson.


These birds are slightly smaller than American Robins. The males are bright yellow with red faces and black back, wings, and tail. There are two wide wingbars; often the upper wingbar is yellow and the lower is whitish. The bill is pale. They sing hoarse, robin-like phrases. Females are similar, but with greenish-yellow plumage and contrasting gray back, wings, and tail. They lack the red face. Lewis and Clark first discovered these birds for science in Idaho in June 1806.

Western Tanagers breed in Western mountains, in the north from southern Alaska east to the Northwest Territories, and in the south from California east locally to western Texas. Their preferred habitat is conifer forests and mixed conifer and deciduous woods. As discussed, the spring migration often takes them through the lowlands. This includes the Great Basin deserts where their flaming red-orange heads contrast greatly with the dull blue-green of the sage brush or juniper trees. These birds winter primarily in Mexico and Guatemala, though a few may be found rarely in winter in southern California.

Even though they live mostly in the mountains, if you have a small grove of large Douglas-fir trees in your backyard, or live among large ponderosa pines, you may have these birds nesting in your lowland backyard. If so, you can attract them to a birdbath or, especially, a fountain with running water. Western Tanagers eat mostly insects, which they glean by crawling through the branches high in the tree canopy. Sometimes they sally out to grab insects on the wing. They also eat fruit and berries. You may be able to attract them to your backyard feeder by offering grapes or orange halves. They may also sip nectar from your hummingbird feeder.

I wish to thank Lois Miller for use of her wonderful photo of the male Western Tanager. See more of Lois Miller's photographs at Rare Bird Arts and at Lois Miller Photographs

This post was featured on the 100th edition of the Blog Carnival, "I and the Bird," which was hosted by the Nature Blog Network on 14 May 2009.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Backyard birds of... San Francisco, California

California TowheeCalifornia Towhee, San Elijos Lagoon, San Diego Co., California on 31 October 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The following common yardbirds are found in San Francisco, California.

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

Rock Pigeon, year round
Band-tailed Pigeon, year round
Mourning Dove, year round
Anna's Hummingbird, year round
Allen's Hummingbird, spring, summer
Downy Woodpecker, year round
Northern Flicker, year round
Black Phoebe, year round
Warbling Vireo, spring, summer, fall
Western Scrub-Jay, year round
American Crow, year round
Violet-green Swallow, spring, summer
Barn Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Cliff Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, year round
Bushtit, year round
Pygmy Nuthatch, year round
Winter Wren, year round
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, fall, winter, spring
Swainson's Thrush, spring, summer, fall
Hermit Thrush, winter
American Robin, year round
Northern Mockingbird, year round
European Starling, year round
Cedar Waxwing, fall, winter, spring
Orange-crowned Warbler, spring, fall
Yellow-rumped Warbler, fall, winter, spring
Townsend's Warbler, fall, winter, spring
Wilson's Warbler, spring, fall
Western Tanager, spring, fall
California Towhee, year round
Fox Sparrow, winter
Song Sparrow, year round
White-crowned Sparrow, year round
Golden-crowned Sparrow, winter, spring
Dark-eyed Junco, year round
Red-winged Blackbird, year round
Brewer's Blackbird, year round
Brown-headed Cowbird, spring, summer, fall
House Finch, year round
American Goldfinch, year round
House Sparrow, year round

This list was compiled based on information on the San Francisco Field Ornithologist's site as well as the San Francisco Bay Wildlife web site.

Friday, May 8, 2009

In the countryside... Mourning Dove

Mourning DoveMourning Dove, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 24 May 2004 by Greg Gillson.


The mournful "boo-hoo... boo-hoo-hoo" call of the Mourning Dove is familiar to most people across North America, from southern Canada through Mexico. In winter this bird retreats from the northern Great Plains, and is much reduced in the Great Basin region of the Pacific Northwest. These are the second most frequent species found in backyards across the United States, according to Project FeederWatch.

This bird is most common around farms and rural areas, but often visits bird feeders even in the city if there is water and some open areas nearby. They do not breed in deep forests or high mountains, but do occur in lower clearcuts. They are rather scarce along the immediate coastline and in the Coast Range north of California.

This plump pinkish-brown bird has a small, round, marble of a head on a thin neck. The long tail is sharply pointed. This is because of the graduated tail with longer central tail feathers, with each matching set of tail feathers gradually shorter to the base of the tail (see photo above). From above, the tail has a black subterminal band and white tips to the feathers on the sides of the tail. This is best seen on flying birds when they fan their tail to land on the ground.

These birds feed on seeds on the ground. You may encounter them flushing away with whistling wings from the gravel edge of a country road. You may also see them perched on roadside power lines digesting their latest meal. Believe it or not, Mourning Doves eat up to 20% of their body weight each day! For more information on the fascinating life history of these birds please see the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's online field guide All About Birds.

To attract Mourning Doves to your yard, use large tray feeders, or spread seeds on the ground. They will eat oats, wheat, and cracked corn, but millet and sunflower seeds are preferred. They will also appreciate a bird bath for drinking. Nearby scattered trees and evergreens offer protection and a place to build their flimsy stick nests. They frequently choose a smaller dead tree as a favorite perch.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bird festival... Woodpecker Wonderland

The second annual Woodpecker Wonderland bird festival is being held at Camp Sherman, Oregon, June 5-7, 2009.

There could be no more beautiful backdrop to this festival than Camp Sherman in the central Oregon Cascades. Here, amid the golden ponderosa pines with the picture puzzle bark, long green needles, and scent of vanilla, the Metolius River emerges full-blown from a hole in the earth. The river meanders across a green meadow to the north. And there, standing above the open meadow is the snow-covered volcanic cone of Mt. Jefferson, standing 10,000 feet high against the deep blue sky.

One flyfisherman (SwittersB) recently created this poetically descriptive post and photo of the Metolius River: Metolius River (As Pristine As it Gets for now & Confessions of a Trespasser).

Thus, I was overjoyed when the organizers of this event asked me to be a tour leader for some of the birding trips during the festival. Besides the eleven species of woodpeckers found in the nearby areas, this is a wonderful birding locale.

For more information on the festival, and to register, visit the Woodpecker Wonderland web site.

There are full and half-day tours on Friday and Saturday, and half-day tours on Sunday. The Saturday evening Keynote speaker is Dr. Eric Walters who will present the program: "Acorn Clowns and Red Cockades," a reference to two woodpeckers found in North America.

See you there!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Recent photo... Spotted Towhee

Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 3 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Saturday was my planned photography day. However, when I awoke at night to the sound of heavy rain, I changed my mind. Since concentrating more and more on photography over the past couple of years I have become a fair-weather birder, it seems. But I awoke early Sunday morning and noted the dry streets so decided just to get out there for the morning. Of course, it was soon apparent that it was foggy and gloomy, which isn't good for making striking bird photos either. My goal was to head up into the hills and get above the fog. And so I did, ending up at Hagg Lake in the foothills of the Coast Range west of Portland, Oregon.

In March I posted In the backyard... Spotted Towhee, discussing this species in more detail. The bird photographed in the previous post was a more brownish female. The bird pictured above is a shiny black male, singing away in this flowering tree. I took several photos of this bird, including some shots of it eating the blossoms of this fruiting tree. Actually, I think they eat the flower's fruiting ovaries and spit out the petals, which slowly rain down from the tree.

On my web site for The Bird Guide I have a birding site guide for Hagg Lake (updated in April 2007) that may be of interest to those birding in the Portland area.

In an attempt to make more artistic photos I have been following a few rules of composition. In the photo above I cropped it so that the bird was off-center, with more space above the head and more space in the direction in which he is looking. My camera is the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi and the lens is the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS USM. The settings were 1/400 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200, aperture priority, matrix metering, 400mm focal length, fill flash at -2 stops. I shot in RAW mode and used Photoshop Elements 6.0, masking off the bird to adjust the exposure of the bird and sharpen it separately from the background.

Monday, May 4, 2009

In the backyard... Brewer's Blackbird

Brewer's BlackbirdBrewer's Blackbird, Dawson Creek Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 6 December 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Brewer's Blackbirds are found on residential lawns and urban parking lots, as well as agricultural areas, sage steppe, coastal areas, and generally open areas below 6,000 feet of elevation throughout the Pacific Northwest. In recent years they have expanded their range in the West to southern Alaska and eastward to the western Great Lakes region.

These birds eat a larger percentage of insects than many other blackbirds. They have adapted to picking insects of the grills of cars in parking lots, not to mention scrounging spilled french fries from the ground at fast food restaurants. They also visit backyard feeders for seeds and food scraps, but are more likely to be seen perched on wires or walking the lawns.

The male is glossy black with greenish body plumage and purplish head sheen in strong sunlight. The pale yellow eye is quite distinctive. Females are duller brownish with dark eyes. Similar species in the Pacific NW include the short-tailed European Starling, the male Red-winged Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbirds.

After breeding, the birds form large flocks in the fall, mixed with other blackbirds and starlings. Birds leave the northern parts of their range in winter and move down slope from the higher elevations, departing any area with deep or constant snow cover. Still, some of these birds may be found in most towns and agricultural areas in the West in winter. Interestingly, females and young birds migrate farther south in winter than males, reaching well into Mexico.

Sunday, May 3, 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

Question: "Hey Greg, My name is Mark.. and I live in... Lake Oswego. I was just looking out my rear window 2 stories up into a large Big Leaf Maple and saw what I thought was a Solitary Vireo (which one I am not sure, Cassin's?) but it had a red patch on the top of its head. This startled me, so I tried to find photos or mention of a red headed vireo but there doesn't seem to be such a you know what it was I saw? Greenish with white wing bars and buff colored underneath, belly and breast. Don't currently have access to my bird books. TIA, Mark"

Mark in Lake Oswego, OR

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Answer: A small green bird such as you describe could be a vireo, as you first guessed, Mark. Both Cassin's and Hutton's vireos match your description in the Pacific Northwest--except for one important detail as you discovered--vireos do not have red crowns! A small green bird that does have a red crown is Orange-crowned Warbler. They are very common in spring migration (right now) and through the summer in the West. However, they do not show obvious white wingbars as you describe. That leaves the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (as shown in the thumbnail to the left; click for a larger view). Now, only the males have the red crown. And as in the Orange-crowned Warbler, the red only shows when the bird raises its crown feathers. This happens when they are aggitated--perhaps when displaying before a female or when upset about an intruder into their territory.

Question: "Hi Greg, I spotted this wonderful bird having a mid-afternoon meal in my garden. What beautiful markings he/she had. I’ve not seen birds like this here before.... Can you tell me what species it is? Thank so much."

Claudia in Portland, OR

Answer: Your bird is a male Northern Flicker, Claudia, a type of woodpecker. They are often found on the ground eating ants--their favorite food! We have an article on that bird here: In the backyard... Northern Flicker.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

At the pond... Mallard

MallardMallard, Dawson Creek Park, Hillsboro, Oregon on 6 December 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Nearly everyone is familiar with the Mallard. It breeds across North America, Europe, and Asia. It has been introduced widely throughout the world to city parks with ponds. Mallards are the ancestors of nearly all domestic ducks (more about this in a future post).

Male wild Mallards have brown backs, gray sides, chestnut-brown chests, and metallic green heads with a white neck ring. The bill is yellow, the legs and feet orange. The tail feathers are white. The undertail and uppertail coverts are black. Diagnostically, several black central uppertail covert feathers curve up over the rump (see photo above). In flight, the speculum (colored patch of secondary flight feathers) is purplish-blue with leading and trailing margins of white.

Female Mallards are cryptically colored in brownish streaked plumage like many other female ducks. The bill is mottled black and orange. The legs and feet are orangish, and the speculum is colored the same as in the male.

In the Pacific NW Mallards breed in freshwater wetlands, ponds, and shallow backwaters of larger rivers. They do not nest right on salt water, nor in the higher lakes. In fall, lakes and wetlands throughout the region see a huge increase in birds from the north. These remain well into spring, as long as the water remains ice-free. Thus, in mid-winter, the lower valleys west of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevadas see flocks of tens-of-thousands around favored wetlands.