Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Female Evening Grosbeak

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


This spring I took far more photos than I could prepare in my digital darkroom. Now that summer has arrived and my bird photography has scaled back a bit, I am able to go back through my spring photos and prepare a few more for display.

I wanted to share this photo of a female Evening Grosbeak. It appeared in my backyard-to-be in May, along with the more striking male Evening Grosbeak.

The large flocks of grosbeaks that descended to the valley floor for the maple bloom have now returned to the hills. However, one pair remains--evidently to breed, and I hear them flying around our neighborhood every few days--though they have not returned to the feeders (that I have noticed).

Monday, July 27, 2009

In the countryside... Ring-necked Pheasant

Ring-necked PheasantRing-necked Pheasant, Catlow Valley, Harney Co., Oregon on 27 May 2007 by Greg Gillson.


The first Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced from China to North America in 1881 in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon by Judge Denny. It is still common to hear them referred to as "China Pheasants" or "Denny Pheasants." By 1894 over one-quarter million pheasants were hunted in western Oregon. They have been pen-raised locally ever since and spread to the rest of the Pacific Nortwest and been introduced widely throughout North America for hunting purposes.

Pheasants inhabit farms and agricultural lands and suburban edges. They eat a wide variety of items including fruit and berries, seeds, leaves, and insects such as grasshoppers.

In the spring, males begin courtship with loud crowing and wing flaps. In June and July one may see females and broods of young.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Willamette Valley Birding Trail


Exciting news!

A new set of birding trails has been added to the Oregon Birding Trail system. Official printed trail guides are due in August 2009. But there is a web site with a preliminary pdf brochure available right now.

Willamette Valley Birding Trail

A birding trail is a self-guided driving birding loop. From Clatskanie in the north along the Columbia River, to Cottage Grove in the southern end of the Willamette Valley, there are 12 birding trail loops. Each loop has numerous birding site stops and some of the highlight birds are listed.

Word has it that this birding trail will also include some bicycle birding loops!

The Willamette Valley Birding trail joins the Cascades Birding Trail, the Coast Birding Trail, the Klamath Birding Trail, and the Basin and Range Birding Trail. To access all the trail brochures online, please visit the Oregon Birding Trails page.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Nesting birds

Cassin's VireoCassin's Vireo on nest, Idlewild Campground, Harney Co., Oregon on 26 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Vireos often sing from their nests. I followed this singing Cassin's Vireo (above) right to its nest. Other Pacific NW bird bloggers have also written recently about nesting birds...

Bill Schiess combines his birding with fishing. He has a photo collection of Eastern Kingbirds at a nest at Henrys Lake, Idaho.

Also in Idaho, as posted on the Avimor Birding Blog there is a post showing the nests of Swainson's Hawk, California Quail, and Cedar Waxwing.

Another Cedar Waxwing nest was found at the Sandy River delta near Portland, as reported on the Laura Goes Birding blog.

Andy Frank posts photos of a Violet-green Swallow at a nest box.

Over at The Flycatcher is a photo of a White-headed Woodpecker outside its nest on a ponderosa pine.

At BirdFellow, Dave Irons offers up a photo essay of Western Kingbirds feeding their young on a typical nest on a power pole.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In the backyard... White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted NuthatchWhite-breasted Nuthatch, Calliope Crossing, Sisters, Deschutes Co., Oregon on 12 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


At five and three-quarter inches in length from bill to tail, the White-breasted Nuthatch is the largest of four North American nuthatches. We have already discussed the Pacific Nortwest's other two nuthatches, the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the Pygmy Nuthatch.

This bird is found across southern Canada and south through the US and into the mountains of Mexico. The 11 subspecies across North America can be divided into three groups. The stout billed and paler birds of the East, the long and thin billed and dark birds in the center of the continent, and the "tweeners" of the Pacific slope. Each of these three groups have different vocalizations.

In the Pacific Northwest the population west of the Cascades is found primarily in older oak groves. These birds are becoming quite rare in western Washington. The call note of these birds is described as a long drawn-out aaarn. East of the Cascades, birds of the longer-billed subspecies are found in mature ponderosa pine forests (as shown above). The call note of these birds is described as a rapid: yiji-yiji-yiji-yiji.

White-breasted Nuthatches are often observed crawling over the larger limbs or head-first down the trunk of trees, searching for bark-dwelling insects to eat. They will eat sunflower seeds and suet at your feeder.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Juvenile Western Scrub-Jay

Western Scrub-JayJuvenile Western Scrub-Jay, Forest Grove, Oregon on 7 July 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The juvenile above can be compared to the adult that appeared in In the backyard... Western Scrub-Jay.

This juvenile and its siblings have been visiting my backyard for a couple of weeks. The gray, rather than blue, crown helps identify this bird as a juvenile. Another feature of this bird is the lack of the black mask shown by the adult. Finally, notice the pink skin at the gape--the back portion of the mouth where the two mandibles (upper and lower) meet.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Technology trend is changing the way people watch birds

There is a convergence of technology underway that is fundamentally changing the way many people approach watching birds.

You're seeing the technology right now.

The technology trend is the ubiquitous nature of powerful, yet affordable, digital zoom cameras, combined with free photosharing web sites and blogs.

Of course, photographers have been taking pictures of wild birds since at least 1892. And, a century later, birders were discovering en mass "Digiscoping," holding up an inexpensive point-and-shoot digital camera to the best birding spotting scopes.

The problem has been sharing those photos. With the advent of the Internet and digital photography, it was easier to post photos. Easier. Not necessarily easy. If you spent the time and money you could have your own Internet web page and upload the photos there.

Though the word "blog" had not yet been coined (the word "web log" was first used in 1997 and later shortened) Don Roberson's rare bird photo-journal: Monterey County Rarities is a home-grown blog that began in 1998 and continues to this day.

One of the oldest blogs on birds still running in the Pacific NW is Mike Patterson's North Coast Diaries. Patterson started his blog in 2004.

Flickr by Yahoo! has free photo-sharing accounts. It allows users to invite others to look at their photos and leave comments.

Google bought Blogger in 2003 and Picasa in 2004. These free programs combine to allow users easily to share photos and text with others.

Now it is easier than ever before for knowledgeable birders, like Roberson and Patterson, to share their high-quality photos and expert knowledge to help teach others about birds and bird watching. This is certainly a welcome advance in bird watching.

But this is not the trend that is changing the way many people are watching birds.

The New Paradigm

Rather, these digital photography and blog technologies are causing new birders to approach birding in a different way. In the past, a beginning birder would spend time observing birds with binoculars and notepad, then research it in their field guides. They may or may not come to a conclusion about its identity. And if they didn't, the bird was gone and the opportunity lost, except for their written description in their field notebook. If they could accurately describe the bird, then, perhaps, a more experienced birding mentor could help them come to an accurate ID. Keen observation skills in the field were required, along with the ability to describe bird anatomy and, perhaps, crude bird sketching skills.

Now, however, what is clear is that many new bird watchers--for the first time ever--are approaching birding from the photograph first, post on the Internet now, identify later point of view.

Young birderA young birder practices digiscoping birds at Riley Pond, Oregon on 23 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Because of this fundamental change to photographing birds even before attempting an identification, Gunnar Engblom in March 2009 went so far as to make the controversial recommendation of buying young or newer birders a digital camera rather than binoculars!

Does this new paradigm cause new birders to overly rely on others to identify birds for them? Will this keep them from ever developing the keen observation skills necessary to become a competent birder? Or, conversely, could the immediate feedback and ability to get a correct identification from experts anywhere in the world actually help a new birder gain more confidence in their identification skills? Could the extra time needed to get the photograph mean more time spent observing the bird and its behavior? And could the post-processing time on the computer to make the photo ready for publication lead to more study of an actual bird's plumage and structure?

Whether you think this is the "correct" way to learn bird identification skills or not, it is clear that a photograph first, identify later, trend is sweeping the birding landscape. A year or two ago a few requests for photo ID help would appear from time to time on the various bird mailing listservs. "If I email my photo of this strange bird to someone, will you help me to identify it?" Now, however, it is not unusual to have several requests per day on the more active birding email lists. "See my new photos," "Photo ID help requested," and "Blog updated" are frequent subjects of email list postings, directing readers to their blog or photo sharing page to view and, more often than not, help out with a bird identification puzzle.

To close this discussion, I'd like to point to you to Samuel Snook's Nature blog. Snook is, as he says: "a 12 year old boy who takes birding very seriously." Read his May 18, 2009 article: Nature: Point Pelee National Park. And I mean read this. Samuel does use one of his photos (and memory of the bird's song) to get help to identify one new bird; then he immediately goes out to find another. At the end of his blog post he thanks his parents for spending time and money to encourage his birding hobby. Any parent would be proud.

Is this the future of birding?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Question: (June 6) "This bird was sighted in Montesano, Washington. Do you know what kind it is?"

Jennie in Montesano, Washington

Answer: This bird is a Black-headed Grosbeak. If you don't have a field guide that shows multiple plumages, you may have trouble identifying this bird. This bird is a first summer male. It is just barely one year old. It will not attain full adult breeding plumage until April of next year.

Question: (June 7) "Hi Greg,
We live outside of Deming, WA on the what is called the VanZant Dike. We are classified as Foothills with weather forecasts and predictions. There was a small bird that had a nest on the ground in a small tall grassy area right next to one of my raised beds in the garden. I only caught a glimpse of it, but it looked gray and small like a finch. I have lived here for 25 years and have never seen a small bird like that build a nest in the ground here before. Do you know what bird this would be?
P.S. Our puppy being the curious one she is, accidentally stuck her nose in the nest to smell it, before we knew what she was doing, she had smashed the three eggs that were in the nest. It was a sad moment. I had no idea the nest was even there.
Thank you,"

Jan in Deming, Washington

Dark-eyed JuncoAnswer: The Dark-eyed Junco builds its nest on or near the ground. I suspect that it what it is. It will probably build another nest this year as this one has failed (a common occurrence). See In the backyard... Dark-eyed Junco.

Question: (June 11) "Hi Greg,
I appreciate your answers to all "our" questions. In an article a while back, you mentioned that you have to get up early to hear many birds. I get up early...say 3:45 a.m. and go walk the dogs right away. To echo your earlier article, I usually first, hear a song sparrow then the Robins join in (there must be scores singing around Garden Home Park). Every so often, I'll hear a lonesome Mourning Dove but the only other birds I'll hear will be Towhees. In the past few weeks, however, I've been hearing what I'm sure are Violet-Green Swallows en masse twittering all over the neighborhood before even, the Song Sparrows awake. Could this be that Violet Green Swallows are partially nocturnal? It's dark and there are only streetlights and ambient light to give light. They are not flying through the streetlights but are above twittering away. Quite vocal they are: are they keeping in touch through sound? Do they have night vision? and...can they catch insects at this hour in the dark? I know birds migrate overnight but I watch Violet-Green Swallows cavorting all day long while I'm at work in Salem. Do some stay up at night and the others during the day? So many questions....thanks for your input,

PS...when do the warblers start to sing..I never hear any!"

Steve in Garden Home, Oregon

Violet-green Swallow Answer: Yes, Violet-green Swallows can be heard singing at night. In the spring it is not unusual to hear any bird call or sing at night. White-crowned Sparrow, Sora, Killdeer, American Robin, Violet-green Swallow, Common Loon, Yellow-breasted Chat, Ring-necked Pheasant... any of these may be the first bird heard on a Big Day, a crazy birding event starting at midnight and going 24 hours to detect (hear or see) the most birds possible. By June, most birds are feeding young and no longer so enthusiastic about singing to defend their territory or attract a mate. But they will sing periodically through the day, but especially at dawn.

Warblers often sing during migration, April and May, just passing through on their way to their breeding grounds. Once on their breeding grounds they sing regularly. Singing warblers are few in town, they like riparian forest clearings, forest, wetlands, and other places with lots of mosquitoes. Nearby (to Portland) damp forested areas and brushy clear cuts should have Wilson's, MacGillivray's and Orange-crowned warblers. Oak groves will have Black-throated Gray Warblers, as will mixed maple/Douglas-fir woods. If you get above 600 feet you should find Hermit Warblers on up to 3000 feet in Douglas-fir/Western Hemlock, then Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler above that in the true firs. Common Yellowthroats are in the lowland pond blackberry tangles and perhaps Yellow Warblers in willow wetlands.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In the woods... White-headed Woodpecker

White-headed WoodpeckerWhite-headed Woodpecker, Sisters, Oregon on 27 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


This is one of the primary target species for birders visiting the Woodpecker Wonderland bird festival that was held in early June at Camp Sherman, Oregon, in the central Oregon Cascades. And a spectacular bird this is! It is one of my favorites, but hard to photograph correctly, as the black-and-white plumage plays havoc with camera exposure settings. Thus, this shot in the shade worked just right. And the low light angle of this late afternoon shot really brings out the details in this decorative bird bath. Of course, I really wasn't thinking about the artistic merit when I was taking the shot out of my car window in the motel parking lot. Don't tell anybody!

Click this link for all my posts on the Woodpecker Wonderland festival.

Please read Dave Irons' post on this Festival on the BirdFellow blog.

To see a White-headed Woodpecker you must visit old-growth ponderosa pine forests in the West, primarily from southern British Columbia and northern Idaho south through the Cascades and Sierra Nevada mountains to southern California.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What is that black bird with the yellow head?

Yellow-headed BlackbirdLike a cat coughing up a furball, the strangled "creaky-hinge" song of the Yellow-headed Blackbird is as painful to watch being delivered as it is to listen to. Hines, Oregon on 24 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Here is another photo from my trip to Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Memorial Day weekend of late May.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are a bird of prairie wetlands in western North America. They love large tule and cattail expanses. They breed north to interior British Columbia east to the Great Lakes and south to northern Arizona and New Mexico. They winter in agricultural lands and feedlots in the SW US and northern half of Mexico.

Although a few birds may winter in the Pacific NW, most arrive on territory in April and remain into September. In the Pacific Northwest they are found primarily east of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevada Mountains. This bird is one of the obvious and unique birds of the Malheur NWR area, attracting the attention of all visitors, whether birders or not.

The female is smaller, browner, with the duller yellow more restricted to the lower face and throat.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds will visit backyard feeders near their breeding wetlands. They eat mixed seeds and cracked corn, spending much time on the ground feeding. They will also be attracted to bird baths for drinking.

Friday, July 3, 2009

What are they blogging about this week?

In the right hand column of this blog is a gadget that is entitled "My Blog List." It includes what I think are the best blogs that complement the Pacific NW Backyard Birder. They are consistently informative, well-written, and tend to have exceptional photographs.

For instance...
John Rakestraw takes us to Finley NWR at Corvallis, Oregon, where he shows us Savannah Sparrow, Northern Harrier, and elk, along with a view of the prairie.

Lee was in the Dosewallips river of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington where he photographed Harlequin Ducks and many other items for the Lee Rentz Photography Weblog.

Dave wrote about the early June Woodpecker Wonderland festival held at Camp Sherman, Oregon, in the BirdFellow blog.

Though Rich lives in Arizona, his bird photography tips are excellent. This week it is way too hot for bird photography, so he presents the unique pattern in the bark of a palm tree on Rich Ditch's Photography Blog.

I thought I would give a brief overview of what other Pacific Northwest nature bloggers are writing about this week, too. I know of the following dozen such blogs. If you have a Pacific NW nature blog (especially bird-related) or know of another, please let me know so that I can include them in a future similar list.

This, then, is a surprise blog carnival. The authors didn't know they were going to be on display! To get started, here is a sampling of recent writings....

Mike Patterson, over at North Coast Diaries writes about Devil's Club.

Connor, writing in his nom de plume as "North West Birds" in the Beaverton Bird Blog spotted two new year birds, Cedar Waxwing and Green Heron and presents a photo of the waxwing, but a "stand-in" photo of Great Blue Heron had to do, as he just couldn't get a photo of the Green Heron!

The Northwest Nature Nut presents a few of her recent photos from the Portland Rose Garden and the Pittock Mansion.

Max visited Haystack Rock at Pacific City, Oregon recently and photographed a mole crab for his Apartment Biology blog.

Entomologist JP wrote in May at Pacific Slope Blog of her writing retreat to Shotpouch Creek west of Corvallis, Oregon, and the interesting plants and animals she found there.

Though her blog is entitled Laura Goes Birding, this week she went canoeing on the Willamette River at Portland.

Floyd photographed a "blond" Red-tailed Hawk in Yamhill County, Oregon and writes about it in The Flycatcher.

Seth and Michelle on Portland Oregon Backyard Birds went to the Oregon coast and saw and photographed a lot of good birds, including thousands of Brown Pelicans.

John, at the Born Again Bird Watcher, shows us a few camera and optics products from the "Wild Birds Unlimited Vendor Mart 2009" in Seattle.

Andy took advantage of the recent very low tides to do some "tidepooling" on the Andy Frank blog.

Over in Idaho, Charles blogs about an American Kestrel on the University of Idaho campus in BirdaPalousa.

Finally, Fiona in Seattle, the self-titled Nature Geek NW, found a Pied-billed Grebe nest with chicks.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Camp Robber of the West... Gray Jay

Gray JayGray Jay at the picnic table, Abbott Creek, Jefferson Co., Oregon on 28 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Here is another photo obtained while scouting for the Woodpecker Wonderland bird festival at Camp Sherman, Oregon, a few weeks back.

These Northern forest and Western mountain birds are often quiet and hard to locate in the woods, giving soft whistles. Hard to locate, that is, until you visit one of the campgrounds they frequent. Begin your picnic and they sail up quietly and boldly snatch away your food! Camp robbers, indeed!

Though quite fluffy, these are actually one of the smaller jays in the world. Browner Pacific birds in the Cascades and Coast Ranges of the Pacific NW have more extensive black crowns and darker gray backs than the paler birds of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, these Pacific birds were once considered a separate species, the Oregon Jay. There are more questions than answers concerning these Pacific birds.

For instance, Gray Jays in the North cache food. That is, they save up excess food, coat it with sticky saliva, and then hide pellets of food to eat later in the winter. Do jays in the Coast Range cache food? Snow does not remain on the ground through winter in the rainy Coast Range as it does where the other studies were done. It would seem that stored food would soon go bad in the Coast Range.

Again, Gray Jays in the North may nest in March. Do jays in the Oregon and Washington Coast Range nest that early? It doesn't seem so, but the number of nests reported from this area is low.

Another thing. While Gray Jays can be predicted in the mountains and far north by the presence of spruce and true fir, they are generally absent in Sitka spruce along the immediate coast and instead are found widely in Douglas fir and western hemlock of the Coast Range, with forest tree structures where they wouldn't appear in other areas (clear cuts, alders, etc.). Why? There are mysteries aplenty to be discovered by a patient observer willing to spend some time in the Pacific Northwest woods.

I found this article concerning Steller's Jays stealing the cache of Gray Jays to be interesting.