Monday, August 31, 2009

At the coast... Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon GuillemotPigeon Guillemot, Newport, Oregon on 9 August 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Pigeon Guillemots are common nearshore seabirds on the West Coast. They breed from the the Kamchatka Peninsula in Asia, north to the Bering Strait, through the Aleutians, and south to islands off southern California. From spring through fall you can find these small black waterbirds with bright red feet in bays and estuaries and in the ocean along rocky shores.

Pigeon Guillemots nest on pilings, bridge footings, and under wharfs in bays and estuaries. On the outer coast they choose rocky sea cliffs where they lay their 2 eggs in a crevice or similar protected cranny. You can hear their drawn out high piping whistle call that runs together at the end: see-see-see-see-see-see-seeeer.

In winter they become scarce on the open ocean and outer bays of California, Oregon, and Washington. Some field guides say that they winter "far offshore," but this may not be the case. Many evidently migrate northward to Puget Sound and protected waters off British Columbia. Likewise, most of the birds breeding in the Bering Sea move southward to southern Alaska. During this time they molt into a non-breeding plumage that is mostly dusky white with dark on the crown, back, and parts of the wing.

These birds swim in the ocean and then dive below the surface to chase fish for food. They flap their wings under water to propel themselves. They feed in shallower waters than the related murres and puffins.

Pigeon GuillemotPigeon Guillemot, Newport, Oregon on 9 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The most similarly colored bird to Pigeon Guillemot is the White-winged Scoter, a slightly larger sea duck. Swimming, both Cassin's Auklets and Rhinoceros Auklets are rather dark gray above the waterline. But the Pigeon Guillemot differs obviously from these last two, in that the guillemot has the large white wing patch.

Many people have trouble determining whether a patch of color on the upperparts of a non-flying bird is on the back or wing. By comparing the two photos above you can see how a wing patch looks in flight compared to when the wing is folded.

Another thing that the two photos reveal is that I visited the coast and captured photos of Pigeon Guillemots two years in a row on the exact same day! That is because I was at the coast each year to help guide on a pelagic birding trip. A pelagic trip is a tour set up to go far to sea (35 miles in this case) on a chartered fishing boat, but to view seabirds, not do any fishing. There are about 20 species of seabirds off the Pacific NW, that are rarely spotted from shore and that are common to abundant just out of sight of land. Please visit our pelagic birding website to learn more.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Juvenile Common Yellowthroat

Common YellowthroatJuvenile Common Yellowthroat, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 26 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


A nice walk this morning around the local wetlands revealed very few birds, as typical for late summer. What were present, though, were many juvenile birds. There were young Green Herons, Barn Swallows, Song Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, House Finches, and young Western Sandpipers already on their way south from their nests on the arctic tundra of Alaska.

There were also many young Common Yellowthroats, which we discussed earlier this spring. The bird above appears in plumage as a typical female Common Yellowthroat, but for one obvious difference. The tail of adult Yellowthroats are very round. As you can see on the photo above, the tail appears strongly notched on this bird and the individual tail feathers are very sharply pointed. This is a characteristic of many juvenile birds, from ducks to songbirds.

Watch for this feature on the birds visiting your feeder or when you are out in the field this summer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In the countryside... Western Bluebird

Western BluebirdWestern Bluebird in a clear cut, Hayward, Washington Co., Oregon on 16 May 2008 by Greg Gillson.


When I began birding in 1972 the Western Bluebird was near the bottom of a 30-year decline in population in western Oregon countrysides. In fact, they were nearly extirpated. For instance, winter bird censuses for the Portland Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) from 1935-1947 averaged 20 birds per year, with a high of 47 and a low of 5. From 1966-1976 not a single bluebird was recorded on the Portland CBC (Hubert Prescott, Portland Bluebird Trail, SWOC Talk, Vol 3, No. 2. 1977).

Causes of decline are complex, controversial, and not fully understood. Certainly the spread of House Sparrows in the Pacific NW from the late 1890's was a large factor. The demise of family farms and the conversion to larger edge-to-edge farming played a role, as did the conversion of farmland into residential suburbs. Widespread use of insecticides may have played a role after World War II from 1945, eliminating insects or causing harm to birds eating treated insects. Then, too, the European Starlings could also have hurried the bluebird's downfall after they arrived in western Oregon in the 1940's. Forest practices, namely clear cutting with complete snag removal, made the foothills unattractive to bluebirds.

There were a very few bluebirds remaining, however, on farms on some of the small hills in the Willamette Valley. From 1974-1976 Bluebird Trails started up in rural areas near Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, and elsewhere. Volunteers built and placed hundreds of bluebird boxes at regularly spaced intervals across rural areas, starting at known nesting sites. Small diameter entrance holes kept out Starlings and most House Sparrows. But Violet-green Swallows, Black-capped Chickadees, House Wrens, Bewick's Wrens and other cavity nesting birds competed for these boxes. And predation and vandalism was high. Nevertheless, bluebird numbers climbed.

Numbers have not recovered on the Portland CBC. Perhaps, because of the urban sprawl, bluebirds will never return to backyards in Portland. But in Corvallis, some comparisons can be made. The first 5 years of counts in Corvallis, 1963-1967, this count averaged 24 birds. The population crashed, perhaps due to disease and a harsh winter, in 1969. During a couple of subsequent years no bluebirds were found. In the 5 years after the Corvallis Bluebird Trail was started, 1976-1980, Corvallis averaged 54 bluebirds on the CBC. In the most recent 5-year period, 2003-2007, the average number of Western Blubirds on the Corvallis CBC was 263. Amazing!

More and more people in the general public are erecting specially designed bluebird nest boxes. Forest practices have changed a bit so that some standing snags are left after timber harvest. Bluebirds nest in old woodpecker holes in these snags out in the middle of a clear cut in the lower Coast Range and Cascade forests. And bluebirds are increasing because of it.

In the Pacific Northwest, Western Bluebirds occur in lowland farmlands with scattered trees away from European Starlings west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. They also like open pine forests on the east slope of the Cascades of Oregon and Washington and higher mountians of NE Oregon, SE Washington, northern Washington and Idaho. They like oak savannah and open dry woods in SW Oregon and northern California.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

ID challenge... Western Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper

Western SandpiperJuvenile female Western Sandpiper, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 18 August 2004 by Greg Gillson.


For those who venture beyond their backyards and beyond the common birds, there are several groups of birds that can present challenges in identification. Such groups include the streaky brown sparrows, some of the green warblers, vireos, and kinglets, the look-a-like Empidonax flycatchers, immature gulls, and the smaller shorebirds known as "peep" (for their peeping calls).

The Least and Western Sandpipers are common spring and fall migrants throughout the Pacific NW. They cover mudflats on bays along the coast, but also at inland puddles with drying mud edges in the dry autumn heat.

Identification separating these two is fairly straight forward, as the Least Sandpiper has yellowish legs and the Western Sandpiper has black legs. However, in the fall the plumages are confusing, as there are adults in boldly streaked brown breeding plumage early in the season (July and August) fading and wearing gradually to dull tan, until molting into the gray and white non-breeding plumage in October. Then, the bright brown and rusty and white-edged juveniles are present from August through October.

In the flocks of fall migrant shorebirds, each in slightly different plumage, may lurk an exciting vagrant rare bird for the careful observer, or an identification trap for the unwary. New identification criteria, better field guides explaining the differences, and a better understanding of migration timing for some of the rare vagrants have revealed some patterns. This has led to the discovery that Semipalmated Sandpipers are regular migrants through the Pacific Northwest in small numbers.

The typical juvenile female Western Sandpiper is pictured above. Juveniles have bright, crisp feathers of the upperparts. These are often black centered with broad, clean edges of white, yellow, tan, or rusty. You can see above that all the brown feathers of the wing are edged in cream with some dark shaft streaks. The feathers of the shoulders (scapulars) are rusty-centered with black anchor-shaped subterminal marks, and white tips. The legs are black. The bill is longer than the head, thick at the base, and tapers and droops gradually toward the tip.

Semipalmated Sandpipers have short, straight, blunt-tipped bills. But don't be fooled by looking at only this one field mark. While there are certainly more Semipalmated Sandpipers out there than we used to think (the majority of Semipalmated Sandpipers migrate down the East Coast), it is my contention that many birders are misidentifying small-billed male Western Sandpipers as the rare Semipalmated Sandpiper in the West.

Take a look at the bird photographed below. It has black legs and a rather straight, short bill compared to the bird above. Is this a Semipalmated Sandpiper?

Western SandpiperJuvenile male Western Sandpiper, Newport, Oregon on 7 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


No, the bird above is not a Semipalmated Sandpiper. It is a juvenile male Western Sandpiper. Males of many shorebirds have smaller bills (and other measurements) than females. Again, notice the bold, crisp upper part feathers with wide colored edges. This indicates a juvenile. The scapulars are rusty cinnamon in color, just a touch redder than expected on the brightest-colored Semipalmated Sandpipers. The bill has a narrower "pinched" look just before a slightly broader tip--a kind of small "blob" at the end of the bill.

Now compare this bird with a Semipalmated Sandpiper (below) found in the same flock.

Semipalmated SandpiperJuvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Newport, Oregon on 7 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The bird above is in very fresh plumage. The hint of buff across the breast is on the very tips of the breast feathers and will soon wear off to become entirely white breasted. The wing feathers are crisply edged, indicating a juvenile. But note the the subterminal anchors are more brown than black as the Western Sandpiper. The edges are more cream than white. This gives the bird less contrasting look, dark brown and cream rather than black and white. Notice that a few of the scapular feathers are pinkish, but not really deep rusty. And look at that bill. It really is stout, without any droop or constriction just before the tip.

If you are at the stage of your birding development where you are attempting to identify shorebirds, I suggest the following. Get a copy of Advanced Birding, a Peterson Field Guide by Ken Kaufman (1990). Start in spring when there are no juveniles, only bright adults in breeding plumage. Finally, take a shorebird class offered by the larger Audubon Societies (The Audubon Society of Portland regularly teaches such classes for free or nominal charge). Finally, go shorebirding in fall with expert birders. It is of utmost importance to identify juveniles. If your expert can't explain the various feather tracts and changes that identify a bird as a juvenile, they are not really an expert, even though they may be able to properly identify most of the shorebirds they see. Finally, really study and look at the birds you see. Take notes, take photos, compare to the field guides. Go back out again to pay attention to a mark you may have missed earlier. Practice, practice, practice!

Monday, August 17, 2009

In the backyard... Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped ChickadeeBlack-capped Chickadee, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 1 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The Black-capped Chickadee is a familiar backyard bird to those living in the northern United States and southern Canada. It is found from coast to coast at these mid-latitudes.

Chickadees are the North American name for the birds that are simply called tits (old German for something small) in the rest of Europe, Asia, and Africa where the other members of this family of birds live. The chickadee name is onomatopoeic. That is, the name describes the chick-a-dee-dee call sound the bird makes. The more upset and alarmed the chickadee is, the more dee-dee's are in this call. Other birds named for their calls or songs include killdeer, flicker, sora, phoebe, cuckoo, whip-poor-will and others.

Most chickadees are the same general pattern of black cap, white face, black bib, pale underparts, and darker back. There are, however, Blue Tits in Eurasia that are colored blue (of course), green, and yellow, in addition to black and white. All these birds are small, plump-bodied, with a long tail, and small, round head, universally described as "cute." Combined with their curious nature, pleasant chattering calls, lack of fear around people, and ready acceptance of bird feeders, bird baths, and bird houses, their habits make them a favorite backyard bird.

Black-capped Chickadees are found in lowland deciduous and mixed woods and willow stream sides throughout the Pacific Northwest. They generally avoid dense conifer forests, sage and juniper flats, and mountains. About 80% of the food of chickadees is animal matter, insects, caterpillars, and the like. The rest is seeds. The seed component goes up considerably during the winter.

In the Pacific Northwest Black-capped Chickadees are most similar to Mountain and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. The gray back of Black-capped Chickadee is quite different from the rusty brown back of Chestnut-backed Chickadee. The Mountain Chickadee has a white eyebrow stripe and pale gray sides. The sides of Black-capped Chickadee are buffy (as in the photo above), but not rich chestnut as in the northern populations of Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

From Alaska to Maine the song of Black-capped Chickadee is an invariable, whistled, fee-bee-ee, also transcribed as hey, sweetie, the second notes slightly lower than the first. However, the songs of birds on islands off Massachusetts are different (sweetie-hey or sweetie-sweetie). The songs of Black-capped Chickadees in Oregon and Washington are also different from birds elsewhere. There are variations, but songs usually are longer in the Pacific Northwest, fee-bee-bee-bee, or even bee-bee-bee-bee-bee all on one pitch, as I just heard outside my window.

Chickadees may be the first bird to discover your backyard feeder or bird bath. They are fond of black oil sunflower seeds. They take these from the feeder, one seed at a time, and fly away to a tree branch. There, they hold the seed with their feet and pound it open with their stout bills. They may also steal the seeds away and hide them in a cache for later retrieval.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Young Black-headed Grosbeak at the feeder

American CrowBlack-headed Grosbeak, Forest Grove, Oregon on 16 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


We have several feeders in the yard, including one right up on the deck next to our back window. There is a group of four young Black-headed Grosbeaks that are present nearly all day long now at our feeders. They are irresistable to photograph--even through the window, as this bird.

To reduce reflections off both inner and outer surfaces I shoot perpendicular to the window at the same level as the bird. That also gives the low perspective that many bird photography critiques desire. I also make sure that the inside of the house was as dark as possible to reduce reflections of inside objects. Due to the dark background and sun on the bird, it was impossible not to over-expose the highlights on the breast and neck, but I brought them down as much as I could with Photoshop Elements. Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. 1/40s f/5.6 at 400.0mm iso200, hand held.

Anyway, no time to really watch birds today, but I took 20 minutes out to take this photo to upload and share.

Monday, August 10, 2009

At the pond... Belted Kingfisher

Belted KingfisherFemale Belted Kingfisher, Sawyer Park, Bend, Oregon on 13 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


It hovers for a moment over the quiet pond. Then, wings closed, it plummets head first into the water with a resounding splash. It emerges, shaking off the water--a fish squirming in its bill--and flies off to a favorite tree to finish its meal.

Another time, as you walk along a tree-lined stream, a shadow bursts from the trees overhead and a loud rattling call follows the bird to a new hideout downstream.

Driving along coastal roads near an estuary, you spy a large-headed dark bluish bird perched on a wire overlooking the wetlands.

These are the usual impressions one gets of the Belted Kingfisher.

Kingfishers are chunky, short-legged birds with large dagger-like bills. The Belted Kingfisher has a shaggy crest and a blue belt across the upper chest. The female has an added rusty belt below the blue one.

This bird nests near water across Canada and the United States. In winter it retreats from most of Canada and some birds move south into Mexico and Central America.

The nest of the Belted Kingfisher is a tunnel dug deep into a sandy bank. At the end of the tunnel, perhaps 8 feet long, they lay 5-8 eggs in a small chamber.

The next time you are at your local pond, pay special attention and see if this interesting bird is present.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Backyard birds of... Fresno, California

Northern MockingbirdNorthern Mockingbirds are common backyard birds of the Fresno area, though this one was photographed in San Diego, California on 7 March 2008 by Greg Gillson.


The following common yardbirds are found in Fresno, California.

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

Rock Pigeon, year round
Mourning Dove, year round
Rufous Hummingbird, summer, fall
Black-chinned Hummingbird, summer, fall
Anna's Hummingbird, year round
Acorn Woodpecker, year round
Red-breasted Sapsucker, winter
Hairy Woodpecker, winter
Downy Woodpecker, winter
Nuttall's Woodpecker, winter
Northern Flicker, year round
American Crow, year round
Western Scrub-Jay, year round
Bushtit, year round
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, winter
American Robin, year round
Northern Mockingbird, year round
Cedar Waxwing, winter
Western Tanager, spring, fall
Black-headed Grosbeak, spring, fall
Spotted Towhee, spring, fall
White-crowned Sparrow, winter
Golden-crowned Sparrow, winter
Dark-eyed Junco, winter
Lincoln's Sparrow, spring, fall
Song Sparrow, winter
Bullock's Oriole, summer
Hooded Oriole, summer
Brown-headed Cowbird, spring
American Goldfinch, fall, winter, spring
Lesser Goldfinch, winter
Pine Siskin, winter
House Finch, year round
House Sparrow, year round

This checklist is based on information provided in the
Bird feeding guide for the city of Fresno as provided by the Fresno Audubon Society.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Coming to a backyard near you... Eurasian Collared-Dove

Eurasian Collared-DoveEurasian Collared-Dove, Dilley, Oregon on 28 February 2009 by Greg Gillson. Note the square tail, dark undertail coverts, brownish primaries, and black hind-neck mark.


Introduced to the Bahamas in about 1974, this species made it on its own to Florida about 1980 and spread across the North American continent. The first Oregon record was in 1998 and first Washington state record was in 2000 (Birds of Oregon: a general reference. 2003. Marshall, Hunter, and Contreras).

In my home area of Washington County, in NW Oregon, the first birds were found in July 2006. In a recent day of traveling around the county doing errands (not birding), I spotted 12 birds in 8 different areas around Forest Grove, Oregon.

Eurasian Collared-Doves are larger and paler than Mourning Doves. They are quite similar to the cage birds, Ringed Turtle-Doves (domesticated African Collared-Doves), escapees of which may be found in the wild, occasionally. Ringed Turtle-Doves are smaller than Mourning Doves, thus Eurasian Collared-Doves are huge compared to any escaped Ringed Turtle-Doves.

Eurasian Collared-DoveThree years after the first bird was found in the county, Eurasian Collared-Doves are now daily feeder birds in my yard in Forest Grove, Oregon, as seen in this photo from 19 July 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The Eurasian Collared-Doves are very pale cream. In fact, some birders have begun to call them "Sky-Rat Lattes." This is in reference to another invasive species, the European Starlings ("Sky-Rats"), and this dove's pale coffee-and-cream coloration. I'm not sure that the link to starlings is all that fair, though. Eurasian Collared-Doves have shown no signs that they will displace Mourning Doves or any other species as the European Starlings have done to native North American cavity nesting birds.

The undertail base of the Eurasian Collared-Dove is dark slate and the tail is square with pale corners. This is in contrast to the long pointed tail with white tail sides of Mourning Dove. There is a black crescent on the back of the neck of the Eurasian Collared-Dove.

As do Mourning Doves, Eurasian Collared-Doves like agricultural areas, and can be found in residential and urban area feeders. Often they seem to choose nest sites in dense conifers (non-native blue spruce) in yards in small communities on the edge of agricultural areas. They frequently perch on telephone wires--looking like Mourning Doves bulked-up on steroids. They have a loud, unique cooing coo-COO-cook.