Monday, September 28, 2009

In the backyard... American Goldfinch

American GoldfinchAmerican Goldfinch, Forest Grove, Oregon on 11 April 2009 by Greg Gillson.


"Wild canary." That's what many people call the American Goldfinch. And no wonder. Both birds are bright yellow finches with a sweet lilting song.

American Goldfinches are found at lower elevations throughout the Pacific Northwest. They avoid high mountains, dense forests, and extensive sage flats, however. They move right in after clear cuts and are common for several years until trees start replacing the weedy plants.

The scientific name of the goldfinch genus is Carduelis from the Latin word for thistle. Indeed, thistle seed is a favorite food of goldfinches. Thus, you will usually find American Goldfinches in weedy fields.

Throughout most of the year you will find these finches in large flocks. They pair up and nest late, many as late as July or August. These birds are primarily residents in the Pacific NW, but their nomadic nature in winter can make their flocks harder to find.

Breeding males (as in the photo above) are bright yellow with a black crown, black wings with white wingbars, black tail with white inner edges, and a white rump and undertail coverts. Females are duller, brightest yellow on the underparts, but greenish-olive on the upperparts, lacking the black crown.

In winter the young birds and adults are rather plain brownish or olive with darker wings with buffy wingbars (immatures) or yellow upper and white lower wingbar (adult males). The males lack the black crown in winter.

Lesser Goldfinches are similar. Lessers have yellow breasts and undertail coverts and green backs and rump throughout the year. Lesser Goldfinches are found in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon (and extreme southern Washington), sparsely eastward through southern Idaho, and south.

In the Central Valley of California is found the quite gray Lawrence's Goldfinch with its yellow wingbars that are not too similar to American Goldfinches.

The small brown-streaked Pine Siskin is related to goldfinches, but shows just a touch of yellow wing stripe and tail corners and are not likely to be mistaken for goldfinches.

To attract American Goldfinches to your backyard, buy a thistle sock and fill with Niger seeds (trademarked as "Nyjer"). Also provide plenty of water for drinking and bathing in summer.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

Question: "This is a tough question with a terrible photo, but can you see this bird that we saw today in the Washington Park Arboretum? It dove under and swam away, afraid of us as we got close. It’s in the water on the middle left of the photo….Long slender neck, black and white head…. Thanks!"

Tera, near Portland, Oregon

Answer: I took the liberty of cropping your photo to better see the bird. So now the bird is in the lower right portion. The ID features of this water bird are the long dagger-like yellow bill, dark gray back, hind-neck, and crown, with white underparts. The long neck is a distinctive field mark, as you note. The diving behavior is important to note.

Your bird is a Western Grebe. They are rather uncommon winter visitors to deep lakes and rivers west of the Cascades. They winter commonly on the ocean.

Western Grebes breed in the Great Basin and Prairies from central Canada south into California and northern Mexico. In the Pacific NW they breed primarily east of the Cascades, but a few breed at Fern Ridge Reservoir near Eugene, Oregon.

For more information on Western Grebe, please visit the Cornell lab of ornithology's online field Guide.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Deposit Comments

Mountain ChickadeeMountain Chickadee nesting in "comments" box, Idlewild Campground, Harney Co., Oregon on 26 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Above is a photo from this spring. I found this Mountain Chickadee with a nest in the suggeston box at a trailhead. I thought it very humorous. Earlier in the day I had found another nest of this species in a more typical location--an old woodpecker hole in a ponderosa pine tree.

I am preparing more information on Mountain Chickadees for a post on October 19....

Monday, September 21, 2009

In the woods... Winter Wren

Winter WrenWinter Wren on frost-covered log, Timber, Washington Co., Oregon on 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


When I think of Winter Wrens I always think of dark, closed forests with a tangle of fallen trees and limbs and a thick layer of sword ferns. In this dark, damp, quiet setting, the sweet, musical, and surprisingly loud song of the tiny Winter Wren is a ray of golden light piercing the gloom.

The Winter Wren breeds in conifer forests across North America, and is one of only a few land birds that is holarctic in distribution, nesting widely in both the Nearctic and the Palearctic.

The diet of Winter Wrens includes beetles, spiders, caterpillars and the like that are gleaned as the birds crawl over the forest floor and downed wood. Likewise, the nests are placed on logs and the intersections of large downed branches. Root wads of tipped over trees are favorite nesting sites.

Though tiny and secretive in habits, it is easy to find Winter Wrens in the forest shadows, as they sing year-round. There seems to be some movement of birds in winter into red alder woods, but they remain common in the fir forests throughout the year.

Winter Wrens in the West (as pictured above) are darker and redder, with more complex songs than birds in the East. Eastern birds show more of a paler eyebrow and have white spotting on the wings. In fact, there is a proposal under consideration by the American Ornithologists' Union to split the Pacific Winter Wren from the Winter Wren as a separate species.

The tiny size, dark brown coloration, and stubby tail identify this wren. You are unlikely to mistake this bird for any other.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned HawkJuvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk, Beaverton, Oregon on 9 September 2009 by Greg Gillson.


On a recent outing I spotted this bird fly into a tree in Beaverton's Greenway Park.

Many birders, including many experienced birders, have trouble separating the two regular lowland Accipiters, or "bird hawks." Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks are notoriously difficult, as there are very few differences in plumage and structure. The small male Sharp-shinned Hawk (10 inches) is shorter than a jay (11 inches). The large female Cooper's Hawk (20 inches) is longer than a crow (17 inches). The female Sharp-shinned Hawk and male Cooper's Hawk are the same size--about like that of a Band-tailed Pigeon (14 inches). Obviously, estimating size of lone birds has its pitfalls.

Adult Accipiters have red-barred chests, while the juveniles show brown streaks. In the autumn, there are many juvenile birds, doubling the population. Accipiters migrate in September and October, bringing view of them circling in the sky over head, or to your backyard feeders where they prey upon your seed eating birds.

With short, broad wings and a long tail, these birds fly deftly through the woods at high speed. They eat smaller birds and squirrels.

So, what ID marks are present on this bird? The eye is in the center of the head, good for Sharp-shinned Hawk. On the Cooper's Hawk the eye is more toward the front of the head. And the tip of the tail on this bird is obviously squared or notched, not rounded, also a tell-tale mark for Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Monday, September 14, 2009

How to find a Dipper nest

American DipperAn American Dipper stands on a rock amid-stream, near Timber, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


An aquatic songbird! The American Dipper is truly a unique wonder of the American West. Whether floating on the surface like a little gray duck, "flying" under the water like an auklet, or walking along the bottom as easily as if it was a sandpiper on the shore, this odd bird is truly different from all other birds.

It chooses as its home the wildest rapids of a mountain stream. It builds its soccer-sized nest of moss and mud in crevices or logs over waterfalls. It also uses man-made substrates, such as the beams of bridges over rushing water.

American DipperGushing Springs, Metolius River, Jefferson Co., Oregon on 7 June 2009 by Greg Gillson. An American Dipper has a nest under the fallen log. (Click photo for larger view.)


The photo above shows Gushing Springs on the Metolius River, about 1/2 mile below Cache Creek Campground, near Camp Sherman, Oregon during this spring's Woodpecker Wonderland Bird Festival on the east slope of the Cascades.

The photo below is a close-up view of the nest on the log. You can see a Dipper poking its head out of the nest!

American DipperAmerican Dipper poking its head out of its nest under a fallen log over a roaring stream on the Metolius River, Jefferson Co., Oregon on 7 June 2009 by Greg Gillson. (Click photo for larger view.)


As you might imagine, these streams really roar during the winter when swollen with rain water and snow melt. Thus, last year's nest site may be washed away when the birds are ready to nest again in March and April. It is therefore quite understandable that these birds may choose to nest on beam under a bridge, giving a pair of birds a reliable nest site year after year.

A typical Dipper stream and nesting bridge is shown in the photo below in the northern Oregon Coast Range.

American DipperAmerican Dipper nests in the beams under this bridge near Timber, Washington Co., Oregon on 18 May 2007 by Greg Gillson. (Click photo for larger view.)


American Dippers build their nest on the I-bar bridge support as seen in the photo below. These type of wooden bridge structures seem to be quite popular with the dippers.

American DipperAmerican Dipper nest under a bridge near Timber, Washington Co., Oregon on 18 May 2007 by Greg Gillson. (Click photo for larger view.)


American Dippers can start nesting as early as February at lower elevations. They may raise a second brood that generally fledges in June.

The photos above show typical Dipper breeding streams as well as nests on natural and man-made structures. With this information you should be able to locate the nests of American Dippers. That is important, as the nest is the center of a Dipper's territory. From the nest, the Dipper's territory extends about 400-500 yards both upstream and downstream. That means that even on the best of streams it is likely there are less than two pairs of American Dippers per stream mile.

Figuring out where the nest might be located can put you near the center of the pair's year-round territory, making it more likely you will spot these unique birds when you visit.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Backyard birds of... Sacramento, California

Golden-crowned SparrowGolden-crowned Sparrow, Jackson Bottom, Hillsboro, Oregon on 8 December 2007 by Greg Gillson.


The following common yardbirds are found in Sacramento, California and the nearby Cosumnes River Preserve, about 22 miles south of Sacramento.

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

California Quail, year-round
Rock Pigeon, year-round
Mourning Dove, year-round
Nuttall's Woodpecker, year-round
Downy Woodpecker, year-round
Northern Flicker, year-round
Black Phoebe, year-round
Ash-throated Flycatcher, spring, summer
Western Kingbird, spring, summer
Tree Swallow, spring, summer
Cliff Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Barn Swallow, spring, summer, fall
Western Scrub-Jay, year-round
Yellow-billed Magpie, year-round
American Crow, year-round
Plain Titmouse, year-round
Bushtit, year-round
White-breasted Nuthatch, year-round
Bewick's Wren, year-round
House Wren, spring, summer, fall
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, winter, spring
Western Bluebird, year-round
Hermit Thrush, winter, spring
American Robin, fall, winter, spring
Wrentit, year-round
Cedar Waxwing, fall, winter, spring
European Starling, year-round
Orange-crowned Warbler, spring, fall
Yellow-rumped Warbler, fall, winter, spring
Common Yellowthroat, spring, summer, fall
Wilson's Warbler, spring, fall
Western Tanager, spring, fall
Black-headed Grosbeak, spring, summer
Blue Grosbeak, summer
Lazuli Bunting, summer
Spotted Towhee, year-round
Savannah Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Song Sparrow, year-round
Lincoln's Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Golden-crowned Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
White-crowned Sparrow, fall, winter, spring
Dark-eyed Junco, fall, winter, spring
Red-winged Blackbird, year-round
Western Meadowlark, fall, winter, spring
Brewer's Blackbird, year-round
Brown-headed Cowbird, spring, summer, fall
Bullock's Oriole, spring, summer
House Finch, year-round
American Goldfinch, year-round
House Sparrow, year-round

This checklist is based on information provided in the
Cosumnes River Preserve bird checklist; Cosumnes River Preserve Site Guide; and Sacramento Audubon Society.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Juvenile Green Heron

Green HeronGreen Heron, Fernhill Wetlends, Forest Grove, Oregon on 7 September 2009 by Greg Gillson.


It was a gloomy morning on Monday. Low clouds scraped the hills nearby. The vegetation at Fernhill Wetlands was dripping with water from recent rain. What else would you expect on a holiday in western Oregon?

There were several Green Herons around the ponds. They were mostly hidden by the tall grass at the pond's edge. They would fly out before I would see them on the shore. This young bird stayed out a bit in the "open" long enough for me to get off a couple of photos.

In the Pacific Northwest, Green Herons nest in small quiet ponds west of the Cascades and in the Klamath basin. They barely reach sw British Columbia. They are transients east of the Cascades.

They are tiny compared to the Great Blue Heron, just a bit over 1/3 of the size, in fact. They always stay hidden around the pond edge and don't stand out in the fields or spend much time on the open mudlfats like the Great Blue Heron.

Adults differ from this juvenile bird in that they are greenish-blue on the wings, with a chestnut-colored back and side of neck.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Orange-crowned Warbler... So where is the orange?

Orange-crowned WarblerOrange-crowned Warbler, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 15 May 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Have you seen the violet on the Violet-green Swallow? Have you seen the neck ring on the Ring-necked Duck? Have you seen the orange crown on the Orange-crowned Warbler?

Sometimes it seems that the people who named some of the birds chose the most obscure marks and skipped the obvious. Perhaps that is excusable with the Orange-crowned Warbler. After all, it is an unremarkable little green warbler. It has no contrasting wing bars, tail spots, or spectacles as do some of the other warblers. It has no black throat patch, no stripes on the back, no bright rump patch.

But rather than name this bird the Unremarkable Warbler or the Dull-green Warbler, naturalist Thomas Say searched carefully and found that the base of the feathers on the crown of the male are, indeed, orange in color. He then cleverly chose the scientific species name celata, which means "concealed," in reference to this hidden orange crown.

Orange-crowned Warblers breed in forest edges across Canada and Alaska, and in the West from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, south as far as Texas and nw Baja, Mexico. They winter in the Gulf States and into Mexico.

The population of these birds breeding in the Pacific Northwest, from the Cascades westward (as in the photos above and below) are, if you can believe it, brighter and more colorful than the northern and Rocky Mountain forms, which have grayish heads.

Orange-crowned WarblerDo you see the orange crown now? Orange-crowned Warbler, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 3 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


These birds are the earliest warblers to arrive in the Pacific NW (not counting Townsend's and Yellow-rumped Warblers, which winter west of the Cascades). They usually start to appear in mid March. They are abundant migrants in April and early May. They start leaving our area in August, and most are gone by mid-October. But some birds may attempt to winter west of the Cascades in brushy tangles near unfrozen water where insects may remain.

You may have these birds visit your yard during the peak of spring migration. However, they prefer to breed in tangled deciduous or mixed woods, usually in willows near water. If you live along the coast or lower foothills in such "woodsy" habitats, you may have them in your yard all summer. But for most bird watchers in the Northwest, finding this bird regularly will require visiting nearby wet streamside woods.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What bird is that?... Questions and answers

American GoldfinchGoldfinch Wine? American Goldfinch, Washington Co., Oregon on 16 May 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Question: Hi Greg. First of all, very beautiful photos on your site!

Secondly, I'm looking for a list of birds that make their homes in Washington, Oregon and Northern Cal. The bird must exist in all three states, and these states should be where most of the population of these birds exist. It would be especially good if they were found in vineyards.

I'm trying to name a wine after one of these birds. Can you help me?

Oh, and I need to have the name figured out by Thursday...



Answer: Interesting question, Peggy.

Oregon bird checklist
Washington bird checklist
California bird checklist

Can I make a few suggestions as to birds that may be found in vineyards in
these three areas and may be appropriate names for wines? How about...

Cedar Waxwing
House Wren
Western Bluebird
Black-capped Chickadee
Mourning Dove
Barn Swallow
Swainson's Thrush
Western Tanager
Purple Finch
Spotted Towhee
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
American Goldfinch

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Great Blue Heron in flight

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 26 August 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Here is a recent photo of a Great Blue Heron. For more information check our earlier discussion about this species.