Thursday, November 26, 2009

My first week at Jackson Bottom Wetlands

SunriseA silhouetted photographer sets up for a scenic sunrise photo at Fernill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 23 November 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Last Thursday, when I met for the tour of the Madsen property at Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, I found out some great news. Since being unemployed, I had been volunteering for several weeks at the Preserve, which is part of the City of Hillsboro's Park and Recreation Department. Sarah Pinnock, Wetlands Education Specialist, came out to tell me that I had been approved for part time employment!

My position with the Preserve is titled "Instructor III," but my name tag says "Bird Guy." I am tasked with creating adult birding classes, field trips, and other bird education projects for the nature education center.

The Education Center has been around since 2003. Several buses full of school children come each week to learn about wetlands and the animals there. Sarah especially enjoys teaching K-4 children, dressing them up in beaver and bald eagle costumes, passing around bones and feathers and the like. However, there hasn't been anyone on the staff specifically concentrating on birds. That's where I will come in.

To start, I decided to initiate some free morning bird walks to introduce birders to the Preserve and my new job there. The first bird walk was on Monday. As several rare birds were reported Sunday during a wind storm from nearby Fernhill Wetlands, that's where we met (see photo above). We didn't find the rare birds, but we had a good time. These bird walks will continue for a while yet, though a schedule has not yet been set.

One of my first projects is updating the bird checklist. The present checklist was compiled by weekly surveys over several years conducted over 10 years ago by Al and Florence Snyder. I joined them several times on their counts. There have been some changes to the birds detected since then. A new checklist in PDF format will allow birders to download the list from the web, as well as make updating it and printing it easier.

My new desk (left) has quite a view, looking out at the wetlands. It is quite a different cubicle and atmosphere than my last technology engineering and manufacturing job! Can you imagine a place where binoculars are a standard desktop item, right next to the stapler, and a call of: "There's the eagle again!" interrupts everyone's work several times a day, as the staff run to the window with binoculars in hand?

On Tuesday Sarah gathered the staff around. She was holding an opaque plastic bag. She reached in and pulled out something green and handed it to me. "This is your job now," she said. In my hand was a dead bird! City workers in Cornelius had found this bird and brought it in for identification. Evidently, this is a common occurrence. Interestingly, it was a Monk Parakeet. There is a small colony of this exotic species near the Portland airport, but this is a first Washington County record.

Again, I heard one of the volunteers calling my name from the nature center gift shop. A couple had been out hiking on the Preserve and discovered a bird nest. It was small with lots of holes. What is it? OK, I'm thinking, there are squirrel nests made of leaves, but those are about the only nests visible now. Perhaps they found a Bushtit nest from last spring? Nope. Further questioning revealed the necessary clue that the "nest" was made of plywood. Oh, that's not a bird nest; that is a mason bee house! These native bees do not sting and pollinate the native plants.

"Do you know anything about birds?" Wednesday I helped a high school student identify some birds for a science project she was working on. I went in and got her a pair of binoculars and we went out for a 20 minute walk. The sun had just come out in the late afternoon, after a day of thick fog. Birds were quite active including Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Flickers, and both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets that the student added to her list and wrote down behavioral and habitat observations. We also observed a Red-breasted Sapsucker, one of the very few birds expected in the wetlands that was not on the Preserve's checklist of observed birds.

bee hiveTuesday Sarah took me out to look at a bee hive (left) she had found earlier in the fall. It was built out in the open under some fallen branches.

On the way out we found a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows in a weedy hedgerow. And I called in a feeding flock of chickadees and nuthatches that included a Brown Creeper. "Sweet!" exclaimed Sarah. But she was more excited when we found a Great Blue Heron track clearly visible in the mud at the bottom of a shallow rain water puddle. Then she exclaimed 'sweet' in two syllables: "suh-weet!"

There was a spider hatch during the night. Strands of spider silk were in the air in every direction. Tiny little gnat-like spiders were floating in the breeze on little parachutes. At one point near the observation platform there were literally hundreds of spiders landing on us and covering us in web strands. Little spiders were rappelling down from the overhanging roof of the observation platform. It was like a scene from Arachnophobia. Sarah's response? "Suh-weet!"

You know, I think I'm going to like my new job.

Monday, November 23, 2009

At the pond... Canada Goose

Canada GooseWestern Canada Goose, Hillsboro, Oregon on 6 December 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Everyone knows the Canada Goose. Everyone except birders, that is. Why do I say this?

Birds of Oregon: a general reference (2003, Marshall, Hunter, and Contreras, editors) lists 8 subspecies of Canada Goose found in Oregon. Some birders attempt to identify these field identifiable subspecies, or races, when they can. Other birders, however, pay no attention to subspecies, as they can't count them as a separate species on their life list. And, well, many birds are just really hard (or impossible) to pin down to a subspecific identification. So why bother?

Well, surprise! The American Ornithologists Union (A.O.U.) recently "split" the Canada Goose into two separate species. The larger birds, some almost the size of swans, are still called Canada Goose, Branta canadensis, while the smaller geese, some the size of city park ducks, are now called Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii.

While your friend who knows next to nothing about birds confidently identifies the overhead skein of birds as "Canadian" Geese, you're not so sure anymore.

Cackling Geese cackle, of course, while Canada Geese honk. That's just a sweeping generality, as there seem to be several "tweener" populations that are very difficult to tell apart. In general, Cackling Geese have short necks, stubby little bills, and wing tips that extend well past the tail at rest.

The resident Canada Geese, the ones in city parks and wetlands that lead goslings around in April, are the Western Canada Geese. They are very large, have white breasts and long necks and bills. The bird in the photo above is a Western Canada Goose.

In winter, we are visited by the smaller, white-breasted, Lesser Canada Goose from the north. These are more common east of the Cascades than west.

And, in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon winters a dark breasted Dusky Canada Goose. The Vancouver Canada Goose is very similar. Some of these winter along the coast, as far south as the Nestucca National Wildlife Refuge near Pacific City, Oregon.

The Giant Canada Goose is a bird of the Great Plains that has been introduced widely in North America. There is an introduced resident population on the Lower Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon. Many of these released birds bred with the abundant local resident Western Canada Geese so that most birds here and elsewhere in the Pacific NW showing "Giant" field marks (white foreheads and larger than the Western race) are probably not pure.

I'll write again about the Cackling Goose later this winter. The main identification challenge is separating the Lesser Canada Goose from the Taverner's Cackling Goose. A good article on this is John Rakestraw's blog on the Lesser Canada Goose.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Giant mushroomsToday I went on a field trip of the Madsen property, donated to the city of Hillsboro, Oregon's Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve. This property is separated from the main Jackson Bottom Wetlands and serves as a field station.

My interest was bird-related, but the theme of the day was mushrooms. Those in the accompanying photo are 9 inches tall and 14 inches in diameter!

I've never paid much attention to wild mushrooms before. Don't tell anyone, but I actually worked for a year or so at a mushroom farm in southern California. My duties included nutritional and moisture analysis of the compost and looking for nematodes under the microscope. But wild mushrooms? I may have stepped on a few, but generally paid them no mind.

Educator and Volunteer Coordinator Jan Curry led us on trails through the old gardens and decades-neglected Christmas tree farm showing us mushrooms everywhere--hundreds, no thousands of mushrooms of a dozen varieties. She also pointed out lichens and ferns.

It was very interesting and the birds were almost forgotten. Almost, but not quite, as we flushed a Great Horned Owl from the dense stand of noble fir. And a Common Raven flew across the farm field.

Later we came across a flock of Chestnut-backed and Black-capped Chickadees with a few Golden-crowned Kinglets and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

The property itself was very interesting with fields, frontage on the Tualatin River,house and farm buildings, several ponds, and forest area.

I look forward to going back in the near future.

Monday, November 16, 2009

In the backyard... Downy Woodpecker

Downy WoodpeckerDowny Woodpecker, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 8 September 2007 by Greg Gillson.


If you have a suet feeder as part of your backyard feeding station, you are likely to add several birds that you may not otherwise. One of these is the smallest North American woodpecker, the black-and-white Downy Woodpecker.

If I was to pick a "typical" habitat for Downy Woodpeckers it would be willow-lined streams. In the Pacific Northwest these can occur anywhere in the region. They also occur in oak woodlots, mixed deciduous and conifer woods, orchards, aspen groves, and town parks or backyards with deciduous trees.

Downy Woodpeckers eat primarily insects, which they often glean more from the branches than the main trunk.

They bore their own nest hole in a dead or dying tree.

In winter these woodpeckers often join mixed feeding flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, and other species.

The photo above shows a typical bird from humid climes west of the Cascades with the dusky underparts. Downy Woodpecker populations from the arid areas east of the Cascades are a strikingly clean black-and-white. This follows Gloger's rule.

Many beginning birders have difficulty separating Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. These look-a-like species differ in size. The bill of the Hairy Woodpecker is stout and strong. As someone told me in my youth, the tiny bill of the Downy Woodpecker looks like it could only tap through soggy cardboard. The outer tail feathers of Downy Woodpeckers often show black bars, as in the photo above. This is not foolproof, though. Hairy Woodpeckers primarily live in dense conifer woods in the mountains.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Great Blue Heron afternoon

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 4 November 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The low golden afternoon light last week was good for this Great Blue Heron at Jackson Bottom. After I finished Lunch With The Birds I hiked out into the wetlands to see if I could find the Northern Shrike reported from the previous day. I didn't find the shrike, a rare winter visitor, but this heron provided a consolation prize.

Monday, November 9, 2009

At the pond... Bufflehead

BuffleheadBufflehead, Hillsboro, Oregon on 6 December 2008 by Greg Gillson.


One of the common wintering ducks of deeper ponds and lakes throughout the Pacific NW is the diminutive Bufflehead.

They actually nest in mountain lakes in our area, especially in British Columbia and northern Washington, but also in isolated locations in Idaho and in a very few places the Cascades of Oregon and northern California.

Rather than building a nest on the ground as most other ducks, Buffleheads nest almost exclusively in old flicker nest holes that overlook a lake. In the woodpecker excavation they lay from 4-17 eggs. Can you imagine how crowded the nest must be with 17 chicks stuffed in a woodpecker hole with mom?

Buffleheads eat primarly aquatic insects, crawdads, various clams, and some seeds.

They arrive on lower elevation ponds and lakes in October and November and spend the winter on unfrozen lakes, bays, and larger rivers. In March and April they migrate back to their nesting grounds.

The photo above shows a typical male and female. The male is white below, blackish above. The black head has a large white wedge on the hind crown. The black feathers of the head of male Bufflehead show an iridescent sheen of purple and green in strong sunlight. The bill is pale blush-gray. The female is pale gray below with a whitish belly, dark gray-brown above, and there is a white patch on the cheek of the dark head. The bill is dark grayish. Both sexes have a white wing patch on the inner wing. The female has a small white wing patch on the inner trailing edge, the male has a much larger white patch across the entire inner wing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Neck-collared swans

Tundra SwanTundra Swan T532, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 24 February 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Two winters ago I captured this swan with my camera, marked with neck collar T532. As with the Canada Geese with neck collars from last week, I submitted the collar number, date, and location to the Bird Banding Laboratory at the USGS.

This week I received an email from Craig R. Ely at the Alaska Science Center, stating that the neck collar tracking program was still in progress. Four-hundred additional swans were fitted with neck collars this summer. These allow birds to be individually identified from a distance on land or in flight.

As with other marked or banded wild birds (except pigeons), all band or neck collar numbers should be submitted to the Bird Banding Laboratory. Observers who do so will receive a brief history of the bird they saw. If you see and report one of these birds you will be contributing to knowledge that helps understand and preserve these birds.

Additionally, 80 swans were fitted with radios in 2008 and their transmitters are still functioning. Their migration path can be tracked on the Alaska Science Center web site.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Let's go on a snipe hunt!

Wilson's SnipeWilson's Snipe, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 12 October 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The young man stands alone in the woods at night, watching and waiting for the prey. In his hand is a large bag. He makes loud clucking sounds as directed. His friends are to be circling around, driving the strange birds toward him. Snipe are so stupid, his friends tell him, that they'll be easy for this young person to catch and put in his bag! He waits... and waits... and waits.

I've never actually known anyone to have been fooled by this practical joke, or even heard of anyone trying to play this joke on others. But I can imagine.

In actuality, snipes are diurnal shorebirds. They are found in wet bogs and the grassy edges of marshes. Rarely do they venture out far into the water or out on the mudflats, away from cover. When danger appears they crouch and freeze (as in the above photo), usually blending in to the marsh vegetation with their camouflage plumage. When danger gets too close--such as an oblivious birder on the shoreline looking at ducks out in the marsh, this bird bursts from underfoot with a raspy call and zigzagging flight.

In the Pacific NW, Wilson's Snipes nest in grassy wet meadows. They winter in similar wet situations where water remains unfrozen. They are widespread in migration. They are told apart from other long-billed shorebirds, especially the similar dowitchers, by their blackish backs with long straw-colored lines and the striped head and face.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In the countryside... Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed HawkJuvenile Red-tailed Hawk, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Throughout the Pacific NW and, indeed, most of North America, the Red-tailed Hawk is the default large hawk.

Red-tailed Hawks are buteos, with broad wings with rounded tips and rather short tails. Falcons have pointed wings, Accipiters have shorter wings and long tail, harriers have longer tail, ospreys have bent wings, eagles are larger and more evenly-colored.

Highly variable, some birds are very pale, others are very dark and others may be entirely rusty or even all-blackish. Many Red-tailed Hawks in the Pacific NW are very similar to this bird. They show heavy streaking on the belly with an obvious unmarked pale chest. The leading edge of the inner wing from below is dark (see it in the photo above?).

As an adult these birds will have a brick red tail. However, many fall birds are juveniles with finely banded tail as shown by the bird in the photo.

Red-tailed Hawks are common birds of open country with trees, power poles, or fence posts for perching. Travel any of the regions highways and you'll see them. They'll be hunting rabbits, mice, frogs, or snakes in the median between the north and south bound lanes of Interstate 5. They don't hunt in the deep forests and are not fond of empty grasslands or sage flats with no trees or power poles for miles. In such places they are replaced in summer by Ferruginous and Swainson's Hawks, and in winter by Rough-legged Hawks.

They can also be spotted on sunny days soaring high in the air on thermals.

They build stick nests in May about 2 feet across. In January, before they get back on territory, their old nests may be used by Great Horned Owls to nest in.