Monday, December 27, 2010

Wing-flicking: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned KingletThe constant wing-flickinging of Ruby-crowned Kinglet is a characteristic behavior. Photographed at Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December, 2010 by Greg Gillson.


"Tiny active birds of tree branches,... with a characteristic habit of nervously flicking the wings."
-- The Birds of Canada, 1979 by Earl Godfrey.

In our previous identification post about the separation of Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hutton's Vireo we concentrated on the color and shape of feathers, bill, legs, and feet.

Birds also have many interesting behaviors that help separate them. These are rarely mentioned in the field guides--unless conspicuously obvious. Thus field guides typically mention the bobbing and teetering of Spotted Sandpipers, the hovering of Rough-legged Hawks, and the plunge-diving of Belted Kingfishers.

The nervous wing-flicking of Ruby-crowned Kinglet also is mentioned in most field guides.

This innate (instinctive) behavior is like a constant tic. Every couple of seconds the kinglet flicks its wings, as in the photo above. When agitated, it may flick its wings twice in a second. Combined with its constant movement--rarely does a kinglet sit on a branch more then 4-5 seconds--this tiny bird gives the impression of being in a constant state of nervous hyperactivity.

This isn't to say that the look-a-like Hutton's Vireos never flicks their wings, because they do--many small birds do--just not anywhere near the same degree as the kinglets.

Monday, December 20, 2010

ID: Little green bird: Kinglet or Vireo?

Ruby-crowned KingletRuby-crowned Kinglet, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December, 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Last week I was up at Hagg Lake scouting for the Forest Grove Christmas Bird Count to be held the next day. A mixed feeding flock was here and I began photographing some of the more than one-dozen species present in this loose flock of chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, kinglets, and other birds.

As I was photographing the fidgety Ruby-crowned Kinglet above, I changed over to a Hermit Thrush that had popped into the open briefly. Then I came back. But the little green bird was slower and more deliberate. It had changed! A Hutton's Vireo was now in my viewfinder (below).


Hutton's VireoHutton's Vireo, Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 17 December 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Besides the differences from hyperactive kinglet to lethargic vireo, can you see the differences in the two birds? This is an intermediate identification challenge--not easy, but not very difficult--if you know where to look.

Both birds are greenish with broken eyerings and two white wingbars. And they are tiny--4 and 1/4 to 5 inches long from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail.

Compare the two photos above as you look for the following field marks...

  1. On the Ruby-crowned Kinglet note the eyering is broken above and below. The Hutton's Vireo has the eyering missing only above the eye.
  2. Notice that there is a blackish band on the base of the secondary feathers of the kinglet, below the lower wingbar. These feathers are edged green on the vireo.
  3. The kinglet has a thin bill. The bill of the vireo is thicker and hooked at the tip.

These are all legitimate field marks. But there is a more obvious field mark to separate these similar-plumaged birds.

Compare the following two photographs...


Ruby-crowned KingletRuby-crowned Kinglet, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 15 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Note the toothpick-thin black legs and yellow feet on the Ruby-crowned Kinglet above.

Compare that with the thick blue-gray legs and feet of the Hutton's Vireo below.

If you need to, go back and compare the legs and feet of the upper set of photos again.

Sometimes the yellow feet of the kinglet is more restricted to the pads on the bottom of the feet. Both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets show this feature.


Hutton's VireoHutton's Vireo, near Timber, Oregon on 22 November 2007 by Greg Gillson.


Finally, below is another photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet--this time a male displaying his red crown feathers. But note the legs and feet, the black bar across the secondaries below the white wingbar, the bill, the eyering.

Now you are ready for this identification challenge!


Ruby-crowned KingletRuby-crowned Kinglet, Hagg Lake, Oregon on 29 December 2006 by Greg Gillson.


Monday, December 13, 2010

A cold Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser GoldfinchLesser Goldfinch, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 24 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


The first snowfall of the season--only a quarter inch--caused the Lesser Goldfinches to be extremely unwary. This bird fed at my feet and refused to fly away! My camera lens wouldn't focus any closer!

Lesser Goldfinches usually migrate out of the cold inland portions of the Pacific Northwest. West of the Cascades in Oregon, however, the winters are usually relatively mild at lower elevations, and Lesser Goldfinches spend the winter.

But during some winters there will be periods of days or a week or more of sub-freezing weather. Some birds survive the cold extremely well. Surprisingly, Anna's Hummingbirds seem to make it through a week of freezing weather. Other birds, termed "half-hardy," at the northern edge of their normal winter range, may have difficulty with prolonged cold weather.

A week-long freeze may find Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and other birds down in the grass looking for food. They may die. It seems Lesser Goldfinches can be added to this list. Even this single two-day event seemed to cause Lesser Goldfinches some distress. The goldfinches I found this day seemed to be lethargic, and either sleeping in the rose bushes or feeding on the weed seeds at the road edge without regard for their safety. This is quite a change from their normal hyperactive behavior.

I have previously written about this bird: In the Backyard... Lesser Goldfinch.

Monday, December 6, 2010

ID Challenge: Horned and Eared Grebes in winter

Horned GrebeHorned Grebe, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 24 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Eared Grebes breed throughout the west from southern Canada to Minnesota, south to Texas, and west to California. In the Pacific NW they breed east of the Cascades and Sierra-Nevada Mountains.

Horned Grebes are more northerly breeders. Though a few isolated pairs may breed south to eastern Oregon, most Horned Grebes breed from southern Canada (British Columbia to the Great Lakes) northward to the Arctic and west into Alaska.

In winter, both species move south to open water. Horned Grebes winter primarily on the ocean and bays from Alaska to California and from Texas to Florida and north along the Atlantic States, also on fresh water in the Southeast.

Eared Grebes tend to winter primarily on open fresh water or estuaries from California to Louisiana, south through Mexico (the National Geographic 5th edition field guide map is more accurate than the big Sibley guide, in this regard).

In the Pacific NW, both grebes winter uncommonly in the valleys west of the Cascades and along the coast. Horned Grebe is more expected, especially along the immediate coast.

In their breeding attire, Eared Grebes are blackish with a wispy yellow ear patch. Horned Grebes are reddish with dark wings and head and yellow "horns" of feathers above and back from the eye.

In "winter" (non-breeding) plumage both species are generally dark gray above and paler below. Horned Grebes tend to be more black-and-white, Eared Grebes more dusky overall, especially on the neck. But first year Horned Grebes can be as dusky-necked as Eared Grebes. Thus, the identification of some individuals can cause confusion--even for experienced birders.

Please compare the photos of the typical non-breeding Horned Grebe above with Eared Grebe below. Both photos are from Forest Grove, Oregon in November, but in different years.


Eared GrebeEared Grebe, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 27 November 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Field guides might point to the varying contrast between the dark and light shades of the neck. However, you will find identification easier if you concentrate, rather, on the shape of the birds.

Specifically, note on the Horned Grebe the thicker neck and larger head with flatter crown. The bill is pointed, but symmetrical above and below.

In contrast, the Eared Grebe is thinner necked with a smaller head. Note that the crown is highly peaked above the eye, not flat. The bill is straight on the upper mandible and with the lower mandible more angled. This gives the appearance of a thinner, sharper, upturned bill.

Using the shape of the head, bill, and neck, you will be able to separate these birds more accurately, throughout the year.

Monday, November 29, 2010

American Dipper... North America's only aquatic songbird

American DipperAmerican Dipper at Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 24 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Some birds are very difficult to photograph. At least, I've had some trouble. One of those is the American Dipper. These gray aquatic songbirds live along rushing streams with steep banks edged by dense forest. So they are often in shade, with bright reflections off the water. The shade requires a slower shutter speed. Any shafts of sunlight are over-exposed. Slow shutter speed also means the bird must be still. And dippers got their name for their constant dipping, bouncing 40-60 times per minute on their legs even when standing in place.

On November 22 we got our first snow of the season. It wasn't much, as typical for western Oregon, just a bit as rain showers all week were pushed south by a cold front and the dry air behind it. By November 24 the roads had dried, the icy roads had mostly cleared. I went up to Hagg Lake at the edge of Oregon's Coast Range about 30 miles west of Portland.

At the upper end of the lake I stopped briefly to see if the resident pair of American Dippers were present at the Scoggins Creek Picnic Area, where this creek enters the reservoir. The birds were there, swimming and diving in the water, so I got my camera out. The leaves of the maples and alders were gone, and the quarter-inch of snow brightened up the creek under the western red-cedar and Douglas-fir. So I sat on a rock at the edge of the creek about 20 feet from the ledge where two birds were diving for caddisfly larvae--their favorite food.

Then something wonderful happened. The bird pictured here began his long, warbling, high-pitched song. It wasn't as loud as it will be in a couple of months, but clearly heard above the roar of the creek. It is not unusual to hear dippers singing throughout the year. But the bright cascading trills and sweet notes brightened the cold overcast winter day, when most other birds were silent.

Another thing that can ruin a good photo of a bird is the inner eyelid, the nictitating membrane. In some birds it is transparent, but is opaque in the American Dipper, as seen in the photo below, creating a vacant-eyed "Little Orphan Annie" appearance.


American DipperThe nictitating membrane, or inner eyelid, covers the eye of this singing American Dipper at Hagg Lake, Washington Co., Oregon on 24 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


The nictitating membrane is under the eyelids. It sweeps across the eye from its base on the bill side of the eye. It allows light to enter. On birds with clear nictitating membranes they can see through it. It is thought many birds fly with their nictitating membrane closed--to keep the air from drying out the cornea. The well-developed nictitating membrane protects the eye of the American Dipper from the spray of water (The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, 1980 by John K. Terres).

A year ago I discussed How to find a Dipper nest. There is more information on these fascinating birds there.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Feeding habits of the Northern Shoveler

Northern ShovelerFemale Northern Shovelers, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 19 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Many birders are a bit hesitant when it comes to identifying female ducks. The hen's plumage is camouflaged browns. Clues from the brightly-colored wing are often concealed, folded up and covered by the scapulars and breast feathers. It doesn't help, either, that they frequently keep their bills hidden, tucked away in the scapulars as they rest.

But what's this? All those ducks swimming around seem to be feeding with their head half way under the water! Looking around, it doesn't take long to spot plenty of drakes feeding in the same manner--Northern Shovelers all.

Called "spoonbills" by hunters, for their long spatulate bills, Northern Shovelers are the 4th most abundant duck on the Pacific Flyway, following Northern Pintail, Mallard, and American Wigeon.

Shovelers are included in the "puddle ducks" or "dabblers" that primarily feed by upending--head under the water and tail and legs in the air. But not so the Northern Shovelers. They feed more on the surface, pushing their bills through the water, straining out food with the sieve-like lamellae--a comb-like structure on the edges of the bill. All ducks have lamellae, but on the Northern Shoveler it is especially well-developed.

These ducks commonly feed in small groups that circle about, stirring up mud with their feet. They take more animal matter than most puddle ducks, about 65% animals to 35% plants. Snails and water boatmen seem to be favorites, according to John K. Terres in his 1980 reference work, The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

However, whereas Terres indicated that the feeding groups are "three or four" in size, I have often noted groups of a hundred or more in a tightly packed raft, circling and circling as they feed. As they feed, the males (only?) constantly grunt a mechanical chug-kuk chug-kuk chug-kuk....


Northern ShovelerA whole raft of nearly headless ducks! Feeding Northern Shovelers, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 19 February 2006 by Greg Gillson.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Photo Quiz

QuizQuiz bird, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 15 November 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Do you know the species pictured here? Are you sure? Can you tell what age? Can you find it in your field guide?

Certain birds can be highly variable in their plumage appearance. An individual may not match exactly the illustration in the field guide. Most field guides show an "average" plumage; some show certain variations, but not all. The plumage above does not appear exactly in any of my field guides.

This is obviously a bird of prey. It has large, broad wings with "fingers" formed by emarginated (notched) primaries. Large yellow feet with sharp black talons, and a short curved bill complete the raptor characters visible.

The mostly black plumage with white base to the tail probably has most people immediately guessing eagle--either Golden or Bald. But which one?

If we only had a view of the upperside....

Well, we do. And it is immediately below. However, if you want to stop here and get your field guide out and make a guess, this is the place to do it. Because immediately after the photo below I will start giving the answer...

[Microsoft Windows tip: Right-click on each photo and "open in a new window" to get the larger image. Then you won't have to wait so long to reload the blog page as you do when you left-click and hit the "back" button to return.]



So, is it Bald Eagle or Golden Eagle? And what age? Why do we care about the age? We get more clues about the ID if we can determine age.

Let's start with what it is not, shall we?

It is not a juvenile Golden Eagle. Such a bird would have a brighter and cleaner white base to the tail and big white wing patches.

It is not an adult Golden Eagle. They have darker tails and less white on the face.

In fact, the white on the face and yellow on the bill eliminate any age of Golden Eagle. It must be a Bald Eagle. But what age?

The dusky banded tail, dark underparts, and dark back looks a lot like the juvenile Bald Eagle illustrated in Sibley's guide. However, the white on the face and yellow bill are wrong for a juvenile.

Second and third year birds have white wing linings and belly and a white triangle on the back. That doesn't fit. That's odd. And fourth year birds reach adult plumage with white head and tail.

I don't see any plumage age that matches the quiz bird.

Let's try the National Geographic Guide and... oh my God!   It looks just like the juvenile White-tailed Eagle!

Wait! Slow down just a minute. While it is possible that I've actually found a rare bird--in fact, I have found several rare birds over the years--it is more likely this is an unfamiliar plumage of a common bird. After all, White-tailed Eagle from Eurasia is not just a rare bird in North America, it is extremely rare with only a few records from Alaska (mostly the Aleutians) and a record or two from the East Coast.

Let's age this bird more accurately to help with the ID.

Juveniles of many species, including eagles have more pointed feathers than older birds. Look at the wings--the primaries and secondaries on the trailing edge of the wing. The trailing edge is rather smooth and even. If this bird was a juvenile each feather would be obviously pointed, the trailing edge would appear saw-toothed.

Unlike smaller songbirds, the wings are so long on eagles that not all the flight feathers are replaced every year. It takes at least 2 years to replace the flight feathers. During this time the longer and more pointed juvenile feathers would contrast obviously with shorter and broader replacement feathers. There would be obvious "steps" (molt limits) every 3-5 feathers on the trailing edge. Such is not the case in this quiz bird.

Based on the state of molt on the wings (none visible) and no juvenile feathers, this bird must be at least 2-1/2 years old. As discussed, 2 and 3 year old Bald Eagles have white wing linings and often a white belly (especially 2-year olds), and a white triangle on the back. This bird does not. It has a more adult-like blackish body.

Not all Bald Eagles reach full adult plumage in 4 years, some birds take 5 years. It is possible, then, that our quiz bird is 3-1/2 (assuming hatched in May, and it is now November), with extensive dark mottling remaining on the tail and head feathers. I do note some white spotting throughout the body and wings.

A paper on aging eagles by Mark McCoullough would seem to indicate the bird I saw was in Basic III plumage.

However, everything we've said for Bald Eagle is also true of its sister species, the White-tailed Eagle. How do we know this is not a 3-1/2 year old White-tailed Eagle?

There are 3 remaining features to separate Bald Eagle from White-tailed Eagle. Rarely does one have to resort to these "supporting" field marks. But in this case it seems necessary.

For comparison, look at this album of White-tailed Eagle photos from Lithuania (isn't the Internet wonderful?). Bird 7 is a juvenile, looking superficially like our quiz bird. However, note the saw-toothed trailing edge of the wing?

Remember that we said that raptors show emarginated primaries? Bald Eagle has notches in the outer 6 primaries, White-tailed Eagle shows 7. On my photos I can only clearly see 6 notched primaries. The 7th? Well, it's hard to tell. Nothing conclusive.

The tail of White-tailed Eagle is short and pointed. My dorsal (back-side) photo above does not show an obvious pointed tail. Perhaps still not conclusive, but this mark seems to favor Bald Eagle.

Finally, Bald Eagles have white undertail coverts and White-tailed Eagles have dark undertail coverts. My ventral (under-side) photo definitely shows extensive dark undertail coverts. There appears to be a couple white feathers on the bird's right-hand side of the undertail coverts--maybe. If we assume this is a 3-1/2 year old bird, when all Bald Eagles should have extensively white undertail coverts, this mark definitely favors White-tailed Eagle.

A mark not mentioned in my meager references on White-tailed Eagles is the upper tail coverts. The uppertail coverts are white on Bald Eagle and mostly dark on White-tailed Eagle. My dorsal photo above shows 2 white uppertail covert feathers over the middle 2 tail feathers. This is exactly like this photo of White-tailed Eagle. This mark favors White-tailed Eagle.

That's it then. I can go no further based on my knowledge and references. Here is a bird that doesn't really match any plumage that I can find of either Bald Eagle or White-tailed Eagle. I believe it is in Basic III plumage, 3-1/2 years old.

Such an inconclusive outcome may happen anytime when we're bird watching. Sometimes birds are too far away, in bad light, or not seen long enough for us to be sure. In such a case it is best to let it go. Odds favor a common bird over a rare bird by, literally, millions to one. The odds are still the same even when photographed. And sometimes photographs--even fairly good ones--aren't diagnostic.

Unless someone can prove otherwise, with additional knowledge and experience I don't have, I have to go with Bald Eagle. But,... okay, take my own advice and let it go....

Oh, and by the way, that bird is probably still around...

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is eBird?

Golden-crowned SparrowGolden-crowned Sparrow, Forest Grove, Oregon on 21 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Recently I have begun using eBird and wanted to present some information about this "citizen science" program.

Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the heart of eBird is a free "real-time online checklist" program. But it is so much more.

On the surface it is as easy as going birding and then submitting an online checklist for each location where you birded that day. Every time you go birding, submit another checklist, or checklists, for the area(s) you visited. Simple. The program keeps tracks of your birding list by world, country, state, county, or birding hotspot, and by life total, year, or month.

The real power comes as it combines your checklists with everyone else's.
"The observations of each participant join those of others in an international network of eBird users. eBird then shares these observations with a global community of educators, land managers, ornithologists, and conservation biologists."

The sharing of many birders' checklists creates a huge database. How big? Big. As of November 2010: 45,000 birders in 200 countries reporting the status of 8665 species.

In North America the numbers of monthly checklists submitted is very large. California birders lead all others. 4211 individual checklists during the first 2 weeks of November. However, British Columbia, in 7th place, with very few birders has 1531 checklists submitted so far this November! Washington State, in 14th place, has 920 checklists the past 2 weeks. Oregon and Idaho are farther down the list. But I think more people should be using eBird. I encourage you to take a look at

So, is it only scientists that can use the data? No, there are things you can "research" as well, in the "View and Explore Data" section. Here are some examples...

So, besides entering your own data, you can keep track of other sightings in your local county, prepare for a visit to a birding hotspot at any time of year, track year-to-year (or month-to-month) variation in any bird species in any area.

And with your sightings added to the database, it will keep getting better....

Try it!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One year old Cedar Waxwing

Cedar WaxwingCedar Waxwing, Forest Grove, Oregon on 21 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


One final post on the many Cedar Waxwings I photographed in a hawthorn tree in October.

Post 1 showed 2 views of a waxwing feeding on hawthorn berries.

Post 2 discussed the molt and aging of this same adult bird.

Post 3 talked about an juvenile waxwing and discussed the waxwing's first description to science.

Today's post goes back to molt.

Perhaps after reading Post 2 you can see the patchy back plumage on this bird and discern a couple of pin feathers in sheaths on the cheek of this bird. Most obvious are the outer tail feathers that are still growing in. So this bird is undergoing a full prebasic molt into its first definitive basic plumage.

Why can we say this bird is attaining its first fully adult-like plumage?

If you look at the wings you will see some fresh dark inner primaries, and some very faded, worn, brown primaries. Those brown primaries are the remnants of juvenile plumage, the first (non-down) feathers this bird ever grew. Those tattered wing feathers are now over a year old. And that is the age of this bird--perhaps 16 months old. Once those feathers in the wing and tail are fully replaced and grown, probably before the end of November, it will no longer be possible to tell how old this bird is by looking at its plumage.

Here is a link that will bring up all my blog posts having to deal with molt.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Juvenile Cedar Waxwing

Cedar WaxwingCedar Waxwing, Forest Grove, Oregon on 21 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


We discussed the adult Cedar Waxwing and how to age it in two previous posts.

The streaky underparts of today's photo and lack of much crest are ample clues for most people to identify this bird as an immature.

The Cedar Waxwing was first described to science in 1808 by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot. And this Frenchman had ample time to collect and describe birds in North America.

You see, Vieillot was on a business trip to Haiti when the French Revolution broke out in 1889. So, being on the wrong side of the new ruling class, he fled to the United States. There he began to study birds.

It was not until a dozen years later Vieillot was able to return to France and start working on his book, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l'Amérique septentrionale (Natural History of Birds of North America) that he published in 1808. In it was the first description of Cedar Waxwing from eastern North America.

One more waxwing photo is coming with the next post....

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More on the Cedar Waxwing

The Cedar Waxwing in the previous post, Cedar Waxwing feeding on hawthorn berries, was not only beautiful, it has a secret. Closely observing the photograph (and the bird in life) can tell us more about this bird.

In this species the sexes are described as "outwardly alike," meaning that the sexes have the same plumage and we can't tell the sex of the bird without some disassembly.*

But we can observe that the bird is in molt and thus tell a bit more about its age.



In the photo above, note some feather sheaths on the face (A). These are new growing feathers, not yet fully developed. Also notice that the new breast feathers are especially wispy with whiter tips (B) that contrast with the browner feathers of the shoulder. [You can click on the photo for a larger view.]

As these feathers wear and age, the plumage will become smoother and more evenly colored, as in a previous discussion of Cedar Waxwings.



Perhaps more obvious, we can see in the above photo that the outer tail feather on this bird (C) is short, and has not yet reached its full length. Wing and tail feathers in most birds are replaced sequentially so that the bird can continue to fly during the molt period.



Again, in the above photo, note that the 9th primary feather (D) is only half the length of the others and has more growing to do. [Waxwings have 10 primaries, but the outermost, the 10th, is always very tiny.] The new yellow belly and side feathers (E) are fresh and wispy. While the plumage of waxwings is naturally fluffy, these tips will wear down as the year goes on, creating a more smooth-looking plumage. The name-sake waxy tips of the secondaries (F) indicate this is an adult.

We thus can tell that this bird is an adult, 2 or more years old, undergoing a full pre-basic molt.

For more on molt and aging see this previous post.

* - Males have, on average, more extensively darker throats. Look at this web page that Mike Patterson alerted me to.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Cedar Waxwing feeding on hawthorn berries

Cedar WaxwingCedar Waxwing, Forest Grove, Oregon on 21 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Viewing Cedar Waxwings is always a joy. What is it about these subtly-colored birds that makes them so exciting? Maybe it is their distinctive crests or bandit-masks or hyperactivity. I don't know. But as their flocks buzz about hawking insects or descend on a fruiting tree in autumn, they always make me pause to watch.

Recently I came across a hawthorn tree loaded with berries... and Cedar Waxwings. They were gulping down these big berries. I don't know how many each bird was eating, but they were gorging themselves. The berries were rather large, but down they went. Whole. Gulp. On to the next.

Cedar Waxwing


Take a careful look. What else can we see and learn about this waxwing? Stay tuned for more about this waxwing on November 4....

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lincoln's Sparrow portraits

Lincoln's SparrowLincoln's Sparrow, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 19 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Earlier this spring I discussed the identification of Lincoln's Sparrow.

Besides being a bit difficult to identify--because many sparrows are similar with striped heads and striped breasts--Lincoln's are notoriously skittish. Usually, they pop up on top of a shrub or fenceline for just a second (literally), then dart away, never to return. They usually do not allow you enough time even to lift your binoculars.

Thus I was delighted and amazed to have a bird in view for almost two minutes this morning, allowing several good photos!

The crown feathers of all birds can be raised and lowered at will, turning the normally rounded head of this species into a slight bushy crest.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sometimes the best birding memories aren't the birds

Humpback WhaleHumpback Whale, off Newport, Oregon on 2 October 2010 by Greg Gillson.


On a recent ocean bird watching boat trip we enjoyed many seabirds and marine mammals. Now, I've seen humpback whales about 35-40 times. But in all those encounters I've never seen such active whales... continuously-repeating full breaches, and tail lobbing--how exciting!

This got me thinking. Watching birds has taken me to nearly every corner of Oregon--open ocean, sage deserts, rain forests, mountain tops... Crater Lake, Fort Rock, Multnomah Falls, Steens Mountains, Cape Arago. Likewise, I've birded in many scenic places throughout the West, and just tasted a couple of the unimaginably wide variety of birds and locations across the planet.

Sometimes the highlights of the birding trips are not the birds. Sometimes it is some other animal--like the humpback whales seen in the accompanying photos. Sometimes it is the fantastic scenery. It may be a historic place. It may be the people I meet at a new locale, or the people I travel with--birders or not.

Birding is a great way to see (and appreciate) the world and meet new people!

Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale

Monday, October 11, 2010

Banded albatrosses

Black-footed AlbatrossSome of the 135 Black-footed Albatrosses, off Newport, Oregon on 11 September 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Thirty miles off the Oregon coast Black-footed Albatrosses gather every summer to feed in the rich California Current. They come from far away across the sea. Far, far, away.

Many of the Black-footed Albatrosses off the coast of the Pacific NW come from remote islands such as Laysan, Midway, and the French Frigate Shoals.

It is approximately 2500 miles SW from the Pacific NW coast to Honolulu, Hawaii. From there it is another 560 miles NW to Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals. This coral atoll is the worn down top of an ancient volcano. The waves wear down the volcano until the top is under the water. Coral grows up to the surface, detritus and flotsam get caught in the shallows and an island is formed,... barely. Because the waves tear it down again.

But there, 3000 miles from the cold and rainy Pacific NW, on warm sandy beaches, Black-footed Albatrosses come ashore to breed in December and January. There they raise their single chick until May, then they strike out eastward to the continental shelf of western North America to feed in the cold, productive waters.

Map of Tern Island

More on Tern Island

Even out in the middle of nowhere, there are biologists working on these remote islands to catalog the endangered wildlife. Thus, many of the albatrosses we see off the Pacific NW in summer and fall had been banded as chicks many years before. These carry a metal US Fish & Wildlife band and a larger plastic band with easier to read larger numbers.

On an offshore birding boat trip this fall we found one such banded bird. It wore a numbered plastic leg band. One of our passengers was able to get a photograph of it and sent it to me. I reported the number to the Bird Banding Laboratory and received the thank you acknowledgement below.

Then, going through my own photos, I found I unknowingly took a picture of another albatross with a different band number on it. This, also, I turned in, but have not yet heard back. If I had turned in the number on the stamped aluminum band I would have gotten an answer directly from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. But the colored leg bands are only tracked by the research scientist. The researchers put both bands on, but the aluminum one is the official band, but harder to read. So, I haven't heard anything about the bird in the photo below, but expect it has the same story as that detailed in the acknowledgement above.

Black-footed AlbatrossBlack-footed Albatross with band A386, off Newport, Oregon on 11 September 2010 by Greg Gillson.


To report a color-marked or birds banded with aluminum band (except domestic pigeons), record the number and report the number on : this web site.

Monday, October 4, 2010

American White Pelican

American White PelicanAmerican White Pelican, Forest Grove, Oregon on 19 August 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Rarely seen in western Oregon historically, non-breeding American White Pelicans have been summering in variable numbers in the Willamette Valley for about 10 years. This is the second summer in a row that pelicans have summered at the local wetlands where I took the photo above.

With a wingspan up to 9 feet these are the largest flying birds regularly found in the Pacific NW, indeed, all of North America, rivaling the wingspan of the California Condor. (The only larger bird ever recorded in North American, with 2 records, is Wandering Albatross with a 10 or 11 foot wingspan. The other albatrosses found at-sea off North America have wingspans of 7-9 feet.) American White Pelicans are heavy, too. At 16 pounds they are as heavy as a tom Wild Turkey. In North America only the California Condor, Mute Swan, and Trumpeter Swan are heavier.

The following is gleaned from Birds of Oregon: a general reference. 2003. Marshall, Contreras, and Hunter, editors.

In Oregon they nest at a few specialized locations, primarily barren islands in alkaline lakes of SE Oregon, and also on islands in the Columbia River. The nest sites are not necessarily the same from year-to-year; they change nesting locations periodically depending upon water levels. They seem to prefer more shallow lakes where fish concentrate in the receding waters. If such lakes dry up or, conversely, fill up with too much water, they will abandon that location. They easily abandon their nests when disturbed. One colony with 800 nests was abandoned in 1988 when trespassers visited the nesting island by canoe.

There are a few breeding colonies in eastern Washington, mostly on islands in the Columbia River. They breed at scattered sites in southern Idaho. My 1979 book, Birds of Canada, by Godfrey lists only one location for breeding in British Columbia (Stum Lake). But I suspect that, like Oregon, these magnificent birds have become more widespread throughout the Pacific NW in recent years. What can our readers tell us?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pigeon? Dove? What's in a name?

Rock PigeonRock Pigeon, Terrebonne, Oregon on 14 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


Is there a difference between a dove and a pigeon? The short answer is no.

However, Peterson, Mountfort, and Hollom wrote in their 1974 A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe:
The terms "pigeon" and "dove" are loosely used and interchangeable, but in a general way "pigeon" refers to the larger species with ample, squared or rounded tails, "dove" to the smaller more slender species with longer, graduated tails.

In 1992 the British Ornithologists' Union changed the name of the Rock Dove and Stock Dove to Rock Pigeon and Stock Pigeon, respectively. This unified all the birds in the genus Columba with the name "pigeon." But, then, they also removed New World pigeons formerly in the genus Columba and put them into a new genus called Patagioenas. The American Ornithologists' Union followed suit in 2003.

How does that affect us in the Pacific NW? Well, if you have the "Big Sibley" guide printed in 2000, you will find a listing for "Rock Dove" as Columba livia. You will also find "Band-tailed Pigeon" as Columba fasciata. More recent field guides, such as the National Geographic (5th Edition) will list the new name "Rock Pigeon" still as Columba livia, and "Band-tailed Pigeon" now as Patagioenas fasciata.

Why change the common and scientific names and the order in which they appear on the checklists and field guides? These changes occur as scientists discover new relationships among birds.

That's the party line.

I sometimes joke that this is just a game and the scientists are just making it all up. In a way it's true. People like to pigeon-hole (pardon the pun) things to try to create order out of our complex universe. Nature is rarely so simple.

You may appreciate this blog post from 10,000 Birds:
Requiem for a Rock Dove

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pirate of the seas: South Polar Skua

South Polar SkuaSouth Polar Skua, off Newport, Oregon on 11 September 2010 by Greg Gillson.


The big brute in the photo above is a South Polar Skua. I obtained this photo recently as the bird circled our boat, 35 miles offshore.

What is a skua? Skuas are dark seabirds with white wing patches. They are related to gulls. They have webbed feet and strong hooked bills. They are the size of the largest gulls, but heavier. South Polar Skuas differ from the other 3 or 4 species of skuas by being evenly dark, except for golden spangles on the hind neck.

Skuas are powerful and aggressive loners, attacking other seabirds. They steal fish from other seabirds--even if already swallowed!

More than once I have seen a skua pounce on a swimming Pink-footed Shearwater, grab it by the shoulders, and repeatedly dunk it underwater, trying to force the poor exhausted bird to regurgitate its last catch. In such a case, the skua may actually drown the shearwater and eat it instead.

Skuas are larger, bulkier, and more deliberate than the similar smaller aerobatic jaegers. While the Parasitic Jaeger reminds some of an ocean-going Peregrine Falcon, the South Polar Skua is more like a Red-tailed Hawk in comparison.

These birds are highly pelagic (found in the open ocean) and very rarely seen from shore in the Pacific NW. Most sightings here are at least 8 miles offshore, and most seem to be 20-40 miles distant from land.

The worldwide population of these birds is very small, only 5,000 - 10,000 breeding pairs. And their name is apt. They nest on the shores of Antarctica, where they victimize penguins.

While most of the population seems to remain in the southern hemisphere, some (perhaps mostly younger birds) undergo a migration around the entire Pacific Ocean. In spring they are found primarily in seas around Japan. They then circle around the Gulf of Alaska and show up off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest from August to early October. Then they are back in Antarctica to lay eggs in December and January.

Pacific NW ocean-going bird watching tours, called pelagic trips, rarely encounter more than half-a-dozen birds on a single day trip. In fact, one bird is probably the most frequent number seen, if any. That is why, though aggressive, it is always exciting to see one winging by.

And, if you're lucky, it may even circle the boat and allow you better views, and maybe a photo....

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping SparrowChipping Sparrow, Lost Lake, Linn Co., Oregon on 23 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The Chipping Sparrow breeds throughout the Pacific NW, but requires drier, open, park-like woodlands. Thus, it is usually rare along the wet coast and Coast Range forests, and on the more humid west slope of the Cascades.

It has the odd distinction of being found in the lower western valleys of Oregon and Washington, but not in the mid-elevation Douglas-fir and hemlock forests of the west slope of the Cascades, but then again very common high in the Cascades in the open lodgepole pine forests (as in the photo above). [See the species account in the Washington Breeding Bird Atlas.]

Most Chipping Sparrows winter south of the Pacific NW, though rarely some are found in winter in filbert (hazelnut) groves in the Willamette Valley. In spring, some may arrive in western Oregon as early as March, but the peak of migration is mid to late April through much of the Pacific NW.

In autumn, many birds form large flocks in open grassy clearings in the mountains. Few birds remain beyond early October.

In winter plumage they lose the chestnut crown and can appear similar to the rare winter vagrant Clay-colored Sparrow.

The song is a long (4-6 seconds), dry trill on one pitch. Dark-eyed Juncos can sometimes give a similar trill, but usually the junco is more musical and of shorter duration.

This species has declined in numbers over the past century, especially in towns. Loss of small farms and orchards, closing canopies in oak woodlands due to fire suppression, and increase of Brown-headed Cowbird nest parasitism are all likely causes.

In the past they lined their nests extensively with horse hair, and were even called "horse-hair birds." Having trouble locating Chipping Sparrows in your local area? Try finding a horse stable or one of the "gentleman ranchettes" that are popular today.

Friday, September 10, 2010

ID: Yellowlegs

YellowlegsGreater (right) and Lesser (left) Yellowlegs, Jackson Bottom Wetlands, Hillsboro, Oregon on 7 September 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Greater Yellowlegs is a common spring and fall migrant throughout the Pacific NW. It sometimes winters west of the Cascades in fresh water marshes. Lesser Yellowlegs is slightly less common.

Telling Greater from Lesser Yellowlegs is much easier when they are together, as in this recent photo above. When they are alone, or in single-species groups, it is harder to make this identification.

The key for lone birds is a comparison of relative bill length and shape.

The bill of Greater Yellowlegs, below, is rather thick (about as thick as the eye) for about half its length, and then appears to be very slightly upturned. Equally important, the bill length is about one-and-a-half times the length of the head in a straight line with the bill back from the gape, as shown in red:

In contrast, the bill of Lesser Yellowlegs, below, is rather thin and tapering throughout. The total length is just barely more than one head length, as shown by the red lines:

So, a bill length of one-and-a-quarter head lengths is a good rule of thumb for dividing between the species. Of course, there is a bit of variation and some birds might be too close to call.

Speaking of calls, this is when you need to use them. Greater Yellowlegs has a call that is a series of three loud piercing notes: tew, tew, tew.

The diminutive Lesser Yellowlegs has a correspondingly softer voice, and only one or two whistled notes: yip or yew, yew.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green SwallowViolet-green Swallow, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 29 July 2010 by Greg Gillson.


The Violet-green Swallow is the only swallow limited to western North America. In the Pacific NW they arrive in February and March and remain through September or early October. They winter from southern California and Arizona south to Middle America.

Similar to Tree Swallows, Violet-green Swallows differ by having a white face, lime-green back, and white rump divided in half by a violet strip of feathers.

These birds are very common throughout most of the Pacific NW. They occur from sea level to the tops of the mountains. They are equally at home flying over forests or towns chasing insects high in the air and uttering pleasant twittering notes.

They nest in crevices in cliffs, tree cavities, nest boxes, and holes in buildings.

In the fall, Violet-green Swallows migrate south in large flocks. Some times these flocks can number in the thousands. You may then notice them shoulder-to-shoulder on telephone wires, often near water.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oh, oh... Molt again

Great-tailed GrackleGreat-tailed Grackle, Hines, Oregon on 23 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Recently I was working through some photos from last year. Usually, after a photo shoot, I will immediately turn the best RAW shots into jpeg's and post those. Then, as I have time, I will work on the other shots and delete the (numerous) bad ones.

So, for instance, when I photographed this vagrant Great-tailed Grackle in the parking lot of a restaurant in Hines, Oregon, 15 months ago, I uploaded the best shot immediately. That left me with some shots like this one, above, that I am finally getting back to.

Even though I pulled the lens in from 400mm to 340mm it was not enough, as the bird was so close. As a result, the entire tail didn't quite make it into the frame. And there's this distracting yellow "something" pointing right at the bird's head. So, it is not a very artistic photo.

However, it shows something that I didn't realize at the time. This bird is almost exactly one year old. How can I tell? Molt limits.

Now I've been birding 38 years, and am just "getting into" understanding molt. So I sympathize completely if you don't find this as interesting as I do right now.

For most birders,... the brain fogs over at the mention of molt. -- Alderfer and Dunn, National Geographic Birding Essentials, 2007.

Last month I discussed this topic using a photo of a juvenile Brewer's Blackbird in molt. Today's post continues that discussion.

Even though this is a black bird, it is not completely one solid black color. Much of the plumage is rich black with glossy purple and green iridescence. However, many feathers on the wing and tail are dull brown.

Those dull brown feathers are retained juvenile feathers. Those are the first feathers this bird ever grew, probably in June of the previous year. Now, in the month of May, 12 months later, those original wing and tail feathers are quite worn. They contrast quite nicely with the glossy black feathers that were part of the pre-basic molt in the previous September.

In the next fall (2009) this bird will molt in new wing and tail feathers (and all feathers, actually) and be in definitive basic plumage. From then on, all through its life, it will undergo a complete molt each fall. Only during this first year and a half, can the age of this species be determined using molt limits.

Knowing the age of the bird tells us something about this vagrant. Even though this species is expanding its range, this young bird wasn't likely to be breeding this year. If it survives, it will likely migrate back south for the winter and possibly remain south to breed the next year (spring 2010).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed GrosbeakBlack-headed Grosbeak, Forest Grove, Oregon on 15 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Black-headed Grosbeaks are common migrants and summer residents throughout the Pacific NW. They arrive in May and are quite common in towns at bird feeders and in riparian areas and deciduous and mixed woods through September.

The male, pictured above, is rusty-orange on the breast and rump, yellow on the body, black on the back. It has a black head and black wings and tail with large white patches and spots. Males sing a clear, rapid, robin-like warble. Both sexes give a sharp pik call.

Females and young during the first year are duller overall (brownish and pale orange) with striped head ("chipmunk bird").

These songbirds take 2 years to reach full adult plumage. The immature male plumages have a more striped head and back than adults.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do the Shuffle!

Pied-billed GrebeJuvenile Pied-billed Grebes, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 19 August 2010 by Greg Gillson.


Last month I photographed the sinking dives of a Pied-billed Grebe at Fernhill Wetlands, in Forest Grove, Oregon. This week I photographed two birds there, one of which is probably the same individual.

These two birds have been hanging around the ponds there. From a distance I noted that they were regularly holding out their wings. So I walked closer to investigate, obtaining the photo above.

I observed that the grebe (the bird farthest back) holds its wings out about 3 seconds, fluffs its back feathers and shakes its back and tail, as in the next photo below, taken 6 seconds after the top photo. [Click photo for larger view.]

This behavior is called "feather settling." It is one of a number of maintenance behaviors that presumably gives the bird comfort. Other comfort movements are yawning, stretching, and resting. Many behaviors in birds are innate--they are instinctively performed following a constant pattern. Feather settling is often performed by raising the feathers, shaking the body, flapping the wings, and finally depressing the feathers down into proper position.

This reshuffling of the feathers was performed several times alternately by both birds. In the photo below the other bird takes its turn (6 more seconds after the second photo above). [Click photo for larger view.]

I realized that I had seen this before, without really thinking about it. Rich Ditch recently photographed a Pied-billed Grebe with its wings out. Now I know what it was doing!

This also explains the bizarre "fuzzy gull" I photographed last week at the coast. The adult California Gull fluffed itself all up as you can see in the photo below. [Click photo for larger view.]

Then it shook itself and flapped its wings. [Click photo for larger view.]

This gull was very worn. The feathers of the tail has lost most of the vanes and the tips are just bare feather shafts. This bird needs to start its fall molt and replace its old feathers very soon!

Perhaps this gull is getting new feathers and they itch? That would explain a reason for feather settling, too. As a matter of fact, the juvenile Pied-billed Grebes are also going through body molt. Itchiness might explain the repeated feather settling they are doing.