Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wings & Wine Festival: May 14, 2011

Bird watchers, wine lovers, and nature enthusiasts are invited to the Sixth Annual Fern Ridge Wings and Wine Festival scheduled for Saturday, May 14, 2011 near Veneta, Oregon, west of Eugene. A wide array of activities will be held throughout the day at Domaine Meriwether’s new winery and nearby Fern Ridge Reservoir, one of Oregon’s best birding areas. The day’s schedule includes bird and nature walks, hands-on workshops, educational talks, children’s activities, wine tasting with local wineries and sailing, kayak and canoe tours. Many activities are free, but some require pre-registration and a fee.

More info

Monday, March 28, 2011

Best recent birding blog posts

Wilson's SnipeWilson's Snipe, Hines, Oregon, 28 May 2010 by Greg Gillson.


There have been several blog posts by birders lately that I have found extremely interesting. If you haven't read them you should!

Are there really fewer snipe this year than last? Mike Patterson of North Coast Diaries discusses impression versus real data in Sniping about observer bias.

How can birders learn to identify bird songs and calls if they can't even Hear the motorcycle? Don Freiday posts this interesting discussion on the ABA Blog.

Bill Schmoker gives us The Low Down on photographing birds. What an excellent article published on the ABA blog.

A topic close to my heart, David Sibley discusses Identifying small songbirds by flight style.

In the Island Nature blog, Dave Ingram followed up the Progress of Caddisfly Creek, a salmon habitat greenway protected area on Vancouver Island. Yes, indeed, it is well-protected from any salmon!

Over at BirdFellow, Dave Irons writes about taking notes of rare birds on A lost art? Writing descriptions of rare birds.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Foto: Water skiing Bufflehead

BuffleheadBufflehead, Portland, Oregon, 19 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


This Bufflehead, skiing in for a landing, is one of many photos of waterfowl I was able to obtain on a recent visit to Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland.

See a previous post on Bufflehead.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Watch out for those pincers!

Pied-billed GrebePied-billed Grebe, Commonwealth Lake, Beaverton, Oregon, 2 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


The Pied-billed Grebe above has a tiger by the tail! Well, actually, it's a crayfish, but still... it better be careful!

In one study in the East, crustaceans such as crayfish made up about 20% of the diet of Pied-billed Grebes, fish 20%, and aquatic insects most of the rest. However, crayfish were consumed primarily in the winter.

Crayfish are not tolerant of polluted water so, evidently, the water in this small lake in a busy city park is not too bad.

Crayfish are also called crawfish or crawdads. Though it's been quite a while since I've been to a crawdad feed, I remember liking them better than lobster, crab, and many kinds of shrimp.

Suddenly I have this craving for grilled shrimp....

I must find the behavior of Pied-billed Grebes interesting, or at least photogenic, as my previous posts on this bird discuss sinking and feather shuffling.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Foto: White-throated Sparrow

White-throated SparrowWhite-throated Sparrow, Beaverton, Oregon, 19 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A bird at my feeder. Taken through the window, looking down on the bird, so not good technique or style. But it is my best photo of this species so far.

White-throated Sparrows are regular, but rather scarce in the Pacific NW. They nest across Canada, from NE British Columbia eastward and in the US around the Great Lakes an NE states to New York. Primarily they migrate east of the Rocky Mountains, but some winter and migrate through the Pacific NW. They often show up at feeders.

Though similar to the more common White-crowned Sparrow, they are brighter on the back, with bright rusty wing edges--so often stand out as different. They sing in migration (sometimes in winter, too) and are quite loud.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Odd coot in Washington gets mention by David Sibley

Dark-eyed JuncoTypical American Coot, Commonwealth Park, Beaverton, Oregon, 22 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


On March 13, Lyn Topinga reported to OBOL (Oregon Birders OnLine email list) that she had photographed an odd American Coot in Vancouver, Washington. It lacked the dark red spot on the top of the bill's frontal shield and, therefore, resembles the Caribbean Coot.

Click for Lyn's photos

David Sibley picked up news of this bird and wrote an article on this rare variant (~1% of all American Coots may appear as this bird): The 'Caribbean' Coot in North America. Lyn's photos and those of Scott Carpenter are listed in Sibley's references.

Sibley argues that without definitive DNA evidence to the contrary, the Caribbean Coot could very well simply be this variant, though more common in the West Indies.

You know, even birds that we usually ignore because of their ubiquitousness can surprise us.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Attract birds to your backyard: Part 4: Bird foods

A Purple Finch and Black-headed Grosbeak join two American Goldfinches on this huge feeder at Hagg Lake, Washington County, Oregon, 7 July 2007 by Greg Gillson.


In the previous post we discussed bird feeder styles. Certain birds prefer certain styles of feeder types. Equally important is what you put in the feeders to offer to the birds in your backyard. That is the subject of this post.

Black oil sunflower seeds
Birds attracted: finches, grosbeaks, sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches
Feeder styles: platform, tube, hopper

Perhaps you noticed that the photos of birds eating at seed feeders in the previous post were all shown with one type of seed--black oil sunflower. Sunflower seeds come in two general varieties--striped and black oil. The black oil have more nutrition and fats (oils), and the hulls are softer, allowing chickadees and other small birds to break them open to get to the kernels. These seeds are a favorite of many birds species.

Black oil sunflower seed in a tube feeder will greatly reduce the number of invasive House Sparrows at your feeder. Such feeders are also less likely to be taken over by jays and squirrels.

This squirrel-proof tube feeder also keeps out Red-winged Blackbirds and jays, while birds up to the size of Golden-crowned Sparrows go right in!

"Wild bird seed mix"
Birds attracted: sparrows, doves
Feeder styles: platform, hopper

As an inexpensive "filler," these bird seed mixtures are generally over 50% millet (often both the red and white varieties). Millet, especially red millet, is not desired by most native backyard birds. Many sparrows and other birds will kick or throw it out of the bird feeders, searching for other seeds, such as sunflowers. However, the invasive House Sparrows love millet and European Starlings eat it too. Most people would rather feed native birds than encourage the loud, messy, and aggressive House Sparrows and Starlings. Once you realize that the great deal on wild bird seed mix is only 50% edible to the birds you want to attract, you will be more willing to spend slightly more money on other types of food.

Niger seed (also trademarked as Nyjer)
Birds attracted: goldfinches, siskins
Feeder styles: thistle feeder, thistle sock

There is no better way to attract goldfinches to your backyard than a thistle feeder, unless you plant your yard with thistles--something sure to make your neighbors prickly.

Don't feed too much at once, as it can mildew in the rain. Goldfinches may take some time to find your thistle feeders, so first set up black oil sunflower tube feeders to attract other finches and the goldfinches will soon find the thistle feeder.

This smaller thistle feeder looks perfect!

Birds attracted: quail, doves, jays, blackbirds
Feeder style: platform or spread on the ground

Corn is a favorite of squirrels--especially whole corn on the cob. Cracked corn is eaten by more birds. Some people don't mind attracting squirrels--others try to discourage them from "stealing" all the bird food.

Birds attracted: jays, nuthatches
Feeder style: platform

Jays and squirrels will spend all day burying and digging up each other's cached peanuts. Other birds will eat them, occasionally.

Birds attracted: woodpeckers, bushtit
Feeder style: Suet cage or nailed on tree

You may be surprised at the number of birds attracted to suet in winter, including insect-eating wrens and warblers. However, don't think of carnivorous birds. Think of suet as a big, fat, juicy grub, and you'll see the appeal.

There are many different "flavors," some including seeds. Experiment with what works best for your birds.

Many types of suet melts or goes rancid quickly once the temperature goes above 60 degrees F, so this is primarily a winter food. However, you may find other certain types that keep better in warm weather.

This copper-roofed suet cage should keep the starlings off!

Birds attracted: thrushes, orioles
Feeder style: Platform or nailed down

Cut apples or orange slices may attract certain birds, such as Varied Thrushes in winter and orioles in summer. They may attract yellowjackets, in summer, though.

Birds attracted: hummingbirds, orioles
Feeder style: Hummingbird feeder, Oriole feeder

The nectar is 20% sugar solution, 1 part table sugar to 4 parts water. While this may be bad for us, it is perfect for hummingbirds. Never use honey. Oriole feeders are just hummingbird feeders with bigger feeder holes for the oriole's larger bill.

Bread and human food scraps
Attracted: European Starlings, rats

Don't do it!

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Check out the Cornell Lab or Ornithology for more bird feeding tips.

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Part 1

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday Foto: Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped WarblerYellow-rumped Warbler, Beaverton, Oregon, 2 February 2011 by Greg Gillson.


I thought this bird caught nice afternoon light quite nicely.

We have discussed the Yellow-rumped Warbler previously.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A blue bird riddle

Mountain BluebirdMountain Bluebird, Rimrock Springs, Madras, Oregon, 14 June 2008 by Greg Gillson.


When is a blue bird not blue?

The hint to this riddle is in the sky. What color is the sky? Why does the sky appear blue in the day and black at night?

Just as there is no blue pigment floating around in the sky, there is no blue pigment in a bird's feathers. The gasses and dust in the atmosphere affect the sunlight--absorbing red and scattering blue--making it appear that they sky is blue. Likewise, a layer of cells within the feather barbs reflects back the blue color frequency to our eyes.

The primary pigments (biochromes) that color bird feathers are melanins and carotenoids. Melanins produce dark colors--black, browns, and rust. Carotenoids produce red, orange, yellow. There are some birds (turacos of Africa, and bustards of the Old World) that have additional pigments that create those species' green, pink, and red plumage colors.

What about green birds? For the most part, the green color we see from a bird's feather is blue light reflected back at us through yellow-pigmented feather cells.

Iridescence produces the brilliant metallic reflections that turn a hummingbird's black gorget feathers a startling red, or catches the sunlight just right to make a drake Mallard's head a brilliant metallic green or purple.

Like a rainbow produced by light striking a prism, sunlight reflects off the structure of barbules (smaller feather structures that act as a zipper to hold the barbs together making the feather vanes).

Thus, the blue iridescent highlights on the head of a Brewer's Blackbird is produced slightly differently than the blue on the Mountain Bluebird above. But in neither case are there any blue pigments involved.

Information for this article is from the entry: "Colors of feathers," The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, 1980, by John K. Terres.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book Review: Crossley ID Guide

Why review a bird book for Eastern North America in a blog for the Pacific NW?

Two reasons. 1) This book represents a revolutionary paradigm shift in the design and presentation of a bird identification guide. 2) A version covering Western North America is in the works--and you will want one!

I have been hearing about this new guide by Brit birder/photographer Richard Crossley and seeing some sample plates on the web for over a year now. My review copy finally arrived yesterday, but I had read a dozen reviews already. I'm not sure I can add anything that hasn't already been said, but I'll try.

This bird identification guide is different.

It is different from anything you've ever seen before. As such, it may take a little getting used to. And, because it is so different, it is hard to directly compare it with other bird books.

What is it?

The Crossley ID Guide is a photo guide to bird identification half way between a field guide and a coffee table book. Larger than the big Sibley guide, it is heavier too. This is not a field guide.

Sparse on text, Crossley relies on the 640 plates to teach bird identification. He does this by providing 10,000 of his own bird photos in this book! That's over 15 photos per species--twice the number of illustrations per species as Sibley's guide.

But you've never seen bird photos like these before!

Each plate is a collage of bird photos superimposed realistically within an appropriate habitat. As others have said, each plate is like a museum panorama.

The thrushes are on the ground and lower branches in the shadows of a dense woods. The ptarmigans are on a snow-covered mountain slope. The blue jays are on a typical Eastern farm with an orchard. The juncos are in a snowy residential backyard with feeders. The chipping sparrows are on a golf course, complete with 4 golfers playing through. There are warblers dripping from the tree tops. The fish crows are in the marina. A man is feeding the pigeons in a park. The owls are in the dark and barely discernable. The snowy owls are on the beach dunes. The parrots are backdropped against a Miami skyline. The laughing gulls are on the beach at Cape May. The glaucous gulls appear to be at Niagra Falls in the snow, complete with rainbow. The killdeer are following a tractor as it plows a field. The semipalmated plovers are sharing the beach with swimming children. The yellow-headed blackbirds are in a cattle feedlot. The tree sparrows are in dirty snow in a city with spired architecture that I am guessing is Montreal.

No tack-sharp cookie-cutter bird illustraions, here.

The house finch photographed for the introduction covering bird topography has a near-fatal case of avian conjunctivitis--disgusting... and real! Crossley chooses to show birds as he actually sees them--a few near birds in various plumages and ages, then some at medium range, and a virtual "where's Waldo?" collection of distant birds hidden away in their natural habitat.

As in real life, only one of the 7 bushtits is facing the camera. The flying shots of some of the smaller birds are just blurs. There are 7 flying red-breasted nuthatches--the largest has a wingspan on the page of 1 inch, the smallest photo is 1/8 inch long--just as Crossley photographed it, and just as you might see it--flying in the tree tops. He uses to excellent advantage, distant, headless, non-artistic, and sometimes blurry photos such as I have been deleting in my own photography!

Birds are hopping, crawling, fighting, eating, flying, singing, stretching, courting, fleeing, mating, nesting, diving, displaying, preening, drying, swimming. Only a very few are actually sitting there quietly posing for the camera in a Peterson-style side-view. This presentation may be confusing and overhwelming to many at first.

Who is this book for?

Crossley says he designed this book for "beginners, experts, and everyone in between."

I see the appeal this book has for beginners and intermediate birders. The realistic habitats will instantly give one a feel for where each species lives--fence lines next to dredge spoils for palm warbler, deep swamps for Swainson's warbler.

But I do worry that the plates could also mislead. For instance, the text doesn't always tell you that some species are usually solitary. Thus the plate with a dozen merlins may mislead someone into thinking that they are usually found in flocks.

I'm not sure exactly what this book has to offer for experts. Perhaps the tiny photos will show what field marks are visible on a distant flying bird, Certainly, the identificaion of flying birds is not adequately covered in any field guide. But without describing wingbeat angles, frequency, and pattern, and without showing flight progression, this book fails there, too. Maybe the unique presentation alone is enough for more advanced birders to purchase this volume.

"I don't like text."

Well, that certainly is an attention-grabbing way to start a book! In fact, Rick Wright, in his review of this book, argues that this guide would be more approprate as an electronic book.

There are no arrows pointing out field marks. There are no side-by-side comparisons of similar species.

Instead of telling you the "answers" directly, Crossley asks you to pore over the plates and learn from them, thus the reduced amount of text. He likens his guide to a "workbook at school." I'm not sure beginners are willing to put in this amount of work. And there's no "teacher's guide" to this so-called workbook.

The species accounts in the Crossley guide have a small amount of text, but Crossley gives it his own inimitable voice. For instance, under black-crowned night-heron he describes a bit of behavior: "crouches like smaller GRHE [green heron], occasionally walking a few paces hoping for better luck." Under red-headed woodpecker: "Sits quietly for periods of time, always looking around so it knows what's going on."

You might notice the bander's 4-letter alpha code in the description above. These are used throughout. Whether you love or hate referring to birds by their alpha code, it is the purpose of communication--including writing a book--to be understood. This will make it harder for many.

The maps are adequate, 3-color showing breeding, winter, and year-round ranges, but not migration. They often show more of the range than just the East, but are inconsistent in this regard.

In short, this book will not replace any of your field guides. It is, however, a splendid addition to your birding library... or coffee table.

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The offical site is here: http://www.crossleybooks.com/. The first thing you'll notice is Richard Crossley on his head at the beach "turning birding upside down." Well, I doubt he'll turn birding upside down, but already he has turned bird books upside down!

Be sure to look at samples of the plates on the web site above and watch the YouTube link of the "Wild in the City" TV program concept--you might just find that the boisterous, busy, confusing, exciting, overwhelming new Crossley ID Guide mirrors the man--and I mean that in a good way, for both the man and the book.

I can't wait for the Western guide. If Clark's nutcracker isn't shown on the rim of Crater Lake....

Friday Foto: Foggy chickadee

Black-capped ChickadeeBlack-capped Chickadee, Cooper Mountain Nature Park, Beaverton, Oregon, 26 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


A couple of weeks ago I featured a Chestnut-backed Chickadee in the sun.

This week, we have a Black-capped Chickadee in the fog.

When I read Rich Dich's photography blog I get jealous. He's in Arizona, getting up with the sun.

Here in western Oregon's drab winters, we may not see the sun for days at a time, and rarely at dawn. More often than not it is dark and foggy in the morning. It may start breaking up a bit by noon... only to reveal a high overcast. Then it will likely fog back in by 3 p.m.

See a previous post about Black-capped Chickadees.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Attract birds to your backyard: Part 3: Styles of bird feeders


In Part 1 we discussed making your backyard attractive to birds with natural food and water. In Part 2 we discussed landscaping to create protective shelter and breeding habitat.

Next week we'll discuss the different kinds of bird foods and the birds they attract.

Now, though, we will discuss the different styles of bird feeders.

When you think of a bird feeder, perhaps the type above comes to mind. It is a tube-style seed feeder. They are preferred by finches, such as this Pine Siskin. Finches feed in the trees, so they like these kind of feeders that mimic (to a degree) the type of feeding these birds favor.

Importantly, these feeder discourage (but don't totally eliminate) larger birds, such as jays, Starlings, and House Sparrows, and squirrels. These unwanted feeder visitors are considered pests or just piggy--the jays will gulp down a bunch of food then carry it off to bury it. Then they soon return, emptying your feeder quickly.

Sparrows, including favorites such as towhees and juncos, however, like to feed on the ground or a raised flat surface. For these birds, and others, a tray feeder works best. These can be covered with a roof or uncovered. They can be as simple as this flat stump sprinkled with bird seed that has attracted this Song Sparrow.


My wife and I had success building a tray feeder using an open weave plastic--similar to a placemat--in a wooden frame. We attached this to our cedar fence with shelf brackets. The open weave allowed rain to drain, and keep the seed fresh longer. It detached and washed off easily.

Tray feeders will allow you to offer the birds something besides just seeds (wait until next week for more details of different foods you can offer).

Here is another example of a Black-headed Grosbeak using a very small open mesh metal tray feeder that attaches to a mounting pole:



An adaptation to a tray feeder is a hopper-style feeder. These are covered bins of seed, with a tray at the bottom. Birds pull seeds from the bottom and the tray is refilled automatically. These are more protected from the rain. Here is an example.



A specialized seed feeder is a thistle feeder. Shown below is one made of open wire mesh. These are especially for goldfinches and siskins, though, as you can see below, this female House Finch also joins the Lesser Goldfinch at this thistle feeder.

Another type of thistle feeder is called a thistle sock. The birds pull small seeds (usually niger seed, not thistle) that stick out from an open-weave fabric bag--just like weed seeds sticking out from my socks after walking through a weedy field in late summer. Again, the metal mesh dries out more quickly so the seed does not mildew as quickly in wet climes--and is easily cleaned.



That covers the seed feeders.

Pictured below is a suet feeder, in this case the suet (rendered beef fat) is in a suet cage. Suet is a food that provides protein. Once the temperature rises above 60 degrees F, the suet can spoil quickly, so this is primarily a winter food only.

You will note this suet cage is on a long chain. Doesn't this swing around wildly knocking birds off? Yes, and that is exactly why. European Starlings love suet. If allowed, a small flock will eat the suet block in a few minutes. However, Starlings have very weak feet. They must stand on top of the suet cage and bend over to eat it. This causes a starling merry-go-round! They still get some suet, but often are somewhat deterred.

Other birds, including large flickers, just fly up and hang on to the side of the suet cage to eat.



The final feeder style we will consider is the nectar feeder, perhaps best known as hummingbird feeder, though other birds may drink nectar, too.



Finally, you can buy all of these feeder types with suction cups that will attach these feeders directly to your windows. Smaller birds (chickadees, hummingbirds) easily become accustomed to your presence and will quickly move from a regular feeder to a nearby window feeder.

All feeders need cleaned periodically, or food will spoil, rodents will be attracted, birds may get diseases.

Soap and water works to clean cloudy hummingbird solution (bacteria). A weak bleach solution is needed for black mildew or mold, which can develop in a day in summer heat, or 4 or 5 days in cold weather. The trick is to only fill the feeder with the amount of nectar consumed before going bad. When you purchase a hummingbird feeder, choose one that can be disassmbled completely when cleaning, and buy a small bottle brush, too.

Part 1
Part 4