Wednesday, February 16, 2022

It's going to be a busy birdy spring!

I'm pleased to announce that I'm returning to offering in-person birding by ear classes through several Portland-area organizations. Sign up today as they will fill fast! Still offering Zoom courses too, which don't have the same attendance limits.

I hope to see you online or in the field!

TreeSong Nature Awareness and Retreat Center

Portland Audubon (Choose Field Classes, or Waitlisted In-Person Field Classes if they've filled)

Hoyt Arboretum

Tualatin Hills Parks and Rec

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Do you hear that song? Golden-crowneds are back!

The more seasons you’ve been birding, the more you know what changes to expect with each one. Many Northwest birders eagerly anticipate the fall arrival of golden-crowned sparrows, and I am definitely in that camp. Others enjoy seeking out shorebird or raptor migration hot spots, which I’ve enjoyed as well. But the golden-crowned is so accommodating it comes right to your backyard, no travel required.
Brown nonbreeding plumage. Photo by Greg Gillson

I usually hear my first fall golden-crowned—oh dear me—singing from the fading blackberries. Like many sparrows, they’re not showy, they’re kinda brown, and they’re even more brown in the nonbreeding season, but their voice is always distinctive and evocative. Oh dear me, I'm so tired the bird sings in a somewhat wistful, descending, three-note phrase, sometimes with a bit of a flourish. It’s one mnemonic that’s easy to remember and not often confused with other bird voices, especially at this time of year in the Willamette Valley.

Sexy breeding plumage complete with golden crown.
Photo by Greg Gillson
I’ve never been to their northern breeding grounds in Alaska and British Columbia. How those songs must fill the air when the males are full of testosterone and the urge to mate. Are their breeding-ground songs different from the winter wistful songs I know so well? They are certainly more frequent! Most songbirds quit singing once nesting season is through, or at least they slow down a lot. On sunny winter days, song sparrows and house finches will get their groove on, but for the most part what we hear on the land are calls, shorter, simpler sounds made by flock members, between pairs, or in alarm when that Cooper’s hawk is near.

So when the first mournful song of the golden-crowned catches my ear, I smile. They may just sing for a few weeks then quiet down for the season, but that sound officially marks the start of fall for me. I’ll watch for them and other wintering sparrows like fox, Lincoln’s, and white-throated when I visit hedgerows, blackberry borders, wetlands, pretty much everywhere except deep forest. And since they’re in my yard, I’ll toss some millet out and “forget” to rake up leaves so they’ve got some good scratching spots. I’ll reacquaint myself with their quieter calls, and once spring rolls around they’ll start up with oh dear me again before leaving the valley for parts north. Good luck, little sparrows! That’s a helluva journey.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The waxwings of fall

Fall in the Pacific Northwest is a bit of a limbo time for birding. Ducks are between plumages and are mostly brown, migrants like flycatchers and warblers and tanagers are on their way south, and osprey and cliff swallow nests sit empty. Shorebirds are coming through, and they can be fun and challenging (she said diplomatically), but frankly, fall is a bit of a letdown for me after all the excitement of spring and early summer.

Until the waxwings show up.

My mom had a Golden guide to birds in the map slot of her '72 Datsun, and if I was bored, I'd thumb through it. The birds that caught my eye were the showy ones like wood duck and painted bunting, but the waxwing, for all its brown tones, was pretty showy, too. Lemon-yellow tipped tail, cherry-red wing-feather tips? And a black mask? Neat.

I don't remember when I saw my first live-and-in-person cedar waxwing, but over the years it's become a bird I expect to see in the deciduous or riparian habitats of Oregon and California, where I've done most of my birding. I even stumbled upon a nest of waxwings so big they were due to fledge any minute (the post's video no longer works, sorry about's a bit old, I guess).

Fall is a great time to find waxwings because they gather in large, noisy flocks (often with robins) to feast on the fruit adorning many trees and shrubs in the greater Portland area, both ornamentals and natives. A friend of mine has two Golden Raindrops crab apple trees, and each year dozens of waxwings and robins show up to strip the tasty fruit from the tree.

The flocks I saw earlier in the fall were mostly juvenile birds with one or two adults mixed in. They are easy to tell apart from the sleek adults: the crest isn't grown in, the mask isn't complete, and the chest shows dark streaks. The tail is dipped in yellow, but the red hasn't appeared on the wingtips yet.

I must admit I began this post over a month ago but never finished it. Soon the waxwings weren't as plentiful, and I thought my post was now out of date.

Last week I visited the Bob's Red Mill store in Milwaukie with a friend, and we both noticed how the ornamental trees there were heavily laden with red berries and remarked that the waxwings obviously hadn't found this patch yet.

I was back there today and, as you might have guessed, they've found it. Big time. Waxwings and robins are swarming all around the area, from the trees at Bob's to others in nearby office parks.

Another waxwing, the Bohemian, occurs in North America, but it prefers higher latitudes, breeding through Alaska and Canada and barely entering the lower 48 near the Canadian border in winter. They occur irregularly in Oregon in the Wallowas and the Blue Mountains, I believe during only the coldest of winters. That one is not on my life list yet. It resembles the more common cedar waxwing, but it's a bulkier bird and has red, yellow, and white in the wings. Several years ago during a heavy snow, one did show up with a flock of cedars. Luckily they landed in the northeast Portland backyard of an accomplished birder, so there was no question about its identity. That snow day was a lucky one for Patty!

So when you're out and about birding, don't forget to listen for the ZeeeZeeeZeee high-pitched trills of the waxwings. They're still out there feasting away!

Thanks to Jen Sanford and Greg Gillson for allowing me use their most excellent photos.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Little Green Birds

Recently, I received an email from a birder asking for bird identification help.  In November on the Oregon coast, he'd photographed what he believed to be a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, but wanted confirmation. He'd included two very clear photos of a greenish grayish yellow (or yellowish greenish gray) bird with two light wing bars, a pointy beak, and a whitish teardrop eye ring. Certainly could be a flycatcher!

Here is a photo of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher (this is not the photo he sent):

The field marks are all there...greenish grayish yellow (or yellowish greenish gray!), pointy beak, one of two wing bars visible, whitish teardop eye ring.

Now here are the photos he sent:

It was not a flycatcher he had photographed! It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a maddeningly similar bird in looks, but vastly different in seasonality and behavior.

First of all, by November most of our flycatchers have left North America in favor of Central and South American forests. The kinglet, however, is a year-round resident and is commonly found at low elevations in fall and winter.

But even if a flycatcher did stick around past its usual departure date, it wouldn't behave like the perpetually bouncy kinglet. The stoic flycatcher sits still as it waits for a flying insect to come near, then darts off its perch to catch the bug, returning to the same or a nearby perch. The frenetic kinglet, on the other hand, gleans tiny insects and insect eggs from bark, the base of leaves, or in between needles, often hovering for a moment as it hunts. Frequently flicking its wings, it works the foliage of one bush then moves on to the next. No sitting still for this guy!

And though their plumage at first looks similar, the birds are different sizes (a wee kinglet is a mere 4 inches long!), and the kinglet's beak is tweezer-like compared to the flycatcher's more flattened beak (think about hunting style--would you try to catch a flying insect with tweezers or tongs?). In addition, the flycatcher's head has a slight peak to it, and the male kinglet sports its namesake: a secret ruby-red patch on its crown that it can reveal at will.

The next time you're faced with a little green bird, remember to think about not only what it looks like, but what it's doing and what time of year it is. Behavior and seasonality are often the key to identification of similar species, though of course the birds don't always stick to those "rules."

Soon enough these two will switch places and we'll be tearing our hair out over the oh-so-similar species of flycatcher hunting in our summer lowlands, while the kinglets will be nesting high up in the Cascades. Enjoy our winter birds!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Northern Shrike

First Northern Shrike of the season showed up for me at Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro this past Sunday. It was perched high in a tree and at first gave the impression of Scrub Jay. My beginner birder group had been wrestling with Scrub Jays all morning--just when they thought they'd really nailed the Jay, one would pose at a new angle and look totally different from the last one. They eyed this new tree topper with a wary hope--could it be something other than a Jay?

Their attention paid off. They noticed the tail and bill were shorter, sky blue had been replaced by gray, and a striking black mask tied the whole outfit together. What a dapper bird! This predatory songbird is a winter visitor to the Lower 48, spending the breeding season much farther north on the taiga. It hunts small mammals, birds, and insects, impaling them on thorns or barbed wire in a gruesome larder. It also goes by the name Butcher Bird, an apt description of its predatory nature.

Our Butcher Bird posed long enough for all fourteen participants to get a view through the scope before it escaped from view as we patted each other's backs, likely on the trail of a tasty meal.

The take away? Don't dismiss it as "just a Jay," because this time of year it might be a Northern Shrike!

Photo by Jen of I Used to Hate Birds - thanks, Jen!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Birding by Ear

I doubt I have to convince many of you that paying attention to bird voices enhances your overall birding experience. Listening to birds and learning their songs does several things for you: it increases your awareness of birds and the diversity of sounds they make, and gives you a better understanding of their world and how they interact with it. Best of all, it impresses the heck out of your friends. Friends who already think you're a little too birdnerdy (but birds are so hip right now!) will be utterly convinced of this once you interrupt a conversation with, "Hey, I think I just heard a common nighthawk *peent* overhead!" (This happened to me in southeast Portland, not an everyday bird in those parts.)

But inside they're jealous, completely green with envy, and secretly covet your seemingly omniscient ability.

They think, "How can I get that superpower?"

Truly, it's simple. I say that now, after being at it for more than twenty years, but I'm pretty sure it's still simple.

First of all, you must be patient with yourself. You did not learn to walk, talk, do calculus, or write a book as soon as the urge hit you. You tried, failed, tried again, practiced, practiced, practiced, and here you are: living proof that those things and more can be achieved with time, patience, and practice.

Second of all, do you have ears? If yes, then use them! How did I learn birdsong? Oh yeah, it was that one app they had back in the late '80s called Being Outside. I kid, but really it was being outside for extended periods of time, listening to songs then tracking down the singer, that gave me a leg up. If you have just thirty minutes a day to listen, you can gets lots of practice time in.

OK, so now you're feeling all gooey and warm and fuzzy about all the things listening to birds can do for you and how with just thirty minutes to an hour a day you can easily devote your entire spring to mastering the art of birding by ear. Yes, I Can! And I encourage you to dive right in!

Open your ears and practice. Every time you walk to the car, the store, the mailbox, you should picture your ears as giant deer ears, rotating and gathering sound from all points. Start to filter out the cars, the planes, the barking dog, and mentally turn your ears toward that tree that always has birds in it, or to your feeder that the finches always go to. Chances are those birds are chatting about something and you can listen in. Find them, look at them, watch them sing. The pursuit of the singer helps cement the song in your mind.

Reinforce with recordings. We are lucky to have so many recordings at our fingertips, whether on a CD, online at Cornell's web site, or right in the palm of our hand in a birding app like iBird or Sibley. Reading about the song, looking at a photo of the bird while listening to it sing, taking quizzes on songs are all good tools for reinforcement. Does that make the learning process any easier or faster? It certainly helps. I treasure my recordings and still pop a CD into the player to keep on learning. That being said, no amount of tech can substitute for yes, that's right, you guessed it...Being Outside.

Take a class or go on a guided birdwalk. If you have someone right there who's telling you what you're listening to, the learning curve is suddenly not so treacherous. I teach three versions of Birding By Ear every spring. The Resident Birds class starts tonight, Migrant Birds starts in May, and Nesting Birds starts in June. Good for me, bad for you: all sessions are full. But if you're in the Portland area do check out the spring morning birdsong walks, linked above. On more generic birdwalks, most leaders have at least some familiarity with local bird sounds and are happy to point them out. And there may be other participants who really know their sounds and can help you out.

Birding can be a social pursuit or a solitary one. If you start out in a group, learning from a teacher and each other, you should also strike out on your own to test your listening skills when not distracted by people noises. Likewise solitary birders might pick up tips from a group. Birds are more likely to settle down and accept your presence when you are alone, and you might finally track down that one singer that's been driving you nuts. I encourage you to slow down, sit down, and listen. The birds will be singing for you all spring!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Flashback Friday

When I introduce myself to a new session of beginning birders, I refer to the summer of 1987 as "the summer that changed my life." I was attending Lewis & Clark College, majoring in biology, and had mostly been interested in studying whales prior to arriving in Portland and finding that maybe that wasn't the best use of my time at a liberal arts college not located next to the ocean. One of my bio profs told us about summer internships available at California's Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now known as Point Blue) just north of San Francisco. Sure, I knew that place! I grew up in Berkeley, about an hour south, and had spent lots of time at Point Reyes as a child. I applied, and for some reason they accepted me, even though I could barely tell a sparrow from an eagle.

I had two jobs during my stay at the Palomarin Field Station. One was to run the mist-net system spread over several acres of oak trees, grasses, and coyote brush. We hoisted the 14 nearly invisible mist nets like a ship's sails every morning, checked on them every 30 minutes, untangled caught birds and brought them back to the lab for weighing, measuring, and most importantly, leg banding. The final step was to clasp a numbered metal ring around the bird's leg (left or right, I can't recall). This way, if the bird was recaptured, its trail could be followed through its unique band number. Same if the bird was found dead. All the North American banding data is stored at the Bird Banding Lab at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. If you find a band, you can report it online and find out the bird's history. Why is this important information? Banding data helps us understand migration patterns and timing, distribution and success of breeding birds, as well as how long birds can live. The oldest known Laysan Albatross, Wisdom, was banded as an adult 63 years ago!

My other job was to survey Grid 2, the area pictured above. The bird observatory has run a breeding bird survey program here, and on three other grids, since 1966, and has amassed an extraordinary amount of information on breeding birds of the area. Every morning I traversed the grid, which was thick with dense coyote brush and chaparral, watched for target species singing from perches, and mapped their color bands and location. Any time a target species, like a Song Sparrow, was mist-netted, it was given a unique color band sequence so we could ID it as an individual. Thus, my birds had "names" like MRG/S meaning on its left leg was a Mauve, a Red and a Green plastic band and on its right was a silver metal band. The map pictured is the result of my logging the singing perches of individual male Song Sparrows as they patrolled their patch, defending it from rivals. G2-1 belongs to MRG/S while G2-11 belongs to S/YYO. Think about this the next time you're walking through Song Sparrow territory, and realize how close they come to each other, and even overlap.
And finally, here is yours truly at the tender age of 19 holding her first Sharp-shinned Hawk. Mist-netting wasn't always about small birds--we got this guy, a juvenile Saw-whet Owl, and even a bat. Banding birds gives you a tremendous appreciation for the variation in birds' personalities. Some were shy, some were downright badass, and most were smaller than my fist.

Before the summer of 1987, I couldn't tell you what a Song Sparrow or Wrentit sounded like, but suddenly it was my job to track them by their songs! I saw and handled many birds that summer, found a Wrentit nest on my birthday, learned all those birdsongs by heart, and learned a ton about communal dorm living. I returned to college, hung out with birders who knew far more than I did, and finally set aside my dream of studying whales in favor of these far more accessible birds. If you ever get a chance to band birds or watch it being done, DO IT! There is no place like Palomarin in Oregon, but California is just down the road--check it out this summer when the Wrentits are be-bopping away and the White-crowned Sparrow's song echoes through the fog.