Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pinyon Jays...

...are social creatures. Not only do the birds flock together, but they are colonial nesters, communal feeders of their young and have little regard for territorial interactions with their neighbors. Highly nomadic, I see flocks of p-jays in the southern part of Bend where I live, but not regularly. Sometimes they are in the big ponderosa pines by the Bend Country Club, other times over by the trees near the South End Blockbuster. Today, they were over my yard.

A flock of over 50 birds, noisily flew past our house. Fortunately, I was outside loading the car with books bound for the library. This tight-knit flock was the first ones I had observed this winter, although some folks report them as more regulars at their homes east of Bend.

Formerly known as blue crows or Maximilian's jays, flocks with over 500 individuals have been reported in the Cabin Lake area, southeast of Bend. Those birds were probably as noisy as the Twelfth Man in the Seahawk's Qwest Stadium.

So where have these nomads been all winter? Hard to say, since I haven't seen many postings for them on COBOL. With this winter's deep snows, maybe they have spent time farther east in areas less frequented by birders. Who snows?

Friday, January 21, 2011

American Three-toed Woodpecker

From the Swampy Shelter, near Swampy Lakes in the Deschutes National Forest, I catch a woodpecker drumming. Short bursts with a quick trailing end. One of my goals this year is to learn the woodpecker's by their drumming. I've got a few down, but this one was unknown.

I was on a snowshoe outing with my COCC class. We had just arrived at the shelter and folks were having a snack. Of course, hearing a bird, especially a woodpecker drumming, made me drop my sandwich and grab my binoculars.

So, I learned it the old-fashioned way. Snuck up on the bird and listened while it pounded away on a standing dead lodgepole. Wait a little more, listen again. Move to the left and search with my binoculars. Seemed like we were playing a game. As I moved to one side, the woodpecker would go the other way. So, I waited some more.

Finally, an American three-toed woodpecker came into view. Barring on the back (ladder back) and barred flanks. Two white facial marks and white speckles on the crown. At one point the bird flew to another snag and started flicking away pieces of bark while searching for insects. Nice for me, because that tree was about 5 feet away.

The woodpecker's drumming was short and trailed off at the end. Listen to the call on the What Web site to hear the cadence. The Sibley guide says that the three-toed's drumming is "...slower and shorter than Black-backed." So I guess I just keep listening, and remind myself to start hauling my camera with me.

County Big Year to date: 61 species

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Birding at Freddies

You won't find the Fred Meyer's shopping plaza on any birding radar sites. Mostly asphalt and concrete, the few trees in the parking medians wouldn't qualify for any backyard habitat enhancement designation. I will admit that the house sparrows do thrive there, picking up food scraps or insects impaled on the front grills of some vehicles. They also like the structural design which accommodates their crammed-in-any-opening type of mentality.

So much to my chagrin, and delight, I was able to pick up a merlin streaking across the parking lot airspace in pursuit of prey. Hopefully, the house sparrows. I had plenty of time to retrieve my binoculars from the car and watch as the merlin made some repeated passes at prey, then shifted gears and slowed down for some good looks.

Next? I'm sure it will be the pinyon jays over by the big pondos in the outlet mall. Although I haven't seen them yet this year, I'll have to remember my binos next time I head to Blockbuster.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I start out on a cold Tuesday morning from the Sunriver Nature Center and walk some of the snow-covered paths in search of birds. I'd heard about chestnut-backed chickadees being seen down here at the resort.

What once was Camp Abbott during World War II, is now a resort complete with golf courses, lodges, pools, homes and a small shopping complex. Though developed, the resort has great pathways for walking or biking, and left enough cover during construction to offer some fair birding. Because I live about 15 minutes away, Sunriver is a spot that I come to when I want to feel like I'm on vacation. Or to go birding.

Today, January 11, is cold. Snow covers the golf courses and most of the units are empty. I find the usual suspects in the groves of lodgepole pine that line the trails: mountain chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco. A pair of redtails are perched on a lone snag near the horse corrals and an adult bald eagle makes its way flying upriver.

The first County Big Year addition is a northern shrike, striking a pose atop a cluster of willows. Perhaps because of the cold, I am able to walk within 10 feet of the willows and get some great views of the bird.

As I walking down one of the paths, I meet Bob and his four-legged friend Roxy. Bob, seeing my binoculars, asks for identification. "Are you a birdwatcher?" One field mark that indicates possible birder is the binos around the neck, the other one is the four-word question. So we start chatting about birds. I tell him I'm looking for the chestnut-backs and he tells me has had one at his feeder at times during the winter. We talk about the shrike, which we've both passed, and a hairy woodpecker pounding away a little bit up the trail. I relate that I encountered 2 evening grosbeaks, my first ones of the winter, and Bob says they would be his first of the year, if he had seen them. We chat some more and find a common name of a local birder to further establish our identities.

Twenty minutes later a flock of around 20 evening grosbeaks pass me by heading towards Bob. Or at least his general direction. I hope he hears them or maybe that Roxy will stop at the appropriate sniffing post and Bob will look up. In addition to the grosbeaks I hear a flock of crossbills, which I'm assuming are red crossbills, but won't add them to the list just to make sure of my identification. The crossbills are fairly regular here; I even get them to our feeders in Bend.

Evening grosbeak

Though the birding has been slim, it has been a nice morning walking in the cold. The seemingly ever-present coyote hunts out in the frozen fields, and I strain to hear somebody different calling. But not today. So these two plus the great horned owl hooting during the BCS championship game between Oregon and Auburn are the newest additions to the list.

County Big Year to date: 59 species.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hitting Two Birds With One Stone

This idiom relates to solving two issues with one answer, because the linear thinking - a stone thrower could hit two birds in a row - seems pretty far fetched. Maybe before there were major impacts on wildlife this could happen, but, at least, in this case, I'm choosing the non-linear answer.

Yesterday, I snowshoed the Edison Shelter loop from the Edison Sno-Park in the Deschutes National Forest. This was a scouting trip for an upcoming snowshoeing class through the Central Oregon Community College's Continuing Learning program. Beautiful and brilliant day with enough snow pack to cover the lava tubes and rocky outcrops along the trail. In addition to the snowshoeing, I searched for some woodland species to keep this County Big Year alive.

Edison Shelter
There were several pockets of activity, mostly where there was a mix of ponderosa, mountain hemlock and lodgepole pine. I found common species such as the brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch and mountain chickadees. The creepers are like mini woodpeckers with their curved bills and long tails used for stability while climbing up the tree. The nuthatches were vocal with their "ank, ank" calls, and the chickadees were just as active.

The score for the morning outing was a northern pygmy owl calling from a grove of trees, but didn't show itself. The single spaced notes were very clear on the calm morning. My other species for the walk was a hairy woodpecker that flew in to the Edison Shelter and started hammering away on one of the porch posts.

So four new birds with one outing - now if they all will be so productive.

County Year total: 51 species.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Tetherow Crossing

The stout wooden bridge that spans the Deschutes River marks Tetherow Crossing. Named for the family that lived and operated a cable ferry crossing here in the 1870s, this provided an easy river crossing for wagons headed west towards the Willamette Valley or those heading east into central Oregon. One of the more level locations that provided a crossing along the steep-walled canyon of the Deschutes River, today one of the oldest houses in the county stands abandoned at this point. Trails along the river provided easy access along the riverbanks, and though vehicle traffic is light, sometimes the neighbor's roaming dogs make the birding interesting.

Yesterday was my second visit to the area in over a week. A lone swamp sparrow had been reported here and my first attempt to locate it was blown away by the wind. Literally.

So I returned yesterday, staked out the "seed station" location and waited. Of course, the dogs were back and a third one spent most of an hour barking at me. Two vehicles had parked into the pull-out near the small cluster of willows were some seeds had been left on the ground to attract the sparrows. Fortunately, my waiting paid off.

Not only did I get good looks at the swamp sparrow through my spotting scope, but I was also treated to a cornucopia of sparrows: white-crowned, song, Lincoln's and house. A few house finches and some dark-eyed juncos also showed up to provide a montage of plumages. The swampy was a lifer.

White-crowned sparrow
In addition to these birds, I also picked up a golden-crowned kinglet foraging in the juniper tree near this pullout and a spotted towhee farther downstream. I was also treated to a trio of golden eagles soaring on winter thermals (don't think there was any warm air on the below freezing day) high above the river. I missed the canyon wren I had heard the previous week, but I'm sure I'll be able to get that one on another visit. Even with the barking dogs and occasional car, this is a very pleasant location to bird or, if the birding is slow, just to take a walk up the canyon.

County list to date: 45 species

Monday, January 3, 2011

Birding the Old Mill District

January 2. I spent a portion of the morning birding the along the Deschutes River near Bend's Old Mill District. The walking trails here provide great access and, because of their popularity by walkers, runners and pet owners, the waterfowl here are "accustomed" to disturbance. And from the several foot bridges that span the river, there are nice elevated views to scan for ducks and geese.

Duck, Duck, Goose

There were 300+ mallards along this stretch of the river. Their brilliant orangish legs and rich green heads looked spectacular in the winter light. Though a common duck that often gets ignored for more unusual species, these mallards were strikingly beautiful. Just as spectacular where the hooded mergansers, especially the males with their white head patches when the birds raised their crests. A smaller merganser than the common merganser, both were present and hunting for prey. Other duck species present: ring-necked duck, bufflehead, American wigeon and common goldeneye.

The Canada geese were also present, mostly confined to the lawns at the amphitheater. I saw only one goose sporting a USFWS silver band and a red leg band. I don't know if this one is part of the resident/migrant study down there, something I'll have to check on. As in some parts of the country, these geese have been targeted for population control methods.

A statuesque great blue heron, some pied-billed grebes and a lone horned grebe rounded also provided some great viewing opportunities.

Great blue heron from another place and time

All in all, it was a nice morning and a great walk to view a lot of waterfowl. I'll keep checking this area throughout the year and expand my walks downstream to Drake Park and upstream to the footbridge.

At home I added a varied thrush which was visiting one of my feeders and California quail. The quail are almost daily visitors most of the year and we had our first nesting pair last year under a brush pile in the backyard. A good reminder that not all areas of the yard should be cleaned up!

Quail nest from 2010

Deschutes County Big Year Update
County species to date: 34

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Deschutes County Big Year

January 1. So it begins. A new year, a county Big Year.

I thought the first species of the year would be an indicator, a sign of things to come. Though I had hoped for a great horned owl or maybe a unique species, the first bird of the 2011 was a common raven. And a more apropos species couldn't have been found. (More on this in the future).

The day started off with a ski race at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center. My duties as a timer kept me focused on the finish area, but I still managed to observe gray jays and a Clark's nutcracker. The bold jays settled for scraps left at the food table and the nutcracker just made an appearance. See who else was in this winter wonderland.

Gray Jay
Back home, things were different and I spent some time observing the yard feeders. Big score was a white-throated sparrow and a downy woodpecker on the suet feeder. I didn't get more than a fleeting glimpse at a flying sapsucker, and then couldn't relocate it, so I'll have to stay vigilant for this species in the days ahead. I'm guessing red-breasted, but really didn't get a good enough look.

The usual suspects showed up at the feeders: house finch, pygmy nuthatch, mountain chickadee, dark-eyed junco, western scrub-jay, northern flicker, and American goldfinch - the goldfinches in splendid winter plumage. At one point an immature bald eagle flew overhead heading towards the national forest beyond our home.

My main goal of this County Big Year is to learn the birds of Deschutes County better. Work on identification of species that I'm weak on, spend time out birding, observing behavior, and to blog about these adventures. I'll be giving in to the "birding vortex" and see where it leads me. The species total is the last and lowest of these goals; really I'm using a County Big Year as a motivator to become a better birder.

As Yoda might say, "Off and birding, am I."

Species total to date: 14