Stormy weather

This last week we have been treated to an extended series of weather systems, some of them powered by remnant tropical storms.  These storms dumped over 6 inches of rain on the Astoria Airport and even more up in the Coast Range.  We’ve had high winds, flooding, landslides and road failures.  And we are still on a high surf advisory for the ocean.  In other words, just another December on the North Coast…

Today the winds turned westerly.  It is not unusual, when the winds come on shore after an extended storm series, for normally pelagic bird species to get blown in close to land.  Today, I went out looking to see what I could see…

I started with a 1.5km walk along Sunset Beach.  It was showery and I let myself get wetter than I should have.  There were quite a few dead CASSIN’S AUKLETS (17 actually) in the wrack line, but the body count for other species was (thankfully) low.

At Del Rey Beach, I found a RED PHALAROPE…

Red Phalarope - 12/13/2015

Winter storms can sometimes bring in 100’s of Red Phalarope, but this was the only one I saw today.

I sat watching a very angry ocean for about an hour at Seaside Cove.  I saw dozens of BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES, a BONAPARTE’S GULL and a PARASITIC JAEGER.

Parasitic Jaeger - 12/13/2015

Toward the end of the hour a LEACH’S STORM-PETREL flew by.  It was storm-petrels that I was, kind of, hoping for.  Seeing storm-petrels usually involves getting on a boat and going several miles out onto the ocean, not something my stomach enjoys doing, so anytime I can see one from land is a definite win.

Which is why my next stop at the high school overlook on the Necanicum Estuary was the best stop of the day…

Leach's Storm-petrel - 12/13/2015

Not only were there at least 4 Leach’s Storm-petrels, some of them really close, but there was also at least one FORK-TAILED STORM-PETREL.

Fork-tailed Storm-petrel - 12/13/2015

I should probably note that I also saw two storm-petrels over the course of the day that went unidentified.  One was a bird that I saw while driving on Hwy 101 near Surfpines.  I only saw that one from underneath in silhouette.  I’m pretty sure it was a Leach’s, but choose not to jump to any conclusions.  The second was a bird I saw being chased by a COMMON RAVEN on Sunset Beach.  That one was all black and seemed larger and longer winged than Leach’s.  There is a population of dark-rumped Leach’s Storm-petrel found in the Central Pacific, but those are  supposed to be smaller than a white-rumped Leach’s.  That leaves only very rare dark-rumped storm-petrels.  I did not see this bird well enough to make any claims about what it was, but it did make me go hmmm…

Three kinds of birders

I am three kinds of birder. They are very different versions of me and they don’t always get along. The one you meet depends very much on the situation.

I do some amount of bird-watching every day. For me, birding and natural history study in general are so much a part of my psyche that they are reflexive, like breathing. I do almost all of my birding alone and this is very much by choice. I quite literally commune with nature and I find having other people around to be a distraction. This birder is very unlikely to initiate any kind of contact with others when met in the field. I am, by all of the personality tests anyone has ever given me, extremely introverted, and I am much more shy and reserved than folks might think.

The reason for this is that most people only know one or both of the other birders that I am.

I am, sometimes, the local authority. This is the guidebook in human form. The person who knows where all the good birding spots are, where the most recent “good” birds have been seen. I am the information kiosk, the help desk. There are not very many active birders in Clatsop County, so it’s not surprising that I routinely have to play this roll and I obviously choose to be this birder anytime I post sightings to the internet or answer a question posed to me by another birder who wants to know where to find something. But there are times when the role as map to the stars wears a little thin and there are people, usually those who treat me as if my only function is as a sign post for their birding day, who may leave disgruntled.

My other public face is teacher. I did go to teacher school, after all, and teacher is the most comfortable place for me to be when dealing with folks outside my immediate sphere of friends and relatives. When I am asked to lead a nature walk or give a public talk about birds or other things, I am the teaching birder. Most of the stuff in this blog is written by the teaching birder. Those who only know me from this role may get the impression that I am patient, nurturing and accessible. Don’t be fooled. It takes a lot of work to be patient, nurturing and accessible and it’s not easy to switch all that stuff on if I’m in my Zen-space as lone birder or am being aggravated by some drive-by, out-of-state birder who sees himself as an expert on the funny sounding crow he just heard and wants to correct the mistakes in my information kiosk.

So I often need to be wooed…

There have been several unusual species hanging out along the North Coast this fall. They have attracted some attention from folks outside the area. If you are one of those folks and you happen upon a hulking, mustachioed man, approach cautiously, as you would if you were approaching a Common Ground Dove or a Tropical Kingbird. Be patient. Be nurturing. Don’t assume he’ll come to you and don’t be offended if he ducks into the shrubbery.

Wrentit - 8/6/2013

the Accidental Tourist

Common Ground Dove - 11/29/2015

Over the last couple months we’ve seen a remarkable number of rare to very rare species popping up in the region – rare seabirds that are normally seen in warmer southern oceans, birds from the interior that are rarely seen on coast, rare species that are more typically associated with Arizona and Texas…

What the heck is going on?

The most honest answer is – we don’t really know.  All we can do is speculate and speculate we shall…

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The movement of seabirds into more northern waters is most usually associated with the climatological phenomenon called el Niño/southern oscillation (ENSO).  The ENSO this year has been described by some news sources as the biggest ever, though the folks at NOAA are a bit less dramatic with their description.  It is probably safe to say that the recent increases in BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATERS, BROWN BOOBIES and ELEGANT TERNS are an artifact of el Niño induced ocean conditions which collapse the aquatic food chain in the southern and central Pacific Ocean, driving species northward.

Mountain Chickadee - 10/26/2015

The termed used to describe large scale movements of species into areas outside their expected range is irruption.  We’ve been enjoying an irruption of MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES throughout the region recently.  Some irruptions are associated with habitat conditions and food availability, other others with reproductive success within the normal range of a given species.  Drought conditions in the interior west, and possibly forest fires this last summer, are reasons that have been suggested for movements of chickadees and nuthatches to areas outside their expected ranges.

Tropical Kingbird - 11/23/2015

But what about birds associated with warmer latitudes?  What brings a TROPICAL KINGBIRD or a BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER this far north in what are becoming nearly annual irruptive events?

These species appear to be expanding their ranges northward. Global Climate Change along with other human caused changes in local ecosystems are almost certainly a contributing factor.  As the boundaries for the breeding ranges of these species move north, the range for northerly post-breeding dispersal of youngsters also creeps northward.  Northward post-breeding dispersal allows for the exploration locations beyond the current range of these species which in turn can lead to further expansion of a breeding range into new places. Climate change and human modifications of the landscape create new spaces for these species, usually at the expense of the local species which had adapted to the ecosystems and climate features that are being lost.

The occurrence of two COMMON GROUND DOVES along the Oregon Coast this fall may also be an artifact of the range expansion of this species into California in recent years.  If it is, this is the very leading edge of what may become a routine event.  Only time will tell.

I’ve collected representative photos for most of the rare and unusual species seen this year into one convenient place: the ACCIDENTAL TOURIST 2015 showcase.

A Hail Mary play

A CLAY-COLORED SPARROW was reported yesterday along Wireless Rd.  It was seen at the south end near the bird feeders, right before the horse corral.  This is a pretty good spot for sparrows.  A WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS along with lots of regularly occurring sparrows has been hanging out here for several weeks.

I went out this afternoon to see if I could relocate it and did so without much effort.  But the day was dark and the bird was hanging out a little too far away and in a spot I could not get closer to.  When I spotted it up in a tree, I pointed my camera in that general direction and took one shot…

Clay-colored Sparrow - 11/23/2015

At first glance (and you can see a larger version by clicking the photo) you might think as I first did, that I missed the bird, but look more closely, up in the right corner…

One of the many miracles of digital photography is the capacity to take a photo and blow it up.  When I do, voila

Clay-colored Sparrow - 11/23/2015

That, my friends, is an identifiable photo of a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Fever twitch

Over the past week or so, there have been reports of a number of interesting birds down around Tillamook.  First there was the DICKCISSEL and the NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD at Bay Ocean.  Then there was a SNOWY OWL, then a CATTLE EGRET, then two Cattle Egrets.  It was just too many unusual birds, and only about an hour away.  I broke discipline.  I went twitching in Tillamook County.

I started south before dawn hoping to reach the Dickcissel spot along the roadway at Bay Ocean Spit early and avoid the crowds.  I did not avoid the crowds.  Duck hunters had already staked out the bay margins and there were at least 4 other Dickcissel seekers at the Dickcissel spot.  Luckily, the Dickcissel made an appearance almost immediately upon arrival…

Dickcissel - 11/22/2015

… and I was able to put in an additional 50 minutes or so filling out my Bay Ocean checklist with all the other fine birds the area has to offer including some reasonably cooperative WESTERN MEADOWLARKS.

Western Meadowlark - 11/22/2015

At Fenk Rd, I found 2 BLACK PHOEBES among the many other interesting roadside birds.

Black Phoebe - 11/22/2015

I counted 42 RED-TAILED HAWKS from a stationary vantage point along the Wilson River Loop, plus a ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK.  One has to wonder what is going on in that spot that attracts raptors at that density…

I was parked at the Hwy 101 end of Goodspeed Rd watching TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS…

Townsend's Warbler - 11/22/2015

…when Ken Chamberlain drove by. He had just received a text message that a CATTLE EGRET had been found south of Tillamook on Hwy 101. It was kind of in the wrong direction and one had been reported earlier in the week at Nehalem Meadow, where I was supposed to be heading. I might have chased the bird to the south had I not been distracted by all the birds along Goodspeed Rd that gobbled up my time including a WHITE-TAILED KITE, another Black Phoebe and a remarkably friendly PALM WARBLER.

Palm Warbler - 11/22/2015

I chose north and home…

I did not find any egrets at Nehalem Meadows on the way home, but the sewage ponds were full of ducks. And the traffic was well behaved for the rest of the trip back to Astoria. The day list topped out at 75 species in Tillamook County and I’ve scratched that twitchy itch enough so that I won’t be needing to wander for a while.

Common Ground Dove

“…shovels and rakes and implements of destruction…”
………………………………………from Alice’s Restaurant Massacre by Arlo Guthrie

Once upon a time, back in the olden days when they called radio “the wireless”, there was a naval wireless station off of old Highway 101 on Youngs Bay.  The road that took you to the radio installation was called Wireless Rd.

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The radio installation is long gone, though the cyclone fence is still there.  Wireless Rd is now mostly pastureland for sheep and cattle.  There is a machine shop and boat works at one end and around the margins of that operation are rusting bits and pieces of bulldozers, yarders, trucks and other ancient machinery.  The spaces between many of these decaying blocks of metal have filled in with willows and blackberries.  They have become oases of habitat, too much trouble to keep clear, amid the surrounding open and easy to mow pastures.  And in these pocket sanctuaries we find birds.  We call the place at this end of Wireless Road “the Implements of Destruction Kack.”

Wireless Road is an easy detour on the way to Warrenton or Seaside from Astoria.  As a result, it gets checked frequently by local birders and interesting things turn up.  Yesterday, Steve Warner was on his way back to Seaside and stopped to check the sparrows at the Implements of Destruction Kack.  He found this…

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Common Ground Dove – photo by Steve Warner 11/7/2015

It is a COMMON GROUND DOVE and, if I have sorted the records correctly, it is Oregon’s 5th record and it’s a first for Clatsop County.  Record number four for Oregon appeared in mid-October in Yachats, Lincoln Co. earlier this fall.  Of the three remaining records, 2 were in Curry Co. and one (which does not yet show on the OBRC list) is from Sauvie Island.  This is a genuinely rare bird in Oregon, and especially unusual this far north.

I spent this morning looking for the bird, not because I needed to see it.  Steve had properly photo-documented its occurrence.  There were no questions about the identification.  I went looking because I wanted to see it.  The idea of driving four hours to Yachats to see a rare bird goes against my basic sensibilities, but I admit that missing a bird that someone found 10 minutes away from my house can make me (sometimes irrationally) twitchy.   So, I put in an hour and a half walking back and forth along the road.  Finally I gave up.  I got back in my car and began driving south on Wireless to check the bird feeders and stuff at the south end.  The bird flushed from a spot I had just walked by less than 10 minutes earlier.

Common Ground Dove - 11/8/2015

It is a tiny little thing, not much more than 6 inches from head to tail.  It didn’t seem to be too bothered by my attentions.  I managed to keep track of it until Linda and Lee and Andrew got there and they all saw it, too.

The consensus from those who saw the Yachats dove (which apparently hasn’t been seen since 11/2) is that this is NOT the same bird.  We’re hoping this individual stays around long enough so that others who eschew long distance twitching can see it, too.

Day-list

On safari: Sparrow City

Today I went south to Tillamook County and spent most of the morning at Alder Creek Farm which is a 23Ha ex-dairy farm now managed by the Lower Nehalem Community Trust.

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It is also Sparrow City.  The mix of riparian edge, grassy open spaces and blackberry covered hillsides combine to produce the perfect habitat for winter sparrow watching.   Within the first few minutes of walking along Alder Creek, I had found 5 LINCOLN’S SPARROWS.  By the end of the day, I’d seen at least 8.

Lincon's Sparrow - 11/3/2015

Up on the hillside I found 3 WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS…

White-throated Sparrow - 11/3/2015

…along with plenty of FOX SPARROWS, SONG SPARROWS, WHITE-CROWNS and GOLDEN CROWNS, towhees and juncos.  Sparrow habitat is also wren habitat and there were three kinds of wrens around, too.

Bewick's Wren - 11/3/2015

You might think that the surprise of the day was the TROPICAL KINGBIRD that stayed in view just long enough for a bad photo…

Tropical Kingbird - 11/3/2015

…but that was actually my fifth kingbird in the last two weeks.  No, the surprise (quite literally) was the BARRED OWL I flushed from a tree next to the trail while on my way back to my car.

Alder Creek Farm is in Nehalem at the end of Underhill Rd.  Alternately, there is a trail from 13th St just around the corner from the City Park on Hugo St.  If you visit, please post a copy of your day list to eBird or birdnotes.net.  The farm is listed as a hot spot at both sites.

My day-list is HERE

and additional photos are HERE

My Myiarchus

The wind was blowing from the east yesterday, producing one of those days when birding along the river is kind of pointless.  Cold, noisy, birds behaving a little too shy. I decided I would probably have a better time down in Seaside away from the wind funnel.

At Seaside, I noted a pretty good sized gull flock out on the Necanicum Estuary. The best approach to the spot where most of the birds were was from the Gearhart side through a spot called Little Beach. This area can be pretty good for shorebirds in August and September, but it’s also a favorite spot for dog-walkers and mothers with lots of kids looking for a beach where they don’t need to be constantly watching out for child-snatching sneaker waves. I don’t go that way nearly as often as the site probably deserves.

I was greeted at the Wellington Street parking lot by a noisy flock of 40 or so BUSHTITS and what sounded like a PALM WARBLER, though I never saw it. Past the first two houses, along the high path, the habitat breaks open into a mix of dune-grass, shorepine, crabapple and scotchbroom. An ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD has set up a territory in the centermost crabapple. There’s been one in that spot for years. Juncos and yellow-rumps abound. And yesterday, sitting at mid-level in one of the crabapples was this:

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That is a Myiarchus flycatcher. There are no regularly occurring Myiarchus flycatchers on the North Oregon Coast and only one that regularly occurs in Oregon. There are also at least three species that very rarely turn up north and west of their expected ranges, usually on the California Coast, usually in the late fall. Only one of these had been previously recorded in Oregon before Monday, a DUSKY-CAPPED FLYCATCHER seen in 1996 in Newport. On Monday, a GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER was found near Newport. By Tuesday, almost every birder in the state was in Newport dutifully documenting its presence. Almost every birder except me…

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The Myiarchus group can be a challenge to identify to species.   Almost all of my experience with the group is for birds seen in spots where they occur commonly (Eastern Oregon, Florida, Coast Rica) and at seasons where their plumage looks a bit different (Spring and Summer). Needless to say, I wasn’t sure which one I was looking at. I took 30 or so photos and then dashed over to the North Coast Land Conservancy offices to borrow their internet. While there, I quickly Googled photos of my choices and compared the photos on the view screen of my camera to photos on the internet. I quickly eliminated Great Crested and Dusky-capped, I felt that the bird looked too brown for Ash-throated and totally forgot to consider Nutting’s. My off the cuff first call, which I reported to the rest of Oregon, was Brown-crested Flycatcher.

I returned to Little Beach, but could not relocate the bird. David Bailey also searched and could not relocate the bird. I went home. I listened to recordings off the internet. The call I heard sure seemed to match Brown-crested Flycatcher, but I was having trouble making the photos, now on a properly sized screen, into Brown-crested. I was especially troubled by the size. That’s when I remembered Nutting’s Flycatcher…

I hopped into my car and drove back to Little Beach, tape-measure in my pocket, to find a measurable reference so I could estimate the size. While there I ran into David Bailey and Shawneen Finnegan. They had still not relocated the bird. They told me about the “three-color thing” on the wings and the “mouth color thing” for sorting out Nutting’s Flycatchers. I went home, did some math and went looking for the “three color thing”.

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The bird showed three colors in the wing. It was too small for Brown-crested. I was still resisting Ash-throated with all my intellectual might and the “three color thing” seemed to be a point in favor of Nutting’s Flycatcher.

Around 16:00, Shawneen found the bird. It was talking. It was talking like an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER.  The rule with most flycatchers: if it talks like a particular species, it is that species, independent of how we might think it looks.

It turns out that in spite of the pedigree of its author, the “three color thing” is not a real field mark.  A reality confirmed by several other commenters. This particular bird is a hatch-year in fresh first-basic plumage which is typically browner on the upper parts, more yellow below than one would seen on territory in June.  In other words, outside my experiential wheelhouse.  And it is almost certainly an Ash-throated Flycatcher.

I definitely learned some stuff yesterday.

On over-thinking Savannah Sparrows

I went to South County today and wandered the streets of Cannon Beach for about 2 hours.  I’ve always thought Cannon Beach had the potential for being a fall vagrant trap, but it’s just far enough away that I don’t get down that way with any kind of regularity.  I saw many interesting things, but perhaps the most interesting was this lone sparrow which I found near the Pine Street bridge over Ecola Creek.

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So, what have we got here?

The history of photons

The other day I saw, but did not see a BAR-TAILED GODWIT. I saw the flock it was in. I photographed the flock it was in. It can be found within the flock when I look at the photos, but I did not even go looking for the bird in the photographs until somebody else reported it three days later. Modern technology, it’s a wonder.

3 Godwits - 10/2/2015

I have waxed philosophical on the relationship between birders and cameras before. Cameras change the way we see birds in profound ways and ready access to the tools of digital photography give the bird-watcher a way of seeing what he sees that goes way beyond simply looking.

A camera stops the action. We can now examine a single instant in time at our leisure, but this power can be both a blessing and a curse. There are several modern problems that digital bird-watching produces.

Shoot first, ask questions later. There is a subset within the birding community that relies, to a greater degree than the rest of us, on the kindness of strangers. We all learn from each other. I gain in skill by spending time with people who know more than me. Asking questions is never wrong. But some photographers seem to be taking random pictures of birds and are wholly dependent on others to tell them what they’ve captured. They don’t seem to have invested in a field guide. They don’t seem to learn from past queries. As digital photography becomes more accessible to more people, this behavior would seem to be on the increase. Does it count when I take a picture of something, but leave the identification of what is in the picture to others?

Over-thinking the details. A photograph allows us to closely observe any single bird at a level of intimacy that most of us do not experience in field. Variation is a natural property of all populations of organisms in nature. Many of the birds we photograph fall outside our experiential memory or the pictures in the field guide. If we let our imaginations get away from us, we can convince ourselves, late at night, staring at a computer screen far removed from the bird we photographed, that we are seeing something more rare. But there are, for example, at least 14 subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, some bigger, some smaller; some more yellow, some less yellow. Many of these are transient migrants. Only four kinds of Savannah Sparrow are illustrated in Sibley. A camera gives us the opportunity to notice things we’ve never noticed before and the temptation to make that new information into something more than just a Savannah Sparrow can be too great for some people to resist.

Savannah Sparrow - 10/9/2013

Then again, suppose it does turn out that that presumed Savannah Sparrow is really something more rare. Does it count if I took a picture of one species only to determine later on in a photograph that it might be something else?

Accidental captures. I did not SEE a Bar-tailed Godwit. My camera did. I saw a flock of MARBLED GODWITS and a single HUDSONIAN GODWIT. I entirely missed seeing a Bar-tailed Godwit. I recorded the presence of a rare bird by accident. Does that count? This depends entirely on what one means by “counting”. As a record of biogeographical presence, any bird the camera catches counts. The camera has documented the occurrence of a rare species. I, on the other hand, only SAW photos of the bird. Yes, I saw the flock. The bird was in the flock. But I did not SEE the bird.

It’s that “can I count it?” question that haunts each of these modern problems. In each case, we are not SEEING the bird. We are post-processing the identification. We are SEEING the documentary residue of the encounter. Parsed closely, there’s not much difference between my encounter with the Bar-tailed Godwit and my encounter with the Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Noah Strycker posted on the web pages that document the details of his world-birding adventure. The only real difference is who owns the camera or who pushes the shutter button.

It is not my place to dictate what others choose to count or not count. I can only say that there is a difference for me between the reflected photons that hit my retinas from a bird I identify on my own in the field and those that hit my retinas from a photograph of a bird identified solely on the basis of that photograph. That difference stands, precariously, on a slippery slope. And that difference is why I have so many different kinds of lists banging around inside my head…

Western Meadowlark - 10/6/2015