Atmospheric Rivers and You

There is a change coming to the Pacific Northwest….

After a good, long spell of unusually warm and mostly dry conditions, the weather guessers are calling for some rain, maybe quite a lot of rain.  Our area has been under the influence of what the professionals call a persistent upper level ridge of high pressure which has been directing marine air around us by pushing the Jet Stream to the north.  That pattern is breaking down and will cause the upper level flow to become more “zonal” which is a technical term for “aimed right at us.

The forecast models for this particular weather change have several moving parts.  There is a warm ocean.  There are remnants of typhoon Phanfone embedded in the approaching frontal system and the jet stream is focusing its energy into a narrow band centered on the Washington/Oregon Coast.  This creates what meteorologists call an “atmospheric river” producing heavy rains and serious winds.  Particularly warm ones with most of their moisture originating in the tropics are sometimes also referred to as “the Pineapple Express”.  The 1962 Columbus Day Storm is an extreme example of what these systems can be like.

When these systems arrive in early to mid-autumn, they can produce interesting birding along the coast and (sometimes) even interior lakes and large rivers.  This can be a good time to set up the spotting scope at a good sea-watching location and watch for near-shore occurrences of tubenoses and other pelagic species.

The models that forecasters use to predict these early transitional systems are not in total agreement about the coming weather shift, and they are most definitely not predicting anything on the scale of a Columbus Day Storm, but keeping a weather-eye on these early fall systems can benefit the intrepid birder.

You can follow progress of model interpretations among the professionals at:

And other interesting climate info at Cliff Mass Weather Blog

Northern Fulmar - 10/27/2010


Yesterday Jimmy Carter turned 90 years old.  The election that put Jimmy Carter in the White House was my first presidential election, but I don’t really want to talk about that milestone or Jimmy Carter.  It’s that number, ninety, that intrigues me.  Why is the number 90 more special than the number 89 or 91?  89 is a prime number and 91 is a semi-prime, both conditions are way more unique than being divisible by 10.  There is only about 1% difference between 89 and 90, but Jimmy Carter turns 90 and it makes the news, 89 did not require a press release.  What is it about numbers ending in zero that makes them so special?

I get the human need for milestones, but the ones we choose to celebrate (or ignore) are a bit arbitrary.  I am a professional counter of things.  I spend the counting season quantifying biological density and diversity.  Some jobs have me counting butterflies, some birds, some plants.  Many contractors want a snapshot of everything I can find.  The reason for counting stuff is to assess the quality of the habitat.  Counting stuff is an assessment tool.  In some cases, having a big number of a particular organism is positive thing that reflects well on the assessment of habitat quality; in other cases, having too many of a particular organism is considered a negative.  Finding 90 species is no more special than finding 91.  Both numbers are simply best estimates of the reality of site, anyway, plus or minus the standard error.  It’s not the specific number that matters. It’s what that number tells us, or at least what we think it tells us, that gives it meaning.

A few years back, I officially passed the 400 species milestone for bird species seen in Oregon.  We Oregon birders traditionally place a special, magical significance on 400 and for obvious reasons… it ends with not one, but two zeros and it’s the largest value ending in two zeros one might reasonably expect to get in Oregon over a lifetime.  Totally objective, right?

But here’s the thing, I’m not actually sure what my 400th species was.  The bird I claimed as 400, Broad-winged Hawk, turns out to have been a clerical error.
 photo bwha20090903notes_zpse79cca66.jpg
I had failed to add a couple of species seen earlier in the year onto my list.  Of course, a few years after that the AOU split a bunch of species including Solitary Vireo.  I’d seen both Cassin’s and Plumbeous in Oregon before the split, so technically I was at 400 even earlier, but the science took a while to catch up with what the vireos (presumably) already knew.

… or had it?  That alleged Plumbeous Vireo?  that extra dull gray vireo from back in the days when getting it absolutely right didn’t matter to my list? was it really what I think it was?

As a professional counter of things, taking into account all the splits and lumps over 45 years of birding, I would have to say Broad-winged Hawk was species number 400 ± 3.  There may not be nearly as much certainty to the milestones we celebrate than we think.  Any claim of 400 species in Oregon probably shouldn’t be trusted until the claimant gets beyond the standard error.  It took me another two years to do that.   For me, the number of birds I’ve seen in any given point in time is just an estimate based on current data and a moving target.  And milestones, be they birthdays or bird counts, are just markers along the way to somewhere else, points of reference without much deeper meaning.

You know, Jimmy Carter is a birder.  90 years old and still birding (with a Secret Service entourage).  Now that’s something to celebrate, even at time intervals that are not evenly divisible by 10.

a phenomenon of nature…

The first ELEGANT TERNS to ever be noted in Oregon were seen August 4, 1983 in Coos Bay.  That was a strong El Niño year and Elegant Tern made a better than average showing (for those days) along the Northern California Coast as well.  The following year 319 birds appeared on the Necanicum River Estuary in a single flock.  El Niño was still affecting the weather.  Subsequent years were less impressive and the operating hypothesis was that El Niño was necessary for Elegant Terns in Oregon.  I saw my first Elegant Terns at the mouth of the Columbia River on August 12, 1990 which was not an El Niño year (though the next year was).

We still needed to write up Elegant Tern reports for the OBRC back in those days.  Over the course of that season, I saw numbers ranging from 20 to 60 almost daily, with a peak of 125 on August 26.  I did not see any Elegant Terns again in Clatsop County for several years, but by 1992, enough records had built up on the Oregon South Coast to justify removing the terns as an OBRC review species.

Last year, Elegant Terns started summering on the Hammond Boat Basin jetty.  The first of them noted on August 14.  Numbers peaked at around 150.  We had a lot of fun watching them, but figured it would be a one-off event…

Elegant Tern - 8/18/2013

The first Elegant Terns this year were noted on East Sand Island on July 19.  Three Elegant Terns turned up on Trestle Bay on July 26.  By August 14, they were being seen on the Hammond Jetty again, and in pretty good numbers.  Today, my best count was 450 birds, about 150 on the jetty,  250 on the river pilings just west of the boat basin, and another 50 or so feeding out on the river.

It truly is one of those rare phenomenons that no photograph really captures.  There are some things that the eye still does better.  There are intimate behaviors, like an adult chatting with a youngster.

And flocking behaviors involving large groups taking off at once, flying together out over the river and returning for no reason that would make sense to those of us who are not terns watching from the shore.

If they hold to the pattern noted in previous years, these birds will probably stick around until the end of the month, though probably not in the numbers seen in the last couple days.   And they are awfully fun to watch…

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

A BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER was reported from the South Jetty of the Columbia River yesterday.  Today Neal Maine and I went out to do a bit of photo-documentation.

Most of the Buff-breasted Sandpipers I’ve been fortunate enough to find have been remarkably tame and this bird was no exception. Both Neal and I were able to get remarkably close shots by just planting ourselves in one spot and letting the bird come to us.

At one point Neal and I were no more than 20 feet apart and the bird casually walked between us, too close for the long lenses on the cameras.

More Buff-breasted Photos HERE.

Green Birding

I’ve spent more than a few electrons on the topic of motorless birding over the years. The concept is pretty straight-forward and given that birding is often claimed to be an eco-friendly hobby, shouldn’t cause much controversy (you’d think).  But part of birding is listing and part of listing is chasing and part of chasing is hopping in the car and driving long distances to tick a single singular bird.  For a (small) subset of birders, that’s kind of all there is to birding.  If you’re not chasing, you’re not birding.  Those folks can get a might defensive if they think they’re being criticized. The majority of birders get the paradox, however, and find some comfortable spot somewhere between leaving moa-sized carbon foot-prints and birding completely off the grid.

I’ve been keeping motorless bird lists (I call them walkabouts) for quite a while and have even taken to using the Patch Totals function at eBird to track them.  They are the framework for my plan to keep myself reasonably fit as I glide into old age.  Most are extended walks between 3 and 5 miles, but occasionally I pump up the tires on my bicycle and go for longer motorless excursions.

My efforts at being motorless pale in comparison to those of Dorian Anderson, however.   He has taken green birding far beyond anything I have the energy for.  Beginning in January, he started an attempt at a North American Big Year by foot, bicycle and a couple kayak trips- no cars, no airplanes, no buses.  He has arrived, 244 days and 543 bird species later, on the North Coast of Oregon.

I caught up with him today at Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach where he was resting up from a 108 mile dash yesterday from Westport, WA to Cannon Beach in a quest to list TUFTED PUFFINS and BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS at Haystack.  I spent most of the morning watching him photographing oystercatchers and HARLEQUIN DUCKS while he stood knee-deep in the ocean.  He seemed to be having a good time.  And there were still one or two puffins (still carrying food) coming to the rock.  He’ll probably be heading inland to Portland tomorrow and then down the valley, before turning back toward the coast.  You can follow his adventures at BIKINGFORBIRDS.

Dorian Anderson

I should note that Dorian is not the first Big Year Birding Biker I’ve encountered here on the North Coast.  In 2008, then 16-year-old, Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents came through on a 365-day adventure that began in the Yukon and ended in Florida.  Curmudgeons like to point out that his Big Year was not in a “calendar year” and that they went back to the Yukon by bus.  I say, if you’re going to start a trip by bicycle from the Yukon (or most of the US above the 40th parallel) your year should start in June, not January.  Let’s be real.  365 days is 365 days.  And taking a bus home on day 366 is, in my view, no big deal.  Most of us are going to have to get back into a car at some point in our lives after a motorless birding trip of any size.  Nit-picking the specific details gets in the way of the bigger issues Dorian and Malkolm are trying to address.

I’ll be sticking to walkabouts, but the idea of motorless listing at the Big Year level is gaining momentum, especially at the state level  There’s even a website – GreenBirding.

Please check out Dorian Anderson’s blog and watch for him if his route passes by your door

Harlequin Ducks


On Safari: Leadbetter Point

I don’t go north to Leadbetter Point nearly as often as I used to and to drive home the time between visits, I hadn’t heard that one now needs a Discover Pass to park in what I thought was the National Wildlife Refuge Parking lot.  The nearest place to buy one is at the General Store in Ocean Park, which lopped 45 minutes off by schedule for the day…

Leadbetter Point State Park and the Leadbetter portion of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge share a border, the refuge is north of the last parking lot and the State Park is to the south.  I spent my day in the far more interesting and less dog infested National Wildlife Refuge (though not nearly as dog-free as one would think given all the prominently placed NO DOGS signs).

A cooperative LONG-BILLED CURLEW was pulling polychaetes out of the mud near the beginning of the trail on the Willapa Bay side.  It has, apparently been there for several days.

Long-billed Curlew

My goal was to find Snowy Plovers which meant a quick march along the yellow trail to the beach (about 3km).

While crossing the dunes I encountered one of my favorite bugs, the PACIFIC DUNE TIGER BEETLE.

Pacific Dune Tiger Beetle

The first shorebird I found on the beach was a very unexpected SPOTTED SANDPIPER.

Spotted Sandpiper

There were plenty of other shorebirds on the beach as well.

mixed shorebirds

But as is almost always the case when I go looking for Snowy Plovers on purpose, I was not seeing any of my target species.  I walked north for more than a kilometer.  I found a salmon…

And a dead seal and plenty more shorebirds.  Saw distant SOOTY SHEARWATERS out over the ocean.  No Snowies.  It was time to turn back.

As I neared the entry point back up to the yellow trail, I saw movement on the upper beach – a Snowy Plover, which mysteriously disappeared when took my eyes off it to changed the lenses on my camera.  I couldn’t chase it without stepping into the exclusion area and even when I’m all alone and no one is watching, I will not step over that line.  No photos.

A bit farther along another one – a youngster.  It seems to be able to sense what the range for my camera lens is and stays just far enough out of range to thwart anything but a record from outside the boundary signs.

Snowy Plover (juvenile)

Then just before the trailhead, a third one.  An adult.  This one outside the exclusion area in the wrack line.  But as soon as it sees me, it starts running up and into the safety zone before I can get close.  I have to think they know where the boundaries are and are messing with me.  It too finds that sweet spot where the photos are going to have to be enlarged and fuzzy…

Snowy Plover (adult)

So, 8.5km round trip hike to the beach. I hit all my targets and at the end of the walk, got see a genuine Jeff Gilligan in the bargain.  Not a bad day.

Photo Quiz: Hatch-year

This time of year we can expect to start seeing the new season of youngsters popping up out of the bushes on a morning pish.  They are often under illustrated in the field guides and may even (occasionally) trip a birders up.  Usually, a parent is nearby to help sort things out, but not always…

Here are 5 hatch-year birds.  Can you ID them all without the clue provided by parents nearby?

HY 01

HY 02

HY 03

HY 04

HY 05

All these photos were taken within the last two weeks along the Oregon Coast.


No. Anchovies

Every few years Northern Anchovies appear en mass off the Oregon Coast and sometimes they make a wrong turn into the Necanicum Estuary and, if the numbers are large enough, the small fish suck up all oxygen in the river and drown.

Deceased anchovies

The millions of fish, attract thousands of fish eating birds.  This morning on the Necanicum there were about 30,000 gulls, terns and pelicans loafing on the flats.

Bird flocks

The carpet of birds stretched all the way to the beach at 09:00, but by 10:00 the unleashed dogs had gone to work and by 11:00 most of the birds had moved up to Clatsop Beach.

The dead fish aren’t going anywhere soon, so chances are pretty good that the birds will be back on the Necanicum tomorrow morning.

Deceased anchovies

The meaning of two catbirds

A GRAY CATBIRD was found on 18 June at the west end of the Hatfield Marine Science Center Nature Trail by Chuck Philo.  Gray Catbirds breed in the Northeast corner of Oregon and are regular vagrants in eastern and central Oregon, but they are very rare west of the Cascades.  Coastal records are even fewer and farther between.  So a single catbird in Newport (the one in Oregon) is kind of significant.  Even more significant is that it is still being seen in the same twinberry patch 5 weeks later.

But the bigger surprise was finding a second bird in the same twinberry bush, yesterday.

Gray Catbirds

A useful question, worth exploring (I think), is: have there always been two catbirds?  I had no trouble yesterday seeing two once I realized that’s how many there were.  Last week I felt lucky seeing just the one.  What gives.  Well, I can think of three hypotheticals…

1.  There has only been one bird in the twinberries for most of the summer and the second bird showed up some time in the last few days.

2.  There have always been two catbirds, but because we birders find one catbird to be rare, we simply don’t think to look for a second one and filter against the possibility that two catbirds could be present.  This was certainly my first response upon seeing a possible 2nd bird.  I was thinking “young White-crowned?  cowbird?”  Had I not re-seen two catbirds sitting next to each other while a second birder confirmed my observations, I can easily imagine second-guessing myself into discounting a second bird.

3.  There have always been two catbirds, but only the singing male has been obvious (presumes a male and female pair).  The female has been far less conspicuous because it has been sitting on a nest incubating and for whatever reason, is no longer spending most of its time on a nest.

Gray Catbird

Unless we begin seeing bushes filled with juvenile catbirds in the area over the next couple days, we will be hard pressed to answer these questions with anything approaching certainty.  There are no reliable mechanisms for sorting male catbirds from female catbirds in the field (and even in hand it’s difficult).

Hopefully, folks will continue to monitor these birds.  I’ve had my best luck very early in the morning.  Bushes full of juvenile catbirds would be way cool.