Early morning visitor

Teresa had just gone out the door and off to work, but popped back in almost immediately, “come here, there’s something on the wire…”

In distributional terms, Barred Owl is a fairly recent arrival.  The first birds in Oregon were reported in the early 1970′s.  I started finding dead ones along roadsides or washed up on the beach in Clatsop County in the mid-90′s and didn’t actually see a live one until 2008 (though I’d been hearing them for a couple years prior). It’s one of Michelle’s favorite bird calls to do.  We would regularly get them talking (though never saw them) up in the Irving Forest when trail-blazing the route between the Column and the Cathedral Tree.

Now we have one on our yard-list.

A close encounter

I went out to the South Jetty of the Columbia River this morning to inventory phalaropes blown in by the current bit of weather.  I got there around 9:30.  The wind was blowing at a steady 20mph, but the rain had stopped so I put on my boots and walked out onto the salt marsh.  I saw a jaeger coming in from the northeast over the dunes.

I figured I was pretty lucky and started to snap some pictures.  I noted through the viewfinder that it was heading straight at me.  Cool.

Then it came right up to me and started kiting in the wind.  Close enough to touch.  Too close for the camera lens.  I reached up.  It looked at my hand.  I fought the urge to snatch it out of the air.  It fought the urge to bite me…

jaeger eyeing my fingers

The whole encounter seemed like several minutes, though it was probably much less.  Then the jaeger broke to its right and flew past me.

I was pretty excited and looked up to see if there was anyone in the parking lot who might have seen that jaeger and me together, but there’s never a smartphone shutterbug around when you really need one.  The parking lot was empty.  The jaeger made a sweep around the tidal channels then turned around and it all happened a second time as if the jaeger felt the need to reassure me that it had all really happened.

I have no idea what this bird was thinking when it came in to check me out.  The demeanor was not antagonistic or defensive.  It appeared to be simple curiosity.

I saw a second jaeger a few minutes later who didn’t pay me any mind.  I also counted 64 RED PHALAROPES and a single RED-NECKED PHALAROPE, 3 SEMIPALM- ATED PLOVERS and a couple DUNLIN.

It was a good day.


Seawatch – 10/26/2014

There was a pretty good storm late Saturday and into pre-sunrise Sunday morning.  Sunday sunrise broke showery with a west wind.  It was a good day to go seawatching for birds that would normally be out in the deeper ocean, but last night blown inland by the weather.

So Michelle and I hopped into the car and drove south to Silver Point, a view point along Hwy 101 at the south end of Cannon Beach.

We arrived at 07:50.  The light conditions were early morning dim, but held the promise of a not too rainy day.  We began the watch.  The protocol is not really that complicated: stand in one spot, scan the ocean, identify birds as they go by.

Northern Fulmars… lots of fulmars, scoters, loons… lots of loons, mostly Pacific Loons… gulls… more loons.

Then the odd kittiwake went by, not more than 20 minutes into the watch.

Kittiwakes have a particular look and behavior that is reliably distinctive.  The buoyant flight style of a small gull or tern and ink-dipped wingtips that show almost no trace of white, but this bird was darker looking and maybe a bit small; uniform gray from above all the way to the black wingtips and there were the dusky looking under-wings.  These were the field marks of the wrong kittiwake…

Black-legged Kittiwakes are pretty common on the North Coast in the fall and winter.  On a good, stormy day 100′s can be seen off the Columbia River.  Young Black-legged Kittiwakes have a diagnostic black “M” shape on the upper wings formed by the leading primaries and wing coverts.  Adults are gray above with paler inner parts to the primaries and those ink-dipped wingtips.  Their under-wings are white in both 1st winter youngsters and winter adults.

Black-legged Kittiwake

Seawatching is all about letting go of what just went by and staying focused for the next bird.  It is very rare for birds to linger long enough for a second look and even rarer that they are close enough for proper photo documentation.  I was left to make a quick sketch of what I saw and get back to watching.  And I saw plenty of Black-legged Kittiwakes over the next 2 hours.  None of them looked like this first, singular bird.  It kind of had to be the other kittiwake.  The rare one:  RED-LEGGED KITTIWAKE.  There are currently 10 accepted records for Oregon (including one that was found in Jewell and brought to the rehab center).  I’m not sure I got a big enough piece of this bird to pass muster with the OBRC.

Over rest of the morning we built up a list of 44 species with spectacular numbers of California Gulls and Pacific Loons.  We saw Elegant Terns, Common Terns, Sabine’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  All kinds of good stuff.  The complete list is HERE.

Other folks, at other locations along the coast also saw plenty of interesting seabirds.

After two and a half hours of watching, we drove back to Astoria and I went chasing a Tropical Kingbird.

A day at the beach

I had not actually planned to leave the house today, given the weather report and plenty of stuff to do at home, but Steve called with a report of millions of pink things washing up on the beach and the weather didn’t look all that bad yet…

So I went out to Sunset Beach to look for pink things.  And the first things I saw when I got to the beach were zillions of mysterious pink animals and a dead Cassin’s Auklet.

Not too much further down the beach I found a dead CACKLING GOOSE (and zillions of pink things).

Those pink things when you get up close to them look like this:

My “mysterious pink thing” guys tell me they are some sort of PEANUT WORM.

[Update 10/18/2014] Not all the “mysterious pink thing” guys are in agreement that these are sipunculans.  The presence of longitudinal grooves, visible in the close-ups, suggest they are little pink sea cucumbers (holothurians).

Higher up the beach, away from the new wrack line and the pink things, I found this:

The early storms of fall are often the hardest on birds in the midst of migrating from one spot to another, finding themselves in an inconvenient spot in the rain, in the dark.  These birds have not died in vain, however.  A host of other species depend on these lost individuals for their own winter survival: eagles, hawks, corvids, coyotes, mustelids, even Sanderlings will pick at a dead bird on the beach.

I walked about a kilometer and a half before turning inland and back to the car through the piney woods.  It’s mushroom season and soon my attention was diverted away from mysterious pink things by other distractions.


Goosey, goosey gander

In the 45th supplement to the American Ornithologist Union Checklist of North American Bird (2004) the complex of white-cheeked geese formerly known as Canada Geese was split into big ones (still called Canada Goose) and small ones (Cackling Goose). The split followed splits that had been made several years earlier in Europe for the complex and brought the North American checklist in line with other international taxonomic opinion.

There are considerable morphological and behavioral differences separating the big geese from the small geese, but the primary basis for sorting geese into two species level clads was genetic data which relied heavily on mtDNA. This is genetic information found in the mitochondria of cells and is passed on through the maternal line. Changes in mtDNA occur more slowly over time and are not subject to the effects of hybridization. This makes mtDNA analysis a good tool for measuring differences between species on the broad scale. From this analysis white-cheeked geese breakdown like this:

On the basis of mtDNA, the decision to split big Canada Geese from small Canada Geese seems well grounded.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story stopped there?

Speciation is driven by natural selection and reproductive isolation.  In the case of white-cheeked geese, especially small forms, reproductive isolation has everything to do site fidelity to the places they choose to breed.  Aleutian Geese breed in very different places than minima geese and this restricts gene flow.  The distribution of mtDNA haplotypes is strongly associated with breeding ground distribution and reflects reproductive isolation.  On the other hand, natural selection occurs over the entire range of a goose including the winter grounds and there are very distinct advantages to looking like all the other geese in a flock in the winter, independent of species.  White-cheeked geese most probably all look alike (at least superficially) for an adaptive reason.

But there’s more.

We can’t see the differences in mtDNA, because they are not morphologically expressed.  We depend on the morphological differences expressed by nuclear DNA to tell geese apart and the factors affecting nuclear DNA are more complicated than those that affect mtDNA.  Natural variation within populations creates overlap of morphological characters.  Some big geese at the small end of the scale and small geese at the big end of the scale are very difficult (if not impossible) for non-geese to tell apart when away from the breeding grounds and this is, in part, because there may be selective pressure that favors looking the same.

The influence of males on gene flow is not expressed in mtDNA, but genetic material from males contribute half of the genes found in nuclear DNA.  Male geese are more likely to wander.  Male geese are more likely to find themselves on the wrong breeding grounds.  Male genes may well be the reason why birds at the boundary between Taverner’s type Cackling Geese and Lesser Canada Geese are so gosh-darn hard to sort out even though the data we see from the mtDNA, which follows the deeper maternal relationships, says otherwise (Mowbray, et al 2002).

So let’s recap:

1. The white-cheeked goose complex was split into two species based on mtDNA differences which are inherited through the female only.   These differences positively assort on the breeding grounds which are reproductively isolated from other goose types by geography.

2. Large-form and small-form species may look alike, because there is a selective advantage to looking like other birds in a mixed species flock on the wintering grounds.

3. Gene flow at the nuclear DNA level, contributed by wandering males, may create morphotypes not reflected in the underlying mtDNA genetics, producing individuals that cannot be sorted reliably to large-form or small-form categories.

At the end of all this, we need to remember that taxonomist (and especially molecular taxonomists) are asking very different questions about species and speciation than you and I are and they are under no obligation to produce results that are convenient or easy for birders.  We can be frustrated.  We can change the rules for bird listing so that birders use a different, easier definition of what counts on a life-list, but we’re not going to change the way taxonomist see the world or the way white-cheeked geese behave.


Banks, Richard C.; Cicero, Carla; Dunn, Jon L.; Kratter, Andrew W.; Rasmussen, Pamela C.; Remsen Jr., J. V.; Rising, James D.; Stotz, Douglas F. 2004. FORTY-FIFTH SUPPLEMENT TO THE AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS’ UNION CHECK-LIST OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS. Auk (American Ornithologists Union); Vol. 121 Issue 3, p985. http://www.aou.org/checklist/suppl/AOU_checklist_suppl_45.pdf

Mowbray, Thomas B., Craig R. Ely, James S. Sedinger and Robert E. Trost. 2002. Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/682

Paxinos, Ellen E., Helen F. James, Storrs L. Olson, Michael D. Sorenson, Jennifer Jackson, and Robert C. Fleischer. 2002. mtDNA from fossils reveals a radiation of Hawaiian geese recently derived from the Canada goose (Branta canadensis). Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 99(3):1399-1404. http://www.pnas.org/content/99/3/1399.full

I just picked up a lifer…

As all of you know by now, I have lots of lists, many of which do not conform with the official ABA listing rules.  I was able to put LAYSAN ALBATROSS on my birds I’ve seen alive, birds I’ve touched, birds I have photos of and birds I’ve been bitten by lists this past March when a bird, recovered from a barge in Columbia County, was brought into rehab at the North Coast Wildlife Center.

Laysan Albatross - 3/1/2014

I was also invited to participate in the release and got to see it fly away.

Laysan Albatross - 3/15/2014

The ABA, however, did not allow for the inclusion of birds released from rehabilitation (though one could count them while they sat dying on the beach or roadside).  So, I had Laysan Albatross on all my important lists, but did not (could not) include it on the ABA list, the one everybody else seems to place the most importance in.

Well that has now officially changed.  Rehabbed birds can now be counted on one’s life-list by those who witness the release.  So, I just gained a new bird on my official ABA life-list by fiat.

In other life-list news those of you who’ve seen California Condors or Aplomado Falcons “in the wild” (post captive breeding program) may now pretend like they’ve been successfully and permanently re-established in the wild and count them on your ABA list.

The ABA blog has the breakdown for these new rule changes.

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.