Thursday, March 27, 2008

Weird Weather and Birds

Today is my last day as a twenty-something and I decided to forgo a trip to the tattoo shop or other impulse activities and stayed home to get some work done. My wife commissioned a card for her aunt whose birthday we will also celebrate this weekend. She bought her a hummingbird feeder present, so I thought I'd paint an Anna's on a nest since they are well into their nesting season here. I have had no luck finding a nest in my neighborhood, so I used photos from Ketzel Levine's NPR website for inspiration.

A tiny lesser goldfinch showed up on our deck, seeking materials for her own small nest. American goldfinches are notorious for delaying their nesting until late in the year, but their lesser cousins waste no time in nest building.

The birds must be getting mixed signals from the weather as to what season it really is. I know I am! Today we had rain, simultaneuos snow and sunshine, hail, and more sunshine.

If you look close, you can see the blue sky and the snow!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Crows in Trees and Ducks Out of Water

Last week, I spotted a crow in the bare branches of an oak tree silhouetted against the clouded sky. It inspired the watercolor below, which is the first I've found worthy of a frame. I trimmed the paper and fitted it into an old frame that Sarah bought from Goodwill and painted black.

Today I checked on some nests at Dawson Creek and spotted a group of squeaking wood ducks walking around under some oak trees. My guess is that they were looking for acorns.

A group of wigeons were foraging like small cows below the lichen trees that house a bushit nest. I have not seen the parents for a while, but the nest is growing.

I found a new bushtit nest in a branch hanging above the Library parking lot and noticed that the great horned owl and great blue heron nests are still active. I am organizing a Great Blue Heron Week event at the library in June, so I am praying that the heron rookery survives the spring!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Spring Un-break

It is spring break time in Oregon, which means more work for me and my wife. Sarah directs a spring break camp at the Audubon Society of Portland and this involves monitoring the welfare of dozens of children and their instructors all week. Last year, she had a last minute cancellation of an instructor, so I was unexpectedly hurled into environmental education. With some help, I led a camp called Animalology for twelve first-graders for seven hours a day. It was more exhausting than any field work I had done before, but a lot of fun.

This year, I am not leading a camp, but I will be trying to work as hard as Sarah. I plan to finish a draft of a paper on Black-chinned Hummingird nest survival following fuel reduction in a riparian forest.

I recently received another stack of nest sheets from Mourning Doves in post-wildfire forests and I hope to make a good dent in their data entry.

This weekend, we took a trip to the beach to relax before our big work weeks. We stayed at our friend's house at Twin Rocks near Tillamook Bay. We enjoyed great weather on Saturday and, at Cape Meares, I saw my first ever gray whales on their northward migration!

I hoped to see a pair of crows building their nests on my in-laws property like they did last year, but no luck. We finished the day by helping with beach house building and removing nasty blackberry canes and ivy vines from the duneside forest behind the house. It looks like it will take constant work to keep the exotics from taking over the salal and evergreen huckleberry thickets.

On Sunday, the weather turned stormy and made beach walks a little less pleasant, so we returned home to prepare for work.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cool Paper of the Week

For my work, I read or skim about a dozen scientific papers a week. Every once in a while, I find a paper that is interesting enough to share, so I thought I’d post cool findings from these papers once a week (or so).

This week, I’ll share one coauthored by a former professor of mine and Sarah’s at the University of Oklahoma. Mike Kaspari and his colleagues study Panamanian ants. They previously discovered that the species Cephalotes atratus uses its uniquely flattened head to glide itself to the safety of a tree trunk when knocked from a branch.

In their new paper:

Yanoviak,S.P, M. Kaspari, R. Dudley, and G. Poinar Jr. 2008. Parasite-induced fruit mimicry in a tropical canopy ant. The American Naturalist 171(4): 536-544.,

they report that when this species is infected with a parasitic nematode, their abdomens eventually fill with eggs and turn bright red.

The infected ants hold their abdomens conspicuously in the air and resemble small ripe fruits which attract frugivorous birds. The birds pluck the abdomens right off the doomed ants and pass the eggs in their feces which are actually gathered by the same species of ants for food, completing the cycle.
Another creepy example of how, in the war of parasites versus hosts, the parasites continue to win!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Return of Raptor Cam!

The Portland Raptor Cam is back online!

Like last year, KGW and Portland Audubon are showcasing a red-tailed hawk nest built on a fire escape in downtown Portland. This year, they have installed a live video feed.

Last year, Sarah and I were able to visit Dieter, whose viaLanguage office window looks right out to the fire escape and nest. When we entered his office, we were surprised to see a large, slightly agitated female red-tail staring at us just inches outside his window! Dieter showed us how he would sometimes tap on the glass and she would punch back with her taloned fists.

Two downy young were laying in the nest above a bed of pigeon down. Only one nestling survived, which isn’t bad for a large species. This year, she is on three eggs and the nest is built on the next level down. It will be great to monitor their progress this year and watch them control the downtown pigeon and rat population.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Spring approaches

Winter weather has returned to western Oregon, but there are plenty of signs that spring is on its way.

Throughout the neighborhood, ornamental shrubs and trees are flowering, adding a colorful contrast to the gray sky.

Some flowers are bright and puffy and others, like these, are more subtle.

Though some bushtits have paired up and begun nest construction, many remain in large flocks that pass through the trees, probing the flowers for insects, pollen, or nectar. In addition to bushtits, the flowering trees have been full of goldfinches (American and lesser), yellow-rumped warblers, and house finches, Like the flowers, the American goldfinches and yellow-rumps are brightening by the day.

The tulip trees have giant buds that are beginning to open. Soon, the petals of the alien-like flowers will be ready to pop.

In the forests, trilliums are blooming, while salmon berry leaves are emerging from their buds. As the days lengthen it gets harder to stay in the apartment and finish my work.

Happy Saint Patty's Day!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dawson Creek Visit

The landscapers at my apartment seemed to have turned their leaf blowers up to super-loud yesterday, so I took a walk around Dawson Creek Corporate Park. One year ago to the day, Sarah and watched a pair of bushtits begin construction on a nest in a grove of lichen-crusted, ornamental cherryish trees.

I did not hear the bushtit pair when I arrived, so I moved on to a patch of maples and found a red-breasted sapsucker hard at work bleeding the trees.

The sap is sweet to the taste and attracts hummingbirds and insects. The park sapsuckers, adapted to drinking from native trees, must be riding a great sugar high.

Down the trail, I found about 250 cackling geese loudly floating in a pond.

I checked on the great horned owl nest and spotted the adult in usual position. The nest is in the broken tree with large branches.

I returned to the lichen trees and this time heard the quiet calls of the bushtit pair. Each was carrying tiny bit of lichen to their future nest site, a few meters away from last year’s nest!

The nest is above the trunk and to the right. The Birder's Handbook reports that, if their nests are disturbed, bushtit pairs will abandon the nest, divorce, and re-pair. It is therefore important to view nests from a safe distance to prevent domestic strife!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Noble Woods Nirvana

This morning, Andie the dog decided to accompany Sarah to her workplace, so I elected to work on a nest survival manuscript at my new favorite coffee shop. On the way home, I stopped by Noble Woods Park on Baseline Avenue.

I had only visited the park once two winters ago, so I was unprepared for all that I saw.

As soon as I left the parking lot, I found a winter wren brining material into a cavity in a small snag. I don’t know if this nest will be used for roosting or reproduction, so I will be sure to return and find out!

The park has a great floristic composition with a bottomland forest along Rock Creek containing alder, cottonwood, ash, and hazel trees. Up the slope, there were huge redcedars, Doug firs, grand firs, and white oaks.

There were signs of pileated woodpeckers all over the big trees and snags like the one below that make great nest sites for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and brown creepers.

At an opening near the top of a hill, I heard a pair of bushtits calling. I watched them for a while until I spotted them weaving lichens and spider webs into the “collar” of what will be a sock-shaped nest in the lower branches of a Doug fir.

This is the earliest nesting behavior I’ve observed of this species by one day. The pair will continue working on the nest until the end of the month and the young will probably fledge in early May.

I found many old robin nests and heard many birds singing away, including Bewick’s wrens and song sparrows, which are often tough to tell apart. I now hope to lead an Audubon field trip here in May when nesting season will be in full swing and the long lost migrants will have returned.

Pleased with my rediscovery, I finished playing hooky and returned home to begin work on a new stack of nest sheets sent over by the Forest Service.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Notes On Our Orenco Neighborhood

Though our postal address says we live in Hillsboro, our neighborhood does not really feel like a part of that old farming town. We really live in Orenco Station, a shiny new high-density development filled with apartments, condos, large houses, and small trees.

Orenco gets its name from the Oregon Nursery Company, which was once located in the area. Not long ago, much of this area contained unwanted dumping grounds and grass fields. Now it is home to tech companies, a lot of used office space, and an exponentially increasing number of Starbucks.
When moving from Oklahoma, Sarah and I chose an apartment in this area because it is in walking distance of New Seasons, our favorite grocery store, and a stop on the light rail train that heads east into Portland.
The more affluent portion of the neighborhood is seen as a success in sustainable building.

Just outside of our apartment complex, there are large condo units that are in a constant state of refurbishment. I think they’ve been painted every other month.

Thanks to all of the work, one is never far from a bathroom while on a walk!

There are even Huxtable-like Brownstone units that will never afford.
As soon as the sun sets, there is hardly a sound to be heard as everyone retreats to their living rooms and widescreen TVs.

This is my favorite park to walk around, I love the way the condos are illuminated at sunset.
At first glance, the neighborhood may not look like much for birds, but we do see plenty. The community composition reflects the disturbed-human dominated habitat type: mourning doves, scrub jays, American crows, American robins, white-crowned sparrows and both types of goldfinches. A few pockets of native vegetation and trees provide additional species such as acorn woodpeckers, winter wrens, and warblers. Occasionly, we encounter sexy species like American kestrels nesting in the crevasses of the buildings.
We are happy to live here now, but we dream of moving to a rural area of Washington County in a house that is close to a U-pick berry farm and safe from the leaf blowers and homeowners associations of the suburbs.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nest updates

This weekend, we checked in on our winter nesting friends at Dawson Creek Park. One heron was standing on its platform nest in the large Doug fir while another was watching over its space on a higher branch. If the nests are a success, these birds will be in the tree well into July.

The other nest at the park belongs to a pair of great horned owls.

The nest was still active as evidenced by a dark form in the break of a large trunk. The nest is so far away that the only development we've noticed is that the female has changed position since last week.

I have not found any other nests yet, but I expect to see the apartment house finches building any day now.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

It's a Boy!

The first flowers on my Indian Plum opened today and, as I expected, they contained pollen-capped stamens.

A male red-winged blackbird also made an appearence on the deck, demanding more seed. When he flushes the the other birds away and struts along the rail, I am reminded of Darth Vader’s swagger upon boarding the rebel ship in the opening scene of Star Wars. Ew! comparing birds to Star Wars. Could I get more nerdy?

Speaking of movies, I recently watched Into the Wild, the excellent adaptation of the nonfiction book. I was most taken with the relationships formed by the doomed main character, Alexander Supertramp, while on the road. The people he met instantly loved him and had a hard time letting him go. Alexander Supertramp seems to embody the spirit of the “Wandering 20’s,” a demographic I will depart later this month. As I watched the movie I could not help but think back to my own wanderings prior to meeting my wife and agreeing to sink our roots into Oregon soil. Back then I worked on bird research projects in many western states and spent several months in South America. I loved the changes of scenery, sleeping in a different places, and meeting so many interesting people. The hardest part of it all was leaving the people with whom I lived, partied, and worked. Alexander Supertramp seemed to have little problem doing this, perhaps that was his undoing. Though I still like to travel for work, I miss my wife and dog when I am on the road, I have trouble sleeping in new places, and I make fewer friends wherever I go. Perhaps my exit from the Wandering 20’s is complete.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tuesday Excursions

Yesterday, I left the confines of the apartment to lead a sanctuary tour at the Audubon Society of Portland. There were 13 fourth graders in my group and they were very attentive and energetic. Highlights of the tour include a great view of a singing winter wren in the forests and a pygmy owl being treated in the Wildlife Care Center. It was too cold for newts to be active and visible in the pond, but the kids were thrilled to see three mallards floating around.

Large fungus like this is always a crowd pleaser!

Some of the sanctuary's shrubs, such as this elderberry, are starting to return to life. Indian plum is starting to flower, but the salmonberry is not leafing yet.

After the tour, I chipped away at my Forest Service work at my grandparents- in-law’s house just west of Audubon.

Andie the dog slept on the floor while Clark the cat came to help with my spreadsheets.

The feeders at Fred and Maggie’s always put our apartment bird-viewing deck to shame. While working, I watched a cedar waxwing check out the birdbath alongside some robins.

Rough photo, but the waxwing is the one in the middle.

Other birds on the deck included a male downy woodpecker, red-breasted nuthatches, bushtits, varied thrushes, spotted towhees, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, American goldfinches, lesser goldfinches, pine siskins, and house finches.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Heron Nest Attendance

On Sunday, Sarah, Andie and I birded Fernhill Wetlands then checked on the nesting herons at Dawson Creek Corporate Park. So far, two pairs are beginning to nest in the usual Doug fir. The nest construction seems to have just started because there is not a lot of material in the tree. An adult is standing guard in each nest.

A rough photo, I know. I need to try digiscoping the nest next time I bring a decent scope with me.

I informed the librarians at the adjacent Hillsboro Public Library about their new neighbors. I plan on organizing an event during Portland's Great Blue Heron Days this spring. I expect to lead a birding walk around the park and set up a scope inside the library so patrons can view the nesting behavior from the nonfiction section.
The great horned owl nest is still active and extremely difficult to view, probably a good thing for the parents. A great horned owl nest that is more easily viewed can be found here

Other happenings:

I have agreed to teach a bird biology course at Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus if enough students register. I signed on to teach last year, but the course did not fill. If it does not fill this year, I will remain a strictly apartment-based researcher.

During the next few months, I will likely lead several sanctuary tours at The Audubon Society of Portland. Sarah books many groups there in the spring and I get the call for help when her volunteers fail to sign up for tours. These tours are a lot of fun, but challenging because knowledge of natural history is much less important than ability to manage ten or more grade schoolers that are quite excited to be out of their classrooms.

I am finishing up analyses on hummingbird and dove nest success for my Forest Service research projects based in New Mexico. I should have a rough (very rough) draft of a research paper finished next week!