Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Spring Things

Spring is trying to push its way into western Oregon, but winter is still putting up a fight. The weather these days consists of alternating spells of warm sun and cold rain. I try to plan my dog walks and bike rides around the sun breaks so I can view the newly arriving birds.

The loose flocks of yellow-rumped warblers, such as the myrtle subspecies male below, remain in the neighborhood flitting from one small tree to another. This week, they have been joined by another bright bird, the western tanager. I usually see tanagers high in tall conifers, so it is great to find them in little trees that are still leafing out. No binoculars required.

Also newly arrived are flocks of barn swallows. They build their open-toped mud nests in the buildings that surround small parks or open areas in our the neighborhood. Last year, several nests were built in an awning near a Walgreens. Today, a pair was staking out a nesting territory on the same awning. Toward the end of the summer, this is the only species still nesting in the area. Barn swallows are highly productive birds with large clutch sizes, multiple nesting attempts, and high nest survival. Juvenile and adult survival must be low, otherwise, they would be blackening the skies.

Sarah and I are preparing for our upcoming Birdathon trip entitled “The Murre, the Merrier” We will be leading a group to the Oregon coast to see as many birds and raise as much money for Portland Audubon as possible. We expect a large species count because many wintering, migrating, and nesting species are now in the area. We are busy listening to tapes of migratory bird song to refresh our memories from previous years. We also keep a hopeful eye on the weather forecasts and reports of interesting birds. We led our first Birdathon trip last year and had a great time, so we are looking forward to this year’s excursion. I will post results next week.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Meeting the Giant

Sarah, Andie, and I spent last weekend at the Oregon coast conducting our dead bird surveys and scouting our upcoming Birdathon trip. We did not find any dead birds on our Saturday survey at Sand Lake (good news for the birds!), so we drove north to Cape Meares, where the state's newly-crowned largest Sitka spruce now resides.

The former title holder, the Klootchy Creek Giant, was broken in a December storm.

The new Champion Spruce has a broken top, a 3 meter-or-so diameter trunk, and a massive horizontal branch that looks bigger than most trees we saw when we lived in Oklahoma.

The huge branch looks like one of Popeye's arms and is a nursery for small trees and shrubs.

Western hemlock, salal, licorice ferns, and other plants grow as epiphytes on the branch, along the trunk, and in other nooks and crannies hidden along the Giant.

Who knows how many animals are harbored up there as well?

Since it is quite a bit smaller than the Klootchy Creek Giant was in its prime, the Cape Meares Giant is not Oregon's largest tree, which is apparently a Douglas fir on the south coast. The Cape Meares Giant is 144 feet tall and is estimated to be 750 to 800 years old. After enjoying our time the Giant's presence, we drove down to the Cape Meares Lighthouse to watch the seabirds preparing for their nesting season on the rocks and cliffs.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy Earth Day to You

Yesterday, I commemorated Earth Day by biking to Orchard Park and the nearby beaver pond to check in on the birds. At the east end of the pond, a pair of northern flickers continue to excavate their nest in a small snag, they are now tail-deep into the tree.

I spotted a lot of new beaver activity including this recent chew.

I thought I spotted one of the pond's architects, but a skinny tail indicated it was a nutria, the beaver's uninvited cousin. Also swimming in the pond were a pair of Canada geese, mallards, gadwalls, and a green-winged teal.

I spotted a couple more robin nests and a new bushtit nest on my way out of the park. Using Google Earth and Powerpoint, I made a crude GIS showing locations of the nests found so far.

The orange dots are robin nests and the gray dots are bushtit nests, As you can see, the robins either have small territories, or the males are courting multiple females. The breeding system of robins has received little study, so who knows? I may be able to clarify things later during nestling feeding time.

In other news, a pair of house finches has been visiting our deck to grab seeds and nesting material. You can't see it in this photo, but the female has an unusually large upper bill that has not hindered her ability to find a mate.

Now that I can identify the pair, I wish them well whenever they appear.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ready, Set, Fledge!

The first successful nest of the season is in the books! I found this Anna's hummingbird nest two weeks ago while Sarah and I were taking Andie for a walk. I noticed an odd bump on a branch, looked closer, and saw two tiny wedge-shaped bills and four beady eyes peeking out over the rim.

The mother selected a small, bare oak tree right next to a sidewalk a few blocks from the apartment.

Though we walk by this tree every day, I totally missed the construction incubation, and early nestling stages. Hummingbird nestlings stay in the nest for about three weeks, so I was able to visit them many times. I usually passed by for a glimpse while walking the dog in the afternoon and night.

Every day the nestlings looked a little different than the day before until they were pretty much indistinguishable from adults.

I have viewed hundreds of nests, many of which have met unfortunate ends, so I consider myself an objective observer unattached from my research subjects. With these little guys, however, I found myself hoping to see them each day and worrying about them at night when temperatures dipped below freezing.

These worries were unnecessary, however, because the nestlings survived cold, snow, hail, and driving rain. They also remained undetected by predators such as scrub jays, house cats, and cooper's hawks that cruise through the neighborhood.

I filled up the entire section of my nest journal devoted to this nest. I plan to use the photos I took to make some watercolors of the nest and nestlings as well.

The nest was only a few meters off the ground, just high enough. My work on hummingbird nests in New Mexico, along with as previous studies, is showing that hummingbird nests built high in trees are more vulnerable to predation than those built in the understory. Our local hummingbird nest appears to be no exception to this trend.

This morning, Andie and I went out for our morning walk and I saw what I thought was a medium size bird near the nest. Instead it was the pair of nestlings perched on a branch inches from their nest. I did not get a picture of the two, but I returned later in the afternoon and tracked down one of the fledglings.

Now that they are safely out of the nest, I will assume that they have a safe post-fledging period since It is unlikely that I would find evidence to the contrary. For most birds, fledgling survival is much understudied in relation to nest survival, due to the difficulty of tracking down fledglings. Technology is helping to fill this gap in our knowledge, but in this case, I am happy to conclude that all is well for this tiny family.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Indoor and Outdoor Nest Work

I have been establishing a new work routine for the spring and summer. I spend most hours indoor writing papers and crunching data on nests sent to me from the Forest Service in New Mexico. Three days out of the week, however, I ride down to one of three parks to look for nests for a couple of hours. Since I don't get out much for fieldwork anymore, this allows me to stay in practice watching birds and collecting field data. The three parks I am monitoring are Noble Woods to the south, Dawson Creek Park to the North, and Orchard Park to the east. These parks are fairly different from one another and all support a variety of nesting birds.

Today, I checked out the nests and other birds at Dawson Creek. Yellow-rumped warbler males are still all over the place and brighter than ever. Orange-crowned warblers have returned and are stirring in the underbrush, perhaps prospecting for nest sites.

If you look closely you can see a mallard family and a great egret in there.

Some of the bushtits have completed their nests and are probably incubating. A few others are still under construction.

Can you see the bushtit nest among the branches?

The great-horned owl nest is now occupied by two large, fluffy nestlings and Mother Goose is still incubating on her island.

Three great blue heron nests are active in the big Doug fir by the library. Nearby, I spotted an American robin, a pair of bushtits, and a black-capped chickadee building nests in adjacent trees. With all this great nesting behavior going on, the Great Blue Heron Week event I am planning here in June should be a great success.

On the way out of the park, I checked out a large nest that I have suspected belongs to a pair of red-tailed hawks. Sure enough, I spotted an adults head peeking over the edge.

Speaking of red-tails, I the eggs visible on the KGW Raptor Cam hatched today! At 1:00 pm, I spotted one white, downy chick and one wet, pink chick. At 5:20 pm, they had footage of all three on KGW.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Weekend Highlights

We had a blast of summer weather this weekend and I think we made the most of it.

On Friday I made a few trips to Noble Woods Park and observed nesting behavior of many resident birds such as red-breasted nuthatches, bushtits, and American robins.

I spotted my first flycatcher of the year, a treat because they are one of my favorite bird families. It was an Empidonax of some sort and it was too early in the season to confidently identify members of this tough genus, so I simply enjoyed watching it dart from its perch and grab tiny insects with an audible snap of its bill. The bill looked pretty large so, if pressed, I would guess it was a memeber of the "western" or "Trail's" groups.

On Saturday, Sarah went hiking with her friends, so Andie and I took a walk through several local parks.

I brought Andie to a beaver pond built on a tributary of Rock Creek.

This pond is located within a buisiness park that is essentially empty parking lots and office buildings.

I have never seen another soul down here, except for pond-dwelling wildlife. After spending a few minutes near the pond, it is easy to forget that I am in the middle of a rapidly growing commercial area. In fact, a new Whole Foods located a few blocks away will open next week. I prefer the locally owned New Seasons, but I digress.

A beaver-engineered waterfall!

In Orchard Park, Andie and I checked in on the robin and bushtit nests and I found a bright reddish-orange beetle that my Kauffman insect field guide suggests is a member of the genus Nemognatha, a group whose grubs parasitize bee larva. It had small eyes and large mouthparts that made it look like an ant's head stuck on a beetle's body.

Back home, the Anna's hummingbird nestlings continue to grow. They are now grooming, stretching their wings, and projectile pooping. They should be ready to buzz out of the nest in the next few days.

I am amazed that these little birds begin nesting in the winter. Perhaps they start early to avoid competition from the more aggressive rufous hummingbirds, or, as a species that recently expanded its range from the south, they are hard-wired to nest early when productivity peaks in southern climates. Whatever the reason, early nesting apparently works for the species.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Masters' Birds

During the last two days, I have been watching coverage of The Masters golf tournament while working on bird papers. I have been listening for bird songs sneaking in between the whispered commentary and polite golf cheer. The eastern birds remind me of the ones I heard while living in Oklahoma and it is a good challenge to recollect the songs of birds I have not seen for three years. The weather is unusually warm here and I have been outside enjoying Oregon birds as well. I will post more on those trips later.

Masters' bird list so far:

Carolina Wren
Northern Cardinal
Blue Jay
Bewick's Wren (I think)
Mourning Dove
American Robin

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Rainy days

We’ve entered our fifth month of the northwest gray and rainy season and I think I am starting to grow moss in my beard. It feels like I have not seen the sun since October, but it is easy to forget about the sunny we have enjoyed.

Though our rainfalls have not been record-breaking this year, the snowpacks in the mountains sure are. During my first winter here two years ago, I never saw snow in the Coast Range. This year, they are measuring record amounts at surprisingly low elevations. It is hard to even imagine how much snow has buried Mount Hood and the other Cascade peaks. As a native Montanan and former skier, I am still getting used to hearing about epic conditions at the local ski areas while looking outside and seeing green grass and flowering trees. Back home, we did not need ski reports, we just looked out our window and knew what conditions would be like on the hill.
In addition to flowering trees, singing birds remind us daily that it is in fact spring. This morning, the local robin started his day of singing at 4:30 and an orange-crowned warbler sang from the tree near our window minutes before our alarm clock went off. I think I should train him to replace the clock.

Yesterday, Andy and I braved the rain and walked south of the clover field to a small forest patch surrounded by condos. We did not find any nests in the patch but, in the field, we did hear our first savannah sparrow songs of the year. Savannahs are the only grassland sparrows we have in this part of the state, so it is always great to hear their super-high pitched song. Maybe they should be called "Soprano Sparrows"!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Birding by Bike

Last weekend, I bought a K2 bike so I could visit my favorite birding spots that are out of walking distance without burning gasoline. The bike is a sort of mountain/road bike hybrid but REI categorizes it as a “comfort bike” which sounds wimpy to me, so I will consider it an “urban birding bike.”

Today I rode to Orchard Park and, as I hoped, I found American robins building nests all over the place. I spotted four pairs building nests, all visible from the paved paths. Two nests were being constructed in Doug firs, one was wedged between blackberry canes, and another was located on a small maple stem.

This well-hidden robin nest is at the end of the limb in the center of the photo.

I also spotted another bushtit nest being built near the north end of the trail. It is the dark spot at the end of the drooping branch.

Trillium were blooming as well!

When I returned home, I took Andie on her lunchtime walk and we spotted yet another robin with a huge wad of material in her bill. We backed off as far as possible until we could barely see her fly off to deliver her load to a small redcedar. I expect most robin nests will be built in evergreens until the deciduous trees finish leafing out.

Monday, April 7, 2008

More Nests

Yesterday, Sarah, Andie, and I walked around Dawson Creek Park during a break in the rain. We found the year’s first waterfowl nests and checked in on other nests. We found a Canada goose sitting on a nest on an island where one nested last spring. The nest was a nice platform of cattails and other vegetation.

As we observed last year, the male was patrolling the pond, keeping an eye on his hen.
If you look closely, you can see her on the island.

Unlike geese, mallard hens nest alone with no one to look out for them. Sarah spotted such a hen sitting on a nest near the acorn woodpecker colony along Dawson Creek.

You probably can't see the hen in this photo, but she is sitting on her nest just before the edge of the bank.

Mallards have dismal nest survival rates, so we won’t hold out too much hope of seeing ducklings emerge from this spot.

Speaking of birds that nest without help from their mates, I revisited the local Anna’s hummingbird nest later that afternoon.

The two nestlings are growing nicely and are at least one week old, so their mom did a great job of keeping them warm during last week’s hail and snow storms.

The nest looks very bulky and well-insulated, which may have helped conserve body heat.

While taking Andie on her last walk at 10:30 pm, I passed by the nest quickly to see what goes on a night. The nest tree is near a streetlight so I could clearly see the mom trying to balance herself atop the growing young. Between the bright light and uneven sleeping surface, it did not look like she was in for a comfortable night of sleep.

The species whose nests I now expect to find is the American robin, which starts nest-building in early April. Now that the males are starting to sing by 5:50 am, it feels like spring is really here. Pre-dawn robin song always reminds me of my days as a field assistant, when, while in my tent, I would hear a bird singing at 4:00 am and I would groan, knowing that I had to emerge and go to work locating their nests. Nowadays, I hear the earlybirds and smile, happy that I can go back to sleep for a few more hours.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Spring Veggies Galor

The Portland Farmers' Market started up today, marking the beginning of our local eating year.

Sarah and I are among the many inspired by the endless supply of books advocating local and sustainable eating. We therefore plan to eat as much local produce as possible this year by attending farmers' markets, joining a CSA, and growing what we can in our family's gardens. Our ultimate goal is to limit all of our fruit and vegetable consumption to items grown in Oregon, Washington, or Northern California. Sarah is chronicling our buying, growing, preserving, and eating in her new food blog.

The produce stands were better stocked than we expected with greens, leeks, and root vegetables.
We are certainly spoiled here in the northwest, if you can tolerate the rain. In my home state of Montana, we would not get these veggies for another two or three months, if at all.

While watching my Final Four teams lose, I made a soup with potatoes, leeks, carrots, and a giant rutabaga purchased today.

After dinner, we took the dog for a walk a I finally spotted an Anna's hummingbird nest in a small tree! The mother was not around, but we saw two medium-sized nestlings peeking over the rim. I will bring my camera out tomorrow so I can post a photo soon.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Orchard Park

I thought I'd make the most of the last sunny day we're supposed to get by visiting Orchard Park. It has a bouldering rock, a disc-golf course, and a riparian woodland filled with birds. What more could a person want?

I climbed on the rock until my arms were sore, which did not take long, then walk through the woods. I spotted my first orange-crowned warblers of the season, heard a yellow-rumped warbler song, and found a bushtit nest under construction.
The creek was flowing well, most of the shrubs and trees were leafing out, and the small birds were calling loudly.

Although I have studied both birds, I still have trouble to separating the songs of Bewick's wrens and song sparrows. Today the park provided a good comparison. In this area, Bewick's wrens seem to have a less musical, buzzier song than the sparrows. The song sparrow song is more complex and seems to always have an inroduction, a trill, and a few repeated phrases, whereas the wrens start with a trill and move on to their quicikly repeated pharases. Sarah and I came up with "reeeeeed - scarf scarf scarf" as a way of remembering the wren song. The song sparrow song is more complex and harder to apply words. The old description, "Madge, Madge, Madge, put the tea kettle on" does not really do it for me, so I will have work on another one.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Long Beach Weekend

Sarah and I spent three days at the beach this weekend to spend time with her family, celebrate birthdays, and count dead birds.

The weather changed by the minute from snow to rain to hail to warm sun and back to snow again.

Andie was eager to hit the beach regardless of the weather!

We conduct volunteer beached bird surveys at two beaches near Pacific City. We walk a mile of each beach to count, identify, measure, and tag the birds we find. On Saturday, we were accompanied by Sarah's cousin Sydney and her friend Alex. They helped us find 19 dead northern fulmars, one common murre, two short-tailed shearwaters, and one fork-tailed storm petrel wing.

At the end of our mile, we found six bird in the same area, so we lined them up and processed them as fast as possible. Our exhausted assistant can be seen on the right edge of the photo.

Northern fulmars appear to be having a hard time surviving at sea, as they were washing up all over the place. An alternative explanation for the high body count is that fulmar populations have a constant mortality rate and a higher than normal number of birds are wintering off the coast, resulting in all the birds we find. This question arises each winter when large numbers of a seabird species are found washed up on Oregon beaches.

I found a few other interesting birds as well, including a horned grebe in transition plumage and a breeding plumaged pigeon guillemot.

The foot color of the guillemot was an indescribably intense orange-red.

We saw and heard plenty of live birds as well, most notably rufous hummingbirds that were buzzing around and nearly colliding with us everywhere we went. Other new arrivals include turkey vultures and violet-green swallows. Wintering cackling geese and buffleheads remained, adding to a great bird diversity and activity this time of the year.