Kid Show: Nest-o-rama Revisited

Today I opted to ignore the looming glacier of bird projects, bills to pay, and New Yorker magazines that I've yet to crack, and instead joined Diane Pettey for trip east of the crest of the Cascades into central Oregon. Diane was interested in trying to track down a Least Flycatcher and a Northern Goshawk family that were frequenting the same area near the town of Sisters (we'll refrain from providing exact locations for raptor nests). She was hopeful of getting pictures of both species as she moves ever closer to reaching her goal of  photographing 500 species of birds in the U.S.

We met at my house at 5AM and headed east, bopping along to vintage Tom Petty tunes and chatting about a variety of topics as we made the 100+ mile drive over Santiam Pass. We took a semi-quick detour into Sisters for some snacks and caffeinated beverages. It was the weekend of the annual quilting show and the quilters were out in force. I'd never heard of this event, but Diane forewarned me that Sisters would be a zoo. "At 7AM on a Saturday?" I asked. "Yep" The main street--U.S. Hwy 20--was blocked off at both ends of town and every third vehicle seemed to be county sheriff's deputy, so after parking a few blocks away, we made our way towards the venerable Sisters Bakery.

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Black Butte is a welcome sight to those of us who reside west of the Cascades, for it tells us that we are entering the very birdy ponderosa pine forests of central Oregon. This near perfect cinder cone is an extinct volcano that is actually older than the nearby Cascade Range.

As soon as we turned the corner onto the main drag, it was apparent that the line at the bakery stretched out the door and several bodies down the sidewalk. In under 30 seconds we decided that we were more interested in birding than the various pastries at the bakery, so we headed back to the car. Thankfully, we happened upon the Sisters Harvest Basket about halfway back to the car. Located at 110 Spruce St., this small health food store has a nice assortment of healthy beverages, fresh-brewed coffee (critical), and a basket of granola bars and other goodies at the front counter. I refilled my travel mug, grabbed a blueberry smoothie and a Tazo Brambleberry, and selected what was advertised as "the best granola bar ever" from the basket by the cash register. I have to admit, it was pretty darn good, full of various grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and honey. Diane chose a gluten-free brownie to go along with a similar array of beverages. She gave me a taste, and it was infinitely better than many "full-featured" brownies I've had. Now that you're hungry, it's time to go birding.

As chronicled in "Nest-o-rama: Woodpecker Wonderland Festival 2009," published in this journal on 12 June 2009, summer is always a great time to visit the varied conifer forests in Oregon's central Cascades. Today we returned to many of the sites that I had visited during the first weekend in June. Nests that were then under construction or full of nestlings are now quiet, as the majority of this season's hatchlings have fledged and are beginning to find their way in the world. Most of these hatch-year birds are still highly dependent on their parents, thus the forest is currently alive with the sounds of begging juvies.

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Juvenile Northern Goshawk in mid-scream as it begs for food.

Getting photos of a Northern Goshawk topped our list of priorities, so me made that our first stop. Within seconds of stepping out of the car we could heard the strident cries of a young raptor about a hundred yards or so into the woods. We hastily gathered up our bins and cameras and headed off in the direction of the calls. We readily located two fully-feathered juvenile goshawks perched in plain view about 40 feet up in a dead ponderosa pine. There was no parent around, but we kept our heads on a swivel since adult Northern Goshawks are notoriously aggressive. These youngsters seemed to have little concern about us and they spent most of their energy stretching their legs and wings and persistently screaming for breakfast. We took several pictures and headed off to look for the Least Flycatcher.

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This young Northern Goshawk contorted itself into a variety of odd-looking positions. Here it is drooping and stretching its wings.

We never did find the flycatcher, but during our search we encountered juvenile birds of several species. One of the challenges of birding this time of year is that many of the juveniles look decidedly different than their parents. New birders are often confounded by the first juvenile Dark-eyed "Oregon" Junco they see. They are mostly brown, have no black or gray on the head, and have richly streaked underparts and backs. They look more like a Vesper Sparrow than a junco. Some juveniles put their parents to shame when it comes to appearance. One such bird is the Townsend's Solitaire. Adults sport a uniformly medium gray plumage that is marginally enhanced by two buffy patches, white outer tail feathers, and a conspicuous eye ring. Conversely, a juvenile solitaire is among the most beautifully patterned birds you will ever see (see below).

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This image, taken near Sisters, Oregon on 11 July 2009, barely begins to capture the exquisite detail in the plumage of a juvenile Townsend's Solitaire.

Though some juvenile birds look dramatically different than adults of the same species, most look like duller and sometimes fluffier versions of their parents. During their initial days and weeks out of the nest, young birds are typically found in close proximity to their parents, which helps in the identification process. In the case of songbirds, juveniles tend to sit still and call persistently until the adult returns. On the other hand, adults that are feeding young will be frenetic as they move about in search of food for their offspring. Young songbirds often sit with their heads tilted back, beak agape, and quiver their wings when the food-carrying adult comes into sight. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Juvenile birds also tend to be much more confiding and approachable and, as evidenced by this piece, a lot easier to photograph. You may occasionally hear veteran birders refer to such birds as "dumb juvies." Apparently, fear of humans is learned and not innate.

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Note the fluffy, almost downy appearance of the young Pygmy Nuthatch (above) and the juvenile White-breasted Nuthatch (below), both of which were photographed near Sisters, Oregon on 11 July 2009. These birds barely moved as I snapped off several pictures of each. Also notice the comparatively short, and in the case of the Pygmy, blunt-tipped bills. The fully-developed bills of adult nuthatches are very long and extremely pointed at the tip. Further, the gray-blue crown of the White-breasted is noticeably paler than even the palest adult females.

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Many of the juveniles we saw today bore no resemblance to their apparent parents. They were Brown-headed Cowbirds. Juvenile Brown-headed Cowbirds are often close to double the size of the adult birds that are observed feeding them. Cowbirds evolved to follow the massive herds of native grazing animals (bison, pronghorn etc.) that once roamed the North American continent. Since they were always on the move, they did not build their own nest. Instead, they laid their eggs in the nests of other, generally smaller, birds. Once hatched, young cowbirds quickly out-grow the young of the host species, which gives them a competitive advantage when it comes to getting fed. In many cases, by the time the nestlings fledge, only the young cowbirds have survived.

With white settlement came the cutting and fragmentation of the continent's formerly contiguous forests, which historically were not inhabited by cowbirds. Cowbirds had been restricted to short grass prairie habitats, but they quickly infiltrated the newly-created edge habitats and agricultural lands, and now pose a serious threat to several woodland species. Today, without any particular effort, we found no fewer than five different species of adult birds either feeding or being followed about by juvenile Brown-headed Cowbirds. These included: Yellow Warbler (a common host species), Warbling Vire0 (another common host species), Cassin's Vireo, Dusky Flycatcher, and Dark-eyed Junco. We observed two separate pairs of adult juncos feeding young cowbirds. One pair was attending to two cowbirds and none of its own young, while the other was feeding one cowbird and one young junco.

As the title of this piece suggests, today was about juvenile birds. The species discussed above are but a small sampling of the young birds we observed on this day. There is no time of the year when there are more total birds living in the Northern Hemisphere. Many will not survive their first migration. Many more will fall prey to predators on their wintering grounds, or in the case of waterfowl and upland game birds, be taken by hunters. As mentioned above, young birds are approachable and in many ways endearing. Now is the time to get out and enjoy the bounty of the breeding season.

All photos taken by Dave Irons

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Dave,
I, also, went to Sister’s on Saturday morning, mainly to see the quilt show, but I couldn’t go all the way to Sister’s without a trip out to Calliope Crossing. My husband was a real sport. He came along and after a couple wrong turns we finally found the birding spot. We saw the same thing you did—two young goshawks definitely making their presence known with their screeching as we watched them jump from branch to branch and flap about. As usual, you got some great photos.

2

Dave,

Does the Butte have a brown belt?

Having grown up in Sisters, I have seen the Butte in a lot of different conditions, but the brown belt… I’ve never seen that before. Do you have any more info on why the trees are brown at the same elevation?

The blue sky captured in your shots is just stunning. Great post.

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The rusty brown ring around Black Butte is not an optical illusion. It is created by dried out (“burned”) needles on the conifers on the butte. As it has been explained to me (I am not a forestry expert), over this past winter central Oregon experienced a period of extremely cold weather. During this time the ground froze, causing these trees to go into a dormant state. At the end of this cold snap a thin layer of much warmer air got trapped by a temperature inversion at the elevation where the brown band appears. The warm air mass apparently triggered a response in the trees as though it were spring and the needles on these trees began releasing moisture from their needles. Under normal (warmer) conditions, the lost moisture is replenished by water from the root system, but since the ground around the base of the trees was still frozen, these needles had no source of replacement moisture, so they became dehydrated and turned brown. The trees did not die, but the brown needles remain on the trees creating the mysterious “brown belt” around the butte. One of our readers supplied me with a link to a local newspaper story that offers further details about this series of events. It can be found at: http://www.nuggetnews.com/main.asp?SectionID=5&SubSectionID=5&ArticleID=15568&TM=72550.91

4

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