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What a difference a day makes. We awoke to 15F temps, a couple inches of snow in the motel parking lot, and steady 20+mph winds. We emptied our overnight bags and donned every available layer of clothing in preparation for below-zero wind chill factor. After crossing the Columbia River we turned west on Washington State Highway 14, which was now a slippery sheet of packed snow and ice. Few other brave souls were on the road as we made the hour-plus drive downstream to the John Day Dam. Stopping several times to scope the river and sift through the occasional passerine flock, we found little of interest. The bite in the air and frigid blasts of wind along the river recalled days of winter birding along the Lake Michigan lakefront in Chicago, or the windswept corn and soybean deserts of central Illinois and Indiana. Initial exhilaration quickly transitions to downright pain as fingers become so numb that one can no longer efficiently focus binoculars, push the shutter button on a camera, or zip ones’ fly.
Climbing back into the car to thaw out after stopping to peruse a roadside blackbird flock, Steve and I simultaneously noticed the interesting patterns formed by the snow and ice-covered grasses along the embankment on the opposite side of the road. Leaving our bins behind we grabbed our cameras and started looking for particularly “artsy” shots. Over the next 45 minutes we snapped off hundreds of photos, none of which included birds. With some creative framing and editing we produced a variety of beautiful images.
Pushing west, we finally made it to John Day Dam and found it generally uninspiring. We should have persisted with our photography, the gulls and waterfowl we hoped to find below the dam were not there. We continued towards Maryhill, Washington along a one-lane gravel road that fronts the riverbank. This proved decidedly more productive as we flushed multiple small flocks of American Pipits and Savannah Sparrows. Both species are typically tough to come by in eastern Washington during winter.
Just before reaching Maryhill I noticed what appeared to be an odd-looking male Mallard in with a flock of American Wigeon. Upon closer inspection we noticed that the bird had a pale blue bill, some diffuse pattern on an otherwise Mallard green head, and brown on the flanks that would be unexpected in a male Mallard. It also sported long central tail feathers suggestive or either a wigeon or a Northern Pintail, which we initially suspected as being the non-Mallard parent. The bird finally flew and the murky whitish patch near the lead edge of the wings combined with other characteristics revealed it to be a American Wigeon X Mallard hybrid.
Near Maryhill we passed through a network of orchards that have produced some good birds in winter…but not this trip. At Maryhill State Park we found a Pacific Loon and a Red-breasted Merganser along the river.
Time spent at unplanned photography stops forced us to skip a few logical birding sites in an effort to reach Bonneville Dam before the gulls that typically gather here went to roost. Hindsight being 20/20, we should have abandoned our Bonneville plans instead. We had been told of a very large flock of gulls that had been feeding at the dam’s spillway in recent weeks. However, upon arrival we noted only a couple dozen gulls and all were expected species. After lingering for a few minutes to take scenic photos of the snow-covered hillsides, we decided to make tracks towards Battle Ground. Steve still faced a three-and-a-half hour drive back to Everett and I was looking at two-plus hours back to Eugene (under normal conditions), and the road reports were not encouraging.
When we got back to Bob Flores’ home my car was blanketed by two to three inches of snow and the side roads were glazed with packed snow and ice. We chatted with Bob for a few minutes, said our goodbyes, and headed for home after an extremely satisfying three-day trip. Steve made it home in about four hours, while my trip south on I-5 was a more leisurely seven and a half hour ordeal, highlighted by one stretch south of Salem, Oregon where I blistered through a five-mile span of interstate highway in just over two and a half hours. The only problem with the occasional Midwest-like weather here in the temperate northwest…the locals don’t know how to drive in it! Maybe I should have just bought a month’s worth of groceries and stayed home? Not a chance!
Forty-plus years of enduring botched forecasts have left me with a curmudgeonly attitude towards local weathercasters who make a career out of over-hyping incoming storms. I am disinclined to believe these doom and gloom prognosticators and I will not contribute to the glee they must feel when their reports send the locals scurrying for Safeway to lay in supplies. I prefer to get my weather report by sticking my head out the door and observing reality. Like most days, we awoke Saturday having no idea what kind of weather conditions might greet us. Snow, rain, high winds, and sub-freezing temps had all been forecast. We were pleasantly surprised to step out of our motel room and find high overcast, nearly 40F temps (downright tropical for the eastside in December), no precipitation, and only light winds. We proceeded to nearby McNary Dam, where we scoped the gulls feeding and resting near the spillway. One adult Western, a couple Mew, and small numbers of Herring and Glaucous-winged gulls spiced up the sizeable flock of California (325) and Ring-billed (80+). Western Gulls are generally scarce away from the outer coast. A few winter in the interior valleys of western Oregon and Washington, but they become progressively more rare as one travels east/north up the Columbia. A few diving ducks – mostly Common Goldenyes and Common Mergansers – were also below the dam. The pool above the dam held a flock of nearly 500 Common Goldeneyes, a few Western Grebes, and little else.
The next four hours were spent walking the maze of trails in the wildlife area below the dam on the Oregon side of the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed an appealing network of small ponds and vegetation that provide excellent cover and food supply for passerines and the trails along the dikes provide excellent access for birders. The ponds host a nice mix of dabbling and diving ducks and there is a Black-crowned Night-Heron roost, which at times has held over 100 birds. Multiple “oinking” Virginia Rails and a couple Marsh Wrens chipping in the marshes were surprising for a site where sub-freezing temperatures are commonplace November-March.
We encountered several good-sized flocks of Zonotrichia (crowned sparrows). The majority were White-crowned Sparrows, but we pished up one group of about a dozen Golden-crowned Sparrows, which is a pretty good number this far east. The various sparrow assemblages also held three Harris’s Sparrows, one Sooty Fox Sparrow, and a Swamp Sparrow. Harris’s Sparrows are generally rare winter visitors in the region, yet this area seems to produce a few each winter. Despite a dearth of local birders, a disproportionate number of the overall reports of Harris’s Sparrows seem to come from Umatilla and neighboring counties. Until recently, Sooty Fox Sparrows had been all but unknown from eastern Oregon, even though they are common to abundant in the western reaches of our region from mid-September to late April.
Surely the surprise of the day was a group of three Barn Swallows coursing back and forth over small stream that bisects the wildlife area. Steve noticed that the one immature in the flock appeared to have a complete breast band. The Asian race of Barn Swallow typically shows this characteristic, while the North American subspecies supposedly do not. Photos of the bird show a breast band, but it remains unclear if this look is limited to the Eurasian form. Barn Swallows are rare in Oregon and Washington after late October, but in recent winters small flocks have shown up in January and early February. Historically, Barn Swallows migrate south by early October and are then generally absent November through late March when the first spring migrants appear.
Departing McNary Dam, we headed upriver towards the Walla Walla River delta about an hour to the east. After a few miles we stopped at small wayside right on the river to scope for waterbirds. As we got out of the car, I noticed a sign that read “Sand Station.” The name partially jogged my recollections of recent postings on OBOL (Oregon Birders Online). I knew something unusual had been reported here, but couldn’t remember what? After several moments of head-scratching the rusty gears meshed…it was a White-winged Scoter. Steve wandered off to use the facilities while I re-found the White-winged Scoter about 300 meters upstream. Small numbers of both Surf and White-winged Scoters pass through eastern Oregon and Washington during fall migration with most records coming Oct-Nov. However, winter records from the eastside are surprisingly few.
As we approached the Walla Walla River delta, Steve suggested that it might be wise to first check for blackbird flocks at the feedlots at the nearby Tyson (formerly Iowa Beef) packing plant. It was nearing 3:00PM and the lead edge of the storm front was darkening the skies prematurely, which we suspected would send many species to roost earlier than normal. We found no big flocks of blackbirds, but we did locate a rather large (2500+) flock of mostly taverneri Cackling Geese near the packing plant. Big flocks of “Tavs” are not typical on the eastside.
Underwhelmed by the stockyards and surrounding fields, the gull flock at the delta beckoned. Nearing the pullout at 50+mph, I noticed a large pale gull out on the mudflats and suggested it might be a Glaucous. When we reached the parking area and set up scopes, it took all of about two seconds to confirm that my drive-by ID was on the mark. It was a crisp adult Glaucous Gull. We had two more Mew, five Thayer’s, and a few more Herring gulls among the swarm or Ring-billed Gulls that dominated the flats. A flock of shorebirds included 51 Dunlin and six fluffed up and cold Least Sandpipers, a bird not accustomed the harsh winter weather on the eastside and rare here during winter.
We spent our last hour of daylight checking several more nearby fields and ponds for waterfowl and came upon two small flocks (19 birds) of Eurasian Collared-Doves in the small town of Burbank, Washington. Steve pointed out that this was a new location for this rapidly expanding species. Two years ago Steve and I were still enthusiastically reporting new local records of this species in our North American Birds regional reports. The Eurasian Collared-Dove range expansion into the region has been so rapid and so complete that our more recent columns have entirely ignored reports of new local colonies. Even our observer base seems to have lost interest. I suspect that Eurasian Collared-Doves are well on their way to attaining Eurasian Starling or House Sparrow status.
At dusk we headed for the motel in Umatilla, where we peeled off our multiple layers of thermal underwear and our attentions turned to dining options. We settled on Mexican food, almost always a good choice in this sub-region of the Pacific Northwest, where a growing Hispanic population usually ensures several options for authentic and excellent cuisine. The visitors guide in our motel room promoted “El Cazador” in nearby Hermiston. As the first snow of the advancing storm system began to fall, we made the five-mile drive to Hermiston, where we easily located the restaurant just north of downtown on Hwy 395. Our dinner choices were both delicious, but the highlight was the “fresh guacamole” made right at the table. If this was guacamole, I want refunds on all prior guacamole purchases. For $7.25 we were treated to a heaping bowl soup bowl of freshly diced avocados tossed with juicy chopped tomatoes, sweet Walla Walla onions (grown locally), a dash of jalapeno, and a pinch of seasoning salt exquisitely mashed – not blenderized – together with freshly squeezed lime juice. It was a true wonder to the taste buds, ruining us forever when faced with the standard version of this concoction. After a most satisfying meal we returned to Umatilla and adjourned to the motel for the evening. Once again the winds cranked up and began battering the sides of our older motel building. That crashing sound.... a deck chair being flung from the hotel balcony onto the parking lot below, fortunately missing the three cars parked there.
Ever wonder why about half the U.S. population lives within fifty miles of a coastline? A trip into the mid-Columbia River Basin during the winter months provides a vivid explanation. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the temperate inland valleys of western Oregon and Washington offer the primary advantages — few days of freezing temperatures and very little snow/ice — that have caused a mass migration away from the middle of the continent over the past century. Like many, Steve Mlodinow and I are part of this diaspora. He lives a few good golf shots from Puget Sound in Everett, Washington, and I live in Eugene at the southern extreme of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, roughly fifty miles from the Pacific Ocean. Prior to settling in the rain belt, each of us spent portions of our youth and adulthood in the Midwest, where “lake effect” snows, bitterly cold temps, biting winds, and no open water for hundreds of miles often characterized the winter season. Perhaps therein lies our shared attraction to the occasional winter foray into eastern Oregon or Washington. You can take the boy out of the frozen cornfield, but you can’t take the frozen cornfield out of the boy.
When we began planning this trip more than two months earlier, daytime highs were still climbing into the low 80’s and the daylight hours stretched from 6:00AM to 8:00PM. We had no idea that our chosen weekend would be highlighted by winter storm warnings (and manifestations), and multiple cancellations of local Christmas Bird Counts. In the days just before our rendezvous we discussed the possibilities of harsh conditions, but were undeterred. Where we grew up, this was normal.
I drove north from Eugene, Oregon early in the morning on 12 December and met Steve near Battle Ground, Washington at the home of Bob Flores, who is the refuge manager at nearby Ridgefield NWR. We quickly transferred my gear into Steve’s Toyota Highlander and headed off to bird the bottomlands north and west of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland. From the time my family moved to Portland when I was ten through my early twenties I made innumerable birding trips to Sauvie Island. The landscape on the opposing Washington side of the river is nearly identical: semi-flooded fields lined with the stubble of corn and other row crops, dairy pastures, occasional woodlots dominated by Oregon Ash, and endless mounds of Armenian Blackberry set against the backdrop of cottonwood gallery forests hugging the riverbanks is familiar turf.
Friday’s weather was benign relative to the forecasts, yet we might have asked for a little less wind and fewer rain showers. We began our birding by touring the pasturelands and agricultural fields surrounding Vancouver Lake checking flock after flock of white-cheeked geese looking for non-white-cheeked geese. Steve has spent the better part of the last three winters studying the various subspecies of Cackling Geese and is the co-author of a major ID paper that will soon appear in North American Birds. A day spent with him in these environs is sure to enhance one’s ability to visually separate Cackler subspecies. The only surprise goose was a hybrid Cackling Goose (likely taverneri) X White-fronted Goose that Steve found embedded in one of the many flocks we surveyed. In recent years family groups of similar crosses have appeared in western Oregon and Washington.
The best bird of the morning was a Nashville Warbler we found in a mixed passerine flock near Post Office Lake. This neo-tropical migrant is uncommon in spring and rare during fall in w. Washington. Nashvilles are rarer still during winter in Washington; this is only the fifth or sixth winter record for the state. Later in the afternoon we enjoyed a welcome sun break as we traveled the four-mile auto tour loop through the “River S” unit at Ridgefield NWR.
Birders are required to remain in their vehicles throughout most of loop, but being in a rolling blind allows for close approach to many waterbirds and raptors. Excellent photographic opportunities frequently present themselves as a result, evidenced by Steve’s fantastic shots of Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks seen below.
Once the sun retired we headed east about 170 miles to Umatilla, Oregon, which would be our base of operations for the next two days. Heavy rain and wind buffeted Steve’s SUV as we passed through the narrowest section of the Columbia Gorge between Portland and The Dalles. We were heartened to see cloud breaks and a few stars as we left this wind tunnel and climbed onto the plateau east of Arlington, Oregon. We checked into our motel, bought a few provisions and a six-pack of Long Hammer IPA at the supermarket across the street and settled in as winds began picking up outside.
A few weeks before Christmas 2006 I was at a loss for an appropriate gift for my dad. Thankfully, a discussion among my kids about some long-forgotten event provided the inspiration. They were recalling minute details about a family vacation we made when they were little. I could barely remember events, which had obviously been very important for them.
It occurred to me that perhaps similar events or activities with my dad had been far more significant life lessons than he might have realized. Thus, I wrote a series of short vignettes entitled: “The Gifts You May Not Know You Gave Me.” None of these came with wrapping paper or had a price tag. Some produced intended results, while others had indirect results neither of us could have ever anticipated. The ripple effects from these activities shared long ago continue to resonate in my life to this very moment as I write these words and think about the two of us doing things together. Merry Christmas Dad.
Shortly after moving to Oregon, we started covering the Eastmoreland, Westmoreland and Sellwood area on the Portland Christmas Bird Count. Coming from Indiana, one of the initial birding challenges you encountered was familiarizing yourself with all the gull species that occurred in our count area. Glaucous-winged, California, and Mew Gulls were birds you did not know from the Midwest. Then in 1973 they split Thayer’s from Herring and suddenly we needed to learn the subtleties of separating those species as well. Most birders never take the time or make the effort to learn the subtle field marks one needs to know in order to ID gulls. However, you embraced this challenge and I can remember spending hours at your side scoping the gull flocks at Westmoreland Park and Eastmoreland Golf Course in an effort to sort them out by age and species. In short order you became very adept at gull ID and though I wasn’t yet a teenager, you taught me as well.
When I became a more serious birder in my late teens, I quickly realized that very few birders knew gulls well. When I participated on other Christmas Counts, I paid particular attention to finding all the expected gull species knowing several species might be otherwise missed by those who simply report “gull species” on their tally sheets. Over time I spent many hours at various dumps and other gull gathering places with David Fix, Jeff Gilligan, Mark Koninendyke, Tom Lund, Steve Heinl and others as we honed our proficiency at ageing and identifying gulls. I also applied this approach to other tough to ID species groups like Empidonax flycatchers, juvenile shorebirds, female ducks, and immature sparrows. You taught me how to look past the obvious similarities in order to pick out the subtle diagnostic differences. Along with plumage and structural differences, you also emphasized the importance of looking for behavioral clues (i.e. flight style or feeding methods) that might provide a clue to a bird’s identity.
Over the years I’ve continually built on these skills and taught many others how to use them as well. Lessons instilled long ago have helped me develop a reputation as one of Oregon’s best birders and opened doors to many opportunities including; serving on the Oregon Bird Records Committee, being a regional editor for North American Birds, publishing bird ID articles, designing and managing a migratory bird-monitoring project for the City of Eugene (got paid), and teaching the bird ID class at Lane Community College (got paid again). The friendships, activities, and travels that have come from birding have enriched my life immeasurably, and it all started with parents who showed the way. I can only hope that experiences I’ve shared with my three kids bring similar joy to their lives.
Prior to being split by the American Ornithological Union (AOU) in 1985, Red-naped, Red-breasted, and Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were considered conspecific under the name Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Since this reclassification, birding journals and magazines have abounded with articles offering insights into the identification of these three Sphyrapicus sapsucker species and their hybrids. With the publication of each new edition of a popular field guide comes an ever-expanding array of illustrations depicting the variability within this super-species group. Despite all the effort to clear the air, at least once or twice a year I receive e-mails asking for help identifying attached images of troublesome sapsuckers. I’ve received two such e-mails recently, so I thought I would share the ID tips and elaborate on the responses that I sent to those who queried me about these birds.
Though superficially similar to an adult Red-naped Sapsucker — evidenced by the white supercilium (line above they eye) and broad mostly black auricular stripe (starting behind the eye) — there are several aspects of the above bird that tell us it is a hybrid Red-naped Sapsucker X Red-breasted Sapsucker. First, the red on the underparts extends from the throat well down onto the upper breast. Only Red-breasted Sapsucker (or a hybrid involving Red-breasted parentage) shows red this far down the breast. Red on the underparts is restricted to the throat area on the other two species. Secondly, there is no obvious black breast “shield,” which would normally frame the red throat patch on a pure Red-naped. We can rule out both subspecies of pure Red-breasted Sapsucker (S. r. ruber and S. r. daggetti) as neither shows the extensive black and white exhibited in the face pattern of this bird. It is worth pointing out that “pure” Red-naped Sapsuckers occasionally show some red bleeding through in the black-feathered areas, but they do not show red bleeding onto the white areas. As I understand it, red (carotenoid) pigmentation and black (melanin) pigmentation can both be present in different portions of the same head feathers of these two species, whereas white feathers result from the absence of these pigments (Johnson and Johnson 1985). Thus, without some genetic introgression from Red-breasted Sapsucker, there should not be any red feathering bleeding on to the white facial stripes.
In the case of the sapsucker shown here, the observer was on the fence over whether this was an immature Red-naped or Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Historically, it was believed that hatch-year Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers retain their mostly brown and buffy plumage through their first fall and show no red on the crown until they molt on the wintering grounds. However, recent examinations of molt timing in this species suggests otherwise (Mlodinow et al. 2006). These authors found that some migrant hatch-year Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers collected north of presumed wintering grounds, showed red in the crown. A thorough search of museum specimens further revealed that all Red-naped Sapsuckers taken after 1 October showed some red on the nape and by late fall most Red-napeds were adult-like in appearance (Mlodinow et al. 2006).
This individual, photographed in November, shows no red on the nape and presents several plumage characteristics consistent with a hatch-year bird, all of which points away from this bird being a Red-naped Sapsucker. First, it still shows a lot of brown and buff tones in the overall plumage. By this date a Red-naped should look more black and white in appearance. Also, the crown is not solid red, rather it is well mottled with brown tipped feathers. Another important thing to look at is the face pattern. Generally speaking, the face of a Red-naped Sapsucker has a rather broad and nearly solid black auricular (behind the eye) stripe that is bordered above by a somewhat narrow white supercilium (above the eye) that tends to narrow anteriorly. Conversely, the dark auricular stripe on a Yellow-bellied is noticeably narrower and is often mottled with paler tipped feathers. The supercilium on Yellow-bellied is wider overall and tends to broaden a bit behind the eye. These differences account for the face of a Red-naped looking more dark than light, while the face of a Yellow-bellied tends to look more light than dark. Finally, the extensive light-colored mottling (buffy golden tones) across most of the back is a good supporting mark for Yellow-bellied, although there is some overlap in the extent of the light mottling on the backs of these two species.
Johnson, Ned K. and Carla Bowman Johnson, 1985. Speciation in Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus): II Sympatry, Hybridization, and Mate Preference in S. ruber daggetti and S. nuchalis.
The Auk 102:1 1-15. Mlodinow, Steven G., Jessie H. Barry, and Cameron D. Cox 2006. Variation in Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Birding 38:6 42-51.
We at BirdFellow are passionate about birds. Though many good websites for birders already exist, we feel ours will be easier to use. We have assembled a dynamic team of experience technicians, bird experts, and creative dreamers to bring you an exciting new social media website, scheduled to launch in the Spring of 2009.
Today, we're launching our online journal. Dave Irons, regional editor for North American Birds, and BirdFellow content editor, will lead the conversation. We value your feedback and encourage you to share your thoughts.
Is any group of people more inclined or anxious to share what they know than birders? There is no single field guide that we all use. Instead, there are dozens. Many of us go out of our way to publish what birds we've seen and where we have seen them. When the experts among us come upon new diagnostic field marks for a cryptic species or species group they are quick to write an article trumpeting their discovery.
My approach to mentoring is hardly unique within the birding community. In fact, I cannot recall ever meeting an expert birder who treated their wealth of knowledge like it was a trade secret. I have benefited from thousands of exchanges of information with hundreds of other birders. On occasion my mentoring efforts come full circle and I learn something new from a birder who I helped along when they were first getting started.
The name Ludlow Griscom is likely unfamiliar to many reading this blog. Yet, Griscom is generally acknowledged as the first birder who could reliably identify most of the birds he encountered by sight. He recognized that most species of birds present “field marks” -- combinations of plumage and physical characteristics -- which allow them to be identified on sight. Prior to Griscom, ornithologists eschewed sight records. They dealt in shotgun identification, thus only specimen-supported records were published. Griscom was a protégé of Frank Chapman, who in 1900 conducted the first Christmas Bird Count.
As a luminary in the Linnean Society of New York (founded in 1878 and still in existence) during the 1920's, Griscom met and mentored a young Roger Tory Peterson. As we all know, Peterson would eventually use his artistic skills and what he learned from Griscom to publish his landmark field guide in 1934. Peterson's field guide system provided the foundation for the modern field guides we use today. In some small way Peterson has mentored us all.
Kenn Kaufman is among the legions birders from my generation who were both influenced and inspired by Roger Tory Peterson. In chapter one of his book “Kingbird Highway,” which is recommended reading for any birder, Kaufman writes that Peterson was his “hero” and that he read and re-read his Peterson field guide on a nightly basis. Kaufman ultimately authored his own field guide, wherein he continues to pass forward lessons that trace back to Griscom and perhaps beyond. In the preface of “Kingbird Highway” Kaufman discusses how the modern sport of “birding” evolved in the early 1970's and how it was driven by a group of birders who all seemed to have some connection to these earliest mentoring lineages.
I believe that we have reached the next crossroad. Various electronic media, most notably the Internet, allow us to share what we have learned at a rate few could have anticipated even two decades ago. As we develop BirdFellow, we will embrace this long tradition of mentoring and do all in our power to build networks and connections between expert birders and those whose birding experiences can be enriched through access to their expertise.
If you want to learn more about the famous birders discussed above, I recommend reading the following books:
Dean of the Birdwatchers: A Biography of Ludlow Griscom, by William Davis 1994.
Kingbird Highway: The Story of an Obsession That Got A Little Out of Hand, by Kenn Kaufman 1997.