Enjoying Flight Days in Real Time

There are surely days when many of us question the value of being subscribed to our local or statewide birding listserv. Recurring threads about the use of four-letter banding codes instead of spelled out bird names, what to do about the Sharp-shinned Hawk that is using your  feeding station as an all-you-can buffet, and worst of all, feral cat debates contribute to excess wear and tear on our delete keys. However, there are a few days each spring and fall when our communities use this connectedness to share in the magnificence of major migratory flights. It seems that the joy of actually watching birds migrate has universal appeal.

While the bulk of migrating songbirds pass unseen under the cover of darkness, certain larger birds, such as Sandhill Cranes, Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada and Cackling Geese, Broad-winged Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk, tend to move en masse during daylight hours.  The resulting flight days provide opportunities to witness  flock after flock passing over in a matter of a few hours. If your birding neighbors are seeing these birds, chances are you can walk outside and experience the same flight or even the same individual flock of birds.


Strings of migrant geese overhead, like these Cackling Geese photographed near Eugene, Oregon, mark the fall season for birders and non-birders alike. Their loud calls garner the attention of almost everyone who hears them.

Weather conditions play a role in many of these events. In fall, the southbound movements of some species are triggered when the first blast of cold arctic air spills across their northerly (Alaskan/Canadian) breeding grounds. By watching the national weather map it is possible to predict hawk flights with reasonable accuracy. Sandhill Cranes are somewhat dependent on thermals, so major passages are most likely to occur on sunny days. Timing, rather than weather is more important for Cackling Geese and White-fronted Geese, whose movements seem to hit the same few days on the calendar year after year.

Where I live in southern end of Oregon's Willamette Valley, I am right below a major flight path for Greater White-fronted Geese, which angle south-southeast across this part of the valley just before crossing over the Cascades and into the Klamath Basin. I am fortunate to have a job where I work outside, so if, when I check my e-mail before work, I see an early morning report of a migratory White-fronts in my area I am more inclined to keep an eye and an ear turned to the sky throughout the day. It is a near certainty that if I hear a single flock I will hear several passing high overhead. In Spring, the heaviest flight days almost always come during the last 8-10 days of April and the first week of May. In the Fall I can count on the peak southbound flights coming during the week of my birthday (26 September).


While most White-fronted Geese pass over Oregon's Willamette Valley without ever touching down, flocks occasionally stop to rest and feed. This small flock was photographed west of Junction City, Lane County, Oregon during Fall 2008.

Most flocks of White-fronts number between 100 and 300 birds. Their distinctive calls, which have laughing quality, are easily recognizable as they pass high overhead. Single observers have tallied as many as 7600 birds in a day in western Oregon. On days and nights with dense overcast, these normally high-flying birds drop down to lower altitudes. In such conditions, you may hear the calls of nearby geese and never see them. On many occasions I've heard flocks passing overhead while lying half-awake in bed late at night.

Compared to sites along the Central Flyway, the passage of Sandhill Cranes in western Oregon is comparatively meager, yet no less magical. The loud rolling calls of cranes overhead is enthralling. These vocalizations, which can be heard from great distance, inspire even veteran birders to start scanning the horizon to catch sight of a flock gliding by on set wings or circling on a thermal.


Migrant Sandhill Cranes fly with deliberate wing flaps interspersed with long glides on set wings. They depend of thermal uplift to help them reach suitable altitude when migrating. They can often be seen circling upward for many minutes before peeling off one by one and continuing on their journey.

When we see evidence of  a major flight, a quick post to our favorite listserv allows us to create shared experiences with other local birders. I've called friends or family members on many occasions and asked them to post a quick note about migrant flocks that I've seen while working. If I happen to hear/see cranes or geese migrating during the course of the day, I can be assured that many of my birding friends are enjoying the same spectacle and that I will be able to read their posts when I get home.

The View Along the Way

Recently, I was perusing a file full of scenery pictures taken during birding trips over the past 14 months and it occurred to me that we visit some amazingly beautiful corners of the globe while birding. With that in mind, I selected a bunch of photos, all taken in western North America since August 2008, that remind me of good birds, good company, and how much I enjoyed the scenery captured in this collection of images.


Those who've visited the summit of Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon will tell you that it is one of their favorite places. The stunning view of the Alvord Basin looking east from the East Rim Overlook was compromised by forest fire smoke during this visit. On the day that this picture was taken (10 August 2008), Diane Pettey and I saw a small flock of Black Rosy-Finches feeding on the rocky slope just below the viewpoint. Steens Mtn. is the only place in Oregon where one can expect to encounter this species.


Off the beaten path and far from any major population center, Lake Abert in Lake County Oregon hosts an amazing, and mostly unknown birding spectacle during late summer. Phalaropes (chiefly Wilson's with lesser numbers of Red-necked) by the hundreds of thousands and gulls (California, Ring-billed, and Franklin's) by the tens of thousands convene at this playa lake to gorge themselves on the brine fly hatch. In some years, as many as one million birds may gather here during early August. We estimated at least 400,000 Wilson's Phalaropes were on the lake when this photo was taken (9 August 2008). Abert Rim, which rises steeply along the east side of the lake, is stunning in its own right.


Later the same day, Diane Pettey and I spent several hours birding the patch of mountain mahogany in the foreground of this image. This site, along Big Valley Rd. s. of Adel, Lake County, Oregon hosts good numbers of Juniper Titmice and our efforts produced a long-overdue state bird for me on 9 August 2008.


The "channeled scablands" and coulees in eastern Washington are part of a unique landscape that resulted from repeated scouring from the Missoula Floods during the last glacial maximum. This image, taken from Lyons Ferry State Park along the Snake River in Franklin County offers but a small sample of the stunning beauty of this region. During a five-day trip to e. Washington in September 2008, Steve Mlodinow and I seemed to run into vagrant birds everywhere we went. Lyons Ferry produced a Blue-headed Vireo, a Blackpoll Warbler, a Northern Waterthrush, and a Nashville Warbler showing characteristics of the eastern subspecies. The day before this photo was taken, Steve and I (and several others) relocated North America's 4th Variegated Flycatcher at nearby Windust Park. The flycatcher had been discovered the evening before that by Mike and MerryLynn Denny.


The face of "Chief Washtucna" watches over the small community of Washtucna in Adams County, Washington. A well-watered municipal park in the middle of this modest settlement is a magnet for migrant passerines and often attracts eastern vagrants during spring and fall migration. On the day this photo was taken, Ryan Merrill found a Chestnut-sided Warbler just w. of the park. Two days earlier, Steve Mlodinow and I found Washington's 2nd Bell's Vireo in the park.


Rising to an elevation of 4097 feet, Mary's Peak is the highest point in Oregon's Coast Range. From the grassy opening seen above, one can see both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Cascade Range to the east. This oasis of grass collects a variety of migrant grassland birds such as longspurs, pipits, horned larks, and sparrows. In most years, small groups of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches can be found about the summit from October through early Spring. About a dozen rosy-finches were seen during this visit on 26 October 2008. The summit meadow is ringed by noble firs, a species of very limited distribution in the Coast Range, where most peaks fall short of the elevations where this tree thrives.


The glow of the morning sun across this otherwise austere and snow-covered hill along Washington Hwy 14 in the Columbia Gorge created an illusion of warmth...until we stepped out the car. In mid-December 2008 Steve Mlodinow and I took a long weekend trip up the Columbia River, birding our way east to the Walla Walla River mouth at Wallula, Washington. Over the first two days we enjoyed rather comparatively mild temperatures (low 40s). On 14 December we awoke to two-plus inches of snow and barely double-digit readings on the bank sign across the street from our motel in Umatilla, Oregon. As we made our way downriver, we found a Mallard X American Wigeon hybrid near Maryhill, Washington, the first of this cross ever detected in Washington or Oregon.


After enduring one of the worst winter storms to ever grip the Pacific Northwest, Steve Mlodinow and I were more than ready to board a plane and head off to the southern tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico in early January 2009. For the entirety of our 9-day visit the skies were essentially cloudless, as seen in this image of the Estero San Jose. The Sierra de la Laguna mountains loom in the background. High temperatures hovered around 80-85 and the birding was fabulous. We encountered several species that are semi-rare to rare in the area. Highlights included a Ruff, a Red-throated Pipit and a Blackpoll Warbler.


As evidenced in this desert scene n. of La Paz, much of the landscape of Baja California Sur is vegetated only by short thorny shrubs and el cardon cacti. Thus areas with water and riparian corridors teem with birds. Mixed flocks of flycatchers, vireos, warblers, orioles, sparrows and buntings sometimes number into the hundreds. Although the majority of passerines found in these flocks are species that nest in the United States, several endemic species and subspecies are welcome diversions from the more familiar birdlife.


The silhouettes of el cardon cacti enhance this sunset shot taken at El Rosario, Baja California Sur, Mexico on 14 January 2009, the last night of our trip. A small nearby reservoir hosted Least Grebes, the only ones we saw on this trip.


Like the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, California's Golden Gate Bridge stirs the emotions of nearly all who pass over or under it. I took this picture as we sailed west out of San Francisco Bay aboard the Star Princess on 7 May 2009. For birders, the open ocean remains one of the last frontiers, where anything seems possible. The day after this picture was taken, most of the 20+ birders aboard this cruise ship saw their life Murphy's Petrels. Ultimately, we saw them off of every county from Del Norte County, California to Pacific County, Washington. In all, we saw more than 40 Murphy's during this trip.


This image, taken near the Pete French Round Barn in Harney County, Oregon 24 May, will forever remind me of a Memorial Day Weekend trip with my two teenage daughters and one of their friends. We saw no rare birds, but that mattered not to the girls, who got excited about seeing Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-necked Stilts, and fuzzy juvenile Great Horned Owls.


On 24 May 2009, Diane Pettey, my daughter Lilly and I climbed to the top of South Coyote Butte to watch the sunset. Little did I know, that a few months later I would drive most of the night to spend half a day searching around the Malheur Field Station (seen in this image) for Oregon's 1st Lesser Nighthawk, which was photographed here on 27 August 2009. I didn't re-find the nighthawk, but I spent a few hours drifting in and out of sleep in the bed of a pickup while listening to the constant chatter of young Barn Owls overhead. After giving up on the nighthawk, I spent more than an hour photographing juvenile Soras and Virginia Rails as they fed in plain view at a nearby wet area.


I can recall my thoughts as I snapped pictures of this sunset glistening off the Bahia La Paz, n. of La Paz, Baja California Sur on 13 Jan. It was our next to last night of eight spent in Mexico and I was reflecting on how this magical trip was about to come to an end. I was not ready to return to the foggy, cold Pacific Northwest. But then again, when are we ever ready for such trips to end.

Long after the mental images of individual birds have become murky or faded away entirely, my recollections of landscapes and those that I shared them with remain crystal clear. Each of these images bring to mind the broad set of experiences, emotions and friendships that made these birding trips so memorable.

Repositioning Cruises: Birds on the Boat

If you've never seen a cruise ship up close and personal, it is massive. In addition to serving as an incredibly stable environment for viewing seabirds, these huge vessels must look like islands to passerines and other non-pelagic species that find themselves far from terra firma. It is customary for at least some of the birders who go on repositioning cruises to rise well before dawn to walk the decks in search of nocturnal migrants that have either landed, or crashed onto the deck of the ship during the night. 


This Sooty Shearwater was found dead on the deck of the Golden Princess on 29 September 2008. We can only speculate, but it likely crashed into the boat during the night.

It is well-documented that nocturnal migrants (particularly songbirds) are attracted to light sources and sometimes become disoriented by the lights of inner city skyscrapers. A cruise ship approximates a 90-100 story building laid on its side and surely the external deck illumination and the light emanating from cabin windows attracts birds. On all five of the cruises that I've gone on, we've found a variety of birds on deck during pre-dawn hours.


Sparrows have generally been well-represented among the passerines we've found. The immature Golden-crowned Sparrow pictured above came aboard the Star Princess more than 60 miles from land on 22 September 2009 and the Sooty Fox Sparrow below came aboard the Golden Princess a similar distance offshore on 29 September 2008.


We generally find more ship-bound landbirds on fall trips than we do on spring trips. This makes sense because hatch-year birds making their first migration tend to comprise the bulk of birds found far off course. Sparrows and warblers have generally predominate among the landbirds we've found on deck. Landbirds are almost always alive and seeemingly in pretty good health. Conversely, seabirds tend to be injured or dead when we find them, suggesting that they crashed into the boat rather than landing on it on purpose. Leach's Storm-Petrels seem to end up wrecked on these ships somewhat regularly, particularly on spring trips. 


This immature Yellow Warbler, found on the Golden Princess on 29 September 2008, is the only passerine to be found dead on the trips I've made.

In addition to birds found on the boat, many birds, presumably attracted to the lights, can be seen circling in the glow of the lights above the top decks of the ship. Phalaropes, terns, various other shorebirds, and assorted passerines have all been noted. During daylight hours, we've had dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Black Turnstone come in and repeatedly circle the boat before eventually disappearing. Though I've not witnessed any of these birds landing on the boat, I suspect that they do on occasion.


I can't recall the exact circumstances surrounding the discovery of this relatively bright Empidonax during a September 2007 cruise. It was first spotted perched above our scoping station in mid-afternoon and it may well have been there for hours before we noticed it. Hoping against hope that it was a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, we ultimately determined it to be a hatch-year Pacific-slope Flycatcher. (Photo by Tom Shreve).

To date, we've found no major rarities on board the ship. However, one only needs to examine the list of eastern vagrants and Siberian strays that have found their way to California's Southeast Farallon Island to find the motivation to crawl out of bed at 4:30AM to walk the decks. Someday...

Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by Dave Irons

Repositioning Cruises: Pelagic birding made comfortable

Traditionally, if you wished to add albatrosses, storm-petrels, or Pterodromas to your life list, you had few options beyond the 10-12 hour out-and-back charter boat trips that are offered along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. While these near-shore trips usually provide great opportunities to see open ocean birds at close range, there are certain unpleasant aspects to this brand of pelagic birding. I have yet to meet the seabirder who looks forward to boarding a boat amid dockside cannery odors, watching their birding mates hang the rails with mal de mer, inhaling diesel exhaust all day, or venturing into that most vile of environs, "the head." Getting bounced around in what amounts to a foul-smelling broom closet when you are already feeling a bit queasy holds little appeal. Additionally, near-shore pelagics rarely get more than 35 miles offshore and much of the 10-12 trip is spent motoring out to and back from seamounts and chum stops where most of the birds are seen. In reality, time spent in really productive waters is limited to 3-4 hours.

A few years ago I learned of a method of sea-birding that is a bit more genteel. I found out that cruise lines offer modestly-priced voyages that they call "repositioning" cruises. These inexpensive trips are offered in between seasons when boats are being moved from one base port to another. Along the Pacific coast, several cruise companies base multiple ships in either Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. for the summer months. From mid-May through September these boats cruise back and forth to Alaska. The Alaska cruise season typically ends in mid-to-late September when the weather begins to turn cold. Upon completion of the last northbound cruise, these vessels are moved down the coast to either San Francisco or Los Angeles, where they will be based until the following May. In late spring, the ships are moved back up north.


The deck of a cruise ship is stable enough for using spotting scopes and deck chairs and the viewing angle from 17-20 meters above the surface of the water makes it possible to keep birds in view for long periods. It is near impossible to have a bird disappear into a trough and never be seen again, a common event when birding from the deck of a charter fishing boat.

Several years before I went on my first cruise, my long-time friends Jeff Gilligan and Owen Schmidt found out about these bargain cruises from Dan Johnson, a travel agent with Fairview Travel in Portland, Oregon. After making a few calculations, they realized that the ship would likely be in Oregon waters  for a full daylight cycle, an important consideration for two of Oregon's most serious listers. They booked their first cruise. A few short years and many exciting trip reports later, we now have a core group of about 15 Oregon and Washington birders who go on at least one cruise each spring and fall.

The timing of repositioning cruises, at least along the west coast of North America, coincides with the primary migration window for several species. In Fall,  the flights of jaegers (particularly Long-tailed), Sabine's Gulls, and Arctic Terns one encounters 50+ miles offshore (near the continental shelf) are usually far more impressive than those found by near-shore pelagic trips. Additionally, these trips offer at least one full daylight cycle of birding over deeper waters (two if you go all the way to Los Angeles).

The one drawback to cruise ship birding is that the boat is on a schedule, thus it clips along at about 25 knots, with no detours for mind-bending rarities. There is no opportunity to chum birds in close to the boat or chase unusual birds. However, by using a scope, the distance advantage is offset by prolonged magnified views that are essentially unaffected by the pitch and roll of the boat. Some birds will spend long periods flying along next to or in proximity t0 the ship. In the spring of 2009, we had a northbound flock of nine Red Knots  that paced the ship for nearly 30 minutes. In other instances, the ship passes right through large feeding flocks of shearwaters, gulls, and storm-petrels as they sit on the water.

On most trips, birds are in view almost continuously, particularly off Oregon; on fall trips that went all the way to Los Angeles we ran into some real dead patches south of Monterey Bay. If you are fortunate enough to hit a good fall flight of Arctic Terns or Sabine's Gulls it is possible to see hundreds and sometimes thousands of each species in a day. Fall trips are recommended if you want to hone your jaeger ID skills. Long-taileds, which often associate with Arctic Tern and Sabine's Gull flocks, are usually the most abundant Stercorarids far offshore; 925 were seen off Oregon on 17 September 2000.  You can also expect to see more South Polar Skuas than you might normally encounter during a near-shore pelagic, where 1-3 birds per trip is the norm; 15 skuas were tallied off Oregon on 22 September 2009.


This highly cooperative South Polar Skua, photographed off Coos County, Oregon on 22 September 2009, cruised along side the Star Princess for several minutes.

Spring trips tend to be better for storm-petrels, gadfly petrels, and albatrosses. Spring cruises have generally yielded large numbers of Leach's and Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, multiple Laysan Albatrosses, and Black-footed Albatrosses into the hundreds. On 3 May 2007, an extremely rare Hornby's Storm-Petrel (sometimes referred to as Ringed Storm-Petrel) flew right below astonished observers 45 miles off Coos County, Oregon. In recent decades, Murphy's Petrels have proven somewhat regular during spring over deeper waters in the North Pacific. During a 8 May 2009 cruise, Murphy's were encountered off of all of  Oregon's seven coastal counties and by day's end no fewer than 38 had been tallied; this species has never been detected during a near-shore trip in Oregon waters.


Spring seems to be the best time to see storm-petrels along the Pacific coast. This Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel was photographed off s. Oregon on 8 May 2009. The day after this photo was taken we found a massive flock of about 8,000 Ashy Storm-Petrels off Point Reyes, California.

These trips range from two and a half to three and a half days and can currently be booked for between $150-300 depending on the size and location of your cabin. Interior cabins are modest, but comfortable, and can be had at the low end of this price scale.  These double occupancy prices include your room and food, plus any non-alcoholic and non-carbonated beverages. If happy hour is part of your day, expect to get a hefty incidentals bill at the end of the trip as alcoholic beverages are no bargain. One must also factor in the travel costs of getting to and from the embarkation and disembarkation ports. I've found that I can usually do an entire trip, including parking fees at the airport, for about $400-500--roughly the cost of three near-shore pelagic trips.

While the chances of getting seasick are by no means eliminated on these massive vessels, most of my travel mates have completely avoided such discomforts. On occasion, we've enjoyed days where the ocean was utterly placid (see below).


A mirror-like ocean surface produces a near-perfect reflection of this Buller's Shearwater off Monterey Bay, California on 30 September 2008. Such conditions enhance the chances of spotting smaller alcids like Cassin's Auklet or Xantus's Murrelet sitting on the water.

If you get tired of looking at birds, you can enjoy the show put on by a variety of marine mammals. Several species of whales, porpoises, dolphins, and seals commonly occur in North Pacific waters. While aboard the Diamond Princess during a September 2007 cruise, we passed within about 75 meters of a "logging" Sperm Whale. Several large pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, some numbering into the hundreds, approached the ship on that day. On 22 September 2009, a massive mixed pod (at least 500 animals) of Pilot Whales, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, and Dall's Porpoises appeared off Curry County, Oregon. Using the spray and pray method with a decent digital camera, it is possible to get some fantastic images of airborne dolphins.


Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. I was fortunate to time the jumps of these two Pacific White-sided Dolphins perfectly as they came completely out of the water off southern Oregon on 22 September 2009.


Repositioning cruises offer a wonderful alternative to the typical pelagic birding experience, particularly for those susceptible to seasickness or unable to endure the physical pounding one takes while trying to maintain their balance on the deck of a charter boat for 12 hours. After a long day of birding, it's nice to know a hot shower is only a short walk away. After getting cleaned up, our groups usually reconvene at one of the ship's full service dining rooms for a relaxing and delicious meal. It's fun to see familiar faces year after year and know that a mega-rarity can appear any time on the high seas. During the recent economic slow-down the prices of all cruises have been on the decline. To learn more about repositioning cruises and other cruises that pass through seabird rich waters, consult a travel agent or visit the websites of the major cruise lines.

All photos taken by Dave Irons