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This time of year birders flock to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and various other desert oases throughout the West in hopes of finding rare strays ("vagrants") from the east and south. I spent Memorial Day Weekend in Harney County, Oregon. While my efforts at Malheur headquarters, Fields, and other isolated stands of trees produced no unusual birds, others managed to find a few surprises. Despite this "O-fer" on rarities, it was a particularly memorable trip on the human front. As stated in my earlier Memorial Day piece, this pilgrimage is about seeing old friends, absorbing the landscape, and enjoying the incredible wealth of common birdlife that breeds in the Harney Basin. In that regard, this trip was exceptional.
My travel mates were my two teenage daughters and one of their friends who had never visited this corner of Oregon. While all three of them were interested in looking at "cool" birds, they had no interest in helping dad pick out the female Tennessee Warbler from all the Warbling Vireos that were about. Close-up views of male Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-necked Stilts, and Great Horned Owls were, to them, much more entertaining. They also wanted to visit the Pete French Round Barn, Diamond Craters, and of course slurp down milkshakes at the Fields Cafe. Strangely, I found myself with a bit less enthusiasm than I normally have for pounding the woodlots for vagrants. Instead I was embracing the idea of just touring around. Thus, I ended up spending most of my time taking pictures of common birds, herps, mammals, landscapes, and the girls. So I thought I would share the results of these efforts.
One of the birding highlights of the trip occurred Sunday morning. Leaving the teenagers back at the motel to get some well-earned rest (we left Eugene at 2AM on Saturday), I met up with Diane Pettey at 6AM and we headed off for a couple hours at headquarters before returning to Burns to pick up the girls around 10AM. A variety of detours, photo ops, and just not being in a hurry resulted in a 30-minute drive taking more than two hours. As we crossed the crest of Wrights Point (12 miles south of Burns) around 8AM we were talking about Harry Nehls in some context. About this time I spotted a birder stopped along the road about 300 yards ahead of us. Within a second or two we realized that it was Harry.
We pulled over and found out that he had been watching a couple Black-throated Sparrows, always a fun bird to see. These particular birds were near the northern extent of their regular range. We watched and photographed the pair for several minutes, during which time Harry happened to mention that, although he had found many nests of other desert sparrows, he had never found a Black-throated Sparrow nest. A few moments later he left Diane and me and headed off to headquarters. As we endeavored to get good pictures of the male, which occasionally teed up and sang, we realized that the two birds seemed to be returning to the same bush again and again. From the road we could discern the outline of what appeared to be a nest in a three-foot tall Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) about a dozen yards upslope. I scrambled up the cutbank, slithered under a fence, snapped a couple quick shots of the nest (which was empty) and then we left so that these birds could resume their activities peacefully. When we rejoined Harry (in the photo above), I showed him the images of the nest.
We live in an age where there is an increasing disconnect between humans and the land that sustains us. The high desert country of southeastern Oregon offers a stark contrast to the panopticon of dense population centers, where every viewscape is dominated by the fingerprint of man and everyday life is increasingly a spectator sport. This desert landscape offers an alternative reality where there is time to think and more importantly ponder those questions that don't occur to us in a sub-division. The fact that my children have come to know and appreciate this region and want to share its wonders with their friends and their dad gives me hope. On our last night in what I've affectionately come to know as "The Big Country," my daughter Lilly, Diane Pettey, and I walked up South Coyote Butte at the Malheur Field Station to watch the sunset. Ultimately, my daughter sat down on a small rock facing west and became lost in thoughts that only she knows. The glow of the setting sun reflecting off of her youthful face illuminated a contented smile that gave this parent cause to be optimistic.
Further research into possible Northern Cardinal X Pyrrhuloxia hybrids revealed that the Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World (McCarthy 2006, Oxford Univ. Press) makes mention of two birds of this cross present at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson in August 2004. David Herr, having seen the recent “Cardhuloxia” article in BirdFellow.com’s online journal, and having just visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, sent us the following pictures of various Cardinalis currently residing in the museum’s aviary. Note that none look "right" for either Northern Cardinal or Pyrrhuloxia.
The museum’s staff informed Herr that their bird enclosure contains ONLY hybrid N. Cardinal X Pyrrhuloxia. I was able to confirm this with the bird-keepers at the museum. The first hybrids were hatched around 2004, when only one adult N. Cardinal and one adult Pyrrhuloxia were in the enclosure. Since then no pure birds have been added and the original pair are now deceased. What remains are birds that are first-generation (F1) or later hybrids. These photos seem to show birds with bills that are rather similar in both color and shape to that of the Cardhuloxia; this bill similarity combined with the intermediate plumage of the Cardhuloxia would seem to strongly indicate that the bird photographed in Baja California Sur in March 2009 is, indeed, a Northern Cardinal X Pyrrhuloxia. Plans are in the making for further photography of the birds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, with publication at some future date of a peer-reviewed article. Given observations such as those mentioned by Rich Hoyer, it is quite possible that hybrids between these two species are not as exceedingly rare as previously thought.
For most Americans, Memorial Day Weekend has special significance. First and foremost it is a time when we pause to remember friends and family who are no longer of this world. For many it is the unofficial start to the summer camping season. In Indiana, it’s all about the Indy 500. For school kids it marks the home stretch of the academic year…only two weeks to go!
For birders, the focal point of this three-day weekend is often a traditional rendezvous at a favored hotspot. In California, they head for the desert oases in Death Valley. Many Washington birders go to a group campout at Wenas Creek or opt to scour the small isolated towns and parks on the Palouse for vagrant warblers. In the Midwest, lakefront migrant traps at Pt. Pelee, Ontario, Crane Creek, Ohio, and along the southern tip of Lake Michigan are sure to attract many birders during this long weekend.
In Oregon, we go to Malheur. Specifically, “Malheur” refers to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which lies south of Burns, Oregon at the northern end of the Great Basin. Fed by water from the Blitzen and Silvies rivers, the basin between Steens Mt. to the south and the Strawberry Mtns. to the north fills with spring run-off, resulting in one of the largest freshwater marsh complexes in the world. The refuge, which encompasses 187,000 acres of managed wildlife habitat, is home to hundreds of thousands of breeding ducks, herons, ibis, gulls, terns, and various other marsh birds. By approaching the refuge from the north along Hwy 205 or by making a drive down the Central Patrol Rd., which bisects the southern section of the refuge, you are sure to enjoy amazing close-up views of dozens of species of wetland birds.
After taking in the waterbird spectacle, birders interested in finding less-expected birds turn their attentions to the refuge’s headquarters. A semi-circle of large trees shades several stone buildings and the sloping lawn in front of the refuge office. There is also a display pond that can be viewed from one of several benches on the deck in front of the building. In addition to larger trees, there are sections of fairly dense understory, which provide cover for birds that are inclined to stay closer to the ground. Situated at the base of small hill, this collection of lush vegetation must be a welcome sight to passerines that have spent the previous several hours migrating over thousands of square miles of mostly treeless high desert.
Vagrants, not the human variety, but birds that have wandered far off their expected migratory routes, occasionally turn up among the swarms of more expected migrants passing through. The headquarters trees have hosted many state firsts as well as several species of eastern warblers that occur somewhat regularly in Oregon. Tennessee, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, and Black-and-White warblers are all annual or nearly so in either spring or fall migration. Less expected visitors have included among others Yellow-throated, Cape May, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Worm-eating, and Hooded warblers. Once in a great while something utterly unexpected shows up, as was the case on 28 September 1993 when a Streak-backed Oriole appeared at Malheur headquarters.
Less specifically, “going to Malheur” involves sampling a much broader landscape along with certain cultural experiences. Informally, this includes the desiccated Alvord Basin on the east side of the Steens Mt. and the Catlow Valley south of the tiny community of Frenchglen, which lies at the south end of the refuge. Anyone serious about finding vagrants, one of the primary attractions at this time of year, will invariably find their way farther south to the hamlet of Fields, which is another 50 or so miles beyond Frenchglen. Upon arriving in Fields, you may be in need of sustenance. The burgers and a milkshakes served up at the combination store, gas station, post office, and tiny café are well worth the wait on this busiest of weekends. Less than 20 people make Fields their full-time home, but during Memorial Day weekend you are likely to find at least twice that many birders wandering around.
North and south of Fields, several small creeks flow down out off the Steens and the Pueblo Mtns. These narrow ribbons of riparia have yielded some good finds, but the crown jewel among the more southerly oases is the woodlot at Fields. The dense stand of willows across the road from “town” has hosted rarities too numerous to count. Strays like Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart are, to some degree, expected. Like Malheur headquarters, several species have made their first and only Oregon appearances at Fields. Such discoveries include, Bell’s and Philadelphia vireos, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and LeConte’s Sparrow. I found my first vagrant, a Magnolia Warbler, in the woodlot on 14 June 1980.
Beyond the birding, there is a spiritual component to visiting this corner of the universe. While Harney County ranks as Oregon’s largest county (and one of the nation’s largest) in terms of land area, it is also listed as the 38th least-populated county in the United States (persons per square mile). It is an easy place to get away from it all. Harney County is overwhelmingly unforested, so there is little to block the expansive views. This is a place where one gains a full appreciation for the concept of “big sky.” To the untrained eye, the high desert is a monotonous panorama of sagebrush and, well, sagebrush. However, a closer look reveals a diverse shrub-steppe plant community enlivened by a rich assortment of desert birds (including five species of sparrows), mammals, lizards, and insects. The high desert is painted in an inviting array of bright and subtle hues. The smell alone can be intoxicating, particularly after the occasional thunderstorm. I spent eight years away from Oregon (1991-1998) and among the things I missed most were the sights, sounds, smells, and quiet of this landscape.
Ultimately, birding is also a social activity to be shared with folks who have a similar passion for exploration, discovery, travel, and meeting friends in expected and sometimes unexpected places. A Memorial Day trip to Malheur is sure to be marked by reunions with a cast of people who you rarely see anywhere else. One such person for me is Dr. Steve Herman. I’ve known Steve since being introduced to him by David Fix in 1977. Now retired from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, he taught summer college-credit ornithology classes at the Malheur Field Station for many years. In all the years that I’ve known him, we’ve never encountered one another outside of Harney County, even though neither of us resides there.
In 2007, I coordinated an effort to honor Harry Nehls with a Lifetime Service Award presented by the Oregon Field Ornithologists. I solicited stories, anecdotes, and recollections about Harry from several other birders. In his tribute, Steve Herman offered the following about Harry:
It was 1988, I believe, that I found myself standing six feet away from a Flammulated Owl in an evergreen shrub on Malheur HQ. I had been there for a few minutes when I said, “I wonder where Harry is?" From right behind me came his familiar chuckle; when I turned around there he was, the smile, the chuckle again, and few words. I go there now as much to see Harry as I do to see birds.
Steve’s comments capture part of the essence and importance many of us place on making this annual trek. The birding is fantastic, the scenery is magnificent, and the company of birding friends makes it an experience that I look forward to each and every year. I hope to see both of these fine gentlemen again next weekend.
We encourage you to share your own Memorial Day Weekend birding traditions in our “comments” section.
All photos except the one of Harry Nehls and Dr. Steve Herman were taken by David Irons.
Birds are capable of being quite plastic in appearance. Their shape and posture vary greatly in response to an assortment of external influences. In addition to the presence of predator, or a human intruder, various weather factors (rain, wind, and cold) cause birds to assume postures or fly in a manner that seem atypical. One under-appreciated variable that often affects how birds appear to us is feather position. When alarmed or threatened, most birds raise their head feathers--particularly those on the crown--effectively changing their head shape. This is particularly true with passerines. If you think about it, we often encounter small birds at comparatively close range, surprising them in the process. In addition to changing the general shape of a bird's head, the raising and flattening of head feathers can also affect how large or small its bill looks and modify the color and intensity of its head pattern. Erect head feathers tend to make a bird's bill look shorter and slimmer, while flattened or relaxed head feathers produce the opposite effect. The images below capture some of the variability described above.
Birds also fluff up their body feathers, most often in an effort to create greater insulation from cold when temperatures drop. In some cases this results in an almost comical appearance. Check out the "Sta-Puff" Golden-crowned Sparrow below.
While shape and apparent structural differences typically provide us with good clues to the identity of the birds we see, on occasion they assume postures or hold their feathers in positions that dramatically alter their appearance, rendering them unfamiliar to us. Basing an identification mostly on the apparent shape of a bird can be dicey and may lead to some rather embarrassing misidentifications. When you are looking at a bird that seems strange, take note of its behavior and how it might be responding to weather, the presence of a predator, or maybe even you. By doing this you can often sidestep such pitfalls.
All photographs taken by David Irons
Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) are two closely related species that inhabit many of the same locations in the U.S. desert southwest, from Arizona to Texas, as well as in much of northern Mexico, including Baja California Sur. Despite their geographic and taxonomic proximity, few hybrids between these two species have been reported. The only confirmed hybrid in the wild was collected at Komatke, Arizona in the 1800s, but the Tucson Desert Museum had two in captivity during 2004 (Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World; McCarthy 2006)
While birding near San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur this past March, I encountered an odd Cardinalis, that I later nicknamed “Cardhuloxia.” Three photos of the Cardhuloxia can be found below. Upon first blush, the rather gray plumage contrasting sharply with the brilliant red folded primaries gives a strong impression of Pyrrhuloxia. However, the red bill cries “Cardinal.”
Close examination of the photos seems to reveal a bird that is intermediate between a Northern Cardinal and a Pyrrhuloxia. The Cardhuloxia has the wispy crest typical of Pyrrhuloxia, but not terribly rare in N. Cardinals from the desert Southwest. However, the blackish on the crest seems to be a feature shown only by Pyrrhuloxias. A review of photos on various Flickr websites reveals a number of grayer-than-normal N. Cardinals from across the species’ range, but all of those that I looked at showed red on the wing coverts, which the Cardhuloxia essentially lacks. The white (or near white) between the Cardhuloxia’s legs is a feature not consistent with Pyrrhuloxia, but I am not sure how commonly N. Cardinals have white between the legs combined with a fairly buffy vent. I didn’t carefully assess this potential mark during my photo survey.
The Cardhuloxia’s red bill quickly brings Northern Cardinal to mind, though to those living in eastern North America, its bill might seem distinctly too large for a N. Cardinal. However, the desert populations of that species, including the N. Cardinals of Baja California Sur, often have larger bills than those from eastern North America. Therefore, I created a fourth “photo” that offers a close-up comparison of a male N. Cardinal from Baja California Sur and the Cardhuloxia, both holding their bills at roughly the same angle (to the camera). This comparison seems to demonstrate that the culmen of the Cardhuloxia is more curved than that of the N. Cardinal, imparting a stubbier appearance. Additionally, there seems to be an odd angle change that creates a slight notch (see Image 3) along the bottom of the Cardhuloxia’s mandible (that is, the lower mandible).
While the discussion above seems to make a good argument for the Cardhuloxia being a Northern Cardinal x Pyrrhuloxia hybrid, this cross seems to be extremely rare, thus great caution is warranted. For this reason, these photos are placed here for your review and thoughtful comments. It is worth asking the question, “If this bird is not a female Northern Cardinal x Pyrrhuloxia, how would such a bird differ from the photographed bird?”
The images above have been previously circulated among a small group of experts selected by the author. While some believed that this bird exhibited expected intermediate characteristics between these two species, others were less comfortable in labeling it as an apparent hybrid. None of the respondents believed that the bird was simply an aberrant Northern Cardinal. Hence, the author requested that we post this discussion and the associated images to the BirdFellow journal and open up the debate to a broader audience. Birders of all experience levels can learn from this sort exercise. Not only is there an opportunity to hear the opinions of veteran observers and experts from all over North America, but this is also a chance to test and hone your own observational skills. Hybridization is fairly common in the bird world, but many hybrids pass before us unnoticed because we don't stop to take closer look after forming our initial impression about a bird.
We have numbered the images above so that they can be easily referenced by those who wish to offer comments. We encourage lively debate and discussion of this interesting bird, but please keep in mind that the BirdFellow audience is highly diverse in terms of experience level. There must be room at the table for anyone who commits to offering a public opinion. Please refrain from engaging in contests of ego and/or making dismissive or disrespectful comments about others who post comments.
All photographs used in this article were taken, cropped, and edited by Steven Mlodinow.