Tomorrow We Sail, Today We Visit a Sheep Ranch

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

Ann’s view:  "And now for something completely different."


Black-faced Ibis were impressive and noisy as they fed in a field on the Estancia. (Photo by Ann Nightingale).

They say, “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do” so when in Tierra del Fuego, that means that a visit to a sheep ranch is essential. Today was a bus tour to "Estancia Las Hijas," the family ranch of our guide, Esteban Daniels. If we’d driven directly, it might have taken about 90 minutes, but you can’t keep a busload of tourists, especially if there are birders aboard, to that kind of schedule.

Stops were made en route to look at wildlife, the incredible scenery, and of course, a few birds. The Andean Condor mentioned as a wish bird yesterday has apparently been following the blog and showed up on cue.

Black-faced Ibis in flight and on the ground were spectacular, RED meadowlarks (Long-tailed Meadowlarks) put on a good show, and we picked up a few more elusive species as well. I must admit that I have a bit of a crush on the Austral Thrush. Could it be a tinge of homesickness for the American Robins back home?


The Austral Thrush (Turdus falcklandii) is in the same genus and very similar in appearance to the American Robin. (Photo by Ann Nightingale).


Several species of caterpillars can sting or otherwise inflict pain on unsuspecting Samaritans. We opted not to test the power of this one. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

At the Estancia, we were treated to a real-life demonstration of sheep shearing, a job that I don’t care to have in my next life. It certainly gives a whole new perspective on wool! Several of us have an interest in butterflies and couldn't help but notice an interesting caterpillar on the ground and in the bushes. When one of the group was about to pick one up and move it to safety, she was warned that these caterpillars can actually sting like a wasp!  Who knew?? Apparently the region is having an infestation of them this year. The owners of the Estancia put on a delicious luncheon in a quaint farmstead home, then it was back on the bus for what was promised to be a quick trip back to Ushuaia. 


Even the application of guide acrobatics were not enough to break the lug nuts loose so that the tire could be repaired. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Note to tour leaders: Never promise a quick trip anywhere! About a third of the way back, there was an oh too familiar sound coming from under the bus. Yes, we had blown a tire! I’m something of a tire-changing expert as I have quite bad luck in that regard, so I was amused to see the driver and guide jumping on the wrench to attempt to loosen the lugnuts. I thought I was the only one who did that! While the tire was being repaired, a group of passengers made their way to a nearby pond for some impromptu birding. An Ashy-headed Goose was just one highlight of the unscheduled stop. Unfortunately, the lugnut removal did not go well, and we were forced to limp back to Ushuaia with the punctured tire still in place. All’s well that ends well, though, and it was another great day. Tomorrow, the sea adventure begins.

Jim’s view: “Of Guanacos and sheep"


Herds of guanaco, which resemble llamas, generally ran off as soon as we arrived, but this one came a little closer to check us out. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

After a more relaxed continental breakfast, we left a bit earlier today to meet the other twenty-six passenger on our all-day trip to "Estancia Las Hijas." Esteban, local guide and birder extraordinaire met us in the hotel and we were soon loading onto our bus for our two-hour plus trip to his family ranch. Our route took us up and over the southernmost Andes, which were partially shrouded in low clouds. However, the grandeur of the area did not elude us. A stop on the coastal savannah gave us our first view of guanacos, a cousin to the llama. While we watched, a distant Andean Condor flew circles revealing its distinct white wing patches and just enough color on the head to yearn for more. A group of Black-faced Ibis was a beautiful sight as they banked and landed in a roadside field. A Correndera Pipit skylarked for all, but a detailed view would have to wait for another day.


A spectacular garden of flowers surrounded the ranch house. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

On the grounds of the Estancia, we were greeted by Estaban’s mother, who showed us her beautiful rustic house with a stunning collection of colorful lupines, delphiniums and poppies in the front with rackfuls of meat barbecuing in the back. What a photogenic location with rusted farm implements and aged structures throughout. Austral Blackbirds, Patagonian Sierra-finches, and a Fire-eyed Duicon formed the backdrop.

What followed was something I didn’t think I’d enjoy, but ended up glad for having seen it. The three sheepdogs ran down their target ten sheep and herded them back to the pens where they were funneled through ever-narrowing slots until they were selected for shearing. A skilled ranch hand sheared away and a once fully wool laden sheep became a bare animal none the worse for the experience. Lunch of fresh lamb and salad and a to-die-for dessert followed with pleasant conversations of the day’s activities, previous trips to the great white south, and anticipation of the upcoming tour.As Ann mentioned, a thump, thump, thump on the highway usually is not a good sign. This one was a blown tire, but it broke up the trip home and gave us our only view of an Ashy-headed Goose. We were meant to have that flat tire. With schedules in hand for tomorrow’s adventure, it looks like the next in a long line of short nights.

A Daylong Hike: Mentally refreshing, but no so physically

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

The Thorn-tailed Rayaditos were quite responsive to 'spishing,' reminding us of North American chickadees. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim's view: It was great to awaken this morning relatively refreshed and ready to visit Tierra del Fuego National Park, a crown jewel in this remote part of the world. After a quick breakfast, Rod and Marlene Plank, Ann and I found a taxi, which took us to the head of an 8-kilometer trail. It was a glorious hike through a southern beech forest, with numerous yellow and dog orchids interspersed among the common indigenous flora.

We started the hike with a single flyover Magellanic Woodpecker, which offered but a fleeting glimpse. The beech forest was filled with family groups of birds. These included, Black-chinned Siskins, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Patagonian Sierra Finches, White-crested Elaenias, Austral Thrushes and, my personal favorite, numerous and noisy Thorn-tailed Rayaditos. The weather was on our side—partly sunny to cloudy to downright gorgeous, layer reducing warmth. Quite often, the trail paralleled beautiful Lapataia Bay with South American Terns and Kelp Gulls overhead and Dark-bellied Cinclodes and our first Flightless Steamer-Ducks on shore. Wow, those steamer-ducks are big!

It didn't take long for me to realize that my daily 5.5 mile training hike on the even terrain around my home in Battle Ground, Washington wasn't enough. My legs tired sooner than expected with all the ups and downs of this uneven landscape. Hopefully, my muscles will get used to a stricter routine before the much more strenuous Falklands and South Georgia hikes. We ended our walk at the National Park visitors' center and restaurant where an empanada de pollo never tasted better. On the nearby Lapataia River, a flock of five stunning Black-necked Swans was a surprise—we usually don't see them on this trip. A lone Southern (Chiloe) Wigeon slept near a pair of Flying Steamer-Ducks and a single Speckled Teal fed nearby. This is a beautiful place, but we had things to do in Ushuaia, so we caught the bus back to town. After a brief shopping excursion and hike around the waterfront lake (where we saw Red Shovelers), we found a pizzeria. We enjoyed a ham, pineapple, and mushroom pizza and I sipped on a bottle of Beagle beer, which is produced in Ushuaia. Of course, ice cream provided the final exclamation point to the day.  


Timid woodland creatures? NOT! This Southern Caracara was as curious about us and a nearby rabbit as we were about it. (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Ann's view: One of the best things about the first day in a brand new location is that the number of "life" birds can easily outnumber those seen previously—thirty to four today! That probably won't happen again on the trip. While some species, like the Magellanic Woodpecker, provided only fleeting glimpses, many let me have decent looks and a few were downright sociable. The family groups of Austral Thrush (pretty much a robin) and Thorn-tailed Rayadito were especially fun to watch, particularly when the groups would mob us. My first pair of Upland Geese not only stayed put, they even struck great poses for me. Southern Caracaras acted as if we were just a minor curiosity and allowed us to approach quite closely. I managed to get passable photos of several lifers.

It occurred to me as we hiked the trail that despite my reliance on "by ear" birding at home, I hadn't spent any time learning the calls of the birds of southern Argentina. I'd perused a field guide (Birds of Chile by Alvaro Jamarillo) a few times, but just as at home, knowledge of the songs and call notes gave us a decided advantage in the southern forests. Thank goodness I was the only rookie on this walk! I was surprised to hear House Wrens singing in the park today. Other "home" birds, by the way, were Turkey Vulture and the ubiquitous House Sparrow and Rock Dove. Tomorrow, we head to a sheep ranch, but our attentions will be on more than just the sheep-related events. Andean Condors are high on the wish list!


Although Upland Geese were common, we were taken by the white plumage of this male, which is quite striking in contrast to the more cryptic brown coloration of the female. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

As for the wild goose, I am the first to admit that I am not a seasoned traveler. One thing that I do very well, though, is procrastinate, so it's no surprise that I was working on a number of projects while flying to Ushuaia. Shortly after my arrival in Dallas, I realized that the USB drive I had been using was not in my bag. It was...OMG! still on the plane, in the seat pocket! In a problem-solving dervish, I found out that the plane that had brought me from Seattle to Dallas was on its way to San Francisco. This could have been terrible news, except that I have a wonderful sister and brother-in-law in San Francisco who were quickly conscripted to meet the plane and plead with American Airlines staff to retrieve my wayward drive. They came to my rescue and the staff were very helpful. Just one small problem. The drive wasn't there. Grateful for everyone's help, but deflated at the loss of several hours of work, I emptied out all of my carry-on luggage, pocket by pocket. As the last pocket emptied, you'll never guess what I found.

A City Never Looked So Sweet

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale


After 20 hours of air travel, a comforting view of our final destination. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

Jim's view: After a marathon 10.5 hour flight to Buenos Aires, a somewhat harrowing taxi ride between the international and domestic airports with bags and people times four, a four-hour wait in the airport and another four-hour flight, we've finally arrived in Ushuaia. The view of the city from the air never looked so sweet—no more planes for four weeks! To see the wind's signature on the water of the Beagle Channel was amazing; frothy whitecaps and streaks of white on the cold blue water. Our group of nine who were on this flight shared the plane with a large group of young participants in the "Students On Ice" program. I wonder about their reaction to the windy conditions—especially for those who had never been on a ship. Wow, was it windy when we emerged from the airport. Our baggage cart started to drift away even with luggage still on it! We explore Ushuaia and environs tomorrow.

The wind's signature on the Beagle Channel turned Ann's thoughts to seasickness. (Photo by Jim Danzenbaker)

Ann's View: The long flights since 6am yesterday allowed me to do something that I haven't done much of lately—sleep! As the sun came up this morning, the stark lines of the Andes Mountains were just outside my window. Phenomenal! The clouds south of the equator look pretty much the same as those north of the line, but the terrain was something quite different. Eventually the mountains gave way to agricultural lands and then to the sprawling city of Buenos Aires. Having crossed two international borders (Canada/US and entry into Argentina), I'm getting used to spending a lot of time in lines and waiting for luggage—all of which thankfully made it to Ushuaia with us! As Jim mentioned, the taxi ride was an experience unto itself, but I did manage to get a few life-birds along the way.


Throw the traffic rules out the window. Drivers appeared to want to straddle the lane markers instead of keeping between them.

Tick Monk Parakeet, Eared Dove and Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Billboards advertising McDonald's burgers for $14 were a bit of a shock until you realize that there are about 4.25 Argentinian $ for each US dollar. The shorter flight from B.A. to Ushuaia was uneventful until we approached the city and could see the waters of the Beagle Channel. While Jim was analyzing the water's signature, I was thinking "Oh, man, I could be seasick before we even get out to the ocean!" Kelp and Dolphin Gulls seemed to be enjoying their speedy wind-driven flights.Tick, tick. I'm glad there are a few days for the weather to settle down before we actually depart. After dinner, a short walk along the shoreline revealed that the Ortelius has also made it to Ushuaia. Although it was 11pm, it was still quite light out. We're not in the land of the midnight sun, but we're not too far away! The city is a peaceful and pleasant place to walk around, even quite late at night. Tomorrow, more adventures!

Antarctica: Through the Eyes of a Veteran and a "Rookie"


Beckoned by the Great White South, they're answering its call. Ann Nightingale and Jim Danzenbaker are journeying to the land of penguins, icebergs, whales, and seals for an epic 26-day adventure. Traveling aboard the Ortelius, they'll visit the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Some of you may remember that BirdFellow featured Jim's blogs during  an identical trip two years ago.  This time we'll offer a unique twist, as Ann and Jim will provide blog entries from two travelers with differing perspectives. As they share this experience, they'll combine the view of a staff naturalist with the perspective of a rookie southern seas explorer. Jim has been a ten-time leader on this tour while this will be the longest that Ann has ever been away from home--and the farthest! Stay tuned for hopefully daily accounts of their life at sea among the vast and varied fauna of the Great White South!

A complete itinerary for the trip is available online at:

In a new feature this time around, you can track the path of the Ortelius online at:

By the Grace of Serendipitous Collaboration

On 19 December 2008 we introduced the BirdFellow online journal to the world with a short article entitled: "A Tradition of Mentoring: From Ludlow Griscom to Roger Tory Peterson to Kenn Kaufman and Beyond." That piece concluded with the paragraph below:

"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."

Over the past three years we've endeavored to deliver on the promise above. While we recognize that there is much work to be done and many enhancements that we can add to our existing features, we also believe that we demonstrated that our vision can be realized. Day by day, week by week, we are attracting new users and creating greater engagement between birders of all levels.


The screen grab above shows 8 of the 23 images added to the Community Photos galleries on 23 December 2011. BirdFellow has now amassed about 20,000 images of North American birds and that number is growing every day.

Our users are sharing hundreds of images each month and thousands of geo-referenced bird sightings are being recorded through the use of our My Field Reports" and "Smart Lists" features. The Community Photos" area features thousands of fantastic images, many of which have been mined for inclusion in the curated "Identification Photos" galleries that accompany each species account.


This Snowy Owl photo, shared recently by Don Nelson, is an example of the spectacular images that BirdFellow community members are contributing.

Most importantly, we have provided an infrastructure that fosters social interactions between members of our community. BirdFellow users are sharing ID tips, asking each other questions, posing discussion topics via our group forums, congratulating one another on rare bird discoveries, and "WOWing" the great photos of others. BirdFellow tee shirts and hats are starting to appear across the landscape and during each of my most recent trips out of my home state I've had BirdFellow community members come up and introduce themselves to me. 

We've come a long way over the past three years, officially "launching" most of the site's features in May of this year. Our progress and continued existence have been due in no small part to what we like to call serendipitous collaborations. At seemingly every turn, the BirdFellow story has been marked by timely and typically unexpected contributions from some person or persons who embrace our vision and lend their shoulder in helping push BirdFellow forward.

Early on, there were a number of serendipitous meetings that allowed this project to get off the ground. One of those was my chance meeting with our founder Bjorn Hinrichs a little over three years ago. I wasn't looking to become involved in the development of a website for birders and he had no idea that I would be the one who would understand his vision for BirdFellow and jump on board to make it a reality. I hadn't entertained the possibility of being involved in such a project until our meeting. Over the course of thousands of hours of working side by side, Bjorn and I developed a shared vision for the site. This vision is no longer ours exclusively, as it is now being reshaped by the needs of and feedback from our growing user base. Each interaction with a user opens our eyes to new ideas and ways we can better serve the birding community.

Our first of its kind online "Social Field Guide" is truly a collaborative effort. It contains images from dozens of photographers, species accounts that were written and edited by eight different authors, range maps created by Paul Lehman, proper pronunciations of common and scientific bird names recorded by David Fix, and audio files of bird vocalizations from Martyn Stewart. We went out looking for these contributors, but we've also added value to our Social Field Guide from unexpected sources.


Swainson's Thrushes are retiring and secretive birds that spend most of their time buried in the understory of densely forested areas. It is hard enough to find an adult out in the open in sufficient light to capture a good photo, thus it is understandably difficult to photograph this species in juvenile plumage, which is held only a matter of weeks before they molt and take on a more adult-like appearance. This bird was photographed in Lincoln City, Oregon on 15 August 2011. (Photo by Dawn Villaescusa)

Perhaps our favorite serendipitous collaboration involves a photo supplied by Dawn Villaescusa, who lives in Lincoln City, Oregon. Since creating her BirdFellow account in November 2010, Dawn has shared many of her  photos in personal galleries. Since Dawn and I "connected" as friends, I see a notification in my "Recent Activity" log every time she adds new images or posts a  field report. In August 2011, Dawn posted a photo of a thrush that she could not positively identify and labeled it as a "mystery bird." My curiosity was piqued.

I pulled up the image and quickly recognized that the bird in her photo was a juvenile Swainson's Thrush. This was an exciting discovery. Even though Swainson's Thrushes are abundant breeders where I live in western Oregon, I had never seen one in this briefly-held plumage. Secondly, I could not recall ever seeing a photo of a juvenile Swainson's Thrush. I immediately contacted Dawn and asked if it would be okay for us to add her photo to our Swainson's Thrush "Identification Photos." Being a comparatively new birder, Dawn probably didn't anticipate making a meaningful contribution to our online guide, but that she did and we were thrilled to get it.

We've had many instances where one of our users was going through our galleries and recognized that they had either better images than the ones they were looking at or  photos depicting that species in a plumage not shown in our online guide. Better yet, they had photos of birds for which we had none. Many of the images you see when you visit our galleries appear there because someone wanted to make a contribution to a resource that they use and find valuable. As the BirdFellow community continues to grow, we expect that there will be many more such stories to tell.  

As we commence our fourth year of existence, BirdFellow is thriving and birders around North America and the world are beginning to grasp the potential of what we've been able to create. There is a growing realization that BirdFellow provides a unique resource that not only allows, but encourages all birders to make meaningful contributions. If you haven't already, we invite you to create your BirdFellow account today and start sharing your birding experiences, photos, and knowledge with this vibrant community and by all means invite your friends to join you.  To those who have already joined in the fun, a hearty thanks to each of you for all that you bring to this community. 

Seasons greetings and happy holidays to all. May these days be filled with good cheer, good company, and great birding.

A Closer Look: The PDX "Snow" Bunting


Fig. 1.  At first glance, this bird, photographed at Portland, Oregon, on 18 December 2011, appears to be a Snow Bunting. However, the mostly white, unstreaked lower back and rump caught our attention and further investigation of the tail and wing pattern in other photos revealed some plumage aspects that point away from this bird being a "pure" Snow Bunting. (Photo by Dave Irons)

It's not often that I look at close-up, in-focus images of a North American bird and can't identify it. And yet, there are some species (think gulls) and species pairs whose basic and immature plumages continue to challenge even the most experienced birders. Plectrophenax (Snow and McKay's) buntings fall into this category.

One such bird is currently challenging local birders here in Portland, Oregon. On 25 November 2011, Tom McNamara found a "Snow Bunting" on Broughton Beach along the south shore of the Columbia River just north of Portland International Airport (PDX). Over the ensuing several weeks it was seen somewhat sporadically along this stretch of beach.

A few days ago, the bird was observed at an alternate location adjacent to the PDX Fire Station, which is situated along the north boundary of the airport property. The bunting has proven to be far more reliable at the latter site, allowing many folks to drive right up to it, resulting in some stunning photos. The average birder in Western Oregon (west of the Cascades) does not see Snow Bunting annually although they do occur in small numbers along the northern coast (Marshall et al, 2006). We are also in range of the occasional stray McKay's Bunting, including a bird found the exact same day in coastal southern Oregon, that Jon Dunn and Dan Gibson said looked like a good McKay's (pers comm.). Dave Irons wrote a BirdFellow piece earlier about this bird that can be found here. The previous Oregon records of McKay's Bunting are 2 birds in a flock of Snow Buntings at the south jetty of the Columbia River from 23 February to 9 March 1980 (Marshall et al, 2006) and one male on 3 January 2004 at Depoe Bay (OBRC, 2010).

After failing to locate the bird during a couple of prior searches at Broughton Beach, Dave Irons and I finally saw the bunting at the PDX Fire Station on 18 December. Dave got some nice pictures of it. Upon downloading and reviewing these images, we were struggling to age and sex the bird. Some aspects of the bird were puzzling to both of us, most notably the unstreaked white rump and lower back (only minimal rusty wash) and the pattern of white in the folded wing, which seemed to show too much white for a female Snow Bunting and not enough for a male. These ambiguities caused us to consider that this bird might be a female McKay's Bunting, or, perhaps, a Snow Bunting X McKay's Bunting. Despite an extensive review of our published literature and online resources, we remained perplexed. Snow and McKay's Buntings are closely related and are presumed to occasionally hybridize where their ranges overlap (Birds of North America Online). In their basic (winter) plumages, adult female McKay's Buntings are quite similar to male Snow Buntings.


Fig. 2. The central scapulars -- the dark-centered feathers along the shoulder look fairly large and broad like a male. (Photo by Don Nelson, 18 December 2011)

According to the McKay's and Snow Bunting accounts in the "Identification Guide to North American Birds: Part I Columbidae to Ploceidae" (Pyle 1997), some features of this bunting more closely match Snow Bunting, particularly the wing pattern. And what sex it is? According to Rogers (2005) the shape of dark centers to the central scapulars will help determine whether it is male or female. Females of both species show relatively small black centers and always taper to a point. The shape and size of the black in male Snow Bunting is larger, broader and may not end in a point. The size and shape of the Portland bunting's central scapulars look broad and pointed, appearing to be more like a male to my eye.

One might also conclude that it is a male since the wings look rather black in most of the photos and there is a crisper lateral transition to white near the base of the primaries, whereas females should be grayer and the gray extends up farther onto the inner web. But are the feathers really black or is it an exposure issue? And in the outstretched wing shot below (Fig. 3) there is a tongue of black extending up the inner web. The longest primary covert and greater alula on a McKay's is typically mostly white with the exception of a hatch year or second year female. We were left with more questions after reviewing "Identifying McKay's Bunting" (Rogers 2005). It includes a photo of a bird photographed at Richmond, British Columbia on 20 December 2004, which is identified as a female McKay's (Fig. 6 pg 624). In terms of overall pattern, back color, and the pattern and color of the folded wings, it looks much like the Portland bird with some exceptions. Note that both the Portland bird and the British Columbia bird (Rogers 2005) were photographed during the third week of December.


Fig. 3. Note that the transition from black to white at the base of the primaries is somewhat of an irregular pattern. Also the black extends farther up onto the outer primary (p9) similar to Snow Bunting. The extent of black on the longest primary covert and greater alula is another feature to help determine age and sex. (Photo by Don Nelson on 18 December 2011).

Other features mentioned as good for McKay's include an unstreaked white rump, yet I was able to find photos of winter Snow Buntings on the web that had white rump, including this one found in California in 2004.  Generally, the rumps of a Snow Bunting are darker than those of McKay's.

The pattern of R3 (or Rectrix #3) is apparently very important in distinguishing these two species (Fig. 4). According to Pyle (1997), R3 on McKay's is mostly white with a bit of black in the tip that is shaped like a boomerang, while in Snow Bunting R3 is largely black. It can clearly be seen below that the pattern of R3 is as described for McKay's Bunting. Yet R1 and R2 on basic male McKay's shouldn't be as black as this bird's tail according to Rogers' article.


Fig. 4. Note that R3 is largely white with a small amount of black at the tip and extending up the shaft. (Photo by Don Nelson taken on 18 December 2011)


Fig. 5. A slightly different view of R3. (Photo by Don Nelson on 18 December 2011).

While the pattern of R3 looks right for McKay's Bunting the amount of black in the wing and the extent of black in the scapulars looks more like a Snow Bunting.  So, what is this bird's parentage? Comments are more than welcome as the intention of writing this piece is to stimulate discussion.

I must thank Don Nelson, Lyn Topinka, Tait Anderson, Tom McNamara and Dave Irons for generously sharing their photos. This discussion would not have been possible without access to these images. 


Patterson, M. and R. W. Scheuering. 2006. Snow Bunting. Pg. 569-570 in Birds of Oregon: A General Reference. D. B. Marshall, M. G. Hunter, and A. L. Contreras, Eds. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon.

Montgomerie, Robert and Bruce Lyon. 2011. McKay's Bunting (Plectrophenax hyperboreus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Montgomerie, Robert and Bruce Lyon. 2011. Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Oregon Bird Records Commitee. 2010. OBRC Records Through 2010. PDF accessed online from

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1: Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California.

Rogers, J. 2005. Identifying McKay's Bunting. Birding 37(6): 618-626.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Six Great Christmas Bird Count Strategies Revisited

It is hard to believe that another Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is upon us. With this in mind, it seems appropriate to revisit a great article provided by David Fix. In it he offers up six time-tested strategies that are sure to enhance your CBC experience. David and I have done dozens of counts together and spent hundreds of winter days birding together in western Oregon. With one of us doing owls calls and the other 'pishing' (see below) we've attracted the attention of tens of thousands of Dark-eyed Juncos, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Zonotrichia (crowned sparrows) over 35 years of birding together. When the action is truly hot, the collective chip notes of these birds sound like a high school typing class (pardon the dated reference). Although Fix writes from a western perspective, the strategies outlined in this article should bear fruit in any North American CBC circle. Dave Irons, BirdFellow Content Editor

The article below was first published in this journal on 15 December 2009.

Pish Your Lips Off


When you're trying to pish up a flock of passerines, you'll find no better ally than the Black-capped Chickadee. Chickadees are often the first birds to appear when you start pishing or imitating small owls. Once they start scolding, other species come pouring in to find out what the fuss is about. Photo by Dave Irons

Whenever you encounter a flock of songbirds such as sparrows or tree-birds (chickadees, kinglets, etc.), ‘work the flock’ thoroughly by making loud shushing noises and/or Northern Pygmy-Owl toots (a low-pitched whistle once every two seconds). Pishing may be a term unfamiliar to some of you. It is quite simple, all you are trying to do is imitate the scolding sounds made by chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and other small birds. It works best to have two people in a group making these scolding and owl sounds simultaneously. Patience and persistence with this strategy often attracts huge flocks of passerines at sites where you have initially seen and heard only a few birds. If you can get the chickadees and nuthatches started, you're in business. Their scolding calls will draw in other species. In the western U.S., this is how wintering Orange-crowned, Nashville, Black-and-White, and other warblers, as well as unusual sparrows, often come to light. They may be among the later birds detected in a large roving flock--just when you’re about to move on. Remember e nolo pluribus: “Out Of None, Many.” I doubt that the Latin is correct, but it’s often proven true for me.

Scan into the Distance

Before leaving any spot you think you’ve just birded well, forget the close birds for a good long moment. Always take time to scan fence lines, posts, poles, dead-topped trees, and outlying pastures for raptors and other birds which prefer exposed lookout perches. If you are birding in a group, especially one that includes a sharp-eyed youth, assign one person to scan or scope distant perches while the others work the hedgerows and trees in close. Careful scrutiny of the surrounding landscape is how many Merlins, other raptors, and one or two ‘extra’ Black Phoebes are located. To spot hawks, use your eyes like one.


Rough-legged Hawks, like this one photographed at Ridgefield NWR in southwest Washington on 12 December 2008, often sit on the ground far out in the middle of fields. Photo by Steve Mlodinow.

Dont' Forget to Look Up

Get into the habit of glancing at the sky every few minutes for soaring or fly-by birds such as raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl, especially if the sky is cloudy and their dark forms are readily seen. Scan across ridgelines for hawks, Golden Eagles, and fly-past Band-tailed Pigeons. Citing the title of an old Ernest K. Gann novel of World War II, remember The Crowded Sky.

When in Rome...

Rare birds are generally found in flocks of common birds.  Birds out of range are inclined to join flocks of other species, particularly during the winter months when numbers replace dense foliage as the best protection against predators. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a big flock of White-crowned Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos is boring—you might do well to really shake it up and find that Clay-colored or Harris’s Sparrow. Check all of the blackbirds up on the wires or in the muck at dairies for Brown-headed Cowbirds, rare icterids, and sparrows.  Check through flocks of routine waterfowl and shorebirds for that show-stopping Monster Shocker.

Find the Food Sources

Birds are not distributed evenly across the landscape. They concentrate where there is food and a lot of biological activity. Watch for flocks at small gardens, farms, dairies, manure piles, and unmanaged creeksides. Don’t spend a lot of time in ‘birdless’ places. Hollies, mountain ash, myrtles, pyracantha and other plants with waxy berries will attract flocks of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings along with lesser numbers of Hermit and Varied Thrushes. Less likely birds, like Townsend's Solitaire or Bohemian Waxwing, often turn up in these flocks. In addition to providing a good source of seeds, composting fruits (orchards) and vegetable row crops (truck farms) create warm microsites where insects hatch even when the ambient air temperature is near or below freezing.  Such sites are likely to be teeming with sparrows, finches, and occasional warblers.


In recent years, increasing numbers of White-throated Sparrows have been detected wintering west of the Rocky Mountains. This is one of two that wintered in my yard in 2008-2009. Be sure to scout for feeding stations in your count sector, especially when covering urban or suburban parts of your count circle. Photo by Dave Irons.

House Sparrows Rock!

The tiresome sound of a loud chorus of House Sparrows should be music to your ears as a bird counter, because it often indicates that there’s a bird feeder—or several—close by.  You may not be interested in the House Sparrows, but for sure you’ll be interested in the many other species that likely are using that site.


When a Gyrfalcon shows up in the Lower 48, word travels fast and a crowd is sure to gather quickly. This group of Eugene, Oregon CBC participants took a late afternoon break to enjoy a Gyrfalcon that John Sullivan found during the 2008-2009 count. Photo by Dave Irons.

If you find a rare bird, write a description of it NOW and, if possible, get a photo.  If the bird is truly remarkable—literally a “show stopper”—don’t wait until everyone meets at the end of the day to spread the news.

Ten Tips for Field Trip Leaders

First and foremost, if you've never led a local bird walk or a day-long field trip, I would encourage you to consider doing so. Turning people on to joy of birding is both rewarding and a fantastic way to hone your own birding skills. You may not consider yourself to be an expert, but this should not deter you from leading a morning birdwalk. Remember, as long as you know more than those whom you are leading, you are the expert. Here are ten ideas that will help you create a successful group birding experience:

1. Stay in your comfort zone -- It's not a good idea to lead a trip to a site that you've never visited or to an area where you will encounter many species of birds with which you are not familiar. It is always best to lead at sites that you know well and where most of the birds will be familiar to you. Even if the site is one where you go birding regularly, consider scouting the area a day or two before the scheduled trip, just to see what's around and to make sure that there isn't a Civil War re-enactment scheduled on the same day of your birdwalk.

2. Find a co-leader or multiple co-leaders -- I prefer to lead/co-lead trips that include a mix of experienced and inexperienced birders, even if some of the experts are just tagging along. It's always a good idea to get some help, especially if you are leading a trip to a well-known hotspot that's sure to attract a crowd. If the group becomes too  large, you can always break out into smaller groups.


On 12 December 2011, I tagged along on this field trip to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which was being led by Jude Power and David Fix (second from right). In addition to the two scheduled leaders, there were 4-5 other experts along on this trip, which attracted about 30 participants. Ultimately the group spread out into multiple sub-groups, each tended by one of the leaders or de facto leaders.

3. Offer an accurate description of your trip -- The promotional announcements for your trip should clearly state how long the trip will last, how far you will walk, and provide some description of the terrain and the weather conditions that participants are likely to encounter. If you are leading an all-day trip, encourage folks to bring snacks and water and plan in a lunch stop.

4. Make proper introductions and review the trip itinerary -- Always arrive at the meeting site at least 15 minutes ahead of the trip start time and get started within 10 minutes of the scheduled time.  Before starting the walk, properly introduce all the leaders and identify any other tag along "experts" who might be of assistance to less-experienced participants. Review the plan and schedule for the day. This should include telling folks when there will be bathroom stops. Stick to your schedule. You may not mind being out longer than anticipated, but participants may have other activities and commitments planned into their day.

5. Offer a quick tutorial on scope use/etiquette and how to use binoculars -- It's always a good idea to offer a quick tutorial on how to use a spotting scope and binoculars. Explain how to set the diopter on bins and encourage folks to use their naked eyes to spot birds before raising their binoculars and to then "put the binoculars in the way" in order to magnify what they are seeing. I always like to tell folks that binoculars, "are tools that make things bigger, they won't find any birds for you." You'll be surprised by how many folks benefit from this simple instruction. It's also important to review proper scope etiquette. Make sure that when an interesting bird is first put in the scope participants know to take a quick look and then step out of the way so others can see. Once everyone has seen the bird at least once, then there will  time for  longer looks. Put a scope on as many birds as you can, even small songbirds, as these views will invariably elicit oohs and aahs from those who are using inexpensive binoculars or struggling to get on birds.

6. Explain in advance that not all birds will be seen by all participants --When birding in a group, it is unrealistic to expect that every participant will see each bird. Explain to your group that you will make every effort to get everyone on to all the birds, but in group situations that becomes nearly impossible.

7. Encourage participants to ask lots of questions -- At the start of field trips I usually tell folks that I am prepared to do lots of talking, but offer that the trip will be a lot more interesting for them and me if they ask lots of questions. A good field trip is a highly interactive experience.

8. Don't discourage socializing -- We are naturally social creatures. It's unrealistic to expect a group of 20 people to walk along silently for hours as the leader points out birds. That said, there may be some situations (listening for a calling rail) where you will need to ask the group to stop talking for a few moments. Encourage folks to talk in quieter voices and avoid loud outbursts of laughter. I've typically found that those people who want to socialize are often not bent on seeing every bird. Thus, they tend to naturally hang back from the main group. Keep in mind that this may be the first encounter with other living, breathing birders for some in the group. Let them interact and, perhaps, find a new birding friend. I've been birding with David Fix for 35 years. We met on an Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon) field trip in January 1977. He we was the first birder I met who wasn't my parents age or older. That encounter has changed my life in ways I couldn't have possibly imagined.

9. Let folks know how/where they can learn more -- During the day, or at the end of the trip let your trip participants know where they can learn more. Recommend field guides and other field trips/birding festivals that they might attend. Thank them for coming and, hopefully, for asking lots of questions.

10. Know where the bathrooms are -- This one should have been near the top of the list. It is always best to start your trip somewhere that offers bathroom facilities, especially if you're meeting--as most trips do--between 7-9AM. Most in the group will be ready to "process" that first cup of coffee of the morning. If you are doing an all-day trip, try to schedule in a bathroom stop every two hours or so.