Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Columbia River Winter Birds

Columbia River Birds

A common yearlong sight along the Columbia River shore in Astoria, OR  

During the last week of December I took a trip to the ocean for several reasons not the least of which included seeing what birds find themselves there during the early winter. So I went to Astoria about 100 miles northwest of here. It is near where the Columbia River ejects itself into the Pacific Ocean.
Astoria was supposed to be the home base for several travels along the southern Washington and northern Oregon coast. I made those coastal trips but saw no birds worth describing here. It was actually in Astoria that I saw the most interesting birds as well as an uncountable number of species.
Walking east from my motel room towards the central business district, I could see about a thousand birds spearheaded by buffleheads and mallards. While swimming in large flocks one species would largely be the dominant one in terms of numbers but many if not all of these floating were mixed with several species.


There were northern pintails (I could not get a photo worth displaying), greater scaups and American widgeons were seen on every walk.


Male Widgeon

For the most part the water birds stayed in large flocks floating in the calm of the river near the shores. Since it apparently is not breeding season for the population of sea lions that also frequent the same space, few were seen-certainly not the large numbers that moaned loudly and often last February. They were not flopped as if dead on the banks of the river this time either. But they were seen swimming on occasion.

Mostly there were just large flocks of birds numbering in the hundreds. Above is a small portion of one of them and it includes American coots, mallards and scaups.
There is a lot of unusable (if you are human) docks and old pylons that at one time were the base for docks. The birds are oblivious to what may be hazardous to us people and make use of any of these opportunities to take breaks.

Common Merganser

Some find easy pickings for an early afternoon meal. The tides render them underwater starting at about 2:30 pm.


Others are yearlong birds some in their first year who are continuing their apprenticeships.

First year glaucous-winged gull

That wraps up my story of bird watching in the early winter in Astoria. The numbers and the species were far greater than either of my last two trips I have made to Astoria which took place in the late summer of 2017 and early spring of 2018.

I’ll keep coming back to see what I can find in my bank walks.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Nest of the song sparrow

The Song Sparrow’s Nest

Here in the northwest the Song Sparrow is prevalent and remains all of the year. They are named I would suppose, for their pretty song during the mating season. The rest of the year they are chatty but quite plaintive. They land on the ledge surrounding the small deck in front of my apartment and eat the seeds that have fallen loose from the feeder above. Occasionally they peck away at my suet. Actually though I purchased the suet there is no reason to call it “mine”. It is on the deck for the benefit of any avian that would be so desirous of its bounty. The squirrels are jealous as it is located in a rare spot that they cannot access).

The Song Sparrows enjoy the ground quite a bit and they can take cover behind the shrubbery while foraging for anything edible. They scurry amongst the greenery flitting like mice. The species found here near the Washington-Oregon border are a darker hue than the ones found in the mid-Atlantic like the photo above.

During the late spring they begin building the nest except that it may not be the nest. I saw the species flitting into the small tree in front of my apartment this past spring and several others in trees of neighbors. Yet as spring deserted us in June, there were no signs of Song Sparrows actually nesting. There were no anticipatory tweets that one would expect from chicks awaiting sustenance from caring parents. I soon forgot about them.

In late November as the last leaves of the last season fell to the rains and wind, there was, at about eight feet high and on the periphery of a limb, a song sparrow’s nest. Where were the birds all summer? This required a little research. I reviewed Stokes, Peterson and Erlich etal reference The Birder’s Handbook* to cite a few sources who could inform any of us as to the nature and behavior of the Song Sparrow. I also used one of Cornell University’s ornithological web sites.

Among the many things I discovered was that this species often abandon the first or even second nest built in a season. It is as if those were trial runs and the final nest is in fact, the nest.

* ISBN: 0-671-65989-8

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Birds of John Burroughs, edited by Jack Kligerman

The Birds of John Burroughs: Keeping a Sharp Lookout Jack Kligerman Ed. New York. Hawthorn Books Inc. 1946. 240pp. ISBN: 0-8015-0647-6

“Study of nature deepens the mystery and the charm because it removes the horizon farther off. We cease to fear, perhaps, but how can one cease to marvel and love.”

Burroughs was well known during his lifetime which ended close to a century ago. He was a leading American naturalist, poet and writer. This book is a selection of writings that spanned about 60 years. They were published in a variety of periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly. This copy displays the fine artwork by Louis Agassiz Fuertes rendered in monochrome for this book but originally in color.

The author was a true autodidact with little formal schooling. He was quite well read and up to date with scientific news and could understand his nature observations in the light of Charles Darwin’s natural selection.

As a contributor to many national publications, he was very influential in his day. He was quite concerned with a growing trend in popular nature literature which he called “Nature Fakers”. These were written to describe animals in anthropomorphic ways, ascribing human emotions to the actions of animals.

They leaned philosophically towards viewing evolution as goal oriented and driven to some sort of perfection as described by western religion and philosophy. These two things got under Burroughs skin and he wrote much that was specific to that concern. In most of his writings, this book being an example, he simply described nature and evolution from a no nonsense perspective.

The book’s style was neither linear nor sequential. The many chapters were selected at the musing of the editor-Jack Kligerman. Almost all of the chapters were designated by a bird species. So Burroughs described a Northern Flicker for instance, both in its physical way but also its habitat, behaviors at different times of year as well as other qualities that were apt of Burrough’s literary imagination and natural observations.


Northern Flicker

He also offered tips for the budding ornithologists such as keeping a notebook with you at all times. This allows for writing observations and if skilled enough, drawings. Amongst his plain spoken prose is his understanding of ecology and evolution. He saw that adaptation was problem solving, it is neither intentional nor is it inerrant.

He observed the waning of species and lamented about “man’s greed and cupidity” for blame. Likewise he informed the reader of variable behaviors and physiological changes in species based on whether they were migrators (greater gene pool than yearlong residents) or in early stages of species development versus later.

It was an informative book and written in a style that was beautiful in its bluntness. While reading it I was reminded of the terseness of Hemingway’s novels. I enjoyed reading it while learning many new things.

His most important point in the book might be that a heterogeneous gene pool is a strength to an organism, ‘perfection’ is not. New adaptations only strive for functionality. The nature fakers will have to gnash their teeth.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Some Birding Notes

Some Birding Notes

It has been over a year now since I left the Chesapeake Bay for the Northwest. I have done a lot of birding and attended to the differences between seasons. I have my favorite local places like the Steigerwald, a National Wildlife Reserve (NWR) only about 15 miles away. I’ve seen a large number of “new” birds that don’t find themselves 2800 miles east of here. I don’t know how many new ones because I don’t keep track. I spend more time watching bird behavior than I do numbers.

Though I would never travel great distances or spend much money to see exotic birds, I do enjoy the new ones I see at the locations I am already at. That happens when one spans the country and is on the west side of the Rocky Mountains. There are a lot of places to go out here. Many close by and others requiring a night in a motel.

So around twice a month I go hike around Steigerwald. Some of the birds I see in abundance are not new to me but are more numerous here than any place I watched on the East Coast. There are lots of Osprey (seasonally), Bald Eagles and Pileated Woodpeckers for viewing. Rarer but not actually rare are Western Kingbirds, Varied Thrush and Northern Harriers. In fact there is one Harrier that perches near the same place every time I have been out there. That species is fun to watch as it flies low to the ground, can nearly hover motionless over potential prey and make elaborate dives. Occasionally they perch as if posing until I get a good photograph.

Northern Harrier

During the winter and much of the spring the watersheds are replete with many species of water fowl. Mallards and Canada Geese are prevalent but I think they are no matter where in North America one finds them self. Gadwalls, Shovelers, Common and Hooded Mergansers abound. So do Bufflehead and during the winter the Trumpeter Swans blare enormously. I think it is possible that I have spotted a new species (for me) every time I have gone there.

Cinnamon Teal
The last time I visited I had a Great Blue Heron walking the path I was on and about 150 feet ahead of me. I reveled in simply watching this fairly timid bird and trying to make the experience last as long as possible. Of course there were other people on the same path and the bird chose to exit. Perhaps it was out of prudence as humans were nigh but it also may have just been its time to hit the skies. I was able to get several photos and chose the one I liked the best to present here.

Fleeing Heron

Ridgefield NWR is also a standard place for me to visit. It is around 15 miles north of here and I went there twice during this spring season. Unfortunately there was little to see in part because on its car tour path I was too early in the season to get out of my car for photos. It is the rule there that we visitors stay in our car until April 1. It is after all a reserve and the design is to allow wildlife to have their breeding seasons less disturbed. The next time I went there flooding prevented excursions on many of the paths.

Amongst the common birds at Ridgefield are Bald Eagles which I could see carrying sticks undoubtedly with nest building designs. There are also plenty of Varied Thrush, Scrub Jays, Trumpeters and ducks. I’m looking forward to the drier season forthcoming so I can get closer to the waters and more birds.

A little closer to home is Salmon Creek which is a county park. I have been able to see many water fowl, Bald Eagles, Golden Crowned Sparrows, Brown Creeper, woodpeckers, Brewer’s Blackbirds to name a few.

Recently I watched a Mountain Chickadee catching prey and returning to a used woodpecker hole supposedly feeding chicks. It was too high to see what was inside the bored out hole but it is hard to imagine another task being accomplished. During this last season I watched for ducks mostly and saw many.

Ring Billed Ducks
There also were:

Lesser Scaup

Anywhere there is water there are Redwing Blackbirds. Salmon Creek is one of those places and this species is pretty frenetic in pace and vocal in announcement. They are birds with a mission.

Redwinged Blackbird

There are a string of hiking locations along the Columbia River about 10 miles east of Vancouver and I am unclear as to the one I hiked for the first time recently. I am going to claim it was the Port of Camus but will stand correction. I was there for the first time this last season but will return often. I saw so many species and enjoyed ambling along the river for a few hours that a return is required.
I saw many species but because I was there early on a spring morning I had to fight a low sun for good pictures but I did get a few. One was of a Canada Goose apparently nesting aloft. I haven’t studied nesting habits of this bird but thought that like Mallards, the offspring were precocial. It is unlikely that a hatchling born in the condition below would be waddling soon.

Canada Goose in a nest about 30 feet above ground

I drove for about 250 miles mostly along the Columbia to visit Walla Walla not simply for birding but of course did that as well as other things. The geology of eastern Washington are different than Vancouver. The birds there are more likely to be found on vast plains. Amongst them was the California Quail.

This chicken sized fowl looks better than the photo above and seen by the side shows a variegated design and it has the pickelhaube appendage on its head. As soon as I get the chance I am going to get a better picture. I have yet to be where I have been able to see ground fowl and look forward to future prairie birding.

The very best of the “new” birds was the Black Billed Magpie. The sharply contrasted whites, blacks and blues were enough to catch anyone’s eye alone. They are about Crow sized but unlike their cousins, the Magpie has a magnificent tail.

They are pretty much a mountain bird and are not found as close to the coast where I live but I started to see them only about 100 miles to the east.


Also only a few miles east, the Western Kingbird is found in more abundance. We do see Eastern Kingbirds nearby. Both species are similar in size and mannerisms but not in color. They are chatty

and social.

While in the Walla Walla Valley I spotted a Yellow Warbler. They may be this far west but I have not spotted any of these elusive birds nearby.

Common Mergansers are aptly named but this couple apparently on a restive mission, were too nice looking not to photograph.

I have also been watching nestling crows in a tree found at a strip mall in Vancouver and that is the subject of another post.

I’ll finalize this posting with a photo of a Circumpolar Bluet (damselfly) mostly because I really like the photo.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 1 by Donald Stokes

Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 1 by Donald Stokes. Boston. Little, Brown and Company. 1979. 336pp. ISBN: 0-316-81725-2

Behavior is what real naturalists want to understand in the animals they are studying. Having the resources to go to Costa Rica or the Galapagos in order to witness a bird found nowhere else is more a field for dilettantes. Knowing the behaviors of a few birds is far more interesting than having a blurred photo of some exotic Amazonian bird to show off to friends.

Lyandra Haupt in her book about backyard birds makes this point well. Having the largest “Life” bird list is a little like collecting the most baseball cards every summer. This notion of understanding behaviors makes a volume like this one particularly interesting to this bird watcher.  

It begins with an overview of key things to look for when out in the field and then focuses on 25 wild birds, all of which can be found along the Atlantic sea board (as well as other places). This was slightly disappointing for my familiarity with these species. Having crossed the nation to re-locate in the Pacific Northwest, there are many new species to get to know and these were not listed in this book. Hopefully when volumes #2 and #3 are found, many of them will be highlighted.

It would be vain and untrue to indicate that the details that Stokes provided in this guide were already known to me. An interest in corvids, a profundity of house sparrows or Canada geese have always made observing them easier. A focused interest in actual behavior also points me towards knowing all my birds better. Stokes’ guide makes that easier.

It is a well-constructed manual meaning that it is both informative and a fluid read. From my own experience both in the field and in reading the literature there was nothing that I could argue with in this presentation.

Yet there is an issue with the age of the volume that I read. It is the 1979 version of the guide. The book is in very good condition suggesting that my copy is not old. In turn this suggests that it has not been updated unless very recently. A book about avian behavior that is 39 years old means that much of the information needs to be refreshed. In the chapter on the American crow for instance, Stokes indicates that there is much we do not know about some of their behaviors. While this is technically accurate, there has been countless articles and books written about crows. There are information sharing internet sites as well. There is always much more to learn but when this book was published there was far less known than today.

At any rate, I found this to be a useful tool and look forward to reading the ensuing volumes.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Crow's nest in Vancouver

A spring time Crow’s nest
I have blogged for several years about the Yellow Crowned Night Heron rookery above the Jones Falls River near Johns Hopkins University. I was a little disheartened to leave that project but I found a new one at least for this season.

While making a purchase at a local store I spotted a Crow with a beak full of twigs land near the top of a tree. That bird was building or fortifying a nest. Another Crow was on a limb nearby acting as if it were supervising this activity.

I was intent on following the progress routinely. However over the next few weeks I saw nothing. The parking lot where the tree is located is filled with Crows but I did not see any such bird attending to the nest and concluded that it had been abandoned.

Since I am in the area regularly I continued to eyeball the nest in order to see if activity would recur. On May 26 there was a Crow feeding something hidden deep in the nest. When I returned from a trip and on June 8th, the hatchlings were large enough to see.

They look to be big enough to fledge so I’ll check them out with more regularity to chart the progress.

It is good to have a replacement for the Yellow Crowned mentioned above. It keeps the mind and the hands busy and less prone to looking for less worthwhile activities.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff

Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff (Illustrations by Jack DeLap). New Haven CT. Yale University Press. 2014. 301pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-19707-5

While reading this book I wished I was across the table from Marzluff, drinking a beer or a coffee (for me the former but I am amenable to my guest’s wishes). That meeting is not likely to occur but I’ll tell the reader why I wished it would later in this review.

Marzluff’s book is essentially about changing ecologies of the places where we work and live. He uses local bird life as his main vessel for telling the story but he does include a chapter on other species and how they adapt to increasing human encroachment.

With the loss of natural environments, birds are finding ways of exploiting suburban lands for their own benefit. Murzluff describes the famous University of Michigan basketball sobriquet, “The Fab Five” to inform readers of the types of birds that have done well in suburban locales. They are: House Sparrows, European Starlings, Rock Doves, Mallards and Canada Geese. These are all regular habitu├ęs year round, nearly everywhere in this country. There are seasonal and migrating birds but those 5 are pretty much standard. They have adapted well to living amongst us.

He also described birds as falling into a couple of categories that are also easy to identify with, for all of us humans interested in doing so. They include “exploiters” who are able to make use of the constricted environments to their own advantage. Crows are obvious examples as are their cousin corvids. Blue Jays on the east coast are adept at figuring out ways to extrapolate food sources where other avian cannot. While living in the mid-Atlantic I watched a Blue Jay while preparing my garden one spring. The bird left its perch to grab a garter snake who was basking in the warmish afternoon weather.

There are also “adapters” who may prefer a different environment for eating, mating and nesting but have learned to change their preferred conditions and accept what can be provided in the suburbs and exurbs which keep expanding despite the tenuous relationship that exists between population growth, weather conditions and infrastructures required to accommodate the new conditions.

There are “avoiders” who essentially seek an escape from the environmental factors of suburban expansion. They would be in more perilous species conditions due to loss of their own preferred ecology.

Marzluff discusses the ability to stave off encroaching ecological doom-he, is pretty optimistic. He provided several options that humans can take in order to preserve conditions for the many bird populations that are affected by “Subirdia”. Some include preparing large windows with decals in order to keep birds who see those windows as flyways and then crash into them. He talks of culling over-grazing deer in areas where they have become problematic. Entire neighborhoods have become overtaken by expanding deer populations causing more problems than can be described here.

Having trained hunters thin the herds would alleviate many of the issues presented by deer but also would provide meat to programs for needy humans as well as leather for many uses. He suggests the biological poverty needs ecological restoration which is hard to argue with. He calls for an ecological Golden Rule-“do unto your land, and the natural web of life it sustains, as you would have the land do unto you.”

The book is pretty compelling for its information but also for style. There is not a lot of jargon required for papers and academic pursuits. The book is designed for interested party who does not have solid academic credentials in areas that the book is concerned with. He refers to the citizen scientist and the many programs available to them such as the back yard bird survey from Cornell University’s ornithological program. He also suggested the Public Library of Science’s (PLOS) citizen science web page as a source of information and techniques for improving the quality of life for animals as well as humans.

But the reason I wish I could talk to Marzluff face to face is that he brought up several things that are very personal to me. I’ll only include a few here.

The last house I lived at in Baltimore is located in an old suburban part of town. It was for many years, considered an Audubon Sanctuary and housed breeding grounds for Red Headed Woodpeckers which are harder to find every year. Several years prior to my being there the lot was halved, trees cut down and a monstrosity of a house built on the new lot. No more woodpeckers, far fewer trees (i.e. habitat) and no more sanctuary designation.

He discussed groups that are existing and cropping up new in all of North America to collect dead and injured birds in downtown areas of cities. These would be the results of window strikes. I was a volunteer for Baltimore’s “Lights Out Baltimore” and the work has many benefits. It is a public advertisement for making businesses aware of the problems for migrating birds who navigate the glass and lights of urbanity, too often at their own peril.

This activity not only informs its volunteers much about birds but it gives them the opportunity to safely transport injured birds to sanctuary sites where trained staff attempt to restore the bird to its natural state and return it to the wild. In the central Maryland area the success rate is well over 50% so a benefit is obvious.

Another benefit is the ability for dead birds to become fodder for scientific research spanning a wide array of studies. Ours were given to colleges and the Smithsonian (for legalistic reasons that were never explained, we were not to know where they were going or what was being researched) and those institutions were able to make use of the carcasses.

He also cited Maryland as an example state where streams were being studied for their current conditions as well as the viability of restorative measures that could be taken. I worked as a volunteer on such a project and learned much more about environmental conditions as well as potential needs to be resolved. It was a great experience for me though it would have been better were I in my mid-20s instead of being 40 years beyond that. Stream ecology in practice is for the young as I found out.

I would have loved to converse with the author about those things as well as many other notions that he wrote about the hit a cord with me. I would even treat.