Shorebirds!

That is genuine enthusiasm. Not excited? Here’s an adorable Semipalmated Plover to ease some of the discomfort.

Fall migration is happening and I am facing it head on. Because I went to Smith and Bybee Lakes and totally failed at identifying birds. I forgot how hard it is.

There’s hundreds of shorebirds there, and I had trouble identifying one of them. So I do that thing that I do when I can’t figure something out on my own. I seek out help. That same week I logged on to Portland Audubon’s classes, and to my luck I saw “Learn to Identify Fall Shorebirds” with John Rakestraw. And it wasn’t full.

John is the same instructor who teaches the Gull ID class and Warblers and Flycatchers, as well as many others. He even wrote a book, Birding Oregon. I was in good hands.

In the classroom we learned of the 20 or so shorebirds that visit the Oregon coast and Willamette Valley. We looked at large slides of birds and called out the field marks. It’s all about the field marks; the shape of the bird, size of the head vs. the bill, the color of the legs, and the bird’s behavior. It’s knowing what to look at for each bird. This is the key.

Long-billed Dowitchers prefer freshwater ponds, whereas Short-billed Dowitchers like tidal marshes and estuaries, so location and habitat can also provide clues. It’s all part of a puzzle and that’s what makes it fun.

Our field trip fun started one foggy morning at Seaside looking at birds on the rocks.

Or really birds that look like rocks. We found a pile of Black Turnstones. We hoped to pick out a Ruddy Turnstone, but none showed up this time. We dipped out on shorebirds at a couple more spots until we lucked out on some birds that look like mud.

That’s two Western Sandpipers on the left and one Semipalmated Plover on the right. Westerns have black legs and long droopy bills. Semi Plovers have one breast band.

We also saw Caspian Terns soaring above the water, and I didn’t notice until looking at photos later, this one has a yellow leg band.

We made it to Fort Stevens State Park but there was still low shorebird activity.

Until we looked in the distance.

We walked farther down the beach to get a closer look.

But trucks are allowed to drive on the shore here and they’d scattered the flock.

Eventually we got looks at more Western Sandpipers, and even had a Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mix for comparison.

All Westerns – long, droopy bill, black legs.

Western Sandpiper (L), Semipalmated Sandpiper (R)

Westerns and Semipalmated look almost identical except Semipalmated Sandpipers have a short blunt bill. It was tough to get good looks before the flocks moved along. Shorebirds not cooperating? Let’s look at gulls!

California Gull – dark eye, red and black in the bill, yellow-greenish legs

And some of my favorite gulls were visiting, Heermann’s Gulls. Two E’s two N’s, orange bills, unmistakable.

John admitted shorebird numbers seemed unusually low. We missed out on Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plovers, and a few others. We checked back at Seaside, but found nothing new. Except jousting crabs.

The one above lived to tell the tale but I can’t say the same for this one.

We made another stop at Seafarer’s Park near the Hammond’s Marina where we found a Common Murre swimming out of place this far up the river.

The best action of the day came next.

Apparently Heermann’s Gulls are pirates! They wait for a Brown Pelican to dive, before pouncing and trying to pry the meal out of the pelican’s gullet.

Neat stuff. I felt bad for the pelican, but they’re not exactly known as saints either.

The shorebirds were so few at the coast we made an extra stop at Fernhill Wetlands on the way back. But the day was hot and the heat waves made it difficult to see the birds in the distance. I’ll spare you the blurry photos of the Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpipers. Here’s a pair of Greater Yellowlegs instead.

That bill looks like it’s twice the length of the head and those are some nice yellow legs. Bird identified. It might seem obvious, but if there’s one take-home message of the day it’s that there are limitations. Sometimes the birds are too far, or they move too quickly; distance, weather, terrain, trucks, there’s so many obstacles, but it’s important to focus on what can be seen and not get discouraged.

And when that doesn’t work, stay at home and make flash cards!

Nothing to it.

Moving along, we got good looks of a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk.

And a Green Heron oddly perched out in the open.

Not enough shorebirds in my shorebirds post? How about brown ducks instead.

Just kidding. I’ll save the Cinnamon Teal for later and keep my eyes peeled for more peeps to identify in the mean time.

Learning new things every day.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Hits and misses at Broughton Beach

This summer has been rough at Broughton Beach. Early in the season, in hopes of a reported Least Sandpiper, I thought a quick stop after work would do. But when I arrived…

No birds. Just big crowds of people. Big miss.

Undeterred, I returned the following Saturday at 5:30am when I knew there’d be fewer people.

Early morning scritches

So far so good. Nobody there but early birds eating crayfish.

I peeked around and found many juvenile birds, like this Savannah Sparrow.

White-crowned Sparrow.

And Dark-eyed Junco.

Hello baby bird season (aka stripey, streaky, weird-looking birds). It never gets old. Right, European Starlings?

I made it to the gull roost and back to the parking lot without finding any peeps. I was kind of bummed, and this was when I also realized I’d lost my keys. Ugh. Major fail. I texted Tomas for rescue and proceeded to retrace my steps. At least I could look for more birds in the mean time.

I made it all the way back to the gull roost, when wouldn’t you know it, Least Sandpiper! Warm brown colored, slightly drooping bill, yellow legs. Yay!

At least there was that, I thought. And even better, halfway back to the parking lot, in the tall grass I found my keys! Thank goodness for bright orange wristbands. Major relief.

The next trip to Broughton was even better. Right as I got out of the car, I spotted a coyote in the parking lot!

I grabbed my camera and followed from a distance watching the bold canine trot right out along the multi-use path.

Multi-use indeed.

Also on this trip, I watched an Osprey swoop down to the beach gathering nesting materials.

After picking out the best clump of sea-stuff, it returned to the nesting platform out in the Columbia.

Also in the air were other flying things.

And one more that I was really excited to find, a bird I’ve only seen one other time on a Birdathon Trip last year, Bank Swallow!

I’ve barely learned this bird, identifiable by that dark band across the chest that extends down the middle. They also have a different flight pattern than other swallows, flying low over water with quick, fluttery wingbeats.

Least Sandpipers (L) were back! And they brought their friend Western Sandpiper along (R) this time.

Moderately long droopy bill, gray-rufous back, and black legs.

Later, just as I was getting to the car to leave, I heard another surprise, the raspy grating call that could only be a tern. I looked up to see, sure enough, a Caspian Tern!

The final and biggest hit at Broughton was a peep that Jen alerted me to. I couldn’t go on that day, but I told her to tell it to stay put. It worked because the next day I checked it was still there!

Baird’s Sandpiper! A mf lifebird as it turns out. It was the only peep on the shore, and it was so cooperative. It ran by my feet several times.

We were besties. I got great looks as it ran around the beach. Even as it picked up a moth.

And smashed it! Whack!

Good job, lifebird. And why is this a Baird’s Sandpiper? Because of the fairly long slightly drooping bill, distinct stripey chest markings, black legs, and especially because of the long wings that extend beyond the tail.

Or up in the air.

But more about shorebird ID later.

So many good finds at Broughton Beach!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Camera updates and such

It’s incredible how far this birding lifestyle has progressed. Especially with the gear. I started with an old pair of Bushnell binoculars and a small point and shoot camera.

I knew birding was hard and it didn’t take long before I realized how much harder it is to take photos of birds. You’d think it was easy enough. Have a camera, see a bird, take a photo. Not so much. I’d originally hoped photographing birds would help me to ID them. But it wasn’t until Tomas upgraded my point and shoot camera that it became a more realistic possibility.

I was well on my way. It was fascinating to see the difference in photos. Here’s an example, Northern Flicker with the old camera:

Is there even a bird in that photo? Northern Flicker with the SX50:

Woah. No question that is a bird. ID made easy. That camera combined with my new Vortex Diamondback binoculars (recommended by a few folks at Audubon) got me through the next two years. I got good at juggling tasks and mastered car-birding.

Pro at work

This past year I’ve upped my game. I’ve experimented with DSLR cameras and lens of all shapes and sizes. Luckily, there’s a great local photo shop with rental gear allowing me to try on this expensive equipment. I started with a Nikon D7200 in combination with various lens sizes including the 200-500.

I was in love with the image quality but hated the weight. At about 7lbs it was more than I was willing to carry without ditching the binoculars. And I refuse to give those up because it’s not just about the photos to me. I had to ask myself what I really hoped to get out of this investment and find that balance between satisfying photo quality and heavy gear that doesn’t suck the joy out of life.

This has all led me to the Canon EOS 80D in combination with the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS USM Mark II lens. The combo is 2lbs lighter than the Nikon setup and much more tolerable.

The progression is real

It’s still quite the commitment and costs more than I’ve once paid for a used car, but so far it’s been worth it. Another fun progression:

SX100

SX50

80D 100-400

80D 100-400

Turns that Song Sparrow right into an a hummingbird. It’s that amazing.

I’ve also added a new pair of binoculars to the family. The Nikon Monarch 5.

It’s a binocular!

I get to try out the new bins tomorrow on the Audubon Shorebird field trip. Maybe they will help me ID all those brown and white look-alikes.

Even with all this gear, I still have room in the family for one more. A scope. I’m eyeing the Vortex Viper 65mm. It’s still on the wishlist at this point, but I’ll have good news to share soon I’m sure.

In the meantime, I’m having fun pushing buttons on top of mountains (photo by Jen Sanford).

Living the good birding life and loving it.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey