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

Eider to Gyrfalcon in a Day

Last week Jen invited me on a mid-week coast trip to chase rarities. I was thrilled to skip work for a day-trip with the potential for an Eider-Brambling-Costa’s-Thrasher combo.

Rarity rainbow

We left at 4am, but that was fine because we took naps in the car while Ralph did most of the driving. Good boy, Ralph.

Along the way we filled up on coffee, pastries, and new county birds – Wild Turkeys! Until we made it to Fossil Point at low tide just as planned. Jen set the scope up and almost immediately found the King Eider. 20 minutes later scanning through wafts of sea ducks I also had the eider!

Scan, scan, scan – King Eider!

Not a bad looking sea duck. Common in the arctic, they rarely visit south of Alaska. Jen also pointed out a Long-tailed Duck in the crowd which was another first for me. The tide started coming in reminding us we’d better move on but it was hard to leave such a large flock of good birds.

On route to our next destination we made a quick stop at Oregon Dunes Recreation Area to let the dogs out and stretch our legs.

A nice surprise we found creeping in the bushes by the restrooms was a Wrentit! A first for me in Oregon! I haven’t seen one of these cute charismatic birds since my trip to California.

An hour north and an hour and a half later the Brambling was a no-show no thanks to the Peregrine and Cooper’s Hawk that jetted in and out of the neighborhood. It was pretty quiet aside from the occasional Dark-eyed Junco and Fox Sparrow.

Not so pretty perch for a pretty bird

Reluctantly, we accepted defeat and left for the next hour drive north to look for a visiting Costa’s Hummingbird. Just as we turned out of the neighborhood though a FOY Turkey Vulture flew right over the car that made defeat feel so much better. Nothing like a migrating pick-me-up.

A quick stop at Bob Creek Wayside along the way also helped.

Here we found Black Turnstones.

Black Oystercatchers, Surf Scoters, and another new bird for me the Surfbird!

I’m not sure how this bird has flown under my radar thus far but I was pleasantly surprised when I realized.

There were also plenty of gulls at this stop.

Some Herring, mostly California

California Gull

Back on track we made it to the Costa’s site in a neighborhood in Newport, but unfortunately we found out the hummer was visiting less reliably.

Right place, wrong time

The gracious homeowner let us watch the feeder anyways where we did see “Piglet” a wintering Orange-crowned Warbler that has a habit of feeding at the hummingbird feeder. We also saw a Hairy Woodpecker, more Fox Sparrows, and a glimpse of a White-throated Sparrow. But no Costa’s.

While in Newport we decided to check out the herring spawning event in Yaquina Bay where we watched loads of sea lions and birds drunk on fish.

Red-necked Grebe

Pelagic Cormorant

Looking closer at my photos I also found a Long-tailed Duck in the long line of sea birds that were far in the distance.

Barely diagnostic photo

It was late afternoon at this point and we realized we had a big decision to make. The Brown Thrasher was the last target species we’d originally anticipated, but there was also a report of a Gyrfalcon an hour and a half east near Eugene that was now tempting us. Which rare bird to chase next?? Birder problems.

Since it would be a life bird for both of us and a rarer opportunity we opted for the Gyrfalcon. Unlike that time I almost saw a Gyrflacon, with about an hour of sunlight left, we found the bird.

Is something on fire? “Our birding skills!” (- Jen)

Along with two other birders we watched and admired this amazing creature from afar (maybe silently wishing it was closer). It turned around and re-positioned itself and I noticed that Gyrfalcons wear pantaloons.

Or at least the feathered legs make it look that way. And not obvious in my photos, but Gyrfalcons are the largest falcons in the world. And seeing one was a great way to end an amazing birding trip. We watched until it flew off into the sunset.

Not a bad day for an Eider-Long-tailed-Surfbird-Gyrfalcon combo!

Of course I enjoyed all the birds we saw. Even the Mallards.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey