HOW DRY I AM

January 30, 2015

drought 4_800x618 US DROUGHTThe severe drought and almost tropical “winter” that is occurring along the Pacific Coast will speed up the breeding season for many resident species.  Difficult to find birds like Wrentit and California Gnatcatcher are easiest to locate during breeding before they become even more secretive.  In southern Oregon the Turkey Vultures have returned a month early and Scrub-Jays have been seen building nests.  In an area where snow should be likely until April I have seen not a single snowflake, just warm rains out of the south.  Frogs are singing in seasonal ponds.  A bat flew past my car window on January 25; they are supposed be asleep, with the bears and Belding’s ground squirrels.  Mushrooms are sprouting at 6000′ in the mountains where there should be snow on the ground.  Lakes at 5000′ are ice free and full of Canada Geese.  I wouldn’t be surprised to suddenly see a small flock of Tree Swallows up from California, or an Osprey fishing.  All this is unseasonally early.  So if you are planning a Pacific Coast trip, think of doing it earlier in the year than in a normal year which this will not be.

SOME CONSERVATION NOTES

January 8, 2015

Not-so-hopeful news from Brazil where a politician dubbed by some “chainsaw queen” has been named to a post where she will influence policy on deforestation there.

A brighter spot: the Pope has begun to openly push for more action to curb climate change.

And there may be help on the way for Europe’s glorious, huge Griffon Vultures.  A veterinary chemical that is deadly to the birds is beginning to get banned in some countries.  The drug: diclofenac.  If you’d like to see a Griffon Vulture in France or Spain, PIOB can get you there.

And here in the U.S. the Red Knot has been put onto the list of threatened species by the federal government.

WE SHOULD PAY ATTENTION TO THE WARBLERS’ WISDOM

December 22, 2014

I already knew that we humans are woefully slow to see what’s happening in the natural world, but here comes scientific evidence that even without TV weathercasts, warblers foresee weather problems far better than some slow-moving bipeds.

Here’s one newspaper account of how warblers fled the U.S. to avoid a killer storm.

Here’s a summary of that same report on warbler wisdom from a science website.

That violent series of storms killed 35 humans who chose not to migrate.  Final Score: Warblers +1, Humans -35.

THE AMERICAN BABBLER

December 1, 2014

Once again today I heard, and didn’t see, a singing male Wrentit at Ashland Pond in southern Oregon.  The distribution of this unique American bird (only member of its family this side of the Bering Strait) is an example of both adaptation and inflexibility in this species.  Famously, the Wrentit is sedentary, rarely wanders far and eschews open water.  Thus the species’ northern range limit is now the south bank of the Columbia River.  Its ancestors must surely have come across the Siberian land bridge eons ago and moved south only to be isolated from all over babblers (widespread in Old World forests) and marooned south of the Columbia River when it was formed after gigantic ice sheets melted.  In Uganda once I saw a dark brown, skulking babbler with a big voice…larger than our Robin.  It looked and sounded much like an over-stuffed Wrentit.

Here in southern Oregon the Wrentit is found in scrub and heavy thickets, mostly at lower elevations. Most likely locations in Jackson County are along the Rogue River and then south along the Bear Creek riparian corridor.  Willows, cottonwoods and blackberry thickets often signal Wrentit presence.  It seems most likely that our Jackson County Wrentits arrived here by spreading from the coast up the Rogue River Canyon and then along the corridors of its major tributaries, like Bear Creek.  BIRDS OF OREGON (Marshall, Hunter & Contreras) points out the species is still expanding its range.  Not in weeks or months like the explosion of the Eurasian Collared-Dove, nor even over a few decades like the Starling or Red-shouldered Hawk, but one thicket to the next…ever so slowly.

EBird does show a record for the Klamath Falls area at slightly over 4000′.  Otherwise the bird is not seen east of the Sierra Nevada crest or the Cascades further north.  The species is also found in the Sierra Foothills and some higher plateaus in California.  It is most abundant along the California and Oregon coasts wherever brush dominates and forests are broken or absent altogether.  There hillsides often are alive with singing male Wrentits, each bouncing his only vocal rubber ball downhill at requent intervals. The habitats most likely to be home to the Wrentit are coastal scrub and inland chaparral.  They are not treetop singers, quite able to sing loudly while staying concealed in brush humans do not penetrate.  I have yet to meet anyone who gets Wrentit to come to a suet or seed feeder.  They are not a suburban adapter like the Mockingbird or House Finch.

The Audubon Society’s recent climate change report on North American birds gives no map for the Wrentit, but the American Dipper, also found on our low elevation streams here in southernmost Oregon does have a map.  The Audubon projections are very bleak for that species.  If the climate does get hotter and dryer and plants like blackberry disappear the Wrentit is not going to be able to nest in sagebrush and feed on open ground.

wrentit by palmerThis Wrentit photo was taken at Ashland Pond some months ago by Majorie Palmer, a birder visiting Ashland from the Olympic Peninsula.  This is a bird she’s not going to see in her own backyard 200 miles north of the Columbia, the Wrentit demarcation line.  These birds are very hard to photograph because they do not often appear in public, preferring their seclusion and being undercover.  Their territory is year-round so I have heard one sing in January during a snowstorm.  “My thicket.  Stay out.”

PIB has numerous trips to Asia and Africa where you can see many and larger babblers.  If you want to see a Wrentit, sign up for one of trips in California or Oregon.

November 30, 2014

We got to see the documentary on Brown Pelicans at our local movie theatre.  It’s called “Pelican Dreams.”  Beautiful video of the big birds and told around the touching stories of two injured pelicans, one of whom has now flown back into the wild.  Pelican-Media

This is worth seeing just for the great slo-mo of the pelicans diving in oceanic feeding frenzies.

It touches on conservation issues, climate change and the necessity of human awareness to allow these great birds to survive in our altered world.  It was shot mostly in California and Oregon with some video from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast.

PIB offers trips to Florida, Texas and California–all good venues for watching Brown Pelicans.

Here are a few of my own pictures of a feeding frenzy at Elkhorn Slough between Santa Cruz and Monterey on a PIB trip to California:PLUNGE1 (446x447) TO MONTEREY SEPT 13 044 (1280x960) TO MONTEREY SEPT 13 052 (1280x960) TO MONTEREY SEPT 13 071 (511x512) TO MONTEREY SEPT 13 074 (1280x960)

GALAPAGOS AND CLIMATE CHANGE

November 24, 2014

The latest Audubon magazine has three pieces on the future of the Galapagos’ unique habitat and birdlife…in the face of climate change.  You can click here to read those articles.

If you want to see the Galapagos as they are now, PIB has a variety of trips to both the islands and to the rich birding locales on the Ecuadoran mainland.  You can click here to read about the Ecuador/Galapagos trips we offer.Galapagos Sunday 001 marine ig pileupSome photos from a recent PIB trip to the islands.LAVA GULL2 LAVA HERON ON CHAIN WILSONS PLOVERThe birds, from top to bottom: Lava Gull, Lava Heron, Wilson’s Plover. Blue-footed Booby, Brown Pelican with his outboard motor, Vermilion Flycatcher. Elliot’s Storm-Petrels.BF BOOBIES TRIO ON LAVA bf booby face brown Pelican outboarding cinn flyc perched ell.STORM-PETRELS FEEDAnd a couple of endemics:GALA DOVE1 Make that three endemics” Dove, Mockingbird and Penguin.  The latter loves to swim around with snorklers, even slow-moving hominids with plastic faces on.GALA MOCKINGBIRD1 GALA PENGUIN CU

RAPTOR RECORD OVER PANAMA

November 21, 2014

This fall’s migration saw a record number of raptors passing over Panama City in one day. Take a guess, then click on this link and read about the number of zeros in the new record.
PIB offers great trips to Panama, including a chance to see Harpy Eagle.
But Panama is much more than just raptors…below some images from my recent trip to Panama: Violaceous Trogon, white-faced monkey and White-necked Puffbird.
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These two guys were just down the street from our arrival hotel in Panama City: Crimson-crested Woodpecker and Common Tody-flycatcher
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PRETTY BIRD

November 15, 2014

ASHLAND, OREGON
I was face to face with beauty this morning. Overnight it had been drizzly, the sky was still mostly overcast so the light was dim and even. This often makes small birds feel less exposed, less skittish. Such was the case with one of the two (I suspect) White-throated Sparrows who’ve chosen to winter around Ashland Pond. The one who chose to pose for photos on the lichen-encrusted limb of a nearby oak is the brightly feathered one. The other sparrow I’ve photographed there may be a youngster and is much less brightly colored right now.WTS FRONT (1280×960)How much of this bird’s beauty is its relative rarity in our area? If he were as common as male Mallards or Robins or Scrub-Jay would we walk right past?WTS FRONT (1280x960)

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BTW, a fellow birder has found two White-throats around the feeders at North Mountain Park about a mile upstream from the pond. Ashland, Oregon, is clearly a White-throat hot spot on the Pacific Slope.

Brings to mind my favorite quote from Rich Stallcup, “Yes, but have you ever seen THAT Robin before?” This image below shows how the White-throated Sparrow is usually seen at Ashland Pond.WTS HIDESThis is at least the fourth straight year the species has wintered among the Golden-crowns, Fox and Song Sparrows there. Can we even still consider them vagrant? Aren’t the by now simply uncommon wintering birds like Hutton’s Vireo or Say’s Phoebe?

Last spring the two at Ashland Pond were singing by late April, dualing with their “peabody, peabody” tune. Definitely more dual than duet. One answering the other, or was it challenging?

My favorite White-throat story happened one autumn in New York’s Central Park. I had joined up with a local bird group looking for migrants. They simply walked past every White-throated Sparrow flock like we would Juncos out here. Not even worth a mention. Every brown ground thrush would get thoroughly vetted, one became my lifer Bicknell’s. I lagged at one point and scanned over the nearest sparrows, and in the back of the gang on the ground was a single White-crown. When I casually mentioned it so it would be added to our day list the whole group stampeded back for a long look at the “unusual” White-crowned Sparrow.

“What a beauty!” someone exclaimed. Rare beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

WHAT THE FLOCK IS HAPPENING AS WINTER APPROACHES?

November 14, 2014

ASHLAND, OREGON, US, NORTHERN HEMISPHERE, JUST ABOUT HALF-WAY FROM EQUATOR TO NORTH POLE

For some birds this is the season of togetherness. Parents and juveniles, families and cousins, unrelated birds of same species, even several species ganging together. What the flock?4 abreast
Here is a small group of female Hooded Mergansers near a pair of sleepy female Bufflehead on Ashland Pond. A common winter sight that is not to be found during breeding season.

TUNDRA-RUN2Above, Tundra Swans on Emigrant Lake (they are no longer there) showing three adults and four gray-headed juveniles. Parents and offspring? Here are Snow Geese (still at Emigrant Lake today). Two white adults, two grayish juveniles who may be their off-spring. SNO-GO FLOK Below, small flock of Green-winged Teal; they even fly in tight formation when they take off.GWT IN POOL (1280x960) Covey of California Quail. Historically these coveys included numerous family groups and would grow to the hundreds in food-rich habitats before gunners and feral cats came on the scene. Before Europeans arrived Native Americans could hunt quail with nets because the flocks were so dense. qwale

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This is a Solitaire in Harney County, OR. At the Sage Hen Rest Stop on US20 where I took this shot there were also Starlings, Cedar Waxwings, Robins, Mountain Bluebird and Varied Thrush all sharing the healthy juniper berry crop. Very mixed flock.

ELEGNT CROWD2Above, a group of Elegant Terns loafing in Monterey after breeding season is over.
There are many working theories about why birds of a feather flock together. None are more together than some small shorebirds or Cedar Waxwings. The latter often be identified in flight at great distances simply by the cohesion of the flock. Mutual alert system? More eyes to find the food source? Safety in numbers? We should ask the birds…but maybe they have little self-awareness. Among Corvids there is “deliberate” or at least instinctive food-sharing rather than secretiveness. Again this may insure more survival for more individual birds. Fifty Ravens have a better chance of finding a fresh carcass than any single bird, then the croak goes out and the flock gathers to feed.

Certain families of birds in North America are almost always in flocks when not breeding: Acorn Woodpeckers (even putting all their eggs into one basket), Bushtits, most sparrows (except Song), finch family members from siskin to Evening Grosbeak, swallows, Robins, Icterids (blackbirds and meadowlarks), most Corvids (magpies to Crows), chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglet, pipits, starlings, swifts, Burrowing Owls, nightjars, waterfowl, shorebirds, cormorants, gulls and terns, pelicans, grebes.

Some other families of birds may join mixed species flocks but aren’t highly tolerant of their fellows from the same species: tyrant flycatchers#, nuthatches, most raptors*, hunting herons and egrets (though many nest in colonies), vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, shrikes, cuckoos, many woodpeckers, most owls.

For some interesting musing on mixed-species flocks, check out this piece by Jack Connor in Cornell’s LIVING BIRD magazine.

* There are colonial members of the falcon family that flock together: caracaras, Little Kestrel in Europe, Eleanora’s Falcon. But DNA tells us falcon have more in common with woodpeckers than with a Red-tailed Hawk or Osprey.

# When was the last time you saw ten Black Phoebe sitting on a telephone wire lined up like Tree Swallows or blackbirds?

LEWIS’S WINTERING IN SOUTHERN OREGON

November 4, 2014

Each winter we get some Lewis’s Woodpeckers here in Jackson County, Oregon. Some years more than others. This has started off as a big year for Lewis’s in our open oak woodlands. They don’t breed in the county apparently, but there is a colony just fifteen miles south along the Klamath River north of Yreka, CA. Nobody here knows where these birds are coming from apparently.
This is a great species to watch on any day. This morning after a rain squall and then some break-up of clouds it was windless and partially sunny along OR Hwy 66, at about 2600′ elevation. In the oaks there was a group of Lewis’s. Like their Acorn cousins, this species is often seen fly-catching. They do the phoebe bit–sit upright, spot prey, fly out and grab, then fly back to the same perch. Today they were in Purple Martin mode. Something I’d never witnessed before. Up to eight were circling in the air at one time, some 200 yards or more above the earth. Circling, swooping, diving in shallow stoops. Not as fast nor elegant as swallows, unable to kite or hover like a Kestrel, the Lewis’s were still airborne for several minutes at a time. Many small insects including pale aphids were in the air and must have been their prey.

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It’s fascinating to see the stiff and pointed plumes at the end of the tail feathers, useful for propping against a tree trunk when hammering
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This location is at Milepost 10 on Hwy 66 southeast of Ashland, OR, in the Cascades. Two other good locations hereabouts for wintering Lewis’s are Sam’s Valley north of the Rogue River and Agate Lake northeast of Medford, OR, and south of OR Hwy 140.


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