Thursday, March 21, 2013

Marsh Wren

Just like last year, March is when the Marsh Wrens start singing.  Of course, a lot of birds start singing in March, it's just that it's hard to find Marsh Wren's when they aren't singing as they spend much of their time down low among the reeds of marshy areas.

It was a pretty dreary day a couple of Sunday's ago, but that didn't deter a few wrens at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge from composing their song of chirps, buzzes and warbles.

Though these shots were taken just outside my car at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge's auto tour, this is a small bird.  So I was lucky to have rented a 200 - 400mm zoom along with a 1.7x teleconverter.  That's boosts the zoom at 400mm to 680mm.  Multiply the 1.5x crop caused by the smaller sensor in my D90 and you have an equivalent 1020mm.
I really like the 200 - 400mm lens, but I prefer the 600mm Nikon offers.  Both have a wide open f-stop of 4.0, but in order to get the reach of the 600mm, I have to use the 1.7x teleconverter.  That increases the f-stop to over 6.0, slower than my current 70 - 300mm zoom.  With all the cloudy days we have here in western Oregon, I really want something faster.
Anyway, for such a tough bird to photograph, I've had pretty good luck at RNWR.  The car blind really does work out quite well.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rough-legged Hawk

The Buteo genus of hawks can be a bit difficult to identify without experience.  One of the problems for me is that Red-tailed Hawks are so common here in the Portland area and the other species in the genus, not so much.  Another problem is that the most common place to find Buteos is sitting on roadside posts, not an easy place to stop and get a good view.
With variations within just the Red-tailed Hawk species, light-morph, dark-morph, Harlan's, etc, I have more than once tried to turn a Red-tailed into one of its relatives.
During my trip to Wallowa county last month, I found several Rough-legged Hawks along the road. It was my first sighting and I got a lot of opportunity to view them.  In the pictures above and below, you can see that their legs are covered with feathers, a trait that inspired their name.
It was interesting trying to get close enough to get a good picture.  I was on Crow Creek Road during my first encounter.  I tried driving along slowly, but the bird would always fly down to the next pole just as I was getting into range.
Finally, I gave up and decided to drive on, when I noticed that it didn't spook nearly as easily if I drove past faster.  That trick got me the pics above and below.
Being a regular reader of OBOL has kept me mindful of disturbing birds as little as possible while trying to get pictures.  I was a little concerned that I was being too aggressive as it would fly from post to post as I slowly approached.  At one point it flew off onto the grassy hillside along the road.  That made me even more concerned in that I thought I had scared it away from its watch for prey.  I was relieved a bit later while watching it with my binoculars when I discovered that the reason for flying off is that it spied prey out on the hillside and was now feasting on it.
Here's another Rough-legged, again on Crow Creek Road, but along the paved stretch.  Notice the improvement in the quality of the posts. :-)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ring-necked Pheasant

Another case where bringing my camera along to work worked to my advantage. I was just leaving Wilsonville on 110th Ave last Thursday when I noticed a rooster Ring-necked Pheasant in the field along side the road.
I see pheasants along this stretch occasionally, but never when I have my camera. I was about to chastise myself for not having my camera, when I realized, duh, I do have it, so I turned around and hoped for the best.
Pheasants are difficult to photograph since they tend to stay hidden in tall grass. This one tolerated me for a bit as I stayed in my car, but as you can see, it soon got nervous and squatted in an attempt to hide, eventually flushing off to taller brush.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

As I drove the county roads around Enterprise and Joseph, Oregon in Wallowa County, I was struck by how few birds I was encountering. While I tried to avoid the fantasy of birds dripping from the trees, I expected it to be much more birdie.
By the second day, I was resolved to be patient and hopefully the birds would show themselves. That was the case with a flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. 
I was driving back to the main route along Crow Creek Road when I saw a large flock of sparrow-like birds along the hillside off to one side. They would dart around, sharply changing directions several times, then suddenly drop down, disappearing into the tall grass, only to reemerge a short time later.
They didn't seem interested in coming further down the hillside to give me a closer look, so I started taking pictures, hoping that I would get clear enough images to identify them.  It wasn't long before I was able to zoom in on some images on my camera's LCD display and realized that they were Rosy-Finches.
This behavior continued for quite awhile until the flock turned towards me, flying right over my car only to reverse course as a few started landing along the road on the opposite side.  Unfortunately, I had my window rolled up on that side to help keep warm (it was probably in the teens at that time). As I rolled the window down hoping to get better pictures, the flock flushed and flew off up the road. I wasn't able to refind them.
For much closer images of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, follow this link on my first sighting of this species.  

Western Meadowlark

I visited Wallowa County in northeast Oregon for the first time this past January 4th & 5th. It's well know as a hotspot for winter migrants such as Bohemian Waxwings and Common Redpolls, two of my most desired targets (neither of which I saw).
None-the-less, I did see four new life birds plus a new Oregon bird.

Sometimes opportunities occur when you least expect them. As a grade schooler growing up in Minnesota, I used to see Meadowlarks regularily. Here in Oregon, though they are the state bird, I see them much less frequently and seldom up close.
One of the country tour loops recommended in the area by Birding Oregon is Golf Course Road out of Enterprise, Oregon, followed by Leap Lane and finally driving Highway 3 back to Enterprise. While I had high expectations about the first two segments, I didn't expect much along Highway 3. However, this stretch provided me the best photography opportunity of the day.
There, along the road, sitting on a fence post was a Western Meadowlark basking in the winter sun. By the time I got a good look at it, I was still traveling much too fast to stop and get a longer look, so, after debating a bit with myself for a bit, I decided to turn around and hope it was still there.
Luckily, the traffic was relatively light, allowing me to pull over on the narrow shoulder without worrying too much for my safety. The Meadowlark was quite cooperative, allowing me the chance to get my best photos of this species to date. 

When one thinks of a Meadowlark, the feature that come to mind first is its brilliant yellow breast and bold black "V" as seen in the two images above. And while I love those pictures, the one above from the side, obscuring the breast, reveals an intricate array of earthy brown feathers with delicate black markings that I find fascinating.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Great Horned Owl - Moon

On the evening of Dec 21, my wife and I were enjoying an evening together at home when we heard an owl hooting outside.  I went out to investigate, but the owl fell silent.
Then later we heard it again.
It sounded as if it were in our front yard, but as I tried to locate it by following its call, its location seemed to move.  At one point it seemed the sound was coming from the back yard, but a quick check made it clear it was in the front.
As luck would have, there was a break in the evening clouds and as I stood on our front stoop, I noticed a shape against the moon.  There, at the very top of a tall pine along our driveway, sat a Great Horned Owl silhouetted by the moon's light.
I viewed it through my camera to get a closer look.  How cool to watch it turning its head from side to side against the moon.
I did a lousy job of adjusting for exposure, but I did get this one picture, greatly brightened in post (check out all that noise), that clearly shows the Owl's silhouette. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mountain Chickadee

The Willamette Valley has been invaded by Mountain Chickadees this autumn. While more common at higher elevations, these chickadees are being seen regularly at feeders around the area.
As luck would have it, birder Craig Turner posted to OBOL that one was visiting his feeder at work in Wilsonville. Welcoming a rare sighting so close to home, I drove to the north side of town on December 1 and found it almost immediately.
There was some discussion as to whether this influx of Mountain Chickadees were of the Rocky Mountain or Pacific subspecies, with some leaning towards the less likely Rocky Mountain form in early discussions. Ultimately, I believe most settled on the Pacific subspecies.

Monday, November 19, 2012

American Tree Sparrow

I just completed three weeks of business travel. The first week to Tacoma, WA, the second to Atlanta, GA and this past week back to Leominster, MA.
A stop on the way up to Tacoma netted two new life birds and a new Washington bird and while my annual trip to Atlanta didn't produce any lifers, I did see most all the cool eastern birds I usually find there.
I only had time to bird for about an hour and a half during the Leominster trip before I had to make my way to Boston's Logan Airport to start the long flight home. Instead of birding at my usual spots I decided to try something new. Since I was on my way to Boston, I decided to make a stop along the way. A check on Google maps found that Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was just a short detour off my route.
It turned out to be a great a place for birding making me wish I had gotten up a little earlier so I could have spent more time there.

As I walked along a trail that splits a large marsh, I kept flushing a sparrow out in front of me until it got tired of that game and flew back behind me. I hadn't seen a lot of birds yet so I decided to backtrack and see if I could get a closer look.
When I finally got a decent look at it I decided that it was a Chipping Sparrow as it looked like one and is a bird that I have typically seen in during my past trips to the area. However, at one point I caught a glimpse its breast and I was quite sure that it had a dark spot right in the middle.  Perhaps this was a American Tree Sparrow. Both sparrows belong to the genus Spizella and are similar in appearance and while I've seen a Chipping Sparrow many times, an American Tree Sparrow would be a lifer for me!
I never got any better looks, but I took as many pictures as I could hoping that I'd be able to get a positive ID once I reviewed them. Sure enough, as you can see in the top picture, the bird has a black dot on its breast.  There are other field marks indicative of an American Tree Sparrow. Its lower mandible is yellow.  A Chipping Sparrow's lower mandible is black like the upper.  The stripe through its eye is brown instead black like a Chipping. And as can be seen in the lower image, it has two bright white wing bars compared to the duller bars on the Chipping Sparrow.
What a nice surprise on such a short outing!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Northern Wheatear

On Oct 28, Dave Irons submitted two posts to OBOL along with a link to BirdFellow where he reported some great birds on the Washington state coast. The birds included two juvenile Bar-tailed Godwits, a Tropical Kingbird, a Wilson's Plover, a Common Eider and this Northern Wheatear. All were found within a 20 mile stretch between Tokeland and Westport. 
As luck would have it, I was heading to Tacoma, WA the very next day on business. Since the day was a travel day, I had time to divert off I-5 and try my luck at seeing these birds and in fact ended up seeing three out of the five, dipping on the Tropical Kingbird and the Wilson's Plover.
The Northern Wheatear and Common Eider were both seen in Westport; the Wheatear along the coast at Westhaven State Park and the Eider in Westhaven Cove. These were the last two stops on my trip and the dreary day was getting even darker as it was past 4:00 in the afternoon.
Dave's directions for finding the Wheatear were right on and I found it almost immediately after scaling the rocks at the point just east of the jetty. It was moving about among some large boulders somewhat out of range for my camera lens, but I decided to take some early pictures as Dave was right about another thing; it was highly mobile and not very cooperative. It wasn't long before it flew off below the rocks closer to the water and I didn't see it again. Luckily I was able to salvage a couple of the distant shots. 
Quite the sight as this bird normally only frequents Alaska and the northern reaches of Canada in all of the Americas!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Clark's Nutcracker

On the morning of Sept 8 I drove up to Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood. It's not great for the number or variety of birds, but I find some birds there that I don't find elsewhere. Oh, and the view is great!
One of the birds I have only seen up at Timberline is the Clark's Nutcracker. It's a great bird related to Jays and Crows. In the past, I've only seen a couple during each trip with only so-so views, but on this day there were nutcrackers everywhere. You could see them flying from tree to tree as they collected pine seeds.
At times they would fly out of a tree as if they were fly catching. The one above is definitely in pursuit of something, but it looks more like one of the pine seeds than an insect. I have not found any literature that attributes fly catching to nutcracker's, but they are know to include insects in their diet.

Clark's Nutcrackers are well know for collecting and stashing pine seeds for use during the winter months.  They have incrediable memories allowing them to find the seeds in their many hiding places. Some of the seeds that they don't consume end up sprouting and growing into more trees, making nutcracker's one of the primary means that some pine forests spread.
Here is an account of this behavior from Cornell's All About Birds website:
All year round, the staple food of a Clark Nutcracker’s diet is pine seeds, either fresh or stored. The nutcracker uses its long, sharp, sturdy bill to crack open closed, unripe pine cones and remove seeds from the cone scales. It shells seeds by cracking them in its bill or by holding them in its feet and hammering them. Between September and December it stores seeds to eat later, placing 30–150 seeds in the pouch under its tongue and carrying them to a spot nearby or up to 15 miles away. It digs a trench in the soil with its bill and puts a cluster of seeds inside before covering them up again, or it pushes individual seeds into gravelly soil, pumice, or crevices in wood. During the winter and spring, it relocates caches by remembering where they lie in relation to nearby objects like rocks, logs, and trees. Nutcrackers have such good memories that they can relocate seeds more than nine months after caching them, though their accuracy declines after about six months. They don’t recover all the seeds they bury, and it’s estimated that for some high-elevation pines, such as whitebark pine, virtually all the trees you can see on the landscape come from seeds planted by a nutcracker. Nutcrackers use cached seeds to feed both themselves and their young. Clark’s Nutcrackers also opportunistically eat insects and spiders, and small vertebrates such as other birds, ground squirrels, chipmunks, voles, toads, and carrion.
While most of the nutcrackers were above in trees, making getting a full shot of them difficult, I found the one above on the ground near a stream up the mountain from Timberline. I could be totally wrong on this, but I suspect this is a first year bird. For one thing, it was a little tamer than the others, which always makes me suspect a young bird.  Also, its face doesn't have much white like adults.  Unfortunately I couldn't find much information about year old birds, so please feel free to let me know if I am right or all wet.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Black-and-white Warbler

A couple of weeks from now I will make my fourth trip of the year to Leominster, MA. The company I work for is installing a new lighting system in the high school as it is being renovated. Each time I've been able to fit in a little birding.
On July 19th, during one of those trips, I was walking Wolf Rock Trail in Leominster State Forest.  It was a mostly sunny day, but there was plenty of shade under the forest trees.  The sun was slightly behind me when I noticed the shadow of something flying overhead.
I looked back and saw a small bird fly into the woods not far off the trail. The understory was relatively clear so I decided to have a closer look. It turned out to be a female Black-and-white Warbler, my first as an adult.
Here you can see the warbler clinging to the truck of a tree. This "nuthatch-like" behavior is a trait of the Black-and-white Warbler.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Indigo Bunting

This past 4th of July, my wife and I vacationed in Bandon, OR.  We've done so for the past four years.  This year I decided to rent a big lens as there are many great birding opportunities there.  So the day before we left I drove into Portland and picked up a 200-400mm f4 zoom along with a 1.7x teleconverter from Pro Photo Supply.  It's the first time I had tried this lens.
Coincidentally, there had been recent reports of an Indigo Bunting patrolling some grassland near the Port of Vancouver in Vancouver, WA.  This wasn't so far from where I picked up the lens, so I couldn't resist trying my luck at getting a few shots of this vagrant.

The area was off limits to the public, but the gravel drive that lead to the property was not, so I sat in my car, using it as a blind, and waited. As I watched a small flock of House Sparrows, I got a glimpse of a blue bird fly up over a small mound to my right.  Sure enough, it wasn't long before I saw the bunting further up the drive. 

Then it disappeared only to reappear on a sign very near me, then dropped down on a blackberry branch and began to sing.  How cool!
It came and went three or four times before I left, at one point spending some time in some early summer Teasel.  All-in-all, well worth the trip and great start to my 4th of July celebration!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Great Horned Owl

Taken way back on April 7th, this Great Horned Owl at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge decided to make its nest in the hollow of a broken tree trunk right next to the road along the auto tour. There was concern over the owls being disturbed by curious humans, so the refuge fenced off the turn out making it difficult for anyone to spend much time there. Some visitors even posted pictures of others who broke the rules and left their cars to get a closer look.
I got this shot while momentarily stopped not far from the nest. The sun was bright that day and the owl in shadow, making  it difficult to get a even exposure.  I had to do a fair amount of post processing to get this one looking good, but it is my favorite pose. While the owl didn't seem too concerned with people, it did tend to keep an eye on you. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Turkey Vulture

I took a drive during lunch this past Thursday to clear my head a bit. I do that once in a while if I feel I'm spinning my wheels at work. Occasionally, I will see a bird of interest and wished I had brought my camera along. Such was the case on this Thursday afternoon, except lucky me, I happened to have my camera!

As I drove along Wilsonville Road, just east of Newberg, I noticed a couple of Turkey Vultures sitting in the field not far off the road. I don't usually stop along county roads, but this was too good to pass up.
The Vulture in the image at the top was just on the other side of a double wire, barbed fence (the blurred streak through the middle of the image is one of the wires), while the other in the image above was a bit further out.
It wasn't long before I realized why they were there and why they didn't fly off. As can be seen above, there was a Raccoon carcass that they were scavenging. Eventually, they grew wary of me and began pulling the carcass further off into the field.
This proved to be too much effort for the Vulture, so it abandoned the effort and flew off. 

However, the lure of the meal was overwhelming, and it soon returned. I decided it was time to move on as I had disturbed them enough. 
It had occurred to me in the past to plant a carcass in order to get photos like these, but ethics and logistics kept me from doing it. Just goes to show that if you are patient and prepared, opportunities will present themselves to you naturally. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pectoral Sandpiper

This past Monday, I spent the morning at Fernhill Wetlands. It was a little slower than the previous week, but I did get some real nice looks at small flock of five Pectoral Sandpipers.

I found them at the northeast corner of Fernhill Lake near all the construction. There is some nice mud there for shorebirds and is much closer viewing than on the west side.
The rufous coloring on its wings and back along with crisp new feathers would suggest that these are juveniles born this year.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Monday was Labor Day, making it a three day weekend, so I decided to take advantage of the extra free time and rented a lens. You can pick it up on Thursday afternoon and don't have to return it until Tuesday morning for the cost of a daily rental. I was willing to go with any of the three I typically use, but was hoping the 600mm was available as this is a great time for shorebirds. Its long reach is a real advantage. I got lucky as it was available, so I went all out and also picked up a 1.7x teleconverter and tripod with a Wimberly head.
I had planned on Fernhill Wetlands being my primary location, but my wife was tied up most of Saturday, so that gave me enough time to make a day trip to the coast. There had been reports of two Buff-breasted Sandpipers at Necanicum Estuary just north of Seaside as late as Friday, so I decided to try my luck. My success rate at bird chasing leaves something to be desired, but even if I didn't find them, there would be other great opportunities.
This would be my first visit to Necanicum Estuary, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Luckily, those that had already seen the birds left good directions for getting there. What I wasn't expecting, though, was a narrow stream separating me from a vast span of prime shorebird habitat at low tide. It was just wide enough to keep me from jumping over it (note to self, remember to get knee high boots).

After surveying the area and not seeing any Buff-breasted Sandpipers, I explored the trail along the stream until I found shallow area that I waded across. (Later I discovered that if I you just keep following the trail, the stream will end and you can walk out on to the estuary without getting wet) 

As I walked out onto the estuary, I wasn't sure where I should start.  I noticed someone standing a ways off who looked like they may be birding so I decided that would as good a place to start as any.
As I approached potential birder, he started subtly pointing off in the direction he was facing. I looked, but didn't see anything. It was early in the morning and the clouds hadn't burned off yet, so the light wasn't very good. Then, I noticed something moving not far from us. There they were, two Buff-breasted Sandpipers, not more than 20 feet away (probably less).

I took some pictures and eventually they flew off with some other nearby shorebirds. The birder turned out to be Greg Baker. I had read his posts on OBOL. We eventually re-found the birds (they sure seemed to like him. :-)), and eventually went our separate ways.
While I had gotten some ok pictures of the birds, the light left something to be desired, so I was concerned that the pictures would turn out soft.  I decided to stick around for awhile, spending some time with a flock of Caspian Terns, then returned to where we had first seen the sandpipers. By then the sun had burned through the clouds making for near ideal conditions.
As luck would have it, the birds had returned to the same area. They seemed to like this patch of sand covered with a carpet of green vegetation, this time accompanied by a small flock of Western Sandpipers and a few Least's.
They were very cooperative, until a family with small children came blasting through, spooking the Buff-breasted's.