Between Noah’s Ark-like weather and time spent planning and promoting my Christmas shows, I’ve spent precious little time among the birds of late. So I was quite THANKFUL to get reacquainted with my avian friends over this long Thanksgiving weekend.
The weekend started nicely as an Anna’s Hummingbird perched in the sunshine. The effect of iridescent plumage was illustrated perfectly as she moved her head it turned from black to pink to black again. Just beautiful.
Things quickly turned ominous with the discovery of a deceased Great Horned Owl in the picnic area. I saw his immense brown wing protruding from beneath a pile of freshly fallen leaves. He had been there for several days, his normally stunning golden eyes had turned blue-gray and were clouded over. I’m no CSI type but my investigation detected no foul play. The only obvious signs of trauma were on my face. I wondered if he was the GHO that I photographed last year as a juvenile not 200 yards from where he now lay lifeless. Not sure what to do with the body (green bin or gray bin, sorry but that’s what I was thinking!) I called Portland Audubon and they provided the only sensible course of action, which was to leave him be and let nature take her course.
Before ceding him to the ecosystem I took the opportunity to admire his talons and plumage. I was fascinated by the tufts of feathers that we perceive as ears, but are just feathers. His mottled wing feathers were softer and lighter than I ever imagined. I noted the tiny barbs, or fringes on the edges of the feathers that disrupt the airflow and allow them to fly in stealth mode, silently fleeing from me and my camera while I look around like a tourist. “Where’d he go?”
On the bright side I spotted a booty of Yellow-rumped Warbler (“booty” is the collective noun for YRWs, isn’t it?) surprisingly the first I’d seen at River’s Bend since May. I noted a single White-crowned Sparrow amongst a flock of Golden-crowned Sparrow. I wonder how that works. She must be like Spock aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. She’s probably the chief science officer. She wouldn’t cooperate for a photo. Luckily though, during a brief flash of sunshine a GCS perched and posed quite nicely.
And by the way, which is it? A Western Scrub-jay or a California Scrub-jay? Who cares. A rose by any other name…
This day was spent with family but I had a little time in the morning with the dogs. Returning from the walk I captured a row of Double-crested Cormorants of adults and juveniles lined up like a football team along the sideline.
I also absent-mindedly took a picture of what I though was a Herring Gull swooping around the docks, a bird which I see regularly here at River’s Bend. But examining the pics, he seemed small for an HG and after consulting the Merlin Bird ID app, we decided I’d spotted a new lifer, the Thayer’s Gull, bird number 235 (and number 112 for the yard list.) Glory be!
An American Kestrel was hovering over a field in West Linn as we pulled into Sherry’s family’s place for turkey dinner (which turned out to be ham.) Two years ago we spent Thanksgiving here I would not have noticed that kestrel and if I had, I wouldn’t have known what kind of bird it was. Groovy.
First thing in the morning I opened the door to the back deck and added a few birds to the weekend list using only my ears. (Why aren’t there ear-noculars yet, by the way? It’s 2017 people!) Calling from across the river was the familiar tea kettle call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the Marge Simpson-esque scolding of American Crow and the cooing rattle of Sandhill Crane. (We saw some cranes up close on our drive later, although they wouldn’t look at the camera. I guess they’re immune to the paparazzi.)
At last a day without rain! Which in Oregon means it only rained intermittently for a few hours, but still. I took full advantage, with a 90 minute dog walk, a 60 minute drive around Sauvie Island, culminating in a 90 minute hike around Wapato Greenway Loop Hike with Mrs. Starlight.
First, the dog walk. Generally the moment we reach the top of the ramp, the mutts are ready to explode (literally) and do their doo doo, chase mice and act like monkeys. But that’s often the best opportunity to surprise unsuspecting birds. Sure enough right at the top of the ramp was a foraging flock. Now I have a dilemma. Gracie, off leash, just dropped a doo doo or two in a pile of leaves, perfectly camouflaged so that the only way I’m likely to find her business is with my shoes while searching for it, BUT I want to check out the flock. Grab the doo doo bag or grab the binoculars? No choice. I can always hose off my boots.
I grabbed the binoculars and saw Black-capped Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Ho hum. Wasted effort. But then out of nowhere came a Varied Thrush to kick the RCK off his perch. That was only the third time I’d seen a VT. Once without my camera and twice now they were in that horrible backlit white sky backdrop that makes for silhouetted photos. I snapped several useless pictures that are now in the little trash can icon in the lower right hand corner of this web page.
Later I turned around to find a Cooper’s Hawk sizing me up from only about 20 feet. I just about needed my own doo doo bag. I’ve never seen one so close! But of course before I could react and take a photo he moved along, but I was persistent and found him again, (albeit against the dreaded backlit overcast sky.)
On the way back along the docks our friendly neighborhood Song Sparrow wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. Likewise.
Now the drive. Mrs. Starlight was kind enough to drive while I looked for birds. She doesn’t like driving me into ditches, farm machinery or cyclists. One field had a massive collection of Great Egret, close, and gooses, cranes and gulls, a million miles away. However I was able to finally positively ID Snow Goose for the first time in Oregon. I looked at all these birds crowded in a muddy field, crammed together like Black Friday shoppers and I thought, “this beats the hell out of being in Wal-mart.”
Now the hike. Wapato is flooded with ponds this time of year and we witnessed a comical scene. The pond was teeming with Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Mallard, Northern Pintail, American Coot, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck and Hooded Merganser. Using my brand new 15x binoculars we were able to watch three male mergansers displaying for a very sexy lady. These dudes were head banging as if rockin’ out at a Bon Jovi concert. Even with 15x, they were hard to see but it appeared she chose the dude with the pink headband and the sleeveless “Slippery When Wet” t-shirt. It’s always that guy. What do girls see in him? Girls!
Along the trail I heard a Spotted Towhee. I knew it was, but then I started to doubt myself (which is a reasonable default setting) thinking maybe it was probably just a jay. But then I heard a second call and was sure. My sound ID ability is still in it’s infancy. I recognize calls but can’t place them. After Mrs. S pointed out a Dark-eyed Junco standing on a post right behind me while I was scanning the pond. I thought, “Oh yeah. THAT’S the whistle call I’ve been hearing the last half hour.” By the way, Mrs. S is terrific at spotting birds that I overlook. Spouses have an uncanny ability to catch everything you miss. We make a good team.
Raining hard this morning, so no camera on the dog walk. I worked all morning and then headed into Portland for a show. But a drive to the city will always pad a bird count by at least one. Rock Pigeon.
Arriving back home near midnight I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting in the parking lot for the first time this Fall. This is a pleasant change from the shrill screeching call we’ve been treated to all summer. I was melancholy remembering there’s now one less owl in River’s Bend.
Pouring buckets of rain again. No camera on the dog walk, but I spotted two female Common Merganser from the window. Welcome back to River’s Bend. We also have welcomed back the Bald Eagles who have a nest here and I got a good look at them now that the leaves have largely fallen off the trees and now vexing maintenance crews everywhere. They appear to be the same couple that I have seen since we moved to River’s Bend two years ago, but honestly how would I know? They should wear name tags.
This year I am incredibly grateful to have a loving family, good health, a fulfilling career and a world of birds.
Thanksbirding list - 44
Red winged Blackbird
Double crested Cormorant
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Great Blue Heron
Ring-necked Duck (or Lesser Scaup couldn’t tell from distance)
Canvasback? (or Redhead?)
Great Horned Owl