Friday, July 31, 2015

Yay Peeps! My Attempt at Teaching Basic West Coast Peep Identification

    Every year when I start looking at shorebirds again they all seem to blend together. Western, Least, and Semipalmated Sandpipers are all a shade off of each other.  The differences between species, especially peeps, can seem minuscule. I headed out to Plat I Reservoir today to try my luck at finding a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a rare bird for Douglas County, and an uncommon bird for the West Coast. 
Peep identification can be a real head-scratcher

    Even if I could find one, I was worried about being able to identify it, as I believe I have only seen one before in my life, and it was at the very beginning of my journey as a beginner birder. Luckily for me, conditions, while hot (88F at the start of my paddle, 94F at the end) were excellent, and the birds were very cooperative.

    The first thing that stood out to me was the large number of Western Sandpipers that were on the mudflats.

Western Sandpipers
    I knew these were Western Sandpipers for a few reasons. First, they have black legs. This can be hard to see when the birds are muddy, but these are nice and clean (relatively). Secondly, they have long, black bills that are slightly drooping. They are also noticeably larger than Least Sandpipers, and slightly larger than Semipalmated Sandpipers. Finally, in breeding plumage they show a lot of red on the back, but beware, juvenile Least Sandpipers can also show red on the back. The Western Sandpipers that I say today all stood out immediately because of the amount of red on the back.



Blurry juvenile Least Sandpiper at rear, Western Sandpiper in front
    The next birds I noticed out on the flats were Least Sandpipers. Least Sandpipers have yellow legs, and a small, pointed bill that may slightly droop. Compare these two birds. The Western Sandpiper in front has a long, heavy drooping bill and black legs. The Least Sandpiper has a short, pointed bill with yellow legs. In this picture the size difference isn't apparent, but the least is smaller.

    In review: LEAST SANDPIPER


Is it my target bird?
    As the day wore on I kept on paddling and picking through the peeps. Pretty promptly, the pertinent particulars of a pretty little peep began to pop out in my persnickety process. (Okay, no more alliteration, I swear).

    As you can see, the bird in the above picture has dark legs, and a stout, stubby bill that is quite straight. These features, along with it's size in comparison to a nearby Western Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper gave me a hint that I had found what I was searching for: a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Slightly smaller than Western? Check. Shorter bill than Western? Black Legs? Check and Check.

Stubbier and stouter bill than (blurry) Least Sandpiper in foreground? Check. 

    We have a winner! The Semipalmated Sandpiper in these three photos fit all of the criteria. First, it's slightly smaller than the Western Sandpiper and larger than the Least Sandpiper. Second, it has black legs, unlike the Least Sandpiper. Finally, it has a short, stout, stubby bill, different than both the Western and Least Sandpipers.



    I was quite happy to have found my year-Semipalmated Sandpiper. But my day wasn't over. Next I continued to take pictures of peeps to study at home. I got an excellent shot of a Western Sandpiper pulling a worm out of the ground, but when I got home...

BLURRY! Darn it!

I continued paddling and snapping, and did get a few shots that I was happy with.

Long-Billed Dowitchers

Photo Deux

Greater Yellowlegs
    On the next section of mudflat I saw what I thought was another Killdeer (I think there were around 20 total), but I looked closer and it was a Semipalmated Plover!

Semipalmated Plover with Greater Yellowlegs
    And, I managed to get a semi-clean shot...

Get that worm!

    I was pretty happy at this point, but when I rounded the corner on the reservoir, in the distance I could see what appeared to be some dark shorebirds. What were they? Wilson's Snipe? Nope! A trio of Virginia Rails was running around on the mudflat with the shorebirds. Wild! I have rarely seen them out in the open and here were three feeding in plain sight.

Virginia Rails

Feeding Rail

I didn't realize how fair-sized they are for such a sneaky bird! 

    It was getting pretty hot by now and I was ready to head somewhere else. However, when I rounded the final corner a huge, golden shorebird flew in and landed on the flat. It was a Long-Billed Curlew! A very good bird for Douglas County!

Long Billed Curlew! I originally called it a Whimbrel. 

Notice how pale it's breast is, compared to a Whimbrel, which is more heavily streaked.
    I originally called the Long-Billed Curlew a Whimbrel. Why? First I thought it's bill wasn't long enough to be a Long-Billed Curlew, however, I just learned there is actually a "range" in lengths for Long-Billed Curlew bills! Wow! Secondly, I thought a Whimbrel would be far more likely, however, it is actually quite rare for a Whimbrel to be inland, even though they are somewhat regular on the coast.

    Finally, notice how plain and pale the face is. I attributed this to lighting, but it's actuallya  good marker for Long-Billed Curlew. In a post teaching about shorebirds I get corrected! It goes to show how much I have to learn, which isn't a bad thing. We all make mistakes!

    I was very happy with my results today. I hit three of my birding joys: identifying difficult species, taking good pictures, and finding good birds. I also noticed some strange crabs. While the pictures are poor I thought I would post them.

Big Red-Clawed Crab
Big Greenish Crab?

Finally, I thought I would end with some Quiz photos if anyone has been using the blog to do some learning.

Quiz #1

Quiz #2

What do you think? Post your responses below. Until then:

Keep plodding along!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Slow Times in Douglas County

    Shorebirds have been slowly trickling into Douglas County. We don't seem to be getting near the numbers yet (at least inland) that other counties are. I took my kayak out onto Plat I Reservoir today and saw 4 Greater Yellowlegs and 3 Least Sandpipers. There were also a dozen or so Killdeer. Do those count as shorebirds? They do? Well, we got plenty.

Greater Yellowlegs and Killdeer

Greater Yellowlegs

    Notice the barring on the flanks of the bottom bird and not on the top bird. The lighting on the top bird was a bit difficult, and in a couple of angles the bill looked quite small. I had to remind myself of some of the pertinent particulars of Greater and Lesser Yellowleg Identification.

Also, I believe that the top bird is a juvenile. You can tell it's brownish appearance, and how "groomed" it looks with feathers in the right places.

The bottom bird's barring is left over from it's breeding plumage. It's back looks grayer and raggedy, indicating feather wear and older age. 

Greater Yellowlegs:

- Longer (when compared to size of head) upturned bill
- Larger when compared side-to-side
- More prominent eye-ring
- Sometimes shows an "adam's apple" (which can be seen on the lower bird)

Lesser Yellowlegs:

- Less bulky build than Greater
- Smaller head and bill
- Can show a dark "cap" 

    There was also a Long-Billed Dowitcher near two of the Yellowlegs.
Long-Billed Dowitcher
    How do I know it's a Long-Billed Dowitcher and not a Short-Billed Dowitcher? The bird flushed and I heard it calling; its call is sharper than a short-billed. If I manage to get some pictures later in the year I will attempt to recreate what Dave Irons, Greg Gilson, and Shawneen Finnegan so expertly explained in these articles and photo galleries:

Greg Explaining a Basic Overview of Dowitcher ID:

Shawneen Explaining Aging and Tertial Markings on Juveniles:

Dave Explaining what Field Marks are Best to Check with links to excellent pictures he took:

Whew, it can be exhausting! But, it's part of the process, even when painful. Here's an easier identification from Platte I

Let's Cleanse the palate with a little Osprey before we move on, shall we?
    On a lighter note, I went up to Drew, Oregon last weekend, and tried finding some Flammulated Owls. I think I heard one, but I want to get a recording for a confirmation, so I will be going up possibly a couple of times this coming week for a listen. While I was up there, I also saw a covey of Mountain Quail and some Sooty Grouse:

Not a Great Picture, but there it is.

Sooty Grouse (Juvenile?)

It may be slow now,but I am sure the numbers will pick up soon. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Douglas County Poorwill

I am only a little ashamed to admit that being in the woods at night alone scares the hell out of me. I understand how irrational it is to be afraid of the woods at night, and I am slowly getting more used to it, but every once in a while when I am out owling I get the heebie-jeebies and want to run to my car and lock the doors.  I have also found that it helps to be in the area when there is still light to see by, as it doesn't seem so intimidating when the night closes in.

Even with this crippling fear, I did some getting-late-in-the-season Flammulating this evening up Quines Creek Road where myself and Matt Hunter heard Common Poorwills earlier this year. I didn't hear any Flammulated Owls, but I did drive up to where we thought we heard the Poorwills calling, and I ended up flushing two from the gravel road.

Common Poorwill

It really liked this spot

The first flushed from the road, and as I rounded the corner a second flushed. I tried to keep going, but my car started sliding backwards, even with the brakes on. EEK! Not fun on a hillside. I backed down to the corner, and the first Poorwill had returned. I got out and pointed my headlight beam at it. It kept flying up in the air and catching bugs, and flew past me at extremely close range a few times! It was a very cool experience; those two glowing red eyes and near-silent wings, it was almost like being in the presence of an otherworldly creature.

The Poorwill also "clucked" or "chirped" as it was flying. As to not agitate it I left it alone as soon as possible, but it continued to fly up the road past me and back to it's original spot. Eventually I walked out of its hunting range and back up the road, and when I came down 20 minutes after it was gone.

Bushtit from earlier in the evening posing

Thursday, July 2, 2015

More High Cascades Birding

    As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Douglas county is massive. I just bought some forest service maps and have been drooling over them thinking about the possibilities.
    "Ooh, there could be Canyon Wren there, and Black Swift there, and Great Gray Owl there, and maybe Green-Tailed Towhee there, and and and..."
    I have taken two trips up into the Diamond Lake Ranger District this week, splitting up my responsibilities at home, and have had a blast so far.
    On May 29th and 30th I hit Lemolo Lake, Diamond Lake, and Thorn Prairie. I struck out on Green-Tailed Towhee at the Toketee Airstrip and Lemolo Lake (nemesis bird #1 for me this year) but took some fun pictures at Diamond Lake.

Marsh Wren at Diamond Lake Sewage Ponds

Marsh Wren Again: The best descriptor I ever heard of it's call was when someone described it as an alien ray gun: NEEEERRR, SHICKA CHICKA CHICKA!!!

Chipping Sparrow at DLSP

Everyone can take a good picture of a mother Mallard with ducklings, but that doesn't make them any less cute!

    Part of the reason I headed high this week was to beat the heat in the valley. In my current home of Myrtle Creek the temperature was expected to hover around the mid 90s, cracking triple digits later this week. It was still pretty hot around 4500 feet, so to double-dip on cooling down and heating up my numbers (what an awful pun, I know) I hiked into Lemolo Falls (pronounced Le-mole-O) wishing and hoping for a Black Swift.
Lemolo Falls
The temperature dropped about 10 degrees at the base of the falls. It was wonderful. I ended up spending three hours doing possibly the least productive yet most wonderful big sit ever, with a gorgeous roaring falls cooling me down in an utterly serene canyon of flowers and greenery. My list:

1 Common Merganser
1 Turkey Vulture
1 Sharp-Shinned Hawk
1 Osprey
1 American Dipper

    While I didn't dip on Dipper I dipped on Black Swift (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist). But it's a little early in the year to start checking, and there are a lot of waterfalls that could be good Black Swift habitat in the county.
    The next morning I went back to Thorn Prairie for another shot at Green-Tailed Towhee, and struck out again. But I did get some neat pics of a Long-Tailed Weasel.
 Long-Tailed Weasel
This one didn't really run, it's more of a porpoising motion 

Hiding behind a single blade of grass?
    On Wednesday I drove back up and checked out some rock formations in the Boulder Creek Wilderness Area, which is west of Toketee Lake, for Rock and Canyon Wren. While I didn't find a Canyon Wren, a nice hike up to Illahee Rock landed me a Rock Wren, in what I believe may be a new place to find them in Douglas County!

Illahee Rock on the left

What a View!
Rock Wren

Singing Away!
    I managed to get a video, and if you watch the end of it, you will see a bird dive bomb the Rock Wren. I think it is either a Red-Breasted Nuthatch or the female Rock Wren. If so, maybe it's telling him to get back to work?

Click on the "gear" settings button below the video to turn the video quality to 1080P and also slow the video speed down as slow as possible. It's really neat to see the bird flying through the shot, and the Rock Wren ducking to avoid it!

    On my way back down, I got extended looks at a juvenile Northern Goshawk. That one was a lifer for me!

Overall it has been a great week of birding. Tomorrow I am heading up to Tiller to look for some "sexy" target species. Stay tuned for more!

Serendipitous Empidonax

    One of the blessings and challenges of birding in Douglas County, Oregon, is the size of the county itself. At 5,134 square miles (13,300 km^2) it is the fifth largest county in Oregon. Douglas County also spans distinct ecoregions: the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Range, the Klamath Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, as well as a central hill-and-valley ecoregion. All of these ecoregions, and all of the square miles in and around them (not to mention interesting micro-habitats like Thorn Prairie) means that there is always somewhere to explore, and always somewhere else that you wish you could be at the same time!
    I have birded the area in and around Thorn Prairie perhaps 7 times this year so far, mostly looking for Green-Tailed Towhee (which I still haven't tracked down) but also three times in late April and early May, hoping for an "eastside vagrant," namely, a Gray Flycatcher. In Oregon, there are several places on the west side of the Cascade Mountains that have had Eastern Oregon birds show up regularly in late April and early May, including and especially the Detroit area of Marion County. I have little experience with Gray Flycatchers, and figured it a lost cause that I even went to look for them, considering how hard empidonax flycatchers are to identify. However, I was advised to look for "downward tail wagging" behavior which is a solid ID trait for this species.
   The last trip that I took looking for eastside vagrants was on May 10th. I spent the night in a dispersed campsite at Thorn Prairie, and started birding at sunrise. I was exhausted from my week of work, and frustrated with the intentions of my trip.
    "How will I be able to find one of these stupid birds? Even if I see it there is no way I'll be able to identify it."
    Immediately after these thoughts ran through my head I came across a small flycatcher, bobbing it's tail.
    "This is ridiculous. There is no way I am this lucky." In fact, I distinctly remember being embarrassed for my wishful thinking in that I had found the bird I wanted to see, and was afraid of reporting it for it being a wrong identification of a wishful bird. I almost totally ignored it. Almost.
    I had just bought my new camera, a Canon SX-50 HS and was excited to use it. So I waited, and waited, until the bird flew into good light, and I captured a video. Then, it flew even closer, also in good light, and I took another video and some pictures. Then totally forgot about it.
    The luck continued. I hadn't yet setup files to download onto my computer to save by the day, and so I unknowingly downloaded that whole week's worth of images (and videos) onto my computer when I got home. I went through them, and ignored the empid. I then deleted the videos off of my camera, along with most of the pictures.
    Fast forward almost two months and I was going through my computer deleting files and I came across the videos, which were unnamed. I opened one up and saw the flycatcher video.
    "Wait a second..." It's amazing how much better your brain works when making identifications if you aren't exhausted.
    I almost ignored it AGAIN based on my wishful thinking logic when I thought," Well, I may as well try to identify it and see if I can ID it by sight, since I have these two great videos and a couple of profile pictures. I picked up Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion and his words jumped out at me: "(When comparing Dusky vs Gray) Gray's greater bill size and tail-wagging behavior are the characteristics on which to focus" (Dunne, 401). The bird definitely had a big bill, and the coloration on the bill even looked good. The tail-wagging behavior, down first, was there.
    I checked some other guides, and youtubed some videos, and almost dropped the idea of it one last time when I finally decided to text some more experienced birder friends (by now it was around 11:00 pm) about my dilemma. They called me an idiot, (not really) told me to post the videos on the listserv, and go to bed.
    The next day I got a consensus from the experts and got my County Year Bird #221 two months late: Gray Flycatcher.
Gray Flycatcher

Almost Lost Video #1

Almost Lost Video #2

Works Cited
Dunne, Pete. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. 2006.         
    New York: Houghton-Mifflin.