Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Christmas Bird Count season ended January 5th. But wait – there’s one more!

Pleasant Hill Proto-CBC – January 10, 2021

This past weekend, at personal request, several teams of some 15-20 birders helped Alan Contreras test a new CBC circle he is considering proposing to National Audubon. Just to the southeast of the very old Eugene circle, this new one is centered about 1.5 miles southeast of the town of Jasper on the Willamette River, and extends from the eastern suburbs of Springfield in the NW to Dexter reservoir in the SE.

Anyone can start a CBC circle, joining the more than 2600 circles that contribute to the database of early winter bird records. Last year, 23 new counts were held across the country (and another 17 elsewhere). But there are rules, and it takes time to get a circle officially approved. Your new circle can’t overlap with existing ones, for example. You have to show that you’ll be able to guarantee a certain number of participants in the reasonable future and will carry out the duties of compiler as well. And you obviously have to know the entire circle well enough to be able to create team sectors and make sure the circle has enough interesting habitats and bird species to make it worthwhile for everyone. These are the reasons it makes sense to a hold a trial count in a proposed circle, and to avoid conflicting with established circles, having it outside the official CBC window of December 14 to January 5 makes sense. A trial run might discover an incredible bit of habitat that lies just outside the circle, in which case the circle can be adjusted before it becomes official. Alan probably hopes that this year’s participants will offer critical pointers on how well the proposed sector boundaries worked and what changes might work better.

Here’s a summary of my day with my mostly bad photos, as winter light in Oregon isn’t the best for distant and backlit birds. But at least it documents what I’ve been up to.

My area was the southeastern-most sector, including all but the uppermost stretches of Dexter Reservoir and about a half-mile of the Middle Fork Willamette downstream from the dam. I also had the little town of Dexter and all the side roads south of it to the circle boundary. A state park right at the dam was a good place to start. Some of the best access to riparian habitats is below the dam, but the deep water right above the dam is usually bird-free. The maintained lawns where I parked had a flock of about 7 flickers, and at least two among them were Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted intergrade males. The abundance of such intergrades in western Oregon in winter is a good sign that it’s not likely they’ll ever be split.



I hiked about a quarter mile below the dam to find five Barrow's Goldeneyes in the swift current but well away from the hypernitrogenous zone immediately below the spillway. I also had an Osprey here, scarce in the winter this far north.

The shallower, upper half of Dexter Reservoir is home to hundreds of wintering American Coots, and I counted 2020 total. (I probably missed a few.) Mixed in with them are many scaup of both species, Ring-necked Duck, and Bufflehead with a very few Ruddy Ducks and Canvasback.

One task for this sector is to carefully scope through these flocks for rare ducks and check the open water for unusual grebes, loons, or other water birds. I found no rare ducks (a Tufted or Redhead would be good), but this Red-necked Grebe was possibly the rarest bird in my area, with maybe four previous winter records for the reservoir, but I actually found it while scouting here last week. It’s always good to have stakeouts.

Eared Grebe was new find by me during the day, but it’s not quite as rare as the Red-necked. It was very distant and a small bird, so the photos are barely useful to document it. (Horned Grebe is rather similar and far more common here.)

This Western Gull was also an unexpected bird inland, as they rarely leave the coast, even in winter. A little black smudge by the red spot on its bill tells me that it may not be 100% mature, perhaps in its 4th winter, and that might explain grayish grizzling on the head and breast. However, this latter feature might mean that it has some Glaucous-winged Gull in its heritage, though the dark back and black (not just dark gray) wingtips indicate that it’s not an F1 hybrid.

I was pleased to learn that the entire northern shore of the reservoir upstream from the town of Lowell is open public access, and most of it is good habitat. English Ivy is a bad invasive exotic here that should be removed, however. I was exploring right near the edge of the circle when I hiked to the edge of the water and took this photo looking NE, upstream. The foreground marsh and near water is in the circle while the line of trees directly over the first patch of water is outside. Amazingly, all of those rafts of ducks and coots were well within the circle, while the uppermost piece of the reservoir and short outflow from the very close Lookout Point Reservoir are apparently not of much interest to birds.

Yet another rare bird at this spot was this Mountain Chickadee, my second one this winter out of range. There have been only three others found in western Oregon and Washington this winter, which is about average, nothing like the big irruption of 2015-16 when there were dozens.

After I was back in the car and finishing up my eBird list, I looked out and saw a flock of large birds overhead. I jumped out and was amazed to see these 12 swans flying high in a southeasterly direction. They were clearly headed towards the Willamette Pass of the Cascades, and the from there, I’d guess to either to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area or the Klamath Basin wildlife refuges. My photos seem to show a more slender bill indicating Tundra Swan, but from what we know about swan migratory patterns here, these can be safely assumed to be that species.


If you read my last blog, from the Eugene CBC, you’ll remember I had four Trumpeter Swans in flight on January 3, headed south. At the Zoom meeting we held for this new CBC, we learned that Tom Mickel, who covered the limited-access Willamette Confluence Preserve of The Nature Conservancy, had 16 swans: Four Trumpeters and 12 Tundras, and he actually saw the Tundra Swans pick up and fly away off to the SE. I’ve never been to that preserve, but I’ve seen the swans that like to use it!

Near the end of the afternoon I did a bit of exploring around the town of Lowell where I was hoping to find some access to the former oak savannah habitat now growing over to thickets of younger Oregon White Oak and in places showing the inevitable succession to Douglas-fir forest. The powerline right-of-way north of the town turns out to be Seneca Jones Timber Company property with public access, at least on foot, and it goes right through this habitat. I had some very nice mixed flocks of kinglets, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, Hutton’s Vireo, and woodpeckers here.


Keep an eye out for the announcement of this new CBC circle for the 2021-22 season!


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Eugene Christmas Bird Count, January 3, 2021


The Eugene CBC is now my “home count,” as I live just 2.3 miles from the circle center (a CBC circle is 7.5 miles in radius). Last year I was in Brazil, so I missed it during my first winter in this house. It always gets the most participants of any circle in the state, including a huge number of feeder watchers, and ranks high nationally as well. This year, despite the pandemic, the organizers still managed to have 140 people in the field and 119 counting at their home feeders, the latter a record by 8, which is not surprising during this pandemic winter.

The rules regarding CBC conduct during the pandemic meant that I got an area to cover by myself, which was actually a good thing this year, as I didn’t really know it well and wouldn’t have known how to divide and delegate had I been given a larger group. I probably spotted some birds only because I was on my own but am also quite confident that I missed even more. You always see more with more eyes watching in all directions – everyone also has their own, unique pattern-spotting abilities and search images. I missed Peregrine Falcon, Merlin, Cooper’s Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawk, for example, and I wouldn’t be surprised if all of these species saw me.

Having said, that I enjoyed the spontaneity of deciding where I would linger, when I would continue, which side road I might turn down at the very last second, and being able to get around by bike. All of those would have been more difficult with a group. 

The Spotted Towhee at the top was one of 87 that I had during the day. Yes, I had a lot of blackberry thickets to pish at, and I pished a lot. How about 197 Song Sparrows, 110 Fox Sparrows, and 53 Bewick’s Wrens? 83 species and 2878 individuals were the grand tally from my area, making it the most diverse on the CBC.

My first bird of the day was actually a Western Screech-Owl at a park just ½ mile south of my house, one that I had seduced into calling in broad daylight during eBird’s October Big Day. It was in the same trees pre-dawn this morning after coffee #1, and soon I was back home for breakfast and coffee #2. One of the first songbirds I had shortly after sunrise though was this Swamp Sparrow that I had found over three weeks ago just barely into my CBC sector, exactly 1.8 miles and 10 minutes from my house, mostly by bike path. To give you an idea of how good the bicycle path system is here in Eugene, to get to this location by car would be a 4.2-mile, 10-minute drive, followed by a 4-minute walk.


The best birding in the area I was assigned lies on the east bank of the Willamette River and west of Delta Highway and continues north from the Beltline Highway to the Mackenzie River, including special permission to bird private gravel pits right up to the confluence of those now very swollen rivers. I also have all of suburbia east to I-5, but it’s not as rich in habitat or birds. I had a mix of older stands of cottonwood and younger thickets of willow and alder, but also some grassy fields and tons of blackberry thickets. My big species list of 83 benefitted from a good diversity of ducks on three main gravel pits (as well as one grebe, cormorant, heron, and coot species each), and a spotting scope was necessary as some ponds were big and I couldn’t safely get very close to this most of this one.


This is the Mackenzie River just east of its mouth.


Here’s my bike by a field that had a Western Meadowlark, several Lincoln’s Sparrows, and a Wilson’s Snipe. Note my tripod sticking out of the pannier.


Even though my tendency to rely too much on my ears had me missing some raptors, Red-tailed Hawks are too common to ignore. It’s courtship time already in January here in mild western Oregon, as evidenced by these lovebirds.


The riparian woods had plenty of Downy Woodpeckers, and this year’s CBC had a record number. I had 14, contributing to the count’s amazing total of 180 (which pales to the numbers found on eastern US counts, but it’s a lot for here).


House Finch is common bird here that we don’t really pay too much attention to, but I rarely have such a nicely colored male perch in good sunlight.

I did not have what you would call typical Wrentit habitat, but the dense, non-native blackberries along the Willamette River are continuous for miles in some areas, and in recent decades they have expanded their range into this habitat. Learn to whistle like their song, and you’ll find they are very gullible and come right out. Since discovering that I no longer use recordings to find them.


I found two Orange-crowned Warblers, one palling around with a flock of Bushtits, and the second one a third of a mile away with a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. The first was of the subspecies lutescens, unlike the gray-headed one (probably orestera) that was at my feeders for much of December, was gone for two weeks, then reappeared at my bananas a couple days ago. But this second one looks somewhat intermediate. It’s not a very common species here in the winter, and only a total of six were found by all teams.


I thought this Common Yellowthroat was going to be my one and only true rarity. It was indeed the only one for the count, but the species is found about once every five years here. They are common in the winter not too far south of here in California.


Since I had never been here before, I came across this very different gravel pit in the mid-afternoon as I was about to leave the area. It’s older, shallow, and wall-to-wall cattails (Typha latifolia). I gasped when rounded the corner and saw this, as it is perfect habitat for rails and could have something even more unusual. So I first did playback for the only species that is common here in winter, Virginia Rail. I instantly had two responding, and later I heard two more. But this habitat also screams Sora to me, so I played that and had an instant response from one. I tried again from a different side of the pond, and one from the same location called back, followed by one from right in front of me. Since this species has been recorded on only 1 out the past 50 years, it’s my officially rarest bird for the day, though it’s also surely vastly under-detected.


I used the later afternoon to cruise the mostly rather new suburbs of NE Eugene, trying to stay on smaller roads. I found American Goldfinches feeding in an older (and non-native) sycamore tree, and I certainly boosted my Anna’s Hummingbird tally. But eventually I learned that no back roads connected through to the eastern part of my area, and so I was just pedaling along on the busier Ayers Road when I saw four swans in flight up ahead as I looked through powerlines and the numerous sweetgum and other obnoxious, non-native trees. I stopped quickly but didn’t even raise my binoculars as I know that there are two species possible. Instead I was ready with fast shutter speed and a positive exposure compensation on my camera when they emerged into open view. My first impression looking at my camera’s screen was confirmed in the evening when I zoomed in on the photos on my desktop computer. Trumpeter Swans! They have a larger bill than the much more abundant Tundra Swans, and the lack of any “pinch-off” between the eye and the bill is also distinctive. It’s a rare bird in western Oregon, with only a few dozen each winter in select localities, but very rare in the Eugene CBC circle with only four records in 50 years.



I’ve heard that the total species count was 133 species, which is the sixth highest ever for this count, a remarkable total, considering the situation. The weather was unbelievably beautiful – calm, sunny, and warm for mid-winter (54°F). Clouds moved in mid-afternoon, and at about the time one should think about finishing up for the day, 4:00 p.m., it began to rain, and the decision was made. Perfect. It was a great day, but I missed the camaraderie of birding with a group, sharing fun sightings, and getting together at the end of the day for the countdown dinner. Next year. January 2, 2022.


Saturday, January 9, 2021

Coquille Valley Christmas Bird Count


I participated on this wonderful southern Oregon coastal CBC on January 2 this year. It has the potential to have the highest species count in the state, but not with the kind of brutal wind we had this day. It would have been better if we had simply had the more typical winter rain, but then I would have had fewer photos. Still, I had a great day, joined by the manager of Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge Kate Iaquinto and her intern Cherie Barnes.


Because of the wind, passerines were hard to hear and reluctant to come out. We first tromped out into the Ni-les’tun tidal grassland marsh hoping for Savannah Sparrow, and we finally found three.


This habitat looked amazing, and I had fantasies of flushing a Yellow Rail or Black Rail from my feet. I could almost hallucinate hearing the chip calls of Sedge Wren or seeing a Nelson’s Sparrow scurry under a clump of grass. The only other little birds we saw out in the marsh were Marsh Wrens, and we saw several Northern Harriers dashing back and forth and a Peregrine Falcon speeding upriver.


In the very few Oregon Ash trees in our area I spotted a few Purple Finches, but all were the relatively drab females.

The constant wind made mixed flocks scarce, so during quiet times my eyes wandered to the ground. This super cool mushroom, related to morels, is Helvella verspertina, the Western Black Elfin Saddle. It may actually be a complex of poorly differentiated species; the understanding of species limits in mushrooms is about two centuries behind birds, but molecular work is speeding that up.


The refuge also has a small freshwater bog restored from a former commercial cranberry bog. It has been occupied by an incredibly active family of beavers, as evidenced by a well-worn trail and dozens of felled and utterly dismantled Red Alder like this one.


I actually did another CBC earlier this week – the Dallas CBC on December 29. (Again, this is Dallas, Oregon, not Texas.) But I forgot to put my SD card back into my camera and got no photos! I met up with my old birding friend from Tucson, Philip Kline, who now lives near Portland. We first birded the central buttes of Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, followed by the Narrows. Later in the morning, my neighbor friend Thomas Meinzen and his girlfriend Molly Burchfield joined us (don't worry, we were all in separate cars and regretfully abstained from hugs), and our best bird of the day not long after was a Gyrfalcon, a bird known to be in the area but hardly a “stake-out.” It roams a very large area, often well north of us, but we were on Coville Road in the middle of the refuge when it stormed in, flushed a flock of Canada Geese (which it has been seen catching and eating earlier this month). I wouldn’t have been able to get a photo anyway. We also picked up some White-throated Sparrows and the count's only Brown-headed Cowbirds in the town of Rickreall.


Friday, January 8, 2021

A Break to Chase CBC Rarities on 12/28



I decided to give the two Long-billed Curlews found by Barb Combs the day before on the Brownsville CBC a search. It’s a rare bird any time of year in the Willamette Valley, but there are exceedingly few winter records. I finally found them after searching their field about a mile SE of the town of Halsey three times, each time going away to look for other birds.

Bald Eagles were ridiculously common in the area.


There were also lots of gulls, mostly Mew Gulls, but they were mostly distant flocks, and I didn’t spent that much time scouring them for unusual species. Many were flying by, and I managed to get his rather unpleasant looking Herring Gull.


Here’s my poor record shot of a very dark first-winter “Harlan's’” Red-tailed Hawk, an uncommon subspecies this far south.


Finally a bit of fun with a flock of Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover. I only estimated the former at about 4000, while I counted 44 of the latter.



Thursday, January 7, 2021

Brownsville Christmas Bird Count

I did the Brownsville Christmas Bird Count on December 27, a back-up date after heavy rains a week earlier made it unsafe, not to mention unbirdable. If you’re not from these parts, you might be thinking I  traveled to southern Texas, but this is the CBC with the four-letter code ORBR, not TXBV. I’m talking about the circle that is centered just south of the tiny, historical mid-Willamette Valley town of Brownsville. (Incidentally, in case you’re into CBC codes, the CBC known as TXBR is Brazoria). This interesting circle is about one-half eastern Willamette Valley flats and one-half westernmost foothills of the Old Cascade Mountains, including quite a few smaller interior valleys, mainly the Calapooia River. It doesn’t have any very high elevations, but there’s a good diversity of habitat and excellent access.

I blogged about the great day I had here last year, with my friends Torrey and Thomas (https://birdernaturalist.blogspot.com/2020/03/2019-in-review-december-in-oregon-cbcs.html). Like last year, I covered the Crawfordsville area (the upper Calapooia and tributaries such as Brush Creek) and for part of the morning was shown around by John Marble and Cris Kostok who have two barns and a small pond on their properties. Alas, there was no Barn Owl yet again this year, but once again we had a Northern Pygmy-Owl on their property. And the pond that was empty last year had a pair of Hooded Mergansers and a pair of Ring-necked Dusk this year.

Otherwise, I was on my own for the day, using a rented car. I did go out owling early this year and had five Great Horned Owls and one Northern Saw-whet, right on the circle’s edge. My best find was probably the Mountain Chickadee pictured above quite early in the day, as I pished in a mixed flock of kinglets, nuthatches, Hutton’s Vireo, and Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. This species is normally found much higher in the mountains with a broader diversity of conifers.

Which non-migratory passerine has the largest latitudinal distribution in the world? The answer is Black Phoebe, which here would have been a spectacular find just 25 years ago. I wasn’t surprised to find this one near the Crawfordsville cemetery though, as it’s been a good year everywhere for this range-expanding species. The count had its first record just 16 years ago and last year tallied ten. I’ll bet there were even more this year.

I counted lots of mixed flocks in mixed oak/Douglas-fir woodlands, using owl imitations, pishing, and a mix tape of mobbing sounds that I made. This Hutton's Vireo was very curious.


It’s been a pretty good year for numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches, but I don’t think it was a record year in the Valley.


The local subspecies of White-breasted Nuthatch, with a distinctive call and song unlike the other two subspecies groups, is resident here in Oregon White Oak woodlands. This is such a characteristic pose, I, even with my artistic ineptitude, would sketch this shape on my homework when I was a young teenager.


I finished the day with my second Northern Pygmy-Owl for the day, also on the very edge of the CBC circle.


My species total came to 58, unless the two types of Red Crossbill I found and recorded (Types 2 and 4) are split. Some really rare birds were found by others this day: Long-billed Curlews were in a field west of I-5, and an astounding mid-winter Hammond’s Flycatcher was at a pond on a private farm, both exemplifying one of the exciting things about the CBC – it gets people out birding in places they normally wouldn’t be, and unexpected things get found.


Wednesday, January 6, 2021


I thought I’d re-cap the last five CBCs that I did, making for a total of seven this season, all in Oregon:

12/14/20 Tangent

12/19/20 Roseburg

(see my earlier blog for my summary of these two)

12/22/20 Corvallis

12/27/20 Brownsville

12/29/20 Dallas

1/2/21 Coquille Valley

1/3/21 Eugene

The 2020-2021 Christmas Bird Count Season all but over. Today is Monday, January 4, and tomorrow is the official last day that compilers were allowed to choose to hold their CBC. But few compilers ever choose a weekday, hoping to garner the most participants by selecting a Saturday or Sunday, assuming that most birders work weekdays. The problem with that is they then are competing with all the other weekend CBC circles for the same observer base, as there are only so many weekend days during the period, two of which are usually devoted to family get-togethers for Christmas, should that holiday fall on a weekend, Monday, or Friday as this year. In any event, in Oregon, all of the CBCs are done for the season; one just south of Klamath Falls just barely into California is being held today.

On the night of December 19 a very wet storm descended upon western Oregon, causing the compiler of the Brownsville CBC to stay up until after midnight, monitoring the weather alerts. When flood watches turned to flood warnings, she rescheduled for December 27.

So let me start here with my original home count, Corvallis, which I took part in for the first time in 1985, when I was 15. I was the compiler of it for a couple of years in the mid-1990’s, when I redrew the area boundaries, aroused the ire of all the old-timers, and boosted the average species count by something like 15 for all subsequent years. After participating again this year, I can see how the areas might need to be redrawn once again by someone who knows the circle even better than I did in 1994. A successful count attracts as many observers as possible and insures they have fun. A circle with well-drawn areas has a lot to do with those goals.

Because of the pandemic, some compilers decided to cancel altogether, such as Corvallis. But the only parts of a CBC that are risky for virus transmission are carpooling and the end-of-day countdown dinner. For some reason it didn’t occur to many compilers that you can still hold a CBC without those. Teams must be smaller, ride in separate cars, and countdown dinners must be canceled. Participants have often just e-mailed in their results for years, and species countdowns work just fine (if not great) on Zoom. Birding outside where your (or anyone else’s) potential virus particles are instantly dispersed into infinity is one of the safest things you can do during the pandemic.

The Corvallis CBC would have been held on December 22 based on its customary pattern, so a bunch of birders agreed online to go out birding on that day. The only organizing that was done was that people signed up on a Google doc where they were going to bird, but no one policed any overlap. As long as everyone kept track of their own effort data (miles and minutes), overlap is actually perfectly ok. We all entered our data into eBird, and Fred Ramsey volunteered to sum it all up. So a canceled CBC was somewhat revived without anyone having to commit to being compiler or commit to covering an entire area.

I went all-out though, walking through residential Corvallis based at my dad’s house, and birding in parts of three different CBC sectors. I walked 11.44 miles, and the weather cooperated wonderfully. I had amazing sun behind me in the morning when I photographed the Ruby-crowned Kinglet above.

This California Scrub-Jay was in the same location, at a railroad trestle that I used to play near when I was 7 years old.


The first part of my afternoon birding included a walk with my dad, stepmom, and their two beagles. With them I spotted this Sharp-shinned Hawk when it flew into a cottonwood, and we all got to watch it for a while.


After we parted ways, I stumbled across a surprising seven White-throated Sparrows. This first one was by itself in a front yard.


These two White-throated Sparrows were part of a group of three together in another side yard not far away.



I wandered up the nicer, older, more wooded neighborhood on the E slope of Witham Hill, once a grassy knoll with a few scattered oaks when my grandparents were the first to build their dream house on top in the 1950’s, overlooking the town. This Lions-mane mushroom, Hericium erinaceus, was high up on a limb of one of those older Oregon White Oaks.


I had a very excited mixed flock of birds up here, including these that approached very closely to my owl imitations and mobbing mix recording:

Townsend's Warbler


Yellow-rumped Warbler


Fox Sparrow


A lowlight of my day was discovering that the Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, has begun to colonize Corvallis, presumably a gradual encroachment from their old Oregon introduction in Salem. This was one of two at the Linn-Benton Center.


The attractive native Western Gray Squirrel, Sciurus griseus, with its much larger, fluffier tail and no brown in the pelage, is still the more common species in Corvallis. Let’s hope it stays that way.


My best find of the day was this Nashville Warbler, which pished out of a rhododendron in the front yard of a house in an older neighborhood with lots of very old trees, very close to where I grew up by the OSU campus and Harding Grade School where I attended kindergarten and first grade. It turns out that this bird is subsisting on a suet feeder at this house (which I failed to notice), and that it had been seen by a birder at her feeder just a block away three weeks earlier. But it disappeared then after a few days, and birders all but forgot about it. I see on eBird that birders continue to see it now, two weeks later. Interestingly, Hendrik Herlyn and I found a Nashville Warbler on this CBC exactly 10 years ago.