Monday, April 12, 2021

Answer to Sound Quiz

The Sound Quiz I posted the day before yesterday is a Purple Finch.

This was given by an adult male Purple Finch, which had been perched next to the female, and both were giving call notes. The female flew to a tree about 20 meters away, and the male then began a series of soft call notes and subsongs. The subsong is often just a softened version of the long song, incorporating just a bit of mimicry, so I thought this one was unusual in being rather loud and having no Purple Finch sounds at all.

Twelve species were mentioned in the answers I received from my post to Oregon Birders On Line, and the top guess was Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which I found interesting. That species has a ridiculously complex song of very similar length and pitch, but it has only limited variety based on a set of three elements. Once you know those elements well, this song doesn’t sound like a Ruby-crown any more.

Observers who realized that mimicry was involved immediately thought of Lesser Goldfinch, which makes sense, as it is our most notorious mimic. Lesser Goldfinch incorporates many other species’ calls and song bits in its normal long song, and it does so many, so fast, your brain can’t quite keep up. Once you’ve recognized Violet-green Swallow and American Robin call notes and thought “wow”, it’s already gone on and mimicked five other species. But when it does this, the song is several seconds long and also incorporates many stereotypical Lesser Goldfinch sounds.

This quiz bird’s song is 100% mimicry though. This song differs from a mimicry-packed Lesser Goldfinch song in being only 2.5 seconds long and is not interspersed any goldfinch calls. It’s also a bit lower pitched than a typical Lesser Goldfinch song, and though it might be indistinguishable from the same song type given by a Cassin’s Finch, this was recorded in my Eugene backyard, where Cassin’s Finch doesn’t occur. Mimicry in House Finches seems to be rare or even undocumented.

The full recording starting with call notes, and unfiltered traffic noise can be heard here:

The one song phrase I used in the quiz is the last one at 2:30. Here’s a screen shot of the sonogram that I marked up using Preview.

I interpret there to be eight mimicked elements smashed together. The first is Northern Flicker, and the next two are both different call types of American Robin. The fourth I figured is the rattle call of Hairy Woodpecker. I had originally thought it was a close match for the fast rattle of White-headed Woodpecker, but I’ve since determined that that recording in my library is a mislabeled Hairy.

The next element is a rapid buzz, which I think might be Dark-eyed Junco or maybe Pine Siskin. Then there is one slurred note that is too fragmentary for me to place; and it might actually be a continuation of the previous element.

The next-to-last element is two notes that only when hearing them in complete isolation can you realize that they are Barn Swallow. Finally, the last element is a perfect Hutton’s Vireo.

To illustrate the last two, I created phony recordings by copying and pasting these same elements into a rhythm that might be heard in nature. When done this way, the mimicked species becomes more obvious. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Song Quiz

I posted this song quiz to Oregon Birders Online, and it's been fun to see how different people hear it. I'll add the ID and my analysis tomorrow.

I recorded it in my Eugene back yard on the morning of March 30 and saw the bird, so I know what it is.

A Visitor from Canada in the Brush Pile

On the bright and frosty morning of March 30, I spotted what is quite likely the most unusual bird I have seen in my yard so far (having lived here in north Eugene for a year and seven months). The only real rarities I’ve had so far have been Lark Sparrow (a common bird only in eastern and far SW Oregon), and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (a state-wide vagrant that was a one-day wonder). No, this bird wasn’t a vagrant, though it was much rarer than either of those two: it was the White-crowned Sparrow pictured above, and while this species doesn’t usually strike one as being out of the ordinary, I draw your attention to its right leg.

I nearly shrieked out loud when I saw it. I’m not really well-connected to the bird banding community, though I enjoy banding and have personally banded several hundred birds (including over 500 in one single, insane morning on an islet in Germany’s Baltic Sea 24 years ago). But I am fairly confident that no one is banding in my immediate neighborhood. And I’m quite aware of how rare and exciting the random sighting is of a banded bird in the wild, especially a passerine. This bird was present all this day and the next, and I snapped over 700 photos in the first few minutes. Fortunately, this bird was unafraid of my presence as I sat comfortably on my deck chair while it scratched around my brush pile, foraging on seed that I frequently scatter on the ground. The band was loose enough that it moved around, and the sun was bright enough that I was able to get a fast shutter speed, and I also knew to underexpose the shot by at least two full stops in order to not “burn” the image of the reflective band.

Out of all of those images, I needed no more than three in just the right poses to be able read the entire nine-digit number. I entered the data on the USGS website, and instantaneously I had an automated response:

Species: Puget Sound White-crowned Sparrow
Date banded: 04/20/2018

Richmond is a southern suburb of Vancouver, and the age of the bird at the time of banding shows that it will be at least five years old this summer. I’ve been watching the brush pile assiduously all winter, and especially in the past week inspecting the leg of every bird, and it’s definitely a new bird as of March 30 and was here just two days. I’ve been hoping to receive an email directly from the bander, as surely they’re at least as excited as I am to have such an amazing band recovery. They must have received the same automatic email that I did, and they would probably be the only one who might have answers to the many questions that this sighting leads to. The only question that this sighting answers is “do any of the White-crowned Sparrows we see here in March come from Canada?” But I wonder where this bird spent the winter. I wonder where it was going to. Does it return to the area where it was banded every year? Are there other sightings of this same bird? Have other banded White-crowned Sparrows from this part of BC been spotted elsewhere? Unfortunately, the USGS reply doesn’t tell me who banded it, and eleven days later, I’ve heard nothing. I'll post here should I receive any news.

Spring has sprung, and birds are on the move, and seeing the changes is fun. I’ve had just two immature White-crowned Sparrows all winter, and one had started molting in the black into the brown head stripes well before the other. Starting a few weeks ago, they were joined by an adult every few days. Finally, as of today I have three adults and one immature; one of the adult-plumaged birds is probably the more advanced immature that I slowly watched molt in, while the same lagging immature was here until about two days ago.

And also suddenly as of April 8, there is a new adult in the yard, a very loudly and persistently singing bird that has the classic NW Oregon pugetensis dialect.

I’ve had one Lincoln’s Sparrow call the brush pile home all winter. Suddenly on March 4 it was joined by a second bird, though they don’t tolerate each other’s presence in the same brush pile for long. As of this morning, at least one is still here.

I had a single Fox Sparrow all winter too. A second bird popped in briefly and wasn’t tolerated on March 12, then March 28 was the last I saw of my winter bird. A single Song Sparrow has been here as well every day, last on April 3. It did not like the Lincoln’s Sparrow, and it also regularly chased only one of the White-crowned Sparrows.

Eleven Golden-crowned Sparrows rounded out the brush pile flock all winter, but there’s changeover there too. I now have five, and since I didn’t notice much molting going on, it’s quite possible that the five stunning alpha-like adults now are totally new birds, while the immatures all moved on to molt farther north.

And it’s also a bit sad to see the Dark-eyed Juncos move on to breed in more forested habitats. I had over 40 all winter, though they don’t mind forging in the open and were much less bound to the brush pile. There are fewer than 10 left this morning, and while I’ll miss them, they’ll be back soon enough next fall, and I won’t miss the chore of scattering seed for them all over the yard. This "cassiar" junco has been here all winter. It's like a Slate-colored with a more contrasting dark hood.

I like to say I won’t miss the Pine Siskins. There are still over 40 in the yard this morning, and they are swine, shoveling food out of the feeders and edging out the shier American and Lesser Goldfinches. But their presence and sounds are cheerful, and I’ve enjoyed hearing all the species they mimic in their jumbled song. The other day I recorded one doing a very good Olive-sided Flycatcher.

March also saw a lot of movement of Red-tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles, but overhead, not in the brush pile. Only once did I see them in the same patch of sky, and the frisky hawk decided to harass an eagle.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nocturnal Duck Commutes: Is a Flying Duck a Sitting Duck?

I think I’ve finally solved a huge mystery that has been bugging me for nearly a year. The very foundation of the scientific world is shaking, and the journal Nature is begging to publish my earthshattering discovery: Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon, and other ducks are commuting in the dark between the Willamette River and Fern Ridge Reservoir twice each day, and their route takes them directly over my house.

Ok, I was being facetious. I know full well that no one in the world cares, and that this is only barely worth blogging. And though my neighbors are nodding in a polite way of wanting to share in my excitement, I actually feel like I’ve cracked the DaVinci code here. Such are the simple pleasures during a year of quarantine.

The whole intrigue actually started well over a year ago, when my next-door neighbors’ son Thomas was visiting between seasonal birding and natural history jobs (yes, I’m envious). He texted me at dusk as he was jogging just a block away and saw a Barred Owl fly right towards our houses. I looked at the text maybe a minute too late but ran outside anyway, and of course I never saw the bird. That sighting, plus Thomas’s having seen a Barred Owl in their yard a few years ago when he was in high school, started my habit of having an evening glass of wine or herbal tea up on the carport roof, hoping to see or even hear an owl as it slowly got dark. I probably gave it up after a few days, but I sporadically continued my vigils over the next several weeks when it wasn’t raining, and in early April a year ago, I saw 11 ducks zip by right at dark, headed west-northwest. Over the next few days I noticed a pattern of this late evening fly-by, and at one point was confident enough only to call one bird an “Aythya sp.”, meaning it was either Lesser Scaup or Ring-necked Duck (both common here), but it was just too fast and and there wasn’t enough light to see details. A few days later I got good views of a pair of Hooded Mergansers making the same fly-by. But until now, “Aythya sp.” has been a dirty mark on my yard list. It has counted as a species, because I had not identified any other member of that genus to species.

Barred Owl from Tillamook County, Oregon. I'm still waiting to add this to my yard list.

This winter I’ve become a more regular fan of sitting out on the back or front deck as it gets dark, still hoping for a Barred Owl. And I noticed that every night, about 20 minutes after official sunset, a total of about 18-35 smallish, fast, diving ducks would fly over in 3-4 small groups. All were headed in exactly the same direction, and it was a nightly thing. The birds I was seeing each dusk were consistent with Lesser Scaup – not tiny like Bufflehead, and not long-billed like mergansers – but I couldn't be sure they weren't Ring-necked Ducks. Finally, one evening I got a longer and better view of the commuting ducks on one of their earlier arrivals, and I was convinced they were Lesser Scaup.

Dusk Vigil from my front deck

At about the same time in mid-January this year, I noticed that a similar number of Lesser Scaup were feeding along a ¼-mile stretch of the Willamette River just over a mile east of me. (It’s awesome to have bike paths along both sides of the river here, with a pedestrian and bike bridge due east of me – one of five such bridges in Eugene, as opposed to just four for cars.)

West Bank Bike Path along the Willamette River in Eugene

I suspected these might be the birds that are flying over my house.

Lesser Scaup on the Willamette River

I used Google Earth to draw a line from where this loose congregation of feeding scaup were to my house, and then extended that line to the next body of water, and bingo – Fern Ridge Dam! For these ducks, this would be a commute of about nine miles.

The flight path commute of Lesser Scaup

On March 1, just before dark, I biked over to the area of the Willamette River where the ducks tend to feed most often, and just a few minutes after I got there, a group of some 20+ Lesser Scaup pattered across the river into flight, zipped downstream as they gained altitude, circled around, flew right over me, and headed in exactly the direction of my house. That’s when I knew I had basically confirmed the identity of the commuting ducks.

The westernmost bend of the Willamette River closest to Fern Ridge Reservoir

One thing I have not done is positioned myself at Fern Ridge Dam to see the ducks arriving. Given that it would probably take them at least seven minutes to get to the dam, it would be too dark to see by the time they got there, and then I’d have a 45-minute bike ride back in the winter dark along busy roads. No thank you. Still, I’d like to know whether they are roosting just above the dam on the reservoir or on Kirk Pond just below the dam.

I’ve also been having my early morning coffee on the back deck well before light, and I can hear the ducks flying back to the Willamette River each morning. But a just like every scientific inquiry that has been answered, more questions are raised.

Why these birds are making this commute only while it’s dark? My guess is that it’s safer. Peregrine Falcon is not a rare bird in this region, and they almost exclusively prey on birds in flight. Once a Peregrine has gained altitude above its target, there is little chance to escape its terrifyingly fast dive, and diving ducks, while built for horizontal speed and efficiency aren’t the most agile of birds in flight. As long as the ducks are on the water, they are safe from Peregrines, but in flight during the day, they are, well, sitting ducks.

Another bonus of my daily sunset vigils has been adding American Wigeon to my yard list. For several nights in a row, at least 10 minutes after the Lesser Scaup, when it’s much darker, I’ve been able to hear a flock of wigeon, and at least twice managed to spot the flock as they commuted in more or less the same direction. I presume these birds forage during the day at Delta Ponds and also move to roost on the reservoir. But this was a phenomenon that begun suddenly at the end of January and ended in early March. Why just then, and not earlier in the winter? Could these have been migrants and not locally wintering wigeon?

I’ve also started wondering how identifiable ducks are solely based on the whistle their wings make. There have been about five Common Goldeneye foraging on the Willamette River alongside the scaup, and I’m almost certain that I’ve heard them in flight when it’s been too dark to even see shapes; they have a very loud wing whistle, and I managed to get one pretty solid recording of them. I’ve determined that the scaup don’t have much of a wing whistle, but how distinctive is Common Goldeneye whistle? How does it differ from Hooded Merganser, or the obvious wing whistle in some dabblers, like Mallard and Wood Duck? Are the spectrograms of the wing whistles of each species diagnostic? My own sound library is lacking recordings of most of these, and while a Cornell compilation has an amazing recording of a Common Goldeneye whistle, it’s of a bird taking off, not one in mid-flight. The primary frequency and first harmonic of my recording match that one well, but it's not strong enough to show the higher harmonics nor the shape of each individual wing beat sound.

Incidentally, I’ve also noticed a pattern to the flight direction to many of the Double-crested Cormorants I see here. While a few seem to be clearly just commuting between the Willamette and Fern Ridge, a majority are off to the NE of my house by a few blocks, quite high, and headed in a NNW direction. I drew a line between the location on the Willamette where I frequently see numbers of them, just downstream from the Greenway Bridge, to the Junction City Fish Pond, which also is the only other place regionally where I see numbers of them. And bullseye – the line I draw between those two places on Google Earth falls exactly on the flight path where I see them. Curiously, this flight is almost exactly the same distance as what the ducks are doing.

Presumed Double-crested Cormorant commute

Friday, February 19, 2021

A Willamette Riparian Jewel: Hileman Landing County Park

I’ve known about this park since shortly after I moved to Eugene, and though it’s only 30 minutes by bicycle from my front door, I only finally visited it weekend before last. My friend Thomas said it was his favorite birding spot in Eugene while he was a birder here in high school (he lived next door to where I am now, and his parents still do). I was even close several times this past year as I visited the delightful Small is Beautiful Farmstand for their incredible selection of veggies, eggs, milk, flowers, and other goodies. I also rode right past it on a 40-mile biking trip with my friend Andrew Broan and two other friends last August. I even pointed it out to them as a well-known birding hotspot. Hileman Landing is the largest swath of undeveloped riparian habitat near the city of Eugene, on the west bank of the Willamette River. As an undeveloped, natural park, it’s not a place for disk golf, soccer, or such. Wear your rubber boots, be prepared to brush against stickers and thorns, and enjoy the nature. I was only five minutes from home when I realized I left my camera at home, oops. So this blog is populated with photos from my mobile phone.

This isn’t a truly natural area though, and we can only guess at what this place must have looked like just two hundred years ago. Through a mere century and a half of deforestation in the surrounding mountains as well as through prevention of fires and floods, European immigrants have upended the very nature of disturbance in nature. Where there wasn’t, there is now too much. Where there was once much disturbance is now much less. Then add to that the immense effect that introduced plants and animals have had, it is forever changed. In this photo you can see the main forest of cottonwoods isn’t old (they grow very fast), and the understory is dominated by introduced Himalayan Blackberry.

One source of disturbance that remains the same is that from the American Beaver. It’s amazing how they can chew through huge trunks. There probably aren’t as many of them now as in pre-settlement times, but there are more than some people would like.

This wasn’t always a park though, and while some people consider things like this truck and these trestles to be historical markers, I think they are just old trash that should be removed.

Much of the park is actually along a small side-channel of the Willamette River, and with the current high water levels typical of this time of year, it was flowing fast and clear, giving me the impression that I was on a secluded wilderness river (if you ignore the trash that has floated down from Eugene and got caught in the driftwood). Black Phoebe was here.

I eventually emerged onto the banks of the main channel of the Willamette, and the gravel bar here had a roosting group of about 20 Killdeer (it seems to be little known that this bird is largely nocturnal – just think about it: what do you usually see Killdeer doing during the day? Actively foraging? Or just standing there? Their activity kind of reminds me of Burrowing Owls, actually.) I also saw a Spotted Sandpiper and heard a Greater Yellowlegs here.

One of the most exciting things I saw was our first true sign of spring – which in western Oregon begins in January and lasts through early June: the flowers of Oemleria cerasiformis, which I grew up knowing as Indian Plum and is now more commonly known as Osoberry. It’s a member of the rose family and the fruits are indeed edible. I have four that I planted in my yard, and I hope to have enough fruits to follow a recipe I found for jam made from our native Osoberry, Red-flowering Currant, and Oregon Grape. This is also a hummingbird plant, and here, miles from any feeders, were several territorial Anna’s Hummingbirds feeing on the Osoberry flowers, beating the first arriving Rufous Hummingbirds to the punch by a couple of weeks.

This is the growing season for Polypodium glycyrrhiza, the Licorice-root Fern. I used to like the sweet, licorice flavor from chewing on the rhizomes, but I now don’t care for the lingering bitter aftertaste. My grandmother made a tea from the dried rhizomes.

One of the banks rises quite a bit above the floodplain, and the few Douglas-firs here looked old enough to pre-date European colonists in the area. But I wonder if they are old enough to have been seen by the Native Americans before their populations were wiped out by introduced human diseases.

This beautiful bracket fungus is Rhodofomes cajanderi, the Rosy Conk.

I look forward to coming back here as the spring progresses and migrant birds begin populating the air with their songs.

Friday, February 12, 2021

A Murmuration of Ring-billed Gulls and Hybrid Ducks

This blog post is a bit out-of-date, but I’m still gobsmacked every time I watch my short video. Monday, January 11 was my last day with a rental car, so I decided to explore the Willamette Valley of north-central Lane County and the Willamette River landing parks north to the Linn and Benton County borders. I was just into Linn County, south of Harrisburg when I spied a field full of gulls. I was about to start sifting through them to ID them all when they took off and appeared to be avoiding a predator. They formed a murmuration, which until now I had only seen in European Starlings, Dunlin, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. When they finally landed again, I determined that they were at least 90% Ring-billed Gull, the rest Mew Gull, and the total came to about 3700 birds. I posted this video to Facebook and it also seemed to surprise a lot of my birding friends that gulls would do this.

Back on the west side of the river, I stopped to check Brown Landing park, where I found this Orange-crowned Warbler, the fourth one I’d seen this year so far. It seems to be a very good winter for this species, most wintering well south of us.

I also stopped to check a wetland west of Junction City that seems to be a private duck reserve. It’s basically a flooded field full of Northern Pintail, and the hedgerow along the ditch makes it nearly impossible to see into. So some of my birding was right along the road where I saw this Swamp Sparrow and heard a second one, a rare species in much of Oregon.

Much more cooperative was this Marsh Wren.

At one of the very few spots I could peer over the bushes and see the pond, I found this strange duck that appears to be an American Wigeon x Mallard hybrid.

Just three days later, I biked to another flooded field with large numbers of ducks just 20 minutes northwest of me and found another hybrid duck. This one is clearly at least half Green-winged Teal, and the other parent (or perhaps a grandparent) is probably Northern Pintail. I know I’ve seen a few hybrid ducks before (though I have none in my photo library), but I don’t exactly remember ever finding one, let alone two in one week.

Friday, January 29, 2021

A Bird In A Gilded Cage

This week I auditioned to join the Eugene Gay Men’s Chorus. My tour guiding schedule has prevented me from joining any chorus for the past decade. In the late 90’s and early aughts I still hadn’t built up a docket of tours to be truly full-time, and so I could sing with Tucson’s Reveille Gay Men’s Chorus and also was part of a very informal English madrigal group with 4-5 friends. We called ourselves the Kinglet Singers, as half of us were birders. What fun we had over those years, including two weekend camping retreats.

While the pandemic has now given me the time once again to enrich my life with making music in a group, it’s also prevented such groups from gathering in person. Like so many others, EGMC has continued its existence with Zoom meetings and performances, so I thought it was better than nothing. Maybe we’ll be able to meet in person before my guiding schedule becomes too crazy. A fortuitous coincidence is that the church where they rehearse and usually perform is exactly two blocks from my house. I imagine afterglow parties at my house becoming a tradition in the distant future.

In any event, Evan Miles, the director, held auditions this week, adding four newbies to the chorus. It wasn’t a rigorous audition, mostly to figure out how to place us, and nearly anyone can join (I suppose unless you’re utterly tone deaf). But he did request that we prepare a short piece to sing a capella for him. Yikes! For a few days, I just assumed I would sing Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I’ve probably memorized 50 pieces of music over the years, but only the baritone or tenor parts – I just don’t sing solo. Then the day before the audition it occurred to me that I have reams of ancient sheet music from the first half of the 20th century, and the first thing I grabbed out of the box was this 1985 issue of Sheet Music magazine, one of a stack given to me by the music teacher my freshman year of high school in Upper Lake, California (1984-85). She admitted I played piano better than she did, and I ended up being the accompanist for our high school choir that second semester (the band teacher quit, so we no longer had a band, and choir was the only option).

I opened it up to the middle, and the first song was simple and just the right length, and now I’ve memorized one more song that will be my audition piece, should I ever need one, for the next decades.