Flutter

Townsend's Solitaire

A fluttering of wings draws my attention.

Townsend's SolitaireLooking out of my window, I see a Townsend’s solitaire beating its wings and attacking its reflection in the side mirror of my parked car. It has been there for hours. Long strokes of white droppings adorn the side of my car. At first I assume the bird must be a male defending its territory.

Townsend’s solitaires are a drab gray relative of the American robin that most people wouldn’t even notice. They are not showy.

Male birds are usually the ones with colorful plumage but that is not the case with solitaires; the male and female look almost identical. I guess they decided not to follow the theory that a male is more brightly colored to attract females and the female has duller colors so she can sit undetected on a nest.

Solitaire3I watch the bird pause in its attack on my car as it flies into a nearby Western juniper tree. An orange crescent of plumage flashes on its outstretched wings only to disappear again as it settles into the tree. The bird is camouflaged by the gray bark on the twisted form of the tree. Its darker flight and tail feathers blend into the cracks and crevasses of the tree’s bark.  It pulls off some of the juniper cones, tilts its head back, and gulps them down quickly. I see the flash of orange again when it flies up to the top of the tree.

In the fall and winter months, solitaires develop a one-track mind about what they will eat. They feed almost exclusively on the small purplish cones, otherwise known as berries, of the juniper tree.  While we may think of these cones as being good for nothing but the production of gin, they provide all that solitaires need.  The adaptable and much maligned Western juniper tree is being removed in parts of the West but solitaires and other animals often rely on it for food and shelter.

As their name implies, Townsend’s solitaires spend much of their time alone. They are a Greta Garbo type of bird. Solitaires often perch atop a juniper in a very upright position like a guard standing at attention.  The bird will remain quiet and motionless until there is a need for defense.

Solitaire2The bird in my yard opens its beak to sing. The melodious song is surprisingly complex. The clear flute-like notes ring out and fill the sky. It starts calling. The one short note is a loud attention-grabbing whistle that is repeated over and over again.  It’s like a bird version of a smoke alarm.

Male songbirds defend their territory by singing and calling around its borders.  They essentially create a musically-charged “fence” around the boundaries. Townsend’s solitaire females also defend their territory. They will aggressively defend an area long past the breeding season. The females take an active role in protecting a productive juniper patch.

The solitaire returns to my car and perches briefly on the mirror. Its head is cocked to one side as it peers at the image of its perceived foe with a dark eye lined in creamy white.

Solitaire4I have learned to accept the unexpected. Those that first appear drab and dull may surprise you. Their colors may be hidden. Their voices may be quiet. They might be female. Give them a chance – look for the flash of color, listen to their song, and admire their strength.

A fluttering of wings draws my attention.

Birding Around Bend

A fluttering of wings draws my eyes. An unknown call turns my head. Finding birds and figuring out what they are is like working as an investigative detective. You notice things that don’t fit into the puzzle that forms the background environment. I’m no expert but I look for clues such as the silhouette, size, markings, behavior, and sound. Apps such as iBird and various field guides help you narrow down the list of possible suspects when you are out birding. Sometimes you know what something is right away; other times you need to confer with others. There are times when you have only a fleeting glimpse so then you might refer to the bird as an LBJ – Little Brown Jobbie.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Birding in the High Desert

Though Bend is located in a desert environment, there is no shortage in the number and variety of birds that live here. We are fortunate that there are so many organizations involved in educating visitors and residents about the wealth of feathered creatures in the area. I have been on birding walks with the High Desert Museum, East Cascades Audubon Society, Sunriver Nature Center, and Deschutes Land Trust. People who go on the walks range from novice to very experienced birders.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Many of the guided walks have one thing in common – water. Even in my own yard a water feature attracts birds like some super powerful magnet. Lakes, rivers, ponds, and even small backyard water features, draw birds in.

I see a rainbow of birds in my backyard from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy recliner. The constant flurry of activity includes the brilliant blue of mountain bluebirds, yellow of lesser goldfinches, red of Cassin’s finch, impossibly smooth tannish-brown and butter yellow of cedar waxwings, and soft gray of mourning and Eurasian collared-doves. A sharp-shinned hawk occasionally comes in for a quick meal. I also get to see unusual visitors such as leucistic American robins and dark-eyed juncos. Leucistic birds have plumage that is partially white and they really catch your eye.

Deschutes County has a wide variety of habitats ranging from high elevation mountains with alpine plant communities to lower elevation sagebrush steppe. You might see gray-crowned rosy finches on the way up South Sister or sage grouse on a lek at lower elevations near Millican. Several websites list birds you are likely to see at various locations. The Birding Oregon site has some detailed information on where to go. Here is the Deschutes County link http://birdingoregon.info/Home/DeschutesCounty/tabid/168/Default.aspx .

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Birding hot spot in Deschutes County

One of the hot spots for birding in Deschutes County is Hatfield Lake, a wastewater-treatment facility. Nearly 200 species have been observed at this location just north of the Bend Municipal Airport. It also holds the distinction of producing more rare bird sightings than just about any other location in Central Oregon. There are websites such as http://lists.oregonstate.edu/mailman/listinfo/cobol where people share sightings from this and other locations.

Bird events and guided trips

There are also opportunities to look for specific types of birds. In September and October the East Cascades Audubon Society (ECAS), records the number and types of hawks and other raptors migrating over Green Ridge, located near Sisters, OR. The High Desert Museum (HDM) works in cooperation with ECAS at this event. Up to 16 different species have been observed there during the count. They have seen nearly 500 birds on their best days. In mid-June, ECAS also puts on the Dean Hale Woodpecker Festival where participants go out in search of the 11 species that live in the area.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Damian Fagan, recently hired by HDM, takes participants out on a Museum-sponsored field trip. The Museum and US Forest Service are involved in a bird banding study. Limited space is available on field trips to the study site at Ryan Ranch Meadow.

If you ever want to learn more about birds in this area, take advantage of some of the many field trips available. Participants are always willing to help you spot birds – no matter what your level of expertise is.

Smooth

SmoothPhoto3

I moved to the high desert a couple of years ago and thought I left some of my favorite friends behind. One of my favorite birds where I lived before was the cedar waxwing. I felt lucky when I saw one.

If I could use one word to describe cedar waxwings it would be “smooth”.  Whenever I see one I have an urge to reach out and touch it. Its tawny feathers ombre into a creamy yellow on its underparts and gray near its tail. The feathers connect together so tightly that they give it a silky smooth appearance.

SmoothPhoto2Cedar waxwings get their name by a unique feature on the tips of their wings and tail. They look as if they got too close to a craft project that involved melting crayons. The tail is tipped in Sunshine Yellow. Small waxy droplets of Sizzling Red tip the wings.

They seem to wear a disguise on their faces. Black masks bordered with white frame their eyes. They raise a small crest of feathers on the tops of their heads as part of their communication. It alters their appearance so that they look like someone else.

Their voices are a wispy series of notes. I always recognize it even if I don’t see the bird. It is very high pitched making them sound smaller than they actually are. One time I saw a grosbeak feeding one and thought it might be because it mistook the call for one of its young.

SmoothPhoto1At some times of the year, waxwings flock together. I see specks flying high across the sky announcing their identity with their distinctive calls.  I used to be happy to see one or two waxwing birds at a time but now I see flocks in my yard.

I left behind people I had grown close to to move here. I thought I was leaving everyone but now I flock with different crowds. Sometimes they remind me so much of someone I knew before. Are they wearing disguises or did a special piece of my past follow me to my present?

Chatter

Black and white and full of chatter. No, it’s not a newspaper; it’s a bird.

Distinctive black and white plumage and raucous calls make this bird easy to identify. Its unusually long tail gives it a unique silhouette. A magpie.

Their loud calls are often heard in the wild places they live in. They are also master imitators. Is that hawk you hear or is just a magpie?

Magpie perched in sagebrush by Siobhan SullivanFrom a distance they just look like a black and white bird. Look a little closer. Their plumage catches every little bit of light and reflects it back in an iridescent glow.

Some see them as smart opportunists while others see them as pests. Are they using their voice and brains to get ahead or get under your skin?

Not everything you see in black and white should be taken at face value. Look for colorful reflections. Listen beyond the chatter. Forgive those who use what they think will get them ahead to their advantage.