Monday, May 31, 2010

Grosbeak-fest 2010

Happy Memorial Day! In addition to honoring our soldiers, Memorial Day also doubles as the unofficial first day of summer. In that sense, it also serves as a nice point to take stock of the second half of spring. And what a spring it's been...

Black-headed Grosbeaks are unpredictable. Some years (like 2008), several of them will show up at your feeders in May. In other years (like 2009), you may see one in the spring and the next one won't stop by until August. Thankfully this year was a lot more like 2008 - but even better. The first individual, a mature male, showed up on the 11th, which is about a half-week later than usual. A male and a female showed up late in the day of the 21st, and then no fewer than 7 individuals were counted the following morning. This was the best showing of Black-headed Grosbeaks that I've ever seen (my previous record was 5 in early May of 2008). A female is still hanging around and occasionally dining at the sunflower feeder.

A male Black-headed Grosbeak poses for a photo...

... and a female does the same a few minutes later.

They are one of the few species where, in my opinion, the females are as pretty as the males.

This second-year male could be identified both via its incomplete dark head plumage and the fact that it was visibly smaller than the mature adults that it accompanied.

Black-headed Grosbeaks are majestic and always a welcome sight. But what visited on the 23rd absolutely blew my mind. I've been trying for YEARS to attract Evening Grosbeaks to my feeders. And in two different states (Illinois is the other), no luck. But that all changed last Sunday, when my wife noticed a "yellow-ish grosbeak" that turned out to be a stunning male (later accompanied by a female). These two visited the feeders from the late morning through the afternoon and were never seen again. (They were most likely on their way up into the hills to breed.) Perhaps we'll never see them in the yard again, but the feeling of triumph will live on. It was definitely worth the wait and persistence.

A beautiful male Evening Grosbeak enjoys sunflower.

This female Evening Grosbeak waits out the rain in our bushes.

If that wasn't cool enough (and it's darn near impossible to beat), other migrants have also graced our presence over the past two weeks. In the week leading up to the Grosbeak-fest, a male Wilson's Warbler was seen flitting around the neighbor's apple tree. Wilson's are common migrants, but usually don't hang around for long. However, this individual has been a semi-regular since then (just saw him out back a few minutes ago). The day after that, a Swainson's Thrush briefly passed through the yard during a downpour, and a Warbling Vireo was observed foraging through our neighbor's tree in the early evening. A female Brown-headed Cowbird also stopped in for a bite to eat the following day. Earlier in the month, a male Red-winged Blackbird became a regular at the feeders. Now, two females have joined him (he must be a real ladies' man!) Interestingly, both strongly prefer peanuts over sunflower. I'm wondering if sunflower and peanuts are the respective blackbird equivalent of potato chips and chocolate.

A Warbling Vireo forages for insects.

This female Brown-headed Cowbird stopped by one day, but hasn't been seen since.

One of two female Red-winged Blackbirds who visit regularly now.

So, yes, lots of new species in the yard this summer. But our regulars are still around, for the most part. One of the interesting "regular" developments is an increase in the number of Lesser Goldfinches, to the point where they're outnumbering American Goldfinches. This is most likely due to fledglings (Lessers breed MUCH earlier than Americans). House Finches have also made a comeback, again, mostly due to the fact that they need to feed their fledglings. Black-capped Chickadees are still going in and out of the nesting box next to our front door, indicating that eggs have likely been laid. They've gone out of their way to be inconspicuous and I haven't been shoving a camera in their faces, either. I'll wait until the young have hatched. Western Scrub-Jays are also hanging around in increased numbers, and we expect to see their young in July or so. One of them actually attacked a fledgling House Finch, which really surprised me. I wouldn't even expect that behavior from a Blue Jay.

This male Lesser Goldfinch is now a regular.

This Black-capped Chickadee has been very busy lately!

And this fledgling House Finch survived an attack from a Scrub-Jay, apparently without any serious wounds.

But, of course, it hasn't been all sunshine and lollipops here. Starlings began to invade the yard a week ago, in search of easy nourishment for their young. A flock of 10 went through a suet cake in one day, prompting me to leave the feeder empty for a while. (Sorry, Downy Woodpeckers.) Hopefully they'll disperse in a couple of weeks. We also hosted two pigeons briefly, a not-so-subtle reminder that, grosbeaks or not, we still live in an urban area.

A bastard Starling siphons money out of my wallet.

Unlike the Starlings, they thankfully didn't return.

Well, that's about it for now. The major migratory activity is pretty much over now, but perhaps I'll get lucky and see something unexpected over the next couple of weeks. A photo of fledgling Chickadees is a possibility.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Feast Or Famine

The past month has been interesting, alternating rapidly between rapidly-exciting and mind-numbingly boring. I can't say that I've ever witnessed a spring migration like this before.

The most exciting find was a female Calliope Hummingbird, first observed in late April. This rare migrant spends its summers in the inland mountain/desert regions of the Western US, from Eastern British Columbia, to Western Wyoming, and south into the Sierra Nevada range. Interestingly, they've been all over the Willamette Valley this year and nobody knows why. A couple of weeks after this female was photographed, a male made an appearance, followed by a second female a couple of days later. What a treat.

On the eve of the Calliope sighting, I noticed a small-ish bird hawking insects from the neighbor's apple tree. After numerous failed attempts, I finally got a couple of decent photos through the thick foliage and discovered a flycatcher of the Empidonax genus (they're rather difficult to identify). With significant help from Dave Irons and Shawneen Finnegan, my tentative ID of a Hammond's Flycatcher was confirmed. This was a lifer for me, and not something that one sees in the backyard every day. A few days later, I woke up to see another small bird hawking insects from the same tree. A long peek through the binoculars revealed a more familiar species: a Cassin's Vireo. Again, not something that one sees in the yard every day. Migration is such an interesting time of the year.

An out-of-focus Hammond's Flycatcher feeds on insects.

An elusive MacGillivray's Warbler forages in the cover of our Rhododendron bushes.

A Black-headed Grosbeak inconspicuously snacks on cracked corn just before dusk.

The excitement of migration carried over into May. After getting off of work early one Friday afternoon, I was able to observe a male MacGillivray's Warbler foraging for insects in our bushes. I had hoped to get a better photo, but my two-month-old vomited formula all over the couch in the middle of this sighting, so I'm left with the "meh" picture shown above. Upon hearing of a "fallout" of Black-headed Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers last Tuesday, I decided to keep an eye on the feeders as I worked that evening. I looked up at about 7:45 and, sure enough, there was a very quiet male Black-headed Grosbeak at the ground feeder. I haven't seen one since, but they're still moving through at this point and I may get lucky again.

This male Red-winged Blackbird has morphed into something of a regular.

Anna's Hummingbirds are still out in full force. Their offspring are also beginning to appear.

Downy Woodpecker numbers have held steady this spring.

One of two Western Scrub-Jays that frequent the yard.

Migrants haven't been the entire story. Many of our regulars- including Western Scrub-Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches, and House Finches are still visiting multiple times per day. A Red-winged Blackbird has even become a regular. Interestingly, the finch numbers have fallen through the floor since early/mid April. It's unusual for us to now host more than a few House Finches or American Goldfinches at a time. Many other regular and semi-regular species, such as Bushtits, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Northern Flickers, haven't seen observed for over a month now. I can frequently look out the back window and see... nothing. It's not exactly shocking, as this is the time of year when natural food is becoming plentiful. But it sure does feel strange.

The other major piece of news is that the Black-capped Chickadees who were flying in and out of the nesting box near our front door last month are still doing so. At first, I had thought that they might simply be roosting there. But they're still going in and out during the middle of the afternoon, which almost certainly means that they've constructed a nest inside. I'm very hesitant to disturb them, so I'm going to wait for the fledglings to leave before I open it up to photograph the nest. I hope to have several fledgling photos in the next post.

Sitka Mountain-ash (Sorbus sitchensis)

Cascade Oregon-grape (Mahonia nervosa)

I've take the time (and invested the money) to plant some bird-friendly shrubs around the yard that yield berries in the late summer/fall. I have no idea if I'll get a crop out of either of these this year (they're still both pretty small), but we'll see. Somebody at some point will enjoy these.

And that's it for now. We'll see what the next month brings...