Thursday, May 31, 2012

Malheur NWR Trip

I don't normally post notes and photographs from the field in this blog.  (Perhaps I will create a dedicated page for that at a later date.)  But with migration movement being minimal here in Western Oregon, my yard is as dead as a doornail at this point.  So I figured why not share some photos from my recent trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  And, heck, it's pretty much impossible to not take a ton of photos of interesting birds at Malheur.

Malheur NWR is located in the high desert (elevation of over 4000 ft) of southeast Oregon, approximately 25 miles south of the town of Burns and roughly 100 miles north of the Nevada border.  The refuge is roughly t-shaped, with the northern end consisting of Malheur, Mud, and Harney Lakes, and a relatively narrow strip of land extending approximately 30 miles to the south, ending near the town of Frenchglen.  Much of this area consists of small lakes, ponds, and marshes.  (Being that this is desert region, I'd imagine that at least some of the marshland is seasonal.)  The abundance of water in such a dry area attracts ridiculous number of birds (over 320 species recorded), particularly during spring migration.  And the birds attract nerds such as myself.

The Yellow-headed Blackbird is one of the most common migrants at Malheur.

Not surprisingly, waterfowl and shorebirds are big here.  As I drove past Malheur Lake and the surrounding marsh area on my drive into the refuge on Sunday afternoon, American Avocet, American Coot, Black-necked Stilts, Wilson's Phalaropes, White-faced Ibis, Great Egret, Killdeer, Forster's and Caspian Terns, sandpipers, pelicans, and several species of duck were prominent.

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt

White-faced Ibis

Wilson's Phalarope

Forster's Tern

Long-billed Curlew

Great Egret

Fledgling Killdeer

While traveling through some of the marshland south of Malheur Lake, this ostrich-looking individual was observed in an adjacent field...

It shortly revealed itself to be a Sandhill Crane...

An abundance of water means an abundance of insects.  And these insects attract vast numbers of insect-eating migrants, such as swallows and flycatchers.  Swallows were in such high abundance at times that they reminded me of the swarms of insects that I used to encounter on summer evenings in Indiana.  (Thankfully, no swallows were killed by my windshield.)  Tyrant flycatchers such as kingbirds, phoebes, pewees, and a few species of the Empidonax genus were also abundant (though not nearly as numerous as the swallows).

Barn Swallow

Tree Swallow

Bank Swallow.  Widespread, but in small, isolated populations that are not readily observed.

Western Wood-pewee

Eastern Kingbirds are not common in Oregon, but a small number do breed in the Eastern portion of the state.

I stayed with three other birders at the Malheur Field Station (MFS), which was also very flycatcher-happy.  The Western Kingbird below is a big fan of MFS.

Our mobile home was equipped with small platforms under the awnings, wich made for convenient nesting spots.  A pair of Say's Phoebes took advantage of the nesting spot next to our front door, and didn't seem to be bothered by our presence.

One Say's Phoebe hawks insects around the parking lot...

... while the other tends to nest duties.

Common Nighthawks can also be found in the area.  These birds aerially forage for insects and are most active at dusk and dawn.  During the day, they can often be found resting/napping on horizontal tree branches, fences, signs, etc.

 A Common Nighthawk rests on a fence.

Warblers enjoy insects as well, and it was difficult to not see Yellow Warblers on the refuge.  Several dozen of them could be seen in relatively small areas, and it was getting to the point where I could hear their songs in my sleep.  Some of the brushier habitats were also good for Yellow-breasted Chat.

A male Yellow Warbler sings atop a small tree at Benson Pond.

This Yellow-breasted Chat pops up for a second.

Malheur is also home to many small rodents (mice, voles, etc.), which attracts raptors and other predatory birds...

Great-horned Owls

Immature Red-tailed Hawk

Nestling Golden Eagle

Loggerhead Shrike

The raptor-heavy grassland habitats were also good for species such as Bobolink and Horned Lark.  We even spotted a late migrant Lewis's Woodpecker in this unexpected habitat.  Black-billed Magpies were abundant in areas closer to human habitation.


Black-billed Magpie

An uncooperative Lewis's Woodpecker keeps its distance from us.

One of Malheur's big attractions is the refuge's headquarters.  Located on the south end of Malheur Lake, its large oasis of trees act as a magnet for migrant passerines (perching birds).  Headquarters was jam-packed with Western Tanagers, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Bullock's Orioles, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow Warblers, Warbling Vireos, among others.

Malheur NWR Headquarters

Western Tanager, male

Warbling Vireo

Bullock's Oriole (appears to be a second-year male)

Cedar Waxwing

California Quail, male

Lazuli Bunting, male

Hummingbirds were also abundant at the nectar feeders at Headquarters.  Male and female Black-chinned Hummingbirds, shown below, were omnipresent:

As the migratory movement of the "regular" Western birds begins to taper out in late May, vagrant Eastern species sometimes begin to appear.  We were fortunate enough to observe a few...

Baltimore Oriole, male

Black-and-white Warbler

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We also observed a female Northern Parula.  I was not able to get a good photo of it, but Portland birder Diana Byrne obtained both a good photo and a video.

I'd like to thank Alan Contreras and Vjera and Eddie Thompson for letting me stay with them, as well as for their ID assistance, cooking, and camaraderie.  I'd also like to thank Alan for carting us around all day Monday, and for making frequent stops to allow me to obtain many of the photos shown above.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Migrant Wave Continues

This spring is shaping up to be the best year for yard migrants that I've ever experienced.  While the tidal wave of some migrants, such as the Orange-crowned Warbler (below), has subsided, the past two weeks have brought us an exciting influx of others.

I've been particularly fortunate to see a few really uncommon yard migrants over the past couple of weeks.  Two days ago, a male Calliope Hummingbird made an appearance at my nectar feeder.  Calliope are very uncommon-but-annual spring migrants here in the Willamette Valley.  While most take an inland route to their breeding grounds in the high desert of the inland Northwest, some migrate up the Pacific coast and then traverse the Cascades.  There seems to be a higher-than-usual number of Calliope in the Willamette Valley right now.  This may be due to our cool, soggy spring forcing more of them to use the Pacific coast migratory route.  The streaked iridescent fuchsia on the male's throat is unmistakeable - it's like a psychedelic ZZ Top beard on a tiny bird, if you can imagine that.  Calliope are more diminutive than our regular Anna's and Rufous Hummers, and also have very short, flat tails.  Interestingly, I've hosted Calliope in each of the past three springs (which have all been on the cool and soggy side).

This male Calliope Hummingbird is a very uncommon migrant in our area.

The second piece of big news involves a regular summer breeder that is much less common at backyard feeders than its Eastern cousin.  Unlike the Indigo Buntings that are native east of the Rockies, Lazuli Buntings tend to shy away from urban areas.  They gravitate towards rural meadows, often at higher elevations.  So I was very surprised (and pleased!) to spot a timid female feeding on millet that I dumped on the ground for the sparrows last week.  This is the first yard Lazuli that I've hosted in six years of living out here.  This individual was skittish that I took photographs from behind my semi-dirty windows:

A timid female Lazuli Bunting cautiously surveys the yard before coming down to feed.

I was also somewhat surprised to see a Swainson's Thrush feeding on berries in my neighbor's ivy patch this morning.  Swainson's Thrushes are semi-common yard migrants in May and late August/early September, though they're far from a lock to visit.  They also like to stay buried in dense foliage and are thus difficult to photograph.

As I mentioned earlier, the influx of many species of warblers appears to have subsided.  However, Wilson's Warblers can are still semi-regularly visible in the neighborhood.  A whopping number of 24 were reported at Skinner Butte (downtown) this morning.  I'm not sure why, but this seems to be a banner year for them.

A male Wilson's Warbler finds a grub in the neighbor's yard.

This Swainson's Thrush enjoys berries on a Saturday morning.

Two weeks ago, I was excited to spot a Pacific-slope Flycatcher hawking insects from multiple neighors' trees.  Pacific-slopes are one of three Empidonax flycatchers that breed locally (Hammond's and Willow are the other two) and I had never hosted a Pacific-slope in my yard before.  However, my excitement soon turned to frustration because I was unable to get a halfway decent photograph of the individual.  Many species of Tyrant Flycatchers hawk insects from out in the open, but Pacific-slopes tend to stay very close to or buried inside foliage.  Thankfully, this individual (or one nearly identical to it) was here the following weekend and I managed to snap one or two decent pics as it hawked insects from an immature fir in the neighbor's yard.  Not long after that, I spotted a Hammond's Flycatcher in an adjacent tree.  Woo-hoo!

After a week, I finally managed to snap a decent photo of this elusive Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

A Hammond's Flycatcher showed up for the photo shoot shortly afterwards.

Western Tanagers began to appear high up in the trees at the beginning of the month, but they have not come down to either the suet or sugar-water feeders.  The first-of-the-season Black-headed Grosbeak (a mature male) arrived on May 4th.  Black-headed Grosbeaks sometimes don't make their way to the feeders until mid-May, though the first week of May is pretty typical for the first really significant wave of migrants.  Since the sighting of that first male, I've hosted multiple females and juvenile (second-year) males.  I had hope that my new large sugar-water feeder would draw in a Bullock's Oriole, but no dice.

Black-headed Grosbeaks have been frequenting the sunflower and suet feeders for the past week.

Rufous Hummingbirds (especially females) are still here on a regular basis.  They have historically not bred in my previous neighborhoods, but perhaps I'll get lucky this year.  If I still see them in June, that means that they're breeding locally.  A couple of days ago, a small flock of Cedar Waxwings perched briefly in our large black walnut, before moving on to who-knows-where.  Their flocks will likely break up soon as they begin to nest.

Of the "regular" yard birds, Pine Siskins, Black-capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers have been the most abundant.  The half-dozen or fewer siskins that are still around are likely local breeders and we will probably see fledglings at the feeders by the end of the month.  The influx of Downy Woodpecker visits since the beginning of the month is a possible sign that a pair is breeding locally as well.  A pair of Chestnut-backed Chickadees brought their fledglings to the yard last weekend.  That was a nice treat.

Most of our wintering individuals are gone.  Northern Flickers have been completely absent for the past few weeks or so.  I saw one semi-clueless Golden-crowned Sparrow who appeared to be en route, but they've been largely absent for the past week or so.

A female Rufous Hummer hits up the nectar feeder on a cold early May morning.

Well, that's about it for now.  Unless something awesomely exciting shows up within the next two weeks, you probably won't hear from me again until the end of the month or early June.  Lots going on over the next two weeks.  Over that time, we just may see our first-of-the-season Western Wood-Pewee, Willow Flycatcher, or Yellow Warbler.  Until then, good birding.