Spotted towhee

Let’s start with this bird. The spotted towhee.

We’ve always pronounced it as though it rhymes with “dewy” but it turns out that it is probably rhymes with “doughy” instead. Just like I often pronounce the paint I work with “gohssh” instead of “gwash”. (Tomato, Tomahto.)

To add to my bewilderment, the Spotted Towhee was always called the “Rufous-sided Towhee” in my household, as apparently we were not with the times and in fact learning that the Rufous-sided Towhee is merely a “spotted” Towhee is something that left me a bit thunderstruck as I was putting together this piece. Evidently this was to differentiate it from the “Eastern” Towhee — which also has rufous sides and seems alike in every way apart from the relative lack of white spots. We find them interbreeding on the Great Plains, but otherwise we’ve decided to distinguish the regional plumage variation as a separate species.

This sort of thing is a bone of contention for my husband, who has less patience than I have for the finer points of taxonomy. To him, a sparrow is a sparrow, and sometimes when I look over a page of essentially identical birds with a little arrow pointing to the white patch touching a black stripe which is the diagnostic feature of that particular bird, I am inclined to agree with him.

Flickers have gone through an inverse transformation in my lifetime, a who-are-we-kidding-they-are-the-same-species shift, so I certainly allow for changes and, to a certain extent, laxity in classification. (Particularly for the home birder.)

Another example of the confusing world of fine print: the Towhee is technically a “New World” sparrow; we Americans apparently lump together all sorts of birds in the “sparrow” category — even bigger, different-seeming birds like our towhee. (Or other ground-shufflers like juncos.) In Europe, such birds are called “buntings”, whereas “sparrows” are chiefly what we refer to as “Old World” sparrows. (The only one of those we regularly have on this side of the pond is the ubiquitous “House Sparrow”, which is the little brown bird that steals your french fries, or attends political rallies.)

Furthermore, the buntings I know about — indigo bunting, painted bunting, lazuli bunting — are actually in the cardinal family are are themselves not buntings at all. And all of these birds can be generally referred to as “finches”.

(Do you see why I avoid getting too militant about classifications?)

For myself, I unscientifically think of towhees as the step between sparrows and jays, as they are quite large for a sparrow (nearly the same size as a robin, though more slender,) and have a raspy, jay-like call note that sounds like a big question mark.

(This sound, as well as the tumbling jumble of the house finch’s song make me immediately homesick.)

They like a good amount of cover, and as such particularly like our yard, what with the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence. In my childhood home they favored the low, wide juniper bushes. They are ground feeders, attracted to the mess the squirrel leaves behind when it gorges on the suet cake. They are the vacuum cleaners of the forest. They do a funny little shuffle-hop to uncover bugs and seeds from the leaf litter or, in wintery places, from under snow.

Towhees, like tigers, sport what offhand appear to be very daring colors that actually make them invisible in their preferred surroundings. In the bleak winter it can be a thrill to spot one. A combination of orangey, white, and black, topped only by red eyes and a very expressive tail. There is a nervous energy to the tail, leaving flashes of white with nearly every movement. Very often one simply looks for those tell-tale white flashes at the tail for identification. And fortunately they don’t really care what you call them

Cedar waxwing feathers

Something made a snack of a cedar waxwing in my backyard — I didn’t see it in progress but I found the feathers. A whole lot a smooth greyish brown ones, and several diagnostic ones, including the namesake “wax” tipped secondary flight feathers. 

I’d never seen these up close before — they’re very striking. As though someone shaped them with scissors and then dipped them in paint. 

Bird Nerd

The other night I was working late at the studio and during a cloud-gazing break I think I identified my first osprey of the season.

Really. I mean it. 

You can’t tell from this picture — I couldn’t REALLY tell from that picture, and of course I can’t be sure because I had neither my good camera nor any binoculars to speak of. But I think I’m right. Here’s how I got there:

I first noticed the crows dive-bombing the top of that construction crane. There were about three of them and they were definitely picking on something. I noticed a bird up there, much bigger than the crows. Crows often pick on birds of prey like this, usually while they’re in flight (crows being more flappy and nimble than the birds that soar). 

We’ve a pair of bald eagles that nested atop a radio tour in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge last summer, and one of the adults is still hanging around with the yearling, much to my delight and astonishment. (I saw them arguing in trees the last time I was down there, and they were about fifty feet away.) So urban sightings of birds of prey are not unusual here. I’ve heard we have a pair of Peregrine falcons that nest under the Fremont bridge (oh, be still my heart) but I haven’t yet seen them, and anyway this bird was bigger than a falcon — the book says a Peregrine will be “near the size of a crow”. This wasn’t, this was bigger, and of the Known Resident Suspects that put it in the eagle / osprey category. But which was it?

We’ll have bald eagles year-round. Ospreys are seasonal and the local chapter of the Audubon society has been saying to keep a look out for them since a few weeks ago. I’ve never seen either species out my studio window, but I’m only nine blocks from the river, so it isn’t inconceivable, just weird. And the eagle in Sellwood has a Thing about construction equipment — I often see him perching on or around the machines when they aren’t rebuilding the bridge down there. So I’m rather suspecting this thing to be an eagle. 

The crows move on and the bird remains, moving around a lot but it’s hard to see from my window. The rain is starting again but I run a few blocks over for a closer look. 

This quick look isn’t much better, but it’s enough to confirm a few things.

No eagle I know of has markings like this.

So I defer to: osprey. The first one I’ve seen all season. I will check the rare bird sightings list from this week to make sure there isn’t something AMAZING and WEIRD and ACCIDENTAL hanging around the eastside industrial district, but barring that I feel fairly confident in my identification.

And that’s how you get the magic bird eye that I admired so much when I was five. Some of it is Actual Visual Knowledge, but a lot of it is just the application of educated guesses and somewhat-scientific narrowing-down. So often birds are darting past you, or shuffling around under a bush, or perched far out of sight in bad light like this one was. Knowing which birds are inclined to dart, shuffle, or perch in the first place is a great skill to have. It gets you closer to a positive identification.

Sometimes you can’t get much closer than I just did with this maybe/probably-osprey. But considering it was a dot being harassed by smaller dots, I’d say that’s pretty good.

A great way to procrastinate, at any rate. Back to work!

Oaks Bottom: Amusement Park or Wildlife Refuge?

It’s both, really. Or at least, both use the name Oaks Bottom. (It’s also a Lompoc pub not far from here.)

I’m not sure how many of the amusement park patrons partake in the wildlife refuge — I know that when I come down here I’m usually much more interested in the nature scene than I am in carnival rides.

Prime tadpole habitat -- both frog and salamander.

Prime tadpole habitat — both frog and salamander.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

Pacific chorus frog, the color of spring.

So, the proximity seems strange, but you can’t argue with geography. The pond (which will be all dried up by high summer) is almost all that remains of what used to be a series of wetlands and seasonal ponds, fed by tributaries feeding into the main river. There are several signs along the Springwater Corridor that show sobering aerial photographs — first of the original flood plane, and then of the urbanization and cementing over a lot of that habitat. It’s not a story unique to Portland, but it’s rare that you are made aware of this so bluntly, standing on the very concrete slabs that choked Johnson’s Creek.

Nor can you argue with the oldest continually run amusement park in the country. This was one of those parks built by trolley companies — to lure city folks to use the lines on the weekends. So there’s a delightful old-timey feel to the place. It’s not big on rides (there are some, but none of the glossy vomit-o-matics you get with a larger establishment), but it has a dance hall — resevable for events but just a gorgeous building in its own right — as well as picnic pavilions and innumerable picnic tables dotting the walkway by the river. And you can’t argue with the view.

Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring. Painted from the picnic tables of Oaks Bottom Amusement Park, in a moment of non-rain in late spring.

It also has a skating rink, gloriously kept, with the original pipe organ. Occasionally on Sundays an old man will play it intermittently for one of the afternoon sessions. (This is NOT TO BE MISSED. Check their calendar to find out when and go, if you are near enough.)

Summer’s gearing up and now when you go down to look for ospreys and bald eagles you can usually hear carnival sounds echoing through the valley. Sometimes you can even hear the heritage train, chugging along what used to be trolley tracks to bring happy patrons from OMSI on the eastern waterfront down to the amusement park just as they might have back in the 1920s. It’s a lively little area.

In which we consider Kelley Point

During our third mushroom class we were given vague tips on spring mushrooms sites. I say “vague” because mushroom hunters are extremely reticent to disclose information that could lead to the pillaging of cherished hot spots, particularly those containing morels.

Kelley Point Park was among the places mentioned, so as I had some time on my hands yesterday I went out there to see what I could see.

To me, Kelley Point is interesting for its incredible geographic significance. It is at this point, beyond a riot of dandelions and daisies, that the Willamette River feeds into the Columbia River before heading out to sea. The very end of Portland’s river, right here at the viewpoint. (Where is the beginning? I will find out.) 

Kelley Point is named in for Hall Jackson Kelley, a New England school teacher who had a something like an obsession for settling the western territories, and the Pacific Northwest in particular. Reading of Lewis and Clark’s journeys must have sparked something in him. Long before laying eyes on the place he wrote articles encouraging settlement along the Columbia river. He also attempted to secure funds for several expeditions, one of these an attempt to colonize the area around Puget Sound via “expedition by sea”. None of these attempts succeeded.

Finally, in 1833, Kelley set out with a smaller band than his intended group of several hundred, which two years earlier had attracted private investment and left without him. During this expedition, (funded presumably with his own money,) his company simply abandoned the project and stayed on in New Orleans, “at a great personal loss to himself.” From then on the venture looks as though it was a perilous, doom-laden thing — either due to Kelley’s fanatical, God-fearing Manifest Destiny imperialism, or by simple bad luck, it’s unclear to me as yet which.

In the end he was only in the area for about five months before being shipped off home by the fur traders who had claim to the area. The sign at the viewpoint is pretty direct about its feelings towards the man. It ends: “A bit deranged, Kelley visited briefly in 1834. He spent the rest of his life bitterly trying to win notice and payment for having sparked American interest in the Pacific Northwest.”

It seems an odd choice of patrons, but then maybe it just goes with Portland’s sort of scrappy reputation. Reading through his background was like reading a tome of tragic art.

Kelley endears me particularly for the exhaustive nature of his book titles, the last called tellingly, “A History of the Settlement of Oregon and of the Interior of Upper California, and of Persecutions and Afflictions of Forty Years’ Continuance endured by the Author.”

If Kelley had had his way, the city center would have been right here at the confluence of the rivers, where nowadays pilot boats dart about nervously and guide enormous ships into their various ports. Alas, it is about eleven miles southeast of here, and this place is merely a gem at the tip of the far Northern warehouse district. And apparently an excellent place to find mushrooms, if the furtive people walking around with buckets, baskets and brown grocery bags are any indication.

As usual, I was much more interested in the bird situation than the mushrooms, and after sitting and watching ships for a long time I managed to see a pair of red-breasted sap suckers, a white crowned sparrow (among a mess of chickadees, bushtits and song sparrows,) and an osprey eating a fish. The first osprey of the season, for me. Added to this were what appeared to be ominous walls of nettles spread beneath the gnarls of cottonwoods.

No, really. After you.  No, really. After you.

I found interesting specimens, but didn’t collect anything for spore prints, nor did I see any of the elusive morels. Though I did see an old verpa — in the family of false morels. So doubtless they’re out there.

Next Sunday there is an OMS sponsored field trip out to Sauvie Island to pick morels, so there was no need to go overboard here. Hopefully the nettles aren’t as bad out there as they are at Kelley Point.

Birding: by heart, by sight, by ear.

My grandparents lived in a semi-forested area on the edge of a tiny town in central Oklahoma. The dining room featured a big picture window overlooking a yard that backed onto unkempt woodland. Near the window there was a pair of binoculars and a bird book. There were birdfeeders, three different bird baths out back (two in the front). The yard, fields and forest were dotted with little birdhouses that Grandpa made himself. They were all identical – smallish, grey-blue with a red roof on top. Most of them were on poles unceremoniously strewn about the property, and as memory serves they were almost exclusively occupied by phoebes. Year after year. 

Mom had birdfeeders of her own, a bird bath, binoculars and her own bird book. Though I don’t remember much identification occurring at our house, there was a great deal of interest in the ducks at the duck-pond park, the guinea hens who inexplicably resided there, the grackles that were so loud by the swing set.

So I knew a bit about birds. I couldn’t help it. I was surrounded by people that would point to something at the feeder and identify it. Over time I knew the names of certain birds. But I didn’t understand how profound Mom’s gift really was until one day when I was about five or six. We were sitting out on the back deck and Grandpa’s in the morning. Something flew over our heads and into a tree. She mentioned in passing what it was, and I was stunned. How could she know that? It passed by so fast!

This was before I knew about tell-tale flight patterns, or distinctive songs (nothing but a jay sounds like a jay, with those loud, raspy cries), or that a flash of red in Oklahoma is almost certainly a cardinal, particularly if there’s a pair of them that have been hanging around the feeders all morning. All I knew is my mother had some sort of magical powers of observation. And I wanted those powers.

I went inside for a piece of paper and pencil and asked her to list all of the birds that she saw. I wrote down the name of everything she said, and put a tally mark next to subsequent sightings. Cowbird, phoebe, sparrow, purple martin, blue jay, cardinal, chickadee, scissor-tail flycatcher… I’d had no idea there could be this many different kinds of birds in a place at once. 

I have been an avid amateur ornithologist ever since.

I suppose it’s the artist’s eye that seduces one so easily into this sort of thing. The natural eye for detail, the desire to receive as MUCH information as possible with a glance, the sense of relief that comes from identification — a mystery solved. (Or at least, narrowed down.) Then too, identification of an individual species in a crowd of many allows you to keep track of them, to enjoy the unfolding drama before your eyes. 

Maybe it doesn’t need explanation. Maybe it was simple upbringing. My grandfather watched birds, he taught his children, and they taught theres. It was a thing to bond over, a thing to learn to feel a part of the group, and now it’s a simple pleasure all its own that I am slowly teaching Anthony.

Birdwatching (bird identifying, anyway,) is often a game of knowing little tricks. You very rarely get a textbook view of something, so you have to know a lot of little things about birds. The strange swooping flight pattern of a scrub jay. The flashes of white and black signaling a junco darting for the underbrush. Knowing the difference between a vulture’s wings at a distance (open, like: V) vs. an eagle’s (flat, like: –). 

All was well until I moved to Portland, where most of the birds worth seeing hide a WAY up the tops of trees. Time of day and general quietness helps, (as do walks in designated ‘bird areas’, where I’ve seen some extraordinary sights,) but there have also been many walks in Forest Park featuring a cacophony of sound and not a single sighting. 

Because of this I have begun to think about birding from a completely different angle — that of sound. At long last I have got my hands on a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Birding By Ear, a three disc CD set designed to teach that notoriously difficult (for me) practice of discerning birdsong. 

Within the introduction there are several suggestions as to how one might go about “facilitating learning”, which is possibly my most favorite phrase. I do so love to facilitate the learning. I listen to it in bursts, (too much at once and they all start sounding the same again). Already it helped me spot a pileated woodpecker a few weekends ago. 

Learning: facilitated.