Winter Birding Brings Nature to All

Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 6th, 2020.

20200206_162128

Growing up a hunter, my mother and I agreed rarely in our views of humans interacting with our ecosystem, save for our thoughts on habitat conservation and a deep appreciation for nature’s beauty and songbirds. Sitting together by the back-porch door of her Appalachian home, sipping a warm beverage as a light snow falls through the naked deciduous forest, marveling over visitors to her bird feeders is something I have dearly missed since leaving home.

This is a simple example of the power that songbirds have on society as a whole. They may seem common, but are extraordinary in their natural abilities and habits. Equally extraordinary is their ability to bridge the gaps among cultures, ages, and social differences, connecting us with our natural world, inspiring artists, developing ornithologists and arousing wonder in young and old.

Birds represent spiritual and religious symbolism among many nations. They stand at the helm of conservation movements and non-profit organizations. They represent sports teams. Racheal Carson’s incredibly motivating Silent Spring touted the detrimental effects to songbirds from rampant DDT application in the 1950s, swaying her readership to pursue environmental legislation which eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Songbirds serve as our most common connection to nature and can be admired by anyone, virtually anywhere and at any time, like today, right now, outside your kitchen window or patio door, from a city block or a secluded cabin.

Some of the typical species to the Waitsburg area in winter include the house finch, cedar waxwing, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, Oregon junco, American robin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, and the list continues. The cedar waxwing is the masked species I enjoy the most as it descends from its montane habitat to overwinter in the foothills and valley floor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of songbirds is their plumage that changes with the seasons. The brilliant spring and summer colors, like the sunflower yellow of the gold finch, are shed for calmer winter plumage suited for survival. Songbirds can tough out incredibly cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, creating an insulating layer around their small bodies. Some species grow additional plumage to serve this purpose when molting during late summer or early fall.

Trumbo- Winter Birding (5)

⇑⇑ A sneaky wren grabs a seed from beneath a flock of voracious gold finches as a female cardinal awaits her turn. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

Feeding and metabolic strategies support songbirds through the winter as well. They generally maintain an active body temperature at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and may slow their metabolism to reduce body temperature and conserve energy as they sleep. Like other animals, songbirds store fat to fuel their metabolism and insulate their bodies. Some species will store as much as 10 percent of their body mass as fat during winter.

Additionally, songbirds seek strategic roosting areas like natural tree cavities, dense grasses and evergreens or shrubs. While a common practice to remove birdhouses outside of the nesting season, Birds and Blooms recommends leaving them up over winter to provide safe, warm roosting opportunities. Specific roosting houses are available on the retail market as well.

Similar to birdhouses, hanging bird feeders is the most common method of “backyard birding”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 census, over 65 million Americans have hung a bird feeder at some point, if not consistently. In winter, high-fat food sources including black oil sunflower, safflower, and suet cakes packed with seeds are what birds seek. But beware of “economy” seed mixes as birds largely discard the filler millet, milo, corn, etcetera, to get at the fattier sunflower seeds.

Would you like to see a specific species frequent your feeder? You may want to consider separating food sources or feeding stations. This will allow species to hone in on their favored items or feeding methods rather than jockey for space at a crowded feeder or avoid the feeder entirely. Additional information on different types of bird feeders and setting up feeding stations can be found online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/backyard/bird-feeding.php.

What about the birdbath? Having a water source in winter is important to songbirds. This is less critical in our banana-belt area of Washington, but when the temperature dips below freezing, birdbaths are well attended. A wide range of birdbath heaters can be found at Amazon.com. It need not be spendy, just reliable, and they actually make excellent holiday or birthday gifts for the birder in your family.

 

Trumbo- Winter Birding (6)

⇑⇑ Eastern bluebirds flock to the birdbath on a frigid, Virginia afternoon. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

With the above in mind, feeder and birdbath placement for birding from the comfort of home is important, particularly for photography. Place the feeders where you and the birds can access them easily in all weather. Maintain a good line of sight to the feeder and place it an appropriate distance from the house to provide the desired photo effect (or to ensure that those of us with failing vision can still identify the species). Maybe you have a spot inside to set up a tripod and train the camera to the feeder. This will allow you to capitalize on quick opportunities when that special bird shows up. This can also contribute significantly to photo quality and clarity, as will clean windows.

Songbirds are the tie that binds humans to our natural world, and clearly arouse interest and emotion. The ease of birding at home provides an undeniable opportunity to experience that emotion and wonder from our couch or kitchen table; an especially attractive prospect when the jet stream delivers an arctic blast.

Regardless of how you do it, birding is entertaining, and a great way to knock the edge off of cabin fever. So, are you ready to get your birding on?

SIDEBAR:

Suet cakes can be made at home with a simple Crisco, peanut butter and sunflower seed recipe. Place ingredients in a medium sauce pan and warm. Mix ingredients together, let it cool, shape it in a container or on wax paper. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes to solidify and it’s ready.

  • 1-1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds.

Status and Conservation of Oregon’s Mountain Quail

Collapsing my tenkara rod, I reflected on the brilliant California golden trout I had just released back into the trickle of a mountain stream dropping from a series of high lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The September sun shone golden and warm against my back as dappled light streamed through the forest canopy. That fish put a bow on one of the most memorable weeks of my fly-fishing career, traipsing through the scenic Sierra Nevada Range in search of a trout I had dreamed about for decades.

Descending from 10,000 feet, the trail meandered through various cover types including old-growth pine and small pockets of yellowing aspen. Approaching a unique knob around 8,500 feet was a minute stand of sagebrush, appearing entirely out of place and displaced from the lowland scrub and chapparal. The faint scuffling and whistling of a quail covey piqued my interest.

Climbing the knob, the covey scurried across the trail ahead and levitated above the sage, sailing elegantly into the safety of a nearby snarl. Mountain quail. That first encounter left me mesmerized and wishing to exchange my fly rod for a setter and double gun, and added another hunt to my bucket list. Researching mountain quail habitat and their distribution across the west, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Oregon’s populations and conservation efforts.

Mountain quail are a North America native, distributed throughout the Oregon Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada, with a sprinkling in Nevada, Mexico and Washington. Southeast Washington, eastern Oregon and western Idaho historically were home to mountain quail, but over time, their habitat and populations dwindled. In Oregon, mountain quail were once found in every county. Since about 1950, land use practices and fire suppression have contributed to their decline.

Photo Credit – US Fish and Wildlife Service

Mountain quail are the largest native quail in North America. They are uniquely monomorphic, meaning both sexes are virtually identical in size and appearance, each boasting their most peculiar feature, a black, needle-like “top knot” growing over an inch long from the top of the head.

Preferred habitat consists of dense brush, such as manzanita thickets, chapparal and scrub, in wooded foothills and mountains. Features like burns and clear-cuts are important for providing the appropriate balance of cover and food sources, and water within about one mile. Riparian habitats with an adjacent brushy, upland slope are favorable.

The mountain quail diet consists mainly of vegetation during spring and summer, seeds and berries during fall and winter. Insects are important for spring and summer brood rearing. Mountain quail also exhibit a robust reproductive strategy. Females lay seven to fifteen eggs in two separate nests within about 600 feet of each other. Both adults incubate clutches independently, males typically having greater hatch success.

In 1996, Oregon State University (OSU) began a study to compare life history characteristics between the larger, stable lower Cascades population, and that of a remnant population in Hells Canyon. Additionally, quail were translocated from the Cascades to Hells Canyon to compare life histories of the separate groups in the same habitat.

The OSU study results informed a sixteen-year follow-on translocation study to reintroduce mountain quail to historic eastern Oregon habitats. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) teamed up with OSU and the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 2001, translocating and radio-tracking birds in the Freemont, Deschutes and Malheur National Forests and the Steens Mountain Wilderness.

A total of 2,574 birds were translocated across years. Forty-five percent (1,156) were radio-tracked to obtain habitat selection, survival and nesting success information. Overall, nesting and brooding was successful across sites and years. Survival ranged from approximately sixteen percent to nearly sixty percent, depending upon year and release site. Survival rates and trends observed were similar to those of the Cascades population from which birds were translocated.

Photo Credit- US Fish and Wildlife Service

Concluding the study in 2017, it appears the translocation efforts were at least marginally successful. Mountain quail appear to be maintaining small populations where translocated and are considered an “occasional” species in Wallowa and Union Counties while the lower Cascades population remains strong. Detailed annual reports of the translocation study are available from ODFW online.

Oregon offers hunting opportunity with the eastern Oregon season running October 10th through January 31st this year, including California quail and overlapping the forest grouse season. The lower Cascades season opens September 1st.

Mountain quail are a peculiar and secretive species, and a treasure to the State of Oregon. There is something magical about their presence on the landscape. The memory of flushing a covey over manzanita or juniper scrub will remain etched in your cache of extraordinary upland experiences. Whether pursuing with dog and scatter gun or hiking stick and camera, the marvel of this distinctive native quail and their habitat that we are blessed to have on our public lands is reason enough to seek adventure in the high desert.

Upland Pursuits – Animals Survive, Adapt and Thrive in Winter

Published February 20th, 2021

Here we are again, on the far side of the winter solstice, hunkered beneath a blanket of freezing fog and snow. Our latitude offers approximately eight hours of daylight early in the calendar year. And, while most humans seek winter shelter in our heated homes and celebrate holiday feasts, wildlife experience a greater challenge, making due with what Mother Nature provides (or doesn’t), and relying on innate strategies to see the winter through.

Animals are keenly attuned to environmental cues like photo period (day length) which drive their responses to the changes in seasons. Similar to putting on your winter coat, mammals like squirrels, bear, deer and elk grow a coat of insulating fur and seek to fatten up, devoting more time and attention to foraging. Bears go into hibernation while elk and mule deer, and songbirds make winter migrations to warmer climes and more abundant food sources.

Nut-bearing trees in our local communities feed populations of non-native eastern fox squirrels. Glancing around town, you will likely notice these orange, bushy-tailed tree rats scurrying, digging and burying all fall. Squirrels can stash up to 10,000 nuts for winter forage, creating caches in hollow trees and other convenient hiding spots, like your home attic.

Songbirds that overwinter locally feed tirelessly throughout our short winter days. Weed seeds, nuts and berries are typical wild food sources, supplemented by our home bird feeders. High-energy foods like sunflower seeds are a staple in their daily diets.

Songbirds reduce their body temperature at night to avoid excessive energy expense to keep warm. As the sun rises, a flush of activity occurs for several hours as they feed. Midday usually brings reduced activity and short periods that will have you wondering if the birds have simply vanished, but the afternoon rush will soon hit with another flurry of wings.

A western chickadee forages among deciduous shrubs.

Critters like reptiles that cannot regulate body temperature seek winter shelter in burrows or covered in mud where the ground temperature is warmer than the air. They don’t require food, but must avoid freezing. Some frogs even create their own “anti-freeze” to avoid cell damage.

Beavers stash food below the water surface in case a freeze prevents them from foraging, and their tails store fat for the lean times. Chipmunks cache food in their burrows and remain below ground when the weather is exceptionally rough.

The snowshoe hare may use a burrow as well, and feed on plants and twigs that they dig or find protruding from deep snow. Their large feet allow them to move across the snow surface without sinking in, reducing energy expense for foraging and providing efficient predator avoidance.

While the hardships of winter are evidenced by wildlife adaptations for survival, these adaptations allow species to thrive through freezing temperature and deep snow, like the snowshoe hare, which lives right here in the Blues.

One of the most abundant and well-distributed mammals in North America, hares rarely starve. Research suggests they maintain consistent body mass throughout the year. Their large feet, white winter coats, and efficient digestive system allow hares to prosper on minimal, and at times, poor-quality food sources over the northern latitude winter.

A snowshoe hare spends its day hidden beneath snow-covered vegetation. Photo by the National Park Service.

Ravens are another local example of an animal that has adapted well to winter living. During the warmer months, ravens are active predators, as well as feeding generalists. But when winter pickings become slim, ravens turn largely to carrion. Ravens have been documented following wolf packs, feasting socially alongside them. Ravens are highly intelligent and wary of novel food sources, but trust the prey of wolves, swooping in almost immediately as the pack makes a successful kill.

Scientist and author, Bernd Heinrich, published a book titled “Ravens in Winter”, presenting a surprisingly captivating study on raven feeding and social behaviors in New England. Heinrich found that ravens cash carrion when in abundant supply and communicate openly with fellow ravens, leading them to new food sources.

The common raven. Photo by Christopher Bruno.

While viewing the winter world from the comfort of our heated homes, it appears an inhospitable place. It’s easy to anthropomorphize the plight of wildlife from our understanding of discomfort and hardship. Yet, animals have the gig nailed, surviving, adapting and thriving with typical grace and beauty. Take a snowy day walk in the forest or even around town this winter. Stop, look and listen to the feathered and furred lives busy at work. And take inspiration from their resilience and resourcefulness, making the most of what is provided every single day.

Short-eared Owls of the Plains

Published March 4th, 2021 in The Waitsburg Times.

Glimpses of white flashed through the heavy sagebrush as Finn dashed across the scablands. There were Hungarian partridge and valley quail hunkered somewhere among the sage sea and She was working her best to locate them. A carpet of spent grasses and forbs provided ample food sources for upland birds, which were inexplicably absent from the flood-scared landscape.

Circling a small basalt butte, I recalled the last flash of white being off to the left about 30-yards. Starting in that direct, my handheld locator alerted me that Finn was on point, simultaneous with my catching another glimpse of white between the waist-high brush.

Rushing on for a flush, a single bird levitated silently, catching the wind and flapping lazily to perch on a lichen-encrusted fence post and peer judgingly back at us. Its round head and exaggerated wingbeats gave it away instantly. A short-eared owl, I would come to learn.

Over the years, my setters and I have flushed short-ears a number of times on the Palouse. Occasionally pairs emerge. When hunting covey birds, there is no concern over drawing a bead on one of these peculiar raptors that can be downright startling, but when chasing something like sharp-tailed grouse, expecting a brown and white bird of similar size can be momentarily confusing.

Short-eared owls are brown spotted with a buff, streaked chest and white under the wings, resembling dried grasses. Their pale face is clearly defined with large golden eyes, outlined in black as if they are wearing eye liner.  And if you really want to dive into the minutia of detail, a dark comma-shape is prominent on the white underwing.

An owl’s “ears” are the lateral feather tufts on the head. The great horned owl boasts magnificent “ears”, but they are far less conspicuous on the short-eared owl. Only when on the defensive are the short-ear’s tufts erect and visible, hence, its namesake. 

Aside from their unique, exaggerated flapping and flight that the Audubon Society describes as “buoyant” and appearing like a “giant moth”, I’ve come to read the dog in the instances they point before the owl appears. They must possess a unique odor as the dogs know it’s a bird, but it just doesn’t smell right. Their points are tentative rather than rigid and confident, and when the bird levitates, the dogs peel off with no desire to pursue it.

Our numerous encounters with short-ears on the grasslands comes from them being the most wide-spread owl species in the world, occurring on every continent. Their North American range spans the entire continent nearly to the Arctic with year-round residency and breeding approximately across the northern band of the contiguous 48 U.S. states.

While most owls prefer some form of dark cover and timber, short-eared owls inhabit the open plains, shrub-steppe, tundra and marshlands, where they roost and nest on the ground like upland gamebirds or waterfowl. When nesting, the female selects a high spot and scratches out a bowl-shaped depression similar to what you might find a pheasant using as a dusting bowl. She fills the bowl with down feathers and grasses for soft, warm brood rearing. Nesting and breeding occurs March through June and peaks in April in the northern hemisphere.

Short-eared owls hunt mainly by sound, listening for rodents scurrying and scuffling in the prairie or wetland duff. While they hunt at night like other owls, one of most unique traits of short-eared owls is their common daytime activity. Short-eared owls are very active in the crepuscular periods of the day and can be seen most any other time of day.

Although these medium-sized owls are common locally and worldwide, my encounters with them have always been on large tracts of shrub-steppe. The patchwork of draw-bottom habitats dappling our wheat local wheat farms typically supports species of alder, cottonwood and black locust, more enticing to great horned owls who would whoop the shorts off the short-eared owl if it desired the shade.

Short-ears are easy to photograph and easily approachable. Finding them is the real challenge. A hike through public lands west of Dayton or the central Washington scablands near Odessa are areas where I commonly see these pale-faced fowl. A canine companion can increase your odds of discovery, but the camera must be at the ready.

Once spooked, Short-ears typically remain close, perching quickly, but the slightest additional human movement can put prompt distance between you. Select a fast shutter speed for the moving target. Upon the flush, train your focus on the bird and try for that perfect in-flight shot, then wait for the owl to settle and capture that wide-eyed glance of incredulous judgement born only of a meal or midday snooze disrupted.