Clark’s Nutcracker Fledgling

One day this past week I found myself on top of Mount Howard, just south of Joseph, Oregon. (It’s a popular tourist area, known as the “Alps of Oregon,” and an aerial tramway takes tourists up to the summit of this particular mountain.) To my delight, one of my favorite western birds was making a racket in the fir trees: the Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the jay family.

Thanks as always for taking the photo, Evan.
Thanks as always for taking photos, Evan.

I’ve written before about how, in some places in the west, it seems almost possible to estimate one’s altitude based on which jay species are present. You have to get up into the mountains before you’ll see any Clark’s Nutcrackers, but once you get into the right habitat, they’re pretty common.

The birds were making quite a racket. Jays often do, but there was something specific going on in this case: as I watched, I realized I was seeing a pair of birds, one quietly going about its business of foraging among the conifer cones and a second one following it around making piteous keening noises. I’m 95% sure it was a recently-fledged bird, following its parent around and begging.

CaptureCapture2Stumbling across interesting birds is always cool, and it’s even better when you get to see an interesting behavior like this. Part of the fun of living out west is that even some of the fairly common birds of the area (like Black-billed Magpies and Lazuli Buntings and Red-breasted Sapsuckers and what have you) still seem novel. Happy birding!



Sapsucker Nest

Last week I was in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania, on a visit over the holiday weekend. It’s always fun to get a chance to see and hear the eastern birds I grew up with that we don’t have out west – Blue Jays, Eastern Towhees, Eastern Phoebes, and all the rest. This time, the highlight was spotting a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest just twenty feet or so off a trail.

DSC_1071 (677x1024)It was the very noisy begging calls of the woodpecker chicks hidden inside that first gave away the nests’ location, and once we stopped and watched we were able to spot both parents coming and going. Here’s Dad emerging from the cavity with a beakful of something, probably cleaning things out a bit – this was actually the only time we saw him and it was hard to get a good picture:

DSC_1075 (681x1024)It was Mom (without the extensive red forehead and chin) who kept coming and going with food, posing for photos.

DSC_1090 (674x1024)I’m normally not great at finding nests (though I seem to be having more luck than usual this year), so this was a treat. Now I’m back home in Walla Walla, and with high temperatures climbing into the triple digits this weekend, I’m not planning on hiking again for a little while!





Close Encounter of the Sooty Grouse Kind

We visited Mount Rainier National Park over the weekend, and after driving up to the Paradise visitor center, opted for a short hike to Snow Lake. The trail was still partially snow-covered but was absolutely beautiful, thick with blooming Avalanche Lilies and providing stunning views of the mountain (I’d been to the park once before, but on an overcast day when the peak was lost in clouds).

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On the way down, a grouse unexpectedly walked out onto the trail in front of us. Unlike Ruffed Grouse, which in my experience flush as soon as they hear you coming so that all you ever see is their tails as they fly away, this male Sooty Grouse (a lifer for me) was remarkably unconcerned by our presence as he pecked at the vegetation.

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We also got to see a female when one flew across the road and perched in a hemlock tree by the trailhead, where she appeared to be eating the needles.

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All in all a great bird to conclude two weekend of travel on the west side with!

Photos (once again) by Evan Heisman.


Calliope Hummingbird Nest

Last week I joined some members of the Blue Mountain chapter of the Audubon Society for their weekly bird walk at Bennington Lake. Like most birders, they were a welcoming, friendly group, and there was one woman in particular who apparently birds the trails there intensely every week and had scoped out a couple nests. So, in addition to great looks at Lazuli Buntings, Bullock’s Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and other western treats, we got to observe a Western Kingbird and a Yellow Warbler on nests – pretty cool.

As we were walking through a wooded area, a flicker of movement in the branches caught my eye, and I turned my head to see a female hummingbird buzzing among the leaves. As I watched, to my amazement, it settled onto a ball of white fluff on one of the twigs. Another nest! A hummingbird nest! I had found a hummingbird nest! I didn’t have my camera with me but one of the others did and she kindly gave my permission to use her photo.

Photo by Judy Treman

And this is not just any hummingbird. Female hummers all look the same to me in the field, but according to the others who were there, this is a Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird found in the U.S. and Canada. I’d only seen one Calliope before ever, so I was amazed to learn that this is actually the second most commonly seen hummer species around here, after the Black-chinned. The nest itself, as far as I can tell, is made of cottonwood fluff held together with spiderwebs.

Finding a hummingbird nest (even if it was pure luck) was certainly a great way to earn my stripes with a new group of birders. Next time I go birding at Bennington, I will definitely be bringing my own camera!

UPDATE: We managed to re-find the nest a week later, and seen from a slightly different angle, its proportions look different and there was some talk that it may in fact be a Black-chinned Hummingbird after all. Here’s the new angle, decide for yourself:



Beauty in Black and Orange

I added three species of warbler to my year list yesterday afternoon – Magnolia, Blackburnian, and American Redstart. (Considering we’ve been doing almost all of our birding in the afternoons, not the mornings, my roommate and I have been doing pretty well this spring.) I love redstarts, and I was thrilled when this beautiful male posed for a couple photos.


009I love that extra flash of orange on the underside of the tail! While going over these photos, I started to wonder where the name “redstart” came from, and Wikipedia has given me the answer: “start” goes back to an Old English word for “tail,” so it means a bird with a red tail. Accurate! North America’s redstarts are actually named after a genus of Old World flycatchers that share this trait.

These were the first nice photos I’ve ever taken of a warbler, so they made me pretty happy. Now I just need to go back out with my camera and stalk the feeder where the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been hanging out. Talk about your beautiful birds…


Owl #3

Yes, one last post about the owls I saw on my Sax-Zim Bog trip. Like the Great Gray I posted about last Friday, I saw my third and final owl species not in the bog itself, but in the Duluth area.


This was Sunday afternoon, the same day that we saw four Great Gray Owls in one morning. We only saw one of these, but one was enough to bask in its awesomeness: the Northern Hawk Owl! (Or Northern Hawk-owl. I’ve seen it both ways.)

Hawk-owls get their name from the fact that they’re, well, a bit hawkish. See that long tail? In flight this bird looks almost more like an accipiter (like, say, a Cooper’s Hawk) than an owl. They’re active during the day, hunting prey from conspicuous perches at the very tops of trees, like a kestrel or a shrike. Like the Boreal and the Great Gray, this is primarily an owl of the great northern forests, both in North America and Eurasia.

Someone gave me directions to a field just a half a mile out of my way on my drive home that was supposed to be another hawk-owl hot spot. I didn’t see any owls, but I did find another car slowly cruising along the country road. I could resist pulling up next to him and saying “Hey, are you looking for hawk-owls too?”, which of course he was. Got to love birders. (At first when I pulled up next to him and rolled my window down, I don’t think he was sure what to expect. I am not a demographically typical birder. I think I may have been the only woman under thirty at the festival.)

This concludes the tale of my Sax-Zim Bog trip. That means it’s time to start planning my next birding adventure… anyone up for lekking prairie chickens in April?


Owl #2

The unofficial mascot of Sax-Zim Bog, the bird everyone goes there to see, is the Great Gray Owl.

I did not see a Great Gray Owl on Friday evening. I did not see a Great Gray Owl on Saturday. Sunday, I was signed up to spend the day birding in the Duluth area rather than in the bog itself, and hope was fading. But was we headed up toward the lakeshore, we came across a couple cars stopped by the edge of the road. (You’ve heard of “bear jams” in Yellowstone? Duluth in winter apparently has “owl jams.”) There, sitting at the top of a small evergreen tree not one hundred feet from the road, was North America’s largest owl.

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It was beautiful. It was so exciting. But while we were admiring this big beautiful bird, someone suddenly called out, “Hey guys, look! There’s another one right here across the road, and it’s even closer!” And then a minute later, “Here’s another one around the corner!”

Great Gray Owl

Check out that white mustache! Like some other predators, Great Gray Owls hunt primarily based on sound, and can hear small rodents moving through tunnels under the snow. We actually witnessed one dive off its perch and into the snow, although I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of this and we couldn’t see whether it caught anything. Also, while this is one of the world’s largest owls in terms of height, it is definitely not the heaviest – that volume is mostly feathers.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, by FunkMonk.

Later in the morning we spotted a fourth one. At that point we didn’t even bother to get off the bus. We just admired it through the windows for a moment and kept going, looking for new species to add to our list. And that is the story of how I saw four Great Gray Owls in one day.

To be continued…


Owl #1, Post #500

By far the birds I was most excited to see at Sax-Zim Bog were the owls. Who doesn’t love owls??? However, by mid-day on Saturday I was beginning to feel a little pessimistic. The Friday evening search for Great Gray Owls at dusk had proved fruitless, and today our guide seemed to be doing his best to let us down gently. “Yeah, the Great Grays haven’t been nearly as reliable this year as they usually are. They’ve been a lot harder to find.” “There’s only been one hawk-owl reported in the bog all winter. We’ll look for one but it’s not too likely.” What if I went home at the end of the weekend without having seen a single nocturnal raptor? That would be so embarrassing.

Then this happened.

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Do you see the owl? It’s there, I promise. When a couple of photographers told us what they’d found – in a tree right by the edge of the road, with orange flagging tape around its trunk, no less – we couldn’t believe it. (“You wouldn’t believe how long it took us to train that bird to sit in the tree with the flagging tape so we could find it,” quipped the guide.)

Boreal Owl

Yes, it’s a Boreal Owl! These awesome little denizens of the north country are about ten inches tall and usually spend the day well-concealed in the woods, but ours had ventured into the open. Our bus radioed the location to the other buses full of birders cruising the bog and soon the whole stretch of road was lined with owl paparazzi.

019 (1024x685)What’s good news for birders is unfortunately not good news for the bird. The fact that it was alert and out in the open in the middle of the day probably means that this bird was under stress and not finding enough food during its normal hunting times. This is often the case with the owl irruptions we birders love so much – last winter’s amazing influx of Snowy Owls in the U.S. was a sign that there wasn’t enough food for them in their regular range to the north.

Still, I cannot tell a lie, getting such a spectacular look at such an amazing and seldom-seen bird really made my day. And that was only the first owl of the weekend… to be continued!


Also, on an unrelated note: this marks my 500th post on Rebecca in the Woods. When I began blogging three years ago I was just doing it as a fun project for myself, because I enjoy taking pictures and writing. I had no idea where it would lead me – to becoming a published freelance writer, to doing a graduate project on social media and environmental education, and more. The community I’ve found online has genuinely enriched my life (I feel corny typing that, but it’s true), and I just want to say thank you to every single person who takes the time to read, like, comment, and share. You rock!


Sax-Zim Adventure!

When I told one of the people I work with that I was taking a weekend off in February to go to a birding festival, he said, “Isn’t February an odd time of year for that?” Well, sure, normally. But not if you’re talking about Sax-Zim Bog. Then it’s the perfect time of year for it.

Sunrise over Sax-Zim.
Sunrise over Sax-Zim.

I first heard about Sax-Zim Bog back when I was in college, when I started reading the blog of “Birdchick” Sharon Stiteler. It was also in college that I first read the book The Big Year, in which the area is mentioned prominently as one of the characters criss-crosses it again and again, searching in vain for his Great Gray Owl. (In the movie adaptation this nemesis bird is switched to the Snowy Owl, probably because the Snowy is more familiar to the non-birding public, but they still slipped a quick mention of Sax-Zim into the script.) This out-of-the way patch of rural northern Minnesota, named for two all-but-abandoned settlements on its edge called Sax and Zim, is known as one of the best places in the country to see boreal birds. This winter, with the bog only a four-hour drive away, I couldn’t resist signing up for their annual birding festival and going to explore it for myself.

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Festival transportation.

So I spent this past weekend being driven around on a yellow school bus with a bunch of other birders from around the country and a couple guides familiar with the area, hunting for interesting birds in the bog and in nearby Duluth. The festival itself was fascinating – this was the sixth year they’ve been doing it, and it’s put together by locals who are mostly not birders themselves but who are clearly thrilled that people from all over the country believe this place is special and want to come see it for themselves. The buses were driven by regular school bus drivers, giving up their weekend to ferry us around and show off their home turf, and our Saturday driver told us how much he loves seeing how excited the festival attendees get when they see new birds. It was a fun dynamic.

And oh yeah, we did see some really good birds… more on that later.

Further readingBirders add to life lists during Sax-Zim Bog Festival, from Sunday’s Duluth News Tribune. The reporter was on my bus, but I wasn’t interviewed and somehow didn’t end up in any of the photos he took, either. Which is fine with me.


Red Birds

On Wednesday afternoon my boss stuck her head into the room where I was working. “There’s a crossbill at my feeder,” she said, and while there are plenty of White-winged Crossbills out in the bog, getting a close look at one is still a special event, so up we went to her office to check out the platform feeder outside her window.

Sure enough, we found ourselves looking at a big male crossbill. It seemed odd to see one all by itself near the building, instead of with the flocks in the bog. But – but – “Guys, look at him, he doesn’t have any white wing bars.”

“What? No, he just – wait – oh, wow.”

Photo by Fran McReynolds (my boss).
Photo by Fran McReynolds (my boss).

I don’t know why, but Red Crossbills are by far the less common, harder-to-find of the two North American crossbill species, at least in the east. (Both species of crossbill have funky bills with crossed tips to help them pry open conifers’ cones and extract the seeds.) I wish I’d been able to get my own photo of ours, but it was gone by the time I got my camera, and I had to console myself as best I could photographing another bird with “red” in its name.

Great Christmas card photo, or BEST CHRISTMAS CARD PHOTO EVER?
Great Christmas card photo, or BEST CHRISTMAS CARD PHOTO EVER?

Common Redpolls. They live up to the “common” part of their name in the winter here… but they’re just so pretty.