Posted by: atowhee | April 12, 2008

When the birds are better than the birder

A Hutton’s Vireo photo by May Woon on recent San Francisco trip.  This is the kind of view you usually get.  This one shows the broken eye-ring at least.  Too robust for a Kinglet.

I made two ID mistakes today so I should be eating crow. But then it was not a problem with Corvids, it was a problem with this birder.  Appropriately, I should be eating Essence of Tyrannidae.  That’s the family which includes all our New World Flycatchers.  And they struck me out today.  I was O-for-3. 

It was a Klamath Bird Observatory field trip, co-sponsored by Wild Birds of Medford.  We left that store and headed out to Roxy Ann east of Medford and upslope.  I was the amateur volunteer leader, and especially amateur thrice today.  At the bottom of Roxy Ann Road we had a Cooper’s Hawk fly over and watched a pair of Violet-green Swallows.  Meadowlarks were singing unseen on a grassy hillside that’s not yet been turned into suburbia. 

Our next stop was another two hundred feet higher in elevation, where oaks begin to infringe on the grassland, and above the nearest roofline.  Driving up Roxy Ann Road, I saw what I thought was a Say’s Phoebe on a bush alongside the road.  Definitely not the dark back of the Black Phoebe.  We stopped, I looked, and declared “Ash-throated Flycatcher” and proceeded to convince myself that’s what we had.   Two of the birds hawked insects across the field, perched on stubby oaks, landed in the grass.  Meanwhile, Meadowlarks sang and males chased one another about the downslope meadow.  The two flycatchers seemed to be together, at least neither one tried to drive away the other as you might expect.  When you caught a glimpse of their bellies it was almost as buttery as the Meadowlarks’ front. One observant birder commented, “They look like they have masks.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “A dark gray line through the medium gray of the head.”  Wow, I thought, I’ve forgotten how bright the Ash-throated can be.  Of course, when I finally got around to compare the sighting with reality (Sibley) hours later: they had been Western Kingbirds.  The charcoal line through the eye, the bright lemony belly.  What was I thinking?  My excuse, this is spring training, first chance to swing at a flycatcher in months.  I’ll hit it the next time.  I’ve not seen a Western Kingbird since last September.  Only phoebes all winter long.

My next whiff was even more humbling but at least I didn’t mislead any of the trusting dozen souls along on this walk.  We’d hiked up to about 2800-feet in elevation by this time, under fairly heavy shade from ancient madrone plus a few ponderosa and oaks.  A small Empidonax flycatcher was flitting about, landing on the ground, then back up into the trees.  This time I knew I didn’t know the ID by sight.  Sibley was languishing in my car down the hill a mile.  I looked in an older National Geographic field guide and all the Empids looked far too colorful, too heavy in the eye-ring department, etc. etc. It just wasn’t dark enough, or brownish enough to be a Willow. A feeling of frustration well-known to any American birder who’s been into the woods in spring.  But there were some strong clues.  Small beak.  Relative stubby tail.  Only one strong wind-bar, not white but pale gray.  Two sharp call notes as he flew away.  No visible eye-ring. Miles from the nearest water (wasn’t green enough for a Pacific-slope anway).  So for the field trip birders, here’s my reasoned choice for ID.  I will not stake anybody’s life list or reputation or even $5-bill…but I think it was a Western Wood-peewee, a flycatcher that will breed in large numbers on Roxy Ann this spring and summer.  And not officially even in the Empidonax family!

Earlier I’d written whole paragraph on why it was a Hammond’s Flycatcher and who Dr. William Hammond was, etc.  But just tain’t so.  Prosaic little, omnipresent peewee.

Outside of the flycatcher family even this field trip leader had a pretty good day.  A fly-over Cooper’s was later followed by a perching Coop in the tallest ponderosa on the hillside, spotted by a very sharp, perhaps accipiter-eyed birder.  We had singing Bewick’s Wren, uncountable numbers of Lesser Goldfinches, several little gangs of Siskins, Spotted Towhee and many of their smaller sparrow cousins.  Golden-crowned that have not left town yet.  Then a pair of Lark Sparrows walking through the gras about thirty feet from us.  A handsome bird with a colorful mask.  Later singing Chipping Sparrows, their chestnut crowns aglow in the sun.  Both Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbirds, though the views were brief.  A couple of Hermit Thrushes who actually let themselves be seen. A male Western Bluebird in full sunlight, stayed put for a view through the scope.  An Osprey flew over, heading toward the Rogue River.

The most abundant bird of the day: Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Bushes, trees, shrubs, sometimes the sky–alive with Yellow-rumps building up their body fat for the flight north.  SDome were giving their short, whispery song.  Woodpeckers were unusually hard to get: a Downy finally seen by some, a drummer never located visually, an Acorn flew past, silently.  Somewhere I suspected a Red-breasted calling.  One brief glimpse early in the morning of a fly-away Flicker.  Finally one White-breasted Nuthatch climbed along an oak’s trunk close enough for everybody to enjoy, while a Chipped Sparrow higher up sang.  Not yet chagrined at my kingbird miscue, I said, “Sounds like a Venetian blind rattling in a breeze.”  And I was freshly pleased that I had avoided one of the easier field trip mistakes just a few minutes before.

A small greenish bird was spotted gleaning in a nearby madrone, in and around the leaves.  “This could be a kinglet,” I said.

But I kept looking, slow moving bird.  No flutter.  The beak: heavy.  Then the bright wing-bars, with no black.  “Aha, this is a Hutton’s Vireo.” Most of us got good looks, or at leasst a sense of the deliberate movement through the tree.  I described his wheezy slur of a call, then a few moments later he gave us a couple, then flitted off to disappear into another madrone.  So a good time was had by all, especially those tricky flycatchers newly arrived back from the tropics.

We also got quick looks into a Lesser Goldfinch nest when we saw the mother come hom ewith food, at least two young in a nest almost completeluy invisible inside a cluster of mistletoe in a small oak.  No jys about and we didn’t linger.

I saw the first little blue butterflies I’ve noticed this spring.  It was our second day of 70+ temps.  Also been some mourning cloak butterflies about this week.  Their caterpillars specialize on deciduous trees, the adults will take nectar and fluid from fruit, esp. organic apples.

Note: Roxy Ann is over 3500 feet elevation at peak.  We probably didn’t get above 3000 feet on our trip.

Location:     Roxy Ann
Observation date:     4/12/08
Notes:     A KBO/Wild Birds field trip.  Weather was near perfect, clear, warm calm. Except when the Cooper’s Hawk was evident, birdlife was abundanlty visible and often audible as well.
Number of species:     34

Turkey Vulture     2
Osprey     1
Cooper’s Hawk     2
Mourning Dove     1
Anna’s Hummingbird     2
Rufous Hummingbird     1
Acorn Woodpecker     1
Downy Woodpecker     1
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)     1

Western WQiid-peewee     1
Hammond’s Flycatcher     0
Western Kingbird     2
Hutton’s Vireo     1
Western Scrub-Jay     10
Common Raven     1
Tree Swallow     1
Violet-green Swallow     5
Chestnut-backed Chickadee     1
Bushtit     2
White-breasted Nuthatch     2
Bewick’s Wren     4
Western Bluebird     1
Hermit Thrush     3
American Robin     2
Yellow-rumped Warbler     60
Spotted Towhee     4
Chipping Sparrow     5
Lark Sparrow     2
Fox Sparrow     1
Golden-crowned Sparrow     2
Dark-eyed Junco     1
House Finch     6
Pine Siskin     15
Lesser Goldfinch     75
American Goldfinch     1


  1. Only 60 yellow rumped warblers?

    It was a perfect day for birding, you make me wish I was there.

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