Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Great Northwest Birding Adventure of 2011 (part three)

Wrapping up the GNBA (Orgun's coast) from 2011...last installment in this series.

Silver Falls State Park was our next destination on this cool but sunny November 8, 2011.  We concentrated on three of the 10 waterfalls due to time constraints for the and of the day.  Walking along the winding and mossy pathways dug into the side of the slopes, Maidenhair and Sword ferns could be seen.  These are aptly named as they quite literally resemble their descriptors.  The temps got cooler as we descended into the darkened ravines on our way to the falls viewing areas.  Giant moss-covered trees stood sentinel and browning maple leaves as big as your head littered the ground.

There weren't many birds visible in the overgrown forest, however a few Hairy woodpeckers and Juncos could be found.  We got a brief look at an my personal "spark" bird; the American dipper at the outfall river and my heart was thrilled as we backtracked up, up, up the long trail back to the parking lot.

Wednesday the 9th found us in the 1,680 acre Willamette Mission State Park.  The weather improved as the day wore on, however it started at 43 degrees and heavy fog until 9:00 AM PST.  Willamette mission is named so because the park occupies land where the first mission for American Indians was founded in 1834 by the Reverend Jason Lee. Members of the Methodist Mission were later active in the formation of Oregon government. A monument is located in the park providing information on this settlement. The original mission buildings are represented by framed outlines called ghost structures.  Personally both Barbara and I found this minimalist artsy concept of white-painted lumber "ghost structures" just plain dumb, but then maybe they were on a tight budget.  Perhaps they weren't finished? Anyway, the nation's oldest and largest Black cottonwood tree was real however and stood at just over 158 feet with 110 foot spread.  Interestingly enough, that tree is technically older than the US at 250 years!  I scored a pair of life-birds in a clearing near the sign that talked about the tree; Golden-crowned sparrow and Lincoln's sparrow.

We drove the rental Chevy Cruze to the far end of the park where many colorful fall trees were growing near several handy park structures for picnicking.  There were many birds flitting around the trees and ground so we kept busy identifying them.  We saw; Stellars jays, Western scrub jays, Bushtits, Downy woodpeckers, American robins, Cedar waxwings, Golden-crowned kinglets, Canada goose, Brewers blackbirds. European starlings, Juncos, House sparrows, and Song and Tree sparrows.  There is also a self-guided park map that we grabbed a copy of to assist us with our questions.  We walked through a curious and beautiful grove of filbert trees, stopping to take a few pictures of the scenery before driving out the exit, past the giant poles and wires that would normally have held up acres and acres of delicious hops (the "spice" of a great beer), but now looked like the bones of dinosaur standing silent in the field.

The road we purposely chose led us to a bucolic river crossing strictly accomplished via the Wheatland ferry.   The Willamette River also has two other ferries: the Buena Vista ferry south of Independence and the Canby ferry at Canby.  At two dollars, the price was ridiculously cheap, however if you drove one of the 65,000 lbs+ dump trucks or 18-wheelers that were lined up on the other side; it was not (at $ 18.00 one way).  This ferry is the only way to cross the river for many miles, so if you were working in that area; you pay.  One nice thing for the "usual" customers is that the Marion County Department of Public Works is authorized to sell you a "toll card" at a 10% credit to be offered to the purchasers of cards in $ 50 increments...yea!  Just know that the river crossing closes when it rises to a level of 15'-8"...plan your trip accordingly.

Little did we know that just ahead would a place we would spend the next few hours eating (sampling) cheese.  The Willamette Cheese Co. is a small manufacturer of fine Oregon cheeses in the Willamette Valley and just happened to be open and offering tasting.  We walked through the door of their "store" at around noon to be greeted with a, "Hello, would you like to sample some cheese? You'd be the first ones of the day!"  Barbara and I spent the next hour sampling some of the most flavorful craft cheeses that northern Oregon had to offer while enjoying a story about each variety.  We selected several prepackaged chinks of our favorites before heading south towards Salem.

A few miles outside town was the Redhawk Winery.  We hadn't necessarily planned to stop at any wineries, however the name grabbed the both of us so we said why not?  For a small fee, we became the first wine tasters of the day (at about 1:30 PM) to try ten of their wines.  The logo was extremely cool so we bought two small glasses and a two bottles of their wine.  They threw in a couple of their new labels (not on bottles) for us and we left; two happy campers.  After a quick stop at the reservoir near Silverton and another at the grocery for more gourmet foods, we headed back to Lisa and Shaun's for a "fancy" wine, cheese, olives, crackers, smoked salmon, etc. evening meal.

The next day (Thursday) we left EXTRA early because we knew we were going to be driving for quite a while up the coast to the north.  The SUN was actually shining however there was still plenty of low-lying fog.    Our first stop was for Egg-nog with espresso from a psychedelically decorated coffee hut in Salem, OR.  We had some real fun with the on-board GPS that attempted to talk us through town.  The fog must have made it extremely confused, because we had some 600 miles to go according to its addled circuitry.  We used a tiny map taken from some wayside kiosk and made do with some creative extrapolation.  We first ended up at Fort Yamhill State Park.  The expansive park area is also set up for The Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde as pow-wow grounds. There were multiple grandstands and LOTS of bathroom facilities available.  The tribe hosts a Veterans’ Pow Wow each July and a Competition Pow Wow on the third weekend each August. Fort Yamhill Heritage area nearby tells the story of the relocation, transition and sadness for Grand Ronde’s people when they were forced from their ancestral homelands which extended from the banks of the Columbia river to the Oregon–California border onto the Grand Ronde Reservation under military guard.  We took a few photos and drove northwest to Tillamook.

The Tillamook Cheese Company which started in 1851 was on our day's bucket-list so we parked the car and went in to see how that worked.  Expecting something more structured with a sign-up or something; we were surprised when the tour turned out to be self-guided.  We walked around the lower area and found an introductory film that gave us a brief overview of the factory and history of that area.  The production was well done and informative, however someone in marketing thought it would be a great idea to incorporate a little oft-played ditty with truly bizarre lyrics that accompanied their mascot - a dancing block of Tillamook cheese with blue arms and legs - as it perpetrated its zany brand of hi-jinx. "I found love, in the fall...and it did not hurt at all..."  I found myself singing it, for far too long.  

Take a look at the dedicated cheese makers of Tillamook Cheese:

After a quick stop at the Tillamook Country Smoker (meat smokehouse) - just up the highway for some bags of outlet-priced jerky and a great yellow ball cap where their motto is "All hail your inner Carnivore," onward to Cannon Beach we went.  There were numerous pull-outs that attracted our attention and pull-out we did.  The view from the highway up and down the rocky coast we breathtaking.  The ocean was wild and frothy way down below us.  Small villages could be seen in the distance beneath a cover of mist.  The sun was shining but the air remained cool.  

We arrived at Cannon Beach around lunch time.  Stopping in at their quaint Visitor's Center for a map and directions to Haystack Rock, (235 tall out of the beach sand) we parked in a convenient public parking lot and walked to the beach.  Fortunately the tide was waaaaayyy out so we were able to walk quite near the gigantic rock.  The rock is a federally protected wildlife habitat.  We saw male and female Harlequin ducks and Black oyster-catchers as well as two new life-birds for me; Black turnstone and on the way back to the car - a Chestnut-backed chickadee.  I was truly hoping for a Tufted puffin, however it was apparently not puffin season.  Barbara and I ate at a chic dining place called the Lazy Susan Cafe'.  We each enjoyed our meal and the ambiance.  Of course we couldn't pass up a coffee at the Bald Eagle Coffee House while sitting in two big Adirondack chairs before leaving the village.

Our drive back to Silverton took us through Portland, OR and a nice 1-hour traffic jam, but we spent our time reminiscing over the day's sights, sounds and of course...birds.   Oregon is definitely a place to return to as time and budget will permit.  After all...we didn't see a Sasquatch or a Tufted puffin yet right? 

Thanks Lisa and Shaun for being such wonderful hosts...and thanks ORGUN!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Knock, Knock...who's there?

Tap, tap, tap, tok, tok, tok, tap, tok, tap, tok, tok…

I stood on a small rise at the base of five of the finest bird environments that the Milwaukee County (Swan Boulevard) Water Detention area had to offer; listening. Technically there are eight oak trees on this spot, but five are singles and one is a tri-oak of sorts. I often visit here to collect my thoughts, feel the breeze on my neck and the fading orange, evening sun on my face. It’s peaceful and wild; the last tiny remaining vestige of the glorious forest that stood here prior to the county’s need for a large open area in which to collect enormous amounts of suburban storm run-off. These gnarled old oaks were thankfully left standing by some thoughtful planner and have provided so very many species of birds with a place to rest, nest, and dine.

The “tap-er-tok-er” turned out to be a White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) clinging upside-down to the side of one of the oaks, pounding its long specialized bill (nearly as big as its own head) into and around a small opening nestled in amongst the thick gray folds of tree bark. I zoomed in and stood there watching the small black and white bird, laboriously working on something obviously important to it. “Nest?” my mind asked. Nuthatches are predominantly cavity nesters, however that seemed unlikely. “Bugs” was my next guess as I watched it repeatedly banging away in the same area of bark. WBN’s are nearly six inches long and do not migrate, but rather inhabit a territory of up to .2 square kilometers, defending it with a series of calls and aggressive maneuvers. Preferring older more mature forests (particularly oaks), they will leave their areas only if food becomes scarce, particularly when their 100% summer food source (insects) forces them to switch to seeds in winter. This fellow was hell-bent to find something in that opening, so it kept pecking away as I watched; wishing I had a camera.

My own vigil paid off as I watched the bill of the WBN pry out an orange and black Banded Wooly Bear (Isabella moth caterpillar). The bug fell to the ground with the bird immediately flying down to reclaim its prize. The banded Woolly Bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws out and emerges to pupate. This one was thawing and unfortunately attracting the attention of the WBN in the process. The bird snatched the bug from the grass below the oak and flew to a nearly horizontal limb, also within my binoculared eyesight. The deep grooves in the bark provided a “vise” of sorts in which to contain the caterpillar as the nuthatch pounded, twisted its bill, flipped, and pecked the insect into smaller and smaller bill-sized, edible specks. Once the bird moved the bug to another similar horizontal neighboring limb and worked on it for a full 10 minutes more before I moved on to allow it an unobserved finish to its meal. “Cool.” I proclaimed as I walked away to see what else might amaze me.

It only took a few more steps when a movement caught my eye in the direction of a group of last year’s burdock plants. A tiny bird had landed on a stalk quite near a cluster of the dreaded Velcro-modeled, “burrs.” Common Burdock is a plant with large flat leaves that look like rhubarb. The flowers resemble thistles and when they die the seeds forma round ball that attaches by its barbed Velcro-like hooks to clothing, dogs, anything it touches. Common Burdock grows 1 - 1.5 meters tall or more. Each stalk is loaded with round balls of seeds surrounded by hooks. After a walk through a waste or brushy place, the odds are that you have had these burs clinging to your clothing. Viewing the bird in my binoculars; it turned out to be an American Goldfinch male. The bird had just begun to “yellow-up” as larger patches were visible. It proceeded to pick at the burrs with its beak; pulling out seeds and eating them.

I personally had never before seen this activity (birds enjoying the burdock as a food source), so I watched for quite a while; never once did the goldfinch come close to getting “stuck” as the many burdock alarmists would have you believe. Granted, kinglets (both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned) are the ones cited as having the greatest difficulty with entrapment, however could it just be possible that fervent eradicators merely use that oft-recounted anecdote as heart-wrenching rationale for its complete and total removal from existence? People who often preach about non-native invasive species of all sorts will tell you, “Burdock is not a native North American plant, but was introduced from Europe,” as their be-all, end-all rationale for complete eradication. I might argue that most human beings currently in the United States fit the same definition. I won’t judge others conviction at this point; however watching the goldfinch enjoy its early spring meal caused me to question the current (urban legend-like), zero-tolerance, removal mantra.  There's also a little evolutionary theory from a man named Herbert Spencer (after reading some Darwin) who coined the phrase, "survival of the fittest."  While experts will argue that the phrase is incorrectly interpreted; dumb things usually die first.

I crunched down the slope to enjoy the Song sparrows, male Red-winged blackbirds, and a single (early) Palm warbler as it foraged in the brown grass of last year…life is good.

Bird list:

  1. White-breasted nuthatch
  2. American Robin
  3. Northern Cardinal
  4. Palm Warbler - FOY
  5. Song Sparrow
  6. Tree Sparrow
  7. Red-winged blackbird
  8. American crow
  9. Mallard
  10. Killdeer
  11. Common grackle
  12. European starling
  13. Chipping sparrow
  14. Canada Goose
  15. Ring-billed gull
  16. Herring gull
  17. Black-capped chickadee
  18. Mourning dove
  19. Pigeon
  20. House sparrow
  21. House finch
  22. Red-bellied woodpecker
  23. Downy woodpecker

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Finally Spring! - Havenwoods Revisited

Bird-watching at Havenwoods State Forest in the City of Milwaukee (6141 N. Hopkins Street) is always a treat.  I recently had an opportunity to spend several early Saturday hours walking its now pastoral 237 acres on a windy March day in 2012.  The forest has quite a storied past as the site of the Milwaukee County House of Corrections beginning in 1917 where prisoners also ran a small farm and built chairs in the Granville Chair Factory, and as a 1950’s Nike missile site among other uses.  Havenwoods is managed by the State of Wisconsin Department of Natural resources and has an active “friends of” group that cares for its needs and assists in the planning of its overall make-up.  The forest map indicates the many different areas of interest in terms of wetlands and forested regions created and maintained, as well as the railroad tracks and various paths; both gravel and grass.

This particular morning with a strong south wind blowing, as I walked towards the westernmost boundary of the property along the railroad tracks I could detect the unmistakable smell of creosote.  One glance down the tracks was all it took to answer why; large neat stacks of new ties freshly dipped alongside the rails waiting for some sort of track re-lay project.  If you have ever smelled that scent, you know there’s nothing else quite like it.  Creosote was first discovered in its wood-tar form in 1832 by Carl Reichenbach. (February 12, 1788 – January 1869) was a notable chemist, geologist, metallurgist, naturalist, industrialist and philosopher, and a member of the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences. Creosote is a coal-tar product that has been used to treat green lumber under railroad tracks since 1838 when a man named John Bethell patented the process for its use on railroad timbers.  According to the Internet, “Creosote is the portion of chemical products obtained by the distillation of a tar that remains heavier than water, notably useful for its anti-septic and preservative properties.” There is an interesting link HERE if you are as curious as I was, to see just how Chileans “treat” the tie-lumber with the product.

As I approached the old weathered concrete 1911 train bridge I noticed a bird in the distance moving from branch to branch.  It appeared to have a long piece of rope or ribbon in its beak.  I made a quick assumption that it was building a nest somewhere, but in the next 20 seconds it became obvious that the long thing in its mouth was not nest building material.  I swung my binoculars up and saw that the bird was an American kestrel and the “rope” was in fact a Garter snake.  The bird was in a tree now and stripping the raw meat from the snake as I watched and snapped a few long-distance pictures.  I was still over 100 feet away and the sun was behind the bird; so not the best conditions for a picture, but the live-viewing was amazing!  I saw other kestrels in the area and was thrilled each time I spotted one.  These little raptors are amazingly colorful and distinct in appearance.  I could go on and on about how cool these tiny but fierce animals are, but I will point the reader of this blog to a progressive initiative that started many years ago that has the Interstate highway department involved in fostering a better life for these wee birds of prey; the Highway Sign Nest Box program.  Here's Iowa's program in particular...check it out.  

American and other kestrel's feed on snakes; hovering for hours over likely meadow lands, they swoop down to grab prey which has been spotted, alighting to feed. Kites, such as the Swallow-tailed, Black-shouldered and Mississippi, feed on garters, as do some of the harriers and hawks. Hunting strategies vary, from airborne reconnaissance to perching in likely spots and watching for movement below.  It was probably the uncharacteristically warm March weather along the railroad bed that brought out the snake, much to its detriment.

A flock of Sandhill cranes flying many thousands of feet above my head, yet clearly audible; flew to the northwest, cackling and squawking.  Dried coyote spoor was evident in many parts of the forest with its characteristic animal hair make-up.  Fresh deer droppings lay in piles, black ball bearings glistening in the light. Later when I crossed over to the northeast section of the forest, I encountered a herd of about 10 whitetail deer.  They were sneaking along the bank of one of the seasonally wet drainage ditches on the opposite side of me.  I carefully navigated downwind of them and sat down in the warm dry grass at the base of a small hawthorn and watched them as they moved southwest to points unknown.  The incredible bonus early March sunshine bathing me in warmth along with the soft southern breeze wafting through the leafless trees brought me a feeling of intense joy.  I finally hoisted myself up and walked the rest of the way back to the parked car with a big smile on my was finally Spring!

A Birdstud Spring!