I moved from Chicago to Portland in 2004. I've been in Oregon long enough now that I was actually craving a good winter storm when the forecasters predicted the Portland area would receive a large amount of snow. When the snow actually started falling and accumulating on Thursday around 1 pm, my mind raced with the possibilities of where I could go to take in the beauty of this storm. I was debating between a daytime or nighttime outing. I decided I would go look for owls during the night on Friday, planning to take advantage of the beautiful illumination provided by snow-covered ground.
By noon on Friday, though, I could no longer contain my excitement, and I was slightly concerned the roads would become dangerous before midnight, so off I went to one of my favorite spots -- Vancouver lowlands, an area of fields and forest that is on the northwest side of the city of Vancouver, Washington. The roads were relatively empty, in pretty decent shape, and presented no problem for my all-wheel drive vehicle with snow/traction tires. (By Saturday, the roads were no longer in good shape, and law enforcement was advising all motorists to stay home, so I am glad I went when I did.)
My first stop was Vancouver Lake County Park. This is a great spot for seeing various sparrows and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. As soon as I pulled in to the park, though, it was the trees, and not the birds, that beckoned me.
Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA
While I was taking this photograph, I heard a Red-breasted Sapsucker busy drilling for sap, and my eyes found him about forty feet away, drilling a trunk four feet from the ground. I decided it was best to let the sapsucker do its thing in peace, so rather than risk flushing it, I moved my attention to the busy but relatively tame flock of sparrows feeding at the edge of the parking lot. In the event you need a sapsucker fix, you can check out photos I took of one at this same location in February of 2011 by clicking here.
This park has a lot of tree and small bushes, providing cover for sparrows and other songbirds. In addition, there is at least one person who appears to routinely scatter bird seed on the ground (I've seen him only once, but the seed is there almost every time I go). As a result, the park can be a great place to see a variety of sparrows.
I crawled in the snow toward the birds, picked my spot, and dug in. Some of the birds briefly looked at me, most did not, and all continued digging through the snow to find food. There were many pockets in the snow; I suspect that some of the birds had created these through their foraging behavior, as shown in this video of a Sooty Fox Sparrow I recorded there (you can set the video to 1080p HD by hovering your mouse near the lower right corner):
Sooty Fox Sparrow Digging in SnowVancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA 7 February 2014
Given how much fun I've had in the past photographing birds in the snow (click on the links to see my photos of Common Redpolls and Horned Larks in snow), I quickly entered the "zone" and lost myself in the beauty of what I was seeing.
Above: Sooty Fox Sparrow, Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA
Below: Do you know what this is?, Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA
Ah, yes, a male Spotted Towhee!, Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA. I was certain he would poke his head up facing the other way -- so much for my plans...
Spotted Towhee, Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA
I spent enough time with this flock of birds in a non-threatening manner that they completely relaxed around me. As a result, I was able to observe all sorts of behavior, including this Sooty Fox Sparrow performing routine feather maintenance using its uropygial gland. You can read more about this by clicking here.
Sooty Fox Sparrow gleaning oils from its uropygial gland, Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA
Sooty Fox Sparrow, Vancouver Lake County Park, Clark County, Washington, USA
Realizing that daylight was running out, I left the sparrow flock to explore the rest of the lowlands. Snow was coming down hard at this point, resulting in a beautiful, stark landscape. I was hoping to see some Short-eared Owls hunting diurnally, as they sometimes do in certain weather, but I had no luck with that.
Below is a photo of the same tree, zoomed in quite a bit more -- portions of all three eagles are visible.
I finally broke out the long lens and photographed the rightmost of the three:
I also saw several Red-tailed Hawks, one Merlin, and one American Kestrel. None of the raptors were flying -- all seemed to be waiting out the storm. I imagine feather maintenance in the middle of a snowstorm is a bit challenging. I often think of these birds as extremely tough, killing machines, but in a winter snowstorm, their powers appear minuscule compared to what nature can unleash.
American Kestrel, Clark County, Washington, USA
Between Vancouver Lake and Frenchman's Bar was the usual assortment of sparrows, including Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Song, and more than a dozen Lincoln's Sparrows.
White-crowned Sparrows, Vancouver Lowlands, Clark County, Washington, USA
One of 12+ Lincoln's Sparrows, Vancouver Lowlands, Clark County, Washington, USA
I came across another Great Blue Heron trying to ride out the snowstorm. This one appeared to be attempting to take advantage of cover, unlike the flock I saw earlier that was completely exposed in the middle of a snowy field.
As dusk was approaching, the snow began blowing even harder, and visibility was disappearing quickly. I abandoned my original plan to stay for a couple of hours after sunset, and headed back home. I will be keeping an eye on the weather radar, and if we are lucky enough to have a window with no precipitation (and where the roads are safe), I suspect I will find myself headed back out there to enjoy the beauty of owls hunting the fields while illuminated by the light bouncing off the snow. I once had the pleasure of watching Snowy Owls hunt at night when Chicago was covered in snow, and it was nothing short of exquisite.
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