Monday morning found me doing my twice monthly goose survey at Ridgefield NWR in Clark County, Washington. I often don't know which area I will be covering until I show up. Good news greeted me as I arrived -- I would be covering Bachelor Island, my favorite portion of the refuge. Given the recent weather and time of year, I was hopeful I might encounter a Mountain Bluebird, Say's Phoebe, or perhaps even a Sagebrush (formerly Sage) Sparrow.
Sagebrush Sparrow, Auto-tour Route, River S Unit, Ridgefield NWR, Clark County, Washington, USA, February 2009
Bachelor Island borders the Columbia River, and contains large chunks of open fields, as well as shallow wetlands (favored by Dusky Canada Geese), and even some wooded areas. It is just a bit north and east of Rentenaar Road on nearby Sauvie Island, which is, of course, in Oregon. It is where most of my annual winter sightings of Golden Eagle west of the Cascades occur.
Golden Eagle on Bachelor Island, Ridgefield NWR, Clark County, Washington, USA, December 2012
The habitat on Bachelor Island seems to attract vagrants, including such surprises as Mountain Bluebird, Common Redpoll, and this American Tree Sparrow that was on Bachelor Island in December 2011.
Birds that breed on Bachelor Island include Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Lazuli Buntings. So anytime I get to survey Bachelor Island is a good day, even if it means that I have to sort through a flock of 3,000+ geese to find that one bird with the collar.
Counting geese can be a bit overwhelming at times. Sometimes flocks number in the thousands, but after years of doing it, I've developed a feel for counting flocks. I record the flock size, note their behavior (feeding, loafing, flushed by predator, flushed by vehicle, etc.), and note which field they are in. The folks that manage the dozens of individual fields can then see which fields are being used by which geese, and use this information to better manage the habitat to benefit the geese.
My job is to not only count the flocks, though, but to find as many neck collars as possible, and record the three digit codes on those collars. Sometimes it can take 15 minutes or longer to get all three characters; sometimes I simply see a collar on a bird, and never record the characters on it. If the geese I am counting are minima Cackling Geese, the birds in the flock spend most of their time feeding, with their necks out of sight. Although I've developed a feel for counting large flocks, and even parsing out the various races of white-cheeked (Canada/Cackling) geese in the flock, I still haven't figured out a way to quickly see all the neck collars.
Semidi Island Aleutian Cackling Goose with collar. Note the square/blocky head, the pale breast, and, of course, the green collar.
Dusky Canada Goose with hard-to-read collar. Only a goose geek would photograph a Dusky when there is an Emperor Goose just beyond it.
Ah, much better -- giving the Emperor Goose the attention it deserves.
Dusky Canada Goose collars are red with white characters. Duskies are larger than cacklers, and very chocolatey in appearance.
A minima Cackling Goose with a leg band but no collar. Minimas have yellow collars with black characters such as "@", "=", and "%".
As I was making my rounds on Monday, I noticed a flock of about 5,000 Cackling Geese taking flight in the distance, compliments of a hungry (or perhaps just bored?) adult Bald Eagle. Lucky for me, the flock split into two groups, in two different fields, by time I arrived. One of the flocks numbered about 3,000 -- most were minima Cackling Geese, with a handful of Taverner's Cackling/Lesser Canada thrown in. I scanned the flock several times with my binocular and came up with just one yellow (minima) collar. I got the scope on the collar, and recorded the codes. I then scanned the flock several more times with the scope, and picked up two more yellow collars. I then scanned the flock a few more times with my binocular, and saw no additional collars. I went along my way, surveyed a flock on the other side of the dike "road" I was on, and then surveyed this first flock once again with my binocular. Bingo! Yet another collar.
A gaggle of minima Cackling Geese -- how many do you see? Do any have collars?
Naturally, all the geese were feeding with their backs to me, so it took about ten more minutes to read that collar. Lucky for me, though, a Bald Eagle in the distance commanded the attention of the entire flock, all at once, so the next thing I knew, I was looking at 3,000 necks and heads sticking straight up. I had one more chance to scan the entire flock with all necks exposed, which is far less common than one might think. I came up with no additional collars. Finally, I decided to call it a day on this particular flock, and go on my way.
As I headed back to the office to turn in my data, I noticed a small bird flycatching from a fence line. A week earlier, I saw a Say's Phoebe in similar habitat, so my mind naturally raced to that conclusion. The view in my binoculars confirmed my suspicion. The bird was much too far for a good photo, but since Say's Phoebes require "confirmation" in eBird, I decided to snap a few photos for the sake of documentation. Unlike the photographer in me, the birder in me does not always care about composition when documenting rarities, so the bird often ends up in the center of the frame because it is easier and quicker.
Yep, that dot in the middle is indeed a Say's Phoebe. Here's a cropped version:
After turning in my goose survey paperwork, I decided to return to the auto-tour route and make a loop. Before going there, though, I thought I would swing back by the Say's Phoebe to see if it was still where I originally saw it (it was). I then headed straight to the auto-tour route, but was pleasantly surprised to encounter a second Say's Phoebe on my way. This second one was hunting from both sides of the road that connects the Bachelor Island bridge to the auto-tour route, a territory that has hosted its fair share of Black Phoebes, and even a Sage Thrasher or two. The second Say's Phoebe did not cooperate for photos, not even for bad ones, so I moved along.
Sage Thrasher, River S Unit Hunt Zone, Ridgefield NWR, Clark County, Washington, USA, April 2012
As soon as I returned to the publicly accessible portion of the refuge, the sky unleashed a heavy rain, at least by Oregon standards, where it mostly just drizzles throughout the winter. Although birding in the rain can be less than fun, it does have its upsides -- one such upside is that bird activity usually picks up as soon as the rain stops, especially for insect eating birds. Sure enough, the rain died down, and dozens of Tree Swallows were busy feeding in the air, grabbing those insects that I cannot see, not even with my binocular. I slowly made my way around the auto-tour route, thinking how lucky I am to have such a wonderful place relatively close to my house.
As I neared the final stretch along the south end of Rest Lake, I immediately noticed a white blob on the side of the road up in the distance. This was the same location where I had seen a Snowy Owl and Snow Bunting, so the flash of white brought back good memories. As I approached this white blob, it became clear to me that it was a gull. Gulls are relatively uncommon at Ridgefield, at least compared to the grocery store parking lots and manicured parks in the Portland/Vancouver metro area. I usually see no more than a few gulls on any given visit to Ridgefield, and those are usually flying by, with an occasional gull on Rest Lake. This gull, though, was walking on the ground, feeding as it went (had it not received the memo about the fast food options in the city?). It was a small gull, with a gentle head, and dainty bill -- amazingly, my first Mew Gull (that I can remember) at Ridgefield NWR. I've seen hundreds of Mew Gulls within ten miles of this location, but this was my first Mew Gull on the refuge proper. Even I was surprised at how exciting this was for me -- to finally see this common bird at one of my favorite places.
After getting my fill of the Mew Gull (it walked right past my car, affording me excellent views), I headed back to the visitor contact station. I added the Mew Gull information to the white board, so that other visitors would know it was there, and decided to drive to the hunter's gate and back, as this is the only two-way section of road in the refuge, and it would allow me to get a little more birding in, without the full commitment of driving another full loop. Almost immediately, I noticed a Great Egret hunting relatively close to the road.
I positioned my car, set up my bean bag on my car door in my window opening, and waited. It did not take long for this Great Egret to hear potential prey in the grass. The bird walked quickly toward the source of the noise, with that crazed look and neck twitch I've come to recognize as the precursor to a strike. Sure enough, this magnificent, white bird lunged its bill into the ground.
Much to my surprise, the egret did not recoil with a vole, as I was expecting. Instead, the egret became enmeshed in a tug-of-war with an as-of-yet not-seen opponent. After thirty seconds or so of this tug-of-war, the egret withdrew its bill, displaying its next meal -- a rather plump, well-earned meal - a Townsend's Vole. That vole must have put up one heck of a fight.
As is customary when egrets and herons eat rodents, the egret broke the rodent's neck (at which point all resistance stopped), strolled to water nearby, rinsed off its meal, positioned it, and sent it down the hatch. I've seen Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons swallow rodents live, but at least this particular critter did not suffer that fate.
You can see more photos of the hunt sequence by clicking here
After watching this Great Egret preen and then resume hunting, I decided to head down to Vancouver Lowlands to survey for streaked Horned Larks, as part of an effort being coordinated by the Audubon Society of Portland. I ended up finding no Horned Larks of any variety, but I did come across some pleasant surprises, including a pair of Western Bluebirds along LaFrambois Road in the Fruit Valley area of Vancouver. As is often the case with bluebirds, these two did not cooperate for photos. I watched the sparrow flock along LaFrambois Road for about fifteen minutes, but nothing unusual showed up.
My next stop was Vancouver Lake County Park, where I parked the car near the sparrow spot, and watched in silence for about fifteen minutes to see what would reveal itself. All the usual suspects were present, including this Steller's Jay, a bird for which I do not yet have a satisfactory photo. This particular photo fails for many reasons, but I do love how it shows the range of blue in the bird's plumage.
I continued down to Lower River Road. While walking in a field as part of my survey efforts, a Barn Owl exploded out of a tree. I felt terrible, as flushing nocturnal owls during the daytime is not a good thing. I like to think I have good observational skills, but I had just looked at the tree from where the owl appeared, and had not seen it. I was carrying my medium range lens, hoping for photos of banded Horned Larks, and did manage to snap off this photo of the Barn Owl as it looked for a new roosting location.
Fortunately, the owl soon landed in a nearby tree/clump of bushes, and returned to the land of the unseen. Rather than pursuing this bird, I immediately left the area. In my book, accidentally flushing an unseen Barn Owl in the daytime one time is a forgivable mistake; flushing the same bird twice is not -- it is harassment. Needless to say, I will be giving that clump of trees far more space the next time I'm in that area.
As the guilt of flushing the owl weighed on me, I decided to do the remainder of my Horned Lark survey from the roadsides. I've found that many birds are far more tolerant of approaching people when those people are in cars or even walking on a frequently used road. This Merlin was no exception to that theory, as it seemed utterly unconcerned with my presence when I pulled up in my car, set up my bean bag and lens on the roof of my car (quicker, easier, and stealthier than using a tripod), and photographed it at length.
If you watch a predator long enough, it will eventually check you out, as it is constantly checking everything out. If you anticipate this (and get lucky), you can sometimes catch it looking right at you.
My last stop was next to a wetland to listen to the chorus of Pacific Chorus Frogs. I did get out of the car for that one, to take it all in in stereo. As advanced as our technology is, there is nothing more hi-fidelity than hearing live music offered up by nature, especially a chorus of frogs.