Friday, August 28, 2015

Giving in to the inevitable.. aka Urban Birding in PDX

So here's the funny thing: the shorebirds seem to be showing up in Portland. While not in teeming numbers, except out in the middle of Sturgeon Lake on Sauvie Island where no one can possibly get to them, the variety has been pretty good.  Irritatingly so, in fact, for the birder who just put herself through a bizarre biathlon of coastal and inland refuge birding just a week ago.  Ah shit, whaddya gonna do? Stop bitching, throw the gear in the truck and start making the rounds.  

I'd read that there was a lot of action at Broughton Beach on the Columbia while I was busy seeing 20 gulls at the coast, but the most recent posting as of this weekend said that the shorebirds had possibly relocated to Force Lake, over behind the Portland Expo center.  Got there around nine Sunday and chatted with another birder who had just arrived.  There were a group of shorebirds flying around and they landed not too far out on the right side of the lake, a bit far for my lens, but blurry pix are included for identifying purposes.  Based on size comparison to the semi-palmated plovers who were part of the mix, I'm able to deduce at least two of the remaining crew were pectoral sandpipers and then Baird's sandpipers.  Pectoral are about an inch taller than plovers and have a longer more slender body than your typical peep, kind of like a yellowlegs.  Baird's tend to be darker than the western, more blacks and less reds, like the semi-palmated piper, but are a little bigger.  So if it's darker, but the same size as the plover, chances are it's a Baird's sandpiper.  Believe me, shorebird ID'ing is made infinitely easier with a basis for comparison.  ID one of the birds you're certain of, and move on from there.  
                             bairds piper & semi-palmated plover & least sandpiper
                              western and baird's sandpiper
                             baird's and semi-palmated plover

I briefly drove by Smith Lake, just up Marine Drive, thinking there might be some shorebirds on the remaining mudflats. After giving some bewildered tourists directions, I walked down the boat launch and then my jaw just dropped.  OK, granted, I havn't been back here much this summer, in fact, not since my first canoe trip at the end of May.  And at that point the water level was less than two feet deep. So it had been three months, but I was not prepared to walk out into a huge field of tall reed grass with no water in sight!  I saw two young guys out in the grass and headed over to see what they were up to. They were from the Hood river area, and they had mounted cameras onto these completely cool homemade techie airplanes.  They were looking for wide open areas to send them up to take aerial reconnaissance photos.  I expressed to them my complete bafflement at the field we were standing in, instead of the mudflats I'd expected, and we exchanged your basic pleasantries about the end of days that was clearly soon to come..Yikes.

                             I kayaked here in May.. doom... DOOM...

I headed out to Sauvie Island, hoping to see some shorebirds by tromping around the lakes off of Steelman Road, aka Sauvie Island Road, which runs along the west side of the island parallel to the Multnomah channel.  I hopped out at the dried up Mud Lake and carefully skipped over the not quite dry lake beds, heading out to the remaining water ways.  I ran into about thirty turkey vultures roosting in a group near Ammunition Point, with maybe twice that number of american white pelicans on the water around them.  Wish the lighting was better, would have made some striking photos. Having issues with taking photos at high noon on hazy days.  Looks like crap.. I did some more mucking about on random spits and did find three juvenile spotted sandpipers and got a picture of one. Then back to the truck to head a little further out to the fishing dock on the Gilbert River.  I walked out the path on the east side of the river bank towards the wash at Sturgeon Lake.  About halfway there I ran into two birders that had showed up at Force Lake before I left that morning.  We joked that we should have carpooled, and they said they hadn't seen much at the wash, so we took a right and headed out to Sturgeon Lake from a different vantage point.  There were hundreds of peeps moving around, and huge numbers of pelicans out behind them.  A gaggle of killdeer and brewer's blackbirds eating in the grass not too far in front of us.  But all of the joy was way too far out to distinguish anything other than:  lots of birds, lots of movement, and that's about it.

                              nature is strange
                              raccoons are everywhere you wanna be
                              bewick's wren 
                               turkey vulture island
                             the gang 
                             wonderful juvenile spotted sandpiper, note the little brushstoke 
                             of white right on the upper chest into the shoulder denoting species
                             the heat haze of Sturgeon Lake and the pepper flakes of birds
                             hunters are omnipresent on Sauvie Island and clearly getting ready

I said goodbye to the nice ladies and their nice scopes, and decided to check out the wash for myself. 
I kind of wanted to see if it was too shallow to take the kayak out at all at this point. Walking down to where the river meets the lake, I saw a couple of inflatable fishing pontoons on the lake, so I bet I could still get my kayak out there. No shorebirds to speak of, a few gulls and geese, some cormorants, and one yellowlegs at the mouth of the Gilbert river.  By now, the sun was high and bright, and I walked back decided to call it a day.

The following morning, I drove out to Shillapoo nature area along the south side of Vancouver Lake in Washington, and walked through the woods towards the handicapped duck blind, hopping out at periodic spots along the beach whenever I could find a clear path.  Nada for birds, with the exception of a single caspian tern's decapitated head crawling with bees. Was actually pretty cool, and I took a pix of course.  Nothing else but gulls on a sandbar, but when I finally turned down a little inlet, I did find some killdeer and peeps across the water, but no way to get to them and they were too far for photos.  I shot some unusable swallow pictures just to round out the mix, and then trudged back to the truck.  Drove out to Frenchman's bar to chase some flycatchers around the trees but all else was quiet. Headed home to sulk..

    busy bees

Tuesday morning I was resolved to see what was going on at Broughton Beach, as reports seemed to keep showing random sightings of the same sanderlings, and a stilt was spotted on Sunday, as well as some Caspian Terns, and even a Sabine gull.  I got there in the morning, and walked out to the mudflats where two birders were chatting and waiting.  I passed the two sanderlings on the way, and there were three Caspian terns mixed in with the gulls on the sandbar.  Two other peeps flew in to the east so they were in the sun, and just as they were getting closer to me, they decided to bail to the west. Myself and Patrick and Art followed them back down the beach and had almost caught up to them when they took off again. Never did get a definite ID on them. Harumph.

                             three caspian terns in the gull mix
                              two of the tamest sanderlings ever known to man
                              seriously, I could have put them in my pockets
                             one of the bazillion hardworking ospreys of the Columbia river

I had to work yesterday, when apparently two avocets decided they would hang out all day.  They were there for about 10 hours, which is ironically the number of hours I worked at my job. Serendipity? Nope, just stupid numbers.. I saw the avocet post this morning, as I was shoveling granola into my mouth. I dropped everything, packed up and headed out the door.  I was the only birder on the beach at the time, and all the tent city dwellers were still abed.  In my attempt to dodge the ministrations of a wet golden retriever and his ball, I managed to scare away what I think was the only remaining sanderling on the beach. Way to go Nikki, way to go Dog.  I stood in front of the sandbar confirming that the only cool bird left was one caspian tern, amidst the 60 or so gulls on the sandbar.  

I walked up the beach til I could get no further, scaring away three killdeer as per usual.  Killdeer are the most paranoid and crazed shorebird in existence. Ironically overcautious and highly sensitive to proximity, this bird can be found living almost anywhere. Give it a puddle and a pile of gravel, and it will raise a family right in your driveway.  All the while screaming at you incessantly and pretending to drag around a broken wing in an addled attempt to lure you away from it's vulnerable hatchlings. Much like jack rabbits which just keep running in front of your car in the desert, killdeer like to run away up the beach you're walking, calling out all the while, alerting all other living things that they and yes, YOU, are approaching..  it's like a car alarm that keeps coming back on. I've dubbed them the paranoid peep, 

By the time I got back to the mudflats, I was joined by another birder, and eventually two more.  We all stood around, idly staring at the nothing space which should have been filled with sanderlings, or ideally, those avocets.  The tern promptly flew away, leaving us only with gulls to visually dissect. Make no mistake, that's a challenge, and you've got to want it.  Before this year, I distinctively didn't want it, and gulls all blended together in my eyes.. But now, I'm baffled at the possibilities, and like all maddening birds, warblers, or sparrows, narrowing down the possibilities to the regional norm helps quite a bit. Knowing there are usually only seven western species around makes it seem less crazy, more reasonable to consider. So we debated some possibilities, and then I decided to take off as I had work this afternoon.  I reassured the others that my leaving would invariably herald the arrival of any bird they wished to see.  Unfortunately, from the posts I see this evening, that was not the case today.

Ahh well, it's actually supposed to cool down and maybe even rain (gasp) over the next few days, so this could bring some activity to the lusterless tail end of August.  Fingers crossed! Until next time, my paranoid peeps, stay cool and happy trails!

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