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Spring Birds of Malheur– what to expect

This is a preview of the Spring Birds of Malheur trip written by KBO Board President Harry Fuller. Trip #2 (June 11th-15th) is selling out fast!

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was created by President Theodore Roosevelt over a century ago.  Malheur has long had a reputation as a great birding hotspot in the high sagebrush steppe of eastern Oregon.  Nearly 200,000 acres of lake, marsh and riparian habitat surrounded by steep mountains make the Malheur Basin a rich and diverse birding location.  American White Pelican (C) Jim LivaudaisOregon largest breeding colonies of White Pelicans and Sandhill Cranes are found here.  Many other species are at the western edge of their breeding range, including Bobolink, Eastern Kingbird, and Franklin’s Gull.  Raptors we will see include Bald and Golden Eagle, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Kestrel and many Northern Harrier.  Short-eared, Barn, Great Horned, and Burrowing Owls all nest in the area. We may see a dozen species of waterfowl including Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal. The land birds we will see include daylight hunting Common Nighthawks, flocks of White-faced Ibis, Loggerhead Shrike, Sage Thrasher, with the largest song repertoire of any bird on Earth, Say’s Phoebe, nesting Willet and Long-billed Curlew, Wilson’s Snipe, Brewer’s and Sagebrush Sparrow, Rock Wren, and late migrants which may include vagrants from the east.  Mammals we can expect include pronghorn, coyote, yellow-bellied marmot, Townsend’s cottontail, Belding’s ground squirrel, and perhaps long-tailed weasel.  The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible birding hotspot, with over 280 species recorded. It is a must-see destination for birders and nature lovers.

If you are interested in signing up, please contact Assistant Director Marcella Rose Sciotto at Your $300 conservation donation reserves your space.

The Ferruginous Hawk

By Harry Fuller, Klamath Bird Observatory Board President

The first scientific specimen of the Ferruginous Hawk was shot by Ferdinand Deppe near Monterey, California in 1834. The first scientific description, based on that specimen, was written by Martin Heinrich Lichtenstein in 1838 in Berlin.

035 193 Ferruginous Hawk 6198American naturalists, including John James Audubon, remained ignorant of the species for another decade until specimens were collected by Edward Kern, the artist on Colonel Fremont’s expedition to California in 1846. Kern observed, as it happened, that the Ferruginous was very good eating.

ferru-in-cassinWhen John Cassin published his lone volume of Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian American (1856) his book contained the first colored illustration of the Ferruginous Hawk. It was known at that time as “Ferruginous Buzzard.”

Cassin wrote, “Since Mr. Kern, the only American naturalist who has noticed this bird is Dr. Heermann, who has met with it during both of his visits to California…”

Then he quotes from Heermann’s journal: “During a previous visit to California, I had seen this species in the valley of the Sacramento river, and had considered it as rare in that section…but during the recent survey…in the southern part of the state, I found it very abundant, and on one occasion saw five or six individuals in view at the same moment, in the mountains, about sixty miles east of San Diego…

“As large tracts of that country inhabited by this bird are often entirely without trees, it alights on the ground or on some slightly elevated tuft of grass or stone, where it sits patiently for hours watching for its prey….”

Even as late as 1874 Elliott Coues wrote about the dispute over whether the Ferruginous Buzzard was truly a separate species. There were some who thought it was a form of the Rough-legged Hawk. Both have insulating feathers along their legs.

035 193 Ferruginous Hawk 4117In Birds of the Northwest, A Handbook, Coues declares the Ferruginous to be a separate species and later decades have proven him correct.

Coues wrote, “According to me observations…the Ferruginous Buzzards have no partiality for watery places, thus differing from the eastern Rough-legs. About Fort Whipple [Arizona] the birds mostly resorted to the open plains and the grassy glades intervening between patches of pinewoods…

“This hawk is known as the ‘California Squirrel Hawk’ in some localities…the name is gained from their feeding extensively, in California upon ‘ground squirrels’….”

The Ferruginous Hawk is one of the many species that can be seen during Klamath Bird Observatory’s Mountain Bird Festival, to be held May 30th – June 1st in Ashland, Oregon in 2014.

The Rough-legged Hawk

By Harry Fuller, Klamath Bird Observatory Board President

rlhaThe Rough-legged Hawk is the signature species of Klamath Basin in winter. It’s not as large as either eagle, not as abundant as Red-tailed Hawks, not as singular in flight path as the Northern Harrier, slower than either Prairie Falcon or Peregrine, it doesn’t form eye-catching monotone drifts like Tundra Swans, nor is it as loud as thousands of squabbling Mallards and Wigeon.

Nonetheless, this migrant down from its Arctic tundra breeding grounds is the species we birders speak of in awe. In the early fall it is a game to see when the first wave of Rough-legs arrives in the Klamath Basin. How many did you see when you went through the Basin? Were there dark morphs? Did you see a dozen Rough-legs in a single field?

Despite its size, the Rough-leg lives primarily on small mammals. In the Arctic that means many lemmings throughout the summer. In southern Oregon it may mean ground squirrels and voles.

Christmas Bird Count Season

By Harry Fuller, Klamath Bird Observatory Board President

The oldest and most venerable citizen science effort on earth is the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). It began back in 1900 with a handful of counters across a few states. The CBC was initially seen as a way to counter what was then a major holiday tradition: everyone who got a new gun for Christmas went out the next day to see how many birds they could shoot.

Now there are more birds seen and counted than slaughtered during the Christmas season. And the extensive data base built up over the decades is useful for tracking changes in bird populations and effects of climate change and habitat alteration. You can click here to explore the CBC data online.

207 02 Cedar Waxwing 1241This is the 114th annual CBC and counts now take place in many countries across the globe. The National Audubon Society organizes the CBC and handles the database. Here are the dates for upcoming Christmas Bird Counts in the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon:

Medford, Dec. 14

Ashland, Jan. 4

The Ashland count will be followed by a count dinner at Alex’s Restaurant. We are seeking volunteers for the Rogue Valley counts. You don’t have to be an expert, just enthusiastic. As always, a good time will be had by all. Let me know if you would like to be part of the Ashland or Medford counts (atowhee AT

The Cedar Waxwing is a regular species on our Christmas Counts, but the number varies widely. Some years there will be hundreds in the area, the next year perhaps only a handful. They wander around in fall and winter in search of good berry and fruit supplies. Crops from native and exotic plants may be radically different from one year to the next. Waxwings may find fruit on western juniper, chokecherry, crabapple, blackberry, holly, dogwood, grape vines, mistletoe, madrone, manzanita, huckleberry, and feral plum. In winter they may also eat buds on early budding trees like alder.

Ducks Don’t Watch Horror Movies

By Harry Fuller, Klamath Bird Observatory Board President

Humans watch horror movies about fictional creatures that hunt us. For ducks, such creatures are real.


Yesterday, there were 40 ducks and coots paddling around the south end of Emigrant Lake. There was a lone Bald Eagle. But the scene was more complex than a simple scorecard. Earlier this week, some birders and I had seen a Ring-billed Gull carrying around a coot wing in its beak: a leftover from an earlier eagle meal.

This series shows the adult eagle diving at the coot and duck flock, with the birds tightly grouped. The coots’ defense was to dive beneath the surface, rather than try to swim away on the surface or fly away. The hunting Bald Eagle made a more than a dozen unsuccessful sorties; each time the coots disappeared into the murky water before the eagle could strike.


The eagle didn’t give up, however. The final sortie was successful and the eagle eventually settled down for lunch on the shore, duck in its talons.


Violet-green Migration

Violet-green Swallows by Harry FullerBy Harry Fuller, Klamath Bird Observatory Board President

25 August, 2013

Our only strictly western swallow in America is moving south, as it does each year. An early arrival each winter (many show up here in southern Oregon  in March with the Tree Swallows), the Violet-green is also an early departer.

The Violet-green is closely related to the Tree Swallow. Both Tree and Violet-greens have brilliant white bellies at all ages, although the Violet-green has more white on its face compared to the Tree. Both are cavity nesters, preferring trees to bridges or chimneys. The Tree Swallow and Violet-green are aggressive about using next boxes, often driving out bluebirds or other cavity nesters. The Violet-green Swallow nests along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to central Mexico and as far east as the Front Range of the Rockies. The Violet-green does not use mud in its nest like Cliff and Barn Swallows.

These birds were gathered on wires along the road into Emigrant Lake Recreation Area. They flew insect-gathering sorties over the hay fields and along the cattail clogged roadside.

All our Violet-green and most of our Tree Swallows winter in Central America, north of Panama. All the other species in their genus are in Latin America year-round. The Tree Swallow is America’s hardiest swallow species, wintering in modest numbers in California and along the Gulf Coast. Each winter there are Tree swallow sightings around the western, especially coastal, parts of Oregon. These may be birds that have come down from much farther north.

A clear view of a Violet-green Swallow in good light will confirm that this pretty bird has been well-named.

A version of this article first appeared on Harry Fuller’s Towheeblog.

Close Encounters of the Woodpecker Kind

Close Encounters of the Woodpecker Kind
By Harry Fuller, Klamath Bird Observatory Board President

I learned two things today about White-headed Woodpeckers: (1) The “white” head is not all white up close and (2) the male has a brood patch as well as the female, meaning he helps incubate eggs. How did I find out? I visited a Klamath Bird Observatory bird-banding site near Upper Klamath Lake.

The bird banders are gentle, using no pressure and no squeezing. The birds are held on their backs when measured, allowing the hand to support a given bird’s weight. The birds are released by opening the hand near the ground with the bird in an upright position, allowing each bird to seek its own escape route and first perch.

This bird population research project is now almost two decades old, and it is one of the longest-running, annual data collections in the western United States.

Each bird’s general condition, feathers, weight, gender, and age can help tell a lot about how a breeding population is doing—and this is information that often can only be collected from birds in hand. A population with a high percentage of older birds (not yearlings) is a good sign of a healthy breeding situation. The two White-headed Woodpeckers banded today were both 3 year old birds, a good sign. This species is not often caught, but it is regularly observed at this location near Rocky Point, Oregon.

Sage Grouse Sunrise

Harry Fuller, KBO Board Member

Up at 4AM. On the road before 5AM. Parked on a dirt road in sagebrush country before 6AM. It’s 34 outside, fingers turn numb because the windows have to be open to shoot pics. Four male Sage Grouse are on the lek. The huffing, puffing, dancing and bellow notes of the annual lek performance are underway by the time we can see them. The males pull their head down into their inflated white feather ruffs and then re-extend their necks. At the same time they are inflating and deflating their twin air sacs, which are blanketed by thick white feathers.

At 7:06 AM at an unseen signal all four males fly away. Their performance is done. Our day is well underway. The next hours of birds and photos will be a bonus. Our Klamath Bird Observatory photo trip to Malheur is a success before we’ve even had breakfast.

(Harry Fuller shares an experience from a recent KBO conservation bird-watching outing to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. To learn more about upcoming KBO field trips, visit the KBO Website and look under Trips and Events at the bottom left.)