Thursday, January 19, 2017


"When did you start birding?", I'm often asked. So long ago that you'd think I'd be better at it by now. The year was 1989. I was a glasses-wearing nerdlet who was good at taking tests and so I got sent away on a bus once a week to take some extra classes. Loving animals, I chose a class about birds as my elective that spring. Large photos of local birds lined the walls and we often walked over to the little wetland behind the school to practice field identification. I saw Vaux's Swifts and fell head over heels for these creatures that filled my Golden Guide with more color and variety than my favorite Jelly Belly jellybeans.

Those glasses...

It's easy to give events too much significance in retrospect, but I see that class as the seed that grew into my studying birds in grad school, meeting Max, working at Audubon, writing a book, and being pro staff for Celestron. Good thing I didn't take a computer programming class instead. Money is overrated.

After being snowbound for a week, I was ready to go out and do some birding today. I checked hotspots in my 5-mile radius and saw one called Mason Wetlands (Not to be confused with the wetlands of the same name in NE PDX). When I zoomed in, I saw that it was the little wetland behind C.E. Mason school, the former nerdery. I realized that I hadn't visited it since my formative time there in elementary school and thought I'd check it out, for old times sake.

The wetlands are now a park with an address, but going there I found only houses and no access. I finally parked at a church and found a trail leading down to Messenger Creek. Thanks church!

Forgive those who trespass against us

Though overgrown with canary grass, the park has clearly gotten some love and newly planted native plants.

I found evidence of beaver activity and a low dam had created a pool that was unfortunately duck-free today.

I brought my little Celestron Hummingbird Scope because it's light enough to carry with my bad shoulder and small enough to stash in the car when I go grocery shopping.

My first experiment phonescoping with it at around 20x got me this photo of Steller's Jays. Lots of other birds were pairing up today too, including Song Sparrows and White-breasted Nuthatches.

 Is it nesting season yet?

I enjoyed seeing Red-tailed Hawks soaring and calling to each other, and watching all the little birds foraging in the snow-free landscape. A bit like stepping into my past, but with better optics.

Still a nerd

Afterward, I stopped at New Seasons and saw my book there. The Urban Birds chapter features Vaux's Swifts, which have been one of of my favorites since childhood, though I'd forgotten why.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Little Big Year

For me, birding is mostly about enjoying birds and their behavior, but I can't deny that it's the game of listing that keeps me excited about birding year after year. Max and I keep life lists, state lists, county lists, neighborhood lists, state year lists and so on. Yes, we are nerds, in the best sense of the word.

Taking trips all over the state was great back when work was less intense and our dog was young and adventurous. Now we need a challenge that gets us home at night, but still gives us an opportunity to strategize and track down "new" birds.

This dog is worthless for birding.

I was inspired by our friend Jen's upcoming 5-mile radius list and upcoming big day to see what my own home's 5-mile radius looked like. I assumed it would just be neighborhoods and forested parks. Though it sounds silly, I sort of forgot how far five miles is. In our circle, Max and I get such hotspots as Koll Center Wetlands, Lake Oswego, a big swath of the Willamette River, Tryon Creek State Park, Oaks Bottom, Crystal Springs, and even a little bit of Forest Park.

So what is our Little Big Year Goal? I turned once again to Jen for guidance. She's at 184 all time in her circle, which includes a bunch of the Columbia River. She also got 136 once for a yearly motorless list. Somewhere in between there lies 150, a very nice round number. The number might get adjusted as we explore our circle, but we are excited to visit and revisit some local hotspots and find all kinds of "new" birds.

This Cedar Waxwing in our backyard is at the exact center of the circle.
 Aiding us on our little big year quest will be a new (little) spotting scope from Celestron, the adorable Hummingbird Micro Spotting Scope. Weighing in at 590 grams, the same as an imperial pint of beer, this tiny 9-27x scope will be easy to carry on walks. Can't wait until it gets here!

Hummingbirds love sugar!

Maybe this new challenge will even get us back into blogging again. If not, you can always find us on Twitter and Instagram @mustseebirds. Happy New Year!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Where are we?

As you've probably noticed, we've fallen of the blogging bandwagon. The good news is we're still active on social media. You can keep up with our adventures with birds and beers by following these accounts:

Our Must-see Birds Facebook page
@mustseebirds and @empidomax on Twitter
@mustseebirds on Instagram 

See you soon!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Like Water Off a Puffin's Back

This year marks our 10th Birdathon to raise money for Portland Audubon. Hot weather had kept our last two trips under the 100 species mark, so we were excited to head to the coast and reach that magical number. Our group of ten started under cloudy skies at Gabriel Park, quickly adding must-have suburban birds like Lesser Goldfinch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Bushtit, and Anna’s Hummingbird to our list.

Temporarily renaming our team “Grouse, Guns and Glory” we ventured, unarmed, up Storey Burn Road in the mist-shrouded coast range.  Success greeted us at our first stop, where our “target” bird, Sooty Grouse, boomed from the forest despite the nearby recreational shooting. Hermit Warblers sang, unseen, from the canopy, and a lone Varied Thrush made itself heard during a brief reloading period.
Tillamook Forest Center is well known for two things and it delivered on both: nesting dippers and the nicest bathrooms on Highway 6. The rain had turned soaking and our search for dippers was thankfully brief. As we continued west, we started wondering how long the deluge would last.

Our itinerary was set aside in favor of a drive out to Bayocean Spit, given the unceasing rain. The route turned up some Ring-billed Gulls in a dairy pasture and a single Belted Kingfisher on ancient pilings. A short, soggy hike produced a Bufflehead and a couple Common Mergansers. A tantalizing flock of dowitchers sped silently by, confounding our ID attempts. Swallows surrounded the van on the dike road, their migration slowed by the storm.

Despite almost comically bad weather, the intrepid team piled out of the van again at the Pacific Oyster Company along Tillamook Bay, finding Purple Martin, American Goldfinch, and California Gulls. We tried unsuccessfully to turn a Killdeer into a Semipalmated Plover.

Sodden and hungry, we drove north to Twin Rocks, where Sarah’s (fairy?) godmother offered up her house for our lunch break. We took our sweet time enjoying the hospitality and spotting Brown Pelicans and Pacific Loons flying over the sliver of ocean that was visible from inside the cozy living room.

As we drove up Highway 101 through Wheeler and turned onto Highway 53, the rain began to lessen and we found Black-headed Grosbeak and a flock of Whimbrels. Nehalem Meadows held Canada Geese with a Cackling companion, Turkey Vultures and more swallows. The Nehalem Bay Sewage Ponds were magical with Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwall, Cliff Swallows, Spotted Sandpipers, and Lesser Scaup.
With over 75 species on our list, we felt optimistic about making it to 100. We made a beeline for Cannon Beach and found our lucky parking spot, right in front of Haystack Rock. Under slightly brighter skies, we tallied up the bounty of birds: Tufted Puffin, Common Murre, all three Cormorants, flyby Harlequin Ducks, Bald eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Surf Scoter, and a distant Black Oystercatcher.
Trees full of spring migrants lined the parking lot of the Cannon Beach Sewage Ponds. Recently-arrived Western Tanagers, Western Wood Pewees, and warblers of all kinds foraged in the spruces. Duck diversity was low, but Northern Rough-winged Swallows posed cooperatively on the fence and Vaux’s Swifts twittered overhead.

It was getting late, but we were over 90 species, so we decided to race up to Seaside to squeeze a few more birds out of the coast. In a bizarre turn of events, Max turned onto a gravel road to see if the tall, long-necked bird he’d seen from the highway was really an emu, which would have netted the team an extra $5 pledge. Alas, the mysterious bird was a Canada Goose perched on a small hill. On the plus side, we found our only Orange-crowned Warbler and Purple Finch of the trip without even leaving the van.

Seaside Cove held plenty of surfers but no shorebirds at all. Diligent scoping of the ocean was rewarded with two more new birds: Red-throated Loon and White-winged Scoter. Sitting at 96 species and hoping for shorebirds, we made quick stops at the Necanicum Estuary and Stanley Lake. Greater Scaup, Least Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs brought us up to a tantalizing 99 species, with a long ride back toward Portland to plan our final strategy.

Dawson Creek Park is best known for one particular species that is as close to a sure thing as birds can ever be. We made this our last stop and headed for the cluster of snags along the creek. Acorn Woodpeckers didn’t keep us in suspense for long. As we celebrated bird #100, two of them peeked around trees, showed their white wing patches, and made their distinctive laughing calls.

After an awards ceremony in the parking lot for the best fundraisers and bird spotters, we returned to our starting location, adding a Mourning Dove on a power line for species #101. Birding for 13 hours on a day with an inch of rain is not for wimps. We are extremely proud of our intrepid team for keeping their spirits and binoculars up all day long. We raised thousands of dollars for Portland Audubon and enjoyed some wonderful birds. See you next year!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hello shorebirds, goodbye winter

We've had some periods of rain this winter that made us consider a move from the Pacific Northwest to a desert locale. If there's one benefit of our soggy climate, however, it's that it's mild enough to keep shorebirds around all year.

We were reminded of this when we birded the Oregon Coast last weekend and found a surprising number and variety of shorebirds.

We found our first shorebird at Bayocean Spit on Tillamook Bay.

It was a lone Long-Billed Dowitcher, in appropriately gray plumage. It will be nice and orange when it migrates north in a few months.

Just a few yards north, the ground was crawling with small sandpipers, aka "peeps".

The vast majority were Least Sandpipers, a few were Western Sandpipers, and three were Dunlins. Can you tell which is which in the above photo?

The Least Sandpipers are small, but feisty and charged the Westerns and Dunlins when they got in the way.

On Saturday we scouted Cape Kiwanda near Pacific City for a seabird field trip for the upcoming Birding and Blues Festival. Once again, the shorebirds stole the show, distracting us from the parade of morons and their dogs who were enthusiastically ignoring the fences intended to keep them from the deadlier areas of the cape.

Black Oystercatchers called loudly, chased each other through the air, and did their thing on the sandstone bluffs. They are one of the few shorebirds that will be sticking around to breed on the Oregon Coast, earning them a spot in our book.

Black Turnstones clung to the slippery rocks at the edge of a churning pool, frantically fleeing the occasional tidal surge. Do not attempt.

Un-photographed shorebirds include big flocks of Sanderlings, some black-armpitted Black-bellied Plovers, and a random Killdeer. Nine shorebirds total! Not bad for winter.

We're eagerly anticipating the arrival of spring migrants, but last weekend was a great reminder of what's been here all winter.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Birding our public lands

 If there’s one thing we’ve learned this month, it’s that we can’t take our public lands for granted. Several national wildlife refuges are a quick drive from our home in Portland and we find something unexpected and unforgettable every time we visit one.

 During each visit, we can bird by car, scope birds from one spot for hours, or hike several miles. Our refuges help us stay sane when life does its best to make us crazy. 

We gave ourselves some much-needed Refuge Therapy this weekend, starting with a trip to Tualatin River.

We came to see a lone Ross’s Goose and, as usual, found much more.

Many of the refuge units were flooded, to the delight of thousands of ducks and geese.

Up on a dike, a coyote snacked on a vole and chased some geese. While watching all the birds and mammals, we chatted with birding friends and absorbed a rare dose of sunshine.

The next morning we met with Nick and Maureen in Salem and drove to nearby Baskett Slough. 

Again, the water was high and waterfowl were everywhere.

We cruised the roads along the north edge of the refuge and found some Killer Birds: Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, a Rough-legged Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrels, a Prairie Falcon, and a Northern Shrike. They were too far for decent photos but perched nicely for us to watch as long as we liked. 

If you're a fan of public lands (and we know you are), tell your friends, tell your senators and representatives, and thank those who work for the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies.

Stay tuned for more public land adventures!

Friday, January 15, 2016

In Hot Pursuit

"Chasing" birds doesn't involve running across a field, binoculars bouncing, in search of some feathered prize. At least most of the time. Chasing is what birders call the birding trips we take that are focused on seeing a rare bird that someone else has already spotted and publicized the location of. Detractors say that it's a waste of gas and no fun. You should go out and find your own birds every time. Enthusiasts say that we can find more birds together than we ever could on our own, so why not share the wealth and see something special? I fall into the latter camp. Being the 53rd person to see an individual Snowy Egret doesn't take away anything from its awesomeness in my eyes. The few times that I've found my own rare bird, the stress of documenting it took some of the fun out of it, anyway. There's also the communal aspect of helping others (and being helped) to re-find a bird.  Discoveries of the rarest birds end up being impromptu reunions of all the local birders that you haven't seen since the last rarity.

These are the ups and downs of chasing, illustrated by the birds that Max and I chased in 2015.

Black-headed Gull, Umatilla Co.
Downside: Took hours to find. Only got a brief look before it flew to an inaccessible field. No pics.
Upside: We were already "in the area" on our way to Wallowa Co. Life bird for both of us.

Burrowing Owl, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Dog freaked out about being left in car. Made a break for it across the parking lot.
Upside: Found the bird quickly after getting pointers from friendly Yaquina Head Visitor Center staff. Bird was super chill and looked quite at home. Owls always make my day.

Pine Grosbeaks, Linn Co.
Downside: Spent hours hiking and listening VERY carefully, found zero grosbeaks. Other people found them right by the parking lot. Nemesis bird for me.
Upside: Gorgeous day in the Cascades. Found a Mountain Bluebird. Went to Bend afterward, where breweries abound.

Blue-winged Teal, Clackamas Co.
Downside: Took us two trips to Clackamas Co. to find him.
Upside: Blue-winged Teals are gorgeous! Saw three teal species at once. Brown's Ferry Park is so cool we later led a bird walk there. County listing.

Blue Grosbeak, Washington Co.
Downside: Almost too easy. So dumb it repeatedly had near misses with cars. Didn't stick around (survive?) for our Birdathon a week later.
Upside: Saw it from the car before we even parked. So blue!

Hudsonian Godwit, Marion Co.
Downside: A little far away out in the wetland. No chance to gaze into its eyes.
Upside: Got to rendezvous with our buddies, the Hipster Birders. Saw cool godwit foraging behavior.

Solitary Sandpiper, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Got shut out for the year after missing this one in Rockaway. The festival going on at the time probably kept it away from the small pond just off the main drag where everyone else had seen it.
Upside: No such thing as a bad trip to the coast.

Elegant Terns, Clatsop Co.
Downside: People that let their dogs chase wildlife on the beach.
Upside: Their beaks are so weird and wonderful! Also saw thousands of Sooty Shearwaters streaming by Seaside Cove.

Snowy Egret, Tillamook, Co.
Downside: Not really. Left Seaside in a hurry after hearing about it while watching the terns.
Upside: Found at Whalen Island with a bunch of Great Egrets. The yellow feet!

Stilt/Curlew Sandpiper, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Heard that a Stilt Sandpiper had been seen near the Snowy Egret. Didn't find it. Phone died as I was trying to phonescope what we did find...
Upside: Found a Curlew Sandpiper instead!! Rare as hell but hanging out with a bunch of Least Sandpipers right in front of us.

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Clatsop Co.
Downside: No. Joyous from start to finish.
Upside: Life bird for both of us. The pair hung out close to the trail so we got to watch them forage for quite awhile. So easy to see, even our dog put these on her list. It was hard to leave. Finally got to visit the mitigation wetlands that we had heard so much about. Reason to go to Astoria.

Tropical Kingbird, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Dog whimpered the whole time. Hates flycatchers.
Upside: A rare bird alert nearby when we are already out birding? Yes, please. A flycatcher that looks like an adorable cartoon character? Even better.

Common Ground-Dove, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Kind of a long drive, I guess.
Upside: This is a dove that is tiny and pink. Need I say more? Had a very fun day, including seeing a Clay-colored Sparrow that other birders had found while checking out the dove. We love any excuse to stay in Yachats and visit our favorite breakfast spot and favorite farmstore/brewery.

Brown Booby, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Saw better views of one last year in this exact spot in Yaquina Bay.
Upside: On our way home from the Ground-Dove. Boobies are so goofy/graceful.

Mountain Chickadee and Pygmy Nuthatch, Multnomah Co.
Downside: Found in our neighborhood park, but not by us.
Upside: Got to see them on the way to work one day. New for western Oregon. Stuck around for awhile.

Dickcissel, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Torrential rain while searching. Duck hunting day on Meares Lake. Brief looks at this cool bird.
Upside: Exciting life bird for us. Kind stranger pointed it out to us when we were getting discouraged. Bonus Northern Mockingbird to enjoy while we searched.

Cattle Egret, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Couldn't find the damn thing after driving every farm road in the area. It was found later that day by others. Ended the year of chasing on a low note.
Upside: Got to watch White-tailed Kites eat a snack.

And now to end this post the way we ended many of our bird chases: with a beer.

Places we drank beer after chasing birds: Embers in Joseph, Worthy Brewing in Bend, Seven Brides Brewing in Silverton, Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Yachats Farmstore/Brewery in Yachats, Pelican Brewery in Tillamook.