Monday, March 11, 2013

The chase

It seems silly,... or even threatening. Here was a group of oddly-dressed people milling about in the residential alley for two hours peering into the backyard of one of the homes.

The reason we were there was obvious--and perhaps explainable--only to birders. We were chasing a rare bird. The dreary, damp, gray Pacific Northwest winter had been pierced by a brilliant yellow warbler with a black cowl from the far eastern United States. It was Oregon's 15th record of Hooded Warbler. [See Mike Patterson's first photos of the bird.]

I've never seen a Hooded Warbler--in Oregon or anywhere else. I'd love to see a new bird but I'm kind of a lazy chaser. It sometimes takes me a while to get excited about going to see a rare bird--especially if is is very far away. "Far away" as in more than about 25 miles from home. Frankly, I'd rather find my own rare bird.

And the dreary winter weather had taken its toll on me. I'm totally solar powered. I'm lethargic in the winter, happy and energetic as the days get longer in the spring and early summer. Thus, two and a half weeks had gone by since the bird was first found and I still didn't have any plans to go see it.

My wife had been working hard and she and I needed to get out and do something fun for the weekend. Since the forecast was for another day of freezing fog in the Portland area, I suggested going to the coast, about 75 miles to the west. It was supposed to be 50F and sunny. Maybe Marlene would like to go to Canon Beach and visit some craft and art stores. "Aren't there any rare birds around that you could go see?" she asks. Bless that sweet woman.

So we went together to Astoria to look for the Hooded Warbler. There were two other species I hadn't seen in several years reported there too. Up to 6 Snowy Owls were at the south jetty of the Columbia River--and had been there for a few months. I had missed them last year, of course--the major flight year--because I didn't chase any of the reported birds but, rather, drove through the farmlands of my home county hoping to find my own bird. And a Northern Mockingbird had been reported sporadically in the neighborhoods near the Hooded Warbler. So, Astoria it was.

Marlene walked the dog around the old picturesque neighborhoods of Astoria while I stalked the warbler in the alley. Joe and another birder from the Portland area had already been there an hour when I arrived. No joy in Mudville. Soon Andrew, the birder who first found the bird joined us. He lived across the street. Though the bird had initially been noticed in Andrew's front yard feeder, it was usually seen in the backyard of his across-the-street neighbor. But from the alley we could see Andrew's feeder as well. After an hour the group had grown to about 8 persons. The sky was clear and the sun warm, but there was still frost on the ground in the shade. There were lots of birds here, just not the target one: Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Fox Sparrows laying in the dirt and spreading their wings and tails to the warm sun, a couple of Song Sparrows, a Pacific Wren crawling through the pile of downed branches, a group of noisy House Sparrows, a couple of House Finches, a pair of Townsend's Warblers, a few Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos, a Northern Flicker or three, some Anna's Hummingbirds, and a half dozen Eurasian Collared-Doves.

I view birding in general as a treasure hunt--you never know just what priceless encounter you will have. Chasing rare birds is even more so a treasure hunt. You have a treasure map telling you of untold riches (reported potential life bird). Will you find it? Not always. Or it may have moved and your searching nearby might turn it up. Or, you might find another rare bird, just as good or better. Or, you may not see anything of note after hours of searching.

Thus it was that after an hour or so, Joe and I walked the side streets to look for the reported Northern Mockingbird or other birds in the neighborhood. I called Marlene to check in with her to let her know I'd be back soon. She had just finished her dog walk and was settling in the car to read a book in the sun. "I think I just saw the mockingbird on the wires over the car," she said. Of course. Joe and I were a few blocks away. We heard, but couldn't entice into the open for a view, a White-throated Sparrow. It was a county first for both of us. By the time we made it back to the car Marlene's mockingbird was no where to be seen. So Marlene and I grabbed a quick drive-through lunch and headed to the South Jetty to look for the Snowy Owls.

Several Snowy Owls had been reported for weeks, but local birder Mike went at dusk the day before and spotted 6 owls! When we pulled into Parking Lot C I saw one distant Snowy Owl on drift wood across the mudflats at the base of the sand dunes.

"Are you looking for the Snowy Owl?" asked a young red-haired woman in knee-high rubber boots. It turns out she was from the Humboldt, California area. She had driven up specifically to see these owls. She carried a scope on a broken tripod. I pointed to the bird. At least one of us would get a life bird this day. This was her first view of the Columbia River. And it was a great day to see it, as it was clear and sunny with no wind. One could easily make out the Washington side of the river 5 miles away. It is not always like this. In fact, when Lewis and Clark spent the 1805-1806 winter here, it rained all but 12 of 106 days and they saw the sun only 6 times!

The lone owl was not going to stay put, though. A person with a camera (note: I did not say a photographer and I did not say a birder) was walking directly over the mudflats straight at the bird. Soon enough the bird flew off a hundred feet farther, now out of view of the people in the parking lot who were enjoying the bird from a distance. I don't really view this as harassment of the bird--at least not seriously so. That bird could have flown anywhere on the Clatsop Spit and had chosen the one area with the most people, and only flew a hundred feet or so. Rather, this person's actions were just inconsiderate of the other people who wanted to view the bird from a respectful distance. Everyone these days has a high-powered camera inconceivable only 10 years ago. It is only natural that they would use it to photograph nature and wildlife. But, obviously, this person knew nothing about how to approach wildlife and seemed equally clueless about good manners.

Down by the beach I met a local couple and they asked about binocular recommendations. Over at the jetty I ran into Em, Christopher, and Adrian. They were looking out so sea. But the seas were high and the early afternoon glare was intense. Few birds were visible over the water. Time to go back and search for the Hooded Warbler again.

The alley in Astoria was now in shade and it was starting to cool off. Pretty much the same species were present as in the morning, but fewer of them. No Hooded Warbler. Joe was there again. Deb from Newport was also there. Adrian and Christopher appeared, and several others. After about 20 minutes I wandered back to the car. Just then a group who had been wandering about the neighborhood reported spotting the Northern Mockingbird just around the corner. After a short walk there it was! It flew from a hedge up into the top of a small pine where I got some photos in the fading light. We spoke to a curious neighbor who was out for a walk, explaining to her the excitement of the rare warbler, which we were not going to see this day. Deb showed her a photo of the warbler from a birding app and shared her binoculars to show the neighbor the Mockingbird.

Marlene and I received recommendations of the Fort George Pub. It was a lively place, with good food, and a great way to end the day before our drive home. A great day!
Townsend's Warbler
Sadly, not a Hooded Warbler. Townsend's Warbler at Astoria, Oregon, January 19, 2013 by Greg Gillson.


  1. well I'd still barrack for the Townsends Warbler from my side of the world Greg; it's simply fantastic

    1. I agree with you, Carole. Townsend's Warbler is a nice consolation prize--especially one that cooperates in making such a very photogenic appearance.

  2. I went to Astoria about 10 days later. Like you, Greg, I saw 2 Snowy Owls, but the warbler had left the area by then. I had never seen either species before, so that was good enough for me.

  3. he's got a great coat of feathers. Love the yellow

  4. So sorry you did not get to see the Hooded Warbler but the beautiful Townsend's Warbler sighting was certainly a treat.