Post Tringa Musing, an Emperor with Feathers Plus Two
As a Tringa goes, I would say the autumn Wood Sandpiper in Oregon approached definite cuteness. Unfortunately, I allowed myself only about 10 minutes of voyeuristic ogling before wearily beating a rainy path to the car. More liquid fell, sometimes in a deluge, but it did not dampen my happy memory of the Wood Sandpiper and the contagious enthusiasm of the other birders enjoying the rare visitor. Tired from the vigil, sitting in my warm and dry car and knowing I would soon be home are rewarding bonuses to the day.
I told Linda about the day and mentioned someone telling me about a Common Greenshank seen on the northern coast of California. Heck, so to speak, that would have been only about a three-hour drive. However, that sighting, thanks to a check on the internet, was actually in 2001 when in the final throws of completing the taxonomic part of the Oregon book. There was now too little time to go traipsing after live birds and there was little to less money to expend on a life list. Besides, I did not have the fever then.
Today, with bird chasing priorities, a rarer bird is something else again. That’s right, a species I have never seen is something to chase. Crap, I missed the greenshank, a category 3 species. Another one that got away is becoming a mantra. Was my field guide morphing into a hymnal? There is no grace, amazing or otherwise, in missing accessible rarities. At least the juvenile Wood Sandpiper was relatively accessible as well as affordable, monetarily and timely, to my budget. Owing to the considerable publicity of young Woody, with newspaper reports in the Pacific Northwest, I would have thought the species would fall in category 3. Not so, it is only a category 2 bird. I am not sure why it is so low in the scheme of things. It is lots more difficult (read expensive) to see the Wood than to see a Flame-colored Tanager, a regular attraction not far from Tucson, Arizona. Yet, it is a category 4. No matter the category, it is great to see new species.
Not long after the Wood Sandpiper stopped being news, ABA announced some changes to the bird codes. Rightly, Flame-colored Tanager had to be demoted to category 3. Several species codes went up a notch, indicating that they were harder to find than previously thought. Did that mean dwindling populations of species ranked by higher codes? In the early 60’s I saw a couple of these, White-crowned Pigeon and Bohemian Waxwing. A decade later, I saw Cerulean Warbler, a species that went from category 1 to 2, and is a species in danger. Of course, what isn’t, but most of the birds on the ABA list of code changes, so far, are not doing so badly, according, at least, to how easy they are to find. Any ABAer should feel a passionate glow to know that it will now be easier to see such terrific species as Mottled Petrel, Long-billed Murrelet, Antillean Nighthawk, White-throated Thrush and yes, Flame-colored Tanager. I know I will sleep better. Thirteen difficult to find code 5 species dropped to measly code four birds.
Would some poorly navigating waif sit down in my neighborhood or would something appear within a day’s drive from home? Checking the net did reveal some oddly occurring species, including already seen Pyrrhuloxia, Tropical Kingbird and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Oregon. The potentially new ABA birds seem to be avoiding me by occurring tantalizing too far from home turf. The Northern Jacana and Sinaloa Wren in Arizona, a sungrebe in New Mexico and a couple of Palearctic visitors to Maine are difficult to ignore. Would I ever see some of those wonderful rarities in ABA land? The burning question is unanswerable. At 65, any answer to the question will play out in couple of decades or less. It will depend not just on time and money, but it will hinge upon health. Will I be a category 5 or a 1 when my doctor looks me over for the bumps and scrapes of aging?
What are the chances for anyone seeing any one of the accidentals making their way to ABA territory? In his blog, David Sibley mentioned that some birders believe humans find about one-third to one-half of all rare birds coming to ABA territory. He postulates that at well-birded sites such as Cape May birders will stumble onto 80-90%. He did not use the word stumble, but often that is how birders find rare birds. However, in most of North America he puts the figure far lower than 33%. The probability of finding a rare bird depends on numerous things, one being the duration of its visit. A lost bird, a waif, will not know to send out a signal for help, it may stay awhile, if the habitat is suitable, or it may move on to look for better room and board. Sibley concludes that the chances of finding a 30-day visitor would be 10%; a visitor for 20 days would be 5% of the time and 10 day visitor, only 3%. Of course, there are many other parameters to consider, each one weighing in on the chances of a birder finding any given species. Size and habitat are just two parameters to plug into the equation. Shorebirds and songbirds in a marsh are not equally visible. A rarity visiting a feeder is far more detectable than is a shy waif hanging out in thick brambles.
The chances of someone else sharing the observation of a rare bird also depends on many factors. Sibley mentions that the person finding a rarity first needs to recognize that it is indeed a rarity, and then needs to communicate that information. Sometimes a nonbirder finds a rarity. For them, they may not know who to phone or email and sometimes it may not be easy to get someone’s attention. We all have busy lives and not everyone is knowledge enough to check out a rarity or will have the time to do so. Once upon a time, as a budding watcher, I spent two days on the phone to report and ultimately show a seasoned birder a rare colony of Burrowing Owls I, yes, stumbled upon. Suffice to say, the original person finding a waif in waiting may have to be persistent. Once, yours truly, also the early years, positively saw a Sedge Wren in southwestern Oregon. A couple of birders later gave token chases but it was too late. I should have been persistent, but I did not push it. Today, Sedge Wrens visit Oregon occasionally. My early record is dust. A late relative used to tell a story of seeing a Northern Cardinal in her fair city of Central Point, also in southwestern Oregon. The more this person told the story the more my eyes rolled back into my head. Eventually, retellings got frequent enough that I just nodded and hid the glaze frosting over my bored eyes. I, nor Linda, ever dared express doubt of the local Northern Cardinal. As with most things, the sage observer knew she was right.
News flash. In the winter in 2008, a female Northern Cardinal frequented the feeding station of a resident in the very same fair city of Central Point, just a few miles from my headquarters. Many see the bird and its photograph is widely distributed. I got there too late. Naturally. It was not a lifer, but it could have been a county bird, a new species for my state list if I kept one and it would have been a year bird since I had not been out of the state for an unbelievable 12 months. Linda and I are red-faced. However, doubt casts a shadow on the observation. Was this an escaped individual, just as those previously reported from the state in 1930 and in the 60’s? There is no definitive answer. Regardless of origin, unusual birds, when someone luckily observes them, should share the information, not just so others might see it, but to add knowledge about the species. With global warming coming on strong, it seems inevitable that southern species, including Northern Cardinals, are bound to show up frequently in northern locations.
When those wayward waifs do make their way to unchartered territory, will we see them? One foggy and cold Sunday morning a televised PBS program explained that as a person ages, many things can go wrong in the sight department. Not only do our eyes get worse, our brain may misinterpret the information our tired orbs take in. One interesting factoid is that immediately after cataract surgery, people usually see bluer and less yellow in their field of vision. I told Linda, soon to have cataract surgery, seeing a Mountain Bluebird may be impossible. The good news, the brain eventually corrects for the color aberration so that the viewer looking through the new lens sees objects as they are normally colored. A goldfinch will not seem greenish and once again, Mountain Bluebirds will appear.
The PBS TV-program also related that, with practice, old brains are capable to conditioning to avoid some pitfalls associated with age. Not focusing on what really needs scrutinized is one such consequence. What? An unidentified bird that we are agonizing over suddenly flies into a flock of similar but different birds. Alternatively, we are watching the mystery bird and a different bird flies in our field of view. Maintaining vigil on the target is important, but it is hard to avoid wondering about the other birds, the one that flew past or the flock the unidentified joined. That happens sometimes to the inexperienced, usually younger birder. Huh? Who said getting older might bring back a second childhood? The old farts, even though they know better, take on habits of the newer generation of birders, the new farts. Stacked on decades of wind and rain, aka, aging often causes us to look at and worry about things that are not necessarily central to our goal. For example, we see a strange gull; it flies into a flock of other gulls. For some reason, we, us older people, the wrinkly ones, begin to focus on the other birds, what is in the background and the gray matter even strays into non-bird thoughts such as where they left their reading glasses. Not to fret. We, yours truly and other Medicare candidates, might be able to teach our brain to work on that mystery gull only by dampening our thoughts about the other birds and the missing glasses. Of course, that does not mean we know the identity of the mystery gull. That is a completely different story that even PBS may never tackle.
In the meantime, my tired eyes failed to notice anything memorable. Fall passed uneventfully in Oregon. A one-day wonder Emperor Goose and a Jack Snipe caught my eye as I watched an internet birder site discuss a Pyrrhuloxia showing for weeks if not months in Peoria, a hamlet on the Willamette River. Wait. JACK SNIPE! Holy shorebird! It did not hang around either as far as anyone knows, but the brief sighting was good enough to get in PEEPS, ABA’s email alert of rarer birds.
Thoughts of rare birds outside home the state began dancing in my head. A winter trip to Texas was great last year and it could be more than fun this year. My stepdaughter and family live in Austin, and, because of that, we occasionally visit them, but our savings do not allow a winter trip. There is no chance at birds galore adorning the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a place not too far from the capitol to bird. The species garnishing the river region include Masked and Muscovy Ducks, Grove-billed Ani, Mangrove Warbler (surely soon to be a species), Blue Bunting, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and bird of birds, a Pine Flycatcher.
Oh well, next year, maybe. Perhaps that will be the year. In the meantime, there is bad news for birders dependency on peanut butter. There are announcements that tainted peanut products may be poisoning people from good to bad birding sites, and the economy is going the way of what some sickened by the peanuts must practice, which is to flush. Doubtless, the word flush travels in many directions. A close toilet might just be the place for users of bad peanuts and those that might have thought they were flush or at least not poor. The only good thing going seems to be lowering gasoline prices. As for Linda and I, we are staying away from peanut products for a while. We are also holding on to the money saved for a month trip to Alaska and northwestern Canada. Will Alaska be on the agenda in 2010? We are counting on it, me to about 25 birds. Potentially 25 new ABA birds are up there, somewhere, just waiting.
3 March 2009
It is a long time since I chased a new bird. I am more than ready; not just to ferret a new species for my nearly stagnant ABA list, but also to get out of Dodge, experience more than just the same old habitats, to … Today I am to go where many have boldly gone before. I had been there but not when an Emperor Goose waits counting. Today is a milestone of sorts, the quarter mark on the trip to 700, the 625th ABA lifer. Maybe. The wintering goose is treading water in Bandon, Oregon, a three-hour drive from home. It has been there since 1 January, and the cold season is soon becoming historical. Soon, this winter visitor will migrate. The Emperor Goose was spotted a few days ago palling around with some domestic geese in and around a small pond near Bandon’s south jetty. I carefully check the weather. Would the mountain passes be free of slippery snow? Meteorologically, travel looks good, but goose-ologically, would the prey offer itself to ogling?
A few months earlier, I chased a Willamette Valley Emperor Goose. That was sometime between the national news of poison peanuts and economic toxicity. The reported Emperor was out of town, but it was only a matter of time that I finally get my goose. Nevertheless, time is often elusive, but not today. A narrow road leads to Bandon’s south jetty. The road passes a small pond just before it bends westward. Something different is swimming near five or so Canada Geese. The white of the bird reflect the unusually present warm sun. No traffic. I stop, put on my emergency blinkers, grab the binocs and gawk. Probably almost instantly, a grin cuts across my bearded face. The little goose is beautiful, with its stubby pinkish bill and orange feet and legs that contrast with the gray back, black throat and white head and hind neck. A black speck on its white face suggests it is an advanced teenager, but the rest of the plumage indicates an adult.
After 30 minutes of checking the south jetty for Gray-tailed Tattlers or any other unbelievably dream-on species, I drive north, sifting other beaches and headlands for whatever might be around. However, before driving from the Bandon parking lot at the foot of the small jetty, I saw some domestic geese grazing beside the pavement. Among them is the same Emperor Goose. This bird is almost too easy. To paraphrase my brother-in-law’s former politically inspired bumper sticker “The Emperor has no brain,” I wonder why this bird got so far from its normal winter range. Perhaps this Emperor also has no brain.
In addition to chasing a wild goose in March, the calendar included a stint in Salem where Linda’s son is living in a group home. While that far north, I planned to take the hour drive to Portland to look for one of the gulls missing from my ABA list.
Gulls are, to say the least, enigmatic creatures. They show up in strange places atypical either or both to the species habitat and geographic range. Back in the museum days during a gathering of what was then the AOU check-list committee; van Remsen commented that if you wait long enough in one location, every species of gull would make a showing. In November 07, an Ivory Gull frequented fields in southwestern interior British Columbia. A Ross’s Gull, not long ago, hung out in the Salton Sea. These northern gulls foraging south do not disprove global warming. However, going to the Salton Sea does put new meaning to from the skillet to the flying pan. Gulls sometimes wander and make us wonder. They are almost everywhere, from parking lots to garbage dumps and water treatment plants, from open fields to small or large bodies of water, muddy and sandy shores and miles from land.
Identifying gulls or attempting to identify them requires, besides meaningful experience, something beyond the one size fits all field guide. Not being quick to buy every field guide and reference, not to mention not being rich, purchasing Gulls of the Americas by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn seems to be a sensible addition to the home library. After all, the authors are sensible. When Dan Gibson, down at a California meeting years ago, first introduced me to him, Steve said, with surprised flamboyance, “Oh, THE Ralph Browning!“ Now, I say, I am glad to have met THE Steve Howell. As for Jon, I learned of his excellent talents from his frequent visits to the National Museum. As a team, the authors of the gull book could surely teach this old dog a trick or two. At least, maybe, there would not be so many gulls that, like the fishing tale, got away. More importantly, the book has potential to avoid misidentifications. Gulling could be a learning experience, but Linda warned me that any time our shared birding should not be just about gulls. She liked watching gulls, but… I could not agree more. Laboring for hours over a flock of milling gulls or burning the pupils during stares at every wing pattern of loafing larids was not my cup of tea. My style is more hurried, moving from one identification to the next, with some birds remaining nameless. There are so many gulls that share characters, especially the early birds, the young and restless, that show up where least expected, sometime fooling the observer as to who is who. When an individual is seemingly disguised as more species than I have patience to identify, then it is time to boogie. That situation includes most hybrids and immatures. For me, identifying such birds is questionably important, as is knowledge on everything my cell phone or computer might possibly perform and how to order flavored coffee. Certainly all immature gulls are not alike. Just how easy it is to identify these big brown birds is a matter of time, experience and wherewithal to know the score. The score, the situation, may be that your partner is about to die from mental fatigue, boredom and a growing hatred of gulls. Life is short. For those difficult larid plumages, after a few minutes of consternation, snapping a few pictures for future reference might be in order. I am not a true lariphile although honing a few gulling skills is not a bad thing.
Although instructive, the outstanding gull book provides help and a load of frustration. There are 36 species of gulls recorded in the Americas, which might not seem so daunting to identify, especially to anyone not into gull watching. However, six species come in two plumage phases. That would be the juvenile and adult plumages. Worse, many species have up to three phases and some have four! Altogether, those 36 species produce close 120 plumage phases. Translation: it is tantamount to identifying almost that many species. Granted, some of the plumage phases are not that different from one another, but others are. Differences between a first-year bird and breeding adults for many gulls, as even a casual beachcomber knows, evoke night and day. Those 120 plumage phases of the 36 species put the problems of identifying look-alike species of ABA flycatchers to shame. In ABA land, Empidonax flycatchers and female ducks, sometimes seemingly impossible assemblages to identify, do not hold a candle to gulls. Confusing fall warblers are comparatively not so perplexing. Gulls surely are the most difficult group of birds we North American ABAers confront.
Lucky ABA birders could see up to 30 species (as of 2007) that might equate to around 100 plumage phases. Would all those fortunate birder souls be able to place accurate monikers on those 30 gulls? Adult birds are, except for a certain few, especially the larger white-headed gulls, reasonably easy to identify once you establish relative size, color of the mantle, primary patterns, tail markings, leg color and bill color. Oh, it may also help to the catch the color of thr eyes and the skin around the eye. The larger white-headed gulls include some of the species nesting in the the Canadian Archipelago such as Herring, Iceland, Thayer’s. Relationships between those are not resolved, and the gulls probably agree. Herring Gulls, as we know and love today may consist of more than one species. The “Vega” Gull, now a NE Asian subspecies of Herring Gull possibly could grace the great state of my Oregon, but beware, “Vegas” might be confused with Slaty-backed Gull. Could matters be worse? As for the “European” Herring Gull, from, surprise, Europe, it was doubtfully seen during my museum days when checking off, then perhaps too nonchalantly, Herring Gulls on cold winter beaches. Ah, the good old days, when birding was mostly without fear or forethought, not caring about a checklist or the dilemma caused by lariphobia.
The complete story of gull systematics is unknown. Besides the prospect of gaining a Vega or a European Herring Gull, we, the ABA checklist might lose species. About two decades ago, that would be perhaps 40 or more gull years, Dick Banks and I decided to dive into the murky waters of the larids of the Canadian Archipelago. We hoped to shed some light on the taxonomic status of Kumlien’s, Iceland and Thayer’s Gulls. Comparing holotypes of the taxa was needed. A holotype is a single specimen chosen by the author of a name. That important specimen is the basis for the description of a proposed name. We then needed to collect data from specimens of the three taxa. Measuring and comparing specimens at Smithsonian provided some data, but not nearly enough information. We drove to Ottawa to compare the vast collection of gulls in the Canadian Museum of Nature. Henri Ouellet, curator at the museum, had arranged for our visit, including our motel. At the museum, I met Earl Godfrey, author of Birds of Canada, and Richard Snell. Earl was particularly helpful and wanted us to check over a series of, to the best of my recollection, sparrows of some kind. My focus was gulls, gulls, gulls, and the collection there was full of specimens, including some collected by Neil Smith, author of the controversial A.O.U. monograph that led, among other things, to splitting Thayer’s from Herring Gull. For days, Dick and I managed to measure, check wing and tail molt, primary pattern and all the other things good gullologists are supposed to do. During the course of our visit we, of course, inquired about the other researchers work, and had no hint about gulls.
Following growing a good callus on my thumb from turning the wheel of calipers, after breathing gull dandruff and fumigant for days, with hours of counting primaries, sketching primary patterns, copying data from the specimen labels, we packed up our stack of papers, the collected data, and headed to Montreal. It was 1991. Dick, Henri and I sat in the front row to hear a session of papers on taxonomy. We had not had time to read the program, having arrived with the help of multilingual street signs. It felt good to listen to what others were doing after so many days of research. Richard Snell, speaking for himself and Earl, took the podium and began with data, slides and words about gulls, the very group of gulls Dick and I labored through the surprise. We were dumfounded. Certainly had we known that Richard had already done the work, we would have done something else. I looked at Henri, a quiet confident and friendly person, who, seeing my demeanor, looked slightly askance. Whispering, I asked why he had not mentioned that Richard had already gleaned the gulls. We had dinner an evening or two while working at the museum. He could have let the gull out of the bag then. Dick and I were not happy. Why the big secret? Most ornithologists are very forthcoming about their work, whether it is in progress or planned. Likewise, ornithologists I have known respect others enough to avoid encroaching on other’s research.
Henri, who apologized for his colleagues, was caught in the middle. Godfrey and Snell’s clandestine research concluded by lumping Kumlien’s, Iceland and Thayer’s. There is more to the story than a taxonomic determination. The Canadian connection to the three taxa of gulls widened by Snell’s questions about the legitimacy of Neil Smith’s 1966 work. Besides refuting Smith’s conclusions, as Dick and I heard in Montreal, Snell had reported he could not duplicate Smith’s experiment and did not believe Smith could logistically manage such a difficult study area as arduous as Baffin Island so quickly. Could it be that what happens on Baffin Island stays on Baffin Island? Ignoring whatever Smith did or did not do, data presented by Godfrey and Snell that day in Montreal, and later, data from Snell, did not support their taxonomic conclusion.
Dick and I moved on, after all, we had been gullible enough. Much later, as a clean-house paper to explain my taxonomic treatments in Birds of Oregon (2003), I wrote that Iceland, Kumlien’s and Thayer’s should be treated as separate species until proven otherwise. Five years later, Steve and Jon, in their astute Gulls of the Americas, are sticking to my comment. However, one of these days, ABA listers may lose or gain a species; but first, someone needs to offer some sound reasons, some real science, for such a change. In the meantime, getting one or more of the dozen missing gulls is a matter of waiting for the RBAs and having some quality gull stalking.
As with so many things ornithological, further study is needed. Sorting out the adults may be tough. The real birder’s “trial by gull” is the nonbreeding birds, hybrids, and being constantly reminded that the younger the gull, usually the greater the challenge.
10 March 2009
A Slaty-backed Gull had been at Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland for weeks. Where at the bridge do I search? A street map of Portland shows Burnside Bridge crossing the Willamette River, but that is little help. Worse, all of the reports on the web simply state north or south of the bridge, which on one side of the river is laced with interstates and on the other by business streets. Why people give directions assuming everyone else knows exactly where something is located is beyond me. Once looking for a grocery during a stay researching at the American Museum of Natural History, several New Yorkers told me, “just around the corner.” Which corner? It did not matter. Of course, yonder is a favorite among some. Down yonder, over yonder, up yonder, why not yonder yonder? And, there is directions followed by “you can’t miss it.” These days, in-town directions usually include a reference to a fast-food establishment. Such directions are fattening. Compass directions, exit numbers, actual or even estimated mileages are rarely provided. Harry Nehls, long time Oregon birder, keeper of the Oregon RBA and resident of Portland came to the rescue. His email reply to my cry for help directs me exactly to the correct spot.
Arriving in Portland after rush hour made it easy to meander to the target sight in the heart of downtown. In the mid-1800’s, Portland was better known as Stumptown since during rapid growth at the time trees were felled faster than workers could remove the stumps. The tree stubs remained so long that they became landmarks and places to stand on to get out of the winter mud. About 70 years later, Burnside Bridge, a double leafed drawbridge spans 2300 feet across the Willamette River. Just north and downstream is Steele Bridge, a massive railroad and highway bridge built about a decade earlier and is the second oldest double-lift bridge in North America. Both structures age downtown and frame the part of the Willamette River where, I trust, the Slaty-backed Gull resides.
At precisely 12:48, a one-hour parking voucher spits from a machine at a tiny commercial parking lot almost under the western foot of Burnside Bridge. The receipt is a statement of confidence that 60 minutes would be sufficient time to find the gull. Crossing the street to a narrow park and striding north, under the bridge on a paved walk means dodging the noon crop of walkers and joggers. I began wondering what the Slaty-back would look like. It was reported to be a third-year, but photographs in Howell and Dunn’s book include a variation from white primaries and head to a bird with virtually adult winter plumage. Although photographs of the quarry are on the web, I purposely ignored them to avoid becoming biased and to enjoy the surprise.
The unchecked gulls on my ABA list total 12 missing species. Owing to differences in plumages, I have an equivalent of more than 30 different appearing birds to distinguish. Three of the dozen species are category 5 birds, Gray-hooded, Swallow-tailed and Belcher’s that have dipped their bills in ABA waters fewer times than they can count on their 10 primaries. It is unlikely I will see those two south of the border visitors. Three other gulls, Black-tailed, Kelp and Yellow-legged, are category 4 species. Little, Ross’s, Ivory and Slaty-backed Gulls are category 3, and two species, Red-legged Kittiwake and Yellow-footed Gull are category 2 birds. I will have to check over the other gulls reported to be at the river.
The concrete trail detours around a construction site, under Burnside Bridge and then back to the river toward Steele Bridge. Gulls sit on the grassy borders of the trail on one side of the street sidewalk and more gulls sit on the protective rails at the river‘s edge, and others are rafting and flying along the river. Loafing birds are parked on street lamps over the bridge, in the river about 20 feet below and on a pier just north of Burnside Bridge but across the river. My binocs reveal nothing particularly exciting with the exception of one outstanding individual. The earlier trek to the coast for the Emperor Goose left fresh impressions of mantle colors of gulls, especially the dark backed Western Gulls. With a scope, it is clear that the odd bird nearly across the Willamette River is not a pale mantled Herring or Glaucous-winged Gull and it is even darker backed than individually dark mantled Western Gulls. Its mantle is too dark for a Vega Gull. It is a Slaty-backed Gull. Its plumage, with its blotchy dusky upper breast and head, closely matches a photo in Howell and Dunn’s book on gulls and not terribly dissimilar to the winter adult illustrated in my trusty Geographic. The bird is too far away, even with my scope cranked to maximum, to see its pale yellow eyes, but the white trailing edges to the wings is noticeably broader than the field guides and photographs suggests. Also visible are the relatively bright pink legs.
How about those legs? I recall that in my original western Peterson (1941) a table summarizing salient gull field marks used, for appropriate species, the term flesh-colored instead of pink. That was a time when Band-Aids came in “flesh-color.” Slaty-backed Gull did not appear in that early edition of Peterson, but it did in the second, revised edition. He described the feet as “pinker” than those of Western Gull which he described as “pinkish.” In Peterson’s table “Analysis of Adult Gulls,” he wrote the feet of Western Gulls are flesh-colored. It seems safe to think that a birder with a cut finger might have a good idea of the term flesh-colored, but slap on a mid-Twentieth Century Band-Aid and confusion abounds. Those flesh-colored Band-Aids were far from flesh-color. The color of flesh, freshly exposed muscle tissue having a normal blood supply, regardless of skin color, is actually more red than pink. Today, we realize that gulls feet and legs have little to do with our own ethnicity.
Only 35 minutes passes. With a Slaty-backed Gull, ABA number 626, under my belt, I pull out a partial loaf of sliced bread and begin tossing small pieces over the rail. The first piece does not hit the river. A watchful Herring Gull, or was it a Vega, it does not matter, caught the tiny morsel and in seconds at least 30 gulls are swarming around me. My hope is that the chumming will not embarrass me for being such a land-lubbering tourist, and two, attract the Slaty-back Gull for a closer look, especially to see it in flight. One, I am not embarrassed, much, nor, two, am I privileged to see the Slaty-back in flight. In fact, during the flurry of wings in my face, the Slaty-back disappears.
In the meantime, my bladder is filling to the point that white gulls were taking on a yellowish tinge faster than any normal plumage cycle. Morning tea and water collecting since leaving Salem a couple of hours ago are reaching the high tide mark. It is at the place Sanderlings scurry. The construction site, where the trail detours, contains restrooms, but the construction now made them inaccessible. In desperation, all the while kegeling with all my might, I scurry around a city block thinking I might discover a public restroom. There is none. I lope two blocks as fast as partially crossed legs allow to the car. Behind the seat is a container that I probably paid $10 for when in the hospital seven months ago. It is a special plastic lidded bottle for bed-ridden males. By now, I am beyond miserable. The moment of truth arrives. Either get arrested or get very wet. Sitting in a contorted fashion over the steering wheel, I drape my coat over me, readying for the maneuver that will set me free. While pretending to check my city map, I secretly do what many birders have either wished to do or dared to do. In the case at hand, it is by then a medical necessity.
Following what comes naturally, I breathe multiple sighs of relief that I am alive and not under arrest for keeping my clothes dry. Driving to the western foot of Burnside Bridge, I pass several traffic sign directing a loop under and around just east of the bridge that would confuse even the best of experts on gulls, and proceed east on Interstate 84. It feels good knowing that I now have only one or is it two species of gulls with pink legs to find. All the remaining gulls I need to find for my ABA list, with luck, have yellow, red, or black legs. Perhaps another gull waif is in waiting just around the corner or is that just plain gullible?
The interstate takes me east of the bulk of the city to an exit leading to the Columbia River. An adult male Tufted Duck had been seen for weeks between a levee and Government Island that splits the river just across from Washington. The levee stands high above a trail traveling along the north side above the river. The crown of the levee is busy two-lane Marine Drive nearly choked with roaring cars and trucks. South and below the levee, and appearing hardly above the level of the Columbia are row after row of large one and two story commercial buildings. A blacktopped trail on the north side of the levee offers a wide path for bikers and birders. I imagine David Douglas, one of my favorite naturalists, plying the water on his way upstream from 1820’s Fort Vancouver. Lesser and Greater Scaup and a dozen Ring-necked Ducks rafted up and down a mile stretch of the river. Some of the rafts of ducks floating lazily close to the dike appear oblivious to the noise and fumes of the traffic and even to me. Others birds drift across the water near the south shore of the island. Occasionally, a flock gets airborne and disappears up the river. Others circle and land back where they began. Individual members of the flotillas are constantly diving. I watch suspicious birds resurface until time and my eyes are close to history. Not wishing to partake in the evening rush hour, I head back to Salem where Linda and I are staying.
12 March 2009
Linda has an early appointment with a doctor and her son. Staff will drive them. Hopping into the little blue SUV, I wheel one hour north, back to the Portland levee along the Columbia River. As the meteorologist promises, the sky is clear; the temperature is cold and the wind hard. The river is choppy, with wind driven white caps roughening up what had been a smooth surface just the day before yesterday. Where are the thousands of scaup two days ago, or is it that I cannot see them mixed in the bumpy waves? Although many of the heads of birds not more than around 300 feet away reveal either greenish or purplish iridescence, I am mostly looking at sides and backs. A black back and white sides would be nice. Of course, a tufted head would be good too. The morning sun is barely south and upstream, making it difficult to see, let alone identify, anything north or about 45 degrees from my binocs or scope. Even slightly more downstream birds are hard to see since the sun bore brightly between my wind watering eyes and optics. It finally dawns on me that I should be looking through the scope with my left eye; the one shadowed by the bridge of my nose. Old dogs can learn new tricks. The cold eastern wind pierces through my jeans, which, what else, sent memories of the recent past to my shivering bladder. Luckily, a tiny area off the trail shields me from the eyes of the traffic above. Looking downwind, I sigh that life is good.
Turning back and walking west downstream, the wind and sun are now to my back. The sun hitting my back removes some of the chill from my heavy hooded coat. Somewhere during the hike between 158 and 138th streets, the wind slows. From the trail along the levee, more birds become visible, but most are across the river. Too far. Only a dozen Ring-necked Ducks forage close to the trail. I begin lamenting on bad luck about the time I spot a small raft of mixed species of scaup a mere 200 feet away. The sun is now higher and the scaup are downstream and in good light. Pointing upstream, into the wind, now a stiff breeze, the scaup dive, resurface and appear nervous from my proximity. One of the birds looks suspicious, different, and not gray-backed. Quickly, I lower to a crouching position. The mystery duck is yet to give the secret word. It dives. I crouch lower. It surfaces. Am I seeing a figment of an optical illusion? White, immaculate white sides reflect in the sun, contrasting with a black back. Suddenly, the clincher flaps in the breeze. The tuft of the Tufted Duck makes the hunt real. What a do! March has been a good month, with three new birds, the Tufted Duck topping the ABA list to 627. In another three minutes, the little flotilla of scaups and one prized Tufted Duck lift into the wind, flying upstream and toward the far side of the blustery river.