Rogue Birder, ch. 1

Rogue Birder

Before my brief chronicle of birding in SW Oregon, I fully acknowledge the contributions of birders in Rogue country. Their passion and expertise provides a better appreciation of birds of the region. Through their efforts, I now see the numerous mistakes and omissions I made in my small contribution on the birds of Jackson County. For example, ravens come to mind as not a common fixture in the valley back in the day. They are now. Were they then and I just was oblivious to these big black birds. Of course, a few species not common at all to Jackson County are now regular birds. Think gnatcatchers and Wrentits. Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.


Mt. McLoughlin from the top of Upper Table Rock, background scenery of Rogue Birders


For fifty plus years and counting, I have been a Rogue Birder. However, Rogue birds, those found in the Rogue River Valley of southwestern Oregon, were not in my sight every year given the requirement of a day job on the Potomac River as a member of the Biological Survey. Those were the days when the Fish and Wildlife Service paid me to play. Even while staring down specimens of birds in the Division of Birds at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the spirit in my mind kept the thought of Rogue birding close to home. Every year, I tried to visit the Rogue Valley to look for birds in old haunts, and to assure myself that being a Rogue Birder then was as good as it was when I first became a teenage Rogue Birder.

Is a Rogue Birder a birder of birds associated with a geographic region? Mostly. A Rogue Birder birds the Rogue River watershed, in southwestern Oregon, which drains about 5% of the state. Some of the watershed is accessible to birders, including much of it in Jackson, parts of Josephine County, and the mouth of the Rogue River where it mingles with sand and the Pacific Ocean. The remainder of the watershed occupies tough country and is seldom, if ever, visited by even the most intrepid birder. Therefore, the answer is generally yes. A Rogue Birder birds the Rogue River watershed.

A Rogue Birder is also a state of mind, an attitude. As an adjective, a rogue is no longer obedient or belonging and therefore is unanswerable to authority. Scientists are obedient up to a point. Discovery and creativity may generate necessary challenges to rules, preconceived ideas, theories based on insufficient information causing a scientist to question the status quo, possibly not be obedient and even unanswerable to established thought. If the normal and accepted chain of thought had not been questioned, Edison, Darwin and a few birders along the way, might not have ever turned on the lights. A Rogue Birder, then, besides being from Rogue country, is someone gathering facts and is trying to fill in gaps of the established knowledge base. Being a Rogue Birder opened the door for writing some wrongs and stamping the literature with a little new information, but I am getting ahead of myself.

What is so wonderful about being a Rogue Birder? The answer has a lot to do with the Rogue birds themselves. Rogue birds are unique, which has a lot to do with discovery. Every young birder knows the feeling, the discovery that the little woodlot or the riparian habitat along a neighborhood stream was the home to incredibly fascinating species of birds. These are personal discoveries. In the 1950’s and later, birders were discovering all kinds of facts about the avifauna in the Rogue River watershed. Being a young or old Rogue Birder meant a field trip would likely produce something that no one else knew, or at least very few fellow birders knew.

The unpredictability of birds, where and when a given species will appear, is one facet that makes birding intriguing. Now, rare bird alerts are all over the web with national, state and regional reports covering the rare and unusual, those that are beyond the usual suspects. Those species we expect to see became the usual suspects from evidence of a species’ frequency based on repeated birding trips to the same region. In time, there is a creation of a knowledge base. Of course, there are base lines on Rogue birds. In fact, there have been several base lines, dating back to Ira N. Gabrielson’s 1931 treatise on “The birds of the Rogue River Valley,” published in the Condor, one of three principle ornithological journals at the time. About forty years later, another base line appeared in Number 70 of North American Fauna series. More on that later. Since then, various checklists of Rogue birds have surfaced, each one growing with time and number of newly added species. By checklists, I mean essentially a list of names, sometimes appended with initials for status such as whether a given species is “c” for common or “a” for abundant or some other designation indicating abundance. Lately, local checklists have added occurrence so that it is possible to have some idea of when migrants come and go or when winter visitors, well, visit.

Most Rogue Birders now know that Western Tanagers will very likely be seen or at least heard in a coniferous forest in summer. Juncos and Golden-crowned Sparrows will surely reveal themselves on a typical winter day in the Rogue Valley. A Rogue Birder can expect to find Wrentits throughout the year, but that species was once a rare find. More on that later.

A Rogue Birder can often come home with scribbled notes on something new and exciting, something unexpected, some species checked off that makes them happy to be a Rogue Birder. In addition, it is possible that a Rogue Birder may have discovered something new, something that was not reported in one of those base-line reports. The avifauna will change, either in species, their populations, and when they come and go. Population levels of many species have decreased, some have not, and spring migrants arrive earlier and a new species, such as Wrentits decide to breed in the Rogue Valley. Did I mention there would be more on Wrentits?

The chances for discovery, adding to the base line, in the Rogue watershed is far greater than in many more heavily birded locations, especially east of the Rockies. Having lived in Virginia many years, I can testify that a day of birding there does not match a day of Rogue birding. Hundreds of birders live in Virginia. The birder to bird ratio in Rogue territory is no match to most eastern regions. Sure, there are discoveries waiting in Virginia, but a Rogue Birder is going to come home happier. In addition, that is not because Rogue Birders do not host chiggers. The Rogue Birder knows that their field time has likely added more unique crumbs that become the bread of a well-known avifauna.

Why is the discovery important? Discovery feeds passion. It becomes more than just adding knowledge; it becomes personal. Most people are birders because they are passionate about seeing birds. Looking for and finding birds are good feelings. Some birders are passionate about finding new birds, not necessarily birds they have never seen (life birds) but they yearn for the feeling of being just a little unique by finding something that no one saw before them. Maybe it is the first MacGillivray’s Warbler for the season, the first Phainopepla in the county, or some other first, maybe second, third, something unique, reportable, something to brag about, even if the bragging is to one’s self. Think of it this way. Suppose you are a singer and have a beautiful voice. You sing for an audience and they love you. Then, suppose 10 more singers sing for the same audience. They all sound similar to your pipes. Is the audience going to love you as much as being a soloist? Birding is then, a kind of competition. It may be subtle and private, but we each want to see as many birds or see certain species as best we can. We often like to share those observations. After all, we are birders and most birders like to help their compatriots. We take pride in giving and by seeing a unique bird, something special no one else has found is a great gift. To achieve that unique observation, we compete with our time, our budget, ourselves and by being first and we compete with others. Rogue Birds, with its low birder to bird ratio is fertile grounds for a Rogue Birder to make unique discoveries.

Being unique, to feed the passion goes beyond birding. Ornithologists study what is of interest to them, usually, unless their funding overseer dictates otherwise. At least the ornithologists crossing my path were mostly following their muse. For example, an ornithologist might find hormone levels in American Robins fascinating whereas another ornithologist may be bored with hormones and excited about geographic variation. I did not choose to write about Yellow Warblers, Yellow Warblers chose me. Like ornithologist, some birders get very excited about shorebirds, or gulls, or sparrows, or all of the above, or desire to know as much as they can about birds in a certain region, maybe even birds in southwestern Oregon or more specifically Rogue birds.

A Rogue Birder has plenty to be excited about, much to feed their passion while going about making discoveries of the avifauna. The Rogue territory is rife for discovery because it is unique. The habitat in lower elevations, those regions along Bear Creek, one of the major tributaries of the Rogue River and that river’s low elevations resembles dry eastern Oregon and shares vegetation found in parts of northern California. Foothills growing madrone and manzanita surround the island of chaparral and oak. Higher up, where rainfall is more abundant, mixed conifer forests of pine, fir and the false fir, Douglas fir, grows in the mountains westward to the coast. Around 4500 feet in elevation is the true fir forest, with mountain hemlock, and contorted lodgepole pine, aptly named Pinus contorta. Above that is the timberline forest, with more kinds of pines and firs and even juniper and finally low growing shrubs giving way to bare and rocky landscapes of Mt. McLoughlin in the Cascade Mountains. A few peaks in the geologically older Siskiyou Mountains reach just above timberline.

The territory for the Rogue Birder technically begins at Boundary Springs, the headwaters of the Rogue River in Klamath County. My first encounter with the series of springs was in the sixties while working in Crater Lake National Park. Drinking from the burgeoning stream then did not make me ill, but might today. From the springs, the Rogue River flows through the Cascades southwestward past Prospect, through Shady Cove, turns southward towards what is now White City, and bends westerly as it passes under the two flat-topped mesas, with the imaginative names of Upper and Lower Table Rocks. Not only are these localities important landmarks for tracing the river from its origin, but they are also sites important to the history of the Rogue Valley. 

Bear Creek, mentioned earlier, begins to the south of the river near Ashland. The creek is a product of merged tributaries originating in the Siskiyous and the Cascades and it flows northwestward past Talent, Phoenix, Medford and Central Point before emptying into the Rogue River. The lowland from the river and the creek is known as the Rogue River Valley, which, from the air might appear to be t-shaped, with the trunk, Bear Creek slanting up from near Ashland to the curvy valley carved by the Rogue River. It is actually two valleys, but the birds do not mind. In fact, Bear Creek Valley is a great corridor for migrants.

Fifty years ago, there were fewer birders, but more birds in Rogue territory. In the 1960s, Medford was approaching 25,000 people. As of 2015, it is estimated as 80,024. Jackson County, encompassing Bear Creek and a good portion of the upper Rogue River was almost 74,000 souls in 1960 and is now (as of 2015) over 212,000 with a growth rate of 4.6% since 2010.

While being a Rogue Birder, discovering the secrets of the land, feeding my passion, my muse, it became rapidly apparent that part of the change in avifauna was the product of habitat alteration, with more and more land use going the way of housing and businesses to support all the new human inhabitants. In the mountains, removed forests were replaced with new groves of trees, but often habitats of fir were replaced with pines. Even woodpeckers know that pine forests are drier and hotter than forests of fir. More roads encroached more areas, mostly to get to timber, gave access to more people, including birders. Other causes for change in avifauna are not so easily explained, but changes are important to document. With that information, we can possibly avoid even more ecological mishaps.

The formative years as a Rogue Birder revealed there are species to be found in Rogue country that are found nowhere else in Oregon. The Black Phoebes, the Wrentits, the Anna’s Hummingbirds and more were moving into Rogue territory. As a Rogue Birder, I could witness those incoming species, once regarded as waifs, and help document the avifauna of such a rich region. In the mid-1960’s I took on the establishment by publishing two papers on birds in Rogue country and North American environs. The purpose of the papers was to put on record and correct omissions found in the Fifth Edition of the American Ornithologists’ Check-list of North American Birds published in 1957. The AOU Check-list is a respected publication but in this case, a local voice had new information. Who would do this? The wet-behind-the-ears Rogue Birder, that’s who. However, the more I learned, the less I knew.

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