Rogue Birder, Ch 5, New Things

New things

By 1959, I was beginning to realize there are birds outside the home turf, species that for some reason do not like Rogue living. I had by now been to Brookings and seen things, things no Rogue habitat would welcome. I see dead birds. These offer my first close up views of Western Gulls and Common Murres. Never mind that the family dog loved rolling on the dead bodies and giving everyone a close up smell of Western Gulls and Common Murres. Fortunately, most of the new beach birds were alive. I saw Black Oystercatchers and Pelagic Cormorants. I even saw the mouth of the Rogue River at Gold Beach, but Acorn Woodpeckers were so far upstream that the birds of the river entering the Pacific Ocean were unfamiliar to my novice ilk.

As spring came, I continued to practice Rogue birding along Larson Creek and a few new areas closer to the house in Phoenix that my parents recently purchased. The yard in Phoenix was an overgrown weed patch and most of my late winter and early spring meant pulling weeds and mowing. Now days I would have been busy landscaping or would it lawn engineering. When I could get away from yard work, I looked for birds. On a new section of Bear Creek, I am sure I saw two very early Rough-winged Swallows in late February. These swallows did not become Northern Rough-winged Swallows until years later when the discussion by AOU Check-list committee on whether there was a northern and southern Rough-wing nearly coincided with one of Allan Phillip’s visits to the museum. It was fortunate the discussion nearly coincided since certain members that made up the committee at the time did not see eye to eye with Allan. Worse, Allan viewed the committee with disdain. Although he and I got along fine, Allan’s patience would probably not have extended to my early Rogue Birder years. More on that later.

On 30 May, I hopped in the back of my parent’s new Chevrolet sedan, sharing the back seat with my young sister. The big horizontally finned green monster of a car was huge inside, with plenty of room for me, binoculars, a newly purchased copy of Peterson’s eastern field guide and notebook to record all the neat birds I was sure I‘d witness. Precisely at 4:30 a.m., we backed out of the driveway.

We headed south. Interstate 5 did not exist then, but we soon crested the Siskiyou summit and wound our way into California. Peering out the window, I strained to identify all the blurs possible. Most everything identified could easily fit on a list of Rogue birds. Turning eastward into the Great Basin I began seeing Yellow-headed Blackbirds, not a usual suspect in Rogue country. Somewhere east of Winnemucca, Nevada, I recorded Rusty Blackbird, which surely was a mistake. Around 6 p.m., we pulled into a motel at Elko, Nevada. Allowing for stops, and that is assuming all four of us needed to “rest” at the same time, and the stop for lunch at a roadside park near Honey Lake, my poor dad must have been at the wheel close to 12 hours. According to an old yellowing map I saved with my notes, we traveled just shy of 700 miles, hovering, as the horizontal fins allowed, at an average speed of 58 m.p.h. Bear in mind the nonexistence of Interstate 5, now a multilane ribbon of blacktop through the Rogue Valley on its way to and from the borders of Mexico and Canada. Bear in mind the other roads from Medford to Elko in 1959 were mostly narrower and more curvy than today. In fact, today, that same drive, from the Rogue Valley, specifically Phoenix, to Elko, Nevada, is 586 miles with an estimated travel time of 9 hour and 24 minutes. Average speed could be around 63 m.p.h.

Our second night was in Delta, Colorado, on U.S. 50. I had no inkling that my working address would be off U.S. 50, which is in part of Washington, D.C., but known as Constitution Avenue. I also was clueless, when, the next morning, we would be driving by optimum habitat for what the AOU would eventually recognize as Gunnison Sage-Grouse. In 1959, these birds were not even a subspecies Sage Grouse.

Finally, we rolled, or as my father drove, roared, into Kansas where I began seeing real eastern birds. The first was a Red-headed Woodpecker caught in the grill of the sailing Chevy. The second was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher that wisely stayed perched as we drove ever eastward. Brown Thrasher, Blue Jay and Chimney Swift followed by more Red-headed Woodpeckers, this time live ones. We arrived at our destination, Harrison, Arkansas, home of my grandparents, maternally and paternally, in four days. My lifer Red-headed Woodpecker was the only bird fatality; although along with woody were a disgusting number of insects ranging from body parts to wings, tortured abdomens, fractured compound eyes and whole specimens suitable for an entomological collection. According to American Birding Association (ABA) rules, a dead bird cannot count on a person’s list. However, I actually identified the woodpecker as it dipped across the road, just before its terminal flight. Besides, the invention of the ABA, like the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was yet to come.

The next five days were devoted to attempting to be a good grandson and getting into the local fields and woods to look for birds. Each day was a day of wonderment, with Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Bobwhite and Ruby-throated Hummingbird checked on my list. One night, I heard a whip-poor-will whip-poor-willing. Most likely, someone pointed out to me the species years earlier before we moved to Oregon, but this time I was hearing it as an official birder, a touring Rogue Birder. Years later, in 2005, I would hear another whip-poor-will in southeastern Arizona and having heard the one in 1959 and a few others in Virginia, realized differences in the sound of the disjunct southwestern and eastern birds. By 2009, I gathered published evidence into a formal proposal to the Committee of Classification and Nomenclature of the American Ornithologists’ Union to recognize the western birds as a species distinct from the eastern whip-poor-wills. The proposal passed the two-thirds mark. My Arkansas nightjars are Eastern Whip-poor-wills; the Arizona birds are Mexican Whip-poor-wills. What does this have to do with Rogue birding? Plenty, one of the two nightjars, most likely the Mexican Whip-poor-will, will eventually show up in Oregon. There are records from central northern California. A Rogue Birder should be ready.

Before leaving Arkansas, I finally found a Hooded Warbler. My hope was to see all kinds of warblers, but I was naïve to the time of migration and did not have an ear tuned to the possibilities of Blue-winged Warbler, Northern Parula, Cerulean Warbler or a Louisiana Waterthrush. If I could have met a local birder, maybe I would have seen more warblers. However, I did not know any local birders in 1959 and computers, that might have gotten me in touch with some, were not part of an ever-day wardrobe. Doug James would eventually work on Cerulean Warblers from the University of Arkansas in not so far to the west Fayetteville, but I would not know him until my museum days.

Our route home took us north of the one to Arkansas. On the way home, near Craig, Colorado, I recorded seeing a House Finch near Craig, and remarked this was the first one seen since we crossed the Rocky Mountain summit. Today, such an observation seems unremarkable, but House Finches back in the days of finned cars did not usually occur in the east. There were records from western Nebraska and central and western Texas, but the species mostly refrained from crossing the Rockies. House Finches have now managed to become a citizen of both the western and eastern United States.

The next day, 12 June 1959, I saw my first Mountain Bluebird. This bluebird is also a Rogue bird, one that rarely visited the valley, and a species I count on seeing on the slopes of Mt. Ashland. In the old days, reaching the slope of Mt. Ashland meant a circuitous meander on a dirt forest service road. Today, Mt. Ashland is accessible by a circuitous meander on a paved road. The pavement stops at the Mount Ashland Ski Area, otherwise known as a vertical clear-cut that thousands of snow boarders and skier unwittingly enjoy every winter. Meanwhile, the town below the mountain worries about water supplies. I usually see my annual Mountain Bluebirds at a site offering a view of the Rogue Valley to the north and Mt. Shasta in California to the south.

Back home, I was eager to see some Rogue birds. I caught a bus from Phoenix to White City and walked from the highway east to Hoover’s Lakes. It was 25 June but rainy. An adult Blue-winged Teal and at least five ducklings may be the only record of the species breeding in Rogue country. The drizzly day turned even better by the presence of three Wilson’s Phalaropes. I guessed there were two nesting territories. My experience with Wilson’s Phalaropes was limited to a few I had seen in the Klamath Basin. If only then I would have had Marshall Howe with me. He was one of my immediate supervisors during my museum years and had studied Wilson’s Phalarope. Marshall published on behavior including flocking and pair bonding, molt and probably aspects of the species most of us are afraid to ask. Besides work at the museum, it was my pleasure to assist Marshall in work on longspurs in the Pawnee Grasslands of northeastern Colorado and Willets nesting along Chesapeake Bay. I do not recall us concurrently observing Wilson’s Phalaropes.

That late June day at Hoover’s Lakes also provided sightings of two Eastern Kingbirds, a species instantly recognizable. I had seen these white bellied flycatcher mere weeks ago in Arkansas. That experience helped me identify them even before I saw the white bellies of the kingbirds. They sounded different from the yellow bellied Western Kingbirds, a common summer breeding bird to Rogue country and present at Hoover’s Lakes, with both species in a single view. At the time, I wrote in my notes that seeing the Eastern Kingbirds was a “good find.” Once home, I checked Gabrielson and Jewett, what Oregon birders called then the only monograph on birds in Oregon. The two authors published “Birds of Oregon” in 1940, well before I was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. The authors wrote that Eastern Kingbird is a common summer resident east of the Cascades. Today, we know that their estimate, albeit a good one, is not quite on the mark. Eastern Kingbirds in Oregon primarily are summer breeders in the northeastern part of the state, with scattered rare occurrences mostly east of the Cascades. The species is still pretty darn rare west of the Cascades, including Rogue country. The level of my excitement from observing the pair of Eastern Kingbirds in 1959 would be about the same today.

For six days in late July, my parents may have taken their very first vacation that did not involve visiting relatives, and, since I was a minor, they had to invite me. Really, my wonderful and supportive parents would not have had it any other way. Not only were we going on a real vacation, but also we were going on an international journey. Our route took us to Drain, a small town near Roseburg. I could not help noticing the region along the Umpqua River resembled Rogue country. Both valleys are arid compared to surrounding mountains; both have grassy slopes dotted with oak groves and patches of ceanothus. Being there was as if I had seen my twin. Years later, I did some serious surveying in the foothills east of Roseburg. In the process, it became apparent that the avifauna of Umpqua Valley and that of the Rogue Valley are similar. Even my untrained 1960 brain realized this. I was becoming more awake, more aware of habitat, climate that produces rain, soil that grows the plants, and more.

An aging professor I once had while minoring in geography frequently said, “Climate makes the man.” Since climate ultimately dictates habitats, a similarly simplistic maxim could be “climate makes the bird.” That popcorn dry wind scouring desert rocks would be great for a Rock Wren. Taking away some aridity and wind might produce ceanothus loved by a plethora of bush loving birds, including bushtits, Wrentits, towhees and plenty more. Although, in 1960, I did not know that Frank Sturges, the local bird specialist and ecologist at then just up Bear Creek at Southern Oregon College in Ashland collected habitats. Frank, then Dr. Sturges, led a couple of field trips in my early days, and then became my academic advisor while I attended college in Ashland. Almost fifty years later during a visit in my home again in Rogue Country, I asked how many life birds he had tallied. After retirement, he became a global traveler, but he answered with a grin that he was not sure, that he collected habitats.

The route of the family vacation struck west to the Oregon coast where I took notes on vegetation, which were brief and, lacking any botanical skills, mostly incorrect. We crossed the Columbia by ferry. The Astoria-Megler Bridge did not open until 1966. For me, the ferry is preferred over the narrow and sometimes dizzyingly high spans of the bridge. In Washington, we drove up a road along Lake Cushman somewhere near or at the boundary of Olympic National Park. My records include only “crow” and nighthawk and recall the lush cool vegetation when we turned around. Just south of Quilcene on U.S. 101 we stayed in a motel, the kind that hardly exist today, the kind surrounded with natural vegetation and birds. Its mixed forest was home to White-crowned Sparrows, Barn Swallow, Western Tanagers and seven other species. One was a Red-eyed Vireo, which I hope was a correct identification.

Two more ferry crossings to and from Whidbey Island and I found myself in Canada for the first time. We spent only a day and a half in southern British Columbia, ogling beaver ponds, Common Loons, a life bird and Rogue species including Mountain Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbirds and Western Meadowlark. Southward, we breezed into Mt. Rainier National Park, stopping much too briefly at Paradise Valley, an overnight in Portland, and on U.S. 99 to Rogue country.

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