The High Desert Solitaire

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

As the high-desert nights grow colder and the days shorter, most birds leave the Harney Basin for warmer climes. Some hardy species, such as the great horned owl, Northern flicker and song sparrow, resolutely stay put all winter, while others migrate into the basin to seek reprieve from even harsher conditions. One of these winter visitors is the Townsend’s solitaire.

Beginning in late August, the foothills of the basin, filled with juniper trees and flanked by lichen-covered rimrock, ring with the flute-like calls and songs of Townsend’s solitaires. In our region, these thrushes migrate down from the mountains to take advantage of food sources at lower elevations through the winter.

Powdery gray overall, with tan wing bars, white outer tail feathers, and a dainty white eye­-ring, the unassuming solitaire would likely go unnoticed if it weren’t for its exuberant voice, calling and even singing in the dead of winter. Both sexes look alike, and both sing year­-round. The song of the solitaire has been described as “[an] infinitely fine and sweet rendering of mountain music…in rippling cadences not shrill, but in an infinite number of runs and modulated trills, dying away again and again to low plaintive whispering notes…” (Forrest S. Hanford, 1917). To establish and defend its territory, the solitaire’s piping one­-note call is broadcast loudly, as often as 30 times a minute.

First collected by naturalist John Kirk Townsend along the lower Willamette River in 1835, the solitaire exhibits a confounding mix of traits. Its drab plumage and habit of sallying forth to capture insects in flight is reminiscent of tyrant flycatchers, but its melodious voice and speckled young betray its kinship with thrushes. Townsend collected only one bird, a female–but this was enough for John James Audubon to describe the species and name it in his honor in 1838.

Townsend’s solitaire is a habitue of montane forests and meadows, found year-round in much of the lntermountain West. Alongside the mountain bluebird, these thrushes are most at home in high, mountainous country.

In the summer, solitaires frequent high-altitude forests, sometimes ranging beyond tree line in search of invertebrate prey. Perching at the tops of trees or shrubs, these birds fly out to capture insects mid-air with an audible snap of their bills; they also perch closer to the ground, in the manner of bluebirds, to scan the forest floor for prey.

These birds nest on or near the ground, in any crevice with a sheltering overhang. Solitaires are known to build nests under logs and stumps, in the lees of boulders, or along steep roadcuts and trails. In the lntermountain West, solitaires nest at elevations ranging from 7,000 to 10,500 feet above sea level; at their northerly breeding areas in northwestern Canada and Alaska, nesting occurs at much lower elevations.

By autumn, most solitaires migrate to the lowlands to subsist on winter fruits. In our region, solitaires are particularly dependent on the “berries” (actually the modified female cones) of juniper trees. Solitaires of both sexes become fiercely possessive of prime juniper trees in winter, and may chase away not only other solitaires but other fruit-eating birds. This is where the solitaire earns its name: perching high and alone in a prime juniper crown, sharply proclaiming its territory and warning off interlopers.

This winter, look for the solitaire broadcasting its sweet soliloquy throughout the basin’s foothills, or anywhere where fruit-laden trees or shrubs are abundant.

The Incongruous Lewis’s Woodpecker

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Dan Streiffert

Besides gnarled Western junipers, non-native Russian olives and the occasional grove of Fremont’s cottonwood, there are few real trees to be found at Malheur Refuge. Despite this, five woodpecker species show up regularly at scattered locations throughout the Refuge, often associated with those intermittent stands of trees. One of those species is the Lewis’s woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis), an anomaly in an already distinctive family of birds.

Lewis’s woodpecker is fairly big for a woodpecker, intermediate in size between a robin and a crow. The adult plumage of both sexes is a unique mix of greenish-black above and pinkish below, with a gray collar and dark red face. Like other woodpeckers, this species has stiffened tail feathers and zygodactyl feet, which help them move about on vertical tree trunks. Their bill is stout and tapered like most woodpeckers’ bills, if a tad thinner. But a couple of behavioral adaptions make the Lewis’s woodpecker stand out from its congeners.

First is their flight. Unlike the undulating tack adopted by most woodpeckers, the Lewis’s practices a slower, more direct flight, often punctuated by short glides. Their size, dark coloration and flight pattern are reminiscent of a crow—as is their willingness to fly across open country, instead of from tree to tree as with most other woodpeckers.

Second, in spring and summer the Lewis’s woodpecker forages like a flycatcher, sallying forth from branches, wires and posts to capture insects in flight. Their aerial agility rivals that of flycatchers as well, complete with sharp banks, sudden turns and thrilling bursts of speed. Lewis’s woodpeckers also glean insects from tree bark, but rarely do they engage in the stereotypical woodpecker habit of excavating dead wood for boring invertebrates. Their diet switches to fruit and seeds in winter, particularly acorns, which they stash in the corrugated bark of trees such as cottonwoods.

This woodpecker’s habit of flying about conspicuously did not escape the notice of Meriwether Lewis, who first encountered the bird in Idaho during the summer of 1805 while on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. “I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today; it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys [sic] a good deal like the jay bird,” he wrote in his journal. Years later, working with skins brought back by the expedition, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson formally described the species and named it after Lewis.

At Malheur Refuge, Lewis’s woodpeckers are seen during spring and fall migration, moving along a southwest-northeast corridor between breeding and wintering areas in forests beyond Harney County. Oftentimes these woodpeckers are more numerous at the Refuge in fall than in spring, and the height of their fall migration occurs in September, rarely extending into early October.

Fall Birding At Malheur Refuge

Written by FOMR Member Alan Contreras/Photo by Dan Streiffert

Any article titled “Malheur in Fall” should really be called “Malheur and Steens Mountain in Fall” because access to the mountain is the biggest difference between spring migration birding and the experience of autumn. In spring, we gaze longingly at the 9,000-foot snowy ridge of the massif; in fall we get to go there. But before we make the 25-mile uphill rumble on the gravel road to the summit, there are major differences to be seen in the Blitzen Valley birding sites as well.

The first thing that a “spring” birder will notice is what is not there: water.  In the spring birding period of late March through early June, water is, in an average year, everywhere. It is in the fields. It fills the rivers and ponds. In some years it fills the Narrows. In early spring it covers the agricultural lands south of Burns. Fall is different. Almost all of the water is in a few ponds and streams on the Refuge, plus the largely inaccessible lake. What that means is that unlike the spring, most of the birds are on the Refuge. This can result in some spectacular concentrations of waterfowl and shorebirds at sites such as Benson Pond, Buena Vista Pond and whichever other ponds have been kept full under Refuge management plans.

What’s different in the birdlife? The first thing you will notice if you come in September-October is that there are thousands of chip notes and essentially no songs. In early September the last movements of flycatchers and some of the larger finches such as buntings and Black-headed Grosbeaks are happening. By the end of the month huge flocks of sparrows, primarily White-crowns, are moving through.

Late September is a good time to look for rarities: Broad-winged Hawk, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow and many other vagrants have been seen then. Early October offers a chance at Black-throated Blue Warbler and more thrushes and sparrows. There are also significant differences in the “common” birds. Fall offers more Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Townsend’s Solitaires, thrushes and shorebirds than does spring.

Before we forget, let’s get up on that mountain during the nice fall weather. Although it is open until heavy snowfall, the best time for birds and for the aspen color show is the end of September and early October. The bird everyone looks for on the summit rocks is Black Rosy-Finch. There are usually a hundred or more around, but “around” is a big place on top of Steens. I find them about one try in three. The top of the hill is also a great place for migrating hawks (especially with an east wind), pipits and even hummingbirds.

Oh, one more thing. Something else is not there in fall: mosquitos! After mid-September they are much less a factor than in spring. Enjoy!


Alan Contreras is author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding the American West (2009) and was co-editor of Birds of Oregon (2003), both from Oregon State University Press.  He lives in Eugene.

Banding Ducks By Night

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

On the evening of August 15, under a waxing crescent moon, staff and volunteers from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) convened at Malheur Refuge’s Boca Lake to band ducks. In the gathering darkness, a temporary banding station, illuminated with propane-powered lamps on wooden tables, was erected near the lake’s boat ramp. On the tables stood rods of metal waterfowl bands arranged vertically, like gleaming towers of miniature onion rings; a dozen or so banding pliers were arrayed nearby. Empty plastic orange crates to hold ducks were stacked several feet high, ready to be filled.

The assembled crew of 15 individuals—including staff from Friends of Malheur Refuge, Audubon Society of Portland, and the Burns Paiute Tribe—was waiting until the moon set behind rimrock to the west before starting the night’s work. As they passed the time swapping stories and drinking coffee, the night grew darker, revealing the Milky Way shining above through high clouds and wildfire haze. A few late-arriving Perseid meteors streaked across the unbounded Harney Basin sky. By around 10 p.m., it was dark enough to begin.

Every summer, USFWS staff from Malheur Refuge pool resources with ODFW staff to band waterfowl at Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area (administered by ODFW) and Malheur Refuge. Both agencies manage waterfowl populations along the Pacific Flyway and frequently collaborate on conservation projects, including these so-called “nightlight” surveys. The surveys usually occur every year in July and August, depending on water levels at each site. For both months, a week is set aside in which surveys take place at both Summer Lake and Malheur Refuge, often on consecutive nights.

Banding at night, often under a moonless or nearly moonless sky, allows staff and volunteers to capture waterfowl in near-total darkness, while birds are resting on the water. Airboats are used to navigate the shallow, vegetation-choked waterways characteristic of these southeast Oregon sites. The airboat operator uses a spotlight to locate and single out ducks for the “catchers”, kneeling at either side of the boat’s prow, to pursue.

When a duck is spotted, the operator keeps the light on the bird and pilots the boat toward it, as the catcher prepares to scoop it up. The catchers use trout nets or sometimes their bare hands to grab the ducks, which are quickly placed in plastic crates. Once the crates are full of ducks, the boat heads back to the banding station, where the crates are unloaded and empty crates are brought on for another foray. This process continues until all the crates are filled with ducks or until dawn lightens the sky, whichever comes first.

At the banding station, staff and volunteers remove ducks one by one from the crates to band them. The species, sex, and relative age of the ducks is determined by the bander, checked and recorded by a biologist, and a leg band of appropriate size for the species is placed on the bird. The banded birds are placed in crates until the predawn hours of morning, when they are released. If any of the captured birds happen to already sport a band, their band numbers are recorded before release.

An average of 300-800 ducks are banded each night at Summer Lake and Malheur Refuge during these sessions. On the night of August 15, the total came to 576, as the crew captured and banded scores of mallard, gadwall and green-winged, blue-winged and cinnamon teal; as well as smaller numbers of Northern shovelers, Northern pintail and ruddy ducks. As the sky brightened to the east on the morning of August 16, the crates of banded ducks were carried over to the boat launch for release. Some ducks burst explosively on the wing from their crates; others paddled purposefully toward the marsh—all were presumably eager to return home.

Benton County Big Sit

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of Benton County Big Sit

The 3rd annual Benton County Big Sit (BCBS) will be held Saturday, September 22, 2018 at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, located south of Corvallis in Benton County, OR. Organized by young birders Kai Frueh, Ben Frueh, Isaac Denzer and Jacob Mathison, this charitable event raises money for local and national bird conservation organizations.

As in years past, the Big Sit takes place at Finley Refuge’s Cabell Marsh blind. On September 22, birders will spend 15 hours counting every species of bird they see from within a 17-foot-diameter circle around the blind. Donations to the BCBS can be made on a per-species or fixed-amount basis.

All monies raised will be evenly divided between each of the following organizations: Friends of the Willamette Valley NWR Complex, Friends of Malheur NWR, Corvallis Audubon Society, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“The BCBS is important because I think it’s an excellent way to aid bird conservation and also to share our love of birds with others,” said Isaac Denzer, who organized last year’s event with Kai Frueh. Both have returned to organize this year’s BCBS, and have recruited fellow birder Jacob Mathison in the effort. “My favorite part of [last year’s] BCBS was when we first got to Cabell Marsh blind and started counting. It’s very exciting because every bird is new,” added Kai Frueh.

Last year, the BCBS team tallied 81 species and raised $3,152 for bird conservation! For photos from that day and a summary, go here.

The goal this year is to again raise over $3,000 for bird conservation. Please help these ambitious young birders to reach their goal by donating and sharing the Benton County Big Sit with friends. If you have any questions or would like a downloadable pledge sheet, please contact the team or send an email to bentoncountybigsit@gmail.com.