Bird is the Word


The Willamette Valley is chock full of outdoor activities. As Oregon heads into spring, it is time to set out and see the great outdoors. In the Willamette Valley, bird is the word. 

Lane County Audubon Society: Birding in Fern Ridge

The LCAS meets monthly to go on bird walks around the Willamette Valley. Its members are both experienced and insightful about birding. Click here for a quick look at a bird walk around Fern Ridge.

Birding in Eugene

Wading in the Delta Ponds cottonwoods is a great blue heron. Stalking its prey at subsurface, it stands patently, quietly. It carefully lifts its long leg out of the water, and ever so slowly takes a step. Then, like a flash of lightning, it plucks up a tiny minnow. This is what you learn to appreciate when you become a bird watcher.

Eugene is home to 11 diverse birding sites known to birders in the area. Delta Ponds is one of these sites and was just recently renovated. In years past, Delta Ponds was a sand and gravel extraction site. Now it is home to 100 different species of birds. There are also beavers, otters and turtles who inhibit there. Many birders in Eugene recognize Delta Ponds as an intriguing place to view winter water fowl like the great blue heron.

Bird watching is said to be an acquired skill that is bettered through a lot of practice. Because of the Willamette Valley’s large diversity in bird species, it makes it a popular destination to go birdwatching. The Willamette Valley houses close to 300 different bird species, and most can easily be spotted with a good pair of binoculars.

“Often you only get a short glimpse,” says Peg Boulay, who is an Environmental Studies professor at the University of Oregon. She has practiced birding for years, and knows from experience that you have to watch the bird as long as you can, and don’t put the binoculars down.

Boulay was an avid birder on an off for about 15 years and was a professional wildlife biologist before coming to the University. She worked for Oregon Department for Fish and Wildlife and was involved in state wide planning that looks at bird species and their habitats.

An important part of birding is knowing their habitats. Birds respond to their habitat structure and when it is disturbed by human development and invasive plant species, their numbers go down. Boulay suggests that birders minimize their disturbances by keeping quiet and not touching the birds’ habitat.

Nicole Nielsen-Pincus, a field representative at the McKenzie River Trust says that birding is a great way to use your brain in ways that you never recognized you can. She is a birder and has a formal education in ornithology.

Nielsen-Pincus suggests that before you go out on bird watches, you do a little bit of research. If you know the environment and habitat of birds in your area, you will know where to look. “After a while, it is just like tying your shoe. It is a skill you build over time.” she says.

For birders like Boulay and Nielsen-Pincus, birding can be a fun and interactive way to get out of the house and enjoy nature. They say that it is best to go out with a group of people if it is the first time you are birding because you quickly learn how to be a good bird watcher.

Q&A With Record Birder Trent Bray


Birding in Union County

Trent Bray birding in Union County

Trent Bray is a one of a kind birder who has set numerous records through out Oregon for siting birds. He lives in La Grande and owns the Bobolink bird shop.

Q: What started your interest in birding?

A: My late grandfather, John Bray from Hermiston, Oregon, was apparently really into birds.  He had a wood shop where he would make bird feeders and houses, and the property where he lived had many examples of his work around. I was too young to run any power equipment, but he would occasionally have me help nail some of the finished parts together, hand saw a long edge off a board, or install finished feeders or houses in the yard. He always kept the bird houses clean and the feeders full, and he had a lot of birds around. I remember really enjoying watching them even though I didn’t know what they were all called, but that would come later. He would also make “figure- four” birdhouse traps to catch non-native cavity nesters. We would get up early in the morning, onion sacks in hand, and make the long climb up in the Locusts, via the orchard ladders, to check the bird houses with the trap doors sprung. “Good birds”, were released unharmed; European Starlings and House Sparrows were met with a secret ritual, unbeknownst to me at the time. As I grew older and wiser, I later found headless ‘trash’ birds in the waste basket. Odd at first glance, yes, but my father and I just figured it was his way of helping our native bird species against the onslaught of exotic ones. Our family also had a great hunting tradition, and he and my father would frequently bring home waterfowl, pheasants, partridges and quail to clean and eat. I quickly find myself refraining from calling them ‘slob hunters’ for not knowing what species of ducks they were harvesting, because in the early 70’s you could shoot 7 or 8 ducks and the regulations didn’t require you to know what you were shooting, as long as it was a duck.  So, they would bring the harvested ducks home and I found great pride in being able to take my Grandfather’s Peterson Bird Guide and these very easily investigated but unknown waterfowls, and be able to identify them to species and report back to the hunters. I believe it was this that sparked and ignited my birding flame.

Q: Tell us more about your birding record. How is it that you spotted  250 different species in just one year (2011), and what makes this a difficult task?

A:  I guess I have always been a fan of lists, as far as I can remember and I also liked to collect things – Lego sets, what Star Wars cards I still needed, my ‘best’ American postage stamps, ‘rare’ coins, neat agates, etc. This has continued into my adulthood – I script lists for grocery shopping, business trips to Portland and of course for my bird watching hobby, passion, and profession. I lived in Corvallis from 1989 to 2001, and I went to Oregon State and the University of Oregon off and on during this period. My appreciation for birds grew exponentially. 1998 I went to Costa Rica to experience what guiding a bird watching tour would be like. I saw 550 species of birds in 38 days. I made a new list. I got back to Corvallis, started a sole proprietorship, called Avitours, leading bird watching trips and received a job offer to be a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) instructing the Ornithology Laboratory for the Science Department at Oregon State University.  I started leading trips locally and I taught the Bird Lab for three terms. I was teaching and leading and seeing lots of birds. In 2000, I set the Benton County record for the most bird species in a year (202). Living in Corvallis for 12 years was great, but it was time for a change. Corvallis had grown from 20,000 residents to 50,000. There was constantly traffic and the hustle and bustle of many people and I was ready for a slower, less crowded, and quainter scene. In 2001, I moved to La Grande, Oregon, nestled in the Blue Mountains. It was a new location with new birds. Arriving in June, by the end of 2001, I had broke the record for the most species of birds seen in a year in Union County (205); a record which had been held for 16 years, by the late Joe Evanich, best known for his popular book, “The Birder’s Guide to Oregon”. I broke the mark a second time in 2002 with 210 species, again in 2003 with 224 species, and once again with 228 species in 2007.  I casually birded for the next couple years, still leading birding trips and volunteering time to schools and clubs teaching ‘birding’. In 2010, I attempted another big year for Union County, and it was the first time that I set out to break the record and failed, tallying a strong but short 225 species. I guess this was the primary thrust to push me to really do it and do it good. Beginning 2011, I started early, ticked all of the birds I missed the previous year’s winter and then some. I found two birds which had never been documented in Union County: Rusty Blackbird on Jan 8th and a Parasitic Jaeger on Oct 11th, with photos. There were also other rare birds spotted, such as; Snowy Egret, and Green Heron, both only representing the third Union County records. Knowing all of the regions birds by sight and sound was very helpful. There was also some luck involved, with the extremely wet spring which made for good migrating and breeding habitats, but I attribute the good birding year and subsequent record smashing 250 species primarily to patience and persistence. I was relentless. It was part of my routine. I woke up early, made a cup of coffee, went and checked the City Waste Water Treatment Ponds, and went to work. If there was daylight out after work, I would eat dinner and go check the ponds again. It was like having another full time job. Three quarters into the year I felt obligated to continue. By September 29th I had tied the previous record, set by myself in 2007 (228). I was not content to settle for just beating the record. I decided instead to attempt to push to break the record by the largest margin possible. In the end, I nearly saw 90% of the birds species ever documented in Union County.

Q: Do you have a goal set for 2012 for birding?

A:  I feel semi-retired from competitive birding after last year’s effort. I still fill my feeders and I have numerous clients lined up for spring tours, but I am really on a birding sabbatical, personally. I am going to try to find a Red-eyed Vireo in Union County this year or may be an eastern vagrant of some type. Maybe I will bird some of the vagrant traps of Harney County to ‘pad’ my Oregon State list, get a good photograph or video of some odd avian behavior. I will probably chase any odd birds regionally if they are rare enough and I haven’t already seen them. Maybe I’ll go bird Texas again.

Q: When did you open The Bobolink and what products and services do you offer?

A: I started my birding tour company – Avitours in 1998 in Corvallis, Oregon and in 2003 I restructured the company into Avitours, LLC in La Grande, Oregon and opened up a bird watching supply store doing business as The Bobolink. Originally, I sold only bird related items: feeders, houses, a variety of seed, suet, identification guides, books, cards, posters, art, cds, dvds, binoculars, spotting scopes, seed delivery, yard consultations and of course leading private and public bird watching trips and tours. Over time I made other harder to find items available, such as: shade grown, bird friendly coffee & chocolate, disc golf discs, bags & baskets, unique furniture, yard art, coffee mugs, hand-blown pints, beer & wine. It is essentially a strict bird watching supply store which over time morphed into a lifestyle store with bird watching as its foundation.

Q: How do you become a good bird watcher? If you were to give a beginner some advice about birding, what would you say?

A: As my Grandpa Bray used to say, “Patience and persistence, equals pay off.”  This is important to keep in mind at all times, but to start with actual bird watching, I would say buy the best bird book for your region and buy the best binoculars you can afford. Go birding as much as you enjoy, read your bird book and study the plates of the birds and the range maps when you are not birding. Take pictures and videos of birds, and study those. Listen to prerecorded songs and calls of birds from your region. Listen to birds in the field. Spend the majority of your time in the field looking and listening to birds and make notes in a three-ring binder or some equivalent. Try not to see a bird, and head straight for the bird book. The bird is only going to be around for a finite length of time, study it, make notes. You can always look at your book later; it isn’t going to suddenly fly away. Direct your visual traffic: what is the shape of the bird, and the color, is there an eye-ring, are there wingbars, etc.

Q: What makes a good bird watching location?

A: If you get an opportunity to ever look at any x-y graphs with plant species plotted versus bird species, the growth is exponential – more plants you have the more birds you have. The more plant types the better, typically. However, with that said there are occasions; say during migration that a single Willow Tree in the middle of a Sagebrush desert can contain many bird species. Water is very helpful for attracting a variety of bird species too. Sometimes a birding location seems to get better due to the birding presence and subsequent birding effort. This has been coined: The Patagonia effect, after a birding oasis in southern Arizona. Birders find an interesting bird, other birders come to relocated it, and more interesting birds are found.  Birds are everywhere you just need to go look and look often.

Maeve Sowles: The True Value of Nature


Maeve Sowles (waving) off to see cayman, jaguars, and different species of birds at Piquini River in Brazil.

Ever since Maeve Sowles was a little girl, she has had an appreciation for learning. It all began when her mother taught her how to identify birds. They used to stand together at the kitchen window and watch them as they perched and flew around the yard. That was the first bird watching experience she remembers, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

Sowles was born in Sacramento, California, and lived there until she went off to college from McClatchy High School. She moved to McMinnville, Oregon and began her science degree at Linfeild College.

Her life took her for an unexpected turn when she decided to go to the University of Hawaii to finish her bachelor of science degree. She ended up staying for 14 years.

After graduating and completing her internship, she worked as a medical technologist at two hospitals. One was the trauma center and the other was a smaller community hospital on the windward side of Oahu.

She volunteered for Audubon Hawaii and learned to appreciate the fragility of nature. She spent her years there hiking, camping, snorkeling and traveling inter-island to explore every corner of Hawaii she could find.

Just for fun, she sailed competitively on racing sailboats in the Hawaii State Games and in the international sailing race called the Kenwood Cup. She was the only female on a 12-member crew.

When she eventually moved back to Oregon, she introduced herself to the birding community in Lane County straight away. During an Audubon birding trip, she met the man who would be her future husband Dick Lamster. Lamster was the president of the Lane County Audubon Society during that time.

Now, Sowles lives in Eugene and is the president of the Audubon Society. She also works for the University of Oregon as a biohazard safety officer.

Even though Sowels has been birding for most of her life, and has gone to many parts of the world, she has no idea how many birds she has spotted, a number that most birders take very competitively. “No matter where I have gone, I try to absorb the natural world around me,” she says.

Sowles’ love for the natural world isn’t just a hobby. It is a lifestyle. As the president of the Audubon Society she is at the head of spreading their message further and to try and bring in more volunteers for the program. “You can enrich your life and the community by taking action,” Sowles says.

About stephanieessin

Currently in pursuit of my Master's of Multimedia Journalism at the University of Oregon. 23, Media enthusiast.
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