The bluebirds were by far my favorite. Perhaps that's because my birding skills are pretty rudimentary, and beginners are more likely to relate to birds by their color.
To sharpen my skills, I joined a group of novice birders at the Hindman Springs day-use area at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, a birding hot spot northeast of Sisters. We followed an experienced guide on a “birding basics” field trip last week.
Some of the 145-acre preserve is open to the public, and you really don't need a guide to find some winged creatures, but having an expert along certainly helps if you're interested in identifying them.
Birding is a great exercise in observation, and for me, just a good excuse to explore a scenic setting teeming with life.
Right from the parking lot at Camp Polk Meadow, a chorus of bird songs and trills filled my ears in full surround sound. Zeroing in on its music, I saw a red-winged blackbird immediately — one of the few birds I can identify by myself.
“The nice thing about red-winged blackbirds is that they sit still and they tend to sit high,” said guide Carol Wall, a retired anthropologist.
She pointed out an evening grosbeak, with its a large, conical bill, sitting in a leafless poplar; then a Townsend's solitaire on top of a juniper tree, its feathers fluffed up to create warm air pockets around his body on that frigid day.
Then, one we all know: “That, my friends, is a bald eagle flying over!” Wall said, and eight pairs of elbows pivoted eight pairs of binoculars toward the sky where she pointed.
Wall led us past the frame of a historic barn, where we looked for pygmy nuthatches in the cavities of the beams.
Mallards passed overhead. On the stroll down the road toward an old cemetery, Wall and her assistant — both volunteers for the Deschutes Land Trust — discussed bird behavior: Crows are more social than ravens and will more often be found in flocks. European starlings are undesirable, Wall said, because they commandeer other birds' nests. Warblers tend to be found in trees and shrubs, and they flit around a lot.
Then we reached a gate, where public access ends. The lower meadow at Camp Polk is only open for guided tours. The Deschutes Land Trust has restored Whychus Creek there in recent years and the meadow now needs time to heal and grow new plants, said Sarah Mowry, outreach manager for the Deschutes Land Trust, a nonprofit land conservation group. Guides know the best routes around the meadow, she said.
Wall asked everyone to spread out, not to walk single file, to avoid developing a trail. We crossed a field of wild rye grass, sagebrush and willows and wandered along the creek. In the recently rehabilitated area next to the water, white-crowned sparrows and juncos picked bugs and seeds from the dirt. It was the first white-crowned sparrow sighting of the season in the meadow, said Wall, who tracks which birds are at what point in their migrations.
And somewhere in there, we saw the first of a number of Western bluebirds, a sapphire spot that stood out from the desert-toned palette.
It was snowing lightly that day, and the sharp wind bit through several layers of my clothes. Gray clouds curtained off any views beyond the muted desert colors of the Camp Polk Meadow landscape. So, the bright bluebird sitting on a branch of a juniper tree was a treat, like eating creme brulee in front of an open fireplace while a snowstorm rages outside.
“The colorful birds are fun to spot,” said Wall. (We didn't spot any bright yellow Wilson's warblers as Wall had hoped, but they could be showing up soon.)
She suggested taking our observation skills beyond the more obvious color and stripes. Birders should look at the build, the beak and the behavior to identify birds.
Compare the size of the bird to something you know. Is it about as big as a robin? A raven? How long are its legs? Its tail?
Then, if possible, notice the beak, the tool with which the bird preens, pries open nuts, plucks bugs from leaves, drills holes, digs for bugs, etc. You learn something about bird behavior from their beaks: a broad, cone-shaped bill, for example, is a good nut cracker.
And, Wall said, notice what the bird is doing. Sparrows tend to be on the ground because they're getting their nourishment from insects and seeds that fall to the ground. Swallows are usually zipping around in the air. Bluebirds perch somewhere and drop to the ground to get food.
All of these details can be a challenge to nail down, considering that the little creatures seem to flutter off as soon as spotted. But whatever traits a birder can remember will help him or her find the bird in an identification book later, to figure out what it was.
I asked Wall a philosophical question: Why should I care what kind of bird it is?
It's part of understanding the place where you live, she answered. For example, someone who likes bluebirds and understands that bluebirds nest in cavities but don't have beaks with which to create their own would know bluebirds need something like an old snag to live in. And, if there are no old snags near the birder's home, that person might install a birdhouse — a makeshift cavity — to lure them in.
“It doesn't really make any difference that you know its name as long as you come to understand that bird,” she said. “We use names as labels that bring together a lot of information. A bird's name ... tells me where it's likely to be seen, what it eats, what it needs in terms of life support, habitat.”
Or, for someone like me, even if I don't know the name of the bird, it's still just nice to be out walking around in a pretty place looking the things that live there.