Central Oregon’s sky, desert and marshland are gradually filling with birds as they return in waves from their wintering ranges in Southern California and northern Mexico.
In a story published Feb. 11, The Bulletin, with the help of Chuck Gates, an East Cascades Audubon Society founding member, identified the first five migratory birds to arrive: Say’s phoebe, turkey vulture, tree swallow, cinnamon teal and osprey.
In this second installment, Gates details the subsequent set of birds that are returning now through the second week of April.
Arrival dates are the composite of nearly 30 years’ worth of first sightings by the East Cascades Audubon Society, which has tracked migrations since its 1989 founding.
Typical of swallows, violet-green swallows fly quickly and are consequently difficult to identify, although several East Cascades Audubon Society members have sighted a couple along the Deschutes River since they arrived in Central Oregon during the cusp between late February and early March.
Violet-green swallows feature violet on their backs and purple concentrated in the rump region. Their underparts are white. These swallows use rivers as “highways” because they’re relatively unchanging geographic landmarks and they can filch seed and insects along the way. They typically nest in canyons, cliff sides and rimrock.
These swallows sometimes partake in “egg dumping,” in which one species lays their eggs in the nests of other birds — particularity Western bluebirds — and leave the other species to raise their young. The female is duller in color than the male.
Predators: Violet-green swallows have very few predators because they’re so elusive. Occasionally, raptors, such as the peregrine falcon, prey on these birds, even though they provide barely more than a beak-full of sustenance.
Sighting spots: They have been sighted nesting in the canyon rock land along the Deschutes River near the Riverhouse on the Deschutes, and in vacated woodpecker cavities in snags.
Voice description: Rapid and high-pitched twittering notes.
This common yet important bird arrives around March 25. Aptly named, this thrasher is completely dependent on sagebrush habitats. Because survival is so difficult for birds in such areas, the sage thrasher doesn’t have much competition for the insects it eats. Its plumage — which is gray on top and white underneath with black streaks — helps it avoid predators by blending in with its surroundings. “It would be hard to survive if it were a large yellow bird sitting on top of sagebrush,” Gates said. Gender is indiscernible. Its loyalty to sagebrush makes it a useful indicator species, whose vitality — along with the sage grouse — reflects the health of its ecosystem.
Predators: Include the Northern harrier, Cooper’s hawk, American kestrel.
Sighting spots: The flat sagebrush lands east of Horse Ridge. By mid- to late-April enough sage thrashers will have arrived to sing choruses. “On a quiet morning, that bird is going nuts,” Gates said.
Voice description: Song is a “long series of warbled phrases.” Calls include a “chuck” and a high “churr.” Gates described their song as “loud, long and beautiful” and best experienced during the hours surrounding daybreak.
The first of Central Oregon’s migratory hummingbirds arrives April 10. It joins Anna’s hummingbird, some of which survived the winter by visiting nectar feeders, eating insect detritus and entering a nightly hibernation. “Rufous” refers to the male hummingbird’s status as the reddest of North America’s hummingbirds. Its coloration, which includes flecks of green, isn’t due to pigmentation but to how its feather structure absorbs and reflects color. The result produces an eye-catching iridescence. The female’s coloring is tamer. While lovely to look at, the Rufous hummingbird has “the nastiest disposition of hummingbirds” by a long shot, Gates said. “They figured out that if you harass all the other birds at the feeder, then you can have the feeder to yourself. They’re not afraid of anything,” including other hummingbirds’ sharp bills. “They’re in constant conflict,” Gates said.
The rufous hummingbird also has the distinction of being the hummingbird that travels the farthest north, even entering southern Alaska.
Predators: None in Central Oregon. In Central America’s tropical climates where rufous hummingbirds winter, such as Guatemala, they sometimes fall victim to praying mantises or particular spiders’ webs.
Sighting spots: Rufous hummingbirds hopscotch from feeder to feeder on their way to meadows with blooming flowers. Some have been sighted in Western Oregon. In our region, during May and June, the rufous hummingbirds are fixtures at nectar feeders before they move to mountainous elevation for breeding. The meadowland near Sparks Lake is a good site for watching. By July and through August, the males hang out around in-town feeders, since they don’t help raise young until they depart in the fall.
Voice description: Buzzy wing whistle and all calls identical to Allen’s hummingbird. Calls include a sibilant chip, often given in a series; chase note, “zeee-chuppity-chup.”
One of Gates’ favorite cattail marsh nesters, the yellow-headed blackbird swoop into Central Oregon around April 10. These are the largest of four blackbirds to call our region home. These seed-eaters supplement their diet — and that of their young — with insects. Their yellow head can be so vibrant it’s almost an orange-red color — particularly when caught by evening light; females are tamer in color. Its song, however, leaves something to be desired.
“It’s quite a sensory backflip, because you can look at the bird through binoculars and think, ‘How gorgeous,’ and then it tips its head back” and makes an earsplitting racket, Gates said.
“It’s the worst birdsong in North America,” he added. “It’s awful, but that’s its claim to fame.”
Predators: Include the Northern harrier and short-eared owl.
Sighting spots: They roost in reedy marshland at night and scour fields for seed by day.
Voice description: Song begins with a harsh, rasping note, ends with a long, descending buzz. Call note is a distinctive rich “croak.”
During a normal winter, half of Central Oregon’s red-winged blackbirds stick around because they can typically find enough seed to sustain them. This snowy winter, however, saw a more dramatic departure than usual. Those fair-weather red-winged blackbirds will come back between early March and the middle of April. Red-winged blackbirds’ shoulder patches, called epaulets, are orange-red and yellow. Females have a reddish-brown smudge in its place.
The males arrive before the females at the marshes where they roost and compete for territories as small as a ten-foot circle. Males will arrange themselves into a pecking order through fighting and display by the time the females arrive a few weeks later. Then the courting begins. Fifty to 60 males may comprise a colony in a marsh with the most dominant male residing in the center, where its safest from predators and mates with as many as a dozen females. The weak or tardy females breed with the weaker males. Sometimes a subordinate male will breed with another female when her dominant mate is gone. Males will squabble, but not to the death.
Predators: Include the Northern harrier and short-eared owl.
Sighting spots: Any place with good collection of cattails, particularly along the Deschutes River, around Sunriver and near Hatfield Lakes, northeast of Bend.
Voice description: Song is a liquid, gurgling “konk-la-reee,” ending in a trill. Most common call is a “chack” note. “When they’re back together and they start singing on top of cattails, that’s when you know it’s spring,” Gates said. “It’s very pleasant.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816,