Diane Burgess visits various Central Oregon waterways, parks and clearings each winter to glimpse her favorite and often hard-to-spot birds. Bird-watching is a hobby for Burgess that dovetails with the flexibility of retirement. Spying migrating and sometimes out-of-range birds gives the 61-year-old a sense of accomplishment that she can share with her avian-loving friends.
“It’s exciting. It’s like an ‘Oh, I got it!’ kind of feeling,” said Burgess, who lives in Bend and has birded since 2013. “Birding is like a scavenger hunt that always keeps me coming back for the next bird.”
Even though about half of Central Oregon birds leave for warmer climes during winter, the season is still an ideal time to bird-watch. Some birds’ plumage is acquiring bold colorations in time for the spring mating season, and barer trees afford clearer views.
Quieter nights are also good for hearing owls, Burgess said.
Some of Burgess’ favorite hard-to-spot winter birds include the snow goose and the white-fronted goose, which she has seen at Hatfield Lakes east of Bend and Houston Lake, east of Redmond. Prineville’s Crooked River Wetlands project is another popular spot for winter birding, and that’s where Burgess has spotted Eurasian wigeons, a variety of duck.
Sometimes rare birds come to town, such as the common redpoll Burgess’ friend noticed at a bird feeder in Bend’s River West neighborhood.
Many of these rare birds arrive in Central Oregon from arctic tundra or subarctic, humid boreal forest areas. The white-winged crossbill, pine grosbeak, gyrfalcon and the bohemian waxwing sometimes fly in from the north. They’re some of the most sought-after birds among Central Oregon birders, said Tom Crabtree, a veteran birder and a member of the Oregon Birding Association’s Oregon Bird Records Committee.
“(Some of these) birds that are irruptive in nature and you can’t count on seeing any of them in Central Oregon during any given winter,” said Crabtree, who contributed to the bird guide below.
Bird irruptions, or the sudden appearance of flocks, vary in Central Oregon depending on food sources further north where the birds breed, he added.
“Some years there will be many, and some years there will be none,” Crabtree said. “It’s always a cause for excitement in seeing them because you just don’t see them every year. Last year, one common redpoll was seen in town, and that was it. Other years, you can be on a hike and run into a flock of crossbills and grosbeaks and just be amazed by how many there are.”
Some of these birds visit Central Oregon once every three years, he said. In general, the area surrounding Tumalo Falls and Creek are popular sites for these birds.
Chuck Gates, an East Cascade Audubon Society founding member, offered descriptions of some of the rarer winter birds to help the average person identify the winged visitors. The descriptions of bird calls and some identifying characteristics have been sourced from “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,” by Roger Tory Peterson. Bird lengths are measured from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail.
Appearance/characteristics: 8 ¾ to 9 inches. Robin-sized, the pine grosbeak is the largest finch visiting Central Oregon, Crabtree said. It has striking, bright pink coloring with white bars on its black wings. The pine grosbeak has a stubby but powerful bill. Its tame nature lets birders get a close-up view, Crabtree said. The female is ocher — much less colorful than the male.
Food source: Primarily evergreen seeds.
Sighting spots: Toward the end of Skyliners Road near Tumalo Falls and along the Pacific Crest Trail near U.S. Highway 20, Gates said.
Voice description: Call is a musical chee-vli.
Appearance/characteristics: 6 ½ inches. With a similar coloration, the white-winged crossbill looks like a smaller version of the pine grosbeak. The white-winged crossbill features a brighter plumage — almost cardinal red — than other crossbills found in Central Oregon. The white-winged crossbill has a bright white bar on its black wings. The female is yellowish and streaked. The top bill crosses over the bottom, either to the right or left. “They have a definite hook to the bill,” Crabtree said.
Food source: Seeds from cones, particularly of spruce trees. The crossbill allows the bird to pry open cones.
Sighting spots: Found in forests with Engelmann spruce, larch and sometimes white fir. The white-winged crossbill is highly nomadic and arrives in sizable flocks, according to “Peterson Field Guide to Birds.” It rarely visits feeders.
Voice description: Call is a liquid peet-peet and a dry chi-dit.
Appearance/characteristics: 20-25 inches. The gyrfalcon is the largest falcon, measuring slightly bigger than a red-tailed hawk. It features brown, gray and white color morphs, according to “Peterson Field Guide to Birds.” Because the gyrfalcon’s winter range doesn’t typically include Central Oregon, area birders are excited to see one.
“Gyrfalcons are really impressive birds,” Crabtree said.
Food source: This is a “bird feeder,” Gates said, in that it eats other birds. It also eats small mammals like lemmings.
Sighting spots: Only a dozen have been spotted in Central Oregon since 1982, according to the Oregon Bird Records Committee, Crabtree said. Most recently, a birder spotted a gyrfalcon in east Bend and another spied one near the Madras Municipal Airport in late December. “Some are still showing up, and it’s pretty exciting,” Crabtree said.
Voice description: A harsh kak-kak-kak series.
Appearance/characteristics: 5 ¼ inches. The common redpoll is a small, somewhat nondescript finch with a bright red forehead and pink or red on the upper breast, according to “Peterson Field Guide to Birds.” The common redpoll is a gregarious bird, usually seen in flocks of 20 or 30 or so, Gates said. Those flocks move with a chittering sound through boreal forests, feeding on seeds.
Food source: Small seeds, particularly from the ornamental birch trees people plant in Central Oregon yards.
Sighting spots: It will hang out at feeders and can be seen in flocks among gold finches and pine siskins. The common redpoll is also known to feed in the snow-covered catkins along Tumalo Creek.
Voice description: In flight, a rattling chet-chet-chet.
Appearance/characteristics: 8 ¼ inches. The Bohemian waxwing has a similar appearance to a cedar waxwing, but it is larger and grayer, with no yellow on the belly, according to “Peterson Field Guide of Birds.” Its wings feature bold white and yellow markings. The feathers under its tail, where they enter the body on the belly side, are chocolate brown or chestnut, Gates said.
Food Source: Mountain ash berries and crab apples.
Sighting spots: The Bohemian waxwing is more typical in Eastern Oregon, although it will visit Central Oregon towns with ornamental, fruit-bearing trees.
Voice description: Its call is rougher than that of the cedar waxwing, which has a high, thin lisp or zeee; slightly trilled.
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