Clellie Lynch: Birding, visiting, in Portland, Oregon

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Keew, Keew — the familiar call brings Danny and I to the back door of the little cottage (garage conversion) in Southeast Portland where we are staying while visiting my relatives. After our son, Dylan, moved to the West Coast, a trickle of nieces followed. Now too my brother, Chris, and sister, Kilda, have taken up residence, the former in Portland, Oregon, the latter in Soquel, California. Both are near their children and grandchildren. We are on the Booming Genealogy and Birding Tour, alternating constant conversation with searching out West Coast birds to add to our list.

I open the back door of the cottage, step onto the small patio and search for the noisy northern flicker, so similar to ours that the two species, golden-shafted and red-shafted which interbreed where the two populations meet, were lumped into one species in 1983. The bird flies off flashing bright scarlet underwings.

And so the vacation begins.

Multi-speed walkers

Early the next morning Danny and I head to a park not too far from where we are staying: Mt Tabor Park. We park the car in a lot about halfway up and follow the path to the summit, a not-too-strenuous walk up, around and under towering Douglas firs, walking a bit slower than the dog walkers with proud purebreds or muzzled mutts, the fleet fitness freaks and the less than ambitious amblers, all enjoying themselves as the day heats up.

On return I find out that my niece Lizzie, late with her first child, walked up and then back down Mt Tabor when she was two weeks late to induce labor. The next day Miss Iris made her squawling appearance.

A chestnut-backed chickadee calls and flies low enough for us to see. As does the red-breasted nuthatch. Colorful juncoes, not the dashing and dapper ones of the East Coast, but the hippyish multicolored ones of the West, work the verges.

A red-tailed hawk calls. At the reservoir, a few mallards paddle about. On a nearby path, a mixed flock of sparrows hop from dirt to wildflower to bush and back again. White-throated sparrows mingle with golden-crowned and white-crowned. A song sparrow spits out his song — how dark this bird is compared to his compadres on the East Coast. The fox sparrows bear study as they too are dark and different from ours.

Repeat the next day. Early morning and back to Mt.Tabor where, while Danny is watching a Townsend warbler, I see a varied thrush, one of my favorite West Coast birds, looking very much like our robin dressed up for Halloween: all black and bright orange red stripes. This bird must be a favorite of many as it graces the cover of not only the "Birding Oregon" book, but Sibley's "Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America."

The following day, we visit the Japanese gardens with my niece, Lizzie, and her two golden, curly-haired exuberant children, Iris, 6, and Killian, 4. The children are given a treasure hunt diagram to find items in the gardens. They're thrilled — and they're off, ready to run from Pagoda, to Koi, to Lantern. We guide them in and around the tourists, but they cannot help but shout at every "treasure" they find.

The gardens, mossy here, ponds there, are absolutely lovely with meandering stone paths in and around swaying grasses and hundred-year old trees. Killian recognizes the Japanese maple syrup tree. The raked zen plots inspire quiet even in the children.

The next day, we visit Powell Butte Nature Park, a grassy area surrounded by mixed forest, spread over this extinct cinder cone volcano on the outskirts of Portland. It is after noon and there are few birds around save the spectacular merlins hunting, hovering and stooping about. A few Steller's jays watch and shriek at them from nearby treetops.

On the way out of town, we venture into the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, a preserve that encompasses two large freshwater lakes ringed by narrow woodlands. As soon as we step out of the car, a huge flock of Canada geese rises from beyond the trees, honking and honking. They circle and land out of sight. We enter the path at the canoe launch, walk a short distance and emerge in a wide open area covered with pink blossoming smartweed, that spiky grass found in and around ponds, and what looks like marsh marigolds. We follow two-tire track on hard weedy ground toward where the geese landed.

A couple of elusive sparrows elude us. But we see and slowly approach a small flock of Canada geese whose heads are bobbing like sewing machine needles in the grass. Stop. Danny takes a photo slowly walk forward again observes the birds a bit closer. Repeat.

Unidentified bruiser

One of the birds looks quite different: the head is higher, the chin strap is beige, the beak is pinky-orange. I point this out to Danny just as they are spooked and fly away. In flight, not only is this bird larger than its companion Canadas, the white trailing wing feathers are prominent on a body plumaged much like the others. Weird. As they flock moves about, Danny does get a few photos, but the field guide has nothing that would identify this bruiser, a Canada goose wannabe. Another birding mystery to be solved!

A red-shouldered hawk observes us from high on his perch, then takes off. This path peters out into almost a single track. It suddenly occurs to me we are not on the trail illustrated on the board by the parking lot. So I take out my phone and go to Google maps. Sure enough, our pulsating, representative blue dot is in the middle of the pictured lake. We are walking on the dried up lake bed! This past summer of intensive heat with no rain for 100 days (!) has taken its toll.

As we leave the city, I realize I missed a cue. To introduce Iris and Killian to the fine art of birding, I should create a "treasure hunt" of common birds for them to track down whenever they are out and about!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.




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