Monday, February 2, 2015

Listening -- Winter Birds

Knaipe County Park, Douglas County, Oregon

Today Dale and I are up on a hill overlooking the headquarters for the Mildred Knaipe County Park (Douglas County, Oregon).  It’s a sunny afternoon, but chilly and damp -- about 45 degrees. Recent rains have freshened all the mosses and lichens and brought out a variety of mushrooms.  The ground is soggy and soft.  It is stillness that stands out.  I heard the wings of a sparrow as it flew past, hurrying to catch up with the rest of a winter flock.  Several robins were foraging on the ground while we climbed the hill, but they seldom called.  About half a mile away, down in the creek ravine, I hear a red-shouldered hawk call out; soon after two ravens croak as they fly by.  Mostly quiet.

I am beginning to think finding acorn woodpeckers today is going to be difficult, but then we reach the grove of big old oaks.  I think the acorn woodpeckers are done harvesting acorns for the season.  Their granaries look well stocked and I don’t see any acorns left on the oaks, but their work isn’t done.  The stored acorns need to be moved from one hole to another as they dry and shrink, plus they need protection from raiders.
At the top of the hill Dale and I go separate ways.  He wants to check out the sunny side of the hill and I want to see if the woodpeckers are still using the ‘watering hole’ Dale found a few days ago.  Sturdy oak branches often reach out sideways on big, old oaks.  Dale found a horizontal branch that years ago lost an arm.  Over the years a cavity has formed, one which catches water.  Last week we watched a woodpecker fly up to the outside, take a few sips, and then get right inside the cavity to drink more water!  How handy.  They don’t have to fly way  down to the creek for a drink.  But are they using it today?  We hiked past a couple of puddles on our way up so there are new drinking options. 
All is quiet at the water hole, but further into the woods I hear a racket.  Stellar’s jays are raising a ruckus.  Why?  I slowly approach, hoping they are scolding an owl.  Many birds, but especially crows and jays, love to mob an owl if they can find one sitting on a day perch.  When mobbing they call and swoop and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

I get close enough to see six jays, all yelling and clustered in an oak.  Their attention is focused on a cavity about twenty feet above the ground.  First a Stellar’s jay and then a scrub jay actually stick their heads in the hole, but I can’t see why.  The commotion continues for at least ten minutes.  After they gradually loose interest, I wait awhile longer, hoping a little owl head will peer out of the hole.  If he is there he isn't taking any chances.

Finally I move on, looking for a dry spot to sit.  A tumbled-down oak log will do just fine.  It’s a good spot to sketch, write, listen, and watch the waterhole off in the distance. Tiny little mushrooms grow on the log near me; I can see for miles, the distant hills softened by moisture in the air -- and I see if a woodpecker pops into the ‘water hole' on the old oak limb.   

I’m getting chilly so I start wandering again.  Acorn woodpeckers live in small colonies.  The ones on this hilltop seem to like to stay in regular contact with each other ….. very vocal up there in the tree tops.  Nearby I catch sight of a Stellar’s jay banging away around the edge of an acorn stored in one of the woodpecker’s granaries.  Little chips of wood fly.   The acorn is stored on the underside of the base of a large branch.  He frequently pops up for a quick look around.  Good thing.  Here come two woodpeckers to chase him off.  This time they succeeded in protecting their granary, but the jay made significant progress.  I bet he’ll soon be back to finish the job. 

A new call alerts me to the arrival of five western bluebirds.  They land high in a nearby oak.  The sun is getting close to the horizon and brings out the redness of the male’s breast. 

Another call makes me chuckle.  It appears a California quail is calling from high in the next oak, but I know it isn’t.  I’m sure they are in the area, but not in the treetops. This quail call comes from a starling.  He soon shifts to mimicking a red-tailed hawk, and then back to his normal starling jibberish. 

Listening has been such a treat today.  If I’d kept my eyes shut I would have guessed there were far fewer robins in the area, and I would have overestimated how many acorn woodpeckers.  My bird list would be nearly as long with just with my ears as it has been with my eyes.  I would have missed a couple species of sparrows and wouldn’t have recognized the simple call of a varied thrush.  But, eyes closed, I would have know the acorn woodpeckers were busy, the Stellar’s jays were getting into mischief, the are two hawks and some ravens in the area, bluebirds passed through, there is a spotted towhee rummaging in the bushes near me, at least one flicker.  What started out as a quiet afternoon has filled with the busy lives of wintering birds.   I even caught sight of one the the acron woodpeckers returning to their watering hole in the oak limb.


  1. Fun post. I didn't know the starlings mimic other birds. I do notice a lot of bird sounds with all,the starlings and black birds we feed. Great paintings too.

  2. Thank you for another wonderful blog, I love to sit at your side and hear the birds with you.

  3. You brought this place to life for me with your wanderings. Love your paintings.

  4. Pure gold, you have lifted my spirits.

  5. Illustrations and observations are a treat as always. Not sure I could sit still long enough in that chill, but nice to take time to enjoy from your point of view.

  6. Elva, thank you for the walk in the park....I stayed warm and was blessed with information I didn't know as well as your beautiful paintings. Thank you, and I can't wait for your next outing!

  7. Yes! You have brought everything to life, I can just see you chuckling at the starling mimics. I, too, am sitting comfortably and enjoying your day. Love the jay painting, the colors are so bright.