Oregon’s Crossbills

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Many birders head for Oregon, especially around the town of Sisters, to tick off an array of woodpeckers. I had this opportunity when a friend had already booked a room and rented a car. The woodpecker list is impressive; White-headed, Pileated, Three-toed, Black-backed, Lewis’s, Downy, Hairy, and lots more. The woodpecker search was very successful; mostly because we joined up with a pretty hardcore weekly birding group that was out for the day and we spent the entire day in the hands of local experts. It was the kind of luck that you dream of. Even though we didn’t know we would be in the back woods all day and had no lunch with us – we may have gotten hungry but it was well worth it.

The next day we went downhill from Sisters toward the city/town of Bend and then down into the flat land; Sisters is in the high country and the woodpecker story will have to wait. Having satisified ourselves somewhat with the woodpeckers we were looking for sagebrush birds and others that avoid the tall evergreen forest. We headed east and south dropping in elevation as we went. From Sisters we headed for Brothers (really) but then dropped to the south toward the Fort Rock State Natural Area. Fort Rock is a site worth visiting on its own to hike, bird, photograph, and enjoy. It is a volcanic remnant; a tuff collar just sitting there. I am a bit surprised that I have no images from this area – maybe somewhere. It is a large rock formation shaped like huge a steep-sided dish with an opening where a portion of one side has caved in. You can imagine cattle rustlers or ranchers keeping their stock in there for safety or to keep them out of sight. You can walk into it or around it; really cool.

Since I don’t seem to have any decent images of the Fort Rock area I will stick in a photo of a Prairie Falcon skimming over the sage brush; that’s the best I can do for now.

While in the low country we headed west into the foothills and reentered the forest lands and the territory of the Deschutes National Forest (1.8 million acres, lava caves, tall trees, and birds). These woodlands, especially at the higher elevations, are full of tall and very tall trees. The tall ones might be Western White Pine, Western Larch, and Douglas Fir. The very tall tree is the Ponderosa Pine. As we headed away from Fort Rock and back into the fringes of the forest there is a spot called Cabin Lake. It isn’t much really, no lake for instance, but it has two bird blinds with food and water – and that made it just super.

There were White-headed Woodpeckers, Red Crossbills, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Pinyon Jays, Western Tanager, and Cassin’s Finches in good numbers and right outside the blinds. It was enough to get a birder’s heart thumping.

The Red Crossbill is quite a bird; not just for its adaptations (and evolution has been pretty busy in that realm) but also in that there may be ten or more populations that do not interbreed – they might turn out to be separate species from the same origin. Darwin’s finches out in the Pacific (on the Galapagos Islands) will quickly become a second thought once the DNA relationships get sorted out. The bird above is a Red Crossbill, probably an adult female.
This bird is very similar to the photo above, but offers a good look at the “crossed” bill. This arrangement is found in all populations but varies significantly in both bulk and length. The bill is specifically adapted to a population of cone-bearing tree. Each population of Red Crossbill favors a certain species of evergreen. They are not totally dependant on the specific tree (they eat black oil sunflower seed for instance) but probably the trees they favor has driven the size and shape of the bill. They “scissor’ off the scales that shingle the outside of a cone and eat the seed that was once covered by the scale.
Young Red Crossbills look like the large finch that they really are. The crossed bill develops quite early in the birds’ life and they can feed on cone seeds right after leaving the nest.
Here are two sort of yellowish gold birds (both Red Crossbills) in a water feature at Cabin Lake. The Cassin’s Finch on the upper-left is just relaxing. The crossbills vary in color within populations though most populations have a “look” that is pretty common. But identification of all crossbills is best done by listening to their calls. This part of Oregon favors the populations of Types 2 and 5. Pretty boring names for sure. The study of crossbill populations and habitat use is under way right now. A great set of projects for graduate students or birders interested in citizen-science.

So, a nice opportunity, and some good luck, allowed us to see many of the forest birds, especially the woodpeckers, and also allowed for a day down in the flat land looking at all sorts of things. The fringe of the forest had the crossbills and the sagebrush had Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows and a Prairie Falcon. A great weekend was had. Thanks Kevin.

I’ll do a page on the woodpeckers soon and another on the mammals of the areas – small mammals that is. And, I’ll look for scenery photos as well.

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