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John Sullivan

About a dozen birders met at the Royal Avenue entrance to the Fern Ridge Wildlife Area for the June 15th Third Saturday Bird Walk. Read more for sightings…

(Photo: American Avocet adults and chicks at the Fern Ridge Wildlife Area, Eugene, OR)
John Sullivan
About a dozen birders met at the Royal Avenue entrance to the Fern Ridge Wildlife Area for the June 15th Third Saturday Bird Walk. We began the morning in the native wet prairie near the west end of Royal Avenue, where we were immediately treated to nice views of singing Grasshopper Sparrows. This area is one of the few breeding sites for Grasshopper Sparrows in Lane County. One adult Grasshopper Sparrow carried a beak-full of caterpillars and other bugs, apparently indicating a nearby clutch of nestlings. Western Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows sang from fence posts, while many dozens of Cliff Swallows foraged for insects over the prairie around us.
As we made our way into the Fisher Butte Unit west of the Royal Avenue parking area, several Willow Flycatchers announced their presence with loud calls of “fitzbew! fitzbew!” Yellow-breasted Chats, heard more often than seen, called from the bushes near the trail. Luck was on our side as one of these chats cooperated nicely by perching out in the open so we all got a good look. Purple Martins swooped, sang, and called overhead along with many Tree and Barn Swallows, while the grass around us was alive with many singing Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats. The nearly constant sewing-machine-like chatter of the Marsh Wrens and “witchity-witchity-witchity” song of the yellowthroats were occasionally interrupted by the pig-like grunts of Virginia Rails.
The willows lining the ponds near the observation platform were hopping with dozens of fly-catching Cedar Waxwings that were taking advantage of a recent insect hatch, while Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers flitted through the foliage. From the viewing platform, we saw a distant raft of 20 American White Pelicans fishing at the far side of the pond, their bills dipping in syncronized fashion. Many graceful Black Terns foraged over the water, their buoyant flight occasionally bringing them quite near the viewing platform. At least eight Blue-winged Teal, a high number for this area, were counted among the more common, strikingly gorgeous Cinnamon Teal. A drake Northern Pintail was the most unusual of the 10 duck species encountered that morning. Several American Bitterns were seen flying about the refuge; Northern Harriers, Osprey, and Bald Eagle were seen as well.
Because it was getting late, about half of the group called it a morning and headed back into town, while the remainder of the group continued south from the platform, further into the refuge. The extra time spent in the area was rewarded with four Black-necked Stilts, including one that occupied a nest not far from the trail. Wilson’s Phalarope were seen, as was a nesting Pied-billed Grebe. While standing to reposition itself, the grebe exposed at least one bright white egg on the mound of aquatic vegetation that served as its nest.
The highlight of the day, at least for me, came with the discovery of a pair of American Avocets followed closely by two recently hatched chicks. This is not only the first record of nesting avocets at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area, but I believe this is the first record of avocets nesting west of the Cascades in Oregon. Unfortunately, one of the chicks was lost sometime during its first few weeks. Better (and exciting) news is that the second avocet chick has survived and matured into a fully flighted, adult-plumaged bird. Avocet chicks have evolved to acquire an adult breeding plumage for their first feathers as a predator evasion tactic. After about six weeks or so, unless the birds are seen at very close range, it is nearly impossible to tell the young avocets from the adults—they no longer stand out as easy targets for predators looking for a meal. Along with one of the adults, the young avocet has been dividing its time between the two ponds in the Fisher Butte Unit that still have water during this extremely dry season. As of this writing, the avocets were most recently seen on July 30. The first pair of nesting American Avocets at Fern Ridge was a success!