Spring Bird Walk at Indian Ford Meadow Preserve

May 22, 2013
Indian Ford Meadow's attraction comes from its variety of habitats: pine and juniper, sagebrush, grasses and wildflowers, and a meadow with willows, aspen, a stream, and spectacular views of the mountains.

By Katie Eberhart

Indian Ford Meadow's attraction comes from its variety of habitats: pine and juniper, sagebrush, grasses and wildflowers, and a meadow with willows, aspen, a stream, and spectacular views of the mountains. Recently I wandered the meadow on a Land Trust Bird Walk. Our group of eight hikers was led by Carol Wall and hailed from Bend and Sisters, California and Ohio (via Sunriver), and the Willamette Valley. Everyone had binoculars. Some people brought bird books, others had birding apps on their phones.

As we began, a robin hopped between sagebrush clumps then flew low, landing in the meadow. A tree swallow settled momentarily on a high branch then flew upward in a meandering route, hunting flying insects.

Birding with a group has a unique dynamic. Someone spots a bird and everyone looks. Some birds we all saw quickly but others were more hidden and someone would point and describe  which sector of which tree, or use the clock face as a finding aide– “in the tall juniper at two o’clock.”

A house wren perched on a sagebrush and Carol explained the importance of nest boxes in areas without many snags. Viewed from the front, the wren is a small plain bird and we hoped it would turn and flip its tail up and down, but no such luck. The wren flew off.

For several minutes we focused our binoculars on a large hole in a jagged snag. Carol had mentioned that pygmy nuthatches live communally in tree cavities, the nestlings cared for by a wider family group. We kept watching and when the bird finally darted out it was large and, in flight, showed reddish wings and white rump—a northern flicker.

A few minutes later, Carol picked up a small brown object with flecks of white coating. “Flicker scat,” she said. “If you pick it apart, you’ll find the exoskeletons of ants.”

A California quail, with telltale topknot, perched on a sagebrush. Sentinel, I think, for a flock indiscernible on the ground between clumps of sagebrush. Meanwhile, everyone else was looking up at a medium-sized bird perched in a pine. Through binoculars I saw gray feathers, a crested head, and yellowish breast. The bird flew and Carol showed us a photo of an ash-throated flycatcher. She said it was unusual at Indian Ford Meadow, but possible.

We walked on slowly, in no hurry, discussing possibilities, pouring over bird books, but also watching for any quick movement. A pair of Western Bluebirds flitted between pine branches, the male deep blue with a rusty-hued breast, the female a pastel with barely any blue. Perhaps the pair was building a nest and, in any event, they weren’t spooked by us.

After about an hour, the gravel path ended at a pleasant stone terrace with interpretive signs and benches, overlooking the meadow. Carol explained some of the history, including that Indian Ford Meadow had been platted for development and that the Deschutes Land Trust was formed because the developer said he would donate the sixty-three acre site to the Land Trust. 

In the meadow, we halted about twenty yards from the willows, tall shrubs with the leaves still the bright green of early spring. A flock of Wilson’s Warblers flitted among branches, feeding on insects and Carol said this was new, that she had seen only a couple warblers on her previous visit to the meadow.

Wilson's warbler. Photo: Kris Kristovich.
Wilson's warbler. Photo: Kris Kristovich.
Wilson's warbler. Photo: Kris Kristovich.

Wilson’s Warblers are one of my favorite birds—flagrantly yellow with a tiny black cap, and a harbinger of summer. The first time I saw Wilson’s Warblers was hiking along an old mining road in the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska, the sandy surface still soft from thawing and snowmelt. The arrival of warblers marks the moment when you’re certain summer is near. In early March, Chuck and I visited local birding sites in Port Aransas, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. We were excited to see herons and egrets, white ibises and roseate spoonbills, but the birders who had spent the winter along the Gulf were waiting for the warblers to show up—like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.

On a high branch, past the willows and across the creek, a song sparrow tipped its head back, opened its beak, singing a melody that gives credence to the name “song” sparrow.

As if we were the well-rehearsed flock, we spun to look back at the forest edge where a plump dark-colored bird perched on a tree-top. “Brown-headed cowbird,” someone said. Backlit, it was hard to see the gradation of color between brown and black but Carol listed the cow bird’s characteristics: dark brown head, dark eye, dark beak, and a chunky body. Not to be confused, she said, with the Brewer’s blackbird which has a yellow eye and walks on the ground a lot. The brown-headed cowbird took off and Carol redirected our attention to a dead willow favored by a calliope hummingbird.

That is the advantage of having a guide—learning where to look. On our travels in March, we had gone on a bird tour of Padre Island National Seashore. At one point, the ranger parked the van at the side of the road and pointed out a tree some distance off where a pair of white-tailed hawks were nesting. Chuck and I agreed, we would not have seen the white-tailed hawks on our own.

A calliope hummingbird zipped to the dead willow, alighting. Through binoculars, the hummingbird’s green feathers glimmered but even magnified, it seemed impossibly small. Imagine, a bird the weight of a penny flying several thousand miles, between Central America and Oregon, and doing that twice a year.

Half-hidden by a leafy branch, a western scrub jay watched us while the warblers continued flitting and feeding in the willows. We wondered whether the same warblers were keeping pace with us as we walked across the meadow or were there warblers in every willow?

Indian Ford Meadow Preserve provides refuge for wildlife and people. A short walk along a gravel path takes you to the stone terrace and benches with a view of the meadow, a perfect place for anyone seeking solitude among birds.