Peepers, creepers and skulkers
ASHLAND — Kristi Mergenthaler strolls along the upper bank of Ashland's Clay Creek scanning the tree bark for a little, no-neck bird walking head-first down a tree trunk.
The Oredson-Todd Woods here are lousy with red-breasted nuthatches, but the tiny, pointy-billed birds are tough to see and only faintly heard.
"It kind of does a 'neep, neep, neep,' " Mergenthaler says. "Some people describe it as a little bugle. I like to think of it as the sound of a big truck backing up."
Visitors to the popular Oredson-Todd Woods trails don't need to bring along a high-octane birder like Mergenthaler to help find and identify the nuthatches and other birds that winter over here and in the adjacent Siskiyou Mountain Park off Tolman Creek Road.
Through a partnership with the city of Ashland, Southern Oregon Land Conservancy has produced a free brochure to help amateur birders ferret out the common winter winged residents of these woods, a sight-specific guide so hikers can understand what they're seeing and hearing in the forest.
It's designed to give less seasoned birders a chance to take advantage of what winter brings them in the woods.
"Winter is a great time for beginners to identify forest birds because there aren't a lot of different species, and the leafless trees provide better views," says Mergenthaler, the conservancy's botanist who put together the brochure.
"Besides, we always want to do things that get people outside," she says.
And not just this particular chunk of outside.
Because birds have no borders, the pamphlet can help identify birds in mixed-evergreen forests throughout the Rogue Valley and its hillsides.
SOLV has printed 1,500 of the free brochures, which are available at the conservancy's Ashland office at 84 Fourth St., as well as the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department office in Lithia Park, North Mountain Park and Northwest Nature Shop.
Virtual versions can be downloaded at http://www.landconserve.org/content/oredson-todd-woods.
The relationship between SOLV and these woods date back to 1983, when developers Vincent Oredson and John Todd were building in the area and donated this 10 acres around Clay Creek to the fledgling conservancy, insisting it remain a natural area not cleared of timber nor developed.
With the help of Boy Scouts and other volunteers, the conservancy carved the trail. The trail now ties into the city-owned Siskiyou Mountain Park and connects with a miles-long network of trails that lead high up Mount Ashland.
In 1999, SOLV deeded the woods to the city with the same restrictions.
The woods sport a plethora of winter wonders, such as downy, pileated and hairy woodpeckers and their pecking cousins the northern flicker and red-breasted sapsucker.
The ground-dwellers, which Mergenthaler calls "skulkers," include the dark-eyed junco, Pacific wren and varied thrush.
Joining nuthatches in the trunk-creeping category are brown creepers.
In the likely heard but not seen realm are chestnut-backed chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets.
"One of the things about birds is you get to do some deep listening," Mergenthaler says.
During a long pause with her eyes closed, Mergenthaler almost channels up a cache of golden-crowned kinglets. They're communicating with each other, perhaps to warn other kinglets of the woman standing below in the pathway with her eyes closed.
"Hear that high-pitched twitter in the canopy?" Mergenthaler asks. "They like to stick together, so they're often calling. Each one weighs less than a nickel."
Mergenthaler, who regularly visits the woods, chose the dozen species highlighted in the brochure, collected pictures of these birds from local photographers and wrote short descriptions of the birds and where they're most likely located. The city covered the printing costs.
Not all the winter residents of the Oredson-Todd Woods made the brochure.
"Sometimes when you walk through here you can see pygmy owls," Mergenthaler says. "They're really fierce little hunters that are all eyes."