Seattle to Malheur to Astoria IV

The finale! In the morning Tomas confirmed his bike-tour was over and he was ready for a pick-up. I was ready to leave early before the hunters returned anyways so I said goodbye to Steens Mountain and made way back to Frenchglen.

Until next time

While there I noticed a smoky haze had settled and as I drove toward Fields, it gradually worsened. Winds shifted bringing a thick layer of smoke from the fires burning most of Oregon (and nearby Idaho). We’d hoped to avoid the smoke being so far southeast, but it finally caught up to us.

Reunited at the Fields Station Cafe, Tomas and I loaded up on snacks and pondered our next move. We decided to head north where his bike ride would have taken him, toward the Alvord Desert, a 12 by 7-mile dry lake separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range, the Cascades, and Steens Mountain creating a rain shadow. It averages 7″ of rain per year.

It was a part of Oregon I’ve always wanted to see and I was interested to find out what kind of birds we might find here. Unfortunately due to the wildfire smoke visibility was very poor.

But we drove out onto it anyways. Totally legal. In fact deaf American stuntwoman Kitty O’neal set an unofficial women’s world land speed record here in 1976 at 512 mph.

We didn’t set any records, but it was still fun.

After doing donuts we left the desert and continued on. Where are the birds you ask? I asked the same thing. The best bird I saw in this area was a Prairie Falcon on a post.

Then we stopped at Mann Lake which is supposed to be good for shorebirds and terns, but we were met with limitations. Geese? Maybe gnats. Too far, too hazy.

There are several hot springs along this route, but we were already hot enough. At one rest spot I found a Brewer’s Sparrow and a Lark Sparrow taking refuge in the shade. Good comparison of their size difference.

The birds were hot, panting, and disappearing into the smoky heat waves.

Sizzling sparrow

You said it.

We meandered farther passing farm fields until I spotted a Golden Eagle on a power pole. We pulled over and inched closer and closer as it tolerated our presence. Barely.

I was excited for Tomas to see one since he’d drawn a Golden Eagle the first day of the trip but had yet to see any. Especially this close. We left on an eagle high and continued along until just before Burns we pulled over again, this time for a noisy pair of Sandhill Cranes. So good.

Back in Burns it was still smoky. It was also getting late. Considering our options, we decided on Idlewild campground because it was only 20 min north, higher elevation, and forested. Maybe less smoky? We stayed one night and it was slightly better air-quality wise, but not great. I birded the best I could, finding Williamson’s Sapsucker, Orange-crowned Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Red Crossbills.

In the morning we checked the Air Quality Index. It was terrible.

We still had five more days, but at this point we thought about throwing in the towel and heading home. Fleeing from smoke was not the vacation we’d planned on. Then we learned that the Columbia Gorge was on fire (because of careless teenagers) and ash was actually falling from the sky in Portland (UGH). Home was on fire.

We joked that we could probably drive to the coast. Then it stopped being funny because that’s exactly what we did. Eight hours later, we’d arrived in Astoria and traded smoke for coastal fog.

I’ll be brief. It was cooler at least though visibility was still terrible. The highlight of this mini escape was the day I drove two hours farther north to Grayland Beach State Park.

Here I saw foggy Sanderling, foggy Brown Pelican, foggy Caspian Tern, foggy elk.

And the only life bird of the entire trip, Snowy Plover!!!

Even better. There were two!!

Both wearing fancy jewelry. So cute.

It was great. Relaxing and refreshing, just like vacations are supposed to be.

So not the trip we thought it would be but we still saw some cool stuff. Southeast Oregon is all so gorgeous and ridiculously quiet. We want to go back. I’m thinking springtime when it’s cooler and more bird species are migrating. Totally worth it because Malheur is awesome and you never know what you’ll see.

Until next time.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Seattle to Malheur to Astoria III

I’d never been to Steens Mountain before, but I’d only heard good things. It is a 30-mile long fault block mountain that peaks at 9,773 ft and consists of 428,156 acres of public land.

This land is our land

There is one 59-mile loop road that is gravel, often washboard, and takes about two hours to drive.

Or several more hours if you’re me. I filled up on gas before heading out because stations are few and far between.

See gas attendant in upper lefthand corner.

I stopped a lot. Several times. One of the best things about this area is how remote it is and how easy it is to turn around for scattering birds. And the birds certainly scattered. I found mostly Vesper Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, and Chipping Sparrows.

I spotted a couple of Green-tailed Towhees.

I finally got a photo of a Mountain Chickadee.

And at one stop I found a large flock of scruffy-looking bluebirds, both Mountain and Western.

Here I also saw a Red-naped Sapsucker.

And Hairy Wodpeckers.

It was good times. The best bird I found was a Black-throated Gray Warbler, but no photos, unfortunately.

At the East Rim Overlook I found stunning views of the valley below historically filled by glaciers. Hard to imagine.

I’d hoped to see Black Rosy-Finch here (or anywhere on Steens Mtn), but I wasn’t so lucky. I saw American Kestrels, Cooper’s Hawk, and a few Red-tailed Hawks dotting the landscape.

Ready, set…

Go. I drove all over that mountain back and forth, but saw more scenery than birds.

It might be because it was a holiday weekend, and though remote, the place was probably as packed as the Steens get. It took a while, but late in the day I finally found a suitable camping spot along a BLM road and settled in for the night.

Cozy. Until a truck with three men in it pulled up.

Oh great, I thought, here we go. After what felt like a long standoff, one finally got out and the first words out of his mouth were “Are you in need of assistance?” It took everything in my power not to say something rude back. (If I needed help, wouldn’t I be at the road looking for help?!) No, I’m not, I said instead. Then he asked, “are you planning on camping here?” I said, I was.

Oh great, now they know where I’m camping. He proceeded to mansplain to me that there was a campground with amenities not far down the road. I said thanks, but no thanks, this is BLM land and I am fine. He told me they wanted to scout the area for deer to bowhunt and that they’d just come back in the morning. They seemed nice enough, aside from their entitled, ignorant, and sexist attitude, but I was still bothered by the whole thing.

I felt like I had to defend my position even though I had every right to be there.

I considered leaving, but grumpily I set up camp anyways.

Then Tomas texted letting me know he’d finally made it to Fields, but he’d likely not continue the next day. Tired and achy after a 60-mile battle with the sun, dust, and headwinds, he said he felt defeated. He’d met his match with the heat that had scalded his feet and soured his spam and tuna packets.

Feeling a little defeated myself, I suggested we pack up and fly to Maui instead. Half joking, but also temping. He then asked, “what’s that bird that says “poorwill, poorwill“? Jealous, I told him it’s the Common Poorwill. Minutes later I heard them outside my own tent. That made my night. Leave it to the birds to make things better.

A great soundtrack to fall asleep to.

Crickets and poorwills,

Audrey

Seattle to Malheur to Astoria II

I stayed two nights in the historic Frenchglen Hotel. Established in 1916, the hotel has interesting history and rustic charm. The rooms are small and the bathrooms shared, but I was most excited for the family dining experience. I’m not usually into family dining, but in this setting I found it delightful and charming.

Dinner is promptly served at 6:30pm and consisted of tasty local fare followed by apple cobbler for dessert. While grazing, Tomas and I chatted with another Portland couple visiting in a similar fashion to us, but the best part was listening to stories from the retired couple at the opposite end of the table about their encounters earlier in the day with wild horses and burrowing owls. I listened carefully.

And the next morning when Tomas set off for his bike tour over Steens Mountain, I set off in search of owls.

Love that guy

The plan was Tomas would bike tour for a week while I birded the surrounding area so I could also provide a pick-up if needed. Best of both worlds. We set off and though I tried hard, searching the shrubs along gravel roads, checking multiple sites, I failed to find any owls.

But I did find Golden Eagles.

It was neat to see the different variations, the one on the left with white patches under the wings and tail is a juvenile. I pulled over at another stop and saw four (!) perched on a power pole in the far distance. See terrible photo evidence (note the American Kestrel perched on the juniper to the right):

One big happy family

While driving around I spooked several birds along the roadsides, occasionally finding a cooperative one or two perched on barbed wire.

Sage Thrashers

Western Meadowlark

Brewer’s Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

And waiting to strike, Loggerhead Shrike.

It was exciting to get roadside views of pronghorn.

Butt, butt, pronghorn

Classic eastern Oregon.

And not far away, hopeful coyote.

After too many hours of driving, I returned to Frenchglen and discovered the P Ranch historic area of Malheur. Named after Peter French, a nineteenth century rancher, the P ranch is now a part of Malheur National Wildlife. Old structures, barns, fields, and paths along the Donner und Blitzen River, it was really pretty and I spent some time poking around and finding a few birds including:

Yellow-breasted Chat

Song Sparrow

Yellow Warbler

White-crowned Sparrow

Being in Malheur, I really wanted to find something exotic. Because Maheur, right? I got pretty excited when I saw this weirdo bird.

It took me a while to realize it was just an American Goldfinch in transition to non-breeding plumage. Then another point I got excited when I saw something I thought looked grouse-like in a field.

Not until I got home and studied the photo when I realized it must be an American Kestrel in a chicken suit. Strike two. Birding is hard.

Lets look at deer instead.

Better. At least I recognized one bird.

Bank Swallow! Hanging on the wire next to with a bunch of Barn Swallows and the moon.

As it got dark, Common Nighthawks flew by peenting along the way as I made my way back to the hotel room for the last night. In the morning, I would head to Steens Mountain to see what I could find.

Good nights and chirps,

Audrey