Eastern Oregon – Day 2

The next morning I woke up groggy but excited for the day. The coyotes had howled all night long. They are true party animals.

Another day, another terrible view.

We packed up camp and hadn’t gotten a mile down the road before I got a text from Scott, three baby Great Gray Owls on the ground and the light is beautiful! Scott is the best. I may have found only one owl on my own, but with his help we were going on ten.

One baby was nestled in the grass soaking up the sun.

Another was perched on a branch, muppeting its head around in circles curiously observing the world around.

And the third was feeling brave.

No maybe this side.

Next thing you know, this happened.

Climbing trees is easy!

We watched as the adult male brought in the last meal of the morning.

Then we said our goodbyes as the owls quieted down to sleep the day away untilĀ  evening time. But our day was just beginning. We decided to leave the forest and head to Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area outside of La Grande. I thought it might be fun to chase some waterbirds.

We arrived in the heat of the day and were happy to sit, rest, and take a moment under the shaded overlook. It was so peaceful with the Wallowa Mountain view in the background and the loud robotic songs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Cornell describes the song as “a screeching buzz, rather like a heavy door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge,” kind of like WHIU-HU-EEEEAAAAUUUUHHHHH. Cracked us up every time.

American Coots were also at the refuge and I finally got to see their ugly babies!

I mean cute babies, of course. They stayed mostly hidden in the reeds, but occasionally the little red and black bald babies would paddle out behind quickly following the parent.

We also saw lovely pair of Cinnamon Teal.

On the wires above perched Western Kingbirds.

And soaring high above was a Swainson’s Hawk! The white chin really stood out.

Also in the sky was a Red-tailed Hawk.

Hmmm, what’s it carrying? OH GEEZ. It’s a body-less squirrel! The head dangling from the spine. Sorry, kids. Nature is metal.

Hey look, a cute Barn Swallow!

We stopped to get information from the Cliff Swallow at the booth.

Who told us to go down the gravel road, turn right, take two lefts, and go just past the abandoned building until we find a Great Horned Owl.

There were two fluffballs and one adult hidden within the leaves. So fun. We found most of the birds I’d hoped for. I missed American Avocets, but I did get a bonus Gray Catbird!

Perched out in the open singing loudly for a change. Meow!

From Ladd Marsh we traveled farther east towards Medical Springs Hwy and back into the shaded pine forests. I became fixated on the idea of finding (or even hearing) a Flammulated Owl.

We drove along crazy rutted forest roads that wound up and up until we reached the top.

There were Cassin’s Finch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Bluebirds, and Western Wood-Peewee singing. The view at the top was nice, but we decided to set up camp back where I’d spotted the White-headed Woodpecker.

Almost missed that one. This was also where I’d seen a Pine Siskin.

I was way more excited than I should be to see this bird. Contrary to prior winters when there were gobs of them on our feeders at home, this little one in the woods is the first I’ve seen this year. They didn’t visit the yard this winter but I hope they do next time!

Tomas set up camp as we settled in for the evening.

As the sun set I heard an intriguing sound, “poor-will, poor-will, poor-will,” the lightbulb when off and I remembered that was the sound of the Common Poorwill! Incidental life bird! A rare treat in Oregon these days.

After the long day, I was so sleepy I had to lay down. I told Tomas to wake me up if he hears owls.

G’night owls

He stayed up to take night shots like the one above. After I’d just fallen asleep, he woke me up when he heard hooting in the distance. I wrapped myself in the sleeping bag sprang out of the tent and followed him to the meadow.

We were hoping for a deep-pitched single hoot like the sound of blowing across the top of a bottle. The sound was so far away it could have been that, or it could have been the end note of a Great Horned Owl. Too far to tell so I didn’t count it.

But I did count the stars. And the “Who’s awake me tooo,” of the Great Horned Owl at 3am. That counted too. I hadn’t given up on finding flammies either. We had one more day to look.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Eastern Oregon – Day 1

Over Memorial Day weekend Tomas and I decided on a camping trip. It was time to go east. The Put an Owl on it Birdathon team wasn’t happening this year (boo), but I still wanted to find Great Gray Owls. We were on our own. That was until I found out Scott Carpenter, owler-photographer extraordinaire would also be in the area. My odds of finding owls skyrocketed.

Thursday after work, Tomas and I drove four hours to a random area in the Umatilla National Forest. We weren’t sure where we’d end up, but I’ve learned to trust Tomas’s instincts that we’ll find dispersed camping options. Even in the dark. It works every time because I wake up in some of the most amazing places.

Epic. Once daylight broke we geared up and set out looking for owls. We drove all over the place, I thought without a doubt I’d remember where that drainage was from last year. But after more than an hour of looking, I conceded that I didn’t remember. Damn. But then I remembered I’d taken notes from last year and thanks to cell coverage, I found the deets!

This was it, I remembered that hill! And those trees. I told Tomas this feels right. I think we sat on that log and watched them. They could be anywhere in here. Then I turned around. Holy shit.

A Great Gray Owl! Exactly where it was supposed to be.

How could you miss that? I was stoked. This was Tomas’s first GGOW and I’d found it! I could relax then. And obsess over Pygmy Nuthatch nests.

They are so small and so cute.

Not to be confused with the other nuthatch in the area, White-breasted Nuthatch.

I also found one Lewis’s Woodpecker, unusual since they’re social and often found lose in groups.

And a worried-looking little House Wren.

We checked back on the owl, it was sleeping and not going anywhere so we decided to travel to a nearby park, Red Bridge State Wayside State Park. It’s one of the few places in Oregon to find Gray Catbirds. We’d tried last year on the Birdathon and missed out, but this time, Tomas and I got lucky. Meow.

Slinking around in the shrubs, mewing and chirping exactly where it should be. Such a cool bird to find in Oregon! We found a few other birds at the park, including Yellow Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, and Western Tanager.

And we even found a Spotted Sandpiper on the river bank.

Late afternoon approached and we thought it best to get back to the owls. We returned to find the adult in the same spot where we’d left it. We looked around but had no luck finding any owlets. I started to get nervous, we should at least have heard begging cries by now. Where were the babies?

That was when I got a text from Scott. Two photogenic babies on the ground. What?! We’re on our way. We navigated to the location just in time.

AYFKM? It doesn’t get much better than that. But then it did. The female hooted low and constant and the male flew in for a prey exchange. The male hunts while the female looks after the little ones.

He then left to find more food while she swooped down to feed her baby owl.

After, she preened the little fella.

It was the sweetest. We watched another food exchange, another feeding, and then someone spotted a Black-backed Woodpecker on the scene.

I briefly stopped looking at the owls to check out this awesome lifer woodpecker! Quite a treat. It got late and we knew we’d have to return back to our camp soon. On the way out, we were deterred again when we noticed the first owlet attempting to climb a tree.

It’s such a rare sight in the woods, so we sat down to enjoy. Millions of years of evolution at work. The owlets find a leaning tree and use their large hooked beak and sharp talons to slowly work their way upward.

It was sometimes painful to watch. The owl would make it up a few feet, then fall back down only to have to start again. We left when the owl plopped down on the ground a final time. He’ll get there eventually.

The owl may not have gotten very far, but I was high above the clouds.

Day one of our camping trip came to a close as we listened to coyotes howl in the distance. Fun times!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Chasing Bar-tailed

There’s an undeniable intrigue when chasing rarities from across the globe. This time I was hoping for a shorebird off course from its typical New Zealand to Alaska migration called a Bar-tailed Godwit. Thanks to unusual weather patterns, a handful had shown up on the Oregon coast this spring.

I timed my trip to arrive in the coastal hills at sunrise to listen for Mountain Quail.

Since I was at the right place and the right time, I heard this life bird’s call pretty easily. A pair was calling back and forth across the valley. But no visuals this time, and I didn’t have much time to spend looking. Next time, quail.

I kept focus and made it to Lost Creek State Park while it was still early. I felt both relief and excitement when I saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

But it wasn’t. The Bar-tailed had been seen in mixed shorebird flocks of Whimbrels and Marbled Godwit and those were both here.

Down-turned bill = Whimbrel

Upturned bill = Marbled Godwit

This godwit gave me pause. I realized then that I’d never seen Marbled Godwits in breeding plumage. More buffy-brown cinnamon colored, with barring on the chest, and an orange-ish coloring at the base of the bill (signalling increased hormonal levels). I had only seen them in non-breeding plumage with a pink base to the bill.

There were also some birds with intermediate colors.

This was getting more complicated. I had done my homework before arriving of course, Bar-tailed Godwits differ from Marbled in that they are slightly smaller, with a slightly shorter bill, and they lack the cinnamon underwing colors. They are slightly more reddish in breeding plumage and grayer in non-breeding. I began to doubt I’d recognize these slight differences.

So I looked at peeps instead. Hey, look! Western Sandpipers!

Bath time!

Dunlin in breeding plumage, look at that black belly!

Sanderlings! That one on the right is in breeding plumage (mottled, rufous head and neck).

And the best distraction. Semi-palmated Plover.

You’re cute, even when you’re digging in the sand.

That helped. I walked back to the car ready to try another location. As I was returning, a group of birders passed by and we exchanged information. They too were looking for godwits and hadn’t seen any Bar-tailed yet. At least I hadn’t missed anything.

I pulled over at another beach spot, and found only plovers and Whimbrels. The next stop was Newport’s South Jetty where I found no Whimbrels or godwits, but I did catch a distant glimpse of a black ghost. A Pacific Loon in breeding plumage!

Note to self: spend more time with shorebirds in breeding plumage. They’re beautiful.

It was late afternoon by now and I had time for just one more stop. Since it was close, and I’d never been there, I decided on Yaquina Bay State Recreation Area just across from South Jetty.

I approached the beach and saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

OMG, this was it! I spotted one of the banded birds in my binoculars. Some reports had been of birds with multiple blue and white bands on their legs, part of a bird-banding program in New Zealand, and positively identifying them as Bar-tailed Godwits. It was the best-case scenerio BTGO to find.

But before I could snap a photo, a woman approached me, asking about the birds. She asked what the birds with the long bills were, “are they Long-billed Dowitchers?” Normally, I appreciate people’s interest in birds when I’m out, but this was terrible timing. But I explained what they were anyways. She thanked me, then proceeded to walk right towards the flock, spooking them all.

Seriously? I had told her about the rarity too. I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t have time to sulk, because I had to jog down the beach to keep up with the moving flock. Eventually, success!

Look at all the jewelry on that New Zealand bird! What a huge relief. And the stranger thing was, besides that rude woman, I was the only one on the beach. No other birders. I posted the sighting on OBOL and enjoyed my time. I’d actually hit the jackpot of shorebirds at this spot.

There were Black-bellied Plovers in breeding plumage.

I almost dropped my binoculars.

A Ruddy Turnstone.

And a pair of Brant casually on the shore.

Whimbrels, plovers, godwits, sanderlings, it was hard to keep up!

The tide came in further, many birds moved up to the jetty rocks to sleep in the warm afternoon sun. I regained and lost site of the Bar-tailed again, grateful for the time I had.

X marks the spot, I’d found the treasure!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey