I originally scheduled the day after my Birdathon trip as a rest day. But the promising weather and my large cup of coffee made me to drive 3 hours southwest to Yaquina Head Lighthouse on the Oregon coast instead.
There were recent reports of an active Peregrine Falcon nest and it was just too tempting to resist.
I arrived at the lighthouse natural area, but not knowing exactly where the nest was, I looked around and found a surprising scene.
It was a massacre. Bald Eagles, followed by scavenging Western Gulls had decimated what looked like hundreds of Common Murre eggs.
Partners in crime
This one had a taste for crow
One of these birds is not like the other
Nature can be brutal. Volunteers at the lighthouse have U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pamphlets for the visiting public that explain the phenomenon further.
“Adapting Anew to an Old Foe: Recently, Bald Eagle have moved into places they haven’t been seen in years. Common Murre in these areas have little experience with Bald Eagle predation and often flee when eagles approach. Some murres are readapting to this historic predator. Instead of abandoning their nests they sit tight and wait for the danger to pass.”
Unfortunately for the murres, the eagles got the upper hand this day. This article is also a great read about the recent rebalancing.
It was hopeful to see some rocks still piled with healthy and live Common Murre.
Still no signs of the peregrines, so I followed the stairs down to the tidal pools to visit Harlequin Ducks and Black Oystercatcher.
I looked to my right to see a pair of Pelagic Cormorant acting lovey dovey on their nest.
Aw, so sweet. And here’s a Western Gull for good measure.
At this point I realized the peregrine nest was possibly on the cliff-face near the visitor center. Indeed it was. As I drove closer, I saw the group of cameras, tripods, and long lenses and knew I had found the right place.
Yep. Peregrine Falcon chicks!
Ferociously sweet. And the Common Murres aren’t the only ones tormented by eagles. So too was this brave falcon parent.
With prey gripped in her talons she flew toward her nest, when suddenly three juvenile Bald Eagles swarmed her and she dropped the prey in the parking lot. Used to the drama, a Yaquina Head Interpretive center employee promptly came outside to escort the spectators to look at the dropped meal before barricading it off.
Falcon food- any guesses?
For the next hour the falcon zoomed back and forth in the sky defending her territory from eagles and now Turkey Vultures that entered the scene thanks to the dropped goodies.
Being a Peregrine parent is hard work.
Things quieted down before a second, male falcon (according to the crowd), brought in fresh prey and the pair switched off.
The latest word on the fledglings:
Be brave little murres, the peregrines are coming!
For a second year I joined Portland Audubon’s Birdathon, touted as the “biggest baddest birdathon this side of the Mississippi.” And for a second year I was thrilled to be a part of the Put an Owl on It team.
Last year’s trip was one of the best birding days of my life – 5 owl species in one day!! This year’s agenda expanded to eastern Oregon for a two-day Blue Mountain adventure with the hopes of seeing Great Gray Owls.
Spoiler alert- we found them.
I went into the trip with 299 life birds. How cool would it be to have the Great Gray as the 300th bird? That didn’t happen, but Bank Swallows are pretty cool too. Lucky #300!! Sadly, no pictures because the van flushed two nicely perched swallows on a fence as soon as we drove near. Van-birding can be quite a challenge.
While exploring country roads in Umatilla county, we also flushed lifer #301, this Chukar fleeing for its life.
Fastest mother Chukar in the west
It’s all worth it though when you climb out out of the van and meet a pair of Great Horned Owls fledglings.
Or a family of Barn Owls smooshed in a natural cliff wall cavity.
And it’s especially worth it to see a Burrowing Owl perched atop sagebrush in the Oregon desert.
It was incredibly hot that weekend, nearing (if not over) 100 degrees. Some birds like this Sage Thrasher panted to stay cool.
Even Common Nighthawks panted.
That is one hot bird. Seeing a Common Nighthawk perched on a fence has been on my birding bucket list since the moment I found out they do this. We found two. Success! And two vans with 19+ people managed not to flush them. It was that damn hot.
Birder dreams do come true
It cooled down some once we gained elevation making our way into the pine forests of the Blue Mountains.
And here in this forest is where we met the family. Mom and her three owlets.
It was so special sharing forest space with these owls. They were incredibly chill. We sat down on the grass and pine needles under trees nearby, relaxed, chatted and ate snacks, while watching the fledglings stretch their wings and walk awkwardly along the branches.
And if owl entertainment wasn’t enough, there were active nesting holes visible on site with Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker (another lifer!).
And songs of Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch, House Wren, Western Wood-Pewee (PEEEeeeeer), and a new flycatcher for me, Hammond’s Flycatcher (ChiBik).
As soon as the sun lowered, Great Gray fledgling activity picked up, the owlets begged noisily for food.
The skies darkened and mom obliged, swooping over the fields to hunt. We enjoyed watching the owl show until the sun disappeared and the bats came out.
Before exiting the park, we piled out of the vans in the dark one last time to listen for other potential owl species. While waiting, we occupied time peering at Jupiter’s moons through the spotting scopes, and just before calling it a night, an adult Great Grey Owl flew over our heads towards an area of the forest with at least one owlet calling! There’s nothing like an unexpected owl surprise to liven things up. We rode the owl high all the way back to the hotel in La Grande.
From darkness to early morning light, a handful of birders opted for an early-morning Bobolink side trip.
In a distant farm field we observed several pairs of Bobolinks chase each other up, over, and into the grasses while chattering their buzzy metalic song that sounds like a broken R2-D2. A bit far for decent photos, but here’s an identifiable pic of one on a fence post.
After, we reunited with the rest of the group and the sightings continued: Eastern Kingbirds, California Quail, Loggerhead Shrike, Black-billed Magpie, and Long-billed Curlew, to name a few.
At Catherine Creek State Park, we introduced ourselves to a generous couple camping with a hummingbird feeder at their site. Thanks to them, we got good looks at Black-chinned and Calliope Hummingbirds.
Female black-chinned wagged her tail while feeding
This was only my second time seeing a Black-chinned Hummingbird (the first was just a week prior at Painted Hills), and it was my first encounter with Calliope Humminbgird. They’re so pretty and so tiny!
There was another new surprise in the brushy thickets at this park, a small thrush called a Veery. Too bad I didn’t get a visual on this shy cinnamon-colored thrush, but I heard its song and call and that was pretty satisfying. Some nineteenth-century observers described the Veery’s song as “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.” Yep, I was totally seduced.
One of our last stops was at Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area where we saw Gadwall, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, and yet another new species, a shorebird called Wilson’s Phalarope.
At the marsh, there were also a pair of nesting Swainson’s Hawks, both Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Red-winged blackbirds (chasing an American Bittern), Black-crowned Night Heron, Ring-necked Pheasant, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Northern Harriers. To name a few.
On the way back to Portland, we pulled off the side of the highway to bird a pond next to some railroad tracks. We joked about the safety and legality of this birding spot.
Then we turned around to see a law enforcement vehicle stopped at the road with lights flashing. Busted birders.
Walk of shame
Turns out the officer had just thoughtfully stopped traffic for us to cross the road without incident. Whew! It was totally worth almost getting arrested to catch a glimpse of American White Pelican, Black-necked Stilt (!), teals, and nesting American Avocets.
It was all worth it. In two days, the team saw a total of 127 species, including 4 owl species (and I saw 10 new-to-me species), and we raised over $14,000. We saw 11 Great Horned Owls, 3 Barn Owls, 1 Burrowing Owl, and encountered 6 Great Grey Owls! I think that’s what they call “putting an owl on it.”
I had a blast reuniting with team members from last year and making new friends this time around. Thanks to the trip leaders Scott Carpenter, Rhett Wilkins, Joe Liebezeit, and Mary Coolidge, you all rock. And of course, many thanks to my donors for making my fundraising such a success. I raised over a thousand dollars contributing to Portland Audubon’s $170,000+ for conservation. Thanks to all involved helping such a great cause!
While admiring the magnificent colors of the cliff walls, we heard harsh croaking monster screams and looked over hesitantly to see what the racket was. A Great Blue Heron rookery! Of course.
There were three nests full of noisy monster muppet babies. We watched them for a while enjoying the show. Tomas says this was one of his favorite parts of the trip. Yessss.
Watching these primordial looking (and sounding) birds with the ancient towering cliffs in the background was remarkable. A very cool moment.
Continuing along, We saw several other bird species including:
Red-tailed Hawk (rufous morph)
Swainson’s Hawk (dark morph)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
And we even manged to spot American White Pelicans in a pond near Ochoco Reservoir.
American White Pelican
We spent our last night camping at Shelton Wayside County Park in Wheeler County. For camping over a holiday weekend, it wasn’t as horrible as I’d feared. We found a semi-secluded spot, settled in and enjoyed the warm spring evening listening to the symphony of pine cones popping open.
Of course I couldn’t sit still for too long, so I wandered down an old abandoned highway and heard Western Tanager, Lazuli Bunting, and Chipping Sparrows. And I spotted a Say’s Phoebe on a powerline.
Then I saw a second Say’s Phoebe.
I sat down and watched as one grabbed a large insect expertly out of the air.
It sat perched on the wire, calling its low, whistled sad-sounding “pit-tsee-eur” over and over again. I thought, why aren’t you eating the bug, weirdo? Then I looked over to the building on the right.
Ohhhhh. That’s why. I backed further away then not wanting to stress out the bird. It didn’t want to give away the nest location! Good bird. Eventually the chicks got fed.
So amazing! Spring is the best.
Leaving the campground the next morning, we made our way to our last stop, the Clarno Unit.
We walked along the paths, looking at the fossilized leaves in the rocks, and imagined how different this place was millions of years ago.
Incredible. Then we looked up to see White-throated Swifts performing courtship displays! They paired up, clung to one another, and fell, swirling incredibly fast towards the ground. At the last second before impact, they separated and flew off in different directions. One of the coolest bird displays I’ve seen yet.
A swift swift
It’s like they gave us the fireworks-grand finale display of the desert. But wait, there’s more!
Gopher Snake (also known as bull snake)
Western Fence Lizard
Who says the desert is barren?
Full of life
After visiting the painted hills, I’m officially a fan of the desert. Five out of five stars and the cactus agrees.