A Better Pelagic

Scarier than Halloween is pelagic birding. Ever since my first traumatic experience I’ve wanted to try again. Crazy, I know but Albatross are that good. It had been too long since I’d seen them and I wanted a better boat experience. I remember saying “I’d do it again in a heartbeat” but those are the things you say when you’re safe on dry land.

I needed timing, weather, and my nerves all to align. When I saw my friend Eric’s post asking if anyone wanted to join him this October for “10 hours of waves and lifers,” I was so scared because I knew I was going to go for it.

I was better prepared this time. I obsessively checked the weather, bought new rain gear, cut out coffee and alcohol, ate bland food for a week, stocked up on saltines, and loaded up on medication. This time I remember my boots. And lucky for me at the last minute my friend Sarah joined for the trip (not the boat part) and she provided exceptional moral support. “Is it too late to back out?” “Yes, put your shoes on and go.” Damn.

Sarah dropped us off early morning and we set off. The real test began once the boat passed the jetty. No turning back now. I nervously held my breath as we spotted the first Sooty Shearwaters.



I gripped the seat as while we looked at tiny Marbled Murrelets.

And Rhinocerous Auklets that I didn’t get great photos of.

I sipped water and saltines as we saw Red-necked Phalarope, Common Murre, and our first Parasitic Jaeger. No photos of that one either sadly, but I did manage one of a Pomarine Jaeger at our first chum stop.

Here we also saw strikingly patterned Buller’s Shearwater.

And Pink-footed Shearwater.

Its best bits

Our first Northern Fulmar.

And as I glared at the dude eating veggi-chips next to me (food smells are tough), I managed to hold it together for Black-footed Albatross!

Yeah buddy, these are amazing birds. They soared gracefully up, over, and around us.

I loved watching them take off, running along the water’s surface.

So good.

The sea swells were 8ft this time (vs. 11ft the first time), still choppy, and not great for keeping composure. See a short video here. This was Eric’s first pelagic and he said he didn’t realize how hard it would be just to stand up. Let alone use binoculars, cameras, and look at birds. But we managed okay.

I appreciated the South Polar Skua coming in to score some food.

I was even able to enjoy the whale sighting this time. About 40 miles offshore we witnessed a humpback whale breaching over and over again and slapping its flippers on the water surface (pectoral fin slapping).


This sort of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It was breathtaking. The guess on the boat was that this was a young whale making noise to locate its pod. Such a sweet whale. I second Jen’s recommendation to check out Sonic Sea on Vimeo (free with code SONICSEE) about how important sound is to these magnificent underwater creatures.

Other interesting highlights were the American Pipit that almost made landfall on the boat, apparently exhausted along its migration. And one Northern Fulmar that actually did land on the boat, then proceeded to projectile vomit on the deck. That’s the bird’s effective defense mechanism. I wish I’d gotten a photo of the ordeal, but I was concentrating on keeping myself from getting sick.

Stand back or I’ll puke on you

It almost worked. But at the last stop, while we watched for Short-tailed Shearwaters I finally succumbed to the sickness. Unlike last time though, I felt mostly better after and could still look at birds.

One of those might be Short-tailed

I picked up three lifers on the trip, Short-tailed Shearwater, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel. The petrels were tough to see, let alone photograph.

One of the petrels

On the return trip, unlike last time when I was freezing and pummeled by waves, this time it was smooth sailing. We’d avoided the roughest seas, saw albatross, a breaching whale, and I didn’t die? I call that a win.

So happy to see that bridge

This was a much better pelagic than last time.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Trick or tweets,

Audrey

Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,

Audrey

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