Eastern Oregon – Day 3

The next morning we got up, packed up, and said goodbye to the Wallowa Mountains and hello to the Starkey Experimental Forest.

Say, what? Into the fenced-in wild we went.

I’d read information about a Flammulated Owl study performed in this forest. Unfortunately it was from the 80s so I had no idea what possibilities it still held but it was worth a shot. According to the paper, flammies like large diameter Ponderosa Pine snags with cavities at least as large as made by a Northern Flicker (though preferably by Pileated Woodpecker) located on east or south facing ridges and slopes. It was a starting point.

The Starkey forest is 40 square miles completely fenced in with easily navigable gravel roads so we explored all over the place.

And only got one flat tire.

Winner for most scenic flat tire

We passed coyote traps, bear traps, strange elongated nest boxes, and several game “cleaning stations” as besides research, the other main use of the forest is elk hunting in the winter. The Starkey Project researches combinations of forest management for elk, timber, cattle, deer, recreation and nutrient flows on National Forests. We couldn’t find any information about camping, but we passed a car with grad-students/employees inside that said it was okay.

They were pretty chill. The whole place was. There were no other people camping or otherwise. It was a nice break. Even if it did make me think of the Hunger Games arena.

The odds were in our favor. We found Mountain Bluebirds.

House Wren

The worst view ever of a Northern Goshawk.

A sneaky sparrow I think is a young Vesper’s Sparrow.

And so many Pygmy Nuthatches.

It was near this nuthatch’s nest where I spotted the perfect suspect snag. Large diameter, on a high ridge, a great hole, and I’d seen a Northern Flicker in the area. Maybe this could be it? Near sunset Tomas and I waited and watched the hole. Until…

Out peeked a Northern Flying Squirrel! No way. It climbed out for a brief moment and then scurried back into it’s hole.

Not an owl, but still a great find.

Meanwhile, a Mountain Bluebird found our tent.

We settled back in to camp hoping to hear owls in the night, but I slept too soundly and didn’t hear a hoot. Sad to leave the forest we packed up for the trip home. Oddly enough we hadn’t seen any deer or elk in the Starkey Experiemental Forest, it wasn’t until we were beyond the fence boundary that we bumped into a herd of elk.

Giving me The Eye.

This is also when we saw a coyote run across the road carrying a big hunk of a deer carcass. I managed one terrible photo.

Neat. So much excitement outside the fence perimeter.

Exciting Wilson’s Snipe

On the way home we made a point to stop at Philippi Canyon because there’s always something good to find and this time did not disappoint.

Lark Sparrow

Bullock’s Oriole

American White Pelican

Red-tailed Hawk

The biggest surprise was a Chukar that didn’t run away! At least for a brief enough moment.

Another fabulous trip to eastern Oregon with much to sing about!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

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