Kennewick to Astoria

The next day was not like the previous. The winds howled and overcast skies moved in. Jen, Jacob, and I checked on the Snowy Owl in the early morning, but this time it was far off in a distant farm field.

We watched for a bit until she flew to another field.

And was subsequently harassed by a Northern Harrier.

She didn’t seem too concerned. After a while we felt it was time to move on and we left the owl to defend her post. Good luck Miss Snowy Owl.

We then drove down 9-mile Canyon Rd dodging tumbleweeds and not coming up with much besides American Goldfinch and sneaky deer.

With the long drive home ahead we decided it was best to start heading back and we went our separate ways. I didn’t make many stops along the way but I had an idea of where I might go next. Not home that’s for sure. Tomas was off mountain biking, I’d be home too early, and there was the entire next day of possibilities.

One thing that stuck in my mind was a Northern Waterthrush reported in Brownsmead, a place in Oregon I’ve never been to near Astoria. I debated. The waterthrush wasn’t a life bird, I’d seen one once in Alaska, but it had been so long ago. Many birders hadn’t gotten visuals on the Brownsmead bird, they’d only heard it in the dense shrubs. Would I be satisfied driving so far to hear a chip note? Maybe.

What sealed the deal was the possibility of a Swamp Sparrow and that would be a life bird, so I figured why not take the chance. My plan was set. The five hours of driving flew by and before I knew it, I arrived in Brownsmead.

What a great place! Lots of lowland wetlands, farms, and places for rare birds to hide.

I pulled up to the waterthrush site and immediately heard chip notes. Unfortunately, they were coming from Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees above. And then I heard it, a tantalizing loud spwik from lower in the blackberry. Scanning I saw movement and eventually a bird. It was the Northern Waterthush!

It sat preening and I enjoyed every moment so happy I’d taken the chance to see it.

It was then a homeowner across the street came out to greet me. Claire had met birders from Seattle looking for the waterthrush that morning and she was excited to share what she’d learned. She kindly gave me a tour of her neighborhood and showed me a Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, and about 30 Great Egrets foraging in a field. The light was fading so I didn’t get many photos, but it was inspiring to see Claire’s new connection to the nature of her neighborhood.

I thanked her for her generosity and continued on, still hoping for a Swamp Sparrow, but getting distracted by ducks instead. I found one male Eurasian Wigeon.

That turned into three EUWI after reviewing my photos later, including the female to the left of the male in the above photo. She has a blue bill touching reddish feathers, AMWI has a narrow black base to the bill.

I saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagles stalking all of them from above. As it got darker I thought of lodging options, and Astoria was only another 20 minutes down the road where Fort George Brewery was featuring dark beers. This plus fish and chips and I was sold. It was an excellent ending to an exhausting but fulfilling day.

In the morning it was dark and pouring rain, not good beach weather so I skipped it and drove back to Brownsmead for a quick scan. The area is sometimes favorable for Gyrfalcons and I thought it worth a look. Come to Brownsmead for the waterthrush, stay for the Gyrfalcon. I spent a long time trying to turn this bird into one.

There was a Peregrine Falcon nearby for size comparison. This one was larger but the light was terrible, I was far away, and it wouldn’t turn around. Finally it was light enough for me to ID it as a Rough-legged Hawk. Not a gyr but still a good bird!

And a reminder I should probably stop birding in the dark. I drove around a bit more, but the weather was terrible and with so much ground to cover Swamp Sparrows could be anywhere. I conceded defeat, but on the way out a large light bird caught my eye and I quickly pulled over.

Woah, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk! I wasn’t sure until it flew and I saw that red tail.

Such a beautiful and unusual hawk. This made my morning and I felt good about heading back. But not to home just yet.

One more stop at Ridgefield NWR. My friend Sarah says I’m birding like I’m going to die soon. If it seems like I’m birding hard #birdlikeyouredying, I am because next week I’m having surgery on my ankle to glue my bones back together. Basically. And this means I’ll be on crutches and in a cast for a month, and a boot for at least another month. And it’s my right ankle, so no driving. No, it’s not death, but I want to take advantage of my freedom before I’m greatly humbled by my body.

So back to Ridgefield, and my last chance at a Swamp Sparrow for a while. At least here I had a better idea of where they might be along the auto tour. And just past marker #10, where I stubbornly sat in my car staring at grass while other cars passed around me. Finally, I saw the secretive owl of sparrows, the Swamp Sparrow!

Such a richly colored bird! I admired it as long as it would let me.

Which was about two seconds before it dropped down into the grass hidden once again. Until next time, Mr Sparrow. I left Ridgefield feeling pretty accomplished and officially ready to call it a day.

It’s hard to stop when there’s always a good bird just around the next corner.

Tweets and chirps,


Owls, owls, owls, owls, owls.

The Snowy Owl I’d missed a few weeks prior was still being sighted out in eastern Washington. I felt inspired to try again. Luckily, so did Jen, Jacob, and the rest of their pack.

We left our respective homes at 3am to meet in Kennewick by 8am. By that time I was buzzing from lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and the anticipation of what we might find. Or not find.

I was not alone in dipping on this owl, Jacob had also spent time scanning rural horizons for a snowy with no luck. There’s no telling sometimes how the day will go.

This day started nicely with Barn Owls, more than I’d seen last time, and this time one even dove out of the cave and flew beautifully over the grasses by the road.

We could have stayed all day, but luckily Jen reminded us there was another owl to be found. We’d seen photos of the Snowy Owl perched on a red post.

Not an owl

We scanned and looked and eventually, we turned on an unmarked dirt road, one that was previously blocked by a creepy semi during my first trip.

This time though, the path was clear and it was along this road, we found the owl.

It was incredible. I didn’t realize how big Snowy Owls are; they’re larger than a Great Horned Owl, and smaller in length than a Great Gray Owl but with the same wingspan and a 25.6oz heavier weight. Making them the largest owl in North America by weight. Bulky as a barrel but she wears it well.

After admiring from a distance and not flushing the owl, I was relieved we’d found it and proud we’d adhered to good birding ethics. It is tempting to hug owls sometimes, but we resisted.

But we couldn’t resist looking for more. We left and went to stare at a row of willows that I’ve stared at once before.

But this time was way better because I found my first perched Long-eared Owl!

So obvious

They’re mostly invisible. And smaller and larger than I thought they’d be. Mythical I’d say. Just when you think you see one it disappears. And then you see one and three more and then none. We found four before they melted back into the branches.

It was such a great success, three species of owls and it was only mid-day! Plenty of time left to look for more, so we headed to a park along the Snake River.

Along the way, Jacob pointed out his two reliable Great Horned Owls, right where they’re supposed to be tangled in the thicket.

Finally we arrived at the park where two years ago I saw my first Northern Saw-whet Owl with Tomas. It was amazing then and still amazing now.

I’d forgotten how small they are! Only about 8″, it would take three saw-whets to reach the height of a Snowy Owl. We found two.

The second one was holding a rodent.


Below on the ground we found more evidence of their kills.

It makes me wonder. According to BirdWeb saw-whets are sit-and-wait predators that hunt almost exclusively at night, so when/how are they attacking yellow-rumps? My guess is YRWAs get too close and bam. Just a guess though.

We continued through the park, enjoying the now sunny weather, as we bumped into more owls including these Great-horned Owls

Not just one owl

This park is wild and lovely.

I’m still reeling from the number of owls three people and three dogs (a six-pack!) can find in a day. We’d found 16 individuals and 5 species. Surreal!

In the evening we toasted over beers, nachos, and burgers to the best day of owls and to the possibilities of what we might find next.

Owls, owls, and owls,


Bonus zono

I birded so efficiently at the coast it left me ample time the next day to look for a rare Harris’s Sparrow. It was a first-year bird found by James Cook along Sundial Loop Trail near the Troutdale Airport.

It’d been a while since I birded this hotspot. My first trip in the spring of 2015 I biked there and saw my first Rufous Hummingbird and found a Great Horned Owl nest. That was a good day.

I checked on that nest again and sadly this time, no owls.

This morning it was dark and rainy but I was hopeful anyways. I came across two birders on the trail that I’ve met before and we reintroduced ourselves. Dena Turner and Mary Ratcliff and I then continued along, looking for “zonos” birder slang for Zonotrichia, the genus of five American sparrows included in the Emberizidae family; White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula).

Zonotrichia is from Greek origin, zone “band” and thrix, trikhos, “hair.”

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

I could see that.

Querula is Latin for “plaintive” or “complaining” in reference to the Harris’s song.  And while we’re going there, Harris’s Sparrow is named after Edward Harris (1799-1863), (not the actor), but ornithologist and friend of Jonn James Audubon.

Unfortunately, the morning resulted in zero zonos. But we did see some Lesser Goldfinch or maybe call them “spins,” short for Spinus?

Of course as soon as I got home, someone reported the Harris’s Sparrow. *face-palm* And at this point, Tomas had taken the car to go mountain biking. What was a good birder to do? Since it was my last chance before the work week started again and I’d have no time to bird, I grabbed a Car2Go rental and headed back. It was only a 20-minute drive from my house, and I figured, I’ve spent more on a bird before. Justified.

Within minutes of exiting the car, I saw my friend, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Bill and another birder on site, and moments later I was on the bird.

Zono friend!

The Harris’s Sparrow hopped to the ground to munch on seeds that someone put out for the birds (thanks for that!).

Two other zonos were present, White-crowned Sparrow (no photos), and Golden-Crowned Sparrows.

I got a glimpse overhead of a Pileated Woodpecker that I’d only heard earlier.

And every once in a while a California Scrub-Jay would drop in and stir up all ground-feeders.

Dark-eyed Juncos scattered.

Spotted Towhees didn’t care much.

And eventually the handsome Harris’s would come back.

He was an ambassador for wildlife after all.

I was so glad I’d gone back! It was worth every penny.

Tweets and zonos,