Tits and Towhees

I’d just seen the Tundra Bean Goose at Finley National Wildlife Refuge when a report came in of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in Portland. I hadn’t planned beyond the goose, but I did have to head back home eventually. Why not try for the gnatcatcher? It was only 10 minutes from my house. 

My friend Courtney took the trip as well and moments after exiting our cars we heard a wheezy gnatcatcher whine. Soon after we saw the bird. So lucky! 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (#309!)

We made a quick try for a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker that would be a lifer for Courtney, but the bird was a no-show. Not so lucky. We had just enough daylight left to find White-winged Scoters at Hayden Island. 

Some of these are not like the others

The next day it was time to look for buntings. A flock of Snow Buntings including a “pale” individual that is a possible McKay’s Bunting has been teasing birders along Del Rey and Sunset Beach. This time Eric joined in the fun and together we met Courtney at Del Rey Beach early in the morning.

 We piled into my car and drove on the beach scanning for buntings. After a short while, Courtney spotted them!

Eventually we found a larger flock. It was then that another carload of birder friends joined in the chase. We alternated coverage over the 7 mile stretch the birds navigated. At one moment standing outside the cars the birds whooshed right over us. It was amazing. I heard a couple of their buzzing flight calls and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t get a recording. 

Finally we spotted a good candidate for a McKay’s Bunting, “the pale one.”

But I feel ill-equipped at identifying this species, so I’ve left it as Snow/McKay’s until further review. There are only a few thousand of these (remote tundra breeding) birds in the world, and first winter female birds are hard to identify for even those familiar with them (how much white exactly is on that R3 tail feather?). And there’s another problem, sometimes they hybridize with Snow Buntings. So, for now it’s a “pale bunting” and a fun chase. 

We took a side trip to Seaside where Eric saw his lifer Rock Sandpiper.

And on the way home we stopped at a clearcut area and got a diagnostic but unsatisfying “look” at a Northern Pygmy-Owl zoom through trees, leaving much more to be desired.  

The next day, while I looked for grouse the news about the former president passing away came in. This meant an office closure, and I already had another day off planned. The only next logical step was to drive to Ashland to look for birds. Obviously.

It was cold and windy when I woke up in southern Oregon and after trying many locations  without finding much I ended up at the best trail near Medford, Upper Table Rock Trail

It is a short, moderately steep 3.3 mile trail, (the longest distance I’ve hiked since surgery!). It felt good to hike. It felt even better when about halfway up I heard what sounded to me like a wheezy Mountain Chickadee that turned out to be an Oak Titmouse! A bird I very much had hoped to see. #311

In Oregon they’re only found in this far southern location which is why I’ve not seen them here before. I had just met Oak Titmice in California (my 500th bird species!), but I think they’re cuter in Oregon. 

I continued uptrail wondering if I would meet my other target bird, another south-central Oregon specialty, the California Towhee, when it got very birdy along the trail. Kinglets, chickadees, sparrows, flew all around me when I noticed a Spotted Towhee and wondered if this was a good spot for other towhees. Indeed it was! 

California Towhee! #312

It’s so interesting two towhee species fill a niche here, right alongside one another. 

Towhee meet towhee

Elated I finished the hike and made it to the top. 

So glad the trip had been worth it. 

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bluebirds of Happiness

Big news! My friend Eric Carlson found a pair of Eastern Bluebirds in Oregon! Amazingly this is the first state record!! None have been recorded on the entire west coast. There isn’t yet a record in California or Washington. It’s made every Oregon birder review their Western Bluebird photos and rethink their past sightings.

The differences between Eastern and Western Bluebirds are subtle especially if you’re not expecting them. When Eric saw the birds outside the Dharma Zen Rain Garden, he posted them on iNaturalist as Western Bluebirds. During iNaturalist’s community review process 21 year old birder Joshua Smith of Fort Collins, CO chimed in that he thought they were eastern. Then the whole thing “blue” up.

Luckily they’ve stuck around so everyone can enjoy them. I went early on a rainy morning where I met many other birders. It was like a fun reunion.

Eastern bluebirds have a bright white belly, and orange color that comes up to the throat and sides of the neck.

Adult Western Bluebirds have a blue throat and a bluish belly.

It’s been determined that both of Eric’s birds are males because of their bright blue color. Pretty incredible to have two birds as the first state record and two males at that! This spot is where Eric has found Say’s Phoebe, Western Bluebirds (and now eastern), and an Eastern Kingbird. I last visited in March not long after my surgery while I was still on crutches and a knee scooter.

It’s a great piece of habitat and I hope it’s kept preserved as a grassland space. It’s also in my 5MR!

Eastern Bluebird is not life bird for me since I’ve seen them in Florida while visiting family.

And this summer while visiting Tomas’s family in Michigan.

But Eric’s birds are my Oregon state year bird #307! And a great reminder that sometimes you don’t have to go far to find something special. Next year I’m going to focus more on local patches and spend more time birding and less time driving.

Such a fun sighting and I’m so happy for Eric!!! Congratulations!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Dipping highs and lows

Thanksgiving week I spent time with Tomas, called my family, and then I went birding. A Rusty Blackbird was reported on Thanksgiving day at McNary Wildlife Area (but I was just there!). This would be a lifer and a recent rusty stuck around the Bend area for a while so I thought this one would be easy.

You think birding is easy?

Black-billed Magpies can easily find Cooper’s Hawks.

But I saw very few blackbirds. It could have been due to the Merlin.

Zoomies

That was cool to see. As was the Red-shouldered Hawk that appeared right before my eyes.

This is a pretty rare sighting in this part of Oregon. Another treat was finding a pair of Harris’s Sparrows!

Two is better than one

Unfortunately most of my photos of both together came out blurry, but they were a pretty cute.

I finally got to see the Black-crowned Night Herons out of the fog.

And in another tree I thought there were more herons but looking closer it was decorated with Wood Ducks!

They weebled and wobbled on the thin branches while a Eurasian Wigeon swam by in the water below.

Down by the dam I picked out some Bonaparte’s Gulls flying over the river just as it started raining.

It was too bad I missed the blackbird but it was fun giving McNary Wildlife Area more attention. If only this great birding spot was a bit closer. On the return trip home I stopped at Philippi Canyon and sat in the car watching a little Rock Wren hop around the rocks then I looked over to my right.

Holy sheep!

A group of Bighorn Sheep were making their way down the rocky hillside.

I picked my jaw up off the floor and glanced through the windshield just as a Chukar ran across the road!!!

Surprise state year bird #304!!! There were three of them that crossed and slowly hopped up the rocks where the sheep had just been.

It was a pretty magical moment. Dipping on the Rusty Blackbird was turning out okay after all. The next day I went to the coast and tried to find a Yellow-billed Loon that was spotted near Nehalem Bay. I spent two days looking but the loon must have moved on.

At one point during a break I drove to Seaside Cove to see a Rock Sandpiper! #305!

Another afternoon at Nehalem Bay State Park I met James Billstine a local birder and this turned out to be the best luck. With his help we found Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren, a Fox Sparrow, and he managed to pish up a Hermit Thrush. That never happens.

And a Palm Warbler!

Excellent county birds and so fun to see all at once in one small patch. Another evening I met Courtney Jett from Bend and we dipped on the loon together while watching River Otters scratch themselves on a log.

So itchy

I stayed overnight in Rockaway at the Surfside Resort that was pretty quiet and comfy. In the morning I gave the loon one more chance but still no luck. It’s not often a Yellow-billed Loon visits Oregon so I was bummed to miss out. But such is the risk of chasing birds and I’d met some great people along the way.

I left the coast and ended up in Corvallis checking out Bald Hill Natural Area looking for Wild Turkeys but instead I found a really late Turkey Vulture.

What are you still doing here?

This is when I learned about a rare Tundra Bean-Goose at Finley National Wildlife Refuge 30 minutes away. I ran back to the car and took off. I made it to the site where other birders were standing in front of thousands of geese. But unfortunately, I looked at the wrong goose. This was not my finest birding moment.

I was probably right in front of the bean goose but my eyes locked onto a Greater White-fronted. Wrong bill color! It was so confusing and before I had a chance to correct the error a Bald Eagle had already spooked the whole flock. The worst! This is one of those moments I’ll replay in my mind a thousand times over hoping for a different outcome. I have good news though. Five days later I got a second chance with the goose!

Thanks to Courtney’s birding stamina and my new friend Lindsay Willrick’s excellent hospitality (I may not have survived gooselessness without them). In the gross cold and rain while taking shelter in the bird blind I picked out the bean goose while scanning the flock in the spotting scope. I may have squealed and jumped up and down like a lunatic. But it’s the goose! We had about 15 minutes enjoying it before it flew off to the south.

This goose is one of only five eBird records in the United States (there is another from 2015 in Oregon, and a 2013 record by the Salton Sea!). So it was worth some drama to see it. And by the way I got a second chance at Wild Turkeys too! #306!

With only a month left this year I’m taking the losses in stride and appreciating what I’m lucky enough to see. It’s a good lesson in letting go. I can put myself in the best place at the best time and I can still miss a bird. And that’s okay.

There’s still time to see (and miss) a few more!

Dips and derps,

Audrey