Summer’s almost here. Even though we turned on the heat in the house yesterday, it’s really June. Spring migration is winding down and I miss the warblers already. But there’s still plenty to keep oneself occupied. This past weekend I thought I’d try my luck looking for what would be a lifer Grasshopper Sparrow reported at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.
I’ve not spent a lot of time at this refuge since it’s a bit of a drive from Portland (1.5hr), but there’s plenty to find here (especially in spring). There are trails to hike, but I’m still recovering from ankle surgery. Thankfully much of the refuge can be seen from car pullouts along the road. I parked and immediately heard Purple Finch.
And a little farther down, I saw a flashy buzzing Rufous Hummingbird.
Then I heard a likely candidate for the Grasshopper Sparrow. I listened intently. I recorded the audio and I thought about it. I listened back and doubt crept in. Quickly I felt underqualified at identifying a GRSP song. Sarah had suggested practicing by comparing the song with Savannah Sparrow that is way more common and has a similar sounding song. I listened a bit and convinced myself that this one was definitely a Savannah.
Moving onward. I drove around the corner of a butte and listened further.
I heard more Savannah, a few quick notes, thin buzzy middle, and ending with a quick lower trill. It’s that ending note that Grasshopper Sparrows lack. Instead they have two staccato notes, followed by a thin “insect-like” buzz. It’s subtle.
Then in the dewy distance, I saw it!
The best way to confirm a Grasshopper Sparrow singing is to see it. Which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Since they’re usually in the grass, there are few perches. But this one cooperated nicely.
Then the damn thing flew even closer.
I think my heart stopped. It sang and picked some things (insects? seeds?) off the Cow Vetch flowers before dashing back down into the grass. Such a great lifebird (#479).
Giddy, I then drove the short distance to “the narrows” a good spot to see waterbirds. Someone usually puts some seeds out for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds and ducks and this was the case today.
Baskett Slough is a good place to see Black-necked Stilts.
They even nest here.
There were a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes flying by.
And I had a teal slam, seeing Cinnamon, Green-winged, and this Blue-winged Teal.
There had been a Whimbrel reported the week prior, which is rare for the area and would be cool to see. I wasn’t as lucky, the best shorebird I could pull off was this super distant Dunlin.
Closer and more vocal was this Wilson’s Snipe, calling “chip-chip-chip-chip-chip!”
Another fun sighting was this American Bittern, hunting out in the open.
It was turning out to be quite the morning. The icing on the cake was seeing four Virginia Rails hopping through the grass, and one that sat out in the sun preening.
It doesn’t get much better than that. I was glad I’d arrived early. I saw all the birds I’d hoped for and made it out before the huge rainstorm moved in.
It’s been rough, but it’s getting better. The things that make it less rough are reading about birds, looking at birds outside the window, and thinking about birds. The yard birds have been okay, the best being a Barred Owl calling outside the week before surgery.
Other than that, besides a whole lot of juncos, we’ve seen our reliable and spunky Anna’s Hummingbirds, the occasional pair of Fox Sparrows, and a less than regular Townsend’s Warbler. Luckily there’s the (mostly-annoying) ever-amusing squirrels keeping us entertained.
Better than Netflix. Apparently I’ve picked a good time of year to have surgery because birding is slow. It’s the lull before spring. To liven things up, my friends Sarah and Max offered to take me on an outing to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, a perfect destination for those with walking challenges because: auto tour! Never have I been so excited for a car ride.
They picked me up and off we went on a chilly, but gorgeous weekend morning.
Bright robin morning
There were American Coots, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Tundra Swans flying in and out and foraging in the winter waters.
We saw Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and a gorgeous adult Red-shouldered Hawk.
We got a look at Jen’s favorite albino nutria, that was happy and cozy – and fertile? Yuck. I mean, congratulations!
We listened to Marsh Wrens and hoped for Swamp Sparrows. We cheered when we looked overhead and saw FOY Tree Sparrows zooming around in the sky like maniacs.
FOY terrible swallow photo
At the end of the trail we scanned the grasses when we heard a Virginia Rail! (and got a quick glimpse of rail tail). Then Sarah spotted an American Bittern that I eventually saw.
So cool. And to think, I’d almost left my camera at home.
After completing the loop we stopped by the information kiosk and decided to go around again after the kind refuge volunteer gave us excellent directions to a well-camouflaged Great Horned Owl.
Just a coupe of tufts
And another bunch of birds we’d missed, Wilson’s Snipes!
What? Don’t see them? Neither did we until we looked a little closer.
So many sneaky snipes! Love those birds.
On the way out the second time around we also got a bonus banded Cackling Goose.
This little lady (K9*) was banded five years ago, 2,000 miles away in Bethel, Alaska. Good job, goose!
And good job us! We left the refuge 51 species richer and feeling very satisfied spending the morning with such great birds and great company.
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!