Birdathon 2016 – Put an Owl on It

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.

Great Gray Owl

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 Chuckar in the west

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.

Great Horned Owl

Or a family of Barn Owls smooshed in a natural cliff wall cavity.

Barn Owl

And it’s especially worth it to see a Burrowing Owl perched atop sagebrush in the Oregon desert.

Burrowing Owl

It was incredibly hot that weekend, nearing (if not over) 100 degrees. Some birds like this Sage Thrasher panted to stay cool.

Sage Thrasher

Even Common Nighthawks panted.

Common Nighthawk

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.

Common Nighthawk

Birder dreams do come true

Birder dreams do come true

It cooled down some once we gained elevation making our way into the pine forests of the Blue Mountains.

Cool birders

Cool birders

And here in this forest is where we met the family. Mom and her three owlets.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Cutie Pie

Great Gray Owl

Fluffball

Great Gray Owl

Peekaboo

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.

Great Gray Owl

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!).

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's Sapsucker

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.

Sunset

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.

Early birders

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.

Bobolink

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, she wagged her tail while feeding

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!

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

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.

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.

Safe birding

Then we turned around to see a law enforcement vehicle stopped at the road with lights flashing. Busted birders.

Walk of shame

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.

Black-necked Stilt

Nesting Avocet

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!

For the birds.

Tweets and Chirps,

Audrey

Painted Hills II

Tomas and I left the Ochoco National Forest and continued our exploration of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument area.

Pronghorn

Successfully spooking deer and herds of pronghorn along the way.

Pronghorn

Pronghorn

Come back!

Along HWY 19 we pulled over to check out Cathedral Rock.

rock2

Cathedral Rock

While admiring the magnificent colors of the cliff walls, we heard harsh croaking monster screams and looked over hesitantly to see what the racket was. A Great Blue Heron rookery! Of course.

Great Blue Heron

There were three nests full of noisy monster muppet babies. We watched them for a while enjoying the show. Tomas says this was one of his favorite parts of the trip. Yessss.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Watching these primordial looking (and sounding) birds with the ancient towering cliffs in the background was remarkable. A very cool moment.

Continuing along, We saw several other bird species including:

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Red-tailed Hawk (rufous morph)

Red-tailed Hawk (rufous morph)

Swainson's Hawk (dark morph)

Swainson’s Hawk (dark morph)

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

And we even manged to spot American White Pelicans in a pond near Ochoco Reservoir.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

We spent our last night camping at Shelton Wayside County Park in Wheeler County. For camping over a holiday weekend, it wasn’t as horrible as I’d feared. We found a semi-secluded spot, settled in and enjoyed the warm spring evening listening to the symphony of pine cones popping open.

Of course I couldn’t sit still for too long, so I wandered down an old abandoned highway and heard Western Tanager, Lazuli Bunting, and Chipping Sparrows. And I spotted  a Say’s Phoebe on a powerline.

Say's Phoebe

Then I saw a second Say’s Phoebe.

Say's Phoebe

I sat down and watched as one grabbed a large insect expertly out of the air.

Say's Phoebe

It sat perched on the wire, calling its low, whistled sad-sounding “pit-tsee-eur” over and over again. I thought, why aren’t you eating the bug, weirdo? Then I looked over to the building on the right.

Say's Phoebe nest

Ohhhhh. That’s why. I backed further away then not wanting to stress out the bird. It didn’t want to give away the nest location! Good bird. Eventually the chicks got fed.

Say's Phoebe

So amazing! Spring is the best.

Leaving the campground the next morning, we made our way to our last stop, the Clarno Unit.

Clarno Unit

We walked along the paths, looking at the fossilized leaves in the rocks, and imagined how different this place was millions of years ago.

Signage

Incredible. Then we looked up to see White-throated Swifts performing courtship displays! They paired up, clung to one another, and fell, swirling incredibly fast towards the ground. At the last second before impact, they separated and flew off in different directions. One of the coolest bird displays I’ve seen yet.

White-throated Swift

A swift swift

It’s like they gave us the fireworks-grand finale display of the desert. But wait, there’s more!

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Gopher Snake (also known as bull snake)

Gopher Snake (also known as bull snake)

Western Fence Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

Who says the desert is barren?

Full of life

Full of life

Fan of the desert

End of trail

After visiting the painted hills, I’m officially a fan of the desert. Five out of five stars and the cactus agrees.

Chirps,

Audrey

Kennewick, WA

Not long after birding Vancouver Lake, Tomas and I packed up the car for a return trip to southeastern Washington. I felt like there was more to be seen along the Snake River than the weekend before. I was right.

On the drive there (and back) we saw Bighorn Sheep! A first for both of us. My best photo taken from the car going 60 mph along I-84 on the Oregon side.

Bighorn Sheep

The weather was cold, rainy, and windy, so unfortunately camping was out.  Instead, we stayed at Clover Island Inn, which is situated on an island on the Columbia River. I thought it might get me closer to birds on the river, but I’m not sure I would recommend staying there, it’s kind of dumpy. And rather creepy.

Hotel twilight zone captured by Tomas.

Hotel twilight zone captured by Tomas.

The only birds I saw from the hotel were Horned Grebes, American Coots, Canada Geese, Song Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and gulls. The hotel’s most redeeming quality is that it’s within walking distance to Ice Harbor Brewery.

Geese

Geese on way to the pub

The party really picked up along the Snake River. We stopped at every park, from Hood Park to Fishhook Park, and back to McNary National Wildlife Refuge.

We saw Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and Killdeer.

Red-tailed Hawk

Bald Eagle

Killdeer

And I met the angriest owl ever.

Murder

Murder

I’m pretty sure this one’s responsible for several deaths. Including that of at least one Barn Owl. So pretty, so sad. R.I.P. Mr Owl.

Barn Owl feather

Barn Owl leg

We also met an owl that I’m sure wouldn’t hurt a fly. Maybe a small mouse, but not a fly.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

My first Northern Saw-whet Owl!!! So cute!

Murder

Murder

Once the owl high wore off, I came to and noticed a few other birds. Including a new finch!

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's Finch

Cassin's Finch

These are tough. They are either Purple or Cassin’s Finch (I am open to suggestions). Even Whatbird couldn’t agree. Female/juvenile Purple Finch have a distinctive face pattern, strong/blurry streaking on sides and chest, and a shorter bill. Cassin’s streaks are crisper, their beaks are longer with straighter sides, and they have a thin white eye ring. Male CAFI are raspberry red on top, PUFI can be rosy below the crown.

To make matters more interesting, in some parts of Washington both species will flock together. And House Finch will join in the fun too.

HOFI on left, CAFI/PUFI on right

HOFI on left, CAFI/PUFI on right

The more I see them the more I know what to look for. One unmistakable species we came across was a flock of California Quail.

California Quail

California Quail

Too bad I couldn’t get better pictures, they’re so pretty! There were at least 20 of them scurrying in the underbrush calling, clucking, and “pit-pit“-ing alarm calls. These birds have some fantastic sounds.

At McNary NWR, we stopped for a reported Black-crowned Night-Heron and American White Pelican. No luck on the night-heron, but while Tomas sat in the warm, comfy car he spotted the pelican sitting below a Great Blue Heron rookery! Great find!

American White Pelican

Meanwhile, I fought the wind and shrubs and came up with a Marsh Wren. Not bad either.

Marsh Wren

What an awesome trip. On the drive home we even made time for a quick hike at Coyote Wall, the land of sunshine, waterfalls, and rainbows.

Coyote Wall

Doggy

Yep, afterwards we were that content.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey