I stayed two nights in the historic Frenchglen Hotel. Established in 1916, the hotel has interesting history and rustic charm. The rooms are small and the bathrooms shared, but I was most excited for the family dining experience. I’m not usually into family dining, but in this setting I found it delightful and charming.
Dinner is promptly served at 6:30pm and consisted of tasty local fare followed by apple cobbler for dessert. While grazing, Tomas and I chatted with another Portland couple visiting in a similar fashion to us, but the best part was listening to stories from the retired couple at the opposite end of the table about their encounters earlier in the day with wild horses and burrowing owls. I listened carefully.
And the next morning when Tomas set off for his bike tour over Steens Mountain, I set off in search of owls.
Love that guy
The plan was Tomas would bike tour for a week while I birded the surrounding area so I could also provide a pick-up if needed. Best of both worlds. We set off and though I tried hard, searching the shrubs along gravel roads, checking multiple sites, I failed to find any owls.
But I did find Golden Eagles.
It was neat to see the different variations, the one on the left with white patches under the wings and tail is a juvenile. I pulled over at another stop and saw four (!) perched on a power pole in the far distance. See terrible photo evidence (note the American Kestrel perched on the juniper to the right):
One big happy family
While driving around I spooked several birds along the roadsides, occasionally finding a cooperative one or two perched on barbed wire.
And waiting to strike, Loggerhead Shrike.
It was exciting to get roadside views of pronghorn.
Butt, butt, pronghorn
Classic eastern Oregon.
And not far away, hopeful coyote.
After too many hours of driving, I returned to Frenchglen and discovered the P Ranch historic area of Malheur. Named after Peter French, a nineteenth century rancher, the P ranch is now a part of Malheur National Wildlife. Old structures, barns, fields, and paths along the Donner und Blitzen River, it was really pretty and I spent some time poking around and finding a few birds including:
Being in Malheur, I really wanted to find something exotic. Because Maheur, right? I got pretty excited when I saw this weirdo bird.
It took me a while to realize it was just an American Goldfinch in transition to non-breeding plumage. Then another point I got excited when I saw something I thought looked grouse-like in a field.
Not until I got home and studied the photo when I realized it must be an American Kestrel in a chicken suit. Strike two. Birding is hard.
Lets look at deer instead.
Better. At least I recognized one bird.
Bank Swallow! Hanging on the wire next to with a bunch of Barn Swallows and the moon.
As it got dark, Common Nighthawks flew by peenting along the way as I made my way back to the hotel room for the last night. In the morning, I would head to Steens Mountain to see what I could find.
This summer has been rough at Broughton Beach. Early in the season, in hopes of a reported Least Sandpiper, I thought a quick stop after work would do. But when I arrived…
No birds. Just big crowds of people. Big miss.
Undeterred, I returned the following Saturday at 5:30am when I knew there’d be fewer people.
Early morning scritches
So far so good. Nobody there but early birds eating crayfish.
I peeked around and found many juvenile birds, like this Savannah Sparrow.
And Dark-eyed Junco.
Hello baby bird season (aka stripey, streaky, weird-looking birds). It never gets old. Right, European Starlings?
I made it to the gull roost and back to the parking lot without finding any peeps. I was kind of bummed, and this was when I also realized I’d lost my keys. Ugh. Major fail. I texted Tomas for rescue and proceeded to retrace my steps. At least I could look for more birds in the mean time.
I made it all the way back to the gull roost, when wouldn’t you know it, Least Sandpiper! Warm brown colored, slightly drooping bill, yellow legs. Yay!
At least there was that, I thought. And even better, halfway back to the parking lot, in the tall grass I found my keys! Thank goodness for bright orange wristbands. Major relief.
The next trip to Broughton was even better. Right as I got out of the car, I spotted a coyote in the parking lot!
I grabbed my camera and followed from a distance watching the bold canine trot right out along the multi-use path.
Also on this trip, I watched an Osprey swoop down to the beach gathering nesting materials.
After picking out the best clump of sea-stuff, it returned to the nesting platform out in the Columbia.
Also in the air were other flying things.
And one more that I was really excited to find, a bird I’ve only seen one other time on a Birdathon Trip last year, Bank Swallow!
Least Sandpipers (L) were back! And they brought their friend Western Sandpiper along (R) this time.
Moderately long droopy bill, gray-rufous back, and black legs.
Later, just as I was getting to the car to leave, I heard another surprise, the raspy grating call that could only be a tern. I looked up to see, sure enough, a Caspian Tern!
The final and biggest hit at Broughton was a peep that Jen alerted me to. I couldn’t go on that day, but I told her to tell it to stay put. It worked because the next day I checked it was still there!
Baird’s Sandpiper! A mf lifebird as it turns out. It was the only peep on the shore, and it was so cooperative. It ran by my feet several times.
We were besties. I got great looks as it ran around the beach. Even as it picked up a moth.
And smashed it! Whack!
Good job, lifebird. And why is this a Baird’s Sandpiper? Because of the fairly long slightly drooping bill, distinct stripey chest markings, black legs, and especially because of the long wings that extend beyond the tail.
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!