About a mile wide and 200 ft tall, Fort Rock is yet another of Oregon’s magnificent geologic features. It is a tuff ring formed 50,000-100,000 years ago when magma rose up to meet water and lake mud. Fort Rock was once an island when the whole place was intermittently flooded by Fort Rock Lake. Hard to imagine.
Today, the natural area is a desert filled with rocks, sage, flowers, insects, lizards, grasses. And birds. Tomas and I visited the park twice in three days. It’s that good. The first time we were met by swarms of White-throated Swifts, Cliff Swallows, and a conspiracy of Ravens. I was told sometimes there are humming bird feeders up, but not this time.
While on the short hike inside the fort we heard the cry of a falcon, and looked up to see a juvenile Prairie Falcon.
High up on the cliff walls, it stretched its wings and called out loudly. This was the first time I got a good look at the brown color patterns and dark “armpits” that distinguish this bird from a Peregrine Falcon.
I noticed its larger size compared to American Kestrels. They also nest here.
There was plenty of evidence owls also nest in the cliff cavities (Barn Owls I think). We searched for a long while, but couldn’t find the birds. Just the bones.
I chased around one colorful songster around the fort until it finally revealed itself. A Green-tailed Towhee! A first for me.
That is a fun bird. Not only does it have a fancy cap and tail, it has a pretty song too.
On our second visit we arrived earlier and got great views of Sage Thrashers.
And sparrows. Like this Brewer’s Sparrow.
And Sage Thrashers AND sparrows. A two-fer!
Another target bird showed up in good numbers this morning that was absent the day before. Sagebrush Sparrow!
Oh that’s embarrassing, there’s something on your face.
It was hard to pull myself away from these handsome birds. But we had another destination to get to. Oregon has so many hidden gems. You can live in a state over a decade and not realize they are there. Unless you look for them.
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!
And I finally had some quality alone time with shorebirds. Like the Marbled Godwit!
What took me so long? It’s GODWIT Days. Here’s another!
And here’s one next to a Willet!
Honestly, I hadn’t seen a Willet since my Florida trip, so long ago that I forgot what they looked like. This trip was a good refresher.
Another (rougher looking) Willet
And here’s a Godwit with an upside down bill and a hat! Oh, no, wait. That’s a Whimbrel. New bird!
Not a Godwit
I also saw Caspian Tern on the shore and a couple hunting from the air. Terns are always entertaining.
Later in the day, Tomas and I decided to return to the Arcata Marsh together. Quite a few good birds were on the scene.
Snowy Egret (look at that foot!)
Ruddy Duck, nice bill!
Just before we left, we came across this crazy looking bird.
A closer look at the chunky, red-eyed bird.
A juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron! We noticed adults perched nearby obscured by bushes. Good bird finds at the marsh!
Two out of four evenings on this trip, Tomas and I spent staring at old barns.
Because that’s how couples spend romantic evenings together, right? Yes, yes it is. And rumor on V St. Loop was that Barn Owls like to join the party. The first night we stared at the wrong barn, but the second night we got it right. Two hours before sunset we were in place and ready.
Where is the owl?
While we waited, a variety of birds entertained us.
Barn Swallows swarmed the abandoned houses
A pair of Greater Yellowlegs happened to be in a nearby field
Brewer’s Blackbird (female)
The Brewer’s Blackbirds were the best distractions.
I hadn’t noticed before, but they scrunch themselves in a puffy ball and kind of wind themselves up before they “sing” a short tchup or chuk. Wish I’d taken a video. (Here’s someone else’s video of one in a parking lot.)
The other bird that was fun to watch was the White-tailed Kite.
My pictures don’t do it justice. I think local student Hanalee Hayes’s drawing is way better.
I had only seen one before on a recent trip to Tillamook, and now I’d seen three in a matter of days (four if you count this drawing). Winning at birding.
Things quieted down, and the sun set.
Moments later in the darkness an owl flew from the barn. Right on schedule. First Barn Owl of the year! Second in my life! So awesome! And totally worth the wait.
It immediately set out hunting, caught something (presumed rodent), and returned to the barn. Not long after, it left again and flew over the field in front of us, and to our surprise, shrieked it’s hissing call, “cssssshhH!”Amazing.
We watched until it was so dark our eyes could barely focus as it flew off over hills far away. So good.