Snowy goose chase

I was most thankful for hand warmers, an ice-scraper, and new snow tires this past weekend when I drove to eastern Washington in hopes of seeing a Snowy Owl. The backroads were frozen, covered in ice but I barely noticed until I got out of the car (hooray snow tires!). Worth every penny.

Are those paw prints?

I passed flocks of Horned Larks in the snow along the road.

And frozen Red-tailed Hawks (!).

Are those icicles?

And bright Western Meadowlark on icy fences.

For two days I searched and scanned the horizon unsuccessful at finding a Snowy Owl.

G’luck finding any owls

But I wasn’t alone.

I saw a few other cars driving slowly by fields where birders before us had been so lucky. There had been 13 sightings in the area, and one just the day prior. I thought the odds were pretty good, but that’s owls for you. Unreliable.

Instead I was lucky to find Rough-legged Hawks.

And when Jen texted suggesting I try for nearby Common Redpolls I conceded. I was happy for the distraction and it’s a good thing because it worked!

There were about 90 of them, spooked into my view by a Prairie Falcon.

Thanks to that falcon for stirring things up.

I did see some owls on my way out the first evening.

I’d recognize that beefy Great Horned Owl shape anywhere, especially in a leafless tree.

And I saw the heart-shaped face of a Barn Owl in a small cave on the rock wall. Nice to see one in a natural cliff habitat.

After my Snowy Owl dreams melted, I gave up and drove five and a half hours to Bend to look for a goose. Because that’s what you do when you have time, good audiobooks, and cooperative weather.

It’s not just any goose, it’s an Emperor Goose. I arrived at Farewell Bend Park at daybreak, and got out of my car as two other people were returning to their car. They saw me and asked if I was here for the goose. Why, yes, yes I am. They gave me directions, I walked 5 minutes along the river and bam, there was the goose. It’s that easy.

Such a good goose. I watched as it reigned mightily over its kingdom.

I couldn’t believe it, I’d found the goose and it was still so early. What to do next? My growling stomach demanded I first stop at Chow in Bend for the most amazing farm-to-table breakfast. Afterwards I headed to Pine Nursery Park where a Harris’s Sparrow had been sighted recently.

Not the H. Sparrow you’re looking for

Sadly, I dipped on the sparrow. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a Williamson’s Sapsucker!

It took me a minute on the ID which was fun; it’s a female, with a heavily barred back, brownish head, yellow belly, and white rump.

And if I’m reading eBird correclty it was the only WISA sighting in Oregon this December!

Their range map indicates they are in Oregon mainly in the summer, but I’ve been told they’re around in winter in very small numbers. Confirmed and so cool! (IMO, judging from eBird species counts Pine Nursery Park is severely under-birded – if you’re in Bend, you know what to do),

Feeling pretty content afterwards I headed home to spend New Year’s with Tomas. Despite dipping on the owI I had such a fun adventure and I look forward to many more in 2018.

Adventure time

Happy New Year!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bluetail Crazy Train

In December 2016, a rare vagrant called a Red-flanked Bluetail showed up in Lewiston, Idaho. The Red-flanked Buetail breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. This is the first sighting in Idaho and there have only been a handful of other U.S. sightings, mostly in western Alaska. Lewiston is a mere 5 hour 40 minute drive from Portland and the bird was still being seen into January. I was intrigued.

“That’s too far to drive for one bird” someone told me. I don’t know if it was the vacation hangover from Hawaii, the long winter, or because it’s a new year, but I was craving adventure and when another friend showed even more enthusiasm to chase the bird and a second friend opted to drive? – I’m in, let’s go!

Wait! Ice Storm Warning. The Pacific Northwest was under attack of a winter storm scheduled for late Saturday. But it was bright and sunny on Friday and we calculated we could get there late Friday, stay overnight, find the bird early Saturday morning, then make a quick getaway and return to Portland before impending doom.

Thus began the Bluetail Crazy Train adventure.

Bluetail or bust! Choo-choo!

5 hours after traveling it was dark and 5 degrees outside but we checked for Long-eared Owls anyways because you never know. But yes you do know, because it’s never that easy. No LEOWs this time.

Over dinner at the local poultry/ocean-themed restaurant in Clarkston, WA, we toasted to crazy adventures then settled in to our hotel room anxious for the next day.
Would the bird still be there? Would the risks payoff? Would it be worth it?

In the morning we suited up for the single-digit temperatures (21 layers between the three of us!) crossed the border into Idaho and anxiously drove the remaining five miles to Hells Gate State Park. Appropriately, Ice Cube rapped to us over the radio, “You can do it” and we tried to believe him.

We arrived just before sunrise and remained focused. Don’t pay attention to the parking lot Merlin we told ourselves.

Don’t look at me. (Photo courtesy of Kayla McCurry)

We crossed the park hoping the Merlin hadn’t eaten the rarity.

We found a group of birders already staked out at the site. The bird was here! Someone had seen it earlier. Giddy with joy we waited.

It’s up! Everyone cheered.

The Red-flanked Bluetail stayed mostly within the Russian olive branches flitting around flicking her tail, and feeding much like a flycatcher. Occasionally, she dipped down to the water for a drink before hiding again in the deep branches close to the stream.

So pretty! While we waited for her to resurface, we relaxed a bit and were entertained by a sassy Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And a Song Sparrow.

Then the Red-flanked Bluetail resurfaced!

She quickly dipped down again and we waited for another look – just one more! Before finally pulling ourselves away.

We did it! Mission accomplished.

All smiles

We said goodbye to the bluetail and left to look for the icing, a nearby reported Barn Owl. While checking the conifers, a friendly birder pulled up and told us which tree they’d seen the owl in the day before. Kayla looked up, is that snow? Nope that’s a Barn Owl! Found!

This was when we we met Kas Dumroese, a birder on scene who offered to lead us to a nearby park with “fairly reliable” Saw-whet Owls. Um, yes please. Apparently we will follow strangers to random parks if they offer up owls. Seemed legit. Two other birder parties also joined the caravan and off we went.

Our first stop to look for a recent Lesser Black-backed Gull turned up empty, but the stream was full of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a nice yearbird.

We continued, and realized we were driving farther into Idaho, the opposite direction of our return route adding more time to get home, and increasing our chances of meeting the storm. Optimistic, we kept going anyways. Not too much farther we arrived at the park and tromped through the snow to check under conifers.

We found solid clues.

Then we looked under another nearby tree and found a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

With a dead vole gripped underneath! Awesome. And so perfect. She murderously eyed us before returning to sleepy cuteness.

Then someone said, “look, there’s another one!”

Indeed. Peeking out from behind a branch in the same tree was a second saw-whet! So angry. So cute. So perfect.

We couldn’t believe our luck. But also knew we were pushing it on time, so we said our goodbyes and thanks to Kas, his friend Carl and the others, and then hit the road for the long snowy drive home.

We were neck and neck with the storm and it was harrowing at times, but Colleen, having grown up in the mid-west, took it like a champ and got us home safe and sound.

The Bluetail Crazy Train had no regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Fort Rock State Natural Area

After visiting Newberry Caldera, Tomas and I continued an hour south to Fort Rock State Natural Area.

Fort Rock

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.

Fort Rock  Fort Rock

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.

Prairie Falcon

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.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

I noticed its larger size compared to American Kestrels. They also nest here.

American Kestrel

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.

Bones

I chased around one colorful songster around the fort until it finally revealed itself. A Green-tailed Towhee! A first for me.

Green-tailed Towhee

Green-tailed Towhee

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.

Sage Thrasher

And sparrows. Like this Brewer’s Sparrow.

Brewer's Sparrow

And Sage Thrashers AND sparrows. A two-fer!

Sage Thrasher

Another target bird showed up in good numbers this morning that was absent the day before. Sagebrush Sparrow!

Sagebrush Sparrow

Oh that’s embarrassing, there’s something on your face.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Nope, still there.

Sagebrush Sparrow

That’s better. Its song is hard to describe (several trills broken up by short chips) but lovely to listen to.

Sagebrush Sparrow

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.

Keep looking

Keep looking.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey