Winter adventures

January was a good month of birding. Outside my 5MR Philip Kline spotted a Harlequin Duck near Eagle Creek Fish Hatchery in the Gorge, it would be a county bird for me and I thought it would make a great mini-adventure for Tomas and I.

Most of the trails and roads are still closed in the Columbia River Gorge thanks to the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire (started by a teenager setting off fireworks during a burn ban). The highway exit to the fish hatchery is closed but I did some research and found that portions of the bike trail bordering the highway in the gorge are open giving us an easy 3 mile ride from Cascade Locks to Eagle Creek.

Once at Eagle Creek It didn’t take long to spot the lovely brown Harlequin Duck diving near a bend in the river.

It was such a nice time. I spent two hours wedged between some rocks by the river watching the harlequin, goldeneyes, and a pair of American Dippers singing, bobbing, and displaying to one another.

The sweetest

Back in my 5MR I’ve explored some new and old patches. I added two new species to Holladay Park next to my office, a flyover Great Egret and Red-breasted Sapsucker.

Now showing at Holladay Park

I lucked out with a good gull mix at the Downtown Waterfront Park including Ring-billed, California, and a nice Western Gull, slightly more challenging to find away from the coast.

Western Gull and city friends

Another foggy morning I finally made it to Tabor Park this year where I found a Barred Owl hidden deep in the cedar trees.

I texted my friend Eric who biked over to share in the fun. He and I have a good deal of 5MR overlap that can be very convenient. I shared the owl and he returned the favor by finding a nicely perched magical Merlin. Win-win.

We birded by bike together another day, exploring our friendly neighborhood sloughs and found Hermit Thrush, White-breasted Nuthatch, and a Hairy Woodpecker that was an excellent and unexpected 5MR bird for us.

Hairy Woodpecker

A few 5MR parks in Vancouver overlap with Jen’s radius, and she’s been lucky enough to see an American Dipper twice at Biddle Lake inspiring me to cross over and check it out. I’ve yet to refind the 5MR dipper but I did find a nice Pacific Wren.

And my FOY Orange-crowned Warbler! Always a warm winter sight.

Along the Washington side of the Columbia River at Marine Park I saw a nice group of Barrow’s Goldeneye.

And the best was refinding a rare Tufted Duck this past weekend originally found by Jim Danzenbaker at Wintler Park.

Lucky duck

On a return trip from Washington I detoured towards Broughton Beach to look for Short-eared Owls but I didn’t need to go far because as I drove by the airport boundary fence along Marine Drive I did a double-take. Short-eared Owl!

So many good 5MR birds! I’m currently up to 100 species so far this year which sounds like a lot, but it’s still just 69% of the total species seen in Multnomah County.

Bird #100 was a Wilson’s Snipe that Eric and I flushed from the grass at Whitaker Ponds. Unfortunately, it happened too fast for photos. So instead, here’s bird #85 a Townsend’s Warbler that showed up to the yard after I put out homemade suet.

I’m having a lot of fun with mini-adventures in my 5MR, I’ve biked more than I have in a long time and I’ve only had a few pangs of FOMO (fear of missing out). I’m trying to do things differently this year, not that I’m done chasing everything, but I’m pulling back some (until I buy that Prius) (kidding not kidding).

Good 5MR birding.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Whitaker Ponds Nature Park

One of my favorite parks is Whitaker Ponds Nature Park. Ever since my first time there I knew it was a special place. It’s a small (but productive) park at 24 acres with a 1/2-mile flat loop trail. Completely surrounded by urban land, it is a mini-oasis for birds.

And for myself. Here I saw my first Common Merganser, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Great Egret, and Anna’s Hummingbird. And later in the summer my first Western Tanager and Warbling Vireo. And I’ve once seen a family of river otters in the pond.

Needless to say, I’m sentimental about the place.

In the past year, it’s gone through some changes. Where there once was a gorgeous willow tree and field now is a parking lot. I’m kicking myself for not taking more “before” photos, but I hadn’t known about the project until after it was gone. Danger Garden took one of the best photos of that willow tree I could find on the internet. Here’s a couple I took of the progress.

Of course there’s pros and cons, there’s better parking, which will make people feel more comfortable visiting, and hopefully then more people will care about the park. There’s still a problem of transients living and littering in certain forested areas, but in general it’s getting better.

Better?

I’ve recently started following the Columbia Slough Watershed Council on Instagram, they’ve organized and implemented a ton of restoration work on the park. They also provide updates on water levels and beaver activities. (thanks for keeping the beavers, birds, and me happy!)

I’ve seen 87 species at Whitaker Ponds (it even gave me 40 species in my 5-mile radius). Most recent additions were a Hermit Thrush that surprised me before bulleting away as quick as it could.

A Glaucous-winged Gull flyover (no photos), and a female Barrow’s Goldeneye (more yellow on that bill).

Compared to the female Common Goldeneye below (more black bill with yellow tip) and male (right), also hanging in the slough.

While observing the goldeneyes I heard an enticing “zu-wee, zu-wee, zu-wee” and I turned around to the best looks ever of a Hutton’s Vireo.

Thicker bill than Ruby-crowned Kinglet and gray feet (vs. yellow on RCKI).

There were two singing back and forth. Along with endless Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Townsend’s Warblers.

Also on this trip I saw the reliable Black Phoebe.

And I got a quick glimpse of a Spotted Sandpiper.

Just before I spooked a Cooper’s Hawk.

This park is full of surprises. Even sneaky Great Horned Owls.

I wish I could visit every day. It’s less than a 10-minute drive from my house and now that the construction’s completed really I have no excuse. I’ll make a point to visit more often and make it a goal to find more species. I was going to say 100 (since I’m at 87), but that might be a stretch since the top eBirder at the park (Nick Mrvelj) has 97. But we’ll see!

Cheers to local patches!

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