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

Eastward to Walla Walla

Last year, every bird was a life bird. By mid-February 2015 I had seen 77 new-to-me bird species. 77 lifers! I didn’t even know what a “lifer” was then. Over my first year birding, I saw 253 life birds. Not that I’m counting. But, yeah, I’m counting. So far this year I’ve seen 98 species (year birds), but only two lifers (more about one of those below). I now understand the significance. Perhaps I should have paced myself?

SeeAllTheBirds!

Nah. I’m okay with the bar set high. It’s made me a busy birder. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t chasing red dots on Birdseye like a cat chasing laser lights since the first of the year. Last weekend, I drove four hours to southeastern Washington to catch some red dots along the Snake River.

Snake River

I caught a few at Hollebeke Habitat Management Unit. Like what I would call my first “obvious” Sharp-shinned Hawk (small head, skinny legs, square tail).

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

And (less obvious) Cooper’s Hawk below. I think.

Cooper's Hawk

Maybe that’s the same bird? There were at least a couple of each. I swear.

I also saw Dark-eyed Junco, Cedar Waxwing, Bald Eagles, American Coot, Northern Harrier, White-Crowned Sparrows, American Robin, Varied Thrush, and many Northern Flicker.

Northern Flicker

An American Kestrel with a snack.

American Kestrel

And Black-billed Magpie, both living and loud and tattered in pieces.

Black-billed Magpie

Wonder who the culprit was? At one point along the trail, I practically tripped over piles of pellets.

Pellets

Pellet

Yum

And whitewash? There was a little.

Whitewash

Then I looked up. Great Horned Owl!

Great Horned Owl

Hello handsome.

Great Horned Owl

I slunk away quietly to disturb as little as possible.

Continuing on I found a Northern Shrike!

Northern Shrike

And I saw one notable bird I recognized from my Florida trip, a Northern Mockingbird!
Apparently, a pretty good sighting for this location. Birder score.

Northern Mockingbird Northern Mockingbird

It was great birding all the birds on Hollebeke, but I still had found no life birds. I was kind of surprised. So, armed with knowledge from Scott Carpenter’s Nature Night series on owling, and hoping for new owls, I moved on to stare at willow thickets.

Willow thicket

I drove back and forth super slowly about 8-10 times for over an hour. I saw nothing. Eventually, nature called, and there are no restrooms in the middle of nowhere. I got out, went behind the thickets, and spooked four owls. Dang it! While falling over, I tried to take pictures of the blurry owl rockets.

Long-eared Owl Long-eared Owl

Judging by the barred tail in the first awful photo, these are indeed Long-eared Owls. Technically, a life bird! My first of 2016. But so bummed to spook them, I almost don’t want to count it. Almost. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to stare at willow thickets. Or next time I’ll wait until after sunset.

I wanted to check out Bennington Lake the next day, so I proceeded to nearby Walla Walla to stay for the night. If you have not heard comedian, Mike Birbiglia’s story of sleep walking while staying at La Quinta Inn (La Keen-TA Inn in Wahya Wahya Washginton), do yourself a favor and spend the next 7 minutes laughing at his story. I stayed in the room!!

Sleepwalk with me

Living the birder rock-n-roll lifestyle.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Alaska By Land – Denali Part I

Before going to Denali, I did my homework. There was a slim chance we’d be eaten by bears and I wanted that chance slimmer. Planning is key (*see end notes).

Grizzly in Denali

We traveled by train- the Denali Star, to reach the park. I humored the idea of birding by train, but that was pretty much impossible. The conductors did, however, point out Osprey nests and Trumpeter Swans as we whizzed by. We also had our first moose sighting by train.

Trumpeter Swans

I went to Alaska, and all I got was this blurry picture of Trumpeter Swans.

I had hoped to see a Willow Ptarmigan (related to pterodactyl, obviously) on our Alaska trip at some point. A “typical bird of the arctic tundra.” Spoiler alert – I did not see one. The closest I got was seeing two round “bird-like objects” flee for their lives from the shrubs alongside the moving train. Possibly ptarmigan, but unconfirmed.

After the eight hour train ride, we finally arrived at the park. We completed the required backcountry training, picked out our backcountry unit (unit 6, my first choice!), acquired our bear resistant canisters, and stayed the first night near the park entrance at Riley Creek Campground. Where it rained. And poured. And rained some more.

Hopeful for improved weather, we boarded the shuttle bus early the next morning for the 5 hour ride to Wonder Lake Campground. A glimpse of the shuttle-bus fun:

Wildlife viewing

Wildlife viewing

Magpies!

Magpies!

Polychrome Mtn edge

Polychrome Mtns

We arrived at Wonder Lake and set up camp.

Wonder Lake Campground

It is a surreal place. Beyond those clouds, only 26 miles away, is the highest peak in North America, Denali, “The High One.” Wonder Lake is the closest campground to the mountain, but living up to its reputation, the peak was obscured by clouds. Only 30% of Denali park visitors are fortunate enough to see the mountain.

We set off for a hike on the nearby Mckinley Bar Trail, one of the few established trails in the park. Here I focused my attention on the partly obscured birds. We saw flocks of Wilson’s Warblers (not pictured: the rest of the flock).

Wilson's Warbler

We saw a few other “common” birds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (juvenile, Myrtle)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (juvenile, Myrtle)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (They're everywhere!)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, adult (They’re everywhere!)

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow (not so juvenile, "first winter")

White-crowned Sparrow, not so juvenile (“first winter”)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

These Greater White-fronted Geese were kind of a surprise find while exploring the trail.

Greater White-fronted Geese

As was this moose!

Moose

We could finally put into practice what we’d learned to do during a wildlife encounter. Speak calmly, and back away. Moose want their space, and they’ll charge you to get it. This one was directly on the trail in front of us, so we made a large circle around the tundra to avoid her, meanwhile keeping her within eye-sight, as she kept an eye on us. We were nervous she may have a calf, but we never saw one, and she continued munching on the brush, and eventually moved on into the thickets.

Moose

Moose

Whew. It was good practice for our next few nights in the backcountry where we would experience the most remote hiking we’ve ever done.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

*Because it might be useful to someone somewhere:

How backpacking Denali works: The 6 million park acres are broken into 87 backcountry units. 41 of the (more accessible) units have a quota (2-12 people). A (free) permit must be obtained in-person from the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) to access units. Along with paperwork and using/borrowing bear-food canisters, they require a basic training process for hiking in bear country (video/instruction). In all, it took us 2 hours at the office to pick a unit and complete training. (About 1.5 hours longer than I thought it would).

Denali has one 92 mile road. In summer, only the first 15 miles of the road is accessible by car. Shuttle buses are the way to access the park, but camper buses specifically are the way to access with camping gear (backpacks and bicycles). There’s a difference between the buses – I learned that the hard way.

Because of the unit quotas and in-person permit requirement, popular units are often full. One trick is to stay a night (or two) at Wonder Lake (last stop) because they will allow picking units for the following nights after WL, giving you a head start. Wonder Lake is also close (26 mi) to Denali (mtn).  A shuttle bus departs Wonder Lake pretty early that can then make a drop off at a desired unit location.

I found it inspiring and helpful to read trip report blogs, blogs, and more blogs. Even Trip Advisor has some knowledgeable insight from a few locals. And Backpacker guide has a trip suggestion.

For bear safety, aside from the backcountry video and safety talk at the park, we found this entertaining video produced by Mirror Lake Middle School.

Go. It’s all worth it.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my sense put in order.” – John Burroughs, naturalist and nature essayist.