Once inside Summer Lake Wildlife Area it was on. I had no responsibilities or schedule to keep, my only job was to look at birds and I looked at as many as I could. It was exciting and overwhelming all at once. This must be what vacation feels like?
The refuge itself is set up much like Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge with an (8.3 mile) auto tour loop. There’s places to park and walk along the dikes, and a few camping areas on the refuge. Here’s a map. The best time to visit is spring (Mar-Jul), the auto route is closed during hunting season (Oct-Jan). The weather can be crazy, thunderstorms, hail, wind. And there’s a few bugs.
But it’s worth it because there are birds. So many birds. At headquarters there were Cliff Swallows, Tree Swallows, Say’s Phoebe, Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Kingbird and House Sparrow. Sometimes lined up all in one place.
Looking at hummingbird feeders next to headquarters I was rewarded with the only hummingbirds of the whole trip, Black-chinned Hummingbird. But I saw more Bullock’s Orioles at the feeders than hummers.
The real stars of this refuge are the long-legged kind.
And Willets perched on shrubs! Calling “pill-will-willet!”
I probably went around the loop a dozen times (at least) and each time I’d see something different or unique. Some of the more unusual sightings included this trio of Franklin’s Gulls seen only on the first night.
And the same night a Bald Eagle flew over a marsh in the distance creating an amazing White-faced Ibis chaos cloud.
While scoping out camping options just before a storm, I noticed a small patch of willows full of warblers, Yellow Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and a MacGuillivray’s Warbler that made a special appearance.
There are Caspian and Forster’s Terns, California and Ring-billed Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorant nesting colonies here.
Did I mention there were Snowy Plovers?
I spent so much time on the refuge I was able to help out the Owl Be Damned Birdathon team (the world’s greatest women’s birding team) that happened to visit while I was there.
Together we looked at Great Horned Owls, including owlets!
A Western Grebe with a pile of babies on its back that I only got terrible photos of. And I was also able to share with them a Short-eared Owl that was one of the best surprises.
I camped on the refuge two nights, and both times I was the only person at the site. One night was so stormy and windy I made the executive decision to move into a barn.
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!
Truthfully, I never liked the desert. It’s hot, dry, exposed, I’m more of a lush, green forest kind of girl. But that’s what birding does. It opens the world up to possibility even in remote places. Like nomads, Tomas and I spent three days exploring Oregon’s vast east, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, that includes three units: Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rock.
Highlights included listening to Bullock’s Orioles chatter along the John Day River at our campsite while hanging out with a nesting pair of Osprey.
And watching the Osprey boldly dive after a Golden Eagle that came too close to the nest perimeter.
At a random rest area along U.S. Hwy. 97 I found my first Lark Sparrow. What a striking facial pattern!
I hiked along the Blue Basin Rim Trail in the Sheep Rock Unit and saw Say’s Phoebe, Western Kingbird, more Lark Sparrows, and a new hummingbird!
All hummingbirds are Anna’s to me until proven otherwise, and it wasn’t until I was able to examine the photos more closely that I could see a thin bit of iridescent purple under the black chin, positively ID’ing the Black-chinned Hummingbird!
Other birds I saw on the hike:
And I met a new-to-me flycatcher, the Ash-throated Flycatcher! Identified by habitat (open, arid areas), the pale grey chest, pale yellow belly, and long rusty tail.