Texas: Estero to Bentsen

The next morning Jen and I left the cabins at 3am because that’s normal. Actually it’s the opposite of normal, but it’s an excellent way to make good time driving when you aren’t distracted by birds along the way. We had to drive 6 hours south to pick up the rest of the spring-break birding crew from the Brownsville airport.

So efficient. Until daylight broke and we immediately pulled over by the first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher! This one’s named Rudolph.

We arrived in Brownsville with enough time to make a quick stop near the airport at Dean Porter Park. Here we saw Neotropic Cormorants (that look similar to Double-crested Cormorants), Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, lifer after lifer after lifer.

We also saw some familiar faces.

Black-necked Stilt

White Ibis

“You can’t see me” -Muscovy Duck

And I had way to much fun entertained by Great-tailed Grackles.

And Laughing Gulls. I’m especially fond of gulls that are easy to ID.

No question you are hilarious.

We made it to the airport in time to pick up Sarah, Max and Eric. They’d flown in on a red-eye and we’d been up since 3am. We were all ready to bird. A quick stop at the Airbnb to drop off luggage and we arrived at Estero Llano Grande State Park to meet up with Jen’s Texas buddy, Nate and his friend from Austin, AJ.

Compared to PacNW parks, the “World Birding Centers” of Texas are a bit different. They are more maintained, usually have feeders, operation hours, and moderate entry fees. It’s all worth it. Upon entry we were immediately overwhelmed at the feeders when Eric got his lifer Northern Cardinal.

Then I got my lifer Curve-billed Thrasher.

Then we all (minus the Texans) got lifer Chachalacas!

These dinosaur-like birds are Plain Chachalacas (Cha-cha-la-cas). Fun to say and fun to watch. They are “the only member of the family of guans, currasows, and chachalacas to reach the United States.” They are big and loud.

Then before you know it, they melt into the forest and disappear.

Bye-bye Cha-chas. Hello Buff-bellied Hummingbird!

We then scanned the pond area and found Little Blue Heron, White-faced Ibis, Stilt Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Blue-winged, Cinnamon, and Green Teal (teal trifecta).

Watch where you’re pointing that thing

At another pond we met the Least Grebe.

That eye.

Then Nate led us to another part of the park to see a Common Pauraque.

Or not see it. Where bird?

Best camo ever.

This place was ridiculous.

AYFKM?

Just as we left Estero, my lifer Long-billed Thrasher bid us farewell. Lifers around every corner.

We filled up on tacos at Nana’s Taqueria before heading to our final destination of the day, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Rumor was there was a possible Elf Owl nesting site there. We arrived just before sundown.

Just in time to squeeze in a Ringed Kingfisher sighting.

Before gathering with 18 other hopeful birders to stare at a hole in a telephone pole.

Cheap seats

Just after dark to everyone’s glee a tiny owl popped out from the forest and perched on a nearby wire. Not long after a second owl appeared and then they both disappeared in darkness. Some imagination needed to see this one:

Maybe not the most glamorous sighting, but nevertheless it was a suberb way to end the day. Walking back to the car we watched bats and fireflies and listened to Common Paraque zip around in the sky catching bugs calling “purr-WEEE-eer.”

Only in Texas.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey

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

Malheur Matters

I have been a busy birder this spring.

Two weeks ago, I joined Portland Audubon on a highly anticipated trip to Harney County to visit Malheur National Wildlife. It was my first time traveling to this part of southeastern Oregon, and the first time the area opened since the illegal occupation. I was so excited not just to see thousands of migrating birds, but to support Harney County, show love for public lands, and to be part of a positive influence in the area.

Map holding

Our fearless birdy leaders

We were greeted with mixed reviews from the locals. On one side was the biker gang yelling obscenities at us, and people in big, loud trucks passing aggressively and flipping us off.

Gate sign visible from public road. Photo by Ellen Lewis; Portland, Oregon.

Gate sign visible from public road. Photo by Ellen Lewis; Portland, Oregon.

But that was just the first day. On the other side were welcome signs, friendly hellos, and locals with an obvious sense of humor.

Welcome birders

Welcome

Humor

Thank you, good-humored landowner. (Black-necked Stilts behind the flamingos!)

Despite the local tension, we nature-lovers piled into two vans (that we named White-rumped Yeti and Bobwhite), traveled and explored Harney County over three days, spread the bird love and had an amazing time. I think we represented birders well. Here are some highlights:

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk. We saw two, and a nest!

Van-birding - something good on the right!

Van-birding – lean right! Photo by Linda “Zelda” Saari; Portland, Oregon.

Swainson's Hawk (dark morph), moments before was exchanged with a Rough-legged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk (dark morph) that had moments before swapped places with a Rough-legged Hawk.

Sage-birding

Sage-birding

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl (!)

Good Birders

Good Birders

Ross's Geese

50% of the world’s population of Ross’s Geese stop here.

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlews on every corner

At one point, we watched two (amorous) American Avocets interact in a mating display. They washed each other’s head, swooping water up, then she shook her head “no-no-no”, and he hopped on top. Seconds later they divided and quickly went their separate ways.

American Avocet

Such a pretty bird

Such a pretty bird

It was almost as romantic as watching Sandhill Cranes dance. Almost. Spring love was clearly in the air. Or at least hormones were. One of the most magical moments of the trip was an evening spent watching two Great Horned Owls hoot, nod, and bow, courting each other under the moonlight. Now that’s romantic. Fun-filled video here.

Great Horned Owl

What an experience.

Birders at Buena Vista Ponds Overlook

Birders at Buena Vista Ponds Overlook

Malheur is a vital habitat area to birds and wildlife. Threatened in 1898 by ignorant plume hunters, its preservation importance was officially recognized in 1908, when Theodore Roosevelt gave the executive order, establishing Lake Malheur Reservation.

It’s part of an inland lake system on the Pacific Flyway called the SONEC (Southern Oregon-Northeastern California), and millions of birds stop here during migration, and many, including 20% of North America’s entire breeding population of Cinnamon Teal, use this wetland complex to nest and breed.

Today, collaborative groups work hard to manage this vast landscape for wildlife and visitor usage. [Learn more: watch Portland Audubon Conservation Director, Bob Sallinger’s presentation, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: Past, Present and Future.]

This trip was not just about seeing my first Black-crowned Night Heron or Yellow-headed Blackbird.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Not a plastic bag

But both of those things happened.

Forest-birding, Idlewild Campground

Forest-birding, Idlewild Campground

It wasn’t just about the bluebirds, pronghorn, or Say’s phoebe.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Pronghorn

Pronghorn

Say's Phoebe

Say’s Phoebe

This trip was about appreciating public lands. As much as the birds need this habitat to live, we need these lands to thrive too.

Birders

Happy travelers. Photo by Ellen Lewis; Portland, Oregon.

Since I first heard about Malheur (on day two of birding), and now that I’ve visited, I feel super protective of it. Protective of all our public lands. I’m incredibly thankful to those who have fought in the past, and to those who will continue to fight to keep these lands available to all of us.

Not taking anything for granted.

Photo from Audubon Society of Portland

Photo from Audubon Society of Portland

Malheur matters.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey