2019: Resetting the tripometer

I ended 2018 having seen 325 species of birds in Oregon in a single year. It was fun, rewarding, and a ton of work. Something I’ll likely not do again for a while. This year it’s time to revisit old friends close to home. Inspired by Jen Sanford I’m resurrecting my 5MR and birding mostly within a “5-mile radius” from my house.

It’s a great way to explore underbirded local patches, reduce driving time, and expand on eBird’s citizen science database.

All those blue dots? Those are eBird hotspots within 5 miles of my house. Learn how to make a handy-dandy map like that here. I made a pretty solid 5MR effort in 2017 ending with 152 species so trying to match or surpass this might be a good goal this year. Certainly adding new species is worthwhile.

I started 2019 at the coast, so it took a day or two to get back into my radius. My first bird of the year was a Common Raven at Heceta Head Lighthouse. I was happy to start with something that meant I wasn’t at home.

Happy New Year!

I attempted to see a Sedge Wren in Florence (by guided access on McKenzie River Trust property). But it was so cold and windy this time, the wren never popped out or made any calls. That’ll teach me to bird outside my 5MR.

I quickly retreated back to the comfort of my circle. It was slow going at first. I focused on rare birds that might not be around very long. It took me four tries but I finally re-found Eric’s Eastern Bluebirds still visiting the Dharma Zen Rain Center.

Just as cute as I remember in 2018.

In addition to plain old 5MR fun, Jen’s adding monthly challenges to keep things interesting. January’s challenge is to fill in gaps of eBird hotspots. Since I’ve been working (and not on furlough), I’ve only gained two “points” so far by adding data to Holladay Park (hello Rock Pigeons and Red-tailed Hawks).

But the best was one day after work, I had about 45 minutes to bird before dark so I picked the closest hotspot from my house missing data that turned out to be a trail along the Columbia Slough. I didn’t expect to find much and since it was getting dark I didn’t even bring my camera. Big mistake! It turned out to be very birdy, I found 20 species including a continuing rare Blue-gray Gnatcatcher! Here’s my terrible iphone documentation:

That’ll teach me to leave my camera behind. Such a great find so close to home! Another 5MR highlight was a Northern Shrike sitting just at the edge of my circle at Vanport Wetlands. I’ll take it!

A big perk of 5MR birding is that many spots are bikeable. Inspired by my friend Eric (who’s doing his 5MR all by bike this year), I biked 2 miles to look for a reliable Black Phoebe visiting a local Radisson Hotel pond.

It worked! This was one big sunny success all around.

During the NE Portland CBC (Christmas Bird Count) Colby Neuman and team found a Palm Warbler that happened to be in my 5MR. This bird became my next target species. I made several attempts without success. After dipping one time, I went for a Eurasian Wigeon instead with better results.

That included a bonus sleepy 5MR Redhead.

On my fourth try (this time by bike!), I was extra determined to find the warbler. It had been seen in an industrial area with pockets of old pumpkin patches mixed in. But for a long time all I could find were Yellow-rumped Warblers enjoying the pumpkin bug-buffet.

A few other birders joined in the search and together we tromped around and spooked up a very lost Yellow Warbler.

That had zero desire to be seen.

Warbler of Nope

Better looks at Yellow Warblers coming this spring. We continued looking for the palm which would likely not be around then. Again we got close to a warbler flock when a Sharp-shinned Hawk spooked the whole lot. Foiled again!

Blurry Danger Hawk

By now I’d been searching for about three hours, but undeterred I kept going and after noon, despite wind and hawks, and light trespassing – ehem – I mean adventuring, the flock finally settled right in front of me and there was the Palm Warbler!

Yes!!!

County bird #216 and an excellent 5MR warbler. I worked pretty hard for this one.

Mudness

I was so pumped I took a tip from a friend and biked another 5 miles to Whitaker Ponds for a couple more 5MR birds.

An easy Spotted Sandpiper and a slightly less easy Great Horned Owl.

The best part? I bumped into my 5MR buddy Eric here and we were able to share some birds together. Including his FOY Bald Eagle.

We watched Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets terrorize the eagle before it flew off. And then we biked to celebratory pizza and beer.

2019 had a bumpy start but overall it’s going great. Three weeks in and I’ve biked 20 miles and seen 72 species so I think I’m doing all right.

Streeeetch

Keep reaching for those birds.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Tits and Towhees

I’d just seen the Tundra Bean Goose at Finley National Wildlife Refuge when a report came in of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in Portland. I hadn’t planned beyond the goose, but I did have to head back home eventually. Why not try for the gnatcatcher? It was only 10 minutes from my house. 

My friend Courtney took the trip as well and moments after exiting our cars we heard a wheezy gnatcatcher whine. Soon after we saw the bird. So lucky! 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (#309!)

We made a quick try for a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker that would be a lifer for Courtney, but the bird was a no-show. Not so lucky. We had just enough daylight left to find White-winged Scoters at Hayden Island. 

Some of these are not like the others

The next day it was time to look for buntings. A flock of Snow Buntings including a “pale” individual that is a possible McKay’s Bunting has been teasing birders along Del Rey and Sunset Beach. This time Eric joined in the fun and together we met Courtney at Del Rey Beach early in the morning.

 We piled into my car and drove on the beach scanning for buntings. After a short while, Courtney spotted them!

Eventually we found a larger flock. It was then that another carload of birder friends joined in the chase. We alternated coverage over the 7 mile stretch the birds navigated. At one moment standing outside the cars the birds whooshed right over us. It was amazing. I heard a couple of their buzzing flight calls and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t get a recording. 

Finally we spotted a good candidate for a McKay’s Bunting, “the pale one.”

But I feel ill-equipped at identifying this species, so I’ve left it as Snow/McKay’s until further review. There are only a few thousand of these (remote tundra breeding) birds in the world, and first winter female birds are hard to identify for even those familiar with them (how much white exactly is on that R3 tail feather?). And there’s another problem, sometimes they hybridize with Snow Buntings. So, for now it’s a “pale bunting” and a fun chase. 

We took a side trip to Seaside where Eric saw his lifer Rock Sandpiper.

And on the way home we stopped at a clearcut area and got a diagnostic but unsatisfying “look” at a Northern Pygmy-Owl zoom through trees, leaving much more to be desired.  

The next day, while I looked for grouse the news about the former president passing away came in. This meant an office closure, and I already had another day off planned. The only next logical step was to drive to Ashland to look for birds. Obviously.

It was cold and windy when I woke up in southern Oregon and after trying many locations  without finding much I ended up at the best trail near Medford, Upper Table Rock Trail

It is a short, moderately steep 3.3 mile trail, (the longest distance I’ve hiked since surgery!). It felt good to hike. It felt even better when about halfway up I heard what sounded to me like a wheezy Mountain Chickadee that turned out to be an Oak Titmouse! A bird I very much had hoped to see. #311

In Oregon they’re only found in this far southern location which is why I’ve not seen them here before. I had just met Oak Titmice in California (my 500th bird species!), but I think they’re cuter in Oregon. 

I continued uptrail wondering if I would meet my other target bird, another south-central Oregon specialty, the California Towhee, when it got very birdy along the trail. Kinglets, chickadees, sparrows, flew all around me when I noticed a Spotted Towhee and wondered if this was a good spot for other towhees. Indeed it was! 

California Towhee! #312

It’s so interesting two towhee species fill a niche here, right alongside one another. 

Towhee meet towhee

Elated I finished the hike and made it to the top. 

So glad the trip had been worth it. 

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey