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

Lincoln City to the sewage ponds

So of course the following weekend I decided to practice my newfound shorebird knowledge. Especially when I saw a report of Wandering Tattlers in Lincoln City. I forgot that I’ve seen one once before on a fence post in Hawaii. Someone should really keep track of these things (Ebird).

But I’d never seen one in Oregon so it’s different.

The fog was thick on the beach when I arrived, but not too thick to spot the Spotted Sandpiper.

Muddy brown above, (no spots because it’s fall), dark brown “comma” on its side, bold eye ring, and bobbing its tail.

Not too far away, I saw a group of birds out on the rocks.

Tattlers! Wandering too close to the waves.

“Wandering” because of their wide distribution across the ocean, and tattler for the “tattling” call if you get too close. Once the sun came out, I had a hard time staying away.

They’re gray all over with a white belly, yellow legs, and a moderately long straight bill. And they like to eat creepy crawly crustaceans off the rocks.

Mmm, yum. Efficient wanderers.

They were so fun to watch I could have stayed all day, but I had another plan in mind. But before I got too far, while passing the sand dunes, I looked to my left and spotted an angel.

That turned out to be a Lark Sparrow in the fog.

A rare bird for the area so a pretty cool sighting. I watched it for a while as it hung out with old man White-crowned Sparrow.

My next stop was an hour and a half drive southeast to the Philomath Sewage Ponds in hopes of another rare bird.

But when I rolled up I saw some signage that gave me pause.

Dang it. I hadn’t known beforehand about the permit and I’m a rule follower so I drove the 6 minutes to the Public Works Office. But the office was closed. So I drove back to the ponds, thought hard about it and decided to ask for forgiveness if necessary. I try to bird on the up-and-up because I don’t want to give birders a bad rep. This time I’d just go in for a minute to take a peek.

It all felt normal. Driving on the levee? Normal. The color of that water? Totally normal, everything’s fine.

Nothing to see here, green feet are par for the course. Everything’s fine.

It didn’t take long to pick out the rare bird swimming in the pond, the American Avocet.

It was cooperative and even popped out for a bit to preen at the edge of the ponds.

The green water goes well with its legs. Elegant as ever it returned to the sewage water and swam up next to three Long-billed Curlews. Another rarity for the area.

The risk was certainly paying off so far. At least in bill length.

I drove around again getting a shorebird workout with a Least Sandpiper (yellow legs, short bill).

Western Sandpiper (longer bill with slight droop, black legs, reddish “shoulders”).

And Greater Yellowlegs hunting at the edge of the ponds with those bright yellow legs.

And a bill length greater than half proportion with the head that expertly picks out pond treats.

Once more around I found a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes swimming in the middle.

Thin, fine bill, dark eye stripe, stripes on their backs, these turned out to be a lifebird!

Good things turned up in these ponds! I’m glad I gave them a go. It was late afternoon by then but a rare-bird alert of an American Redstart at the North Jetty in Newport was too tempting to resist. I got cocky.

I drove the hour back to Newport, but all I found were a handful of birders who’d been looking for a couple of hours under the bridge.

Win some, lose some, but I still felt pretty lucky this time!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

February birds cont’d

A majority of my February was spent obsessively looking for screech owls on Mt Tabor. I made about a dozen trips at various early-morning and late-night hours but all I could come up with is a lone Barred Owl calling early one the morning.


 
My search continues.

Outside my five mile radius, however at Oak’s Bottom I struck gold.

Or silver actually. While hiking, I happened to notice a slightly silver feather pattern peeking out of the side of a tree that I was about 85% sure was an owl. I was confident enough to return at sunset to see what happens after dark.

Oaks Bottom at sunset

Sure enough.

Right on cue just after sunset, a sleepy Western Screech Owl peeked its head out! It’s the first one I’ve found on my own. And only the third I’ve ever seen. The first was at this exact park (in a different tree) two years ago on a Birdathon trip. It’s quite possible this is the same owl, or that owl’s partner.

Minutes later as the sky darkened, the owl woke up and looked out further.

I had brought Tomas along with me and together we watched this incredible creature wake up and survey its surroundings. Not wanting to disturb it, we decided to leave before it exited the trunk.

Just as we turned around it flew out over our heads and perched on a low shrub nearby. It called it’s ping-pong call for a few minutes (and another owl nearby responded!) before it then darted into the darkness to hunt. We were ecstatic as we hiked out.

Then Tomas said – look!

It was right next to us along the trail! So tiny, about the size of a soda can. In the dark we could barely keep track as it flew down to the water, and we heard a splash as it caught something (a fish?), then we quickly lost track again. I felt incredibly lucky.

A daylight search on Mt Tabor turned up Fox Sparrow, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and Band-tailed Pigeon to add to my 5MR.

Welcome back pigeon

And on a trip to Broughton Beach I found Brewer’s Blackbird, Horned Grebe, Killdeer, and one early morning I was lucky to find a flock of Horned Lark.

Back at home one rainy day I birded from our bedroom window and managed to see an American Goldfinch hanging with the Lesser Goldfinch.

Sometimes it’s nice to bird from bed when it’s so dreary outside.

Lesser Goldfinch

From the window I also saw a rare sight of two Anna’s Hummingbirds at the feeder at once. That never happens.

And did I mention my Townsend’s Warbler is back?

They sure do make these rainy days brighter.

Lights me up every time. Hope things dry out soon! Marching on to spring…

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey