Seattle to Malheur to Astoria IV

The finale! In the morning Tomas confirmed his bike-tour was over and he was ready for a pick-up. I was ready to leave early before the hunters returned anyways so I said goodbye to Steens Mountain and made way back to Frenchglen.

Until next time

While there I noticed a smoky haze had settled and as I drove toward Fields, it gradually worsened. Winds shifted bringing a thick layer of smoke from the fires burning most of Oregon (and nearby Idaho). We’d hoped to avoid the smoke being so far southeast, but it finally caught up to us.

Reunited at the Fields Station Cafe, Tomas and I loaded up on snacks and pondered our next move. We decided to head north where his bike ride would have taken him, toward the Alvord Desert, a 12 by 7-mile dry lake separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range, the Cascades, and Steens Mountain creating a rain shadow. It averages 7″ of rain per year.

It was a part of Oregon I’ve always wanted to see and I was interested to find out what kind of birds we might find here. Unfortunately due to the wildfire smoke visibility was very poor.

But we drove out onto it anyways. Totally legal. In fact deaf American stuntwoman Kitty O’neal set an unofficial women’s world land speed record here in 1976 at 512 mph.

We didn’t set any records, but it was still fun.

After doing donuts we left the desert and continued on. Where are the birds you ask? I asked the same thing. The best bird I saw in this area was a Prairie Falcon on a post.

Then we stopped at Mann Lake which is supposed to be good for shorebirds and terns, but we were met with limitations. Geese? Maybe gnats. Too far, too hazy.

There are several hot springs along this route, but we were already hot enough. At one rest spot I found a Brewer’s Sparrow and a Lark Sparrow taking refuge in the shade. Good comparison of their size difference.

The birds were hot, panting, and disappearing into the smoky heat waves.

Sizzling sparrow

You said it.

We meandered farther passing farm fields until I spotted a Golden Eagle on a power pole. We pulled over and inched closer and closer as it tolerated our presence. Barely.

I was excited for Tomas to see one since he’d drawn a Golden Eagle the first day of the trip but had yet to see any. Especially this close. We left on an eagle high and continued along until just before Burns we pulled over again, this time for a noisy pair of Sandhill Cranes. So good.

Back in Burns it was still smoky. It was also getting late. Considering our options, we decided on Idlewild campground because it was only 20 min north, higher elevation, and forested. Maybe less smoky? We stayed one night and it was slightly better air-quality wise, but not great. I birded the best I could, finding Williamson’s Sapsucker, Orange-crowned Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Red Crossbills.

In the morning we checked the Air Quality Index. It was terrible.

We still had five more days, but at this point we thought about throwing in the towel and heading home. Fleeing from smoke was not the vacation we’d planned on. Then we learned that the Columbia Gorge was on fire (because of careless teenagers) and ash was actually falling from the sky in Portland (UGH). Home was on fire.

We joked that we could probably drive to the coast. Then it stopped being funny because that’s exactly what we did. Eight hours later, we’d arrived in Astoria and traded smoke for coastal fog.

I’ll be brief. It was cooler at least though visibility was still terrible. The highlight of this mini escape was the day I drove two hours farther north to Grayland Beach State Park.

Here I saw foggy Sanderling, foggy Brown Pelican, foggy Caspian Tern, foggy elk.

And the only life bird of the entire trip, Snowy Plover!!!

Even better. There were two!!

Both wearing fancy jewelry. So cute.

It was great. Relaxing and refreshing, just like vacations are supposed to be.

So not the trip we thought it would be but we still saw some cool stuff. Southeast Oregon is all so gorgeous and ridiculously quiet. We want to go back. I’m thinking springtime when it’s cooler and more bird species are migrating. Totally worth it because Malheur is awesome and you never know what you’ll see.

Until next time.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Shorebirds!

That is genuine enthusiasm. Not excited? Here’s an adorable Semipalmated Plover to ease some of the discomfort.

Fall migration is happening and I am facing it head on. Because I went to Smith and Bybee Lakes and totally failed at identifying birds. I forgot how hard it is.

There’s hundreds of shorebirds there, and I had trouble identifying one of them. So I do that thing that I do when I can’t figure something out on my own. I seek out help. That same week I logged on to Portland Audubon’s classes, and to my luck I saw “Learn to Identify Fall Shorebirds” with John Rakestraw. And it wasn’t full.

John is the same instructor who teaches the Gull ID class and Warblers and Flycatchers, as well as many others. He even wrote a book, Birding Oregon. I was in good hands.

In the classroom we learned of the 20 or so shorebirds that visit the Oregon coast and Willamette Valley. We looked at large slides of birds and called out the field marks. It’s all about the field marks; the shape of the bird, size of the head vs. the bill, the color of the legs, and the bird’s behavior. It’s knowing what to look at for each bird. This is the key.

Long-billed Dowitchers prefer freshwater ponds, whereas Short-billed Dowitchers like tidal marshes and estuaries, so location and habitat can also provide clues. It’s all part of a puzzle and that’s what makes it fun.

Our field trip fun started one foggy morning at Seaside looking at birds on the rocks.

Or really birds that look like rocks. We found a pile of Black Turnstones. We hoped to pick out a Ruddy Turnstone, but none showed up this time. We dipped out on shorebirds at a couple more spots until we lucked out on some birds that look like mud.

That’s two Western Sandpipers on the left and one Semipalmated Plover on the right. Westerns have black legs and long droopy bills. Semi Plovers have one breast band.

We also saw Caspian Terns soaring above the water, and I didn’t notice until looking at photos later, this one has a yellow leg band.

We made it to Fort Stevens State Park but there was still low shorebird activity.

Until we looked in the distance.

We walked farther down the beach to get a closer look.

But trucks are allowed to drive on the shore here and they’d scattered the flock.

Eventually we got looks at more Western Sandpipers, and even had a Semipalmated Sandpiper in the mix for comparison.

All Westerns – long, droopy bill, black legs.

Western Sandpiper (L), Semipalmated Sandpiper (R)

Westerns and Semipalmated look almost identical except Semipalmated Sandpipers have a short blunt bill. It was tough to get good looks before the flocks moved along. Shorebirds not cooperating? Let’s look at gulls!

California Gull – dark eye, red and black in the bill, yellow-greenish legs

And some of my favorite gulls were visiting, Heermann’s Gulls. Two E’s two N’s, orange bills, unmistakable.

John admitted shorebird numbers seemed unusually low. We missed out on Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plovers, and a few others. We checked back at Seaside, but found nothing new. Except jousting crabs.

The one above lived to tell the tale but I can’t say the same for this one.

We made another stop at Seafarer’s Park near the Hammond’s Marina where we found a Common Murre swimming out of place this far up the river.

The best action of the day came next.

Apparently Heermann’s Gulls are pirates! They wait for a Brown Pelican to dive, before pouncing and trying to pry the meal out of the pelican’s gullet.

Neat stuff. I felt bad for the pelican, but they’re not exactly known as saints either.

The shorebirds were so few at the coast we made an extra stop at Fernhill Wetlands on the way back. But the day was hot and the heat waves made it difficult to see the birds in the distance. I’ll spare you the blurry photos of the Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpipers. Here’s a pair of Greater Yellowlegs instead.

That bill looks like it’s twice the length of the head and those are some nice yellow legs. Bird identified. It might seem obvious, but if there’s one take-home message of the day it’s that there are limitations. Sometimes the birds are too far, or they move too quickly; distance, weather, terrain, trucks, there’s so many obstacles, but it’s important to focus on what can be seen and not get discouraged.

And when that doesn’t work, stay at home and make flash cards!

Nothing to it.

Moving along, we got good looks of a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk.

And a Green Heron oddly perched out in the open.

Not enough shorebirds in my shorebirds post? How about brown ducks instead.

Just kidding. I’ll save the Cinnamon Teal for later and keep my eyes peeled for more peeps to identify in the mean time.

Learning new things every day.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Shell Island, Florida

While on vacation visiting my family in Florida, my mom and I took a boat ride to Shell Key Island. This wouldn’t be like the last time I was on a boat when I got horribly seasick. This was a 10-minute quick trip from St. Pete Beach to Shell Key Island, part recreation destination, part wildlife preserve, part bird haven.

Shell Key Island

I’d never been before, but I heard a rumor that hundreds of White Pelicans nest there in the winter. My grandfather grumbled something about damn White Pelicans stealing his fish in Montana, but I was super stoked.

While waiting to board the boat, I spent the few spare moments appreciating the local Brown Pelicans hanging out by the docks.

Brown Pelican

Brown PelicanBrown PelicanBrown Pelican

I can’t help it. Every time I see Brown Pelicans with their long stretched out bills, it reminds me of Alec Baldwin (Adam) in Beetlejuice. Ooh, scary.

Beetlecan

See the resemblance? No?

Anyways, we eventually boarded the boat and set off. The island has no facilities and it is pretty rugged. It’s what I imagine Florida probably looked like before all the urban development and huge condo strips. Though practically swimming distance from civilization we felt like we had arrived at our own deserted island. Complete with oranges on the shore. It was awesome.

Shell Key Island

Shell Key Island Orange IslandShell Key Island

We crossed the sandy dunes toward where the captain said the pelicans should be. Along the way, I decided that the island should be called “Spur Island” after those vicious sandspurs. In reality they’re probably a good deterrent keeping people from trekking all over the place. Except me. (To be clear, I followed all island regulations and did not trespass in the bird nesting area).

We got to the pelicans just in time for a boat to speed by in the wake zone and scare them. I managed a couple of quick shots. White Pelicans!

White Pelican

White Pelican

White Pelican

Since they were long gone, we went back to the beach to eat lunch, look for shells, and watch the Foster’s Terns dive-bomb fish. It was a grand time, but after a bit we thought it might be worthwhile to check back in on the pelicans.

I’m glad we did. They were back! Hundreds of them! As were many shorebirds that I couldn’t identify from a distance. (Dunlins, Sanderlings, sandpipers?)

White Pelican

White Pelican

Shorebirds and a pelicanShorebirdsShorebirds, so far away

I did manage to find an American Oystercatcher! (in between the pelicans) I was pretty excited to find one since I had seen signs posted that they nest on the island.

American Oystercatcher

Shell Key Island

And a Little Blue Heron!

Little Blue Heron

I got a closer look at a few (I’m pretty sure) Dunlins. 

Dunlin

Dunlin

My mom and I happily watched the pelicans and shorebirds for a while, then went back to relax on the beach. Tough life. While relaxing I couldn’t help but notice a few birds in the water, like the Horned Grebe.

Horned Grebe

And another exciting sighting was a pair of Magnificent Frigatebirds (!!) that flew overhead at one point. I didn’t get the best look at them, and in fact, in the moment I knew they were something unique, but I thought maybe they were a kite of some sort. Until I looked it up. Nope, Mag Frig!! How awesome. Here’s my one quick frantic shot of one of them. Those long wings! I kept one eye on the sky after this, but didn’t see another.

Magnificent Frigatebird

I also saw an American Kestrel on the island and a Red-breasted Merganser that flew by over the water.

American KestrelRed-breasted MerganserRed-breasted Merganser

And, yes! We even found shells during our time on Shell Island. Though we did not take them. Instead, we filled our (provided) shell bag with garbage we picked up on the island. Leaving it better than we found it.

ShellsSand DollarRelaxing

Back at the dock we were greeted by a Snowy Egret (black legs and yellow feet!).

Snowy EgretSnowy EgretSnowy Egret

And a Great Egret! (larger, black legs and feet).

Snowy and Great EgretIMG_5545 (2)IMG_5544

And because this is Florida, and the birding never ends, here’s a Green Heron we found wading in the pool when we returned back at our condo.

Green Heron

Green HeronGreen HeronGreen Heron

Green Heron

Thanks, Florida!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey