Bluetail Crazy Train

In December 2016, a rare vagrant called a Red-flanked Bluetail showed up in Lewiston, Idaho. The Red-flanked Buetail breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. This is the first sighting in Idaho and there have only been a handful of other U.S. sightings, mostly in western Alaska. Lewiston is a mere 5 hour 40 minute drive from Portland and the bird was still being seen into January. I was intrigued.

“That’s too far to drive for one bird” someone told me. I don’t know if it was the vacation hangover from Hawaii, the long winter, or because it’s a new year, but I was craving adventure and when another friend showed even more enthusiasm to chase the bird and a second friend opted to drive? – I’m in, let’s go!

Wait! Ice Storm Warning. The Pacific Northwest was under attack of a winter storm scheduled for late Saturday. But it was bright and sunny on Friday and we calculated we could get there late Friday, stay overnight, find the bird early Saturday morning, then make a quick getaway and return to Portland before impending doom.

Thus began the Bluetail Crazy Train adventure.

Bluetail or bust! Choo-choo!

5 hours after traveling it was dark and 5 degrees outside but we checked for Long-eared Owls anyways because you never know. But yes you do know, because it’s never that easy. No LEOWs this time.

Over dinner at the local poultry/ocean-themed restaurant in Clarkston, WA, we toasted to crazy adventures then settled in to our hotel room anxious for the next day.
Would the bird still be there? Would the risks payoff? Would it be worth it?

In the morning we suited up for the single-digit temperatures (21 layers between the three of us!) crossed the border into Idaho and anxiously drove the remaining five miles to Hells Gate State Park. Appropriately, Ice Cube rapped to us over the radio, “You can do it” and we tried to believe him.

We arrived just before sunrise and remained focused. Don’t pay attention to the parking lot Merlin we told ourselves.

Don’t look at me. (Photo courtesy of Kayla McCurry)

We crossed the park hoping the Merlin hadn’t eaten the rarity.

We found a group of birders already staked out at the site. The bird was here! Someone had seen it earlier. Giddy with joy we waited.

It’s up! Everyone cheered.

The Red-flanked Bluetail stayed mostly within the Russian olive branches flitting around flicking her tail, and feeding much like a flycatcher. Occasionally, she dipped down to the water for a drink before hiding again in the deep branches close to the stream.

So pretty! While we waited for her to resurface, we relaxed a bit and were entertained by a sassy Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And a Song Sparrow.

Then the Red-flanked Bluetail resurfaced!

She quickly dipped down again and we waited for another look – just one more! Before finally pulling ourselves away.

We did it! Mission accomplished.

All smiles

We said goodbye to the bluetail and left to look for the icing, a nearby reported Barn Owl. While checking the conifers, a friendly birder pulled up and told us which tree they’d seen the owl in the day before. Kayla looked up, is that snow? Nope that’s a Barn Owl! Found!

This was when we we met Kas Dumroese, a birder on scene who offered to lead us to a nearby park with “fairly reliable” Saw-whet Owls. Um, yes please. Apparently we will follow strangers to random parks if they offer up owls. Seemed legit. Two other birder parties also joined the caravan and off we went.

Our first stop to look for a recent Lesser Black-backed Gull turned up empty, but the stream was full of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a nice yearbird.

We continued, and realized we were driving farther into Idaho, the opposite direction of our return route adding more time to get home, and increasing our chances of meeting the storm. Optimistic, we kept going anyways. Not too much farther we arrived at the park and tromped through the snow to check under conifers.

We found solid clues.

Then we looked under another nearby tree and found a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

With a dead vole gripped underneath! Awesome. And so perfect. She murderously eyed us before returning to sleepy cuteness.

Then someone said, “look, there’s another one!”

Indeed. Peeking out from behind a branch in the same tree was a second saw-whet! So angry. So cute. So perfect.

We couldn’t believe our luck. But also knew we were pushing it on time, so we said our goodbyes and thanks to Kas, his friend Carl and the others, and then hit the road for the long snowy drive home.

We were neck and neck with the storm and it was harrowing at times, but Colleen, having grown up in the mid-west, took it like a champ and got us home safe and sound.

The Bluetail Crazy Train had no regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Cabin Lake Bird Blinds

Not far from Fort Rock State Park there is yet another magical place.

Cabin Lake sign

I almost don’t want to blog about it (the secret’s out!). But someone told me and I’m grateful. Someone also told me to bring suet. Best advice ever.

Before the blinds though, the road from Fort Rock to Cabin Lake deserves mentioning. Cabin Lake Rd is nine miles of Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Brewer’s Sparrow, California Quail, Vesper Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow, and Loggerhead Shrikes. We saw THREE shrikes in a matter of minutes.

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

California Quail

California Quail

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

And a coyote.

Coyote

It was kind of nuts. I didn’t want it to end. But the road leads to something even better.

Bird blind

Don’t be fooled. There are no cabins and there is no lake at “Cabin Lake,” but nestled inconspicuously behind a decommissioned guard station, on the border of pine forests and high desert, there are two bird blinds renovated by East Cascades Audubon Society and run by volunteers. They even have their own “Friends of Cabin Lake” Facebook page.

Cozy accommodations

Cozy accommodations

Both sites are equipped with suet feeders and a water source, a true oasis for wildlife in such a dry climate. I sat inside and peered out the portals.

Portal

It didn’t take long before the first birds showed up. Pinyon Jays, a lifebird!

Pinyon Jay

Dang they are a noisy bunch.

Pinyon Jay

Another noisy Corvid visitor was Clark’s Nutcracker.

Clark's Nutcracker

A couple of Brewer’s Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows showed up.

Brewer's Sparrow

drying its wings

drying its wings

A few woodpeckers came about too.

White-headed Woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

The blinds are a great place to study Cassin’s Finch.

Cassin's Finch

It was easy to observe the crisp, dark streaks on the female’s chests and see the bright raspberry-red crown on the males.

Cassin's Finch

Actually, it was pretty easy to observe all the birds. They come so close. I’m not used to photographing at such a close range and could have let up on the zoom.

I’m also not used to sitting in one spot while birding or I would second-guess which blind the birds were at. It’s hard to pick one! A couple of times I got antsy and went walking around the forest. But the birds were either far away or all at one of the watering holes anyways so inevitably, I’d return, sit, and practice patience.

I was rewarded with Mountain Bluebirds.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

And a Green-tailed Towhee!

Green-tailed Towhee

Mourning Doves were the most skittish about coming close to the blinds.

Mourning Dove

While Yellow-rumped Warblers visited frequently.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Birds weren’t the only thirsty critters.

Yellow-pine Chipmunk (or Least?)

Yellow-pine Chipmunk (or Least?)

Golden-mantled ground squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

The blinds exceeded any expectations I had going in. And while I birded for hours on end, Tomas mountain biked for miles around the forest trails. Fun for everyone.

Tomas's bike

Camp

We camped nearby at the edge of the sagebrush sea. It was one of the most peaceful and fulfilling birdy trips we’ve taken. I would highly recommend checking it out and supporting East Cascades Audubon.

Bring suet.

Tweets and chirps,

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