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: Joshua Tree

We spent three nights at Joshua Tree National Park. One night near the southern entrance at Cottonwood Campground and two nights at Jumbo Rocks Campground. The park and campgrounds were pretty busy but people quieted down for the most part at night.

Jumbo Rocks

We explored the park on our way in, stopping at the cactus garden where I thought for sure I’d find a Cactus Wren. But no such luck.

At both campgrounds at night we tried out the blacklight gear our friends lent us to look for scorpions. Lo and behold! They glow!

This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Basically like gaining a super power: Scorpion Vision. They light up thanks to a hyaline layer in their exoskeleton that reacts to UV light. Theories suggest they glow as a way to determine when to come to the surface to look for prey depending on the amount of moonlight. Cool stuff.

Tomas’s macro shots were even cooler.

Leaving Cottonwood we stopped at the RV dump station to drain the graywater when I spotted a dark bird not far away. We hurried over to see my first Phainopepla!

Pronounced “fay-no-PEHP-lah.” This was pretty exciting and a great way to start the day. I found five more life birds at Joshua Tree. On the small trail at the Oasis Visitor Center, I found Cactus Wren.

They’re like Bewick’s Wren on steroids. It was pretty fun watching them climb up palm trunks.

Another was Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Smaller than Blue-gray Gnatcatcher with mostly black undertail and a drabber look.

Drab chic

And I finally saw Gambel’s Quail!

What a great spot. Back at our campsite we sat relaxing when Tomas said, there’s a bird under the picnic table. He’d found my lifer California Towhee!

It’s been a while since I’ve had so many new birds to look at. It was quite a treat. I walked around Jumbo Rocks Campground and at site #92 I heard the loveliest twittering song. Finally I saw it.

A thrasher! But which one?! It hopped to the ground and used its long bill to dig out ants while I scratched my head trying to ID.

Eventually I figured out with that dark iris, strong eye-line, and orange undertail, this was a California Thrasher! What an amazing bird to stumble on right at the campground.

Why hello there

One day we took a day trip to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve located about an hour outside Joshua Tree. It is an amazing place with boardwalks and trails (and feeders!) throughout 33,000 acres of desert oasis.

It was here I’d hoped to find my 500th life bird. There were so many potentials: Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, and there’d even been a (cooperative) Ovenbird sighted recently. I had my hopes up! In total I spent more than four hours here searching, and walked almost four miles. And I found my 500th bird!

Oak Titmouse! Not exactly what I’d hoped for but a darn cute bird. I talked to some local birders and they mentioned the park was kind of slow this day. It’s too bad it’s not closer! Definitely a special place worth the visit.

Back at Joshua Tree I picked up a pamplet on the Birds of Joshua Tree National Park and wondered why the hell there’s a Cooper’s Hawk on the front cover. But then leaving the park we figured it out. Right on the entering Joshua Tree National Park sign we saw a young hawk.

Accurate

Then it flew onto and blended in with a Joshua Tree.

It makes sense, but still I think a better bird to represent the park would be something more localized to SW deserts like a Phainopepla.

Or a Loggerhead Shrike, to fit in with the desert theme.

Or even a Ladder-backed Woodpecker┬álike the one we saw by Barker Dam hanging out on Chollus Cactus like it’s NBD.

So many good birds and good times in the desert at Joshua Tree!

We had a blast.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey