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

Eastern Oregon – Day 2

The next morning I woke up groggy but excited for the day. The coyotes had howled all night long. They are true party animals.

Another day, another terrible view.

We packed up camp and hadn’t gotten a mile down the road before I got a text from Scott, three baby Great Gray Owls on the ground and the light is beautiful! Scott is the best. I may have found only one owl on my own, but with his help we were going on ten.

One baby was nestled in the grass soaking up the sun.

Another was perched on a branch, muppeting its head around in circles curiously observing the world around.

And the third was feeling brave.

No maybe this side.

Next thing you know, this happened.

Climbing trees is easy!

We watched as the adult male brought in the last meal of the morning.

Then we said our goodbyes as the owls quieted down to sleep the day away until  evening time. But our day was just beginning. We decided to leave the forest and head to Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area outside of La Grande. I thought it might be fun to chase some waterbirds.

We arrived in the heat of the day and were happy to sit, rest, and take a moment under the shaded overlook. It was so peaceful with the Wallowa Mountain view in the background and the loud robotic songs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Cornell describes the song as “a screeching buzz, rather like a heavy door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge,” kind of like WHIU-HU-EEEEAAAAUUUUHHHHH. Cracked us up every time.

American Coots were also at the refuge and I finally got to see their ugly babies!

I mean cute babies, of course. They stayed mostly hidden in the reeds, but occasionally the little red and black bald babies would paddle out behind quickly following the parent.

We also saw lovely pair of Cinnamon Teal.

On the wires above perched Western Kingbirds.

And soaring high above was a Swainson’s Hawk! The white chin really stood out.

Also in the sky was a Red-tailed Hawk.

Hmmm, what’s it carrying? OH GEEZ. It’s a body-less squirrel! The head dangling from the spine. Sorry, kids. Nature is metal.

Hey look, a cute Barn Swallow!

We stopped to get information from the Cliff Swallow at the booth.

Who told us to go down the gravel road, turn right, take two lefts, and go just past the abandoned building until we find a Great Horned Owl.

There were two fluffballs and one adult hidden within the leaves. So fun. We found most of the birds I’d hoped for. I missed American Avocets, but I did get a bonus Gray Catbird!

Perched out in the open singing loudly for a change. Meow!

From Ladd Marsh we traveled farther east towards Medical Springs Hwy and back into the shaded pine forests. I became fixated on the idea of finding (or even hearing) a Flammulated Owl.

We drove along crazy rutted forest roads that wound up and up until we reached the top.

There were Cassin’s Finch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Bluebirds, and Western Wood-Peewee singing. The view at the top was nice, but we decided to set up camp back where I’d spotted the White-headed Woodpecker.

Almost missed that one. This was also where I’d seen a Pine Siskin.

I was way more excited than I should be to see this bird. Contrary to prior winters when there were gobs of them on our feeders at home, this little one in the woods is the first I’ve seen this year. They didn’t visit the yard this winter but I hope they do next time!

Tomas set up camp as we settled in for the evening.

As the sun set I heard an intriguing sound, “poor-will, poor-will, poor-will,” the lightbulb when off and I remembered that was the sound of the Common Poorwill! Incidental life bird! A rare treat in Oregon these days.

After the long day, I was so sleepy I had to lay down. I told Tomas to wake me up if he hears owls.

G’night owls

He stayed up to take night shots like the one above. After I’d just fallen asleep, he woke me up when he heard hooting in the distance. I wrapped myself in the sleeping bag sprang out of the tent and followed him to the meadow.

We were hoping for a deep-pitched single hoot like the sound of blowing across the top of a bottle. The sound was so far away it could have been that, or it could have been the end note of a Great Horned Owl. Too far to tell so I didn’t count it.

But I did count the stars. And the “Who’s awake me tooo,” of the Great Horned Owl at 3am. That counted too. I hadn’t given up on finding flammies either. We had one more day to look.

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