Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,

Audrey

Fort Rock State Natural Area

After visiting Newberry Caldera, Tomas and I continued an hour south to Fort Rock State Natural Area.

Fort Rock

About a mile wide and 200 ft tall, Fort Rock is yet another of Oregon’s magnificent geologic features. It is a tuff ring formed 50,000-100,000 years ago when magma rose up to meet water and lake mud. Fort Rock was once an island when the whole place was intermittently flooded by Fort Rock Lake. Hard to imagine.

Fort Rock  Fort Rock

Today, the natural area is a desert filled with rocks, sage, flowers, insects, lizards, grasses. And birds. Tomas and I visited the park twice in three days. It’s that good. The first time we were met by swarms of White-throated Swifts, Cliff Swallows, and a conspiracy of Ravens. I was told sometimes there are humming bird feeders up, but not this time.

While on the short hike inside the fort we heard the cry of a falcon, and looked up to see a juvenile Prairie Falcon.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

High up on the cliff walls, it stretched its wings and called out loudly. This was the first time I got a good look at the brown color patterns and dark “armpits” that distinguish this bird from a Peregrine Falcon.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

I noticed its larger size compared to American Kestrels. They also nest here.

American Kestrel

There was plenty of evidence owls also nest in the cliff cavities (Barn Owls I think). We searched for a long while, but couldn’t find the birds. Just the bones.

Bones

I chased around one colorful songster around the fort until it finally revealed itself. A Green-tailed Towhee! A first for me.

Green-tailed Towhee

Green-tailed Towhee

That is a fun bird. Not only does it have a fancy cap and tail, it has a pretty song too.

On our second visit we arrived earlier and got great views of Sage Thrashers.

Sage Thrasher

And sparrows. Like this Brewer’s Sparrow.

Brewer's Sparrow

And Sage Thrashers AND sparrows. A two-fer!

Sage Thrasher

Another target bird showed up in good numbers this morning that was absent the day before. Sagebrush Sparrow!

Sagebrush Sparrow

Oh that’s embarrassing, there’s something on your face.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Nope, still there.

Sagebrush Sparrow

That’s better. Its song is hard to describe (several trills broken up by short chips) but lovely to listen to.

Sagebrush Sparrow

It was hard to pull myself away from these handsome birds. But we had another destination to get to. Oregon has so many hidden gems. You can live in a state over a decade and not realize they are there. Unless you look for them.

Keep looking

Keep looking.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Seattle Part II: That time I almost saw a Gyrfalcon

The weekend after the Seattle trip with Jen, my boyfriend, Tomas, suggested going to Seattle to visit friends and try out his new fancy camera.

Bananas Foster French Toast courtesy of Portage Bay Cafe

I heard, “Blah, blah, blah…..another chance at redpolls?” Yes. Yes, I would like to go to Seattle. We drove up late Friday night and stayed a hotel way less creepy than the last one in Kennewick.

Haunted by ghost couches

Haunted by ghost couches

We got up early, stuffed ourselves with bananas foster french toast, then headed over to Green Lake.

Green Lake

It was just like before, lots of people, lots of dogs. And unfortunately, this time, it was overcast and cloudy. But we could overlook the weather for the moment, because we found the Common Redpolls! Right where they were supposed to be, in the birch trees by the lake. So reliable I could set my watch to them.

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

It was going to be that easy, huh? We took pictures and watched them pick at the catkins for hours. They were very fast, moving from branch to branch picking seeds. The catkin petals fell from the trees like snow. Here’s a video of one bird.

Feeling rich in redpolls, I decided to use my new eBird superpowers that Jen taught me to look for other rarities in the area. There’s this thing under “Explore Data” called “Alerts.”

Needs

This is where you can sign up for alerts and read accounts of rare birds by state or county. It’s funny, I’ve entered rare birds into the eBird app that were included in the list (that Northern Mockingbird at Hollebeke), but I never knew there was a central place to read the descriptions and see uploaded user photos. That data is super helpful. Especially if you want to chase a Gyrfalcon reported an hour away from Seattle at Mahler Park in Enumclaw. And we did. So we went.

Mahler State Park

We arrived at the park, and quickly made friends with the handful of birders on site, who were also looking for the falcon. A nearby resident came out and told us he had seen the bird that morning perched on the “known snag.” He showed us a superb picture on his phone and mentioned they named the bird Henry, after a neighborhood kid. Alrighty, then.

Henry, the Gyrfalcon, was not home that afternoon. We figured he was probably out hunting, so we drove around the area with our eyes glued to the sky. I noticed a couple of silhouettes at once.

Common Raven

Diamond-shaped tail, large bird, with “feather fingers” = Common Raven Juvenile Bald Eagle.

I also saw a large bird soaring with dark wings and light flight feathers, a “headless” bird I recognized as a Turkey Vulture!

Turkey Vulture

Year bird! I made the eBird entry and turns out it’s an uncommon bird for this area at this time of year and it showed up on the alert list. It does seem early, I think it wasn’t until summer that I first saw one last year. We continued on, and about a block away from the park I saw a falcon silhouette. Streamlined shape, and moving fast.

Falcon

Flying fast and farther away from us. I was confident it was a falcon, and it looked light below, but with the overcast skies it was difficult to tell for sure. I thought, what are the odds there’s another falcon so close? It had to be Henry. Celebrations commenced. Champagne corks were basically popped. Until I got home and was able to study the pictures more closely.

Falcon

Turns out the odds are pretty high that there’s a Peregrine Falcon near where a Gyrfalcon was spotted. The dark “mustache” is a clear giveaway.

Who knew? I wish we could have spent more time chasing the bird. We were so close! Nevertheless, those few hours we thought we saw a Gyrfalcon were some of the most fun yet. And it’s going to make the next sighting that much sweeter.

We made it back in time to watch the sunset, have dinner with friends, and to check on the Redpolls. They were not there. So unreliable!

Seattle sunset

What a fun trip!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey