The Wallowas

According to Travel Oregon there are 7 Wonders of Oregon and before last week I’d seen all of them except the Wallowas. This was also one of the last two counties in Oregon I hadn’t birded before (Malheur County is the other). This is why I love birding, it inspires me to go places I’ve not gone before. Sometimes to a landfill or sewage treatment plant, but other times to one of those “pinch me” places like the Wallowas.

Tomas and I stayed in a cozy Airbnb (walking distance to Sugar Time Bakery! and a block from Terminal Gravity Brewery) in Enterprise for three nights, and we spent Christmas Eve in The Landing Hotel in LaGrande. It made for the perfect getaway. Tomas painted and studied, while I birded.

This corner of Oregon is home to a few specialty species not easily found elsewhere and I hoped to run into a few of them. Each morning I had to choose between forest birds in the snowy mountain foothills.

Or driving farm roads looking for birds in the countryside.

Tough choices. I ended up making four trips to McCully Creek in the mountains hoping for grouse but I had better luck finding woodpeckers like this Hairy Woodpecker.

And this punky Pileated Woodpecker.

There were long birdless stretches in the countryside but that is part of the gamble, there can be absolutely nothing or a bird will show up that you’ll never see again in your life. It was early in the season for rarities and a low-snow year, but I managed to find a single Gray-crowned Rosy Finch perched on a metal barn roof!

In snowier times there can be flocks of 300-500 rosy finches. I was stoked to find just one (state year bird #320!).

Other good birds in the country were Rough-legged Hawks.

And Northern Shrikes like this one that accidentally flew closer for crushing looks.

In every barn was a Great Horned Owl keeping watch.

I had a tip from a friend to check out the Wallowa Fish Hatchery in Enterprise that had a few nice surprises like my county Belted Kingfisher.

A Townsend’s Solitaire drinking and bathing in the fresh hatchery water.

And a Great Horned Owl tucked into the branches along the nature trail.

Back on the country roads one late afternoon as I scanned the fields, I saw a pile of rocks start moving.

Gray Partridges!!! A life bird! And one of my target species of the Wallowas (#321!). I was giddy. I watched for a while as the chubsters used their heads to dig through the snow. They were the perfect Christmas presents.

Another time at McCully Creek I bumped into Nolan Clements, a birder who was in the area participating in a Wallowa CBC. This turned out to be the best luck because Nolan grew up in LaGrande and he knows where all the good birds are.

The good birds are over here

We met up the next day to look for Harris’s Sparrows (which we dipped on) and American Tree Sparrows which we found! #322!

This is another NE Oregon target bird I’d hoped to find. I haven’t seen a Tree Sparrow since my trip to Montana in 2015!

In the afternoon we made a stop at The Bobolink, a beer-birding-disc golf shop owned and run by a birder friend of ours, Trent Bray.

We picked out a couple of specialty beers then Trent gave us a tip about Bohemian Waxwings in town. WHAT. These weren’t even on my radar, but they were now. We set off driving in circles around town getting the tour of LaGrande while checking the fruit trees and chasing waxwings.

We had a Cooper’s Hawk flyover, Nolan heard a Townsend’s Solitaire, and we passed a gang of decked out Wild Turkeys.

Eventually we caught up with the waxwings perched high in Poplar trees. Scanning though, Nolan spotted one Bohemian Waxwing! #323!

They’re slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, darker gray underneath, and they have cinnamon-colored undertail coverts. Thanks to Nolan for helping us find such great birds and saving us time before our drive home.

Tomas and I spent the next morning looking for Great Gray Owls that we could not find, but it was a nice walk in the snow anyhow before our long way back home.

Tweets and chirps and Happy New Year!

Audrey

Dipping highs and lows

Thanksgiving week I spent time with Tomas, called my family, and then I went birding. A Rusty Blackbird was reported on Thanksgiving day at McNary Wildlife Area (but I was just there!). This would be a lifer and a recent rusty stuck around the Bend area for a while so I thought this one would be easy.

You think birding is easy?

Black-billed Magpies can easily find Cooper’s Hawks.

But I saw very few blackbirds. It could have been due to the Merlin.

Zoomies

That was cool to see. As was the Red-shouldered Hawk that appeared right before my eyes.

This is a pretty rare sighting in this part of Oregon. Another treat was finding a pair of Harris’s Sparrows!

Two is better than one

Unfortunately most of my photos of both together came out blurry, but they were a pretty cute.

I finally got to see the Black-crowned Night Herons out of the fog.

And in another tree I thought there were more herons but looking closer it was decorated with Wood Ducks!

They weebled and wobbled on the thin branches while a Eurasian Wigeon swam by in the water below.

Down by the dam I picked out some Bonaparte’s Gulls flying over the river just as it started raining.

It was too bad I missed the blackbird but it was fun giving McNary Wildlife Area more attention. If only this great birding spot was a bit closer. On the return trip home I stopped at Philippi Canyon and sat in the car watching a little Rock Wren hop around the rocks then I looked over to my right.

Holy sheep!

A group of Bighorn Sheep were making their way down the rocky hillside.

I picked my jaw up off the floor and glanced through the windshield just as a Chukar ran across the road!!!

Surprise state year bird #304!!! There were three of them that crossed and slowly hopped up the rocks where the sheep had just been.

It was a pretty magical moment. Dipping on the Rusty Blackbird was turning out okay after all. The next day I went to the coast and tried to find a Yellow-billed Loon that was spotted near Nehalem Bay. I spent two days looking but the loon must have moved on.

At one point during a break I drove to Seaside Cove to see a Rock Sandpiper! #305!

Another afternoon at Nehalem Bay State Park I met James Billstine a local birder and this turned out to be the best luck. With his help we found Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren, a Fox Sparrow, and he managed to pish up a Hermit Thrush. That never happens.

And a Palm Warbler!

Excellent county birds and so fun to see all at once in one small patch. Another evening I met Courtney Jett from Bend and we dipped on the loon together while watching River Otters scratch themselves on a log.

So itchy

I stayed overnight in Rockaway at the Surfside Resort that was pretty quiet and comfy. In the morning I gave the loon one more chance but still no luck. It’s not often a Yellow-billed Loon visits Oregon so I was bummed to miss out. But such is the risk of chasing birds and I’d met some great people along the way.

I left the coast and ended up in Corvallis checking out Bald Hill Natural Area looking for Wild Turkeys but instead I found a really late Turkey Vulture.

What are you still doing here?

This is when I learned about a rare Tundra Bean-Goose at Finley National Wildlife Refuge 30 minutes away. I ran back to the car and took off. I made it to the site where other birders were standing in front of thousands of geese. But unfortunately, I looked at the wrong goose. This was not my finest birding moment.

I was probably right in front of the bean goose but my eyes locked onto a Greater White-fronted. Wrong bill color! It was so confusing and before I had a chance to correct the error a Bald Eagle had already spooked the whole flock. The worst! This is one of those moments I’ll replay in my mind a thousand times over hoping for a different outcome. I have good news though. Five days later I got a second chance with the goose!

Thanks to Courtney’s birding stamina and my new friend Lindsay Willrick’s excellent hospitality (I may not have survived gooselessness without them). In the gross cold and rain while taking shelter in the bird blind I picked out the bean goose while scanning the flock in the spotting scope. I may have squealed and jumped up and down like a lunatic. But it’s the goose! We had about 15 minutes enjoying it before it flew off to the south.

This goose is one of only five eBird records in the United States (there is another from 2015 in Oregon, and a 2013 record by the Salton Sea!). So it was worth some drama to see it. And by the way I got a second chance at Wild Turkeys too! #306!

With only a month left this year I’m taking the losses in stride and appreciating what I’m lucky enough to see. It’s a good lesson in letting go. I can put myself in the best place at the best time and I can still miss a bird. And that’s okay.

There’s still time to see (and miss) a few more!

Dips and derps,

Audrey

SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey