Kennewick to Astoria

The next day was not like the previous. The winds howled and overcast skies moved in. Jen, Jacob, and I checked on the Snowy Owl in the early morning, but this time it was far off in a distant farm field.

We watched for a bit until she flew to another field.

And was subsequently harassed by a Northern Harrier.

She didn’t seem too concerned. After a while we felt it was time to move on and we left the owl to defend her post. Good luck Miss Snowy Owl.

We then drove down 9-mile Canyon Rd dodging tumbleweeds and not coming up with much besides American Goldfinch and sneaky deer.

With the long drive home ahead we decided it was best to start heading back and we went our separate ways. I didn’t make many stops along the way but I had an idea of where I might go next. Not home that’s for sure. Tomas was off mountain biking, I’d be home too early, and there was the entire next day of possibilities.

One thing that stuck in my mind was a Northern Waterthrush reported in Brownsmead, a place in Oregon I’ve never been to near Astoria. I debated. The waterthrush wasn’t a life bird, I’d seen one once in Alaska, but it had been so long ago. Many birders hadn’t gotten visuals on the Brownsmead bird, they’d only heard it in the dense shrubs. Would I be satisfied driving so far to hear a chip note? Maybe.

What sealed the deal was the possibility of a Swamp Sparrow and that would be a life bird, so I figured why not take the chance. My plan was set. The five hours of driving flew by and before I knew it, I arrived in Brownsmead.

What a great place! Lots of lowland wetlands, farms, and places for rare birds to hide.

I pulled up to the waterthrush site and immediately heard chip notes. Unfortunately, they were coming from Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees above. And then I heard it, a tantalizing loud spwik from lower in the blackberry. Scanning I saw movement and eventually a bird. It was the Northern Waterthush!

It sat preening and I enjoyed every moment so happy I’d taken the chance to see it.

It was then a homeowner across the street came out to greet me. Claire had met birders from Seattle looking for the waterthrush that morning and she was excited to share what she’d learned. She kindly gave me a tour of her neighborhood and showed me a Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, and about 30 Great Egrets foraging in a field. The light was fading so I didn’t get many photos, but it was inspiring to see Claire’s new connection to the nature of her neighborhood.

I thanked her for her generosity and continued on, still hoping for a Swamp Sparrow, but getting distracted by ducks instead. I found one male Eurasian Wigeon.

That turned into three EUWI after reviewing my photos later, including the female to the left of the male in the above photo. She has a blue bill touching reddish feathers, AMWI has a narrow black base to the bill.

I saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagles stalking all of them from above. As it got darker I thought of lodging options, and Astoria was only another 20 minutes down the road where Fort George Brewery was featuring dark beers. This plus fish and chips and I was sold. It was an excellent ending to an exhausting but fulfilling day.

In the morning it was dark and pouring rain, not good beach weather so I skipped it and drove back to Brownsmead for a quick scan. The area is sometimes favorable for Gyrfalcons and I thought it worth a look. Come to Brownsmead for the waterthrush, stay for the Gyrfalcon. I spent a long time trying to turn this bird into one.

There was a Peregrine Falcon nearby for size comparison. This one was larger but the light was terrible, I was far away, and it wouldn’t turn around. Finally it was light enough for me to ID it as a Rough-legged Hawk. Not a gyr but still a good bird!

And a reminder I should probably stop birding in the dark. I drove around a bit more, but the weather was terrible and with so much ground to cover Swamp Sparrows could be anywhere. I conceded defeat, but on the way out a large light bird caught my eye and I quickly pulled over.

Woah, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk! I wasn’t sure until it flew and I saw that red tail.

Such a beautiful and unusual hawk. This made my morning and I felt good about heading back. But not to home just yet.

One more stop at Ridgefield NWR. My friend Sarah says I’m birding like I’m going to die soon. If it seems like I’m birding hard #birdlikeyouredying, I am because next week I’m having surgery on my ankle to glue my bones back together. Basically. And this means I’ll be on crutches and in a cast for a month, and a boot for at least another month. And it’s my right ankle, so no driving. No, it’s not death, but I want to take advantage of my freedom before I’m greatly humbled by my body.

So back to Ridgefield, and my last chance at a Swamp Sparrow for a while. At least here I had a better idea of where they might be along the auto tour. And just past marker #10, where I stubbornly sat in my car staring at grass while other cars passed around me. Finally, I saw the secretive owl of sparrows, the Swamp Sparrow!

Such a richly colored bird! I admired it as long as it would let me.

Which was about two seconds before it dropped down into the grass hidden once again. Until next time, Mr Sparrow. I left Ridgefield feeling pretty accomplished and officially ready to call it a day.

It’s hard to stop when there’s always a good bird just around the next corner.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Beginning Birding I

I recently completed Audubon’s Beginning Birding class taught by the kind and patient Laura Whittemore. She is the author of Laura Goes Birding blog, and a longtime experienced teacher and birder. The course includes one classroom session and two guided field trips and is excellent for beginners looking to learn basic birding skills such as identifying subtle differences between seemingly identical little brown birds.

After these sessions, I’m still a beginner, but now I’m a beginner who knows to judge size and shape of the birds, decipher what it’s doing, recognize habitat, listen closely to songs, and pay attention to what type of bird it is – raptor? finch? sparrow? plover? I’ve learned to pay attention to field marks and other identification clues. These are skills that Laura makes look easy but for me will take practice and hopefully some day become second nature.

It was especially fun to meet other new birders to share the experience with. The classroom was held at Audubon’s satellite East-side Branch at Leach Botanical Garden and the field trips took us to Smith and Bybee Lakes and Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge. Overall we saw (and/or heard) 32 species at Smith and Bybee and 33 species at Tualatin NWR including 4 new-to-me spices: Ruddy Duck, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Tree Swallow, and Green-winged Teal.

Some highlights:

I felt the class was beneficial enough that I’ve signed up for another in the series: Waterfowl I.D. for Beginners. It starts next week and I look forward to it!

Tweets, chirps, and quacks,

Audrey

Find more pictures from the Smith and Bybee trip here, and Tualatin NWR here.

Christmas Bird Count 2015

Last weekend I participated in the 115th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. What a treat! Originally I was hesitant because of my beginner skill level, but was assured all skill levels are welcome and I’m happy I participated.

I was shocked when I learned the history of the census. The holiday tradition started in response to what was called a “side hunt” where people went out and shot as many mammals and birds as they could find, and the “winner” was who killed the most. Heartbreaking (and infuriating…).

Bird populations declined, and the concept of conservation emerged. We can thank early Audubon ornithologist Frank Chapman for proposing a “Christmas Bird Census” to count rather than kill birds beginning on Christmas day 1900. More about this fascinating bit of history here. And here.

On January 3, 2015 our group of 12 volunteers spotted 71 different species in Area 1; the entire Columbian riparian area totaled 108 species.

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Image credits: http://audubonportland.org/local-birding/cbc

Portland’s 89th Christmas count is still being tallied (I’ll update), but per my insider information from Wink Gross, CBC compiler:

“The 89th Portland CBC was held today in chilly weather under overcast skies (i.e., “fog that you walk under”).    Over 230 field observers found 118 species, significantly below our 5-year running average of 124 and change.  The best bird was a PELAGIC CORMORANT, which is a new species for the Count and earned Adrian Hinkle the coveted “Eagle Eye Award”.  (Adrian also shared the award with his brother Christopher in 2009 for a Black-billed Magpie.)  Congratulations, Adrian!

Other good birds were, LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER, RED-NECKED GREBE, COMMON TEAL (aka “Eurasian Green-winged Teal”), GLAUCOUS GULL, and BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD.  There were no howling misses, but many of the species that “could go either way” went the wrong way.”

Wink mentions Adrian and Christopher Hinkle, who I met on the bird count. They are twins who are celebrities in the birder community. Their eye-sight, speed, attention to detail is incredible. According to an Oregonian article the boys have had an interest in birding since they were 5. They’re ~18 now and have evolved into birding savants.

Birding with experts blew my mind, and it was also exhilarating (to have the answers to the puzzles right next to you!). I saw way more birds than I would have on my own and I learned so much. To share the joy of birding with others who feel the same passion was refreshing and I look forward to joining more group birding experiences.

I didn’t take as many pictures as I normally would (busy counting birds!):

Sadly, I didn’t take a picture of the TWO GREAT HORNED OWLS we saw! A major highlight of my day. As a consolation, I have this video of a great blue heron ice-skating on a frozen pond:

Total new-to-me species I personally witnessed during the CBC:

Cackling Goose
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Bald Eagle
American Kestrel
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
White-breasted Nuthatch
Bushtit
Brown Creeper
Bewick’s Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Fox Sparrow
Lincoln Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Anna’s Hummingbird
Red-winged Blackbird

 

So thankful to be a part of this awesome event. Here is an Audubon Magazine article with highlights: 7 Surprises from the Christmas Bird Count