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

Fall Birding

Fall birding is blowing up. White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows have returned to the yard singing “oh deear mee” making me so happy. I was also finally around to see a Red-breasted Sapsucker that I’ve only recorded in the yard once three years ago (!).

I might have jumped up and down. Or I would have except I’d had a little ankle setback after overdoing it on Mt Tabor. Not ready for steep hill-work yet I guess.

Luckily the hottest birding spot lately in Multnomah County, Force Lake, is a flat drive-up pond. Not known for being the best water system, past the “do not eat the fish” signs, the water levels have been favorable enough for a (usually pelagic) Red Phalarope. More typically Red-necked Phalarope occurs inland, but this molting adult bird has more red in the back and a thicker bill with (subtle bit of) yellow at the base.

I was also excited to find my FOS (first of season) White-throated Sparrow here mixed in between Golden-crowned Sparrows.

Less than a week later a new birder photographed (but misidentified) a Ruff at the pond. 7 months into birding I wouldn’t have been able to identify a Ruff either, but word got out about this significant sighting. Which is why I made several attempts to refind the bird. On my second try while scanning the far pond shoreline in near darkness I was rewarded with an even more rare bird, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper!

Not great photos since it was so far and so dark, but the pale supercilium (eye-brow) and red cap is visible. It think it lit up in the darkness. And it’s not a Ruff because it has a smaller bill and is smaller than the Long-billed Dowitcher it’s standing next to.

This pond is bananas. It’s amazing what little it takes to support a good variety of species. And finally fifth time was the charm for finding the Ruff!

This time, at dawn I picked out the buffy shorebird in the scope as the sun came up. Early worm gets the bird.

Slightly larger than Lesser Yellowlegs

I put the word out and a handful of people made it to the pond to enjoy looks at the Ruff before two adult Peregrine Falcons swooped in scattering all the shorebirds while about 20 birders’ jaws dropped (in horror and amazement).

Incoming missile

The falcons hunted together cornering a LEYE but came up empty in the end. And that was the end of the Ruff show.

In other news, my dad’s moved to Newport, OR. Say what?! He said goodbye to Limpkins and Eastern Screech Owls and hello to Oregon’s coastal birds. I’m not sure that’s a fair trade.

Not fair. Photo by David Addison

I delivered some boxes to him, and together we looked for a Palm Warbler that was exciting to everyone in Newport except him (Florida is spoiled in Palm Warblers). It took a few tries, but eventually we found one.

What Florida doesn’t have is Lapland Longspurs and lucky for us we found one of those too at the gull pond at South Jetty. They nest in the arctic tundra and winter in open fields and beaches in some parts of Oregon. They are so pretty!

On the drive home from Newport I made three lazy attempts to find a Northern Shrike since this would put me at 295 Oregon birds for the year and for some reason I think it’ll be fun to try for 300 species. But I shriked out.

Luckily Sarah, Max, Eric and I took a trip to Fort Stevens State Park  the next day to look for a large flock of longspurs which we found easily when they flew.

And watched as they disappeared in the grass.

Expert camo

Occasionally they perched on the jetty rocks for better looks.

As we were leaving, Sarah spotted an accipiter perched across the grassy field. I saw a distant bird-lump too and was confused when she set the scope up in a different direction. Hmm. Wait. I took a distant photo and got excited when I realized this was a shrike! I only had to stop looking for them to find them. Oregon year bird #295! Northern Shrike.

This is a young bird as it’s darker than the bright white/black/gray of an adult. We walked the trail to get closer looks, and saw the shrike go after insects and dragonflies, and then it went for the Lapland Longspurs! Nooooo! It chased the flock unsuccessfully.

Until the flock chased it back.

Longspurs flying over.  Defeated shrike perched on shrub.

Fall birding, am I right? By late afternoon it was time to celebrate a good day of birding over beers and lunch. More of this please.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bonus zono

I birded so efficiently at the coast it left me ample time the next day to look for a rare Harris’s Sparrow. It was a first-year bird found by James Cook along Sundial Loop Trail near the Troutdale Airport.

It’d been a while since I birded this hotspot. My first trip in the spring of 2015 I biked there and saw my first Rufous Hummingbird and found a Great Horned Owl nest. That was a good day.

I checked on that nest again and sadly this time, no owls.

This morning it was dark and rainy but I was hopeful anyways. I came across two birders on the trail that I’ve met before and we reintroduced ourselves. Dena Turner and Mary Ratcliff and I then continued along, looking for “zonos” birder slang for Zonotrichia, the genus of five American sparrows included in the Emberizidae family; White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula).

Zonotrichia is from Greek origin, zone “band” and thrix, trikhos, “hair.”

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

I could see that.

Querula is Latin for “plaintive” or “complaining” in reference to the Harris’s song.  And while we’re going there, Harris’s Sparrow is named after Edward Harris (1799-1863), (not the actor), but ornithologist and friend of Jonn James Audubon.

Unfortunately, the morning resulted in zero zonos. But we did see some Lesser Goldfinch or maybe call them “spins,” short for Spinus?

Of course as soon as I got home, someone reported the Harris’s Sparrow. *face-palm* And at this point, Tomas had taken the car to go mountain biking. What was a good birder to do? Since it was my last chance before the work week started again and I’d have no time to bird, I grabbed a Car2Go rental and headed back. It was only a 20-minute drive from my house, and I figured, I’ve spent more on a bird before. Justified.

Within minutes of exiting the car, I saw my friend, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Bill and another birder on site, and moments later I was on the bird.

Zono friend!

The Harris’s Sparrow hopped to the ground to munch on seeds that someone put out for the birds (thanks for that!).

Two other zonos were present, White-crowned Sparrow (no photos), and Golden-Crowned Sparrows.

I got a glimpse overhead of a Pileated Woodpecker that I’d only heard earlier.

And every once in a while a California Scrub-Jay would drop in and stir up all ground-feeders.

Dark-eyed Juncos scattered.

Spotted Towhees didn’t care much.

And eventually the handsome Harris’s would come back.

He was an ambassador for wildlife after all.

I was so glad I’d gone back! It was worth every penny.

Tweets and zonos,

Audrey