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

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