It’s that time of year again. The time of year when Jen and I take in amazing scenery at Mt. Rainier National Park and spend a lot of time not looking at (our high alpine nemesis) White-tailed Ptarmigan.
It was beautiful. We saw a Peregrine Falcon that turned into a Prairie Falcon.
Rocks that turned into Mountain Goats.
Sky dots that turned into Gray-crowned Rosy Finches.
And Horned Lark hiding in the grasses.
All the alpine species except…
After 7 miles, tired feet and no ptarmigan in sight we conceded defeat. Two days in and two hikes down, we needed a change of scenery so we switched it up and drove to Cougar Rock Campground to try the Paradise side of things.
I was intimidated by this hike for my recovering ankle’s sake, but it turned out fine. We saw many of the same species as on the Sunrise side, and added Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo, Clark’s Nutcracker and the best bird of the trip at the last moment on the trail.
A Sooty Grouse “protecting” the family from a young deer!
A good reminder that nice surprises are around every corner. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll turn around and see a… ptarmigain?
It felt good to leave the country. Even if it was just a 2-hour non-stop flight to our northern neighbor, Canada. I had to show someone my passport, so it counts. We flew into Calgary, picked up a Dodge Caravan (which would be our lodging for the week), then pretty much beelined it up to Jasper National Park.
The Rocky Mountains here are so close, so big, and so scenic. The scale is mind-blowing.
Despite being surrounded by mountains, it never felt very remote. If I had to do it all over again I would probably fly in on a Sunday, because the first day was also the most stressful. The park was packed, and a normally reservable 800-site campground was closed this year for maintenance, which pushed excess campers into the first-come-first-served sites (the worst system).
We ended up driving 2+ hours passing too many full campgrounds before finding an open site at Kerkeslin Campground. Farther from Jasper than I’d have liked, but it was such a relief to find something we signed up for two nights.
Driving back and forth turned out to be okay though because returning after dinner one evening we pulled over at Athabasca Pass Lookout where I saw my first life bird of the trip, Black Swifts!
Such an unexpected surprise (and the best stress-reliever).
As it turns out, Black Swifts love drama. Later on during the trip on a very crowded hike in Johnston Canyon just around the corner of this waterfall…
I found a nesting Black Swift! Insanity! I made sure to tell everyone on the trail around me how special this bird is.
Back in Jasper, Tomas tested his luck mountain biking with bears while I went birding. One of the birds that sparked the trip was a Northern Hawk Owl seen by my friend Kayla on her trip the year prior, but I wasn’t that lucky. I did find one of my other targets pretty easily at a picnic pullout near Medicine Lake, a Tennessee Warbler.
They look kind of like a grayer Orange-crowned Warbler and they have a sharp-trilly song. This area is also where I got my first good looks at Black Bears by the side of the road. Both big ones and little ones.
Other highlights here were nesting Bald Eagles, Clay-colored Sparrows, and multiple singing White-throated Sparrows. Still just as sneaky as when I see them in winter, but hearing them vocalize was pretty cool.
I focused on reports of Boreal Chickadees but I couldn’t find these or much else the rest of the day. It was challenging not knowing the area super well. But that’s part of the fun, right? One of the chickadee reports led me to the Valley of the Five Lakes Trail that was incredibly scenic.
The lake waters were so clear I could see a Common Goldeneye feeding on the bottom.
And she had the cutest little chicks.
Then that evening I went for a walk around the campground and found my first Boreal Chickadee! It was secretive and carrying food which explains why they were so hard to find if they’re nesting.
The next day was bright and beautiful. It was the perfect day to ride the Jasper Sky Tram up to Whistlers mountain top.
If there was a chance to find a White-tailed Ptarmigan in Canada, this was it. We were the first in the tram, and the first to the summit, but sadly there were no ptarmigan to greet us.
The stunning views and best poutine of the trip at the Summit Restaurant made up for any heartbreak.
And since we’d taken the tram, we had energy for another 9.3 km hike at Wilcox Pass.
Here we saw singing Brewer’s Sparrows, Horned Lark, American Pipit, and a cooperative pair of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.
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.
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.
We met up the next day to look for Harris’s Sparrows (which we dipped on) and American Tree Sparrows which we found! #322!
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.