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

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 thinkĀ  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 inĀ 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