Backseat Birding

Oof. Ankle surgery has happened.

It’s been rough, but it’s getting better. The things that make it less rough are reading about birds, looking at birds outside the window, and thinking about birds. The yard birds have been okay, the best being a Barred Owl calling outside the week before surgery.

Other than that, besides a whole lot of juncos, we’ve seen our reliable and spunky Anna’s Hummingbirds, the occasional pair of Fox Sparrows, and a less than regular Townsend’s Warbler. Luckily there’s the (mostly-annoying) ever-amusing squirrels keeping us entertained.

Better than Netflix. Apparently I’ve picked a good time of year to have surgery because birding is slow. It’s the lull before spring. To liven things up, my friends Sarah and Max offered to take me on an outing to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, a perfect destination for those with walking challenges because: auto tour! Never have I been so excited for a car ride.

They picked me up and off we went on a chilly, but gorgeous weekend morning.

Bright robin morning

There were American Coots, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Tundra Swans flying in and out and foraging in the winter waters.

We saw Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and a gorgeous adult Red-shouldered Hawk.

We got a look at Jen’s favorite albino nutria, that was happy and cozy – and fertile? Yuck. I mean, congratulations!

We listened to Marsh Wrens and hoped for Swamp Sparrows. We cheered when we looked overhead and saw FOY Tree Sparrows zooming around in the sky like maniacs.

FOY terrible swallow photo

At the end of the trail we scanned the grasses when we heard a Virginia Rail! (and got a quick glimpse of rail tail). Then Sarah spotted an American Bittern that I eventually saw.

So cool. And to think, I’d almost left my camera at home.

After completing the loop we stopped by the information kiosk and decided to go around again after the kind refuge volunteer gave us excellent directions to a well-camouflaged Great Horned Owl.

Just a coupe of tufts

And another bunch of birds we’d missed, Wilson’s Snipes!

What? Don’t see them? Neither did we until we looked a little closer.

So many sneaky snipes! Love those birds.

On the way out the second time around we also got a bonus banded Cackling Goose.

This little lady (K9*) was banded five years ago, 2,000 miles away in Bethel, Alaska. Good job, goose!

And good job us! We left the refuge 51 species richer and feeling very satisfied spending the morning with such great birds and great company.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Owls, owls, owls, owls, owls.

The Snowy Owl I’d missed a few weeks prior was still being sighted out in eastern Washington. I felt inspired to try again. Luckily, so did Jen, Jacob, and the rest of their pack.

We left our respective homes at 3am to meet in Kennewick by 8am. By that time I was buzzing from lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and the anticipation of what we might find. Or not find.

I was not alone in dipping on this owl, Jacob had also spent time scanning rural horizons for a snowy with no luck. There’s no telling sometimes how the day will go.

This day started nicely with Barn Owls, more than I’d seen last time, and this time one even dove out of the cave and flew beautifully over the grasses by the road.

We could have stayed all day, but luckily Jen reminded us there was another owl to be found. We’d seen photos of the Snowy Owl perched on a red post.

Not an owl

We scanned and looked and eventually, we turned on an unmarked dirt road, one that was previously blocked by a creepy semi during my first trip.

This time though, the path was clear and it was along this road, we found the owl.

It was incredible. I didn’t realize how big Snowy Owls are; they’re larger than a Great Horned Owl, and smaller in length than a Great Gray Owl but with the same wingspan and a 25.6oz heavier weight. Making them the largest owl in North America by weight. Bulky as a barrel but she wears it well.

After admiring from a distance and not flushing the owl, I was relieved we’d found it and proud we’d adhered to good birding ethics. It is tempting to hug owls sometimes, but we resisted.

But we couldn’t resist looking for more. We left and went to stare at a row of willows that I’ve stared at once before.

But this time was way better because I found my first perched Long-eared Owl!

So obvious

They’re mostly invisible. And smaller and larger than I thought they’d be. Mythical I’d say. Just when you think you see one it disappears. And then you see one and three more and then none. We found four before they melted back into the branches.

It was such a great success, three species of owls and it was only mid-day! Plenty of time left to look for more, so we headed to a park along the Snake River.

Along the way, Jacob pointed out his two reliable Great Horned Owls, right where they’re supposed to be tangled in the thicket.

Finally we arrived at the park where two years ago I saw my first Northern Saw-whet Owl with Tomas. It was amazing then and still amazing now.

I’d forgotten how small they are! Only about 8″, it would take three saw-whets to reach the height of a Snowy Owl. We found two.

The second one was holding a rodent.

Mine.

Below on the ground we found more evidence of their kills.

It makes me wonder. According to BirdWeb saw-whets are sit-and-wait predators that hunt almost exclusively at night, so when/how are they attacking yellow-rumps? My guess is YRWAs get too close and bam. Just a guess though.

We continued through the park, enjoying the now sunny weather, as we bumped into more owls including these Great-horned Owls

Not just one owl

This park is wild and lovely.

I’m still reeling from the number of owls three people and three dogs (a six-pack!) can find in a day. We’d found 16 individuals and 5 species. Surreal!

In the evening we toasted over beers, nachos, and burgers to the best day of owls and to the possibilities of what we might find next.

Owls, owls, and owls,

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