Kennewick to Astoria

The next day was not like the previous. The winds howled and overcast skies moved in. Jen, Jacob, and I checked on the Snowy Owl in the early morning, but this time it was far off in a distant farm field.

We watched for a bit until she flew to another field.

And was subsequently harassed by a Northern Harrier.

She didn’t seem too concerned. After a while we felt it was time to move on and we left the owl to defend her post. Good luck Miss Snowy Owl.

We then drove down 9-mile Canyon Rd dodging tumbleweeds and not coming up with much besides American Goldfinch and sneaky deer.

With the long drive home ahead we decided it was best to start heading back and we went our separate ways. I didn’t make many stops along the way but I had an idea of where I might go next. Not home that’s for sure. Tomas was off mountain biking, I’d be home too early, and there was the entire next day of possibilities.

One thing that stuck in my mind was a Northern Waterthrush reported in Brownsmead, a place in Oregon I’ve never been to near Astoria. I debated. The waterthrush wasn’t a life bird, I’d seen one once in Alaska, but it had been so long ago. Many birders hadn’t gotten visuals on the Brownsmead bird, they’d only heard it in the dense shrubs. Would I be satisfied driving so far to hear a chip note? Maybe.

What sealed the deal was the possibility of a Swamp Sparrow and that would be a life bird, so I figured why not take the chance. My plan was set. The five hours of driving flew by and before I knew it, I arrived in Brownsmead.

What a great place! Lots of lowland wetlands, farms, and places for rare birds to hide.

I pulled up to the waterthrush site and immediately heard chip notes. Unfortunately, they were coming from Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees above. And then I heard it, a tantalizing loud spwik from lower in the blackberry. Scanning I saw movement and eventually a bird. It was the Northern Waterthush!

It sat preening and I enjoyed every moment so happy I’d taken the chance to see it.

It was then a homeowner across the street came out to greet me. Claire had met birders from Seattle looking for the waterthrush that morning and she was excited to share what she’d learned. She kindly gave me a tour of her neighborhood and showed me a Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, and about 30 Great Egrets foraging in a field. The light was fading so I didn’t get many photos, but it was inspiring to see Claire’s new connection to the nature of her neighborhood.

I thanked her for her generosity and continued on, still hoping for a Swamp Sparrow, but getting distracted by ducks instead. I found one male Eurasian Wigeon.

That turned into three EUWI after reviewing my photos later, including the female to the left of the male in the above photo. She has a blue bill touching reddish feathers, AMWI has a narrow black base to the bill.

I saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagles stalking all of them from above. As it got darker I thought of lodging options, and Astoria was only another 20 minutes down the road where Fort George Brewery was featuring dark beers. This plus fish and chips and I was sold. It was an excellent ending to an exhausting but fulfilling day.

In the morning it was dark and pouring rain, not good beach weather so I skipped it and drove back to Brownsmead for a quick scan. The area is sometimes favorable for Gyrfalcons and I thought it worth a look. Come to Brownsmead for the waterthrush, stay for the Gyrfalcon. I spent a long time trying to turn this bird into one.

There was a Peregrine Falcon nearby for size comparison. This one was larger but the light was terrible, I was far away, and it wouldn’t turn around. Finally it was light enough for me to ID it as a Rough-legged Hawk. Not a gyr but still a good bird!

And a reminder I should probably stop birding in the dark. I drove around a bit more, but the weather was terrible and with so much ground to cover Swamp Sparrows could be anywhere. I conceded defeat, but on the way out a large light bird caught my eye and I quickly pulled over.

Woah, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk! I wasn’t sure until it flew and I saw that red tail.

Such a beautiful and unusual hawk. This made my morning and I felt good about heading back. But not to home just yet.

One more stop at Ridgefield NWR. My friend Sarah says I’m birding like I’m going to die soon. If it seems like I’m birding hard #birdlikeyouredying, I am because next week I’m having surgery on my ankle to glue my bones back together. Basically. And this means I’ll be on crutches and in a cast for a month, and a boot for at least another month. And it’s my right ankle, so no driving. No, it’s not death, but I want to take advantage of my freedom before I’m greatly humbled by my body.

So back to Ridgefield, and my last chance at a Swamp Sparrow for a while. At least here I had a better idea of where they might be along the auto tour. And just past marker #10, where I stubbornly sat in my car staring at grass while other cars passed around me. Finally, I saw the secretive owl of sparrows, the Swamp Sparrow!

Such a richly colored bird! I admired it as long as it would let me.

Which was about two seconds before it dropped down into the grass hidden once again. Until next time, Mr Sparrow. I left Ridgefield feeling pretty accomplished and officially ready to call it a day.

It’s hard to stop when there’s always a good bird just around the next corner.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Birdathon 2016 – Put an Owl on It

For a second year I joined Portland Audubon’s Birdathon, touted as the “biggest baddest birdathon this side of the Mississippi.” And for a second year I was thrilled to be a part of the Put an Owl on It team.

Last year’s trip was one of the best birding days of my life – 5 owl species in one day!! This year’s agenda expanded to eastern Oregon for a two-day Blue Mountain adventure with the hopes of seeing Great Gray Owls.

Spoiler alert- we found them.

Great Gray Owl

I went into the trip with 299 life birds. How cool would it be to have the Great Gray as the 300th bird? That didn’t happen, but Bank Swallows are pretty cool too. Lucky #300!! Sadly, no pictures because the van flushed two nicely perched swallows on a fence as soon as we drove near. Van-birding can be quite a challenge.

While exploring country roads in Umatilla county, we also flushed lifer #301, this Chukar fleeing for its life.

Fastest mother Chuckar in the west

Fastest mother Chukar in the west

It’s all worth it though when you climb out out of the van and meet a pair of Great Horned Owls fledglings.

Great Horned Owl

Or a family of Barn Owls smooshed in a natural cliff wall cavity.

Barn Owl

And it’s especially worth it to see a Burrowing Owl perched atop sagebrush in the Oregon desert.

Burrowing Owl

It was incredibly hot that weekend, nearing (if not over) 100 degrees. Some birds like this Sage Thrasher panted to stay cool.

Sage Thrasher

Even Common Nighthawks panted.

Common Nighthawk

That is one hot bird. Seeing a Common Nighthawk perched on a fence has been on my birding bucket list since the moment I found out they do this. We found two. Success! And two vans with 19+ people managed not to flush them. It was that damn hot.

Common Nighthawk

Birder dreams do come true

Birder dreams do come true

It cooled down some once we gained elevation making our way into the pine forests of the Blue Mountains.

Cool birders

Cool birders

And here in this forest is where we met the family. Mom and her three owlets.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Cutie Pie

Great Gray Owl

Fluffball

Great Gray Owl

Peekaboo

It was so special sharing forest space with these owls. They were incredibly chill. We sat down on the grass and pine needles under trees nearby, relaxed, chatted and ate snacks, while watching the fledglings stretch their wings and walk awkwardly along the branches.

Great Gray Owl

And if owl entertainment wasn’t enough, there were active nesting holes visible on site with Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker (another lifer!).

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson's Sapsucker

And songs of Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch, House Wren, Western Wood-Pewee (PEEEeeeeer), and a new flycatcher for me, Hammond’s Flycatcher (ChiBik).

As soon as the sun lowered, Great Gray fledgling activity picked up, the owlets begged noisily for food.

The skies darkened and mom obliged, swooping over the fields to hunt. We enjoyed watching the owl show until the sun disappeared and the bats came out.

Sunset

Before exiting the park, we piled out of the vans in the dark one last time to listen for other potential owl species. While waiting, we occupied time peering at Jupiter’s moons through the spotting scopes, and just before calling it a night, an adult Great Grey Owl flew over our heads towards an area of the forest with at least one owlet calling! There’s nothing like an unexpected owl surprise to liven things up. We rode the owl high all the way back to the hotel in La Grande.

From darkness to early morning light, a handful of birders opted for an early-morning Bobolink side trip.

Early birders

In a distant farm field we observed several pairs of Bobolinks chase each other up, over, and into the grasses while chattering their buzzy metalic song that sounds like a broken R2-D2. A bit far for decent photos, but here’s an identifiable pic of one on a fence post.

Bobolink

After, we reunited with the rest of the group and the sightings continued: Eastern Kingbirds, California Quail, Loggerhead Shrike, Black-billed Magpie, and Long-billed Curlew, to name a few.

At Catherine Creek State Park, we introduced ourselves to a generous couple camping with a hummingbird feeder at their site. Thanks to them, we got good looks at Black-chinned and Calliope Hummingbirds.

Female black-chinned, she wagged her tail while feeding

Female black-chinned wagged her tail while feeding

This was only my second time seeing a Black-chinned Hummingbird (the first was just a week prior at Painted Hills), and it was my first encounter with Calliope Humminbgird. They’re so pretty and so tiny!

Calliope Hummingbird

Calliope Hummingbird

There was another new surprise in the brushy thickets at this park, a small thrush called a Veery. Too bad I didn’t get a visual on this shy cinnamon-colored thrush, but I heard its song and call and that was pretty satisfying. Some nineteenth-century observers described the Veery’s song as “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.” Yep, I was totally seduced.

One of our last stops was at Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area where we saw Gadwall, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, and yet another new species, a shorebird called Wilson’s Phalarope.

Wilson's Phalarope

At the marsh, there were also a pair of nesting Swainson’s Hawks, both Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Red-winged blackbirds (chasing an American Bittern), Black-crowned Night Heron, Ring-necked Pheasant, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Northern Harriers. To name a few.

On the way back to Portland, we pulled off the side of the highway to bird a pond next to some railroad tracks. We joked about the safety and legality of this birding spot.

Safe birding

Then we turned around to see a law enforcement vehicle stopped at the road with lights flashing. Busted birders.

Walk of shame

Walk of shame

Turns out the officer had just thoughtfully stopped traffic for us to cross the road without incident. Whew! It was totally worth almost getting arrested to catch a glimpse of American White Pelican, Black-necked Stilt (!), teals, and nesting American Avocets.

Black-necked Stilt

Nesting Avocet

It was all worth it. In two days, the team saw a total of 127 species, including 4 owl species (and I saw 10 new-to-me species), and we raised over $14,000. We saw 11 Great Horned Owls, 3 Barn Owls, 1 Burrowing Owl, and encountered 6 Great Grey Owls! I think that’s what they call “putting an owl on it.”

I had a blast reuniting with team members from last year and making new friends this time around. Thanks to the trip leaders Scott Carpenter, Rhett Wilkins, Joe Liebezeit, and Mary Coolidge, you all rock. And of course, many thanks to my donors for making my fundraising such a success. I raised over a thousand dollars contributing to Portland Audubon’s $170,000+ for conservation. Thanks to all involved helping such a great cause!

For the birds.

Tweets and Chirps,

Audrey