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

Stub Stewart State Park – First Trip

For my first documented birding trip, I stayed in a cozy cabin at Stub Stewart State Park, 34 miles west of Portland. This woodsy park made for a perfect birding opportunity. The forest is mainly comprised of tall, even-aged Douglas-fir with an under-brush of ferns and (seasonally) leafless vine-maples.

IMG_2735

I took several lovely walks in the mornings and evenings over three days. The temps were in the 40s and the sky was sprinkling on and off and the last day was pretty foggy. The best (most species) birding day was December 25th (Christmas day!). For simplicity’s sake (and because I’m still learning how to journal usefully) I’ll combine sightings.

Total: 14 Species

Grey Jay
Stellar’s Jay
American Crow
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Dark-eyed Junco
Song Sparrow
Northern Pygmy Owl
Red-tailed Hawk (?)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Varied Thrush
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Mystery Bird
8+ seen
5+ seen
2+ heard
1 seen
3+ seen
3 seen
4+ seen
2 seen
1 seen
1 seen
1 seen
5+ seen
5+ seen
2 heard
1 seen

Jays & Crows (Family: Corvidae)

Grey Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) – Several near cabins and picnic tables. In groups, boldly approached cabin and camping gear scavenging for food. Saw one catch a few grubs early one morning.

Stellar’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) – At least four seen along with various other birds (song sparrows, varied thrush, juncos) in the grass scavenging through leaves.

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) – Heard caws while hiking (pretty sure they were crows and not the deeper-voiced ravens)

Woodpeckers (Family: Picidae)

Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) – Sighted pecking on narrow (Red alder?) tree trunks, surprisingly low to the ground (yay photo op!) Wasn’t sure if it was a Hairy or a Downy woodpecker since I know they are almost identical, but because of the longer bill (about the length of its head) I’m pretty confident it’s a Hairy Woodpecker. Downy woodpecker bills are shorter than the head. Believe it to be female since I didn’t see any red coloring on its head. Chirping and active, also accompanied by a few varied thrushes at that time.

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) – At least three seen foraging in the grass and leaves on the ground near the cabins. Accompanied by sparrows, jays, juncos. Flew to nearby tree when people walked by.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber) – Three seen, one very close to our cabin that remained pecking at a Douglas-fir tree for hours each day we were there. Another visible lower on a thin (red alder?) trunk hard at work creating (what I later learned at Audobon) “sap wells” that attract insects the bird will later come back and eat. I saw a third red-breasted sapsucker high up on a Douglas-fir tree on another hike.

Emberizine Sparrows (Family: Emberizidae)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), subspecies Oregon Junco (Junco hyemalis oreganus) – Several visible foraging in the grass, and hopping near the parking lot area.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) – Foraging on the ground (in grass and leaves, ran across trail) near the cabin trails with juncos, Stellar’s jay, Northern flicker.

Owls (Family: Strigidae)

Northern Pygmy Owl (Glaucidium gnoma) – My favorite sighting! Who doesn’t love an angry owl? (the red-breasted sapsucker sighting came in a close second). Owls are fascinating and I felt lucky (and surprised) to spot one. It was perched atop a youngish Douglas-fir tree near a meadow seen on an early evening walk near sunset on Christmas day (what a great present!).

Diurnal Raptors (Family: Accipitridae)

Red-tailed hawk (?) (Buteo jamaicensis) – Seen high above perched on a tall Douglas-fir near the horse staging area at the park. Minutes later it flew across a meadow and perched on a scrawny, but still tall tree. Based on the streaked “belly-band” and pale breast color I’m moderately confident it was a red-tailed hawk. (I still have much to learn on raptor identification).

Kinglet (Family: Regulidae)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) – While I was kneeling on the ground taking pictures of the red-breasted sapsucker this little bird flew onto the bush right in front of me – what a treat! I’m pretty sure it’s a kinglet due to the olive color and uneven white eye-ring, though I was unable to see any red crown patch (could be female?).

Thrush (Family: Turdidae)

Varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) – I saw many (at least five?) of these beautiful birds. To my inexperienced birder eyes, at first I thought they were orioles (Bullock’s oriole) due to the orange and black coloring, but after doing some quick research in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID app, I realized it was instead the varied thrush. They were at or near the forest floor (hopping from tree to tree), picking in the grass and sending out alarms when I walked by.

Chickadee (Family: Paridae)

Chestnut-backed Chickadees – Through my binoculars I gazed high in the Douglas-fir to see a flock of chestnut-backed chickadees and found these birds to be the chittery-chatty birds I heard throughout the woods (but had a hard time finding/identifying). Very quick and active.

Nuthatch (Family: Sittidae)

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) – While I never got a visual I certainly heard at least two occurrences of its song “eeeen eeeeen”…

Mystery Bird: This little brown bird (or should I call it a LBJ- Little Brown Job?) flashed by and I couldn’t get a good look at it. Possibly a wren of some sort? My best guess would be a winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Family: Troglodytidae) based on the sort of short pale or indistinct “eye brow” and dark brown-ish belly. Also, the call to me sounded like “pip pip” but it could actually be what the guide books describe as a dry, low “chimp chimp” or “chat chat.” I didn’t get a good look at the tail to tell if it was in the (wren’s typical) raised vertical position. It’s possible it could be a bushtit, I think I heard some in the vicinity and the size fits, however the belly looks possibly too dark. And the “pip pip” call doesn’t match so I’m sticking with my original best guess of a wren.

IMG_2590

Nest – I happened to notice a nest near the trail, low in a shrub. I wonder what little bird (s) made it!

IMG_2766

Other woodland creatures I saw:

 

 

What did I learn from my first birding post?

  • It took a long time to write out the family/species/sightings. In future posts, I may list the species seen/heard, and only include a few unique or noteworthy sightings.
  • I found the mystery bird sighting almost as fun as the obvious ones; I enjoy the puzzle-factor. 🙂
  • I might make a “chirp confidence rating meter” – a visual to describe how confident I am with my sightings. 5 chirps is a positive ID, 1 chirp, not so much.
  • I’d like to create a “check-list post” of Oregon’s Birds to keep track of sightings.
  • I have a Latin for Bird Lovers book that I’ll use to include a bit about the origin of the bird’s names.
  • I’m excited for my next trip!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey