SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey

An excellent week of birds

It started when I left work early one day to find a rare Snowy Egret in the Vancouver Lake Lowlands that was associating with a Great Egret and Mallard decoy.

Also present were Greater Yellowlegs, a couple of hardy Tree and Barn Swallows, and Purple Finch, a year bird I was happy to see lower in the branches.

On the way out a flash of black and white caught my eye.

Ah, yes. Migration was in full swing as Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and Sandhill Cranes came and went. I pulled over to take a look.

It was hard to pull myself away.

The following weekend I was excited to join Sarah and Max for some Oregon county birding. We went south on I-5 to Talking Waters Gardens, a place I’ve never birded before located in Linn County.

It was fantastic water treatment-wetland habitat full of American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Virginia Rails, and even one vocal Sora (my first Oregon Sora!). No visuals of the Sora, unfortunately, but we did locate three Black Phoebe.

1/3 phoebes

 Several Lincoln Sparrows.

And a moderately cooperative White-throated Sparrow hanging out in a corner of the ponds.

It was still early in the day when we completed the trails so we drove north making a quick stop at Waverly Park where we found a couple of Western Gulls and a FOY Green Heron. Then it was onward to Ankeny National Wildlife to (officially) add birds in Marion County which included distant Dusky Canada Geese with red neck collars.

And muddy-faced swans.

Not making it easy to ID

Luckily there were a couple with visible yellow lores helping to confidently ID them as the more expected, Tundra Swans.

We also stopped at the Rail Trail on the refuge to walk on a boardwalk through Oregon Ash wetlands.

The water was so high it reminded me a bit of Florida’s wetlands but without the moss and humidity. Along the trail we found more Black Phoebe, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and Max heard a Red-breasted Sapsucker that we eventually spotted right at the water’s edge.

Not something you see every day.

The next morning I got up before dawn to chase a sea duck. There’d been a report of a female Steller’s Eider at Seaside Cove on the Oregon coast but I had an appointment with a tree-trimmer at 12:30pm so I didn’t have any time to waste. I left the house at 5am and arrived at Seaside when it was still dark. Luckily, there were already two birders there making me feel totally normal.

One was Trent Bray, avid birder and shop owner of Bobolink, a birding (disc golf, and beer) supply store in La Grande, Oregon. Trent had left La Grande at 1am that morning but it paid off because he already had the bird in the scope. We watched it dive and ride the waves drifting out farther as more birders arrived on scene.

The bird became harder to locate in the waves and we felt a bit bummed. But then the eider flew right back to us. Hooray!

What a good duck. We all cheered and took hundreds of photos. The blocky head, the pale eye-ring, and two white wing bars were clearly visible on this first-winter female bird. She was cooperative, clearly not minding the attention. Or the surfers.

Surfer, surfer, eider, scoter combo

Steller’s Eiders are listed as threatened and rarely found outside of Alaska. This is only Oregon’s fourth record.

I was giddy and thrilled I’d taken time to come visit her. And because it was so easy, I had at least 10 more minutes to look for a Palm Warbler at a nearby water treatment plant (thanks for the tip, Sarah!).

Success! I found it with minimal difficulty though it didn’t want to be seen. A warbler less cooperative than a rare sea duck, go figure. Running out of time I dashed the two hours home and made it within minutes of meeting the arborist. Winning.

Not far from the house on another day I found the Greater White-fronted Geese frequenting the golf course by Force Lake, and in a tree next to the parking lot a Sharp-shinned Hawk practicing being ferocious.

This one had perfected the stink-eye.

And on another local outing at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge I attempted to find a Red-shouldered Hawk. I’d unknowingly walked right by it until I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk that ignited the fire in the Red-shouldered and it vocalized loudly and chased its competition away.

Birding has been good to me this month. To say the least. Next month might be a different story, but more about that later. Until then, I’m enjoying everything I can get!

And that includes my FOY-yard Townsend’s Warbler!

Back and cute as ever.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Laughing at the Coast

Last weekend I had a roller coaster of a birding trip. But that’s to be expected when chasing rarities. There were at least seven rare birds reported near Newport (Say’s Phoebe, Solitary Sandpiper, Northern Mockingbird, Marbled Godwit, Nashville Warbler (early), Palm Warbler, and Laughing Gull). Laughing Gull?! Who brought back the Texas souvenir?

It wasn’t me. But I have missed the southern birds so I figured why not reunite with at least one? If I could find a few other rarities it would make the long drive worth it. I set off. And was almost immediately detoured by some intriguing-looking geese.

When you see a small group of geese on the side of the road you pull over. But upon closer examination, these turned out to be Domestic Geese.

According to Cornell what makes these different from Snow or Ross’s Geese: “typically domestic geese have orange bills and feet, lack the black wing feathers, and have shape differences such as heavy bottoms and an ungainly waddle.” I didn’t see their legs or their waddle, but the lack of black wing feathers was a tell-tale sign not to get excited.

With only one day to spend at the coast, I didn’t have time to stop for domestic incidentals. Eventually I made it to South Beach State Park the last reported location of the Laughing Gull where luckily I bumped into Wayne Hoffman, a local birder who pointed me in the right direction. Towards the teeny dots in the distance.

This is when it’s extra hard to stay on track and pass up views of Northern Harriers carrying nesting materials, exotic-sounding Yellow-rumped Warblers, fly-by Caspian Terns, and flocks of Savannah Sparrows among the driftwood. Stay on target.

So many pretty distractions

Three stream crossings, two miles, and two soaked feet later, a pair of birders passed me from the opposite direction carrying a scope. They gave me the thumbs up and I knew it was all okay. Not long after, the gull flew by.

Laughing Gull! Oregon’s 4th record! And this one has one leg making it extra special.

I watched for a while as it flew and hopped around the Mew Gulls, and then it ate an undetermined ocean object, before settling down at the shore with a ridiculously large crop.

I was worried about the bulge, but the gull has been reported since then, so all is well digested. I left the gull and trekked back across the streams and the two miles back to the car. Later I learned the Northern Mockingbird was located at the first stream crossing. Strike one. That’ll teach me to walk by distractions.

From here I drove the short distance to the Hatfield Marine Science Center estuary nature trail where the reported Palm Warbler has regularly wintered. This bird (which I associate most with Florida neighborhoods) was one I was most excited to see. Along the trail I passed Tree Swallows, Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned Warblers, Savannah Sparrows and the most handsome Lincoln Sparrow.

Then I spotted two birders at the bird blind. I asked if they’d happened to see a Palm Warbler. The woman exclaimed they’d just seen one! And I’d just missed it. She said “you have to see my pictures” and she “didn’t even realize what it was” and “isn’t that disgusting?” Her words, not mine. I asked which way the bird flew then politely looked at her photos.

I really wanted to be happy for her and after some snacks and time I genuinely was. Not finding the Palm Warbler was a disappointment, but I was a 5 min drive from the South Jetty where a second Palm Warbler had been seen as well as all the other rarities. But I didn’t find any of those this time either.

If the goal had been to find Golden-crowned Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, a Wrentit, gobs of Savannah Sparrows and a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage then I was highly successful.

I think the best sighting here may have been a fly-by Pigeon Guillemot.

It was getting late. But not late enough to check the estuary trail again for the warbler. I walked along the trail maybe 20 feet when I saw some fluttering by a big ugly building.

No way. There was the warbler flying around the backside of the pipes on the building. Not perched prettily on driftwood, but at least it was a science center and not Walmart?

This bird is pro-science.

So pretty! Glad I went back to check on it again. I was running short on time and I could have ended the day here, but the Salishan Nature Trail where a Nashville Warbler was sighted was mostly on the way home. Why not make a quick stop for a look?

An hour and a half of quick looking later I finally saw the Nashville, but so briefly that I didn’t even count it. I got much better looks of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Common Yellowthroat.

And a Rufous Hummingbird!

M’lady Rufous. One of my favorites.

And just as I was leaving I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk also on a bird hunt.

I wished I had more time. Lesson learned, one day is not enough to find all the rare birds on the coast. I started the three hour drive home, and along the way, next to a field in Grand Ronde I spotted an intriguing white bird hovering over a field.

White-tailed Kite! When you see a White-tailed Kite you pull over. I’ve only seen one other WTKI in Oregon and I had to work hard for it. This one was a treat. I watched from the side of the road as it hunted.

It eventually caught a rodent and then flew off into the distance. I’d come a long way from those Domestic Geese. So many highs so many lows. Such is the case when chasing rarities. Hilariously good times!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey