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


Great Gray Owl


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.


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.


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,


Cottonwood Canyon State Park

Original weekend plans for Indian Heaven Wilderness thwarted by rain, my boyfriend and I headed east instead to explore a new state park, celebrate our 50th monthiversary, and see what birds we could find!

The rugged, dry-side Cottonwood Canyon State Park, established recently in 2013, is rich in sagebrush, wildlife, stunning canyon views, and plenty of open space to explore at over 8,000 acres making it the second largest state park in Oregon (after Silver Falls). Only a 2-hour drive from Portland it’s equipped with primitive campsites, but we opted for backpacking and solitude from civilization.

With our packs suited up, we headed out. We chose a campsite along the John Day River with a large basalt canyon on one side, and sagebrush filled hills on the other. Sweet spot!

Cottonwood Canyon State Park

I considered changing this blog’s title to: “Chasing Meadowlarks.” Because that’s how I spent much of my time. They were everywhere! And nowhere…sneaky birds were easy to hear, hard to see. What bird?…Where?

Ohhhh….there it is.

Western Meadowlark

The bird’s yellow markings blend in nicely with the flowers in bloom.

Western Meadowlark

It was neat to wake up in camp listening to their captivating calls. More than meadowlarks, I caught glimpses of a few new birds too! I had a hard time wrapping my head around some of these, seeing new birds can be a stunning experience.

The Loggerhead Shrike! Not to be confused with the Northern Shrike. The loggerhead has a broader mask, stubby bill without obvious hook, and is darker grey on top than the Northern Shrike (my photo is a bit overexposed). Northern Shrike are also rarer in this region.
Loggerhead Shrike

The Say’s Pheobe was a cool sighting, the bird hovered in the wind above the branch a couple of times before quickly flying away. Lacking confidence ID-ing this bird on my own, I conferred with WhatBird and folks weighed in noting the “coloration on the undersides of the bird – the uniformity and distribution of this rufousy-brown color is a very good field mark for Say’s Phoebe.” Field guides also mention it “wags its tail when perched” which I hadn’t known to look for before, but I do now!
Say's Phoebe

I figured out the Townsend’s Solitaire on my own. A type of thrush, in the family Turdidae. The long and slim TOSO has a drab grey color overall, but a distinctive white eye-ring that really stands out. Also, Sibley mentions, “in winter almost always found among juniper trees.” Indeed, that’s precisely where it perched.
Townsend's Solitaire

I watched it for a while as it swirled around the juniper catching insects in the air.
Townsend's Solitaire

Another bird I braved to ID on my own was this little brown fella. The lack of belly streaks ruled out most of my guesses (Savannah Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow), not much stands out. Then I read on Cornell about the “bird without a field mark,” the Brewer’s Sparrow, and it seems to fit. Another clue is the habitat, “notable for their reliance on sagebrush breeding habitat” and “most abundant bird across the vast sagebrush steppe” sealed the deal for me. I’m curious about this bird’s bill, it seems to be a bit crossed.
Brewer's Sparrow

Other cool bird sightings:

I had hoped to possibly see a Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, or perhaps resident upland gamebirds, the Chukar Partridge or Ring-necked Pheasant, (or bighorn sheep!) but no such luck. According to Wiki, the Bullock’s Oriole and Lazuli Bunting are summer visitors to the park, but the searing summer heat will probably keep me away. All in all it was a great trip!

And wouldn’t you know it, I got the best view (and photos) of the Western Meadowlark on the drive back when we stopped by Marryhill Stonehenge, in Washington.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

I’ve almost seen 100 bird species this year!

Tweets and chirps,