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

Baskett Slough NWR

Summer’s almost here. Even though we turned on the heat in the house yesterday, it’s really June. Spring migration is winding down and I miss the warblers already. But there’s still plenty to keep oneself occupied. This past weekend I thought I’d try my luck looking for what would be a lifer Grasshopper Sparrow reported at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve not spent a lot of time at this refuge since it’s a bit of a drive from Portland (1.5hr), but there’s plenty to find here (especially in spring). There are trails to hike, but I’m still recovering from ankle surgery. Thankfully much of the refuge can be seen from car pullouts along the road. I parked and immediately heard Purple Finch.

And a little farther down, I saw a flashy buzzing Rufous Hummingbird.

Then I heard a likely candidate for the Grasshopper Sparrow. I listened intently. I recorded the audio and I thought about it. I listened back and doubt crept in. Quickly I felt underqualified at identifying a GRSP song. Sarah had suggested practicing by comparing the song with Savannah Sparrow that is way more common and has a similar sounding song. I listened a bit and convinced myself that this one was definitely a Savannah.

Imposter Sparrow

Moving onward. I drove around the corner of a butte and listened further.

I heard more Savannah, a few quick notes, thin buzzy middle, and ending with a quick lower trill. It’s that ending note that Grasshopper Sparrows lack. Instead they have two staccato notes, followed by a thin “insect-like” buzz. It’s subtle.

Then in the dewy distance, I saw it!

The best way to confirm a Grasshopper Sparrow singing is to see it. Which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Since they’re usually in the grass, there are few perches. But this one cooperated nicely.

Then the damn thing flew even closer.

I think my heart stopped. It sang and picked some things (insects? seeds?) off the Cow Vetch flowers before dashing back down into the grass. Such a great lifebird (#479).

Giddy, I then drove the short distance to “the narrows” a good spot to see waterbirds. Someone usually puts some seeds out for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds and ducks and this was the case today.

Baskett Slough is a good place to see Black-necked Stilts.

They even nest here.

There were a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes flying by.

And I had a teal slam, seeing Cinnamon, Green-winged, and this Blue-winged Teal.

There had been a Whimbrel reported the week prior, which is rare for the area and would be cool to see. I wasn’t as lucky, the best shorebird I could pull off was this super distant Dunlin.

Closer and more vocal was this Wilson’s Snipe, calling “chip-chip-chip-chip-chip!”

Another fun sighting was this American Bittern, hunting out in the open.

It was turning out to be quite the morning. The icing on the cake was seeing four Virginia Rails hopping through the grass, and one that sat out in the sun preening.

It doesn’t get much better than that. I was glad I’d arrived early. I saw all the birds I’d hoped for and made it out before the huge rainstorm moved in.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Eider to Gyrfalcon in a Day

Last week Jen invited me on a mid-week coast trip to chase rarities. I was thrilled to skip work for a day-trip with the potential for an Eider-Brambling-Costa’s-Thrasher combo.

Rarity rainbow

We left at 4am, but that was fine because we took naps in the car while Ralph did most of the driving. Good boy, Ralph.

Along the way we filled up on coffee, pastries, and new county birds – Wild Turkeys! Until we made it to Fossil Point at low tide just as planned. Jen set the scope up and almost immediately found the King Eider. 20 minutes later scanning through wafts of sea ducks I also had the eider!

Scan, scan, scan – King Eider!

Not a bad looking sea duck. Common in the arctic, they rarely visit south of Alaska. Jen also pointed out a Long-tailed Duck in the crowd which was another first for me. The tide started coming in reminding us we’d better move on but it was hard to leave such a large flock of good birds.

On route to our next destination we made a quick stop at Oregon Dunes Recreation Area to let the dogs out and stretch our legs.

A nice surprise we found creeping in the bushes by the restrooms was a Wrentit! A first for me in Oregon! I haven’t seen one of these cute charismatic birds since my trip to California.

An hour north and an hour and a half later the Brambling was a no-show no thanks to the Peregrine and Cooper’s Hawk that jetted in and out of the neighborhood. It was pretty quiet aside from the occasional Dark-eyed Junco and Fox Sparrow.

Not so pretty perch for a pretty bird

Reluctantly, we accepted defeat and left for the next hour drive north to look for a visiting Costa’s Hummingbird. Just as we turned out of the neighborhood though a FOY Turkey Vulture flew right over the car that made defeat feel so much better. Nothing like a migrating pick-me-up.

A quick stop at Bob Creek Wayside along the way also helped.

Here we found Black Turnstones.

Black Oystercatchers, Surf Scoters, and another new bird for me the Surfbird!

I’m not sure how this bird has flown under my radar thus far but I was pleasantly surprised when I realized.

There were also plenty of gulls at this stop.

Some Herring, mostly California

California Gull

Back on track we made it to the Costa’s site in a neighborhood in Newport, but unfortunately we found out the hummer was visiting less reliably.

Right place, wrong time

The gracious homeowner let us watch the feeder anyways where we did see “Piglet” a wintering Orange-crowned Warbler that has a habit of feeding at the hummingbird feeder. We also saw a Hairy Woodpecker, more Fox Sparrows, and a glimpse of a White-throated Sparrow. But no Costa’s.

While in Newport we decided to check out the herring spawning event in Yaquina Bay where we watched loads of sea lions and birds drunk on fish.

Red-necked Grebe

Pelagic Cormorant

Looking closer at my photos I also found a Long-tailed Duck in the long line of sea birds that were far in the distance.

Barely diagnostic photo

It was late afternoon at this point and we realized we had a big decision to make. The Brown Thrasher was the last target species we’d originally anticipated, but there was also a report of a Gyrfalcon an hour and a half east near Eugene that was now tempting us. Which rare bird to chase next?? Birder problems.

Since it would be a life bird for both of us and a rarer opportunity we opted for the Gyrfalcon. Unlike that time I almost saw a Gyrflacon, with about an hour of sunlight left, we found the bird.

Is something on fire? “Our birding skills!” (- Jen)

Along with two other birders we watched and admired this amazing creature from afar (maybe silently wishing it was closer). It turned around and re-positioned itself and I noticed that Gyrfalcons wear pantaloons.

Or at least the feathered legs make it look that way. And not obvious in my photos, but Gyrfalcons are the largest falcons in the world. And seeing one was a great way to end an amazing birding trip. We watched until it flew off into the sunset.

Not a bad day for an Eider-Long-tailed-Surfbird-Gyrfalcon combo!

Of course I enjoyed all the birds we saw. Even the Mallards.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey