Bluetail Crazy Train

In December 2016, a rare vagrant called a Red-flanked Bluetail showed up in Lewiston, Idaho. The Red-flanked Buetail breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. This is the first sighting in Idaho and there have only been a handful of other U.S. sightings, mostly in western Alaska. Lewiston is a mere 5 hour 40 minute drive from Portland and the bird was still being seen into January. I was intrigued.

“That’s too far to drive for one bird” someone told me. I don’t know if it was the vacation hangover from Hawaii, the long winter, or because it’s a new year, but I was craving adventure and when another friend showed even more enthusiasm to chase the bird and a second friend opted to drive? – I’m in, let’s go!

Wait! Ice Storm Warning. The Pacific Northwest was under attack of a winter storm scheduled for late Saturday. But it was bright and sunny on Friday and we calculated we could get there late Friday, stay overnight, find the bird early Saturday morning, then make a quick getaway and return to Portland before impending doom.

Thus began the Bluetail Crazy Train adventure.

Bluetail or bust! Choo-choo!

5 hours after traveling it was dark and 5 degrees outside but we checked for Long-eared Owls anyways because you never know. But yes you do know, because it’s never that easy. No LEOWs this time.

Over dinner at the local poultry/ocean-themed restaurant in Clarkston, WA, we toasted to crazy adventures then settled in to our hotel room anxious for the next day.
Would the bird still be there? Would the risks payoff? Would it be worth it?

In the morning we suited up for the single-digit temperatures (21 layers between the three of us!) crossed the border into Idaho and anxiously drove the remaining five miles to Hells Gate State Park. Appropriately, Ice Cube rapped to us over the radio, “You can do it” and we tried to believe him.

We arrived just before sunrise and remained focused. Don’t pay attention to the parking lot Merlin we told ourselves.

Don’t look at me. (Photo courtesy of Kayla McCurry)

We crossed the park hoping the Merlin hadn’t eaten the rarity.

We found a group of birders already staked out at the site. The bird was here! Someone had seen it earlier. Giddy with joy we waited.

It’s up! Everyone cheered.

The Red-flanked Bluetail stayed mostly within the Russian olive branches flitting around flicking her tail, and feeding much like a flycatcher. Occasionally, she dipped down to the water for a drink before hiding again in the deep branches close to the stream.

So pretty! While we waited for her to resurface, we relaxed a bit and were entertained by a sassy Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And a Song Sparrow.

Then the Red-flanked Bluetail resurfaced!

She quickly dipped down again and we waited for another look – just one more! Before finally pulling ourselves away.

We did it! Mission accomplished.

All smiles

We said goodbye to the bluetail and left to look for the icing, a nearby reported Barn Owl. While checking the conifers, a friendly birder pulled up and told us which tree they’d seen the owl in the day before. Kayla looked up, is that snow? Nope that’s a Barn Owl! Found!

This was when we we met Kas Dumroese, a birder on scene who offered to lead us to a nearby park with “fairly reliable” Saw-whet Owls. Um, yes please. Apparently we will follow strangers to random parks if they offer up owls. Seemed legit. Two other birder parties also joined the caravan and off we went.

Our first stop to look for a recent Lesser Black-backed Gull turned up empty, but the stream was full of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a nice yearbird.

We continued, and realized we were driving farther into Idaho, the opposite direction of our return route adding more time to get home, and increasing our chances of meeting the storm. Optimistic, we kept going anyways. Not too much farther we arrived at the park and tromped through the snow to check under conifers.

We found solid clues.

Then we looked under another nearby tree and found a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

With a dead vole gripped underneath! Awesome. And so perfect. She murderously eyed us before returning to sleepy cuteness.

Then someone said, “look, there’s another one!”

Indeed. Peeking out from behind a branch in the same tree was a second saw-whet! So angry. So cute. So perfect.

We couldn’t believe our luck. But also knew we were pushing it on time, so we said our goodbyes and thanks to Kas, his friend Carl and the others, and then hit the road for the long snowy drive home.

We were neck and neck with the storm and it was harrowing at times, but Colleen, having grown up in the mid-west, took it like a champ and got us home safe and sound.

The Bluetail Crazy Train had no regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Godwit Days Part IV: The Finale

What better way to end Godwit Days than with a Shorebird Spectacle at the marsh?

Shorebirds

Not a bad idea. Led by David Fix, author of Birds of Northern California, the spectacle trip started at the mudflats at Humboldt Bay. Unfortunately, the tide didn’t cooperate and most of the birds were pretty far in the distance.

Poor attempt at digiscoping

Poor attempt at digiscoping

The view was challenging especially for someone with limited shorebird experience, but I managed to at least identify a few Black-bellied Plovers in the faraway mix.

Black-bellied Plover

We moved to the nearby marsh for closer shorebird views.

Two godwits and a willet

Two godwits and a willet

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

And Semipalmated Plovers were a nice surprise! I wish I had gotten closer views, they’re so freakin cute.

Semipalmated Plover

I’m learning shorebirds, slowly but surely. Okay, way more slowly than anything. Their subtleties are overwhelming. I thought if I left this trip learning one new thing, I’d be happy.

So, the thing I picked up was that as with many birds, a trick to distinguishing Long-billed vs Short-billed Dowitchers, is with their distinctive calls. Long-billed has a short flight call (high-pitched keek), Short-billed has a long flight call (mellow tu tu tu). Here’s a video from the trip of those calls in action:

Whew, that’s tough. Taking it one peep at a time.

After my last official Godwit Days trip, Tomas and I had an entire afternoon free and we made the most of it. We first went to the North Jetty to look for Black Turnstones. We picked them out easily. Pretty bird.

Black Turnstone

We crossed Humboldt Bay to King Salmon and watched Pelagic Cormorant, Brant, Surf Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser feed in the bay.

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

We also watched crabs battle on the rocks. Just as fun as you think.

Krabby Patty

Krabby Patty

It was around this time that I realized I hadn’t seen a Wrentit yet. It was one target speices I’d hoped to see while in California. So, we left to try our luck at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

On the drive there I read up on the bird, “common but difficult to see in dense brushy habitats,” the song an accelerating “bouncing ball.” I was excited to meet this bird. We turned onto the visitor center access road, drove slowly with the windows rolled down, and almost immediately, as if we’d somehow summoned the bird, we heard the bouncing ball!

Named appropriately, this bird looks like a mashup of a wren and a bushtit. And it’s just as energetic as both. I was stoked when I finally got a look at this sneaky little bird.

Wrentit

Wrentit

Mission accomplished.

The rest of our mid-day walk consisted of Song Sparrows, Barn Swallows, Black Phoebe, and I even got a quick look at a Merlin!

Merlin

A little later, I mentioned to Tomas that I hadn’t seen a hummingbird yet on this trip. To which he replied, you mean like that one there? And pointed to an Anna’s Hummingbird right next to us.

Anna's Hummingbird

Well, hello there

Poof, just like that. Hummingbird, check!

We walked and birded until the blazing heat forced us to retreat back to the local brewery where we toasted to all the fun times we had exploring Arcata. Cheers to a fantastic trip! Spotted owlSibley, Wrentit!…and of course godwits!

godwit family2

How cute is that?

Tweets and chirps!

Audrey

Bonney Butte and HWI

So, there’s this awesome organization called HawkWatch International.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Their study site in Oregon is at this awesome place called Bonney Butte.

Bonney Butte

There are several HWI monitoring sites across the American west and one in Vera Cruz, Mexico. They’re all open to the public, and visitation is encouraged (!). The sites are set up along optimal raptor migration paths where topography centralizes air thermals or “wind highways” the birds use to sustain energy while covering long distances during migration. Less flapping, more soaring.

A relatively smaller number of birds migrate over Bonney Butte, (2,500-4,500/yr vs. 4 million/yr in Vera Cruz), but it’s still apparently the best hawk-watching location in Oregon in the fall (open Aug 28-Oct 31). The last four miles of forest service road up to the butte is not in the best shape, think 4 miles = 40 min of slow, rocky dips and bumps (still worth it!!). I was happy to go as part of Audubon’s Raptor Identification & Migration class.

Bus ride

The class was led by birder extraordinaire and artist, Shawneen Finnegan and Dave Irons, another exceptional birder. We were in good hands. We arrived, hiked up the short, but steep distance to the top of the butte, and got to work looking for hawks.

Hawkwatching

Hawkwatching

Hawkwatching

Hawkwatching

Eventually, we saw a some. They fly over so fast, I only managed a handful of photos.

Not pictured: the numerous Sharp-shinned Hawks that whizzed by, the Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Merlin, and Red-tailed Hawks.

The highlight by far, was witnessing the trapping, banding, and release process.

Bird blind

Hawkwatching

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

The HWI team traps the birds, then weighs, measures, and bands them, before finally releasing them back on their way south. The above bird is a hatch year male Cooper’s Hawk. During our visit, they also banded an adult Cooper’s Hawk (below).

Cooper's Hawk

And a hatch-year female Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

So damn beautiful and inspiring.

Did I mention Hawkwatch International is awesome? Here’s a video that explains more about their great work.
 

 
Here’s my short video of the sharp-shinned release.
 

 
Watch those talons!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey