Seattle to Malheur to Astoria III

I’d never been to Steens Mountain before, but I’d only heard good things. It is a 30-mile long fault block mountain that peaks at 9,773 ft and consists of 428,156 acres of public land.

This land is our land

There is one 59-mile loop road that is gravel, often washboard, and takes about two hours to drive.

Or several more hours if you’re me. I filled up on gas before heading out because stations are few and far between.

See gas attendant in upper lefthand corner.

I stopped a lot. Several times. One of the best things about this area is how remote it is and how easy it is to turn around for scattering birds. And the birds certainly scattered. I found mostly Vesper Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, and Chipping Sparrows.

I spotted a couple of Green-tailed Towhees.

I finally got a photo of a Mountain Chickadee.

And at one stop I found a large flock of scruffy-looking bluebirds, both Mountain and Western.

Here I also saw a Red-naped Sapsucker.

And Hairy Wodpeckers.

It was good times. The best bird I found was a Black-throated Gray Warbler, but no photos, unfortunately.

At the East Rim Overlook I found stunning views of the valley below historically filled by glaciers. Hard to imagine.

I’d hoped to see Black Rosy-Finch here (or anywhere on Steens Mtn), but I wasn’t so lucky. I saw American Kestrels, Cooper’s Hawk, and a few Red-tailed Hawks dotting the landscape.

Ready, set…

Go. I drove all over that mountain back and forth, but saw more scenery than birds.

It might be because it was a holiday weekend, and though remote, the place was probably as packed as the Steens get. It took a while, but late in the day I finally found a suitable camping spot along a BLM road and settled in for the night.

Cozy. Until a truck with three men in it pulled up.

Oh great, I thought, here we go. After what felt like a long standoff, one finally got out and the first words out of his mouth were “Are you in need of assistance?” It took everything in my power not to say something rude back. (If I needed help, wouldn’t I be at the road looking for help?!) No, I’m not, I said instead. Then he asked, “are you planning on camping here?” I said, I was.

Oh great, now they know where I’m camping. He proceeded to mansplain to me that there was a campground with amenities not far down the road. I said thanks, but no thanks, this is BLM land and I am fine. He told me they wanted to scout the area for deer to bowhunt and that they’d just come back in the morning. They seemed nice enough, aside from their entitled, ignorant, and sexist attitude, but I was still bothered by the whole thing.

I felt like I had to defend my position even though I had every right to be there.

I considered leaving, but grumpily I set up camp anyways.

Then Tomas texted letting me know he’d finally made it to Fields, but he’d likely not continue the next day. Tired and achy after a 60-mile battle with the sun, dust, and headwinds, he said he felt defeated. He’d met his match with the heat that had scalded his feet and soured his spam and tuna packets.

Feeling a little defeated myself, I suggested we pack up and fly to Maui instead. Half joking, but also temping. He then asked, “what’s that bird that says “poorwill, poorwill“? Jealous, I told him it’s the Common Poorwill. Minutes later I heard them outside my own tent. That made my night. Leave it to the birds to make things better.

A great soundtrack to fall asleep to.

Crickets and poorwills,

Audrey

Eastern Oregon – Day 3

The next morning we got up, packed up, and said goodbye to the Wallowa Mountains and hello to the Starkey Experimental Forest.

Say, what? Into the fenced-in wild we went.

I’d read information about a Flammulated Owl study performed in this forest. Unfortunately it was from the 80s so I had no idea what possibilities it still held but it was worth a shot. According to the paper, flammies like large diameter Ponderosa Pine snags with cavities at least as large as made by a Northern Flicker (though preferably by Pileated Woodpecker) located on east or south facing ridges and slopes. It was a starting point.

The Starkey forest is 40 square miles completely fenced in with easily navigable gravel roads so we explored all over the place.

And only got one flat tire.

Winner for most scenic flat tire

We passed coyote traps, bear traps, strange elongated nest boxes, and several game “cleaning stations” as besides research, the other main use of the forest is elk hunting in the winter. The Starkey Project researches combinations of forest management for elk, timber, cattle, deer, recreation and nutrient flows on National Forests. We couldn’t find any information about camping, but we passed a car with grad-students/employees inside that said it was okay.

They were pretty chill. The whole place was. There were no other people camping or otherwise. It was a nice break. Even if it did make me think of the Hunger Games arena.

The odds were in our favor. We found Mountain Bluebirds.

House Wren

The worst view ever of a Northern Goshawk.

A sneaky sparrow I think is a young Vesper’s Sparrow.

And so many Pygmy Nuthatches.

It was near this nuthatch’s nest where I spotted the perfect suspect snag. Large diameter, on a high ridge, a great hole, and I’d seen a Northern Flicker in the area. Maybe this could be it? Near sunset Tomas and I waited and watched the hole. Until…

Out peeked a Northern Flying Squirrel! No way. It climbed out for a brief moment and then scurried back into it’s hole.

Not an owl, but still a great find.

Meanwhile, a Mountain Bluebird found our tent.

We settled back in to camp hoping to hear owls in the night, but I slept too soundly and didn’t hear a hoot. Sad to leave the forest we packed up for the trip home. Oddly enough we hadn’t seen any deer or elk in the Starkey Experiemental Forest, it wasn’t until we were beyond the fence boundary that we bumped into a herd of elk.

Giving me The Eye.

This is also when we saw a coyote run across the road carrying a big hunk of a deer carcass. I managed one terrible photo.

Neat. So much excitement outside the fence perimeter.

Exciting Wilson’s Snipe

On the way home we made a point to stop at Philippi Canyon because there’s always something good to find and this time did not disappoint.

Lark Sparrow

Bullock’s Oriole

American White Pelican

Red-tailed Hawk

The biggest surprise was a Chukar that didn’t run away! At least for a brief enough moment.

Another fabulous trip to eastern Oregon with much to sing about!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Cabin Lake Bird Blinds

Not far from Fort Rock State Park there is yet another magical place.

Cabin Lake sign

I almost don’t want to blog about it (the secret’s out!). But someone told me and I’m grateful. Someone also told me to bring suet. Best advice ever.

Before the blinds though, the road from Fort Rock to Cabin Lake deserves mentioning. Cabin Lake Rd is nine miles of Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, Brewer’s Sparrow, California Quail, Vesper Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Sagebrush Sparrow, and Loggerhead Shrikes. We saw THREE shrikes in a matter of minutes.

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

California Quail

California Quail

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

And a coyote.

Coyote

It was kind of nuts. I didn’t want it to end. But the road leads to something even better.

Bird blind

Don’t be fooled. There are no cabins and there is no lake at “Cabin Lake,” but nestled inconspicuously behind a decommissioned guard station, on the border of pine forests and high desert, there are two bird blinds renovated by East Cascades Audubon Society and run by volunteers. They even have their own “Friends of Cabin Lake” Facebook page.

Cozy accommodations

Cozy accommodations

Both sites are equipped with suet feeders and a water source, a true oasis for wildlife in such a dry climate. I sat inside and peered out the portals.

Portal

It didn’t take long before the first birds showed up. Pinyon Jays, a lifebird!

Pinyon Jay

Dang they are a noisy bunch.

Pinyon Jay

Another noisy Corvid visitor was Clark’s Nutcracker.

Clark's Nutcracker

A couple of Brewer’s Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows showed up.

Brewer's Sparrow

drying its wings

drying its wings

A few woodpeckers came about too.

White-headed Woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker

Williamson's Sapsucker

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

The blinds are a great place to study Cassin’s Finch.

Cassin's Finch

It was easy to observe the crisp, dark streaks on the female’s chests and see the bright raspberry-red crown on the males.

Cassin's Finch

Actually, it was pretty easy to observe all the birds. They come so close. I’m not used to photographing at such a close range and could have let up on the zoom.

I’m also not used to sitting in one spot while birding or I would second-guess which blind the birds were at. It’s hard to pick one! A couple of times I got antsy and went walking around the forest. But the birds were either far away or all at one of the watering holes anyways so inevitably, I’d return, sit, and practice patience.

I was rewarded with Mountain Bluebirds.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

And a Green-tailed Towhee!

Green-tailed Towhee

Mourning Doves were the most skittish about coming close to the blinds.

Mourning Dove

While Yellow-rumped Warblers visited frequently.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Birds weren’t the only thirsty critters.

Yellow-pine Chipmunk (or Least?)

Yellow-pine Chipmunk (or Least?)

Golden-mantled ground squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

The blinds exceeded any expectations I had going in. And while I birded for hours on end, Tomas mountain biked for miles around the forest trails. Fun for everyone.

Tomas's bike

Camp

We camped nearby at the edge of the sagebrush sea. It was one of the most peaceful and fulfilling birdy trips we’ve taken. I would highly recommend checking it out and supporting East Cascades Audubon.

Bring suet.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey