Wasco County

I used to think county birding was silly. But that was before I realized how much fun it can be. Birds don’t adhere to geopolitical boundaries, but it’s a good excuse for humans to get out of the house and go exploring. Which is exactly why I said yes when Sarah and Max invited me to join them for some Wasco County birding.

I’d picked up 30 species the weekend before, so I didn’t have much of a goal, but Sarah and Max only needed three more species to make it to 100! Luckily, eBird organizes sightings by county so it makes it super easy to see county numbers.

Spoiler alert

We decided to make a large loop through the county starting in the higher elevation forest east of Mt Hood where we heard Hermit Warbler, Purple Finch, Varied Thrush, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Cassin’s Vireo.

Quickly we dropped out of the forest into the scrubby rangeland and farmland habitat and scanned trees and powerlines for more birds.

Almost immediately, Sarah saw a Tree Swallow which turned out to be their 100th county bird! A nearby yard turkey gobbled in celebration.

Wasco County yard turkey

We thought there’d be more of a challenge, but it turns out county birding is easy. We stopped for the Mountain Bluebird on a wire.

Followed by Western Kingbirds.

We ended up seeing 15 (!!) in total. Wasco County is the king of kingbirds. Here’s five at once that looks like a flight sequence.

Before our trip I’d messaged our friend Brodie since he lived in Wasco County before so he knew where all the good birding spots were. He had lots of tips, one of which led us to a farm field looking for Long-billed Curlews.

We saw a large, buffy shorebird with curved wings far in the distance defending its territory from a Northern Harrier. It flew our direction, then dropped down into a row of shrubs on private property. It was an exciting sight, but sadly, no photos.

Instead, we had closer views of Yellow-bellied Marmots.

Consolation marmot

And later a nice soaring Swainson’s Hawk.

Brodie’s brother lives in Maupin and he was kind enough to let us stalk his hummingbird feeder for a Rufous Hummingbird, that I only got a blurry photo of. While waiting we also saw a Western Tanager fly over. We were on a roll.

At a sage bluff overlooking the Deschutes River a Canyon Wren sang out and then we made eye contact with a Peregrine Falcon. We’d hoped for a Golden Eagle, but missed seeing one the whole day. As we turned to leave we heard a “sparrow” singing in the brush that sounded too good not to follow.

Don’t think about camping there, Max

We never got visuals, but after recording the song and having multiple reviewers listen, it turns out this bird was actually a Lazuli Bunting! Recording in this checklist.

We left, but not before Max stopped to rescue a Bull Snake in the road.

After all this, why not go look for a few rare Snow Geese?

So easy. The geese were located near Price Rd Wetlands which is a basically a large private estate with distant views to water below.

If only we knew who lived at Quail Heights. Nevertheless, from the bluff we saw Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Black-billed Magpie, Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Max heard an Ash-throated Flycatcher here. And down the road we spooked a Great Horned Owl.

That led us to find owlets! Practicing branch-walking.

A very fun find. While watching the owls we stirred up a few other birds including a Pygmy Nuthatch, Bushtits, and little House Wrens checking out nest holes.

A perfect fit

At the bottom of the hill we tried to turn Red-winged Blackbirds into Tri-coloreds, and Say’s Phoebes into more kingbirds.

Phoebes not kingbirds

By the creek we had Yellow Warbler, Wood Duck, a family of Canada Geese.

And I got a photo of a warbler that turned out to be a Nashville Warbler!

A great county bird. We made a couple more stops to pick up Bank Swallow.

As well as Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

The county birds just kept coming. Until we finally reached Seufert Park next to the Columbia River in the Dalles where we’d hoped for a pelican or two, but instead rounded out the day with Double-crested Cormorant, California Gull, and yet another Western Kingbird.

Such a fun day! We ended up seeing a total of 87 species, bringing Sarah and Max to 120, and me to 95! Only 5 species away from 100. A great excuse to get out of the house and go explore Wasco county again.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

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