Highs and lows

Spring is here! Migration is happening and I’m still slowly recovering from ankle surgery. The cast is off, the boot is on, but I still can’t walk. Yet. But that doesn’t mean I can’t look at birds. At least those accessible from flat ground.

Which is why I was so happy to get a message from my friend Eric alerting me to Western Bluebirds at his local (flat) patch last week. Luckily, it was on the way home from the medical supply store so I could convince Tomas to make a stop.

Dharma Rain Zen Center

If I stood out birding before with binocs and a huge camera lens, I’m pretty much a beacon now with crutches, binoculars, and a boot.

But it was totally worth it because we got the birds! Two Western Bluebirds, a new county bird for me. Since I can’t carry a camera and crutches at the same time, Tomas used a video camera to get diagnostic evidence.

And we got a bonus Say’s Phoebe, peeping and calling.

It was a good stop. Another bright spot in my week was a text from Jen giving me a heads up on a tiny owl in the neighborhood. I was at work, and since I still can’t drive and am mostly reliant on Tomas for transportation I waited patiently until we were both off of work. This time I took along my knee scooter I’ve rented to get around the office more easily.

Not meant for off-roading, I took it along a paved road as far as I could before crutching the last little bit.

The blisters were worth it, because at the end of the trail we found the sleepy little Northern Saw-whet Owl. Tiny owls make the pain go away.

I’ve had to get creative to see some things, and I’ve missed out on others, like a county Mountain Bluebird that migrated to Powell Butte that is way to steep for me to scoot or crutch up. Hopefully I’ll get another chance. But I’m super thankful for the tips my able-bodied friends have passed along. I even got a tip from a coworker of an Anna’s Hummingbird nest in the park outside our office!

So adorable. I’d love to get some photos in better light before the tree leafs out.

Lastly, today’s adventure started when Sarah texted me about a Sabine’s Gull in Salem. I almost didn’t go, but I happened to have the day off so I decided last minute to get a Lyft ride to her house. From there, Max, Sarah, and I went to Salem and easily got the gull.

Flying around with Tree Swallows like it’s totally normal for a pelagic bird.

Such fun times! Even while on crutches. A few lows, but mostly highs thanks to my supportive friends and Tomas for getting me out of the house.

Hobbles and scoots,

Audrey

Owls, owls, owls, owls, owls.

The Snowy Owl I’d missed a few weeks prior was still being sighted out in eastern Washington. I felt inspired to try again. Luckily, so did Jen, Jacob, and the rest of their pack.

We left our respective homes at 3am to meet in Kennewick by 8am. By that time I was buzzing from lack of sleep, too much caffeine, and the anticipation of what we might find. Or not find.

I was not alone in dipping on this owl, Jacob had also spent time scanning rural horizons for a snowy with no luck. There’s no telling sometimes how the day will go.

This day started nicely with Barn Owls, more than I’d seen last time, and this time one even dove out of the cave and flew beautifully over the grasses by the road.

We could have stayed all day, but luckily Jen reminded us there was another owl to be found. We’d seen photos of the Snowy Owl perched on a red post.

Not an owl

We scanned and looked and eventually, we turned on an unmarked dirt road, one that was previously blocked by a creepy semi during my first trip.

This time though, the path was clear and it was along this road, we found the owl.

It was incredible. I didn’t realize how big Snowy Owls are; they’re larger than a Great Horned Owl, and smaller in length than a Great Gray Owl but with the same wingspan and a 25.6oz heavier weight. Making them the largest owl in North America by weight. Bulky as a barrel but she wears it well.

After admiring from a distance and not flushing the owl, I was relieved we’d found it and proud we’d adhered to good birding ethics. It is tempting to hug owls sometimes, but we resisted.

But we couldn’t resist looking for more. We left and went to stare at a row of willows that I’ve stared at once before.

But this time was way better because I found my first perched Long-eared Owl!

So obvious

They’re mostly invisible. And smaller and larger than I thought they’d be. Mythical I’d say. Just when you think you see one it disappears. And then you see one and three more and then none. We found four before they melted back into the branches.

It was such a great success, three species of owls and it was only mid-day! Plenty of time left to look for more, so we headed to a park along the Snake River.

Along the way, Jacob pointed out his two reliable Great Horned Owls, right where they’re supposed to be tangled in the thicket.

Finally we arrived at the park where two years ago I saw my first Northern Saw-whet Owl with Tomas. It was amazing then and still amazing now.

I’d forgotten how small they are! Only about 8″, it would take three saw-whets to reach the height of a Snowy Owl. We found two.

The second one was holding a rodent.

Mine.

Below on the ground we found more evidence of their kills.

It makes me wonder. According to BirdWeb saw-whets are sit-and-wait predators that hunt almost exclusively at night, so when/how are they attacking yellow-rumps? My guess is YRWAs get too close and bam. Just a guess though.

We continued through the park, enjoying the now sunny weather, as we bumped into more owls including these Great-horned Owls

Not just one owl

This park is wild and lovely.

I’m still reeling from the number of owls three people and three dogs (a six-pack!) can find in a day. We’d found 16 individuals and 5 species. Surreal!

In the evening we toasted over beers, nachos, and burgers to the best day of owls and to the possibilities of what we might find next.

Owls, owls, and owls,

Audrey

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