Kennewick to Astoria

The next day was not like the previous. The winds howled and overcast skies moved in. Jen, Jacob, and I checked on the Snowy Owl in the early morning, but this time it was far off in a distant farm field.

We watched for a bit until she flew to another field.

And was subsequently harassed by a Northern Harrier.

She didn’t seem too concerned. After a while we felt it was time to move on and we left the owl to defend her post. Good luck Miss Snowy Owl.

We then drove down 9-mile Canyon Rd dodging tumbleweeds and not coming up with much besides American Goldfinch and sneaky deer.

With the long drive home ahead we decided it was best to start heading back and we went our separate ways. I didn’t make many stops along the way but I had an idea of where I might go next. Not home that’s for sure. Tomas was off mountain biking, I’d be home too early, and there was the entire next day of possibilities.

One thing that stuck in my mind was a Northern Waterthrush reported in Brownsmead, a place in Oregon I’ve never been to near Astoria. I debated. The waterthrush wasn’t a life bird, I’d seen one once in Alaska, but it had been so long ago. Many birders hadn’t gotten visuals on the Brownsmead bird, they’d only heard it in the dense shrubs. Would I be satisfied driving so far to hear a chip note? Maybe.

What sealed the deal was the possibility of a Swamp Sparrow and that would be a life bird, so I figured why not take the chance. My plan was set. The five hours of driving flew by and before I knew it, I arrived in Brownsmead.

What a great place! Lots of lowland wetlands, farms, and places for rare birds to hide.

I pulled up to the waterthrush site and immediately heard chip notes. Unfortunately, they were coming from Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees above. And then I heard it, a tantalizing loud spwik from lower in the blackberry. Scanning I saw movement and eventually a bird. It was the Northern Waterthush!

It sat preening and I enjoyed every moment so happy I’d taken the chance to see it.

It was then a homeowner across the street came out to greet me. Claire had met birders from Seattle looking for the waterthrush that morning and she was excited to share what she’d learned. She kindly gave me a tour of her neighborhood and showed me a Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, and about 30 Great Egrets foraging in a field. The light was fading so I didn’t get many photos, but it was inspiring to see Claire’s new connection to the nature of her neighborhood.

I thanked her for her generosity and continued on, still hoping for a Swamp Sparrow, but getting distracted by ducks instead. I found one male Eurasian Wigeon.

That turned into three EUWI after reviewing my photos later, including the female to the left of the male in the above photo. She has a blue bill touching reddish feathers, AMWI has a narrow black base to the bill.

I saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagles stalking all of them from above. As it got darker I thought of lodging options, and Astoria was only another 20 minutes down the road where Fort George Brewery was featuring dark beers. This plus fish and chips and I was sold. It was an excellent ending to an exhausting but fulfilling day.

In the morning it was dark and pouring rain, not good beach weather so I skipped it and drove back to Brownsmead for a quick scan. The area is sometimes favorable for Gyrfalcons and I thought it worth a look. Come to Brownsmead for the waterthrush, stay for the Gyrfalcon. I spent a long time trying to turn this bird into one.

There was a Peregrine Falcon nearby for size comparison. This one was larger but the light was terrible, I was far away, and it wouldn’t turn around. Finally it was light enough for me to ID it as a Rough-legged Hawk. Not a gyr but still a good bird!

And a reminder I should probably stop birding in the dark. I drove around a bit more, but the weather was terrible and with so much ground to cover Swamp Sparrows could be anywhere. I conceded defeat, but on the way out a large light bird caught my eye and I quickly pulled over.

Woah, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk! I wasn’t sure until it flew and I saw that red tail.

Such a beautiful and unusual hawk. This made my morning and I felt good about heading back. But not to home just yet.

One more stop at Ridgefield NWR. My friend Sarah says I’m birding like I’m going to die soon. If it seems like I’m birding hard #birdlikeyouredying, I am because next week I’m having surgery on my ankle to glue my bones back together. Basically. And this means I’ll be on crutches and in a cast for a month, and a boot for at least another month. And it’s my right ankle, so no driving. No, it’s not death, but I want to take advantage of my freedom before I’m greatly humbled by my body.

So back to Ridgefield, and my last chance at a Swamp Sparrow for a while. At least here I had a better idea of where they might be along the auto tour. And just past marker #10, where I stubbornly sat in my car staring at grass while other cars passed around me. Finally, I saw the secretive owl of sparrows, the Swamp Sparrow!

Such a richly colored bird! I admired it as long as it would let me.

Which was about two seconds before it dropped down into the grass hidden once again. Until next time, Mr Sparrow. I left Ridgefield feeling pretty accomplished and officially ready to call it a day.

It’s hard to stop when there’s always a good bird just around the next corner.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Alaska By Land – Denali Part II

We saw five grizzly bears from the shuttle bus on the way towards our unit.

Grizzly, Caribou carcass, Ravens!

Grizzly, Caribou carcass, Ravens!

Grizzly, devouring soap berries

Grizzly in the distance devouring soap berries

Two bears!

Two bears!

Luckily, viewed from shuttle

Too close! (View from the safety of the shuttle bus.)

Intimidating, much? We prepared for such encounters as best we could before setting off into the backcountry.

Hiking in Denali has a few requirements. Contrary to Pacific Northwest training to walk single file along trails, Denali hikers are to spread out, preventing new trails and minimizing impact. Hiking alone is not recommended. And when in areas with limited visibility, make noise. Talk loudly, sing, or call out, “Hey bear!” at regular intervals, so as not to startle any bears. No kidding. This tactic gives wildlife a heads-up of your approach so they’ll (presumably) scatter.

That last tip is probably the worst for birding. But, determined to survive (*and* see birds), we tromped through the thick, brushy alder, and repeatedly announced “Hey bear!,” spoke loudly, and sang silly songs like “99 Bottles of Bears,” “Alphabet-booze-bear-bird,” or anything else we could come up with. It’s a fun challenge to see where the mind goes when you’re hiking for miles over tundra, tired, and talking non-stop.

Despite the singing, I found a few new birds!

I feel pretty lucky to have glimpsed this Arctic Warbler, that was “solitary, secretive, and skulking” in vegetation. Phylloscopus borealis, Greek origin, Phyllon – leaf, scopio – seek, appropriately “spends much of it’s time feeding in the leafy canopies of trees.”  Amazingly, this little bird breeds in North America (Alaska), then migrates across the Bering Strait to winter in Asia.

Arctic Warbler

Another great find was this Northern WaterthrushParkesia noveboracensis – Latinized form of “Parkes’s” (named after the ornithologist, Kenneth Carroll Parkes) and “New York.” The Northern Waterthrush is a ground dweller that walks rather than hops, bobs its tail rapidly, and is a similar species to the Louisiana Waterthrush.

Northern Waterthrush

We saw what is sometimes called the “snowbird” in Alaska, the Dark-eyed Junco- Slate-colored model! (and juvenile below).

Dark-eyed Junco, Slate-colored

Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored), juvenile

Other birds found in Denali backcountry:

American Pipit, a species I once saw by the Columbia River near home, flocked along the Alaskan riverbars.

American Pipit

American Pipit

Gray Jays. Gregarious. And everywhere.

Gray Jay

Olive-sided Flycatcher. I totally recognized it.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Orange-crowned Warblers. Totally didn’t recognize them.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Nor did I recognize this Yellow Warbler, since it was wearing it’s “first-year buffy/brown” outfit. So tricky.

Yellow Warbler

Savannah Sparrow. 

Savannah Sparrow

Wilson’s Warbler (female).

Wilson's Warbler

And, everyone’s favorite, Yellow-rumped Warbler. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler

And because these pictures turned out the best, more yellow-rumped beauty.

Denali backcountry is amazing. I’m in love with the park for keeping it simple. There aren’t millions of RVs, cars, and people obscuring the view. We saw no signs of humans in the backcountry aside from footprints. It’s wild and beautiful (as national parks should be). Bears, snow, remote, and birds? It’s all worth it, keep exploring.

Grizzly prints

Hey bear!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey