Snowy goose chase

I was most thankful for hand warmers, an ice-scraper, and new snow tires this past weekend when I drove to eastern Washington in hopes of seeing a Snowy Owl. The backroads were frozen, covered in ice but I barely noticed until I got out of the car (hooray snow tires!). Worth every penny.

Are those paw prints?

I passed flocks of Horned Larks in the snow along the road.

And frozen Red-tailed Hawks (!).

Are those icicles?

And bright Western Meadowlark on icy fences.

For two days I searched and scanned the horizon unsuccessful at finding a Snowy Owl.

G’luck finding any owls

But I wasn’t alone.

I saw a few other cars driving slowly by fields where birders before us had been so lucky. There had been 13 sightings in the area, and one just the day prior. I thought the odds were pretty good, but that’s owls for you. Unreliable.

Instead I was lucky to find Rough-legged Hawks.

And when Jen texted suggesting I try for nearby Common Redpolls I conceded. I was happy for the distraction and it’s a good thing because it worked!

There were about 90 of them, spooked into my view by a Prairie Falcon.

Thanks to that falcon for stirring things up.

I did see some owls on my way out the first evening.

I’d recognize that beefy Great Horned Owl shape anywhere, especially in a leafless tree.

And I saw the heart-shaped face of a Barn Owl in a small cave on the rock wall. Nice to see one in a natural cliff habitat.

After my Snowy Owl dreams melted, I gave up and drove five and a half hours to Bend to look for a goose. Because that’s what you do when you have time, good audiobooks, and cooperative weather.

It’s not just any goose, it’s an Emperor Goose. I arrived at Farewell Bend Park at daybreak, and got out of my car as two other people were returning to their car. They saw me and asked if I was here for the goose. Why, yes, yes I am. They gave me directions, I walked 5 minutes along the river and bam, there was the goose. It’s that easy.

Such a good goose. I watched as it reigned mightily over its kingdom.

I couldn’t believe it, I’d found the goose and it was still so early. What to do next? My growling stomach demanded I first stop at Chow in Bend for the most amazing farm-to-table breakfast. Afterwards I headed to Pine Nursery Park where a Harris’s Sparrow had been sighted recently.

Not the H. Sparrow you’re looking for

Sadly, I dipped on the sparrow. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a Williamson’s Sapsucker!

It took me a minute on the ID which was fun; it’s a female, with a heavily barred back, brownish head, yellow belly, and white rump.

And if I’m reading eBird correclty it was the only WISA sighting in Oregon this December!

Their range map indicates they are in Oregon mainly in the summer, but I’ve been told they’re around in winter in very small numbers. Confirmed and so cool! (IMO, judging from eBird species counts Pine Nursery Park is severely under-birded – if you’re in Bend, you know what to do),

Feeling pretty content afterwards I headed home to spend New Year’s with Tomas. Despite dipping on the owI I had such a fun adventure and I look forward to many more in 2018.

Adventure time

Happy New Year!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,

Audrey

Seattle to Malheur to Astoria IV

The finale! In the morning Tomas confirmed his bike-tour was over and he was ready for a pick-up. I was ready to leave early before the hunters returned anyways so I said goodbye to Steens Mountain and made way back to Frenchglen.

Until next time

While there I noticed a smoky haze had settled and as I drove toward Fields, it gradually worsened. Winds shifted bringing a thick layer of smoke from the fires burning most of Oregon (and nearby Idaho). We’d hoped to avoid the smoke being so far southeast, but it finally caught up to us.

Reunited at the Fields Station Cafe, Tomas and I loaded up on snacks and pondered our next move. We decided to head north where his bike ride would have taken him, toward the Alvord Desert, a 12 by 7-mile dry lake separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range, the Cascades, and Steens Mountain creating a rain shadow. It averages 7″ of rain per year.

It was a part of Oregon I’ve always wanted to see and I was interested to find out what kind of birds we might find here. Unfortunately due to the wildfire smoke visibility was very poor.

But we drove out onto it anyways. Totally legal. In fact deaf American stuntwoman Kitty O’neal set an unofficial women’s world land speed record here in 1976 at 512 mph.

We didn’t set any records, but it was still fun.

After doing donuts we left the desert and continued on. Where are the birds you ask? I asked the same thing. The best bird I saw in this area was a Prairie Falcon on a post.

Then we stopped at Mann Lake which is supposed to be good for shorebirds and terns, but we were met with limitations. Geese? Maybe gnats. Too far, too hazy.

There are several hot springs along this route, but we were already hot enough. At one rest spot I found a Brewer’s Sparrow and a Lark Sparrow taking refuge in the shade. Good comparison of their size difference.

The birds were hot, panting, and disappearing into the smoky heat waves.

Sizzling sparrow

You said it.

We meandered farther passing farm fields until I spotted a Golden Eagle on a power pole. We pulled over and inched closer and closer as it tolerated our presence. Barely.

I was excited for Tomas to see one since he’d drawn a Golden Eagle the first day of the trip but had yet to see any. Especially this close. We left on an eagle high and continued along until just before Burns we pulled over again, this time for a noisy pair of Sandhill Cranes. So good.

Back in Burns it was still smoky. It was also getting late. Considering our options, we decided on Idlewild campground because it was only 20 min north, higher elevation, and forested. Maybe less smoky? We stayed one night and it was slightly better air-quality wise, but not great. I birded the best I could, finding Williamson’s Sapsucker, Orange-crowned Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Red Crossbills.

In the morning we checked the Air Quality Index. It was terrible.

We still had five more days, but at this point we thought about throwing in the towel and heading home. Fleeing from smoke was not the vacation we’d planned on. Then we learned that the Columbia Gorge was on fire (because of careless teenagers) and ash was actually falling from the sky in Portland (UGH). Home was on fire.

We joked that we could probably drive to the coast. Then it stopped being funny because that’s exactly what we did. Eight hours later, we’d arrived in Astoria and traded smoke for coastal fog.

I’ll be brief. It was cooler at least though visibility was still terrible. The highlight of this mini escape was the day I drove two hours farther north to Grayland Beach State Park.

Here I saw foggy Sanderling, foggy Brown Pelican, foggy Caspian Tern, foggy elk.

And the only life bird of the entire trip, Snowy Plover!!!

Even better. There were two!!

Both wearing fancy jewelry. So cute.

It was great. Relaxing and refreshing, just like vacations are supposed to be.

So not the trip we thought it would be but we still saw some cool stuff. Southeast Oregon is all so gorgeous and ridiculously quiet. We want to go back. I’m thinking springtime when it’s cooler and more bird species are migrating. Totally worth it because Malheur is awesome and you never know what you’ll see.

Until next time.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey