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

Fort Rock State Natural Area

After visiting Newberry Caldera, Tomas and I continued an hour south to Fort Rock State Natural Area.

Fort Rock

About a mile wide and 200 ft tall, Fort Rock is yet another of Oregon’s magnificent geologic features. It is a tuff ring formed 50,000-100,000 years ago when magma rose up to meet water and lake mud. Fort Rock was once an island when the whole place was intermittently flooded by Fort Rock Lake. Hard to imagine.

Fort Rock  Fort Rock

Today, the natural area is a desert filled with rocks, sage, flowers, insects, lizards, grasses. And birds. Tomas and I visited the park twice in three days. It’s that good. The first time we were met by swarms of White-throated Swifts, Cliff Swallows, and a conspiracy of Ravens. I was told sometimes there are humming bird feeders up, but not this time.

While on the short hike inside the fort we heard the cry of a falcon, and looked up to see a juvenile Prairie Falcon.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

High up on the cliff walls, it stretched its wings and called out loudly. This was the first time I got a good look at the brown color patterns and dark “armpits” that distinguish this bird from a Peregrine Falcon.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

I noticed its larger size compared to American Kestrels. They also nest here.

American Kestrel

There was plenty of evidence owls also nest in the cliff cavities (Barn Owls I think). We searched for a long while, but couldn’t find the birds. Just the bones.

Bones

I chased around one colorful songster around the fort until it finally revealed itself. A Green-tailed Towhee! A first for me.

Green-tailed Towhee

Green-tailed Towhee

That is a fun bird. Not only does it have a fancy cap and tail, it has a pretty song too.

On our second visit we arrived earlier and got great views of Sage Thrashers.

Sage Thrasher

And sparrows. Like this Brewer’s Sparrow.

Brewer's Sparrow

And Sage Thrashers AND sparrows. A two-fer!

Sage Thrasher

Another target bird showed up in good numbers this morning that was absent the day before. Sagebrush Sparrow!

Sagebrush Sparrow

Oh that’s embarrassing, there’s something on your face.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Nope, still there.

Sagebrush Sparrow

That’s better. Its song is hard to describe (several trills broken up by short chips) but lovely to listen to.

Sagebrush Sparrow

It was hard to pull myself away from these handsome birds. But we had another destination to get to. Oregon has so many hidden gems. You can live in a state over a decade and not realize they are there. Unless you look for them.

Keep looking

Keep looking.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey