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

Newberry Caldera

In an attempt to avoid firework noise and pack in nature time over 4th of July weekend, Tomas and I headed southeast past Bend to the Newberry National Volcanic Monument in the Deschutes National Forest.

Within the park is Newberry Caldera, which formed 75,000 years ago after an eruption-explosion-collapse event of a shield-shaped volcano, Newberry Volcano, apparently the largest volcano in the Cascades volcanic arc (the size of Rhode Island). Impressive stuff.

Caldera

Neither of us had been to the monument before and we looked forward to exploring unknown territory. We arrived late Friday night, scanned (and rejected) one official campground that was packed with noisy campers, and instead opted for our new favorite camping method, no-frills dispersed camping. Just a simple, quiet place to sleep.

Open air

No rainfly!

The next day, Tomas mountain biked 20 miles around the caldera, while I drove to Paulina Peak for a short hike and to check out the views. And birds. ALFB (Always Looking For Birds).

Paulina Peak

There are some pretty stunning views of the mountains, lakes, and surrounding volcanic features from the peak. At first I was kind of annoyed at a couple of dudes who climbed the rock in the distance putting themselves right in the middle of the nature scene.

View

But then I looked closer and all was forgiven. Hilarious.

So much macho

Macho rock men

They weren’t the only ones admiring the view.

Dark-eyed Junco

So much macho

I hiked the short distance to the rock and back, noting Western Tanager, Clark’s Nutcracker (of course, so easy), and many Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

And Rock Wrens singing away.

Rock Wren

And I heard for the first time the “ringing tew”  (or “squeaky eek“) of the Townsend’s Solitaire call. To me it sounds more like a rusty wheel. Really glad I matched the bird to the call, it’s pretty unusual! Unfortunately, no usable pics.

I left Paulina Peak and headed to the Big Obsidian Flow I could see below. This flow is the “youngest” in Oregon at only 1300 years old.

Obsidian Flow

Driving there I came across two (!) Common Nighthawks dead on the roadway.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Ugh. So terribly heartbreaking. I moved them off the road into the trees. Somehow it seemed better.

There weren’t many birds at the flow, Rock Wren, Red Crossbill, more yellow-rumps, but there was a heck of a lot of cool lava rock (basalt, rhyolite, and obsidian).

The Big Obsidian

Obsidian Flow

Life

I was fascinated with the few scattered trees growing out of the rocks. Against all odds.

A ranger told me that a pika family lives near the bottom of the stairs at the Obsidian Flow, but I couldn’t find them this day. And it was getting late, so I returned to the parking lot to meet back up with Tomas.

While waiting I came up with Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Brewer’s Blackbird, a quick glance at an Evening Grosbeak flock(!), and Red Crossbills. Here’s a consolation crossbill photo because I missed the Evening Grossbeaks. Dang.

Red Crossbill

The monument is full of lava flows, lakes, and spectacular geologic features. And it’s still seismically and geothermally active! We felt good even having explored a fraction of it before moving on to our next destination.

View

I never get tired of that view.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Godwit Days Part II: Birding with Sibley

Just when you think birding life can’t get any better, you go on a trip with David Sibley.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

Pay no attention to that shirt.

He is just as awesome as you think. Son of Yale University ornithologist Fred Sibley, David began watching and drawing birds at age seven. He’s an author (of my favorite bird guide), illustrator, ornithologist, and a down-to-earth nice guy. His favorite birds to draw are warblers. I tried to keep my inner fan-girl in check. (squeee!)

Birding with Sibley

We birded the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary a.k.a. Arcata’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. It’s actually a pretty ingenious system. Part recreation, research, refuge, and part wastewater. Keeping it classy.

Arcata Marsh

The variety of sanctuary habitat is key for birds in this area: freshwater marshes, salt marsh, tidal sloughs, grassy uplands, mudflats, brackish marsh, ponds, etc. Shorebirds especially love it, but the first bird on this trip that caught our attention was the highly vocal Marsh Wren.

Marsh Wren

Sibley explained, though currently considered one species, Marsh Wren populations in the western U.S. are probably a separate species from the eastern populations because of the differences in songs (the eastern birds have about 50 “musical” songs, the western up to 200 “harsh” songs), and their slight variation of appearances.

We continued scanning the marsh and saw a White-tailed Kite, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a spring of Green-winged Teal. One teal stood out to Sibley as an “intergrade” with both a vertical white bar of the American subspecies, and the horizontal white bar of the Eurasian subspecies.

Intergrade Teal

Half a lifer

In another pond were American Coot, Gadwall, Eared Grebe, and Lesser Scaup. One unusually light-colored scaup was identified as a leucistic female Lesser Scaup. “Leucistic” is partial loss of pigmentation (not to be confused with albinism, a total absence of melanin).

Leucistic Scaup (far left)

Leucistic scaup (far left), normal scaup (far right), Bufflehead in the middle

Apparently, odd-ball birds show up when Sibley is around.

He has a profound scientific understanding the natural world around him. We watched the Least Sandpipers at the edge of the pond, while he described how hormones determine the melanin differences between the birds’ feathers.

The bird on the far left has more greyish-whitish edges on its feathers (like winter plumage), and the others have more rufous color and black in the centers of the feathers (closer to breeding plumage), therefore with more breeding hormones. Swoon.

Least Sandpiper

And these birds are Long-billed Dowitchers (not Short-billed) because they are sitting in a freshwater, non-tidal, muddy-bottom lagoon.

DPP_779

Sibley-vision

Sibley-vision is no joke

After lunch near the end of the trip, we spent some time watching a pair of Red Crossbills before finally moving on to book signing and gushing.

So much cheese. Photo thanks to Lee Brown.

So much cheese. Thanks to Lee Brown for the photo.

Sibley Signing

Good birding!

Audrey