All the Grebes starting with a Gnatcatcher

I didn’t intend to chase the rarity, but I brought my camera and binoculars to work just in case, and when a second report of the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (originally found by Nick Mrvelj) came in at Kelley Point Park, I decided to go for it.

I arrived and immediately felt overwhelmed. Tiny bird, big park. Walking along the trails I tried to find clues but found only people and dogs. I’d all but given up until when I got back to the parking lot and bumped into more birders. Fresh eyes and more people looking couldn’t hurt so I joined the search party.

We managed to find even more birders, including Adrian Hinkle, who’d seen the gnatcatcher just 30 min prior. They kindly walked us to the area it was last seen, and in one minute, Adrian said “stop” and pointed up high in a cottonwood. He’d heard the bird a mile away, basically. And lucky for us because we were able to catch a quick glimpse before it moved on. I got one unflattering photo.

I was surprised to get it the frame, it moved around quickly high up in the tree as the light faded fast. There’s talk that this may be the eastern variety based on this bird’s characteristics (lighter undersides, position high up in the trees, and higher-pitched call notes), but it’s still under discussion. That reminds me, check out this website, Xeno-canto where you can listen to and share bird songs and easily compare songs from different regions. Cool stuff.

Feeling extremely lucky to have seen this bird, I pressed my luck further and stopped at Columbia Point near Hayden Island Marina to see if any Surf Scoters were still around. They weren’t but a Red-necked Grebe was.

As was a Ruddy Duck (on the left). Also, I wasn’t positive, but I thought I saw the Clark’s Grebe that had been reported by Andy Frank earlier in the week.

Maybe? The light was so terrible. I needed to investigate further, so I returned the following day. This time I brought along my new scope.

Am I doing this right?

It worked! I found four Surf Scoters (and one Lesser Scaup in the middle).

And grebes. So many grebes.

With a handful of perky-tailed Ruddy Ducks in the mix.

Back to the grebes. There was Western Grebe.

Horned Grebe.

Western and Horned Grebes.

Eared Grebe.

Horned (top) and eared (bottom) grebes together for a nice comparison. Note the peaked head and darker cheek on the eared.

Western, Eared, and Horned.

And my best combo: Western, Eared, Horned, and Clark’s. In that order.

There was safely one Clark’s Grebe with more white around the eye and an orangeish bill.

I was surprised to see the variation of black around the eye among the grebes.

That or it was one giant Loch Ness Western-Clark’s Grebe.

Anyways, I passed a couple of cool cats along the marina. One bengal-looking kitty wearing a bell and another the stylish Birdsbesafe collar. I hope those things work.

I found the sixth and final grebe species safe from cats in the water, Pied-billed Grebes.

That’s it. At one location in two days I found all six species of grebes that can be seen in Oregon: Red-necked, Western, Clark’s, Horned, Eared, and Pied-billed.

I might as well throw in a Least Grebe from Texas.

That’s all the grebes of North America! What’s next? Great Grebe? Great-crested Grebe? Hoary-headed Grebe? All real. I had no idea there were so many grebes in the world, 19 species remain, and some like the gorgeous Hooded Grebe, one of the rarest birds in South America, are critically endangered. There’s even a documentary about them: Tango in the Wind.

How lucky we are to have all the grebes.

If there is no bird, there is no tango.

Tango and chirps,

Audrey

Seattle to Malheur to Astoria III

I’d never been to Steens Mountain before, but I’d only heard good things. It is a 30-mile long fault block mountain that peaks at 9,773 ft and consists of 428,156 acres of public land.

This land is our land

There is one 59-mile loop road that is gravel, often washboard, and takes about two hours to drive.

Or several more hours if you’re me. I filled up on gas before heading out because stations are few and far between.

See gas attendant in upper lefthand corner.

I stopped a lot. Several times. One of the best things about this area is how remote it is and how easy it is to turn around for scattering birds. And the birds certainly scattered. I found mostly Vesper Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, and Chipping Sparrows.

I spotted a couple of Green-tailed Towhees.

I finally got a photo of a Mountain Chickadee.

And at one stop I found a large flock of scruffy-looking bluebirds, both Mountain and Western.

Here I also saw a Red-naped Sapsucker.

And Hairy Wodpeckers.

It was good times. The best bird I found was a Black-throated Gray Warbler, but no photos, unfortunately.

At the East Rim Overlook I found stunning views of the valley below historically filled by glaciers. Hard to imagine.

I’d hoped to see Black Rosy-Finch here (or anywhere on Steens Mtn), but I wasn’t so lucky. I saw American Kestrels, Cooper’s Hawk, and a few Red-tailed Hawks dotting the landscape.

Ready, set…

Go. I drove all over that mountain back and forth, but saw more scenery than birds.

It might be because it was a holiday weekend, and though remote, the place was probably as packed as the Steens get. It took a while, but late in the day I finally found a suitable camping spot along a BLM road and settled in for the night.

Cozy. Until a truck with three men in it pulled up.

Oh great, I thought, here we go. After what felt like a long standoff, one finally got out and the first words out of his mouth were “Are you in need of assistance?” It took everything in my power not to say something rude back. (If I needed help, wouldn’t I be at the road looking for help?!) No, I’m not, I said instead. Then he asked, “are you planning on camping here?” I said, I was.

Oh great, now they know where I’m camping. He proceeded to mansplain to me that there was a campground with amenities not far down the road. I said thanks, but no thanks, this is BLM land and I am fine. He told me they wanted to scout the area for deer to bowhunt and that they’d just come back in the morning. They seemed nice enough, aside from their entitled, ignorant, and sexist attitude, but I was still bothered by the whole thing.

I felt like I had to defend my position even though I had every right to be there.

I considered leaving, but grumpily I set up camp anyways.

Then Tomas texted letting me know he’d finally made it to Fields, but he’d likely not continue the next day. Tired and achy after a 60-mile battle with the sun, dust, and headwinds, he said he felt defeated. He’d met his match with the heat that had scalded his feet and soured his spam and tuna packets.

Feeling a little defeated myself, I suggested we pack up and fly to Maui instead. Half joking, but also temping. He then asked, “what’s that bird that says “poorwill, poorwill“? Jealous, I told him it’s the Common Poorwill. Minutes later I heard them outside my own tent. That made my night. Leave it to the birds to make things better.

A great soundtrack to fall asleep to.

Crickets and poorwills,

Audrey

Eastern Oregon – Day 3

The next morning we got up, packed up, and said goodbye to the Wallowa Mountains and hello to the Starkey Experimental Forest.

Say, what? Into the fenced-in wild we went.

I’d read information about a Flammulated Owl study performed in this forest. Unfortunately it was from the 80s so I had no idea what possibilities it still held but it was worth a shot. According to the paper, flammies like large diameter Ponderosa Pine snags with cavities at least as large as made by a Northern Flicker (though preferably by Pileated Woodpecker) located on east or south facing ridges and slopes. It was a starting point.

The Starkey forest is 40 square miles completely fenced in with easily navigable gravel roads so we explored all over the place.

And only got one flat tire.

Winner for most scenic flat tire

We passed coyote traps, bear traps, strange elongated nest boxes, and several game “cleaning stations” as besides research, the other main use of the forest is elk hunting in the winter. The Starkey Project researches combinations of forest management for elk, timber, cattle, deer, recreation and nutrient flows on National Forests. We couldn’t find any information about camping, but we passed a car with grad-students/employees inside that said it was okay.

They were pretty chill. The whole place was. There were no other people camping or otherwise. It was a nice break. Even if it did make me think of the Hunger Games arena.

The odds were in our favor. We found Mountain Bluebirds.

House Wren

The worst view ever of a Northern Goshawk.

A sneaky sparrow I think is a young Vesper’s Sparrow.

And so many Pygmy Nuthatches.

It was near this nuthatch’s nest where I spotted the perfect suspect snag. Large diameter, on a high ridge, a great hole, and I’d seen a Northern Flicker in the area. Maybe this could be it? Near sunset Tomas and I waited and watched the hole. Until…

Out peeked a Northern Flying Squirrel! No way. It climbed out for a brief moment and then scurried back into it’s hole.

Not an owl, but still a great find.

Meanwhile, a Mountain Bluebird found our tent.

We settled back in to camp hoping to hear owls in the night, but I slept too soundly and didn’t hear a hoot. Sad to leave the forest we packed up for the trip home. Oddly enough we hadn’t seen any deer or elk in the Starkey Experiemental Forest, it wasn’t until we were beyond the fence boundary that we bumped into a herd of elk.

Giving me The Eye.

This is also when we saw a coyote run across the road carrying a big hunk of a deer carcass. I managed one terrible photo.

Neat. So much excitement outside the fence perimeter.

Exciting Wilson’s Snipe

On the way home we made a point to stop at Philippi Canyon because there’s always something good to find and this time did not disappoint.

Lark Sparrow

Bullock’s Oriole

American White Pelican

Red-tailed Hawk

The biggest surprise was a Chukar that didn’t run away! At least for a brief enough moment.

Another fabulous trip to eastern Oregon with much to sing about!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey