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

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