Chasing a Gyr

It’s been a while since I left my 5MR so when my friend Courtney from Bend mentioned she’d be in town for some bird-watching adventures I rearranged my schedule so I could join her. We knew our first target, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak visiting a feeder near Corvallis. I’d only seen RBGR briefly in Michigan last summer, so I was excited to catch up with one in Oregon.

We got to the feeder bright and early, and felt very welcomed. Thank you Bruce!

The grosbeak arrived just 8 minutes past her regularly scheduled time, and then she sat for 20 minutes on top of the feeder.

We worried a Cooper’s Hawk would swoop right in and eat her. But after posing nicely, she finally hopped down to the feeder and ate some sunflower seeds.

Then a Hutton’s Vireo distracted us.

“Wheeze-wheeze-look at me”

And we looked back and saw the grosbeak had gone. She was in the trees above for a minute and then flew away. The experience was best case scenario for a feeder bird. Such a good grosbeak. From here Courtney and I looked unsuccessfully for the Tundra Bean-Goose at Finley NWR, but we saw FOY Tree Swallows!

Sign of spring!

Then we dipped on a Glaucous Gull at a nearby landfill, but we lucked out with Tricolored Blackbirds hanging out at the Philomath Poo Ponds.

It was a good study of these birds next to Red-winged Blackbirds.

They are obvious and not obvious depending on the lighting conditions and their proximity to one another. I’m not positive I could recognize a tricolored without knowing they were around. And forget about the females.

Feeling satisfied we headed back to Portland, until we checked our emails and read that a Gyrfalcon had been spotted minutes away from where we stood earlier. Dang! It had been two years since I’d seen a Gyrfalcon with Jen (in the same area), and this would be a lifer for Courtney so we turned around immediately but we were unable to relocate the bird. What we did find were clouds of shorebirds.

Dunlin and Black-bellied Plovers put on an unforgettable show.

And at the end of the day we found one falcon, a Peregrine munching on a Killdeer.

After, we stayed at our friend’s Nick and Maureen’s house in Albany to try for the gyr again in the morning. Which ended similarly to the day before, no Gyrfalcon but lots of good consolation birds including FOY Turkey Vultures and and a Say’s Phoebe.

We made it back to Portland, where we looked at a couple of birds, hello again Tufted Duck and hello 5MR Barn Owl.

Before the decision was made to go back and look for the Gyrfalcon a third time. I forgot my wallet at Nick and Maureen’s house the night before so I had even more incentive. And we brought Sarah and Eric this time as reinforcements. Even so, the gyr eluded us. We added a few more county birds and got good looks at a Prairie Falcon (terrible photos, sorry). Eric ended with over 100 species in Linn County, I ended at 82. It was a solid three day effort, no one can say we didn’t try.

Until next time, Gyrfalcon.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey

Whitaker Ponds Nature Park

One of my favorite parks is Whitaker Ponds Nature Park. Ever since my first time there I knew it was a special place. It’s a small (but productive) park at 24 acres with a 1/2-mile flat loop trail. Completely surrounded by urban land, it is a mini-oasis for birds.

And for myself. Here I saw my first Common Merganser, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Great Egret, and Anna’s Hummingbird. And later in the summer my first Western Tanager and Warbling Vireo. And I’ve once seen a family of river otters in the pond.

Needless to say, I’m sentimental about the place.

In the past year, it’s gone through some changes. Where there once was a gorgeous willow tree and field now is a parking lot. I’m kicking myself for not taking more “before” photos, but I hadn’t known about the project until after it was gone. Danger Garden took one of the best photos of that willow tree I could find on the internet. Here’s a couple I took of the progress.

Of course there’s pros and cons, there’s better parking, which will make people feel more comfortable visiting, and hopefully then more people will care about the park. There’s still a problem of transients living and littering in certain forested areas, but in general it’s getting better.

Better?

I’ve recently started following the Columbia Slough Watershed Council on Instagram, they’ve organized and implemented a ton of restoration work on the park. They also provide updates on water levels and beaver activities. (thanks for keeping the beavers, birds, and me happy!)

I’ve seen 87 species at Whitaker Ponds (it even gave me 40 species in my 5-mile radius). Most recent additions were a Hermit Thrush that surprised me before bulleting away as quick as it could.

A Glaucous-winged Gull flyover (no photos), and a female Barrow’s Goldeneye (more yellow on that bill).

Compared to the female Common Goldeneye below (more black bill with yellow tip) and male (right), also hanging in the slough.

While observing the goldeneyes I heard an enticing “zu-wee, zu-wee, zu-wee” and I turned around to the best looks ever of a Hutton’s Vireo.

Thicker bill than Ruby-crowned Kinglet and gray feet (vs. yellow on RCKI).

There were two singing back and forth. Along with endless Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Townsend’s Warblers.

Also on this trip I saw the reliable Black Phoebe.

And I got a quick glimpse of a Spotted Sandpiper.

Just before I spooked a Cooper’s Hawk.

This park is full of surprises. Even sneaky Great Horned Owls.

I wish I could visit every day. It’s less than a 10-minute drive from my house and now that the construction’s completed really I have no excuse. I’ll make a point to visit more often and make it a goal to find more species. I was going to say 100 (since I’m at 87), but that might be a stretch since the top eBirder at the park (Nick Mrvelj) has 97. But we’ll see!

Cheers to local patches!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey