Tits and Towhees

I’d just seen the Tundra Bean Goose at Finley National Wildlife Refuge when a report came in of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in Portland. I hadn’t planned beyond the goose, but I did have to head back home eventually. Why not try for the gnatcatcher? It was only 10 minutes from my house. 

My friend Courtney took the trip as well and moments after exiting our cars we heard a wheezy gnatcatcher whine. Soon after we saw the bird. So lucky! 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (#309!)

We made a quick try for a Yellow-breasted Sapsucker that would be a lifer for Courtney, but the bird was a no-show. Not so lucky. We had just enough daylight left to find White-winged Scoters at Hayden Island. 

Some of these are not like the others

The next day it was time to look for buntings. A flock of Snow Buntings including a “pale” individual that is a possible McKay’s Bunting has been teasing birders along Del Rey and Sunset Beach. This time Eric joined in the fun and together we met Courtney at Del Rey Beach early in the morning.

 We piled into my car and drove on the beach scanning for buntings. After a short while, Courtney spotted them!

Eventually we found a larger flock. It was then that another carload of birder friends joined in the chase. We alternated coverage over the 7 mile stretch the birds navigated. At one moment standing outside the cars the birds whooshed right over us. It was amazing. I heard a couple of their buzzing flight calls and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t get a recording. 

Finally we spotted a good candidate for a McKay’s Bunting, “the pale one.”

But I feel ill-equipped at identifying this species, so I’ve left it as Snow/McKay’s until further review. There are only a few thousand of these (remote tundra breeding) birds in the world, and first winter female birds are hard to identify for even those familiar with them (how much white exactly is on that R3 tail feather?). And there’s another problem, sometimes they hybridize with Snow Buntings. So, for now it’s a “pale bunting” and a fun chase. 

We took a side trip to Seaside where Eric saw his lifer Rock Sandpiper.

And on the way home we stopped at a clearcut area and got a diagnostic but unsatisfying “look” at a Northern Pygmy-Owl zoom through trees, leaving much more to be desired.  

The next day, while I looked for grouse the news about the former president passing away came in. This meant an office closure, and I already had another day off planned. The only next logical step was to drive to Ashland to look for birds. Obviously.

It was cold and windy when I woke up in southern Oregon and after trying many locations  without finding much I ended up at the best trail near Medford, Upper Table Rock Trail

It is a short, moderately steep 3.3 mile trail, (the longest distance I’ve hiked since surgery!). It felt good to hike. It felt even better when about halfway up I heard what sounded to me like a wheezy Mountain Chickadee that turned out to be an Oak Titmouse! A bird I very much had hoped to see. #311

In Oregon they’re only found in this far southern location which is why I’ve not seen them here before. I had just met Oak Titmice in California (my 500th bird species!), but I think they’re cuter in Oregon. 

I continued uptrail wondering if I would meet my other target bird, another south-central Oregon specialty, the California Towhee, when it got very birdy along the trail. Kinglets, chickadees, sparrows, flew all around me when I noticed a Spotted Towhee and wondered if this was a good spot for other towhees. Indeed it was! 

California Towhee! #312

It’s so interesting two towhee species fill a niche here, right alongside one another. 

Towhee meet towhee

Elated I finished the hike and made it to the top. 

So glad the trip had been worth it. 

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

December Pelagic and Astoria

Less than a week after my plane landed back in Portland I signed myself up for a 7-hour pelagic trip. Because a winter boat ride in the Pacific Ocean sounds like a good idea, right? Of course it does for the chance for winter seabirds like Short-tailed Shearwater, Ancient Murrelet, Laysan Albatross, Parakeet Auklet, and rare Mottled Petrel.

Since I’d just been on the October pelagic trip, the conditions were fresh in my mind. Honestly, I wouldn’t have dared, but the weather forecast looked surprisingly hopeful, my doctor gave me a Rx refill, and 7-hours sounded mild compared to the 12-hours I was used to. I was on board. And as it turns out, this was a good combination because for the first time, no seasickness!!

Smooth sailing

The best bird of the trip was a Short-tailed Albatross!

This chocolate-brown bird with the bubblegum-pink bill is a juvenile of the species, as they mature their feathers turn white with black edging. It has a wingspan of over 7ft and is the largest seabird in the North Pacific.

It’s also a great reason to go out on a boat in December.

Northern Fulmar for scale

Once hunted nearly to extinction (and even declared extinct in 1949), they are now listed as endangered throughout their range. It was juvenile birds, like this one that brought the species back.

Albatross spend most of their maturing years out at sea, and take many years to return to their breeding colonies. After they were thought to be extinct, some birds returned to Torishima Island and the first egg was laid by returning birds in 1954. Slowly they’ve come back and are now threatened by storms, volcanoes, long-line fishing, pollution, and oil spills. We were incredibly lucky to see one.

Other highlights included the always-popular Black-footed Albatross (they look similar to short-tailed but with a dark bill).

I noticed one was banded!

EA23 was banded in 2009 at Tern Island, Hawaii (look at this photo circle!!). So cool!

Albatross fan club

And a very distant sighting of Laysan Albatross!

So distant and blurry, here’s a one from Hawaii to remember how awesome they are.

It was a three albatross day! That’s a pretty good day.

We also saw a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake.

And a second kittiwake, an adult showing the unmarked yellow bill.

There were Cassin’s Auklets, Ancient Murrelets, and a pair of Parakeet Auklets (seen by few), that I completely missed. Next time I might try my luck the bow of the ship for a better chance to see the smaller birds. We’ll see if I’m that brave.

I did get Rhinocerous Auklet, Pink-footed Shearwater, and a Humpback Whale, that was less jumpy than last time.

Back on land, after having survived another pelagic trip, I felt energized and inspired to continue birding at the coast. I took a chance and drove to Astoria where White-winged Crossbills had been sighted. Apparently every decade or so there is an irruption of this boreal forest finch. Chasing crossbills isn’t the easiest gamble, but there’d been multiple sightings.

I drove three and a half hours north and made it to Astoria by 7pm. In the morning I checked out of the mostly adequate Motel 6 and drove farther north to Cape Disappointment in Washington. I thought maybe I could find crossbills in both states (so greedy!).

Is it light enough to look for birds?

A couple of flocks flew by overhead, but no confirmed white-wings. Pine Siskin wanted me to think they were White-winged Crossbills.

I got a tip too look for Trumpeter Swans in a nearby pond.

Can’t a girl look at swans without getting stared at?

Success! I think? Let’s take a closer look at that bill. All black, no yellow lore.

Besides the lack of yellow lore, the characteristic that stands out to me distinguishing it from Tundra is the broad black connection between the eye and the mask. Not an easy ID! I still find this document handy, and I found this website helpful too.

After Cape Disappointment lived up to its name, I decided to look at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon for White-winged Crossbills. This time I had better luck! There were yellow ones.

And red ones, both attracted to spruce cone seeds.

And as per usual, hanging out at the tippy tops of trees and hard to see. Reading up on crossbills, apparently there are ten (!) types (distinguished by calls) that can be interpreted as ten different species. I’m not ready for that. Maybe by the next decade.

Until then, there’s shorebirds to look at like the Rock Sandpiper still hanging out at Seaside Cove.

Leave it to birds to always keep things interesting. The coast does not disappoint either!

Looking forward to the next oceanic adventure.

Happy holidays!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey