Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,


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.


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.


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


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.


I never get tired of that view.

Tweets and chirps,


Painted Hills II

Tomas and I left the Ochoco National Forest and continued our exploration of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument area.


Successfully spooking deer and herds of pronghorn along the way.



Come back!

Along HWY 19 we pulled over to check out Cathedral Rock.


Cathedral Rock

While admiring the magnificent colors of the cliff walls, we heard harsh croaking monster screams and looked over hesitantly to see what the racket was. A Great Blue Heron rookery! Of course.

Great Blue Heron

There were three nests full of noisy monster muppet babies. We watched them for a while enjoying the show. Tomas says this was one of his favorite parts of the trip. Yessss.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Watching these primordial looking (and sounding) birds with the ancient towering cliffs in the background was remarkable. A very cool moment.

Continuing along, We saw several other bird species including:

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Red-tailed Hawk (rufous morph)

Red-tailed Hawk (rufous morph)

Swainson's Hawk (dark morph)

Swainson’s Hawk (dark morph)

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

And we even manged to spot American White Pelicans in a pond near Ochoco Reservoir.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

We spent our last night camping at Shelton Wayside County Park in Wheeler County. For camping over a holiday weekend, it wasn’t as horrible as I’d feared. We found a semi-secluded spot, settled in and enjoyed the warm spring evening listening to the symphony of pine cones popping open.

Of course I couldn’t sit still for too long, so I wandered down an old abandoned highway and heard Western Tanager, Lazuli Bunting, and Chipping Sparrows. And I spotted  a Say’s Phoebe on a powerline.

Say's Phoebe

Then I saw a second Say’s Phoebe.

Say's Phoebe

I sat down and watched as one grabbed a large insect expertly out of the air.

Say's Phoebe

It sat perched on the wire, calling its low, whistled sad-sounding “pit-tsee-eur” over and over again. I thought, why aren’t you eating the bug, weirdo? Then I looked over to the building on the right.

Say's Phoebe nest

Ohhhhh. That’s why. I backed further away then not wanting to stress out the bird. It didn’t want to give away the nest location! Good bird. Eventually the chicks got fed.

Say's Phoebe

So amazing! Spring is the best.

Leaving the campground the next morning, we made our way to our last stop, the Clarno Unit.

Clarno Unit

We walked along the paths, looking at the fossilized leaves in the rocks, and imagined how different this place was millions of years ago.


Incredible. Then we looked up to see White-throated Swifts performing courtship displays! They paired up, clung to one another, and fell, swirling incredibly fast towards the ground. At the last second before impact, they separated and flew off in different directions. One of the coolest bird displays I’ve seen yet.

White-throated Swift

A swift swift

It’s like they gave us the fireworks-grand finale display of the desert. But wait, there’s more!

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Ash-throated Flycatcher

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Gopher Snake (also known as bull snake)

Gopher Snake (also known as bull snake)

Western Fence Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

Who says the desert is barren?

Full of life

Full of life

Fan of the desert

End of trail

After visiting the painted hills, I’m officially a fan of the desert. Five out of five stars and the cactus agrees.