Seattle to Malheur to Astoria IV

The finale! In the morning Tomas confirmed his bike-tour was over and he was ready for a pick-up. I was ready to leave early before the hunters returned anyways so I said goodbye to Steens Mountain and made way back to Frenchglen.

Until next time

While there I noticed a smoky haze had settled and as I drove toward Fields, it gradually worsened. Winds shifted bringing a thick layer of smoke from the fires burning most of Oregon (and nearby Idaho). We’d hoped to avoid the smoke being so far southeast, but it finally caught up to us.

Reunited at the Fields Station Cafe, Tomas and I loaded up on snacks and pondered our next move. We decided to head north where his bike ride would have taken him, toward the Alvord Desert, a 12 by 7-mile dry lake separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Coast Range, the Cascades, and Steens Mountain creating a rain shadow. It averages 7″ of rain per year.

It was a part of Oregon I’ve always wanted to see and I was interested to find out what kind of birds we might find here. Unfortunately due to the wildfire smoke visibility was very poor.

But we drove out onto it anyways. Totally legal. In fact deaf American stuntwoman Kitty O’neal set an unofficial women’s world land speed record here in 1976 at 512 mph.

We didn’t set any records, but it was still fun.

After doing donuts we left the desert and continued on. Where are the birds you ask? I asked the same thing. The best bird I saw in this area was a Prairie Falcon on a post.

Then we stopped at Mann Lake which is supposed to be good for shorebirds and terns, but we were met with limitations. Geese? Maybe gnats. Too far, too hazy.

There are several hot springs along this route, but we were already hot enough. At one rest spot I found a Brewer’s Sparrow and a Lark Sparrow taking refuge in the shade. Good comparison of their size difference.

The birds were hot, panting, and disappearing into the smoky heat waves.

Sizzling sparrow

You said it.

We meandered farther passing farm fields until I spotted a Golden Eagle on a power pole. We pulled over and inched closer and closer as it tolerated our presence. Barely.

I was excited for Tomas to see one since he’d drawn a Golden Eagle the first day of the trip but had yet to see any. Especially this close. We left on an eagle high and continued along until just before Burns we pulled over again, this time for a noisy pair of Sandhill Cranes. So good.

Back in Burns it was still smoky. It was also getting late. Considering our options, we decided on Idlewild campground because it was only 20 min north, higher elevation, and forested. Maybe less smoky? We stayed one night and it was slightly better air-quality wise, but not great. I birded the best I could, finding Williamson’s Sapsucker, Orange-crowned Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Red Crossbills.

In the morning we checked the Air Quality Index. It was terrible.

We still had five more days, but at this point we thought about throwing in the towel and heading home. Fleeing from smoke was not the vacation we’d planned on. Then we learned that the Columbia Gorge was on fire (because of careless teenagers) and ash was actually falling from the sky in Portland (UGH). Home was on fire.

We joked that we could probably drive to the coast. Then it stopped being funny because that’s exactly what we did. Eight hours later, we’d arrived in Astoria and traded smoke for coastal fog.

I’ll be brief. It was cooler at least though visibility was still terrible. The highlight of this mini escape was the day I drove two hours farther north to Grayland Beach State Park.

Here I saw foggy Sanderling, foggy Brown Pelican, foggy Caspian Tern, foggy elk.

And the only life bird of the entire trip, Snowy Plover!!!

Even better. There were two!!

Both wearing fancy jewelry. So cute.

It was great. Relaxing and refreshing, just like vacations are supposed to be.

So not the trip we thought it would be but we still saw some cool stuff. Southeast Oregon is all so gorgeous and ridiculously quiet. We want to go back. I’m thinking springtime when it’s cooler and more bird species are migrating. Totally worth it because Malheur is awesome and you never know what you’ll see.

Until next time.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bonus Broughton

After all the driving on the coast the day before, I opted to stay close to home the following day. I got up early to check out Broughton Beach and found an intensely red sunrise.

One plus to all the wildfires.

There was another birder on the scene who nicely pointed out the Sanderling running along the shore.

I always think of them as small shorebirds, and they are, except when running alongside smaller Western Sandpipers.

Another small peep that showed up was a Semipalmated Plover.

Make that three of them!

A Caspian Tern made a fly-by appearance.

But the star of the morning turned out to be one that had been a lifer just the day before.

Thin bill, dark eye-stripe, stripey back, a Red-necked Phalarope! Within 5 miles of my house. This beauty paid us no mind because it was focused on the insects just above the water.

File these under blurry but I don’t care. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

It’s not a flycatcher, but it flipped out of the water like one catching insects. There must have been a hatch event of something tasty this day. We watched in amazement and then the phalarope did something else it doesn’t do.

It walked right out of the water onto the shore just long enough for our jaws to drop in amazement before it headed back in the water to catch more insects. What a sight!

They’re smaller than they look. Here it is in relation to a gull.

Just when I thought shorebirds couldn’t be more fun.

My thoughts are with my friends and family in Florida today! Hope you’re all holding through okay. My dad recently sent me this amazing photo of a family of Limpkins he saw on his morning walk.

Incredible. I hope they’re all okay too.

Love and hugs,

Audrey

Chasing Bar-tailed

There’s an undeniable intrigue when chasing rarities from across the globe. This time I was hoping for a shorebird off course from its typical New Zealand to Alaska migration called a Bar-tailed Godwit. Thanks to unusual weather patterns, a handful had shown up on the Oregon coast this spring.

I timed my trip to arrive in the coastal hills at sunrise to listen for Mountain Quail.

Since I was at the right place and the right time, I heard this life bird’s call pretty easily. A pair was calling back and forth across the valley. But no visuals this time, and I didn’t have much time to spend looking. Next time, quail.

I kept focus and made it to Lost Creek State Park while it was still early. I felt both relief and excitement when I saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

But it wasn’t. The Bar-tailed had been seen in mixed shorebird flocks of Whimbrels and Marbled Godwit and those were both here.

Down-turned bill = Whimbrel

Upturned bill = Marbled Godwit

This godwit gave me pause. I realized then that I’d never seen Marbled Godwits in breeding plumage. More buffy-brown cinnamon colored, with barring on the chest, and an orange-ish coloring at the base of the bill (signalling increased hormonal levels). I had only seen them in non-breeding plumage with a pink base to the bill.

There were also some birds with intermediate colors.

This was getting more complicated. I had done my homework before arriving of course, Bar-tailed Godwits differ from Marbled in that they are slightly smaller, with a slightly shorter bill, and they lack the cinnamon underwing colors. They are slightly more reddish in breeding plumage and grayer in non-breeding. I began to doubt I’d recognize these slight differences.

So I looked at peeps instead. Hey, look! Western Sandpipers!

Bath time!

Dunlin in breeding plumage, look at that black belly!

Sanderlings! That one on the right is in breeding plumage (mottled, rufous head and neck).

And the best distraction. Semi-palmated Plover.

You’re cute, even when you’re digging in the sand.

That helped. I walked back to the car ready to try another location. As I was returning, a group of birders passed by and we exchanged information. They too were looking for godwits and hadn’t seen any Bar-tailed yet. At least I hadn’t missed anything.

I pulled over at another beach spot, and found only plovers and Whimbrels. The next stop was Newport’s South Jetty where I found no Whimbrels or godwits, but I did catch a distant glimpse of a black ghost. A Pacific Loon in breeding plumage!

Note to self: spend more time with shorebirds in breeding plumage. They’re beautiful.

It was late afternoon by now and I had time for just one more stop. Since it was close, and I’d never been there, I decided on Yaquina Bay State Recreation Area just across from South Jetty.

I approached the beach and saw shorebirds in the distance. This could be it.

OMG, this was it! I spotted one of the banded birds in my binoculars. Some reports had been of birds with multiple blue and white bands on their legs, part of a bird-banding program in New Zealand, and positively identifying them as Bar-tailed Godwits. It was the best-case scenerio BTGO to find.

But before I could snap a photo, a woman approached me, asking about the birds. She asked what the birds with the long bills were, “are they Long-billed Dowitchers?” Normally, I appreciate people’s interest in birds when I’m out, but this was terrible timing. But I explained what they were anyways. She thanked me, then proceeded to walk right towards the flock, spooking them all.

Seriously? I had told her about the rarity too. I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t have time to sulk, because I had to jog down the beach to keep up with the moving flock. Eventually, success!

Look at all the jewelry on that New Zealand bird! What a huge relief. And the stranger thing was, besides that rude woman, I was the only one on the beach. No other birders. I posted the sighting on OBOL and enjoyed my time. I’d actually hit the jackpot of shorebirds at this spot.

There were Black-bellied Plovers in breeding plumage.

I almost dropped my binoculars.

A Ruddy Turnstone.

And a pair of Brant casually on the shore.

Whimbrels, plovers, godwits, sanderlings, it was hard to keep up!

The tide came in further, many birds moved up to the jetty rocks to sleep in the warm afternoon sun. I regained and lost site of the Bar-tailed again, grateful for the time I had.

X marks the spot, I’d found the treasure!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey