Baskett Slough NWR

Summer’s almost here. Even though we turned on the heat in the house yesterday, it’s really June. Spring migration is winding down and I miss the warblers already. But there’s still plenty to keep oneself occupied. This past weekend I thought I’d try my luck looking for what would be a lifer Grasshopper Sparrow reported at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

I’ve not spent a lot of time at this refuge since it’s a bit of a drive from Portland (1.5hr), but there’s plenty to find here (especially in spring). There are trails to hike, but I’m still recovering from ankle surgery. Thankfully much of the refuge can be seen from car pullouts along the road. I parked and immediately heard Purple Finch.

And a little farther down, I saw a flashy buzzing Rufous Hummingbird.

Then I heard a likely candidate for the Grasshopper Sparrow. I listened intently. I recorded the audio and I thought about it. I listened back and doubt crept in. Quickly I felt underqualified at identifying a GRSP song. Sarah had suggested practicing by comparing the song with Savannah Sparrow that is way more common and has a similar sounding song. I listened a bit and convinced myself that this one was definitely a Savannah.

Imposter Sparrow

Moving onward. I drove around the corner of a butte and listened further.

I heard more Savannah, a few quick notes, thin buzzy middle, and ending with a quick lower trill. It’s that ending note that Grasshopper Sparrows lack. Instead they have two staccato notes, followed by a thin “insect-like” buzz. It’s subtle.

Then in the dewy distance, I saw it!

The best way to confirm a Grasshopper Sparrow singing is to see it. Which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Since they’re usually in the grass, there are few perches. But this one cooperated nicely.

Then the damn thing flew even closer.

I think my heart stopped. It sang and picked some things (insects? seeds?) off the Cow Vetch flowers before dashing back down into the grass. Such a great lifebird (#479).

Giddy, I then drove the short distance to “the narrows” a good spot to see waterbirds. Someone usually puts some seeds out for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds and ducks and this was the case today.

Baskett Slough is a good place to see Black-necked Stilts.

They even nest here.

There were a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes flying by.

And I had a teal slam, seeing Cinnamon, Green-winged, and this Blue-winged Teal.

There had been a Whimbrel reported the week prior, which is rare for the area and would be cool to see. I wasn’t as lucky, the best shorebird I could pull off was this super distant Dunlin.

Closer and more vocal was this Wilson’s Snipe, calling “chip-chip-chip-chip-chip!”

Another fun sighting was this American Bittern, hunting out in the open.

It was turning out to be quite the morning. The icing on the cake was seeing four Virginia Rails hopping through the grass, and one that sat out in the sun preening.

It doesn’t get much better than that. I was glad I’d arrived early. I saw all the birds I’d hoped for and made it out before the huge rainstorm moved in.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Deschutes Birding

A short while ago on a sunny day before the rains came back, Tomas and I decided to play hooky from work and head east. He to bike the Deschutes River Railbed Trail and me to work on some county birding. I had exactly 7 species in Wasco, and 2 in neighboring Sherman County just east across the Deschutes River.

I explored Deschutes River State Rec Area first which is where I saw my first army of adorable goslings.

With protective parents not far behind.

I mostly explored by car because I was still booted up and couldn’t hike (or walk) well. But that didn’t stop me from dragging myself up a trail following an intriguing birdsong that turned out to be an Orange-crowned Warbler. Birds will be my reason for walking again.

On the way down a Bushtit caught my eye.

This is when I learned there are two subspecies of Bushtits: “Interior” and “Pacific.” I’m used to seeing Pacific at my suet feeder, that are all gray puffballs. Interior are gray puffballs with blushing brown cheeks. Didn’t think they could get cuter.

Safe on flat ground and back at the park I found White-crowned Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, and a single Lincoln’s Sparrow. In the tree-tops were Yellow-rumped Warblers, and dozens of bright American Goldfinch.

I then hopped over to Wasco County to check out Celilo Park that offers free camping that seems to appeal mostly to local fishermen. The problem with campgrounds along I-84 is that they’re along I-84. It’s noisy, and occasionally trains blow through screaming the horn. Not ideal for camping or birding, but I made do.

The best birds were a pair of Western Kingbirds.

And a Yellow Warbler! – that did not appreciate my wanting to take its photo.

Just before it zipped down to the Columbia River water’s edge and flew off. It was hotter at this point, birds were quieting down and I had little time before I had to meet Tomas back by the trailhead.

Head-wave dust bath

Back at Deschutes SP I found a Hammond’s Flycatcher (long primary projection, vest, small dark bill, short tail) Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And surprisingly, three more Western Kingbirds!

I ended up adding 42 species between the two counties. I thought 5 Western Kingbirds in one day was a lot, but Wasco County would teach me a lesson about kingbirds later.

Tomas made it back, sweaty and accomplished after 40 miles with just three flats (watch out for that puncturevine). We drove back to Portland after stopping at Pfriem  (pronounced freem) Brewery in Hood River where the beer is so good you’ll leave your credit cards there. No regrets!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

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,

Audrey