Chasing a Dickcissel

Last week my friend Sarah and I took a risk to chase a rare (to Oregon) bird called a Dickcissel. Chasing birds is inherently risky, they can fly, they can hide, they can be eaten, but this bird has an added element of risk. It is currently hanging around the Philomath Sewage Ponds (aka Philomath Poo Ponds aka PPP) and a permit is required for public entry. It’s relatively easy to get one, it just takes a trip to the Philomath Public Works Department during business hours (8am-4:30pm M-F).

They want visitors to understand the safety rules and to avoid times when the police are target shooting nearby. Fair enough. I’d been once before on a weekend before I knew about the permit process and I vowed never again without because I don’t want to be the birder who ruins it for everyone. It is a great privilege to enter the poo ponds.

Golden ticket

We left early on Friday and got to the Public Works office just after 8am. We were both worried about timing since there was only one report of the bird the day prior and it was seen at 7:25am for “5ish minutes and not seen again.” Permit in hand we pulled up to the location to see two women waving enthusiastically, it must still be here! We hurried over, and they said “it was just there” flying around the tops of blackberry. We scanned intensely but didn’t see it. Had we missed the 5 minute window?

Then I looked to another tree and saw it! Dickcissel!

This was a lifer for me (#491) and a county bird for Sarah. She’d seen one at Bayocean Spit near Tillamook three years ago in the pouring rain at the end of November. So this was a much nicer look. We drooled and watched it preen in good light.

By now we could let some other birds in our sights, a White-throated Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and a Black Phoebe that called continuously behind us.

All of a sudden the birds scattered – accipiter alert!

A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew in causing chaos.

We watched until the hawk was gone and the birds were back and comfortable. Whew! It was a good time to leave and lazily count ducks on the way out. It was such a relief the chase worked out!

The next plan was to drive Sarah to her parent’s house in Pacific City. We birded along the way stopping in Newport for a chance at a Tropical Kingbird and a greater chance at Palm Warbler. We met up with my dad since he lives there now. Together we walked along the trail tripping over Yellow-rumped Warblers until Sarah spotted a Palm Warbler chased by YEWAs. On the way back we saw a second Palm Warbler with an injured foot but it looked like it was catching bugs and feeding okay.

We worked on our combo-birds on the way out.

Gull sp., Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher, Black Turnstone

We bid my dad farewell and continued on to Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge, one of six NWRs that make up the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It is a sanctuary for wintering geese, including the only coastal wintering population of Dusky Canada Geese and the small population of Semidi Islands Aleutian Cackling Geese.

Sad for us we saw no geese this day since it’s been so dry leaving no water in the fields. Instead we drove to the upland meadows where we found Western Meadowlark, kinglets, and a Northern Harrier hunting over the fields.

It was hard to leave this magical place.

But there was a sunset and dinner waiting for us at Sarah’s parent’s house.

The next morning after having homemade waffles for breakfast (because these people know how to live), Sarah and her husband Max and I explored a farm road called Old Woods Rd in hopes of a Tropical Kingbird or anything else we could find. The best birds turned out to be right at the beginning, a pair of Rough-legged Hawks.

Always inspect those lumps in fields more closely.

Max spotted the second bird hover-hunting in the distance across the highway.

After finding the hawks and all the Black Phoebes we could, we spotted the best mammal at the end of the road, a hunting coyote!

We returned to the house said our goodbyes and I continued north towards home while still looking for kingbirds (which would be state bird #297). There were no OBOL reports so it was FYOB (find your own bird) day. I opted for Goodspeed Rd in Tillamook. Less than a mile down the road this bird stopped me in my tracks.

That shape. That face. This bird broke my brain in a really good way. I tried to turn it into a Northern Mockingbird, which would be a somewhat unusual but expected surprise bird on the coast, but it wasn’t right.

Those streaks. That bright eye. I realized this bird-out-of-context looked like a thrasher! What the what? What was it doing in blackberry brambles near the coast?

Thankfully, while I sat in my car scratching my head it offered excellent looks.

Based on location I narrowed it down to Brown Thrasher or Sage Thrasher. This bird wasn’t brown, and didn’t have the extended long curved bill of a Brown Thrasher.

That grey back, smudged cheek, streaky breast, and pale eye, this is a Sage Thrasher! Such a fun bird to find here, and on my own no less (FMOB!), and according to eBird, it’s a first for Tillamook County. I’d seen them earlier this year east of the Cascades at Summer Lake in sage country where they’re supposed to be.

Now the search continues for a few more state year birds. My upcoming pelagic trip  might help. And there’s still time to find a kingbird!

Stay tuned.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Chasing Dreams

I’ve gained a few gray hairs the past week chasing birds. No risk, no reward, right? Well, I drove 2 hours south to Fern Ridge Reservoir in Eugene one day hoping for one Buff-breasted Sandpiper (out of four seen the day prior) and a bonus Stilt Sandpiper. But I got no reward.

Barren of buff birds

It was brutal. Not just because I missed the birds, but because it was a case of TMTS. Too much too soon on my new ankle and after 8 hours of walking (on fire) and no birds I finally gave up. Of course the birds were refound the next day, but I was already at home drowning my sorrows in mimosas and cake. I just couldn’t.

After my rest day I opted for a trip to the forest for a pika survey. It was exactly what I needed.

Peaceful, quiet forest with close-up views of my favorite mammal. Shorebirds? Who cares. I’d almost forgotten about birds. There were adorable Eeeps all around me.

But wait, what’s that chip note? That’s not a Dark-eyed Junco. It was a Macgillivray’s Warbler! What a nice surprise.

Reinvigorated, I hiked back to the car and decided to make a 40-min detour up the roughest road ever to check out Bonney Butte, a Hawkwatch International site. I thought I’d been there a year ago, but it’s actually been three! These birding years are going by fast.

This was a good choice. For two quiet, sunny hours I hung out with Krista Fanucchi and Sydney Schick, Hawkwatch International volunteers. We chatted about birds while watching them fly by in the sky.

It was quiet but still pleasant. The best bird was a Northern Goshawk bombed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Not a fair battle. So amazing. We also saw Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and a resident Cooper’s Hawk. It’s still early in migration season. Other birds included Clark’s Nutcracker, Townsend’s Solitaire, Mountain Chickadee, and Hermit Thrush.

Mountain bird combo: Townsend’s Solitaire and Hermit Thrush

I was pretty happy going home and felt much better about how I spent my time because the next day it was back to work. Until an email came in at noon about a Buff-breasted Sandpiper still present at Nehalem Bay State Park. By 12:30 I was out the door and on my way. It was crazy but I had a good feeling about this one. No risk, no reward, right?

This time it paid off. After two hours of driving, I made it to Nehalem, walked down to the beach, and spotted some birders sitting in the grass.

Not looking at that gull

This was a good sign. Sure enough, I sat down next to them and enjoyed the show.

Bunus, there were two!

What a dream. These sandpipers are unique in that they have a lek mating system, males display for females clicking and displaying their buff colors. They nest in the far north Arctic Circle and rarely come through Oregon (typically migrating through central U.S.). For some reason this fall has been a buffy-bonanza. I felt pretty lucky to have seen this lifebird (#490!) and I spent as much time with them as I could.

This brings me to last week, when five (!) BBSA were spotted in the Oak Island mudflats on Sauvie Island by Zack Schlanger. County birds! And five of them! How could I resist? This time I waited until after work and drove out before sunset. I met up with a few other birders already feasting their eyes and I joined in the fun.

I could only get three in one photo comfortably.

Killdeer for scale

Shorebirds were fun again. I’ve talked to several birders about the joys and sorrows of chasing birds, at worst it’s a big waste of time and an emotional trainwreck, at best it can bring birding bliss for days. Of course it’s even better finding your own, but rare birds are rare for a reason. I’ve heard some birders take time off chasing, and it’s a slippery slope back in.

For me right now, I think it’s case by case. I try, I fail, I take a break, I try again. Just like anything it’s about making the most out of the opportunities available. Like when a Parasitic Jaeger shows up also at Sauvie Island.

Yup, I chased that too.

It pays to have friends in birdy places. Thanks to Sarah, Max, and Jen for finding it! And to Colby for refinding and leading me right to it.

Guru mantis says: make the most of your time and follow your dreams.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

An excellent week of birds

It started when I left work early one day to find a rare Snowy Egret in the Vancouver Lake Lowlands that was associating with a Great Egret and Mallard decoy.

Also present were Greater Yellowlegs, a couple of hardy Tree and Barn Swallows, and Purple Finch, a year bird I was happy to see lower in the branches.

On the way out a flash of black and white caught my eye.

Ah, yes. Migration was in full swing as Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and Sandhill Cranes came and went. I pulled over to take a look.

It was hard to pull myself away.

The following weekend I was excited to join Sarah and Max for some Oregon county birding. We went south on I-5 to Talking Waters Gardens, a place I’ve never birded before located in Linn County.

It was fantastic water treatment-wetland habitat full of American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, Virginia Rails, and even one vocal Sora (my first Oregon Sora!). No visuals of the Sora, unfortunately, but we did locate three Black Phoebe.

1/3 phoebes

 Several Lincoln Sparrows.

And a moderately cooperative White-throated Sparrow hanging out in a corner of the ponds.

It was still early in the day when we completed the trails so we drove north making a quick stop at Waverly Park where we found a couple of Western Gulls and a FOY Green Heron. Then it was onward to Ankeny National Wildlife to (officially) add birds in Marion County which included distant Dusky Canada Geese with red neck collars.

And muddy-faced swans.

Not making it easy to ID

Luckily there were a couple with visible yellow lores helping to confidently ID them as the more expected, Tundra Swans.

We also stopped at the Rail Trail on the refuge to walk on a boardwalk through Oregon Ash wetlands.

The water was so high it reminded me a bit of Florida’s wetlands but without the moss and humidity. Along the trail we found more Black Phoebe, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, and Max heard a Red-breasted Sapsucker that we eventually spotted right at the water’s edge.

Not something you see every day.

The next morning I got up before dawn to chase a sea duck. There’d been a report of a female Steller’s Eider at Seaside Cove on the Oregon coast but I had an appointment with a tree-trimmer at 12:30pm so I didn’t have any time to waste. I left the house at 5am and arrived at Seaside when it was still dark. Luckily, there were already two birders there making me feel totally normal.

One was Trent Bray, avid birder and shop owner of Bobolink, a birding (disc golf, and beer) supply store in La Grande, Oregon. Trent had left La Grande at 1am that morning but it paid off because he already had the bird in the scope. We watched it dive and ride the waves drifting out farther as more birders arrived on scene.

The bird became harder to locate in the waves and we felt a bit bummed. But then the eider flew right back to us. Hooray!

What a good duck. We all cheered and took hundreds of photos. The blocky head, the pale eye-ring, and two white wing bars were clearly visible on this first-winter female bird. She was cooperative, clearly not minding the attention. Or the surfers.

Surfer, surfer, eider, scoter combo

Steller’s Eiders are listed as threatened and rarely found outside of Alaska. This is only Oregon’s fourth record.

I was giddy and thrilled I’d taken time to come visit her. And because it was so easy, I had at least 10 more minutes to look for a Palm Warbler at a nearby water treatment plant (thanks for the tip, Sarah!).

Success! I found it with minimal difficulty though it didn’t want to be seen. A warbler less cooperative than a rare sea duck, go figure. Running out of time I dashed the two hours home and made it within minutes of meeting the arborist. Winning.

Not far from the house on another day I found the Greater White-fronted Geese frequenting the golf course by Force Lake, and in a tree next to the parking lot a Sharp-shinned Hawk practicing being ferocious.

This one had perfected the stink-eye.

And on another local outing at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge I attempted to find a Red-shouldered Hawk. I’d unknowingly walked right by it until I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk that ignited the fire in the Red-shouldered and it vocalized loudly and chased its competition away.

Birding has been good to me this month. To say the least. Next month might be a different story, but more about that later. Until then, I’m enjoying everything I can get!

And that includes my FOY-yard Townsend’s Warbler!

Back and cute as ever.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey