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

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