SoCal: Death Valley

Our final destination on this trip was Death Valley. I had no idea what to expect. I’d driven through a portion of the valley a decade ago but didn’t remember how mountainous it actually is.

Temps during our stay were in the high 70s at day and low 50s at night. It was perfect.

The first night we stayed at Furnace Creek Campground located next to the Death Valley Visitor Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Resort). There’s an expensive inn, an economy hotel and a few private RV campgrounds in the area including Fiddler’s Campground that had live music (karaoke and sometimes yodeling) after dark that could be heard from our campsite a block away.

Bat!

Bats made up for the lack of ambiance. I knew camping here would be a challenge but this lush green “oasis” is where many birds drop down during migration.

Amid festivals, a parade, construction, general business and a constant stream of cars and people around me I made the most of it and birded like I do. Luckily the birds didn’t seem to mind the chaos. The first evening I found a pair of Canada Geese on the golf course, because of course they would be there even in the desert.

Per the Birder’s Guide to SoCal the golf course is private property and birders are not welcome while others “commit golf.” So I followed the rules and birded from the fringes.

Though some were less obedient.

Golf course face-off

Par 4 Say’s Phoebe

From aerial photos (and per some eBird reports) I could see ponds on the property, but I couldn’t find a way to access them without trespassing. I got pretty close but ran into a dead end of thorny shrubs and had to backtrack a couple of miles. Not my finest hour. But I did find a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (not black-tailed since it has more white under the tail).

And a Verdin.

I ran out of time (energy and water) to find another way in. The best waterbird besides the geese was a flyover Mallard.

Good job desert-duck

The book mentions to look for White-winged doves calling from the Tamarisks or, “lately, Eurasian Collared Doves.” I could only find Eurasian-collared Doves and there are sparse eBird reports of White-winged on the property in recent years and none from 2018.

Shocking

The grounds had a few good sparrow spots. I found House, Savannah, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, weird looking Song Sparrows.

And lots of Lincoln Sparrows.

One lucky afternoon I picked out a (Red) Fox Sparrow in the heat waves.

It was interesting to see birds’ strategies for keeping cool. Most stayed in the shade.

Shady House Sparrows

Some panted, or splashed in puddles or took dust baths. I saw some blackbirds drinking from sprinklers at the visitor center and I found a pair of Great-tailed Grackles taking shade under cars in the parking lot.

The best parking lot bird was a Harris’s Sparrow! A rare bird for the area.

I “pished” for a brief moment and it immediately popped out on a close shrub.

Too close

Amazing! I found a variety of Icterids too, including Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the best surprise was Western Meadowlark.

In the shade of trees above there was a Cooper’s Hawk.

I had a couple of falcon fly-bys a Peregrine and a Prairie.

We had perfect weather until almost the last day when a windstorm blew through the valley. It wouldn’t be Death Valley if it didn’t try to kill us. The windstorm then turned into a sandstorm. Terrible for birding or doing anything outside.

Leaving the storm

Luckily we had the van for shelter, and this was also the day we drove to a smaller campground at higher elevation called Wildrose. It was less sandy here, but still very windy.

From the safety of the van I spotted Black-throated Sparrows on the hillsides.

We drove a little ways past the campground towards the charcoal kilns but the road conditions turned too bumpy so we turned around. On the way back we pulled over for a Horned Lark that hopped right up next to the van.

And we had distant looks at a Golden Eagle!

Back at the campsite I walked the road down to a small creek and found a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

American Robin photobomb

A Bewick’s Wren.

And a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaves.

As the sun was setting (at 4pm) and as I walked back to the campground I felt good about how birdy Death Valley was but I was also a little sad I hadn’t seen the poster-bird, a Greater Roadrunner, when just at that moment one walked right out in front of me. It raised its tail up and slowly lowered it down then continued down the road.

It was the perfect ending.

I have to say, writing about our trip I can’t help but think about the recent fires in California. It’s heartbreaking news. I’ve made a donation to the San Francisco SPCA for their disaster relief efforts to save animals affected by the fires. Much love to everyone in the state, they’ve been through a lot.

XOXO and happy holidays,

Audrey

New Year’s birding

January 1st 2018 started with a nice sunrise and a Song Sparrow scratching leaves in our garden in the dark as I peeked my head outside the door.

I didn’t mean to bird as hard as I did on day 1, but first of year birding is too exciting. Every bird is new, every one a year bird!

The plan was to meet Sarah and Max in the morning and there’d been a report of a Black Scoter at Columbia Point so that seemed like a good place to start. But it turned out to be a terrible place because thick fog made it almost impossible to see any birds on the water. Even still we managed to ID this a Greater Scaup.

Peak of the head farther forward

Plan B was climbing out of the fog to visit Casey’s Virginia’s Warbler sill sticking around and stuffing it’s beak with homemade suet. We watched this reliable warbler take a chunk of suet to the ground, smash it like it would a bug, then fly up to a tree to eventually choke it down.

Smaller bites buddy

Bonus this time was an yellow-shafted  intergrade Northern Flicker, the first one I’ve seen! This subspecies is normally found in the east and far north in the northern boreal forest.

It lacks the red malar (cheek) of the more common Red-shafted, and it has a red crescent on its nape (back of the neck). Edited: But this bird has more gray than tan color on its cheeks and throat, eliminating pure yellow-shafted. There are also intergrade flickers with features of both to look out for in the Pacific Northwest. I’m going to make more of an attempt to pay attention to flicker features this year.

After spending some quality time with Casey’s yellow-bottomed birds we went to Whitaker Ponds for more year birds. We found 39 species including Townsend’s Warbler and a Black Phoebe vocalizing loudly at the edge of the pond.

We dipped on the Spotted Sandpiper seen there earlier, but bumped into a new birding friend, Brodie, and his family, also out for New Year’s birding.

Not the only ones out birding on New Year’s

The sun was shining by then so we felt encouraged to try Columbia Point for a second scoter attempt.

No luck on the scoter, but we did run into Em Scattaregia, her son Chris Hinkle, and Andy Frank, who does the majority of his birding by bike, including on this day. We picked up Horned Grebe, Western Grebe, and one conspicuous Clark’s Grebe; lighter flanks, yellow-orange bill, white on three sides of the eye.

We also saw a distant Red-necked Grebe, but this Common Loon was much more cooperative for photos.

Feeling we’d done our due diligence searching for the scoter we were about to call it a day when Sarah’s birding buddy Dwight texted letting her know he’d found a Northern Mockingbird in her patch. No question what we’d do next. Stop for lunch at Hotlips Pizza, then go for the mockingbird.

It was easy. Not really, but it was very lucky. Year bird, county bird, and only the second I’ve seen in Oregon.

Blurry evidence

Here we also saw a FOY White-breasted Nuthatch.

And a Red-breasted Sapsucker.

Which reminded me I was in Beaverton and there’d been a rare Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at nearby Commonwealth Lake Park. So I went and found it.

Right where it’s supposed to be

With just enough daylight left I circled the park looking for a male Redhead spotted earlier. I found the Redhead and I also found Scott Carpenter!

Inspiring as ever, he jumped into the mud to take primo pictures of birds. Nicely done, Scott.

Here’s the best I came up with.

What a great first day of the year! Starting with a Song Sparrow and ending with a Redhead, I saw 61 species, and had 7 birding-friend cameos throughout the day.

Cheers to good friends and to a new year.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Seattle to Malheur to Astoria II

I stayed two nights in the historic Frenchglen Hotel. Established in 1916, the hotel has interesting history and rustic charm. The rooms are small and the bathrooms shared, but I was most excited for the family dining experience. I’m not usually into family dining, but in this setting I found it delightful and charming.

Dinner is promptly served at 6:30pm and consisted of tasty local fare followed by apple cobbler for dessert. While grazing, Tomas and I chatted with another Portland couple visiting in a similar fashion to us, but the best part was listening to stories from the retired couple at the opposite end of the table about their encounters earlier in the day with wild horses and burrowing owls. I listened carefully.

And the next morning when Tomas set off for his bike tour over Steens Mountain, I set off in search of owls.

Love that guy

The plan was Tomas would bike tour for a week while I birded the surrounding area so I could also provide a pick-up if needed. Best of both worlds. We set off and though I tried hard, searching the shrubs along gravel roads, checking multiple sites, I failed to find any owls.

But I did find Golden Eagles.

It was neat to see the different variations, the one on the left with white patches under the wings and tail is a juvenile. I pulled over at another stop and saw four (!) perched on a power pole in the far distance. See terrible photo evidence (note the American Kestrel perched on the juniper to the right):

One big happy family

While driving around I spooked several birds along the roadsides, occasionally finding a cooperative one or two perched on barbed wire.

Sage Thrashers

Western Meadowlark

Brewer’s Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

And waiting to strike, Loggerhead Shrike.

It was exciting to get roadside views of pronghorn.

Butt, butt, pronghorn

Classic eastern Oregon.

And not far away, hopeful coyote.

After too many hours of driving, I returned to Frenchglen and discovered the P Ranch historic area of Malheur. Named after Peter French, a nineteenth century rancher, the P ranch is now a part of Malheur National Wildlife. Old structures, barns, fields, and paths along the Donner und Blitzen River, it was really pretty and I spent some time poking around and finding a few birds including:

Yellow-breasted Chat

Song Sparrow

Yellow Warbler

White-crowned Sparrow

Being in Malheur, I really wanted to find something exotic. Because Maheur, right? I got pretty excited when I saw this weirdo bird.

It took me a while to realize it was just an American Goldfinch in transition to non-breeding plumage. Then another point I got excited when I saw something I thought looked grouse-like in a field.

Not until I got home and studied the photo when I realized it must be an American Kestrel in a chicken suit. Strike two. Birding is hard.

Lets look at deer instead.

Better. At least I recognized one bird.

Bank Swallow! Hanging on the wire next to with a bunch of Barn Swallows and the moon.

As it got dark, Common Nighthawks flew by peenting along the way as I made my way back to the hotel room for the last night. In the morning, I would head to Steens Mountain to see what I could find.

Good nights and chirps,

Audrey