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

Bluetail Crazy Train

In December 2016, a rare vagrant called a Red-flanked Bluetail showed up in Lewiston, Idaho. The Red-flanked Buetail breeds mainly in Siberia and winters in southeast Asia. This is the first sighting in Idaho and there have only been a handful of other U.S. sightings, mostly in western Alaska. Lewiston is a mere 5 hour 40 minute drive from Portland and the bird was still being seen into January. I was intrigued.

“That’s too far to drive for one bird” someone told me. I don’t know if it was the vacation hangover from Hawaii, the long winter, or because it’s a new year, but I was craving adventure and when another friend showed even more enthusiasm to chase the bird and a second friend opted to drive? – I’m in, let’s go!

Wait! Ice Storm Warning. The Pacific Northwest was under attack of a winter storm scheduled for late Saturday. But it was bright and sunny on Friday and we calculated we could get there late Friday, stay overnight, find the bird early Saturday morning, then make a quick getaway and return to Portland before impending doom.

Thus began the Bluetail Crazy Train adventure.

Bluetail or bust! Choo-choo!

5 hours after traveling it was dark and 5 degrees outside but we checked for Long-eared Owls anyways because you never know. But yes you do know, because it’s never that easy. No LEOWs this time.

Over dinner at the local poultry/ocean-themed restaurant in Clarkston, WA, we toasted to crazy adventures then settled in to our hotel room anxious for the next day.
Would the bird still be there? Would the risks payoff? Would it be worth it?

In the morning we suited up for the single-digit temperatures (21 layers between the three of us!) crossed the border into Idaho and anxiously drove the remaining five miles to Hells Gate State Park. Appropriately, Ice Cube rapped to us over the radio, “You can do it” and we tried to believe him.

We arrived just before sunrise and remained focused. Don’t pay attention to the parking lot Merlin we told ourselves.

Don’t look at me. (Photo courtesy of Kayla McCurry)

We crossed the park hoping the Merlin hadn’t eaten the rarity.

We found a group of birders already staked out at the site. The bird was here! Someone had seen it earlier. Giddy with joy we waited.

It’s up! Everyone cheered.

The Red-flanked Bluetail stayed mostly within the Russian olive branches flitting around flicking her tail, and feeding much like a flycatcher. Occasionally, she dipped down to the water for a drink before hiding again in the deep branches close to the stream.

So pretty! While we waited for her to resurface, we relaxed a bit and were entertained by a sassy Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

And a Song Sparrow.

Then the Red-flanked Bluetail resurfaced!

She quickly dipped down again and we waited for another look – just one more! Before finally pulling ourselves away.

We did it! Mission accomplished.

All smiles

We said goodbye to the bluetail and left to look for the icing, a nearby reported Barn Owl. While checking the conifers, a friendly birder pulled up and told us which tree they’d seen the owl in the day before. Kayla looked up, is that snow? Nope that’s a Barn Owl! Found!

This was when we we met Kas Dumroese, a birder on scene who offered to lead us to a nearby park with “fairly reliable” Saw-whet Owls. Um, yes please. Apparently we will follow strangers to random parks if they offer up owls. Seemed legit. Two other birder parties also joined the caravan and off we went.

Our first stop to look for a recent Lesser Black-backed Gull turned up empty, but the stream was full of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a nice yearbird.

We continued, and realized we were driving farther into Idaho, the opposite direction of our return route adding more time to get home, and increasing our chances of meeting the storm. Optimistic, we kept going anyways. Not too much farther we arrived at the park and tromped through the snow to check under conifers.

We found solid clues.

Then we looked under another nearby tree and found a Northern Saw-whet Owl!

With a dead vole gripped underneath! Awesome. And so perfect. She murderously eyed us before returning to sleepy cuteness.

Then someone said, “look, there’s another one!”

Indeed. Peeking out from behind a branch in the same tree was a second saw-whet! So angry. So cute. So perfect.

We couldn’t believe our luck. But also knew we were pushing it on time, so we said our goodbyes and thanks to Kas, his friend Carl and the others, and then hit the road for the long snowy drive home.

We were neck and neck with the storm and it was harrowing at times, but Colleen, having grown up in the mid-west, took it like a champ and got us home safe and sound.

The Bluetail Crazy Train had no regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey