No (R)egrets

A short while ago my friend Eric and I were doing some light, casual, local birding. We managed to find a Multnomah County Swamp Sparrow a new county bird for each of us (both #215!).

Then a report of a Cattle Egret came in. A week prior there was a report of one at Fernhill Wetlands that turned out to be a Great Egret. But this report seemed more plausible, “seen with 10 Great Egrets.” We didn’t see photos, but we also didn’t have a good reason not to try for it, so we went.

Two hours later we were on the side of Washburn Lane scratching our heads. Is that egret smaller? Maybe that one? None looked strikingly different. They were also difficult to see due to tall grass and poor light. Then two egrets flew and one looked “slightly smaller.” Sort of. See Eric’s photo of the egrets in this eBird checklist.

We left knowing we hadn’t seen a Cattle Egret, but we weren’t sure if the bird we saw was a female GREG (males can be 20% larger than females) or young egret or something else.

My only usable photo of egret sp. with nothing for scale

Turns out, this egret sparked debate that it could be an Intermediate Egret, a medium-sized egret that occurs from Africa to the Philippines. There has been a single confirmed occurrence of an Intermediate Egret (found deceased, blown in from a storm with 7 other egrets) in the Aleutian Islands on Buldir Island in 2006. So the likelihood of this bird being Intermediate is (sure, anything is possible) slim.

I feel it’s similar to the McKay’s Bunting “pale bird,” without a DNA sample we’ll never know for sure. To distinguish Intermediate from Great Egret, Oriental bird specialist Desmond Allen says “after the first 500-1000 you may start to see the differences more easily.” Sounds like a fun (painful) I.D. exercise. I didn’t know Intermediates existed before this, but for now I’m leaving this one as egret sp.

Eric and I gave up egretting to take another look at the Tundra Bean-Goose nearby at Finley NWR. Eric spotted the goose easily and we got the best looks yet.

By then it was nearing dusk so we left to look for Short-eared Owls at Prairie Overlook. We saw two! Along with Red-shouldered Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and distant looks at a White-tailed Kite. Excellent consolation birds all of which I took terrible photos of.

Guess who

Four days later another Cattle Egret report came in. What?! This time I waited to see photos and sure enough, James Billstine had found two in Tillamook! It was noon and I was at work, but I knew if I left immediately I could make it before dark.

Finally, real Cattle Egrets! Distant looks, but still a good reminder how tiny they are compared to Great Egrets. No question about these (state year bird #319!). Maybe someday these two will make even more Cattle Egrets in Oregon.

No regrets.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

301 501

My unintentional now intentional Oregon big year is going pretty well. Since I returned from vacation I’ve chased a lot of birds. I’ve seen a lot and I’ve missed a lot. But that is the risk of the chase. The first bird I hoped to see the day after my plane landed back in PDX was a Magnolia Warbler at Ona Beach in Newport.

The bird had been seen in a mixed flock frequenting the birch trees next to the parking lot. And after a short search that’s where I saw it too!

Magnolia Warbler! State bird 301 life bird 501! Great numbers and a great bird. After my five minutes in heaven with the MAWA I took a tip from Sarah and drove north to Tillamook to look for a Swamp Sparrow. I was in luck because Sarah drew me a legit treasure map.

Past the draft horse and the mini donkey.

In the marshy field next to the parking area exactly as described on the map I pished up my first Oregon Swamp Sparrow! #302. One of the more secretive and hard to see sparrows.

X marks the sparrow!

A life bird and a state bird in one day is a good day! I pushed my luck the following day and drove east to the Hook in Hood River to look for another lifer, a Tufted Duck hanging out in a flock of scaup.

As per usual it was freezing cold and windy and occasionally Bald Eagles moved the flock around not making for easy duck spotting conditions. After finding no tufts a few birders gave up and left. And that’s when I saw it! Tufted Duck! #303.

In my photos it looks more like the Loch Ness but that is a diagnostic black back and mullet. I texted the other birders and after a few more tries everyone saw it. Whew!

I had so much fun in eastern Oregon I headed out there again the following weekend. It was more leisurely than targeted which made birding more relaxing.

Deer-goose-turbine combo

I drove to my favorite canyon in the gorge, Philippi Canyon, where I almost always find something good. Indeed.

California Quail

Say’s Phoebe

Townsend’s Solitaire

Northern Shrike

And the best surprise was a Harris’s Sparrow!

I’ve since been told this is the first verified Gilliam County record of a Harris’s Sparrow which is pretty amazing.

I continued exploring east finding harriers, red-tailed hawks, and at least six Rough-legged Hawks.

They are so handsome!

It never gets old. I ended up birding too far from home and it got dark so I spent the night in Umatilla thinking I could visit McNary Wildlife Nature Area early in the morning. I got up excited to find the Black-crowned Night Herons that roost here. And I found them!

But it was so dark and so foggy they were very hard to see. I slowly made my way out looking for something-anything else, a Bohemian Waxwing perhaps? But the fog refused to lift so I birded my way back home instead.

I followed Ken Chamberlain and the OBA crew’s footsteps and checked out some pretty underrated small ponds in the industrial areas along the Columbia River picking up great Wasco County birds: Virginia Rail, Northern Shrike, Pacific Wren, and the best, I refound a Swamp Sparrow at a pond by the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center!

Slightly more visible than my first Swamp Sparrow. By then it was getting dark so I had to call it a day. I’m reminded how awesome and challenging winter birding is in Oregon. With the cold, rain, and shorter days it’s important to make the most out of the daylight!

Gone birding from dawn till dusk.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Kennewick to Astoria

The next day was not like the previous. The winds howled and overcast skies moved in. Jen, Jacob, and I checked on the Snowy Owl in the early morning, but this time it was far off in a distant farm field.

We watched for a bit until she flew to another field.

And was subsequently harassed by a Northern Harrier.

She didn’t seem too concerned. After a while we felt it was time to move on and we left the owl to defend her post. Good luck Miss Snowy Owl.

We then drove down 9-mile Canyon Rd dodging tumbleweeds and not coming up with much besides American Goldfinch and sneaky deer.

With the long drive home ahead we decided it was best to start heading back and we went our separate ways. I didn’t make many stops along the way but I had an idea of where I might go next. Not home that’s for sure. Tomas was off mountain biking, I’d be home too early, and there was the entire next day of possibilities.

One thing that stuck in my mind was a Northern Waterthrush reported in Brownsmead, a place in Oregon I’ve never been to near Astoria. I debated. The waterthrush wasn’t a life bird, I’d seen one once in Alaska, but it had been so long ago. Many birders hadn’t gotten visuals on the Brownsmead bird, they’d only heard it in the dense shrubs. Would I be satisfied driving so far to hear a chip note? Maybe.

What sealed the deal was the possibility of a Swamp Sparrow and that would be a life bird, so I figured why not take the chance. My plan was set. The five hours of driving flew by and before I knew it, I arrived in Brownsmead.

What a great place! Lots of lowland wetlands, farms, and places for rare birds to hide.

I pulled up to the waterthrush site and immediately heard chip notes. Unfortunately, they were coming from Yellow-rumped Warblers in the trees above. And then I heard it, a tantalizing loud spwik from lower in the blackberry. Scanning I saw movement and eventually a bird. It was the Northern Waterthush!

It sat preening and I enjoyed every moment so happy I’d taken the chance to see it.

It was then a homeowner across the street came out to greet me. Claire had met birders from Seattle looking for the waterthrush that morning and she was excited to share what she’d learned. She kindly gave me a tour of her neighborhood and showed me a Black Phoebe, Red-shouldered Hawk, and about 30 Great Egrets foraging in a field. The light was fading so I didn’t get many photos, but it was inspiring to see Claire’s new connection to the nature of her neighborhood.

I thanked her for her generosity and continued on, still hoping for a Swamp Sparrow, but getting distracted by ducks instead. I found one male Eurasian Wigeon.

That turned into three EUWI after reviewing my photos later, including the female to the left of the male in the above photo. She has a blue bill touching reddish feathers, AMWI has a narrow black base to the bill.

I saw Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Bald Eagles stalking all of them from above. As it got darker I thought of lodging options, and Astoria was only another 20 minutes down the road where Fort George Brewery was featuring dark beers. This plus fish and chips and I was sold. It was an excellent ending to an exhausting but fulfilling day.

In the morning it was dark and pouring rain, not good beach weather so I skipped it and drove back to Brownsmead for a quick scan. The area is sometimes favorable for Gyrfalcons and I thought it worth a look. Come to Brownsmead for the waterthrush, stay for the Gyrfalcon. I spent a long time trying to turn this bird into one.

There was a Peregrine Falcon nearby for size comparison. This one was larger but the light was terrible, I was far away, and it wouldn’t turn around. Finally it was light enough for me to ID it as a Rough-legged Hawk. Not a gyr but still a good bird!

And a reminder I should probably stop birding in the dark. I drove around a bit more, but the weather was terrible and with so much ground to cover Swamp Sparrows could be anywhere. I conceded defeat, but on the way out a large light bird caught my eye and I quickly pulled over.

Woah, a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk! I wasn’t sure until it flew and I saw that red tail.

Such a beautiful and unusual hawk. This made my morning and I felt good about heading back. But not to home just yet.

One more stop at Ridgefield NWR. My friend Sarah says I’m birding like I’m going to die soon. If it seems like I’m birding hard #birdlikeyouredying, I am because next week I’m having surgery on my ankle to glue my bones back together. Basically. And this means I’ll be on crutches and in a cast for a month, and a boot for at least another month. And it’s my right ankle, so no driving. No, it’s not death, but I want to take advantage of my freedom before I’m greatly humbled by my body.

So back to Ridgefield, and my last chance at a Swamp Sparrow for a while. At least here I had a better idea of where they might be along the auto tour. And just past marker #10, where I stubbornly sat in my car staring at grass while other cars passed around me. Finally, I saw the secretive owl of sparrows, the Swamp Sparrow!

Such a richly colored bird! I admired it as long as it would let me.

Which was about two seconds before it dropped down into the grass hidden once again. Until next time, Mr Sparrow. I left Ridgefield feeling pretty accomplished and officially ready to call it a day.

It’s hard to stop when there’s always a good bird just around the next corner.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey