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

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

Eastern Oregon – Day 2

The next morning I woke up groggy but excited for the day. The coyotes had howled all night long. They are true party animals.

Another day, another terrible view.

We packed up camp and hadn’t gotten a mile down the road before I got a text from Scott, three baby Great Gray Owls on the ground and the light is beautiful! Scott is the best. I may have found only one owl on my own, but with his help we were going on ten.

One baby was nestled in the grass soaking up the sun.

Another was perched on a branch, muppeting its head around in circles curiously observing the world around.

And the third was feeling brave.

No maybe this side.

Next thing you know, this happened.

Climbing trees is easy!

We watched as the adult male brought in the last meal of the morning.

Then we said our goodbyes as the owls quieted down to sleep the day away until  evening time. But our day was just beginning. We decided to leave the forest and head to Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area outside of La Grande. I thought it might be fun to chase some waterbirds.

We arrived in the heat of the day and were happy to sit, rest, and take a moment under the shaded overlook. It was so peaceful with the Wallowa Mountain view in the background and the loud robotic songs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Cornell describes the song as “a screeching buzz, rather like a heavy door swinging on a very rusty metal hinge,” kind of like WHIU-HU-EEEEAAAAUUUUHHHHH. Cracked us up every time.

American Coots were also at the refuge and I finally got to see their ugly babies!

I mean cute babies, of course. They stayed mostly hidden in the reeds, but occasionally the little red and black bald babies would paddle out behind quickly following the parent.

We also saw lovely pair of Cinnamon Teal.

On the wires above perched Western Kingbirds.

And soaring high above was a Swainson’s Hawk! The white chin really stood out.

Also in the sky was a Red-tailed Hawk.

Hmmm, what’s it carrying? OH GEEZ. It’s a body-less squirrel! The head dangling from the spine. Sorry, kids. Nature is metal.

Hey look, a cute Barn Swallow!

We stopped to get information from the Cliff Swallow at the booth.

Who told us to go down the gravel road, turn right, take two lefts, and go just past the abandoned building until we find a Great Horned Owl.

There were two fluffballs and one adult hidden within the leaves. So fun. We found most of the birds I’d hoped for. I missed American Avocets, but I did get a bonus Gray Catbird!

Perched out in the open singing loudly for a change. Meow!

From Ladd Marsh we traveled farther east towards Medical Springs Hwy and back into the shaded pine forests. I became fixated on the idea of finding (or even hearing) a Flammulated Owl.

We drove along crazy rutted forest roads that wound up and up until we reached the top.

There were Cassin’s Finch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Bluebirds, and Western Wood-Peewee singing. The view at the top was nice, but we decided to set up camp back where I’d spotted the White-headed Woodpecker.

Almost missed that one. This was also where I’d seen a Pine Siskin.

I was way more excited than I should be to see this bird. Contrary to prior winters when there were gobs of them on our feeders at home, this little one in the woods is the first I’ve seen this year. They didn’t visit the yard this winter but I hope they do next time!

Tomas set up camp as we settled in for the evening.

As the sun set I heard an intriguing sound, “poor-will, poor-will, poor-will,” the lightbulb when off and I remembered that was the sound of the Common Poorwill! Incidental life bird! A rare treat in Oregon these days.

After the long day, I was so sleepy I had to lay down. I told Tomas to wake me up if he hears owls.

G’night owls

He stayed up to take night shots like the one above. After I’d just fallen asleep, he woke me up when he heard hooting in the distance. I wrapped myself in the sleeping bag sprang out of the tent and followed him to the meadow.

We were hoping for a deep-pitched single hoot like the sound of blowing across the top of a bottle. The sound was so far away it could have been that, or it could have been the end note of a Great Horned Owl. Too far to tell so I didn’t count it.

But I did count the stars. And the “Who’s awake me tooo,” of the Great Horned Owl at 3am. That counted too. I hadn’t given up on finding flammies either. We had one more day to look.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey