The Wallowas

According to Travel Oregon there are 7 Wonders of Oregon and before last week I’d seen all of them except the Wallowas. This was also one of the last two counties in Oregon I hadn’t birded before (Malheur County is the other). This is why I love birding, it inspires me to go places I’ve not gone before. Sometimes to a landfill or sewage treatment plant, but other times to one of those “pinch me” places like the Wallowas.

Tomas and I stayed in a cozy Airbnb (walking distance to Sugar Time Bakery! and a block from Terminal Gravity Brewery) in Enterprise for three nights, and we spent Christmas Eve in The Landing Hotel in LaGrande. It made for the perfect getaway. Tomas painted and studied, while I birded.

This corner of Oregon is home to a few specialty species not easily found elsewhere and I hoped to run into a few of them. Each morning I had to choose between forest birds in the snowy mountain foothills.

Or driving farm roads looking for birds in the countryside.

Tough choices. I ended up making four trips to McCully Creek in the mountains hoping for grouse but I had better luck finding woodpeckers like this Hairy Woodpecker.

And this punky Pileated Woodpecker.

There were long birdless stretches in the countryside but that is part of the gamble, there can be absolutely nothing or a bird will show up that you’ll never see again in your life. It was early in the season for rarities and a low-snow year, but I managed to find a single Gray-crowned Rosy Finch perched on a metal barn roof!

In snowier times there can be flocks of 300-500 rosy finches. I was stoked to find just one (state year bird #320!).

Other good birds in the country were Rough-legged Hawks.

And Northern Shrikes like this one that accidentally flew closer for crushing looks.

In every barn was a Great Horned Owl keeping watch.

I had a tip from a friend to check out the Wallowa Fish Hatchery in Enterprise that had a few nice surprises like my county Belted Kingfisher.

A Townsend’s Solitaire drinking and bathing in the fresh hatchery water.

And a Great Horned Owl tucked into the branches along the nature trail.

Back on the country roads one late afternoon as I scanned the fields, I saw a pile of rocks start moving.

Gray Partridges!!! A life bird! And one of my target species of the Wallowas (#321!). I was giddy. I watched for a while as the chubsters used their heads to dig through the snow. They were the perfect Christmas presents.

Another time at McCully Creek I bumped into Nolan Clements, a birder who was in the area participating in a Wallowa CBC. This turned out to be the best luck because Nolan grew up in LaGrande and he knows where all the good birds are.

The good birds are over here

We met up the next day to look for Harris’s Sparrows (which we dipped on) and American Tree Sparrows which we found! #322!

This is another NE Oregon target bird I’d hoped to find. I haven’t seen a Tree Sparrow since my trip to Montana in 2015!

In the afternoon we made a stop at The Bobolink, a beer-birding-disc golf shop owned and run by a birder friend of ours, Trent Bray.

We picked out a couple of specialty beers then Trent gave us a tip about Bohemian Waxwings in town. WHAT. These weren’t even on my radar, but they were now. We set off driving in circles around town getting the tour of LaGrande while checking the fruit trees and chasing waxwings.

We had a Cooper’s Hawk flyover, Nolan heard a Townsend’s Solitaire, and we passed a gang of decked out Wild Turkeys.

Eventually we caught up with the waxwings perched high in Poplar trees. Scanning though, Nolan spotted one Bohemian Waxwing! #323!

They’re slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, darker gray underneath, and they have cinnamon-colored undertail coverts. Thanks to Nolan for helping us find such great birds and saving us time before our drive home.

Tomas and I spent the next morning looking for Great Gray Owls that we could not find, but it was a nice walk in the snow anyhow before our long way back home.

Tweets and chirps and Happy New Year!

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

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