February birds…

If January could be summed up by snow, February can be summed up by RAIN. All caps because it’s ridiculous. We can’t seem to catch a break. Luckily, birds still have stuff to do regardless of the weather. They’re out there and occasionally I joined them. Yesterday, Tomas and I went to Ridgefield NWR for some comfy drive-thru birding.

Would you like fries with that?

Swans have returned to the refuge, both Trumpeter and Tundra though the Tundra Swans stood out more to me with their yellow lores.

This one flew in for a nice photo-op.

Red-winged Blackbirds were singing in the rain.

And this American Coot couldn’t give a coot.

There were Bald Eagles, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, and of course Red-tailed Hawks along the route.

But we got the biggest surprise when approaching the park exit.

Not one, but two Rough-legged Hawks! I’ve seen this type of hawk a couple of times, but only as a passenger in a vehicle flying along the highway with no time to enjoy. This time we could observe from the heated car as long as we pleased.

They have a small bill, light head and dark belly. One had a paler eyes, a juvenile bird, while the other had dark eyes, an adult bird. Both appear to have the light morph color pattern.

And of course they have feathered tarsi, or those “rough legs.”

They perched for a long time, sometimes fanning their wings out to dry. Until finally one flew from the tree and this was when we learned how they hunt. They face into the wind and hover! Similar to American Kestrels. The hover and scan the ground looking for small mammals. I made an animated gif to show the hovering in action:

Pretty sweet. Glad we made it out in the rain!

Much more to come. February isn’t over yet.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Happy New Year!

I managed to squeeze in a few more birds at the end of 2015. On Christmas Day I went to Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve. I hadn’t visited since June and what a difference record winter rains make.

Before

Before

After

After

The trails were completely flooded with water, but looking around the upland part of the park I still saw many birds: Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Spotted Towhees. On a tree nearby I also saw Red-shouldered Hawk!

Red-shouldered Hawk

Say, whaaa? Curious because I didn’t think Oregon was included in their typical range. Bib of dark streaks, rufous underparts, black and white bands on tails. I’ll take it!

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

It eventually ended up in the same tree as this unhappy Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

Looking up in fury

The stare-down proved too much for the Red-shouldered Hawk and it flew away (giving a glance of its rufous underwing coverts) while it called “kee-aah, kee-aah, kee-aah!” in disgust.

I returned to the bird feeders by the main building and got an up-close and personal visit from an Anna’s Hummingbird. This flashy fella and I became besties.

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

Okay, maybe not. Back to the trees I saw a Northern Shrike! Nice! Or, rather, not nice. This predatory songbird “feeds on small birds, mammals, and insects, sometimes impaling them on spines or barbed wire fences.” Yikes.

Northern Shrike

I had hoped to see White-throated Sparrows but insted came up with Golden-crowned Sparrows that sort of look like tan-striped White-Throated Sparrows. It needs yellow lores, stronger facial marks, and a mottled breast. Nice try.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

I left and went to Fernhill Wetlands since it is close by. I had not been before and I’ll have to try again once the water recedes.

Flooded

The road was closed as was the gate to the park. But I was able to admire Ruddy Ducks, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Ducks, and Scaup in the nearby flooded farmlands. And, wait, what is that larger bird-blob in the middle?

Mixed waterbirds

Canvasback! A new species. What a great silhouette.

IMG_6173

I walked along nearby roads, still not finding White-throated Sparrows, but I did find a handsome Lincoln’s Sparrow. This and the Canvasback made the trip worth it.

Lincoln's Sparrow

The next morning I set off for Vancouver Lake in Washington. This turned out to be a disappointing spot not for lack of birds, but because the air was ripe with gunfire.

Hunters

Hunters. Even though I was in a “safe” hunting-off limits section of land, it was close enough to hear plenty of shooting. I have to say, I was unnerved listening to gunfire while birding. I’ve heard it before, but never this close, loud, or rapid. I stayed just long enough to see a few birds before I couldn’t take it anymore.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

And another Red-shouldered Hawk!

Invasion of the Red-shouldered Hawks

Invasion of the Red-shouldered Hawks

I saw one new species at Vancouver Lake, Eared Grebes. (Common Merganser on the left for scale).

Eared Grebe

The last day of the long weekend I considered going to Sauvie Island to look for White-Throated Sparrows again, but I couldn’t take the idea of listening to more shooting. So I headed the complete opposite direction towards Franz Lake in the Columbia River Gorge. This was a good choice.

A herd of elk along the way!

Elk

And swans. Peaceful, graceful, lovely swans.

Trumpeter Swan

I read Tundra swans like to winter at the lake and I rounded out my year learning the difference between Trumpeter and Tundra Swans.

Trumpeter Swans have a larger bill with red on the lower mandible.

Trumpeter Swan

While Tundra Swans have a small yellow “teardrop” on the lore.

Tundra Swan

Subtle differences. Below is Tundra on the left, Trumpeter on the right.

Tundra and Trumpeter

The swans were a perfect way to close out 2015.

Time to do it all over again!!!

Tweets, chirps, and cheers to 2016!

Audrey

Alaska By Land – Denali Part I

Before going to Denali, I did my homework. There was a slim chance we’d be eaten by bears and I wanted that chance slimmer. Planning is key (*see end notes).

Grizzly in Denali

We traveled by train- the Denali Star, to reach the park. I humored the idea of birding by train, but that was pretty much impossible. The conductors did, however, point out Osprey nests and Trumpeter Swans as we whizzed by. We also had our first moose sighting by train.

Trumpeter Swans

I went to Alaska, and all I got was this blurry picture of Trumpeter Swans.

I had hoped to see a Willow Ptarmigan (related to pterodactyl, obviously) on our Alaska trip at some point. A “typical bird of the arctic tundra.” Spoiler alert – I did not see one. The closest I got was seeing two round “bird-like objects” flee for their lives from the shrubs alongside the moving train. Possibly ptarmigan, but unconfirmed.

After the eight hour train ride, we finally arrived at the park. We completed the required backcountry training, picked out our backcountry unit (unit 6, my first choice!), acquired our bear resistant canisters, and stayed the first night near the park entrance at Riley Creek Campground. Where it rained. And poured. And rained some more.

Hopeful for improved weather, we boarded the shuttle bus early the next morning for the 5 hour ride to Wonder Lake Campground. A glimpse of the shuttle-bus fun:

Wildlife viewing

Wildlife viewing

Magpies!

Magpies!

Polychrome Mtn edge

Polychrome Mtns

We arrived at Wonder Lake and set up camp.

Wonder Lake Campground

It is a surreal place. Beyond those clouds, only 26 miles away, is the highest peak in North America, Denali, “The High One.” Wonder Lake is the closest campground to the mountain, but living up to its reputation, the peak was obscured by clouds. Only 30% of Denali park visitors are fortunate enough to see the mountain.

We set off for a hike on the nearby Mckinley Bar Trail, one of the few established trails in the park. Here I focused my attention on the partly obscured birds. We saw flocks of Wilson’s Warblers (not pictured: the rest of the flock).

Wilson's Warbler

We saw a few other “common” birds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (juvenile, Myrtle)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (juvenile, Myrtle)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (They're everywhere!)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, adult (They’re everywhere!)

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow (not so juvenile, "first winter")

White-crowned Sparrow, not so juvenile (“first winter”)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

These Greater White-fronted Geese were kind of a surprise find while exploring the trail.

Greater White-fronted Geese

As was this moose!

Moose

We could finally put into practice what we’d learned to do during a wildlife encounter. Speak calmly, and back away. Moose want their space, and they’ll charge you to get it. This one was directly on the trail in front of us, so we made a large circle around the tundra to avoid her, meanwhile keeping her within eye-sight, as she kept an eye on us. We were nervous she may have a calf, but we never saw one, and she continued munching on the brush, and eventually moved on into the thickets.

Moose

Moose

Whew. It was good practice for our next few nights in the backcountry where we would experience the most remote hiking we’ve ever done.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

*Because it might be useful to someone somewhere:

How backpacking Denali works: The 6 million park acres are broken into 87 backcountry units. 41 of the (more accessible) units have a quota (2-12 people). A (free) permit must be obtained in-person from the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) to access units. Along with paperwork and using/borrowing bear-food canisters, they require a basic training process for hiking in bear country (video/instruction). In all, it took us 2 hours at the office to pick a unit and complete training. (About 1.5 hours longer than I thought it would).

Denali has one 92 mile road. In summer, only the first 15 miles of the road is accessible by car. Shuttle buses are the way to access the park, but camper buses specifically are the way to access with camping gear (backpacks and bicycles). There’s a difference between the buses – I learned that the hard way.

Because of the unit quotas and in-person permit requirement, popular units are often full. One trick is to stay a night (or two) at Wonder Lake (last stop) because they will allow picking units for the following nights after WL, giving you a head start. Wonder Lake is also close (26 mi) to Denali (mtn).  A shuttle bus departs Wonder Lake pretty early that can then make a drop off at a desired unit location.

I found it inspiring and helpful to read trip report blogs, blogs, and more blogs. Even Trip Advisor has some knowledgeable insight from a few locals. And Backpacker guide has a trip suggestion.

For bear safety, aside from the backcountry video and safety talk at the park, we found this entertaining video produced by Mirror Lake Middle School.

Go. It’s all worth it.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my sense put in order.” – John Burroughs, naturalist and nature essayist.