Seattle to Malheur to Astoria III

I’d never been to Steens Mountain before, but I’d only heard good things. It is a 30-mile long fault block mountain that peaks at 9,773 ft and consists of 428,156 acres of public land.

This land is our land

There is one 59-mile loop road that is gravel, often washboard, and takes about two hours to drive.

Or several more hours if you’re me. I filled up on gas before heading out because stations are few and far between.

See gas attendant in upper lefthand corner.

I stopped a lot. Several times. One of the best things about this area is how remote it is and how easy it is to turn around for scattering birds. And the birds certainly scattered. I found mostly Vesper Sparrows, Sage Thrashers, and Chipping Sparrows.

I spotted a couple of Green-tailed Towhees.

I finally got a photo of a Mountain Chickadee.

And at one stop I found a large flock of scruffy-looking bluebirds, both Mountain and Western.

Here I also saw a Red-naped Sapsucker.

And Hairy Wodpeckers.

It was good times. The best bird I found was a Black-throated Gray Warbler, but no photos, unfortunately.

At the East Rim Overlook I found stunning views of the valley below historically filled by glaciers. Hard to imagine.

I’d hoped to see Black Rosy-Finch here (or anywhere on Steens Mtn), but I wasn’t so lucky. I saw American Kestrels, Cooper’s Hawk, and a few Red-tailed Hawks dotting the landscape.

Ready, set…

Go. I drove all over that mountain back and forth, but saw more scenery than birds.

It might be because it was a holiday weekend, and though remote, the place was probably as packed as the Steens get. It took a while, but late in the day I finally found a suitable camping spot along a BLM road and settled in for the night.

Cozy. Until a truck with three men in it pulled up.

Oh great, I thought, here we go. After what felt like a long standoff, one finally got out and the first words out of his mouth were “Are you in need of assistance?” It took everything in my power not to say something rude back. (If I needed help, wouldn’t I be at the road looking for help?!) No, I’m not, I said instead. Then he asked, “are you planning on camping here?” I said, I was.

Oh great, now they know where I’m camping. He proceeded to mansplain to me that there was a campground with amenities not far down the road. I said thanks, but no thanks, this is BLM land and I am fine. He told me they wanted to scout the area for deer to bowhunt and that they’d just come back in the morning. They seemed nice enough, aside from their entitled, ignorant, and sexist attitude, but I was still bothered by the whole thing.

I felt like I had to defend my position even though I had every right to be there.

I considered leaving, but grumpily I set up camp anyways.

Then Tomas texted letting me know he’d finally made it to Fields, but he’d likely not continue the next day. Tired and achy after a 60-mile battle with the sun, dust, and headwinds, he said he felt defeated. He’d met his match with the heat that had scalded his feet and soured his spam and tuna packets.

Feeling a little defeated myself, I suggested we pack up and fly to Maui instead. Half joking, but also temping. He then asked, “what’s that bird that says “poorwill, poorwill“? Jealous, I told him it’s the Common Poorwill. Minutes later I heard them outside my own tent. That made my night. Leave it to the birds to make things better.

A great soundtrack to fall asleep to.

Crickets and poorwills,

Audrey

Eastern Oregon – Day 3

The next morning we got up, packed up, and said goodbye to the Wallowa Mountains and hello to the Starkey Experimental Forest.

Say, what? Into the fenced-in wild we went.

I’d read information about a Flammulated Owl study performed in this forest. Unfortunately it was from the 80s so I had no idea what possibilities it still held but it was worth a shot. According to the paper, flammies like large diameter Ponderosa Pine snags with cavities at least as large as made by a Northern Flicker (though preferably by Pileated Woodpecker) located on east or south facing ridges and slopes. It was a starting point.

The Starkey forest is 40 square miles completely fenced in with easily navigable gravel roads so we explored all over the place.

And only got one flat tire.

Winner for most scenic flat tire

We passed coyote traps, bear traps, strange elongated nest boxes, and several game “cleaning stations” as besides research, the other main use of the forest is elk hunting in the winter. The Starkey Project researches combinations of forest management for elk, timber, cattle, deer, recreation and nutrient flows on National Forests. We couldn’t find any information about camping, but we passed a car with grad-students/employees inside that said it was okay.

They were pretty chill. The whole place was. There were no other people camping or otherwise. It was a nice break. Even if it did make me think of the Hunger Games arena.

The odds were in our favor. We found Mountain Bluebirds.

House Wren

The worst view ever of a Northern Goshawk.

A sneaky sparrow I think is a young Vesper’s Sparrow.

And so many Pygmy Nuthatches.

It was near this nuthatch’s nest where I spotted the perfect suspect snag. Large diameter, on a high ridge, a great hole, and I’d seen a Northern Flicker in the area. Maybe this could be it? Near sunset Tomas and I waited and watched the hole. Until…

Out peeked a Northern Flying Squirrel! No way. It climbed out for a brief moment and then scurried back into it’s hole.

Not an owl, but still a great find.

Meanwhile, a Mountain Bluebird found our tent.

We settled back in to camp hoping to hear owls in the night, but I slept too soundly and didn’t hear a hoot. Sad to leave the forest we packed up for the trip home. Oddly enough we hadn’t seen any deer or elk in the Starkey Experiemental Forest, it wasn’t until we were beyond the fence boundary that we bumped into a herd of elk.

Giving me The Eye.

This is also when we saw a coyote run across the road carrying a big hunk of a deer carcass. I managed one terrible photo.

Neat. So much excitement outside the fence perimeter.

Exciting Wilson’s Snipe

On the way home we made a point to stop at Philippi Canyon because there’s always something good to find and this time did not disappoint.

Lark Sparrow

Bullock’s Oriole

American White Pelican

Red-tailed Hawk

The biggest surprise was a Chukar that didn’t run away! At least for a brief enough moment.

Another fabulous trip to eastern Oregon with much to sing about!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Texas: Lost Maples

Spring break is all about drinking, partying, and birding, right?

For months a group of friends and I planned a trip to Texas this spring to accomplish at least one of those things. Jen and I flew in a couple of days early to explore the Hill Country area of Texas two hours west of San Antonio that is home to the rare and endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler that only nests in juniper-oak woodlands of Central Texas.

The warbler has good taste. This is the prettiest part of Texas I’ve ever seen.

We stayed at Foxfire Cabins less than a mile from Lost Maples State Natural Area. What the cabins lacked in swankiness the property made up for with birds.

feeder titmouse

Inca Dove

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Carolina Chickadee

Boom. Just like that, four lifers. There was also a Yellow-throated Vireo sighting and a drive-by Ringed Kingfisher. Make that six lifers. Birding is so easy. Once the sun dipped below the hills we star-gazed enjoying the clear dark skies, then got up early in the morning to hike Lost Maples Park.

The chalkboard doesn’t lie.

We parked the car, started up the trail, and almost immediately heard the buzzy “ter-wih-zeee-e-e-e, chy” song I’d studied long before the trip. Incredible. It took much longer to get a visual on the warblers, but when we did it was even sweeter.

Yay! The extra time and effort was all worth it. Relaxed and happy, we soaked up other sights along the trail including Yellow-throated Warblers and White-eyed Vireos.

And a Black-chinned Hummingbird that stopped to take a drink from the stream.

Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soared higher in the sky as the wind picked up and we hiked up the hillside.

Black Vulture

Here we’d hoped for an early Black-capped Vireo, but came up with Black-crested Titmouse.

And Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Along the trail we were easily distracted by damselflies, butterflies and lizards.

And a Carolina Wren singing like crazy.

The wind picked up further as we hiked back to check the feeders near the trail entrance.

This turned up many birds including:

White-tipped Dove

Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Three more lifebirds. Bam! What a gorgeous birdy place. I’m already dreaming of a return backpacking trip.

In the heat of the day we took a quick lunch break before heading north to Kerr Wildlife Management Area to try again for Black-capped Vireo. On the drive there we passed a Vesper Sparrow.

A Lark Sparrow.

A mystery snake that slivered quickly across the road.

And we passed a pile of vultures on the side of the road with a Crested Caracara in the mix!

New bird! I was surprised to learn they’re actually quite common in southern Texas. Here’s a picture from a later sighting:

Eventually we made it to Kerr WMA, and dipped again on vireos, but we found plenty more lifebirds for me including Vermilion Flycatchers.

A Field Sparrow.

And a wonderful surprise bird Jen spotted just as we were leaving the park, a Louisiana Waterthrush! Good spot.

We made it back to the cabins without running out of gas and prepared ourselves for an early departure the next morning. 18 new birds in less than two full days? Not a bad start!

Thanks Texas.

Birders gone wild,

Audrey