Highs and lows

Spring, spring, spring! Migration is happening and I’m still slowly recovering from ankle surgery. The cast is off, the boot is on, but I still can’t walk. Yet. But that doesn’t mean I can’t look at birds. At least those accessible from flat ground.

Which is why I was so happy to get a message from my friend Eric alerting me to Western Bluebirds at his local (flat) patch last week. Luckily, it was on the way home from the medical supply store so I could convince Tomas to make a stop.

Dharma Rain Zen Center

If I stood out birding before with binocs and a huge camera lens, I’m pretty much a beacon now with crutches, binoculars, and a boot.

But it was totally worth it because we got the birds! Two Western Bluebirds, a new county bird for me. Since I can’t carry a camera and crutches at the same time, Tomas used a video camera to get diagnostic evidence.

And we got a bonus Say’s Phoebe, peeping and calling.

It was a good stop. Another bright spot in my week was a text from Jen giving me a heads up on a tiny owl in the neighborhood. I was at work, and since I still can’t drive and am mostly reliant on Tomas for transportation I waited patiently until we were both off of work. This time I took along my knee scooter I’ve rented to get around the office more easily.

Not meant for off-roading, I took it along a paved road as far as I could before crutching the last little bit.

The blisters were worth it, because at the end of the trail we found the sleepy little Northern Saw-whet Owl. Tiny owls make the pain go away.

I’ve had to get creative to see some things, and I’ve missed out on others, like a county Mountain Bluebird that migrated to Powell Butte that is way to steep for me to scoot or crutch up. Hopefully I’ll get another chance. But I’m super thankful for the tips my able-bodied friends have passed along. I even got a tip from a coworker of an Anna’s Hummingbird nest in the park outside our office!

So adorable. I’d love to get some photos in better light before the tree leafs out.

Lastly, today’s adventure started when Sarah texted me about a Sabine’s Gull in Salem. I almost didn’t go, but I happened to have the day off so I decided last minute to get a Lyft ride to her house. From there, Max, Sarah, and I went to Salem and easily got the gull.

Flying around with Tree Swallows like it’s totally normal for a pelagic bird.

Such fun times! Even while on crutches. A few lows, but mostly highs thanks to my supportive friends and Tomas for getting me out of the house.

Hobbles and scoots,

Audrey

Last weekend

The birds and beers were so good in Astoria the weekend before, I thought for my last trip before surgery, why not go back? Tomas agreed as he’d missed out, and this time he could go on a mountain biking trip while I birded. We left early Saturday morning and after stocking up at a gas station in Astoria, I dropped Tomas off on the side of the road.

Happy trails

We agreed to meet back up in the evening for dinner. I had a short birding wish list for this trip, Glaucous Gull, Snow Bunting, Snowy Plover, Wrentit, all would be ambitious, honestly I was more looking for a relaxed and casual last hurrah of ankle freedom.

I started at Seaside Cove to say hello again to the continuing Steller’s Eider, that’s been there for about two months now.

This is where I also said hello to my friends Nick and Maureen! Such a nice surprise. They’d both been under the weather since the new year and this was their first try for the Eider – sweet success and congratulations to them!

Together we looked at Red-throated Loons, Pelagic Cormorant, Western Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Duck, and we played peek-a-boo with a Black Scoter hiding in the waves.

We picked out birds in the distance as the Steller’s Eider floated farther away. This was when a birder along the beach mentioned Ancient Murrelets were visible from the shore around the corner. These weren’t even on my radar! Technically they were seen on the pelagic trips I’ve been on, but I’ve never gotten a good look so I haven’t counted them (they’re a front-of-the-boat bird). This would be a lifer and a treat.

Nick, Maureen, and I took the long walk along the cobbled beach to see if we could spot one.

Solid ankle workout

We’d gone about a mile before Nick spotted a tiny murrelet dot in the distance. It was an Ancient Murrelet!

We walked even farther on when I spotted one closer in just past the breaking waves, but it swam out pretty quickly by the time we got there.

Ancient Murrelet with Western Grebes for scale

So tiny, so cute, and so nice to see from dry land. This made the returning mile and a half cobble walk worth it. Back at the cove Nick noticed a flock of small shorebirds land on the beach.

We hurried over until we got better look at the Sanderling fallout.

They’re so fun to watch scurrying along the shore, did you know a group of Sanderlings is called a “grain”? We were entertained by the grain of Sanderlings until a dog ran in an chased them all off. It was time to move on. I said my good-byes to Nick and Maureen as they headed to Fort Stevens SP to look for White-winged Crossbills while I went north to Hammond Marina. We agreed to meet up later on for dinner.

I drove north making a couple of unsuccessful shorebird and bunting searches along the way, but as I left one area along a residential road, a back-lit bird on a wire caught my eye. I thought that doesn’t look like a starling – probably just a robin. But it was intriguing enough to turn around because it also looked like it might be a bluebird. And that’s exactly what it was!

A Western Bluebird, what a cool surprise. Things got even more interesting as it flew to a backyard. I pulled over next to the fancy country-club house hoping I looked inconspicuous as I creeped on the backyard.

It was a pair of bluebirds next to a birdhouse! They were actively defending the box from pesky House Sparrows that were swarming all around also trying to get in the house.

I really hope the bluebirds win the battle because they’re awesome, beautiful, but  especially because they’re a native species.

I was excited I’d been lucky enough to see them (and not get into trouble with the locals). I left and went to Hammond to see what I could find next. No new or unusual gulls as I’d hoped, but I did find a Pacific Loon.

And flocks of Brewer’s Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Red-winged Blackbirds that for some reason threw me off because they’re wearing their weird non-breeding plumage no one really talks about.

Why do they look so weird?

Freaky

Anyways, once I took my eyes off the blackbirds, I scanned the jetty rocks and found a beaver!

No way. I couldn’t believe it, I thought it must be a muskrat or an invasive nutria, but then I’d just read a post recently that both nutria and muskrat have white whiskers and beavers don’t. And this beaver was shy and didn’t come out of the rocks, but it did turn at one point and showed that diagnostic beaver tail!

Totally beaver. At this point it was time to meet up with Tomas, Nick, and Maureen for the best beers and worst service at Fort George Brewery. We dined and toasted to a very successful and surprising day.

Cheers,

Audrey

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