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 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

Eastern Oregon – Day 1

Over Memorial Day weekend Tomas and I decided on a camping trip. It was time to go east. The Put an Owl on it Birdathon team wasn’t happening this year (boo), but I still wanted to find Great Gray Owls. We were on our own. That was until I found out Scott Carpenter, owler-photographer extraordinaire would also be in the area. My odds of finding owls skyrocketed.

Thursday after work, Tomas and I drove four hours to a random area in the Umatilla National Forest. We weren’t sure where we’d end up, but I’ve learned to trust Tomas’s instincts that we’ll find dispersed camping options. Even in the dark. It works every time because I wake up in some of the most amazing places.

Epic. Once daylight broke we geared up and set out looking for owls. We drove all over the place, I thought without a doubt I’d remember where that drainage was from last year. But after more than an hour of looking, I conceded that I didn’t remember. Damn. But then I remembered I’d taken notes from last year and thanks to cell coverage, I found the deets!

This was it, I remembered that hill! And those trees. I told Tomas this feels right. I think we sat on that log and watched them. They could be anywhere in here. Then I turned around. Holy shit.

A Great Gray Owl! Exactly where it was supposed to be.

How could you miss that? I was stoked. This was Tomas’s first GGOW and I’d found it! I could relax then. And obsess over Pygmy Nuthatch nests.

They are so small and so cute.

Not to be confused with the other nuthatch in the area, White-breasted Nuthatch.

I also found one Lewis’s Woodpecker, unusual since they’re social and often found lose in groups.

And a worried-looking little House Wren.

We checked back on the owl, it was sleeping and not going anywhere so we decided to travel to a nearby park, Red Bridge State Wayside State Park. It’s one of the few places in Oregon to find Gray Catbirds. We’d tried last year on the Birdathon and missed out, but this time, Tomas and I got lucky. Meow.

Slinking around in the shrubs, mewing and chirping exactly where it should be. Such a cool bird to find in Oregon! We found a few other birds at the park, including Yellow Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, and Western Tanager.

And we even found a Spotted Sandpiper on the river bank.

Late afternoon approached and we thought it best to get back to the owls. We returned to find the adult in the same spot where we’d left it. We looked around but had no luck finding any owlets. I started to get nervous, we should at least have heard begging cries by now. Where were the babies?

That was when I got a text from Scott. Two photogenic babies on the ground. What?! We’re on our way. We navigated to the location just in time.

AYFKM? It doesn’t get much better than that. But then it did. The female hooted low and constant and the male flew in for a prey exchange. The male hunts while the female looks after the little ones.

He then left to find more food while she swooped down to feed her baby owl.

After, she preened the little fella.

It was the sweetest. We watched another food exchange, another feeding, and then someone spotted a Black-backed Woodpecker on the scene.

I briefly stopped looking at the owls to check out this awesome lifer woodpecker! Quite a treat. It got late and we knew we’d have to return back to our camp soon. On the way out, we were deterred again when we noticed the first owlet attempting to climb a tree.

It’s such a rare sight in the woods, so we sat down to enjoy. Millions of years of evolution at work. The owlets find a leaning tree and use their large hooked beak and sharp talons to slowly work their way upward.

It was sometimes painful to watch. The owl would make it up a few feet, then fall back down only to have to start again. We left when the owl plopped down on the ground a final time. He’ll get there eventually.

The owl may not have gotten very far, but I was high above the clouds.

Day one of our camping trip came to a close as we listened to coyotes howl in the distance. Fun times!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey