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

Vancouver Lake

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new sparrow. Certainly not for lack of trying. Since before the first of this year, I’ve looked for little brown birds with that extra bit of flair at several locations including Jackson Bottom, Fernhill Wetlands, Ridgefield NWR, Sauvie Island, and Vancouver Lake. But still no luck.

So when I saw White-throated Sparrows were a target species for one of Audubon’s free outings a couple of weeks ago I was pumped. We met early at Vancouver Lake on a day forecast for steady rain showers.

Audubon outing

The lake waters started slow, a couple of Double-crested Cormorants flew by, and Cackling Geese flew overhead, and then things picked up with thousands of Snow Geese, multiple Sandhill Cranes, and a pair of Tundra Swans passing by above.

Audubon outing

Walking along the trails increased our species sightings with Western Meadowlark, Fox Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pacific Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and American Kestrel. To name a few.

Audubon outing

Walking back on the park roads that’s when the sparrow magic happened.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Not just a pile of leaves, there’s a White-Throated Sparrow in there!  There were a few hopping around and kicking leaves within the groups of Golden-Crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Success! Sometimes it helps to have more eyes and a seasoned guide to find the bird.

Oddly, on this trip I took more pictures of people than birds even though we saw more than 50 species! It was not the greatest light conditions, but with no rain AND a new sparrow? I call that a good day.

Audrey

Shillapoo-Ridgefield Trip

What. A. Day. Many highs and lows.

Highs: President’s day! A day off to go birding! It’s 60 degrees and sunny in Portland!

I decided to check out Shillapoo Wildlife Area in Washington because it’s a 2370-acre wildlife area and because it has a funny sounding name. “Silly-poo.”

I took off early for the long drive and arrived at the parking area to discover…oops, I need a Discover Pass to park. Low.

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Washington State Parks allow some free days on holidays, but President’s Day isn’t one of them. I sat in my car and debated. I got out of my car walked a little bit, felt guilty and quickly exited to hunt down a pass. I want to support the parks system, plus I want to avoid getting fined.

Since my pass-purchase-detour took me farther north, and Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge a well-known birding hotpot, was only 20 minutes even more north, I decided to go there instead. Pass in hand, I arrived to find this park doesn’t require a Discover Pass, only $3 admission, but today- free for President’s Day. Go figure. It pays to do park-fee homework before heading out.

I have mixed feelings about my Ridgefield experience. I’d only visited once before about 8 years ago, and I was reminded this time that the park requires visitors to stay in their vehicles along the 4.2 mile gravel loop from October 1 to April 30. Which is understandable to protect the migrating birds.

Next time, I’ll probably wait to visit when the park is open to foot traffic as walking is part of the fun of birding for me and there are some great trails in the area. Plus, it can be awkward driving on the roads navigating and stopping, sticking your head and camera out the windows, feeling pressure to move forward so others can drive around you to see the same birds. It felt more like a Disney ride than a nature outing.

Despite this, I still saw some cool birds:

Upon leaving Ridgefield, the sun was high in the sky well past the golden hour for birding in my mind. At 1pm the bright sun creates a back-lit sky and it’s often only possible to see silhouettes of birds, challenging for ID purposes, impossible for quality photos. But still, I’d been cooped up in the car all morning and craved a walk. And the afternoon is a good time to see raptors soaring in the sky hunting prey. So I returned to Shillapoo, since I had gone through the trouble to acquire the pass after all.

This time I confidently exited my vehicle, knowing I was legally parked. Just as I suspected though, late in the day many birds were hunkered down conserving energy and the skies were pretty quiet. I did hear the call of a bald eagle though, and saw adult and juvenile pair up in the trees.

BAEA

An appropriate sighting on President’s Day.

As the lighting conditions worsened I decided to leave and was feeling kind of bummed, since I hadn’t been able to spend time at Shillapoo in optimal conditions. Silly, I know but I had made the lengthy drive there twice. But as I was leaving something caught my eye… that’s funny, that log looks like it has cat ears…I took a closer look in the binoculars, omg the cat ears moved – THAT’S AN OWL.

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I circled around to get a better look, and found what I think is the same Great Horned Owl perched higher in the branches. It’s possible this was a second owl because I didn’t see any movement of flight from the first, but the log perch was obscured by bushes from all other angles so it’s probably the same individual just relocated.

I watched until the owl flew higher and further obscured by branches.

Now I’d seen some really cool species that day even a few new ones, but that owl made my day. It definitely made it worth visiting Shillapoo twice, and I’ll definitely make many a return visit to this wildlife area.

Thanks for reading,

Audrey