Summer’s almost here. Even though we turned on the heat in the house yesterday, it’s really June. Spring migration is winding down and I miss the warblers already. But there’s still plenty to keep oneself occupied. This past weekend I thought I’d try my luck looking for what would be a lifer Grasshopper Sparrow reported at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge.
I’ve not spent a lot of time at this refuge since it’s a bit of a drive from Portland (1.5hr), but there’s plenty to find here (especially in spring). There are trails to hike, but I’m still recovering from ankle surgery. Thankfully much of the refuge can be seen from car pullouts along the road. I parked and immediately heard Purple Finch.
And a little farther down, I saw a flashy buzzing Rufous Hummingbird.
Then I heard a likely candidate for the Grasshopper Sparrow. I listened intently. I recorded the audio and I thought about it. I listened back and doubt crept in. Quickly I felt underqualified at identifying a GRSP song. Sarah had suggested practicing by comparing the song with Savannah Sparrow that is way more common and has a similar sounding song. I listened a bit and convinced myself that this one was definitely a Savannah.
Moving onward. I drove around the corner of a butte and listened further.
I heard more Savannah, a few quick notes, thin buzzy middle, and ending with a quick lower trill. It’s that ending note that Grasshopper Sparrows lack. Instead they have two staccato notes, followed by a thin “insect-like” buzz. It’s subtle.
Then in the dewy distance, I saw it!
The best way to confirm a Grasshopper Sparrow singing is to see it. Which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Since they’re usually in the grass, there are few perches. But this one cooperated nicely.
Then the damn thing flew even closer.
I think my heart stopped. It sang and picked some things (insects? seeds?) off the Cow Vetch flowers before dashing back down into the grass. Such a great lifebird (#479).
Giddy, I then drove the short distance to “the narrows” a good spot to see waterbirds. Someone usually puts some seeds out for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds and ducks and this was the case today.
Baskett Slough is a good place to see Black-necked Stilts.
They even nest here.
There were a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes flying by.
And I had a teal slam, seeing Cinnamon, Green-winged, and this Blue-winged Teal.
There had been a Whimbrel reported the week prior, which is rare for the area and would be cool to see. I wasn’t as lucky, the best shorebird I could pull off was this super distant Dunlin.
Closer and more vocal was this Wilson’s Snipe, calling “chip-chip-chip-chip-chip!”
Another fun sighting was this American Bittern, hunting out in the open.
It was turning out to be quite the morning. The icing on the cake was seeing four Virginia Rails hopping through the grass, and one that sat out in the sun preening.
It doesn’t get much better than that. I was glad I’d arrived early. I saw all the birds I’d hoped for and made it out before the huge rainstorm moved in.
Tomas worked hard chainsawing through trees and brushwhacking trail obstacles, while I binged on birds for five days. This was Lake County which I hadn’t visited since a Cabin Lake trip in 2016. I saw 145 species this trip, 102 new county birds, and one state bird. But first, I had to get out of the forest.
After dropping Tomas off, I spent three hours traveling the 24 miles down to the valley picking up Lewis’s Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Clark’s Nutcracker.
I saw a Pinyon Jay interested in the juniper berries.
And a few migrating visitors included Lazuli Bunting.
In one patch of pines I saw Townsend’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Cassin’s Vireo, and a singing Western Tanager.
There were Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finch, Chipping Sparrow, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, and a fun favorite, Green-tailed Towhee.
Sparrows included Brewer’s Sparrow, Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored), and I even found a nice looking Lark Sparrow.
Flycatchers were singing loudly (thankfully), Olive-sided (quick-three-beers!), Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky, and I think the best sighting was this Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Eventually I made it down to the wildlife refuge. But then I had to pick up a parking pass from the gas station, which unfortunately only takes cash. Pro-tip, bring enough cash! I had to dive 40 minutes south to Paisley to the nearest ATM to pull out enough to cover for an annual pass.
While in Paisley, I figured it was worth checking out Lover’s Lane, an eBird hotspot I’d noticed had some target birds I was hoping for. This turned out to be an excellent decision.
Lovers on Lover’s Lane
I started down the farm road and immediately stopped for this adorable baby Killdeer.
It bobbed its head and squatted down looking just like a rock. Of course the parents were shrieking nearby, so I did not stay long. The pastures next to the road were flooded creating huge puddles, but since it was a hot day, the birds were totally into it.
Not far along, a freakin Wilson’s Phalarope decided to land in a puddle right next to the car, then it fed and bathed right next to me.
It was like a dream. The dream continued when I noticed a shorebird in the road up ahead. I got closer, but it flew into a field.
It’s a Willet! A state bird! I was so excited to find it, since I’ve only seen them on the coast, and mostly in Florida. They breed here in the desert in this small part of Oregon during spring and summer. It flew over the road then landed on the other side to hang out with a Black-necked Stilt.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I heard “CurLI, CurLI, CurLI” from a Long-billed Curlew in the same field.
The Wilson’s Snipe and I couldn’t believe our eyes.
Neither could the Sandhill Cranes.
Yep, they were there too. It was the best kind of party, everyone’s invited. Eventually I made it to the end of the road and about died with happy when I saw another target I’d hoped for, a Black Tern.
I thought the road might end at a water feature, but it was just flooded farmland, and the terns seemed okay with that.
I’ve only seen Black Terns one other time at Perkins Peninsula Park in Eugene and the looks were bad enough that I didn’t write about it. But here I could soak it in, it was the best I could hope for.
Smitten with Lover’s Lane I backtracked to HWY 31 and made my way back to Summer Lake where I could buy a parking pass and finally explore the wildlife refuge.
Welcome to Summer Lake, I hope you enjoy your stay.
For a second year I joined Portland Audubon’s Birdathon, touted as the “biggest baddest birdathon this side of the Mississippi.” And for a second year I was thrilled to be a part of the Put an Owl on It team.
Last year’s trip was one of the best birding days of my life – 5 owl species in one day!! This year’s agenda expanded to eastern Oregon for a two-day Blue Mountain adventure with the hopes of seeing Great Gray Owls.
Spoiler alert- we found them.
I went into the trip with 299 life birds. How cool would it be to have the Great Gray as the 300th bird? That didn’t happen, but Bank Swallows are pretty cool too. Lucky #300!! Sadly, no pictures because the van flushed two nicely perched swallows on a fence as soon as we drove near. Van-birding can be quite a challenge.
While exploring country roads in Umatilla county, we also flushed lifer #301, this Chukar fleeing for its life.
Fastest mother Chukar in the west
It’s all worth it though when you climb out out of the van and meet a pair of Great Horned Owls fledglings.
Or a family of Barn Owls smooshed in a natural cliff wall cavity.
And it’s especially worth it to see a Burrowing Owl perched atop sagebrush in the Oregon desert.
It was incredibly hot that weekend, nearing (if not over) 100 degrees. Some birds like this Sage Thrasher panted to stay cool.
Even Common Nighthawks panted.
That is one hot bird. Seeing a Common Nighthawk perched on a fence has been on my birding bucket list since the moment I found out they do this. We found two. Success! And two vans with 19+ people managed not to flush them. It was that damn hot.
Birder dreams do come true
It cooled down some once we gained elevation making our way into the pine forests of the Blue Mountains.
And here in this forest is where we met the family. Mom and her three owlets.
It was so special sharing forest space with these owls. They were incredibly chill. We sat down on the grass and pine needles under trees nearby, relaxed, chatted and ate snacks, while watching the fledglings stretch their wings and walk awkwardly along the branches.
And if owl entertainment wasn’t enough, there were active nesting holes visible on site with Pygmy Nuthatches, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and Williamson’s Sapsucker (another lifer!).
And songs of Western Tanager, Cassin’s Finch, House Wren, Western Wood-Pewee (PEEEeeeeer), and a new flycatcher for me, Hammond’s Flycatcher (ChiBik).
As soon as the sun lowered, Great Gray fledgling activity picked up, the owlets begged noisily for food.
The skies darkened and mom obliged, swooping over the fields to hunt. We enjoyed watching the owl show until the sun disappeared and the bats came out.
Before exiting the park, we piled out of the vans in the dark one last time to listen for other potential owl species. While waiting, we occupied time peering at Jupiter’s moons through the spotting scopes, and just before calling it a night, an adult Great Grey Owl flew over our heads towards an area of the forest with at least one owlet calling! There’s nothing like an unexpected owl surprise to liven things up. We rode the owl high all the way back to the hotel in La Grande.
From darkness to early morning light, a handful of birders opted for an early-morning Bobolink side trip.
In a distant farm field we observed several pairs of Bobolinks chase each other up, over, and into the grasses while chattering their buzzy metalic song that sounds like a broken R2-D2. A bit far for decent photos, but here’s an identifiable pic of one on a fence post.
After, we reunited with the rest of the group and the sightings continued: Eastern Kingbirds, California Quail, Loggerhead Shrike, Black-billed Magpie, and Long-billed Curlew, to name a few.
At Catherine Creek State Park, we introduced ourselves to a generous couple camping with a hummingbird feeder at their site. Thanks to them, we got good looks at Black-chinned and Calliope Hummingbirds.
Female black-chinned wagged her tail while feeding
This was only my second time seeing a Black-chinned Hummingbird (the first was just a week prior at Painted Hills), and it was my first encounter with Calliope Humminbgird. They’re so pretty and so tiny!
There was another new surprise in the brushy thickets at this park, a small thrush called a Veery. Too bad I didn’t get a visual on this shy cinnamon-colored thrush, but I heard its song and call and that was pretty satisfying. Some nineteenth-century observers described the Veery’s song as “an inexpressibly delicate metallic utterance…accompanied by a fine trill which renders it truly seductive.” Yep, I was totally seduced.
One of our last stops was at Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area where we saw Gadwall, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, and yet another new species, a shorebird called Wilson’s Phalarope.
At the marsh, there were also a pair of nesting Swainson’s Hawks, both Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Red-winged blackbirds (chasing an American Bittern), Black-crowned Night Heron, Ring-necked Pheasant, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and Northern Harriers. To name a few.
On the way back to Portland, we pulled off the side of the highway to bird a pond next to some railroad tracks. We joked about the safety and legality of this birding spot.
Then we turned around to see a law enforcement vehicle stopped at the road with lights flashing. Busted birders.
Walk of shame
Turns out the officer had just thoughtfully stopped traffic for us to cross the road without incident. Whew! It was totally worth almost getting arrested to catch a glimpse of American White Pelican, Black-necked Stilt (!), teals, and nesting American Avocets.
It was all worth it. In two days, the team saw a total of 127 species, including 4 owl species (and I saw 10 new-to-me species), and we raised over $14,000. We saw 11 Great Horned Owls, 3 Barn Owls, 1 Burrowing Owl, and encountered 6 Great Grey Owls! I think that’s what they call “putting an owl on it.”
I had a blast reuniting with team members from last year and making new friends this time around. Thanks to the trip leaders Scott Carpenter, Rhett Wilkins, Joe Liebezeit, and Mary Coolidge, you all rock. And of course, many thanks to my donors for making my fundraising such a success. I raised over a thousand dollars contributing to Portland Audubon’s $170,000+ for conservation. Thanks to all involved helping such a great cause!