Ptarmigan again again

When I see White-tailed Ptarmigan reports on eBird I get excited about the possibilities. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker. Someone, somewhere saw this bird. Reporters even provide tips: “Listen as you look. Increase your odds.” Noted. My ears are open.

I’ve done the math. Five attempts in two years equals zero ptarmigan. Simple as that. Math says they don’t exist. But this time would be different. I had three days off, the weather looked promising, and there was a sighting only a couple of days prior. Challenge accepted.

Hello again my friend

It makes sense to start where the last bird was reported so I started in Paradise and hiked the Skyline Trail. I saw lots of Golden-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Pretty tree-toppers. And the occasional fly-by flock of Horned Lark.

When the winds picked up I noticed a pair of hawks circling above in the sky.

I originally thought Cooper’s based on size, but now I think  Sharp-shinned Hawk because of the shorter head projection beyond the wings at the bend in the wrists.

But I am open to suggestions. Either way they put on quite the show.

Then an unmistakable Prairie Falcon flew by.

Another cool sighting was a huge flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

So many that my report of at least 75 was flagged in eBird for a high number.

All this, but still no ptarmigan. Things weren’t different. No ptarm-ptarm, and too many tourists. Paradise had turned into my own personal hell and I needed a change of scenery.

A slight exaggeration

So the next day I drove an hour and a half farther north to Sunrise, the highest point in the park that can be reached by vehicle. This seemed promising. And just 20 minutes below Sunrise is White River Campground.

Risky, but worth it. Such a pretty place, and the white noise of the river next to the sites mostly drowned out noisy campers. Early morning I headed to the top.

I stopped in the visitor center to chat with a ranger about ptarmigan sightings and such, but it had been over a month since one was last reported here.

According to the trail log, I had as good a chance of seeing a ptarmigan as finding Nemo. That sounded about right. My best bet was the Fremont Lookout Trail.

I’d hate to hike this trail in the snow. So steep. I made it to the fire lookout to find a group of hikers had camped up there. So much for birds.

Mountain goats also camped nearby.

I found a Rock Wren near the top (that came up on eBird as rare for some reason).

And on the way back, pika! My favorite mammal.

Other birds I passed along the way included Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend’s Solitaire, Varied Thrush, American Pipit, Grey Jay, Common Raven.

And fat, happy squirrels were plentiful.

Golden-mantled Squirrel

On the return hike I took a detour along the Burroughs Mountain Trail where I saw a second herd of mountain goats and the most cooperative pika ever that made my day.

Though I hadn’t found ptarmigan, Sunrise felt new and refreshing.

A new perspective

Of course I was tired and sore from hiking two days, but I felt ready to tackle Paradise again. I returned to Cougar Rock Campground and hung out with Steller’s Jays until morning when it was time to give it another go. To save time I started in the dark with a headlamp. Honestly, I’ve done it so many times I could probably do it blind-folded. But then I would have smooshed the Daddy Long-legs.

I made it to Panorama Point before sunrise, and almost pooped my pants when I saw a chicken at the top. But it turned out to be a ptarmigan in a Sooty Grouse costume.

So close. I searched a little while longer before accepting my nemesis bird had gotten away again. After three days of looking, I felt I’d given it a solid effort. I’m left still excited for the possibilities.

Since returning I’ve crunched the numbers and unless I’m reading them wrong, in the past few years reports of White-tailed Ptarmigan at Mt. Rainier have gone way down. Does this mean there are fewer birds? Or fewer birders reporting them. Of course this isn’t enough data to draw any real conclusions. I’d love to see population census data from a controlled study on Mt Rainier.

Birds reported in 2013: 56 2014: 63 2015: 28 2016: 20 2017: 8

From 61 eBird reports: Most birds seen in August (80), the earliest sighting is April, latest is October, more reports from Sunrise than Paradise (36 vs 23), with a combined total of 175 birds. Best eBird photos here, here, and here. Funniest report here.

TLDR: The best bet is go to Sunrise on a Thursday in August at 10:00am, hike the Fremont Lookout trail for 5 hours and you’ll see 2.86 ptarmigan.

Brilliant. I’ll see you there.

Ptweets and chirps,

Audrey

Laughing at the Coast

Last weekend I had a roller coaster of a birding trip. But that’s to be expected when chasing rarities. There were at least seven rare birds reported near Newport (Say’s Phoebe, Solitary Sandpiper, Northern Mockingbird, Marbled Godwit, Nashville Warbler (early), Palm Warbler, and Laughing Gull). Laughing Gull?! Who brought back the Texas souvenir?

It wasn’t me. But I have missed the southern birds so I figured why not reunite with at least one? If I could find a few other rarities it would make the long drive worth it. I set off. And was almost immediately detoured by some intriguing-looking geese.

When you see a small group of geese on the side of the road you pull over. But upon closer examination, these turned out to be Domestic Geese.

According to Cornell what makes these different from Snow or Ross’s Geese: “typically domestic geese have orange bills and feet, lack the black wing feathers, and have shape differences such as heavy bottoms and an ungainly waddle.” I didn’t see their legs or their waddle, but the lack of black wing feathers was a tell-tale sign not to get excited.

With only one day to spend at the coast, I didn’t have time to stop for domestic incidentals. Eventually I made it to South Beach State Park the last reported location of the Laughing Gull where luckily I bumped into Wayne Hoffman, a local birder who pointed me in the right direction. Towards the teeny dots in the distance.

This is when it’s extra hard to stay on track and pass up views of Northern Harriers carrying nesting materials, exotic-sounding Yellow-rumped Warblers, fly-by Caspian Terns, and flocks of Savannah Sparrows among the driftwood. Stay on target.

So many pretty distractions

Three stream crossings, two miles, and two soaked feet later, a pair of birders passed me from the opposite direction carrying a scope. They gave me the thumbs up and I knew it was all okay. Not long after, the gull flew by.

Laughing Gull! Oregon’s 4th record! And this one has one leg making it extra special.

I watched for a while as it flew and hopped around the Mew Gulls, and then it ate an undetermined ocean object, before settling down at the shore with a ridiculously large crop.

I was worried about the bulge, but the gull has been reported since then, so all is well digested. I left the gull and trekked back across the streams and the two miles back to the car. Later I learned the Northern Mockingbird was located at the first stream crossing. Strike one. That’ll teach me to walk by distractions.

From here I drove the short distance to the Hatfield Marine Science Center estuary nature trail where the reported Palm Warbler has regularly wintered. This bird (which I associate most with Florida neighborhoods) was one I was most excited to see. Along the trail I passed Tree Swallows, Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned Warblers, Savannah Sparrows and the most handsome Lincoln Sparrow.

Then I spotted two birders at the bird blind. I asked if they’d happened to see a Palm Warbler. The woman exclaimed they’d just seen one! And I’d just missed it. She said “you have to see my pictures” and she “didn’t even realize what it was” and “isn’t that disgusting?” Her words, not mine. I asked which way the bird flew then politely looked at her photos.

I really wanted to be happy for her and after some snacks and time I genuinely was. Not finding the Palm Warbler was a disappointment, but I was a 5 min drive from the South Jetty where a second Palm Warbler had been seen as well as all the other rarities. But I didn’t find any of those this time either.

If the goal had been to find Golden-crowned Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, a Wrentit, gobs of Savannah Sparrows and a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage then I was highly successful.

I think the best sighting here may have been a fly-by Pigeon Guillemot.

It was getting late. But not late enough to check the estuary trail again for the warbler. I walked along the trail maybe 20 feet when I saw some fluttering by a big ugly building.

No way. There was the warbler flying around the backside of the pipes on the building. Not perched prettily on driftwood, but at least it was a science center and not Walmart?

This bird is pro-science.

So pretty! Glad I went back to check on it again. I was running short on time and I could have ended the day here, but the Salishan Nature Trail where a Nashville Warbler was sighted was mostly on the way home. Why not make a quick stop for a look?

An hour and a half of quick looking later I finally saw the Nashville, but so briefly that I didn’t even count it. I got much better looks of Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Common Yellowthroat.

And a Rufous Hummingbird!

M’lady Rufous. One of my favorites.

And just as I was leaving I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk also on a bird hunt.

I wished I had more time. Lesson learned, one day is not enough to find all the rare birds on the coast. I started the three hour drive home, and along the way, next to a field in Grand Ronde I spotted an intriguing white bird hovering over a field.

White-tailed Kite! When you see a White-tailed Kite you pull over. I’ve only seen one other WTKI in Oregon and I had to work hard for it. This one was a treat. I watched from the side of the road as it hunted.

It eventually caught a rodent and then flew off into the distance. I’d come a long way from those Domestic Geese. So many highs so many lows. Such is the case when chasing rarities. Hilariously good times!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey