Sunday, January 24, 2016

Birding our public lands




 
 If there’s one thing we’ve learned this month, it’s that we can’t take our public lands for granted. Several national wildlife refuges are a quick drive from our home in Portland and we find something unexpected and unforgettable every time we visit one.










 During each visit, we can bird by car, scope birds from one spot for hours, or hike several miles. Our refuges help us stay sane when life does its best to make us crazy. 





We gave ourselves some much-needed Refuge Therapy this weekend, starting with a trip to Tualatin River.

We came to see a lone Ross’s Goose and, as usual, found much more.


Many of the refuge units were flooded, to the delight of thousands of ducks and geese.
 

Up on a dike, a coyote snacked on a vole and chased some geese. While watching all the birds and mammals, we chatted with birding friends and absorbed a rare dose of sunshine.

The next morning we met with Nick and Maureen in Salem and drove to nearby Baskett Slough. 

Again, the water was high and waterfowl were everywhere.


We cruised the roads along the north edge of the refuge and found some Killer Birds: Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, a Rough-legged Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrels, a Prairie Falcon, and a Northern Shrike. They were too far for decent photos but perched nicely for us to watch as long as we liked. 

If you're a fan of public lands (and we know you are), tell your friends, tell your senators and representatives, and thank those who work for the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies.

Stay tuned for more public land adventures!


Friday, January 15, 2016

In Hot Pursuit

"Chasing" birds doesn't involve running across a field, binoculars bouncing, in search of some feathered prize. At least most of the time. Chasing is what birders call the birding trips we take that are focused on seeing a rare bird that someone else has already spotted and publicized the location of. Detractors say that it's a waste of gas and no fun. You should go out and find your own birds every time. Enthusiasts say that we can find more birds together than we ever could on our own, so why not share the wealth and see something special? I fall into the latter camp. Being the 53rd person to see an individual Snowy Egret doesn't take away anything from its awesomeness in my eyes. The few times that I've found my own rare bird, the stress of documenting it took some of the fun out of it, anyway. There's also the communal aspect of helping others (and being helped) to re-find a bird.  Discoveries of the rarest birds end up being impromptu reunions of all the local birders that you haven't seen since the last rarity.

These are the ups and downs of chasing, illustrated by the birds that Max and I chased in 2015.

Black-headed Gull, Umatilla Co.
Downside: Took hours to find. Only got a brief look before it flew to an inaccessible field. No pics.
Upside: We were already "in the area" on our way to Wallowa Co. Life bird for both of us.

Burrowing Owl, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Dog freaked out about being left in car. Made a break for it across the parking lot.
Upside: Found the bird quickly after getting pointers from friendly Yaquina Head Visitor Center staff. Bird was super chill and looked quite at home. Owls always make my day.

Pine Grosbeaks, Linn Co.
Downside: Spent hours hiking and listening VERY carefully, found zero grosbeaks. Other people found them right by the parking lot. Nemesis bird for me.
Upside: Gorgeous day in the Cascades. Found a Mountain Bluebird. Went to Bend afterward, where breweries abound.

Blue-winged Teal, Clackamas Co.
Downside: Took us two trips to Clackamas Co. to find him.
Upside: Blue-winged Teals are gorgeous! Saw three teal species at once. Brown's Ferry Park is so cool we later led a bird walk there. County listing.

Blue Grosbeak, Washington Co.
Downside: Almost too easy. So dumb it repeatedly had near misses with cars. Didn't stick around (survive?) for our Birdathon a week later.
Upside: Saw it from the car before we even parked. So blue!

Hudsonian Godwit, Marion Co.
Downside: A little far away out in the wetland. No chance to gaze into its eyes.
Upside: Got to rendezvous with our buddies, the Hipster Birders. Saw cool godwit foraging behavior.

Solitary Sandpiper, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Got shut out for the year after missing this one in Rockaway. The festival going on at the time probably kept it away from the small pond just off the main drag where everyone else had seen it.
Upside: No such thing as a bad trip to the coast.

Elegant Terns, Clatsop Co.
Downside: People that let their dogs chase wildlife on the beach.
Upside: Their beaks are so weird and wonderful! Also saw thousands of Sooty Shearwaters streaming by Seaside Cove.

Snowy Egret, Tillamook, Co.
Downside: Not really. Left Seaside in a hurry after hearing about it while watching the terns.
Upside: Found at Whalen Island with a bunch of Great Egrets. The yellow feet!

Stilt/Curlew Sandpiper, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Heard that a Stilt Sandpiper had been seen near the Snowy Egret. Didn't find it. Phone died as I was trying to phonescope what we did find...
Upside: Found a Curlew Sandpiper instead!! Rare as hell but hanging out with a bunch of Least Sandpipers right in front of us.

Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Clatsop Co.
Downside: No. Joyous from start to finish.
Upside: Life bird for both of us. The pair hung out close to the trail so we got to watch them forage for quite awhile. So easy to see, even our dog put these on her list. It was hard to leave. Finally got to visit the mitigation wetlands that we had heard so much about. Reason to go to Astoria.

Tropical Kingbird, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Dog whimpered the whole time. Hates flycatchers.
Upside: A rare bird alert nearby when we are already out birding? Yes, please. A flycatcher that looks like an adorable cartoon character? Even better.

Common Ground-Dove, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Kind of a long drive, I guess.
Upside: This is a dove that is tiny and pink. Need I say more? Had a very fun day, including seeing a Clay-colored Sparrow that other birders had found while checking out the dove. We love any excuse to stay in Yachats and visit our favorite breakfast spot and favorite farmstore/brewery.

Brown Booby, Lincoln Co.
Downside: Saw better views of one last year in this exact spot in Yaquina Bay.
Upside: On our way home from the Ground-Dove. Boobies are so goofy/graceful.

Mountain Chickadee and Pygmy Nuthatch, Multnomah Co.
Downside: Found in our neighborhood park, but not by us.
Upside: Got to see them on the way to work one day. New for western Oregon. Stuck around for awhile.

Dickcissel, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Torrential rain while searching. Duck hunting day on Meares Lake. Brief looks at this cool bird.
Upside: Exciting life bird for us. Kind stranger pointed it out to us when we were getting discouraged. Bonus Northern Mockingbird to enjoy while we searched.

Cattle Egret, Tillamook Co.
Downside: Couldn't find the damn thing after driving every farm road in the area. It was found later that day by others. Ended the year of chasing on a low note.
Upside: Got to watch White-tailed Kites eat a snack.

And now to end this post the way we ended many of our bird chases: with a beer.

Places we drank beer after chasing birds: Embers in Joseph, Worthy Brewing in Bend, Seven Brides Brewing in Silverton, Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Yachats Farmstore/Brewery in Yachats, Pelican Brewery in Tillamook.







Thursday, January 7, 2016

Beach birding bonuses

December was an extremely slow month of birding for us, so we couldn't wait to get out for a three-day New Year's Weekend at the coast. The weather was nearly perfect on the first two days of the year, so we got to spend some quality time with the birds.

We scoped some Surfbirds at the north jetty of Tillamook Bay,

found a harlequin duck upstream near the Three Graces,

and sneaked up on a female Kestrel at Nehalem Sewage Ponds.

While walking the beach at Manzanita, we found an interesting character in the driftwood.

It was a big, pale first-winter Glaucous Gull, feasting on a dead seal. 

After filling its belly with seal meat, the gull flew down to the surf to wash up, and then stood on the beach, ready to chase away any other birds that showed interest in the carcass. Apparently this species doesn't share.

We'd planned to go Newport on the 3rd to look for the Mountain Plover that's hanging out with Snowy Plovers, but found ourselves iced-in at Pacific City. We learned that Portland was still encased in ice, so we had to spend an extra day at the coast. The roads thawed overnight, so on the 4th we had no problem getting to Newport and finding the plovers.

 The Mountain Plover pecked at things in the sand while showing off its lovely toasted marshmallow color and plush tummy. Watching it explore the wrack line was definitely more fun than going to work.

Next, we looked for an apparent Orchard Oriole at the Hatfield Science Center. Again we had no problem finding our bird. At least its tail-end.

And its head-end too.
There's some debate, however, about whether this is an Orchard Oriole, a Bullock's Oriole, or a hybrid.  For now we're remembering it as a sharp-looking youngster that we enjoyed watching.

The last bird that we'd hoped to see was a Long-tailed Duck at the south jetty of Yaquina Bay. Again, we found it easily. But getting it in the scope was tricky because it kept diving on us.

It eventually surfaced long enough for a photo.
 

 Behind us, a Western Meadowlark kept a wary eye on a marauding harrier.
 
We saw some great bird behavior and have already found several species that we missed in 2015, so the weekend was the perfect antidote to the long dark December we endured. Wishing all of you you a very happy and birdy New Year!























Thursday, November 12, 2015

The last counties

Up until last weekend, Sarah and I had birded all but three Oregon counties together.

 

We'd planned a trip in June to visit the last three counties in the southeastern corner of the state, but weather and other logistics kept us home. We finally had an opportunity to take some time off and make the big drive last Friday. Here are some highlights of our tri-county quest.

 

Grant County

Our plan was to leave Portland Friday morning and make our way to Grant County, bird a while, and then head south to Burns where we would spend the night. We made several stops along the way, which of course took longer than expected, and did not arrive in Grant until sunset. This was our only chance to get at least one bird in the county, so we were afraid we might miss out. We drove through the Silvies Valley, which was very quiet. As our anxiety grew, we spotted something on a utility pole. 

We've never been so exited to see a Red-Tailed Hawk!

We also stopped at an old school house and spotted a Northern Harrier hunting among a herd of cattle.


Just down the road, we found a small flock of Mallards feeding in a flooded field.


Three species in Grant county and a jaw-dropping sunset. We'll take it!

Harney County

We woke Saturday Morning and drove south from Burns to bird a very dry Harney County.


Harney Lake and other water bodies are on hiatus this year, but we managed to find some waterfowl here and there.

Raptors were plentiful, however, including a Prairie Falcon terrorizing the local songbirds,


and several Ferruginous Hawks looking sharp on power poles and sprinkler structures.



We had some memorable mammal encounters too. This mule deer buck was steeped in rutting hormones and staring us down. We gave him plenty of personal space.


Malheur County

On Sunday we visited the last county on our list, Malheur (not to be confused with the wildlife refuge). It's the big one in the corner of the state.


As soon as we crossed into the county, we were greeted by hundreds of American Robins, who, along with Townsend's Solitaires, were feasting on a bumper crop of western juniper berries.

 

At an old ranch house, a Merlin and a Sharp-shinned Hawk fought for the right to perch in the poplars.


We eventually made it to our main destination, Beulah Reservoir.


We scoped the water and found it covered with waterfowl.


In addition to ducks and geese, we saw several rafts of Tundra Swans.


We returned to our home base of Burns with a respectable number of species from Malheur County.

It was hard to return to Portland after such a great long weekend adventure. We look forward to returning to the area in the spring or summer when the days will be longer, the temperatures warmer, and the birds a little more abundant. We didn't miss the mosquitoes, though.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Astoria escape

Last week we really needed to get out of the house and go birding, but we couldn't decide on a direction to take. We received some inspiration on Tuesday, when two Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were spotted in Astoria. When Thursday produced more sightings and striking photos, we starting packing to go look for these occasional Eurasian vagrants. In the morning we realized we were driving into a gamble because a rain storm was approaching. We've driven to the coast and missed our target species while being unhappily drenched on several occasions. 

The gamble paid off! Not only did we easily find the birds we were looking for, but it stayed dry in Astoria while it rained in Portland much of the day.

The sharp-taileds were feeding among several dowitchers and snipes in the Astoria Mitigation Bank Wetlands. They took flight when the occasional harrier cruised by, but we could always find at least one to admire.


If more shorebirds were as colorful and cooperative as this pair of youngsters, the family would have a much better reputation among novice birders. 

After viewing the shorebirds, we birded Wireless Road, which had a Stunning Red-Shouldered Hawk that was unfortunately un-photographed.  We also saw smaller birds flitting around the farm equipment.
 
 Can you spot the bird?

We visited the Hammond Boat Basin too. One of the pelicans there did not look like the others. Though it seems weird to see a White Pelican at the coast, they are regulars just up the Columbia. Heermann's Gulls were also present in big numbers with their pelican "buddies."
We celebrated our finds, as usual, at Fort George Brewing, and then ended the day with a walk on the beach at Seaside. It may look like the forest was burning on Tillamook Head, but it was just a roiling fog bank.

There's no such thing as a bad trip to Astoria, but this was an especially rewarding one: life bird, fresh hop beer, and a sleepy dog too.