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.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Shorebird Surprise

We traveled to the coast on Friday to look for a few more southbound shorebirds. At Ecola State Park near Cannon Beach, we found our first Wandering Tattler of the year working the offshore mussel beds. We did not get a photo of the tattler, but I did zoom in on Tillamook Head Lighthouse, which was looking creepy as ever.

Also in the park,  an big, peaceful elk munched on roadside elderberry leaves.


On our way south to Pacific City, we learned that two birds we'd yet to see this year, a Snowy Egret and a Stilt Sandpiper, were hanging out near Whalen Island.

We drove straight to the Island and quickly found the Snowy Egret, fishing among twenty or so Great Egrets.

We also found a small group of shorebirds, which appeared to be the ubiquitous Least Sandpipers. When we walked closer, however, we noticed that one was not like the others.

It had a drooping bill, like a Stilt Sandpiper, but, unlike a Stilt Sandpiper, it had dark legs, white wingstripes in flight, and a peachy wash on the neck and breast. After checking our field guides, we decided that it had to be a Curlew Sandpiper, a rare visitor from Eurasia!

We only managed a few photos before the phone batteries died, but we were able to spend plenty of time observing the bird before the rising tide chased us back to the car.

We returned the next day with our phones fully charged, but could not relocate the Curlew Sandpiper. Instead, we took nice pictures of some very cooperative juvenile Least Sandpipers.

 So rufous!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Nice Pecs

Last weekend we headed to the coast and the birding and air quality were so bad that we took only a single photo.
 The "view" from Cascade Head

This weekend we stuck closer to home and went looking for shorebirds at Tualatin River NWR. The nice thing about birding somewhere that isn't tidally influenced is that you can eat coffeecake for breakfast first and take your time getting there.

The ponds had much more water in them than we'd seen in recent years, but with a nice ring of mud at the edges.

We scanned the ponds, finding lots of waterfowl, phalaropes, and a few peeps, before finally setting eyes on our target bird: Pectoral Sandpiper. These shorebirds look like a bigger, chunkier Least Sandpiper, but move more like a yellowlegs, covering a lot of ground while actively feeding. They favor the drier mud up into the vegetation, which is exactly where we found this one and its buddy.

Photo taken with Celestron scope and iPhone adapter.

The refuge was surprisingly birdy for late August, and before we left we had great fly-bys from both an American Bittern and a Peregrine Falcon. As we walked the dike back to the Visitor Center, I gazed wistfully into a duckweedy canal and said to Max: "Looks a great place for a Green Heron." Then I turned to look at the other side of the canal and saw this little guy scrambling down the culvert.
                           Green Heron photo taken with iPhone

Once we got a better look, we realized this was a juvenile Green Heron, which might be why it tucked up a foot and chilled out instead of flying away. The spotting on the wings is a good fieldmark for telling the ages apart.

Green Heron photo taken with Celestron scope and iPhone adapter

You can see why I'm happier with our new photography setup every time we go out. You can even make out the duckweed on its stubby little leg! Hoping for more photos of this quality in the future.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Young birds everywhere

Last Saturday was forecast to be the coolest day in a long time, and it delivered with fresh breezes and our first chance to use the windshield wipers in months. We took advantage and headed down to check out late summer birds at a few refuges. We found a lot of young birds of all kinds.

 We brought along both our old scope and our shiny new Celestron one. (Thanks again, Celestron!) After some initial sibling rivalry, they're getting along quite well.

At Ankeny NWR, Eagle Marsh was full of Canada Geese and brown ducks. A few distant shorebirds were puttering around, but the backlighting was awful.

 Some stripy, young Pied-billed Grebes were diving in the marsh. I still get excited to have breeding grebes in northwestern Oregon, since most of them are on the east side of the state.

 This splotchy, immature Bald Eagle sat in this tree the whole time we were there, but the other birds just ignored it.

 Wood Ducks, living up to their name.

Swallows were everywhere! These young tree swallows seemed to enjoy constantly displacing each other from their perches.

We headed north to Baskett Slough in search of closer birds. Along the way we drove through rain showers and stopped in Independence, OR for snacks at the Ovenbird Bakery

Black-necked Stilts are regular breeders at Baskett Slough, and they were all over the place. This one must have a very strong core. It seemed to defy gravity on one impossibly skinny leg.

This stilt hunkered down on its ankles for awhile before lowering down to the mud for a short rest. More stilts kept flying in and riling everyone up, so no one stayed in one place for long.

The young bird party continued with a busy pair of Wilson's Phalaropes. This shot can't really capture their nonstop motion.

The last bird to show up was a little Semipalmated Plover. It posed cooperatively for a plover comparison shot with a Killdeer.

The cloudy coolness was a nice break from the broiler-like weather we've been having, but the dark skies didn't make for great phone-scope photography, at least that's my excuse. Can't wait to bring our Celestron gear out for more "fall" shorebirding.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Christmas in July

Just as Timber Press promised us, writing a book has led to some wonderful opportunities over the last couple years. We've given talks everywhere from Bellingham to Othello, and Charleston to Sisters. We went out on a day cruise as naturalists. We've used our minor celebrity to raise money for Portland Audubon and its important work. Then, a few months ago, things took an even more exciting turn. 

I sent the following (mostly joking) tweet to Celestron, not really expecting a result.Yes, that's electrical tape.
By delightful coincidence, the person in charge of the Celestron Twitter account was none other than John Riutta, fellow Oregonian and (positive) reviewer of our book for Birdwatcher's Digest. He had an idea for a partnership with Celestron, which is known for its telescopes, but makes a large range of optics. Fast forward to this week, when Max's sad binos were joined by this good-looking Granite 10x50 and a 10x42 for me. To state the obvious, these new binoculars are a huge improvement and we love them.

We also got a Regal M2 scope with an iPhone adapter that we took out into the field at our very first opportunity. So far, we like the dual focus knobs and the case that can stay on while you use it. We hope to increase the quality of our bird phone-scoping and frequency of our blogging, while showing how much wonderful birding there is to be found in this corner of the world.
And now for some birds found at Jackson Bottoms:

Long-billed Dowitchers were our first targets. So pumpkiny. All photo fuzziness is my fault, not Celestron's.

Shorebird migration season quickly approaches. We found some Least Sandpipers contemplating their handsome reflections in shallow water. You can even see the pale legs on this one.

A Greater Yellowlegs represented the large end of the shorebird spectrum.

Ah, brown duck time is here. A Cinnamon Teal family flashes tell-tale blue wing patches.

These Ospreys (baby on the right) excitedly greeted the other parent.

The only thing cooler than a Lazuli Bunting...

is a Lazuli Bunting singing with a grasshopper in its mouth.

Definitely an improvement over our previous birding and photography set up. Can't wait to get out again, especially when it isn't blazing hot.