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!