Saturday, April 30, 2016

Top Ten Highlights Since Returning to the PNW

At long, long last I am finally getting back to this blogging thing. It's been nice to take a break and not always feel the (self-imposed) pressure of cataloging my outings in written form, but I am ready to get back to it!

Though my writing has subsided for a time, my adventures have not. In fact, they've ramped up considerably. My wife and I moved from Wheaton, IL to Eugene, OR last summer. As part of that move I took a ten day cross-country birding/solo camping trip that eventually lead to my 600th ABA lifer. It was amazing, and I hope to write about it sometime this summer. In the ten months since we've been back to our native PNW I've had some truly astounding birding days already, and I'm finding that my hobby of birding is actually just nestling into wider appreciation for all things outdoors.

When we arrived last summer, I already had 251 species on my Oregon state list thanks to some trips with my dad when I was just a little guy. Great Gray Owls, Greater Sage Grouse, and Tufted Puffins were some of those lifers that irreversibly cinched my love for birding from a very young age. Now it's great to be back here, to call Lane County home, and to have the opportunity to become well acquainted with the remarkably diverse avifauna of Oregon.

With summer and a long list of places to go and things to see just around the corner, I'm figuring there will be plenty to write about, but I want to catch up, however briefly, on some of the highlights since becoming an Oregonian. Below you will find the ten experiences that stand out to me the most. They're in no particular order, but number one would be pretty tough to top. :)

1. Red-throated Pipit

It's the rarest bird I've ever found. Perhaps the rarest I'll ever find.

The day was Friday, September 11, 2015. A report of a potential rare shorebird had drawn me out to Fern Ridge to do a little looking around. I pulled off the busy Highway 126 to scope the area east of Perkins Peninsula, and while the shorebird turned out to be a false alarm, the stop was not all in vain because that's where I met John Sullivan for the first time. We chatted for a bit then decided to head over to the Royal Avenue area.

We arrived and walked west from the parking lot, then north onto the dried out mudflat that eventually led to some shorebird habitat. The shorebird numbers were down, and the ground was crawling instead with pipits. We started scoping through the flock hoping for something rare, when I admitted to John, "I have not brushed up on my rare pipits lately." "Just look for a streaked back," he replied. This jogged my memory and all of a sudden I was on the alert.

We hadn't been scouring the flock for more than a minute when I came across a bird that struck me as different. Along with its noticeably streaked back, it also had an orange-red wash on its throat. I got John on the bird and excitement began to build. We scrambled to get identifiable photos, which turned out to be quite the struggle in the hazy and monochromatic conditions.

The photos aren't great, but they sufficiently display the diagnostic features of the bird. Red-throated Pipit. The first ever record for Lane County, and only the fourth for Oregon. What a bird.

Red-throated Pipit
Royal Ave, FRR, Lane Co, OR
September 11, 2015

2. Spring Weekend in Bend

Some of these highlights have to come in bunches, otherwise this post would be impossibly long. A huge perk of moving to Eugene is that one of my best friends from undergrad and grad school is living just over the cascades in the delightful town of Bend. I've had a few opportunities to visit, and this last time included some outstanding birds.

I had my first chance to see "Northern" Spotted Owls thanks to a couple surveyors who kindly took us to see them. Getting to watch and listen to this pair interact is an experience I'll never forget. The views couldn't have been better.

Spotted Owls
April 22, 2016

And the next day I got to relive some of the birding wonders that had gotten me hooked more than twenty years ago. At dawn I headed out to Millican for some really enjoyable high desert birding, the main attraction being a lek of displaying Greater Sage Grouse!

Greater Sage Grouse
Deschutes Co, Oregon
April 23, 2016

That afternoon I headed home to Eugene and made a stop by Sunriver on the way. It wasn't the right time of the day, but I couldn't pass up the chance to look for a couple Great Gray Owls in the area. Jeff Harding had given me some information on where he had them a couple weeks prior, so I decided to do a thorough check then be on my way.

The initial meadow I came across had no owl activity, but felt remarkably similar to the habitats in which I had seen Great Grays before. This gave me a little hope that I may be able to scrounge one up after all.

About twenty minutes in to my search I was walking across a new meadow, pursuing a chattery bunch of passerines, when a Great Gray flushed from about thirty yards in from of me! It headed off into the woods away from me and I tried to follow it but quickly lost it, amazed that the largest owl in North America could utterly disappear before my very eyes.

I thoroughly canvased the area in the direction the owl flew, but came up empty. I was bummed that I hadn't managed a photo, but content to have at least seen the bird for the first time in a long while.

I decided to go check the other end of this massive meadow before heading out, and just before I turned towards the trail to go back to my car, a light blemish in a sea of conifers caught my eye. I put up my binoculars and was astounded to find a Great Gray sitting atop a pine, regal as a king on his throne! I got to enjoy the bird for a few minutes before, just like the other, it disappeared into the forest. Paired with the Sage Grouse from earlier in the day, and the memories of these two species from my childhood, it was one of the richest birding moments I've ever had.

Great Gray Owl
Deschutes Co, Oregon
April 23, 2016

3. Great Shearwater

We're Oregon residents now, but with both of our families living in Washington we make it back up there fairly regularly—and far more frequently now the the trip takes just a drive and a tank of gas rather than a flight and the bulk of our savings account. So last summer I got to meet up with my parents at the coast on my birthday weekend. I had asked for a pelagic for my birthday and I was thrilled to get my first chance to bird out on the open ocean. The trip out of Westport, Washington was remarkable, and a day of lifers was topped off by the Atlantic vagrant found by Chris Warlow, the Great Shearwater!

(with Sooty Shearwater)

(with California Gull)

Great Shearwater
Offshore Waters, Grays Harbor Co, WA
August 15, 2015

4. White-tailed Ptarmigan

With the other side of the family over Labor Day weekend, my father-in-law and I did a hike out of Artist Point up to Ptarmigan Ridge. I was mainly in it for the scenery, but of course I had three target birds in the back of my mind as we went along. About five minutes into the hike a pair of Sooty Grouse passed just below us, my first time seeing them in many years. At the top I had a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, which completed my Rosy Finch slam for 2015 (I had my lifer Black and Brown-capped on my drive out that summer), a pretty cool feat to accomplish over the course of the summer rather than at a backyard feeding station in the winter.

And in between those two targets, I had the utter delight of my 322nd Washington State bird, this incredibly confiding White-tailed Ptarmigan!

White-tailed Ptarmigan
Whatcom Co, WA
September 5, 2015

5. Mountain Quail

I knew that Mountain Quail were regular residents in Oregon, but I never imagined that I would find a whole family the first time I went looking for them! This was a thrilling lifer for me to pick up shortly after moving here.

Mountain Quail
Mary's Peak, Benton Co, OR
August 10, 2015

6. Lincoln Co Day

Back to the bunches. On October 27, I had the chance to chase the rarities that had piled up in Lincoln County, and went three for three!

There was an odd, widespread of dispersal of Common Ground Doves last fall, and this was one of them:

Common Ground Dove
Yachats, Lincoln Co, OR
October 27, 2015

And this Brown Booby in Newport was a lifer for me!

Brown Booby
Newport, Lincoln Co, OR
October 27, 2015

The familiar call of this Great-crested Flycatcher made me feel like I was right back in Illinois for a moment, though the coastal views preceding and mountain views following this particular Oregon lifer jostled me out of that thought rather seamlessly. Great bird for the Oregon list!

Great-crested Flycatcher
Thornton Creek, Lincoln Co, OR
October 27, 2015

7. Tillamook Co Day

About a month later I had a similar day as I chased some rarities to the north. Again, these were familiar Illinois birds for me, and quite the delight to add to my Oregon list! The first two are far rarer for Oregon.

Cattle Egret
Tillamook Co, OR
November 23, 2015

Bayocean Dike Rd., Tillamook Co, OR
November 23, 2015

And it turns out these guys winter out here in small numbers:

Palm Warbler
Bayocean Dike Rd., Tillamook Co, OR
November 23, 2015

8. Rockpipers and Other Great Shorebirds

Rockpipers. Shorebirds on the rocks, basically. And they're one of the coolest parts of birding along the coast.

Rock Sandpiper
Seal Rock, Lincoln Co, OR
January 15, 2016

Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and Rock Sandpiper
Seal Rock, Lincoln Co, OR
January 15, 2016

Surfbird and Black Turnstone
Newport, Lincoln Co, OR
January 11, 2015

Surfbird and Black Turnstone
Yachats State Park, Lincoln Co, OR
October 27, 2015

Black Oystercatcher
Boiler Bay, Lincoln Co, OR
August 13, 2015

Wandering Tattler
Newport, Lincoln Co, OR
September 25, 2015

And there have been a couple other shorebird treats since moving here, too! Here is my lifer Ruff!


Ankeny NWR, Marion Co OR
November 9, 2015

By the end of 2015, I had picked up 39 new Oregon lifers, six of which were ABA lifers, bringing my Oregon list to 290 and ABA list to 610. My first new Oregon lifer of 2016 was this long, long staying Mountain Plover!

Mountain Plover
South Beach, Lincoln Co, OR
January 15, 2016

9. Breeching Humpbacks From Shore, and Marine Wildlife in General

Over the course of the fall John Sullivan and I made a handful of trips to the coast for some seawatching and had some truly amazing occurrences. In addition to seeing Pink-footed Shearwaters, Red Phalaropes, and a host of other enjoyable seabirds from the shore, we were met one morning in early November by a truly breathtaking spectacle. A group of Humpback Whales were moving through the area, and on several occasions we got to see them breech! Further out, and impossible to photograph, there was a large group of Pacific White-sided Dolphins, too!

Humpback Whales
Siltcoos River Estuary, Lane Co, OR
November 6, 2015

That same day we headed down to Cape Arago where we had this Gray Whale:

Gray Whale
Cape Arago, Coos Co, OR
November 6, 2015

In addition to the birds, Cape Arago boasts an impressive four species of pinnipeds: Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions, Northern Sea Lions, and best of all, Elephant Seals!

Elephant Seal
Cape Arago, Coos Co, OR
November 27, 2015

Northern Sea Lion
Cape Arago, Coos, Co, OR
November 6, 2015

I love the personality these guys have:

California Sea Lions
Cape Arago, Coos Co, OR
November 6, 2015

California Sea Lions
Westport, Grays Harbor Co, WA
August 15, 2015

California Sea Lions
Heceta Head, Lane Co, OR
September 18, 2015

10. Waterfalls, and Scenery in General

It's hard to believe it was a year ago that Jen and I were living in Wheaton and in the job search process. We had no idea what we would be doing, we only knew that no matter what, we'd be moving back to the PNW. In addition to our proximity to family and the slower pace of life, here's why:

Shellburg Falls

Proxy Falls

Lane County Coast

Sparks Lake

South Sister

Broken Top

Salt Creek Falls

Cape Perpetua

Sweet Creek Falls

Spencer's Butte

Sahalie Falls

Mt. Hood from the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival

So, yeah, we love it out here. My bucket list for 2016 is already long and growing by the day, so hopefully the blog posts will be following.

Thanks for reading!