Friday, April 30, 2021

March-April Recap

March and April are markedly different birding months, but the two shared one common feature this year: they both flew by in what felt like a matter of seconds! I meant to blog more through my various outings and trips, but life filled up and before I knew it I was always off on my next excursion before I could write about the previous one. It's a wonderful problem to have.

March can be deceptively slow. Winter lightly loosens its grip, and some birds begin to file out as they head north, but precious few trickle in to replace them. For birders who are active in January and February, the year bird opportunities can feel quite slim while waiting for new avian friends to get here. There is, of course, a solution to this slower pace: don't wait for the birds to get to you, go to them.

This strategy panned out quite nicely. Of course March began on exciting note with Caleb and Courtney's state first Winter Wren. A few days later, a trip two months in the making came to fruition. Chris Hinkle, Torrey Gage-Tomlinson, Nolan Clements, and I met up in Bend for an unforgettable adventure. Thankfully, just days before our trip a Common Grackle showed up in Sunriver, so before the evening's main festivities we stopped by to pick up this bird that is considered trash in much of the country. It gave each of us a new bird for our Oregon lists, and a big boost of momentum to start the trip.

Common Grackle
Not a Bald Eagle
We actually fielded questions from multiple Sunriver residents who assumed we were looking at an eagle. No. Grackle.

After that we fueled up with some Subway (still my only Subway sub of the year, putting me woefully behind Russ's 2011 pace) and headed straight to the Dutchman Flat Sno Park. Our target bird for the evening was Boreal Owl, arguably the most difficult breeding species in Oregon to find. We did not get an owl, but it wasn't for a lack of effort.

We took off at sundown and cross-country skied into the dark. We climbed from 6,350 ft to over 7,000 mostly on snow mobile trails, covering 11-12 miles in all, stopping to listen for the owls 15-20 times. The late evening sky was beautiful, and for a while it was clear enough for us to see the stars. Some clouds set in and we encountered snow flurries a handful of times. Once we got up above 7,000 feet the temperature dropped and the wind picked up significantly, creating some rather chilly conditions and, more annoyingly, making it difficult to hear. We all agreed that the birds should have respected our efforts and decided to show, but alas, that’s not how birding works.

I’d spent a total of one hour on xc skis before this night, so this was a wild way to experience my first legit ski trip. The first couple downhill portions in the dark were probably my favorite part of the whole night. That, and finally returning to the car a little after 1 am.

The Crew

After that weekend it took 13 days to get my next new bird for the year, but it was a doozy. Nolan and I hopped on a fishing boat in Newport that went a couple miles offshore in hopes of seeing something out of the ordinary. In the first hour in offshore waters alcid activity was light, but as it began to pickup we were on alert. We both got on a stocky auklet flying right to left across the bow and watched it closely for a few seconds: a fraction of the size of the murres that had just flown by at the same distance from the both, stark plumage that was dark above and light below, with a short and stubby bill. There's one bird that properly fits that explanation: PARAKEET AUKLET! This was a lifer for both of us, and the general paucity of birds for the next four hours left us completely unfazed. We were ecstatic that our out-of-the-ordinary effort provided an extraordinary result. I didn't have my camera out at the time the bird flew by unfortunately, but I'm actually glad that I was able to simply focus on identifying the bird rather than fumbling to get a photo that likely wouldn't have turned out well anyway.

The next weekend Andrew and I met up with Nolan for a mad tear through northeast Oregon. We made another unsuccessful effort for Boreal Owl, this time a four mile night hike on the snow up at Anthony Lakes. We found something perhaps a little rarer than a Boreal Owl, actually: perfect silence. Untainted quiet. It was as jarring as it was refreshing, and it's just another one of those experiences that continues with me to this present moment.

The following morning we were off to one of Oregon's finest spectacles: displaying Greater Sage-Grouse on a lek. This was Andrew's lifer. I'm pretty sure that the sight of a dance floor full of these bizarre little dinosaurs left me just as delighted as the first time I saw them some 27 years ago. What a special bird, sadly just barely hanging on by a thread:

Greater Sage-Grouse

A rarer grouse drew us to Wallowa the next morning. Our time up McCully Creek will undoubtedly go down as one of the most memorable birding hikes of my life. The road was closed off about a mile before the trailhead, so we walked up on the snow, then made it up the trail another mile and a half or so. At the moment we were about to turn around, some light tapping came from a group of lodgepoles up slope from the trail. A valiant effort from Nolan confirmed our suspicions: an American Three-toed Woodpecker! According to eBird, this is the first March record for Wallowa County! That's not terribly surprising, as all three of us wound up chest deep in snow over the next hour as we tried to track down the elusive pecker. In the midst of that arduous process we were rewarded with yet another high quality McCully bird: a pair of Pine Grosbeaks flying over! This was a long overdue state bird for me and a total thrill to snag so early in the year.

On the hike back down the trail we all had our grouse detecting senses piqued, but Nolan's are apparently otherworldly. The guy found some tiny droppings at the bottom of a tree along the trail, looked up, and BAM: SPRUCE GROUSE. We plopped down in the snow and watched bird slowly crawl out a branch, snack on a needle from the lodgepole pine where it resided, then creep back to the trunk and take a nap. What a life. I could not wipe the grin off my face the entire time.

Spruce Grouse!!
Post snack, pre nap. Relatable.

This close to  March capped off an exceptional month (for a full album of photo highlights, hit this link). By March 31 I had added 20 species, and my year list sat at 231.

Charles Dickens once quipped that there are certain March days "when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade." This encapsulated Oregon's March quite well. Except without the summer in the light part. It was just plain cold. Cool, crisp, and uncomfortably breezy days dominated the month. Unfortunately those same conditions continued for the first couple weeks of April as well, and by the middle of the month we were starting to wonder if Spring (and its birds) would ever actually arrive.

So I laid low for a bit and just picked up a few easy birds as they filtered in, conserving a little energy of my own in the process. On April 15 I saw my first Vaux's Swifts, #241 for the year. I saw this as the closing of the first act of the big year.

In the following few days the weather began to turn, and the birding intensity ratcheted up accordingly. I took a wild day trip to Summer Lake and back, giving me the chance to soak up high dessert specialties, a few migrant passerines, and the ever impressive diversity of birdlife around the auto tour loop at Summer Lake:

Sage Thrasher
Thrashing the sage

Not a bird. But very cool.

Evening Grosbeak

Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler
Obviously not a year bird, but man what a looker!

White-faced Ibis
Summer Lake is my favorite place to observe this species in the state. So many great views!

I found a pair of Solitary Sandpipers back in Eugene later that week on an evening outing with Mason.

Solitary Sandpiper
But there was more than one, as is often the case in Spring.

And just a few days later I was off for my longest solo trip of the year to date. The quiet, quick trip down the southern Oregon Coast then back through Josephine and Jackson Counties was good for the soul and the year list.

One of the trickier birds to find in Oregon is the Allen's Hummingbird. Studies over the last few years have revealed an extensive Rufous x Allen's hybrid zone throughout the southern Oregon and northern California coastal regions. You can't just go find a selasphorus hummer with some green on the back and call it an Allen's. And you can't solely depend on the pendulum display that Allen's do, because many hybrids prefer that Allen's type display. So that means if you want to feel good about a seeing a *mostly* pure Allen's, you have to find an adult male with a full green back, and then getting to see it do the Allen's-type display pretty much seals the deal. It's a bit of a mess, no doubt. 

My quest to find an Allen's took me to within a stone's throw of the Cali border, along Peavine Ridge Road in Curry County. I found three hummingbirds about a mile or so up the road, but it took a while to nail one down. Eventually I spotted a male high atop a fir tree. The angle prevented me from seeing its whole back, but what I could see was green. I followed the bird and was able to get a good look at its full green back, then after some intense altercations with some other hummers that had similar motives, I watched it climb high into the sky, plunge down, then return part of the way up again, forming a fishhook type shape. It ended the whole business with a series of garbled, chattery sounds that I had not ever heard before. I got to see this individual repeat this process again before it returned back to its favorite fir for a break. I added Allen's Hummingbird to my year list quite comfortably, and in the process gained a whole new appreciation for just how involved it is to find one in the state. Great birding stuff.

Allen's Hummingbird
The photo is not 100% diagnostic, but the observation was.

On the other side of a dazzling drive through California's Redwoods, I arrived in the wild and unique land of Josephine County. That night I found a Common Poorwill calling deep in Siskiyou National Forest, a huge highlight at the end of a long day of birding.

The next morning I targeted the region's two main specialties (in terms of Oregon bird listing, to be clear): California Towhee and Oak Titmouse. I found both, along with a whole mess of other migrants and new arrivals during my walk with the Pacifica Garden. What a fun list:

California Towhee

Oak Titmouse

I spent most of the rest of the day exploring new-to-me corners of Jackson County and soaking in the gorgeous country that makes up this wonderful pocket of the state. When evening drew near, there was one bird on the mind. I wound back up into the mountains. As I neared a meadow a large bird caught my eye for a fraction of a second then disappeared deep into the forest. Some birds are distinctive enough that that's all you need to be able to identify them, but I wanted more. I parked then wandered.

After a few minutes of searching, the low hoots of a Great Gray Owl seeped through woods a few hundred yards away. I approached as far as I could, but the bird was on private property, so I planted myself at the edge of a meadow and waited to see what might unfold.

The owl called a few more times, and then a flash of gray swooped to a distant ponderosa. I watched as the second member of the pair flew back into the forest to say a quick hello to its mate. I thought for a moment this would be my only photo, which would have been perfectly fine with me:

Can't capture the essence of the Great Gray experience much better than this.

The bird disappeared, and things grew quiet for a few minutes. I sat still at the base of a tree and waited. The owl returned to the other side of the meadow just as silently as it had left. For the next ten to fifteen minutes this Great Gray glided back and forth across the meadow from perch to perch. Every encounter with this species ends up turning into something special. I always feel deeply honored just to be in their presence.

Hard to beat.

This closed out yet another remarkably successful trip full of great memories and target birds that were kind enough to cooperate (for a full album of pics, see here).

Over the past few days I've added Green Heron and Western Tanager, my final additions for the year list this month. I've seen 226 species in April alone. Of those, 51 were new for my year list, which now sits at 282.

One third of the year is in the bag. Eight months remain. Tomorrow morning kicks off what will likely be the craziest 6 week stretch of the whole year. I'll admit my energy has waned at times already, but I'm feeling revived as May approaches.

On to the next! 

Monday, March 1, 2021


The month of February ended on a rather quiet birding note, which made for a welcome weekend of hiking behind waterfalls and playing in the mountains with the family. A group of Canada Jays visited the parking lot at the Salt Creek Sno-Park a few times, which was my 211th bird for the year and a nice addition to close out the month.

Just minutes before we took off for Salt Creek a message came over the Mid Valley WhatsApp group about a possible Winter Wren near Corvallis. I wouldn't have a chance to chase on Sunday, so I didn't think much of it at the time. After enjoying a few hours in the snow under cloudless skies, we arrived back in the land of cell service and a message from Nolan popped up on my phone.

Turned out the possible Winter Wren was getting more intriguing by the hour.

Courtney Kelly Jett and Caleb Centanni picked up on the bird while out on a hike and got the word out quickly. Doug Robinson was in the area and stopped by to investigate. He was able to get quality recordings and a few photos of the bird in question, and those recordings started to make things interesting. 

Winter Wrens looks remarkably similar to our familiar, abundant Pacific Wren. It's a little lighter on the throat and breast, has a slightly more pronounced supercilium, and is a cooler brown shade overall. But all of these features are subtle and can look rather variable from individual to individual, all the more so given lighting conditions. But, as is the case with several groups of species, vocalizations can be more diagnostic.

Just six weeks ago our neighbor to the north got its first record of Winter Wren. When the spectrograms of the Corvallis bird are placed alongside those of the Washington bird, they look identical. Watch the recordings of the previous checklist, and compare them with Doug's. And then note the difference between the Winter and the Pacific—there's a gap in the chip note for the former, but not the latter. Pretty cool stuff.

Convinced that this is likely a legitimate Winter Wren, this morning I decided to kick off the month by spending some time looking for this bird before work. I was shocked when I arrived to find no other birders in search of this first state record. A quick hike up a steep and muddy trail lead me straight to where the bird was hanging out the day before, and it was calling actively when I got there. I couldn't help but think that if I was on a hike and not paying terribly close attention, I could have easily passed over the bird, thinking it was a Song Sparrow.

I made a few recordings, then spent a while following it around and attempting to get photos. It was incredibly dodgy and deeply uninterested in having its picture taken, which made for some exasperating moments. Thankfully the surrounding bird life was entertaining in the meantime. A Hutton's Vireo and Canada Jay called nearby, while the calls of a Pileated Woodpecker and my first Northern Pygmy-Owl of the year rang out from an adjacent hillside. Sunlight poured through the trees. March was off to a quality start.

Mark Baldwin and Nolan joined the search after a little while, and in our effort to track the bird down I was finally able to get a couple poor photos.


You can see and listen to my recordings here.

This was an excellent find by Courtney and Caleb, and an absolutely unexpected species for my Oregon year list. I can't help but wonder if there are others around, just waiting to be found by attentive wanderers.

On to the next!


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Northeastern Oregon's Winter Specialties

A month and a half into the new year I had pretty well covered my bases with Western Oregon's winter birds. My year list stood at 192, and it was time for a foray into new territory. Plans for a trip materialized just in time for a winter storm of historic significance to hit Portland and the Gorge. This set things back a week, but ultimately created the perfect conditions for finding our target birds.

February 19:

Nolan came down from Corvallis to pick me up and we were on the road early with muffins, coffee, and high expectations. Our only traffic slow down of the entire trip came in Portland along 205 as crews still worked to clean up downed limbs and debris from the previous week.

Before long we were in Hood River picking up Black-crowned Night-Herons for our year and county lists, and then it was on to the Dalles. Arriving to a large group of gulls at the Lone Pine Island viewpoint got our blood pumping. The entire flock was facing us, making it virtually impossible to assess mantle color. But that didn't stop Nolan from picking up on a bird that stood out the mass of California Gulls—an immature bird standing a little taller than the surrounding gulls, sporting a black bill, clean white upper parts, a dark mantle (seen when it moved a few times), and a pale iris all sealed the deal: second cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull!

Lesser Black-backed Gull!

A bird of this age, likely this very one, was seen here back in November, and across the river in Washington in January, but hadn't been reported back at this site in a number of months. Lesser Black-backed was on our radar while in the gorge, but finding one in the first group of gulls we checked was quite the surprise. This species continues to increase in Oregon and across many places in North America, and it is likely to become even more regular in the years to come. Nonetheless, this was a huge find, and it was my first for Oregon. Nolan broke out the state lifer chocolate, we celebrated the early trip boost of momentum, then hit the road again.

We picked up some county birds on the Wasco/Sherman County line, highlighted by a Black-crowned Night-Heron that left its companion in Sherman to fly west into Wasco for us. Quite kind. The well known Saw-whets in Sherman were a piece of cake to find, making for a fun first encounter with this species for the year. We spent all of 30 seconds saying hello then let them be.

Northern Saw-whet Owls

Back on the road we had Black-billed Magpies fly by, which is the one true sign that you've arrived in Eastern Oregon.

Phillipi Canyon provided a nice easy stop off the highway with sprawling views and vocal Canyon Wrens, always a treat to see and hear these gregarious little birds.

After a quick stop in Arlington we set our sites on La Grande. I-84 ascended to the pass at Meacham, where conifers caked in snow lined the highway. It felt like a portal to a magical land, and in a way it was. All we could do is remark over and again about how excited we were to be arriving in Northeastern Oregon. La Grande sits in a quaint valley between the dominant mountain ranges of the region: the Wallowas to the east, the Blues to the west. Though we arrived to falling snow followed by fog, the feeling a being hemmed in by these two mountain ranges was still palpable.

In the dying light of our first day we put in an effort to find the long staying Blue Jays but came up empty. Not a problem, as there would be other opportunities.

Nolan's parents, Steve Clements and Arlene Blumton, were incredibly gracious to let me crash at their place in the midst of the pandemic, and they were wonderfully hospitable hosts. It often seems quite easy to connect with fellow bird people, and this instance was no different. Shared interest in birds and the broader natural world so frequently translates to a similar disposition towards much of the rest of life. Little did we know we had quite the shared experience waiting for us the next day.

February 20:

If you're going to properly track down all of the "should-get" species in a given year in Oregon, you'll inevitably find yourself in each quadrant of the state multiple times. In the winter, Bohemian Waxwing and American Tree Sparrow sit atop the seasonal target list in Northeastern Oregon. Gray Partridge and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch can be found at other times of the year, but they are easiest to snag in this area at this time, so they are also a part of the wants list for any birder who makes it out there over the winter months. The four of us piled into the Forester and headed east to Wallowa County, which has a handful of roads famous for producing our sought after species.

Before we were even out of Union County a flock of 40 Gray-crowned Rosy-finches appeared in a barn yard along the side of the road. We would see a few more before the day was out.

School Flat and Golf Course Roads get much of the attention from visiting birders, but we got off of Highway 82 one system of roads earlier. The seven miles along Whiskey Creek and Jim Town Roads made for an incredible start to the day.

Near the beginning of Whiskey Creek Road, a Townsend's Solitaire sat quietly atop a juniper. Just a few lengths of the car later our first Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch in Wallowa appeared. We got out to inspect it as it hopped along the road, and this wound up being our best view all day of the "Gray-crowned" subspecies, which nests in the Rockies and winters in Oregon in rather small numbers. Can't really ask for better looks:

"Gray-crowned" subspecies of the Gray-crowned Rosy-finch
from the Department of Redundancy Department

Moments later we were waist deep in a flock of 150 of the "Hepburn's" subspecies:

"Hepburn's" Gray-crowned Rosy-finch
most likely not named after Audrey

As the large flock foraged on a brushy hillside, a handful of Gray Partridge began to emerge and then flew over us (!) only to return to the hill, where they called incessantly (recording on this checklist). It's the first time I recall hearing them, at least that well. Getting to see the orange outer tail feathers in flight was also a first. A great way to see species #200 for the year!

Gray Partridge
no pear trees

Jim Town Road hosted a couple groups of both rosy-finches and partridge, a sharp looking "Harlan's" Red-tailed Hawk, and a relatively closer encounter with a juvenile Golden Eagle. Note how every color of the surrounding scene is replicated somewhere on the eagle. Camouflage is tricky for a bird this size, but it still makes a legitimate effort to blend in to its habitat.

Golden Eagle

The day was off to a roaring start, and spirits were high as we arrived on School Flat and Golf Course Roads.

School Flat Road Views

A couple happy birders squinting due to the immensely bright surroundings

It felt as though every time we came around a new bend in the road, another flock of rosy-finches would appear.

Gray-crowned Rosy-finch

We came upon a pasture along School Flat, and the exposed ground was a magnet for the birds. A large flock of Horned Larks joined the action with the rosy-finches and partridge.

Gray Partridge

Gray-crowned Rosy-finch

Before long, our first American Tree Sparrows of the day appeared. After our first sighting it seemed like we saw them steadily for the rest of the day.

American Tree Sparrow

Did I mention there were a few rosy-finches around?

Gray-crowned Rosy-finches

You have to be a special kind of nutty to ride along with the windows down on a winter day in Wallowa, but this questionable activity does pay off from time to time, and it certainly did on Golf Course Road when a group of Horned Larks flew over the car accompanied by the diagnostic rattle of a Lapland Longspur!

Lapland Longspur

Horned Larks, Lapland Longspur, and Gray-crowned Rosy-finch

This wasn't a year bird, but it was still an exciting find for the day, as was the case with the next mega flock of birds we found: Snow Buntings!

Snow Buntings

All of that, and it wasn't even noon yet. The constant barrage of birds was staggering to behold. Things finally quieted down as we arrived in Joseph. We walked the streets for a while, searching unsuccessfully for Blue Jays and Pine Grosbeaks, but on the south end of town we ran into a flock of 80 Bohemians!

Bohemian Waxwings

Wallowa Lake had a single bird on it: a drake Barrow's Goldeneye. As we left the parking lot on the north end of the lake, yet another group of partridge appeared.

Gray Partridge

The early afternoon lull threatened to set in, so we stopped at Arrowhead Chocolates in Joseph for a pick-me-up. I'll be stopping there for coffee every time I'm in town for the rest of always.

Caffeinated and ready for more birds, we made our way up to the Ferguson Sno-Park. It was very quiet, but my first Mountain Chickadees of the year were still calling in the distance. The only other bird was a flyover raven.

On the way to Elk Mountain Road we encountered more American Tree Sparrows, another large flock of rosy-finches, and our first snowfall of the day. A large falcon got us excited for a moment, but it turned out to be a Prairie rather than the Gyr that has been around all winter. Still a fun sight in the blizzard-like conditions. As we watched the falcon, a flock of 600+ rosy-finches rose up out of the nearby pasture, a few Snow Buntings in tow.

Prairie Falcon

The snow fell hard, but not for long. It made for a nice reminder of just how perfect the conditions had been all day long. The previous week's snow drove all of the birds to exposed ground and roadsides, but the roads themselves were in great condition for driving. We could not have asked for better timing.

Next we poked around a few spots in Enterprise. This hybrid goldeneye was the highlight of our stop at Pete's Pond. Note how the white spot on the face, the pattern on the back, and even the head shape are all intermediate between Common and Barrow's.

hybrid Common x Barrow's Goldeneye

We encountered our second flock of Bohemian Waxwings in town as well, and got much better looks this time around. Enterprise doesn't get as much coverage as Joseph it seems, so it turns out this was the first flock of Bohemians reported here this year.

Bohemian Waxwings

We were over twenty checklists deep into the day at this point. My thumbs were tired from all the eBirding, but when we finally slowed down to take a look at the numbers it was all worth it. We had recorded 1,750 Gray-crowned Rosy-finches, spread over 12 different checklists! We figured with our conservative estimates on the large flocks that it was quite possible that we saw upwards of 2,000. Nolan started doing the math and estimated that we saw right around 100 pounds worth of rosy-finch for the day. Given that we laughed with joy with each new flock that appeared, a comical measurement like that seemed quite fitting. Back in La Grande we finished out the day with tasty takeout and Oregon Fog from Side A.

It was one of those unforgettable days that frequent the life of an avid birder. We saw all our targets, yes, but it was the volume and manner in which we saw them that provided the greater joy. Sometimes you just need to be blown away by the birds.

February 21:

Before making our trip home, Nolan and I spent a while walking around La Grande looking for Blue Jays. After an hour of fruitless searching we were starting to get nervous, though my waaaaay overdue first Hairy Woodpecker of the year added some comedy to moment. Then an odd corvid call drew our attention, and then another. It was not the standard call we were expecting, but when we arrived at the source we found our target flying across the road. Two Blue Jays dove deep into a thicket, never to appear again. All our searching culminated in a three second observation that didn't even give me enough time to snag a photo. But this was still a huge moment: another state lifer for me, and an important bird on an ever-growing year list.

A handful of stops along the gorge yielded a few more county birds, the best of which was a Clark's Grebe continuing in the Dalles. Our last stop of the trip was an unsuccessful search for Harris's Sparrow on Sauvie Island, but the constant sounds and display of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese overhead made for a perfect spectacle to round out a wonderful three days of birding.

As I wrap up this post I'm sitting at 210 species for the year in Oregon so far, I'm really ready for it to not be February any longer, and plans are in full swing for a busy Spring of seeing every bird I possibly can. On to the next!