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! 


  1. Hi Joshua!

    The local San Juan Island bird need crew would love to come hear the LEOW! If you are still around feel free to message me! Thanks! Michelle

  2. Hi Joshua!

    The local San Juan Island bird need crew would love to come hear the LEOW! If you are still around feel free to message me! Thanks! Michelle