Nostalgic for Real Winter Birding - Day 1

Ever wonder why about half the U.S. population lives within fifty miles of a coastline? A trip into the mid-Columbia River Basin during the winter months provides a vivid explanation. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the temperate inland valleys of western Oregon and Washington offer the primary advantages — few days of freezing temperatures and very little snow/ice — that have caused a mass migration away from the middle of the continent over the past century. Like many, Steve Mlodinow and I are part of this diaspora. He lives a few good golf shots from Puget Sound in Everett, Washington, and I live in Eugene at the southern extreme of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, roughly fifty miles from the Pacific Ocean. Prior to settling in the rain belt, each of us spent portions of our youth and adulthood in the Midwest, where “lake effect” snows, bitterly cold temps, biting winds, and no open water for hundreds of miles often characterized the winter season. Perhaps therein lies our shared attraction to the occasional winter foray into eastern Oregon or Washington. You can take the boy out of the frozen cornfield, but you can’t take the frozen cornfield out of the boy.

Birding barren landscapes like those in the images above is often fruitful because passerines (smaller perching birds) tend to concentrate around small towns, streamside thickets, and wooded homesteads far from the nearest stand of trees. Because of this isolating and concentrating phenomenon, if an unusual bird is present, the odds of encountering it are good. It is also important to remember that all birds are to some degree water-dependent and therefore will be attracted to any body of open water. (top photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8, bottom photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with Nikon 18-55mm AF-S DX VR lens)

When we began planning this trip more than two months earlier, daytime highs were still climbing into the low 80’s and the daylight hours stretched from 6:00AM to 8:00PM. We had no idea that our chosen weekend would be highlighted by winter storm warnings (and manifestations), and multiple cancellations of local Christmas Bird Counts. In the days just before our rendezvous we discussed the possibilities of harsh conditions, but were undeterred. Where we grew up, this was normal.

I drove north from Eugene, Oregon early in the morning on 12 December and met Steve near Battle Ground, Washington at the home of Bob Flores, who is the refuge manager at nearby Ridgefield NWR. We quickly transferred my gear into Steve’s Toyota Highlander and headed off to bird the bottomlands north and west of Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland. From the time my family moved to Portland when I was ten through my early twenties I made innumerable birding trips to Sauvie Island. The landscape on the opposing Washington side of the river is nearly identical: semi-flooded fields lined with the stubble of corn and other row crops, dairy pastures, occasional woodlots dominated by Oregon Ash, and endless mounds of Armenian Blackberry set against the backdrop of cottonwood gallery forests hugging the riverbanks is familiar turf.

Friday’s weather was benign relative to the forecasts, yet we might have asked for a little less wind and fewer rain showers. We began our birding by touring the pasturelands and agricultural fields surrounding Vancouver Lake checking flock after flock of white-cheeked geese looking for non-white-cheeked geese. Steve has spent the better part of the last three winters studying the various subspecies of Cackling Geese and is the co-author of a major ID paper that will soon appear in North American Birds. A day spent with him in these environs is sure to enhance one’s ability to visually separate Cackler subspecies. The only surprise goose was a hybrid Cackling Goose (likely taverneri) X White-fronted Goose that Steve found embedded in one of the many flocks we surveyed. In recent years family groups of similar crosses have appeared in western Oregon and Washington.

The best bird of the morning was a Nashville Warbler we found in a mixed passerine flock near Post Office Lake. This neo-tropical migrant is uncommon in spring and rare during fall in w. Washington. Nashvilles are rarer still during winter in Washington; this is only the fifth or sixth winter record for the state. Later in the afternoon we enjoyed a welcome sun break as we traveled the four-mile auto tour loop through the “River S” unit at Ridgefield NWR.

“The Distracted Driver” -- Managing one’s gear when restricted to car-birding presents special challenges. Steve Mlodinow kept all his optics and camera close at hand as we made the circuit around the auto tour loop at Ridgefield NWR on 12 December, 2008 (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

Birders are required to remain in their vehicles throughout most of loop, but being in a rolling blind allows for close approach to many waterbirds and raptors. Excellent photographic opportunities frequently present themselves as a result, evidenced by Steve’s fantastic shots of Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks seen below.

This Rough-legged Hawk, photographed at Ridgefield NWR on 12 December 2008, was incredibly approachable. We were within 20 meters of this bird for about 15 minutes. It flushed a couple times, flew 100 meters or so, and landed again. (photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

This immature Red-tailed Hawk was remarkably cooperative, allowing us to drive to within about 10 meters. Car-birding can be a very effective method for getting close-up pictures. (photo by Steven Mlodinow using a Nikon D300 with 300mm f4 lens and 1.4 teleconverter)

Once the sun retired we headed east about 170 miles to Umatilla, Oregon, which would be our base of operations for the next two days. Heavy rain and wind buffeted Steve’s SUV as we passed through the narrowest section of the Columbia Gorge between Portland and The Dalles. We were heartened to see cloud breaks and a few stars as we left this wind tunnel and climbed onto the plateau east of Arlington, Oregon. We checked into our motel, bought a few provisions and a six-pack of Long Hammer IPA at the supermarket across the street and settled in as winds began picking up outside.


Dave’s writing style is always easy-to-read and highly informative. One can sit down with one of his articles on a gale-force windy day and forget the weather. I feel like I’m in the backseat during his trips.


Thanks for the great info dog I owe you bgitigy.

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