Nostalgic for Real Winter Birding - Day 2

Forty-plus years of enduring botched forecasts have left me with a curmudgeonly attitude towards local weathercasters who make a career out of over-hyping incoming storms. I am disinclined to believe these doom and gloom prognosticators and I will not contribute to the glee they must feel when their reports send the locals scurrying for Safeway to lay in supplies. I prefer to get my weather report by sticking my head out the door and observing reality. Like most days, we awoke Saturday having no idea what kind of weather conditions might greet us. Snow, rain, high winds, and sub-freezing temps had all been forecast. We were pleasantly surprised to step out of our motel room and find high overcast, nearly 40F temps (downright tropical for the eastside in December), no precipitation, and only light winds. We proceeded to nearby McNary Dam, where we scoped the gulls feeding and resting near the spillway. One adult Western, a couple Mew, and small numbers of Herring and Glaucous-winged gulls spiced up the sizeable flock of California (325) and Ring-billed (80+). Western Gulls are generally scarce away from the outer coast. A few winter in the interior valleys of western Oregon and Washington, but they become progressively more rare as one travels east/north up the Columbia. A few diving ducks – mostly Common Goldenyes and Common Mergansers – were also below the dam. The pool above the dam held a flock of nearly 500 Common Goldeneyes, a few Western Grebes, and little else.

The next four hours were spent walking the maze of trails in the wildlife area below the dam on the Oregon side of the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has developed an appealing network of small ponds and vegetation that provide excellent cover and food supply for passerines and the trails along the dikes provide excellent access for birders. The ponds host a nice mix of dabbling and diving ducks and there is a Black-crowned Night-Heron roost, which at times has held over 100 birds. Multiple “oinking” Virginia Rails and a couple Marsh Wrens chipping in the marshes were surprising for a site where sub-freezing temperatures are commonplace November-March.

We encountered several good-sized flocks of Zonotrichia (crowned sparrows). The majority were White-crowned Sparrows, but we pished up one group of about a dozen Golden-crowned Sparrows, which is a pretty good number this far east. The various sparrow assemblages also held three Harris’s Sparrows, one Sooty Fox Sparrow, and a Swamp Sparrow. Harris’s Sparrows are generally rare winter visitors in the region, yet this area seems to produce a few each winter. Despite a dearth of local birders, a disproportionate number of the overall reports of Harris’s Sparrows seem to come from Umatilla and neighboring counties. Until recently, Sooty Fox Sparrows had been all but unknown from eastern Oregon, even though they are common to abundant in the western reaches of our region from mid-September to late April.

This adult Harris’s Sparrow -- one of the largest and most attractive of the North American sparrows – was one of three in the wildlife area below McNary Dam on 13 December, 2008. (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

Surely the surprise of the day was a group of three Barn Swallows coursing back and forth over small stream that bisects the wildlife area. Steve noticed that the one immature in the flock appeared to have a complete breast band. The Asian race of Barn Swallow typically shows this characteristic, while the North American subspecies supposedly do not. Photos of the bird show a breast band, but it remains unclear if this look is limited to the Eurasian form. Barn Swallows are rare in Oregon and Washington after late October, but in recent winters small flocks have shown up in January and early February. Historically, Barn Swallows migrate south by early October and are then generally absent November through late March when the first spring migrants appear.

Departing McNary Dam, we headed upriver towards the Walla Walla River delta about an hour to the east. After a few miles we stopped at small wayside right on the river to scope for waterbirds. As we got out of the car, I noticed a sign that read “Sand Station.” The name partially jogged my recollections of recent postings on OBOL (Oregon Birders Online). I knew something unusual had been reported here, but couldn’t remember what? After several moments of head-scratching the rusty gears meshed…it was a White-winged Scoter. Steve wandered off to use the facilities while I re-found the White-winged Scoter about 300 meters upstream. Small numbers of both Surf and White-winged Scoters pass through eastern Oregon and Washington during fall migration with most records coming Oct-Nov. However, winter records from the eastside are surprisingly few.

As we approached the Walla Walla River delta, Steve suggested that it might be wise to first check for blackbird flocks at the feedlots at the nearby Tyson (formerly Iowa Beef) packing plant. It was nearing 3:00PM and the lead edge of the storm front was darkening the skies prematurely, which we suspected would send many species to roost earlier than normal. We found no big flocks of blackbirds, but we did locate a rather large (2500+) flock of mostly taverneri Cackling Geese near the packing plant. Big flocks of “Tavs” are not typical on the eastside.

Underwhelmed by the stockyards and surrounding fields, the gull flock at the delta beckoned. Nearing the pullout at 50+mph, I noticed a large pale gull out on the mudflats and suggested it might be a Glaucous. When we reached the parking area and set up scopes, it took all of about two seconds to confirm that my drive-by ID was on the mark. It was a crisp adult Glaucous Gull. We had two more Mew, five Thayer’s, and a few more Herring gulls among the swarm or Ring-billed Gulls that dominated the flats. A flock of shorebirds included 51 Dunlin and six fluffed up and cold Least Sandpipers, a bird not accustomed the harsh winter weather on the eastside and rare here during winter.

The mudflats at the Walla Walla River Delta offer excellent gull-watching during the winter months and good shorebirding during spring and fall migration (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

We spent our last hour of daylight checking several more nearby fields and ponds for waterfowl and came upon two small flocks (19 birds) of Eurasian Collared-Doves in the small town of Burbank, Washington. Steve pointed out that this was a new location for this rapidly expanding species. Two years ago Steve and I were still enthusiastically reporting new local records of this species in our North American Birds regional reports. The Eurasian Collared-Dove range expansion into the region has been so rapid and so complete that our more recent columns have entirely ignored reports of new local colonies. Even our observer base seems to have lost interest. I suspect that Eurasian Collared-Doves are well on their way to attaining Eurasian Starling or House Sparrow status.

At dusk we headed for the motel in Umatilla, where we peeled off our multiple layers of thermal underwear and our attentions turned to dining options. We settled on Mexican food, almost always a good choice in this sub-region of the Pacific Northwest, where a growing Hispanic population usually ensures several options for authentic and excellent cuisine. The visitors guide in our motel room promoted “El Cazador” in nearby Hermiston. As the first snow of the advancing storm system began to fall, we made the five-mile drive to Hermiston, where we easily located the restaurant just north of downtown on Hwy 395. Our dinner choices were both delicious, but the highlight was the “fresh guacamole” made right at the table. If this was guacamole, I want refunds on all prior guacamole purchases. For $7.25 we were treated to a heaping bowl soup bowl of freshly diced avocados tossed with juicy chopped tomatoes, sweet Walla Walla onions (grown locally), a dash of jalapeno, and a pinch of seasoning salt exquisitely mashed – not blenderized – together with freshly squeezed lime juice. It was a true wonder to the taste buds, ruining us forever when faced with the standard version of this concoction. After a most satisfying meal we returned to Umatilla and adjourned to the motel for the evening. Once again the winds cranked up and began battering the sides of our older motel building. That crashing sound.... a deck chair being flung from the hotel balcony onto the parking lot below, fortunately missing the three cars parked there.


It’s great to learn about these pockets of good bird habitat in unexpected places – like the maze of trails under McNary Dam. When the website is up and running I hope it will include maps listing these little known areas. I guess I will have to try to duplicate the guacamole recipe!


Stdans back from the keyboard in amazement! Thanks!


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