Morrow County 2020 Blitz: South to the Blues

For those unfamiliar with the Oregon 2020 project, it is an ongoing set of surveys aimed at creating a statewide benchmark for the distribution and abundance of Oregon's birds by the year 2020. It is a joint effort between professional ornithologists and birders. Among the components of this effort are county-wide "blitzes" that are conducted during the summer breeding season and during mid-winter when birds are somewhat settled on their wintering grounds.

Although we weren't thrilled to hear the cell phone alarm start quacking at 4AM for the second day in a row, Shawneen and I were excited by the prospects of poking around the mostly unknown landscapes of extreme southern Morrow County. We made coffee, threw together some food and were on the road for the hour-plus drive to our "hotspot squares" by 4:30.  To learn more about hotspot squares and how they are selected, click on this link: What are Hotspot Squares?

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The map above shows the roads and general outline of the area where our hotspot squares were located. The image below is a satellite view of essentially the same area. We ended up spending much of our day along the long loop created by Sunflower Flat Rd., which runs east and then south off Hwy 207 near the top of the map and then cutting back to the west on east-west running Kinzua Rd (NF-21), which crosses Sunflower Flat Rd. just north of the green national forest boundary on the right side of the map and then comes out at Hwy 207 near the southwest corner (lower left) of the map. Sunflower Flat Rd. follows the Rock Creek drainage, stays comparatively low and offers a blend ponderosa pine and narrow riparian corridor species. Kinzua Road crosses multiple ridgelines and gets into more heavily-forested areas characterized by greater conifer diversity.

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Birders find it near impossible to drive non-stop across country that they've never visited. Any postage stamp wetland or patch of habitat that is unlike the dominant vegetation cover provides more than sufficient reason to stop for an impromptu exploration. Thankfully, we had just birded the route along Bombing Range Rd. and Hwy 207 all the way to Lexington the day before, so we found it somewhat easy to mostly blast through the first 25 miles.

We couldn't pass on the opportunity to re-check some spots around Lexington that had been plenty birdy the previous afternoon, when it was hot and windy. It was calm and cool this morning, so we expected more activity than we found. Aside from spending about ten minutes at the bridge crossing over Willow Creek at the bottom of B St., we didn't linger at any of the spots we checked.

While standing at the bridge crossing listening to a tepid morning chorus, Shawneen half heard a Catharus thrush song that I missed completely. "Is that a Swainson's Thrush?"  "No," she said, answering her own question. Then the bird sang again. This time we both heard it well and immediately recognized it to be the song of a Veery. The bird continued to vocalize no more than 20 feet from where we stood. It alternated between the fairly loud veer call notes and the somewhat ventriloquial fluting downward spiraling song that stands out as exceptional even among the extraordinary songs sung by other species in its genus. If you haven't heard this song before, I strongly encourage you to visit our species page for  Veery and then click on the button next to "listen" in the middle of the page.

Continuing southeast to Heppner, than south through Ruggs and Hardman, we made just a couple more stops, as we did not want too much of the morning to get away before we reached our assigned area. As mentioned in the prior installment, we enjoyed a Gray Flycatcher just above Ruggs and then found both Eastern Kingbirds and our lone Yellow-breasted Chat of the weekend along McKinney Creek about midway between Ruggs and Hardman. 

We were now well south of where our exploring had ended the previous day and we knew that we would soon reach the forests that we were anxious to probe. We were utterly unprepared for how sudden the transition occurs. Highway 207 drops quickly off the treeless plateau just south of Hardman and within a half mile or so you are in the bottom of the canyon surrounded by trees. The road winds along to the southeast following the course of Rock Creek and then turns south into more extensive forest that extends beyond the breadth of the canyon.

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Some things just make you chuckle, especially when you are running on short sleep. (Photo by Shawneen Finnegan)

We made a quick pit stop at Anson Wright Park, where a hand-painted sign across the wooden framework of two aluminum garbage cans reads, "NO ANIMAL PARTS." We weren't sure if this meant chicken bones from the family picnic, or the ribcage of the trophy Rocky Mountain elk that a hunter just packed out of the national forest. Being fresh out of animal parts, we felt no temptation to break the park rules. After a quick check of our various navigational aids, we realized that our first hotspot square–Rankin Lane–was just a couple miles farther down the road.

We made our first of four stops along Rankin Lane at 6:45AM. We hoped to be able to completely cross the one-mile wide square using this road, but after about a half mile the road dead-ended into private property. This square was dominated by semi-open mostly second-growth ponderosa pine forest. Trees were widely spaced and the ground cover was sparse, mostly grasses. A spring-fed streamlet running through the bottom end of the draw supported a few isolated clumps of aspens with riparian understory, but otherwise the birdlife consisted of species adapted to dry slope conditions. As they were at nearly every stop in pine dominant woodlands, Chipping Sparrows were the most abundant species at this site. We also had both Mountain and Western Bluebirds, multiple Cassin's Finches, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, and Dusky Flycatcher, which would be our most frequently encountered flycatcher throughout the day. We also had a couple of Western Tanagers and our only warbler was MacGillivray's. We were a bit surprised to hear and then see a couple of Lincoln's Sparrows, as it seemed too dry. After surveying the surroundings, we noticed that there was a wet spring-fed area in the draw below us that had just enough brushy edge to support this montane wetland specialist.

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Away from the Cascades, White-breasted Nuthatches found on Oregon's eastside are considered to be of the Rocky Mountain/Great Basin "Nelsoni Group." The expected subspecies across much of eastern and east-central Oregon (i.e. Ochoco and Blue Mountains) is "S. c. tenuissima," which may soon be countable as a new species for birders across the interior of western North America. This bird was photographed along Rankin Lane in southwest Morrow County, Oregon on 31 May 2014.

Additional stops along Rankin Lane gradually added another half dozen expected species to our list for this hotspot square. We had nice views of a male White-breasted Nuthatch that was of the presumed local subspecies S. c. tenuissima, which is part of the interior "Nelsoni Group" found throughout the Rocky Mountains, Great Basin and much of Mexico. These birds are slightly darker above when compared to the Pacific Coast subspecies S. c. aculeata. Their bills are generally described as being longer and more slender than the stout-billed nominate eastern subspecies S. c. carolinensis and longer than the equally slender-billed Pacific coastal bird, though I don't always notice this difference between the western forms. The three sub-groupings have distinctly different vocalizations, which seems likely to result in a three-way split of White-breasted Nuthatch, with two of the forms occurring in Oregon. Nathan Pieplow has produced a nice three-part summary that discusses the different vocalization types: http://earbirding.com/blog/archives/1054 We did not hear this bird call.

Our next hotspot square was along Sunflower Flat Rd. We backtracked north a short distance on Hwy 207 and turned east on Sunflower Flat Rd. We made a quick stop right at the intersection (look for Katie's Corner sign on the tree), where there is some dense riparia. We had Yellow and MacGillivray's Warblers, plus our first of two back-to-back stops with Red-naped Sapsuckers. A seven-minute point yielded 16 species. We did another random point count in front of a nice natural wood house on the south side of the road about a mile or so off of Hwy 207. They had bird feeders, a hummingbird feeder and lots of creekside vegetation across the front of the yard. Twenty-three species included another Red-naped Sapsucker, three species of swallows, three species of flycatchers, which included two Duskies, our first Willow of the year, and a Say's Phoebe that appeared to be going to a nest behind the house. At least a dozen Cassin's Finches were coming to the feeders. We saw one hummer blast through the yard, but couldn't identify it. Black-chinned and Calliope are the default hummers around these parts. We also had two fly-through Vaux's Swifts.

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This was about the best view we got of this male Black-backed Woodpecker, as it never really came out into the open or down out of the higher reaches of this 80-ft ponderosa pine.

We made our next stop as we reached the edge of the Sunflower Flat Rd. square. There was a dense stand of firs and Douglas-fir upslope from us and an open grassy area about 50 yards from the road on the downslope side of the road. Multiple Hammond's Flycatchers were singing upslope along with our first of several Ruby-crowned Kinglets of the day. It too was singing, but the song was not like what I'm used to hearing during spring migration in the Willamette Valley (more on that later).

In the first minute out of the car, we heard the readily recognizable sharp call note of a Black-backed Woodpecker, which sounded like it was right above us. About the time we got onto it, a Pileated Woodpecker blew through, no more than 20 feet overhead. When I shut the truck door after going back to retrieve my camera, a Wild Turkey unexpectedly gobbled down the hill. This stop was surprisingly productive. More than half of the species we had–9 of 17–were new for the day, including a singing Fox Sparrow that would be the only one we had during the weekend.  

Our next stop was at a non-descript little pull-out that appears as "Govt. Spur" on the map. It amounts to maybe 100 feet of dirt road that quickly evaporates. Barely recognizable ruts appear to have been subsumed into the grassy ground cover long ago. Shawneen and I agreed that it looked like a great place to camp and be almost guaranteed of hearing some owls. We walked up the slope through a dense stand of timber for maybe a hundred yards. At the top of the hill, we popped out of the trees into a fairly expansive ridge top meadow. A Western Meadowlark sounded off and we had a pair of Western Bluebirds there as well, but little else. Back down the slope we heard both species of kinglets, two more Hammond's Flycatchers, and our second Cassin's Vireo of the day. 

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"Govt. Spur" is a very short road to nowhere, disappearing into the grass no more than 100 feet off of Sunflower Flat Rd. If you walk up slope from where we parked, the top of the hill is an open grassy meadow (below).There weren't a lot of birds, but there were with nice views in three directions. 

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We conducted a couple more point counts before leaving this square, with the only addition to the day list coming in the form of an American Kestrel. Otherwise, our checklists were a consistent mix of thespecies that we had found at prior stops. From this square, it was about an eight-mile drive to our next hotspot square along Kinzua Rd. It took us some time and ultimately realizing that we had crossed briefly into Grant County, to figure out that we had driven past Kinzua Rd about two miles back to the north. In the interim, we made a couple good stops (all in Morrow County). 

At this point, I should cover the importance of having multiple ways to geo-reference your location at hand when you venture this far from centers of human population. Cell phone service and 3G networks are generally not to be found. Throughout the day, we used the combination of the maps provided by the project, an Oregon DeLorme atlas (published in the late 1990s), a GPS unit borrowed from Jim Danzenbaker, and our cell phones, which have built in GPS.  The township scale (6 miles X 6 miles) project maps need some work when it comes to hierarchy and separating roads from streams. We found them at best difficult to use. The resolution and hierarchy of the project's hotspot scale maps (one mile X one mile squares) were fine. Being unfamiliar with the intricacies of the borrowed GPS, we could not figure out how to convert the lat/long readings from the traditional degrees, minutes, and seconds output to a decimal output that jived with the border coordinates on the hotspot maps. Thankfully, both Shawneen and I can do math in our heads, which allowed us to do some fairly accurate mental conversions. Despite having not cell or 3G service, we were able to use the offline checklist function of BirdLog (cell phone eBird app) to capture decimal lat/long readings. We would use the GPS and the DeLorme, along with the township scale map to get ourselves close and then use BirdLog for the fine detail as we neared the edges of our hotspot squares. But I digress.

During the time after we passed the Kinzua Rd. turnoff, we explored a couple spur roads and did some productive point counts. The best of these were two along FR 2122. About a quarter of a mile off of Sunflower Rd. FR2122 passes through an area where there is dense brush on both sides of the road. We had our second Williamson's Sapsucker of the morning at this stop, along with both Wilson's and MacGillivray's Warblers here. Two more Dusky Flycatchers added to the nearly twenty that we'd already had throughout the morning.

The most interesting find here was an Orange-crowned Warbler, the song of which I didn't immediately recognize. It started out with a rising trill suggestive of the start of an Orange-crowned song, or the ending of a Nashville Warbler song, but instead of ending with the down-slurred trill that finishes the song of a O. c. lutescens Orange-crowned (the subspecies that I am familiar with from western Oregon), the song ended with a series of three chup, chup, chup notes. Shawneen recognized as an Orange-crowned song before I did. I became immediately interested in what subspecies occurs here, as this is not well covered by Birds of Oregon: A General Reference, or other works on the birds of Oregon.

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Although the quality of this photo is by no means worthy of publication, it was snapped off in hopes getting the bird when I couldn't even pick it out amid the similarly colored foliage in my viewfinder. It does show the distinctive contrast between the bright yellow throat and the darker grayish crown and auriculars that is typical of "O. c. orestera. The song was also characteristic of this subspecies.

Despite many attempts to get a good look and photographs of the bird, it stayed up in the fir canopy and typically out of sight, or in poor light when it occasionally popped into the open. Based on what I saw, it appeared to be of the subspecies O. c. orestera, which is the breeding population centered in the Rocky Mountains. I've seen many strongly hooded, gray-headed birds with bright yellow throats and underparts during fall migration in southeastern Oregon. I've always presumed to be of this form, but I had not previously encountered birds of this appearance in Oregon during he breeding season. This bird showed a strongly hooded pattern on the head and bright yellow throat and upper breast that clearly contrasted with the duskier, grayer hood, something not shown by the adult males of the coastal population found in and to the west of the Oregon Cascades. I captured one poor quality photo that shows the distinctive head and throat pattern characteristic of O. c. orestera.

After spending more time than we wanted trying to track down the Orange-crowned Warbler, we continued a little farther on FR-2122 and made another productive stop. Here, a cooperative Cassin's Vireo was actively feeding and singing from a couple trees right next to the road. It was a bit more colorful than some of the dull breeding season birds we see and it was in decent light for photos.

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In recent years, I've become accustomed to seeing some really dull, almost colorless spring/summer Cassin's Vireos when I'm birding east of the Cascades. This bird, photographed along FR-2122 31 May 2014, was particularly colorful for this time of year.

Shortly after coming off this road and continuing south on Sunflower Flat Rd., we realized that Kinzua Rd. was back to the north. We found it on the second pass and turned west, still at least seven miles from our next square and it was nearly noon. Despite feeling like we were behind schedule, we continued to drop in random point counts at spots that looked interesting. After several miles we came to spot where there is a water tank with a drip pipe right next to the road. This section of Kinzua Rd. is up slope from any of the minor creeks flowing through the area, so this drip and the wet area surrounding  the water  tank was attracting a lot bird activity. We spent nearly half an hour here.

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Interior breeding populations of Ruby-crowned Kinglet are noticeably paler than their counterparts along the Pacific Coast. They seem to have a bit larger and longer bill, but the most notable difference is the grayness of their heads and broad pale supraloral in front of the eye.

One of the things that had captured our attention all morning was the interesting songs thate we were hearing from Ruby-crowned Kinglets. To this point our encounters had involved heard-only birds that were a long way off. Here, there were two kinglets low in the trees right around the water tank, so I finally got a look at one. It was clearly different from the smaller, darker green birds that we see during winter and as migrants in western Oregon. The head was much paler and grayer and it a broad pale supraloral area, which gave it a face pattern much more similar to Hutton's Vireo. It's bill seemed a bit longer as well. Finally, the area between the wingbars was paler and not as glossy or semi-iridescent as it often appears on the wintering birds in western Oregon. Shawneen eventually got on the bird as well and agreed that it certainly looked different from the Ruby-crowned Kinglets that we normally see.

Our best bird of the day, if indeed it was what it sounded like, was a singing Hermit Warbler that we heard sing at least a dozen times. The song of a Hermit Warbler is one that hear hundreds of times in most years, thus their typical songs and local variations are familiar. This bird sang a couple of times before it even registered that, "Wait a minute, we are well to the east of the range of Hermit Warbler. Am I sure that I am not mis-hearing some other species?" In Oregon, the only species that sing songs that are similar to Hermit Warbler are Townsend's and Black-throated Gray. This song lacked the speed, high buzzy quality, and urgency of a Black-throated Gray Warbler, which would be nearly as unexpected here as Hermit. It was too crisp and patterned for a Townsend's, which to my ear sounds as thought the singer is bit inebriated compared to its close relatives. Finally, the song consistently ended with the classic hard two-note phrase that followed a slightly faster series of zee notes. Once Shawneen heard the bird, she too thought it sounded like a very typical Hermit song. Had I heard this song in the Oregon Coast Range, it wouldn't have even turned my head...Hermit Warbler. We tried to find the bird, which was high in the tree tops. After hearing the song a bunch of times it quit singing and we were out of luck.

At about 1PM, we finally got close to the Kinzua Rd. square. However, as we turned up the road that appeared to the best way into and through the square, we encountered a locked gate, outfitted with the usual assortment of "don't even think about it" warnings. We looked at the map and quickly determined that it would take us at least 15-20 minutes via a circuitous route to get around to another potential entry point, with a good chance that we would find another similarly adorned boundary gate.

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Before leaving the Kinzua Rd. area, we couldn't resist this field full of camas. This photo doesn't begin to capture the beauty of this carpet of purple blossoms.

We did a couple of underwhelming point counts (six species at each one) just outside the square and called it good. We needed to move on and work our way to our last hotspot square. The afternoon meet-up and countdown were slated for 4:30PM and we had every bit of an hour drive back to Boardman, which meant we'd need to finish up no later than 3:30. Unfortunately, we had not realized how close we had been to our last square earlier in the day, thus we ended up retracing a big chunk of our earlier route to reach the final square. Thankfully, much of the route back was along Hwy 207–the only paved road in the area.

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We found Williamson's Sapsuckers at several stops during the day. This bird was along Kinzua Rd., Morrow County, Oregon on 31 May 2014.

After about 20 minutes, we arrived at the edge of the last square, which we reached just shy of 2:3oPM. We conducted two quick point counts, picking up yet another Williamson's Sapsucker, our fourth of the day. Among the six woodpecker species that we found, only Hairy Woodpecker was encountered more times than Williamson's Sapsucker. On the road up to the square we had passed a decent-sized marshy pond along FR-20, so we made a point of stopping to check it on the way back down the hill. This was easily the largest body of water that we saw all day and it rewarded us with a female Mallard and two ducklings, plus a handful of Red-winged Blackbirds.

It was after 3:30PM when we got back to Hwy 207, with fully 60 miles of winding road between us and Boardman. Shawneen climbed into the bed of the pickup where she could stretch out under the canopy and catch a few winks while I put the pedal to the metal. The long straight stretch along Bombing Range Rd. provided a chance to make up time and we were back at the River Lodge and Grill shortly after 4:30PM. Along McKinney Creek south of Ruggs, we'd blown by Wayne Weber, another counter who was pulled over looking at something off the side of the road, so we knew we wouldn't be the last ones back at the meeting. These blitzes are really casual affairs and designed to be as fun as possible for the participants, so we had no worries about rigid time schedules.

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Just one day out of the nest, this Northern Saw-whet Owlet

was quite the celebrity on Saturday evening.

Earlier in the day, Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale had texted us about some of their best finds, which included a singing Least Flycatcher in the tree farm and the fledged Northern Saw-whet Owlet roosting in plain view about 50 feet away from the nest box that we'd visited the night before. The countdown revealed that 13 participants had seen and heard a total of 138 species. Just after Doug Robinson announced the final tally, someone pointed out two Great Egrets flying down the river...139!

After the countdown we hung around on the lawn sipping beers and then Ann offered to led any of us who were interested over to the tree farm, where we first tracked down the Least Flycatcher (Doug returned and found at least four singing males in the farm two days later) and then we went over to the owl nest box to see the fledged owlet as the sun dropped quickly towards the western horizon.

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