Morrow County 2020 Blitz: A Slow Trip East

For those unfamiliar with the Oregon 2020 project, it is a citizen science endeavor being coordinated by professional ornithologists with help from partnering birders. The aim is to create a benchmark assessment of the distribution and abundance of Oregon's birds between now and the year 2020. Among the components of this effort are county-wide "blitzes" that are conducted during the summer breeding season and during the months when birds are somewhat settled on their wintering grounds.  This will be the first of four articles chronicling a long and enjoyable weekend of exploring Morrow County, Oregon. The next installment will offer an introduction to the Morrow County and its habitats.

On Friday 30 May, Shawneen Finnegan, Jim Danzenbaker and I spent an enjoyable and relaxing day making our way east to Boardman, Oregon, where we would convene with the other Morrow County blitz participants. We picked up Jim at his house in Battle Ground at 5:30AM, then headed east on I-84 through the scenic Columbia Gorge. A quick stop to check the mouth of Hood River was our only detour on our way to the drier habitats east of the Cascades divide. On a whim, I turned off I-84 at Rowena (exit 76) in hopes finding some fun birding in the narrow band of oak woodlands along the section of Old Hwy 30 between Rowena and Mosier (exit 69). In all my years of traveling through the Gorge, I had somehow never noticed the scenic overlook perched high above the river at Rowena Crest. After a couple quick stops in the woods to get our year Ash-throated Flycatchers, we wound our way up to the crest to enjoy a spectacular panorama.

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Getting to the top of Rowena Crest via Old Hwy 30 is by no means a straight line endeavor. Coming from the Rowena exit off of I-84, this is the next to the last curve before you reach the top of the hill.

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From Rowena Crest, there are awe-inspiring views in every direction. Looking to the northwest into Washington (above), the summit of Mt. Adams barely peeks over the top of the distant ridge. Looking south (below) the flood basalt rimrock in the foreground and classic fault block break behind it speak to a violent geologic past.

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We continued east, passing through the The Dalles and leaving a treed landscape in the rear view mirror. Our first targeted birding stop was Deschutes River State Park, which can offer a good mix of migrant birds and potential vagrants in late May-early June. Before going into the park, we checked the towering rimrock just west of the river mouth. As the repeated sound-0ffs of Canyon Wrens rang from the cliff face, we gleaned a handful of White-throated Swifts from the blizzard of Cliff Swallows coursing along the precipice of the rimrock. We heard, but never saw one of the resident Peregrine Falcons.

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This expansive rimrock can be accessed from the Celilo Park exit (exit 97) off of I-84 and then driving east on the frontage road. A few White-throated Swifts and many hundreds of Cliff Swallows nest here. Peregrine Falcons can be seen and heard along the rimrocks in almost any month of the year. It is certainly the easiest place in Wasco County to hear a Canyon Wren.

We ended up spending nearly three hours poking around the campground and day use area at Deschutes River State Park. Multiple pairs of Bullock's Orioles, which can counted on here May-July, entertained us with their constant chatter and chasing one another about. A nice mix of migrants included some Warbling Vireos, a couple of Wilson's Warblers, a Townsend's Warbler and multiple Western Tanagers. Locally-breeding Yellow Warblers sang occasionally. After we'd been in the park for well over an hour, we began hearing the repeated songs of a warbler that was clearly an out-of-towner. We finally tracked down the source–a young male American Redstart. Jim found a migrant Swainson's Thrush that appeared to be of the olive-backed variety, but Shawneen and I never saw that. A lingering male Common Goldeneye, probably the same one that Shawneen and I had seen here three weeks earlier, was a surprise. They don't breed anywhere nearby.

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The juices invariably start flowing when you hear an unrecognized warbler song in the American west. American Redstarts, like this first-summer male at Deschutes River State Park 30 May 2014, sing highly variable songs. When we heard this bird it was singing an atypical song, but the tonal quality led us to suspect that it would turn out to be a redstart.

As early afternoon set in, both the wind speeds and temperatures began climbing, which generally translates to slow passerine birding. We called ahead to Ann Nightingale, who we were scheduled to meet in Boardman and coordinated a late lunch at the C and D Drive-in to be followed by a visit to a nearby 26,000-acre poplar farm to see soon-to-fledge Northern Saw-whet Owlets. Yes, you read that right, Northern Saw-whet Owls are nesting in a poplar tree farm. A few years ago, a biologist at the tree farm contacted Northern Saw-whet Owl researchers to report on a remarkably high number of breeding pairs using small raptor nest boxes that were first put up at the farm 1998. As part of an integrated pest control program, the boxes were placed in hopes of attracting nesting owls and American Kestrels. She had found pairs of Northern Saw-whet Owls, which typically breed in densely wooded areas comprised of some, if not mostly conifers, occupied upwards of 75% of the 100+ nest boxes mounted within the monoculture of the massive tree farm. The trees on the farm are fast-growing hybrid poplars that are all essentially clones of one another. Plots are harvested after about 12 years. During this relatively short life span, the trees have grow to roughly 50 feet in height and 8-9 inches in diameter at the base. Subsequent monitoring of nesting owls has revealed that in some years upwards of 75 percent of the farm's 120 nest boxes are occupied by breeding pairs of Northern Saw-whet Owls. This year, there are only a few active nests.

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A couple of Shawneen's owl-crazed friends will be envious after seeing this shot. This nestling Northern Saw-whet Owl was one of five in the nest box we visited. The discovery of many pairs of these owls nesting within the Boardman tree farm (below) was quite a surprise.

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Ann Nightingale lives in Victoria, British Columbia and regular readers of this journal may recognize her name from an earlier article about Northern Saw-whet Owls  (http://www.birdfellow.com/journal/2013/02/25/pretty_in_pink_the_northern_saw_whet_owl_s_flashy_secret).  Ann is active with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, which is one of several banding stations affiliated with Project Owlnet–a collaborative monitoring effort by owl-banding stations from all across North America. Several times each year she makes the trip from Victoria to Boardman to band and collect data on the owls using the Boardman poplar farm. After lunch, Ann took us out to the farm (not open to the public) to visit a Saw-whet nest that is being monitored. She pulled out one of the banded nestlings and let us take some quick photos before returning it to the box and its siblings. Later that evening, the first of the five owlets fledged. It was found the next morning roosting on a low branch just a few tree rows away from the nest box.

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Swainson's Hawks are fairly common in the northern two-thirds of Morrow County. On Friday, we saw several between Boardman and Lexington, including this intermediate adult. We also found an active nest in a tall pine tree behind the farmhouse near the Lexington Grange (at the 90 degree curve about a mile or so north of Lexington).

After the owl adventure, we headed south on Bombing Range Rd., which runs for many miles along the eastern edge of the now mothballed Naval Bombing Range. Shawneen and I were hoping to scout the area we would be covering the next day, but too many birding stops along the way resulted in us running out of time. We had get back to Boardman for the evening planning meeting. We made it as far south of Lexington, where we got hung up looking for migrants in town. We found some heavily-vegetated yards and a wooded section of Willow Creek at the southeast corner of town that was quite birdy.

In the early evening we met up with the rest of the blitzers for a short strategy meeting and dinner at the River Lodge and Grill, which sits right along the Columbia River in Boardman. As we dined, several hundred California and Ring-billed Gulls, along with a few Caspian and Forster's Terns could be seen flying up and down the river. On the way back to our lodging for the night, we made a brief stop at a modest wetland, jokingly dubbed the "stupid little marsh" by Ann. It is in an unlikely place, buried in the middle of the sprawling tree farm. As the last birdable light waned, we enjoyed a cacophany of Yellow-headed Blackbird songs and agitated Black-necked Stilt chatter, along with the occasional winnowing of a Wilson's Snipe. All the while a Common Nighthawk fed low over a small pond just a few yards away. Eventually, the mosquitos drove us back to our cars. Our day had started with the alarm going off at 4AM and we planned to be up and on the road by 4:30AM Saturday, so we called it a night shortly after dark.

1

I am definitely envious after seeing that shot of Shawneen holding the owl!

2

Jack, Shawneen has been torturing lots of her friends with that photo.

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