Morrow County 2020 Blitz: Ag Land Squares and Exploring

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Much of north-central Morrow County, Oregon is brown with either bare dirt or wheat stubble. Unless they are up flying around or calling, Long-billed Curlews, like this one north of Lexington on 1 June 2014, are well camouflaged.

After a day dedicated to a small section of Morrow County, our plan for Sunday was to do some exploring and go to places where others had found interesting birds on Saturday. At the count-down meeting Saturday evening, project coordinator Doug Robinson mentioned that there were a few hotspot squares that had not been covered. I volunteered for our group to take three squares that were not far from where we were staying near Boardman. I'm not sure my compatriots were thrilled about my altruism, especially after they saw the mostly plowed landscapes within our squares.

For the third morning in a row we were up and out the door by 5AM. Jim Danzenbaker, who had spent the Saturday covering the tree farm and surrounding areas with Ann Nightingale and Jenna Curtis, was back with Shaween, me, and our dog Rozi for this day's adventure and the trip home. As we headed south on Bombing Range Rd., Jim suggested that we stop at a spot where his group had heard Grasshopper Sparrows singing the day before. He sort of remembered where it was but did not have the exact mileage. Along a dead-straight road lined with identical fence posts and utility poles, good landmarks are few. We hopped out of the car where Jim thought the sparrows had been heard, but no luck. I offered to drive ahead and park, then work back towards them as they walked south along the shoulder of the road. Surely one of us would hear the sparrows singing.

Leaving them behind, I drove about a half mile. Just as I slowed to park I noticed what at first glance appeared to be fox coming out of the brush just ahead of me and crossing the road over to my side. Once I got a good look at it, I realized that it was something that I'd never seen...a coyote pup. It was maybe half the size of our dog, who weighs 40 pounds. It was a bit gangly, with proportionally long legs, but otherwise it looked like a miniature adult coyote. It disappeared into the brush and was not seen again and I never saw any adults or siblings, but they were surely nearby. At this point, my concerns turned practical. How would an adult female coyote with pups respond to seeing our dog coming down the road? Not wanting to find out, I jumped back in the truck and backed up several hundred yards before parking. I met up with Jim and Shawneen, told them what I saw and suggested we not get too close with Rozi. We stopped there, listened a bit and quickly heard a Grasshopper Sparrow sing multiple times. The Bombing Range is surely loaded with this species.

We continued south to the big swinging curve (the only curve) on Bombing Range Rd. On the east side of the road in the middle of the curve there is old quarry with a sandstone embankment. It is riddled with holes of various sizes, some big enough for roosting and nesting Barn Owls. The day before, Jim, Ann, and Jenna had found adult owls sitting in the openings of two different holes and young owlets farther back in the larger of the two holes. We stopped and Jim quickly pointed out an adult sitting in the opening of one of the holes.

After enjoying the owl for a few minutes, we moved on to find our hotspot squares, which were in the agricultural lands to the south of the bombing range and along Juniper Canyon. The best of the three was along Immigrant Lane, with runs for several miles along the south side bombing range. It is accessed by taking Little Juniper Lane west off of Bombing Range Road and then turning north on Wells Spring Road, which makes a 90 degree turn to the west and becomes Immigrant Lane. The lands outside the bombing range are almost entirely converted to wheat fields, so the expanse of untilled grassland within this defunct military property attract lots of grassland breeders. Western Meadowlarks are exceptionally common, with most stops producing at least 4-6 territorial singers. Vesper, Lark, and Grasshopper Sparrows also use this habitat. We found two family groups of Loggerhead Shrikes hunting along the fence lines and were afforded great looks at brownish, stubby-tailed juveniles.

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This hatch-year Loggerhead Shrike was part of a family group hunting along Immigrant Lane, Morrow County, Oregon 1 June 2014.

One of our other two hotspot squares was inaccessible, a common issue when randomly selected squares are dropped across a vast expanse of mostly private property. We were able to get no closer than about a half a mile from the border of that square. Our next square, which abutted Juniper Canyon, was barely accessible. We were able to drive in one road that was just outside the square boundary. We did a couple quick point counts and headed south to further explore the forest lands along Morrow County's southern border.

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This adult intermediate Swainson's Hawk scolded us as its mate incubated eggs in a nearby nest near Lexington, Morrow County, Oregon on 1 June 2014.

Driving down Lexington Grange Road, we flushed flock after flock of Horned Larks, seeing perhaps 200 total. We also came upon a pair of Long-billed Curlews that were right next to the road. We stopped in to check on the nesting Swainson's Hawks at the intersection of Hwy 207 and Lexington Grange Road. One adult was on the nest, while another circled and scolded us from above. A Dusky Flycatcher was in the yard with the hawk nest.

We made a quick stop in Lexington to see if the Veery found the day before was still singing by the bridge on B St., but we did not hear it. We did find a male Black-chinned Hummingbird that returned often to the same perch on a utility wire along Arcade St. between B and C Streets.

Upon reaching Lexington, we were in need of a serious meal, so we drove on to Heppner (nine miles) and found just one restaurant open on Sunday morning. A hearty dose of protein and we were on our way south to the Umatilla National Forest. We made a few stops but we were on a mission to look for Dusky Grouse where a couple had been seen the previous day. The target area was along NF-2115, which winds up to a plateau at about 5500' elevation. We spent about a half hour criss-crossing the area where the grouse had been seen, then followed the drainage along the east side of the plateau down stream for nearly a half mile and then walked back through the meadow at the top on the way back to the car. We encountered no grouse, but had a really nice mix of birds in the heavy timber along the drainage.

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Around the small towns in Oregon's wheat country, Black-chinned is the default hummingbird during the breeding season. This adult male was right in the town of Lexington on 1 June 2014.

By mid-afternoon the temperatures had climbed into the mid-70's even on the high plateau, which meant if would be a warm ride home once we got down slope. As we made our way back to the main road, there was a momentary burst of excitement when Shawneen spotted a rather large looking grayish-brown grouse sitting at the edge of a spur road that we passed. We backed up and looked at the bird for a few hopeful seconds until it became apparent that it was a grayer than we are used to Ruffed Grouse instead of our hoped-for Dusky Grouse.

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Under normal circumstances, seeing any grouse is considered good fortune. At first glance, this Ruffed Grouse looked larger and much grayer than the richly-colored birds we see on Oregon's westside, plus it had its crown feathers compressed. After putting in several hours trying to find a Dusky Grouse, realizing the identity of this bird was accompanied by a bit of disappointment.

From the extreme southeast corner of Morrow County we figured it would take nearly five hours to make the drive back to Battle Ground to drop off Jim and then home. All of us were running on fumes after getting up around 4AM three days in a row. The prospect of getting home really late and then having to work Monday was not appealing. Jim jumped in the cab of the pickup with me, while Shawneen stretched out in the back with Rozi. She and Rozi slumbered for a good chunk of the way back to I-84. Instead of going north from Lexington, we continued west-northwest along the Willow Creek drainage via Hwy 74. We barely slowed down between Lexington and the Heppner Junction on I-84 just east of Arlington. We stopped for burgers in The Dalles, but otherwise dead-headed it to Jim's place, arriving about 8PM. 

There is a certain melancholy that always greets me when I return to the hustle and bustle and heavy traffic of the Portland Metro area after a long weekend in Oregon's hinterlands, where the population is sparse and travel is rarely impacted by other vehicles. I sometimes daydream about living in one of the various outlying areas that we visit, but the reality of finding work and trying to become part of the fabric of a place where people are from but rarely move to is daunting and ultimately deterring. And yet, it is a fantasy that I continue to indulge.

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Very enjoyable, with fine photos

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