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A word to the wise. If you are a birder who is a hopeless procrastinator, don't get into a relationship with another birder who is a hopeless procrastinator, unless of course you don't mind getting home way later than expected. For the average person, the drive from Burns, Oregon to Portland, Oregon is roughly a 6-7 hour trip depending on stops for gas and food. For easily-distracted birders like me and Shawneen, a full day may not be enough.
We were out of the motel and on the road by about 6:30AM on Monday June 16th. Perhaps our first problem was that we started the northwesterly trip home by first heading southeast back to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. A cursory stop at the refuge headquarters reinforced what we already knew. Migration and vagrant season were over. Determined to find a Glossy Ibis (a now annual bird in Oregon) among the swarms of White-faced Ibis, we first checked all the flocks along Sod House Road and then headed south on Hwy 205 to the Diamond cutoff.
On the way between Hwy 205 and Diamond we must have stopped fifty times to check small groups of ibis, but turned up no Glossy. This section of the refuge had a lot more water than the northern end, where normally wet pastures are bone-dry this summer. High concentrations of wetland birds around Diamond made for fun birding even though we could not find our target bird. Willets, Wilson's Snipe, Wilson's Phalaropes, several species of ducks and a few Bobolinks were readily found in the wet and semi-flooded pastures around Diamond.
By the time we reached Diamond both Shawneen and I were ready for more coffee, so we stopped at the Diamond Inn. They brewed us a fresh pot and offered free coffee cake made by the 12-year old daughter of the woman who runs the inn. We would have happily paid for the coffee cake, as it was delicious. There were two dogs running around outside the inn. One was small, at least part Chihuahua and the other was a 35-40 pound black, white, and gray herding dog name "Speedy." After a minute or two it occurred to me that this was the same dog that was maybe a two-month old puppy when my daughters and their friends had played with it on the same lawn two years earlier, the last time that they had come to Malheur with Shawneen and me. They now organize their own annual Memorial Day Weekend trips and do their own thing rather than having to cope with our pokey birding ways. Speedy remains a super friendly and affectionate dog.
As the clock dial started heading for noon, we agreed that perhaps it was time to think about heading more homewaard. Our plan was to go north from Burns rather than heading west on Hwy 20. We took U.S. Hwy 395 north out of Burns. It quickly winds into the narrow Silvies River canyon and into the Malheur National Forest. Idlewild Campground, about 14 miles north of Burns, is a popular place to get pine forest birds for Harney County, which is mostly shrub-steppe. We spent over an hour in and around the campground, hiking about a half mile along the loop trail behind the camping area. This is a good area for White-headed Woodpecker and we had two. There were also a number of singing Hermit Thrushes around the perimeter of the park. They are of the larger, grayer-backed interior form. We also did some birding right along the riparian strip that runs through the campground. A couple singing Orange-crowned Warblers sounded like the Rocky Mountain subpecies (O. c. orestera). Even though it was now early afternoon, we also found lots of Mountain Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and several Western Tanagers.
We pushed north to Silvies and into Grant County, where the valley spreads out into an expansive wet meadow. We made several stops along the highway to bird the Silvies Valley Ranch lands. The new owners of this property have put a strong focus on managing their lands to benefit wildlife and it shows. The heart of the ranch teems with birds and a researcher from Oregon State University is currently living on the property and conducting bird studies in the rich riparia along the Silvies River. At our first stop, which was the most productive, we saw 20 Willets, 30 Wilson's Phalaropes, and 25 Yellow-headed Blackbirds along with good variety and numbers of other expected freshwater marsh species.
We did two more point counts along the east edge of the Silvies Valley before continuing on towards Seneca and back up into the mountains. Just south of Seneca we made a very productive creekside stop, where we pished up a big mixed flock of warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other species. We began hearing what sounded like a Black-capped Chickadee, which is generally not an expected species in this part of Oregon.
The bird ultimately came in very close and popped into view. For the most part it looked like a Mountain Chickadee, but it lacked the distinctive white line over the eye. Instead, it had just a few white feathers in the crown. The combination of appearance and vocalizations caused us to wonder if it was a Mountain Chickadee X Black-capped Chickadee hybrid. This cross has been found multiple times in neighboring Washington state over the past few years. After getting home, we did some research and shared these photos with birding friends who live with Mountain Chickadees. All evidence and feedback points to this bird being a pure Mountain Chickadee.
Continuing on towards John Day, we made a few more stops. Just south of Canyon City we stopped along a creek to look for American Dipper and other Passerines. We heard a couple of Vaux's Swifts overhead. When we keyed them into eBird we got a "confirm" checkbox. In retrospect the need for that checkbox seemed a bit conservative, for when we drove into downtown John Day a few minutes later we saw hundreds of swift circling about. It was getting rather overcast with darkening skies and the swifts seemed to be congregating over an old church right in the middle of town. Upon closer inspection we found that they were circling over a brick chimney on the back side of the church right next to the small building that houses the Grant County Genealogical Society. We walked into the tiny courtyard between the two buildings and watched from about thirty feet away as the Vaux's Swifts began to funnel into the chimney. For a few minutes an American Crow sat on the lip of the chimney, presumably in hopes of grabbing a swift dinner.
By the time we were done watching the swifts, Shawneen pointed out that it was now nearly 7PM and we were still 271 miles from home. Any hope of being home at a "reasonable hour" (which doesn't really exist in our birding household) was now out of the question. The route from John Day to Portland follows the John Day River for nearly 70 miles before you reach Mitchell and start the climb over the Ochoco divide. It is a twisting, turning road in many spots and top speed one can maintain through Picture Gorge is around 30-35mph at times. If we really pushed it we might be home by midnight, with work looming on the morrow. Ugh!
We made a five-minute stop at Clyde Holiday State Park just outside of Mt. Vernon. Years ago, Least Flycatchers bred here for several years running, but they haven't been seen or heard here in roughly two decades. Aside from slowing down to check out a few roadside birds, we were done birding for the weekend and focused on the four-plus hours it would take us to get home. We were plenty road-weary when we arrived home at 12:10AM. Nevertheless, this was a thoroughly uplifting four-day adventure, with many explorations of places neither of us had seen previously. Our mental maps of are filled with many dots representing newly-discovered destinations for future summer birding trips. We could have easily spent twice as many days investigating the various sites that we visited along this route.