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When you live in a place like the Pacific Northwest, it's easy to take it for granted. However, when I get to share our magnificent landscapes with visitors and experience their response to the space and beauty that surrounds them, I am reminded just how fortunate I am to call this home. Over the 4th of July weekend 2014, I took two young women from Pennsylvania and New York on a two-day whirlwind tour of my home turf. On Friday we sampled the collection of habitats that can be found along a route that took us from Portland, through the Oregon Coast Range, out to the northern Oregon Coast, and then back through the Coast Range and farmlands west of Portland. Saturday focused on montane environs in the Cascades Range of southwest Washington and then out to the western margins of the Columbia Plateau to the east the Cascades.
Melissa Penta from Stroudsburg, PA won the 2014 Birdspotter Photo Contest, which is run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch and sponsored by Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods based right here in Milwaukie, OR (a suburb of Portland). The winner earns a trip for two to Portland that includes a tour of Bob's Red Mill, gift packs from both sponsors and a private guided birding outing. Melissa invited her friend Renee DePrato from Binghamton, New York to accompany her on the trip to Portland. Both are keen birders, thus they were excited by the prospects of the many life birds that they might see on a trip west.
My first connection with the Birdspotter Photo Contest came a year ago, when I was contacted by the promotions staff at the Cornell Lab. They asked if I might be willing to take the inaugural contest winner, Catherine Diehl-Robbins, out birding while she and her husband Everett were in Portland for their prize trip. I agreed and asked my partner Shawneen Finnegan to come along. Shawneen and I enjoyed a wonderful day with Catherine and Everett, taking them to a couple of local wetlands where Catherine was assured of some close-up photos of birds that aren't found around their home in Anchorage, Alaska. After the fact, the Cornell folks asked if I would be willing to take future winners out birding and I told them I would.
I had sort of forgotten about the contest until May of this year, when I received a Facebook friend request and message from Melissa. Upon finding out that she was this year's contest winner, she queried friends back east about the optimal time to make a birding trip to the west. One friend, Chris West, with whom I am connected via Facebook, suggested September, but then told Melissa that she should ask me since I live here. I suggested late June and early to mid-July as being the ideal time to visit Oregon if you want to maximize the number of species that you see. It is the height of the breeding season, territorial birds are still singing and many species already have young out of the nest or are actively feeding nestlings. She had no idea that I had taken the contest winner out the previous year and wasn't expecting that I would offer to do the same for her. Once I did, we set about planning a date that would work for both of us.
We had everything arranged for 4th of July weekend by the time Mary Guthrie, the promotions coordinator for Cornell Lab, sent me an email asking if she could put me in touch with Melissa. Mary was a bit surprised to learn that there would be no such leg work. Melissa had already done her research and sent me a very realistic list of about 30 or so potential lifers that she wanted to see, with Tufted Puffin topping that list. When I told her that we could get most of the birds on her list in a single day, she was ecstatic. When I suggested that several other lifers would be possible if we did two days, I think she might have been disbelieving. Nevertheless, she and Renee added an additional open day for birding to their trip schedule. If someone else was going to pay their way to Oregon, Melissa and Renee were going to squeeze in as many new birds as possible. Friday (the 4th of July) and Saturday, their last two days in Portland, would be our birding days. I put together an itinerary that would visit sites that I know well and where many of Melissa's target species were all but guaranteed.
Regrettably, Shawneen had to miss out on the fun this year as she had a previously scheduled ABA committee meeting that she was attending in Bloomington, Illinois. She was flying out early Friday morning. After I dropped her off at the airport, our dog Rozi and I picked up Melissa and Renee near their downtown Portland Hotel at 5:30AM. As I pulled up to the curb, their beaming smiles told me that this was going to be a fun day. They were like little kids on Christmas morning. They were, of course, most excited about seeing puffins, so I anticipated that it might be a challenge to slow them down long enough to see a number of other lifers that we could find on the way to the coast. The promise of seeing an Acorn Woodpecker just west of Portland, plus Northern Pygmy-Owl and American Dipper in the Coast Range was, apparently, sufficiently distracting.
As we headed west on U.S Hwy 26 towards our first stop along Harrington Rd. near North Plains, I was pointing out Western Scrub-Jays on about every third section of utility wire. Lifer number one of the day. On the way to the oak woodlot where Shawneen and I had seen several Acorn Woodpeckers this past spring, we heard a Western Wood-Pewee calling from an abandoned farmstead at the corner of Milne and Vadis roads. This spot hosted a wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in 2013-14. Although the pewee sang nonstop, it never showed itself, so this was a "heard only" addition (we would clean that up shortly).
We continued on to the Harrington Rd. woodlot, where Acorn Woodpeckers were surprisingly absent. We did get decent looks at Bullock's Oriole and the western form of White-breasted Nuthatch, which may end up being a lifer in the bank if the proposed split of White-breasted Nuthatches is accepted by the American Ornithological Union's (AOU) Checklist Committee. As we left the first woodlot heading west on Harrington, I spotted an Acorn Woodpecker flying across the road at a little patch of oaks about 300 yards down the road. We stopped, refound the woodpecker and both Melissa and Renee got photographic proof of the encounter. While they focused on the woodpecker, the first of nine woodpecker species we would see over the weekend, I looked around to see what else was about. I found a teed-up pewee and put the scope on it. As they enjoyed their first views of the pewee, an adult male Bullock's Oriole obligingly popped into the same scope view.
We made a few more quick stops, mostly picking up common western Oregon breeders like Black-headed Grosbeak, Lesser Goldfinch (flyby) and a number of species that occur in both eastern and western North America. A Western Scrub-Jay jumped up on a wire at one stop, providing another good photo op. We made a brief effort for American Dipper at the Gales Creek bridge at the intersection of Oregon Hwy 6 and Gales Creek Road. Heavy vegetation along the creek makes it hard to see down along the creek bed at this spot, so we moved on knowing that better sites for this species lay ahead.
Our next destination was Storey Burn Road, which peels off of Hwy 6 right at the Washington/Tillamook County line. Earlier in the year I had been up this road multiple times and found a nice mix of conifer forest birds each time. Target birds here were Northern Pygmy-Owl; Sooty Grouse, which was not likely unless we lucked into a family group on the road; Chestnut-backed Chickadee; Hermit and MacGillivray's Warblers; Western Tanager; and perhaps a chance encounter with Gray Jays or Mountain Quail. We drove directly to the three-mile marker, an area which had been really good all spring. In May we heard a hooting Sooty Grouse here on multiple visits, but by early July territorial hooting is mostly over for this species. I pulled out my trusty owl-tooter and began the process of pulling in some of the local Passerines. It didn't take long until we had swarm of the aforementioned chickadees, warblers, and tanagers filling the treetops overhead. Of course Red-breasted Nuthatches, Wilson's Warblers, and Dark-eyed Juncos rounded out the roster of agitated birds. We heard a couple of Hutton's Vireo scolds, but none of them came in close enough to see.
After about three minutes of tooting, I heard a response. A Northern Pygmy-Owl was calling downslope from us and it was not too far off. Within about a minute or so it moved upslope and into view. Eventually, it landed in a semi-dead tree right over our heads. It continued to toot away, doing a much better job of riling up the locals than I could with my plastic whistle. It collected quite an entourage of Hermit and Wilson's Warblers, chickadees, tanagers, and of course, Red-breasted Nuthatches. We lingered at this spot for about 45 minutes, eventually seeing a Red-breasted Sapsucker, whose brilliant red head shone brightly in the morning sun. We also had lengthy scope views of a singing male MacGillivray's Warbler that was teed up in a Western Hemlock sapling about 75 yards upslope. We heard the goofy whistles of a family group of Gray Jays and saw one juvenile, but Melissa and Renee were left unsatisfied by the lousy views of a heavily backlit bird. We made a couple of additional stops along the road, but aside from poor views of treetop and flyover Evening Grosbeaks, we added no new species to our day list.
After more than two hours on the road, we were ready to dispatch with our morning coffee, so the next stop would be the Tillamook Forest Center, which offers good birding, but more importantly, clean restrooms that are fit for visiting dignitaries. After taking advantage of the facilities, we walked behind the visitor center and out onto the suspension footbridge that spans the Wilson River. This is a good spot for Amerian Dipper and we weren't disappointed. A dipper was feeding in the shallows just downstream from the bridge. Earlier in the morning, Melissa did not even want to mention this species by name for fear of jinxing us. I had tempted fate by saying "American Dipper" aloud before we saw one, so I was thankful that jinx concerns were unfounded.
My original plan was to go to Storey Burn Rd., then backtrack to Timber Rd. and cut across to Hwy 26, which would make for a more direct and shorter route to Cannon Beach and PUFFINS, but we ended up spending more time than anticipated in the Coast Range and we were already more than halfway to Tillamook, so we rerouted, with the intent of going north on U.S. Hwy 101 from Tillamook to Cannon Beach.
This change would force a challenging decision...could we bite the bullet and stop for ice cream at 10AM? It is clearly stated in the Oregon Tour Leading Manual that all trips through Tillamook, Oregon must include a stop at the Tillamook Creamery for cheese sampling and ice cream. I had taken this into account when originally planning our route, which was supposed to go out Hwy 26 to Cannon Beach and then down the coast to Tillamook, with an expected early afternoon (a respectable hour for ice cream consumption) visit to the creamery. Going the opposite direction, we would pass through Tillamook right around 10AM and then make our return to Portland via Hwy 26. I talked it over with the girls and they were willing to take one for the team in order to avoid violating Oregon tour leading conventions.
I guess if you are going to force young ladies to eat ice cream for breakfast there better be a payoff. If I didn't show Melissa and Renee some puffins and soon, there was going to be mutiny. But first, we probably needed to make an appearance in a 4th of July parade. Driving north from the cheese factory, we made a quick stop at the oyster shell piles in Bay City where some "pure," or as pure as they get around here Glaucous-winged Gulls were new for Melissa. Renee had previously been to Seattle and surely had seen this species while there. We continued on around the north end of Tillamook Bay, through Garibaldi and curved back to the turned north on Hwy 101. Just after passing the Friends church camp south of Rockaway Beach, traffic along Hwy 101 came to a near standstill.
I sort of expected this, as Rockaway has gone through a bit of a revival in recent years and is once again a destination for summer tourists and Portlanders making beach getaways. During summer weekends traffic through this stretch is often slowed by the constant flow of pedestrians crossing Hwy 101, but on this day there were parked cars lining the edge of Hwy 101 starting well south of the all the businesses. It didn't take us long to figure out that a 4th of July parade was about to commence. As we limped along barely keeping pace with folks who were walking north along the highway, we reached the start of the parade route, which was lined by roadside crowds up to 10 persons deep. We waved to onlookers as they cheered our passage. I offered to open the sun roof on our Toyota Camry and have the ladies stand up and wave out through the top, but they weren't up for that. It took about ten minutes to work through the congestion and we were on our way again.
Before reaching Cannon Beach, we stopped at Silver Point to do a seawatch. This would be our best chance for alcids and other flyby seabirds. Midsummer is a great time for Passerines and other breeding birds, but flights of birds along the coast are negligible. It was also sunny and warmer than normal, which generally results in alcids feeding farther from shore. Hoped for Rhinoceros Auklets and Marbled Murrelets were no where to be found and there were almost no birds sitting on the nearshore waters. We had a few Heermann's Gulls and Brown Pelicans making their way north, some Pigeon Guillemots on the water and around the rocks, and a single Black Oystercatcher flew in and landed on the low rocks along the surfline. One of these three species was Melissa's 500th life bird. We only lingered here for about 15 minutes. When seawatching is good, it is nothing to spend an hour or more at this site and others like it.
At last, we arrived in Cannon Beach. The pullouts along Hemlock St. adjacent to Haystack Rock were packed with cars, but I managed to find a spot where I could shoehorn the car in far enough off the road to be legally parked. We put up a scope along the road and got on several Tufted Puffins that were flying around the rocks, but Melissa and Renee wanted to get up close and personal. We headed for the beach. The tide was out so there were lots of people on the beach and around the base of Haystack Rock, which along with Mt. Hood, may be the two most iconic Oregon landforms. We weren't the only ones looking at puffins. Docents associated with the Friends of Haystack Rock can be found stationed on this beach most weekends during the puffin breeding season and they usually have spotting scopes trained on the grassy northeast-facing slope where some of the puffins have nesting burrows.
For the first 10-15 minutes we were on the beach, none of the puffins were landing on our side of the rock. Those coming in for landings were all going to the ocean side of the rock and landing out of sight. Finally, a Tufted Puffin flew in and landed low on the beach side grassy slope and it was soon joined by its mate at the opening of their burrow. The pair remained for several minutes and we put the scope on them. Melissa and Renee had the views they had come all this way for.
Having eaten only some bagels, snack bars and ice cream, our crew was ready for some solid food, so we decided to head to nearby Seaside for fish and chips. There are lots of great little places to eat in Cannon Beach, but on 4th of July weekend it was wall-to-wall humanity. A lunch stop here would have likely taken a couple of hours and we had birds to see. Just before leaving Cannon Beach, we stopped along the creek mouth in hopes of finding a Wrentit. We couldn't pish one up, but did have point-blank looks at a female Black-throated Gray Warbler and better looks at a Steller's Jay.
Shortly after taking the Hwy 101 cutoff to Seaside, we realized we had made a mistake by trying to go there on the 4th of July. Traffic was absolutely stopped, fully five miles out of town. I hung hasty U-turn and started heading east on Hwy 26. We would go to Camp 18 for lunch instead. Camp 18 features a massive log-cabin style restaurant situated along Humbug Creek right at milepost 18 on Hwy 26. It is an outdoor logging museum with vintage logging equipment displayed all around the property. There is even a fully-rigged spar tree (yarder pole of yore) out front. Inside the restaurant, the walls are decorated with antique axes, saws, and other paraphernalia that harkens back to the heyday of Oregon's timber industry.
We asked the hostess for a seat by the windows that overlook the creek so that we could enjoy the company of Evening and Black-headed Grosbeaks, American Goldfinches, Purple Finches and Rufous Hummingbirds that were coming to the feeders just outside the window. Melissa and Renee probably can't remember what they had for lunch, but they will never forget having their first really good looks at Evening Grosbeaks, which were on a tray feeder no more than three feet from where they sat. After lunch, we roamed around outside a bit and took some photos of the birds coming to the feeders. We also got some touristy shots of the building and the wood carvings that adorn its wraparound porch.
By the time we finished eating and playing tourist, it was pushing 2:30 or later and we had plans to be at a friend's house for a 4th of July cookout by 6:00. I wanted to get back in town early enough for all of us to clean up and collect the stuff we needed to take to the get together. We made one more stop on our way back to Portland. We took Cedar Canyon Rd. west out of Banks to check the Killin Wetlands for Cinnamon Teal. We didn't find the teal, but got great looks and photos of a Lazuli Bunting for consolation.
Since the 4th of July gathering was going to be all birders, we invited Melissa and Renee to join us for the evening. It's a good thing they did, because in between dinner and socializing, they picked up two more life birds–Anna's Hummingbird and Lesser Goldfinch–that we didn't find anywhere else. They had brief, but unsatisfying views of flyby Lesser Goldfinches earlier in the day, but were not ready to count them until they got better looks. After a long day, I dropped them off at their hotel about 10:00PM and we synchronized our watches for a 4:30AM pick-up Saturday morning (YIKES!).
Before leaving home at 4:15AM the next morning, I sent Melissa a text just to make sure that they were up and still keen on the idea of the early start. "We're up, sorta" was the response. As I rounded the corner at SW 5th and Oak in downtown Portland, it was bang on the dot 4:30 and the girls were coming down the street. Both parties were pleased that they didn't have to stand around waiting on street corner at this ridiculous hour, when drunks, transients, and lost souls are about the only other people out on downtown streets. Even with a painfully early start, they were coffee'd up and no less enthusiastic than they had been the previous morning. My kinda birders!
Originally, I had planned on this day being spent in Wasco County on the east flank of Mt. Hood, where a mix of forested and non-forested habitats would provide a whole suite of birds that Melissa didn't have on her first target list. However, the weekend before Shawneen Finnegan, Kara Greer, Jim Danzenbaker and I had enjoyed a fantastic trip to Trout Lake, Washington and the Cascade Creek Burn (2012 fire) on the southeast skirt of Mt. Adams. On that day we had 12 American Three-toed Woodpeckers, one Black-backed Woodpecker, and a bunch of other species that would be lifers for Melissa and Renee. Jim did a follow-up trip in the middle of the week and had 18 Three-toeds, 8+ Black-backeds, Williamson's Sapsucker and several Hairy Woodpeckers. These successes warranted a change of plans, especially since we had staked out active nests for some of these birds.
Aside from stopping for gas at North Bonneville, Washington, we made no stops until we turned north on Washington Hwy 141 near White Salmon. Our first stop was impromptu, when I spotted a male and female California Quail right along the road. I turned around and using the car as a blind we got into position for Melissa and Renee to get photos. Just a short way farther up the road, a Western Kingbird was feeding along a fence line–more photos. Then we stopped at a clearcut area that is always very birdy. It yielded their best looks at Western Tanager and we watched as a male Western Bluebird pulverized a huge green caterpillar on a stump about 25 feet from where we stood. We logged about 15 species here, most of which we'd seen the day before.
We continued into Trout Lake for a pit stop and delicious breakfast sandwiches of egg, cheese and either ham or bacon on a toasted bagel. Melissa and Renee apparently have a vacation mantra: "Never pass up sugar," so they picked up a couple of huckleberry scones for the road. I've had the scones from the little restaurant at the "Y" in Trout Lake and they are quite good.
On our way up FR-80 and then FR-8040 towards the burn area, we made some stops down in the live trees in hopes of picking up some forest birds that we didn't or couldn't get in the Oregon Coast Range. We walked a few yards into a mixed forest of Douglas-fir, grand fir, and the occasional ponderosa pine and had 3-4 Hammond's Flycatchers, Cassin's Vireo, Audubon's Yellow-rumped Warbler (all lifers) plus the expected swarm of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches that amass when you pish and do pygmy-owl imitations in this type of habitat. A few Pine Siskins and a Nashville Warbler also came in. We made one more stop at a spot that always produces Dusky Flycatcher (a species that we somehow missed all day) and MacGillivray's Warbler. We had neither.
Once into the burn, we made some brief stops in the area where Jim Danzenbaker had seen and heard dozens of woodpeckers at midweek. We listened for tapping and calling woodpeckers but did not hear much other than the drum pattern of what was likely a Black-backed. It was surprisingly quiet. From there, we pushed on to the top of the hill and the parking/camping area at the base of South Trail #183, one of the most popular trailheads for Mt. Adams climbers. Again, this area, which had a family group of Gray Jays and a Clark's Nutcracker the weekend before, was unexpectedly quiet.
We hiked up Cold Spring Trail #72 to the active Three-toed nest that we found on 29 June. Before we even left the trail, we could hear a loudly begging nestling. We stationed ourselves about 30 yards from the nest tree and waited for the adult to come in for a feeding. We waited...waited some more...continued waiting. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes passed and no sign of an adult. All the while a youngster, often with its head poking out of the nest hole, begged incessantly. It tried every cadence, sound and volume in its repertoire multiple times, but nothing seemed to work. This nestling appeared to be fully grown and fully feathered, thus we concluded that the adults might be using a tough love approach to get it to fledge. Perhaps they were out tending to an already-fledged sibling. A week earlier, adults were seen going to and from this nest constantly.
We returned to the camping area in hopes of finding the Gray Jays, but no luck. We did have an adult/juvenile pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, another adult American Three-toed, plus decent looks at a Black-backed Woodpecker. There were also some Mountain Chickadees around the campground. As we headed back down the road we stopped several times for birds along the road and the sounds of woodpeckers off in the woods. We found more Three-toed and Hairy Woodpeckers and got good looks at several Mountain Bluebirds. Just before leaving one stop, I heard the not-too-distant "ping" note of a Townsend's Solitaire. We had heard a distant calling bird earlier in the morning at the clearcut, but never saw it. I started doing pygmy-owl toots in hopes of bringing it in. Melissa was really motivated to see the solitaire. She had chased a vagrant near home a few months earlier and missed it. The pings continued to sound closer and closer until the solitaire flew in and landed almost directly overhead. Though the light wasn't particularly good for photography, Melissa got some nice photos.
A little farther down the road, we ran into Ann Nightingale and Jim Danzenbaker, who was making his third trip of the week into the burn. They had located a Williamson's Sapsucker nest right next to the road near the bottom end of the burn. They gave us the approximate location and showed us photos of the massive barkless tree the nest was in. We chatted with them for a few minutes, compared notes on what we'd found up at the top of the burn and continued down the hill. We readily found the tree and didn't have to wait long for the adult female Williamson's Sapsucker to come in and feed the young. A few minutes later the male showed up. While we watched the adult sapsuckers coming and going, we saw another Black-backed and another Hairy Woodpecker.
It was now nearing noon and we had lots of ground to cover if we were going to hit some spots on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, so we abandoned the burn and headed back to Trout Lake. In the morning a white board on the side of the cafe had captured our attentions with, "HUCKLEBERRY SMOOTHIES." By now the temperature was near 80F and we were hot, parched, and covered with dust. Melissa and I got the smoothies, while Renee went for a root beer float.
From just south of Trout Lake, we headed east on Warner Rd. towards Conboy National Wildlife Refuge and Glenwood, Washington. We made a few stops around the perimeter of the refuge, but did not take the time to drive through, as we were a bit pressed for time. As we drove through pasture lands, Melissa and Renee enjoyed more Western Kingbirds and their first Western Meadowlarks. A few miles farther, I got a bit excited when an Eastern Kingbird (they are regular in this area) appeared atop a roadside bush. I don't see Eastern Kingbirds all that often, so they are a treat for me. My eastern cohorts yawned. We made a couple last-ditch stops in hopes of picking up Dusky Flycatcher, but at long last I had failed to find a species that I thought would be a cinch.
Continuing on, we stopped at the cemetery on the outskirts of Glenwood. Cemeteries aren't as popular for birding here as they are in the East, where they are often the only place around with conifer trees (no shortage of those here), but this one always seems to have quite a few birds around it. Perhaps it's because the sprinklers never stop running during the summer. We saw only a few birds at first until we walked down along the fence line that borders the forested side. In less than two minutes we picked up three quick lifers for Renee and Melissa–Gray Flycatcher, Cassin's Finch, and Pygmy Nuthatch. As their name suggests, Pygmy Nuthatches are smaller than other nuthatches, which, combined with their high-pitched "peeping" whistles, makes them fun to watch.
Being down off the mountain, we were suddenly feeling the heat. It was well into the 80's and getting increasingly windier the closer we got to the Columbia Gorge. Birding is always slow this time of day and once we got east and south of Glenwood–headed towards Goldendale–we were passing through an area where I had never visited. At the margins of the Columbia Plateau there is an interesting transition between the ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir forest and the oak savannah that is found just before you reach the mostly treeless plateau. There is a narrow band of forest in central Klickitat County, particularly along the the Klickitat River, where there is a mix of ponderosa pine and Oregon white oak. Most of the oaks are stunted with few trees growing to the sizes that can be seen west of the Cascades. We made a some brief stops in this vegetation community, but saw and heard virtually nothing during the peak of the afternoon heat.
As we approached Goldendale, Washington from the west, we left the forested landscape behind us and moved out into open range and agriculture lands. I happened to mention that Swainson's Hawks are fairly common in this type of habitat and if we were to see a Buteo, it would likely be a Swainson's. Just after getting on U.S. Hwy 97 east of Goldendale, Melissa spotted a hawk circling over the highway. We found a safe place to pull over, piled out, and enjoyed a gorgeous Swainson's right overhead.
Descending off the plateau down to Washington Hwy 14 and the Columbia River, we saw signs for the Maryhill Museum. This museum was first constructed, or at least partially constructed, by early 20th century entrepreneur Sam Hill, who was notorious for his willingness to spend exorbitant amounts of money building extravagant things in places where they seemingly made little sense. Named for his wife and daughter, the Maryhill mansion was intended to be the centerpiece of a Quaker community that Hill envisioned starting in this remote section of the Columbia Gorge. The mansion wasn't completed until after his death, as I recall because its namesake (Hill's wife) informed him in no uncertain terms that she was not going leave a comfortable and sophisticated city life in Seattle to live out in the sticks. Although it appears to have come into the lexicon earlier as a replacement for the more profane and vulgar "what in the hell...," some sources suggest the use of "what in the Sam Hill..." was a means of comparing someone's follies to the many frivolous projects of this Sam Hill. Personally, I prefer the latter version.
We finally made it back into Oregon about 3:30PM. Right down along the Columbia it felt like the temperature was about 90F and the wind was cranking, as it typically does on summer afternoons. We stopped at the towering rimrock just west of the Deschutes River mouth hoping to see White-throated Swifts and maybe hear Canyon and Rock Wrens. The combination of highway noise and wind made it impossible to hear distant singing wrens and trying to pick a few White-throated Swifts out of the blizzard of Cliff and Violet-green Swallows coursing back and forth along the lip of the rimrock proved nearly as difficult. After much effort, I got on two swifts and Melissa saw one. The glare made it a real challenge to see any pattern, let alone color, so spotting a swift was really dependent on having a search image. Knowing what to look for was the only way I was able to see those that I spotted. Renee never got on a swift and expressed the only exasperation (understandable) from either her or Melissa all weekend. I'm sure she was thinking, "why in the Sam Hill did he bring us here?" We tried a couple different light angles, but it was pointless.
Continuing west on I-84, we got off in The Dalles and headed south on Oregon Hwy 197, which rises up and over a couple of ridgelines before dropping down into Tygh Valley. We made a couple more stops for wrens as we made our way to the town of Tygh Valley, where great looks at Lewis's Woodpeckers are almost a given. We found Rock Wrens at two different spots, and also had a family group of Grasshopper Sparrows (a good bird across most of Oregon) near milepost 22 as we crested the second ridge. We saw one Lewis's Woodpecker in a tree top quite a ways off the road and stopped for quick look on the off chance we couldn't find one in Tygh Valley. No need for concern, as we went to the usual spot next to the store in Tygh and almost immediately found a Lewis's in the trees of the neighboring yard. This seemed to ease the lingering sting of the swift fiasco.
From Tygh Valley we continued east/southeast on Hwy 197 and climbed towards the top of the hill, where we would turn off on Juniper Flat Rd. Just before we crested the hill there was modest rimrock with a boulder-strewn area below. We stopped for one last shot at Canyon Wren. A silhouetted Black-billed Magpie was calling from the top of the rimrock and we had some other birds down in the bowl, including another Rock Wren, but no luck with Canyon Wren. The loop through Juniper Flat Road is almost always entertaining. We had a number of Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, Western Kingbirds and a few more Mountain Bluebirds. Near the far end of the loop, I somehow drove right past a little roadside marsh that has nesting Tricolored Blackbirds. We turned around at the intersection with Oregon Hwy 216 and drove the mile back to the wetland. As soon as we got out of the car, several female Tricoloreds popped into view and then a small group of adult males flew in and landed briefly in the cattail tops. They hung around just long enough for Melissa to click off a few photos and away they went. This would be the last of many life birds that Melissa and Renee added during this trip.
We made one last stop in the nearby hamlet of Pine Grove, where there is a yard with two hummingbird feeders. This yard routinely produces four species of hummers (Anna's, Black-chinned, Calliope, and Rufous). It was nearly 7:30PM when we arrived and we assumed that the hummers would be actively tanking up for the evening. The feeders were dead. We had two Rufous Hummingbirds chasing each other around, but no other hummer species. The Rufous came near both feeders a few times, but never so much as stopped for a sip.
On the way back to Portland, Melissa and Renee treated me to a wonderful dinner at the Rendezvous Grill in Welches, Oregon on the southwest slope of Mt. Hood. It took some convincing, but I finally got Renee to buy into the idea of salmon fish and chips. She ordered them on my recommendation and was quite pleasantly surprised. We lingered at the table recalling all the places we had been, birds we had seen and scenery that we had enjoyed over these two days. As much as anything, we enjoyed one another's company. I'm not sure who had more fun, them or me. Ultimately, Melissa and Renee, who had been to the West twice previously, added 54 and 36 lifers respectively, so I suspect they had a pretty good time. As for me, I always enjoy showing other birders life birds, but their reaction to the landscape, the views, the trees (even the burnt ones), and the vegetation both subtle and showy made spending time with them an absolute joy. Birding is a truly holistic experience that can't be disconnected from the land. When you meet folks who notice and appreciate both, you are in fine company.
Aside from leading parrot trips at the Rio Grande Valley birding festival, I can't recall when I've had so much fun showing people life birds. I kept waiting for these ladies to cry "uncle," but they never did. We went from 5:30AM-10PM on Friday and then 4:30AM-10:45 on Saturday. When I dropped them off at their hotel and we hugged our goodbyes, they were talking about needing to pack up before going to bed. They had an 8:00AM flight out to the east coast on Sunday morning. I know how tired I was when I got up at 8:30 Sunday morning to help a friend move. Melissa and Renee are back home now sharing photos and stories of the birds and landscapes via social media. The overwhelming response is, "Wow, where were you?" Oregon and Washington of course.
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.
After a full day that focused entirely on the Santa Rosa Mountains in northwest Nevada, we decided to make the last two days of our trip more of a potpourri of birding experiences. Following our descent out of the Santa Rosas, we made the nearly three hour drive to Jordan Valley, Oregon, arriving at 10:30 local time, having lost an hour to time change. It seems strange, but the easternmost edge of Oregon is in the Mountain Time Zone.
Jordan Valley (pop. 180) is Oregon's most southeasterly town. It abuts the Idaho border and is roughly 50 miles north of Oregon's southeastern corner. It is a place rich in Basque culture. The Basque people emigrated to the Great Basin in part because the landscape reminded them of their native lands in the Pyrenees Mountains. The Basques were well adapted to the rigors of a nomadic herding lifestyle, which made them well suited to tending cattle and sheep on the vast ranches in this remote corner of North America. Basque surnames are common in and around Jordan Valley and the surrounding region. They brought with them a unique language–Euskara– that seems to have no close connection or similarity to any other European language or dialect. They also imported a rich food culture and their favorite game "pelota" which is played in a multi-walled court. Oregon's only pelota court has a place of prominence right in the middle of town.
When we Googled places to stay in Jordan Valley from McDermitt, there were only two...the Basque Station Inn–a somewhat modern no frills motel–and the Old Basque Inn, which is a step back in time sort of bed and breakfast inn. We opted for the latter. Knowing that we would be arriving a bit late, we called ahead to arrange for a room and after hours entrance. We made it just before they were done cleaning and locking up the restaurant downstairs. There are several upstairs rooms, a la the Frenchglen Hotel, with multiple shared bathrooms at the end of the hall. For about $65 per night, you get a room, use of a small sitting room that has a TV and refrigerator (the individual rooms don't) and any breakfast you choose off the restaurant menu the next morning. The rooms are small, but clean and comfortable, especially if all you need is a good bed. They are pet friendly, which is good because we had our dog Rozi along.
Since our "free" breakfast wouldn't be available until 8AM, we were unmotivated to get up at an unreasonable hour, so we started our day in leisurely fashion, not getting up until 7:30. It was Father's Day after all. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of traditional chorizo, eggs, sourdough pancakes and several cups of coffee before departing.
We found one of our more interesting birds of the day before we left the Old Basque Inn parking lot. As we loaded up our gear into back of the pickup, we heard and saw quite a few species, including a Willow Flycatcher that was calling from a yard across the street. Then Shawneen and I both heard a familiar call...it was a Lesser Goldfinch. Lesser Goldfinches are in the midst of a major range expansion, with coastal populations pushing east and north into the Columbia Basin and the Great Basin being colonized by birds that are presumably coming from the south. This may explain the recent report of a mostly black-backed male coming to a feeder in northeast Oregon. Still, I was surprised to find one here. Comparing the range maps for Lesser Goldfinch found in the second edition of the big Sibley Guide to the map in the first edition, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, but twenty years ago Lesser Goldfinch would have been considered a real rarity here. Having only heard the rising teeeer call note, we were determined to see the bird and make sure were weren't being fooled. I noticed a female fly into the lower branches of a large poplar at the edge of the inn's parking area. I could tell by the way it flew in and disappeared that it was probably going to a nest, which I quickly found.
Since we were only a couple of miles from the Idaho border, we decided to take a brief jaunt across the stateline into Owyhee County, Idaho, our prime motivation being to create an eBird footprint for ourselves in that state. Ridiculous of course, but we cannot resist the temptation to start a new eBird state or county list.
Driving east out of Jordan Valley on Yturri Blvd, we first passed through an area with wet pastures bracketing the road. We had a number of Wilson's Snipe, Wilson's Phalaropes, Willets and hordes of blackbirds. A bit further along we went around a curve and crossed a small bridge, where we flushed two Black-crowned Night-Herons. We covered about a mile once we crossed into Idaho, quickly building a list of 27 species that included two more night-herons, plus a couple of Bobolinks. Enough of this foolishness, back to Malheur County.
Shortly after passing back through Jordan Valley we spotted the town's sewage ponds along the north side of the road. They were modernized with fresh rip-rap and no muddy edge, which generally translates to minimal birdlife. There were about ten Wilson's Phalaropes spinning about, a couple of broods of Mallards, a Gadwall and two Lesser Scaup. A Rock Wren sounded off from the maintenance yard to the east, but that was it.
Our target destination this morning was Antelope Reservoir, about 12 miles east of Jordan Valley, but there were several wet pastures that delayed our progress. About a mile past the sewage ponds we found a good mix of marsh birds on both sides of the road. We had both American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts here, along with a flock of 25 White-faced Ibis, plus more Willets, phalaropes and a Long-billed Curlew. A pair of American Wigeon were along a little flooded-out section of Jordan Creek was slightly surprising. About a mile farther along there is expansive wet pasture on both sides of Hwy 95. More ducks, shorebirds, blackbirds, and another night-heron were tallied. Willets are absolutely abundant through this stretch and at this stop we counted ten.
We finally made it Antelope Reservoir just before 11AM. Nearly an hour of scoping from various vantage points yielded a list of 37 species, most of which were water birds. The pool was at maybe two-thirds capacity. There was no shortage of birds to sift through along the broad mudflats. Canada Geese, about 700 in all, were the most numerous. We had ten other species of waterfowl, three species of grebes (Western, Clark's and Eared) and about 100 American White Pelicans. There was a good mix of gulls and shorebirds, including two Bonaparte's Gulls, 28 Franklin's Gulls–plus a single Caspian Tern. A lone Sandhill Crane was in the grass on the far side of the reservoir. From late June through early October this site is surely worth checking for shorebirds and stray inland migrant jaegers and Sabine's Gulls (Aug-September). It should have water year around, although water levels across much of southeastern seem to be well below the norm this Summer.
After Antelope Reservoir, we made only a couple stops as we headed west and then south from Burns Junction on Hwy 95. Looking at satellite images, we had been intrigued by the vegetation along Whitehorse Rd., which runs west from U.S. Hwy 95, past the Whitehorse Ranch and several other ranches, eventually connects to Oregon Hwy 205 a few miles south of Fields. Along the way we made a brief stop at Rome, where the birdlife is dominated by House Sparrows and you can get your bearings if you happen to be lost (see photo above).
Our next stop was the Oregon Dept. of Transportation (ODOT) maintenance station at the sprawling metropolis of Basque (pop. ???). Over the years, other Oregon birders have speculated about the vagrant trap potential of this place. The wispy trees around the station are the only ones for many miles in any direction and like all of these facilities, the sprinklers seem to run incessantly during the summer months. Unfortunately, there is zip for understory or meaningful shrubbery, so its hard to imagine that there is enough food or cover to hold insectivorous Passerines for very long. We noticed a couple of hummingbird feeders behind one of the residences, but saw no birds going to either of them. One of station's denizens came out to say hi and he told Shawneen that they had last seen hummingbirds several days earlier. The wind was howling, so we lingered just long enough to rack up a list of nine species, highlighted by...oh, that's right there weren't any highlights. I took advantage of this postage-stamp island of cell coverage to call and wish my own dad a happy Father's Day. Of course he laughed when I told him where I was calling from.
We made lots of brief stops as we made our way across Whitehorse Rd., mostly in places down in canyons and out of the wind. We focused on pockets of dense riparia, so our eBird checklists from this stretch were populated by good counts of swallows, blackbirds, Yellow Warblers and the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat. Right at the confluence of two creeks–part of the Trout Creek network–we heard a singing Bewick's Wren. This species is quite uncommon in Harney County, but a few scattered pairs can be found along creeks with dense understory. We also had three Western Tanagers, which were in habitat where we wouldn't expect them to breed.
A lengthy encounter with two Chukars highlighted our passage of Whitehorse Road. As is typical, they started running when they saw the truck. Unlike most Chukars, they stayed on the road running out ahead of us for nearly a half a mile, never turning abruptly and evaporating into the sagebrush like they normally do. They would pause occasionally and we would catch up slightly before they took off again. We paced along slowly behind them hoping that they would eventually stop to get their pictures taken. Finally, they seemed to tucker out. One turned up a steep slope right next to the road on my side of the car. It only went about 20 yards before stopping right out in the open. My previous efforts to get photos of this species have always ended with bird LONG GONE, so it was nice to finally get some usable images.
As we neared Fields it occurred to us that the cafe closes down their grill fairly early in the day–usually about 4:30PM at the latest. It was already after 3:00. If we were going to partake of another burger, about the only opportunity for hot food between here and Burns, we better make tracks. We got into Fields about 3:30 and bee-lined to the cafe. On Sundays they shut the grill down at 4:ooPM, so ours were the last burgers off the grill on this day. We lingered in the cafe chatting up the staff about past owners, long-time local residents like "Cactus" Smith and "Ralph" who have been gone from the area and likely this Earth for some time. The twenty-something son of one of women who run the cafe told a story of a guy who stopped in recently hoping to get a steak because he and his dad would come here for steaks years ago. It's been more than a decade since the cafe has had steak on the menu.
The Fields Cafe quickly becomes a tradition for almost everyone who regularly visits this place. Two of my three kids have developed a bit of their own annual tradition for visiting this quiet corner of Oregon. In 1985, a year before we got married, I introduced their mother to Oregon's high desert. About a decade later she brought our three kids to Malheur when they were all under seven years old. They loved it from the start and have come back to what we affectionately refer to as "the big country" many, many times since. My daughters are now in their twenties and they have introduced their own friends to the joys of this seemingly stark landscape. As parents, we made plenty of mistakes, but turning our kids on to the desert, a different pace, and a place where television, electronic games, and connections to the rest of the world are mostly absent, was not one of them. Every time I see photos of their high desert adventures my heart soars.
With burger-sated bellies we continued north towards Burns. The drive through the Catlow Valley is one of my favorites in all of Oregon, especially in the light of late afternoon/early evening sunlight. We dropped down the hill into Frenchglen and decided on a whim to drive up the southern section of the Central Patrol Road CPR), which bisects the upper end of the Blitzen Valley through the heart of the southernmost section of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Driving the CPR was a given when I first visited this refuge nearly 40 years ago, but it had been a long time since last poked my way along this mosquito-infested byway. The willows along the Blitzen River have really grown up over the years, which has only served to increase the number of breeding Yellow Warblers. They have always been ridiculously abundant along the stretch between the P Ranch and Benson Pond.
The area just north of the P Ranch is still a good place to see Bobolinks and we were treated to a fantastic encounter with a male that teed up and sang from a willow top right next to the road. Normally, Bobolinks are way out in the middle of grassy fields and not particularly approachable. Shawneen got some wonderful video and audio of this bird as it repeatedly sang its unique song. Driving slowly, we scoured the dense willow clumps hoping to catch sight of a Long-eared Owl, but no luck. Flocks of White-faced Ibis, which now breed by the tens of thousands on the refuge, were seemingly always in view as they commuted back and forth from feeding sites to nesting colonies. When I first came to the refuge in May 1977, only about 250 pairs nested in the Blitzen Valley.
Mule deer are always thick in this part of the refuge, which features lots of lush vegetation to browse even in a dry year like this one. We saw a couple of bucks with trophy-worthy velvety racks. Then we encountered another buck that had a major antler deformity. Instead of the normal set of antlers, the crown of its head was covered with at least 20 little nobs that looked like the start of antlers. It was rather creepy to look at. Once we got to Benson Pond, we bailed off the CPR and back to Hwy 205. We made it to Burns about dark. One last night in the desert and tomorrow we begrudgingly head for home.