We will email you so you're the first to know when we launch new features.
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.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series about our recent trip to southeastern Oregon and northwestern Nevada. If this write-up inspires you to visit the Santa Rosa Mountains, PLEASE make sure that you read the last few paragraphs, as they contain some important notes of caution.
Although we weren't ready for the alarm to be going off as early as it did on Saturday morning, we responded to it with the inevitable enthusiasm that comes in anticipation of exploring a new place. Having spent many evenings pouring over maps and Google Maps satellite images, we knew our trip into the Santa Rosa Mountains would be special. However, it should be noted that no amount of high-tech scouting can fully prepare you for either the reality or the beauty of a place.
The Santa Rosa Mountains in Humboldt County, Nevada absolutely have to seen first hand to be appreciated. From the moment they first came into view in the early evening of 13 June 2014, Shawneen and I were instantly captivated by the allure of this rugged range. In shape and substrate, they are unlike the neighboring ranges just north of the Oregon border. They are taller and more suggestive of the Rocky Mountains than any range in southeastern Oregon. Even from a distance, it's apparent that there are significant stands of trees in the higher elevation sub-basins. We knew these stands existed from the satellite images we'd looked at, thus we left home excited to learn what species occupy these verdant pockets during the breeding season. We would not be disappointed.
The day started with a search for a decent cup of coffee. At 5:30AM, towns out in the high desert have limited options, so we settled for a tolerable cup of McDonald's finest. As we made our way north out of town we noticed a string of wetlands off the side of the highway that had some egrets and White-faced Ibis, so we bailed off the highway at the first exit and started looking for access to the streamside corridor. We quickly found a modest little ditch with water and some cattail edge. There were both Great and Snowy Egrets, plus about eight pairs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the modest cattail marsh, which was small enough that it would fit in a typical suburban backyard. We quickly racked up a bunch of new county birds, then began working our way back out to U.S. Hwy 95.
As we drove north on Hwy 95, we remembered having seen a Buteo nest chock full of ready-to-fledge youngsters as we sped by in fading light the night before. Based on the height and size of the nest, we had presumed it was a Ferruginous Hawk nest. We easily refound the massive stick nest, which was in small, mostly-dead Russian olive tree about 100 yards off the road. Sure enough, the were four gawky Ferruginous Hawk nestlings that appeared to be at least as large as the adults. We got out of the truck and almost immediately had suspicious adults circling overhead. We took a few photos of both the adults and the nestlings, which were sort of long-necked, long-legged and bug-eyed. After a minute or so, we left them to carry out their activities in peace.
A few miles farther north we peeled off on Hwy 290, which ends 19 miles to the north at Paradise Valley. There are only about 100 permanent residents in Paradise Valley, but there are many other part-timers who spend weekends or summers in this quiet little burg. It must be a stark and forbidding place during the winter months, but at this time of year it seems aptly named. There are number of antiquated derelict buildings in town, including the three-part "Micca House" right at the turnoff to start up Hinkey Road towards the Santa Rosa Mountains. Across the street at this same intersection is a bridge over Cottonwood Creek and large stand of cottonwoods and poplars, which had numerous roosting vultures and hawks when we arrived shortly after 8:30AM. We had roughly 45 vultures, seven Swainson's Hawks, and three Red-tailed Hawks right around town.
Turning north at the intersection in the photo above puts you onto Hinkey Road, which heads directly north out of town. After a few miles we noticed a small stock pond off the west side of the road. As we drove past, a couple of Wilson's Phalaropes flushed up, so we stopped. Bodies of water are scarce in these parts, so almost any pond or stream is worth checking for waterbirds. This spot was quite busy with a surprising brood of Green-winged Teal, two broods of Gadwall, at least eight Wilson's Phalaropes and four Yellow-headed Blackbirds. It's hard to imagine that Green-winged Teal are more than an uncommon breeder in this part of Nevada.
Continuing north along Hinkey Road, we were soon following along Indian Creek, which originates high on the south face of the Santa Rosas. A short ways later, we crossed into the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which at this elevation is still a treeless forest. We made several brief stops, which invariably yielded Lazuli Buntings, Red-winged or Brewer's Blackbirds, plus a few family groups of "Plumbeous" Bushtits and the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat. Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks were also quite common, particularly along the lower, flatter stretches of Hinkey Road.
Once we crossed the national forest boundary, the grade steepened and the canyon narrowed. After a mile or so, we came to the first good stand of aspens. We parked the truck and walked up the road for about a quarter of a mile. It was a bit disconcerting to flush a flock of nearly 100 European Starlings–mostly hatch-year birds–out of big tangle along the creek. That was counter-balanced by a feeding flock of about a dozen Common Nighthawks working the skies overhead. They often came gliding by at fairly close range, which allowed for reasonable attempts at flight shots. Their constant changes of direction and flight speed make it a challenge to get shots that are in perfect focus.
The suite of birds that we were encountering at these stops remained relatively constant until we got up to some hard switchbacks at about 6000'. Rather suddenly, the brush fields along the side of the road showed signs of having enjoyed more moisture than the rather parched looking sagebrush and grasses that we had been passing through at lower elevations. There was obvious and colorful new growth on most of the vegetation and the ringing of Brewer's Sparrow songs in our ears was a welcomed change.
At lower elevations we had struggled to find singing desert sparrows of any species, even Brewer's, which can be ubiquitous in the high desert during wetter years. At our first stop in the switchbacks, we could easily hear about ten territorial singers. There was also a smattering of Green-tailed Towhees along this section of the road.
As we gained elevation, seemingly every curve in the road tempted us to take scenic photos of the landscape. These alternated between spectacular vistas looking back down into the valley below and admiring the mosaic of wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs leading upslope to yet another stunning outcrop. Between the two of us, we took dozens of photos in addition to trying to mentally cache images that simply can't be captured in pixels.
About a mile or so below the Hinkey Summit, we came upon a broad sub-basin that was feeding the upper reaches of Indian Creek. Nestled back up in the trees is well-kept, recently built private cabin. We birded this spot mostly from the road and by working uphill on the upslope side of the property. Here is where we heard our first of many Swainson's Thrushes. We were able to eventually get some brief looks at the thrush, which mostly stayed buried in the brush. It was of the expected olive-backed type that breeds across most of Canada and in the Intermountain West.
While Shawneen was still down below along the road, I heard the song of a Fox Sparrow. Anxious to see what type it was, I started pishing. What popped into view was visually startling. It appeared to be a Fox Sparrow, but it had a mostly white head. It remained in view, both singing and calling for long stretches, so I was able to get a good set of photos of what proved to be a partially leucistic "Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow.
This site also produced our first fleeting glimpses of a "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha). We also had a couple of Black-chinned Hummingbirds chasing each other about over this strip of riparia.
This was one of the birdiest spots on the mountain. We spent nearly an hour here, recording 23 species. In addition to species already mentioned, we had two additional Fox Sparrows, our first Ruby-crowned Kinglet, four MacGillivray's Warblers, two Pine Siskins and a low flyby White-throated Swift.
Aside from being the highest point (7850') along the road, Hinkey Summit offers little excitement. It is quite exposed and wind-blown, so even the shrubs were pretty stunted. There is 4-H cabin right near the summit, which overlooks a brushy hillside and dense trough of aspens just over the north side of the summit. We got buzzed by another White-throated Swift and heard two more Fox Sparrows singing down the hill.
A little farther down the road I heard one drum sequence of a sapsucker. I initially assumed that it had to be a Red-naped based on location. However, after getting an eBird checkbox when I keyed in Red-naped, I punched in Red-breasted, which, surprisingly, did not generate a "confirm" checkbox. Based on the sound of the drum pattern, I think the bird was a Red-naped. I've reviewed the eBird database looking for nearby reports of these two species and there are no records of Red-breasted in the Santa Rosas, but there are two credible reports of Red-naped from this mountain range. Why Red-breasted wouldn't generate a checkbox is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Given the dominance of aspens, a common host tree for Red-naped Sapsucker nests, I would far more expect to find that species here.
About a half mile down the north slope from the summit we found a really nice little boggy area that looked perfect for "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrow (subspecies oriantha). Almost immediately, we heard two singing. Using the video function on our iPhones, we got some decent recordings of their unique song. These birds seem to have a strong preference for high-elevation boggy meadows. This site is very much like a place on Winter Ridge in Lake County, Oregon, where Shawneen and I found "Mountain" White-crowneds a few years back.
The other interesting find at this site was two Fox Sparrows that looked and sounded like "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrows, which are not known from the Santa Rosa Range. They were bathing in a small streamlet and staying partially obscured by overhanging vegetation. However, they were quite gray-headed and had large-looking bills. More importantly, they gave very sharp, metallic calls that were consistent with "Thick-billed". The Santa Rosas are about 100 miles east of the easternmost sites where "Thick-billeds" have proven to be somewhat regular, so this question begs further investigation. Continuing downslope, we heard a couple more birds at other spots that offered similar call notes.
As Hinkey Road (now FR-84) winds down the north-facing slope from the summit area to Lye Creek Campground it passes through an extended stand of aspens. We didn't have a lot of bird variety along this stretch, but we were fascinated by the thousands of moths that were flushing from the aspen sapling understory as we moved along.
Time flies when you are having fun and by the time we reached Lye Creek Campground it was 5PM. We were only halfway through the 30-plus mile loop from Paradise Valley to Hwy 95 to the west of the Santa Rosas. With no idea of what sort of road conditions lay ahead, we decided to pick up the pace. At this point, I was still hoping to find a nice stand of mountain mahogany that was close enough to the road for quick exploration. About two miles beyond Lye Creek C.G., we found a spot with a pretty good stand about a 300-400 meters off the road. Problem was, it was above the road up an extremely steep slope.
Figuring this would be our last and only chance to look for hoped for Virginia's Warbler and "Gray-headed" Dark-eyed Junco, we decided to give it a go. The first half of the 70 degree slope passed by us pretty quickly, but then the lungs and leg muscles started to beg for mercy. Given where we live–just a few hundred feet above sea level–our cardiovascular and respiratory systems are hardly adapted for this sort of effort at nearly 7000' elevation. We wisely made a couple of strategic rest stops. After a few more minutes of picking our way around, over, and through boulders, smaller rocks and waist-deep vegetation, we got up to the trees. It was now overcast and birds had mostly gone silent. We found a couple of Green-tailed Towhees and heard another Swainson's Thrush in the draw far below, but didn't see or hear much else.
For the most part, this ended our birding day. It was time to make our way out of the mountains before dark, or the onset of a potential rain shower that loomed on the horizon. The next few paragraphs are must-read for anyone who is considering a visit to this area.
In the days before we left Portland, I reached out to Martin Meyers, who is the secretary of the Nevada Bird Records Committee and one of the state's most active birders. I asked Martin about the roads in the area and if they were passable to any sort of vehicle. I have two-wheel drive Ford Range pickup with good tires and decent ground clearance capable of handling rutted roads, rocky roadbeds and a bouncy ride. In his response, Martin cautioned that if we were to get caught up in the mountains in heavy rain–often the case when summer thunderstorms hit these mountains–coming down the roads out of the Santa Rosas can be "treacherous, I mean really treacherous." He further advised that if we did get caught up there we should opt to stay over and camp out until the rains quit and the roads dry out.
Throughout the day I had pondered this advice and kept occasionally casting an eye to western skies looking for hints of an advancing thunderhead. Late in the afternoon we did start to see some cloud buildup, which to some degree hastened our departure. That said, I was having a hard time imagining that the road up the south aspect could become "treacherous," even if it did rain. Sure, there were a few tight switchbacks and some slightly steep sections, but the roadbed was heavily graveled and it didn't seem to have much of the dust that turns to grease when it gets wet. I suspect it would take quite a bit of rain to make this portion of the route truly dangerous, but I would not want to chance it.
We did not choose to retrace our route back to Paradise Valley along the well-maintained route that we'd already traveled. Instead, we continued north and then west from Lye Creek Campground with the intent of shortening our route back to Oregon by coming out on the northwestern most departure path. Less than two miles beyond the campground, the road conditions quickly started to deteriorate. Even though we were still on FR-84, the major Forest Service road through the area, there was grass up to 15" in height growing between the tire tracks. This section (from Lye Creek C.G. to Windy Gap) crosses a broad plateau, so dealing with slope isn't an an issue, but the roadbed is much rockier, and there are some modest washed out sections. You need to pick your way along slowly (we averaged less than 15 mph) to avoid beating your rig to death or shredding tires. As we passed through this section, we encountered just one vehicle coming from the other direction. In retrospect, we questioned his sanity, or if he knew what he was in for when he chose his approach route. He was driving a big heavy-duty pickup and towing a 25-foot fifth-wheel trailer. He was traveling about half the speed that we were maintaining.
The road remained moderately bumpy and rocky over the next few miles, but did not further deteriorate. As we approached Windy Gap–the top of the climb if you are coming in from the west–the road finally started to resemble those that we'd been on for most of the day. As we rounded the last curve before the start of the descent from Windy Gap, both Shawneen and I had bit of a HOLY $%&#@ moment when we saw the route down the hill. The drop-off from this point to the bottom of the canyon seems almost vertical and is many hundreds of feet. The road is essentially a one-lane gravel and dirt affair with hairpin turns about every 300 hundred yards as the road snakes down the first mile or so of what amounts to a cliff face. There are no pullouts, no guard rails, no place to effectively turn around much more than a sub-compact, and no place to stop for a stiff drink if you need to calm your nerves. If you don't like heights, this is a road you should avoid even in dry conditions. From the bottom of the hill looking back up, it's hard to imagine that there could be a road that leads to the top.
This was surely the section of the road that Martin Meyers had warned us about. I wouldn't even think about trying to go down this road in wet conditions. Just yesterday he shared the story of a mechanic friend of his from Truckee, who got caught up in a rainstorm while hunting up in the Santa Rosas. His friend came down the hill with his four-wheel drive Jeep shifted into compound low gear and chains on all four tires. Even then, he wasn't sure he was going to make it down the hill safely. Even with my automatic transmission shifted into low gear, I had to ride the brakes more than I like to keep my speed down. Otherwise, we had no trouble making our way down the hill. From a birding perspective, there is not much to see along the northern half of the loop and the lousy section of road across the plateau seems to be the most likely and inconvenient place to do damage to your vehicle.
I've traveled the northern part of this loop for the one and only time. We were more than entertained spending an entire day between Paradise Valley and Lye Creek Campground and we didn't spend any time at all at the campground, where another birder saw a Ruffed Grouse on the same day we were there. With some side hikes up to higher elevations and more stops coming up the hill, there are easily two full days of exploring to be done along this route. Any future trip will see me going in and coming out via the southerly route through Paradise Valley. It seems that most visitors to the Santa Rosas come in from the south and don't venture much beyond Lye Creek Campground after reaching the summit, hence this section of the road sees the most maintenance effort.
We made it down to Hwy 95 at about 7:15 and turned north towards Oregon. We planned to bird in Malheur County the next day, so we decided to make the drive to Jordan Valley and stay there for the night. With the hour loss due to time change (a small sliver of far eastern Oregon is in the Mountain Time Zone) we reached Jordan Valley at about 10:30 local time. We briefly had cell service in McDermitt, Nevada, which allowed us to call ahead to the Old Basque Inn and arrange for a room and after hours access. More about that in the final segment of this three-part series
To say that Humboldt County, Nevada is underbirded would be an understatement. Most of the county's population (roughly 17,000) lives near its southern border, in and around Winnemucca–Humboldt's only incorporated city! Across most of county's 9658 square miles, population density can be measured in tenths of a person per square mile. Add in those who live in or near Winnemucca and that number still comes up shy of two persons per square mile. If jackrabbits, deer, or Horned Larks had voting rights, attention to human concerns would be non-existent.
While eBird may not be a perfect barometer of birding activity for a county, it certainly sheds some light. If one pulls up the all-time "Top 100" eBirders for Humboldt County, Nevada and sorts by the number of checklists submitted, Terry Rich–with 573 as of this date–has far surpassed the number of checklists (417) submitted by all other observers. This all-time tally, a mere 990 checklists, may be fewer than some intensely birded and heavily-populated counties generate each month. Year to date, no fewer than 50 observers have submitted at least 100 checklists for Marin County, California. Further, if you assume that many of the other lists in the Humboldt County total are duplicates shared among parties birding together, Terry Rich's total is more likely double the output of all the rest of us.
Shawneen Finnegan and I have spent a grand total of about three days in the county over the last five years and we are credited with 36 and 35 checklist respectively (she must have forgotten to share one). These are all shared lists. We rank third and fourth all-time for the number of eBird checklists from Humboldt County and we live 500 miles away in Portland, Oregon. For a quick comparison, Tillamook County on Oregon's north coast has a population about 25,000. In 2014 alone–and the year is only half over– the number of eBird checklist submitted from the county nearly matches the all-time total for Humboldt County, Nevada.
In part, this paucity of data and, more importantly, the absence of exploration and discovery that generates it, was a driving force in our choice to visit northern Nevada. We have come to enjoy most those birding experiences that take us to places rarely visited by other birders. Fifty years from now, or perhaps sooner, these places may no longer look like they do today. Vegetation and avifaunal distributions will have certainly changed a half century from now and perhaps be altered on a scale that renders this landscape somewhat unrecognizable when compared to what we find today. We are motivated to grab this snapshot and experience these landscapes as they have been in recent memory. Further, we find joy in pursuing answers to questions that may have been contemplated, but never investigated by other birders, or professional ornithologists.
Today, unexplored hinterlands are not as mysterious as they were before the invention of many modern technologies. Using Google Maps, DeLorme Atlases, and various other satellite images and data found online, we can quite accurately target and to some degree scout areas that we want to explore. We have birding contacts all over the country, some of whom, amazingly enough, have actually birded in Humboldt County, Nevada. We can also surf through the mapped sightings on eBird to determine if target species have been reported in the area we've chosen to visit. We did all of these things in advance of our trip to Humboldt County and decided that the place we most wanted to see was the Santa Rosa Mountains. But first we have to get there.
Our adventure started shortly after midnight on Friday 13 June. Over the next seventeen-plus hours, we made our way all the way from Portland to the Nevada border with many stops as we went. Our first birding was south of Prineville about 3:30AM. We made two more pre-sunrise stops to get Common Poorwill and listen to the dawn chorus in the high desert just before hitting U.S. Hwy 20. Only a couple more stops slowed us down as we drove Hwy 20 to Burns, Oregon, where we stopped for breakfast. After filling our tanks with food and coffee and the gas tank on our pickup, we headed south from Burns towards Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the obligatory stop to look for vagrants at the refuge headquarters. Given the date–about a week after the prime window for eastern vagrants–we expected it to be dead. It was.
We made a brief foray through the Malheur Field Station, where at least one Northern Mockingbird has taken up residence this season. It took awhile to track it down, but as we drove the network of roads through the station we found two large family groups of adult and partially-grown California Quail. The youngsters were positively adorable, especially when they took flight. Among birds, few species have the capacity to fly before being nearly full grown. Fuzzball baby quail that are perhaps one-eighth the size of an adult taking flight is always visually arresting.
We continued south through the Blitzen and then Catlow Valleys only occasionally stopping to enjoy birds that aren't easily encountered elsewhere in Oregon. Like Malheur headquarters, the oasis in Fields, Oregon is not a site one drives by without checking for something out of the ordinary. Further, in this corner of the world there is no better hamburger or milkshake than those served up by the Fields Cafe. We ate first, denying ourselves the pleasure of a milkshake. Being a bit lactose intolerant, I am careful about where I choose to enjoy dairy products. The bacon cheeseburgers were fabulous.
The Fields oasis was no more productive than Malheur headquarters, but we did hear an odd warbler song that we ultimately concluded was probably a Townsend's Warbler. We did not see the Gray Catbird that had been seen there earlier in the day. Nevada was now in our cross hairs, as we were only 25 miles from Denio, Nevada, which straddles the stateline. We were anxious to see what we might find beyond the bounds of our home state, so we proceeded south without interruption.
We finally crossed over the Oregon/Nevada line at Denio at approximately 5:40PM on Friday 13 June. We stopped almost immediately to record our first Nevada birds of 2014. That stop netted eleven species. Driving south through the first several miles of Hwy 140 south of Denio might have had some questioning the decision to come all this way to go birding, as we saw almost no birds, but we were undaunted. A few more miles south, a distant patch of trees came into view. EUREKA! a migrant trap.
We stopped just outside the fence of the Quinn River Maintenance Station to have a look around. There was a nice mix of deciduous trees, plus a sturdy hedge of tall lilacs along the fenceline. Almost the first bird I saw was a Northern Mockingbird. A few miles to north in Oregon, this would be a "checkbox" bird on an eBird checklist, thus we were surprised when it didn't trigger any filter boxes at this site. A few minutes later we heard and then saw a Lesser Goldfinch, which seemed even more out of place. It didn't trigger a checkbox either. Hmmm! Nevada IS really different. Our fourteen-species bonanza included two Gray Flycatchers, a Swainson's Hawk, the now ubiquitous Eurasian Collared-Dove, plus the aforementioned mockingbird and goldfinch. We pressed on.
We took a short detour down a side road to check another row of trees that bordered a ranch. It was a big spread with several large alfalfa fields that were being watered by center-pivot irrigation systems. We found a bunch birds along one weedy fence row, including, two somewhat surprising Chipping Sparrows.
It was now after 7PM and going on about 36 hours since either Shawneen or I had been asleep in a real bed. We were fading, as was the sun, which was now dropping behind the ridgeline to the west. Aside from a quick stop to take our first photos of the Santa Rosa Mountains, we forged on to the junction with U.S. Hwy 95 and then turned south for last stretch into Winnemucca, where we would get a motel room for the night. We were in bed and long gone shortly after checking in.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.