Wednesday, February 26, 2014

It Pays To Be Lucky

Following a snow plow toward the Santiam Pass
Bend,  Oregon
Sisters, Oregon
February 19-20, 2014

Pygmy Nuthatch at Sawyer Park in Bend
I arrived in Bend late on Wednesday afternoon.  I grabbed something to eat and decided to visit Sawyer Park.  It was close and daylight was limited.  I saw no maps, brochures or directions, so I followed some bird sounds near the parking lot.  There were Pygmy Nuthatches in the trees, happily singing their little hearts out.  I watched them for a bit, saw a few people walking down what looked to be a nature trail, and I followed it.  Unfortunately, those nuthatches were the only birds in the area.  I got back to the parking lot and decided to walk over the foot bridge that crossed the Deschutes River.  I watched some Mallards waddling along the edges of the river, saw a Great Blue Heron standing on a log, and noticed an American Dipper disappearing into some vegetation that poked out of the turbulent waters.  I crossed the bridge, walked up the hill, and saw nothing except a tent apparently being used by a homeless person.  With the light fading, I decided to call it a day.

My reason for being in Bend was simple.  Some very kind Oregon birders had sent me some specific directions as to where I might find my three target raptors.  However, I had already found all three.  So early the next morning I made the short drive to Sisters.  What a charming place!  Obviously the city fathers made the decision to honor the city's heritage as a frontier town.  It was beautiful with consistent architecture, clean streets, quaint shops and friendly people.

My first stop was an impromptu visit to a little park that occupied one square block of the downtown area.  The ground was alive with Robins and a few Starlings, the trees shook with the feeding frenzy of a group of Cedar Waxwings, and there among them was a gorgeous Varied Thrush.  This bird had been #1 on my most wanted list before my trip to Alaska in 2013.  I saw a few there, but never tired of looking at it.  Now here was another, just as wonderful as I remembered it!

Calliope Crossing
I had heard that Pinyon Jays and White-headed Woodpeckers might be found in the woods behind the Best Western, so that was my next destination.  I pulled into the parking lot and was immediately struck by an unusual sight.  The hotel maintains a set of feeders, both seed and suet, at the end of the parking area with a couple of benches for quiet bird watching.  The only activity I saw involved a few Mountain Chickadees, but just the idea of the hotel putting out so many feeders and keeping them filled was extraordinary.  But the woods behind the hotel were silent, and the only life I saw was a small group of Black-tailed Deer, so I decided to move on.

The next place I planned on visiting was Calliope Crossing.  Unfortunately the entrance road was snowed in.  I parked on the highway, walked down to the creek, crossed it and walked up the opposite bank.  I searched for the jays and woodpeckers to no avail. 

Pinyon Jay
My third stop was Cold Springs Campground, just west of town.  Again, the entrance was closed and covered with snow.  I trudged in, eventually reaching the day-use parking lot and the trees just behind it.  I searched carefully for my two targets, but failed again.  I had to be in Corvallis that night, and the weather seemed to be threatening snow, so I finally gave it up.  I was really upset.  I had missed the Great Gray and Spotted Owls, and now I was leaving my last chance for Pinyon Jay and White-headed Woodpecker with nothing to show for my efforts.  As far as life birds were concerned, this day was threatening to become the trip's first complete bust.  I plowed back to the car, getting snow in my boots along the way, and turned toward Sisters.  The plan was to grab a quick lunch and then cross the Santiam Pass. 

As Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend!"  I don't think I covered more than a half mile when a flock of about 25 or 30 birds flew across the road directly in front of me.  Did I see blue?  I hopped out of the car and instantly heard the unmistakeable chatter of Pinyon Jays!  I had searched all over Sisters throughout the morning and found nothing, and now they seemed to have found me!  And while I stood there in wonder, I heard a different sound ... a White-headed Woodpecker.  There it was, high in a pine tree, ignoring the chaos of the jays below.  Both of my targets ... both lifers ... in the same field ... and they found me.  Sometimes, birding is just weird.  Often luck is more productive than careful planning.

White-headed Woodpecker
After a terrific lunch of a hot meatloaf sandwich, soup and coffee at The Gallery in Sisters, I began the trek to Corvallis.  The weather was fine when I started out, and the roads clear.  But as I climbed up the Cascades, that all changed.  At first the snow was light and melted on contact with the ground.  Then the road took on a faint dusting, then an inch, and then more.  When I reached the point where the road splits, I took the turn to Corvallis and immediately wished I were elsewhere.  Here the snow was deeper and there was no evidence of any previous traffic.  I shifted into four-wheel drive and kept an easy pace. 

Once again, I proved to be luckier than I deserve.  Within a couple of miles two snow plows turned onto the road ahead of me.  A driver of a pickup truck and I tucked in behind the plows and followed them over Santiam Pass (elevation about 4900 feet).  The photo at the top of this blog shows you what it looked like on the way up.  Each twist and turn I made was freshly plowed.  Under the circumstances, I could not have been safer.  Eventually the plows did a u-turn and headed back up the mountain, plowing the other side of the road.  Soon the snow changed to rain, the roads cleared, and the danger diminished.   The rain followed me all the way to Corvallis -- the second time on this trip I drove into Corvallis through a heavy rain.  I arrived too late to bird anywhere, and too tired to try.  I ordered a pizza for delivery and settled in for the night.  Today I had been lucky in so many ways, and tomorrow would bring new places and, I hoped, new birds.

Another view of the White-headed Woodpecker

Sisters, Oregon.  I really enjoyed this town.

Believe it or not, this was in the lower elevations before it got really bad!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Upper Klamath Basin

Klamath Falls, Oregon
Klamath Marsh NWR
February 17-19, 2014

I think of my forays into California as a separate part of the trip than the more extensive birding of Oregon.  So even though the days overlap, I treat them in this blog as if they were consecutive.  But two important stops occurred between the trips to the marshes of California.

Common Merganser
On Monday, I finished at Lower Klamath with about an hour of daylight left.  Instead of going directly to my hotel in Klamath Falls, I made a quick side trip.  Russ Namitz had told me of a specific field where a Ferruginous Hawk could be found.  It was just a couple of hundred yards inside the Oregon border and quite close to the exit of the auto tour, so I decided to try my luck.  The drive took only a minute or two, but the stakeout lasted perhaps 40-45 minutes.  The wind was really picking up and the temperature dropping, but I decided to wait it out.  I've read that Ferruginous Hawks like to hunker down in a field and stay put for a while.  This field was supposed to be a favorite, and it did not disappoint.  Eventually, it flew in and landed in the back end of the area, well away from the road.  It was too far for my little camera, but my trusty Leica APO Televid gave me a terrific view.  Thrilled does not begin to describe it.  My three raptor targets for this trip were Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcon.  After only three days, I had all of them! 

Tuesday's primary target was Tule Lake NWR, but I decided to make a quick run to Moore Park in Klamath Falls to take advantage of the morning chorus.  I thought this was a small park and would take only a short visit.  Not so.  If I ever get back to Klamath Falls, I'll go to Moore Park again.  I first checked out the small area on the southern tip of Upper Klamath Lake.  As soon as I got out of the car, I saw a pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes and a Common Merganser (above, right).  What gorgeous birds!  My only previous Common Merganser was in washed out plumage on a golf course in Florida.  This guy was wonderful.  It wasn't a lifer, but it felt like one, and all of you birders out there know exactly what I mean.

Can you see why it's called a Crossbill?
Across the road was the larger portion of the park, and I only got to bird a small piece of it.  However, it took a short time to find a bunch of great birds.  Mountain Chickadees scurried from tree to tree chasing their morning meals.  Another bird sat high atop a pine.  I couldn't ID it until I looked at the photos - a Red Crossbill!  I had seen a few of them in Alaska, but they were quite distant.  This one was much closer, albeit surrounded by the glare of an overcast sky.  Again, I felt the joy of re-discovery!  Meanwhile, Western Scrub-Jays scolded me, and I had the impression that the latter might be nesting somewhere close to where I stood.  They did NOT like my presence so I moved on.  I drove as far into the park as I could before I hit a closed road.  I hopped out and birded the area for a bit, pishing my brains out.  No luck so on a hunch, I played a tape of a Pygmy Nuthatch.  I had read that they could be found in Moore Park and they liked this habitat, so why not?  After maybe a minute, there they were.  They came down to me, checked me out, found me lacking in interest, and moved on.  But it was another lifer!

My final stop in the Klamath Basin was Klamath Marsh NWR on Wednesday.  The drive from town up to Silver Lake Road was mostly uneventful, but snow obviously had been falling during the night and/or the day before.  Route 97 was clear, but Silver Lake Road was another story.  Most of it was plowed but still snow covered.  Other parts were icy under the snow.  Then again, its beauty was beyond my attempts at description.  The pristine snow sparkled on every tree limb, more brilliant than diamonds.  The frozen marsh afforded the Canada Geese a chance to show off their Olympic spirit as they ice skated along the edges.  Meanwhile, Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles hunted overhead and stood sentinel on fence posts.  I reached the visitor's center and had a great conversation with a park ranger and three volunteers.  The ranger recommended birding an area just west of the office where Great Gray Owls hunt at night.  The volunteers recommended driving out on Military Road to get a close view of Tundra Swans.  I took both suggestions.

Klamath Marsh Olympics, Pairs Figure Skating
The photo at the top shows you the field of the Great Grays.  I pulled off the road through a forest service gate and parked the car.  I started working the edges hoping to see an owl.  Eventually I saw some birds flying behind the first level of trees so I went in to take a look.  There at the very top of a tree was a Clark's Nutcracker, one of my target birds for the trip.  This stop had already paid off!  Unfortunately, the Great Grays were not cooperative.  This time I didn't even hear one.

Military Road had not been plowed at all, but the snow was only a few inches deep and the Tahoe had no trouble with it.  I stopped repeatedly to bird but had little luck.  That changed when I reached the spot where the park volunteers wanted me to visit.  Here the marsh had open water with dozens of Canada Geese and Tundra Swans.  Their calls filled the air with the music only a birder could love.  I admit to having to learn more about identifying Tundra and Trumpeter Swans and Canada and Cackling Geese.  I read as much as I can and look at the photos of what I saw, and sometimes I have to shrug and resign myself to more study.  The photo below is almost certainly of Tundra Swans and a Canada Goose.  But if one of you experts tell me otherwise, I won't be surprised.

I made my last stop of the morning at a small field just northwest of the open water.  After a bit of searching, I heard some Pygmy Nuthatches and saw some Mountain Chickadees and a Hairy Woodpecker.

That concluded my time in the Klamath Basin.  I next turned my attention to Bend and the high desert.  I'll have that blog posted in a couple of days.

Tundra Swans and a Canada Goose, I think ...

Silver Lake Road on the way to Klamath Marsh NWR

Snow-covered Ponderosa Pines

A Mountain Chickadee at Moore Park

Friday, February 21, 2014

California Birding

The cliffs above Tule Lake

Lower Klamath NWR
Tule Lake NWR
Near Tule, California
February 17-18, 2014

I finished birding in the Ashland area at Emigrant Lake on Highway 66, so it seemed logical to take that route to my next destination, Lower Klamath NWR.  All I can say is thank God that the weather was good!  What a roller coaster ride!  The road is narrow with more twisting turns than Chubby Checker singing to an American Bandstand crowd of teenagers.  (I know, that really dates me, but heck, I'm sitting here with Nat King Cole singing Route 66 in my head!)  Still I reached Keno with only slight cramping in my white-knuckled hands and turned south into California.

California Quail
It pays to be lucky.  Almost as soon as I drove into the refuge I saw something that made me pull off the road to investigate.  It turned out to be nothing, but as I got back in my car a magnificent male Ring-necked Pheasant emerged from the brush about thirty yards ahead of me, looked both ways, and casually flew across the road followed by a hen.  I've seen pictures of pheasants before, but was stunned at how really beautiful it was.  I wish the view had been longer, but I doubt I'll ever lose that mental image.
Sometimes you chase targets and more or less ignore the other birds.  Sometimes you bird for fun and soak up the chance to see some of your favorites.  So far, this trip has been devoted to targeted species.  The afternoon at Lower Klamath was all fun and games and no targets.  I can stand still and look at ducks and other waterfowl all day long.  There were thousands of ducks including Buffleheads, American Wigeons, Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada Geese, Cackling Geese, and Tundra Swans.  Bald Eagles topped every pole, and Northern Harriers patrolled every field.  A few White-tailed Kites soared, swept and fed along the road's edge.  Fantastic!

Canyon Wren
 The next day it was back to business.  I had a number of target birds that could be found near Tule Lake NWR so I found myself back in California again.  I like to buy patches at every park I visit, so I stopped at the Visitor's Center.  Lucky again!  Inside the Center, a huge window faces a set of feeders and running water.  The ground was absolutely alive with birds and among them were several California Quail.  Lifer!

Russ Namitz said that there would be a good chance of getting two of my target birds opposite the entrance to the auto tour.  The terrain looked great - high cliffs towering above a field of rocks.  I searched to no avail, so I drove farther south.  The car scared up a bunch of little birds, so I hopped out and scanned through the little flock.  There was a California Towhee!  It was another lifer, but those two targets were still out there.  I searched the cliffs and worked the fields all the way to the entrance to Lava Beds National Monument.  Still no luck.  I turned back north and searched again.  On a hunch I stopped in a field that had a single tree.  I walked up to that tree and started searching.  There!  On the left!  A Rock Wren!  I watched it moving among the rocks for a few minutes, and finally started back in the direction of the car.  Suddenly another bird flew over my head from behind me, perched on a rock, and sang out.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing!  Canyon Wren!  I was thrilled to get one of the wrens ... I never expected to get both of them.  Amazing.

Rock Wren
Next I turned onto the auto tour.  After a few moments I noticed something odd looking.  It appeared to be an enormous chunk of styrofoam floating on the water.  Suddenly, it exploded into white and black motion.  At least 5,000 Snow Geese swirled into the air, surged back and forth and finally settled back into a tightly packed block.  I've failed repeatedly to embed a video into this blog.  It's too bad because just a few seconds of video would give you a sense of the extraordinary experience this was.  A photo will have to do (below). 

The rest of the afternoon was much like the drive at Lower Klamath.  There were thousands of ducks, including a large raft of Canvasbacks.  I also added Common Goldeneye, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck and Hooded Merganser to my California list.

With a feeling of complete satisfaction, I turned myself toward Klamath Falls and the northern portion of the Klamath Basin.

A cloud of Snow Geese

Black-tailed Deer


Bald Eagles were everywhere!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Russ Namitz
Ashland, Oregon
February 16 - 17, 2014

The birding community is big, active, and filled with friendly people.  One of the best is Oregon Big Year record holder Russ Namitz.  I had corresponded with Russ while planning this trip and he had agreed to show me around some of the birding hotspots near Ashland.  I arrived late in the afternoon on Sunday, checked into a hotel, and together we headed out for some owling.  We started at Lithia Park in Ashland where we checked nest boxes for a Western Screech-Owl.  A few of the boxes appeared to be missing, but we finally found one and there was the owl.  It sat in the box's entrance, leisurely watching traffic and pedestrians before a night's hunting.  What a cute little killer!

Next we headed out Dead Indian Memorial Road.  Our goal was to find a Great Gray Owl and possibly get a glimpse of one hunting in the moonlight.  We reached a spot about 18 miles along the road and got out.  For just a second, I forgot about owls.  The sky, untainted by even a hint of city lights, sparkled with billions of stars.  I raised my bins and billions more appeared.  The sight was both inspiring and a bit humbling.  Then Russ did his Great Gray imitation and one responded within a few seconds.  We stared into the darkness searching for movement or a silhouette that would tell us where it was, but had little luck.  At one point I saw something large fly from one of the Douglas Firs toward an open area, but it disappeared almost immediately.  Maybe a Great Gray?  But it didn't come from the direction of the one call we had heard.  In the end, I didn't add it to my life list, but I know that I was in a field with a Great Gray under a sky awash with stars.

Western Screech-Owl sitting on his porch.
The next morning, we started with a drive up Mount Ashland, stopping at a few spots where we might find White-headed Woodpeckers.  Like the night before, we heard one but couldn't locate it.  We were hampered by a snow and ice-covered trail, even deeper snow off the trail, a stiff breeze and temperatures in the upper 20s.  Nonetheless, I couldn't help but feel the excitement of it all.  I hadn't been in snow like this since the early '80s, and I have to admit that it felt good.  We continued up the mountain eventually reaching the ski lodge, but by then the snow and fog had visibility down to maybe a hundred yards,  so we gave it up and turned toward our final destination, Emigrant Lake.

Russ was driving his car ahead of mine when suddenly he pulled off and pointed to an adjacent field - Western Bluebirds!  That had been on my top ten most wanted list for a long time.  I took a few moments to relish the sight before getting back on the road and entering the park.

Acorn Woodpecker!
As soon as we got out of our cars, Russ called out, "Acorn Woodpecker!" I dashed toward the spot and looked at another of my most wanted.  Then I heard Russ, "Red-breasted Sapsucker!"  I ran over there and got a quick glimpse at another most wanted but it flew across the road too soon. I decided to follow it for a bit and was able to get a decent photo.  I watched an Oak Titmouse for a few minutes, and then we drove to another part of the park.  Here was another patch of Black Oaks on a hillside.  Again, Russ said he heard another woodpecker ... this time a Lewis's ... the fourth top-ten bird of the day.  We hustled after it, got a glimpse here, a glimpse there, and finally a clean look.

It was time for Russ to return to his own life and I turned toward Klamath Falls on Highway 66.  I left behind memories of a new friend and a bunch of incredible birds.  Ahead was a drive to be remembered, but I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

Red-breasted Sapsucker
Meanwhile, I stood at 11 life birds for the trip:

Brewer's Blackbird
Rough-legged Hawk
Prairie Falcon
Spotted Towhee
Western Screech-Owl
Mountain Chickadee
Oak Titmouse
Western Bluebird
Acorn Woodpecker
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Lewis's Woodpecker

Western Bluebird

A distant view of a Lewis's Woodpecker

Lower Elevation.  My life Oak Titmouse was in a bush on the left.

Top of the Mountain

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Birding in Oregon, Day 1

A view of the Cascades from the Tangent Loop

Brewer's Blackbirds, my first lifer of the trip.
February 15-16, 2014
Corvallis, Oregon

When I got off the plane in Portland on Saturday, I think I realized how Noah must have felt.  I opened my weather app and was greeted with a flood advisory for the Portland area.  The rain and wind drove debris from trees and hurled it at passing cars.  This was not a welcoming environment.  Still, there were birds to be seen, so I headed into Vancouver looking for a Tufted Duck that had been reported a few days earlier.  I found a beautiful lake but no birds.  I had also planned to stop at Tualatin, but the weather made that impossible.  Instead, I resigned myself to reality (never a preferred choice - I like living in my own little world!) and drove to Corvallis.  It rained all the way, getting worse for a bit near Albany, but I arrived at the hotel just before dark.

Here's a little side note.  The best part of the day was Kelsey, the employee at Enterprise in the Portland airport.  She was cheerful, helpful, and efficient.  She asked questions about why I was visiting Portland and seemed genuinely interested in what birds I was hoping to see.  Thank you, Kelsey!  The next best thing about the day was an excellent dinner at Pastini's in Corvallis with some terrific Pinot Noir from Elk Cove, an Oregon-based winery. 

Acorns stored for future use.
But the bottom line was the final score: Weather 1, Bob 0.

Sunday morning was much better.  Partly cloudy skies promised better birding.  Two of my targets for the trip were raptors and woodpeckers, and the Tangent area was supposed to be good for both.  So following directions in the Oregon Birding Trail brochures, I headed east.  On a hunch I pulled off at a small pond and found a swarm of Brewer's Blackbirds, my first lifers for the trip.  Soon, I found Tangent and an Acorn Woodpecker storage facility, but no woodpeckers. Still, it didn't take long for the drive to become productive.  Along one road were a couple of Horned Larks and in a nearby field a gorgeous white-tailed Kite.  A bit later a hawk sat perched on a telephone poll.  I studied it a bit and suddenly it took flight.  There were the tell-tale rectangular dark wrist patches of a Rough-legged Hawk, my second lifer of the day.  At another spot water ran over the road from one field to another.  Off to the right, a field held at least a thousand gulls.  I could see Herring, Ring-billed, Glaucous-winged and possibly a Mew.  There were many more, but strong winds made close study difficult at that distance.

Western Scrub-Jay
At another stop a Western Scrub Jay took exception to my presence.  I was scolded continually until I moved along.  A local resident stopped to tell me of a Short-eared Owl just a hundred yards along the road.  I found it in the same field being patrolled by a Northern Harrier.  Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos fed in a farmhouse yard.  "Sooty" Fox Sparrows played under a bridge near the Thompson's Flouring Mill along with a few Golden-crowned Sparrows. 

It was well past noon, so after a bit of lunch and a cup of Black Rock Coffee, I headed south.  Along the way I decided to do some rest stop birding.  It was a good call.  I walked around for a while stretching my legs and looked up in time to see a Prairie Falcon dart through the sky chasing a dove or pigeon, a third lifer for the day.  Then while watching a Stellar's Jay and a few Western Scrub-Jays, I heard a bird chawing at me from some shrubs.  It was a Spotted Towhee, lifer number four.

Finally it was on to Ashland to meet up with Oregon Big Year record holder Russ Namitz.  That story will have to wait until tomorrow.

Spotted Towhee

Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker
Golden-crowned Sparrow