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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Late Summer

2016 Narrative

In Brief: Oregon proved itself to a very happy WINGS group as a place of great beauty, amazing habitat variety, and home to many fabulous birds and abundant nature. We started with a pelagic trip out of Newport where highlights were numbers of confiding Sabine’s Gulls and some close Black-footed Albatrosses, as well as sightings of a school of young Ocean Sunfish and a Blue Shark. Then in the Coast Range we spent time with the world’s most cooperative Northern Pygmy-Owl and caught up with a single Sooty Grouse on our second drive up and down Marys Peak. Shorebirds were scarce this year on the coast, but we did find Wandering Tattler, had close encounters with Wrentit, and had superb views of a close Gray Whale. The roost of over 1500 Vaux’s Swifts spiraling down a Corvallis chimney was an amazing and unforgettable sight. In the wide-open steppes east of the Cascades, abundant Sage Thrashers, several Prairie Falcons, and a stunning Ferruginous Hawk were right at home and the enchanting coniferous forests provided us with memorable sightings of Clark’s Nutcracker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and White-headed Woodpecker. We went owling on four nights, seeing several species, but particularly notable were a Common Poorwill in flight over our heads and an amazingly confiding Flammulated Owl, perched low in a pine tree only a few yards away.

In Detail: On our way to the pelagic extension we squeezed in a stop at the fabled Philomath Sewage Ponds, alliteratively known the by locals as the Philomath Poo Ponds. We chanced into some local birders, and they pointed out a Peregrine Falcon and American Pipits, while we found a lone Red-necked Phalarope. The pelagic trip had additional highlights to the ones mentioned above, including some very cooperative Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, many Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, and a few close Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. We had time to work our way up the coast the next day, and good numbers of Marbled Murrelets, Black Oystercatchers, and our best views of Gray Whales were on this day.

The main tour began with a locally rare Common Tern on the Columbia River, followed by a long morning stop at a well-visited birding hotspot with many shorebirds (especially Lesser Yellowlegs), Red-breasted Sapsuckers, migrant Black-throated Gray Warblers, and a Brown Creeper in the old growth cottonwoods. We then worked our way south to Benton County, where we had our first encounters with the odd Wrentit and Black Phoebe, while Acorn Woodpecker and the splittable aculeata subspecies of White-breasted Nuthatch inhabited a nearby Oregon White Oak grove. Marys Peak was worth two visits, one for the Sooty Grouse, which we saw only on our second pass back down the mountain, and another for the Northern Pygmy-Owl, as well as a flushed Mountain Quail, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and many grasshoppers on a short hike to the stunningly beautiful summit. A second visit to the Philomath Poo Ponds was worth it for the great views we had of Yellow-breasted Chat, thanks to local birders Doug Robinson, Will Wright, and teen birder Isaac Denzer. We also visited Finley National Wildlife Refuge, where a group of American White Pelicans had been hanging out, and marveled at an unusual concentration of 19 American Kestrels in a single field, all feeding on something on the ground. Fern Ridge Reservoir was not as birdy as we hoped, but an American Bittern did show up, and as we were leaving the area, we spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk hunting the verge from its typical power line perch. Our one owling attempt on the west side was very successful, with a rather easy and aggressive Barred Owl followed by a much shier but eventually cooperative Western Screech-Owl.

We then continued on to the coast of Lane County, but not before stopping for lunch along the Alsea River, where we saw many gorgeous Steller’s Jays, a Hooded Merganser, and a locally very rare Northern Goshawk. Along the coast we made many stops where migrants offshore included all three expected loons, many Surf and a few White-winged Scoters, and Red-necked Grebes (including one in flight). A stop to see the impressive California Pitcherplants was accented by a Pacific Wren sighting, and then nearby we heard many Virginia Rails, eventually seeing one out in the open. Our last morning spent seawatching from the top of a dune was delightful. Loons, flocks of ducks, Sanderling, and many others provided constant changeover, while a group of Snowy Plovers on the beach right below and a migrating group of Violet-green Swallows right over our heads were also memorable. Just before we arrived at our picnic breakfast site a probable Red-shouldered Hawk flew across the road, which we thought was confirmed when we heard one as we were setting up breakfast. An attempt to bring it in closer with playback proved that it was a Steller’s Jay doing an astonishingly perfect imitation of the hawk’s song – fooling us again and again.

We caught up with our only American Dipper on the creek above stunning Salt Creek Falls on our way over the Cascades, and as we continued east and south, we paused to watch a River Otter playing hide-and-seek in a roadside ditch and a Prairie Falcon in a slightly odd location, perched near the top of a Ponderosa Pine. Mountain Bluebirds and Brewer’s Sparrows adorned the roadsides before we arrived at Summer Lake.

The mass of water birds at Summer Lake was a tour highlight – countless ducks, coots, and shorebirds, including our only Long-billed Curlew and a very rare Stilt Sandpiper. Many Greater White-fronted Geese had paused in their migration, while Sandhill Cranes and Trumpeter Swans were flying around and calling. Lunch at Marster Spring was very quiet, but a distant calling Clark’s Nutcracker eventually came in close and proved to be the only one we’d see well on the tour (a fly-by while we were driving was the only other one). We had yet another Prairie Falcon and a juvenile Golden Eagle, as well as multiple Coyotes and herds of American Pronghorn as we made the long but scenic drive to Burns/Hines.

Most of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was dry, with near-record low water levels in the lakes, and the headquarters was still closed to the public, but we managed to scrape up a few migrants at Benson Pond, P Ranch, and in aspen groves on Steens Mountain, including MacGillivray’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Western Tanager, Western Wood-Pewee, and many Sage Thrashers and Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows. Two Great Horned Owls at Benson Pond were our only ones for the tour, save a distant calling bird one evening. A visit to the interesting Diamond Craters and the historic Pete French Round Barn were good afternoon activities highlighted by Say’s Phoebes, but we finally found the mother lode of birds at Dry Lake nearby, which didn’t live up to it’s name. A single lingering Franklin’s Gull was among the nearly countless American Avocets, gulls, grebes, and ducks. It was on this drive that we had a Western Rattlesnake (of the Great Basin subspecies – or species if you split it) and closer to Burns the beautiful soaring Ferruginous Hawk. A nice surprise on our way up Steens Mountain was a Broad-winged Hawk, a state bird for Rich. We worked hard looking for Black Rosy-Finches, hiking at least a couple miles of the East Rim, but the reportedly reliable flock had moved to some distant slope out of sight. Several close Rock Wrens, a dashing Prairie Falcon, an out-of-habitat Cassin’s Finch, some nice wildflowers (such as the endemic Steens Mountain Thistle), and many interesting grasshoppers were nice additions, not to mention the breathtaking views of the Alvord Basin a mile below.

We had a full day in the pine forests to the north of Burns, as well as some stops in similar areas on the morning of our final day’s drive back to Portland. We lucked into a Black-backed Woodpecker, thanks to a tip from a friend and local birder who suggested checking out a burn from last fall. We almost missed White-headed Woodpecker, finally finding just one at our lunch spot on Murderers Creek – the sight of that utterly distinctive bird flying in overhead and then landing in plain sight was a hallelujah moment. A Golden-crowned Sparrow near the same location was a rather rare bird locally, while a group of Williamson’s Sapsuckers on our way up Aldrich Mountain was a lucky find. We enjoyed the spectacular views from the peak of Aldrich Mountain as we did our group photo. We many stops, working up mixed flocks of Mountain Chickadees, kinglets, and nuthatches, eventually finding a lingering Townsend’s Warbler, Chipping Sparrows, Red Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Cassin’s Finches with them. Pygmy Nuthatches were elusive until the last day, as were Gray Jays and a Pileated Woodpecker, all lucky last-minute additions. The four owling outings were very mixed – an early morning to Winter Ridge resulted only in heard-only Common Poorwill and Northern Pygmy-Owl, while our first evening out north of Burns when it was cold and windy resulted in nothing. But the cold and wind didn’t seem to matter to the Common Poorwills the next night, and one fluttering overhead with the flashlight beam on it offered extended views. But it was the warmer and much calmer last night, when with patience we nailed a Flammulated Owl with better views than could be hoped for, also adding some interesting knowledge regarding the territoriality of these birds so late in the season when they are extraordinarily rarely reported.

Other than the morning surprises, our ride back to Portland was filled with beautiful scenery rather than birds, other than a small covey of Chukar at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument visitor center. We stopped for a showy display of Cusick’s Monkeyflowers on the scenic and seldom-traveled Twickenham Cutoff, and made our way through several small towns in remote counties, and then finally down the Columbia River to the green side of the gorge at Multnomah Falls. It was a lovely setting and a wonderful dinner to end a tour through this delightful state.

Rich Hoyer- 

 

Updated: October 2016