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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Spring

2015 Tour Narrative

In Brief: It was a marvelous Oregon in Spring tour, with nearly picture-perfect weather (we magically managed to dodge rain showers one morning) and one memorable bird experience after another. Amongst the highly sought-after birds on this itinerary, the often elusive galliforms performed marvelously, with a Sooty Grouse that wonderfully appeared in the road where none had been before, a Mountain Quail that charged us, even posing for photos, and a Chukar that stood in the road as if waiting for us to appear and safeguard its passage. Flammulated Owl is always a tricky bird, and we managed to see two (though one only in flight), but even the common birds made it to the short list of favorites, such as the family of Great Horned Owls perched at close range, with one of the juveniles eyeing us with a 180-degree head turn, and gorgeous Western Tanagers in wonderful light.

In Detail: We started with the tour at Fernhill Wetlands near Portland where tardy waterfowl were the highlights, including Greater White-fronted, Snow, and Cackling Geese. A slightly lost Yellow-headed Blackbird was a good find here, while two Peregrine Falcons were also a good find. A quick stop for a cooperative American Dipper and Evening Grosbeaks at a feeder preceded a little detour to near Astoria where a vagrant Hudsonian Godwit had been found the day before. Local birders were already on it when we arrived, and the field of Whimbrels also hosted a locally very rare Willet, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled Godwit. Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock had the promised Tufted Puffins and Harlequin Ducks, while a  Clark’s Grebe near there was a good bird for the coast this late in the spring. We finished the day with a silent Barred Owl that probably flew in with hopes of dining on the Northern Saw-whet Owl that it thought it had heard.

We had a full and enjoyable day in the Tillamook County beaches, headlands, and valleys, not to mention the ice cream and cheese. From the headlands we spotted Black Oystercatchers and a Red-necked Grebe, while the mudflats of Bayocean Spit hosted a group of Brant and a Red Knot with a dowitcher that was too far to identify. We whistled in close a pair of Wrentits, and a drive for sparrows turned up a late Golden-crowned Sparrow. Highlights at lunch were another American Dipper and a very cooperative Pacific-slope Flycatcher. We had some different mammals today: a California Ground Squirrel at the north jetty was very unafraid of us, and after seeing our Northern Saw-whet Owl in flight only, we had a Pacific Jumping Mouse and a Raccoon in the road on the way back to the hotel.

We had one more day on the coast as we worked our way southward and then inland to Corvallis. Marbled Murrelet was the theme of the day as we saw about 40 of them down the coast, many of them at very close range; strange was getting only glimpses of a Rhinoceros Auklet, normally more common, but a very rare sighting for this late date was an Ancient Murrelet that dove repeatedly and couldn’t be re-found. We also only heard a Wandering Tattler, or maybe even two, had amazing views of the colors of a Violet-green Swallow, had our fill of Black Oystercatchers, saw yet another Peregrine Falcon at Yaquina Head, and spied a Gray Whale at Boiler Bay. Of course a highlight was the amazing Common Murre and cormorant colony at Yaquina Head, after which we returned to Boiler Bay in a fruitless attempt to re-find a reported Long-billed Murrelet, followed by our drive to Corvallis.

The Marys Peak road yet again proved its worth for Mountain Quail, with a pair scurrying off the road but perching where we could finally see it, and for Sooty Grouse, with a male standing in the road where we had driven without seeing one five times. Yet still at that hour we were the only car on the road. Two Northern Pygmy-Owls from separate territories came in to where we had our picnic breakfast, and our first Hammond’s Flycatcher also appeared in same area. We then moved to the Willamette Valley at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, where roadside stops resulted in Western Bluebird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Lazuli Bunting, and Acorn Woodpecker, but the most memorable sightings were a very excited Red-breasted Sapsucker and stunning views of a MacGillivray’s Warbler singing in the open. At the marshes on the refuge we lucked into American Bitterns flying in the open, a family of Virginia Rails with their tiny black chicks, Greater Yellowlegs, and Wilson’s Phalaropes, along with more Lazuli Buntings, Yellow Warblers, and many others. Near there we had fine views of adorable California Quail, while at lunch Brown Creeper, Cassin’s Vireo, and yet more Red-breasted Sapsuckers were a highlight. We finished the day with stop sat the Philomath Sewage Ponds, where Hooded Merganser had bred and Eared Grebes in their finery were lingering, and at the fairgrounds where we got very close looks at the aculeata (splittable) subspecies of White-breasted Nuthatch.

Then came our day to cross over the Cascade Mountains, starting with one last stop on the moist side where we saw Gray Jay, then lunch by a new burn that rewarded us with Williamson’s Sapsucker, White-headed, Black-backed, and Pileated Woodpeckers amongst the more common ones. Our first Mountain Chickadees, the other White-breasted Nuthatch (tenuissima), and Thick-billed Fox Sparrow (very splittable) were other highlights here. Our only Prairie Falcon of the tour zoomed across the highway just east of Sisters. We did our best to find a Great Gray Owl without success south of Bend, but a pair of Great Horned Owls and many Bank Swallows were there, and then as we continued owling into the dark we were taunted by distant Flammulated Owls until a couple of us wandered up a skiing/snowmobiling trail to find one perched out in the open, at least briefly.

The rugged coastline a distant memory now, we worked our way up desert canyons and plains to the Malheur area today, first birding around our hotel in the pines where Lewis’s Woodpecker was a highlight. We then drove directly to a colony of Tricolored Blackbirds, present with many Yellow-headed and Red-wingeds as well, then worked our way up the Crooked River where we promptly saw a soaring Golden Eagle, careening White-throated Swifts, and singing Rock and Canyon Wrens as predicted. At lunch we finally found a cooperative Gray Flycatcher as well as  Ash-throated Flycatcher and watched a pair of Spotted Sandpipers brutally fighting over a female. A distant Horned Grebe on Prineville Reservoir was our only one of the tour. We entered the wide open sagebrush plains with Loggerhead Shrike, Mountain Bluebird, and Brewer’s Sparrows new additions to the list. An impromptu roadside stop in the middle of nowhere resulted in our first Sage Thrasher and only Sagebrush Sparrows, but the most interesting find here was a lost California Gull that must have come from some place with lots of people, as it instantly recognized us as a potential source of bread crumbs and boldly grabbed them at close range. In the evening we had our first taste of the well-watered Harney Basin south of Burns and Hines, with  many Sandhill Cranes, Long-billed Curlews, Wilson’s Snipes, Black Terns, and Canvasbacks.

Our full day on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was a busy one, first with stops on the way where Ross’s Goose and Tundra Swan were unexpected lingerers. A stop to get better looks at a Yellow-bellied Marmot resulted in a pair of Black-throated Sparrows on Wright’s Point (a fine example of inverse topography), a spot where they had been recorded in the past. A stake-out nest of Ferruginous Hawk by the highway provided our only sighting, but the Burrowing Owl wasn’t present at this time. Malheur Headquarters was hopping with migrants, especially Yellow Warblers. There were no vagrants to spice things up, but our only Black-chinned Hummingbird, a nesting Swainson’s Hawk, and a very out-of-place pair of Bushtits were interesting. We drove through the southern half of the refuge seeing lots of great birds, such as a family of Trumpeter Swans, lots of ducks including our first Redhead, Ring-necked Pheasant, White-faced Ibis, Sora, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Franklin’s Gull, Short-eared Owl, Bobolink, and Yellow-breasted Chat. Unexpected rarities found in the previous couple of days and still there for us were a Cattle Egret and a singing Least Flycatcher. We made a last stop at the interesting Diamond Craters where more Black-throated Sparrows were found by a camper, but only after thoroughly scanning the rocks in the crater did we find a family of Great Horned Owls, cryptic even though sitting in the open. We made another pass by the supposed Burrowing Owl nest, and there it was, as if it had never been anywhere else.

Our day in the forests of Malheur National Forest of Grant County was very productive and of course beautiful. A family group of Clark’s Nutcrackers foraged on the roadside close to where a stunning male Mountain Bluebird guarded his nest. Williamson’s Sapsuckers were everywhere, though we couldn’t find a Red-naped Sapsucker. In fact, a bird that was a Red-breasted Sapsucker with perhaps some distant Red-naped genes was a local rarity and a sign of an expanding range. Here we also found breeding Townsend’s Warblers, finally caught up with Green-tailed Towhee, and had yet another Northern Pygmy-Owl. The best bird of the day was the Mountain Quail we heard, then using just a bit of playback got it to come charging at us across a meadow. The views near there from the Aldrich Mountain Lookout were fabulous, and the wildflowers nearby were amazing. We had some interesting critters today too, including Columbian Ground Squirrel, Western Pine Elfin, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, a strange square-headed snakefly, and at the lookout an emergence of Casey’s Lady Beetles. We returned to the forest in the evening just north of Burns, first saving a Gopher Snake from being squished, and then ending with several Flammulated Owls, mostly heard, but one at least seen in flight in the tall Ponderosa Pines overhead.

One last day south of Burns took us all the way to Fields, but not without a quick stop at Malheur HQ again, where the mix of migrants was a bit different. New were a couple Lewis’s Woodpeckers flycatching over the yard as well as two newly arrived Common Nighthawks. In the Catlow Valley to the south we spied a rare Wood Duck and saw a predicted pair of Golden Eagle soaring over the fields. We had an amazing Chukar experience, first driving all the way through Long Hollow without seeing one, turning around, passing cars, and then rounding a bend where a car had just passed to find one in the middle of the highway. It stood there for a long time, not sure what to do, and then just before another car came it slowly walked off into the sagebrush. The oasis at Fields Station was teeming with Warbling Vireos and had amazingly close and unconcerned Great Horned Owls. We heard a noisy Yellow-breasted Chat and one of the Great-tailed Grackles that many others had been reporting. Another highlight here was a group of Evening Grosbeaks that came in to bathe at close range while we were hiding in the willows. Other cool animals here were a Long-nosed Leopard Lizard, a Tiger Whiptail, and yet another Gopher Snake that we saved from being squished. After a long but breathtakingly beautiful drive back to Burns, we made a short drive after dinner for Common Poorwill, hearing several and seeing one very well.

Our final day was even more scenic if that’s even remote possible, but we also saw some fine birds as well.  Memorable were a Spotted Towhee and a stunning male Bullock’s Oriole singing outside our van windows, as was a Western Screech-Owl we heard from a thicket across a stream. More Gray Flycatchers and Yellow-breasted Chats were in the juniper and in the nearby riparian area as we searched in vain for Red-naped Sapsucker. At one point we watched a Red-tailed Hawk with a snake it caught, dangling it below as to show off its hunting prowess to its mate, and we saved yet another doomed Gopher Snake for the third day in a row. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was a worthwhile stop (where we saw another but distant Chukar), and we finished with one of the best dinners of the tour with a view of Multnomah Falls through the glass ceiling.

- Rich Hoyer

Updated: June 2015