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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon: Birds & Theater

2012 Tour Narrative

In Brief: Any tour offering only five days in the field with birding mostly confined to the mornings may not sound like a lot of opportunity to see much, but the rich, coniferous forests, valleys, and lakes of southwestern Oregon (dipping for part of a day into California) presented us with a fantastic variety and many memorable moments. Combined with the five plays we saw at the superb Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this years “Birds & Bard” tour was a grand success. Each day’s picnic breakfast was coupled with some delightful birds, such as White-headed Woodpecker one morning, on others Acorn Woodpecker, Black-billed Magpie, Mountain Chickadee, and even Northern Pygmy-Owl. Sights such as a Mt. Ashland meadow full of wildflowers and alive with the chipping and chasing of Rufous Hummingbirds, or the spectacular Crater Lake with a family of Red-tailed Hawks soaring in freedom, will leave lasting memories. Of the plays, the commissioned All the Way about Lyndon B. Johnson’s first months as president received high marks, as did the terrific Romeo and Juliet production, and the surprisingly successful medley combining Medea, Macbeth, and Cinderella.

In Detail: The first bird of the tour was a silent murder of about 200 crows passing over the gorgeous open-air Elizabethan Theater at dusk about a half-hour into our first play, a fitting sighting during the sinister Shakespeare’s Henry V. Though well acted, it was a heavy, serious play, and we looked forward to the lighter fare for our remaining plays.

Our first morning of birding was a grand success even before we arrived at the blissfully beautiful picnic area at Lily Glen – by driving a road at dawn we found our target covey of Mountain Quail scurrying in and out of the roadside bushes, including a very protective father not afraid to stand up to a big, white van. In going a bit further down the road to turn around, we stumbled into yet another giant covey. Strolling through the flowery, pine-fringed meadow by the picnic area, we saw good numbers of post-breeding groups of sparrows, warblers (including a close Wilson’s and Orange-crowned), and some lovely Lazuli Buntings. Then making it to the shore of Howard Prairie Reservoir, we tallied a good assortment of water birds such as Western and Least Sandpipers. A mixed flock with Hermit Warbler and both Mountain and Chestnut-backed Chickadees distracted us before our picnic lunch by a mostly-finished Double-crested Cormorant colony and whistling Osprey. Our afternoon play was an interesting blend of ideas, themes, characters, and even dialogue from three very different stories – Medea, Macbeth, and Cinderella. The intersections were very thoughtful and sometimes quite entertaining, but everyone found it rather tiring to concentrate and switch back and forth between each of the stories, which were acted simultaneously.

Our second morning found us breakfasting on the slopes below Mount Ashland while a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers flew back and forth to their nesting cavity. The best part of the morning was walking along the road with the mountain’s slope full of a tremendous variety of wildflowers on either side, Rufous Hummingbirds chasing each other as they tried defending their own patch of horsemint. Flocks with Bushtits, Hermit Warblers, Nashville Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Mountain Chickadees, as well as Green-tailed Towhee and a female Lazuli Bunting apparently still near her nest were additional highlights. When it was finally warming up for some interesting butterflies (Anna’s Blue and Western Sooty Hairstreak were local specialties), it was already time to return for our afternoon play, which today was another serious one, Romeo and Juliet. But everyone’s knowing the story coupled with superb acting made this one of the most enjoyable plays of the week. After dinner we took a short walk from our hotel into Lithia Park and a few minutes later were looking at a Western Screech-Owl – no sleep was lost on this briefest of owling walks.

With no plays scheduled for Monday, we drove to the Klamath Basin, first starting with breakfast not far from Ashland in the oak zone. Here we had Western Scrub-Jay, Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, and quite a few other species during breakfast. Our next birding stop was radically different in habitats more typical of the Great Basin, even though we were still technically on the Pacific Slope, the Klamath River draining this inland valley. Spending most of our time on the California side of the border, we watched White-faced Ibis, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, and many shorebirds on the mudflats and wet fields, while nearly countless numbers of Eared Grebe, Mallard, Gadwall, and American Coot filled the water basins. Western and Clark’s Grebes, distant foraging groups of Black Tern, and a Sagebrush Lizard were additional highlights. After a fun grilled dinner of fajitas and vegetables at our hotel, some of us did a bit of night birding. A pair of Great Horned Owls were out of their roost well before dark had set in, and we heard a distant Flammulated and saw the haunting specter of a Barn Owl flying overhead in the flashlight’s beam.

Our day driving around Crater Lake would have been worth it just for the scenery, but we also had some nice birds. The early morning walk that some did at the hotel was memorable, with Western Wood-Pewees calling, a roost of Black-billed Magpies setting out for the day, and American Goldfinches at the feeders. We had a surprise Red-shouldered Hawk near our hotel before our first stop in the towering Ponderosa Pines of the national park, where a pair of Evening Grosbeaks was a good find. Around the rim drive, a troop of Gray Jays, many Clark’s Nutcrackers, a frolicking family of Red-tailed Hawks, and a lesson in differentiating Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels from the stripey-faced chipmunks (at least two species) were the highlights. More Gray Jays visited us at our picnic lunch, joined by a shy Steller’s Jay, while a spectacular pair of Pileated Woodpeckers flew in overhead. Then it was time to return to Ashland, with two stops along the way – one at Upper Klamath Lake that resulted in a Red-breasted Sapsucker and another at Agate Lake in response to a well-timed RBA that came as a text message from local birder Alan Contreras – a Great-tailed Grackle. Still a very rare bird in Oregon, this was a second or third record for the area, but when we left, there were a total of three birds in a single bush, indicating they may have bred nearby. After a really nice dinner at Dragonfly, we went directly to our play, the delightful As You Like It, done as a traditional production in the Elizabethan theater.

Our last day of birding began with yet more Mountain Quail, this time just a pair quickly dashing across the road. Then even before we started breakfast at a refreshingly chilly, vacant campground in the forest, a Northern Pygmy-Owl began calling. It eventually came in quite close for excellent views. We then covered a lot of territory to take advantage a recent report of a beetle-killed forest with some good woodpeckers. Immediately after arriving, we found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers, getting great looks, later finding yet another pair and a family of Red-breasted Sapsuckers. Our last stop was to pay our respects to the tallest Western White Pine, where we also whistled in mob of birds with many chickadees, warblers, nuthatches, and Brown Creeper. After witnessing the unmatched butterfly-tree play on words – Pine White in a White Pine (Shakespeare would have approved) – we had our last picnic lunch and dashed off just in time for a quick break and our last play, All The Way, voted the group’s favorite. We ended the tour with a terrific dinner at Sammy’s New Cowboy Bistro.

- Rich Hoyer

Updated: March 2013