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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Late Summer

2020 Narrative

The Oregon in Late Summer tour was like a breath of fresh air after nearly a half year of restricted travel. Well, at least the first half was, and then smoke from forest fires from all directions was at least evident in the hazy horizon most places we went and barely tolerable the past couple of days. We were very lucky to be far from any fire’s direct path and were not forced to make any deviations from our planned routes. Having not led any tours since March, I was reminded what a joy it is to show off my home state and its birds to a group of passionate, appreciative, and grateful participants. There was no agreement among anyone’s top three favorite birds, though the birding east of the Cascades provided most of the memorable sightings. It was clear we were having a fabulous time every moment during the tour, and it was a sad moment when I realized we were at the end of tour so quickly.

Weather was wonderful every day of the tour, especially that gorgeous first morning which we started in the greater Portland area. After a picnic breakfast at a Tigard City Park, where Pileated Woodpecker and the western White-breasted Nuthatch were some of the good sightings, we met up with two of the area’s top birders at Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, Shawneen Finnegan and Craig Tumer. They had staked out a Baird’s Sandpiper for us, while flocks of Violet-green Swallows flew overhead, Lesser Goldfinches fed on the weeds below the viewing area, and a Wilson’s Snipe fed furtively at the mud’s edge. We then checked the bird-filled Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge (which just six weeks later would host the state’s second record of Wood Sandpiper) and had lunch after a unique ride on the Buena Vista Ferry across the Willamette River. There were just a couple of birding stops in the afternoon, one just barely still in Polk County at Luckiamute Landing where there was a flurry of activity, including a Western Screech-Owl tooting back from across the creek and a pair of riled up Red-breasted Sapsuckers who probably had an established personal relationship with that owl and were ready to take on this new one (my whistle). The other stop was a slam-dunk Acorn Woodpecker oak grove in Adair Village before we finished the day with a stop at the Philomath Sewage Ponds.

The morning on top of Marys Peak was outstanding. The skies were still quite clear, and we could see north to Mount Rainier in Washington. Strangely, all galliform birds evaded us, and perhaps it was the large numbers of cars on the road to see sunrise and a full moon set from this perfect spot that kept the quail and grouse at bay. We had our first Varied Thrushes on the drive up, Band-tailed Pigeons were near the top, and a very confiding group of Western Bluebirds fed around the parking lot as we had breakfast. On the way down the mountain, we stopped to look for Canada Jays (they showed well) and lucked into an early migrant Townsend’s Warbler. Lunch at Alsea Falls failed to produce dipper, but we were treated to a very cooperative Northern Pygmy-Owl that came way out of the tallest trees, and we enjoyed spending the better part of a half hour with this bird, sharing it with some passers-by as well.

We started our day driving to the coast with picnic breakfast at Philomath City Park, which is normally not anything special, but the stringer of willows here somehow had attracted a number of migrants. After we finished with the Acorn Woodpeckers over the picnic table, we caught up with very confiding Black-throated Gray Warbler and Warbling Vireo, among several other birds. Another check of the sewage ponds preceded our drive to the lovely coast at Newport, and from there we worked our way southward to Florence with several stops. A Western Kingbird we found at the Hatfield Marine Science Center nature trail may have been just the second fall record for Lincoln County, but just as memorable were the more expected Harlequin Ducks at Otter Rocks and a very confiding Marsh Wren sitting up brave in the beach grass and willows at Sandpiper Village.

Our first day on the coast actually started inland a bit in the forests of Cape Mountain, where we hoped to run into some mixed flocks as well as escape the heavy mizzle that had settled in overnight. We found more Canada Jays, but a very tame Varied Thrush ended up being our best find there. A very close Gray Whale just below the Heceta Lookout was fun, and a walk to the lighthouse is where we ended up with our best views of Black Oystercatcher on the rocks below countless Brandt’s Cormorants. Lunch was fortuitously under a Sita Spruce tree laden with ripe cones where Type 10 Red Crossbills were actively feeding and calling, but even more impressive were huge numbers of Cedar Waxwing, feeding on the abundant huckleberries, salal, twinberry honeysuckle, and especially cascara. A careful count of forty-nine Snowy Plovers at the beach was close to a record number; the resident docent who was there to help warn non-birding beachgoers to avoid flushing the birds had never seen so many at once and had no explanation for the sudden concentration. We finished the day’s birding at the south jetty of the Siuslaw River where a very distant roosting Surfbird was less than optimal, while Black Turnstones, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, and a very close trio of Harlequin Ducks were among the additional 25 species we saw.

A long travel day from the coast to the Great Basin would be a very long drive with to time to look for birds anywhere other than this part of Oregon, where we actually had time to stop for birds and lovely picnics in gorgeous settings. Steller’s Jays and Swainson’s Thrushes were at our picnic breakfast at Whittaker Creek, while our only Wild Turkeys were flying (!) across the highway as we were approaching Eugene. We made stops at Fern Ridge Reservoir where Common Tern and Clark’s Grebe were highlights as well as at my yard, which I call Calliope Corner. No calliopes were present, but we did have our most memorable views of Rufous Hummingbird here, and the feeders were busy with Bushtits, Lesser Goldfinches, and even migrant Black-headed Grosbeak and Western Tanager made appearances. Lunch was at the spectacular Salt Creek Falls, though mid-day in early September in the high Cascades is predictably nearly bird-free; however, this is where we finally got stellar views of American Dipper. Less than an hour and a half down the road, and just as we were about to enter the treeless expanse of sagebrush steppe, we passed through a final grove of Ponderosa Pine that was alive with birds. It was a mind-boggling bonanza that started with Pinyon Jay and progressed through Clark’s Nutcracker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, and almost 20 more species in rapid succession. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from this, but ahead lie more memorable birds. Sage Thrasher appeared as promised, Prairie Falcon posed nicely on a power pole, and stunning Mountain Bluebirds flitted along fence lines. But the best was yet to come with our picnic dinner of Thai green curry at the stunning Fort Rock State Park. As dusk began to settle, White-throated Swift returned from the far-off feeding areas to roost for the night, and then as civil twilight began to fade a pair of calling Barn Owls emerged like ghosts in the moonlight, foraging in the sagebrush slopes below the impressive volcanic tuff ring. It was a moment to savor.

The masses of birdlife at Summer Lake State Wildlife Area took up almost all morning and was a highlight of the tour. Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Snowy Plovers, and Western Sandpipers were complemented by a single Sanderling, rare so far inland. We had three Great Horned Owls, including a pair that hooted in broad daylight, migrant MacGillivray’s Warbler and Nashville Warbler, and our only Black-crowned Night-Heron. Lunch at Marster Spring was rather warm and not full of birds, but that was followed by the impressive drive past Abert Lake with its thousands of American Avocets, Eared Grebes, and Wilson’s Plovers, scattered to well beyond the heat shimmer and impossible to truly count. Raptors were a constant distraction, and among the eight species of hawks and eagles we saw this day was a very handsome Ferruginous Hawk. We eventually had to break up the monotonous drive for safety’s sake, and as luck would have it, the pullout was next to a very nice patch of Greater Sagebrush, perfect for Sagebrush Sparrow which came right in. With the weather forecast looking iffy for possible wind, we continued north of Burns to have a picnic dinner of vegetarian chili and polenta with mint pesto at Idlewild Campground, followed by a tremendously successful search for Flammulated Owls nearby. Few people have ever bothered to look for this tricky bird this late in the season, and even the regional eBird reviewer was apparently surprised they were still in residence.

Our full day in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was delightful. There were plenty of birds to look through at the headquarters complex, especially with so many Red-breasted Nuthatches raiding the spruce cones. A family of Ring-necked Pheasants as we drove up were one target bird, while two Lewis’s Woodpeckers and a Townsend’s Warbler were among the prizes to be found among the many migrants. Our stop at the Buena Vista Overlook featured both Rock Wren and a very close Canyon Wren before we continued to cover the rest of the refuge. We tried for the reported Plumbeous Vireo but instead had a rather dull Cassin’s Vireo, our first for the tour, right by our picnic lunch table. The two Red-shouldered Hawks we saw as we worked back north through the refuge would have required a call to the RBA 15 years ago, and this came after a birder reported seeing a Red-tailed Hawk feeding on one just a day or two earlier. An interesting change came in the weather today, with a northern flow first moving out all the California forest fire smoke that had built up from the south. But then in the afternoon a cold north wind brought smoke from a Montana forest fire from the opposite direction as we ate our picnic dinner of takeout from Linda’s Thai at a local park.

By the next morning, all the smoke had cleared, and it dawned near freezing. We had a full day in the rich coniferous woodlands of Malheur National Forest of Grant County, hoping to fill in our gaps in the woodpecker list looking forward to chickadee and nuthatch flocks. Unfortunately, every woodpecker we saw had eight toes, but we did finally add Williamson’s Sapsucker after many stops and searches. We also added the interior or “Northern” form of Canada Jay during our very chilly morning at Swick Old Growth Grove. A Dusky Flycatcher was a nice addition, as were many Townsend’s Solitaires on our way up to the picturesque lookout on Aldrich Mountain where Ruby-crowned Kinglets were presumedly still on their breeding grounds in this bit of alpine habitat. Also still on territory were the very local “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrows on Murderers Creek road, a good bird to have in the bank should they ever be split. After a dinner of takeout pizza, which we ate at a park in the presence of a mixed group of Brewers and Red-winged Blackbirds, we took advantage of the calmer weather to look for Common Poorwill, of which we saw one at a distance and heard another.

Our final day in the Great Basin took us to the top of Steens Mountain, Oregon’s largest fault block mountain, the highest road in the state, and the only known breeding location of Black Rosy-Finch. We started with picnic breakfast, this time including fresh scrambled eggs, at the very base of the mountain in beautiful western juniper woodland, which allowed us to arrive at the East Rim looking down on the Alvord Desert below by mid-morning. Rock Wrens were migrating through, and we noted at least six in the small area we covered. Red-breasted Nuthatches and Townsend’s Solitaires were also migrating through, as was a dashing Prairie Falcon that flew by at eye level. We even saw a Black Rosy-Finch immediately upon arrival, but it was a very fleeting view, and we lingered with hopes of finding a big flock. There are few places more beautiful where one can pace back and forth hoping for a bird, and we were finally rewarded by good views of a small group of rosy-finches that came in to the rimrock above remnant snow fields. We lunched among the quaking aspen groves at one of the campgrounds on the way back down the mountain and there we found our first Red-naped Sapsucker perched motionless and almost invisibly by a patch of much more apparent sapsucker wells. We also caught up with the locally breeding, dark-lored oriantha White-crowned Sparrows that hadn’t begun their migration to Mexico yet. With time to stop by Page Springs Campground at the base of the mountain, we caught up almost immediately with the stakeout Plumbeous Vireo that was singing on territory. We finished the long day back at the refuge headquarters where we had our final picnic dinner, this time a lamb curry with Nepali dal bhat and a dessert of chocolate mousse.

The last day of the main tour began with a freezing spritz from lawn sprinklers that were timed to go off by the picnic tables right at breakfast time. So we moved to the sunlight as icicles sparkled at a safe distance. Nevertheless, a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers were a nice find here, and just down the road was our second Bald Eagle of the tour. The weekday closure of the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument visitor center gave us more time to look for birds, which it turned out we needed. At lunch we were treated to a show by a very curious and heavily molting Canyon Wren, and then just a few miles down the road we made a slight detour to look for a Summer Tanager that had been found just 16 days earlier (and ended staying on another nine) at a peach orchard. Patience was rewarded when the bird appeared with a migrant Western Tanager, and we then rewarded the orchard by buying a bunch of peaches and honey. Among the dozens of birders who saw the tanager, we had only the second local sighting of an Anna’s Hummingbird, rare in this part of Oregon. Looking forward to an outdoor grill dinner at Multnomah Falls, we were instead greeted there by a wall of smoke pushing eastward up gorge from the fires that had blown out of control in western Oregon just three days earlier; out of health concerns, they had just closed the grill. We at least did see the falls, had a glimpse of our second American Dipper, and then continued westward to have our farewell dinner at the restaurant next to our airport area hotel.

Pelagic Addendum:

The pelagic extension went smoothly, though fog and smoke were a bit of a barrier to perfection. The first morning stop at Fernhill Wetlands was full of water birds, including views of both Sora and Virginia Rail. A small fire close to the coast had closed Highway 101 in the previous two days, but this morning it was opened, so we were able to continue directly to the Nehalem area and then work our way down the picturesque coast as planned. A highlight at Nehalem was a huge flock of 31 Baird’s Sandpipers in one group; in Oregon even groups as many as 10 raise eyebrows. South of Nehalem we drove into fog, which persisted into the next day. While it did mean that the pelagic trip was pleasantly calm with smooth seas, it also meant we didn’t see many birds at a distance, which hampered the bird list. On the other hand, those that were there we saw extraordinarily well. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel is not rare, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and sometimes it’s missed, or the only sighting is a quick fly-by. It turned out to be the most abundant species on the trip with the leaders eBirding a total of 184, and other highlights were Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Sabine’s Gulls, and Cassin’s Auklet. A very quick fly-by of South Polar Skua was the boat’s only skua or jaeger of any kind and was missed by most people, something that can be blamed on the fog. But as is always the case, in order to get to know those far-flung birds, you have to take many pelagic trips, always a learning experience.


- Rich Hoyer

Created: 13 April 2022