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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Late Summer

2018 Narrative

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect tour than Oregon in Late Summer this year. The weather was great, the birds always fascinating and captivating, and the group cohesion nothing short of phenomenal. The participants raved over the picnic lunches, the diversity of wildlife and scenery, and delicious dinners in some great restaurants. Our time in the Willamette Valley, in the Coast Range, and on the beautiful coast was delightful, and some of the top tour favorites came from there, such as the Northern Pygmy-Owl and Varied Thrushes north of Florence, three Sooty Grouse on the Marys Peak road, American Dipper at Alsea Falls after our picnic lunch there, and a surprise covey of Mountain Quail on the shoulder of busy State Highway 126. But the birds with the most votes came during our wanderings east of the Cascade Mountains, especially in the verdant and complex coniferous forests of the Aldrich Mountains. We worked hard for White-headed Woodpecker, but they eluded us only until our very last morning, the last-chance stop at the Swick Old Growth Interpretive Trail, and we ended up with great views of this bird, earning it favorite bird of the tour. Not far behind in votes though were Pygmy Nuthatch and Williamson’s Sapsucker, both iconic birds of this same habitat, as well as Red Crossbill and Black-backed Woodpecker. Other favorites came from the deserts, oases, and marshes of Summer Lake and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, including the several Great Horned Owls we stumbled across, migrant MacGillivray’s Warblers that showed unusually well, White-crowned Sparrows leading to a discussion of finer field marks to separate subspecies, a Common Poorwill just a few miles from our hotel in Hines, and a Virginia Rail that fed out in the open by Benson Pond.

We started the tour birding near Portland at a few favorite birding locations, one of which had a rare oversummering Rough-legged Hawk – our first of many write-ins on the tour master list. Numbers of staging Vaux’s Swifts at Smith-Bybee were followed by good numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, and American Bitterns at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge. After our first of many delightful picnic lunches where we watched Ospreys on the Willamette River, we caught up with Red-breasted Sapsucker, heard a Western Screech-Owl during the day, and snagged Acorn Woodpecker at a known stakeout.

Marys Peak was good to us, providing three Sooty Grouse on the drive up, a Pileated Woodpecker right by the parking lot, rare and early migrant Horned Larks at the peak, an amazing flock of at least a couple dozen Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Pacific Wrens the deep, lush forest undergrowth. The American Dipper above Alsea Falls was memorable before we birded Finley National Wildlife Refuge (yet another American Bittern), and the Philomath Sewage Ponds (known locally as the Philomath Poo Ponds).

On our way to the coast we enjoyed birding Fern Ridge Reservoir, scouring the flats for rare shorebirds while American White Pelicans sailed over and a Northern Harrier hunted the marsh. At our lunch stop we watched a Clark’s Grebe pair feeding their chick, while a mixed flock of passerines gave us great view of Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler. Arriving at the coast, we were treated to good views of a juvenile Eared Grebe, presenting an ID challenge even at very close range.

Rather than birding the coast first thing in the morning, we drove miles and miles of back roads looking for Mountain Quail to no avail. But it wasn’t for naught, as mixed flocks gave us lingering Hammond’s Flycatchers, Cassin’s Vireo, Western Tanager, and Townsend’s Warblers, as well as the star Northern Pygmy-Owl. Once on the coast, we admired the unusually large numbers of Surf Scoters just offshore, spied a Red-necked Grebe in amongst them, and stumbled into a Wandering Tattler on the South Jetty.

On our last morning we enjoyed some beach time, where banded Snowy Plovers told a story of successful conservation efforts, made a sudden stop for the covey of Mountain Quail, and then arrived in time for lunch in the gorgeous setting of Salt Creek Falls. No Black Swifts were present at this late date, but Canada Jays joined us for lunch and an American Dipper was deftly spotted in the creek well below the falls. In just a couple hours’ drive over the Cascade Mountains we found ourselves in a different world, in awe of the scenery and geology lessons provided by Fort Rock and many other formations. A Rock Wren pair hopped amongst the rocks, a Sagebrush Sparrow was a lucky find near there, and a magnificent Golden Eagle was perched on a pole as we drove to our hotel in Christmas Valley.

Summer Lake was chock full of birds, and it was hard to make any progress on the roads with all the stops we had to make. Favorite birds here were American Avocet, Forster’s Tern, and Sandhill Crane, as well as Great Horned Owl and MacGillivray’s Warbler, but it was hard to choose. Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon were highlights as we began the long drive to Hines, and the scenery as well as ridiculous numbers of Wilson’s Phalaropes on Lake Abert helped break up the monotony.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding areas were excellent. An American Redstart at the refuge headquarters was a fun rarity, as was a Northern Waterthrush at Benson Pond, which was joined by a Virginia Rail. A single migrant Lazuli Bunting was getting tardy, while Northern Flickers were everywhere. As we worked our way south through the refuge, we came across some lingering Vesper Sparrows, had Canyon Wrens and a Black-billed Magpie doing a whisper song at our lunch spot at Page Springs, and lucked into a covey of Williamson’s Quail, AKA Chukar on our way to Diamond Craters. Malheur also had some nice mammals for us: American Pronghorn in fields of wildflowers were not an infrequent sight, while we were surprised by a family group of Wapiti in the refuge’s main road while at the very same moment being awed by a Cooper’s Hawk, a Coyote, and a Long-tailed Weasel.

Our day in the lovely coniferous forests of Malheur National Forest had many highlights, including the visit with the fire lookout person atop Aldrich Mountain. Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, Black-backed Woodpecker, Mountain Bluebird, Canada Jay, Spotted Towhee, and Townsend’s Solitaire were just some of the great birds we had this day, as well as Red Squirrels and several butterflies and grasshoppers.

Closed much of the year by snow, the Steens Mountain road allowed us to a rare treat on Oregon’s highest road with the most unbelievable vistas. On the way up we stopped at P-Ranch where a noisy Red-shouldered Hawk made its presence obvious, and a locally scarce Bewick’s Wren came out of its thicket. An aspen grove hosted a Red-naped Sapsucker, completing our sapsucker trio, and at the top Horned Larks flitted about while we watched a Peregrine Falcon chasing a Turkey Vulture, apparently for the fun of it. An impromptu stop at a muddy pond back in the lower steppes resulted in the tour’s only Wilson’s Snipe, and a return stop at Malheur Headquarters revealed the continuing American Redstart, amazing looks at a Wilson’s Warbler, and three snoozing Great Horned Owls.

White-headed Woodpecker is usually quite easy, but this year it played elusive until our last-minute opportunity on the drive back to Portland. Then a pair performed just beautifully, earning it favorite bird of the tour. John Day Fossil Beds was as stunningly beautiful as ever, and then our final dinner in sight of the magnificent Multnomah Falls was a fitting end to the main tour.

Those who took part on the pelagic extension saw unbelievable numbers of birds up to 30 miles from shore, the highlight of which was this Great Shearwater, a third record for Oregon. But on the drive there, we also scored a slightly early Sooty Fox Sparrow at our picnic lunch, indecisive Marbled Godwits flying over Nehalem Bay, Black Turnstones on a jetty, two Peregrine Falcons at Cape Meares, and American Oystercatchers in numbers. Other highlights from the boat trip included great views of Pomarine Jaeger, Rhinoceros Auklet with some of the horn still visible on the bill, Common Murre fathers with their chicks, and unbelievable numbers of Sabine’s Gulls working their way south.

Created: 09 November 2018