Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Oregon in Late Summer WINGS Tour

Recently I’ve had some not-so-subtle hints from friends that it’s been a long time since I’ve posted to my blog. I’ve been staying quite busy, and the garden has occupied a huge amount of that time (including putting up the produce), but there’s certainly no lack of bloggable topics from my little corner of paradise: lots of plant updates, interesting insects, and a burgeoning bird list. However, the meat of my blogging is usually my trips, and as you might imagine, I haven’t been traveling much, with five of my tours canceled over the summer.

But I actually did lead a tour recently – my Oregon in Late Summer tour. This was the first WINGS tour to go since the pandemic shut everything down in March. The protocols were easier to follow with only four participants, all masked up in the van (mostly – I forgot sometimes when nursing a warm thermos of coffee) and as many meals outdoors as possible. I even prepared three meals at home in the days before the tour began, froze everything, and then brought it along in a new Yeti cooler and packed it with dry ice. On day 10, some of the food I brought out of the cooler was still partially frozen! I also bought a fancy two-burner propane camp stove and packed a lot of kitchenware. I’m not sure we would have been able to confirm that tour were it to be happening now, with such a surge of covid-19 as I write this in early December, but back in August and September, cases here in Oregon were actually still quite low, and no state was reporting a very big surge in cases.

Below is my day-by-day summary of the tour, with added photos.

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 of the tour had fresh air, 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:

Mountain Bluebird
Canyon Wren
Rufous Hummingbird
Black Rosy-Finch
Prairie Falcon
Sagebrush Sparrow
Summer Tanager
Prairie Falcon
Flammulated Owl
Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored)
Red-naped Sapsucker
Ferruginous Hawk

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. I briefly became a bit emotional when it hit me how much I had enjoyed being a tour leader and didn't know how long it would be before I would be able to do this again.

September 1
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, my close friends 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.
Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge

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).
Red-legged Grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum at Luckiamute Landing

Shadow Darner, Aeshna umbrosa at Luckiamute Landing

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.

Tule Bluet, Enallagma carunculatum at Philomath Sewage Ponds

Greater Yellowlegs at Philomath Sewage Ponds

September 2
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. Scenery at the top is almost always amazing:

The Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport from Marys Peak, 26.17 miles away

White-shouldered Bumble Bee, Bombus appositus

Seven-spotted Lady Beetle, Coccinella septempunctata

Willamette Short-winged Grasshopper, Melanoplus saltator
millipede species, family Parajulidae

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.
Canada Jay

Devils Club, Oplopanax horridus

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.
Alsea Falls

Northern Pygmy-Owl

The abundant introduced Nutria, Myocastor coypus at an old logging pond near Alpine

September 3
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.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Warbling Vireo

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.
Black Phoebe at Philomath Sewage Ponds

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.
California Gulls and Caspian Tern at Hatfield Marine Science Center

Cedar Waxwing at Hatfield Marine Science Center

Pacific Coast Tiger Beetle, Cicindela bellissima at Sandpiper Village

Western Tiger Beetle, Cicindela oregona at Sandpiper Village

Sandpiper Village Beach in the fog

September 4
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.
Brandt's Cormorants and Brown Pelican from Heceta Head

The view from Heceta Head lighthouse just before the weather began clearing.

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.
A dead Costal Mole, Scapanus orarius, on the picnic area lawn was odd.

One of the few Snowy Plovers that didn't have leg bands.

What do you call a black-and-white yellowjacket? Should be a whitejacket, right? But this one is called Blackjacket, Vespula consobrina.

A Sanderling and two Western Sandpipers joined the Snowy Plovers

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.
American Pipit

A very fast flock of silent dowitchers. Could have been either or both species.

Harlequin Ducks

September 5
Today was a travel day from the coast to the Great Basin, but we 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.
Salt Creek Falls

A Green Comma, Polygonia faunus, at Salt Creek

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.
Clark's Nutcracker with a crop full of pine nuts, off to cache

An earlyish Golden-crowned Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

White-breasted Nuthatch, of the long-billed interior subspecies tenuissima

White-headed Woodpecker

All of the above birds were seen from the highway shoulder at this isolated grove of ponderosa pines

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.
Fort Rock State Park

Prairie Falcon

A Western Black Widow, Latrodectus hesperus, greeted me at my hotel door after dinner and owling!

September 6
The masses of birdlife at Summer Lake State Wildlife Area took up almost all morning, and this place 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.
This was the first morning we had any issue with smoke, this presumably from the record large fires in California. The big ones in Oregon were still a day and a half away from igniting.

A female Brewer's Blackbird at our picnic breakfast

An underwing moth, Catocala sp. notoriously difficult to identify

Aedes dorsalis was the mosquito we encountered at Summer Lake, a time of year when they are usually gone.

Great Horned Owls

Sharp-shinned Hawk
Willow Flycatcher

The Prairie Yellowjacket, Vespula atropilosa, was a new one for me.

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.
Abert Lake 

American Avocet

Avocets, phalaropes, and Eared Grebes as far as the eye can see

Crackling Forest Grasshopper, Trimerotropis verruculata, at lunch

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.

September 7
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.

Dolichovespula sp. nest high in the cottonwoods at P Ranch

Red-shouldered Hawk at P Ranch

Sandhill Cranes and fall scenery at Malheur

Sandhill Cranes

The Striped Meadowhawk, Sympetrum pallipes, is the most common dragonfly here this time of year.

This grasshopper was at our lunch at Page Springs, a Circotettix sp. It has a very distinctive rattling song, so a species name shouldn't be too hard to nail down eventually. Blogger lets you add photos and movies, but not sound files, so you have to go to my iNaturalist observation to hear my recording.

September 8
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.
Canada Jay of the interior "Northern" group

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.
Cassin's Finch

Mountain Bluebird

Melissodes bee on top of Aldrich Mountain

The seeds of this boraginaceae were all over our pants, socks, and shoelaces

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.

Slate-colored Fox Sparrow

Slate-colored Fox Sparrow

After a dinner of takeout pizza, which we ate at a park in the presence of a mixed group of Brewer's 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.

September 9
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 in the state. We started with picnic breakfast, this time including fresh scrambled eggs (thanks to the handy camp stove), 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.
The group on our way up the mountain on the south side of the loop.

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.
Prairie Falcon

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.
There was some lingering smoke from fires to the south and east below us, but the atmosphere from about 9500 feet upward (we are at 9700 feet here) was beautifully clear.

Kiger Gorge

Slow Mountain Grasshopper, Bradynotes obesa

Lobb's Lupine, Lupinus lepidus var. lobbii

Spot-winged Pond Fly, Sericomyia flagrans, presumably hilltopping

Red-shanked Grasshopper, Xanthippus corallipes

Red-shanked Grasshopper, Xanthippus corallipes

A very distant Ferruginous Hawk in bad heat shimmer, but this is better than we could see it through the binoculars.

For what appeared to be a passenger jet, this was way too low – not far above us at 9700 feet elevation. We didn't recognize the colors from any airline either. It turns out to be a jet on its way to help fight the fires that at this point have been raging in western Oregon for the past two days, and the most likely route here would have been from Salt Lake City to Redmond. More and better photos of these jets can be seen on their website,

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.
Red-naped Sapsucker

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.
Plumbeous Vireo

Great Horned Owl in the Pete French Round Barn

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.
Where we had our final picnic dinner.

Osprey at Malheur NWR Headquarters

September 10
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.
An icy morning at picnic breakfast!

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.
Canyon Wren and the Moon

Summer Tanager

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.

The early evening sun through dense of forest fire smoke

September 11
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.
Barn, Bank, and Violet-green Swallows at Nehalem Sewage Ponds

A very late Cliff Swallow, and the only one on the tour,  at Nehalem Sewage Ponds

Eight Baird's and two Western Sandpipers are in this photo.

White-crowned Sparrow, a very common local breeder

Red-breasted Nuthatch, perhaps a southbound migrant.

It seemed like a lovely clam at the time, but later I learned this is the introduced Purple Mahogany Clam, Nuttallia obscurata, native to eastern Asia.

A Glaucous-winged Gull demonstrates the correct way to eat an Ochre Sea Star

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.
Moon Jellies, Aurelia labiata, were abundant this trip.

Black-footed Albatross

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Most people politely kept their masks on, even though everything we know about the virus tells us getting infected in this environment is essentially impossible.

There was a bit of discussion about what this shark might be, but Blue Shark, Prionace glauca, seems to be the most common and likely species that behaves like this in this region. The lack of blue color can entirely be attributed to the dense fog.

Sabine's Gull

1 comment:

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