Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Oregon in Spring WINGS Tour Summary

Highlights from this year’s Oregon in Spring tour were many. The coast was gorgeous, if a bit moist and cool one day, providing a fantastic Golden-crowned Kinglet and Harlequin Ducks. But once inland, the weather suddenly turned picture perfect. Black-throated Gray Warbler, Bushtit and both forms of White-breasted Nuthatch were seen well, while many lovely Western Tanagers migrants were seen almost every day. On their nesting grounds we located Calliope Hummingbird and Mountain Bluebirds and were surprised by an out-of-range Northern Waterthrush. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounds were productive with Bobolink, Sandhill Cranes (with a recently hatched colt), Trumpeter Swans, Prairie Falcon, and Chukar. We tallied all twelve species of woodpecker, including a gorgeous Williamson’s Sapsucker and White-headed Woodpecker and six species of owls, such as a day-responsive Barred Owl and a bumper crop of five Great Horned Owl families with chicks.

On our first morning, driving past the first of many Brewer’s Blackbirds, Western Scrub-Jays≤ and Violet-green Swallows in Portland’s outskirts, we made our way to the foothills of the Coast Range. Met by local birder and superbly knowledgeable naturalist and (linguist) Lars Norgren, we did a hike that yielded a pair of Mountain Quail that we flushed practically from underfoot, flocks of migrating Cedar Waxwings and Evening Grosbeaks, Spotted Towhees, and a very cooperative Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Most amazing was the Red-breasted Sapsucker that drummed on the tip of a snag on the open slope below us for at least 15 minutes. Lars then led us to his own driveway where a Barred Owl responded aggressively to imitations, one we don’t always see, and certainly not during broad daylight. Onward to a couple quick spots where we heard Virginia’s Rails and saw an American Dipper taking food to the nest, followed by our first of many picnic lunches in a beautiful setting, complete with Hammond’s Flycatcher. Once on the outer coast it was a 1/3-mile hike to the edge of Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach in the brisk wind and among throngs of beachgoers and kite-fliers where we saw pairs of Tufted Puffins in nuptial flight between the wisps of fog. A stop at Nehalem Sewage Ponds provided a few ducks, gulls and studies of Savannah Sparrows, and the Tillamook Cheese Factory, with is fabulous selection of ice cream flavors did not disappoint. The fog continued, putting a stop to any evening birding during our delicious dinner at Roseanna's in picturesque Oceanside.

A full day on the coast with gorgeous weather was something to be envied. We had to check Bayocean Spit before the tide receded too far, and several ducks, a group of resting migrant Brant, and late migrant Semipalmated Plovers were good to add to the list, as well as our first of many Bald Eagles for the next few days, a handsome adult perched at the top of a giant Douglas-fir. A check of the surf at the town of Cape Meares resulted in a very brief view of a herd of Killer Whales, while the sea watching resulted in our first Western Grebes. Much of the morning was then spent at the spectacular Cape Meares, where highlights were a Peregrine Falcon nest (with four hatchlings, we were to learn later, though we could see only one), Black Oystercatchers starting a nest, Common Murres, Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, and Surf Scoters. We picked up the pair of Black Phoebes at a bridge for their third spring (probably the northernmost pair of their species known in the world), then had a delightful lunch in the presence of Red Crossbills and Downy Woodpeckers on the north side of Tillamook Bay. The stops for “rockpeckers” weren’t so successful, but the back roads through dairy country were interesting, resulting in a flock of Band-tailed Pigeons and multiple groups of migrating Whimbrel in hay fields. A tip on a Red-shouldered Hawk not far from our hotel wasn’t so successful, except that it resulted in our first Common Yellowthroat and a very territorial male Rufous Hummingbird. Owling after dinner was a bit damp in the approaching drizzle, but not so wet that we didn’t see a Northern Saw-whet Owl within 6 minutes of arriving.

Our day driving down the coast thence inland to Corvallis coincided with the arrival of a cold front. We managed to dodge the brunt of showers as we found Varied Thrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet (with its brilliant fiery orange and yellow crown raised), Common Mergansers, Brown Pelicans and a Purple Martin huddling at the entrance to its next box. We enjoying the spectacle of thousands of Common Murres and Brandt’s Cormorants nesting on the rocks at Yaquina Head, while at the same place Clark’s Grebes and a female Black Scoter were quite unexpected. Driving over the historic Yaquina Bay bridge resulted in a sighting of an active Osprey below us nest before we headed inland to the warmer areas of the Willamette Valley.

Our early morning up Mary’s Peak was a bit colder than expected; we were indeed in the wake of a cold front. “Oregon” Gray Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Townsend’s Solitaires, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (during our picnic breakfast) and a rare Rock Wren were the highlights here before we retreated to warmer elevations. We had excellent views of a singing MacGillivray’s Warbler in a clearcut near Alsea, followed by another lovely picnic at Alsea Falls, replete with fragrant wildflowers and views of the scenic falls. A delightfully cooperative pair of Wrentits near the town of Alpine was one of the more memorable encounters of the tour as one of these biological and taxonomical oddities approached us within a couple feet. A quick visit to Finley National Wildlife Refuge paid off, with the rare and local Streaked Horned Lark and a lovely restored native prairie with Lazuli Bunting, Western Meadowlarks, and a huge herd of Elk (or Wapiti). After a good pub dinner and a well-deserved ice cream dessert, our foray for Western Screech-Owls was beautifully successful.

One last attempt at Sooty Grouse and Mountain Quail was not met by success, though an added stop did result in our only Acorn Woodpeckers and "Coastal" White-breasted Nuthatch, with its comparatively short bill and one-syllable call note. We then headed over the Cascade Mountains, through deep green woods and past the gorgeous rapids of the moss- and fern-decorated South Santiam River. A pause at a small clearcut resulted in a lucky find of Hutton's Vireo and Pileated Woodpecker; a short walk through an old growth grove was awesome; a short stop at Lost Lake netted Hooded Merganser and Barrow's Goldeneye; and a visit to a two-year-old forest burn resulted in both Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, thanks to information from local birders scouting for the upcoming Woodpecker Wonderland Festival. Following this with a Red-naped Sapsucker at our lunch spot, we already had nine species of woodpeckers in our pocket. After a fantastic dinner in the resort of Sunriver, we found a Great Horned Owl in last year's Great Gray Owl spot, while flocks of Bank Swallows and displaying Wilson's Snipe flew overhead and Wapiti foraged in the meadows of the Little Deschutes River.

A pre-breakfast outing on the halfway point of the tour proved how productive dawn this time of year can be. Within minutes, we were watching Lewis's Woodpecker (mating, even), Brewer's Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, "Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow and our first of what would be many gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds. few hours at the well-named Calliope Crossing once again yielded a male Calliope Hummingbird – a most amazing little jewel with flared rays of magenta for a gorget. A Northern Goshawk on its nest here was a special treat, while Cassin's Vireo and an even better Red-napped Sapsucker than yesterday was enjoyed by all. The biggest surprise was a singing Northern Waterthrush, which normally would have remained totally hidden in the dense willows; but while we were looking, it came out from hiding to chase a female Cassin's Finch all over the place, amazingly landing on a low branch in the open where we could watch it through the spotting scope. Then we were off to Burns with a stop for Tricolored Blackbirds at a marsh, thanks to local birder Chuck Gates, lunch in a canyon with White-throated Swift and hundreds of Cliff Swallows overhead, followed by Rock Wren, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Golden Eagle, Swainson's Hawk, Loggerhead Shrike, and more Mountain Bluebirds before arriving at our hotel in the northern Great Basin. A casual drive on the outskirts of town on our way to dinner was a real treat, adding Wilson's and Red-necked Phalaropes, Long-billed Curlews, Sandhill Cranes, White-faced Ibis, and several ducks such as Redhead and Canvasback.

We started our full morning in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge area by driving a road not far south of town with much of the same birds as the previous evening, with even more American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Willets. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were squeezing out their songs from almost every fencepost, Black Terns cruised over the marshes, and our duck list expanded greatly. Most delightful was a Sora that seemed to be calling from right outside the van, staying invisible in short grass in the ditch. With just a tiny bit of iPod, it came flying out of the ditch, right down the road at the van, circled the van, and landed on the shoulder just outside our windows. A very similar experience was repeated later in the day with Virginia Rails at a different marsh; normally, one would not expect them to be so responsive to a call played from van window level. Malheur NWR headquarters was buzzing with migrant Wilson's Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Western Tanagers, Lazuli Buntings and a few others, but no vagrants were being seen this day. After stopping for a Common Raven on a nest (but no Northern Mockingbird where one had been seen a few days earlier), we enjoyed the richness of the refuge on the Center Patrol Road. Trumpeter Swans, Eastern Kingbirds and Bobolinks (right outside the van window, singing from an exposed perch) were the real highlights here, but dozens of Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, countless White-faced Ibis feeding and flying by in flocks, and Franklin's Gulls in every direction made this drive a highlight. After viewing a family of Great Horned Owls in a nook above the road near Frenchglen (thanks to Oregon birders Forrest and Graham), we headed back north. The numbers of White-faced Ibis and Franklin's Gulls nesting at Diamond Marsh were hard to comprehend, the sound audible from a half mile away, and in the midst of it all were at least a couple Snowy Egrets, our only ones. Just a few miles away, a rare Bonaparte's Gull fed with ibis on one side of the road, while an even rarer Cattle Egret was among horses on the other. After yet another family of Great Horned Owls with three young, we checked headquarters again (another Great Horned Owl!) and took shelter from the approaching thunderstorm at dinner.

With only a few forest species missing from our already burgeoning list, our full day in the mountains north of Burns was to mostly be a nice respite of gorgeous, forested scenery from the open desert of the lower elevations. But we started the day with great birds, including a pair of White-headed Woodpeckers, a bonus Black-backed Woodpecker, the interior, long-billed White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadees going in and out of a nest cavity just above the ground, and a gorgeous male Cassin's Finch. We had to make a quick highway stop for Wilson's Snipes perched on fence posts and for a pair of Sandhill Cranes sporting colored leg bands and satellite radios. It turns out these birds had been banded together at the Consumnes River Preserve near Galt, California a year and five months earlier, part of a study comparing wintering foraging behaviors of Lesser and Greater Sandhill Cranes. Then we found a pair of gorgeous Williamson's Sapsuckers, our 12th and final woodpecker species. At our picnic lunch we had close encounters with a MacGillivray's Warbler and then were treated to some stunning Mountain Bluebirds of the purest blue possible. With attempts for Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Northern Pygmy-Owl resulting in little more than a rough road adventure and a glimpse of an American Dipper, we took a lovely scenic route back to Burns via mountains, meadows, sagebrush valleys, and a remote schoolhouse. With an evening free of thunderstorms, we ventured north a mere 25 minutes’ drive to tall pine forest where we heard at least 3 Flammulated Owls upon arrival. But they weren’t quite ready to show themselves; in the end we were on our way home in just an hour with wonderful views of this deep-voiced, lone New World member of the scops owl genus.

On our last day in the Malheur area, we drove all the way south to Fields, only a few miles north of Nevada. Stops on our way south to Fields in the Catlow Valley were amazingly productive, first with a rare pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (thanks again to a tip from another friend), followed by a Virginia Rail in the most unassuming of marshes passing itself off as a moist roadside puddle. Gorgeous Bullock’s Orioles were in the junipers, a Canyon Wren came all the way down to a roadside boulder, and down the road were Yellow-breasted Chats and a migrant Swainson’s Thrush. Bufflehead were added to the list in a remote roadside lake before we made a very successful stop for Burrowing Owl, Black-throated Sparrow and Chukar. We enjoyed the quaintness of remote Fields Station while observing migrant Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, MacGillivray’s Warblers, and a family of Great Horned Owls. The ride north through the majestic Alvord Basin, looking up a vertical mile to the peaks of Steens Mountain, was awe inspiring, augmented by multiple Golden Eagles and lovely desert wildflowers.

The ancient rocks of Aldrich Mountain were the backdrop of our final morning of birding. While wildflowers such as Yellow Avalanche-Lily and Ball-headed Waterleaf diverted our attention, Rock Wren, Townsend’s Warbler, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Lincoln’s Sparrow were enough to keep our binoculars occupied. The view from the top of Aldrich Mountain to the John Day River below was stunning. Soon we were driving down the John Day River valley, breaking up the long drive with a visit to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and a viewpoint where Mounts Adams, St. Helens, Hood, and Jefferson were visible beyond the many wind turbines. With scenic stops, including dinner, among nesting Ospreys and flocks of Ring-billed Gulls, we made our way through the famous Columbia River Gorge to our final night’s hotel, a wonderful wrap-up to a tour of a spectacular state.