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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Spring

2011 Tour Narrative

In Brief: While our introductory birding in the Willamette Valley was limited on the first day, with no thanks to a March-like rain, American Dipper was in its customary place, some got views of Virginia Rail, all had our fill of gorgeous Wood Ducks, and an elusive American Bittern was seen if only in flight. Then it was off to the coast for a warming lunch of chowder and seafood before our wonderful experience with Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock. We hiked the picturesque beach to the prominent monolith and soon were watching several pairs flying over in nuptial flights, and only just before we left did it occur to me to put the scope on the grassy slope where indeed a few birds were standing at the entrances to their burrows. We also saw quite a few Harlequin Ducks on the rocks and our first Black Oystercatchers.  We headed south to the Nehalem sewage ponds where we had a spectacular flyover of five Black Swifts, casually winging north in silent migration. The ponds had Red-necked Phalarope, several ducks, and great studies of Savannah Sparrow.

In Detail: Our two delightfully relaxed days on the coast from Tillamook to Waldport started with two pairs of Black Oystercatchers having a territorial squabble. Later we seawatched from Cape Meares. While the rocks offshore here and at Yaquina were strangely bare of birds (too early?), thousands upon thousands of Common Murres coated the ocean surface around them, and a goodly raft of 16 Tufted Puffins were visible at a great distance. A group of Black Scoters and several White-winged Scoters off the beach here were a good find this late in the season, as were breeding-plumaged Horned and  Red-necked Grebes nearby. Other rather late birds included a Merlin blasting by our hotel with mobbing Violet-green Swallows in hot pursuit and a surprising four Golden-crowned Sparrows, including an incredibly boldly colored bird at Yaquina Head close to where we had the rarest vagrant on the tour, a Rock Wren in the quarry by the visitor center (and local birders were able to follow up on our RBA that very afternoon to add this waif to their Lincoln County lists). Another slightly lost bird was a Western Kingbird in the dairy fields of Tillamook, but we focused on the birds that were supposed to be here, such as the adorable Pacific Wren, the amazingly confiding pair of Wrentits, the wonderful male Rufous Hummingbird that posed at eye level for lengthy views, and good views of northbound Pacific Loons. A prized find was a close Marbled Murrelet on the water at Boiler Bay and two Clark’s Grebes at Yaquina Head, rare this time of year on the coast.

Based out of Corvallis, our very early morning  departure up to Mary’s Peak was well worth the effort – a displaying male Sooty Grouse on the road (tail fanned, combs erect, neck sacs inflated), a Mountain Quail that came running down the hill toward us, and Ruffed Grouse drumming unseen very nearby were experiences we’ll never forget. Bright male Cinnamon Teal, several families of American Coots with orange-headed chicks, better views of an American Bittern in flight (very close and slow), Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a pair of territorial Virginia Rails, and a “Streaked” Horned Lark were the highlights from Finley National Wildlife Refuge.  The nearby Willamette River corridor was very birdy with a pair of Bullock’s Orioles, Spotted Towhee, Hairy Woodpecker and Brown Creeper all responding aggressively to owl imitations. Finally, at one of our many great picnic lunches, a “Coastal” White-breasted Nuthatch pair finally lost their shyness and began entering the nesting cavity we hadn’t realized was in the base of a tree right next to our picnic table. We had excellent views of Cassin’s and Hutton’s Vireo in this same park, as well as our only Red-breasted Sapsuckers and Acorn Woodpeckers.  Just down the road we saw the locally rare Yellow-breasted Chat and Vesper Sparrow. and capped off the day’s birding with a stop at a friend’s house where feeders hosted a noisy troop of beautiful Evening Grosbeaks.

Passing over the Cascade Mountains, we stopped for Barrow’s Goldeneye and Hooded Merganser at Lost Lake where the abundant snow pack kept us from entering the campground. The snow was gone from the pine forests farther east where our stops yielded Black-backed and White-headed Woodpeckers, Townsend’s Solitaire, and a “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow in a burn.  A Sharp-shinned Hawk posed high in a Ponderosa by the idyllic source of the Metolius River (complete with picnic-friendly ground-squirrels and chipmunks) and our only Red Crossbills and great views of Pygmy Nuthatches were right in the town of Sisters. Owling that night did finally result in a nice visual – Northern Saw-whet Owl just 12 minutes up the road from our hotel.

Before we delved deeper into the high desert of the Great Basin areas of eastern Oregon, we birded near our Bend hotel where a nest box program has made news headlines for its success in hosting several gorgeous Lewis’s Woodpeckers.  We returned to the Ponderosa forests near Sisters where a territorial Calliope Hummingbird awaited us; Gray Flycatchers dipped their tails for easy ID, and a Northern Goshawk sat patiently on her nest.  Another attempt for Green-tailed Towhee was a success, but the Pinyon Jays in Sisters remained elusive. Near Prineville we found some distant territorial Tricolored Blackbirds, and then some very close females foraging with Red-winged Blackbirds amongst the cows in the field next to the marsh. Our picnic lunch in the Crooked River Gorge was in an extremely scenic setting, and just up the road we saw Rock Wrens (where they are supposed to be) and White-throated Swifts slicing over the basaltic rimrock. On the way to Burns, Loggerhead Shrikes and stunning Mountain Bluebirds were on the roadside, and we made a special short detour for a great raptor show – Ferruginous and Swainson’s Hawks and Golden and Bald Eagles gathered for the Belding’s Ground Squirrel smorgasbord.

Despite the extremely high waters (the highest levels in over 20 years), our full day in and around Malheur National Wildlife Refuge netted us 111 species. Water birds were not concentrated, but we had no trouble finding 13 species of waterfowl and all the regional specialties such as Long-billed Curlew, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, and many others. With water present at the normally dry mudflats of the Narrows, Clark’s Grebes and abundant Black Terns were in evidence, but we had to settle for American Pelicans in flight overhead searching for their submerged nesting islands. There were plenty of landbirds around the usual migrant traps. Today’s list featured great numbers of Warbling Vireos, Townsend’s Warblers, and Lazuli Buntings but it might have been the lovely view of the Cedar Waxwings among the magenta flowers of the crabapple tree at Headquarters that captured the most attention. A couple Ruby-crowned Kinglets and four Nashville Warblers were quite late.  Other highlights from today were Black-throated Sparrows, displaying Bobolinks, and an amazingly confiding Sora in a ditch by the road. After dinner it took us a while to find a calling Flammulated Owl, but once we were close enough, it was very responsive, and we spent less than ten minutes before we got a good view of it on an open perch.

Williamson’s Sapsuckers were everywhere in the Grant County forests this year, a nice surprise. We also found a pair of Red-naped Sapsuckers and oodles of Northern Flickers in these diverse coniferous forests, and it didn’t take us long to see more White-headed Woodpeckers. Only the Pileated evaded us. In the same forests were Northern Pygmy-Owl, Cassin’s Finch, and a group of wonderfully cooperative “Canada” Gray Jays who showed off their mimicry skills.  The riparian areas in this area produced a trio of Trumpeter Swans on the Silvies Ranch, an aggressively territorial Calliope Hummingbird, and what may be the rarest bird of the entire tour, a probable MacGillivray’s Warbler x Common Yellowthroat hybrid. It had been singing a perfectly normal MacGillivray’s Warbler song from a hidden spot, and upon my playing a phrase with the iPod, this strange, colorful little bird appeared – acting more like a Common Yellowthroat and with a similar mask, but lacking the white border to the top and having a striking white throat. We ended the great day with a pass by the wet meadows and ponds south of town, discovering a rare and stunningly beautiful breeding-plumaged Horned Grebe, presumably a male from his voice, a rising purr that was undoubtedly the song.

Our trip to Fields, through the ancient lakebed of the Catlow Valley and Oregon’s driest desert was a long drive, but spectacularly beautiful, and netted us our second 111-species day list. Raptors were particularly in evidence today with days end total of three Bald Eagles, seven Golden Eagles, six Swainson’s Hawks, a Ferruginous Hawk, and six Prairie Falcons, among the more common Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. Canyon Wren and Sage Sparrow appeared as planned, Chukars were in at least two spots, and our visit to Fields was highlighted by a fallout of migrant American Goldfinches, a locally rare Townsend’s Solitaire, a family of Great Horned Owls on a log next to the trail, and lunch in a remote outpost cafe with super friendly hosts. We also had a chance to check Cottonwood Creek near the Nevada border, and a Cassin’s Finch in this desert riparian strip was very out-of-place.

Despite being our longest drive, the return to Portland was one of our most beautiful and productive days. Morning birding started out with a pair of Sandhill Cranes walking among the pine trees and a Lincoln’s Sparrow right on cue, followed by a terrific stop that resulted in White-headed Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Western Bluebird, Northern Pygmy -Owl (great views!), “Slate-colored” Fox-Sparrow, Pygmy-Nuthatch, and Mountain Chickadee. The stop at the John Day Fossil Beds Visitor Center was instructive, and picnic lunch nearby produced yet another Chukar, one near the trail that had been counter-singing with one up on the slopes.

It was as always a lovely tour, and I hope a fixture on my tour calendar for years to come.

- Rich Hoyer

Updated: July 2011