Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon: Birds & Theater

2023 Narrative

Brief Summary

For such a short, compact tour, we packed it in – great birding in with gorgeous scenery, terrific restaurants with delicious variety, and of course some top-notch performances by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival all combined to make this a memorable tour. Though evenings were usually very smoky from distant forest fires in California, our birding up in the mountains was in fresher air, and the side trip to the Klamath Basin and Crater Lake National Park was simply perfect. Owls and woodpeckers were a recurring theme, with Barn Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Acorn Woodpecker, and White-headed Woodpecker among the top five favorite birds. We were surprised by two Ruffed Grouse in the road one morning, which also received multiple votes. Because of the smoke, we missed the two performances in the outdoor Elizabethan theater, but the three we saw indoors were outstanding, with Where We Belong on its opening night a favorite for most of us – even though the only Common Grackle we would see during the tour was on its promotional poster.

In Detail

Our first day of birding showed that nearly everything in the mountains seemed to have had a good year for breeding success. We scored big on quality and quantity of so many species, starting with an eBird-flagged covey of at least 20 Mountain Quail right on the shoulder of the road. The next stop was just a minute farther down the road where somewhere between 400 and 500 Cedar Waxwings were perched in a big tree, presumably resting between feasting on the abundant bitter cherry and blue elderberry on the brushy slopes below the highway. There were many other birds at this stop, including both Cassin’s and Purple Finches and a Nashville Warbler, but the highlight was the Northern Pygmy-Owl that only very slowly responded by inching closer, remaining out of sight. But when it did appear, it was just a few yards away not far above eye level, in plain sight, where it sat for so long, we eventually drove off leaving it perched in the open. Later in the morning we encountered some mixed flocks that were teeming with Red-breasted Nuthatches, with a scattering of other species, such as Chestnut-backed Chickadee. A perched-up MacGillivray’s Warbler was a great find, probably a bird still on its breeding territory, while later in the morning a Red-breasted Sapsucker in its muddy juvenile plumage was seen. At picnic lunch we spied a wayward Pygmy Nuthatch, and then on our way back to Ashland made a stop at Emigrant Lake. A Golden Eagle on a power pole took us by surprise, clinching its ID only after it took flight and showed us field marks and its distinctive shape – and then it was joined by a second bird. At the lake’s edge we sifted through a few species of migrant shorebirds, including two Red-necked Phalaropes on the water. Birding wasn’t quite over back at the hotel, as an Acorn Woodpecker perched in the trees and the same Rufous Hummingbird we first spotted yesterday continued to defend the flower beds from his powerline perch. Once we learned that our play was canceled due to smoke, we offered a short owling excursion by foot up into the nearby Lithia Park. As dusk descended, we noted Common Nighthawk and some bats before it was dark enough to start whistling for Western Screech-Owl. Two birds flew in quietly but were spotted by some very sharp eyes in the group, and we ended up with wonderful views of them in the park’s old trees right overhead.

A short morning of birding close to the Rogue River near Medford was productive, providing some of our only sightings of lower-elevation riparian and oak woodland species. Acorn Woodpeckers drew our attention with their noises and abundance, but also because their main granary tree was a magnificent ponderosa pine stump filled with thousands of acorns. Yellow and Black-throated Gray Warblers joined the mixed flocks that contained Oak Titmouse and Bushtit, while a single Yellow-breasted Chat was a good find in a willow thicket. A pair of Wrentits showed no fear at all where we also saw a Belted Kingfisher over the Rogue River. The newly created White City Lagoons were active with shorebirds, including a rarish Solitary Sandpiper, while the weedy areas held Lesser Goldfinches and Western Meadowlarks. We caught sight of our only Northern Rough-winged Swallows here, and a Loggerhead Shrike along with a Northern Mockingbird were good finds in the fencerow. We were back to Ashland in time for lunch followed by our first show, a creative setting for Romeo and Juliette. A few took an opportunity to look for Flammulated Owl in the mountains just west of Ashland, where we heard one very close bird that was too reluctant to come out in the open.

We made an early departure for our mid-week “weekend” over to the Klamath Basin in hopes that a Great Gray Owl would be still out hunting, but the favored meadows still were free of owls, though we did finally catch up with our first Hairy Woodpecker there. Five warblers of five species and a Cedar Waxing in one tree was a highlight at our picnic breakfast spot, while driving a back road paid off in the form of two Ruffed Grouse standing in the road for both vans to see. Roadside stops included a perched adult Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds mixed in with Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as wetland birds such as American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, and countless ducks. At lunch, an American Kestrel showed nicely, while a pair of Rock Wrens was coaxed off the tall cliffs nearby. We drove around the impoundments of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge teeming with birds, including many Eared and Western Grebes. One last stop to admire the petroglyphs in a part of Lava Beds National Monument resulted in our spotting a pair of Barn Owls nestled comfortably in one of the many nooks in the eroded tuff. We arrived in good time at our lovely motel in the woods and meadows of Fort Klamath for the leaders to prepare a delicious grilled vegetable and chicken fajitas dinner with homemade premium chocolate mousse for dessert.

We birded the meadows and forests near our lodge, finding a migrant group of Violet-green Swallows on the power lines while flushing many Savannah Sparrows along the roadside and pausing for a surprising number of immature Red-tailed Hawks of all color morphs. Bald Eagles graced the mountain meadows nearby, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes fed peacefully near the forest edge. Up in the national park, a pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers foraged around the gift shop at Crater Lake before we walked over to the crater’s edge to gaze in awe at the blue depths below. We made several stops around the part of the rim drive, spotting another Clark’s Nutcracker, an unexpected Band-tailed Pigeon, and a flyover Lewis’s Woodpecker. As we were driving out, an American Goshawk flew alongside the vans and quickly disappeared. Lunch was eventful for the confiding and clever Canada Jays that grabbed nuts from our open palms. A stretching stop at Rocky Point boat ramp on Upper Klamath Lake yielded a lovely Western Tanager and a Green Heron, and a detour to look for woodpeckers in the Fourmile Lake area was good only for Mountain Chickadees, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. With the evening showing of Twelfth Night canceled, we had replacement tickets for Where We Belong, a wonderful one-woman performance giving us a Native American perspective we usually aren’t given an opportunity to consider.

Our final morning of birding took us to the south-facing slopes of Mount Ashland south of town. We first surprised Wild Turkeys on the road before meeting up with local birders and friends Karen and Keeley at the campground for picnic breakfast. Green-tailed Towhee and Lincoln’s Sparrow were a couple of the prizes we teased out of the dense, brushy slopes, but frequent passing of one or more Cooper’s Hawks often kept birds down, perhaps including the Dusky Flycatcher that we only heard. We finally connected with a lone White-headed Woodpecker, enjoyed several Steller’s Jays, and then at the very top of the mountain saw a few Mountain Bluebirds minus any fully-colored males. On the way back down into the valley we flushed a covey of California Quail, then made a stop at Emigrant Lake where a rare Forster’s Tern was attracting local birders. Another Solitary Sandpiper here was a good find, and a California Towhee made a final appearance as we were leaving. We had another afternoon show today, first saying hello to our friend the Rufous Hummingbird that daily guarded the bed of salvia flowers on the hotel grounds, then enjoying a superbly performed Rent, followed by a top-notch farewell dinner at an Italian restaurant.

Birding wasn’t quite done for some on our morning of departures. We offered an optional 5:30 departure up and down the mountain, which paid off when we spotted a Great Gray Owl perched on a solar panel of a mountain cabin right next to the highway. Unfortunately, it flew before we could all get out of the van and enjoy it. We checked the usual meadows in any event, and a trio of bugling Sandhill Cranes departing their mountain meadow, their haunting voices echoing through the surrounding forest was a wonderful farewell cry for a great tour.

Rich Hoyer 2023

Created: 29 September 2023