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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Late Summer

with Pelagic Extension

2023 Narrative

In Summary

A single morning of rain – the first here in western Oregon since early June – was actually quite the welcome change from the otherwise stunningly gorgeous weather with ideal temperatures the entire rest of this year’s Oregon in Late Summer tour.  A family of Mountain Quail feeding on the shoulder of the Marys Peak Road was one of the more memorable highlights, but with nearly 240 species of birds seen in such varied habitats, it was hard to choose favorites. There was the Barred Owl that flew off the side of the road fully two miles before we got to our predetermined owling location (where we also heard Northern Saw-whet Owl). Snowy Plovers blended so peacefully with their sand dune habitat at the coast, allowing us to approach quiteclosely and identify one of the color-banded individuals, a three-year-old male. A stop in a lovely patch of old-growth Big Sagebrush produced a subtly beautiful Sagebrush Sparrow. And the Common Poorwill that came in so quickly and landed so close to us was quite the surprise, providing perhaps the shortest night birding foray we’ve ever done. We made productive stops for butterflies, many dragonflies and damselflies, mammals such as Bighorn Sheep and Pronghorn, and to top them all, a gorgeous Rubber Boa stretched across a remote forest service road.

In Detail

We started our first morning birding at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, where water levels had been reported to be favorable for migrant shorebirds. But first we birded the ash swale habitat for forest birds, finding Common Yellowthroat and Black-capped Chickadee the most abundant species. Out attempts at working up mobs was eventually successful, bringing in a Western Tanager, a Western Flycatcher, Yellow and Black-throated Gray Warblers, and Brown Creeper. A fine surprise here was hearing a Western Screech-Owl as it tooted back from its hidden day-roost deep within the Oregon ash swale. At the main marsh overlook, we struggled to get accurate counts of the ducks and dowitchers, and we enjoyed a freshly molted juvenile Northern Harrier work the shoreline for small bullfrogs. We continued to the Monmouth sewage lagoons, where ducks were also numerous. Several migrant Red-necked Phalaropes shunned the one lone rare Wilson’s Phalarope there, and we finally picked out some Vaux’s Swift from the several species of swallow. After our first of many picnic lunches at Helmick State Park, where we were treated to Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk flying together, we made quick work of Adair county park to find the resident Acorn Woodpeckers. We finished the day at the Philomath sewage lagoons, where a fun sighting was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon that strafed the ponds, almost catching a Red-necked Phalarope, which escaped by diving completely under water from flight.

Our second full day was our best chance for quail and grouse as we drove to the top of Marys Peak at dawn. With nothing on the road on the way up, we returned a few miles to find a small family group of Mountain Quail right where we had come from. Sooty Grouse weren’t to be seen, but at least we weren’t skunked. Huge numbers of mostly Type 3 Red Crossbills were all over the peak, and we hiked to the top to find that the very lost Clark’s Nutcrackers reported the previous few days were still there. After lunch we drove up the Alsea River to its headwaters, with stops resulting in American Dipper, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Wrentits. After a quick pass through Finley National Wildlife Refuge and dinner in town, we saw out daylight with the amazing spectacle of nearly 2000 Vaux’s Swifts entering a chimney in downtown Corvallis. We then drove north of town to the MacDonald-Dunn forest where a Western Screech-Owl soon responded to whistled imitations from a visible perch.

We gave Marys Peak grouse one last chance (no luck), then started birding in earnest with another check of the Philomath sewage lagoons; a Solitary Sandpiper there was the best prize. We then drove through the rainy morning, headed to the coast. The weather there was nicer, and along the upper Yaquina estuary we stopped to find four locally rare Common Terns on mud spit loafing with unusually far inland Brown Pelicans. We were lucky that Band-tailed Pigeons were landing in the trees nearby instead of just flying over in the distance. Once on the outer coast, we easily added several gulls and all the cormorant to our list, and a walk around the Marine Science Center yielded our only Short-billed Dowitchers. We made a special attempt for “rockpeckers’ and had great success at Seal Rocks, finding Wandering Tattler, Surfbird, Black Turnstone, and Black Oystercatcher all in the same spot. Another highlight there was a flock of Bushtits at close range in the dense coastal chaparral.

Our full day in Lane County began in the Siltcoos River area, where Type 10 Red Crossbills called overhead during our peaceful picnic breakfast. On the beach were many Sanderling, but after a short walk we found the concentration of Snowy Plovers. Some of the adults had color bands, and by texting with Kathy Castelein and Dave Lauten we found that the one we photographed was a three-year-old male who breeds regularly in the area. We spent some time walking out the south jetty of the Siuslaw river, admiring the male-chick Common Murre pairs in the channel and noticing how different their croak and whistled voices were. A pair of Wandering Tattlers allowed close approach, while a single American Pipit approached us as we stood on the jetty. We then worked our way north along the coast, birding a bit of coastal spruce forest where a Pacific Wren showed nicely and both types 3 and 4 Red Crossbills called overhead. We tallied many Surf Scoters at nearly every overlook and beach, but with some effort we found just one or two Red-necked Grebes at most stops as well. After dinner we headed to a tried-and-true owling spot, but when Barred Owl flew off the side of the road, we made an early stop and managed to get wonderful looks as this curious individual. With much patience and waiting, we finally heard the barks of a Northern Saw-whet Owl at the usual spot as bats foraged above the forest canopy.

We got a head start for the long drive to the east of the mountains by picnicking at a campground in the Coast Range. Birds were really quiet in the campground, but at the nearby bridge, migrant Western Tanagers and resident Red-breasted Sapsucker appeared right on cue. On the east side of the divide, a huge concentration of migrant Violet-green Swallows on the power lines was fun to see, while a long-staying pair of Trumpeter Swans were on the old log ponds. We saw our only Pileated Woodpeckers and Hutton’s Vireos at our last stops in the Coast Range before we entered the Willamette Valley at Fern Ridge Reservoir. The lake’s surface was dotted with many Clark’s and Western Grebes, some doing pair-bonding displays, but we didn’t have time to stay long. Next was a short stop at Rich’s house and garden, Calliope Corner, where we would stock up on veggies for the picnics and see our only Rufous Hummingbirds of the tour. We arrived in time for lunch at Salt Creek Falls, where the bugs beat out the birds – Golden Hairstreak and Shadow Darner were the highlights, though our second American Dipper could be seen way down the canyon below the impressive falls. Before long, we found ourselves in the wide-open expanses of the westernmost Great Basin, amidst sagebrush steppe and circular crop fields of alfalfa and hay. Sage Thrasher was our first new bird here, and it posed nicely in a fencerow. We then added Loggrehead Shrike and Prairie Falcon near Cabin Lake (though in the afternoon wind, the bird bath was vacant), made a short stop at the amazing Fort Rock, and stopped for many Red-tailed Hawks on the way into Christmas Valley, finding among them our first Swainson’s Hawks and Ferruginous Hawk.

Summer Lake State Wildlife Area and Lake Abert showed us today that the desert is instant bird – just add water. Before breakfast we first made a couple birding stops, one in a patch of old-growth big sagebrush that looked promising, and it indeed gave us a Sagebrush Sparrow. Another quick detour to an old burn was full of Green-tailed Towhees among other birds, but then we headed to the water in the valleys. The prize at Summer Lake was a rare inland Parasitic Jaeger that pursued the Forster’s Terns and California Gulls, once coming to within only a few yards from us. We heard and then glimpsed a Virginia Rail (there were probably dozens of them hiding in the marsh), and among the throngs of post-breeding waterfowl were a few migrant Greater White-fronted Geese passing through from the high Arctic. The numbers of gulls, American Avocets, Eared Grebes, Red-necked Phalaropes, and ducks at Lake Abert were impossible to fully assess, and the only truly accurate number on our eBird checklist for here was the single Golden Eagle we watched at length as it cruised the high rimrock, perching a few times.

Our full day in and around Malheur National Wildlife Refuge began with a drive down a side road where Burrowing Owls had apparently already departed their territory, but Loggerhead Shrike and Sage Thrasher were still around. Just as we approached the refuge headquarters, a handsome drake Ring-necked Pheasant sauntered across the road. Black-chinned Hummingbirds were fighting over feeders, and though passerine migrants were at first quite scarce, we eventually ended up following a nice little group that included Townsend’s and Black-throated Gray Warblers, Warbling Vireo, and Western Tanager, among others. A White-breasted Nuthatch here was very out-of-place. We next birded Benson Pond, which also had a nice smattering of migrants, such as a Gray Flycatcher, a very confiding Olive-sided Flycatcher, a sneaky but very visible Yellow-breasted Chat, and a few Brewer’s Sparrows. We took our time driving down the Center Patrol Road, arriving in time for lunch at P Ranch. Walking around here, we snagged one of the season’s last Eastern Kingbirds as it called and flew over. We took the scenic drive back to Burns via Diamond Craters and a raptor-rich part of the highway where a Ferruginous Hawk perched on a pole was lovely sight to behold. After dinner we gave Flammulated Owls a very honest attempt in the forests north of Burns, but none were willing to vocalize on what otherwise seemed to be a perfect night for owling.

With a full day to explore the varied coniferous forests north of Burns, we had our work cut out for us to find several species of woodpecker missing from our list. Red-naped Sapsucker was the first to fall at Idlewild Campground, where we also had very satisfying views of Cassin’s Vireo, Pygmy Nuthatch, and our only Dusky Flycatcher. A very nice surprise was an American Goshawk  that flushed from the ground and perched a few times for scope views before vanishing into the forest. Checking likely looking patches of burned trees, we lucked into a lone Black-backed Woodpecker, while only one of many stops in perfect habitat resulted in a gorgeous White-headed Woodpecker. Where we finally had a lovely mix of older conifers and quaking aspen, a Williamson’s Sapsucker appeared as if on cue. We saw a nice variety of butterflies, including the nearly impossible fritillaries, but a female Rubber Boa stretched out across the road was the best sighting of the whole day for some of us. We had had a long day but drew it out anyway with a detour to Chickahominy Reservoir, where birders had reported a nice collection of shorebirds. We caught up with Pectoral Sandpiper and nearby saw a sudden emergence of Common Nighthawks, our only ones of the tour.

On our next-to-last day, we had a lovely picnic breakfast at Frenchglen, and though there were few migrant warblers, more than a dozen Western Tanagers and a few Black-headed Grosbeaks were in evidence in a plum tree by the houses behind the hotel. Our second Yellow-breasted Chat and a Lincoln Sparrow were in the thicket behind the school. Hopes were high for our day up on Steens Mountain, and we put in some hard work to find the rosy-finches, but who can complain about spending three hours in one of the most beautiful places on Earth even without rosy finches? A pair of White-breasted Nuthatches among the rocky crags well above treeline was a very strange sight. More expected and exhilarating was a Prairie Falcon that blasted by very close at eye-level. An immature Golden Eagle was also memorable as it drifted above the glacially carved Gunsight Notch, a feature we had seen from many miles away. Horned Larks graced the alpine meadows, mostly done with their wildflowers with a few stray lupine and others still blooming, and a few slow mountain grasshoppers seemed like they were tripping over their own feet as they tried to hop away. We made a pass by the refuge headquarters on the way back to Burns, noting a single Lewis’s Woodpecker, our 11th and final woodpecker species. We squeezed in one last night birding stop, but it didn’t take much – a Common Poorwill responded to playback almost immediately, landing just a few yards away, and within minutes we were back at the hotel as if we had never even left.

With a long drive back to Portland for our last day, we started with a picnic breakfast well into the drive in the middle of the Silvies Ranch, pausing for an adult Bald Eagle and a Prairie Falcon on a power pole on the way. A White-headed Woodpecker in the isolated grove of aspen and non-native deciduous trees was very out-of-place, but still very nice to see so well. It was joined by two Red-naped Sapsuckers and several Mountain Bluebirds that were more expected. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument was a fascinating and beautiful detour, especially the Painted Hills sector where we had our picnic lunch. A quick stretch stop resulted in a Canyon Wren, one of the tour’s only birds in Wheeler County, and as we blasted down I-84, Osprey were very much in evidence all along the magnificent Columbia River. We quickly took in the sights of Multnomah Falls, adding one last American Dipper to the list, and then paused at Crown Point for one of the most iconic Columbia River Gorge views that pretty much summed up a fabulous tour in a gorgeous place.

Richard Hoyer 2023

Created: 13 October 2023