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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Oregon in Spring

2019 Narrative

Our Oregon in Spring tour was not spared in the least by the unusual weather pattern that dominated much of western North America this May – we often experienced rather wintry weather more typical of February, with measureable rain on all but the last day, including some very unpleasant squalls accompanied by brutal winds as well as one day of virtually nonstop drizzle. But we were undeterred, managing to find lovely gaps of weather for delightful picnic lunches on most days and short walks into rich habitats between showers. We ended the tour with a respectable list of 230 species and forms of birds as well as 25 species of mammals. Some highlights came in the form of a surprise Black-legged Kittiwake on a beach, a very close and cooperative Wrentit, two Sooty Grouse in the road up to Marys Peak, superb views of a Barred Owl at dusk followed by two Northern Pygmy-Owls, stunning Mountain Bluebirds in stark sagebrush steppe, White-headed Woodpeckers in Ponderosa Pines, and a Sora that emerged from roadside marshes to attack the speaker.

Our first morning coincided with the arrival of the first rain, and so our birding at Fernhill Wetlands was somewhat truncated. But while there we saw a Virginia Rail scampering among the cattails, watched a very territorial Rufous Hummingbird dominate his territory, and photographed a locally unusual Western Kingbird. After tallying the pair of American Dipper at the Gales Creek bridge, we abandoned the Coast Range and arrived on the coast already by mid-morning. In the Necanicum estuary we saw our only migrant Least and Western Sandpipers, as well as our first Bald Eagle, feeding out on the mudflats. The rain finally paused enough after lunch to allow us to walk right up to Haystack Rock, where we finally saw Tufted Puffins flying around the rock, as well as our first Black Oystercatchers. Nehalem sewage ponds were full of swallows as well as a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes that were strafed by a Peregrine Falcon about every ten minutes the whole time we were there. The Black-legged Kittiwake roosting on the Manzanita Beach with many California Gulls was our only big surprise for what ended up a lovely bird-filled day.

Our second morning as we prepared to bird Tillamook County dawned gorgeous, but those red skies in the morning did foretell warning, as a few droplets by mid morning evolved into rain by lunchtime. Before that happened we enjoyed close encounters with Hermit Warbler and Winter Wren at Cape Meares. Numbers of migrant Marbled Godwit were along every stretch of beach, and Black Turnstone was a very lucky find as two flew in at Barview Jetty just as we were preparing to leave. The day’s birding culminated in a visit of the newly remodeled Tillamook Cheese Factory, where we learned about the making of cheese and enjoyed the amazing ice cream.

We had most of one more day along the northern coast, and the weather improved gradually throughout the day after a morning squall that made a picnic breakfast something of a challenge. A Varied Thrush on the roadside was a bit elusive, but the Harlequin Ducks on the rocks at Devils Punchbowl and the Wrentit at Fogarty Creek couldn’t have been more cooperative. The murre and cormorant colonies at Yaquina Head were astounding this year, and our spot-checking strategy finally panned out when we found a cooperative Wandering Tattler at Seal Rocks before we had to start working our way inland and say goodbye to the Pacific Ocean.

The next dawn, the weather descended upon us again as we drove up Marys Peak, but while robbed of the hike to what can be a gorgeous vista, it might have been the weather that prompted two Sooty Grouse to wander on the road for us to view. Mountain Quail did not cooperate there though, but not much later we were at the Philomath sewage ponds where a small covey of California Quail delighted us in the middle of the road. A Red-breasted Sapsucker came in nicely at Finley National Wildlife Refuge, where a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes, Lazuli Bunting, and Yellow-breasted Chat were also nice additions. Lunch at Willamette Park came during a particularly nice spell of weather, and the constant presence of Osprey there was punctuated by an adorable pair of the costal form of Bushtit. We finished the daylight hours with Acorn Woodpecker and the coastal form of White-breasted Nuthatch, and after dark a very successful search for Barred Owl, also getting one of a pair of tooting Northern Pygmy-Owls to come out of the canopy for a quick view.

Our travel day over the Cascade Mountains began with a rare Clark’s Grebe followed by a successful last-ditch attempt for Hutton’s Vireo and a gorgeous territorial male Rufous Hummingbird in a clearcut. Lost Lake at the pass had water this year, but only a single Barrow’s Goldeneye was calling it home. A super fun mob of chickadees, warblers, nuthatches, siskins, and a Western Tanager delighted us there before we moved on to the eastern slope of the Cascades. A single male Calliope Hummingbird allowed Calliope Crossing to maintain its name, and we added the interior form of White-breasted Nuthatch and Pygmy Nuthatch here as well. The weather held out for us through lunch at Cold Springs Campground, where “Thick-billed” Fox Sparrow and Williamson’s Sapsucker were found without much trouble. A search for woodpeckers in older burns did result in a Lewis’s Woodpecker, but then the weather started going downhill, and we arrived at our hotel on the early side. After dinner at Sunriver we braved the cold and intermittent showers with a distant Yellow Rail calling in the mountain meadows, followed by a Great Horned Owl that was precisely where a supposed Great Gray had been hunting in previous days.

Our gorgeous drive through central Oregon to the southeastern corner of the state began with a hearty diner breakfast, as it was too cold and wet for a picnic once again. But the skies gave us a break when we arrived at the newly created and opened Crooked River Wetlands Complex, a wastewater treatment complex for the town of Prineville. Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Virginia Rails were the most common birds here, and a Bald Eagle gave us a superb show, perching on a close fence post. Some driving around scored us the very local Tricolored Blackbirds nearby, and then the rain set in again, this time for good. Mountain Bluebird and Sagebrush Sparrow were highlights as we entered the steppes of the Great Basin, and raptors began to appear in number, particularly Ferruginous Hawk, which was followed by Prairie Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk, and Golden Eagle. Picnic lunch wasn’t an option once again, so in the tiny community of Brothers we were served our delicious burgers by an authentic cowgirl, filling in for the owners who were away at an event.

Malheur was a magical place, and there were finally some significant breaks in the weather. The Silvies Valley meadows were alive with Sandhill Cranes, White-faced Ibises, and Long-billed Curlews, while a single Black Tern ended up being the only one on the tour. At the refuge headquarters we noted a few migrants, with Western Tanager dominating the orange feeders and Black-chinned Hummingbird at  the sugar water. We scored Bobolink in the southern part of the refuge, coaxed a Sora out of the ditches, saw a Short-eared Owl on a fence post, and flushed a few American Bitterns and Black-crowned Night-Herons. At our picnic lunch spot we finally managed to find a vocal Canyon Wren, and a huge flock of Cedar Waxwings provided a wonderful show. We made a quick birding check of P Ranch where a lingering Lewis’s Woodpecker was a highlight, and then one last stop at Diamond Craters resulted in another Canyon Wren as well as an adult and chick Great Horned Owl.

Our morning to the coniferous forests north of town began quite chilly, with recent snow flurries sprinkling the forest floor. There were a lot of new birds at our first stop, including Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-backed Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch, and Type 2 Red Crossbills. We kept trying for other woodpeckers, finding Hermit Thrush and Townsend’s Warbler along the way, but then we finally found a pair of the stunning White-headed Woodpeckers right along the main highway in an old burn. Driving through the Silvies Valley we stopped for a photogenic Wilson’s Snipe on a fence post and then found a beautiful place for a picnic lunch in vastly improved weather. A Red-naped Sapsucker was our 11th and final species of woodpecker there, though we never did get a visual on the heard-only Pileated. A recalcitrant Clark’s Nutcracker heard from the road on our way back to town would also remain on the heard-only list. After dinner just three of us took the short drive for Common Poorwill above town. We heard one without much trouble, but it would not come close, and it seemed that we’d have yet another heard-only on this day until Johni spotted the eyeshine on the road from a non-calling bird. We were able to walk right up to the bird, a female, and get excellent views.

Showery and stormy weather returned for our long and scenic trip to Fields and the Alvord Basin. We scored a Chukar right on the highway shoulder, watching it cross the road when we stopped and turned around. Fields Oasis had quite a few migrants to keep us busy, the most unusual being a Hermit Thrush and a “Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a quick trip to Cottonwood Creek to the south resulted in many Black-headed Grosbeaks and Lazuli Buntings above the Ephedra-clad hillsides. The views on the drive northward were gorgeous, and we made a successful and scenic stop for Black-throated Sparrow above Alvord Desert. There were lots of raptors on the poles during the drive, especially numbers of Swainson’s Hawks (a group of seven right by Malheur Headquarters in the morning was most amazing), and a particularly well seen Prairie Falcon. After dinner two volunteers came along to save the reputation of this tour by helping me search for a Flammulated Owl, and for the 10th spring tour in a row we managed to find one and even see it, though it wouldn’t move from its comfortable perch high in a Ponderosa Pine.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather for the picturesque all-day return to Portland. The diverse forests of the Aldrich Mountains were the backdrop to a flock of Wild Turkeys in a meadow, a pair of “Slate-colored” Fox Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds in the burns, and a feisty Ruby-crowned Kinglet near where we were turned back by a snow drift. After one last delightful picnic lunch, a visit to the John Day Fossil Beds visitor center, and a drive through the Painted Hills sector, we finally found our first herp of the tour –  a gorgeous and very docile Gopher Snake right in the middle of the rarely traveled Twickenham Cutoff road. We paused at the Mountain Finder to see Mounts Jefferson, Hood, Adams, and, just barely, Saint Helens, but it was too hazy to catch a view of Rainier. We arrived at Multnomah Falls with time to walk to the upper bridge and also enjoy a pair of American Dippers below the falls. After a wonderful dinner, one last view of the Columbia River Gorge from Crown Point was a fitting ending to this marvelous adventure.

- Rich Hoyer, 2019

Created: 25 June 2019