Late Summer Travels: Mt. Hood to the Beaches

This summer we went up to Mt. Hood twice, once in early July and again in late September.  What a difference!  In July we were walking about half the time on large fields of soft snow in our waterproof shoes in 70 degree weather while occasionally dodging a few late season skiers. Then in September there was so little snow that we hiked up 1,000 feet within one mile to an elevation of 7,000 feet at the Silcox Hut. With the lack of oxygen and steep ascent, this was a huffer and puffer for sure!

OK.  We did see a few birds along the way too.  The usual common residents were joined in September by loads of American Pipits, Horned Larks and Golden-crowned Sparrows.

Then, in mid-July and again in September we traveled in the opposite direction and got our fix of summer breeding birds along the beaches.  At Cannon Beach the morning sun and low tide allowed us to get really close for some great pictures of some of the nesters near the base of the Haystack Rock.

Farther north, the first shorebirds of the season began arriving and some cool seabirds were found close to shore or loafing on the jetties.

One of our favorite adventures was trekking across Leadbetter Point at the tip of the Long Beach peninsula in Washington.  I was on the hunt for my first Snowy Plover which has plentiful roped-off, protected habitat at this location.  In the early 1990’s there were only 35-50 Snowy Plovers on the entire Oregon coast. They nest on the beach dunes and their eggs are easily disturbed by humans, motor vehicles, and dogs. Thanks to the coordinated efforts of many agencies and places like Leadbetter Point, the numbers this year appear to be over 300 in Oregon!  Yay!

Oh, did I mention the three bears we came in close contact with on Bearberry Trail?  You can be sure we sang and whistled our way along the rest of this remote 6.5 mile hike to announce our presence.  Bear scat was everywhere!

Our most recent trip to the beach was a birthday trip to the Tillamook Wetlands where we saw our first White-tailed Kites – but sadly they were too far away for pictures.  The wetlands were birdy and beautiful though.  Then the fog socked in Bayocean Spit preventing photography except for this Belted Kingfisher who was actively fishing in the bay and a lonely Pacific Loon at the Barview Jetty.  I can’t wait to return to the incredible habitats at Tillamook!

 

Waders, Shorebirds, Songbirds and Butterflies: August in Illinois

Little Blue Heron at Horseshoe Lake, IL.

Little Blue Heron at Horseshoe Lake, IL.

We were reluctant to visit Illinois in August due to the heat, but we wanted to attend a friend’s wedding in Springfield.  Happily it wasn’t as hot as normal.  With days in the 70’s or 80’s, the main complaints were rampant mosquitoes and black flies, and extreme high humidity.  Wanting to see some new species, we had to travel a little farther afield – use mosquito repellent liberally.  First on my list was a visit to Horseshoe Lake in  southwest Illinois near St. Louis, MO.  Here my target species – Little Blue Heron – breed, so finding one would be a sure bet.  We were not disappointed. Within 10 minutes we found this very small blue heron wading near the shoreline right next to the road.  Further exploration of the lake uncovered other waders – Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, a Snowy Egret and a Cattle Egret.  Other new first-time species (known as a “lifer”) found here included Northern Bobwhite, Carolina Chickadee, Blue Grosbeak and Eurasian Tree Sparrow.  Quite a visit!

Juvenile Little Blue Heron (center), with Great and Cattle Egrets

Juvenile Little Blue Heron (center), with Great and Cattle Egrets

Nearby at the Watershed Nature Center in Edwardsville, IL, we found a Black-crowned Night Heron fishing and yet another “lifer” – the Fish Crow!  Fish Crows – found only in the eastern part of the US – look nearly identical to the American Crow but sure sound different.  As soon as we arrived at the pond and opened the car door, we heard their cute little nasal call which made us laugh…

Black-crowned Night-Heron with fish.

Black-crowned Night-Heron with fish.

 

Back in Chicago, we began longer day-trips to find even more “lifers.”  Several trips to suburban sod farms brought us distant views of an Upland Sandpiper and a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.  One day we heard there was an easy view of a Least Bittern.  This tiny 11-inch heron was supposedly wading on top of some lily pads about an hour north of our Chicago home – so off we went.  We finally found the correct pond at the marsh and promptly put on mosquitoe repellent – again!  The Least Bittern was not in sight, but instead, Spotted Sandpipers were found on the lily pads.  But a couple older gentlemen were on the opposite shore of the pond looking through binoculars back in our direction.  We couldn’t see where they were looking so we walked over and joined them.  They had massive camera gear on rolling luggage carriers.  Yes! – they were here to photograph the Least Bittern and had found it.  They let us use their viewing spot for about 3 minutes – enough to take an excellent picture.

Least Bittern

The tiny Least Bittern sitting on a lily pad.

Rounding out the wading group of birds, we went south of Chicago to find a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron who was unfortunately too far to photograph well.  But a Snowy Egret was posing next to a Great Egret.

Snowy Egret and Great Egret

Snowy Egret and Great Egret

And then, the shorebirds!  Nearly everyday, I would check out nearby Montrose Beach on Lake Michigan which has a protected beach habitat that attracts migrating shorebirds.

Morning at Montrose Beach - flooded after a thunderstorm.

Morning at Montrose Beach – flooded after a thunderstorm.

The shorebird highlight was hearing about the arrival of the Red Knot late one afternoon.  Another “lifer” for me, I had read that the Red Knot travels 9,300 miles from its Arctic breeding grounds to Tierra del Fuego in southern South America and wanted to see the bird that makes this heroic journey and back again every year!  I dropped everything (it was nearly dinner time) and drove to the beach even without my binoculars and camera – and found it easily enough.  Another birder lent me his binoculars.  Luckily it decided to stay at Montrose for a week and everybody had an opportunity to photograph this juvenile who was quite relaxed with all the attention.

Back in the lush wildflower meadow at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, it was hot and buggy.  And wonderfully peaceful except for several days when the Blue Angels circled overhead rehearsing their upcoming air show when the sound was deafening and scattered the birds in all directions!

A few of the songbirds that make Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary their home in August -

And finally, the butterflies were magnificent and everywhere…

Best of Local Summer Birding – So Far

Rivermile 14 has been a hotbed of heavy equipment construction noise as the city does an amazing renewal of the South Waterfront parkway.  While the bird populations are still thriving down here – they love the new willow plantings – we really needed to find more peaceful places to escape to this summer. Luckily, there is so much richness in the variety of landscapes and bird habitats – most less than half an hour away.  From Larch Mountain which has an elevation of 4,000 feet down to the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, you can find old growth forests, clear-cuts, mountain streams with waterfalls, meadows, marshes, and lakes.

Upper Latourell Falls, Columbia River Gorge

Upper Latourell Falls, Columbia River Gorge

In late May we decided to walk to the top of Larch Mountain the week before the winter gate opened for the summer season.  Before we got there we stopped at a clear cut along Larch Mountain Road which was very birdy.   From the snow gate, the gentle steady 4 plus mile uphill walk takes some endurance.  But it gave us time to savor the birdsongs and calls of higher elevation species including Hermit Warblers, Varied Thrush, Gray Jays and Townsend’s Solitaires deep within the cover of forest – and also a Pika calling right next to the road.  About 3 miles up it started to drizzle and cloud over.  We were too tired to go further anyway so I told Floyd that we could turn around as soon as I heard a Sooty Grouse hooting.  After 3.5 miles we celebrated the hoots with an energy bar and some rest before beginning the long descent back to the car.  I wanted a picture of a Hermit Warbler – they are so beautiful – so we had to return the following week and were able to drive to the top where they were plentiful around the parking lot.

The Sandy River Delta at the Columbia River is an especially rich bird habitat with meadows, marshes and cottonwood forests.  The Yellow-breasted Chat returns to breed in the same bush/tree every year.  This year he was performing an incredible head-bobbing dance, presumably to attract some nearby lady.

I love watching the Lazuli Bunting change from the browner partial breeding plumage to the bright full breeding plumage.

The Sandy River Delta is the only local place where you can find both species of Kingbirds on the same day!  The Eastern Kingbirds return every year to one large power pole and one day their pole was invaded by a Mourning Dove and a Red-breasted Sapsucker tapping away on the metal and making enough racket to send both Kingbirds into the meadow below.

More beautiful birds in the delta -

Hiking the trail at Oak Island on Sauvie Island goes through forest, meadow, and lake habitats – Savannah Sparrows love the meadow grassland.

Mt. Tabor’s higher elevation in Portland attracts many migrants in Spring and we even found an Anna’s Hummingbird sitting on her nest -

Force Lake near Portland Expo Center has herons, ducks and frogs.  The nearby Smith-Bybee Lake wetlands still have high water where I recently found a pair of happy Belted Kingfishers sharing a shallower pond with two Great Egrets.

Osprey nests are scattered along Marine Drive on the Columbia River and the Sea Scout Base attracts breeding Cliff Swallows -

Farther up the Columbia in the gorge, we went searching for the American Dipper and Floyd (of course!) found one in the stream at beautiful Latourell Falls -

Portland is incredibly fortunate to have Forest Park.  With over 5,000 acres, it is one the country’s largest urban forests and rises from 50 feet in elevation to over 1,000.  With patches of old-growth forest, it hosts a diversity of woodland species including my favorite, the Wilson’s Warbler.   His song combined with those of the Swainson’s Thrush and Pacific Slope Flycatcher are constant companions while looking at the wildflowers.

Recently I wanted to see the Black Tern at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.  We were able to get good views of it flying over Rest Lake from the bird blind but too far away for photos of this black beauty with silvery wings.  Wilson’s Snipes were winnowing and Soras and Virginia Rails were calling along with the songs of Marsh Wrens.  We drove right under a Great Horned Owl who was only 20 feet above a Tree Swallow nest which made me more than a little nervous for Mom who was coming to feed them!

We visited the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge and saw the juvenile Bald Eagle being watched over by Mom with Dad perched a short distance away.  And this too-cute Red-Winged Blackbird with nobody watching over it – although Mom probably wasn’t far away – I hope…

Finally we return back closer to home at the Oaks Bottom wetland where Herons and Egrets share the pond with ducks, Osprey, Bald Eagles and other marsh birds.  We watch the raccoon sleeping on the bluff trail during the day and at dusk can hear the call of the Common Nighthawk while the deer come out to browse the railroad tracks.  Aaaaah, it’s summer!

 

Pines, Sagebrush, Canyons And A Burn: A Central Oregon Blitz

It was time to make a birding trip east of the Cascades, so during the first week of June we stayed two nights in a home overlooking the Whychus Creek canyon outside of Sisters, OR.  I wanted to see birds in a variety of habitats and we only wanted to bird half days – so we couldn’t spend much time at any one location but just enough to admire it all.

View of the Three Sisters mountains near Calliope Crossing.

View of the Three Sisters mountains near Calliope Crossing.

We started at Indian Ford Campground just west of Sisters because they reliably have Green-tailed Towhees.  Getting out of the car near the creek, I immediately heard new bird songs and calls.  Yay! Who has time to sit at a picnic table and eat lunch?  Between mouthfuls, my eyes and ears are tuned into the flycatchers, woodpeckers, a raven, nuthatches (my first Pygmy Nuthatch!) and warblers.   Within ten minutes we hear the mewing call of the Green-tailed Towhee just under a shrub nearby.  But he was a very shy, anxious bird that kept darting from one bush to the next and absolutely refused to allow for a photo.  Oh well, he was still darned amazing to see and hear and we left him in peace.

Then off we went to the Best Western Ponderosa Lodge on Hwy. 20 just before you enter Sisters.  This  location is famous for its variety of birds which hang out at the numerous feeders at the far end of the parking lot where a trail opens out onto the Deschutes National Forest land next door.  The feeders initially had a flock of European Starlings in them, and I thought, “This is all we get?  Starlings?”  But as I was tracking a White-breasted Nuthatch in a tree overhead (and then got pooped on by said bird!) – the Starlings moved on and the Pinyon Jays moved in.  Soon we realized there was a reasonably affable merry-go-round of bird species taking turns at the feeders.  And the jaunty resident White-headed Woodpecker showed up on a trunk in front of us.  Such easy birding…

Even a pair of California Quail shuffled out of the forest and took a leisurely stroll around the parking lot.

We could have spent more time walking in the woods, but I really wanted to bird Calliope Crossing which was highly recommended as the best birding spot in Sisters.  So on we went…  A loud, singing House Wren on the road immediately drew my attention while Floyd went to scout for a Calliope Hummingbird for which the location is named.  Within five minutes, he said, “The hummingbird is here!”  I rushed over to get a quick look and picture as it rested at the top of a shrub in the stream-bed.  Western Wood-Pewees provided the main sound track along with the wren but many warblers, sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, a Gray Flycatcher, a Williamson’s Sapsucker, a booming Black-headed Gosbeak and so many more all joined in the chorus.  Much to my surprise Floyd also spotted a Wild Turkey!

Settling into our beautiful home overlooking the canyon, we found the hummingbird feeder on the back deck attended by the resident Calliope Hummingbird and Pygmy Nuthatch both of which would make quick runs for sugar water and then retreat to the pine tree right in front of us.  I could hear many bird species within the canyon including Pinyon Jays, Woodpeckers, Quail, Crossbills, Grosbeaks, a Cassin’s Vireo, Western Tanagers, Townsend’s Solitaires and close fly-by Ravens.  An Ash-throated Flycatcher and a Clark’s Nutcracker actually came close enough for photos.

At dusk, we set out north on Wilt Road, looking and listening for Common Poorwills and Common Nighthawks.  We drove very slowly on the packed dirt road with our windows open, stopping every 500 feet or so to listen again…  After about two miles, we heard several Common Nighthawks making their distinctive electric “peent” sounds.  You can listen to this in the youtube clip below.  After about four miles, the forest opened up to a grassland and then we heard the lovely call of the Common Poorwill just ahead.  Night had descended so we couldn’t see him.  Not wanting to follow the dusty road any further we moved forward another few hundred yards and turned around.  Now I’m admiring the quarter moon and stars and Floyd says, “He just flew across the road!”  So, I missed seeing the Poorwill in the headlights at the moment I turned away to admire the moon…  Ha!  That’s the magic of birding for you…  so much to see and hear, I am bound to miss a few things.

The next day we set out early for the sagebrush country southeast of Bend.  Target species were the Sagebrush Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow and Sage Thrasher.  Loving the sage fragrance and driving slowly south along Fort Rock Road, we stopped every couple hundred yards or so to listen.  All three birds were easily seen and heard singing within the first fifteen minutes. Farther along the road a large flock of Horned Larks were singing everywhere we looked.

Soon after turning east on Ford Road, we were delighted to see a herd of Antelope cross the road ahead of us.  Such magnificent animals galloping through the fragrant sagebrush!  That just made my day – which had really only just begun…

Antelope on Ford Rd.

Antelope on Ford Rd.

Driving on to Hatfield Lake in Bend, I hoped to see a rare species or two which are occaionally found here.  This was a good day to stop by.  We were greeted at the entrance by the cerulean-blue feathers of the Mountain Bluebird – not a rarity but so wonderful to see.  A Franklin’s Gull (my first) flew overhead which was later followed by a Black Tern.  Some Mute Swans, a rarity in the west, had been there the last few days and one was still on the lake.  Breeding plumage Eared Grebes, Wilson’s Phalaropes along with one smaller Red-necked Phalarope were among the waterfowl.

So much to stay and see here but I still wanted to move on to our last stop – Smith Rock State Park – before returning to Sisters.  My target birds were the White-throated Swifts, and Canyon and Rock Wrens, all new species for me.  As usual on this trip they were all heard or seen soon after getting out of the car.  It was now late morning and there was a lot of  heat coming up from the river canyon.  Hikers’ faces were beet red as they climbed the trail back to the car.  So instead of doing a longer hike, we ventured down only a little way to see if any of the many singing Canyon Wrens would poke their head up from the rocks for a picture.  Nah!  We took a shorter hike along the breezy canyon rim – with outrageous views of not just the White-throated Swifts, but Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Common Ravens, Great-Blue Herons and even a few climbers scaling the opposite rock wall.  We were exhausted and heading back to the car when a Rock Wren flew up and began singing just below the rim…

One last morning left and I wanted to look for a Black-backed Woodpecker which inhabits recently burned forest areas because they feed on the wood-boring beetles that invade the charred tree trunks.  Our car has a very low clearance so I chose a location which is paved until the last 1/4 mile – the Pacific Crest Trail at Big Lake near Mt. Washington.   This area suffered a tremendous 10,000 acre forest fire in 2011 caused by a lightening strike.  Lucky again, it was very birdy and we both heard the drumming of the Black-backed Woodpecker as soon as we stepped out of the car at the trailhead.  I’m now so excited that I begin happily marching along the trail.  Then Floyd points out the obvious that my enthusiasm for birds has overlooked.  There are mosquitos everywhere and we’re both being bitten.  Unfortunately we did not have mosquito-repellant in the car so we added more clothes trying to cover ourselves head-to-toe hoping that as long as we kept moving it might not be too bad.  This was sort of true.  Hardly a photo was taken – it was really buggy and they were biting my fingers and forehead.  Nevertheless, between this location and the campground at Big Lake, we saw or heard three Black-backed Woodpeckers, two Red-breasted Sapsuckers and one American Three-toed Woodpecker!  It was also a pleasure to hear so many Olive-sided Flycatchers singing “Quick, Three Beers” adding levity to our sorry predicament. Along with the more expected mountain birds, we also sighted an Osprey soaring over the burn.  At the Big Lake Campground, I was watching a Spotted Sandpiper fly off the shore of the lake and taking a photo of the scenery while another Black-backed Woodpecker made a call and landed on a tree right behind our car.  And then he quickly flew farther back amongst the scarred trees out of sight but still calling…

Such life to be found after a devastating forest fire and such beauty to admire in Oregon’s incredibly rich landscapes.

An Abundance of Riches: Spring Birding in Chicago

American Goldfinch - my favorite photo.

American Goldfinch – this expresses the exuberance I feel for spring migration!

Spending 3-1/2 weeks in Chicago during spring migration brings such a rich variety of choices.  How do I decide where to go next or what to pay attention to now?  Because there is so much going on all over Cook County and even within my favorite bird sanctuary, Montrose, which is only a mile from our home.  Living near Lake Michigan, I learned to watch the weather report carefully.  If the winds are coming from the east then go birding inland – if winds are coming from the west then go to the lake.  If they’re coming from the south then birding is good everywhere!  If from the north, then sleep in and go out between rain showers and wear lots of clothes and gloves or your hands get too cold to focus your binoculars.  But even when the lake is so choppy as to wash over the Montrose pier, it’s still fun to get out there, run to avoid the oncoming waters and watch the gulls’ and terns’ antics on the beach.

Even when the weather is bad and the migrants are scarce, there are always sparrows to watch.  I was fortunate to get pictures of three Lark Sparrows, a Vesper Sparrow and a Harris’s Sparrow on this trip in addition to the more common varieties.  Also seen but not photographed were a Grasshopper Sparrow, a Henslow’s Sparrow and some Clay-colored Sparrows.

Finally the warblers started to show up in dribs and drabs.  One day the first Blue-winged Warbler showed up at Montrose and then an American Woodcock was spotted.  They were right next to each other, one up in the tree and the other on the ground, hidden in the “clump” next to it.  Where to look?  Which to photograph?   Both were life birds for me. Splitting my attention, I was able to run back and forth and get pictures of both.

This scenario would occur almost everyday but luckily so many people bird at Montrose that you just follow the reports as different birds are sighted around the sanctuary.  Walking past the “Magic Hedge” one day, several photographers were set up in close range of something.  Who could imagine a Black-billed Cuckoo would be just sitting in plain view less than 10 feet from the path?  And everyone got to see the White-eyed Vireo because he was singing so loudly making him easy to find. Here they are along with many other gorgeous songbirds and a Cooper’s Hawk seen at Montrose and other locations.

Montrose is one place you can find five species of thrush.  Here are four that I took pictures of…  missing is the Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Despite having a few good looks at some Summer Tanagers and female Scarlet Tanagers, I really wanted to have a picture of a male Scarlet Tanager.  Finally the day came when we were in Madison, WI.  We were exploring the beautiful U of W-Madison Arboretum watching a variety of stunning warblers when suddenly this guy perched nearby.  Finally my chance.  Pure happiness!

And then we made a special trip to a location near Jackson Park where the Monk Parakeets were busy tending their nests.  At least seven Monk Parakeets were present that day, squawking away and looking very pretty…

Talk about an abundance of riches.  All the swallows that are regular at Montrose were easy to find one day on the pier and at the Purple Martin boxes…

Before I get to the warblers, I don’t want to forget the magnificent birds that live on or near the lakes all around…

During my last good weather days in Chicago, it was not uncommon for birders to spot over twenty warblers at any location.  One day I spotted twenty-four warblers at LaBagh Woods!  In fact, there is a “magic tree” in the parking lot of LaBagh where many would come to feed on the ground just below it.  Just so amazing to look up, look down and keep seeing another… and another…  including a rare Worm-eating Warbler that everybody got to take a picture of.

Finally, coming out of the woods at LaBagh on my last day there, I found the famously crazy Northern Cardinal sitting on my side-view mirror.  This guy’s poor hormones make him attack his reflection in the side-view mirrors of the nearest car that sits within his territory in the parking lot.  Today he chose mine.  Apparently this behavior can last for weeks.  He does look very fierce!  So I drove away and gave him some peace for awhile…

Male Northern Cardinal defending his territory by attacking his reflection on my car!

Male Northern Cardinal defending his territory by attacking his reflection on my car mirror!

Highlights of Early Spring

Red-winged Blackbirds are busy singing at all the local wetlands again.

Red-winged Blackbirds are busy singing at all the local wetlands again.

I took up serious birding a little over a year ago and I can now say that there has been absolutely no sign that my new passion (or obsession as my husband might say) has abated.  Listen – everyone knows we need to get out of our chairs and walk more – so why not take along a pair of binoculars and a lightweight camera and get connected to the natural world we share with these amazing birds.  What a kick to watch them feed, breed, nest, and now – migrate!  Migration is early for many species this year and right on time for others.  Is it because of the drought in California and/or global warming?  Maybe – no one can really say for sure.  But here in the Willamette Valley every day there’s always the chance of some new bird arriving from down south on their way here for the summer or heading farther north to breed – and I love watching this fantastic spectacle of nature.

In early March, Floyd spotted a Western Bluebird in the south meadow at Oaks Bottom in Portland which is a rare occurrence for this location.  Other Western Bluebirds were flocking at Powell Butte and a few beautiful Mountain Bluebirds made an appearance there too. Unfortunately they moved too fast for my camera – darn!

A few Say’s Phoebes were spotted in Portland as was a rare Loggerhead Shrike that I saw through the scope and was too far to photograph.  But I did have a very cooperative Northern Shrike pose for photos at the Tualatin National Wildlife Refuge.

Among some of our local resident birds, these guys captured my attention recently -

And I found a few more local owls at their nests!

The return of the Ospreys is always exciting although the nest at Rivermile 14 was again occupied by a Canada Goose this season.  But they still are actively gathering nesting materials and fishing out our front window.

Osprey with fish in Yamhill County.

Osprey with fish in Yamhill County.

I was able to see my first Swainson’s Hawk – a rarity in the Willamette Valley.  Other resident raptors were busy with their feeding and nesting activities – and it is never hard to spot an American Crow hassle a raptor!

Floyd found this Rufous Hummingbird at the South Waterfront and this Anna’s Hummingbird is being particularly flashy!

It seems every post I do has to include some woodpeckers – here are my favorite photos this spring.

Hooray for the return of the swallows!  They were flying and chirping everywhere at Jackson Bottom Wetlands in Hillsboro where they have a bunch of nest boxes.  And a Violet-green Swallow was stretching his wings at a gas station along I-5.

Floyd had a literary reading in Eugene for his new book Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir so we went early to bird the Fern Ridge Reservoir and EWEB wetlands beforehand.  On the way south we got off the freeway and were having fun watching the vultures and hawks when, just south of Halsey, Floyd spotted (again – always Floyd is seeing the best birds!) a large falcon coming right at us, flying low over the field.  As we slowed and watched at a very close range, what I thought would be a Peregrine Falcon turned out not to have the dark hood and mustache but instead was more uniformly light on the head and underneath the wings – so it wasn’t a Prairie Falcon either!  After we both recounted what markings each of us had just seen, we were then positive we had just seen a Gyrfalcon – wow!  I wished we would have had more time to chase after it.   Instead we pressed on and found some of these guys while another trip throughout the Willamette Valley wetlands later in the week yielded many more shorebirds that are on their way to their Holarctic breeding lands!

Finally this past week we ventured into the coast range of Washington County and listened for the deep haunting calls of the Sooty Grouse.  We didn’t find one to photograph but just hunting down their booming sound was another great adventure.  And then we had to get a carwash!

Birding the Open Fields: Dawn, Midday and Dusk

Floyd and I have spent a few days this last month in search of Short-eared Owls which favor open, grassy fields. They roost hidden in the grasses during the day and can be seen around dusk and dawn doing their floppy, low-to-the-ground hunting flights. The following trips are not in chronological order.

Sunrise in Washington County.

Sunrise in rural Washington County.

I wanted to see a rare occurrence of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that was being seen in rural Washington County. I had seen this sapsucker in Chicago but there had been only 19 Oregon sight records according to the reference book “Birds of Oregon.”  Since we were awake at 6 am anyway, I said, “I’m going now and see if I can also find the Short-eared Owl!” Floyd, being the absolute best spotter for birds on-the-wing, decided to come along too. More eyes on the targets – Yay!  After seeing a pair of coyotes scavenging in the field, the first bird to be spotted was this Northern Harrier who flew right in front of our slowly moving car and landed on some prey about 30 feet away.  You can see why this beautiful adult male raptor has been called the “gray ghost.”

Northern Harrier in first light of dawn.

Northern Harrier in first light of dawn.

We met a couple of other birders driving slowly up and down the gravel road also looking for the famed Short-eared Owl, also a rare occurrence in Washington County. After seeing a few Red-tailed Hawks and Ravens, Floyd “the spotter” found this Great Horned Owl in a barn window.  The sun hadn’t risen yet so he was still awake!

Great Horned Owl in barn window.

Great Horned Owl in barn window.

Coming back down the road to the sapsucker site, we stopped one more time and then, as I was scanning the field to the west with my binoculars, I saw the Short-eared Owl briefly flutter, fly low next to the ground and then drop down again. And that was it. No one else saw it and no photo…  At the end of the road, we found a small group of folks waiting for the sapsucker’s arrival in her favorite tree. To keep warm in the thirty-something degree weather, we walked around the corner and found another Great Horned Owl in a nest across the freeway, and this American Kestrel rather puffed up in the cold morning.

We had arrived at 7 am and it was 8:55 am when the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker finally showed up and entertained the growing number of birders waiting to see her tap her way around this tree.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Washington County.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Washington County.

On an earlier day midday scouting trip for the sapsucker (with no luck sighting her), I saw many more Northern Harriers, a Rough-legged Hawk, and several Red-tailed Hawks. I wasn’t able to photograph the Rough-legged Hawk but I have a picture of one from a recent trip to Sauvie Island.

A pair of American Kestrels were hovering together over the field and as I was photographing one, the other flew by for a photobomb moment!

American Kestrel hovering while the other photobombs.

American Kestrel hovering while the other photobombs.

The other raptors didn’t seem to be disturbed by this vagrant Paraglider bird!

Paraglider Bird in Washington County.

Paraglider Bird in Washington County.

We also visited Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge at midday near Washougal, WA which has a beautiful open habitat where the close encounters with Northern Harriers and Violet-green Swallows were breathtaking. The dozens of newly arrived swallows were flying over and around us at close-range all the while chirping happily.

There were multiple reports of a field with about 8-10 Short-eared Owls that start emerging to hunt at dusk near Tangent, OR next to a Bald Eagle roost site. This was an event that couldn’t be missed! On our drive down south, we stopped at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge for a brief visit. Among the many sightings, I saw another Rough-legged Hawk, a dark-morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk and my not-to-be-missed favorite woodpeckers as expected…

As the sun was getting low in the sky, we decided to continue on to Tangent right away.  At the designated location, we found another birder waiting for dusk with his scope.  Soon more arrived and we literally took over one lane of the rural road with our parked cars.  The distant Bald Eagle roost had only about seven birds in it so far but we knew more would be arriving to spend the night.  However, this late in the winter we were not going to get the really big number of eagles that had been here a couple weeks earlier.  By the time we left there were about 18.

Bald Eagle roost near Tangent, OR.

A juvenile Bald Eagle, Northern Harriers, Ravens and American Kestrels were keeping us entertained  while we waited for the Short-eared Owls to appear.

The Short-eared Owls began to appear sporadically in the distance but eventually it turned into a wondrous non-stop activity of tracking each one as they appeared in various locations mostly farther down the road.  We moved our car south for closer photographic views and right away one popped up thirty feet from where we stopped the car.  Floyd became the tracker and we worked out a system so that I could follow his guidance as I tried to find the owls in the viewfinder of my super-zoom Canon SX50.

Mostly the owls stayed low but at times they would fly at higher elevations.

After the sun had gone down, you hear their bark calls which sound like this:

The moon had risen, the dark was descending and the Horned Larks started singing their sweet melody in the opposite field.  What a wondrous, incredible two-hour birding experience that will be etched in my memory!