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.
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.
Red-breasted Nuthatches were everywhere!
A Common Raven perches over our heads.
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…
White-headed Woodpeckers live here.
Juvenile Red Crossbill sharing a birdbath with a Pygmy Nuthatch.
Pygmy Nuthatch at the birdbath.
A Mountain Chickadee joining the crowd.
Beautiful Pinyon Jays moved around in a flock.
Even a pair of California Quail shuffled out of the forest and took a leisurely stroll around the parking lot.
California Quail Hen looking very relaxed under the feeders.
Male California Quail keeping his eye on his mate.
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!
Stunning Calliope Hummingbird with streaked purple throat.
House Wren took first prize for loudest song.
A beautiful Chipmunk!
Black-headed Grosbeak singing.
Wild Turkey not really hiding in the brush.
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.
Clark’s Nutcracker over our house.
Ash-throated Flycatcher in the driveway.
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.
Sage Thrasher singing.
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.
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.
Mute Swan, rare in Oregon.
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…
Smith Rock State Park from the canyon rim.
American Kestrel on the path.
Rock Wren in the canyon.
Black-billed Magpies were very common here.
Common Raven hassling a Red-tailed Hawk.
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…
Pacific Crest Trailhead in 2014 after 2011 forest fire.
Osprey circling overhead.
Big Lake and Mt. Washington, OR
Such life to be found after a devastating forest fire and such beauty to admire in Oregon’s incredibly rich landscapes.