Saturday, April 30, 2016

Feathered and Furry Friends at Lava Beds National Monument

On our third full day of the Winter Wings Birding Festival, we headed out to the Lava Beds National Monument on our own, just as we did a year before. It was a beautiful morning drive, with snowy Mt. Shasta glowing in the distance. It wasn’t super foggy like it was the last time we were here a year ago, so we were able to pull over onto the narrow shoulder of Hwy 161 running along the Oregon-California border to check out the waterfowl hanging out in Lower Klamath Lake. 

Mount Shasta as the sun rises

Lower Klamath Lake

Bald Eagle

The serene waters were dotted with black, white, and gray with pops of red from lovely Redheads. The clear blue skies were happily interrupted with flocks of Tundra Swans flying by the mountainous backdrops. It was just a really fantastic scene with a somewhat busy freeway cutting right between it. 

We hit up Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a fun rocky hike with lots of nooks and crannies perfect for hiding and imagining what it may have been like when it was used as a natural fortress in battles in the Modoc War. We had great views of Mt. Shasta, but unfortunately, we only had a handful of birds, and none of the wrens (Rock or Canyon) we had expected.

Walking around Captain Jack's Stronghold

Cool, colorful lichen

Mt. Shasta

On the drive along Tule Lake, we stopped at a couple of pullouts, getting nice views of a juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow and juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk. We also got to admire the mightiness that are Canvasbacks. These big ducks are some of my favorites with their striking red heads and big, sloped bills.

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

Juv. White-Crowned Sparrow

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk


Our next main stop was Petroglyph Point. As expected, we saw Prairie Falcons circling the large rock island. Nick and I were able to get a few nice shots, including some with a little morsel of what was likely a Belding’s Ground Squirrel. I didn’t quite get the awesome shot of tandem ones in flight like before, but still very happy with this sighting. 

Prairie Falcon

No, not an extra set of furry legs - the legs and tail of its prey!

Belding's Ground Squirrel - likely prey item

We also got a few other surprises here, like TWO different nesting owls. A Great Horned Owl was nicely poised on its nest, giving us a stare down. It didn’t seem too bothered by us or the van-load of photographers who stopped here on one of the Winter Wings Festival guided photography tours. The Barn Owl, on the other hand, was content to keeps its back turned towards us. How I found it in this tiny crevice, I don’t know. But once I saw it, I knew for sure it was a beloved Tyto.

Great-Horned Owl

Barn Owl

We got a quick glance at a Rock Wren before it darted out of sight. But we did get good looks at some other critters at Petroglyph Point, including this strapping Yellow-Bellied Marmot and this tiny wolf spider of some sort. Arachniphobes - beware of awesome up-close photos!

Yellow-Bellied Marmot

Wolf Spider

Wolf Spider

Time restraints prevented us from exploring the lava tube caves last time, but this time we were able to check them out. I discovered that I’m a bit freaked out by caves. Pure darkness without knowing how deep the cave is and not knowing if some dangerous critter is just around the corner was a bit unnerving. But it was totally cool and fascinating to walk around and see the super cool textures remaining from ancient lava flow (from 10,500 to 65,000 years ago).

Entering a cave

Cave Ceiling

I call this my "X-Files" Photo

Exploring the cave

More cool lava tube cave textures

This trip was filled with Townsend’s Solitaires. We saw them at just about every stop, and quite a few at a time around the caves. We got great looks at one in particular – such great looks that one even came down within a few feet from me on the ground, but it was too close for my telephoto lens to capture it! I cursed like a sailor about this missed opportunity, as I knew it would NEVER happen again. But I have since mostly calmed down about the whole thing (haha) and enjoy the memory and these pics.

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend's Solitaire

Our day ended at Big Painted Cave where we expected to see some pictographs. We did not find them, but we found something even better – a PIKA!!! It was super cooperative, and I think we must have watched it run back and forth from its hay pile to its feeding spot for at least half an hour. We knew they could be around, but we did not know that we’d be lucky enough to find one, and such a cooperative one at that. I don’t even need to tell you how adorable these guys are. Just look at this one and see for yourself why this has got to be one of the top cutest animals on the planet!

(For best quality and full Pika effectivness, select to watch in 1080p HD)

It was such an amazing way to end the day. Oh how I just love this beautiful desert!

Because everyone needs a Pika GIF in their lives.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Extolling the Virtues of Bandon

I know I should be posting photos from our trip to Malheur last weekend, and I will shortly, but first I wanted to quickly extol the virtues of Bandon while the weather temporarily keeps me indoors. Maureen has Audubon business to attend to this weekend, which has brought us down to Coos County, the farthest south along the Oregon coast we've yet visited.

Maureen says this looks like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. She's not wrong

After a brief stop at Tugman State Park for fleeting, partial glimpses of a Wrentit (is there any other way to see them?), we drove the rest of the way to Bandon, where our motel overlooks some of the most beautiful coastline we've ever seen, just in time for the most gorgeous sunset we've ever seen.

Western Gull feeding frenzy in the distance

The view was no less spectacular in the daylight, and at low tide we were able to inspect some invertebrates, like the velella velellas and leaf barnacles, while nearby oystercatcher picked at whatever else it could find.

Velella velella

Leaf Barnacles

After dropping Maureen off I wandered the beaches hoping I wouldn't find anything too spectacular without her, and failing miserably. We had seen a Whimbrel together in the early morning (year bird!), but now I spied a flock of nine about half a mile up. I gambled that the tide wouldn't suddenly cut off my retreat and started sprinting in their direction. "Do you see whales?" queried as I flashed by them. "Curlews!" I returned, and looking to see the utter confusion I wrought before turning back to my prize.


Once I got within photo ranged, I noticed that one of these things was not like the others. It turned out there were only eight Whimbrels, and a lone Marbled Godwit. Every once and a while a wave would overwhelm them and they'd fly off together, leading me like so many Pied Pipers away from shelter.

Whimbrels and a Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

I eventually managed to turn back, when I just as easily could have followed them south until I found myself in California. I was eager to get back now as it had started sprinkling, but now I came across a pair of Caspian Terns - another awesome bird that would would waylay me as the tide inched relentlessly higher and higher. One other sighting on the return trip was a Surf Scoter commingling with a Red-breasted Merganser right at the shoreline. Unfortunately, the rain was coming down pretty hard by now.

Caspian Terns

They didn't particularly like being strafed by a crow

The mounds of volcanic rock that made for such a glorious sunset last night looked increasingly violent as the winds picked up, looking more like a Winslow Homer painting now.

But a little while later, the weather calmed and I was able to go out in search of Black Oystercatchers. I could see some way off to the north, and prayed they would stay put. We've had some great close encounters with this species lately, but always sans camera. Not today. Not now.

Black Oystercatchers

Before I wrap up, I should note that there are some crazy seabird colonies here. Every one of those rock mounds hosts thousands of Common Murres, Western Gulls, and Pelagic Cormorants. I've got the lowdown on where to look for Tufted Puffins later, with some luck this post will need some updating.

Seabird colony - mostly Common Murres