Sunday, July 10, 2016

Go East to Go West: The Wallowas, Part 2

After our first full day in the Wallowas, we drove out to Hells Canyon, along the Oregon-Idaho border. It's billed as the deepest river gorge in North America, beating out the even the Grand Canyon. That doesn't seem quite right to me, but I'm not the one standing out there with a tape measure, so I'll let it slide.

View of Hells Canyon from the Overlook

A Columbian Ground Squirrel is at full attention to greet us

Common camas (Camassia quamash)

Big headed clover (Trifolium macrocephalum)

Mix with creeping oregon grape

From the overlook, we had gorgeous views out towards the canyon. And there were wildflowers galore! This seemed to be the peak time for all these mountain blooms. There were carpets of violet, yellow, white, red, and pink. It was the quintessential moment of spring on this mountain top.

Penstemon species

Western peony (Paeonia brownii)

Harsh Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)

Penstemon species

From the overlook we hit a dirt road warning that it wasn't recommended for passenger vehicles. I interpreted as a personal challenge, and after an interminably rough ride, we ended up at the Buck Creek NRA trailhead. This was a fun hike to the top, also revealing beautiful wildflowers along the way. There wasn't a whole lot of activity out there, but from the top of the trail, we did get exceptional looks at the Wallowas off to the west of us, and the Seven Devils to our east.

The Wallowa Mountains

Top of Buck Creek NRA Trail

Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa)

Wallowa Mountains to the West

Seven Devils to the East

Upland larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)

Western Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

As if that weren't ambitious enough for one day, we drove back to Wallowa Lake to take the aerial tram up Mt. Howard. The tram travels 3,700 ft. up and deposits you at the summit, 8,150 above sea level. Upon arriving at the top, we were greeted by loads of Clark's Nutcrackers, but not much else.

A LONG 13 minute ride up the tram 

View from the tram looking down

We found ourselves trudging through quite a lot of snow, as we hiked around for stunning views of the other mountains nearby. Some mammals that we'd seen around the campgrounds, we'd wanted better looks at. Now we were the beneficiaries of desensitized animals who have been fed and overfed by multitudes of tourists. We couldn't beat these looks at Columbian Ground Squirrel and Yellow-pine Chipmunk.

That face

And what's cuter than a Golden-mantled Squirrel nibbling at a sunflower seed? Watching all of these squirrels, chipmunks, and squawking Clark's Nutrcrackers along with the fantastic head-on views of these peaks were well worth the scary tram ride.

Such a cute belly

Back at camp for the evening, we strolled around the trails behind our campsite after our camping neighbors had found a few very large morels right at their campsite! If only we had known to look for them. We were on a mission to find some of our own, and after over an hour, we had found plenty of other cool fungi, but no morels. Just as we were about to give up and walk back, Maureen finally found one tiny, almost shriveled one. We did end up cooking it and savored every tiny bite.

Hammond's Flycatcher back at the camp

Coral Fungus

Violet crown-cup or Violet star cup (Sarcosphaera sp) Fungus (about 5 in at widest point)

Early the next morning we braved the near-freezing temperatures to get back to McCully Creek. This time we took another trail up and soon found ourselves face-to-face with a Spruce Grouse. It was out in the open, 150 ft ahead. We stayed as still and quiet as two people can who are vibrating with excitement. We didn't want to spook it, but this bold bird wasn't going to be spooked anyway. Soon after we spotted it, it spotted us, too, and instead of flying off, it made a beeline right for us.

Echo Azure

Male Spruce Grouse

I've seen enough videos of grouse hopped up on hormones to consider that we might want to take a defensive stance. Closer and closer it came, mostly walking, sometimes running short distances. Most of the photos I digiscoped are blurry because it just kept coming at us. It got within 20 feet and then casually hopped off to the side, and disappeared into the undergrowth. We also stalked a Ruffed Grouse for some time, which we never saw, but we could feel the drumming in our chests.

Caught that moment of his bright red eyecomb glowing in the tiny spot of sunlight

The Spruce Grouse was just the cherry on top of this absolutely amazing trip. The views were awe-inspiring, the flowers were gorgeous, the animals were very friendly, and the birds were awesome. 

Wallowas in evening light

Common Alpine

View from "Little Alps"

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Go East to Go West: The Wallowas, Part 1

In the two years we've spent traveling around Oregon, there remained one big corner of the map left unexplored: the northeastern portion of the state, along our shared border with Idaho. This area is justifiably famous for its beautiful mountains, and Travel Oregon considers the Wallowas one of our "7 Wonders". The funny thing about Oregon is that the farther east you travel, the more it feels like "the West", and, in fact, several Westerns were filmed out that way, including Paint Your Wagon. But this wasn't a movie tour trip (that will have to wait until Astoria, e.g. The Goonies, Point Break, Kindergarten Cop). There were lots of birds on our list, starting with a quick stop in La Grande for Great Gray Owls.

The owls are known to nest every year in the Wallowa-Whiteman National Forest in the Spring Creek area. Spoiler alert: we didn't find any, but there were plenty of beautiful wildflowers to entertain us, along with Variable Checkerspots to pollinate them. After promising ourselves we'd be back for the Great Grays next year, we explored the larger La Grande area where we picked up awesome year birds like Western Kingbirds, and nesting Bank Swallows.

Variable Checkerspot

The lush meadows of Wallowa-Whitman NF, chock-full of wildflowers

Large-flowered triteleia (Howell's triteleia) Triteleia grandiflora

Western Kingbird

Bank Swallow colony

The Wallowas are a legit mountain range; probably the first I've seen in America. The Cascades have some great standalone behemoths, like Mt. Hood, Mt. Ranier, Mount St. Helens, and others, but to see several peaks contiguous with one another, all pushed together shoulder-to-shoulder, was a new experience altogether. Definitely deserving of the "Wonder" moniker. We set up camp at our home for the next few days, at Wallowa Lake SP.

Behold: the Wallowas!

We woke up a tad before 5:00 a.m. to the irregular drumming of a sapsucker against a nearby utility pole. This would be a lifer if only we could stir ourselves out of the tent quickly enough to confirm that it was, as we suspected, one of the Red-napeds that breed in the park grounds. We weren't quick enough this time around, but he would return shortly to repeat the circuit around his territory. His drumming post of choice was a wooden utility pole, and the sapsucker went straight for a big crack where he'd get the best reverberation. 

Red-naped Sapsucker

Our first destination for the day was the town of Enterprise, where we picked up some good birds at the local Wildlife Management Area. According the eBird, our best find was a flyover Great Egret - strangely, the first time it ever occurred to me that they're range doesn't extend everywhere. Better birds, in my own opinion, were the two fledgling magpies sitting just off the ground. There were also a good number of Bank Swallows nesting near the water, and California Quail overrunning the yard across the street, where they perched on and walked all over the mailbox, light fixtures, fences, etc. They were in total command.

Fledgling Black-billed Magpie

Bank Swallow

Cedar Waxwing
California Quail

We stopped at McCully Creek, which is reportedly one of the best places around for Spruce Grouse. It was already past noon by the time we started, and was mostly quiet as a result, except for the quick-three-beers of some Olive-sided Flycatchers that we could hear well, but weren't able to track down.

Warbling Vireo

Pacific Forktail

We did, however, hit the jackpot for butterflies, especially a group of hairstreaks with which we were previously unacquainted: the elfins. We quickly picked up Hoary, Brown, and Western Pine Elfins, along with Green Comma, Juba Skipper, and a flyby Stella Orangetip. We've still never seen an orangetip, any orangetip, sit still for even a moment.

Hoary Elfin

Western Pine Elfin

Brown Elfin

Green Comma

Juba Skipper

Back at Wallowa Lake SP, the river that cuts through the park was chock full of American Dippers and Spotted Sandpipers. Maureen and I are so popular with these birds, that they literally lined up for us to see them! One sandpiper was so excited it couldn't figure out whether it wanted to preen or wiggle its butt.

Spotted Sandpiper (front) and American Dipper