Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Chase is On! – Winter Wings Festival, Day 3

For our last official day of the Winter Wings Festival, we selected to partake in the “Chase Tour” to search for some target species and rarities. Two of the birds on the list were species we had already found on our first day out – Trumpeter Swan and Eurasian Wigeon.

A group of fourteen birders headed out early on a large white school bus to start the chase. First stop was Putnam’s Point in search of California Towhees and Red-Breasted Merganser. No luck finding either bird, but we found plenty of RBME’s cousin, Common Merganser. And we got some great looks at Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes. We first noticed a pair of Barrows Goldeneyes swimming by. We were so excited to see this handsome male with his bright white comma on his face, but the female was in a weird position, and she didn’t move from that position for what seemed like a couple of minutes. We briefly had the horrible thought that maybe she was dead and floating with her head just sitting above water. And then we were even more horrified when the male proceeded to nip her behind the neck and mate with her. Ahhh! But then she snapped up after “the deed” and sat up like normal. Phew! We laughed at ourselves, but were gladly relieved that she was not dead, not a victim of necrophilia, and she had been just "presenting" herself.

Onward we went to Moore Park to seek Red-Naped Sapsucker and Oak Titmouse. There was the very, very slight chance of getting the extremely similar-looking Juniper Titmouse as their ranges can overlap a bit in this area. We dipped on those species, but did pick up a Red-Breasted Sapsucker. We wished we could have spent a little more time in this area to do more searching, but the trip leader was trying to get us to some other spots before the end of the day. 

We then went up to Upper Klamath Lake to relocate the Trumpeter Swan and Eurasion Wigeon we had found on Day 1. As finding that first Trumpeter was already a needle in a haystack situation, we did not have the same fortune this time. But we did luck out in finding three Eurasion Wigeon – 2 more than we had found the first day! That was certainly a nice treat to spot these cinammony heads popping out amongst the brownish-grey and green heads of the American Wigeons.

Our next stop is one in which we spent a good chunk of our time – Running Y Ranch. This is a resort area with a golf course and big fancy residential homes set in a woodsy, natural area with great hilltop views of the Klamath basin. A nice adult Bald Eagle was kind enough to pose for photos as we all scooted to one side of the parked bus to bask in its majesty. CORRECTION: What I thought was foot of a prey bird is actually the eagle's own foot dangling. Maybe he got a foot cramp. Haha. =P

As we wondered the neighborhood trying not to be too invasive in people’s yards (although most homes seemed like temporarily empty vacation homes), we spotted a few nice passerines, including Cassin’s Finch, Western Bluebirds, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and adorable Pygmy Nuthatches. 

White-Breasted Nuthatch
Cassin's Finch
We were given permission to hang out on the deck of one of the homeowners at Running Y Ranch, and what a deck it was. I wish I could just camp out for a week on that upstairs deck that bumped up against a huge cedar tree right at the center that was stringing about a dozen very active bird feeders. It was a dream! 

We didn’t have luck finding the Barred Owl that was supposed to live in the yard, but we got quite a spectacular, up-close and personal show of Pine Siskins, Mountain Chickadees, White-Breasted Nuthatches, and the prized bird of the yard – Evening Grosbeaks. 

A little feeder squabble between a Pine Siskin and an Evening Grosbeak.

Our final hours of our chase tour took us to Lower Klamath Lake and the border of Oregon and California. Here, we were on the lookout for raptors. And that’s exactly what we got! Our first stop along the road that winded through large farm fields led us to a cliff where we spotted three Golden Eagles soaring high above. Here we learned that a pair of Golden Eagles can build about half a dozen satellite or decoy nests. All along the road, Red-Tailed Hawks appeared regularly almost every half a mile. We got some amazing close looks at curious juvenile Red-Tail who put on a short, low to the ground flight display.

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk
Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk in flight.
Other highlights were lots of Snow and Ross's Geese, a DOZEN Rough-Legged Hawks, which were recent lifers for us and still super awesome to see, and a Great-Horned Owl sitting on a nest. All I could see were its little “ear” tufts peaking out amongst the bare branches. And we also picked up a life mammal – Muskrat. We watched one swim in one of the channels alongside the road, moving its laterally compressed, eel-like tail in a serpentine manner to propel itself in the water. Cool and a little icky at the same time. 

Ross's Geese seen along the OR-CA border.
Look closely for the Great Horned Owls "ear" tufts. 
Muskrat smimming
Once we got back from our field trip, Nick and I wanted to still use up some of the precious remaining daylight to see if we could find some of those birds we dipped on – Oak Titmouse and California Towhee. We did not succeed in finding them that day, but we still ended the festival happy at all of the awesome things we had seen in the Klamath Basin this trip. We’ll definitely come back to Klamath Falls, especially since they are known to have dancing grebes there – a spectacle I long to see.

As you can see from this little mural on a random utility box, the dancing Western Grebes are a source of local pride.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Lava Beds National Monument: Winter Wings Festival Weekend, Day 2

Day 2 of our trip to Klamath Falls actually took us out of the state and down to California for the day. When we reviewed the possible field trips for the Winter Wings Festival, there was one to Lava Beds National Monument, but we were going to miss it due to its timing. But luckily we had ourselves an open day on Saturday of the festival that would allow us to explore the area on our own. Other than the birds and possibility of new mammals, we were especially intrigued by the petroglyphs (rock art carvings) that are there. 

California Ground Squirrel
View of Tule Lake - an oasis in the desert

We expected another lovely day due to the unseasonably warm weather. The hour-long drive from Klamath Falls to the Lava Beds area started out as a mostly foggy one, but once we got there, it was beautifully clear. I’m still amazed how quickly we can go from one habitat to another. We went from a verdant, mixed forest area to dry rocky desert. We, especially Nick, have found that the desert is now one of our favorite habitats. After our very short pass through Phoenix, AZ last year during our cross-country road trip, we fell in love with this dry, seemingly barren landscape that is in fact full of life! 

Dewy spiderwebs in the desert

Desert plant

Colorful lichen on the rocks

As we drove into the Lava Beds area, we first pulled over to check out why another car had pulled over and brought out a long lens pointing toward the hillside. I then spotted not just one, but three coyotes! And not only that, they had their eyes set on a large Mule Deer doe who was well aware of their presence. She stood still for a while before casually walking away. I guessed that knowing the deer spotted them, the coyotes must have figured they did not have a chance to surprise her and bring her down.

Just a couple of coyotes.

Mule Deer on the upper left and two of the three coyotes on the bottom right.

Driving toward our first stop, we could hear lots of Western Meadowlarks singing. Nick then suddenly stopped quickly as he spotted a very close Horned Lark off the side of the road perched on top of a rock. It also sang its morning song while posing very nicely for us. This was one of those really soul-satisfying looks at a bird, especially since the only other time we had seen one was at a very far distance in a farm field in Georgia, and we dipped on finding them in the Salem area. 

Western Meadowlark

Horned Lark

Horned Lark giving us a stare down and showing his "horns"

Horned Lark singing!

Our first major stop in this desert scene was Captain Jacks Stronghold. This area was a key area of the defense of the Modoc people during the Modoc War. Walking through the trails, one can imagine the fighting that occurred there with plenty of nooks and crannies to hide and jump out of for surprise attacks. 

Captain Jacks Stronghold

Mt. Shasta

Instead of hiding Native Americans, we instead found some cool desert birds, including 2 very vocal Rock Wrens and a sneaky little Canyon Wren, which was a lifer! The Canyon Wren was hanging out quite close to the Rock Wren, but he never did stay out long enough for us to gaze upon him. 

Rock Wren

Rock Wren singing

Nick checking out the Rock Wren in the distance

Next stop was Petroglyph Point. When we turned on the short road to take us to this rock art cliff, we were greeted by 50 or so Belding’s Ground Squirrels darting around and squeaking what may have been alarm calls. When considering all of the ones we couldn’t see, there had to have been 100+ just in this colony. Some let us take their photos using our car as a moving blind. Most were scared into their burrows. Others lingered in curiosity but stayed close to a hole that they could quickly jump into for safety if needed. They were quite endearing, I must say (as you can tell by all of these photos we took of them). I can only imagine that they make fine meals for the raptors that make this place their home.

Partly in a burrow just in case… 

That little face!

Those little hands!

Once we got to Petroglyph Point, we stopped to eat our lunch in the car before checking out the carvings. But we quickly dropped everything as Nick spotted our lifer Prairie Falcon! And then came another! This was likely a mating pair as they stayed mostly close together, and this is a known nesting spot for them. We got some incredible views of these awesome raptors. They put on quite a show for us, and allowed for one of my most prized photos ever!

Captures the stealth and speed of these awesome Prairie Falcons

The cliff clearly marked by where these Prairie Falcons have nested before

While we were here, another Rock Wren and Canyon Wren made an appearance. I finally got to take at least some quick snapshots of the Canyon Wren with his lovely rufous and gray patterns. And Nick got some really cool macro shots of some neat bugs.

Canyon Wren!

Canyon Wren!

Small Milkweed Bug - looks like an African mask!

A weevil of some sort

Oh yes, and we did get to check out the really cool 4500 year old petroglyphs. Some were not that old, and some were not done by the Modoc people at all but by Japanese internment camp prisoners that were stationed here at some point. It's really incredible to see these carvings and to think of items that they look like today, like robots, viruses, and even a martini glass. 

I spy a bug and a robot and some pizzas

Protected petroglyphs

It's a real darn shame that this barbed wire must be put up to keep our additional vandalism next to these 4500 year old carvings. Really people?!?! (to the people who vandalized)

Totally looks like a virus!

It's five o'clock somewhere!

We spent so much time admiring these fantastic birds and petroglyphs that we didn’t leave too much time to explore some of the lava tubes and caves that the Lava Beds National Monument is known for. We picked up a map and headed out to find an “easy cave” as we are not too keen on crawling our way through tight spaces <shutter>, but once we found out there was a rocky trench where Pika are supposed to be, we knew exactly where we were going. 

Swallow nests lining a ledge of the petroglyph cliff

I have been obsessed with the Pikas ever since watching them on David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals. And now that we are in reach of finding them in the Pacific Northwest, I am driven to find one. We stopped to check out the trench and within a couple of minutes, Nick spotted a flash of a Pika, but he quickly jumped into a crevice, where I saw a fuzzy little ball hop in the shadows out of sight. I definitely did not get a good look at him, so we waited and waited for him to pop out again. We waited over an hour, but alas, he did not reappear. Le sigh. I could have waited longer, but we had to head back to Klamath Falls in time to see the keynote speaker for the Winter Wings Festival – Richard Crossley.

Lava rocks

A view of the dark lava rocks set in the desert. I don't think this quite captures how desolate these huge black areas of lava rock really appeared. 

I had to settle for a Pika finger puppet until I can have a good look at a real one in the wild!

Yes, that’s THE Richard Crossly of The Crossley Guides. You can tell that he really is an expert birder and super passionate about learning and teaching about birds birding. He gave a very funny, witty, and inspiring talk that really encouraged us to strive even more to become great birders. This was a great way to end our spectacular day of birding the Lava Beds area – pumped and ready to get out there and learn more!

Hipster Birders with Richard Crossley