Saturday, May 14, 2016

Featured Feathered Friend: American Wigeon

Now that wintering waterfowl have mostly moved on, I think back to some of the loveliest ducks we've seen. The American Wigeon is always a delight to see! They're both adorable and elegant. They're not too big, not too small - just right. 

Coming in for a smooch?! Or just wanting to feed on the same duck weed patch… Likely but not as cute.
A nice little trick to figuring out duck species is to think about "Where's the white?" Other than the head, you can see just a little tease of a strip of white on its wing and white hip patch.

The first set of American Wigeons in this post are ones we saw at Talking Water Gardens in Albany, OR. There so many of them this past November when we birded this quaint little spot. This sunny late fall/early winter day really highlighted the gorgeous colors in these birds. 

As through most of this winter, I had the luck of spotting out a couple of Eurasian Wigeons in the bunch. I just love these cinnamony cousins of the American Wigeon. I always get excited when we can find one of them!

The cinammony delicious Eurasian Wigeon

This next bunch of American Wigeons we spotted at Green Lake in Seattle, WA (where we also got lifer Redpolls!). The typical Seattle overcast gave these birds a more moody, grungy feel. Hipster Wigeons?

This one is just feeling so emo...

This male is just so over it. (But isn't he lovely?)

You can spot American Wigeons with their stout little bodies and smoothly rounded heads. The males have this creamy, buttery yellow or buffy on it's face and going mohawk style over the top of its head, but it's that glimmering emerald green going from its eye all along the side of its head that gives it an air of mystique and just wows you.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Greater Sage-Grouse Lek, and the Road to Malheur

A few weeks ago, Maureen and I headed to eastern Oregon to see some great birds, and celebrate our 10-year(!) anniversary. We booked a trip to Malheur NWR before the refuge actually opened back up, post-occupation, and lucked-out when they announced that everything would be accessible again, except for the HQ. Since we were heading that way anyway, priority numero uno would be an overnight stop in Bend in hopes of seeing a Greater Sage-grouse lek.


Pronghorn butt

Yellow-bellied Marmot

The adventure started on our first night out, though. Just as we were heading into the mountains, not long before we headed into a surprise blizzard, with the sun dropping quickly behind us, we found ourselves at a living roadblock. A gigantic Elk was straddling our narrow lane (lifer mammal, finally). I braked and it took off downslope like a lightning bolt.

Sage-grouse, we heard, might be found strutting about from an hour before sunrise to an hour after. We headed out plenty early, and made a beeline for the coordinates of the eBird hotspot. Nothing. We pulled over and hoped for the best when a pair of birders with the same goal pulled up. They seemed just as lost as us, but fortunately they knew who to call for more specific directions, and soon we convoyed over to the right spot. 

Greater Sage-Grouse lek

For the most part, the bulk of the grouses (grice?) stayed mostly obscured behind tall grasses, but the occasional male would wander over toward a clearing, giving open, albeit distant, views. As far as we could tell, there were at least 13 males putting on a show, with no females to impress but Maureen (sorry guys, she's taken). 

Maureen taking her photography to new heights

Even though we found them at about sunset, we still got to spend another two hours with them. Eventually, around 8:30 a pack of coyotes started howling from far off, but it was enough to spook the grouses/grice and they all scattered.

With our main target out of the way, we headed to Malheur NWR. Our first stop in Harney County was the Sage Hen Rest Area, which we remembered fondly from last year for the omnipresent Mountain Bluebirds taking advantage of the nest boxes hung all around. Also along Hwy 20 we had some nice looks at Pronghorn just off the side of the road. It's great to come out this way, and see these awesome animals everywhere. It's especially great when they're not sprinting away from you at 55 mph (fun fact: Pronghorn aren't true antelopes; their closest relatives are giraffes and okapis).

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain fluffball


Now we hit Malheur proper. OR-205 runs south along the length of the refuge, from Burns to Fields, and some of the best birding opportunities are along here. Not only did we find thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese, we started picking out dozens of Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets - some of our favorites shorebirds that you'll see featured in a future post. 

Snow and Ross's Geese, Black-necked Stilts, and American Avocets

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Say's Phoebe

The refuge HQ is still closed while the authorities catalogue the evidence that will hopefully keep the Bundy crew in prison for the maximum sentence (P.S., fuck the Bundys). The HQ is spectacular, and it was a shame to pass it up, but the nearby Field Station was open. It was too early for the Cliff Swallows to start nesting like we found them last year, but we were content with some splashes of yellow that brightened up the place. 

(Audubon's) Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Belding's Ground-squirrel

Swainson's Hawk

Down the auto route tour, we started seeing Black-tailed Jackrabbits in greater numbers. We must have seen 50 over the weekend, darting every which way, including out in front of the car. 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Tree Swallows

Cinnamon Teal pair

We would spend the night in Frenchglen (population: 8), but when we got into town there was still enough light for one more stop, so we headed to P Ranch for a quick stroll. As the sun started to drop, the Turkey Vultures started crowding into their roosts, the most prominent of which was an old fire lookout (I assume). At the same time, we started hearing the most eerie sound all around us. And it kept moving, first far away, and then practically on top of us. We searched and searched, and couldn't turn up any clue until I picked out a shorebird directly above us. It took some detective work, but we soon figured out it was being made by several Wilson's Snipes. It wasn't a call exactly, but the winnowing noise they make with their tail feathers as they display in flight. Between that and the colors of the sunset reflected off the mountains, it was a truly awesome end to our first day.

Turkey Vulture roost

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.