Sunday, September 7, 2014

Into the Mountains, Part 1

Mountains! That’s what we’ve been missing in our lives. We’d seen them in the distance, but hadn’t hadn’t actually explored the mountains themselves until we made a camping expedition out of the long Labor Day weekend. Our ultimate destination on Saturday was Prineville Reservoir State Park, but we left ourselves ample birding time on the way up, spending several hours in a town called Sisters.

White-breasted Nuthatch was part of the nuthatch trifecta we accomplished in Sisters

Sisters was a quaint little stop, with the heart of the town’s activity running right alongside Deschutes National Forest. Even without pushing deep into the forest, we turned up some great birds in unconventional places. Our first stop was actually at a Best Western hotel, Ponderosa Lodge, that we’d read can attract a number of incredible mountain species to its feeders. At first it was all Golden-mantled Squirrels and penned-up llamas (this was an unconventional place!), but before long the party really got started.

Either a Least or a Yellow Pine Chipmunk

Golden-mantled Squirrel

It had been overcast all morning, and they were pretty high up, but Pygmy Nuthatches soon arrived at the very tops of the pines. It was far from an ideal look, but here was our first lifer of the trip, and we were plenty excited about it. Things picked up quickly, though, once they dropped all the way down to the ground, and their numbers suddenly multiplied. We were swimming in Pygmy Nuthatches now.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The nuthatches were joined by Mountain Chickadees, and the two species danced frenetically all around us. These were our first Mountain Chickadees, too, and I was glad to see they lacked none of the energy or sociality of their eastern cousins. They even look like a Carolina or Black-capped Chickadee, albeit one that’s cultivating a tough-guy image. A chickadee that’s joined a motorcycle gang, with an added touch of rugged sensuality in its voice, Barry White-style.

Mountain Chickadee

There are so many incredible woodpecker species in this part of the country, and picids made up a good portion of our target list. We knew we’d have to locate recently burned areas for some, but others we just hoped we would stumble into. Fortunately, we found ourselves in White-headed Woodpecker territory, and a first-year bird was ready to introduce himself. He mostly hung around the feeders, but we found another, later in the afternoon as we explored a Sisters campsite.

White-headed Woodpecker

A drive down a rough dirt road turned up a family a mule deer. We were pulled over to take some pictures, when a another car drove up to see what we were looking at. I noticed they were hunters, and the passenger had a quiver of arrows in his lap. I was mortified at the thought that our curiosity might indirectly have cost a deer its life, but the hunters were only in spectator mode, same as us.

Mule Deer 

Most of our trip I’ll leave for another post, but we did pass through Sisters again on the way home. Pinyon Jay was one of the species we’d previously looked for at the feeders at Best Western, but without luck. We intended to have go back for another look, but first, it was imperative that we stop for ice cream cones. I still had my bins on while we waited in line, thankfully, so when I spotted a jay way high up and across the street, we were able to ID it confidently.

Juvenile Western Bluebird

We definitely could have used a much better look, so, after we’d had our ice cream fix we headed on over with the rest of our equipment. There was no Pinyon Jay anymore, but we can’t complain about the consolation prize. Instead we got to spend some quality time with a Townsend’s Solitaire. It was everything a life bird should be, but almost never is: perfectly abiding, and only leaving just before we would have turned away ourselves. We racked up some other great birds during trip, but this was one of the more satisfying.

Townsend's Solitaire


  1. Swimming in Pygmies is the best way to be with the nuthatches, none of this toe-dipping nonsense! Congrats on all the lifers, guys, especially that Townsend's -- you hit that one out of the park!

    1. I agree Josh: we're completely spoiled now, and won't settle for anything less than a pool's worth of nuthatches. We set a high bar for the Townsend's, too, but it was such a classy bird, I'm sure it won't mind obliging us again in the future. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Mountains Mountains Mountains. Mountains is what's up and Mountains is the best.

    Congratulations on all the lifering y'all did, and best of luck on this work week and grind-stoning not being totally intolerable by comparison.
    That certainly is one confiding Townsend's! What is it about about that bird that makes them so cool? I mean, it's a singular bird, big and obvious, and this is nice, but plumage wise it's like a conservative Mockingbird...and yet so much way sweet. Anyhow, looks like y'all are crushin' it up there. I am full of tingles because this is only Part 1.

    1. Thanks, Laurence! The mountains were an excellent mode of lifesportation, for sure. Work will be a change of pace, but I'll actually be working on top of a mountain, so I can sit back and reflect on simpler times. I'm definitely looking forward to heading east again and revisiting some of these birds. Eastern Oregon reminded us a lot of Arizona, surprisingly. You'll see what I mean in Part 2