Sunday, November 16, 2014

Into the Mountains, Part 2

Let us return now to the Labor Day camping excursion we took in the mountains (see Part 1 here). The great birds we had in passing through Sisters each way were but the appetizer and dessert for an epic trip. While we would have more great birds throughout the long weekend, it was the unforgettable scenery that made for some truly mind-blowing moments. Among our destinations would be two of the Seven Wonders of Oregon. Among our oft-repeated refrains would be “I can’t believe this is in Oregon.”

We made camp at Prineville Reservoir State Park in the early evening, with enough sunlight left for us to do a bit of exploring. It was around the reservoir that we picked up a lifer lagomorph: about a dozen Black-tailed Jackrabbits spread out along the edge of a clearing. Huge animals, compared with their cuddly cousins the cottontails. And fast. Later, a group of them would pass in an instant through the campground, at but a fraction of the top speed (30-35 mph).

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

The next morning we slipped out early to start on the long drive to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. John Day has three units, spread far apart from one another, and each with its own unique natural attractions. It was to see the Painted Hills that we planned our holiday around this region of the state, checking off one of the 7 Wonders in the process. Although we’d seen a whole lot of landscape this year during our roadtrip across the country, there’s just nothing that compares to the bizarre beauty of the Painted Hills. 

Red and gold clays layered on top of one another, with flecks of black thrown in for good measure. It’s an extraterrestrial-looking sight. “I can’t believe this is in Oregon,” we’d say for the hundredth time. We could barely keep in mind that it was on Planet Earth. It was here, too, that we found a striking female Snakeweed Grasshopper, one of the coolest, most boldly patterned grasshoppers we’ve seen anywhere.

Snakeweed Grasshopper

From here we passed on to another of John Day’s units: Sheep Rock. While there wasn’t much birding to do at the Painted Hills, we set ourselves a couple of target species at Sheep Rock, being in range for both Rock and Canyon Wrens. The view here wasn’t colorful like at the Painted Hills, but it was extraordinary nonetheless, and decidedly eerie. The hike through the steep greenish-blue claystone gave the impression of wandering through the Forbidden Zone, stranded on the Planet of the Apes.

Along the Blue Basin trail was some tricky uphill climbing. To get as high up as we managed was worth it just for the views, although it was pretty quiet by that time in the afternoon. After unsuccessfully straining to identify a distant eagle we climbed back down to try a more level path, right through the claystone formations. A hyperactive Rock Wren bobbed and fed and jumped around near a burrow entrance, dug or molded into the clay. It seemed such a desolate place to make a living, but there are much worse, to be sure.

On the drive back to Prineville, just a few miles outside of the campsite, a flash of sky blue alongside the road convinced me to pull over. We found ourselves at the entrance to an RV park of all places, where had had some of the best birds of the day. A flurry of Mountain Bluebirds mixed in with equal numbers of Cassin’s Finches represented some damn fine mountain birding, which is precisely what we'd wanted. 

Mountain Bluebird

Common Ravens were much more common in the mountains than they are west of the Cascades

These Ravens were not on speaking terms

We left nice and early the next morning, but not before we spotted another Rock Wren on the way out of the campground. This one was much more cooperative than the one at John Day, but like the one a day earlier, mostly kept near the entrance to a little hideaway in the rocks. 

Rock Wren

Lark Sparrow

And in keeping with the rock theme of the post, we made one last stop before returning to Sisters, where we began and ended our adventure. Smith Rock State Park was the second of the great Wonders of Oregon this trip. Renowned as a rock-climbing playground for adrenaline junkies, it also turns up White-throated Swifts (as it did for us), Black-billed Magpies, and some of the most acrobatic Canada Geese we've ever seen -- the place inspires daredevilry in the even most unlikely creatures. 

Black-billed Magpie

Smith Rock State Park

Wherever we looked we would find people dotted along the tops of all these massive rock formations, having pulled themselves up by means entirely beyond my understanding. Our understanding was further stretched when we encountered our first lizard since moving here ("I can't believe this is in Oregon"). West of the Cascades, where we live, it's a very, very different place from the desert country we found ourselves in now, and lizards were just not on our radar. 

Western Fence Lizard?

One final critter I'll mention is a would-be hitchhiker that tried to abscond in Maureen's hat. She had it in her hands for a minute and a tiger moth flew in. Tiger moths are a beautiful group, and I've been wanting to see one since I started my moth kick last year. What I didn't realize is how difficult the group can be to identify: I posted this one on for ID help three different species were suggested.

Grammia sp.

This trip gave us a sense for how much bigger Oregon is than you might suspect from looking at a map. There's more to see and do here than we even guessed than when we first moved out here, and this adventure over the mountains has got us wondering what we'll find the next time we go exploring!


  1. Looks like a great trip! I have lived in the Pacific Northwest my whole life (and Oregon for a total of about 25 years) and I STILL have moments of "I can't believe this is in Oregon." It's an amazing state :)

    Believe it or not, there is a lizard species that is indigenous to western Oregon - the northern alligator lizard. They even live on the coast - our cat caught one (it survived) when we lived in Astoria.

    1. I'm glad to know the wonder never wears off! I know we're still new, but it just seems like it's impossible to run out of things to see and do. I'll have to keep my eye out for that lizard… crazy to think of how it might survive these winters

  2. Wow--looks like an amazing trip. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife lists 12 lizard species that occur in Oregon: Not a bad potpourri for so far north. =) I would guess your western fence lizard IS either that or a sagebrush lizard. Both have spiny scales--what your photo shows so nicely.

    1. It was such a great trip! I'm not certain about my lizard ID, but those are the same two that I'd narrowed it down to, too. I'll have to do some more research to see whether I can get it down to species based on our pictures. I'm not sure lizards would make a very good potpourri, though, no matter how many kinds you put in it :)