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.


  1. Replies
    1. Right? Maybe one of the best things I've ever done.

  2. hehe...Owls just hiding in the rocks--otherworldly.

    That seems like a super cool and one-of-a-kind area. Pika and YB Marmot? I had to go up to 12k feet to see them in Colorado. How high was this in OR?

    Congrats on the Prairie Falcon--that's not a bird to count in in any given year.

    1. Thanks! This is just the coolest place to see Prairie Falcons. As for the Pika and YB Marmots, they are awesome! This was technically in Northern California, and the elevation there was a bout 4700 feet. And actually I think Pika in the Columbia River Gorge near Portland are some of the lowest elevation Pika at just a few hundred feed above sea level! And we've seen the marmots in Central and Eastern Oregon near Crater Lake and Malheur NWR, which is ~ 4100 feet elevation.