Monday, February 16, 2015

My Best Birding Day Ever

Birders love hyperbole. "First we are going to see a vagrant (insert warbler here), then it is going to get eaten by a (insert vagrant raptor here). Then, we are going to go to (insert body of water here) where we are going to see a (insert vagrant waterfowl/shorebird here). Then, on our way home we are going to see a (insert rare owl here)."

This never happens, but we do it anyway. It keeps the excitement high.

This weekend, I went to the Klamath Winter Wings Festival. I had a blast. I re-enforced a lot of things I have learned about raptors, and saw some great birds. However, I felt a little guilty on neglecting my Douglas County List. I spent two prime winter days out of my county, my scope broke (water in the objective lens, hopefully it's covered by warranty), and to top it off my birder friend and mentor Matt Hunter found some Pine Grosbeaks up near Diamond Lake, a bird that I dipped on last weekend. (Great Find Matt! We need to think of a nickname for you... Magic Matt?)

So, Monday, today, I buzzed up hoping to find score some Pine Grosbeaks of my own on Cinammon Butte Lookout Road, or FR 4793. The day didn't start out well. I couldn't find the road, so I pulled off onto another road and fired up my GPS, which has no internal battery. As I waited for it to load up, I heard the unmistakable call of a Clark's Nutcracker. "County Year Bird! Hopefully, I'll add two birds to my list today," I thought to myself. How little I knew about what today held for me. 

I found the road -it was about two miles further Highway 138 up on the East Side- and began periodically stopping and checking. At my first stop, I tooted in a group of Mountain Chickadees and Red-Breasted Nuthatches. I am amazed at the way that Chickadees always make me feel chipper.

Looking at them reminded me of the first time I had ever seen one, on the shores of Emigrant Lake in Ashland Oregon in 2013. It was a magical experience, as a mixed flock of birds fed all around me, calling and flitting from branch to branch. That night, when I got home, I received some sad news. A friend of mine had passed away. I was moved from peace and happiness to sadness in one sudden moment, and since then, winter feeding flocks have always had a special meaning to me.

The deliberate "CHIP CHIP CHIP CHIP," of several Red Crossbills broke into my memories. Three birds flew in and looked around. Then, the eery calls of Gray Jays moved across the forest, and a group of five flew in. Next, a Hairy Woodpecker swooped in and called a few times. I watched it, and it winged back across the road and out of sight. I took out my camera and tried to get some shots of Gray Jays when the Hairy Woodpecker flew back across the road, and landed in a nearby tree. 

"I wonder if I will ever be able to find a different species of woodpecker, I thought to myself." I had now seen Hairy Woodpecker for a couple of weeks in a row at high elevation. I figured that I would have to spend a couple of weeks this summer beating around the bases of Mount Thielsen and Mount Bailey to find the other high-elevation species. 

"Wait a second, that Hairy Woodpecker's back is all wrong... and it's facial markings are all wrong too..." My mind shuffled through my rolodex of birds. "AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER!!!!!" I couldn't believe it. One of the hardest to find woodpeckers in Oregon had flown in and gave me the opportunity to use my (horrible) camera to take some diagnostic shots. 
American Three-Toed Woodpecker

I was elated. It is times like these when I feel like I am actually a "Real" birder. 

I continued driving up the road, periodically stopping and checking other locations that looked promising. I followed the road up to the snowline, where I parked and continued on foot. As I walked, I checked and checked for other species, but only heard nuthatches and chickadees. Try as I might, my slow shutter speed only gave me one decent shot (out of about 30) of a mountain chickadee.

Mountain Chickadee

I continued up the trail, when I unexpectedly heard some soft pecking off to my right. "Another woodpecker!" I searched, and moved position, and searched again. Suddenly... "AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER?!?!"

American Three-Toed Woodpecker #2

I was astounded. I laughed out loud. "Garbage Bird," I joked to myself. What were the odds? I kept on hiking after getting a picture, and even as the elevation kept climbing beyond 6000 feet, I couldn't stop smiling. "I wonder if I can trade one of my Three-Toed Woodpeckers for a Pine Grosbeak." If only listing worked like that.

I peaked out, and started walking back to my car, when Matt texted me. He had seen Black-Backed, but no Three Toes. I drove back down the road to a suitable looking location: a large stand of spruce, an "Island" in the middle of the lodgepole pine. I laid on the Black-Backed Tape, and WHAMMO, immediate response. 

Black-Backed Woodpecker

I was ecstatic. Two good woodpecker species! I drove down to the next "Island," and when I got out of the car I heard some soft tapping. As I focused my binoculars on the bird, my mouth fell open. "No, it can't be..."

Williamson's Sapsucker

My ecstaticity was bordering on euphoria. I had checked EBIRD when I started my big year and was worried when I couldn't find but one record of Williamson's Sapsucker in Douglas County, and an unmistakable female was right in front of me! I took a crappy diagnostic shot before it stiff-tailed it out of therer. Suddenly, I heard more drumming. What was this? I didn't even know what to expect. Right on the other side of the road, another Black-Backed was drumming away. I crashed through the brush and got an amazing video:

Black-Backed Woodpecker Drumming

Wow! I couldn't believe my luck. I was bordering on euphoria as I got in my car and continued down the road. Suddenly, a bright red splash of color burst across my path. I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop. "Hepatic Tananger? Scarlet Tanager? Don't be an idiot, probably another Red Crossbill..."

Pine Grosbeak

"Oh my God! Pine Grosbeak! And it's a bright red male!" I had hit euphoria. I was floating on a cloud. Never in a million years would I have thought this trip would have given me these birds. The grosbeak posed in the sun for me, and I drank it in. It tasted kind of like cool-aid tastes to a poor child on a hot summer day, when your mom surprises you with the fruity, sugary red drink, something you didn't feel like you could afford or deserve. As it flew off, another chased after it, and they winged over the trees and out of my field of view.  

Nothing could hold me back.

I drove to Diamond Lake, and at the Sewage Ponds I added Barrow's Goldeneye to my Douglas County year list. And, to top it off, a little bird held still just long enough for me to get a decent picture.
Red-Breasted Nuthatch

As I drove down Highway 138 back to home, I looked back at Mount Thielsen. I will need to climb it later this year for Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch, but right now, even as I write, the anticipation doesn't make me anxious, or worried about what I may or may not miss in the future. Right now, Right Now is great

Mount Thielsen

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Diamond Lake Sunday, February 8

I went up to Diamond Lake today hoping to capitalize on the Pine Grosbeak irruption that Oregon is having this year.

While playing tapes, I thought that I heard the clear response of a Pine Grosbeak, but I was unable to find the bird(s) and after conferring with a more experienced birder, I learned that it was possible that I could have been hearing a Cassin's Finch. Search as I might, I was unable to find or hear the bird(s) again.

A little while later, I heard a clear song coming from near Silent Creek. I rushed to the bank's edge, scanning the treetops, hoping for a Pine Grosbeak, but I almost immediately realized the song was all wrong. "Dipper," the voice in the back of my mind told me. I searched the creek, but couldn't spot it. Silence crept in. Suddenly, the song burst forth again, and I looked down to see the Dipper perched on a partially submerged log not 20 feet away!

American Dipper 

The little guy saw me, seemed to hesitate, then burst right back into song, bringing a smile to my face. I quickly turned my camera to video mode and captured a couple videos of singing, strutting, and swimming!

Dipper Singing

Dipper Strutting

The conservationist and naturalist John Muir was a great fan of dippers. In his book The Mountains of California he writes: "In a general way his music is that of the streams refined and spiritualized. The deep booming notes of the falls are in it, the trills of rapids, the gurgling of margin eddies, the low whispering of level reaches, and the sweet tinkle of separate drops oozing from the ends of mosses and falling into tranquil pools."

About halfway through the third video you can hear the call of the Gray Jay. I went upstream and found three of them hanging out. These are amazingly quiet birds for Jays, and I enjoyed watching them silently hanging out in a tree. The Canadian Journal of Zoology reports Gray Jay mated pairs as allowing a previous year's fledgling to stay around and help raise the next year's brood. Two-thirds of the time this nanny is a male. I saw three pairs of three Gray Jays today, and it made me wonder if they were all families getting ready to start new broods. 

Gray Jay

As I got closer to the bridge at Whisper Creek, I heard another Dipper, but this one sounded REALLY LOUD, and slightly metallic. When I reached the bridge, I realized that the bird was singing from inside the culvert. The culvert was acting almost like a megaphone, magnifying the volume of this Dipper's song. I couldn't get a clear picture, but I would like to imagine that the bird was impressed with itself. 

On the west side of Diamond Lake I had a close encounter with what could have been a Northern Goshawk. A large, dark bird soared downwards across a corner of the lake into the trees. It wasn't flapping, but I got the impression of a large, long tail. And it's flight path was very direct. Of course, it could also have also been a Raven, or a Juvenile Bald Eagle, or really any other large bird.

Overall, while I missed Pine Grosbeak, I had a really great day at Diamond Lake. 

Bird List:
Gray Jay
Mountain Chickadee
There were several flocks moving around.
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Pacific Wren
I was surprised to see it up here in February.
American Dipper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Varied Thrush