Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Search for the Rogue Valley in Southern Douglas County

    The unique habitat of southern Douglas County, starting near Myrtle Creek, reminds a person more of what they would find in Josephine and Jackson County. There are serpentine and ceanothus covered hillsides, jack pine trees, and dry arid slopes in the summer. A lot of this habitat is near-inaccessible. It is either on private land or requires a lot of driving to access only a little bit of the habitat. But the payoff for a birder could be immense. Birds like California Towhee can be found around Myrtle Creek, and this makes a birder think of other possibilities, especially Lark Sparrow, Oak Titmouse, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, Common Poorwill, and Flammulated Owl.
    Last June I discovered a reliable location for California Towhee on Bland Mountain, outside of Day's Creek Oregon.

Bland Mountain and the Days Creek Valley
For the rest of the month of June 2015 I would spend my mornings driving to any patch of ceanothus I could find (pointed out by the blue arrow in the above image), but came up short more often than not. The habitat was either gone, or too fragmented by jack pine to seem "right" for Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher. I compared my thoughts on proper habitat to what I remembered when hiking Lower Table Rock in Jackson County, seeing the tantalizing private land where several Gnatcatchers were found in 2015, and what I could read about habitat requirements. However, I kept coming back to Bland Mountain. I birded it twice in 2015, both in mid-summer, which isn't the best, nor the worst, for finding birds. For 2016, I decided to make it a point of emphasis to see if I could learn more about the California Towhees and possible Gnatcatchers at this location.
    I planned on leading an Audubon field trip to the location in early April, and scouted twice beforehand. Both times I found the California Towhees, but no Gnatcatcher.
    The field trip dawned on a foggy day, and we were rewarded with great views of the landscape, but few birds, and only some of the group was able to get on a single CATO (California Towhee).
    Part of the problem is accessing the best habitat on the mountain. First of all, you walk a mile, mostly uphill, to get to the best habitat. Then you have to climb down a very steep (a 500 foot drop in elevation in a quarter mile) BLM fire graded "road" to get into the dense ceanothus. Every time I have climbed down I have slipped, but not fallen, which I attribute to my very, very good hiking boots. Most of the time on my way back I go up the steep sections on all fours.
    This morning dawned windy. I kept my ears peeled, and picked out some Nashville, Orange-Crowned, and Yellow-Rumped Warblers calling among the familiar "plinks" of the scattered few CATO. I sifted through other calls to pick out White-Crowned and Fox Sparrows. I strained my ears for a Gnatcatcher singing or calling, and sifted through other "buzzy" sounding bird calls; Wrentits and Bewick's Wrens, which I worried I would mistake for a BGGN (Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher). This was excellent ear-birding practice, and after hearing the BGGN tape probably 50 times, I finally felt able to distinguish between it and others.
    After climbing down the steep grade (for the sixth time this year, and every time on my way back up I swear I'll never do it again) I was starting to think that the elevation was just a little too high at this location to find Gnatcatcher. As I slogged back up the steep grade I took a break and sat down at a level spot and fell into deep thought. There are a few places that I can really lose myself in thought, on the coast, mountainsides, and the desert are usually what works for me, but lately, Bland Mountain has been fantastic for sorting out my worries. Suddenly, my thoughts were shaken. I heard a different bird calling from behind me. "This is it!" I thought to myself. I crashed through the ceanothus, scratching up my legs, and looked around wildly. A small bird flitted through the brush. I got a look:
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

I had found my bird at last! I pumped my fist in jubilation, then fumbled for my camera. It continued up-slope, and popped out just long enough for me to get a picture. I hing around for another  minutes, listening for another or for it to return, but came up empty-handed.
    This is exciting for many reasons. First of all, a single bird does not indicate breeding, but more trips may give us a better picture of the bird's distribution. There seems to be a fragmented strip of habitat that follows the South Umpqua River south through Tiller to Myrtle Creek that may be a remnant of what I call Rogue Valley Habitat. CATO have been recently found from Tiller to Myrtle Creek, and Lark Sparrows have been found near Tiller. And now Gnatcatchers in Days Creek and Myrtle Creek. Who knows what else could be found at some of these locations? I would like to return in early May and see if any other "Rogue Valley specialties" will show up. But for now six trips and a much sought-after bird found at last for my Douglas County list will keep me full until my next nemesis arrives: Calliope Hummingbird.