Thursday, May 29, 2014

Birding the Oregon Trail

The Joint Aquatic Sciences Meeting (JASM) brought me to Portland, Oregon for a week jammed wall-to-wall with more than a dozen concurrent sessions of 15-minutes presentations from limnologists (they study lakes), oceanographers, freshwater and wetland scientists, and phycologists (folks who study algae, as I learned). 

Black-headed Grosbeak, Mount Tabor Park

The humorous among us found that amending the conference acronym with the host state’s two-letter postal code yields ORJASM, which captures the cathartic excitement that abounds whenever 3000 ecologist super-nerds assemble (insert witty Oregon Trail computer game reference here).  
I was there to present on my research on waterfowl at Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern North Carolina, but I wasn’t going to fly all the way across the country without fitting in some birding.  So I arrived the weekend before and stayed for the Memorial Day weekend that followed to explore Oregon’s lush forested mountains, high deserts, valley wetlands and iconic coastline in search of lifers.  

I scored a coach-surfing host in one of Portlandia’s eastern suburbs, convenient for a foray up Oregon’s famous Colombia River Gorge.  Here tree-trunks are car-sized, ferns cover the forest floor and clear trout-filled streams spill along boulder-strewn valley floors.  This is temperate rainforest and it seems like the kind of place that creatures from Avatar should appear.  Instead I found one of my top targets, the American Dipper (a.k.a. Water Ouzel).  

American Dippers, Eagle Creek

I found some other exciting birds here, like Western Tanager and Rufous Hummingbird, but the canopy was filled with invisible singing warblers that I couldn’t identify.   

Western Tanager, Eagle Creek

I had listened to all the western warbler tapes, but it seems like the songs are quite a bit more variable than the eastern species I recognize.  After giving up on seeing the Black-throated Grays or Townsend’s or Hermits or whatever was teasing me, I continued up the gorge.

Black-throated Gray Warbler, seen later in Mount Hood National Forest

The transition from rain forest to desert is dramatic.  Suddenly the Naavi homeland is replaced by a brown open scrubland, and then eventually there’s nothing but rolling hills of billowing wheat and pasture.  Here is where I saw my first Vaux’s Swifts.  

A southward turn at The Dalles brought me to the town of Tygh Valley, a crossroads that I had been told was home to an ample population of Lewis’s Woodpeckers.  It took strolling along several of the cross streets and enduring as many odd looks from passersby before I found them near the river at the base of town.   

Lewis's Woodpecker, Tygh Valley

A pair of Bullock’s Oriole’s zoomed by, but there wasn’t much else going on, so I returned to my parked car where a Lewis’s Woodpecker was circling around overhead, fitting that birding maxim: the bird you seek is usually in the parking lot.

Next stop on my loop was a managed game land where I spotted the first of four empidonax targets: Gray Flycatcher.   

Gray Flycatcher, White River Wildlife Management Area

Here I noticed a raptor high overhead being mobbed by a Common Raven—a Golden Eagle! 

Golden Eagle, White River Wildlife Management Area

This was only the second I had ever seen, though I’ve still yet to find an adult.

I worked my way back west circumnavigating the majestic Mt. Hood, which juts abruptly white through the crumpled blanket of evergreen.   

Mount Hood
As it was late afternoon by this point, bird activity was low in the high elevation forest, but I was able to track down my target here: a Varied Thrush!

Fast-forward through an enjoyable and stimulating week of ORJASM...

...and I struck out for the Pacific Ocean. On the way I stopped to bird the lush coastal range to find Pacific-Slope and Hammond’s Flycatchers, MacGillivray’s and Hermit Warblers, among others.

lush, moss-covered vegetation (with Pacific Wren), Tillamook State Forest

Hermit Warbler, Tillamook State Forest
 I heard a Sooty Grouse drumming here, but it wouldn’t show itself. 

By the time I arrived at Cannon Beach it was late afternoon and hundreds of people were out enjoying a rare sunny day on their holiday weekend.  My main targets here were Tufted Puffin and Pigeon Guillemot.  After finding a few thousand Common Murres, but neither target alcid at the “bird rocks” I made my way the mile or so down the beach to “Haystack Rock.”  Here I encountered Tim, a volunteer monitoring the rock’s puffin colony for the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Tim reported seeing 16 puffins in the morning, but regretfully informed me that all were currently sequestered deep in their burrows or out at sea feeding.   

Common Murres, Haystack Rock

There were no guillemots in sight either, though masses of perhaps 1500 Common Murres were huddled together along the cliff top along with several dozen nesting Western Gulls.   

Haystack Rock with Bald Eagle terrorizing alcid/gull colony

An approaching Bald Eagle caused chaos among the rock’s residents sending flocks of murres swirling out over the beach and into the water.  Apparently the eagles have prevented the murres from successfully breeding here over the past several years, though they remain locally overpopulated and continue to try.  The puffins are declining, but persist and breed when the crowds of murres don’t block the entrances to their burrows. If it weren’t for the Department of the Interior protecting this rock, nothing would breed here at all. 

nesting Black Oystercatcher, Haystack Rock

Tim called it a day and encouraged me to return in the morning when the puffins are easier to see.  I stuck around for another hour or so and being the lone man with the spotting scope ended up being approached by all sorts of curious beach-goers.  

“Hey man. Are those penguins flying around?”

It became clear that Oregonians have an endearing friendliness, and attracted to the area by its natural beauty, are keen to learn about local wildlife.  

The puffins never made an appearance that afternoon, nor did the guillemots.  I had a free place to stay lined up in Portland but the round trip to Portland and back to the coast would be nearly four hours—time  I would much rather spend birding (and I would be racking up quite few hundred odometer miles on rental cars already).  So I cruised up to the town of Seaside and after a delicious taco dinner at Casa del Sol staked out a secluded church parking lot and bundled myself up in the passenger seat.  How quickly I revert to budget backpacker mode when I get to birding and travelling on my own.  I spare no daytime for meals; and anything above a bunk in a hostel dorm becomes an unconscionable indulgence. Sometimes "Eat. Sleep. Bird." becomes merely "Bird."

I awoke back-sore at dawn to the sweet serenade of a Swainson’s Thrush.  Rather than return immediately to the Haystack Rock for the puffins I cruised north to Fort Stevens State Park at the mouth of the Colombia River.  At the Carolina Bird Club meeting in Hendersonville the other week I had picked up a 1978 copy of Birding Oregon by Fred L. Ramsey that had been left in the free bird book pile at the registration table.  Obviously a lot of the information contained is now, 35 years later, out of date, but the book had promised that this area, Clatsop Spit specifically, was one of the best birding spots in all of Oregon.  

I guess I didn’t pick up any lifers here, but author’s claims seemed to ring true through the decades.  The back side of the spit offers mud flats and marsh for excellent aquatic bird habitat.  It was a bit late in the spring season for shorebirds, but about half a dozen species lingered and three breeding plumage Dunlin tripped the local ebird filters (late date for them I presume).  My favorite feature here is the large elevated platform that offers a commanding view of the jetty and ocean, teaming with bird life.  Pacific Loons, Western Grebes and Surf Scoters littered the ocean, to name just a few.  I saw a smaller alcid fluttering along the water.  It was perhaps a bit larger than a Dovekie (my east coast frame of reference), but definitely smaller than a Common Murre—maybe an auklet or a murrelet?  I had to let that one go.   

Farther down the beach on a dune above the skeletal remains of a ship wreck, I was scanning the ocean when some guy came jogging up to me sputtering something about a whale.  I looked up, and—holy sea cow—a pair of whales were blowing in the middle distance.  I later was told that they were probably Gray Whales, so maybe I had a lifer after all.  

It was hard to pull myself away from the productive ocean, but my malnourished stomach was growling and I wanted to get back to Haystack Rock before too late.  Tim had suggested 10 to 10:30 as the best time for seeing puffins.

After another taco meal at Casa del Sol I raced once again to the utopic town of Cannon Beach, bustling with Memorial Day weekend activity.  By the time I found a place to park and made it out to the rock it was nearly 11.  Tim was at his usual spot for puffin surveying some 200 yards up the beach.  The Eagle was back and had chased all the Murres off the rock.  Not surprisingly no puffins were in sight.  There was this pair of Pigeon Guillemots having some sort of domestic dispute.

Pigeon Guillemots, Haystack Rock

Tim tried to tell me that the puffins were all gone, but scoping the ocean I noticed a few bobbing in the chop.   

Tufted Puffins (and Western Gulls), Haystack Rock
Quite a few were out there actually; twelve was my conservative high count.  Tim recorded this observation in his notes and thanked me for the puffin spotting (something I have some experience with in the Atlantic).   

This population of Tufted Puffins at Haystack Rock has been steadily declining over the last 50 years and it isn’t yet clear why.  I would think that having Bald Eagles constantly present predating on the overpopulated Common Murres can’t be helping the puffins’ chances for successful breeding.  How are they supposed to feed their chicks with the threat of death-by-eagle looming on top of their roofs?
On my way back from the coast I dropped by Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve to look for Cinnamon Teal.   

Cinnamon Teal, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve

These beautiful ducks are local residents and I saw them immediately from the visitor’s center, but took a short stroll down one of the paths to get a closer look.  En route I was besieged on all sides by vociferous bird activity.   

Anna's Hummingbird, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve
Anna’s Hummingbirds were zipping by, Spotted Sandpiper’s were battling for territory and a Virginia Rail shuffled away from me as I approached.  The best bird for me here was this gorgeous Lazuli Bunting that popped up briefly to sing.   

Lazuli Bunting, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve

He probably had fledglings to feed since he didn’t stick around for a better photo.

On my final day in Oregon I jogged back east to search for some targets I had missed the weekend before: Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo and Cassin’s Finch.   

Cassin's Vireo, Mount Hood National Forest

I was able to track down these birds along with the other targets on this whole Oregon trip thanks to some excellent advice provided by Stefan Schlick.  Stefan seems to have the knowledge of a breeding bird atlas and was able to direct me to more life birds than I had time to try to find.   Thanks to his help I was able to see 19 life birds (21 for the ABA area) and in doing so accumulated an Oregon list of 133—not bad for just a few days!

While I’m thanking people, I also want to give a shout-out to Bethani and Kaola who were generous enough to welcome a thrifty birdaholic like myself into their homes.  

Oregon is certainly a wonderful place.  Yes, the birds and landscapes there are phenomenal and Portland is one of the most pleasant, livable cities I’ve experiences, but I was really impressed by the friendliness of the people.  

 Fortunately, I left plenty of ‘opportunity birds’ on the table and would be glad to have another chance to visit the Pacific Northwest and explore further.

MacGillivray's Warbler, Mount Hood National Forest

For now it’s back to the grind of field work, lab work and meetings in the stifling North Carolina summer.  Hopefully I can get on a trip offshore soon.


  1. Really great post! We moved to Oregon only a month ago, but it seems you've already done more traveling here than we have. Fantastic pictures of birds I hope to pick up sometime very soon, and places we urgently need to visit

    1. Thanks, Nicholas!
      Yeah, I didn't have much time, so had to pack it all in! I'm not sure there's any need for you to rush...though late May did seem like the ideal time to find all those breeding passerines.

  2. Glad you had a good time there. I was there last year first week and July and Stefan was a great help as well. Had 72 birds and 27 lifers in a day of birding.

    1. Cool, Derek. Yeah, Stefan was an excellent resource. I would have definitely missed a lot of lifers without his advice.

    2. The adventure that you had in Oregon is probably similar to the excitement that I would experience in North Carolina. Have you hit Southeastern Arizona yet? There is a whole new set of great stuff to see there.

    3. No, I haven't! Nor South Texas or Alaska, so my ABA list is still pretty small. Before I visited Southern California last fall it wasn't all that much higher than my NC state list.

  3. Geez I'm unfashionably late to the party.
    This post is epic in every sense of the word, including the over-used versions peddled by todays hip younger crowds.

    Crammed with hot shots photos and useful info--I'll be referencing this whenever I make it up to the northwest. Cheers!

    1. Thanks, Laurence! If you do make a trip to Oregon, definitely try to link up with Stefan. He's got such good advice.

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  5. Great post and pics! You hit on many of the things I love about Oregon, like its habitats from beaches, rain forests, wetlands, and high desert with the fantastic birds therein. You saw a lot in a short time, and here's hoping you go back to check out southern Oregon with all it's refuges and awesomeness someday soon. Also, way to rock that Golden Eagle.