Friday, August 28, 2015

Giving in to the inevitable.. aka Urban Birding in PDX

So here's the funny thing: the shorebirds seem to be showing up in Portland. While not in teeming numbers, except out in the middle of Sturgeon Lake on Sauvie Island where no one can possibly get to them, the variety has been pretty good.  Irritatingly so, in fact, for the birder who just put herself through a bizarre biathlon of coastal and inland refuge birding just a week ago.  Ah shit, whaddya gonna do? Stop bitching, throw the gear in the truck and start making the rounds.  

I'd read that there was a lot of action at Broughton Beach on the Columbia while I was busy seeing 20 gulls at the coast, but the most recent posting as of this weekend said that the shorebirds had possibly relocated to Force Lake, over behind the Portland Expo center.  Got there around nine Sunday and chatted with another birder who had just arrived.  There were a group of shorebirds flying around and they landed not too far out on the right side of the lake, a bit far for my lens, but blurry pix are included for identifying purposes.  Based on size comparison to the semi-palmated plovers who were part of the mix, I'm able to deduce at least two of the remaining crew were pectoral sandpipers and then Baird's sandpipers.  Pectoral are about an inch taller than plovers and have a longer more slender body than your typical peep, kind of like a yellowlegs.  Baird's tend to be darker than the western, more blacks and less reds, like the semi-palmated piper, but are a little bigger.  So if it's darker, but the same size as the plover, chances are it's a Baird's sandpiper.  Believe me, shorebird ID'ing is made infinitely easier with a basis for comparison.  ID one of the birds you're certain of, and move on from there.  
                             bairds piper & semi-palmated plover & least sandpiper
                              western and baird's sandpiper
                             baird's and semi-palmated plover

I briefly drove by Smith Lake, just up Marine Drive, thinking there might be some shorebirds on the remaining mudflats. After giving some bewildered tourists directions, I walked down the boat launch and then my jaw just dropped.  OK, granted, I havn't been back here much this summer, in fact, not since my first canoe trip at the end of May.  And at that point the water level was less than two feet deep. So it had been three months, but I was not prepared to walk out into a huge field of tall reed grass with no water in sight!  I saw two young guys out in the grass and headed over to see what they were up to. They were from the Hood river area, and they had mounted cameras onto these completely cool homemade techie airplanes.  They were looking for wide open areas to send them up to take aerial reconnaissance photos.  I expressed to them my complete bafflement at the field we were standing in, instead of the mudflats I'd expected, and we exchanged your basic pleasantries about the end of days that was clearly soon to come..Yikes.

                             I kayaked here in May.. doom... DOOM...

I headed out to Sauvie Island, hoping to see some shorebirds by tromping around the lakes off of Steelman Road, aka Sauvie Island Road, which runs along the west side of the island parallel to the Multnomah channel.  I hopped out at the dried up Mud Lake and carefully skipped over the not quite dry lake beds, heading out to the remaining water ways.  I ran into about thirty turkey vultures roosting in a group near Ammunition Point, with maybe twice that number of american white pelicans on the water around them.  Wish the lighting was better, would have made some striking photos. Having issues with taking photos at high noon on hazy days.  Looks like crap.. I did some more mucking about on random spits and did find three juvenile spotted sandpipers and got a picture of one. Then back to the truck to head a little further out to the fishing dock on the Gilbert River.  I walked out the path on the east side of the river bank towards the wash at Sturgeon Lake.  About halfway there I ran into two birders that had showed up at Force Lake before I left that morning.  We joked that we should have carpooled, and they said they hadn't seen much at the wash, so we took a right and headed out to Sturgeon Lake from a different vantage point.  There were hundreds of peeps moving around, and huge numbers of pelicans out behind them.  A gaggle of killdeer and brewer's blackbirds eating in the grass not too far in front of us.  But all of the joy was way too far out to distinguish anything other than:  lots of birds, lots of movement, and that's about it.

                              nature is strange
                              raccoons are everywhere you wanna be
                              bewick's wren 
                               turkey vulture island
                             the gang 
                             wonderful juvenile spotted sandpiper, note the little brushstoke 
                             of white right on the upper chest into the shoulder denoting species
                             the heat haze of Sturgeon Lake and the pepper flakes of birds
                             hunters are omnipresent on Sauvie Island and clearly getting ready

I said goodbye to the nice ladies and their nice scopes, and decided to check out the wash for myself. 
I kind of wanted to see if it was too shallow to take the kayak out at all at this point. Walking down to where the river meets the lake, I saw a couple of inflatable fishing pontoons on the lake, so I bet I could still get my kayak out there. No shorebirds to speak of, a few gulls and geese, some cormorants, and one yellowlegs at the mouth of the Gilbert river.  By now, the sun was high and bright, and I walked back decided to call it a day.

The following morning, I drove out to Shillapoo nature area along the south side of Vancouver Lake in Washington, and walked through the woods towards the handicapped duck blind, hopping out at periodic spots along the beach whenever I could find a clear path.  Nada for birds, with the exception of a single caspian tern's decapitated head crawling with bees. Was actually pretty cool, and I took a pix of course.  Nothing else but gulls on a sandbar, but when I finally turned down a little inlet, I did find some killdeer and peeps across the water, but no way to get to them and they were too far for photos.  I shot some unusable swallow pictures just to round out the mix, and then trudged back to the truck.  Drove out to Frenchman's bar to chase some flycatchers around the trees but all else was quiet. Headed home to sulk..

    busy bees

Tuesday morning I was resolved to see what was going on at Broughton Beach, as reports seemed to keep showing random sightings of the same sanderlings, and a stilt was spotted on Sunday, as well as some Caspian Terns, and even a Sabine gull.  I got there in the morning, and walked out to the mudflats where two birders were chatting and waiting.  I passed the two sanderlings on the way, and there were three Caspian terns mixed in with the gulls on the sandbar.  Two other peeps flew in to the east so they were in the sun, and just as they were getting closer to me, they decided to bail to the west. Myself and Patrick and Art followed them back down the beach and had almost caught up to them when they took off again. Never did get a definite ID on them. Harumph.

                             three caspian terns in the gull mix
                              two of the tamest sanderlings ever known to man
                              seriously, I could have put them in my pockets
                             one of the bazillion hardworking ospreys of the Columbia river

I had to work yesterday, when apparently two avocets decided they would hang out all day.  They were there for about 10 hours, which is ironically the number of hours I worked at my job. Serendipity? Nope, just stupid numbers.. I saw the avocet post this morning, as I was shoveling granola into my mouth. I dropped everything, packed up and headed out the door.  I was the only birder on the beach at the time, and all the tent city dwellers were still abed.  In my attempt to dodge the ministrations of a wet golden retriever and his ball, I managed to scare away what I think was the only remaining sanderling on the beach. Way to go Nikki, way to go Dog.  I stood in front of the sandbar confirming that the only cool bird left was one caspian tern, amidst the 60 or so gulls on the sandbar.  

I walked up the beach til I could get no further, scaring away three killdeer as per usual.  Killdeer are the most paranoid and crazed shorebird in existence. Ironically overcautious and highly sensitive to proximity, this bird can be found living almost anywhere. Give it a puddle and a pile of gravel, and it will raise a family right in your driveway.  All the while screaming at you incessantly and pretending to drag around a broken wing in an addled attempt to lure you away from it's vulnerable hatchlings. Much like jack rabbits which just keep running in front of your car in the desert, killdeer like to run away up the beach you're walking, calling out all the while, alerting all other living things that they and yes, YOU, are approaching..  it's like a car alarm that keeps coming back on. I've dubbed them the paranoid peep, 

By the time I got back to the mudflats, I was joined by another birder, and eventually two more.  We all stood around, idly staring at the nothing space which should have been filled with sanderlings, or ideally, those avocets.  The tern promptly flew away, leaving us only with gulls to visually dissect. Make no mistake, that's a challenge, and you've got to want it.  Before this year, I distinctively didn't want it, and gulls all blended together in my eyes.. But now, I'm baffled at the possibilities, and like all maddening birds, warblers, or sparrows, narrowing down the possibilities to the regional norm helps quite a bit. Knowing there are usually only seven western species around makes it seem less crazy, more reasonable to consider. So we debated some possibilities, and then I decided to take off as I had work this afternoon.  I reassured the others that my leaving would invariably herald the arrival of any bird they wished to see.  Unfortunately, from the posts I see this evening, that was not the case today.

Ahh well, it's actually supposed to cool down and maybe even rain (gasp) over the next few days, so this could bring some activity to the lusterless tail end of August.  Fingers crossed! Until next time, my paranoid peeps, stay cool and happy trails!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Looking for the Peep show..

So it's August in Portland, and I havn't drowned in a puddle of my own sweat as I feared I might. That is promising. It is also that magical annual event where I give up on other birds altogether and pin my hopes on shorebird migration. The other birds have thinned out, as their fledglings have left the nest, and they themselves are beginning their own plans for end of summer and fall migration. All the shallow ponds and marshes of winter have either completely dried up, or what little that remains is not enough to support large populations. Whatever water is left and it's oozing muddy banks becomes a magnet for migratory shorebirds heading south; a place to search the mud for worms and little crustaceans to keep these cracked out little guys strong enough to keep heading south to their wintering grounds.  

You hear a lot about bird migration in the spring and fall, and it is an ongoing process and not really a fixed date, but the shorebirds actually start heading south as early as late June, early July. The weather and food supplies are the main impetus to jumpstart their annual clocks.  I myself face each August and September with a growing excitement, which is hilarious given the maddening qualities of shore bird watching.  I find my enthusiasm to embrace the challenge similar to young mothers who decide to have another baby after suffering through a horrible labor with the last.  Perhaps there is a hormone for birders much like oxytocin for mothers, that encourages me to forget the pain and frustration of last seasons fruitless racing around, and encourages me to try it all over again this summer..  sigh.

This summer I became a member of OBOL, which is an online birding post community for Oregon birders.  Aka, I've officially joined the nerd squad.  That's OK, you can say it, I barely wince at all anymore.  And another thing, I can go without my binoculars for days at a time, several days.  I just choose not to. So anyway, I can now follow posts from all over the state, of up to date bird sightings, which is kind of a cool thing.  And while I'm pretty sure I'm not interested in becoming the person who drives hundreds of miles to see one bird, check it off my list and then drive home, I do appreciate having some insider info on the whereabouts of migratory peeps.  I'd been seeing ongoing sightings all up and down the coast for various shorebirds, from terns to plovers to turnstones, and sandpipers were starting to show up.  So I chose the 17th of August to do a grand 150 mile sweep from the tip of the Oregon coast in Astoria down to Florence, which is about halfway down the state. This was ambitious I know, and honestly I wouldn't have tried to do so much coastline in one day but I was trying to tie in a visit to an inland refuge on the second day of my trip.  That spot is Fern Ridge NWR and it's just west of Eugene, about an hour inland from Florence. The coastal winds had been kind of strong with 30 mph gusts but it was supposed to die down by the morning I left.  I also wasn't trying to time my visits to any spots with high or low tide, as would have been smarter, because I had just one day to get down to Florence and I was just going to have to take what I could get regardless of where the tide was.

So I packed up and hit the road at 7:40am, heading out NW to Astoria on Highway 30.  Rolled up to the Astoria Safeway for a coffee and bathroom break two hours later and then headed out to Fort Stevens.  I headed over the big dune from parking lot B and walked north along the beach to the South Jetty.  The morning fog still lay over the surf and the beach and it looked amazing, like an alien landscape. It eventually lifted a bit and I saw a variety of gulls, including Heerman's which are my new fave for the west coast.  It's those crazy red beaks.  I seem to love all birds with a red accessory, oystercatchers, skimmers, pigeon guillemots, puffins, and now Heerman's gull.  Unbelievably, I found a dozen sand dollars, and put them in one of my handy plastic bags I keep at the ready for natural souvenirs; never know what you're going to find.  I headed over to the rocks and clambered around looking at starfish, but the sun was too bright already for taking pictures at this angle, so I headed back towards the parking lot.  I saw two dead birds down the beach from one another, both common murres, it was kind of weird. And then I saw what were to be the only shorebirds I would see on the coast all day long, a pack of about 15 semi-palmated plovers.  They've got funny personalities, not as skittish as some other shorebirds.  Most were juveniles, but one of the adults had an injured left leg and hopped around regardless, eating and taking care of business.  Better a leg than a wing, am I right?

                                       heerman's gull with that red beak

                                      california gull
                                      immature herring gull
                                       calfornia and heerman's gull
                                       common murre challenged by the life force
                                       semi-palmated plovers

                                     this adult plover has an injured leg, whah!!
I got back to the car, with my pics of the plovers and my bag of sand dollars, thinking this was going to be the start of a great shore birding day! Wrong...  It just went so downhill from there.  I guess the best that I can say is that I now know the locations of several birding spots I didn't before.  Maybe they'll come into play this fall once the water fills up the marshes and estuaries again.  Needless to say, many hours later around 4pm, I sat high up on the hillside of the Nestucca Bay wildlife refuge, eating my boxed Asian chicken salad from Safeway, staring morosely at the family of barn swallows swooping all over the valley in the now gusty winds that weren't supposed to be happening.  What to do, what to do?  I was now exhausted from 8 hours of driving and fruitless stops and I wasn't even through Lincoln City yet.  How the hell was I going to make it to Florence and to my campground by sunset?  I decided to quit making stops and just put the pedal to the metal and head south to Florence.

Driving through Newport and past Seal Rock I realized I was in territory I had only been through once, many years ago now for an annual retreat at the bar I worked at.  I had found and rented us this ridiculous beach playhouse in Yachats for a night, and I recall that it wasn't on the ocean.  We had to walk down the road and effectively jump a fence to get to the shore, and the beach was completely nondescript.  No features of any kind come to mind, just seemingly miles of flat sandy beach.  And I had never been back to that area or really anywhere in central Oregon, all my trips either taking me to the north or more recently to the southern coast. And getting there always involves taking I-5 and then cutting over on highway 38 at Reedsport.  So I was really surprised to find some stunning coastline just south of Yachats, all curves and rocky cliffs, very few towns or houses for that matter.  I'm determined to come back here soon and explore, but for now I was on a schedule.  I finally hit Florence and decided to try to find the north jetty of the Siuslaw River before I went to the campground.  Just maybe I'd luck out and find some peeps feeding at dusk. The road out was an eight mile long park road running parallel to the coast just inland from the dunes, and by the time I got out to the river, the wind was gusting like crazy.  There was a small flock of ducks that I scared off when I pulled up, but the rest was just a handful of gulls with their heads low and into the wind.  I didn't even bother walking out to the ocean from the jetty. There wasn't going to be anything there in wind like this..

I decided I also didn't want to spend the night in a campground just on the other side of the dunes in wind like this either.  Especially as I was just going to get up early and haul ass inland to Fern Ridge. So I headed east and drove about 30 miles alongside the Siuslaw River to get to the Whitaker Creek campground.  I pulled in at dusk, found a spot, and set up my bed, made some food, had a drink and read for a while.  It was about 10pm and I was getting tired, looking forward to what might be a good first night of camping.  I don't always sleep well the first night out, but this campground was fairly quiet and I was feeling sleepy.  Just as I could feel myself about to drift off, I heard a scraping along the underside of my truck.  It jarred me awake, and I slapped the inside of the truck and hissed, assuming it was raccoons trying to get to the food I'd locked in the front of the truck.  It stopped and I lay back down and shut my eyes.  Then again, a frantic scratching.   I sat up in a panic and grabbed my flashlight to look under and around the truck; nothing.  What the hell was going on?  Back in the truck I tried to settle down again... Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going by now. No rest for the wicked or crazed birders either.  Maybe I had pissed off Neptune by being greedy with my sand dollars and this was his repayment?  I know most people would have just said screw it, and gone to sleep regardless, but I'm not hardwired that way.  It finally occurred to me that the scratching was coming from inside my truck cab and it was a creature trying to get out.  I was too tired to do anything about it at this point, I'd have to deal with it in the morning.  I think I fell asleep around 2:30 and at 6:15 I got up to pee and thought to myself, "gee, if I had had a full night's sleep, this would a great time to pack up and head east". But I knew that I needed a little more sleep or I would be useless birding much less driving home to Portland.  I opened the cab doors to my truck, giving my little critter a chance to escape and then tried to get back to sleep.  I got up again an hour and a half later, made myself some tea and packed up the truck.  If my nighttime buddie made it out, I never saw it.  I really hope so, I really don't want to have to smell hot dead little rodent in a week.

I got to Fern Ridge about a half hour later and pulled out my printouts with all the stops I planned to make.  It's a pretty big lake and local residents driving it's perimeter like to haul ass on the back country roads, so good luck trying to see road signs for the first time.  I did a lot of turning around to backtrack throughout the day.  I did have a decent start birding, although the sun was high and bright and the thermometer was starting to climb.  It got up to about 93 that by afternoon which is painful to be out in especially if your last stop is a shadeless mile long road, out and back again. My pictures are a bit blurry, as peeps are cracked out and sensitive to proximity.  Some would argue isn't this the case with all birds?  And you'd be right in most regards, but not all peeps are equal. Peeps really force the serious birder to acknowledge the need for a good birding scope and/or a really high quality telephoto lens if you want decent photos.

                                     this little immature california dude was killing me
                                      american bittern in horrible light
Adult and young western grebe
                                      amphibian love in remaining water
                                       immature california with crayfish
                                      long billed dowitchers
                                      greater yellowlegs and pectoral sandpiper
                                       ruddy duck
                                       lesser yellowlegs
                                      more long billed dowitchers
                                      fern ridge from the viewing platform
                                        the hotly contested and unopened gate
                                      this land used to all be an ocean at one time..
                                      oh killdeer, how I want to throttle you...
                                      greater yellowlegs and various western peeps
                                       western sandpipers seriously camouflaged
                                      more peepshow
                                      this little crayfish was crafty, but not fast enough..

As I edit my photos after the fact, forcing the best of the image to emerge, they're still laughably pathetic compared to any of the hundreds of high quality photos taken by semi-pro birders on Flickr sites.  Oh well, you pick your battles, and I like to think that I create more of a thematic visual essay which creates a deliberate sense of place. At least that's how I justify it to myself, more like the shitty photos are consistent at creating a somewhat hazy and mysterious alternate reality.  Kind of like camping and birding in a sci-fi novel.  It keeps me interested, clearly, so that's all that matters. And as for the annual temptation of the shorebirds, it's clear that I'm a goner, a lifer.  It's the lure of the bastard.  You can see any of the photos I didn't include in this post on my flickr page, just click on the link on the top right of blog and click on any of the blog photos to see it full size.  Until next time, Happy trails!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cottonwood Canyon and birding from Fossil to Condon, Oregon

As I mentioned in my previous post about beating the heat, I postponed my desert sojourn around the state until the fall, and this left me at the tail end of July without any real travel out to the desert yet this summer.  How could this be?  I mean this is me, little miss "well, I'm off to the desert, see you once there's frost on the ground.."  I guess it was circumstance and the weather, both messing up my seasonal compass.  

So I took a look at the temperature and the weather for the weekend of July 26th and while the temperature's were very comfortable, the winds had picked up, and as far south as the John Day River in Spray, there were gusts of up to 30mph.  Newsflash, some birds might get blown past my camera lens, but most will just hunker down and wait it out.  So I compromised by heading out Monday night of July 27th, still expecting some breeze and gusts, but it was supposed to die down by morning.

I had an uneventful haul out I-84 east, with the exception of some summer construction slowing us to a crawl for about 15 minutes.  I hit Biggs Junction about a half an hour later than I expected, got some gas and a tuna sub, cleaned the windshield and headed south towards the John Day River and Cottonwood Canyon.  This is a relatively new area that was opened up to the public almost two years ago in September 2013.   There has been a parking lot with a boat launch and bathroom for many years on the south side of the river, but this new park is pretty awesome.  It stretches about 2.5 miles east of highway 206 and 4.5 miles to the west, encompassing 8000 square acres of hillside, river and canyon land.  One of the best parts about this place in my opinion are the miles of riverside trail. This is a rarity in the high desert; for while there are a good number of campgrounds that I frequent in Central Oregon, there are few places to walk other than the shoulder of the road.  The river is public property if you're in a boat, but the land you travel through is by and large private.  So you can bet your sweet bippy that the first time I came to Cottonwood Canyon, I hiked both trails within 24 hours with a big grin on my face.  I found birds and bones and really fell in love with the place.  

Oh and did I mention that the parks department bought the original farm intact and have kept it and it's yards?  They have added some really thoughtful artistic history lessons along the fencing, photos and text etched into the wood. And as you walk through the farm yard, you learn about the tribes that originally lived in the area, the settlers who first came to the canyon lands, and the geology and horticulture that made up the environment back then.  I really like walking though this place and both times I have, I've been the only person there.

And last but not least, there are full service bathrooms up by the visitor center and the farm, so if you really want to wash your face and look in a mirror, you have that option.  Running water in the desert is a rarity, although I must say, their vault toilets in the campground are also immaculate.  The camping spots are $10 a night, and you have a table, a fire ring, and a wooden divider to hide behind from the sun, the wind, or perhaps your neighbor.  They have planted a lot of trees and in ten years, they might provide some shade or privacy but until then, you're in full view of your neighbors, so you have to keep that in mind.  And just a heads up, no campfires except your camp stove between June 1st to September 30th.  It's like this every year, even when Oregon isn't suffering from a drought. The desert is one giant ongoing drought, and fires are devastating out there, so put those matches out, and don't risk that fire, please! It's too hot most nights anyway.

I got to the campground, pulled in and glory be praised! I had the whole joint to myself!  I pulled in at a site at the far end, closest to the river, and got out my lunch and my binocs and sat at the picnic table to relax for a bit.  Immediately heard songbirds and looked around to see a variety of sparrows perched on the wire cages tied around all of the saplings planted throughout the campground.  I immediately abandoned my food and started chasing sparrows all around the area, with them just constantly out of reach of a good sighting.  Sighing over how this always seems to be my relationship with the 'little brown birds', I went back to finish my lunch.  I wanted to hike east along the river up the 'Pinnacle Trail' before sunset and see if I could find the cliff swallows and canyon wrens of my previous visit.  I packed up my gear, and headed along the river.  I turned upon hearing a vehicle and alas, a family of four was pulling in to set up camp.  Oh well, at least I got the illusion of having the place to myself for at least an hour.  I walked out the Pinnacles trail for almost the full mile and a half, and saw two pairs of canyon wrens, but just one cliff swallow.  Had the rest abandoned these nests?  No idea.  I saw a solitary nighthawk diving over the river, clearly hoovering up insects and then flying back to the same spot to start over.  It gave me ample opportunity to take dozens of blurry photos, two of which I share here.  In the process of tracking it, I startled a pack of magpies from a sandbar in the river as well as a small family of female ducks, possible mallards, into flight. A sole osprey sat down river, solemnly watching me make a ruckus and disturb every bird within a quarter mile.  But not him, he was too cool to be flustered by the likes of me.. There were a handful of western kingbirds flying in the taller trees and by the time I headed back, the sun had dipped down below the hills and a handful of cliff swallows had shown up.  I said good night to the very vocal reprimands of the canyon wrens and headed back to the truck to watch the moon rise up over the hillside.

                                          canyon wren

                                             western kingbird
                                              blurry nighthawk

The photos I took on this trip are really a wake-up call to me to get it together and pay more attention to my camera settings before and during my trip.  I'd say that 90 % of the bird pictures shot on this trip were completely useless.  Blurry, completely out of focus, and this was true for some birds that were effectively motionless in trees!  No excuse, none whatsoever.. So I apologize to any wildlife photographers who wonder what the hell some of these photos are doing here, and I have to say that the blurry ones are just proof that I saw any birds at all on this trip.  Tragic..  And to be honest, I have to be careful, because I'm sliding down that slippery slope once more, that slope that says if you don't have a picture of it, you didn't see it.  Birding has entered such a funny territory, as old schoolers debate over how to embrace this new world of affordable telephoto lenses, and birding apps for smartphones, replete with bird calls.  What to do? As usual, skill is needed, however you employ your array of devices, apps or pencils.  You have to be quick, and have the ability to get the big picture as well as the very small.  I remind myself that the reason I'm here, the reason I go anywhere is to be outside in the natural world, away from the bustle of man made things. Focusing in on what I see as most important; flora and fauna, and how they interact,  and how I might interact with them, even just as an observer.  You see, it makes me feel alive in a way that the city never can.

Well, enough pontificating on nature vs. man, and let me give you the particulars about my location stops and sightings. I got up on the morning of the 28th to no wind at all and a beautiful sunny day.  I watched my neighbors pack up and I did likewise.  I drove up to the farm and walked around, chasing some Say's phoebes and western kingbirds around with the camera.  Saw a lizard and some dragonflies as well as some lovely flowers down by the river.  Said goodbye to Cottonwood Canyon and headed south towards Condon.  Once through the town, I was headed south on 206 to Wehrli Canyon Rd. This stretch is pretty cool, with cattails and rush grasses and bands of small trees down in roadside gullies.  I found a place about two miles up to park and walked back down the road for over a mile. Saw a yellow-breasted chat, which was probably what I heard in one bush and exchanged calls with for a while.  Sort of sounds like a catbird, and what a hilarious chat we had.  It was already noon at this point and I knew I needed to get a move on. Drove up out of the canyon and followed the road as it turned south.  I turned down Cemetery Rd. and flushed about 50 horned larks and western kingbirds along a couple mile stretch of fenced farm fields. They're not too bright and when startled, they just fly a few feet forward, only to be startled anew three seconds later.  Finally they process that they need to fly off into the field to avoid my truck, and so I'm left alone. I approach and pulled into a pioneer cemetery with some old gravestones, and of course horned larks perched on various stones.  I found one of a Nancy Hawk who died in 1900.  What was life like there, just outside of Mayville in 1900?  Not much different than it is now I suspect, except most of the now decrepit homes were probably intact and there was probably no electricity. Well, bless you for your pioneering life Nancy and for a wonderful surname like Hawk; how brilliant.

                                             lark sparrow
                                             say's phoebe

                                            blue sailor

                                            yellow breasted chat
                                            song sparrow
                                              red-tailed hawk juvenile
                                              horned lark
                                             western kingbird

I popped back out on 206 and decided I was ready for lunch and what better place to stop for a picnic in the area than Dyer Wayside?  J.W.  Dyer gave the land to the county back in 1931.  It's about a half acre that has some picnic benches and two old fashioned outhouses with some nice shade trees planted like a park.  It got a little shabby apparently, so in 1997, some local volunteers got together and spruced it up. Now with a sprinkler system powered by a generator at the back of the park, there's a bright green lawn and a small army of robins hunting for worms and insects.  I had to laugh at the ingenuity of those robins, finding this oasis a half an hour south of the Columbia River, them and one flycatcher, one western tanager and a northern flicker.  I rested, ate my lunch, and headed up the road directly behind the wayside, Ramsey Canyon Rd.  It was similar to Wehrli Canyon in growth, and I scared the crap out of two mule deer that I didn't see until it was too late.  I quietly hoofed it back to the truck to give them a chance to regroup without having to run out into the road.  I did see a couple of birds including some juveniles who were hopping along the road, too small and pale to be robins but with a beak like one.  I was at a loss, but with the help of another birder who has recently seen a similar family, finally ID'd them as juvenile rock wrens!  I also found a bit of what looks like a femur which I snagged for the collection, bovine, cervid or coyote, I'm not sure yet.

                                             juvenile rock wrens; gregarious and curious birds 

                                            western tanager
                                             olive-sided flycatcher
                                              drying cow or deer skull
                                              mourning dove   

I headed up and out of that canyon to loop back to 206 from the east side through Carter Hill Rd, and come out right in the middle if Mayville, which has the coolest collection of dilapidated barns and homes in central Oregon.  It's a ghost town which is still kind of alive, so I always feel like I shouldn't stop to take pictures because the land owner might still be nearby, in one of those trailers out back.  It is very picturesque though, you'll know what I mean if you see it.  I headed south to find Kinzua Rd. which heads east climbing up the hills into the Umatilla Forest.  I found my way from my map, ignoring the more complicated and lengthy directions from an online birding site for Gilliam County.  My way seemed more direct, and was also a very pretty drive. But then I started to see extensive signage warning me of private land, and that the area was patrolled so don't even think about it.  I pulled over at one spot anyway, and followed a path in for a few minutes, and then came back out to find a small family of deer grazing in the hollow below the curve of the road.  I drove away slowly so as to not startle them, and continued up the hill, pausing to let a family of mountain quail race across the road, as I scrambled for my camera to capture it.   Man, those birds are quick!  The road passed a sign for a golf course and then turned to gravel and ended within a couple miles at a fence.  It was private, and this is why the online directions were so complicated, they were avoiding this whole parcel of land, duh.  Oh well, as I drove back down, I found a place to pull out and walk along the road without actually trespassing.  I hung out with some mountain chickadees, calling back and forth, and saw what I think was a brewer's sparrow. Also caught an Oregon silverspot butterfly on some purple nettle flowers, which was lovely.  High desert forest is so nice and airy, with very little underbrush, and those lush long needled ponderosa pines.  The air feels clean and smells great, and the birds seem to know they've got it made.  I drove back down the hill, slowing at the turn where the deer were still hanging out and munching.  We exchanged a look that said, "Yep, that's about right," and went our separate ways.  

                                            mule deer
                                             mountain chickadee
                                             brewer's sparrow
                                             oregon silverspot butterfly
                                               mountain quail

Since I felt a little short changed on the mountain forest exploring, I thought I would drop in at the slightly dilapidated, but oh so delightful Julia Henderson Pioneer Park.  I love this place.  The first time I went there was probably around 2004, on my first crazy drive out into central Oregon.  It feels like a summer camp from the late 70's that has been abandoned.  You drive into this little park with a open stage in the center, picnic benches on one side, and long green benches on the other, with a few outhouses dotted around the hillside.  There are a couple of wooden footbridges spanning the little creek that runs through the center of the park and actually under the stage.  The creek is fed or maybe created by a natural spring, and  there are four metal spigots spouting this clean clear cold water around the center of the park.  Needless to say, the grass is green, plant life is abundant, and this little valley oasis in the middle of high desert forest is wonderful to stumble across.  And what birds did I see here?  Again with the robins, and I'm not kidding at all; one flycatcher, one western tanager and one northern flicker.  Really? In the second green oasis, the exact same birds as the first? Hmm.. I have no answers, only admiration for the mysteries of the universe.

Watered and fed again, I packed up the truck and headed north back to the highway.  As I headed toward Fossil, I ran into a cattle drive that I had to weave through with the help of the family herding them up the road, dogs and all.  Awesome cowboyness.  Not long after, as I drove down into canyons and back up out of them, I encountered some bigger birds that I was unfamiliar with crossing the road.  Two had already cleared the oncoming lane and were headed down the embankment, but the third was still on the right hand side, hesitating.  I came to a full stop and this bird looked at me, so I waved it on, and it ran across the road joining the other two.  I love this relationship you can have with animals on the roads out here.  A perfect example came in a couple of miles.  I approached a mule deer doe with her two fawns tucked under her front legs, suckling with both their butts and tails poking out right under her chest.  She was not even two feet from my lane, but she wasn't going anywhere.  At least I hoped so and this was what I tried to to communicate to her with my wide eyed stare.. She looked right at me, and as I passed her, and turned back to check, she was still staring right at me, the two fawns seemingly oblivious to all this traffic confusion. Wow..  and within another ten miles I flushed three more of those same birds that I wasn't familiar with, but this time they flew away, although they didn't look at all happy about it.  Kind of in the same way pheasants don't, as they try to run into the brush, then freaked out, they clumsily take off into the air.  "Whaddya call these things again? Wings?  Well, I guess it's faster than running.."  I've looked them up and turns out they're female sage grouses, which is a life bird for me, so right on.  One more super cool bird I saw, right before the intersection of Monkland Rd., was a merlin being chased by something smaller, maybe a kingbird.  I knew by its shape that it was a merlin, but its coloring seemed wrong.  It was paler and seemed to have an almost light blue cast to its feathers.  Arrgh, I couldn't help but think, why am I always finding these "mystery" birds when I can't take a picture for classifying?  So I was pretty excited to page through my guide later to see that there is a 'prairie form' of the merlin, and that was exactly what I saw.

I made it back out to Biggs Junction, got another tank of gas from the same attendant, and watched some poor bastards try to jimmy their own car door open with a clothes hanger for a minute.  I cleaned off the majority of the dead bugs, then raced back home I-84 west with the sun setting in my eyes for the next hour and a half.  There were still american white pelicans on the Columbia River, fishing and roosting not too far east of The Dalles; I really love seeing them.  It was a good trip out, if not a little rushed. The temps rose again the next day, so I'm glad I had that window of opportunity to see some birds and check out some new spots in familiar stretches.  It's fun to take the time to drive down those roads that you always wondered about.  Makes me look forward to my autumn desert trip all the more. Until next time, happy trails!