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!

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