16 November 2017

A new tour... Oregon!

It's exciting business.  I've been generating a fall tour to Oregon that Field Guides will start running in 2018 (more details here).  Actually, they had an Oregon tour years ago but I've been reviving it.  So far, it looks to be quite popular!

So fast forward to this fall when I was recently on the ground there in Oregon doing some scouting and planning.  I came back with lots of ideas, some fun bird sightings, and a whole lot of pictures to share... so bear with me.

I started out of Eugene and straight away did some birding around Fern Ridge Reservoir which was hosting a variety of raptors like RED-SHOULDERED HAWK, PEREGRINE FALCON, and this NORTHERN HARRIER:
There were also plenty of shorebirds and ducks to keep me busy.  At one point, some sprigs zoomed by (Sprig = nickname for NORTHERN PINTAIL):
Then it was up to Mary's Peak to the northwest.  Along the way I found some GRAY JAYS and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES:
... and of special interest, I had good looks at a couple of MOUNTAIN QUAIL (a tough bird to find when you want to):
The view from the road to the top was not bad!
I made my way west to Newport which I'll be using as a hub for several days on tour.  While there, I ventured up to Boiler Bay to do some seawatching:
But, as you can see, the weather was lovely which probably hurt the birding.  Still, I saw hundreds of birds such as PACIFIC LOONS, SURF SCOTERS, MARBLED MURRELETS, and much more.  Meanwhile, BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS surveyed the rocks:
The morning light really lit up birds though including this BREWER'S BLACKBIRD:
This species of blackbird is truly abundant out there and it would be hard to miss.

This AMERICAN CROW also posed in nice light long enough for me to grab a couple of frames of it:
Yaquina Head Lighthouse:
Down closer to the jetty in Newport, this COMMON LOON was also looking pretty sharp even though it was transitioning from breeding to nonbreeding colors:
This LAPLAND LONGSPUR popped up out of the rocks too which was a nice surprise.  This species breeds in the arctic and only makes it this far south in the winter:
Once I walked out beyond the dune grass a bit, I was met with this beautiful view:
I only had time for a few more coastal stops but Bandon provided a beautiful spot to study some rock-loving shorebirds.  First up is BLACK TURNSTONE, a West Coast specialty:
 ... add to that this SURFBIRD:
I'm already really looking forward to revisiting those spots and seeing some of these fun shorebird species again.  What can I say... we don't have many Surfbirds in Missouri.  :-)

From there, the tour will turn inland which is what I did during my scouting.  I made my way towards Crater Lake but stopped along the way to take in the view and grab some fresh air:
The mountain air was cool and crisp up at that elevation... and there were some GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRRELS running about my feet:
In my opinion, the view of Crater Lake, which we'll enjoy on tour as well, is easily one of my favorite scenic views in the US.  It's breathtaking to walk to the edge and be face-to-face with this:
Nearby, I enjoyed montane species like CLARK'S NUTCRACKER and this GRAY JAY:
I eventually dropped in elevation a bit as I drove north to the Bend area.  I ventured up to Sisters for some scouting and enjoyed some PINYON JAYS, CLARK'S NUTCRACKERS, and lots of singing TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES.  I also pulled off to watch some MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS at this sage-filled landscape:
The common jay at feeders around Bend was the STELLER'S JAY, a nice swap to the Blue Jays back home:
At one of my stops, there was a family of TRUMPETER SWANS that seemed content to stand near one of the paths.  Here's a shot showing the bill structure of an adult:
I was surprised to find this WHITE-THROATED SPARROW mixed with WHITE-CROWNED and FOX SPARROWS at some feeders.  It's not a mega rarity but unusual enough to warrant a photo for eBird:
We'll visit recent burns on tour, like this one, hoping for some fun woodpeckers like LEWIS'S, BLACK-BACKED, and WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER:
While poking around in that burned area, I chanced upon this little dude foraging:
Woah, it's a PALM WARBLER!  Although common in much of the eastern US, it's a fairly uncommon vagrant out in those parts.  I hurriedly managed a photo for proof.

Before long, it was time to head farther east towards Malheur NWR where we'll spend several days birding on tour.  En route, I stopped at the Chickahominy Reservoir to make sure there weren't any Sabine's Gulls out on the water.  It was another gorgeous vista:
My scouting gave me several days to check out Malheur NWR and I have to say, that's some fantastic birding!  Right away, at The Narrows, it was clear why this is a hotspot: gulls, terns, shorebirds, and ducks were all packed in right next to the road.  Included was this CASPIAN TERN:
GREATER YELLOWLEGS were present in good numbers too, at least 40 were packed in.  I watched as one caught a rather sizable fish.  It stood there, not really knowing what to do with it:
If you have a chance to stand back and look at the scenery around you at Malheur, you'll be greeted by a lot of sky.  It's a lovely landscape, in my opinion:
At one of the many hotspots at Malheur, I found this LEWIS'S WOODPECKER which will be another target for tour:
By this point of the fall, which was rather late, many of the passerines had moved on.  Still, I enjoyed some close encounters with "AUDUBON'S" YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS including this one:
While near Malheur, I also ventured up Steens Mountain to look for BLACK ROSY-FINCHES, a local breeder at the tip top.  However, on the way up, I noticed things were definitely cooling off... especially when it started snowing!  The bushes were soon coated in snow and ice:
Some of the views as you ascend are top notch though!

As I huddled over the lip of the ridge (out of the howling wind, you see), I was eventually rewarded with a magical BLACK ROSY-FINCH that came out of no where and perched point-blank in front of me.  I'm glad my nearly-frozen fingers remembered how to use the camera:
After the finch flew off (along with 20 others), I looked around and realized the weather was just getting worse.  A fair bit of snow had fallen by that point (and it was COLD):
... and so it was time for me to get off the mountain.  I did so but I can assure you it took a while for my fingers to warm back up!

My last morning of scouting took me north to Malheur National Forest.  I birded some of the campgrounds there which were rather mystical-looking with frost clinging to the giant conifers.  I was treated to a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL along with this BLACK-BACKED WOODPECKER: 
However, it was time for me to get back to Eugene and so I made the haul back to the west.  That night, my final one in Oregon, I visited a chimney where many hundreds of VAUX'S SWIFTS were roosting at night.  Although this picture shows just a couple of swifts (and a sneaky Sharp-shinned Hawk), the spectacle of them all flying down the chimney at dusk was eye-opening!
And so with that, my scouting was complete.  I'm already looking forward to returning in 2018 to run the tour!  Feel free to check out this link to learn more about openings and such.  Cheers!

12 November 2017

Ragin' with the Cajuns

Happy November!

I've just recently returned from two back-to-back tours we ran in Louisiana.  I was helping Dan Lane, who lives in Baton Rouge, run these tours that he created several years ago.  The title of the tour, Yellow Rails and Crawfish Tails, gives a big hint about the focus on the tour!  Yes, one of the main objectives is to actually see YELLOW RAIL.... a tiny and secretive species that most people haven't seen.  And yes, there's plenty of Cajun seafood too if that's your thing.

This tour is actually quite short, one of the shortest I can think of that we run.  In fact, we get to stay in the same hotel for each of the nights which is a nice perk (instead of having to pack luggage up every day).  We meet for dinner on Day 1 and then Day 2, 3, and 4 are birding days.  We depart on Day 5.  So really, there's only 3 full days of birding involved!  However, for birding only 3 days, this tour really packs a punch in terms of specialties and number of species we find.  Enjoy.


This day we drive north a couple of hours from Lafayette to the pines of Kisatchie National Forest (the only national forest in Louisiana).  The pines here, which are mostly Longleaf Pine and Loblolly Pine, are actually quite nice and rather scenic if you stand back and look at the landscape:
One of our main targets there, which we had great luck with this year, is the RED-COCKADED WOODPECKER:
This is a pretty rare woodpecker overall and they've gone through serious declines in the last century due to fire suppression and over-cutting of pines.  Sadly, the total population might be fewer than 10,000 now.  Thankfully, both of our groups had good looks of these right off the bat!

Another species in the same habitat is the BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCH:
This is another southeastern specialty but one that's fairly common and certainly not endangered like the previous species!

Another main target in this habitat is the BACHMAN'S SPARROW.  Although they're fairly easy to see in the spring/summer when they're singing and defending territories, they become sneaky little buggers in the offseason.  I was shocked at how hard we had to work to get a glimpse but, in the end, we got everyone on one!  Whew.  Getting a nice photo of one?  Well, THAT was a challenge!

We came across a lot of other fun things during this day of birding like PILEATED WOODPECKER, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, PINE WARBLER, WINTER WREN, and even some daytime BARRED OWLS:
Although I'm probably a bit biased towards the fauna, the flora there is fascinating too!  Interspersed in the pine forests are some bogs that host a wealth of interesting plants like this carnivorous pitcher plant:


Another day of birding is spent heading west and then south to Cameron Parish (remember, they don't have counties in Louisiana... they're parishes instead).  This coastal parish is the birdiest parish in the state and a couple of visits shows why.

One of our first stops on this day is at Sabine National Wildlife Refuge.  Marsh birds abound and we encountered species like MARSH WREN, SWAMP SPARROW, NORTHERN HARRIER, NEOTROPIC CORMORANT, a variety of herons, and we even heard a LEAST BITTERN or two.  Keep an eye out overhead too; we had a late SWAINSON'S HAWK and this gorgeous flash of pink... a ROSEATE SPOONBILL:
It was here that I saw my only lifer of the trip... and it wasn't a bird.  It was this chunky cottontail called a SWAMP RABBIT:
Who knew?  A huge cottontail that is an excellent swimmer....

We also spent time in Holly Beach where we saw a variety of shorebirds along the Gulf Coast like PIPING, SEMIPALMATED, and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS.  WILLETS, LONG-BILLED CURLEWS, MARBLED GODWITS, and RUDDY TURNSTONES were also around.  SANDERLINGS scampered along the sand beaches and AMERICAN AVOCETS joined the roosting tern flocks.  Overhead, we saw a variety of raptors including RED-TAILED HAWK, BROAD-WINGED HAWK, and even the super-cool CRESTED CARACARA:
East Jetty Beach, besides being a great place for a picnic lunch, is also a well-known birding hotspot.  The beach there was hosting a flock of several thousand BLACK SKIMMERS that swirled around in unison much to the delight of the birders:
We had some good spots near there for CLAPPER RAIL and some target sparrows too.  Many of our folks were especially eager to see NELSON'S SPARROWS and I'm happy to report that we got awesome looks both times!
There were many other highlights along the way including WHITE-TAILED KITES overhead, SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHERS perched on power lines, a GREEN HERON that sat quietly in the shadows, and a BRONZED COWBIRD foraging on a roadside:
We ended this day of birding by visiting Fruge Road.  What's on Fruge Road?  Well, a continuing pair of (somewhat lost) WHITE-TAILED HAWKS!  No, not White-tailed Kites... but hawks.  This species, which I had only seen in Texas, had been recently reported from this road.  What a perfect bonus... we swung through and saw these birds with our groups.  This area also proved to be good for SANDHILL CRANES and a flyover SPRAGUE'S PIPIT or two.

As luck would have it, there was another rarity just around the corner.  Just a day or two before we arrived, a COUCH'S KINGBIRD was found.  Sweet!  This was another species that I had only seen in Texas before.  We swung through this spot on both tours and found the bird both times.  Here's a picture from both encounters and, yes, it's essentially the same power line!


Our third option is, of course, the day when we target the rails (probably the main reason most join us on this tour).  We start the day by birding some of the roadside hedges looking for migrants and/or vagrants.  For example, one of the tours stirred up a singing WESTERN MEADOWLARK, a distant SAY'S PHOEBE, and this PRAIRIE WARBLER, a rare and quality find!
We spent some time birding the flooded fields in rice country as well which gave us a chance to study the multitude of geese including GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, SNOW GEESE, and ROSS'S GEESE.  Here's all three species in this photo (although I was focusing on the tiny Ross's Goose in front and the larger Snow Goose in the background):
Do you see the differences?  The front Ross's has a tiny, triangular bill whereas the back Snow has a larger bill with a curved inner edge to it.  The overall difference in size of the birds is also readily apparent.

Another highlight in rice country came when we found a LECONTE'S SPARROW in one of the grassy fields.  This was another main target of folks so we were super stoked to be able to find one and to actually see it:
The key to this tour is joining up with the Rails and Rice Festival.  The organizers have brokered a relationship with some of the rice farmers which has turned into a really cool thing.  You see, the way to see these rails is to be in the fields as the combine slowly churns its way through, collecting the rice as it goes.  Here's the view of a combine harvesting:
The rails will flush, albeit reluctantly, from in front of the combine while the birders on the sidelines hopefully catch a glimpse of them as they fly off.  The combine driver is pretty sharp too; when he sees a Yellow Rail flush in front of him, he'll honk the horn to alert the birders.

When the combine is full of rice, it will pull up next to an open-topped semi, swing the unloading auger out, and unload:
At this festival, participants can even get to ride ON the rice combine which is a special treat.  I did so for quite a while and it was actually a lot of fun!  Oh, and yes, we all got to see YELLOW RAILS!  Here's a photo of one in flight:
On one of our days at the festival, there was a crew of researchers there to actually catch the rails.  They set up nets and, as the rice combine slowly worked its way towards the nets, we all watched as a whole variety of rails flushed right into their nets!  The researchers would hurry out, gather the bird out of the net, measure, band, and release them back into the fields.  In the process, we all got stupendous looks of these secretive species while the researchers were doing their thing.  For example, I had certainly never seen a KING RAIL, a master of skulk, this well before!
They caught several SORAS as well.  This little species of rail is one of our most widespread in North America:
And then there was one of the main stars of the show, the secretive YELLOW RAIL itself:
I can't emphasize enough how cool it was to see this species up close like this.  First of all, most birders have never seen a Yellow Rail.  Secondly, even the birders that have seen a Yellow Rail have almost certainly never seen one like this!

All in all, it was a fantastic time getting to see these rails as well as the other specialties in Louisiana.  It's a quick tour but a lot of fun!  Anyway, I'll end this post the same way as we ended our day of birding... sunset in rice country: