Oregon Part 2: East of the West
After my adventures on the Oregon coast, I decided to head inland to explore some of central and eastern Oregon. The West is biogeographically diverse enough that there are some birds in the central valley that are very uncommon on the coast, and some birds east of the Cascades that are barely found west of there. Plus I just wanted to spend some time in some proper mountains.
My first stop after driving over the Coast Range from Newport was at the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, located in a nice patch of prairie in the Willamette Valley. I stopped at the appropriately-named Prairie Overlook there, where the first bird I was greeted by was a Northern Harrier soaring low over the grass and freaking out the ducks. The next one was one of my main targets: a very distant White-tailed Kite, this one a vagrant from further south that had been hanging around for the past few weeks. It's an incredibly beautiful bird like all Elanus kites, although it was very distant.
|An extremely distant White-tailed Kite|
The prairie overlook was rather quiet when I got there, though I did add Rough-legged Buzzard to my Oregon list. I started moving further down the road, stopping for a herd of rare Roosevelt Elk grazing in a distant field.
Further into the NWR I happened upon the swamp trail, a boardwalk leading through some beautiful mossy forest. This was the far eastern end of the temperate rainforest, but the moss-draped trees in the sunset light still had that primeval feeling you get in a proper jungle. There were some birds too- a Varied Thrush that posed nicely for me, a singing Marsh Wren, and a few Black-capped Chickadees and Myrtle Warblers. There was a marshy lake at the end of the boardwalk, which held a number of Canada Geese, some Ruddy Ducks, and some Northern Shovelers, the latter two of which were new Oregon birds for me.
|The swamp trail, looking like something from a Miyazaki movie|
I returned to the prairie overlook as it started to get nearer to sunset, and this time there really was some impressive activity: lifers in the form of flocks of Western Meadowlarks and Western Bluebirds, the latter of which came right up to the edge of the overlook. Thousands of Cackling Geese were flying overhead, and I could see a distant Mount Hood lit up in sunset. The most beautiful part, however, was a Northern Harrier circling around the platform at eye level, flying lazily by in the orange light and sometimes alighting on the ground in search of a mouse or vole. It's one of the natural sights I struggle to find words to describe, but thankfully I also have pictures. Lots of pictures.
|Mount Hood in the distance|
The sunset was amazing, but it was also bloody cold, so I was happy to get back in the car once the sun was down and head onwards. My Airbnb was in Eugene, which had gotten a massive snowfall about a week prior, and was only then regaining electricity and plowing the roads. Thankfully I got there just after the roads became accessible again, because my rental Prius definitely did not have snow tires.
The next morning, the plan was to make some visits to the Fern Ridge Wildlife Management Area west of Eugene before heading east over the mountains. On the way there I stopped by a flooded farm field which had dozens of shorebirds hanging out in it, probably stranded by the recent weather. There was a large flock of Least Sandpipers, a few Dunlins, and a few Long-billed Dowitchers, none of which were lifers but all of which were some nice additions to my Oregon list.
My real first stop, however, was the dam north of Fern Ridge WMA, where a flock of American White Pelicans had been hanging out. It took about 5 seconds to spot them from the road: they really were as huge and spectacular as I'd been hoping. I sat and watched the flock for about 20 minutes as the birds swam around the pond, sometimes all going bottoms-up at the same time to dabble underwater. There were also some good ducks around, including Gadwalls, American Wigeons, and a few Eurasian Wigeons. Double-crested Cormorants were as common and annoying as they are in most parts of the US.
|American White Pelicans|
|Incoming Eurasian Wigeon|
I made one more stop in Fern Ridge, this time in the Royal Avenue part of the WMA where there were recent reports of American Pipits, which would have been a lifer for me. I never ended up seeing the Pipits, but the birding was excellent otherwise: a couple of American Kestrels perched by the parking lot with a California Scrub Jay and a very noisy Bewick's Wren also perched nearby.
|California Scrub Jay|
Still in the parking lot, I heard many alarmed Cackling Geese above me and looked up to see one of the biggest surprises of my Oregon trip: a young Golden Eagle soaring above me! Golden Eagles are rare west of the Cascades, and this certainly was not a bird I expected to see on my trip, especially not this far west. Juvenile Bald Eagles are often confused for vagrant Golden Eagles by optimistic birders east of the Mississippi, but this one was surprisingly easy for me to tell apart: a little bit smaller, with white feathers distributed very orderly at the end of the wings and the base of the tail, rather than splotchy like a Bald Eagle.
|Cackling Geese flying away from the Golden Eagle|
Inside the WMA I had another lifer in the form of an early migrant Black Phoebe, as well as some Canvasbacks and Ring-necked Ducks to add to my Oregon list. The flock of American White Pelicans flew over me as well, looking like ungainly aircraft. On the way out I had a surprise pair of Acorn Woodpeckers and a huge Red-tailed Hawk perched by the side of the road.
|American White Pelicans|
|Red-tailed Hawk with its nictating membrane closed|
I had been planning to head eastwards after visiting Fern Ridge, but I was getting a little annoyed by the lack of Pipits so far so I headed to the Meadowlark Prairie in the suburbs of Eugene, another spot where they'd been reported recently. I still didn't see any damn pipits, but the trails there still proved good for birding: there was a flock of Western Meadowlarks feeding on the ground, along with a small group of noisy Red-shafted Flickers. More impressively, I happened upon a Great Blue Heron in the process of devouring some sort of small mammal, probably an invasive Nutria- native fauna winning!
|Very successful Great Blue Heron|
The other side of the grassy field had some other nice surprises, including a small family of Hooded Mergansers, a pair of unusually bold Lincoln's Sparrows, an extremely noisy Red-shouldered Hawk, and a Bewick's Wren.
|A very derpy Red-shouldered Hawk|
My destination was Bend, Oregon, which was on the other side of the volcanic Cascade Mountains. The drive over the mountains was a beautiful one, on a winding road through tall snow-covered pines, with the crags of extinct stratovolcanoes going in and out of view. I made a few stops along the way near Sno-parks and ski resorts to take some pictures, although I couldn't stay long since I didn't have the necessary parking pass- or the necessary footwear.
|Broken Top, an extinct complex volcano just north of the Three Sisters|
|Three-fingered Jack, another extinct stratovolcano|
|Another look at Three Fingered Jack|
Almost as soon as I crested the mountains, clouds rolled in and completely covered the sky. I'd been hoping for nice weather on the other side of the mountains, but it was not to be: that was the last I saw the sun for days. Bend itself was completely snow-covered, and crossing the mountains from the Willamette Valley felt like going back in time from spring to winter. As a Michigander, I was also offended by how poorly the roads were plowed- my un-snow-tired Prius spent a lot of time sliding around the urban roads since apparently nobody there ever learned how to salt roads properly.
|The suddenly grey Cascades|
Thankfully, my AirBnb was cheap and comfortable, and the food in Bend was good, as befitting a fancy skiing town. The next morning my first destination was Pilot Butte, the extinct cinder cone looming above the town. There were some recent records there of good birds like Pinyon Jay, but all I saw were some American Robins, a rather bold Northern Raven, and a Red-tailed Hawk.
|The "view" from Pilot Butte|
|Western Grey Squirrel|
I soon gave up on Pilot Butte, and decided to instead try the Deschutes River Trail running through town. There had been some good records from downtown of targets like Townsend's Solitaire, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Mountain Chickadee, so I looked for those. The first spot I tried had neither Mountain Chickadee nor Townsend's Solitaire, but it did have some other good non-lifer birds, including a flock of Lesser Goldfinches, some Golden-crowned Sparrows, Western Bluebirds, and a decent-sized group of Pine Siskins, always a fun bird to run into. I did find one solitary Pygmy Nuthatch just before I had to leave, my only lifer of that morning.
After checking out of my Airbnb and having lunch, I tried another part of the Deschutes River, starting at Sawyer Park. A surprise at Sawyer Park was an American Dipper in the river, not a hugely common find in that area. I'd seen it a few days prior so I didn't spend as much time watching it, but it was just as cool to see the second time as it was the first time. A little further along the trail I finally ran into a rather tame Mountain Chickadee, a few more Pygmy Nuthatches, and a few Townsend's Solitaires, all of which were perched at the very top of a pine tree.
|Mountain Chickadee, with its permanently angry expression|
Further along the trail I ran into a very tame group of Mule Deer grazing by a fancy private subdivision, clearly not worried about being hunted anytime soon. There were also some more Townsend's Solitaires, some very noisy Red-shafted Flickers, and a very friendly flock of Pygmy Nuthatches that gave me amazing views. A kettle of Red-tailed Hawks flew over me, and shortly after I heard commotion behind me. Walking back I ran into the carcass of one of the flickers, which must have been killed by a Red-tailed Hawk in the 10 minutes or so that I had been away!
|Red-shafted Flicker tempting the hawks|
|Red-tailed Hawk on its way to eat a Flicker|
|The Deschutes River from the trail|
|A very recently-deceased Red-shafted Flicker|
I began heading northwestwards towards Portland after I'd finished with my hike, stopping just north of Bend when a break in the clouds appeared just long enough for me to catch a brief glimpse of the Three Sisters volcanoes, the only time I ever saw them during my time there. I stopped in the town of Sisters on my way north as well, in hopes of seeing the Pinyon Jays or White-headed Woodpeckers that had been reported there recently. I came up short, but did find a place serving very good sandwiches, so all was not lost.
After Sisters, it was a long drive back to Portland, made longer by the sudden snowstorm that hit as soon as I started driving. Overall I hadn't had the fantastic luck in eastern Oregon that I'd had along the coast and in the Willamette Valley, but I still saw lots of cool birds and some amazing scenery as well. Thankfully, I had another few days in Portland to do some more Oregon exploring... but that's one for my next blog post.
|The only time I ever saw the Three Sisters.|