Reflections on Birdathon 2016
2016 was really the year of the Birdathon for me. I’ve been doing this event since I was a baby birder in 2013, and started co-leading a team (the Raven Maniacs) last year. This year I dove even deeper into Birdathon madness by creating a new team. And not just any team, but a two full day “gonzo” team for women birders called Owl Be Damned. So my spring was mostly about planning, recruiting, and fundraising for two teams with two very different routes.
I’m sort of a big day birder by nature. I love the strategy and the intensity. I love traveling to as many habitats as possible in a short span, stressing out about the list. I enjoy the pressure that comes with “this is our last spot to get a dipper so let’s just wait another 5 minutes” and the way that makes common birds new again. I like challenging myself and my teammates to prepare and beat our list from last year. As much as I enjoy birding generally, I really live for the big day style challenge.
The Raven Maniacs is a pretty well oiled machine at this point. We have a route that was refined years before I joined and a pretty refined strategy. The trip is around 12 hours total. We start near Portland Audubon HQ for forest birds then head over to Fernhill Wetlands for our major morning blitz. We typically end up with somewhere around 50 species between those two locations and a quick stop for Acorn Woodpeckers in Forest Grove before we head out to the coast. The big highlight from Fernhill this year was a Yellow Breasted Chat that made a brief but exciting appearance. It was a lifer for me and it makes delightfully weird sounds.
On the way to the coast we stop a few times in the forest – once at a rest stop that’s pretty hit or miss, and once at “the dipper spot”, where we definitely failed to get a dipper this year. Then the coastal afternoon begins at Haystack Rock. Haystack gives us some gulls, seabirds like murres and auklets, and of course the infamous puffins. We head south from there to Nehalem Bay, check out some sewage ponds (of course), look for a wrentit at a particular campground, and check the bay again from the parking lot of the oyster factory. Our last stop of the day is at Killin Wetlands, which is a personal favorite of mine. We always hope for the Virginia Rail, Sora, American Bittern trifecta and usually get it.
The major difference this year was that we only had one participant beyond myself and Steve, who has been leading the team for years. We decided to go anyways and brought our one team member along. She was a new birder and had a total blast on the trip despite the fact that Steve and I are both pretty intense about Birdathon and tend to move quickly through the stops.
We ended up with a total of 104 species for the day. It was, unsurprisingly, a lower total than last year’s team record breaking 123 species, but it was satisfying anyways. Birds that were unique to this year (compared to the last 3) were American Coot (really!), Black-throated Gray Warbler, Cackling Goose, California Quail, Cassin’s Auklet, Downy Woodpecker, Ring-billed Gull, and Yellow Breasted Chat.
Owl Be Damned was not the low maintenance, pre-planned day that Raven Maniacs was. I’ve been dreaming of doing a gonzo team since my first Birdathon, and rather than join one of them (like an only kinda crazy person), I decided to make one (like a total crazy person).
One thing that I’ve always noticed about birding is that while lots of women are involved in birding generally, the highly competitive style of birding like Big Days or chasing rarities is typically dominated by men. It turns out this is supported by more than just my anecdata – you can read more about the gender split in birding activities here if you’re interested. Within the last year and a half or so I’ve also become good friends with several women who, like me, enjoy competitive birding. I talked to them about my idea to make a hardcore Birdathon team just for women and received a ton of enthusiasm for the concept. And so Owl Be Damned was born (in case you weren’t aware, the bird pun is a mandatory part of every team name).
My friends Kayla and Christine agreed to help co-lead the team with me, and we recruited two other awesome women, Colleen and Kestin. With Kayla’s help I sat down and planned an extremely detailed route and itinerary that included my favorite Oregon birding strategy – go east. The grand plan was to start bright and early just outside of Portland, head down the Willamette Valley and across the Cascades to Sisters, then camp. Day two would be dedicated to birding near Sisters and Bend before heading back home over Mt. Hood. With the plan settled, we all met up at Kayla’s house the night before to drink some beer and make team shirts.
And the next morning loaded Kayla’s Outback well past capacity and headed off.
We started off at Fernhill again, where we got our first 37 species (including an unexpected Lazuli Bunting on a powerline as we drove over there). We didn’t end up with nearly as many duck species as I’d hoped, and we also missed the Yellow Breasted Chat that had been there the week before. It wasn’t the single greatest Fernhill morning of my life, but it was still solid. (eBird Checklist)
And again, drove ourselves over to Pacific University for the Acorn Woodpecker. We ended up seeing these guys later in the day in the valley but for such a quick stop I think it was a good “insurance policy” bird. (eBird Checklist)
After that we checked out Baskett Slough hoping to make up for the ducks that we had missed earlier at Fernhill. We spent a solid 1 hour and 45 minutes there and saw 34 species. It was similarly lacking in ducks, but we did pick up a few species. And I got to see Yellow-Headed Blackbird, which is both an all time favorite of mine, and also only really possible at this one stop for our trip. (eBird Checklist)
After that, we made probably our smartest stop of the day. Colleen mentioned that she just so happened to be a member of Van Duzer Winery right in Baskett Slough, so it seemed like a smart time to stop for lunch. We even managed to add White-crowned Sparrow to our list as we snacked and sampled wine.
Despite a wine stop we were running ahead on time and still behind on duck and shorebird species, so we worked Ankeny NWR into our plans. (eBird Checklist)
At that point we left the valley behind and headed into the Cascades. We stopped at Fisherman’s Bend, where I’ve heard rumor that Harlequin Ducks sometimes nest, though we didn’t find any this year. We did see an American Dipper and caught a Hermit Warbler singing in the parking lot. (eBird Checklist)
We checked Detriot Flats, but there wasn’t much activity so we didn’t stick around long. Dusky Flycatcher was our major find at that spot. (eBird Checklist)
Our last major stop of the day was Lost Lake. I had included two high mountain lakes in the plan – this one and Trillium Lake on day 2. It was a really gorgeous place to be near sunset, and both Barrow’s Goldeneye and Spotted Sandpiper made an appearance. The Goldeneye didn’t show up at Trillium the next day so that ended up being some serious luck. (eBird Checklist)
And then it was time to set up camp. We stayed at Cold Springs Campground hoping to wake up to the sound of Sister area specialties. So after 12 straight hours of birding we stopped and set up camp for the night, then headed into Three Creeks Brewing for dinner. And that’s where everything went nuts.
A few weeks before the trip I contacted a guy that I had met while birding in Central Oregon the previous year. Well, met and then accidentally stalked via listserv for a year if I’m going to be accurate. He’s a super skilled and experienced birder and Central Oregon is his stomping grounds. I was hoping he would have some route suggestions for day 2 for us but I hadn’t heard back, so I cobbled together a plan and off we went. But apparently, somewhere in my hours of being out cell range, he had emailed back. So I snuck outside and called him to see what he had to say. His suggestion was to scrap 70% of my plan for the day. But hey, if the local expert tells you to scrap the plan, you figure it out.
He also had a lead on both Common Poorwhill and Flammulated Owl near our campsite and was kind enough to provide detailed directions for us. So after dinner rather than rest up from our 12 hour birding marathon, we went right back out. The Poorwhills were supposedly a few miles down a dirt road, hanging out on the ground. We crept along the road, looking and listening like we really meant it, but at some point a large truck blasted past us and surely flushed any that had been there. We were hopeful and kept going along but they never materialized. So we crept back down the road and onto another, searching for the Flammulated Owl.
We got to that spot somewhere past 11pm, simultaneously exhausted and wide awake, listening intently for any hint of an owl sound. We heard one sound that may have been, with some imagination, the owl we were looking for – but it didn’t repeat itself for us. No amount of waiting or hilariously bad attempts to imitate a Flammulated Owl seemed to do us any good. And eventually a man with a flashlight appeared out of the darkness down the road and began walking towards our car, throughly terrifying the rest of my team (though personally I’m pretty sure he was a camper out looking for a private spot to ah, commune with nature). Kayla made an impressive driving maneuver and we got right out of there, sans owl. This dip ended up being a pretty big disappointment. We searched for owls harder than I have ever before, and (probably because we named our team with an owl pun), didn’t manage to get a single owl species the whole trip.
The next morning we picked up a few more species around the campground (several from inside the tent), then took our sleep-and-owl-deprived selves straight to Indian Ford Campground, as my inside source had suggested. We were looking for a Green-tailed Towhee, with the directions to “check the manzanita in the parking lot”. And sure enough, within just minutes the bird popped right up and sang for us, as promised.
We also heard an insane mystery noise that we followed forever and never quite caught. 100 points to anyone who can identify it for me. I’m still at a loss.
The main event for the morning was Whiskey Springs. Our morning really was re-routed to incorporate this stop and it did not disappoint. Whiskey Springs really is just a rubbermaid tub in the desert. But it’s THE rubbermaid tub in the desert, so birds that you normally see infrequently, or way up in trees come down to eye level for a drink. And they just keep coming. In our 45 minutes there Whiskey Springs became one of my favorite birding spots in Oregon. (eBird Checklist)
This gorgeous view of a warbler…
…brought to you by this rubbermaid tub in the desert.
Afterwards we headed back to the burns near the campground and Sisters to look for woodpeckers. Somehow we had no luck at all with those spots. They were shockingly quiet. So, we went into town to follow a tip from some birder friends about a feeder in a hotel parking lot. I’m a huge fan of weird little birding spots like that. When someone tells you “you just HAVE to check out the Best Western parking lot” you know it’s going to be good. Despite wandering some really prime woodpecker habitat in the forests, this feeder is where we picked up our White-headed Woodpecker (eBird Checklist).
Then it was off to Hatfield Lake, our favorite sewage pond in the desert. Kayla, Christine, and I went out here for the first time in February to chase a White Wagtail and I was excited to return. It had proven to be a lucky spot for us once before. We didn’t end up snagging as any shorebird species at this spot as I was hoping for. One of the lessons of this year was that the later May trip date does have some drawbacks. I think most of the shorebirds had gone on their way by this point. We did find some Wilson’s Phalaropes, an Eared Grebe, and the Tundra Swan that we knew had been hanging around. Further down the path we got to hear a Vesper Sparrow singing in the sagebrush. Vesper Sparrow is one my favorite bird songs and I had been practicing identifying it for a long time but had yet to hear it in person. We never saw the bird, but as soon as I heard it I knew what it was. It was kind enough to keep singing until everyone had a chance to hear as well. (eBird Checklist)
I had scouted the area a few weeks before and found that there was a Golden Eagle nest at Smith Rock, which happened to be on our route. We stopped there for a quick look and managed to find one almost-ready-to-fledge baby still in the nest. I believe they took off within the next few days so just barely made it in time for that bird. (eBird Checklist)
The last location that had been suggested to us by our Central Oregon birding expert was Lower Bridge Way, which was conveniently pretty near to Smith Rock. I had mentioned that Christine’s nemesis bird was the Yellow Breasted Chat and we had missed it at Fernhill. I was really hoping to find one for her somewhere on the trip. Apparently one had been hanging around but we were warned that it was unlikely to be singing by the time we got over there in the afternoon. We walked pretty far down the road and didn’t manage to get any Chat to sing for us, but we did hear California Quail, and Canyon Wren (which I was worried we were going to miss entirely).There was also a really tantalizing sound that I thought could have been an owl, but I didn’t get a good enough sample of the call. According to the birding listservs the Chat returned later that day after we had left, because that’s what nemesis birds do, but we had to move on to our last few locations. The hardest part of Birdathons for me is walking away from a bird that’s you were expecting and counting on, or a good mystery sound. We managed, but barely. (eBird Checklist)
Our last Central Oregon location was the Crooked River Canyon view point. I mostly just included this one because it’s a really cool view and right off the highway on our way home, but it provided us with really good looks at White-throated Swifts and a gorgeous photo-op with a Bullocks Oriole as well. (eBird Checklist)
The last real stop of the trip was Trillium Lake. After slogging through a long chunk of driving, we arrived right about at sunset. This spot was a last shot at some mountain species and ducks. Other than one very vocal and ridiculous sounding Bald Eagle we didn’t find a ton of activity in the area. We did manage to spot some Ring-necked Ducks far off along the shore, which added our last species of the trip, bringing us to 129 species total.
Back in town we stopped at Cornelius Pass Roadhouse for some beer, much needed food, list checking, and bonding. We sat outside in hopes that maybe the resident Barn Owl would grace us with his presence for a moment, but we were doomed to finish the trip without a single owl species. Next time we’ll name the team after gulls so we will transfer the curse to that set of species instead.
Amazing photo credit belongs 100% to Kayla McCurry. Colleen McDaniel did the eBird listing for our team.