Rivers and Mountains of Oregon and Washington May 20—26, 2012

Posted by Bob Sundstrom


Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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An owlet, a young Great Gray Owl just out of the nest, stands motionless atop a fallen log. It blinks slowly at its surroundings, but hardly moves a feather. About a hundred feet away an adult owl, the owlet's mother, perches on the branch of a small conifer, her body close to the trunk, all but invisible with cryptic gray feathering patterned like the tree's bark. Flocks of Red Crossbills call overhead, as the birds bound from tree to tree, adults and lots of recent fledglings. Townsend's Warblers sing lazily, and three species of nuthatches are calling. Suddenly a Black-backed Woodpecker flies in and hitches up the trunk of a tall larch, showing its all black back and subtle face pattern. Another woodpecker flies in, stopping near the top of a broken-off tree, where there is a fresh nest hole. This woodpecker is tawny brown, with a barred back. It's not a flicker, but a female Williamson's Sapsucker.

This scene recounts a half-hour sequence of events on the Rivers and Mountains of Oregon and Washington tour in late May 2012. Our tour group was in the Blue Mountains of Oregon on a pleasant morning, the open forest floor bright with wildflowers. It was our second Great Gray Owl sighting of the morning. We had just come from watching a female owl on its nest, a bird we took time to admire for at least half an hour.

The day before, we had crossed spectacular high elevation grasslands in north central Oregon. There were owls that day too: a Short-eared Owl flying over the vast expanse of grass, and a family of Great Horned Owls nesting in a rock outcropping, the huge nestlings golden-brown with a few bits of down still on the face. The splendid drive through the grasslands was dotted with good bird sightings: Long-billed Curlews foraging off the roadside, a Gray Partridge flying off the shoulder and then pausing in the open along a fence line, Say's Phoebes and Rock Wrens at basalt outcroppings, and flashy Horned Larks and Lark Sparrows.

The weeklong Rivers and Mountains of Oregon and Washington tour begins in Portland, Oregon, and then runs east along the Columbia River Gorge, whose towering cliffs and tree-clad borders place it among the most scenic places in the United States. By the first afternoon, we turn north from the river toward towering Mt. Adams in the South Cascades, where we spend two nights at Mt. Adams Lodge. The comfortable lodge sits at the foot of 12,281 ft. Mt. Adams on many acres of forested grounds. Leaving Mt. Adams Lodge after two nights, the route then runs along the scenic Klickitat River gorge and then east along the Columbia Gorge.

From the Columbia we departed southeast, across the grasslands just noted, and back among forested slopes and along the Grande Ronde River to La Grande, Oregon at the foot of the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains are enough reason to head for La Grande, but there is also an extensive, protected marsh just south of town, where we saw nesting Sandhill Cranes, American Avocets, Wilson's and Red-necked phalaropes, American White Pelican, Cinnamon Teal, Virginia Rail, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and much more.

The tour traverses a remarkable diversity of beautiful natural landscapes: the river gorges, the broad meadows backed by stands of conifers, the high grasslands with rocky outcrops, the lovely oak-clad Klickitat River canyon, rivers running through pines and firs, and marshes alive with waterfowl and other birds. And spring is at its peak, birds singing almost nonstop.

Our time at Mt. Adams Lodge was splendid. Seed feeders were busy with Cassin's Finches, Evening and Black-headed grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and chickadees. Hummingbird feeders pulled in Calliope, Black-chinned, and Rufous hummers, all at close range. A Red-breasted Sapsucker frequented sap wells on a birch tree, the same tree from which the seed feeders were hung. A short walk on the lodge grounds quickly led to an impressive list of bird sightings: MacGillivray's, Townsend's, and Wilson's warblers; Hammond's and Olive-sided flycatchers; Cassin's Vireo; Western Tanager; Western Bluebird; and a brilliant Lazuli Bunting. A Townsend's Solitaire was a regular sight along the driveway. The lodge rooms were comfortable, the food excellent, the atmosphere relaxed. It was just a short drive from the lodge to find White-headed Woodpecker and Gray Flycatcher, a bit longer for Black-throated Gray Warbler and Lewis's Woodpecker. We saw ten species of woodpeckers during the tour.

It was hard to say goodbye to the lodge, but there were more birds to come, including those Great Gray Owls.