Rivers & Mountains of Oregon & Washington May 18—24, 2014

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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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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There are many terrific songbird specialties in the West and Pacific Northwest, but only one of them routinely splashes into an icy, rushing stream. That’s right; the American Dipper is one of a kind on the continent. On the first day of birding for the tour, there were high hopes of a dipper sighting. We had just turned up the drainage of the Little White Salmon River, stopping near a salmon hatchery. Pretty quickly, a first dipper was spotted from a viewpoint on a small bridge, but the dipper was distant, spotting scope distance, standing atop a rock wall overlooking the river. An okay view, but…  Then a moment later we began to hear a terrific racket of high-pitched notes, repetitive notes that sounded like begging. And there, just behind where we stood on the bridge, were two fledgling dippers squawking at maximum volume toward a harried parent dipper. The two chicks—full-size already—rapidly fluttered their wings and begged unceasingly as the parent searched for prey in the water nearby. Now the adult emerged from the water with a caddis fly larva in its bill, the larva held within a tough, cocoon-like case made of tiny bits of stone. The parent hammered the stiff case on a rock until it could extract the larva, which it quickly dropped into the waiting, open beaks. This pattern repeated for 10 or 15 minutes, as we watched in amazement from perhaps 50 feet away. Finally the parent flew off, likely on yet another foraging mission downstream.

The dipper scene was a truly memorable tour highlight, one of quite a few. Earlier the same day we had watched a tiny Pacific Wren singing within the emerald-green surroundings of a shady forest glen, surrounded by ferns and moss-covered trunks. A new bird for many on the tour, the wren at one point fastened its toes to the bark of a cedar tree, tipped its head back, cocked its ridiculously short tail, and sang and sang. This is no ordinary bird song, but one of the longest and most complex of any bird, a miraculous vocal performance, and another well-remembered birding experience of the trip.

The Rivers and Mountains of Oregon and Washington tour traverses a remarkable diversity of beautiful natural landscapes, with a bird diversity to match. The tour begins in Portland, Oregon, and then moves east along the Columbia River Gorge, whose towering basalt cliffs and tree-clad lower reaches place it among the most scenic places in the United States. By the first afternoon, we turn north from the river toward massive, snow-covered Mt. Adams to spend two nights at Mt. Adams Lodge, a comfortable lodge on many acres of forested grounds and with a priceless view of the mountain. With the lodge as a base, we explore a range of habitats within easy driving distance. Day 4 takes us down the scenic, oak-clad Klickitat River gorge, and then east along the Columbia Gorge toward La Grande, Oregon, nestled in the Blue Mountains and near the Grande Ronde River in the northeastern part of the state. The final full day of the tour leads along the Grande Ronde River, then across miles of high elevation grasslands before once again returning to the Columbia Gorge.

Another 2014 highlight scene on another tour day, near Glenwood, Washington: We walked just into the edge of a stand of Ponderosa pines to get a better look at a singing Gray Flycatcher, which obliged nicely. A bit of owl hoot imitation got a strong mobbing response from the local songbirds. Red-breasted, White-breasted, and Pygmy nuthatches—all three species turned up in the branches above, as did both a lovely male Mountain Bluebird and then a Townsend’s Solitaire, and then a Western Bluebird and Cassin’s Finches. A remarkably busy scene of scolding birds overhead.

And, just a few minutes before and a few yards away, we had scoped a male White-headed Woodpecker, another Western pine specialist. The White-headed Woodpecker counted among nine woodpecker species seen well on the tour. The tally included multiple Lewis’s Woodpeckers, in ideal lighting to show off their rose, pink, and iridescent green feathering. All three Western sapsuckers appeared too, in their respective habitats: Williamson’s, Red-naped, and Red-breasted.

We also had terrific views of 10 warbler species, including MacGillivray’s, Black-throated Gray, Hermit, and Wilson’s. At Mt. Adams Lodge, Calliope, Black-chinned, and Rufous hummingbirds hovered constantly at nectar feeders, as Evening Grosbeaks and Cassin’s Finches pillaged the sunflower seeds. At Oregon’s Ladd Marsh, Black Terns hawked insects off the water’s surface; Wilson’s Phalaropes foraged alongside American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts; huge American White Pelicans roosted at the pond’s edge; and ten species of nesting ducks included many pairs of handsome Cinnamon Teal. And our final afternoon crossing of wildflower-studded grasslands put us face to face with a roadside pair of Chukar.

It was a splendid week in the scenic Northwest, during a marvelous season.