Rivers & Mountains of Oregon & Washington May 16—23, 2015
Posted by Bob Sundstrom
Three downy owlets peered at their surroundings from atop a nest some 40 feet up in a large conifer. It’s a young brood of Great Gray Owls, about half grown, looking for their next meal. Not more than a hundred feet away, the owlets’ mother perches on a branch near the trunk of another tall evergreen, her body close to the trunk and all but invisible due to its cryptic gray feathering patterned just like the tree’s bark. As she gazes back and forth, her piercing yellow eyes contrast with her dark face. She glides through the nearby trunks, ultimately returning to the nest. Nearby, a Black-backed Woodpecker calls, then drums atop a snag. It’s a male, and its golden forecrown glints against its black crown feathers. Flocks of Red Crossbills call overhead, as the birds bound from tree to tree, adults and lots of recent fledglings. Viewed in the scope, the crossed bill tips are dramatic. Three species of nuthatches are calling simultaneously, at one point all perched in the same tree. A Williamson’s Sapsucker drums a triple roll of notes, then flies in. Now there’s a pair, the two so unlike in appearance they were once thought separate species.
This scene recounts a sequence of events over a couple of hours on our Rivers & Mountains of Oregon & Washington tour in mid-May 2015. Our group was in the Blue Mountains of Oregon on a pleasant morning, the open forest floor bright with wildflowers. Not long after this sequence, as we got our first good looks at gorgeous Townsend’s Warblers, a tiny Northern Pygmy-Owl flew in, keeping the group busy at the spotting scope for quite a while.
Two days later we crossed spectacular high elevation grasslands in north-central Oregon. Here we had the good fortune to see another owl species. A pair of Short-eared Owls flew moth-like across a broad expanse of grass, the male in courtship display as it clapped its long wings briskly under its torso in flight, making a series of sharp snaps. Our good fortune held with two shy and much anticipated gallinaceous birds too, as we saw a pair each of Chukar and Gray Partridge.
The weeklong Rivers & Mountains of Oregon & Washington tour begins in Portland, Oregon, then runs east along the Columbia River Gorge, whose towering cliffs and tree-clad borders put it among the most scenic places in the United States. By the first afternoon, we had turned north from the river toward towering Mt. Adams in the South Cascades, where we spent 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, and with breathtaking views of the snow-covered peak. Leaving Mt. Adams Lodge after two nights, the route runs along the scenic Klickitat River Canyon 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 with young orange chicks, American Avocets, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes, American White Pelican, loads of Cinnamon Teal, Virginia Rail and Sora, legions of 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.
Our time at Mt. Adams Lodge was splendid. The seed feeders brought in Cassin’s Finches, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Pine Siskins. 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 warblers, flycatchers, and vireos. 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 to Klickitat Canyon where Lazuli Buntings sang at every stop, and a Lewis’s Woodpecker posed beautifully.
We saw a remarkable ten species of woodpeckers during the tour. Ten warblers included Hermit, Black-throated Gray, and MacGillivray’s. And spring singing was at its peak, birds’ voices sounding forth nonstop. But of all the singing birds seen on the tour, it was one of the smallest—a tiny Pacific Wren—that offered up the longest and most complex song.