Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Ptarmigan Myth.

Over the years since I began birding I have heard many a story about the mythical White-tailed Ptarmigan that are said to inhabit Mount Rainier National Park.  I believed the tales I heard of birders snowshoeing for days before finally finding the blinding white bird against the blinding white snow, of hikers spotting a rock-colored bird amid a field of rocks.  After this week I feel confident in saying that despite the grand stories I have heard and the eBird checklists I have read and the photos I have seen, the White-tailed Ptarmigan of Mount Rainier (WTPMR) are a myth.*

How could this happen, you ask?  Let me offer a few ideas.

1. Ptarmigan look-alikes could easily be built out of snow.

2. A lot of rocks look like birds.

(From this website)

3. White-tailed Ptarmigan exist in other places and folks get their photos mixed up.

(Borrowed without permission from Steve's blog, ptarmigan in CO)

4. Birders want to believe in this myth, and so they do.

I get it.  I wanted to believe also.  But after this week, on my 8th (?!) attempt to find this alpine chicken I have finally accepted what I had long suspected:  WTPMR are not real.

Even with that fact cemented I will continue to go up to that mountain every year because it is awesome enough without the ptarm ptarm.   The scenery is always jaw-dropping, the wildlife is fantastic, and the wildflowers are dreamy.

For my 40th (!!) birthday this week Jacob and I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the Sunrise parking area bright and early.  The plan was to hike a sort of loop up to the Second Burroughs where ptarmigan had been reported all weekend.  The air was campfire smoky to start, but thankfully it cleared up quite a bit after an hour or two.

We started our hike along a gravel access road at the southwest corner of the parking lot and followed it up to Shadow Lake, then continued up to the Emmons Glacier Overlook.  A hoary marmot was lounging about on the stone wall of the lookout with its fur blowing in the breeze.

The views from this spot below the wall were amazing.

Also near the lookout were some chipmunks being adorable.

As we made our way up towards the first Burroughs, one of three peaks on Burroughs Mountain, we started to see birds.

Clark's Nutcracker

 Peregrine Falcon

Somewhere between the first and second Burroughs we stopped to eat snacks while a raven watched.  Later the raven found its own snack that I still cannot identify.

While we were sitting there a couple came hiking down from the other direction.  The woman stopped and pointed at something with her trekking pole:  a mountain goat!  We had not noticed it.

I asked the couple if they had seen any chicken-sized birds and they of course perpetuated the myth, even with their status as non-birders.

Back on the trail the habitat looked perfect for ptarmigan but we only found ptarmigan-shaped rocks.  And Horned Larks.

After viewing a likely goshawk way in the distance, we made it to the trail intersection where we would turn to hike up to the second Burroughs.

And the view of the trail ahead of us:

This must be the closest I have ever been to Rainier itself.

Top of second Burroughs, ptarm-habitat galore

Again we found Horned Larks rather than ptarmigan.

Rainier and second Burroughs on left, Fremont Lookout right of middle, Frozen Lake at right

A herd of mountain goats was lounging in the valley between Burroughs and the Fremont Lookout.

Along the trail that would lead us back down Burroughs towards Frozen Lake we had more Horned Larks including a youngster still being fed by an adult.  As we were watching the larks Jacob noticed a bird at the feet of a woman that had stopped near us, a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch!

Across the valley we saw a little goat family grazing away from the herd.

We followed the trail back past Frozen Lake to a view of the trail we had taken up the mountain.  Shadow Lake can be seen on the left and the Emmons Glacier Overlook is somewhere in there also.

At one point I had stopped to wait for a couple to pass us.  They didn't get far before they also stopped and the woman said she had just seen a black bear run across the trail ahead.  Ooh!  We proceeded slowly and scanned down slope of the trail for a minute before Jacob spotted the young black bear at a pleasantly safe-seeming distance.

Unfortunately since it's Rainier it didn't take long for a giant pileup of humans to congregate, including one young girl who was absolutely terrified.  We only stuck around for a couple more minutes because of this.

Hell yeah!  It had been a few years since I'd seen a bear so this was awesome.  Birthday bear for the win.

We made our way back down the trail to the parking area where the temperature had heated up to the 70's, and I finally felt the need to take my hoodie off.  Back in Portland it was in the 90's, so we had really made a good choice in heading up there!  A most excellent birthday on the mountain!!

*Some people still believe that White-tailed Ptarmigan exist on Rainier.  They may attack this post with harsh words but do not fall for their lies.  Ptarmigan-laden eBird reports from Rainier are the real fake news. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Haystack Rock and Nehalem Bay State Park

To celebrate Jacob returning from school in Texas we decided to head to the coast for some tide pools, year birds, and a break from the hot sun.  Low tide at Haystack Rock was scheduled for sometime between 6 and 7 a.m. which was perfect to beat the crowds.  Our first wildlife in Cannon Beach was a couple of not-so-wild bunnies hanging out near the public parking.

We got out to Haystack Rock and quickly became absorbed in tide pool action, alongside the Western Gulls and a raccoon.

Raccoon on the go

 Chiton belly

Good ochre sea star action

 The real tide pool highlight came when Jacob called me over saying he found a nudibranch!  We had never seen them before so we were psyched.  After finding a couple more one of the Haystack Rock Awareness volunteers came over and pointed out a ton more.  SO GOOD.

Opalescent nudibranch (the first one Jacob found)

Jacob vs. nudibranch

Another opalescent nudi

Sea clown nudibranch

Sea clown out of the water

White-and-orange-tipped nudibranch

Danger danger, I have a new thing to obsess over!  The tide was starting to come in and the tide pools were getting more crowded, so we decided to back up and start looking at the birds.

 Harlequin Ducks

 Tufted Puffins

 Common Murres

 At one point a couple of puffins got into a scuffle and tumbled off their ledge. 

I turned around to scan the beach for shorebirds and instead watched a gull drag a dead bird out of the water. 

Then another interested gull showed up and the first gull swung it around in circles by its neck.

Then I walked over to see what the dead bird was.  Young murre? 

After Haystack Rock we stopped for coffee refills and snacks at the Bald Eagle Coffee House, ate our snacks by the settling ponds, then headed south to Nehalem Bay State Park.  Neither of us had been to this park before but we knew our target bird, Wandering Tattler, was most likely found on the jetty two miles south of the parking lot.  We chose to walk south on the ocean side of the spit to get there.

As did all the horses.

Closer to the dunes there were tons of signs about Snowy Plover nesting areas and telling people to stay out of the upper part of the beach.  Unfortunately we saw a lot of horse tracks in the protected areas.  Grr.  We actually didn't see any shorebirds on the beach, only some flyover Black-bellied Plovers.  Brown Pelicans were more willing to pose for photos though.

Once at the jetty we started checking each little access point for tattlers and eventually Jacob spotted one (then three more). 

Lifer for Jacob

After sitting with them for a bit we made our way towards the trail that would lead us north back to the parking lot. 

Soft soft sand... ugh... 

We noticed a trail to the bay side of the spit and headed out there to see what we could find.  The sand seemed more compact than the trail so then decided to make our way back to the parking lot that way.

Young Caspian Tern

Jelly covered in little flea things

Our plan to walk the beach back failed when we ran out of beach and we had to follow an elk trail through the shrubs back inland.  A Pacific-slope Flycatcher was super interested in my pishing for once.


The trails kept taking us back to the water, then we would have to turn back inland.  Along the way we found the craziest ant hill I had ever seen.

Eventually we made it back to the main trail and back to the parking lot so we could head home.  Only took us three hours... Yay Portland traffic.  Good times!!!