Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Birding the underbirded: Sherman County edition

On Monday Jacob and I decided at the last minute to take a trip out to Sherman County to continue my project of (e)birding the less birded areas of Oregon this year.

 Sherman County location, courtesy of Wikipedia

I planned out a birding route during the drive using my handy print out of birding sites in the area from the ECAS website.  We skipped the top hotspot in the county, Deschutes River State Recreation Area, and headed to Fulton Canyon.

This road did not prove particularly birdy but 5 out of our 8 species were new for the "hotspot."  We turned left on Welk Road which was mentioned in the site guide as having rolling hills and riparian areas.  Indeed.  The weirdest thing here was probably the tree full of Ring-necked Pheasants.

This is not how I typically encounter pheasants.  The site guide mentioned this road as having had Say's Phoebes in the past though I was not expecting one in January.  But there it was.

The phoebe disappeared soon after but reappeared with a shrike hot on its tail.  Then they both disappeared.  As the road approaches the town of Biggs there are excellent views, though a bit hazy on this day.

These grassy hillsides were holding lots of birds we could not quite see.  I pished and out popped at least 40 White-crowned Sparrows.

On the opposite side of the road some American Goldfinches were feeding on seed heads.

Sherman County only has 18 hotspots in eBird so I suggested Welk Road as one.

Welk Road leads down to the frontage road between the towns of Biggs and Rufus, which as you can see is the number 3 hotspot in the county.  I imagine this is partially because it's close to I-84.

We drove the road to Rufus hoping for good ducks in the ponds but they were mostly frozen over.

Day bird

The road dead-ends a little bit past town and there we found my first county birds of the day, a covey of California Quail.

Last one to hide

From here we drove north under the highway and east to the John Day Dam.  At the boat launch area a bunch of Cedar Waxwings were being conspicuous but we could not turn any into Bohemians.

Also around were a Yellow-rumped Warbler and a couple Red-breasted Nuthatches.  Here is a terrible combo shot:

At the actual boat ramp a gull landed that appears to be a pure Western.

At the dam spillway we found the five American White Pelicans that are wintering there along with a pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes, some Canada Geese, and of course tons of cormorants.

From here we drove back along the river to the Rufus Treaty Fishing Access Site on Rockbeach Lane, stopping when we came upon a ton of ducks.  As I was getting the scope set up Jacob called out a Eurasian Wigeon.

I shot him down, telling him it was a hybrid because the sides weren't clean grey.  But then I sent it to Seagull Steve who shot me down, saying no, it's just molting.  So yay!  This turned out to be only the 4th eBird record I could find in Sherman County.

We had been scoping the ducks for only a couple minutes when a little boat showed up and ducks started flying.  A group of Redheads was nice.

We drove to the end of the road where the lighting was terrible for scoping ducks.

The lighting was just fine for looking at Killdeer though and we had at least six here, far too many for eBird's filter.

Killdeer habitat

From here we drove through Rufus to explore Scott Canyon Road and the Wasco Sewage Ponds.  Scott Canyon was very quiet and the sewage ponds held only two Mallards and one Common Goldeneye.  Our final stop was DeMoss Park where I've been a few times as it has a bathroom.

On this day there were maybe 80-100 Eurasian Collared-Doves hanging out by the grain elevators.  From there we headed home.

We ended the trip with 50 Sherman species for the day, six of which were new for me (18 new ones for Jacob).  This put us in a tie for second place in the county for the year which is funny.  We covered seven spots recommended by the ECAS site guide, most of which mentioned they needed more eBird data.  It was a really fun day in Oregon's third least birded county and I really look forward to more trips out there this year!  Good times!!!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

2019 5MR Challenge Wrap-up

Now that it's a couple weeks into 2020 I thought I'd look back at the 5MR birding challenge last year and share some of my favorite things.  Let's start with the birds!  I saw a lot of great birds in my 5MR in 2019 including some I was not expecting.  Time for a top 10 of my personal favorite self-found birds!

10. Sora

Found in September at a small water quality facility tucked into a dense residential area.  One of those places I stop at on the way to or from somewhere with very low expectations.

9. Swamp Sparrow

Found in late October when I was checking out a park I had never visited before.

8. Barn Owl

There are quite a few Barn Owls in my 5MR but this is a list of my favorites and I still love them so much. 

7. Northern and Loggerhead Shrikes

Both found at my "Walmart patch" which was quite productive for me this year.  The Northern was in February and the Loggerhead in March.

6. Western Kingbird

I actually had two WEKI's in my 5MR this spring but this one above was my favorite.  Found while walking our three dogs at the local cemetery in early June.  One of my best cemetery birds.

5. Horned Larks

Found in February on a walk at the same cemetery as the WEKI.  Very unexpected away from the river.

4. MacGillivray's Warbler
No photo.  Found during my spring Big Day for the 5MR Challenge at Biddle Lake.  Definitely one of the harder warblers and it was completely new for my 5MR list.

3. Olive-sided Flycatcher

Also found on my Big Day along the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail.  Complete shocker as I've never seen one away from the mountains or at least hills (like Mount Tabor).

2. Mountain Chickadee

Found in mid-December completely unexpectedly along a weird part of Burnt Bridge Creek.  One of four county birds I picked up in my 5MR this year.

1. Green-tailed Towhee

My biggest holy shit moment of birding this year!  Way out of range and possibly only a second county record.  When Jim Danzenbaker came to see it he was looking around at the area and made the comment, "I don't even know where I am right now!"  This was kinda the whole point of 5MR birding for me. Birding those weird places no one pays attention to and realizing they have great potential.

So yeah, the birds were obviously a big part of why I loved birding my 5MR this year, but there was a lot more to it.  Sharing my finds with a community of other people birding their 5MRs was pretty fun.  Learning what other people's normals are and how birding changes for them throughout the year.  Check out this graph Jacob made for me:

A lot of people did not submit results every single month but I picked out 20 people from around the country to compare their trajectories.  Just seeing that spike in April-May makes me excited for spring birding!  Here's another version with fewer people:

Seeing the numbers that came in during the early months of 2019 made me so grateful for the quality birding we have here in the Pacific Northwest year round.  100 species in January is not a particularly difficult feat yet for those colder climates 100 was a number more likely to be achieved during spring migration.

When I started planning this challenge and a lot of people started signing up Jacob asked me: "Do these people think there's gonna be a prize?"  Hope not!  But I do want to share the top birders in this completely unfair challenge. 19 birders broke 200 species!

1. Birdingbyrv had the highest 5MR patch total in Texas with 271 species!
2. Shyloh Robinson (Utah) 253
3. Jerald Reb (New Jersey) 245*
4. Jay Desgrosellier (California) 240
5. Phil Pickering (Oregon) 239
6. Gavin Platt (Ontario, Canada) 229
7. Aaron Maizlish (California) 226
8. Rob Fowler (California) 221
9. Caroline Poli (Florida) 220
10. Ann Marie Wood (Washington) 218
10. Jim Sparrell (New Hampshire) 218*
12. Aaron Stutz (Wisconsin) 216
13. Nick Mrvelj (Oregon) 215
14. Steve Hampton (California) 213
15. Kevin Lapp (California) 211
16. Benham (California) 209
17. Cynthia Bridge (Wisconsin) 207
18. Joel Barrett (California) 205
19. Dylan Pedro (Connecticut) 203
*last known total, did not send final results for the year

California and Oregon are represented heavily here which I think has much to do with the skew of participants in general.  Gavin, Jim, and Dylan showed that the northeast has great 5MR potential as well as the more obvious Texas and Florida.  Oh and don't forget about Wisconsin!  Who knew?!

Thanks again to everyone who participated!  Hearing your birding tales and more was a highlight of the challenge for me.  Check out the complete list of results here.  Those that submitted year-end totals are highlighted in dark orange.

One last thing.

Dear eBird, I'm sorry I have permanently fucked up your patch lists with hundreds of 78.5 square mile patches in violation of your Patch list definition.

Perhaps it is time to create a separate list section for 5MRs like the Oregon Birding Association has done.

Hopefully the good that comes from many people birding locally outweighs the blatant abuse of patch lists.  I think it does.

Happy New Year!  Cheers to more 5MR birding in 2020!!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Birding the underbirded: Morrow County edition

My birding goals for 2020 are a bit of a shift from 2019's 5MR-focused birding: to bird the less birded areas of Oregon.  Looking at eBird tells me that the counties in Oregon with the fewest checklists are Gilliam, Wheeler, Sherman, and Morrow. 

Check out Morrow there.  It has 4078 checklists TOTAL.  The auto tour at Ridgefield NWR in my current Clark County, WA has 4255 checklists alone (there are 25,541 total in the county). 

 Morrow County location, courtesy of Wikipedia

I decided to start my plans with Morrow as it's a fairly accessible county with some of the top birding locations close to I-84.  My county list was at 79 and using eBird I made a list of 30 target species for January.  Years ago I printed off a bunch of the birding locations for various counties on the ECAS website and I combined this with eBird to decide where to go.

My plan was to drive straight to Morrow with no stopping but I could not resist a stop at the Blandford Canyon exit in Gilliam to scan the river.  Amazingly I scored a county bird there with a Common Loon.

My first stop was at a location I found on eBird 7 miles south of the big Love's Truck Stop, Tower Road Ponds.  The road itself is not super busy but every few minutes a big truck would barrel past on its way to or from the highway.  The ponds extend on both sides of the road and I found 18 species here.

The duck variety included mostly Mallards, a couple Ring-necked females, two Northern Shovelers, a Common Goldeneye, and a small duck I could not identify.  Maybe a Green-winged Teal?

Smaller birds included a Marsh Wren, Song and White-crowned Sparrows, an American Goldfinch, robins, a Spotted Towhee, and an intergrade Northern Flicker.



Raptors included a Northern Harrier, a Red-tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel.  The noisiest birds were the Snow Geese flying over nonstop.  The eBird filter for Snow Goose is set at 100 for some reason but there were thousands.

Though none of these birds were new for me in the county a few were new for the hotspot: Snow Goose, Spotted Towhee, Common Goldeneye.   There are only 53 checklists for this hotspot so far with 81 species detected.  Apparently it's a Tricolored Blackbird spot in summer and that might be why it has this many checklists at all.

Next I headed to Boardman Marina and RV Park, the #2 hotspot in the county.  In December a birder found both a rare Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a rare Hutton's Vireo here though I was not expecting to find either of these species.

I picked up my first county birds here, American Wigeons and Common Mergansers.  A Belted Kingfisher was pleasantly posted up in front of the dramatic sky.

I poked around the jetty rocks for a bit and found my county Horned Grebes.

There's a super scenic gazebo here.

South of the gazebo is a wooded area that was birdy as hell.  Not that hell would be particularly birdy, except of course for those that hate/fear birds.  But anyway.

Dark-eyed Junco, not quite slate enough for Slate-colored I don't think

It was here that a stripey red-capped sapsucker flew right across in front of me and landed nearby.  I lifted my camera and it took off into the sun towards some trees where I never relocated it.  I'm fairly confident that was the Yellow-bellied but not confident enough to eBird it (just sapsucker sp.).

While I tried to find it again I found my county Downy Woodpecker, some California Quail, lots of robins and flickers, and my county Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creeper.

On my way out I found a few Golden-crowned Kinglets in the parking lot pine trees, another county bird.  I had 8 total new county birds here out of 29 total on my checklist.  A few had not been recorded during this time period in eBird, represented by the red dots.

Next I planned to hit the Ulman Utility Ponds, the Boardman Sewage Ponds, and then head to Irrigon, the next town over.   I made it to the first ponds and was distracted by the mass of crows and gulls trying to snag snacks at the building across the road. 

The ECAS website mentioned a way to get better views of the ponds but I did it wrong and ended up heading out of town.  I decided to head to Irrigon rather than turn around and try again. 

Irrigon Marina Park was my destination which is similar to Boardman Marina but birded far less.  The first eBird checklist was only in 2015, and there are only 42 checklists total.

The first bird I saw when I got out of the car was a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Good start.

My instinct was to walk west towards the marina and jetty but a bunch of ducks to the east had me curious.  They turned out to be all Mallards but then I noticed a Bald Eagle flying in, pursued by a Red-tailed Hawk. 

A mostly-eaten Mallard was dangling from the eagle's talons and it landed in a tree to the east. 

Eventually the hawk and another Red-tail harassed it enough and it took off again, this time flying low over the Mallard flock in the river.  Kind of a psychological warfare with the dead Mallard dangling. 

It landed on some wood in the river, then two more eagles showed up.  The original eagle took off again, flying higher over the river, still clutching the Mallard remains.

All this action had drawn me east along the river so I decided to keep on going till I hit a more brushy/woodsy area.  A sign indicated there was a trail but it was a little sketchy-looking.  I heard birds though so I decided to check it out.

Here I found my final county bird of the day, a Hermit Thrush.

The thrush and nearby Spotted Towhees were new birds for the park checklist. 

Out on the water I could see some distant ducks that may have been my county scaup but I could barely see them, let alone identify them.  I did manage some Western Grebes.

I finished birding here with 21 species which put me at #3 for the hotspot top birders.  Clearly this spot needs more visits!

After this park I planned to drive back through Boardman and find the sewage ponds but I had run out of time since I left the dogs at home and Jacob was out of town.

I look forward to more visits out here in 2020!  I had never birded any of these locations before and I hope to hit more new spots in the spring.  My Morrow list is up to 88 species with plenty more spring targets to keep me busy.  Good times!!!