Wheeler County

 Back in January 2020 I took a day trip out to Wheeler County to do a little exploring and find some county birds. I managed only 28 species all day and accepted the fact that Wheeler birding is not as easy as some other counties. There's no big hotspot filled with a variety of habitats where you can roll up and nab 50 species in an hour or two of birding. 


For comparison, here are the top hotspots for Crook County just to the west and south of Wheeler:

To bird Wheeler and get any substantial number of birds you need time so I planned a little solo camping trip out there last week. I used eBird and the ECAS website to create a more thorough than usual itinerary that would take me through most of the county.  

The first stop of many was along Upper Lost Valley Road in the northern part of the county and I picked up my first five county birds including Hairy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, and this Brown Creeper:


Pygmy Nuthatch

 My route took me south on Lost Valley Road then west on Hoover Creek Road and eventually all the way to Highway 19. Along the way I had more county birds like a flock of Evening Grosbeaks, Wild Turkey, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Say's Phoebe, and Prairie Falcon. Once on 19 I headed south to the farm pond and sewage ponds just north of Fossil. 


The farm pond had my county Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Northern Rough-winged Swallows while the sewage ponds had my county Rock Pigeons, Gadwalls, Green-winged Teals, and the above Blue-winged Teal.

From Fossil I drove Highway 218 west to the county line which is the John Day River. A small boat ramp and parking area offer a little riverside birding where I saw a hummingbird perched in a distant shrub. I knew any hummingbird would be a county bird and I fired off some bad photos.


I was pretty sure it was an Anna's Hummingbird but started doubting it when I saw it was pretty rare (only a few eBird records in Wheeler County). Thankfully Seagull Steve talked me back into it being an Anna's. 


I drove back east along 218 to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument (JDFBNM) where I was hoping for White-throated Swifts.  There's a bathroom/picnic area that had a bunch of people when I drove by earlier so I opted for the Clarno Arch Trail instead. 

Ahead you can see the Palisades, eroded remnants of ancient volcanic mudslides

The trail passes this petrified log:


It was an unseasonably hot afternoon (in the 80's) and I decided not to go any farther. On the way back down one single swift flew over and disappeared.


There are marshes along 218 that are supposed to host Marsh Wrens and Virginia Rails but I failed to find any of either. A displaying male Lesser Goldfinch was nice though. About 8 miles from Fossil a freakin Mountain Quail was just standing on the side of the road.


I stopped in Fossil for the cell service and gas, then drove east on 19 to Shelton County Wayside where I was the only person camping for the night. 


Glacier lilies were blooming in huge patches, some taking over entire campsites.  Pretty cool. 

The next morning I packed up and headed south on Rowe Creek Road to Rowe Creek Reservoir.  It was still very early and not much going on yet.


The road changes to Twickenham Road and the scenery keeps getting better. At one spot I heard noisy flock of Evening Grosbeaks going to to town on some trees. 


Eventually the sun rose and things started getting birdier.  About a mile after Twickenham crosses the John Day River there's a big pond.


This pond held my county Cinnamon Teals and Northern Shovelers. 

At this point Twickenham Road begins to follow Girds Creek through a gorgeous canyon before ending at Highway 207.  

Lupine and a new one for me, Cocks-comb Cats-eye (Oreocarya celosioides) aka Buttecandle

 

Bitterbrush

Where the road hits 207 I found more birds including Cassin's Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a calling Mountain Quail. I headed south on 207 to the town of Mitchell where I failed to find much, then east on 26 to Waterman Road. 

Pronghorn!

A couple Mountain Bluebirds were hanging out near a bluebird nest box and proceeded to get frisky.

The main attraction on Waterman Road is Fopiano Reservoir where I managed 18 species, one of my bigger checklists for the county.


A lone male Redhead seemed like the best bird but also had my county Lesser Scaup and Barn Swallows.

I drove back down to Highway 26 and continued east to Buck Point Road which was going to lead me south to Barnhouse Campground, my plan for camping that night. Unfortunately I didn't make because of snow which also messed up my exploring plans for afternoon. At least I got my county Horned Larks:


Also more scenic Pronghorn:


I decided to do the birding I had planned to do the following morning, starting with a drive down West Branch Road. Before I got there this Golden Eagle was offering great views:


When I turned onto West Branch Road I referred to my notes from the ECAS website to see what I should be looking for.  Rufous Hummingbird was on the list so as I drove I thought what around here would a hummingbird like? I saw this willow shrub that looked quite pollen-y:


I didn't spot a hummingbird but I did find my county Nashville Warbler.


One shrub over was my county Orange-crowned Warbler, and across the road my county Ruffed Grouse!


This turned out to be my 48th and final Wheeler County bird of the trip leaving me with 95 species in the county. I didn't know this of course and continued on with birding at the JDFBNM-Painted Hills Unit.

Cows did their best to avoid me as I scoped the farm pond north of the Painted Hills. Then I walked the Painted Cove Trail which is lovely but I failed to find many birds. 

And a classic out the window shot of the Painted Hills:


From here I headed west on 26 to find somewhere to camp at the easternmost edge of the county.  I drove up NF-700 and found several gorgeous options and chose one with this view:


Mountain and Western Bluebirds were duking it out below me. 



After a very chilly night I was up early in the dark. I didn't want to wait around for the sun to rise so I packed up and headed west on 26 into Crook County where I spent the morning birding. It was 24 degrees along 26 so it was interesting to see some fields still being irrigated.

I picked up over 40 Crook County birds without much effort, a stark contrast to Wheeler birding.  It was definitely a fun trip and I hope to return this year sometime. Good times!

Comments

  1. Hi Jen what a fun trip chock full of good birds...I enjoyed seeing some of the John Day with Casey back in 2015...great memories, Awesome shot of the WTSW. TC

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    1. You two had such an awesome trip together!

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