Eastern Oregon camping and county birding

In Oregon it is common for birders to try to observe 100 species in each of the 36 counties. Do birders in other states do this? It seems like it would be extremely challenging in those states like Kansas which has 105 counties (wtf) yet is smaller than Oregon. Or Texas which has 254 counties? Oof. Oregon only has 36 so it's doable but takes some time. It's something I got into 8 or 9 years ago but then lost interest until 2020.  

I am borrowing the above county map from this website because it makes a good quiz. Thanks to birding I can fill this in easily.

Last week I went camping in eastern Oregon with plans to bird three counties where I had been nearing 100 and one county (Grant) where I was only at 59.  My first stop was Ladd Marsh WMA in Union County where I picked up six county birds, leaving me at 101 there. Good start!

Baker County was next where I was at 73 species. I was most excited to check out Anthony Lakes, a winter ski area that has had summertime Pine Grosbeaks. The road to the lakes had tons of distractions like bland-looking Lazuli Buntings.

And big ole cicadas!

Whip cicada sp. 

As I arrived at Anthony Lake I realized that it was extremely popular with tons of people camping, swimming, picnicking, blasting music, etc. It reminded me of Timothy Lake but smaller with more people packed in. I ended up avoiding the lake itself and wandered around looking at flowers and insects on a side road.

This orchid was growing in the wet roadside and caused some discussion on iNaturalist.  The experts settled on it possibly being a hybrid between Platanthera dilatata (white bog orchid) and Platanthera stricta (slender bog orchid). So cool!

Clark's Nutcracker

I left the area and continued west in the heat of the afternoon. Birding was slow much of the time but eventually I made it to Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park just before 6 p.m. It was cooling off and birds were getting active again. 

"one of the largest and most accessible gold dredges in the U.S." -from the state park website

 

Belding's ground squirrel

I was pleasantly surprised to find very clean hummingbird feeders on the backside of the visitor center building.

Rufous Hummingbirds

 The trails were littered with confusing young Chipping Sparrows that always look like they want to be a more interesting sparrow. 


Also around were young Warbling Vireos, a Virginia Rail, Cassin's Finches, and a flock of Evening Grosbeaks. 

From here I drove east along Highway 7, then south on 245 until I reached a side road where I had seen a couple decent eBird checklists from a few years back. A short ways up the road I found a good place to sleep for the night. 


I recently traded in my Subaru Forester for a hybrid Kia Niro and I was excited to see how it was for sleeping. Pretty comfy with a sleeping pad! Far better than the forester for sure. 

In the morning I made some coffee and oatmeal and started testing my travel moth set-up: a white cotton t-shirt on a hanger and a blacklight flashlight. My first location was a bust so I drove a bit till I started seeing moths in the headlights and set it up again.


Super spooky but also effective!

Maybe Abagrotis trigona? 

 While waiting for it to get light enough out to bird I watched bats swooping down to the road for insects. Finally it was light-ish enough and I chose to bird the east side of Dooley Summit along NF-11.

Western Tanager

About fifteen minutes into my walk a grouse flushed from the hillside and landed in a tree. It was still pre-sunrise and I struggled to find a bird shape in the dark tree shapes despite much effort. I was getting ready to give up, even dug an arrow into the dirt so I'd remember where to look on my way back, when I looked up and saw a grouse silhouette in a completely different tree. 


The eBird grouse options for this location were Ruffed, Spruce, and Dusky, all unreported. I quickly deduced that this was my freaking lifer Dusky Grouse, a bird I had not even hoped for on this trip!


The bird slowly climbed up higher in the tree and out of sight. I turned my attention to the tapping sound behind me and found a young Williamson's Sapsucker confirming a ponderosa pine as a good wildlife tree. 


As I walked uphill I flushed two more roadside grouse.


The sun finally rose shortly before I turned around making the walk back down a bit birdier. 

Green-tailed Towhee

 

Cassin's Vireo


House Wren

This was my favorite birding of the trip, I think. I got back to the car and continued south on 245, stopping when I noticed a Lewis's Woodpecker perched in a dead snag. I didn't know it at the time but that was my 100th Baker County bird, quickly followed by Hairy Woodpecker. 

At some point I saw lightning in the distance and thunder started rumbling.  I birded random roadside pullouts while waiting to see if a storm was approaching.

There were a few raindrops but not much so I continued on to Unity Lake State Park, a surprisingly nice park on a large reservoir. 

The sky stayed ominous and the wind gusted like crazy but no storm ever arrived. 


Townsend's Warbler was my biggest surprise here and a new one for the park eBird hotspot. Other birds here included Western Grebes, California and Ring-billed Gulls, both kingbirds, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. 

From Unity Lake I drove south to Highway 26 where I planned to drive a bit east into Malheur County (where I stood at 93 species) to check out Malheur Reservoir. I found some other water first which I later learned to be Murray Reservoir.  I had two more Baker County birds here, Eared Grebe and Hooded Merganser. 

Malheur Reservoir was super hot and hazy and relatively unpleasant. Here is the view from the main parking area:


I had some county birds here like Western Grebe and Bank Swallow before driving back to a pullout where I had noticed more birds. Yes, this pullout was way better and I snagged my 100th and 101st Malheur County birds: Bufflehead and Long-billed Dowitcher. (Note: there is a side road that probably offers even better views of the lake but the grass in the median strip was dry and very tall so I decided not to chance starting a wildfire).

At this point I had reached 100 in 3/4 of the counties I planned to visit and I was heading to Grant County next. I drove west on 26 and pulled off on a side road shortly after entering the county. I found very few birds and some woodland pinedrops. 

When I saw the sign for Bates State Park I decided to check it out. I took a photo of the trail map and started into the woods, then down towards a pond-like reservoir. 


It began to rain as I was walking which was actually very pleasant. 

Pacific spiketail

Dusky Flycatcher
 
Cedar Waxwing

The best part of this walk around the park was that I picked up 10 Grant County birds. The worst part... let me just say that sometimes you think you're walking towards the bathroom but really you are walking so much farther away. 


My plan for camping that night was to find a spot near Starr Campground off Highway 395.  Along the way were tons of Lewis's Woodpeckers.

My camp spot was quiet and in the morning I had no luck with moths. I drove south along 395 to Poison Creek Reservoir, arriving before sunrise. 


The ducks all scooted to the far side of the water when I pulled up and soon after a couple of Sandhill Cranes took off from the shore. 


Smoke-hazy sunrise 

I scoped the water for almost an hour scoring 11 more county birds including Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson's Phalarope, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Tree Swallow, Rock Wren, and four duck species. Too dark for photos really. 

I worked my way back north on 395 with a stop at the Silvies Historic Schoolhouse. Say's Phoebe was a county bird here but I was most excited to find restrooms with a light!


To be identified...

Farther north is the town of Seneca which is an eBird hotspot. I had seen water birds on some checklists and drove around till I found the Seneca sewage ponds.


In addition to my out-of-water county Eared Grebe there were families of Cinnamon Teals and Ring-necked Ducks, tons of Wilson's Phalaropes, Least and Spotted Sandpipers, lots of swallows and one lone Northern Shoveler. 

A quick drive down Scotty Creek Road was uneventful but a Yellow-headed Blackbird posed nicely.


Swick Old Growth Interpretive Trail was my next stop. It was a bit eerie as the sky had darkened and thunder rumbled in the distance. Aside from crossbills the birds were mostly quiet though I did find White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches.


Back at Highway 26 I drove west to Clyde Holliday State Park, my final planned stop as well as the best cell service I had in days. Gray Catbird, Lesser and American Goldfinches, and Black-capped Chickadees brought my Grant County list to 99. A Western Kingbird family was most entertaining.




I got back on 26 heading west hoping for more county birds. Where the road crossed the John Day River I found both my county Eastern Kingbird and a small Bank Swallow colony. A house in the town of Dayville with several hummingbird feeders gave me additional county birds, Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. 103!

County birding can seem like a kind of obnoxious pursuit of tallying a number of species but for me it's more about finding excuses to explore random places and see what's there. I think that's how many birders feel. Most of the places I visited on this trip would qualify as strongly under-birded. I also contributed lots of plant, insect, and mammal observations to iNaturalist. 

And one amphibian: American bullfrog at Clyde Holliday SP
 

Overall it was a surprisingly good trip with a life bird and four more counties over 100 species. Only four to go! Many thanks to Jacob for taking good care of Ralph while I was gone- I had wanted to bring him but it was just too hot. Good times!!!

Comments

  1. Hi Jen, I was following along on the map you covered some good ground. I like your new car! You saw a lot of excellent birds and congrats on the lifer, can't beat finding a lifer on a great road trip. It's so hot everywhere right now can't deal with dogs in a vehicle at all. I am trying to get all counties but this has been a particularly challenging summer for me. I like the goal of 100 in each, I am just trying to get a list in each hopefully more than one bird...I think I need 7 or 8 counties still. Thanks for the road trip it gave me hope!! Have a great week.

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    1. Yeah dogs just don't tolerate heat as well when they get older. Makes road trips way too stressful when they're panting and miserable.

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  2. You need to count a bit more carefully. Next time visit Mud Springs Horse Camp down below Dayville up in the Ochocos, love that spot . I have been there Memorial Weekend and 4th of July, only person there. Great spot . Or wander south on South Fork of John Day out of Dayville, go up to Murderer's Creek Ranch. Lots of great spots out there. And the cafe in Dayville (west side of town) has great food. I need to get back to blogging my trips.

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    1. Ha, I used the number of Washington counties for some reason even though I was looking at my list on eBird of 36. Good tips- I wasn't originally planning on birding Grant on this trip so my stops were all last minute places gleaned from eBird. I do have Murderer's Creek on my list of places to check out someday but didn't have the time this trip.

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