Sunday, April 27, 2014

Wasco County Birding

Yesterday, Saturday April 26th, I was lucky enough to be invited to do some county birding by locals Stefan Schlick and Justin Rodecap.  Stefan lead the Sooty Grouse trip that I went on a few weeks ago and is an amazing birder and well of knowledge. Justin was a Wasco County regular who lived out in The Dalles.

I was also trying out a new camera.  Since all of my gear was stolen 2 weeks ago (here come the tears again) I was really suffering from photography withdrawals.  Heavy thinking led me to consider replacing my Canon 7D and lenses with a superzoom point and shoot, aka bridge camera.  I narrowed down my choices to the Canon SX50 HS and a Panasonic Lumix FZ70.  Both had zooms out to 1200mm (35mm equivalent). The Canon started at 24mm and the Panasonic started at 20mm. The local Target had them both side-by-side so I was able to play around with them for a bit. I ended up taking the Panasonic home because I liked how it felt in my hands, the buttons made a bit more sense to me, and it was $100 cheaper than the Canon.  But after using it for a weekend, I may try the Canon out.  Another plus for this camera system is the size, it would be nice to not have to lug a DSLR system around Europe, plus I'm really paranoid of being robbed again.  But I digress, let's get back to the birds.

Our target birds were Sagebrush Sparrows, White-Headed Woodpecker and Resident Sandhill Cranes, all found in Wasco County.  This would also be my introduction to "County Birding" aka, what birders do when their life-lists get really, really long. Apparently it's a popular thing here on the West Coast.  Getting 100 or more birds in each county in each state.  Some fabled birders have managed to get 300 in each county in Oregon.  I'm still working on my ABA list, but it's nice to know that I'll have a head start on my Oregon County lists with 72 species seen during the day.

Wasco County is East of Portland and on the other side of Mount Hood.

Mt. Hood from the East
Mt Hood from Wasco County OR
Our first stop was some grassland mixed with sagebrush for Sagebrush Sparrows.  We managed to see and hear lots of Vesper Sparrows, but no Sagebrush Sparrows. But a pleasant surprise were 3 or 4 Sage Trashers who were out calling from various parts of the prairie.

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher - Wasco County Oregon
This was a county bird for my companions, and a state bird for me.
But let me show you what I do like about the Panasonic Camera.  The above photo is zoomed in and uncropped to 1200mm. Standing in the same spot, this is the same scene at 20mm.

Sage Thrasher, 20mm
Same shot as above at 20mm
The Sage Thrasher had flown when I took this, but it was sitting on that box structure on the right of the image.  Very impressive if you ask me.
We also saw a few Mountain Bluebirds flying around.

Mountain Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird - Wasco County Oregon
But we never did see or hear any Sagebrush Sparrows.  But we did see a badger along the road, it was so awesome.  We stopped the car to watch it, but it had turned tail and was running away from us through the fields.  What a great animal to see in the wild, even the locals were excited.

Our next target was up in the mountains, White-Headed Woodpeckers.  But there was a chance to maybe see some Long-Billed Curlews along the way, which would be lifers for me.  But alas, they weren't around. But we did get to see a picturesque farm.
Mustard Farm
Curlew Spot - Wasco County Oregon
We made our way up into the mountains of the Mount Hood National Forest and the White River Wilderness Area.  We were following up reports of White-Headed Woodpecker sightings from 6 years ago, but were hoping that they were still around. Despite seeing lots of good signs of woodpecker activity, we didn't see any.  But we did spot a Sapsucker way up in a tree.

Williamson's Sapsucker
Williamson's Sapsucker - Wasco County Oregon
It was a male Williamson's Sapsucker, and a lifer for me! This also closed out the sapsucker family for me, I have seen all 4 species found in the US. 
Once again I'll show you the zoom range of the FZ70.  The above photo is at 1200mm equivalent, and this one is zoomed all the way out at 20mm.  The orange box is roughly the area where the Sapsucker is.

Williamson's Sapsucker zoomed out
Sapsucker zoomed out to 20mm
Again, neither photo is amazing, but these were both hand-shot with the same camera and lens and it was $300.
There were lots of birds in this remote area.  We watched a Red-Breasted Nuthatch working on it's nest.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch
Red-Breasted Nuthatch - Wasco County Oregon
This Black-Throated Grey Warbler was hopping around with some Yellow-Rumped Warblers and Chickadees.

Black-Throated Grey Warbler
Black-Throated Gray Warbler - Wasco County Oregon
This warbler shot shows what the camera can do in good light and not at max zoom.   We had plenty of Chickadees around, this Chestnut-Backed Chickadee was curious as to who it was walking around the woods.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
Chestnut-Backed Chickadee - Wasco County Oregon
Unfortunately, this is the typical quality of photos from the camera.  But there is still a learning curve that I need to overcome.
While we were getting ready to leave without seeing any White-Headed Woodpeckers we had a bit of a lunch.  And low and behold, a small flock of moochers heard or smelled the food and decided to come see what we had to eat.
Gray Jay
Gray Jay - Wasco County Oregon
Another okay shot, but also with really good conditions.  But since we weren't sharing, the Jays quickly left the area, and we were moving on too.  But as we were getting into the car we heard some drumming!  We all looked at one another and took off through some really dense brush towards the sound.  We finally got to the area where we heard it from and saw a woodpecker... a Hairy Woodpecker though.  Still a nice bird to see, but no White-Headed, that's for sure.  So it was back through the brush and then down off of the mountain.
As we were driving along one of the forest roads we saw a single shorebird near a pond.  We stopped the car and stealthily made our way back to take a look.  It was quickly ID'd as a Solitary Sandpiper, lifer for me and county birds for Stefan and Justin. 

Solitairy Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper - Wasco County Oregon

Solitairy Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper - Wasco County Oregon
We would also see some more Kinglets, Yellow-Rump Warblers and we heard a calling Hammond's Flycatcher.  There were also some non-birds around the pond.

Garter Snake
Garter Snake - Wasco County Oregon
Frog - Wasco County Oregon
Further on down the road we came to a canyon which the road was most of the way up the northern rim of.  Below us was some wetlands, fields and some trees.  The far rim showed some grass, more large trees and a bare, vertical cliff face broken here and there with more trees. We stopped because a nice sized bird flew across the road in front of us into some trees.  We stopped and got out to see an Acorn Woodpecker inspecting a nest cavity.

Acorn Woodpecker house shopping
Acorn Woodpecker - Wasco County Oregon
We saw a second one nearby and later on watched a Lewis' Woodpecker fly in to inspect the same hole.  On the other side of the road we looked down on some more Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and even some Nashville Warblers flying through the top canopy, which was just below us.
Stefan said that he heard some Mountain Quail calling from across the canyon, a bird which I would really like to see before I leave.  As I was scanning the far side of the canyon I noticed a dark bird soaring along the canyon's far wall.  I initially thought Turkey Vulture, but then the bird turned and I glimpsed a white tail.  That's when I said "Bald Eagle!" and everyone turned to look.  It had a dark head and we thought that it was an Immature Bald.  But then Stefan got his scope on it and upon further inspection we decided that it was a Golden Eagle! The white on the tail was more of a band which had a dark edge border which I couldn't make out through binoculars. What a treat, I love those eagles much more than their more famous cousins. 

Everywhere around us were flowers in bloom. I was looking at some Balsam Root along the road when I noticed a well camouflaged spider lurking in wait.
Crab Spider on Balsam
Crab Spider on flower - Wasco County Oregon
We finally made our way out of the mountains and parted ways with Justin.  Stefan knew of a small breeding colony of Tricolored Blackbirds nearby.  I was really excited to finally see one, but wasn't getting my hopes up after not seeing White-Headed Woodpeckers earlier.  
We made our way East toward Pine Grove and found the farm. Sure enough there were 2 Tricolored Blackbirds on the ground near some horses, but they flew off before I could get any photos.  Stefan mentioned earlier that the epaulets on the Tricoloreds would be very clean white with no hints of yellow. And when I saw them, I saw that he spoke the truth, so clean.
Stefan wanted me to see the very small wetlands nearby where they nested.  The stand of cattails were very small and a bit off of the road in farmland.  There were Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brewer's Blackbirds around too. We observed some birds through the scope and Stefan taught me a useful field-mark.  Red-Winged Blackbirds tended to sit really high on reeds and cattails while Tricolored Blackbirds tended to sit lower down in the reeds.
We also saw some birds up ahead sitting on fences and criss crossing the road.  Here's one of the Tricoloreds sitting on a fence.

Tricolored Blackbird
Tricolored Blackbird - Wasco County Oregon
And one more series of shots showing the zoom range on the FZ70.  Here is the road and the Blackbirds are far down sitting on the fence.

Blackbirds on a wire zoomed out
FZ70 at 20mm, orange square is the photo below
Blackbirds on a wire
Zoomed in shot from above, FZ70 at 1200mm
I understand that National Geographic won't be sending me any requests for photos any time soon.  But balance these photos against the fact that the camera is $300 and no lenses need to be changed out, and that most of the birds can be identified, it's almost a good trade-off.  I still need to figure out the focusing.  I can't seem to be able to switch zoom points and manual zoom is really awkward when you are using the viewfinder.
After we were done seeing the Blackbirds, we stopped by a nearby yard that had plenty of feeders out.  We watched Chickadees, Warblers, Sparrows, including a late Golden-Crowned, some Brown-Headed Cowbirds and a few hummingbirds fighting over a feeder.  This male Rufous Hummingbird really stole the show though.

Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird - Wasco County Oregon
As late as it was, we weren't done yet.  Stefan wanted to try and get Sandhill Cranes that breed in the county.  They were said to be at the Camas Prairie in Mt Hood National Forest in the Western part of the county.  We stopped by about 90 minutes before dark.  I was worried about rain, so I left the camera in the car.  We started out walking along a trail but were only able to get brief glimpses of the open spaces.  We hard some geese and again saw some Yellow-Rumped Warblers, dozens and dozens of American Robins and the usual Chickadees.  We were also hoping to see Black-Backed Woodpeckers, but dipped on those too.  The closest we came was seeing a sole Northern Flicker and hearing a Pileated Woodpecker off in the distance.  But there were signs of Black-Backed Woodpeckers everywhere, large areas of bark scraped off of trees.  Plus lots of fallen trees which they and American Three-Toed Woodpeckers like to be near.  We also spotted lots of large nesting holes and some looked new.  

We made our way through very marshy areas and then through thick areas of fallen logs trying to get a better view of the prairie to no avail.  We followed an Elk trail for a few hundred yards too, but we never did find a better viewpoint. But, just before we turned around to head back to the car, we heard Sandhill Cranes. Anyone who have heard their calls will immediately identify them, and it was nice to hear them again.  I really regret now staying in Oregon long enough to try and see some new chicks.  But my time here is running out.
We're here for just 2 more weekends, which will be busy. If I'm lucky I'm going to make it out to the coast to see some Puffins, but I fear that my window to find Mountain Quail and Goshawks is over.  Soon I'll be out looking at Chaffinches, Corn Crakes and European Starlings, I mean Starlings.

As far as cameras go, I really don't know what to do.  Part of me wants to try the Canon out alongside the Lumix.  Of course I want another DSLR and another white lens or 2.  But I'm still thinking that waiting is best.  

Thanks for making it far,


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