I recently did a return visit to Oregon to search for some Western species that had previously eluded me. This trip was destined to be different because I was bringing along a good-luck charm - my girlfriend was coming. Lisa doesn’t handle the cold all that well, but she more than makes up for that in enthusiasm and she’s an enormously good sport. Also, for whatever reason, I seem to find great birds when she’s around.
My primary target was my number one nemesis bird, the American three-toed woodpecker, which had eluded me on sporadic visits to the Adirondacks over some twenty years, as well as on trips to Minnesota and Alaska. I did some in-depth research and came up with an account of a readily accessible stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in the Eastern Cascades that had been productive for the bird a couple of months earlier. It was a slim clue, but it was the best I had to go on.
It was also my hope to get seven life birds to bring my life total to the 1500 mark. Life birds in this account will be listed in all capitals. I will generally list a bird only the first time it was sighted during the trip, thus avoiding tiresome repetition of common birds such as red-breasted nuthatches and common ravens.
Saturday, October 12th: We rose before dawn in Detroit, Oregon, and drove through the Cascades to the Hoodoo Ski Area, following careful directions to the trailhead for the desired section of the Pacific Crest Trail. It was just getting light enough to productively bird when we got out of the car, and it was chilly, but Lisa gamely bundled up and we set off.
Right at the trailhead we had the first of several small flocks of red crossbills fly over calling. Golden-crowned kinglets gave their high, thin calls from the trees, and red-breasted nuthatches sounded tinny horns.
A little way in we started seeing the effects of a recent fire, with burned trees alternating with healthy ones. Black-backed woodpeckers proved to be frequent along this trail, affording excellent looks. I heard a distant pine siskin call once but it did not come into view.
Soon a bird “jipped” at us from a set of brush and I guessed it was a wren. A little patience soon yielded good views of a PACIFIC WREN which bounced around and was generally its usual charismatic, insouciant self. I had almost certainly found this species on previous trips to the West Coast, but at the time I understood it to be a subspecies of the winter wren and my records did not definitively include it, so this was a rather belated life listing.
Further on, we came across hairy woodpeckers, Lisa-pleasing varied thrushes, and a hermit thrush or two. Up above us I saw the nether end of a sapsucker that was probably a female Williamson’s, but I was unable to verify the identification before it left. We found a pair of obliging golden-crowned sparrows that were also popular with Lisa, and then a Steller’s jay which delighted her with its rich blue color fading into indigo and black.
I heard flyover pygmy nuthatches and possible common redpolls, and pointed out some soaring common ravens. Finally, back at the trailhead, we found a dark-eyed junco of the “Oregon” form. Unfortunately, no three-toed woodpeckers were in evidence, and the snow had started falling steadily. With the rising temperatures of the day, I was wary of the snow becoming rain, so we decided to move on to Sisters (about twenty miles away) and set up in the hotel.
This proved a good call as we hit some pretty healthy showers on the way. By the time we reached Sisters, however, it had cleared up. We stopped for breakfast and then tried to check into our hotel - the Sisters Inn and Suites - but there was no-one behind the desk. The owners’ daughter eventually appeared and went to search for her parents. When they finally showed up, it was only to tell us that the room was not ready and we should come back in an hour.
Thus, we spent some time walking around the “Harvest Faire” that was going on in town, and also visited the row of churches on North Trinity Way. There we saw Western scrub-jays, American robins, and Northern flickers. While Lisa was off collecting the “most perfect pine cones I’ve ever seen” - don’t get me started - I found a small group of female and juvenile evening grosbeaks. Also present were at least one ruby-crowned kinglet, a calling band-tailed pigeon, and the inevitable house sparrows.
We returned to the same stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail that afternoon, but in several hours of hiking, the only new trip bird was a downy woodpecker.
Sunday, October 13th: Both Lisa and I were getting sick of the Pacific Crest Trail segment we had spent better than seven cumulative hours hiking the day before, particularly the stretches that were all burned-out trees, so we agreed this morning we would take our last stab at it. We went farther along the trail than either of our previous forays, but saw nothing new on the hike in, except some birds I viewed briefly and distantly that might have been hermit warblers.
Nevertheless, both on the trip in and on the way back out we enjoyed great views of numerous woodpeckers. One bowl held at least three black-backed woodpeckers, two hairy woodpeckers, and a downy, while hermit thrushes darted around in the bushes. Lisa had fun practicing with the binoculars and was starting to pick up birds I hadn’t noticed yet, rather than simply following my sightings. A little ways on we ran into another concentration of the same species and enjoyed more good views of the local black-backed and hairy woodpeckers. Two Clark’s nutcrackers briefly lit on the tops of some distant trees, made enormous amounts of raucous noise, and just as quickly disappeared.
As we sorted through these I approached a tree on the side of the trail and a woodpecker flew from the opposite side of the tree back to the next tree down the trail, where it landed. I put the binoculars on it and said, “I do not even believe it.”
There, in full view, well-lit and scarcely twelve feet away, was the AMERICAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER, ending a twenty-plus-year quest.
We studied it to our full content: yellow cap, partially barred white back, barred flanks and all. It was so close we could almost have touched it. We were even treated to excellent views of the three-toed feet. At one point it flew, only to land a short distance away, again in full view. The only thing it did not do was vocalize, but under the circumstances I was not about to complain. The fortuity and quality of the sighting left me shaking my head in fulfillment.
As it turned out, we were within a quarter of a mile of the trailhead - maybe even an eighth of a mile - after having gone over two miles in. Indeed, we had seen the bird at the last reasonable opportunity. Lisa and I marveled over that fact as we drove, in high good spirits, back to Sisters for breakfast.
(To locate the trailhead of the Pacific Crest Trail referenced in this section of the report, take Route 20 about twenty miles west of Sisters to the sign for the Hoodoo Ski Area. Turn left (south) and go 0.9 miles to a Y. Bear left and go 2.1 miles to another Y. Bear left again toward the Big Lake Youth Camp and go half a mile. Turn left at the sign for the Pacific Crest Trail - spurning the opportunity to continue straight to the Big Lake Youth Camp - and drive in to a log-lined parking area on the left. The trailhead is on the other side of the road with a large sign.)
The hard-earned success with the three-toed woodpecker touched off a string of good fortune. After breakfast again in Sisters, we made a run to the Cold Springs Campground, just about six miles west of town. As soon as we stepped out of the parking lot and into the pines, we heard songbirds - mostly nuthatches and kinglets - going nuts. We tracked the sounds to a tall pine at the base of a minor plateau, and I saw an oddly-shaped profile fly from one treetop to another, and then from there to just out of sight, all about fifty feet up. I thought the bird had likely flown off but the songbird sounds continued and I soon found the locus in yet another treetop nearby. Presently I found the curved breast of their target, with the rest of the bird screened off by needles, and commenced the difficult task of getting Lisa on it.
I should note that since I had introduced her to birding, Lisa had had one persistent request: she wanted to see an owl. I’d staved her off thus far with the possibility of a snowy owl showing up in winter, but every once in a while I still had to answer the difficult question, “When are we going to see an owl?”
So it was that when Lisa threatened to give up on finding the bird above us, I played my trump card: “I think it’s an owl.” She acquitted herself well by suppressing a minor scream and renewed her efforts. Presently we were both looking at the distant and difficult-to-make-out bird way above us.
It was fortuitous that the bird then hopped to a bare branch, so we were able to see the rounded form, streaked breast, and pencil-stub tail of a NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL. My earlier views of the bird in flight had also permitted me a brief look at the mottled underwing patterns and foreshortened body. A second owl hooted from the near distance - one clear hoot, followed by a series of hoots, followed by a final hoot. Lisa was happy to an almost dangerous degree and I was pretty pleased myself.
Then the second owl flew in to join the first bird on the branch above us, and they started rubbing beaks in some sort of courting behavior. Lisa’s eyes were as big as moons and I saw my stock rise to rock star levels.
After the owls eventually left (occasionally still hooting from their new perches) we walked around for a while, finding nothing new for the trip but spotting Northern flickers of both the yellow-shafted and the red-shafted varieties. Lisa then confessed to being bushed - understandable given the lengthy morning of hiking - and we headed back to town, where Lisa had a magical resurgence of energy leading to a protracted stroll through the Harvest Faire.
After a siesta at the hotel we drove west once again to the Indian Ford Campground area. Again, as soon as we got out of the car, I heard one of the local target birds doing its pee-dee-dink call. With minimal effort I was quickly viewing a female WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER. Lisa could not get in sight of it, however, esconced as it was in some upper branches, so we tracked down a couple more individuals until we found one that was in decent view.
Also in the area we found mountain chickadees and pygmy nuthatches (including one reasonably well-viewed bird). Occasionally I would turn around to find I’d lost Lisa once again to the marvel of the “perfect” pinecones littering the ground. Do NOT get me started.
On the way back to the car, with the sun lowering, I spotted a woodpecker on a high bare branch that appeared to be a Williamson’s sapsucker. However, I was unable to see enough diagnostic marks to be sure of the identification in the poor light, and it swiftly flew away.
Back in Sisters we stopped at the row of churches on North Trinity Way again, where I found a singing Cassin’s finch at the top of a spruce, and a yellow-rumped warbler that appeared to be of the Audubon’s variety.
Monday, October 14th: On our last morning in Sisters, we ran up to Pine Street in the Sisters area, where it proved to be bitterly cold. Yet again, as soon as we got out of the car, I heard tapping that led to the local target bird. Lisa and I ended up circling a tree, catching glimpses of the woodpecker, until finally I found a spot from which I had a decent view of most of its body and head. It was a male WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKER, contentedly picking away at a spruce trunk.
Also here I noted a flying Townsend’s solitaire, easily identifiable by the ochre underwing stripe, but I was unable to get Lisa on it before it disappeared.
Both of us were freezing so we decided to go back and get an early breakfast in town. On the way I stopped at a small farm where we saw Western bluebirds, Brewer’s blackbirds, and a blink-and-you-missed-it possible green-tailed towhee.
After we left the farm, Lisa insisted we stop so she could get some pictures of the incredible view of the three mountains (the “sisters”) which gave the town its name. Once she got the shot I started the car moving again, only to stop immediately, as a covey of CALIFORNIA QUAIL crossed the road in front of us! They vanished in the brush on the other side of the road - all but one that remained on the shoulder of the road on our side, all but posing for our scrutiny. What a beautifully marked bird.
The last new trip birds we had in the Sisters area were a group of mallards in a roadside pond. We grabbed breakfast and then packed up and checked out of the hotel.
Next we took a quick run east on Route 126 to Redmond, spotting Western red-tailed hawk on the way as well as more Western bluebirds, but no prairie falcons or lingering ferruginous hawks. Just outside of Redmond we paused at Cline Falls and enjoyed our first cackling geese of the trip, along with teal (probably green-winged, but in eclipse plumage), belted kingfisher, and black-billed magpies.
Now we began the big push back west, picking up 20 in Sisters and continuing on through the Eastern Cascades again. A half hour later and a few miles south of 20 we stopped at Clark Lake and walked the trail along the western side of the lake. It was extremely quiet other than the wind - we heard only a couple of chickadees and an unidentified scolding bird that was probably a Bewick’s wren. After an hour and a half we returned to 20, waited ten minutes for a work crew to clear out from felling a tree that was likely to come down in the winter, and continued west. In the broad valley between the Eastern and Western Cascades we spotted American kestrel and American crow, along with many red-tailed hawks.
We reached Newport after about three hours’ total driving from Sisters and set up in a motel. A tropical kingbird had been reported at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which I discovered was only minutes away, so we eventually wandered over there to look, but the light was already fading and we had no luck. Back to Newport proper for dinner and a leisurely night at the motel.
Tuesday, October 15th: Our last day in Oregon. We drove a few minutes north to the Yaquina Head promontory. The federal government shutdown had the road to the lighthouse blocked to vehicle traffic, but it was a walk of only fifteen minutes at most, so we geared up and headed out there. Lisa was thrilled to see the thousands of brown pelicans on the rocks barely offshore, and I pointed out to her Western gulls and a trio of black oystercatchers, as well as pelagic cormorants. A scan of the water quickly turned up pigeon guillemots, Western grebes, and non-breeding-plumaged common murres.
I settled down to do a seawatch in earnest while Lisa enjoyed the pelicans. Sooty shearwaters were scything across the waves, and a few flocks of surf scoters arrowed past. I found a line of five harlequin ducks flying south along the shoreline. Pacific loons dotted the water, one still in breeding plumage with the smooth gray-white crown and hindneck. Another group of ducks on the water proved to be white-winged scoters.
A sparrow popped up in the shrubbery near the viewing area, chipped a few times, and then sang; it was a “sooty” fox sparrow. Another bird that appeared below us and briefly sat up was a Swainson’s thrush.
I spent considerable time on some distant brown birds sitting on the water, eventually getting good enough looks at the coloration and head shape to conclude they were approximately eight to ten marbled murrelets still retaining most of their breeding vestments. This was only the second time in my life I had seen the species, and the first opportunity to really study the bird, since the first sighting was a flyby during a pelagic whalewatching trip.
We needed to get back to the motel to check out by 11:00 so we walked back the lane to the parking area. Along the way we heard but did not see spotted towhees, and found black-capped chickadee and Bewick’s wren.
After checking out, we returned to the Hatfield Marine Science Center and circumnavigated it, picking up Eurasian startling and white-crowned sparrow, but not spotting the kingbird. However, when we returned to the car and started packing our binoculars away, I saw a bird alight on a treetop over the nearby student housing building, and managed to get my binoculars out in time to confirm it was our quarry. It then flew away, showing the triangular tail without white sides.
Our next stop was the aquarium only a few hundred yards away and we spent an enjoyable hour there. One of the exhibits held tufted puffins, rhinoceras auklets, common murres, and horned puffins in non-breeding plumage, which was interesting.
From there we headed north again, this time to the town of Taft on the south side of Lincoln City, where we headed up into the hills on South Schooner Creek Road. The first pulloff we found was before the end of the pavement, and although it gave access to the creek, it was not good habitat for the target bird. However, the road soon changed from paved to gravel, and at the very next pulloff I immediately saw something fly from the far streambank to the near side, just out of sight behind some bushes. I maneuvered around and found the bird, and yes, it was the AMERICAN DIPPER we were looking for! Continuing the theme of the trip, the fun little bird put on a great show for us, plunging into the water and then hopping up onto rocks with its catch.
With that, I had reached my goal for the trip - to spot my 1500th life bird.
It was in the nick of time, too, as we were on our last afternoon in Oregon. We returned to the mouth of the creek, down at the shore, and did some scoping around, but all we found were California gulls and pigeons along with other familiar birds from the trip.
So we ran further north and caught Route 18 east, connecting to Route 22. There I noticed a wildlife management refuge, Baskett Slough, and we stopped for while. The first thing we noticed there was a tight concentration of at least a thousand cackling geese. Also present were great blue heron, great egret, American coot, red-winged blackbird, teal of one species or other, Northern pintail, gadwall, greater scaup, Northern harriers quartering over the slough, American wigeon, and Northern shoveler. A shorebird - probably a snipe - flew in but disappeared into the grass before an identification could be hazarded.
With that, we continued east to Salem, had dinner, and caught Route 5 up to Portland for a last night’s rest before an early flight the next morning.