Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Oregon Birding II: Trip to Frenchglen

Once when I was in high school, we took a biology class field trip out to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR). We were told that there were lots of birds around, but beyond that I don't remember much from our trip there. Mostly it was a good excuse to get out of class for a day.

I do remember that there are supposed to be a lot of birds there, so, while I was on my trip to Eastern Oregon, I strongly hinted to my parents that it would be fun to take a trip down to MNWR for a day to see what birds we could scare up. They were amendable to this idea and even booked a hotel room for us in the little town (population of a few dozen maybe) of Frenchglen. We headed down on Wednesday morning with the plan of looking for birds on the way, staying the night and then driving to MNWR proper the next morning.

We had gone only a few miles and we spotted a Ring-necked Pheasant (1) and Cinnamon Teal (2), both new year birds for me. We were birding at 60 mph and having some success, though it helps that the Eastern Oregon landscape is open and largely treeless. Of course, without trees you might wonder where do the birds live? Good question.

What you see lots of in Eastern Oregon
Near Harper, Oregon, my Dad pointed out some large shore-bird types out in the middle of a field, so we did a quick u-turn and found a nice group of Long-billed Curlews (3). My Dad called them mylamore birds; don't ask or you will get his well-used joke. Anyways, on we went towards Crane, Oregon, passing through some of the best raptor viewing territory around. It did not disappoint. Of course, there were Red-tailed Hawks (and lots of them) but there were also a lot of Ferruginous Hawks (4). Pretty much every few miles, we would see a hawk sitting on top of the telephone pole or soaring in the thermals and I actually got tired of trying to ID every raptor and told my Dad to speed it up some. We next passed by fairly large, deadpan lake that was half wet and half dried. The birds were a fair bit off (a couple hundred yards?) so we could only make out American Avocets (5).

We briefly stopped at the Round Barn to visit their gift shop and use their bathroom. I could not believe what I was seeing as we pulled into the parking lot. It was an owl....a Burrowing Owl (6). I watched it while my parents took a look around the gift shop. This is also where I saw a Loggerhead Shrike (7). You know, I didn't really think of shrikes as being desert birds, but there it was sitting on top of a sagebrush.
Burrowing Owl enjoying a warm Oregon afternoon.
We pushed on to Frenchglen and on the way, we saw White-Faced Ibis (8), Franklin's Gull (9) and Sandhill Crane (10) in marshy fields of southern reaches of the MNWR. Driving into Frenchglen, we saw several groups of birders. How did we know they were birders? Very few locals in Eastern Oregon drive Subaru's wearing large floppy khaki hats while sporting $500 binoculars. And not many answer "Great Tailed Grackle" to the question, have you seen anything good today? It looks like we had found a 'birding hotspot'!

Across the road from the Frenchglen hotel, I saw a Black-necked Stilt (11) hanging with several cranes. We headed over to the general store for bug spray (which was badly needed) and a couple of cold beers. The girl at the store confirmed that there were lots of birders passing through but that she thought the best bird was one at the end of a shotgun. After the refreshments, I took a walk around town to see what else was around and saw a Brewer's Sparrow (12) hanging in the bushes behind the hotel.
Junipers and sage of Eastern Oregon
While my Mom took a nap, my Dad and I took a drive out into the high desert. Lots of little birds flying this way and that. We would stop to take a look and would be greeted by the local Western Meadowlark. Finally I got a good look and it was a Lark Sparrow (13) and then a Sage Thrasher (14). We turned around and started back to town. I told Dad to stop at the next wide spot and I would take a walk into the sage for a few minutes, so he pulled into the shade of a large juniper and I headed through the brush and grass. There were just meadowlarks and a raven or two. I was about back to the car when three carloads of birders arrived, looking for a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I said "You are looking for one here? I see them all the time back home in Ontario, Canada." No, they were looking for the one seen here a few hours back. Birders.

We took a short detour into the marsh near Frenchglen and once again I couldn't believe what I was seeing. An American Bittern did a low fly-over and landed just off the road. It struck its bittern-pose and let me snap a photo! Birding hadn't been this easy for a long time.
American Bittern in the marsh at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
After an enormous family-style dinner at the hotel, we headed off to the nearby P Ranch where the Turkey Vultures roost for the night. As we drove slowly into the marsh to the ranch, there was a buzz that slowly became louder until a flock of mosquitoes had zeroed onto our car. The bugs pray was less a 'repellent' and more a 'mild deterrent' to these mosquitoes, which cut short my birding attempt in the marsh. But before heading off, I got a good shot of the vulture tower.
Vultures congregating for the night.
And that was the end of our first day of birding the MNWR. We had seen 52 total bird species (not quite the Year of Birds record big day that Damon currently holds with 56) and I had seen 17 new species for the year. AND we hadn't even reached the best birding spots in the MNWR yet.

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