Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Oregon Birding IV: Succor Creek State Park

After spending two days of being overwhelmed by the number and diversity of birds in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surround areas, I wasn't sure I was ready for any more birding. Not only that, but birding can be fairly tiring and would I be able to get up at 5 a.m. to go birding? That early morning start would be a necessity, with daily highs in the low 90's and my guess that more birds would be active in the pre-10 a.m. morning. Given my limited opportunity to bird Oregon, I decided I would head off to Succor Creek State Park and have a look around.

It was still dark and the air cool as I headed off the next morning. As I drove along, I had a fly-over of a large nocturnal (but unidentified, dammit) bird, which snapped me out of my early morning haze. Soon after, a hen Ring-necked Pheasant shot across the road in front of me. Bird number 1 for the day! I headed south of my hometown, Nyssa, past Adrian and off into the high desert that borders Idaho. The drive would first take me past an area that is typical high desert, sagebrush and some junipers, and into a fairly large canyonlands region formed from volcanic rocks. It would be about 15 miles of bumpy, dirt road to reach the state park.

As I drove past sagebrush in the early morning light, I started seeing many small birds flitting across the road in front of me. My curiosity finally got the best of me and I stopped the next time I saw a few of these birds. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: Horned Larks! Horned Larks? Here, in the middle of the desert? Alright then, it turns out that horned larks like desolate and deserted landscape, just like this part of Oregon. I drove on.

I reached the state park only to find it over-loaded with pick-ups and campers. Not wanting to bother anyone with my early morning birding, I parked the truck and decided to walk up the road into the canyon with trees on my right and the canyon walls to my right. The only problem with this was my feeling, nay, obvious knowledge, that this was rattlesnake heaven. I knew I was on safe ground if I stayed on the road, but I still had an uncomfortable feeling about this. My suspicions were confirmed about 50 yards down the road when I came upon a rattlesnake. It was dead and headless but, nonetheless, I lost much of my concern for finding birds at that point. I headed back to the car and drove back up the canyon for a ways.

Location of my rattlesnake-induced early morning aborted birdwalk
I stopped a mile or so down the canyon in a less snake infested location, and I saw little blue birds. Could they be Western Bluebirds? I checked the book and the coloration didn't seem right. These guys were an iridescent blue and they were smaller than a bluebird. I flipped through the book and remembered the bunting. These were Lazuli Buntings!

Lazuli Bunting near Succor Creek, Oregon
I drove on and stopped a few more times. At one stop, I heard the unmistakable calls of the Chukar. But where were these birds? The calls echoed across the canyon bouncing between the walls and damned if I was going to hike up the talus slopes to find the source of the calls. Then I noticed a Chukar playing king of the castle. 
King of the Chukar canyon
I saw a few more and even got an up close photo too.

Chukar? I hardly even know her!
After that I drove out the canyons and back onto the high-desert plateau and took a short walk through the sage hoping to scare up a sparrow or something. There were ravens in distance and the occasional meadowlark, but it was getting hot and time to head home. As I drove along the dusty road, I saw many more Horned Larks and then a sparrow perched on a sagebrush. It was unmistakably a Lark Sparrow. Now I was getting confused; was I seeing Horned Larks or Lark Sparrows or both? Yes, it was both. Soon after I saw another Loggerhead Shrike catching insects in the sagebrush.

With that my Eastern Oregon was more or less over. I went fishing the next couple of days and saw a bevy of birds like Bald Eagles, a Black-crowned Night Heron, grebes, and many more swallows. I also briefly saw a Mountain Bluebird at Unity Reservoir State Park as my last new sighting on my Oregon trip.

In sum, I saw 40 new bird species for the year and upped my year total to 207 birds. Needless to say, eastern Oregon is a great birding destination. And to think I had spent most of my time in the desert; there were still the mountain birds to go find as well! I guess I will have to save them for my next trip to Oregon later in the summer.

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