Southern Swing - Part II Oregon

Utah had been wonderful. We saw a lot of new and fascinating geography and a few new birds like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, Sage Grouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Eastern Kingbird. Now it was time for Oregon. I had fond memories of Malheur from two years ago and hoped for some new photo opportunites. A few of my targets included the Wilson's Phalarope, Black Tern, Sage Sparrow, and Sage Thrasher. I've seen the first two species before but wanted to get some better photos. The last two species would be completely new for me if I were lucky enough to encounter them. After Malheur I wanted to check out Summer Lake and then Cabin Lake. Al Wilson and Tim Zurowski both warned me not to expect too much at Cabin Lake as it was too early in the season for a large number of species. That didn't deter me as I just wanted to see the place. My final destination was the Oregon Coast. I knew its remarkable natural beauty alone would be worth the visit. Any interesting bird photography would be a bonus.

May 20 - Welcome to Oregon! - Are you superstitious? Do you believe in omens? How would you explain being greeted by a long sought after Ferruginous Hawk just as you cross the border? Sheer luck or predestination?

Okay, I've never seen a Ferruginous before, and I could be wrong about the identification, but it was stunning to see a predominately white hawk circling above my car. It was worth the risk of stopping in the middle of the highway for two quick shots before it disappeared. After studying Sibleys for about an hour, I'll stick with Ferruginous until someone tells me it's something different.

May 21 - Malheur is a vast and varied habitat featuring high desert sage brush, flooded fields, marshes, streams, the occasional oasis of trees and ponds, grasslands, and rocky mountain terrain. It is worthy of at least 3 or 4 days of investigation and targeted birding. I only planned one and a half days so my goals were very limited. My plan was to check the flooded fields along Green House and Hotchkiss Lanes first. Hotchkiss didn't disappoint as it provided ample opportunities for Avocets, Stilts, Willets, Cinamon Teals, and Wilson's Phalaropes. I couldn't pass up a close look at the Willet, but passed up the others since my goal was the phalaropes. There were lots of phalaropes, but they were quite shy and never stayed around for photos.

As we slowly headed west on Hotchkiss, we came to a gate at an entrance to the flooded fields. It was lover's lane for some Wilson's Phalaropes. The good news was that the phalaropes were at close range and too preoccupied to notice me. The bad news was that they were behind the bars of the gate. My only shots would be between the bars whenever one got clear. You can probably guess that the most interesting shots were blocked out by the bars.

Usually, it is the male bird that commands the flamboyant plumage, but not with the phalaropes. It's just the opposite. The males are rather mundane looking compared to the female.

On the male there is a rufous patch from the back of the eye down the side of the neck and only a small bit of rufous on the coverts.

Not only are the females more colourful than the males, they are also larger. Note the black patch from the back of the eye down the side of the neck and deep rufous on the neck extending onto the coverts.



both - Being a family-oriented website, I wasn't going to post this photo. However, how is one to learn about the birds and the bees without revealing a few bird secrets? (rating: PG 13)

Red-necked Grebes are supposed to be rare here at this time of the year, but I found one on Greenhouse Lane.

I had trouble getting a clear picture through the tangle of grass but wanted a photo just for the record.


I had expected to look for the Black Terns at Benson's Pond, but I spotted some in the flooded fields along Highway 205. The only other Black tern I had seen was a juvenile at Fairwinds in August, 2005.

The terns would occasionally come close to the road to dive for their prey (small fish?) which was just fine with me. I don't think I could gotten any better shots at the pond.

It was fortuitous to find the Black Terns prematurely. The time we saved allowed us to get one of the last two campsites at Page Springs right next to the Blitzen River. It was a delightful spot with running water and the cleanest outhouses in the state. Best of all, it only cost $8 for the night.

May 22 - I had often seen small brown birds flying around in the sagebrush but never tried to investigate any of them. I suspected that some were Sage Sparrows and some were Sage Thrashers. Today was the day to find out. I had delusions of a triple sage day even though I knew we were at least two weeks too late for the Sage Grouse. Nonetheless we headed up Foster Flats Road at 7:00 am. It was perfect country for Sage Sparrows and it didn't take long to see them flying all over the sage brush. It was only a matter of time before one landed close enough to photograph.

We actually had one right beside the car but I had trouble finding it in the lens. I had to settle for one about 12 meters away.

Here's a different sparrow. I'm calling it a Brewer's sparrow until I get the identification confirmed.

We also saw a number of Sage Thrashers and expected that we would eventually get close looks.

I was almost ready to give up when we finally caught a close one near the end of our return trip. That made it a double sage day. There was no sign of the Sage Grouse.

A familiar song caught my attention where the grouse lek was supposed to be. It was a Vesper Sparrow.

By the time we left Foster Flats Road we had heard the Vesper Song many times. It was a common bird in the sagebrush habitat. I was surprised at the variety birds that habituated the sagebrush.


After leaving Malheur we headed southwest towards Summer Lake. We had no idea what to expect and were surprised to encounter a sea of white which was the dried up section of Alkaline Lake. It was a precursor of what we would see at Summer Lake. It reminded me a bit of Alki Lake in Kelowna. Al Wilson ( recommended the Summer Lake Refuge as a fertile venue for bird photography and that was good enough for me. We got as far as Summer Lake Hotsprings in the late afternnon and decided to call it a day. The spartan and rugged environs didn't quite fit the image of a resort, but there as a casual and friendly feeling about the funky place and a soak in a hotsprings sounded very appealing. After good night's rest we were off to the wildlife refuge just after sunrise.

Since we weren't in a hurry, we had time to stop and enjoy a few birds like this Red-tailed Hawk.

The Red-tailed was simply enjoying the morning sun until we showed up.

After the Red-tailed I spotted the typical Wilson's Snipe on a post. The sun wasn't at its best position, but it did just reflect off the back of the eye which was what I was looking for.

I eventually got out of the car to try for a better angle, but that caused the snipe to take flight. It circled many times demonstrating its winnowing display. I tried many times to catch a flight shot, but it was faster than it looked. Here's the best of the bunch.

May 23 - We finally arrived at Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge just after 8 am. and immediately spotted a Northern Harrier doing its morning preen on a distant fence post. It was too far for decent shots, but here's one for the record.

No sooner had we left the harrier when a fuzzy blob in the bulrushes caught my attention. I quickly focussed my camera and was surprised to see a Short-eared Owl. I managed two quick shots through the maze of rushes before it dove down onto some prey.

A few meters further I couldn't believe my eyes. I was looking into the eyes of an American Bittern. It was also shielded by the rushes but it was only about 8 meters away. I jockeyed for the best angle for a picture then clicked and watched.

The bittern proceeded to go into convulsions to create its deep gutteral sounds.

It is something just to be able to hear the secretive bittern, but to see it producing the sound close up is a special moment.

What's a marsh without an Osprey?

There were a few Wilson's Phalaropes around but not the numbers we saw at Malheur.

Bolshoi Ballet - Any ballet dancer would love to have the long, slim legs of the Blck-necked Stilt.

Just to prove those legs weren't just meant for wading in shallow waters, the stilts put on an impromptu and spirited dance performance just for me - another special moment.

Swallows are magnificent flying machines that never seem to rest. I was happy to catch a Tree Swallow resting on a post.

The most fascinating part of the refuge was the dyke that went right through the American Avocet nesting grounds. As we slowly negotiated the dyke, there were scores of avocets right next to the car.

There were avocets everywhere. They were flying, feeding, decoying, and resting.

I had never seen an avocet in its decoying display or was it an aggressive display to frighten us off.

It reminded me of the Killdeer's decoy display, but there didn't seem to be much nesting going on.

Most of the avocets just seemed to be casual observers.

Out of several hundred avocets we saw two that looked like they were nesting.

Our quick tour of Summer lake took about 2.5 hours. It was definitely worth more time than that. A second go-round would have definitely yielded more quality photos; however, it was time to move on. Cabin lake was next.


The route to Cabin Lake took us past Fort Rock and the impressive signature volcanic rim that spawned the town's name. The gravel road to Cabin Lake was in excellent condition. There were many birds on the way but the most common were the Horned Larks. By the way, there is no lake at Cabin Lake, and the campsite is completely unserviced and doesn't look like it is maintained. The area is famous for bird photography because of the two blinds and cisterns (referred to as guzzlers) that were installed when it was an active ranger station.

Despite being too early in the season, I had every confidence that birds would be using the cisterns. We made ourselves at home in the upper blind which had ample room for two two photographers. I was right. Within 10 minutes a flock of Cassin's Finches were chirping in the nearby trees.

The Finches were there for the water, but they soon took a liking to the sunflower seeds I had sprinkled around.

Where's the seed? - The female and male Cassin's look perplexed at the missing seed. Al warned me about the seed-loving chipmunks that inhabit the area.

Despite its size and rugged looks the Clark's Nutcracker is a very shy bird.

It took several tentative trials before settling in for a drink.

Before long even the juvenile nutcrackers were at the cistern.

The one bird that Al guaranteed was the Red Crossbill. This might be a first year female.

It took a while for them to show but when they did, they posed nicely for pictures. This might be a first year male.

A variant first year male?

The shyest of all the birds were the Pinyon Jays.

They were like ghosts silently lurking in the background.

It took several brief forays at the cisterns before the jays decided it was safe to drink.

Jays tend to be very selective of their habitat, and that is true for the Pinyon Jays. They are found mainly in the pinyon pine forests.

The Green-tailed Towhees were quite bold. When they came around they usually got the full-meal-deal which usually included a full bath and shower.

After all these years I finally got a full-frame shot of a Western Tanager.

These photos illustrate the advantage of blind photography. It is the best way to get clear, full-frame shots of birds.


May 24 - After 12 days in the 80 - 95 degree heat of Utah and eastern Oregon it was culture shock to arrive on the coast where the night-time temperatures still dropped below 40 degrees. We reached Florence in the early afternoon and made a beeline to the waterfront. We didn't know where to go but ended up at the sand dunes by the north jetty of the Siuslaw River. I was disappointed not to see any birds close by. In the distance at the end of the jetty there appeared to be gulls. With nothing else in sight I peered through my lens and was surprised to see the large bucket bills on the gulls. They were Brown Pelicans.

In my excitement I didn't notice the warning signs on the jetty - "Beware of Loose Rocks and Sneakers." Sneakers are the occasional rogue waves that crash over the jetty.

I soon found myself out on the jetty with about 500 pelicans. Unfortunately, it was difficult to hold the camera still in the gale force winds. The spray over the rocks was another warning that I should retreat.

After a few quick shots, I decided to retreat, but I was disappointed not to get any flight shots.

That night prayed for no wind, no fog, sunny weather, and low tide. It was a tall order as the wind had been gusting for 5 straight days, the fog persisted till noon on most days, and the forecast was for cloudy mornings. The only thing in my favor was the low tide. Somehow I must have been living right as the conditions were perfect the next morning.

It was a walk in the park to the end of the jetty, and more pelicans kept flying in to provide my flight shots.

It only took 20 minutes to get my shots, and we were on our way up the coast.

While I was returning from the jetty, I spotted a Common Murre in the river. It was a sign of things to come.

On our way north I couldn't help but admire the endless miles of pristine surf-washed beaches along the coast. Our next stop was Seal Rock which featured a colony of Pelagic Cormorants on a huge rock face.

The cormorants were busy making nests, sitting on eggs, or mating.

This Pelagic wasn't picking salad greens. It was nest-building material which brought up an interesting point. The high grassy knolls of various rocks like Haystack Rock are critical habitats for burrowing species like the Tufted Puffins. It is conceivable that grass-collecting birds like the cormorants could actually seriously degrade the Puffin nesting habitat.

Nest in peace ...

Pigeon Guillemots were also common at Seal Rock.

They didn't seemed too concerned about humans as they came quite close to shore. I took these photos from the beach.

Oh yes, there was also a large colony of Western Gulls nesting in the area.

A Near Miss - The next wildlife area was Yaquina Head, but we drove right past it. A mile down the road I told my wife we should check it out. Am I ever glad we did. It just happened to be the largest Common Murre nesting site south of Alaska. There were thousands of murres standing shoulder to shoulder on top of several rock islands which were their nesting sites. There were also Brandt's Cormorants nesting in the same vicinity.

The Brandt's were also busy collecting grass for their nests.

I saw Pelagic Cormorants gathering grass from the cliffside but the Brandt's all seemed to be coming from the bottom of the cliff which contradicted an explanation from one of the interpreters.

It was awesome to see thousands of Common Murres standing shoulder to shoulder just like penguins.

Notice the Western Gull at the back of the pack. Murres are pretty well defenseless and the Western Gull knows it.


May 26 - Haystack Rock - Somewhere I heard or read that Puffins nested on Haystack Rock, and now I had a chance to see for myself. After a chilly night even in a heated yurt at Beverly Beach we needed no incentive to get up early. Under cloudy skies we pulled into Tolovana Beach at 8:45 am. In the distance down the beach rose a stout monolith which I assumed was Haystack Rock. At 235 feet high, it is the third largest sea stack on the coast. It was about a half mile away. It seemed to take forever trekking along the hard-packed sand, but I was soon staring up at the constant motion of circling gulls, cormorants, murres, and puffins.

The Common Murres seemed to be the most abundant as they constantly took off and landed from the uppermost region of the rock.

A smattering of Pigeon Guillemots were part of the chaos of birds.

Unlike the other species the Pigeon Guillemots often landed in the water close by.

Pelagic Cormorants were also part of the scene and their nests dotted the face of the rock.

I had approached Haystack from the south and the south side of the rock was mainly rock. Most of the puffins nested on top or on the north face where there was soil to burrow into. I was told by a conservation officer that they were all too far away for photos, but I had to see for myself. I scanned the entire north face looking for a puffin that was close enough to photograph. Finally, I found a pair about 20 meters away. That was close enough for some good record shots.

The puffins would sit and rest by their burrow for awhile then fly out to the ocean to catch some food.

I'm not sure how they reserved their burrows but there seemed to be no problem with other birds taking over their burrow.

The puffins were not very active. They just looked around until it was time to fly out.

I'm not complaining about the puffins' inactivity. I was enjoying them no matter what they were doing.

Heading out for another snack ...

These were the Western Gulls nesting within arm's length of the puffins.

I enjoyed Haystack so much that I ordered sunny skies and no fog for the next morning in contradiction to all the weather forecasters. It's starting to sound like a broken record, but I got my wish. Doesn't this look better with blue sky?

The Common Murres were easier to photograph than the puffins because they were larger, and I found a nest site that was reasonable close.

There are a couple of smaller rocks next to Haystack. I called one of them "Baby Haystack." It was easier to photograph the murres there.

With the tide conditions, we were able to approach the eastern edge of the rocks. I wonder if the western side of the rocks could be approached at the lowest tide? A low evening tide might be perfect for better shots.

I don't think I could do better with the murres. I was thinking about better shots with the puffins.

The morning sunshine accentuated the colours of the Pelagic Cormorants. There were several nests in the sun on Baby Haystack.

Several pairs of Pigeon Guillemots were hanging around Baby Haystack.

At first I didn't think I could get photos of the Guillemots because they were so fast.

After observing them for awhile, I noticed a few that landed half-way up Baby Haystack. That provided some photo-ops as they came in for a landing.

One last try at the puffins. They were generally to far away for photos, but you never know when one will get a little closer.

It was a challenge trying for the flight photos, but I wouldn't mind trying it again some time.

I definitely have to be closer for quality photos, but this was the best I could do in this situation.

Did I mention that this is a family website? I think the Westerns were annoyed that I was photographing everything else but them so they decided to do a little performing.



Bird Poster

My posters are on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House; Nanoose Bay - Credit Union; Courtenay - Graham's Jewellers























Comments, questions, or book orders?