Sunday, September 21, 2014

August on the Zumwalt Prairie

I want to apologize for the typos in my recent blogs. Due to our remote location and limited internet access I have been writing the blog on my iPhone. Needless to say, writing and proofreading is challenging. 

Many of the bird books say that fall migration starts mid-August and can start as early as mid-July for shorebirds. We were lucky to witness fall migration activities in the area. 

These two Lesser Yellowlegs were hanging out in a flooded field for a few days in the beginning of August. These birds typically nest up north from western Alaska and Canada east to western Quebec. 

Note the different plumage of the adult and immature bird. The adult has more distinct markings on the breast. The back of the adult appears more mottled. 

We also had Wilson's Snipe in the same flooded field. They breed in the area and winter in the southern part of the country down into Mexico and South America. They prefer freshwater swamps and marshes and frequent open landscapes and can be very challenging to see because they typically blend into their surroundings. 

One day we were in town and decided to check out the local sewage ponds in Joseph. Sewage ponds attract migrating birds. ( A good friend of ours that loves to bird and is always checking out sewage treatment ponds with his 2 girls when they travel says when they arrive to the plant his girls sniff the air and say "smells like rare birds") Well it definitely smelled like rare birds. We were fortunate to see a number of new birds to us that are pretty unusual to see in this area. We want to give a special THANKS to John Sterling, ornithologist & birding guide, who has been instrumental in helping us to identify the birds we could not be sure about. He is a good friend and mentor.

We were lucky to see this Solitary Sandpiper in breeding plumage. This species breeds in wooded northland regions of Canada and Alaska. It winters from southern Florida, central Mexico, and the West Indies south to central South America. Here is an interesting fact - the Solitary Sandpiper lays it's eggs in tree top nests of other song birds such as the American Robin, Rusty Blackbird, Eastern Kingbird, Gray Jay and Cedar Waxwing. Of the world's 85 sandpiper species, only the Solitary Sandpiper and the Green Sandpiper routinely lay eggs in tree nests instead of on the ground. It may occasionally build its own nest.  

Amazing but true- the migration of the Baird's Sandpiper is long but rapid. After departing the high-Arctic breeding grounds and staging in southern Canada and northern U.S., most individuals travel 3,700 miles directly to northern South America, some going as far as Tierra del Fuego. Many individuals complete the entire journey of 9,300 miles in as few as five weeks!! See the Baird's Sandpiper below.

Semipalmated Sandpiper is an abundant, small shorebird that breeds in the Arctic and winters along the coasts of South America. This is a rare bird for the wester part of the U.S. Some Semipalmated Sandpipers undertake their nonstop transoceanic flights of 1,900-2,500 miles powered by extensive fat reserves.

Black-necked Stilts breed in scattered locations, from the western and southern U.S.,  through the Caribbean, Central and South America. Their range is spreading north in interior western states and along the Atlantic Coast.

They winter in the Southern U.S. and southward. Their populations are increasing in the U.S. but are vulnerable to habitat alteration. The Hawaiian subspecies was reduced to about 200 birds in 1940s and are now up to approximately 1,500 but still listed as a federal Endangered Species.

Although the Red-necked Phalarope is considered a shorebird, it is functionally a seabird. It is the smallest and most delicate of the phalaropes and spends at least nine months of the year at sea.

They breed in the low Arctic and subarctic regions from northern Alaska to northeastern Canada. They winter at sea, generally in the tropical waters in the Southern Hemisphere but can be seen occasionally as far north as central California.

This immature Least Sandpiper is a common shorebird that can be found all across North America during migration. It can be readily identified by its small size, brown coloration, and yellowlegs. They breed throughout much of Alaska and northern Canada, eastward to Newfoundland. They winter from coastal Washington and New Jersey, southward to the southern states and South America.

This immature Western Sandpiper has a relatively restricted breeding range in western Alaska, however it is one of the most abundant shorebirds in North America. In migration, the Western Sandpiper stages in huge, spectacular flocks, particularly along the Pacific coast from San Francisco Bay to the Copper River Delta in Alaska. Estimates suggest that as many as 6,500,000 individuals pass through the Copper River Delta during just a few weeks each spring!

This is the first Clay-colored Sparrow we have seen! It was hanging out in the corral at Summer Camp one morning. They breed in the interior prairies of Canada and winter in Southern Texas south to Mexico. They typically migrate east of the Rocky Mountains. YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO SEE:)

Swainson's Hawks breed on the Zumwalt Prairie. It is considered a common hawk of the western prairies, grasslands and agricultural areas. Swainson's Hawk gather in huge congregations to migrate more than 6,000 miles to wintering grounds in South America.

This immature Ferruginous Hawk is a raptor of the open country of the West. The Ferruginous Hawk is the largest North American Buteo.

Forest fires are typically an issue for areas surrounded by National Forests. As a result of lighting strikes there were a few weeks of fires and smoke filled skies. 

Below are photos of the one of the fires and a helicopter carrying water to help extinguish the flames. Not sure what kind of impact that bucket can have.... we were very fortunate because it rained for 3 days extinguishing the fires.

We had the opportunity to visit some wild romote areas in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. 

The Lostine River is a 30 mile long tributary of the Wallowa River in Northeastern Oregon that is not far from the Zumwalt Prairie. We stopped along the road at a campground and were lucky enough to see a female / immature White-winged Crossbill. This is a new bird for us....a bit tough to get good looks at since it tends to feed near the tops of tall pines. This is a medium-sized finch of the boreal forest. Their bill is adapted for extracting seeds from the cones of coniferous trees.  Crossbills in general are a unique group that will breed at anytime during the year when they find sufficient food to sustain them. They move large distances from year to year, tracking the cone crop from place to place.

Where the Imnaha River flows out of the Eagle Cap Wilderness it is 40' wide, but upstream it squeezes through 10' rock slots at  Blue Hole and Imnaha Falls. We visited Blue Hole where the riverbank creates a perfect swimming hole.

We caught a glimpse of this immature Bald Eagle with its parent.

This Red-naped Sapsucker was feeding on insects right next to the trail.

We saw these special spring Chinook Salmon spawning in the rock nests at Blue Hole:)

Bob enjoying the view of Blue Hole below:)

We got to see some unusual birds for the area such as Sage Thrashers. These birds breed in the western U.S. from eastern Washington and Oregon, across southern Idaho through northern Arizona and New Mexico. They winter in southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as northern Mexico, including Baja California. They prefer dry sagebrush plains which are non existent on the prairie. Doing a bit more research, we learned they also breed in arid areas such as the floors of rocky canyons- there are quite a few of those on the Zumwalt. We think these Sage Thrashers were breeding in the Camp Creek Canyon behind Summer Camp. 

This Sage Thrasher looks like an immature bird due to the heavy streaking on the face.

Here are a few of the local birds and other critters we have seen on our walks.

What a stunning Dragonfly..... anybody know the species??

This looks like some kind of Mantis.... species???

A little family of Willow Flycatchers hung out right outside of our trailer. They breed across southern Canada, south to the western United States. They winter in Central and South America.

We think this is an immature female Yellow Warbler. One of our bird books provides 4 different subspecies of immature female Yellow Warblers. They all have very distinct eye rings which confused us at first. We are not used to seeing eye rings on Yellow Warblers. 

Wilson's Warblers breed here. Maybe this male Wilson's Warbler is beginning his migration down to Mexico, Panama or Southern California?

Clark's Nutcracker would often be heard and seen along both Camp Creek and Trail Creek sitting on the top of the pines. This is a bird of the high mountain regions of the American West that specializes feeding on large pine seeds. They have a special pouch under their tongue that is used to carry seeds long distances. The Nutcracker harvests seeds from pine trees and takes them away to hide for later use. They feed their nestlings pine seeds from the many winter stores. Because they feed their young on stored seeds they can breed as early as January or February despite the harsh winter weather in their mountain home.
There were a number of forest fires going on and the prairie skies were full of smoke. We saw these Mountain Chickadees along the road on the prairie- not the usual spot to see them sitting on a barbed wire fence. The smoke conditions may have caused them to move??

This immature Western Meadowlark looks a bit confused.

One day we were working on removing the fifth and lowest wire on a section of barbed wire fence along Trail Creek. By removing the lower barbed wire strand, the fence becomes more wildlife friendly, so the smaller mammals can cross the fence by going under. We came upon a covey of Mountain Quail drinking in the creek!! This male came out so I was able to get a photo. They are very secretive and difficult to photograph. This is the male since the colors are more sharp and the plume is longer. The female colors are duller with a shorter plume.

I think this is a juvenile or female Mountain Quail. The plume is shorter and the colors are not as defined.

We think this immature Sharp-shinned Hawk was living along Trail Creek across from the Canyon Vista Trail. We would often see it hunting this area. Note the skinny legs... this is one trait that helps to separate it from the Cooper's Hawk.

This is Black Bear scat that we came upon on one of our walks along Trail Creek. Just a reminder that we are visitors in others' homes.

We came upon this sparrow and we are not sure but think it is a Brewer's Sparrow by the look of the wing feathers. It does not have have the typically face markings of a Brewer's. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out what is what with birds migrating through and so many being immature, lacking  distinctive adult plumage. It is precious no matter what!

This is what a "typical" Brewer's Sparrow looks like.
This Western Kingbird came through Summer Camp- it was one of the first Western Kingbirds seen this year. It was obviously migrating through. Western Kingbirds can often be found on telephone poles and fence posts as well as other man-made structures. They would typically build there nests on the telephone pole transformers near our old house.

We came upon this female Red-winged Blackbird along Upper Camp Creek....stunning! This bird is one of the most abundant birds in North America and is typically found in wetlands and agricultural areas. The females and juveniles look more like a sparrow than the Red-winged male.
This Downy Woodpecker was looking for insects on the barbed wire fence post. It was amazing to see how many birds use the barbed wire fences, posts & rock jacks since there are pretty much no trees.

This Lark Sparrow was hanging out on a post in the corral at Summer Camp- what bold markings on the face. Unlike many songbirds, the Lark Sparrow walks on the ground rather than hops. It hops only during courtship.

Interesting fact... the Lark Sparrow often takes over old mockingbird  or thrasher nests instead of building its own. Occasionally, the eggs and young of the two species are found in the same nest, suggesting that the Lark Sparrow shares the nest with the other bird:)
We saw this Lincoln's Sparrow along Upper Camp Creek. They are best identified by the fine streaks on their buffy breast. They breed in bogs and wet meadows mostly in northern and mountain areas from Alaska across Canada and through the west. They winter in the southern U.S. to Central America as well as along the Pacific Coast to southern British Columbia.

The Savannah Sparrow is found in many open habitats throughout much of North America. It varies widely across its range, with 21 recognized subspecies! In many parts of their range, especially in coastal areas and islands, Savannah Sparrows tend to return each year to the area where they hatched. This tendency , called natal philopatry, is the driving force for differentiation of numerous Savannah Sparrow subspecies.

This Rock Wren was on an old post along Camp Creek. These birds are found in arid habitats throughout western North America. The male Rock Wren is a remarkable singer and can have a large song repertoire of 100 or more song types, many of which seem to be learned from neighbors.

We saw all 3 of the local vireos; Red-eyed, Warbling & Cassin's Vireo.

We saw the Cassin's Vireos below along Trail Creek. They have a grayish green head with a greenish olive back, white spectacles, 2 whitish wing bars with yellowish flanks. They have a very distinctive song and scolding calls.

The Warbling Vireo is more easily heard than seen. Its rapid warbling song with an accented, high-pitched last note is relatively easy to recognize. Thy have a dull white eyebrow and no wing bars.

This Warbling Vireo is eating a huge caterpillar !
We saw this female Yellow-headed Blackbird on one of the only Apple Trees on the prairie. She was all alone. We typically see the Yellow-headed Blackbirds in small flocks.
The Horned Lark is the only true lark native to North America. It is a relatively common and widespread bird of open country that is found year round throughout most of the U.S. They can typically be found standing or walking on roadways. It seems like they like to play a game of chicken with our truck as we would drive down the dirt roads on the prairie.
We looked up one day to see a group of a dozen or more Common Nighthawks soaring together....maybe preparing to migrate to their wintering grounds of central and southern South America! They breed throughout the U.S.. They typically lay their eggs on a rocky depression on the ground. They have adapted to urban life by nesting on flat-topped gravel roofs. Apparently their numbers are in decline because more modern roof types do not include flat-topped gravel roofs.

Summer Camp is located near the origin of Camp Creek. We refer to that part of the creek as Upper Camp Creek. The creek flows approximately 12 miles down to Winter Camp where our TNC lead and friend Justin and his family live.

One day we drove down to Winter Camp and hiked about 4 mile up along Lower Camp Creek. What a stunningly wild canyon area.  See the photos below.

 The following are some of the birds we say along Lower Camp Creek.

Lesser Goldfinch along lower Camp Creek- this was an unusual sighting. Their range maps show that they are not found in N.E. Oregon but breed down in the southeast part of the state as well as parts of the western U.S. There are 2 subspecies; one is dark-backed from Colorado to Texas and the other is greenish backed occurring farther west. As you can see, the one below is the greenish backed subspecies.

Paper Wasp nest being built- they gather fiber from dead wood and plant stems, which they mix with their saliva to build water resistant nests.

The bird below is a Red-morph Ruffed Grouse along lower Camp Creek - we saw quite a few Ruffed Grouse on our hike. They are ground dwellers with feathered nostrils, short strong bills & short rounded wings. Flight is brief but strong. The males perform elaborate courting displays.

I was looking down the hill to Lower Camp Creek saying " I wonder if there are American Dippers in the creek" and look what my binoculars settled on !! We saw American Dippers in Lostine River & Hurricane Creek as well:)

Adult and immature Canyon Wrens along the lower section of Camp Creek. The Canyon Wren has a beautiful song that is descending and sounds like a cascade of liquid musical whistles:)

The immature... looks mottled...

and the adult has much cleaner plumage

We had the opportunity to see this male Black-headed Grosbeak feeding in the Elderberry Bush. We assume it was migrating through. It was the only Black-headed Grosbeak we saw during our 2 month stay. They breed throughout the western U.S. and winter in southern Mexico. Despite the showy plumage of the male, he shares the incubating and feeding of the young with the female.

Along with seeing all of the wonderful life around us - there is the other side of life.....

We had 8-10 pairs of swallows nesting at Summer Camp. When you take into account all of the parents and babies, that is a lot of swallows. Unfortunately, a little fledgling Barn Swallow fell from the nest and the parents did not continue to feed it. We think there was probably something wrong with it but we could not bear to see it left out in the driveway in the cold so we made a little nest using a box and some towels for it to be comfortable for its remaining time. We named it Indigo. We brought it inside. It lasted about 24 hours. We feel blessed to have had the opportunity to share that little one's energy. 

The Swainson's Hawks breed here and winter as far south as Argentina. We had a nest that was located near the Zumwalt Road that we watched to 2 young fledge. One morning we noticed feathers on the road next to the tree housing their nest. One of the young birds was right next to the road. It did not fly when we stopped our car to view it so, we were thinking it might have been hit by a car. On our way back it was still there but further away from the road next to a stream. The next morning we went into town to see if we could find some folks that might be able to help the bird. It ended up that Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife was very helpful. A qualified raptor rehabilator went out to see if she could find the bird but only found 3 healthy hawks. So, hopefully the injured bird was able to rest and mend on  its own. 

Summer Camp, where our trailer is parked, is the beginning of Camp Creek. This is a 12 mile remote canyon only accessible by foot. We love birding along Camp Creek but only typically get a few miles in because we get so involved watching the birds. This area is beautiful and wild. On a recent walk we came upon a deer carcass that had been killed and eaten by a mountain lion. We were told that it was a mountain lion because of the way the bones were cleaned off and neatly stacked so meticulously.

There was also this animal scat near the site. It looked like a bear tried to mark its territory by  covering the mountain lion scat.

Wolf scat along upper Camp Creek that we came upon on one of our bird walks. There is a small pack of wolves known to be about 3 miles north of the Zumwalt Prairie. They have very large territories that they cover and obviously it includes the Zumwalt Prairie.

There are not many places where Black Bears, Wolves and Mountain Lions run free. We are so blessed to have had the opportunity to volunteer in such a wild remote location.

On our last night we had such a beautiful sunset:

The Sage Thrasher came out to say so long.....

The world continues to be filled with beauty and wonder :)
Turtle & Hawk

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