Thursday, May 23, 2019

Woodpecker Day

Sometimes one can find wild birds in the most unusual places.  One of my friends mentioned she'd spotted a huge variety of woodpeckers in a local natural area.  Sandwiched in between a FedEx facility and an asphalt plant, it seemed an unlikely place for so many birds to live.

Spotted Towhee taking a bath in a puddle

When I told Cheri, my neighbor and photography friend, she was very interested in checking the place out.  So early one morning in April, we did just that.  It was a cold, rainy day, and I had my doubts any birds would be out in such nasty weather (I wasn't too sure I wanted to be out in it either!)

A Pileated woodpecker!

When we first wandered through the old road that served as a trail there wasn't a bird to be found.  One trail brought us to the Columbia River's banks, and here Cheri spotted a couple of eagles soaring through the air.  But I wasn't fast enough to capture them.  My only image came when a spotted towhee landed close by and began splashing around in a puddle.  (Which became one of my favorites from the day)

I was ready to admit defeat, but Cheri was determined to find some woodpeckers.

Pileated woodpecker inspecting a hole in this tree

We followed another side trail deep into the woods.  It was here Cheri heard the distinctive "knock knock" sound of a woodpecker on a tree.  She grabbed her binoculars and spotted our first woodpecker - not just any woodpecker, this one was a Pileated woodpecker.  Being a beginning birder, I didn't realize that seeing one in the wild was rare.

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Cheri located the tree that the woodpecker was pounding on.  The bird was tearing off pieces of moss and stuffing them into a hole in the tree.  A few minutes later, this woodpecker was joined by another - the female Cheri guessed.  A woodpecker couple!  We clicked away with our cameras.  Cheri was so excited.  She made plans to return in another month and look for babies.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

Although the rain sprinkled intermittently, this woodpecker sighting had us both fired up to look for more birds.  After a bit more walking, I noticed a few red-headed birds on a nearby tree.  Turned out they were another species of woodpecker, the red-breasted sapsucker.  Those birds moved so fast, I only got one halfway decent image. 

Wood Duck

Then Cheri spotted a wood duck couple perched on top of an old dead tree.  The brightly colored male was so pretty, I wished they were a bit closer for better images.  (Lucky for me, I had a wood duck couple land in our backyard a few days later)

Our last woodpecker sighting came as Cheri and I were walking back towards the parking area.  Cheri spotted a striking black and white bird hopping around the trunk of a tree.  Turned out this one was a hairy woodpecker (Never knew there was such a wide variety - I learned a lot about woodpeckers that day!)

Hairy woodpecker

Lucky for us, an icky, rainy day didn't stop the birds from coming out of hiding.  The lack of leaves on the trees helped us with bird spotting.  We'd return a month later to find thick spring greenery hiding our feathery friends.

Another successful day of bird photography!  And - bonus - Cheri's fit bit said we'd walked a total of four miles, so I included it as one of the hikes for my 52 hike challenge.  #hikenumber9

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Birds of the Klamath Basin

WARNING - extremely photo-heavy post ahead!  Proceed at your own risk (or enjoyment!)

My neighbor and photography mentor Cheri (who's been teaching me all about photograping wildlife, especially birds) encouraged me to sign up for the Winter Wings Festival, a February birding workshop in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  Sadly, work commitments forced me to cancel at the last minute.  To say I was disappointed was an understatement.  Located on the Pacific Flyway, the lakes and marshes around Klamath Falls are renowned for their seasonal wild bird populations, attracting birding enthusiasts from all over.

Lower Klamath Lake

Cheri to the rescue.  With multiple visits over the years, she knew the area well and offered to take me to Klamath Falls another time.  The last weekend in March opened up for both of us, so Cheri made motel reservations, and off we went!

Western Grebe

Klamath Falls is located in southern Oregon, a 4 1/2 hour drive from Portland.  We got an early start and pulled in to town just after noon.  First stop was one of the city parks to check for Western Grebes.  Cheri was happy to see they had returned.  These birds have an interesting courtship dance (sadly it wasn't quite mating season yet so we didn't get to see it).  I was intrigued by the bird's unique bright red eyes.

Great Blue Heron on a nest

Then we headed south of town to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.  Straddling the stateline between Oregon and California, this 50,000 acre refuge is a haven for waterfowl of all types.  According to the refuge's website, it's one of the most biologically productive refuges in the Pacific Flyway.  About 80 percent of the flyway's migrating waterfowl pass through the Klamath Basin, with 50 percent using this refuge.

Ruddy duck

Enough with the statistics - time to see some birds!  Cheri drove by a few drainage canals all hosting ducks of several varieties.  Each time she stopped her truck to take photos, the ducks would immediately take to the air.  We really had to be quick with our cameras to capture the fowl in flight.  Cheri, much more experienced (and talented!) got some great shots, while mine pretty pretty much all ended up blurry.

Great Blue Heron coming in for a landing

Then Cheri drove by the shore of Lower Klamath Lake.  A row of trees lined the road, and in those trees we spotted a Great Blue Heron rookery.  Several nests were perched high in the treetops.  No babies yet, but lots of herons coming and going.

Bald Eagle stare

Further down the treeline we spotted more nests, but these were nests of a different bird species - the bald eagle.  It was amazing to watch these majestic birds perched high atop the trees.  Cheri remarked that it was unfortunate the blue herons had their nests close by.  With so many bald eagles in the neighborhood their babies wouldn't stand a chance.

Snow geese taking off at Tule Lake

Cheri then decided to drive to nearby Tule Lake.  Located just over the stateline in California, this lake was also an important stop on the Pacific Flyway.  A popular wintering place for snow geese, she was hoping the huge flocks of these birds hadn't left yet.

Carnage on the shore of Tule Lake

We were in luck!  As Cheri pulled onto the gravel road circling Tule Lake, we spotted a large white mass of birds floating in it's waters.  Not long after we stopped, Cheri and I witnessed this enormous flock take to the air.  Thousands of geese rising from the water, splashing and honking in a huge white blur.  What a sight!

The perpetrator - a juvenile Bald Eagle

Snow geese weren't the only birds calling Tule Lake home.  Driving further on the lakeshore road, we began to notice mounds of white feathers scattered about.  After scaring a pack of vultures from a snow goose carcass, we realized where the white feathers were coming from.  High poles had been erected along a portion of the road, creating perches for resident bald eagles.  Snow geese just happened to be their favorite snack.  The circle of life is not pretty.


The best bird sighting of the day came when Cheri spotted a pelican sitting atop a wooden structure adjacent to the road.  The pelican allowed us a couple of up-close photos, before promptly flying away.

Pelican duo on Tule Lake

But wait, there's more!  A little bit later, Cheri spotted several pelicans drifting about Tule Lake.  A few swam within range of our zoom lenses, and I managed to get several great images.  I'd never seen pelicans so close before, and I was awed by both their body size and shape of their beaks.

We found more pelicans in a drainage canal

Just when we thought the day's bird sightings couldn't get any better - driving back towards Klamath Falls Cheri spotted yet another pelican duo swimming in a nearby drainage canal.  We were out of her truck before the wheels stopped turning, cameras in hand.  Luckily for us the pelicans posed for a few minutes before flying away.

Foggy morning on day two

Day one had been a rousing success!  Back in our motel room that night, Cheri and I had fun picking out and editing our favorite images.  (So many good ones to chose from!)  We went to bed that night looking forward to another day of wildlife photography.

Hard to see Bald Eagles in the trees

But...the weather played a trick on us!  Cheri and I awoke to a frosty morning.  Driving out of town towards Lower Klamath Lake, we were enveloped by a huge fog bank.  Visibility was nearly nil.  Not good if you're trying to spot and photograph birds.

Black-necked Stilt

But we'd driven all this way, and were weren't giving up easily.  Cheri slowly steered her truck around the refuge, keeping an eye out for any sign of birds.  Despite the weather, we spotted lots of hawks, ducks, eagles, and pheasants.  Tons of pheasants!  They popped out of the roadside bushes everywhere.  The pheasants were really fast and a challenge to capture on camera.  I only got one halfway decent image but had fun trying.

Foggy drainage canal

Enjoy the next few images from our foggy morning....

Hawk on the hunt

I finally got one decent pheasant image

Hawk posing for me

Cinnamon teal couple

Snow geese in the fog

Cheri and I kept hoping the fog would finally lift.  But after driving around half the morning it still clung stubbornly to the ground.  So we decided to drive back to Tule Lake to see if conditions were any better.

Cheri waiting for the fog to lift on Tule Lake

Tule Lake was just as socked in as the Lower Klamath Refuge.  I managed to get one good image of a snow geese flock flying in the fog. 

Our view (or lack of!)

We noticed the fog beginning to clear towards the south.  Slowly the surrounding plains and hillsides became visible.  But the lake itself was still cloaked in white.  It was weird to sit in sunshine on the road, but see thick fog not ten feet away.

To pass the time, I took landscape photos

So Cheri and I waited on the shore for the fog to clear.  Cheri really wanted to get another chance to photograph the huge snow geese flock in flight.  We could hear the geese honking but could just barely make out their outline through the white curtain.

Bald Eagle having lunch

Luckily while we waited, I found plenty of other things to photograph.  Like a bald eagle having lunch atop one of the utility poles.

Mt Shasta

Or magnificent Mt.Shasta rising from the plains, cloaked in winter white.

Double eagle

There were lots of bald eagles out and about - no shortage of great photo opportunities.

Red-winged blackbird

I also had fun capturing several red-winged blackbirds, singing their lovely melodies.

Caught one snow goose in flight

Finally after an hour of waiting, the fog finally began to lift.  Cheri and I could see the enormous flock of snow geese out on the lake.  Thousands of geese made a long white line in the water - quite a sight.  Now all they had to do was take off in flight and we could get our photos.  But.... the geese stayed firmly put in the water.

Snow geese mass take-off

Cheri said she hoped that an eagle would do a fly-by of the snow geese flock.  That would get the birds in the air.  But the eagles seemed content to perch on their poles. 

Thousands of snow geese at Tule Lake

After another half hour of patiently waiting, Cheri and I were ready to call it a day and head back to Lower Klamath Lake.  But suddenly, the honking began to get louder.  Then, as if a signal had been given, every goose in that huge flock rose out of the water.  The noise was incredible!  The sight even more so.  Patience paid off - Cheri and I finally got our images.

Nice views from Upper Klamath Lake
Cheri decided to do one more driving loop of Upper Klamath Lake before heading back to town.  We passed by more incredible views of the nearby mountains - Mt McLoughlin rising prominently over the horizon.  The landscape photographer in me couldn't resist.

White-fronted geese

Lower Klamath Lake was full of white-fronted geese.  Although not as attractive as snow geese, perfect late afternoon light on the flock made for a few good photo ops.

Northern Shoveler

I tried my hand at capturing a few Northern shoveler ducks in flight. 

Take off!

But, boy were they quick!  Instead of running along the water before taking flight, these ducks rise straight from the water's surface. Very hard to capture for the newbie wildlife photographer (me).

Pre-take off running on water

But it was a good challenge.  These ruddy ducks running across the water were fun to capture too.

Itchy eagle

Cheri spotted a tundra swan far out on the lake, so she stopped her truck to get out and photograph the elegant bird.  As we were focusing on the swan, a bald eagle flew right over our heads, and landed on a tree above the truck.  It was nearly too close to capture with our long zoom lenses.  The eagle sat on the tree for a long time, posing for us.  At one point, it began scratching his head and I captured my favorite image of the entire trip. 

Fantastic cloud reflections
What began as a foggy day ended in blue skies.  Returning to town, puffy clouds perfectly reflected in the lake caught our eyes, and we just couldn't resist one final photo stop.  A great way to end two incredible days of photography in a wild and beautiful area.

Thanks Cheri for introducing me to such an amazing place.  I'm already looking forward to coming back!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Grass Widow Season

The eastern Columbia River Gorge lies in the Cascade Mountain's rain shadow.  Due to this location, it's open, grassy slopes receive a higher proportion of rain-free days during winter months.  Beginning in mid-February, sun-starved hikers jonesing for a dry trek flock to the Gorge east of Hood River.  As an added bonus, this area boasts the very first spring wildflowers.  The elusive purple grass widows normally begin unfurling their blooms in March.

They're back!

In the month of March I'm usually still skiing, and often miss out on peak grass widow time.  But this year, freshly returned from my Utah ski trip, I was ready a change in activities - time for a spring hike!

Oak forest

So on a sunny, mid-March Friday, I pointed my car east towards the Catherine Creek Trailhead.  This area has the reputation for the finest and earliest grass widow bloom.

Catherine Creek crossing

From the parking lot, I spied the first patch of these tiny lavender blooms dotting the adjacent grassy field.  Following the trail through this first meadow took much longer than expected - I wanted to photograph as many of these lovely flowers as possible.  Normally the highest concentration of grass widows are found adjacent to the parking lot, and I was afraid this would be the only place I'd see them (lucky for me was I wrong about that!)

Old ranch corral

After an extended photography session, I tore myself away from the meadow, and followed an old road as it descended into an oak forest, crossing Catherine Creek itself, and then gradually climbed past an abandoned corral.

Lovely grass widow

Then the old road climbed again, through a ponderosa pine forest, until transitioning into trail that quickly intersected onto a wide, grassy slope.  Mt Hood popped above the horizon, it's gleaming white summit making a fine subject for my camera lens.

Mt Hood sighting

And in this grassy meadow were more grass widows.  Quite a large concentration, they beckoned to be photographed.  I ended up adding several dozen more images to my memory card.

Another purple beauty

Oh the views were stupendous!  Mt Hood anchored the western skyline, while steep cliffs and bluffs lining the mighty Columbia River stretched to the east.

Better mountain views up high

After spending the better part of a half hour scenery gazing in the high meadow,  I reluctantly retraced my steps back downhill.  But little did I know the best was yet to come!

Never a shortage of flowers to photograph

Instead of heading back towards the old corral, I opted to return on a loop trail that followed the top of a rocky ridge.  Descending towards this ridge, I came upon a huge patch of grass widows.  The best concentration yet, the ground here was absolutely purple with blooms.

I liked this pair the best

Grass widows were everywhere!  The further I walked downhill, the denser the flower patches became.

Purple slopes

At one point, the top of the ridge was a thick stripe of purple from so many grass widows.

Flowerful canyon rim

The early afternoon sun began to light up the eastern Gorge, turning the river into a lovely shade of blue.

Columbia River views

I even spotted a rare patch of white grass widows amongst the flower fields.

Found a patch of white grass widows

After capturing several hundred images of scenery my creativity, and my camera, began to tire.  Wildflower overload!

Best bloom in a long time

Still, it was the best grass widow bloom I'd ever witnessed at Catherine Creek.

Looking east down the Gorge

I captured a few more images of the always-scenic Columbia River Gorge before finally returning back to my car.

One final image!

A great way to spend a sunny March morning.  Although only a 3-mile hike, the Catherine Creek Trail packed a lot of good stuff into such a short distance.

Hike number 8 done!  #52hikechallenge