Friday, July 31, 2009

Arrival at Steens Mountains

By the time we got up to 8,000 feet elevation it was after sunset and getting toward dusk. We quickly set up our tents. I had never been in the Steens Mountains before, and really didn't have much idea where I was, so will show a few photos that I took over the next couple of days to help with orientation.

There are three large gorges, carved by glaciers, dividing the Steens. Kiger Gorge runs north-south, and a pair of east-west gorges run side-by-side. The pair are the Donner and Blitzen, and Big Indian. This first photo is looking east, looking up Big Indian from the downstream side. During the summer months, the native inhabitants of this area would work their way up the canyon.

This second photo shows the view as seen from the top, where we were. There were still snowfields and the wildflowers were blooming profusely.

There was a bit of a breeze at the ridge line where we set up camp, which was nice, because it made it cooler and continually hazed the mosquitoes away. I pulled on my hooded sweatshirt and sprayed DEET on my hat to try to deter the biting insects, and for the most part it worked.

After setting up the tents we ate dinner and watched the stars come out. They really came out. Jupiter rose over the eastern horizon with three of the large moons visible as the last color faded from the western sky. I had my Cambridge Star Atlas and was determined to locate the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Galaxy is visible to the naked eye, once one is away from light pollution ... and we were very far away from light pollution.

I began to orient myself. "Arc to Arcturus" ... there was the bright star I had recently learned about, lying on a curving arc traced through the Big Dipper's handle. And Vega ... that's the first time I ever saw that star and knew about it. Then the Corona Borealis (Northern Crown) and next to it Hercules ... first time I ever located that constellation. Wow, having a star atlas and a dark sky really helps. Meteors and satellites crossed the sky. I set up my 20 to 60 power spotting scope, which is really intended for birds, and was soon enjoying locating open clusters of stars. The small sliver of the new moon dropped below the horizon and it was now dark enough to see faint, dim objects in the sky.

With the help of the star map I learned that the formation of stars I always thought of as "the crook" was a portion of the constellation of Scorpio. And I became reacquainted with Cygnus, the swan, a large constellation that lies smack against the Milky Way.

I find it a bit difficult to express what the Milky Way looks like. It is not something I see very often because city lights and pollution tend to obscure it most of the time. It is a broad band of glowing mist extending from one horizon to the other, composed of millions or maybe even billions of stars. It is what we see when we look through the dense flat region of our spiral galaxy on a clear, dark night.

And, the Andromeda Galaxy is another whole galaxy of stars. It is in the sky sort of near Casseopia (which I call "the big W" ... because that's what it looks like to me). I still couldn't see it with my eyes, or with my scope. I finally grabbed my binoculars and scanned the area where it should be ... and, there it was! Now that I knew where to look, I could put the scope on it. Just think, another galaxy, just like ours ... headed right for us ... bound to collide in a few billion years. No worries, though. Galaxies are mostly empty space. Rarely do any stars crash into each other due to galactic mergers. The upheaval does cause a lot of new stars to be formed, though.

I spent so much time staring into space that it got very late, and I was shivering in the cool night air, which was unexpected because it was almost 100 degrees back home during the day. I crawled into the sleeping bag to get warm, too tired to battle any mosquitoes, which allowed them a bit of a field day (or field night, as the case may be) during the following hours.

In the morning I saw Venus in the eastern sky, and could also see the half dozen mosquitoes that shared my tent for the night. After squashing them, I went back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The drive to Steens Mountains

Driving across Oregon on our way to the Steens Mountains, Cyndi and I saw lots of birds. This soaring Golden Eagle was magnificent.

And, the Loggerhead Shrike were out in force. We saw quite a few of them and this one even stayed put while we stopped to take a photo.

To get to the Steens Mountains, we had to drive past the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where I had spent a wonderful vacation in the early spring. It was interesting to see how the seasonal changes had progressed.

The Buena Vista overlook, as it was when I first visited in the spring ...

and, last weekend.

Looking toward the Steens Mountains in the spring ...

and, last weekend.

When I visited in the spring the road up to the alpine areas was still closed by snow. It often is closed until July, and we were headed for the top. The ridge is close to 9,500 feet above sea level and easily a mile above the surrounding plateau, and we were going to seek a camping spot near the top. It's getting late in the day, as you can see from the beautiful sunset light. And, at the gas station we were asked where we were headed ... and their one word reply was, "mosquitoes."

South Hills

Last week I had four days off in a row, for a long weekend. I planned a trip to the Steens Mountains for Saturday - Monday, but was seeking something to do on the Friday before I headed west. There had been reports of a Blue Grosbeak in the South Hills, near Twin Falls, so on Friday I went to the South Hills. I met my friend Duane and we trekked the area looking for the Grosbeak, and enjoying the day. I had never visited the South Hills, on the Sawtooth National Forest, and truly enjoyed the views. They're right near where the Nevada - Utah - Idaho borders converge.

I didn't realize what Teasel looked like while in flower. I photographed many of the dried seed heads this spring in Oregon and showed them on an earlier post. But here is what the flower looks like.

We did see many birds, though I was more lucky in viewing than in photographing. Still, this hummingbird landed close enough for a picture. The female and juvenile hummingbirds can be remarkably difficult to identify, and my best guess is that this is likely a Calliope Hummingbird.

Oh, and we never did spot a Blue Grosbeak. Maybe on another day ... .

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Birds, birds and more birds.

A fellow birder posted a sighting of Grasshopper Sparrows recently, and last week I went out to seek them but was not successful. I contacted him to let him know when I would have the day off, and he kindly offered to go back with me for another look. We had a great day of birding today. Thanks Louie!

We went over to Elmore County and drove dirt roads by the ghost town of Mayfield. We saw quite a few species of birds and I got some nice photos.

Horned Lark.

Swainson's Hawk. This was shooting right into the bright, white background. I wish it was nicer light because these are magnificent birds. See the brown cowl and white face? We watched one attacking a Golden Eagle as a Red-tailed Hawk circled nearby.

Common Nighthawk. I've seen them flying quite often, but this was the first time I ever saw one at rest. They would usually blend in quite well with a horizontal log, but this was right against the blue sky, so was hard to miss.

Here's a Sage Thrasher with the long curved bill.

And, an Eastern Kingbird in black and white, ready for a formal occasion.

Our goal, though, was the Grasshopper Sparrow. And, here it is! This one has the streaky chest of a juvenile. What stands out as different to me is the bill. It is dark on top and light on the bottom, and quite a thick bill. They have a complete, white ring around the eye as well. They were easily frightened, and dove for cover into the grass whenever we approached. They eat grasshoppers, and live in overgrown grassy fields.

After seeing these birds, we took the long way home, so we could look at the mudflat at the edge of Mountain Home Reservoir, to look at migrating shorebirds. I have a tough time identifying them, as many look very similar, but Louie showed me how he can tell the difference between a Semipalmated Sandpiper and a Western Sandpiper.

If I understood correctly, then the Semipalmated Sandpiper is the smaller one at the left, with a slightly shorter bill and dark face. They usually are walking along the mud, while the Western Sandpipers are wading in the water. I think this one is in the water because I'm trying to sneak closer to take a photo.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

If at first you don't succeed ...

Those who follow this blog will recall the wingtip of the Black-throated Sparrow I showed in the previous post. The Black-throated Sparrow really is an attractive bird, so I was disappointed not to get a better image.

I told my birder friends about the sighting, and was told that they found the birds and a nest. The pair of Black-throated Sparrows were busy gathering food for their young about to fledge.

Armed with the knowledge that the birds would very likely still be in the area, I was compelled to go back.

The Jackrabbit was still there, along with many relatives. This time it posed further away from the broken bottle. I also saw Horned Lizard and heard a pack of Coyotes calling in the distance.

The rock formations in the area were surreal. This one reminded me of some animal skull.

The Common Nighthawk were flying overhead, and when two of them would approach one another, one would make a roaring noise. I'm unsure of the mechanism, but it reminded me of a toy I had as a kid, a flat blade attached to a string that, when whirled around, made a loud roaring noise. I think it was airflow past feathers that vibrated, but I'll research this more when I find time.

The sun was getting lower on the horizon and a couple of bats appeared as well.

And there they were! A pair of the Black-throated Sparrows.

Shortly after that the sunset colors lit up the sky and it was time to head home.

On the way home, a pair of young Coyotes ran down the road in front of the car, at times pausing, turning, and looking at me as I stopped and waited for them to get out of the road. Other than their big ears, they looked like a pair of puppies to me.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Owyhee Birds

Last weekend I went with a friend to seek a bird I had never seen, the Black-throated Sparrow. They live in the desert of the southwest on rocky hillsides. The very northern extent of their range just enters southern Idaho and one place they had been seen in years past was the Owyhee Mountains of southwestern Idaho.

We stopped at a few reservoirs on the way and saw many wading birds, ducks and even American White Pelicans.

When we got to our destination we were fascinated by the unique habitat. Strange eroding rock formations stood on the skyline, and flowers I had never seen were growing in the oolitic soil.

Then a flash of wings caught my attention. I looked with my binoculars and saw the bold black and white facial pattern that was the Black-throated Sparrow. What luck! They usually spend most of their time on the ground, and this one had flown up onto a shrub. I raised the camera for a photo and it disappeared into the bush. I walked closer and saw it again on the next bush. I again raised the camera for a photo.

Once again it flew. See the wingtip there at the left edge of the bush? Next time I'll have to get a photo that includes the throat. It is called the Black-throated Sparrow for a reason. It was still a joy to see it, though the photo leaves much to be desired.

We went a bit further up the road to walk up a dry wash. This photo is a sign of the West, isn't it? A Black-tailed Jackrabbit by some artifacts of the ancient civilization known as the "Red Neck People."

The dry wash had very interesting textures in the dried mud.

We saw a Say's Phoebe and a Common Nighthawk flew overhead making that strange buzzy call. The sun was getting low on the horizon and a chattering flock of small birds flew down into the wash. Looking through my binoculars I was amazed to see a small bird with a long tail and white eyes!

I imagined a bird with white eyes and a long tail like that would be easy to identify. It wasn't the White-eyed Vireo. Those have some yellowish feathers. This bird had a small dark bill as well, and kept flicking open its wings. Wrentit, I thought. I'd only seen Wrentit once, and that was on the Oregon coast.

They allowed me to get quite a few photos and many good looks. I kept asking my hiking companion, "Did you see the white eye?" Other than the vireo, I couldn't recall any white-eyed birds. Surely this would be easy to identify. When I got back to the car I pulled out my bird guide, and sure enough, the Wrentit has a long tail, short dark bill, and pale iris. But, they live on the Oregon Coast, not in the desert.

When I got home I excitedly checked my Idaho checklist which includes the 405 birds seen in Idaho, and this one had never been seen in Idaho. I posted some directions to my find along with these photos to the Idaho birders discussion list.

When I awoke the next morning I checked my email and two very experienced birds had sent me polite, patient emails explaining the difference between Bushtit and Wrentit. The Wrentit has a dark, streaky belly and the Bushtit has a paler belly and face. The female Bushtit has a white iris. I did see a Bushtit for the first time this spring, and it had dark eyes ... so I guess I had seen a male.

Birds never cease to amaze and interest me. Males of this species have one color eyes, females another. I wonder why?

I thought I might go down in birding history for finding a species new to Idaho ... but instead I might go down in birding history for misidentifying so many Idaho birds! I'm so glad I have my camera, so I can study the pictures at great length. Imagine if I can get it wrong even with clear photos ... how many mistakes could I make from my fallible memory of a quick glimpse?

Friday, July 3, 2009

July Birds

I received instructions on where to see Bobolinks. They're like a blackbird that live in wet, grassy fields. Sure enough, the directions were perfect, and the Bobolinks were there, along with a Wilson's Snipe.

I was also told that there were woodpeckers to be found in a burned area and set off to find them. They were to be found 13 miles up Granite Creek, which was a dirt road. I only recently began taking my Honda Accord on dirt roads. It is the first car in my life that was purchased as a new (not used) car, and I tried hard to take very good care of it. But, since the transmission failed after only 66,000 miles (They do that on '01 Accords, as a class action lawsuit proved ... but the settlement that increased the warranty from 3 years to 7 years did me no good at year 8. In fairness, I should mention the dealership knocked 50% off the $2,800 repair bill for this faulty component.) I have now had a bit less love for this car, and it is now "of age" to hit the dirt. I wouldn't go on just any dirt road, but this one was nice and smooth -- for the first 10 miles. Then it got a bit bumpy, and at 12.5 miles it was downright rutted. But I was just too close to give up.

At mile 13 I parked, and since I'd heard a few scrapes (which I hoped would be the bumper) I cautiously looked underneath the car. Yikes! Fluid dripping. That's not good. I tossed the camera and binoculars back into the backpack and climbed under the car. I couldn't see where it was coming from, and no hose was obviously broken, or even abraded. I raised the hood. All the fluid levels were full. I got back underneath and held my hand under the drip. It wasn't slippery like oil, and didn't have any obvious color. I considered tasting it, but then imagined being broken down 13 miles in the mountains with absolutely no other person seen the whole trip, and then having to walk out while queasy (or worse) from drinking car fluids.

I thought I'd better go before all of whatever it was flowed onto the ground, and nervously started back down the road, not once looking for a bird. After a few miles I considered my hand, where I had caught the drips. It was completely clean, with no residue, like water. Water! The air conditioner was condensing and dripping just plain old water. What a relief this was, though I still eyed the dashboard temperature indicator nervously once in a while, in case I was wrong.

So, no woodpeckers were seen. And I wasn't about to go up that bumpy road again in this car. Maybe I'd come back with my little pickup. That would make more sense.

Though I didn't find the woodpeckers, I did happen upon this Ruffed Grouse on the drive back. So, seeing a Grouse up close made the adventure a bit more successful. And, I got a story to tell out of the deal. Seems as I tell my friends, they all chime in "air conditioner" at about the middle of the tale.

The moral of the story. "Don't look under the car. You may not like what you see. "