I went on a snipe hunt…

wilson's snipe

Well, I may not have gotten as much nature as I wanted out of our January trip, but I got my fill last month on a bird watching trip with Mom in southeastern Oregon. If you find yourself considering your first birding trip, here are some of the finer points of this one, and then a few challenges and coping strategy suggestions.

I’m glad I went! It was great to be with Mom doing something she truly enjoys, and I had a great time too. I may even consider taking another Horvath trip, though the travel planning pendulum may swing in other directions (a ski trip, a camping trip, a weekend in NYC, and a bike tour in France are all in the running), first.

The birding trip rocked because …

Lake Abert
A very dried-up Lake Abert
  • I saw way more wildlife than I was able to photograph. This sounds like a disappointment but it isn’t! I’m thankful for the excellent optics of my Nikon binocs and the three spotting scopes brought in our van, and also for the helpful co-travelers and guide who got the animals into view, in the scopes.
  • I got better at spotting birds! God bless the new eyeglasses, which may have had something to do with it.
  • Here’s a map of the places we went. I’d never been to many of them. The scenery was astounding, especially when it included an alkaline desert or a Ponderosa Pine forest.
  • Favorite bird from Day 1:  a tie between a Great Horned owlet and a colony of Cliff Swallows (they were cutest/most Muppet-like when viewed in their nests via spotting scope… this is a similar view)
  • From Day 2: Black-crowned Night Heron – my favorite view, of which I did get a shot, was of these three thuggish ones. The scene reminded me of Edward Gorey art.
  • Day 3: the Sora. This was one that our guide drew out with the aid of a recording of sora call on an iPhone with a small amplifier. It waded low in reeds – without causing any of the reeds to move. Such a Ninja bird!

    Wilson's Phalarope
    A phalarope, not spinning
  • Day 4: the Loggerhead Shrike: my shot of it is here. This wee beast can take down birds bigger than itself. It’s a non-raptor raptor.
  • Day 5 (and my favorite from the whole trip): Wilson’s Snipe, which is shown in the big photo above. So adorable and strange. And beautiful, with those fine brown stripes.
  • Day 6: a tie between Eared and Horned Grebes. So alien, so … Jurassic.
  • Special additional sightings: the Sandhill Cranes and their fuzzy orange colts, Cinnamon Teals, Chukar, Barrow’s Goldeneye, American Bittern, Prairie Falcon, Snowy Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Franklin’s Gull, Burrowing Owl, Say’s Phoebe, Yellow-breasted Chat, Western Tanager (“Wasted Teenager”), and Yellow-headed Blackbird. As a group, we identified 143 bird species (I saw only 141 of them), 13 mammal species, and 3 reptile species.
  • We took several opportunities to spend some time, just observing these animals in their native (albeit transient) habitats. How else would I learn that pelicans do their fishing collectively? We spent at least half an hour watching two of them on Mud Lake, periodically dunking simultaneously to herd/catch fish together. Watching the Sora carefully pick his way through the reeds in front of us was both fascinating and very peaceful.
  • Best food of the trip was the pork ribs, at the Hotel Diamond. We may have had way more meat (versus fish) on this Oregon trip than I could have ever expected, but this particular dish sure tasted good. The pear bundt cake at breakfast the next day was excellent, as well. Even when breakfast was after 3 hours of birding.

    Oregon Petroglyph
    Nifty petroglyphs
  • My fellow travelers were wonderful company, including the knowledgeable and entertaining guide, Eric Horvath, and especially my amazing Mom. I learned a lot and laughed even more.
  • I didn’t mind getting up at 5:30 (though Mom and I skipped the 4:30 morning), partly as the sun usually woke me up and my body stayed on Central Daylight time throughout this trip.
  • I want to learn more about digiscoping.
  • The picnic lunches that Eric planned were great: healthy and tasty. It was nice to not be stuck with what we could find on the road. The blackberry shake at Fields Station was delicious, but I’m glad we didn’t have to roast the rattlesnake roadkill or consume more beef stew.
  • I learned that you can call birds. The magic of iPhone gets out to the desert/wetland/forest to tease out the creature by making, say, the male believe he’s got competition for the one female in the county. This tool (various birding apps like Audobon’s “Birds” have recordings) was what enabled us to see the Bittern, the Chukar, the blur of a Virginia Rail’s butt, a Sora, and a few warblers. Hopefully it’s not done very much, and doesn’t create too much of a ruckus for those species! Update on 6/11: I totally deserved the outcome, but I experimented with same-species recordings just last evening on a young Mourning Dove perched on one of our windowsills. His reaction: he pooped. On our windowsill. The poor little guy got a little flustered, but stayed there for awhile, and didn’t end up injured or eaten (yet) by a raptor in our close-to-the-Mississippi-River ‘hood.
  • My camera assortment (a digital SLR with a 70-300mm zoom, a compact digital camera, and my iPhone) proved a pretty good combination that allowed me to take a good variety of close-ups of wildlife, scenic panoramas, and quick snapshots or Vine videos. That said, our guide had a fixed long-range lens. He explained to us that these tend to last longer, as the moving parts of a zoom allow debris to get into the lens apparatus. Most of the time, I had the zoom all the way out, anyway, so this is something to consider if I buy a new camera that isn’t a Canon (I’m flirting with checking out the mirrorless variety).
  • Best sound of the whole trip: the “booming” (it looked like burping) of the American Bittern. There’s a great recording of it on this page: click on the LISTEN button to the left of the range maps. I also liked the Snipe’s monkey-like calls.

Reasons the 3 days in Portland after the trip were wonderful

  • Firstly: they were spent with my Dad! Visiting OMSI (and doing the submarine tour there); doing a little running; checking out Belmont Station with Lisa and Mark; shopping at Powell’s; enjoying great food at Bridgeport Brewing, Gilda’s and Gracie’s; going to a pro women’s soccer match; and relaxing in the very nice Hotel Deluxe in a part of town called Goose Hollow.
  • mountain bluebird
    Mountain Bluebird. Shot from inside the van.

    Then, back to the challenges of the birding trip. It was a lot of time in a van. Viewing wildlife from a large vehicle was the best way to go for much of the day, as many of our creature sightings were enabled by the “disguise” of a large white reflective box on wheels. However, it was hard on this body, which has a daily work commute that doesn’t even last one song on the radio (and is often done on foot or via pedal). Perhaps this was less the case for others in the trip. I think I was the only person in the middle of base-building for a fall marathon.

  • It took my neck and rib cage a few days to adjust to swiveling 180+ degrees with binoculars, while in the van.
  • Great Horned Owl
    A Great Horned Owl, half asleep and yet still twisting like he’s trying to photograph a human from an Econoline van.

    We got out almost as frequently as in those 12-person, 24-hour running “Ragnar” relay races I do each year. Getting out of a 16-passenger van is a bit more work than popping out of a minivan. My butt and quads were sore for a few days.

  • I was the youngest on the trip and also the one with the smallest bladder. I didn’t think to plan ahead by dehydrating myself, the week prior.
  • There was so much to see and our guide was so eager to share it with us that our days as a full group started at 5:30 in the morning and didn’t end until around 8:30pm, after dinner. It’s great to play so hard during the day that falling asleep at night isn’t a challenge. However, it would have been more vacation-like to unwind and/or socialize for an hour or so in the evenings, outside of our box on wheels.
  • Comparatively, our bird watching trip in Maine a few years back, with Road Scholar, did offer sufficient down time for Mom and I to reconnect and recover from the exertion, excitement, and weather. We may have missed out on some prime bird-viewing time (AKA dawn), but the rest of the day had offered enough puffin, tern and warbler goodness that I was satisfied. A more serious birder may have been disappointed, however.
  • Hotel Diamond cocktail hour
    The rare cocktail & hors d’oeuvres hour, which erupted on the Hotel Diamond veranda on our next-to-last evening of the trip.

    Related: the yoga mat and my nonfiction book, never mind the running kit, didn’t get much attention ’til Portland. I did manage to do some meditation on a few evenings, but the daily itinerary forced my head to the pillow almost every night, pronto. As my husband said (in similar but not exact words) on the phone on one of those evenings, “You’re out in nature. That’s your yoga.” All the clean air, fascinating animals, breathtaking natural scenery and lack of the usual distractions (work, fitness, TV, internet, etc.) were very likely supplying for me what I normally seek in my home yoga and meditation practice.

  • This trip needed more hot tub soaks! We were graced with very comfortable weather, compared to the frigid Maine birding trip a few Mays back. But any temperature under 80 or so is a great temperature for a soak! The dip I took in the Hart Mountain Hot Springs (pictured here), in the rain and hail, was worth the effort of getting semi-dry clothes back onto my wet body when it was time to go. I wish more people in the group (it was just me and the guide) had joined us.

All my trip photos are here: My SmugMug album for the trip. Post a note in the comments of this page, if you have any questions or a suggestion for my next trip!

Here’s one of the Vine videos I recorded. I found Vine really helpful if (when) I wanted to record sounds on this trip.