I was lucky enough to get invited on the Blue Mountain Audubon Society's Saturday morning field trip, a hawk watch in the Blue Mountains with the legendary Walla Walla birding duo, Mike and Merry Lynn Denny.
I joined a group of 34 birders at eight in the morning at their meeting spot near Whitman. Mike and Merry Lynn adopted me for the day; I felt like I was riding with the Queen and King.
Unlike other styles of birdwatching, in which the watchers wander trails with binoculars around their necks, a hawk watch is a stationary endeavor. Our caravan parked on a pull-out where Skyline Road turns into Forest Road 64, and set up chairs so a quarter of us were facing in each of the four directions. I was on north-looking duty.
|Blue Mountain Audubon Society members set up the hawk watch at a pull-out.|
|Hawk watching in two directions.|
When somebody spotted a raptor, she would holler to get everyone's attention. Birds were identified with lightning speed. A black dot on the horizon: "Turkey vulture!" A flock of twittering brown specks: "Pine siskins!" I could barely keep up.
|A soaring turkey vulture from below: bald pink head and two-tone wings.|
|The same bird, a turkey vulture, can be identified head-on by its dihedral (V-shaped) flight.|
Our spot was ideal for hawk watching because we were sitting at a high point: raptors were attracted by the thermals rising up the steep canyon slopes, and our elevation gave us a 360-degree view. I imagined the cold waters of Lookingglass Creek way down at the canyon floor. Across the canyon I could see a grassy patch on Bald Mountain which acts as a ski slope in winter.
|The steep slopes of Lookingglass Canyon.|
An incredible spectacle took place between a pair of Cooper's Hawks and a raven: they chased each other, dove in free-fall, and performed acrobatic twists in a full circle around the captivated hawk-watchers. I managed to capture a moment of the show on video:
Merry Lynn led a short walk up the road, through a meadow, and down into the pine forest.
|Rubber boa roadkill.|
|A dead white-crowned sparrow we found in the road.|
|A live white-crowned sparrow we found on a branch.|
|A red-breasted nuthatch.|
|A dark-eyed junco.|
|A ruby-crowned kinglet.|
|A yellow-rumped warbler?|
|A dead pine dripping with dry mosses and lichens.|
|An American kestrel, the littlest falcon in North America.|
Fun fact: my first American kestrel sighting took place among ancient Incan ruins in Peru! (You can read about those adventures here.)
|Flashback to my first American kestrel sighting at Sacsayhuamán, an ancient Incan site near Cusco, Peru.|
|Walking, birding, and making friends!|
|Eva models the spreading base of a lone pine. The tree reminded me of a lady in a hoop skirt.|
|Blue sky and blue hills.|
After lunch the hawk-watchers dispersed, but my dedicated guides were not finished. I soon discovered that not only are Mike and Merry Lynn master birders -- they're also experts at all things natural! We explored roadside botany, native pollinators, and even rocks.
|A little plant with soft leaves.|
|A tiny succulent.|
|Rocky Mountain ash.|
|A huckleberry bush in bright fall colors.|
|Andocite basalt with veins of iron oxide running through it.|
The insects just LOVED a yellow flower called rabbitbrush.
|A different kind of hawk than we were expecting: a spiderhawk! (That's a spider-hunting wasp to you.)|
|A skipper -- one of fifteen skipper species native to Oregon!|
|A syrphid fly! It mimics a bee, but you can tell it's a fly because when it rests, it holds its wings out at an angle rather than folded back on its body.|
We found two wasps battling each other in the gutter, biting and stinging! I thought one might kill the other, but in the end they both flew off alive.
We concluded the day with a drive through the back-roads, and I learned even more about human interaction with the Blue Mountains.
|We met a father and son chopping wood, and I learned that National Forest land is open to personal logging.|
|We came across this overgrown relic: a jack fence, built years ago by forest service rangers to protect a young aspen stand from voracious elk.|
The day's magic lay in all the little discoveries and unsolved mysteries. The most thrilling mystery for me was the ghostly wailing I heard reverberating throughout the hills all day. Eventually I figured out the sound's origin: bugling bull elk! I didn't lay eyes on any of the giant mammals, though. It seemed like the Blues themselves were singing.