[Tweeters] Halloween birding: The search for spooky owls, holy grouse, and angelic snowbirds

Khanh Tran fsprucegrouse at yahoo.com
Wed Nov 4 16:58:26 PST 2009

Hi Tweets,

Sorry for the delay. My work and tennis schedule has gotten a bit busy.. Anyhow, here it is...

Sorry that some of my photos are a bit grainy from transferring them to pBASE (since the server crash, things have not been the same).

Some of my images remind me of Bev Dolittle paintings. It was definitely not intentional. I am so in the moment just trying to capture the bird without them flying or scurrying away.


This Halloween, Chris Stearns and I decided to bird Hart's Pass one last time before the heavy snow hits.

On Friday night, we started out well and clearly heard one BOREAL OWL close to Clover Flats CG near Athanum Meadows in Yakima County. It was a bit frustrating to not see the reclusive owl as it was literally 15 feet above the car. That's the way it goes. It was my 15th owl species for the year for WA so I will take it!!

Lower down at around 5800 ft, we heard another faint skiew near the Eagle's Nest CG. Before dusk, we stumbled on a male SPRUCE GROUSE along one of the closed logging road not far from the Grey Rock Trailhead. I understand this is a tough bird to get for Yakima County. Other than that quiet.

On Saturday, we proceed to Hart's Pass. We had to hike the last mile to reach the summit due to 3 feet of packed snow. Conditions were cold with poor visibility and 10 degrees temps. Weeks prior, I had found a gorgeous male ptarmigan that was about 99.7% white with some black freckles. In my eyes, it was close but no cigar. Not satisfied, I wanted another attempt of finding a pure white bird!

As we approached the summit, 25-30 MPH winds were unforgiving and ground was icy. I usually don't give up but decided to abort Operation Holy Grouse. To drive almost 400 miles and not have a chance to search was very disappointing.

Earlier in the morning, we were successfully seeing other nice birds so our spirits were not entirely dampered. We saw up to 50 PINE GROSBEAKS, a nice flock of roughly 150 GRAY CROWNED ROSYFINCHES, a dozen WHITE WINGED CROSSBILLS, and singlets of NORTHERN SHRIKE and SNOW BUNTING.

As we descended down about 2.5 miles from Slate Peak, heading towards the Meadows CG, my mind started to wander. What the heck do these birds eat when the food source is frozen or buried?? Hmmm.. I then saw a good patch of dwarf willows and my grouse instincts kicked in. I instructed Chris to back up and let's try here!

Chris slowly backs up the rig about 3O feet as I hesitantly got my gear ready to face the harsh conditions outside. About to get out from the car, I see one white dove-like bird in the snow from the corner of my eyes. It was about 40 feet from the car. What the heck??

All I can see are the large black eyes and dark beak. Later another one appeared and more popped out. I need to have my eyes check and help with my id.

Later the next day, while attending to some squeaky problems with our car seat near Meadows CG, I looked about 100 yards away and a NORTHERN HAWK OWL flew in from nowhere and was in hot pursuit of a prey. Moments later, it was joined by an adult NORTHERN GOSHAWK that kept skybombing it. We heard both birds vocalize. Way cool...

What a special TREAT. It was very exciting and emotional seeing the winter plumaged ptarmigans near an open road in WA!! These birds can scoot and scurry quite fast. I was surprised how fast they can run rather than fly.

I finally feel that I have a better knowledge and understanding of their behavior and habits. All the persistence and hard work paid off.

The birds were probably forced down by the strong winds and descented almost 800 ft from their usual haunts. I suspect they will come down lower in the next few weeks where there are exposed vegetation for food and cover.

We saw them the second day under less windy and sunnier conditions. This time, the birds had ascended up higher (almost near the highest ridge) us to use the stunted firs for shelter. They were roosting near them. I also witnessed and videoed a male white-tailed eating larch needles for food.

It is probably a Washington FIRST for documenting these exquisite,white plumaged birds on an open road. It was more exciting than seeing two Northern Hawk Owls in one trip at two different locations.

Grouse are often not given enough attention from birders and are overlooked or missed. They are really fascinating birds to study and photographed. Also, their complex beautiful plumages and entertaining breeding displays are a hoot to watch.

I am NO expert with these group of birds. The last 3 years has been extremely fun and rewarding to learn, discover and appreciate these fancy chickens.

I was one of my best Halloween treats ever!! Don't always keep your eyes and ears skyward, look down at times. You may find some thing cool as well:)



Khanh Tran (Portland, Oregon)


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