[Tweeters] Umatilla Field Trip recap

Eric Heisey magicman32 at rocketmail.com
Sat Jan 23 22:06:11 PST 2016

Hey all,
Today I was joined by Andy and Ellen Stepniewski as we embarked on a full day trek to Umatilla, Oregon, working our way back up the Columbia River through Walla Walla County. The weather was pleasant for most of the day, with temperatures reaching the 50s. Intermittent showers in Umatilla were the only brief interruption, as it was partly cloudy with periods of sun for the rest of the day.
We started the day by driving around the town of Umatilla and by scoping the calm slack-water above McNary Dam. Here we had a number of good birds, including a lone Snow Goose, flyover flocks of Cackling Geese, two Barrow's Goldeneyes (the first of many), an Eared Grebe, and a large number of other waterbirds. From here, we drove below the dam to the small park there. This park had many conifers, and as has been the case in the Columbia Basin this fall, this meant Mountain Chickadees! We saw and heard three, it was the first time I had seen this species away from the mountains. Here, we also had one of the most exciting finds of the day, a Black-legged Kittiwake! The bird was perched over the spillway, literally a matter of feet away from the state line, just barely in Washington. This is a very rare bird anywhere east of the cascades, according to data on eBird, it looks like the second Benton County record (a code 5 bird for Benton County). We got good looks at the bird, it didn't move in the time we were there.
After this excitement, we drove west to the McNary Dam Nature Trail. This trail system takes one around several ponds and through varied other habitats, making for a nice walk with good species diversity. We saw lots of birds that were new for the trip, including such birds as a lone Trumpeter Swan, a male Eurasian Wigeon, 37 Black-crowned Night-Herons, a Western Scrub-Jay, and a beautiful Townsend's Solitaire. We spent about two hours walking around most of the ponds, seeing 51 species.
We headed upriver afterwards, stopping briefly at Hat Rock State Park and a roadside pullout, both still in Oregon. We didn't see much new here, but added Horned Grebe and Common Loon here. We saw very few Common Loons today, seeing only this one bird, which seemed odd. Continuing further upriver and into Washington, we stopped at the grain elevators just west of the intersection for Walla Walla. These elevators are typically great for diving ducks, and it did not disappoint today. There were huge numbers of diving ducks, the most numerous of all were Lesser Scaup, we estimated 1,000 of them. This is unusual, seeing as it is typically Greater Scaup seen in these large numbers along the Columbia River. In amongst the Lesser Scaup were small numbers of Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Mallard, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Northern Pintail, Hooded Merganser, Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes, Gadwall, and even two Wood Ducks. Out of all of these birds, Andy was able to spot our other really good bird for the day, a gorgeous male Tufted Duck! This is a rare European duck, occurring in Washington most years, but very rare in Walla Walla County. A code 5 bird for Walla Walla County, I believe this is the second record for the county, Mike Denny may be able to clarify this for me.
We tore ourselves away from this beautiful duck and drove further upriver to the Wallula Poop Piles. As the name reflects, there are literally piles of poop here, however, the piles typically attract scores of Gulls and Blackbirds. Today we were not so lucky, as it appears that the piles were moved around and there were no gulls, and very few blackbirds. In the Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds, there was one peculiar blackbird that I thought might have been a Tricolored, but viewing conditions were not optimal, and the bird has some odd deformity of the bill. Our luck was not much better at the Tyson Blood Ponds, were there can also be large numbers of blackbirds. We did however see a nice "Black" Merlin, the pacific race of Merlin. Looking at the range maps on eBird, there are very few reports of this subspecies east of the cascades. This race is much darker than the regularly occurring Taiga subspecies that is most common in Eastern Washington.
We gave up on blackbirds, and decided to go up the Snake River to Ice Harbor Dam, a great spot for Gulls and Ducks. Not surprisingly, there were lots of both here. Maybe the most spectacular occurrence was 23 Great Egrets, a species I had not before seen in such numbers along the Snake River. There were also tons of ducks here, with over 1,000 Mallards, 80 Common Goldeneyes, 10 Barrow's Goldeneyes, and 150 Common Mergansers. In with the Mallards, I picked out a beautiful Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid, a hybrid I had not seen before. There were also tons of Gulls here, the most exciting of which being a second cycle Thayer's Gull, and an oddball large Gull that appeared to be a Nelson's (Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid) Gull. It started to get dark, so we decided to go and end the day by watching the dusk goose flocks at the McNary NWR headquarters. This can be quite the spectacle if you stay until dark, as all the geese and other ducks flow into the the pools, sometimes sheeting the water. We didn't stay late enough to observe this, but did witness some large flocks of Canada, Cackling, and Snow Geese, as well as 65 Tundra Swans, 35 Canvasbacks, and 28 Ruddy Ducks. This was a nice end to a fantastic day of birding, and we headed home happy.
As I said above, it was a fantastic day! We finished the day with 87 species, pretty darn good for one day in January! I have uploaded photos of many of the good birds we saw today to my Flickr page if you're interested (www.flickr.com/birdfishphotos).
Good birding!
Eric Heisey

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