Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sept 3 (Day 246) - Next installment of Dorian vs. Sooty grouse

Mike Patterson, who I met yesterday, gave Biking for Birds a nice write-up on Surfbirds. You can see that blogpost here.

Sooty grouse has been hanging over my head for 2 to 3 weeks now. I was hoping to tick this species as I crossed the North Cascades, but I wasn't luckily enough to do this. This bird is generally found at mid-elevations, and, since I am now on the coast, this means additional big climbs into the mountains at potentially multiple points in Oregon or California to search for it. It is difficult to look forward with 100% optimism to what will certainly be a beautiful and bird-thick run down California Coast with this bird hanging over my head.

A quick 43 today + ~3 miles of hiking

The latest round of Dorian vs. Sooty grouse would be fought at Saddle Mountain State Park. This spot is only ~21 miles from where I stayed last night. I decided to make a day trip out of it. This way I could do the climb without my full load. It also meant that I could spent the entire day in the park; Covering the 21 downhill miles back to the house where I am staying would only take ~1 hr at the end of the day. I left at 7am. It took me about 2 hours to reach the trailhead. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the road from Route 26 to the trailhead was well paved! I had a very nice ride up this quiet and beautiful mountain lane. It was really relaxing, and at times the only sounds I heard was my own labored breathing. When I did reach the trailhead, I found only 2-3 cars in the lot ahead of me. These looked like they belonged to the 2-3 sets of folks staying in the small campground at the trailhead. All of these folks appeared still to be in camp. This meant that I would be one of the first people, if not the first person, onto the trail today. This is key for grouse hunting since they often hang out around trails (and dirt roads), but they are normally flushed by the first few folks up the trail each morning.

The (paved!) road up to Saddle Mountain

I set to hiding the bike, getting the camera ready, and changing into hiking boots. As I was making these preparations, a guy rolled up and started up the trail - with a dog. S@#$%t!!! F#$%^k!!! Now, I absolutely love dogs, but the last thing I want to see on a trail where I am hoping to find grouse is a dog. My heart completely sank. I had worked hard to get to this promising spot, and now this guy and his dog were going to crush what small chance I might have had at finding a Sooty grouse. Since I had made it this far, I decided to take the hike anyway. Maybe I would find Hermit warbler as a consolation prize. I waited a while to let Dog-man get down the trail a bit. Maybe a grouse would walk out onto the trail after he went by.....

The hike was scheduled for 1,600 feet of vertical gain over 2.5 miles. From the aerial imagery I looked at last night, it looked as though the top part of the hike contained the most promising habitat. Pacific wrens and Varied thrushes darted all around me as I gained elevation towards the "grouse-zone". I could hear a very loud foursome of 20-somethings coming up the trail behind me. I kept a good pace to stay sufficiently far ahead of them that their voices wouldn't scare everything living away. I was going up a rather straight, steep section when something darted out into the trail not 10 feet from me. OMG! It's a bird! Holy crap, it's a grouse! Sitting right in front of me in the trail was a hatch year chick. Its dark tail with gray tips confirmed him as a Sooty grouse! I reached for my rig and got some documentation shots. This bird was incredibly approachable, and over the next 20 minutes I followed it around as it walked up and down the trail.

Sooty grouse habitat - loose forest w/ understory

Immature Sooty grouse! Year bird #544!

He was very friendly!

The light was tough at the outset (cloudy). The sun did come out eventually, but it did so on the useless far side of the bird. I managed to sneak around to the other side to obtain a few REALLY good shots. In the second shot, I maneuvered to get the bird's head against something dark in the background. I then underexposed the shot a bit to knock-out any background detail. This is how I got this portrait look.

This is in the running for the shot of the trip!
Ahhhh...that would be a fun poll for everyone 
at the end of the year!

Finally!!! This was a tremendous find as it was the last holdover bird from farther north. Yes, I missed the Pacific golden-plover a few days ago, but I will surely have more shots at that in the next 2 months as I head south along the Oregon and California coasts. Ticking this bird was an incredible relief today, and it has given me some added flexibility in my route and schedule. I can now find all of the my remaining birds relatively close to the coast; I do not need to make any more major forays into the mountains. I will need to cut inland (probably around Corvallis and Eugene) to look for Mountain quail. This bird could be challenging, but it does not generally live as high as Sooty grouse. Looking for the quail, there will be chances to find other mid elevation birds such as Red-breasted sapsucker and Hermit warbler. I still need Purple finch too!

Since I had ticked my bird, I took my time descending during the middle of the day. The hike down was relatively uneventful. I did pass a number of groups headed up the hill, so it looks as though my arrival time was perfect. Dog-man didn't ruin the day. I loaded up the bike and started the ride down the hill back to Cannon Beach. I found several small feeding flocks from the bike as I went. Combing through them, I was able to find a single Hermit warbler for bird #545! What a day!

Hermit warbler for #545!

With the grouse in my pocket, I am thinking about making more distance along the coast versus cutting in towards Portland now. I can then cut east near Corvallis further south so that I can enjoy the Oregon coast between then and now. Rarities are more likely to show up on the coast, so that's where I should spend my time - provided I can don't miss the sapsucker and the quail! As of this moment, I plan to go Cannon Beach > Tillamook > Newport > Corvallis > Eugene > Florence > Coos Bay and eventually Cresent City, CA, Arcata/Eureka and so on and so forth!

Those from the Pacific Northwest should recognize Tillamook Ice Cream. It is not a coincidence that I will be staying in the town of Tillamook tomorrow! I hope tomorrow's visit to the factory doesn't create a shortage.....



  1. Well played, Dorian. Congrats, man!

  2. Hey Dorian, another awesome day! Fascinating plumage on the Sooty Grouse chick and incredible photos. I'm a bit concerned though that the warbler is a hybrid or backcross with Townsend's. 1) The face has quite a bit of darker contrast in the areas where Townsend's (but not Hermit) shows black, and 2) there appears to be some faint streaking on the sides, which shouldn't be there in pure Hermit. It would probably be good to nail down a cleaner individual at some point. It shouldn't be too hard given your route. - Dave

    1. Dave,
      With due respect, I believe this bird to be a pure Hermit Warbler. Overwhelmingly, hybrid Townsend's x Hermit warblers will show at least some degree of yellow on the upper breast and sides whereas this bird is completely white underneath. Most hybrids should also display at least a trace of black on the throat, immature birds included. While either a total lack of black on the throat or being totally white below cannot in themselves rule out a hybrid, the combination of the two plumage features, as displayed on this bird, makes for a clear case that this bird is a hatch year female Hermit Warbler. The amount of darker coloration on the face is also within the range of immature female Hermit Warbler. The Garrett and Dunn Warblers guide (1997) is a good resource for exploring this confusing hybrid problem. The image of an immature female Hermit Warbler on page 324 is essentially the bird photographed by Dorian.



    2. In Barry's counter-argument, he mentions that "this bird is completely white underneath", but this is not possible to determine from this documentation photo. The lighting conditions and exposure of the photo are such that it is not possible to tell if the upper breast has a wash of light yellow on it or not. So this field mark is not usable, and does not make a case for pure Hermit.

      Barry incorrectly states that "most hybrids should also display at least a trace of black on the throat, immature birds included". In fact, hatch-year female Townsend's Warblers, Hermit Warblers, and some hybirds all lack any black on the throat whatsoever (Garrett and Dunn 1997).

      Again, the highly contrasting dark auriculars in the center of the face (which really jumps out on this bird, clearly outside the range of pure Hermit), and the streaking on the sides are positively inconsistent with Hermit Warbler and consistent with a hybrid or backcross phenotype.

  3. Dorian, the grouse whisperer! (again!) Very cool!

  4. Dude, you crack me up. First, take the grouse out of your will suffocate in there. Secondly, your siege mentality would make a really good reality show...I see "Man Vs. Bird" in your future for Animal Planet. Call me, I'm a video producer....
    Your post gave me visions of the Grouse King rallying his troops to retreat in the face of DOGMAN.
    I must say that I can relate to DOGMAN phobia while birding. My other phobia is RUNNING CLUB syndrome where entire groups of runners replete with GoPros on handheld sticks come bombing down a canyon path all the while yelling encouragement at each other while dodging a group of birders with binicoulars in hand (quietly and respectfully looking down the trail where they are headed). Respectfully in awe of your tenacity...the Feral Cyclist.

  5. Congrats Dorian! Keep up the good work!!