The Singing Blues: Hawk Watching in Oregon

Have you ever been on a hawk watch? Until last month, neither had I!

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.

It was great to share the experience with Walla Walla locals of all ages. I made lots of new friends including another Whitman student, Eva! I hope we will have many more birding adventures in the future.

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.

Indian paintbrush.

A little plant with soft leaves.

A lady bug on the flower of that same soft-leafed plant.

A tiny succulent.

Coyote balm.

Scarlet gilia.

Mountain brome.


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.

This guy flew in through the car window to say hi!

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.