Mountain Quail and Great Gray Owls – Oh My!

“We’re definitely not in New Mexico anymore,” I commented to my friend Barb as we hiked along the trails in the Jacksonville Woodlands near Medford, OR.  Lush foliage, flowering bushes,

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ferns and mosses covered the hillsides

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– and kept many bird species well hidden, including Nashville Warblers, Spotted Towhees (that have very different songs than they do in New Mexico!) and Black-headed Grosbeaks.

Oak trees towered over the canopy and we enjoyed watching several pairs of Acorn Woodpeckers.

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Acorn Woodpecker

After checking into our Airbnb accommodations in Ashland, here there were California Quails along the road,

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California Quail – photo through windshield

we headed out to do some more birding before dinner. A friend had told me that American Dipper could be found in the tumbling creek. While we hiked along the lush creek-side trail with an occasional coast redwood tree

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Partial view of coast redwood

for about a mile, we saw very few birds and the sound of the rushing water made it impossible to hear them. As we returned to the parking lot, Tree Swallows swooped above the canyon.

“Vaux’s Swift,” I announced. There were at least two of them gliding overhead with the swallows. Their flight pattern was decidedly different. I had seen them before, but Barb wanted to study them more before she claimed it as a life bird – and indeed we saw them almost every day.

The next morning, we set out for some Cascade Mountain locations east of town following one of the birding trails described by the Klamath Bird Observatory’s Birding Guide to Ashland and the Rogue Valley. The clouds hung low over the mountains, and as we drove up into the foothills, we began to see snow.

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As we traveled higher, the temperature dropped. Most of the day it hovered in the mid-30’s and the clouds seemed to sit on our head. However, that didn’t stop us from birding. Armed with the Ashland Birding Guide compiled by the Klamath Bird Observatory, we explored several locations. Conde Creek Road was the most productive. We were surprised to see an American Kestrel perched on a bare tree surveying the nearby mountain meadow.

Further along, we encountered a Hammond’s Flycatcher, along with numerous Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos.  “Tom (Barb’s husband) says we get extra credit for seeing a bird with the name of the state in it,” she quipped after we spotted the first one.

“A quail just crossed the road,” Barb exclaimed who was driving. “There are two of them.” While I was scanning the trees, she of course, was watching the road.  “I can still see one of them.”  She stopped so we wouldn’t disturb it. We could see the tall plume on its head – definitely a Mountain Quail!  It toddled over and hopped up on a rock, while the second one stayed hidden in the grass. We inched closer. It didn’t move, so we pulled slightly ahead of it and quietly opened the car doors and go out.  I walked into the clearing to get a better photo, and it continued to sit calmly.

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Mountain Quail

The Mountain Quail has been one of my nemesis. I have hiked all over the mountains in Southern California many, many times at locations where they supposedly can be found – without any luck. Not only did we get good looks, it seemed unperturbed by our presence.

We turned around and drove into a service road to eat our lunch in the car – and were able to continue to watch it, and occasionally the second one during the entire time we were eating. When it turned, we were able to see the white bars on its chestnut-colored side.

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Mountain Quail with plume laid against its back

I had the window cracked on my side of the car and as we ate, I suddenly heard the song of a Hermit Warbler in the tree next to the car, but I couldn’t see any movement.  After a few minutes of singing, it popped out and flew to the top of new growth on the top of a long-needled pine at eye level in front of the car. It stayed there for several minutes, doing a kind of dance as it rotated back and forth giving us good views of all of its field marks. It was impossible to photograph through the top of the windshield.

Unfortunately, we had not seen any White-headed Woodpeckers or Red-breasted Sapsuckers.

When we returned to town, we went to the Nature Center at North Mountain Park where we enjoyed 17 species, including Anna’s Hummingbird, Bullock’s Oriole and Western Wood-Pewee. As the trail looped back towards the Visitor Center, we noticed some deer busily feeding on the grass.

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We still had time before the opening activities of the Mountain Bird Festival. I had checked recent sightings of the American Dipper at Lithia Park on eBird, were several had been reported near bridge 6 and one near bridge 3.  We didn’t know how the bridges were numbered, so parked at the first low below the reservoir. I headed over to the river and came to a bridge while Barb tried to call her husband. There was a number on the bridge, ‘3’. I walked out on the bridge and there on a rock was an American Dipper.

Fortunately, the cell reception was not good in the canyon and Barb quickly joined me. We enjoyed watching it bob on the rock and could see the white eyelids as it blinked.

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American Dipper

The next morning we set out on our first festival field trip, Siskiyou Mountain Specialties,and was able to ride with the trip leader. “Hopefully, we can bird the Ski Area before weather sets in,” he told the group before we started out.

Our first stop was at the Bull Gap Snow Park area. An empid was calling from across the road. We finally got good looks at it – and based on the habitat determined it was a Dusky Flycatcher. We walked along the service road for about a quarter of a mile where there were a number of Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Steller’s Jay. As we returned to the cars, we heard both a Mountain Quail calling and a Pileated Woodpecker.

It was a winter wonderland at the Ski Area parking lot.

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Mt. Ashland Ski Area view

As we walked along the road at the end of the parking area, the cloud cover started enveloping it. We stopped to watch some Cassin’s Finches. As we approached the area where we should have been able to see Green-tailed Towhees, it started snowing lightly and the only bird we saw was an American Robin.

As we returned to the cars, it began snowing more,

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turning to heavy snow.

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We headed to a lower elevation and spent the rest of our time in oak-madrone-conifer habitat

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New growth on pine tree

where highlights included House Wren, Chipping Sparrows, and Lazuli Bunting,

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Lazuli Bunting

along with Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers.

On our final day in Ashland, we went on the Great Gray Owl field trip led by Harry Fuller, a retired journalist, co-author of Great Gray Owl of California, Oregon and Washington, and full-time birder who has specialized in the tallest owl in North America.  As our group gathered, Harry began to entertain us with Great Gray facts and stories. As the day unfolded, we discovered that he was a wealth of information on all types of birds and wildlife of the area.

“Great Gray Owls are not found in the Siskiyou Mountains,” he told us before we left. “The Siskiyous were not formed by volcanic action, like the Cascade Mountains where we will be birding today.  The glacial activity in the Cascades left high mountain wet meadows that couldn’t drain and where there are no or few trees, which provides the owls an area to hunt for small mammals and the surrounding woods provide protected nesting locations.”

“What is its natural predator?” someone asked.

“Believe it or not,” Harry answered, “it is the Great Horned Owl. It can carry a Great Gray in its talons. While the Great Gray is overall bigger than a Great Horned Owl, it has a thick layer of feathers on its body to provide insulation from the cold and its body mass is actually smaller than the Great Horned Owl.”

While the temperature stayed in the high 30’s, the snow we encountered in the area two days earlier had melted – in fact, we had some brief periods of sun, along with intermittent rain showers that impeded my ability to take pictures.

We headed for an area west of Howard Prairie Lake where there were meadows with nearby woods where Harry had located the owls for the field trip the prior day. We parked along the side of the road just down from the meadow and quietly got out of the cars so we wouldn’t startle an owl if it were there.

While we didn’t see any owls, we enjoyed watching several singing Song Sparrows, Tree Swallows at nest boxes, an American Robin building a nest, numerous Dark-eyed (Oregon) Juncos, Western Tanagers and several warblers, including Hermit, McGillivray’s and Yellow-rumped.

As we were driving back towards the main highway, Nicole, in the front seat of the car in which I was riding, called out “owl.”  Her husband pulled over and backed up.  Sure enough, there were two Great Gray Owls perched on bare trees. We called Harry on the two-way radio and after his car returned, we all got out and set up the scopes. Through a spotting scope, I was able to see the intricate feather patterns.

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Distant Great Gray Owl

“They must not have started nesting yet,” Harry commented. “Otherwise, both the male and female would not be hunting together.”

A short time later, one of the owls flew into the coniferous woods. “Notice that it flies low, like a harrier,” Harry explained. Like the harrier, the owl’s facial disc and off-centered ears, act like a parabolic microphone enabling it to hear mammals scurrying in the grass.

While we watched, the remaining owl changed locations several times.

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Our group kept taking advantage of scope views as they savored the experience.

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After watching for over 30 minutes, the owl flew to a perch on a dead limb away from nearby trees and seemed content to stay there.

“If they are not startled, they are actually approachable,” Harry told us. “If you want, we can walk closer.”

As we walked across the meadow, I could see the raised tunnels of voles – the reason the owls were hunting here.

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Vole tunnels

We stopped about 100 yards from its perch. As we watched, it kept cocking and turning its head to listen for mammals in the grass.

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The opportunity to view the owl as extensively as we were able to do was more than I had dared to dream about.

Our next stop was the Howard Prairie Lake Resort where we were able to use the restrooms and walk out onto the jetty.  During our visit of almost half an hour, we spotted two Double-crested Cormorants on the far side of the lake. Swarms of Tree and Barn Swallows darted over the water and nearby wetlands, along with at least one Violet-green Swallow. Two Spotted Sandpipers flew into the edge of a nearby cove. One of them landed in the water and Barb watched it paddle to the shore.

“Caspian Tern,” Barb signaled as the large inland tern flew in front of us.

Our next stop was along the highway to watch a pair of Sandhill Cranes setting up a territory in a wet meadow.

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Sandhill Crane

We pulled over on a nearby logging road to eat our lunches as we stood by the cars and birded. A dead snag served as a cavity nesting ‘condo’ with holes being used by House Wren and Tree Swallows. At one point a Mountain Bluebird perched on the top – perhaps assessing the possibility of an empty hole. Nearly every conifer had a bird perched on top, including Townsend’s Solitaire,

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Townsend’s Solitaire

Purple Finch – found at high elevations in the western U.S.,

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Purple Finch

Western Bluebird, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Brewer’s Blackbird.

We returned to an area near where we saw the owl to walk among the stumps to see Green-tailed Towhee, a life bird for many in the group,

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Green-tailed Towhee

Chipping Sparrows, a Townsend’s Solitaire and House Wren. Harry was hoping that we might find Red-breasted Sapsucker, but no such luck.

On the way back down the mountains, we stopped at Slate City Road and got out and walked along a service road under the high tension power lines. As we were enjoying Wilson’s and MacGillivray’s Warblers and Black-headed Grosbeaks, it started pouring, so we turned back to the cars and headed back to the Mountain Bird Festival headquarters.

“Since you haven’t yet seen the Red-breasted Sapsucker, do you want to make one last try at Lithia Park before we call it a day” I asked Barb?  It is a gorgeous woodpecker and I had been fortunate to see one several years ago in the Los Angeles area.

Someone in our group reported they had seen one near the playground. We located the playground and found a parking spot. As Barb was locking the car, I noticed a bird fly into the forested area along the stream, but didn’t see it land and kept walking. Fortunately, Barb did and got excellent looks of her sought-after bird – right next to the car.

Harry Fuller told us that they nest in the park. We checked out a woodpecker hole hoping it would be the sapsucker nest hole, but a Northern Flicker flew in and proceeded to feed the occupant.

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Northern Flicker

It was a wonderful four days birding in southern Oregon with our highlights being the extended looks we got of the Mountain Quail and Great Gray Owl.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Mountain Quail and Great Gray Owls – Oh My!

  1. What a fabulous trip!! So happy for you that you got to thoroughly enjoy your nemesis quail. My nemesis is the Lazuli Bunting. Someday I will get a good look at one. So exciting about the Gray owls! I’m glad you guys had a great trip.

  2. What a wonderful way to start the day. I loved reading your log of those fabulous 4 days… which included snow. What a treat in this desert heat. Thank you, Judy!

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