Birding at Minam State Park

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer June 03, 2011 07:31 pm
The Wallowa River at Minam State Park is rife with a variety of birds, especially during spring migration. Saturday morning Janet Hohmann led a tour of bird enthusiasts along the river looking for aviary signs of spring.

“The birder stereotype is a little old lady in tennis shoes,” Hohmann said.

O. Henry used this image for two characters in his play “Ransom of Red Chief,” performed this winter by the Mid-Valley Theater.

O. Henry’s “bird ladies” also sported binoculars. Paired with a guide book and/or a camera, a birder doesn’t need much else for a successful day, yet sometimes the other senses are necessary to find and identify bird species.

The sun was out, the trail soggy with heavy rains and the birds were not visible. However, a few species made themselves known vocally. Hohmann stopped to listen to what she identified as a yellow warbler.

“The males are the vocal ones, though with birds you can’t always say, ‘that’s how it is,’” she said.

Hohmann stopped the group another time when a ruffed grouse was heard drumming in the brush. Again, it’s the males of the species that usually make noise. She said most songbirds have both a call and a song, but a grouse communicates by beating its wings, or drumming.

Wallowa County is home to four types of grouse, she said, ruffed, blue, spruce and the reintroduced sharp-tailed grouse that live on grassland and prairies. Sharp-tailed grouse used to be abundant in Oregon, but only 50 live in the county. A sign that the population may be re-establishing itself is the pair seen around the Enterprise High School this spring.

The trail came to the bank of the river in a cove full of apple trees. The apple orchards planted by the long-gone residents of Minam are some of the only signs of the former settlement.

“The fruit trees from old homesteads provide habitat diversity that attracts birds,” she said.

Listening for recognizable birdsongs and calls may have been hampered by the loud rushing of the spring runoff-swollen river. Hohmann said looking for feathers and nests are good ways to look for bird signs when they are quiet. Songbirds make new nests in the spring, but many of the hawks, eagles and osprey return to the same nest each year, she said. Stellar jays, flickers, pileated woodpeckers and turkeys are also typical residents of the canyon.

The tour looked for signs of belted kingfisher nests in the cut-bank along the river. Ouzels or dippers make nest out of mud and can be found under bridge abutments, Hohmann said.

The lack of visible bird activity could be contributed to recent rains, Hohmann said, and in some cases too much rain can be bad for songbirds that rely on insects for food. Songbirds don’t carry a lot of reserve, she said, and if they struggle with finding insects, they can starve.

Hohmann offered suggestions for other prime bird watching regions around the county. The Enterprise Fish Hatchery is home to geese, osprey, herons, egrets, shovelers and mallards. Wallowa Lake is a good place to find open-water birds. Devil’s Gulch, part of The Nature Conservancy preserve, is a good place to see mountain quail and chukars.

“If you want a weird place to see birds you can go to the Joseph sewer ponds,” she said.

Hohmann said there are 290 bird species identified in Wallowa County. Her tour was sponsored by Oregon State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service and Discover Your Northwest.