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Brews, Birds, Bathrooms, and Beer: Birding the Wallowa Valley of Oregon

February 16, 2016

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Tucked into the snowy Wallowa Mountains of Oregon’s northeastern corner is the remote and rural Wallowa Valley. Oregon’s avid birders know it well and, well-fortified with copious quantities of hot coffee and cold-weather gear, venture into its windy treeless flats and snow-packed mountain forests in search of irruptive species and migrant birds fleeing Canada’s frigid tundra and boreal forests.

1Bird_Gyrfalcon lifting off_Tom Lawler_Wallowa__Photo Jan 26, 5 02 49 PM
We jumped at the invitation from Oregonian birding relatives and their friends to bird the area.

Snowy caravan (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Snowy caravan (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

We spread the 400-mile drive from Bend to Enterprise over two days, stopping for birds at McNary Wildlife Area in Umatilla, then overnighting in La Grande and birding that area in the morning, before moving onward to Wallowa Valley. Among the many birds at McNary were the ever-present Black-billed Magpies, a Eurasian Wigeon and – 270 miles from the sea – a Glaucous-winged Gull. This seemed odd to me, but upon hearing that a Slaty-backed Gull was currently in Walla Walla County, forty miles farther inland and far further from its Asian home, I recalibrated my oddness scale.

To expand or contract map view, hover cursor over map and use scroll wheel

Local expert Trent Bray showed us around the backyard feeders and farmer’s fields of La Grande. Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees were common among the assortment of sparrows, finches, robins, Pine Siskins, Hairy & Downy Woodpeckers, and the occasional and aptly named Townsend’s Solitaire. (I’ve never seen two together.) In the fields we encountered our first raptors, including Golden & Bald Eagles, Merlins and Prairie Falcons. We also found our first Northern Shrike; most Loggerhead Shrikes abandon Oregon in winter, so if you see a shrike, it’s likely a Northern. No muss, no fuss.

Flowing from the mountains (Diana Roberts, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Flowing from the mountains (Diana Roberts, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

A note on names: Although the origin of “Walla Walla” – usually translated as “many waters” – is uncertain, it is probably the self-given name of the tribe living in this valley east of the Columbia River, with whom the Lewis & Clark expedition stayed on both their westward and eastward journeys. They were a Sahaptian-speaking group linguistically and culturally related to the Palouse and Wanapam. “Wallowa” is likely from the same language, either Sahaptian (possibly Nez Perce), meaning either “winding water” or “weir” (a fish-trapping structure built of stakes).

The first firejumper (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

The first smokejumper (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

Somewhere near the tiny town of Wallowa, in a small, snowy country graveyard, we found headstones emerging from the drifts, some dating back over 100 years; one belonged to the world’s first smokejumper to parachute to a fire. A jumpy Great Horned Owl burst from a 1Bird_Partridge Gray_Tom Lawler_Photo Jan 27, 4 25 42 PM tree, and a Red-tailed Hawk flushed a flock of Gray Partridges, but no crossbills or Bohemian Waxwings appeared. A little farther, on a dirt side road, we found another oddity: a Bewick’s Wren about 40 feet up a tree, probing bark crevices like a House Wren. But even better, a nearby treetop held a flock of 27 waxwings which, upon telescopic examination, proved to be, each and every one, Bohemian Waxwings.

Old house (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Old house (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

Wintery Wallowa Valley regularly hosts this species, and the good chance of seeing one, buried among a flock of Cedar Waxwings, was a major reason for our trip. But an entire flock of Bohemians was an unexpected bounty. We watched them until they left. The world has only three waxwing species: the Japanese of east Asia, the Cedar of North America, and the Bohemian, breeding circumpolar from Labrador west to Norway, but not, oddly enough, in Bohemia. Many thanks to Clay who found them and – despite jests and guffaws from some (not me!) – insisted they were Bohemians. My day was made.

Golden field and snow (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Golden field and snow (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

We followed snowy dirt roads the rest of the way into Enterprise, passing field and fence birds, soaring raptors, creeks with dipping Dippers amidst water and ice, beautiful snowy scenery and, while rolling downhill into Enterprise, a Short-eared Owl relaxing on a mound of dirt.
1Bird_Owl Short-eared 1_Tom Lawler_Wallowa_Photo Jan 28, 4 18 43 PM
That night we had our first of three meals at Terminal Gravity, a very good local brewpub with about 10 different drafts on the menu, ranging from the 4.75% alcohol Wallowa Lake Lager to the kick-in-your-teeth 10% Tap Out. I chose the 5.7% Breakfast Porter (IBU 40.5) to go with my burger. At 20 ounces each, downing two such beers is not recommended for those who dislike morning headaches.

A snowy crest (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

A snowy crest (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

A word on beer nomenclature: The International Bitterness Unit (IBU) of beer ranges 0-100 and is a measure of the parts per million of isohumulone, an acid found in hops. A really bitter IPA (India Pale Ale) can rate 100. Your (exceedingly) average kidney-cleanser Bud, Coors or Miller rates a 10. Water is, I suppose, zero, little different than Coors, etc., supporting my long-held opinion of such beers. When yeast fermentation creates alcohol, it changes the specific gravity (density), relative to water, of the beer. When fermentation ends, alcohol production ends, and final gravity is reached. Terminal gravity, one might suppose, occurs when you drink the product and gravity pulls

Typical growlers (google images)

Typical growlers (google images)

you under the table. A growler is a portable container, up to two quarts, which one fills, like pumping

Growler station you might find near a gas station (google images)

Growler station you might find near, or in, a gas station (google images)

gas, at the growler station with your favorite draft beer, then takes home to drink it out-of-sight. (I’m not making this up!) All Oregonian beer drinkers have at least one growler, lest they be discovered, shamed, and exiled to the arid wilderness of California.

Oregonians know all about beer esoterica like this. Coffee esoterica, too. How high and which side of which Guatemalan volcano were these beans grown on?  They can tell you. The gravity and IBU of that IPA you’re guzzling? They know. One member of our group had an app on her phone into which she’d record notes on all beers she tasted. How many were recorded? Ten, twenty, fifty? Nope. Over 1,000 (one thousand!) beers. Not all were full bottles or mugs. Some were one to two ounce samples. Oregonians feel no compunction about requesting free samples of several offerings, so many of her annotated beers came in small cups. But still…over 1000? I was stunned. And envious. So many beers, so little time. Ah well… dreaming of what might have been.
1Bird_Rosy-Finch Gray-crowned_Tom Lawler_Wallowa_Photo Jan 28, 11 34 15 AM
The next morning, as our motel offered no food, we grubbed breakfast in our rooms and at the nearest coffee shop, conveniently located across the street. After scraping ice from our car windows, laden with mugs and sweet rolls, we set off towards Joseph to Find Some Birds. By the time we got there, we were ready for the bathroom. The people of Joseph,

Full service outhouse (Diana Roberts, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Full service outhouse except for light, as the crescent moon cutout was not cut out
(Diana Roberts, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

demonstrating both empathy and foresight, thoughtfully provided a clean public bathroom equidistant between two of their many coffee shops. (With a population of 1,053, by Oregon Law Joseph must have at least 21 coffee outlets, one for every 50 people. This law may not actually be written down anywhere.) Out on the local flatlands there were no handy bushes, trees, rocks, signs, buildings – nothing! – behind which one could hide in order to offload used coffee. And the cold and the wind and the six layers of clothing made necessary maneuvers tricky. We were to return to this restroom – not the one pictured (which adjoined an equally bizarre coffee shack) – many, many times.

A few Joseph residents kept bird feeders, which we watched for Redpolls or other goodies. The seed-eaters were much the same as in La Grande, but we did happen upon a Flicker sharing a tree with two Pileated Woodpeckers, who whacked away at eye level next to the road. Checking this area on the following day yielded 97 (ninety-seven!!) Bohemian Waxwings in a treetop. Stunning. Alas, their persistent swirling maneuvers  prevented photos titled “Still Life With Waxwing.”

Bohemian Waxwing flock (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Bohemian Waxwing flock (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

We drove around the area for the next three days. We saw many, many raptors. Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks were especially numerous, in all the plumage stages and color morphs you can find in a field guide, and then some. Not far behind were Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers, then Kestrels and Merlins, a few Ferruginous Hawks, and – far from least
1Bird_Gyrfalcon sitting_Tom Lawler_Wallowa_Photo Jan 27, 4 49 27 PM– a single Gyrfalcon. Gyrfalcons reportedly need a hunting territory of about 100 sq. mi., so the likelihood of seeing two unpaired birds in proximity is very low. On two consecutive days it sat on virtually the same pole.

We’d heard that when Gyrfalcons take flight, they drop straight (well, nearly straight) down, level off just above the ground and then flap off powerfully to wherever they’re going. It was exciting to witness this in action. These are strong birds.

We had other adventures. The great birding area near the ski lifts was un-birdable, filled as it was with cars and people coming to watch dogsled races. Four races are held; the 200-mile version, winding through the Wallowa Mtns., is one of the few qualifier races for the Alaskan Iditarod and Yukon Quest. Great for mushers and dogs, not so much for hapless birders.

Gray Partridge on the run (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Gray Partridge on the run (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

We tried for forest birds by driving as far as we could up Hurricane Creek. Aptly named. Suffice it to say that whatever birds who might have been there were literally blown away. We then wandered around Wallowa Lake State Park, but turned up no crossbills, owls, redpolls or Goshawks. Someone suggested we try the other side of the lake, where there were some homes.

We struck gold! While slowly driving down a snowy sloping road, eagle-eyed brother-in-law Don spotted a small brown ball on a bare twig, announced “Pygmy Owl” and slammed on the brakes. After a five-second eternity I finally found the tiny 6 ¾” ball of fluff and averted the oncoming stroke. Did you know that the Northern Pygmy Owl is diurnal and has “eyes” in

Pygmy Owl (Lillian Johnson, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Pygmy Owl – Turn your head, please! (Lillian Johnson, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

the back of its head? Well…more crepuscular, really, doing the bulk of its hunting near dawn and dusk. We watched the bird for a long time. It tired of us and flew to another perch, farther away and difficult to find, but we found it and watched until twilight forced us to leave.

Porcupines are famous for their soft, warm fur (Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan'16)

Porcupines are famous for their cuddly warm nature
(Bill Griffiths, Wallowa Valley Jan’16)

Delicious brewed coffee, birds galore, great birding companions, bathrooms almost as often as necessary, and wonderful beer on tap – it doesn’t get much better than this.
[Chuck Almdale]

La Grande:
Royal Motor Inn
Other Lodging
Earth & Vines Bistro

Ponderosa Inn
Other Lodging
Terminal Gravity Brewery & Pub
La Laguna Mexican Restaurant

Arrowhead Chocolates – Great coffee & hot chocolate, delicious handmade biscotti and chocolates

My namesake

My Namesake

Trip List Jan 19-24, 2016 E. Oregon & Wallowa Valley
Canada Goose W Downy Woodpecker W
Tundra Swan Hairy Woodpecker W
Wood Duck Northern Flicker W
Gadwall Pileated Woodpecker W
Eurasian Wigeon American Kestrel W
American Wigeon W Merlin W
Mallard W Gyrfalcon W
Northern Pintail Prairie Falcon W
Green-winged Teal W Northern Shrike W
Redhead Steller’s Jay W
Ring-necked Duck Black-billed Magpie W
Lesser Scaup American Crow W
Bufflehead W Common Raven W
Common Goldeneye W Horned Lark W
Hooded Merganser Black-capped Chickadee W
Common Merganser W Mountain Chickadee W
California Quail W Red-breasted Nuthatch W
Gray Partridge W White-breasted Nuthatch W
Chukar Pygmy Nuthatch W
Ring-necked Pheasant W Brown Creeper W
Wild Turkey Bewick’s Wren W
Pied-billed Grebe W American Dipper W
Western Grebe W Ruby-crowned Kinglet W
Double-crested Cormorant Townsend’s Solitaire W
Great Blue Heron W American Robin W
Black-crowned Night-Heron European Starling W
Golden Eagle W Bohemian Waxwing W
Northern Harrier W Cedar Waxwing W
Sharp-shinned Hawk W Yellow-rumped Warbler
Cooper’s Hawk W American Tree Sparrow W
Bald Eagle W Dark-eyed Junco W
Red-tailed Hawk W White-crowned Sparrow W
Rough-legged Hawk W Song Sparrow W
Ferruginous Hawk W Lincoln’s Sparrow W
American Coot W Spotted Towhee W
Ring-billed Gull Red-winged Blackbird W
California Gull Western Meadowlark
Herring Gull Brewer’s Blackbird W
Glaucous-winged Gull Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch W
Rock Pigeon W House Finch W
Eurasian Collared-Dove W Red Crossbill
Mourning Dove W Pine Siskin W
Great Horned Owl W Lesser Goldfinch
Northern Pygmy-Owl W American Goldfinch W
Short-eared Owl W House Sparrow W
Belted Kingfisher W
TOTAL SPECIES     90 W = Wallowa Valley     70


  1. Ray Juncosa permalink
    February 18, 2016 6:56 pm

    Thanks for a very entertaining and informative birding travelogue – a well written piece, better than all my other emails. One question remains about the title: isn’t Beer redundant with Brews? Maybe burps after imbibing are another form of redundancy – a rerun of the original taste…


    • Chukar permalink*
      February 19, 2016 4:46 pm

      Ray: In this instance “brews” refers to coffee. I opted for alliteration over clarity, which may cause confusion but not redundancy. Burps might be closer to poignancy than redundancy.


  2. February 17, 2016 9:40 am

    Wow! A GREAT write-up Chuck! Amusing, informative, a ‘trip’ to read. Thanks!


  3. janeb permalink
    February 16, 2016 7:17 pm

    Amazing trip. Thanks for the write up.


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