Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Little Bunting could cause big local stir

'And Furthermore' column, Wallowa County Chieftain. Feb. 6, 2013

Most of our tourist attractions out here weigh a lot. The Wallowa Mountains, Chief Joseph Days Rodeo grounds, Hells Canyon. All on the heavy side. But the latest draw bringing visitors to Wallowa County would barely tip a scale.

Little Buntings are smallish birds, about five inches long. They normally flit around Europe and Asia, but we’ve got a Little Bunting visiting in Joseph. That’s a surprise, and the chance to see this bird so far from home has already brought bird watchers to Wallowa County from as far away as Canada and the exotic land of California.  

Hunting for buntings. photo – Kendrick Moholt
My informant in the birding community tells me that more binoculars and spotting scopes are sure to arrive before this Little Bunting fervor dies down. So brace yourself, townsfolk of Joseph. Draw the curtains if you must, but don’t be calling the sheriff because the streets are teeming with people peeking into yards with binoculars. Yes, they’re hoping to catch a glimpse of a little something, but in this case it’s a bunting. Whatever you do, don’t start skimping on the birdseed now.

Home turf for the Little Bunting includes Switzerland. So while our little visitor did get blown off course, at least it had the good sense to find the Little Switzerland of North America to remind it of the old country.

I got the bunting tip from Kendrick Moholt of Lostine. This guy has gone off to photograph tigers in Russia and penguins in Antarctica, so if he says a creature is worth getting off the couch I go along.

The first person to identify the Little Bunting in Joseph was Alan Contreras, who has written several books on Oregon birds and was formerly president of the Oregon Field Ornithologists. He recognized the Little Bunting, confirmed with pictures and sent out word on the wire.

Trent Bray came over the hill from La Grande and saw the bunting. Bray runs the Bobolink store in The Big, where birdfeeders, supplies and bird watching equipment are the specialty. Bray also operates Avitours, a northeast Oregon birdwatching tour guide service. Bray described the Little Bunting in Joseph as a “mega-rarity” in an e-mail to other birders.

This isn’t the first time a Little Bunting has stirred up excitement. During my exhaustive research for this dispatch, I typed “Little Bunting” into the internet and found a story from the BBC about another Little Bunting far from home that got the British riled up. You know if the redcoats get excited it’s a big deal.

I got dragged out to look for a snowy owl on the Zumwalt last year by local bird enthusiast Mike Baird. Didn’t see it. But I tried to return the favor by dragging Baird up to Joseph for a look at the bunting. Struck out again. But I did see a squadron of tundra geese fly over years ago and heard that was a rare sight. Maybe they were swans, I don’t know. I have not written several books on Oregon birds.

Kendrick sent along a list of other birds that watchers look for in Wallowa County during the winter. I’ve pulled out a few samples here, mainly the names that remind me of a superhero or a rock-and-roll band. The Gyrfalcon could be either a band or a superhero. Lapland Longspur, Northern Shrike and Townsend’s Solitaire are all sturdy band names. Then you’ve got your Buffleheads and American Coots, which could use a good PR firm.

With all this birdwatching going on, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and get to watching, Wallowa County. Not for birds, I think we should welcome the influx of bird watchers by compiling a list of all the birdwatchers we can identify. Keep your eyes peeled for the Downy Vested Californian. The Canadian Spotting Scope. Turtlenecked Midwesterner. You can put sandwiches out in feeding stations to draw birdwatchers to your viewing area.

Welcome to Wallowa County, Little Bunting. You’ve had quite the journey. Now just watch out for the Gyrfalcon. And picture windows. And cats. Especially one in Joseph named Domino. But if it makes you feel better, you’ve got people watching out for you.

Jon Rombach is a local columnist for the Chieftain. He offers free tours to view starlings in his back yard, with complimentary BB gun rentals.

Update: Little Bunting sightings have dropped off, but it's out there somewhere. Birders from Canada, Montana and Washington have also arrived.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

You're too kind, Imnaha River, too kind

Jim Hepworth and I stopped at the Imnaha Tavern for breakfast and rigged up our rods while waiting for Dave and Sally to open.

Local guy walking by took a lot at the rods and asked if we were hoping to get some exercise today.

Sensing sarcasm, I asked if by that he meant we weren't going to catch any fish.

Sensing I wasn't too bright, he nodded and said yes. Too early and too cold for catching steelhead, says he.

I kicked him in the nuts and said, Don't you ever, EVER, try to dampen my enthusiasm like that. I'm very fragile that way. I have delicate feelings. Very sensitive to such things. Then I kicked him in the nuts once more to punctuate the message and we went on our way after picking up some very tasty egg and ham sandwiches to go.

Six casts into the first spot and whammo. I started the workout he forecasted, but it was upper body, mainly in the forearm region, wrassling this fish.

Not the largest swimmer ever, but this 22-inch fish was missing its adipose fin, which is how biologists indicate which fish should go home with Jon to be fileted, marinated and put into the smoker.

At the next spot, known as 'Undisclosed Location,' Hepworth spoke of how fishy this run was, though I'd been here before and not done much good.

Sensing my doubts, Hepworth kicked me in the nuts and proceeded to land two wild fish.

What a great day. Doctor Hepworth had two more grabs, I caught a nice native 16-inch rainbow and missed another steelhead that took a swipe at my fly.

For being too early and too cold, it sure was more perfect.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Superbowl steelhead

Caught a fish and the last half of the Superbowl power outage yesterday.

Full report and river ethics questions at The Gearboat Chronicles.