On the Trail
It is mid-May on the Zumwalt Prairie of Northeast Oregon. My daughter and I strike camp on “The Edge” – always the place to be to see the most wildlife, and to drink in the glorious views of the Blue Mountain country. This weekend we are camped at a location along section 2 of the Blue Mountains Trail, where the rolling prairie meets the ponderosa forest. A yellow carpet of Biscuitroot covers the prairie, with Larkspur, Phlox, and Prairie Smoke also showing their vivid colors. May is also the time to observe a great variety of birds on nesting territories, preparing to hatch and raise young in what is a short summer at this 6000 ft + elevation.
Among the most colorful and plentiful of spring’s bird arrivals are the bluebirds. Two varieties are found here, often in close proximity. The Western Bluebird, with its jaunty rusty breast, and the Mountain Bluebird, a beautiful blend of many shades of blue. Bluebirds generally arrive here in March, when snow still covers the ground, often in mixed flocks of both varieties. They eventually make their way on to their chosen territories. Western and Mountain Bluebirds have very different range maps, but both are present here in the northeast corner of Oregon for the summer breeding season. Both species nest in tree cavities.
They aren’t able to scoop out their own holes, so they depend on previously excavated woodpecker cavities. Western Bluebirds are one of 58 bird species identified as Strategy Species on the Oregon Conservation Strategy, a broad state-wide strategy for conserving wildlife. As is the case for many songbirds, they are threatened by habitat loss, habitat degradation, pesticide use, and invasive non-native plants.
We set up camp and take a series of beautiful wanders through woodlands, prairie, and along creeks. Not far from camp, a large dead ponderosa pine tree full of woodpecker holes draws our attention. We first notice a colorful pair of birds at the top of the tree, flitting back and forth between snags – the Lewis’s Woodpecker with its beautiful deep pink breast. Not far down from the woodpeckers, a European Starling pair is making a home. A bit below that, a pair of Western Bluebirds examines their nest spot, and, lower still, a White-Breasted Nuthatch is going in and out of a nest hole. We are amazed by the variety of bird life that this vital dead tree habitat supports.
Birds are in Trouble
Our bird encounter occurred along the Blue Mountains Trail, which encompasses a great variety of bird habitat, including some prime nesting terrain for many migratory songbirds and raptors. From the rich riparian areas of the Hells Canyon’s river systems, to wide valleys, some with existent marsh habitat, to the productive montane forest level, to the high sub-alpine Eagle Cap Wilderness at nearly 10,000 feet of elevation, bird enthusiasts along the Blue Mountains Trail will be gratified to observe some very unique and unusual species.
The Zumwalt Prairie is one of two areas in Northeast Oregon designated by Portland Audubon as Important Bird Areas, or IBA’s, both of which are traversed by the Blue Mountains Trail. These are sites in Oregon that are considered vital to avian conservation. The 515 square mile (330,000 acre) Zumwalt Prairie is one of the largest native bunchgrass areas remaining in the United States. It is home to a great concentration of raptors, and has many ground-nesting grassland birds, including Savannah Sparrows, Horned Larks, Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Vesper Sparrows. In winter, Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch, Snow Bunting, and other arctic species frequent the prairie. The Nature Conservancy manages the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, 42 square miles within the prairie.
Places like the Zumwalt Prairie grasslands are vitally important to avian conservation efforts, because birds are in trouble. According to an extensive study published in Science in 2019, Decline of the North American avifauna, 3 billion birds have been lost in North America since 1970, an overall decline of 29%. Grassland birds have suffered the steepest decline, down 53% in total numbers, with 74% of grassland species declining. More than 700 million birds across 31 species that make their homes in fields and farmlands have vanished from the landscape.
The second Audubon Important Bird Area designated in Northeast Oregon is the Wallowa Mountains IBA, in Wallowa County and parts of Union and Baker counties. Some bird species of particular conservation interest are the Spruce Grouse, Pine Grosbeak, and Rosy Finch. The entire range of Spruce Grouse in Oregon is found in the Wallowa Mountains. The only area with confirmed breeding of Pine Grosbeaks in Oregon is the Wallowa Mountains. The entire breeding range of an Oregon subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, the Wallowa Rosy Finch, is also located in the Wallowa Mountains.
Another bird species found in both the Zumwalt and Wallowa Mountain IBA’s is the Bank Swallow, one of the top 5 declining birds in North America. Their numbers have fallen by an estimated 89% since 1970. Bank Swallows are America’s smallest swallow, nesting near water, feeding on flying and jumping insects, which they catch while flying. These industrious birds nest communally, digging 2 foot long tunnels in sandy cliffs and banks using their wings, feet, and beaks.
The Blue Mountains Trail traverses another notable bird area, the edge of Ladd Marsh, in the Grande Ronde Valley, near La Grande. Ladd Marsh is a haven for birds, both for breeding/nesting, and for migration. Each May, Ladd Marsh holds its Bird Festival at the height of spring migration, with guided walks and staffed birding centers set up throughout the marsh. For a list of bird species (well over 200!) you might see at Ladd Marsh, check out the Friends of Ladd Marsh website, at http://friendsofladdmarsh.org.
Back on the Trail
As our day on the Zumwalt draws to a close, my daughter and I spread out blankets on the soft prairie grass and settle in to watch a glorious sunset over the Wallowa Mountains. We sleep soundly and peacefully along the Blue Mountains Trail, dreaming of birds.
Joella Arment is a retired academic adviser, currently working on her Oregon Master Naturalist certification, who enjoys birding and bird photography, especially the arctic birds that visit Wallowa County in the winter. She lives with her artist husband Steve in a restored Victorian home on 10 acres, filled with pollinator and bird friendly plants, bird feeders, and bird houses.