The period from late October through early December has been an amazing time for rarities at Neah Bay at the Northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in home state Washington. On a Washington State level there have been at least 25 observations during this period that would be considered very rare and many of those would be considered rare even on an ABA level. If time of year is also considered and the test is whether the observation would be considered as rare on an Ebird post the list would be much longer – with 50 or 60 species meeting that test.
Consider these rare birds: Eurasian Hobby, Brambling, Rustic Bunting, Arctic Loon, Eurasian Skylark, Snowy Owl, Tufted Duck and Slaty Backed Gull. All would draw attention wherever seen. Then there are the ones that are extremely rare for Washington (and many other places) like Zone Tailed Hawk, Lucy’s Warbler, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, and Gray Crowned Rosy Finch. Not rare elsewhere but definitely so in Washington would be Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Prothonotary, Hooded, Blackburnian, Tennessee and Palm Warblers, Dickcissel, Blue Grosbeak and Cattle Egret. And there are many more that would be either rare for November or rare for Western Washington etc. I have seen many of these species there – some of my best sightings in Washington.
Dusky Capped Flycatcher
In late October this year, reports from Neah Bay included Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Eurasian Skylark and Palm Warbler – each of which would be a First of Year for me with the Gnatcatcher and Skylark really good birds in Washington for any year. It was time to head to Neah Bay. Birding friend Jon Houghton had the same idea and we made plans to go on November 1st not because it was the first day of the month but because it was the first day we could go. Another friend and new birder Tom St. John was also game for the trip and our plan was to catch the first ferry from Edmonds at 5:35 a.m. and to return late that night. On the ferry we met another birder Jordan Gunn who had been in the Seattle Audubon Master Birder class with Jon and me 10 years ago.
We arrived in Neah Bay just after 9 a.m. and began our birding in town along the Bay with particular attention to the creek mouth where the Palm Warbler had been seen and checking the wires hoping for the Kingbird. No luck on the Warbler but after an hour or so we finally located a Tropical Kingbird. It seems odd to have a “Tropical” anything this far north especially in November. They are common in Middle and South America with a few coming into the Southern U.S. in the Spring and summer. But every year in late October or November some juveniles travel up the Pacific Coast and some are found in Neah Bay each year. Oddly a year ago, Cindy and I were in Southern Mexico in November where they were seen almost daily.
There were a number of species along the beach, in the Bay and at the creek mouth. Uncommon for the area was a Marbled Godwit which we found quickly along with some Black Turnstones, Dunlin and a Western Sandpiper. The creek mouth is a favorite place for gulls to gather and we had 5 species: Short Billed, Heerman’s, Herring, Glaucous Winged and Iceland. In the Bay, there were six duck species, grebes, loons and cormorants – nothing unusual.
We would return to this area often in the day never finding the Palm Warbler. Our next stop was near the Neah Bay Sewage Treatment Plant where the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher had been seen often in the previous few days. We found a couple of Ruby Crowned Kinglets but nothing else – a major disappointment which would be repeated on two later visits. This disappointment would be repeated on our next search – along Hobuck Beach where the Eurasian Skylark had been seen. We walked the dunes in methodical fashion covering the grasses and the sand and had no success. The Skylark was on the top of my target list. It is a mysterious rarity. As the name indicates, it is a Eurasian species. Small populations were introduced near Vancouver, B.C. and on San Juan Island in Washington. I saw one on San Juan in June 1976, before I was taking pictures. That population died out many years ago and it remains my only record in Washington. I have seen them in Vancouver twice finally getting a photo of one on May 18, 2018. That population is almost gone as well. There is a debate as to the origin of the one seen in Neah Bay. One had been seen there in the same location several years ago. Most people assume it came from the British Columbia population – not that far away. Some folks think it may have come from Siberia. Seems unlikely to me. I really wanted to get a photo of this species in Washington – one of about a dozen species I have seen here but without a photo. It was just not meant to be and as it turned out, it was not seen again after the October 31st sighting.
Eurasian Skylark – British Columbia
We visited all the “hotspots” in Neah Bay, some more than once looking for rarities or specialties – species harder to find in other areas. Although we were not trying for a big species list for the day, it is such a good location that we added them one by one or in groups. But we did not find the targeted rarities. Just as we were ending our day and getting ready to return home, we added two very nice ones: a Black Oystercatcher – a lifer for Tom and a Black Legged Kittiwake – the first of the year for Jon. I asked them how many species they thought we had seen that day. Both thought it was something around 35. I checked the lists and we had seen more than 50 and I am sure if that had been our goal, we could have gotten to 60. But the disappointments were hard and as will become clear later in this post, missing the Palm Warbler and Eurasian Skylark would become more important for me. So the month whose name starts with “No” started with yes for fun and a nice list but definitely with a “No” for the rarities missing three of them.
Black Legged Kittiwake
The weather remained beautiful on November 2nd and since several rarities for my home Snohomish County the previous day, I set out to find them. At the Edmonds waterfront – very near my home – I easily spotted the Brown Pelicans that had been there for two months. Then it was off to look for a Tropical Kingbird, the same rarity that we had seen in Neah Bay but regular there but seen only once or twice previously in Snohomish County. It took some doing but after moving to a second viewing spot, several of us finally relocated the Kingbird, species number 270 in Snohomish County for me. Hoping to continue the good fortune. I joined a young birder I had just met, Joey McCracken, and we moved on to the Marysville Sewage Treatment Ponds and the Ebey Waterfront Trail where two county rarities had been seen the previous day – a Harris’s Sparrow and a Franklin’s Gull. There were hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls. The similar Franklin’s Gull had been seen among them earlier but we were not able to locate it. Fortunately the Harris’s Sparrow was easier as it foraged along the trail.
Harris’s Sparrow – Ebey Waterfront Trail
Continuing the chase for Snohomish County Rarities, I went to Jennings Park and found Maxine Reid looking up into an oak tree. Of course she was looking at the Acorn Woodpecker that has been there for over a month. Terrible photo but a good bird – one that usually requires going to Lyle Washington on the Columbia River in Klickitat County to see. I also made stops that day at some parks near my home and at the Edmonds Waterfront. By the end of the day I had again seen more than 50 species and the total for the two days was 80 species and that’s when it hit me. I had recently finished a big Month of September with almost 240 species in Washington for the month. That was the 7th month for which I had 200 or more species in the State. I thought I might try for another Big Month in 2023 but what if I could get to 200 for November – this November. There were some complications as Cindy was off to Texas for a short trip and we would be dog-sitting for part of the month – including those days she would be away. Also it was a short month with only 30 days and then, too, there was Thanksgiving – a day when the only bird would be a Turkey, a non-countable one. Maybe more importantly there would be no pelagic trips this month – those ended in October.
I did some quick research on Ebird and concluded that it was possible to get to 200 – maybe even 210 – IF everything broke right. I had already seen some really good birds BUT I had also already missed some. Had I known, Neah Bay would have been done differently. I also would have planned day 3 differently also – heading east immediately for some of the migrating birds that had not yet departed as I had learned in Big September that every day counts in that regard. But a trip to Eastern Washington takes more planning than I had time to do – so instead I was off to familiar territory – north to Skagit County – just adding numbers. There were a couple of specific targets – somewhat rare – but mostly it was adding species that I knew (or hoped) would be there and that would have to be found if there was a chance to get to 200. The best species found were a White Throated Sparrow seen with a group of White Crowned and Golden Crowned Sparrows as is usually the case and the Northern Waterthrush that has been seen or actually heard regularly at Wylie Slough. I heard it many times, but unlike the last time I was there, there were no visuals. The last stop on the 3rd were along the Edmonds Waterfront where the only species I added for the day was a Black Scoter – not always easy to find. At the end of the day I was up to 98 species. With 27 days left, this seemed like a good start but the beginning is always the easiest.
I stand by the statement that May is the easiest month to do a Big Month. Some of the wintering birds are still around early in the month and migrating birds are arriving daily. The birds are in their brilliant breeding plumages and are setting up territories and are calling and singing. Pelagic trips are leaving almost weekly adding significantly to the possibilities. And to top it off the weather is pretty good. In November on the other hand the only plus is that most, but not all of the returning wintering birds are around even if in smaller numbers early in the month. I knew all of this when I decided to go for it, but I had underestimated the impact of weather. On day 4 the weather took its toll limiting my birding time and effectiveness. I almost drowned finding the American Dipper at the Fortson Mill Ponds but could not find a Red Breasted Sapsucker there or on nearby C-Post Roads – my go to spot. Black Turnstones are relatively easy to find in Washington, but Ruddy Turnstones are very rare. The one that has been seen fairly regularly at Tulalip Bay was my main target for the day – a “need” even more than a “want”. In heavy rain I found the Ruddy on the log booms in the Tulalip Marina – one of only five species added that day. I was more than half way, but some challenges were ahead.
A series of personal obligations limited my birding on the 5th to about 90 minutes at the Edmonds Waterfront and two local parks – just looking for “sure things” that were only “sure” when they cooperated – present, but not necessarily accounted for – like the Pileated Woodpeckers at Pine Ridge Park that were silent and invisible. Fortunately a Hermit Thrush was a bit more cooperative, a heard only checkmark – number 111 for the month. There were two birds that were clearly on top of my list for November 6th – a Seahawk and a Cardinal – watching our surprising NFL team who came through and thumped the Arizona Cardinals. Thankfully another bird made its appearance. I got a call from Jon Houghton in the morning before the game and was able to rush down to the waterfront and quickly found both Jon and the Surfbirds that he had called about. They are seen at the Edmonds breakwater irregularly. This day there were 15 of them, more than I have ever seen there – and then they were gone later – timing is everything. #112 for the month.
March 7 was the day Cindy was off to Texas to visit some high school girl friends. I would be alone with two dogs for the next 4 days. And this day also meant chauffeuring duties to get her to the airport. You can translate those two sentences to mean not much birding this day – just a single stop at the Everett Sewage Ponds after the airport and before heading home for dog duty. Our lab Chica is not the best traveler in the car – whining when she feels it is time for her to get some attention. Our guest dog Frankie is a much better traveler and is a calming influence on Chica. Time for an experiment. I loaded them into the car early and set out for the Coast – birding for me and romping around for them. The weather cooperated and it worked out pretty well – except for the camera – more on that later. I built in plenty of stops for the doggies to run around.
The first was at Weyerhauser Pond where there were no Redheads – just two Coots and a Domestic Muscovy Duck.
The next was the Bishop Athletic Complex in Aberdeen where I had one Snow Goose among my first Greater White Fronted and Cackling Geese. for the month.
Next at the Tokeland Marina they romped after I saw Willets and the Bar Tailed Godwit among the 150+ Marbled Godwits. It was super windy making it difficult to search for a Clark’s Grebe among the scattered Western Grebes. All three of the above Geese were there as well and I also added a Red Throated Loon for the month. A surprise there was a single Eared Grebe.
Marbled Godwit and Willet at Tokeland Marina
The dogs were super well-behaved roaming along Fisher Ave while I scoped Graveyard Spit. Shorebirds there included Dunlin, and Western Sandpipers and two contrasting studies. The first was a single and surprising Snowy Plover among numerous Sanderlings. Both looked very white at first with one being clearly smaller. A scope view showed the gray brown back and the so- called broken collar for the Snowy. The other pair included a Red Knot mixed in with the Black Bellied Plovers – all plumper than the other shorebirds but the plovers were larger and shorter billed than the Knot which also was much more horizontal as opposed to the more vertical plovers. A great stop.
We drove onto the open beach at Grayland. The dogs got two chances to run and fetch and I got a lot of shorebirds, a small group of American Pipits and a Lapland Longspur. Some estimates (all probably low): 150 Black Bellied Plovers, 8 Semipalmated Plovers. 170 Sanderling, 250 Least Sandpipers, 30 Western Sandpipers and AT LEAST 5000 Dunlin. The Dunlin were amazing – one group of several thousand and several smaller groups of more than a hundred each plus scattered small groups. There were also numerous really pure Western Gulls. No more doggie stops as they slept most of the way home, but I had one more good observation – two Great Egrets visible from the highway just past Monte Brady Road. All told another 16 species for the month – now at 132 and trying to figure a way to go for 200.
Semipalmated Plover – Grayland Beach
Oh yeah the camera frustration. There were lots of details needed to take the dogs (water, food, treats, poop backs, leashes, bowls, towels) and dealing with those I forgot my good camera. Only had back-up SX70 and an SD card with a VERY low capacity – room for only 8 photos. I had to continuously delete photos as something else popped up. One erroneous deletion was of the Bar Tailed Godwit. Thought I had deleted the Willet but blew it. (I have great pictures from our first sighting of it back on September 12, but plumage is even more distinct now.)
The trip with the dogs had worked out pretty well but now Greg was coming back and would be picking up Frankie. It meant I had only a half day for birding. Canvasbacks were reported at Tracy Owen Log Boom Park with a single Redhead with them. I found the flock of Canvasbacks pretty easily but it took a lot of doing to pick out the Redhead as the group was pretty far out. There are usually Common Mergansers at the Park. I found one and also added a Eurasian Wigeon so 4 new duck species for the month to get to 136. I would need a good trip the next day in Eastern Washington to stay on pace. Cindy would be back the day following but I could take Chica with me on this trip.
As is usually the case, my first stop in Eastern Washington was at Bullfrog Pond in Kittitas County – although not at the pond itself but at the road just past it that leads to restrooms (now closed). Even with the dogs running around I was able to find three nuthatch species – Red and White Breasted and Pygmy, the latter two new for November. I did not even bring out the camera as I needed both hands free for Chica and Frankie. I was hoping for a late Cassin’s Finch at this spot but no luck. Following my normal routine, I next went to the Norther Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum after driving past the still seedless (and birdless) feeder across from the Cle Elum Ranger Station where I have had Evening Grosbeaks before. At the ponds I added Mountain Chickadee and Varied Thrush for the month. All of these species were “must get” (Group 1) in my projections for the Big Month. So that was good, but a surprise something else would have been even better,
White Headed Woodpecker was in Group 2 in my planning. I calculated that I needed 80% of that group so the woodpecker was important. It had been reported regularly at the Swauk Cemetery. It is always a bit eerie birding at cemeteries but there are many Birding Hotspots around the country that are at cemeteries where the trees are perfect habitats. It was a beautiful day and I thought I heard a White Headed Woodpecker calling, but it turned out to be another White Breasted Nuthatch with an unusual call. Again I found all three nuthatches – this time with camera ready. I would have traded them all for a White Headed Woodpecker.
Pygmy, Red Breasted and White Headed Nuthatches
I had birded at the cemetery before but it was not on my regular route. The same was true for my next destination, Robinson Canyon where a number of new species were possible. It was also a place where the doggies could run free for awhile. On the way I added California Quail, Black Billed Magpie, Merlin and Purple Finch. At Robinson Canyon there was snow and as I drove into the canyon, birds flushed from the road. They were Varied Thrushes – except for a much larger one that was a much appreciated Sooty Grouse.
Varied Thrush in the Snow at Robinson Canyon
It was 11:30 and normally I would have continued on for several more stops including crossing the Columbia and birding in Grant County. but I did not bring food for Chica and needed to get back to Edmonds around 4:00 pm. I figured I had time to bird at Rocky Coulee in Vantage where I hoped for (and needed) Rock and Canyon Wrens. I had both there in September and it is a good place for both. Alas it was not to be. No wrens at all but in the “migrant trap” camping/picnic area at Rocky Coulee I did add a Townsend’s Solitaire, my 10th new species for the day and #146 for the month. That was the good news, but missing the wrens and the White Headed Woodpecker and one or two “something elses” was disappointing.
Cindy was back, so I was a free agent again, but an honest assessment of the numbers did not look good even through it was only November 11th and I needed “only” another 54 species – fewer than 3 a day. A Black Oystercatcher had shown up at Tulalip Bay – a very rare bird for Snohomish County. Not optimistic about 200 for the month I decided to chase the Oystercatcher and then continue north maybe adding some new species for November as well. The Oystercatcher proved easy to find – especially since David Poortinga was looking at it through his scope when I arrived. I told him about my Big Month attempt and as I was leaving he knocked on my window and asked if I needed a Pileated Woodpecker. I did. Just as I got my camera on the distant bird, it flew off – unmistakable, countable but hardly satisfying. I drove up to the area where it had been. I never saw it again but heard it several times – good enough for #147. Then it was back to the Marysville STP to find a Cinnamon Teal that I had missed on my earlier visit. I found it but the Franklin’s Gull that was also missed was no longer there.
I continued on to Semiahmoo Spit in Whatcom County – a good place for Long Tailed Duck. I found only two that flew by and never landed. Surprisingly I also had a flock of 35 Brant. This small goose is regularly found along the Edmonds Waterfront and can often be seen from my home. But they had not arrived yet so this was a good add to the list.
Short Eared Owls had been reported at the North Fork Access on Fir Island my last stop for the day. There were 3 owls and at least twice that many photographers. They never got close but I got some photos of them and also of a Ring Necked Pheasant – or at least so I thought. When I checked photos later at home I found that the SD card was defective and none of the pictures could be opened. I did not care so much about the Brant and Owls but having one of the Oystercatcher – species #270 for Snohomish County – would have been great. I reformatted the SD card and it now seems ok. The six new species brought the running total to 152. I was feeling “iffy” at best.
In any pursuit of a goal with a plan, there need to be changes pursuant to changing circumstances. There are also always choices to be made. Two of the challenges in this time delimited undertaking were balancing the pursuit of what were perceived as “easy” birds with the pursuit of “difficult” birds which in turn was complicated by the second challenge, the need to balance shorter trips with longer trips. Big Months in Washington require many kinds of trips including ones to relatively distant places like Walla Walla County, Tri-Cities, the Okanogan, Clark County, Neah Bay and possibly Spokane or even Pend Oreille Counties. Some of these distant trips really need to be for more than one day to be effective especially as the shortening days of the year leave fewer hours for birding. Another complication was that “easy” species were found only on those distant places as well, and particularly further into the month now, many of the more “difficult” species that were nearby had already been found. It was decision time. Continue to look for the “easy” ones closer by or make the longer trips to both go for the “easy” ones found only in those distant places as well as chasing some of the rarer ones in those locations as well. At least in theory, there were more new species available in distant places compared to the dwindling numbers nearby. In deciding what to do next, I figured it would be impossible to get to 200 if I could not find those “theoretically easy” ones close by, and if I could not find them, there was no point in making the increased investment to go further afield for multiple days.
All of that was a roundabout way of saying that on November 12th I decided to again stay closer to home and see if I could get some of those “easy” species that were essential to ultimate success. It was down to the 212th Street Ponds in Kent, Washington where I was hoping for American Bittern, Green Heron and possibly Black Phoebe which had been seen there in the past (including by me in March 2022) but not recently. Again it was one step forward and one step backwards. A Green Heron flushed from the northwest corner of the ponds as I approached. I found a Hairy Woodpecker in the trees surrounding the ponds and a Lincoln’s Sparrow called from one of the the thickets. Three new species but no Bittern and no Phoebe. Next I went to Juanita Bay Park – where Wilson’s Snipe are “guaranteed”. The water level of Lake Washington was higher than usual and the mud where the Snipe hang out was non-existent. Without Snipe and a Bittern this was going to be a complete loss for the day and perhaps one more nail into the coffin. I checked Ebird reports and found that Snipe had been reported at the park the previous day. Maybe they were at a different spot. I walked out on the long path at the north end of the park and there they were, at least 4 of them probing the mud with their long bills and posing nicely. In the trees on the other side of the path, I heard a familiar call – Hutton’s Vireo – not an easy species on my targets list. My last effort for the day was scanning treetops in neighborhoods where I have had Band Tailed Pigeons in the past – no luck – so the day ended with 5 new species – a couple of misses, a couple of hits and some add-ons that helped enough to keep hopes up.
Wilson’s Snipe – Juanita Bay Park
In my original planning, the only birds on Sunday November 12th were going to be Seahawks – watching the game between the Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Munich, the first ever NFL game in Germany. It did not go so well. After several good games in a row, the Seahawks were both outplayed and outcoached by the Buccaneers and still almost won. This being football and not horseshoes, however, close is not good enough. The only good news was that the game was very early in the morning and that enabled me to go over to Marymoor Park in Redmond after the game chasing two King County rarities that would both be new for the month as well. Once I got to the right area, it took all of 5 seconds to find the Horned Lark. It took another 15 minutes to find the Clay Colored Sparrow that had moved further afield than where it was originally reported but still pretty close by. The Lark was one of those “easy” birds on my list – but only in the right area in Eastern Washington. The Sparrow was a rarity – at most a “maybe” if the one reported the previous week in Neah Bay remained. The two additions brought me to 159 for the month and were sufficient encouragement to head back to Neah Bay the next day. The Clay Colored Sparrow was species #258 for King County.
Clay Colored Sparrow – Marymoor Park
I previously explained how Neah Bay is such an incredible place for rarities in addition to the specialties that are regularly found there. It was the great trip there on the first of the month that had started this crazy project in the first place. At the time I had felt bad about missing some rarities there but had not realized how those misses might come back to haunt me. This second trip had some similar aspects as in addition to continued appearances by the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher that I had missed earlier, two new rarities had been seen – a Rusty Blackbird and a very late Bullock’s Oriole. The latter two were projected as highly unlikely in my original planning. It took five visits to the “Gnatcatcher Spot” to finally find it. The earlier visits had essentially been birdless. I also made numerous visits to the spot where the Rusty Blackbird had been seen “easily” the previous day and where the Oriole had been found. I found neither. It helped my feelings only a little that nobody else reported either species again – a day late and a dollar short, so to speak.
Blue Gray Gnatcatcher – Neah Bay – Fifth Time Was the Charm
On the way to Neah Bay, I had flushed a Ruffed Grouse along the Pysht River and in the Bay itself, I finally found a Pacific Loon among many Common Loons. On one trip to Butler’s Motel looking for the Oriole and Blackbird a small accipiter flew overhead and disappeared into trees across from the motel. I could not find it perched but by its small size, it was clearly a male Sharp Shinned Hawk, new for the month and one of those “easy” species that are only “easy” when one finds you. A much harder bird to find was a Swamp Sparrow. They are regularly found along Backtrack Road along the Wa’atch River but are very secretive and are generally located only by their metallic chip notes. I found one in much the same spot where I have had them a few times in the past. It is a long drive (and ferry ride) to get back home from Neah Bay and with the now shorter days, there was not time to try for Snow Buntings at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles where some had been reported. The day ended with 5 new species for the month – just ok and once again two rarities had been missed. Given that there would be no birding on Thanksgiving – unfortunately only Wild Turkey was countable – I was essentially half way through the month. With 164 species seen, that seemed pretty good. If I could bird another 14 days, I would need to average just over 2.5 new species each day to hit the target. There would be no room for misses.
Tuesday November 15th was one of those days where changed plans were a positive and yet not. I was scheduled to give a program on Birds of Ecuador to our Condominium Community. It would be the fifth birding program for me but only the second in the Post-Covid period which meant it would be given to both a live audience in our Club Room Theater and also via zoom to a larger audience. The last program I had given, with a similar two audience approach, had a live group of over 20 and another 50 or so online. In the end it went very well, but there had been a number of technical challenges and glitches along the way as we struggled to be able to access the internet both for the zoom audience and to play some imbedded videos. The person who had handled the technical details in the end made it successful, but we found out only early Tuesday that she would not be able to help. The plan had been to have a practice run through early in the day with the program in the evening. That would leave no time for birding anywhere other than a close-in location. We ended up canceling the program with new date to be determined. Had I known earlier, I would either have stayed in Neah Bay and environs another day or instead of Neah Bay would have gone on a multi-day trip to Eastern Washington. Oh well. Too late to set off elsewhere on Tuesday I returned to the 212th Street Ponds in Kent trying again for an American Bittern which had been reported there on Monday with a follow-up visit to the Theler Wetlands in Mason County trying for a Pectoral Sandpiper that had been there for more than a week.
I was able to find an American Bittern at the 212th Street Ponds but despite being joined by another birder at the Wetlands who was also looking for the Pectoral Sandpiper and knew the area well, we did not find it. Granted that this was a day that originally was not going to be available for any birding, still it was a big disappointment to not add the Sandpiper as it was one of those uncommon species that was on my “got to get it list”. The Bittern was species #165 but opportunities to get to 200 were falling off the target list too frequently. When I got home I reassessed real chances to succeed and concluded that unless some new birds showed up in the state, I would have to make several long trips and be lucky to get to even 198 species and very very lucky to get to 200. I was ready to call it quits. THEN…
THEN…Back home, I got a chance to look at some photos of a sparrow I had taken at the 212th Street Ponds. It had struck me as “different” but after a couple of distant shots, it had disappeared in vegetation near the ponds. If I had not been so focused on the “next target” on my 200 list, I may have spent more time either chasing it further or at least going over the photos carefully. Actually I should have done so regardless of those other considerations. At home, significantly magnified I discovered I had found an American Tree Sparrow. Quite rare although regular for King County, it was on my list as a “maybe” on a couple of distant locations in Eastern Washington. It did not really make up for missing the Pectoral Sandpiper but it provided just enough of a boost to my spirits to stay with the project. 166 species and counting.
American Tree Sparrow – 212th Street Ponds
Not feeling at all confident but still hanging on to “maybe”, I got up early the next morning and headed south to Clark County. There were three species that I absolutely needed to find if there would continue to be any chance for 200 species in November and a couple of other possibilities. The three “must haves” were all potentially to be found at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge: Black Phoebe, Sandhill Crane and Red Shouldered Hawk. When I had last been to the Refuge as part of my Big September I had not needed the Red Shouldered Hawk because I had seen one at the 204th Street Pond in Kent but had needed the other two and found them both there and also added a Barn Owl. That was just as well since I did not see a Red Shouldered Hawk there then. As soon as I got to the Refuge I heard the distinct clattering of Sandhill Cranes. (Later I would see many more at the Refuge and even more elsewhere.) One down and two to go. At the pullout leading to the blind is a spot I have often at least heard Red Shouldered Hawks. Today would be another such time, as one was calling as I parked and then flew out over the marsh. A second one called from a group of trees across the autoroute from there. Now for a Phoebe. As I walked out to the blind I had the Merlin Sound recognition app on and fairly quickly it registered a “Black Phoebe“. A few moments later I heard the call myself and then with some doing finally found one barely in the open – not great light or a great photo, but pretty nice to get target #3 so quickly. On the way out of the Refuge I watched a Great Blue Heron stalking something in the field, after a lightning fast strike it came up with a small rodent. Within seconds, it was swallowed.
Sandhill Crane – Ridgefield NWR
Black Phoebe – Ridgefield NWR
Great Blue Heron with Rodent – Swallowed Immediately thereafter
There were three other possibilities on this trip: American White Pelican, Great Horned Owl and Lesser Goldfinch. All were possible and possibly more likely elsewhere, but I was at the stage where every species found meant not having to look for it at another time or place. The goldfinches were not at the one public spot where I might have found them (and have in the past) and I did not find a Great Horned Owl at two places where they had been reported in the last week or so. At American Lake I did find American White Pelicans – a group of five at one spot and then a large flock of maybe 70 at another – all distant but impossible to miss as large white forms in the lake. If this had been later in my pursuit and if I had tried for them and missed them in Eastern Washington, I would have spent more time looking for the Lesser Goldfinches – probably needing to visit some private feeders.
And then there was something else. If things had been different, I may have continued on to Klickitat County and into Eastern Washington for a longer trip, but something had happened that morning that changed everything. Since I had departed early that morning, Cindy had dog walking responsibilities after her morning training workout. It was cold and a little icy and she slipped on some black ice. She landed on her butt and also hurt her shoulder. There had not been plans to continue on, maybe a stop at Nisqually NWR on the way home, but now I needed to get back. I returned home with the count at 170 species and had to seriously confront the future. At most there were 13 more birding days left and with 30 species to go I was still on pace IF I could get 2.5 species on average each day. The problem was that there were not that many places to go where I could count on even two or more new species. Each day would be critical. And frankly it did not look very positive. Now with Cindy hurting, I felt it was time to stop. Cindy had been able to get to her clinic and had x-rays taken. The good news was that nothing was broken. The bad news was that the shoulder seemed to be pretty bad. She could not get an MRI until the following Wednesday.
Cindy had been encouraging and supportive throughout my month of birding as she had been on all of my birding ventures. Snow Buntings had been seen for several days at Crockett Lake on Whidbey Island and from there I could take the ferry across Puget Sound to Port Townsend. Chances were pretty good to find Ancient Murrelets either on the ferry crossing or at Point Wilson in Port Townsend with a long shot chance for a couple of other species. If my project was to continue, that would be an option for the next day. I thought it best to just stop. Cindy thought I should go as there was nothing we could do about her shoulder that day. She is as good as they come.
With mixed feelings, after walking the dog early, on November 17th I was on a ferry leaving Mukilteo for Clinton on Whidbey Island. Thirty minutes after disembarking I was at Crockett Lake and checked and rechecked Ebird reports trying to figure out where the “viewing platform” was as the gravel road near it was where the Snow Buntings had been seen. I finally found what had to be the right spot and first drove and then walked the roads near it and also the dunes and log piles. All were great habitat areas for Snow Buntings (and possibly Lapland Longspurs) but I could not find any. All of the other reports made it sound like you just drove up and there they were, so I worried that maybe they had left. After at least 40 minutes I retraced steps and at the very end of the gravel road away from the platform ( a small raised area that might be a platform but was hardly good for viewing), I saw some white specks on the gravel. I got some very distant photos of what were clearly three Snow Buntings and then as I approached, they flew off – first over the dunes and then landing on the road fairly near the so-called platform. I stalked them taking photos along the way. The light had a beautiful golden glow – not perfect for photos at least with the white balance setting I had – but way better than the fog that might have been there. Snow Buntings had been one of the species that was projected as “likely but not certain” in my initial planning but was expected to be seen, if at all, in Eastern Washington.
Snow Bunting – Crockett Lake, Whidbey Island
The Snow Buntings were not actually at Crockett Lake but in the beachy area across the road that leads to the ferry terminal. Over the years I have had a number of great birds at Crockett Lake itself which has been especially good for shorebirds. My three best species there have been White Wagtail (January 1984), Red Necked Stint (July 2017) and Hudsonian Godwit (August 2019). Thirty seven shorebird species have been reported there.
Red Necked Stint – Crockett Lake – July 2017
Crockett Lake is essentially across the road from the ferry terminal for the Whidbey Island/port Townsend Ferry. My timing was pretty good and I was on the ferry heading west within 20 minutes of leaving the Snow Buntings. It was an almost windless day and the crossing was smooth in good light. I positioned myself outside on the second level of the ferry and watched for birds, hoping first and foremost for Ancient Murrelets among the other species in the Sound, mostly seen in flight. Unless they are pretty close or sitting on the water, the Murrelets can be a pretty tough ID separating them especially from the usually far more numerous Common Murres. It is not really possible to effectively use a spotting scope with the vibration and movement of the ferry even in calm weather. Fortunately though the light was behind me making it easy to see birds in flight, usually low on the water, dark forms or flashing black and white. I did not see as many birds as I expected on the crossing, but fortunately at least two of them were Ancient Murrelets. Other alcids were Common Murres and Pigeon Guillemots.
Ancient Murrelet – Keystone Port Townsend Ferry
Common Murre – Keystone Port Townsend Ferry
Even though I had good views and a picture of the targeted Ancient Murrelet from the ferry crossing, I continued on to Point Wilson at Fort Flagler and did a seawatch for about an hour. Not nearly as many individuals as other times I have been there but I had at least a dozen Ancient Murrelets, a couple of Marbled Murrelets, Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots and Rhinoceros Auklets. I guess a Tufted Puffin was possible, but that was a good list of alcids. Later I went into the forested area behind the fort buildings where I have birded before and found the other species I had hoped for there, Red Crossbills, a group of at least 4 feeding on the abundant cone crop – too high for photos but noisy and good binocular views. I returned home via the Edmonds Kingston ferry and tried to again realistically look at possibilities to get to 200. My conclusion was that reaching that total would be very difficult at best. Executive decision time.
Cindy of course said to completely disregard her and go for it regardless. I could not disregard her but independently made the decision to call it off. NOT because of her situation but because I had not done well enough to feel good about getting there even without this new development. Then, too, even though Cindy could get by without my assistance, I wanted to be there for her as she has always been there for me. On the 18th Cindy somehow convinced a doctor at the same practice group where she had her knee replacements done to see her NOW!! He was pretty certain that she had a significant rotator cuff tear and scheduled an MRI for the next Monday. The MRI clearly showed a tear that was going to require surgery and the earliest that could be scheduled was December 9th. We got into countdown mode and that included the decision that we HAD to preserve that surgery date if there was any chance of keeping our trip to Tanzania scheduled for mid-February 2023 alive. Reluctantly Cindy agreed to full quarantine in our condo until the surgery date and I am now returning to fully masking everywhere I go. We also cancelled several parties and events. Even though fully vaccinated, we simply cannot risk ANY possibility of COVID before the 9th. Postponing the surgery would almost certainly mean we could not make it to Africa.
So there is NO longer a Big NOvember. The count got to 173 and that is where it ended. Now it is the end of the month and I can look back and wonder and look back and see what I missed and when and how things might have been different.
POSTSCRIPT — WHAT IF’s – Looking Back/Ahead
Especially at times like this with birds migrating out and others migrating in, timing can be everything. There are so many birders out in the field ranging from barely beginners to real experts that birds are reported all through the month and from all over the state. As examination of the Ebird reports showed, many of the species reported during the month were seen by only a single observer (or maybe two birding together) on a single occasion, never to be seen again. According to Ebird, 257 species were seen in Washington this November. Yikes – that means I missed 84 species!! I must be terrible at planning if not actual birding. But hold on there – I took a closer look and it’s interesting.
Of those 83 species, 6 were not really open to be found by mere mortals. They were found only on an offshore survey vessel – the closest to a pelagic trip for the month. Now we are down to 77 – and deducting…
For another 16 of those species there was only a single observation – one bird seen by one person or perhaps by 2 birding together. Most but not necessarily all of these observations are well-documented – who knows. So deduct them and we are down to 61.
Five of the observations were made on the first two days of the month and then not again. I wasn’t thinking “Big Month” until after that – so too late to find them in any event. Now down to 56.
Finally at least 11 of the remaining species were not reported until after November 17th – the last day I was still in the game. Take those away and 83 becomes 41 – or less. I cannot be exact but at least 35 of those were still on my “target list” when I hung it up.
As acknowledged throughout this blog post, I had lots of misses and it was those misses that were most in mind for my calculus that continuing after November 17th was not a good plan. Those misses included: Palm Warbler, Bullock’s Oriole, Eurasian Skylark, Franklin’s Gull, Pectoral Sandpiper, Band Tailed Pigeon, Canyon Wren, Rock Wren, Great Horned Owl, Red Breasted Sapsucker, Rusty Blackbird, White Headed Woodpecker, and Spotted Sandpiper.
Excuses, excuses, excuses… sort of, but moreso it is looking back like this that helps me plan for other undertakings. IF and it is a BIG IF, I had continued to push for 200 after November 17th, I think I would have had a reasonable chance to get 6 of the species not seen by others until after that date. Of the 35 that were still on my target list, maybe I could have gotten 22 of them. Add those two numbers to my 173 and BINGO – 201 species for the month. Yes, but, it would have meant birding every day except Thanksgiving and trips to Walla Walla, Spokane, Pacific County, Clark County, Okanogan County and elsewhere. That is what should be involved in a Big Month – Big dedication – birding everyday and travelling all over the state. It is doable.
ANOTHER SLICE – Ebird allows you to slice and dice your data in many ways. When I put together a list of all of the species I have seen in any November – over the entirety of my birding career – it told me I had seen 220 species – so 47 more than I saw this year. It was interesting to me that sort of cycling back to what I had written in the beginning of this blog post, was that more than half of those 47 species are real rarities – not even on my target list for the venture. This group included among others: Orchard and Hooded Orioles, Zone Tailed Hawk, Painted Bunting, Tennessee, Black Throated Blue, Hooded and Lucy’s Warblers, Steller’s and King Eiders, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Snowy and Northern Hawk Owls, Black Headed Gull, Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Emperor Goose and Mountain Plover. Only one or two of these species were seen this November. They are species that would be proud additions to any Washington birder’s life list –anytime, forget November. Fully 14 of them were State Lifers for me – many at Neah Bay. So at least rarities-wise maybe this wasn’t such a great month to Go Big!!
That’s all folks – cannot leave without acknowledging that this has been a failure – the first time I have set a goal and missed. Not a good feeling, but while I do not undertake a project to fail and expect to succeed, it is not crossing the goal but the journey to get there that makes these ventures worthwhile. As in ALL previous “projects”, there were wonderful moments with good people, in great places and with great birds. May not do another Big November, but there will be other projects ahead. Right now the project is helping Cindy in every way I can – helping us get to Tanzania and beyond.