February Big Month: Week 2 – The Deluge and Week 3 – Pedal to the Metal

Week 2 ended with some local birds and 132 species for February. When doing a time delimited project like a Big Day or Big Year or my Big Month, it seems inevitable and is definitely sad that the memories of the misses often overshadow the memories of the great successes. As I started Week 2, I was optimistic that the misses in Clark County and the Okanogan would be dimmed by a second week filled with new birds. Well the first day of the new week had some of those new birds but also had another bad miss.

The story began at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles in Clallam County. Ediz Hook is a sand spit that extends 3 miles into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. It is almost as good as having a boat and I have had many great birds there over the years including a Glaucous Gull last year. Another had been seen there at the same spot as the previous year on February 7th. It would be a great place for other new species for the month and a Glaucous Gull was a “3” in my rating system meaning it was rare indeed. The previous year the Glaucous Gull had remained at the same spot for several weeks so I felt the odds were pretty good it would be there when I arrived. It wasn’t there and it also was not on the log boom where it had also been seen. Other expected new species fortunately were, all common and readily found elsewhere, but numbers matter at least in they indicate some progress, so I was happy to add Pacific and Red Throated Loons, Common Murre, Harlequin Duck, Black Bellied Plover, Sanderling and Black Oystercatcher – the latter find assisted by Alex Patia, a superb birder that now lives in the area and with whom I had a nice visit.

I picked up a Hermit Thrush at Salt Creek County Park and a Sharp Shinned Hawk in Port Angeles but was shut out looking for the Plover flock on Shmuck Road which might still have a Pacific Golden Plover. Not thrilled with the results of the day despite adding 9 new species, I decided to catch a later ferry and divert to Point No Point where Bonaparte’s Gulls are almost guaranteed. It proved a good choice as the Bonaparte’s were plentiful and I also added three good alcids, Rhinoceros Auklet and both Marbled and Ancient Murrelets. The 13 new species for the day brought me to 145 for the month, but a Glaucous Gull would sure have been nice.

Bonaparte’s Gull – Point No Point

The next day I was joined by Ed Pullen and we headed off to join good friend Deb Essman for a day of birding in Kittitas County starting with a visit to a large tract of private land in the beautiful Teanaway Valley. Before meeting those friends, Ed and I stopped at Bullfrog Pond and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in Cle Elum. We were entirely in snow but still managed to find Pygmy Nuthatches and American Dippers, an excellent start for the day. Joining Deb, we then hiked around some gorgeous land and found our main target – White Headed Woodpecker and had a bonus Great Horned Owl and even better we flushed a Ruffed Grouse, my fifth new species for the day.

Deb, Ed and I then headed further east hoping to find Canyon and Rock Wrens and maybe a Chukar to make up for my miss in the Okanogan. Deb knows every nook and cranny in Kittitas County and we visited many of them, but the birds did not always cooperate. At Rocky Coulee at the end of Recreation Road, we dug up a Rock Wren but no Chukar and surprisingly no Canyon Wren. I got my first Peregrine Falcon of the month on Badger Pocket Road and saving the day at the end, we found a pair of Golden Eagles on Canyon Road canceling out another of the Okanogan misses. Birdwise, it could have been better, but I knew I would be back later in the month and the chance to spend time with Ed and Deb was a welcome boost in these days when we have been so isolated because of Covid-19.

Rock Wren – Recreation Road
Peregrine Falcon – Badger Pocket Road
Golden Eagle – Canyon Road

The Golden Eagle was species 153 for the month and, as I said, I knew I would be back to this area, one of my favorites in the state. My plans for the rest of the week were to bird locally on the 10th, get my second Covid vaccination on the 11th – YAY!!! and then head back out of town for a day or two. Things do not always go as planned. I did bird locally on the 10th picking up some easy species like Bushtit, Ruddy Duck and Downy Woodpecker and then ventured a little further afield into northern Snohomish County and on to Skagit County. New birds in the former were Brown Headed Cowbird and American Pipit on Thomle Road where there were also at least 10,000 Snow Geese. My best bird was the Harris’s Sparrow on Polson Road on Fir Island where I was helped by the landowner putting out seed just as I visited. I picked up very distant but targeted White Winged Scoter and Long Tailed Duck from the Samish Island Day Use Overlook and then joined others at the East 90’s on the Samish Flats hoping that the Short Eared Owls would put on their display. I had my first Savannah Sparrow as I waited and then was treated to flights by several of the owls.

Short Eared Owl – East 90’s Samish Flats

Once again getting our Covid vaccination – #2 – was very well done. Our arms were a bit more sore than after the first dose, but we had no side effects. Some of our friends had flu like responses but we were spared. So the 11th was a day of rest and then I was going to head off to the Coast on Friday, my first trip there this year. We may have been spared any after effects from the shots, but we were not spared any snow. A major storm hit the entire state on the 12th and while it was pretty and I had reliable all wheel drive, the state was essentially shut down. We had more than 8 inches over the next couple of days in Edmonds and in other parts of the state, there was twice that much. Not good for birding. Not good for planning. Not good for Big Months. I was able to get out to Pine Ridge Park and with snow on the ground was able to finally add a Pileated Woodpecker on the 12th but that was it. Sure it was fun to see more than 18 Varied Thrushes there, but not the kind of fun I had in mind. With the vaccination and the snow, I lost 4 days of birding. It is bad enough that February only has 28 days – not even a Leap Year – and now I had lost 4 of them, over 14% of the days available. Guess I could reduce my goal by 14% and settle for 172 species, but we all know it doesn’t work that way. Definitely would be harder, though.

So Week 2 was a real downer – 164 species – with only 32 new ones. I know it gets harder as each day goes by and new species are added, but this was a full 100 fewer than the previous week – I was now way behind and would have to go full throttle to have a chance at 200. And those early misses were back in my head – if only I had seen the …and the …

Week 3 – Going All Out

Even though there was still a lot of snow on the ground, the roads were clear by the 15th and I headed for the coast – finally – there was a lot of ground to make up. There were not as many birds on the outer beach at Ocean Shores as there might have been and the wind was cold and forceful, but I was lucky and found targeted Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover fairly easily. No Marbled Godwits but I hoped to see them at Westport or Tokeland. I drove 7 plus miles on the sand all the way to the Point Brown jetty. It was a fairly high tide but not yet in. Where were the Rockpipers? With waves crashing over the rocks, I was not seeing any until about halfway out the jetty a large wave flushed a bunch of birds. All three were there – Surfbirds, Black Turnstones and at least two Rock Sandpipers. Mission accomplished.

Snowy Plover – Banded

I had added five shorebirds to both my year and month list – a good start but I felt like I had lost ground and needed much more for the day. So it was on to Westport which turned out to be very disappointing with no Marbled Godwits in the marina. Maybe they would be at Bottle Beach but I had to make a choice – get to Tokeland the go to place in Washington for Willets or go back up to Bottle Beach. With a seeming high and incoming tide, there would not be ideal conditions for both. I opted for Tokeland which also could be good for the Godwits. Tide was indeed high but I found the Willets – at least 13 of them. Not too many years ago we felt lucky to find 4 here. There were no Godwits but a couple of Least Sandpipers were mixed in with a large flock of Dunlin and Black Bellied Plovers, so I did add two new shorebirds for the month and year. A small bonus was a group of Greater White Fronted Geese. I had seen one earlier at Walla Walla Point Park on my way back from the Okanogan but it had been a distant scope only view so this was much better.

Willet – Tokeland Marina
Greater White Fronted Geese – Tokeland

Heading home just before Bottle Beach I could see that although it was 2.5 hours before scheduled high tide, the water was already high and it would be pointless to stop. I headed instead for the Brady Loop where needed Wilson’s Snipe had been reported. I did not find them there in the snowy fields but did get my first of month Purple Finch and Western Meadowlark. The traffic was good so I had time to stop by Nisqually NWR where there was also a chance for Snipe. There was lots of snow and some trees had fallen across the boardwalk path. I bushwhacked over them and at the end of the trail in a pond between the dike and the old barn I got the best bird of the trip – an American Bittern posing in the open. These birds are regular but can be very difficult to find. No Snipe but it was new species number 9 for the day – a great ending.

American Bittern – Nisqually NWR

In any “big” undertaking whether it be for a day or a year or a month, the clock is always ticking and the accumulation of numbers is always gauged both by the time already past and the time ahead. With 174 species seen “only” 15 days into the month, at least mathematically it should be easy to find “only” 36 more in the 13 days remaining. The first 15 days had averaged over 11 species per day and I only needed to average fewer than 3 a day going forward. Of course these are not mathematical pursuits and they are very much subject to the law of diminishing returns as there is a limited field of opportunities and many of the best parts of the field had already been harvested.

The single biggest remaining opportunity would be a visit to to the Walla Walla area, where especially if I could team with Mike and MerryLynn Denny, maybe as many as a dozen possibilities could be found. The original plan had been for Cindy and me to reprise a fun visit to the area from 2020 where we had a little birding and a lot of wine tasting. But Walla Walla had been hit hard by snow as well and more snow was projected ahead. Even getting over the pass on I-90 might be challenging, and birding would be more difficult and probably not as rewarding. The wine would still be good, but there would be a better time to visit for that purpose. Deferring Walla Walla until later, I chased a few local birds on the 16th, finally finding a Golden Crowned Kinglet and a Barred Owl in nearby parks and returned to Greenlake to hopefully see the Sora that had been a mainstay there since December. The Sora again was mostly uncooperative with only its whinny call and a few glimpses through the reeds showing its presence. Someone has been feeding it regularly bringing it into the open, but my visits have never coincided with his, so furtive glances only.

The last bird for the day was an early Rufous Hummingbird that had been visiting a feeder in Seattle. I didn’t know if the feeder was visible from the street but took a chance and found that it was. It was still awkward though, as the only parking was at a spot where there was no visibility and I ended up sitting on part of a concrete wall across from the house with feeders. When someone is looking at a feeder with bins and a big lensed camera, it can seem to others that he is spying on the house instead. Fortunately only one person came by and we had a nice chat removing that suspicion and avoiding a call to the local constabulary. Also fortunately the Rufous Hummer showed briefly – twice. The feeder was regularly visited by at least two Anna’s Hummingbirds and every time the Rufous appeared it was instantly chased off by one of them. I really wanted a photo but the chases did not allow for that and after 30 minutes I decided that counting it was good enough and left.

The snow conditions on Snoqualmie Pass had cleared a bit on the 17th and I decided to go for a “guaranteed” Lewis’s Woodpecker at Fort Simcoe with chances again for shrub steppe birds and others in Kittitas County as well as two of my other previous misses that were possible in Yakima residential areas – Blue Jay and Lesser Goldfinch. My first stop was again at the Umtanum Creek area on Canyon Road hoping for the Canyon Wren that Ed, Deb and I had missed earlier. I crossed the Yakima River on the rickety suspension bridge and hiked a bit into the Canyon. No wren was calling and none responded to my playback. Disappointed I head back to the car. I did not hear a wren but I heard what seemed like the familiar whistle notes of a Townsend’s Solitaire. Not impossible here but unexpected. When it flew out of one of the trees by the creek and went directly over me crossing the river, I was certain of the identification. A consolation prize for sure – making up for the miss yet again of the Canyon Wren. Then as if the somewhat dark mood had been broken by the Solitaire, just as I got to the bridge I heard the unmistakable beautiful descending notes of a Canyon Wren. It was singing from the top of the hill to the north and would not be lured in closer by my calls. After so many failures, this was a great spirit lifter and impetus to carry on to Fort Simcoe.

Canyon Wren – from an Earlier Visit

Fort Simcoe and Oak Creek are two places in Washington where Lewis’s Woodpeckers are guaranteed – in quantity and usually in quality. Fort Simcoe park was closed but I parked by the chained off entry and first heard and then saw at least three Lewis’s Woodpeckers as soon as I got out of my car. I debated just checking the species off the list and moving on to other targets but I love the area and its numerous oaks and figured there would be many more Woodpeckers ahead and a chance for a good photo. The complicating factor was that there was at least 10″ of snow on the ground and my boots were at most 8″. I did the best I could to stay in the footsteps of others that had been there probably the day before and trudged for 30 minutes around the Park. Lewis’s Woodpeckers were indeed everywhere but they seemed very edgy and rarely stayed put for more than a few seconds on perches either distant or high up in the oaks – often both distant and high up. I reported 25 woodpeckers on my Ebird report but there easily could have been 40 or more as counting accurately was impossible with them constantly moving about. I took a couple dozen photos but would be doing a great disservice to such a beautiful bird by including one of them here. Instead the photo below is from Oak Creek where the views are generally better and more photo friendly as the Woodpeckers sit in relatively close snags at eye level from the roadway heading up Oak Creek Canyon.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

It was only 1 little after 11:00 a.m. I had three new species for the month with possibilities ahead. Unfortunately I was not able to find either the Blue Jay or the Lesser Goldfinches that had been reported in a Yakima neighborhood. There was lots of snow and I felt uncomfortable parking on the residential streets where the snow had limited passage so maybe I did not have sufficient diligence, but I felt there would be chances for both elsewhere later in the month. This proved to be only partially true.

I headed back to Kittitas County towards Ellensburg and then Vantage via I-82. Zooming along at just over 70 mph which is the speed limit, a small flock of small birds were flying towards me from the west. Flocks are not common on this highway but they might have been House Finches or Horned Larks. I pulled over and stopped as quickly as I could and got my bins on the last couple of birds as they carried on to the East. Lighting was great and I could make them out as Gray Crowned Rosy Finches. There were at least 8 and possibly a dozen. NOT a quality look, but a quality bird that I had regretted missing on my Okanogan trip. They are often found among the cliffs at the rest areas on the highway, so not that great surprise. Rosy Finches are little beauties, so not getting a photo was disappointing. Stay tuned.

Once again I birded the length of Vantage Highway and then Recreation Road all the way to Rocky Coulee and then the Gingko Park overlook hoping for shrub steppe/sage birds. Again not a one. So still lots of misses but there had been a couple of good surprises as well. Traffic home was easy and a long day ended with another 4 new species bringing me to 182 so far. Coulda, shoulda, woulda been closer to 190 but that’s birding.

That night – February 17th, I noticed an Ebird report from friend Jon Houghton for his visit to Juanita Bay Park that included both Red Breasted Sapsucker and Wilson’s Snipe. I had seen the former there before and had noted other reports of the latter from that location but I did not know the story. Jon provided the details and the following morning in fairly unpleasant rain, I went to the Park which is a half hour from my home. I saw another birder there with bins and an umbrella – now that was a good idea – and not being shy I asked her if she was familiar with the park. She was and kindly guided me to the boardwalk where the Snipe were being seen. They were easy to find even in the grass and mud for which they were perfectly camouflaged. There were at least a half dozen. And after my new guide departed I moved over to a wooded area where she said she had seen Red Breasted Sapsuckers in the past. In a few moments I heard one calling and then drumming and thus had a good twofer to start the day. I had hopes for another one ahead.

Wilson’s Snipe

Neal Road in Fall City has been a great spot for good birds including a White Wagtail in January 2018. There is a huge flock of blackbirds and Starlings at a farm there and both Rusty Blackbird and Yellowheaded Blackbird had been seen in February and a very rare for Washington Common Grackle had been seen there earlier. Views are distant and best with a scope and trying to find the Rusty Blackbird in constantly moving and shifting mass of similar looking birds is challenging at the best of times. Constant rain did not help. The single Yellowheaded Blackbird was easy and quickly seen as it favored the ground. The Rusty was far more difficult and I only found it after 45 minutes of searching when an accipiter, presumably a male Cooper’s Hawk flushed all of the birds and the somewhat paler Rusty stood out as it flew and then landed on a mostly open branch. A double twofer brought me to 180 species. I really needed to get to Walla Walla.

It is pretty apparent that weather has played a large role in my February quest – both the actual snow and the continuing threat of more to come. The impact has been two fold in preventing trips to Eastern Washington and the Coast as highways and the mountain passes have been closed and also in probably slowing the arrival of new birds and even possibly leading to the demise of some early arrivals as their food source has disappeared. Walla Walla had had lots of snow but a warming trend was projected for the next few days. That alone was not enough to make a visit viable, however, as warming could make avalanches more likely over the pass. Mike and MerryLynn Denny were able to bird with me on the 19th or 20th. Snoqualmie Pass was open on the evening of the 18th so even though I had been out birding all that day, I decided to head over that night and at least be there to bird the following day. Cindy, as always, was both supporting and encouraging so I took off just after an early dinner with plans to stay in Richland that night instead of the very long drive over early the next morning with unknown conditions on Snoqualmie Pass.

It turned out to be a good plan especially when a FOY Barn Owl flew right over my car in Mattawa, WA on the way over. This was an almost guaranteed species on Dodd Road the next day, but at this stage, a bird in the hand is definitely better than two in the bush. I was meeting the Dennys at 9:00 a.m. which gave me time to bird a bit on my own and I found one of the targets, American White Pelican, at the Columbia Park Marina in Benton County. Two down and hopefully many more to go.

American White Pelican – Columbia Park Marina

Mike and MerryLynn Denny are special folks. Always in good cheer, incredible birders, familiar with every nook and cranny in Walla Walla and adjoining counties, tireless and always ready and willing to help. MerryLynn is the better birder (expect Mike agrees) and Mike is the all encompassing naturalist and historian. They are an endless font of information about geology, wildlife, agriculture, botany and everything else in their area. I had sent them a list of “needs/wants” and they had an itinerary in mind to maximize our success – despite snow still covering the area. We traveled in separate cars linked by radios and covered a lot of ground. I could not recount our route and stops as I just followed their excellent lead. Here are some highlights:

Barn Owls as usual in the dirt banks off Dodd Road. After incredible persistence and skillful observation by MerryLynn, we had a single Tricolored Blackbird at the Iowa Dodd Beef/Tyson Ponds feedlots. Among the hundreds of blackbirds and thousands of starlings as well as hundreds of White Crowned Sparrows, we also had numerous Yellowheaded Blackbirds. We also had our first of many Ring Necked Pheasants another new species for me. Next up was a search for a Long Eared Owl. We found a single Northern Saw Whet Owl but could not locate the Long Eared Owl that had been seen the week before, so we carried on to Smith Springs Road and somehow Mike and MerryLynn picked out a pair of Long Eared Owls buried in the thick brush. There were probably others in this favorite roosting place. We also had more Pheasants and also a number of Gray Partridge.

Yellow Headed Blackbirds
Northern Saw Whet Owl
Long Eared Owls Smith Springs Road (Look Closely)

We headed over to the small and almost fully abandoned town of Ayer. [I wish I could recount the history which Mike shared. I will see if I can find it and add it later.] Our reason for the visit was that they knew it a great spot for Lesser Goldfinches. Sure enough we found a noisy flock and I could now move it from the “missed” list to the “found” list.

Lesser Goldfinch – Ayer

As I said the Dennys know every nook and cranny in the county and also know what has been seen when and where. Following up on some great intelligence we went to Lyons Ferry Road and exactly where they had heard they were hanging out and roosting at some farm buildings, we had a nice flock of very cooperative Gray Crowned Rosy Finches with individuals of both the Interior and Hepburn’s forms. Probably my favorite photo of the trip and definitely my favorite story was when Mike and MerryLynn got out of their car for better looks, I got out of my car behind them and took a picture of one Rosy Finch that perched on the roof of their vehicle. Not a new species for the month but so very much better than the brief glimpse I had earlier on I-82.

Gray Crowned Rosy Finch (Hepburn’s) – Atop the Dennys’ Car
Gray Crowned Rosy Finch Interior Form

And then MerryLynn came through again. We had been seeing Horned Larks all day long. Most flew off without being able to search them for something else. But MerryLynn kept trying and on Eureka Flats, we finally one larger flock which stayed in view long enough for a search. I had noticed a “different” looking individual in the flock when they first landed and then lost it. When they landed a bit further down the road MerryLynn was able to get her scope out and find a coveted Lapland Longspur. I could see it momentarily in the scope just before they took off again and disappeared in a distant field. A new bird for the month and one that had not been expected – a real long shot.

We tried for one more target arriving too late in the late afternoon to find Blue Jays that had been seen regularly for the past month – but always earlier in the day. I had missed this species elsewhere and figured it would remain a nemesis. I said my good byes and returned to Richland to spend the night. Maybe I should have stayed closer to Walla Walla and tried again for the Blue Jay and maybe for Cedar Waxwings which had been seen in the area – or maybe tried for a Ferruginous Hawk. The Dennys thought the hawks had departed after the snow, but one was found a couple of days later. One of the species I had thought was a good likelihood on this trip, Black Crowned Night Heron, had been missed that day and there were consistent reports coming from the Tri-City Animal Shelter pond in Pasco. My motel in Richland was very close. I would also have yet another chance for Blue Jay at W.E. Johnson Park.

The pond behind the Animal Shelter was a cool location. Surrounded by snow, I decided to put on heavier boots and then scan everywhere with the scope. As I was putting on the boots, I saw the distinctive form of a small heron fly by. It had to be the Night Heron. I probably would have counted it just on that but I was hoping for a better view. Nothing at first, but when I walked a bit and found an opening, out in the open were both adult and juvenile Black Crowned Night Herons. Outstanding!!

Black Crowned Night Heron Adult – Pasco Animal Shelter Pond
Black Crowned Night Heron Juvenile – Pasco Animal Shelter Pond

I moved on to W.E. Johnson Park and found it very quiet with lots of snow on the ground. A Blue Jay has been coming to a feeder at a nearby house for almost three months. I watched for 30 minutes and then gave up and left. It has been seen off and on again in the following days.

There would be one last stop on the way home. Red Crossbills were being reported by Walter Szeliga at the Japanese Garden on the Central Washington Campus in Ellensburg. I made my way to the Garden, probably illegally as I followed signs but the “road” seemed more like a “walkway”. Somewhat uncomfortably I parked next to the Garden gate and immediately heard at least two Red Crossbills. They were feeding actively in the spruce and were in view only momentarily. Had I been on obviously legal streets, I would have stayed. I was satisfied with the ID so I left instead. On the way home, I stopped at the Stillwater Unit of the Snoqualmie Wildlife Area. Maybe I heard the Swamp Sparrow and maybe I didn’t. Certainly no visual and I was not sufficiently confident of the call note to count it.

There had been a couple of misses but it had been a great trip, enhanced by spending yet more time with Mike and MerryLynn. All told I had added 9 new species for the month bringing me to 195 for the month. Still more than a week to go, but the misses were weighing heavily and I knew I would have to find another species or two locally and then repeat trips to at least one of my former visits: Kittitas County, Clark County, the Okanogan.

On the last day of the third week of February with some guidance from Edmonds friend Frank Caruso I found Hutton’s Vireos both at Southwest County Park and near the Willow Creek Hatchery. I missed Cedar Waxwings at Volunteer Park so ended at 195 species having added 31 species for the month. I was pretty confident I could get 4 more but I wanted some surplus as well just to be safe. If I could find everything on my list of remaining possibilities – which would mean returning to Clark County and either the Coast or the Okanogan or both – 208 or possibly 210 species would be possible. It would mean being on the road everyday – almost living in the car.

February Big Month – Week I

Everyone birds differently. I enjoy it most when I can focus efforts around a project and/or have a goal. In January 2018, that focus and project was a “Big Month” for my home state of Washington. Prior to that time, the biggest list I had for any January was 154. My goal was to “smash” that by finding 180 species. As is usually the case, once I got going there was self imposed internal pressure to go past that and with the help of some nice rarities like Blue Jay, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Ross’s Goose and Gyrfalcon, I was able to get to 208 species. I spent a lot of the rest of the next year birding in multiple states starting my 50/50/50 Project but with that early good start I was still able to reach another goal of more than 340 species in Washington for the year ending with 349.

With travel now still limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted another project to guide my birding and distract me from the sadness of politics and those travel constraints. I decided to again do a Big Month in Washington – but this time for February. My previous high for the month was 143 in 2015. Especially with 3 fewer days than January 180 species again seemed to be a reasonable goal but reasonable should not be a limitation for “going for it”, so I am shooting for 200 species. Today is February 11th and I have birded on every day preceding it. Today has been a non-birding day with my attention being on getting my second Covid-19 vaccination, completing the dosage and hopefully affording me a much safer existence. It has been a full and exciting ten days with successes outnumbering failures but with those failures – missed species that were on target lists – strongly threatening the possibility of getting those 200 species. This blog post covers the first week of my adventure. I will try to do one after each subsequent week as well.

I am not going to detail each day of birding, but I do want to hit some highlights and reflect on the experience so far, share a few photos and preview what’s ahead revealing the logistical work that goes with such a project. A lesson I carried over from that January 2018 Big Month and a corollary of my Rule 1 for any chase was to “go now” in this instance meaning to try for holdover rarities from January 2021 as soon as I could. Thus I headed north on February 1st hoping that the Snow Bunting would be at Eide Road, the Northern Waterthrush and Black Phoebe would be at Wylie Slough, the Ruddy Turnstone would be at Tulalip Bay, the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker would be in Everett and the Snowy Owl would be in Seattle. There were other rarities but they were farther afield and these would give me my best chance to get the largest portion of them. Luck was on my side. Off to a great start, I found these 6 rarities and 58 other species. Those were the successes but there were also some failures on day 1 as I could not find the Green Heron at Levee Pond in Pierce County nor the Northern Mockingbird near Olympia, the latter a big miss as they are not regular anywhere in Washington.

Day 1 – 64 species – two misses.

Snow Bunting – Eide Road
Snowy Owl – Queen Anne, Seattle
Black Phoebe – Wylie Road
Ruddy Turnstone – Tulalip Bay
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Everett

The next day would be the first of many long days as I headed south to Wahkiakum and Clark Counties hoping to add some more rarities and specialties including ones I had seen in January. The first stop was for the White Tailed Kite on Puget Island. When I arrived I could not find it in its “regular” field or on its “regular” perch. Fortunately I had my scope and found it on a tree behind the farm. As would be the case for much of the day, it was raining so due to the distance and the rain, no photo op so I include one from the earlier visit. At Steamboat Slough in the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife area, I found the Tufted Duck in with a dozen or so Scaup – and in even harder rain. I was two for two and feeling pretty good despite the rain. It kind of went down hill from there.

White Tailed Kite – Puget Island

At Ridgefield Refuge, the targets were a White Faced Ibis that had been there for a month, Sandhill Crane, Barn Swallow and Wilson’s Snipe. I heard the Cranes, saw the Swallow and missed the others despite two trips around the loop – again in lots of rain. The Ibis is nowhere else in the state so this was a bad miss. It would not be the only one for the day. When I originally planned the trip, I expected that the Snowy Egret that has been at the Lower River Road pond for several years would be an easy get. I had seen it on my trip in January. But it had not been seen for a week and is thought to be at Post Office Lake which is inaccessible. Edmonds birding friend Jon Houghton was in the area and confirmed it was not found, so I changed plans and went first to Fort Vancouver for the “easy” Acorn Woodpeckers. It had taken me exactly 5 seconds to find them in January. Not this time even though Jon joined me and we searched diligently for 40 minutes. Another BAD MISS! We somewhat made up for it when we found the Clark’s Grebe at Shillapoo Wildlife area. Later we also could not find any Lesser Goldfinches at a likely spot.

In my logistical planning I gave a numerical rating to each potential species with 1 being the easiest, 3 being the hardest and 5 being – seen last year but no chance in hell again. The Acorn Woodpeckers were a 1 (despite being rare there) and I had Clark’s Grebe as a 2 since they were at least possible in Eastern Washington. So in some ways, it was an upgrade – but not really as I had counted on the Acorns. The Lesser Goldfinch was unfortunate but I expect I will find one elsewhere. If I can see 200 on the horizon late in the month, I may go back – a full day I hope to avoid. On the way back to Edmonds I detoured to the remote town of Yacolt to look for the remainder of what had been a nice population of Monk Parakeets. One had been seen lately and I found it – again in the rain. Introduced and not “really countable” in the state – but it’s my list and I am keeping it for now. I also stopped in Lewis County and readily found the juvenile Lesser Black Backed Gull in a large flock of gulls and in even harder rain.

Monk Parakeet – Yacolt, WA – Earlier Photo

End of day 2 total of 86 species with two very bad misses.

Day three was spent filling in some gaps with local birds including a visit to some local parks and the Edmonds waterfront. There was not a specific list of needs or gottas but at the end of the day I wanted very much to find a Wood Duck. Juanita Bay Park is the go to place for them – without fail. Yes it was easy – the first duck I saw there was a Wood Duck and so was the next and the next and the next. All told there were 32 Wood Ducks there. Mission accomplished.

At the end of day 3 my total was at 100 and no new misses.

Wood Duck – Juanita Bay Park

It was time for a Big trip for the Big month – heading East and North to the Waterville plateau and the Okanogan – with lots of high hopes and even some “gotta have thems”. On the Waterville plateau there were the usual hundreds of Horned Larks and one large flock of 100+ Snow Buntings. But I could not find a Golden Eagle or a Gray Partridge and certainly no Gyrfalcon. Not doing so well… yet.

Off of the Plateau on the way to the Okanogan I stopped at Bridgeport State Park – another go to place – for Northern Saw Whet Owl. The way you find one is to look under all the trees searching for pellets or whitewash showing that an owl had perched above. I was the only one at the Park except for one guy in a large RV. One of my best skills in finding birds is to allow others to find them for me. When you arrive on the scene at the spot where you hope to find a bird you are chasing, it is really great if another birder is already there and especially if he or she is already looking at it. This particular park co-inhabitant was not looking at my owl, BUT he had seen it earlier in the morning and knew where it was roosting. It still took a while to find it, but we did and I moved Northern Saw Whet Owl into my “got it” column.

Snow Buntings – Waterville Plateau
Northern Saw Whet Owl – Bridgeport State Park

My usual visit to the Okanogan starts around Omak and goes to Conconully or the Okanogan Highlands or down Cameron Road. This time I took a different tack and headed to Winthrop where a lot of my target birds had been seen especially Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Bohemian Waxwings, both of which were high priorities. After my visit they were still high priorities, unfortunately. But another of my guiding principles is that there is almost always a great consolation prize. The prize here was a cooperative flock of at least nine or ten Pine Grosbeaks – another top priority and one I had doubted I would find.

Pine Grosbeak Female – Winthrop
Pine Grosbeak Male – Winthrop

A bit disappointed I headed over to Conconully where I found the usual Wild Turkeys but little else and then made it to Omak where I would be staying that night. I had picked up an unexpected Common Redpoll and a few other birds but it had only been a so so day and I ended with 13 new species for the day – almost all expected.

At the end of day 4 my total was at 113 and there were at least three new misses. Maybe the next day would find some of them.

Day 4 started in the Okanogan Highlands. Not as much snow as when I had been there in January but truly beautiful. My first new species was a Prairie Falcon flyover near Tonasket. I had planned on a gimme Chukar on Fancher Road where I have seen over 100 – but not a one – a very bad miss. On Mary Ann Creek Road I finally found a Northern Pygmy Owl but only a distant view and no photo which was disappointing. I kept looking for big flocks which could be the Rosy Finches or even Bohemian Waxwings, but it seemed like it was not to be. UNTIL – a very large flock of small birds appeared out of nowhere on Chesaw Road. At first I thought they were Pine Siskins but to my delight when I was able to to pull over for a look through my binoculars I found they were all Redpolls. I was able to get a couple of pictures and then they all took flight scared off by an oncoming pickup truck, the only vehicle I had seen that day. Bad timing. Or maybe not as the flock resettled for a couple of moments and this time as I got my bins on them, one jumped out. All of the others were fairly dark with the mix of brown backs and sides, streaked breasts and red caps (polls). This one was super pale with a much smaller red cap, barely any brown or streaking a rosy cast to its chest. I was able to find it again in my camera viewfinder and got two photos before again the entire flock of more than 110 Redpolls flew off and disappeared. Could this be a Hoary Redpoll? Extremely rare but not unheard of in Washington, it is a very difficult ID, but this bird sure looked good. It is likely that Hoary Redpoll may lose its separate species status in the near future, but for now it is recognized. The Washington Bird Records Committee will weigh in on the ID, but I sent the photos to some noted ornithologists who gave a thumbs up. Good enough for me for now. and a find that makes iup for some misses.

Common Redpoll – Chesaw Road
Common Redpoll – Chesaw Road
Hoary Redpoll? – Chesaw Road
Hoary Redpoll? – Chesaw Road

The feeders on Nealey Road, my next stop, can be very productive and there I got my first Mountain Chickadee and a less than cooperative Clark’s Nutcracker that refused to come out into the open. Oddly this is where I finally found a Hairy Woodpecker, a species I had missed far too often at local parks in Edmonds. I had a lovely visit with one of the residents and left a donation for seed to stock the feeders. A bit down the road I found two Gray Partridge at the same spot I had them in December. After another hour driving the back roads of the Highlands and a return Chukarless visit to Fancher Road most of which was birdless. I decided to change plans and spend the night in Wenatchee instead of again in Omak which would allow some calculated detours. The first was to the Bridgeport Bar where I found one target – American Tree Sparrow and a surprise Eared Grebe. The Grebe was the 9th new species for the day. End of Day 5 – 122 species and another bad miss with the Chukar and no rescues for either Gray Crowned Rosy Finch of Bohemian Waxwing.

Before heading out the next morning I checked my Birder’s Dashboard App to see what had been reported recently in Chelan County. This proved a great move as Eurasian Wigeon and Greater White Fronted Goose had been seen at Walla Walla Point Park which was only a few minutes from my motel. I expected to get them elsewhere but as nothing is a certainty, I was glad to add these two species to my Month list. There is a recognized certain amount of craziness in these birding projects. I had to make a choice – go to Stevens Pass, the best place for Canada Jay or make the long detour back down to Olympia and try again for the Mockingbird. I chose the latter. On the way to Olympia I saw a small falcon zip by me and take down a Rock Pigeon. It was my first Merlin of the month. The weather began to turn and in crappy rain I was able to find the Northern Mockingbird buried in the holly hedge behind 504 Cushing Street in Olympia. The benefit of that decision was doubled when a bonus White Throated Sparrow was also present. Still no Green Heron, but at the 212th Street Ponds in Kent, I finally found one of the Cinnamon Teal buried in reeds at the back of the larger pond. So it was a good detour adding 6 species for the month.

Day 6 – 128 species to date and a recovered miss but some other misses that I may have to attend to again.

After some long days, day 7 of my quest was limited to looking for some local birds. None should have been terribly difficult to find, but there are rarely guarantees in birding so bests to be sure by getting even the easy ones as early as we can – remove the pressure later. I easily got Virginia Rail at the Edmonds March but did not find Cedar Waxwings that had been photographed there the previous day. Birding friend Steve Pink had a Townsend’s Warbler visiting his feeder so I paid him a visit. He warned that it might take a long wait, but it came in as soon as I arrived and was joined by a Chestnut Backed Chickadee which was also new for the month. The last bird on my list was expected to be the hardest to find. Band Tailed Pigeons are regular but it is hard to know where they will be. As I neared the neighborhood where I planned my search three large pigeons flew into a tree about 200 yards away. I stopped the car and first got a confirming look and then a poor but ID proving photo. Turned out to be easy. Time to attend to other matters neglected in my week of chases.

End of Day 7 – 132 species. Recapping my big misses were Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, Bohemian Waxwing, Golden Eagle, Chukar, White Face Ibis, Lesser Goldfinch and Acorn Woodpecker. Hope remains for some but I think a return trip to Clark County will be necessary. Much more importantly, it has been a lot of fun and has definitely been a distraction from politics and pandemics.

Townsend’s Warbler – Edmonds Feeder
Band Tailed Pigeon

miss (grr), miss (grr), and then HIT (Oh Yeah!)

Actually I could have started with “hit, hit, hit” and added “miss” four more times to the title as until yesterday 2021 had gotten off to an up and down and unsatisfying start. With COVID still raging, the protection of the vaccine a long way off and political unrest at an historic low, there is no way to know what 2021 will be and that certainly applies to my birding activities and goals as well. Since the 1st of January was a decent day weatherwise, I followed a familiar pattern by chasing a few of the local rarities that continued into the new year from 2020.

The top priority was the Snowy Owl that has been returning to the same roof on Queen Anne in Seattle for a month. I walked down the alley that had seen hundreds of birders in December and there it was at its favored roost. Not my first bird for the new year as I had seen an Anna’s Hummingbird and American Crow as I left home earlier, but it was my first targeted “hit” for 2021.

Snowy Owl – Queen Anne, Seattle

My second target was a Glaucous Gull that had been seen regularly at Gene Coulon Park in Renton. This park is very near the Mouth of the Cedar River where I have had many good birds over the past year, but I had never been to this park. I ran into friend John Bjorkman when I arrived and a couple of other birders soon joined us. I was able to pick out the Glaucous Gull with my scope as it swam next to some “logs” maybe 70 yards out. Not the greatest shot but a good enough photo of a very nice species for Washington.

Glaucous GullGene Coulon Park

As we scoped for the gull, a small group of waterfowl right in front of us included Canada, Cackling and Greater White Fronted Geese, the latter a less common species that was a good add to the 2021 list.

Greater White Fronted Goose – Gene Coulon Park

Two down and now what. I debated heading east to look for the Rusty Blackbird and Common Grackle that had been seen regularly off Neal Road along the Snoqualmie River but I only had time for one more chase and decided to go for the Blue Jay that was coming to a feeder in Pierce County instead. I thought the Jay was almost a certainty and the others uncertain. With directional help from Bruce LaBar and Ed Pullen, I made it to the right house and met up with Ed Pullen who was still there. I had actually seen the Blue Jay fly into a tree as I had driven up to park, but it was no longer there when I got out of my car. It took another 15 minutes for the Blue Jay to come in to the feeder. Unfortunately it did not stay long enough for a photo. The only one I got was an ID quality photo only buried in a tree in the yard. A fun addition was that we also saw a Steller’s Jay and a California Scrub Jay at the same location. I cannot recall another three jay day in Washington.

Blue Jay – Pierce County

I had obligations for later in the day so it was off to home with a brief stop at the Edmonds fishing pier to add some regular species for the new year.

Well that was a great start to the year, but unfortunately at least in terms of successful chases, it went downhill from there. I was able to find the Sora at Green Lake in Seattle but it was heard only. Many others had been able to get great photos in the open, but when I was there with another birder and photographer wannabe, the reclusive rail remained reclusive. Great to have it at all but disappointing not to get a photo. At least I got some exercise walking around the lake and I also was able to add a Eurasian Wigeon for the year.

A Northern Goshawk had been reported and photographed on Fir Island in Skagit County during the last week of 2020. I had missed it twice each time being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On January 4th I tried again – no go. Others had it later in the day, but it continued to elude me. I continued on to Rosario Head at Deception Pass State Park, a beautiful place. A Yellow Billed Loon had been seen there a couple of days ago and I had seen one there on January 23, 2017 but not this time. So I was 0 for 2. The photo of the 2017 bird is below – my best ever of this species. A bonus was a nice photo of a Varied Thrush which I have seen at a number of locations this year.

Yellow Billed Loon – Rosario Beach 2017
Varied Thrush – Rosario Head

I made another try for the Northern Goshawk on my way back and was once again unsuccessful despite someone else having seen it 30 minutes earlier. I went to the spot where it had been seen and found only a Red Tailed Hawk. This was becoming tiresome. I ended the day with a favorite sparrow species, Lincoln’s Sparrow, at the “sparrow spot” off Moore Road.

Lincoln’s Sparrow – Fir Island

I was very very tempted to chase some rarities in Pacific and Clark counties but had other things to attend to. I might have made it in a very long day, but a two day trip would have been smarter. The birds to chase were White Faced Ibis, Acorn Woodpecker, and Snowy Egret in Clark County, White Tailed Kite in Wahkiakum County and a Hooded Oriole in Pacific County. The latter two are the real prizes as the others would likely be found later elsewhere where they are regular if not common. It is hard to let go of the old habit and urge to chase birds like these, but I want 2021 to be different. Not doing a big state list this year — I think.

OK – one more quick chase. Back to the tree in Everett where I saw the rare for Washington Yellow Bellied Sapsucker last year. As soon as I arrived another birder showed up as well. We immediately found the sapsucker on the tree, but WAIT this was a Red Breasted Sapsucker. Struck out again.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – December 2020
Red Breasted Sapsucker – January 2021

BUT…one thing that is not different from years past is the desire to chase birds that would be new for my Washington Life List or my Washington Photo list. Just before noon on January 8th, a post showed up on Facebook from Will Brooks, a fantastic young birder in Tacoma. He had found a Winter Wren in Orting. Not only would this be a new state bird for me, it was also the first record of this species in Washington – ever! And furthermore although it was a species that I had seen in several other states, I did not have a decent photo. Opportunity was knocking.

In 2010 Winter Wren was split into two distinct species: Winter Wren in the East and Pacific Wren in the West. Pacific Wrens are common in Washington and of course until yesterday the Winter Wren had never been seen. Both are pretty nondescript “lbj’s” – little brown jobs. The plumage is very similar with the Winter Wren often being seen as having a lighter tone and a paler throat. Fortunately, however, the songs and call notes are very different and can be used to separate the two species. I don’t know if Will had first found the bird visually or vocally, but he is meticulous and his report had all of the right details for both visual and vocal identification. I was in Edmonds and Orting was 60 miles away. Time to apply Rule One for a chase – go now!! I grabbed a protein shake, rain coat, binoculars and camera – checking to be sure it had an SD card and the battery was charged – and headed south.

Pacific Wren – Edmonds

In normal midday traffic for Friday, with much of the trip on freeways, I figured it would take about 75-80 minutes to get there – assuming I knew where “there” was. Problem #1. The bird was reported in Orting but there was no street address. Will had includes coordinates and I put them into my GPS and watched for directions. Not for the first time, there were problems. My GPS was taking me in the right general direction but if I followed the details, I would be 10 miles from Orting. Not good. I called Bruce LaBar who was at the site and got some clarification. I changed my GPS and changed my course. Now though I was feeling stressed with the time added for the trip. You never know, every minute can count. I was lost except for the GPS and following the new directions I had to adjust to make a quick lane shift to hit a turn. A couple of minutes afterwards, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the flashing lights of either a police car or an emergency vehicle. I slowed and started to pull off to the side of the road to let it by. Uh-oh. It did not go by – it pulled up right behind me. Was it the turn? Something else? I am sure I was going over the speed limit, but I actually did not even know what the speed limit was there as I was absorbed in the GPS adjustments.

Rule One for chasing is go now, and Rule One for interactions with police officers is be polite and honest. This time I was fortunate and what could have been a disaster turned into a really positive experience. I rolled down the window and asked for a moment to put on my mask. The officer had already checked my license plate and determined I was not a criminal. I cannot recall the exact conversation but I basically said I had been struggling with directions and was not sure what I had done but wouldn’t be surprised if I had erred somehow as I was trying hard to get somewhere and may have cut some corners. Instead of confirming that, Sergeant Pihl, a 20+ year veteran of the Puyallup City Police (details I later learned) asked why I was in a hurry and where I was trying to get to. I showed him my camera and he asked if I was a photographer. I said, sort of, but really a birder and then I told him about the first ever in Washington Winter Wren and my wanting to see it so badly. He was terrific and asked some questions about it and I gave him far more information than he ever wanted to know even though he smiled through it. Bottom line was he said that he did not want this to make my challenge any harder, so I was encouraged to head off again but cautioned to slow down which would be the safest way to get there. And then…he asked me to send him a photo of the bird when I got one. He was rooting for me. Now I am not going to tell you that it wasn’t really important to find the wren, but this interaction was a great story for the day no matter. If only all interactions with police by all people were so positive. Maybe with this guy they are…

I finally made it to the right spot and found 8 of Tacoma’s best birders there. I learned that the wren had been heard again by some maybe an hour ago but had not been seen. Will Brooks was no longer there. Winter Wrens prefer moist dense habitat and are very secretive and generally remain close to the ground. They are often heard and not seen. There was a little stream running through a small farm field with heavy brambles. The habitat looked perfect. We spread out and looked all along the stream and on both sides of the road in the brush. These were top notch birders. They were not going to miss it, if it called or came into view. But nothing for almost an hour. Finally the decision was made to use audio playback. Many apps have recordings of the sounds of each species ranging from songs to call notes to alarms. Every bird species has its own unique call(s) and songs. Not always distinguishable by me, but clearly so to those with good ears – and good processors. I still have decent hearing, but I am not at all good at distinguishing what I hear. There is some controversy about using playback. It is thought by some to unduly disturb the birds as the calls suggest another bird is around and may be challenging the territory or breeding rights. It can also draw a bird into the open exposing itself to predation.

This was not a breeding situation and there had been no predators around. The birders gathered together in case the playback was successful and a visual was made. Ed Pullen played the song of the Winter Wren and there was an immediate response. The song of the Winter Wren is different from that of the Pacific Wren, and we all agreed that this was a Winter Wren. There was no visual and the Wren seemed to be at least 60 yards away near a cedar tree. Some caught a brief view as it flew off to an area behind a fence. It called a few times and then silence. I had not yet had a visual but was sure of the vocalizations. I urged Ed to try playback again. He did and the Wren responded and flew into an area beneath some farm machinery now maybe 40 yards away. Over the next 15 minutes, the Winter Wren played peekaboo and eventually came out into the open and although still distant was there for some decent photos. I was thrilled to get the one below of it singing and clearly showing the pale throat that is one field mark distinguishing it from Pacific Wren.

Winter Wren – Orting Washington – First Washington Record

Everyone was thrilled to get this rare little bird. It was the 425th species I had seen in the State and was my 412th bird photographed in Washington. It also was the 714th species I had photographed in the ABA area (all of North America north of Mexico). It was a really good day.

When I got home, I sent a copy of the photo to Sergeant Pihl with an email thanking him for his assistance and good spirit. He quickly replied with a congratulatory message. In his own way he was a participant and shared in this experience. We are all parts of many communities, birders, citizens, families, whatever. We are not all the same, but we all can relate to, appreciate and help each other.

I belong to an ABA Rare Bird Alert group on Facebook and posted there that the first ever Winter Wren had been seen in Washington and I included several photos I had taken. Within moments there were more than 50 comments or likes posted there by others in the group. Now a day later there have been more than 365 responses. There are a lot of birders out there. I also understand that more than 30 birders were on the scene this morning and had either visual or auditory observations. I expect that by the end of the day maybe even 50 people would have added this species to their lists. One friend came in early from Yakima to get it. There is a good chance that the bird will remain for awhile and many more birders will see it. Lovely. Maybe my luck has changed and I will get that Northern Goshawk soon.

Last Fling of 2020

Most years I spend two or three days in January or February and then again in December birding in Okanogan and Douglas Counties in North Central Washington. There are species more commonly seen in these two counties than elsewhere and often add to year lists. Generally, my visits first cover the Waterville Plateau in Douglas County before heading further north to the Okanogan Highlands. I usually access the Plateau via Highway 2 which means travelling east up over Stevens Pass (Elevation 4060 feet) rather than via Interstate 90 which can be quicker but requires going over both Snoqualmie Pass (Elevation 2725 feet) and Blewett Pass (4100 feet) – less appealing in the winter. Unless it is a very early start, a problem with the latter route is dealing with commuter traffic in and through Seattle. On this trip I chose Highway 2 getting on the road at 5:30 a.m. which meant two hours of driving in the dark but being able to get to the Plateau which is about 175 miles away from my home in Edmonds around 9:00 a.m. giving me about 7 and a half hours of birding for the day.

The Waterville Plateau rises almost 2000 feet above the Columbia River which to some degree bends around it. It is wheat farming country where the roads mostly form a grid of gravel section line roads with lettered roads running north and south and lettered roads running east and west – at least somewhat. The land is very flat with rocky outcroppings scattered about. Usually by mid December, the entire plateau is covered in snow. Some roads are paved, but most are not. Almost all are at least mostly cleared by snowplows but melting and freezing cycles usually result in a lot of ice. While crisscrossing the roads, I might see thousands of Horned Larks accompanied by hundreds of Snow Buntings and occasionally Lapland Longspurs. Each winter it seems that at least one Snowy Owl finds a rocky outcropping or two to its liking and attracts birders eager to see that rare winter visitor. Gyrfalcons are sometimes found, but it is a huge area – depending on definition over 1,000 square miles – so they are usually missed. Gray Partridge are in the area, at times near grain terminals like those in Withrow, but they may be anywhere. A Snowy Owl had been seen regularly in the Atkins Lake area of the Plateau – southeast corner, and although I had seen in Seattle earlier, they are always a treat and that area is also good for Partridge and possibly Gyrfalcons. The latter was the most hoped for bird of the trip, but I also wanted a better look and hopefully a photo of a Gray Partridge. I had seen some earlier in the year but it was a distant and fleeting view only.

On any birding chase looking for a special bird known to favor a specific location, a good rule of thumb is to look for another birder already there who is hopefully looking at the bird you want to see. Even in a remote, spacious and mostly empty and uninhabited area like the Waterville Plateau, this is good guidance. As I approached the intersection of M Road and One Road, where Ed Pullen had reported the Snowy Owl last week, I saw a single car maybe a half mile away, the only sign of human presence against the miles of snow covered fields. It was standing still. Could this be a birder with binoculars or camera trained on the Snowy Owl? As it turned out – no but just as good. I approached the car slowly and pulled up next to it. We each rolled down the opposing windows of our cars. “Could this be another birder?” I asked. It was. Debbie Sutherland is an excellent birder who lives in Cashmere, WA maybe 60 miles away. We had last seen each other at Rosario Head in Skagit County a couple of years ago. She was looking for Snow Buntings but had seen the Snowy Owl earlier on an outcropping very nearby and she gave me directions. We shared a few more stories and then I went off to see the owl and she continued her search for buntings.

Just as Debbie had said, the Snowy Owl was distant and only its head could be seen among the rocks. Still good to see. I spent the next couple of hours driving around the Plateau with more than 25 miles on icy roads, checking every outcropping hoping for a Gyrfalcon. No such luck and all in all, there were far fewer birds than I had seen on earlier visits. Noticeably low counts were Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings. I doubt I saw more than 500 Larks and fewer than a dozen Snow Buntings and I did not see any Partridge. Raptors were fewer than expected as well with only a half dozen Rough Legged Hawks and even fewer Red Tails. A single Northern Shrike was perhaps my best bird. Granted it is a big area, but I cannot remember another visit where I did not flush Horned Larks on nearly every road. One year I wondered if I had seen more than 10,000. And I have often seen flocks of more than 100 Snow Buntings.

Snow Buntings – from 2018

It was a beautiful day with no wind, no fog, lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 30’s. If only there had been more birds. Maybe things would change further north in the Okanogan. I dropped down to the Columbia River and then headed north on Highway 97. There was not as much snow as I would have liked thinking more would at least make finding Sharp Tailed Grouse, a main target, easier to find. I watched for birds in the many orchards along the way hoping for a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. Alas, bird numbers remained small with House Finches being the only small birds I saw. I went through Omak where I would be spending the night and headed to Scotch Creek around Happy Hill Road where I had seen Sharp Tailed Grouse before. When there is enough snow on the ground, the Grouse climb into the Water Birch to feed and thus become visible from Conconully Road. Some snow but not lots and the trees were bare. It has been best to look early in the morning, so I figured I would return the next day and try again. I continued on to Conconully checking fields along the way where I have had Gray Partridge, California Quail and Pheasants. Nothing in the fields and only House Finches and House Sparrows in Conconully. VERY QUIET…

There were some raptors, however. American Kestrels on the power lines, some Northern Harriers, a few Red Tails but mostly Rough Legged Hawks soaring, hovering and perched. Rough Legged Hawks are striking birds, much appreciated for photo ops in the winter.

Rough Legged Hawk

It was decision time. I wanted to check out Cameron Lake Road and I also wanted to get into the Okanogan Highlands to look for owls and hopefully visiting northern finches. There was not sufficient time to do both. Jon Houghton had detailed significant fire damage along Cameron Lake Road when he visited earlier so the birding prospects were not great, but I had always had good luck there (except for those two flat tires some years ago) and although it would take at least an hour, there was time for that before dark. The fire damage was depressing indeed with wide swaths completely burned – both brush and large trees. I wondered if the trees would still be there at my White Headed Woodpecker spot near the flag over the road. The trees were there but mostly charred and lifeless. I found no Woodpeckers or any other birds there. It was not much better elsewhere along the road. The Tree Sparrow woodlot was essentially gone. I had a couple of Kestrels, some Magpies and some House Finches. A couple of Ravens flew by and there was a single Northern Harrier. As I descended back towards Highway 97, two birds rocketed out from the snow next to the road. They were the Gray Partridge I had hoped to see, but not this way as they were gone before I could even stop the car.

Fire Damage along Cameron Lake Road
Fire Damage at Woodpecker Spot

The absence of birds and the impossible to miss fire damage did not make it a great trip, but I love Cameron Lake Road for its quiet serenity as I rarely see anyone else on the almost 20 mile journey on a snowy/icy road. I cannot recall another winter visit without Snow Buntings and not seeing the American Tree Sparrows was a disappointment, but there would be at least one more day and with darkness approaching it was time to check into my motel – the Omak Inn. Perfectly adequate and there was a great price through Hotels.com which I use on almost all my birding trips. Dinner would be a take out salad from Subway and then I would check in with Cindy, watch some basketball and read. It was getting cold and I expected to have to scrape off ice the next morning.

American Tree Sparrow from 2018

It was another early start the next morning as I wanted to get to Scotch Creek as the sun was coming up and yes there was thick frost on the windshield. I was hoping to find Sharp Tailed Grouse in the Water Birch. No go. The only patches I saw in the leafless trees were some old oriole nests. I searched for 30 minutes and then went to Plan B which had worked once before. I drove up Happy Hill Road watching every tree and every turn. I went in almost 3 miles and saw only Ravens and Black Billed Magpies. On the way out I stopped at the WDFW Audubon site and parked. I scanned every tree and every hill again and saw two distant grouse across a ravine half hidden in some brush. This is a good and protected area for Sharp Tailed Grouse and I would bet that is what they were but the views were pretty poor and it was possible they could have been Ruffed Grouse I guess. I checked the water birch off of Conconully Road along the Creek when I left just before 9:00 a.m. and saw nothing. Maybe it was too early, but I had a full day ahead of me so I carried on.

Perhaps I should have returned to Conconully and birded in town and up the west side road as I have had Gray Crowned Rosy Finches there before and I have yet to see any this year. But I thought birding would be better in the Okanogan Highlands with a chance for Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings and even the Rosy Finches plus maybe some owls. I knew I wanted to get to the Havillah SnoPark and the Nealey Road Feeders, bird along Swash Creek and Fancher Road and otherwise just cover territory. It was 16 degrees when I left Omak, about the same at Scotch Creek and I would be going to much higher ground. The sun was out which might provide some warmth, but I was glad I had put on my long johns.

I will not go into all of the details, but again despite very few birds, it was a very satisfying morning. The country is beautiful with rolling hills, forest, a few VERY small settlements, and ever changing vistas. All roads were snow packed but plowed, some paved but more gravel. I was glad to have my GPS as roads twist and turn and stop and go, circling back on one another or dying out only to start up again elsewhere. The blanket of snow was beautiful, erasing all of man’s scarrings and cushioning every sound so that all I heard was my car on the snow and then just silence when I stopped. I enjoy being with others and have greatly missed birding with friends in this horrible COVID-19 year. But I also enjoy time alone and the solitude without a care, focused only on the possibility of birds and the road ahead is heartening for me.

Okanogan Highlands Scenery
More Scenery

There were maybe 500 Rock Pigeons and 50 Mallards at the fields and feedlots on Fancher Road but no California Quail, Pheasants or Chukars. On one visit there a couple of years ago during calving season, there were more than 100 Chukars. No owls at the SnoPark, but I heard an American Three Toed Woodpecker as soon as I arrived. Unfortunately a car with some snowshoers arrived at the same time and the gleeful cries of the two young boys did not bring the Woodpecker in closer. Their unfettered fun was very enjoyable to see and hear though.

I drove the length of Siwash Creek road which was beautiful and quiet. I stopped at a couple of places and searched for Northern Pygmy Owls without success. Birding would probably have been better if I had gotten out of the car and really looked for passerines but I had a lot of ground to cover and it was now 12 degrees. In previous posts, I have often stressed that when we get out into nature and are open to them, there are often surprises and even when main targets are missed, there are usually consolation prizes. It was time for one. Two fairly large birds appeared in the sky in front of me and to my left, maybe 30 feet above the treeline. At first I thought they might be ravens but as they drew closer I was pretty sure they were game birds even if their altitude above the trees seemed odd. I was in a forested area by the creek and as the birds continued their flight, my sight line was temporarily blocked by the trees but their flight path looked like they might be coming in for a landing. I got lucky and both birds landed on tree tops maybe 75 yards away. Through my binoculars I could tell only that they were grouse and with terrible backlighting I could make out no details other than a small crest. Were they Ruffed Grouse (which I had seen on tree tops like this before) or Sharp Tailed Grouse which I had never seen in anything but short low flights? Even through my scope with no direct lighting, I just could not tell.

I take photos for many reasons – to preserve memories, to share with others on checklists, Facebook or blogposts and just for my only records and enjoyment. Often they are diagnostic as well. Such was the case here. Really terrible photos but with lots of magnification and enhancement, it was clear that these were Sharp Tailed Grouse. Much better than my earlier views at Happy Hill and now without any doubt. Quite a surprise – a very pleasant one.

Sharp Tailed Grouse – Siwash Creek Road

The feeders were gone at Nealey Road, and in general birding remained slow except for several groups of House Sparrows and House Finches, and numerous Magpies and hawks, especially Rough Legged Hawks with more than a dozen seen. I took a lot of photos of the Rough Legs and these are my two favorites with the latter hopefully not being a criticism of my presence.

Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk Letting It Rip

By the time I got to Chesaw the temperature had dipped to 9 degrees. Maybe it was too cold for birds as well as very few were seen. My original plan had been to stay over a second night but a few clouds were starting to gather in the distance. I had put on almost a hundred miles over snowy roads and even without many birds seen and targets definitely missed it had been exhilarating because of the solitude and scenery. It would be around 5 hours to get home (or so I thought at the time) and if I cut the trip short, I could be there well before dinner. Besides getting a photo of the Sharp Tailed Grouse was wonderful and there would still be a chance for some birds on the way back. It was a surprise to see no northern specialties especially since many trees were packed with cones. That’s birding.

Cones Yes – Birds No

I did not keep track of the exact route but I did retrace some steps back along Havillah Road. At one of the few homes along the route, directly across from some small grain silos, I noticed a number of small birds flitting around. Would I finally find some of the sought after northern finches? No – only a large flock of House Sparrows, but then two larger birds flew past and landed by the silos. I had seen a number of Eurasian Collared Doves but these were Mourning Doves but more importantly they were “guide doves” as they took my eyes to a small structure near the grain silos where on the ground were several Gray Partridge. I maneuvered my car nearer to them and watched and took many photos with ultimately a dozen Gray Partridges appearing and disappearing maybe 40 feet in front of me and with light behind me and on them when they were in the open. Now I had really good views and photos of this species – perhaps a good close to the day.

Gray Partridge
Gray Partridge
Gray Partridges

Feeling very pleased I continued back to Tonasket and onto Highway 97 heading south. Just north of Cameron Lake Road a posted raptor caught my eye (even at 60 mph) and a U-turn brought me face to face with one of the prettiest Red Tailed Hawks I have seen – a very cinnamon colored western form. According to drawings in Sibley it is an adult intermediate. Truly a gorgeous bird. I am sure I have seen one like it before but I cannot recall a specific incidence and do not have any photos like this one.

Red Tailed Hawk Intermediate Western Form

I continued to check fruit orchards hoping for waxwings but saw none. There were lots of waterfowl on the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. I did not stop to identify them, but could for sure make out Trumpeter Swans, Scaup, Mallards, Buffleheads and at least one Common Loon. There were also several Bald Eagles, more Kestrels, Ravens, and Hawks but I guess I will have to return early next year if I want those northern specialties that I missed this trip.

There was one stop along the way that I wanted to make. Cindy and I are planning a few days away in January and have booked a condo near Leavenworth at the Kahler Glen resort. We want some quiet time and also to try snowshoeing which I have not done for over 30 years. Near Lake Wenatchee west and a bit north of Leavenworth, it was about 10 miles out of my way home back over Highway 2. It looked great on a quick trip and I was very pleased to see it was very close to the Nason Creek SnoPark. I think we will like it.

I don’t know if it was due to an accident or if my detour to Kahler Glen made the timing bad, but my return trip was the worst traffic mess I have ever seen – including Los Angeles at rush hour. It was pretty icy coming down from Stevens Pass with some nervous drivers causing a little delay but that was nothing compared to what would follow just east of Gold Bar. There are three horrible little towns along Highway 2 starting with Gold Bar 36 miles west of the Pass. Then comes Startup and finally Sultan. It is just over six miles from Gold Bar to Sultan. There are several traffic lights in each miserable town and it is a two lane road with no opportunities to pass. Even on good days, there are delays due to the lights which usually means it takes 15 or 20 minutes to get through them. I hate this highway even though the scenery on both sides of Stevens Pass for many miles is spectacular.

About 3 miles from Gold Bar, the traffic came to a dead stop. There was no movement for a full five minutes. My GPS said there was a 25 minute delay on this route. From this point, there is no alternate route. Go with the flow, right? But there was no flow. Originally I thought I would be home by 5:30. My first call to Cindy postponed that until 6:00 p.m. Start and stop – 30 feet at a time – start and stop. The details are brutal and I refuse to curse on this blog so I will not revisit them. Bottom line, it took a full two hours to get from just east of Gold Bar to just beyond Sultan. My calls home postponed my ETA to 6:30 and then to 7:00 and then to 7:30. I ended up opening the door home at 7:35. Did I mention that I hate Highway 2, Sultan, Startup and Gold Bar!!! There was never any indication of an accident. No sirens, ambulances, police or flashing lights. Aaargh!! Thank goodness for Sirius XM so at least I could listen to radio during the ordeal. Anger at Trump for yet more malfeasance and corruption was a distraction from anger for the traffic.

But I survived. It was good to be home. Dinner was waiting and excellent and I was pleased with some of my photos even if there were more misses than hits on the trip. I doubt I will head out again this year, so this was the last fling for 2020 – an all around awful year in so many ways. Yet, I am happy because of the things that are really important. Far fewer birds than any year in the past ten. Almost no birding with friends. The year started well with ABA Lifers Barnacle Goose and Dovekie during a super trip to see may daughter, son-in law and grandson in Boston in January. A marathon trip for a Lifer Ivory Gull in Montana followed in early February. Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head and plans for trips to Florida, Arizona and Texas vanished. I managed a few Lifers in Arizona last month and that was it. Washington birding was much reduced as well. The Sharp Tailed Grouse was Washington species #330 for 2020, my fewest in many years. There have been two new state lifers this year, the Siberian Accentor on February 7th just before COVID restrictions and the Least Tern at the Montlake fill in June – taking care to wear a mask and to maintain social distance. Yes it could have been worse, but it was intended to be so much better,

I wish I could see my kids and grandchild. I wish I could travel. Hopefully next year. Being with Cindy has been the best and has gotten me through the year and we have solidified and deepened our relationship. Black Lab Chica helps as well – at least usually although I could do without so much barking. No health issues although the pounds added during our COVID inactivity are a negative and yes, I need to get more exercise. Next year…

Seasons Greetings to all. Good riddance to Trump and fingers crossed for 2021.

One of These and One of Those – Birds Closer to Home

This definitely has not been the November or December I thought they would be as the dual evils of Donald Trump and the Coronavirus haunt us everyday. My trip to Arizona in early November certainly helped, but it also reminded me of what else was supposed to be. Instead of traveling to Africa (probably Botswana), I gave a program via Go To Meeting on Birds and Beasts of Africa to a small audience at our Point Edwards neighborhood. It was fun but again a reminder of what might have been.

Far less so last year since I was busy with my 50 State Birding Adventure, in every year since 2012 I have devoted much time and energy to chasing birds in my home state of Washington, generally trying to be at or near the top of the list of most species seen. Somehow despite being out of state so much, I only missed the top spot in 2019 by a single species. The 335 species last year was the fewest I had seen since starting to keep track in 2012. This year with the limitations from COVID-19, the number will be smaller still and it just has not been important to me. But old habits die slowly and in the past few weeks I have at least gotten out a bit and have enjoyed the break from politics and the pandemic. What follows are a few stories and a few photos of some activity the past few weeks.

My starting point was a visit to Chinook Bend in King County on November 14 hoping to see a Northern Pygmy Owl that had been reported there earlier by Carl Haynie. I had heard one on Biscuit Ridge Road when Cindy and I did a short wine/birding trip to Walla Walla in October. There had been no visual and Cindy had never seen one. As is often the case, fortunately, there were a few other birders there when we arrived and they were looking at the small owl across the road from the parking area. It was not the greatest view, but hey it was a Northern Pygmy Owl – always a treat. Each time I see one I am stunned by just how small they are – barely seven inches – about 2/3 the size of a Robin.

Northern Pygmy Owl – Chinook Bend – King County, WA

Finding the owl was a kind of deja vu. In January 2015, I ran into Paul Banning and three others at the same parking area at Chinook Bend. We went off hoping to find a Northern Pygmy Owl which had been reported previously. After a couple of hours we finally found one out in a wooded area. A long search but worth it. The surprise was that when we returned to the parked cars, a second Owl was there waiting for us. A much better photo that time.

Northern Pygmy Owl – January 21, 2015

This was the sixth species of owl Cindy had seen. She would see her seventh species three days later. On the same day we saw the Northern Pygmy Owl at Chinook Bend, a report of a Snowy Owl showed up on Ebird. It was seen on a rooftop in a residential area on Queen Anne in Seattle. When it was reported again the next day, we decided to try for it. We had to wait another day but around noon on November 17th we joined several others at an alley just off Boston Street and were treated to this uncommon visitor from the North. Snowy Owls are seen in small numbers annually in Washington, but most often in Eastern Washington or along the coast. It has been a while since one was in Seattle itself. It is now three weeks after it was first seen and it is still returning to the same rooftop vicinity where it has been enjoyed by hundreds of fascinated observers, birders and others thrilled to see it.

Snowy Owl – Seattle

Ebird records make it easy for birders to keep track of many geographic lists from the entire world to specific countries, states, counties or home patches. I have mostly been interested in my ABA area list (North America north of Mexico), and my Washington state list. For many birders, their county lists are of first importance. I am aware of my county lists because of Ebird but generally do not chase new birds for any county. But “generally” is not “always”. Most of my birding is organized around a quest for a certain bird and when there are no new state birds to be chased and particularly this year when there have been far fewer opportunities to go birding, a special bird for one of my “favorite” counties becomes the impetus to get going. For the last 8 years I have lived in Snohomish County after almost 40 years in King County. My largest county list is for Snohomish County with Grays Harbor and Clallam counties not too far behind. King County is number 4 and when I felt the need to get away on November 27th I decided to add a strange bird to that county list.

Black Billed Magpies are striking birds closely related to jays and crows (corvids) that are resident and common in much of Eastern Washington. One was being seen regularly near a playfield in South Seattle in King County. As I approached the playfield I realized the area was much larger than I expected and I began a plan of attack to cover the area. The plan started with pulling into a parking lot next to the area’s community center. I parked and grabbed my binoculars as I opened the car door. Sometimes you get lucky. Before I even put my second foot on the ground, the Magpie flew by overhead and continued north towards some homes. I got back into the car and drove to where I thought it had headed and found it perched on a lamp post. Somewhat like the previous photo of the Snowy Owl on a rooftop next to a chimney, this was not exactly a natural setting, but it was an easy photo and an easy addition to my King County list – species #241.

Black Billed Magpie – Seattle, WA

Since that pursuit was so easy I decided to head over to the Stillwater Unit of the Snoqualmie Wildlife area, also in King County to look for the Swamp Sparrow being seen there to add to my 2020 Washington State list. These sparrows are abundant in the Eastern and Southern United States but uncommon in Washington, found mostly in late fall and winter in wet areas. The Stillwater Unit is a large area accessed along a very good walking/biking/jogging path adjoining the Snoqualmie River, but fortunately this species tends to stay put in its habitat and there were very specific directions to find its favored location. Several birders were there searching for the Swamp Sparrow – and not finding it. It had been seen much earlier but had gone quiet. It is usually quite secretive and is often only heard and not seen or seen only briefly as it flies from one spot of dense brush to another. It’s call note is described as a metallic “chink” as opposed to the “tink” or “chimp” call of the abundant Song Sparrow that occupies the same habitat, as well as many others. There were lots of tinks and chimps but no chinks were heard.

After almost an hour, the other birders had either departed or moved to a different location. I heard a somewhat different call – maybe a chink and then saw a small sparrow move from one clump of medium tall grass to another. It seemed smaller than the Song Sparrows that I had seen but my view was too quick to pick up any field marks. I played the Swamp Sparrow call on my phone and got a couple of responses that sounded right on. But the Sparrow would not show itself. After maybe 5 minutes it flew to another clump and again buried itself. I signaled to one of the other birders that I thought I had it. He joined me, heard the call note and also voted for the Swamp Sparrow. No looks at all. Later other birders came to the same spot and also reported the Swamp Sparrow – one got a photo. No photo of the Swamp Sparrow for me, but nice pictures of a Fox Sparrow and a Hairy Woodpecker were consolation prizes.

Hairy Woodpecker – Stillwater Unit of Snoqualmie Wildlife Area
Fox Sparrow – Stillwater Unit of Snoqualmie Wildlife Area

That would do it for November. No, I did not get to Botswana as planned but a month that started with a Northern Jacana and an Eared Quetzal and also included a Snowy Owl was not too bad. Normally it would have included a trip to Neah Bay in Washington where there are always surprises and great birds, but access remains closed to non-tribal members as the COVID-19 virus still rages. It also included a election victory for Joe Biden and the beginning of the end for Donald Trump. Causes for celebration.

December began with a return trip to a spot near Darrington where White Winged Crossbills had been reported by David Poortinga. This winter is shaping up to be an irruption year for northern finches as Pine Siskins have been reported in huge numbers throughout Washington and in many northern tier states. There have also been many reports of Red and White Winged Crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks and some Redpolls. I had not seen White Winged Crossbills in Snohomish County and that is the one county I pay most attention to. It would also be a new species for Washington for 2020. I had tried for them the previous day and ran into two other birders that were there with the same intent. It was a miserable day with heavy rain and not a single bird encountered. Drenched despite a good parka, I gave up and returned home after almost two hours of frustration. Other birders had better luck a couple of hours later with somewhat improved weather, so when December 1st turned into a gorgeous sunny day, I tried again.

And again there were others there – at least a half dozen good birders. The “crossbill spot” had been up a right fork in the main trail – about two hundred yards past a log barrier. Three birders were at the fork and said they had heard crossbills recently. I remained there a few moments and then took the fork to explore with another birder from Seattle. We fairly quickly heard both Red and White Winged Crossbills but they were pretty distant. A small group of six flew overhead about 10 minutes later. No chance for a photo and they did not land near us, but I was able to see some white wing patches through my binoculars. This cat and mouse game continued for the next hour as we heard crossbills left and right but deep into the forest. There was one more flyover and then quiet. We elected to return to the fork in the trail and found birders who had both seen and heard the crossbills. I had a couple more “heard only” experiences and decided to head back to the car. About half way there, I heard White Winged Crossbills in the Hemlocks along the path. Then I heard a shout from birders still at the fork who said they had the crossbills there. I sprinted back just in time to miss them as they had again flown off. If I really needed a photo, I would have stayed, but I was satisfied with my quick confirming visual and several identified calls, so I departed. The photo below is from an earlier White Winged Crossbill sighting. It was nice to get one in my home county though, species #256.

White Winged Crossbill

Cindy had not gone on either of the trips to Darrington and since the weather looked great for a few days, we wanted to get out and we decided to visit Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. There was more than two feet of snow but the road was clear and it would be a good chance to check out an option for snow shoeing later and also to let Black Labrador Chica play in the snow. We made a diversion to Schmuck Road in Sequim so I could look for a Pacific Golden Plover that had been seen there in a furrowed field. At first there was nothing, but after maybe 10 minutes, a flock of Black Bellied Plovers flew in to a distant corner of the field and quickly disappeared in the dirt mounds. If I had not seen them in flight, I doubt I would have noticed them at all. Fortunately I had a scope and was able to scan the area and found the smaller, browner Pacific Golden Plover in among a constantly moving group of 25 or more Black Bellied Plovers and a single Dunlin. It seemed to me that the Pacific Golden Plover was always next to the Dunlin.

Pacific Golden Plover – Earlier Photo

A long line was backed up at the entrance to the park – at least 30 cars. We were being held awaiting word from rangers at the top that there was parking available. An expected hour wait only took 30 minutes. When we got to Hurricane Ridge, it was snowy, sunny, gorgeous and crowded. Everyone wore a mask and there were many families with young kids on sleds and also quite a few snowshoers. As is usually the case, once we hiked off a bit down one of the trails, we found quiet beautiful solitude. Chica got to play only up by the visitor center but loved the snow as always – except she never did understand how those snow balls disappeared once they hit the ground, her retriever instincts thwarted.

Blair and Chica in the Snow at Hurricane Ridge

This was not a birding trip, but I did keep my eyes open. The only species seen were Canada Jays and Ravens.

I planned some birding the next day, Sunday December 6th, in the form of watching the Seattle Seahawks play the New York Giants. The Seahawks played more like pigeons than hawks – simply pathetic. Earlier a report of a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in King County, very rare for Washington, was posted on Tweeters, our local biding listserv. I had considered going for it as a new bird for the state in 2020, but elected to watch the football game instead. Midway through the game I got a call from Ann Marie Wood. She was looking at the Sapsucker or at least that what I thought she was doing. Turned out she was looking at a different Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – this one in Everett, Washington in Snohomish County. Maybe it would take me out of the misery of watching the Seahawks’ wretched performance. I grabbed binoculars and camera (more on that later) and headed out on what should have been a 30 minute drive. Ten minutes later after hitting every stoplight possible and still not being on the freeway, I got word from Ann Marie that the bird was not being seen anymore. I turned around to go back home. A minute later, another call. It was apparently still in the same tree and in the open. Another U-turn.

Ann Marie is one of those wonderful souls who loves her birds, birding and her friends and shares her experiences with all. She also helps others with their birding (and their lives, but that is another story). Ann Marie gave me great directions to get to the right spot and then waited until I got there. David Poortinga and Phil Dickinson were there as well. I parked immediately next to the tree and got a good visual as soon as I got out of the car. I went back and grabbed my camera and got two great photos of the bird in the open. Well, not so fast there Blair. I had the Sapsucker beautifully lit and positioned in my viewfinder, but in my haste to depart I had not put an SD card in the camera. No photos. AARGH!! I joined Phil and David as the Sapsucker moved to the other side of the tree and then 30 seconds later it flew off and disappeared. I hope it wasn’t something I said.

I had seen a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in Washington twice before, including once in Snohomish County, so the photo was not “necessary” and maybe it is even a better story without the photo and maybe, too, I have learned my lesson. The Sapsucker had been seen in a single stand alone deciduous tree in a residential neighborhood. Why was it there? Then after departing it returned to that same tree and was seen there by many birders on both of the following days. I don’t know if it is there still today or not – no reports yet. The photo below is “like” the one I should have gotten. It was taken by Phil Dickinson and shared.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Everett, WA

Today is Wednesday December 9th. I have not been to the Okanogan in north central Washington yet this year. I love the area and generally visit there once in November or December and once in January or February as there are a number of species that are generally seen only there or primarily there. The weather report was good for Monday through Wednesday and I had planned to leave early on Monday and be back late tonight. But the reports I had seen from others visiting the area were not encouraging so I decided instead to do a long day trip to find two specific birds that I wanted to add to my year list for the state and try to get what I would consider an acceptable total even if significantly below years past. So early Monday morning I took off on a marathon trip that took me first to Ridgefield NWR in Clark County near the Oregon border and then to Nahcotta on the Long Beach peninsula in Pacific County. I was hoping for a Red Shouldered Hawk at Ridgefield and a late Bar Tailed Godwit that was hanging with a big flock of Marbled Godwits at Nahcotta.

As soon as I arrived at the River S Unit of Ridgefield I heard three welcomed calls – those of Trumpeter Swans, Cackling Geese and Sandhill Cranes. These are commonplace at Ridgefield. There would be hundreds of Swans and Cackling Geese during this visit but far fewer Cranes some gazing and others flying overhead. The first birds I saw were a Great Egret – becoming more common and widespread in Washington – and a number of Cacklers grazing in the muddy grass.

Great Egret – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit
Cackling Goose – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit

Birding at the River S Unit is primarily from the car on a 3 mile loop around wetlands and some trees. There were many hundreds of ducks and coots in addition to the Swans and Geese as well as other species. As has often been the case, I heard the Red Shouldered Hawk’s cries before I finally located it in a tree near the “blind pullout”. I have had one there before as well. Not great light and partially hidden but the ID was good – a first of the year for this species. There were a half dozen or so Red Tailed Hawks, a couple of Northern Harriers, two American Kestrels and several Bald Eagles. It is good raptor country.

Red Shouldered Hawk – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit
Red Tailed Hawk – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit

I had not paid much attention to the swans and heard only Trumpeter Swans trumpeting on the ponds and overhead. I only took a single swan photo and was not aware until I looked later that it was of a Tundra Swan. I don’t know how many of each were there but several hundred swans altogether. The rarest bird I saw was a surprising and very late Barn Swallow that flew past me as I was looking at a few Sandhill Cranes grazing towards the south end of the auto route. A White Faced Ibis had been reported at the refuge and while I never noticed one, I really had forgotten about it and had not looked either.

Tundra Swan – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit

With my early start, after about 90 minutes at Ridgefield, it was now just after 10:30 a.m. and time to head to Nahcotta. Not a great route as you cross the Columbia River into Oregon and then back again at the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria and then head due north along the Long Beach Peninsula with the Pacific Ocean to the west and Willapa Bay to the east. Being there was almost like being back in time as not much has changed since I first visited there in the 1970’s. A highlight then was a visit to the Ark Restaurant in Nahcotta – famed for its oysters and sturgeon among other locally supplied foods and said by James Beard to be his favorite seafood restaurant. The owners sold it a few years ago and it has not survived although the oysters have.

Randy Hill discovered the Bar Tailed Godwit on December 4th, and it was seen in the Marbled Godwit flock primarily from the Fish and Wildlife Station or the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center in Nahcotta. When I arrived I first went to a pullout at 268th street, south of the Interpretive Center. I saw large flocks of shorebirds to the south and walked along the flats with my scope. There were hundreds of Dunlin and many Black Bellied Plovers. Some other species may have been present but there were no large waders like Godwits. I then went up to the Interpretive Center on 273rd and saw a flock of maybe 50 Marbled Godwits but not a Bar Tailed. I then went further north and found another access at around 278th street where I found a larger flock of 100+ Godwits but again no Bar Tailed. However, there was an even larger flock further north probably around 283rd Street. In great light behind me, through my scope I could pick out one Godwit that was smaller and grayer without the rusty coloration of the Marbled Godwits. The birds foraged together with hundreds of Dunlin and often flew in small groups but never came south to me. In flight only the one bird did not have dark underwings. As the tide came in, groups would fly off and head to the south. I could never track the Bar Tailed. Eventually all were gone and I returned to the long pier to the south hoping it would be there. Only about 75 Godwits were there – up close and in great light, but only Marbled, together with many Dunlin.

Dunlin – Nahcotta, WA
Marbled Godwit – Nahcotta, WA

It was very disappointing not to have the Bar Tailed in these flocks up close because as is seen from the photos above, the light was perfect. I include a photo of a Bar Tailed Godwit from the flock that has been at the barge near the Coast Guard Station in Westport, WA. We did not see it there on the pelagic trip I took in August this year. There was a single report of one there in late August, but since there were many pelagic trips before and after that with eager eyes watching, I wonder about the observation and also wonder how long this Bar Tailed has been in this location.

Bar Tailed Godwit – Westport, WA

The drive home was long and boring. That part of the state (southwest Washington) is a throwback in time with so much of the economy based on logging and seafood. Very different from the now tech dominated areas of western King and Snohomish Counties. Maybe it is still affected by COVID-19, but the traffic was light even as I went through Tacoma and Seattle at rush hour. I was tired from a very good day and was welcomed by a great Beef Bourguignon dinner that Cindy had made. I am a lucky guy.

Southeast Arizona: Photo Improvement Day

I finally did get a good night’s sleep at the Ramsey Canyon Inn B&B and after a short walk near the Inn, I was looking forward to a good breakfast. There were only three guests at the Inn on Monday night and I was the first to get to the table and as it turned out, the other guests came only as I was finished and leaving – just as well in these days of COVID-19. I had taken every precaution I could and felt safe at all times, but the fewer the contacts the better.

The breakfast was excellent and far larger than I usually have. Darrell prepared a main dish of sausage, cheese, vegetables and a scrumptious sauce on a crisp croissant base. There was a fruit, yogurt and granola compote and some yummy banana nut bread. Great Earl Grey tea and a fruit juice washed it down. This was another moment that I knew Cindy would enjoy and I hope we will return someday.

The Main Lodge
The Lodge Main Room

It was time to say goodbye and start working my way back to the Phoenix Airport but with an important stop on W. Ina Road just north of Tucson to try to improve my earlier photos of the Northern Jacana. I birded a bit in a residential area just outside of Ramsey Canyon and while there was nothing rare, there were certainly birds found nowhere close to my home turf in Edmonds, Washington. The first bird I saw was a very hoped for Greater Roadrunner. Not a great photo, but as it had run across the road in front of me and then seemingly disappeared in the brush I was happy to get one at all.

Greater Roadrunner

In a shrub not far from the Roadrunner I heard a rattling call that I soon confirmed was a Cactus Wren. On a wire further down the road a perched bird left to pursue an insect and then returned. I counted it as a Western Kingbird forgetting that in this location, it was far more likely a Cassin’s Kingbird so I made the change which made Ebird happy.

Cactus Wren

A pair of Gambel’s Quail were calling and briefly appeared down a side road and two Curve Billed Thrasher’s chattered at a house with a number of House and White Crowned Sparrows and the only Northern Cardinal I saw on the trip. I saw what I am pretty sure was a Crissal Thrasher, two Canyon Towhees, a Chihuahan Raven and a Phainopepla. The sparrows aside, I would not expect to see any of these species in Washington, although a Phainopepla showed up in Sequim last year. Heading back to the main highway, the last bird seen was a Loggerhead Shrike, a migrant that is now replaced in Washington by its close cousin Northern Shrike.

Curve Billed Thrasher
Phainopepla
Loggerhead Shrike
Gambel’s Quail

I was not specifically trying to add birds to my trip list but I had lots of time and seeing these regular Arizona birds was fun. This is a great birding area and unless the pandemic ravage makes it impossible, I hope to get back in 2021. Now, though it was time to take care of business, to return to the Santa Cruz River and improve on my earlier photos of the Northern Jacana. The route was familiar and easy and this time I knew both where to park and where to look.

Just as I started out onto the bridge two more birders pulled into the parking area and were soon following me. I hoped I would see the Jacana and be able to point it out to them. Just as I reached the place on the bridge where the water was visible, the Jacana flew from the vegetation right under me and went down river travelling at least 80 yards. Was it gone? No, it thankfully did a U-turn and flew back towards me landing on vegetation to my left that was much closer to me than when I first came to this spot two days ago, a much improved photo op although not what it would have been if it had not flushed as I arrived. The light was almost straight overhead so not perfect and the bird was still distant but I started snapping photos and was able to catch the Jacana with its wings up as it settled in to begin its foraging.

Northern Jacana

Unfortunately when the other birders arrived, the wing show was over. But the Jacana spent the next 20 minutes feeding on that same bit of vegetation moving both somewhat closer and somewhat further always in sight and affording us chances for appreciative observations and photographs. I took many and include only one more which shows the enormous toes that allow the bird to distribute its weight so widely and thus be able to walk atop the vegetation. Now I had photos that were worthy of this wonderful rare bird.

Northern Jacana

Another birder showed up at the bridge. He never said a word; took a few photos and left. I hope that was not a lifer and he considered such a brief view good enough to count it as such. I savored what I expected would be my last ever view of a Jacana and then moved on. Just under 25 years ago on November 29, 1975 I saw a Brown Jay, another then Texas rarity/specialty at Falcon Dam State Park between Brownsville and Laredo on the Rio Grande River. It is another bird on my ABA Life list for which I have no photo. There have been sporadic sightings of this species in the same general since then with the most recent being in 2012. Maybe someday I will be able to scratch that species off my photo needed list. Someday…

Brown Jay 2010 – Not my photo

I had looked into catching an earlier flight but even without a change fee, it was just far too expensive. It was still early in the day and it was hot and getting hotter – over 90 degrees. It would have been great to go to Mount Lemmon outside of Tucson but there was not enough time for that. I opted to visit Encanto Park in Phoenix where I had added Rosy Faced Lovebirds to my ABA Life list in February 2018. They are a lovely little parrot like bird and would be a fitting way to end my trip. Despite the heat there were many people in the park. Also many waterfowl in the ponds and hundreds of both European Starlings and Rock Pigeons. There were also many Great Tailed Grackles which were also at the Northern Jacana stakeout spot. I finally had two Lovebirds fly overhead and figured that would do it. It was hours before my flight was scheduled to leave and the airport was close, but I decided to go to the terminal which at least would be air conditioned.

Great Tailed Grackle

I pulled out of the park and saw a large flock of what appeared to be doves feeding in the grass on a lawn. A few birds seemed smaller and I thought they might be some Common Ground Doves which I was surprised I had not seen on this trip. I pulled over to look and among many Mourning Doves were a half dozen Rosy Faced Lovebirds. That’s birding. You just never know. It was a great end to a great trip. My flight home left early and arrived early. Wish I had gone a month ago but sure glad I finally made the trip.

Rosy Faced Lovebird
Rosy Faced Lovebird

SE Arizona – Not Quite Too Late – Part 3

Two down and one to go…or so I hoped. Or how about something else. Plans for Monday were unclear. Originally Monday was to be the day to look for the Eared Quetzal in the morning. I had no reservation anywhere for that night but had confirmed that I could remain at Portal Peak Lodge for one more night in case I failed to find the Quetzals. Now all of that was moot. The Quetzals had cooperated on Sunday afternoon. One possibility was to work to remove one more species from my seen but not photographed list and try for a photo of a Sprague’s Pipit. That would mean a trip to the San Rafael Grasslands. The Pipits were there but it was a huge area and definitely no guaranty of a sighting let alone a picture.

Another option was to follow up on reports the previous day of a White Eared Hummingbird and a Plain Capped Starthroat in Ramsey Canyon in the Huachucas. Either would be an ABA Lifer. There were decent descriptions of the two birds by the same observer but no photos. Were they real? This was a couple of hours away. I could try that and leave a return try for the Ruddy Ground Dove that I had missed in Tucson for Tuesday morning as I headed back to my Phoenix flight home.

Once again my poor sleeping habits made my choice easy. I was up early and on the road well before 5:00 a.m. on Monday – heading northwest back to Tucson and to the place I thought most likely to find the Ruddy Ground Doves – Fort Lowell Park and Pantano Wash where I had missed the doves by an hour the day before. The important aspect of my early departure was that I would be able to get to the park by 7:00 a.m. at least theoretically before the dogs and casual users. That part worked perfectly as the only stop I made on the way was to capture a picture of a spectacular sunrise.

Arizona Sunset

I made it to the park around 7:00 a.m. and essentially had it to myself. I went immediately to the area between the two baseball fields where the doves had been seen. The first bird I saw was a Vermilion Flycatcher already perched on the fence and looking for bugs. These are truly spectacular birds. Spectacular is great but I would have greatly preferred a Ruddy Ground Dove…none there. I walked around the area including the private residential area behind the fence at the border of the park. A raptor flew directly over my head and perched briefly on a tree nearby before flying off. I had seen a Red Tailed Hawk there the previous day, but this was a little smaller buteo with a speckled back and rusty and white striping on its belly. I quickly identified it as a Red Shouldered Hawk and thought little of it. It turns out if was very rare for the area and now I wish I had gotten a photo.

As I had the day before, I found a Phainopepla, Western Bluebirds, Lark Sparrows and Lesser Goldfinches. I also had a nice female Ladder Backed Woodpecker and a Gila Woodpecker. It was warming and the light was improving and I hoped this would bring out the doves.

Ladder Backed Woodpecker
Vermilion Flycatcher

I circled the target area again and finally saw some doves – only Mourning Doves but maybe they were an omen. The day before the birder who had seen the Ruddy Ground Doves an hour earlier said they had even perched for awhile on the fence. I had looked there often and saw nothing. On my third loop I saw yet another Vermilion Flycatcher on the top of the fence. Very near it was another somewhat small bird that at first I thought might be a second flycatcher…BUT WAIT and OMG…it was a small dove. And there it was my Lifer Ruddy Ground Dove. I got a quick distant photo and then worked my way closer. A second dove appeared out of nowhere and landed on the ground near the first one. This one was a little darker. Another photo. Then a better look and photo of the first one still on the fence.

Vermilion Flycatcher on the Fence
Ruddy Ground Dove on the Fence – Lifer Photo
Second and Ruddier Ground Dove

The doves then both flew up into the dense trees behind the fence. One disappeared and one posed for a picture before it too disappeared. It was easy to believe they had been in the same tree when I was there the day before but invisible to me.

Ruddy Ground Dove

I wish I was a better sleeper but at times like this, I recognize the benefits of early starts. It was not even 8 a.m. and I had traveled over 100 miles, added a lifer and fulfilled the third of the main goals of the trip. I celebrated with an overpriced but tasty doughnut and some fresh coffee…filled the gas tank and headed to Ramsey Canyon with visions of hummingbirds (and Ruddy Ground Doves) floating in my head. I called the Ramsey Canyon B&B from the road and confirmed a room was available. It was at the high end of my budget, but I was in a celebratory mood and planned to relax and spend most of my time watching their feeders hoping for a rare hummingbird.

It was only 90 miles to Ramsey Canyon, half of it at 80 mph on Interstate 10. I arrived before 10:00 a.m. and was able to check in right away choosing one of the beautiful rooms in the Lodge section. Needing sleep that night I asked for a “quiet room”. There was only one other guest that night so that seemed easy and it turned out to be that much needed quietude. The rooms at the Inn had been redone a couple of years ago and they truly are lovely. This was one place that Cindy would have enjoyed. The other places I had stayed on this trip, she would have tolerated.

My Lovely Room

There are several hummingbird and other feeders at the Inn. They are open to the public with some chairs and benches. I had noticed hummers coming to the feeder before I moved in and now this is where I would position myself for much of the rest of the day hoping for something unusual. Not long after I started my vigil, I was joined by another birder. It was Paul Chad from San Diego who I had met at Cave Creek Canyon where we watched the Eared Quetzals. He is an excellent birder and his younger eyes are sharper than mine, so the company was welcome. He was hoping for a lifer Plain Capped Starthroat. Sounded good to me but my somewhat more possible target was a White Eared Hummingbird. Both had been seen here the previous month and as written earlier both had been reported by a single observer the previous day, but without photos, I was not convinced.

Hummingbirds were around and visiting the feeders, but not great numbers and rarely more than one or two at a time. There were at least 4 Anna’s Hummingbirds and 3 Rivoli’s Hummingbirds. The latter are significantly larger and are immediately noticeable accordingly when they fly in. The Plain Capped Starthroat is about the same size as the Rivoli’s and the White Eared Hummingbird is just a tad smaller than the Anna’s so it was important to check each visitor carefully.

Rivoli’s Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird

It would have been nice if each view of each hummingbird was as good as those in the two photos above, but such was not the case as often we got only views from the back with no ability to see facial patterns or even bill colors. Easy to tell an Anna’s from a Rivoli’s from any angle by the size alone but size alone would not distinguish between Rivoli’s and the Starthroat or the Anna’s and the White Eared. Compare the photos below.

Probably a Rivoli’s
Plain Capped Starthroat (not my photo)

The one on the top is of what I am almost certain was a Rivoli’s at the Inn and the one below is of a Starthroat (not my photo). In neither case is the color of the gorget visible and it is only somewhat feasible to make out the face pattern and belly color. Now look at these two photos. The Starthroat has a partially red gorget and the Rivoli’s is turquoise.

Plain Capped Starthroat Gorget
Rivoli’s Gorget

The latter is also generally distinguishable with its much darker chest and belly while the Starthroat is generally more clear. These differences are not so telling in poor light or when the angle does not show the iridescence of the gorget but for each of our observations they made it easy to identify each bird we saw as a Rivoli’s – except for one challenging observation. It was a quick view only from the back on the feeder. The hummer was large and seemed to have the facial pattern of the Starthroat. It flew off quickly and Paul, who was standing across the feeder from me, thought he caught some red in the throat. I was not going to call it one way or the other but especially as we never saw it again, I am not going to it call it the Starthroat. As much as he wanted it otherwise, I think Paul reached the same conclusion.

A somewhat easier but still tough call was a probable White Eared Hummingbird observation. On three occasions I saw a small green backed hummingbird visit one of the feeders. On the first occasion I got a quick look at the face and noted a facial pattern with a white “ear” stripe and some dark below, that seemed right for the White Eared Hummingbird (see photo below) and maybe a hint of color on the lower mandible. It was chased off by an Anna’s within a second. I tried to grab a photo but was far too slow.

White Eared Hummingbird (not my photo)

About 90 minutes later I had another quick view but only from the back at the same feeder. I had done some more reading about the White Eared Hummingbird in that interim period and this time paid specific attention to the tail when it flew off – which it did again almost immediately being chased off by two Anna’s. On each occasion, the White Eared Hummingbird seemed noticeably smaller than the Anna’s. The actual average size difference is only 1/4 to 1/2 inch but when the bird is less than 4 inches I guess that is meaningful – especially when seen together. This time armed with more info I noted that there was no white on the tail at all – completely dark – whereas an Anna’s has white on the outer tail feathers. It was only a very brief view, but I felt comfortable with that observation. I just wished that I could have gotten a picture, but there was no time.

The third time was almost exactly the same as the first two – again about 90 minutes after the previous visit. Except this time Paul Chad was present and had the briefest of looks and thought he saw the appropriate face pattern as the bird flew off instantly when again chased by an Anna’s. A White Eared Hummingbird is a life bird for me. If I piece together parts of the three observations and Paul’s details, I am comfortable that I saw what was most likely a female or young White Eared Hummingbird. Not the “lifer” experience I would [refer but I am at least provisionally keeping it on my list with hopes to improve it and get a picture in the future.

So much for hummingbirds. There were other nice birds seen at or near the feeders. Without details, here are some of the better photos.

Painted Redstart
Red Naped Sapsucker
Hepatic Tanager Female
Acorn Woodpecker
Yellow Eyed Junco
Bridled Titmouse
Arizona Woodpecker
White Breasted Nuthatch
Cassin’s Finches

I took a break to go into town for some lunch and a pick up for a very simple dinner and then returned for a couple of hours of feeder watch in the afternoon. Nothing new and no candidates for unusual hummingbirds although a Rufous Hummingbird was new for the day. The lack of sleep finally did catch up with me and as the shadows around 4:00 slowed bird activity, I dozed for a bit and then uploaded and worked on photos from what had been a very full and very fun day.

It was very quiet that night and since breakfast was not until 8:00 a.m. I mostly slept in before a short pre-breakfast walk hoping to see some Javelinas which I had seen on my first visit to Ramsey Canyon and the Mile-Hi Ranch over 40 years ago. The Canyon was deep in shadows and almost bird free except for the noisy Mexican Jays and Acorn Woodpeckers and some Wild Turkeys feeding on a hillside. Some deer but no Javelinas.

I have decided to end this post here and to start another one with the great breakfast made by host Darrell at the Ramsey Canyon B&B. It will include my attempt to get improved photos of the Northern Jacana and a few other observations.

SE Arizona – Not Quite Too Late – Part 2

As I drove south and mostly east on Interstate 10 I repeated a thought that I often have on bird chases that things rarely go exactly as planned. The original thinking had been that I would arrive at the Northern Jacana stakeout spot at around 9:00 a.m. and that it might take an hour or so for the Northern Jacana to make an appearance and to get first a view and then a photo. Then I had allowed another half hour to get to Himmel Park where I had allocated another hour to find and photograph the Ruddy Ground Dove. So with luck I would be on the road to Cave Creek Canyon before noon arriving there around 3:00 p.m.

Perhaps I had not paid sufficient attention to the many reports of the Eared Quetzal observations but it was my sense that the best chance to find the birds (there were two) was early in the morning. So I figured I would get to Portal Peak Lodge around 2:30 p.m., check in, get some food to eat later at the accompanying “store” and then scope out the area planning for the Quetzal search the next morning. The plan and the reality looked almost nothing alike. I had arrived at the Jacana bridge before 7:00 a.m. and had seen and photographed the Jacana within seconds. Even with a 20 minute stay hoping for better photos I was WAY ahead of schedule. As I drove to Himmel Park, I thought I might find the Ruddy Ground Dove as quickly and be able to get to Cave Creek in time to look for and maybe even find the Quetzals that day. As written in my previous blogs, those Ruddy Ground Doves did not cooperate and I spent about 3 hours traveling to and between three parks that failed to produce a single Ground DoveRuddy or not. Oh well, I still had the next day for the Quetzals and the following day to try again for the Ruddy Ground Doves.

One step forward, one step back and then another step forward. It being Sunday, traffic was very light heading south on I-10. The speed limit was generally 75 mph and what traffic there was seemed to be traveling at least 7 mph faster. That was fine by me. I had plotted out the route from Tucson to Portal as part of my pre-trip planning. I was to take I-10 for about 120 miles and then take exit 382 onto Noland Road. I had my Garmin GPS with me and as I approached exit 382, it called for a different route. Sometimes Garmin gets out of whack, so I opted to go where Google Maps told me and turned onto Noland road as suggested. The route was a surprise as soon I was on a dirt and gravel road. It was in good condition but not what I had expected and this continued for at least 25 miles. Still, I made good time and arrived at my lodging for the night by 1:30 p.m. What the heck maybe I would have time to find the Quetzals.

Cave Creek Canyon is in the Chiricahua Mountains which is the largest of the so-called Sky Mountains in Arizona. The elevation ranges from 4500 feet to just ender 10,000 feet. I first visited the area in June 1977 early in my birding career. Among the attractions then was the Elegant Trogon (sometimes called an Elegant Quetzal), a bird I photographed there on my only other visit in August 2017. The scenery is spectacular with cliffs visible behind and above the trees around every turn. There are lots of great birds in the Chiricahuas with the Trogon always being a prize and the many hummingbird species a major attraction.

Entrance to Cave Creek Canyon
Chiricahua Scenery

I arrived at the Portal Peak Lodge around 1:30 p.m. This was the same place I had styed for a couple of nights with a WINGS tour in August 2017. The Lodge rooms are “ok”. The store is “minimal” and the accompanying restaurant is “limited” but welcomed. The price and location are just right for my purposes. I checked in and then headed to Forest Road 42 to start my search at Sunny Flats Campground. The Eared Quetzals had mostly been seen feeding on hackberries in the area between the Campground and a private residence aptly named Trogon Roost. Parking was said to be limited.

My hope was to get to the area, do an exploratory test drive and hopefully find some birders with binoculars or cameras trained on a Quetzal. I found the campground, found Trogon Roost, but did not find a single birder and not a parking place that I was certain was legal. I elected to drive back to the campground, which was closed, park on the entrance road and then hike the area looking for a large green and red bird with a long tail. I quickly found some Acorn Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays and a single Arizona Woodpecker. The latter two are predominantly Mexican species that in the U.S. are found exclusively in Southeast Arizona and a small area in New Mexico (and in Big Bend in Texas for the Jay). I am not paying much attention to ABA listing during this travel restricted year but they are good birds any time.

Arizona Woodpecker
Mexican Jay

Just after getting a picture of the Arizona Woodpecker, a car approached. Odds are good that any car at this spot has a birder and possibly one looking for Eared Quetzals. This proved true on both accounts. It was Peg Abbott whose recent Ebird report of her observations of the Quetzals had been my best guide for my search. She told me that the Quetzals had moved and were more likely to be seen much farther up the road past Trogon Roost and close to the bridge. She offered me a ride rather than me going back to my car and then adding another car to the limited area for parking up ahead.

As we approached the bridge, we saw three birders with cameras and binoculars trained on something. Odds were good that it was the Quetzals. I got out while Peg parked further up. Adrenalin kicked in. Birders are almost always glad to share their sightings and as I approached they confirmed that they were seeing a Quetzal and pointed me in the right direction. Adrenalin increased. The Quetzal was buried in the brush something less than 100 feet off the road but I got a quick look and a miserable photo. Then it moved closer and somewhat into the clear for a few seconds. A little better but not a good photo but I was thrilled to see this very rare bird that had been attracting birders from all over the United States for two months now. It was the major motivation for this trip.

Over the next 30+ minutes we were treated to a number of vocalizations, the appearance of a second Quetzal and sporadic great views much closer to us. I took many photos and was very pleased. My only regret was that I could not get a clearly focused one of it in flight with its tail splayed showing large white spots. It was a wonderful experience.

Eared Quetzal
Eared Quetzal
Eared Quetzal Flight

Not expecting to stray far from where I had parked, I had left my backpack in the car. That unfortunately was where my spare camera batteries were located and sure enough I had taken so many photos that day that my battery was on its last gasp. It was about a mile back to my car. I was pleased with the photos I had and really enjoyed hearing and seeing these very rare birds. I decided to walk back to the car and then decide whether to return for more photos with the new battery in place. On the way back, a flock of Wild Turkeys crossed the road in front of me. I took pictures with my phone.

Wild Turkeys

Since it was Sunday, the Portal store and restaurant would be closing at 5:00 pm. It was after 3:30 pm when I got to the car and decided that it would be best to get back to the Lodge, unload my stuff and get some food for later. Seeing the Eared Quetzals was a great ending for the day and I was more than happy. I ordered a taco salad to go for dinner. It was excellent.

I believe these Eared Quetzals may be the first seen in the U.S. in 11 years. Prior to that these there were a few sightings in 2009 and some sporadic reports from the 1990’s. After the birds were found in the Chiricahuas in August this year, a pair was also found in New Mexico. Well more than 100 ABA listers have come from all over the U.S. to see this mega rarity in the past 3 months. Trogons/Quetzals are residents of tropical forests worldwide. The greatest diversity is in the Neotropics with 25 species. There are 3 species in Africa and another 12 species are found in southeast Asia. The Eared Quetzal and the Elegant Trogon are the only ones that have been recorded in the U.S. The Eared Quetzal was the 16th trogon/quetzal species that I have seen. All have been in the New World including ones in Peru, Brazil, Trinidad, Belize and Costa Rica. All of these birds are quite spectacular and colorful. Below is my photo of the Elegant Trogon from Cave Creek three years ago.

Elegant Trogon – Cave Creek August 2017

Yes, things do not always go according to plans and on trips like this there are usually highs and lows. A big high finding the Northern Jacana and then a big low missing the Ruddy Ground Dove. Then a really big high seeing the Eared Quetzals. Not too shabby for one day. I returned to the lodge and hoped for a good night sleep. I wasn’t sure what the next day would hold. I did not have a room reservation anywhere and there were many options. As it turned out I did not sleep all that well and was up very early. But that is a story for another day and another blog post.

SE Arizona – Not Quite Too Late – Part 1

In recent blogs, I have bemoaned missing all the wonderful rare birds being seen in the birder’s mecca of Southeast Arizona. After seeing reports from Washington birders and talking to people who had flown recently and felt they were safe, I finally booked a flight for a short visit targeting some of the remaining rarities. I really needed to get away as the impact of COVID-19 restrictions, a crazy election season and too many unsuccessful recent chases in Washington had me feeling pretty low. As has been the case from the first time we met, Cindy was understanding and supportive, assuaging my guilt for a first jump into the world of air travel since the pandemic had set in.

The bad news was that there had been no recent reports of the Plain Capped Starthroat, Berylline and White Eared Hummingbirds, Crescent Chested Warbler, Buff Breasted Nightjar and Flame Colored Tanager that had been present earlier. The good news and sufficient reason to go was that there were daily sightings of Ruddy Ground Dove and Eared Quetzal which would be ABA Lifers and Northern Jacana which would be an ABA Photo lifer. I thought the Ground Dove and Jacana would be sure things and easy and that the Quetzal, the highest priority, would be probable but might take some work.

The plan was to fly to Phoenix on the evening of October 31st, driving to Casa Grande for the night, and then continuing to the bridge over the Santa Cruz River early on November 1st for the Jacana and then on to Himmel Park in Tucson where the Ruddy Ground Doves were being reported daily. I left most of that day for those two species to be followed by the 3 hour drive to Cave Creek Canyon to look for the Eared Quetzal the following day. I left the third day open to clean up any misses before driving back to Phoenix for a night flight home. Things went only somewhat according to plan.

My worries about an absence of social distancing at the airport disappeared quickly as I was the ONLY person going though security when I arrived and then found plenty of room at the gate waiting area. The flight was about one-half full with all center seats unsold per the COVID-19 changes adopted by Alaska Airlines. The flight left on time and we were treated to an awesome close up view of Mount Rainier.

A good flight and then to my rental car at Phoenix. The rental car center is HUGE!!! I must have walked 1/4 mile to get to the car. An easy drive to the motel in Casa Grande where I was “upgraded” to a room with a king bed. Unfortunately the room was across from the ice machine and a soda machine. Their condensers ran all night and I doubt I got more than 3 hours sleep. So up early for the hour drive to the W. Ina Road stakeout for the Northern Jacana – hopefully.

All the reports said the bird was feeding on vegetation on the south side of the bicycle path on the bridge over the river. The pull out was not clearly “public” and a police car was parked adjacent to it. I decided it best to ask if it was okay to park there. The officer wondered about my camera and binoculars but said it was fine. I wondered if I had disturbed his morning nap.

I had seen a Northern Jacana at Manor Lake in Texas on April 25, 1978 but was not taking photos then. They were regular there then but long ago became very hard to find. I have been working to get photos of ABA birds seen in those early days and had gotten the missing list down to 15 species (with another 10 seen but not photographed in more recent years) so I needed a photo to go with an observation. As soon as I got to the right spot on the bridge I spotted a reddish brown bird with a bright yellow bill and knob on its forehead feeding on water plants. It was far away but no doubt I had my target. It took all of one second. The light was only so-so and the bird was distant, so I got only very crappy photos. Good enough for an ID and my ABA Photo List but not very satisfying. I waited for 20 minutes hoping the Jacana would move to patches closer to me, but it moved farther out instead. I decided to move on to go for the Ruddy Ground Dove at Himmel Park in Tucson about an hour away.

Northern Jacana – First ABA Photos – Awful Ones

All of the reports indicated that the Ground Doves (as many as 4) were seen in the company of House Finches feeding on the ground near the library at the southwest corner of the park. I quickly found the library and could see the probable grazing area. Looking good — well maybe not. There were lots of House Finches and Lark Sparrows and Yellow Rumped Warblers and Dark Eyed Juncoes but no doves at all. I thought it was going to be easy – silly me. I had traveled this road before trying for Ruddy Ground Doves at the Red Rock feedlots in Arizona a couple of years ago. They had been seen near the ranch house. When I got there, a crew of six men were cleaning or landscaping or whatever at the spot. No birds anywhere.

What I had not planned on was that it was Sunday morning and the park was full of people enjoying it for things other than birds, including MANY folks with their dogs off leash despite the signs requiring the contrary. And many times the owners and their dogs went right through the area where the doves had been seen. Was that the reason that I did not find my target? As I said earlier there were many House Finches and many Lark Sparrows but not a single dove. But as is often the case, there were consolation prizes including several Vermilion Flycatchers, a couple of Abert’s Towhees and a rare for the location Clay Colored Sparrow. And it wasn’t just me as there were several local birders there looking for the doves including one who had seen them there previously and was very familiar with the area. Just not to be this time. I spent over an hour searching and then moved to Plan B which was another nearby park where Ruddy Doves had been reported the day before.

Vermilion Flycatcher
Lark Sparrow
Abert’s Towhee

That next stop was Fort Lowell Park and Pantano Wash. Not quite as many people or dogs and several birders. I asked one if he had seen the Ruddy Ground Doves and was told that two had been seen maybe an hour ago in the same area they had been reported the day before. I found Verdin, two Phainopeplas, more Vermilion Flycatchers, Lesser Goldfinches, many House Finches, Dark Eyed Juncoes, Lark and Chipping Sparrows, a pair of Western Meadowlarks and 5 Western Bluebirds. The only doves were fly over Rock Pigeons. Another hour was spent mostly in the area where the doves had been reported. I was beginning to feel jinxed.

Phainopepla
Western Meadowlarks
Lesser Goldfinch

Since I had gotten an early start it was now just past 9:30. There was one more park to try. Palo Verde Park was another 15 minutes away. The good news was that there were very few people. There were also many doves – 2 Mourning Doves and at least 40 Rock Pigeons. No Ground Doves – of any type. There were over 30 Lark Sparrows which was probably more than I had seen total in my life previously. I gave it a half hour and then conceded defeat. It was 11:00 a.m. and about 3 hours to Cave Creek Canyon where I hoped an Eared Quetzal was waiting for me.

Stay Tuned…

The Best Week of Birding I Will Never Have

Birding Without Constraints – Awesome Baby!!

Posted on  by blairbirding

Birding has been very limited, and not all that successful, lately – nothing of note to justify a blog post, but I really want to write something.  So I have created a fantasy solution. Let’s pretend that we are not constrained by anything. Without constraints just imagine the birds we could see in a Greatest Week of Birding EVER!!! No Coronavirus. No monetary limits. No travel troubles. No equipment failures. An ability to be in distant places within moments of each other. No failed GPS. And importantly every bird cooperates and is not only where it is supposed to be but is also out in the open – easy to find and easy to photograph. Well there is one constraint for this fantasy adventure: each bird has to have been reported on Ebird by someone during an actual week of birding. Oh the possibilities…

I have already written about Lifers I have not been able to chase in Arizona; some are still there and some are gone. But there have been a lot of other great observations this past week. This would be my story if indeed there were no constraints and I chased all the ABA Lifers (and ABA photo lifers) and found them all. THE BEST WEEK OF BIRDING I WILL NEVER HAVE – and neither will anyone else. Remember NO CONSTRAINTS…

I start in Southeastern Arizona, finding those Arizona rarities I wrote about before. First there is the Eared Quetzal in Cochise. A beautiful male and a bonus, a female too.

Eared Quetzal

Eared Quetal

At the Casa de San Pedro B&B I easily locate and photograph the Ruddy Ground Dove that has been hanging around.

Ruddy Ground Dove

Ruddy Ground Dove

I make a quick stop at Beatty’s Guest Ranch and get that lifer White-Eared Hummingbird that eluded me on earlier Arizona trips.

White-Eared Hummingbird

White Eared Hummingbird - Tammy

Next is the Northern Jacana that will be an ABA Photo Lifer.  Not the juvenile that was seen earlier – now an adult at the Santa Cruz River in Pima.  Sure wish I had been taking pictures when I had one at Maner Lake in Texas in April 1978.

Northern Jacana (Ebird Photo by Victor Stoll)

Northern Jacana Vctor and Ruben Stoll

Too bad the Berylline Hummingbird is no longer around.   Just as I get ready to head over to Santa Barbara in California to find the Curlew Sandpiper which I need since I could not get up to British Columbia earlier this year, I learn that a European Golden Plover is being seen at Maxwell NWR in New Mexico.  No constraints remember so I am instantly there and Wow, there it is!!  The white underwings confirm the ID.

European Golden Plover (Ebird Photo by Laura Keene)

European Golden Plover Laura Keene

I have lost track of time but then recall that time does not matter on this adventure so I still make it to Santa Barbara and among the many shorebirds one has this definite downslope to its bill and I can see the white rump.  I can now check off a Curlew Sandpiper.

Curlew Sandpiper (Ebird Photo by Sochetra Ly)

Curlew Sandpiper Sochetra Ly

Now I get word that there is a Yellow Green Vireo at Doyle Park in San Diego, so I continue south to look for it.  Oh if only it were this easy in real life.  Other birders are there looking at something that must be my bird.  One asks if I would like to see “the Vireo“.  Why yes, I would.  Positioned at about 9 o’clock in the tree in front of us I see movement then some yellow and some green and that prominent eye stripe.  I almost went after this species earlier when one was seen in Texas but plans changed.  Now, finally, it is on my ABA Life list!!

Yellow Green Vireo (Ebird photo by Benny Jacobs-Schwartz)

Benny-Jacobs Scwhartz Yellow Green Vireo

Even with the real world time and travel constraints, over several days it might have been possible to see all of those birds with good luck.  Now I am really going to push it because a Great Skua has been reported off the coast of Newfoundland and VOILA!! I am instantly several thousand miles away on a survey boat and a species that was possible on our North Carolina pelagic trip is just off the bow.  My ABA Life List now has the Skua Slam plus one.

Great Skua – Ebird photo by Detchevery Joel

Great Skua Detchevery Joel (2)

This is exciting!!  And now being on the East Coast I think I will head south to Florida because that American Flamingo is still around and while I saw one many years ago, just like the Jacana, I need a photo and there is also a chance for a Red Legged Thrush which was found at the Key West Botanical Garden – which is surprisingly not on Key West but rather the adjoining Stock Island.  This is the first super rare thrush I could add to my list that was not seen in British Columbia where I have seen Dusky Thrush, Redwing and Fieldfare.  Never thought I would see this one.  But first I go for the Flamingo at St. Marks NWR at Wakulla – Mound Pool No.1 where it is just impossible to miss.  Not a great photo but good enough. Then an immediate change of location to the Key West Botanical Garden and the Red Legged Thrush is mine as well.

American Flamingo – Ebird Photo by Sean McCool

American Flamingo Sean McCool (2)

Red Legged ThrushEbird Photo by Mark Songer

Red Legged Thrush Mark Songer (2)

And there being no constraints, there is a chance to add another rare thrush as well.  A mega rarity Song Thrush is at Barrow, Alaska.  Fortunately 5,000 miles is no more challenging than 5 miles in this fantasy birding adventure without constraints.  There is snow on the ground in Barrow, so I conjure up some appropriate clothing as well just right for the Naval Arctic Research Lab on the North Slope.  It is not a very colorful bird but there was that bright orange underwing confirms the Song Thrush identity.  Wow!!

Song Thrush – Ebird Photo by Tyler Ficker

Song Thrush Tyler Ficker

One more opportunity as I can chase another bird I almost chased earlier – a Hook Billed Kite in Texas. By the magic of no constraints I am there. I see it. I tick it off the list and that’s it. The fantasy is over.

Hook Billed Kite

Well it has been quite a week.  A dozen phenomenal birds from every corner of the continent.  Ten ABA Lifers plus two more ABA Life Photos.  None of it is real and I may never see any of those birds – hell if we don’t get this virus under control, I may never add any new birds to my life lists.  But these species were all seen by adventurous birders in the previous week and that is always the case as there are always new birds to see and new places to go.  I will be happy to see any of these birds someday and am happy for everyone who has shared their experiences by reporting on Ebird for the rest of us.

I also think about the true Big Year Birders who when given the real life opportunity to try for these birds in distant and remote places with time constraints, travel challenges and enormous monetary needs actually go for most if not all of them and many times succeed.  Awesome accomplishments.  Amazing!!