South Texas Chasing

They had been out there calling me for several weeks – rarities in South Texas: the Social Flycatcher at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, the Golden Crowned Warbler at the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, the Hook Billed Kite at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission and especially the Bat Falcon at Santa Ana NWR in Alamo. All would be ABA lifers and there was also a chance of getting an ABA life photo of a Groove Billed Ani at the San Benito Wetlands (or maybe another location). I had held off going almost entirely due to the surge of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 Virus. Cindy and I also had plans/thoughts of trips to Tanzania (canceled by the tour), to Charleston SC and Savannah GA (canceled by us) and to Chile and Argentina (canceled by the tour). These were all again victims of Omicron. When that last trip was canceled I had had it.

Cindy and I talked through risks and rewards and agreed that being double vaccinated and boosted and with N95 masks in hand, I should go. When I was able to find reasonable trips to McAllen TX cashing in not all that many miles on American Airlines, it was decided. A go. I had checked with others who might go as well, but they were not ready to take the leap. I was on my own. It would be a 5 day trip – two days of travel and three days of birding. I reserved a hotel room (using Hotel.com credits) and a car in McAllen. Cindy dropped me off at SeaTac airport in plenty of time to make the 11:55 am flight to Dallas which would then connect to McAllen where I would arrive at 8:30 pm, get my car and drive to my hotel. I had checked E-bird reports and all of the target birds had been seen the previous day. It seemed the stars were perfectly aligned. And then they weren’t…

There was a “mechanical problem” with the American Airlines plane leading to a 4 hour delay making it impossible to make the connection in Dallas for McAllen. The snowball kept rolling. I was put onto a later flight out of Dallas arriving in McAllen at midnight – but that put me in too late to get my car as the counter closed at 10 pm. And that meant I would not be able to drive to my hotel. And the shuttle to the hotel was not available after 10 pm. And the car rental counter would not open until 8:00 am the next morning – making it impossible to drive to Santa Ana to try for the Bat Falcon at dawn – one of the best times to see it on its favorite perch. And the weather forecast had changed and the 80 degrees and sun of the day I was travelling would turn into temperatures in the 30’s, some rain or possibly even some snow or sleet. Had I known all of this in advance, I would not have made the trip. So not a great start.

As I have said in other blog posts, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. By pure coincidence and luck, the hotel I had chosen was across the street from the McAllen Airport. I could walk less than 300 yards and cross one street and be there. I still would not have a car for an early morning start, but I could walk back across the single street and be at the counter before it opened. I would have to change plans for an early start, but a major disaster was avoided by that hotel choice. OK – on to Plan B.

Day 1 – Thursday morning – Plan B. I did not get to bed as early as I would have liked, but since I had to wait for the car rental to open, I actually got 5+ hours of sleep and was at the counter at 7:50 a.m. They were getting ready to open so actually got me a car by 8:00 – paperwork complete. I had to circle back to the hotel to pick up gear etc. so I was able to be on the road by 8:10 – about 2 hours behind the original plan. So instead of heading Southeast to Santa Ana I headed further south and further east to the “land bridge” at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Brownsville. Unfortunately the coordinates for the “land bridge” on Ebird as translated to the GPS on my phone and on my Garmin took me to the wrong place where I intersected not with other birders but instead with dozens of Border Control officers and soldiers with combat gear and scary guns. On my best behavior and using my friendliest personality I actually had decent conversations with several and even got them to look at a photo of a Social Flycatcher and got some smiles. I eventually blundered to the UTRGV Bookstore, parked and then walked to the “land bridge” – essentially a passageway between a small pond and a large Resaca on the campus.

It was really cold and really windy and I was really not dressed for this weather and apparently the birds were affected by the weather as well. It was NOT real birdy. A couple of other birders were there looking for the Social Flycatcher and had not seen it during the 30 minutes they had already been there. We birded together and also split up and covered the land bridge and the adjoining area. About 15 minutes in I was pretty sure I heard the target but got no visual. Thirty minutes later we thought we had it but it turned out to be a very similar looking Great Kiskadee. There was a Least Grebe and a Green Kingfisher at the small pond. We saw Golden Fronted and Ladder Backed Woodpeckers and a couple of warblers and Northern Cardinals. We had another flycatcher – an Eastern Phoebe. The Social Flycatcher was being very antisocial.

Great Kiskadee

It got even colder and windier. I could barely feel my fingers or toes – what happened to South Texas sunshine. I am sure I would have felt warmer if the chase was successful. About 45 minutes into the search, the Social Flycatcher finally made an appearance – only briefly and absolutely buried behind several branches making a photo impossible. We were sure of the ID with the black and white pattern, small size and small bill compared to the Great Kiskadee and an absence of the rusty wings. But it sure would have been nice to get a photo. No one did and then it was gone.

Even without a photo this was a great start but it was now almost noon and the plan was to try for two more of the targets today leaving the Hook Billed Kite tomorrow. Feeling the cold and also seeing that the net day could be worse, the pressure was on to leave and try for the Golden Crowned Warbler. I bid adieu to the other two birders who remained and headed back to the parking lot with the parting words – “I am sure it will show now.” One of the birders remaining was Barbara DeWitt whose non-birding husband Al was in the parking lot. We had exchanged words before I left before. As soon as I arrived, he announced that Barbara had just gotten a photo. I ran back but it was gone again. Grrr! The picture included is not mine. It was included in the Ebird report of Karen Carpenter taken 2 days earlier in good weather. Note the blue sky – not ever seen during my visit.

Social Flycatcher (Karen Carpenter)

On the way to my next target I stopped at a Walmart to get another layer of clothes and to grab a wrap for lunch. Amazingly I found a “puffer jacket” on clearance for $9.00. The sandwich wrap was $2.50 – the total of less than $13.00 was among the best expenditures I have ever made. Should have gotten boots and gloves as well.

At the Valley Nature Center, the Naturalist said the Golden Crowned Warbler was very active and had been seen a few minutes ago. Another birder and I went to the spot he suggested and heard it immediately – almost constantly chipping. We played hide and seek chasing the Warbler from one thicket to another all within maybe 40 yards of each other. We would get a brief glance buried behind several branches then a split second in the clear, then gone then back behind branches and gone again. This continued for an hour. My best photo was pretty poor – a certain ID but not much better. The cold continued and while happy for the jacket, I really wanted some gloves and a stocking cap. So success but not perfect. I wanted to go for the Bat Falcon and figured I could return and try for a better photo again. I left as more birders came in. There had been only a few other species seen with the best being an unphotographed Northern Beardless Flycatcher. Easier to photograph were the many Plain Chachalacas and Inca Doves.

Golden Crowned Warbler
Inca Dove
Plain Chachalaca

It was already 3:30 when I got to Santa Ana. The Bat Falcon had most often been seen at a telephone pole right at the entry road to the park – usually early in the morning or at dusk. I had already missed the first option so was hoping for option 2 in about 2 hours. I saw a couple of Harris’s Hawks at “The Pole” and a falcon – a Kestrel not the Bat Falcon. I entered the Park parked the car and decided to just bird generally before returning to “The Pole”. There was an elevated path next to a ditch and as I walked down it I noticed a small bird in the ditch – a Spotted Sandpiper. In the field we are often drawn to other birders when we see their cameras, binoculars or scopes trained on “something” hoping it might be of interest to us as well. Four other birders saw me and approached. One was a woman who I think was local and was dressed in a long “down” coat – perfect for the day. Two of the others were Lisa and Steve Murray – volunteers at the Park who were excellent birders, knew every part of the Park and had seen the Bat Falcon many times and knew its patterns. A lucky find for me much better than the Spotted Sandpiper. The third was a photographer/birder who was attending a program that night and was hoping for a Bat Falcon photo before that. As the five of us carried on I learned that he was more into wildlife than birds and had travelled widely.

Harris’s Hawk

Lisa said there was a chance we might spot the Bat Falcon on one of the many snags visible from the tower about 1/2 mile into the park. We birded our way to it not seeing much except for a couple of Chachalacas and a Roadrunner on the ground. From the tower we saw a Gray Hawk, some Turkey Vultures, a Red Tailed Hawk and – another falcon – “only” a Merlin. You know there is something special afoot when there is disappointment in seeing a Merlin. Lisa pointed out a number of snags where she had seen the Bat Falcon before and gave us a geography lesson pointing out Mexico not that far to the south. An interesting aside was about some wind turbines visible in Mexico. Lisa said that they get 90% of their electricity from Mexico and during the blackout in Texas last year, they were unaffected because of that sourcing.

Far out visible only barely through binoculars Lisa saw a “bump” on a snag. Steve took a picture and it looked like it “might” be the Bat Falcon. There was one scope in the group and with Lisa’s help, it was trained on the bump and sure enough it was the Bat Falcon. Everyone got a look and had a “tick” for a lifer. We all took turns trying to get Digi scoped photos – with varying degrees of success – but proof of our good fortune. Granted it was a lousy photo but this was my third ABA lifer for the day – almost making up for the cold – almost.

Digi Scoped Bat Falcon

Lisa thought we would be early but should head back to the Park entry and see if the Bat Falcon would show at The Pole. As we reached the entrance road about 20 minutes later, about 200 yards away, we saw someone with a camera trained on The Pole. The Bat Falcon was at the top. I broke into a run and then stopped for a quick photo and then started running again. The bird flew off. Would this be a near miss? No – I got to the road and for the next 20 minutes watched the Bat Falcon put on an amazing aerial show as it flew overhead and along highway 281 stopping to perch on a topless palm tree and then flying off again and again. It is small – a bit smaller than an American Kestrel – and looks like a Barn Swallow in flight but much faster. It was awesome and the photo ops when perched were as much as anyone could hope for even if there was little light. It was the first time in the day when I did not feel the cold!!

Bat Falcon
Bat Falcon
Bat Falcon

This small charismatic falcon was first seen around December 18, 2021. It was the first time it has appeared in the United States and hundreds of birders have made the pilgrimage to Santa Ana to add it to their life lists. To the best of my knowledge I have seen only two other species that were the first U.S. records – both in my home state of Washington – the Eurasian Hobby at Neah Bay on October 30, 2014 and the Swallow Tailed Gull at Carkeek Park on August 31, 2017. There were at least a dozen other birders there watching the show. Everyone left happy. Thus ended day 1 of Chasing in Texas.

Day 2 – Friday January 21 – The weather predictions had called for low temperatures and rain overnight on Thursday with the possibility of freezing rain and icy roads on Friday morning. Fortunately the temperature never got below 36. There was rain, not as much wind and no ice. The plan was to look for Groove Billed Anis at the San Benito Wetlands, then to return to UTRGC to try for a photo of the Social Flycatcher, then to return to Valley Nature Center hoping for a better photo of the Golden Crowned Warbler and depending on the success of the Ani chase to try for it at another location where they had been reported.

The San Benito Wetlands would have been great fun if it had not been raining, had not been muddy, had been warmer and had been birdier OR had any Anis. They were still interesting despite none of those being the case. I was the only person there and in fact was the only person I had seen within a half mile of them. Black Necked Stilts and Killdeer brought my shorebird trip total to 3. The only other new bird was a Ruby Crowned Kinglet perched on some reeds – an odd location it seemed. I know Anis can be secretive, but I think I would have seen them if they had been there. I didn’t. A muskrat dove into one of the ponds just in front of me. The only other mammals I saw on the trip were a rabbit and a couple of squirrels.

Black Necked Stilt

Back to Brownsville and maybe a Social Flycatcher photo. There were several birders there. They had not seen it. It was birdier than the previous day, drizzly and less windy but still cold and my feet were wet from the rain and the San Benito Wetlands. I thought the boots I brought were waterproof – they were not. Pretty miserable which became more miserable when an hour and 45 minutes of searching failed to produce a Social Flycatcher. Especially when chasing rarities the odds of meeting other birders are good – and often they are birders of some repute in addition to talent. Such was the case this morning as I met Jeremy Dominquez who had set a lower 48 Big Year record in 2020 and who I had read about in various places. We birded together for much of the time I was there. With his expertise, not finding the Social Flycatcher felt less like a failure. I learned later that a couple of hours after I left, he did see it and got a photo. Woulda shoulda coulda – didn’t.

Among the birds seen while I was there were a Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Kiskadees, Golden Fronted Woodpeckers, Red Crowned Parrots, Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, 6 warbler species, Black Crested Titmouse and a Blue Headed Vireo. There was still one more day, perhaps the third time would be the charm for the again Anti-Social Flycatcher.

Altamira Oriole
Black Crowned Night Heron
Golden Fronted Woodpecker
Green Jay
Great Kiskadee
Blue Headed Vireo

If I had done it earlier maybe I would have stayed longer on the second Social Flycatcher try but my feet were very wet and cold, so it was another stop at Walmart’s – for a cheap pair of waterproof boots and some new socks. I think the only time I have ever been in a Walmart has been to get something needed on a birding trip. Can’t say much for the atmosphere and don’t like the Walton family politics, but the prices are good and in the South, it is an easy option with one in every town. Got the boots and socks and realizing it was relatively close, I headed to the second possible Grooved Billed Ani spot – the Laguna Vista Nature Trail. Again an interesting spot. Again almost birdless and again no Anis. At least my feet were dry.

I headed back to the Valley Nature Center with a roadside stop in Port Isabel where I photographed a White Tailed Hawk – a Texas specialty. I was surprised at how few raptors I saw on the trip – maybe 20 or so with the largest number being Harris’s Hawks and American Kestrels. Home in Washington I would expect to see multiples of that on a single trip to Skagit County. At the Nature Center the Golden Crowned Warbler would again be noisy, active, skulky, and difficult to photograph. The pictures I got were at best only marginally better than the previous day. At least the golden crown was showing,

White Tailed Hawk
Golden Crowned Warbler

As I was leaving the Nature Center I saw a small group of Turkey Vultures flying over all headed in a straight line in the same direction. What started as a group of 4 or 5 kept growing – probably more than 40 by the time I left and there were probably more coming. So nothing new for day 2 but that was because day 1 had been so productive. Now with boots and a warmer jacket I felt ready for day 3 which was projected to have rain but not starting until late morning. I would head off to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park hoping for a lifer Hook Billed Kite. That night I had a rare for me steak dinner at a Texas Roadhouse. Rare described the meat as well. I ordered medium rare but I swear the steak mooed when I cut into it.

Day 3 – Saturday January 22 Would this be the day – to finally see a Hook Billed Kite? Please. One of the people I follow on Facebook is Yve Morrell – an excellent and hard core bird who now lives in Georgia. She was part of the group that was in Oaxaca just after me and had many, many – did I say many – more birds than we had on our trip. She has also successfully chased just about every ABA Rarity this past month and had finally gotten her first Hook Billed Kite at Bentsen a few days before I left for my trip – maybe the last person to see one (she had two) at the Hawk Tower. It was that sighting that was the final factor in my deciding to make the trip because she acknowledged that she had missed it 4 times before. I, too, have missed it multiple times. Maybe today.

The Park did not open until 8:00 pm and the van would not be running until 9:00. I was there a bit earlier but waited until 8:00 to get my ID bracelet at the Visitor Center and then decided to walk the mile or so to the Hawk Tower. It was still cold, not too windy and not raining – at least not yet. On the way to the Hawk Tower, there were many typical South Texas species: Green Jays (many), Northern Cardinals (many), Plain Chachalacas (many), Golden Fronted Woodpeckers (almost as many), White Tipped, White Winged and Mourning Doves, Great Kiskadees (several), Altamira Orioles (several) and Blue Headed Vireo and Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. A distant perched raptor got some adrenaline going – slowed when I made it out as a Gray Hawk – only to be increased again as another raptor flew over and then slowed again as I made it out as a Harris’s Hawk. So no Hook Billed Kite on the way in. Guess it would have to be the Tower.

Altamira Orioles

I climbed up the tower and found one birder already there gazing out through his scope. Could it be? Nope – a distant Harris’s Hawk. The birder was Michael McCloy – a Ph.D. candidate in ornithology at Texas A & M, a world traveler, world birder and world mountain climber. If there was a chance of seeing a Hook Billed Kite this morning, he was about as good as I could hope for as another set of eyes. We heard Soras and a Virginia Rail in the pond/Resaca below and saw Blue Winged Teal, Common Gallinules, American Coots, Pied Billed and Least Grebes. A juvenile Gray Hawk was perched off in the distance and later more Harris’s Hawks flew by. Although it was not projected to start to rain until later, the first sprinkles started maybe 30 minutes after I arrived. Not bad – but not great. About an hour later a group of birders showed up with John Kaye – a long time volunteer at the Park and the birder with the longest Ebird list for Bentsen. He has seen Hook Billed Kites from the Tower dozens of times and had been with Yve Morrell when she had her lifer observation. If a Kite was to show this day, the team was in place to see it. Unfortunately just as the talent increased so, too, did the rain. It was getting miserable.

Gray Hawk Flyby
Least Grebe

The Kite watching was a zero, but the company was great as John and Michael shared stories from their vast experiences. Finally after 3 hours, it seemed to be time to leave. There had been no more raptors and the rain was getting heavy. The van was scheduled to be by soon and while in good weather I would have preferred to walk, with the rain, I was willing to be a wimp and ride. Just wasn’t meant to be this day. I don’t know when I will have a chance to return but maybe like for Yve, the 5th time will be the one.

Back at the Visitor Center I played hide and seek with a Buff Bellied Hummingbird missing a photo several times. Fortunately I had a photo from a previous visit in 2013. On that visit I also had my ABA lifer Clay Colored Thrush – not super rare but definitely uncommon in those days. As I got to my car I saw a group of five birds on the ground in front of me. They looked too big for sparrows but what else would be there in that number. It was a small flock of Clay Colored Thrushes. They are reported daily from many locations in South Texas now, but this was still surprising.

Now what? I had the Bat Falcon and good photos. I had seen the Golden Crowned Warbler with OK photos. I had seen the Social Flycatcher but no photos and I had not seen and thus not photographed the Groove Billed Ani. It was already past noon on my last day. There would be time for one more try for photos of the Flycatcher and the Ani. Back to Brownsville first. Just as I walked out on the Land Bridge, people were pointing long lenses at something in the trees next to the small pond, where I had had my brief glimpse of the Social Flycatcher before. I ran down the path and joined the group just in time to get a split second look and it was gone. No photo but it was there and maybe it would be in the open again. Three minutes later, one of the birders said “I got it”. The Flycatcher was buried but its yellow breast was visible. Then it was right above me – almost upside down on a branch only partially obstructed. As too often happens, by the time the camera focused, it was gone. That would be the closest I would come. I stayed for another hour – no sightings by anyone. There were fun photos of a Neotropic Cormorant and an Anhinga but that was it. I had given it my best – good visuals, heard it call and could check off a mega rarity for my ABA List – but time to admit defeat. On the way back to the car, I took some pictures of the many Black Bellied Whistling Ducks and Muscovy Ducks (domestic) that had been numerous on each previous visit as well.

Neotropic Cormorant
Anhinga
Black Bellied Whistling Duck
Muscovy Duck

There was still time for one more Ani try at the San Benito Wetlands. There was an Ebird report for Anis there the previous day. No photos and maybe a questionable description but worth another try – this time with good boots and barely any rain. As I rounded one of the paths between the ponds I saw two large black birds perched on the reeds. I really thought I might have some Anis but as I got close enough for a binocular view, they were Great Tailed Grackles…sigh. There would be no Anis this trip. There were many more birds at the Wetlands than on my earlier trip including the only Crested Caracara I saw and a number of waders – Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, White Ibis (juveniles), and both Great and Snowy Egrets. A Peregrine Falcon sped by and there were several Loggerhead Shrikes in the area.

Crested Caracara
Great Egret
White Ibis
Loggerhead Shrike

My return flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at an ungodly 6:00 am. I got back to my hotel after the rental car desk closed so after a fast food dinner, I parked it and left the keys in a drop box and walked back to the hotel. I set my alarm for 4:15 a.m. and as I usually do woke up 10 minutes before it went off. No breakfast except for a banana and then I walked again to the airport with my luggage in tow. The flight was full and as had been the case in Seattle, there was an announced delay due to “minor mechanical” matters. Fortunately they were truthfully minor and we left only 15 minutes late – of no consequence for me since the layover in Dallas to make my connection was over 2 hours. The Dallas airport is huge so I had to take the tram to get to a different terminal to make my connection – but no problem and I was ready to go in plenty of time.

We boarded easily and somehow I had an open seat next to me – one of only 3 on the entire flight. Finally an easy trip – except – about an hour out of Seattle the pilot announced that there was low clearance at SeaTac Airport and due to interference with new 5G cell transmissions, this plane was not allowed to land unless the fog lifted. We delayed circling for 20 minutes and then got the news that we would detour to Boise, refuel and wait. There was more to it but the bottom line was that we finally got the clearance and landed in Seattle more than 2 and a half hours after scheduled arrival time. So I am not thrilled with the experience with American Airlines. If an updated altimeter was in the plane, we could have landed on schedule. Yes it is a real issue I guess and yes it should have been worked out months ago, and yes the Alaska Airline flights landed just fine that afternoon. But I was home. I had seen three of the four target lifers and had many fun intersections. My Continental ABA list was now at 746 species. I am not driven to get to 800 but 750 sounds good. I do not expect a chance to add 4 lifers on a single trip again – unless just maybe things align just right in Florida or the continuing surprises probably related to climate change bring more rarities north – or south – or west. And everything will be moot again if Covid- 20 or 21 or whatever shuts us down again.

Stay tuned.

Oaxaca, Mexico Part II – The Pacific

After 8 days in the mountains and in the City of Oaxaca, we did a major change of scenery and habitats and headed to Puerto Escondido – a port town and resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca. It’s known for its many beaches and buzzing nightlife. The town’s central principal beach is lined with palm trees and thatch-roofed bars. Our hotel was near busy Zicatela Beach renowned for its Mexican Pipeline surf break. The change of scenery was matched by the change in weather – hot and humid (too hot and humid) – high SPF sun tan lotion was a must. Our hotel was on the beach and the view from our third floor room was terrific.

No time to bird when we arrived – a brief rest and respite from the sun and humidity and then it was time for dinner. The group split up and went separate ways as there were a number of options. A bit tired of tortillas (in every form) and mole, I opted for a hamburguesa and was very pleased. Cold Mexican beer helped. We all looked forward to the next morning – a short drive northwest along the coast to the Manialtepec Lagoon where we would board a small boat with guide and boatman Lalo and finally get close to the birds. It would be a spectacular morning.

Friday November 19 – We arrived early in bright sunshine but not yet too hot or humid. The lagoon is about 4 miles long lined primarily with mangroves. There were birds everywhere. I was particularly looking forward to this part of the trip for Cindy. When we first met, our first birding venture was to the Semiahmoo Spit in Blaine Washington very near the Canadian border. I have found that water birds are the best way to introduce newcomers to birding. The birds are relatively large, relatively close, often still or slow moving and often very charismatic. They also surprise new birders to see so many different species that are not just ducks or gulls but unique types of each and also some others that may seem like ducks but are really grebes, or loons or alcids – birds they had no idea existed. Cindy really enjoyed Semiahmoo with her first “wow” being a Black Oystercatcher and the second a male Harlequin Duck. Maybe she wasn’t hooked but she was interested for more. There were no ducks or grebes or loons or alcids at the lagoon but there were many others – all a treat. I was not expecting any lifers, although there were some longshots, but I was hoping for many photo opportunities and I was not disappointed.

The first birds we saw were two Greater Frigatebirds soaring overhead even before we launched and then almost as soon as we pushed off we we had an adult Anhinga – perched close by with its wings spread – drying out in the sun. Known as a “snake bird” due to its long and very thin neck, it was a particularly good first bird from the boat because the second bird was a juvenile or female Anhinga and the third was a closely related Neotropic Cormorant. Together they provided a great study in similarities and differences between species – an exercise in bird identification.

Adult Male Anhinga
Anhinga – Female or Immature
Neotropic Cormorant

Lalo was expert at spotting birds and maneuvering the boat quietly to the best position for great views and for photos. This was expertly demonstrated at a next sighting as he spied a Bare Throated Tiger Heron basking back in the mangroves. Unlike most of the species to be seen on this journey, the Tiger Heron is not found in the U.S. so there was great joy in finding one so quickly in the morning and so cooperative.

Bare Throated Tiger Heron

I am not going to try to report the observations in sequential order – irrelevant as good bird after good bird and good view after good view and good photo op after good photo op appeared at every inlet and bend in the lagoon. I have grouped the species by related groups with some commentary and picking out some special encounters. Enjoy!!

One early highlight was when Lalo moved the boat right into a flittering and perching flock of lovely Mangrove Swallows – another species not found in the U.S. Many were at eye level and some were too close for my camera’s focus. Later we would see more distant Gray Breasted Martins another swallow species not found in the U.S. although a single bird was seen and photographed in New York (of all places) by many excellent birders this past April.

Gray Breasted Martins

In addition to several Belted Kingfishers, common throughout the U.S., we had numerous good looks at two Kingfisher species that are prized ABA specialties in Texas and Arizona. The larger of the two is the Ringed Kingfisher and the smaller the Green Kingfisher. We saw several of each perched and fishing in the lagoon.

Without question the stars of the show were the large waders – herons, ibises, egrets and spoonbills. Altogether we had fourteen species – with many individuals of each – often foraging together. The only species (in addition to the aforementioned Bare Throated Tiger Heron) that is not found in the U.S. was a Boat Billed Heron. This experience was reminiscent of very good birding days in Florida or Texas but for a single day at a single place, this was probably the best.

Little Blue Heron
Boat Billed Heron
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron

We only saw a single species of gull but had 4 species of terns – all together on one sandbar that also gave us looks at 8 species of shorebirds. The only gull was a Laughing Gull (misidentified originally as a Franklin’s Gull) and the terns included Sandwich, Common, Elegant and Royal. (Some on the tour recorded Caspian Tern but I believe they were more likely Royal.) One photo was a lucky shot that shows all four tern species together with their different bills being great fieldmarks to help differentiate and identify them.

Laughing Gull
Tern Bills – Royal, Sandwich, Elegant and Common
Least Sandpiper
Black Necked Stilt
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs
Whimbrel

The remaining shorebirds seen included a much hoped for and surprise lifer – a Collared Plover. It had not even been listed on the trip materials – perhaps an oversight. It was the only plover that occurs regularly in the western hemisphere that I had not seen before. We first thought we had seen it from the boat but that turned out to be a basic plumaged Semipalmated Plover – a great disappointment when I checked my photos and had to change the ID. However, after getting out and then returning to the boat, I found a real one scurrying on the sand ahead of us.

Just after our stop at the sandbar we found a Common Black Hawk perched in the open. There had been a disappointing view of a flyby Common Black Hawk earlier in the trip with no photo. This time the photo was easy – a species I had seen many years ago in Arizona before I even had a camera. I still hope to get a photo in the ABA area someday.

Common Black Hawk

Throughout our ride we continuously saw more cormorants, many vultures (many Black and a few Turkey), several Ospreys, a Northern Harrier and Brown Pelicans. We also had both perched and flyby Orange Fronted Parrots and White Fronted Parakeets – both seen by me elsewhere in the tropics.

White Fronted Parrot
Orange Fronted Parakeet

In 2020 my only birding trip during the Covid doldrums was in November to Arizona. I was heavily masked; I knew the plane would be only half full and I could not resist the chance to add 3 species and a life photo to my ABA life lists. The hoped for photo was of a Northern Jacana – a bird I had seen in Texas in 1978 when they regularly occurred there. No camera and no photo in those days and then the species essentially disappeared from the U.S. with only a few records in the next 40 years. An adult Jacana was being seen regularly from the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River near Tucson. Also it was an incursion year for Ruddy Ground Doves in Arizona – a species I had never seen in the ABA and in fact had missed twice in Arizona before. There was also an outside chance to see a White Eared Hummingbird – another lifer. One had been seen regularly for the few weeks before I decided to go but had not been seen for a few days just prior to my departure – maybe? BUT the biggest appeal and the determining reason to go was a chance to see an Eared Quetzal. One or two had been reported regularly in the Chiricahuas for a few months – disappearing and then being relocated. There had been no other reliable reports of this species in the previous 12+ years – so I went with high hopes. I was successful in seeing all of the species and getting photos of all but the White Eared Hummingbird. I include this story because on the boat tip in the Manialtepec we had fabulous looks at at least 6 Northern Jacanas and a good look at a Ruddy Ground Dove. No Eared Quetzal and no White Eared Hummingbird – but I had gotten several decent photos of the latter earlier in the tour.

Ruddy Ground Dove

There would be two more great birds (for me) after we turned to head back. The first was a decent if distant look at two Cinnamon Rumped Seedeaters. I had less than satisfactory views of this species, a lifer, in Teotitlan without a photo. This was not a great photo but ID quality. This species was formerly called a White Collared Seedeater but that “species” was recently split into Morelet’s Seedeater (which is found at Salineno on the Rio Grande in Texas where I have seen it) and the renamed Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater (Photos of both are below.) The second species was a surprise West Mexican Chachalaca. The bigger surprise was that we had not seen this lifer elsewhere as it is pretty common and a large bird.

West Mexican Chachalaca – Poor Photo – but a Lifer

It had been a great trip – by far the best of the tour. All told I had 60 species with photos of 44 (and photos of 10 others ignored). New world lifers were White Fronted Parrot, West Mexican Chachalaca and Collared Plover and I also got my first photos of the Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater, Orange Fronted Parakeet and Common Blackhawk. More importantly it was great fun and Cindy loved it.

I am adding a non-birding photo that is a favorite from the trip – of a weathered and dignified gentleman that joined us as we waited at the reserve for our lunch. His image reminded me of how much we are outsiders visiting a land that has seen more than its share of outsiders. Perhaps tourists are better than conquistadores, but one wonders if all would have been much better if the Europeans and their progeny in the U.S. had never arrived.

After the great morning we had lunch and did a little inconsequential birding except adding our first good look at a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher and then returned to our hotels. I have not made any negative comments in this part of the report on this trip and after such a great morning, it carries less impact, but I am just not used to this approach to birding when I expect it to be all out all day. Granted the heat and humidity was perhaps limiting, but I am sure there were other places to go…not to be. Dinner that night was on our own. Following a recommendation from another member of the group I had a club sandwich – it was excellent.

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

Saturday November 20 The next morning was another fun outing not fully focused on birds. First we had a chance for a little birding on the way to our targeted beach area. Two lifers were a Turquoise Crowned Hummingbird and a Yellow Winged Cacique. A truly awful photo of the first and the second was not much better.

Turquoise Crowned Hummingbird
Yellow Winged Cacique

The main visit of the day was to the Playa Escobilla Reserve where Olive Ridley Sea Turtles come in the hundreds of thousands to lay their eggs. We had made special arrangements to visit the area. Unfortunately it was not a day when the turtles were actually on the beach but we did get to watch and participate as hundreds of hatchlings that had been protected were released back to the sea. There were hundreds of turtles out in the ocean – perhaps to come in that night. The first two photos (not mine) show what might have been with the turtles on the beach, and the remainder are of the hatchlings being returned. I have read many accounts of seeing thousands of turtles on the beach coming to lay their eggs so it was a big disappointment not to actually see the adults.

Turtles Returning to Lay Eggs
Ridley Olive Sea Turtle
Hatchlings in Container
Hundreds of Turtles Ready to Go
Dash to the Sea
Laughing Gull Grabs a Turtle

Probably related to the turtles/hatchlings presence, the place was a major gathering place for vultures – hundreds of Black Vultures and a much smaller number of Turkey Vultures. Up the beach there were also dozens of Wood Storks.

Black Vulture
Wood Stork

We would have lunch at the reserve office but while we waited we had a chance to relax and have some juice from freshly cut coconuts and then we found a couple more birds including better looks with photos at White Throated Magpie Jays than we had had before and more importantly to me a chance to see and “photograph” some Groove Billed Ani’s. I had seen them in Texas many years ago, and more recently in Peru and Belize but without photos. They were buried in thick brush and I had to wait until everyone had their long distance scope views before trying to get close – so not very good photos but still better than nothing. We also heard a lifer Happy Wren. No visual and no photo but heard very clearly and distinctly.

White Throated Magpie Jay
Groove Billed Ani

This was to be the last birding of the visit as it was necessary to attend to a very important matter on the agenda – a trip to a clinic in Puerto Escondido where we all had Covid-19 tests which were required to be able to board flights to return to the U.S. It was a very efficient operation and fortunately we and everyone else had negative results. The group had a last dinner together and the next morning most of the group left for a 5+ hour trip back to Oaxaca where they would fly out the next day for their returns to the U.S.. Cindy and I remained in Puerto Escondido that night and our flight would be from there to Mexico City the next morning and then from there to Seattle.

Sunday November 21 On our extra day we swam in the Pacific – down near the surfers but not with them. The water was warm and very pleasant. That night we had excellent fish tacos and walked around the part of the Zicatela area with restaurants and clubs densely populated by mostly unmasked young people – many from Canada, the U.S. and Europe but also many from Mexico City and Guadalajara. We kept our distance and kept our masks on tight.

Monday November 22 The flights back home were easy and pleasant. The disappointments aside – mostly on the birding front – it had been a good trip. Not great – but no mishaps, no lost baggage, no illness and worthwhile on many fronts. I had picked up a number of chiggers in the field somehow and they remained an unpleasant reminder for about a week. Someday I will remember to tuck my pants into my socks. About that birding. All told I had seen or heard167 species for the week. That included 33 new species for my World Life List. Those numbers may sound significant, but they were both very disappointing to me. Especially after checking other reports from Oaxaca in the same general time period, there could and maybe should have been 2 or even three times as many new species and another 80 or more species overall as well – IF the focus of the group and tour had been more about birds. Granted to achieve that it would have meant giving up at least some of the cultural activities. So probably that was somewhat inevitable given the nature of the tour – the reason we chose it in the first place. But even discounting that, in addition to the quantitative disappointments it was really the qualitative disappointment for the birds we actually did hear or see that was more troubling. Far too many of them were heard only or seen poorly and at a distance. The big exception of course was the wonderful visit to the Manialtepec Lagoon described above.

I had only been to Mexico once before – to Mazatlán more than 40 years ago – no birds. I really did not think of Mexico as a place for birds as my dreams led more to South America and I have been fortunate to have ha some great trips there and look forward to more. Now, however I have had a taste of the richness of birdlife in Mexico and can seen other visits for birds and more in the future. There are many other places higher on my “want list” but as a result of credits for recently canceled trips, there is money in my Alaska Airlines account that has to be spent soon. We had squeezed in this trip to Oaxaca before the Omicron Covid variant had seriously raised its very ugly head. We have had two trips canceled and there will be no travel for awhile, but there is money in my Alaska Airlines account from those cancellations which must be spent in 2022. Alaska does fly to Mexico – just maybe…

POSTSCRIPT

In rereading this and the previous post I noted that I had omitted photos of some other interesting non-avian nature from the trip – plants, insects and reptiles in specific. I am not really into them and do not try to learn correct identifications but they are enjoyable and I include a group of photos – without identification or stories – from the many places that we visited.

Adios…

Oaxaca, Mexico Part I – City and Mountains

I have mixed feelings and mixed reviews about this trip – probably why I have waited so long after returning to write this post. It was the first time that Cindy and I have traveled as part of a tour group. We chose the tour as a mix of birding and cultural attractions in an appealing place that neither of us had visited before. Promotional materials promised great weather, great food, great birds, great culture, interesting archaeological sights, vibrant arts and crafts, and a chance to visit local marketplaces and an interesting city. The tour would be 10 days (not including travel), was very reasonably priced and it seemed like the right mix of birding and other activities – a great first tour together. It did not exactly work out that way as the birding was disappointing – both objectively and compared to my expectations perhaps unduly influenced by my experience on many other tours that were admittedly focused on just birding for serious birders. Fortunately the other activities were great, so a good trip – just not a great one.

I am not going to identify the tour company because my negative review of the birding should not take away from the excellent job they did on all of the other parts of the tour. And I will add that it is not one of the larger major companies that I have traveled with before. It was just not a good match birding wise for me. The other people on the trip were either new birders or people with interests in birds but definitely not a driven interest to add to their lists, to get photos (I was the only person with a camera) or to push for closer/better views. Too often (almost always) the group settled for distant observations, often through scopes only, and spent far too much time looking at the same birds over and over. Repeatedly it was “What is that bird?” “It’s a Cassin’s (or Tropical) Kingbird”. (Yes, just like the dozens of Kingbirds that we saw before.) There were a couple of brief early morning walks before breakfast but too often (again almost always) the day did not start until well past the prime time for birding and big/long breakfasts and long lunches meant that less than ideal time was spent birding. That would have been fine on our great visits to archaeological sites or to craft studios – but birding is an early morning game – just not the game we were not playing.

My last negative comment on the birding part of the trip – but one that is emblematic of my disappointment relates to both quantity and quality. In a pre-trip analysis of possibilities, I identified over 80 species that were possible lifers for me. In the promotional material 27 of those species were highlighted as birds that “might be seen”. Of those 27, 16 were not seen at all. Another was seen only by myself and one of the leaders – apart from the group and then only for a split second. I saw four of the others on my own early morning walks (before the group breakfast) and had barely ID quality looks at two others. Not a great batting average. And it is not because the birds were not around. Some friends visited pretty much the same area about two weeks later. Granted they are great birders and their tour was hard driving looking for special birds and was not including other non-birding activities. I don’t have their final counts but know that in addition to all the birds we saw, they saw more than 50 species we did not that would have been lifers for me. (Sigh…) We did have some good birds and one extraordinary visit to a magical lagoon (which will be reported in the second part of this post). Others may have felt it was a great birding experience. Just not a good match for me. So much for the negative. Enough of that as there were lots of positives to share.

Wednesday November 10 – Cindy and I arrived in Oaxaca City a day early both to get some rest and to work better with flight schedules. We stayed at the Hotel con Corazon an OK hotel near the central market area and got in around 9:00 pm. We had not had dinner and asked the hotel folks for a recommendation. They sent us to a place about three blocks away called Tlayudas El Negro. Tlayudas are a Oaxacan specialty sometimes called a Oaxacan pizza. They are basically large tortillas flat on the plate with varying ingredients on top and usually with a sauce – mole or salsa. Although it was 9:30 when we got there, it was a festive atmosphere with local costumed dancers, music and a fun Day of the Dead theme. Many patrons joined in. We were tempted to join in but refrained. Maybe if we had had Margaritas earlier… Welcome to Oaxaca!!!

We were to be picked up the next afternoon and taken (with three other tour members) to the village of Teotitlan del Valle, where the tour would formally begin, so we had the next day to explore Oaxaca City – also called Oaxaca de Juarez. The State of Oaxaca has a population over 4 million and the Oaxaca Metropolitan area is about 700,000. Guidebooks describe special places to see, but mostly we wanted to just experience the atmosphere of the city, its markets, its restaurants and shops.

Thursday November 11. After breakfast, we headed to the Zocalo – the heart of the City with arcades, market stalls, parks, no cars, thousands of people – local and tourists, restaurants and cafes, music and color everywhere. It could hardly have been more different than our Edmonds home – people, goods, economy, architecture, food and everything else. Really fun.

Lunch was at an open air café on the main square with music in the air and people-watching as a main activity. I went for some Chorizo and Cindy had Enchilada Verde – tasty but not a repeat later. There will be more on the food later in this post. More importantly though, I had a chance to try some local “hot chocolate” getting to stir it myself – rich, creamy, chocolatey and good.

We especially enjoyed the couple at the next table.

Before leaving for our trip we had eaten at a Oaxacan restaurant in Edmonds and tried a Oaxacan specialty – chapulines – fried grasshoppers. They were available (by the thousands) at many stalls in the marketplace but this time we passed – once was enough. By the way as you can see in these pictures, mask wearing was taken seriously in Oaxaca. With maybe a single exception everyone we saw in the markets, on the streets and everywhere was wearing a mask. If only such were true in the U.S.

Chapulines – Fried Grasshoppers

There were dozens, probably hundreds of small stalls and shops in many blocks of markets – stacks of fresh fruit, or vegetables and particularly peppers. There was also a lot of meat, chickens and turkeys (live) and goods of every kind. Toys, clothing, electronic goods – everything. There were many stalls with the same goods and seemingly not many buyers and we wondered how anyone made any money. The sad truth is that many people do not. At least the cost of living is pretty low (certainly compared to the U.S,) for example an excellent latte was only $1.50 and beers were maybe $3.00. Two fish tacos were $4.25 (with sides).

Late in the afternoon we were picked up and headed off to Teotitlan where we would be spending the next few nights. A stop was made along the way so that people good get beer or wine which would not be available at our B&B. Not a necessity for me but for others, yes. We ended up going to a Walmart (so much for local color) for the purchase. Every person was masked and temperatures were taken of everyone begore entering. Teotitlan, in the foothills about 35 miles from Oaxaca, is a weaving center famous for naturally dyed carpets. We were staying at the La Cupula B&B owned by master weaver Demetrio Bautista. The area around La Cupula is good bird habitat and there was no way I was going to wait until dinner to start birding, so I ventured out on my own to explore. I was lucky to pick up my first lifer for the trip, a Greenish Elaenia, but the sun was going down so it was a short exploration. We had dinner there with 3 other tour members before the remainder of the group arrived and also had a short course on Mezcal, a potent alcoholic beverage made from agave cactus which are grown and harvested in the area. The remainder of the group arrived on schedule and after introductions and a briefing on what would follow on the tour, we retired to our comfortable rooms with breakfast scheduled for 9 the next morning.

Friday November 12. That late breakfast gave the late arrivers on Wednesday time to acclimate, but there was no way I could wait that long so I got out early after some coffee (excellent). In about 90 minutes I found 20 species including 4 more lifers: Dusky Hummingbird, Gray Breasted Woodpecker, Boucard’s Wren and White Throated Towhee. It turned out it would be my best looks for all of these species. This would often be the case on the trip – finding a number of species on my own or at least getting better looks alone due to the approach for the tour described earlier – me not being satisfied with long distance views.

Gray Breasted Woodpecker
White Throated Towhee
Boucard’s Wren

There would be many other sightings with the tour group, but again my best picture was on the morning walk on my own of a favorite anywhere – Vermilion Flycatcher.

Vermilion Flycatcher

With that late breakfast the first official tour stop was not until 10:30 at a small man-made lake not far from town. Among the 19 species seen there was another lifer – one that I would see and photograph almost daily on the tour – Berylline Hummingbird. Someday I still hope to find one in Arizona, but so far it has eluded me there.

Berylline Hummingbird (picture from the next morning)

Our next stops were in the mountains at elevations over 6000 feet, and while they included maybe my favorite bird of the trip, it was also a very disappointing day as the realities of the approach of the group as well as maybe just a bird poor day were very frustrating. The favorite bird was a Red Warbler – striking with its white cheek patch. I was lucky to get a decent photo as it was constantly in and out of dense foliage and was at least 50 yards away. A tougher bird to see was a Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Somehow I picked it out of the thick cover and got most of the others of the group onto it – even if briefly and again at a distance.

Red Warbler
Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer

A couple of people had a brief look at a Rufous-capped Warbler. I missed it but had seen one in Arizona several years ago – so at least I had not missed a lifer.

We returned to La Cupula and did some birding in the area behind the B&B where I had birded the evening before and that morning before the group left. There were a number of flycatchers: Tropical and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Greater Pewee and Social Flycatchers, with the best probably a Thick Billed Kingbird. I have seen them in Arizona at the famous Roadside Picnic area. There would be several others on the trip. As we were returning almost on cue a Lesser Nighthawk flew by. The people from the group who joined the walk got their first Boucard’s Wrens – possibly the same ones in the same place I had them earlier.

Thick Billed Kingbird

That evening we had a demonstration by Demetrio on how the beautiful carpets are made. All of the designs incorporate Zapotec motifs and all of the dyes are natural. It was fascinating to see how each color is made from the natural ingredients – lessons in chemistry and biology. Red comes from Cochineal beetles. blue from indigo and yellow from Marigolds with shading coming by adding acids (lime juice) or zinc. We watched him at work on one of his beautiful looms and learned that to make a single 5′ x 7′ rug could take 3 months – not including time for spinning the yarns or dyeing them.

Creating the dyes
Demetrio at work

Saturday November 13. The next morning I again went out on my own before breakfast) now a little “earlier” at 7:30. Again there were many Lark Sparrows and Curve Billed Thrashers, and Boucard’s Wrens. I got my first photo of a Dusky Hummingbird but my surprise bird was an unexpected Clay Colored Sparrow. They are seen each year in a few places in Washington but uncommon there. Regular in the Teotitlan area.

Lark Sparrow
Clay Colored Sparrow
Curve Billed Thrasher
Dusky Hummingbird

After breakfast we headed to the important archaeological site at Yagul where buildings were first constructed 500-700 AD with the ruins on site from the 13th to 16th centuries. This is an important historical site for the Zapotec culture – which is still alive in the mountains of Oaxaca. Later that day we also visited the archaeological site at Mitla and two days later we visited the much more impressive and larger site at Monte Alban. I will add much better photos from that visit. At Yagul there were also some birds with three more lifers: Beautiful Hummingbird, Gray Crowned Woodpecker and Black Vented Oriole. The view of the Woodpecker was distant and fleeting – no photo. The Black Vented Oriole was also distant but at least I got an ID photo. I can only blame myself for missing a good photo of the Beautiful Hummingbird – operator error. Nothing unusual or new bird-wise at Mitla and then it was back to La Cupula again.

Black Vented Oriole

Sunday November 14 The following morning about half the group finally got out early before breakfast to bird the area below the B and B. Maybe it was because of the size of the group, but it was very quiet with just 9 species and the only new bird being a Loggerhead Shrike. Granted I had spent much more time in the area on my walks alone but I had more than 30 species on those walks and I am sure I missed many by not knowing some calls. We bid adieu to La Cupula. It really had been a wonderful place to stay with good rooms and great hospitality. We purchased a rug from Demetrio which is now in our Edmonds kitchen. We wish we had bought others – beautiful pieces.

A little critical reflection: I had seen 12 lifers in those first three days and perhaps I should have been happy about that but I had expected many more with much better looks/interactions. But the food had been good, the archaeological sites interesting and the chance to learn about textiles had been wonderful. Cindy convinced me to lower expectations and reprioritize. So I did – well, mostly.

Our itinerary would include some more mountain birding in the Sierra Norte Highlands, a stop at the bustling market town of Tlacoula and then arrival in the City of Oaxaca. At one stop on the way to Tlacoula we had one of my favorite birds of the trip – a Gray Silky Flycatcher – closely related to the Phainopeplas of the Southwest in the U.S. – Lifer #13. We had a brief look at a Tufted Flycatcher and a few people got an equally brief look at a Buff Breasted Flycatcher – no photos. I had seen and photographed both of these flycatchers in Carr Canyon in Arizona in August 2017 so was not all that disappointed to miss photos here.

Gray Silky Flycatcher

Visiting the Tlacoula market was really fun – much like the Zocalo in Oaxaca but much much denser with more produce and especially meats, fewer tourists and food stalls rather than restaurants – more “organic”. Here, people were seemingly buying more goods than at Oaxaca and like Oaxaca, everyone was masked. We were struck by the number of stalls selling meat – mostly pork and chicken and a little beef. Some was being cooked on open charcoal grills, but mostly uncooked with constant attention to keep flies away. Unlike in Oaxaca, our group stood out as tourists and not Mexican.

That afternoon on the way to Oaxaca we made a mountain stop at Camino La Cumbre – Oeste. There we had another Red Warbler and another lifer – a Crescent Chested Warbler. I had a decent look at the latter but was unable to get a good photo as the bird darted from branch to branch and was never in the open. One has been seen this year in Arizona and I hope to add it to my ABA list someday. I am attaching a photo of one of several Crescent Chested Warblers seen by Laura Keene and others on her tour group which I have referred to at the start of this post. A very striking bird. The most frustrating part of the day was at a second mountain stop where we heard distant calls from Jays but no visuals until a couple of flocks flew overhead chattering – brief views only. These were almost certainly Dwarf Jays (a lifer) but possibly could have been White Throated Jays (also a lifer) which can be in the same habitat but are less common and less likely to be in larger flocks. There seemed to be little interest in actually getting good visuals and certainly no playback was used to entice them. They are lovely birds, so a major disappointment. Another not very birdy day at all and another stress was that my glasses and binoculars and camera were continuously fogged up making the few chances there to actually see anything extremely difficult and sometimes impossible.

Crescent Chested Warbler – Photo by Laura Keene

We checked in to our Hotel and had dinner with the group.

Monday November 15 The next morning was the archaeological highlight of the trip with a morning visit to Monte Alban. The following is the description of this World Heritage Site on the UNESCO website: “Monte Alban is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began. The archaeological site is known for its unique dimensions which exhibit the basic chronology and artistic style of the region and for the remains of magnificent temples, ball court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. The main part of the ceremonial centre which forms a 300 m esplanade running north-south with a platform at either end was constructed during the Monte Albán II (c. 300 BC-AD 100) and the Monte Albán III phases. Phase II corresponds to the urbanization of the site and the domination of the environment by the construction of terraces on the sides of the hills, and the development of a system of dams and conduits. The final phases of Monte Albán IV and V were marked by the transformation of the sacred city into a fortified town. Monte Albán represents a civilization of knowledge, traditions and artistic expressions. Excellent planning is evidenced in the position of the line buildings erected north to south, harmonized with both empty spaces and volumes. It showcases the remarkable architectural design of the site in both Mesoamerica and worldwide urbanism.” These photos give only a hint of the site in its current partially restored state and let our imagination try to picture what it looked like in its past splendor.

Towards the end our visit, I went off with one of our guides to get in some birding. It was “almost” a great move. The guide knew a side trail that was promising and started with a large tree against a rocky hill. As we got to the tree, a sparrow was foraging on the ground. Unfortunately the trail was closed off and as we got to the wire blocking access the sparrow flew up into the tree – in the open for a split second and then it was gone, The momentary view was sufficient to see the strong facial pattern of a Oaxaca Sparrow – an endemic that was high on my want list for the trip. Then it was gone – no photo and especially disappointing since it was the only Oaxaca Sparrow seen on the entire trip despite often being in perfect habitat. Sigh…

We returned to Oaxaca with a chance to explore the City. Cindy and I had done that on our first day so we went to different places including a visit to the Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Architecturally different but largely thematically the same as most major cathedrals. Later we visited a lovely small textile museum with truly exquisite pieces. A mélange of photos.

On our own that night we enjoyed a potent Mezcalrita (Margarita with Mezcal) and dinner at a small restaurant and then strolled the city. It was a very lovely temperature without humidity and the atmosphere was very pleasant and we easily could have believed ourselves to be somewhere in Europe. As mentioned before, prices were low throughout the trip at least for food and drink. In general dinner for two was less than $25.00 and drinks were much less than in the U.S.

Mezcalritas

Tuesday November 16 Leaving Oaxaca we would travel to the Sierra Madre del Sur with a stop in the morning at the studio of Jacobo and Maria Angeles in the town of San Martin Tilcajete – famous for Alebrijes – beautifully and intricately painted carvings of fanciful animal figures using copal wood and mostly natural colorings. We were given a demonstration of each step of the production process and got to see many spectacular pieces – finished and in process. I would have loved to bring a piece home but found that the shipping costs were just too high. The photos are of the process and the products.

The Studio

This owl is similar to the one I tried to buy at the studio. It is available online with hundreds of other carvings at prices that range from $25 to many thousands of dollars. Tempting although not the same as buying it on the trip itself directly from the studio.

That afternoon was another somewhat disappointing birding time despite adding 5 lifers. We had checked in at the Puesta del Sol Restaurant and Cabanas and did some birding in the area – undoubtedly our best hummingbird experience of the trip. Also our best lodging in many ways – a lovely private cabana set in the forest with a lovely view. I guess it was a compliment that the leaders gave us the cabin the furthest down a steep hill. It was a challenge (barely met) hauling our suitcases back up when we left – tough breathing at more than 8000 feet up.

La Cabanas Puesta del Sol

Definitely our best hummingbirds. Species seen were Mexican Violetear, Bumblebee Hummingbird, White Eared Hummingbird and Berylline Hummingbird. The first two were lifers with great looks at the latter and maybe only a very poor two second view of the former. There seemed to be White Eared hummers everywhere but it was very hard to get photos. I guess the disappointment was mostly because it was clearly great habitat but like almost everywhere else on our trip there were no feeders. If the places we stayed (or visited) had feeders I think there would have been great birding and photo ops. It just is not done there.

Bumblebee Hummingbird

The look at the Violetear may have been poor and brief, but at least it was a look. Our guide got a quick look at a Rufous Capped Brushfinch but for me it was a single heard only – distinctive enough but it sure would have been nice to get a look and of course a photo. In the ABA I would not have included it as a new lifer. Another heard only lifer was a Long Tailed Wood Partridge. This is a reclusive species I did not expect to see on the tour. Well no visual but several very clear good calls. The last lifer was a Brown Backed Solitaire barely visible in the fading light but an okay ID photo and also again distinctive calls.

Brown Backed Solitaire

The group had dinner that night at an Italian Restaurant -La Taberna de Los Duendes – Tavern of the Goblins in San Jose del Pacifico. We were a bit tired of the Mexican fare we had until then so it was a welcomed change. Cindy ordered steak and I had a pasta dish. The food was excellent and very reasonably priced – but the servings were HUMONGOUS!! I could barely finish half of mine even though it was one of the best I have had. Cindy barely made it through a third of her meal which was also excellent. Maybe a bit more expensive than other meals we had – maybe $40 for the two together, but we would have been happy paying the same price for half the quantity. Cindy had taken a “doggie bag” intending to give it owners of a shy but beautiful dog we had seen earlier. A well fed dog was waiting outside the restaurant as we departed. Cindy could not resist and parted with part of the steak. We are sure the dog knew this drill from previous overstuffed patrons.

Excellent!!

Wednesday November 17 The next morning some of the group got out before breakfast and we were rewarded with another Bumblebee Hummingbird and another Brown Backed Solitaire (again hidden in the foliage) and views of a couple of Slate Throated Redstarts – another lifer. I had decent views but had trouble getting a decent picture of the very active warbler. It is closely related to the Painted Redstart – another Arizona specialty and a species I have seen once in Washington – the only record there. Although I have seen many in Arizona, I have always had trouble getting a good photo – partially because of its high activity level but I also think because the camera’s autofocus has trouble with its color mix – at least that’s my excuse and one I will use for this photo as well.

Slate Throated Redstart

We birded the same area after breakfast and then boarded our van and headed out. We continued to have good birds and I added another 4 lifers and got a great photo of a species I had first seen in Costa Rica in 1997 and which only very rarely appears in the U.S. – a Flame Colored Tanager – hopefully someday I will see one there. The new lifers were Cinnamon Hummingbird, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Rufous Naped Wren and the oddly named Common Chlorospingus.

Cinnamon Hummingbird
Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Rufous Naped Wren
Common Chlorospingus
Flame Colored Tanager

It may have been our best birding day so far but there would be a big disappointment. Willy, our eagle eyed van driver had spotted a number of good birds during our trip – just great eyes – no binoculars. As we drove on a main road – with very little traffic, he spotted a trogon. Trogons are of course among the most highly treasured birds in the tropics. We stopped and strained for visuals out the windows. Had I been on my own (or possibly on a tour with a group with a different focus/approach) I would have found a way to get out of the van for a good look. It was not to be and I was only able to get a contorted view and a photo through the window in the few seconds before we moved on. Unfortunately the poor photo confirmed that it was “only” a Collared Trogon and not the more highly sought after Mountain Trogon which would have been a lifer. Sadly there would be no more Trogons on the trip.

We arrived at our next lodging Finca Don Gabriel around 4:00 and after settling in got in a little birding on the grounds. More than 200 Vaux’s Swifts put on quite a show and we added several species to our trip list including a lifer heard only Collared Forest Falcon. A Common Black Hawk flew overhead but I was not quick enough to get a photo. It is a species I have seen once in the ABA area but with no photo. The disappointment of the missed photo would be more than made up for later in the tour. We were treated to several tropical species that I have seen elsewhere: Red Legged Honeycreepers, Masked Tityra, Boat Billed Flycatcher and a Dusky Capped Flycatcher. I had seen the latter in Arizona a couple of times as well as in Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil as well as a first state record ever in Washington State. I had also seen the others in Costa Rica, Trinidad, Peru, Brazil and/or Belize.

Red Legged Honeycreeper Female
Boat Billed Flycatcher

Thursday November 18 The good birding continued the next morning beginning with two calling Mottled Owls, and several Northern Emerald Toucanets, the former a lifer and the latter previously seen in Costa Rica and Belize. A flock of lifer Orange Fronted Parakeets flew over – no picture but that would be remedied later. Everyone got great looks at an Ivory Billed Woodcreeper – another species I had seen previously in Belize. There was some dispute over a vireo sighting with it first being thought to be a Black Capped Vireo. My picture unfortunately showed it to be the more common Blue Headed Vireo.

Northern Emerald Toucanet
Ivory Billed Woodcreeper

After breakfast, we were back on the road and at our first stop Oaxaca El Zapote-Copalita I had three more lifers – heard only Russet Crowned Motmot and Golden Cheeked Woodpecker and a very distant view of White Throated Magpie Jays. I would get a photo of the Jays later and somehow either missed or deleted a photo of the Woodpecker again seen later. A Squirrel Cuckoo seen buried in the foliage was a great trip bird – not a lifer as I had seen them on Brazil, Peru and Costa Rica. We had an essentially bird-less lunch on the road and continued the long drive to the Coast and our lodging for the next two nights at Puerto Escondido. That story will be told in Part II of this post.

I had seen 119 species of which 28 were added to my World Life List. There were a few good photos but too many misses. The birding and certainly the photography would get better. There was no question however that we had some wonderful non-birding experiences: markets, ruins and craft centers being the highlights. The scenery had been beautiful, the places we stayed very nice and all the people we met very friendly. There had been no glitches, no problems. Fortunately this would continue.

The Species Do Add Up

In 2018 and 2019 much of my birding was tied to my 50/50/50 quest to find 50 species on 50 individual days in each of the 50 American states. Although I often did so on single days on my own, an essential part of the adventure was to go out with local birders on the designated day – not just to gain from their expertise but also to experience the diversity of birders and birding throughout our incredibly diverse country. We were successful in finding 50 species usually with many species to spare. In my wrap up I acknowledged that I have seen 50 species on a single day many times in my home state of Washington. When you are on familiar turf visiting good areas most times of the year it is not that hard to do. Yesterday did not start out that way, but that did become the goal as I again headed north to Fir Island hoping for something special at Wyle Slough or Hayton Reserve – maybe a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper which has continued to confound me this year.

Wylie Slough Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – 2018

When yet again I failed to correctly decipher the tidal pattern in the area, the hopes for something special morphed into just enjoying the beautiful day, seeing what I could find. The day started at Wylie Slough where the only shorebirds were the normal fare – Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Long Billed Dowitchers, Killdeer and Western Sandpipers and an often present but more often missed Wilson’s Snipe. No Baird’s, no Pectorals or Semipalmated and definitely no Sharp Tailed. But one of the many blackbirds that flew over was a Yellow Headed Blackbird – it and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were good birds for the area. The pig-like grunt of a Virginia Rail confirmed its presence and the ever present but E-bird rare Black Phoebe was seen flycatching at the parking area – another good “tick”.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs – Wylie Slough
Yellow Rumped Warbler – Wylie Slough
Hooded Merganser with Fish – Wylie Slough

Although the tide was completely wrong, there were birds at Hayton – hundreds or even thousands of them, but they were mostly scope views only – into the sun and with heat shimmers making viewing difficult. There were at least a thousand shorebirds but almost entirely unidentifiable even at 30X magnification. But I got lucky and the Pacific Golden Plover that has been there for several days just happened to catch some sun as my scope picked out the few “larger” birds in the distant mud, joined by a few Black Bellied Plovers. Odds are decent that there may have been something “good” among the other shorebirds but I just could not make out anything in detail. The same was true for waterfowl. Definitely some Mallards and Canada Geese, but what were those other hundreds of ducks? Green Winged Teal, yes but I was not quite plugged in to a goal of 50+ species for the day, so I just noted “duck sp.” on Ebird.

I had not yet thought to try for a 50 species day but when I ended the stay at Hayton Reserve, I was surprised to find that I had seen 33 species at Wylie and even with the poor tide and without yet trying I had added 10 species for the day at Hayton including a Merlin that zipped right past me and a Savannah Sparrow that dove for cover as it did. I always like having a ‘target” for my day and decided I would go for that 50 species goal, even though I was not planning to be out all day. Although I expected the tide would be wrong there. too, I thought I would try for new shorebirds at Channel Drive where a few days earlier there had been a number of Semipalmated and Baird’s Sandpipers. No mud at all, thus no shorebirds, but there were hundreds of swallows including both Cliff and Northern Rough Winged in the area and with a Raven and Red Tailed Hawk, I was now at 47 species for the day. Surely there would be a few more.

Call me thick or call me obstinate or more positively call me determined. I still wanted to find some special shorebirds so I stopped at Eide Road as I headed home. A Belted Kingfisher was on a shrub as I turned into the area and an American Kestrel was perched on the wire right above the parking lot and the always present Rock Pigeons were there as well. So that got me to 50 species before even getting out of the car, but ending a day with a Rock Pigeon would just not do. Surely there had to be something out there even though the water level was high there as well. I saw a few shorebirds as I scanned the area so I got out the camera and scope and hiked part way out the dike. A small group of peeps included both Least and Western Sandpipers and a Semipalmated Plover was foraging near some Black Bellied Plovers. There may have been some Least Sandpipers at Wylie Slough and I am sure there were some in the massive distant group at Hayton, but these were for sure and with the Semipalmated Plover were new of the day. There was a massive flock of Caspian Terns about 300 yards out and a few Short Billed (formerly Mew) Gulls were mixed in – another add for the day.

Semipalmated Plover – Eide Road
Black Bellied Plover – Eide Road
American Kestrel – Eide Road

As I was about to return to the car, I saw two birders with bins and a scope coming towards me. They had been birding where the dike turns west and I wondered if they had seen something special. It turned out they had – or maybe they had. They thought they had seen a juvenile Elegant Tern in the group of 100+ Caspian Terns. There are no records of Elegant Tern in Washington for 2021 and they have never been reported in Snohomish County, so this would have been a mega rarity. These were experienced birders and based their ID on the bill being yellower and shorter than the Caspian’s and most importantly on yellowish legs. With fingers crossed I carefully scanned the entire flock in my scope with them but found no individual with those fieldmarks which would be good for a juvenile Elegant Tern. They had taken some very distant photos and wanted to check them before posting on Ebird. I have not seen any such reports on Ebird last night or today, so I guess the photos were not supportive. That did add some adrenalin to the day for sure. My picture below is from 2015, the last time I have seen them in Washington – at the Tokeland Marina which used to be the go to spot for them in the State.

Elegant Terns – Tokeland Marina 2015

On the way back to the car, I had a couple of Purple Finches and a Cedar Waxwing, so I was now at 55 species for the day, but without question I would have traded them all for a single Elegant Tern. Sigh…

Before getting home, I decided I would stop at the Edmonds Fishing Pier hoping to add a few more ticks for the day list. As I was walking out to the pier, a woman with binoculars asked me if I was coming to see the Auklet. She said a man named “Steve” out there could show me. I did not know her and assumed she was referring to a Rhinoceros Auklet which are common there. Turned out that “Steve” was good friend Steve Pink and he indeed had his scope on a small alcid maybe 150 yards out. He was trying to make it into a Cassin’s Auklet – very rare but not impossible there and which had been reported flying by earlier in the day. Sadly we could only ID it as a Marbled Murrelet – always nice to see but not at all rare. About a minute after Steve said he had seen a Parasitic Jaeger there the previous day, one flew right overhead. It was so quick I could not get my camera on it. The one the day earlier had been a dark form and this was a light form adult–beautiful bird. The Murrelet and Jaeger were of course new for the day, as were a Red Necked Grebe, Heerman’s Gulls, Surf Scoters, Pigeon Guillemots, an Osprey and a Pelagic Cormorant. Steve was heading to Lake Ballinger where Ann Marie Wood was going to show him a roosting spot for a Barn Owl that had been found by another Edmonds birder, Alan Knue.

I joined Steve and Ann Marie took us to the tree where the owl had been roosting. We found several “regurgitated pellets” and some whitewash (aka owl poop) and I saw a couple of feathers in the branches but we could not locate the owl – until after maybe 10 minutes, Ann Marie somehow found its heart shaped faced buried deeply in the foliage. Owls are always special and it was nice to see it with Steve and Ann Marie, two of the people I have missed most during the COVID caused isolation of the past 18 months.

Buried Barn Owl – Lake Ballinger

Back home I added Anna’s Hummingbird and Spotted Towhee to the day’s list which reached 66 species and it was only 2:00 pm – not even 5 hours of birding. And of course, my thoughts turned to what “might have been”. Even without a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper or an Elegant Tern, and staying just in the areas where I had birded there were so many “could-have-beens” with either some luck and more effort. Birds that were not seen but would have been for sure adds include: House Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Double Crested Cormorant, Rhinoceros Auklet, Bewick’s and Marsh Wrens, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Common Yellowthroat, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Harlequin Duck, American Coot, California and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Mourning Dove, Short Billed Dowitcher, Common Murre, Turkey Vulture, Northern Flicker, Chestnut Backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Bushtit, and Dark Eyed Junco. At least another 10 or so would be possible with hard work. So…a hundred species in a day is definitely doable. September is only half way done – maybe it’s worth a try.

Puffins and Pipers – August 2021

During the birding doldrums of July when birds are less active and relatively quiet, there was no question that the highlight was the previously reported pelagic trip on July 24th. As happens every year, with August, energy returns to the birding world and to birders as migration begins and shorebirds return to – well our shores – first slowly and then in numbers that will build throughout August and into September. With the exception of my big month of July, this year in general has been less active than any in the previous decade and I do have a wedding approaching (in now just 10 DAYS!!!). But you just have to get out in August. Here’s what I have been up to.

I started the month with a return to the coast preceded by a visit to a favored haunt of Hermit Warblers in the Capitol Forest south and west of Olympia. I was fortunate to find two of these little gems as there was no singing. Even more fortunately I did not get lost like I have on some other visits. It was then back to Westport where I had missed Marbled Godwits and Wandering Tattlers on my pre-pelagic visit in May. The pelagic trip the following week reported that the Marbled Godwits were back in the marina and that the flock included a Bar Tailed Godwit as it had in several previous years. I found the flock – many hundred Godwits – and one paler, grayer, smaller bird was visible buried in its midst. It was the rare Bar Tailed Godwit – no photo op but an easy ID. Later at the other end of the marina near the “groins” where I again did not find a Wandering Tattler, a small group of Godwits flew overhead – and the Bar Tailed was included. Finding a Bar Tailed Godwit makes up for missing a Wandering Tattler in Washington anytime!!

There were not as many birds on the open beach as there had been on my pre-pelagic visit in July, possibly a function of the tides, but finding three Snowy Plovers one of which was banded was great. Again none of the larger shorebirds were seen – only Western Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderlings. As you can see it from the picture, it was quite gray – but at least no rain. Tides were not good for Bottle Beach, and Ocean Shores was just too much of an additional trip for the day, so after Westport I returned home with three new species for the year and still no Tattler.

Banded Snowy Plover

The following Sunday was a really fun day. Ed Pullen had organized a private trip to Smith Island with the promise of Puffins including possibly the Horned Puffin that had been seen intermittently among the Tufted Puffins. The weather forecast was iffy on Saturday, but as is often the case, the weather forecast was wrong and it was a picture perfect day. Our boat (usually used for whale watching trips) left the marina at Anacortes in the late afternoon, full of eager birders. Cindy was able to come along and except for not finding the Horned Puffin, we could not have asked for a better trip. Tufted Puffins nest on Smith Island together with many Rhinoceros Auklets, the nest burrows visible at the top of the cliffs in shallow layers of soil. It was hard to know exactly how many birds we saw because the boat crisscrossed the large area many times, but best estimates were about 2 dozen Tufted Puffins and between 500 and 1000 Rhinoceros Auklets. Other alcids were Pigeon Guillemots and Common Murres.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Rhinoceros Auklet
Common Murre – Seen in Several Plumages
Pigeon Guillemot

After a long visit to Smith Island we stopped at Williamson Rocks on our return. This gave us wonderful views of Pigeon Guillemots, Heerman’s Gulls, Black Oystercatchers and nesting Pelagic and Double Crested Cormorants. We also had a few Short Billed Gulls (formerly Mew Gulls) and many California Gulls which had been abundant around Smith Island.

Pigeon Guillemots
Heerman’s Gull
Pelagic Cormorant Nesting on Buoy
Double Crested Cormorant on Nest
Black Oystercatcher
Short Billed Gull (Formerly Mew Gull)

Good weather, good birds and good company and great scenery as well. Maybe the Horned Puffin will return for another try next year.

Abandoned House on Smith Island – See Burrows below Grass
Lighthouse Scene

Two days later on August 10th, I got the chance to atone for the Wandering Tattler misses as one returned to the beach at Alki in West Seattle where it had been seen last year as well. There were two birders there when I arrived who said they had had great looks moments before but it was now hiding on the other side of some large rocks. As I approached, it flew off – a countable but very unsatisfactory view. I scrambled over rocks and some seaweed to look for it around the pilings of a condo complex over the water where it had flown and then disappeared. It took some time, but eventually it came into view. Not great light but an interesting backdrop for a photo.

Wandering Tattler

Other birders arrived as I was leaving and the Tattler has remained in the area for the past ten days. A bird I could not chase was an adult Sharp Tailed Sandpiper that was found at Lind Coulee in Moses Lake Washington. I have seen several juveniles in Western Washington and hope that another will still show up (I have generally seen them in September), but I just could not get away for the three hour trip one way.

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – Lind Coulee – Photo by Denny Granstand

I could not make it to Lind Coulee for the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper, but it is August and for me August is definitely the month for Stilt Sandpipers. I had missed one in the Spring but Greg Harrington found one at Wylie Slough and I had a chance to search for it on Saturday August 14th. It was constantly playing hide and seek with logs and reeds and it was not in the close pool where Greg had seen it, but with mega-magnification I was able to get a decent photo.

Stilt Sandpiper

In another photo I was able to capture something noted by David Sibley, that due to its longer legs and shorter bill, the Stilt Sandpiper has to bend more forward than Dowitchers to reach the same food. I checked my records and found that I have 24 Stilt Sandpiper reports on Ebird for Washington. Two are from July and 4 are from September. The other 18 are all August – definitely an early fall migrant.

Long Billed Dowitcher and Stilt Sandpiper

I had seen Greg Harrington’s name on a lot of Ebird reports and he had been compiling a long list of birds for Washington this year. I had never met him and really knew only that he was from Seattle. On Monday the 16th, that all changed. A Pacific Golden Plover had been reported by David Poortinga at Bos Lake on Whidbey Island. I had a free day and made the trek. On any chase (“twitch” as the Brits say), a good rule is to look for other birders when you arrive. Hopefully they have scopes, cameras or binoculars trained on a bird and if so there is a good chance that the bird is the one you are hoping to see. Bos Lake is a somewhat largish pond/lake that is immediately across a road and some homes from Puget Sound and is adjacent to a marshy reedy expanse. I don’t know if it is affected by tides or if it is salt water, fresh water or brackish. When I arrived I was not at all sure where to start looking for the Golden Plover but I saw some shorebirds and ducks out in the water and stopped at the southern end to look. It was only then that I saw another birder with a scope (not seemingly focused on anything in particular) a couple hundred yards from where I had parked. My quick view of the lake did not come up with any plovers so I figured I would check with the other birder.

It turned out to be Greg Harrington. He thought he had seen the Pacific Golden Plover earlier but was not seeing it then. He pointed to an area at least 75-100 yards away where a few Black Bellied Plovers were visible. The Golden Plover was not among them. Over the next 15 minutes or so we traded birding stories. I learned that he was pretty new to birding but had jumped in with both feet and had visited a number of great birding areas around the U.S. and was doing a somewhat late started Big Year for Washington with a goal of seeing 340 species in the State for 2021. It is intersections like this that are some of the best parts of birding. Sharing stories, learning about new places and new details about familiar birds. A young woman joined us. While not a birder, she was developing an interest in birds and had begun the learning process we all go through including the misidentifications and the development of knowledge and skills that are an unending and very rewarding process as we learn more and spend more time with books, in the field and with others. We were able to show her some of the birds through our scopes but still no Pacific Golden Plover. I have had many other such experiences over the years and there is nothing better, especially when you can see the roots of what might well become a passionate interest and the birth of a new birder.

Although we never saw it fly in, maybe 15 minutes after our young friend left, I noticed a plover that was smaller than the Black Bellied Plovers and finally got a good view to confirm that we had refound the Pacific Golden Plover. It was pretty far out and the light was pretty poor, but I was able to get some supporting photos. Of course it is always nice to find a targeted bird, but I was particularly pleased because this was species #330 for the year in Washington. I have done a number of Big Years in Washington over the past decade, but as I said earlier, this year was less active than almost any other in the past decade. Last year was somewhat similar with activity limited by COVID-19 and my developing relationship with Cindy Bailey and I had ended the year with 330 species, so this would at least match that Covid restricted number. Actually a few days later I found that in 2020 I had actually only seen 329 species because Northwestern Crow is no longer given species status and all Ebird counts have been adjusted accordingly.

Pacific Golden Plover – Bos Lake

The arrival of a Pacific Golden Plover is further evidentiary support of the beginnings of the Autumn Shorebird Migration. Other shorebirds were not abundant at Bos Lake, but we also had Semipalmated and Black Bellied Plovers, Least and Western Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Killdeer. Other shorebird species seen earlier in the month brought the total to 19 species. There would be 3 more shorebird species seen over the next few days making it 22 species seen in August and 38 shorebird species in Washington for the year. Not too bad.

My last birding for the month was on August 19th when I added a Pectoral Sandpiper for the month and an American Golden Plover for the year, the latter being at Hayton Reserve and the former at Wylie Slough where Stilt Sandpipers were seen again in addition to the usual peeps, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Killdeer. Yes, no more birding this month unless something REALLY REALLY good shows up and even then NOT if it is on the 28th or 29th, because Cindy Bailey and I are getting married on the 29th and there are pre-wedding events the day before. This is one time I cannot say “I’d rather be birding”.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs – Wylie Slough
Black Bellied Plovers – Bos Lake

POSTSCRIPT: August 23rd. I may have missed a photo of the Bar Tailed Godwit at Westport but this morning I was able to get a photo of the REALLT REALLY good Bar Tailed Godwit that Maxine Reid found at Tulalip Bay yesterday. I also had a FOY Red Knot and a pretty rare in Washington Ruddy Turnstone. It was a nice day indeed.

Bar Tailed Godwit

A New Marsh, Some Familiar Haunts and Back to the Coast and the Sea

I miss writing. My last blog post was June 16th chronicling the very cooperative Costa’s Hummingbird that visited Walter Szeliga’s yard in Ellensburg and stayed for almost two weeks. A wonderful bird and a very gracious host. Birding has been fairly limited since then attributable both to the slowness of birding in July and my concentration being elsewhere as my wedding to Cindy Bailey approaches later this month. At least I have my priorities right. But I found that I do have some trips to write up despite a relatively quiet two months since that last blog past with less momentous sightings and and not the best weather on one of them – they were good escapes from my “To Do List”.

I have been birding in Washington for almost 50 years and until this year I had never even heard of Veazie Marsh near Enumclaw in Southeast King County. On June 24th after seeing a pretty impressive list of good birds highlighted by a White Faced Ibis that returned after an absence of more than a week, I finally decided to make the trek. That was a good decision. The Ibis was not immediately present but both Blue Winged and Cinnamon Teals cooperated and I was able to get a photo of the American Bittern that flew in and disappeared for a moment in the thick grass. Always a good bird.

American Bittern

It wasn’t long afterwards that I finally spied the White Faced Ibis and despite the distance was able to get the prized photo. I had missed the White Faced Ibis at Ridgefield Refuge earlier so this was my first record of this species in Western Washington. Afterwards another birder told me of a great spot to find Virginia Rails and it was great advice as two came out for photo sessions.

White Faced Ibis
Virginia Rail

For the next month, birding was limited to my home turf at Point Edwards in Edmonds with the highlight being a First of Year Heerman’s Gull. I can see the Edmonds marina and fishing pier from my new condo and these gulls return to the marina every year. My first one was seen on June 30th. On July 9th I was able to get away for a couple of hours and saw very distant Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpipers at Eide Road – no photos – and then for zillionth time saw the “rare” Black Phoebe which has been present for years at Wylie Road. Also a nice photo of a Yellow Warbler.

Black Phoebe
Yellow Warbler

In the Year (Plus) of Covid, the biggest loss was the loss of birding with friends. There had been unplanned intersections where I ran into friends out in the field but no collaborative trips. On July 22nd I finally had the chance to join friends Jon and Kathleen Houghton on a trip to Beckler Road specifically looking for a Sooty Grouse – a new 2021 species for all of us. I have had good luck with this species at this location in the past, and luck held again as we found a hen and 4 chicks walking up the gravel road and we also heard a male booming close by. This is the first year in many that I have not made the trek to Sun Mountain Lodge where Dusky Grouse are almost guaranteed and I had missed Sharp Tailed Grouse earlier, so this was a very welcomed “chicken”.

Sooty Grouse

And one of the best ways to bird with friends is to join them on a Pelagic trip with the fabulous team of Westport Seabirds. I had tried to join them on earlier trips but the boats were full so the first time I could go out was on July 24th. I always head down to the coast the day earlier and try to find shorebirds at favorite places. Late July is not the best time for this pursuit but it would have to do. I had not yet seen Short Billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, Red Knots or Wandering Tattlers in 2021 and figured I would find at least two of these species on this trip. Wrong. Thousands of Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers on the open beach where there were also small numbers of Sanderlings (in breeding plumage), Least Sandpipers and a single Snowy Plover, but not a single large shorebird there or at Westport or at Bottle Beach where there were only a handful of shorebirds – total. There were the usual Willets at Tokeland where there was also a single Short Billed Dowitcher, my only shorebird FOY of the day – joined by my first Brown Pelican of the Year first seen at Tokeland and then by the dozens at Westport.

Snowy Plover
Sanderlings – Breeding Plumage
Brown Pelican

I knew the pelagic trip would bring many new species, but the great hope was for a close encounter with a Short Tailed Albatross. One had been seen recently and although I had seen one in Washington and even had a picture, it was a poor one and the sighting on the earlier trip was up close and very photo friendly. My hopes were high but when the marina was fully enveloped by fog, there was some doubt and this concern increased as the trip started very slowly with a bumpy passage over the bar and far fewer birds seen than usual as we headed west. At first it did not appear that there were any trawlers/fishing boats to chase but Captain Phil found first one and then many and they became our target. When we intersected them, things really picked. Even so at first despite many hundreds of birds, there was not great diversity – Sooty and Pink Footed Shearwaters, Fork Tailed Storm Petrel, a few Cassin’s Auklets, Black Footed Albatrosses, Northern Fulmars and a single Red Necked Phalarope. All were new for the year as was a juvenile Tufted Puffin but hopes were for much more. It would have been nice to have some sunshine as well. Not great for photos, but there was no rain and the seas were calmer on our return.

Black Footed Albatross
Cassin’s Auklet
Sooty Shearwater
Pink Footed Shearwater
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
Northern Fulmar Dark Phase
Red Necked Phalarope
Tufted Puffin Juvenile

Sadly no Laysan or Short Tailed Albatross and there were only single sightings of Sabine’s Gull and Parasitic Jaeger – seen by only one or two people. The boat headed west to deeper water hoping for new species. Forty miles out after seeing almost no birds, we stopped and chummed to attract some new ones. Chumming can be super productive and exciting, but not this time. The conclusion was that all of the birds were back at the fishing boats so we turned east and returned to those bird magnets. And the birds were there, the ones we had seen earlier including more and now several more species. The best was a Flesh Footed Shearwater. One birder thought he may have seen one earlier and now we all got decent looks. We also had great looks at Short Tailed Shearwaters – often a difficult ID. A couple of Sabine’s Gulls flew close and we had two Arctic Terns – seen on very few trips. A brief distant look at a single Leach’s Storm Petrel but we had good looks at a Parasitic Jaeger and a Pomarine Jaeger and later a South Polar Skua – and another would be seen later.

The Boats We Look for with Birds in Tow
Flesh Footed Shearwater
Northern Fulmar Light Phase
Pomarine Jaeger
Sabine’s Gull
Parasitic Jaeger
Arctic Tern – Apologies for Poor Photo
Short Tailed Shearwater
South Polar Skua

Still no really really rare birds and not a hoped for Buller’s Shearwater or any Red Phalaropes but now an excellent pelagic list and a better than expected 16 new species for the year. But I had expected a chance for Wandering Tattler on the jetty rocks on our return trip and expected many Marbled Godwits on the barges as we returned to the marina. But we had spent longer than usual at the productive trawlers and thus did not go by the jetty and for who knows why there were NO godwits at the marina.

It has often felt like a slow and not very productive year but there have been more than the normal number of new state birds and my species count to date is not that far behind other years that ended with pretty good numbers. That will not be the case this year and the drive is not there and I am not planning to do many more trips. But I just finished one – a Puffin Cruise organized by Ed Pullen and that will get top billing on my next post.

A Costa’s Hummingbird Picks the Right Yard

Sunday June 13th was supposed to be a day when Cindy and I could attend to our “to do” list without commitments to anyone else, no places to go and no social engagements ahead. There were a few things to still move from #217 to #207, details to work on for our wedding now about 10 weeks away, but compared to most of the past 6 weeks, a pretty slow and quiet day. I had done a marathon birding trip to Eastern Washington 10 days earlier and was considering another one the next week when Cindy would be off to Lake Chelan with her “game game gals”, but there was nothing pulling me out into the field – no bird to chase.

At 10:30 a.m. still reading the New York Times, sipping my coffee, and comfy in PJ’s and bathrobe, an Ebird message popped up on my phone. Good friend and excellent birder Deb Essman had reported a Costa’s Hummingbird in “the grasslands” in Kittitas County. The report said it had been found the previous day by Walter Szeliga, another excellent birder. The description was right on – this was for real. I immediately texted Deb, got a confirmation, followed with a quick call getting directions, and playing out Rule 1 – “Go Now” – hit the shower and was on the road by 10:45 a.m. It was 126 miles to the target which turned out to be at Walter’s home. With no traffic and no stops, it should take less than two hours via freeway. I had to get gas and there was a brief traffic tie up, although it was Sunday. Even so I was at Walter’s House by 1:00 p.m. No birders there…how about the bird?

Some background. Costa’s Hummingbirds are generally found in low desert and semi-arid habitats in Southern California and Arizona in the U.S. and is resident in Mexico. It is among the smallest of our hummingbirds and the male is easily identified with a short bill, a long flared purple gorget and a white “eyebrow”. I had recently seen them at three locations in Arizona and had numerous sightings in Southern California. I had NEVER seen one in Washington where they are very rare with only a handful of Ebird records – the latest being a single observation at a feeder in 2013. Although 2021 has been a great year for new State birds for me, as the State Life List grows, additions are getting harder, thus my decision to Go Now.

Walter was in Wenatchee at a Little League Game with his son. Although there was a chance to see the hummer from the street, entering the yard would be better. I parked on the quiet street and walked down the driveway to the front door and knocked. Stacey Szeliga was home and it was immediately apparent from my binoculars and camera, that this was not a social call. But in fact it turned out to be that as well as we had a nice visit, finding out that although she was not a birder, she knew a lot about birds and her family had generations of birders dating back to one who knew John James Audubon. She told me where the Costa’s had been seen and let me roam free. The most likely spot would be a roost on some bare poplars bordering her yard and the one adjacent next to the driveway. There was also a small feeder at eye level at the end of the driveway. It had not been seen there, but it added reasons for it to remain and feed.

As is clear from many of my other writings, it often does not happen this way, but within just a few minutes, I heard the distinctive chatter call notes of a male Costa’s Hummingbird and then it landed on one of the bare poplar branches – posing for me. The sun was not at a perfect angle to catch the purple iridescence of its flaring gorget, but there was no mistaking this identity. Wow!!

Costa’s Hummingbird

Costa’s Hummingbird

This was my 429th species seen in Washington and my 416th species with a Washington photo. With no warning the hummer buzzed right over me and landed on the feeder. It was not there long enough for me to get a photo, but this was a good sign that it might remain for some time. I shared my good fortune with Stacey and told her of the visit to the feeder. I watched for another 10 minutes and the hummer did not return, possibly because one of the young Szeliga’s came out to shoot some hoops. I grabbed a photo of an Anna’s Hummingbird that was on a nest in their yard and then headed off.

Anna’s Hummingbird on Nest

It was a long drive for a single bird, but that comes with the territory on chases for new species – one of the signs of “Twitcher’s Disease” – the drive to add new species to lists – life lists or year lists or month lists or Big Day lists – lists for any of many geographical options – world, country, ABA area, state, or county or patch. The long drive home was made far worse by an accident somewhere on Interstate 90 that added more than an hour. I had posted about the Costa’s Hummingbird on Facebook before heading off and had been contacted by other birders who were interested in what I found. And I had contacted some birding friends to alert them of the rarity. I brought them all up to date, and thanked Walter and Deb with texts. Others contacted me for details. Over the next few hours, several others showed up and got to see this little beauty. The parade continued on Monday and some friends have seen it again today – Tuesday the 15th. I think this guy may stick around for awhile.

During my visit with Stacey, we noted how cool it was that this rarity had chosen the yard of an excellent birder to visit. I recalled other Washington rarities visiting birder’s yards: the Calliope Hummingbird visiting Jeffrey Bryant, the Tennessee Warbler visiting Ed Newbold, and the Rose Breasted Grosbeak visiting Ed Swan and I am sure there are others I am forgetting. In each case the excellent birders quickly identified the birds, knew of their rarity and notified the birding world, sharing the wealth so to speak. What if this hummingbird had instead visited a yard with a feeder down the street where the owner was not a birder but simply someone who enjoyed birds. They very well may not have recognized it as rare or even different. The same holds true for the Calliope Hummingbird, Tennessee Warbler and Rose Breasted Grosbeak. How often does this in fact often? How many other Costa’s Hummingbirds are in Washington right now? And the same question for all of those other fortunate coincidences and for rarities in general. There are a lot of birders around – covering a lot of ground – but there is much more ground not covered. What wonders are there right now? What will be seen tomorrow? The joys of birding.

Calliope Hummingbird – Jeffrey Bryant’s Yard

Tennessee Warbler – Ed Newbold’s Yard

Rose Breasted Grosbeak – Ed Swan’s Yard

May 2021 – A Slow Start and a Mega Finish

In most of the U.S. spring migration is at its peak in the month of May. Additionally as the breeding season nears or begins, hormones are building in both migrants and residents and birds are active and singing making them easier for birders to find. Consequentially, this generally means more birders are active in the field and more birds are reported on listservs and on Ebird. By the science or by the numbers, it is pretty hard to beat May as the month to find the greatest numbers of species in most of North America.

Such has certainly been the case for me in my home state of Washington as (omitting 2019 when I was away from home most of the month on my 50/50/50 adventure) I have averaged 181 species seen with a high of 224 in 2013. Additionally with the exception of years when I was doing a big month (January in 2018 and February this year) it has been my most active month with non-local trips averaging over 10 that month. Non-local being defined as trips of over 100 miles. There has always been additional birding at local parks hoping for another new arrival. All told in May over the past 8 years, I have seen 296 species in Washington. I haven’t checked to confirm it, but I expect that I have not seen as many in any other month.

This May has been very different as much of my time and energy has been consumed by changes in my personal life – purchasing a new home with Cindy, moving from the old place to the new one and getting the old one ready to sell. This has also involved endless paperwork for financing. Then there was the change of tenants in a rental property and, oh yeah, getting engaged and starting plans for a late August wedding and celebrating the news with friends, Cindy and I have been very busy. Our new home has a killer view of Puget Sound and some of the Edmonds waterfront, so I have been watching for birds trying to build a “home list” which now stands at 25 species, but unlike years past, almost all of my birding has been in short stints (and that word will take on great meaning later) at nearby parks. The only exceptions have been a long trip to Eastern Washington with beginning birder friend Jerry Sale on May 6, a trip to Fir Island to test a new camera and then a trip to Northeastern Snohomish County looking for the newly arrived, and returning, American Redstart which grew into a longer trip when Steve Pink showed up at the Redstart spot and then we hit a number of other locations looking for specialty County birds. That day was great until a major disappointment at the end which will be detailed with a postscript later.

American Redstart – Oso Loop Road – Snohomish County

So far this May I have seen only 127 species year. Not bad for only a few trips, but so many favorite species and favorite places to go have not been experienced this year. There are still a few days left so maybe there will be one more trip, but this year has had and will continue to have additional priorities – I did mention the move and the engagement, right – but especially with the removal of so much Covid-19 angst and restriction, it feels odd not to have been out more. Still lots of highlights including a very special one. Those highlights are what follows.

May 6 – Birding with Jerry Sale. Jerry and Rachel and Paul and Sarah – friends I have inherited through Cindy. Two sisters and their spouses who are intelligent, interesting and fun. We had planned a joint visit to Semiahmoo resort in Blaine County last year before Covid changed everything. Part of that visit was for me to introduce them to the world of birding just as I had done with Cindy the year before when she discovered Black Oystercatchers and Harlequin Ducks and began to understand the quirky hobby of the guy she had recently just met. That trip may still happen someday, but in the interim Jerry had taken some online birding classes through Seattle Audubon with Connie Sidles and was developing an interest. We found a convenient time and headed off to Eastern Washington on May 6th. I hoped it would be a trip that would include new birds for me, visits to familiar places and a chance for Jerry not only to see new species and new places but also to maybe develop his own interest for more.

Repeating an itinerary I have done many times, alone and leading field trips, our first stop was at a home at Snoqualmie Pass that has numerous Hummingbird feeders. It was a gray cool morning, but the hummers did not disappoint as we had at least 10 Rufous Hummingbirds putting on a show. I could not find a MacGillivray’s Warbler in the nearby thicket, but a flock of 7 Evening Grosbeaks was a treat and a new species for Jerry.

Rufous Hummingbird – Snoqualmie Pass

Our next stop was Bullfrog Pond in Kittitas County just west of Cle Elum. The birds were there, singing and calling, but much less responsive, active and visible than usual. Jerry got a chance to hear new birds, but there were too few visuals of MacGillivray’s and Nashville Warblers and Warbling and Cassin’s Vireos – all FOY’s for me. The pattern held at Wood Duck Road as well where the highlight was a couple of singing Cassin’s Finches and a Western Bluebird in continuing gray light. Visuals and numbers were a little better at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum where the always reliable Pygmy Nuthatches came in close and some perching Northern Rough Winged Swallows provided a good chance for Jerry to expand his birding skills.

Pygmy Nuthatch Northern Pacific RR Ponds – So. Cle Elum
Northern Rough Winged Swallows

Again following old patterns we ventured on to Umptanum Road out of Ellensburg. A first visit to the sage/shrub/steppe habitat is always fun with new birders – especially when Bluebirds – both Western and Mountain cooperate. The latter seemed to be at every nest box paired up and undoubtedly on eggs. The electric blue Mountain Bluebirds – at least 10 – were the hit of the visit. Also enjoyed were the songs of the Western Meadowlarks and Brewer’s Sparrows.

Mountain Bluebird – Umptanum Road

Just as we were leaving the sage area on Umptanum Road we had the first of many Western Kingbirds for the trip. It was already my ninth new species for 2021 on the trip.

Western Kingbird

Normally we would have birded along Old Vantage Highway heading to the Columbia River, but since we had already seen or at least heard a number of sage species and there were lots of other options for us, we headed instead for Grant County and to Frenchman Coulee – always an impressive place regardless of birds. Just before arriving there, we stopped at the larger pond on Silica Road and in addition to Bank Swallows and Jerry’s first Yellowheaded Blackbird, we had one of the best birds of the trip – an adult Black Crowned Night Heron. They are infrequently seen there. We also had a pair of Cinnamon Teal. Unfortunately the Night Heron flew off quickly – so no photo.

Cinnamon TealSilica Road Pond, Grant County

Frenchman Coulee never disappoints for scenery and usually not for birds. It is one of the best places in Washington to find White Throated Swifts and is often good for both Rock and Canyon Wrens in addition to many swallows. We only saw a single White Throated Swift but had many close if quick looks as the aptly named bird flew directly and swiftly overhead. Lots of Violet Green and Northern Rough Winged Swallows made for good comparisons and a Rock Wren called on nearby rocks not far from where rock climbers were testing their skills on the spires.

White Throated Swift

I had been there in April, but felt that a visit to the County Line Ponds in Grant County was a must for Jerry and I was especially hoping that we might see some phalaropes. It was a good decision as there were at least 20 Black Necked Stilts, 4 American Avocets and 7 Wilson’s Phalaropes, the latter doing their circle dances as they fed. There was also a distant FOY Blue Winged Teal.

Black Necked Stilt – County Line Ponds
American Avocet – County Line Ponds
Wilson’s Phalarope – County Line adPonds

We had even more Stilts and Avocets at Para Ponds in addition to many Yellowheaded Blackbirds but had no luck on hoped for Tricolored Blackbirds. A bit of a surprise was a Dunlin in full breeding plumage that was hanging around with a small group of Least Sandpipers and some Long Billed Dowitchers. Additional firsts for Jerry were a Great Egret and a male Northern Harrier.

I had one more hoped for First of Year target – a Forster’s Tern – expected at Potholes Reservoir. As soon as we arrived at the boat launch at Potholes State Park, we saw several Forster’s Terns fishing close by. There were also many Western Grebes and they were to provide us with the best experience of the day as we watched two of them begin a courtship ritual culminating in their spectacular running/dancing on the water – only the second time I have seen that except in videos. I did not check out each grebe but expect there were probably some Clark’s mixed in with the 70 plus Westerns.

Forster’s Terns Potholes SP
Western Grebes

We failed to find a Burrowing Owl but were more than pleased with the 90 species we saw for the day knowing that we could have added more if that had been the objective. I don’t know if Jerry will further engage with birding, but we had a good time and were still on speaking terms at the end of a very long day.

Over the next two weeks I made a few brief trips to local parks and added a few birds to the year list but nothing of note. Time was mostly consumed working on the aforementioned real estate transactions and the related moves – an exhausting project that left no time nor energy for distant birding trips despite seeing reports daily of newly arriving birds. On May 20th I got word that a new camera and lens that I had on back order for more than a month had arrived. I had seen the Canon R5 and accompanying 100mm-500 mm lens in action in Arizona and had been very impressed, and reading reviews sold me on getting one. But that was before the major financial commitment for the new condo. Cindy talked me into going forward anyhow, so I picked it up and the next day headed to Wylie Slough to try it out knowing I could return it if not pleased. It was a bright day and some birds cooperated. These are the photos that convinced me to keep it, happily.

Black Phoebe – Wylie Slough
Common Yellowthroat – Wylie Slough
Tree Swallow – Wylie Slough
Yellow Warbler – Wylie Slough

May 24th – Snohomish County Regular “Rarities” – My new camera/lens set up is much heavier than the Olympus that I had been using but I loved the ease of focus and the image density with a 48 megapixel full frame sensor. It has gotten a couple more tests and is definitely a keeper. We finished the move over the following weekend and by Monday I both wanted and needed to get out even though there was rain and cloudy skies in the forecast. The main draw was the aforementioned American Redstarts that have been returning to a favored spot on the Oso Loop Road just off Highway 530 west of Arlington. Redstarts are common Eastern warblers but are found in only a few places in Washington. This would be my 5th year in a row seeing them at this spot. I heard one singing as soon as I arrived and after a short wait got a great visual and some photos. I thought I might have heard a second male, but was never sure. I did get a quick look at a female as well. I also heard my FOY Western Wood Pewee and both Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers.

Not long after I arrived another car pulled up – probably another birder. It was Steve Pink, a birding friend from Edmonds who knows Snohomish County as well as anyone. I quickly got the Redstart to come in for a nice view and we spent the next half hour enjoying the birds there including the species mentioned before, a Red Breasted Sapsucker, Swainson’s Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, a Bullock’s Oriole (FOY), and Black Headed Grosbeaks among others. We then walked up to the river and had a pair of Western Tanagers (FOY) and a pair of Common Mergansers. Light rain fell and the light was awful, so it was a good, and I felt successful, challenge for my new camera.

American Redstart
Bullock’s Oriole – Not a Great Photo but it was very distant with a grey backlit sky so I am pleased with the much edited image
Cedar Waxwing
Common Merganser Female
Red Breasted Sapsucker – Another Very Distant Photo
Swainson’s Thrush
Western Tanager Female

Due to Covid restraints, I had not birded with local friends in a long while and it was great to visit with Steve. We decided to continue on to other Snohomish County hotspots, known well by him. The first was near the Whitehorse Trail where Red Eyed Vireos can be found. Like the Redstart, this vireo is abundant in the East but rare and localized in Washington. We heard its song as soon as we arrived and eventually got good visuals and photo opportunities – another First of Year bird for me. Once again the light was low and I was pleased with the new camera and lens.

Red Eyed Vireo

Steve had another Snohomish County hotspot in mind – Whitehorse Park – where we immediately found Chipping Sparrows – also uncommon in this area and also had a singing Black Throated Gray Warbler as well as a kettle of Turkey Vultures and another Red Breasted Sapsucker. The warbler was another test for the camera as the light was awful. Several runs through editing produced an acceptable photo – made possible by the density of the captured image.

Chipping Sparrow
Black Throated Gray Warbler

While we were out, Steve got a text from David Poortinga that a Little Stint had been reported at Eide Road in Stanwood, about an hour away. It was originally found by Mitchell von Rotz. The tide did not look promising but we had to give it a go. Little Stints are northern Eurasian sandpipers that winter in Africa and are very rare in the U.S. This was only the third or fourth record for Washington. I had chased it twice before without success in Washington although I had seen them in Kenya, India and South Africa. We had to try. When we arrived the water was pretty high. We found some Western Sandpipers but unlike earlier in the day when Westerns were accompanied by the Stint, this was not then the case. After a couple of hours, we left. Several hours later I got word that the Stint had been relocated as the tide retreated. Well it had been a good day until then. I was ready to put Little Stint into the “nemesis” column.

May 25th – The Rally – After missing the Little Stint on the 24th and hearing it was seen later, I figured I would try again on the 25th but the question was “when”. There was an early morning report that it was seen in a different area – far out from the end of the gravel trail. As an important part of our move, I had to take things from our old storage area into our new one. This meant dismantling and then reassembling storage racks. I thought I had made great progress on them on the 23rd and 24th and it would be a simple matter to finish the last one on the 25th. Such was definitely NOT the case, as in order to get the shelving onto the frame, I had to undo much of the earlier work. Frustrated by that, I miscounted the “holes” where the supports had to go and the shelving was therefore misaligned. This meant more backtracking and more frustration which was made worse as I saw the opportunity to go for the Stint (an hour away) disappearing. After much cursing, I put everything down (except my phone to continue to check Stint reports) and took a 30 minute “breather”.

Much more relaxed I returned to the storage room and finished my project – and it looked GREAT! Part of my relaxing had been seeing the continuing reports not only that the Stint remained but that the water level was and would continue to be very low, so the area where the Stint was being seen would not be adversely effected. At 12:10 pm I was able to head north to Eide Road/Legue Island. Traffic cooperated and I pulled in to the parking lot just after 1:00 pm and saw birders I knew leaving with triumphant smiles on their faces and encouragement to just join the others at the end of the gravel path near the bench. Others arrived and we hiked out the half mile or so to the end of the path where maybe 5 others were peering through scopes – hopefully at a Little Stint. Good birding friend Paul Baerny was there and he said he had just had it in his scope but it was moving around. Then he had again – he thought – the one that was really orange. With his help, I got my scope onto the group of sandpipers that included the Stint and looked for the orange one. The trouble was that they were really very distant and that depending on the light and their movements, many of them looked orange. Some orange ones were definitely Western Sandpipers but how about that one – or was it that other one?

Other Little Stints that have been seen in Washington (both of them) have been in non-breeding (“basic”) plumage – with orange not being an issue as they are quite brown/gray. This guy was in breeding (“alternate”) plumage which is described in the Sibley Guide as being “bright orange overall – with a white throat”. In “Shorebirds of North America, Europe and Asia” (Message and Taylor) it is described as buffy-orange with a “split supercilium effect” a white chin and throat and a “white mantle V which is prominent” which others refer to as white braces. Generally the bill of the Little Stint is shorter and straighter than that of a Western Sandpiper and more similar to that of a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Well all that might be true but for my old eyes even with a scope, I was not super confident that I could distinguish any of the field marks and more than one bird in view looked orangish. And frankly none looked “bright orange” compared to the others which seemed to be the basis of identification for most of the observers. I was pretty sure I was seeing the same bird others were identifying as the Stint, but “pretty sure” for such a rarity and a new ABA Life bird did not seem to be enough.

The Stint and the Western Sandpipers were feeding in mud between grasses on flats about 250 yards away from us. We were on a raised dike that enabled us to see over most but not all of the short grasses and the birds were actively moving making observation more challenging. The light was good but changeable making colors even harder to discern as what looked bright orange in one moment became a duller rusty brown in another. It was executive decision time. There is a crude “almost path” that leads from the end of the dike out onto the mud, or at that moment with such little water, onto a grassy barely muddy area adjoining the mud where the birds were feeding. With boots on my feet, camera and binoculars around my neck and scope over my shoulder, I scurried down the rocks adjoining our path/dike and headed west towards the muddy area where the birds were scattered, hoping for a closer and better view, a more confident identification and even possibly a photo. Almost everyone else followed.

The immediate problem was that the perspective from level ground changed dramatically and all of the logs and snags that had served as points of reference from our perched viewing station further east were no longer useful and to some degree were misleading. Where were those birds? Well it turned out they were further out than they had seemed but were actually fairly close (maybe 100 feet?) to the fringe area where we could set up our scopes. And better yet, the weather had cleared a bit and the sun was somewhat behind us and onto the shorebirds. Depending on the light and the angle of observation, more than one of them still seemed somewhat orange, but now other details were clear and one consistently did seem brighter orange than the others. And that one absolutely did have a shorter and straighter bill, and a clear white throat and chin, and a prominent white V on its mantle – the telltale white braces. There was a clearly distinguishable “split supercilium” and as per Message and Taylor its mantle and upper scapular feathers were black centered and fringed chestnut. The orangish-buff wash on the underparts were fairly restricted to the sides of the breast. There was no doubt that this was a Little Stint.

First Unedited Close Up View of the Little Stint by Itself (at 500 mm full zoom)

I ventured as close as I dared without a chance of disturbing it or the view of others and put the new camera to work. I was so excited I forgot to readjust the settings back to good light, so some of the photos were overexposed, but as had been the experience earlier, the focus worked great and even at that distance with a very small bird, there was sufficient digital data collected by the sensor to give me very nice photos. I finally had a Little Stint and I had good photos to prove it.

Little Stint – with all the fieldmarks
Little Stint Foraging/Eating – Split Supercilium
Little Stint from the Back showing Braces
Little Stint – Short Bill

Many birders came later and saw the Stint and now seeing others out away from the gravel path, they, too, ventured forth. The Stint was seen until late on the 25th but although looked for by many excellent birders, it was not seen on the 26th or later. So I am very happy and consider myself very fortunate. I am particularly happy to have gotten a good photo. I also acknowledge that there is no way I could have identified this individual had I not known it was there and then gotten close enough for a good look. It is considered a tough ID and I can understand why, Seeing it in breeding plumage was icing on the cake. Off the nemesis list for sure.

Return to the Casa a Year Delayed

Before COVID-19 changed all of our lives, Cindy and I had plans for a number of trips in 2020. The first would be to visit friends in Arizona and then other trips would be to Florida, Cuba and maybe Africa. These trips would give us a chance to see how we traveled together both on our own and as part of a group. They would be trips that included birds and birding but would also have other activities as well – good first steps to see how Cindy would react to my birding travel and to see how I might change previous travel patterns to include birds but with my foot somewhat off the accelerator in terms of pace and concentration. None of those trips happened so those questions remained a mystery but the ensuing year allowed us to get to know each much better and to strengthen our bonds and familiarity. There had been a few successful fun local car trips and we felt pretty good about expanding our travel horizons. When we were able to both get our vaccines, we returned to the previous plan of a visit to Southeast Arizona. It worked out very well.

I had visited Arizona in November last year chasing some rarities and new ABA life birds or photos. It was pre-vaccination, but with the airports relatively empty and the flights no more than half full and everyone fully masked, I had felt safe. Despite a significant number of vaccinations, the pandemic infections continue, albeit at a decreased pace, and jets and airports are relatively full again. Without our vaccinations, we would not have felt good about travel, but those vaccinations gave us a sense of freedom and safety – a good thing as all our flights were completely full and there were crowds at the airports. Thankfully everyone was wearing masked, although there continue to be some folks who do not fully comply with the need to cover both mouths and noses – aarrgh!!

Our trip would start with a visit to a friend of Cindy’s who lives in the community of Marana, a bit north of Tucson. The weather was great and a visit at the clubhouse was to be a nice catchup in person after what had previously been by Zoom meetings only. In our talks about birds in Arizona before departure, Cindy expressed her excitement about two possibilities: a Vermilion Flycatcher and a Greater Roadrunner and I promised her we would see both. It does not always work out this way, but immediately as we got out of our car at the Marana Clubhouse, a male and female Vermilion Flycatcher flew out from a nearby tree to grab some insects unseen by us. A great start to the birding part of the trip and the visit with our friend was wonderful as well.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Our next scheduled stop was to be with friends in Green Valley, south of Tucson. On the way up to Marana, I had noticed a sign for an exit to Ina Road and I remembered that that was where I had turned off last November to look for a Northern Jacana that had been seen regularly from the bridge over the Santa Cruz River. It was only a five minute diversion, so on our way to Green Valley we stopped to see if we could locate it. Two other birders were on the bridge with cameras and binoculars but the Jacana was not visible. A couple of minutes later, it flew out from what must have been almost directly under the bridge and disappeared upriver. It was some distance away, but I spied it on the edge of the cattails just barely out of the water. Not the best of views, but given its rarity, certainly a great bird for Cindy’s growing life list.

Northern Jacana

“Green” conjures up “lush” and “valley” is generally defined as a low area of land between mountains or hills with a watercourse running through it. I don’t think I missed it but the only mountains were many miles away, few and isolated, and there was no river or stream to be seen in the desert scrub. There was green but only in the golf courses and plantings that were scattered among the housing developments. Perhaps Green Valley is more an emotional declaration as it is a pleasant creation in the otherwise drab continuum of browns and tans repeated in the colors of the desert and the houses people have built there. There is plenty of blue sky, sun, and dry air that was merely hot in early April would soon be replaced by hotter and even hotter as the summer arrives. Many of the inhabitants will return north to cooler climes which they had departed when the rains and snow and grey had threatened in the winter preceding. It might appear from my description that I dislike the area. A better statement would be that I liked it very much in a small dose but would tire of it quickly in longer stretches – even with the many birding attractions close at hand. I am not a sun person and neither golf or tennis, or the tennis substitute of pickleball are part of my life. But they are for many of the Green Valley inhabitants and that is a positive thing as all, well most, passions are contributors to an enjoyable life. More importantly good people are such contributors and our hosts were certainly that. Good food, good drink and good conversation with great company in a lovely home that was our abode for two nights.

The next morning our hosts took us first to a small lake at Encanto Park where I saw most of the very few waterfowl of our visit and then it was off to the Sonoran Desert Museum. The Museum is a wonderful collection of all things desert including especially many native plants and especially many cacti. There is an aviary and a number of animal exhibits but perhaps related to this past year of Covid changes everywhere, the numbers of animals in the exhibits and birds in the aviary seemed low and disappointing. There were some wild birds though with our first Cactus Wren and Phainopepla being the best.

Cactus Wren
Phainopepla

The cacti were spectacular with far more species and varieties than I could have imagined. I did not want to imagine having to travel through the desert and getting pricked by any of them. On the way back to our hosts’ beautifully furnished and decorated home, we again detoured to the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River. They are not birders so getting to see the Northern Jacana was experienced by them differently than adding it to a list, but in many ways that was a better way to see this rarity, appreciating its uniqueness, rarity and mystery.

Barrell Cactus
Cactus Blooms
Cactus Bloom

At home eating is mostly on a schedule and especially for my breakfast, pretty routine – tea, fruit and a flakes/granola mix about the same time each day. Lunch is generally light around noon and dinner varies but is also within a fairly set time range. On vacation, calories mount and routines disappear. A leisurely and larger and later than usual breakfast with our friends on their patio in already warm temperatures and bright sunny blue skies was the welcomed pattern of both our mornings with them. Each time we were accompanied by numerous bird visitors: House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Gambel’s Quail, Gila Woodpeckers, Curve Billed Thrashers, Canyon Towhees, both Mourning and White Winged Doves and Anna’s and Black Chinned Hummingbirds regularly and a few other species on occasion including Northern Cardinal, a species I always forget is in Arizona and I hope one day will make an appearance in Washington.

Lesser Goldfinches
Curve Billed Thrasher
Gambel’s Quail
Mourning Dove
Black Chinned Hummingbird
Northern Cardinal

After breakfast on our last day with our friends, we went together to Madera Canyon, a famous birding area that is less than 30 minutes from their home. If I lived there, I expect I would visit it everyday. I first visited Madera Canyon in June 1977. I was not a “lister” at that time although I roughly kept track of new species seen. In 1977 I am sure there were many more species seen there, but the one that jumps out of my old record is a Varied Bunting. Forty years later I returned to Madera Canyon on a marvelous Wings Birding tour in early August 2017. Special species seen were Mexican Whippoorwill, Whiskered Screech Owl, and Arizona Woodpecker. It was not real birdy when our foursome visited this month, but it was the first real Arizona birding experience for Cindy with many observers and birds coming in to strategically placed feeders. The first time anyone sees a Broad Billed Hummingbird, there is likely to be an “omigosh” exclamation. When three are on the same feeder and then a Rivoli’s Hummingbird joins in, it is a memorable moment for sure.

Broad Billed Hummingbird
Rivoli’s Hummingbird

As usual the Wild Turkeys put on a show and we were able to see an Arizona Woodpecker among many Acorn Woodpeckers and I also found a Red Naped Sapsucker when the rest of the group drove up canyon and I remained near the feeders hoping for some rarity to appear. Mexican Jays were numerous and loud and other specialties included Bridled Titmouse, Yellow Eyed Junco and a Scott’s Oriole.

Wild Turkey
Acorn Woodpecker
Red Naped Sapsucker
Yellow Eyed Junco
Mexican Jay

After another enjoyable lunch on the patio, it was time to thank our hosts and head south. We would be spending the next three nights at the Casa de San Pedro near Hereford and would have plenty of time to explore the surrounding area including the Canyons of the Huachuca mountains. Our first exploration would be at Battiste’s Bird Garden. I had not been there before but had been given a head’s up about it from Ken Blankinship, a superb bird guide in the area who unfortunately was booked up solid during our stay. Tony Battiste has been running this B and B for 20 years and has had nesting Elf Owls there every year. We stopped by to see what was there then and to get the skinny on the best way to see the owls. A $10 donation per person gets you access and includes coming back in the evening for the owl show. Tony was in the yard when we arrived and we enjoyed talking with him. The only new birds for the trip were a Cassin’s Finch and a Cassin’s Kingbird. More importantly we got some recommendations for restaurants nearby (there are very few in the area without going in to Sierra Vista – not the prettiest town). We also learned that we could count on the owls appearing at the nest hole around 6:45 p.m. Our plan was set. Check in at Casa de San Pedro; have dinner at the Mexican restaurant at the intersection of Highway 92 and Hereford Road and be back at Battiste’s around 6:30 that evening.

I had stayed at the Casa de San Pedro during my Wings Tour in 2017. It was perfect. It has been run by Carl and Patrick for two decades and caters to birding guests and others. The rooms are comfortable and the setting superb with many bird feeders, a pond, trees, shrubs and brush and adjacent to trails along the San Pedro River. The breakfasts are world famous as are the pies that are set out in the dining room every afternoon. After checking in, grabbing a piece of pecan pie was our first order of business.

Casa de San Pedro Courtyard

There were many birds and some birders at the Casa when we arrived, but after the pie, our attention was on a brief rest and then off for our dinner at Ricardo’s. The food was good and we were easily able to get to Battiste’s by 6:30. The Elf Owls nest in a telephone pole that is front and center in the yard and viewing chairs were lined up and partially filled when we arrived. Tony told us the history of the owls on the property and that there had been quite a show the previous evening with the pair actually copulating for several seconds (a long time for bird copulation) in the open. There were no guarantees of anything other than at least an appearance in the nest hole before the owls flew off. A Rufous Hummingbird was zipping around the area and a Curve Billed Thrasher was “whooting” and I am sure there were some other birds, but we were there for the owl show. I had not promised Cindy that we would see owls, but did include a probability of that in my sales pitch to pique her interest in the trip.

We learned that the female had poked her head out of the nest hole briefly before we arrived. Thankfully it would not be the last time as maybe ten minutes after we arrived the tiny owl face appeared in hole #4. Would she return back in, fly off, perch, disappear? She went back in for only a second and then poked her head out again. It was show time.

Elf Owl – First Appearance

The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world – less than 6 inches and weighing less than 1.5 ounces – astonishingly small. After another 5-10 minutes the owl flew out of the hole and perched on a branch on a tree in the open. One of the people there was a birder/photographer with a giant telephoto lens on a top of the line tripod with an also top of the line flash attachment. This was his fifth year trying to get a photo of the Elf Owl perched in the open. This was his day – or rather his evening – as it was for all of us, as the diminutive owl remained in plain view for several minutes. Tony held the owl in his flashlight giving it a somewhat yellow tone but increasing the visibility. My camera does not have a flash but I got some okay photos in the decreasing light and others with that yellowish cast.

Elf Owl

As it perched on the branch above us, it began to communicate with the second owl still in the nest with soft calls and then the second owl came out of the nest hole. The first owl moved back out of the open and it was joined briefly by the second and then they both flew over us and perched in branches on the tree behind the nest pole. There was a split second copulation, some more communication and then they were off. The show was over, but it had been quite a show with a very pleased audience. This was the 9th species of owl that Cindy has seen or heard in the U.S. – not bad for a non-birder.

The next morning we had the first of our three incredible breakfasts at the Casa de San Pedro, prepared a little early for us since we were going out with a guide at 8:00. There is always some baked good specialty in addition to juice, fresh fruit and usually eggs with some meaty addition or creation. On vacation we were not counting calories. I birded a bit around the Casa before joining our guide, Matt Brown. It is a very bird rich environment and in less than 30 minutes I had seen more than 30 species with my favorites being Black Throated Sparrow, Green Tailed Towhee, Summer Tanager, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin and both Calliope and Costa’s Hummingbirds.

Calliope Hummingbird
Costa’s Hummingbird
Black Throated Sparrow
Green Tailed Towhee

There was no set plan to bird with our guide but we let him know we would be particularly pleased to see a Roadrunner and a good look at a Pyrrhuloxia would be great. We found no Roadrunner in this really good habitat for them but we did find a photo friendly Pyrrhuloxia. Otherwise it was just an opportunity for Cindy to get a taste of birding in Southeast Arizona. We birded in separate cars as a nod to safety while COVID 19 still accompanies us, starting with the roads leading back to Highway 92 with our first planned stop being at Ramsey Canyon.

Pyrrhuloxia

I had visited Ramsey Canyon in November last year and had brief views of my lifer White Eared Hummingbird. It was too early for this hummer, but other species were around and easy to see. No special hummingbirds (or maybe all hummingbirds are special) but we had good looks at Broad Billed, Broad Tailed and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, Mexican Jays, Wild Turkeys, Bridled Titmouse, Arizona, Acorn and Gila Woodpeckers, Canyon Towhee, Yellow Eyed Junco among other birds we had already seen. Of special interest were Scott’s Oriole and Painted Redstart.

Arizona Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
Bridled Titmouse
Scott’s Oriole
Painted Redstart

When I was there last November, I stayed at the Ramsey Canyon Inn B&B which was for sale at the time. There are now new owners and Cindy had a tour and was favorably impressed. She really liked the Casa de San Pedro, so I am encouraged that we will be returning. After Ramsey Canyon we drove through nearby residential areas heading towards the “Harris’s Hawk Stakeout Spot”. At one spot Matt heard a Rufous Winged Sparrow. We stopped and easily located it singing from atop a close by tree. These sparrows are regular in many parts of Southeast Arizona but were rare in this particular area. Nice to get a photo. Not too much further along, Matt called out “Roadrunners” and we saw two on a big open field behind a No Trespassing sign. Not the greatest of views, but Cindy was happy to see them and now I had delivered on all of my promises.

Rufous Winged Sparrow
Greater Roadrunner in a Distant Field

Harris’s Hawks are regular but uncommon in Arizona where I had not seen one and far more common in Texas where I have seen them on several occasions. I have also seen them in Peru. Matt said to look on every post, building and tree because a pair was definitely in the area. We finally found one perched atop a radio tower. Not a great view but unmistakably a Harris’s Hawk. I have included a picture of that bird and a much better picture from Texas. They are very striking birds. I once met a falconer on the Waterville Plateau in Washington who had a pair that he used in his commercial pest control business. He put them on a par with many of his falcons in their successful hunting. This was one of four species I added to my Arizona state list on tis trip.

Harris’s Hawk – Arizona
Harris’s Hawk – Texas in 2018

Unfortunately we had to change plans with Matt as an unexpected personal matter for him came up, and we cut the day short just after noon. Matt was a fun person, great birder and good guy. He was as much into natural history in all forms as he was into birds and we would have learned a lot more and seen more birds if we had been able to spend more time together. After we parted ways, we decided to head over to the Coronado National Monument (which was disappointing) and then continue up to Montezuma Pass. There were not a lot of birds and the road was definitely one you would not want to do with a big trailer. At the top we could see quite far in all directions including into Mexico and we definitely had a view of that atrocity called “the Wall” – an expensive eyesore that extended for many miles. Also at the Pass, there were several White Throated Swifts – another new state bird for me.

The Wall – An Eyesore and a Waste – Just Like Everything about Trump

Earlier we had heard that some Montezuma Quail had been seen by birders on Turkey Tract Road which leads up to the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary. We were not successful finding the Quail but we had a nice visit to the Sanctuary. I had been there in 2017 on the Wings trip including a fun visit with Mary Jo Ballator who had started a Bed and Breakfast at her home at the base of Ash Canyon in 2002. On our visit we were successful in finding our target, a Lucifer Hummingbird, the only one I have ever seen. Mary Jo’s place was the best place in North America to find this species. Sadly Mary Jo passed away in 2019 and the fate of the property, a favorite of thousands of birders, was unknown. A GoFundMe effort covered temporary costs but the future looked bleak – until a major benefactor donated the funds necessary to purchase and preserve this birding gem. Now we would reap the benefits of this generosity and purpose.

Ash Canyon

Rather than catalog the birds seen on this visit, I will add them to a further discussion from a second visit later. After an hour at the peaceful garden of the sanctuary we returned to Casa de San Pedro for another piece of that yummy Pecan Pie and then some other activities which will go undetailed here. No owling this night, we dined at the Pizzeria Mimosa, the other restaurant at the junction of Hwy 92 and Hereford Road. The food was much better than the name would suggest.

The following morning was the best of our breakfasts with a pastry that rivalled my favorite Kouign Amann from The Breadfarm in Edison, Washington and a ham filled empanada for which scrumptious is not sufficient to describe its marvelous taste. Before breakfast I had walked and birded the grounds at just after dawn and found 24 species with little effort. The Vermilion Flycatcher is the logo bird of the Casa and a flycatching pair were my first species of the morning.

Vermilion Flycatcher Male
Vermilion Flycatcher Female

To the red of the Flycatcher, I soon added the subtler red of a Summer Tanager, the orange, yellow and black of two male Western Tanagers, rare for the time and area, the orange and black of two Hooded Orioles, the browns and tans of Say’s Phoebes and Canyon Towhees, and the black and white patterns of the multitude of White Crowned Sparrows as I was continuously buzzed by the Broad Billed, Black Chinned and Anna’s Hummingbirds and distracted by flights of the many Yellow Rumped Warblers and Mourning and White Winged Doves, sometimes catching the pale blue around the doves’ eyes. A feast before the feast.

Summer Tanager
Hooded Oriole
Western Tanager
Yellow Rumped Warbler
Canyon Towhee
White Winged Dove

After breakfast we headed back to the Huachucas, more precisely to Miller Canyon and Beatty’s Guest Ranch. I had visited it in 2017 without much luck and this would be the status of this visit as well – at least in terms of the birds, but dogs, they were another question. The owner or perhaps he is the owner’s son joined us at the blind with at least 7 of his Redbone Coonhounds – beautiful strong dogs that are his hunting companions – and at least for 15 minutes this day were my buddies as they seemed to take a liking to me and were very friendly. Gorgeous animals that I can imagine tracking and cornering a cougar, as their owner said they had indeed done. A fun part of our visit but not for the birds, so we headed off to the next place on our list – the San Pedro House and Trails. We had heard great recent reports but found it rather quiet despite a long walk along the river. In the river, we found a pair of Mexican Ducks – recently split off from Mallards as a separate species. There was a fleeting glimpse of a Gray Hawk, a species which is known to breed there and a much better look at an Ash Throated Flycatcher.

Mexican Duck
Ash Throated Flycatcher

A bit after noon, we returned to Ash Canyon where there were dozens of birds coming to feeders and to seeds on the ground. There had been a number of Cassin’s Finches the previous day but today it was only House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches and many Pine Siskins. A pale Lazuli Bunting had been seen the previous day and returned briefly this day as well. Generally the same birds we had been seeing elsewhere but in a very comfortable and amiable setting with friendly birders sitting around two feeder areas. A Cooper’s Hawk was around and without warning to the birders, all the birds would flush as one or the other would give an alarm call noting its presence. Two Ladder Backed Woodpeckers joined the always present Gila Woodpeckers – new for the trip. We heard Wild Turkeys but they never made an appearance. Like most other places we had visited, the place was abuzz with Yellow Rumped Warblers – their movement always giving hope that something new and special had arrived.

Ladder Backed Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker

It was a very peaceful and pleasant time and our increased familiarity with the species was especially helpful to Cindy for whom this was all new. Then suddenly pleasant became extremely exciting as two Greater Roadrunners approached the area where we were sitting and then first one and then the other came into the sanctuary directly in front of us with sun behind us and directly on them. Photo ops everywhere. One of the Roadrunners remained on or near a rock for at least 10 minutes as if it was posing at a photo studio raising and lowering its crest and giving us great views of each feather and the colorful skin patch behind its eye. Cindy had been happy enough with the two distant Roadrunners we had seen with Matt Brown. This intersection was immensely better. It could only have been improved by an appearance by Wile E. Coyote. [An aside: Roadrunners do love to run and they are fast but they also can fly and they are not all that fast with a typical speed of 15 mph and a top speed of maybe 26 mph. The Ostrich is the fastest running bird and cannot fly. It has been clocked at 45 mph.]

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner

The Roadrunner show lasted for at least 20 minutes, prolonging our stay and heightening our appreciation for the place which should be on everyone’s list who visits the area – even without the Lucifer Hummingbirds. Just as a reminder of my previous visit and further enticement for a future one, I am including the Lucifer Hummingbird seen there in 2017. It is not a great photo – the chance to improve it is another reason to return.

Lucifer Hummingbird – Ash Canyon 2017

This was to be our last night at the Casa de San Pedro and we would be having an early dinner there, so we headed back to relax, shower and enjoy the food – this time preceded by cherry pie. This dinner was not prepared by Carl and although good was far surpassed by the breakfasts. The best part though was visiting with two other guests, Frank and Leslie Buck from Cleveland who we had also seen at Ash Canyon. They were very generous sharing wine they had brought and like most birders do, we traded stories including many from visits to Magee Marsh which is almost home territory for them and was one of the first places Cindy had birded with me when she joined me very early on in our relationship back in 2019 when I was in the middle of my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure.

At Ash Canyon, I had a chance to try Frank’s new camera setup – a Canon R5 full frame mirrorless camera with a100-500mm telephoto lens. The pictures were incredible and it got me to thinking about going that route rather than adding the newly released Olympus 150-400 mm Pro lens with a built in 1.4x extender that I have on order. Photo equipment envy is dangerous.

I got out early before our last breakfast at Casa de San Pedro to walk the grounds. Once again, it was bird rich. At least one of the Western Tanagers made another appearance and I saw a Greater Roadrunner run through the front area. I was able to see a bit of white on one of the Raven’s necks and was good with a Chihuahan Raven ID. I had not tried to ID the many ravens we had seen in previous days and expect there had been a mix of Common and Chihuahan. A Swainson’s Hawk flew past and shortly afterwards, I saw a dark raptor with a long tail and white at the back of the primaries fly low over the trees near the river. I got my bins on it but could not track it with my camera. It was a Zone Tailed Hawk – almost exactly where one had been seen the previous day. Before coming down on this trip I thought or at least hoped there was a chance for a Common Black Hawk. I have only seen this species once many years ago and it is one of relatively few species seen in the ABA Area without a photo. Unfortunately I had missed the prime time for this species which was late March and early April. If I had tried in another area, there would have been an outside chance. My heart had raced when I first saw the dark Zone Tail, hoping for a Black Hawk miracle – not to be, but a Zone Tailed Hawk is a great consolation prize.

When a I birded the street in front of the Casa I heard an unfamiliar call which I thought at first might be the bill rattles and coos of the Roadrunner but it did not match my app sounds. Later I spoke with Carl as he was preparing breakfast and he said he had heard a Yellow Billed Cuckoo that morning. I listened to the playback and that was it. I wish I had recognized it earlier as I probably could have found it perched somewhere. I had seen a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher there the previous morning and found two more this time. I also found two very nondescript birds that I thought at first were either female Verdin or Bushtits. Both were possible but a little better view and some clearer thinking told me they were Lucy’s Warblers, a species that was not but should have been on my radar screen of possibilities,

Verdin

Our last breakfast had even more calories than earlier ones but somehow we managed to clean our plates. After a very lovely stay it was time to leave. We thanked our hosts and vowed to return. The Casa’s website is bedandbirds.com. Look them up and visit – the website if not the Casa itself. We had plenty of time to work our way back to Tucson where our flight would leave that evening. There was one more place that was on my go to list – the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia. It was after 10:30 when we got there and like all of our other similar stops, there were lots of hummingbirds visiting the well kept feeders and other birds were there as well. The prime goal was to see a Violet Crowned Hummingbird. This is the go to spot for them and we had one visiting a feeder within moments of arriving. There may have been other species as well, but the only other hummers I noticed were Broad Billed – real beauties especially when nicely paired with the Violet Crowned.

Violet Crowned Hummingbird
The Broad Billed was NOT Spearing the Violet Crowned Hummingbird

We had three other new species for the trip at this location: Inca Dove, Black Phoebe and Black Headed Grosbeak. The latter is just now showing up in Washington and the first would be a new state bird and would draw large crowds. We also had a better look at a Lazuli Bunting (not yet in Washington) and some more Lucy’s Warblers.

Inca Dove
Lazuli Bunting
Lucy’s Warbler

Since we were in the area we also visited the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest Area first made famous by being the spot to see Thick Billed Kingbirds. They are not back there yet so not seen by us. We also visited Patagonia Lake which was overrun by campers and families escaping the heat. Not much of a lake to us but in this part of Arizona I guess it looks good. We heard a few birds but frankly wish we had not bothered to stop after our visit to Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds which was so lovely and friendly. We had not realized it at the time but the Paton Center had been closed due to Covid 19 restrictions until the day before we visited. Great timing.

We made a last stop on the way to the airport – the touristy town of Tubac with many shops and many shoppers. There was nothing we had to have but did buy a small memento – definitely not from the large shop that had gigantic pro-trump and pro Wall signs. We did not see anyone else going in either – hope they go out of business. We misremembered our departure time and thus were back at the airport another hour earlier than we had to be – guess that was better than being an hour later, although that still would have been time to make the flight. The flight home was smooth and uneventful. It had been a wonderful trip, but as usually is the case, we were glad to be home.

We had fun and Cindy wants to go back, so this was a successful trip and I am sure we will return. We saw just under 100 species including many Arizona specialties and some real beauties. Don’t think any of them beat the Greater Roadrunners at Ash Canyon unless it was the many Vermilion Flycatchers or maybe the Elf Owls… or …

Cuties at the Railroad Ponds

This post is prompted by a visit to Eastern Washington yesterday – March 26th. More specifically it is prompted by an early stop on our visit to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. This is my go to place for Pygmy Nuthatches. They nest in trees just off the road – easy access and easy parking out of the way of the many large trucks that are often roaring by. I have never missed finding this species there where they are permanent residents. I often hear them chattering as a group before getting a visual and they are very responsive to playback and pishing – coming in to pose for the camera.

Pygmy Nuthatch – Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds, So. Cle Elum, WAMarch 26, 2021

Someone responded to seeing that photo with an “Ooh, so cute!” and that led me to think of some the taxonomically close group of small birds also found at the Ponds that might bring that same response. “Railroad Ponds” does not conjure up images of cuteness but the following photos might change that association.

There are two other nuthatch species found in Washington: Red Breasted and White Breasted. The first is very common at the Ponds and the second can sometimes be found there as well. I have found all three species at this location on a single visit. Both have to be included in Washington Cuties.

Red Breasted Nuthatch
White Breasted Nuthatch

Closely related to the nuthatches are the chickadees. On one trip to the Ponds, we had the three most common species of Washington Chickadees in the same tree. There is overlap in range and habitat for Chestnut Backed, Mountain and Black Capped Chickadees, so not so hard to find them in the same area but this triple header was a first and only.

Mountain Chickadee
Chestnut Backed Chickadee
Black Capped Chickadee

If we are talking, cuteness we have to add the other Washington Chickadee species – the Boreal Chickadee that I have only seen in extreme northeastern Washington. If one ever made it to Cle Elum county listers would go crazy.

Boreal Chickadee – Bunchgrass Meadows – Pend Oreille County, WA

There are at least two other indisputable cuties to be found at the Railroad Ponds – not including any baby birds which are almost all cute, with some definite exceptions at least to human eyes.

Bushtit Couple

Close to all of the above at least taxonomically are the wrens. With the recent addition of a confirmed Winter Wren, seven species of wren have been found in Washington, of which five have been reported at the Railroad Ponds. When chattering in angry response to a provocation, they may not be so cute, but generally speaking, they are – perhaps “cute with an attitude”. Most common at the Railroad Ponds are Bewick’s, Marsh and House Wrens. Pacific Wrens are somewhat less so and there have been only a couple of reports of Rock Wren. I might rank Canyon Wren at the top of the Wren Cuteness ladder and while all wrens have great songs, I would rank its song on top as well. But not present at the Ponds.

House Wren – Reliable Breeder at the Ponds
Marsh Wren
Bewick’s Wren
Pacific Wren
Rock Wren – Never Seen by Me at the Ponds
Canyon Wren – Maybe Someday at the Ponds

Another species found at the Ponds that is very closely related to all shown here and especially the wrens is the Brown Creeper. I guess it has to be included as pretty cute, but it has always struck me as odd in appearance although very appealing in behavior as it creeps along tree trunks and branches searching for tiny insects to devour. Probably more common than I realize everywhere, it is easy to overlook.

Brown Creeper

The last of the closely related Washington cuties found at the Ponds are the two species of Kinglets. Their golden and ruby crowns are best seen when the birds are agitated. Definitely more colorful then but another case where at those times they may be “cute with attitude”.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet
Golden Crowned Kinglet

I think I just need a distraction today and writing serves that purpose for me. Did not expect it would be writing about cuteness, but somehow it worked. It also helps that the sun is shining…