Southeast Arizona: Photo Improvement Day

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

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

The Main Lodge
The Lodge Main Room

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

Greater Roadrunner

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

Cactus Wren

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

Curve Billed Thrasher
Phainopepla
Loggerhead Shrike
Gambel’s Quail

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

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

Northern Jacana

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

Northern Jacana

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

Brown Jay 2010 – Not my photo

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

Great Tailed Grackle

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

Rosy Faced Lovebird
Rosy Faced Lovebird

SE Arizona – Not Quite Too Late – Part 3

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

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

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

Arizona Sunset

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

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

Ladder Backed Woodpecker
Vermilion Flycatcher

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

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

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

Ruddy Ground Dove

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

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

My Lovely Room

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

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

Rivoli’s Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird

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

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

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

Plain Capped Starthroat Gorget
Rivoli’s Gorget

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

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

White Eared Hummingbird (not my photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SE Arizona – Not Quite Too Late – Part 2

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

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

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

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

Entrance to Cave Creek Canyon
Chiricahua Scenery

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

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

Arizona Woodpecker
Mexican Jay

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

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

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

Eared Quetzal
Eared Quetzal
Eared Quetzal Flight

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

Wild Turkeys

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

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

Elegant Trogon – Cave Creek August 2017

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

SE Arizona – Not Quite Too Late – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Jacana – First ABA Photos – Awful Ones

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

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

Vermilion Flycatcher
Lark Sparrow
Abert’s Towhee

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

Phainopepla
Western Meadowlarks
Lesser Goldfinch

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

Stay Tuned…

The Best Week of Birding I Will Never Have

Birding Without Constraints – Awesome Baby!!

Posted on  by blairbirding

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

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

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

Eared Quetzal

Eared Quetal

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

Ruddy Ground Dove

Ruddy Ground Dove

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

White-Eared Hummingbird

White Eared Hummingbird - Tammy

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

Northern Jacana (Ebird Photo by Victor Stoll)

Northern Jacana Vctor and Ruben Stoll

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

European Golden Plover (Ebird Photo by Laura Keene)

European Golden Plover Laura Keene

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

Curlew Sandpiper (Ebird Photo by Sochetra Ly)

Curlew Sandpiper Sochetra Ly

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

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

Benny-Jacobs Scwhartz Yellow Green Vireo

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

Great Skua – Ebird photo by Detchevery Joel

Great Skua Detchevery Joel (2)

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

American Flamingo – Ebird Photo by Sean McCool

American Flamingo Sean McCool (2)

Red Legged ThrushEbird Photo by Mark Songer

Red Legged Thrush Mark Songer (2)

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

Song Thrush – Ebird Photo by Tyler Ficker

Song Thrush Tyler Ficker

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

Hook Billed Kite

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

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

Random – Memories to Lift the Clouds

2020 as representing the calendar year and 20 20 as representing perfect vision could not be more different as nothing seems to be clear at all in the year 2020 with the Covid-19 Pandemic raging and the buffoon in the White House and his cultish sycophants making a mockery of every institution and value that I had believed were the foundations of our country.  I have NOT contracted the virus and so far nobody I know has been hospitalized.  Similarly nobody I know has been directly affected by the police brutality and ensuing demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and violence that have followed.  So I really have no right to complain – at least comparatively.

But it is now September and looking back there have been six months of constrained activities and travel and political unrest that have made this year quite awful.  Looking forward, it is two months of ugliness until what will be the most important  election in our history and probably chaos afterwards regardless of the victor as the foundation is laid for discrediting the vote and challenging the result.  Birding has always been my escape from troubles – finding solace in the beautiful places, wonderful people and the birds themselves that are part of this passion.  Not so this year.  Birding friends are on their own as am I and the thrill of the chase is just not compelling.

I birded exactly three times in August – a pelagic trip on August 1st and two brief visits to Eide Road and Fir Island.  My August list was 60 species – exactly half on the pelagic trip and half on the other visits.  It is significantly lower than my usual counts and compares for example to 247 species in August 2017.   Unlike in other years, there was just no drive and/or ability to chase rarities – of which there were many in Washington and especially in Arizona where up to 6 life birds were possibilities.  More importantly, there was no relief from the malaise that has set in – much gray despite the many sunny days.  I usually average at least 2 or 3 blog posts a month.  Writing them is enjoyable and cathartic, reinforcement of good times.  My last post regarding birds recently seen was almost two months ago describing my glass as less than half empty and more than half full.  Today the relationship that underscored that calculation remains strong so if the glass is my life, the assessment still holds, but my birding glass and my writing glass are losing volume every day – not quite empty but trending that way.

Maybe I will be able to bird somewhere in the next week which may help.  With no current birding to write about, today I sat down to write something – anything to engage the positive memories and some joy and appreciation – something to lift my spirits.  These are just random recollections, written about before, remembered today.  Ten really good times before the two existential threats of a pandemic and a would be monarch darkened our world – ten reminders of the joys of birding.

But first I need to at least show the “missed” Arizona opportunities to get them out of my system adding Plain Capped Starthroat, Ruddy Ground Dove to the Berylline and White Eared Hummingbirds, Eared Quetzal, Common Crane, Buff Collared Nightjar, Crescent Chested Warbler and Flame Colored Tanager that I whined about missing in my earlier Blog Post about my half full glass.

Plain Capped Starthroat

Plain Capped Starthroat - Filemyr

Ruddy Ground Dove

Ruddy Ground Dove

OK so much for birds not seen.  There may never again be a time to have a chance for 5+ ABA lifers in one place and there have been 9 in Arizona this summer, but then again there is always next year – assuming there is no civil war going on.

While I cannot say that the following ten experiences are my best ever, they certainly are among the best for a combination of great birds (or animals) or places or events.  They are in chronological order starting with the Harpy Eagle nest and chick seen on my trip to Brazil in 2005. I worked with a tour company but did the trip on my own.  I had a guide only for two days at Cristallino in the Amazon and not all of my time was spent birding as I enjoyed time in Rio, at Iguassu Falls, the Pantanal and the Amazon.  All told I saw 273 species including many spectacular birds.  More than half were at Cristallino and 69 were in the Pantanal.  Among the best birds were 6 Aracaris and Toucans, 19 parrot like birds including Hyacinth Macaws, 17 Antbirds, 5 Trogons, 16 waders, 2 Tinamou species, a Sungrebe and 14 raptors including my favorite for the trip and one of my favorite stories.

To get to Cristallino, I flew first from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, and from there to Alta Floresta and then by boat to the Lodge.  While waiting for the boat I met a tour group led by a famous Brazilian guide.  While he was regaling his group in the building I walked around looking for birds.  Unbeknownst to me there was a Harpy Eagle nest up one of the trails.  I found it in shock and it was occupied by a mother and chick.  I raced in to tell the others and blew his story as he was just about to lead the group to see one of the most sought after of Amazonian birds.

Harpy Eagle – Amazon – September 5, 2005

Harpy Chick AF Hotel

I chronicled a favorite memory of my trip to Kenya in “The Circle of Life” blog which I published on October 4, 2016.  [See https://blairbirding.com/2018/08/06/keen-on-kenya/%5D,   That post included some birds but was primarily about “my father’s leopard”, a magical emotional encounter with this beautiful animal at Samburu National Park in November 2007 – perhaps a “gift” to me from my father who had passed away three months earlier.  That will always be the best moment of that trip, but there were many more.  We had been watching a Lilac Breasted Roller by the Samburu River when for some reason I turned and looked out the back of our jeep and saw a Leopard, the first of our trip.  We forgot the Roller and followed the Leopard which sprawled on a tree right before us.  My father’s last words to me before he died were to say hello to a leopard in Africa for him.  I did – through my tears.

Lilac Breasted Roller/Leopard – Samburu. Kenya – November 1, 2007

lilac-breasted-roller-2

In 2011 I was scheduled to have my first “major” surgery, a complete replacement of my right shoulder.  Hoping for the best but being aware that there were always risks, I decided to do the top thing on my bucket list – just in case the surgery did not go well.  That was seeing a Bengal Tiger in India.  I signed on for a trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (the same group I joined in Kenya) that promised Birds, Tigers and the Taj Mahal.  The birds were great and the Taj Mahal remains one of my all time favorites, but nothing was better than watching a Tiger stalking a deer at Kalindi Kinj Park

Bengal Tiger – January 5, 2011 – Kalindi Kinj Park – India

tiger4r

The shoulder surgery actually did not go well and I had to have it redone in 2012.  That was the first year I truly chased birds for my Washington State List.  The following year after a good start in January and February, I decided to do a State “Big Year”.  There were many great birds that year but my favorite for sure was the Lesser Sand Plover.   This species used to be called a Mongolian Plover.  I had seen my first one in Washington on September 1, 2013 – a drab bird not in breeding plumage.  I had seen my first one in the world on the Esplanade in Cairns, Australia in September 2003 – a place where this Australasian species is regular.  I discovered the bird featured here on a Audubon field trip that I was co-leading with Tim Boyer.  We were driving on the open beach near the casino and were seeing numerous Semipalmated Plovers in casual water that had collected in little ponds in the sand.  As we sped past one of these ponds I spied a small plover with the distinctly orange-rufous chest marking of the Lesser Sand Plover.  I stopped the car and jumped out without even turning off the motor and leaving my passengers quite stunned.  The Plover was very cooperative and posed for photos.  Best yet, it remained for another week and many people attending the WOS Conference the following week also got to see this little gem.

Lesser Sand Plover – Ocean Shores – September 1, 2013

Lesser Sand Plover 5

The best way to add to a “getting longer” ABA Life List is to get to Western Alaska if you have not already been there.  I had not, so I jumped at a chance to join John Puschock and his Zugunruhe Tour Company on a trip to Adak Island with an extension to Nome in 2016.  The visit included land birding on Adak and then a 3 day pelagic trip from Adak.  Closing was a three day visit to Nome.

Great birds on and around Adak included Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Aleutian Tern, Far Eastern Curlew, Rock Ptarmigan and Common Snipe before we took off on the Puk Puk for our offshore adventure and then a Hawfinch when we returned.  As an interesting aside, the great group of birders included Neil Hayward who then held the ABA Big Year record and Olaf Danielson who was on a quest to set a new record.  He ended up beating Neal’s mark but was outdone by John Weigel that same year.

A main quest for the pelagic trip was Short Tailed Albatross.  Unfortunately we found only one – a juvenile who was seen with a Laysan Albatross very near our boat giving me the chance for the striking photo below.  It is pretty hard to make a Laysan Albatross seem small but the Short Tailed did it.  Other lifers for me were Red Legged Kittiwake, and Crested, Least and Whiskered Auklets.

Later on three marvelous days in Nome, I added Gray Cheeked Thrush, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, Bristle Thighed Curlew, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Willow Ptarmigan and Spectacled Eider.  Thus there were 17 Lifers on the trip.  [See below for an even larger addition in Florida the next year.]

Alaska – Adak – Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses – May 31, 2016

Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses

Mt peregrinations for my 50/50/50 Adventure took me to every state and to many very special places and had many special birds.  In May I had the chance to visit Magee Marsh for the first time.  No lifers there but many lifer photos including a stunning Connecticut Warbler.  New (and continuing) girlfriend, Cindy Bailey met me at Magee and then we went north to the Tawas birding festival in Tawas, Michigan.  I was able to find my 50 species in a day there and on a great morning field trip added the endangered and iconic Kirtland’s Warbler.  It was a very fun visit and the warblers at Tawas in the afternoon were even more cooperative if less numerous than the ones at Magee.

The next day we visited an area in Southeastern Michigan, where we had a chance for another lifer – a Henslow’s Sparrow.  We flushed one and never found it again partially because our visit was shortened by quickly arriving heavy rains accompanied by a very loud siren.  At first we had no idea why there was a siren screaming at us.  When we realized it was a tornado warning, we wondered if we were safer staying put or heading off – possibly into the danger zone.  We never saw a funnel and were glad we did not.  It made for a memorable birding adventure though – even without another chance to refind the Henslow’s.

Kirtland’s Warbler – May 18, 2019 – Tawas MI

Kirtland's Warbler1

Florida in 2017 was a great visit with Edmonds friend Frank Caruso hooking up with Paul Bithorn, a guide out of Miami that Ann Marie Wood spoke highly of.  We would combine private guiding by Paul with a three day trip to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas with the Tropical Audubon Society.  For me it was a chance not only to add some ABA Lifers but also to get photos of Florida specialties that I had seen on visits to Florida in the 1970’s when I was not taking pictures.

The birding was excellent and both life photos and ABA Life birds were many.  Starting with a Spot Breasted Oriole and concluding with a Red Cockaded Woodpecker, I added 21 ABA Lifers and almost 40 life photos. 

It was not a Life Bird I had a Life Photo from the previous day, but it was certainly right up there with my favorite photos and experiences ever.  We had seen a couple of Swallow Tailed Kites earlier but on April 27th, while in the Everglades, two put on a great aerial show, with one within ten feet of us on several swoops.  I took many photos and would have had even more except the Kite was so close, I could not focus the camera on it.  Exhilarating moment.

Swallow Tailed Kite – Everglades – April 27, 2017

White Tailed Kite 4

At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of August 31st, the following post appeared on “Tweeters” – the main birder communication site in Washington: “There’s a Swallow Tailed Gull at Carkeek Park now w(ith) California Gulls!!!”  I was in my pajamas in Bellevue figuring out details for the remainder of the day that was going to include some dog sitting, checking out the mail at my condo in Edmonds and more steps to get rid of way too much stuff filling a storage unit.  The post was from Ryan Merrill.  Had it been from anyone else, I would have dismissed it as a joke, a mistake, a very late April Fools prank, but this was from Ryan – as good as there is and as caring and sharing as there is.  Rule #1 for any chase is “GO NOW!!!!!!!”

I was dressed and out the door within 5 minutes – out into the drizzle and hoping that the traffic would not be too bad and of course that the gull would remain.  Oddly I had just read something about Swallow Tailed Gulls a few days earlier when I was online looking up info about Swallow Tailed Kites and Google had pulled up the Gull before I finished entering the full inquiry.  Wait – had I misread the post – was it a Swallow Tailed Kite – still extraordinary and cause for a mad dash – but at least more plausible than a Swallow Tailed Gull which belongs in the Galapagos?

Clearly this was going to be an incredible day – there was NO TRAFFIC – almost as rare in Seattle as – well as a Swallow Tailed Gull.  I called Edmonds birding friends Steve Pink, Ann Marie Wood and Jon Houghton and broke the news to them.  None of them had seen Ryan’s post.  All would join later.  I was at Carkeek Park by 7:30 and down on the beach across the railroad track I could see 4 birders looking at a flock of gulls gathered on the beach.  They were not disinterestedly just looking about.  They were looking at the gulls and I was then sure they were also looking at THE GULL.  And one of them was Ryan Merrill.  I joined them as fast as I could and as I approached they smiled and invited me to look into the scope and at – yes the Swallow Tailed Gull. WOW!!  And that was a word that would be repeated many times over the next two hours as others would join the group.  There it was – a beautiful unbelievable Swallow Tailed Gull in a group of 100+ other gulls.  It was in adult plumage – dark head, white tipped dark bill, red around the eye – black and white patterned wings, white spot at the base of the bill, and of course – a swallow tail.  Way beyond WOW!!!

The Gull stayed in the area for over a week making some notable stops in my hometown of Edmonds where I was happy to meet birding friend Deb Essman from Ellensburg.  For Deb to come across the mountains was a big deal.  This was a BIG DEAL and she joined perhaps 1000 people from all over the world that came to see this beauty.

Swallow Tailed Gull – August 31, 2017 – Carkeek Park, Sept 8 2017

Swallow Tailed Gull 3

Arkansas was the last state in my 50/50/50 adventure – finding 50 species on single days (50 of them) in each of the 50 states.  With the expert guidance and company of Vivek Govind Kumar, we found more than 70 species with the best of them being many LeConte’s Sparrows (and even more Swamp Sparrows) at Woolsey Wet Prairie.  There were also many Sedge Wrens.  At first Vivek would find a LeConte’s only to have it pop up briefly and then disappear – no photo.  Finally a few cooperated resulting in the photo below.

My Lifer LeConte’s Sparrow was a very unlikely one at Discovery Park in Seattle.  I had raced down there after a posting on Tweeters our birding listserv.  It is not my favorite place to bird as it is very large and I am not familiar with landmarks.  Somehow I had found the right area.  Several birders were spread out and I got lucky and found the skulking sparrow in some shrubs and even got a few nice photos.

The LeConte’s in Arkansas was my only one actually seen in the 50 state saga and I have to include it as representing the successful conclusion of my 50 state quest.

LeConte’s Sparrow – Woolsey Wet Prairie, Arkansas, November 9, 2019

LeConte's SparrowR

My last “cloud lifter” was the “wild Kingdom” or Disney story of the Ross’s Gull at the Seattle Arboretum in December last year.  The Ross’s Gull is a sacred iconic rarity in ABA birding – generally found only in the north of Alaska or Canada.  It rarely makes an appearance in the lower 48 and always draws a crowd when it does.  I had been one of the many Washington birders that was able to see the Ross’s Gull that Charlie Wright found at Palmer lake in December 2011.  That after a long fast drive through the snow to get there with 3 others.

The saga of the Arboretum Ross’s is detailed in an earlier post [https://blairbirding.com/2019/12/02/two-extraordinary-days-featuring-a-ross’s-gull-and-a-mountain-plover/].  It was another mad dash after a posting on Tweeters.  Fortunately I guessed the right path to take me to spot where maybe 20 birders were already looking at the mega rarity sitting on a platform.  Unfortunately after maybe a half hour the gull left the platform and was almost immediately taken by a Bald Eagle as soon as it hit the water.  We watched in horror as it was killed and eaten.  Many birders arrived too late to see anything but feathers plucked by the Eagle.

Although I had not planned it this way when I chose the Eagle killed Ross’s Gull as the last of these random moments, but an experience yesterday (September 9th) confirms it as a good choice.  While up at Eide Road searching for (and not finding) a Stilt Sandpiper, a single immature Ring Billed Gull was out on the large mudflat.  Suddenly it had company as a Peregrine Falcon zoomed in and grabbed it in its talons.  A few seconds of struggle and the gull became breakfast.  A couple of Great Blue Herons flew in considering whether to challenge the falcon.  They did not.  But a few minutes later a Red Tailed Hawk did so and the Peregrine left the carcass.  It repeatedly attacked diving at the hawk which stood its ground.  Another natural drama between a gull and a raptor with the same result.

Ross’s Gull – December 21, 2011 – Palmer Lake – December 1, 2019 – Arboretum

Ross's Gull 2

Please Wear A Mask

Keep at least six feet apart.  Avoid crowds.  Wash hands often and thoroughly.  Most importantly WEAR A MASK!!  So simple but with a narcissistic sociopath in the White House who is incapable of recognizing the feelings of others and who politicizes everything, far too many people do not accept the science of prevention or care not about others and within the next few days, more than 150,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19.  Thousands of deaths could have been avoided.

To recognize the importance of the MASK, this post recalls my experiences with masks in the avian world and also wishes for some others – just as I wish that we could bond together and simply put on our masks for all of humanity.  (I include only the species which begin with “masked”.)

My first “masked” bird was a Masked Booby, one of many seen on Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas on April 29 1978.  The next Masked Boobies I saw were at the very same place exactly 39 years later on April 29, 2017.  The first two photos are from that second visit – some of the more than 50 individuals seen.  This species is regularly seen there.  It is far less common in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego where I saw one on August 19, 2018.

Masked Boobies – Loggerhead Key, Florida – April 29, 2017

Masked Booby

Masked Boobies

Masked Booby – San Diego Pelagic – August 19, 2018

Masked Booby2

In April 1997, I visited Costa Rica with my family and at the Tiskita Jungle Lodge, I added Masked Tityra to my world list.  I would see this species again in 2005 in Brazil, 2010 in Belize and 2013 in Peru.

Masked Tityra

Masked Tityra

In 2003 I was able to visit Australia and on September 8th found my lifer Masked Lapwing at Toowomba.

Masked Lapwing

Masked Lapwing

In 2013 I traveled to Peru and added three more masked birds to my World List: a Masked Yellowthroat on November 4, 2013 and then a Masked Flowerpiercer and a Masked Trogon on November 13, 2013.

Masked Yellowthroat – Photo by Mariano Ordonez

Masked Yellowthroat

Masked Flowerpiercer – Photo by Andres Vasquez

Masked Flowerpiercer

Masked Trogon – Photo by Nigel Voaden

Masked Trogon

So my life list of “masked” birds stands at 6.  The Clements Checklist of World Birds includes 24 such species.  I guess I have a long way to go.  But until I get there, I will simply list them here and thank them for “wearing” their masks.

Masked Antpitta Masked Finfoot Masked Saltator
Masked Apalis Masked Flowerpiercer Masked Shining-Parrot
Masked Booby Masked Fruiteater Masked Shrike
Masked Bowerbird Masked Gnatcatcher Masked Tanager
Masked Cardinal Masked Lapwing Masked Tityra
Masked Crimson Tanager Masked Lark Masked Trogon
Masked Duck Masked Laughingthrush Masked Water-Tyrant
Masked Finch Masked Mountain-Tanager Masked Woodswallow

Many of these birds are spectacular and I would love to add them to my world list of observations and maybe even get a photo.  Hopefully I will not have to wear a mask when/if I do.  But if so, I would certainly do so.  Here are three examples.

Masked Bowerbird

Masked Bowerbird

Masked Crimson Tanager

Masked Crimson Tanager

Masked Finfoot

Masked Finfoot

My masked mania will end with the one “masked” bird that is at least a possibility in the ABA area – a Masked Duck – maybe in Texas some day.

Masked Duck

Masked Duck

If these guys can do it with their simple “bird brains”, we all can.  Do it for yourself, your friends, families and all of humanity.  “PLEASE, WEAR A MASK!”

My Glass – Less than Half Empty and More than Half Full

It is pretty hard to feel sad on a day when you see at least 25 Tufted Puffins, but there were moments yesterday when I did.  Of course it is pretty hard to feel anything but sad when the Coronavirus still rages and Donald Trump is still President.  I forgot about both of those disasters for a while yesterday as the San Juan Cruises “Puffin Tour” left Bellingham Harbor and headed South towards Smith Island.  In years past I have usually looked for Tufted Puffins on an evening cruise out of Sequim headed for Destruction Island, but the numbers of puffins there has seemed to decrease each year and I wanted to try something new.

Besides there have been a number of reports of a Horned Puffin seen near Smith Island this year and apparently one has been found there on some trips in the last few years as well.  Tufted Puffins breed on Smith Island and a few other islands in Washington and are often seen on pelagic trips, but Horned Puffins are very rare south of Alaska, so an opportunity to see one in Washington (I have seen one at Neah Bay in addition to several in Alaska) is taken seriously.   Before signing on I confirmed that the cruise operator was taking COVID-19 seriously, and being comfortable with that, I drove up to Bellingham early on July 3rd stopping first at Eide Road to twitch the Black Necked Stilt that was found there the previous day by Pam Myers.  I found it immediately upon arriving but also found gray skies and some rain, so was it a good omen or not?  As rain increased as I approached Bellingham, I was leaning towards “Not”.

But our boat was large, comfortable and sheltered and the rain was diminishing so no worries.  I will not go into all the details almost all of which were positive.  Very smooth seas, almost no wind, cool but not cold and very light rain.  Passengers ranged from serious birders to casual birders to not birders at all but up to see puffins and eagles and whatever else.  It was a good omen that a Black Oystercatcher flew over us as we waited to board the vessel.

The voyage down to Smith Island was a little longer than I would have preferred and there were not all that many birds along the way:  some Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, a few Marbled Murrelets, a single Common Murre and a few gulls.  At some smaller islands and at Bird Rock we saw more Auklets and Murrelets and many cormorants (three species) and Glaucous Winged Gulls.  There were also some Harlequin Ducks, a few Black Turnstones, several Bald Eagles and a few Black Oystercatchers.  Many of the small islands serve as “haul outs” for Harbor Seals and we saw small pups at many spots.

Marbled Murrelets

Marbled Murrelets

Pigeon Guillemots

Pigeon Guillemots

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Harbor Seal Mom and Pup

Mom and Pup

Finally, we arrived at our targeted destination – just as the sun somewhat broke through the clouds and the rain disappeared.  With Minor Island and surrounding waters, Smith Island forms the 36,308 acre Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve. It is the largest such reserve owned by the Department of Natural Resources in Washington and also has the largest Bull Kelp bed in the state.  The kelp bed is home to many fish and other marine wildlife that coupled with the right soil conditions on Smith Island that enables burrowing supports breeding by both Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins.  The Auklets were numerous and it did not take long to find our first Tufted Puffin.

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet2

We spent a good hour exploring the rich waters in the Reserve.  We observed more than 100 Rhinoceros Auklets and maybe as many as 30 Tufted Puffins.   Light was not great and we never got up close and personal but with the aid of a nice telephoto lens and lots of opportunities, Puffin pictures were not too bad.  Unfortunately every time I saw one in flight, it was either very distant or flying away from me.  We saw many Puffins diving and in flight but never observed any returning to burrows where assuredly there are young.

Tufted Puffins

Three Puffins
Two Puffins Left1
Tufted Puffin1

The house of the former lighthouse attendant on Smith Island has been abandoned but now provides a perching spot for Bald Eagles.  In this photo the burrows for the Tufted Puffins and Rhinoceros Auklets are clearly visible.  The softer soil layer is relatively thin, but the burrows can extend 8 or more feet back horizontally protection from predation of the eggs and chicks by the eagles and gulls.  Puffins live for 25 years or more and males and females partner “for life”, but the naturalist onboard said that females have been observed mating with more than one male.  We did not learn if the reverse was also true.

Burrows Below the Abandoned House

Seabird Burrows

Unfortunately, although we searched diligently, the Horned Puffin was not found.  Disappointing but we were very pleased with what we saw.  I especially liked the several Tufted Puffins we saw with bill full of fish.  There are rear facing “hooks” on the bills that enable them to hold several fish at once.  They fill up and then take the fish to their chick in the burrow.  They have only a single young in each brood, one reason that once a population starts to fall, the fall can be rapid.  It just takes too long to replenish their numbers.

Tufted Puffin with Fish

Tufted Puffin with Fish1

On the return trip back to Bellingham, we spotted a single Sea Otter.  There used to be a significant population in Puget Sound but then they almost entirely disappeared.  It is believed they may be making a comeback.  This was the first one seen by the captain and crew in four years.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

Back to Bellingham and then 90 minutes home to Edmonds.  The Tufted Puffin was a first record for the year and the Black Necked Stilt was a first ever for me in Snohomish County – species #255.  This concludes the part of my birding glass being “half full”.  Now for the”half empty”.  We can start with the failure to find the Horned Puffin.  Not only would it have been a very special state bird for 2020, it is also a beautiful bird – so double missed.  I can only blame this on bad luck as we were certainly in the right place but just apparently at the wrong time.

Horned Puffin (from Alaska in 2016)

horned-puffin1 (2)

The rest of the emptiness is blamed on that enemy of us all, COVID-19.  I have had several trips canceled by the virus.  One to South Florida and Cuba, one to Texas and one to Southeastern Arizona.  Missing Cuba with Cindy was a stinging blow in many ways, not the least of which was that we paid for the whole trip and have nothing to show for it except for a significant credit with Alaska Airlines and a “maybe later” from our tour operator.  There also would have been some great birds there – especially the Bee Hummingbird and the Cuban Tody.  Probably no lifers in Florida but a chance for a couple of new ABA life photos.  Some life photos were possible in Texas as well but the real target was a lifer Colima Warbler.

Bee Hummingbird – Ebird Photo

Bee_Humming_Bird

Cuban Tody – Ebird Photo

BIRDNOTE_Cuabn_tody_1

Colima Warbler – Greg Lavaty

Colima Warbler

Arizona is a bit more complicated.  Cindy and I were going to visit friends for a couple of days and then bird in Southeast Arizona with a well known guide.  There was a chance for a couple of new ABA lifers.  But that trip was lost.  As airlines modified their approaches to deal with COVID-19, and as some really terrific birds showed up in Arizona, I looked into rescheduling at least my birding part of that trip.  Some “expert” advice said it would be safe.  Great birds, ABA lifers all, were being seen, including by friends who had made the trip:  White Eared and Berylline Hummingbirds, Buff Collared Nightjar, Common Crane, Flame Colored Tanager, Crescent Chested Warbler and best of all an Eared Quetzal.  If I spent 3 or 4 days in Arizona, I had a good chance of seeing at most of them – by far the single biggest one trip opportunity to add to my ABA Life List short of a trip to remote western Alaska.

But the powerful evil pairing of COVID-19 and Donald Trump made the trip just too dangerous.  Due in large measure to the complete ineptitude and deceitfulness of Trump, his administration and his allies, many states either failed to put protective measures in place or reopened far too early and COVID-19 cases soared with Arizona being one of the worst offenders.  Always a hotspot for birding, it was now a hotspot for the virus with record setting levels of new cases and hospitalizations daily.  Just far too dangerous to fly into either Tucson or Phoenix and then find lodging where the birds are.  Opportunity lost.  Glass half empty.  Vicarious enjoyment only.  Here are photos of the “lost lifers”.

White Eared Hummingbirds – Photo by Tammy MacQuade

White Eared Hummingbird Tammy Macquade

Berylline Hummingbird – Photo by Laura Keene

Berylline Hummingbird Laura Keene

Buff Collared Nightjar – Ebird Photo

Buff Collared Nightjar

Common Crane – Photo by Carl Haynie

Common Crane Carl Haynie

Flame Colored Tanager – Carlos Sanchez

Flame Colored TAnager

Crescent Chested Warbler – Yve  Morell

Crescent Chested Warbler - Yve Morell

Eared Quetzal – Richard Fray

Eared Quetzal

I am often brought almost to tears by the horror stories of those who have suffered from COVID-19 and of the far too many people have died.  And almost daily I am nearly brought to tears by the endless cruelties, stupidities and transgressions of Donald Trump.  Yes, I am saddened by the trips not taken and the birds not found and the friends not seen that have resulted from the disease and its incompetent handling by our disgraceful President and his sycophantic followers.  But while that glass may be somewhat emptier in those losses, it is so much fuller than those of many others and good health in lovely Edmonds with my dear Cindy and with the many birds I still have been able to see in Washington sustain me.  There are no tears for the losses.  There are many smiles for all that I have.

A Khanh Tran Kind of Day…

His owl sightings, photos, discoveries and frankly anything else having to do with owls is remarkable, amazing and downright hard to fathom.  How does he do it?   Great Grays, Western Screech, Flammulated, Long and Short Eared, Saw Whets and Pygmys and even Northern Spotted Owls and Hawk Owls.  He knows their haunts, their habits, where to find them and how to photograph them.  He is the Owl Whisperer.  Owls are among the most sought after birds everywhere.  We all want to see them.  We struggle.  We try and when we succeed at all, we are thrilled.  Especially for some of these beauties, far too often, there is no success, no visual, no photo, not even a “heard only”.  It seems that Khanh never misses.  And there are not just pictures; there are photographs, beautiful works of art.

Khanh Tran

Khanh Tran

It would be so easy to hate someone like this.  Each photo reminding us of our failures.  But, he is also a good guy.  Funny, engaging.  Heck, he’s even cute.  Not fair.  Not even close to fair.  I considered myself greatly fortunate to have photographs, well at least pictures, of every owl in Washington – except Boreal and Flammulated Owls.  I have seen a Boreal Owl once – deep in the trees at Mount Rainier.  It would not come closer.  At best it was a glimpse, hardly even “a look”.  Even a poor picture was not possible.  I saw a shadow of one once – at Salmo Mountain late at night with snow on the road and more frosting the trees.  Maybe it was a shadow or maybe it was just a spiritual presence in that very remote, beautiful and serene part of our State.  But its hoots were real.

At noon at the top of Bethel Ridge several of us heard a Flammulated Owl calling.  A creature of the dark night, this never happens.  But I have witnesses.  It called for more than 15 minutes, never visible to any of us, until it burst out of the tree, flew almost over our heads and then disappeared.  Little bastard!!  I had a brief visual on another occasion – at night – but could not find it after it perched who knows where.  I have heard maybe 20 Flammulated Owls in Washington and last year with the aid of Tim Avery finally got a photo in Utah.

Khanh Tran routinely finds, sees and photographs both Boreal and Flammulated Owls.  But I have no hate, just envy and admiration and a fantasy of having a day, even just a single day, when I could whisper to the owls and have them appear before me like they do – always do for Khan Tran.  A single Khanh Tran kind of day.  Just one.  Please…

Well, it happened.  No Flammulated Owls and no Boreal Owls but yesterday (June 22) I found SEVEN Burrowing Owls!!  Not nearly as rare as Boreal and Flammulated Owls but hey they are much cuter!!  And some of my pictures just may be good enough to be called “photographs”, but you will be the judge of that.  If not quality, definitely there is quantity.  Here’s what happened on my Khan Tran kind of day.

Last week on the way home from a wonderful visit to Sunriver, Cindy and I stopped at the High Desert Museum.  Lots of good exhibits even with limits imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions.  Pretty hard to beat the photogenic River Otters at feeding time, but at the very end, we enjoyed the Burrowing Owl exhibit and I got a very fun photo even though the owl was behind glass.  Maybe it was an omen.  (Whoa!!  Maybe Khan was sending a message – hey, he lives in Oregon after all.)

River Otters – High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon

River Otter

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Oregon

So on Monday I decided to go looking for a Burrowing Owl in Washington.  It would be my first of the year and I have seen them every year since 2011 so it would be the tenth year in a row.  Recent reports have been from the area near Hatchery Road and Rocky Ford in Grant County, a place I had seen them in April last year, so that would be my target area.  So the plan was an early start, a first stop at Bullfrog Pond near Cle Elum and then to owl country.

The birds were as expected at Bullfrog Pond and neighboring Wood Duck Road.  Veeries were calling everywhere and I had five warbler species: Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Wilson’s and Common Yellowthroat.  No pictures of them worth sharing.  Better photos were of a family of young Western Bluebirds and some Cassin’s Finches from Wood Duck Road.

Young Western Bluebirds

Two Western Bluebirds

Baby Bluebird

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch

I had seen 40 species by the time I reached Ellensburg, the sun was out and the temperature was up more than 25 degrees from the time I arrived at Bullfrog and was now a comfortable 63 degrees.  It got warmer as I continued East.  I was relying on my phone’s GPS to take me to the spot on Hatchery Road where Ebird reports said 2 Burrowing Owls had been seen two days earlier.  It chose a route that was not what I expected and it took me onto Road 9 near Soap Lake.  There were many Western Meadowlarks and Western Kingbirds usually on the telephone wires.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird2

Just before reaching Dodson Road as I was speeding down Road 9, my eye noticed something on the wire that was not a Meadowlark or Kingbird.  It looked like an owl but I had never seen one perched on a wire that far off the ground.  I made a quick U-turn and was under “it” and the “it” was indeed an owl, my first Burrowing Owl of the day and of 2020.  I watched it for several minutes remaining in my car as a blind.  Picture, picture, picture.  It then flew to the ground and there were more pictures.  It flew off…and disappeared with me thinking it had flown into a culvert – perhaps its nest burrow.  I was still miles away from the “target area” and I had found my target already.  I was a happy camper, indeed.

Burrowing Owl – Road 9

BUOW1.4

BUOW1.5

I gave a few minutes thought to changing plans and with such an early success finding the only real target of the day, I considered researching another FOY and trying for it – maybe a Gray Partridge or even a Dusky Grouse.  But they were hours away, so I carried on towards Hatchery Road.  My GPS told me to continue on Road 9 and then turn onto Road A.  Not what I expected, but the deviation to Road 9 had worked – why not?  And this worked, too.

It is not 100% clear how the road numbering/naming system works in the area but as I was traveling essentially what I think was East on Road A, my GPS said I was approaching Road 12.3 on my left.  Traveling at 60 mph as I zoomed towards the intersection and then past it as another car was about to turn onto Road A, I thought I saw a little bump on a rocky outcropping a short ways up Road 12.3.  I made another quick U-turn and turned right onto 12.3 and indeed it was another Burrowing Owl not bothered by my presence or the pickup that had just turned onto Road A.  The camera was busy again.

Burrowing Owl – Road 12.3

BUOW2.1

A second pick up came roaring down 12.3 towards me.  How could there be so much traffic on this little nothing of a road?  This time the owl flew off and landed on a smaller rock maybe 100 feet away.  I was still not even on Highway 17 let alone Hatchery Road and I had seen two Burrowing Owls.  Pretty good indeed.  Back onto Road A and then a right turn onto Highway 282 which is where I had expected to be earlier.  A mile or so and then a left turn onto Highway 17.  I recalled that Burrowing Owls had been reported on Highway 17 but I had not noted where since my focus was on Hatchery Road.

Maybe 3 or 4 miles up Highway 17 and perhaps a half mile before the right turn to Hatchery Road, I saw an SUV pulled over on the left side of the road.  A guy was standing on the front seat and up into the open sunroof.  He had a camera with a long lens.  What was he seeing?  On a bird chase, you always hope that there is a birder already there when you arrive with the target in front of him or her to be pointed out to you.  This was sorta the case here.  A photographer and not a birder, he was focused on a nest burrow on top of a rise leading to a fenced field.  There was an an adult Burrowing Owl which flew off and two Owlets which retreated into the burrow.  Amazingly, now before reaching the target zone, I had seen 5 Burrowing Owls.  This was the first sense that this indeed was a Khanh Tran kind of day.  No photos, but wow!!

Well, it was a good thing that I had found the Burrowing Owls that I did because there were none to be found along Hatchery Road or at Rocky Ford.  Later I found out that the Ebird report I had relied on for the Hatchery Road sighting was inaccurate and that the owls had been seen on Highway 17 – maybe at the same burrow I had left earlier.   Ebird is a wonderful tool but it and those who use it often leave much to be desired when it comes to pinpoint accuracy.  I am sure I have sinned that way as well although I am trying to avoid doing so.

There were other birds along Hatchery Road, though.  A distant Grasshopper Sparrow scratched out its insect-like song/call.  Several Savannah Sparrows appeared atop the sage or on the wires and then disappeared in flight.  Lark Sparrows did the same.  Again quite distant with the resulting photos leaving much to desire.  A Rock Wren sang on a rock and then responding to my playback flew to another rock and then another.  Never close but no mistaking the song or the identification even without the rocks.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow3

Rock Wren

Rock Wren3

And Western Kingbirds were common and easily seen on the wires.  All told on this trip there may have been 18 or more of them, even outnumbering the Western Meadowlarks.

Western Kingbird on Hatchery Road

Western Kingbird1

Long ago I occasionally went flyfishing at Rocky Ford.  There are some very large rainbow trout in the crystal clear waters.  Challenging fishing for sure.  This day the lure was a chance for Sora and Virginia Rails.  I played the whinny call for a Sora and got an immediate response – actually two.  A Sora was calling from across the creek, unlikely to fly over to check me out.  Much closer was a Virginia Rail.  I often find that either rail will respond to the call of the other.  There are openings in the reeds near the fishing platform where I was trying the playback and I thought a visual might be possible.

I heard at least one and possibly two more Virginia Rails and they eagerly responded to the “grunt” calls my phone played for them.  I spent at least 20 minutes there hoping for a view and maybe a photo.  I had several views of one of the rails skittering between the reeds, but my only photos were of the spot where the Rail had just been or maybe its flanks against the reeds.  Then one came into the open just long enough to get a photo of at least most of the bird.  Probably my first Virginia Rail photo of the year.

Virginia Rails

Virginia Rail1

Very happy for the day, it was time to head home.  I would not have expected it, but there was even the chance to join Cindy for dinner.  So it was back to the Burrowing Owl nest on Highway 17 hoping for a photo of the Owlets.  They remained in the burrow and I had a glimpse of the adult in the field.  Retracing my steps in about a mile I saw another Burrowing Owl this time on the other side of the road perched on a fence post.  Maybe it was part of the family from the nest I had just left but a mile seems a bit too far for that.  In the first photo the owl is looking right at me.  In the second it is glancing skyward at a Red Tailed Hawk that was soaring above.

Burrowing Owl

BUOW3.3

BUOW3.4

Before this trip, I think the most Burrowing Owls I have seen in one day in Washington is probably three, possibly four.  Now I was up to six.  There would be one more although I needed distant help to do so.  Let me explain.  I wanted to see if the owls I had found on the way in were still there – both from my own curiosity and also because if so then it would increase the chance that others could follow my reports and find them if they were interested.  Coming up on Road 12.3 I could see that familiar bump on the rocky outcropping.  The Burrowing Owl was still there.  It took off as I turned onto the road, but I already had my photos, so that was no issue.  I did see other critters on rocks – Yellow Bellied Marmots I believe.

Yellow Bellied Marmots

How about the first find of the day back on Road 9.  As I was approaching the spot which was entered into my GPS I could see an owl-like form on the wire less than 100 feet from where I had seen the first owl that morning.  It remained motionless as I again took a number of photos.  Very pleased, it was now time to say goodbye to this extraordinary day and head home.  Several hours later I was home and went through my pictures, editing some and posting the best of them on Facebook recounting what I thought was a six-owl day.  One viewer, R.J. Baltierra – a super birder from the Tri-Cities saw the post and paid a lot more knowledgeable attention to them than I had.  Noticing coloration differences between some of the photos I posted from Road 9, he wondered if perhaps there were two different birds.  I responded to his inquiry with a clarification of when each photo was taken and indeed the first was the female and the second was of the paler male.  So it became a seven owl day.  And none where I had expected to find them.

Burrowing Owl – Second Viewing on Road 9 – the Spots are From an Irrigation Sprinkler in Action when I was There 

BUOW1.1.2Sprinkler

BUOW1.1.5

Acknowledging that these are not Boreal nor Flammulated nor Spotted nor Hawk Owls, I loved finding, seeing and photographing these wonderful little owls, finding them in unexpected locations although in perfect habitat.  I almost expected Khanh Tran to show up and with a smile, he would say something like: “I hope you enjoyed this.  I knew you were heading this way and put in a special request for these owls to greet you.  Welcome to my world, and no you don’t even have to thank me!!”

On Familiar Ground

The past few days have really brought home to me the role that “familiar ground” plays in my birding life.  Some thoughts and examples follow.

Case I – A Black Throated Sparrow

On Sunday, June 1, a Black Throated Sparrow was reported on Ebird in North Bend, about 45 miles from me.  The report referenced but did not include photos and I did not know the birder reporting this extraordinary find.   Many reports of purported Black Throated Sparrows  have turned out to be House Sparrows, a common “junk bird” found mostly around inhabited areas including commercial buildings.  This bird was reported on the parking lot behind the Mount Si Gymnastics Academy, a commercial building.  It seemed likely to be an error in identification.  Besides I had just seen the Black Throated Sparrow on Dennis Road in Franklin County.

If the reported area had been familiar ground, I would have known that this parking area adjoined a lovely patch of mixed habitat.  Not the normal arid habitat of a Black Throated Sparrow but pretty birdy and especially this year with many out of place sightings – well maybe?  But it not being familiar ground, I completely discounted the possibilities and did not pursue it.  Then that night photos were added to the report and indeed it was the real thing.  Oh well.  I should have chased it early the next morning but had some obligations and knew I would be going on a long trip on Tuesday so convincing myself that it was likely a one day wonder, I refrained.

Case II – A Least Tern

On Monday morning I was working on a brief photo presentation for the Washington Ornithological Society that night and paid little attention to emails and such.  Fortunately however, I checked emails at precisely 1:35 p.m.  Exactly 4 minutes earlier, Louis Kreemer had posted the following message on “Tweeters” our local birding listserv:  “Sam Fason and I are looking at what we are quite sure to be a Least Tern at Montlake Fill! …”  I had never seen a Least Tern in Washington – a super rarity.   I grabbed camera and binoculars and was out the door by 1:45 and was at the Fill by 2:10 P.M.  Hurrying towards the “Osprey Tower” which was the noted lookout spot, I ran into Ryan Merrill who was coming out and who had just seen the Tern.  It was there!!

Five minutes later I found John Puschock and Sam Nason, one of the original discoverers, at the water’s edge and heard those three wonderful words – “There it is!”  It took a second to get on it with my bins as it dipped and dived tern-like, but I had it – a Washington Lifer!!  I got a couple of ID quality only photos in the distance.  Other birders arrived and maybe 5 minutes after I had my first sighting, the tern landed on a piece of wood in the water – much closer to us – and posed.  Now I had a great look and a fairly decent photo although the light was tricky.  This was Washington Lifer #423 and state photo #410.  I had seen many great birds at this familiar turf, and had seen Least Terns in 10 other states but had never expected to see one there.

Least Tern

Least Tern1

This is such a challenging time in our nation as protests after the murder of George Floyd continued and new cases of COVID-19 were occurring daily.  Once again birding had taken me away  from those tragic realities.  The protests and the Coronavirus pandemic are anything but familiar and every unavoidable thought about them brought great discomfort and worry.  At the Montlake Fill, the sun was shining and once again I was sheltered in the comfortable cocoon that looking for familiar birds in a familiar place provides.

As it turned out that the Black Throated Sparrow was seen again a couple of hours before my seeing the Least Tern.  Should I have tried for it?  Yes,  But I did not.  Why?  I thought about trying for it when I was at the Montlake Fill and that was when the concept of familiar ground first came to mind.  The Fill was very familiar ground.  I was comfortable and confident there.  The opposite was the case for the seemingly strange North Bend location.  Often I love going to new places and experiencing new habitats and birds – especially if the places are beautiful and the birds are special.   Maybe I hesitated because I knew I would be embarking on a long trip to more familiar ground the next day and that was where my head was.  But I rarely hesitate going on a chase.  In the end I think that I was so lifted by seeing the Least Tern at this special place that I did not want to chance a failed chase overriding such a successful one.  I was very much in my comfort zone.

A Long Trip to More Familiar Ground

Every year in May and into June I have actively birded favorite places in Eastern Washington to see some of the newly arrived species that were then on breeding grounds. With only small variations to this trek every year, this has become familiar territory with mandatory visits to Bullfrog Pond and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds near Cle Elum, the Yakima River Canyon, Bethel Ridge and Oak Creek, the Liberty area, the Quilomene Wildlife Area, Wenas, County Line Ponds and Potholes Reservoir.  When there has been time for longer trips, and I have always found such time, other mandatory visits have been to Lyle, to the Walla Walla area and to Spokane and then Calispell Lake.

Each place, with some overlap, can be relied upon for specific species.  Just a few examples (among many others that are found at each place):  Veery at Bullfrog Pond, Pygmy Nuthatch at the Railroad Ponds, Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting in the Yakima Canyon, Lewis’s Woodpecker at Oak Creek, Williamson’s Sapsucker at Bethel Ridge, White Headed Woodpecker at Wenas, Phalaropes, Stilts and Avocets at the County Line Ponds, Forster’s Tern at Potholes, Sage Thrashers in the Quilomene, Flammulated Owls and Poorwills at Liberty, Acorn Woodpeckers and Ash Throated Flycatchers in Lyle, Green Tailed Towhees, White Faced Ibis, Great Gray Owls and Ferruginous Hawks near Walla Walla and Bobolinks,  Northern Waterthrush and Red Eyed Vireos near Calispell Lake.  If the timing is right, each of these species is almost a certainty at each favorite place.

In Spring 2019 my birding was mostly out of home state of Washington visiting Eastern states as part of my 50/50/50 birding adventure.  I was back in Washington for ten days at the end of May and in early June and was able to get to many of the aforementioned favorite spots.  But I was not able to get to the Spokane area and Calispell Lake in Eastern Washington.  I had birded there in each of the previous 6 years and had grown to love the area, and knew specific spots to reliably find specific species generally found there and only there.  It had become familiar ground.  With a very rare to Washington Eastern Phoebe being seen regularly at Elk in the area and with my time with the rental car provided while my deer damaged car was in the shop coming to an end, the timing was perfect to visit this special area this week.  The original plan was to leave on Tuesday and return late Wednesday.  It is a long trip.

As usual I was up long before the alarm rang on Tuesday and was on the road before 4:45 A.M. arriving at the North Bend Black Throated Sparrow spot at 5:20 A.M.  It was already light and I hoped I had not blown it by not following my most important rule for a chase – “Go Now.”  Birds were singing as I arrived but unfortunately not a Black Throated Sparrow.  It was still early so maybe more sun would bring it out.  In fifteen minutes another birder arrived, Chris Rurik.  More eyes are always better but sadly not this time.  In another 30 minutes, John Puschock arrived as well.  Still no Black Throated Sparrow.  Shared stories and some nice birds including a Red Breasted Sapsucker that returned often to an aluminum ladder which greatly increased the volume of its drumming.  I gave it another ten minutes and then with many miles ahead, I departed, hoping that I would have better luck on the familiar ground ahead.  The Black Throated Sparrow proved to be a two-day wonder as it was not seen again.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Red Breasted Sapsucker

My first Eastern Washington target was a Clay Colored Sparrow still more than three hours away in Western Spokane County.   Although I had not been to the exact spot where a Clay Colored Sparrow had most recently been seen, as I got close, familiar names recalled previous trips to the area where I had found them:  Stroup Road and Coulee Hite Road.  Just before arriving at Mackenzie Road as I was driving slowly on West Thorpe Road, I saw a black and white bird rise from the grass and land on some barbed wire fencing – often a perching spot for sparrows and others in this semi-arid landscape.  It was an Eastern Kingbird.  I had a distant view of one at Millet Pond last week, but no photo.  This one was far more cooperative as even without playback encouragement, it flew to a closer perch on the wire and then came closer yet.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Within less than 200 yards a Grasshopper Sparrow flew up onto more barbed wire next to a grassy field.  This, too, was a familiar species in this familiar place.  It disappeared before I could get a photo but I felt it was a precursor for a Clay Colored Sparrow ahead.  I turned onto west Mackenzie Road and quickly found the brush pile where the Clay Colored Sparrow had most recently been reported.  A single sparrow was on some sage nearby.  It was a Savannah Sparrow – one of many in the area.  Then another sparrow appeared, too large to be a Clay Colored Sparrow, it was a heavily marked Vesper Sparrow, with the chestnut patch on its shoulder noted in the strong light.  It is  another common species in this area.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow2 (2)

Then I heard it, the buzzy song of the Clay Colored Sparrow.  One flew onto and then off of the brush pile.  Back on again, I got a lousy picture.  Off again and then back on , this time with company.  A second Clay Colored Sparrow was interacting with the first one.  I could not tell if they were a mated pair or competing males.  Fortunately they perched long enough for my camera.

Clay Colored Sparrow FOY #1

Clay Colored Sparrow1 (2)

It was a new species for the year, a reward for the already long trip and a confidence builder for more to come.  On the way out a pair of Mountain Bluebirds flashed by.  I thought I saw their nesting box but it was occupied by a Tree Swallow.

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird Female Mountain Bluebird

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow at Mest1

Almost exactly 8 years ago at the Rosalia STP south of Spokane, I had seen an Eastern Phoebe – quite the rarity for the state.  Now another one was being seen regularly by a bridge in Elk, Washington, north of Spokane about 50 miles from my sparrow brush pile.  I headed north with a stop at Reardan Ponds hoping for a Black Tern.  No terns but more than 100 Eared Grebes in full breeding splendor.  This is another reliable species in the area.  I already had a fabulous photo of one from a trip to Chiawana Lake a couple of weeks earlier but could not resist another one.

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes

The Ebird directions to the bridge in Elk were precise and as soon as I got out of the car I first heard and then saw and then photographed the Eastern Phoebe.  It could not have been easier.  My failed mission in North Bend had added an hour to my journey but this quick find of the Phoebe gave me some of that time back.  It was now 12:30 P.M.  Although I had been on the road for about 8 hours, finding the Eastern Phoebe was energizing and I was looking forward to “next” – the beautiful area around Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County about 30 miles away.

Eastern Phoebe FOY #2

Eastern Phoebe (2)

We are spoiled in Washington with so many different habitats and so many beautiful places.  Calispell Lake is one of those places and after many visits has become a favorite and familiar ground for sure.  Over the years relying in part on reports of others and on my own exploring, I have found very specific spots where I can reliably find the specialty birds of the area.

Calispell Lake

Although it was not on my First of Year target list since I had seen one earlier in the year at Wylie Slough in Skagit County, my first stop was at the bridge on Westside Calispel Road where Northern Waterthrush breeds.  The target here this time was a Least Flycatcher that had been reported regularly.  With no traffic in sight, I parked off the road and immediately heard three welcomed calls:  Northern Waterthrush, Willow Flycatcher and Cedar Waxwing.  The Waxwings were numerous, active and photogenic.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing1

I then heard at least one more Willow Flycatcher and one more Northern Waterthrush but of far more interest was the repeated and softer “che-bek” call of the Least Flycatcher.  It seemed that every time the Least would call, one of the Willows would drown it out with a much louder “fitz-bew” call of its own.  Neither was close or visible but the calls were clear.  I already had great photos of Willow Flycatcher and Northern Waterthrush for the year so I really hoped for a picture of the Least Flycatcher.  Not to be so I will just continue to appreciate the one I took last year.

Northern Waterthrush – From this spot in 2016

Northern Waterthrush

Least Flycatcher – FOY #3 (Photo from June 2019)

Least Flycatcher

There would however be one more good photo at this very birdy stop.  At least two Gray Catbirds were very active and unlike the case for the one I had heard and seen only through thick brush at Bullfrog Pond a week ago, this time I got a photo.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The Least Flycatcher was FOY #3 for the day, half of my “pretty likely” list.  The next species on the list was Red Eyed Vireo and here again I had a very specific favored spot – the intersection of Westside Calispel and Pease Roads.   When I arrived I heard what I thought might be the song of a Red Eyed Vireo but I had not heard one for a while and recalled that it was similar to that of the American Robin.  Indeed I found a Robin singing in the open so it was not going to be all that easy.  It only took a few more moments as I walked onto Pease Road and then heard the different notes of the Red Eyed Vireo in thick woods below me.  I adjusted my camera settings to have a brighter view in the viewfinder and was then able to located the singing Vireo on a branch.

Red Eyed Vireo – FOY #4

Red Eyed Vireo1

I am not so sure about Northern Waterthrush, but I expect that there are many places to find a Red Eyed Vireo in the area.  It was super satisfying though to find one at “my” Red Eyed Vireo spot – exactly where I had seen them before – one of the joys of “familiar ground”.  And only a couple of miles away another such spot awaited – the Bobolink fields in Usk.

I love everything about Bobolinks:  they are uncommon in Washington (and their populations are decreasing as habitats disappears); they have that wonderful bright bubbly song in flight, starting with low reedy notes and rollicking upward “bob-o-link, bob-o-link, pink, pink, pank, pink”; their fluttery flight is very fun to see; and at least to me best of all, not only are they quite striking, they are also upside down.  Most birds are darker above and lighter below.  The Bobolink reverses this.  As I was approaching the field of uncut grass on McKenzie Road, I saw a tiny bird perched on a wire above and ahead of me.  It was another of the birds that I regularly look for in the area – a Black Chinned Hummingbird.  I had seen one last week at Horn Rapids Park and this was not my go to spot, but it is always a good find, so I stopped and got a photo,

Black Chinned Hummingbird 

BCHB (2)

When I got out of the car to photograph the Black Chinned Hummingbird I heard a Bobolink seemingly close by.  I got back into the car and went no further than 50 yards and there it was flying and singing in the field.  I used playback just once and it came to a small bush right in front of me.  Photo time and another FOY.

Bobolink FOY #5

Bobolink1

It was not yet 2:30 P.M. and I had seen all but one of my likely targets.  The only miss was a Black Tern.  My best hope for them was either Turnbull NWR or Ames Lake.  Both were on the way back home which without stops would be 5 hours away.  Should I change my original plan to stay overnight?  An overnight would allow me to try for some secondary targets like Gray Partridge and Northern Pygmy Owl.  Maybe, too, I could return home via Stevens Pass and try for a Canada Jay.  On the other hand, I had stuff to attend to at home and I could avoid both the cost and one more COVID-19 risk if I stayed at a hotel.  I tentatively determined to head home and make the final decision depending on how the search for a Black Tern went.  This would be my only chance for one this year.

I had seen no terns at Reardan Ponds or Eloika Lake.  I found none at Calispell Lake either.  Last year on June 22, Cindy and I had detoured through Turnbull NWR on our way back from Montana and had seen three distant Black Terns.  My experience was the same this time but there were only two and again distant – flying among the reeds at the far end of one of the lakes.  No chance for even a poor photo which was disappointing because they are very appealing birds.  The one below is from Ames Lake in 2016.  Still hoping for a better picture someday.

Black Tern

Black Tern3 - Copy

It was almost 5:00 P.M. and without stops I could be home by 9:30 P.M. so that was the plan – with one exception.  Will Brooks had reported significant numbers of White Faced Ibis and Forster’s Terns at Marsh Unit 1 in the Columbia NWR earlier that day.  I had seen both this year but no photos.  If they were still there maybe there would be enough light for a photo.  It would add another hour to the trip, but worth the effort.  The road down to the marsh itself was closed off so I parked in the overlook and took scope and camera down the hill towards the extensive marshy area.  I could hear what I thought were White Faced Ibis off in the distance.  I scanned and searched and finally came up with 4 black forms that had curved long bills.  There were probably many more.  Even through the scope the “picture” was awful, so a visual only.  But somewhat closer a single Forster’s Tern was hunting for prey.  Again, pretty distant and not great light, but at least a decent ID photo to end the birding part of the day.

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

I was able to get home just after 10:20 P.M. so it had been an 18 hour day but there had been enough breaks and so many highs that I really was not tired.  The stay at home restraints of COVID-19 are far more tiring than being out on familiar ground doing familiar activities and seeing familiar birds, and when there are rare birds like Black Throated Sparrows and Least Terns and Eastern Phoebes to look for, there is added adrenaline and endorphins to lift my spirits.  Especially this past week with the continuing saga of a pandemic mixed with social and racial injustice and unrest and a horrible orange faced clown in the White House, lifted spirits from this birding trek were at least a temporary antidote.