Bird and Memory of the Week – Red Legged Kittiwake – Well No But…

The Bird and Memory of the Week is the Red Legged Kittiwake, Rissa brevirostris, and I only wish that the memory included actually seeing this rarity. BUT…although sadly I did not find it, it serves as another example of why I write these posts – great memories for me and hopefully some enjoyment for others even when a bird is missed. As is usually the case, just in the process of being out in the field – looking for a particular species or just observing the world around us, there is great value and reward.

Red Legged Kittiwake (Photo by Charlie Wright)


On September 8, 2015 Charlie Wright and Linnaea Chapman found a Red Legged Kittiwake at Neah Bay and got Brad Waggoner on it a bit later. Their Ebird report included great photos…wow!  Now one should not need special incentives to go to Neah Bay even though it is quite the jaunt from Edmonds. This is an area that continually produces rarities in addition to many fine “regularities” and some incredible scenery. I am sure there will be many blog posts that involve Neah Bay in the future. But in this case the Red Legged Kittiwake report was a call for immediate action. Remember Rule 1 is “Go now” and Rule 2 is “No whining if you miss a bird because you do not follow Rule 1”. So on September 9, three hopeful birders caught the ferry from Edmonds hoping to find a new life bird.

As is sometimes (too often?) the case, we were a day late. And I guess since we stayed over for a second day, one could say we were also two days late. We searched diligently both days but it was simply not to be found. But after all, this was Neah Bay so likely there would be some consolation prizes and while there was nothing to report on Ebird or Tweeters as a rarity, we had great birds, great birding and a wonderful time – richly rewarded for our time in the field and together. Just in Neah Bay itself we had almost 70 species including Black Legged Kittiwake, Stilt Sandpiper, Sooty Grouse, Peregrine Falcon, Vaux’s Swift, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrel, Red Crossbill, Black Oystercatcher, Northern Pygmy Owl, Sooty Shearwater and Lapland Longspur. Neah Bay is also the only place where I succumb to the lister’s temptation to include Northwestern Crow (although I am a doubter) so that was added as well. That’s a great list for me any day.

Black Legged Kittiwake

Black Legged Kittiwake

We were of course really excited when we saw the Black Legged Kittiwake exactly where the Red Legged had been reported the day before. Just could not get those legs to change color for us. Still a gorgeous bird. And not far off we had Red Throated and Common Loons, all three Washington Cormorants, and some Sooty Shearwaters. Our first visit here produced Black Oystercatchers, and Least and Western Sandpipers as our only shorebirds.

Red Throated Loon

Red Throated Loon

After many hours at the harbor area, we hit the Wa’atch Valley and picked up the Northern Pygmy Owl, some Band Tailed Pigeons and our Peregrine. The next morning we got an early start at the harbor again. Now there were two Kittiwakes but sadly both had those darn black legs…sigh. So we consoled ourselves with a nice array of shorebirds – numerous Oystercatchers, Stilt and Spotted Sandpipers, a Whimbrel, a Marbled Godwit, Killdeer, Sanderling and Black Turnstones. We also found the Lapland Longspur that Charlie et al had reported on the 8th.


Black Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatchers



Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit2

It was time for a change of scenery. There was a lot of fog along the Wa’atch so we headed for high ground and went up Bahokas Mountain/Peak, an area I had visited only once before. Again we had some nice birds and truly some incredible scenery. This is becoming a famous hawk watching spot and I hope to return for that this year, hopefully catching some of the Broad Winged Hawks that were reported in 2015 migration.

I rank grouse almost as highly as owls as favorite finds and we were treated to a very nice Sooty Grouse. I have never seen one that looks like the one we found with its eye completely surrounded by a yellow-orange patch – but not raised as in display.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse2        Sooty Grouse in Flight2

We also had a large number of Vaux’s Swifts, some Hutton’s Vireos, Red Crossbills and more Townsend’s Warblers than I have ever seen – 18. A Swainson’s Thrush was still singing and we also found a Warbling Vireo. But the highlight was the “light”. We had beautiful views of the fog in the Valley, the islands in the Pacific and a picture of Nathaniel in the forest broken light that I will just call “Enlightenment”.




Enlightenment – Nathaniel “Sees the Light”


We looked again in vain one more time for the Red Legged Kittiwake – no go – but a very wonderful trip.  I am headed to Alaska this June with John Puschock and hope to see a Kittiwake with those bright red legs then.

Bird and Memory of the Week – Magnolia Warbler

The Bird and Memory of the Week is the Magnolia Warbler, Setophaga magnolia. Thanks to our digital world and good friends in the Washington Birding Community, on June 5, 2013 I got to see one in Washington State where they are quite rare. This is a perfect example of why I have chosen to include a “Memory” in this blog each week. It recalls great birds, great people, great places and great times.

On June 4 2013, George Pagos and I set off on a whirlwind trip to Eastern Washington. Jon Isacoff, an extraordinary birder in the Spokane area had agreed to meet us for a tour de force of Calispell Lake, a beautiful and very birdy area in Pend Oreille County on June 5. The area is home to a number of specialty birds and has become one of my favorite Washington birding locations. We left early on the morning of the 4th with some planned stops before a night in Spokane and then another early start for our trip with Jon.

We had a long list of possible birds and a good number of target species but Magnolia Warbler was certainly not included. I first saw a Magnolia Warbler on May 9, 1975 at the Pocomoke River State Park in Maryland. I was on a field trip as part of the Maryland Ornithological Union Convention. It was led by the legendary Chan Robbins – an extraordinary birder and co-author of my first Birding Guide Book – Birds of North America – part of the Golden Field Guide series. In Maryland, Magnolia Warblers are a dime a dozen and on that extraordinary day, it was merely one of the 20 warbler species seen. In all we observed more than 135 species – many of them life birds for me as a beginning birder. I am sure that trip will have a blog post of its own someday.

Chan Robbins and Birds of North America (my first guidebook)

Chan Robbins   Birds of North America





I had also seen Magnolia Warblers on April 25, 1978 on one of those heaven sent “fallout” days on High Island in Texas where migrating birds exhausted from their flights across the Gulf of Mexico literally fall to the ground at first opportunity – this day right in front of three of us. I no longer have the official list but recall that we had more than 25 warbler species that day. I would never have guessed that another 35 years would pass until I next saw this species – and certainly would never have expected it to be in Washington. Back to our trip…

George and I first stopped at Recreation Road near Vantage, historically a good spot for a Black Throated Sparrow. We were on the trail before 8:00 a.m. and were rewarded with close-ups of this beautiful bird, and among other species we also had Bullock’s Oriole and Rock Wren. A great start to the day. Unfortunately in the last couple of years Black Throated Sparrow sightings here have been few if any – a great loss.

Black Throated Sparrow – Recreation Road

Black Throated Sparrow

We saw birds along the way, but our next official stops were Potholes State Park in Grant county and then Palouse Falls State Park in Franklin County. Our best birds in these locations were Forster’s Tern, Golden Eagle and Grasshopper Sparrow. We continued to Crooked Knee Lake and Sheep Lake in Whitman County where we found our targeted Black Tern (which proved to be easy elsewhere later). We ended the day at North Forker Road in Spokane County where we missed Clay Colored Sparrow but had a good look at our first Black Chinned Hummingbird.

Early the next morning we atoned for our Clay Colored Sparrow miss finding 2 in a grassland at West Medical Lake and then 2 more on South Stroup Road also in Spokane County. In both places they were accompanied by Vesper and Savannah Sparrows.

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow 2

We pushed on to Pend Oreille and we met Jon Isaacoff near Calispell Lake. It was a picture perfect day and Jon was an extraordinary guide. I am not going to go into each location around the lake in detail – read the Guide to Bird Finding in Washington section on the area – or better yet find a trip with Spokane Valley Audubon or WOS and just go. The birds are wonderful, the scenery great and you will want to return many times. In three hours with Jon (including the time we were stuck behind a large bull on the road that did not want to give ground and we did not want to further arouse and possibly suffer major car damage), we tallied 76 species including several that this area is famous for: Bobolink, Northern Waterthrush, American Redstart, and Red-Eyed Vireo.

Calispell Lake

Calispell Lake

Bobolink – Calispell Lake


Northern Waterthrush – Calispell Lake

Northern Waterthrush


American Redstart – Calispell Lake

American Redstart

Red-Eyed Vireo – Calispell Lake

Red Eyed Vireo

Other good birds included more Black Terns, Virginia Rail, Sora, Redhead, Black Chinned, Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds, Red Naped Sapsucker, Cassin’s and Warbling Vireo, Pygmy Nuthatch and Ruffed Grouse. A wonderful place and day. Many many thanks to Jon.

It is a long drive back to Seattle and we wanted to make it home that evening. We made a quick stop at Reardan Ponds and then headed west. Somewhere along Interstate 90 I checked my email and found that Mike Clarke and Kevin Black had found a Magnolia Warbler at the Ranger Station at Ginkgo State Park. We had wonderful birds that day but a Magnolia Warbler would be a new State bird for both George and me and we were headed that way. To repeat something I am sure I have said earlier and will repeat often, “Just get out into the field and you never know what might happen.” Or said another way, “If you are not out in the field, nothing will happen.”

I had Mike’s cell number and gave it a try. Not only did he answer, he was still at the Ranger Station looking at the warbler. We were an hour away (“Officer, I swear there were no speed limit signs”). I hoped for detailed information and then a chance it would stay and we would find it. But Mike and Kevin are as good as it gets both as people and as birders and they said – “We will wait for you.” And they did. We arrived around 6:45 p.m. and joined them at the Ranger residence. Thankfully in June the days are long and even by 7:00 p.m. there was still plenty of light. The warbler had not left but was currently buried in a thick bush below and not visible. While we waited for it to make an encore appearance in the open, we were treated to a super view of a Common Nighthawk – roosting on a branch a few feet away.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

We could see fluttering below but the bird would not emerge. Finally after maybe 20 minutes we got a sufficient view for a sure ID and a photo. Mine (on left) was terrible. George who is an excellent photographer got a much better one (right).

Magnolia Warbler Magnolia Warbler

We also had a Lark Sparrow and a Wilson’s Warbler there. All told we had nine different sparrow species and nine different warbler species for the trip – not bad in Washington.  The Magnolia Warbler was species number 107 for our trip. It was also my 296th species in Washington for that year and and my 376th Washington State Life Bird. And it was gorgeous…And how appropriate that it was within a couple of miles where we had found the Black Throated Sparrow the previous morning.

This was definitely a day when I got all three of the great possibilities when birding … great people (Jon, Mike, Kevin and of course George), great places (many) and great birds – again many but especially the Magnolia Warbler.

Fast forward to June 2015. I was in Maine on a birding trip described in a previous blog. Now Magnolia Warblers were commonplace. I saw 20 during the several days in Maine. Still never got a really great photo but now at least I had one of my own where you could see the head not buried in a thick bush.

Magnolia Warbler – Baxter State Park – Maine

Magnolia Warbler


Bird and Memory of the Week – Northern Hawk Owl

The Bird and Memory of the Week is the Northern Hawk Owl, Surnia ulula. There has been some recent controversy over this owl and I will touch on that briefly but this post deals with my treasured intersections with what has to be one of the fiercest looking and most appealing of all the North American Owls.

The first time I observed this species was in March 1982 in Bridgeport, WA. It had been first seen in late January that year and again through February. Back in those days there was no Ebird or Tweeters and word of mouth and some information at Seattle Audubon was the way one learned of what birds had been seen – or at least those were my resources and I had heard of this observation through Seattle Audubon. Now almost 34 years later I do not recall specifics of the observation except that it proved relatively easy to find and the owl was out in the open and VERY STRIKING!! Also at least for me this was pre-photography days so no picture.

Fast forward to December 2012. I was now back into birding and this was the end of my first year of “listing” and “chasing”. I was in Dennis Paulson’s Master Birding Class and I was avidly following reports on Tweeters and Ebird and often rushing out to “see those birds”. On the 21st a Hawk Owl observation was reported near Ephrata and a picture was included – it was beautiful. I wanted desperately to see that bird.

Northern Hawk Owl (December 21, 2012 – reported by others)

First NOHA

Early the next day Samantha Robinson and I headed east – with high hopes. We had an approximate location and it was a three hour drive from Seattle. I had been in the same general area on December 11th when a two hour search resulted in observing a Gyrfalcon that had first been found by Matt Yawney. A Northern Hawk Owl would be as good or better. We first stopped at Wanapum State Park checking the trees (unsuccessfully for Long Eared Owls), saw some ducks including a Red Breasted Merganser near the boat launch and then continued on our quest. We birded the area where it had been seen earlier and all along Highway 28 east and west of Ephrata for several hours without luck.

Being the next to shortest day of the year, we knew that light would be gone pretty early. Around 2:00 we decided to head home planning to check “every” post, tree, pole etc. along the way to give it a last shot. About 7 miles from where the owl had first been seen (on Highway 28), we came upon a ranch/farm on the south side of the road that had several buildings, few trees and a number of lamp structures. On one of the lamps/lamp posts, maybe 300 to 400 yards away, there was – a bump. We pulled into the driveway; got as close as we could; got out of the car and …Eureka – we had our bird!!

Distant Northern Hawk Owl December 22, 2012 – Highway 28

NOHA on lamp

Not a great look from afar but still very exciting. It really is a magnificent bird. We watched it on the lamp for a few minutes and it actually seemed to be watching us even at that distance. It turned its attention away from us – and dove – disappearing behind one of the outbuildings. We figured our viewing was done – disappointing our thirst for more but still a very exhilarating experience. It soon got MUCH more exhilarating. Of all of the places that the Owl could have chosen for its next perch, it actually flew into one of the only two trees around – the one right next to – US!! Unbelievable.

At first it had its back to us and we could only glimpse the full magnificence when it would swivel its head as only owls can do.

Northern Hawk Owl 1

But our show was not done. The owl turned completely around to face us – no more than 50 feet away. And now we could see the purpose of the dive. A rodent was grasped in its talons – the tail and rear legs dangling in clear sight. The Hawk Owl’s ferocious and piercing glare suggested that perhaps we should allow it to eat in peace.

Northern Hawk Owl with Prey

Northern Hawk Owl 2

One more close up and we left – adrenalin still raging through our veins – a most memorable, fantastic and fortuitous encounter. No more sightings were reported (on Ebird) for this species after our observation. The only other Hawk Owl reported in 2012 had been back in January and another was not reported in Washington until July 2013.

Northern Hawk Owl December 2012 – Final Close Up


2013 was the year of my official “Big Year” in the state – complete craziness but a lot of fun. And as luck would have it, I was not able to find a Northern Hawk Owl that year (being unable to try for the only one reported, in the Okanogan in July). It would have been great for the “tick” but how could it ever beat our 2012 experience? The following year I was moving more and more to photography and hoped for another Hawk Owl. One was reported in the Brewster Flats area on November 17th and as soon as I could arrange it, I made the trip again with Samantha Robinson.

After a hard couple of hours of searching we were about to give up. Another birder had joined the search and when he separated for a “nature call” we heard “I got it.” He had obviously chosen the right “bush” and there it was on a wire in the open if not as close as our earlier bird. Under normal circumstances, the resulting picture would have been treasured – as fuzzy as it was. But it was hard not to compare to our 2012 experience – so “just a photo”.

Northern Hawk Owl – Brewster Flats November 2014

Northern Hawk Owl

2015 became another “Big Year” but of a different nature (already covered in my first blog post) as I tried to get photographs of as many birds in Washington as I could. Unfortunately the only Northern Hawk Owl reported was by Dan Waggoner at Cassimer Bar on December 30th. It apparently had been found a couple of days earlier but that observation had not made it into the “information stream” by the time I drove within a mile of its location returning from my trip to the Okanogan. And there was no way to turn around and try for this bird as I had organized a boat trip out of Sequim on December 31st – an impossible conflict.

As many readers know the Cassimer Bar Hawk Owl turned into a very unhappy and ugly story as the property owner did not enjoy the attention this bird brought to his property, although it was viewable from a public street and there was no trespassing involved. He ended up shooting the owl and stringing it up in full view as his illegal retaliation. Legal forces did punish the landowner but that certainly did nothing to save one of nature’s wonders.

We are blessed to witness the many wonderful birds in Washington – none to me more appealing or charismatic than the Northern Hawk Owl…but sometimes we encounter those with a very different aspect and appreciation and sometimes we may ourselves overstep boundaries- clear or less clear. Enjoy, educate, acknowledge and respect – as best we can.




Bird and Memory of the Week – Bush Thick-Knee

After lots of birding in the 1970’s time commitments changed with the addition of two children, Alex and Miya, in the 1980’s and birding mostly disappeared from my life (time with them was far better).  But by 2003 both were in school and interest in some international birding developed and I had to choose a first destination.  I do not remember exactly why, but Australia seemed the right combination of exotic, different, birdy and English speaking – well sort of…  I had accumulated some airline miles, found a good flight availability and began making plans.  I wanted to engage a guide for some of the trip but also wanted to be on my own for some adventures.

Australia is a long way off so I arranged for it to be almost three weeks.  My research was all online and I came up with what looked like a reasonable plan that would be entirely on the East Coast of Australia – from Sydney to Cape Tribulation.  All arrangements were made completely online – never actually talked to a single person – and fortunately all went very well.  After Sydney, stops included Brisbane (briefly but that is where I found the Bush Thick Knee), Toowoomba (Abberton Lodge), O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, Cassowary House (Kuranda), Kingfisher Park Birder’s Lodge, Daintree National Park and the Cairn’s Esplanade.  I will comment very briefly about couple of these spots – but the focus here is on the  Bird of the Week  so a later post will have many Australia stories.

I have chosen the Bush Thick-Knee (called Bush Stone Curlew at the time) not only because it brings Australia into play but also because it has to be one of the most preposterous surprise sightings for me ever.  As mentioned I did want some guided birding and had arranged to spend a few days with Bill Jolly at Abberton Lodge in the Lockyer Valley outside of Brisbane.  The plan was for me to fly into Brisbane – spend a night and then meet Bill across from Roma Street Parkland – a good birding spot in its own near my hotel.  I got in a little early morning birding picking up a few species and then sat at the designated pick up spot – waiting for my guide.

I was across from the very edge of the Park on a very busy street and spied a very odd looking bird – and I had no clue what it was.  It stood dead still even as I approached for a photo.  It looked like a wader but also like a large shorebird.  I eventually found it in my “Birds of Australia” – my first stone curlew or thick-knee.  And indeed it appeared to be a stone statue of a bird – dead still.

Bush Thick Knee or Bush Stone Curlew  Roma Park – Brisbane Australia 2003


Burhinus grallarius, is over 20 inches high and is a ground-dwelling bird endemic to Australia.  It is a terrestrial predator filling an ecological niche similar to that of a Roadrunner in North America.  It was a stunning bird and a stunning experience – completely unexpected.  Australia is full of exotic, colorful and charismatic birds, again stories for another post, but this is one of the most memorable from that trip.

Before moving on to other Thick-Knees, I have to throw in at least a few Australian birds.  It is impossible not to be struck with the incredible Australian parrots.  There are many beautiful species, often in huge flocks.  One favorite is the Galah which at times I saw in groups of more than 100 birds.  Another favorite group is the fairywrens – beautiful little gems.  I saw five species there and any could win a beauty pageant. Lastly I will mention the Southern Cassowary – looking more like a dinosaur than bird.  I found two, what I thought was a mother and chick, on an early morning walk in Daintree NP at Rosa Beach.  I later learned that it is the male that cares for the young so I stood corrected.  By the way, the adult Cassowary stands just under 6 feet tall and has a deadly knife-like middle toe  that is 5 inches long!!  I surprised the two (as they surprised me) and I made sure to back track quickly.



Lovely Fairy-Wren


Southern Cassowary


Back to the Thick-Knees.  After the  surprise in Brisbane I was at least now ready to quickly identify various cousins found on later trips.  The first of these was to Kenya in 2007 – definitely the subject of probably many future posts.  An incredible trip in November 2007 produced two new Thick-Knees, a Water Thick-Knee in Samburu NP and a few days later a Senegal Thick-Knee at Lake Baringo. This was my first trip with a professional bird guiding organization – Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and remains my favorite all-time trip due to the incredible birds (504 species seen), incredible people, incredible scenery and of course the super incredible animals.

Water Thick-Knee – Samburu NP Kenya

Water Thick Knee

Senegal Thick Knee – Lake Baringo – Kenya

105 Senegal Thick-knee Baringo

So I now had seen Thick-Knees on two continents and in 2013 on a trip to Peru I added another species and another continent – the Peruvian Thick-Knee in Chappari. I never could get a clear view or photo as they simply never moved.

Peruvian Thick-Knee – Chappari Peru

Peruvian Thick Knee

Then finally (for the time being at least) I had the opportunity to observe Spotted Thick Knees on two separate days on a wonderful Rockjumper/ABA trip to South Africa in 2014.

Spotted Thick-Knee – South Africa

Spotted Thick Knee2

So recalling that crazy first sighting of a Stone Curlew/Bush Thick-Knee just off a busy street in Brisbane now more than a dozen years ago brought back the memories of not only other Australian birds but then also of other Thick-Knees on other continents and other birds in those places as well.  That is why I have included this feature in my blog – the interconnected experiences we all have birding.

Just getting out into the field – exotic ones like these or the ones around our homes always give the opportunities for great experiences and memories.  I hope this post has put you in a state of mind to remember some of yours or to go create/find new ones.

On the Road – Car Troubles and Birds in Eastern Washington – Part II

As I closed my previous post my BMW had  “died” a half mile east of the Marina near Bateman Island, and had been safely towed to the Service Department of BMW Tricities on Thursday evening and was in the helpful and capable hands of Mandy Slaugh, Service Advisor. In the morning they would look into the problem and let me know. I would either have the car back that day, have it on Saturday or face a giant problem getting back to Edmonds and then somehow with eye surgery impending have to get back to Richland, get the car and get back once again to Edmonds.

Car Trouble 2

Whatever fate was going to be revealed on Friday morning, I was now in a very nice rental car from Enterprise that was rented on a daily rate regardless of mileage so with my car out of my helpless hands and in their competent ones, I had decided to carry on to Walla Walla to join Mike and MerryLynn Denny for a day of birding. If nothing else (and there was much else) it would distract me from my problem – a role that birding often performs for me.   Walla Walla was less than 60 miles away. It was disappointing that I could not bird this area as had been the pre-breakdown plan but at what I believe is milepost 300 a single Black Crowned Night Heron flew over the road in front of me – a species I had hoped to see in daylight.

I spent the night in Walla Walla at the Red Lion – normally a good brand – but not in this case. Nice folks but a cinder block cell block with very noisy heating units. Not recommended. If any of you reading this are inventive types – how about inventing a silent air conditioner/heater unit for motels. There is a fortune to be made there. Not a great night of sleep as I still pondered the fate of my car (and the cost to be paid), but in gorgeous weather I met Mike and MerryLynn at their home and birds were ahead of us.

The Dennys as You Often See Them

Mike and MerryLynn

At the end of their emails/posts the Dennys sign off with:

Mike & Merry Lynn Denny

Birding the Beautiful Walla Walla Valley

“If you haven’t gone birding you haven’t lived.”

I would revise that to be “You haven’t lived if you haven’t gone birding in the Beautiful Walla Walla Valley with Mike & MerryLynn Denny.” Doing so is guaranteed to produce fabulous birds, fabulous places (well maybe the Poop Piles excluded), beautiful scenery, great company and more information and insight than is possible to process about every bird, reptile, tree, mountain, plant, river, mushroom and everything else you will encounter. I have been fortunate to have birded with them many times and there is always a special treat. Two special memories below.

Great Gray Owl on Biscuit Ridge with Jon Houghton – May 20, 2015

Great Gray Owl (2)

Western Screech Owl – Whitman College Library May 8, 2015

Western Screech Owl

Birding with the Dennys is also a whirlwind as they guide you to place after place after place where either recently (they bird almost every day) or in the past such and such a bird has been seen or might be seen. You visit parks, rivers, ponds, open spaces, mountains, wildlife areas and places you really have no idea where you are. All have birds – and depending on timing sometimes LOTS of them. This day was primarily a scouting trip for their Owls By Day trip the following day (and I just read their report and it was very successful) so yes we looked for some owls but there were other birds as well.

For me at least the first bird of note was a Prairie Falcon gleaming in the sunshine perched on a post on a ridge up ahead. All falcons are super. In Western Washington I most frequently see Peregrine Falcons and Merlins and Prairie Falcons are a rarity. Even in Eastern Washington I never see as many of this species, described as “very nasty” by Mike, as I would like so this was very welcome.

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon3

As we drove the wheat fields on our way to Hollebeke HMU we saw many raptors (including some beautiful Northern Rough Legged Hawks), many many Horned Larks, and were often serenaded by Western Meadowlarks. We searched in vain for Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, both possibilities but not this time. It felt like spring time.

My deal with the car dealer was that they would text me their findings sometime around 10:00 a.m. There is not always (there is rarely?) cell coverage in some of the remote areas we visited so Mike made a special effort to get us up on a ridge around that time and indeed there was a message. The main problem was that it needed a new starter, and there were a couple of other less expensive matters as well. They had the parts and could have it done that afternoon. While I dreamed that maybe it was just a fuse or a loose wire, I had actually expected something worse than this. Not in the budget planned for the month, but really no option, so the go-ahead was given and at least I knew I would be able to get home and not have to return again next week – back to birding.

Hollebeke has been a favorite owling site for the Dennys especially for Long Eared Owls having had more than a dozen (or was it two dozen?) there one time. Unfortunately it is “(mis)managed” by the Army Corps of Engineers (don’t get Mike started) and the Corps had recently devastated much of the habitat – clearing brush and Russian Olives – the roosting spots for many of the owls. It was very sad to see. We still had some birds, but Mike was so distressed that he decided to not include it on the trip the next day. We flushed a Barn Owl, a Long Eared Owl and a Great Horned Owl – but fleeting looks of fleeing owls only – no photo ops. MerryLynn had a pair of Great Horned Owls out in the open but they were flushed off by a Bald Eagle before we could get there.


Among the birds at Hollebeke were Cedar Waxwings, both Kinglets, a Fox Sparrow and at least two White Throated Sparrows (heard only by Mike and me). There were lots of California Quail and surprisingly to me a lot of Varied Thrushes. The Dennys said Hermit Thrushes are often there – but not this day. There were amazing numbers of Song Sparrows including many of the very white Great Basin form. We spent a lot of time there and hiked over two miles. DO NOT try this on your own – it is very confusing with criss-crossing trails and paths. I eventually would have found my way out…I think.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

It had gotten quite warm – over 50 degrees and we were hungry and thirsty when we got back to the car. So some sustenance for a late lunch and now off to Fish Hook Park – where a Northern Saw Whet Owl was GUARANTEED (sort of). Mike and MerryLynn had directed me there for a Saw Whet on an earlier visit in 2014. As is often the case these tiny owls can be found tucked into low lying branches which sometimes require you to duck in to see them. Quite tame, they usually remain in place staring back at you. Such was NOT the case in 2014 as one flew out right past my ear as soon as I ducked in – the only time that has happened.

One way to find an owl is to look for whitewash – on the ground, leaves, branches etc. If found that means an owl had at least been there – and it still might be. The best way is simply to go with Mike and MerryLynn – not only are they excellent spotters of whitewash – they also know every roosting spot in Walla Walla County – so they go right to the tree. And that was what we did at Fish Hook and indeed a Northern Saw Whet Owl was tucked in where expected. It was even smaller than I remember as it had pulled in its feathers instead of puffing them out. They really are tiny (and yes cute). Seeing one of these guys or a Northern Pygmy Owl for the first time each year is always a shocking reminder of just how small they are.

Northern Saw Whet Owl

Northern Saw Whet Owl2

The other really nice find at Fish Hook was a large flock of Purple Finches – rare at this time and location. They were feeding on White Ash seeds and always seemed to have branches in front of them no matter what angle we took. There was one very “purple” male and the rest seemed to be females or immatures. The picture below is pretty poor but identifies the species.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Before heading off to Ice Harbor Dam which had provided an awesome Gull show when the Shad were dying off about a week ago, we stopped at Charbonneau Park and had another beautiful little Northern Saw Whet–too close to even focus for a picture. At Ice Harbor there were a couple of Mew Gulls – new in Eastern Washington for me (but having seen 1000 plus recently at Point No Point and hundreds at Crescent Lake with the Black Headed Gull(s)) and many Ring Billed and California Gulls in addition to a few Herring Gulls and many immature Glaucous Winged Gulls. On this day we could not find the Long Tailed Ducks but there were many Barrow’s Goldeneyes and American White Pelicans – the males beginning to show their breeding “horns” on those extraordinary bills.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull Flight

American White Pelican – Male with “Breeding Horn”

White Pelican Male in Flight

It was now time to head back. I had gotten a message that my car was ready and I was not sure if I would stay over another day or head home staying the night at Yakima or Ellensburg depending on my condition and road conditions on the pass. We checked a few more spots including the Delta. It was too dark to even try for a Tricolored or Rusty Blackbird at the “Poop Piles” but there were indeed hundreds of birds on the distant wires nearby.

We were back at the Denny’s home and I loaded up to head back to Richland. It had been a great day and given what could have been not a bad ending for my car problem either. It was impossible not to think of what could have been if the starter had given up at any of the remote spots we visited today. Rarely was there any traffic, rarely was there cell coverage and it would have been miles from any tow company and many more miles from that friendly dealership in Richland. It would have been a disaster…

Good bye hugs and then I was heading west again. A last treat was a fly over Wilson’s Snipe as I reached Richland. It was the 85th species seen on my two day trip. Such numbers always amaze me as it just does not feel like there is that much diversity when I am in the field. But Washington is an incredible place to bird and when you have such a great community sharing information and birders like Mike and MerryLynn – there are many birds to be found.

I drove in to the dealership and saw my car parked close – ready to go and even washed!! Mandy went over the details and I learned that they had also found a problem with the tank that holds the engine coolant. BUT they did not have a BMW part to solve it. Knowing that I wanted to head home and that a major leak could create yet another problem and certainly the threat of same being cause for worry, they had taken on themselves to put in an off market replacement. A problem though was that it would not be read properly by the sophisticated BMW indicator system so it would show that the coolant was low. Mandy explained this would not be a real problem but that I should have the part replaced with a BMW part to solve the indicator problem…she made an adjustment in the bill to recognize the duplication of the work and part that would be required. Repeating what I said earlier – they really were fantastic in every way. If I was going to buy another BMW – I might drive there to do so. (And maybe get a little birding in as well…)

It was now 5:45 and I was 235 miles from home. Maybe just having the car re-energized me so I decided to head off and play it as it developed. I got to Yakima – still feeling good. I got to Ellensburg – still feeling good and the pass conditions said rain and snow but not a real problem. I decided to go for it. Incredibly heavy rain in Cle Elum – if this was going to continue as snow as I climbed into the mountains this could be a problem. But as is often the case it actually gets warmer going west from Cle Elum and Snoqualmie Pass had light rain only and far less traffic than usual. Sure the large trucks are not fun to follow or pass but there were really no problems. I made it safely and then just as I hit I-5 with 15 miles to go, it was as if my body starter had given out. VERY tired. Took my time (unusual for me) and pulled in to Edmonds at 9:45. Exhausted – but I had survived another adventure.

Once again – life should be about collecting good stories – and being sure to survive to tell them.

I have to end with special thanks to Mike and to MerryLynn and to Mandy. Looks like the “M’s” were my guardians this trip.




On the Road – Car Troubles and Birds in Eastern Washington (Part I)

Last year I put more than 35,000 miles on the car photographing birds around the state.  In the previous three years, annual totals were less but still way above average.  It adds up and eventually there is a price to pay.  Some of that price was paid earlier this week when trouble hit on my way to Walla Walla.   Not to curtail interest in this post, please know that it had a relatively happy ending – certainly far better than it might have been.

I am going to be out of action for the rest of the month as I will have cataract/lens replacement surgeries that will hopefully after 60 years rid me of the glasses I have worn since I was a young kid.  Should be straightforward procedures but there can be complications, so I wanted to take “one more (last?)” trip before the surgeon started poking around.  Spending time in the field with Mike and MerryLynn Denny is about as good as it gets – for birds and company – so I called them and it turned out I could join them for a scouting trip for their Owls By Day trip that is probably concluding just as I am writing this (Saturday February 6).  So I had a plan.

The plan was to leave very early on Thursday – stop at some favorite places in Cle Elum and then drive Canyon Road from Ellensburg to Yakima where a  Northern Mockingbird and Anna’s Hummingbird had been reported recently in a residential neighborhood.  There were 5 inches of fresh snow in So. Cle Elum and I was the first tire tracks on many of the streets – which was very cool.  A feeder I often visit had a few Cassin’s Finches – but no Evening Grosbeaks which are also often present.  A single Pygmy Nuthatch accommodated at its regular spot at the Railroad Ponds.  A good start.  Canyon Road was beautiful as usual – no falcons, lots of eagles and a gorgeous Ring Necked Pheasant that I spied in the grass along the road.

Ring necked Pheasant

Ring Necked Pheasant1

I am not a County Lister per se but in the process of sending in a report of observations to Ken Knittle, the form asked for the numbers of species seen in Western Washington and similarly for Eastern Washington.  I had no idea.  It required a lot of manipulation of my Ebird records but I found that I had seen 353 species in the West but only 286 in the East.  Not going to get compulsive about it, but I figured it would be nice to get to at least 300 for that latter category – thus my interest in the two aforementioned species that I had never seen east of the Cascades.

The hummer was coming to a feeder at 209 Parsons Avenue and the Mockingbird had been found by Michael Hobbs close by.  My GPS got me to the Parsons address and I found the feeder but no hummingbird but I also found LOTS of birds in the area – they were flying about everywhere.  Included were 4 Western Scrub Jays which turned into 3 when one flew out of the tree and crossed the street before disappearing into a backyard.  It was the Northern Mockingbird.  Also included was a nice flock of Red Crossbills (I have no idea of what “type”).  One flashed a spot of white on a wing that got me real excited for a moment – but it was just a spot – definitely not a wing bar. I returned to the feeder and this time the Anna’s Hummingbird made a brief appearance.  More good moments for the day.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill

Now it was off to Bateman Island outside of Richland where many uncommon gulls had been reported recently.  Hundreds of gulls were roosting on a boat shed in the Marina.  Lots of looking found a Lesser Blacked Gull (I had seen one there in December as well) but no other dark mantled birds – so no Slaty Backed Gull.  There were lots of ducks as well as more gulls in the water so I enjoyed a late lunch and searched.  Nothing to write home about so about 2:00 I left intending to do some birding in Walla Walla County.  About 1/2 mile from the marina I saw what appeared to be some Canvasbacks, a favorite and very elegant duck, near the road in the lake and I did a U-turn for a good look.  Turned off the engine and got out with camera and scope.  Lots of great ducks including the aforementioned Canvasbacks, Ruddy Ducks, both Scaup, Ring Necks, Common Mergansers and others.  A nice spot.



Back in the car – and NOTHING!!!  It would not start – not even a hint.  Uh-Oh BIG Uh-Oh.  I turned off everything  – waited a few minutes and tried again – same result.  NADA!! At least I am somewhere with cell reception so I call for Roadside Assistance through my insurer.  They are going to send someone to try to jump start.  30 minutes later he arrives – battery is not the problem AND somehow the car is now locked into PARK so a simple tow will not be effective.  Another 35 minutes have passed.

Back up a step:  I have a BMW – it has been a GREAT CAR – but there are not a lot of BMW dealers around – and definitely not in the places I often bird – so if something is not simple – it can be really not simple!!  But luck is with me – I am literally 4 miles away from the Tri-Cities BMW dealer.  The Roadside Assistance guy has no idea how to get the car out of Park.  I call the BMW dealer and get their service folks – who explain how to get the car out of Park but it requires an Allen wrench.  (This begins an absolutely terrific response and accommodation from this company.) Now you would think ANY tow company would have such a tool – nope.  They can send someone else who does and who also has the dolly towing system that will likely be needed to tow if it remains in that gear.  I confirm with the BMW dealer that they can get the car into their service system for the next morning and they recommend a different towing company.  They are now my best friends.  I call their tow company.  I do take advantage during the wait to snap photos of some Scaup.

Greater Scaup

Greater Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

He arrives in 20 minutes and immediately is confidence inspiring – “No problem, we will get you up on the dolly and should have you at the dealer shortly”.   As can be seen in the photo, this essentially involves building a trailer and using leverage with a jack to get the car onto it – very cool – this obviates the need to deal with the car stuck in Park.  The driver is a neat guy.

Car Trouble

Yes another 30 minutes has passed – but now I am at the service department, and Mandy Slaugh, Service Advisor, is in charge – actually she has been from the first call and she is terrific.  Earlier I tried to figure how this was going to work:  Option A: get car to BMW, they check it Friday and they will be able to fix it by end of business Friday; Option B – same as A but it is going to take until to Saturday to fix it (fortunately they are open Saturday); and Option C – cannot get parts/fix until Monday next week.  I could make A and B work but C would be a disaster as I had the pre-surgery check up scheduled on Monday and the Surgery was scheduled for Wednesday.  Fitting in a 500 mile round trip to get the car on Monday was not a recommended pre-surgery procedure.

Mandy had said she would get me a good deal from Enterprise and that the daily charge would be “regardless of miles traveled”.  This not only meant that I could have a car for a return to Edmonds and then back to Richland if necessary, but also I could actually continue on to Walla Walla while my fate was being decided.  She had the rental car waiting as I arrived.  She promises they will assess first thing in the morning and get back to me with diagnosis and plan by 10:00 a.m.  I authorize $X (expecting it will be more – maybe far more).  EVERYONE at the dealership is great.   The guy who has brought my car from Enterprise is great.  There is just something about small towns – I had a big problem; it was going to cost money; but it was going to get taken care of and they appreciated my situation and cared and committed to solve it.  Yes it had taken 3 hours to get to this point; and yes on the way to the dealer, we had passed by that same boat shed at the Marina and there were now at least twice as many gulls as early; and yes I am willing to bet that one of them was a Slaty Backed Gull. But there was plan that would at least allow me to bird the next day.  Slaty would have to wait

I call Mike and MerryLynn and tell them that unlike my earlier call to them when it appeared there would be no way to join them, that in fact now I would.  So this is the end of Part I of the Adventure – I have my car and am heading to Walla Walla.  I know I am in good hands and since there is nothing yet I can do about anything – I actually relax and look forward to the next day…the subject of Part II.

Mandy Slaugh

Mandy at BMW





Bird and Memory of the Week – Wilson’s Plover

My second Bird and Memory of the Week is the Wilson’s Plover Charadrius wilsonia. It is a small plover that breeds on the East Coast of the U.S. and migrates to Brazil. There is also a population on the West coast of Mexico and it is rarely seen on the west coast north of that. However, in early October 2012 it made a rare appearance in Washington and I was fortunate to see it at Grayland Beach State Park. MANY years earlier I had seen one at High Island in Texas – a place famous for migration fallouts in the Spring – which indeed we experienced that day – April 25, 1978 – another story for another time.

Wilson’s Plover at Grayland State Park

Wilson's Plover

The Wilson’s Plover is closely related to two plovers very common in Washington: Killdeer and Semipalmated Plover as well as the less common Snowy Plover all of which are members of the Charadrius plover group. Another East coast member is the Piping Plover.

There are many Charadrius plovers around the world including: Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers (the latter formerly known as Mongolian Plover), Three and Double Banded Plovers, Collared Plover, White Fronted Plover, Ringed and Little Ringed Plover, Caspian Plover, Mountain Plover, Long Billed Plover, Oriental Plover, Dotterel and Kittzlitz’s Plover. I have been fortunate to have seen many. Missing are Mountain, Caspian, Oriental and Long Billed Plovers and Dotterel. I expect to see the Mountain Plover on a trip to Colorado this April. Hopefully I will see the others some day as well.

Some of my other Charadrius Plovers:

White Fronted Plover – South Africa October 2014 (Race of Lesser Sand)

White Fronted Plover (2)

Piping Plover – Maine June 2015

Piping Plover

Lesser Sand (Mongolian) Plover – Ocean Shores


Kittzlitz’s Plover South Africa October 2014

Kittlitz's Plover

Killdeer Edmonds Marsh

Killdeer 1


Grayland Beach State Park is in Pacific County just south of Midway Beach, the southern end of Grays Harbor County, which is between Westport and Tokeland, a stretch of land on the Pacific Ocean Coast that is prime birding territory and also includes Bottle Beach which I am sure will have a blog post of its own someday.  Back to our bird of the day.  The Wilson’s Plover had first been seen and reported on October 6th or 7th – perhaps by Chuck Jensen.  I was just getting into “listing” but had a good year list in Washington for (323 was a Boreal Owl at Salmo Pass for my birthday on October 5th).  Every new bird was thus precious and this would also be a new life bird for Washington so I had to go.


There will be many “chase” references in these blogs and I will repeat Rules 1 and 2:  Rule 1 – Go now; Rule 2 – no whining if you do not follow Rule 1.  On each chase part of the excitement/stress is wondering “Will it still be there?”.  Especially if you follow Rule 1, more times than you might expect it is still there. There was some additional stress that day as I had first stopped at Nisqually NWR and “dipped” (listers term for “failed to find”) on a Northern Saw Whet Owl and had birded Bottle Beach in a receding tide (incoming is preferred) and had fewer than hoped for birds although there was a single American Golden Plover.

So I did not arrive at Grayland until noon and as I parked and walked out to the area where the plover had been seen, there was definitely some excitement/stress going on.  And when the bird was NOT seen where it was supposed to be, the stress started to dominate.  But indeed patience is often rewarded and a little more searching and maybe some change in the tide and it finally made an appearance.  “And look at that bill!!”  That is THE field mark of importance for Wilson’s Plover – a very thick dark bill that is way different than the other Charadrius plovers we see in the U.S.  And this is the point where the stress leaves, the excitement is great and there is a definite surge of adrenalin – the “high” of a Lifer or FOY (First of Year).

I am sure you may have guessed that there are other birds that can be found at Grayland.  The truth is that sometimes on a chase, birders find the target and pay little or no attention to other birds in the area.  I have done that at some less pleasant spots, but Grayland is better than that and I now hoped to find some Snowy Plovers and this is one of the best places in the state to do so.  They proved to be easy and I saw at least a dozen.

Snowy Plover – Grayland State Park Beach

Snowy Plove 1

Some Semipalmated Plovers made it a three Charadrius plover day and there may have been a Killdeer somewhere that I just simply did not note for number 4..

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover2

So it had been a good day.  Chase days are always fun…successful chase days – much more so!

A word about bird names:  the Wilson’s Plover is named after Alexander Wilson – a Scottish Poet and Naturalist who is generally considered the greatest American Ornithologist before Audubon.  His impact on American birding is evidenced by many other species bearing his name:  Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Warbler all found in Washington as well as the Wilson’s Storm Petrel.

Wilson’s Phalarope

Wilson's Phalarope2

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Storm Petrel

Wilson's Storm Petrel

Closing with a Big Thank You to Alexander Wilson… R.I.P.