Catching Up Between Three Mountains

Although I am not quite as obsessed about it this year as I was last, I am still trying to get photographs (and improved photographs) of the birds I see.  Certainly there are some birds (yes I am talking about you Flammulated Owl and Common Poorwill) that are always difficult at best, but sometimes the situation just does not make it easy or maybe even possible.  And even when we KNOW what we have seen that photograph is certainly the best proof and on occasion even is what let’s us know that indeed we saw something different after all.

For a variety of reasons, there have been a number of birds seen this year where I just was not able to get a photo.  As the first half of June drew to a close this week, the report of an Indigo Bunting which was one of those photo misses,  caused me to decide to play “catch up” – to try for some of those missed photos and maybe to hit the “magical” 300 mark for species seen in Washington this year as well.  It meant a lot of miles and would require a lot of luck as well as effort.  And it also turned out to be full of both disappointment and excitement.  It took me to beautiful spots between three mountains – Rainier, Hood and Adams.  Seeing them is another bonus for all of us who bird in the fabulous state of Washington.

Mount Hood from Lyle, Washington

Mt. Hood

Mount Adams from Highway 142

Mt. Adams

The first order of business was to find the Indigo Bunting that was reported by Bill Tweit and Whittier Johnson near Randle on Highway 12 in Cowlitz County.  Usually when I head off on such ventures I leave very early in the morning trying to avoid the horrendous traffic that now ensnarls Metro Seattle at almost all times.  On Monday, however, I had early morning obligations that meant I could not leave until late, so when I started out I really did not have a long agenda…things changed.  They changed in part because this was definitely one of the easiest chases ever.  I made my way onto Highway 12 and found Peters Road.  Within seconds I found the referenced barn and there was a single bird perched on the telephone wire across the street.  As soon as I parked and opened the door, I heard the song of an Indigo Bunting.  I took a distant photo immediately and then spent the next while watching it fly from wire to tree to another spot on the wire and another tree across the road.  It sang incessantly.   The sun was bright but high in the sky so not the best for photos, but eventually I got one that was “good enough”.

Indigo Bunting (Peters Road)

Indigo Bunting1

I had seen the Indigo Bunting that visited a feeder in Mukilteo back in March but had a fleeting look in the rain and had no photo opportunity.  My first Indigo Bunting in Washington was a lovely male seen at Steigerwald NWR in June 2014 with Samantha Robinson – resulting in a beautiful photo for each of us.  I never expected to see another one in the state.

Indigo Bunting (Steigerwald NWR June 2014)

Indigo Bunting3

Check off one “catch up”.  And despite my late start it was now still just before noon and I wondered what to do with the rest of the day.  The Bunting had been such a positive success I was feeling bullish and decided to try for more.  Options were to head back west to Rainbow Falls and try for a Hermit Warbler photo (another miss) and maybe to go look for those “are you kidding me” Monk Parakeets in Yacolt or to really push the envelope and head further east and try for a photo of an Ash Throated Flycatcher (another miss) at either Bear Canyon or Oak Creek with the possibility of other birds along the way.  I chose the latter…a bad choice as it turned out.

Especially on chases, there is the possibility of great excitement (even sometimes with fist pumps) but also the possibility of big disappointment.  The latter can really ruin a day – a feeling that at least for me at times remains until the next fist pump…  The rest of Monday was mostly full of disappointment.  Very hot…not real birdy…no Ash Throated Flycatchers at Bear Canyon (at most one heard in the distance) or at Oak Creek Canyon where I had seen one before but only in flight on May 17 this year.  No Common Nighthawks (another photo miss) and in fact I added another photo miss.  It was a good news/bad news kind of thing.  I decided to bird Bethel Ridge and found it to be as slow as I have ever had it there.  I was hoping for a photo of a Black Backed Woodpecker – a miss from that same May 17 trip.  Did not get a photo, or hear one or see one…BUT…in the same general area I found the Black Backed on May 17, I located an American Three Toed Woodpecker.  It was a FOY but would not come in for a photo so I actually moved backward on my photo listing.  I had nice photos of both last year on June 4 so it was a big disappointment this trip.

American Three Toed Woodpecker (Bethel Ridge June 4, 2015)

American Three Toed WP

Black Backed Woodpecker (Bethel Ridge June 4, 2015)

Black Backed WP at Nest1

So after such a great start I headed home on a down note.  The Three Toed Woodpecker was species 297 for 2016 but I did not realistically figure on any more for the month nor did I think there would be any new photos and with one up and one down, the photo percentage had actually dropped … so that was that…well not quite.

I left my bedroom window open on the night of June 29/30 and around 2:30 a.m. was awakened by some loud voices in the neighborhood.  The combination of too much on my mind anyhow, the tone of the voices and the hour somehow conspired to get me fully awake and unable to return to sleep.  Maybe the error in not visiting Rainbow Falls again and images of parakeets in Washington were still in my head.  After an hour of tossing and turning, I made an executive decision – go birding.

Even at oh-dark-hundred i.e. 4:15 a.m. there was traffic on I-5…aargh.  Not super bad but I was definitely not alone.  Fortunately it cleared once through Seattle and I made it to Rainbow Falls at 6:30 a.m.  My friend and superbirder Melissa Hafting from Vancouver had been there recently and had gotten some beautiful Hermit Warbler photos so that was probably a large part of my motivation.  She said she found the warblers as soon as she parked the car.  So when I heard a Hermit singing as soon as I opened my car door, I felt it was a shared karma thing.  But not so fast.  Hearing a singing bird and getting a photo are often but not always related.  I could not find the bird and after hearing song from another and then another direction, I figured this guy was either a ventriloquist, a skilled stealth flier or was not alone.  It took a full 20 minutes of very frustrated chasing and accidentally disturbing at least one campsite, but finally one of the warblers made a nice appearance in front of me and even though the light was poor and there was some light mist/rain I had my photo.  I had determined that there had to be at least three birds as I heard songs from three different spots at the same time and then later heard two more at a spot far enough away to think there were at least five.  FIST PUMP and check off another catch up!!

Hermit Warbler

Hermit Warbler2

When I had found the Indigo Bunting it had already been after noon.  This time it was only 7:00 a.m. – plenty of time left for more.  I have been birding off and on in Washington for 43 years – amazing since I don’t look or feel a day over 50 and I was certainly much older than 7 when I started.  OK – yeah that look and feel statement is somewhat of an exaggeration…but as I set off to find Monk Parakeets – which I had not even been aware of for 41 of those 43 years, I felt energized and maybe even younger than 50 again.

I had never been to Yacolt or even near it.  Hell, I had never even heard of it – but here it was the Parakeet Capital of Washington.  Getting there was a pleasant drive through very rural territory.  It is a very small town, but not so small that you can just pull up to the one tree or telephone poll and see the resident parakeets.  I drove around and wondered exactly where they might be, expecting to hear raucous calls at every corner.  Then I recalled a reference to Hubbard Road in one Ebird post and GPS got me to the right road.  Now what…”What” turned out to be that that luck entered in, because as I stopped to get out and walk, I was in exactly the right spot – a grassy area next to 508 Hubbard and two parakeets flew directly overhead and into some trees behind the house.  I walked down the grassy area (it is not private) and found a huge stick nest.  Then the two Monk Parakeets flew onto the nest and were then joined by a third.  They flew off and returned a couple of times before finally leaving for good.  My camera was ready and became busy and I was very happy with the photos.  If I had done a better job planning my visit I would have seen that this address was specified in a recent Ebird report.  When preparation fails, sometimes luck bails us out.

Monk Parakeets (Yacolt, Washington)

Monk Parakeet

Monk Parakeets on Nest

It was now barely 10:00 a.m.  I mailed something from the Yacolt post office (won’t the recipient be surprised at the post mark) and decided to try for more “check offs” and maybe to add another bird or two.  This meant heading to Klickitat County and trying to find Ash Throated Flycatchers, Lesser Goldfinches and if I was really fortunate an Acorn Woodpecker. Lyle was not all that close – but closer than if I had gone directly from Edmonds  – and the day was going well so why not.  I had spoken to Ann Marie Wood the night before and she said that she had Ash Throated Flycatchers everywhere but had not seen an Acorn Woodpecker there during her visit earlier this week.  Acorn Woodpeckers were downright strange last year as they showed up in many very unusual spots including in the Redmond backyard of Grace and Ollie.  Usually they are found only in the Balch Lake area near Lyle and this year they had been relatively hard to come by even there…a few Ebird reports but I had not seen any photo.

Acorn Woodpecker (Redmond Washington 2015)

Acorn WP1

My GPS sent me across the Columbia and into Oregon to travel east along the river.  Really a beautiful trip even without birds.  I crossed back over the Columbia and paid my $1.00 toll and then turned east on Highway 14.  It was already getting warm.  It was also getting windy – great for the many windsurfers on the river – not so great for birding.  Ann Marie was right – Ash Throated Flycatchers were everywhere and I quickly located first one pair and then another and another.  They seemed to be mated and I am not aware of any differences between male and females. It seemed that both were calling/noisy and were very responsive to my calls and very active.  Not prize winners, but acceptable photos showing the ashy throats and I checked off another catch up.

Ash Throated Flycatcher

Ash Throated Flycatcher1

So much for the easy bird, what about the Acorn Woodpecker?  There had been a number of Ebird repots for woodpecker in the area but nothing in June.  I had posted for information on Tweeters and got some encouragement – they’re there – but again nothing recent and also recognizing that many had failed to find them this year and no photos were included.  I drove the area several times with stops near the cemetery, at Balch Lake etc.  Finally I ventured up Tuthill Road which runs north off Balch Road.  Nothing on the way up but on the way down a bird with undulating flight passed over joined by a second.  I knew they were woodpeckers and figured it was most likely a pair of Acorns.  I tried some playback and got a response as first one and then a second bird flew back over the road and up into some tall trees in front of a red house.  They criss crossed the road several times and were joined by a third woodpecker – always perching very high and/or on the back sides of tall Oaks.  Finally one perched on the front side of a tree – still high up and distant but sufficiently photo friendly for a shot.  My first record for 2016.  Double fist pump!!

Acorn Woodpecker

There were not a lot of birds in the area but there were a lot of squirrels – their squeaks and squeals often leading me to look for the bird but the last time I checked, no birds have fur.  One squeal was particularly loud and this time there was a bird as a Prairie Falcon had swooped in and grabbed a squirrel maybe 100 feet from me and then flew off before I could even get the camera up. A much easier photo was of some Wild Turkeys crossing the road – a hen and 10 chicks.  The chicks hid quickly but I was able to grab a shot of mom in the shade.  This was sort of the reverse of a catch up.  On an earlier trip to Walla Walla I had seen a very large flock (maybe 50 birds) in a field on the way home and had snapped a picture.  When I submitted my checklist for Balch Lake, Ebird told me that “Wild Turkey” was a new year bird – number 300.  I guess I had forgotten to submit the Walla Walla area report because it was an incidental observation from the road only – despite the photo.

Wild Turkey (Balch Road) 


I knew of some weedy fields along High Prairie Road off Centerville Highway and hoped that even in the heat I might find some Lesser Goldfinches there – another hoped for “catch up” on the trip.  Sure enough as I was driving on the road next to some good looking candidate fields, I heard the birds singing in flight.  It took a while to locate them and then for some to finally perch nearer to the road.  Not real close and they did not stay long but a good ID photo anyhow.  This may have been my worst “miss” of the year as I had seen them in January in Arlington and twice in Walla Walla and either forgot to take a photo or was not able to.  So this was a great way to end the day and check off another miss.

Lesser Goldfinches

Lesser Goldfinches

It had already been a long day and an excellent one.  It was going to be a long drive home so time to get going.  My GPS said that the quickest route home was back through Oregon and up I-5.  I figured that would take me through the worst of traffic in both Tacoma and Seattle so I opted for Highway 142 up through Goldendale and then Highway 97, I-82 and I-90.  I thought this would also at least give me a chance for Common Nighthawk – another photo miss.  If I was not so tired I would have stopped at many of the birdy and beautiful places along the way, but that will have to wait for another time.  No nighthawks and frankly not much of anything else either.  And fortunately not too much traffic…at least until I hit Mercer Island – at 6:45 P.M. – it then took me another 45+ minutes to get home to Edmonds from there.  AAARGH!!

It had been a wonderful trip with as high a hit list success ratio as I can remember and good bonus birds as well.  The scenery had been spectacular – any time you have clear views of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount Hood on the same day is awesome.  Probably saw what is left of Mt. St. Helens as well but do not remember it.  Washington is beautiful and so are its birds!!!

Mount Rainier



One thought on “Catching Up Between Three Mountains

  1. What a great post and spectacular day of birding Blair! Congrats on almost getting all your wanted targets. You truly are incredible and slightly crazy hahah ;). I can’t believe how far you drove but as a birder as crazy as you I fully understand. By the way thank you so much for the kind compliments and glad you got your HEWA shot. What you have achieved with your photo big year is amazing and you should be very proud of yourself. Well done Blair! Enjoy the 4th of July Weekend!


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