As I arrived home just before midnight yesterday after a very long day that had started with me leaving Edmonds at 4:00 a.m., titles and portions of this not yet written blog post were being tested in my head. The one now used was not one of them – but things change and the post that was originally going to feature the observation of a very rare hummingbird in Walla Walla now includes that story as “a bird not seen” with a consolation prize that honestly just barely consoles. BUT…much of the content that was to be in that originally conceived post remains – positive and wanting to be written about – at least by me. So I will just deal with the disappointment first and then move on and not let the downer overcome many definite uppers for the day.
It is disappointing to fail in any undertaking. For birders, that often – too often – means failing to find a bird that was reported the day or days before or maybe even just hours before you look for it. Even worse, especially after a long trip or many hours looking, is to “find” the bird and then later learn that it was not the sought after bird after all. As written in an earlier blog post, that sometimes happens when our “want” clouds our judgment and powers of observation – emphasizing the details that support the “want” but blinding us to details that do not support the “want” and at times even disprove it. The “want” in this case was a Broad Tailed Hummingbird. Ebird reported such a rarity from a feeder in Walla Walla last week. I did not know the observer, but the details were good even without a photo. Then another report from excellent birders “confirmed” the identification.
Broad Tailed Hummingbird (Photo from others – in Colorado)
It would be a state life bird for me – having only seen one in Arizona almost 40 years ago. I decided to go for it. My early start got me to the feeder location around 8:45 a.m. There were 3 birders already there – I had actually expected more since it was such a rarity. Russ Koppendrayer from Longview was there – so was Jim Parrish from Walla Walla – both of whom I knew. Another birder with a camera/lens/tripod set up that I can only lust for was also there – Larry Umthun from Tri-Cities. If life were really sweet they would all have been looking at the feeder with the prize sitting on it sipping sugar water. No such luck – and they had not seen it.
Making a very very long story relatively short – we watched that feeder for hours and hours (with Russ and Jim taking lunch breaks and Larry finally leaving around 2:15 p.m.). We saw lots of Black Chinned Hummingbirds – both male and females – but nothing with a red gorget – the field mark we were concentrating on as the clincher. Our homeowner host was very gracious and had provided some lawn chairs and we moved them around often to find whatever shade we could since it was a very bright and hot day – with temperatures in the mid-nineties.
Black Chinned Hummingbird Male
Black Chinned Hummingbird Female
We had one other interesting bird, an American Goldfinch with a distinctly pale or white back – something none of us had noted in other Goldfinches anywhere before.
Pale Backed American Goldfinch
Around 3:15 we moved the chairs to a recently shaded spot that gave us even better views of the feeder but we wondered if maybe we were too close and no hummers would come. The return of one of the Black Chinned Hummers assuaged our fear. Jim had returned with his lovely wife Sue – always good to have more eyes in the field. Russ heard and then spotted some Vaux’s Swifts flying overhead maybe an omen. Exactly at 3:30 p.m. a hummingbird made perhaps a 2 second appearance near but not on the feeder. Some of us noticed a flash of red – and we thought we had our quarry – but it flew off without any real chance for an ID. Then Jim saw the bird buried in the foliage of a nearby tree – the red gorget apparent even though buried.
Before he could get any of us on the bird, it flew out and landed on the feeder in great light and clearly visible to all. We noted the green back and most distinctly the red gorget glistening in the sun when it turned the right way even though we never got a look at it fully lit. We “saw” the white line behind the eye that seemed at certain angles to continue down to the nape. The hummer was photo friendly and we snapped away. After it departed moments later, we reveled in our good luck, our beautiful photos and we exchanged high fives. I posted our find on Tweeters to let others know that the rarity was indeed there. Russ did the same on Ebird. It was state bird 400 for Russ and a new state lifer for me and for Jim and Sue. Wow were we happy…
Our “Broad Tailed Hummingbird”
So now it was on to other pleasures – the long day a great success. Russ was off to add new birds to one of his county lists. Jim and Sue had a short trip home and my original plan had been to find the Broad Tailed Hummingbird in the morning and then head off to either Biscuit Ridge or Coppei Ridge or Jasper Mountain – hoping to get lucky finding a Great Gray Owl or a photo of a Green Tailed Towhee – photographed there last year but heard only with the Dennys on an earlier trip this year. Afterwards it was then going to be off somewhere trying yet again for a photo of a Common Poorwill, one of the three species I had seen or heard but not gotten a photo of last year and had failed to photograph on three more attempts this year. I also had hopes for a photo of a Common Nighthawk – easily found and photographed in past years but so far heard only this year.
Last Year’s Green Tailed Towhee from Coppei Ridge (Heard but not Photographed this Year)
Given the heat and the lateness of the day, I gave up on the Blue Mountain options and headed west hoping for the Poorwill or Nighthawk and maybe lucking into some Gray Partridge. I planned to stop at Horn Rapids Park where I had a very photo friendly Common Nighthawk last year and then head over yet again to Oak Creek and Bethel Ridge. But I had learned that there was some kind of road closure on Highway 12 and not being completely clear exactly where I decided to try a favorite spot, Robinson Canyon for the Poorwills instead. I found and got a very distant photo of a Common Nighthawk at Horn Rapids – not very satisfying but good enough for an ID. It was now after 5:00 p.m. and the temperature had hit 100 degrees.
Common Nighthawk – Horn Rapids Park (2015)
I was still a couple of hours or so away from Robinson Canyon (southwest of Ellensburg) but did not want to get there until after 8:30. I detoured along Vantage Highway and drove into the Wild Horse Energy area where I had heard Gray Partridge were sometimes found. No such luck but a very interesting area that I had not realized was so accessible and I will return some other time.
I have heard (and even seen) Common Poorwills at Robinson Canyon every time I have visited and the name brings a smile because of good associations from birding trips with Samantha Robinson, so I felt good about my chances this night. The problems in the past have been either that there has been too much traffic on the road – keeping the Poorwills away from the best photography opportunity to be trapped in my headlights – or my own ineptitude – having the camera settings such that the one time I had one on the road clearly in my headlights, the shutter would not activate. This time I changed the settings and took several practice shots to be sure I was ready. Even before I got to the first (always open?) yellow gate, I saw some birds on the road in the diminishing light. It turned out to be first one and then a second brood of California Quail – each with a single hen and numerous chicks.
California Quail Brood
After snapping that photo I heard the familiar peent call of the Common Nighthawk. Two and maybe three birds circled overhead. Not great light and not the quality of the photo of the perched bird above – but much better than the photo I had taken hours earlier in bright light at Horn Rapids.
Common Nighthawk – Robinson Canyon July 26, 2016
Still riding the high of the Walla Walla hummingbird experience, this find gave me confidence that maybe this would indeed be the night for a Poorwill photo. But now about that traffic… Much of Robinson Canyon Road is a single lane. Sure enough as I made my way into the Canyon – just at its most narrow spot I heard another vehicle coming down the dirt road. I backed up maybe 100 yards to let first one and then a second pickup with horse trailer by. Not even a thank you wave as they sped by … no comment (aargh!!). But it was still early and I had not heard any Poorwill calls yet so I remained optimistic.
I went through the second gate (it is loosely chained and easy to open, proceed through and then close again). The road ends not more than a quarter mile further up and this has proven to be prime Poorwill territory in the past. Two more Common Nighthawks called overhead – and I was good to go as I turned the car around expecting to find my Poorwill on the road on the way down. After just a few moments (around 9:00 p.m.) I heard my first Poorwill calling. It seemed very close. Although I had little hope of actually seeing it on the hillside I got out of the car and moved towards the sound. It repeated and was answered by a second bird and they both sounded very close–like they were roosting in the nearby evergreen tree. I played a few Common Poorwill calls on my phone and WOW!!!! All hell broke loose as two Poorwills came right towards me circling and looking for their rival. More than once they came within just a few feet – the only Poorwills I have ever seen except on or just above a road. It was pretty dark and I did not have a spotlight, but even so I could readily see the white in the throat, tail and wings. This continued for several minutes and was very exciting. The following photo is terrible but you can see the bird in the upper right corner – impossible to keep up with it as I turned and turned to try.
Common Poorwill Flying All Around Me (terrible photo in very low light as I swirled around trying to keep up with it)
I was very exhilarated and had at least gotten a photo. Moreso I was now sure that I would be fortunate and get a photo coming down the road. And indeed I did. Above the chained gate, again below it and above the yellow gate and then again much further down I had four Common Poorwills sitting on the road – eyes shining in my headlights. I got an ok picture of the first one through my windshield – so mission accomplished. But now I changed the mission and wanted a better photo. The second bird flew before I could get a photo and the third was cooperative only for a second – again a just ok photo.
The fourth bird was the winner. Dan Reiff had shared a technique he uses and I patiently waited for the bird to become comfortable in my headlights. I then held my breath and inched the car closer and closer again. I was now maybe 50 feet away. Turned off the motor but kept the lights on and s-l-o-w-l-y opened the door (remembering to take the key out so it would not scold me with a loud beep). I took a quick picture – my best yet. Then I walked again even more s-l-o-w-l-y – five feet closer at a time – stopping and taking a new photo and then repeating. I got within perhaps 15 to 20 feet – took the last photo and the Poorwill flew up – and moved down maybe another 50 feet and landed and waited on the opposite side of the road. I was more than satisfied – ecstatic actually and left it to its apparently favored hunting territory and I headed homewards.
Common Poorwill – Robinson Canyon
I remember distinctly thinking that if we had not found the Broad Tailed Hummingbird this first ever photo of a Common Poorwill would be a nice consolation and would have made for a good day. But since we had found the hummingbird, now it was just lovely icing on a very yummy cake.
Or not…I got home too late to even look at photos on the computer and went to bed exhausted but very happy indeed. This morning those photos were the first order of business and I was very pleased with how at least some of them turned out. I added photos to the Ebird reports, sent some to people who had requested them, posted some on Flickr with a link on Tweeters and thought of coffee. Then the fall from the pinnacle of glee and joy. Thud!!!
Birders far more skilled than I suggested (with quite differing styles) that the photos were of an Anna’s Hummingbird and not a Broad Tailed. In our excitement at the feeder, we had emphasized some field marks and ignored others that were determinative. Anna’s Hummingbirds are rare for the area as well and there had been speculation earlier by some that the original observation was of an Anna’s also. A report by one questioner that it was a Broad Tailed was one of the factors that led to me making the trip even though I still felt it a longshot to actually see the bird.
Anna’s Hummingbird – Walla Walla – Rare but Barely a Consolation (Note the wasp)
Truth in writing I was pretty unhappy – not just for my own mistake – and loss of a super state record – but also because my error may have encouraged others to make the try. I immediately posted a cautionary warning on Tweeters, changed the Ebird report and removed the Flickr photos. Maybe that would help others but even though as a rarity for Walla Walla Anna’s Hummingbird was a nice consolation, it was not very consoling. I was pretty down and decided to forego any blog and brood alone. BUT then later when I added the photo of the Common Poorwill to my photo list, and relived the entire day, I felt better – even good. It had indeed been a great day – hitting all of the Big Three of birding that are important to me -great people, great places and great birds – even if the greatest of the birds had disappeared. It was another story added to my long list of birding adventures – and misadventures – and in the end it may have helped to set the record straight – an important part of any record list – mine or something far more official.
Taking photos has become a big part of my birding life – enjoyable at the time and often thereafter – something more easily shared – with birding and non-birding friends – than just my limited verbal descriptions. Photos generally help with identification at the time or later in the comfort of home on a big screen. Sometimes they prove the point, sometimes like here, they prove a different point. My eyes (yours too?) are fallible and my processor is flawed as well. The eyes of others and their processors too are welcome additions to my birding education and experience. I look forward to many more instructive reviews – and someday to seeing a real Broad Tailed Hummingbird in Washington – probably the only way I will ever get over losing this one.