A Time for Shorebirds

Each spring and then again each fall the patterns continue:  Millions of birds migrate north to breed and then return south to more hospitable winter homes and then repeat the journeys year after year.  Passerines, waterfowl, raptors and gulls all participate.  I pay them some attention but far less than to the shorebirds that pass through – the regular migrants and especially the rare vagrants that raise the heartbeats of all birders.  I especially love August and September when shorebird migration is at its best – at times lining our shores with thousands of birds – a great variety of species and a great variety of plumages as the striking colors of the breeding season give way to the more drab colors of winter – and everything else in between as the molt continues – adding further challenges to identifying birds that are often only seen in flight, at great distance or in swirling swarms where glimpses may only be momentary.

What Shorebird

Even the plentiful “regulars” bring great joy but admittedly it is the uncommon, the unusual or even the completely unexpected rarity that is the most fun – and is what gets us out tromping into the mud of the Game Range or Bottle Beach or Eide Road or the various sewage treatment plants or drying out lakes and ponds – hoping for something special.

This August has been a good month for shorebirds and I knew I wanted to write something about them but I did not want it to be simply “I went here or there and saw this or that” although some details of my own observations were sure to find their way into the content.  So with the aid of my best friend “Ebird” I decided to look into my observations more analytically and far more accurately than my memory which tends to recall the excitement without the details of place and especially time.  I concentrated only on Washington observations but I did peek at my world lists to see just how significant these species have been in my birding history.  Just for some context, I have seen 47 (or maybe 48 – and more of that at the end of this writing) species of shorebirds in Washington or about 11.4% of my total species seen in state and 117 shorebird species worldwide which is only about 4.4% of my total world list.  While the discrepancy is due in part to the places I have birded worldwide and the times I have been there, the biggest explanation is that especially in avifauna rich areas like the forests of Central and South America and the savannahs of Africa, there is simply far more diversity of non-shorebird species.

When I started my research I expected that I would have seen more shorebird species in the Fall (which I defined as August and September) and fewer in the Spring (defined as April and May) since I thought there were more rarities (mostly with Eurasian affinities) at that time and this proved correct.  Of those 47 species seen in Washington, I saw 45 in the Fall period and only 33 in the Spring.  While some of this may be due to more active looking in the Fall, my experience correlated fairly closely with the general Ebird reporting for others in Washington as well.  I have seen 42 (or maybe 43) species in August and 44 in September.  The only shorebirds I have seen in Washington but not in August or September are Red Necked Stint and Wilson’s Plover – both one time wonders and very rare in our State.

I include pictures with dates and places for all of the shorebirds I have seen and photographed in Washington in the Fall  using photos from August 2016 where I can.  I do not have photos of a couple of species so may borrow from others or mine from elsewhere. Telling all the fun stories from each observation would take too long – maybe some will appear on other blog posts.  Mostly this is my way of showing the diversity of our rich shorebird experience in Washington and my fun in searching for them, observing them and taking their pictures when I can – for August and September each year – A Time for Shorebirds.

The two Non-Fall Observations (but each within 10 days of August /September)

Wilson’s Plover – Midway Beach/Grayland – October 9, 2012

Wilson's Plover

Red Necked Stint – Bottle Beach – July 22, 2013

Red Necked Stint at Bottle Beach

Each year is mostly different due to when rarities show up as the core/regular and resident birds can always be seen if you go to the right place at the right time but some of the less common but yet not true rarities birds can be easily missed if you are unlucky or time a tide wrong.  I would include both Golden Plovers, Red Knot (in the Fall) and maybe Red Phalarope in that latter category and might add Bar Tailed Godwit (which has become pretty regular).

Uncommon but Not Rare

American Golden Plover – Tulalip Spit – August 25, 2016

American Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover – Oyhut Game Range – September 13, 2011

Pacific Golden Plover

Red Knot – Tulalip Spit August 25, 2016

Red Knot 1

Bar Tailed Godwit – Bottle Beach – August 15, 2016

Bar Tailed Godwit2

Probably a notch above those species in terms of regularity or ease of finding them would be species like Stilt Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Wandering Tattler, Willet and Baird’s Sandpiper.  They are readily found in the Fall at the right place and time but may show up as Ebird rarities depending on where they are reported.  Baird’s have been particularly numerous in many places this Fall and it seems that there have been more Stilt Sandpipers this year than in the past.  A Wandering Tattler was an easy and unusual find for Seattle area birders at Carkeek Park this month but are usually found only at rocky outcroppings like the jetties at Westport and Ocean Shores.  Willets are regular at Tokeland but pretty hard to find anywhere else.

Less Common but Regular and Usually Found at the Right Time/Place

Stilt Sandpiper – August 24, 2014 – Eide Road

Stilt Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper – September 2, 2014 – Eide Road

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Wandering Tattler – Carkeek Park- August 22, 2016

Wandering Tattler 3 Carkeek Park

Willet – August 10, 2016 – Tokeland


Baird’s Sandpiper – August 20, 2015 – Midway Beach

Baird's Sandpiper

At the far end of the spectrum of rarity are the vagrants from Eurasia in addition to the aforementioned Red Necked Stint and Wilson’s Plover (not a Eurasian species) – species like Ruff, Sharp Tailed Sandpiper, Buff Breasted Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit (Midwestern not Eurasian) , Lesser Sand Plover and Wood Sandpiper.  Some of these species are seen almost every year in Washington while some others like the Wood Sandpiper are seen maybe just once and only by a few lucky birders.  I was lucky with the Wood Sandpiper found by Ryan Merrill in Skagit County in 2012 but no picture at the time.  I had the good luck together with Tim Boyer to be the firsts to find the nearly full breeding plumage Lesser Sand Plover on the open beach at Ocean shores on August 16, 2015 – much more handsome than the non-breeder seen at Oyhut on September 1, 2013.

Real Rarities 

Ruffs – September 3, 2014 and September 14, 2015 – Oyhut Game Range


Sharp Tailed Sandpiper (with Pectoral Sandpiper) – Eide Road – September 11, 2012

Pectoral and Sharp Tailed Sandpipers

Buff Breasted Sandpiper – September 7, 2013 – Grayland Beach State Park

Buff Breasted SP2

Hudsonian Godwit – September 29, 2015 – Ilwaco

Hudsonian Godwit (2)

Lesser Sand Plover – August 16, 2015 -Ocean Shores 

Lesser Sand Plover 5

Although most of the shorebirds in Washington can be found in Western Washington, two beauties are in Eastern Washington almost exclusively – and are major news if on the West side.  These are the Black Necked Stilts and American Avocets that are found in ponds and Sewage Treatment Plants generally east of the Columbia River.  Other birds are with them but these really jump out.  Often these same ponds also have Wilson’s (breeding) and Red Necked (in migration) Phalaropes.  Both of these can be found in Western Washington but more rarely – except on pelagic trips on the Pacific where Red Necked Phalaropes are plentiful in migration and are joined by the much rarer Red Phalaropes – but do appear in Eastern Washington rarely as well.

Eastern Washington Species

Black Necked Stilt – August 13, 2014 – Winchester Wasteway Ponds

Black Necked Stilt (2) - Copy

American Avocet – August 13, 2014 – Winchester Wasteway Ponds

American Avocet2

Red Necked Phalarope – August 12, 2016 – Para/McCain’s Ponds 

Red Necked Phalarope2

Wilson’s Phalarope with Yellowlegs – September 15, 2015 – Soap Lake

Staredown Wilson's Phalarope and Lesser Yellowlegs

Red Phalarope – August 28, 2016 -Pelagic Species on Pacific and sometimes in Eastern Washington

Red Phalarope2

Shorebirds come in all sizes ranging from the smallest “peeps” like the Western, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers to the largest like the Greater YellowlegsGodwits, Whimbrel and Long Billed Curlew.  In between in addition to many already mentioned are species like the Wilson’s SnipeSpotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Dunlin, Lesser Yellowlegs, Long Billed and Short Billed Dowitchers, Sanderlings and the common Plovers – Black Bellied, Semipalmated and Killdeer. All are regular, widespread and common in season.  The Snowy Plover also belongs in this group but is endangered and limited to a few areas of open beach…regular but can be hard to find.

The “Peeps”

Western Sandpiper – August 21, 2011

Dueling Western Sandpipers

Least Sandpiper – August 10, 2016  – Tokeland

Least Sandpiper2

Semipalmated Sandpiper (pictured earlier above)

Other More Common Shorebirds

Wilson’s Snipe – August 27, 2014 – Ridgefield NWR

Wilson's Snipe

Greater  and Lesser Yellowlegs – August 5, 2015 – Eide Road

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs

Marbled Godwit (Top Left) and Whimbrel (Lower Right) with Willets – August 20, 2016 – Tokeland

Willet Godwit and Whimbrel

Long Billed Curlew – September 4, 2015 – Bottle Beach

Long Billed Curlew 2 Bottle Beach

Spotted Sandpiper Juvenile – September 10, 2015 – Neah Bay

Spotted Sandpiper Juvenile

Solitary Sandpiper – August 26, 2016 – Wiley Slough

Solitary SP Wiley2

Dunlin – September 14, 2015 – Oyhut Game Range


Long Billed Dowitcher – August 1, 2014 – Wylie Slough (More common inland)

Long Billed Dowitcher1

Short Billed Dowitcher – August 27, 2016 – Bottle Beach (more common on the coast)

Short Billed Dowitcher

Sanderling – August 10, 2016 – Open Beach Midway


Black Bellied Plover – August 15, 2016 – Bottle Beach

Black Bellied Plover Flight

Semipalmated Plover – August 15, 2016 – Bottle Beach

Semipalmated Plover

Snowy Plover – Grayland/Midway Beach

Snowy Plover

Killdeer – August 16, 2015 – Oyhut Game Range


Another grouping of shorebirds that are regularly seen in August and September are the so-called “Rock Pipers“.  These birds are usually found along rocky shores or on log booms in salt water.  They include the Wandering Tattler already pictured above and Surfbirds, and both Black and Ruddy Turnstones.  Rock Sandpipers are in this group and usually come later although I do have a single September record.  I am also including the striking and much larger Black Oystercatcher – not really a Rock Piper – but generally found on rocky shores.

The “Rock Pipers”

Black Turnstone – August 27, 2016 – Point Brown Jetty

Black Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone – August 27, 2016 – Point Brown Jetty

Ruddy Turnstone

Surfbird – August 20, 2011 – Three Crabs – Sequim


Rock Sandpiper – No photo from August or September so I am using one from February 2014 – from the Point Brown Jetty (but I saw one at the same location last year on September 14) 

Rock Sandpiper1

Black Oystercatchers – September 10, 2015 – Neah Bay

Black Oystercatchers

There are two more species of shorebird that I have seen in Washington in August or September but sadly have no pictures of them from the state.  One is the Upland Sandpiper which I saw with Dennis Paulson as a flyover on the Oyhut Game Range on September 6, 2013.  I include a picture I took of one at the Kennebunk Plains in Maine in June 2015.  The other is the aforementioned Wood Sandpiper – a “mega” rarity that is common in Africa and Asia and quite a find as a vagrant in far western Alaska.  One was seen on Adak the week I visited this spring but sadly I was not able to see it and take a photo so the picture is from my South Africa visit in 2014.

Missing Photos from Washington – Two Rarities

Upland Sandpiper – Photo from my Maine Trip  – June 20, 2015 – Kennebunk Plains

Upland Sandpiper2

Wood Sandpiper – October 15, 2014 – My South Africa TripWood Sandpiper

And ah, yes there is one more – well maybe there is and maybe there is not.  Here is the story: On August 2, 2012 I was birding on the coast and in the morning drove the open beach near Midway – a favorite place and one that is the location for some of the photos above.  I was primarily looking for Snowy Plovers which I did not find that day.  However, there were many birds on the beach including a larger than usual number of Whimbrels (12) and many of the more common birds like Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers and Sanderlings.  I met a woman who worked for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and we chatted for a while next to some logs on the upper beach.  She monitored the Snowy Plovers in the area (their breeding area in the dunes is roped off and protected)  and we had a fascinating chat.

We casually paid attention to the shorebirds along the surf but my  focus was on her Snowy Plover wisdom.  Suddenly all hell broke loose and all of the birds nearby took off.  This is usually initiated by a Peregrine Falcon flying by.  This time there was no falcon but a Parasitic Jaeger, another bird that preys on small shorebirds, flew past – the danger that set the birds to flight.  Although it was admittedly a fleeting view, we clearly noted that one of the birds in the groups was “different”.  Not all field marks were processsed but this one bird was notably larger than the Western Sandpipers and had what appeared to be a gray back and MOST importantly a WHITE RUMP.  At the time I had no idea what it was or could be or what else to look for but that white rump was unmistakable and the size was noticeably if not significantly larger than the Western Sandpipers that flew off with it – but without the white rumps.

I submitted it as a White Rumped Sandpiper on Ebird and not surprisingly it was rejected as insufficient description and of course no photo. I would like to think that if the same thing happened today I would be more attuned to details and I most likely would have a photograph as I have learned how they are not just records that I can enjoy over and over and share but also can be used to identify a bird and often to change an initial impression to something else when the captured field marks can be more closely examined.  So what was that bird?  Sure it is possible that the rump may have appeared more white than it actually was – but it was an overwhelming detail as it flew – as distinctive as the wing pattern of a Willet in flight for example – it just jumps out at you.  If indeed that rump was white as “observed” then the only two possibilities are White Rumped Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper.  Either is incredibly rare in Washington.

Since that time I have had the opportunity to observe a Curlew Sandpiper in South Africa. The gray back and white rump certainly match my memory but I would like to think I would have seen and noted the clearly curved and longer bill.  So maybe I did and maybe I didn’t see a White Rumped Sandpiper or even a sandpiper with a white rump that day now more than 4 years ago.  Tell you one thing – if there is a next time, the camera will be ready.

Sandpipers with White Rumps

White Rumped Sandpiper (Photo by Mike Fahay)

White-rumped Sandpiper Flying Showing Rump 1 MF_2

Curlew Sandpiper – October 7, 2014 – My South Africa Trip

Curlew Sandpiper (2)


So there it is – the wondrous migration of shorebirds in August and September – all 48 (or 47) of the ones I have been fortunate to see.  This August has been a pretty good month for shorebirds already as well – 35 species seen.  As stated above, there seem to have been more Stilt Sandpipers and Baird’s Sandpipers reported from all over the state than I can remember in past years.  I have seen 13 different Baird’s Sandpipers in 6 different locations and at least 5 different Stilt Sandpipers in 3 different locations.  I know of other observations of both species elsewhere.  So far no Ruffs or Buff Breasted Sandpipers and no Hudsonian Godwits or Sharp Tailed Sandpipers.  An early Rock Sandpiper was reported from the jetties at both Ocean Shores and Westport, but I was unable to find it.   And too many people were on Midway Beach when I was there so no Snowy Plover either although I saw and photographed some in the Spring.  But September will be here in another two days – and hopefully all of these little beauties will appear and be enjoyed.  Maybe something really special will come in as well.  I am thinking a Terek Sandpiper would be really nice.

Terek SandpiperSomeday if I Am REALLY LUCKY!!


Don’t get stuck in the mud!!

August 31, 2016 – Addition to the Blog Post

An addition to this blog – I almost went up to Vancouver, B.C. today – encouraged by Melissa Hafting – a wonderful birding friend and resource who was on my recent pelagic trip.  Melissa knows more about what is going on with birds in B.C. than anyone – and frankly often knows about our Washington bird reports before I do – and she shares all of this information openly.  She told me of 4 Buff Breasted Sandpipers and a Ruff that were being seen regularly at Boundary Bay – a wonderful birding spot across the border.  Her pictures are included below – so gorgeous as are all of her photos.  I just could not get it together to make the trip today (August 31).  It would be great to see the birds and get photos and add to my August 2016 Shorebird Species list – BUT – not in Washington even if close and besides she just sent me a note that it is raining there.  May not affect the birds but it does affect the birding.  But the photos are so nice I thought I would make this addition – and thank Melissa for all of her help and support.

Ruff – Boundary Bay B.C.  – Photo by Melissa Hafting

Ruff from Melissa

Buff Breasted Sandpiper – Boundary Bay B.C.  – Photo by Melissa Hafting

Buff Breasted Sandpiper from Melissa


Guess its A Time for Shorebirds in B.C. as well.  Hope these guys head south for a stop soon!!



Definitely a Laughing Matter at Bottle Beach

This has been an incredible week.  Starting with eight Willets at Tokeland and six Wandering Tattlers at Westport, then a Short Eared Owl and Prairie Falcon on the way to the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher on Highway 24 that was kind enough to fly into and be observed in two counties followed by hundreds of Eared Grebes at Soap Lake and a Clark’s Grebe at Lind Coulee.  Later I got a photo of a Stilt Sandpiper at Wylie Slough to replace the ones lost on a missing SD Card.  That would be quite a week by any measure.

Stilt Sandpiper – Wylie Slough – a “Make Up” for a Lost Photograph

Stilt Sandpiper

But those birds and fun trips were just a prelude to today’s spectacular visit to Bottle Beach.  Over the weekend a Laughing Gull was photographed there by Steve Giles and reported by others.  One had been observed there some months ago as well.  Like the aforementioned Scissor Tailed Flycatcher I had seen this species in Texas and elsewhere but never in Washington.  And if that was not sufficient motivation for a visit, a Bar Tailed Godwit was also being seen there – possibly the same bird seen at the Coast Guard Station in Westport or perhaps a second bird.  I had seen one in breeding plumage in Alaska this spring but Jon, Fran and I had looked for and not found one at either of the Washington locations on our earlier trip.

Laughing Gull – Texas April 2013

Laughing Gull

Bar Tailed Godwit – Nome Alaska June 2016

Bar Tailed Godwit1

I had meetings in Everett this afternoon and a dental appointment tomorrow and high tides were not optimal, so I wondered how I could swing a trip.  The answer came when I awoke early this morning and could not get back to sleep so I headed out at 5:00 a.m.  Actually too early for the tides but a great way to avoid traffic and also to fit in a stop at the Hoquiam STP.  There were almost no gulls at the STP but some good mud in the third pond had some shorebirds, the best of which was a Baird’s Sandpiper.  There have been more reports of this species this year than I remember from years past.

I arrived at Bottle Beach at about 8:00 almost 4 hours before high tide.  I checked the gulls at the pilings where the Laughing Gull had been seen and saw only Ring Billed Gulls.  I also found a group of 6 Semipalmated Plovers, a bird I had not seen there or on the open beach in my last visit to the coast.  There was plenty of time to explore so I went pretty far south where there were hundreds of birds – primarily Western and Least Sandpipers and Black Bellied Plovers.  There were also scattered Short Billed Dowitchers in varying plumages – including a few in near breeding colors.  I thought I had seen a Red Knot but could not get a close look and it was more likely another Dowitcher although the bill seemed short.  There were also two Ruddy Turnstones in breeding plumage.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

I had now been there over an hour and I was freezing.  With all the hot weather we have had in Puget Sound and in Eastern Washington, I wrongly assumed the same at the Coast and checked only on tides.  A marine layer kept temperatures in the 50’s and a stiff wind made it feel much cooler.  My extra layer left in the car would have been very welcome.  I had expected more birders at Bottle Beach given the great birds reported.  Finally about 9:15 two more birders arrived and shortly thereafter a third.  The first two – Jason Vassallo and Paul Baerny had also been the next to arrive when Frank, Ann Marie and I relocated the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher and I had seen Paul the day before at Wylie Slough where we each independently found the Stilt Sandpiper. The third to arrive was Whittier Johnson.  We definitely had some good birding eyes to look for our birds.

For the next 45 minutes we unsuccessfully searched the MANY Black Bellied Plovers for a Golden Plover and the MANY peeps for a possible Red Necked Stint and the occasional godwits for a lighter one making it our Bar Tailed – but we found only a few Marbled Godwits. And of course we continued to check the gulls by the pilings – but our prize was not to be found.  None of us saw it fly in but at almost exactly 10:00 I checked the pilings again and shrieked that “IT’S THERE!”  A bit smaller than the Ring Bills, with a dark mantle and even darker wing tips, dark legs and a dark thick bill, a white head with a small smudge and crescents above and below the eye, the Laughing Gull had made its appearance.  Perhaps it had been hidden behind a piling but I thought we had searched thoroughly, diligently and often.  Nobody cared about from whence or when it came.  It was gloriously there now and easily observed and photographed.  It was a new state life bird for everyone there – the crowd now grown to perhaps a dozen with the arrival of Bob Morse, Keith Brady, Neil and Carleen Zimmerman and others. WOW!!

Laughing Gull – My First in Washington – as First Seen with Ring Billed Gull

Laughing Gull with Ring Billed Gull

Laughing Gull Posing for Photos

Laughing Gull1

This was my second new state lifer in less than a week (the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher was the other.)  Another adrenaline rush and I even forgot how cold it was.  There was celebration all along and the gull stayed with its cousins in the pilings and drew most of our attention.  Jason, with the youngest eyes, continued the search for the Bar Tailed Godwit and not too many minutes later, he had located it pretty far out at the water’s edge. It was near a few Marbled Godwits, quite a contrast in color.  It was interesting to observe too that it fed constantly while the Marbled Godwits fed only occasionally if at all.  Not the brilliant breeding plumage I had seen in Nome, but quite distinctive and a second celebration was in order when spied.  We were able to move quite a bit closer for decent photos even though the light was poor. WOW again!!

Bar Tailed Godwit

Bar Tailed Godwit

This is the seventh time I have had this species in Washington and the second time at Bottle Beach.  Not quite the thrill of the Laughing Gull but a wonderful bird anytime.

The Laughing Gull is named after a quality of one of its calls – and rightly so.  We did not hear any laughs at Bottle Beach this morning from the Gull but there were many smiles and chuckles and maybe even a laugh or two from some very happy birders.

What a week!!!

Making Lemonade out of Lemons

We were on a mission – find the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher that John Puschock had reported on Highway 24 near Othello on August 10.  Earlier this year I spent three hours at Marymoor Park hoping to find this species that had been seen by one observer the previous day – I missed it as did 20+ other birders who searched in vain.  But this time was going to be different – we knew it.  John had included a picture so the bird was definitely real.  It had been seen the next day (when I was at the Coast) by Charlie Desilets in the morning and by Stefan Schlick in the evening.  So it seemed to like the area and just maybe it would be waiting for Ann Marie Wood, Frank Caruso and me when we arrived.  We were in a hurry – we were going directly there – a single pit stop our only planned diversion.

BUT…in my haste and focus on getting to the appointed spot, I neglected to pay attention to my gas gauge and less than 15 miles from Ground Zero, the warning light told me I had an issue – only enough fuel to make it 35 miles – enough to get to what we hoped would be “our bird” but not enough to then get to the nearest gas station which would be at least 30 miles from there.  We had no choice – we had to back track 14 miles to Mattawa to the nearest gas station – precious time wasted.  Would these moments prove critical.  On a chase these things happen. LEMONS!!!

About half way back to Mattawa an unexpected but familiar form flew by – a Short Eared Owl unmistakable with its moth-like flight – a complete surprise and a new county bird for Ann Marie – for whom such things greatly matter – and for me as well – I keep track but do not obsess – as I certainly have more than sufficient obsession about year and life state birds and photos.  This helped relieve my guilt and feeling of stupidity a bit but not much.  We got gas, used the facilities and then retraced our steps towards what we hoped would be a bird with a very long tail that was not a Black Billed Magpie.  Surprise Number 2 – a Prairie Falcon sped by giving a fleeting but decent look.  Maybe these were omens – a hint of LEMONADE.

Tension mounted as we approached Milepost 68 and could see telephone poles and wires ahead – the first in many miles.  This is where the bird had first been seen although miles from the location in one of the Ebird reports.  We had already seen many Western Flycatchers and now we saw a couple more on the wires.  John Puschock had reported the Scissor Tail in the company of Western Flycatchers.  We just need one with those two long tail feathers.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

We were ready and then – “THERE’S OUR BIRD!!!” I shouted as a bird flew over the car from the left – VERY LONG tail feathers clearly trailing.  I pulled off the road immediately and we got out of the car and watched it fly off to the east and land on the wire ahead.  We followed and got clear and unmistakable views and  a few photos.  For the next 20 minutes we watched as this beautiful bird – a new state bird for all of us – flew east and west from the wires between telephone pole 5 and 11 along Highway 24.  Although we did not note the significance at the time we also watched as it crossed Highway 24 and flew south on at least two occasions – at least 150 feet into the sagebrush. In great light and at times quite close we photographed the bird on the wire and I got some photos of it in flight south of Highway 24.

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher (Perched on wire North of Highway 24)

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher2

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher in Flight (South of Highway 24)

STFL in Flight South of Hwy 24

As it turned out this North/South business matters because Highway 24 is the boundary between Franklin (South) and Adams (North) Counties.  So this wonderful bird cooperated not just in remaining where first located and in posing for photos in good light but also in flying back and forth across the road allowing for county records (the first for each) in both Counties.  As Ann Marie said (beaming I am sure) – a “twofer”.

After a few moments we were joined by Paul Baerny, Jason Vassallo and John Guthrie who got the same terrific views.  So six westside birders shared a most wonderful eastside experience.  Now there was no doubt – this was real LEMONDADE!!  And a real adrenaline rush for all of us.  Along with an Upland Sandpiper, the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher had been one of my gotta birds on a trip with Samantha Robinson to Texas in 2013 – easily found there but never expected in Washington.  I thought about an earlier blog post – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – and this day would add – but damn, when you do – what a mighty fine feeling.  Oh Yeah!!

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher in Full Breeding Splendor in Texas 2013

Texas Scissor Tail

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper2

It was not yet 10:00 a.m. Even with our success and giddiness we had traveled too far to call it a day so we headed off to Para Ponds.  We found not a single Blackbird so the search for a Tricolored Blackbird was moot.  What we did find were many Eastern Kingbirds, Two Red Tailed Hawks, a couple of Black Necked Stilts, a Greater Yellowlegs, some Least Sandpipers, a couple of Killdeer and most importantly two Baird’s Sandpipers (distant), a small flock of Red Necked Phalaropes and numerous swallows including many Bank Swallows.

Red Necked Phalarope

Red Necked Phalarope2

Red Necked Phalaropes in Flight

Red Necked Phalaropes in Flight

Red Necked Phalaropes in Flight Reflection

We continued on – stopping at Lind Coulee to look for a Clark’s Grebe at a spot where I have had good luck finding them in the past including a great view last year with Brian Pendleton of a Clark’s Grebe immediately  adjacent to a Western Grebe – differences clearly apparent.  This would be a year bird for both Frank and Ann Marie.  It took a lot of looking and it was not the greatest look but the ONLY grebe we found indeed was a Clark’s Grebe – more lemonade.

Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe at Lind Coulee (from 2015)

Western and Clark's Grebes

Earlier Jason and Paul had told us of an Ebird report from Matt Yawney that included a Stilt Sandpiper and 300 Eared Grebes.  I had forgotten to get a photo of an Eared Grebe earlier in the year and it would again be a new year bird for Frank and Ann Marie so we headed off to Soap Lake.  It was getting warm and this is NOT the most scenic part of Washington, but birders are used to such and we arrived at Soap Lake ready for more good birds.  We got them – well sorta got them.  There indeed were many Eared Grebes – mostly still in their dark breeding plumage – probably at least the 300 reported by Matt.  But they were all distant – in the middle of the large lake – viewable through the scope but the photos qualify as ID quality only.

Eared Grebes on Soap Lake

Eared Grebes

We did not find a Stilt Sandpiper – only a couple of Spotted Sandpipers – and in fact found little habitat that seemed shorebird friendly at all – but we did not find good access points and could well have missed out in our unfamiliarity with the area and besides by now it was unpleasantly hot and it was time to head back home.

A stop at the Winchester Wasteway along I-90 found no birds.  We made a last stop at Silica Ponds near George and almost on my cue a single Yellow Headed Blackbird visited for a few moments.  Traffic back to Edmonds was tolerable even with a few inexplicable slowdowns and we returned both safe and very happy.

The gas crisis lemons were long forgotten but we definitely did not forget the “Lemonade” that followed – especially the magnificent Scissor Tailed Flycatcher.  How appropriate to find lemonade on a hot summer day!!



Hits and Misses

Jon Houghton, Frank Caruso, Sherrill Miller and I had a fun day birding yesterday – August 10.  Like many such days we missed some of the birds we hoped to find and we found some other so called targets and also had some other birds that were nice additions.

Our first quarry was a Mountain Quail – never easy except when coming to Mary Hrudkaj’s feeders.  Mary had given us a lead on a possible spot and we headed there first.  Unfortunately I had forgotten to bring my Garmin and phone reception was bad so we could not access directions via Google Maps so we lost a lot of time and never did get to the new area.  We did spend a lot of time at the Port Orchard Quarry where I had a Mountain Quail last year and drove Blacksmith Tahuya Road – lots of good habitat but no quail for us.  At the Quarry there were numerous Turkey Vultures.  We never saw a carcass but there must have been something appetizing (to them) around.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

.Mountain Quail (2014 Photo from Mary’s)

Mountain Quail

Not a great start but we had much more to look for and headed off towards the coast where our first stop was the Hoquiam STP.  As written up in an earlier blog, I had a Franklin’s Gull there om July 25 and it has continued to be seen.  But no such luck this time as the only small gull we found was a non-breeding plumage Bonaparte’s Gull.  There was very little mud and no shorebirds.  So now we were 0 for 2 on our targets.  But it was a beautiful day and still lots of birding ahead.

We opted to bird the “Westport” side and thus retraced the unpleasant drive back through Hoquiam and into Aberdeen before heading south.  Sure would be nice to bypass those two towns – sad reminders that the boom times around Seattle have not been felt everywhere in our state.  Coastal birding plans are dictated in large measure by tides and high tide was to be at 6:40.  We wanted to be at the Coast Guard Station at Westport then and wanted to include some beach driving, a visit to Tokeland and also Bottle Beach.  Over the years I have learned that it is best to be at Bottle Beach on an incoming tide and to be there at least 2 hours and maybe even 3 hours before the high tide.  Accordingly we planned to drive the beach at Midway/Grayland then go to Tokeland, then to Bottle Beach and then to Westport.  It all worked out pretty well.

The open beach is always fun.  It was the first time Sherrill had been in the area so much was new.  While we did not find any Snowy Plovers and surprisingly also found no Semipalmated Plovers either, a real treat was the constant stream of Sooty Shearwaters not too far off the coast.  I have seen them there many times – always heading south.  This was a life bird for Sherrill- very cool.  We had hundreds of Sanderlings in varying plumages and many Least but no Western Sandpipers.



Sherrill and Frank at Midway Beach

Frank and Sherrill

Sooty Shearwaters – streaming South just off Grayland Beach

Sooty Shearwaters

Nothing real exciting but Frank yelled out that he glimpsed what he thought might be Black Turnstones flying by.  Fortunately we got a better look and they even stopped just ahead of us – two Ruddy Turnstones and when they moved up towards the dunes we found a single Whimbrel as well. Not the best focus but I got a fun photo of the Whimbrel with its very long wings extended up.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Whimbrel with Extended Wings

Whimbrel Wings

Time to head south and we checked the many gulls and terns at North Cove hoping for something special – but exclusively Heerman’s, Ring Billed and California Gulls and lots of Caspian Terns.  Probably a little early still for Elegant Terns – hope they are more plentiful than last year.

Approaching the Tokeland Marina always kicks up the heartbeat – will the Willets be there or not.  Definitely the best spot in Washington for these birds, I had one there last month but the only photo I got then was of the Peregrine Falcon that timed its flyover to the exact moment I arrived and it chased off the Willet and the hundreds of Heerman’s Gulls that were present.  This time the bird gods made amends as not only was there great light but also 8 Willets.  They were joined by a single Marbled Godwit and a single Whimbrel and there were both adult and juvenile Least Sandpipers on the other side of the road. This is also a good spot for Elegant Terns but only Caspian Terns were present – with Ring Billed and Heerman’s Gulls.  Also present and noisy were numerous Purple Martins.



Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper2

Willets, Whimbrel and Marbled Godwit

Willet Godwit and Whimbrel

It was time to head to Bottle Beach ahead of the incoming tide.  While there had been some cloudiness earlier in the day and on our open beach drive, it was now blue skies and warm temperatures.  The light had been great at Tokeland and remained so for the rest of the day.  When we hit the beach, our timing appeared perfect – lots of shorebirds maybe 100 yards out and the tide was starting to push them in.  I have had many wonderful birds at Bottle Beach over the years including rarities like Red Necked Stint and both Bar Tailed and Hudsonian Godwits.  Today it was just the “regulars” and not even all that many.  Lots of Black Bellied Plovers (I have had both Golden Plovers here in the past), Least and Western Sandpipers, a Greater Yellowlegs and a few Short Billed Dowitchers.   And again no Semipalmated Plovers.

We waited for more birds to arrive but none did so we headed off to Westport hoping for that Bar Tailed Godwit.  One had been seen there on August 6 but the Ebird report had not come in until August 9 and we hoped the passage of the three days would not matter.  When we got to the dock near the Coast Guard Station we found the typical raft of hundreds godwits and had fantastic light to search for a smaller bird that was grey and not tan.  All four of us went over every bird several times for more than 30 minutes and unfortunately all were Marbled Godwits – beautiful birds but not the treasured rarity.  I suggested we head off to my favorite Wandering Tattler spot – hopefully find one and then return to look through the godwit flock again.

Marbled Godwit Flock (only a small portion)

Marbled Godwits

As uncooperative as the godwits had been, my favorite Tattler spot produced immediately and fantastically.  Our first look produced 4 Wandering Tattlers on the rocks on one of the groins and then two more in stunning light very close on the rocks just below us at the observation platform.  I have never had more than 3 Tattlers at one time before (at this same spot last month) so these six were a real surprise.  They were also either life or year birds for the others in the group and there could not have been better looks.

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler1

This proved to be a really good spot for other reasons as well.  Not more than fifty feet off shore was a Common Murre preening and posing for us and further out by the red buoy a Humpback Whale was spouting and diving continuously for the 30 minutes we were there.

Common Murre

Common Murre2

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

We returned to the Coast Guard Station and all the Godwits were still Marbled.  Maybe next time.  But the light was perfect for some nice Brown Pelican photos – there were hundreds on the breakwater and flying about.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelican in Flight

Brown Pelican Flight

So there were some hits and some misses – but two definite additional hits were the dinner that followed at Bennett’s and the great company on the trip.  It also helped that we could listen to the Mariner’s win another game – sixth in a row – on the radio on the long drive back to Edmonds.




Mount Rainier – No Ptarmigan or Owls but What a Place!!

The original plan had been to drive down to Sunrise at Mount Rainier late on Tuesday and go owling, sleep a few hours in the car and then be the first on the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail early Wednesday morning hoping to find a White Tailed Ptarmigan.  But when I checked the weather for Sunrise on Tuesday morning, it did not look so good.  Plan B was to keep the same schedule but to move it a day later.  Good thing.  Jon Houghton was down at Sunrise on Tuesday on a Seattle Audubon trip and they had snow and such fierce winds that they gave up.  Plan B morphed into B plus when I awoke so early on Wednesday morning that I decided to beat the traffic and get to Rainier early and do the Fremont Hike first thing.

I arrived at Sunrise at 7:30 a.m. and what a difference a day makes – not much wind and a few  clouds but mostly gorgeous sunshine, so I headed off to look for Ptarmigan at the Mount Fremont Lookout.  There were two reasons for the original early morning start in Plan A:  I wanted to be the first on the trail thinking that would increase the odds of seeing the Ptarmigan and I know I am not in good shape so I wanted to leave plenty of time to make the hike.  Turned out that 7:30 was early enough.  I did not see another human being on the entirety of my hike out to the lookout and it ended up taking just over 90 minutes to get there – not as bad as I thought.  Unfortunately the Ptarmigan did not appreciate my efforts and none were seen.  BUT it was so gorgeous – and there were other treats along the way – so not a big deal.  Mount Rainier is simply spectacular – birds or not.

Mount Rainier from Sunrise Trail


The first treat was of course just seeing Mount Rainier from the Sunrise parking lot – is there a better parking lot anywhere?  There were dozens of birds at the parking lot – mostly Chipping Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos.  Less than 1/4 mile up the trail a Sooty Grouse came out of the trees and gave a nice view for a few seconds before returning to its hiding place.  I hoped that it would not be the only “Chicken” seen on the trip.

Sooty Grouse in the Morning

Sooty Grouse Morning

The trail has a major fork at Frozen Lake – heading either to Burroughs Mountain or to the Lookout.  Ptarmigan have been seen at both places but a good birder had visited Burroughs recently without seeing any so I stuck to my original plan and headed to the Lookout where although no Ptarmigan have been reported from there this year, it has been a good spot for them for me and others in years past.  The trail up to Frozen lake had a fair amount of elevation gain at places and my lack of hiking this year was definitely being felt.  The next 1.3 miles would have a lot more up so I was glad for the early start.

View of Frozen Lake

Frozen Lake

The trail to the lookout is mostly along scree – nice for Marmots and wildflowers and possible for Ptarmigan but not very foot friendly and great care has to be taken on each step over the uneven rocks. I found what appeared to be a small Marmot family – three animals together with one being bolder and the others, perhaps young, staying in the background.  I am always surprised at how large they are compared to the ground squirrels that are abundant.

Hoary Marmot

Hoary Marmot2

Views along the way are nonstop fabulous.  With so much sun in the thin air of the high elevation (about 7000′), I was extra careful with lots of sun block and a hat that covered everything.  When finally I glimpsed the fire lookout up ahead I knew I would make it even if my legs were a bit weary.

View from the Trail to the Tower


Mount Fremont Lookout Tower


As much as I enjoyed the beauty of the place, the real goal had been to find a White Tailed Ptarmigan.  I had seen and photographed one here some years ago and had a great look of one in its all white winter plumage in Colorado earlier this year – but none this year.  You feel like you have paid your dues to get to the Tower so it is extra disappointing not to find your quarry.  Guess it is a bad year for them here.

White Tailed Ptarmigan (2014 Photo)


White Tailed Ptarmigan in Winter Plumage from Colorado (2016)

White Tailed Ptarmigan 7

In previous visits the Tower itself has always been locked so I was surprised to find it unlocked and open.  I made myself at home for a bit – even taking a cat nap on one of the cots giving the Ptarmigan more time to come out from hiding if they were present.  A consolation prize was a fly over of three Gray Crowned Rosy Finches – not a common bird but regular on Mount Rainier slopes.  Pretty hard to beat the view from the tower as seen in the photo below – even though taken on my phone and through the glass windows.

View from Inside the Fremont Lookout Tower

View inside Tower

I spent more than an hour at the Lookout Tower and no Ptarmigan appeared so it was time to head back.  I took a quick selfie (not my thing) to show my sun protection and headed out.

Taking the Sun Seriously

Selfie at Lookout

Along the trail down the first person I met was Teri Martine – an avid Seattle area birder.  She was also looking for Ptarmigan – don’t think she found any either.  And then I met Jason Vassallo – yet another Seattle birder – proving how popular this trail is for Ptarmigan seekers.

On the way up I had seen several Mountain Bluebirds and a few Rufous Hummingbirds.  Now there seemed to be Mountain Bluebirds everywhere (a theme that would be repeated later closer to the parking area).  I had hoped to see and photograph a Clark’s Nutcracker.  I heard one off in the distance but no visual.  As I got closer to Frozen Lake I could see dozens of people there and on the various trails and I passed at least 20 more people on my way down to the Lake.  My decision to come early was a good one.  Of course there was lots more great scenery.

Views from Trail




I saw more marmots and an industrious ground squirrel that had harvested vegetation and had what seemed an impossible amount in its mouth as it harvested more.  I don’t know if this was food to be taken back to young or material to pad its nest.

Hoary Marmot

Hoary Marmot

Industrious Ground Squirrel

Ground Squirrel with Cache

The biggest treat was almost at the end of the trail – with the visitor center in sight.  A crowd had gathered on the trail.  They were watching a quite large Black Bear foraging on what seemed to be new growth on an Evergreen maybe 100 yards away.  Photo worthy.

Black Bear

Black Bear

It was noon by the time I reached the now very crowded parking lot.  I birded a bit in the picnic area and had lunch and wondered how I would “kill” the next 9+ hours until it would be sufficiently dark to look for owls.  I had hoped to find a Three Toed Woodpecker on the trip and continued that search but found no woodpeckers at all.   Many more Mountain Bluebirds (one perched alongside a Yellow Rumped Warbler) and lots of Juncoes and Chipping  Sparrows (I had seen a single Fox Sparrow on my descent).  Surprisingly no Gray Jays or Nutcrackers but I did add some Mountain Chickadees to my day list.

Mountain Bluebird and Yellow Rumped Warbler

Mountain Bluebird and Yellow Rumped Warbler

I drove down to the White River Campground thinking I would both do a little birding and maybe look for  a quiet spot for an afternoon snooze.  It was too busy for the former and too crowded to find a spot for the latter.  I drove around a bit and finally just found a wider than most and shadier than most pullout and rested for a couple of hours. Then I returned to the Sunrise parking area – got some coffee at the snack bar, visited the visitor center, scouted some owling areas and did some birding.  The snack bar was doing a brisk business despite prices that rival those at Century Link and Safeco – guess that comes with no competition and a captive audience.

Birds were mostly as before but a little slower.  The highlight was when I was walking through the picnic area and a bird exploded right by me – a small accipiter – Sharp Shinned Hawk that was gone in an instant but had been very close letting me appreciate the incredible speed.  I also heard a couple of Clark’s Nutcrackers and got a distant picture of one perched and then of another on a still distant flyby.  My best photo of one this year but pretty poor. Just before digging out my rather pathetic dinner I found a warbler in a small shrub that flashed a lot of yellow.  Earlier in the morning I thought I had seen a Nashville Warbler in the picnic area and this appeared to be another one.  This time, however, I got a photo and seeing it now with a guidebook handy it is clearly a more common immature MacGillivray’s Warbler – nice photo though.

MacGillivray’s Warbler


Still a lot of time to kill so I adopted a strategy of driving back and forth between the Sunrise parking area and the Sunrise Viewpoint constantly looking on the road, beside the road and in the meadows hoping for raptors, wildlife or whatever.  I must have made the drive 6 times.  It proved a good strategy.  First I heard another Clark’s Nutcracker and pulled over and got out of the car in time for some very nice fly by photos.

Clark’s Nutcracker

Clark's Nutcracker Flight1  Clark's Nutcracker Flight

A bit further down the road I saw a familiar form in the middle of the road and inched up to watch a mother Sooty Grouse and then her three (maybe four) chicks out for a dinner stroll/feast.  The mother spent a significant time in the middle of the road itself while the chicks almost always remained in the grass along the road.  They remained for a good 10+ minutes even as numerous cars raced by.  It amazed me both that they stayed (mom moving to the side of the road and then returning) and that cars sped by despite seeing both me stopped with lights flashing and the bird obvious in the road.  Guess they were not birders…

Sooty Grouse Mother

Sooty Grouse Hen1

Sooty Grouse Chicks

Sooty Grouse ChicksSooty Grouse Chick

The light was so good and the mother so cooperative that I took several detail photos including one of the grouse’s tail which I found quite interesting and beautiful.

Sooty Grouse Tail Close-up

Sooty Grouse Tail1

I continued my back and forth travels and as the light finally started to soften I hoped to maybe see an owl hunting the many meadows.  No owls but it was incredible to see the number of small birds that were along and on the road – mostly I believe young Chipping Sparrows (I saw a number of adults of that species and no other sparrows.)  At one point there were 50 birds in the middle of the road and I wondered if they were picking up grit or insects.  At exactly 8:22 P.M. (I checked my watch) a large raptor sped across one of the meadows and hit one of the sparrows on the ground not more than 50 feet from the road.  It was about the size of a Red Tailed Hawk but was instead an accipiter – a beautiful Northern Goshawk.  It grabbed the sparrow and was off again – the whole show over in a matter of a few very exhilarating seconds.  I thought that it was dangerous for the grouse chicks to be out in the area – certainly a much better meal.

The Goshawk and Grouse were super fun.  Unfortunately I only saw one more “good” bird that evening.  It had surprised me that during the day in addition to no Gray Jays, there had also been no Ravens.  Now there were three.  It appeared that they were scavenging bits of whatever that had been left by earlier visitors – now easier to get as the lot was mostly deserted.  As it got even darker I saw several Elk and a single Black Tailed Deer – all in the absolute middle of the road – reminding me of the caution needed on roads here at night.

Common Raven

Parking Lot Raven

A nice bird but the plan had been for there to be at least one more – an Owl.  Ideally it would have been a Boreal Owl but other possibilities were Saw Whet and Long Eared – all have been found there.  But not this night – I searched from 10 until 11:30 and heard not a hoot of any kind.  Maybe I should have tried or waited longer, but it had been a too long day anyhow and since I was no longer going to sleep in the car to get an early start on a Fremont Lookout hike, it was time to start the long drive home.

Although the top of the want list species were not found – no Boreal Owl and no White Tailed Ptarmigan – it had been a spectacular day.  The last highlight was not an owl but was indeed extremely cool.  As I walked back to my car, I saw several people with scopes.  They were not looking at birds or animals – they were stargazers.  The night was crystal clear and there was no wind.  The stars were everywhere and were as bright as I have ever seen them.  And the Milky Way was spectacular – how many billions of stars are there – and how many planets – and do any of them have more easily found Boreal Owls or Ptarmigan??!!   Mount Rainier – What a Place – and we live so close – fortunate indeed.

The Milky Way at Mount Rainier (online photo)

Mily Way