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.
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 Flycatcher in Flight (South of Highway 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
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 Phalaropes in Flight
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)
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
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!!
2 thoughts on “Making Lemonade out of Lemons”
Wish I was along for that trip what a fantastic bird for WA … So glad the gas didn’t cost a bird I can’t imagine how nervous you were Blair Hahha these things happen. You got stunning shots and so many great birds on top of it Prairie Falcon, Clark’s Grebe (Lind Coulee is the spot you sent me too and I got my closest Clark grebe views great spot), did you stop for burrowing owls or no time? Congrats again
This chase was unique in many ways. Three and a half hours of anticipation as we rushed cross state to our target bird, thirty minutes of sad resignation when we reversed direction just short of the spot, and the totally unexpected treat of the SHort-eared Owl and Prairie Falcon en route. Then, when we finally arrived at our destination the Scissor-tail Flycatcher was waiting for us., flying across the road right in front of the car , and resting on the wires along SR 24, the dividing line between Adams and Franklin Counties. Wow, what a day!