The Disappearing Common Eider – or at Least the Observation Thereof (And be sure to read the closing story, too)

On Tuesday this week (October 25th), Ann Marie Wood, Jon Houghton and I planned an early morning trip to Ridgefield Refuge to look for a Red Shouldered Hawk (new in Washington for the year for all of us) plus some other new birds for Jon and Ann Marie.  Plans changed when a Common Eider was reported on Ebird – and pretty close – in the canal at Hayton Reserve on Fir Island.  So we headed north instead of south.  This was a rare bird worth chasing.

When I shared the story of our chase with a friend unfamiliar with birding, she astutely wondered how a bird called a “Common” Eider could be rare and queried whether it had to do with geography.  And so it does.  Common Eiders are anything but common in Washington.  They belong in the North Atlantic, where  they are very common indeed or in Alaska, where they are less so.  In fact since 1990, Ebird shows only three Common Eiders have visited our state.  There was a single observation near Tatoosh Island off Cape Flattery on April 26, 2005, another at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles on August 8, 2008 and then the very cooperative Common Eider female that was observed and photographed by many at Westport between October 19 and October 31 in 2012.  That was my first Common Eider observation in Washington – or anywhere else for that matter.

Westport Common Eider – October 28, 2012


Astute readers will note that all of the previous sightings were in saltwater and were coastal.  What was this Common Eider doing in a canal on Fir Island?  The Ebird report had great photos of a close in female Common Eider.  There was no mistaking the identification, so our only concern as we departed was whether it would still be there when we arrived.

As I have written before, one rule when chasing birds is to “Look first for the birders”.  As we approached Hayton Reserve, even though it was pretty early, we wondered how many birders would be there already – hopefully with cameras, binoculars or scopes trained on the rare duck.  Driving in towards the parking area, we saw only one other person, but his scope was pointed out towards the canal so we were hopeful.  It turned out that it was our friend, Jordan Gunn, who had been in the Seattle Audubon Master Birder’s Class with Jon and me in 2013.  (Ann Marie was a graduate of an earlier Master Birder’s Class.)  He gave the thumbs up so we figured we would “get our bird”.  But Jordan added that the bird had been much closer ten minutes earlier and when a Bald Eagle flew over, all the waterfowl had scattered and it was now at the far end of the canal – almost a half mile away.  My hoped for excellent photos were now unlikely.

Thanks to Jordan, with scopes, we were able to get a poor view of the Common Eider hiding behind some reeds.  Thankfully a Common Eider has a very distinctive head shape with a very long sloping bill, so even though the light was terrible and the wind was blowing hard and it was a drab female and it was so distant, we were satisfied that we had indeed seen this very rare bird.  A good chase.  We decided to head off to Wylie Slough to bird for an hour or so and then to return hoping the Eider would return to its earlier location close to the road.

There was far less wind at Wylie Slough and not very many birds.  A pair of Downy Woodpeckers posed nicely as did a Spotted Towhee.  There were some Black Capped Chickadees, lots of Robins, a Brown Creeper, some Kinglets and not much else.  Time to go back to Hayton Reserve.  Then some bad news.  Jon got a call from Jordan who had word from Ryan Merrill that our treasured rare Common Eider was an escapee from a local collection.  This explained its unlikely location but no longer a wild bird, it was now not recordable either.  There went a Washington year bird for all of us.  Rats (I think I may have used a different word…)

Downy Woodpecker


Spotted Towhee


It was now 10:30 a.m.  Was there still time to return to Plan A and go to Ridgefield?  We were an hour further away and it was 4 hours later than our previously planned hour of departure.  Despite our disappointment “losing” our record, we just could not justify a trip to Ridgefield.  Now what?  We decided to check out various areas in the Skagit and Samish Flats and just enjoy the local birding as we knew that swans and geese were returning as were Rough Legged Hawks and Short Eared Owls and maybe there would be a surprise.

We quickly found our first large flock of Snow Geese – 2000, 3000 or more – and found other flocks as we continued our birding.  We estimated between 5,000 and 10,000 seen altogether.

Snow Geese Photos




We did not see many swans but small groups of both Tundra and Trumpeter Swans flew overhead.  We completely struck out at Jon’s “Sparrow Spot” and then continued to look for owls at the East and West 90’s.  No owls but we had a spectacular view of a Rough Legged Hawk.  We also saw Red Tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, Bald Eagles, an American Kestrel and earlier had a Sharp Shinned Hawk.  Photos of the Snow Geese and the Rough Legged Hawk made the trip worthwhile.

Rough Legged Hawk



Worthwhile but it sure would have been nice to have been able to keep that Common Eider record.  I had seen Eiders in their beautiful breeding plumage in Nome earlier this year and had great looks on my Maine trip last year.  I include those photos here because they are quite striking birds and also I guess to feel better about the lost record yesterday.

Common Eiders in Nome Alaska – June 2016

Common Eiders (2)

Common Eiders in Maine 2015


And now for the rest of the story…

Sorry I just can’t resist this one.  When the aforementioned Common Eider was at Westport in late October 2012, it was not the only rare bird in Westport.  Not more than a few hundred yards from the Eider there was another rarity from the north or maybe the northwest.  The other visitor was a Northern Wheatear.  Even rarer than the Common Eider, this visitor from Asia, was the only Ebird record for Washington at least from 1980.  Another was seen at Discovery Park on October 20, 2014.

Westport Wheatear – October 28, 2012


I did not see the Wheatear in 2014 but I saw a pair on my Nome trip earlier this year.

Northern Wheatear – Nome Alaska June 2016

Northern Wheatear

Seeing both a Common Eider and a Northern Wheatear on the same day in Alaska would be very nice.  Seeing them on the same day in Washington – wow – an incredible day indeed. But I had a sighting in Westport that day that was almost as good and confirms just how special seeing those birds there was.  As mentioned above, I was a member of Dennis Paulson’s Master Birder Class of 2012-2013.  There may be nobody in Washington that knows as much as Dennis about birds and while he has certainly seen his share in Washington, in the U.S. and throughout the world, Dennis cannot be considered a lister.  He is a teacher, a student, an expert, a true ornithologist.  During our class, always in good humor, Dennis would chide those of us who chased birds for our “lists”.  The expertise he gave us helped in that effort but somehow our focus on “ticking” birds on our lists seemed a “lesser” pursuit.

The Westport birds attracted many listers/birders from all over the state and there was a virtual parade of birders – moving either from the Wheatear to the Eider or the Eider to the Wheatear.  I had chosen to look for the Wheatear first and was very happy to find it readily.  I then headed towards the water just off the jetty where the Common Eider was being seen.  As I reached the half way point, I saw a familiar face coming towards me.  It was Dennis Paulson.  Even he could not resist the draw of adding these two rarities to his Washington List.  Caught in the act, Dennis just shrugged his shoulders and gave a knowing smile.  So when I saw the Common Eider in a few moments, it was my third special sighting of the day.

Dennis Paulson


I Still Know the Way to Neah Bay…

This is my third blog post about Neah Bay birding trips in just under 8 months.  Must be a good place to bird – well, yes it is!!  My entry on February 28th,“Bird and Memory of the Week – Red Legged Kittiwake – Well No But…”, was a trip to Neah Bay with Jon Houghton and Nathaniel Peters in an abortive search for a Red Legged Kittiwake – still a great trip and I finally found my “Lifer” Red Legged Kittiwake on my Adak Pelagic trip which was the subject of a later post on June 21, 2016: “Remote Alaska Part II – A Pelagic Trip out of Adak.  My second entry was a post on May 27th with friend Linda Pruitt to join up with the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society trip led by Denny Van Horn.  that post was entitled “Do You Know the Way to… Neah Bay?”  – a shameful take off on the Dione Warwick song about the way to San Jose.  Well the directions are not difficult to get to Neah Bay, but it is a ways away and includes some tortuous driving but it sure is a birding treasure.

Earlier I had signed on for a pelagic trip out of Neah Bay scheduled for October 8th planning to bird there the day before as well.  That trip was cancelled and no boat was available for another trip until October 22nd, so I moved plans forward two weeks and planned the same routine.  BUT..on Monday, October 17th a report came from Neah Bay that a Rose Breasted Grosbeak was coming to a feeder at Butler’s Motel and a Dickcissel was also being seen.  I had a dilemma: I had an important commitment the next day so an immediate trip out to Neah Bay was not possible without a lot of collateral damage.  Furthermore I also had a commitment on Wednesday the 19th and after all I was planning to be out there on Friday – three days later anyhow. But c’mon it was a ROSE BREASTED GROSBEAK!!!  

Rose Breasted Grosbeak (Male – Internet Photo)


“So what?” you might reasonably ask.  Here’s what.  The Washington Bird Records Committee is the on-high arbiter/tribunal of bird gods (all said respectfully) which determines whether observations of rare/unusual birds in the state are accepted as real or not. Until there are 20 accepted observations of a species in Washington, that species remains on the “Review List” and the observer needs to appropriately support the observation with notes of fieldmarks, songs or calls heard, confirming observations by others and/or best of all photographs of the bird.  The Rose Breasted Grosbeak is NOT a review list bird and it was the ONLY non-reviewable bird species that I have not seen in the state.  Although there are more than 20 records in Washington, it is still quite a rare species and generally is seen at a feeder where it visits briefly and then vanishes.

A so-called one day-wonder, if you do not learn of the observation quickly and go immediately, the odds are not good that you will see a Rose Breasted Grosbeak in Washington.  I should know.  This has been a nemesis bird and I have missed out several times.  Right behind a Smew, it has been at the top of my state wish list.  Back to the dilemma.  This bird had already been around two days – whatever the odds that it would stay for one more day, those odds were much higher that it would stick around for still another two until I could get there on Friday.  Even though I had put on 270 miles on Tuesday and got home late from Ellensburg, I had to do it!!  I canceleled the conflicting engagement on Wednesday; invited Brian Pendleton and Steve Pink to join me; and committed to the 300+ mile round trip to Neah Bay the next day.

We caught the 6:20 a.m. ferry from Edmonds and one gas stop aside, headed straight to Neah Bay.  We arrived at Butler’s Motel at 9:45 a.m. and heard the good news:  “It has been seen this morning”.  We went to the porch behind the motel to view the feeders where we met another birder friend, Paul Baerny who gave us the maybe good/maybe bad news:  “You just missed it.  It was here 10 minutes ago”.  I was regretting the bathroom stop that had taken maybe 10 minutes.  Paul also said that the Dickcissel had not been seen since the day before.  A Dickcissel is a great bird for Washington and none of us had seen one yet this year.  But I had seen my first one in Washington last year in Hardy Canyon, so I was not heartbroken.  But I would be if that 10 minutes had meant no Rose Breasted Grosbeak.

 Dickcissel (from Hardy Canyon Outside Yakima on June 3, 2015)


The next 20 minutes was a nervous hell…Would it return?  Was it gone?  Would my nemesis get me again?  We were joined by John Gatchet – a terrific birder who now lives on the Olympic Peninsula and who had reported both the Grosbeak and the Dickcissel the day before.  He had stayed at Butler’s and would be heading home that day.  He told us of the Grosbeak’s routine – favoring one feeder but moving between them.  And sure enough – THERE IT WAS!! It came first to the favorite feeder just as John had said.  Not the brilliantly colored male with its eponymous red breast but a bright female that was frankly much better looking and easier to identify and distinguish from a female Black Headed Grosbeak than I expected from looking at guidebooks before arriving.

My First Look at Rose Breasted Grosbeak on Feeder


Success!!  We were no more than 15 feet from this bird and it could have cared less.  We watched it for the next 15 minutes gorging itself on the seed that Nancy so wonderfully provides at the Butler’s feeders.  It then flew off to some shrubs just behind the feeders and provided excellent views and then landed on the ground right below the feeders and us – no more than 10 feet away – and my camera was ready, willing and able.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak



Still no Dickcissel and we never would see one, but I was ecstatic and could have left then and counted it as a wonderful day.  But after all this was Neah Bay and there were other goodies that were likely and who knows what else might have been in the offing.  Our target list included Tropical Kingbird, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Palm Warbler and Swamp Sparrow and hopefully a surprise.

Just as we were about to say goodbye to the Rose Breasted Grosbeak a small hummingbird made a brief appearance.  All five of us immediately thought it was “different” from a common and to be expected Anna’s Hummingbird.  A male Anna’s Hummingbird has a brilliant red head and throat and generally appears fairly robust – for a hummingbird at least.  This bird had a limited amount of red – only on the throat – and seemed relatively small and delicate.  None of us had seen an Anna’s in this plumage and considered whether it might be a Ruby Throated Hummingbird – the common hummer of the East but extremely unlikely in Washington.  I was able to snap a single not so terrific photo before it flew off but it clearly shows the limited amount of red on the throat.  I have sent the photo off to others for expert advice and expect the declaration will be that it is a young Anna’s but it sure got us excited.  The first photo is of our mystery hummingbird and the second is of an Anna’s Hummingbird that came to a feeder that Nancy put up after we left and then watched it in action when we returned a couple of hours later.

What Hummingbird Is This?


Anna’s Hummingbird at Butler’s Feeder


Still high from the Rose Breasted Grosbeak and wondering about our hummingbird, we set off for … more.  We tried unsuccessfully for a Blue Grey Gnatcatcher in the “woods” between the Mini-Mart and Butler’s.  It had not been seen for a couple of days and we did not see it there or elsewhere this day either.  The photo below is from Neah Bay on November 11th last year.

Blue Grey Gnatcatcher – Neah Bay November 11, 2015


We continued on foot into town and not much later John Gatchet somehow spied a bird on a wire maybe 200 yards away that he identified as a Tropical Kingbird. I could barely see the bird from that distance and in fact initially got my binoculars and then my camera  on the wrong bird – and then the real Tropical Kingbird flew off.  We tracked it down and watched it fly from perch to perch – mostly one wire to another for many minutes.  Eventually it landed on a small tree that allowed for pretty good photos.  We even heard its distinctive call as it flew – which would have allowed us to distinguish it from the closely related Couch’s Kingbird but that species never visits Washington.  The Tropical Kingbird itself is quite mysterious.  Widespread in the tropics well into South America, it barely makes it into South Texas and Southern Arizona – except in the fall when it is a rare but regular visitor to usually coastal Washington before returning south to its normal haunts.

Tropical Kingbird


We returned to Butler’s but still no Dickcissel and in the 20+ minutes we were there, we did not again see the Rose Breasted Grosbeak.  I hope it remains for others to observe.

We all then headed out to the Wa’atch Valley on the Crown Z Haul Road to search for a Swamp Sparrow.  John Gatchet had heard one there the day before and he kindly served as guide in residence.  He took us to “the spot” and fairly soon we saw a small reddish brown sparrow fly up briefly and then bury itself in the dense grass.  We thought we heard its distinctive “chip” note and waited for more – nothing.  After a few silent minutes, I resorted to playback and played what is described as the “fast pulse rate” song on my IBirdPro program.  Nothing.  Waited.  Played the “slow pulse rate song”. Nothing.  Waited.  We thought we heard a “chip” note a couple of times but not sufficiently certain for an ID.  One more time:  I played the “fast pulse rate song” again and then stopped.  Almost immediately we heard an almost exact duplication of the song from the area where we had seen the aforementioned sparrow disappear.  Everyone heard the song, but Brian had not noticed that I was no longer playing and he thought it was from the playback.  I was good with the ID now.

We moved on to another spot that had similar habitat and Brian, who has extraordinary ears (and a good processor in his head as well), started hearing what seemed to be Swamp Sparrow chip notes.  The bird would not respond to the pulse rate playback but we heard the distinctive high pitched chip note several times.  We are pretty sure we had two Swamp Sparrows for the day.  No photo ops for these birds, so I include one I took at Eide Road last year.

Swamp Sparrow – Eide Road January 7, 2015


We found a large mixed flock of small passerines and checked it carefully hoping for something unusual, but it was mostly Golden and Ruby  Crowned Kinglets and  Black Capped Chickadees.  We also had a couple of small flocks of Cackling Geese, one of which had a prominent blue neck band. (I have learned this means it from the Aleutians.)

Golden Crowned Kinglet


Cackling Geese


It was getting cold and the rain that had held off most of the day was now with us so we decided to start back with a couple of scans of the Bay and then a return to Butler’s – just in case something new had come in.  The Bay had many Surf and White Winged Scoters, numerous gulls, Western and Horned Grebes, Greater Scaup, American Widgeon, Hooded Mergansers, various Cormorants and several Common Loons.

Common Loon


When we arrived at Butler’s there was a “larger than before” flock of sparrows feeding on the ground below the eastern most feeder.  The Dickcissel had been seen with such a flock previously so we hoped for a return.  No – a large number of Golden Crowned Sparrows, a White Crowned Sparrow and a House Sparrow.  As before lots of Steller’s Jays, Dark Eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, Eurasian Collared Doves and some Robins.  A cool highlight was seeing a Cooper’s Hawk swoop through and take down a Eurasian Collared Dove with feathers flying from the force of the strike.  I was not able to get a photo of that but include other photos from the motel.

Golden Crowned Sparrow


Steller’s Jay (one of at least 15)


We said goodbye to Nancy and thanked her again for her helping us birders and then said goodbye to John.  Steve, Brian and I made quick stops at and near the seawatch spot on Ba’adeh Loop.  We found a gull that had us confused.  Probably a Western Gull but we are seeking ID help.  (Confirmed that it was.)  It was then back to Edmonds.  Along the way we found some Harlequin Ducks and one spot with a downed tree in the water that was a roosting spot for maybe 100 Black Turnstones – quite a congregation.

Once again Neah Bay delivered.  Three new birds for the year and my State Life Rose Breasted Grosbeak – finally!!  I do know the way and I will be back – maybe even soon.

The Circle of Life

{I have thought about this post many times, knowing it would be special, and knowing it would be shared but I have held back to wait for the “best time to post”.  It is not so much about birds although there are some birds involved.  It is about family and spirits and … magic.  Since it is also about the passing of my father in August 2007 and an incredible trip to Kenya and a very specific moment while there in November 2007, I thought about waiting until the 10th year anniversary of one of those times.  But I decided that it is time…now, today.  Why?

Maybe it is my own feeling of mortality and a discussion I had yesterday about “bucket lists” and doing today rather than waitng for a tomorrow that might not happen.  Maybe it is the deep sadness that I feel as the people and politics of 2016 play out so horribly before us.  Maybe it is the heavy rain and heavy winds that are with us and may significantly increase.  Maybe it is something that I can only feel but not understand.  In any event, I want and need to revisit and repeat and share something I wrote a long time ago about the Circle of Life…me, my father, my children, all of us.  Here it is…}

Prior to his coming to Seattle, my father had always had a “quiet” appreciation of wildlife but other than on television or at the cinema, it had never been a part of his life in any active way.  When he retired and switched coasts and moved to Seattle, in part as a way to become active in the community, he became a docent at the Seattle Zoo with his favorite animals being the leopards.  Much later, his health no longer allowed him to continue as a docent but the fifteen year service pin from the Zoo was a prized possession.

My Father and Mother on their Wedding Day – Julian and Evelyn Bernson


In late July 2007 I learned of a cancellation by one traveler in a bird/animal safari to Kenya for late October/November and I was able to arrange my work schedule to allow me to take the newly vacant spot.  My father was very pleased when I told him of the opportunity – he had never been envious of my trips – just happy to hear the stories and see the pictures later – and that was his way with all of life – pleased for others without at least outwardly regretting any of his own limited experiences.

In early August I saw my father just before heading off to Portland for a two day business trip.  We shared details of the itinerary and hopes and expectations.  Mostly he wanted to know if we expected to see leopards on the journey.  My answer was “Very likely and I certainly hope so”, as the big cats are my favorites and I wanted very much to add leopard and cheetah and lion to the experience of seeing a jaguar in the Pantanal region during my Brazil trip in 2005.  Dad smiled and his last words were that I “say hello to the leopard for him.”

My Father in Early 2007 – Age 89


Two days later, as I was in the Portland office of the company with whom I was finally concluding a lease negotiation for a client, I got a call that my dad had been rushed to the hospital and that he had developed a fast moving infection that had led to pneumonia.  The drive back to Seattle was even more traffic delayed than usual and took “forever”.  When I got to the hospital my father was sedated, barely conscious and slipping.  His “communication” was completely non-verbal but he would respond with a squeeze of the hand to my words or touch.  I was told that the very strong likelihood was that this was a battle he was not going to win – indeed it was one he may have decided not to even fight – and that he could “go” at any time.

Adding to the drama was that purely coincidentally this was the day that my daughter was due to come home for her one week of vacation following her summer of research at NIH and before returning to Boston to start her second year of medical school.  She was very close to grandpa and it seemed important for her to “be there”.  And my son was heading to the hospital from his work and he too loved his grandfather very much and although he had been spared “death” so far, he knew the fate and he, too, had to be present.  My daughter’s plane fortunately arrived on schedule and she made it to the hospital in time to see her grandpa still “alive” and still responding to familiar touches and familiar voices with clearly felt changes in the pressure of his grip if not in any other ways.

As she sat by his bedside, I saw my child, his grandchild, as a doctor of the future, bedside manner already comfortable, an adult, a professional, a caring human being full of all of the gifts that she had received from each of us and enhanced and grown in her own ways.  And then my son moved over to the bed and held his hand.  Although I could not hear any of his words, I could see his own wonderful spirit and care and maturity as he held a “final” conversation with his grandfather and said his goodbyes and expressed his love.  And instead of an impending death, I felt only an ongoing life, the passing of one life into another – not a replacement but a continuation – indeed the circle of life from father to son to grandson or granddaughter and so on – as it has always been.

The Circle of Life


My father held on another day and then went as peacefully as anyone could ever want someone to go.  But no matter how easily a death may transpire, no matter how long and full the life that was lived, no matter how shared the goodbyes at the time, there is the unavoidable finality of the death itself.  Gone.  No longer.  Passed.

Or is that really so…?

Exactly two months after my final real words with my father – after his request to “say hello to the leopard”, I was in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.  As it neared its end, the day had already been by far the best of any of the already marvelous days of my trip with many wonderful birds and mammals.  Our two vans were down by the river and all eyes were trained to the west looking for a Lilac Breasted Roller that had been spotted but lost moments ago.

Samburu Serena Lodge


Elephant in the Brush


Martial Eagle


Secretary Bird


Lilac Breasted Roller


All eyes searched for the beautiful bird, but for whatever reason, I suddenly had an urge to instead look out the opposite side of the vehicle and as I did so at first I “sensed” more than “saw” a movement in the brush and then I clearly “saw” the form of the movement as it bound out of the brush and ascended the acacia tree.  I instantly screamed “LEOPARD” and everyone turned in unison as I pointed to our first big cat of the trip perhaps 200 yards away.

The vans moved as close to the tree as we could and we were rewarded with not just a spectacular view of an even more spectacular creature but with a spectacular unity with that animal – it was SO REAL – and it was deeply felt by everyone in the group – but by none moreso than by me, as I clearly and strongly felt my father’s presence and guidance and participation.  This was HIS leopard, his gift to me.  Not gone…  And for the first time since his death, I broke down and sobbed helplessly and joyfully in the splendor of that African place under the eyes of one of its most beautiful and magical creations.

Leopard in Acacia Tree at Samburu N.P. Kenya


Again the circle of life – there at a place that may well have been where “human life” at least was first born and began its own trajectory.  But some gifts keep on giving, some circles continue their revolutions.

Christmas 2007 – my first without my father.  I am now the oldest of the family – there are none surviving from the preceding generation or the generations before that – at least none corporeally.  My daughter was there as was my son back from his second year of college.  We are not a religious family and if we were to follow our beliefs, there would be ideas and values of the Hebrews and the Buddhists and animists and Universalists as well.  So for us, Christmas is a “feeling” a celebration of values not of a life or a lord or any other such biblical revelation – true or not – but of LIFE in its goodness.

Presents under the tree and the ritual of giving and receiving are important – usually played out in highly personalized expressions of what each of us finds important – in ourselves and in each other.  The night before, my daughter had said she was particularly looking forward to the morning – not for what she would receive as a gift but because she so very much wanted to see how her gifts would be received as they were even more special this year.

When it became time for me to open her gift to me, she handed me a very large flat package that, if I were to guess, might have been a Japanese print from a favorite artist (another of my passions) – but given med school costs, that would have been an extravagance that I would have had trouble accepting.  Or perhaps it was one of her own art works as she has endless capacity for creation.  Instead what I found was a frame around a certificate and a picture – a certificate of adoption through an African wildlife organization of a leopard in Samburu National Reserve and a picture, MY picture, of MY Leopard – MY FATHER’S leopard.

My Father’s Leopard

Samburu Leopard
Samburu Leopard

And it all came back – ALL.  The sighting in the park, his last words to me before he died, the visits to the Zoo, the Disney films as a child, and baseball, and hotdogs and watermelon, and gin rummy and the basketball games and her birth and his holding her in his arms as I held her in mine and his reading to her and her reading to him, her good bye at the hospital and his joy at her graduation from high school and from college and acceptance to medical school and her awards and concerts and them just holding hands and her sitting on his lap as she had on mine…and the same smile on all of the faces …And the same with my son: Grandpa’s pride in the boy that was now a fine young man, the trips to science centers and zoos, and lacrosse games and his jobs with responsibilities and accomplishments way beyond his years, his kindness, just like grandpa.

NO, NOT GONE; just a circle and it rolls on and on … and always will as it always has.  The spirit of the leopard is in us all … as is its beauty.

Yes, Christmas is a “feeling” a celebration of values not of a life or a lord or any other such biblical revelation – true or not – but of LIFE in its goodness.  More tears – more joy.

Two Wonderful Kids – Two Wonderful Grandkids


I miss my father.  My kids are “back east” and I miss them.  I miss the decency of the world I grew up in.  Happy for the memories and hope that there will be many more…

Four Months and Two Thousand Miles

This will be a relatively short post.  October 5th was my birthday.  A Lapland Longspur was reported at the Mouth of the Cedar River that day.  I had not seen one in Washington yet this year and contemplated going to try to find the bird. But I had plans for later that day and so decided against it.  However, when it was reported the next morning, I figured it would be a nice late birthday gift so why not.

The Longspur had been seen foraging in the grass between the path and the road at the park which is maybe a narrow half mile long from entrance to the river mouth itself.  It took only a little while to locate the bird.  Check.  Now for the photo.  Uh-oh.  I had the camera.  The batteries were recharged. But I had forgotten to replace the SD Card that I had removed earlier.  Not the end of the world especially since I had many good photos of Lapland Longspurs in Washington from previous years and also some breeding plumage photos from my Alaska Trip earlier this year.  But still it was disappointing.

Two days later Ann Marie Wood and Steve Pink went to look for the Longspur and did not find it.  But they did find a Sabine’s Gull – regular on pelagic trips, and seen by me on both May and August trips this year, but very rare inland.  I had seen them many times on such trips but never in King County.  I contemplated a return but had other things to do and since I have not yet caught the “County Lister” disease, I felt no compulsion.

Sabine’s Gull from Pelagic Trip on August 28, 2016

Sabine's Gull

The saying is that it takes two to tango.  Well in this case it took two to bring on that compulsive feeling.  The next day, others again reported seeing the Sabine’s Gull and the Lapland Longspur was being seen again.  I had plans to join friends to see the Presidential Debate that night (I have to insert that it turned out to be neither “presidential” nor a “debate” and even for this very sad year of politics it was particularly disgusting.)  The timing was not perfect but I decided to return to the Mouth of the Cedar and give it a shot.  I made sure the SD card was in place this time though.

When I arrived at the park I met two birders who were leaving after having seen both the Longspur and the Gull and got specific directions as to the Longspur’s location.  I headed to that area and found another birder just leaving – a familiar face – Chazz Hesselein.  He had just seen the Longspur and kindly guided me to the spot.  At first we did not see the Longspur but then after almost stepping on it, we got fantastic views of the lovely bird.  Sharing the moment and visiting with Chazz made it extra nice.

Lapland Longspur at the Mouth of the Cedar Park


We said our goodbyes and then I returned to the northern end of the park to walk out to the actual river mouth and to search the logs and open water for the Sabines’s Gull.  Two birding friends were heading the other direction towards the Longspur having chosen to look for the Sabine’s Gull, which they had found, first.  Gregg Thompson and Dan Reiff gave me details of the Sabine’s location and I gave them details for the Longspur.

Gregg Thompson and Dan Reiff


They had said that the gull was hanging around on the furthest out logs. After a couple of moments I found what I thought was the gull quite far out on either a little gravel bar or a log.  I did not have my scope but the small size was consistent with that of a Sabine’s Gull.  I hoped for it to fly to reveal the distinctive wing pattern. Suddenly all of the hundred or so gulls took flight.  I watched carefully but did not see either a small gull nor that beautiful white and black pattern.  Worse yet, when they all returned I could no longer relocate the probable Sabine’s Gull at all.

Fortunately Dan and Gregg returned and the additional (and superior) eyes found the tiny gull sitting on the same gravel bar/log.  I think I had missed it because another gull had blocked it from my angle.  We watched it for quite a time including several flights where it would head even further out to a slick in the water before returning to the gravel.  The distance and lighting were not the best for good photos, but no mistaking the identification.

Sabine’s Gull on Gravel Bar


Sabine’s Gull in Flight


This visit had been very successful and when I called my hostess for the “Debate” Party, it was ok to come early so that worked out as well.

I could end the blog post here but then you rightly would be completely confused by the “Four Months and Two Thousand Miles” title. So on we go.  In earlier posts I wrote about the wonderful trip to Adak and Nome Alaska in June earlier this year.  That trip was Four Months Ago from the date of these observations and those locations are Two Thousand Miles from the Mouth of the Cedar River Park.  And on that trip I had fabulous views of many Lapland Longspurs and Sabine’s Gulls and unlike these two, those birds were adults in spectacular Alternate (breeding) plumage.  These photos show the extraordinary difference.

Lapland Longspur in Breeding Plumage – Adak, Alaska

Lapland Longspur

Sabine’s Gulls in Breeding Plumage – Nome, Alaska

Sabine's Gulls

I doubt I will ever again see a Lapland Longspur and a Sabine’s Gull on the same day in King County.  Sure was nice to do so.  And I hope I never again see such a pathetic display of what has come to pass for politics in America again either.  Unfortunately I probably will…sigh.

Good Birds, Bad Weather and Bad Views (of Birds That Is) – Salmo Mountain and Northeastern Washington

Salmo Mountain is about as far away from my Edmonds home as you can get and still be in Washington.  Just under 400 miles away, it is in the extreme northeastern corner of the state and is approximately 3 miles from Canada and 3 miles from Idaho.  I first visited the area in 2012 on a wonderful Washington Ornithological Society trip led by Terry Little on October 5th, my birthday.  I have returned in late September or early October each year since.  The area is one of the best and most accessible boreal forest habitats in Washington and has some very special birds accordingly.

A clarification – “most accessible” does not mean you simply pull off the pavement and park.  My destinations this past weekend included Salmo Mountain, Bunchgrass Meadows, Sullivan Lake and Highline Road.  All told that meant almost 100 miles of driving on unpaved roads – mostly in good condition, but I had a flat tire there two years ago.  The nearest towns are Metaline Falls and Ione, Washington.  A couple of motels and not much in the way of food or other services.  We are talking remote – but also talking very beautiful.


Birders, like me,  come to this area with hopes of finding three boreal specialties and several other species that are also found elsewhere but can be fairly reliable here as well.  The three main targets are Boreal Owl, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse. The other goodies include Dusky and Ruffed Grouse, American Three Toed Woodpecker, Red and White Winged Crossbills, Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Northern Pygmy Owl and Northern Goshawk.  I have found all of these species on one or another of my visits and my combined trip list for all visits is 51 species.  While I have been fortunate to have found Boreal Owls each year, they have been “heard only” and this rare owl remains one of only three non-review board species in Washington for which I have no photo.  So getting a visual and a photo was the prime objective for this visit.

Before heading off on my trip I had checked the weather and it looked pretty good with maybe a few sprinkles but in the mountains you never know.  I have been at Salmo in bright sunshine and with several inches of snow on the ground.  This time I had none of either – lots of clouds, a few spotty sunbreaks and sadly lots of wind, rain, thunderstorms and hail.  I arrived midday Friday and had only clouds and after checking in to the very basic but clean Circle Motel in Metaline Falls, I headed off to Bunchgrass Meadows.  Last year I had my first ever photo of a Spruce Grouse there and always had Boreal Chickadees there on previous trips.  Despite being the only car on the road up (Harvey Creek Road), this time I found no grouse and while I had several Boreal Chickadees, they remained camera shy high up in the trees.

Spruce Grouse from Bunchgrass Meadows in 2015


About 12 miles in I met a hunter on a serious off road vehicle who said that grouse “were everywhere” – better at dusk and dawn of course.  Failing to find any gallinaceous birds at all, I planned to return early the next day.  I found a couple of American Three Toed Woodpeckers and I had a flyover by a screaming Northern Goshawk but in general the birding was much slower than I remembered from earlier visit.

After a couple of hours, I headed off to Salmo Mountain planning to bird slowly on the 20+ miles of unpaved road and to arrive at the summit around 5, wait until dark and then seek the main quest – Boreal Owl. It rained lightly for a few moments on my climb but nothing too serious.  Still the birding was slow.  No grouse at all and again some uncooperative Chickadees – both Mountain and Boreal.  Last year we had found a spot where Boreal Chickadees had nested.  None were there this year but some serious tapping told me that some woodpeckers were.  I could not penetrate the thick woods to get to the sound but eventually was able to draw two American Three Toed Woodpeckers out and get a few pictures.  A third remained hidden deep in the woods.

American Three Toed Woodpecker


I continued up the road and met two hunters in more camouflage clothing than I have ever seen.  Not sure I would have noticed them if they had been standing in the woods rather than by their car.  They were talking to a Border Patrol officer – a local who was also a serious hunter.  They too said that grouse “were everywhere”.  Interestingly though they knew only about Ruffed Grouse and “Blue Grouse” and were unaware of Spruce Grouse even existing.  They were not bird hunters.  Of most interest to me were their stories of bear sightings including two grizzlies about a week ago and also of “many” cougars – also recently.  If push came to shove I would probably take a photo of a Cougar over a Boreal Owl, but it would be a tough decision as both are just below seeing a Smew on my bucket list.

Leaving them I made it to the end of the road at the Lookout Tower and was greeted by peals of thunder and lots of wind and then some very serious hail.  Not exactly good owling conditions.  I was exhausted from almost 12 hours of driving so I waited for a change in weather with a short nap – hoping that lightning would not accompany the thunderstorm and strike the mountaintop.

Salmo Lookout Just before the Storm


The pounding hail and then heavy rain did not allow for much sleep but I dozed off and on for about an hour.  Finally it cleared enough to enjoy part of the view.  The good news was that the wind was blowing away some of the clouds but it did not portend well for successful owling.  A photo as the sun was going down was a nice reward however.

Sunset from Salmo Mountain


I waited another hour and then set off to find an owl with spotlight and camera ready.  On previous visits we have had as many as three Boreal Owls within a half mile of the tower.  As said before, I have yet to actually see one – or at least see one clearly – my only “view” being of an even darker form flying over against the dark sky.  Sometimes owls have been heard within the first 20 minutes.  Other times it has taken many hours.  this night was to be in between.  Not a sound for over an hour so I moved further and further down the road.  Finally at about 8:45 I heard a few repeated hoots and then a “skiew” call.  It was not close and there was no response to playback despite many attempts over a quarter mile along the road. It was now somewhat clear but still windy and I think that contributed to the poor results.

A Representative “Photo” of My Typical Boreal Owl Experience


I went back to the car and began the 20 mile drive back to a paved road.  As I have done successfully with Flammulated Owls, I planned to stop and use playback – although instead of every 1/2 mile it would be every 1/8 mile.  After 5 unsuccessful stops I felt a few rain drops and sensed that more were coming so I gave up and set out for the motel.  On these roads at night there is no visibility except for headlights and even they are not very useful around some of the sharp turns.  There is also the constant awareness that some wildlife might suddenly appear and while I would have loved to have seen a Cougar or Grizzly, I certainly did not want to hit either one or the more likely deer or moose that I knew to be around.  That coupled with a strong desire to not hit any or rocks or worse yet slide off the road meant travel was slow.

Not more than another half mile down, two shadows appeared on the road.  When my headlights captured them, I saw two young Moose ambling along and then in the center of the road not more than 200 feet ahead of me.  I snapped a couple of photos through the windshield and then flashed my lights to encourage them to move off the road as I followed slowly.  In about 1/8 mile one got the message and bounded off to the right.  The other stayed on the road.  When I approached it trotted ahead.  When I stopped, it stopped.  I tried honking, shouting, and more flashing but this moose really like the road.  Our start and stop game continued for almost a mile – at least 10 minutes.  Finally it slowed enough and pulled off to the right enough that I felt safe getting close enough to try a pass.  It was literally five feet away from the passenger window when I could finally get by and continue.

Moose on Salmo Mountain


The Moose that Just Would Not Leave the Road


During much of my way down, there had been a light rain.  Just as I made it back to the motel around midnight, it started to pour!  I ran up to my room and within minutes of getting in I crashed hard.  Six hours later I was up and wondered what the weather was.  It was still dark and still raining although now just some sprinkles, but there were pools of water in the parking area and I was not optimistic for a good day.  I left shortly thereafter hoping to get back to the Harvey Creek Road to Bunchgrass Meadows at dawn to see those grouse that “were everywhere”.

As expected the Harvey Creek Road was very wet and muddy.  It was no longer raining but there was a constant drip of water from the trees.  Grouse were nowhere to be found and not much else was around either.  I went in over 12 miles and had barely a handful of birds.  The weather did not look like it was about to change, so I made the executive decision to cut the trip short and forego another trip up Salmo for the night. But I really wanted to at least find a grouse so watched carefully on the way back down to Sullivan Lake Road and then decided to try another road I had noticed earlier and which had been mentioned by the Border Patrol guy – Highline Road not far from the road up to Salmo which was north of Sullivan Lake (the road to Bunchgrass is just south of the lake).  I stopped for a photo of one of the many beautiful spots along the creek.

Harvey Creek


Last year there had been a flock of Gray Crowned Rosy Finches at the bridge just south of Sullivan Lake so I made the stop.  No Rosy Finches but in addition to the Common Mergansers, Mallards and Canada Geese in the lake, there was a pair of Red Crossbills, some Common Yellowthroats and an American Dipper.

Red Crossbill


American Dipper


Highline Road proved a good decision.  Less than a mile up the road I came around a bend and flushed a male Spruce Grouse.  It flew to a log still visible in the woods.  In the single most frustrating moment of the trip, I got my camera tangled up in my seatbelt strap.   I had forgotten to go to “birding mode” where I buckle the strap but have it behind my back.  By the time I got untangled the bird had scooted off and there would be no photo.  I hoped for more but felt I had blown my best chance and was NOT a happy camper.  There were no more grouse, but the road was more birdy than any of the others I had been on this trip.  One traveling flock included Boreal, Chestnut Backed and Mountain Chickadees, both Ruby and Golden Crowned Kinglets and Red Breasted Nuthatches with another American Three Toed Woodpecker flying by. Again the birds would not come down from the upper branches and the lighting was terrible in any event.  So still no good photo of a Boreal Chickadee.

Red Breasted Nuthatch


I went in about 7 miles on Highline and saw a single other vehicle on the trip.  On my next visit I think I will go even further to explore.  But not this day so it was back down and a return to the motel to check out early.  Pretty hard to call a trip that includes Moose, Boreal Owl, Boreal Chickadee, Spruce Grouse, Goshawk and American Three Toed Woodpecker a bust but the weather was a downer and the views were just not very good and the photos (the few that I took) even worse.  It was a VERY long drive back   But there was one very good “bird” bonus.  The original plan would have gotten me back late Sunday night.  Instead I was back late Saturday and thus could observe some Seahawks flying very high on Sunday morning.