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.

One thought on “I Still Know the Way to Neah Bay…

  1. Sounds like a fun and successful trip congrats on finally getting your wa rose-breasted grosbeak. We have Ruby-throated hummingbirds here in BC and that is definitely a young male Anna’s (you can see some red in the head).

    Nice post as always


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