The Neah Bay October/November Phenomenon – Part II: 2015 and 2016 – and my Visit on October 31, 2016

This is Part II of a post on the phenomenal birding that can be found at Neah Bay in October and November every year.  Part I described the fantastic experience of October and November in 2014 started by the observation of a Eurasian Hobby in the Wa’atch Valley on October 26, 2014 which brought more than 100 birders to this remote town on the far northwest corner of our state.  Part I also talks about the numerous other great birds in October and November that year – a list for a single location and only two months that would make most birders happy if found over many years of birding.  That year was special but not unique as will be evident from the rest of this blog which portrays more great Neah Bay birding in October and November in 2015 and 2016 – the Phenomenon continues.

At the end there is a summary of observations in Neah Bay in the two months of October and November 2012-2016.  The numbers in general are impressive, the diversity and rarities even moreso.

After a trip to Neah Bay for a pelagic trip in April 2015 I was only able to make it to Neah Bay once in October 2015 and had nothing exceptional to report from that visit.  the best bird from that April visit was a Glaucous Gull.  Probably the two best birds in October were a Golden Eagle and a Lapland Longspur on the 24th.  Not bad and others had reported Yellow Billed Loon and a Western Screech Owl earlier in that month but not pretty tame compared to the previous year.  But November was a different story.  I headed off alone to Neah Bay on November 3rd.  Repeating the good fortune of “finding Brad Waggoner” in November 2014, I ran into a birding group on my way that included Brad and also Paul Lehman and Barbara Carlson. The first benefit of that good fortune was a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher on Kalawa Street in Clallam Bay – my first ever in the state.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher – Clallam Bay November 3, 2015


I continued on with them and another great bird resulted.  Brad and Paul are expert “pishers” – the sound technique that can magically draw birds in similarly to using playback, except it is more universal/generic.  Brad and Paul would stop at “likely” spots – mostly scraggly brambles and thickets along the road – and “pish”.  They stopped on Highway 112 midway between Sekiu and Neah Bay and used their technique.  Somehow they managed to spot a small unobtrusive bird in a large agglomeration of Fuschia bushes across from a lawn on private property that responded but it was very distant and hard to identify but they thought it might be a rare warbler.  They had produced the bird and I wanted to contribute so I hiked up a long driveway and knocked on the door to see if we could get permission to come onto the property for a closer look.  The owner was a disabled grandfather who gave the permission and then his granddaughter asked if she could come see it.  “Terrific”, I said.  However when she learned it was just some small bird and not something cool like an eagle, her eagerness left and she stayed with her grandfather.  Long enough story short, the bird they had found was a Tennessee Warbler – very rare in Washington and certainly my first observation in the state.

Tennessee Warbler – Highway 112 near Neah Bay


We continued on and then went separate ways in Neah Bay itself.  Nothing extraordinary that day but good birds I saw included a Northern Goshawk flyby, Peregrine Falcons, a Palm Warbler and a Snow Bunting.

Snow Bunting – November 3, 2015


I had been counting on finding and photographing a Tropical Kingbird in Neah Bay, but it had proved elusive. I spent the night at Butler’s Motel and continued the search for it and other birds the next day including some time up on Bahokas Peak that produced a Hutton’s Vireo but nothing exceptional and at Hobuck Beach.  About midday I ran into Randy Hill who was also looking for a Tropical Kingbird.  After walking the area around Blue Jay and Lincoln streets, we finally found our bird and I was able to get a decent photo of it perched in a small tree.  Pleased and wanting to get home early, I said goodbye to Paul and Brad who I saw again and headed off around noon.

Tropical Kingbird – November 3, 2015


Birding often is about choices.  Where do I go?  What route should I take?  Which opportunity is best?  As I was heading home I had to make a choice:  Bruce Labar very kindly called me to say he had a King Eider in Tacoma.  A great bird and even though it would add another 75 miles to my journey and more hours to my day – I HAD to go for it.  But wait…about 5 minutes later I got a call from Paul Lehman who said there was a Summer Tanager in Neah Bay – in the exact tree where we had the Tropical Kingbird about 90 minutes earlier.  These were both great birds – but I had seen both in Washington before.  Going back to Neah Bay would add at least 3 hours to the trip.  I decided to go for the King Eider. Good choice/bad choice…

It was a good choice because the King Eider was easily found near the ferry on Ruston Way.  Got a great photo and watched it eat an unbelievable number of crabs.  Bad news because the Eider stayed for about a month and in fact I took two others down to see it four days later.  The Summer Tanager of course was a one day wonder and was gone the next day.

King Eider (Female) – Ruston Way, Tacoma – November 4, 2015


Summer Tanager  (sadly not the Neah Bay one) University District December 9, 2012


Now back to Neah Bay.  Including the birds seen on the way, the trip to Neah Bay had paled compared to the previous year but that was hardly a fair comparison and it had indeed been an excellent visit.  Then it got better.  A Hooded Warbler was found near the Seawatch spot at the East end of town.  Three of us headed off to Neah Bay on November 11th to look for it and anything else that we could find.  It took some time but with the help of Matt Bartels, we found the Hooded Warbler and it cooperated by leaving its dense thicket and making a photo-helping jaunt out over the green grass.

Hooded Warbler


Later we added some more excellent birds including another Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and another Palm Warbler.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher


Palm Warbler


That was it for 2015.  Thus great birds during the October/November Phenomenon for me were:  Golden Eagle, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Tropical Kingbird, Tennessee Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Palm Warbler and Northern Goshawk. Once again, a good Washington rarities list for a full year let alone for just over a month.

To paraphrase a popular question:  OK, Neah Bay, that’s all fine and dandy, but what have you done for me lately?  As I already chronicled in my earlier Blog Post “I Still Know the Way to Neah Bay”,  a trip to Neah Bay on October 18th with Steve Pink and Brian Pendleton had already produced what was for me a super bird – finally a Rose Breasted Grosbeak – the only non-review committee bird I had not seen in Washington.  We also had a Tropical Kingbird, Swamp Sparrow and a strangely plumaged Oriole that was either a rare for the time Bullock’s Oriole or an extremely rare Baltimore Oriole.  My distant photo was too poor to make a positive ID.  A great day but as outlined in that earlier blogpost, we missed some birds that had been seen by others lately – again a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, Palm Warblers and most importantly the Dickcissel.  The Grosbeak sealed it for me and absent something new and exciting, I was probably done with Neah Bay for the year.

Then something new and exciting happened.  On October 29th the first ever Washington record or of Field Sparrow was reported.  The Dickcissel was gone, but there were Palm Warblers everywhere, a couple of Buller’s Shearwaters seen from land and at least one and maybe two Orchard Orioles. The next day a Harris’s Sparrow was found and the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher was found in a new location.  Commitments precluded me from going the next day but discussing options with Steve and Brian again, we decided that IF the Field Sparrow was reported again on Sunday we would go on Monday.  Alas, it was not reported – to go or not to go – that was the question.  The weather looked marginally better on Monday than for the rest of the week  and if somehow the Field Sparrow was still around each passing day decreased that possibility.  Brian and I opted to go and Steve opted out.

So we again boarded the 6:20 Edmonds ferry on Monday morning and headed west.  We had light rain in the darkness.  The skies lightened but by the time we reached Sekiu, the rain had increased and it was pouring.  Our optimism was challenged but we were soon rewarded because as soon as we reached Neah Bay, the rain stopped and we had no rain at all the rest of the day until we returned home.  We first went to the waterfront area where the Field Sparrow had been seen two days earlier.  We searched diligently …and unsuccessfully…our best bird a Eurasian Wigeon in the harbor.  Now our priorities changed.  We headed to Raven’s Corner and then Butler’s checking the thickets and brambles for the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher.  Again no luck.

Eurasian Wigeon


Field Sparrow from my Trip to Maine in June 2015 Where it Is Common 

Field Sparrow

Plan A and Plan B had failed, now it was off to the area where the Harris’s Sparrow had been reported.  On the way we first ran into three Tropical Kingbirds and then we ran into John Gatchet.  We had birded with John on our trip the previous week and he knows Neah Bay as well as anyone and had seen some of the special birds there recently.  In fact he had just seen the Harris’s Sparrow around the block from where it had been seen earlier and he took us to the spot – a tumble of brambles and a dilapidated building.  Quickly we got a glimpse of the Harris’s Sparrow but it was only in the open for a few seconds before it flew off and never returned.  No picture this time, so I include one from last year.

Harris’s Sparrow (Denny Van Horn’s Feeders in Sequim – March 31, 2014)


There were lots of sparrows there – Fox Sparrow, Lincoln’s, Golden Crowned mostly.  The Lincoln’s Sparrow was particularly appealing. We continued to see more Tropical Kingbirds – the count now up to four.

Lincoln’s Sparrow


At least the Harris’s Sparrow was a new year bird for me, but Brian had seen one earlier.  We decided to move on to Hobuck Beach where a number of Palm Warblers had been reported by many.  I love that area and we enjoyed walking the beach and the dunes and especially enjoyed finding at least four and possibly as many as six Palm Warblers – again new for the year for me but seen previously by Brian.  We had two more Tropical Kingbirds bringing our total to six for the day.  We also had a beautiful Western Meadowlark and our third Wilson’s Snipe of the day.

View from Hobuck Beach


Palm Warbler


Tropical Kingbird


Brian and Blair at Hobuck


We went back to the sparrow spot but no sign of either a Field Sparrow or the Harris’s Sparrow.  We again searched again the brambles on both sides of the Warmhouse Restaurant and the Mini Mart and found no orioles. A last stop at Butler’s before moving on did produce another Tropical Kingbird – number 7. It was getting late and options were disappearing.  John suggested we move out to the Loop Road and look for the Clay Colored Sparrow.  It had been seen in a scruffy area where a large tank had been removed.  When we got there we saw a small bird fly off and disappear.  It might have been a sparrow; it might have been something else.  We did not find a Clay Colored Sparrow there or in the nearby brambles along the water or near the dilapidated building.  We did have yet another Tropical Kingbird though.  Brian moved on to the west while John and I worked more to the east before returning to the area where the tank had been removed.  We  then heard shouts from Brian. He had found a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher – first hearing it and then finding it in a willow next to the building.  It hardly kept still but I was able to grab a nice photo.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

blue-gray-gnatcatcher1 blue-gray-gnatcatcher

Finally Brian had a new bird for the year – in fact a new life state bird.  This was better and everyone was beyond satisfied.  There was maybe another hour or so of birdable light so we decided to head over to the jetty and look for pelagic species having been told by Bruce Paige that he had seen Northern Fulmars and Shearwaters far off shore.  First we checked the creek mouth where we had several Thayer’s Gulls and two Snow Geese.

Thayer’s Gull


Snow Goose


We clambered up onto the rocks at the jetty and searched.  John quickly announced that he was seeing many Fulmars and some shearwaters.  I saw some Fulmars but was not getting great looks.  Maybe 10 minutes later after trading off with Brian I got a pretty decent but very quick scope look at two shearwaters with distinctly white undersides and grayish backs/wings.  It was not a great look – not sufficient to make a positive ID but they could well have been Buller’s Shearwaters.

Maybe 10 minutes later, John got a good look at a Shearwater with white below and grayish wings with the critical “M” pattern readily seen.  I was on the other scope and was able to get on the same bird and track it going first left and then right and could also make out a pattern on the back.  But Brian was the one that really “needed” a Buller’s Shearwater as weather had canceled all of his Autumn pelagic trips and thus he had missed this species.  He took the scope and after very diligent searching he was able to find the bird as well. Ta da!!  Way too far out for a chance at a photo but we all were really sure of the observation.  All told we saw more than 100 Fulmars including at least one or two light phased birds, two Buller’s Shearwaters, a dozen or so Sooty Shearwaters and many ducks, loons, grebes and cormorants.  Shearwaters and Fulmars are exceptionally good observations from shore.

John Gatchet and Brian Pendleton at the Jetty – happy after the Buller’s Observation


We were very pleased with the continuation of the Neah Bay October/November Phenomenon.  We had seen perhaps 6 Palm Warblers, 8 Tropical Kingbirds, a Harris’s Sparrow, a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, 2 Buller’s Shearwaters, 100+ Nothern Fulmars and a Eurasian Widgeon.  That is a great list – and there is still November for more goodies.

The Phenomenon Summary – October/November   2012 – 2016

Just during October and November in the 5 years from 2012 to 2016, according to Ebird, a staggering 226 species have been reported from Neah Bay (including pelagic).  I don’t know how that compares to any other small area for any two months, but I expect it is pretty close to the best.

But it is not just the numbers, it is also the diversity and the rarities.  Consider for example these numbers of species in each group for the period:  33 geese, swans and ducks; 10 loons and grebes; 10 hawks, eagles and vultures; 23 shorebirds; 7 alcids; 17 gulls and terns; 5 doves; 7 owls; 4 falcons; 5 wrens; 12 warblers; 18 sparrows; and 10 finches.

Also consider the rarities (or species of note) in these tables.  (Species in bold and italic are ones I consider exceptional):

2012 2013 2014
Black-legged Kittiwake American Golden-Plover American Pipit
Clay-colored Sparrow Black-legged Kittiwake Black-legged Kittiwake
Glaucous Gull House Wren Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Lapland Longspur Iceland Gull Brambling
Long-billed Curlew Lapland Longspur Bullock’s Oriole
Northern Mockingbird Palm Warbler Cattle Egret
Orchard Oriole Red Shouldered Hawk Chipping Sparrow
Palm Warbler Rock Wren Clark’s Grebe
Snow Bunting Swamp Sparrow Clay-colored Sparrow
Snowy Owl Thayer’s Gull Elegant Tern
Swamp Sparrow Tropical Kingbird Eurasian Hobby
Tennessee Warbler White-throated Sparrow Golden Eagle
Tropical Kingbird Yellow-billed Loon Grasshopper Sparrow
Tufted Puffin   Harris’s Sparrow
Lapland Longspur
Lucy’s Warbler
Northern Pygmy-Owl
Orchard Oriole
    Palm Warbler
Pine Grosbeak
Purple Martin
Red Phalarope
Rock Sandpiper
    Slaty-backed Gull
Swamp Sparrow
Thayer’s Gull
Tropical Kingbird
Turkey Vulture
Vesper Sparrow
2015 2016 (Through October Only)
American Tree Sparrow American Pipit
Ancient Murrelet Barn Owl
Barn Owl Barred Owl
Black Phoebe Black-legged Kittiwake
Black-legged Kittiwake Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Blue-winged Teal
Cassin’s Finch Brown Pelican
Clark’s Grebe Buller’s Shearwater
Clay-colored Sparrow Clark’s Grebe
Eurasian Wigeon Clay-colored Sparrow
Golden Eagle Dickcissel
Grasshopper Sparrow Elegant Tern
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Eurasian Wigeon
Great Horned Owl Field Sparrow
Hooded Warbler Golden Eagle
House Wren Harris’s Sparrow
Lapland Longspur Lapland Longspur
Lark Sparrow Long-tailed Duck
Leach’s Storm-Petrel Marbled Murrelet
Long-tailed Duck Northern Pygmy-Owl
Marbled Murrelet Orchard Oriole
Northern Pygmy-Owl Osprey
Northern Saw-whet Owl Palm Warbler
Osprey Parasitic Jaeger
Palm Warbler Pink-footed Shearwater
Pink-footed Shearwater Pomarine Jaeger
Ruffed Grouse Red Knot
Sandhill Crane Red Phalarope
Short-eared Owl Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Short-tailed Shearwater Ruff
Snow Bunting Ruffed Grouse
Summer Tanager Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow Thayer’s Gull
Thayer’s Gull Tropical Kingbird
Tropical Kingbird Turkey Vulture
Tufted Duck White-throated Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow  
White-throated Sparrow  
White-winged Crossbill  
Yellow-billed Loon

One thought on “The Neah Bay October/November Phenomenon – Part II: 2015 and 2016 – and my Visit on October 31, 2016

  1. What an excellent post one of your bests! Neah Bay is a jewel in Washington a great migrant trap. I wish we had a location like this in BC and I wish Neah Bay was closer to Vancouver so I could visit more frequently. Congrats to Scott Downes and Eric Heisey on their incredible find. Our first record for BC was lasts October but only the original observer was able to see and photograph it.

    Looks like you and Brian and John had a great time as usual.


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