6:00 a.m. – meet at my house. 6:20 a.m. – board ferry at Edmonds for Kingston. 8:15 a.m. -stop at Safeway in Port Angeles for a fill up of gas tank and coffee mugs. 9:30 a.m. – arrive in Neah Bay (in good weather regardless of forecasts) and start seeing incredible birds!! It has almost become routine the past few months – as another and another and another rare bird keeps showing up and more and more birders go to this Makah fishing village to find them. Truly Neah Bay has been the gift that has kept on giving.
On Wednesday November 16, a Willow Flycatcher was reported at the base of the Jetty in Neah Bay – a good bird for mid-November but hardly a reason to make the long drive. But hold on there… It turned out that this was a case of mistaken identity and Thursday’s Willow Flycatcher had morphed on Friday into a Dusky Capped Flycatcher, a bird that breeds as far north as Arizona but generally resides and winters in the tropics. I have seen the species in Arizona, Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil – but until that day of misidentification – nobody had ever seen it in Washington – it was a new state record and absolutely something to draw one’s attention including mine. And there was more – another misidentification on that same November 16 with the result that a Brown Headed Cowbird had become a very rare Blue Grosbeak not the first Washington record but a species I had not seen in the state. Unfortunately the ID was not corrected until Sunday so no other birders had looked for it – no further observations, while the Dusky Capped had been seen again and photographed..
I had important social engagements for the weekend or I would have been on my way to Neah Bay on Saturday but had to be patient and planned to go on Monday. I called Steve Pink, Brian Pendleton, and Ann Marie Wood and we all agreed we would make the trip but only if one of the rarities was seen again on Sunday. As of 8:00 Sunday night, neither had been reported. Looked like the trip was off. Then just after 8:00 p.m., an Ebird report from Keith Brady came through. He had seen and photographed the Dusky Capped Flycatcher earlier – we were now a GO!! And we followed the routine described at the start of this post and arrived in Neah Bay around 9:30 a.m. intending to head straight to the base of the jetty and hope that another birder was already there and the Dusky Capped Flycatcher was in their sight.
But… a brief departure from the plan. As we drove along the waterfront, we saw some close in Wigeon and Brian picked out a Eurasian Wigeon so we stopped for Ann Marie to get a look at a bird she had missed on an earlier trip.
We got back in the car and back to the plan – well sort of. Ann Marie is a great trooper but sometimes she just has to rebel against the rules. Not too much further along, she yelled “STOP”! And we (almost) always listen to Ann Marie. She had spied a Greater White Fronted Goose inside a fenced off play area. Not rare but always a nice bird. We stopped – got photos – maybe this was a good omen and hopefully not just a consolation prize. Now back towards the jetty.
Greater White Fronted Goose
No cars or birders greeted us at the jetty, so we were on our own. Doing his best Ann Marie impersonation, even before we got out of the car, Steve Pink yelled STOP! – Black Kittiwakes! We may not listen to Steve as often as we do to Ann Marie (just kidding Steve…), but he has found us many a great bird and a Black Kittiwake certainly qualifies – but Steve must have had his anticipatory adrenalin in high drive, because the birds on the beach were not Black Kittiwakes – they were a much better find – Red Phalaropes which Steve quickly corrected himself to state. These usually pelagic species seen far out at sea had invaded inland waters in the past week being seen all over the state including by us independently at the Edmonds fishing pier. There were 5 – close in, in good light and begging for a photograph. I rose quickly to that easy challenge.
We were precisely at the spot where we hoped to find the Dusky Capped Flycatcher – once again were the Red Phalaropes an omen or a consolation prize? It took less than a minute to answer that question. I walked back towards and then behind a series of brambles and now it was my turn to yell. I saw a quick flash of yellow on a small bird: “I’ve got it!! It’s the Dusky Capped!!” The Flycatcher was very active flitting from branch to branch and bramble to tree, at times giving its plaintive little call. How amazing that this bird was so far from home and that we were looking at it – and in great light – behind us and directly on the bird. Photos were taken quickly and then I kept trying to improve them hoping the bird would make its way into the open. Two of the best of those photos are below.
Dusky Capped Flycatcher
Dusky Capped Flycatcher
It was not even 10:00 a.m. and we had seen our quest for the day and had two bonus prizes as well. Additionally we had had a quick flyover by an Osprey, very rare this late in the year. We stayed at the jetty and with the flycatcher for almost an hour and had another very rare bird – well make that “birder”. It was John Weigel, a birder from Australia who is doing an ABA Big Year – and quite a year it has been. He recently added the Common Scoter in Siletz Bay, Oregon, his 776 ABA bird for 2016!! Given that the old ABA Big Year record by Neil Hayward (See my blog from my Adak trip) was 749 – this is an almost unfathomable accomplishment. John stayed only a short while – off to find his next year bird.
Already ecstatic from our good fortune, we ventured out to try to find the Blue Grosbeak. It had been seen in the vicinity of where our group had had an extraordinary Two Minute Blitz (earlier blog post) two weeks earlier that had Tropical Kingbird, Palm Warbler, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and Orchard Oriole essentially together. We drove and walked the entire area and saw neither Cowbird nor Grosbeak. We found only a single Tropical Kingbird and then we found Matt Bartels who had not been able to resist the chance to add some of the newly reported rarities to his Clallam County list. He too had seen the Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Greater White Fronted Goose and Red Phalarope. He had been there much longer than we had and also had seen a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and a Palm Warbler – but no go on the Blue Grosbeak. As if on cue, as we talked, the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher literally flew out of a bush and into a tree right in front of us. It has been around now for almost a month. Matt was pleased we had the success we had, but he was most interested in the Osprey. It was a nemesis bird for him in Clallam County – the only county in Washington where he had not seen one.
Blue Gray Gnatcatcher
We drove some more and then headed to Butler’s Motel where we ran into Paul Baerny – just as I had on the wonderful day last month when I finally got my Rose Breasted Grosbeak in Washington. He had seen all the good birds as well and had nothing new to report. What next? Ann Marie recalled that a Tufted Duck had been seen in years past at the Sewage Treatment Plant in the Wa’atch Valley and asked how far that was and if we could go. Sure, why not. No expectations other than it was often a good spot and in fact during the Eurasian Hobby frenzy in 2014, that is where I had my first Cattle Egret in the State.
The gate was open at the STP so we drove in and up to park right next to one of the ponds. There were dozens of ducks mostly Buffleheads, Scaup and Green Winged Teal in the two closest ponds. There was also a gorgeous Northern Pintail, a real beauty in perfect light. A small group of Mew Gulls were feasting on I don’t think I want to know what close by as well.
There were ducks in the back ponds as well and Brian and I headed off in that direction taking a circuitous route to create as little disturbance as we could. There were again mostly Buffleheads in the southwestern-most pond, but from a distance it looked like the northwestern-most pond might have some Ring Necked Ducks or Scaup. As we turned the corner, the ducks in the southwestern pond flew off but fortunately the ones in the northern pond did not and we crept down the bank to further avoid detection. Then I saw it and again I yelled: “Tufted Duck”!! I snapped a couple of quick photos and got Brian on the bird. We inched closer and I called out to Steve and Ann Marie who were back towards the car and I frenetically motioned them to come. Unfortunately they were on the path between the ponds and as they approached most of the ducks flew off – including the Tufted Duck.
It wasn’t fair. The Tufted Duck was state year bird #349 for Brian – a new personal best – but Ann Marie’s hope to see a Tufted Duck had been the impetus for the visit. We had come. Brian and I had seen it (the first in Washington since last winter), but she had not. There will be more to the story so stay tuned.
I called Paul Baerny and told him we had found one but that it had flown off – maybe to the Wa’atch River below. He was on his way. We went down to the river but could not find it. Paul and Matt arrived. (Matt does not carry a phone so we could not call him, but we were glad Paul had found him.) We could not find the Tufted Duck. Then Charlie Wright drove up. Charlie is one of the premiere birders in Washington and always comes up with something great. He had been the one that found the Red Legged Kittiwake at Neah Bay that had prompted my first visit to the area much earlier in the year. It was nice to be able to share our discovery with him and he suggested that it was possible that the ducks had flown to Hobuck Lake instead of landing in the River. As we stood talking, an Osprey flew directly overhead. Matt did not get the Tufted Duck but now he had his Osprey!!
We found our way to Hobuck Lake – a few Ring Necked Ducks were there – but no ducks with tufts. We decided to return to the sewage ponds hoping it may have returned. As we were pulling in, Matt was pulling out. He and Charlie had gone to the ponds while we had tried Hobuck Lake. The bad news was that our male Tufted Duck was not found. The good news was that they had found a second Tufted Duck – a female. Matt kindly guided us to the spot and pointed out Tufted Duck #2. It was now a happy ending for Ann Marie after all!! Steve had seen females in his native England but this was the first for any of us in the U.S. and definitely the only time we had seen two Tufted Ducks in one day.
Tufted Duck Female
What had started as an incredible day was now significantly beyond that – we were a very happy group. There was still time to return to town and see if we could find anything else before heading home. We tried unsuccessfully in a couple of spots for Swamp Sparrows that had been reported earlier and then went to the woods across from the Minit Mart, a spot where many rarities had been found over the years and where a Palm Warbler was seen earlier in the day. Seemed very quiet at first, but Brian persevered and went around the edge and then it was his turn to yell: “Palm Warbler”. We never got stationary in the open looks but watched as it did its fly-catching and disappearing act. Another good bird for the day.
We made a bath room stop at the marina and with perfect light this gave me a chance for some additional fun photos as the marina was full of grebes, ducks, loons and scoters. Earlier by the water I had a chance for an unusual sighting and photo. A Tropical Kingbird, perhaps the same one seen in town earlier or perhaps not, was fly-catching behind the Warmhouse Restaurant. At one point it actually landed on the sand. I had never seen one on the ground before and I was fortunate to be able to capture the photo in good light. Earlier also we had some Black Oystercatchers fly in for a photo shoot – always a fun bird.
Tropical Kingbird on the Sand
Now back at the water’s edge I first found a photogenic female Belted Kingfisher and then a nice Western Grebe, and a Red Throated Loon, but what drew me onto the walkways and out to the boats was first the bellows of the Sea Lions on one of the rafts and then a White Winged Scoter that seemed to be feeding close by. I got close to the Sea Lions and snapped some photos and then refound the Scoter – with something large in its mouth. It proved to be a butter clam and watching the Scoter positioning the large clam and then crunching it open with that powerful and well designed serrated bill was a fascinating experience – somewhat captured in my photos.
Red Throated Loon
White Winged Scoter with Butter Clam
It was now time to leave. A fantastic day – yet again – at Neah Bay, the gift that indeed keeps on giving! And definitely something to yell about: Ann Marie’s yell about the Greater White Fronted Goose; Steve’s on the Black Kittiwakes that became Red Phalaropes, mine on first the Dusky Capped Flycatcher and then the Tufted Duck, and finally Brian’s on the Palm Warbler. Team birding at its best.
On the long drive home we wondered whether in the history of birding if there had ever been a day that included observations in the same place of these wonderful birds: Dusky Capped Flycatcher, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck (both male and female – and not even together), Red Phalarope, Osprey, Black Oystercatcher, Tropical Kingbird, Palm Warbler, Blue Gray Gnatcatcher (Eastern) and Harlequin Duck. We had seen these 10 species and about 60 others and enjoyed each other’s company, great weather and visits with friends. What a day!!