Although none of them started out as such, in each year from 2012 through 2016 I have found myself in some kind of Birding Big Year or another. There were changes going on in my life during this time and concentrated birding has been a diversion from some of those matters and I am sure they contributed greatly to my efforts in the field. I went through a separation and a divorce, a move from Seattle to Edmonds, a major wind down of business heading to retirement and my first ever surgery. Birding was one constant and perhaps provided a kind of identity as other past identity markers were disappearing.
In 2012, I was just really getting heavily back into birding in the state, propelled by my participation in Seattle Audubon’s Master Birder Class with Dennis Paulson that carried over into 2013. I saw a lot of birds in 2012 but really was not at all organized and I had no real understanding of what was even involved in doing any kind of Big Year. In 2013, I had a better understanding but still did not really set that as a goal. Fortunately I had made some good early winter trips and had seen good birds accordingly, but the fervor (fever?) and requisite chases of such an undertaking did not hit until probably March. As I birded more and more in 2012 and 2013, I began to take photographs of the birds I saw – helpful in identification and enjoyable in itself. In 2014, I set out to do a “Photographic Big Year” trying to get photos of as many birds as I could. The taste of doing that in 2014 led to more of the same in 2015 – but it was supposed to be different. Instead of aiming to get as many photos as I could, I aimed instead to get photos of close to ALL of the birds I saw – setting an arbitrary goal of “at least 300 species” and at least 97% of them with photos. My camera and lenses and skills improved and photos became easier, so those goals morphed into wanting photos of ALL the birds – and then wanting more and more birds.
Finally this year, there was no real goal at all other than to add birds to my State Life List, travel outside of Washington more, add photos to my Washington Photos list and then finally into birding a lot with birding friends, especially Brian Pendleton, helping him add to his own Big Year quest.
It has been an extraordinary five years. Way too many miles and a terrible carbon foot print but what great birds, places and people. Way too little sleep, way too little exercise and way too much junk food. Still way too much to learn about identifying so many birds – especially those darn gulls – but I have learned so much – about the birds, about our incredible state, the incredible birders in the state and mostly and most importantly about myself. I am not going to stop birding; not going to end all chases. But five years is enough and next year will be different – in large measure because I am in a better place myself personally and need and want to spend time differently. I hope to still see wonderful birds and add to my State List and to my photo list but a year list will not be important. I hope to continue to spend meaningful time with birding friends and to share experiences with them. I hope to revisit many places but also to explore new ones. I definitely hope to FINALLY get a photo of a Boreal Owl and a Flammulated Owl. For the first time in way too many years, I feel happy with my world (politics aside of course) and I hope to grow that happiness – with birds, people and places all aiding in that process.
That is looking forward, but now I want to look back – summarizing and highlighting the moments and birds from the past five years – so many great memories and birds – many in the blog posts that have preceded this one. I will not catalog every bird and moment and I will repeat in much smaller part some stories from those earlier posts. Since so much of the drive has come from listing, first there will be some data, and then I have chosen 30 Washington birds and their related experiences to represent the best of the five years. It has been great fun.
In the past five years I have had the great pleasure of seeing 411 species of birds in Washington State. Of those five are not recognized by the ABA and were most likely escapees. I have photographs of 398 of those species (including 4 of the non-recognized species). Forty-four of those species (including all of the non-recognized ones) were seen only a single time. Many were seen in each of the five years, others not. By the numbers, there were 348 species seen in 2012, 365 in 2013, 353 in 2014, 361 in 2015 and 351 this year. In 2015, I was able to get photos of 358 of those 361 species – failing to photograph only Boreal and Flammulated Owl and Common Poorwill. I got a decent photo of the latter this year but the other two remain as challenges for …later.
I do not have an exact count, but my best estimate is that I have birded with well over 200 other birders during this time and that I have submitted over 2000 checklists. All told I am sure I have observed more than 4 million birds, a large percentage of them being shearwaters and geese. Too many have been Starlings and Eurasian Collared Doves – as pretty as they are. Taxonomically the 406 non-escapee birds included: 41 Waterfowl; 10 “Chickens”; 37 Raptors; 47 Shorebirds; 25 Gulls and Terns; 20 Flycatchers; 21 Warblers; 22 Sparrows; and 14 Finches. That still leaves 179 “others”. Washington is a bird rich State!!
I have been asked and have thought about whether there has been a “best bird”. There have been many “favorites” and depending on what is meant by “best”, I could probably come up with one or maybe two. Certainly if I had seen a male Smew, that would be the answer; but I still have not, maybe someday. So the best I can do is to choose these 30 birds to represent these years – chosen because of their charisma, rarity, beauty, or the surrounding circumstances or story of the observation. Each will also give me a chance to say thank you to someone(s) who without their help these years would not have been as successful in many ways.
|Thirty Special Birds of 2012 – 2016|
|Arctic Tern||Gyrfalcon||Rustic Bunting|
|Boreal Owl||Hooded Warbler||Scissor-tailed Flycatcher|
|Brown Booby||King Eider||Short Tailed Albatross|
|Cattle Egret||Laughing Gull||Smith’s Longspur|
|Common Eider||Lesser Sand-Plover||Spotted Owl|
|Crested Caracara||Magnolia Warbler||Summer Tanager|
|Dickcissel||Northern Hawk Owl||Upland Sandpiper|
|Dusky-capped Flycatcher||Northern Wheatear||White Tailed Kite|
|Eurasian Hobby||Red-necked Stint||Wilson’s Plover|
|Great Gray Owl||Rose-breasted Grosbeak||Yellow Throated Warbler|
Arctic Tern – Westport Pelagic – August 28, 2016
The Arctic Tern is not a particularly rare bird in Washington but it is not regularly found every year and is almost always only seen on pelagic trips. I have included it here, because after seeing one on my first pelagic trip out of Westport in September 1974, it took 42 years to finally find and get a photo of another one (on the left)!! I had wonderful views of photo friendly Arctic Terns in Alaska earlier this year (photo on the right) and on my Maine trip last year but this is my only Washington photo. It is also a good start on my thank yous with a very big one to everyone at West Coast Seabirds – especially Captain Phil Anderson and first mate Chris Anderson. I have taken 2 pelagic trips with them in each of the past 5 years – one in the Spring and one in the Fall. I have not done an exact count but including some non-pelagic species I am sure that all told there have been more than 50 species seen with them on these trips – in fact many only on these trips. Thank yous to all of the spotters on the trips as well: Jim Danzenbaker, Scott Mills, Bill Tweit, Bill Shelmerdine, Bruce Labar among others.
Boreal Owl – Salmo Pass and Sunrise – Mount Rainier
The “photo” on the left is mine. The one on the right was taken by Dan Reiff. Mine is the one that represents my experience with this species in Washington. I have heard Boreal Owls many times but have only had two fleeting glances – mostly of a dark shadow in an even darker night. Observations have been at Salmo Mountain in extreme Northeastern Washington and at Mount Rainier. Thank yous to Terry Little for that first observation on a fun trip on my birthday in 2012 and to Dan Reiff who maybe someday will help me get that photo – he has tried.
Brown Booby – Edmonds Waterfront – August 21, 2015
I have written about this before – first an amazing find along the Edmonds waterfront by Josh Adams last year (thanks Josh) whose quick post on Tweeters enabled several of us to hustle down to Sunset Avenue to scan Puget Sound to see if we could relocate it. Just as I was giving up, John Puschock amazingly spied the bird on the mast of a very distant sailboat that we bet was heading to the Edmonds Marina. We arrived just as indeed the sailboat came in with the Brown Booby still on the mast. There will be another thank you to John later. I had a second observation of this species in Washington at Point No Point a month later leading a birding trip. Good birds are even better when shared.
Cattle Egret – Neah Bay STP – November 6, 2014
This remains my only record of a Cattle Egret in Washington. It came during that crazy week plus period in Neah Bay that included the Eurasian Hobby (see below), Brambling, Clay Colored Sparrow and Orchard Oriole which established that area as an exceptional place for rarities and which has given me many of my best observations during this five year period (over 100 there of which at least 25 would be considered – excellent!!).
Common Eider and Northern Wheatear – Westport – October 28, 2012
These species are linked (and have been written about in an earlier blog) because they were seen very near each other within moments at the jetty area in Westport. The pictures on the left are of the Washington birds and the ones on the right are of ones in Alaska – better photos of birds in breeding plumage. Those Westport records are the only ones in Washington for me of the two species – a remarkable combination of rarities that drew dozens of birders to add to their state or life lists. I chased and found another Common Eider earlier this fall in the Skagit area only to find that it was an escapee from a local collection – not “countable”. I expect there will be another real one someday soon. A little “aside”. After I told the story of the non-counting escapee to a non-birding friend, she asked asked how a bird I had described as very rare in Washington could be called a “Common” Eider. I explained that much has to do with geography and that a bird that is common here is probably very rare elsewhere and vice versa. Such was definitely the case on my recent trip to Massachusetts where Common Eiders are very common indeed.
Crested Caracara – Skykomish – July 4, 2015
In any Big Year there are bound to be times when you chase after a bird and you don’t find it – a so called “dip”. Some rarities are one day wonders and if you don’t go for it immediately, odds are it will not be there even the next day. Other times, the bird stays around but has the audacity to use its wings and move off to another spot. You are at Point A where it had been seen regularly but it has moved to Point B. With luck you learn of or stumble onto that new Point B and find the bird. The Crested Caracara was a nemesis for a number of people as it remained in the town of Skykomish for almost three weeks in late June and into July. I had seen this species in Texas and Florida but not in Washington. When it showed up in Skykomish and hit the Ebird Rarities report I was in Maine – seeing some great birds but wondering every day if it would stick around until I returned. It was still being seen when I got back, but my first attempt was unsuccessful, Fortunately on Independence Day, in the company of Ollie and Grace Oliver among others, we found it in the open posing for our photos.
Dickcissel – Hardy Canyon – June 3, 2015
This was another “stakeout” bird. I believe it had been found by Denny Granstrand on June 3rd and I learned of it as I read my Ebird hourly reports as I was heading in that direction planning on a full day of birding on Bethel Ridge the next day. I made a detour and got to Hardy Canyon in failing light yet I was able to locate the bird but was not able to get much of a photo. Early the next morning I was the first to arrive and easily refound it and got the photo above – a welcome addition to my state list. As I was leaving Ryan Merrill had just arrived and I was able to give him some pointers on getting into the Canyon and finding the bird which he did. This is a good place to say thank you to Ryan. An extraordinary birder, he has been the first to find many of the species that I added to my list after following up on his many shared reports on EBird and Tweeters. He has also corrected many a misidentified bird from some of my reports – a sometimes painful but still appreciated learning experience. Another Dickcissel was found in Neah Bay this Fall but it was a no show when I looked for it at Butler’s Motel. It reappeared a couple of days later at a feeder in town – but I did not chase that one.
Dusky Capped Flycatcher -Neah Bay – November 21, 2016
This is another of my previously and well chronicled Neah Bay rarities. (See ) Originally misreported it was quickly corrected and drew many birders to see this first ever Washington record of a bird that belongs in Arizona or places even further south. I was joined by Brian Pendleton, Ann Marie Wood and Steve Pink and it was easily found along with a number of other excellent birds. My great thanks to all of them for many shared experiences over the past several years. We took turns as the first to find the birds we chased – team birding at its best. Even after many long chases together, we still find new things to talk about and have not had any drama along the way (even when I almost ran out of gas…).
Eurasian Hobby – Neah Bay – Wa’atch Valley – October 30, 2014
Speaking of Neah Bay – which I do here and have done in earlier blog posts often – the Eurasian Hobby may be considered what really put Neah Bay on the map. Many great birds had been seen there over the years but this was a mega-rarity and drew well over a hundred birders there for the record. The photo is from Doug Schurman – an extraordinary photographer (and birder) that was also in my Master Birder Class. It took me two visits to find the Hobby and when it flew over Steve Pink and me, the concentration was on assuring the identification as opposed to yet another Peregrine Falcon of which we had many that day, so no time for a photo. Two days later it was far more cooperative when I was not in attendance and photos were taken by many. Thanks to Doug for the photo and for many other shared birding experiences over the years including his organizing our successful trip for a Spotted Owl (see below).
Great Gray Owl – Biscuit Ridge – May 20, 2015
Non-birders and birders alike are fascinated by owls. Even the ones that are relatively common can be hard to find. Obviously the ones that are active in the daytime are easier to see but often owls are found only by their calls and these are more often heard at night. The Great Gray Owl is a spectacular animal. More active at night and dawn and dusk, it sometimes hunts and even calls during the day and can be found (with frustrating difficulty) perched in the open even in midday. The most likely places to find them in Washington are in the Okanogan Highlands and in the Blue Mountains. I have had them both places – a single distance sighting in a blizzard at Havillah in the Okanogan – and finally the visual that resulted in the picture above on Biscuit Ridge in the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla with Mike and MerryLynn Denny and John Houghton. This is my only Washington photo and it is the only time I have seen them in the Blues despite MANY other attempts to do so including other trips with the Dennys who find them there often. I was the one who spotted the Great Gray on this trip but it is so well camouflaged that if those bright golden yellow eyes had been closed or pointing in another direction, I probably would have missed it.
Gyrfalcon – Snohomish Flats (Near Monroe) – January 24, 2014
Although seen every year, the magnificent Gyrfalcon is not at all a common bird in Washington – mostly visiting over the winter. I include this species because it was so cooperative remaining in the area for many weeks and often providing wonderful photo ops. I have seen them on the Waterville Plateau and once ran into a professional falconer there who said they were far more common than most people thought – but since that territory is so vast, it could take many hours of driving all of the roads to find them.
Hooded Warbler – Neah Bay Greenhouse Seawatch Spot – November 11, 2015
There are 15 warblers that occur regularly in Washington. All told, there are records of 36 warbler species that have been seen in the state. The irregular ones range from very uncommon to very rare – some with barely a few records. I have seen all of the regularly occurring ones and another six that are much more rare. Quick math shows that still leaves 15 warbler species I have not seen in the state – by far my biggest gap. The Hooded Warbler is one of the rare ones. I saw my first one in Washington on the Cape Horn Trail in the Columbia Gorge on July 5 2013. I got a photo there but the photo chosen here is more fun and was taken after a worrisome search in Neah Bay on November 11th last year. Ann Marie Wood, Frank Caruso and I searched in vain for it for maybe 30 minutes. Fortunately Matt Bartels showed up and he was the one who first found it. It skulked around in the trees before a brief sortie out onto the grass which enabled the photo. Thanks to Matt for that and for other times where his shared info and good eyes and ears led to some of my observations. And for any non-birders who might be reading this – warblers are found all over the country but are particularly common and diverse in migration in Texas and the mixed wood forests of the East. It is not uncommon to find 20 or even 30 warblers in a single morning in some of the best warbler spots in migration.
King Eider – Ruston Way/Tacoma – November 4, 2015
On the way home after yet another great day birding in Neah Bay last year I got a call from Bruce Labar who told me he had located a King Eider at the water way off Ruston Way in Tacoma. Bruce is as good as it gets as a birder and a friend of all who bird. He knew I was having yet another big year in the state and correctly surmised that I would be interested in this rare bird. He did not know that I was still some hours away – not yet even back to Port Angeles. I quickly did the math and calculated that there was still time to get to the spot with some remaining light, so I set course for Tacoma adhering to Rule One for any bird chase – GO NOW!! Rule Two is if you do not follow Rule One you cannot whine about missing a bird. Maybe fifteen minutes later I got a call from Paul Lehman who was birding in Neah Bay with Brad Waggoner. I had been fortunate to have bumped into them earlier and they had helped me find both a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and a Tennessee Warbler – both new state birds. Thank you to both of them for those assists and to Brad for many other aids including sharing his first state record of a Lucy’s Warbler – also in Neah Bay. Paul told me that they had just located a quite rare Summer Tanager in Neah Bay – in fact in the same tree where earlier Randy Hill and I had finally found a Tropical Kingbird. I was now 15 minutes closer to the King Eider and 15 minutes further from Neah Bay. I had seen and photographed both species in Washington before. What to do? There would not be time to return to Neah Bay and still get to the Eider with any light. I decided to keep going and made it to Tacoma in time to see the Eider feasting on crabs. A good decision, but as it turns out not the best decision. The Eider remained for several weeks while the Summer Tanager was a one day wonder – gone the following day. Had I returned I might have eventually had both birds – but no complaints. Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered. Oink – oink. Another thank you to Bruce Labar – one of many owed him.
Laughing Gull – Bottle Beach – August 15, 2016
Laughing Gulls are common and easy to find in summer along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts – standing out with their black heads in breeding plumage. Not the case in Washington where it is a very rare species and in its far less distinct basic plumage. One was reported from the Hoquiam STP in early August and then what was probably the same bird was reported from Bottle Beach where a Bar Tailed Godwit was also making an appearance. The key to birding that location is to get there long before high tide (as much as three hours before) and bird as the tide comes in bringing more and more birds. It is best known as the go to spot for Red Knots in Washington but Bottle Beach is a great birding spot with lots of rarities, mostly shorebirds, having been seen there (see the Red Necked Stint below). I got there early and was shortly joined by at least another half dozen birders. There was a huge flock of Black Bellied Plovers and another of Western Sandpipers. I found a couple of Ruddy Turnstones, but the gulls were not very numerous and were all the common Ring Billed, California or Glaucous Winged Gulls. The Laughing Gull had been reported hanging out by the pilings and that is where we concentrated efforts – finding primarily Ring Billed Gulls. Somehow despite what we thought was constant vigilance, a “different” gull had sneaked in and I noticed the dark bill and smaller size and called out that we had our bird. A new state bird and photo for me and everyone else who was there. A bit later Jason Vassallo relocated the Bar Tailed Godwit – perhaps the same bird that was regularly being found in the large Marbled Godwit flock in the Westport Marina.
Lesser Sand Plover – Ocean Shores – August 16, 2015
Because of the combination of its beauty and the circumstances, this may be my favorite bird in the period. This species used to be called a Mongolian Plover. I had seen my first one in Washington on September 1, 2013 – a drab bird not in breeding plumage. I had seen my first one in the world on the Esplanade in Cairns Australia in September 2003 – a place where this Australasian species is regular. I discovered the bird featured here on a Audubon field trip that I was co-leading with Tim Boyer. We were driving on the open beach near the casino and were seeing numerous Semipalmated Plovers in casual water that had collected in little ponds in the sand. As we sped past one of these ponds I spied a small plover with the distinctly orange-rufous chest marking of the Lesser Sand Plover. I stopped the car and jumped out without even turning off the motor and leaving my passengers quite stunned. The Plover was very cooperative and posed for photos. Best yet, it remained for another week and many people attending the WOS Conference the following week also got to see this little gem.
Magnolia Warbler – Gingko Ranger Station – June 5, 2013
The photo on the left is my lousy photo of the Magnolia Warbler in Washington and I have added a far better photo but from Maine in June 2015. I include this bird in the special birds list in part because it is quite rare in Washington but much moreso because of the story. George Pagos and I were returning from a great trip in Eastern Washington that included a very birdy visit to Calispell Lake and Pend Oreille County with superb guidance by Jon Isacoff. I got a call from Mike Clarke who told me that he and Kevin Black were watching a Magnolia Warbler at the Gingko Ranger Station. We were at least an hour away but I said we would get there as fast as we could and got detailed directions and then Mike added that they would stay and wait for us. When we got there Mike and Kevin pointed to a shrub below the Ranger Station porch where they had seen the warbler. It took a little while for it to become visible at all but there it was – a state life bird for all of us. A bonus was an extreme close up of a Common Nighthawk that was roosting on an open branch not ten feet away. I had been with Mike in July 2013 when I finally found my Western Screech Owl in Lewis and Clark Trail State Park and had also been together on Biscuit Ridge on that same trip where we had and photographed a Cordilleran Flycatcher and several Green Tailed Towhees. Thanks to Mike for his help with all of those birds and to both Mike and Kevin for going way beyond staying to show us the Magnolia Warbler. Thanks for George will come later.
Northern Hawk Owl – Highway 28 – December 22, 2012
Any bird that has both Hawk and Owl in its name has to be pretty awesome and the Northern Hawk Owl is AWESOME!! Fierce looking and gorgeous, it is a rare sight in Washington. A diurnal hunter, so at least when it is around, it can be seen in the daytime. Such was the case when Samantha Robinson and I chased a report of one near Ephrata on December 22, 2012. After many miles and hours of looking we found it seven miles from where it had been reported the day before. Our initial view was of it perched on a light post a couple of hundred yards from the road behind a ranch. Even that view was a thrill. Then it dove purposefully and we figured it would catch some prey and not be seen again. Miraculously it reappeared and flew into a tree right next to us with the prey dangling from its talons (see photo on the left). One of my favorite birding experiences ever. My thanks to Samantha Robinson for good company and good eyes on a number of trips.
Red Necked Stint – Bottle Beach – July 22, 2013
As stated previously, Bottle Beach has been a wonderful spot for good shorebirds. My species list for that hotspot is 89 of which 25 have been shorebirds. Of all the shorebirds I have seen there, without question the Red Necked Stint is the rarest – the best find. After an Ebird report the previous day, George Pagos and I headed there early the next morning well in advance of high tide. Other eager listers were also on the scene. As the tide came in the mudflat was literally covered with birds – feeding actively and scurrying and flying about. The were more than 800 Short Billed Dowitchers, 80 Black Bellied Plovers and 400 Western Sandpipers. Finding the one sandpiper with a red neck was going to be a challenge. It took well over an hour but finally someone, I believe it was George, found the right bird and we were able to approach close enough as it kept moving to get at least a distant photo (on the left). There has been only one additional sighting of this species in Washington since then – by Chazz Hesselein in Yukon Harbor in 2015. Interestingly Chazz was one of the birders at Bottle Beach who saw the Red Necked Stint the same day George and I did. My thanks to George for aid on this and many other trips and to Chazz who I do not see that often but is always in good spirits and helpful – including help with the Lapland Longspur at the Mouth of the Cedar River this fall. The second picture is of a Red Necked Stint that I saw in Nome Alaska this summer.
Rose Breasted Grosbeak – Neah Bat – October 19, 2016
This observation was a subject in my earlier post (See ). It had been reported coming to the feeders at Butler’s Hotel in Neah Bay. I had chased and missed this species numerous times before and it was the only non-review committee bird I had not seen in Washington. Brian Pendleton and I headed west and arrived at Butler’s as others including John Gatchet were leaving saying that it had been seen that morning. Paul Baerny was sitting on the porch and said “you just missed it”. It had been there 15 minutes earlier. Panic started to set in, but fortunately he added that it seemed to have a pattern of coming and going and that it favored a particular feeder. And the pattern held and it returned providing a good view of a female Rose Breasted Grosbeak that was far less striking than the male but more striking than I had expected. Another good day in Neah Bay. On other of our many trips to Neah Bay in the next two months, Brian and I ran into and birded with both Paul and John on other occasions. Both have been helpful over the years and I thank them. Especially John Gatchet who has been the source of great information for many birds in Clallam County including most recently the Emperor Goose he found at 3 Crabs.
Rustic Bunting – Neah Bay – December 7, 2016
A terrible picture of a great bird. This Rustic Bunting was found by Cara Borre, another of my Master Birder Classmates, on December 6th this year. She reported it on Ebird and I immediately called Brian Pendleton who I knew would be up for the chase. We had both seen the one at the Kent Ponds almost exactly 30 years earlier in December 1986 and both wanted another. I took no photos back then so that was further incentive. I called Cara who was staying over night and got more details and the super news that she was going to be there the next morning and would help us find the bird. Although we got there pretty early, not surprisingly others were already in the hunt – with Cara leading the way. She had seen the bird earlier so we were all pretty optimistic. It took a lot of searching but finally Matt Bartels spied it skulking around near a small outflow creek between the road to the jetty and the beach. I made some poor decisions as to which way to go when the group split up and then compounded the error by trying to reconnect with the first group just as it was coming into an open view for Brian who remained on the beach side, but I was able to get a quick view of the Bunting and then miraculously one of my photo attempts at least captured the image. John Gatchet, Asta Tobiassen (who had first discovered the bird with Cara), Cara, Matt, Brian, Nathaniel Peters and I all got great views. In the days that followed many birders came looking for the bird from all over the U.S. Not quite the same frenzy as with the Eurasian Hobby two years earlier but a pretty spectacular mega-rarity. My thanks to Cara and Asta for this find and for Cara’s help over the years and now as she has joined the spotting crew with Westport Seabirds. And again to Matt.
Scissor Tailed Flycatcher – Highway 24 Near Othello – August 12, 2016
I never expected to see a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher in Washington. On a trip to Texas in 2013, it had been one of the birds I most wanted to see and get a photo of. Not hard to do there – but Washington??? When John Puschock reported one there on August 11, 2016, I knew I would go for it – and it was not hard to get Ann Marie Wood and Frank Caruso up for the trip either. We headed off early and I almost blew it (See my earlier post) when I miscalculated my gas supply and as we got to within about 15 miles of the target area, I had to turn back and get to a known gas station rather than risk not having enough gas to either find the bird or return later. It worked out well as we found a very unexpected Short Eared Owl on the way to the gas station and then fairly quickly found the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher perched on a wire just about where John had seen it the day before near milepost 68. What was even better – especially for that crazy county lister Ann Marie, was that we saw the bird on both sides of Highway 24 so it was a new county bird in both Adams and Franklin County. It was nice too that we were able to get Jason Vassallo and his group onto the bird shortly after we had found it. Some other good birds for the day included a Prairie Falcon, Eared and Clark’s Grebes, a pair of Baird’s Sandpipers and a flock of Red Necked Phalaropes.
Short Tailed Albatross – Westport Pelagic – April 26, 2014
Especially when following a fishing boat or at a chum stop on a pelagic trip, there can be lots of birds and great views as the birds circle around and even land on the water near you. Other times however, there is a single bird – maybe distant – flying fast with the boat rocking and the view can be terrible or short lived or both. On the way back to port on our April 26 trip that was the case when Scott Mills yelled “SHORT TAILED ALBATROSS”, and Michael Charest and I responded immediately – grabbed cameras – took quick pictures and the bird was gone. Michael’s picture was far better than mine (on the left) but I was thrilled to get anything at all. I don’t think many others on the boat had a chance to see it. Fortunately Michael and I were close to Scott and that made all the difference. Black Footed Albatrosses are commonplace and Laysan Albatrosses are seen most years, but the Short Tailed Albatross is rare everywhere having a very small population worldwide. Alaska is the best place to go and they are almost unheard of in Washington. This juvenile was a great find. The following year on John Puschock’s Adak pelagic trip the Short Tailed Albatross was probably the most sought after bird. We found only one but had wonderful looks in flight and on the water and there was the bonus of it being accompanied by a Laysan Albatross providing great comparative views which clearly show the great wing span. An albatross sized thank you to Scott Mills – not the first bird Scott has found for us birders.
Smith’s Longspur – Oyehut Game Range – August 26, 2013
This may have been my wettest birding chase ever. This extremely rare bird had been discovered two days earlier by I believe Dave Slager but news did not reach me until the 25th. Steve Pink and I made a beeline to Ocean Shores the next day in heavy rains. We went into the Game Range with Gene Revelas and two other birders and sloshed through the grass seeking this very well camouflaged bird. Pretty miraculous but we found the Smith’s Longspur in the very heavy grass and even got at least an ID photo. I had previously seen a Chestnut Collared Longspur in Arizona and Lapland Longspurs in Washington. Just less than a month later, I found a McCown’s Longspur on a visit to Yellowstone – the Longspur Grand Slam I guess.
Spotted Owl – Lewis County – June 7, 2015
The sad saga of the Spotted Owl in Washington is all too well known. Loss of habitat and competition by the rapidly increasing Barred Owl population has made this very much a disappearing species. I had seen one in my first year of birding in Washington – 1973 and with some “promised to be kept secret” information, I had found another in the Liberty area in 2013. In June 2015, Doug Schurman organized a trip to Lewis County with a “Spotted Owl expert” to find and photograph this now rare bird. It took some time but our guide’s vocalizations paid off and a pair was located down a very steep slope. We clambered down and got great looks and good photos. Interestingly when contacted again in 2016, the guide was not able to relocate this pair. More sadness to the saga. Many thanks to Doug for organizing the trip. I first met Doug at Interlaken Park where I used my own vocalization to call in a Barred Owl that resided in the park.
Summer Tanager – University District (Seattle) – December 9, 2012
This is probably tied as my most unlikely sighting – or at least sighting in a most unlikely place. News that a Summer Tanager was being seen in the University District in Seattle appeared on Tweeters and with specific directions, I went to the apartment building and kept my fingers crossed. Sure enough this bright red bird came to the feeder on the window sill and then perched on a nearby tree limb. First of all, it did not belong in the state and then it surely did not belong in the University District and certainly not at an apartment complex. Very grateful that it ignored what should have been and made this appearance. My sighting that is probably tied with this was finding a Western Screech Owl on a trip with the Denny’s. It was perched on a brick windowsill on the third floor of the library at Whitman College in Walla Walla on May 8, 2015.
Upland Sandpiper – Oyehut Game Range – September 6, 2013
This picture is mine but is not from Washington. It is from the Kennebunk Plains in Maine taken in June 2015. But I have seen one in Washington and not many people can say that. Dennis Paulson and I were birding the Game Range at Ocean Shores when Dennis got a call from Bob Sundstrom who was leading a trip through the Northwest for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. He knew Dennis was on the Game Range and he had just seen an Upland Sandpiper (once called an “Upland Plover“) flying over. Seconds later we saw the bird clearly as it flew directly over our heads and continued West. There had been no time to get ready for a photo and the view was brief yet positive. I later found out that Asta Tobiassen – see above as the first spotter of the Neah Bay Rustic Bunting – had the bird land near her and she got a wonderful photo. It was seen by a couple more people that day and by a few more the next and then it was gone. We may have been the only ones to see the bird – one of only a very few state records – one in 1987 and another in 1997 (plus a heard only in 2009). Thanks to Bob for sharing the sighting and to Dennis for getting the call and spotting the bird together with me. More on Dennis later.
White Tailed Kite – Steigerwald Lake NWR – January 6, 2015
It is probably going to be a good year when the first two birds you see are a Red Shouldered Hawk and a White Tailed Kite. That is how 2015 started for me at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. White Tailed Kites have never been common in Washington but there had been a time when they were fairly regular at Ridgefield Refuge, Ocean Shores or in the Raymond area. I had hoped that one would show up during my Big Year in 2013 but it did not happen. When one was reported at Steigerwald on January 5th I was sure to leave very early and be at Steigerwald (3 hours away) at first light. The first bird I saw was a Red Shouldered Hawk and then a few minutes later, there it was – the White Tailed Kite hovering and hunting in an open field. When it landed briefly I was able to get a coveted photo. Really a gorgeous bird. Later on the way home I stopped at the Gog-Le-Hi-Te wetland and found the Slaty Backed Gull that continued in the area. Any of these three birds would have been a great find – all three on the first day of birding for the year really was incredible and did portend a good year ahead.
Wilson’s Plover – Grayland Beach State Park, October 9, 2012
I believe this may be the only record of a Wilson’s Plover in Washington. It was first located in early October 2012 and was seen by many birders including me in the following 30 days. Smaller than a Black Bellied Plover and larger than a Semipalmated Plover, its very thick bill is an easy distinguishing field mark. Not a spectacular bird in this plumage but the rarity alone justifies its inclusion in this list.
Yellow Throated Warbler – Longview – December 16, 2015
This is the bird that almost wasn’t. It was first reported by Russ Koppendreyer who was also very helpful in directing people to the park where he found it and then often meeting other birders there to locate the bird. I made a first trip there on December 14, 2016 but due largely to car troubles (I could not turn off the car and then be able to restart it so I had to leave the motor running) I did not find the bird. After getting the car fixed, I returned two days later and along with a number of others and guided by Russ found the Yellow Throated Warbler brilliant in its breeding plumage foraging at the base of the large trees in the park. Very rare to have this bird in Washington and very cool to have it still in its breeding plumage. Many thanks to Russ for his help with this bird and with others over the years.
Bonus Bird – Slaty Backed Gull – 11th Avenue Bridge Tacoma – March 25, 2015
I decided to add the Slaty Backed Gull as a bonus bird because it has been with me for all five of these years. It does not belong in Washington at all, but yet there it has been somewhere along the Puyallup River in Tacoma every year between 2012 and 2016. Sometimes it has been on the roof of one of the nearby warehouses; sometimes at the “gull bathing spot”; sometimes at the area adjacent to the 11th Avenue Bridge. Although generally seen only in the Fall and Winter, speculation is that it may have remained in the area throughout the period. Larger and darker mantled than the other Larus gulls in the area – the Slaty Backed Gull has been easy to identify if not always easy to find. Very rare in Washington yet it has been reliable all these years – IF you get out and try – maybe more than once each year – but rewarding once found. It epitomizes my five years and thus I have chosen it as the “featured image” for this post. Just get out there and try and there are great birds to reward you. And if at first you don’t succeed, keep on trying. Planning and persevering are two critical parts of any Big Year. Especially as the year ends, the drive to get “just one more” is very strong. I have been driven by that of course, but I have also come to value every experience even when the targeted prize is not found. There is joy in the doing itself…Following the passion.
By choosing just 30 species and the one bonus to represent the great birds of these fabulous five years, I necessarily had to leave out many others with similarly wonderful stories. Just as with the 30 selected, many of these others have appeared in earlier blog posts so a reader can find more stories by looking through other posts (Go ahead – you may find something you like!!), but since this is the last post of this year, I want to at least name some of those other fun birds – no details:
Emperor Goose and Tufted Duck; Snowy Owl and Snowy Egret; Bar Tailed and Hudsonian Godwits; Buff Breasted and Sharp Tailed Sandpipers; Ruff; Black Headed, Little, Franklin’s, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls; Black Throated Blue, Tennessee and Northern Parula Warblers; Common and Great Tailed Grackles; Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood Pewee; Yellow Billed Loon; Laysan Albatross; White Faced Ibis; Thick Billed Murre; Parakeet Auklet; Indigo and Painted Buntings; Hooded Oriole; and Brambling. My apologies to these birds – you are just as good as the others – and to the people who shared them with me.
I have tried to include as many helpful other birders in the descriptions as I could. I am sure I have omitted some. I have listed these great birders and friends below – and a repeated thank you to them all. Some require special words.
Brian Pendleton – I could and probably should write an entire post about Brian. We have now spent a lot of time together and it has been exceptionally rewarding both in the observations and cool places we have shared but moreso getting to learn from him – how to deal with challenges and find the positive in life. Just this year we have seen 200 species together. It has been great fun. Thank you Brian for SO MUCH!!
The Gang of Four – Ann Marie Wood, Steve Pink, Jon Houghton and Frank Caruso. These great folks all live near me in Edmonds and are almost always ready for whatever birding adventure I have in mind or bring me into theirs. Each is a great birder and each brings a fun personality along on every trip. Who can ever get enough of Steve’s British wit and accent (and his great birding skills). Ann Marie is always a kick and her perseverance, drive and patience have often resulted in birds otherwise missed. Jon and I share many life experiences from our pasts and have shared many great chases – mostly successful. He is the best navigator and weatherman for any trip. Frank is the newest to the west coast and even though he remains a Red Sox and Patriots fan, he sometimes gives the Seahawks and Mariners some respect. He is as knowledgeable about sports as he is about birds and has some of the best ears I know – a great aid in finding birds. Best of all – they all tolerate me (and contribute to ferry tolls and gas costs).
.Mike and MerryLynn Denny: You simply could not ask for better bird guides anywhere – but especially in their beloved Walla Walla County. They have kindly taken me along on many of their trips – always finding great birds and expounding on every tree, flower, plant, animal and geographical detail in their beautiful area. And just fun people to be with. Thank you for so much help and wisdom.
Samantha Robinson: Sam and I did a lot of birding together. She always had an interest in nature and photography and I taught her about birds. She probably first got me interested in photography and I learned a lot from her – way more about things other than photography including about myself and the sheer joy of being out in nature with great people. She is definitely one of the best.
Deborah Essman: Deb is my best friend – who hunts. She and her husband Bill live in Ellensburg and are just great folks. They are terrific hunters – ethical ones who teach good hunting and nature ethics to many. Both have been park rangers and are avid back road visitors in their serious 4-wheel drive rigs. They have taken me into beautiful and otherwise unreachable backcountry in the canyons outside of Ellensburg and we have found great birds together there and elsewhere in Kittitas County. I wish I could have seen the Common Grackle and White Winged Dove that Deb has had in her yard.
Melissa Hafting: I wonder if Mel ever sleeps She knows every bird and birder in British Columbia, where she lives and many in Washington as well. She follows every info source for birds in both states and I think she has some special brain antennae that allows her to know that someone has seen a rare bird somewhere even before they report it. She often tells me of birds that have been seen in Washington before I learn of them and encourages me to go find them. She also posts beautiful photos, paints beautiful paintings, writes a beautiful rare bird alert and blog, mentors young birders, and comments tirelessly about every photo that anyone posts on Facebook and Flickr. Many hundred (thousand?) people follow and enjoy her photo postings and she is ALWAYS positive, helpful and encouraging. We have only birded together a few times – how about those Green Tailed Towhees!! – but have had great fun. I hope to learn more about B.C. birds on trips there with her next year.
Dennis Paulson: How can I look back on these past five years without talking about Dennis. Everyone knows and has learned from Dennis. He tweaks me and other listers but sometimes he just has to go find a rare bird as well. He knows more about birds and dragonflies and butterflies and probably everything else that is alive than anyone I know. I learned so much from his Master Birder Class and would love to take it again. Dozens of others can say the same thing. I have been fortunate to have birded some in the field with Dennis, have enjoyed his programs for many organizations and am fortunate to be able to go to him as my “go to” guy for any identification question. He always gives me not just the right ID but also the how’s and why’s and what so I can learn from it. Dennis thank you for all your help, instruction and leadership.
A Long List of terrific people in our birding community who have helped immensely. Thank you, thank you thank you…
Brian Pendleton, Ann Marie Wood, Steve Pink, John Houghton, Frank Caruso, Mike and MerryLynn Denny, Keith Carlson, Doug Schurman, Cara Borre, John Gatchet, Alex Patia, Dan Reiff, Dennis Paulson, Mike Clarke, Matt Bartels, John Puschock, Phil and Chris Anderson, Bill Shelmerdine, Melissa Hafting, Kevin Black, Jim Danzenbaker, Joe Sweeney, Jean Olson, Grace and Ollie Oliver, Bob Boekelheide, Denny Van Horn, Deborah Essman, Brad Waggoner, Carol Riddell, Bill Tweit, Bruce Labar, Ryan Merrill, Chazz Hesselein, Paul Baerny, George Pagos, Greg Thompson, Maxine Reid, Neil Zimmerman, Fanter Lane, Russ Koppendreyer, Samantha Robinson, Scott Mills, Tim Boyer, Khanh Tran