On December 19, 1986 I had the great good fortune to see the Rustic Bunting that had been found at the Kent Ponds. That observation predated digital photography and I was not a film camera guy at the time so had no photo. Frankly I figured I never would get a photo and would never see another one – anywhere let alone again in Washington State. WRONG!! Yet again Neah Bay came through and on December 7th – almost exactly 30 years after that first sighting, I saw – and photographed (poorly) another one.
Cara Borre posted her observation of a Rustic Bunting at Neah Bay on Tweeters midday on December 6th. Cara was a classmate in our Master Birder’s Class in 2012-13 and is both an excellent birder and also someone who would not make a mistake. This was real. I immediately contacted Brian Pendleton and we agreed to head out to Neah Bay if we could get any more information. I reached Cara and got good info on the location – along the road out to the jetty not far from where we earlier had found the Dusky Capped Flycatcher. The better information was that she and Asta were staying over in Neah Bay and could meet us the next morning for some personal guidance. I called Steve and Frank and Jon and Ann Marie but they all had other commitments, so Brian and I were on our own and we replayed our routine of catching the 6:20 Edmonds ferry and were off once again to the Promised Land.
Wednesday was a beautiful day – bright sunshine – but very cold. Surprisingly we hit a fair amount of snow in Port Angeles – not on the road but several inches on the trees and the countryside – beautiful. We noticed many more birds on the road along the way – especially Varied Thrushes – birds we had not seen on previous trips, perhaps pushed to the lowlands by the snow. Not far east of the new bridge fixing a washout about 10 miles from Neah Bay we had another surprise – a warbler flew almost into the windshield. We had good but very brief looks and as it almost hit us. The initial impression was a very light Orange Crowned Warbler – with a greenish back and a very pale undersides – almost white. Could it have been a Tennessee Warbler? I had had one not too far from there last fall. We debated going back to try to find it but decided instead to press on to try for the Bunting.
As we neared Neah Bay, I called Cara and found that she was in the area where it had been seen. Other birders were there and Cara had seen it briefly earlier but had not been able to get the group on the bird. We met the group about ten minutes later – Bruce Labar, Matt Bartels, John Gatchet and Cara. They had not refound the Bunting. Brian and I joined them and we marched up and down the road peering into the thick brush and hoping to find the group of Juncos that it had been associating with. Nathaniel Peters arrived and joined us.
After maybe 15 minutes, Brian and I split and went onto the beach side of the thick brush as the others continued above. I don’t know who it was, but a shout let all know that the Bunting had been found. I caught a quick glimpse but confronted by a lot of water and the creek outflow, I made the bad decision to back track and join the group on the road. This meant about 1/4 mile of rushing and by the time I arrived, the bird had been out in the open but then had re-buried itself. I had a couple of good looks but only of the rapidly moving bird and I was fortunate to get any photo at all. Meanwhile, Brian below had an obstructed view along the creek while I was retracing steps. It would have been a fantastic picture with the sun directly on the bird. A sad miss, but this was a fantastic bird and a picture – even a poor one – that I never expected to get. It was a life bird for Bruce and that is really saying something as this was State Bird number 445 for him – best in Washington. So cool!!!!
Even knowing the general area where it had been seen and having some of the best birders in the state looking, it had not been an easy find. If the bird had not been flushed on the road the day before in front of Cara’s expert eyes, it is doubtful that anyone would have found it in this very challenging brush. It is a ground feeder – content to remain hidden and almost invisible. For all we know, it may have been there for a long while – undetected.
We had our MEGA rarity within 30 minutes of arriving. It was only 10:15 – now what? The answer was easy – off to Adrianne Akmajian’s feeder – hoping to find the Clay Colored Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow that had been hanging out there (the same place the Dickcissel had frequented more than a month ago). The whole group headed over and within minutes both sparrows made an appearance and were very visible as they fed happily with Golden and White Crowned Sparrows on the ground.
Clay Colored Sparrow
I had previously missed a photo of the Harris’s Sparrow so was very pleased this time.
We spent the remainder of the day checking out the “regular spots” and trying again to find and get a better picture of the Rustic Bunting. (We failed to do so.) The great specialties we had seen on recent Neah Bay visits were no longer to be found – or at least by us and admittedly we did not try very hard for the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher or a Palm Warbler. There was no Orchard Oriole and none of the previously obvious Tropical Kingbirds. The Tufted Duck was not at the STP although the ponds were full of Ring Necked Ducks, both Greater and Lesser Scaup, Buffleheads, Shovelers and Mallards and had a single Common Goldeneye. There were a number of Trumpeter Swans in the Wa’atch River and a number of Cackling Geese in the adjacent grass – including many of the Aleutian subspecies/race with their white collars.
Aleutian Cackling Goose
We spent a lot of time searching for and not finding a Swamp Sparrow and checked out every gull group hoping for either an Iceland Gull or a Glaucous Gull. Definitely none of the former and just maybe one of the latter – although the all dark bill probably meant it was a light First-cycle Glaucous-winged Gull instead.
We left Neah Bay – maybe for the last time this year – earlier than usual and headed home after yet another extraordinary day. Later I saw John Gatchet’s Ebird list and saw his excellent photos of the Rustic Bunting. John has been receiving some medical treatments, but he was able to make the trip and he looked super – maybe with an extra glow after seeing the Bunting. I include one of his excellent photos to end this post.
Rustic Bunting – Photo by John Gatchet