As evidenced by some preceding Blog Posts, January 2017 is proving to be a great start to a birding year with many rare and compelling species. I have seen a Red Flanked Blue Tail in Lewiston, Idaho, a Purple Sandpiper near Victoria, British Columbia, a Common Eider on Purdy Spit, and a Falcated Duck on Padilla Bay. I have not been alone on any of these sightings – not actually on the day each rarity was sighted nor statistically as many other birders added their observations of these birds to Ebird or local listservs or just their own record books. In just the past four days, I have been able to add Yellow Billed Loon, Northern Mockingbird and Swamp Sparrow to my observations for this month. Again for each, others were either present at the same time or preceded or followed me and added these special birds to their lists. Not just a few others – many, many others…there sure are lots of birders out there! Here are some numbers, stories and photos accordingly.
First some of those birds already in my blog posts.
January 4, 2017 – Red Flanked Blue Tail – Lewiston, Idaho.
This rare little beauty may have taken first place in the Most Popular contest. On the day that I was able to see it, there were another 7 birders there at the same time and I know others came later. More than 145 birders reported this species on Ebird and not everyone uses Ebird. I I would not be surprised if more than 200 birders saw this gem. And go look at a map, not a lot of major population centers near Lewiston.
January 11, 2017 – Common Eider – Purdy Spit
Not quite as rare – nor as photo-friendly as the Bluetail, this misplaced duck was almost as popular and definitely a lot closer to major population centers. There have been at least 90 Ebird reports of this species this month. It remains and continues to be seen so no telling what the final count will be.
January 12, 2017 – Purple Sandpiper – Kitty Islet, Victoria, B.C.
This was definitely the most difficult of the January rarities for me to find. As reported, had Steve Pink and I arrived there 10 minutes earlier, we likely would not have seen it. I know of many who have tried and missed and/or for whom it took several attempts. There are 65 reports on Ebird – even with the U.S./Canadian exchange rate that is a lot – especially given the cost of the ferry to get there from the Mainland – either Canadian or U.S.
January 16, 2017 – Falcated Duck – Padilla Bay
At least for me, this was the most treasured of the January rarities, a species I never expected to see anywhere let alone in Washington. It has also been the most ephemeral of the rare visitors. It was first seen on January 15th and last reported on January 17th. Now you see it and now you don’t. Only one report was from the 15th and another 15 Ebird reports were from January 17. On the 16th, the day I saw it, there were 27 Ebird reports – so a total of 43. I know of at least another dozen birders who saw it and do not report on Ebird.
I may have been the only person who reported all four of those species on Ebird (which you can rightfully translate as the only person crazy enough to make all those trips), but many people reported more than one of the four and some reported three. The simple math is that there were almost 350 Ebird reports on those four species and my guess is that there were more than 500 observations by more than 300 distinct observers.
But that was then – how about now? January has continued to deliver exciting opportunities and the birding community has eagerly responded. A Yellow Billed Loon was found at Rosario Beach State Park, the same place where many birders went to see a Rock Sandpiper after the Falcated Duck observations. It was probably first seen on the 17th (by Eric Heisey) but reports did not appear until the next day. It is continuing to be seen as this is written (January 26th) – often quite close to shore as it seems to come in as the tide changes. So far it has been reported by 85 observers on Ebird and based on anecdotal experience and many posts on Tweeters, I expect that the actual number of observations/observers may well be twice that many. A bonus has been that the loon is in almost full breeding plumage – very rare for Washington and even rarer for this early date. This Yellow Billed Loon is thus very photogenic, and the ease of getting to the location and its cooperative behavior coming in close has resulted in many photos.
I was finally able to look for the loon on January 23rd. When I first arrived, others were already there and we watched the Yellow Billed Loon pretty far out – maybe a half mile away by the large island in the bay. After maybe an hour, it began its journey into closer waters and more and more birders arrived with scopes, binoculars and varying photographic equipment. The weather was beautiful, and the photographers, myself included, jockeyed for position along the beach to take advantage of the sun behind us and the bird in front of us. Lots of good socializing was a fun part of the day.
Yellow Billed Loon – Rosario Beach – January 23, 2017
This photo gives at least a sense of the birding scene – all happy observers.
Brian Pendleton and I were fortunate to be able to participate in the year end wrap up by the ABC birding group in Tacoma on January 24th – sharing some photos and experiences from our 2016 “Big Years” in Washington. It was an easy decision to do some birding on our way down and we decided to do quick chases for some of the better birds that had been reported locally in the past few days. Our first stop was to look for the Bohemian Waxwings that were being reported daily at Magnuson Park near where Brian lives. I had a pretty pathetic look at a couple of the waxwings two weeks earlier but was not able to get a photo. Unfortunately poor weather and a hunting Cooper’s Hawk precluded a picture on this visit as well. We had a couple of flocks of waxwings and I am pretty sure there was at least one or two Bohemians with many more Cedar Waxwings – but only from afar. There have been 110 Ebird reports of Bohemian Waxwings in Magnuson Park in January and their presence continues. Another 16 Ebird reports for this species at the Park were filed in December 2016.
Cooper’s Hawk – Hunting at Magnuson Park – January 24, 2017
Our next stop was to look for the Swamp Sparrow being reported almost daily from the Center for Wooden Boats at South Lake Union Park. Although the location is well defined and easily approached and birded, the Swamp Sparrow is very furtive and acts more like a little rodent as it scurries from the open into the deep grass/weeds and can thus be a difficult find. Brian had seen it before but this was my first trip. He had a fleeting view of it on this visit and I had none. We decided not to spend much time there and to head off for other opportunities as we worked our way south. But first a diversion to the East. (More on the Swamp Sparrow later.)
Our Eastern diversion was to look for the Northern Mockingbird that had been reported frequently from a residential area in Kirkland. We had connected with Gregg Thompson at the Swamp Sparrow stakeout, and he was not encouraging for photo ops for the Northern Mockingbird. It was generally being reported in a holly tree behind a house, and Gregg had seen the holly and decided to not spend the time there trying for what seemed like an unlikely good photo op. I am pretty sure I have never gotten a better photo than Gregg, but in this case, at least it was a good decision to try for one despite his decision not to.
When we arrived at the designated address in Kirkland, I decided to park in the driveway behind one of the cars, with the intent to knock on the door (the owners had been described in many reports as very friendly) and ask if they had seen the Mockingbird and if we could take a look. As soon as he got out of the car, however, Brian exclaimed “There it is!” Our Northern Mockingbird was perched in the open on a small tree at the adjoining home. I snapped a few photos before it took off to the south. We followed and found it again briefly in a tree three homes away. The homeowner saw me with my large lens and came out to ask what we were doing. Anticipating concern, I explained we were not spies – just chasing a rare bird. Turned out, he was from Texas and was more than familiar with Mockingbirds and their chatter. He had not known it was in the area and was happy to have us point it out – just before it took off and headed back north again.
As we started to retrace our steps, we saw another fellow walking towards us. I wondered if maybe my car was parked behind his and was either blocking his way or at least needed an explanation. This turned into one of those fun intersections on a birding trip. Brad was the owner of the house next to where the holly bush was located. He led us to the house with the holly and into the back yard where the Northern Mockingbird was conveniently perched completely in the open on a wire directly above us and next to said holly tree. Not great light, but photos were easy and much better than other Washington Mockingbird photos from my past. We also had a great talk with Brad about hunting, ducks, construction (he is a contractor) and birds and birders. Really a good guy – a perfect host for visiting birders. At least 25 Ebird reports have included this bird. Many other observers have seen it as well and it continues as far as I know.
Northern Mockingbird – Kirkland Residential Area – January 24, 2017
Now it really was time to head south, so we headed to the Kent Ponds – aka the Green River Natural Area where a Red Shouldered Hawk had been reported. We got a lot of exercise, found another Cooper’s Hawk and little else – well except a Red Tailed Hawk that was located at the exact spot where the Red Shouldered Hawk was described – and our Red Tail was calling just as the Ebird report had indicated the Red Shouldered Hawk had been doing. The Red Shouldered Hawk report was from a Monthly Census and there were 8 separate Ebird reports as every member of the Census team was included (one apparent sighting otherwise calls only) so maybe 8 actual observations is an over counting. Disappointed, Brian and I continued on to Tacoma where we failed to find the Slaty Backed Gull at either Gog Le Hi Te or the 11th Street Bridge. Our last stop was at Ruston Way in the area where Bruce Labar first located the King Eider last year. No Eider but some beautiful Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes and lots of Mew Gulls.
Barrow’s Goldeneye – Ruston Way – January 25, 2017
Mew Gull – Ruston Way – January 25, 2017
The event with the ABC group was a lot of fun. They are super birders and many of their names could be found on the Ebird reports for the rarities which are the subject of this blog post. We had dipped on some of the birds we chased but the Mockingbird more than made up for that and meeting Brad was another of those great bonus experiences.
I felt I had unfinished business though as I really wanted a photo of the Swamp Sparrow, Between errands today I revisited the Center for Wooden Boats. Immediately upon arrival I saw a sparrow skulking at the water’s edge and started snapping photos. Was it really going to be that easy? Well, no. Turns out it was a Song Sparrow. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to remain on the list of those missing the target but then saw some movement in the grass. A fleeting glance confirmed it was the Swamp Sparrow but a photo was out of the question. I watched it almost completely concealed for maybe 10 minutes and then miraculously it came out into the open for a moment and I was able to finally get some nice shots. Really a fine looking bird.
Swamp Sparrow – Lake Union Park – Center for Wooden Boats – January 26, 2017
Mine was the 27th Ebird report for this lovely sparrow. I expect there will be more in the days to come.
Indeed it has been a great January. Easy for me to conclude from this great group of rare to very rare birds. And obviously many others in the area have enjoyed birding this month as well. As I said. there sure are a lot of birders out there – and many of them are sharing their experiences on Ebird and Tweeters and other sites. We all benefit from that shared wealth of information. I wonder what will show up and be enjoyed by so many in the community next.
Afterthought: The Song Sparrow was spied first and easily and at first I thought it was the targeted Swamp Sparrow. The real Swamp Sparrow took a lot more effort to find and photograph. Here is the comparison.