There Sure Are Lots of Birders Out There

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.


Conjuring Up a Falcated Duck

Among the benefits of birding with Steve Pink is that his birding in Britain has familiarized him with many species never seen or very rare in the States (or the Provinces if in Canada).  For example, if I were to whimsically say how nice it would be to see a Smew (my top of the bucket list bird), Steve will relate the numerous occasions he has seen one in Britain.  This also makes him a great resource for identification of many Eurasian visitors that are such sought after rarities here.  Additionally Steve is as avid a lister – year/state/county/ABA – as anyone, so he is always up for a chase and for great “wouldn’t it be nice if a such and such shows up” wishful thinking.

In my previous blog post “Chasing, Chasing, Chasing” I detailed my most recent birding experience with Steve, our visit to Victoria where we found the Purple Sandpiper at Kitty Islet.  I am not making this up: On our return from that successful chase, there was plenty of travel time, and we filled some of it discussing how nice it would be if another rarity showed up closer to home and debated whether it would be better if it were a Baikal Teal or a Falcated Duck.  Both would be life birds for me,  while Steve had seen them both.  That was the afternoon of Thursday  January 12th.  It was wishful and playful thinking – not serious but a good way to fill time.

Fast forward less than 72 hours.  On the morning of January 15th, Rick Klawitter – a birder not known by me – found of all things, a Falcated Duck at Bayview State Park in Skagit County – barely an hour from Edmonds where Steve and I reside.  Little did he know that Steve and I had somehow sent a message out to the bird gods to send this little beauty to our great state and to place it where someone with great discernment would find it and then communicate its presence to the world.  We apparently had that power.  If I had only known it would work this way, I would have put all that energy into conjuring up a Smew, the bird I have written about previously as being on the very top of my birding bucket list..  Rick’s posting on Ebird informed us all but not until it was too late to chase it on the 15th.  Early the 16th would have to do.

I had planned to do a lot of catch up that day, but as soon as I learned of this rare find late on the night of the 15th, I called Ann Marie Wood and Steve to see if they were interested (knowing of course that they would be).  Turned out they had already planned to bird on Monday and now there would be a powerful purpose and intent to the venture.  We left Edmonds a bit after 8 and encouraged by Ryan Merrill’s Tweeters post that he had already seen the Falcated Duck that morning, we made a beeline to Bayview State Park.  There were already cars parked at the trail, and we could see birders with scopes in the distance – YES!!!

We trekked maybe just under a mile down the trail and saw a very large (400-500) flock of ducks – mostly American Wigeon but with Mallards, Eurasian Wigeon, Pintails and Greater Scaup also present.  With the help of many birders already there  (thank you Gary Bletsch, Bob Kuntz, Scott Downes among others) and with great difficulty, we all got views of the mega-rarity – losing it almost immediately each time we did  as it repositioned itself in the ever moving flock.  I could not find it once I transferred my view from scope to camera, so I took dozens of random photos of the flock – trying to concentrate on different areas or the ones where I thought I had just viewed it.

Finally the light improved and the Falcated Duck made its way somewhat into the open and I got an acceptable if distant photo. Its iridescent green head with its distinctive helmet shape was only visible when it was sideways with good light.  The white neck or chin was a great marker to aid in finding it and I was struck by its very thin bill.

Falcated Duck – Bayview State Park – South Trail – January 16, 2017



It turned out that one of my random shots had also captured the duck, and it shows its size relative to the Wigeon, much larger than I had expected.

Falcated Duck – Bayview State Park – South Trail – January 16, 2017 (Lucky Random Shot)


This was a new year bird, county bird, state bird, ABA bird and new World Bird – complete “Lifer” in every sense.  The photo also made it the 400th species I had photographed in Washington.  Despite the playful wishful thinking in the conversation with Steve about fun rare birds to find in Washington, I never expected to see let alone photograph this species here.  What a fabulous morning!!  [And an aside – how great it was to see so many young birders on the scene to view this rarity.  They will contribute greatly to our birding community.]

It was about 10:30 a.m. – what next?  Before the Falcated Duck had appeared, Steve and Ann Marie’s day was going to include a visit to Rosario Head, certainly one of the most spectacular spots in Washington, hopefully to see the Rock Sandpiper that had been scouring the rocks there.  So off we went – following many others who had left Bayview before us and headed that way.  When we arrived, the park was closed but there were several dozen cars along the road.  There could not be that many birders there, could there?  Turns out there was a clean up project underway adding to the handful of birder’s cars.  On the way in we saw a man with a scope accompanying his son in a wheelchair.  Hoping for news of a Rock Sandpiper sighting, we stopped to chat.

He gave us the news that his wife was up on the bluff sans scope.  The Rock Sandpiper was there but a difficult view without the scope.  The wheelchair was not going to make it up the steep path, so we volunteered to take the scope up – or to just share ours with her.  We learned that this was Steve Sutherland, with his son Ryan, and his wife Debbie was the birder up above.  The Sutherlands are from Chelan, Washington and are a very cool family.

Chased birds are like magnets, and with their presence advertised on Ebird or Tweeters or BirdYak or other listservs, they draw birders from near and far thus providing the opportunity to meet folks in real life that we only know from their posts on those electronic media.  Such was the case with Debbie Sutherland – and now her family.  We knew her from Tweeters and Ebird but generally as “Sutherland Debbie” and among other claims to fame is the frequent presence of Lesser Goldfinches at her feeders.  Since she does not wear a name badge or sport an “I am from Chelan” sign, we would not know her if we saw her.  But we knew her posts and it was fun to meet her on top of the bluff, to see the Rock Sandpiper together, to share the scope and some stories as well.

The cliff was high and there was no guardrail.  Ann Marie had braved the path up to the viewpoint but her vertigo was a threat to her being able to look over and down the cliff to where the Rock Sandpiper was foraging with some Surfbirds and Black Turnstones at the base.  Ann Marie drew on some inner strength as she always does and was able to get just close enough to the cliff’s edge to view the Rock Sandpiper.

Rock Sandpiper at Rosario Head – January 16, 2017


Surfbird at Rosario Head – January 16, 2017


Something flushed the birds and I snapped a photo that I am pretty sure is the Rock Sandpiper coming in for a landing.

Rock Sandpiper Landing at Rosario Head – January 16, 2017


Debbie had returned to her family below, and this enabled Steve to come up for his look.  Since I had errantly chosen the steeper of the two paths back down, this was a good thing as he added another supporting arm helping Ann Marie down. Returned to the safety of the base of the hill, we continued our visit with the Sutherlands and learned how they utilized some pretty fun technology to further include Ryan in the family birding.  They transmit images directly from their scope to a screen in their van which Ryan can view.  Sometimes he finds birds before they do.  How great is that?!

It was then noon, and I am not going to detail every stop along the way for the rest of the day, many of which were new places for me as I am not the ardent county lister/birder that both Steve and Ann Marie are.  Highlights were hundreds of swans – both Trumpeters and Tundras, some Greater White Fronted Geese, thousands of Snow Geese (in seemingly endless flocks in flight as the day ended), Black Oystercatchers, more hundreds of ducks, many Bald Eagles, a very cooperative Greater Yellowlegs and at the end, just a few loons and alcids, an elegant Lincoln’s Sparrow and of course gorgeous scenery at every turn.

Tundra Swans


Greater White Fronted Geese


Greater Yellowlegs


Black Oystercatcher


Lincoln Sparrow


Scenic Views


I have written often that birding gives us the opportunity each time we are out to visit beautiful places, mix with great people and see great birds.  All three were surely present on this day.  I do have to add that when one of the birds is a fantastic bird like a Falcated Duck that I have helped conjure up – well that is really special!!

[An afterthought: In less than two weeks this month, I have been fortunate to see a Red Flanked Bluetail in Idaho, a Common Eider and a Falcated Duck in Washington and a Purple Sandpiper in British Columbia.  Each a fantastic bird in the place observed – either a first ever record or one of less than a handful.  True rarities AND NONE of them were in Neah Bay!!!]


My professed birding philosophy this year is to limit chases to new state birds, new ABA birds and new (or improved) ABA photos and when some other factors line up just right, to go for targeted birds with birding friends to enjoy the birds and places and people.  This past week has had three such chases.  They may have been only partially successful in birds found, but they have been very successful in rich experiences with great folks and great places and some of the chased birds as well.  The first of these was a different kind of “chase” – a visit to a favorite spot to find some very charismatic birds in part to build the interest of a special friend in birds and birding.

Especially for “listers”, it is not unusual to drive many hours to stand for many hours at some not all that pretty spot waiting in the cold or even rain waiting for some non-descript bird to come out of hiding just long enough for a glimpse and a “tick” – that statement that we have seen “IT”.  The draw is that the “IT” is a bird that we have not seen before, or not seen before that year or not seen before in that state, or not seen before in that county – thus an addition to our self-important list – our way of competing with ourselves or with others or just our way of organizing and feeding our passion for birds or maybe in this case our passion for birding.  Almost exactly a year ago, that was the experience as Frank Caruso and I took the long ferry ride to 3940 South Valley Drive in Capital County, British Columbia, Canada and then waited and waited with another birder who had come all the way from Chicago, who like us, was hoping to add Redwing to our ABA lists.    Native to and common in Europe and Asia, the Redwing looks a lot like our  American Robin and is VERY uncommon in Canada or the U.S. not even seen most years.  It had been hanging out in a holly bush in a vacant lot and was very furtive – a real challenge to see.  Finally after many hours, it came out almost into the open and we had both visuals and a not very good commemorative and proof positive photo.

Redwing – January 5, 2016 – Victoria B.C.


The Redwing chase was successful because the rarity was found.  Had it not been, there still would have been a story but it would have emphasized agony and discomfort instead of the joy of success.  At least that is how it was for birders/listers like me and Frank and our compatriot from Chicago.  To a non-birder or a “not-yet-birder” however, that kind of chase and even that kind of successful “find” would more likely fall into the category of: “Are you kidding?” or “We are going to do what – for what?” Sooo – much better to start out and develop interest by going somewhere pretty with charismatic birds, easy to find, easy to see and identify and with some aesthetic quality that resonates even to a non-birder.

Waterfowl are a good start – if close and not in the rain or wind – and owls are even better as there is that overlay of a mystical quality that they bring with them.  Waterfowl are easy to find and to see and the diversity is always a surprise to someone who has not paid that much attention before.  At a place like the Semiahmoo Spit in Whatcom County, where I had taken Lynette on our first birding trip late last year, the waterfowl were plentiful and colorful; the setting was gorgeous and a good lunch was nearby.  All elements for a good introductory experience.  Finding Bufflehead, Surf Scoters, Long Tailed Ducks, Pintails and  Harlequin Ducks easily brought home the notion that not all ducks are Mallards, that they are quite different in many details while still having their basic “duckiness” and that they are very beautiful.  Hard to beat a male Harlequin Duck for that last point.

Harlequin Duck (seen at Semiahmoo on December 30, 016 – but photo from elsewhere)


After that positive introduction, I thought a good next step would be to add some owls to Lynette’s birding experience.  An owl at night would be great but challenging, so the choice was to go to Legue Island – Eide Road in Stanwood, Washington where at this time of year, Short Eared Owls are almost a certainty and with luck there could be many and some would be seen relatively close.  When we arrived the parking lot was full – uh-oh  what was going on?  We saw many (20?) photographers in the field but there did not seem to be any spotting scopes or binoculars – not a birding crowd.  But they were there for the same reason – the owls – and to a lesser extent the scenery – and since there were also MANY owls, we were happy to share.  (An aside.  There were many large and very expensive camera lenses – 500 mm and even 600 mm – probably over $100,000 of equipment – I was very envious.)

The Short Eared Owls were very cooperative flying and perching and diving for prey seemingly everywhere – some very distant and others flying right at or over us.  We know there were at least 8 and maybe 9 giving their aerial displays – the most I have seen at this location.  The lighting was great and the views of Mt. Baker and the Olympics in varying degrees of sunlight were spectacular.  It could not have been a better experience and Lynette noticed and approved – her first owls – so far so good.

Short Eared Owl – Eide Road – January 6, 2017


Short Eared Owl – Eide Road – January 6, 2017


Mt. Baker from Eide Road – January 6, 2017


Sunset and the Olympics – Eide Road – January 6, 2017


OK, maybe that was not really a “chase” but it was an intended purposeful trip to look for a specific species – focused and with most of the elements of my other chases.  It was possible that we would have missed an owl, but they are almost assured in those fields at this time of year.  But as I said in the introduction, there have been two other chases this week – and they have been the traditional kinds – looking for a rarity with much less of a certainty for success.  The first of these was with one of my best birding friends, Brian Pendleton, to go look for the Common Eider that had been discovered on Purdy Spit a few days earlier.  I had seen hundreds of Common Eiders on my trips to Maine in 2015 and to Alaska last year.  They indeed are “Common” in both places.  Not so in Washington as there had only been three records previous to this one.  I had seen one of those in Westport on October 28, 2012 – the same day as seeing another MEGA rarity for Washington – a Northern Wheatear.  But Brian had missed that one so this would be a new state bird for him if we found it.

Common Eider – Westport – October 28, 2012 


Common Eider (Male left and female right) – Nome Alaska – June 3, 2016

Common Eiders (2)

When we got to the spit, there was already a line up of birders with scopes scanning the water.  We made a U-turn, parked and joined the throng.  I noted that Matt Bartels was one of the birders and he had a smile on his face.  It was clear that he had found the targeted Eider and before setting up my own scope, I grabbed a quick peek through his.  This was not the first time I had piggy backed on a Bartel’s Bird – and I was happy to do so again.  I returned to Brian and quickly got him on the bird.  It was pretty far out but the light was good enough to see the distinctive head and bill shape and even to pick up a little bit of white over the eye.  Shortly thereafter, it took to flight and we were able to see the white in the wing as well.  ID photo only but a great bird and a lifer for Brian!!

Common Eider in Flight – Purdy Spit – January 11, 2017


We spent much of the rest of the day looking for Mountain Quail near the Port Orchard Quarry.  It was very cold and we had no luck but it is always good to be out and always a treat to be with Brian.  He was like a little kid skating on the ice we encountered in a number of spots  – frozen ground essentially.  I could not resist this photo.

A Playful Brian Pendleton on Ice


While out with Brian, I kept monitoring my emails and text messages.  Steve Pink and I had tentatively planned to chase two real rarities in B.C. the next day IF either was seen again this day and the weather was ok.  The two were a Purple Sandpiper and a Red Throated Pipit.  Both would be ABA life birds for Steve and the Pipit would be an ABA life bird for me.  I had seen a Purple Sandpiper on the East Coast 40 years ago but had no photo despite trying when I was in Massachusetts over Thanksgiving last year.  Red Throated Pipits are another Eurasian species.  They are frequently seen in fields in California and there have been a couple of records I believe in Washington but are never common in any of these areas.  The Purple Sandpiper is regularly found on the Atlantic Coast, but this one is only the second Pacific Coast and first Northwest record.

Late in the day I got a text from Melissa Hafting my infosource extraordinaire for B.C. birds.  The Purple Sandpiper was reported that afternoon.  The Pipit had not been seen or heard for a couple of days, but the Purple Sandpiper was enough and Steve and I agreed to undertake the chase.  The problem was that both birds were near Victoria on Vancouver Island.  This requires at least one ferry ride and means at least a 5 hour trip to get to the spot where the Sandpiper was being seen.  Fortunately Melissa had encouraged me to get the earlier  ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay – so that we could have a more favorable tide.  The ferry left at 7:00 a.m. which meant Steve and I had to be on the road out of Edmonds by 4:15 a.m.  Such is birding/chasing.  The next ferry left at 9:00 a.m. and we felt it would probably have been too late – how right we were in that calculation.

We made good time heading north and crossed the border without a wait. There was a spectacular full moon as we drove north.  We did not have the luxury of extra time to stop to take a photo but we were glad to have its beauty and abundant light.  As is always the case, the Canadian Border folks are friendly and efficient – not the case re-entering the US.  The BC Ferries are huge and beautiful.  We had not made a reservation so we were pleased to see the sign before arrival that there was space available.  We rolled onto the massive ferry and planned to do some birding on the voyage once the sun rose.

BC Ferry – Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay


About 30 minutes into the trip there was enough light to go on deck.  We had a low temperature of 13 degrees Fahrenheit on the way north.  It was probably now 28 degrees but while there was not much wind per se, the travelling ferry made for a very low wind chill on deck.  Fortunately there was some cover and we could scan the waters.  With the exception of one channel we did not see many birds, and even there nothing special, but as we came around one of the small islands, we had a spectacular sunrise with a beautiful reflection on the water.

Sunrise from the Ferry


Steve Pink Checking out the Birds from the Ferry


If nothing else, we took it as a good omen.  The Purple Sandpiper was our first quest.  It was being seen from Kitty Islet, essentially a small rock just southeast of Victoria – about 25 miles south of the ferry landing.  More traffic than we would have liked, but we found our way to this very cool little spot around 9:25 a.m.  It was supposed to be low tide but it seemed quite high.  We later learned that this morning the tide was pretty flat with the low being almost as high as the high tide.  This meant that there were fewer nearby rocks exposed and they were farther off shore – in this case maybe 50 yards instead of 20 or less.  As we got out of the car, we saw a woman with a humongous lens pointed out to one of the nearby rocks and we saw that there were a number of shorebirds perched on that rock.  Was it going to be that easy?

Well not quite.  It turned out that the bird she was focused on had its head tucked in and while it did have yellowish legs, so do Surfbirds and that is what she had.  Fortunately a young local birder, Geoffrey Newell, had just shown up and had moved further out onto the Islet itself (across a stairway).  We followed him and saw that quickly he had found the Purple Sandpiper.  The rock was full of shorebirds – a mix of Black Turnstones, Surfbirds, Black Oystercatchers and our rarity – the Purple Sandpiper.  It mostly was resting with head tucked in but a few quick looks with the head exposed showed the bicolored longer bill, the smaller size and breast pattern that confirmed that it was the Purple Sandpiper.  It is very similar to a Rock Sandpiper – which is the expected species on the Pacific Coast but the thinner wing stripe and less distinct breast markings differentiated the bird and the ID had been previously confirmed by experts.

I was able to snap a couple of distant photos with the head and bill visible.  Fortunately the sun was immediately behind us, but still the distance made it difficult.  Then, less than ten minutes after we had arrived, a cormorant flew near the rock and almost all of the birds, including the Purple Sandpiper took off.  I was able to follow it briefly in flight – good looks at the wing stripes – but the flock did not return – instead flying off to Trial Island, perhaps a quarter mile away.  Another local showed up and told us this was often the pattern.  The birds leave and may not return for hours.  If we had taken a later ferry or stopped for coffee … or … we probably would have missed the bird.  Instead Steve had his ABA lifer and I had my ABA photo even if not the one I might have had in a lower tide.

Purple Sandpiper – Kitty Islet, B.C. – January 12, 2017


It was now barely 10:00 a.m.  Time to looking for more.  In addition to the hoped for Red Throated Pipit, we also wanted to find a Eurasian Skylark and to see a Harris’s Sparrow that had been seen recently.  Martindale Flats was the pipit spot and this is also where the Harris’s Sparrow had been reported.  It is also one of the few spots where Skylark’s are still a possibility.   Steve and I both had seen Skylarks before.  Steve’s was near this location and mine was from my early birding days – June 15, 1976 at American Camp on San Juan Island, the only place where they were regular in the U.S.  That is no longer the case as they are extirpated there and the only remaining population – near Victoria where we were – is dwindling.  At Martindale Flats we met Jeremy Gatten, the B.C. birder who had first identified the Purple Sandpiper – a nice coincidence.  He had heard the Red Throated Pipit on an earlier visit a few days ago but had not seen it.  Over the next hour plus we separately walked all of the fields looking for (praying for?) the Pipit.  Steve and I also looked for the Harris’s Sparrow – particularly at the pump house where it had been reported.  No luck for either bird and no Skylark either.  Reluctantly we gave up on the Red Throated Pipit and headed off to the Mount Newton Crossing area where Skylarks were sometimes seen.

Just as we arrived at the fields on Central Saanich Road, two large SUV’s pulled up.  They were B.C. Police doing some canine training.  The good news is that they knew about Skylarks being seen in these fields.  The bad news was that they were going to be running a dog through the fields.  The good news was that this might flush a bird.  The bad news is that when they did, no birds flushed.  We had worked an adjacent field with similar results.  The worse news was that they told us not to go out into the other fields east of the road as the owners would chase us out.  Seemed to us like they were saying they would as well so we left Lark-less.

Canine Training on the Skylark Field in Saanichton


We made another stop to look for Skylarks near the airport – again no luck, so we decided to head home hoping to catch the 3:00 ferry which we did.  There were more birds seen from the ferry on the eastward crossing than seen in the morning but again nothing exciting.  A lovely sunset and that was the end of our trip in Canada.  A wonderful time despite the missed birds.  The Purple Sandpiper really was special and it was very fun to meet both Geoffrey and Jeremy on their home turf.  It is beautiful country and I expect to return in the spring when the Skylarks are singing and much more likely to be found – and finally photographed.

There was one last highlight.  Driving south on I-5 we could not fail to notice the spectacular huge moon – low in the east – s it rose.  Again we did not stop for a photo.  But at that same time, another Washington birder was noticing the same thing.  Eric Ellingson posted a truly spectacular photo on Tweeters.  He has given me permission to include the photo in this blog…thank you Eric.  There is more to birding than birds – shots like this make that very clear.

Moon Over Mount Shuksan – January 12, 2017 – Photo by Eric Ellingson

Moon over Mt Baker

That image is not quite as good as a photo of a Red Throated Pipit would have been – but not too bad…

Keith Carlson and Birds with Blue

Not a normal headline I acknowledge but it fits.  Who knows why, but Keith Carlson is somehow tied in to birds I want to see that are at least in part BLUE – Read on.  Keith lives in Lewiston, Idaho but is a premiere birder (and photographer) in Clarkston and Asotin County across the Snake River from that hometown.  Late last year he reported that a Red Flanked Bluetail had been found by John Hanna at Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston and then posted some beautiful photos.   It is a primarily Asian bird that should be wintering in Southeast Asia.  I had seen one at the Mai Po Nature Preserve in Hong Kong on Christmas Day in 1979.  It is extremely rare in North America.  There are Ebird records from the easternmost Aleutian Islands in Alaska, a single record from California and a single record from Oregon.  One was on private property in Ferndale, Washington in 2015 but I did not know of it at the time.  I did see the one at Queen’s Park in British Columbia on January 16, 2013, the only B.C. record until another showed up in Comox recently.

If it had been in Washington I would have gone immediately as it would have been the first state record and a Mega-must see. It was just across the Snake River – less than 1/2 mile from Washington, but borders are borders – so I stayed at home in 2016 perhaps hoping that some other rarity would show up in Washington.  But I had no photo of this species – did not take photos in 1979 and my visit to Queen’s Park was miserable – pouring rain and very poor distant views of an uncooperative bird.  When 2017 arrived I debated making the long drive to Lewiston or the even longer trek to Comox which involved two ferries and the border crossing.  Both would require either a ridiculously long single day trip (although I have done longer before) or an overnight.  I only had two windows of available time and the weather was getting really cold in Idaho, so there was concern whether the Bluetail would survive.  After finishing a morning commitment on Tuesday January 3, I decided to head off to Lewiston, spend the night there and try for the bird on Wednesday morning.

Of course I contacted Keith and he confirmed that the bird was still being seen and that he would be happy to serve as guide and meet me the following morning and try together.  Before concluding that story, here is the other Keith and Blue connection.  In early December 2015, Keith reported a Blue Jay in Clarkston.  I had seen a Blue Jay in Washington in each of the preceding three years but did not have one for 2015 and since I was doing a “Big Picture Year” really wanted to add a picture to my list.  I contacted Keith who did not think he would be available to join me but provided terrific directions to the area where the bird had been seen.  When I got there in the very late morning, I drove the neighborhood and stopped on occasion to listen for the Jay’s raucous call.  At one point I heard the Jay calling from an area close by and down hill from where I had been looking.  Just then I got a call from Keith who told me he had found time to go birding and was on the Blue Jay right then.  Indeed he was downhill from me – just where I thought I had heard the call.  I quickly joined him, and there it was – species number 355 in Washington for 2015 and photo number 352.

Blue Jay – Clarkston – December 5, 2015


I told Keith that I had been just uphill and thought I had heard the Blue Jay calling.  However, as it turned out, Keith said the Jay had not been calling – what I had heard was Keith’s playback trying to attract the bird.  It makes you wonder at least a little about some of those “heard only” identifications…

So that was the first Keith and Blue experience.  This one went even better.  Keith met me at my motel in Lewiston at 8:20 on the morning of January 4th in clear but very cold weather.  It had at least come close to single digits the night before and Keith mused that we might find a Red Flanked “Popsicle” instead of a Red Flanked Bluetail.  It was great to have Keith as guide and companion and we were at the bird’s favorite spot within minutes.  It was immediately next to the river in a small patch of brambles and Russian Olives.  Fortunately the river was not frozen over and despite the cold, there was some bug life.  It was this together with the olives that kept the bird going as it is able to eat both bugs and berries, the olives fitting that nicely – once they thawed that is.

In less than five minutes we saw a flickering buried deep in the tangle of branches.  It was a Song Sparrow.  But a few seconds later, there was a smaller bird that was flicking its tail and although not a great look and impossible for a good photo, at least we knew the bird had survived.  Keith predicted it would come more into the open as the sun (which was conveniently right behind us) warmed the area even a little bit.  I don’t know how much warmer it actually got, but within two more minutes our Red Flanked Bluetail made a brief foray into the open and perched on a branch providing an unobstructed view and a good photo op.

Red Flanked Bluetail – Hells Gate State Park – Lewiston, ID – June 4, 2017


What a little beauty!!  A wonderful female with an obvious blue tail and orangish-yellow if not red flanks.  The open shot did not last long, and the Bluetail disappeared in the depths of the brush.  Shortly thereafter two more birders showed up.  We assured them that it was still here, and they concentrated on the brush in front of us.  It took maybe another 10 minutes before the Bluetail reappeared and then it put on a good show foraging sometimes deep and sometimes in the opening.  Cameras and cameramen were happy.  More birders arrived and joined the show.  It was a life bird for all of them.

Red Flanked Bluetail – Hells Gate State Park – Lewiston, ID – June 4, 2017




The light was perfect and the blue tail was a beautiful ID aid.  Everyone was enchanted by this visitor from afar. As all birders/chasers know, it does not always work this way.  Sometimes it takes hours to find the target bird.  Sometimes even after a very long drive and very long search, it is not found at all.  Sometimes, we hear those terrible words – “You just missed it”.  Or “You should have been here yesterday…”  This wonderful experience balanced some of those painful misses.

It was not yet 9:30 and I was ready to head off.  I had to be back home by evening so I figured I would try a few more spots and then call it good.  Keith told me of a Northern Saw Whet Owl that should be easy to find in Swallows Park back across the river in Clarkston.  He said it would be facing the wrong way for a photo but always a good bird.  Another reason to thank Keith, which I did, and then it was off to Swallows Park where I had seen a Glaucous Gull on March 14, 2015.  This was another Keith Carlson aided bird as it was Keith who told me it had returned after I had missed it on an earlier try.  Just to be accurate, Keith was not actually there when I was.  I guess the gull was not Blue enough :-).

Glaucous Gull – Swallows Park, Clarkston – March 14, 2015


I had learned that the best way to find a roosting Northern Saw Whet Owl was to look for the white droppings on the ground below a roost tree.  I was concerned that with the snow and ice, I would not be able to see any.  Sure enough, however, the ground was bare and the whitewash was apparent.  It was buried and like Keith said, facing the wrong way, but the owl was easy to find.

Northern Saw Whet Owl – Swallows Park Clarkston – January 4th 2017


My next stop was to try for a Glaucous Gull that had been seen at the Clarkston/Asotin County dump.  When I got there I realized two things – the gull was not there and neither was the sun shade for my camera lens.  I hoped it had somehow come off unnoticed while I was trying for a shot of the owl, so I returned to Swallows Park and fortunately found the sun shade under the tree – where the owl had not moved even a fraction of an inch, so still no face for a photo.

Now it really was time to go.  A Lesser Black Backed Gull had been reported near Chief Timothy Park on the Snake River which was on the way home, so I made that my plan.  Within a mile of the park, there were indeed many gulls but none with dark backs/mantles.  Surprisingly, however, as I was scanning the gulls, a very pale gull flew in and landed long enough for a scope view to confirm that it was a Glaucous Gull.  But before I could get a photo, a Bald Eagle flew overhead and all the gulls scattered.  I waited 5 minutes hoping for their return, but it was not to be.  A couple of Mourning Doves were pretty diversions.

Mourning Dove – Chief Timothy Park – January 5, 2017


The long trip back was uneventful and without any “special birds”.  There was lots of wind and in a couple of places, trucks ahead of me kicked up enough snow to make visibility at least briefly almost nil.  What I did see along the way back was a very large number of raptors and several hundred Horned Larks.  The hawks were almost evenly split between Red Tails and Northern Rough Legs – more than 35 of each.  There were also many Bald Eagles, over 20 American Kestrels and a single Merlin.  I thought I saw a Northern Shrike perched but I was not able to turn around and go back to check.

Horned Lark – Highway 26 – January 4, 2017 (Photo through window)


If I had not seen a single other bird, the Red Flanked Bluetail with photo would have made the trip a great success.  Thanks again to Keith Carlson for his company and guidance.  I am hoping that a Blue Grosbeak will show up in Clarkston this year.  If so I am sure Keith will find it and share.