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.

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