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