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

falcated-duck2

falcated-duck1

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)

falcated-duck7

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

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Surfbird at Rosario Head – January 16, 2017

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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

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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

tundra-swan

Greater White Fronted Geese

greater-white-fronted-goose

Greater Yellowlegs

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Black Oystercatcher

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Lincoln Sparrow

lincoln-sparrrow

Scenic Views

scenery

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!!!]

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