What I should be doing is writing blog posts about my recent trip to South Florida. I got back late on Wednesday night last week – well actually early on Thursday morning and started sorting and editing the more than 8000 pictures from that super trip. Eventually – soon I hope – there will be several posts about that trip, but since it is always nice to come home and after all, it is May when migration is in full swing and that brings many favorites back to Washington. AND I needed to do some scouting for a trip I will be leading to some favorite spots near Cle Elum next week as part of the Yakima River Valley Birdfest. So I headed East on Saturday to see what was around in anticipation of that trip and well, yes, to see some new birds for the year. Birders (listers?) often refer to these new birds as “FOYs” – First of Years, and after a good start in some of the scout trip spots, I ventured much farther afield and there were many FOYs to be had.
First a brief aside. As I think I have mentioned in an earlier blog, 2017 is NOT going to be another Big Year – of any kind – not of species seen or photographs taken, or raptors during a birthday year etc. The past five such years have been great, but have both taken a toll and have taken time and attention away from other parts of my life that now need and are getting it. That said, there was always an excitement, a passion and an accomplishment in doing those years, and this weekend’s adventure reminded me of some of that. I am by no means a terrific birder – my vision is too poor and although I have good ears, my brain does not well process and recall the songs and call notes of enough birds to be anywhere as good as many others – probably many of you reading this post. BUT I am very good at the planning, logistics and persistence needed to do such years. And probably a bit lucky as well – and that all works for me – and finds lots of birds. With that background, here is the story of May 6 and May 7, 2017 – lots of FOYs included.
The initial plan was to leave early and check out potential Birdfest spots including specifically Bullfrog Pond just west of Cle Elum and then the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. Both “hotspots” are bird rich and come alive during migration. They have appeared in many blog posts before. Additional planning was vague, but there were lots of possibilities for either that day or maybe a second day depending on how things went.
There was snow and near freezing temperatures on Snoqualmie Pass as I went over around 6:00 a.m. It cleared immediately east of the Pass and the promised sunshine looked like a reality. I turned onto Bullfrog road at Exit 82 and as I crossed the bridge over the Cle Elum River, I noted that the water was high – making it unlikely to find a Dipper. And such was the case. When I got out to scan the river, I also noted that it was cold and breezy. Maybe it would be too early for the birds to be active, one of the things I wanted to check in anticipation of the upcoming field trip. When I parked at the pullout just east of the pond, it was pretty quiet and that concern was confirmed.
Leading a field trip is fun but also with a lot more pressure than just birding on one’s own – even if the reason for the latter is a chase of a much wanted rarity. There is always the fear that the birds won’t be there, especially the ones that you want the group to see. I saw a couple of Swallows, heard a distant Northern Flicker and watched a couple of Red Winged Blackbirds, but where were the Warblers that I was counting on? Some Canada Geese flew by, but it was s-l-o-w!! I walked down towards the river – good habitat along the way and maybe a different angle would produce Dippers. Again very quiet, and again, no Dippers. My fingers reminded me how cold it was as well. Then I heard a bird song and I immediately thought Warbler – but which one? There were lots of candidates and most were on my want list – both for the trip and for my own personal records for 2017. I pulled out my phone and went to my I Bird Pro app to check the possibilities. There it is!! On my second try, I recognized the same song I had heard in the field and now all I had to do was to find the singing MacGillivray’s Warbler to confirm the ID and also to add the first target bird for the trip and record my first FOY.
MacGillivray’s Warbler (FOY #1)
The light wasn’t great, but the bird was cooperative and the all-gray head and partial eye ring was easy to note to distinguish it from the similar looking Nashville Warbler. Bingo!! And now another one was calling across the path. I had been there 20 minutes – enough time to have things heat up – literally and figuratively. And now there were more birds, too. And more songs that I knew were different but not sure what was singing them. First a Yellow Rumped Warbler and then I heard a very soft fairly high pitched chip note – quite distinct from the harsher notes from either the Yellow Rumps or the MacGillivray’s. I was hoping for a Nashville Warbler, and my phone app seemed to confirm it and then when a bird responded immediately and flew into view, its complete eye-ring and yellow throat firmed the ID and the hint of red on the crown was also viewable. This was a different kind of FOY – I guess I would have to call it a FOYP – First of the Year Picture – as I had seen one earlier at the Willow Creek Fish Hatchery in Edmonds before I left for Florida, but was not able to get a photo. It was another of the target birds that I hoped to be able to have for the group, so a pleasing find for two reasons.
Nashville Warbler (FOYP)
Now I was hearing songs and chip notes from several directions and found more warblers of all three species. I had been heading back to the start of the path and was hoping for something new there. Over the pond Swallows were more active suggesting that there were more insects around – good for the warblers as well. Another song, This one I actually remembered, the “sweet, sweet, sweet” of a Yellow Warbler. An immediate response to a single playback and there he was darting around the brush before finally posing for a photo. Another FOY and another FOYP.
Yellow Warbler (FOY #2)
And now another familiar sound – who is that tap tap tapping on that pole? A Sapsucker, but which one? On April 11, I had visited Bullfrog Pond twice and had first a Red Breasted Sapsucker and then a Red Naped Sapsucker. Both are good birds that I hope will be found on the field trip, but the real prize would be a Williamson’s Sapsucker – new for me for the year and I consider it a real beauty. I have seen one at Bullfrog Pond in the past, but not this time. It was a Red Naped – distant but good enough for a photo – which I had not gotten on the last visit. Not going to share the photo, however, as I later had one closer at a different part of the area and that photo is shown here.
Red Naped Sapsucker (FOYP)
Feeling much better about prospects for the upcoming field trip, I moved over to the more wooded area near the restrooms (locked) north of the pond. It was here that I found the Red Naped Sapsucker in the photo above. There were other goodies, too, all announced by song. The first was the short up and down phrases of a Vireo. I guessed Cassin’s and was correct. It never came out into the open so I got a terrible photo, but it was another First of Year species and photo. Quickly thereafter I heard the mellifluous call of a Wren – not Bewick’s or Pacific, but the more expected House Wren, a species that had been targeted but missed on the earlier visit, so another FOY and FOYP.
Cassin’s Vireo (FOY #3)
House Wren (FOY #4)
Then another familiar (but not specifically remembered) call. I looked in the direction of the notes and quickly found the brilliant yellow, black and red of a Western Tanager. It was joined by at least one other and maybe several all of which flew off – just after I was able to get my photo. I include that picture but since it hardly does justice to the beauty of this species, I have added another from an earlier encounter.
Western Tanager (FOY #5)
Western Tanager from June 2015
Just before leaving I heard another promising song – actually the flight notes of a group of Evening Grosbeaks. Just a quick flyover for FOY #6 but no photo. I often had them in South Cle Elum, where I was heading next, and hoped this was an omen. But first a last Bullfrog present. Two Chipping Sparrows flew in to feed close by. I had seen one earlier in Skagit County but had missed them even expected on my earlier trip to Bullfrog Pond. This was a welcome FOYP.
Chipping Sparrow (FOYP)
I made a quick stop across Bullfrog Road opposite the Pond. Some of this area is private although very accessible private property, so I will not take the group there (probably) but I did add a FOYP of a Brown Headed Cowbird. Altogether there had been 31 species at Bullfrog Pond. I hope we will have similar results next week.
I won’t go into much detail about the visit to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds or my drive around South Cle Elum – both favorite places covered in many earlier blogs. I had 26 species – including 13 new ones for the day. Same warblers as at Bullfrog Pond and also the always sought after (and always cute) Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees. No Pileated Woodpecker, but maybe next time. The only FOY was a singing Black Headed Grosbeak found in South Cle Elum.
Black Headed Grosbeak (FOY #7)
It was barely 10:00 a.m. I will add some stops for the group next week and will have to decide whether to go to some Ellensburg spots or maybe up into the Teanaway valley. I decided to check out the Woodhouse and Ringer Loops just south of Ellensburg and then head down Canyon Road and try the Umtanum trail. First though a stop at the Cle Elum Bakery – I will poll the group next week to see if that interests them as well.
Both stops were disappointing. The first was just a drive by, so not surprising, but I had expected good birds at Umtanum. There were lots of hikers and it was then near midday, so maybe that is why. I added 10 new species for the day with the best being both White Throated and Vaux’s Swifts. The latter was FOY #8 with a terrible picture which I include here.
Vaux’s Swift (See the pale rump.) FOYP
Later there should be Yellow Breasted Chats but that will be for another blog post. Still not sure if I will bring the group here next week – probably not if the birding wouldn’t be better, but that is hard to predict. In any event, my homework was now done and it was just past noon. Where to next? Bethel Ridge is a favorite place to bird – probably still a bit early, but I decided to give it a try anyhow. If nothing else I would know conditions for a later trip – the concern being the amount of snow we have had this year. I made a first stop at Oak Creek Canyon along the way and found a dozen or so Lewis’s Woodpeckers but not much else.
Birding was slow at Bethel Ridge and I was not able to get all the way to the top because the snow closed the main road about 6 miles in. BUT…there were some great birds among the few encountered. The first was a beautiful male Williamson’s Sapsucker at the lower corrals area. I first heard its drumming and then its raucous “chy-ack” call. The drumming allowed me to track it down and get a decent photo.
Williamson’s Sapsucker FOY #9
In the same area I also had several empidonax flycatchers. One was a Dusky Flycatcher (dee-hick call, round head and small bill with eye-ring) and another was a Gray Flycatcher (yellow lower mandible and longer bill – wagging tail down). FOY #10 and 11. The best bird and biggest surprise was a very rapid fly by at almost eye level of a Northern Goshawk just about milepost 5. Just in front of the car, there was no time for photo, but size, long tail and large white supercilium made the ID clear. Some day I will get a male perched for a photo. FOY #12.
Bethel Ridge Snow
By the time I got back to the Highway, it was approaching 4:00. I was still energized and decided to backtrack and try Toppenish NWR. Unfortunately, when I got there the gate was closed. I figured it would be a good spot for Western Kingbirds among others, but not to be. By this time it was clear that I was going to stay the night somewhere and continue to bird the next day. I headed first to County Line Ponds planning to stay in Othello and then the next day to look for a Burrowing Owl and then bird Para Ponds and Potholes. Along the way I finally found a photo friendly Swainson’s Hawk and then at the County Line Ponds found a pair of Black Necked Stilts and a pair of American Avocets.
Swainson’s Hawk (FOY #13)
American Avocet (FOY #14)
I had seen so many Black Necked Stilts in Florida that I forgot that it was a new bird for the year in Washington and did not even take a photo. But it was FOY #15 for the day. Othello has always been a great area for findable and photographable Burrowing Owls. Ebird reports showed one near the intersection of Lee and Lemaster Roads. Even though it was getting late I decided to try for then and go back in the morning if I could not find it. Nearing the Burrowing Owl area, finally a Western Kingbird. As I neared the place where the owl had been reported, the sun was going down and I saw two cars on this remote road just pulling away about 1/4 mile away. Sure enough when I got to that spot, there was a very visible Burrowing Owl – scowling at me as I got out and took his photo.
Western Kingbird (FOY #16)
Burrowing Owl (FOY #17)
I got the last room at the Othello Quality Inn and crashed for the night. It had been a great day – good indicators for my upcoming field trip. I had 17 new birds for the year in Washington and a similar number of first pictures. Not too hard to find new birds since spring had finally arrived and I had missed two weeks while away in South Florida. I was looking forward to an early start the following morning at Para Ponds.
The motel made breakfast available early – 5:30 a.m. which allowed for an early start – aided by the now early sunrise. I was at Para Ponds at 6:15 and the early arrival meant much less traffic than usual but unfortunately not traffic free. I immediately found a small flock of blackbirds and was able to identify 4 as Tricolored Blackbirds (FOY #18) before a truck rumbled by and sent them all off. Lots of Tricolors have been reported at the Ponds recently and I would guess that more were of this species with epaulets of only red and white – no yellow present. But they scattered beyond viewing range and did not come back, so I will never know. There were numerous very noisy Yellow Headed Blackbirds in addition to some Red Winged Blackbirds and some Brewer’s Blackbirds further along the road. My photo of a Yellow Headed was my First of the Year Photo although I had seen one earlier in Snohomish County.
Yellow Headed Blackbird (FOYP)
There were many other birds in or near the ponds including a single Spotted Sandpiper at the far end bobbing at the shore, a flyover Black Crowned Night Heron and several Bank Swallows – all FOYs – #19, #20 and #21.
Bank Swallow (FOY #21)
I had not gotten enough sleep in Florida and certainly had re-adjustment troubles since returning. There had been lots of driving the day before and even with the adrenaline of the good birding, I was pretty tired. I decided to head towards home with a stop at Potholes and then hit the Shrub Steppe and skip other potential spots to bird.
When I go to Potholes, I always bird Lind Coulee as it has been a great spot for Clark’s Grebes. I saw more Swainson’s Hawks and Western Kingbirds along the way and when I arrived at Lind Coulee, I saw a large black and white grebe just off the bridge at exactly the spot where I had seen a Western Grebe and Clark’s Grebe together in years past. This time it was just a Western Grebe, but when I drove the dirt roads north I found three grebes together. At least one was a Western but at least one other was a Clark’s Grebe, the white surrounding the eye and the brilliant yellow-orange bill apparent.
Clark’s Grebe (FOY #22)
Time now to go for my “can’t miss” FOY for the trip – a Forster’s Tern at Potholes SP. Well things do not always go as planned. There had many reports of multiple Forster’s Terns at Potholes recently. I have had them there on many occasions – although I have missed them also. The Park was mobbed, dozens of boaters and campers, and very busy boat launch areas – where I usually find the terns. I found none at either spot. Very unhappy, I decided to try the trees at the main park ground hoping for something to assuage my feelings of disappointment. As soon as I arrived I heard the whistles and rattles of a Bullock’s Oriole. It was easily found but a bit buried in a tall tree right over head. A second Oriole was giving a chert call in another tree. Finally one was enough in the open for a photo – bright orange in the sunlight.
Bullock’s Oriole (FOY # 23)
Something else was singing as well. It was a “warble” but not a warbler. I guessed Warbling Vireo and played the song. An immediate response confirmed the ID, provided a photo op and yet another FOY. A small flycatcher came into the same tree. It sang briefly – a Hammond’s Flycatcher I later determined – and I zeroed in for a photo. But not for the first time and definitely not for the last time either, I could not get the camera to focus with foliage in and around it and I could not get a photo before it flew off to trees to the south where I could not follow it. FOY #25.
Warbling Vireo (FOY #24)
With re-heightened spirits I decided to give the terns another go. From the main boat launch and way out I could see a single white bird that at least appeared to be flying like a tern instead of a gull. I did not have my scope and it was way too far for a photo, but it finally came in sufficiently close to confirm a tern with a black head and long bill – not a Bonaparte’s Gull which was another possibility. Not a satisfying look at a Forster’s Tern, but especially after seeing 6 tern species in Florida, it was nice to add this FOY – #26 for the trip.
There was still a long way to go before getting home and luck had been with me so much that there was no expectation of any new birds. I thought my only hope was to maybe find a Chukar near Vantage where I have had them before on Recreation Road. I also had not gotten a photo of a Sage Sparrow this year, so maybe that was a possibility. No Chukars on the hills by the boat launch on Recreation Road, but two Lewis’s Woodpeckers were a nice surprise. I thought I would try the Canyon at the top of Recreation Road where Black Throated Sparrows used to be found and where Yellow Breasted Chats nested last year. Too early for the latter and the former have not been there for several years. I tried anyhow and was rewarded with my last new bird of the year – FOY #27 for the trip, Lazuli Buntings – at least three males and a female – the former brilliant in the sunshine.
Lazuli Bunting – FOY #27
I continued along Old Vantage Highway and had almost all of the Shrub Steppe Birds – Sage Thrasher, Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows, Say’s Phoebe and Mountain Bluebirds. A single Sage Sparrow sang at the top of a hill across from and east of the Corral (Whiskey Dick), but he stubbornly refused to come to me despite playing every song and call note I could find.
I considered heading up the Teanaway Valley looking for Wild Turkeys, but I was well past tired and headed home. Traffic was bearable – just barely and certainly no complaints about the weather.
It had been a great trip – good birds on the scouting trip and then 27 new Washington birds for the year with almost as many new first of year photos. Altogether, I had seen 101 species – far more than I expected. I may be way behind totals by the first week of May for some previous years (by more than 50 more by now in 2015 for example) – but no complaints at all. I have not yet been to the Coast and have not been on a pelagic trip. Hopefully those trips are ahead, but there are other priorities to attend to. First off is to have a great field trip next Saturday. If somehow that produces another FOY or another FOYP – so much the better.