Big Years and Not – Logistics, Chases and Comparisons

My last blog post shared some experiences and photos from my first visit to the Washington Coast this year including a pelagic trip out of Westport.  Even though I am not doing any form of a Washington State Big Year in 2017, I do have a modest goal of seeing 300 species and since I report all of my observations on Ebird, I have a continuous self report that keeps me aware of my totals as I go. On Thursday morning May 18 before embarking on that trip to the Coast, my Washington Year List stood at 234 species.  In the previous four years when I had done some form of a Big Year in the state the totals ranged from a low of 251 species to a high of 290 species – an average of 275 species.  So IF I were doing a Big Year this year, I was seemingly way behind previous attempts.

Species in Washington as of May 17th
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
251 286 290 278 234

But as is almost always the case in comparisons of any kind and certainly ones with experience based numbers, it is just not that simple.  For example, in each of those previous years, by May 18, I had already visited the Coast and done a Pelagic trip – birding ventures sure to add many new species.  Doing a Big Year includes several different approaches to “birding”.  There is first the general activity of covering a lot of different habitats at different times and just spending time in the field.  Then there is “reactive birding” – chasing “needed” birds as they come up whenever and wherever they come up.  As I am sure I have stated in some earlier blog, Rule Number 1 for a chase is “Go now” as often the birds stay briefly and just do not wait for you to try to see them at your convenience.  Rule number 2 is “If you fail to follow Rule Number 1, then you cannot whine about missing a bird – it’s your own fault.”

As important as those two aspects are to a Big Year, probably the most important part is excellent informed planning on where to go when – the logistical planning to get to the right spots at the right time when needed birds are most likely to be there.  As much as I have enjoyed the general birding and the chases, it is the logistical planning and execution that I have enjoyed most and have been most successful at doing – making it possible to get the large totals I have been able to accumulate in each of those years.

Back to this year.  Not striving for the Big Year, it has not been imperative to chase every new and exciting bird nor to include some trips (to the Okanogan for example) that have been a part of each previous Big Year pursuit.  But while the goal this year is far more modest, 300 species is by no means easy and it does require that logistical effort to find birds at likely spots and at the times that they are going to be there.  Looking forward on that May 18th morning and knowing that the Coast and a pelagic trip were close at hand, it was time to do the logistical planning that would enable me to reach 300.

So…on May 18th I headed to Camano Island to find a Wild Turkey and other species.  I had missed this species on an earlier trip there and had looked for it and failed to find one on a Teanaway Valley trip earlier in the year – where they are almost a gimme.  English Boom on Camano Island is also a guaranteed spot for Purple Martins by mid May, and there was the possibility of a new bird or two at Eide Road.   When I got to Hanstad Road, a tom turkey was strutting on a grassy lawn – a good start.  Even better was that when I got out of the car to take a photo, I heard the plaintive song of a Swainson’s Thrust – another new bird for the year.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

On to English Boom, but on the way I heard one of the most recognizable of bird calls.  An Olive Sided Flycatcher was calling for liquid refreshment – “Quick three beers” – and there it was on a nearby tree branch.

Olive Sided Flycatcher

Olive Sided Flycatcher

English Boom delivered as always as Purple Martins were at most of the gourds, well into their mating and nesting and posing for photos.

Purple Martin

Pruple Martin

I had hoped for two new species and now had doubled that.  Would luck hold at Eide Road – well only a little as I did find some Blue Winged Teal but no shorebirds.

The previous blog recounts the trip to the Coast and the Pelagic Trip with a stop off at Capitol Forest where I had first of year Hermit Warbler, Pacific Slope Flycatcher and Sooty Grouse.  Those were both general birding experiences and logistical requirements to get to my intended total by year end.  At the end of that trip with the Camano birds, by the end of day on May 20, I now had 264 species for the year.  The chart looks different a couple of days later.  Might even be good for a Big Year try, but that was not the plan AND there were birds I had not tried for in the right season and would not likely to be added later anyhow.  There was still going to be a lot more work to do to even reach that 300 number.

Species in Washington as of May 20th
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
251 286 290 278 264

Back to logistics.  I knew I had a big trip to Eastern Washington coming up in late June but that was not going to be enough to get to 300 even with good luck.  I was hoping to avoid a second pelagic trip in the Fall so I now needed to plan that Eastern Washington trip carefully, add a species or two here and there and combine a couple of chases and some good luck.  And another twist was that I was balancing a more substantial social and non-birding schedule than in previous years, so the challenge was to find ways to include some spots to visit that would “kill (see) two birds with one stone” for example.  A first opportunity to do that was the next week at the off leash area at Marymoor Park.  We took Bailey for a walk and found the Pectoral Sandpiper that had been located in the mud adjoining that area the day before and also had my first Willow Flycatcher of the year out amidst the dogs.  (I did not bring a camera and the phone proved incapable of a viable photo.)  Similarly the next day we chose to visit Paradise at Mount Rainier – great scenery, a picnic and yes a couple of new birds – Gray Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker – logistics!!

What next?  A chase of course – hoping for the Golden Plovers that had been seen at Eide Road.  Unfortunately chases are not as reliable as good logistics – no Golden Plover – but the bonus was that there were two Wilson’s Phalaropes and a fun photo op for a flock of Blue Winged Teal in flight.

Wilson’s Phalaropes

Wilson Phalaropes

Blue Winged Teal (6 of 18)

6 Blue Winged Tea

The total was growing but that is what has to happen in May – always the best month to add new species as migration brings in both migrants that continue on and those that will be breeding in Washington as well.  But there was now only one more day in May – time for a “logistical chase”.   The Newhalem Agg Ponds are a known spot for American Redstarts.  I was counting on seeing some at Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County on my big Eastern Washington trip later, but a “bird in the hand is better than one in the bush” as it is said.  Steve Pink was interested in visiting that area so it would be fun and a great chance for me to visit places I usually do not and which Steve knows very well.

We had a great trip in beautiful weather.  First Steve took me to a new spot – the Whitehorse Trail where we found Red Eyed Vireos – another bird I could count on at Calispell Lake but my first in Snohomish County and my first in 2017.  Later we found numerous American Redstarts at the Agg Ponds and also had the bonus of a drumming Ruffed Grouse – a species that I could not count on later in the year so very much appreciated.  It was a new county bird for Steve in Whatcom County – important to him.

American Redstart

American Redstart

That was the last new bird for the month bringing me to 272 species for the year.  Again let’s look at the comparison with previous years.  I had added 40 species in the two weeks from May 17th.  On the surface it looks like another big year possibility, but I had made my target list for the rest of the year and getting to 300 seems pretty reasonable but even that is going to take work .

Species in Washington as of May 31st
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
286 290 305 278 272

June has been far less productive than May every year but especially with a long Eastern Washington trip ahead, I am optimistic.  I have very specific stops planned along the way that should put me in good shape but some new shorebirds better show up and that second pelagic trip may be a necessary.  And of course I have not yet been to Neah Bay and that could make all the difference.

I have been out once in June – chasing a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher that was reported by a single observer on Umptanum Road – no luck on that one, but I did add five species – all ones that were planned for on my upcoming trip to Eastern Washington in late June.  The five were Least Flycatcher, Calliope Hummingbird, Lark Sparrow, Veery and Gray Catbird.  I was only able to get a decent photo of the Catbird, so when I see them again later, I will hope for those pictures.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Now I am at 277 species.  How do I get to 300?  Logistics, chases and luck.  Here is how I see the breakdown (and I will report back in another blog later to see how it went in reality.)   10-12 new species in Eastern Washington trip that will include Calispell Lake, Spokane County, the Blue Mountains and the Cascades.  5 or 6 more shorebirds.  3-4 new species at Neah Bay.  5-10 miscellaneous.  And if need be another pelagic trip in the fall that should be good for another 5-6 species.  And then there are a lot of “ifs” – if there are surprises, if I go to Salmo Mountain, if I go the Okanogan and some species show up well (and early).  In a really good Big Year, you need all of these things to go well – the upper ranges of possibilities to be found, some unexpected rarities to show up, a second (or even a third pelagic trip) and all the “ifs” to happen.  Those seemingly small differences can add 30 or 40 or even 50 species.  Some others are doing Big Years this year – I wish them well.  I have a big trip coming up for Arizona and may do some more ABA area birding as I have some goals for the ABA area this year – but that will be another blog post – or two – later.

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