Edmonds Goes East – But First, What About those So-called Goatsuckers?

My last blog post dealt in part with the logistics ahead for reaching one of my 2017 Birding Goals – observing 300 species in the State of Washington.  I still have that big Eastern Washington trip ahead, the one that I said would likely add 10-12 new species for the year.   Since writing that however, I have had the occasion to make two shorter trips into Eastern Washington and both forays have involved some of my Edmonds birding buddies and both have added some new species in Washington for the year and both have been fun.

The first was an evening foray to Robinson Canyon just west of Ellensburg.  It has been a good spot in the past to find Common Poorwills and Common Nighthawks.  No Nighthawks had been reported from there yet in 2017, but these voracious bug eaters were just arriving in Washington and new reports had been showing up in Ebird from elsewhere so I thought the chances were good.   Common Nighthawks can often be seen (or more likely heard) during the day, but the best time seems to be at dusk, and the Common Poorwills are also likely just as the skies darken as well, so the plan was to arrive at the Canyon around 8 and hopefully find both birds.  Entrance to the upper Canyon is through an unlocked gate and my first good find that night was at that gate.

As I was pulling up there was another car stopped at the gate and someone was opening it.  Small world, it was Steve Pink – one of the Edmonds birders – and who featured prominently in my previous blog.  He was there with wife Connie – also hoping for the same two species.  Just before arriving at the gate, I thought I had heard the familiar “pe-ent” call of a Nighthawk but it was distant and faint so not a for sure observation.  Not too long after parking at the end of the road, we began hearing first Western Wood Pewees and then unmistakably the call of the Common Nighthawk.  They often fly high in the sky and it can be difficult to locate them, but in this case, there were at least three birds and we finally found them flying almost directly overhead – even if quite high in the sky.  If you look real hard at the ID quality only photo, you can even make out the white “wrist” bands on the wings – definitely not my best photo. (A better photo from last year adjoins it.)

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk  Common Nighthawk3

And then as it got darker, we began to hear the repetitive “poor – will” call of our main quest – the Common Poorwill.  They roost up on the Canyon’s rocky slopes and once one starts calling there can be a veritable chorus.  We heard at least a half dozen.  With luck, you can often find one on the road, their eyes reflecting the light from your car’s headlights.  I left first and unfortunately had no birds on the road.  Steve and Connie left 10 minutes later and did find one Poorwill on the road. (The picture is mine of one on the same road last year).

Common Poorwill

Common Poorwill

Common Poorwills and Common Nighthawks are taxonomically pretty closely related and belong to a group of birds often called “goatsuckers”.  Here is probably way more information than you would ever want to know about the origin of that terminology and application to these species (and others).  Goatsucker is

“based on a superstition that goes back well over 2000 years. They (Goatsuckers) all have tiny beaks that open to reveal an impressively large mouth used to catch flying insects, and they are active mainly at night. Their nocturnal habits made them mysterious, and their bizarre appearance required an explanation, and as early as the 300s BC Aristotle wrote about the trouble these birds could cause with goats. Four hundred years later not much had changed, and in 77 AD Pliny passed along the prevailing wisdom:  The Caprimulgi (so called of milking goats) are like the bigger kind of Owsels [Thrush]. They bee night-theeves; for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the sheepeheards coats and goat-pens, and to the goats udders presently they goe, and suck the milke at their teats. And looke what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milke, but misliketh and falleth away afterwards, and the goats become blind withall. (from the 1601 translation)
It’s not clear how many people ever believed this. It sounds like Pliny may have had some doubts, and the superstition faded away centuries ago. We still use the name but the “goatsuckers” eat nothing but flying insects and have no interest in, or effect on, goats.”  (from the SIBLEY GUIDE)

Just so you know, no goats were seen in the Canyon by any of us.

During the following week, Ebird reported that both a Least Flycatcher and an Indigo Bunting were being seen regularly in the Wenas area.  I was pretty sure I had heard one of the former on an earlier trip to Umptanum/North Wenas Road but had not seen it.  They are uncommon in Washington although seen usually at recurring locations each year.  Indigo Buntings are quite rare and generate lots of interest (and chasing) in the birding community.  I had one open day on my calendar and figured a chase was in order, especially if it would also provide some good birding company.  Ann Marie Wood, Steve Pink and Frank Caruso were all game and available, so off we went on June 16.  Four birders from Edmonds (close enough Ann Marie) heading East…

On trips east, a first stop is often the summit at Snoqualmie Pass – a chance for restrooms and the possibility of something good at the hummingbird feeders there.  No hummers there, but when we drove a bit further east (most importantly into Kittitas County) the Hyak feeders were alive with hummingbirds.  West of the Cascades, we have both Rufous and the much more plentiful Anna’s Hummingbirds. the latter often overwintering sustained by feeders and non-native plants.  East of the Mountains, Anna’s Hummingbirds are generally quite uncommon or even rare.  I had not realized that this applied even the few miles east of the Summit at Hyak, and thus when we saw two Anna’s among the two dozen or so Rufous at these feeders, I was quite surprised and very pleased to find that they were my first record of this species in Kittitas County.  More notably, it was the 200th species I had seen in Kittitas County – thus fulfilling one of my goals for 2017 – to bring that county list to 200.

We decided to take the shorter route to get to Wenas by going up over Umptanum Road to North Wenas Road and then first to Maloy Road where the Least Flycatcher had been seen before doubling back a mile to try for the Bunting.  I have birded this stretch many times including often this year and it is always a treat – many bluebirds and sparrows as well as flycatchers, thrashers, warblers and others.  We stopped a few times and saw a number of species, but did not “work” it hard since we were on a mission.  At one stop I head a “chucking sound” up on one of the hills.  We never got a look, but the calls were from at least a few Chukars – new for the year.  I made sure we stopped at Bluebird Box #7.  It is a go-to spot for Calliope Hummingbird.  Two weeks earlier I had seen one briefly but not gotten a photo.  This time, the hummer was more cooperative.

Calliope Hummingbird at Box #7

Calliope Hummingbird2

Directions for the Least Flycatcher were pretty specific – in the Aspen Grove on Maloy Road before the bridge over Wenas Creek.  I pulled over when I saw the bridge about a hundred yards ahead and there were Aspens south of the Road.  As soon as I got out of the car, I could hear a faint “Che-bek, Che-bek” call – the Least Flycatcher was there, but it was distant – at least 50 yards in and up in the Aspens.  We tried to lure it to us and it did not seem to want to move at all.  We were going to settle for an identification as “heard only”, but for whatever reason the bird decided to fly in to a last attempt with our recording and it was in the open for split seconds, here and there, flying back and forth across the road.  I timed its brief perch in the open right once and got an ok photo.  It is the smallest of the Empidonax flycatchers and the call and that noted size made the ID certain.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Now we were on to try for the Indigo Bunting.  Those directions were just as good – “at the yellow gate at the Wenas Riparian area”. As we neared the gate, another car was coming towards us.  Was it a birder?  Had he seen the Bunting?  Or was this going to be a shared disappointment?  The license plate “Osprey” answered the first question in the affirmative.  When he turned around and came back to us, he gave an affirmative on the second as well — BUT — after he had observed the Bunting, it had flown off over the hill and was perhaps gone – forever…Uh-oh.  The birder was Denny Granstrand – one of Yakima’s finest – a completely reliable source.  We drove the two cars to a good pull out area just past the gate and started to search.  After a few moments I was attracted by a song back up the road that I thought might be our guy.  I am not good at bird song.  That is Frank’s domain.  But I had earlier played the Indigo Bunting song to familiarize myself with it and this sounded good.  It continued but it was hard to get a spatial sense…until that is we went a little further, and there it was out in the open in a dead cottonwood.  Poor light meant poor photos, but an unmistakable bird and we were feeling pretty good.  Then, just as Denny had said before, it flew off across the road and up the hill.  Satisfied we went back to the car and loaded up to leave.  As we drove past the dead cottonwood, there it was again on its favorite branch – singing away.  As an aside, another Edmonds birding friend, Jon Houghton visited the spot two days later and found the Bunting on the same branch.  (A better photo is included – my first Indigo Bunting in Washington – from Steigerwald NWR in June 2014).

Indigo Bunting (Wenas June 2017)

Indigo Bunting3

Indigo Bunting (Steigerwald June 2014)

Indigo Bunting3

We continued into the Wenas Campground hoping to add some woodpeckers and more flycatchers, but it was not very birdy and we picked up only a few new species for the day – nothing exciting.  Our total was around sixty species so far but our success in finding both special targets, Indigo Bunting and Least Flycatcher plus adding the Chukars and Calliope Hummingbird (and my Kittitas County Anna’s) meant it had already been a great day.  It was still early so what next?  I felt we had time to go to Oak Creek and a short while on Bethel Ridge where we would hopefully find some good woodpeckers and just maybe an Ash Throated Flycatcher.

At Oak Creek, it took some doing to find a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  Only maybe five – the fewest I have ever seen there – and not as close as usual – still a gorgeous bird.  More of a disappointment was that we did not find any Ash Throated Flycatchers.  I had not been able to look for the one at Marymoor Park, so if I still need/want one, I may have to go to Klickitat County later.  Now on to Bethel Ridge.  We would not have a lot of time, but good to share some of my past experience and hopefully find something new – particularly some woodpeckers.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker

Oak Creek Scenery

Oak Creek Scenery

After hearing a number of Swainson’s Thrushes and Veeries earlier in the day, I was pleased to hear and recognize a Hermit Thrush at one of our stops about midway up the road.  Not uncommon in Washington, but I had not found one earlier when they were at lower elevations, so this was my first for the year,  (It was also our seventh thrush species for the trip as earlier we had Veery, Robin, Swainson’s Thrush, Western and Mountain Bluebirds and Townsend’s Solitaire.  Unfortunately we did not see any Varied Thrushes or we would have had all of the Washington thrush species.)

Now it was time to leave and as we approached the bottom of the road, we saw someone with a tracking antenna off to one side.  We wondered if he was a birder/researcher.  I pulled ahead a little bit to both observe him and also to “take one last look”.  This proved a good move as serendipitously, Steve Pink saw a White Headed Woodpecker on the side of a conifer immediately adjacent to the road.  We were able to get out and get photos.  The fellow with the antenna noted our activity and came over and we told him it had been a White Headed Woodpecker and he took off to track it after it had flown.

Later when photos were checked at home, we noted that the Woodpecker was banded and Ann Marie sent the photo on to Jeff Kozma – who is a researcher in Kittitas and Yakima Counties – and who was the fellow we had seen.  Ann Marie got this information back after he identified the bird as one in his study.

White headed Woodpecker

White Headed Woodpecker2a

“Ann Marie, We know a lot about that bird. His transmitter is still functioning and we visit him every 2-3 days. He was banded as a nestling last summer in Tieton Meadow, 1 mile upslope, making him the shortest-distance disperser in our research.

He is a carrier for avian malaria, which can be deadly though he has survived for 1 year despite infection. His infection may explain his sedentary lifestyle – we can’t be sure. He was unsuccessful in attracting a mate this spring, so was unable to nest this summer.

We have tracked his paternal side for 3 generations. His father was hatched in Rattlesnake Creek in 2014. Unfortunately, his maternal side is completely unknown which is pretty common. We’ve never been able to track a female-line for more than 1 generation. The females tend to be more mobile than the males.”

What a great way to end a great day.

As the trip ended we counted up all of the species seen that day and came to just under 90.  Since we had no shorebirds or gulls and only two duck species and we really had not tried for numbers, that was pretty darn good.  When I got back to Bellevue, I added a couple of species of Swallows a Mallard and two species of Chickadee, so I am pretty sure I was over 90 and know we could have hit 100 with targeted effort.

Great birds, great places and great people – the ever present recipe for a wonderful day!

Ann Marie, Frank and Steve

blog-ann-marie  blog-frank 036a0647

(Now at 282 Species for 2017 in Washington and counting…)

5 thoughts on “Edmonds Goes East – But First, What About those So-called Goatsuckers?

  1. Stunning shot of the gorgeous Indigo bunting! You got great shots of the white headed Woodpecker you birded some of my favourite spots in Eastern WA. Glad you all had a great time.


  2. Great blog, Blair. Good luck on your quest to 300 Washington state species! Say hey to Anne Marie & Frank.


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