July 2, 2017 – This was a VERY GOOD DAY!! The day before I had been birding in Pend Oreille, Lincoln and Spokane Counties and another blog post will share some of that experience – also a good day – but not as good as this one. A prelude and then three separate fun experiences – each deserving of its own post – but each is pretty short so I am doing three mini-posts as part of this one. But first – the prelude.
Prelude – A Night Bird in the Daytime
I had spent the night in Ritzville and for the first time in a while, I delayed departure in the morning until after the breakfast that was included in the rate. I was heading to the Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla and would have preferred to get there not long after dawn, but I was already tired from too many miles. Fortunately breakfast was available early and I was on the road by just after 6:15 a.m. This brought me into Washtuchna just before 7:00 a.m. A remote spot for sure, it has been a great place for rarities in migration. Too late (or early) in the year for that now, but a fun surprise was waiting for me. It was already 68 degrees in perfect cloudless sunshine. As I drove through town a medium sized bird with long pointed wings flashed in front of me. My first thought of American Kestrel was quickly replaced with a most positive identification of a Common Nighthawk when it banked right in front of me and the two white wrist bars flashed in the sunlight.
I pulled over, got out of the car and got my best photos ever of a Common Nighthawk in flight including the only one I have showing the tail splayed out showing the black and white terminal bands. I had seen them in the daytime before – but never this early in the morning. It sure seemed like a good omen for a great day. Definitely a great prelude!
Common Nighthawk – Flight Shots
PART I – “When You Come to a Fork in the Road – Take It…”
This famous statement is generally attributed to Lawrence Peter Berra – better know as Yogi Berra. He said he used it in giving Joe Garagiola directions to his home. I decided to take this advice when I came to the end of Coppei Road just south of Waitsburg, WA. The fork I chose was the North Fork Coppei Creek Road instead of the South Fork. I had birded both in the past but my primary target this morning was a Green Tailed Towhee and I had seen them on this road before, so the choice was clear. It is easiest to find this secretive bird earlier in the year when it is singing which it is not supposed to be doing now. But its preferred habitat of a brushy slope with a rose like bush is a good place to start and I went to the exact spot where I had seen one before and immediately heard the Towhee’s buzzy trill and there went that supposition. I tried some playback to see if I could get the bird to come into the open and closer to the road. A second bird responded and the two continued to sing. One flew from one buried hiding spot to another giving me a quick view, but that was going to be it. I was still a very happy birder as it was not a given that a Green Tailed Towhee would be found.
Green Tailed Towhee (same area in 2015)
This was a great start. Would my good fortune continue and another special bird of the area be found? That would be the Great Gray Owl – now dispersed from its nesting sites so not likely but I had to continue the route and try. No Great Gray Owl but I did have a “great owl” experience. Birders often use the call of the Northern Pygmy Owl to bring in other species – small birds that seek to mob the little owl – a united line of defense and a communication to all around that this little predator is in the neighborhood. I had been seeing or hearing lots of birds as I continued up the North Fork Road. I found a good spot that was full of bird song and pulled over. Time to try the Pygmy Owl trick. WOW!! Birds responded immediately and more and more kept coming in.
It was an absolute riot – by far more individual birds and more species than I have ever had respond before – to wit: 8 Black Capped Chickadees, 2 Calliope Hummingbirds, 1 American Robin, 2 Cassin’s Vireos, 2 Western Tanagers, 2 Cassin’s Finches, 3 Chipping Sparrows, 2 Red Breasted Nuthatches, 1 Dark Eyed Junco, 2 Golden Crowned Kinglets and 2 Yellow Rumped Warblers.
Nine of the Eleven Species that Responded at Once to Northern Pygmy Owl Call
In its own way it was one of the most fun and enjoyable experiences I have had birding – 11 species and at least 27 individuals. (Of course I would have traded them all for a single Great Gray Owl.) I continued to bird in the area for a while and then it was time to move on – and that leads to Part II.
PART II – Around and Around and Around We Go…
Leaving the Blue Mountains I continued on past Walla Walla on Highway 12 and turned north on Nine Mile Road hoping to find a Ferruginous Hawk. I have seen them on a nest on this road in the past and they had been reported there on Ebird. When I got to the nest site, no hawks were in sight. I did see several Lark Sparrows in addition to many dozens of Horned Larks (and some other sparrows) and my photo of the Lark Sparrow was my first for the year.
I had a vague memory of another possible nest site further up the road and headed in that direction. This is a very dusty gravel road, remote and rarely traveled. So I was surprised when I saw another car approaching with a trail of dust behind me. This same type of thing will play out in Part III of this post later – with a far different result.
The driver was a birder, an excellent one – Matt Bartels. It was not the first time that I have met up with him unexpectedly in the field. I drive insane amounts during the year in my birding pursuits. What is a number that is “insane times two”? That is probably how many miles Matt drives each year on his County Listing pursuits. And now we were about to add some more miles together as he had “definite” info on another nest site – which he said was a little further up the road. Since my info was a vague memory and his was specific, I deferred and followed him – getting buried in dust. This is only the short hand version but we continued up Nine Mile Road for more miles than I thought were to be traveled. Two large birds flew up out of the grass and at first I thought Ferruginous Hawk, but instead we had two juvenile Great Horned Owls – siblings sticking together.
Great Horned Owl
We stopped and checked directions on Matt’s computer. “This way”, he said “and I guaranty we will find them”. So we thought we had crossed Johnson Road but somehow turned onto it and then onto Touchet North Road thinking it was Dodd Road. But it wasn’t. So we stopped again and at the next intersection, this time we did go onto Dodd Road – except this time it was actually Sims Road. After a while, I thought something was off, so we checked again and made the correction, retraced steps and this time really were headed to Dodd Road via Gluck Road. Again Matt said, the nest tree was at Gluck Road and Britton Road “and I guaranty we will find them”. Plucker Road did lead us to Gluck Road – and an intersection with Britton Road – but being completely disoriented – which way to turn? We decided to try left and again Matt gave the guaranty – this time for MANY Ferruginous Hawks. By the way, we had seen NO trees anywhere along the way. We had seen some nice Swainson’s Hawks on some power poles as we had approached Britton Road and then not too far off, we saw some trees – it HAD to be the place – and thankfully it was. A single bird was perched and it was our targeted Ferruginous Hawk – then another hawk flew over and relatively close – and a few minutes later a third one flew by – much lighter than the first two – although all were the light morph forms. When Matt guarantees something – you can count on it – well usually – and also usually on a more direct path.
Ferruginous Hawk Perched
Ferruginous Hawks in Flight
I promised Matt I would tell the story in the blog and now I have – and it was great to see Matt and the hawks were certainly there – and it was Washington species number 294 for the year – so definitely ok to see miles and miles (and extra miles) of wheat fields and gravel roads. As I said in the beginning, this was a very good day.
Part III – “Close, Oh So Close”
The plan now was to bird some more spots in the area and then head north. I had to be in Leavenworth the next morning so I thought I would stay in Cle Elum and bird the Liberty area that night looking for owls and woodpeckers. I added some new birds for the trip but nothing unexpected or exciting and reached Cle Elum around 6 to check into the motel (getting the last room available) and then eat some fast food. I have had good luck and good birds in the Liberty area but was particularly now interested in a Flammulated Owl – maybe even a photo op.
Flam’s would not be possible until it was dark so for the first two hours, I drove the main road through and then up from the town of Liberty – more dust for the car. A White Crowned Sparrow was my first for the trip and there were many Chipping Sparrows and Swainson’s Thrushes. Not too far from the town I heard a Great Horned Owl hooting. Tanagers, Vireos and a number of Warblers were heard or seen. Pewees and other flycatchers were also found including one with a very long tail continually flicking its tail up. Not a good look in the failing light and no calls so I am not going to attempt an ID. I heard and then saw a couple of Townsend’s Warblers – again new for the trip. Around 9:30 I heard my first “night bird” – a Common Poorwill in the distance. A little later I heard the “peent call” of a Common Nighthawk and then another Poorwill. I began playing the two-toot call of a Flammulated Owl as much to remind myself as to attract an owl. No response but about 15 minutes later, with the memory of the call fresh, I was pretty sure I heard one off in the distance. It was getting dark and it was time to get serious.
My approach is to stop every 1/2 mile and listen and play the call. If no response I move on for anther 1/2 mile and try again. As I approached the 4th stop (coming down) I heard a Poorwill and stopped in the middle of the road. There had been no cars seen in the previous 2 hours and pull-offs were hard to come by, so I did not think much of it. With the Poorwill still calling in the distance I heard an unmistakable two note call of a Flammulated Owl. Not real close – but not real far either. I started calling and it kept calling as well. Without me seeing it in flight, the call that had been on the left side of the road (downhill side) stopped and then started up again on the right side – uphill – a little closer. Then it was on the downhill side again – and closer still. This continued for 20 minutes and now it was definitely very close. Using my spotlight, I scanned the two close trees on the downhill side that were right next to the road and I was sure I was going to find the owl and I had my camera ready. It was the closest I had ever been and this owl was the most responsive I had ever had. I have wanted this photo for SOOOOO LONG. And then…
Just as earlier when I saw a car coming up on me in the remote area when I was looking for the Ferruginous Hawk, in the distance I saw the lights of a car coming down the road toward me. It was maybe 1/2 mile off but there was going to be no way for it to get by without me moving my car. I could take a chance and hope it was a birder who would stop (if only it was Matt again!!!) and continue to try for the owl. But it could just as easily be some crazy roaring down the road and I could be in danger. I flashed my spotlight to warn the oncoming vehicle and then decided I had to move my car. I found a spot to just barely pull over enough for another car to come by. It was maybe 30 yards down the road. The other car came roaring by – slowing a little but definitely not a birder. Then a second vehicle came. Maybe three minutes had passed since I was within moments of getting that prized look and photo. And the owl was still calling – but it was now way down the valley. I tried playback again. Now there was no movement. I repeated and repeated again – nothing. I waited five minutes – still nothing. I was left to wonder what would have happened if I had been off the road, or if there had been no other car, or if it had come 30 minutes later. I will never know. I could either cry or laugh. I decided to laugh – close, oh so close would have to do. I will be back and will try again.
Flammulated Owl – Sadly Not my Photo
It had been a very long and a very good day. Saying it again – great places, great birds, great people – got them all and a couple of good stories as well. Sign me up for more.
And an added note: earlier I heard another series of hoots that I am sure was an owl. It was closer to Liberty than the top of the road. I could not make a positive ID but it was more similar to Spotted Owl than anything else. There are Spotted Owls in the area. I had found one at a “secret spot” in the area in 2013. Maybe it was – maybe it wasn’t. Certainly not going to report it or count it. But when I go back – I will keep listening.