Where Are We? Bird Sleuthing

Last Sunday I attended a wonderful birding event – a surprise 80th birthday party for Dennis Paulson.  There is nobody in Washington who has done more good for the birding community than Dennis – his Master Birder Classes, his scholarly work, his curatorial work, his other teaching roles.  There is probably nobody in Washington who knows more about birds than Dennis either.  It would be great to do a blog (or two or three) about Dennis – but I am not sufficiently talented to do it right and as he would deserve so I will pass.  At the party, turning the tables on the Master, Dennis was shown a number of photos of just parts of birds and challenged to identify them from the limited data.  Not surprisingly Dennis got most of them right – an amazing performance.  Since the birds were not limited to birds of Washington, Dennis asked “where was this taken” to aid his deliberations.

Dennis Paulson


With Dennis’s question in mind, on the long drive home from a fun trip to Neah Bay, I pondered a variation on the photo I.D. challenge:  wondering if anyone could answer “where are we” when showed a combination of photos – adding that they were all from the same state and would have to be within some limited specified time – rather than just pick photos from a lifetime of possible surprising finds in an area.  The original plan was to sort through my Ebird reports and come up with some possible challenging combinations.  However, when I was later editing some recent photos on Flick’r, the task became easier.  I could take the most recent 15 photos I have posted there, show them to a good well traveled birder – say from Missouri, tell him/her the photos were all from the same state and ask, “Where are we?”

Here is the list from the most recent photos backwards in time:  Northern Pygmy Owl, Clay Colored Sparrow, Painted Bunting, Snowy Egret, Snowy Owl, Black Phoebe, White Winged Crossbill, Zone Tailed Hawk, Sharp Tailed Sandpiper, Northern Shrike, Barn Owl, Harlan’s Red Tailed Hawk, Yellow Bellied Sapsucker,  and Bar Tailed Godwit.   (I have omitted Western Meadowlark as it would immediately bring focus to the Western states).

So where are we?  To even an intermediate level birder, a couple of the species jump out as probably geographic limiters.  But in every state there are inexplicable anomalies, a first ever record of some species that just does not belong there.  And there are some states – birding meccas like Texas, Arizona and California for example – which seem to have more than their share of such oddities.  Black Phoebe, Northern Pygmy Owl and Zone Tailed Hawk all point to Western states – but just how far west?  And what about those anomalies?  I found for example that a Zone Tailed Hawk showed up in Massachusetts within the 10 year time frame.

I did some research on Ebird and examined species lists for a number of “likely” states over the past ten years to see where such a list might be possible.  I concentrated on California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Texas, New York, Colorado (which always surprises me with its species diversity and records) and Massachusetts.

Since they are my photos, we already know that all of these species have been found in Washington, but I would not have presented the material to that representative Missouri Birder that way, so he/she would have to piece it together species by species.  I would have given him/her the 8 “possible” states and with that the analysis may have gone this way.

All of the states would have had Red Tailed Hawks (although I am not sure about the Harlan’s form), Northern Shrikes, Barn Owls and probably Clay Colored Sparrows.

Red Tailed Hawk (Dark Phase Harlan’s) – Skagit County, Washington – October 24, 2017

Harlan's Red Tail

Northern Shrike – Wiley Slough, Skagit County Washington – October 31, 2017

Northern Shrike3

Barn Owl – Three Crabs, Clallam County, Washington – October 24, 2017

Barn Owl4

Clay Colored Sparrow – Neah Bay, Clallam County, Washington – November 20, 2017 

Clay Colored Sparrow1

Massachusetts – yes there was that Zone Tailed Hawk, but the other western species – Northern Pygmy Owl and Black Phoebe have not made it to the Bay State.  The same holds for New York.  Interestingly both had Bar Tailed Godwits – missing as we will see for some of the others.

Black Phoebe – Wiley Slough, Skagit County Washington – October 31, 2017

Black Phoebe2

Northern Pygmy Owl – Chinook Bend, King County Washington – November 21, 2017

Northern Pygmy Owl

So Massachusetts and New York are out.  How about Colorado?  It too has a record of a Zone Tailed Hawk and it has both the Black Phoebe and the Northern Pygmy Owl, but despite having more shorebird records than I would have expected, neither a Bar Tailed Godwit nor a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper have shown up there in the past 10 years.

Bar Tailed Godwit – Westport Marina – Grays Harbor County Washington – September 21, 2017

Bar Tailed Godwit2

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – Hayton Reserve – Skagit County Washington – October 31, 2017

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper

So Colorado is out as well.  Next up for consideration is Texas.  Yes for everything – except once again the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper.  Close but no cigar.  Since shorebirds are not its specialty, I expected that Arizona would fail also.  And it did – no Sharp Tailed Sandpiper and also no Snowy Owl (which had been seen in all of the other states above.)

Snowy Owl – Sandy Point – Whatcom County Washington – November 8, 2017

Fluffy Snowy2

Running out of options, our Missouri birder would now have to consider the three West Coast states.  California seemed the most likely bet.  In fact with its 636 species seen in the past 10 years – more than any other state, it was the best guess even from the start.  Again close but no cigar as just like Texas, one species was missing.  And this was a surprise.  Unless Ebird was in error (or there was user error), no White Winged Crossbills were reported in California from 2007 through 2017.

White Winged Crossbill – Neah Bay, Clallam County, Washington – November 6, 2017 


California was out.  How about Oregon?  Once again, off by one.  No Zone Tailed Hawk has made it to Oregon in the past ten years.  All the others yes but one miss.

Zone Tailed Hawk – Neah Bay, Clallam County, Washington – November 6, 2017

Zone Tailed Hawk

So that left only Washington – but how could that be?  Not only did it seem impossible that there would have been a Zone Tailed Hawk, but some of the other species were also not likely there.  A Snowy Egret? – well maybe.  A Painted Bunting? – not so likely.  And even the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker should not be found there.   Yet as it turned out, as we know, all were.

Snowy Egret – Lower River Road, Clark County, Washington – November 18, 2017

Snowy Egret

Painted Bunting – LaConner, Skagit County, Washington – November 19, 2017

Painted Bunting1

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Juanita Bay Park, King County Washington – September 22, 2017

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Indeed Washington is the only state to have had all of these species in the past ten years – but way more impressive and rare than that is that all of these species have been seen (and obviously photographed) in Washington – indeed Western Washington in the past two months.  Our Missouri birder would have been very surprised.  I wonder how Dennis Paulson would have done…

This chart shows the birds seen (and not) over the past ten years in our option states.  It also gives the total number of species seen in each state over that period. (Source Ebird)

Total Species Reported 464 484 636 444 532 467 610 447
Snowy Egret x x x x x x x x
Red-tailed Hawk x x x  x x x x x
Zone Tailed Hawk x   x x x x x
Bar-tailed Godwit x x x x     x x
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper x x x   x     x
Barn Owl x x x x x x x x
Snowy Owl x x x x   x x x
Northern Pygmy-Owl x x x   x x x  
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker x x x x x x x x
Black Phoebe x x x   x x x  
Northern Shrike x x x x x x x x
Clay-colored Sparrow x x x x x x x x
Painted Bunting x x x x x x x x
White-winged Crossbill x x   x x x x x






“Bunting” – What an interesting word.

To a baseball fan it is the act of laying down a bunt where the batter squares up to the pitched ball and if he can make contact either “drags” it along the first base line or perhaps pushes it towards the third base line.  The former is generally an attempt for the batter to get a hit and reach base safely himself.  The latter is more often a sacrifice bunt where the batter will be thrown out at first base, but in the process other base runners will advance – either from first to second or from second to third and will thus be in “scoring position”.  An extreme form is the “suicide squeeze” where the batter tries to bunt home the runner who is on third base.  Bunting has become a dying art in the home run happy world of modern baseball, but bunting is still an exciting part of the game.

Mickey Mantle – my All-Time Favorite – Drag Bunting


To a patriotic celebrant, bunting is a kind of decoration often made of cloth – particularly including for example the stars and stripes of the American flag used as decoration.  This kind of bunting is particularly popular at Fourth of July picnics and political conventions.

Patriotic Bunting


Much more importantly to me (now that Mickey Mantle is long gone at least) as a birder I now think of Buntings in taxonomic terms as any of various stout-billed passerine birds (families Cardinalidae and Emberizidae) of which some are grouped with the cardinal and some with the New World sparrows.  This blog post is prompted by the recent appearance of the aptly named Painted Bunting that obligingly continues to visit a feeder in LaConner, Washington.  It does not belong here and is very rare in our state.  Dozens of birders have made the journey to the feeder and have left very happy.  Accompanied by Steve Pink and Jon Houghton, we were able to see and photograph this “chased” bird approximately one minute after arriving on site.  It was THAT cooperative!

Painted Bunting – LaConner, Washington November 18, 2017

Painted Bunting1

Although I saw some in Florida earlier this year and had seen them in Texas as well, my only other Painted Bunting in Washington was on Siwash Creek Road Near Tonasket on July 8, 2012.  Steve had seen the one that hung around Capital Hill in Seattle in March 2002 (another had been seen in Neah Bay in 2013) and this one is just the 4th State Record.  It was a state lifer for Jon.
After our LaConner visit we drove around the Samish and Skagit flats areas looking for among other species, Snow Buntings.  In heavy wind we were unsuccessful but the success with the Painted Bunting more than made up for that.  In the process we talked about other Buntings seen in Washington – or that we had seen elsewhere in the world – thus this blog post.
There are seven (7) Bunting species that have been seen in Washington.  They are: Lazuli Bunting (a fairly common breeder); the aforementioned Snow Bunting (regular but uncommon in winter – except in often very large flocks in snow covered fields in Eastern Washington);  McKay’s Bunting – a close relative of the Snow Bunting – that breeds on islands in the Bering Sea area and is very rarely seen in Washington (fewer than 10 records all from the Ocean Shores area); Indigo Bunting – another rarity here but common elsewhere in the U.S.; Lark Bunting – an extremely rare vagrant that is common in the Plains but with only three Washington records from Walla Walla, Tokeland and Tatoosh Island – all in the mid 1990’s; Rustic Bunting – an Asian Bunting that is a rare but regular migrant in Western Alaska and has made it to Washington less than a handful of times; and Little Bunting – an even rarer Asian vagrant with only a single state record on EBird from the Ocean Shores area in October 2015.  (I think there may also have been one in Whatcom County.)  I could write an entire blog about the Ocean Shores observation but it would not be good for my blood pressure and name calling and ranting and raving are never good things to do in print…
The Lazuli Bunting is not as striking as the Painted Bunting but it is a real looker and is readily found in drier areas in the summer.
Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting
I covered the Snow Bunting in previous blogs and include its photo from one of them.  I have seen them singularly or in small groups in many areas and in flocks of over 100 birds in the Waterville Plateau.
Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting 1
Same for the McKay’s Bunting which I was fortunate to see at Damon Point in Washington in February 1979 but which I missed by a day in February 2012.  The picture is not mine.  It is from Chuck Jensen of that 2012 bird.  Somewhat analogously with the Common and Hoary Redpolls, many people think that the McKay’s Bunting is just a subspecies of the Snow Bunting.  I hope they remain separate.
McKay’s Bunting
I saw my first Indigo Bunting in Washington with Samantha Robinson at Steigerwald NWR on June 1, 2014.  Later I saw one in Mukilteo on March 13, 2016 and then three months later in Lewis County.  My most recent observation was on the road into Wenas this June.  This bird was very territorial and cooperative and was seen by many birders.
Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting3
I have not seen a Lark Bunting in Washington.  I first saw one in Presho, S.D. as I drove across the U.S. way back in 1969.  Although I was not a birder then, I had a firm memory of seeing this odd black and white bird in flocks across the prairie.  I finally found another one in Arizona this August and got this very poor photo.
Lark Bunting – Arizona August 2017
Lark Bunting .jpg
No observation and thus no photo by me of the Little Bunting – maybe someday.  Just to be all inclusive, I include one of the Ocean Shores bird taken by Dave Slager.
Little Bunting – Ocean Shores Area 2015 – Photo by Dave Slager
Finally in Washington, there is the Rustic Bunting – again covered previously.  I have been fortunate to have seen both Washington records – Neah Bay discovered by Cara Borre and in Kent in December 1987 (it was apparently there in part of the winters of 1986 – 1989.  The photo is my poor one from December 7 last year.
Rustic Bunting
Rustic Bunting
In addition to the seven Washington Buntings, another 8 Bunting species are included in the official ABA Checklist – mostly very rare vagrants seen only on remote Alaskan islands.  The only common one is the Varied Bunting which I saw on my Arizona trip this August.
Varied Bunting
Varied Bunting
I know that I keep track of (or at least notice) far too many birding statistics or lists, but I thought it was cool that in the past year (12 months not calendar year), I had seen seven Bunting species.  That observation led me to wonder how many Bunting species I had seen world wide.  Ebird makes it very easy to answer questions like this and I found that at some point during my life I had seen 16 Bunting species.  In addition to the eight in the U.S. I had seen Blue Bunting in Belize in March 2010, Meadow Bunting in Japan in 1983, Golden Breasted and Somali Buntings in Kenya in November 2007, Cape Bunting in South Africa in October 2014 and Black-faced, Crested and Yellow Breasted Buntings at the incredible Mai Po Nature Reserve outside of Hong Kong back on Christmas Day in 1979.
I was not taking pictures during most of those times.  Thus many photos are missing but I am happy to have some to add to this blog post.
Golden Breasted Bunting  –  Kenya 2007
Golden Breasted Bunting
Cape Bunting – South Africa 2014
Cape Bunting
Blue Bunting – Belize – 2010
Blue Bunting
All told there are almost 50 Bunting species in the world, so I have barely scratched the surface.  If I were making a wish list, I guess first I would like to see and photograph in Washington ANY of the Bunting species that have not been seen here previously.  After that I guess it would be to see and photograph a Little Bunting in Washington (getting rid of that angst in the process) and then to again see and finally photograph a McKay’s Bunting in the state.  I am happy with all of the ones I have seen and photographed – mostly striking birds – led by the Painted Bunting.  But each day is a new opportunity – one of those days will provide an opportunity to go Bunting again.

Speaking of Snow Birds

My last blog post was a response to the appearance of a Snowy Owl at Sandy Point in Whatcom County.  On Tuesday I joined 5 others from Pilchuck Audubon on a trip to Reifel Refuge in British Columbia.  It was a very windy and often rainy day and the birding was just OK but the company was excellent.  After Reifel Refuge, we went to a VERY windy and wet Boundary Bay hoping to see Snowy Owls.  As I wrote in that earlier blog, Boundary Bay was home to as many as 20 Snowy Owls in the last irruption year.  This year two have been reported.  In a driving wet wind, our group was fortunate to find one – hunkered down and distant.

Boundary Bay Snowy Owl – November 14, 2017

Snowy Owl Boundary Bay

And if you think that owl was hunkered down, look at the next photo.  We decided to go for a Snowy Owl two-fer and stop at Sandy Point on our return trip to see if we could find Snowy Owls in two countries on the same day,  It was there – but in the heavy wind, it was almost impossible to find.  Look closely.

Sandy Point Snowy Owl – November 14, 2017

Snowy Owl Sandy Point

We did not find any Snow Buntings on this visit – probably just too windy.  But the two Snowy Owls  were not the only “Snow Birds” we saw in both countries as Snow Geese were observed in both countries as well.  Earlier today I was thinking about trips still ahead for 2017 and wondered about snow levels in the Okanogan as that trip is best when there is lots of snow.  That coupled with doing checklists for the visits to B.C. and Sandy Point led me to this blog post about more Snow Birds.

In the ABA Area, there are 5 species with “snow” in their names:  Snowy Owls, Snowy Plovers, Snow Buntings, Snowy Egrets and Himalayan Snowcocks.  Native to the Himalayan region of southern Asia, the latter was introduced as a game bird in the Ruby Mountains of northern Nevada beginning in 1963.  I do not expect to ever see one (or look for one) even though they are quite striking.   I guess they are as valid a countable species as other non-native introduced game birds like Ring Necked Pheasants, Gray Partridge and Chukars, but they seem even more exotic.  The other Snow Birds are very countable and appealing.  While all of these birds are “snow colored”, only Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings are very much associated with snow itself.  Snow Geese are generally seen in “the Lower 48” in the winter but not necessarily with any snow.  The “snow” in Snowy Plovers and Snowy Egrets is from their very snow white color.

Himalayan Snowcock – Picture from Internet

Himalayan Snowcock

I saw my first Snow Bunting at Magnuson Park in Seattle in January 1974.  No photos from those days but I have seen many more in Washington since them including single birds at many spots and flocks of over 100 birds in the Okanogan (in snow fields).  The first photo is of one from a flock of 120 birds seen on Cameron Lake Road in the Okanogan in March 2012.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting 1

That bird is in winter non-breeding plumage.  My photo of one in Nome Alaska in June 2016, shows a much more contrasted Snow Bunting in full breeding plumage – very snowy looking indeed.

Snow Bunting – Breeding Plumage – Alaska June 2016

Snow Bunting

I saw my first Snow Goose in 1972 at the San Luis NWR in California in January 1972.  Since then I have seen thousands and thousands of them – mostly in the Skagit area but also in huge flocks  elsewhere in the State – sometimes in flocks of between 5000-10,000.  Feeding in the fields or in the familiar skeins in flight, they are a welcome sign that winter is on the way or already present.

Snow Goose


Snow Goose Landing


Snow Goose Flock

Snow Goose Flock

Snow Geese usually first appear in October and are usually gone by April.  In the Skagit area they may share fields with Trumpeter and Tundra Swans – turning fields white in their great numbers.  In the Midwestern United States, they are often in the Blue Form but it is the same species.  This form is very rare in Washington.

Snow Goose – Blue Form

Blue Goose

Especially when it is from non-birders, what I most often hear when I show Snowy Plover photos is “They are so cute!!”  Pretty hard to disagree.  They are found on sandy beaches along the coast and on salt flats – often in protected areas as they are declining.  I have seen them in California and Colorado in addition to many times in Washington.  Often I see just one but have seen as many as 12 scampering on the sand near Midway Beach.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover

Banded Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover with Band

A close relative of the Snowy Plover is the Piping Plover.  I have seen this cousin in Maryland and Maine.  There is a single record for Washington – Medicine Lake near Spokane in 1990.  Miraculously one was seen in Boundary Bay (yes that same Boundary Bay with the Snowy Owls) in August this year.  Who knows – maybe someday in Washington again!!

Piping Plover Maine 2015

Piping Plover

I have seen Snowy Egrets in eight states.  My first observation was in California in 1973 where they are very common.  They are not common in Washington although observations seem to be increasing.  I finally found my first one in the state on Lower River Road in Clark County in December 2015.   A distant terrible photo then.  A much better look was on July 30 last year of the one originally found by Bruce Labar in Fife.

Snowy Egret – Fife Pond – July 30, 2017

2016-07-30 15.03.31

The picture below was taken in California and shows the incredible feathers – plumes that were once popular additions to women’s hats – and which threatened the species.

Snowy Egret – Bolsa Chica, California

Snowy Egret

That’s it for the Snow Birds in the ABA area.  I have one more Snow Bird on my world list, however.  But it is about as different from these Snow Birds as you can imagine.  It is the Snowy Crowned Robin Chat which I saw at the Kakamega Forest NR in Kenya where it is resident almost exactly 10 years ago.  I doubt that there has been any snow in the Kakamega forest in hundreds or maybe even thousands of years.  I did not get a photo of that species but do have ones of two closely related cousins from a trip to South Africa in 2014.

Snowy Capped Robin Chat

Snowy Capped Robin Chat

White Browed Robin Chat

White Browed Robin Chat

White Throated Robin Chat

White Throated Robin Chat Display

I think I should have stayed with the true Snow Birds instead of straying – but they are nice looking birds.  Just to close properly, however, a final photo of a Snowy Owl – after all this guy started it all.  It is appropriately on the snow – a small patch surrounded by clear fields in the Waterville Plateau.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl2

Snow Birds

In 2016 no Snowy Owls were reported on Ebird for Western Washington.  In 2015 there was a single report of two owls on Sandy Point in Whatcom County on December 1st.  There was no photo and I do not know if the record was accepted.  In 2014 a Snowy Owl was seen in Edmonds and was reported 19 times (including once by me).  2011 through 2013 were so-called irruptions year and Snowy Owls were seen in many locations in Western Washington but particularly at Damon Point in Ocean Shores where there were more than a dozen in 2011.  At that same time, there were 20 or more at Boundary Bay in British Columbia.   I saw Snowy Owls in both locations and those are among my favorite birding memories.

Snowy Owl Damon Point – Ocean Shores

Snowy Owl

On November 1st, Philip Calise reported a Rock Sandpiper at Sandy Point in Whatcom County.  I had already seen a Rock Sandpiper this year on January 16 at Rosario Beach – the same incredible day when we had a Falcated Duck at Padilla Bay.  The former is more regularly found at the jetties on the Coast but is still uncommon and a good bird.  The Falcated Duck is a mega-rarity and was a life bird for most of us who saw it.  Oh yeah on November 1st,  Phil Calise also reported a Snowy Owl

The Mega-Rarity Falcated Duck – Padilla Bay January 16, 2017


Frank Caruso, lured more by the Rock Sandpiper, joined me visiting Sandy Point on Friday November 3rd with my target being the Snowy Owl – which would be new for Washington and the ABA area for 2017.  The weather was MISERABLE!!  It had snowed the night before “up north” and while there was no snow on most of I-5 itself, as we neared Bellingham, there was a beautiful dusting on some fields and trees and some not so beautiful icy patches on the Freeway.  It was not beautiful at all as we exited and headed off on Slater Road with lots of ice.  Suddenly a car maybe 100 yards ahead of us did a very scary skid and slide – first to the left and then to the right and then back to the left before being stopped by one of those divider wires put there for just that purpose.  I was able to slow and keep control of our car without hitting the brakes – steering through the problem.  Adrenalin levels did rise.

Further along we saw a car completely turned over on the side of the road – an obvious turn turtle from earlier that morning.  We continued on – maybe just the right conditions of snow and ice for a Snowy Owl.  When we arrived at Sandy Point, there was snow and ice on the road and the parking area and the beach.  Worse though was the wind.  Probably the cause of the ice on the road earlier, here it was howling – gusting over 40 mph and a pretty constant 20 mph plus.  The ambient temperature was below 30 degrees – who knows what the wind chill was – but it was COLD!!  We put on every piece of clothing we had (and we had brought a lot expecting the cold) and went out exploring.

The wind made it difficult to bird, impossible to use a scope and definitely suppressed the birds.  We found some Black Turnstones and not much else.  Another birder was there – he had seen the Snowy Owl the day before and had already been there for 30 minutes plus without a hint.  We braved the conditions for an hour and seeing no let-up and no Snowy Owl, we gave up and headed home.  There were lots of nooks and crannies among the rocks, logs, docks and homes.  The Owl was probably hunkered down out of sight.  Rats!! If the owl was relocated, maybe we would come back and try again.  On the way out, we saw an even worse scene of a car off the road completely on its top.

As it turns out the Snowy Owl was relocated at Sandy Point the next day, but per my preceding blog post: A Bazillion to One!!   (https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding. wordpress.com/19347), events at Neah Bay took priority and thoughts of Snowy Owls were placed in the “Future File”.  Today the Future arrived.  The Snowy was reported again yesterday (Wednesday) and there was also a report of two Snow Buntings at Sandy Point.  The weather was good and projected to get worse later in the week.  There was no snow, no ice and light wind.  The temperature was projected to be around 40.  I would give it a try.

As I have often written, when chasing a rarity, it is often best to first look for the birders before the bird.  Often someone else is already there and already on the bird.  Such was the case today.  As I arrived at the tip of Sandy Point I could see two birders off in the distance looking at the spot where I expected the Owl to be.  Two more birders were returning to the parking area.  They confirmed that the Snowy Owl was there, hunkered down in the logs just across the narrow entrance to the Bay.

I went to the point – got a quick view and then worked to get a photo.  The Snowy was indeed hunkered down – partially hidden from our angle and with its back towards us.  I got a few “record” photos and was very glad that conditions had changed.  I asked the other birders if they had seen any Snow Buntings.  Two had been seen on the grass above the beach and along the path maybe 45 minutes earlier.  I turned my attention elsewhere hoping the Owl would move to a more photogenic position.

Snowy Owl – First View


The area was quite birdy – with birds on the grass, on the rocks and in the Bay.  First noted were two pairs of Black Scoters – uncommon but not rare.  Keeping the “Black is Beautiful Theme”, a small flock of Black Turnstones also flew in.  A search for an accompanying Rock Sandpiper yielded only a Dunlin.

Black Scoters

Black Scoters

Black Turnstones

Black Turnstones

Suddenly another flock appeared – but not shorebirds – 30+ by estimation – what were they?  They teased us with flyovers and near landings but our only views were from below – a wonderful group of Snow Buntings – their striking black and white wing patterns clearly evident.  Not the hoped for close-up photo but a real treat and new State and ABA birds for 2017.

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting Wings

So both of the “Snow Bird” targets had been found – not great photos – but great birds and Snow Birds without the snow and ice and wind made for a wonderful morning.  Maybe the Owl would change position and provide a photo op.  But first another bird appeared – another flyover and one of the other birders called out that it was a Lapland Longspur.  This was a good spot to find one and it would have been another new year bird.  My interest turned to it and away from the Snowy Owl.  I was the only one to follow the bird as it finally landed and I was able to get on it and get a photo – confirming that it was – only an American Pipit.  Another nice but far more common bird – and also very habitat appropriate here.  Too bad it did not have a red throat.

American Pipit


My attention returned to the Snowy.  Four Western Meadowlarks flew onto logs just across from the Owl – a nice photo.  Some other birders had a arrived.  I showed one the Snowy through my scope – a life bird for her.  It was still mostly hidden though – an occasional head swivel at least showing the bright yellow eyes.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark1

Snowy Owl – a Better Look


I decided to give it another 15 minutes hoping for a better photo.  Other birds seen included some Common Goldeneyes, Surf Scoters, Red Breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Loons, Double Crested Cormorants, Glaucous, Mew and Ring Billed Gulls and Horned Grebes.  The Snow Buntings did not return.

Common Loon


Finally the Snowy Owl moved a bit but while more in the open, still not a full on facial shot.  I grabbed a last photo as it fluffed out its feathers – showing the insulation that keeps it alive in its normal harsh arctic environment.

Snowy Owl – Last Photo

Fluffy Snowy2

Now it was time to head home.  It had been another great day birding – so much better than the earlier visit.  I will take Snow Birds over snow itself any day!!

A Bazillion to One!!

Yesterday, Sunday November 5th, I was supposed to go to Neah Bay but something came up and I was not able to go.  A few hours after abandoning the trip I saw a post on Tweeters by Matt Dufort that a Zone Tailed Hawk had been seen at Neah Bay.  It was the first state record for this bird that belongs in Arizona or Mexico.  Are you serious?!?  Had my change of plans caused me to miss this incredible find?

It is 135 miles from my house to Neah Bay – a three hour trip considering the ferry ride and the winding roads.  Not a trip to take on a whim, but it is one I have taken many times in the last few years – chasing some of the incredible birds found there or hoping to find some of my own.  Just last week, Steve Pink and I had made the journey hoping for a Blue Grosbeak, another new state bird for us and another bird that belongs in Arizona.  We missed it (see   ).

Should I make the trek to Neah Bay on Monday and hope that unlike the Blue Grosbeak, the Zone Tailed Hawk would stay around?  What were the odds it would stick another day?  Birding friend Brian Pendleton was in Neah Bay and when I saw an Ebird report that he too had seen the Hawk yesterday, I got in touch and was at least encouraged. If found, it would be such a prize.  So unexpected that when Brian and Andy Stepniewski (both extraordinary birders) saw it Sunday they had thought it was a Turkey Vulture – which although a bit late for it to still be around – was very understandable and which in flight from below looks very much like the Zone Tailed Hawk.  I had recently seen a Zone Tailed Hawk (and also a Blue Grosbeak) in Arizona.  Yes I had missed the Blue Grosbeak in Neah Bay.  Missing the Zone Tail would be far more painful.

Zone Tailed Hawk (Arizona – Mt. Lemmon August 1, 2017)

Zone Tailed Hawk3

Blue Grosbeak (Arizona Green Valley August 2, 2017)

Blue Grosbeak1

The weather was projected to be fantastic and although a couple of others could not make the trip, Carol Riddell was up for the journey so we determined to make the 6:20 Ferry from Edmonds to Kingston and give it a try.   About 30 miles out of Neah Bay, I got word from Brian that he and Andy had seen the Zone Tailed Hawk again this morning – near the High School. YES!!!!  About 45 minutes later Carol and I were at the High School, but the Hawk was not.  But we did find Chuck Jensen and combined efforts exchanging phone numbers and going to different areas.

Not too much later Chuck called – he had found it, but it had flown,  We all continued the search. Finally about 11:00 as we retraced steps again, we saw three birders with scopes and bins looking at something up in a tree along Backtrack Road – an area Carol and I had just gone through 10 minutes ago. It was Chuck and Adrian Hinkle and Mary Lynn (Em) Scattaregia, the latter two who had first found the bird Sunday.  And the bird they were looking at was the Zone Tailed Hawk – perched in the open.  We got great looks and good photos.  A new State bird for Chuck, Carol and me.

Zone Tailed Hawk – Neah Bay November 6, 2017

Zone Tailed Hawk


Zone Tailed Hawk1

We watched it for maybe 15 minutes and then it flew off.  I got a crummy flight photo which at least showed the trailing white on the primaries.

Flight Shot

Zone Tailed Hawk Flight

It was great to meet Adrian and Em and even greater that Carol and I – and Chuck – all got the bird.  WOW!!

Riding our high, Chuck, Carol and I headed over to Hobuck Beach where we understood that White Winged Crossbills had been seen.  We stopped at the picnic area and slithered through the rail fence.  We saw lots of trees with heavy cone crops and searched with our bins.  A few minutes later I thought I heard one calling and raced over to the area and sure enough one was atop a spruce.  Then we found three or four more and all got good photos.  A life bird for Chuck and new year birds for Carol and me.  Had we missed the Zone Tailed Hawk this would have been a great consolation prize but now it was more like a wonderful topping on an astounding dessert.

White Winged Crossbill


Carol and I checked some more spots in Neah Bay and found nice birds but nothing unusual and nothing new for us for the year.  We were surprised not to see a Tropical Kingbird since last year on November 7th, I had 4 in Neah Bay.  We decided to head for home – very happy indeed.

It is impossible to say what the odds would have been to see a Zone Tailed Hawk in Washington – remember this was the first ever State record.  But whatever those odds would be, the odds would be far far far greater to see the last 5 birds I have added to my Washington State list – three of which have been in Neah Bay.  Those birds are:  Dusky Capped Flycatcher (Neah Bay –  November 21, 2016) – First State Record;  Falcated Duck (Padilla Bay – January 16, 2017) – Third State Record; Horned Puffin – (Neah Bay July 20, 2017) – approximately 10 State Records; Swallow Tailed Gull – Carkeek Park – August 31, 2017) – First State Record and only the 2nd North American Record; and now the Zone Tailed Hawk (Neah Bay – November 6, 2017) – First Record north of California.

Dusky Capped Flycatcher

Dusky Capped Flycatcher

Falcated Duck


Horned Puffin


Swallow Tailed Gull

Swallow Tailed Gull Wings4

Zone Tailed Hawk

Zone Tailed Hawk1

It would be impossible to determine the odds for seeing any one of those five birds in Washington, but it is pretty clear that the odds of seeing all Five must be something along the order of  A BAZILLION TO ONE!!!!

Halloween Birding with Pilchuck Audubon

It was fitting that the first bird we saw was a black American Crow.  It was also fitting that the first “special” birds we saw were American Pipits in a field of orange squash.  After all it was Halloween and Pilchuck Audubon was out on another of its Tuesday birding adventures led by Virginia Clark.  (It was also fitting that delicious squash bread joined the yummy cookies in the “treats” that Virginia always brings – reason enough to join the group.)

American Pipit

Pipit and Squah

The day started cold and crisp but it got warmer and warmer and nicer and nicer – a brilliant day of birding in the Fir Island area in Skagit County.  Pilchuck Audubon has a trip every Tuesday mostly fairly local in Snohomish or Skagit County but sometimes ranging further afield even into British Columbia.  There are perhaps 20 “regulars” and you can always count on at least half of them being on any trip – great friendship shared with the also great birding – and the cookies!!

I have not been able to join the group as often as I would like – somehow other matters conflict with Tuesday too often, but it is always fun when I do.  And it is also always instructive as Virginia knows every back road and birding spot and has years of encyclopedic recall about what was seen where and when.  I go to places that are in my backyard so to speak but are still new to me.

I won’t try to catalog every stop and instead will concentrate on two special stops at Wylie Slough and Hayton Reserve but there were many birds on the back roads and our caravan enjoyed a diverse collection of raptors, passerines, waterfowl and shorebirds.  All told we found close to 70 species.  Not every bird was seen by every birder but the special ones were.

Raptors included Bald Eagles, American Kestrels, Red Tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, a Merlin, Sharp Tailed and Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers and a Rough Legged Hawk.  Unfortunately no owls (including a no show of the Barn Owl on Moore Road) and we also did not see the Prairie Falcon that had been reported at Hayton earlier this week.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk Flight1

We also found a good variety of sparrow like birds: White and Golden Crowned, Lincoln’s, Song, and Fox Sparrow’s plus Spotted Towhee and Dark Eyed Junco.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Unfortunately no White Throated Sparrow which would have been a FOY for me but I heard from several in the group that they had had this species visit their yards earlier in the year.  Maybe I can visit next year if they return.

It is still a little early in the winter but all through the day we had groups of Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese – with a large flock of the latter at Hayton numbering over 1000.  There was also a single flock of Cackling Geese and a few Canada Geese.

Cackling Geese

Cackling Geese

I must admit that I too often take the geese and swans for granted.  The excitement of many of the birders in the group as they saw these beautiful birds for the first time this season reminded me just how fortunate we are to live so near to an area where they return in the thousands each fall.  Always a spectacular show.

We arrived at Wylie Slough in the Skagit Management Area just before 11:00.  A Black Phoebe had been reported from the area earlier.  One of the group had already seen it – or maybe not.  When he got home and looked more closely at his photos, the white undertail and conical light colored bill proved it instead to be a Slate Colored Dark Eyed Junco – actually even more uncommon than the Phoebe.  At first we saw no shorebirds in the mud or shallow water so we walked the trail and looked for passerines and then went to the blind to see what ducks we might find.  The Fox Sparrow photo above was from this area and we also had a small flock of Pine Siskins and another small group of Bushtits and two wren species – Bewick’s and Marsh Wrens plus more Sparrows and Towhees.

From the blind, we could see a small group of Ring Necked Ducks (please, please change the species name to Ring Billed Ducks), a pair of Hooded Mergansers, Green Winged Teal and Northern Shovelers.  In the fields behind the blind or in the distant trees in the slough we found Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Northern Harriers and a Sharp Shinned Hawk.

Then it got real exciting.  Just past the blind across from the dike we arrived at the area where the Black Phoebe had been reported (and where the Slate Colored Junco had also been found).  We looked and listened – nothing.  Another Peregrine was found and a Belted Kingfisher’s rattle announced its appearance.  I tried the “phee-bee” call of the Black Phoebe hoping it might bring a response – but there was none.  Whoa – maybe three minutes later, the Black Phoebe was spotted in a tree very near.  It did its flycatching thing and all got good looks and photos.

Black Phoebe (Note the small insects flying around the bird)

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe2

And then a juvenile Northern Shrike was spotted.  The Phoebe flew into brush near the slough and there was an almost immediate series of shrieks and rattles and chortles that turned out to be an adult Northern Shrike.  We thought that it was interacting with the Phoebe and – oh no maybe it was preying on it.  The juvenile Shrike had also flown into the area and we think that was the interaction.  It was also possible that there was a second adult Northern Shrike – as there were many visuals in different areas.  But there was so much activity and flying about that it was not clear if there were two or three Shrikes.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike3

Northern Shrike

Some of us had gotten out to the area by the dike quite a bit ahead of the others.  The Shrikes and Phoebe were very obliging though and everyone got good looks and enjoyed the activity.  I also learned that while our earlier group had been out past the blind and before I used the Phoebe playback, one of the other birders had thought she heard what sounded like a Willow Flycatcher at least 150 yards further down the path – closer to the parking area.  Most likely she had heard the Phoebe with its “phee -bee” call not so different from the “fitz-bew” or “fitz-bee” call of a Willow Flycatcher.  So apparently my playback had drawn the Phoebe out to us from at least 150 yards away.  And the proof of the pudding so to speak was that as we returned to the parking area, we heard the Phoebe calling and relocated the bird there.  So it does cover quite a distance.  Phil Dickinson had seen the Black Phoebe that was first reported by Josh Adams on Fobes Road and this was his experience there as well – as he and David Poortinga found the Phoebe at least that distance from where Josh had it before.

Also on the way in, we got good looks at a small flock of Greater Yellowlegs that had flown in and we heard a Virginia Rail that responded to my “grunt” playback.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Jon and Kathleen Houghton had come to Wylie just in time to get on the Black Phoebe our group had found.  They were soon to return the favor.  They headed off to Hayton Reserve while our group had our picnic at Wylie.  I asked Jon to call if he found the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper that had been hanging at Hayton for the past two weeks.  Maybe 15 minutes later I got the call – but Jon said the tide was out and there were no shorebirds.  After lunch (and more of Virginia’s cookies) we headed over to Hayton Reserve.  Just as we arrived I got another call from Jon – they had the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper.  I announced the find and a group of us charged up to path where I could see Jon and Kathleen.  Turned out that the Sharp Tailed was not quite that far out though and I stopped just in time to see it fairly close in on the mud just east of the bank.  It remained for several minutes affording good views and some photos for some of us before flying over the path and into the shallows on the other side  giving some more birders a view.  This was a life bird for most of the group.  Unfortunately it then disappeared and remained so as the tide came in much quicker than expected.

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper2

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper

Although the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper was definitely the star, there were lots of birds at Hayton:  hundreds of Dunlin, dozens of Greater Yellowlegs, Long Billed Dowitchers, Mallards, American Wigeon,  some Bufflehead and Pintails, and 1000+ Snow Geese.  We also had a single American Coot – our only one of the trip.



Long Billed Dowitcher

Long Billed Dowitchers

Two more stops.  We missed the Barn Owl at Moore Road (the same spot Steve Pink had shown me the previous week – when we in turn missed the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper at Hayton).  Then we went to the North Fork area where we did find the sought after American Bittern – only a distant flyby – but it was Virginia’s goal to get one for the trip so a fitting ending indeed.

It had been a really good day – good weather, very good birds and even better company.  Everyone departed happy – no tricks – only treats.  Happy Halloween.