2017 was a fun and productive birding year. Goals I had set were somehow met and looking back on that will be the subject of my next blog post. I had expended a lot of energy in the California trip that I chronicled previously and per my previous blog post, Neah Bay delivered in December yet again with the completely unexpected Arctic Loon. Maybe that should have been enough for the year. In each of the previous five years, I was doing some kind of “Big Year” so December was a month of chases for “just one more”. It was different this year, but after meeting my goals for three ABA Lists – life birds, life photos and year birds – there was still an allure to adding “more” if possible. And while there was no chance to have a “really big” Big Year for Washington, the appearance in Washington of some rare birds like that Arctic Loon provided impetus to close strong by adding some new state birds for the year that might also add to my ABA total for the year. Plus, any goals aside, they were cool birds.
The first “special bird” was a Blue Jay that was reported at an undisclosed private residence in Skagit County early in December. I saw a report when I was still in California and hoped there would be a chance to look for it when I returned. Blue Jays are pretty rare in Washington – usually one or two appear each year – usually somewhere in Eastern Washington and usually in December although I did see one at Palouse Falls State Park in October 2013. I did not see one in 2016 and this one would be my first west of the Cascades. It took a day after I returned to get some “inside information” that would let me give it a try and the following day I was there bright and early and found not only the Blue Jay but also a very fun property owner who it turned out welcomed birders to visit. I gave friends some directions and in the following weeks would revisit several times with others – for most of whom the Blue Jay was a State Life bird. As much as I enjoyed seeing this very beautiful rarity, the best part was the visit with the homeowner, Barry, and with other birders who came to see the Jay. I would guess that more than 70 people have visited.
Blue Jay – Skagit County – December 7, 2017
The Arctic Loon in Neah Bay was the next special bird – no need to add more after my previous blog but I include the photo – well because it really was that special for me.
Arctic Loon – Neah Bay – December 18, 2017
On December 21 Ebird reported a Rose Breasted Grosbeak in a residential neighborhood near Greenlake in Seattle. The report did not appear until too late to go look for it that day, but I was there very early the next morning. Already there was Sarah Peden – who had helped me find the Arctic Loon in Neah Bay 4 days earlier. Dave Slager soon joined us. We met the home owner who had reported it – Max Kingsbury. He had not seen it again that morning. He was very engaging and very happy to have others looking for it at the feeder in his back yard. It did not make an appearance while we were there – perhaps it would be another one-day wonder. Max took our numbers and said he would let us know if it returned. The only messages we got that day were that it had not returned – until a very late brief appearance – too late for us to return and try – but that was sufficient encouragement for a return the next morning – and Sarah returned as well. Soon a few other people showed up. We watched for maybe 45 minutes – another no show. I volunteered to walk the neighborhood and see if was nearby. About ten minutes after I left, it came to the feeder. Sarah called and texted me BUT my phone had turned itself off and when I returned, everyone said – you just missed it. AAARRGH!!!
After a while everyone left and I stayed hopeful. Max’s wife, Melissa had come down and it was her sharp eyes that found the Grosbeak in a tree above the feeder. Hard to see and not a great photo – but this was only the second time I had seen one in Washington. The other last year – you guessed it – in Neah Bay. That one was also coming to a feeder – at Butler’s Motel – but it was a less striking female. This was a young male with some rose on its chest. Not a gorgeous full breeding plumage male – but pretty nonetheless.
Rose Breasted Grosbeak – Greenlake Area – December 23, 2017
Dozens of people have visited the Kingsburys over the past 9 days to see this special visitor – a life bird or state life bird for many. I have been back several times hoping for a better photo. Today I got one.
Rose Breasted Grosbeak – Greenlake Area – January 1, 2018
There would be one more special bird to show up – a Gyrfalcon found near a runway at McChord Air Force Base south of Tacoma. A Gyrfalcon had been reported the first week in December in the Samish/Skagit area first by Marv Breece and then at a different location later by one other birder. I had searched for it alone and with others – unsuccessfully. Nobody else had found it either. Then the McChord report came and on Christmas Day in the snow, I visited the area and got a truly terrible distant view through the scope with snow falling. I hoped it would stick around and I would have another chance – to try for a photo. People were having mixed luck finding it but there were successes each day. My daughter and son-in-law were visiting and when I took them to an early flight on the 28th, I had the opportunity to try again. I waited 90 minutes until there was any light (it was a VERY early flight) and sure enough there it was perched on the northernmost telephone pole – which seems to be its favorite spot. Very gray poor light but at least it was not snowing – so an ID quality photo.
Gyrfalcon – McChord AFB – December 28, 2017
A trip to the Okanogan in north Central Washington is imperative for anyone doing a big year – or trying for certain species as it is the best place to find them – in winter. Ideally a visit is in February but I had not made the pilgrimage in 2017. It is a good area to find Gyrfalcons but I no longer “needed” that species. It is also a great area for Snow Buntings, Snowy Owls and Common Redpolls. I had seen the first two species at Sandy Point in Whatcom County in early November and Redpolls had shown up in many locations in King and Snohomish Counties and I had seen them at Greenlake and at the Everett Sewage Ponds. Before those observations, I was definitely going to make a year end visit both to add some ABA Year birds – and stay over until January 1, 2018 to start the year with those species already in hand. I planned to leave on the 29th and return on the first. With the Gyrfalcon and Redpolls now seen, it was less appealing, but there were still some possibilities – Great Gray Owl, Gray Partridge, American Tree Sparrow, Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, Pine Grosbeak and Sharp Tailed Grouse.
Common Redpoll – Everett Sewage Ponds – December 22, 2017
A report from Bill Boyington on the 22nd had been pretty discouraging. He found some Sharp Tailed Grouse but little else. Good friends Jon and Kathleen Houghton had gone up the day before I planned to go – again not a great report although Jon Had found (finally!!) a Great Gray Owl at Havillah, some Pine Grosbeaks on Badger Mountain and some Partridge. The problem was that there were very few birds and these were not reliable. The feeders on Nealey Road were not active – a definite negative.
Weather for the 29th called for freezing rain. I decided not to go. Jon was returning on the 29th and before leaving he found a single flock of Rosy Finches at Molson. He said the roads were ok. So I decided to go figuring there was a decent chance of at least two new species and an outside chance at a couple more – and the Great Gray Owl was an always treasured find. So I set off early on the 30th figuring I would stay two nights (it is a long way to go).
It was snowing on Stevens Pass but the roads were good and after that, it was actually a good bright day. I found a few Pine Grosbeaks near where Jon had had them on Badger Mountain, but where his were close and on the road, mine were distant and in tall pines. Still a new ABA and State species for the year. I continued through the Waterville Plateau – usually a good area for Gray Partridge and always full of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. There were a couple hundred Horned Larks – far fewer than usual – and essentially nothing else. Then on to to Bridgeport Hill Road – one of the best Sharp Tailed Grouse areas – nothing and then to the Okanogan with the first focus at Scotch Creek – where Bill had his Sharp Tailed Grouse and where I have found them often in the past – nothing. And at the pasture area where Jon had had Partridge I had only California Quail, Ring Necked Pheasants and Black Billed Magpies. There was snow – usually helpful – but perhaps not enough. It also did not help that hunters with dogs were in the area and there were also numerous Rough Legged Hawks. One was very photogenic – but I wanted the Grouse.
Rough Legged Hawk – Conconully Road – December 30, 2017
It was then on to the Highlands and especially to Havillah looking for that Owl. There were essentially NO birds anywhere in Highlands – possibly because it was VERY cold. The lowest temperature was 8 degrees – snow on the ground – roads good but no birds. I found a room at the Omak Inn but only made a reservation for a single night as it did not look promising to stay to start the new year.
Early the next morning I went back to the pasture and then to Scotch Creek. Even more Quail and Pheasants but no Partridge. Luck was better at Scotch Creek. But it was very cold – 12 degrees. A small flock of Sharp Tailed Grouse were in distant trees by the Creek between Happy Hill and Salmon Creek Roads. It was very overcast and poor light so I elected to head into Conconully to see if there were Grosbeaks or other finches and then return hopefully to get some photos. There were essentially NO birds in Conconully and when I got back to the Grouse spot, the Grouse had dispersed – somewhere out there – but not to be seen. I opted to head up Happy Hill Road – another good Sharp Tailed area. The first part of the road had been lightly plowed but in about a mile, the snow deepened. I came around a bend and flushed a few Sharp Tailed Grouse but no time for a photo before they disappeared over a ridge. After about 1.5 miles, the snow was a bit too deep and I turned back. A photo would have been nice, but I was happy to have at least seen the Grouse.
Should I give the Highlands and especially Molson another try? It was cold and despite the grouse, there just did not seem to be many birds around. It was also a long way and I had made the decision not to stay another night – so it would add a few hours to the day. I did not think there was sufficient reward. I decided to try Cameron Lake Road on the way home and call it a day. I took the Riverside Cutoff Road to get back to Omak and then head south. A treat along the way was a Golden Eagle – often found in the area but by no means a sure thing.
Golden Eagle – Riverside Cutoff Road – December 31, 2017
The main goal for Cameron Lake Road was a generally reliable spot for American Tree Sparrow. Cameron Lake Road is a primitive road that parallels Highway 97 for about 15 miles. I started at the north end and a few miles in a flock of 50+ Common Redpolls flew onto the road ahead of me. Pretty skittish, but I got a few photos.
Common Redpolls – Cameron Lake Road – December 31, 2017
Unfortunately the snow got too deep and I was worried about some trouble. I had survival gear – but this road gets little or no traffic and if there was trouble it might require a long hike out. So I back tracked and figured I would try the southern part of the road as that was closer to the Sparrow spot anyhow.
The southern section was also snowy but had some of the best birds of the trip as first there was a small mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings and then a large flock of Snow Buntings joined them.
Snow Buntings – Cameron Lake Road – December 31, 2017
Just as the deep snow turned me back on the northern part of the Road, so it did on the southern end as well – no more than 4 miles in. BUT – one more gift. Another small flock flushed from the road. I figured they were more Larks or Buntings but a decent look showed gray heads and rosy chests and butts – a small group of Gray Crowned Rosy Finches. A quick look and then they were gone. By far, the visit to Cameron Lake Road was the best part of the trip. There was too much snow to reach the target zone for the Tree Sparrows but the three flocks were more than consolation prizes.
Roads were good but traffic was tough coming home and it is a long way. I am not a New Year’s celebrant anyhow, but I crashed when I finally got home. Not a terrific trip but still a good way to end the year – added three new State and ABA birds. That made it seven State and six ABA year birds for the month of December (after California) – as I had had a Rose Breasted Grosbeak in Florida earlier in the year.
Goodbye 2017. Hello 2018. Thanks for the great experiences and memories – ready to start finding some more.