The Quest Continues – to Walla Walla and Back

Has it really only been ten days since my last post.  It feels like ages ago – definitely a very full ten days.  That last post was on January 11 as I was about to embark on a trip to Walla Walla with stops along the way.  In my quest to see as many species as I could in Washington in my Big Month of January, I had just seen some Bohemian Waxwings and Purple Finches at Harborview Park in Marysville and my total for the month was 157.  With great luck, I said that maybe 170 was possible after the trip to Walla Walla.  This post covers that trip.  Others will go from there – but just as this has been delayed, so too will they – because I am fully absorbed in the birding – collecting the stories and photos that will appear in later posts.

I intentionally chose the scenic route of the Yakima River Canyon rather than racing down I-82 after I cleared Ellensburg.  The Canyon is beautiful, a favorite fly fishing spot – floating the Yakima River mostly in the fall, and it can be birdy – especially in the Spring.  I stopped at a couple of spots to listen for Canyon Wrens – and heard none.  I looked for Chukars – and saw none.  But just where it was supposed to be – near Selah Butte, a Golden Eagle flew overhead and then landed on one of the rocky crags.

Golden Eagle (New for the Month)

Golden Eagle Landing

A Black Crowned Night Heron flew by at the Yakima River Delta and I saw my first American White Pelicans at the Columbia Park Marina.  Unfortunately I did not find the Lesser Lesser Black Backed Gull that had been seen there recently.  I next looked for Ferruginous Hawks first on Nine Mile Road – where I added my first Horned Lark for the Year and then on Byrnes Road.  I found the hawk at the latter spot but only a poor distant view of it in flight over one of the fields.  I visited the Tyson Ponds thinking I might look for Yellow Headed and/or Tricolored Blackbirds.  Overwhelmed by the huge numbers of Starlings, and Blackbirds there I did not try very hard, and as it was already getting a bit dark (the day was gray anyhow), I called it a day and headed to my hotel in Walla Walla.  I checked in with Mike and MerryLynn Denny and made plans for the next day.  When MerryLynn told me she had had a Western Screech Owl at Walla Walla Fort Park, I knew that would be how I would start my day.  This day had been just “OK” – some species missed but I had added 5 so I was now at 162.

I was up early and hit the Park before 5:00 a.m.  It was less than 2 miles from my motel.  Just where MerryLynn said she found it, I was able to strike up a playback conversation with this little owl.  It never came in close and I did not have a spotlight anyhow, but this was a good omen.  I returned for a shower and breakfast and then joined up with the Dennys.  Birding with them is a highlight each year.  Fun, knowledgeable, excellent birders, very giving – one could not ask for more.  And the day was beautiful.  Walla Walla had experienced some very cold and snowy weather but the snow was all gone and this day would be in the 50’s.  It was an excellent day.

We went to so many places I could not keep track.  One of the “problems” with birding with Mike and MerryLynn is that they do so much birding in their beloved county and see so many birds, that there is a constant litany of what they had seen a day ago, a week ago, or last year.  I am no longer disappointed when we don’t see everything they had seen in those past trips – but I think they are disappointed that I too don’t get those birds.  We got off to a bit of a slow start – not real birdy – until I changed my hat – putting on one that my daughter had given me a couple of years ago.  Things picked up.  The first new species I added was an Evening Grosbeak on Biscuit Ridge Road.  It had been on my theoretical list but was not expected.  In perfect light, the picture shows a stunning bird.

Evening Grosbeak (New for the Month)

Evening Grosbeak

We then moved on towards Smith Springs Road where Long Eared Owls were “guaranteed”.  We had them there last year on the Denny’s popular “Owls By Day Trip”.   I am going to cheat a bit here and not be real exact on some of the locations that were all “in the vicinity” – but we had lots of great birds and especially great views.  Some of the observations will be out of order time wise as well.  Here are the new birds for the month and “special birds” – with their photos.

It took some time to find them buried as they were in the thicket along Smith Springs Road but we were able to find 4 Long Eared Owls.  There were probably more but other birders were around and we did not want to hog the resource.  As deeply as they were buried I was thrilled to get any photos at all.

Long Eared Owl (New for the Month)

Long Eared Owl3

Long Eared Owl

Nearby we also found some American Tree Sparrows – definitely a target for the trip.  Also buried in thick branches and hard to photograph from the car but glad to add to the list.  We had at least 4.

American Tree Sparrow (New for the Month)

American Tree Sparrow1

The previous day I had found a small flock of Common Redpolls on Nine Mile Road.  MerryLynn had not seen any in the County yet so we were all happy when three showed up with a huge flock of probably 300 American Goldfinches.

Common Redpolls

 

 

 

This area is really good for falcons.  We saw many American Kestrels during the day but special treats were a Merlin and a Prairie Falcon that were very photogenic.

Merlin

Merlin

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon

Prairie Falcon 3

Throughout the day we had many hawks – mostly Red Tails but also a Cooper’s Hawk and both light and dark phase Rough Legged Hawks – real beauties.

Rough Legged Hawk – Light Phase

Light Phase Northern Rough Legged Hawk

Rough Legged Hawk – Dark Phase

 

 

 

Another new bird for the month was a Ring Necked Pheasant.

Ring Necked Pheasant (New for the Month)

Ring Necked Pheasant

We visited Lower Monumental Dam primarily to look for “specialty gulls”.  Mike had brought many loaves of bread to “chum” for the gulls to come in closer.  It worked but I think part of the reason was just because Mike so enjoyed seeing how far he could scale the bread.  The gulls were mostly California Gulls but there were also many Herring Gulls and one adult Glaucous Winged Gull.  Here the latter are “pure” rather than the mostly hybrid Glaucous Winged/Western “Olympic Gulls” on the West side.  I liked the photos of the Glaucous Winged and Herring Gulls in flight and include them here.

Glaucous Winged Gull

Glaucous Winged Gull

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

We thought one gull might have been a Glaucous Gull.  But expert review nixed our ID.  It would have been nice. In addition to the Long Eared Owls, earlier we had also found a Great Horned Owl, my third owl species for the day.  We were about to add a fourth as, per usual, the tiny Northern Saw Whet Owls at Fish Hook park were cooperatively roosting in their regular spots.  Very hard to get a photo through the thick branches.

Northern Saw Whet Owl (New for the Month)

Northern Saw Whet Owl

Two other good birds at the Park were some Purple Finches (MerryLynn’s first for the year) and a White Breasted Nuthatch.  I had seen the latter at two other spots earlier in the month but this was my first photo.

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch1

It had been a full day bit there was to be one more stop – another try for Great Gray Owl on Lewis Peak Road.  We had just missed one at this spot on the Owls By Day Trip last year and one had been seen “at the meadow” a couple of times in the preceding week.  Within a few minutes of arriving and me playing the owl’s call, we had a response.  My heart beat quickened but sadly what we heard was a pair of Great Horned Owls.  They were in the distance and probably made it less likely that a Great Gray would appear.  And it did not.  This was also a good area for Northern Pygmy Owls but they too were uncooperative.  So not the great climactic finish that was hoped for but still a wonderful day.  I had added another 6 new species for the month and my total was now at 168 – and there was still – tomorrow.

“Tomorrow” started early again as I revisited Lewis Peak Road hoping that the Great Gray might like the morning better.  Alas no luck, but exactly where the Denny’s had seen one earlier in the month, a Northern Pygmy Owl gave a brief appearance in the early morning light.  My hoped for 170 was close and there was more ahead that day.

Northern Pygmy Owl (New for the Month) – Picture from November

NOPO

Before heading out to Walla Walla, MerryLynn told me that a Snowy Owl had been seen just off Dodd Road.  I had looked for it on my way over but did not have an exact location and knew it was iffy anyhow.  Now, however, I had specifics and I would try again. First I made a quick trip to the Barn Owl spot on Dodd Road and was able to see one owl buried deep in a burrow – Owl #2 or the day and #6 for the trip.  I was told that it liked to sit on some bee boxes visible from the road and reachable by a track into the field.  When I got to the right spot, I saw the bee boxes in the distance and there seemed to be something white on one of them – part of the box – or the Snowy Owl.  Yay!!  It was indeed a Snowy Owl – lucky #7.  How cool if the Great Gray had cooperated to make an 8 Owl trip -and there was a possibility for #9 as a Burrowing Owl had been reported at the man made burrow spot off Highway 395.  I tried for that and was unsuccessful so had to be happy – and I was very happy – with 7 owls!!

Snowy Owl – (New for the Month)

Snowy Owl

I returned to the gull spot near Bateman Island.  This is where I had missed the Lesser Black Backed Gull two days earlier.  Chris Lindsey had seen a Slaty Backed Gull there just the day before and this time I was armed with some of Mike’s chumming bread.  When I got there many gulls were on the ice where the Slaty Back had been seen.  It was not there but other gulls were in the area and I thought chumming and waiting and hoping was a good strategy.  It sort of was.  I threw the bread out and got some action – but nothing with a slaty back.  I waited and tried again – but unfortunately this was a holiday and there were visitors to the area including a family with two kids.  Also two twenty-somethings.  They all started skimming rocks on the ice and just as a number of larger gulls including the Slaty Backed came in, they changed tactics and started skimming the rocks towards the gulls.  No gulls were hit but a large number flew off including my target.  Many just circled and returned but the Slaty Backed Gull flew off towards the Island.  It remained but was now viewable only by scope.  There ought to be a law (actually there probably is).  So no photo and not the best experience but it was a new bird and the chumming was a new experience for me.

I made that unsuccessful try for the Burrowing Owl and it was time to head home.  Snow was predicted on the Pass and I wanted to beat it.  I didn’t beat it, but I did avoid problems that may been there just a little later as there was heavy snow fall when I went through but it was not yet cold enough to really stick.  The story was probably very different a couple hours later.

The trip had surpassed expectations even without the Great Gray Owl.  I was now at 171 species for the Month.  My Big Month would easily hit 175 and the two rarities of Snowy Owl and Slaty Backed Gull – both unexpected and very special – suggested that I should go for 200.  More stories on that quest will follow.

4 thoughts on “The Quest Continues – to Walla Walla and Back

  1. Blair, glad you found your “lucky hat” after it fell out of my car on your Florida trip. Good luck on your quest for 200. Life is good………..

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  2. You did excellent on your big month so far love those prairie Falcon shots ! You saw many great birds including those owls nicely done!

    You always say you will quit after you completed these big months, years but no I think you have a problem and need to join birders anonymous like the rest of us hah!

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  3. Hi – I saw your post on Tweeters; I’ve heard that Nisqually remains open just unstaffed. The least sandpipers are reliably seen near the boardwalk after the “bird blind” shelter and farther out when tides are out. We see them on both sides of the boardwalk (the McAlister Creek side and the Nisqually River side). Spotted have been seen from the boardwalk across McAlister Creek on the far side from the gate that marks the current “end” of the boardwalk and you can sometimes see them from a little bit before the gate. We also have a pretty reliable South Sound spot for Spotted at Zittles Marina on Johnson Pt. If you can get onto the dock (follow someone, usually possible), take a left at the end of the ramp and then look at the logboom that runs along the floating dock. We see them there. Good luck! Hope to see you in the field some time.

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    1. Thank you. I was able to get a group of Least Sandpipers in Tacoma after successful attempt to find/photograph the Rusty Blackbird in the Snoqualmie Valley. Was not aware of the Zittles Marina spot and may give that a try if other places for that don’t work this month. I am getting very close to my Big Month goal of 200 Washington Species for January and may need a Spotted Sandpiper to get there!!

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