The Big Month Continues – Here and There and Almost Everywhere – Prelude to the Okanogan

I had noted an Ebird report of an Osprey at the Cowlitz River Trout Hatchery.  This was not a species that I had thought possible as I believed they left in the Fall and did not return until the early Spring.  But this was apparently a hold over and it had been doing so for several years.  I planned an itinerary that would include looking at Magnuson Park for Cedar Waxwings and possibly an Iceland Gull, continuing to the Mouth of the Cedar River looking for the Gull there if missed at Magnuson (and also hoping that somehow a Palm Warbler had shown up there as it has been a good spot in the past).  Then it would be down to the Cowlitz with a stop at Nisqually NWR on the way down or back.

The plan also included the hope that Brian Pendleton would join me and that worked very well especially since Brian knows Magnuson Park much better than I do.  There were no Iceland Gulls on the bathing platform but we found at least one and possibly two Cedar Waxwings at the Hawthorn trees near Kite Hill.  I had not even taken my camera as it was wet but a sufficiently good view to know it was a Cedar and not a Bohemian Waxwing, which have been at this location in the past.

At the Mouth of the Cedar River, no Palm Warblers but there were lots of gulls and through the scope we were able to find at least one and possibly a second Iceland Gull.  These were both birds that were highly likely at other spots if missed, but getting to 182 and 183 felt like a great start to the day.  Unfortunately it went downhill from there.  We found the Cowlitz Hatchery and it definitely looked like a great spot for a hold over Osprey, but despite a long and diligent search there and at the Salmon Hatchery upriver, we found only Bald Eagles.  But we had a great visit with a couple of locals – one of whom had a great story about Phil and Chris Anderson – Captain and First Mate of the Monte Carlo which is the boat for the wonderful Westport Pelagic trips.  Not for sharing here, but it will be fun to share with Phil and Chris when we see them.

On the way home, the weather turned ugly and Nisqually was quite wet.  Even before entering, we found a large group of shorebirds – but they were only Dunlin and Greater Yellowlegs.  We found the Northern Saw Whet Owl near the parking lot but it was so wet, we did not even take the scope out to the boardwalk.  We saw a flock of shorebirds – two sizes (probably??) that likely contained the hoped for Least Sandpipers, but too distant, too wet and too dismal to make the call.  Our best find was an American Bittern that flew in and posed for a photo.  For the day we had 50 species – two new for the month and at least the traffic on return was not too bad…but that Osprey was a big miss.

American Bittern

American Bittern Nisqually

I hearkened back to my decision to cut my visit to the Okanogan short and return on December 31st last year instead of carrying over and starting the year there for 2018.  Especially since reports had come in over the past two days of two great group trips there, I knew that I had to return and indeed a successful trip was probably essential if I had a shot at 200.  But of course I never seem to do anything the easy way, so in addition to having to make another trip to the Okanogan, I front loaded it with a trip in the other direction – to Fort Simcoe in Yakima County to get the Lewis’s Woodpecker that was a certainty there but also to hope to find an Acorn Woodpecker that does not belong there but which had been seen a couple of days earlier.

I again went the longer and slower route through the Yakima River Canyon.  No Golden Eagle this time, but in the area I had had one before I was able to get a Canyon Wren to respond to my playback.  #184  When I arrived at Fort Simcoe it was, as I knew, closed for the winter, but you could park outside and walk in.  It really is a cool spot and now, completely deserted except for me and a single Park employee, it was kind of eerie.  But it was also VERY windy.  I worried that this did not bode well for finding woodpeckers.  However, Lewis’s Woodpeckers were easy – if for the most part seen in hurried flights before landing at the tops of the many oak trees that are why they are there.  At first the light was poor and so were my photos but later there was a sun break and a nice photo of this beautiful bird resulted.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker

Now where was that Acorn Woodpecker?  I spent over an hour looking – circling the property three times without success.  Earlier I had visited with the park employee.  He was doing some early maintenance work and while aware of the Lewis’s Woodpeckers being there, he was not familiar with birds at all.  I told him that I was there to get a see the Lewis’s Woodpecker and a much rarer Acorn Woodpecker.  I showed him the photo and he said he had never seen one.  But this had been a good decision as about 70 minutes into my visit as I passed him again, he said that there had been a “smaller woodpecker” near the Interpretive Center.  I checked it out and found it but unfortunately far back in an area behind an electrified wire and “off limits”.  It responded to my play back – but only vocally – it never flew in closer.  There is no way to misidentify this clown faced bird though.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn WP

It was nice to add these two new birds.  When I made my first plan for the assault on 200, I figured I might need to try for the Acorn Woodpecker in Lyle in Klickitat County, normally the only place in the State to find it.  This saved me many miles and many hours and I was now at 186.  Time for the long drive north towards the Okanogan.  No way to get there and do significant birding that day, so the plan was to stay in Ephrata that night after a stop at Rocky Ford Creek where a Sora was possible.

Almost on a whim as I was heading back through Yakima, I decided to stop at the Popoff Trail – very popular with and productive for Yakima area birders and just possibly a spot where there might be a Hermit Thrush.  I had never birded there before so I just picked a trail and headed off.  At the first “likely spot”, I stopped and played the call note of the Thrush.  There was an immediate response and a very inquisitive bird flew in within seconds.  The brush was dense and it was never in bright sunlight but the call was unmistakable and the photo was at least good enough for a firm ID.  I had hoped for one during the month but was not at all certain where to look so this was a real bonus bird #187.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

I had not been to Rocky Ford Creek for at least 12 years.  I had known it as a fun fly-fishing spot and not as a place for birds, but seeing it again, the cattails and rushers were perfect for rails and the ponds for waterfowl.  Two men were fishing as I arrived and we traded “fish stories”.  One fellow was from Sequim and was familiar with the areas I had birded there recently.  The water is gin clear and large trout were visible here and there.  I almost wished I had my gear.  But I was there to find a Sora.  I went to what looked like a good spot and played several calls.  No immediate response – except from some Virginia Rails – which often happens.  Then a few minutes later I hear “keep calls” from a Sora near the platform there.  Further play back from me resulted in another Sora making a quick appearance after some whinnying calls across the creek.  This was #188 for the month.

I had hoped one would come in for a photo – but the only rails that came in close were Virginia Rails.  One was extremely active and I got a photo and I had at least partial views of at least three.  I could safely say there were at least seven there and I think there may have been 10.

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

Although it did not end with a photo of a Sora, it was very cool to show the fishermen my picture of the Virginia Rail.  They had wondered what bird had made the pig grunts sounds.  Now they knew.

There was still time to drive just barely onto the Waterville Plateau before returning to Ephrata for the night.  I hoped for some Snow Buntings or Gray Partridge.  I found neither but at one stop I did hear the clear “chuck chuckara” calls from some Chukars on a massive stone cliff where I had stopped to play for Rock Wren – without response.  I had hopes for actual sightings and photos but these birds can be challenging so I was pleased to have my first ones for the month – ending the day at 189.

The next day would get me to the Okanogan itself.  There had been great reports from a Tacoma ABC Club trip and from another group.  I was hopeful – and tired – so early to bed.

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