Closer – Closer – Oh So Close

January 20th was a much needed day of rest – allowing me to catch up on bills, cleaning, blog posts and some sleep.  I had gotten to 194 species – and only needed 6 more for my Big Month goal.  The problem was that there were no longer spots with multiple probabilities.  There were lots of possibilities left out there but seemingly few sure things.

Way back on January 6th I had picked up a few birds on Camano Island, but I had missed one as well.  A Townsend’s Solitaire had been reported on Maple Grove Beach Road.  I had not been able to find it.  It had been seen often in the following two weeks and it was time for another try – especially now that I had some more specific information about its favored spot. I arrived just after noon on the 21st and parked across from its two favorite berry-laded trees.  It wasn’t there but if still around, it would probably come in to feed.  Not long after I arrived I thought I heard its whistled call down the street.  I played it on my bird songs app and hoped it would fly right in.  It didn’t but I felt it was only a matter of time.  I had parked such that while I had a view of both trees, one was a little behind me and required me to swivel to check it – which I did periodically.  I had not seen it fly in, but on my third swivel, there it was feeding and mostly in the open – begging for me to take its picture.  Who was I to deny a request from a cooperative bird?

Townsend’s Solitaire

Townsend's Solitaire

Timing and good luck matter.  No more than two minutes after finding Bird of the Month #195, people came out of the house behind the tree and went to a car parked next to it.  Apparently one couple had been visiting the other and now they were leaving and saying goodbye.  This action also was a goodbye for the Solitaire and it flew off over the house and towards the area where I had first heard it.  My timing had been good indeed.  One down and five to go.  I gave the Skagit and Samish flats area yet another go trying for the Gyrfalcon that seemingly everyone but me had seen there.  No go yet again.

The next day I planned to go to Tacoma to try for Least Sandpipers at a spot Bruce Labar had given me but there was another option as well.  A Rusty Blackbird had been seen at the end of Neal Road along the Snoqualmie River.  Rusty Blackbirds often hangout with dozens or even hundreds of their cousins – Red Winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, Starlings and Brown Headed Cowbirds.  It can be very hard to find in a a moving mass of black.  This one was no exception but the flock seemed smaller and besides I “needed” another “tick” on my list and this species had been on my “high hopes” rather than “highly likely” list of possibilities – a bonus bird so to speak.  I figured I would try for the Rusty first and then head to Tacoma further south.

Fortunately others were already at Neal Road when I arrived.  It took a while but finally it was spotted, first by Marv Breece, high up in one of the two trees that the flock seemed to favor.  Nothing like the extraordinary closeup view last year of a Rusty that visited some salt on a parking lot near a Home Depot in Bellingham, but good enough for a distant photo and a positive ID of Bird of the Month #196.

Rusty Blackbird – Neal Road

Rusty Blackbird1

Rusty Blackbird – 2017

Rusty Blackbird

Time for an aside.  I have made the adjustments in the preceding blog posts so that the numbers are correct, but when I awoke on the morning of the 22nd and headed off for the Rusty Blackbird, I thought I was already at 196.  But before taking a step forward, I took a step backwards.  I left it out of my blog post on the Walla Walla trip but Mike Denny and I thought we had a first cycle Glaucous Gull at Lower Monumental Dam.  I got some good photos but the light was a bit tricky and may have overemphasized some features.  In any event that morning I got word from an Ebird reviewer that our bird was NOT a Glaucous Gull.  Maybe if it was January 31st and it would have made the difference between 199 and 200 I would have counted it anyhow – that was Mike’s reaction.  But I felt there was still time and I removed it from my list and thus went backwards.  As I said the Rusty Blackbird had not been on my expected list so maybe everything was just balancing out.

And besides…a Glaucous Gull was being seen at Gog Le Hi Te in Tacoma so there was a chance to make it up.  That was my first stop in Tacoma.  Finding a Glaucous Gull there means going through dozens or even hundreds of gulls on rooftops of industrial buildings with a scope.  I had just done the “blackbird” equivalent of that to find the Rusty Blackbird – definitely not my favorite kind of birding.  But this time I was lucky, when I arrived, two birders were looking at the Glaucous Gull through their scope.  All I had to do was take a look to confirm.  Okay – a step back, a step forward and now another step forward and I was at #197.

I am not real familiar with Tacoma and often get confused finding niche birding spots along the river or at the Bay usually after wending my way through heavy duty industrial areas.  Bruce’s spot for Least Sandpipers at the end (well sort of) of Alexander Road was no different.  Despite great directions, it still did not seem right when I arrived.  I expected the Least Sandpipers to be on some mud exposed at low tide.  There was a small patch of mud with no birds and lots of rocks and rip rap.  This could not be the right place.  But I had come this far and figured I would explore.  A good decision.  I trudged through some debris and came upon a concrete slab angled into the water.  There were lots of gulls and as I looked closer, I could see some smaller birds skittering about.  Shorebirds – and not Dunlin – these were Least Sandpipers.  Thank you Bruce.  Fourteen of them made for species #198 for the month.  It was an important one because it had been on my “sure thing” list but I was not sure where I would find them.  There were lots of other places to try – but now I did not have to look anywhere else.

Least Sandpiper – Pale Legs, Short Bill and All

Least Sandpiper

It was not yet One o’clock but there really were not any options to pursue for more birds so I headed home before traffic got bad.  Despite a disappointing start losing the Glaucous Gull from Walla Walla, it had been a great day – regaining the Gull, picking up a surprise and adding a sure thing.  I needed two more birds and there were still none days to get them.  Things were looking good.

There are lots of ways I could describe Ann Marie Wood – a trooper, tenacious, positive, tough minded, etc.  I could also describe her as a good birder and a good friend.  I sent an email out on the 23rd to see if anyone wanted to join me for yet another try to find a Gyrfalcon and hopefully some American Pipits in the Skagit/Samish areas – possibly numbers 199 and 200 to reach my goal.  Others were otherwise committed and Ann Marie was game.  I did not know it at the time but this day was also her 80th birthday – yet she was giving me the gift of joining forces.

It would be nice to say that for “her” birthday I got two birds as a gift and hit 200, but not to be.  We spent hours and many miles driving every road in the areas where the Gyrs and the Pipits had been seen – again nothing.  The highlight was a stop at the Breadfarm in Edison.  It is marvelous – everything is fantastic and there are simply too many temptations.  At least I was able to give Ann Marie a birthday treat – a Kouign Amann – one of the specialties of this artisanal bakery.  It is a Breton pastry that has it all: tons of butter, sweet caramelization and a good bit of salt, like a salted caramel in pastry form.  She had never been to the Breadfarm or had one of these delights.  I am sure she will be back.

Ann Marie is a very committed County birder – especially for Snohomish County – and she knew some spots where we had a good chance to add a Spotted Sandpiper and maybe a Semipalmated Plover to get me to or closer to 200.  At Priest Point where she has had one for several Christmas Counts, Ann Marie said the Spotted Sandpiper could be anywhere on the shore.  I stepped up onto a high spot to get a better look and right on cue a Spotted Sandpiper flew up and off – its shallow wingbeat a giveaway.  Now at #199 I was oh so close.  The Semipalmated Plover did not cooperate in Everett but now I knew a good spot to keep trying.

Thanks to Ann Marie, I was on the brink of success.  When I went home I wasn’t sure where I would go next – the coast for Semipalmated or Snowy Plovers, Port Orchard for a Mountain Quail or Stevens Pass to try for a Gray Jay.  I was feeling confident.  Once again an unexpected Ebird report made my decision easy…but that is for the next post.

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