Continuing from my last post, an unexpected Ebird report made my decision for January 24th pretty easy. Bill Tweit and Whittier Johnson had reported seeing some Western Bluebirds at Sanderson Airfield in Shelton, WA. At the beginning of this quest, I had felt there was a remote chance to see Western Bluebirds. The earliest I had seen them was in March but I knew that some birds over wintered and in fact they were a possibility on my Walla Walla trip. What was more important here, though, was a good itinerary now took form – try for Mountain Quail in Port Orchard, try for the Bluebirds in Shelton, try for a Palm Warbler in Hoquiam and then head to the coast if time permitted.
So I was on the 7:10 ferry from Edmonds to Kingston and arrived at “the quail spot” adjacent to the Port Orchard Airport at 8:15. Brian Pendleton and I had Mountain Quail here, and also at the Port Orchard Quarry just a little further on in the past and Brian and his wife Darchelle had some at this spot earlier this month. It was pretty gray still but I would certainly be the first person at the spot and I hoped to find some quail in the brush. Sure enough about 5 minutes into my walk two Mountain Quail sounded their “querk” calls as I flushed them and they were off to even denser cover. If a photo had been important I probably would have tried instead in “Quail Mary’s” (Mary Hrudkaj) neighborhood, but a photo was not needed for this purpose – just the confirmation. I let out my own variation of a “querk” call when the Mountain Quail brought me to 200 species for my Big Month – and I also gave a sigh of relief. Everything now would be icing on the cake!!
It was less than an hour to Sanderson Field. The Ebird report said they had been seen with Robins along the “airport fence line”. The problem was that there were fences everywhere including along places where the roads were closed or gated. Which fence line? I drove them all and saw basically no birds at all. I tried one more area – an industrial park adjacent to the airfield and saw a flash of blue flying from the ground to a tree. More flashes and more blue as five Western Bluebirds flew from ground to trees to fence lines. Pictures captured these beauties – and I was now into bonus territory and had species #201.
It was another hour to the Hoquiam STP where the Palm Warbler had been found by Alex Patia. Just as I cleared Aberdeen and was midway through the dismal city of Hoquiam, I got a call from Ann Marie Wood. A White Wagtail had been found at the Neal Road location where the Rusty Blackbird had been seen two days earlier. Yikes!! White Wagtail is EXTREMELY rare in Washington. I saw one at Fort Casey in Washington almost exactly 34 years ago – on January 21, 1984. It is one of only 12 species I had seen in Washington for which I had no photo. It was 128 miles from Hoquiam to Neal Road. It was almost 11:45 a.m. If I turned around instantly I might get there by 2:15 that afternoon but that would mean no Palm Warbler and no coast birding. Time for an executive decision.
I was very close to the STP so I elected to try for the Palm Warbler and then think it through. I turned onto Paulson Road – came to its end and parked at the turnout next to and between the two ponds – the purported Palm Warbler location. I pulled out my phone and played the chip note – watching the brush between the ponds where it had been seen. There was an immediate response – from behind me. I turned to find a very demonstrative and very beautiful – and very welcomed Palm Warbler in the trees behind me. It came right out and was pumping its tail vigorously. Snap, snap – photos and Big Month Species 202 was mine. It had taken all of 5 minutes from the time Ann Marie had called.
I figured the odds on seeing the White Wagtail were lower than seeing a Snowy Plover – and neither was guaranteed. For purposes of my Big Month, they were the same – one more bird. But there really was no comparison – the chance for a new state photo drove the decision. I turned and raced to Fall City. I will not share the exact amount of time it took, but let’s just say I beat the Google Maps projected time — significantly. Other birders were there when I arrived – but the Wagtail was not. More birders arrived – it was a fun social event – but it would have been a lot more fun if the White Wagtail had made an appearance. It did not. I located the Rusty Blackbird again and showed some others – that was nice – but not as nice as seeing a Wagtail – or heck even a Snowy Plover. Worse yet, it was now late and the traffic back to Edmonds was awful.
There was of course disappointment – but somehow it hardly mattered. It had been a fabulous day – the Mountain Quail for #200 was fantastic and adding both the Western Bluebird and Palm Warbler – completely unexpected a few days earlier – felt extra good. It was like having an ice cream sundae with whipped cream – and nuts – and chocolate sauce – so what if there was no cherry on the top.