2017 – All Goals Reached (At Least the Birding Ones)

Quite a year – filled with wonderful birds and people and places – many filling previous blog posts in 2017.  Some repetition here is probably inevitable, but I will try to keep it to a minimum.  I just want to celebrate and summarize and then move headlong into the next year.

Somewhere along the way, I set some goals for birding as well as for personal matters.  Some of the latter did not go as well as I would have liked but this is a birding blog, so I will mostly skip those and reflect on the birding ones.  That said I do wish the others had been met and if it would have mattered, I would have given up the birding successes to achieve the others.

In one of my blogs earlier this year I think I set out the 7 goals I had set for the year – all multiples of 100 – my “double zero” goals, and later blogs have detailed reaching each of them.  Again, these were the objectives:  100 species in one day; seeing my 200th species in Kittitas County; seeing 300 birds in my home state of Washington for the year; getting a photo of my 400th species in Washington; seeing 500 species in the ABA area for the year; getting a photo of my 600th species in the ABA area; and lastly getting my ABA area life list over 700 species.

I hit the 100 goal on June 24th starting out in hometown Edmonds with a Barred Owl in Yost Park.  I added another 34 birds in Edmonds and then headed east picking up another 15 species in the Snoqualmie Pass area before moving on to one of my favorite birding areas, Kittitas County, where I added 36 species.  The 100th species for the day – a Bullock’s Oriole was found at the Wenas Campground in Yakima County.  I added 16 more species ending the day with a Common Merganser on the Tieton River.

Goal 1 – 100th Species in One Day – Bullock’s Oriole – Wenas Campground, June 24th

Bullock's Oriole

The second goal – my 200th bird in Kittitas County was almost unknowing – an Anna’s Hummingbird at feeders – just east of Snoqualmie Pass and thus in Kittitas County.  Rufous Hummingbirds are common in Kittitas County but Anna’s are not.  I had lost track of that and it was almost an afterthought to try to find one Anna’s among the many Rufous Hummingbirds at the feeders.  Greatly outnumbered by the 16 Rufous Hummers, on June 16th, I found a single Anna’s.  Later on July 12th an American Three Toed Woodpecker became species 201 in the County.

Goal 2 – 200th Species in Kittitas County – Anna’s Hummingbird – Snoqualmie Pass – June 16

Anna's Hummingbird

Although I wasn’t so sure at the time I set it, the goal of seeing 300 species in Washington for 2017 was readily reached (and surpassed).  Over the preceding 5 years I had averaged 355 species so 300 would have seemed “easy”, but in each of those years I had intentionally tried to maximize the species seen, and in 2017 much more time and energy was planned to be spent seeking birds outside of Washington in the ABA area going after some of my other goals.  The combination of some good birds showing up in Washington which led to adding both ABA birds and state birds for the year and doing more state birding than anticipated as some of my non-birding goals went astray, resulted in me hitting my 300 goal with a Solitary Sandpiper at the Redmond Retention Ponds on July 26th.

Goal 3 – 300th Species in Washington – Solitary Sandpiper – Redmond Retention Ponds – July 26

Solitary Sandpiper1

 

Getting photo number 400 of Washington bird species was maybe the highlight of the year.  As chronicled in my Blog Post: A Swallow Tailed Gull – Way Beyond WOW!! somehow a Swallow Tailed Gull which belongs in the Galapagos and had only been seen north of the Equator one other time, made it to Carkeek Park on the morning of August 31st just when super birder Ryan Merrill just happened to be there.  He recognized the rarity and got the word out to the birding community.  Even though I was 25 miles away in Bellevue at 6:45 a.m. when Ryan’s Tweeters post appeared, I somehow got dressed and with the miraculous absence of traffic was at Carkeek park and looking at this incredible find by 7:30 a.m.  I took a quick photo – and then many more – so this of all species turned out to be photo number 400 for Washington.

Goal 4 – 400th Washington Species Photographed – Swallow Tailed Gull – Carkeek Park – September 1, 2017

Swallow Tailed Gull 3

With goals, 5, 6 and 7 in mind, I had planned lots of travel in the U.S. for 2017 with trips to Arizona and Florida being the most important but there was also a mostly non-birding visit to San Diego in late January and a visit to the East Coast to see my kids that included a day with some birding on Cape Cod.  It was during the Cape Cod trip that I met goal #5 – seeing my 500th bird in the ABA area for the year.  It was a Mute Swan seen in a pond in Duxbury, MA on October 9th.  Mute Swans are occasionally seen in Washington but are not “countable” here as they are not considered an established species (and I disagree), however, they are well established in the East and countable as such in Massachusetts.  Given that inconsistent status, I night have preferred a “better” species for #500 for the year but it is a fine looking bird.

Goal 5 – 500th ABA Species for the Year – Mute Swans – Duxbury, MA – October 9th

Mute Swans

Goal 6 was the corresponding ABA accomplishment to Goal 4.  Instead of 400 species photographed in Washington, it was getting a photo of my 600th ABA species.  This one is a little embarrassing as I really do not know which specific bird on my Arizona trip was photo number 600.  I added MANY new photos on that trip and since I was not the one keeping the lists, some of the specificity as to exactly when each bird was seen and photographed is not clear.  I know it was one of the new birds/photos for August 3rd and my favorite bird that day was the Thick Billed Kingbird so I am going with that.

Goal 6 – 600th ABA Life Photo – Thick Billed Kingbird – Patagonia Roadside Rest Area – August 3rd

Thick Billed Kingbird1

One more to go and this was the one that I did not think I was going to make.  It used to be that someone who had an ABA Life List of 700 species had probably spent many years and many miles accumulating that number of species.  Getting to that number was like gaining admittance into a special club – rarefied company.  It is still a pretty good club but with an enormously expanded membership as modern travel, communication and data resources has made 700 a number that many have even gotten in a single year.  That said, finding 700 species in the ABA area requires extensive birding in many habitats at many times of year, multiple “chases”, some skill and some luck and definitely some perseverance and drive – and maybe a little mental instability – at least according to non-birders.  It almost certainly requires lengthy and probably repeated visits to Arizona, Texas, Florida, Alaska, California, New England, the plains, the coasts, deserts and the mountains.  It probably involves multiple pelagic trips and visits to some famous birding meccas.

I had done most of the above – many back in my first decade of birding – 1971 to 1981 – and then some more lately.  I had visited Texas and Arizona and Florida and seen many of the “specialties” in those places.  I had more recently been to Maine and Colorado and Alaska and added 30 ABA “Lifers” on those trips.   But my concentration had been more on birds in Washington, so at the end of 2016 my ABA Life List was 664.  The “magical 700” was imaginable, but it would require some travel, lots of luck and some help.  I think I made up my mind to at least try for 700 when a Falcated Duck showed up in Washington in mid-January – a first new ABA bird for the year.  I made plans to visit Florida and Arizona – states where as I said I had previously seen many of the specialties, but where many possibilities remained – especially in Florida where a number of “exotics” were now recognized and had not even been on the list when I had last visited in the 1970’s.

Falcated Duck – Padilla Bay – January 16th – The Catalyst to go for 700

falcated-duck2

As it turned out, a couple of misses in Florida and some more in Arizona left me at 690 when I got back from Arizona on August 8.  One might think that it would be easy to add “only 10 more species” but without an expensive and maybe not even possible trip to remote Alaska, there just weren’t places to go to get more than a couple of birds at a time and I did not have the time, money or energy resources to make the 5 or 6 trips that would probably be required.  I decided I would just be happy with hitting goals 1 through 6 and then work on 700 in 2018.

Then a couple of unexpected new birds.  The aforementioned Swallow Tailed Gull showed up within just a few miles from my house.  That was 691.  In October at the end of a visit to old haunts on the East Coast and a visit to my children in Brooklyn and Boston, I squeezed in a few hours of birding on Cape Cod – getting that 500th ABA Bird for the year and adding Cory’s and Greater Shearwaters bringing my total to 693.  It still looked unlikely – especially as now it was already mid October – past migration and a time when new birds are less likely to find.  California might offer a handful of species, but preliminary study suggested that I could maybe get 5 new species and with some real luck – maybe a 6th.  Figuring it would be worse to get to 698 or even 699 after yet another expenditure of time, energy and dollars.  I decided to forego the trip.

Then two things happened.  I got a reminder from Alaska Airlines that I had some credit in my account from a changed earlier trip to California – no refund but credit towards another trip that would be lost if not used during this calendar year.  And I also got a reality check that the relationship I had been trying hard to build and preserve over the past year just wasn’t going to work.  We had both known for some time that despite so many good parts, those parts just weren’t going to add up to the “be all” relationship that had been hoped for.  No ill will or blaming – just a sad and disappointing reality and definitely some pain in the process.  I acknowledge that I often use birding as a distraction from those parts of life that are not so great to deal with.  I needed to get away.  The credit from Alaska Airlines would cover a trip to California.  As a minimum I would get some new ABA Photos and some new ABA year birds and I would get closer to the 7th goal as well.  So off I went.

The details were outlined in my numerous blog posts about the California trip.  It was helpful as a distraction and with the surprise arrival of three major unexpected rarities: Red Footed Booby, Garganey and Rufous Backed Robin, I was able to reach 700.

Goal 7 – 700th ABA Life Bird – Island Scrub-Jay – Santa Cruz Island

Island Scrubjay 1

So after all the twists and turns, hits and misses, great places, great people and great birds all 7 of the goals for the year were met.  Some were met just barely and others were significantly surpassed.  Here is the scorecard:

Species in one day – Goal 100 – actual 116.

Life Birds in Kittitas County – Goal 200 – actual 201.

Year Birds in Washington – Goal 300 – Actual 333.

Photos of Washington Species (Life) – Goal 400 – Actual 402

ABA Species for the Year – Goal 500 – Actual 532

ABA Photos (Life) – Goal 600 – Actual 634

ABA Species (Life) – Goal 700 – Actual 702

And to cover all the territory – the goal of a sustained special relationship – probably the hardest and most important one – that one despite our best efforts was not met – maybe some other year…maybe…

Now what?  It is January 10, 2018.  I have set two specific goals for the year and have some others that are not defined.  The specific goals include a personal one and a birding one.

The birding goal is to do a “Big Month” – see how many birds I can see in one month in the State of Washington.  Since my undefined goals include several trips out of state during prime birding times, I have chosen the month of January and am pressing hard to maximize the number of species seen.  The most species I have ever seen in Washington in January was 154 – during a year where a goal was for a Big Year in the State so a month that had lots of birding.  I have birded every day so far this year and have been both driven and fortunate.  Earlier today I saw some Bohemian Waxwings that were found by David Poortinga in Marysville.  They were species 157 for the month.

Bohemian Waxwing – Marysville – January 10, 2018 – Species 157 for the Month

Bohemian Waxwing

I have  set the “minimally acceptable” target as 175 species.  One might think that already being at 157 makes that an easy “get”, but it gets harder to find new species each day.  I am traveling to Walla Walla later this week and we’ll see how I do.  With luck (and lots of help from Mike and MerryLynn Denny) I might be able to get to 170 or 172.  If so then 175 will be a given with some targeted additional trips elsewhere.  Research suggests that 200 species is at least a possibility – lots more travel and lots more luck.  If things go really well on the Walla Walla trip – I may press on and see if I can hit yet another goal with two zeroes.

The personal goal is far more important and when met will be far more rewarding.  At the end of last year I learned that my daughter and son-in-law are expecting their first child in late March.  All are healthy and everything looks good.  I have hoped for a grandchild for many years.  It is going to happen in 2018.  My goal is simply to hold him in my arms…

Closing Out the Year

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

Blue Jay (2)

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

Arctic Loon

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

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

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

RBGR1

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

Gyrfalcon

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

Common Redpoll

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

Rough Legged Hawk Wings Spread.jpg

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

Golden Eagle2

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

Common Redpolls.jpg

Common Redpoll1

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

Snow Buntings

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.