Whether in my birding or in other pursuits, I seem to do best with a project tied to a target – a goal. After the very intense full month of birding in Washington in January and then my Arizona blitz, I had no projects or goals in mind for February – or at least none related to birds. This was to be a month of catching up and most importantly of significantly increasing efforts to lose some weight and get into better shape.
So far so good and my crazy concoctions of various fruits, power greens, yogurt, coconut milk and cottage cheese and or yogurt continue to taste good and are satisfying. No sweets, no fats; seafood and lean turkey or chicken only – high fiber cereal and that’s about it. The goal is to get back to my college era weight and much less body fat and more muscle tone. Trying this at 70 is a whole lot different than doing so at 20 or even 40 or 60, but I think it will work – even if it takes longer than I would like.
And birding continues. Looking for some of the species missed in January, being out with friends, just getting out. On February 11th, I finally found a species that had eluded me on multiple tries in January when I found a flock of 40 American Pipits on Boe Road. I spent more time looking for them and the Fir Island Gyrfalcon than for any other species in January. Just finally was in the right place at the right time. Wish even one had been found earlier.
A few days later Ann Marie Wood, Steve Pink and I successfully chased the Ruddy Turnstone that Maxine Reid had found at Tulalip Bay. They are uncommon in the winter and are most likely to be found at the Coast or perhaps on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles – very rare in Snohomish County. I had not specifically looked for one in January although I had considered a trip to Ediz Hook.
A bird I had missed in January was a Ruffed Grouse. Others had seen some in the Okanogan but I had not. David Poortinga told me of a good spot where he had had some in January – The Beaver Lake Trailhead off the Mountain Loop Highway southeast of Darrington. I decided to go on the spur of the moment one morning. I should have done a better job looking at the weather. There was quite a bit of snow on the roads and even more on the trail and it was cold. The trail ran along the Sauk River and with snow on the ground and dusting the trees and the river running clear, it was beautiful. Didn’t need any birds, it was great to be out. Nobody else around – very peaceful. Unfortunately there had been a lot of damage to and along the trail since David had been there (without any snow). There were a number of downed trees and in several spots the bank was eroding and the trail was actually falling into the river. I had to turn back before reaching the end of the trail – impassable and dangerous.
I found exactly three birds on the two mile hike – a Steller’s Jay, an American Dipper and a single Ruffed Grouse. The Grouse flushed (as expected) so no photo. As I was hiking and noting the free flowing Sauk River running clear and strong, I had thought there must be a Dipper somewhere. Not long after seeing the Grouse and just before coming to a seriously eroded spot, I heard a bird singing seemingly from across the river. At first I thought it might be a Pacific Wren and then I remembered that Dippers sing. Sure enough, there it was on a rock in the middle of the stream. I had seen one in Sequim in January but had not gotten a photo. This one was fairly distant and it was very gray (with some snow still falling) but it was nice to get a photo – even if mediocre at best.
American Dipper – Singing
On the way back, I drove through the town of Darrington, hoping for some Crossbills or Redpolls or better yet for Bohemian Waxwings or a Pine Grosbeak. I settled for a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks. I had seen this species earlier in Walla Walla, but they are such striking birds – especially on a gray day.
One bird I had simply forgotten to look for in January was a Red Knot. One had been seen fairly regularly at the spit at Fort Flagler. Hoping that it was still, there David Poortinga and I went off to look for it on February 20th. We stopped first to look for the Spotted Sandpiper that was being reported at the Shine Tidelands. This was probably a mistake. Not only did we not find the Spotted Sandpiper but it also meant losing 20 minutes before getting to Fort Flagler. The problem was that the tide was going out and the chances of finding the Knot would be best at a high tide. When we got to the spit we found lots of shorebirds – Dunlin, Black Turnstones, Sanderlings, and Black Bellied Plovers but no Knot. But the birds began flying off just as we arrived and continued to do so while we were there. It was as if there was some magic signal that said – time to leave as the tide hit a certain level. We believed that we would have found the Knot if we had been there earlier. Mixed in with the other shorebirds, we did find a couple of Western Sandpipers – first of the year for David.
Black Turnstone and Sanderling
We had gotten a fairly late start and decided to return home early but with another stop at the Shine Tidelands hoping for better luck with the Spotted Sandpiper. Although not an uncommon bird in the State, they are more often found in the spring and summer and most commonly near rivers and freshwater ponds. They are quite uncommon in Jefferson County. We searched the pebbly shore and were again unsuccessful – until just as we were heading out David said he saw a shorebird near the boat launch – an area where the Spotted Sandpiper had been reported. He said it was a Killdeer but when I looked for it I could not see it – but did see – yep the Spotted Sandpiper. This was the first one either of us had seen in Jefferson County. Then the Killdeer appeared as well.
And just in case you are wondering after looking at the photo, in breeding plumage, the Spotted Sandpiper has very distinct spots on it breast – but none at all in non-breeding plumage like now.
Before getting back to the Kingston/Edmonds Ferry, David and I stopped at Point No Point. Nothing rare had been reported there recently but it is always an interesting place to bird and has produced rarities over the years. It is a particularly good place to find Bonaparte’s Gulls and sometimes there are rarer gulls like Little Gull and Franklin’s Gull as well. Nothing rare today but it was very cool to see several hundred Bonaparte’s Gulls flying high over the water in a murmuration like Starlings. We finally found a distant Peregrine Falcon whose presence was probably the cause of their mass movement together.
Bonaparte’s Gulls (Just a Small Portion)
We also found two pairs of Marbled Murrelets – still in their black and white winter plumage – always a nice find. We left contemplating a return to look for the Red Knot with a better tide.
On February 22, David and I joined Ann Marie Woods and Steve Pink to again search for the Red Knot and also to look for other birds. The projected tide was more favorable, but it had snowed the night before and we wondered about the roads and the birds. Informed by the last visit by David and me, we first stopped again at Shine Tidelands and easily found the Spotted Sandpiper, a new county bird for both Steve and Ann Marie. We made it down and up the hill leading to that spot in light snow – so far so good. Off to Fort Flagler.
The tide was now more favorable – just past the actual high tide and the shorebirds were numerous and clustered on high ground on the spit which was covered with snow. As before there were many Brant and other sea birds in the adjacent waters and many gulls and some Harlequin Ducks on the spit. Light was great in the brilliant sunshine but it was quite cold. We scoped the shorebirds from a distance and then methodically worked our way up the spit.
As on our previous visit, there were many Dunlin, Sanderlings and Black Bellied Plovers and we found a couple of Western Sandpipers. This time, however, there were no Black Turnstones and instead we had a single Black Oystercatcher.
Black Bellied Plover on the Snowy Spit
We checked every shorebird and were not able to find the Red Knot – a major disappointment as it is rare in Jefferson County and would have been a new County and year bird for all. We did find both Herring and Iceland Gulls – less uncommon than the Knot but still new birds for some. Consolation prizes of a sort. Moreover though, it was just fun birding with the clear skies, bright sun, snow on the ground and good birds.
We were now off to the Sequim area in Clallam County to look for some of the birds I had seen there in January but which would be new for the others. Along the way on Highway 101 Steve spotted a Turkey Vulture soaring with its tell-tale dihedral wing position. This was a hoped for but still surprising new year bird for me (and the others). They usually do not come back into the Northwest until at least March, but there have been several early sightings this year. We saw another one later in the day.
We headed straight to Dungeness Landing Park (The Old Oyster House) where the target was the Willet that had been seen regularly there since last year – usually in the company of Marbled Godwits – as it had been when I saw it in January. Tide was low and there were birds spread out in all directions. Steve spotted some Marbled Godwits in the distance and then David found the Willet. We never saw it in flight with its distinctive black and white wing pattern but it was an easy ID as a larger plain gray shorebird with a long straight bill.
Willet (A Long Way Off)
The Bay had many ducks of several species. There was about to be one fewer. An adult Bald Eagle appeared on the scene – scattering the ducks from the water. It focused on a single one in the chaos chasing it as it tried to avoid being caught. It was a female Northern Pintail. Then a second adult Eagle joined the hunt and after a moment or so, one of the Eagles struck the Pintail knocking it to the water. The chase had been exciting to watch and it now got more exciting and dramatic. Pintails are dabbling ducks, not diving ducks. They can submerge but do so only briefly. They feed by tilting down and grabbing food below the surface with their long necks. I expect the Eagles knew this behavior both in selecting the target initially and also in the strategy they then employed for the kill.
In the water the Pintail would submerge briefly as the Eagles took turns diving at it from above. Each time the Pintail resurfaced, an eagle would dive at it again. This continued at least a dozen times. Finally the Pintail tired and remained on the surface just a bit longer. This time one of the Eagles grabbed it with its talons and flew off.
Eagle Taking Pintail
But the show was far from over as the second Eagle chased the first – contesting its prize. We don’t know if this was a mated pair, siblings or two generations (even though two full adults evidenced by complete white heads and tails).
The Second Eagle in Pursuit of the First
After a few seconds as the Eagles swerved and cartwheeled together, the capturing Eagle dropped its prize and, still alive, the Pintail fell to the water. But it was not going to escape. Exhausted and probably in shock and injured, it was picked up quickly by one of the Eagles (we didn’t note if it was the original captor) and again carried away.
The Second Capture
This time the second Eagle flew off on its own while the victor flew to a nearby piling in the water. It called – perhaps proclaiming its conquest – and then began its meal.
Duck for Lunch
We were spellbound by the episode which took place maybe 100-150 yards away. For awhile it had appeared that the Pintail might escape – first the chase and then the capture. The Eagles were more adept fliers than I had expected and the tactics used to tire the non-diving duck were impressive. Predator and prey – one of nature’s basic laws. Eagles are often and rightfully seen as scavengers. This Eagle was a supreme hunter.
Heading next to the Three Crabs area, we first made a stop at Denny Van Horn’s eclectic shop/residence. Denny knows as much about what’s going on bird-wise in the area as anyone and is always a fun and informative visit. He gave us good leads and directions for some of our targets and we were off. No owls in the fields around Three Crabs but we found a photo friendly Cooper’s Hawk on a roadside fence. Definitely the eye of a predator.
Our next target was a female Redhead (the bird kind) that had been reported in a small pond on Simdars Road. Following Denny’s instructions we easily found the pond and sifted through the numerous ducks to add the Redhead to our day list and and a County first for everyone.
The last stop was at Diamond Point where some Ruddy Ducks were seen as soon as we drove by – our final species for the day. We had done very little birding not tied to ponds or the ocean and still had 65 species. My only new bird for the year was the Turkey Vulture which I was very pleased to see. The Eagle vs. Pintail drama was certainly the highlight. It was truly a beautiful day with good friends showcasing the best of the Northwest with all the water and mountains – and sunshine – in February!!