Really Deep Into the Sagebrush

Three weeks earlier Ann Marie Wood, Frank Caruso and I had joined Deb Essman in Ellensburg for our first Sagebrush birding of the (See year. ,  That had resulted in our first Mountain Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes and Sagebrush Sparrows of the year.  Deb invited us back later in the month to load up on her seriously off road capable jeep to go deep into the sage in one of her favorite places – relatively unvisited areas of Gingko State Park and into the Whiskey Dick Wildlife area.  Thursday March 28th was the day.

Before meeting up with Deb, we stopped at a marshy area on Parke Creek road where we heard but could see a Yellow Headed Blackbird.  What we did see very well was a very noisy, showy and photo-friendly Wilson’s Snipe.

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

We got to Deb’s, loaded into the jeep and said goodbye to husband Bill.  We headed for Sagebrush Country.  Along Vantage Highway, we found some more Mountain Bluebirds and our first Sage Thrasher of the year – a target bird as they had just recently arrived to their breeding ground.  We also had a fleeting look of another FOY – a Vesper Sparrow.  Seen in flight off some sagebrush, it could be identified by its blandness, white on the outer edges of its tail from the top and the eye ring which Deb glimpsed.  Still a little early for them, it was the only one on the trip.  Should be easy in another week or two.

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

Our target area was accessed through a locked gate at the first road just off Recreation Drive – an area where Black Throated Sparrows had been seen for a few years until 2014.  It may well be my favorite sparrow and I sure hope they return.  We were now in new territory for all of us except Deb who knows every road within miles – including many that sure do not look much like roads and which your car and mine would not be able to handle.  We eventually did meet another group – researchers from Western Washington University, but otherwise we were completely alone.  It was beautiful and it was glorious.

Ann Marie, Deb and Frank and Our Birdmobile

The Gang

This is habitat that is not crawling with birds at any time and it was generally not real birdy for us.  In another two or three weeks there will be more, but one of the fun parts was not knowing just when something might show up.  In the first few miles, the only species we had were Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, American Raven, American Robin and Sagebrush Sparrow.  We had seen the latter on our first trip out with Deb.  They are always great to see, but Deb promised us many more ahead.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

We gained altitude and at many points in our twisting and turning travel, we could see either south or east across the Columbia to familiar places but only from ground level when there.  The new perspective was great.  One great view was down the Columbia to Wanapum State Park and Wanapum Dam.

Looking South Down the Columbia

View of Wanapum

As we continued along as Deb had promised we found lots of Sagebrush Sparrows.  Some were calling and some were singing.  Pictures were easy.  All told we probably saw a dozen of these guys – almost as many as I had seen in Washington in all my birding in years past.

Sagebrush Sparrows

Sagebrush Sparrow3

Sagebrush SparrowV


It was barely visible sitting on its nest and buried in thick brush, but a highlight was a Long Eared Owl.  Deb had discovered the nest and really wanted to share it with us.  She was relieved when we could at least make out its “ear” tufts.  Our trip ended (before we turned around an d retraced our way back to he gate) maybe 8 miles in where Whiskey Dick Creek runs into a wet area at a cove on the Columbia.  We (not Deb) were surprised to hear at least 5 and maybe as many as 7 Virginia Rails here,  We also had a Rock Wren and a Say’s Phoebe.  Our best bird was a FOY Loggerhead Shrike.  Deb had seen it the previous week but we heard it only several times and could not coax it in.

Frank and Ann Marie had another FOY bird that was old hat for Deb and that I had seen in larger than ever before numbers in the Okanogan in January.  We were treated to two different observations of Chukars,  The first two flew off – actually exploded off and disappeared.  The third came later and after a short flight we could just make it out on the ground.  This is perfect habitat for them.  Deb had promised – well sort of – so again she delivered  – and was relieved.

When we returned to Recreation Drive we headed down to the boat launch.  As in our previous visit we had a Say’s Phoebe and a very photogenic Rock Wren.  We ran into Lonie Somers and his friend who was up from Alabama.  It was interesting to compare notes as we had birded some of the same areas (with the exception of the heavy duty 4WD places.  They had seen Brewer’s Sparrows – one of our targets that we failed to find but not a Sage Thrasher.  We met another interesting group here – a group of Bighorn Sheep – up close and not concerned by our presence.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren1

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn1  Bighorn

We birded our way back to Deb’s.  The wind had picked up and I think that probably kept the birds out of view hunkered down in the stage.  Deb had to prepare for a class, so it was hugs all around and goodbye.  It had been about as fun as a day could be – familiar territory in a very different way.  Deb knows so much about that area – plants, animals and despite what she says – birds.  In Whiskey Dick we had seen a small group of Mule Deer.  Deb gave some lessons from Deer 101 and we learned that Black Tail Deer and Mule Deer are the same species – different subspecies – while White Tailed Deer is a different species altogether.  Now the trick is to remember this.

Frank, Ann Marie and I continued birding as we made our way west.  We picked up a FOY Osprey for Frank on Canyon Road and then looked for Bluebirds and Sage birds on Umptanum and Durr Roads.  As I said, the wind really blew and we did not find any sage birds but we had lots of both Mountain and Western Bluebirds on Umtanum Road.  I had seen Westerns in January but this was a FOY for Frank and Ann Marie.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

We also saw the Great Horned Owl on its nest on Umtanum Road.  Earlier we had seen another Great Horned Owl in its nest near Deb’s house and later we saw a third one maybe 10 miles west.

Great Horned Owls on Nests

Great Horned Owl on Nest

Great Horned Owl2

We completely struck out at the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum – where we at least hoped to add some species for the day trip.  But even though we probably saw maybe seventy species for the day, this was not a day to be measured with numbers.  Yes we all had new birds for the year which was great, but the success of this day was much more in the great times with great people in great places.  Great birds were a bonus.

Tweener March

Ah March – what kind of month are you?  An old saying is that it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.  March 21st is officially the first day of Spring.  For birds, March is the month that birds are beginning to be on the move – well sort of.  At least up here in the Pacific Northwest, there are not a lot of birds that have reached us yet, but there are some early migrants that have made it even by early March and more and more arrive as the month progresses.  I think of it as a Tweener Month.  It is between February when there is definitely not much going on and April when things will speed up dramatically.  And for me it was also between my trips to Arizona and Southern California in February and the first week in March focused on targeted ABA birds and my upcoming trip to South Texas in April when that focus returns.

There were some chases in Washington in March 2018.  After my blitz in January, I had added only a few new Washington birds in February.  I would be gone in April, so after my return from Southern California, that was somewhat of a goal, but mostly it was a good time for the social aspects of birding – out in the field with friends and looking for new and or favorite birds in the state.  I have already written about the first trip into the Sagebrush in early March with Deb Essman, Frank Caruso and Ann Marie Wood which gave us our first Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Bluebird and Sagebrush Sparrows of the year.  These are among the earliest of our returning migrants.

The following week, a report of two of those birds, Mountain Bluebirds and a Say’s Phoebe in our home Snohomish County spurred a visit to Darrington with Ann Marie.  We quickly found the Phoebe.  The Bluebirds took a bit longer but were found, photographed and enjoyed.  We also had stellar views of Violet Green Swallows – just returned to our area.

Say’s Phoebe in Darrington

Say's Darrington

Mountain Bluebird in Darrington

Mountain Bluebird Darrington

Violet Green Swallow

VG Swallow Darrington

The first pelagic trip of the year had been in early February – just a couple of days too late to be included in my January blitz – unfortunate because it would have added a half dozen or more species to that “Big Month”.  Another trip was set for March 17 with a decent chance to see Parakeet Auklets – very rare in Washington waters.  I had seen them only once, so I decided to go.  On the way to the coast, I saw my first Rufous Hummingbird for 2018 at a feeder in Olympia.  There was nothing exciting at my usual pre-pelagic stops at Brady Loop, the Hoquiam STP, the beach south of Westport and Tokeland.  Some very active Least Sandpipers at the latter provided my favorite photos of the day.  No trouble seeing the yellow leg field mark.

Least Sandpiper – Tokeland – March 16

Least Sandpiper Tokeland

The pelagic trip the next day did not produce the hoped for Parakeet Auklet but was fun and productive with a couple of very nice species as well as many “old favorites’.  I knew many of the fellow birders and that is always a bonus.  I had taken the wrong SD Card for my camera and it was filled almost immediately.  The rest of the day was a battle between taking new pictures and deleting old one.  On several occasions, I missed the best photo ops because I got behind in that race.

Our two best birds were a Manx Shearwater and a Laysan Albatross.  The former was distant and impossible to get a photo and the latter came in close and was one of the victims of my full card problem.  My photos were good enough for ID purposes but little else.  Fortunately I have good photos of both in Washington from other trips.  So the ones I choose to include here are of other species seen – Black Legged Kittiwake, Ancient Murrelet, Northern Fulmar (light phase) and Cassin’s Auklet.  Other new year birds were Sooty Shearwater, Black Footed Albatross, Short Tailed Shearwater (a poor quick look only) and a Pomarine Jaeger.  Altogether there were 9 new year birds.  Would have been nice in January.

Ancient Murrelet

Ancient Murrelet

Northern Fulmar (light phase)

Northern Fulmar Light Phase

Black Legged Kittiwake

BLKICassin’s Auklet

Cassin's Auklet

A few days later I made my first real chase of the month.  Bruce Paige had relocated the Eurasian Skylark that had been seen at Hobuck Beach Neah Bay last year.  It was first found by Ryan Merrill and the Waggoners in May 2017 – the first Washington record in almost 20 years.   It was found there again on November 7, 2017 the day after I had been there to see the mega-rarity Zone Tailed Hawk.  I wish I had stayed over as the Skylark is one of my non-photographed but previously seen Washington species.  A tiny introduced but viable population of Skylarks existed on San Juan Island into the 1990’s but then died out.  I had seen them in the 1970’s before I was taking photographs.  I had not been able to chase it in 2017 but decided to give it my best this time.  No luck (and others that day had none either although it was found again several days later.)

My consolation prize at Neah Bay was a close up of a lovely (is there any other kind?) Peregrine Falcon.  Then on the way home I stopped at Fort Flagler and found the Red Knot that I had missed on two occasions earlier in the year.  I had first found an unexpected Rock Sandpiper.  I got a photo of it and a picture I really like of a Black Bellied Plover still in full basic plumage.  The Knot was buried in a large group of Sanderlings, Plovers and Dunlin.  Just as I was about to take what would have been a poor but ID quality photo, two young kids charged the mass of birds on the spit and the birds were gone.  No adults were visible, so I decided to forego the lecture which most likely would have come out as a rant.

Peregrine Falcon – Hobuck Beach

Peregrine Hobuck

Rock Sandpiper – Fort Flagler

Rock Sandpiper Fort Flagler

Black Bellied Plover – Fort Flagler

BBPL Fort Flagler

I hope the Skylark stays or returns and I can give it another go after I return from Texas.  Frustrating…

The next week, I joined Steve Pink and David Poortinga visiting Sultan Basin Road in Snohomish County.  The main quest was a Northern Pygmy Owl.  I had a crappy brief view of one in Walla Walla County in January.  Steve had not seen one yet this year.  We were lucky as we heard it calling as soon as we got out of the car at our first exploratory stop.  It took a while to actually locate the bird high atop one of the conifers.  Poor light and distance together with a surprisingly small bird do not make for good photos.  I took one for the record but omit it here as hardly worth viewing and I have MANY really nice Pygmy Owl photos some of which have shown up in earlier blog posts.

The next day two quite rare birds were found in Washington:  A White Tailed Kite at the Toledo Airport and a female Tufted Duck in the Woodland Bottoms.  I assembled the troops for a double chase the next morning.  Ann Marie, Steve, Jon Houghton and I took off Sunday morning heading for Toledo about 2 hours south.  As I have often said, when chasing a rarity the best approach often is to get there after someone else has already found the target and has it in view when you arrive.  This was the case with the Kite as there were five people in a field looking at it when we arrived.  They were from the much closer Olympia area and had gotten there early.  We had a good but distant view.  They showed us photos of it much closer when it had captured some prey quite close to where they stood.

The picture I include here is from our second visit which was later when we returned hoping for a better look after we concluded the second part of our chase further south.

White Tailed Kite – Toledo Airport

White Tailed KIte

The second leg of our journey played out the same way.  Several birders were “on” the Tufted Duck when we arrived.  It was in the middle of the river (big Columbia River) and views were just OK and photos less than OK.  But it was an easy ID as even the relatively drab female has a tiny eponymous tuft.  I took an ID photo but will spare the reader especially as again I have included really good photos of other Tufted Ducks of both sexes in other blog posts.

Steve and Ann Marie had not seen the Snowy Egret that had taken up residence in a pond on Lower River Road in Clark County – about 35 minutes from the Tufted Duck stop, so we headed further south.  This was a good day for chases.  We had seen the Kite and the Tufted Duck within minutes of our arrival on the scene.  The “Egret” pond is not immediately visible from the parking spot at the end of River Road.  You have to walk about 50 yards.  As soon as we did, we could see the Snowy Egret (with a Great Egret).  It took maybe two minutes.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

We stopped at Ridgefield Refuge on our return but failed to find the hoped for Red Shouldered Hawk.  I had seen it in January and Jon had seen it earlier this month.  Ann Marie will have to wait until next time.

My next post will be about my last Tweener trip – a return to the Sagebrush – this time the deep sagebrush as Frank, Ann Marie and I cashed in our rain check with Deb Essman for a serious jeep trek into the area north of Recreation Road in Gingko State Park and into the Whiskey Dick Wildlife Area.  Then silence for a while hoping to return in mid April with big tales from Texas.

Into the Sagebrush

While I was in Southern California chasing Boobies, Pipits and Bell’s Sparrows, I read reports from back in Washington that some of the species found in our sagebrush habitat were returning and being reported.  Foremost among them was the Sagebrush Sparrow, the species that was split along with the Bell’s Sparrow from what had been known as the Sage Sparrow.  With the Bell’s Sparrow identification fresh in mind, I wanted to see some Sagebrush Sparrows for comparison.

Time for a field trip.  Frank Caruso, Ann Marie and I set off to meet Deb Essman in Ellensburg after a stop in Cle Elum along the way.  It was not real birdy at some of our stops but we had a cool highlight of seeing a Pygmy Nuthatch, a White Breasted Nuthatch and a Red Breasted Nuthatch all in the same tree.  Would have preferred a White Headed Woodpecker – but not bad as a consolation.

Washington Nuthatches

Washington Nuthatches

Before heading to the Sage Steppe area, we checked out some birdy spots near Deb’s home, starting with a shed across the street where we found a rather intense Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

About a mile away Deb showed us a pond where two almost pure white Canada Geese were hanging with regular Canada Geese and a number of ducks.  They were very close to being wholly albino with pink eyes, pink feet and pink bills.  The only coloring was a hint of of beige on their necks.  So I guess they are leucistic and not albino but something we had not seen before.  I also found another Great Horned Owl roosting just before the pond.

Highly Leucistic/Albino Canada Geese

Albino Geese

We failed to find a Blue Jay that had been reported in the area but Deb had promised us a Peregrine Falcon and she kept her word as we found a young Peregrine near a feedlot that had lots of doves, sparrows and blackbirds to keep it well fed.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Now we were off to the Sage Steppe area along the Vantage Highway and into Gingko State Park with our first stop at the boat ramp at the end of Recreation Road.  One of our target birds was a Say’s Phoebe.  A few had been reported over the last two months elsewhere in Eastern Washington and this month some had shown up at Gingko.  We found our first one coming into the visitor center parking area and then right on cue, another one responded to our calls and came in and perched on its favorite spot – the tank just above the boat launch.

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

This is also a great spot for Rock Wren.  Frank’s great ears picked up a partial call and Deb spotted it.  With some encouragement, it came in for great views and photo ops.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

We then worked our way west onto the Vantage Highway searching for our main quarry the Sagebrush Sparrow.  A couple of miles up the road, I saw a sparrow fly across the road and pulled over.  Frank picked up a faint call and I used play back to bring the bird to us.  It was a Sagebrush Sparrow and it was very protective of its territory giving us many good looks and a full repertory of calls.  We heard one or two more in the area.  Later we found several more at other stops further west.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow6

Sagebrush Sparrow

I was very pleased to be able to get great looks and photos that made it very easy to note the differences between the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell’s Sparrow.  The former has clear streaking on its back and a relatively light black malar stripe while there are no streaks on the back of a Bell’s Sparrow and the stripe is darker.

Bell’s Sparrow (from the previous blog – found in San Diego County)

Bell's Sparrow6

Bell's Sparrow

Note the differences in this compilation/comparison.

Bell's vs Sagebrush Sparrows

A bit further west we found two Mountain Bluebirds perched on a wire thus completing a successful search for all of the species we were seeking.  We tried a favorite spot in the sage hoping for some early Sage Thrashers or Vesper Sparrows but still too early.  Guess we will have to return.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird1

There were two more treats as we continued back to Ellensburg – a beautiful Prairie Falcon – first posed on a power pole and then flying off at great speed and interacting with a Northern Harrier and then our first and only Shrike of the trip.  We hoped it might be an early Loggerhead Shrike but just a Northern – a very noisy one which made it extra fun to watch.

We had “only” fifty species for the day, which was not bad but the quality was great and more importantly we had a lot of fun together.

Finally a Bell’s Sparrow Photo

In 2013, the American Ornithological Union (AOU) split “Sage Sparrow” into two distinct species – the Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell’s Sparrow.  Then the headaches began as it can be a challenge trying to tell the two species apart in the field.  It does not help that especially the Bell’s Sparrow can be difficult to get into the open in its sage/chaparral habitat where it tends to remain on the ground.  Thus for photos, birds singing on open perches are helpful and almost essential.  Per my previous blog, Black Canyon Road just east and north of Ramona seemed the place to go.  I had excellent directions from someone who had found singing Bell’s Sparrows there a week earlier.  However, on my first visit, I found no birds singing, none in the open and maybe one buried in deep foliage.  So – no photos.

That first visit had been for two hours starting at 10:00 a.m.  I searched diligently and tried playback.  Just no results.  This time I hit the first designated target zone around 7:30 a.m.  What a difference.  I almost immediately heard a Bell’s Sparrow calling uphill.  It took a while to find it but there it was in a tall Century Plant.  I got my first photo which I include here but there were to be much better ones to come.

Bell’s Sparrow (First Photo)

First Bell's Sparrow

On my earlier visit there had been a few birds around including an unexpected Rufous Crowned Sparrow, but today there were many more and I had Bell’s Sparrows in the open and/or singing and responding to play back at several stops.  At least 7 and maybe as many as 9 as I am not sure if some of the “singers” were then seen later.  And interestingly this did not include a stop where the previous reporter had seen 4.  I had worked so hard before (twice) without success.  This time it was easy.  A reminder that you just have to put in the time to get rewarded.

Bell’s Sparrows

Bell's Sparrow4

Bell's Sparrow6

Bell's Sparrow5

Before these observations, I was not sure that I could be 100% positive about the ID of a Bell’s vs. Sagebrush Sparrow in the field but only the former is found in this habitat and the song is distinctly different. Additionally I now was keyed in to how the back of the Sagebrush Sparrow is streaked and the Bell’s is plain (kind of the opposite of the ID Challenge yesterday between American and Red Throated Pipits) and was confident with this distinguishing field mark.  Also the malar stripe is darker in Bell’s but that is a hard comparison without seeing both.

I continued birding in the area for about two hours.  There is a wonderful riparian area another mile or so past the sparrow spots and it was great.  It probably would have been even greater if I knew the local bird songs and calls as many went unidentified.  Including the sage chaparral I had Wrentits, California Thrashers, California Scrubjays, California Quail and California Towhees.  Three woodpecker species: Nuttall’s and Acorn and also Northern Flickers.  Bewick’s, Canyon and Rock Wrens.  Also Western Bluebirds, Spotted Towhee, Hutton’s Vireo, Common Ravens, House Finches and Lesser Goldfinches.  And of course plentiful Yellow Rumped WarblersLawrence’s Goldfinches have been there in the past but not today so that target remains unhit.

Black Canyon Road Creek

Black Canyon Road Creek

Heading back west almost back at the pavement, a White Winged Dove flew by.  Unmistakable wing pattern.  I did not know that it was rare in the area.  When I saw that it was I drove back to try for a photo but could not find it.  There were lots of Eurasian Collared and Mourning Doves around as well.  I was really pleased with the morning with the highlight of course being the Bell’s Sparrow.

In my earlier research I had noted two areas nearby that looked very interesting.  My first stop was at Dos Picos County Park and then I went to the Ramona Grasslands area around Rangeland Road.  There was nothing terribly exciting at Dos Picos, but I added Oak Titmouse for the year and White Breasted Nuthatch and Dark Eyed Junco for the trip.  There was also a pair of copulating Red Shouldered Hawks and good views of both Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers.  By the way, Red Shouldered Hawks are often quite noisy.  I can personally testify that this applies to their sex life as well.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker3

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

Nuttall's Woodpecker 2

This was yet another place where a Black Phoebe was hyper active.  At least by now I was used to the call and movement and did not turn my head asking “what was that” each time I saw or heard something.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe11

The Grasslands were entirely different – with many different birds – some new for the trip.  I met a young biologist who was doing a survey for a conservation group.  He pointed out a Burrowing Owl that I would never have seen without his help.  This was a new year bird.  Lots of Savannah Sparrows and lots of Mountain Bluebirds, another new year bird.  I also had Cassin’s Kingbirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, lots of Meadowlarks, a Say’s Phoebe and a pair of Ferruginous Hawks.  I did not find the Vermilion Flycatcher that had been reported there.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird on Post

Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk Flight

It was only 1:00 p.m. and my flight home was not until 9:30.  Lots of time to bird but I had found all of my targets (YAY!!) and was really dragging.  If there was a chance for Lawrence’s Goldfinch I would have somehow found the energy, but that was not an option.  I considered just pulling over somewhere and taking a snooze but then opted to head to the airport and see if an earlier flight was possible without too much cost.

Ever since finding the Greater Pewee the previous morning, things had gone even better than I could have hoped for.  My good fortune continued at the airport.  A very helpful lady at the Alaska Airlines counter found me a flight that left four and a half hours earlier than my flight, got me a good seat (the last one on a full flight) and made the change for $25.00.  This was a bargain and instead of being home after 1:00 a.m. the next morning, I was home by 9:00 p.m. that night.  Best $25 I have ever spent.

So after a bad start, this had been a wonderful trip.   I had two new ABA Life Birds – the Red Throated Pipit and the Nazca Booby – with photos.  I also added ABA photos of the Greater Pewee and the Bell’s Sparrow.  All told I had 109 species for the trip and had added 26 new species for the year.  I have no goal for year totals this year, but since Ebird tracks such stuff I do pay attention.

I started my birding while I was in California way back in 1971.  It is second to my home state of Washington for number of species seen.  Not an impressive list given the number of birds seen there, but I had added 10 species to that state list as well.  By any measure this was an excellent visit.

The Booby in the Bay

The Nazca Booby is a species that until mid-November last year had been found only in the Eastern Pacific Ocean – primarily in the Galapagos Islands.  Then one showed up offshore in Southern California.  It was on my “maybe list” on my California trip in late November and early December in 2017 but it had departed a day before I got to the area.  Oh well.

But then the week after I left San Diego two of these mega rarities showed up in San Diego Bay – possibly having hitched a ride on a banana boat.  As tempting as it was, I just could not justify a return trip to where I had just been.  But the Boobies kept being seen – every day.  After my Big Month in Washington in January, I thought about a trip but only if there was a chance for some other “target birds”.  A Red Throated Pipit had been seen just south of San Diego in January and that definitely qualified as a second Lifer – justification for a trip.  BUT…then it seemed to have disappeared.  So I went to Arizona for 4 days instead.  No complaints but no Boobies either.

Then three things occurred that made it impossible for me to resist going after all.  First, seemingly out of the blue, Edmonds birding friend Ann Marie Wood made a one day trip south and got the Booby.  Second, B.C. birding friend Melissa Hafting made the same trip (coincidentally on the same day) and also got the Booby (as well as a photo of a Greater Pewee – one I needed for my ABA Photo list) and third – the Pipit was refound and being seen sporadically.  I cashed in some miles on Alaska Airlines and headed south very early on February 28.  It turned out that another birding friend, Doug Schurman from Seattle, was going to be in San Diego the same time and we coordinated renting a boat to get out close to the Booby in the Bay, the same approach used by Ann Marie and Melissa.

Since Doug could not go for the Booby until March 1st, I first headed to Black Canyon Road just east of Ramona, California – less than 30 miles east of San Diego.  The goal was to finally get an ABA first photo of a Bell’s Sparrow.  Nancy Christenson, a star birder in the area, had given superb directions on the San Diego birding listserv to three spots along that road where the sparrows were regular and she had had many with photos the previous week.  Her instructions should be the template for directions for all to use – precise down to road signs and distances within tenths of a mile.  I found all of the spots easily but alas found maybe a single Bell’s Sparrow, and as had been my experience on the only other occasion where I searched for one, I could not get it out in the open.  It was a beautiful area – very birdy but no Bell’s Sparrow photo.  Not a great start.

I birded without specific focus on the way back towards San Diego and stopped at Santee Lakes where I had finally gotten a photo of Scaly Breasted Munias last year.  A decent smattering of birds including some hide and seek Munias.  The “best” birds were a White Throated Swift and a Vaux’s Swift, both First of Year for me and the latter pretty early there.  The best photos were of a Snowy Egret and a female Wood Duck not as showy as her mate but a very striking bird.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Female Wood Duck

Wood Duck Female

My hotel for the night was in Chula Vista – not too far from the Tijuana Slough NWR so I headed there next going the long route through Coronado to check out where we would get our boat the next day – definitely a high rent district.  It was very slow at the NWR and starting to lose light.  It had not been a great day and I needed a boost.  One came in the form of a pair of Ridgway’s Rails that came out into the open in one of the channels.  I got my first ABA photo of one here last December.  These photos were MUCH better!!

Ridgway’s Rail


Ridgway's Rail7

Maybe this is what was needed to turn things around – just in time for chasing the Booby in the Bay the next day.

The Greater Pewee was being seen fairly regularly in Balboa Park.  Mel Senac, who I met last year at the Rufous Backed Robin stakeout had advised that the best time to try for it was before (;30 a.m. or in the late afternoon.  Doug could not try for the Nazca Booby until noon so I fought the morning traffic and got to Balboa Park a little after 8:00.  I had very specific instructions from Melissa – necessary as it is a very big park.  It took a while to find parking but I made it to the target area near the restrooms at the intersection of Juniper and Balboa being met by a Western Bluebird – one of many – hopefully that was an omen.

Balboa Park Bluebird

I searched every tree and tried all of the calls and songs I could find.  The place was overrun by Yellow Rumped Warblers, hyperactive Anna’s Hummingbirds and numerous California Towhees in addition to two very vocal Black Phoebes but I could not find the Pewee.  I was getting down.  Then I remembered that in addition to her description of trees and landmarks, Melissa had included very precise GPS coordinates.  What the heck.  I entered them in my phone and went to the exact spot – literally only 100 feet from where I had been.  I played the Greater Pewee’s call note and had a response.  I played again and it flew into a tree right next to me.   I had mistakenly thought I got a photo of this species in Arizona last year (where it belongs) so this was a welcome new ABA photo and just maybe my luck had turned after all.

Greater Pewee

Greater Pewee1

There was plenty of time before our boat ride and I was now batting .500 with a Pewee but not a Bell’s Sparrow.  I figured I would likely keep that average with a failed try for the Red Throated Pipit and success with the Booby.  Time to see.  I headed over to Berry Park .  The Park itself has a big grassy field and is immediately next to a school also with a big grassy play field.  The Red Throated Pipit had been reported on both but almost always only if the “flock of American Pipits” was there.  The advice was to not even bother if the flock was not present.

When I arrived it was immediately clear that there were no Pipits on the grass at the park.  Again lots of Yellow Rumped Warblers and some Western Bluebirds.  There also were some White Crowned Sparrows on the grass but nothing else.  I turned my attention to the play field (which was behind a chain link fence without any access).  Nothing at first, but then I saw one and then another and another bird in the grass.  They were Pipits.  The field was big – larger than a football field and the birds were scattered over the entire area. Would one of them be the prize?

I kept finding more and more birds – at least 24 and probably more.  The trouble was that many were quite distant and the grass was relatively thick and pipit-colored.  There were a couple of sandy areas, but the Pipits stayed in the grass.  I did not have a scope so I relied on my binoculars and relatively good light.  I was looking for a bird with streaking on the back, relatively bold streaking on the chest and pinkish legs.  One after another of the birds had plain brown, unstreaked backs.  Then one bird looked different.  It was facing me and looked somehow paler and with a more distinct facial pattern.  It was in the grass – not on the dirt so I struggled to make out its leg color.  Then it briefly turned and came a bit more in the open.  The back was STREAKED and the legs were PINKISH.  This was the Red Throated Pipit (a new ABA Bird)!!  No more than two minutes afterwards, a bell rang and kids started pouring onto the play field, one by one and then altogether, the birds left.  I had been there no more than 12 minutes before finding the target and fortunately grabbing a photo.

Red Throated Pipit


I wish there had been more time, but I could not believe my luck.  First that it was there, second that I found it and lastly that at least the kids did not arrive until after I did.  There were also some fun moments ahead.  One of the teachers came over and we talked about the Pipit.  I was so excited I kept calling it a Sprague’s Pipit (which I had missed in Arizona) but fortunately caught the mistake.  She was only vaguely aware of its presence after having seen dozens of birders with big cameras and scopes in the Park over the past couple of months.  I showed her some photos.  Shortly thereafter a large dark falcon swept over the field.  Three boys had seen it and noting me with a camera and binoculars came over to inquire what they had seen.  It was a Peregrine Falcon.  The kids were great – really interested as I described the difference between hawks and falcons – bombers versus fighter jets.  Each then told me a favorite bird story.  Very cool!!

I then spent a few minutes birding the small park itself.  A Red Shouldered Hawk posted briefly an a light standard.  A few minutes later I saw a bird on another standard seemingly fly catching but looking as if it was throwing the bug up and catching it again and again.  It turned out to be a Cassin’s Kingbird and instead of a bug, it was a large berry (after all it was Berry Park!).  Maybe it was trying to position the berry to swallow it, but it was still working on it when I left.

Red Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk1

Cassin’s Kingbird with Berry

Cassin's Kingbird Tossing Berry  Cassin's Kingbird with Berry1

Planning the trip, I had figured the odds were 90% for the Bell’s Sparrow, 80% for the Greater Pewee, 95% for the Nazca Booby and 10% for the Red Throated Pipit.  I was way off on two of them and hoping I was right for the biggest prize of all.  It was close to the time to see.

First I headed to the South End of Seacoast drive where a Reddish Egret had been seen and where odds were good to find a Little Blue Heron.  I found the latter but could not locate the former.  I also swung by a roost tree near the Tijuana Slough NWR where I had seen some night herons the night before.  I had been told they were Yellow Crowned but in the poor light it was impossible to tell.  The good news was that they were now quite visible and the bad news was that they were Black Crowned Night Herons which we have in Washington and not Yellow Crowned Night Herons which we do not.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

Now it was time to head onto Coronado and go Booby watching.  But along the way there was a surprise – an American Flamingo was foraging in the South end of the Bay.  I had heard about an American Flamingo in Imperial Beach last month.  It was originally thought to be an escapee from one of the hotels or the zoo but such was found not to be the case.  It just flew in and has stayed to the delight of many.  See the local news story.  I doubt that it is “for real” and countable.  But just in case it is, I took a photo.

American Flamingo

American Flamingo 1

I met Doug at the Marina at Loew’s Coronado Bay Resort – a very posh place.  Another birder was out with “our boat” so we waited.  When he was running quite late, we were upgraded to a larger boat, given safety and operation instructions and then headed out with one of the marina guys who would turn it over to us once he was confident we knew what we were doing.  The other birder was coming in as we rounded the marina so we waited and got word from him.  The good news is that he had seen both Boobies.  The bad news is that one had flown off and the other had left its perch on Buoy 34 – its regular hangout spot.  From the sounds of his story, we believed he may have flushed the birds.  We were a bit concerned.

Leaving the Marina

Leaving the Marina

Our fears were at least partially for naught.  There was no Booby on Buoy 34,  But thankfully there was one Nazca Booby on Buoy 36.  We don’t know where the other one went and believe me we looked everywhere.  More than 600 birders have come from all over the U.S. to see the Boobies.  They can be seen from land but only with a scope and even then at quite a distance.  The boat is definitely the way to go and this bird was seemingly unconcerned with our presence.  We circled many times and drifted within maybe 100 feet without any reaction.  Doug is a phenomenal photographer.  I take pictures.  But with this cooperative bird and great light even with a rocking boat some of my more than 250 plus photos came out ok.  A Nazca Booby – ABA Life Bird and photo. Wow!!

The Booby in the Bay – Nazca Booby

Nazca Booby7

Nazca Booby Vertical

Nasca Booby Best

Nazca Booby Headr

This had been quite a day –  three targets and three hits plus that crazy Flamingo.  It was only 1:30 – now what?  I checked out some shorebirds right in front of where I had parked at the Resort and added a pair of Short Billed Dowitchers to my trip and year list.  This is probably my biggest regret for the trip.  I had forgotten about a Thick Billed Kingbird and Scissor Tailed Flycatcher that had been reported from Poggi Creek – literally a stones throw from the hotel I had stayed in the previous night.  I should have headed there to try for these two very nice birds.  But as I said – I forgot.  Maybe it was the sleep deprivation from the very early trip down.  Instead I decided I would try again for the Bell’s Sparrows the next day.  I made a hotel reservation in Ramona and then headed to La Jolla – a beautiful and favorite spot.  I thought there might be a chance to see some Black Vented Shearwaters and Heerman’s Gulls.  I found neither but enjoyed the beautiful place and as always the close up look at nesting Brandt’s Cormorants on the cliffs just below the path.

Brandt’s Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant2

I headed East to Ramona before traffic got too bad.  I celebrated the day’s success breaking my diet with some barbecued ribs and tried for some sleep.  For such a small town, there sure is a lot of noisy traffic heading through.  So by the next morning I was still feeling pretty tired.  I needed some good birds for an adrenaline rush.  And that story is for my next Blog Post.