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
Mountain Bluebird in Darrington
Violet Green Swallow
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
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.
Northern Fulmar (light phase)
Black Legged Kittiwake
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
Rock Sandpiper – Fort Flagler
Black Bellied Plover – 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
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.
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.