May Is the Best

In my last post I wrote about the early stages of spring Migration into Washington.  While there is much activity in April, it really gets going in May.  It is now May 13th.  And it is going strong.  With birding friends, I have been a big time participant.  After a conversation with one of my friends about the “best” month to bird in Washington, I analyzed my sightings over the past 5 years and found that on average I saw 203 species in May.  The next closest month was June where the average was 163.  May is the best!

So far this May I have seen 164 species in Washington.  Since I have some trips out of state planned, I don’t think I will get to the average and certainly will not approach my all time high of 225 in 2013, but I hope at least to at or above my low of 178 in 2014.  Of course while numbers are fun, it really is the experiences out in the field that matter most and already May 2018 has been terrific in that regard.

My last blog covered trips through May 5th.  The following day Ann Marie Wood and I looked for and failed to find a Long Billed Curlew that had been seen in the Snoqualmie Valley but we did find a Western Kingbird the first one reported for the area which is a good spot for this species starting in May.  We had better success finding the American Avocet in Redmond that I had seen the previous day, but was a new county bird for her.  Next was Camano Island where we had a large flock of Whimbrels on Rekdal Road (more on that later). Maybe the most fun was seeing a very effective American Robin with its catch of worms – probably food for young in a nearby nest.

American Robin with Earthworms


At English Boom in addition to seeing more Whimbrels, we also had numerous noisy pairs of Purple Martins.  This is a reliable place to find this large swallow and to get photos.

Purple Martins

Purple Martins

The next day in Yost Memorial Park – less than 1/2 mile from my home, I got a nice photo of a Black Headed Grosbeak.  I had heard one at Marymoor a few days earlier but had not seen it.

Black Headed Grosbeak

Black Headed Grosbeak

On Tuesday the  8th, Brian Pendleton and I left early to do some scouting for a trip I was going to be leading to the Cle Elum area for the Yakima River Canyon Birdfest on the 12th.  It is always a treat to bird with Brian who has great eyes and ears and really knows his birds.  We started at the two spots that I knew would be on the field trip, Bullfrog Pond and the Burlington Northern Railroad Ponds.  Birding was excellent at both places.  Highlights were Red Naped Sapsucker (plus a probable hybrid Red Naped x Red Breasted), Cassin’s and Warbling Vireos, Yellow (FOY), Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow Rumped and Wilson’s Warblers, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Western Wood Pewee (FOY).

Red Naped (or possibly a hybrid) Sapsucker

Red Naped or Hybrid Sapsucker

Hammond’s Flycatcher (FOY)

Hammond's Flycatcher

Cassin’s Vireo (FOY)

Cassin's Vireo

MacGillivray’s Warbler (FOY)

MacGillivray's Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbller

At the RR Ponds we had an amazing sight as we watched an Osprey bring a very large stick – maybe 8 feet long to the nest platform.

Osprey with Large Stick

That was it for the scouting as the Birdfest trip was for a half day only.  Brian and I then headed east to Ellensburg and then south down Canyon Road with a first stop at the Umtanum Creek area.  We found 6 Warbler species, a constantly vocalizing Warbling Vireo, a Prairie Falcon, 2 Canyon Wrens, another Western Wood Pewee and our FOY Bullock’s Oriole and Lazuli Bunting.  We were disappointed not to find Yellow Breasted Chats (stay tuned…).

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Lazuli Bunting (FOY)

Lazuli Bunting1

All except the Prairie Falcon and Wrens had probably arrived within the past week or 10 days.  We made another stop a little further down the river and had similar species but added Western Kingbird and had at least 8 Bullock’s Orioles.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Bullock’s Oriole

Bullock's Oriole

It had already been a great day but it was still relatively early so we decided to head further south and try Oak Creek and Bethel Ridge.  No Ash Throated Flycatchers at Oak Creek but we had the usual looks at the always beautiful Lewis’s Woodpecker.  Bethel Ridge was a bit slow, but we had a cooperative Red Naped Sapsucker and a flyover Williamson’s Sapsucker a First of Year for me, but seen previously by Brian.  We also had our FOY Dusky Flycatchers. a Hermit Thrush and several Townsend Solitaires.  No luck near the top for Three Toed or Black Backed Woodpeckers.

Red Naped Sapsucker

Red Naped Sapsucker1

Dusky Flycatcher

Dusky Flycatcher

The weather began to change so we called it a day and made the long trek home.  It had been very productive as the new arrivals allowed each of us to add eight or nine species for the year.

A couple of days later, I had an errand in downtown Edmonds and decided to check out the waterfront.  Not real birdy but there were three species of alcids as well as the usual Surf Scoters and some Caspian Terns and Western Grebes.  The alcids included 8 Marbled Murrelets, two Rhinoceros Auklets and a dozen or more Pigeon Guillemots.  All were in full breeding plumage.  I cannot recall seeing Marbled Murrelets except in pairs, and the pattern held this day.

Marbled Murrelets

Marbled Murrelets

Saturday May 12th was the Birdfest trip.  Frank Caruso had agreed to help – lending his terrific ear and knowledge of bird songs to the trip.  He was being visited by one of his birding friends from the Cape in Massachusetts who wold join us and this would be a great chance for her to add some new ABA species as she had never birded in the Northwest.

We started early enabling us to make a stop at the hummingbird feeders at Hyak near Snoqualmie Pass.  In addition to many Rufous Hummingbirds we had a good look at a MacGillivray’s Warbler which was a good thing, since they were surprisingly absent the rest of the day. Our meet-up spot for the trip was Bullfrog Pond.  It was a small but very interesting, fun and skilled group: Brandon, Jim, Martha and Jerry.  The weather the whole day was absolutely gorgeous – not too hot and almost no wind.  Our first bird was a Mountain Chickadee actually on the ground at the parking area.  We quickly ran into a group from Seattle Audubon.  I think they got there a bit early before things warmed up and we had more singing birds than they had.

Not as many warblers as usual, but lots of Yellows, some Nashville, Yellow Rumped and Common Yellowthroats.  Beautiful views of first a Western Tanager and then a Black Headed Grosbeak that took turns singing from a tall snag.  We had a brief glimpse of a Bullock’s Oriole.  We heard Northern Flicker, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers but sadly there were no Sapsuckers.  In the conifers across the road we had a nice Western Bluebird, some Pygmy Nuthatches (my first there) and Jerry spotted first one and then a second Brown Creeper – again my first for the area.  We heard Cassin’s Finch singing but could only find a female to view.

Western Tanager (In the open but a long way off)

Western Tanager

Our next stop was the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds where we ran into yet another bird group – a class given by Connie Sidles.  We added some duck species and saw mostly the same as we had seen at Bullfrog.  This time we had a much better view of a Yellow Warbler.  A couple of House Wrens sang the entire time we were there and there were few if any moments when we were not seeing Tree, Northern Rough Winged or Barn Swallows.  But again no MacGillivray Warblers.

Yellow Warbler (FOY)

Yellow Warbler3

House Wren Singing

House Wren1

A nice bonus when there is more than one group in the area is the sharing of information.  I had gotten a text from one of the Audubon trip co-leaders that I had not seen.  It said that there was a Clark’s Nutcracker at the feeders across from the Cle Elum Ranger Station.  Fortunately she had notified one of the people in Connie’s group as well who told me.  We had considered a visit there anyhow, but now it was a “must”.   Closely related to jays, Clark’s Nutcrackers are usually seen at higher elevations.  We found two quickly that were very cooperative and photo friendly.  It was a life bird for some in the group.

Clark’s Nutcracker

Clark's Nutcracker1

As a bonus there were a pair of Cassin’s Finches and an Evening Grosbeak coming to the feeder which was probably the attraction for the Nutcracker as well.  This was the end of the formal trip and we had a respectable 58 species for the morning, but we were invited to bring our lunches to the home of one of the participants in the Teanaway Valley and were pleased to accept,  A beautiful place where we were greeted immediately by a fly-catching Say’s Phoebe and shortly thereafter had a Calliope Hummingbird – our first for the year – bringing us to 60 for the morning.  There had been some notable misses, but the Nutcracker more than made up for it.  Kathy, Frank and I said goodbye to the group and carried on for a full afternoon of birding – mostly looking for new life species for Kathy but looking for some new ones for Frank and me for the year as well.

At Umtanum Creek we quickly heard several Yellow Breasted Chats, our first for the year, but try as we might, we could not get them to show themselves.  A bird that was far more cooperative visually but surprisingly silent was a FOY Olive Sided Flycatcher.  Both the Chats and the Olive Sided were new arrivals and were reported widely around the state this weekend.

Olive Sided Flycatcher

Olive Sided Flycatcher1

We continued on to the same area down river where Brian and I had many Orioles a few days earlier and they were again readily found although hard to see well or photograph high up in the very leafy cottonwoods.  Then it was decision time.  We could retrace our steps, return via Wenas Road or carry on to a new area.  We saw that some Red Necked Phalaropes had been reported on Lateral C in the Toppenish area and decided to continue south.  It turned out to be a great decision as at various watery areas there and on Pumphouse Road we had some really nice birds.

On Lateral C, we had a very brief look at the Phalaropes until they disappeared behind some reeds – FOY’s for all of us.  A big surprise was a White Pelican that circled and then landed – again invisible behind reeds.  We heard some Yellow Headed Blackbirds as soon we pulled up and finally got some to come close for good looks and a photo.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird

A big show here came from the many Wilson’s Snipe – winnowing, displaying and posing on distant posts.  There may have been many more, but we counted at least 16.  Just before departing we heard a distant Sora calling and it responded readily to playback.  We never saw it but it is always a good find.  Not surprisingly we also found a Virginia Rail – closer than the Sora but never seen.

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

Other birds seen in the area were many Cinnamon and Green Winged Teal and two Ring Necked Pheasants.  We were not able to find some Wilson’s Phalaropes that had been reported earlier.  Now it was time to head home and we retraced our route up to Interstate 82 instead of returning to Canyon Road.  Along the way, we did an informal species count and it seemed like we were close to 100 for the day.  Since there was still some good light and it would give Kathy a chance to add some shrub steppe birds – an area we had not visited on our trip, we decided to detour to Durr Road after filling the gas tank in Ellensburg.  It was another great decision.

We readily found Mountain Bluebirds and then heard the insect-like buzzy song of a Brewer’s Sparrow.  It responded to our playback and posed for photos and good looks.  There were at least ten seen or heard.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebbird

Brewer’s Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow1

We heard numerous Western Meadowlarks and then picked out the somewhat similar melodic song of a Sage Thrasher.  It too was responsive and gave us good looks and a photo op.

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher

Then Frank heard what he thought was a Vesper Sparrow.  It was seemingly very close and responded to playback, but we just could not locate it – until we looked in the right spot – where it was partially hidden in a  mature sage,  Another new bird and photo for the day.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

We failed to find a Loggerhead Shrike but there was a final exclamation point for the day.  I saw what at first I thought might be a Common Nighthawk off in the distance but we quickly noted it was too large and instead we had a Short Eared Owl hunting at near dusk off in the sage.  Unfortunately our earlier count was off and we ended the day with 90+ species – but it really had been terrific whatever the tally.  I had added four new Washington species for the year and Kathy had significantly increased her ABA list.

Having no plans for the following day – after Mothers Day notes to the mother of my children and to one of those children who is now a mother herself – I headed to Eide Road where Steve Giles had reported some Pectoral Sandpipers the previous day.  When I got to the specified pond, I could see a number of shorebirds and ducks.  I was immediately drawn to first a Cinnamon Teal and then several Blue Winged Teal.  A few seconds later a Green Winged Teal came into view.  I tried in vain to get a photo capturing all three at the same time.  The one I got had the Cinnamon and the Blue Winged but depth of field and my lack of skill were wrong for focus on both.

Blue Winged and Cinnamon Teal

Blue Winged TEal with Cinnamopn Teal in Background

Having the three Teal species was cool but the reason for the trip was the Pectoral Sandpiper.  I saw some Greater Yellowlegs, some peeps and then a Long Billed Dowitcher.  Finally behind some grass, I saw a medium sized shorebird – the hoped for Pectoral Sandpiper.  I failed to find another but there may have been others further out in the pond.

Pectoral Sandpiper (FOY)

Pectoral Sandpiper1

Among the peeps, there were clearly some Western Sandpipers and at least one Least Sandpiper.  A couple others were a challenge and this is where I made a poor choice.  Another birder/photographer had arrived and was excited to tell me that there was a large flock of Long Billed Curlews on a field near the airport on nearby Camano Island., an area mentioned previously that in migration can have large numbers of Whimbrels – as had been seen earlier by Ann Marie and me.  I asked him if he meant Whimbrels and he said “Oh no, these are definitely Curlews“.  Earlier in this post, I wrote that Ann Marie and I had failed to find the Long Billed Curlew in the Snoqualmie Valley and I have also been unable to find one in Ellensburg – often my go to spot, so I was VERY interested.  Instead of continuing to process the peeps to see if one or more might be Semipalmated Sandpipers and getting better photos, I decided to race off for the Curlews and check the photos I had taken later.

The field in question was at the intersection of Rekdal and Utsalady Roads.  Indeed there were MANY larger shorebirds with long decurved bills – but they were not long enough and of course were all Whimbrels.  Still spectacular as there were probably 300 or more, but not Long Billed Curlews as hoped for.  Sigh…



Whimbrels in Flight

Whimbrel Flock Flight Shot

I should have returned to Eide Road but in my disappointment I forgot about the other peeps and returned home.  Those other peeps were Semipalmated Sandpipers – my first of the year.  I had noted that they were about the same size as the Western Sandpipers and had dark legs.  They seemed paler and more nondescript and  with a straighter shorter bill.  One of my pictures was good enough to confirm the ID but barely that.  The fact that Semipalmated Sandpipers were found there later by another birder supports the ID as well.

It has been a great week – hey it’s May!!  Lots of good birds and especially good times with good folks. Fifteen new Washington species for the year.  I will be heading up to Victoria B.C. tomorrow hoping finally to get a photo of a Skylark – May is a good time for them as well.  I have my fingers crossed!

Postscript – it is now July and I checked my records for May.  The total number of species seen was 199 just about average for me over the past 6 years.

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