Finally Another Ptarmigan in Washington

Ptarmigan are grouse with feathers covering their toes and are found in the mountains or cold northern regions.  Three species are found in North America: Rock Ptarmigan, Willow Ptarmigan and White Tailed Ptarmigan, with the latter being the only one found in Washington.  Although not an endangered species, the general consensus in Washington, is that their numbers are declining.  My experience and that of birding friends would agree as we have found it more and more difficult to find this high elevation species.

My first White Tailed Ptarmigans were seen in my mountain hiking and climbing days in the early 1970’s.  I recorded my first one at Sunrise at Mount Rainier in July 1972.   We did not think of them as uncommon then.  I did not keep further records after that first sighting but recall that several were seen when I climbed Mount Rainier starting from Paradise in 1974 and on other climbs there and at Mount Baker.  I started keeping detailed records again only in 2012 and saw one on the Mount Fremont trail out of Sunrise in October 2013 when I got my first photo of this species. Two were seen at Artist Point on Mount Baker in July 2014 and then despite several attempts to find another one one in Washington in 2015 through 2017 – none.  Others I know had a similar experience.

White Tailed Ptarmigan October 23, 2013 – my First Photo


However, on my great “Chickens” trip in Colorado with High Lonesome Tours in April 2016, our group observed two at Loveland Pass.  Like many birds, all species of Ptarmigan have distinctly different plumage in winter and summer.  For the Ptarmigan this is a matter of survival via camouflage.  In the winter, they live in areas completely covered by snow while in the summer the snow has melted and their territory is Alpine meadows and rocky fields.  Our Colorado birds were almost pure white, making them almost impossible to see by us and by their predator enemies.  Their only color was the black of their eyes, beaks and toes and a rarely seen swash of red over their eyes.

White Tailed Ptarmigan – Loveland Pass, Colorado – April 9 2016

White Tailed Ptarmigan 7

That was the only other White Tailed Ptarmigan I have seen – until today – finally.  Birding friend Jon Houghton has been travelling much of this year, and now back from yet another trip to Alaska, he let it be known he was game for some birding in Washington.  I saw a report on Ebird that a mother White Tailed Ptarmigan and some chicks had been seen on the Sunrise Rim trail at Mount Rainier.  Jon is an avid hiker and I knew he would want to see a White Tailed Ptarmigan, so it was a perfect opportunity to see him and maybe see a much sought after bird.

I am in better shape than I have been in for some time, but I am not mountain hiking tested at altitude.  This would be a moderately arduous hike and I was curious how I would do.  Of course, I wanted to see the White Tailed Ptarmigan but no matter what, at this time of year Mount Rainier is spectacular and it would be a great visit.  We left Edmonds a bit after 6:10 a.m. and with lighter than expected traffic and after a few stops we arrived at Sunrise at Mount Rainier three hours later.  It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not too hot – perfect conditions.

Mount Rainier – in Spectacular Weather

Mt Rainier

The picnic area closest to Sunrise was quite birdy, with lots of Pine Siskins, Cassin’s Finches, Hummingbirds, Mountain Chickadees, some Chipping Sparrows, Dark Eyed Juncoes and a spectacular Mountain Bluebird.  We also heard the “Quick three beers” call of an Olive Sided Flycatcher.  But as we left that area and started our steep climb on the trail that leads to Frozen Lake and then splits to go to both the Fremont Lookout and Burroughs Mountain, the birds disappeared.  The sun was out and the sky was brilliant.  At a couple of open areas, the wind blew and it was quite chilly, but with the exertion of the hike, we both removed layers and we could not have asked for better weather – or better views – or better wildflowers.





Finally we got to Frozen Lake and headed up to First Burroughs – a very steep climb.  We made several rest stops along the way – scanning the meadows and rocks hoping for a Ptarmigan but no luck.   When we made it to the large meadow at the top of First Burroughs, we decided to head back to Sunrise on the Sunrise Rim trail rather than to continue on up to Second Burroughs, another steep hike.  This was the area where we thought the Ptarmigan had been reported earlier, but the details were a bit hazy.  I moved a bit ahead as Jon was much more thorough scanning the hillsides.  Maybe a quarter of a mile down from the junction with The Burrough’s Mountain Trail I saw a movement on the trail maybe 25 feet ahead.  Thank goodness for that movement because otherwise, even though they were right in front of me, I might have missed them as they were perfectly camouflaged.  I yelled for Jon who hustled down to see what the ruckus was.

There they were just off the trail – our prize – a mother White Tailed Ptarmigan and her chicks.  All the huffing and puffing on the climb was immediately forgotten.  We gave each other high fives and watched the mother and babies – grabbing photos with our phones and cameras as best we could.  Other hikers came by and we showed them these rare birds of the Alpine tundra.  Even as non-birders they were captivated.

Mother White Tailed Ptarmigan

White Tailed Ptarmigan Hen2

These birds are very tame – not caring at all about people.  I think their camouflage gives them comfort and security.  The chicks were scurrying about – sometimes right next to mom but often as much as 50 or more feet away.  We counted 5 for sure and think there my have been 6.  Either way, this was as many White Tailed Ptarmigans as either of us had seen in total in our lives previously.

White Tailed Ptarmigan Hen with Chick – Well Camouflaged Indeed

White Tailed Ptarmigan Hen with Chick

We watched for quite awhile and then continued down the trail.  It is much easier on the lungs and heart going down, but much harder on the feet and legs as the trail is both steep and slick with small pebbles and loose dirt.  We had to be careful not to fall.  Until almost to the end of the trail, there were no more birds, but the scenery and flowers were magnificent.

View of Mountain Pond and Mt. Tahoma


Mount Rainier and Mount Tahoma

Mount Rainier

Mixed Wildflowers

Mixed Wildflowers

After lunch at Shadow Lake, we returned to the trail.  Just over a half mile from Sunrise, Jon heard booming from a Sooty Grouse and called me over.  It sounded like it was close.  But as we moved in for a possible look, it sounded just a bit further off.  This continued for at least a hundred yards and finally we found a small copse of trees that “had to have our grouse”.  But try as we might we could not find it as the booming continued, now quite loud.  Finally Jon spied it hidden in the branches almost at the top of the tree – at least 40 feet up.  You have to look real hard, but you can make out the bill, head and chest in the poor photo below.

Sooty Grouse

Sooty Grouse in Tree'

At least we got a photo.  While we tried to zero in on the Sooty Grouse I heard the “teu, teu, teu” call of a Pine Grosbeak. I got a brief view as it flew off – larger than the finches and dark red but I never saw the bill.

We made it back to the parking area exhausted but happy.  The Ptarmigan was the prize and the Sooty Grouse was new for the year for Jon and the Pine Grosbeak was new for both of us.  A most excellent day.

And just for the record and because they are so spectacular, here are the other two Ptarmigan species in North America – both seen in Nome Alaska in June 2016.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan 2

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan 2

These birds are in their summer plumages.  In winter they too are solid white – invisible on the snow fields they live in then.



Duck, Duck, Goose

I got a fun video of my grandson from my daughter this morning.  He is almost 5 months old now and I can’t wait to see him again when I visit Boston for Thanksgiving.  Although my daughter is great at sending photos and videos, I wish I could be there to see each little developmental step.  They seem to happen every day.  I look forward to reading to him and to playing with him as he grows up.  Seeing the video today brought to mind some of the games kids play – or at least used to before cell phones and video games.  Being a birder, the old game of “Duck, Duck, Goose” was one that came to mind.  When I checked my memory of the rules on the internet, I was surprised to find that there is a Netflix  Animated Film of that name.  I can’t say I loved the 2 minute trailer and sure could not tie it to the children’s game.

The game itself, a version of “tag – you’re it” is quite simple:  the players (5 or more sit in a circle) facing in except for “the Goose” who walks around the circle tapping one and then another on the head and pronouncing each to be a “Duck” until he or she taps one and calls out “Goose”.  The tappee chases the tapper around the circle and tries to catch and tag him or her before he or she can sit down and take the tappee’s place.  This continues until everyone gets bored and loses interest.  Come on, admit it, you played it once and thought it was fun back then.

I was in the mood to write something today, and again being a bird nerd type, a “Duck, Duck, Goose” blog post came to mind  – three sets each of two ducks and a goose.  The first set of three are two of the rarer duck species I have seen in Washington and the rarest goose species.  The second set excludes those and is of species that I find the most beautiful and includes a goose species I have not seen in Washington State.  The final set is my dream set, the two duck species and the one goose species that I would most love to see in the ABA Area and hopefully in Washington State someday.

The “Rarities”

Tufted Duck  –  I have seen at least one Tufted Duck in Washington every year since 2012 except for 2017.  I have seen both King and Common Eiders in Washington and both are rarer than the Tufted Duck, but in each case the visitor was a drab female and the photos not real striking.  Many years ago, in 1983, I also saw the much rarer Steller’s Eider that was seen at Point Wilson.  I wasn’t taking photos back then – hope another one comes to the state someday and I see it with my camera ready.  The photo below is from the Sewage Treatment Ponds at Neah Bay in 2016.  We also found a female Tufted Duck there at the same time.  Tufted Ducks are common – even abundant in Europe.

Tufted Duck – Neah Bay, November 21, 2016


Falcated Duck – This was one of the prize birds in Washington in 2017 – a mega rarity.  It was found by Rick Klawitter in among many hundred Wigeon on Padilla Bay on January 15th.  Many of us made the trek to look for it the next day.  It was very hard to pick it out with so many Wigeon – at least 500 plus, but we finally found it and I was even able to get a distant photo.  It is a mega rarity anywhere in the ABA Area.  It is a bird of Siberia and East Asia.  I believe this was the fourth Washington record.

Falcated Duck – January 16, 2017 – Padilla Bay 


Emperor Goose – The Emperor Goose is another quite rare bird.  One is seen in Washington most years and I have seen one in the State in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016.  My first observation was on the golf course in Ocean Shores where it hung out with a Greater White Fronted Goose for two months in 2012.  The others were all seen around Sequim.  It is breeds in Siberia and Western Alaska.

Emperor Goose – Ocean Shores Golf Course – January 1, 2012

Emperor Goose

“Three Beauties”

Wood Duck – It is not uncommon but it is sure gorgeous.  It would be hard to rank the Wood Duck below any other for sheer beauty.  I have more than 80 observations in Washington and have also seen them in California, Oregon, Wisconsin and British Columbia.  Earlier this year, I met an avid birder from Columbia birding at Juanita Bay Park.  It was her first visit to Washington and her main quest was to get a photo of a Wood Duck.

Wood Duck – Juanita Bay Park – April 2015

Wood Duck Head

Common Eider – After returning from a chase to find the Common Eider at the Purdy Spit in January in 2017, a non-birding friend asked why it was such a big deal and I told her it was only the second one I had seen in Washington, the first being at Westport on October 28, 2012, the double rarity day as there was also a Northern Wheatear a few hundred yards away.  She couldn’t understand then why it is called a “Common” Eider.  It is in the other places I have seen them – Alaska, Maine and Massachusetts, but certainly not in Washington.  There may be some other duck species I have seen that are equally beautiful, with the Hooded Merganser definitely ranking high for example, but I chose this one because I have seen them (drab females only) in Washington and because I think they are very distinctive and beautiful.  I might have gone with the King Eider – also seen in Washington – but my photos are only of the once again drab females.

Common Eider Nome June 6, 2016

Common Eiders (2)

Pink Footed Goose – This was a tough choice mostly because I have not seen that many goose species in Washington and did not want to pick the abundant Snow Goose, Brant, Canada Goose or Cackling Goose even though they are all fine looking birds.  And the much rarer Ross’s Goose just doesn’t do it for me.  The proportions are all wrong.  I decided to go with the Pink Footed Goose with its pink feet and rusty head and neck.  I could not find any Washington records for this species but I have seen it in two places the first at Artichoke Reservoir in Massachusetts in November 2016 and the second in Victoria, B.C. in March 2017.  They breed in Greenland and Iceland but migrate to Northwestern Europe for the Winter.

Pink Footed Goose –  Victoria, B.C.  Blekinsop Lohbrunner Road March 10, 2017

Pink Footed Geese

The Dream List

Smew – Anyone who knows me well as a birder knows that at the very top of my bucket list is seeing a male Smew.  One appeared in Washington on the Columbia River in the winter of 1991 and again in 1992.  That was my down time for birding so I missed it.  They are mega-rarities in the ABA area with most being seen in the Western Aleutians.  They are found primarily in Northern Europe and Asia.  This is the ONLY bird that I will drop everything and go chase if a male shows up in North America again.  I have my fingers crossed.  It is a small merganser and although only black and white, to me is a simply gorgeous bird.



Baikal Teal There were numerous observations of a Baikal Teal from December 2004 to April 2005 in South King County.  Unfortunately I was not one of the observers.  It has to have one of the most unique facial patterns of any duck.  It is most often seen in Alaska although there was a 2013 record from Montana.  There is always a concern whether birds seen in the U.S. are escapees since they are found in many collections.  I found a report on Ebird from Stephan Lorenz – a guide who I was with on a Colorado “Chickens Tour” with High Lonesome in 2016 – of 50 of these ducks in Japan.   I was there at the wrong time of year – I wish I had seen one – but of course I really wish another one shows up in Washington or at least nearby.

Baikal Teal 

Baikal Teal

Bar Headed Goose –  There are no records of this species in Washington and it is a mega-rarity if it ever shows up anywhere in the U.S.  It is fairly common in India and elsewhere in Asia.  I saw a small flock on my trip to India in 2011.  Pretty simple and straightforward except for those bars on the head.  Maybe someday.

Bar Headed Goose – Bharatpur, India January 2011

Bar-headed Goose 2

This blog post is probably as far afield as any I have done.  As I said at the outset, I just felt like writing – probably since I did not get out birding today – the mid July blahs.  Hopefully some good shorebirds will start showing up.  I need to get out there.


Another Tuesday, Another Pilchuck Audubon Trip

It happens almost every Tuesday morning.  Led by Virginia Clark, 10 to 20 Snohomish County birders head off on a birding trip.  Usually to spots in Snohomish or Skagit Counties, but sometimes as far afield as Island or Whatcom counties.  It is as much a social occasion as a field trip as most of the participants are there for every trip and know each other well.  Virginia is amazing.  I swear she knows every nook and cranny of those counties, or at least the ones which have birds.  She has been doing this for many years and is very good at it – an excellent birder, an excellent leader and, with a touch all her own, an excellent baker.  She brings dozens of scrumptious cookies and other baked goods to every trip.  They are not for the calorie conscious.

Pilchuck Audubon

I have not been able to join the group as often as I would like or probably should, but I enjoy the experience every time I do.  The birders range from ok beginners to seasoned experts.  It is always great to have many eyes looking for the birds and ears listening for their calls.  And always good to share stories – and most of them are usually true – most.  Unlike most of my birding, there are rarely targets.  The goal is to see what is there and to enjoy being out.  Often there are really great finds and sometimes rarities in the area are chased if they are within the area planned for the trip.

On Tuesday, July 10th the gang visited several locations east of Sedro Woolley on State Highway 20 in Skagit County and ending at the Oso Loop Road in Snohomish County.  Altogether 17 birders in 5 cars.  There were plenty of cookies to go around.  I could throw in bits and pieces about personalities, interactions and so forth, but I am not into gossip, so I will stick to the birds.

Our first stop was at the Hansen Creek Restoration Project.  Like many of the stops on these trips, it was not familiar to me.  Generally, especially since I am not a “County Lister” except incidentally, that means that there had not been a new year or state bird there to chase.  A neat spot even though mid-July is not the birdiest of times.  Two highlights:  a pair of American Bitterns seen at distance in flight three times and at least one Virginia Rail at first heard only and then seen in a quick flight.  My photo of the American Bittern was a just miss – almost a good photo and would have been if I were more skilled.

American Bittern in Flight

American Bittern Flicght

We had 21 species at the first stop and then continued east on Highway 20 to Rasar State Park – another place I had not birded before.  A very pleasant place.  I bet it is real birdy in late May or early June, but not so much this day.  Nine species.  Nothing special but hearing Black Throated Gray Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes and Pacific Wrens was fun.  Hard not to appreciate the song of the Swainson’s Thrushes – and we heard them throughout the day – probably a hundred individuals.

In a field off Cape Horn Road in Concrete we added some Lazuli Buntings and several Vaux’s Swifts mixed in with numerous swallows.  It looked like a perfect day for Black Swifts with low clouds, but despite vigilant searching, none were found.  Someday I will figure out how to get a really good picture of a Vaux’s Swift.  As the photo below shows, this was not to be the day.

Lazuli Bunting

Lazuli Bunting

Vaux’s Swift

Vaux's Swift

Further east we stopped at Martin Road, yet another place that was new to me.  We added another 9 species for the day (now closing in on 50) with the best probably being an immature Red Breasted Sapsucker.  I really enjoyed a pair of Common Yellowthroats actively catching insects and being very territorial.  No doubt there was a nest in the area.

Red Breasted Sapsucker Juvenile

Red Breasted Sapsucker Juvenile

Common Yellowthroat Male and Female with Insects

Common Yellowthroat Male2   Common Yellowthroat Female1

Earlier we had seen a number of birds with insects – seemingly a higher percentage than usual.  Maybe this is related to nesting activity with adults feeding young.  A favorite shot this day was of a Red Winged Blackbird with a mouthful.

Red Winged Blackbird

Reed Winged Blackbird

We went to nearby Howard Miller Steelhead State Park for a bathroom break – not to bird – but it was here that we had one of the true highlights of the trip.  One of the birders, Joyce Hershberger, found a raptor nest in the park.  We could hear young birds and thought they might be Cooper’s Hawks.  We located the nest and through the branches could see an adult and three young birds.  They were not Cooper’s Hawks nor Peregrine Falcons as I had wrongly concluded (my only mistake in at least 20 minutes).  We had a family of Merlins.  Finally one came into the open for a photo and then we watched what may have been the first flight – 20 feet to an adjacent tree – of one of the young.  Very fun indeed.  None of us had seen a nest of Merlins before.



At the Marblemount boat launch we picked up a couple more species but birding was slow.  We then headed to Bacon Creek Road.  This had not been on the original itinerary, but an Alder Flycatcher, very rare for the state, had been seen there regularly for the past two weeks and Virginia obliged by adding the stop.  Sherrill Miller and Frank Caruso had seen it at the spot a week ago and I had seen it there on June 26.  It had been very cooperative both posing and singing.  The location was very accessible.  As soon as we arrived and parked, we saw a small gray bird flying in the area where the Flycatcher had hung out previously.  We thought we had our target.  But the bird was not seen again and despite thorough coverage and lots of playback, no luck.  It had been so easy to find previously that we doubted it was still around.  The first bird we had seen could just as easily been a Willow Flycatcher, but we did not hear that call either.  This was the only downer for the trip.

Alder Flycatcher (My Photo from June 26)

Alder Flycatcher1

Fortunately the trip ended on a much better note.  We made a last stop on the Oso Loop road in Snohomish County.  The group had seen an American Redstart there last year and it is back in 2018.  They are uncommon in Washington and very much so in Snohomish County.  The bird had been seen regularly at a very specific spot for over a month.  The troop assembled and waited.  Not heard and not seen.  Then playback was used and unlike the experiences that those who had seen it here already this year had previously, the bird did not fly in and respond. Uh-oh.  There is usually a range of views on the use of playback in any group.  Some are very unhappy when it is used at all, others when it is used a second time after a bird had responded.  Admitting a photographer’s bias, I am much further on the other end of the spectrum and don’t hesitate to use it to bring birds to me and others when for example I lead field trips – although I try to limit it if there is obvious concern for the safety of bringing the bird into the open or significantly disturbing nesting/mating activity.

With Virginia a co-conspirator with her wink, I made the executive decision to move a little closer to what I knew to be the bird’s favorite perching spot and played its song twice – zing – in it came and perched in the open right in front of us just feet away.  It is a beautiful bird and there were lots of oohs and aahs. The photos show why.

American Redstart

American Redstart Vertical

American Redstart next to Fungus.jpg

We also saw at least three Spotted Sandpipers as we crossed the river to get from the parking to the Redstart spot.  For the day between 55 and 60 species were seen – although not everyone saw everything.  The weather was good and the company was great.  There were great highlights and great cookies.  This group is just one of many birding groups in the state – formal and informal.  There are lots and lots of birds and lots and lots of birders in Washington.  I really enjoy all of the former – and most – even almost all of the latter.



Black and Blue

On my Facebook page on July 5th, I posted an accounting of the numbers of birds on my ABA Life list that had colors in their names.  The total was 152 species with “Black” being the color that came up the most with 41 species.  I incorrectly had “Blue” with a surprisingly low 9 species.  Rechecking, I find that there are actually 15 “Blue” species as I had cross referenced an alphabetical list only.  Thus 158 of my ABA birds have a color in their name  – about 22 percent.  Too many “Black” birds to include them all in a blog post, but “Blue” is manageable.  Here they are with some comments on each.  They are in alphabetical order with the exception of the Black Throated Blue Warbler which I have saved for last as a segue to some very personal reflections.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

The Blue Grosbeak is a relatively common breeder throughout the Southern U.S.  My first observation was in Maryland in 1975.  It would be 42 years before seeing another one – on the Dry Tortugas in Florida in April 2017.  Later that year I saw several in Arizona and in New Mexico and this year, others were seen in Texas and North Carolina.  This photo is from Zapata County Texas on April 11, 2018.  Its large bill helps separate this species from Indigo Buntings which are often found in similar field margin habitats.  The solid blue of each make the birds jump out, but I find them both kind of plain – but not nearly as plain as the Blue Grosbeak female which is a very dull light brown.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay (2)

Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals may well be the best known birds of the Eastern U.S.  A corvid, it is raucous, gregarious, and easily identified.  It is common in urban and suburban areas as well as in forests – primarily at forest edges – so long as there are oak trees around.  I am sure my first Blue Jay was seen as a young child in Maryland way before I was keeping lists.  Since then I have seen them on dozens of occasions listing them in 9 states.  They make annual appearances in Washington – more often in the most eastern and southeastern parts of the State.

My Washington “lifer” was a heard only bird in Ephrata in December 2012.   Wanting a better observation, I chased a bird that had been seen at Lyons Ferry State Park in October 2013 during my (first) Washington Big Year.  It is one of my favorite stories.  Palouse Falls is just shy of 8 miles north of Lyons Ferry.  I had never seen the Falls which seem to come out of nowhere in dry country.  I also needed a rest stop so I made a brief detour.  I snapped a few photos of the Falls and then entered the restroom – neither the best nor worst of many such facilities I have visited in our state parks.  When I got out, the Blue Jay was perched on the roof of the restroom.  Sometimes you just get lucky!!

Palouse Falls (on a winter trip in December 2015)

Palouse Falls

The photo above is of the Blue Jay that was a regular visitor and treat for many birders at “Barry’s Farm” on Bow Hill Road in Skagit County beginning in December 2017 and continuing for many months into 2018.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher


I first saw this fairly drab little bird in San Jose California in 1973 just as I was starting to bird “seriously”.  Although this photo from San Diego in January 2017 emphasizes the “Blue” in “Blue Gray”, I think that was probably at least helped a bit by Photoshop.  Usually these birds are substantially more gray than blue.  They breed throughout much of the U.S. except Washington, Montana and the upper Plains.  In the past few years they have been found regularly in the Neah Bay area in November and December – why not – it’s Neah Bay where anything is possible.  I saw my first Washington one there in November 2015.  I have seen them in Washington several times since and in 7 other states.  Some of my most frustrating birding was trying to get a photo of a very similar California Gnatcatcher last December.  It seemed that every time I thought I had one in the open, it turned out to be another Blue Gray Gnatcatcher.  Finally at the San Elijo Lagoon, I succeeded.

Blue Headed Vireo

Blue-Headed Vireo

Another Eastern species, the Blue Headed Vireo joins the Black Capped Vireo as my favorite Vireos.   Granted I have only seen 13 Vireo species in the ABA area, but I think both of these are quite sharp.  Somewhat like the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, the “Blue” head often appears more “Gray”.  This photo is from my Maine trip in June 2015 – taken at Schoodic Point.  It is the bluest head I have seen.  As with many eastern species, I saw my first one in Maryland in 1975.  Others have been seen in New Hampshire, Florida and earlier this year in Texas.



This Bluethroat was one of the specialty targets in Nome in June 2016.  If you want to see one in the ABA Area, you have to go to northern Alaska.  We found it singing on the Kougarok Road.  In the same area, in addition to lots of mosquitoes, we also found Arctic Warblers – the other targeted breeding species in the area – found only there.  I was very happy to have the observation and get the photo, but I wish we had been a bit closer as it is truly a striking bird.

Blue Throated Hummingbird

Blue Throated Hummingbird 3

I had seen my first Blue Throated Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch in Arizona in June 1977 and had not been back to the area since then.  On a Wings Birding Tour, I returned in August 2017 hoping to get photos of many of the specialty birds I had seen but not photographed on that first visit.  This was one.  Obviously I got the photo, but it was one of the major disappointments of the trip.  We had seen one the day before and I got a crappy photo in tough light.  Our trip leader said not to worry as we would see many of them the next day at the Southwest Research Station feeders in Cave Creek Canyon.  We made our first stop at a place that had gifts in the Canyon and then went to the Research Station.  The group dawdled getting to the feeders as the leader “carried on and on” about butterflies and dragonflies and other non-bird stuff.  I went on my own down to the feeders where some Blue Throated Hummers were active.  I had no sooner gotten the photo shown here, when the call came out that we were behind schedule and had to leave. WTF!!??  A much better photo would have easily been possible – but… Not a happy moment!!!

Blue Winged Teal

Blue Winged Teal.1jpg

To me this is a very inaptly named bird.  Yes there is blue in its wing, but there is also blue in the wing of the Cinnamon Teal.  The obvious field mark for the male though is the purplish blue head and the very distinct white crescent at the base of the bill.  But there is “Blue” in its name so it is included here.  It is found throughout the U.S. and Canada except in the Great Basin – breeding in the north and in migration elsewhere.  I first noted one in California in San Jose in May 1973 and have dozens of observations in Washington, most recently in May this year.  The photo is from Wiley Slough in Skagit County in May 2016.

Blue Winged Warbler

Blue Winged Warbler

Here we go again.  Yes this warbler does have some blue (well sort of) in its wing, but to me the wing is mostly gray.  There is also some blue in its tail, but overwhelmingly this is a bright yellow warbler.  It is closely related to and hybridizes with the Golden Winged Warbler which at least has lots of noticeable gold (well, yellow gold) in its wing.  This photo was taken on South Padre Island on April 8th this year.  It was one of my sought after target photos as I had seen one in 1978 on High Island but had no photo.  It is found only in the Eastern U.S. and is taking over more and more areas that were formerly more Golden Winged territory.  I think the species was first specified by noted ornithologist Alexander Wilson (See my earlier blog post on bird names).  Naming this species after him would thus be appropriate but there is already an even yellower Wilson’s Warbler.  I guess Gray Winged Warbler just doesn’t cut it.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

The Eastern Bluebird is another of the iconic Eastern birds that I first noted in Maryland in May 1975. I expect that I had probably seen one earlier in my non-birding youth.  This photo is from Scarborough Maine in June 2015.  Since then, I have seen them in Florida, Texas, Arizona and most recently in North Carolina.  In Arizona both Eastern and Western Bluebirds are found with the former only in the extreme southeast as with the one I saw in Huachuca Canyon in 2017.  Note the rusty orange throat.  If this were a Western Bluebird the throat would be blue.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron (2).jpg

This bird often appears more gray than blue although in good light, the blue is definitely there and such is not the case with the very similar Gray Heron found in Eurasia and Africa.  Many non-birders misidentify the Great Blue (or “GBH” in birder shorthand) as a crane.  They are found throughout most of the U.S. and are quite common and very noticeable.  Amazing hunters, I have watched one stand perfectly still for 20 minutes until its prey – a small fish – came to just the right spot and then is snatched with a lightning strike.  I have also watched a Great Blue catch a huge fish in a pond and take 10 minutes to position it perfectly to be able to swallow it whole.  It seemed impossible that it could do so.

This is by far the most common large wader in Washington – seen throughout the year and throughout the State.  I noted my first one in Maryland in 1972 and have seen them in 10 states.  800 of my Ebird reports include this species.

Like its cousin, the Little Blue Heron which comes up next in this post, there is a white morph of the Great Blue Heron – well maybe not for long.  There has been a long debate over whether this morph is actually a separate species – a Great White Heron.  Supposedly the AOU and ABA are soon going to recognize it as such … supposedly.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

As just noted above this species also has a white morph – not a speck of blue.  It is much rarer than the blue morph although we saw more white morphs than blue in Texas this April.  It is mostly found in the Southeast U.S. where it is a resident and up the Eastern Coast where it is primarily a non-resident breeder.  It is also fairly common in coastal California.  It is almost unheard of in Washington – almost.  Two friends saw a white morph appear out of nowhere at Wiley Slough in September 2014.  There is only one other record accepted in the State.  My first observation was at Palo Alto Baylands Park in 1973 and I have also seen them in Texas, Maine, Florida and North Carolina.  The photo is from Maine in 2015.  It is about 60% of the size of a Great Blue Heron.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird Darrington

I think a better name for this bird would be Electric Blue Bird because the color is an electrifying and dazzling blue – and oh yeah, at least where I generally see it, it is not in the mountains.  It is found only in the Western U.S. all the way into Alaska.  To be fair, where it is a resident, it usually is in or next to mountainous areas.  I have seen it only in Washington (many, many times), twice in Colorado and once in California.  My first observation was in the Wenas area in 1975.  The complete absence of orange/rust makes it an easy ID compared to Western Bluebirds although they nest in the same area – at least in Washington.  As simple as its coloration is, I find it a very beautiful bird.

Red Flanked Bluetail


I wrote up the chase for this bird in an earlier blog post.  I had seen one in miserable rainy conditions in British Columbia in January 2013.  The one shown here is from January 2017 in Lewiston Idaho just across the Snake River from Clarkston, Washington.  I sure wish it would have ventured a bit further west so I could have it as a State record.  In some countries it is also called an Orange Flanked Bush Robin.  There is definitely bright blue in its tail, so it deserves to be in this group.  It is probably a chat taxonomically.  It is a mega-rarity in the ABA area, being an “Old World” species found primarily in Asia but expanding westward.

Western Bluebird

Western Bluebird

As with a number of other western species, I saw my first Western Bluebird in San Jose in 1973.  Other observations have been in California, Colorado and Washington.  This photo is from Spokane, Washington in May 2012 and clearly shows the blue throat compared to the orange throat of an Eastern Bluebird.  It is great fun to drive the sage area along Wenas and Umtanum roads between Ellensburg and Yakima where a concerted effort to place and maintain nesting boxes has made this a “go to” spot for both Mountain and Western Bluebirds.

Black Throated Blue Warbler


Primarily an Eastern Warbler, I first saw a Black Throated Blue Warbler in Maryland in 1975.  Since then I have seen two in Washington with the picture being of the male that visited a feeder in Bothell in late March and early April in 2015.  Later that year I saw several on breeding grounds in Maine and then a female at Gog Le Hi Te Mitigated Wetlands in Tacoma in November.  I have also seen them in Florida in April 2017 in migration.  These warblers winter primarily in Cuba and Hispaniola and are common and doing well.  It is always dangerous to make a list of “most beautiful birds” but this one definitely has its appeal.

Why Did I Write This – a VERY Personal Disclosure and Reflection

Per the introductory paragraph to this post, I saved the Black Throated Blue Warbler for last to be a segue to some personal non-birding reflections.  There have been bits of personal reflection in some of my previous posts and two in particular were very deeply about them – and not about birds at all.  The reality is that all of the posts have had personal connections – not just because they are my personal experiences with people, places and birds I write about, but also because so often my birding has been an “escape” or “distraction” from other matters – personal issues, emotional challenges, feelings that could be avoided – for awhile at least – if birding occupied my time and my mind.  Much good has come from this, but also eventually the piper has to be paid and most things have to be dealt with.

I chose to save the Black Throated Blue Warbler for last simply because it is both “black” and “blue”.  Generally “black and blue” is a reference to the color of bruises on the skin from a fight or injury that turn black … and … blue.  Although it has not been a physical fight and there have been no physical injuries and thus no visible bruises, I have had a very tough week as a personal relationship that I thought was going to great places had a crashing and unexpected fall – and as it did, it felt like the aftermath of a fight or the suffering that accompanies a physical injury.  Yes it was worse because of the timing and some of the details of the end, but mostly it was the sudden emptiness that was so devastating.  There had been so many hopes and even plans for much in the future and they were all gone.  A while ago I had even posted a picture on Facebook with the comment – “even better than birding”.  I foresaw a future that would not be without birds but would include so much else with a special person, that indeed it would be much better than birding.

Then suddenly there seemingly was no such future at all and even birds and birding had lost their appeal.  I removed the photo and the post.  There had been no fight, so why did I feel like I had been through one?  There had been no physical battle, so no outward bruises, but there were some on the inside and like the ones on the outside in a physical fight, they turned Black and Blue.

Black?  Is black the absence of all color or the presence of all color?  In this case it felt like a complete absence – no light – just darkness.  In my pain, I had fallen – let myself fall – into a deep and dark abyss.

Blue?  When someone says they are blue, they are saying they are sad – depressed.  Unquestionably I was very sad – quite depressed in actuality if not clinically.

I was experiencing both black and blue.  Then it got worse.  The morning after my crash and burn, a neighbor in my complex died suddenly.  It was a heart attack.  His wife was away visiting relatives.  He was alone.  There was nobody there to help him and had it not been for a sister worried about unreturned calls, who knows how long it might have been before anyone even knew he was gone.   He was very fit, not that old, didn’t smoke.  We worked out at the same gym.  How could this have happened?  And if it could happen to him. it could happen — to me.  I, too, am alone.  Having just lost what I thought was going to be this incredible future, this death brought home another aspect of loneliness.  Not just the absence of positives, but the presence of negatives as well – the possibility of dying unrescued being just one.

There was now more black and more blue.  The bruises were hurting.  It was getting worse … and then it wasn’t…  The sudden death of my neighbor reminded me that there are no guarantees in life.  There is no guarantee that the birds we chase will be found.  There is no guarantee that the relationships we are in or that we seek will be as planned, as hoped for, or even continue at all.  There is no guarantee even of a tomorrow.  So I started thinking not of tomorrow, but of today.  A bit less black, a bit less blue.

I had gone to private mode on Ebird – my observations no longer cataloged for anyone else to see – no longer on year or month or life lists.  What did they matter?!  Nothing had seemed to matter to me, so I took down what had previously at least superficially mattered the most.  I disappeared.  Some friends noticed.  That helped.  A little less blue, a bit less black.

What is the most important thing in a relationship?  There are many things when if missing, doom the relationship. Any list of “most important” would have to include “TRUST” and “BELIEF”.  I learned she had done something that was understandable, but the way in which it was done was not.  It challenged my perspective on who she was either at the core or at least under some of the pressing external matters that were there.  Most importantly it also challenged “TRUST”.   Which words that had been said, feelings expressed, or even physical expressions had been real?  How could I ever know which ones in the future were?  And this is where there has to be “BELIEF” – any lasting relationship has to have a shared “BELIEF”.  If that is there then something that seems out of character can be re-examined, hopefully discussed and hopefully resolved.  “BELIEF” gets one past unintentional negative and “BELIEF” returns each person  to “TRUST”.  “BELIEF” was being deeply challenged as well, perhaps fatally.  I could hold on to “BELIEF” – did she?

That disappointing discovery came after the words from my friends, the immediacy of my neighbor’s death and the result of beginning to focus on today.  What was left undone when my neighbor died?  What goals unachieved?  What places not visited?  What words had he intended to say to others – later – that were never said because there was no later?  What thank yous unsaid?  What love unexpressed?  We will never know.

But I knew I had some – some of all of those things not yet done, words not yet said.  I could not do them or say them all on that day of sudden awareness, but I could start.  And to start I had to leave the black and the blue – or maybe better said, I had to see them differently.  I thought of the Black Throated Blue Warbler – such a beautiful bird.

Black was not the absence of color, it was its own vivid expression and a marker against which the blue and the white could be appreciated.  The blue was bold and bright.  There is no sadness in this bird.  When it sings on its territory in the spring, it stands out and declares – “Look at me, hear my song.  Come to me.  I am beautiful.  Be with me.  I have purpose.  I have meaning.  I will repeat this today and for every tomorrow that I am allowed to have.  I am alive!!”

No the sadness is not gone.  To seemingly be mistaken about and lose so much is hard.  Some distraction will still be necessary.  It appeared that I had lost what I had valued as better than the best bird I had ever known.  There are other birds and other people – maybe there will never again be a “best” but there are others that are wonderful.  Writing this blog reminds me of that and that each has its beauty and meaning both actually and by analogy to all else in my life. The next chase has begun and I will get better at it and will succeed.  This is a start.