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.
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
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.
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
Common Yellowthroat Male and Female with Insects
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
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)
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.
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.