A New Year – Washington Birding in January 2019

[All of my blog posts share experiences that have meaning to me.  This one probably more than most is also more “for me” as it is how I am keeping track of  my birding in Washington in January this year.  So maybe a little more than usual of a recitation of “and then I and then I and then I…” Probably too much so, but it does cover a lot of ground and there was not time to go deeper.]

Although it seems like it in the middle of the year when I am chasing a bird somewhere to reach a goal, most years start off with no specific plan.  Last year was different only in that there had been a number of rare birds that were seen in late December in Washington and were still around on January 1st, so I began the year with the idea of seeing them again early.  As that proved successful and I added more birds, the idea of a Big Month came to mind and that became the goal for January 2018.  Parts of that were chronicled in several blog posts culminating in a review of the month and its 208 species in https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/20159.

This year will be different as I will be traveling much of the year hoping to finish my 50/50/50 project and I still have 26 states to go.  Most of the prime migration season – mid-April through Mid-May and into June will find me out of Washington.  I was able to bird a lot in Washington before my trip to New Mexico earlier this month (chronicled in two blog posts) and squeezed in a fun day in Eastern Washington with Frank Caruso and Deb Essman after New Mexico and before chasing the Dusky Thrush in British Columbia.     I hope to get up to the Okanogan in February when I get back from Hawaii, but after that – who knows.  This post shares some photos and experiences from January in Washington – stockpiling a few birds before my absence later.

Week One

I started the new year with a visit to Yost Park in Edmonds just down the street from my home.  At least one Barred Owl was calling but hard as I tried I could not locate it.  I also visited some other Edmonds hotspots before heading north to Eide Road and the Wiley Slough.  I was able to get a distant photo of the continuing Black Phoebe at Wiley and had a brief visual of the Northern Waterthrush that also remains in the little pond near the boat launch before a boorish trespassing photographer flushed all birds in the area.  I was not a happy camper.

Black Phoebe

skagit black phoebe

On Allen Road near Bow, there was a giant flock of Dunlin sitting in a field.  All hell broke loose when both a Merlin and a Peregrine Falcon attacked the flock at the same time.  My poor photo captured the silhouette of the latter only.

Dunlin at Rest


Peregrine Attacking Dunlin

peregrine chasing dunlin

At the East 90’s there were multiple Northern Harriers and Short Eared Owls and only a few Bald Eagles.

Northern Harrier

northern harrier

Short Eared Owl


The next day I stayed close to home first visiting Jon Houghton who had a pair of White Throated Sparrows coming to his feeder and then looking for the Harris’s Sparrow that Frank Caruso had found near the Edmonds Marsh.  I got photos of the former but only a brief look at the latter as it flushed as I approached – thinking it was closer to Jon and Laura Brou who had relocated it.

White Throated Sparrow

white throated sparrow2

A couple of days later I made my annual early winter trip up to Semiahmoo.  Lots of new species but views were limited by damage to the boardwalk that precluded getting closer to the Long Tailed Ducks for example.  A surprise rarity was a Whimbrel that I found in Drayton Harbor sitting on a rock at high tide.


whimbrel on rock1

Another surprise and an indicator of our mild winter was a small flock of Barn Swallows at the Sandy Point tennis courts.

Barn Swallow

barn swallow1

On January 5 I could not locate the Surfbird that had been seen at the Edmonds fishing pier but got nice photos of a Bonaparte’s Gull and a Belted Kingfisher.

Bonaparte’s Gull

bonaparte's gull with fish

Belted Kingfisher

belted kingfisher1

Back at Yost Park, I tried again without success to locate the Barred Owl.  It has always been a good spot for Pileated Woodpeckers.  I played one of their calls and a pair flew in close by.  They never made a sound but posed for a photo.

Pileated Woodpecker

pileated wp

Then I headed north to Tulalip where Maxine Reid had located a Ruddy Turnstone and reported it daily.  I had missed it once but was successful this time as it was close by on a crustacean encrusted log in the marina.  Always a good bird for Washington.

Ruddy Turnstone

ruddy turnstone2

On the way back home, I stopped at Everett Marine Park and was able to get a picture of a Herring Gull – one of almost 100 gulls there.  Earlier in the week I thought I had gone to the wrong place as there were no gulls present.  I had been in the right place, but this time people were there throwing potato chips to the gulls…works every time.

Herring Gull with Its Bold Yellow Eye

herring gull

There was a terrible windstorm on the night of January 5th.  I had planned to bird in the Snoqualmie Valley on the 6th but encountered roads closed and trees down.  I was able to find a couple of skulking Swamp Sparrows and get terrible photos at the Sikes Lake Bridge but I gave up when I encountered yet another closed road and went home.

I ended the week finally getting a very distant scope only view of two Surfbirds at the Edmonds Pier and then seeing the American White Pelican that Josh Adams had found in a large flock of Trumpeter Swans in a field off East Lowell Larimer Road.  It flew off while I was there and disappeared for a couple of days but returned to the same location a few days later.

American White Pelican

white pelican flight

Returning to Eide Road and then Skagit County, I finally found some Western Meadowlarks and Tundra Swans to go with the hundreds of Trumpeters that I had seen.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark.jpg

Tundra Swans

tundra swans

Trumpeter Swans

trumpeter swan

The Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Surfbirds and White Pelican were probably the best birds of that first week.  I had been out for at least part of each day and by week’s end had 122 species in the state.  I had not strayed very far but the weather had been good except for the wind.  A decent week of birding but 23 species and many rarities fewer than the previous year.

Week Two

I started the week visiting a spot in Marysville that is a known location for California Scrubjays.  When I first started birding in Washington, this species was ultra rare in the state.  They became regular in Clark County and have significantly expanded their range.  I saw one incidentally in Port Townsend last December.

California Scrubjay

california scrubjay

Visits to Magnuson Park and Union Bay Natural Area added some expected species and later a visit to a neighborhood feeder with Frank Caruso brought a Townsend’s Warbler.  This is a pretty bird anytime but in the heart of the winter it is an especially welcomed spot of brightness.  We later found a Green Heron at Levee Pond in Pierce County.

Townsend’s Warbler

townsend's warbler1

Green Heron

green heron1

We stopped at Weyerhauser Pond on the way back home and as expected found Redheads (ducks).  This is THE go to place for this handsome species.  Only a handful this visit but I have had over 40 there on other visits.



Our last new species on January 10 was a Lincoln’s Sparrow at Lake Ballinger.  I had one there on the Christmas Bird Count in 2017 and Frank had one there on the 2018 CBC which I missed.  It is one of my favorite sparrows.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

lincoln's sparrow

The next day I birded again in Northern Snohomish County and then on to Deception Pass.  I found but could not get a photo of the Yellow Headed Blackbird on Thomle Road.  I was hoping for a Rock Sandpiper at Rosario Head but instead “only” had fantastic scenery views and 4 Black Oystercatchers.  I had missed this species at Semiahmoo where I usually find several so was pleased with that.  The birds called for the entire hour that I was there.  There was a distant flyby of a pair of Marbled Murrelets but no Ancient Murrelets.

Black Oystercatcher

black oystercatcher2

A gigantic raft of Scaup gathers on the Columbia River visible from Dike Road in Woodland, Washington.  Last year a Tufted Duck was found with the Scaup.  When one was reported there again, I decided to head south, look for it and then continue on to add some birds in Clark County.  I got to Dike Road before 9:00 a.m.  There were thousands of Scaup visible from the road. There was perfect light on them from behind me – and that is the ONLY reason I was able to find the single Tufted Duck in an hour of scanning with my scope.  It could be picked out only because of its all black back as the tuft was minuscule and visible only on two occasions – briefly.  The problem was that the Tufted Duck was buried in the middle of the constantly reforming raft of moving ducks.  I would relocate it with the scope but could never find it with the camera.  The ducks were far away so at best it would have been a poor photo.  Digiscoping would probably have worked.  Birders from Tacoma scoured the same raft the next day and had the same difficulty and brief view of the Tufted Duck.

I headed to Lower River Road to find the Snowy Egret that has hung out there the past two years.  On the way I found my first Great Egrets of the year and also found a Black Phoebe with a MUCH better photo than the one at Wiley Slough.  Both of these species have also been expanding their ranges in Washington in recent years,

Great Egrets

great egrets

Black Phoebe

black phoebe

At Lower River Road, I had far more trouble finding the Snowy Egret than ever before.  I may have spooked it as the first view I had was it in flight with the larger Great Egret as it moved from one end of the lower lake to the trees at the far end of the other.  In the area there were a number of swans, hundreds of Cackling Geese and many Sandhill Cranes. Their hoarse clattering calls accompanied me the entire time I was in the area.

Sandhill Cranes

sandhill cranes

My last stop was at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.  Ridgefield is always good but also always frustrating.  The auto tour loop covers the River S unit but restricts getting out of the car.  The loop is one way and narrow and on this day it was clogged with cars.  I was able to pull over just enough to get a photo of one of the many Wilson’s Snipe that are always seen in a muddy field pretty close to the start of the loop.  I find this the best place in the state to find these shorebirds.

Wilson’s Snipe

wilson's snipe

There were hundreds of both Cackling and Canada Geese, many Sandhill Cranes, 50+ Tundra Swans and many ducks.  I had hopes for two target species that are regular here: Red Shouldered Hawk and White Breasted Nuthatch.  As is often the case my first hint of a Red Shouldered Hawk was hearing its call.  I can usually then find it perched in one of the relatively few trees.  This time I could not.  And I had not sound or visual for the Nuthatch. Missing these species added to the frustration of the traffic jam.  It is of course nice that so many people were enjoying this natural place, but it is easier to bird when I have it selfishly all to my self.  There would, however, be a fantastic reward for suffering all of the traffic.  Once you are on the relatively home stretch to complete the circuit, the road widens and somehow there seems to be less traffic.  I spied a bird posted on one of the Refuge signs.  In perfect light I got my best photo ever of an American Kestrel – one of my best photos ever.

American Kestrel

american kestrel close1

It was straight home from there and no birding the next day.  On the 14th I made another trip to the Edmonds Pier and this time was able to get a good photo of one of the Surfbirds.  Good light really does help.



A Palm Warbler had been seen on the bridge abutment at Eide Road and I had looked for it twice without success.  I tried again and this time there it was feeding on the mesh in bright sunlight.

Palm Warbler

palm warbler1

The Palm Warbler was a great bird for the day and I was happy to get the photo.  A Barn Owl had been roosting in brush by the parking area and with aid from another birder I found it buried deep and difficult to see, but it is visible in the photo.

Barn Owl

barn owl

Short Eared Owls were also being seen there and I went looking.  I found one a long way off walking down next to the rock dike.  Terrible distant photo – time to move on.  As I opened the door to my car another owl flew over me and perched on a pole not more than 60 feet away.  The light was perfect.  I include a lot of photos as they are among the best I Have been able to get.

Short Eared Owl – Eide Road – Up Close and Personal

short eared owl eyes closed short eared owl flight1short eared owl3 short eared owl flight

short eared owl

short eared owl2

It was one of the best hours of birding I have ever had – certainly so with the photos.  The next day would have one of the most disappointing hours.  A very rare Cape May Warbler had been coming to a feeder at a trailer park.  Only a few birders each day were allowed to come to see it.  The earliest I could try was the day after this visit to Eide Road and the day before I would leave for New Mexico.  The group that visited before my Eide Road day was successful and got great photos.  It was a new State bird for all of them as it would be for me.  But the group that visited on this owl rich day had not seen it.  And neither did we. A nice Slate Colored Junco – yes. a beautiful Yellow Rumped Warbler – yes.  And a Cooper’s Hawk – yes.  And maybe the hawk was the reason that the Cape May was no more.  Disappointing.

Cooper’s Hawk

cooper's hawk2

Slate Colored Junco

slate colored junco

Yellow Rumped Warbler

yellow rumped warbler (2)

The month was now half way gone.  The Cape May Warbler would have been the icing on the cake, but it had been a good cake.  The Barn Owl was species 144 for the month.  There had been good chases and good photos.  I had 32 fewer species than in 2018, but that was not the objective this year.  I was ready to head off to New Mexico feeling good.

Closing Out the Month

I returned from New Mexico on January 20th on a birding high from that wonderful trip and wanted to continue that good feeling.  I had not yet gone to the Coast or to Eastern Washington and decided to do the latter.  Frank was game for a trip and good friend Deb Essman could join us in Kittitas County and the weather looked great.  This is one of my favorite areas to bird at any season and it is always a blast to visit with Deb.  We put together a list of targets and headed off early.  Just going to touch the highlights starting with it was really a lot of fun.

We skipped our normal stop in the Spring at Bullfrog Pond, but birded across the way on Wood Duck Road.  We heard the high chattering call of Pygmy Nuthatches and found several together with both White Breasted and Red Breasted Nuthatches in neighboring trees.  We did not find hoped for Mountain Chickadees or Cassin’s Finches.

Pygmy Nuthatch

pygmy nuthatch1

We had some waterfowl and more Pygmy Nuthatches at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds and in a twist on the three Nuthatch find we found three Chickadee species on the road to the Fish Hatchery in a small flock with Golden Crowned Kinglets.  We also had a very early (or carryover) Western Tanager – the identification of the call check carefully and more confidently with Frank’s excellent ears and processor.

Mountain Chickadee

mountain chickadee

We checked in with Deb and told her we would see her after a stop at the Teanaway Bridge looking for American Dippers.  This is as reliable a spot for them as any I know and we were successful in finding an active pair immediately under the structure.

American Dipper

american dipper

Among the treats birding with Deb Essman is that we can travel in her rugged Jeep.  We did not need the extra clearance and traction this time, but the good visibility is a plus as well.  So is the fact that she knows every road, every good birding spot and seemingly every person in the Kittitas Valley.  She started off promising us a Rough Legged Hawk just around the corner from her place.  It was not there.  Instead we had a nice Prairie Falcon – much better for us Western Washington types.  Later we would have two more Prairie Falcons including as photogenic a one as I can remember.  We also had MANY Rough Legged Hawks, Bald Eagles, Red Tailed Hawks. American Kestrels, a flyby Merlin and a Cooper’s Hawk.  Definitely a raptor rich area – almost 100 altogether.

Prairie Falcon

prairie falcon head

prairie falcon flight-r

Rough Legged Hawk

rough legged hawk

Adult Dark Phased Western Red Tailed Hawk

red tailed hawk dark adult western

Juvenile Bald Eagle

immature bald eagle

Cooper’s Hawk

cooper's hawk

We were not able to find Wild Turkeys or Wilson’s Snipe for Frank’s year list but we did find some California Quail and a single Horned Lark.  I cannot remember seeing only a single Horned Lark at this time of years and area as they are usually in flocks often with hundreds of individuals.

California Quail

california quail

Horned Lark

horned lark2

We tried hard for Chukar and Gray Partridge but no luck with those long shots either.  We will have to return and find some later.  It was an excellent day.  Frank was going to spend time with grand kids the next day and I planned a day of catch up since I had not done any since returning from New Mexico.  A call from Steve Pink that night changed plans and led to the successful early morning chase of the Dusky Thrush near Nanaimo, B.C. that was chronicled in an earlier blog post.  https://wp.me/p79yl0-5Bv

There would be no more long trips as I looked forward to Hawaii but I made a few trips to spots in King, Snohomish and Skagit Counties to add a few more birds for the year.  I found what a think is a hybrid American/Eurasian Wigeon on a small pond near a car dealership on Smokey Point Boulevard that Steve Pink had pointed out.  I also found a single Ancient Murrelet when I scoped for an hour at the Samish Island Say Use overlook.  All the birds seen there were quite distant including hundreds of Brant.  A couple days later there were reports of a large flock of Cedar Waxwings at Magnuson Park in Seattle.  I found a couple of Band Tailed Pigeons at a reliable area nearby on the way and was able to locate a small group of Waxwings.  No Bohemians mixed in, but I was happy to get my first Cedar Waxwings of the year in any event.

Cedar Waxwing

cedar waxwing

On Sunday I actually had a “date” and skipped any birding.  So far that looks like a good decision.  We’ll see.  But that meant passing on a chance to chase a rare Tennessee Warbler that had been visiting Ed and Delia Newbold’s yard in South Seattle.  Although it was a long wait for many of the birders who looked for it that day, it was found.  I decided to try on my own on Monday and that was a wise choice as the weather was spectacular and at first I was the only birder there.  The good news was that I had a glimpse of the rarity as soon as I arrived.  The bad news was that I was looking directly into a very bright sun.  Now it is not often that I complain about sun in Seattle in the winter, but this made any photo impossible.  Moving to get a better perspective meant creating a stir and the birds all departed.  Afterwards there were lots of birds off and on including a very photogenic Northern Flicker but no more warblers.

Northern Flicker

northern flicker

I told Jon Houghton that I had seen the warbler and I was going to stay hoping for a reappearance.  He joined me about 35 minutes later and it had not shown up again.  We waited together for another 30 minutes or so and just as I was about to leave a flock of Bushtits flew in – the first I had seen there that morning.  I was blocked from my position, but Jon noticed a “yellowish little guy” had flown in with the Bushtits.  It was the Tennessee Warbler and we got great looks and many photos as it posed on the fence and then bathed in one of the small pools.  I have seen Tennessee Warblers twice in Washington before where they are quite rare – both times near Neah Bay and both times with very poor photos.  This was a very pleasing major improvement.

Tennessee Warbler

tennessee warbler

tennessee warbler fence1

We saw 15 species at this bird rich spot attracted primarily by the bathing/drinking opportunities.  A “bonus” photo was of a Ruby Crowned Kinglet that actually was still long enough for a good picture – something that rarely happens.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet

ruby crowned kinglet

There would be one last mini-trip to end the month.  There is a farm off Neal Road in Fall City that has drawn large mixed flocks of Blackbirds, Cowbirds and Starlings.  Last year there was a Rusty Blackbird in the huge gathering AND there also was a White Wagtail that was chased, seen and photographed (distantly) by many.  The Wagtail did not return this year, but there were recent reports of both a Rusty Blackbird and Brown Headed Cowbirds.  The weather was spring like and I decided to look for both as I had not yet seen either.  I went in the “back way” along Neal Road itself and made a first stop at a pullout just before the single lane when I saw some white birds in a distant field.  They were Trumpeter Swans.  As I got out of my car I glimpsed a woodpecker fly into a tree just overhead.  It turned out to be my first Red Breasted Sapsucker of the year, already confirming that I had made a good decision to take this trip.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

red breasted sapsucker

I continued on to the end of the road where there is a viewpoint back across the river to the farm and to several large cottonwoods that were full of birds.  Unlike my arrival looking for the Tennessee Warbler the light was perfect – behind me providing good scope views of the birds in the trees – hundreds of them – noisy and active.  I immediately picked out many Brown Headed Cowbirds and i much less time than I had any right to expect, found the female Rusty Blackbird among some Brewer’s Blackbirds on one of the upper and back branches.  Without the light behind me and the scope there would have been no way I would have been able to identify the target.  I took some random photos of “birds” in the trees but none showed the Rusty – too many branches in the way and too far away.  If I knew how to digiscope, I think I would have been able to get an ID photo.

Wanting to beat the traffic home, I left the blackbirds and spent a little while looking for the flock of geese that had been reported to have a Greater White Fronted Goose.  I found a flock of about 150 birds approximately evenly split between Cackling Geese and Canada Geese.  I scoped them carefully several times but never found a Greater White Fronted.

Now it really was time to prepare for the Hawaii trip.  Especially with the visit to New Mexico and the dash to Nanaimo, B.C., there had been a lot of biding in January bit nothing like the driven pace that came with the Big Month for January 2018.  I had not been to the Coast at all.  I did not visit Walla Walla and I did not visit the Okanogan.  So instead of the 208 species seen in Washington in January 2018, this year it is only 160 but many many good memories, photos, observations and time spent with friends.  That’s what it is all about.

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