Here in Washington, we are so fortunate to live in a beautiful state with diverse habitats where birding opportunities are everywhere and the birds are plentiful and varied. As February came to a close, I had recently returned from the trip to the Okanogan area which was the subject of my previous blog post. Earlier, in addition to my birding in New Mexico and Hawaii as part of my 50/50/50 Project, I had done some birding in Whatcom County, north of my “home territory” and to Clark County to the South. I had spent one day in Kittitas County to the East and a single day to Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties on the Coast. I love the travel and even the long drives, but there were a lot of great birding opportunities closer to home and I have been able to get out with friends in the last two weeks to partake.
The first adventure was a visit to a residential area in Anacortes in Skagit County where a Northern Mockingbird had been reported for a couple of days. A few are seen each year in the state but are very uncommon and are always a good State Bird. Ann Marie Wood joined me and we easily found the location but at first not the bird. We walked around for a few minutes and then returned to the spot where it had most often been reported. Ann Marie spied the bird on a stone wall under a hedge and then we watched as it flew first to a small bush in the yard and then to a small tree right next to us. It was a brilliant beautiful sunny day and in addition to our Northern Mockingbird, the tree was full of bright red berries. Who could pass up that photo?
Northern Mockingbird (FOY) – Anacortes, WA – February 28, 2019
Two days later Frank Caruso and I headed to an off the beaten path spot in Pierce County where an excellent local birder, Heather Voboril, had found some Mountain Quail near her home. This species is resident in the state but can be very difficult to find – especially since they no longer are coming to “Quail Mary’s” feeder in Belfair. If found it would be Frank’s first in Washington. Heather provided excellent directions to a very hard to find place. Even with Frank’s great ears we were having no luck hearing the Quail’s distinctive “querk” call in the clear cut. We back-tracked and tried a different path off to the right and I was pretty sure I was hearing a distant assembly call – a whistled “tu-tu-tu”. Frank had heard it, too, of course but having never heard it before, he did not know what it was. We then did hear the tell-tale “querk” calls of at least two birds. There was no doubt of the identification but especially for a new state bird, a visual was really hoped for. Others who had visited the location had primarily only vocal ID’s or a brief view in flight as one was flushed.
I played the assembly call on one of my apps and a couple of querks and then we crossed our fingers and hoped. There were now more querks and assembly calls – getting closer and closer still. I was pretty sure that at least one Quail was near to and behind a log that was across some brush ahead of us. There was no real trail and a lot of brush and mud. I got as close to the log as I could (maybe 40 feet) and heard something scraping on the other side and then another querk call. I thought I had a brief glimpse of a Mountain Quail moving towards the left end and top of the log. Would it actually come up on top to survey for what it might have felt was competition from our call and pose for a photo? Dream on. Instead it came to near the top for the briefest of seconds and then flew off. We definitely had our visual and I raised my camera and pointed it the direction of flight without even trying to get the bird in the view finder. A rapid fire of 7 shots produced one that had a little brown blur. Presenting the world’s worst photo of a Mountain Quail in flight.
Mountain Quail (FOY) – Pierce County – March 2, 2019
Not perfect but a new year bird for me and a new State bird for Frank and a lot of fun. A couple of days later, I was able to visit a private yard for another fun adventure and another new bird for the year – another successful chase. I am not yet allowed to share the details – but I like teasing so I mention it here for that purpose only – maybe more in the future sometime. Smiles….
The most important chase began a couple days later. After a few email exchanges I had coffee with a lovely woman. It was followed by more messages, a couple of phone calls and then a dinner a few days later. When coffee goes on for more than two hours and the dinner for more than four hours – a good sign. Enough for now but if all goes well, I hope there will be details and shared stories in future blogs. Bigger smiles…
Back to the birds. After yet another snow fall – thankfully only a dusting and a quick melting, a week without being out, some new birds being reported, and some new birds arriving as Spring really was arriving evidenced in part with the much welcomed arrival of Daylight Saving Time, I headed north to familiar birding spots in Skagit County. On the way back from our Mockingbird visit in Anacortes, Ann Marie and I had failed to find the American Bittern at the North Fork Access area. I would try there again and I also wanted to drive Dry Slough Road and vicinity where a Gyrfalcon had been seen a couple of times including by Frank on a recent Pilchuck Audubon trip.
Having set the time ahead for DST, my early start was an hour later by the clock, but I was on Dry Slough Road by 9:00 a.m. and it was one of those spectacular days with crystal clear blue skies, lots of sun, no wind and lots of snow on the mountains. Dry Slough Road is just off a busy road and at least on this morning there were no other cars. I inched along studying every tree, field, bush and building. I was looking for the Gyr and whatever else may be around. It was so gorgeous and peaceful frankly no birds were needed to make the day.
Mt. Baker on a Gorgeous Day
Just as I approached the intersection with Polson Road, a large falcon flew past in the distance. Was this the Gyrfalcon? At moments like this with a good bird in flight, there is a challenge. Get a good look in the binoculars or go right to the camera. Often there is not time for both. Since I was in the car and any photo would have been through the window, I chose the bins and unfortunately confirmed by size, coloration and facial pattern that it was “only” a Peregrine Falcon. It is never ok to complain about seeing this species, but when you are hoping for a Gyr, it was at least momentarily disappointing. That disappointment was removed (almost completely) when on a wire up ahead I saw two small birds perched with a silhouette that said – not Starlings and maybe “Swallows“. There were two Tree Swallows – my first of the year. They were among the new arrivals that had been reported the previous day or two and I had hoped to find some but had expected them elsewhere. Works for me…
Tree Swallow (FOY) – Dry Slough Road – Mt. Vernon – March 10, 2019
Dry Slough Road ends with a curve/turn to the east and becomes Skagit City Road. Less than a quarter mile from that curve I saw two more birds on a wire – larger than the Swallows and less than 20 feet apart. They were American Kestrels. They are common in the area but I cannot remember ever seeing two so close together before. I include the mostly out of focus photo that I took only because of that uniqueness through the window just before they flew off .
Two American Kestrels
I turned onto Skagit City Road just as my phone rang. I expected maybe a report from someone else in the field that they had something special – maybe the Gyrfalcon. It says a lot that I can acknowledge this, but the call was even better. It was from the aforementioned lovely lady that I have begun seeing. There being no one on the road, I pulled over and we had one of those special talks early in a relationship that promises more and sets a firmer foundation for that. Maybe it was the good karma from the call or maybe the two Kestrels had been an omen, but about 20 minutes into the call (it was a good talk), a VERY large falcon zoomed across the road from left to right about 100 to 150 yards in front of me being chased initially by a Bald Eagle.
The best I could do was shout “Hold on. Hold on.” to my caller and lift my binoculars for a quick view – again through the car window. The bird was in view for no more than 3 or 4 seconds and unfortunately did not perch in distant trees to the southeast and disappeared. My comments in my Ebird report were “Larger than Peregrine with slower wing beat. On Skagit City Road about .15 mile west of turn to right off Dry Slough. Bin view as it flew 150 yards in front of stopped car. Weak facial marks. Gray juvenile.” A picture would have confirmed it but I was 95% sure it was the Gyrfalcon. Later I met some other birders who had been on Moore Road about 20 minutes earlier and had a similar quick glance at what they thought was the Gyrfalcon which flew northeast – essentially in line to my position.
Had it perched I would have ended the call and chased on. Since it did not – now with a second reason to be happy with the call, I returned to it and shared the experience. I am happy to give credit to a pair of Kestrels or a pretty lady – just pleased to have gotten even a glimpse of the Gyrfalcon. I continued down Skagit City Road and turned onto Polson Road. Maybe the Gyr would reappear. It did not. I don’t know if it preys on Snow Geese. There was a giant flock of them available. I certainly did not count but even with a crude estimating approach of counting groups of 100, I believe there were far more than 5000 in the group – brilliant white in the bright sunshine. There were also many photographers and casual observers enjoying the spectacle.
Snow Geese – Just Part of the Huge Gathering
More importantly for my listing though were at least two and probably several more American Pipits seen through my scope in one of the many furrowed fields. I have found them in the area many times, usually distant like these and often after they have given their “pip-it” call before landing. Looking directly into the sun, I had first thought they were yet more Blackbirds or Starlings. Fortunately not.
I carried on to the North Access of the Skagit Wildlife Management Area at the end of Rawlins Road to look yet again for the American Bittern. There was another very large flock of Snow Geese and there were many photographers already there as well as folks out for a walk including a guy with his dog up on the dike. On such a gorgeous day, you had to be happy that so many folks were out enjoying it, but it almost assuredly meant no Bittern. I did look. Not found.
Now it was off to Wylie Slough. I could see swallows flitting about as soon as I arrived. Having already had the FOY Tree Swallows earlier, I expected they were more of the same but hoped for a Violet Green in the mix. Just Trees. There were 8 duck species in addition to American Coots and a Pied Billed Grebe but nothing really noteworthy except perhaps for yet another observation of one of the Black Phoebes that has been there seemingly forever. I would think Ebird would no longer treat it as a rarity but it does. The water was too high for any shorebirds and I failed to find either a Virginia Rail or a Sora. It was nice to get a photo of a Bewick’s Wren right after also seeing a Marsh Wren. The best part of the visit though was a chat with an “old-timer” (which means even older than me) local in the duck blind. He visits there often and had good stories including the bad news that apparently a Harbor Seal had gotten into the area and had taken both fish and birds as meals. DFW is trying to get it out.
Time to head south. I made an essentially birdless stop at Eide Road in Stanwood and then went to Olsen Road/360th trying one more spot for an American Bittern. A wooden bridge crosses the slough/river just west of Pioneer Highway. David Poortinga had found a Bittern there and Ann Marie Wood had seen it later as well. There being no traffic, I parked on the bridge and looked without success and then parked west of the bridge and walked back. When I got to the exact spot on the bridge where I had just been a few moments earlier, a large brown-backed bird flushed and flew away from me. Click-click-click I got a few pictures of it in flight and then a distant photo in classic Bittern pose when it landed. Not great photos but finally an American Bittern!!
American Bittern Flight (FOY) – 360th and Pioneer Highway – Stanwood – March 10, 2019
American Bittern Classic Pose
I drove around Norman Road looking for specialty sparrows without success and then headed home. It had been a great day and as pretty a day as you could hope for. Thousands of Snow Geese, hundreds of Swans, thousands of Mallards, and 4 FOYS: Gyrfalcon, Tree Swallow, American Pipit and American Bittern. With the two Kestrels together (and more later) and the Peregrine, it had been a three Falcon day which is always nice. Oh yeah, and one very nice phone call.
Jon Houghton was recently back from a wonderful Seattle Audubon trip to Colombia. He was not able to join me the previous day but he was eager to catch up on some local birding and I was eager to hear about the trip so we went out on Monday and retraced some of my earlier visits to Skagit and Snohomish County at spots related above. We started at the “Wooden Bittern Bridge” – this time parking to the east of the slough. As soon as we walked onto the bridge, the Bittern flew away as it had when I had been there the afternoon before. We got good looks in flight only. So Jon had a FOY within maybe 5 seconds.
Lots of Mew Gulls, a few Ring Billed Gulls and many larus hybrids/Glaucous Winged Gulls were in the fields along 360th and Norman Road. We heard a couple of Killdeer and paralleling my experience from the previous day, they would be our only shorebirds. The previous day I had seen Mallards everywhere and very few American Wigeon. Over the course of this day we would still see many Mallards although just a fraction of what I had seen. This day, starting along Norman Road, we did see many flocks of Wigeons – probably more than 1000 all told and among them were at least three Eurasian Wigeons.
Wigeons – American and Eurasian – and Mallards – Pioneer Highway
Eide Road was again pretty quiet – no owls at all and no shorebirds. We had a great encounter with a photo friendly Northern Harrier – one of many seen this day.
Northern Harrier – Eide Road
We continued North and carefully but unsuccessfully searched for the Gyrfalcon along Dry Slough and Skagit City Roads. Lots of Swans and Snow Geese. We had a peekaboo view of the Barn Owl in the nest box on Moore Road where further along we also found a birder/photographer who thought he had seen the Gyrfalcon but it had flown off. No luck for us. Unlike the previous day with lots of sun and no wind, today was cold and a continuous wind made it even colder. Maybe as a result when we got to Wylie Slough, there were no Tree Swallows and very few other birds. An accipiter was perched in a tree just as we arrived. We think it is most likely a female Sharp Shinned Hawk but we debated it as maybe a male Cooper’s . [I have since heard from Ryan Merrill that it is a Cooper’s Hawk…good enough for me, so I have changed the species on Ebird and here as well.]
Cooper’s Hawk – Wylie Slough
We continued on to the North Fork Access. Again a big flock of Snow Geese but this time there was nobody else there. As we got up onto the dike, an American Bittern flew off and when it landed instead of doing its freeze pose, it ran for maybe 30 feet on the ground and disappeared in the reeds. Neither of us had ever seen a Bittern run before. I have not checked my records but I know have seen more than one American Bittern in a day before but I believe only at a single location like Ewing Marsh. This may have been a first with Bitterns at two different locations.
Jon had not seen the Northern Mockingbird in Anacortes so we decided to try for that. I had seen a report from the “King of Skagit County”, aka Gary Bletsch, with several Purple Finches at a spot on Padilla Heights – just off Highway 20 and on the way to Anacortes. Neither of us had seen a Purple Finch for the year so we brought up the map and headed to the spot. Just as we were about to turn onto what we thought was the road to take us there, I spied a large bird flying ahead of us with a familiar dihedral wing pattern. Sure enough it was a completely surprising Turkey Vulture. There had been a single report of one not far away in Anacortes two weeks ago, but it had not been on my radar screen so to speak at all. It was a First of Year species for both of us in Washington.
Turkey Vulture FOY – Reservation Road off Highway 20 – March 11, 2019
Through a combination of a little inexact reporting by Gary and our maybe wacky GPS, we arrived at an industrial site on Padilla Heights Road that had to be wrong. Gary’s report had numerous finches and sparrows and waterfowl. We found some Eurasian Collared Doves and some Starlings and that was about it. But we soldiered on and found THE spot – the feeders at “Anacortes Wild Bird and Telescope”. Among the species seen were House, Golden Crowned, White Crowned and Song Sparrows, lots of Dark Eyed Juncos, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird and both House Finch and Purple Finch. One very purple/red Purple Finch was in the open for potentially great photos several times but always flew off just before I got on it and I could only get shots with branches in the way and it out of focus accordingly.
Purple Finch – FOY – Padilla Heights March 11, 2019
Now off to the Mockingbird Stakeout. A photographer with a GIANT lens was there when we arrived and it looked like he was focusing on a bird. The bad news is that he was not, but the good news is that he had seen the Mockingbird 10 or 15 minutes earlier. We walked the area and did not find our target. We returned with our photographer friend at the same spot – birdless – and cold. His wife had dropped him off earlier and gone shopping. She had returned and was waiting in their warm car. This seemed like a good idea, so Jon and I got in is car – his very nice new Subaru Forester – and turned on the heat. After 15 minutes Jon was ready to leave. I said let’s give it another 5. Three minutes later Mr. Photographer signaled that he had the Northern Mockingbird. From nowhere and not seen by us, it had flown into its favorite perch. At first it was buried but sufficiently visible for Jon to have a new FOY. It eventually worked its way into the open and we all got nice photos. I tried to convince the photographer to trade lenses with me as his was obviously very heavy and mine much lighter. Somehow he was just not interested in my <$2000 100-400 mm zoom and preferred his 600 mm with extender which retails for only about $11,000. Oh well…
Mission accomplished with a Turkey Vulture and Purple Finch bonus. Anacortes had been good to us. We headed north to the Samish Flats area and found no owls at either the East or West 90’s but had several beautiful Rough Legged Hawks.
Rough Legged Hawks
Jon had not seen a Merlin yet this year and had never had a Kouign Amann (stay tuned), so we headed to Edison. A Merlin has hung around Edison for a number of years now, but I had not seen it there this year despite several visits. Jon must have been the good luck charm as we found it fairly quickly on a distant fir tree. It flew right overhead but I had no view. Jon got a good look before it disappeared – so a good FOY for him. Then it was off to the Breadfarm in “downtown” Edison. The Breadfarm ranks up there with the Komoda Store in Makawao, Maui as my two favorite birding bakeries. Everything is fabulous but my favorite is the Kouign Amann. I won’t even try to describe it. It is one of the pastries in the photo below. You will just have to get one yourself. At $4.00 each, they are not inexpensive, but I would pay more – a true delight.
To celebrate our day, we bought the four remaining Kouign Amanns. One for Jon and his spouse Kathleen. One for me and one as a surprise for the woman that I have begun to see – if nothing else as a thank you for helping with the Gyrfalcon.
We left the Breadfarm and took one more swing through the area to look for the Merlin again. This time we were much luckier and found it quickly – perched in the open begging us to take a photo. How could we refuse?
Merlin – Edison – March 11, 2019
And on that note, we called it a day. No Pipits and no Gyrfalcon, but lots of goodies. The Turkey Vulture and Purple Finch were new for both of us and Jon had also added the Northern Mockingbird, American Bittern and Merlin to his year list. And of course the Kouign Amann was new also. And on that subject, somehow Jon and I were strong enough not to eat them until we got home. I was able to make a special delivery of one to my new lady friend and told her it was kind of a test as there was clearly something wrong with anyone who did not find them wonderful. She passed easily – as she has on all others.
Mostly off topic, she and I both passed some other tests (not really the best word, but I haven’t found a better one yet) last night. We saw the movie Free Solo at the Majestic Bay Theater in Ballard. It is a brilliant documentary of the first ever free climb – solo – of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park – done by Alex Honnold. There are breath taking scenes and truly breath holding scary moments when certain death is just a misstep or slip away. There were many times when something in the film reminded me of birding adventures and the dogged and focused pursuit of our lists and chases and beautiful birds – without the fear of death of course. And I did identify at least one bird in the film – a White Throated Swift that flew off the rock face he was climbing – yikes!! Fortunately we passed the test of dealing with perilous heights (at least the incredible cinematography of same) and loved the film. We passed another test as well … nicely…
Alex Honnold – Free Solo – Ascent of El Capitan – Beautiful and Unbelievable