What is a FOY you might ask. It is birder shorthand. Just as a “Lifer” is a new species seen for the first time in your life in some specific area like the World, ABA, State or County, a FOY is a First of Year observation of some species in a similar geographic area. So for example, when I observed a Barred Owl in Yost Park near my home in Edmonds, Washington on January 1st this year it was a FOY for my 2019 Snohomish County, State of Washington, ABA Area and World lists. If I were to travel to Louisiana later that week and see another Barred Owl, it would only be a FOY for that state for 2019 since the one seen in Washington covered all of those other bases and I had seen one in Louisiana last year so not even a “State Lifer”. On the other hand, if that observation had been in Idaho, it would be both a FOY for Idaho for 2019 and a “State Lifer” in Idaho, since I had never observed one there before.
Got all that? Don’t worry if not, as it is just the intro as a foundation for sharing some details and photos from a great birding trip good buddy Jon Houghton and I had to Kittitas County in Eastern Washington on March 19th when we went looking for FOY’s and found LOTS – and had a really fun time. I had already birded Kittitas County once before this year with Frank Caruso and Deb Essman in January (See part of https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/21523) so I had seen some species there that Jon had not, but since early migration is already underway, there was also the promise or hope for some recent arrivals that would be new for both of us in addition to some others that we had just not seen as yet although they were around.
It was a picture perfect day weather wise. Projected to get into the 60’s in Eastern Washington with clear skies and no wind – a rarity where we were going. There was still tons of snow at Snoqualmie Pass so no newly arrived Rufous Hummingbirds at the “hummingbird feeder house”. It was around 32 degrees there but the temperature dropped to a very chilly 25 degrees as we arrived at our first stop, the bridge over the Cle Elum River on Bullfrog Road. We were looking for American Dippers – a FOY for Jon but not for me as I had seen them with Frank at the Teanaway River Bridge on that earlier aforementioned trip. Jon looked East and I looked West and Jon found them, a pair working the shallows. A good start – especially since I have missed Dippers there on some recent visits.
Next we went to Wood Duck Road just a bit further north and had exceptional birding while our hands and feet nearly froze. Lots of singing Cassin’s Finches, Pygmy and Red Breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, Mountain Chickadees, Varied Thrushes and most importantly at least 5 Western Bluebirds, a FOY for both of us and the main target here. Patting myself on the back, I was particularly pleased as we first knew they were present when I recognized their calls – something I am not very good at. This time it worked. Not a great photo, but a satisfying one.
Western Bluebird – FOY for both of us in 2019
I am not going to include each place we birded – just focusing on the highlights. At the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, we again had good birding. Nothing new for me, but Jon picked up both Tree and Violet Green Swallows as more new for the year species, FOYs. We also had a fun experience where we saw three Chickadee species in the same tree, Chestnut Backed, Black Capped and Mountain. We also had all three Nuthatch species and a large flock of calling Red Crossbills (another FOY for Jon). The Chestnut Backed Chickadee is really beautiful and I really like this picture.
Chestnut Backed Chickadee
Violet Green Swallow
Nothing new on the Ponds themselves, but it is a good place for waterfowl in the County. We had half a dozen duck species as well as Canada Goose and Trumpeter Swan.
So I had one FOY and Jon was already at 5, but this is a collaboration and not a competition so we could both celebrate with a stop at the Cle Elum Bakery. Yum… Then it was on to visit Deb Essman in Ellensburg but since I had seen an Ebird report from Hank Heiberg that he had seen some Evening Grosbeaks on Red Bridge Road, we headed there first. About a half mile from the map spot on his report I heard some chatter that I thought might be our target and we pulled over to search. There were Evening Grosbeaks but they were playing hide and seek high up in the conifers. We had poor visuals and no photo ops so backtracked and went up Highway 970 looking for a better view. They still teased us and the photo below of a bland female or juvenile is the best I could come up with. But a FOY for both of us.
Evening Grosbeak – FOY for both of us in 2019
Unfortunately Deb could not join us for some more birding, but it is always fun to visit with her and Bill. The Great Horned Owl that has often been roosting in their front yard was not at home but Deb thought it likely that there would be an owl on its nest a bit further down Brick Mill Road where there had been one last year as well. She was right and Jon and I each had another FOY.
Great Horned Owl on Nest – FOY for both of us in 2019
We continued on to the Sage/Shrub Steppe habitat along Vantage Highway. We hoped for several new species – ones that we have seen there before even earlier in years past, but we wondered about the impact of all of the snow. Our targets were Say’s Phoebe, Sagebrush Sparrow, Mountain Bluebird, Rock and Canyon Wrens and Sage Thrasher. There had been multiple sightings of the Phoebe in the county but only single reports of the next three, a few reports for Canyon Wren and none for the Sage Thrasher. At the Western end of the good area there was still lots of snow. By the time we got to them – on Recreation Road, a much drier area anyhow, there was none. Before we got into the prime birding territory we had one of those great finds that are always possible when out in nature – a large herd of Elk on the top of a nearby ridge – over 100 magnificent animals.
Shortly after the elk herd, a flash of electric blue gave us our first success as we found one and then two more Mountain Bluebirds. Not as close as we often see them but no mistaking these birds – FOY’s for both of us.
Mountain Bluebird – FOY for both of us in 2019
Further along Jon noticed some birds scampering on the ground in the sage. We got only a brief look at the first one – good enough to identify it as an American Pipit – uncommon in this location. About 50 yards away and closer to us we found several Horned Larks. Jon and I had each seen hundreds or maybe thousands earlier in the month on separate trips to the Waterville Plateau but they like this habitat as well. We coaxed one in for a great photo op. Easy to see how it gets its name.
The real prize was coming up. We stopped at “the corrals” – often a good spot for all of our target species but with much more snow than I had ever seen there. No Phoebe and no Bluebirds but I could hear a melodic song that was either a Sage Thrasher or a Sagebrush Sparrow. Listening closer, it was too short for the Thrasher – had to be our Sparrow, but where was it? Jon spied it perched atop some sage maybe 50 yards away. A little playback got it moving – first to the left and then the right and then closer and closer still. The sun was directly behind me and shining on the bird – great photo ops during its brief poses and continued singing. This is one of my favorite sparrows especially since I finally found and got photos of a Bell Sparrow in Southern California after the two were split from Sage Sparrow into two separate species.
Sagebrush Sparrow – FOY for both of us in 2019
Bell’s Sparrow for Comparison – Black Canyon Road, Ramona, CA – March 2, 2018 [Note the plain back. Sagebrush Sparrow has a streaked back.]
We searched diligently and in vain for a Sage Thrasher – just not in yet we guess. [I had one on Durr Road a week earlier last year.] We continued on to Recreation Road where we found a Say’s Phoebe chasing a Rock Wren. Each were FOY’s for both of us, but terrible and distant looks and we hoped for better. At the end of the road near the boat ramp we certainly got better for the Say’s Phoebe. Fly catching from obvious perches and continuously calling, it put on quite a show and posed conveniently.
We were disappointed not to find a Rock Wren here because this is one of the best places for them. Jon was even more disappointed that we could not find a Canyon Wren as one had been reported here earlier. He made up for it by finding some Lesser Scaup and a Redhead among the many ducks on the Columbia River – two more FOY’s for him. Our best hope for the two wrens was south on Huntzinger Road south of Wanapum Dam. It is a favorite stop of mine when I have led trips in the area, but it does not always come through. This time it did – in spades.
As we pulled over to try the little canyon for the wrens, Jon called out (loudly and excitedly) that a falcon was flying by fast on the opposite side of the road. We got decent looks as it flew away and could identify it as a Prairie Falcon – a FOY for Jon. If we had not seen it, we would have looked for the one on Road No. 81 back in Kittitas where Frank Caruso and I had super looks earlier in the year with Deb Essman. No need now. And it was a precursor to more success. I spied a Rock Wren on my first scan of the Canyon. It was distant but eventually at least came into the open for a good look and an ID photo.
Rock Wren – a FOY for Both of Us
We used playback to try to draw it closer but had zero success. But I did hear the descending musical scale song of a Canyon Wren far up on the cliffs to our right – at least 250 yards away. I was able to spot it with my binoculars as it moved from one rock face to another. Then Jon was able to do the same and we again heard it sing – unmistakable. Would it come closer if we played its song or call note? I started with the “jeet” call note and it responded in kind and moved a bit. I played its song, and that was all it took. It moved again and again and again and eventually was just below us maybe 40 feet away. It had moved over an eighth of a mile to protect its turf from an intruder. A tiny little bird with a big song and an even bigger bravado.
Canyon Wren – A FOY for Jon
That was our last target and find for the day – an extraordinary day. We had not tried to maximize species counts and could certainly have added another 10 or so if we had, but we still ended the day with 65 species including 7 new ones for me and 16 for Jon. We both agreed it was about as successful a trip and efficient a trip for finding multiple targets as we could remember. I should have taken more photos to share it, but it was also a beautiful day with valleys, and rivers and mountains and cliffs. I will never get tired of saying – we live in a gorgeous state. Nice birds, too, and more FOY’s to come.
Mount Rainier from Eastern Washington