The Coast and a Pelagic – Getting Ready for my Big Trip

It seems like I have been planning this trip forever and now my departure is only 6 days away.  On Monday April 30, I fly to Boston and take a giant step on my 50/50/50 Adventure that will take me to 15 states in 30 days, birding in 13 of them and hopefully adding all of those to the “Completed” column in that 50 species in a day quest.  The logistics have been fun but at times overwhelming:  mileage, hotels, bird lists, companions, flights, hotspots, and then more of all of it over and over again.  There are still a couple of details to attend to, but I am good to go and very excited.  Before sharing my “before I go” Washington birding, here is a peek at my upcoming schedule.

ItineraryAs I have said many times as I have discussed this trip with others, it sure would be nice if there was more than one “May” in the year.  It is the best month for the most species to find and the easiest time to find them in most states.  I am packing so much into this trip because there is only one May each year and I need to make the most of it.  One negative consequence is that I will miss almost all of May in my home State of Washington.  While I gave up on any thoughts of a really big species count for Washington this year because of the May trip east and another trip for half of June in the Mountain States, it was hard to completely break old patterns and habits.  Accordingly I have still targeted a state list of 300 species for Washington in 2019, and that has required some serious scurrying around in late March and April. Trips to Eastern Washington and Semiahmoo in Whatcom County were detailed in previous blog posts.  This one very briefly covers my trip to the Coast and a pelagic trip out of Westport.

A first stop was at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Ponds.  Not raining but very grey.    Among the many swallows were some Vaux’s Swifts, a pleasant addition to my year list.  Other highlights were a lovely Northern Harrier and a flock of at least 700 Greater White Fronted Geese at the adjoining Bowerman Basin NWR.  I would later see thousands of them in long skeins flying overhead in many places.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier2 (2)

At the Westport Jetty and Marina, the only bird of interest was a Common Loon gorgeous in full breeding plumage.  Lots of fisherman on the jetty but no Rockpipers.

Common Loon


After Westport, I got to Bottle Beach in time for a great show – thousands of shorebirds and many birders including a WOS Trip.  I had not seen any Short Billed Dowitchers in 2019.  There were more than a thousand on the mudflats – a great way to get a FOY.

Short Billed Dowitcher

Short Billed Dowitcher

Other species were Black Bellied Plovers, Dunlin and Western Sandpipers, the first time I had seen the latter in numbers.  Returning from the beach, there were some nice warblers in the trees along the path including several Orange Crowned Warblers and my FOY Wilson’s Warbler.  The former posed nicely and the latter played hide and seek.

Shorebird Trio

Shorebird Threesome

Orange Crowned Warbler

Orange Crowned Warbler4

With the tide coming in I headed to the Point Brown Jetty at Ocean Shores, still hoping for some Rockpipers especially a Rock Sandpiper.  But it was no go – too much wave action and no birds at all.  I later found out that Wilson Cady had a Rock Sandpiper there several hours earlier.  If I had skipped Bottle Beach, I may have seen one.  Can’t do everything – sadly.  The tide was not too high for some driving on the open beach and that was my next venture.  A good choice as there were hundreds of birds with eight species of shorebirds including a large flock of Marbled Godwits and lots of Semipalmated Plovers.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit Landing

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

I had waited too long to make a room reservation in Westport for that night – before my pelagic trip the next day, so I ended up staying in Aberdeen.  Not ideal, but workable with an early start.  I made another stop at the Hoquiam STP on the way to the hotel and found nothing new.

Hopes were high for the pelagic trip – not just because it would be my first one for the year – and only then because there had been a cancellation opening up one spot – but because the previous trip had been “EPIC” with 2 Short Tailed and 8 Laysan Albatrosses in addition to the regular fare.  Captain Phil Anderson had sent us an email the day before warning us of a rough crossing of the bar and some high seas, but the trip would be a go.  Lots of good birders were on board and sea conditions aside, the weather looked great with a beautiful sunrise as we headed out.  I won’t go into great detail – just some highlights.



Crossing the bar was indeed no fun but not nearly as bad as I had expected.  There were large ocean swells though that slowed our progress, made good handholds essential, and made viewing even more challenging than usual.  A good omen was an early sighting of a Tufted Puffin – our only one of the trip.  There was also an early Manx Shearwater – but it disappeared quickly.

Tufted Puffin – FOY 

Tufted Puffin2

Lots of Common Murres and Pacific Loons but maybe due to the swells, it seemed really slow.  It seemed to take a bit longer than usual but we finally found some Sooty Shearwaters and a bit later our first Pink Footed Shearwater of the trip.  New for the year but a given for an April pelagic trip.  We had a nice flyby of some Surf Scoters and some excitement with a small flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls with some Phalaropes – both Red Necked and Red.   A single Pomarine Jaeger distant and flying away from us would be the only Jaeger of the trip.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwaer

Pink Footed Shearwater

Pink Footed Shearwater1

Surf Scoters

Surf Scoters (2)

Bonaparte’s Gulls

Bonaparte's Duo

Red Necked Phalaropes

Red Necked Phalaropes

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger1

A Black Footed Albatross made a brief appearance but it continued to be slow.  And there was some bad news.  The fishing boats that Phil had seen on radar earlier all had moved north.  There would be no intersection.  Phil’s deft intersection with a fishing boat on the epic trip had been the key to the good birds then.  Was this going to be an unproductive trip without a fishing boat to follow?  Westport Seabirds always does a great job, and my concerns proved unfounded.  Phil and Chris put out an oil (vegetable? fish?) slick and it drew in the birds and this was aided by chumming with fish “bits”.  It was not a feeding frenzy, but we had a good diversity of birds with the highlight probably being 2 or 3 Laysan Albatrosses.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross Wave

Black Footed Albatross1

Black Footed Albatross Close Up1

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross2

Laysan Albatross (2)

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel Foam

Black Legged Kittiwake

Black Legged Kittiwake1

No Short Tailed Albatross this time and only a single Northern Fulmar.  As we left this stop, we had a single Sabine’s Gull and there would be a few more later.  Numbers were low and although it had not seemed it, I had now seen 13 new birds for the year. (But who’s counting 😉 )  The seas were much more favorable on our return trip and we continued to see some of the birds that we had observed on the way out.  I had been disappointed that I missed a Cassin’s Auklet that a few others had seen earlier but this feeling disappeared when I spied one off the starboard bow.  Lousy photo but another FOY.  A much better photo is of one of the Rhinoceros Auklets that we saw.

Cassin’s Auklet

Cassin's Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet1

There would be one more alcid as well.  Not the hoped for Parakeet Auklet or equally rare Scripp’s Murrelet but a lovely pair of Ancient Murrelets.   I had seen some earlier this year – but at a distance too great for a photo.  They are lovely birds.

Ancient Murrelet

Ancient Murrelet3

It had not been an “epic trip”, but a very good one.  Numbers were fairly low and I definitely missed some photo ops, but it was fun and productive.  I hope to be able to schedule another trip in the Fall after my 50/50/50 trips…but there will still be a bunch of prairie states to bird to finish off that project.  North Dakota in September?  Maybe…

Super spotter Scott Mills – Keeping Track of “Numbers” – Sorry but no photo of the other super spotter Bill Shelmerdine – Many thanks to both and to Phil and Chris.




Going Back East Before Going Back East

On April 28th I leave for a 12 state swing “Back East” as the next step on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I will be gone for almost all of May, and then in June I will be off again.  Since that project/adventure is my birding priority for this year, I knew I would not be able to amass a large number of observations in Washington as I have for each of the last 7 years.  But it would still be nice to at least hit 300 species for the State.  May is a great month for birding – the major reason behind scheduling my trip Back East.  Of course it is a great month in Washington as well – and I will miss it.  Over those past 7 years on average I have added 54 species during the month of May.  A big number to make up especially since I will be gone much of early June as well.

So I have been doing a lot of birding in late March and so far in April trying to get as far along as I can.  Yesterday was another big step in that endeavor as I went Back East as in back to Eastern Washington on a marathon trip through Kittitas, Yakima, Grant and Adams counties chasing some recent observations and looking for new arrivals as migration heats up.  It was one of my best days birding in the State despite yet again not being able to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Over 650 miles in over 16 hours.  Not so many species as I skipped a lot of good habitats but with a lot of luck and some assistance from Paul Baerny who was out birding in much of the same territory, I was able to find 10 new species for the year – FOY’s, and despite a day that started with clouds and rain and even a little snow, I got some of my best pictures ever.  And I had a lot of fun.

With a very early start, I got to the Ellensburg area before it was warmed up enough to get the sagebrush birds going, so I went for a sure thing – the active Osprey nest on Woodhouse Loop just off Canyon Road.  I had not had a chance to look for it on my last trip but knew the pair had returned.  Just as I pulled onto the turnoff, the male flew in with a fish still wiggling in his talons.  A terrible photo in terrible light, but you can see the fish and it was a good start with my first new bird for the year.  As it turned out I saw a total of 11 Ospreys at 8 nest sites during the day.

Osprey – Woodhouse Loop – Ellensburg, WA – Kittitas County


I replenished my coffee and headed to the sagebrush on Durr Road – just off Umptanum Road west and south of Ellensburg.  It was pretty cold and very grey.  A Prairie Falcon sped by as I turned onto Durr Road.  Would this be a good omen? I was not sure if the birds would be active or not, but as soon as I parked, I heard bird song.  However, it was confusing as one song sounded like a Western Meadowlark and another sounded similar but with a lot more going on.  The second was a Vesper Sparrow, common at this location but already seen last week.  My target was a Brewer’s Sparrow.  I had always found them here.  But I heard nothing and saw nothing.  Then just as I got into my car to drive to other spots on Durr Road – hoping to end my Loggerhead Shrike drought, a single little sparrow flew, landed briefly and sang its buzzy little song.

Brewer’s Sparrow – Durr Road – Kittitas County 

Brewer's Sparrow

I drove a few miles looking for a Shrike and saw only a couple of Mountain Bluebirds and Meadowlarks.  I went back down to Umptanum and drove a few miles south with the same goal and had the same experience except this time with Western Bluebirds.  This was the fewest Bluebirds I had ever seen on this road – often thick with both species.  I hope it was just the chilly start to the date and not something more ominous.  Paul Baerny got to Durr Road shortly after I had left and also found it light on birds.  He had not stopped at the first place I had and when I told him I had several Vesper Sparrows there (his target) he returned to that spot and found the same birds I had – including no Loggerhead Shrikes.

Knowing I had to cover a lot of ground, I went to Yakima via I-82 rather than my normal but much slower route through the Yakima River Canyon.  I reached Randall Park where a Blue Jay has been seen regularly for quite a while.  I had never been there before and wondered where to start looking (and hoping).  I was greeted by woodpeckers drumming – two Downy Woodpeckers and two Northern Flickers.  I walked along the creek in the rain leaving my camera in the car since I had forgotten its rain shield.  In a very few minutes I heard the “mobbing call” of the Blue Jay.  I could “count it” but could I find it?  I was helped by its continued calling and then by the sight of a large brown bird flying between two trees along the creek.  It was a Great Horned Owl – explaining the Jay’s call.  I took a pathetic picture of the Jay with my phone and then raced back to the car for the camera figuring I could shield it under my rain jacket.  By the time I got it and returned, the Jay was silent and both birds were gone. Rats (or something like that…).

After another 5 or 10 minutes, I heard a different call from the Blue Jay and was able to find it buried in branches.  Not a great photo – heck – not even a good photo – but unmistakably a Blue Jay.

Blue Jay – Randall Park – Yakima

Blue Jay1

The weather was getting worse if anything and I wanted to go to three different places in three different directions and none were on the way to each other.  Mostly I wanted to find a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  They were a sure thing at Fort Simcoe State Park and would have been a sure thing at Oak Creek but the road up along Oak Creek had been closed and if still closed would require a hike in (and up).  I was sure the woodpeckers would be there but how far would I have to go on foot if closed?  I gambled it might be open (after April 1) and opted for that choice as it was also closer – sort of.  Since as it turned out I would next head to Kerry’s Pond near Sunnyside, either choice would have been about the same.

When I got to Oak Creek, the gate on the road was indeed closed and it was cold and miserable.  I tucked my camera under my rain jacket and headed up hill.  Then it began to snow with the rain.  Not cold enough to stick, but it was a bit eerie and did not help finding birds.  After about a half mile – having passed all the snags close to the road I spied two woodpeckers high up in a bare tree.  Bad light and a lot of distance but it is such a great looking bird that even with those drawbacks and with rain and snow clearly visible – still a nice photo commemoration of the trek – and another new bird for the year.  I took the photo and got back to the car as soon as I could.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's WP in Rain and Snow

There would be a lot of retracing of steps on this journey and now I headed back east heading to Kerry’s Pond where I expected to find Black Necked Stilts.  I could see some Stilts as I drove by the pond and parked.  I had seen this hotspot on many Ebird and BirdYak postings but had never visited it.  I can see why it is a popular and productive place.  I watched 10 or 11 Black Necked Stilts feeding and playing along the edges of the pond with a little bit of aggressive interaction.  I also noted several duck species including a Bufflehead which turned out to be a first for me in Yakima County.  More appealing though was a lovely pair of Redheads – the duck kind.  A gentleman on a small tractor was working the area and had a pair of dogs which came up to me at the fence (electrified) to let me know I should keep out.  (As an aside – with no dogs and if the fence were not electrified entry would have been tempting – but the sun was now out and photos were available from the fence line).  The man came over and we had a nice conversation about the pond, his dogs and his working.  A nice add to the day.

Black Necked Stilts – Kerry’s Pond – Yakima County

2 Stilts

Redheads – Kerry’s Pond – Yakima County

Red Head Couple

Long Billed Curlews were high on my list and some had been seen on Lewandowski Road – my next destination.  Along the way I found my first Swainson’s Hawk of the year.  Deb Essman had one the day before on Brick Mill Road.  I had shared her info about it with Paul and he had found it earlier.  I had planned to stop on way home to see it but now that was not necessary at least for the list.  I would later see another one not far from there.

Swainson’s Hawk – Lewandowski Road – Sunnyside

Swainson's Hawk1

Unfortunately no luck with Curlews on Lewandowski Road although there were miles and miles of grassy fields – great habitat – and I very well might have missed them.  But Paul Baerny came to the rescue.  He had just seen four Long Billed Curlews on the North Frontage Road just east of Silica Ponds along I-5.  My original plan had been to head to Para Ponds next and look for Tricolored Blackbirds.  The combination of REALLY wanting the Curlews and needing gas convinced me to change plans even if it meant more miles.  It could not have worked out better.  Over an hour later, I arrived at the spot Paul had described.  it looked right but with landmarks in sight, I called Paul to confirm – and just as I did, I saw a Long Billed Curlew flying over the field to my left (north).  Then I heard another calling.  Then another.  I walked out into the field and was treated to quite a show of birds singing, feeding and flying.  Six Curlews altogether – all sang at one point and two cooperated coming close and even flying right over me.  Photo ops!!!  Pardon this indulgence as I include many photos – my best of this species ever.

Long Billed Curlews – North Frontage Road – Quincy, WA East of Silica Road

Long Billed Curlew Ground Long Billed Curlew Landing

Long Billed Curlew Flight Wings Down1

Long Billed Curlew long-billed-curlew-flight-wings-up1.jpg

The Curlews were definitely the highlight of the day and were the 7th new species for the year.  There would be more of both.  Now it was back to the original plan – head off to Para Ponds about an hour away if I went through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge which would give me yet another chance to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Again no Shrike and instead of stopping at the ponds – always birdy – I went directly to the grain terminal on McManamon Road further east and overlooking the ponds.  This is where the Tricolored Blackbirds were now being found and that was my target.  When I arrived there were blackbirds everywhere:  Red Winged Blackbirds (a few); Yellow Headed Blackbirds (at first only two but later joined by a flock of more than 40); Brewer’s Blackbirds (dozens) and most importantly Tricolored Blackbirds (many).  A veritable Blackbird Bonanza with some Brown Headed Cowbirds thrown in for good measure.

Now this is not the most natural or picturesque setting and often many of the birds were behind a fence, but the light was good and there were many photo ops including the chance to see the different species next to each other highlighting some of their differences such as in the thinner bill of the Tricolored compared to the Red Winged.  It was also my first time really noticing any Tricolored Blackbird females.  The Tricolored Blackbird was also new for the year.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellowheaded Blackbiird

Tricolored Blackbird – Another FOY and My Best Photo of this Species

Tricolored Blackbird1

Tricolored Blackbird Female

Tricolored Blackbird Female

Tricolored Blackbird with Brewer’s Blackbird

Tricolored and Brewer's Blackbirds

Brown Headed Cowbird

Brown Headed Cowbird

Late Arriving Flock of Yellow Headed Blackbirds

YHBB flock1

It was just a little after 3:15 so lots of birding time was left and I headed North to the Rocky Ford Fish Hatchery.  Many years ago I used to go there flyfishing for trout, now the quarry was a Sora.  I had them there last year and they had been reported frequently this year.  It was about an hour away – without stops.  Just over a mile south of the turnoff onto Trout Lodge Road from Highway 17, however, there was an important although unplanned stop.  As I was speeding along close to 70 mph, somehow I noticed a small blob on a post on the east side of the road (my right).  My brain processed it as a Burrowing Owl – completely unexpected and seemingly too close to the busy highway for it really to be that.  A quick U-Turn and the bird was still there and the bird was indeed a Burrowing Owl – my first for 2019. First I got a photo and them called Paul as I knew he had been looking for one.  He was probably too far west to seriously consider coming, but he thought about it.

Burrowing Owl – Highway 17 just south of Trout Lodge Road

Burrowing Owl Post Horizontal

With an unexpected new bird for the year, I continued on towards Rocky Ford.  About 200 yards in on Trout Lodge Road, it was deja vu all over again.  This time the blob was on some rocks and since I was only going maybe 50 mph, I was positive I had another Burrowing Owl.  Another quick U-Turn and now I saw a second owl which quickly flew off as I approached in the car.  Probably a pair with a nest right behind the rocks somewhere.  More photos and another call to Paul.  He was torn by the certainty that these birds would remain and the probability that since a nest was likely they would be there on a return visit later as well.

Burrowing Owl – Trout Lodge Road

Burrowing Owl1

Not quite, but this almost overtook the Long Billed Curlews as the highlight of the day.  If I could find a Sora, I would have ten new species for the day – even without that darn Loggerhead Shrike.  There were several fishermen at the creek but I did not see any fish being caught.  I remembered this place and catching some nice trout there years ago – and also remembered days with no trout at all.  I was more interested in a Sora and I walked out onto the boardwalk/fishing platform where I had a Sora last year.  A single playback got a response and a quick peek as it ran between some reeds and that was that.  A great topper for a great day!!

I could not have dreamed of 10 new species for the day especially without the Shrike.  I made one last try for it on the way home, driving along Vantage Highway and stopping at the Wind Farm – very quiet with only a Sage Thrasher, some bluebirds, another Vesper Sparrow and another Brewer’s Sparrow.  I was very tired when I got home but very, very pleased with the day.  And very thankful for folks like Paul Baerny in our wonderful community of birders.

Beginners and Beginnings

Do you remember when you first started “birding”?  Not just noticing a bird like an American Robin or a Mallard or Bald Eagle, but started really paying attention and trying to figure out what was s going on and what you were seeing that wasn’t one of those widely known birds.  Do you remember how challenging it was to not just see a bird but to figure out first what type of bird it was and then progressing, making lots of mistakes along the way, to what species it was?  Probably even trying to understand what a species was exactly – something that is a challenge in a different way even for experts.

We all went through it, maybe starting with a so-called “spark bird”.  We went out with others who seemed to see everything and know everything.  We got our first binoculars and field guide books.  We joined bird walks or Audubon trips or just starting paying attention differently when we were out doing other things – hiking, sailing, gardening – heck even just driving down the road.  The birds had been there all the time but we just hadn’t noticed them.  If our interest really got hold of us, we may have gotten a scope, or a camera, definitely more field guides, taken more trips, listened to recordings, started a list (or two or three or more).  Maybe we took a class, joined a club, made new friends and both our joy and our frustrations increased.  There was always more to learn, more to do, more to see, more places to go.  At some point maybe we brought others into the fold – helped others become – Birders!!  They, too, started as beginners and we were now teachers, encouragers, and best of all companions and friends who shared a love for being outdoors and were moved by the beauty and wonder of birds and the myriad joys of birding.

My “Spark Bird” – Black Rail – Baylands in Palo Alto (Wish I had a photo of my own)

Black Rail

Cindy and I met not all that long ago.  We got along better than great and found that we shared important values, politics, beliefs and a long list of other likes and dislikes.  We also found that we wanted to learn more about each other and invest the time to see where “things might go”.  What we did not have in common was shared hobbies or avocational interests or pasts.  She had spent a lot of time boating.  She field trained dogs and she was taking ballroom dancing.  The only boats I was familiar with were ferry boats, drift boats and boats going out to find pelagic birds.  I had never owned a dog and while recognizing them as great companions for dog owners and lovers everywhere, I saw them more as obligations that you had to feed, walk and take to the vet and definitely could not just leave on their own when you went off on a long day, weekend or even multi-week birding trip.  I loved to dance but the last time I had even waltzed was at my daughter’s wedding now nine years ago.

And of course, I was passionately, deeply and happily into birding.  It consumed much of my time and energy and I was also midway into my 50 state birding adventure – so how was this going to work?  Cindy liked bird pictures I shared with her and said she was game to “go birding”.  I figured the best way to go would be to start with a low stress visit to a beautiful place, on a beautiful day and where there would be some easily seen beautiful and charismatic birds.  Semiahmoo Spit at the north end of Whatcom County seemed the perfect spot.  March 16th was such a beautiful day.  Our first stop was at the harbor in Blaine and right away, a great bird, a close-in Black Oystercatcher.  Definitely the first time she had seen one and a  Black Oystercatcher offers a lot to birders and non-birders, or new birders, alike.  That long red/orange bill and the pale pink legs, and the yellow eye surrounded by orange/red and the dark spot in the middle.  Not other complicating fieldmarks and it is fairly large and is not hidden in the trees and often is relatively slow moving or even still.  It is a “shorebird” on the shore but next to deep water which provides the opportunity for some education as well.  The “spark” had happened.  More to come.

Black Oystercatcher – Blaine Harbor – March 16, 2019

Black Oystercatcher1

When is a “duck” not a “duck”?  Or better, when is a duck not “just a duck”?  One answer to the first question could be when it is a loon, grebe, coot, goose or alcid that are also water birds that maybe were never even noticed or if so just taken as just another duck.  Being able to recognize the existence of those other birds was an important goal for this trip.  So, too, was answering the second question – getting into the world of species identification.  Seasoned birders do not see “ducks”.  We see Scoters and Scaup and Goldeneyes and Pintails and Buffleheads and Mergansers and many others and know that they are all “ducks” but are also distinct species.  Beginners often don’t know that there are different kinds of ducks or maybe even what a “species” is.  If finding out is interesting to them and leads to questions, analysis and attention to detail and most importantly to wonder and joy, then there may just be a birder in the making,  Semiahmoo is a great place to begin that journey of exploration and learning.

Seasoned birders may not pay much attention to a Surf Scoter as they are pretty common and easily identified.  To a beginner though, they border on the amazing.  Definitely “duck-shaped” but look at that huge bill and the the clown-like face and the strong contrast between the black and the white.  Certainly nothing like the most well known duck, a Mallard.  Then there is the discussion about how different species of ducks don’t always have  the word “duck” in their names.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter1

And just to drive the point home, we find some White Winged Scoters.  Yes, Scoters are ducks and no White Winged Scoters are not the same species as Surf Scoters and yes they may be seen together but no not always and yes the two tend to flock with others of their species but also with each other and oh by the way, there are also Black Scoters but no we haven’t seen one yet but yes we might.  Observing, questioning, getting confused and staying interested are all part of the learning process and all part of becoming a “birder”.  And they are present big time at the beginning and hopefully never leave as that is how we all grow.

White Winged Scoter vs. Surf Scoter

White Winged and Surf Scoters

Fortunately Cindy’s interest and appreciation were growing – but the frustration of not knowing was probably ahead of the satisfaction of beginning to know.  This made me feel good and that feeling grew dramatically when I spotted one of the birds I was hoping to see and to show her – another species of duck and this one even had “duck” in its name.  Semiahmoo is a great place to find Long Tailed Ducks and two appeared in among the Scoters.

Long Tailed Duck

Long Tailed Duck

And another learning opportunity as this male Long Tailed Duck did not have its long tail.  Thus a perfect chance to at least start to talk about molting, plumage, breeding season etc. and then there was another species and another learning opportunity as we found Northern Pintails close to shore.  Tail was in the name, but duck was not and although not prominent in the photo below, the tail on this guy seemed pretty long and certainly longer than the tail of the Long Tailed Duck that we saw.  In the beginning, so many mysteries – so many details.  I could at least clear up the length of tail question when I shared another of my photos of a Long Tailed Duck with a tail that fit the description.

Norther Pintail

Northern Pintail

Long Tailed Duck with a “Long Tail”

Long Tailed Duck 1

OK, so now we had covered (or maybe uncovered) some important topics, considerations and the beauty of these species had triggered and kept interest.  So far so good.  So good became so great when Cindy got to see her first Harlequin Duck.  To me the male Harlequin ranks right up there with male Wood Ducks and male Hooded Mergansers as the most striking of our Northwest ducks.  If she had not been a believer before, she was now.  She had boated frequently in areas where I expect all of the ducks we had seen were around – just never noticed and she could not believe she had missed this fellow.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

We would see more duck species like Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and Wigeon and Mallards and Scaup – adding both enjoyment and frustration as the names and fieldmarks were confused and forgotten in the data overload.  The data increased again as we found other duck-like but not duck water birds.  No moment by moment account but try to forget everything you know and put yourself in the place of just beginning to appreciate duck species and then you see Brant and a Pigeon Guillemot and a couple of different Cormorant species and a couple of different Loon species and a couple of different Grebe species.  Yikes!!!   We had them all and at least the impressions stuck if the details did not.  More than anything else though, it was the appreciation of the wonders, diversity, accessibility and beauty of nature that mattered most and those were occurring regularly.

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Common Loon

Common Loon1

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe1



If ducks and waterfowl are not confusing and challenging enough, how about shorebirds?  We saw some more Oystercatchers and then I heard the squeaky chatter of a small flock of Black Turnstones.  So now we had two shorebirds and both were black.  Before she could even ask if this was the norm, Cindy found a couple of mostly white birds also scurrying among the rocks at edge of the shore.  This was her first independent sighting of the trip – our first Sanderlings.

Black Turnstone

Black Turnstone



It was time to quit on that high note – mission accomplished.  A whole new world had been opened, and she was interested and appreciative and now had at least a peek into what birding was all about and why I was passionate about it.  She opened an Ebird account and when she accepted the checklists I had shared, she now had a “Life List”.  A good start indeed.  However, like it had for me when I was a beginner and as it probably did for you as well, much of the input of names and species and families and myriad other details was swirling around in her brain.  Was it Scoter or Scooter?  Not a “seagull” just a gull.  Why did one “grebe” (nearing breeding plumage) look so different than the other (still in winter garb)?   I always encourage new birders to not be afraid of making mistakes – just try to remember a name or a bird type.  If you are not making mistakes you aren’t learning and not going to get better.  I try to remind myself of that as well.

I knew things had gone well when later Cindy sent me a photo of her with binoculars around her neck with the tagline -“Hey, look at me I’m a birder”!  Our relationship had survived Round One.  Time for Round Two.  Ann Marie Wood and I were planning a long trip to Eastern Washington, looking for some of the same birds that were seen by Jon Houghton and me earlier [See FOY’s –] as well as some new species we hoped had arrived in the intervening week.  We also planned to visit Deb Essman in Ellensburg – always a fun visit and a rite of passage of sorts for my friends joining me in Kittitas County birding.  I described the day to Cindy and invited her.  She enthusiastically accepted even with a 6:00 a.m. start time.  I think that promising her an American Dipper influenced her thinking as she was fascinated by one of my photos of it with its “nictitating eyelid” closed and the accompanying stories.  I was actually less worried about the early start than I was about the interaction with Ann Marie who knows way too much about me.  I was counting on her discretion.

So our first stop was at the bridge over the Cle Elum River on Bullfrog Road.  We searched diligently and found no Dippers.  I had told her earlier that just like it is called “fishing” rather than “catching” because sometimes the fish just aren’t there, so it goes with birds.  Still not a promising start.  I am going to skip ahead, however, because after a couple of other stops, she and I hiked out across the other bridge over the river that is accessed from the Bullfrog Pond area and we were able to see a pair of active American Dippers which were exactly in the first area we had looked.  Go figure. Too far to see those white eyelids, but lots of tail bobbing and swimming in the shallows.  She agreed to try again for the eyelid on another trip.

American Dipper – Showing Eyelid – Photo from a Different Trip I had Shown Cindy Earlier


Prior to the aforementioned sighting of the Dippers, we had birded on Wood Duck Road.  It was not as birdy as when Jon Houghton and I had visited, but there was a pleasant surprise.  I heard what I thought was a Western Bluebird.  We got out of the car and immediately heard chatter from a flock.  It was a very active group of 20+ Evening Grosbeaks – an unexpected FOY for Ann Marie and of course for Cindy.  The light was poor and they remained in the tops of the cone laden trees but I eventually got an ok photo and was able to get one in the scope for Cindy to see briefly.  Definitely a “Wow” bird and that was one term she used.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak6

There would be better looks later but we also had a number of Pygmy Nuthatches (“they’re so cute!!”) and we heard a Cassin’s Finch.  At Bullfrog Pond itself, in addition to the views of the American Dippers, we had more Pygmy Nuthatches, more Evening Grosbeaks and also heard but did not see a number of Varied Thrushes.  “Heard only” is part of any birding experience and especially for a beginner it is pretty hard to beat the ethereal song of a Varied Thrush.

By reading some of my blog posts, Cindy had gotten the idea that I like donuts and also that a visit to the Cle Elum Bakery was part of all trips to Eastern Washington.  I think Ann Marie was a co-conspirator and they lobbied to go there next.  Having much more willpower I said “only” if we earn it – the willpower coming from knowing full well that there was no way I would not go and also that we had already earned it with earlier sightings.  So we headed to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum – which after all come before the Bakery in any event.  We immediately saw Tree Swallows dashing above the ponds and I spied one in its nest hole in a snag – peering out at the world.

Tree Swallow in Nest

Tree Swallow in Nest Hole1

When we stopped at our “go to” spot for Pygmy Nuthatches a bit further west, it was Cindy who first spied the Pygmy Nuthatch, and it, too, was at a nest hole – looking like it was either doing some further excavating or some spring cleaning.  This was a great moment for all of us – not only seeing this fascinating bird in the open and actively displaying important behavior but moreso the sharing in a beginner’s joy at being an important part of a birding team.  Cindy was definitely becoming a birder and the big smile on her face said she was happy about that – and probably also happy that I acknowledged that this clearly earned a Bakery stop.

Cindy’s Pygmy Nuthatch at Its Nest

Pygmy Nuthatch at Nest Hole

We continued on to the road leading to the Cle Elum Fish Hatchery where we finally found a Mountain Chickadee foraging with a small group of Black Capped Chickadees.  No Chestnut Backed Chickadee for the trifecta this time but it was another new year bird for Ann Marie.  Birding with new birders is good for us in many ways.  Cindy had never really noticed any Red Winged Blackbirds before.  Several were singing and displaying their red and yellow epaulets on the reeds in river and she enjoyed that colorful display immensely.  It was a reminder that we too often take some beautiful common birds for granted and almost pay them no attention.  We should appreciate them uncommon or not.

Red Winged Blackbird Display

Red Winged Blackbird (3)

I promised not to divulge anything about the type or quantity of pastries consumed.  They were yummy and fortified us to now head to Ellensburg to visit Deb and Bill Essman.  Deb was busy working on a charity event and could not go out birding with us but a visit to them is a rite of passage including a required photo.  First though we checked out the Great Horned Owl nest a bit further east on Brick Mill Road.  Jon and I had seen it really buried in her nest.  This time the view was even better and I think it was the first owl in the wild that Cindy had ever seen.  Surely this plus the Dippers and the Evening Grosbeaks and her Pygmy Nuthatch to say nothing of pastries had to prove that birding was really fun.  And if not then meeting Deb and Bill would.

Great Horned Owl on Nest

Great Horned Owl on Nest 1

Bill and Deb Essman are really fine folks who love the outdoors.  I fish with Bill and bird with Deb and don’t hunt with either of them (or anyone else) but they are great hunters and have many trophies in their home.  I recognize the enormously positive role that hunters have played in conservation matters – benefiting many of us birders – and believe that birder/hunter coexistence and cooperation is a good thing.  The NRA is another matter altogether but one best not discussed here.  Deb and Bill are active in many conservation projects, teach ethical and safe hunting and seem to know everyone in Ellensburg.  As I said really fine folks.  All of my Edmonds birding friends have visited them with me and the rite of passage is to have your photo taken with “THE BEAR” – a bear skin covering their Brunswick pool table.  (They did not shoot this bear.)  It was Cindy’s turn, and I joined in.  It is not for me to judge the quality of the photo and the participants, but Cindy is definitely now a member of the “Bear Club”.

Rite of Passage with “The Bear”

The B Team and the Bear

Before heading off to the Shrub Steppe Sage area along Vantage Highway, there would be one more photo.  Hopefully she will not kill me for including it here, but i just have to.  Here is Deb Essman with her “Camo-Tuxedo” that she would be wearing as the emcee for the charity auction.  Who says there are not fashionistas east of the mountains!!

Deb with Camo-Tuxedo


We headed off to the Sagebrush.  I was hoping for a repeat of last week’s success with Jon Houghton and also to find a Sage Thrasher and a Loggerhead Shrike which he and I had missed.  We quickly found a beautiful electric blue Mountain Bluebird – new for Ann Marie and of course for Cindy and admired by both.  We stopped at one of Deb Essman’s go to spots for Sage Thrasher and hiked out on the abandoned road into the sagebrush drawn by the melodic airs of a singing Sage Thrasher.  It seemed close but was still ahead of us as we kept walking.  Finally I spied it on the top of a tall sagebrush singing for a mate or telling competitors to stay away.

Sage Thrasher (FOY)

SAge Thrasher1

We continued down to “the corrals” constantly surveying the wires and sagebrush for a Loggerhead Shrike or a singing Sagebrush Sparrow and found neither.  There we did find two more Sage Thrashers and heard a couple of Vesper Sparrows but nothing else.  A bit further east Ann Marie spied some sparrow-like birds on some barbed wired fencing.  Two flew off but the one that remained gave us great looks at a Vesper Sparrow – now easier to count as a First of Year bird.

Vesper Sparrow (FOY)

Vesper Sparrow1

Unfortunately we never did find a Sagebrush Sparrow or a Loggerhead Shrike anywhere.  The latter had been reported frequently in the area in preceding days, but interestingly there were a number of others birding along Vantage Road the same day as us including an Audubon trip and nobody reported a Loggerhead Shrike.  And birding was slow on Recreation Drive as well although we finally found our first Say’s Phoebe of the day – another FOY for Ann Marie.

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

It was decision time.  It was now 2:30 pm.  The weather was good and with the longer days there was still a good while to bird but was I already pushing Cindy’s time tolerance?  She earlier said she really loved the bridge across the Columbia at Vantage and I had a surprise on the other side, so the decision was made to cross the Columbia and head to that surprise – Frenchman’s Coulee.  Created by the Great Ice Age Floods, to me this is one of the truly special places in Washington.  It is a big canyon with columnar basalt cliffs, a low volume cataract (waterfall) and even good birds.  Best of all it is a surprise that appears magically as you make a turn off a drab flatland at the Silica Road ponds.  And it is one of the premier rock climbing spots in the State.  I knew Cindy would enjoy the magnificent scenery and I was hoping that we might find an early White Throated Swift.  This is my favorite spot to find them, but none had been reported from the spot yet in 2019 although one had been reported from nearby Ancient Lakes.

We saw grey skies and had a few drops of rain as we neared the Silica Road turnoff but it magically cleared and there was blue sky as we hit the Coulee.   First there was just the splendor of the area improved by a good flow in the waterfall.  And then there they were – at least 5 White Throated Swifts flying right overhead.  I think the earlier clouds may have brought them lower than usual and these may have been the best views I have had of them.

Frenchman’s Coulee with Falls

The Falls

White Throated Swift (FOY)

White Throated Swift3

We continued on to the basalt pillars that are irresistible to rock climbers.  Spectacular with or without the climbers.

Frenchman’s Coulee Basalt Pillars – Rock Climber Heaven


When I first planned this trip, I felt that finding a Swift was no more than a 50% chance.  I knew that some Long Billed Curlews had been seen sort of close to the Coulee and in an area where I thought we might see some Sandhill Cranes.  The odds were no better than that 50% but it had worked for the Swifts.  Everyone was game so we headed south and east along Highway 26.  We never did find any Curlews and the only Cranes we saw were in flight but it was a new county bird for Ann Marie and the first time Cindy had seen any.  Otherwise birding was pretty slow and disappointing.  There was another treat for Cindy though.  Just as I commented that I would have expected some Western Meadowlarks we heard their beautiful song and then found one posted up on a wire.  A lovely bird especially for a beginner.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

We retraced our steps and recrossed the Columbia.  One more decision to make.  Should we call it a day – already a long day – or add one more spot?  One more spot of course, so we headed south on Huntzinger Road to the small canyon where Jon and I had both Canyon and Rock Wrens last week.  We had seen neither on this trip.  At the canyon there was no response to playback for either species – at first.  After maybe 10 minutes of waiting, we tried again and this time I heard what I thought was a distant Canyon Wren.  Last week one had gotten very agitated and flown in to us from over 1/8 mile.  Maybe there would be a repeat.  Instead we began to hear a Rock Wren’s “dree” or “tick-ear” calls.  It seemed to be pretty far down in the canyon but not changing position.  Then we heard a second one but could not figure out where it was.  Cindy worked some magic again.  Ann Marie and I were so intent looking into the canyon we did not consider other options.  Cindy looked back across the road and found a spectacular male Rock Wren perched completely in the open in perfect light not more than 100 feet away.  She was indeed now a birder.  The picture is proof.

Rock Wren – Probably my Finest of this Species Ever

Rock Wren Looking Right1

Now it was time to leave but there was one more surprise.  Heading down Huntzinger Road, Ann Marie had wondered aloud it we might see some American White Pelicans.  We had not.  But on the way back just below Wanapum Dam we saw two.  One had a prominent “breeding horn” on its bill.  Another first for Cindy.

We had some good barbecue in Ellensburg and got back to Edmonds around 10.  It had been a long day.  We had missed some targets but found others.  We had really good looks at many and were really thrilled with the scenes and Swifts at Frenchman’s Coulee.  We had taken turns finding birds – a good team in the field.  I did not hear any horrible stories about me from Ann Marie to Cindy, but they were alone for a couple of minutes so who knows.  After all the water birds at Semiahmoo, Cindy had now been exposed to heavy duty birding on land in Eastern Washington.  She had also heard birds singing in breeding season and had seen her first owl.  There were no complaints and a lot of smiles.  Still barely a beginner in the world of birding but already progressing on the learning curve and enjoying it.  She and I are also still beginners in our relationship and are progressing and learning there as well.  And we are definitely enjoying that too.