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.




One thought on “Beginners and Beginnings

  1. Congrats on such a special connection with Cindy. Very happy for you Blair that’s so awesome she’s getting into birding! Great post


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