My birding puts on a LOT of miles every year. I love to drive and it is not unusual to cover several hundred miles on a birding day trip – once more than 700 miles at the end of a Big Year. Over the past 8 years since returning to active birding, I have put more than 270,000 miles on the two cars I have owned during that period with a substantial majority of that related to birding. With the exception of a few trips to B.C. or Oregon and my Mountain States travels as part of the 50/50/50 Adventure, these miles are all in Washington. There have been many more miles in rental cars or in the cars of friends on shared trips.
Given all those miles, many in remote parts of the state and many on dirt or gravel roads, some mishaps are to be expected. The one I had yesterday (August 5) prompted this post. It ended well and now becomes just another story, but it recalls other troubles on the road – and given the sad events of this week with two horrendous mass shootings, it also recalls how in each of those cases as in my mishaps, wonderful people were there to help. And given the number of miles involved, I have to consider myself very fortunate that all turned out well.
I have been driving for more than 45 years now and have never had an accident. Well yes I did close the garage door on my parked car with the tailgate still up, but that is more of a “stupid” than an “accident” so it doesn’t count. So my incidents have all been mechanical or about tires, or getting stuck in the snow. And there have “only” been seven, so as the title of the blog says – Good Karma indeed.
Yesterday’s incident occurred in the waiting area for the Mukilteo to Clinton Ferry. I was off to Crockett Lake on Whidbey Island to look for shorebirds hopefully including a Baird’s Sandpiper which had been reported there a few times over the weekend. At the terminal ticket booth I asked for a “Round Trip – Seniors” ticket. Maybe it was the sunglasses, but the lady in the booth said “no way” and I had to show my I.D. to prove the age – which is well past the 65 years threshold. It was a compliment I guess and since the traffic was light it also prompted a pleasant conversation. Then I was into line C – the fourth car there. When it came time to start up and begin boarding, the dashboard lit up but there was no response from the starter and the car locked into “Park” . I tried several times to start it and nothing happened. I called over one of the ferry workers and together we were able to get the cars behind me around me. I tried again and nothing except a message that said “Parking Brake Temporarily Inaccessible”. And the ferry took off… Ferry personnel blocked off my lane for the next round of cars, offered some ideas and then said they would let the tow truck in.
My insurer provides roadside assistance so I called and went through a cumbersome process ordering the tow which was to arrive within an hour. About 20 minutes later after having turned off everything, locked the car and walked away to feel sorry for myself, I returned and tried again. Radio and electrical worked but I was still in immovable “park”. I called the tow company and had no answer. After another 20 minutes during which I projected a very ugly and shorebird-less day, I tried the car again. There was a little hesitancy but the engine started and I could get out of “park”. The next ferry was loading. What should I do? Roll the dice and board or remain and get to a dealership? I called the tow company again…no answer. What the heck, I had nothing else planned for the day so I decided to risk it and board. I told the person directing me to the left side of the ferry that I had had a problem earlier and it might be better if I was in the main deck area. They waved me to a relatively convenient spot.
I debated leaving the engine on during the crossing, but elected to turn it off. The woman who had directed me to this spot had some good ideas in case the problem returned. “Turn everything off. Roll up the windows. Lock the car. Get far enough away so that the key does not communicate. Come back in a few minutes and try again.” She was very nice. What was the worst that could happen – go back and forth across the sound several times? On the crossing I saw a single Rhinoceros Auklet, a single Common Murre and a single Pigeon Guillemot. A small flock of Black Turnstones flew in front of the ferry. Ebird wanted a “rarity” explanation for them.
As we approached the ferry dock in Clinton, it was the moment of truth. My friendly ferry attendant stood next to the car and crossed her fingers. IT STARTED!!! She waved me off and I just hoped the car would start again after a next stop. That would have been for a bathroom break and some coffee, but I was not going to risk a stop without a chance for some birds. My next stop was at Crockett Lake. I drove along the bordering road and noted shorebirds everywhere mostly peeps flying about. As I had done on previous visits, I parked about midway in one of the lots and took the scope, camera and binoculars to search for a Baird’s Sandpiper and maybe something else. It is a big area and many of the birds, especially the larger shorebirds were quite distant, complicated by very serious heat distortion.
There were hundreds of birds. Most of the closer ones seemed to be Western Sandpipers but there were many Least Sandpipers as well. Further out were numerous Long Billed (presumably) Dowitchers and some Yellowlegs – both Greater and Lesser. I saw a few Black Bellied Plovers. I did not see any Godwits, but with the heat distortion and distance I could not be sure as details at 40X magnification in the scope were hard to discern. A group of peeps flew by me and landed maybe 100 feet away. One was different – larger and longer winged with a scaly back – all details seen only through the scope. This was the Baird’s Sandpiper I had hoped to see. Fifteen minutes later about 200 yards away I saw another similar bird and do not know if it was the same individual or a second one.
Especially after the tough start, I was very happy. I did not know if the car would behave when I returned to the lot or not. I remembered a crude path that led out through the salicornia to a channel that often was good for birds and in any event would get me somewhat closer to the area where I had seen the larger shorebirds. If the car started, I would drive to another parking spot further east and see if I could get out there. I had forgotten my Muck boots which would have made it much easier. The car started. I moved east, parked and ventured forth. This was a good decision. When I got to the channel – maybe 1/4 of a mile through the vegetation and only a single step into the muck, I saw what immediately looked like a Godwit. A quick view through my scope confirmed not just any old Godwit but the Hudsonian Godwit that had been seen earlier in the week but not the day before. Eureka!!
I moved closer and was completely ignored by this “Hudwit” which foraged in shallow water and in perfect light. I watched it as peeps flew in next to it, stayed only briefly, were completely ignored and flew off. My prize remained within 10 feet of where I first saw it for the next twenty minutes. I moved off trying to get closer to the larger shorebirds that had been my motivation for making the trek in the first place. I got close enough only for “better looks” but not enough for photos. The Black Bellied Plovers had departed so no way to know if maybe a Golden Plover had been in the group.
I returned for more pictures and noticed that another birder had just begun the trek across the salicornia, so I decided to wait without any motion to possibly scare off the Godwit. I was sitting on the salicornia so I doubt the birder had seen me. I rose carefully and waved him to come. After about 5 minutes or so he made it. I asked if he wanted to see a Hudsonian Godwit. “Of course”. He, too, knew it had been missed the day before. “There it is”, I said and he had a new Life Bird completely unexpected. Sharing such experiences is one of the great joys of birding. I left a few minutes later thankful for all that had gone right after such a bad start, figuring I had once again made a withdrawal from my good karma account. Maybe showing this fellow the Godwit had made a deposit to replenish it somewhat.
I posted the find on both EBird and Tweeters with some specifics on how to get to the not too obvious spot. Several people found the Hudsonian Godwit there the next day and sent their thanks. More good karma.
Previous Car Episodes
Each of my previous car episodes had at least two things in common: everything worked out ok and just like the ferry staff, good and helpful folks were involved. Without too much detail, here are the other car stories – all with my former car – a BMW X5 that I loved dearly but traded in for a Jeep after the last episode described below.
Two Flat Tires – Cameron Lake Road
I have had more trouble in Okanogan County than anywhere else. The worst experience was while birding alone on Cameron Lake Road – a gravel road that runs about 20 miles in the hills south and east of Okanogan. It can be a wonderful place for many birds and my list for the area includes White Headed Woodpecker, Gray Partridge, American Tree Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Bohemian Waxwing and especially Snow Buntings. On one trip as I was heading north back towards town but was still 15+ miles away, I had a flat tire. I tried some fix-all material, but it did not work so I put on the spare (a temporary fix until I could get to town). A couple of miles later I got a second flat tire. Now there was nothing I could do. No additional space and no fix-all and no cell service and I had not seen another vehicle for over an hour. I drove the remainder of the way back to civilization on my rims trying hard to not think of the cost for the damage ahead. It was a two hour “drive” to go 12 miles.
With the help of some extraordinary folks at Discount Tire, I had a new set of 4 tires, a repaired rim that somehow had only minor damage and was back on the road by six that evening…oh yeah, they normally closed at 5:00 o’clock. As I said there are wonderful folks everywhere.
Havillah Road – Stuck in the Snow
The Havillah Sno-Park area in Okanogan County can be good for such much sought after specialties as Great Gray and Northern Pygmy Owls, American Three Toed and Black Backed Woodpeckers, Clark’s Nutcracker and Williamson’s Sapsucker and others. I visit it every winter and find varying amounts of snow on the road up to the Sno Park itself. Sometimes it is hard to know where the road is under the snow and this can be especially tricky if there are two cars approaching each other in opposite directions. In February 2013, I pulled over to let another car pass and decided to park and scan the fields. I wasn’t in too deep but just enough that I could not pull out even with 4 Wheel Drive. Fortunately Carol Riddell, another Edmonds birder, came by and with just a little extra push, I was clear. No owls that day but I returned early the next morning and in a quickly worsening snowfall, I heard a Great Gray Owl across the field not far from where I had been stuck the previous day. I pulled out my scope and was able to see it perched in a tree several hundred yards away, my first view of one since 1974!! It was approaching blizzard conditions and I definitely did not want to get stuck again, so I departed.
Not far away I found other great Okanogan birds including Bohemian Waxwings, Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Common Redpolls. Sure glad Carol came by and helped. Another car mishap survived.
More Snow Trouble – and Sharp Tailed Grouse
My best place for Sharp Tailed Grouse is the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area on the way to Conconully from Omak. Especially when there is a lot of snow, the Grouse get up into the Water Birch to feed on the seeds. In January 2015, Samantha Robinson and I tried for them there with lots of snow on the ground. We thought we saw some “blobs” in the trees down by the Creek and pulled over onto the side of the road. Unfortunately what looked like solid ground was only partially such as there was a culvert and an impossible to see ditch. We were partly on the culvert and partly in the ditch. Rather than try to get out, we raced off to get closer to the Sharp Tails before they departed figuring we would just have to deal with the car later.
It worked out very well for seeing the Grouse as we were able to get pretty close and get some nice photos – my best in Washington. Now about that car. We tried to get rid of as much snow as we could, but it was not enough. Seeing our plight, another car pulled over. They had a shovel – “Always carry one up here.” – and we easily dug ourselves ought and carried on. Really wonderful and clearly helpful folks. A couple of years later in the Spring, I was in the same area and saw a woman parked in almost the same spot with car trouble – and a young child. Couldn’t help her with the car but drove her and her child to their home in Conconully. She contacted her husband and he was able to attend to the car. So another story with a happy ending and maybe equal withdrawals and deposits to the karma account.
Sharp Tailed Grouse
Tire Trouble Again in Pend Oreille County – Boreal Country
Some day I may get a photo of a Boreal Owl and if I do, it may well be at Salmo Mountain in extreme Northeastern Washington. I have visited Salmo Mountain 5 times in the Fall and have heard Boreal Owls there on every visit. My only visual was with Brian Pendleton in 2013 when one flew over us in the dark. The following year I visited with George Pagos and again we had a “heard only” encounter.
The road up to Salmo Mountain is remote and long and often has Moose, snow and rocks. No Moose that night on the way back, but there was snow and apparently some rocks as we had a flat tire maybe half way down. Fortunately I had a good spare as the nearest “civilization” was miles away. George really took the lead in making the change and we made it down safely without not too much of a delay. So again a happy ending – although it would have been much happier if a Boreal Owl had been curious and come in to watch our action. If that had happened I might even have been willing to drive on a rim again.
Earlier, on the way up to look for the Owl, we did have one of the other highly sought after species there – Boreal Chickadee.
Monday No, Wednesday Yes – Car Problems in Between
This is maybe the weirdest of the car problems. On Monday December 14, 2015 I headed south to chase a Yellow Throated Warbler Russ Koppendreyer had found the previous day in Longview. I cannot remember the details but it had something to do with the alternator or starter or battery or something else electrical but for whatever reason, once it started, if I turned off the engine, the car was not going to start again. I REALLY wanted to see this new State bird so I elected to drive to Longview, park the car next to the easily accessed target area, leave the car running, hopefully see the warbler, and then drive to the dealer and get the problem fixed. Fortunately I had a full tank of gas so the 300 mile round trip without refueling was possible – I hoped.
The plan worked perfectly – except – I did not see the warbler. Back to the BMW service department in Seattle – almost out of gas, they took the car but could not get to it until the next day. I got a loaner and hoped that (a) it would be a relatively quick, easy and inexpensive fix, and (b) that the warbler would remain. The problem was solved and the service folks even gave me a break on the price and did not charge me for the loaner. It was too late to return for another try for the warbler which had been located shortly after I had departed the previous day and was seen again on the 16th. Russ was very proud that this beautiful rarity had chosen his home Cowlitz county and provided continued guidance to visitors. I met up with Russ on the 16th and we found the Yellow Throated Warbler foraging at the base of the trees flitting from one to another but staying pretty much in the open. It was a much appreciated 406th species I had seen in Washington, so another happy ending with help from BMW and the always super nice Russ.
Yellow Throated Warbler
The Last Straw – Breakdown in Tri-Cities
I had put more than 200,000 miles on the BMW when I had the electrical problem described above. There had been ZERO other problems. No way to blame it for the two flat tires and getting stuck in the snow was my own fault and the excellent traction with the X5 probably kept me out of being stuck on numerous occasions when I might have been with another vehicle. But by 2016 I was into my 10th year of ownership. I thought maybe I could get another 5 more years out of it. That thinking changed when on a trip to Walla Walla in February 2016, I stopped at Bateman Island to look for a Slaty Backed Gull that had been reported there. I didn’t find that gull but did find a Lesser Black Backed Gull. I returned to my car to continue and – nada – it was completely dead.
The good news – extraordinary news compared to what might have been, was that I was literally only 4 miles away from the Tri-Cities BMW dealership. I have detailed this trip and the problems in two previous blog posts [wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/1218 and wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/1532]. The bottom line was that I got super service from the dealership with super help from their staff. I got another loaner and completed my trip to Walla Walla and returned to get the car in two days. The problem had been relatively minor, but there had been no warning and I thought about how awful it would have been if there had been a similar problem in many of the remote places I visit routinely. If this had happened on Biscuit Ridge outside of Walla Walla it would have been a disaster as the closest BMW service was there in Tri-Cities which was 80 miles away. Not long after returning to Edmonds I decided I just did not want to chance that kind of remote problem and traded the BMW in for my Jeep – which has been trouble free until that still unexplained glitch at the Mukilteo Ferry.
Lesser Black Backed Gull
I am sure there will be other car issues ahead. I guess that means there will also be more stories. I just need to survive to be able to share them.