Fotos, Friends and Fabulous Weather

Western Washington is well known for gray, cloudy and rainy weather in February.  It’s a good time to head south for some sun.  This week girlfriend Cindy did that flying off for a week with friends in Southern California leaving me to get in trouble on my own – i.e. getting in some birding.  I had contemplated a variation on a southern escape myself with a trip to South Texas to try to add some ABA Lifers.  One potential target, a Hook Billed Kite, is continuing to be seen but the other bird of interest, a Fork Tailed Flycatcher, finally disappeared.  I could not justify the expense and time for a single new bird, tempting as it was.

Birding with Friends – Day 1 – West to Clallam County

Still, I did want to do some fun birding and it could not have turned out better.  Jon Houghton is going FOY crazy right now – seeking First Of Year species for Washington.  Several opportunities were beckoning from Clallam County.  He beckoned me and I was definitely game for a trip on Monday, February 17th.  Our main target would be a Glaucous Gull being seen near the Coast Guard Station at the end of Ediz Hook in Port Angeles.  Rare but regular in Washington, a Glaucous Gull is a good addition to any Year List in the State.  It would be a FOY for each and of especial interest to me to add to the great birds with a Northern affinity that I had seen in recent chases:  Ross’s and Ivory Gulls, Barnacle Goose, Gyrfalcon, Dovekie and Siberian Accentor.

Jon and I caught the 7:55 a.m. Edmonds ferry heading west across Puget Sound to Kingston.  It was a gorgeous sunny day.  The Olympic Mountains glistened in the distance with new snow – as fine a scene as there is anywhere.

Looking West to the Olympics from Hometown Edmonds

The Olympics

Jon got his first FOY as soon as we were on the ferry as several Bonaparte’s Gulls flew nearby with the white leading edges of their wings and their delicate flight making for an easy ID.  We watched for alcids on the crossing and found only Pigeon Guillemots – mostly in breeding plumage.  I had no FOY’s but was pleased to get a photo of a Brandt’s Cormorant already showing the plumes of breeding plumage as we docked in Kingston.

Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon Guillemot

Brandt’s Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant2

Although there were several good birds in the Sequim area that were on Jon’s hit list, we decided to first try for the Glaucous Gull and headed directly to Port Angeles and Ediz Hook, a reinforced and improved natural spit extending out into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca.  It has produced many good birds over the years including Yellow Billed Loon and Thick Billed Murre and can have Snow Buntings or Lapland Longspurs in addition to being a great spot for gulls.

Ediz Hook

Ediz Hook

Maybe half-way out onto the spit we saw a birder with a scope clearly fixed on something on the shore.  It was Lonnie Somer, a very good Washington birder, and he was looking at a Plover.  In the brilliant sunshine it had a bit of a golden cast, but unfortunately it was not a Golden Plover – just a Black Bellied Plover in non-breeding plumage.  Still a nice picture.

Black Bellied Plover

Black Bellied Plover

Lonnie was also interested in the Glaucous Gull and he joined us as we went to the end of the Spit to search for a large pale gull with a dark tip on its bill.  There were 30+ gulls resting, flying, moving, foraging.  The light was perfect – not a cloud in the sky.  It did not take long to find the Glaucous Gull.  It perched, walked, flew into the water and then perched again.  Photo ops were everywhere.  We were struck by its apparent size and especially the length of its wings compared to the Glaucous Winged or Glaucous Winged x Western hybrids (“Olympic Gulls“) which the field guides say are only an inch or two smaller.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull1r

Glaucous Gull Takeoff

Glaucous Gull in Water

Mission accomplished, we headed east back to Sequim looking for new year birds.  There were hits and misses.  The tide was still too high for the Pacific Golden Plover and Willet that had been seen at the 3 Crabs hotspot and we dipped on the American Dipper at the Railroad Bridge.  I added Long Tailed Duck to my year list.  Too far for a photo but gorgeous in the sunshine.  I got a good photo of one of the many Great Blue Herons we saw and it reminded me that sometimes we get so caught up in looking for target species that we forget about some of the everyday ones that are very special indeed.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron3

Dipping on a Dipper is not the end of the world, but they are fun species and I wish it had appeared for us.  There would be Dippers later, but Jon really wanted one on this day.  I had seen one at another location on the Dungeness River a couple of years ago off Woodcock Road.  It was worth a try.  Success – for Jon, but not for me.  He walked on one side of the bridge as I scouted on the other.  He called out that he had one.  I climbed over one barrier, crossed the road, climbed over another barrier and looked where Jon pointed.  There was “Dipper Poop” on the rock but no Dipper.  Especially this year, such a miss just doesn’t matter so much.  I was glad my friend had seen it and I settled for another scenery shot, happy just to be out this spectacular sunny day.

Dungeness River

Dungeness River

There would be one more fun stop as we pulled into the Sea-watch spot at Diamond Point.  Somewhat surprisingly we had seen very few loons and alcids despite being in good territory.  We had a single loon at this spot – a Pacific Loon and not the hoped for Yellow Billed, but we had a very nice 5 alcid list:  both Ancient and Marbled Murrelets, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot and Rhinoceros Auklet.  A nice end to very nice day and we even made it onto the 4:40 Ferry despite it being a holiday and signs indicating there was an hour wait.  Jon ended up with 4 FOY’s and I had 2, most importantly for both of us including the Glaucous Gull.  Much more importantly two good friends enjoyed the super weather and great company.  And I knew that I had scheduled another birding day with friends the next day as well.

Birding with Friends – Day 2 – South to Pierce County

County listing is a big time part of many birder’s lives.  I have many friends and met many folks on my 50/50/50 journey for whom it is the most important part of how they organize their birding activities.  Fortunately it has never been that important to me.  And I say fortunately because I have enough obsessions already.  That said I do like listing, do like round numbers and do occasionally note the county lists that Ebird automatically keeps for me.  So I had often noted that my life list for Pierce County was both pretty poor given how close it is to where I live in Southern Snohomish County, how often I pass through it on the way to other areas and how many good birding friends I have there – including some of the the very best birders in the State.  I also noted that my life list was getting fairly close to one of those noticeable round numbers.  It stood at 187 species and was missing many “easy ones”.  Why not go for 200?

On our chase of the Siberian Accentor, Bruce LaBar – one of those outstanding birders in Tacoma and Pierce County – and I had discussed a trip to Texas in May.  It was time to work on some details.  And Ed Pullen, another outstanding birder in Tacoma was recently back from a month of birding in Texas and wanted to talk about some ideas for his terrific Bird Banter Podcast (   The weather was again outstanding.  Here was an opportunity to see friends, cover some topics of interest and work on that County List.  Bruce and Ed were game.  I actually think they are always game to go birding in Pierce County.  I could not have better guides or better company.  Let’s go.

When heading south out of Edmonds, planning always has to consider traffic.  It used to be that being on the road by 6:00 a.m. meant that you could pretty much keep at the speed limit on the I-5 Freeway.  Now even leaving at 5 or 5:30, there is no guarantee.  Leave after 7 and the guarantee is that it will be a slow go.  It is 52 miles from my house to the Starbucks in Old Town in Tacoma where we were to meet at 8:00 a.m.  Without traffic my trip would be about an hour.  Bad traffic could easily double that time.  So I headed south at 5:40 a.m. and made relatively good time with only a few bottlenecks.  If I had continued on I would have gotten there an hour early.  I could go to Starbucks and just sit reading Facebook or playing online games or … I could bird.

Of course I chose the latter stopping at the “go to spot” for Redheads (ducks not people) at the pond in front of the former Weyerhauser Headquarters in Federal Way.  It was almost completely dark when I arrived but I could see a hundred or more ducks on the water.  The whistled calls meant that many if not most were Wigeons but it was too dark to really see.  In another 15 minutes, there was sufficient light to find a few Redheads scattered around the pond along with the Wigeons, Gadwalls, Ring Necked Ducks and Mallards.  These were the first Redheads I had seen this year.  It is not going to be a big list this year, but I still pay attention.

Then it was off to Tacoma with plenty of time even if there was some additional traffic.  Traffic was light so there was time to make another stop along the way.  I had prepared a “needs” list for Pierce County.  It was only of birds that had been reported as seen in the County over the past two weeks.  One was a Brant – a goose that is plentiful in the salt water near my home in Edmonds but pretty rare in Pierce County.  It was being reported at Thea’s Park which was on the way to my rendezvous spot.  I pulled over and parked, grabbed my camera and thought about getting my spotting scope, expecting the goose to be out in Commencement Bay somewhere.  I looked up before hauling out the scope and not more than 100 feet from me was a single Brant sitting alone on the grass.  So within 2 seconds, I had added a new County bird.  And got some really nice photos.  An omen for a great day.  And did I mention that the weather was again spectacular?

Brant – Pierce County Lifer #188


I was at the meeting spot a bit early, but Bruce called with a small change in plans and he and Ed would be by shortly.  It turned out Ed lived very near the Starbucks so we met on the street where I could park.  Bruce had my “needs list” and places to go for many of the birds on it.  Ed had a new car, a Subaru Outback, and this would be its first birding trip.  It was if I had signed on for a guided tour.  I just sat back and got the royal treatment with two of the County’s best.  I never knew where we were going but it did not matter.  I was in good hands.

Our first stop was to Puget Park and our first target was a Barred Owl.  It is perfect habitat – wooded slopes with a good trail.  A pair of raccoons crossed the trail maybe 150 yards ahead of us.  One stopped to give us the eye and I grabbed a quick photo.

Raccoon at Puget Park


We played the Barred Owl’s familiar “Who cooks for you – all” call at a couple of spots not far into the park.  No response for maybe five minutes and then I spied one flying above us down the trail and then it landed on an open branch in a nearby tree.  A FOY and a County Lifer and a nice photo.  It began to call and got a response from another owl on the other side of the trail.  We watched it for maybe ten minutes and then it took off – probably to join its mate.

Barred Owl – Pierce County Life Bird #189

Barred Owl1

Our next stop was Point Defiance Park – Dune Peninsula.  What a fabulous spot – newly developed into a beautiful park with lots of viewing opportunities into Puget Sound and the Bay, open areas, grassy lawns and of special interest to us – Western Meadowlarks.  It is not where I would have expected them, but they were there in good numbers and beautiful in the brilliant sunshine.  Note:  when I looked at this picture, I could not understand the pattern in the background.  The Meadowlark had obviously just flown off a fence.  It is a fence in the background as well – just as black as the one in the foreground but lightened to a fading light as the camera’s depth of field almost made it disappear entirely.

Western Meadowlark – Pierce County Life Bird #190

Western Meadowlark

This was a well orchestrated trip.  When our next stop produced over 100 American Wigeons but without a Eurasian Wigeon among them, Bruce and Ed had a Plan B that took us to Titlow Park where a smaller flock of Wigeons included at least 3 Eurasians – two males and a female and also what appeared to be a hybrid American/Eurasian.  With the sun behind me and directly on the ducks, photos were easy.  I was particularly happy to get one photo where both male and female Eurasians were joined by an American and all were in pretty good focus.

Eurasian Wigeon – Pierce County Life Bird #191

Eurasian Wigeon Male

Male and Female Eurasian Wigeon and Male American Wigeon

Three Wigeons

Around the corner from the ducks we again viewed the salt water and had all three species of Cormorant including Brandt’s Cormorant, another Pierce County Lifer, number 192.

Brandt’s Cormorant – Pierce County Lifer #192

Brandt's Cormorants

We then moved south to Purdy Spit where somewhat continuing the surprising absence of loons in Clallam County the previous day, we (actually Ed) found only a single Red Throated Loon.  Purdy was not as birdy as it often is but Bruce managed to pull a couple of Black Scoters – our target – out of a flock of Surf Scoters.  Pretty awful views, but sufficient for an ID and Pierce County Lifer #193.  No photo of the Black Scoter but a gorgeous male Barrow’s Goldeneye was very cooperative.  There were Common Goldeneye as well, a common species throughout the morning.  Too bad there was no Common Eider here as there had been in January 2017.

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Barrow's Goldeneye

It was time to move away from the water and we headed to the University of Puget Sound Campus to look for a Townsend’s Warbler.  Nothing at first but then I saw a flash of yellow on a cedar tree and we had our bird, and then another.  It was another new Pierce County bird and the first I had seen in Washington this year.

Townsend’s Warbler – FOY and Pierce County Lifer #194

Townsend's Warbler

We continued to “the Gog” aka the Gog-Le-Hi-Te Mitigated Wetlands where we would scan the gulls on the nearby warehouse roofs looking for an Iceland Gull.  I had probably seen one there before bit had not paid any attention.  This time we found several.  I really do not like gull identification and the longer I look at them, many of the species begin to look alike to me.

Iceland Gull – Pierce County Lifer #195

Iceland Gull

And then it was further east and to new territory for me as we went to the fields in West Orting looking for the flock of Swans wintering there.  Against the green background of the field, the large white birds were hard to miss and I quickly had Pierce County Lifer #196 – a Trumpeter Swan.  Would there be another?  Bruce had seen a Tundra Swan in with the Trumpeters earlier but we could not find it now.  We did find two Trumpeters with rusty chests and necks – a result of having iron in their diet somewhere.

Trumpeter Swan – Pierce County Lifer #196

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter swans with “Stained Plumage”

Stained Swans

We also found a single Greater White Fronted Goose – not a County lifer but new for me in 2020.  Better yet, Bruce kept on looking at every bird and finally found one with the tell-tale yellow on the bill below the eye.  A Tundra Swan was to be Lifer #197 on my Pierce County List after all.

Greater White Fronted Goose – FOY

Greater White Fronted Goose

Tundra Swan – Pierce County Lifer #197

Tundra Swan Head

We tried for one more County Lifer – a Lesser Goldfinch.  We looked at several spots but were unsuccessful.  They are in the area – just not cooperating this day.  It was time to head back to Tacoma and then for me to head home.  We had missed three possibilities: Common Murre, Peregrine Falcon and the Lesser Goldfinch, but I was thrilled to add 10 new County life birds, bringing me oh so close to the magic 200 species for the County.  So definitely a great day of birds and great photos, but far and away what was best was birding with two great friends.  That big yellow thing in the sky was a nice bonus.

Two super days of sunshine, friends and birds.  Photos were a welcomed part of the adventure.  I do love birding.




A Siberian Accentor in Washington – Thank You Russ Koppendreyer

I often find typos or errors in previous blog posts and go back an make the change – no big deal.  Another change is in order and this one is a big deal.  A very nice big deal.

In an earlier post (See, I wrote:  “The Siberian Accentor is a small passerine bird, much like a sparrow, which breeds in northern Siberia on both sides of the Urals. It is migratory, wintering in southeast Asia. It is a rare vagrant in western Europe, and a very rare vagrant on the West Coast of the United States. Another “mega” in the ABA area.  I don’t know if it has ever been seen in Washington State – certainly not by me…”  Nothing has changed about the description of the bird or its normal range, but thanks to Russ Koppendreyer, I have to change that part about if it had ever been seen in Washington and that part about “not by me”.

That earlier blog post followed a trip to British Columbia successfully chasing a bird found there by George Clulow on January 3, 2016.  It was a mob scene but I was able to observe and get a distant photo of a Siberian Accentor – an ABA Life Bird.  That Accentor stayed until at least January 18th and was seen by many observers from Canada and the U.S.

Siberian Accentor – B.C. – January 4, 2016

Siberian Accentor1

On Thursday, February 6th, Russ Koppendreyer, an excellent birder, posted the following on Tweeters, the major listserv for Washington birders:  “I just found what I believe to be a Siberian Accentor at the west end of Stenerson Rd in the Woodland Bottoms. Photo sent to expert, but confident enough to get the word out. In leafless tree on north side of road with Juncoes, then flew behind the west most house on north side of the road.”

And then the madness began…

I contacted Russ for more details and the photo he sent absolutely confirmed the ID.  Knowing all too well my Rule 1 for a chase to “go now”,  I debated leaving immediately.  Without major traffic issues (never guaranteed), I calculated I could get to the location by maybe 3:45 p.m.  The days are getting longer, but that still did not leave a whole lot of good light.  If I made the 3 hour drive and did not find the bird, then what?  Stay the night and try the next day? Return home with an even longer drive since the traffic for sure would be bad?  I had seen the B.C. bird but it would be really nice to have it on my Washington List.  I decided to wait and try the next day.  When reports came in that it had been seen again after 3:45 pm, I chided myself for not leaving earlier.  Maybe it would stay.

Russ’s Siberian Accentor Photo (Enhanced)

Russ Accentor

I called several friends to see if they were up for an early morning departure and quickly found 3 who were up for the adventure, including Bruce LaBar from Tacoma.  The fact that this would be a state life bird for Bruce attests to its rarity as Bruce had seen 453 species in the state, significantly atop the Ebird all-time list.  Jon Houghton, Mark Tomboulian and I left Edmonds at 5:30 a.m.  on Friday the 7th and picked up Bruce an hour later.  Our next stop would be Stenerson Road.  We wagered how many birders would already be there, but the important question was whether any of them would be looking at “THE BIRD”.

We arrived about 8:10 a.m.  The answer to the first question was somewhere between 15 and 20 and the answer to the second was “No” but it had been seen earlier.  More birders arrived in short order and by 8:40 we heard someone say “I’ve got it!”  It was seen in a distant willow tree across a field maybe 200 yards away.  The Accentor is a small bird, less than 5.5 inches long.  It could barely be seen even with our scopes, but the brief looks mostly buried in foliage were sufficient to see the buffy orange breast, supercilium and throat and black mask.  Not great looks but they were looks of a great bird.  The best picture I could get was the tree in which the Accentor was buried.  A tiny spot in the tree was the bird, so I technically had a photo of a Siberian Accentor in Washington, but certainly not ID quality and not good enough to honestly include on my State Photo list.

The Accentor Tree – It Really Is in There – to the Right of the Arrow

Acc Tree

The bird flew to the adjoining tree and continued to play hide and seek.  Barely decent scope looks and no photos at all.  Then it disappeared.  After another hour plus we said goodbye to the now more than 50 birders who had assembled and headed off for some Clark County birding.  Of particular interest was Lower River Road where a Snowy Egret continues.  Extremely rare in Washington, this Snowy Egret with one or two Great Egrets has been found at this spot for three years now – the only one in the State.  We found the two Egrets and lots of waterfowl including large flocks of Tundra Swans, Cackling Geese, Snow Geese and many ducks.  There were also many Sandhill Cranes.  We had seen some earlier at the Accentor stakeout spot.  There were also many California Scrub Jays.  Within the past 10 years this species has significantly expanded its range and in now quite common in Clark and Cowlitz counties.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Great Egret

Great Egret

California Scrub Jay

California Scrub Jay

We failed to find the Lesser Goldfinches that have often been seen at a small park in Vancouver, WA and then were disappointed to find that the River S Unit of Ridgefield NWR was closed on weekdays.  We had hoped for a Red Shouldered Hawk there.  We looked for one at the Carty Unity of the Refuge and were unsuccessful.

We returned to the Accentor Stakeout hoping for better looks.  There were many birders there – some remaining from the morning but mostly new arrivals.  There had been sporadic observations for a short while after we left but nothing for a couple of hours.  We waited 30 minutes and then headed home.  It had been a very fun day and we had seen the main target and added some species for the year.  If only I had gotten the photo, I would have been completely satisfied.  Even an almost traffic free return trip during what should have been rush hour did not quite make for the failure to get that picture.  Guess I can still get greedy sometimes.

My best estimate is that at least 70 people had tried for and/or seen the Siberian Accentor on Friday.  There were many more than that who gave it a go on Saturday and unlike our experience, there were several times on Saturday when the Siberian Accentor flew into the close-in apple tree where Russ had first seen it or in to some cedars about halfway between the apple tree and the distant willows.  There were some ok photos and some that were quite good.  Ouch…rub it in.  I gave a quick thought to a return trip to get a photo.  We were going to an Oscars Party Sunday evening so I decided to just be happy with seeing this mega rarity again – and now in my home state.  BUT…even more reports and more photos came in from Sunday.  How about Monday?

On many occasions (birding and otherwise) I have recognized my good luck in having Cindy Bailey enter my life.  Not long into our relationship, she took a big chance and joined me on a couple of my 50/50/50 Adventures in Ohio and Michigan and then again later in Wyoming and Montana.  She got a taste of a chase when she joined Jon Houghton and me going for the Emperor Goose in Sequim in December, but she had enough sense not to come along on my Ivory Gull marathon (see an-ivory-gull-at-flathead-lake-whats-behind-a-complicated-chase/).  I had bemoaned my lack of a photo of the Accentor off and on Saturday and Sunday.  She encouraged me to try again.  We had nothing scheduled for Monday and Cindy was interested in a firsthand view of the craziness I had described with the throngs at the stakeout.  She was game for a road trip.  The weather was great on Monday morning and when I saw an early report that the Accentor had been seen again, the decision was made.  So we loaded Chica (our Black Labrador) into her crate and headed south, leaving at 10:00 a.m.

Helped a bit by being a car pool (even without Chica), we breezed through first Seattle and then Tacoma and made it to Stenerson Road around 1:00 pm.  I grabbed my camera and checked the settings – or tried to – but I had really blown it.  Unknowingly I had left the camera on from the Friday trip and even though I had a double battery pack in – it was dead!!!  I will not repeat the language I used to express my anger – at myself.  I have learned some lessons though and had brought a back up camera – a Canon 70SX.  I am still not used to it and it does not focus as fast or well or reload as fast as my DSLR, but it was all I had.

There were maybe 15 birders already there.  We got the word that the Accentor had been seen intermittently.  We joined the group – and waited.  Nothing for maybe 20 minutes and then it flew out from the trees behind the road where the birders were gathered and where it could not be seen, and made a 3 second stop in the apple tree and then headed off to the cedars with a bunch of Juncoes and disappeared.  We had seen it in flight and got just enough of a glance to know it was the Accentor but no chance at a photo.  Cindy took Chica for a walk and I continued the vigil as more birders arrived.  Perhaps 15 minutes later a flock flew from the cedars to the trees behind the road.  We had a one second view of the Accentor as part of the group and that was it.  Another 10 minutes passed and I had walked a little distance away from the group and was close to the apple tree.  I saw a single bird fly in and it was again the Accentor.   I yelled out – “it’s our bird”.  I should have concentrated on getting my photo.  By the time I could try, it flew off again.

I went to the car and checked on Chica and Cindy – quite frustrated as I probably could have gotten a photo if I had the other camera.  They were fine.  We nibbled on fruit and crackers we had brought along.  I regained composure and returned for one more try.  Now there were maybe 25 people there – anxious and eager.  Once more the Accentor flew into the apple tree.  This time it perched in the open and stayed in the open for a moment or two.  That was just enough time to finally get a few pictures.  I have trouble focusing this camera in general and much moreso when there are branches to deal with and end even moreso when I am stressing about it.  So, not the best photos ever, but I now had an OK photo of a Siberian Accentor in Washington.  It was state photo #410.  Hurray!!

Siberian Accentor

Siberian Accentor

Feeling very much better when I returned to the car this time, I felt I owed both Cindy and Chica some compensating time and experience.  Listing a Snowy Egret in Washington is not important to Cindy, but she had enjoyed seeing one in California in December.  More importantly I knew she and especially Chica would enjoy the walking at Lower River Road and it really was a gorgeous day, so that would be our next stop.  The sunshine was spectacular, both Mt. St. Helens and Mt Hood were brilliant against the blue sky, and there were waterfowl in the hundreds with great looks at Canvasbacks, Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeon, Ring Necked Ducks, Cackling Geese, Tundra Swans, Mallards, Pintails and Gadwalls.  We also saw what to me was an unbelievable 15 Great Egrets and then the Snowy Egret.

Much more importantly we had a great walk with Chica getting a chance to romp along and then go into retriever mode to chase and bring back “the stick”, time after time after time.  It truly was gorgeous and as relaxing a time as we could hope for, a great capper for a great day.

Mt. Hood


My Two “Girls” – Cindy and Chica

Cindy and Chica

I had promised a good dinner if we found the Accentor and we thought about trying something new in Olympia.  I had passed by the “Rib Eye” Restaurant in Napavine many times on birding trips but had never stopped.  The timing was right and when the sign caught our eye about 6 pm heading north we decided to go for some beef.  They did not have prime rib on weekdays, so we settled for some rib eye steaks.  A bit of gristle but done just right and there was enough to give Chica a treat as well.

Rib Eye Steak


A few more words on the Siberian Accentor.  When Russ posted his marvelous find on Tweeters, it set in motion a wonderful reaction in the birding world.  The location was less than an hour from Portland and its airport and about 2.5 hours from Seattle.  Birders from all over Oregon and Washington flocked to see the bird beginning on the afternoon of the 6th and the crowd grew on Friday and then Saturday and then again on Sunday.  Birders from many other states came in as well.  Birding friends of mine visited from Boston and Ohio and I am sure there were  birders from other states as well.  The rush has continued in smaller numbers Monday when I returned for a second visit and the observations have continued this morning.  Birds that over wintered in Idaho and Montana stayed for two months.  The B.C. Accentor remained for 2 weeks.  Who knows how long this will one will remain.

You get a good sense of the rarity and appeal of the bird since it is the one pictured on the cover of “Rare Birds of North America” (Howell, Lewington and Russell).  After seeing Russ’s Tweeters post on Thursday, I posted the find (by him and with his photo) on the ABA Rare Bird Alert page on Facebook.  There were 100 “likes” within 10 minutes and they continue today – now being over 800.  I posted it because it was a similar post about the Ivory Gull in Montana that got me motivated to chase it.  I do not know how many people have now seen the Siberian Accentor, but I know we all owe Russ Koppendreyer a great big THANK YOU!!

Rare Birds of North America Cover

Accentor Book

I have to say this in my blogs that include rarities – I would greatly prefer that male Smew – but a Siberian Accentor is a great add to my state life list and photo lists and continues a run of successful chases and great birds lately.  Maybe this will be the Year of the Smew.


An Ivory Gull at Flathead Lake – What’s Behind a Complicated Chase

On January 31st, the following was posted on the Montana Rare Bird Alert:  “WOW!! This immature Ivory Gull, a state first, was photographed by Craig Barfoot yesterday (January 30th) at Blue Bay, Flathead Lake.”  It was reposted on the Facebook ABA Rare Bird Alert where I saw it.  The gull had originally been found on the 29th.  It was found again on the 31st so maybe it would stay.

On Cornell’s All About Birds website the Ivory Gull is described as “A small white gull of the high Arctic, the Ivory Gull only rarely comes south of the Bering Sea or the Maritime Provinces. In fact, it rarely is found away from pack ice, spending the winter on the ice north of Newfoundland.”  There have been a number of sightings in New England and very rarely in the Midwest and even as far South as Alabama BUT it is a VERY rare bird and is very much sought after by birders.  It had never been seen before in Montana.  There are two singular observations in Washington; none in Idaho or Oregon and only a couple in California.  I wanted to see it.

Here it is again, Rule 1 for a chase – GO NOW!!  It was already two days after the first observation.  Flathead Lake is 520 miles from Edmonds.  When I checked on the 31st, I found an “almost affordable” flight from Everett, WA to Kalispell, MT.  It is another 55 miles from there to the hotspot.  Not a great departure or return schedule so an overnight and two days were probably necessary. Not ideal…BUT IT WAS AN IVORY GULL!!


And oh yeah, there was that Super Bowl Party thing.  Cindy and I had committed to attending it on Sunday February 2nd.  Rule 1 was NOT going to be followed.  I contacted some Edmonds birders with a plan.  If the Gull was seen again on Saturday the 1st and Sunday the 2nd, I would fly out on Monday hopefully see it then and then fly back on the morning of the 4th or if not seen on Monday, then try again on Tuesday.  They all had conflicts and could not go.

The fundamental basis for Rule 1 is that things change.  And change they did.  The area was hit by a big wind storm with winds exceeding 60 mph on Saturday February 1st.  Many disappointed observers failed to find the Ivory Gull.  Ken Trease from Edmonds had made the long drive and was one of them.  OK, so as of Saturday night – I was not going to go.   On to Super Bowl Sunday, still keeping an eye on Ebird reports.  And there it was…the Ivory Gull was seen again Sunday morning.  In fact Ken had stayed over on Saturday and fortunately was able to see the Ivory Gull Sunday morning.  As I said things change.  Another one.  The price for what had been a sort of affordable flight had doubled.  I really wanted to see the Ivory Gull BUT not at that price.

All day Sunday, I watched the bird reports on Ebird and related sites – continuing to do so as the Super Bowl started.  The Ivory Gull was seen in the morning and again in the afternoon.  Time for Plan B:  Make the drive and keep fingers crossed that it would return again on Monday.  If I left around 2:00 a.m. after a few hours of sleep, maybe I could get there by 11:00 a.m. Monday…but uh-oh that would actually be 12 p.m. as the time zone changed.  The bird’s pattern seemed to be to show in the morning with the afternoons being more questionable.  I adopted Plan B-2, paying somewhat delayed homage to the Go Now directive of Rule 1.  I would leave before the Super Bowl was over and drive as far as I could, sleep a few hours in the car and get to Flathead Lake as early as I could on Monday morning.   There were several mountain passes on the route and reports for all were good.  That too could change – I went now!!

I was on the road before 8:00 pm.  According to my GPS, allowing for gas stops etc. a non-stop drive would get me to the Lake before 6:00 a.m. Mountain Time.  Possible, but I knew that some sleep would be beneficial AND I expected I could make better time than that without getting a ticket along the way.  I drove through to Coeur d’Alene, ID making good time and found a Rest Area to try for a bit of sleep in the car.  Not super comfortable and it was very cold (in the teens) but I got a couple of hours of rest/sleep and was back on the road.  It had been dark the whole trip and dark in Idaho and Montana is very dark.  The roads were clear but there was snow everywhere and it was hard to ignore the warning signs to look for ice.  Either there was none or my Jeep handled it easily.  Not a single slip or slide.  It was also very cold.  Going over Lookout Pass between Idaho and Montana, it dipped down to 5 degrees.  I stayed in the car; the heater worked.

It helped that there was almost no traffic.  At one point I had traveled over 100 miles without passing a vehicle going in my direction or overtaking one either.  Gas stations in Idaho were “open” but only for gas – no food or services – after 11:00 p.m. on Sunday – no 24 hour availability.  Leaving the rest stop early on Monday morning around 2:00 a.m. a warning light came on my dashboard – low tire pressure.  Maybe just a result of sitting in the cold air, but I would have liked to get some air.  I checked at 6 gas stations in Idaho and then later in Montana.  Not a single one had air available.  Oh well what was the worst that could happen…on slippery roads, in the cold, in the dark, alone…  I left that thought and carried on.

Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.  The drive to get to Blue Bay and a chance for this amazing life bird was more than enough to get by on less than 2 hours of sleep.  I found some coffee at a truck stop in Montana.  Later there was a bathroom run at an open early McDonald’s with a “something McMuffin” and before 6:30 a.m. Mountain time, I was at the Blue Bay Campground at Flathead Lake.  There was a tiny hint of light and no one else was there, and it was windless and cold and clear.   I was surprised that no other birders were present.  Had I missed a post somewhere that the Ivory Gull had died?  There are terrible moments on a chase – especially a long one, and especially for a very special bird, when the doubt seeps in.  There is so much investment.  Was I at the wrong area even at the right place.  The bird had been reported “on the dock” but there were several docks including some much further down the lake.  There were NO birds.  Well there was one.  I heard the distinctive call note of a Townsend’s Solitaire.  It was atop a light post.  Barely visible as it was almost completely dark still.   It flew off.  Then I saw movement on the shore next to the boat launch.  Had the Solitaire just landed in the water?  No it was a second bird – an American Dipper.  Don’t know where it came from but I was interested in much bigger prey.  A few minutes later there was something the right size, but definitely the wrong color – a black Raven not a white Gull.

Dock at Blue Bay – Flathead Lake. Montana

Blue Bay2

I waited alone as the light improved but no birds were seen.  An hour passed – nada.  I walked out onto two of the docks – maybe it was there but hidden from my view from the shore.  Nope.  I returned to the car to turn on the heat and warm up a couple of times.  I texted Ken Trease around 7 a.m. Edmonds time and got a kind call back and Ken confirmed I was in the right place.  About 8:20 a.m. Mountain time, I emailed friend Melissa Hafting in Vancouver, B.C.  We had not been able to work out a combined trip – disappointing to both of us but moreso to her as she had missed an Ivory Gull in Nome by moments and very much wanted to see this bird.  I told her that so far it was a no-show.  The light was good and I was more than ready and getting a bit anxious.  I was beginning to think that I would have to abide by Rule 2 for a chase:  “If you do not follow Rule 1 and go now, you are not allowed to whine about it.”  I thought about whining but determined to just wait.

Seemingly out of nowhere 10 minutes after I had emailed Melissa, a gull was flying towards me from out on the Lake.  It passed by the large dock at the Marina and flew towards the smaller dock near the entrance to the campground.  It seemed too big for an Ivory Gull – more like the somewhat larger Ring Billed Gull which would not be surprising at this location.  I did not see dark wing tips – maybe, maybe, maybe – please, please, please.  I got a quick photo as it flew by.  It did not land on the dock.  It turned and flew towards me – right at me – and landed not more than 100 feet away on the shore.  It was without doubt the Ivory Gull and without doubt I was ecstatic!!

Ivory Gull – First View in Flight

Ivory Gull Flight2

Like the Ross’s Gull, Ivory Gulls in their native habitats rarely see any people and are not at all concerned about us.  It truly was as if I was not there as the Ivory Gull paid me no mind whatsoever.  About 5 minutes after first spotting the gull, another birder arrived parking on the boat launch ramp which was between the two sets of docks.  I later learned that this was Eric Rasmussen, an excellent birder/ornithologist from Missoula.  He had been scanning the area from outside the park and now he had his scope on it in front of me.  I made sure not to startle the bird, but approached for better photos walking onto one of the docks to get closer as the gull remained on the shore and this would give me a great angle.  I need not have worried.  The Ivory Gull kept foraging and kept coming towards me – getting to within less than 25 feet.  My camera could just barely focus it was so close.


The water close to the shore and next to the dock was partially frozen and my favorite photos were of the Ivory Gull standing on the ice – almost as if it was on its usual frozen habitat in the far north.

Gull on ICe

After many shots, I left my post and went to see who this other birder was.  Eric had driven in from Missoula and it was from him that I learned of the big windstorm on Saturday that explained the absence of observations that day.   Eric is a Field Ornithologist/Naturalist at MPG Wildlife which is a very interesting organization that stewards and manages a 15,000 acre ranch for wildlife preservation and study.  As with almost all other birding adventures, there is a likelihood of finding great people and places along with the great birds.  We shared many stories including about having partners who are not birders but are interested in birds – well at least the charismatic ones.

We stood on the boat ramp and watched the Ivory Gull continue to forage and then it flew off for a second – and then returned and landed 20 feet away from us – completely ignoring our existence.  The photo below is not high quality – but it was taken with my phone.  I never expected to see an Ivory Gull and certainly would never have expected to get a photo of one with a cell phone – unless I was on some inflatable on a high arctic adventure which was not going to happen.

Cell Phone Photo

Phone Picture

The Gull foraged on the shoreline to the left and right of the ramp.  We took hundreds of photos in the hour or so that we enjoyed this incredible opportunity.  Finally I had to leave as I wanted to get back to Edmonds.  As I returned to my car another car pulled in and they could immediately see the Ivory Gull on the rocky shore and they sped off on foot for better looks.  It did not seem like they had paid their proper dues with the instant gratification, but I have been in that spot myself so I was just happy they were able to see the gull.


The return trip was much different than the journey to start the chase.  For one thing it was bright sun and all of that unseen territory in the darkness of the night was now visible – and gorgeous.  Snow on the beautiful mountains and incredible lakes and rivers which made me think of flyfishing and trout.  I was able to stop at a Les Schwab Tire Center and get air into my tires and I had a nice chat with the guy there who actually appreciated hearing about my trek and the rare bird nearby.




As I was reveling in my good fortune and the marvelous Ivory Gull, a sign caught my eye with the promise of coffee and a bakery.  I felt a celebratory reward was in order so in I went.  This was not some urban and urbane frou frou bakery.  The cinnamon rolls were large enough for a hard working cowboy’s appetite – too big for me even for a grand celebration.  I found a nice looking confection with sliced almonds on top that looked manageable (and yummy).  It was only after my first bite that I found the cream filling which I am sure doubled the calories.  Nevertheless I did finish the whole thing.

Coffee and a Dessert


So sustained, I drove all the way back with a brief stop for a 20 minute cat nap outside Post Falls, ID and then a little bit of birding at a favorite spot near Suncadia in Washington.  To avoid traffic into Seattle, I stopped for dinner in Issaquah – a good decision as afterwards it was clear sailing home.

It was quite a trip.  Over 1000 miles in less than 24 hours and an incredible encounter with a rare and beautiful bird that I never expected to see.  When I set off, I figured the trek would give me a story to tell one way or the other.  The story is oh so much better having seen the Ivory Gull but just making the effort and pushing on with almost no sleep was yet another confirmation of participating in the adventures that life – and birding – have to offer.   The photo was the 710th ABA species photographed.  More ahead I hope, but I have been very fortunate to have had many great adventures lately – mostly involving more birds of the North.  In just the last two months, I have seen a Ross’s Gull, a Glaucous Gull, a Dovekie, a Barnacle Goose, a Gyrfalcon and now an Ivory Gull.  I think I would still decide to trade them all for a single Male Smew but adding the Ivory Gull makes it a tougher decision.