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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 (birdbanter.com). 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
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
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
Male and Female Eurasian Wigeon and Male American Wigeon
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
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.
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
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
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 swans with “Stained Plumage”
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
Tundra Swan – Pierce County Lifer #197
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.