Weather or Not

On March 12th the weather report for the next day in Ellensburg, Washington called for clouds and rain turning to snow maybe that night.  Not perfect but Jon Houghton and I thought we would be okay to look for newly arrived birds in the area east of Ellensburg in the sage and shrub steppe habitats along Vantage Highway especially Sagebrush Sparrows which are early arrivals and are actively vocal in March.  We also considered birding in other locations nearby maybe even venturing south to Oak Creek to find some always present and always beautiful Lewis’s Woodpeckers.   Well, weather forecasts are not always accurate.

Lewis’s Woodpecker – from March 16, 2017

Lewis's Woodpecker

A light snow started to fall not long after clearing Snoqualmie Pass and while not a travel concern, we wondered about its effect on birding if it continued.  It never got real heavy, but continue it did for most of the rest of the day and it definitely impacted the birds and our birding.  Our itinerary would normally begin with birds at Bullfrog Pond east of Cle Elum and then a swing by the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum but since we both had seen all the birds resident and likely at these spots and it was too early for migrants, we moved on directly to Umptanum and then Durr Roads just south of Ellensburg and the first really good sage habitat.  The snow continued.

By now both Western and Mountain Bluebirds are almost assured along Umptanum Road and we found both species albeit in smaller numbers than usual and the snowy conditions made photos less than worthwhile.  Durr Road heads up into thicker sage and is often good for Brewer’s, Vesper, and Lark Sparrows and sometimes Sage Thrashers.  We had none of them and our “best birds” were three male Common Mergansers flying over – go figure.

We met up with good birding friend Deb Essman in Kittitas who joined us for the next couple of hours.  We started with the pair of Great Horned Owls that are nesting in the shed across from her home.  Unfortunately the snow and birds were no kinder to Deb than they were to us and we were unable to find some of the birds that had been seen locally in better conditions like a Prairie Falcon or Wild Turkeys which were targets.  Not going to give all the details, but essentially we struck out on almost everything along Vantage Highway, Recreation Road, Frenchman’s Coulee and Huntzinger Road.  We had no wrens and only a pair of uncooperative Say’s Phoebes at Vantage and a surprise Vesper Sparrow on Lyon’s Road in a spot where Jon had them in previous years, but that was about it.  The good news though was that we had a great visit with Deb as we always do and never thought about politics or COVID-19 the whole time.  Jon ended up with 4 FOY’s (both Bluebirds, the Phoebe and the Vesper Sparrow).  I had the same plus a Horned Lark which Jon had seen in the hundreds when he visited the Waterville Plateau earlier this year.  Since 10 or 12 First of Year birds had been possible, this was not a big success.  We aborted the trip early and returned to Edmonds driving through Seattle at what would normally be the peak of the rush hour.  There was no traffic at all – a nice consolation.

Great Horned Owl – Third Year on Nest in Shed – Photo is with Young in 2018

Great Horned Owl and Owlets

The good thing about weather is that it changes – sometimes really quickly.  After our snowy day on March 13th the wind blew heavily that night – not unusual there – and then it began to warm up – just in time for Spring.  On Thursday March 19th, Cindy and I were supposed to fly to Fort Lauderdale, FL for four days of birding and tourism before joining Naturalist Journeys on a long awaited trip to Cuba.  The following month we were planning a trip to see friends and then some birds in Southeast Arizona.   My daughter and grandson were going to come visit in April and then in May Cindy was scheduled to visit England and I was going to join Bruce LaBar birding in Texas.  But COVID-19 vetoed all of that and all of those trips were cancelled.

Knowing that the 19th would be a real downer day and anticipating that travel in Washington might be shut down at any time, when I noted that the weather in Kittitas County was going to be beautiful on March 18th, I opted for the antidote of a return to birding and to try again for birds missed the previous week.  No surprise, weather really does matter and I had fabulous birding.  I skipped Umptanum and Durr Roads and headed straight to areas near Kittitas that Jon and I had birded with Deb Essman the previous Friday.  I could not relocate the Vesper Sparrow but did find a FOY Prairie Falcon nearby on Venture Road.  I was then surprised to have a male Ring Necked Pheasant scurry out from a farmyard and got a great look and a photo.  Then about a mile away as I turned around a curve, I saw another Ring Necked Pheasant on a fence not more than 10 feet away.  It remained motionless as I got probably the best picture I will ever get of one.

Ring Necked Pheasant

Ring Necked Pheasant1 (2)

From there it was on to Vantage Highway with the first spot being a personal hotspot where Deb Essman had shown me a Sage Thrasher several years ago.  No Thrasher but I had my First of Year Sagebrush Sparrows, both Western and Mountain Bluebirds and a surprise pair of relatively early Brewer’s Sparrows.  I was particularly pleased with the finds of both sparrows as I first identified them by song, something that is not my strength and then tracked them down.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow2-sharpen-focus

Brewer’s Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow-sharpen-focus

Retracing Friday’s route, I next stopped at the Whiskey Dick/Quilomene Corrals and this time had much better luck with visuals of Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes, Sage Thrashers, Vesper Sparrows and a distant Sagebrush Sparrow.

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird on Sage-sharpen-focus-sharpen-focus

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird Female-sharpen-sharpen

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher1

Distant Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow Quilomene

Continuing to retrace Friday’s route, I turned onto Recreation Road and pulled off to walk into the Canyon and look/listen for wrens.  A bird was singing and I thought it might be a Cassin’s Finch – a little odd for this habitat, but sure enough it was in a tree right by the parking area.  Very pink including onto its streaked back.  I could not get a clear shot and it flew off across the road.  I started my hike and as soon as I got onto the trail, two Chukar flushed and flew into the rocks across Recreation Road and gave their familiar “chuck” and “chuckar” calls as they climbed out of sight.  No wrens in the Canyon but it was a beautiful walk and I had already added two new year birds.

I found singing Rock and Canyon Wrens near the boat launch at the end of Recreation Road.  This is a regular spot for them and I have had both species there many times.  I just wish they had cooperated for Jon the previous week.  Weather clearly continued to matter.  Having added the Canyon Wren to my year list I now could skip a second try at Huntzinger Road – perhaps my most reliable spot for them.  I decided to return to Ellensburg and head south on Umptanum Road and onto Wenas Road to try for White Headed Woodpeckers.  I stopped the car near an area of pines and firs near Kindle Lane, a private road, where I have had these woodpeckers before.  As soon as I got out of the car I heard the unmistakable chattering of some Pygmy Nuthatches.  There were at least six in the trees above me.  I also heard at least two drumming woodpeckers.  One was a Northern Flicker behind me and far off but identified by the calls that would follow the drumming.  Another was a White Headed Woodpecker that was in the trees on the private property on Kindle Lane.  I got a quick response from playback and saw the woodpecker uphill but I could not get it to come down for a good look and a photo.  This would not be my only woodpecker frustration of the day.  Stay tuned – and yes I am talking about you Williamson’s Sapsucker.

A little further up the road, I again heard some tapping and had a Hairy Woodpecker right overhead.  It may have been the most active Hairy Woodpecker I had ever seen, flitting from one tree to another, drumming and then flying off again.  One picture was all I got.  I also heard another sound.  At first I could not recall what it was but knew it was something good and distinctive.  Then I remembered the call I had heard and the bird I had seen while waiting for the Ivory Gull at Flathead Lake – a Townsend’s Solitaire.  It was perched high on a distant conifer.  It would not sing in response to playback – only continue to call and to remain far uphill indifferent to my pleas.  I also had two more Cassin’s Finches (in more appropriate habitat), some Mountain Chickadees, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Kestrel at this location – quite a worthwhile stop.

Hairy Woodpecker – (No offense, but I would Have Preferred the White Headed Woodpecker)

Hairy Woodpecker Wenas

I was happy to get back on to pavement as Wenas Road ended and then I turned onto Maloy Road, again unpaved.  I have had multiple White Headed Woodpeckers in perfect habitat near BBQ Flats and really wanted a photo.  But it was quiet and birdless.  However, as I retraced steps I saw two raptors circling above and one was decidedly larger than the other.  The smaller one was a Red Tailed Hawk and the second was an eagle.  I assumed it was a juvenile Bald Eagle.  My assumption was wrong as proved by a close look and my photo.  It was a juvenile Golden Eagle – always a welcomed find.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle Juvenile

It was only about 1:15 p.m. and Oak Creek and its Lewis’s Woodpeckers were only 30 minutes away.  The sun was shining; there was no wind; plenty of gas…I was off.  I had forgotten how beautiful the drive along the Naches River on Highway 12 was. Truly gorgeous.  I arrived at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area and found the gate closed.  Instead of driving up Oak Creek Road as I usually do, I would have to walk.  As long as I found the woodpeckers, I didn’t care and in fact looked forward to a quiet visit and some good exercise.  Finding woodpeckers was no problem and the hike was exactly what the doctor ordered to forget politics and plagues.  Lewis’s Woodpeckers are often very close to the road perching on the many snags along the creek.  This time, the woodpeckers seemed to favor the trees across the creek but they were plentiful and a few were sufficiently close for good photos.  This is a wonderful place.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker-sharpen-focus (2)

Oak Creek Canyon is also perfect habitat for Canyon Wren with steep rock cliffs in abundance.  At what I expected to be a perfect spot I played its beautiful mellifluous descending song and almost immediately got a response from high above on top of one of the cliffs.  I could see the white throat and long decurved bill with my binoculars but too far for a photo.  My experience has been that these wrens are very territorial and very responsive.  This is particularly so in response to their “jeet” call.  And so it was this day as the Canyon Wren moved closer and closer and closer probably travelling at least 125 yards.  In good light I got my photo.

Canyon Wren

Canyon Wren Best-sharpen-focus

There were at least 15 Lewis’s Woodpeckers in the lower half mile or so of the Canyon and another half dozen along the river back on Highway 12.  Fort Simcoe is the only other place I know of in the state with so many individuals of this truly beautiful species.  It had already been a good woodpecker day but I wanted one more so I made one more stop – at Bethel Ridge – further down Highway 12.  I believe it is the best place in Washington for the biggest variety of Woodpeckers and it is also good for Flammulated Owls and Poorwills in the late Spring.  I have had every species of Washington woodpecker there except Acorn Woodpecker – all on the same day.  That feat requires going to the top of the Ridge – a challenging road and can only be done later in the year.  My quest today would be a Williamson’s Sapsucker.  And as I hinted earlier, it would be a very frustrating experience.

I have heard and/or seen Williamson’s Sapsuckers at the “corrals” on Bethel Ridge Road – maybe two miles in at most from Highway 12 and that is where I planned to start my search.  White Headed Woodpeckers have been found on the way up so I stopped a few times to try playback for them.  No success.  As soon as I got out of my car at the corrals, I heard the distinctive “chyaah” call of a Williamson’s Sapsucker and then some drumming.  Then I heard a second call from the other side and further up the road.  I tried playback to draw one in but only got intermittent responses and no visuals.  For the next 20+ minutes this continued and I heard calls and drumming from numerous different spots, back and forth and up and down along the road.  There were certainly at least two and possibly more.  I ran back and forth thinking I would find one for a photo, but all I got was a single visual of one flying over a hill and into more trees.  There was no question that I had found my target, but I was disappointed and frustrated not to get the photo.  As the photo below from the same place a couple of years ago shows, they are really spectacular.

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Williamson's Sapsucker

I finally gave up and headed home – 176 miles away.  It was around 3:45 and with the light post Covid-19 traffic, I actually made back to Edmonds at 6:30 in time to join Cindy for dinner.

So yes weather does matter.  The Williamson’s Sapsucker made it 11 FOY’s for the day and 16 FOY’s adding in the birds seen with Jon Houghton.  I hope there will be a chance to return to this favored area as migration continues and more birds arrive.  They will not be affected by the Covid-19 virus, but we will.  Will travel be allowed?  Don’t know.  With that in mind Cindy and I squeezed in one more trip – not focused on birds but they were included as we visited the Washington Coast – a respite from the depressing news, a day in the sun and a chance for Chica to run loose on the beach.  We visited Tokeland, Grayland and Westport.

The Willet flock cooperated at Tokeland but we did not see any Marbled Godwits.  A treat, though, was a dozen or so Greater White Fronted Geese mixed in with Canada Geese just as we came to the marina.  There were several Western Grebes in the marina and I checked each as I have had Clark’s Grebes there before.


Two Willets

Greater White Fronted Geese

Greater White Fronted Geese Duo

Western Grebe

Western Grebe with Fish1

We found only a single Snowy Plover on the open beach and it flew off with Sanderlings and Dunlin which were plentiful.  At the end of our drive on the open beach, I found two FOY Semipalmated Plovers but there were no other shorebirds.  Chica did have a chance to chase a ball on the beach and we all enjoyed those carefree moments.

Cindy had never been to Westport before.  We drove through and looked for rockpipers at the “groins” but found none.  Charters are not going out of Westport and that includes the pelagic birding trips.  Restaurants are closed.  A pretty grim place at best of times, it was moreso now.  Cindy might be willing to return if pelagic trips are available again, but not interested otherwise.  We headed home and there would be one more notable bird for the trip as we found a First of Year Turkey Vulture soaring above us about 10 miles west of Olympia.

Now we will practice our social distancing and try to ride out this difficult time.  It is going to be a long ride and probably a rocky one.  At least we had some wonderful weather for a few days.  Next week the rains are due.  Sigh…


Smile for the Camera Please

For the first 30+ years of my birding life, I took no pictures.  It was not until I traveled to Australia in 2003 that I finally got a camera to take pictures of scenery as much as of the birds.  That first camera was a Canon Powershot.  It was a digital point and shoot zoom camera with maybe 20x magnification.  I didn’t know much about photography and frankly didn’t care.  Mostly I was trying to get pictures to catalog my experiences and to have images to help remember them.  The pictures in Australia were limited and not too great, but the photography seed had been planted.  It would grow.

Saltwater Crocodile –  Australia – September 2003


For the next 10 years until 2012 my birding continued to be mostly international as I visited Brazil in 2005, Kenya in 2007 and India in 2011.  Canon introduced new cameras in their Powershot series and I upgraded to more powerful Powershots – finally a SX50 – each providing more and more magnification.  And each provided better pictures and more importantly provided more enjoyment as the photos became more important adding to my birding experiences.

Hyacinth Macaws – Pantanal, Brazil – September 2005

Hyacinth macaws 3r

Secretarybird – Kenya – November 2007


The continuing increased role of photography reached a high point in 2015.  I had done a a State Big Year in Washington in 2013, 364 species seen with pictures of many.  In 2015 I decided to do another Big Year in the state but trying to get photos of as many of the species as possible.  In support of that adventure I bought my first Digital Single Lens Reflex camera (a “DSLR”) a Canon 7D Mark II with a zoom lens.  The year ended with pictures of 358 of the 361 species seen.  (Photos missed were Boreal Owl, Flammulated Owl and Common Poorwill.)  That was the camera and lens combination that I have used for the last 5 years.  I had some problems with the camera body which failed in Arizona and with the lens that failed in Louisiana in 2018 – big disappointments but that set-up served me well for hundreds of field trips and many thousand photos.

Spotted Owl – June 7, 2015 – Lewis County, WA

Spotted Owl 2

Then on February 17th I put my name on the list for a new Olympus mirrorless camera that was going to be released to the market the following week.  Over many preceding months birding friends who are terrific photographers had made the switch to mirrorless Micro Four Thirds cameras which are very much smaller and lighter than the DSLR combos they and I have been using.  They appreciated the lighter weight in the field and the smaller size in their travels, but they would not have made the switch without confidence that the quality was top notch.  Many had chosen various models offered by Olympus finding the quality of cameras and lenses to be excellent with two additional advantages.  These cameras were almost waterproof and their image stabilization features were far superior to models that had preceded them.  AND…Olympus was about to bring out a new model – the OM-D EM-1 Mark III promising even higher quality.

mark iii camera

Olympus has a fantastic “loaner program” through which I was first able to get a OM-D EM-1 Mark II camera body with a 300 mm lens to try for three days for free.  I really liked the camera.  I had some trouble finding my targets with the lens but the pictures were very good.  A major plus for this camera is incredible image stabilization and with the Micro Four Thirds processor, it essentially doubles the effective magnification.  Thus with a 300 mm lens it is equivalent to 600 mm.

Bewick’s Wren with the Mark II and 300 mm Lens

Bewicks Wren1-sharpen-focus

I had been working with Joanne Dailey at Kenmore Camera and she arranged for me to be able to get an advance model of the OM-D EM-1 Mark III and I coupled that with the 300 mm lens.  I gave the combo a real workout and was sold – at least for the camera.  The lens was terrific but I was used to my zoom lens and found that I had difficulty getting on the birds in the high magnification of the 300 mm lens especially with a 1.4 extender.  Still some very nice photos including of a very cooperative Northern Waterthrush and a finely plumaged Gadwall at Wylie Slough in Skagit County.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush4



I returned the loaned equipment and picked up my own OM-D EM-1 Mark III and 300 mm lens with a 1.4 extender and gave them another try.  I continued to have trouble finding the birds in the viewfinder without the zoom and went back to the drawing board.  Olympus has a 50 mm/150 mm zoom lens but that does not have sufficient magnification for my purposes.  It is due to release a compatible zoom lens later this year maybe even two – one a 100-400 mm zoom and the other a 150-600 zoom possibly with a built in 1.4 extender.  With upcoming trips to Florida, Cuba, Arizona and Texas, I did not want to wait.  I remembered that Joanne had told me that Lumix/Panasonic lenses made by Leica were compatible with the Olympus body and there was a 100-400 mm Lumix that got great reviews.  I tried it out in the camera store and was very pleased so I traded in the 300 mm Olympus for that zoom lens and returned my 1.4 extender which is not compatible with the Lumix lens.  The original combination with the extender was equivalent to 420 mm and the zoom was 400 mm at maximum power so there was not significant loss, and the reduction in cost saved me almost $1,000 – a real bonus.

Except for the phone pix taken at the Oyster Bar Restaurant, all photos below were taken with the Olympus/Lumix combination and I am very pleased with the quality and with the much smaller size and decreased weight.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Feather Detail


On March 10, I birded in Whatcom County with the specific goal of adding three species to my County Life List bringing it to 200.  The weather was overcast and a bit rainy and I definitely have not mastered the new equipment but it was a very fun time and I did find the three new species: American Dipper, Evening Grosbeak and Purple Finch.  Decent photos of the first two but the gems were a displaying Long Tailed Duck with a VERY long tail, a Varied Thrush and a Red Breasted Sapsucker with a VERY red breast.

Long Tailed Duck – Blaine Marina – Whatcom County – March 10th

Long Tailed Duck4A

Long Tailed Duck2A

Red Breasted Sapsucker – Glacier – Whatcom County – March 10th

Red Breasted Sapsucker on Pole1A

Varied Thrush – South Lake Whatcom SP – Whatcom County – March 10th

Varied Thrush1

American Dipper – South Lake Whatcom SP – Whatcom County – March 10th

American Dipper 1A

Evening Grosbeak – Glacier – Whatcom County – March 10th

Evening Grosbeak1-sharpen-focus

Today, March 12th, I squeezed in a couple of hours of birding after taking Cindy to the Paine Field Airport as she left for a memorial service in California for a dear friend that died unexpectedly and suddenly recently – a tragic loss.  I returned to Skagit County and picked up a couple of FOY’s and then had some nice photos at Wylie Slough as I continue to gain experience with the new camera and also continue to be very pleased.

Drake and Hen Shovelers


Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

House Finch

House Finch

Tomorrow I head out with Jon Houghton to Eastern Washington with hopes that the Shrub/Steppe/Sage species will be in and that I will have photos to prove we saw them.   [Note:  we made that trip and added some new species but we were in falling snow and or very gray skies all day – no photos.]

The photos below are out of sequence – earlier than the ones above.  The first two were surprises at the off leash dog park in Edmonds and were not long after getting the new equipment and were confidence building.  The last set are the most important – a very nice bird and a very lovely dinner marking an important date.

Brant – Edmonds, WA — March 4th


Black Scoter – Edmonds, WA – March 4th

Black Scoter

These photos of a Short Eared Owl – one of 3 seen – was very special not just because the photos are nice, but because it was an appetizer of sorts to a superb meal at the Oyster Bar Restaurant on Chuckanut Drive on March 6, where Cindy and I celebrated our one year anniversary of knowing each other.

Short Eared Owl – Samish Flats – East 90’s – Skagit County

King Salmon at the Oyster Bar

King Salmon

Sturgeon at the Oyster Bar


Cindy and Blair at the Oyster Bar

Oyster Bar

Stay tuned…