A Khanh Tran Kind of Day…

His owl sightings, photos, discoveries and frankly anything else having to do with owls is remarkable, amazing and downright hard to fathom.  How does he do it?   Great Grays, Western Screech, Flammulated, Long and Short Eared, Saw Whets and Pygmys and even Northern Spotted Owls and Hawk Owls.  He knows their haunts, their habits, where to find them and how to photograph them.  He is the Owl Whisperer.  Owls are among the most sought after birds everywhere.  We all want to see them.  We struggle.  We try and when we succeed at all, we are thrilled.  Especially for some of these beauties, far too often, there is no success, no visual, no photo, not even a “heard only”.  It seems that Khanh never misses.  And there are not just pictures; there are photographs, beautiful works of art.

Khanh Tran

Khanh Tran

It would be so easy to hate someone like this.  Each photo reminding us of our failures.  But, he is also a good guy.  Funny, engaging.  Heck, he’s even cute.  Not fair.  Not even close to fair.  I considered myself greatly fortunate to have photographs, well at least pictures, of every owl in Washington – except Boreal and Flammulated Owls.  I have seen a Boreal Owl once – deep in the trees at Mount Rainier.  It would not come closer.  At best it was a glimpse, hardly even “a look”.  Even a poor picture was not possible.  I saw a shadow of one once – at Salmo Mountain late at night with snow on the road and more frosting the trees.  Maybe it was a shadow or maybe it was just a spiritual presence in that very remote, beautiful and serene part of our State.  But its hoots were real.

At noon at the top of Bethel Ridge several of us heard a Flammulated Owl calling.  A creature of the dark night, this never happens.  But I have witnesses.  It called for more than 15 minutes, never visible to any of us, until it burst out of the tree, flew almost over our heads and then disappeared.  Little bastard!!  I had a brief visual on another occasion – at night – but could not find it after it perched who knows where.  I have heard maybe 20 Flammulated Owls in Washington and last year with the aid of Tim Avery finally got a photo in Utah.

Khanh Tran routinely finds, sees and photographs both Boreal and Flammulated Owls.  But I have no hate, just envy and admiration and a fantasy of having a day, even just a single day, when I could whisper to the owls and have them appear before me like they do – always do for Khan Tran.  A single Khanh Tran kind of day.  Just one.  Please…

Well, it happened.  No Flammulated Owls and no Boreal Owls but yesterday (June 22) I found SEVEN Burrowing Owls!!  Not nearly as rare as Boreal and Flammulated Owls but hey they are much cuter!!  And some of my pictures just may be good enough to be called “photographs”, but you will be the judge of that.  If not quality, definitely there is quantity.  Here’s what happened on my Khan Tran kind of day.

Last week on the way home from a wonderful visit to Sunriver, Cindy and I stopped at the High Desert Museum.  Lots of good exhibits even with limits imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions.  Pretty hard to beat the photogenic River Otters at feeding time, but at the very end, we enjoyed the Burrowing Owl exhibit and I got a very fun photo even though the owl was behind glass.  Maybe it was an omen.  (Whoa!!  Maybe Khan was sending a message – hey, he lives in Oregon after all.)

River Otters – High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon

River Otter

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Oregon

So on Monday I decided to go looking for a Burrowing Owl in Washington.  It would be my first of the year and I have seen them every year since 2011 so it would be the tenth year in a row.  Recent reports have been from the area near Hatchery Road and Rocky Ford in Grant County, a place I had seen them in April last year, so that would be my target area.  So the plan was an early start, a first stop at Bullfrog Pond near Cle Elum and then to owl country.

The birds were as expected at Bullfrog Pond and neighboring Wood Duck Road.  Veeries were calling everywhere and I had five warbler species: Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Wilson’s and Common Yellowthroat.  No pictures of them worth sharing.  Better photos were of a family of young Western Bluebirds and some Cassin’s Finches from Wood Duck Road.

Young Western Bluebirds

Two Western Bluebirds

Baby Bluebird

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch

I had seen 40 species by the time I reached Ellensburg, the sun was out and the temperature was up more than 25 degrees from the time I arrived at Bullfrog and was now a comfortable 63 degrees.  It got warmer as I continued East.  I was relying on my phone’s GPS to take me to the spot on Hatchery Road where Ebird reports said 2 Burrowing Owls had been seen two days earlier.  It chose a route that was not what I expected and it took me onto Road 9 near Soap Lake.  There were many Western Meadowlarks and Western Kingbirds usually on the telephone wires.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird2

Just before reaching Dodson Road as I was speeding down Road 9, my eye noticed something on the wire that was not a Meadowlark or Kingbird.  It looked like an owl but I had never seen one perched on a wire that far off the ground.  I made a quick U-turn and was under “it” and the “it” was indeed an owl, my first Burrowing Owl of the day and of 2020.  I watched it for several minutes remaining in my car as a blind.  Picture, picture, picture.  It then flew to the ground and there were more pictures.  It flew off…and disappeared with me thinking it had flown into a culvert – perhaps its nest burrow.  I was still miles away from the “target area” and I had found my target already.  I was a happy camper, indeed.

Burrowing Owl – Road 9



I gave a few minutes thought to changing plans and with such an early success finding the only real target of the day, I considered researching another FOY and trying for it – maybe a Gray Partridge or even a Dusky Grouse.  But they were hours away, so I carried on towards Hatchery Road.  My GPS told me to continue on Road 9 and then turn onto Road A.  Not what I expected, but the deviation to Road 9 had worked – why not?  And this worked, too.

It is not 100% clear how the road numbering/naming system works in the area but as I was traveling essentially what I think was East on Road A, my GPS said I was approaching Road 12.3 on my left.  Traveling at 60 mph as I zoomed towards the intersection and then past it as another car was about to turn onto Road A, I thought I saw a little bump on a rocky outcropping a short ways up Road 12.3.  I made another quick U-turn and turned right onto 12.3 and indeed it was another Burrowing Owl not bothered by my presence or the pickup that had just turned onto Road A.  The camera was busy again.

Burrowing Owl – Road 12.3


A second pick up came roaring down 12.3 towards me.  How could there be so much traffic on this little nothing of a road?  This time the owl flew off and landed on a smaller rock maybe 100 feet away.  I was still not even on Highway 17 let alone Hatchery Road and I had seen two Burrowing Owls.  Pretty good indeed.  Back onto Road A and then a right turn onto Highway 282 which is where I had expected to be earlier.  A mile or so and then a left turn onto Highway 17.  I recalled that Burrowing Owls had been reported on Highway 17 but I had not noted where since my focus was on Hatchery Road.

Maybe 3 or 4 miles up Highway 17 and perhaps a half mile before the right turn to Hatchery Road, I saw an SUV pulled over on the left side of the road.  A guy was standing on the front seat and up into the open sunroof.  He had a camera with a long lens.  What was he seeing?  On a bird chase, you always hope that there is a birder already there when you arrive with the target in front of him or her to be pointed out to you.  This was sorta the case here.  A photographer and not a birder, he was focused on a nest burrow on top of a rise leading to a fenced field.  There was an an adult Burrowing Owl which flew off and two Owlets which retreated into the burrow.  Amazingly, now before reaching the target zone, I had seen 5 Burrowing Owls.  This was the first sense that this indeed was a Khanh Tran kind of day.  No photos, but wow!!

Well, it was a good thing that I had found the Burrowing Owls that I did because there were none to be found along Hatchery Road or at Rocky Ford.  Later I found out that the Ebird report I had relied on for the Hatchery Road sighting was inaccurate and that the owls had been seen on Highway 17 – maybe at the same burrow I had left earlier.   Ebird is a wonderful tool but it and those who use it often leave much to be desired when it comes to pinpoint accuracy.  I am sure I have sinned that way as well although I am trying to avoid doing so.

There were other birds along Hatchery Road, though.  A distant Grasshopper Sparrow scratched out its insect-like song/call.  Several Savannah Sparrows appeared atop the sage or on the wires and then disappeared in flight.  Lark Sparrows did the same.  Again quite distant with the resulting photos leaving much to desire.  A Rock Wren sang on a rock and then responding to my playback flew to another rock and then another.  Never close but no mistaking the song or the identification even without the rocks.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow3

Rock Wren

Rock Wren3

And Western Kingbirds were common and easily seen on the wires.  All told on this trip there may have been 18 or more of them, even outnumbering the Western Meadowlarks.

Western Kingbird on Hatchery Road

Western Kingbird1

Long ago I occasionally went flyfishing at Rocky Ford.  There are some very large rainbow trout in the crystal clear waters.  Challenging fishing for sure.  This day the lure was a chance for Sora and Virginia Rails.  I played the whinny call for a Sora and got an immediate response – actually two.  A Sora was calling from across the creek, unlikely to fly over to check me out.  Much closer was a Virginia Rail.  I often find that either rail will respond to the call of the other.  There are openings in the reeds near the fishing platform where I was trying the playback and I thought a visual might be possible.

I heard at least one and possibly two more Virginia Rails and they eagerly responded to the “grunt” calls my phone played for them.  I spent at least 20 minutes there hoping for a view and maybe a photo.  I had several views of one of the rails skittering between the reeds, but my only photos were of the spot where the Rail had just been or maybe its flanks against the reeds.  Then one came into the open just long enough to get a photo of at least most of the bird.  Probably my first Virginia Rail photo of the year.

Virginia Rails

Virginia Rail1

Very happy for the day, it was time to head home.  I would not have expected it, but there was even the chance to join Cindy for dinner.  So it was back to the Burrowing Owl nest on Highway 17 hoping for a photo of the Owlets.  They remained in the burrow and I had a glimpse of the adult in the field.  Retracing my steps in about a mile I saw another Burrowing Owl this time on the other side of the road perched on a fence post.  Maybe it was part of the family from the nest I had just left but a mile seems a bit too far for that.  In the first photo the owl is looking right at me.  In the second it is glancing skyward at a Red Tailed Hawk that was soaring above.

Burrowing Owl



Before this trip, I think the most Burrowing Owls I have seen in one day in Washington is probably three, possibly four.  Now I was up to six.  There would be one more although I needed distant help to do so.  Let me explain.  I wanted to see if the owls I had found on the way in were still there – both from my own curiosity and also because if so then it would increase the chance that others could follow my reports and find them if they were interested.  Coming up on Road 12.3 I could see that familiar bump on the rocky outcropping.  The Burrowing Owl was still there.  It took off as I turned onto the road, but I already had my photos, so that was no issue.  I did see other critters on rocks – Yellow Bellied Marmots I believe.

Yellow Bellied Marmots

How about the first find of the day back on Road 9.  As I was approaching the spot which was entered into my GPS I could see an owl-like form on the wire less than 100 feet from where I had seen the first owl that morning.  It remained motionless as I again took a number of photos.  Very pleased, it was now time to say goodbye to this extraordinary day and head home.  Several hours later I was home and went through my pictures, editing some and posting the best of them on Facebook recounting what I thought was a six-owl day.  One viewer, R.J. Baltierra – a super birder from the Tri-Cities saw the post and paid a lot more knowledgeable attention to them than I had.  Noticing coloration differences between some of the photos I posted from Road 9, he wondered if perhaps there were two different birds.  I responded to his inquiry with a clarification of when each photo was taken and indeed the first was the female and the second was of the paler male.  So it became a seven owl day.  And none where I had expected to find them.

Burrowing Owl – Second Viewing on Road 9 – the Spots are From an Irrigation Sprinkler in Action when I was There 



Acknowledging that these are not Boreal nor Flammulated nor Spotted nor Hawk Owls, I loved finding, seeing and photographing these wonderful little owls, finding them in unexpected locations although in perfect habitat.  I almost expected Khanh Tran to show up and with a smile, he would say something like: “I hope you enjoyed this.  I knew you were heading this way and put in a special request for these owls to greet you.  Welcome to my world, and no you don’t even have to thank me!!”

On Familiar Ground

The past few days have really brought home to me the role that “familiar ground” plays in my birding life.  Some thoughts and examples follow.

Case I – A Black Throated Sparrow

On Sunday, June 1, a Black Throated Sparrow was reported on Ebird in North Bend, about 45 miles from me.  The report referenced but did not include photos and I did not know the birder reporting this extraordinary find.   Many reports of purported Black Throated Sparrows  have turned out to be House Sparrows, a common “junk bird” found mostly around inhabited areas including commercial buildings.  This bird was reported on the parking lot behind the Mount Si Gymnastics Academy, a commercial building.  It seemed likely to be an error in identification.  Besides I had just seen the Black Throated Sparrow on Dennis Road in Franklin County.

If the reported area had been familiar ground, I would have known that this parking area adjoined a lovely patch of mixed habitat.  Not the normal arid habitat of a Black Throated Sparrow but pretty birdy and especially this year with many out of place sightings – well maybe?  But it not being familiar ground, I completely discounted the possibilities and did not pursue it.  Then that night photos were added to the report and indeed it was the real thing.  Oh well.  I should have chased it early the next morning but had some obligations and knew I would be going on a long trip on Tuesday so convincing myself that it was likely a one day wonder, I refrained.

Case II – A Least Tern

On Monday morning I was working on a brief photo presentation for the Washington Ornithological Society that night and paid little attention to emails and such.  Fortunately however, I checked emails at precisely 1:35 p.m.  Exactly 4 minutes earlier, Louis Kreemer had posted the following message on “Tweeters” our local birding listserv:  “Sam Fason and I are looking at what we are quite sure to be a Least Tern at Montlake Fill! …”  I had never seen a Least Tern in Washington – a super rarity.   I grabbed camera and binoculars and was out the door by 1:45 and was at the Fill by 2:10 P.M.  Hurrying towards the “Osprey Tower” which was the noted lookout spot, I ran into Ryan Merrill who was coming out and who had just seen the Tern.  It was there!!

Five minutes later I found John Puschock and Sam Nason, one of the original discoverers, at the water’s edge and heard those three wonderful words – “There it is!”  It took a second to get on it with my bins as it dipped and dived tern-like, but I had it – a Washington Lifer!!  I got a couple of ID quality only photos in the distance.  Other birders arrived and maybe 5 minutes after I had my first sighting, the tern landed on a piece of wood in the water – much closer to us – and posed.  Now I had a great look and a fairly decent photo although the light was tricky.  This was Washington Lifer #423 and state photo #410.  I had seen many great birds at this familiar turf, and had seen Least Terns in 10 other states but had never expected to see one there.

Least Tern

Least Tern1

This is such a challenging time in our nation as protests after the murder of George Floyd continued and new cases of COVID-19 were occurring daily.  Once again birding had taken me away  from those tragic realities.  The protests and the Coronavirus pandemic are anything but familiar and every unavoidable thought about them brought great discomfort and worry.  At the Montlake Fill, the sun was shining and once again I was sheltered in the comfortable cocoon that looking for familiar birds in a familiar place provides.

As it turned out that the Black Throated Sparrow was seen again a couple of hours before my seeing the Least Tern.  Should I have tried for it?  Yes,  But I did not.  Why?  I thought about trying for it when I was at the Montlake Fill and that was when the concept of familiar ground first came to mind.  The Fill was very familiar ground.  I was comfortable and confident there.  The opposite was the case for the seemingly strange North Bend location.  Often I love going to new places and experiencing new habitats and birds – especially if the places are beautiful and the birds are special.   Maybe I hesitated because I knew I would be embarking on a long trip to more familiar ground the next day and that was where my head was.  But I rarely hesitate going on a chase.  In the end I think that I was so lifted by seeing the Least Tern at this special place that I did not want to chance a failed chase overriding such a successful one.  I was very much in my comfort zone.

A Long Trip to More Familiar Ground

Every year in May and into June I have actively birded favorite places in Eastern Washington to see some of the newly arrived species that were then on breeding grounds. With only small variations to this trek every year, this has become familiar territory with mandatory visits to Bullfrog Pond and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds near Cle Elum, the Yakima River Canyon, Bethel Ridge and Oak Creek, the Liberty area, the Quilomene Wildlife Area, Wenas, County Line Ponds and Potholes Reservoir.  When there has been time for longer trips, and I have always found such time, other mandatory visits have been to Lyle, to the Walla Walla area and to Spokane and then Calispell Lake.

Each place, with some overlap, can be relied upon for specific species.  Just a few examples (among many others that are found at each place):  Veery at Bullfrog Pond, Pygmy Nuthatch at the Railroad Ponds, Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting in the Yakima Canyon, Lewis’s Woodpecker at Oak Creek, Williamson’s Sapsucker at Bethel Ridge, White Headed Woodpecker at Wenas, Phalaropes, Stilts and Avocets at the County Line Ponds, Forster’s Tern at Potholes, Sage Thrashers in the Quilomene, Flammulated Owls and Poorwills at Liberty, Acorn Woodpeckers and Ash Throated Flycatchers in Lyle, Green Tailed Towhees, White Faced Ibis, Great Gray Owls and Ferruginous Hawks near Walla Walla and Bobolinks,  Northern Waterthrush and Red Eyed Vireos near Calispell Lake.  If the timing is right, each of these species is almost a certainty at each favorite place.

In Spring 2019 my birding was mostly out of home state of Washington visiting Eastern states as part of my 50/50/50 birding adventure.  I was back in Washington for ten days at the end of May and in early June and was able to get to many of the aforementioned favorite spots.  But I was not able to get to the Spokane area and Calispell Lake in Eastern Washington.  I had birded there in each of the previous 6 years and had grown to love the area, and knew specific spots to reliably find specific species generally found there and only there.  It had become familiar ground.  With a very rare to Washington Eastern Phoebe being seen regularly at Elk in the area and with my time with the rental car provided while my deer damaged car was in the shop coming to an end, the timing was perfect to visit this special area this week.  The original plan was to leave on Tuesday and return late Wednesday.  It is a long trip.

As usual I was up long before the alarm rang on Tuesday and was on the road before 4:45 A.M. arriving at the North Bend Black Throated Sparrow spot at 5:20 A.M.  It was already light and I hoped I had not blown it by not following my most important rule for a chase – “Go Now.”  Birds were singing as I arrived but unfortunately not a Black Throated Sparrow.  It was still early so maybe more sun would bring it out.  In fifteen minutes another birder arrived, Chris Rurik.  More eyes are always better but sadly not this time.  In another 30 minutes, John Puschock arrived as well.  Still no Black Throated Sparrow.  Shared stories and some nice birds including a Red Breasted Sapsucker that returned often to an aluminum ladder which greatly increased the volume of its drumming.  I gave it another ten minutes and then with many miles ahead, I departed, hoping that I would have better luck on the familiar ground ahead.  The Black Throated Sparrow proved to be a two-day wonder as it was not seen again.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Red Breasted Sapsucker

My first Eastern Washington target was a Clay Colored Sparrow still more than three hours away in Western Spokane County.   Although I had not been to the exact spot where a Clay Colored Sparrow had most recently been seen, as I got close, familiar names recalled previous trips to the area where I had found them:  Stroup Road and Coulee Hite Road.  Just before arriving at Mackenzie Road as I was driving slowly on West Thorpe Road, I saw a black and white bird rise from the grass and land on some barbed wire fencing – often a perching spot for sparrows and others in this semi-arid landscape.  It was an Eastern Kingbird.  I had a distant view of one at Millet Pond last week, but no photo.  This one was far more cooperative as even without playback encouragement, it flew to a closer perch on the wire and then came closer yet.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Within less than 200 yards a Grasshopper Sparrow flew up onto more barbed wire next to a grassy field.  This, too, was a familiar species in this familiar place.  It disappeared before I could get a photo but I felt it was a precursor for a Clay Colored Sparrow ahead.  I turned onto west Mackenzie Road and quickly found the brush pile where the Clay Colored Sparrow had most recently been reported.  A single sparrow was on some sage nearby.  It was a Savannah Sparrow – one of many in the area.  Then another sparrow appeared, too large to be a Clay Colored Sparrow, it was a heavily marked Vesper Sparrow, with the chestnut patch on its shoulder noted in the strong light.  It is  another common species in this area.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow2 (2)

Then I heard it, the buzzy song of the Clay Colored Sparrow.  One flew onto and then off of the brush pile.  Back on again, I got a lousy picture.  Off again and then back on , this time with company.  A second Clay Colored Sparrow was interacting with the first one.  I could not tell if they were a mated pair or competing males.  Fortunately they perched long enough for my camera.

Clay Colored Sparrow FOY #1

Clay Colored Sparrow1 (2)

It was a new species for the year, a reward for the already long trip and a confidence builder for more to come.  On the way out a pair of Mountain Bluebirds flashed by.  I thought I saw their nesting box but it was occupied by a Tree Swallow.

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird Female Mountain Bluebird

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow at Mest1

Almost exactly 8 years ago at the Rosalia STP south of Spokane, I had seen an Eastern Phoebe – quite the rarity for the state.  Now another one was being seen regularly by a bridge in Elk, Washington, north of Spokane about 50 miles from my sparrow brush pile.  I headed north with a stop at Reardan Ponds hoping for a Black Tern.  No terns but more than 100 Eared Grebes in full breeding splendor.  This is another reliable species in the area.  I already had a fabulous photo of one from a trip to Chiawana Lake a couple of weeks earlier but could not resist another one.

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes

The Ebird directions to the bridge in Elk were precise and as soon as I got out of the car I first heard and then saw and then photographed the Eastern Phoebe.  It could not have been easier.  My failed mission in North Bend had added an hour to my journey but this quick find of the Phoebe gave me some of that time back.  It was now 12:30 P.M.  Although I had been on the road for about 8 hours, finding the Eastern Phoebe was energizing and I was looking forward to “next” – the beautiful area around Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County about 30 miles away.

Eastern Phoebe FOY #2

Eastern Phoebe (2)

We are spoiled in Washington with so many different habitats and so many beautiful places.  Calispell Lake is one of those places and after many visits has become a favorite and familiar ground for sure.  Over the years relying in part on reports of others and on my own exploring, I have found very specific spots where I can reliably find the specialty birds of the area.

Calispell Lake

Although it was not on my First of Year target list since I had seen one earlier in the year at Wylie Slough in Skagit County, my first stop was at the bridge on Westside Calispel Road where Northern Waterthrush breeds.  The target here this time was a Least Flycatcher that had been reported regularly.  With no traffic in sight, I parked off the road and immediately heard three welcomed calls:  Northern Waterthrush, Willow Flycatcher and Cedar Waxwing.  The Waxwings were numerous, active and photogenic.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing1

I then heard at least one more Willow Flycatcher and one more Northern Waterthrush but of far more interest was the repeated and softer “che-bek” call of the Least Flycatcher.  It seemed that every time the Least would call, one of the Willows would drown it out with a much louder “fitz-bew” call of its own.  Neither was close or visible but the calls were clear.  I already had great photos of Willow Flycatcher and Northern Waterthrush for the year so I really hoped for a picture of the Least Flycatcher.  Not to be so I will just continue to appreciate the one I took last year.

Northern Waterthrush – From this spot in 2016

Northern Waterthrush

Least Flycatcher – FOY #3 (Photo from June 2019)

Least Flycatcher

There would however be one more good photo at this very birdy stop.  At least two Gray Catbirds were very active and unlike the case for the one I had heard and seen only through thick brush at Bullfrog Pond a week ago, this time I got a photo.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The Least Flycatcher was FOY #3 for the day, half of my “pretty likely” list.  The next species on the list was Red Eyed Vireo and here again I had a very specific favored spot – the intersection of Westside Calispel and Pease Roads.   When I arrived I heard what I thought might be the song of a Red Eyed Vireo but I had not heard one for a while and recalled that it was similar to that of the American Robin.  Indeed I found a Robin singing in the open so it was not going to be all that easy.  It only took a few more moments as I walked onto Pease Road and then heard the different notes of the Red Eyed Vireo in thick woods below me.  I adjusted my camera settings to have a brighter view in the viewfinder and was then able to located the singing Vireo on a branch.

Red Eyed Vireo – FOY #4

Red Eyed Vireo1

I am not so sure about Northern Waterthrush, but I expect that there are many places to find a Red Eyed Vireo in the area.  It was super satisfying though to find one at “my” Red Eyed Vireo spot – exactly where I had seen them before – one of the joys of “familiar ground”.  And only a couple of miles away another such spot awaited – the Bobolink fields in Usk.

I love everything about Bobolinks:  they are uncommon in Washington (and their populations are decreasing as habitats disappears); they have that wonderful bright bubbly song in flight, starting with low reedy notes and rollicking upward “bob-o-link, bob-o-link, pink, pink, pank, pink”; their fluttery flight is very fun to see; and at least to me best of all, not only are they quite striking, they are also upside down.  Most birds are darker above and lighter below.  The Bobolink reverses this.  As I was approaching the field of uncut grass on McKenzie Road, I saw a tiny bird perched on a wire above and ahead of me.  It was another of the birds that I regularly look for in the area – a Black Chinned Hummingbird.  I had seen one last week at Horn Rapids Park and this was not my go to spot, but it is always a good find, so I stopped and got a photo,

Black Chinned Hummingbird 

BCHB (2)

When I got out of the car to photograph the Black Chinned Hummingbird I heard a Bobolink seemingly close by.  I got back into the car and went no further than 50 yards and there it was flying and singing in the field.  I used playback just once and it came to a small bush right in front of me.  Photo time and another FOY.

Bobolink FOY #5


It was not yet 2:30 P.M. and I had seen all but one of my likely targets.  The only miss was a Black Tern.  My best hope for them was either Turnbull NWR or Ames Lake.  Both were on the way back home which without stops would be 5 hours away.  Should I change my original plan to stay overnight?  An overnight would allow me to try for some secondary targets like Gray Partridge and Northern Pygmy Owl.  Maybe, too, I could return home via Stevens Pass and try for a Canada Jay.  On the other hand, I had stuff to attend to at home and I could avoid both the cost and one more COVID-19 risk if I stayed at a hotel.  I tentatively determined to head home and make the final decision depending on how the search for a Black Tern went.  This would be my only chance for one this year.

I had seen no terns at Reardan Ponds or Eloika Lake.  I found none at Calispell Lake either.  Last year on June 22, Cindy and I had detoured through Turnbull NWR on our way back from Montana and had seen three distant Black Terns.  My experience was the same this time but there were only two and again distant – flying among the reeds at the far end of one of the lakes.  No chance for even a poor photo which was disappointing because they are very appealing birds.  The one below is from Ames Lake in 2016.  Still hoping for a better picture someday.

Black Tern

Black Tern3 - Copy

It was almost 5:00 P.M. and without stops I could be home by 9:30 P.M. so that was the plan – with one exception.  Will Brooks had reported significant numbers of White Faced Ibis and Forster’s Terns at Marsh Unit 1 in the Columbia NWR earlier that day.  I had seen both this year but no photos.  If they were still there maybe there would be enough light for a photo.  It would add another hour to the trip, but worth the effort.  The road down to the marsh itself was closed off so I parked in the overlook and took scope and camera down the hill towards the extensive marshy area.  I could hear what I thought were White Faced Ibis off in the distance.  I scanned and searched and finally came up with 4 black forms that had curved long bills.  There were probably many more.  Even through the scope the “picture” was awful, so a visual only.  But somewhat closer a single Forster’s Tern was hunting for prey.  Again, pretty distant and not great light, but at least a decent ID photo to end the birding part of the day.

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

I was able to get home just after 10:20 P.M. so it had been an 18 hour day but there had been enough breaks and so many highs that I really was not tired.  The stay at home restraints of COVID-19 are far more tiring than being out on familiar ground doing familiar activities and seeing familiar birds, and when there are rare birds like Black Throated Sparrows and Least Terns and Eastern Phoebes to look for, there is added adrenaline and endorphins to lift my spirits.  Especially this past week with the continuing saga of a pandemic mixed with social and racial injustice and unrest and a horrible orange faced clown in the White House, lifted spirits from this birding trek were at least a temporary antidote.