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