Last Fling of 2020

Most years I spend two or three days in January or February and then again in December birding in Okanogan and Douglas Counties in North Central Washington. There are species more commonly seen in these two counties than elsewhere and often add to year lists. Generally, my visits first cover the Waterville Plateau in Douglas County before heading further north to the Okanogan Highlands. I usually access the Plateau via Highway 2 which means travelling east up over Stevens Pass (Elevation 4060 feet) rather than via Interstate 90 which can be quicker but requires going over both Snoqualmie Pass (Elevation 2725 feet) and Blewett Pass (4100 feet) – less appealing in the winter. Unless it is a very early start, a problem with the latter route is dealing with commuter traffic in and through Seattle. On this trip I chose Highway 2 getting on the road at 5:30 a.m. which meant two hours of driving in the dark but being able to get to the Plateau which is about 175 miles away from my home in Edmonds around 9:00 a.m. giving me about 7 and a half hours of birding for the day.

The Waterville Plateau rises almost 2000 feet above the Columbia River which to some degree bends around it. It is wheat farming country where the roads mostly form a grid of gravel section line roads with lettered roads running north and south and lettered roads running east and west – at least somewhat. The land is very flat with rocky outcroppings scattered about. Usually by mid December, the entire plateau is covered in snow. Some roads are paved, but most are not. Almost all are at least mostly cleared by snowplows but melting and freezing cycles usually result in a lot of ice. While crisscrossing the roads, I might see thousands of Horned Larks accompanied by hundreds of Snow Buntings and occasionally Lapland Longspurs. Each winter it seems that at least one Snowy Owl finds a rocky outcropping or two to its liking and attracts birders eager to see that rare winter visitor. Gyrfalcons are sometimes found, but it is a huge area – depending on definition over 1,000 square miles – so they are usually missed. Gray Partridge are in the area, at times near grain terminals like those in Withrow, but they may be anywhere. A Snowy Owl had been seen regularly in the Atkins Lake area of the Plateau – southeast corner, and although I had seen in Seattle earlier, they are always a treat and that area is also good for Partridge and possibly Gyrfalcons. The latter was the most hoped for bird of the trip, but I also wanted a better look and hopefully a photo of a Gray Partridge. I had seen some earlier in the year but it was a distant and fleeting view only.

On any birding chase looking for a special bird known to favor a specific location, a good rule of thumb is to look for another birder already there who is hopefully looking at the bird you want to see. Even in a remote, spacious and mostly empty and uninhabited area like the Waterville Plateau, this is good guidance. As I approached the intersection of M Road and One Road, where Ed Pullen had reported the Snowy Owl last week, I saw a single car maybe a half mile away, the only sign of human presence against the miles of snow covered fields. It was standing still. Could this be a birder with binoculars or camera trained on the Snowy Owl? As it turned out – no but just as good. I approached the car slowly and pulled up next to it. We each rolled down the opposing windows of our cars. “Could this be another birder?” I asked. It was. Debbie Sutherland is an excellent birder who lives in Cashmere, WA maybe 60 miles away. We had last seen each other at Rosario Head in Skagit County a couple of years ago. She was looking for Snow Buntings but had seen the Snowy Owl earlier on an outcropping very nearby and she gave me directions. We shared a few more stories and then I went off to see the owl and she continued her search for buntings.

Just as Debbie had said, the Snowy Owl was distant and only its head could be seen among the rocks. Still good to see. I spent the next couple of hours driving around the Plateau with more than 25 miles on icy roads, checking every outcropping hoping for a Gyrfalcon. No such luck and all in all, there were far fewer birds than I had seen on earlier visits. Noticeably low counts were Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings. I doubt I saw more than 500 Larks and fewer than a dozen Snow Buntings and I did not see any Partridge. Raptors were fewer than expected as well with only a half dozen Rough Legged Hawks and even fewer Red Tails. A single Northern Shrike was perhaps my best bird. Granted it is a big area, but I cannot remember another visit where I did not flush Horned Larks on nearly every road. One year I wondered if I had seen more than 10,000. And I have often seen flocks of more than 100 Snow Buntings.

Snow Buntings – from 2018

It was a beautiful day with no wind, no fog, lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 30’s. If only there had been more birds. Maybe things would change further north in the Okanogan. I dropped down to the Columbia River and then headed north on Highway 97. There was not as much snow as I would have liked thinking more would at least make finding Sharp Tailed Grouse, a main target, easier to find. I watched for birds in the many orchards along the way hoping for a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. Alas, bird numbers remained small with House Finches being the only small birds I saw. I went through Omak where I would be spending the night and headed to Scotch Creek around Happy Hill Road where I had seen Sharp Tailed Grouse before. When there is enough snow on the ground, the Grouse climb into the Water Birch to feed and thus become visible from Conconully Road. Some snow but not lots and the trees were bare. It has been best to look early in the morning, so I figured I would return the next day and try again. I continued on to Conconully checking fields along the way where I have had Gray Partridge, California Quail and Pheasants. Nothing in the fields and only House Finches and House Sparrows in Conconully. VERY QUIET…

There were some raptors, however. American Kestrels on the power lines, some Northern Harriers, a few Red Tails but mostly Rough Legged Hawks soaring, hovering and perched. Rough Legged Hawks are striking birds, much appreciated for photo ops in the winter.

Rough Legged Hawk

It was decision time. I wanted to check out Cameron Lake Road and I also wanted to get into the Okanogan Highlands to look for owls and hopefully visiting northern finches. There was not sufficient time to do both. Jon Houghton had detailed significant fire damage along Cameron Lake Road when he visited earlier so the birding prospects were not great, but I had always had good luck there (except for those two flat tires some years ago) and although it would take at least an hour, there was time for that before dark. The fire damage was depressing indeed with wide swaths completely burned – both brush and large trees. I wondered if the trees would still be there at my White Headed Woodpecker spot near the flag over the road. The trees were there but mostly charred and lifeless. I found no Woodpeckers or any other birds there. It was not much better elsewhere along the road. The Tree Sparrow woodlot was essentially gone. I had a couple of Kestrels, some Magpies and some House Finches. A couple of Ravens flew by and there was a single Northern Harrier. As I descended back towards Highway 97, two birds rocketed out from the snow next to the road. They were the Gray Partridge I had hoped to see, but not this way as they were gone before I could even stop the car.

Fire Damage along Cameron Lake Road
Fire Damage at Woodpecker Spot

The absence of birds and the impossible to miss fire damage did not make it a great trip, but I love Cameron Lake Road for its quiet serenity as I rarely see anyone else on the almost 20 mile journey on a snowy/icy road. I cannot recall another winter visit without Snow Buntings and not seeing the American Tree Sparrows was a disappointment, but there would be at least one more day and with darkness approaching it was time to check into my motel – the Omak Inn. Perfectly adequate and there was a great price through which I use on almost all my birding trips. Dinner would be a take out salad from Subway and then I would check in with Cindy, watch some basketball and read. It was getting cold and I expected to have to scrape off ice the next morning.

American Tree Sparrow from 2018

It was another early start the next morning as I wanted to get to Scotch Creek as the sun was coming up and yes there was thick frost on the windshield. I was hoping to find Sharp Tailed Grouse in the Water Birch. No go. The only patches I saw in the leafless trees were some old oriole nests. I searched for 30 minutes and then went to Plan B which had worked once before. I drove up Happy Hill Road watching every tree and every turn. I went in almost 3 miles and saw only Ravens and Black Billed Magpies. On the way out I stopped at the WDFW Audubon site and parked. I scanned every tree and every hill again and saw two distant grouse across a ravine half hidden in some brush. This is a good and protected area for Sharp Tailed Grouse and I would bet that is what they were but the views were pretty poor and it was possible they could have been Ruffed Grouse I guess. I checked the water birch off of Conconully Road along the Creek when I left just before 9:00 a.m. and saw nothing. Maybe it was too early, but I had a full day ahead of me so I carried on.

Perhaps I should have returned to Conconully and birded in town and up the west side road as I have had Gray Crowned Rosy Finches there before and I have yet to see any this year. But I thought birding would be better in the Okanogan Highlands with a chance for Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings and even the Rosy Finches plus maybe some owls. I knew I wanted to get to the Havillah SnoPark and the Nealey Road Feeders, bird along Swash Creek and Fancher Road and otherwise just cover territory. It was 16 degrees when I left Omak, about the same at Scotch Creek and I would be going to much higher ground. The sun was out which might provide some warmth, but I was glad I had put on my long johns.

I will not go into all of the details, but again despite very few birds, it was a very satisfying morning. The country is beautiful with rolling hills, forest, a few VERY small settlements, and ever changing vistas. All roads were snow packed but plowed, some paved but more gravel. I was glad to have my GPS as roads twist and turn and stop and go, circling back on one another or dying out only to start up again elsewhere. The blanket of snow was beautiful, erasing all of man’s scarrings and cushioning every sound so that all I heard was my car on the snow and then just silence when I stopped. I enjoy being with others and have greatly missed birding with friends in this horrible COVID-19 year. But I also enjoy time alone and the solitude without a care, focused only on the possibility of birds and the road ahead is heartening for me.

Okanogan Highlands Scenery
More Scenery

There were maybe 500 Rock Pigeons and 50 Mallards at the fields and feedlots on Fancher Road but no California Quail, Pheasants or Chukars. On one visit there a couple of years ago during calving season, there were more than 100 Chukars. No owls at the SnoPark, but I heard an American Three Toed Woodpecker as soon as I arrived. Unfortunately a car with some snowshoers arrived at the same time and the gleeful cries of the two young boys did not bring the Woodpecker in closer. Their unfettered fun was very enjoyable to see and hear though.

I drove the length of Siwash Creek road which was beautiful and quiet. I stopped at a couple of places and searched for Northern Pygmy Owls without success. Birding would probably have been better if I had gotten out of the car and really looked for passerines but I had a lot of ground to cover and it was now 12 degrees. In previous posts, I have often stressed that when we get out into nature and are open to them, there are often surprises and even when main targets are missed, there are usually consolation prizes. It was time for one. Two fairly large birds appeared in the sky in front of me and to my left, maybe 30 feet above the treeline. At first I thought they might be ravens but as they drew closer I was pretty sure they were game birds even if their altitude above the trees seemed odd. I was in a forested area by the creek and as the birds continued their flight, my sight line was temporarily blocked by the trees but their flight path looked like they might be coming in for a landing. I got lucky and both birds landed on tree tops maybe 75 yards away. Through my binoculars I could tell only that they were grouse and with terrible backlighting I could make out no details other than a small crest. Were they Ruffed Grouse (which I had seen on tree tops like this before) or Sharp Tailed Grouse which I had never seen in anything but short low flights? Even through my scope with no direct lighting, I just could not tell.

I take photos for many reasons – to preserve memories, to share with others on checklists, Facebook or blogposts and just for my only records and enjoyment. Often they are diagnostic as well. Such was the case here. Really terrible photos but with lots of magnification and enhancement, it was clear that these were Sharp Tailed Grouse. Much better than my earlier views at Happy Hill and now without any doubt. Quite a surprise – a very pleasant one.

Sharp Tailed Grouse – Siwash Creek Road

The feeders were gone at Nealey Road, and in general birding remained slow except for several groups of House Sparrows and House Finches, and numerous Magpies and hawks, especially Rough Legged Hawks with more than a dozen seen. I took a lot of photos of the Rough Legs and these are my two favorites with the latter hopefully not being a criticism of my presence.

Rough Legged Hawk
Rough Legged Hawk Letting It Rip

By the time I got to Chesaw the temperature had dipped to 9 degrees. Maybe it was too cold for birds as well as very few were seen. My original plan had been to stay over a second night but a few clouds were starting to gather in the distance. I had put on almost a hundred miles over snowy roads and even without many birds seen and targets definitely missed it had been exhilarating because of the solitude and scenery. It would be around 5 hours to get home (or so I thought at the time) and if I cut the trip short, I could be there well before dinner. Besides getting a photo of the Sharp Tailed Grouse was wonderful and there would still be a chance for some birds on the way back. It was a surprise to see no northern specialties especially since many trees were packed with cones. That’s birding.

Cones Yes – Birds No

I did not keep track of the exact route but I did retrace some steps back along Havillah Road. At one of the few homes along the route, directly across from some small grain silos, I noticed a number of small birds flitting around. Would I finally find some of the sought after northern finches? No – only a large flock of House Sparrows, but then two larger birds flew past and landed by the silos. I had seen a number of Eurasian Collared Doves but these were Mourning Doves but more importantly they were “guide doves” as they took my eyes to a small structure near the grain silos where on the ground were several Gray Partridge. I maneuvered my car nearer to them and watched and took many photos with ultimately a dozen Gray Partridges appearing and disappearing maybe 40 feet in front of me and with light behind me and on them when they were in the open. Now I had really good views and photos of this species – perhaps a good close to the day.

Gray Partridge
Gray Partridge
Gray Partridges

Feeling very pleased I continued back to Tonasket and onto Highway 97 heading south. Just north of Cameron Lake Road a posted raptor caught my eye (even at 60 mph) and a U-turn brought me face to face with one of the prettiest Red Tailed Hawks I have seen – a very cinnamon colored western form. According to drawings in Sibley it is an adult intermediate. Truly a gorgeous bird. I am sure I have seen one like it before but I cannot recall a specific incidence and do not have any photos like this one.

Red Tailed Hawk Intermediate Western Form

I continued to check fruit orchards hoping for waxwings but saw none. There were lots of waterfowl on the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. I did not stop to identify them, but could for sure make out Trumpeter Swans, Scaup, Mallards, Buffleheads and at least one Common Loon. There were also several Bald Eagles, more Kestrels, Ravens, and Hawks but I guess I will have to return early next year if I want those northern specialties that I missed this trip.

There was one stop along the way that I wanted to make. Cindy and I are planning a few days away in January and have booked a condo near Leavenworth at the Kahler Glen resort. We want some quiet time and also to try snowshoeing which I have not done for over 30 years. Near Lake Wenatchee west and a bit north of Leavenworth, it was about 10 miles out of my way home back over Highway 2. It looked great on a quick trip and I was very pleased to see it was very close to the Nason Creek SnoPark. I think we will like it.

I don’t know if it was due to an accident or if my detour to Kahler Glen made the timing bad, but my return trip was the worst traffic mess I have ever seen – including Los Angeles at rush hour. It was pretty icy coming down from Stevens Pass with some nervous drivers causing a little delay but that was nothing compared to what would follow just east of Gold Bar. There are three horrible little towns along Highway 2 starting with Gold Bar 36 miles west of the Pass. Then comes Startup and finally Sultan. It is just over six miles from Gold Bar to Sultan. There are several traffic lights in each miserable town and it is a two lane road with no opportunities to pass. Even on good days, there are delays due to the lights which usually means it takes 15 or 20 minutes to get through them. I hate this highway even though the scenery on both sides of Stevens Pass for many miles is spectacular.

About 3 miles from Gold Bar, the traffic came to a dead stop. There was no movement for a full five minutes. My GPS said there was a 25 minute delay on this route. From this point, there is no alternate route. Go with the flow, right? But there was no flow. Originally I thought I would be home by 5:30. My first call to Cindy postponed that until 6:00 p.m. Start and stop – 30 feet at a time – start and stop. The details are brutal and I refuse to curse on this blog so I will not revisit them. Bottom line, it took a full two hours to get from just east of Gold Bar to just beyond Sultan. My calls home postponed my ETA to 6:30 and then to 7:00 and then to 7:30. I ended up opening the door home at 7:35. Did I mention that I hate Highway 2, Sultan, Startup and Gold Bar!!! There was never any indication of an accident. No sirens, ambulances, police or flashing lights. Aaargh!! Thank goodness for Sirius XM so at least I could listen to radio during the ordeal. Anger at Trump for yet more malfeasance and corruption was a distraction from anger for the traffic.

But I survived. It was good to be home. Dinner was waiting and excellent and I was pleased with some of my photos even if there were more misses than hits on the trip. I doubt I will head out again this year, so this was the last fling for 2020 – an all around awful year in so many ways. Yet, I am happy because of the things that are really important. Far fewer birds than any year in the past ten. Almost no birding with friends. The year started well with ABA Lifers Barnacle Goose and Dovekie during a super trip to see may daughter, son-in law and grandson in Boston in January. A marathon trip for a Lifer Ivory Gull in Montana followed in early February. Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head and plans for trips to Florida, Arizona and Texas vanished. I managed a few Lifers in Arizona last month and that was it. Washington birding was much reduced as well. The Sharp Tailed Grouse was Washington species #330 for 2020, my fewest in many years. There have been two new state lifers this year, the Siberian Accentor on February 7th just before COVID restrictions and the Least Tern at the Montlake fill in June – taking care to wear a mask and to maintain social distance. Yes it could have been worse, but it was intended to be so much better,

I wish I could see my kids and grandchild. I wish I could travel. Hopefully next year. Being with Cindy has been the best and has gotten me through the year and we have solidified and deepened our relationship. Black Lab Chica helps as well – at least usually although I could do without so much barking. No health issues although the pounds added during our COVID inactivity are a negative and yes, I need to get more exercise. Next year…

Seasons Greetings to all. Good riddance to Trump and fingers crossed for 2021.

One of These and One of Those – Birds Closer to Home

This definitely has not been the November or December I thought they would be as the dual evils of Donald Trump and the Coronavirus haunt us everyday. My trip to Arizona in early November certainly helped, but it also reminded me of what else was supposed to be. Instead of traveling to Africa (probably Botswana), I gave a program via Go To Meeting on Birds and Beasts of Africa to a small audience at our Point Edwards neighborhood. It was fun but again a reminder of what might have been.

Far less so last year since I was busy with my 50 State Birding Adventure, in every year since 2012 I have devoted much time and energy to chasing birds in my home state of Washington, generally trying to be at or near the top of the list of most species seen. Somehow despite being out of state so much, I only missed the top spot in 2019 by a single species. The 335 species last year was the fewest I had seen since starting to keep track in 2012. This year with the limitations from COVID-19, the number will be smaller still and it just has not been important to me. But old habits die slowly and in the past few weeks I have at least gotten out a bit and have enjoyed the break from politics and the pandemic. What follows are a few stories and a few photos of some activity the past few weeks.

My starting point was a visit to Chinook Bend in King County on November 14 hoping to see a Northern Pygmy Owl that had been reported there earlier by Carl Haynie. I had heard one on Biscuit Ridge Road when Cindy and I did a short wine/birding trip to Walla Walla in October. There had been no visual and Cindy had never seen one. As is often the case, fortunately, there were a few other birders there when we arrived and they were looking at the small owl across the road from the parking area. It was not the greatest view, but hey it was a Northern Pygmy Owl – always a treat. Each time I see one I am stunned by just how small they are – barely seven inches – about 2/3 the size of a Robin.

Northern Pygmy Owl – Chinook Bend – King County, WA

Finding the owl was a kind of deja vu. In January 2015, I ran into Paul Banning and three others at the same parking area at Chinook Bend. We went off hoping to find a Northern Pygmy Owl which had been reported previously. After a couple of hours we finally found one out in a wooded area. A long search but worth it. The surprise was that when we returned to the parked cars, a second Owl was there waiting for us. A much better photo that time.

Northern Pygmy Owl – January 21, 2015

This was the sixth species of owl Cindy had seen. She would see her seventh species three days later. On the same day we saw the Northern Pygmy Owl at Chinook Bend, a report of a Snowy Owl showed up on Ebird. It was seen on a rooftop in a residential area on Queen Anne in Seattle. When it was reported again the next day, we decided to try for it. We had to wait another day but around noon on November 17th we joined several others at an alley just off Boston Street and were treated to this uncommon visitor from the North. Snowy Owls are seen in small numbers annually in Washington, but most often in Eastern Washington or along the coast. It has been a while since one was in Seattle itself. It is now three weeks after it was first seen and it is still returning to the same rooftop vicinity where it has been enjoyed by hundreds of fascinated observers, birders and others thrilled to see it.

Snowy Owl – Seattle

Ebird records make it easy for birders to keep track of many geographic lists from the entire world to specific countries, states, counties or home patches. I have mostly been interested in my ABA area list (North America north of Mexico), and my Washington state list. For many birders, their county lists are of first importance. I am aware of my county lists because of Ebird but generally do not chase new birds for any county. But “generally” is not “always”. Most of my birding is organized around a quest for a certain bird and when there are no new state birds to be chased and particularly this year when there have been far fewer opportunities to go birding, a special bird for one of my “favorite” counties becomes the impetus to get going. For the last 8 years I have lived in Snohomish County after almost 40 years in King County. My largest county list is for Snohomish County with Grays Harbor and Clallam counties not too far behind. King County is number 4 and when I felt the need to get away on November 27th I decided to add a strange bird to that county list.

Black Billed Magpies are striking birds closely related to jays and crows (corvids) that are resident and common in much of Eastern Washington. One was being seen regularly near a playfield in South Seattle in King County. As I approached the playfield I realized the area was much larger than I expected and I began a plan of attack to cover the area. The plan started with pulling into a parking lot next to the area’s community center. I parked and grabbed my binoculars as I opened the car door. Sometimes you get lucky. Before I even put my second foot on the ground, the Magpie flew by overhead and continued north towards some homes. I got back into the car and drove to where I thought it had headed and found it perched on a lamp post. Somewhat like the previous photo of the Snowy Owl on a rooftop next to a chimney, this was not exactly a natural setting, but it was an easy photo and an easy addition to my King County list – species #241.

Black Billed Magpie – Seattle, WA

Since that pursuit was so easy I decided to head over to the Stillwater Unit of the Snoqualmie Wildlife area, also in King County to look for the Swamp Sparrow being seen there to add to my 2020 Washington State list. These sparrows are abundant in the Eastern and Southern United States but uncommon in Washington, found mostly in late fall and winter in wet areas. The Stillwater Unit is a large area accessed along a very good walking/biking/jogging path adjoining the Snoqualmie River, but fortunately this species tends to stay put in its habitat and there were very specific directions to find its favored location. Several birders were there searching for the Swamp Sparrow – and not finding it. It had been seen much earlier but had gone quiet. It is usually quite secretive and is often only heard and not seen or seen only briefly as it flies from one spot of dense brush to another. It’s call note is described as a metallic “chink” as opposed to the “tink” or “chimp” call of the abundant Song Sparrow that occupies the same habitat, as well as many others. There were lots of tinks and chimps but no chinks were heard.

After almost an hour, the other birders had either departed or moved to a different location. I heard a somewhat different call – maybe a chink and then saw a small sparrow move from one clump of medium tall grass to another. It seemed smaller than the Song Sparrows that I had seen but my view was too quick to pick up any field marks. I played the Swamp Sparrow call on my phone and got a couple of responses that sounded right on. But the Sparrow would not show itself. After maybe 5 minutes it flew to another clump and again buried itself. I signaled to one of the other birders that I thought I had it. He joined me, heard the call note and also voted for the Swamp Sparrow. No looks at all. Later other birders came to the same spot and also reported the Swamp Sparrow – one got a photo. No photo of the Swamp Sparrow for me, but nice pictures of a Fox Sparrow and a Hairy Woodpecker were consolation prizes.

Hairy Woodpecker – Stillwater Unit of Snoqualmie Wildlife Area
Fox Sparrow – Stillwater Unit of Snoqualmie Wildlife Area

That would do it for November. No, I did not get to Botswana as planned but a month that started with a Northern Jacana and an Eared Quetzal and also included a Snowy Owl was not too bad. Normally it would have included a trip to Neah Bay in Washington where there are always surprises and great birds, but access remains closed to non-tribal members as the COVID-19 virus still rages. It also included a election victory for Joe Biden and the beginning of the end for Donald Trump. Causes for celebration.

December began with a return trip to a spot near Darrington where White Winged Crossbills had been reported by David Poortinga. This winter is shaping up to be an irruption year for northern finches as Pine Siskins have been reported in huge numbers throughout Washington and in many northern tier states. There have also been many reports of Red and White Winged Crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks and some Redpolls. I had not seen White Winged Crossbills in Snohomish County and that is the one county I pay most attention to. It would also be a new species for Washington for 2020. I had tried for them the previous day and ran into two other birders that were there with the same intent. It was a miserable day with heavy rain and not a single bird encountered. Drenched despite a good parka, I gave up and returned home after almost two hours of frustration. Other birders had better luck a couple of hours later with somewhat improved weather, so when December 1st turned into a gorgeous sunny day, I tried again.

And again there were others there – at least a half dozen good birders. The “crossbill spot” had been up a right fork in the main trail – about two hundred yards past a log barrier. Three birders were at the fork and said they had heard crossbills recently. I remained there a few moments and then took the fork to explore with another birder from Seattle. We fairly quickly heard both Red and White Winged Crossbills but they were pretty distant. A small group of six flew overhead about 10 minutes later. No chance for a photo and they did not land near us, but I was able to see some white wing patches through my binoculars. This cat and mouse game continued for the next hour as we heard crossbills left and right but deep into the forest. There was one more flyover and then quiet. We elected to return to the fork in the trail and found birders who had both seen and heard the crossbills. I had a couple more “heard only” experiences and decided to head back to the car. About half way there, I heard White Winged Crossbills in the Hemlocks along the path. Then I heard a shout from birders still at the fork who said they had the crossbills there. I sprinted back just in time to miss them as they had again flown off. If I really needed a photo, I would have stayed, but I was satisfied with my quick confirming visual and several identified calls, so I departed. The photo below is from an earlier White Winged Crossbill sighting. It was nice to get one in my home county though, species #256.

White Winged Crossbill

Cindy had not gone on either of the trips to Darrington and since the weather looked great for a few days, we wanted to get out and we decided to visit Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. There was more than two feet of snow but the road was clear and it would be a good chance to check out an option for snow shoeing later and also to let Black Labrador Chica play in the snow. We made a diversion to Schmuck Road in Sequim so I could look for a Pacific Golden Plover that had been seen there in a furrowed field. At first there was nothing, but after maybe 10 minutes, a flock of Black Bellied Plovers flew in to a distant corner of the field and quickly disappeared in the dirt mounds. If I had not seen them in flight, I doubt I would have noticed them at all. Fortunately I had a scope and was able to scan the area and found the smaller, browner Pacific Golden Plover in among a constantly moving group of 25 or more Black Bellied Plovers and a single Dunlin. It seemed to me that the Pacific Golden Plover was always next to the Dunlin.

Pacific Golden Plover – Earlier Photo

A long line was backed up at the entrance to the park – at least 30 cars. We were being held awaiting word from rangers at the top that there was parking available. An expected hour wait only took 30 minutes. When we got to Hurricane Ridge, it was snowy, sunny, gorgeous and crowded. Everyone wore a mask and there were many families with young kids on sleds and also quite a few snowshoers. As is usually the case, once we hiked off a bit down one of the trails, we found quiet beautiful solitude. Chica got to play only up by the visitor center but loved the snow as always – except she never did understand how those snow balls disappeared once they hit the ground, her retriever instincts thwarted.

Blair and Chica in the Snow at Hurricane Ridge

This was not a birding trip, but I did keep my eyes open. The only species seen were Canada Jays and Ravens.

I planned some birding the next day, Sunday December 6th, in the form of watching the Seattle Seahawks play the New York Giants. The Seahawks played more like pigeons than hawks – simply pathetic. Earlier a report of a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in King County, very rare for Washington, was posted on Tweeters, our local biding listserv. I had considered going for it as a new bird for the state in 2020, but elected to watch the football game instead. Midway through the game I got a call from Ann Marie Wood. She was looking at the Sapsucker or at least that what I thought she was doing. Turned out she was looking at a different Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – this one in Everett, Washington in Snohomish County. Maybe it would take me out of the misery of watching the Seahawks’ wretched performance. I grabbed binoculars and camera (more on that later) and headed out on what should have been a 30 minute drive. Ten minutes later after hitting every stoplight possible and still not being on the freeway, I got word from Ann Marie that the bird was not being seen anymore. I turned around to go back home. A minute later, another call. It was apparently still in the same tree and in the open. Another U-turn.

Ann Marie is one of those wonderful souls who loves her birds, birding and her friends and shares her experiences with all. She also helps others with their birding (and their lives, but that is another story). Ann Marie gave me great directions to get to the right spot and then waited until I got there. David Poortinga and Phil Dickinson were there as well. I parked immediately next to the tree and got a good visual as soon as I got out of the car. I went back and grabbed my camera and got two great photos of the bird in the open. Well, not so fast there Blair. I had the Sapsucker beautifully lit and positioned in my viewfinder, but in my haste to depart I had not put an SD card in the camera. No photos. AARGH!! I joined Phil and David as the Sapsucker moved to the other side of the tree and then 30 seconds later it flew off and disappeared. I hope it wasn’t something I said.

I had seen a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in Washington twice before, including once in Snohomish County, so the photo was not “necessary” and maybe it is even a better story without the photo and maybe, too, I have learned my lesson. The Sapsucker had been seen in a single stand alone deciduous tree in a residential neighborhood. Why was it there? Then after departing it returned to that same tree and was seen there by many birders on both of the following days. I don’t know if it is there still today or not – no reports yet. The photo below is “like” the one I should have gotten. It was taken by Phil Dickinson and shared.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Everett, WA

Today is Wednesday December 9th. I have not been to the Okanogan in north central Washington yet this year. I love the area and generally visit there once in November or December and once in January or February as there are a number of species that are generally seen only there or primarily there. The weather report was good for Monday through Wednesday and I had planned to leave early on Monday and be back late tonight. But the reports I had seen from others visiting the area were not encouraging so I decided instead to do a long day trip to find two specific birds that I wanted to add to my year list for the state and try to get what I would consider an acceptable total even if significantly below years past. So early Monday morning I took off on a marathon trip that took me first to Ridgefield NWR in Clark County near the Oregon border and then to Nahcotta on the Long Beach peninsula in Pacific County. I was hoping for a Red Shouldered Hawk at Ridgefield and a late Bar Tailed Godwit that was hanging with a big flock of Marbled Godwits at Nahcotta.

As soon as I arrived at the River S Unit of Ridgefield I heard three welcomed calls – those of Trumpeter Swans, Cackling Geese and Sandhill Cranes. These are commonplace at Ridgefield. There would be hundreds of Swans and Cackling Geese during this visit but far fewer Cranes some gazing and others flying overhead. The first birds I saw were a Great Egret – becoming more common and widespread in Washington – and a number of Cacklers grazing in the muddy grass.

Great Egret – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit
Cackling Goose – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit

Birding at the River S Unit is primarily from the car on a 3 mile loop around wetlands and some trees. There were many hundreds of ducks and coots in addition to the Swans and Geese as well as other species. As has often been the case, I heard the Red Shouldered Hawk’s cries before I finally located it in a tree near the “blind pullout”. I have had one there before as well. Not great light and partially hidden but the ID was good – a first of the year for this species. There were a half dozen or so Red Tailed Hawks, a couple of Northern Harriers, two American Kestrels and several Bald Eagles. It is good raptor country.

Red Shouldered Hawk – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit
Red Tailed Hawk – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit

I had not paid much attention to the swans and heard only Trumpeter Swans trumpeting on the ponds and overhead. I only took a single swan photo and was not aware until I looked later that it was of a Tundra Swan. I don’t know how many of each were there but several hundred swans altogether. The rarest bird I saw was a surprising and very late Barn Swallow that flew past me as I was looking at a few Sandhill Cranes grazing towards the south end of the auto route. A White Faced Ibis had been reported at the refuge and while I never noticed one, I really had forgotten about it and had not looked either.

Tundra Swan – Ridgefield NWR – River S Unit

With my early start, after about 90 minutes at Ridgefield, it was now just after 10:30 a.m. and time to head to Nahcotta. Not a great route as you cross the Columbia River into Oregon and then back again at the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria and then head due north along the Long Beach Peninsula with the Pacific Ocean to the west and Willapa Bay to the east. Being there was almost like being back in time as not much has changed since I first visited there in the 1970’s. A highlight then was a visit to the Ark Restaurant in Nahcotta – famed for its oysters and sturgeon among other locally supplied foods and said by James Beard to be his favorite seafood restaurant. The owners sold it a few years ago and it has not survived although the oysters have.

Randy Hill discovered the Bar Tailed Godwit on December 4th, and it was seen in the Marbled Godwit flock primarily from the Fish and Wildlife Station or the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center in Nahcotta. When I arrived I first went to a pullout at 268th street, south of the Interpretive Center. I saw large flocks of shorebirds to the south and walked along the flats with my scope. There were hundreds of Dunlin and many Black Bellied Plovers. Some other species may have been present but there were no large waders like Godwits. I then went up to the Interpretive Center on 273rd and saw a flock of maybe 50 Marbled Godwits but not a Bar Tailed. I then went further north and found another access at around 278th street where I found a larger flock of 100+ Godwits but again no Bar Tailed. However, there was an even larger flock further north probably around 283rd Street. In great light behind me, through my scope I could pick out one Godwit that was smaller and grayer without the rusty coloration of the Marbled Godwits. The birds foraged together with hundreds of Dunlin and often flew in small groups but never came south to me. In flight only the one bird did not have dark underwings. As the tide came in, groups would fly off and head to the south. I could never track the Bar Tailed. Eventually all were gone and I returned to the long pier to the south hoping it would be there. Only about 75 Godwits were there – up close and in great light, but only Marbled, together with many Dunlin.

Dunlin – Nahcotta, WA
Marbled Godwit – Nahcotta, WA

It was very disappointing not to have the Bar Tailed in these flocks up close because as is seen from the photos above, the light was perfect. I include a photo of a Bar Tailed Godwit from the flock that has been at the barge near the Coast Guard Station in Westport, WA. We did not see it there on the pelagic trip I took in August this year. There was a single report of one there in late August, but since there were many pelagic trips before and after that with eager eyes watching, I wonder about the observation and also wonder how long this Bar Tailed has been in this location.

Bar Tailed Godwit – Westport, WA

The drive home was long and boring. That part of the state (southwest Washington) is a throwback in time with so much of the economy based on logging and seafood. Very different from the now tech dominated areas of western King and Snohomish Counties. Maybe it is still affected by COVID-19, but the traffic was light even as I went through Tacoma and Seattle at rush hour. I was tired from a very good day and was welcomed by a great Beef Bourguignon dinner that Cindy had made. I am a lucky guy.