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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.