miss (grr), miss (grr), and then HIT (Oh Yeah!)

Actually I could have started with “hit, hit, hit” and added “miss” four more times to the title as until yesterday 2021 had gotten off to an up and down and unsatisfying start. With COVID still raging, the protection of the vaccine a long way off and political unrest at an historic low, there is no way to know what 2021 will be and that certainly applies to my birding activities and goals as well. Since the 1st of January was a decent day weatherwise, I followed a familiar pattern by chasing a few of the local rarities that continued into the new year from 2020.

The top priority was the Snowy Owl that has been returning to the same roof on Queen Anne in Seattle for a month. I walked down the alley that had seen hundreds of birders in December and there it was at its favored roost. Not my first bird for the new year as I had seen an Anna’s Hummingbird and American Crow as I left home earlier, but it was my first targeted “hit” for 2021.

Snowy Owl – Queen Anne, Seattle

My second target was a Glaucous Gull that had been seen regularly at Gene Coulon Park in Renton. This park is very near the Mouth of the Cedar River where I have had many good birds over the past year, but I had never been to this park. I ran into friend John Bjorkman when I arrived and a couple of other birders soon joined us. I was able to pick out the Glaucous Gull with my scope as it swam next to some “logs” maybe 70 yards out. Not the greatest shot but a good enough photo of a very nice species for Washington.

Glaucous GullGene Coulon Park

As we scoped for the gull, a small group of waterfowl right in front of us included Canada, Cackling and Greater White Fronted Geese, the latter a less common species that was a good add to the 2021 list.

Greater White Fronted Goose – Gene Coulon Park

Two down and now what. I debated heading east to look for the Rusty Blackbird and Common Grackle that had been seen regularly off Neal Road along the Snoqualmie River but I only had time for one more chase and decided to go for the Blue Jay that was coming to a feeder in Pierce County instead. I thought the Jay was almost a certainty and the others uncertain. With directional help from Bruce LaBar and Ed Pullen, I made it to the right house and met up with Ed Pullen who was still there. I had actually seen the Blue Jay fly into a tree as I had driven up to park, but it was no longer there when I got out of my car. It took another 15 minutes for the Blue Jay to come in to the feeder. Unfortunately it did not stay long enough for a photo. The only one I got was an ID quality photo only buried in a tree in the yard. A fun addition was that we also saw a Steller’s Jay and a California Scrub Jay at the same location. I cannot recall another three jay day in Washington.

Blue Jay – Pierce County

I had obligations for later in the day so it was off to home with a brief stop at the Edmonds fishing pier to add some regular species for the new year.

Well that was a great start to the year, but unfortunately at least in terms of successful chases, it went downhill from there. I was able to find the Sora at Green Lake in Seattle but it was heard only. Many others had been able to get great photos in the open, but when I was there with another birder and photographer wannabe, the reclusive rail remained reclusive. Great to have it at all but disappointing not to get a photo. At least I got some exercise walking around the lake and I also was able to add a Eurasian Wigeon for the year.

A Northern Goshawk had been reported and photographed on Fir Island in Skagit County during the last week of 2020. I had missed it twice each time being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On January 4th I tried again – no go. Others had it later in the day, but it continued to elude me. I continued on to Rosario Head at Deception Pass State Park, a beautiful place. A Yellow Billed Loon had been seen there a couple of days ago and I had seen one there on January 23, 2017 but not this time. So I was 0 for 2. The photo of the 2017 bird is below – my best ever of this species. A bonus was a nice photo of a Varied Thrush which I have seen at a number of locations this year.

Yellow Billed Loon – Rosario Beach 2017
Varied Thrush – Rosario Head

I made another try for the Northern Goshawk on my way back and was once again unsuccessful despite someone else having seen it 30 minutes earlier. I went to the spot where it had been seen and found only a Red Tailed Hawk. This was becoming tiresome. I ended the day with a favorite sparrow species, Lincoln’s Sparrow, at the “sparrow spot” off Moore Road.

Lincoln’s Sparrow – Fir Island

I was very very tempted to chase some rarities in Pacific and Clark counties but had other things to attend to. I might have made it in a very long day, but a two day trip would have been smarter. The birds to chase were White Faced Ibis, Acorn Woodpecker, and Snowy Egret in Clark County, White Tailed Kite in Wahkiakum County and a Hooded Oriole in Pacific County. The latter two are the real prizes as the others would likely be found later elsewhere where they are regular if not common. It is hard to let go of the old habit and urge to chase birds like these, but I want 2021 to be different. Not doing a big state list this year — I think.

OK – one more quick chase. Back to the tree in Everett where I saw the rare for Washington Yellow Bellied Sapsucker last year. As soon as I arrived another birder showed up as well. We immediately found the sapsucker on the tree, but WAIT this was a Red Breasted Sapsucker. Struck out again.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – December 2020
Red Breasted Sapsucker – January 2021

BUT…one thing that is not different from years past is the desire to chase birds that would be new for my Washington Life List or my Washington Photo list. Just before noon on January 8th, a post showed up on Facebook from Will Brooks, a fantastic young birder in Tacoma. He had found a Winter Wren in Orting. Not only would this be a new state bird for me, it was also the first record of this species in Washington – ever! And furthermore although it was a species that I had seen in several other states, I did not have a decent photo. Opportunity was knocking.

In 2010 Winter Wren was split into two distinct species: Winter Wren in the East and Pacific Wren in the West. Pacific Wrens are common in Washington and of course until yesterday the Winter Wren had never been seen. Both are pretty nondescript “lbj’s” – little brown jobs. The plumage is very similar with the Winter Wren often being seen as having a lighter tone and a paler throat. Fortunately, however, the songs and call notes are very different and can be used to separate the two species. I don’t know if Will had first found the bird visually or vocally, but he is meticulous and his report had all of the right details for both visual and vocal identification. I was in Edmonds and Orting was 60 miles away. Time to apply Rule One for a chase – go now!! I grabbed a protein shake, rain coat, binoculars and camera – checking to be sure it had an SD card and the battery was charged – and headed south.

Pacific Wren – Edmonds

In normal midday traffic for Friday, with much of the trip on freeways, I figured it would take about 75-80 minutes to get there – assuming I knew where “there” was. Problem #1. The bird was reported in Orting but there was no street address. Will had includes coordinates and I put them into my GPS and watched for directions. Not for the first time, there were problems. My GPS was taking me in the right general direction but if I followed the details, I would be 10 miles from Orting. Not good. I called Bruce LaBar who was at the site and got some clarification. I changed my GPS and changed my course. Now though I was feeling stressed with the time added for the trip. You never know, every minute can count. I was lost except for the GPS and following the new directions I had to adjust to make a quick lane shift to hit a turn. A couple of minutes afterwards, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the flashing lights of either a police car or an emergency vehicle. I slowed and started to pull off to the side of the road to let it by. Uh-oh. It did not go by – it pulled up right behind me. Was it the turn? Something else? I am sure I was going over the speed limit, but I actually did not even know what the speed limit was there as I was absorbed in the GPS adjustments.

Rule One for chasing is go now, and Rule One for interactions with police officers is be polite and honest. This time I was fortunate and what could have been a disaster turned into a really positive experience. I rolled down the window and asked for a moment to put on my mask. The officer had already checked my license plate and determined I was not a criminal. I cannot recall the exact conversation but I basically said I had been struggling with directions and was not sure what I had done but wouldn’t be surprised if I had erred somehow as I was trying hard to get somewhere and may have cut some corners. Instead of confirming that, Sergeant Pihl, a 20+ year veteran of the Puyallup City Police (details I later learned) asked why I was in a hurry and where I was trying to get to. I showed him my camera and he asked if I was a photographer. I said, sort of, but really a birder and then I told him about the first ever in Washington Winter Wren and my wanting to see it so badly. He was terrific and asked some questions about it and I gave him far more information than he ever wanted to know even though he smiled through it. Bottom line was he said that he did not want this to make my challenge any harder, so I was encouraged to head off again but cautioned to slow down which would be the safest way to get there. And then…he asked me to send him a photo of the bird when I got one. He was rooting for me. Now I am not going to tell you that it wasn’t really important to find the wren, but this interaction was a great story for the day no matter. If only all interactions with police by all people were so positive. Maybe with this guy they are…

I finally made it to the right spot and found 8 of Tacoma’s best birders there. I learned that the wren had been heard again by some maybe an hour ago but had not been seen. Will Brooks was no longer there. Winter Wrens prefer moist dense habitat and are very secretive and generally remain close to the ground. They are often heard and not seen. There was a little stream running through a small farm field with heavy brambles. The habitat looked perfect. We spread out and looked all along the stream and on both sides of the road in the brush. These were top notch birders. They were not going to miss it, if it called or came into view. But nothing for almost an hour. Finally the decision was made to use audio playback. Many apps have recordings of the sounds of each species ranging from songs to call notes to alarms. Every bird species has its own unique call(s) and songs. Not always distinguishable by me, but clearly so to those with good ears – and good processors. I still have decent hearing, but I am not at all good at distinguishing what I hear. There is some controversy about using playback. It is thought by some to unduly disturb the birds as the calls suggest another bird is around and may be challenging the territory or breeding rights. It can also draw a bird into the open exposing itself to predation.

This was not a breeding situation and there had been no predators around. The birders gathered together in case the playback was successful and a visual was made. Ed Pullen played the song of the Winter Wren and there was an immediate response. The song of the Winter Wren is different from that of the Pacific Wren, and we all agreed that this was a Winter Wren. There was no visual and the Wren seemed to be at least 60 yards away near a cedar tree. Some caught a brief view as it flew off to an area behind a fence. It called a few times and then silence. I had not yet had a visual but was sure of the vocalizations. I urged Ed to try playback again. He did and the Wren responded and flew into an area beneath some farm machinery now maybe 40 yards away. Over the next 15 minutes, the Winter Wren played peekaboo and eventually came out into the open and although still distant was there for some decent photos. I was thrilled to get the one below of it singing and clearly showing the pale throat that is one field mark distinguishing it from Pacific Wren.

Winter Wren – Orting Washington – First Washington Record

Everyone was thrilled to get this rare little bird. It was the 425th species I had seen in the State and was my 412th bird photographed in Washington. It also was the 714th species I had photographed in the ABA area (all of North America north of Mexico). It was a really good day.

When I got home, I sent a copy of the photo to Sergeant Pihl with an email thanking him for his assistance and good spirit. He quickly replied with a congratulatory message. In his own way he was a participant and shared in this experience. We are all parts of many communities, birders, citizens, families, whatever. We are not all the same, but we all can relate to, appreciate and help each other.

I belong to an ABA Rare Bird Alert group on Facebook and posted there that the first ever Winter Wren had been seen in Washington and I included several photos I had taken. Within moments there were more than 50 comments or likes posted there by others in the group. Now a day later there have been more than 365 responses. There are a lot of birders out there. I also understand that more than 30 birders were on the scene this morning and had either visual or auditory observations. I expect that by the end of the day maybe even 50 people would have added this species to their lists. One friend came in early from Yakima to get it. There is a good chance that the bird will remain for awhile and many more birders will see it. Lovely. Maybe my luck has changed and I will get that Northern Goshawk soon.