February Big Month – Week I

Everyone birds differently. I enjoy it most when I can focus efforts around a project and/or have a goal. In January 2018, that focus and project was a “Big Month” for my home state of Washington. Prior to that time, the biggest list I had for any January was 154. My goal was to “smash” that by finding 180 species. As is usually the case, once I got going there was self imposed internal pressure to go past that and with the help of some nice rarities like Blue Jay, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Ross’s Goose and Gyrfalcon, I was able to get to 208 species. I spent a lot of the rest of the next year birding in multiple states starting my 50/50/50 Project but with that early good start I was still able to reach another goal of more than 340 species in Washington for the year ending with 349.

With travel now still limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted another project to guide my birding and distract me from the sadness of politics and those travel constraints. I decided to again do a Big Month in Washington – but this time for February. My previous high for the month was 143 in 2015. Especially with 3 fewer days than January 180 species again seemed to be a reasonable goal but reasonable should not be a limitation for “going for it”, so I am shooting for 200 species. Today is February 11th and I have birded on every day preceding it. Today has been a non-birding day with my attention being on getting my second Covid-19 vaccination, completing the dosage and hopefully affording me a much safer existence. It has been a full and exciting ten days with successes outnumbering failures but with those failures – missed species that were on target lists – strongly threatening the possibility of getting those 200 species. This blog post covers the first week of my adventure. I will try to do one after each subsequent week as well.

I am not going to detail each day of birding, but I do want to hit some highlights and reflect on the experience so far, share a few photos and preview what’s ahead revealing the logistical work that goes with such a project. A lesson I carried over from that January 2018 Big Month and a corollary of my Rule 1 for any chase was to “go now” in this instance meaning to try for holdover rarities from January 2021 as soon as I could. Thus I headed north on February 1st hoping that the Snow Bunting would be at Eide Road, the Northern Waterthrush and Black Phoebe would be at Wylie Slough, the Ruddy Turnstone would be at Tulalip Bay, the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker would be in Everett and the Snowy Owl would be in Seattle. There were other rarities but they were farther afield and these would give me my best chance to get the largest portion of them. Luck was on my side. Off to a great start, I found these 6 rarities and 58 other species. Those were the successes but there were also some failures on day 1 as I could not find the Green Heron at Levee Pond in Pierce County nor the Northern Mockingbird near Olympia, the latter a big miss as they are not regular anywhere in Washington.

Day 1 – 64 species – two misses.

Snow Bunting – Eide Road
Snowy Owl – Queen Anne, Seattle
Black Phoebe – Wylie Road
Ruddy Turnstone – Tulalip Bay
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Everett

The next day would be the first of many long days as I headed south to Wahkiakum and Clark Counties hoping to add some more rarities and specialties including ones I had seen in January. The first stop was for the White Tailed Kite on Puget Island. When I arrived I could not find it in its “regular” field or on its “regular” perch. Fortunately I had my scope and found it on a tree behind the farm. As would be the case for much of the day, it was raining so due to the distance and the rain, no photo op so I include one from the earlier visit. At Steamboat Slough in the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife area, I found the Tufted Duck in with a dozen or so Scaup – and in even harder rain. I was two for two and feeling pretty good despite the rain. It kind of went down hill from there.

White Tailed Kite – Puget Island

At Ridgefield Refuge, the targets were a White Faced Ibis that had been there for a month, Sandhill Crane, Barn Swallow and Wilson’s Snipe. I heard the Cranes, saw the Swallow and missed the others despite two trips around the loop – again in lots of rain. The Ibis is nowhere else in the state so this was a bad miss. It would not be the only one for the day. When I originally planned the trip, I expected that the Snowy Egret that has been at the Lower River Road pond for several years would be an easy get. I had seen it on my trip in January. But it had not been seen for a week and is thought to be at Post Office Lake which is inaccessible. Edmonds birding friend Jon Houghton was in the area and confirmed it was not found, so I changed plans and went first to Fort Vancouver for the “easy” Acorn Woodpeckers. It had taken me exactly 5 seconds to find them in January. Not this time even though Jon joined me and we searched diligently for 40 minutes. Another BAD MISS! We somewhat made up for it when we found the Clark’s Grebe at Shillapoo Wildlife area. Later we also could not find any Lesser Goldfinches at a likely spot.

In my logistical planning I gave a numerical rating to each potential species with 1 being the easiest, 3 being the hardest and 5 being – seen last year but no chance in hell again. The Acorn Woodpeckers were a 1 (despite being rare there) and I had Clark’s Grebe as a 2 since they were at least possible in Eastern Washington. So in some ways, it was an upgrade – but not really as I had counted on the Acorns. The Lesser Goldfinch was unfortunate but I expect I will find one elsewhere. If I can see 200 on the horizon late in the month, I may go back – a full day I hope to avoid. On the way back to Edmonds I detoured to the remote town of Yacolt to look for the remainder of what had been a nice population of Monk Parakeets. One had been seen lately and I found it – again in the rain. Introduced and not “really countable” in the state – but it’s my list and I am keeping it for now. I also stopped in Lewis County and readily found the juvenile Lesser Black Backed Gull in a large flock of gulls and in even harder rain.

Monk Parakeet – Yacolt, WA – Earlier Photo

End of day 2 total of 86 species with two very bad misses.

Day three was spent filling in some gaps with local birds including a visit to some local parks and the Edmonds waterfront. There was not a specific list of needs or gottas but at the end of the day I wanted very much to find a Wood Duck. Juanita Bay Park is the go to place for them – without fail. Yes it was easy – the first duck I saw there was a Wood Duck and so was the next and the next and the next. All told there were 32 Wood Ducks there. Mission accomplished.

At the end of day 3 my total was at 100 and no new misses.

Wood Duck – Juanita Bay Park

It was time for a Big trip for the Big month – heading East and North to the Waterville plateau and the Okanogan – with lots of high hopes and even some “gotta have thems”. On the Waterville plateau there were the usual hundreds of Horned Larks and one large flock of 100+ Snow Buntings. But I could not find a Golden Eagle or a Gray Partridge and certainly no Gyrfalcon. Not doing so well… yet.

Off of the Plateau on the way to the Okanogan I stopped at Bridgeport State Park – another go to place – for Northern Saw Whet Owl. The way you find one is to look under all the trees searching for pellets or whitewash showing that an owl had perched above. I was the only one at the Park except for one guy in a large RV. One of my best skills in finding birds is to allow others to find them for me. When you arrive on the scene at the spot where you hope to find a bird you are chasing, it is really great if another birder is already there and especially if he or she is already looking at it. This particular park co-inhabitant was not looking at my owl, BUT he had seen it earlier in the morning and knew where it was roosting. It still took a while to find it, but we did and I moved Northern Saw Whet Owl into my “got it” column.

Snow Buntings – Waterville Plateau
Northern Saw Whet Owl – Bridgeport State Park

My usual visit to the Okanogan starts around Omak and goes to Conconully or the Okanogan Highlands or down Cameron Road. This time I took a different tack and headed to Winthrop where a lot of my target birds had been seen especially Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Bohemian Waxwings, both of which were high priorities. After my visit they were still high priorities, unfortunately. But another of my guiding principles is that there is almost always a great consolation prize. The prize here was a cooperative flock of at least nine or ten Pine Grosbeaks – another top priority and one I had doubted I would find.

Pine Grosbeak Female – Winthrop
Pine Grosbeak Male – Winthrop

A bit disappointed I headed over to Conconully where I found the usual Wild Turkeys but little else and then made it to Omak where I would be staying that night. I had picked up an unexpected Common Redpoll and a few other birds but it had only been a so so day and I ended with 13 new species for the day – almost all expected.

At the end of day 4 my total was at 113 and there were at least three new misses. Maybe the next day would find some of them.

Day 4 started in the Okanogan Highlands. Not as much snow as when I had been there in January but truly beautiful. My first new species was a Prairie Falcon flyover near Tonasket. I had planned on a gimme Chukar on Fancher Road where I have seen over 100 – but not a one – a very bad miss. On Mary Ann Creek Road I finally found a Northern Pygmy Owl but only a distant view and no photo which was disappointing. I kept looking for big flocks which could be the Rosy Finches or even Bohemian Waxwings, but it seemed like it was not to be. UNTIL – a very large flock of small birds appeared out of nowhere on Chesaw Road. At first I thought they were Pine Siskins but to my delight when I was able to to pull over for a look through my binoculars I found they were all Redpolls. I was able to get a couple of pictures and then they all took flight scared off by an oncoming pickup truck, the only vehicle I had seen that day. Bad timing. Or maybe not as the flock resettled for a couple of moments and this time as I got my bins on them, one jumped out. All of the others were fairly dark with the mix of brown backs and sides, streaked breasts and red caps (polls). This one was super pale with a much smaller red cap, barely any brown or streaking a rosy cast to its chest. I was able to find it again in my camera viewfinder and got two photos before again the entire flock of more than 110 Redpolls flew off and disappeared. Could this be a Hoary Redpoll? Extremely rare but not unheard of in Washington, it is a very difficult ID, but this bird sure looked good. It is likely that Hoary Redpoll may lose its separate species status in the near future, but for now it is recognized. The Washington Bird Records Committee will weigh in on the ID, but I sent the photos to some noted ornithologists who gave a thumbs up. Good enough for me for now. and a find that makes iup for some misses.

Common Redpoll – Chesaw Road
Common Redpoll – Chesaw Road
Hoary Redpoll? – Chesaw Road
Hoary Redpoll? – Chesaw Road

The feeders on Nealey Road, my next stop, can be very productive and there I got my first Mountain Chickadee and a less than cooperative Clark’s Nutcracker that refused to come out into the open. Oddly this is where I finally found a Hairy Woodpecker, a species I had missed far too often at local parks in Edmonds. I had a lovely visit with one of the residents and left a donation for seed to stock the feeders. A bit down the road I found two Gray Partridge at the same spot I had them in December. After another hour driving the back roads of the Highlands and a return Chukarless visit to Fancher Road most of which was birdless. I decided to change plans and spend the night in Wenatchee instead of again in Omak which would allow some calculated detours. The first was to the Bridgeport Bar where I found one target – American Tree Sparrow and a surprise Eared Grebe. The Grebe was the 9th new species for the day. End of Day 5 – 122 species and another bad miss with the Chukar and no rescues for either Gray Crowned Rosy Finch of Bohemian Waxwing.

Before heading out the next morning I checked my Birder’s Dashboard App to see what had been reported recently in Chelan County. This proved a great move as Eurasian Wigeon and Greater White Fronted Goose had been seen at Walla Walla Point Park which was only a few minutes from my motel. I expected to get them elsewhere but as nothing is a certainty, I was glad to add these two species to my Month list. There is a recognized certain amount of craziness in these birding projects. I had to make a choice – go to Stevens Pass, the best place for Canada Jay or make the long detour back down to Olympia and try again for the Mockingbird. I chose the latter. On the way to Olympia I saw a small falcon zip by me and take down a Rock Pigeon. It was my first Merlin of the month. The weather began to turn and in crappy rain I was able to find the Northern Mockingbird buried in the holly hedge behind 504 Cushing Street in Olympia. The benefit of that decision was doubled when a bonus White Throated Sparrow was also present. Still no Green Heron, but at the 212th Street Ponds in Kent, I finally found one of the Cinnamon Teal buried in reeds at the back of the larger pond. So it was a good detour adding 6 species for the month.

Day 6 – 128 species to date and a recovered miss but some other misses that I may have to attend to again.

After some long days, day 7 of my quest was limited to looking for some local birds. None should have been terribly difficult to find, but there are rarely guarantees in birding so bests to be sure by getting even the easy ones as early as we can – remove the pressure later. I easily got Virginia Rail at the Edmonds March but did not find Cedar Waxwings that had been photographed there the previous day. Birding friend Steve Pink had a Townsend’s Warbler visiting his feeder so I paid him a visit. He warned that it might take a long wait, but it came in as soon as I arrived and was joined by a Chestnut Backed Chickadee which was also new for the month. The last bird on my list was expected to be the hardest to find. Band Tailed Pigeons are regular but it is hard to know where they will be. As I neared the neighborhood where I planned my search three large pigeons flew into a tree about 200 yards away. I stopped the car and first got a confirming look and then a poor but ID proving photo. Turned out to be easy. Time to attend to other matters neglected in my week of chases.

End of Day 7 – 132 species. Recapping my big misses were Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, Bohemian Waxwing, Golden Eagle, Chukar, White Face Ibis, Lesser Goldfinch and Acorn Woodpecker. Hope remains for some but I think a return trip to Clark County will be necessary. Much more importantly, it has been a lot of fun and has definitely been a distraction from politics and pandemics.

Townsend’s Warbler – Edmonds Feeder
Band Tailed Pigeon