February Big Month: Week 2 – The Deluge and Week 3 – Pedal to the Metal

Week 2 ended with some local birds and 132 species for February. When doing a time delimited project like a Big Day or Big Year or my Big Month, it seems inevitable and is definitely sad that the memories of the misses often overshadow the memories of the great successes. As I started Week 2, I was optimistic that the misses in Clark County and the Okanogan would be dimmed by a second week filled with new birds. Well the first day of the new week had some of those new birds but also had another bad miss.

The story began at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles in Clallam County. Ediz Hook is a sand spit that extends 3 miles into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. It is almost as good as having a boat and I have had many great birds there over the years including a Glaucous Gull last year. Another had been seen there at the same spot as the previous year on February 7th. It would be a great place for other new species for the month and a Glaucous Gull was a “3” in my rating system meaning it was rare indeed. The previous year the Glaucous Gull had remained at the same spot for several weeks so I felt the odds were pretty good it would be there when I arrived. It wasn’t there and it also was not on the log boom where it had also been seen. Other expected new species fortunately were, all common and readily found elsewhere, but numbers matter at least in they indicate some progress, so I was happy to add Pacific and Red Throated Loons, Common Murre, Harlequin Duck, Black Bellied Plover, Sanderling and Black Oystercatcher – the latter find assisted by Alex Patia, a superb birder that now lives in the area and with whom I had a nice visit.

I picked up a Hermit Thrush at Salt Creek County Park and a Sharp Shinned Hawk in Port Angeles but was shut out looking for the Plover flock on Shmuck Road which might still have a Pacific Golden Plover. Not thrilled with the results of the day despite adding 9 new species, I decided to catch a later ferry and divert to Point No Point where Bonaparte’s Gulls are almost guaranteed. It proved a good choice as the Bonaparte’s were plentiful and I also added three good alcids, Rhinoceros Auklet and both Marbled and Ancient Murrelets. The 13 new species for the day brought me to 145 for the month, but a Glaucous Gull would sure have been nice.

Bonaparte’s Gull – Point No Point

The next day I was joined by Ed Pullen and we headed off to join good friend Deb Essman for a day of birding in Kittitas County starting with a visit to a large tract of private land in the beautiful Teanaway Valley. Before meeting those friends, Ed and I stopped at Bullfrog Pond and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in Cle Elum. We were entirely in snow but still managed to find Pygmy Nuthatches and American Dippers, an excellent start for the day. Joining Deb, we then hiked around some gorgeous land and found our main target – White Headed Woodpecker and had a bonus Great Horned Owl and even better we flushed a Ruffed Grouse, my fifth new species for the day.

Deb, Ed and I then headed further east hoping to find Canyon and Rock Wrens and maybe a Chukar to make up for my miss in the Okanogan. Deb knows every nook and cranny in Kittitas County and we visited many of them, but the birds did not always cooperate. At Rocky Coulee at the end of Recreation Road, we dug up a Rock Wren but no Chukar and surprisingly no Canyon Wren. I got my first Peregrine Falcon of the month on Badger Pocket Road and saving the day at the end, we found a pair of Golden Eagles on Canyon Road canceling out another of the Okanogan misses. Birdwise, it could have been better, but I knew I would be back later in the month and the chance to spend time with Ed and Deb was a welcome boost in these days when we have been so isolated because of Covid-19.

Rock Wren – Recreation Road
Peregrine Falcon – Badger Pocket Road
Golden Eagle – Canyon Road

The Golden Eagle was species 153 for the month and, as I said, I knew I would be back to this area, one of my favorites in the state. My plans for the rest of the week were to bird locally on the 10th, get my second Covid vaccination on the 11th – YAY!!! and then head back out of town for a day or two. Things do not always go as planned. I did bird locally on the 10th picking up some easy species like Bushtit, Ruddy Duck and Downy Woodpecker and then ventured a little further afield into northern Snohomish County and on to Skagit County. New birds in the former were Brown Headed Cowbird and American Pipit on Thomle Road where there were also at least 10,000 Snow Geese. My best bird was the Harris’s Sparrow on Polson Road on Fir Island where I was helped by the landowner putting out seed just as I visited. I picked up very distant but targeted White Winged Scoter and Long Tailed Duck from the Samish Island Day Use Overlook and then joined others at the East 90’s on the Samish Flats hoping that the Short Eared Owls would put on their display. I had my first Savannah Sparrow as I waited and then was treated to flights by several of the owls.

Short Eared Owl – East 90’s Samish Flats

Once again getting our Covid vaccination – #2 – was very well done. Our arms were a bit more sore than after the first dose, but we had no side effects. Some of our friends had flu like responses but we were spared. So the 11th was a day of rest and then I was going to head off to the Coast on Friday, my first trip there this year. We may have been spared any after effects from the shots, but we were not spared any snow. A major storm hit the entire state on the 12th and while it was pretty and I had reliable all wheel drive, the state was essentially shut down. We had more than 8 inches over the next couple of days in Edmonds and in other parts of the state, there was twice that much. Not good for birding. Not good for planning. Not good for Big Months. I was able to get out to Pine Ridge Park and with snow on the ground was able to finally add a Pileated Woodpecker on the 12th but that was it. Sure it was fun to see more than 18 Varied Thrushes there, but not the kind of fun I had in mind. With the vaccination and the snow, I lost 4 days of birding. It is bad enough that February only has 28 days – not even a Leap Year – and now I had lost 4 of them, over 14% of the days available. Guess I could reduce my goal by 14% and settle for 172 species, but we all know it doesn’t work that way. Definitely would be harder, though.

So Week 2 was a real downer – 164 species – with only 32 new ones. I know it gets harder as each day goes by and new species are added, but this was a full 100 fewer than the previous week – I was now way behind and would have to go full throttle to have a chance at 200. And those early misses were back in my head – if only I had seen the …and the …

Week 3 – Going All Out

Even though there was still a lot of snow on the ground, the roads were clear by the 15th and I headed for the coast – finally – there was a lot of ground to make up. There were not as many birds on the outer beach at Ocean Shores as there might have been and the wind was cold and forceful, but I was lucky and found targeted Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover fairly easily. No Marbled Godwits but I hoped to see them at Westport or Tokeland. I drove 7 plus miles on the sand all the way to the Point Brown jetty. It was a fairly high tide but not yet in. Where were the Rockpipers? With waves crashing over the rocks, I was not seeing any until about halfway out the jetty a large wave flushed a bunch of birds. All three were there – Surfbirds, Black Turnstones and at least two Rock Sandpipers. Mission accomplished.

Snowy Plover – Banded

I had added five shorebirds to both my year and month list – a good start but I felt like I had lost ground and needed much more for the day. So it was on to Westport which turned out to be very disappointing with no Marbled Godwits in the marina. Maybe they would be at Bottle Beach but I had to make a choice – get to Tokeland the go to place in Washington for Willets or go back up to Bottle Beach. With a seeming high and incoming tide, there would not be ideal conditions for both. I opted for Tokeland which also could be good for the Godwits. Tide was indeed high but I found the Willets – at least 13 of them. Not too many years ago we felt lucky to find 4 here. There were no Godwits but a couple of Least Sandpipers were mixed in with a large flock of Dunlin and Black Bellied Plovers, so I did add two new shorebirds for the month and year. A small bonus was a group of Greater White Fronted Geese. I had seen one earlier at Walla Walla Point Park on my way back from the Okanogan but it had been a distant scope only view so this was much better.

Willet – Tokeland Marina
Greater White Fronted Geese – Tokeland

Heading home just before Bottle Beach I could see that although it was 2.5 hours before scheduled high tide, the water was already high and it would be pointless to stop. I headed instead for the Brady Loop where needed Wilson’s Snipe had been reported. I did not find them there in the snowy fields but did get my first of month Purple Finch and Western Meadowlark. The traffic was good so I had time to stop by Nisqually NWR where there was also a chance for Snipe. There was lots of snow and some trees had fallen across the boardwalk path. I bushwhacked over them and at the end of the trail in a pond between the dike and the old barn I got the best bird of the trip – an American Bittern posing in the open. These birds are regular but can be very difficult to find. No Snipe but it was new species number 9 for the day – a great ending.

American Bittern – Nisqually NWR

In any “big” undertaking whether it be for a day or a year or a month, the clock is always ticking and the accumulation of numbers is always gauged both by the time already past and the time ahead. With 174 species seen “only” 15 days into the month, at least mathematically it should be easy to find “only” 36 more in the 13 days remaining. The first 15 days had averaged over 11 species per day and I only needed to average fewer than 3 a day going forward. Of course these are not mathematical pursuits and they are very much subject to the law of diminishing returns as there is a limited field of opportunities and many of the best parts of the field had already been harvested.

The single biggest remaining opportunity would be a visit to to the Walla Walla area, where especially if I could team with Mike and MerryLynn Denny, maybe as many as a dozen possibilities could be found. The original plan had been for Cindy and me to reprise a fun visit to the area from 2020 where we had a little birding and a lot of wine tasting. But Walla Walla had been hit hard by snow as well and more snow was projected ahead. Even getting over the pass on I-90 might be challenging, and birding would be more difficult and probably not as rewarding. The wine would still be good, but there would be a better time to visit for that purpose. Deferring Walla Walla until later, I chased a few local birds on the 16th, finally finding a Golden Crowned Kinglet and a Barred Owl in nearby parks and returned to Greenlake to hopefully see the Sora that had been a mainstay there since December. The Sora again was mostly uncooperative with only its whinny call and a few glimpses through the reeds showing its presence. Someone has been feeding it regularly bringing it into the open, but my visits have never coincided with his, so furtive glances only.

The last bird for the day was an early Rufous Hummingbird that had been visiting a feeder in Seattle. I didn’t know if the feeder was visible from the street but took a chance and found that it was. It was still awkward though, as the only parking was at a spot where there was no visibility and I ended up sitting on part of a concrete wall across from the house with feeders. When someone is looking at a feeder with bins and a big lensed camera, it can seem to others that he is spying on the house instead. Fortunately only one person came by and we had a nice chat removing that suspicion and avoiding a call to the local constabulary. Also fortunately the Rufous Hummer showed briefly – twice. The feeder was regularly visited by at least two Anna’s Hummingbirds and every time the Rufous appeared it was instantly chased off by one of them. I really wanted a photo but the chases did not allow for that and after 30 minutes I decided that counting it was good enough and left.

The snow conditions on Snoqualmie Pass had cleared a bit on the 17th and I decided to go for a “guaranteed” Lewis’s Woodpecker at Fort Simcoe with chances again for shrub steppe birds and others in Kittitas County as well as two of my other previous misses that were possible in Yakima residential areas – Blue Jay and Lesser Goldfinch. My first stop was again at the Umtanum Creek area on Canyon Road hoping for the Canyon Wren that Ed, Deb and I had missed earlier. I crossed the Yakima River on the rickety suspension bridge and hiked a bit into the Canyon. No wren was calling and none responded to my playback. Disappointed I head back to the car. I did not hear a wren but I heard what seemed like the familiar whistle notes of a Townsend’s Solitaire. Not impossible here but unexpected. When it flew out of one of the trees by the creek and went directly over me crossing the river, I was certain of the identification. A consolation prize for sure – making up for the miss yet again of the Canyon Wren. Then as if the somewhat dark mood had been broken by the Solitaire, just as I got to the bridge I heard the unmistakable beautiful descending notes of a Canyon Wren. It was singing from the top of the hill to the north and would not be lured in closer by my calls. After so many failures, this was a great spirit lifter and impetus to carry on to Fort Simcoe.

Canyon Wren – from an Earlier Visit

Fort Simcoe and Oak Creek are two places in Washington where Lewis’s Woodpeckers are guaranteed – in quantity and usually in quality. Fort Simcoe park was closed but I parked by the chained off entry and first heard and then saw at least three Lewis’s Woodpeckers as soon as I got out of my car. I debated just checking the species off the list and moving on to other targets but I love the area and its numerous oaks and figured there would be many more Woodpeckers ahead and a chance for a good photo. The complicating factor was that there was at least 10″ of snow on the ground and my boots were at most 8″. I did the best I could to stay in the footsteps of others that had been there probably the day before and trudged for 30 minutes around the Park. Lewis’s Woodpeckers were indeed everywhere but they seemed very edgy and rarely stayed put for more than a few seconds on perches either distant or high up in the oaks – often both distant and high up. I reported 25 woodpeckers on my Ebird report but there easily could have been 40 or more as counting accurately was impossible with them constantly moving about. I took a couple dozen photos but would be doing a great disservice to such a beautiful bird by including one of them here. Instead the photo below is from Oak Creek where the views are generally better and more photo friendly as the Woodpeckers sit in relatively close snags at eye level from the roadway heading up Oak Creek Canyon.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

It was only 1 little after 11:00 a.m. I had three new species for the month with possibilities ahead. Unfortunately I was not able to find either the Blue Jay or the Lesser Goldfinches that had been reported in a Yakima neighborhood. There was lots of snow and I felt uncomfortable parking on the residential streets where the snow had limited passage so maybe I did not have sufficient diligence, but I felt there would be chances for both elsewhere later in the month. This proved to be only partially true.

I headed back to Kittitas County towards Ellensburg and then Vantage via I-82. Zooming along at just over 70 mph which is the speed limit, a small flock of small birds were flying towards me from the west. Flocks are not common on this highway but they might have been House Finches or Horned Larks. I pulled over and stopped as quickly as I could and got my bins on the last couple of birds as they carried on to the East. Lighting was great and I could make them out as Gray Crowned Rosy Finches. There were at least 8 and possibly a dozen. NOT a quality look, but a quality bird that I had regretted missing on my Okanogan trip. They are often found among the cliffs at the rest areas on the highway, so not that great surprise. Rosy Finches are little beauties, so not getting a photo was disappointing. Stay tuned.

Once again I birded the length of Vantage Highway and then Recreation Road all the way to Rocky Coulee and then the Gingko Park overlook hoping for shrub steppe/sage birds. Again not a one. So still lots of misses but there had been a couple of good surprises as well. Traffic home was easy and a long day ended with another 4 new species bringing me to 182 so far. Coulda, shoulda, woulda been closer to 190 but that’s birding.

That night – February 17th, I noticed an Ebird report from friend Jon Houghton for his visit to Juanita Bay Park that included both Red Breasted Sapsucker and Wilson’s Snipe. I had seen the former there before and had noted other reports of the latter from that location but I did not know the story. Jon provided the details and the following morning in fairly unpleasant rain, I went to the Park which is a half hour from my home. I saw another birder there with bins and an umbrella – now that was a good idea – and not being shy I asked her if she was familiar with the park. She was and kindly guided me to the boardwalk where the Snipe were being seen. They were easy to find even in the grass and mud for which they were perfectly camouflaged. There were at least a half dozen. And after my new guide departed I moved over to a wooded area where she said she had seen Red Breasted Sapsuckers in the past. In a few moments I heard one calling and then drumming and thus had a good twofer to start the day. I had hopes for another one ahead.

Wilson’s Snipe

Neal Road in Fall City has been a great spot for good birds including a White Wagtail in January 2018. There is a huge flock of blackbirds and Starlings at a farm there and both Rusty Blackbird and Yellowheaded Blackbird had been seen in February and a very rare for Washington Common Grackle had been seen there earlier. Views are distant and best with a scope and trying to find the Rusty Blackbird in constantly moving and shifting mass of similar looking birds is challenging at the best of times. Constant rain did not help. The single Yellowheaded Blackbird was easy and quickly seen as it favored the ground. The Rusty was far more difficult and I only found it after 45 minutes of searching when an accipiter, presumably a male Cooper’s Hawk flushed all of the birds and the somewhat paler Rusty stood out as it flew and then landed on a mostly open branch. A double twofer brought me to 180 species. I really needed to get to Walla Walla.

It is pretty apparent that weather has played a large role in my February quest – both the actual snow and the continuing threat of more to come. The impact has been two fold in preventing trips to Eastern Washington and the Coast as highways and the mountain passes have been closed and also in probably slowing the arrival of new birds and even possibly leading to the demise of some early arrivals as their food source has disappeared. Walla Walla had had lots of snow but a warming trend was projected for the next few days. That alone was not enough to make a visit viable, however, as warming could make avalanches more likely over the pass. Mike and MerryLynn Denny were able to bird with me on the 19th or 20th. Snoqualmie Pass was open on the evening of the 18th so even though I had been out birding all that day, I decided to head over that night and at least be there to bird the following day. Cindy, as always, was both supporting and encouraging so I took off just after an early dinner with plans to stay in Richland that night instead of the very long drive over early the next morning with unknown conditions on Snoqualmie Pass.

It turned out to be a good plan especially when a FOY Barn Owl flew right over my car in Mattawa, WA on the way over. This was an almost guaranteed species on Dodd Road the next day, but at this stage, a bird in the hand is definitely better than two in the bush. I was meeting the Dennys at 9:00 a.m. which gave me time to bird a bit on my own and I found one of the targets, American White Pelican, at the Columbia Park Marina in Benton County. Two down and hopefully many more to go.

American White Pelican – Columbia Park Marina

Mike and MerryLynn Denny are special folks. Always in good cheer, incredible birders, familiar with every nook and cranny in Walla Walla and adjoining counties, tireless and always ready and willing to help. MerryLynn is the better birder (expect Mike agrees) and Mike is the all encompassing naturalist and historian. They are an endless font of information about geology, wildlife, agriculture, botany and everything else in their area. I had sent them a list of “needs/wants” and they had an itinerary in mind to maximize our success – despite snow still covering the area. We traveled in separate cars linked by radios and covered a lot of ground. I could not recount our route and stops as I just followed their excellent lead. Here are some highlights:

Barn Owls as usual in the dirt banks off Dodd Road. After incredible persistence and skillful observation by MerryLynn, we had a single Tricolored Blackbird at the Iowa Dodd Beef/Tyson Ponds feedlots. Among the hundreds of blackbirds and thousands of starlings as well as hundreds of White Crowned Sparrows, we also had numerous Yellowheaded Blackbirds. We also had our first of many Ring Necked Pheasants another new species for me. Next up was a search for a Long Eared Owl. We found a single Northern Saw Whet Owl but could not locate the Long Eared Owl that had been seen the week before, so we carried on to Smith Springs Road and somehow Mike and MerryLynn picked out a pair of Long Eared Owls buried in the thick brush. There were probably others in this favorite roosting place. We also had more Pheasants and also a number of Gray Partridge.

Yellow Headed Blackbirds
Northern Saw Whet Owl
Long Eared Owls Smith Springs Road (Look Closely)

We headed over to the small and almost fully abandoned town of Ayer. [I wish I could recount the history which Mike shared. I will see if I can find it and add it later.] Our reason for the visit was that they knew it a great spot for Lesser Goldfinches. Sure enough we found a noisy flock and I could now move it from the “missed” list to the “found” list.

Lesser Goldfinch – Ayer

As I said the Dennys know every nook and cranny in the county and also know what has been seen when and where. Following up on some great intelligence we went to Lyons Ferry Road and exactly where they had heard they were hanging out and roosting at some farm buildings, we had a nice flock of very cooperative Gray Crowned Rosy Finches with individuals of both the Interior and Hepburn’s forms. Probably my favorite photo of the trip and definitely my favorite story was when Mike and MerryLynn got out of their car for better looks, I got out of my car behind them and took a picture of one Rosy Finch that perched on the roof of their vehicle. Not a new species for the month but so very much better than the brief glimpse I had earlier on I-82.

Gray Crowned Rosy Finch (Hepburn’s) – Atop the Dennys’ Car
Gray Crowned Rosy Finch Interior Form

And then MerryLynn came through again. We had been seeing Horned Larks all day long. Most flew off without being able to search them for something else. But MerryLynn kept trying and on Eureka Flats, we finally one larger flock which stayed in view long enough for a search. I had noticed a “different” looking individual in the flock when they first landed and then lost it. When they landed a bit further down the road MerryLynn was able to get her scope out and find a coveted Lapland Longspur. I could see it momentarily in the scope just before they took off again and disappeared in a distant field. A new bird for the month and one that had not been expected – a real long shot.

We tried for one more target arriving too late in the late afternoon to find Blue Jays that had been seen regularly for the past month – but always earlier in the day. I had missed this species elsewhere and figured it would remain a nemesis. I said my good byes and returned to Richland to spend the night. Maybe I should have stayed closer to Walla Walla and tried again for the Blue Jay and maybe for Cedar Waxwings which had been seen in the area – or maybe tried for a Ferruginous Hawk. The Dennys thought the hawks had departed after the snow, but one was found a couple of days later. One of the species I had thought was a good likelihood on this trip, Black Crowned Night Heron, had been missed that day and there were consistent reports coming from the Tri-City Animal Shelter pond in Pasco. My motel in Richland was very close. I would also have yet another chance for Blue Jay at W.E. Johnson Park.

The pond behind the Animal Shelter was a cool location. Surrounded by snow, I decided to put on heavier boots and then scan everywhere with the scope. As I was putting on the boots, I saw the distinctive form of a small heron fly by. It had to be the Night Heron. I probably would have counted it just on that but I was hoping for a better view. Nothing at first, but when I walked a bit and found an opening, out in the open were both adult and juvenile Black Crowned Night Herons. Outstanding!!

Black Crowned Night Heron Adult – Pasco Animal Shelter Pond
Black Crowned Night Heron Juvenile – Pasco Animal Shelter Pond

I moved on to W.E. Johnson Park and found it very quiet with lots of snow on the ground. A Blue Jay has been coming to a feeder at a nearby house for almost three months. I watched for 30 minutes and then gave up and left. It has been seen off and on again in the following days.

There would be one last stop on the way home. Red Crossbills were being reported by Walter Szeliga at the Japanese Garden on the Central Washington Campus in Ellensburg. I made my way to the Garden, probably illegally as I followed signs but the “road” seemed more like a “walkway”. Somewhat uncomfortably I parked next to the Garden gate and immediately heard at least two Red Crossbills. They were feeding actively in the spruce and were in view only momentarily. Had I been on obviously legal streets, I would have stayed. I was satisfied with the ID so I left instead. On the way home, I stopped at the Stillwater Unit of the Snoqualmie Wildlife Area. Maybe I heard the Swamp Sparrow and maybe I didn’t. Certainly no visual and I was not sufficiently confident of the call note to count it.

There had been a couple of misses but it had been a great trip, enhanced by spending yet more time with Mike and MerryLynn. All told I had added 9 new species for the month bringing me to 195 for the month. Still more than a week to go, but the misses were weighing heavily and I knew I would have to find another species or two locally and then repeat trips to at least one of my former visits: Kittitas County, Clark County, the Okanogan.

On the last day of the third week of February with some guidance from Edmonds friend Frank Caruso I found Hutton’s Vireos both at Southwest County Park and near the Willow Creek Hatchery. I missed Cedar Waxwings at Volunteer Park so ended at 195 species having added 31 species for the month. I was pretty confident I could get 4 more but I wanted some surplus as well just to be safe. If I could find everything on my list of remaining possibilities – which would mean returning to Clark County and either the Coast or the Okanogan or both – 208 or possibly 210 species would be possible. It would mean being on the road everyday – almost living in the car.

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