The Species Do Add Up

In 2018 and 2019 much of my birding was tied to my 50/50/50 quest to find 50 species on 50 individual days in each of the 50 American states. Although I often did so on single days on my own, an essential part of the adventure was to go out with local birders on the designated day – not just to gain from their expertise but also to experience the diversity of birders and birding throughout our incredibly diverse country. We were successful in finding 50 species usually with many species to spare. In my wrap up I acknowledged that I have seen 50 species on a single day many times in my home state of Washington. When you are on familiar turf visiting good areas most times of the year it is not that hard to do. Yesterday did not start out that way, but that did become the goal as I again headed north to Fir Island hoping for something special at Wyle Slough or Hayton Reserve – maybe a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper which has continued to confound me this year.

Wylie Slough Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – 2018

When yet again I failed to correctly decipher the tidal pattern in the area, the hopes for something special morphed into just enjoying the beautiful day, seeing what I could find. The day started at Wylie Slough where the only shorebirds were the normal fare – Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Long Billed Dowitchers, Killdeer and Western Sandpipers and an often present but more often missed Wilson’s Snipe. No Baird’s, no Pectorals or Semipalmated and definitely no Sharp Tailed. But one of the many blackbirds that flew over was a Yellow Headed Blackbird – it and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were good birds for the area. The pig-like grunt of a Virginia Rail confirmed its presence and the ever present but E-bird rare Black Phoebe was seen flycatching at the parking area – another good “tick”.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs – Wylie Slough
Yellow Rumped Warbler – Wylie Slough
Hooded Merganser with Fish – Wylie Slough

Although the tide was completely wrong, there were birds at Hayton – hundreds or even thousands of them, but they were mostly scope views only – into the sun and with heat shimmers making viewing difficult. There were at least a thousand shorebirds but almost entirely unidentifiable even at 30X magnification. But I got lucky and the Pacific Golden Plover that has been there for several days just happened to catch some sun as my scope picked out the few “larger” birds in the distant mud, joined by a few Black Bellied Plovers. Odds are decent that there may have been something “good” among the other shorebirds but I just could not make out anything in detail. The same was true for waterfowl. Definitely some Mallards and Canada Geese, but what were those other hundreds of ducks? Green Winged Teal, yes but I was not quite plugged in to a goal of 50+ species for the day, so I just noted “duck sp.” on Ebird.

I had not yet thought to try for a 50 species day but when I ended the stay at Hayton Reserve, I was surprised to find that I had seen 33 species at Wylie and even with the poor tide and without yet trying I had added 10 species for the day at Hayton including a Merlin that zipped right past me and a Savannah Sparrow that dove for cover as it did. I always like having a ‘target” for my day and decided I would go for that 50 species goal, even though I was not planning to be out all day. Although I expected the tide would be wrong there. too, I thought I would try for new shorebirds at Channel Drive where a few days earlier there had been a number of Semipalmated and Baird’s Sandpipers. No mud at all, thus no shorebirds, but there were hundreds of swallows including both Cliff and Northern Rough Winged in the area and with a Raven and Red Tailed Hawk, I was now at 47 species for the day. Surely there would be a few more.

Call me thick or call me obstinate or more positively call me determined. I still wanted to find some special shorebirds so I stopped at Eide Road as I headed home. A Belted Kingfisher was on a shrub as I turned into the area and an American Kestrel was perched on the wire right above the parking lot and the always present Rock Pigeons were there as well. So that got me to 50 species before even getting out of the car, but ending a day with a Rock Pigeon would just not do. Surely there had to be something out there even though the water level was high there as well. I saw a few shorebirds as I scanned the area so I got out the camera and scope and hiked part way out the dike. A small group of peeps included both Least and Western Sandpipers and a Semipalmated Plover was foraging near some Black Bellied Plovers. There may have been some Least Sandpipers at Wylie Slough and I am sure there were some in the massive distant group at Hayton, but these were for sure and with the Semipalmated Plover were new of the day. There was a massive flock of Caspian Terns about 300 yards out and a few Short Billed (formerly Mew) Gulls were mixed in – another add for the day.

Semipalmated Plover – Eide Road
Black Bellied Plover – Eide Road
American Kestrel – Eide Road

As I was about to return to the car, I saw two birders with bins and a scope coming towards me. They had been birding where the dike turns west and I wondered if they had seen something special. It turned out they had – or maybe they had. They thought they had seen a juvenile Elegant Tern in the group of 100+ Caspian Terns. There are no records of Elegant Tern in Washington for 2021 and they have never been reported in Snohomish County, so this would have been a mega rarity. These were experienced birders and based their ID on the bill being yellower and shorter than the Caspian’s and most importantly on yellowish legs. With fingers crossed I carefully scanned the entire flock in my scope with them but found no individual with those fieldmarks which would be good for a juvenile Elegant Tern. They had taken some very distant photos and wanted to check them before posting on Ebird. I have not seen any such reports on Ebird last night or today, so I guess the photos were not supportive. That did add some adrenalin to the day for sure. My picture below is from 2015, the last time I have seen them in Washington – at the Tokeland Marina which used to be the go to spot for them in the State.

Elegant Terns – Tokeland Marina 2015

On the way back to the car, I had a couple of Purple Finches and a Cedar Waxwing, so I was now at 55 species for the day, but without question I would have traded them all for a single Elegant Tern. Sigh…

Before getting home, I decided I would stop at the Edmonds Fishing Pier hoping to add a few more ticks for the day list. As I was walking out to the pier, a woman with binoculars asked me if I was coming to see the Auklet. She said a man named “Steve” out there could show me. I did not know her and assumed she was referring to a Rhinoceros Auklet which are common there. Turned out that “Steve” was good friend Steve Pink and he indeed had his scope on a small alcid maybe 150 yards out. He was trying to make it into a Cassin’s Auklet – very rare but not impossible there and which had been reported flying by earlier in the day. Sadly we could only ID it as a Marbled Murrelet – always nice to see but not at all rare. About a minute after Steve said he had seen a Parasitic Jaeger there the previous day, one flew right overhead. It was so quick I could not get my camera on it. The one the day earlier had been a dark form and this was a light form adult–beautiful bird. The Murrelet and Jaeger were of course new for the day, as were a Red Necked Grebe, Heerman’s Gulls, Surf Scoters, Pigeon Guillemots, an Osprey and a Pelagic Cormorant. Steve was heading to Lake Ballinger where Ann Marie Wood was going to show him a roosting spot for a Barn Owl that had been found by another Edmonds birder, Alan Knue.

I joined Steve and Ann Marie took us to the tree where the owl had been roosting. We found several “regurgitated pellets” and some whitewash (aka owl poop) and I saw a couple of feathers in the branches but we could not locate the owl – until after maybe 10 minutes, Ann Marie somehow found its heart shaped faced buried deeply in the foliage. Owls are always special and it was nice to see it with Steve and Ann Marie, two of the people I have missed most during the COVID caused isolation of the past 18 months.

Buried Barn Owl – Lake Ballinger

Back home I added Anna’s Hummingbird and Spotted Towhee to the day’s list which reached 66 species and it was only 2:00 pm – not even 5 hours of birding. And of course, my thoughts turned to what “might have been”. Even without a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper or an Elegant Tern, and staying just in the areas where I had birded there were so many “could-have-beens” with either some luck and more effort. Birds that were not seen but would have been for sure adds include: House Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Double Crested Cormorant, Rhinoceros Auklet, Bewick’s and Marsh Wrens, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Common Yellowthroat, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Harlequin Duck, American Coot, California and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Mourning Dove, Short Billed Dowitcher, Common Murre, Turkey Vulture, Northern Flicker, Chestnut Backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Bushtit, and Dark Eyed Junco. At least another 10 or so would be possible with hard work. So…a hundred species in a day is definitely doable. September is only half way done – maybe it’s worth a try.