In baseball, a “Grand Slam” is home run that is hit with the bases loaded – scoring four runs. In tennis, the Grand Slam is winning all four major tournaments: The U.S., French and Australian Opens and Wimbledon. Similarly in golf, it would be winning the four “Majors”, the British and U.S. Opens, the PGA Championship and The Masters. There is no Grand Slam or Slam per se in birding so we are free to make up our own analogies. In the week of January 26th through January 31st I had what I am considering a Streak of Slams – two real birding Slams and another that would fit – well sort of.
The “streak” started with a trip to a feeder in Marysville on January 26th where a rare for the area Lesser Goldfinch was joining the very common American Goldfinches. It cooperated visiting the feeder almost as soon as I arrived and as a bonus, I was able to get a photo with both Goldfinch species together with a House Finch and a Pine Siskin. So four finch species at the same time – not really a Grand Slam in the sense of seeing all of the possible finches together – as there are Purple Finches and Common Redpolls around this year – but a good collection of four finches.
A Harris’s Sparrow is almost as uncommon in my home Snohomish County as a Lesser Goldfinch. One was being seen with other sparrows at a manure pile at a farm on Thomle Road in Stanwood. A day after the Lesser Goldfinch success the weather looked good, so I headed north hoping for the Harris’s Sparrow. I did not see it on my first visit, but when I returned 30 minutes later, I saw it briefly on some brush behind the manure pile. I started to call birding friend Jon Houghton who had been there earlier also to tell him that the Harris’s Sparrow had appeared and while punching his number, I looked up to see that he had returned as well. We watched as more and more sparrows flew onto the pile and I quickly saw the Harris’s Sparrow – a bit larger than the others.
Other sparrows on the pile included both Golden Crowned and White Crowned Sparrows, House Sparrows and Song Sparrows. Then Jon said he thought he had seen a White Throated Sparrow, not as rare as a Harris’s but definitely not common. The sparrows were moving around quickly, appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Suddenly the White Throated Sparrow was out in the open – unmistakable.
It hit us immediately, the surprise White Throated Sparrow meant that we had the “Zono Slam” – all four of the Zonotrichia sparrows at the same time: White Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys); Golden Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricappilla); White Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis); and Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula).
I had just missed the Zono Slam some years ago seeing all but the White Throated Sparrow at a feeder in Sequim, Washington. It had been present 30 minutes before I arrived and returned within an hour after I left. It was the first time I had heard of the Slam and hoped it would happen some day. January 27th was my day.
Friday January 28th was a day off and then on Saturday the 29th, Cindy and I were going to have dinner on Whidbey Island. Not trusting the reliability of the Washington Ferries, we took the long route and made a stop in Skagit County to look for a Prairie Falcon that had been reported on Sullivan Road and the West 90’s in the Samish Flats. No luck but at another stop we were able to find a couple of Harlequin Ducks – which together with Black Oystercatcher had been Cindy’s “spark bird”. Prairie Falcons are uncommon west of the Cascades but have been seen in that area many times. A good bird anywhere and always beautiful but I did not plan to return to search again.
Then things changed. Jon Houghton texted a number of Edmonds birders to see if there was interest in looking for the Prairie Falcon AND a Gyrfalcon that had also been reported in the area. Ebird does not publish reports of Gyrfalcon sightings as they are considered a sensitive species – rare and highly prized d by falconers and thus important to protect. I had not been aware of the Gyrfalcon sighting. I would have joined Jon just for it but now the Prairie Falcon was of interest again. On January 31, we headed north in fairly heavy rain. Jon has a “Raindar” app which tracks rain in the area and he promised that it would be clear when we got to the target area.
But what was the target area? Jon’s info was that the Gyrfalcon had been seen near McLean Road, south of Highway 20. The Prairie Falcon reports were from Sullivan Road north of Highway 20 about 13 miles away. There may have been another Gyrfalcon report from the West 90’s a bit north and west of Sullivan Road. Our plan was to start at McLean Road driving it and adjoining roads and then to head north. At McLean Road, it indeed was clear but no falcons. Nearby on Channel Drive we found our first falcon for the day an American Kestrel – a small falcon seemingly so insignificant at the time that we did not even stop for a photo. I had my First of Year Sharp Shinned Hawk fly by and Jon had his first Lesser Scaup.
We drove north and found no falcons at Sullivan Road or the East or West 90’s so carried on to the Samish Island overlook where I had my first Long Tailed Ducks of the year. For the next hour plus, we drove around and around on all of the roads on the Samish Flats. There were ducks in most of the fields, mostly Mallards and American Wigeon numbering in the thousands altogether and Northern Pintails and Green Winged Teal in the hundreds. There were also large flocks of Snow Geese – many thousand and also two or three large flocks of Dunlin – again in the thousands. Bald Eagles were seemingly in every other tree and at a spot by “the Eagle Tree” we had more than 50 Bald Eagles together. Far fewer were the Red Tailed and Rough Legged Hawks.
At the West 90’s a juvenile Eagle chased a Red Tail out of a tree right overhead and we had our first of several Peregrine Falcons, checking it carefully hoping it would be the Prairie Falcon. Later at a bend in Bayview Edison Road, we had another Peregrine perched just off the road.
We took a pastry break at the Breadfarm in Edison and I was able to get my favorite – a Kouign Amann. I usually get there later in the day and they have been sold out for hours. Maybe this was a turn in our luck as the birding definitely picked up. Although it had not been reported recently, a Merlin has been found in Edison many times in the past several years. At the bend just at the corner of town I stopped when I saw a smallish bird at the very top of a Poplar. Maybe just a Robin but worth a look. It was the Merlin – our third falcon of the day, cool but not what we were there hoping to see.
We headed back down to Sullivan Road stopping just below it on Bayview Edison and scoped a huge flock of Dunlin and found two Western Sandpipers – a First of Year for both of us. We also had close ups of Snow Geese in another large flock. Was there a Ross’s Goose hidden in there somewhere? Possible but beyond our patience to scope them all. Suddenly the Dunlin all took off together in one of their beautiful murmurations. This usually means predators near by. Indeed there were as both a Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier swooped through the massive flock.
Back to Sullivan Road where we saw two birders alongside the road near the home with poplars where the Prairie Falcon had been reported earlier. A great rule to follow in birding is to look for the birders, hoping they would have the target in their sights. One of the birders was Joey McKenzie who said he had had the Gyrfalcon on a post in the adjoining field … but … it had flown off maybe ten minutes earlier and had not been seen again. Good news. It was in the area. Bad news. We had just missed it. We asked, how about the Prairie Falcon? He pointed to the poplars behind us. “Up there”. In our Gyrfalcon excitement we had not even looked. It was mostly hidden behind branches but was unmistakable and we had our 4th falcon species for the day. I got a couple of ok pictures and then the falcon took off to the west and we saw it perch in a tree along Bayview Edison Road. We hopped into the car and were able to get very nice photos.
We had been on Sullivan Road hoping for the Gyrfalcon to return for maybe 15 minutes and then another 10 watching the Prairie on Bayview Edison. Time to search elsewhere. On T Loop we added another raptor for the day bit not a falcon. A Cooper’s Hawk zoomed by us and perched in the open for a couple of minutes. It was hawk number 5 for the day. We wanted a fifth falcon.
We circled back to Sullivan Road picking up two more Eurasian Wigeons and another Peregrine along the way. It was hard to tell if we were duplicating our Peregrine sightings. We were able to see three perched ones at once and are pretty sure we had 4 and maybe even 5 for the day. We also tried to make yet another Northern Harrier into a Gyrfalcon.
We passed the Dunlin flock again and saw several birders on the side of the road with scopes and cameras seemingly looking at them and the Snow Geese. We asked and they had not seen any falcons. We continued back to Sullivan Road and now the Prairie Falcon was back in its favorite poplar tree – this time in the open. I could not improve on the previous photo but thoroughly enjoyed the clear scope views. It really is a beautiful bird. We stayed with fingers crossed for the Gyrfalcon maybe another 20 minutes without success. At the start of the trip Jon and I had agreed that we would be happy with either the Prairie Falcon or the Gyrfalcon. We had seen the Prairie Falcon and agreed we should be happy and call it a day. Back on Bayview Edison Road now heading south, we passed by the birders along the road and I decided to back up and tell them that the Prairie Falcon was out in the open. Before even getting the message out, they said the magic words: “We have the Gyrfalcon.” It had flown in moments earlier and perched atop a mound about 150 yards out in the field to the west. Not the greatest photo op but great scope views and IT WAS A GYRFALCON!!! I probably took over 100 photos in changing light. They were good enough for a confirming ID and a couple were – OK.
From that spot along the road we had scope views of the Gyrfalcon, the Peregrine and Prairie – all in different directions and all within maybe a half mile of each other. We realized that we had seen the Falcon Slam or Grand Slam: American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine and Prairie Falcons and Gyrfalcon – all in the same day, all in Skagit County and all with photos – but oh wait, we had not taken a photo of the Kestrels we had seen. We needed another one and fortunately it only took a brief search to find another one and get the final falcon photo.
What a day!! We had barely looked at any passerines but had 11 raptors for the day – 5 falcons, 5 hawks and an eagle. Altogether there were well over 100 raptor individuals. Not too many birders are lucky enough to get 5 falcons in a day. Over the next two days many birders were in the area following up on our postings about what we saw. As best we can tell, nobody got got all five – most missing the Merlin and a couple missing a Peregrine.
As I began to write this post this morning, I realized I had seen other falcon species this month in the lower 48 as I had both the Bat Falcon and a Crested Caracara (considered by many a falcon) on my Texas trip. I also realized I had blown it. I had been very close to the area in Texas where Aplomado Falcons are seen regularly. Having seen them before and having a photo, I had chosen to try again for a Groove Billed Ani rather than go for the Aplomado – less than 10 miles away. You never know, but everyone I spoke to who had tried for it had found it. Now that would have been something – 8 falcon species within 2 weeks in the Lower 48 states – including the very rare Gyrfalcon and Aplomado Falcon and the mega rarity Bat Falcon which was being seen for the first time ever in the ABA area. Pretty sure nobody has ever done that before. Maybe nobody before has seen the SEVEN I did see and photograph in one month before either. I love falcons…and slamming!!
In an exchange with Diane Yorgason-Quinn, I was reminded that there is also a well defined Grand Slam in the game of Bridge. A Slam in that game is a hand winning 12 tricks and a Grand Slam wins all 13 tricks. I last played bridge 50 years ago as a way to avoid going to class in Law School. I recall at least one Grand Slam back then, maybe there were more. Later I recalled another birding Slam and checking records see that I have had it at least twice – this is the Skua Slam. In Europe, jaegers are called skuas while in the U.S. we have three jaegers and a skua. These are the four species generally possible to be seen in the U.S. (with the alternate Skua name from Europe): Parasitic Jaeger/Arctic Skua; Pomarine Jaeger/Pomarine Skua; Long Tailed Jaeger/Long Tailed Skua and South Polar Skua. There are three other skua/jaeger species in the world, two of which appear only in waters south of the equator and the Great Skua which is very rarely seen in the U.S. In the U.S.
My first pelagic trip was in 1974 and we found all four of the skua/jaeger species. I had this great good fortune again on September 5, 2015 and was able to get photos of each species. These photos are my best of each species rather than solely from that one trip as those are of a lower quality.
So there it is a Skua Slam. Maybe readers will think of another one.