Big March – Week 4 – the Final Push

Let’s recap. The goal was to find at least 200 species in the State of Washington in the Month of March. Although March has 31 days, I would be limited to birding only through March 27th as spouse Cindy was having knee replacement surgery on March 28th and I would be taking on care giver duties that would require me being home. Week 3 ended with 191 species with the LONG BILLED DOWITCHERS that I had seen at the 12th Street Marsh in Everett. Earlier I had been on trips to Eastern Washington (6 counties), west to the Coast, across the Sound to Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam Counties, to Clark County carrying on to Klickitat County, to the Waterville Plateau, the Okanogan and Chelan counties and many trips in near by King, Snohomish and Skagit counties. There had been some good finds but way too many misses. I had downgraded earlier expectations of 220 species or more to at least just getting over 200 and hopefully 205, maybe 210. My efforts were now down to trying to find single new species here or there, another trip to Eastern Washington and then counting on a weekend trip to the Coast that would include a pelagic trip on March 26. That trip should certainly produce at least 9 new species, so ok I would get over 200 species – maybe 205 but 210 seemed remote.

To start Week 4, on March 22nd, I went to Frager Road in South King County looking for CLIFF SWALLOWS that had been reported there and that were just coming back into Washington. When I got there a number of swallows were swooping overhead. I could immediately identify TREE and VIOLET GREEN SWALLOWS but could not find a CLIFF SWALLOW. Then all the swallows disappeared down river. A few minutes later they returned apparently finding more insects. This time there were more and what was clearly a CLIFF SWALLOW flew right over me and then swerved off to the right. It came back over me – or maybe it was a second one as the first one had seemed to fly further away. In any event, that was species 192 – a step closer. I returned to the nearby 212th Street Ponds where I had had some success to start the month – again looking for swallows – this time hopefully a NORTHERN ROUGH WINGED SWALLOW. I had 23 species but only one of them was a swallow species – 2 VIOLET GREEN SWALLOWS.

There was neither time nor inclination to travel further afield. I had already resigned myself to being satisfied with anything over 200 species. I stopped again – probably the 4th time during March at a local park where I know there are BARRED OWLS. No owls. The consolation prize was a picture of an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD on its tiny nest.

Anna’s Hummingbird on Nest – Pine Ridge Park

Without much effort I had seen 40 species that day but only the CLIFF SWALLOW was new – and yet again two misses. Were it not for the pelagic trip I would be in a panic, but my most recent weather check for Westport looked OK, so I was OK also. I had not originally planned another trip to Eastern Washington this week but with too many sage habitat misses on the previous trip, I modified project plans and headed East again on the 24th targeting SAGE THRASHER, BREWER’S and VESPER SPARROWS, BLACK NECKED STILT, PRAIRIE FALCON, WHITE THROATED SWIFT and OSPREY. A clean sweep would bring me to the very edge of the goal – 199 species. That was a real long shot but I felt that at least 3 and probably 4 species were pretty well assured.

Wind in Kittitas County in March is almost a certainty – heavy wind is always possible. So is really heavy wind. On the 24th I had both heavy and really heavy wind. At a couple of stops, I could barely open the car door it blew so hard. As I had before, I first went to the sagebrush along Durr Road south of Ellensburg. Even with the wind I heard the fairly nondescript song of a VESPER SPARROW and was able to walk in close enough for a photo. Later I heard the insect like buzzy song of a BREWER’S SPARROW. I could see a couple ducking into cover from the wind in a sagebrush and then flying off to more cover in another sagebrush but no chance for photos of these guys. So I had 2 new species in less than 15 minutes of birding (granted after 2 hours of driving to get there) – maybe the wind would not be as much of a problem as I thought.

Vesper Sparrow – Durr Road

Before hitting the sagebrush areas along Old Vantage Highway, I went to Helen McCabe Park where Deb Essman had given me the heads up that an OSPREY had returned to its platform nest there. There he/she was right on the platform where it was supposed to be. Three down and hopefully 2 or 3 or 4 more to go.

Osprey – Helen McCabe Park, Ellensburg

But hopefully doesn’t mean actually, and actually the rest of the day was a total wind-aided zero. No GOLDEN EAGLE or PRAIRIE FALCON before getting to the Old Vantage sage. At the Quilomene I had another VESPER SPARROW but nothing else and especially no SAGE THRASHER which I had counted on. No WHITE THROATED SWIFTS at Frenchman Coulee and no BLACK NECKED STILTS at County Line Ponds or at Gloyd Seeps Wetland. No, no, and another no. The good news was that I was at 195 species. The bad news was that the number was not bigger. However, the really bad news was when I checked my email that evening and found that the pelagic trip on Saturday had been canceled due to projected high winds. Making it worse I got the news about the cancelation too late to cancel my hotel reservation in Westport for the following night. If, and it was a big if, the weather improved AND enough people could change plans and commit to it, the pelagic trip would be rescheduled to Sunday the 27th. 195 species had seemed so close, now it was seeming not close enough at all. There were still birds that might be added at the Coast and a SPOTTED SANDPIPER was being seen regularly at Billy Frank Jr. NWR (Nisqually) which was on the way to the coast. There were two options: go to the coast as planned on the 25th but just for the day with no pelagic the next day; OR go to the coast on Saturday, spend the night and hope that the pelagic would in fact happen on Sunday the 27th. I decided to go ahead on the 25th figuring that if the pelagic was canceled, I would know where I stood after hopefully adding some new species on that day and then could use the 26th and 27th to go wherever necessary to add the number of new species needed to at least get to 200.

Choosing the coast on the 25th turned out to be a good plan. With help form Jon Anderson, I was able to locate the SPOTTED SANDPIPER after a long hike out to the viewing platform near McCallister Creek at Nisqually. I then went to the Ocean Shores side of the coast driving the open beach all the way from below the Casino to Copalis Beach. The tide was low again and for the first few miles the only birds I saw were crows, gulls, BALD EAGLES, DUNLIN and SANDERLINGS – the latter by the thousands. I had chosen this approach because I remembered that the area heading north and especially nearing Copalis Beach for some reason had been particularly good for SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS – a top target.

Sanderling – Open Beach Below Copalis Beach
One of the Bald Eagles Scavenging on the Open Beach

About a mile below Copalis Beach – which is the furthest north you can drive on the open beach, I saw a larger shorebird ahead at the water’s edge – the only larger shorebird I saw on any of my open beach trips this year. It was a much welcomed MARBLED GODWIT – a species I had expected but missed, perhaps through my own poor planning, on my visit to Tokeland earlier. This was species 197 for the month. I was a happy camper. Would there be another happy moment ahead?

Marbled Godwit – South of Copalis Beach

Continuing north I saw a small flock of shorebirds foraging and running quickly on the sand ahead. There was one that from that distance looked different than the others which were all SANDERLINGS. It was a small plover. Unfortunately as I approached I saw that it was a SNOWY PLOVER. Now it should never be disappointing to find a SNOWY PLOVER, but I was looking for its cousin, a SEMIPALMATED PLOVER. I need not have worried as a minute later another group of small plover like birds scurried ahead of me. As the bands on their chests made clear, this was them, a group of perhaps two dozen SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS. And just in time, as the boundary of the area where driving was allowed was less than 150 yards ahead. Just in the nick of time.

Semipalmated Plover – Copalis Beach

The MARBLED GODWIT and the SEMIPALMATED PLOVER were both on my initial “sure thing” list and missing them on earlier forays had been a major disappointment and frustration. I was now at 198 species and confident that even if the pelagic was not able to go on the 27th, I would find a way to get at least two more species. That confidence was bolstered when I was able to find a pair of SURFBIRDS foraging at the very tip of the Point Brown Jetty. Now at 199 for the month, I searched my online birding sites to see if there was maybe another species to chase and get to 200 and rest in peace. I could not find any sure things or even likely prospects so I went home – missed again on BARRED OWL at a local park – and waited for news on the pelagic trip. It came that night – almost everyone had been able to change plans to depart on Sunday and most importantly the weather looked really good. We were a go!!

I was not about to pay for another motel room and head back to the coast on Saturday so decided to leave very early (by 3:00 a.m.) on Sunday morning. With the pressure off and that early start ahead, I put the camera and binoculars away on Saturday, helped Cindy get ready for “life after surgery” and even took a long nap.

Sunday March 27th – Crossing the bar and crossing the goal line. As I boarded the Monte Carlo on Float 10, our boat for the pelagic trip, there were a number of familiar faces – spotters Scot, Ryan and Gene, Captain Phil and First Mate Chris and a number of the younger birders who are taking over from us old timers -excellent birders with young eyes and ears and already impressive state lists. I noticed two of them wearing ear patches as precautions against sea sickness and only then realized that I had not even thought about taking my usual Dramamine that morning. I have been on about 20 pelagic trips and have had only momentary nausea, not real sea sickness, and that only once. But I have always taken something preventive before boarding in the past. This would not be a good time to find out if such precautions were necessary. As it turned out, there was no need to worry, as although it was foggy and gray, the winds were almost nonexistent and the seas were as calm as any I can remember. Generally it is while crossing the bar right at the start of the trip that is the roughest. I hardly even noticed.

I had never been on a pelagic trip in March, with my earliest trips having been in mid to late April. Every pelagic trip is different with a few species almost certain to be seen on every trip and others more seasonal or just fluky. The truly pelagic birds are not usually found until deeper water is reached after 30 minutes or more but there are usually lots of MURRES and other ALCIDS, gulls and waterfowl seen early. This trip was eerily quiet with lots of fog and very few birds. I did not keep track of the order in which species were seen so I cannot say which species was number 200 for the month but fortunately after about an hour, we started seeing more birds including the ones that were targets for me and the reason I had counted so heavily on this pelagic trip. In no particular order after that first hour or so we encountered the following species that were new for the month: BLACK LEGGED KITTIWAKE, ICELAND GULL, CASSIN’S AUKLET, PARAKEET AUKLET, and SOOTY and SHORT TAILED SHEARWATERS. And later in deeper waters we added FORK TAILED STORM PETRELS, BLACK FOOTED ALBATROSS, NORTHERN FULMAR, TUFTED PUFFIN and RED PAHALAROPE – eleven new species for the month and for the year. Some species were very close to the boat while others were further out. Some photos were missed but others were not too bad and I include a sampling below.

Black Legged Kittiwake
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
Black Footed Albatross
Northern Fulmar
Parakeet Auklet
Tufted Puffin

Without question the prize of the trip was having many good looks at PARAKEET AUKLETS. I had seen them on other pelagic trips but they are uncommon at best and were lifers for many onboard. A total of 23 were seen. This species had been on my possible list in initial planning but I figured the odds were even lower than low. I also had LAYSAN and SHORT TAILED ALBATROSS on the list plus POMARINE JAEGER and MANX SHEARWATER- none seen this time. Even with these added possibilities though, I had figured it would be a good trip with 8 or 9 new species and an excellent one with more. After the initial cancellation, that number had dropped to zero so this was an outstanding trip indeed.

And yes, I got to 200 species and then blew right past it. If I kept the GOLDEN EAGLE on the list, the total for the month would be 210 – fewer than initially projected but very good after so many early misses. Now I could give my full attention to care giver duties for Cindy without concern about “just one more” species needed.

Cindy’s surgery went very well and she was immediately off on a “rock star” recovery – the term used by her physical therapist who saw her the day after surgery. Good friend Kathleen Gunn had been a caregiver after Cindy’s first knee surgery back in 2019 when our courtship was still young and I had not yet moved in. She had volunteered to help again this time, and as Cindy continued to improve and was walking without aid after the second day, we arranged for Kathleen to take over on March 30th enabling me to take yet another trip to Eastern Washington to add species missed earlier that were now arriving in force. On the 29th when out walking our black lab, Chica, I finally saw a RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD, perhaps the most surprising miss so far.

On the 30th, I forgot about Durr Road and went directly to the Quilomene area on Old Vantage Highway. Again it was super windy and the birds were not out in numbers, but I did have BREWER’S and SAGEBRUSH SPARROWS and finally a SAGE THRASHER. It was singing, thankfully, but perhaps because of the wind it never came closer in response to playback which is their usual reaction. Rather than continue east I back tracked to Interstate 82 nd headed south to the Selah Canyon Rest Area where by this time of year, there were ALWAYS some WHITE THROATED SWIFTS. Again super windy and at first I did not find any birds at all. Then zooming by lower than usual, 2 swifts flew by – swiftly indeed.

Brewer’s Sparrow

Of all my earlier misses, the ones that had been the most surprising and disappointing were the SAGE THRASHER and BLACK NECKED STILTS. In years past I had always found them by now. With the SAGE THRASHER now checked off, the STILT was the remaining nemesis. Although they were probably now at the County Line Ponds in Grant County, I felt it much more likely to find them at Kerry’s Pond in Grainger where they had been reported by others the previous week. When I first got to the Pond, I did not see any STILTS. It is not a gigantic pond, but if they are across the pond or tucked it behind some grass, they can be difficult to see. The first ones I spotted were on the shoreline across the pond – good enough for a check but not a good photo. Then I spotted another closer and then more at the eastern end of the pond – 8 altogether and my month list was up to a much more respectable 214. It was a little past noon. I checked in with Cindy and Kathleen and all was good. It would mean coming home a little later but I bargained for more time and headed over to Bethel Ridge Road hoping for “just a few more”.

Black Necked stilt – Kerry’s Pond

An hour later around 1:15 I started up the dirt road. This has always been a great birding place for me – and everyone else. Over the years I have had more than 100 species there including SOOTY GROUSE, COMMON POORWILL, BLACK SWIFT, CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, NORTHERN GOSHAWK, FLAMMULATED OWL, 8 species of WOODPECKER, 10 species of FLYCATCHER, and 8 species of THRUSH and much more. Of course many of those were much later in the year so my hopes were limited to SOOTY GROUSE, a woodpecker or two and maybe a TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE. Other possibilities were HOUSE WREN (early) and CHIPPING SPARROW and NORTHERN GOSHAWK if I was super super lucky.

This location deserves several hours of combined driving and hiking but I only had a little over an hour at best, so I concentrated on a couple of areas where I had had WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKERS regularly and then driving as far up as I could before hitting snow hoping to flush a grouse or maybe find a SOLITAIRE. I found a WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKER at one of the go to spots – near the upper corral and heard the “waah” call of a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER a little further down the road. I tracked it uphill and got only a distant look and heard some drumming before it flew even further uphill. I also heard at least two TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRES singing along the road.

Townsend’s Solitaire – Bethel Ridge Road

[I was not able to get a photo of the woodpeckers, but as sometimes happens in the world of birding, a week later I was able to get a photo of a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER as one was discovered at Lake Ballinger about 4 miles from my home in Edmonds – my first in Snohomish County. It was much more cooperative so I am including that photo.]

Red Naped Sapsucker – Lake Ballinger

The three species added at Bethel Ridge brought me to 217 and I knew there was one more opportunity – one I saved both as a fun final addition but also held in reserve in case I had gotten to 199 and needed just one more. Friends Neil and Carleen Zimmerman have had WESTERN SCREECH OWLS nesting in their backyard in nearby Brier, WA for several years. They arrive sometime in March and at least one is generally visible poking its head out of the nest box just after dusk. On March 31, I joined several other local birders for the Zimmerman Owl show. Great fun conversation and the climax was the appearance of the little owl just after 7:00 pm.

Western Screech Owl – Brier, WA

I have decided to not count the GOLDEN EAGLE for the month, so the final count ended at 217 and with thanks to the little SCREECH OWL, the month ended on a high note. The basic project had been successful if not necessarily expertly managed. More than anything there was a sense of relief. There are always ups and downs, but there had just been too many downs this month. Perhaps missed birds, missed photos, and tough weather had taken too much fun out of the experience or maybe I am changing and need different kinds of projects in the future. As I now have reached 200 or more species in Washington for every month January through May, I will give it at least one more try to find out. It cannot be this June as Cindy and I will be in Ecuador. Maybe I will give it a shot in August or September. If all goes well, I will try to get 200 for every other month as well. If not… well there’s always another project somewhere.

[Postscript: If I were undertaking this project again, I would make some changes having learned from this experience – which by the way is a good reason to do a project in the first place – learning, improving, getting better. First I would have been in the Okanogan earlier. I think even two days might have made a difference finding some of the species. Second, I would have planned to visit the southernmost Washington Counties later in the month. A number of migrants returned to Washington the last week of March but only in Clark, Klickitat or Cowlitz Counties. Third, I would have tried to go to Walla Walla a little later as well – for the same reason. Easy to say of course as there were two critical constraints that would have affected those plans – Cindy’s surgery and the pelagic trip. Even so I would have tried for those adjustments. Finally, if it was a REALLY BIG number that I was shooting for, I would have birded every day and spent extra days away from home – working areas where there were maybe two or three new possibilities instead of only one. With some of those adjustments, I am sure I could have added at least 5 additional species and with some luck and better birding on my part I think I could have (should/would have?) added 13 and gotten to 230. And if absolutely everything fell into place and someone much more skilled than I went all out, I think 250 is a possibility.]

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