Here Comes Spring

After the pressure, intensity and focus of a Big March, a much smaller April was admittedly more fun as the hints of migration that I took advantage of in March came into full bloom with the arrival of many new species and fun birding opportunities alone and with friends. In March I did at least some birding on 28 of the 31 days with 217 species and 144 checklists submitted to Ebird. In my much quieter April, there were only 31 checklists (almost half of which were from a single marathon trip to Eastern Washington with a new birding friend), 126 species and 13 days of birding (3 of which were only reporting a single species incidentally from my home). Of those 126 species seen in April, 16 were species I had not seen in March including 7 that had been on my original March target list but were missed.

With the exception of BARRED OWL and TRICOLORED BLACKBIRD, the new species for April were migrants returning either after March or perhaps late in March but just missed by me. There will not be many days of birding in May, but especially if I at least do one good day in Eastern Washington, I expect the same will hold true – newly returned migrants making up most if not all of the new birds for the year. Sixty-one of the species seen in March were new for the year, i.e. 28% of the species seen in March were new. Whereas in April, 16 were new for the year – only 13%. The highlights for April were trips with friends – with Ann Marie Wood in Snohomish County on April 14th and the marathon with Tom St. John on April 27th and two really good birds, a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER at Lake Ballinger on April 5th and again on April 6th, my first for Snohomish County (#265) and a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW at Marymoor Park on April 23, my first for King County (#253).

My first birding in April was totally unplanned. I was out running errands when I got a call from Ann Marie Wood that a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER had been seen at Lake Ballinger – a few miles away from me. There was also a message with photos on the Snohomish County Rare Bird List on WhatsApp. I have a spare pair of binoculars in the car – backups in case I or someone else forgets theirs – but no camera. I debated going home for my regular gear, but decided instead to head over. The message on WhatsApp was a little unclear as to exactly which tree the Sapsucker was favoring and the attached map photo showed trees that might have been either deciduous or evergreens, but the photo with the bird itself – small, probably from a phone – showed it atop a deciduous tree and that was the key. I found the Sapsucker and called the friend who had alerted me and was on the way over. I said I had it and would wait for them. While I was waiting Carol Riddell and Kellie Sagen arrived and following one of the best guidelines in any chase, they looked for the birder hoping he or she would be on the target. I was, so they soon were as well.

As I was starting to text another birding friend, Jon Houghton, I got a text from him that he and wife Kathleen had just seen a perching BARRED OWL at Southwest County Park, a few miles away. Ann Marie arrived with Steve Pink and found us and the Sapsucker. That allowed Carol, Kellie and me to go for the owl. It is always hard to give directions for a place you are familiar with to someone who is not. Jon’s directions were great, but we still missed one turn and only by checking back with him and then with Carol’s keen eyes, were we able to see the owl – down low and somewhat obscured but unmistakable. I had tried at least a half dozen times in March to find a BARRED OWL and failed. On try number one in April there was success. That’s birding. I had no camera, so there were no photos of either species.

RED BREASTED SAPSUCKERS are common/regular in Snohomish County and elsewhere in Washington. RED NAPED SAPSUCKERS are regular east of the Cascades but very rare west of them and this one was the first for Snohomish County that I was aware of. I went back the next day and got my photo. I had photos of the even rarer (anywhere in Washington) YELLOW BREASTED SAPSUCKER that favored one specific tree in Everett, Washington in Snohomish County during the winter of 2020-21. As far as I know there are only two records of WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKER in Snohomish County – both from mountainous areas in 2015. Maybe someday I will complete the set.

Red Naped Sapsucker
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Everett 2020

As much birding as I have done in the area especially over the last 12 years, I am always surprised to find a great place I have not visited before. A very rare for the area BLACK HEADED GULL had been seen at one such place, Dumas Bay Park along Puget Sound in South King County early in April, but being somewhat in recovery mode from the intensity of Big March and being in caretaker mode after Cindy’s knee surgery, and also having seen one in King County before, I had not made the chase. Rested and with some free time, on April 13th, I made my first visit ever to what turned out to be a very cool spot. It was low tide and I saw literally hundreds of gulls with black heads, but unfortunately they were all BONAPARTE’S GULLS. I guess I should not say unfortunately, because it was a great spectacle and they are very attractive – just not rare – gulls. Also in the mix were my first CASPIAN TERNS of the year – another species targeted and missed in March.

Caspian Tern

April 14th was a particularly fun day as schedules finally meshed so that Ann Marie Wood and I could bird together along the Highway 530 Corridor in Snohomish County. I have birded the area many times but it always seems new to me and Ann Marie knows it like the back of her hand. Our first stop was along the Oso Loop Road – too early for the AMERICAN REDSTARTS that are regular there later (we did look) but rewarding as we saw or heard at least 4 TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRES – more than I have ever seen together before.

Townsend’s Solitaire – Oso Loop Road

At our next stop on C-Post Road we had great looks at three RED BREASTED SAPSUCKERS and a constantly heard but never seen SORA – my first of the year.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Ann Marie reminded me that the Fortson Mill Ponds were a great place for AMERICAN DIPPERS and as soon as we walked in we had two posing and interacting. I got much better photos than in Kittitas County in March.

American Dipper – Fortson Mill Ponds

At least in terms of rarity, our best birds were two WESTERN BLUEBIRDS seen at 407th Avenue. This is a good area in the County for them and these two, spotted after some diligence by Ann Marie were maybe a bit early and good finds. They were too distant for photos. We also had a number of PURPLE FINCHES heard and seen often throughout the whole area.

My next birding forays were at spots close to home – Yost Park on April 18th and the Edmonds Fishing Pier and Pine Ridge Park on April 19th. I was hoping for a First of Year (“FOY”) BLACK THROATED GRAY WARBLER at Yost or maybe a HERMIT THRUSH. I found neither but seemed to be surrounded by singing ORANGE CROWNED WARBLERS and was able to get a photo

Orange Crowned Warbler – Yost Park

I had not gone back to Southwest County Park to look for the BARRED OWL, but on April 19, after a good visit to the Edmonds fishing pier, I did find two at Pine Ridge Park that day, the same place I had failed to find them in March despite many tries. At the pier, a few species that had been absent or distant earlier were now closer, and a couple that had been in winter plumage just a few weeks ago were now sporting their breeding finery.

Red Necked Grebe – Edmonds Fishing Pier
Marbled Murrelets
Rhinoceros Auklet
Horned Grebe
Pacific Loon

At Pine Ridge, on my way back to the car I saw what I thought was an owl back in the woods. It took some bushwhacking, but I watched two owls hunting. One made a really pathetic attempt at catching a Gray Squirrel, so I wondered if maybe it was a juvenile just learning to hunt. Every time I thought I would get a photo, they would take off again and a great picture turned into a fleeting one – oh well. Why did these BARRED OWLS curse me in March!!??

Barred Owl

On April 19th, a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW was seen and photographed at Marymoor Park in Redmond. Often hard to find even in its grassland habitat in Eastern Washington, they are extremely rare in Western Washington where I had never seen one. If I were a county lister, I would have rushed over there – well it is not exactly easy to rush as it is 27 miles away through some of the potentially worst traffic in the area. Ebird keeps track of my county lists for me, but it is not a specific goal to add to any county list. Not so for many others and many of them went to Marymoor in the next several days to see what turned out to be a most cooperative bird, often being found in the open on the pathway near the “viewing mound”. On April 23rd I wanted to get out and the weather was nice, so I joined the crowd and went to Marymoor. There I fortunately ran into Kellie Sagen who had seen it 30 minutes earlier and took me to the spot. Nothing – for 30 minutes and then the show began. Just as reported by others the GRASSHOPPER SPARROW flew into some weeds next to the path where I picked it out and then proceeded to feed in the open on the path for at least the next 45 minutes. A very nice add to my Ebird tracked King County List. It remained at the park for another day and then … disappeared.

Grasshopper Sparrow – Marymoor Park

While waiting for the GRASSHOPPER SPARROW to make its appearance, we were faked out several times by a SAVANNAH SPARROW in the same area – its natural habitat. I had seen one in Clark County during Big March but no photo. This one was easy.

Savannah Sparrow – Marymoor Park

What was not easy was seeing a BLACK THROATED GRAY WARBLER at Yost Park. Hearing them was easy as 5 or maybe even 6 were singing, but they would not come in closer for a good view let alone a photo. They were the first for the year, but they are a favorite and I wanted a photo. It’s now May – I will try again. As before, there were ORANGE CROWNED WARBLERS trilling everywhere.

It really wasn’t “birding” but on Monday April 25th I was pleased to first hear and then see a small group of PURPLE MARTINS fly overhead as I walked our dog. They were a pleasant surprise last year and now they were back. No camera, no photo. Just a “tick” for another FOY in 2022.

Tom St. John is a new friend and a new birding friend. We had done one trip together back in February and now we were heading out again – mostly retracing a long day I had done with Ann Marie and Steve Pink in Eastern Washington on April 27, 2018. On that trip we had 84 species including some really good ones such as BURROWING OWL and GRAY PARTRIDGE. Tom had not birded in Eastern Washington before and was up for everything even the 5:30 a.m. start. I had invited Ann Marie and Steve as well. Ann Marie couldn’t make it but Steve and his wife Connie met us at our first stop – the Hyak hummingbird feeders at Snoqualmie Pass and birded with us for the morning part of the trip. I tried there in March and there were no hummers. This time there were maybe 6 RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS, a far cry from the dozens often seen there, but a confirmation that Spring has sprung.

Following the route from 2018, our next stop was at Bullfrog Pond just west of Cle Elum. We picked up 27 species there including First of Year WARBLING VIREO and NASHVILLE WARBLER and a surprise WILD TURKEY. We had some very noisy RED CROSSBILLS and CASSIN’S FINCHES but it was relatively quiet and inactive maybe because it was still pretty cold. There were no swallows which probably meant no bugs and birds were not yet actively feeding. There also were no ducks and no DIPPERS in the Cle Elum River.

Red Crossbills

It was almost as quiet at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, but we found MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES and PYGMY NUTHATCHES. We added our first ducks: RING NECKED DUCKS, HOODED MERGANSER and BUFFLEHEAD, but no GOLDENEYE or COMMON MERGANSERS. We also had swallows. Only a few TREE SWALLOWS at the ponds themselves but a few VIOLET GREEN and numerous NORTHERN ROUGH WINGED SWALLOWS at the bridge just east of the ponds. The latter were my first of the year and another species missed in March. It seemed very distant at the time, but my greatly cropped and magnified photo of an OSPREY turned out well.

Mountain Chickadee – Northern Pacific RR Ponds
Northern Rough Winged Swallow – Northern Pacific RR Ponds

Our best bird of the trip was probably one at our next stop, a CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, at the Denny Avenue feeders at Aja Woodrow’s house. I have had them there before but never this early. Aja came out when he saw us. We were watching a few RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS when he told us that he had had a CALLIOPE there earlier. Right on cue, it made an appearance and gave us great views. It was also joined by an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD.

Calliope Hummingbird – Cle Elum
Rufous Hummingbird – Cle Elum

On the way to Denny Avenue, I had intended to stop at the Ranger’s Station in Cle Elum to see if their feeder or the feeders across the road were active. Steve said he had not had any luck there, but we stopped anyhow – a good decision. Steve had not known about the feeders across the street and they were busy. We cautiously walked closer as the owners were loading a car and it is always touchy around private property, but as soon as they saw us they said we were welcome to visit. We had 7 species there including some very showy male EVENING GROSBEAKS and a WHITE BREASTED NUTHATCH, our third NUTHATCH species of the day.

Evening Grosbeak – Cle Elum

We had only heard the PYGMY NUTHATCHES at the RR Ponds and Steve and Connie said they were easy at the Cle Elum Airport. I had never been there but we were behind schedule so passed on the opportunity. Probably a mistake as later they visited it and had an early MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLER. Our priority was to find the sagebrush species. I had seen them all in March but all would be new for Tom and new for the year for the Pinks. So we headed for Old Vantage Highway keeping our eyes out for newly arrived SWAINSON’S HAWKS. Just as we hit the Highway past No. 81 Road I saw a hawk perched on a telephone pole. A quick stop and quick view confirmed it was a FOY SWAINSON’S HAWK. Everyone got out for good views and then I moved closer for photos. I continued past it to get closer and better light. It watched me the entire way and then started screaming at me as I passed. No attack but a great photo op.

Unhappy Swainson’s Hawk – Ellensburg

A little further on we had the only CALIFORNIA QUAIL of the trip and our first WESTERN BLUEBIRD and WESTERN MEADOWLARKS. Tom’s appreciation of his first WESTERN BLUEBIRD was soon surpassed when he saw the MOUNTAIN version which we found on a very successful visit to our first sage area, a spot introduced to me by good friend and local birder Deb Essman. It is on Old Vantage Highway and is saved on my Garmin GPS as “Awesome Deb’s Awesome Sage”. We did very well with BREWER’S and VESPER SPARROWS, SAGE THRASHER and those beautiful MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS. In my Big March birding, SAGE THRASHER had eluded me here twice even though it has generally been my best location for the species. This time a singing male perched beautifully close at hand.

Brewer’s Sparrow
Sage Thrasher
Mountain Bluebird

We did not do so well at the Quilomene Corrals on Old Vantage Highway where it was dead quiet or at Recreation Road and Rocky Coulee where we had only distant views of ROCK WREN and SAY’S PHOEBE. It was at this point that we parted ways with Steve and Connie as Tom and I continued east crossing the Columbia at Vantage heading to the County Line Ponds in Grant County. I had been counting on this spot to deliver for Tom as he had never seen either BLACK NECKED STILTS or AMERICAN AVOCETS. Both were in full splendor when we arrived along with some DUNLIN and my FOY LEAST SANDPIPERS.

Black Necked Stilt
American Avocets
Least Sandpiper

Good fortune continued at Para/McCain’s Ponds in Adams County where our 29 species included the targeted TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS that I had missed there in March as well as numerous much appreciated YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRDS and two GREAT EGRETS. The only disappointments were no AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS and neither BLUE WINGED or CINNAMON TEAL and no RUDDY DUCKS. But the blackbirds more than compensated. We also had our best views of WESTERN MEADOWLARK.

Tricolored Blackbirds
Yellow Headed Blackbird
Western Meadowlark

It was now 4 o’clock. Sure thing spots for BURROWING OWL were too far away, so we decided to head back along Highway 24 keeping our eyes open for what I felt was our worst miss of the day – WESTERN KINGBIRD. I had almost guaranteed finding one. We never did. At one moment along the Highway I saw some long dirt mounds and said they were exactly the kind of place we might find an owl burrow. Literally 5 seconds later we saw a perfect burrow in one mound. We pulled over and watched for some time. No owl, no mammal, just a burrow. We drove into Wahluke Slope NWR. It sure looked like great habitat for AMERICAN PIPITS or HORNED LARKS, but the only bird species we saw were WHITE CROWNED SPARROWS, ubiquitous the whole day. The best species was a mammal – a small group of ELK cautiously watching us.

Wahluke Slope Elk

We tried surprisingly unsuccessfully and disappointingly for WHITE THROATED SWIFT at Frenchman Coulee and then called it a day. We ended with 86 species – of which 8 were new for the year for me and maybe half were species Tom had never seen. He wants more. And there easily could have been more that day – at least 10 species were at least fairly likely and another 5 or so might have been found with great luck. In fact combining the lists from the 2018 trip with ours, the species total was 107.

There was one last birding fling for the month – a trip to Stanwood looking for a large flock of WHIMBRELS that had been seen in the area and also a WESTERN KINGBIRD that Ann Marie had found. It was a fun visit as I drove loops through the area looking for both species. I found the flock of WHIMBRELS on Olsen Road – at least 50 spread throughout a large field. There could have been many more. I drove that road at least three times. On my last pass, a BALD EAGLE flew overhead and all of the WHIMBRELS took off and headed southeast. I don’t know if they returned. Had my first pass been 5 minutes later, I would have missed WHIMBRELS altogether – just as I had in March when I missed the pair that had been seen by many in Blaine, Washington. As on the trip with Tom, I failed to find a WESTERN KINGBIRD. Maybe somewhere in May…

Whimbrel – Stanwood, WA