Closing Out a Big Month – the Last 9 Days of September

September 22 – East Again

Cindy was back home. I had a clear bill of health after my check up and was as protected against Covid as I could be. I had passed 200 species for the month sitting at 209. The long range forecast was good for my pelagic trip on September 26th. I had gone back to the drawing board and looked at potential species to be added and set new goals. 225 looked really good and there was a shot at 235 or maybe more. Time to go birding.

My friend Deb Essman in Ellensburg knew I was still looking for a Great Horned Owl and for Cassin’s Finch. The former had been roosting fairly regularly near her home and she was up for another trip up Coleman Canyon in her jeep where we had had Cassin’s Finches and Williamson’s Sapsuckers in August. Tom St. John was up for another Eastern Washington trip, so we headed East on Thursday morning again stopping at Bullfrog Pond and again being underwhelmed with the birds there. Nothing new so it was off to Deb’s. First things first Tom had to pose with “the Bear”. Over the years many friends have accompanied me to visit and bird with Deb. A photo with the bearskin on her pool table is a rite of passage. Tom is now a member of the club.

Tom St. John and Friend

We pored over the brushy trees nearby looking for the Great Horned Owl. I have seen one with Deb many times including in her front yard – not today. And I will get this out of the way quickly as well – no Cassin’s Finches at Cooke or Coleman Canyons. And I would see neither the rest of the month either – near the top of the list of disappointments. It was a gorgeous day again though and we had some nice birds including Tom’s lifer Lewis’s Woodpecker, some new for the month Red Crossbills, some unexpected American Pipits and some bright male Mountain Bluebirds. When we got out of the car to check out the Crossbills, two Sharp Shinned Hawks flew by, cartwheeled and flew by again – my first for September. Tom was in the back of the jeep, usually the seat with the worst view, yet it was Tom who spotted the Sooty Grouse next to the road. They posed just long enough for a photo of one and then flushed 1,2, 3. So no Cassin’s Finches but I had added three nice species to the September list.

Mountain Bluebird
Sooty Grouse

On the way back we made one stop – Irene Rhinehart Park where an Eastern Kingbird or Bullock’s Oriole was at least a possibility. We had a very cooperative Pileated Woodpecker but nothing else of any note. Still at this stage adding 3 species for September felt pretty good and 212 sounded good. Eight more days to go.

Pileated Woodpecker

September 23 – Birding the Coast before the Pelagic Trip

Foregoing the Ocean Shores side of the Coast my first stop was at Bottle Beach about 10 miles north of Westport. Birding at Bottle Beach is highly dependent on the tides – best to bird on an incoming tide and as it is a very flat, that can mean getting there 2 or more hours before high tide. I arrived about 9 a.m. with the high tide set for just before noon. When I hit the mudflat area, the water was way out but with the scope I could see lots of shorebirds at the edge in all directions but particularly south. I usually just walk straight out from where the path from the parking area hits the flats, but being early I headed further south than I usually go. It was unfortunately a very gray day and visibility was pretty poor. There were many dozen Black Bellied Plovers and hundreds of peeps – Western and Least Sandpipers. The birds were actively feeding and moving around quite a bit. One of the plovers was smaller and “golden”. I was able to make it out as a Pacific Golden Plover – new for the month. I tried to get closer for a photo but as the tide came in the plovers all flew north past me and joined others further away.

For the next 2 hours I played hide and seek with the ever changing flocks. I estimated close to 250 Black Bellied Plovers, many hundreds of both Western and Least Sandpipers. A flock of 50 Marbled Godwits made a brief appearance and then headed towards Westport – perhaps to join the huge flock that hands out near the Coast Guard Station there. Two Whimbrels fed for awhile and I was able to pick out at least two Dunlin – a bit larger than the peeps with their longer slightly decurved bills. I did not see any Baird’s Sandpipers although they could easily have been in the mass of peeps. I first heard and then saw a flock of presumably Short Billed Dowitchers. I never found the Golden Plover again. Returning to the parking area I had a Lincoln’s Sparrow calling and appearing briefly and a seemingly late Common Yellowthroat.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

After Bottle Beach, I went past Westport and again drove onto the open beach at Bonge Road. It would have been nice to get a good look at a Semipalmated Plover and I definitely wanted a Snowy Plover but as before I found neither. I went back to Tokeland where the flock of Marbled Godwits had grown to at least 200 and now there were 17 Willets and 2 Whimbrels and the Bar Tailed Godwit was harder to find but still present. I have often seen Greater White Fronted Geese at Tokeland but not this time – another species I thought would be easy for September but was never seen. Time to go to Westport itself where from the jetty overlook I found my first Pacific Loon for the month along with 5 Common Loons. I drove the beach again and again no plovers – just was not meant to be.

Bar Tailed Godwit – With Barred Tail

I scanned the rocky outcroppings for rockpipers but found none. Maybe we would have better luck on the Westport jetty returning from the pelagic trip tomorrow. It was clearer than it had been earlier in the day and there was little if any wind, so things looked good for that trip. I had added only two species for the day both Pacific Loon and Golden Plover – so I was now at 214 species. I thought that at least 10 species would be added on the pelagic trip and if it was an historic trip, as many as 20 new species were possible. This late in the year the boat leaves the dock a bit later than in the summer so I did not need to be at the dock until 6:15. Since I was staying in town that meant I could “sleep in” until 5:30 – no problem.

September 24 – Pelagic Birding

A number of the recent pelagic trips had encountered significant fog. It was clear when we boarded the M.V. Monte Carlo greeted by Captain Phil Anderson and First Mate Chris Anderson. Phil said it looked like calm seas and not much wind and there were a number of fishing boats working which is usually a great place to find massed birds. It looked like a great trip. Indeed it was smooth going and we crossed the bar without discomfort. The regular cast of characters were seen on the way out to deeper waters but it seemed a little slower than usual and it also seemed to take longer than usual to find our first true pelagic species, Sooty Shearwater. A bit later we had our first Pink Footed Shearwater and then some Short Tailed Shearwaters. We could see fishing boats ahead and Captain Phil steered the boat to them. The problem was that the fog we had avoided at the beginning of the trip was now challenging us. It never got really bad but it also never go really good either – an added burden to finding, watching and definitely photographing the birds.

I had been on many pelagic trips before and while they follow a general pattern, they are all different. The ocean is really big and the birds cover a lot of territory. There are some species that are seen every or almost every trip, although in differing numbers and closer or further away from the boat. Others are more variable and a species seen one day may be missed the next. Birds may gather in the dozens, hundreds or even thousands near the fishing boats – a great mix of species and great hunting ground for the pelagic trips. Best views are generally had at “chum stops” where Phil throws fish parts off the stern attracting feeding birds in close or when an oil slick (vegetable oil) is put out and the wind carries the smell to foraging birds that come in to explore and in the process become visual attractors to bring in other birds.

There are always three spotters on each trip who are expert at seeing and identifying the birds – often at great distance. A problem/challenge is that a bird seen by a spotter (or a birder) at the bow may not be visible to birders at the stern and the same applies to birds on starboard and port sides. They attempt to get the word out to everyone but sometimes the birds do not cooperate and are gone in an instant. Other times Phil is able to maneuver the boat to follow a good sighting giving everyone a chance for a view. I am not going to try to relate the sightings sequentially. Some were seen in small groups or alone and either right after another or 30 minutes later. It is not until the boat is out in deep waters (30 or 35 miles) out that many of the pelagic birds are found. There are quiet times but without warning a good species may appear out of nowhere, so best to be constantly on alert.

With that introduction, here are the species we saw that were new for the month for me: Sooty, Short Tailed, Pink Footed, Buller’s and Manx Shearwaters. The Buller’s is not seen until at least mid-August and is a key target on these late year trips. The Manx Shearwater is pretty rare – always a great find. Continuing the list: Northern Fulmar, Black Footed Albatross, Fork Tailed Storm Petrel, Sabine’s and Herring Gulls, Cassin’s Auklet; Pomarine and Parasitic Jaegers, and South Polar Skua. Some birders also saw an Arctic Tern but I did not and was unaware that it had been seen. That made 14 new species for the month – a good trip and the total for the month was now . The biggest surprise on the trip was the small number of Black Footed Albatross seen – a total of 3 – by far the fewest I have ever seen – with them sometimes numbering more than 100. More disappointing was that several other trips in September also had the much rarer Laysan Albatross. In addition to the Arctic Tern that I missed, the only other species that were good possibilities on the trip but not seen were Long Tailed Jaeger, Flesh Footed Shearwater, Common Tern and Leach’s Storm Petrel. Anything else would have been extraordinarily rare.

I had not taken my good camera on this trip to the coast, only my back up Canon SX70 Zoom – one of the reasons for no shorebird photos the previous day. [It was an experiment and one that did not work so well.] That and the fog also meant fewer photos than usual on this trip. Making matters worse, there was some glitch on the SD card I used and a lot of the photos could not be “read” – a complete mystery. Here are some of the photos that did come out (and some I took from an earlier trip).

Brown Pelican
Northern Fulmar – Light Phase
Pomarine Jaeger
Buller’s Shearwater
Short Tailed Shearwater
Sabine’s Gull – From an Earlier Trip
Black Footed Albatross – from Earlier Trip
South Polar Skua

Sunday September 25 – No birding – Sister’s Birthday

Monday September 26 – Mount Rainier

The last few years I have gone to Sunrise at Mount Rainier specifically to look for a Boreal Owl. Up until last year this had been successful to at least hear the owl. There was a brief distant visual but no photo joining Flammulated Owl on my photo nemesis list for the state. In the past I have gone the first week of October, but of course this year I wanted one in September and I knew the owls were there just perhaps not yet as vocal. There were other possible species to be seen there as well including Pine Grosbeak and especially Clark’s Nutcracker with Gray Crowned Rosy Finch being a more remote option. After a late start I arrived at Sunrise just before 5 p.m. I parked and started arranging camera equipment etc. I noticed someone else was doing the same at another car. I walked up to him and said: “Expect you are here for your Boreal Owl.” At first the birder was startled and then recognized me. It was Bruce Berman a birder from the Bay Area that I had met on the pelagic trip and we had discussed Boreal Owl’s at Sunrise. I had meant to get his contact info but missed him as we got off the boat. What a coincidence to re-intersect now.

Bruce and I joined forces in our shared quest for a Boreal Owl. It was a beautiful mostly clear afternoon and not very cold even at 6000 feet elevation. It would be cold later but we were equipped. Our plan was to check out the service road where we would return later and get a sense of the terrain and good places to owl later. First however, there was the matter of finding a Clark’s Nutcracker for the month. That proved quite easy as a couple were hanging around the parking area – probably looking for handouts. They were joined by their corvid cousins Canada Jays. Both provided good photo ops. The Nutcrackers were new for the month and it was good to get photos of the Jays as I had been unable to do so at Hurricane Ridge.

Clark’s Nutcracker – Sunrise Mount Rainier
Canada Jay – Sunrise Mount Rainier

Bruce had some intel about a meadow area down the service road that he thought would be good for the owls later. I knew of sightings along the road and particularly where the road split and a trail went uphill to the right. We covered the ground without hearing a sound – until near maybe 150 yards past the split in the road, we heard a woodpecker tapping sounding like it was coming from some bare snags on the other side of the meadow. From the cadence of the tapping I thought there was a good chance it was a American Three Toed Woodpecker. We did not have scopes so could not scan the distant snags. It would be a new bird for 2022 and of course for September, so while Bruce stayed on the road talking with some hikers. I set off across the meadow. I got within maybe 50 yards of the snags and saw a woodpecker but it was mostly behind the tree. I tried to slowly sneak up on it for a better look and hopefully a photo – again facing the choice of getting a view through the binoculars to ID it or to bird through the camera hoping for a photo. Still pretty far away, I chose the bins and was just able to get a view of the head and the golden/yellow forehead to confirm the ID. I crept a bit further and the woodpecker moved to the back of the snag. When I tried to change my angle it flew off across another meadow area and landed in another set of snags. Unlike the first meadow, crossing the second would have meant tromping on a lot of vegetation, so I decided not to follow. I was sure of the ID after the visual – number 230 for the month.

I really wanted #231 – the Boreal Owl. Bruce and I returned to our cars and got a bit of rest and then headed back down the service road scanning the trees and listening carefully. Nada. We stayed out for more than an hour in the dark and then split up with Bruce going further down the road and me re-covering the trail back up to the parking lot. On the way I had an odd experience as something flew past my face. It seemed way too big for a moth but not big enough for an owl. I also heard a sound that was at least close to the “skiew” call of the Boreal Owl. Was the flying object or the call an owl, a Boreal Owl? Possibly but definitely not enough to go on for an ID. It was not to be. Later I found out that Bruce also had no success and in fact he also had no success when he returned and tried again a couple of days later. It was very late (actually very early the next morning when I got back home.)

September 26 – Another Miss

A Sharp Tailed Sandpiper had been reported at Marsh Island/Foster Island in Seattle. This was near the same spot where many other birders and I saw a Ross’s Gull on December 1, 2019 – and “saw” includes not only really good looks but also watching it get taken and eaten by a Bald Eagle as soon as it took to flight. The gull was seen from the Arboretum Waterfront Trail. That is how I expected to get to where the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper was being seen, but due to work on the Highway 520 bridge which crosses Lake Washington, that trail was closed. Instead the viewing was actually from a pedestrian path that parallels the highway. I hiked out the half mile or so with my scope with another birder and found the mud. We searched diligently and found some Killdeer and a Pectoral Sandpiper (which is very similar) but no Sharp Tailed. Other birders had had this experience as well – only to leave and have the Sharp Tailed show up some hours later. We waited a while – and gave up – leaving disappointed as although one or two are found in Washington every year, it is a really rare one and would have been a good add to year and month lists – and for the other birder, it would have been a lifer.

September 27 – Making Up for the Miss

As had been the case for others, the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper did show up a couple of hours after we had missed it and it was being reported on the morning of the 27th. Jon Houghton was up for a go so we retraced my steps from the previous day and this time we were successful finding the Sharp Tailed Sandpiper and 2 Pectoral Sandpipers making the ID pretty easy as the chest marking is much sharper on the Pectorals and the Sharp Tailed has a rusty cap. For good measure there were also 3 Wilson’s Snipes. The walk back next to the 520 Bridge was much more enjoyable this day with species #231 for the month checked off.

Sharp Tailed Sandpiper

September 28th – Clark County After All

In my original logistical planning for this undertaking I had included an Acorn Woodpecker as a “guaranteed” species recognizing that would mean a long trip to Lyle in Klickitat County along the Columbia River – the only place in the state where they are regular and where I had already seen them this year when I did a “Big March” and really needed one for the number. I had assumed that would be part of a longer trip either including Clark County or more county birding in Klickitat and then returning home through some good Eastern Washington spots or even continuing on for a couple of days in the Walla Walla area. I changed plans, however, when nobody was finding Ash Throated Flycatchers in Lyle – the other big target there – and it was really really hot still in Walla Walla early in the month and there were also some forest fire issues. I thought I would only make the trip at the end of the month if I needed an Acorn Woodpecker to get to 200.

Now that I was over 200, the long trip to Lyle was not necessary. In my earlier planning I had also built in a trip to Clark County which would be a guaranteed spot for Sandhill Crane and possibly good for some other species including Red Shouldered Hawk, which I no longer needed for the month. In 2021, Cindy McCormick found some Acorn Woodpeckers at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and I had gone there in January that year as part of yet another Big Month – January 2021. Now she had found them there again and they were reported by others on September 27th. At least for me goals are meant to be not just reached but surpassed. At 231, I had clearly done that but now a trip to Clark County looked good for at least two more species and possibly a third as I had missed Black Phoebe earlier and it was regular at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge there would be Cranes as well.

Ridgefield is not quite 3 hours south of my home Edmonds so it was another fairly early start and I was driving the loop road at the River S Unit by 9:15 a.m. I was shocked. Due to a drier than usual summer and early fall and perhaps some management decisions (mismanagement?) at the Refuge, there was almost no water. The place is usually a great wetland full of waterfowl with some shorebirds in the mud. Granted that waterfowl migration was just starting, still it was amazing that I saw only two duck species and no other waterfowl at all. Thankfully I first heard, then saw and then photographed some Sandhill Cranes. It took some doing but I did find a Black Phoebe flycatching in the slough (or is that the River S?) next to the road so the targets I had aimed for were found.

Sandhill Cranes – Ridgefield NWR

Just before getting to the return leg of the loop road, I saw a car stopped with a lady looking at something in the distance with her binoculars. I asked what she saw and she said she thought it was an owl sitting on a fence. I got out my scope and confirmed that it was indeed an owl, in this case a Barn Owl, but it was not sitting on the fence, it was caught on the barbed wire. Yikes! I made the executive decision to head off across the field (a no no by Refuge rules) to see if I cold get it loose. The lady had a towel in her car and she came out as well. The owl was in pretty bad shape as its wing was completely wrapped around the wire and bones were exposed. I was able to calm it by putting towel over its head and then the two of us slowly worked the barb out of the wing and freed it. There was no way it could fly or survive on its own. We would look for a refuge official or try to get it to a rehab center. The lady had a companion in her car who could hold the owl (still calm in the towel) while aid was sought. I went online looking for an open center. The closest one was in Portland more than 30 minutes away. We parted with me driving the refuge looking for help while she headed off to the Refuge Headquarters. I never found anyone and I do not know her or the owl’s fate. This is NOT how I wanted to add a new species for the month.

Barn Owl – Before We Disentangled It

Saddened by the Barn Owl experience and wondering why there was barbed wire fencing at a refuge where there are many raptors, I continued south to Fort Vancouver. The latest reports of the Acorn Woodpeckers were from an oak grove different than the one where I saw them in 2021. A road closure made it a challenge to get to the area and I ended up parking not far from where I had them in 2021 and then headed east on foot to search in the new location. That was unsuccessful and when I returned to my car, I figured it was worth a try in the old location. Worth it it was as I found a group of at least 3 and probably 4 Acorn Woodpeckers actively feeding and flying around at the tops of the oaks. It was poor light and they never came very low but I got a few photos.

Acorn Woodpecker – Fort Vancouver

It had been a very successful trip adding 4 new species for the month including the unexpected Barn Owl and Acorn Woodpeckers without the additional 90 minute trip Lyle. The month total of 235 seemed like a good ending spot if I couldn’t somehow get to a nice round number like 240 – and there just was no way to see how that was possible.

September 29 – One Last Species

On the morning of the 29th I scanned the Edmonds waterfront and Puget Sound from our balcony hoping that Brant had returned or that maybe a Barrow’s Goldeneye would be there. If both of those species were seen I might try some crazy trip to try to get to 240 – most likely a trip to Salmo Mountain in far Northeastern Washington (6 hours away) where there would at least be a chance for Boreal Owl, Pygmy Owl, Saw Whet Owl, Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse and maybe 50/50 odds at best for getting 3 of them to get to 240. The craziness of something like that was appealing (or should that be appalling?) as a great ending for this adventure. Sadly, or gladly, neither species was seen. I thought I would make one last trip to a local park maybe getting lucky and finding a Barred Owl. At Pine Ridge Park, I found 17 species and the last one I found was a Hermit Thrush – in fact I found three and with some playback I got one to come out in the open just long enough for a photo. Both Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes had initially been on my probable list. I had to settle for just one of the two.

Hermit Thrush – Pine Ridge Park

I had birded Pine Ridge Park on the first day of September so this seemed like a good place to end the month as well. Sure I watched Ebird reports on the 30th and if something wonderful had been nearby I would have gone, but there was nothing new. I was done with 236 species for the month. Lots of great birds and yes still lots of misses. Looking back on my reports and my earlier projections, I found that I had specifically “chased” maybe 14 species that I did not find. Of course there were a lot of birds seen by others somewhere in the state during September that I did not see – 90 species to be exact. Of those 40 would be considered rare to very rare. As to the other 36 species – woulda, coulda, shoulda – with better planning and diligence and a lot more time on the road, I might have gotten half of them. So bottom line: the goal was 200; I got 236; I might have gotten 250 or even 260; and if someone really good and really lucky really wanted to go for it, well 275 would certainly be possible. So if you are reading this and are so inclined – go for it. I will have champagne waiting.

Big September – Week 3 – Moving the Finish Line

Week 3 – Day 1 – Target Reached in Neah Bay

Given all the good birding I have had at Neah Bay, I thought it would be fitting to find species #200 for September there. I did but definitely not with a special species as I had envisioned. In the morning I returned to Bahokas Peak hoping that being there early would find a Sooty Grouse family gravelling on the road. I did find a new species on the road but not a Sooty Grouse – a Varied Thrush. It had been on my most probable list but had eluded me until this observation. Glad to get it.

After Bahokas I returned to Butler’s Hotel to get my bag and head off towards home first checking the bay again and the Wa’atch Valley. As I got to Butler’s I heard a familiar chirping as a small flock of Pine Siskins flew in. Not an exciting species for #200 but a goal is a goal and reaching one feels good. I would have preferred a Pine Grosbeak, but I gave a short sigh of relief and started looking for species #201.

Pine Siskin #200 – Butler’s Hotel

Finding nothing new I headed back to the West Twin River Mouth armed with better insight into where to look for the American Golden Plover. Armed with that information I scanned the rocks on the beach carefully and was able to find it and get good photos. I am almost certain it was there the previous day and I had overlooked it among the rocks. In any event, it was a great species to start the add-on count beyond 200 species. On the rocks there were even more Black Turnstones before – at least 70 and in the water again over 50 Harlequin Ducks.

American Golden Plover
Black Turnstone

I tried for Sora at Kitchen Dick Ponds in Sequim without success and made a couple of other stops along the way, but found nothing new for the month. Still 201 had me feeling pretty good.

Week 3 – Day 2 – A Fly By and a Sewage Pond

My morning started with a sound I had not heard for a while – the cackles of Cackling Geese as a flock of at least 40 flew by our condo in Edmonds. I had often checked out the window for geese – not the Cacklers but Brant which I see daily in the winter. I had expected them to be back in September but had not seen any yet. This flock was a good substitute.

One more species was on target for the day – Ring Necked Duck. I had expected to see them many times already but they had not cooperated. Scope in hand, I went to the Everett Sewage Treatment Plant. Later there would be thousands of ducks there of many species, but migration was just underway and neither numbers nor diversity were there yet. I had seven duck species fortunately including at least 5 Ring Necked Ducks. Again I tried and failed to find a Sora – getting its cousin Virginia Rail only. That was it for the day – 203 species in hand and ready for another trip to Eastern Washington the next day.

Week 2 – Day 3 – East Again

My routine on this trip departed from my usual forays into Eastern Washington as I made no stops in Kittitas County and went directly to Soap Lake in Grant County hoping to find some Eared Grebes and possibly a Semipalmated Plover which had been reported their earlier in the week. I arrived at 9:00 a.m. and found the lake full of birds. At least 150 of them were Eared Grebes in every plumage you could imagine and another 500 or so were Ruddy Ducks – none in full breeding plumage. Maybe some other species were mixed in but there were 150+ Ring Billed Gulls also. I am sure I undercounted the Killdeer at 18 but most importantly there were 2 Semipalmated Plovers with a small group of Killdeer that flew from the south end of the lake towards the north end where I lost them. How strange to miss the Semipalmated Plovers on the ocean beaches (and at some western Washington tide flats) and to find them in Central Washington.

Eared Grebe Still with “Ears”
Eared Grebes – Nonbreeding
Ruddy Duck

Still hoping for a Sora, I then went to Rocky Ford. I have had Sora there before but have probably visited there more often years ago fly fishing. There are some very large but also very picky trout there, assuredly there that morning also but no Soras at least for me – some Wood Ducks and Pied Billed Grebes. A Marsh Wren was buzzing and I added it to the Ebird list not realizing that somehow I had either not seen one earlier or had forgotten to include it on my report. It was on the list now. This is also a good area for Burrowing Owls. Fortunately I had one earlier in the month since I did not find one on this day. Throughout the morning I had also kept my eyes open for a Western Kingbird still dreaming – and still not finding it.

Pied Billed Grebe – Rocky Ford

I had seen recent reports of Clark’s Nutcracker and Cassin’s Finch from the National Fish Hatchery in Leavenworth. My debate was whether to go there via Highway 2 or return home via Interstate 90 and try again for the Cassin’s Finch in the Cle Elum area. The Nutcracker was the deciding factor so went to the Fish Hatchery an hour and a half away. I am not real familiar with the area around Wenatchee and Cashmere which were on the way to Leavenworth. If I had planned the trip better, I probably would have made some other stops and found something new, but lacking that experience I went directly to the Hatchery. While there can be good birding at the Hatchery itself, it is the connecting trails (used for X-Country skiing in the winter) that is the better territory. I spent an hour walking the trails and had little to show for it. There were no Nutcrackers but I finally found a Cassin’s Finch or at least so I thought. I heard what sounded to me to be something close to the “kee-yup” call of the Cassin’s Finch and finally tracked down and photographed a single bird. There was not a bit of red on it. Was it a Cassin’s Finch or the closely related and similar (in this plumage) Purple Finch. Not an area of my expertise. Review of the photo later – mostly by others concluded it was a Purple Finch – still new for the month but again a strike out on what I thought would be an easy to find Cassin’s Finch. Nothing else of note but a photo I really liked of a Red Breasted Nuthatch.

Purple Finch
Red Breasted Nuthatch

As it turned out I did return via Interstate 90 since Highway 2 was closed due to the continuing Bolt fire. This meant first going over Blewett Pass down to Cle Elum, a lovely route. I considered stopping at Liberty where I generally go for night birds earlier in the spring but which also has good habitat for grouse, thrushes and yes Cassin’s Finch, but with the additional time going this route and thinking I may already have had a Cassin’s Finch, I bypassed it and just headed home without another stop. Looking back, this was somewhat of a wasted trip despite adding three ever harder to come by species for the month. I could have spent more hours in good habitat looking for other species. I think it was a combination of being a bit tired and also not as motivated to add species after 200 – although that was going to change. I was at 207 species.

Week 3 – Days 4, 5 and 6 – “Chicago”, Football and a Big Surprise

It was Sunday September 18th and I had no plans to bird – nada -nothing. I was going to watch some football, do some laundry and scrounge up something to eat with nothing in the refrigerator and with Cindy still in Germany, no incentive to produce something really good. Our Condo has a great view of the Edmonds waterfront and Puget Sound but also overlooks a bit of wooded area and can even see the Edmonds Marsh. My only chore in Cindy’s absence was to be sure to water the plants on the balcony. As I was doing that I heard the familiar “Chicago, Chicago” call of California Quail. Interestingly I had only seen them once in the month previously, so not a new species for the month, but it was a new Yard Bird. I only wish that I had heard a Barred Owl or a Great Horned Owl – both of which I have heard from home in the past and still had not seen for the month. I did watch some football – a not surprising poor showing by the Seahawks getting stomped by the 49ers 27-7. I guess that was bird watching in a way.

These next days were going to be slow like Sunday. On Monday I was scheduled for my annual physical check up and later to get yet another Covid booster shot. On Tuesday Cindy and Greg would be returning home and I would get them at the airport. No birding was scheduled either day but on Monday morning I saw a real time post on the Snohomish County WhatsApp number that Steve Pink was seeing a Franklin’s Gull from the Edmonds Fishing Pier heading south. I was within a few feet of my spotting scope pointed in that direction and raced to it. I caught the Franklin’s Gull in flight probably less than 2 minutes after Steve’s post. A complete and very pleasant surprise checking off a species from the very “unlikely list” from my target projections. It was a really pretty day and I spent 45 minutes birding from the balcony. Including the Franklin’s Gull I had 15 species ranging from Anna’s Hummingbird to Merlin and Osprey and Heerman’s and Bonaparte’s Gulls and a Rhinoceros Auklet. It is a nice birding balcony.

Week 3 – Day 7One More for the List

The annual check-up went fine. I got boosted with the only reaction a little soreness that disappeared the next day and Cindy made it home safely and well from her trip. It would not have been fair to abandon her to go birding the day after she returned and I wanted to spend time with her and begin hearing stories. However, she slept in a bit so I snuck in some birding at the Stanwood STP hoping to find some new ducks for the month. I had 20 species in maybe 20 minutes of birding and added Bufflehead for the month. They were just returning to the area and would be easy for the rest of the year.

Bufflehead – Stanwood STP

This ended Week 3 of Big September and the count stood at 209 – only 11 new species for the week. But I had known this was to be the down week with Cindy’s return – better than seeing any new birds – and medical stuff. But I had hit and then went past the targeted 200 species. My pelagic trip was ahead and there were six more days after that. The next and last blog will cover those nine days – with a lot more species ahead.

Big September 2022 – Week 2 – Major Progress

Week 1 had not been terrible, but it had not been great either – with too many “misses”. It had not been an intense week with a whole day “lost” on the unsuccessful chase for the Curlew Sandpiper in B.C. and some personal obligations that except for a single trip to Eastern Washington had kept me close to home. I had found only 119 species and felt very disappointed – maybe too hard on myself as there was a lot of time left, but it has been that internal pressure that produced the drive necessary to continue similar pursuits in the past. Somehow though this time felt different. I needed some good days to return to good spirits. That is essential, because the ONLY reason to do these kinds of projects is to enjoy them. Sure there can be some downs but there have to be some ups as well. Gotta have fun.

I first met Phil Bartley in May 2020 on Dennis Road in Benton County, Washington. He was “on” the rare Black Throated Sparrow that I was chasing when I arrived. We spent a few moments together and later had some intersections on Facebook and exchanged information about Canon mirrorless cameras and birding in Ecuador. We were birding acquaintances maybe moving towards birding friends. Plans for Week 2 of Big September included a trip to the Tri-Cities area where Phil lived and I contacted him for some guidance. That evolved into an arrangement to bird some together and then into an invitation to spend the night at Phil’s place and then bird together the next day including time at Washtucna, Washington – a migration/rarities oasis/trap about 4 hours from me and less than 90 minutes from Phil’s home. Phil knew the spot well and I did not. This seemed like a great plan.

Our Canon Camera Setup

Week 2 – Day 1 – Back (to the) East

So early on September 8th, I was again off to Eastern Washington, again stopping first at Bullfrog Pond – and again being disappointed there as it and the adjacent Wood Duck Road were very quiet – except for the patterned tapping of a woodpecker – a much sought after Red Naped Sapsucker. It never came close enough for a photo, but it has become an irregular species for me – so OK. I again went to the Northern Pacific Railroad ponds for my next stop looking mostly for ducks on the ponds. I found 16 – 15 Mallards and a single Hooded Merganser, the latter new for the year. Hoped for Common Mergansers, Barrow’s or even Common Goldeneyes, all of which I have seen there often, were no shows. The “Hoodie” was new – #121 and just over 60% towards the goal.

On my last trip to Eastern Washington, I had opted for Kerry’s Pond over County Line Ponds for possible Black Necked Stilts and Avocets. Failing to find the latter with that choice, I included the County Line Ponds on this trip which enabled me to make some other stops along the way, the first of which was Rocky Coulee on Recreation Road near Vantage, Washington. Although there would be other places that I might find one, a top target here was a Rock Wren, a sure thing at this location in my planning. Missing it would be a blow. Not as certain was a Canyon Wren. They are regular there but not always found. On this visit I found both wrens and had my first Lincoln’s Sparrow and several first of month Orange Crowned Warbler as bonuses.

Rock Wren – Rocky Coulee
Canyon Wren – Rocky Coulee

In June this year I finally got my Washington Lifer Black and White Warbler at Getty’s Cove – just off the Columbia River and 10 miles south of Rocky Coulee. It should have been a good place to find some needed warblers and maybe some other migrants, so I included it in my itinerary for the day. Along the way I found some Common Mergansers on the Columbia, but nothing new at Getty’s Cove itself which was quiet. Admittedly I did not spend as much time there as I should have and if I had I expect some of those warblers would have been found. I had a lot of other places to go and so I backtracked to Vantage, crossed the Columbia into Grant County and headed to the County Line Ponds – watching the fence lines and and wires along the way hoping for a Western Kingbird.

In my original planning I thought that Black Necked Stilts would be guaranteed and American Avocets would be likely at the County Line Ponds with some other species possible including Great Egret and Red Necked Phalaropes. When I visited there in May this year, I had Stilts, Avocets, Egrets and PhalaropesWilson’s Phalaropes. When I arrived on September 8th I saw two things that immediately brought a smile to my face. The first was several large beautiful and mostly white shorebirds with distinctly upturned long bills – American Avocets. The second was a group of smaller shorebirds swimming in circles in the northern pond – Red Necked Phalaropes – one of my phavorites – and yes I know I have taken liberty with the spelling. No Egrets but no (r)egrets as I would certainly see them elsewhere.

American Avocet – County Line Ponds
Red Necked Phalarope – County Line Ponds

It was 11:00 a.m. and I had added 9 species for month to get me to 128. The target list for the day was much longer though and hopes were high for my next stops – at or near Potholes State Park. But there was one concern – it was really really windy. This was probably part of the problem earlier at Bullfrog Pond and Getty’s Cove – the birds inactivity may well have simply been that they were hunkered down. Among the targets ahead were possibly three terns and some grebes and wind could be a challenge. When I arrived “could” changed to “would” as it was blowing really hard and terns were not to be found at places near the boat launch where I usually find them and also were not seen off O’Sullivan Dam Road. There were lots of grebes but mostly pretty distant and I found only one Clark’s Grebe with the dozens of Western Grebes. American White Pelicans were huddled together and not flying around. It was only at the semi-protected area at Lind Coulee where I found a single Forster’s Tern – no Common Terns and definitely no Black Tern. There were several Northern Pintails, 15 Great Egrets and finally some Western Meadowlarks. The other terns would have been nice but I added 7 species for the month and especially under the windy conditions was pretty happy about that. I had thought – hoped – that maybe I would find some good passerines in the campground and picnic areas at Potholes State Park, but it was just too windy.

Great Egret
Western Grebe
Western Meadowlark

Even though there were a number of species that might have been seen that day, the new for the month list was now at 16 and the total for the month was 135. It felt like there was some momentum for the first time in the month and at my next stop that continued when I found 4 Burrowing Owls at a rock pile on D Road Northwest in Grant County. This species had been harder to find this year at go to spots this year than last, so I had them on my not for sure list and was pleased to check them off – an excellent #136 and now it was off to meet Phil Bartley and continue birding with more eyes and great local knowledge.

Burrowing Owl – Road D Northwest – Ephrata Grant County

The first place Phil and I visited was Bateman Island. I had birded there before but was not that familiar with its intricacies. Phil was. No expertise was needed to find my first of month Greater Scaup. Phil’s sharp eyes were key to finding a Black Crowned Night Heron and his intricate knowledge was definitely the key to finding a Gray Catbird. Phil also knew a roosting spot for Great Horned Owl. Unfortunately the only Great Horned Owl we found was a dead one on the ground in the copse of trees where they regularly roost. Now what? Off to Lisa Hill’s house next to W.E. Johnson Park. I had been there before during my Big March this year adding a Blue Jay. The target there was a Black Chinned Hummingbird that had been regular at her feeders. It appeared as soon as we arrived. Lisa, a top birder in the area, came out and said hello and told us a Calliope Hummingbird had been coming in that day as well. Boom – there it was. Just for fun there was an Anna’s Hummingbird as well.

Black Chinned Hummingbird (Phil Bartley Photo)

Next was dinner and then we would return to Lisa’s house hoping for the Western Screech Owl that was in the adjacent park. It was barely dusk when we arrived and in less than a minute we heard the Screech Owl. This owl had been only a “maybe” on my planning list whereas the Great Horned Owl was thought to be “for sure”. Today was a welcome reversal as I figured there would be Great Horned Owls elsewhere in the future. So Day 1 of Week 2 was done. The 23 adds to the month’s list brought the total to 142 – a bit ahead of what I thought was likely. The next day had fewer prospects but included the visit to Bassett Park in Washtucna where anything was possible.

Week 2 Day 2 – Great Birding on Unfamiliar Territory

We got off to an early start and added the first new bird, a Horned Lark near Lind on Highway 26. We were at the Washtucna Sewage Treatment Plant pond just after 6:45 a.m. and among the 13 species seen there were three that were new for September – a Common Goldeneye and a Ruddy Duck, and a Savannah Sparrow good omens for what was to come. Washtucna is remote and with a population of 208, it is a town in decline with an uncertain future. For birders it is a magnet in the fall just as it is for birds migrating south. The trees and brush in and around Bassett Park are safe havens for birds on the move and the little drips and drabs of water are magnets within the magnet. Washington birders would drool for this list of rarities seen at this location: Bell’s, Blue Headed and Philadelphia Vireo, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Chestnut Sided, Black and White, Tennessee, Mourning, and Black Throated Green Warblers, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting. I have a pretty good life list of species seen in Washington (in top 15 for the state) and have only seen 6 of these species in the state. It can very hot there but this was a beautiful morning with temperatures comfortably in the high 70’s. No rain and no wind – an excellent day for birding.

Common Goldeneye – Washtucna STP

We spent three and a half hours in Washtucna covering and recovering the ground. Other birders arrived including friend Vic Hubbard also from Tri-Cities – a good birder and an even better photographer. We birded together and also crossed paths when we sometimes separated – sharing information and combining eyes to sort through the birds active in the trees – too often buried or high up. Including birds seen at the STP, we had 50 species at this location. In addition to the two new duck species and the Savannah Sparrow at the STP, I added 15 new species for the month in the town itself, the first Wild Turkey as small groups were constant company during the morning, and all the others in the trees or brush in and next to Bassett Park.

Wild Turkey – One of Many
Welcoming Committee

Many of the birds seen were buried in foliage so not always the greatest photos, but photos proved useful even when not perfect. We kept seeing a “different” warbler but never real well. It is always a challenge to decide whether to look more thoroughly with binoculars or to try for a photo trying to find the bird again through the camera viewfinder. Often the picture is of something barely seen but then when the image is checked, an important field mark is evident establishing the identification. Such was the case with this find. Phil got several decent photos that established the ID of a very rare for Washington Magnolia Warbler. I had seen the bird and noted its “difference” but did not get a photo. It was my second Magnolia Warbler in Washington, the first seen at the Gingko Ranger Station on June 5, 2013 – a breeding plumage male with a photo. The picture below is the best of Phil’s.

Magnolia Warbler – Bassett Park – Photo by Phil Bartley

All told we had 8 warblers that morning – 5 of which were new for the month for me: MacGillivray’s, Nashville, Wilson’s, Townsend’s and Magnolia. Actually Phil had 9 warblers. After we left, we heard from Vic that a very rare Blackpoll Warbler was being seen. When Phil checked his photos, he found a picture of the Blackpoll. I probably saw it but with no awareness of it and no photo, sadly I could not count it since it would have been new not just for September or 2022 but a new species for me in Washington…sigh. This is not my best kind of birding as I have difficulty picking a bird out of foliage and even more trouble getting my camera on it. I am including a few photos – nothing to be proud of.

Wilson’s Warbler
Townsend’s Warbler
Yellow Rumped Warbler

In addition to the 5 new warblers, I also had three new flycatchers for the month – Western Wood Pewee, Hammond’s Flycatcher and Pacific Slope Flycatcher and two wrens – a surprising Pacific Wren and a House Wren, plus Ruby Crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Solitaire, Lesser Goldfinch and Golden Crowned Sparrow.

Pacific Wren
Pacific Slope Flycatcher
Western Wood Pewee
Townsend’s Solitaire
Golden Crowned Sparrow

We left Washtucna on a high after a very productive morning. Now I was in Phil’s hands as we tried for targets on my list one by one. Some of it was luck but mostly due to Phil’s knowledge of his turf we did very well and found Ring Necked Pheasant, Chukar, Gray Partridge, Sagebrush Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike and White Throated Swift. All were great additions but three need special mention. I had all but given up on White Throated Swift as they were no longer being reported at my go to places. Phil thought there was a chance for one at Palouse Falls – Bingo!! We went looking for Loggerhead Shrike at an area with good sage. No Shrike but we found a very unlikely juvenile Sagebrush Sparrow. They are among the first of the sage birds to arrive and the first to leave. This was an excellent late record and we found a shrike later elsewhere. Lastly we came to a spot where Phil said he had sometimes found Gray Partridge. This had been a nemesis for me at go to places in Okanogan and Chelan counties earlier in the year – missed everywhere. No sooner had Phil said the word “Partridge” than a small flock flushed and flew off.

Sagebrush Sparrow

It had been a long and extremely productive and fun day. By 5:00 p.m. we had run out of targets and I had a long drive home. We returned to Phil’s place and with great gratitude for his efforts I headed back. We had added 25 species for the day and I had added 48 for this two day Eastern Washington trip. The total for the month was now at 167. Before the trip I had had my doubts. Now I was back to being confident that I would make 200 – especially since I had not yet been to the Coast and there was that pelagic trip ahead – probably. Buoyed by the success of this trip I agreed to a change of plans and committed to join friend Jon Houghton as a “co-leader” on a boat trip to Smith Island as part of Edmond’s Birdfest on Sunday September 11 rather than heading to the Coast for two days. But after this long trip the next day would be mostly one of rest.

Phil Working the Fields

Week 2 – Day 3 – Close to Home Again

After the two great days in Eastern Washington with early starts, this was an easy slow day around home. No Black Scoters or Brant visible from Sunset Avenue, but I did get my first Pelagic Cormorant. I went to Southwest County Park hoping for Barred Owl and maybe a couple of “easy” passerines that had eluded me until then. No owl but I finally got a Chestnut Backed Chickadee and a Pileated Woodpecker not believing it had taken more than a week. At Scriber Lake Park I added a Golden Crowned Kinglet. Four new species and the day was done. The list was now at 171. Wow that was easy…

Chestnut Backed Chickadee
Golden Crowned Kinglet
Pileated Woodpecker

Week 2 – Day 4 – Puffin Cruise for Birdfest

Hoping to find the ever elusive Horned Puffin that has been a tough find at Smith Island, Jon and I convinced the organizers of the boat trip to head to Smith Island instead of Protection Island which was what had been advertised. Since Tufted Puffins were also much more likely at Smith, it was an easy sale. The cruise would be on a high speed boat leaving from Edmonds with a capacity of maybe 100 travelers. It was scheduled to leave at 2:00 p.m. and that gave me enough time to try for a Solitary Sandpiper at the Redmond Retention Ponds where it had been reported the day before and where I had seen it last years. Since I had missed it at Smithson Road in Ellensburg this was a chance to make up for an earlier miss.

As I parked on the road next to the path into the ponds and saw a birder I did not know getting into her car. I asked how she had done and got an earful – those dang photographers getting too close to the birds and flushing them. Too many people now coming here since Ebird reported “Everything”. And there were just too many people now anyhow – depriving her of her private spot – not her exact words but pretty close. And no she had only seen a Greater Yellowlegs, no Solitary Sandpiper – again those photographers. OK, thanks, have a nice day… I had not taken my camera out of the car before this intersection – whew! As she drove off I got the camera and walked in. There was nobody else at the first pond and the first bird I saw was a medium sized shorebird that sure looked like a Solitary Sandpiper. I got closer, and yes, took a picture. Bingo – a lovely Solitary Sandpiper. Maybe it had just flown in. Maybe the other birder had gone to the second pond only (although you have to walk past the first one to get there). Maybe she did not know the difference between a Solitary Sandpiper and a Greater Yellowlegs. Maybe she will come back and there will be nobody else around and she will see it. Whatever. This was species #172 and atonement for earlier failings.

Solitary Sandpiper – Redmond Retention Pond

Phil Bartley had contacted me and asked it there was room on the Birdfest trip. There was and he came over to join us. Reciprocating his hospitality I invited him to spend the night in our spare room and that worked out perfectly. Jon and I met the boat crew a bit early and went over procedures essentially how we would be onboard naturalists to call out species and share our experiences and knowledge about the birds we would see. There was a company naturalist on board as well and he was great as was the weather and as was the boat Рthe Swiftsure operated by Puget Sound Express primarily for whale watching. Here is how the company describes the vessel: Built in 2022, the Swiftsure is a catamaran with 2 asymmetrical semi-planing hulls, and an articulated hydrofoil that allows the boat to efficiently travel at 35 knots (40mph). This propeller-less design, coupled with finely-tuned, wave-piercing bows, allows the boat to travel through both calm and rough water at speed, while keeping underwater noise to a minimum. It was indeed a smooth ride and the speed allowed us to get to Smith Island in less than half the time it takes with other vessels leaving from Anacortes the normal way to get there.

The “Swiftsure”

Jumping to the bottom line at the start, once again there was no Horned Puffin – my third miss in three chases. But we had great weather, calm seas and good birds with super looks at many Tufted Puffins in various plumages. It was the first time most of the people on board had seen this species. Our trip was high speed until pretty close to Smith Island and then we skirted the island slowly outside the kelp beds looking for puffins. Everyone had great looks at White Winged and Surf Scoters, Rhinoceros Auklets, Heerman’s and California Gulls, Common Murres, Tufted Puffins and Brandt’s Cormorants. Additionally on a small nearby spit/island there were distant views of Short Billed Dowitchers, Dunlin, Harlequin Ducks and Sanderlings. All but the gulls, Rhinoceros Auklets and Surf Scoters were new for September for me – making it 9 new species for the day bringing me to 180 species – 90% of the way there and although I would have traded them all for the Horned Puffin, I was feeling good. Phil spent the night and then he went off to the Redmond Retention Ponds the next morning and had a great visit, including the Solitary Sandpiper.

Common Murre
Brandt’s Cormorants
Tufted Puffin with Tufts
Tufted Puffins – No Tufts
White Winged Scoter
Distant Harlequin Ducks

Week 2 – Day 5 – First Trip to the Coast

For a trip to the Washington Coast there is always at least one critical decision – head to the Ocean Shores area or head to the Westport area. Both are possible in a long day and then the decision is where to go first. Fresh off our shared duties on the Smith Island trip, Jon Houghton and I were off again, joined by Tom St. John, we were going to get an early start and visit both areas. Just after 8:30 a.m. we were driving the open beach just north of Ocean Shores. Lots of Sanderlings and Western Sandpipers, some Least Sandpipers, various gulls including some first of month Western Gulls and a number of American Pipits – again new for the month, but no other shorebirds – a disappointment despite the two new species.

Western Gull

Undaunted we re-entered the open beach south of the Ocean Shores Casino and found even fewer birds and most notably no Semipalmated Plovers – which I had thought were guaranteed. Still lots of opportunities though and although they were far out at the end of the jetty, we had scope views of Black Turnstone and Wandering Tattlers – but no Surfbirds which are often there. We added a Red Throated Loon further out and as a bonus had some Brown Headed Cowbirds in the dunes – 4 more new species for the month. 186 species, smiling and counting!

Brown Headed Cowbird
Red Throated Loon

Over the years the Oyhut Game Range has had many great rare birds including Emperor and Ross’s Geese, King Eider, Lesser Sand, American Golden, Pacific Golden, and Mountain Plovers, Eurasian Dotterel, Upland, Buff Breasted and Sharp Tailed Sandpipers, Hudsonian and Bar Tailed Godwits, Ruff, Little Gull, Snowy Owl, McKay’s Bunting, Smith’s Longspur, Bobolink, and Clay Colored Sparrow – an incredible group. I have seen more than half of those species there and would have been happy for any of them on this visit. We thought there was at least a chance for the Golden Plovers and a Buff Breasted had been seen there the previous week. We trudged out into the salicornia and mud and unfortunately it was not a great shorebird day and although Jon got his First of Year Pectoral Sandpiper, there were no really good or even almost good shorebird species. We did have a lot of American Pipits and I will swallow my pride and admit that I also had a Lapland Longspur which I did not know it until someone reviewed my American Pipit photos and found that one was a Lapland Longspur. Shame on me…Three Red Breasted Mergansers in the bay were also new for the month.

Pectoral Sandpiper
American Pipit
Lapland Longspur

Time to head south – to the Westport area, about an hour away. How much better that drive would be if it did not include driving through the very depressed and depressing towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen – hard hit by changes in the timber business and the opioid crisis. They are reminders to me of how good my life is and that birding like we do is a luxury to be appreciated no matter what birds are seen. We were back on the open beach at Midway south of Westport again looking for Semipalmated Plover but also for Snowy Plovers which we had missed on the Ocean Shores side. And again we found neither. But again there was a consolation prize as we had a single Whimbrel standing out on the beach which was my first for September and Jon’s first for the year. We also had much better (although not terrific) looks at Short Billed Dowitchers than we had on the Smith Island Cruise the previous day.

Short Billed Dowitchers

A visit to the Westport side always includes a visit to the Tokeland Marina, the go to spot in Washington for Willets and in the last few years also for Godwits – mostly Marbled but sometimes the much rarer Bar Tailed or Hudsonian. My first Washington Willet was at the Marina on September 8, 2010 and felt fortunate to see 2. In 2012 I saw 6 there. The next year I saw 8. Since then I have seen more than a dozen and as many as 24 every year. On this day we had 15 and also had a small flock of 40 Marbled Godwits. Jon was the first to notice that one of the Godwits looked different. They were close and in good light and I got a photo. Bingo – we had a Bar Tailed Godwit, the first report of one there this year and a new bird for the year for all of us. [After our report on Ebird, dozens of birders have seen it there and it remains still.] All three of these larger shorebirds were new for September and added to the earlier finds brought the total for the day to 12 and my month total to 192.

Marbled Godwit
Bar Tailed Godwit

We made a final try for Snowy Plovers in the dunes near Grayland Beach State Park – and were not successful. I have had really good luck the last few years finding this often hard to find species and had put it in my “not for sure” group only because it can hide in the dunes and not be seen even though present. But I had been confident that I would find one. I f the pelagic trip happened I would be back at the coast, so put it on my “get it later” list. More surprising to me was the absence of Semipalmated Plovers. I thought they were a certainty. Looking over my Ebird reports, I found that I had over 100 observations of this species. While there were a few for Septembers in years past, the greater majority was during Spring migration or in August, so maybe some bad projections on my part.

Week 2 – Day 6 – Focused Birding

On April 14th this year I birded on C-Post Road in Eastern Snohomish County and had both Sora and Red Breasted Sapsucker – in fact 3 of them. These were both species I needed in September and I had missed them in some other locations where they had been seen recently – or for the Sora, had been heard. This would be my only birding this day as I had personal appointments. It was another beautiful day. Some enforcement officers from one of the wildlife organizations drove up and got out of their truck just as I started birding. They walked what I think is north on the road and disappeared. I heard some rhythmic tapping but it was too fast for a Sapsucker. A Downy Woodpecker flew over head. It was just birdy enough to keep me checking every few minutes. I did not know what might be there but was willing to be surprised. I had some sparrows, a Warbling Vireo and Black Throated Gray and Orange Crowned Warblers. A few minutes later I heard another woodpecker – this time a Northern Flicker. I tried playback for Sora at the spot I had them earlier in the year and again at some similar habitat further down the road. I kept going until I came to the river where an American Dipper was playing in the river – a much better photo than earlier.

American Dipper

At the river, I found the Fish and Wildlife officers. They were looking for illegal fishing, something they told me happened all too often there and at many other places in the area. We talked a little about birds and they wished me well. I mention this only because I had never seen this before and it saddened me to know that this was apparently a big problem. .Just as we parted ways, I heard the familiar “piterick” call of a Western Tanager. It made a brief appearance and flew off. I don’t know if it was migrating through or if it had found a good place to stay the winter. Then some more tapping and this sounded like the cadence of a sapsucker. It had been in the same tree as the tanager but had not started tapping until the tanager flew off – causation or coincidence. No matter, the Red Breasted Sapsucker posed nicely and I had one of the targets for the day and species #193 for the month. It had been a very pleasant hour. I wondered what I would have thought or done if I had seen someone fishing. I wonder what they would have thought or done if they saw me me birding.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Week 2 – Day 7 – Heading to Neah Bay

Without question Neah Bay is near the top of my list of favorite birding spots in Washington. Located at the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Straits of San Juan de Fuca on the north, it is both a great spot for water oriented birds and also for rarities in migration or almost any time. The Covid 19 pandemic had closed the area for a couple of years as the Makah Tribe was devastated by the disease and closed the area off to visitors to prevent more problems. I felt bad for the birders who did Big Years in Washington in 2020 and 2021 as this resource for many incredible rarities was unavailable. I normally make at least two visits to Neah Bay each year often chasing rarities reported the day before. This would be my first visit in two years with the possibility of finding species #200 for the month there or on the trip.

I caught the 5:35 a.m. ferry from Edmonds to Kingston. With each passing day the sunrise came later and later and it was completely dark on the passage across Puget Sound – no birding at all. From Kingston I headed north and a bit west taking the road to Hansville and Point No Point. Although there were other possibilities, the main target here was Bonaparte’s Gull. I had probably seen one scoping the Sound from my condo but if so it was too far out for a positive ID. At Point No Point there can be hundreds or even thousands of them. Often Parasitic Jaegers are mixed in and I have seen a very rare Little Gull there. As expected Bonaparte’s Gulls flew by in groups ranging from one or two to many dozens. I conservatively estimated the count at 400 and moved on. It was still pretty gray at 6:35 a.m. so visibility was low and no decent photos.

I back tracked to Highway 104 and continued north and east by passing usual stops in the Sequim area as I was headed to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. The good news was that the road to Hurricane Ridge was open but the bad news was that it was scheduled to close for maintenance work beginning the next day and everyone seemed to know this and was visiting this day as their last chance. The fact that it was a beautiful day drew even more crowds. There were three specific targets on this visit with the chance for some others. The targets were Canada Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker and Sooty Grouse. I parked at the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center and walked a number of the trails. There were people everywhere, not obnoxiously so but noisy and I am sure that is the main reason that I saw no grouse and only a single Canada Jay. There seemed to be Dark Eyed Juncos everywhere – flushing from the ground as people walked by, then returning as they passed, only to be flushed by the next group of walkers. I gave it an hour and then left hoping for better luck at the Hurricane Hill trails where I have almost always had Sooty Grouse.

Of course to find a Sooty Grouse on the trail you have to be on the trail and that would mean finding a parking space. There were none and at least a half dozen cars were waiting for a space to open. It was 10:30 a.m. and more cars were streaming in. I gave up and continued my trip west heading to Neah Bay. Alex Patia had reported an American Golden Plover at West Twin River Mouth on Highway 112. I had not knowingly stopped at this spot before. There is an easy pullout off the highway. A camper was there, but lots of room, so I grabbed my scope and headed to the water. There were lots of birds including more than 50 Harlequin Ducks and 25 Black Turnstones. It was a roosting and bathing spot for gulls including more than 250 California Gulls and a dozen Short Billed Gulls (sure wish they were still called Mew Gulls). I did not find the Golden Plover but stay tuned for a return visit. I left at noon and by 1:30 p.m. I was birding in Neah Bay. It seemed super quiet in town with very few passerines in trees near Butler’s or on the road (closed) out to the jetty. I watched continuously for birds perched on wires hoping for Tropical Kingbird – still a little early but a possibility.

Harlequin Ducks

In the Bay itself there were the usual suspects but nothing really exciting except for a single female Black Scoter – new for the year. Much better views of White Winged Scoters and lots of Hooded Mergansers.

White Winged Scoter
Hooded Mergansers

I birded the Sewage Treatment Plant and the Wa’atch River and added only a Lesser Scaup. I spent much of the afternoon hiking out to the end of the trail at Cape Flattery where fortunately I found a flock of 18 Black Oystercatchers – a species I thought was likely on the Birdfest trip but was missed and also could have been seen at any of a number of spots along Highway 112. I drove up onto Bahokas Peak hoping for Sooty Grouse where I have seen them before or maybe a Northern Pygmy Owl. No go.

Black Oystercatcher

Honestly it may have been the quietest day of birding ever at Neah Bay. Also honestly it would have been nice to find some other birders there, but I did not. Surprising. I spent the night at Butler’s, happy to bring some revenue to Nancy who survived the pandemic and was booked solid for the next day so still in business. All in all it had been a pleasant but relatively unproductive day at least compared to possible additions. For the day I had added 6 new species and was at 198 for the month. Nothing rare and there had been some misses that would have brought me to my goal. I had added 79 species for the week aided immensely by the two excellent days in Eastern Washington. I had ended Week 1 a bit unhappy. Now my spirits were high and I began thinking of what about more than 200. But that would just have to wait.

Big September 2022 – Week One

Day 1 – Starting Close to Home

It’s 6:00 a.m. on Thursday September 1, 2023, the first day of my Big Month of September 2022. I had considered having my first trip be to Eastern Washington which would have meant a much earlier departure, but I had chosen the Edmonds Fishing Pier as my first birding stop this month. It is only a few minutes from my home and while I did not expect anything extraordinary, you never know. Indeed there was nothing extraordinary and 15 minutes later I had my first 8 species for the month. At least the Pigeon Guillemots, Heerman’s Gulls and Caspian Terns had cooperated even if none of their rarer cousins made an appearance. I did see some Purple Martins. I had been mostly hearing but often seeing them on my walks with black lab Chica at our nearby condo. I was not sure when they would head south and wanted to be sure to get them before they did. I need not have worried as they stayed for most if not all of the rest of the month. The Belted Kingfisher flew overhead as I left and headed to stop #2 the Edmonds Marsh just moments away.

Just two more species at the Marsh. Ok 10 and counting as I started north to my first real chase of the month – to the spit and log booms at Tulalip Bay where I hoped for the Black Turnstones and much rarer Ruddy Turnstone (singular) which had been there off and on and possibly an equally rare (for there) Red Knot. Along the way I ticked off (as in added to my list not made them mad) House Finch, Barn Swallow, Rock Pigeon and Steller’s Jay. Maybe it was the wrong tide or just bad karma, but the only shorebird I saw was a Black Bellied Plover which together with Eurasian Collared Dove and Double Crested Cormorant brought me to an unimpressive 17 species and already two or three significant misses. The good thing about a goal of a specific number is that each species counts the same – one more along the way. But that is not really true when considered against “the Plan”. As laid out in my previous post, the goal of 200 species required some less than common species – so they really do count more since there is a chance that one missed early may not be made up for later.

After missing the targeted shorebirds, I made a brief stop at a pullout with a view of the larger bay and added Surf Scoter, Common Loon and Red Necked Grebe – nothing fancy, nothing even close to uncommon let alone rare, but the count continued. It was now just after 8:00 a.m. and I was one-tenth of the way there. 20 down and 180 to go. Next stop – Eide Road/Legue Island still in Snohomish County hoping that some shorebirds might cooperate. This has been a favorite birding spot in the county for many years with many great birds on my list from there totaling 112 species. In years past, there were small ponds in a marshy area which required a short walk but which collected some very nice shorebirds. Rare species seen in those ponds in years past included Ruff and Sharp Tailed Sandpiper. Last year the area was “rehabilitated” completely doing away with the ponds. A much different experience, but still good for shorebirds even if much more dispersed and harder to see. Yet it did produce my lifer Little Stint, so my complaint and wish for the good old days has to be somewhat tempered.

I did add 4 shorebird species at Eide Road including not always reliable Baird’s and Semipalmated Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. Not a bonanza but that may have been hindered by the two Peregrine Falcons (new for the month) that seemed to be a constant presence. Altogether there were 8 new species and the day was still young. Normally I would have continued north to another favorite spot, now in Skagit County, Wylie Slough on Fir Island. But by a unfortunate twist of fate, Wylie Slough was closed for yes, another rehabilitation work/changes. This actually was a bad break as I have had 145 species at Wylie Slough including some pretty good ones. Moreover it was a pretty reliable place for a good number of the common and a few of the uncommon species on my target list for the month. Although not necessarily in September, I have seen 18 species of shorebirds, 14 species of raptor and 24 species of waterfowl there. Plus 8 sparrows and 9 warblers. In 2021,118 species were seen at this one hotspot including 8 that I never did see this year and at least a dozen more that I worked fairly hard to see elsewhere.

Nonetheless there were other good locations in the area and that’s where I spent the next few hours. Again nothing special, although a Merlin is always a good bird and not always easy to find. I added some ducks and shorebirds and a variety of passerines – 20 new species for the day. The total now stood at 48 and it was 12:15 pm – 6 hours into the first day. No specific misses like the Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone but several species that might have been seen were not.


Time to start back south and I headed to Juanita By Park in King County. This is the best place for Wood Duck and is often good for Wilson’s Snipe. I found the former but not the latter and in the process added 10 new species for the day. I could not bird late that day but made a brief stop at Pine Ridge Park – close to home with a chance for Barred Owl and Pileated Woodpecker. I added neither but had a Hairy Woodpecker and Red Breasted Nuthatch, Not exciting but I was now at 60 species – 30% of the way to my goal – and of course by far the easiest 30%.

Wood Ducks – Juanita Bay Park

Day 2 – Chases in South King County

I started a little later on Day 2 with the first planned stop to be at the 204th Street Pond in Kent. A rare for the area Red Shouldered Hawk had been regular there for well over a week and it was my target. Finding it there would mean it would not be necessary to look for it in two other more distant places where it was possible but not assured. I found it almost immediately upon arrival – taking the pressure off for the whole day and very welcomed after the misses of the previous day. As bonuses there were also a Yellow Headed Blackbird and a Green Heron – neither rare but sometimes challenging. Ten additional new species including a not guaranteed Blue Winged Teal brought my total up to 80 and it was only 8:30 a.m. This was another day where I had afternoon obligations that had precluded a long trip so every addition to the list was important.

Red Shouldered Hawk – 204th Street Pond
Green Heron – 204th Street Ponds

Not far away was another target spot – Frager Road looking for Bank Swallows. This species is not widespread and would probably be heading south soon, so even the two found there were welcomed. When I first made my list of possibilities I counted all 7 swallow species found in Washington as essentially sure things with the Bank Swallow perhaps the most challenging. Either this was an unusual year or I had simply miscalculated. Other than the Purple Martins and Barn Swallows, the other species proved much harder to find than expected – many already gone South – and I never did find a Cliff Swallow.

The next nearby stop was the 212th Street Ponds. My targets here were American Bittern, Black Phoebe and Cinnamon Teal. All were probably present but that did not mean they would necessarily be found as Bitterns are always a challenge, the Phoebe was not always found and the Teal could be tucked away behind some vegetation and hard to see. I got lucky and found the Bittern easily and caught a “good enough” quick glimpse of the Cinnamon Teal. I never did find the Black Phoebe – especially disappointing since it would have been an easy find at the now closed Wiley Slough and other places to look for one were either far afield or unreliable. As I returned to my car after circling the ponds I remembered that this was a good place for California Scrub-Jay, a species that has greatly expanded its range in Washington but is not found everywhere. Sure enough two jays flew by and landed in a nearby tree. I also got what was surprisingly my first Red-winged Blackbird to bring the species count to 75.

American Bittern – 212th Street Ponds

Perhaps this is a good time to revisit a previous statement. In September many birds are pretty inactive, not calling or singing and in pretty drab non-breeding plumage. Ducks that in breeding plumage are easy to identify may be hard to distinguish in their drab winter attire. Same for many passerines. For example it was hard to find much red in the wings of these Red-winged Blackbirds. And then there was the near silence. There is good deciduous tree and shrub habitat around the 212th Street Ponds. I saw a few birds flitting about and did hear some Chickadees but mostly it was quiet. This would be a recurring pattern for most of the month.

I had seen an Ebird report with good birds at Sikes Lake in King County. I had birded there infrequently and departing from usual Big Month approaches decided to try a relatively new place even though I was unfamiliar with the best way to bird there. Along the way I added a Band Tailed Pigeon (#76). Maybe it was the time of day but more likely I just did a poor job of birding but I added only Northern Rough Winged Swallow at Sikes Lake. As I mentioned earlier, I had misjudged the timing for swallows so was actually glad to add the species, but it was a very poor return on more than 90 minutes including time getting there and birding.

My last four stops were all places very close to home: Yost Park (Red Breasted Nuthatch); Edmonds Fishing Pier (Brown Pelican missed earlier); Willow Creek Hatchery (Brown Creeper); and home itself (White Crowned Sparrow). The sparrow was the last bird for the day (#82 for the month) and another example of changing times. In August the sparrows were abundant near home – mostly first year new juveniles – and were quite active and noisy with their high pitched call notes as opposed to the abundant and even noisier adults that sang regularly until early August. On dog walks in the summer I would often see and hear them all along the way with up to a dozen or more individuals on territory. This day there were only two quiet juvies scurrying on the ground.

Red Breasted Nuthatch

It had been a short day due to other obligations so I had somewhat of an excuse for only being at 81 species. There had been a couple of good birds but again too many misses. No Chestnut Backed Chickadee – REALLY?? Day 3 would be a trip to Eastern Washington and I should do better. But should is not always what happens…

Day 3 – Eastern Washington

I have made this same trip to Eastern Washington many times – for Big Months, Big Years and just good old birding. It means leaving early both to beat the traffic and to get to my first stop Bull Frog Pond just west of Cle Elum early when the birds are first becoming active after their restful night – at least theoretically. Bullfrog Pond and adjoining Wood Duck Road are 95 miles from my home – an easy 90 minutes mostly on the Freeway if there are no road work projects with lane closures, traffic accidents or other mishaps. Even with the necessary restroom stop at Snoqualmie Pass, I was at Bullfrog Pond at 6:30 a.m. – yes I got up pretty early. I was there at 6:30 a.m. but the birds sure weren’t. It was as quiet as I had ever seen it. A couple of sparrows, a couple of Red Winged Blackbirds – and nothing else. The list of potential targets had been long – several warblers, maybe a flycatcher or two, maybe a Sapsucker, thrushes, vireos, finches – none were present or at least found by me. With fingers crossed I crossed over to Wood Duck Road and had six species – all new for the year: Western Bluebird, Mountain Chickadee, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow Rumped Warbler, Dark Eyed Junco and White Breasted Nuthatch. All except the Nuthatch were expected there but so too were some others especially Cassin’s Finches which were everywhere the last time I had visited.

I followed my regular routine checking to see if the feeder across from the Ranger Station in Cle Elum was active and if not then continuing to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. The feeders were seedless and thus birdless. I added only three new species at the Railroad Ponds – Black Headed Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler and Pygmy Nuthatch (this is a guaranteed place for them). Again I had expected more and all in all felt that I was already 10 species down for the day – not a welcome feeling.

Pygmy Nuthatch – Railroad Ponds – South Cle Elum

Key targets for this trip included a number of shrub steppe/sagebrush species. Recent fires had destroyed some of the best sagebrush areas but one favorite area – Durr Road off Umptanum Road in Ellensburg had been spared and had recovered somewhat from some fires there last year. I did at least ok on Durr Road with Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows and a Say’s Phoebe, but where were the Sage Thrashers, Western Meadowlarks, Mountain Bluebirds, Black Billed Magpies and Loggerhead Shrikes that I had seen on my last visit?

The Black Billed Magpie was easy enough to find along the western end of Old Vantage Highway in Ellensburg where I also added Swainson’s Hawk and some Violet Green Swallows close by. A Northern Harrier swooped by me on Hungry Junction Road and I found Wilson’s Snipe at the muddy field on Smithson’s Road but failed to find the Solitary Sandpiper that was the real target. It was decision time Black Necked Stilts and American Avocets were high on my target list. Both were possible at County Line Ponds in Grant County or at Kerry’s Pond in Yakima County. My choice would then determine other areas I would bird afterwards as they were some distance apart and in different directions. I chose Kerry’s Pond. I failed to find any White Throated Swifts at the I-82 Rest Stop – a disappointment but not a big surprise. At Kerry’s Pond, the Stilts cooperated but there were no Avocets. A bonus however were two Redheads (the duck kind). With those two species I was at 100 species – halfway home in less than three days, but these projects always start fast and then slow dramatically. More importantly I felt like I was at least a dozen species behind. And if I had gone the other route to County Line Ponds I may have gotten the Avocet and a chance for White Throated Swifts at Frenchman’s Coulee.

Swainson’s Hawk
Black Necked Stilts – Kerry’s Pond

Being in Yakima County I headed to Oak Creek a go to spot for Lewis’s Woodpecker and usually good for other species including Canyon and Rock Wrens if I were a little lucky and Ash Throated Flycatcher if I was really lucky. Along the way I finally picked up some California Quail at the Sunnyside/Mabton Boat Launch. It was my worst ever visit to Oak Creek – only a single Lewis’s Woodpecker where I usually see a dozen or so and no wrens. The only other bird was a Steller’s Jay. Quiet, quiet and quieter.

Lewis’s Woodpecker – Oak Creek

Another major reason for choosing the Yakima County option was being able to go to the BBQ Flats Horse Camp off Wenas Road where I have had good luck with White Headed Woodpecker, Cassin’s Finch, Evening Grosbeak and Red Crossbills. On this trip, now being called my Quiet Zone Trip, I had a single White Headed Woodpecker and nothing else. I headed back home via North Wenas Road where I finally found some Mountain Bluebirds to bring the days total of new species to 104. It had been a very disappointing day both for quality and quantity of birds and also for quality of experience. Being quiet and not birdy and missing maybe as many as 15 or even 20 species made for little fun. Doubts were creeping in…

Days 4 and 5 – Birding Light

Day 4 started with another dog walk around home – Point Edwards – where our often seen Cooper’s Hawk flew right overhead. Then it was back up to Skagit County where I waited with some other birders for the American Avocet that had been seen there for several days to make an appearance. Maybe it did not receive the invitation or had entered it wrong on its calendar, but it was a disappointing no-show – my second miss in consecutive days with the miss in Eastern Washington the day before. I was done for the day – with not much to show for it – up to 105 and barely counting.

Day 5 was thankfully a little better beginning with a quick jaunt down to the Edmonds off-leash dog park. A new mode of communication for birders is the advent of “WhatsApp” sites for birder groups. Around 7:30 a.m. a message appeared that an Ancient Murrelet had been seen south of the Edmonds Fishing Pier. I was down at the Park 10 minutes later and had a large flock of Mallards fly overhead. Next an Osprey flew by with a fish for breakfast. An American Crow cawed and a Song Sparrow called, bothered by my presence. Heerman’s Gulls whirled about and a Double Crested Cormorant winged its way north. I had my scope and scanned the water north and south and saw only a single dark spot not too far south of me. the size was right. The facial pattern was right. Yep – #106 an Ancient Murrelet.

The Whitehorse Trail in Arlington, Washington follows an old railroad route in the North Stillaguamish Valley with lots of deciduous trees and the potential for both residential and migrating birds. I had not birded there before and on a glorious morning thought it would both be enjoyable and provide a chance for some new species and also was near some other areas I wanted to visit. It proved to be a good decision as I added 7 new species and really enjoyed the beautiful day and some intersections with other birders. There were several female or juvenile Western Tanagers, a Warbling Vireo and a Black Throated Gray Warbler in the large trees along the train and a couple of Tree Swallows were a mix of Barn and Violet Green Swallows. Even better several Vaux Swifts were flying with them. A Spotted Sandpiper worked a sandbar along the river and a Fox Sparrow played hide and seek with us in a brushy area. These were all Group 1 species – counted on for my Big Month so nothing special, but especially in light of recent misses, they were welcomed additions to my count.

Willow Flycatcher

Earlier in the year, Ann Marie Wood had shown me her special spot for American Dipper at the Fortson Mill Pond. Having missed this species at Bull Frog Pond, I really wanted/needed it and sure enough it was doing its dipper thing at the same spot we had seen one previously. Mission accomplished I decided to return to Tulalip Bay and try again for the Black and Ruddy Turnstones. The turnstones are generally seen either along a spit at the west end of the bay or on log booms in the marina. The tide was high suggesting the spit would be mostly covered, so I went to the log booms. Usually the Ruddy Turnstone is with lots of Black Turnstones, some Black Bellied Plovers and maybe some other shorebirds. Today there was only a single shorebird on any of the logs. Hard to believe but indeed it was the Ruddy Turnstone – a species that is at best uncommon in Washington but has been seen regularly at Tulalip Bay the last few years. Finding the Ancient Murrelet and then the Ruddy Turnstone were bookend highlights of the day and I was now at 115 species for the month.

Ruddy Turnstone – Tulalip Bay

Day 6 – Going International

This was the day that Cindy would be leaving for Germany with cousin Greg. My job was to get them to the airport in time for the long check in process for an international flight. Horrendous traffic (far too common in Seattle these days) added time and stress to the trip but we got to SeaTac in time around 11:30 a.m. When originally planning my Big Month, I knew this would make birding tough in the morning but thought I might continue south after the drop off and chase some targets possibly ending in Clark County, spending the night and then continuing East. Then a Curlew Sandpiper showed up at Boundary Bay in British Columbia. This species is very rare in the ABA Area (US and Canada) and although I had seen it Africa, I very much wanted to add it to my ABA Life list. I had looked for one in B.C, some years earlier at Reifel Refuge with good friend Melissa Hafting. No luck. Now Melissa had found another one at Boundary, a famous shorebird area outside of Vancouver and invited me up for another go if it was seen again the next day. It was, so I changed plans and headed to B.C. after the airport run. Just before 2:30 p.m. I was with Melissa at Boundary Bay and the chase was on.

Mel is a great birder and a better person. I had seen many lifers in B.C. either with her or with her guidance and help. We walked up and down the shorebird flats where others were looking as well. After about 2 and a half hours we re-intersected with one of the people we had talked to early. She thought she had probably seen it on a piece of driftwood and showed us her photo. Yep that was it. Unfathomably she had not gotten the word to others including us and it would have been easy to do. So the bad news is we had missed it by maybe 10 minutes. The good news is that it was still around. We and others redoubled our efforts and continued searching for another couple of hours until the light and tide faded. No success. As I always say though, there are always consolation prizes. In this case it was spending quality time with Melissa and also seeing some other great birds including Pectoral, Baird’s and most importantly Buff Breasted Sandpipers. The latter is quite rare but seen briefly most years in Washington somewhere along the Coast. One had been seen within the last few days in southern Pacific County (a 4 hour drive from my home) and was on my “maybe go for it list”. It is a beautiful, subtly colored shorebird – a favorite. Unfortunately seeing it in B.C. did not count for my Big Month list – limited to sightings in Washington State only.

Buff Breasted Sandpiper – Boundary Bay, B.C.
Pectoral Sandpiper – Boundary Bay, B.C.
Baird’s Sandpiper – Boundary Bay, B.C.

Day 7 – Back to Canada? No.

I got home pretty late from B.C. with yet another miss for the year even if not for September. At the time I felt that I would have traded Big September for the Curlew Sandpiper – I really do want to see one in the ABA Area – maybe it will be next year and even better if it is in Washington!! I had a two day trip planned back to Eastern Washington on September 8th and 9th and some personal matters to attend to on the 7th so when Melissa texted that the Curlew Sandpiper was being seen well that morning I just could not head back north. If it was guaranteed that I would see it, I may have gone, but there are no guarantees in birding especially during migration and especially when tides may make a difference. I knew I would be getting an early start the next morning and limited myself to looking for waterbirds near home. From Ocean Avenue I was able to see some Rhinoceros Auklets, Horned Grebes, a Short Billed Gull and a Marbled Murrelet – not rare, all counted on for the month, but at this point every addition mattered so a good day under the circumstances.

The first week of the Big Month was done. The unexpected foray to B.C. and some personal matters had limited real birding time to just over 4 days. I had seen 119 species – almost 60 percent of the goal – but it had been a disappointing week, a less than expected start. If things had gone according to plan – or maybe if I had had a better plan and executed it better, I would have been between 130 and 140 species so far and would have felt better. The next week would start with that two day trip to Eastern Washington and I needed it to go well. Did it? You can find out in the next blog post.

Another BIG Month – September 2022

Cindy was going to visit Germany with her cousin Greg for two weeks. The main objective was to see an area where their forbears hundreds of years ago had lived. Greg had studied in Munich during college and was familiar with the area and spoke some German. Well I don’t know how much studying was done, but he had fond memories and a good friend in Seattle still had family in the small town of Tubingen and would be there during September – a built in highlight. I had never been to Germany and still harbor negative feelings about the Holocaust and Germany’s role in WWI and WWII. Even if it had been a great birding trip I was not going to go. Three times in the past intentionally and three more times without a specific intent, I had done so called “Birding Big Months” – the goal being to see 200 species in Washington in that calendar month. With Cindy gone, and black lab Chica off to a dog boarding place, this would be the perfect time to try to add September to my list.

Unlike most of my posts, this one is not going to include many photos. Those will come in later posts. This post instead addresses the how’s and why’s of my birding or at least the kind of birding in a Big Month, The planning I do and some lessons learned. There is a bottom line – the results of the Big Month, but like so much in life, it is the journey that is most important. My birding projects are really all journeys – catalysts for new experiences. Not so much means to an end but an end to those means – using goals to push me and pull me to steps that would not otherwise be taken, people no otherwise met and places not otherwise seen. Following that thinking, there are three distinct reasons I enjoy doing a Big Month – maybe four.

The first is the simple one of just enjoying birding – my passionate activity that provides endless opportunities to visit interesting places, meet interesting people and see interesting birds. A second reason is that as I have said in many earlier blogs, whatever my job title may have been or my occupation, in the final analysis, the real activity was managing a project. I enjoyed establishing a goal, planning how to achieve it and then proceeding to execute the plan including making the adjustments along the way that are always part of the adventure. The third reason – maybe it is more a part of the second – is that I really enjoy logistics figuring out what is necessary to get to a goal, organizing the steps to get there and working out the relationships of time and place and sometimes people that are involved. This is where the tie-in to my birding experience, knowledge and access to resources come to bear. What can be seen. Where and when is the best way to see each targeted species considering that there are many variables and especially during a migration month like September, what is the window of time when any particular species is most likely to be in a particular place and how that place relates to the other places I must go to try for other targets. The fourth reason according to some would be that I am a bit crazy – up early, miles and miles, dirt roads, traffic, weird weather, and not the greatest food – all part of the project – not everyone’s idea of fun but very fun and engaging to me.

Other intentional Big Months had been January 2018, February 2021, and March 2022. Without a Big Month goal, I had also seen 200 or more species in Washington in April 2015, May 2013 and June 2014 – just productive months in years when I had done “Big Years” in Washington. When I first considered this project, I thought it would/should be fairly easy. I viewed September as a “shoulder month” – not the best for breeding birds but many would still be around for at least part of the month before migrating away – and not the best for non-breeding birds that would be returning from breeding grounds elsewhere – but some would make it back at some time during the month. In other words, I thought I would have not the best of both worlds but good samplings of each. My initial analysis grouped the birds into three categories: (1) Common/likely/probable; (2) Uncommon/less likely/possible; and (3) Rare/unlikely/just maybe to no chance. I checked Ebird bar charts for September 2020 and 2021 to see what had been seen in the month those years and found that 354 species had been seen – wow, I thought – this would be easy. First I removed 5 species that are not really countable – like Black Swan – and then I divided those observations into my three categories acknowledging that my groupings would be somewhat subjective.

Previous Big Months

Month/Year # Species
Jan-18 207
Feb-21 202
Mar-22 218
Apr-15 200
May-13 224
Jun-14 200

I allocated 49 species to Category 3 – either because they were very rare (like Philadelphia Vireo) or in a place I was not likely to go and maybe even unreliable there even if I did (like Boreal Chickadee or Spruce Grouse). Now I was down to 300 species – still looking pretty good. The next slice took out another 60 species – ones that were a lot more time and place dependent and could not be counted on even if I was at the right place – for example a Pine Grosbeak or White Winged Crossbill with a limited range and not always seen even if within that range. The last counting step was to figure the odds of seeing what number in each group, add the three together and see how likely 200 was – or better yet, what the likely number would be – assuming I would get to all of the places that were necessary to look for the target species. Without really getting down to specific time and place calculations, a rough best projection was seeing 85% of the birds in Category 1, 50% in Category 2 and 10% in Category 3. That projected to 204 plus 30 plus 5 for a total of 239. I added a couple of “surprises” – birds that had not been seen in either of the last two years and thought that 241 was a reasonable total to shoot for and hopefully achieve. There was one critical assumption built into the projections. I had been able to secure the last open spot on a September 24th pelagic trip. My projection (adjusted for probability) was to see 15 of those 239 species on that pelagic trip. Not essential to get to 200 if everything else went according to plan but a nice safety valve. As is usually the case not everything did go according to plan. I lost a couple of days due to non-birding obligations and did not make a couple of trips that were part of the original planning. Early on, I missed a lot of species that I thought I would have gotten and that had me thinking that the Pelagic trip safety valve would be essential. I had miscalculated the timing of some migrants – both arriving and leaving (like Tundra and Trumpeter Swans) but in the end it all worked out pretty close to plan or at least the adjusted plan.

I considered saving the final tally until after some additional posts had related some of the day to day experiences, but I am going to spill the beans here. The final count for the month was 236 species and my initial projections were not too far off. I had 213 Category 1 species (despite some unfathomable misses) and 4 Category 3 species – 1 less than as projected. The Category 1 overage was substantially negated however by a shortfall of 10 species in Category 2. Additionally there was one “surprise”, a Magnolia Warbler that had not been seen in September in either 2020 or 2021. So bottom line was 241 projected and 236 seen. That certainly qualified as a self defined 200 species “Big Month”, but looking back I coulda, shoulda, woulda done much better with some better planning and execution. Some better birding skills would help, too, of course. If I knew then what I know now and had really gone all out every day, I am sure that 250 species would have been seen and 270 would not have been impossible.

In earlier Big Months I had generally spent the first day chasing reachable rarities that had been seen the last day or two of the previous month. So for example on January 1, 2018, even though my birding was relatively close to home, it included finding rare a Blue Jay in Skagit County and an even rarer Rose Breasted Grosbeak at a stakeout in Seattle where those species had been seen the previous day. Similarly on February 1, 2021 my list included a Snow Bunting at Eide Road, a Ruddy Turnstone at Tulalip Bay, a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in Everett and a Snowy Owl on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. All were holdovers from the previous day and were rare or very rare. In both cases, since these rarities were close to home, I could combine them with other common/regular species in the same area to build numbers and momentum to start the project. In January 2018, the first day yielded 79 species, and on February 1, 2021 I had 64 species (but with better rarities).

Rose Breasted Grosbeak – Seattle Stakeout
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
Snowy Owl – Queen Anne Hill Seattle

For the first day of this Big Month, there were not any really rare birds nearby and I wanted to stay within an hour or so of my home. I targeted and missed Red Knot, Black Turnstone and Ruddy Turnstone at Tulalip Bay and made sure that I got Purple Martins near my home not being sure how long they would stick around. That first day approach may have felt better if I had gotten the Tulalip birds, but looking back it is pretty evident to me that my first emphasis should have been on species particularly in Eastern Washington that were going to be leaving soon and the earlier I had built them into the project, the better my chances would have been. They weren’t impossible later, just more difficult and as it turned out in many cases, they were species I missed. For example I missed Bullock’s Oriole, Common Nighthawk, Eastern and Western Kingbird, Cassin’s Vireo, Yellow Breasted Chat, Lazuli Bunting, Lark Sparrow, Olive Sided Flycatcher, Veery and Swainson’s Thrush. With better planning and targeted visits to Eastern Washington the first week of the month, I think I would have gotten most if not all of them, without sacrificing my sightings in Western Washington where I spent all but one of the first days of that first week. I say this because it soon became apparent to me that although species were shown as being seen in previous Septembers, often the majority of those observations were very early in the month. I also learned that unlike in the spring when birds are more active and vocal, such is not the case in the fall and even if birds were present, finding them was much more challenging. I am certain for example that there were Cassin’s Finches and Cassin’s Vireos in several places I visited, but without their calls and songs, I missed them. I could have changed my approach (including doing more birding with others to take advantage of additional eyes and ears to pick up that much more limited activity and vocalization.

So much for philosophy and approach. You know the results in general. Following blog posts will be specific as to place and time, species seen and missed and adventures experienced. Lots of photos too.