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%.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.