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.

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