The Best Week of Birding I Will Never Have

Birding Without Constraints – Awesome Baby!!

Posted on  by blairbirding

Birding has been very limited, and not all that successful, lately – nothing of note to justify a blog post, but I really want to write something.  So I have created a fantasy solution. Let’s pretend that we are not constrained by anything. Without constraints just imagine the birds we could see in a Greatest Week of Birding EVER!!! No Coronavirus. No monetary limits. No travel troubles. No equipment failures. An ability to be in distant places within moments of each other. No failed GPS. And importantly every bird cooperates and is not only where it is supposed to be but is also out in the open – easy to find and easy to photograph. Well there is one constraint for this fantasy adventure: each bird has to have been reported on Ebird by someone during an actual week of birding. Oh the possibilities…

I have already written about Lifers I have not been able to chase in Arizona; some are still there and some are gone. But there have been a lot of other great observations this past week. This would be my story if indeed there were no constraints and I chased all the ABA Lifers (and ABA photo lifers) and found them all. THE BEST WEEK OF BIRDING I WILL NEVER HAVE – and neither will anyone else. Remember NO CONSTRAINTS…

I start in Southeastern Arizona, finding those Arizona rarities I wrote about before. First there is the Eared Quetzal in Cochise. A beautiful male and a bonus, a female too.

Eared Quetzal

Eared Quetal

At the Casa de San Pedro B&B I easily locate and photograph the Ruddy Ground Dove that has been hanging around.

Ruddy Ground Dove

Ruddy Ground Dove

I make a quick stop at Beatty’s Guest Ranch and get that lifer White-Eared Hummingbird that eluded me on earlier Arizona trips.

White-Eared Hummingbird

White Eared Hummingbird - Tammy

Next is the Northern Jacana that will be an ABA Photo Lifer.  Not the juvenile that was seen earlier – now an adult at the Santa Cruz River in Pima.  Sure wish I had been taking pictures when I had one at Maner Lake in Texas in April 1978.

Northern Jacana (Ebird Photo by Victor Stoll)

Northern Jacana Vctor and Ruben Stoll

Too bad the Berylline Hummingbird is no longer around.   Just as I get ready to head over to Santa Barbara in California to find the Curlew Sandpiper which I need since I could not get up to British Columbia earlier this year, I learn that a European Golden Plover is being seen at Maxwell NWR in New Mexico.  No constraints remember so I am instantly there and Wow, there it is!!  The white underwings confirm the ID.

European Golden Plover (Ebird Photo by Laura Keene)

European Golden Plover Laura Keene

I have lost track of time but then recall that time does not matter on this adventure so I still make it to Santa Barbara and among the many shorebirds one has this definite downslope to its bill and I can see the white rump.  I can now check off a Curlew Sandpiper.

Curlew Sandpiper (Ebird Photo by Sochetra Ly)

Curlew Sandpiper Sochetra Ly

Now I get word that there is a Yellow Green Vireo at Doyle Park in San Diego, so I continue south to look for it.  Oh if only it were this easy in real life.  Other birders are there looking at something that must be my bird.  One asks if I would like to see “the Vireo“.  Why yes, I would.  Positioned at about 9 o’clock in the tree in front of us I see movement then some yellow and some green and that prominent eye stripe.  I almost went after this species earlier when one was seen in Texas but plans changed.  Now, finally, it is on my ABA Life list!!

Yellow Green Vireo (Ebird photo by Benny Jacobs-Schwartz)

Benny-Jacobs Scwhartz Yellow Green Vireo

Even with the real world time and travel constraints, over several days it might have been possible to see all of those birds with good luck.  Now I am really going to push it because a Great Skua has been reported off the coast of Newfoundland and VOILA!! I am instantly several thousand miles away on a survey boat and a species that was possible on our North Carolina pelagic trip is just off the bow.  My ABA Life List now has the Skua Slam plus one.

Great Skua – Ebird photo by Detchevery Joel

Great Skua Detchevery Joel (2)

This is exciting!!  And now being on the East Coast I think I will head south to Florida because that American Flamingo is still around and while I saw one many years ago, just like the Jacana, I need a photo and there is also a chance for a Red Legged Thrush which was found at the Key West Botanical Garden – which is surprisingly not on Key West but rather the adjoining Stock Island.  This is the first super rare thrush I could add to my list that was not seen in British Columbia where I have seen Dusky Thrush, Redwing and Fieldfare.  Never thought I would see this one.  But first I go for the Flamingo at St. Marks NWR at Wakulla – Mound Pool No.1 where it is just impossible to miss.  Not a great photo but good enough. Then an immediate change of location to the Key West Botanical Garden and the Red Legged Thrush is mine as well.

American Flamingo – Ebird Photo by Sean McCool

American Flamingo Sean McCool (2)

Red Legged ThrushEbird Photo by Mark Songer

Red Legged Thrush Mark Songer (2)

And there being no constraints, there is a chance to add another rare thrush as well.  A mega rarity Song Thrush is at Barrow, Alaska.  Fortunately 5,000 miles is no more challenging than 5 miles in this fantasy birding adventure without constraints.  There is snow on the ground in Barrow, so I conjure up some appropriate clothing as well just right for the Naval Arctic Research Lab on the North Slope.  It is not a very colorful bird but there was that bright orange underwing confirms the Song Thrush identity.  Wow!!

Song Thrush – Ebird Photo by Tyler Ficker

Song Thrush Tyler Ficker

One more opportunity as I can chase another bird I almost chased earlier – a Hook Billed Kite in Texas. By the magic of no constraints I am there. I see it. I tick it off the list and that’s it. The fantasy is over.

Hook Billed Kite

Well it has been quite a week.  A dozen phenomenal birds from every corner of the continent.  Ten ABA Lifers plus two more ABA Life Photos.  None of it is real and I may never see any of those birds – hell if we don’t get this virus under control, I may never add any new birds to my life lists.  But these species were all seen by adventurous birders in the previous week and that is always the case as there are always new birds to see and new places to go.  I will be happy to see any of these birds someday and am happy for everyone who has shared their experiences by reporting on Ebird for the rest of us.

I also think about the true Big Year Birders who when given the real life opportunity to try for these birds in distant and remote places with time constraints, travel challenges and enormous monetary needs actually go for most if not all of them and many times succeed.  Awesome accomplishments.  Amazing!!

Random – Memories to Lift the Clouds

2020 as representing the calendar year and 20 20 as representing perfect vision could not be more different as nothing seems to be clear at all in the year 2020 with the Covid-19 Pandemic raging and the buffoon in the White House and his cultish sycophants making a mockery of every institution and value that I had believed were the foundations of our country.  I have NOT contracted the virus and so far nobody I know has been hospitalized.  Similarly nobody I know has been directly affected by the police brutality and ensuing demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and violence that have followed.  So I really have no right to complain – at least comparatively.

But it is now September and looking back there have been six months of constrained activities and travel and political unrest that have made this year quite awful.  Looking forward, it is two months of ugliness until what will be the most important  election in our history and probably chaos afterwards regardless of the victor as the foundation is laid for discrediting the vote and challenging the result.  Birding has always been my escape from troubles – finding solace in the beautiful places, wonderful people and the birds themselves that are part of this passion.  Not so this year.  Birding friends are on their own as am I and the thrill of the chase is just not compelling.

I birded exactly three times in August – a pelagic trip on August 1st and two brief visits to Eide Road and Fir Island.  My August list was 60 species – exactly half on the pelagic trip and half on the other visits.  It is significantly lower than my usual counts and compares for example to 247 species in August 2017.   Unlike in other years, there was just no drive and/or ability to chase rarities – of which there were many in Washington and especially in Arizona where up to 6 life birds were possibilities.  More importantly, there was no relief from the malaise that has set in – much gray despite the many sunny days.  I usually average at least 2 or 3 blog posts a month.  Writing them is enjoyable and cathartic, reinforcement of good times.  My last post regarding birds recently seen was almost two months ago describing my glass as less than half empty and more than half full.  Today the relationship that underscored that calculation remains strong so if the glass is my life, the assessment still holds, but my birding glass and my writing glass are losing volume every day – not quite empty but trending that way.

Maybe I will be able to bird somewhere in the next week which may help.  With no current birding to write about, today I sat down to write something – anything to engage the positive memories and some joy and appreciation – something to lift my spirits.  These are just random recollections, written about before, remembered today.  Ten really good times before the two existential threats of a pandemic and a would be monarch darkened our world – ten reminders of the joys of birding.

But first I need to at least show the “missed” Arizona opportunities to get them out of my system adding Plain Capped Starthroat, Ruddy Ground Dove to the Berylline and White Eared Hummingbirds, Eared Quetzal, Common Crane, Buff Collared Nightjar, Crescent Chested Warbler and Flame Colored Tanager that I whined about missing in my earlier Blog Post about my half full glass.

Plain Capped Starthroat

Plain Capped Starthroat - Filemyr

Ruddy Ground Dove

Ruddy Ground Dove

OK so much for birds not seen.  There may never again be a time to have a chance for 5+ ABA lifers in one place and there have been 9 in Arizona this summer, but then again there is always next year – assuming there is no civil war going on.

While I cannot say that the following ten experiences are my best ever, they certainly are among the best for a combination of great birds (or animals) or places or events.  They are in chronological order starting with the Harpy Eagle nest and chick seen on my trip to Brazil in 2005. I worked with a tour company but did the trip on my own.  I had a guide only for two days at Cristallino in the Amazon and not all of my time was spent birding as I enjoyed time in Rio, at Iguassu Falls, the Pantanal and the Amazon.  All told I saw 273 species including many spectacular birds.  More than half were at Cristallino and 69 were in the Pantanal.  Among the best birds were 6 Aracaris and Toucans, 19 parrot like birds including Hyacinth Macaws, 17 Antbirds, 5 Trogons, 16 waders, 2 Tinamou species, a Sungrebe and 14 raptors including my favorite for the trip and one of my favorite stories.

To get to Cristallino, I flew first from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, and from there to Alta Floresta and then by boat to the Lodge.  While waiting for the boat I met a tour group led by a famous Brazilian guide.  While he was regaling his group in the building I walked around looking for birds.  Unbeknownst to me there was a Harpy Eagle nest up one of the trails.  I found it in shock and it was occupied by a mother and chick.  I raced in to tell the others and blew his story as he was just about to lead the group to see one of the most sought after of Amazonian birds.

Harpy Eagle – Amazon – September 5, 2005

Harpy Chick AF Hotel

I chronicled a favorite memory of my trip to Kenya in “The Circle of Life” blog which I published on October 4, 2016.  [See https://blairbirding.com/2018/08/06/keen-on-kenya/%5D,   That post included some birds but was primarily about “my father’s leopard”, a magical emotional encounter with this beautiful animal at Samburu National Park in November 2007 – perhaps a “gift” to me from my father who had passed away three months earlier.  That will always be the best moment of that trip, but there were many more.  We had been watching a Lilac Breasted Roller by the Samburu River when for some reason I turned and looked out the back of our jeep and saw a Leopard, the first of our trip.  We forgot the Roller and followed the Leopard which sprawled on a tree right before us.  My father’s last words to me before he died were to say hello to a leopard in Africa for him.  I did – through my tears.

Lilac Breasted Roller/Leopard – Samburu. Kenya – November 1, 2007

lilac-breasted-roller-2

In 2011 I was scheduled to have my first “major” surgery, a complete replacement of my right shoulder.  Hoping for the best but being aware that there were always risks, I decided to do the top thing on my bucket list – just in case the surgery did not go well.  That was seeing a Bengal Tiger in India.  I signed on for a trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (the same group I joined in Kenya) that promised Birds, Tigers and the Taj Mahal.  The birds were great and the Taj Mahal remains one of my all time favorites, but nothing was better than watching a Tiger stalking a deer at Kalindi Kinj Park

Bengal Tiger – January 5, 2011 – Kalindi Kinj Park – India

tiger4r

The shoulder surgery actually did not go well and I had to have it redone in 2012.  That was the first year I truly chased birds for my Washington State List.  The following year after a good start in January and February, I decided to do a State “Big Year”.  There were many great birds that year but my favorite for sure was the Lesser Sand Plover.   This species used to be called a Mongolian Plover.  I had seen my first one in Washington on September 1, 2013 – a drab bird not in breeding plumage.  I had seen my first one in the world on the Esplanade in Cairns, Australia in September 2003 – a place where this Australasian species is regular.  I discovered the bird featured here on a Audubon field trip that I was co-leading with Tim Boyer.  We were driving on the open beach near the casino and were seeing numerous Semipalmated Plovers in casual water that had collected in little ponds in the sand.  As we sped past one of these ponds I spied a small plover with the distinctly orange-rufous chest marking of the Lesser Sand Plover.  I stopped the car and jumped out without even turning off the motor and leaving my passengers quite stunned.  The Plover was very cooperative and posed for photos.  Best yet, it remained for another week and many people attending the WOS Conference the following week also got to see this little gem.

Lesser Sand Plover – Ocean Shores – September 1, 2013

Lesser Sand Plover 5

The best way to add to a “getting longer” ABA Life List is to get to Western Alaska if you have not already been there.  I had not, so I jumped at a chance to join John Puschock and his Zugunruhe Tour Company on a trip to Adak Island with an extension to Nome in 2016.  The visit included land birding on Adak and then a 3 day pelagic trip from Adak.  Closing was a three day visit to Nome.

Great birds on and around Adak included Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Aleutian Tern, Far Eastern Curlew, Rock Ptarmigan and Common Snipe before we took off on the Puk Puk for our offshore adventure and then a Hawfinch when we returned.  As an interesting aside, the great group of birders included Neil Hayward who then held the ABA Big Year record and Olaf Danielson who was on a quest to set a new record.  He ended up beating Neal’s mark but was outdone by John Weigel that same year.

A main quest for the pelagic trip was Short Tailed Albatross.  Unfortunately we found only one – a juvenile who was seen with a Laysan Albatross very near our boat giving me the chance for the striking photo below.  It is pretty hard to make a Laysan Albatross seem small but the Short Tailed did it.  Other lifers for me were Red Legged Kittiwake, and Crested, Least and Whiskered Auklets.

Later on three marvelous days in Nome, I added Gray Cheeked Thrush, Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, Bristle Thighed Curlew, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Willow Ptarmigan and Spectacled Eider.  Thus there were 17 Lifers on the trip.  [See below for an even larger addition in Florida the next year.]

Alaska – Adak – Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses – May 31, 2016

Short Tailed and Laysan Albatrosses

Mt peregrinations for my 50/50/50 Adventure took me to every state and to many very special places and had many special birds.  In May I had the chance to visit Magee Marsh for the first time.  No lifers there but many lifer photos including a stunning Connecticut Warbler.  New (and continuing) girlfriend, Cindy Bailey met me at Magee and then we went north to the Tawas birding festival in Tawas, Michigan.  I was able to find my 50 species in a day there and on a great morning field trip added the endangered and iconic Kirtland’s Warbler.  It was a very fun visit and the warblers at Tawas in the afternoon were even more cooperative if less numerous than the ones at Magee.

The next day we visited an area in Southeastern Michigan, where we had a chance for another lifer – a Henslow’s Sparrow.  We flushed one and never found it again partially because our visit was shortened by quickly arriving heavy rains accompanied by a very loud siren.  At first we had no idea why there was a siren screaming at us.  When we realized it was a tornado warning, we wondered if we were safer staying put or heading off – possibly into the danger zone.  We never saw a funnel and were glad we did not.  It made for a memorable birding adventure though – even without another chance to refind the Henslow’s.

Kirtland’s Warbler – May 18, 2019 – Tawas MI

Kirtland's Warbler1

Florida in 2017 was a great visit with Edmonds friend Frank Caruso hooking up with Paul Bithorn, a guide out of Miami that Ann Marie Wood spoke highly of.  We would combine private guiding by Paul with a three day trip to the Keys and the Dry Tortugas with the Tropical Audubon Society.  For me it was a chance not only to add some ABA Lifers but also to get photos of Florida specialties that I had seen on visits to Florida in the 1970’s when I was not taking pictures.

The birding was excellent and both life photos and ABA Life birds were many.  Starting with a Spot Breasted Oriole and concluding with a Red Cockaded Woodpecker, I added 21 ABA Lifers and almost 40 life photos. 

It was not a Life Bird I had a Life Photo from the previous day, but it was certainly right up there with my favorite photos and experiences ever.  We had seen a couple of Swallow Tailed Kites earlier but on April 27th, while in the Everglades, two put on a great aerial show, with one within ten feet of us on several swoops.  I took many photos and would have had even more except the Kite was so close, I could not focus the camera on it.  Exhilarating moment.

Swallow Tailed Kite – Everglades – April 27, 2017

White Tailed Kite 4

At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of August 31st, the following post appeared on “Tweeters” – the main birder communication site in Washington: “There’s a Swallow Tailed Gull at Carkeek Park now w(ith) California Gulls!!!”  I was in my pajamas in Bellevue figuring out details for the remainder of the day that was going to include some dog sitting, checking out the mail at my condo in Edmonds and more steps to get rid of way too much stuff filling a storage unit.  The post was from Ryan Merrill.  Had it been from anyone else, I would have dismissed it as a joke, a mistake, a very late April Fools prank, but this was from Ryan – as good as there is and as caring and sharing as there is.  Rule #1 for any chase is “GO NOW!!!!!!!”

I was dressed and out the door within 5 minutes – out into the drizzle and hoping that the traffic would not be too bad and of course that the gull would remain.  Oddly I had just read something about Swallow Tailed Gulls a few days earlier when I was online looking up info about Swallow Tailed Kites and Google had pulled up the Gull before I finished entering the full inquiry.  Wait – had I misread the post – was it a Swallow Tailed Kite – still extraordinary and cause for a mad dash – but at least more plausible than a Swallow Tailed Gull which belongs in the Galapagos?

Clearly this was going to be an incredible day – there was NO TRAFFIC – almost as rare in Seattle as – well as a Swallow Tailed Gull.  I called Edmonds birding friends Steve Pink, Ann Marie Wood and Jon Houghton and broke the news to them.  None of them had seen Ryan’s post.  All would join later.  I was at Carkeek Park by 7:30 and down on the beach across the railroad track I could see 4 birders looking at a flock of gulls gathered on the beach.  They were not disinterestedly just looking about.  They were looking at the gulls and I was then sure they were also looking at THE GULL.  And one of them was Ryan Merrill.  I joined them as fast as I could and as I approached they smiled and invited me to look into the scope and at – yes the Swallow Tailed Gull. WOW!!  And that was a word that would be repeated many times over the next two hours as others would join the group.  There it was – a beautiful unbelievable Swallow Tailed Gull in a group of 100+ other gulls.  It was in adult plumage – dark head, white tipped dark bill, red around the eye – black and white patterned wings, white spot at the base of the bill, and of course – a swallow tail.  Way beyond WOW!!!

The Gull stayed in the area for over a week making some notable stops in my hometown of Edmonds where I was happy to meet birding friend Deb Essman from Ellensburg.  For Deb to come across the mountains was a big deal.  This was a BIG DEAL and she joined perhaps 1000 people from all over the world that came to see this beauty.

Swallow Tailed Gull – August 31, 2017 – Carkeek Park, Sept 8 2017

Swallow Tailed Gull 3

Arkansas was the last state in my 50/50/50 adventure – finding 50 species on single days (50 of them) in each of the 50 states.  With the expert guidance and company of Vivek Govind Kumar, we found more than 70 species with the best of them being many LeConte’s Sparrows (and even more Swamp Sparrows) at Woolsey Wet Prairie.  There were also many Sedge Wrens.  At first Vivek would find a LeConte’s only to have it pop up briefly and then disappear – no photo.  Finally a few cooperated resulting in the photo below.

My Lifer LeConte’s Sparrow was a very unlikely one at Discovery Park in Seattle.  I had raced down there after a posting on Tweeters our birding listserv.  It is not my favorite place to bird as it is very large and I am not familiar with landmarks.  Somehow I had found the right area.  Several birders were spread out and I got lucky and found the skulking sparrow in some shrubs and even got a few nice photos.

The LeConte’s in Arkansas was my only one actually seen in the 50 state saga and I have to include it as representing the successful conclusion of my 50 state quest.

LeConte’s Sparrow – Woolsey Wet Prairie, Arkansas, November 9, 2019

LeConte's SparrowR

My last “cloud lifter” was the “wild Kingdom” or Disney story of the Ross’s Gull at the Seattle Arboretum in December last year.  The Ross’s Gull is a sacred iconic rarity in ABA birding – generally found only in the north of Alaska or Canada.  It rarely makes an appearance in the lower 48 and always draws a crowd when it does.  I had been one of the many Washington birders that was able to see the Ross’s Gull that Charlie Wright found at Palmer lake in December 2011.  That after a long fast drive through the snow to get there with 3 others.

The saga of the Arboretum Ross’s is detailed in an earlier post [https://blairbirding.com/2019/12/02/two-extraordinary-days-featuring-a-ross’s-gull-and-a-mountain-plover/].  It was another mad dash after a posting on Tweeters.  Fortunately I guessed the right path to take me to spot where maybe 20 birders were already looking at the mega rarity sitting on a platform.  Unfortunately after maybe a half hour the gull left the platform and was almost immediately taken by a Bald Eagle as soon as it hit the water.  We watched in horror as it was killed and eaten.  Many birders arrived too late to see anything but feathers plucked by the Eagle.

Although I had not planned it this way when I chose the Eagle killed Ross’s Gull as the last of these random moments, but an experience yesterday (September 9th) confirms it as a good choice.  While up at Eide Road searching for (and not finding) a Stilt Sandpiper, a single immature Ring Billed Gull was out on the large mudflat.  Suddenly it had company as a Peregrine Falcon zoomed in and grabbed it in its talons.  A few seconds of struggle and the gull became breakfast.  A couple of Great Blue Herons flew in considering whether to challenge the falcon.  They did not.  But a few minutes later a Red Tailed Hawk did so and the Peregrine left the carcass.  It repeatedly attacked diving at the hawk which stood its ground.  Another natural drama between a gull and a raptor with the same result.

Ross’s Gull – December 21, 2011 – Palmer Lake – December 1, 2019 – Arboretum

Ross's Gull 2

Please Wear A Mask

Keep at least six feet apart.  Avoid crowds.  Wash hands often and thoroughly.  Most importantly WEAR A MASK!!  So simple but with a narcissistic sociopath in the White House who is incapable of recognizing the feelings of others and who politicizes everything, far too many people do not accept the science of prevention or care not about others and within the next few days, more than 150,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19.  Thousands of deaths could have been avoided.

To recognize the importance of the MASK, this post recalls my experiences with masks in the avian world and also wishes for some others – just as I wish that we could bond together and simply put on our masks for all of humanity.  (I include only the species which begin with “masked”.)

My first “masked” bird was a Masked Booby, one of many seen on Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas on April 29 1978.  The next Masked Boobies I saw were at the very same place exactly 39 years later on April 29, 2017.  The first two photos are from that second visit – some of the more than 50 individuals seen.  This species is regularly seen there.  It is far less common in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego where I saw one on August 19, 2018.

Masked Boobies – Loggerhead Key, Florida – April 29, 2017

Masked Booby

Masked Boobies

Masked Booby – San Diego Pelagic – August 19, 2018

Masked Booby2

In April 1997, I visited Costa Rica with my family and at the Tiskita Jungle Lodge, I added Masked Tityra to my world list.  I would see this species again in 2005 in Brazil, 2010 in Belize and 2013 in Peru.

Masked Tityra

Masked Tityra

In 2003 I was able to visit Australia and on September 8th found my lifer Masked Lapwing at Toowomba.

Masked Lapwing

Masked Lapwing

In 2013 I traveled to Peru and added three more masked birds to my World List: a Masked Yellowthroat on November 4, 2013 and then a Masked Flowerpiercer and a Masked Trogon on November 13, 2013.

Masked Yellowthroat – Photo by Mariano Ordonez

Masked Yellowthroat

Masked Flowerpiercer – Photo by Andres Vasquez

Masked Flowerpiercer

Masked Trogon – Photo by Nigel Voaden

Masked Trogon

So my life list of “masked” birds stands at 6.  The Clements Checklist of World Birds includes 24 such species.  I guess I have a long way to go.  But until I get there, I will simply list them here and thank them for “wearing” their masks.

Masked Antpitta Masked Finfoot Masked Saltator
Masked Apalis Masked Flowerpiercer Masked Shining-Parrot
Masked Booby Masked Fruiteater Masked Shrike
Masked Bowerbird Masked Gnatcatcher Masked Tanager
Masked Cardinal Masked Lapwing Masked Tityra
Masked Crimson Tanager Masked Lark Masked Trogon
Masked Duck Masked Laughingthrush Masked Water-Tyrant
Masked Finch Masked Mountain-Tanager Masked Woodswallow

Many of these birds are spectacular and I would love to add them to my world list of observations and maybe even get a photo.  Hopefully I will not have to wear a mask when/if I do.  But if so, I would certainly do so.  Here are three examples.

Masked Bowerbird

Masked Bowerbird

Masked Crimson Tanager

Masked Crimson Tanager

Masked Finfoot

Masked Finfoot

My masked mania will end with the one “masked” bird that is at least a possibility in the ABA area – a Masked Duck – maybe in Texas some day.

Masked Duck

Masked Duck

If these guys can do it with their simple “bird brains”, we all can.  Do it for yourself, your friends, families and all of humanity.  “PLEASE, WEAR A MASK!”

My Glass – Less than Half Empty and More than Half Full

It is pretty hard to feel sad on a day when you see at least 25 Tufted Puffins, but there were moments yesterday when I did.  Of course it is pretty hard to feel anything but sad when the Coronavirus still rages and Donald Trump is still President.  I forgot about both of those disasters for a while yesterday as the San Juan Cruises “Puffin Tour” left Bellingham Harbor and headed South towards Smith Island.  In years past I have usually looked for Tufted Puffins on an evening cruise out of Sequim headed for Destruction Island, but the numbers of puffins there has seemed to decrease each year and I wanted to try something new.

Besides there have been a number of reports of a Horned Puffin seen near Smith Island this year and apparently one has been found there on some trips in the last few years as well.  Tufted Puffins breed on Smith Island and a few other islands in Washington and are often seen on pelagic trips, but Horned Puffins are very rare south of Alaska, so an opportunity to see one in Washington (I have seen one at Neah Bay in addition to several in Alaska) is taken seriously.   Before signing on I confirmed that the cruise operator was taking COVID-19 seriously, and being comfortable with that, I drove up to Bellingham early on July 3rd stopping first at Eide Road to twitch the Black Necked Stilt that was found there the previous day by Pam Myers.  I found it immediately upon arriving but also found gray skies and some rain, so was it a good omen or not?  As rain increased as I approached Bellingham, I was leaning towards “Not”.

But our boat was large, comfortable and sheltered and the rain was diminishing so no worries.  I will not go into all the details almost all of which were positive.  Very smooth seas, almost no wind, cool but not cold and very light rain.  Passengers ranged from serious birders to casual birders to not birders at all but up to see puffins and eagles and whatever else.  It was a good omen that a Black Oystercatcher flew over us as we waited to board the vessel.

The voyage down to Smith Island was a little longer than I would have preferred and there were not all that many birds along the way:  some Rhinoceros Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, a few Marbled Murrelets, a single Common Murre and a few gulls.  At some smaller islands and at Bird Rock we saw more Auklets and Murrelets and many cormorants (three species) and Glaucous Winged Gulls.  There were also some Harlequin Ducks, a few Black Turnstones, several Bald Eagles and a few Black Oystercatchers.  Many of the small islands serve as “haul outs” for Harbor Seals and we saw small pups at many spots.

Marbled Murrelets

Marbled Murrelets

Pigeon Guillemots

Pigeon Guillemots

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Harbor Seal Mom and Pup

Mom and Pup

Finally, we arrived at our targeted destination – just as the sun somewhat broke through the clouds and the rain disappeared.  With Minor Island and surrounding waters, Smith Island forms the 36,308 acre Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve. It is the largest such reserve owned by the Department of Natural Resources in Washington and also has the largest Bull Kelp bed in the state.  The kelp bed is home to many fish and other marine wildlife that coupled with the right soil conditions on Smith Island that enables burrowing supports breeding by both Rhinoceros Auklets and Tufted Puffins.  The Auklets were numerous and it did not take long to find our first Tufted Puffin.

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet2

We spent a good hour exploring the rich waters in the Reserve.  We observed more than 100 Rhinoceros Auklets and maybe as many as 30 Tufted Puffins.   Light was not great and we never got up close and personal but with the aid of a nice telephoto lens and lots of opportunities, Puffin pictures were not too bad.  Unfortunately every time I saw one in flight, it was either very distant or flying away from me.  We saw many Puffins diving and in flight but never observed any returning to burrows where assuredly there are young.

Tufted Puffins

Three Puffins
Two Puffins Left1
Tufted Puffin1

The house of the former lighthouse attendant on Smith Island has been abandoned but now provides a perching spot for Bald Eagles.  In this photo the burrows for the Tufted Puffins and Rhinoceros Auklets are clearly visible.  The softer soil layer is relatively thin, but the burrows can extend 8 or more feet back horizontally protection from predation of the eggs and chicks by the eagles and gulls.  Puffins live for 25 years or more and males and females partner “for life”, but the naturalist onboard said that females have been observed mating with more than one male.  We did not learn if the reverse was also true.

Burrows Below the Abandoned House

Seabird Burrows

Unfortunately, although we searched diligently, the Horned Puffin was not found.  Disappointing but we were very pleased with what we saw.  I especially liked the several Tufted Puffins we saw with bill full of fish.  There are rear facing “hooks” on the bills that enable them to hold several fish at once.  They fill up and then take the fish to their chick in the burrow.  They have only a single young in each brood, one reason that once a population starts to fall, the fall can be rapid.  It just takes too long to replenish their numbers.

Tufted Puffin with Fish

Tufted Puffin with Fish1

On the return trip back to Bellingham, we spotted a single Sea Otter.  There used to be a significant population in Puget Sound but then they almost entirely disappeared.  It is believed they may be making a comeback.  This was the first one seen by the captain and crew in four years.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

Back to Bellingham and then 90 minutes home to Edmonds.  The Tufted Puffin was a first record for the year and the Black Necked Stilt was a first ever for me in Snohomish County – species #255.  This concludes the part of my birding glass being “half full”.  Now for the”half empty”.  We can start with the failure to find the Horned Puffin.  Not only would it have been a very special state bird for 2020, it is also a beautiful bird – so double missed.  I can only blame this on bad luck as we were certainly in the right place but just apparently at the wrong time.

Horned Puffin (from Alaska in 2016)

horned-puffin1 (2)

The rest of the emptiness is blamed on that enemy of us all, COVID-19.  I have had several trips canceled by the virus.  One to South Florida and Cuba, one to Texas and one to Southeastern Arizona.  Missing Cuba with Cindy was a stinging blow in many ways, not the least of which was that we paid for the whole trip and have nothing to show for it except for a significant credit with Alaska Airlines and a “maybe later” from our tour operator.  There also would have been some great birds there – especially the Bee Hummingbird and the Cuban Tody.  Probably no lifers in Florida but a chance for a couple of new ABA life photos.  Some life photos were possible in Texas as well but the real target was a lifer Colima Warbler.

Bee Hummingbird – Ebird Photo

Bee_Humming_Bird

Cuban Tody – Ebird Photo

BIRDNOTE_Cuabn_tody_1

Colima Warbler – Greg Lavaty

Colima Warbler

Arizona is a bit more complicated.  Cindy and I were going to visit friends for a couple of days and then bird in Southeast Arizona with a well known guide.  There was a chance for a couple of new ABA lifers.  But that trip was lost.  As airlines modified their approaches to deal with COVID-19, and as some really terrific birds showed up in Arizona, I looked into rescheduling at least my birding part of that trip.  Some “expert” advice said it would be safe.  Great birds, ABA lifers all, were being seen, including by friends who had made the trip:  White Eared and Berylline Hummingbirds, Buff Collared Nightjar, Common Crane, Flame Colored Tanager, Crescent Chested Warbler and best of all an Eared Quetzal.  If I spent 3 or 4 days in Arizona, I had a good chance of seeing at most of them – by far the single biggest one trip opportunity to add to my ABA Life List short of a trip to remote western Alaska.

But the powerful evil pairing of COVID-19 and Donald Trump made the trip just too dangerous.  Due in large measure to the complete ineptitude and deceitfulness of Trump, his administration and his allies, many states either failed to put protective measures in place or reopened far too early and COVID-19 cases soared with Arizona being one of the worst offenders.  Always a hotspot for birding, it was now a hotspot for the virus with record setting levels of new cases and hospitalizations daily.  Just far too dangerous to fly into either Tucson or Phoenix and then find lodging where the birds are.  Opportunity lost.  Glass half empty.  Vicarious enjoyment only.  Here are photos of the “lost lifers”.

White Eared Hummingbirds – Photo by Tammy MacQuade

White Eared Hummingbird Tammy Macquade

Berylline Hummingbird – Photo by Laura Keene

Berylline Hummingbird Laura Keene

Buff Collared Nightjar – Ebird Photo

Buff Collared Nightjar

Common Crane – Photo by Carl Haynie

Common Crane Carl Haynie

Flame Colored Tanager – Carlos Sanchez

Flame Colored TAnager

Crescent Chested Warbler – Yve  Morell

Crescent Chested Warbler - Yve Morell

Eared Quetzal – Richard Fray

Eared Quetzal

I am often brought almost to tears by the horror stories of those who have suffered from COVID-19 and of the far too many people have died.  And almost daily I am nearly brought to tears by the endless cruelties, stupidities and transgressions of Donald Trump.  Yes, I am saddened by the trips not taken and the birds not found and the friends not seen that have resulted from the disease and its incompetent handling by our disgraceful President and his sycophantic followers.  But while that glass may be somewhat emptier in those losses, it is so much fuller than those of many others and good health in lovely Edmonds with my dear Cindy and with the many birds I still have been able to see in Washington sustain me.  There are no tears for the losses.  There are many smiles for all that I have.

A Khanh Tran Kind of Day…

His owl sightings, photos, discoveries and frankly anything else having to do with owls is remarkable, amazing and downright hard to fathom.  How does he do it?   Great Grays, Western Screech, Flammulated, Long and Short Eared, Saw Whets and Pygmys and even Northern Spotted Owls and Hawk Owls.  He knows their haunts, their habits, where to find them and how to photograph them.  He is the Owl Whisperer.  Owls are among the most sought after birds everywhere.  We all want to see them.  We struggle.  We try and when we succeed at all, we are thrilled.  Especially for some of these beauties, far too often, there is no success, no visual, no photo, not even a “heard only”.  It seems that Khanh never misses.  And there are not just pictures; there are photographs, beautiful works of art.

Khanh Tran

Khanh Tran

It would be so easy to hate someone like this.  Each photo reminding us of our failures.  But, he is also a good guy.  Funny, engaging.  Heck, he’s even cute.  Not fair.  Not even close to fair.  I considered myself greatly fortunate to have photographs, well at least pictures, of every owl in Washington – except Boreal and Flammulated Owls.  I have seen a Boreal Owl once – deep in the trees at Mount Rainier.  It would not come closer.  At best it was a glimpse, hardly even “a look”.  Even a poor picture was not possible.  I saw a shadow of one once – at Salmo Mountain late at night with snow on the road and more frosting the trees.  Maybe it was a shadow or maybe it was just a spiritual presence in that very remote, beautiful and serene part of our State.  But its hoots were real.

At noon at the top of Bethel Ridge several of us heard a Flammulated Owl calling.  A creature of the dark night, this never happens.  But I have witnesses.  It called for more than 15 minutes, never visible to any of us, until it burst out of the tree, flew almost over our heads and then disappeared.  Little bastard!!  I had a brief visual on another occasion – at night – but could not find it after it perched who knows where.  I have heard maybe 20 Flammulated Owls in Washington and last year with the aid of Tim Avery finally got a photo in Utah.

Khanh Tran routinely finds, sees and photographs both Boreal and Flammulated Owls.  But I have no hate, just envy and admiration and a fantasy of having a day, even just a single day, when I could whisper to the owls and have them appear before me like they do – always do for Khan Tran.  A single Khanh Tran kind of day.  Just one.  Please…

Well, it happened.  No Flammulated Owls and no Boreal Owls but yesterday (June 22) I found SEVEN Burrowing Owls!!  Not nearly as rare as Boreal and Flammulated Owls but hey they are much cuter!!  And some of my pictures just may be good enough to be called “photographs”, but you will be the judge of that.  If not quality, definitely there is quantity.  Here’s what happened on my Khan Tran kind of day.

Last week on the way home from a wonderful visit to Sunriver, Cindy and I stopped at the High Desert Museum.  Lots of good exhibits even with limits imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions.  Pretty hard to beat the photogenic River Otters at feeding time, but at the very end, we enjoyed the Burrowing Owl exhibit and I got a very fun photo even though the owl was behind glass.  Maybe it was an omen.  (Whoa!!  Maybe Khan was sending a message – hey, he lives in Oregon after all.)

River Otters – High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon

River Otter

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Oregon

So on Monday I decided to go looking for a Burrowing Owl in Washington.  It would be my first of the year and I have seen them every year since 2011 so it would be the tenth year in a row.  Recent reports have been from the area near Hatchery Road and Rocky Ford in Grant County, a place I had seen them in April last year, so that would be my target area.  So the plan was an early start, a first stop at Bullfrog Pond near Cle Elum and then to owl country.

The birds were as expected at Bullfrog Pond and neighboring Wood Duck Road.  Veeries were calling everywhere and I had five warbler species: Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Yellow, Wilson’s and Common Yellowthroat.  No pictures of them worth sharing.  Better photos were of a family of young Western Bluebirds and some Cassin’s Finches from Wood Duck Road.

Young Western Bluebirds

Two Western Bluebirds

Baby Bluebird

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch

I had seen 40 species by the time I reached Ellensburg, the sun was out and the temperature was up more than 25 degrees from the time I arrived at Bullfrog and was now a comfortable 63 degrees.  It got warmer as I continued East.  I was relying on my phone’s GPS to take me to the spot on Hatchery Road where Ebird reports said 2 Burrowing Owls had been seen two days earlier.  It chose a route that was not what I expected and it took me onto Road 9 near Soap Lake.  There were many Western Meadowlarks and Western Kingbirds usually on the telephone wires.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird2

Just before reaching Dodson Road as I was speeding down Road 9, my eye noticed something on the wire that was not a Meadowlark or Kingbird.  It looked like an owl but I had never seen one perched on a wire that far off the ground.  I made a quick U-turn and was under “it” and the “it” was indeed an owl, my first Burrowing Owl of the day and of 2020.  I watched it for several minutes remaining in my car as a blind.  Picture, picture, picture.  It then flew to the ground and there were more pictures.  It flew off…and disappeared with me thinking it had flown into a culvert – perhaps its nest burrow.  I was still miles away from the “target area” and I had found my target already.  I was a happy camper, indeed.

Burrowing Owl – Road 9

BUOW1.4

BUOW1.5

I gave a few minutes thought to changing plans and with such an early success finding the only real target of the day, I considered researching another FOY and trying for it – maybe a Gray Partridge or even a Dusky Grouse.  But they were hours away, so I carried on towards Hatchery Road.  My GPS told me to continue on Road 9 and then turn onto Road A.  Not what I expected, but the deviation to Road 9 had worked – why not?  And this worked, too.

It is not 100% clear how the road numbering/naming system works in the area but as I was traveling essentially what I think was East on Road A, my GPS said I was approaching Road 12.3 on my left.  Traveling at 60 mph as I zoomed towards the intersection and then past it as another car was about to turn onto Road A, I thought I saw a little bump on a rocky outcropping a short ways up Road 12.3.  I made another quick U-turn and turned right onto 12.3 and indeed it was another Burrowing Owl not bothered by my presence or the pickup that had just turned onto Road A.  The camera was busy again.

Burrowing Owl – Road 12.3

BUOW2.1

A second pick up came roaring down 12.3 towards me.  How could there be so much traffic on this little nothing of a road?  This time the owl flew off and landed on a smaller rock maybe 100 feet away.  I was still not even on Highway 17 let alone Hatchery Road and I had seen two Burrowing Owls.  Pretty good indeed.  Back onto Road A and then a right turn onto Highway 282 which is where I had expected to be earlier.  A mile or so and then a left turn onto Highway 17.  I recalled that Burrowing Owls had been reported on Highway 17 but I had not noted where since my focus was on Hatchery Road.

Maybe 3 or 4 miles up Highway 17 and perhaps a half mile before the right turn to Hatchery Road, I saw an SUV pulled over on the left side of the road.  A guy was standing on the front seat and up into the open sunroof.  He had a camera with a long lens.  What was he seeing?  On a bird chase, you always hope that there is a birder already there when you arrive with the target in front of him or her to be pointed out to you.  This was sorta the case here.  A photographer and not a birder, he was focused on a nest burrow on top of a rise leading to a fenced field.  There was an an adult Burrowing Owl which flew off and two Owlets which retreated into the burrow.  Amazingly, now before reaching the target zone, I had seen 5 Burrowing Owls.  This was the first sense that this indeed was a Khanh Tran kind of day.  No photos, but wow!!

Well, it was a good thing that I had found the Burrowing Owls that I did because there were none to be found along Hatchery Road or at Rocky Ford.  Later I found out that the Ebird report I had relied on for the Hatchery Road sighting was inaccurate and that the owls had been seen on Highway 17 – maybe at the same burrow I had left earlier.   Ebird is a wonderful tool but it and those who use it often leave much to be desired when it comes to pinpoint accuracy.  I am sure I have sinned that way as well although I am trying to avoid doing so.

There were other birds along Hatchery Road, though.  A distant Grasshopper Sparrow scratched out its insect-like song/call.  Several Savannah Sparrows appeared atop the sage or on the wires and then disappeared in flight.  Lark Sparrows did the same.  Again quite distant with the resulting photos leaving much to desire.  A Rock Wren sang on a rock and then responding to my playback flew to another rock and then another.  Never close but no mistaking the song or the identification even without the rocks.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow3

Rock Wren

Rock Wren3

And Western Kingbirds were common and easily seen on the wires.  All told on this trip there may have been 18 or more of them, even outnumbering the Western Meadowlarks.

Western Kingbird on Hatchery Road

Western Kingbird1

Long ago I occasionally went flyfishing at Rocky Ford.  There are some very large rainbow trout in the crystal clear waters.  Challenging fishing for sure.  This day the lure was a chance for Sora and Virginia Rails.  I played the whinny call for a Sora and got an immediate response – actually two.  A Sora was calling from across the creek, unlikely to fly over to check me out.  Much closer was a Virginia Rail.  I often find that either rail will respond to the call of the other.  There are openings in the reeds near the fishing platform where I was trying the playback and I thought a visual might be possible.

I heard at least one and possibly two more Virginia Rails and they eagerly responded to the “grunt” calls my phone played for them.  I spent at least 20 minutes there hoping for a view and maybe a photo.  I had several views of one of the rails skittering between the reeds, but my only photos were of the spot where the Rail had just been or maybe its flanks against the reeds.  Then one came into the open just long enough to get a photo of at least most of the bird.  Probably my first Virginia Rail photo of the year.

Virginia Rails

Virginia Rail1

Very happy for the day, it was time to head home.  I would not have expected it, but there was even the chance to join Cindy for dinner.  So it was back to the Burrowing Owl nest on Highway 17 hoping for a photo of the Owlets.  They remained in the burrow and I had a glimpse of the adult in the field.  Retracing my steps in about a mile I saw another Burrowing Owl this time on the other side of the road perched on a fence post.  Maybe it was part of the family from the nest I had just left but a mile seems a bit too far for that.  In the first photo the owl is looking right at me.  In the second it is glancing skyward at a Red Tailed Hawk that was soaring above.

Burrowing Owl

BUOW3.3

BUOW3.4

Before this trip, I think the most Burrowing Owls I have seen in one day in Washington is probably three, possibly four.  Now I was up to six.  There would be one more although I needed distant help to do so.  Let me explain.  I wanted to see if the owls I had found on the way in were still there – both from my own curiosity and also because if so then it would increase the chance that others could follow my reports and find them if they were interested.  Coming up on Road 12.3 I could see that familiar bump on the rocky outcropping.  The Burrowing Owl was still there.  It took off as I turned onto the road, but I already had my photos, so that was no issue.  I did see other critters on rocks – Yellow Bellied Marmots I believe.

Yellow Bellied Marmots

How about the first find of the day back on Road 9.  As I was approaching the spot which was entered into my GPS I could see an owl-like form on the wire less than 100 feet from where I had seen the first owl that morning.  It remained motionless as I again took a number of photos.  Very pleased, it was now time to say goodbye to this extraordinary day and head home.  Several hours later I was home and went through my pictures, editing some and posting the best of them on Facebook recounting what I thought was a six-owl day.  One viewer, R.J. Baltierra – a super birder from the Tri-Cities saw the post and paid a lot more knowledgeable attention to them than I had.  Noticing coloration differences between some of the photos I posted from Road 9, he wondered if perhaps there were two different birds.  I responded to his inquiry with a clarification of when each photo was taken and indeed the first was the female and the second was of the paler male.  So it became a seven owl day.  And none where I had expected to find them.

Burrowing Owl – Second Viewing on Road 9 – the Spots are From an Irrigation Sprinkler in Action when I was There 

BUOW1.1.2Sprinkler

BUOW1.1.5

Acknowledging that these are not Boreal nor Flammulated nor Spotted nor Hawk Owls, I loved finding, seeing and photographing these wonderful little owls, finding them in unexpected locations although in perfect habitat.  I almost expected Khanh Tran to show up and with a smile, he would say something like: “I hope you enjoyed this.  I knew you were heading this way and put in a special request for these owls to greet you.  Welcome to my world, and no you don’t even have to thank me!!”

On Familiar Ground

The past few days have really brought home to me the role that “familiar ground” plays in my birding life.  Some thoughts and examples follow.

Case I – A Black Throated Sparrow

On Sunday, June 1, a Black Throated Sparrow was reported on Ebird in North Bend, about 45 miles from me.  The report referenced but did not include photos and I did not know the birder reporting this extraordinary find.   Many reports of purported Black Throated Sparrows  have turned out to be House Sparrows, a common “junk bird” found mostly around inhabited areas including commercial buildings.  This bird was reported on the parking lot behind the Mount Si Gymnastics Academy, a commercial building.  It seemed likely to be an error in identification.  Besides I had just seen the Black Throated Sparrow on Dennis Road in Franklin County.

If the reported area had been familiar ground, I would have known that this parking area adjoined a lovely patch of mixed habitat.  Not the normal arid habitat of a Black Throated Sparrow but pretty birdy and especially this year with many out of place sightings – well maybe?  But it not being familiar ground, I completely discounted the possibilities and did not pursue it.  Then that night photos were added to the report and indeed it was the real thing.  Oh well.  I should have chased it early the next morning but had some obligations and knew I would be going on a long trip on Tuesday so convincing myself that it was likely a one day wonder, I refrained.

Case II – A Least Tern

On Monday morning I was working on a brief photo presentation for the Washington Ornithological Society that night and paid little attention to emails and such.  Fortunately however, I checked emails at precisely 1:35 p.m.  Exactly 4 minutes earlier, Louis Kreemer had posted the following message on “Tweeters” our local birding listserv:  “Sam Fason and I are looking at what we are quite sure to be a Least Tern at Montlake Fill! …”  I had never seen a Least Tern in Washington – a super rarity.   I grabbed camera and binoculars and was out the door by 1:45 and was at the Fill by 2:10 P.M.  Hurrying towards the “Osprey Tower” which was the noted lookout spot, I ran into Ryan Merrill who was coming out and who had just seen the Tern.  It was there!!

Five minutes later I found John Puschock and Sam Nason, one of the original discoverers, at the water’s edge and heard those three wonderful words – “There it is!”  It took a second to get on it with my bins as it dipped and dived tern-like, but I had it – a Washington Lifer!!  I got a couple of ID quality only photos in the distance.  Other birders arrived and maybe 5 minutes after I had my first sighting, the tern landed on a piece of wood in the water – much closer to us – and posed.  Now I had a great look and a fairly decent photo although the light was tricky.  This was Washington Lifer #423 and state photo #410.  I had seen many great birds at this familiar turf, and had seen Least Terns in 10 other states but had never expected to see one there.

Least Tern

Least Tern1

This is such a challenging time in our nation as protests after the murder of George Floyd continued and new cases of COVID-19 were occurring daily.  Once again birding had taken me away  from those tragic realities.  The protests and the Coronavirus pandemic are anything but familiar and every unavoidable thought about them brought great discomfort and worry.  At the Montlake Fill, the sun was shining and once again I was sheltered in the comfortable cocoon that looking for familiar birds in a familiar place provides.

As it turned out that the Black Throated Sparrow was seen again a couple of hours before my seeing the Least Tern.  Should I have tried for it?  Yes,  But I did not.  Why?  I thought about trying for it when I was at the Montlake Fill and that was when the concept of familiar ground first came to mind.  The Fill was very familiar ground.  I was comfortable and confident there.  The opposite was the case for the seemingly strange North Bend location.  Often I love going to new places and experiencing new habitats and birds – especially if the places are beautiful and the birds are special.   Maybe I hesitated because I knew I would be embarking on a long trip to more familiar ground the next day and that was where my head was.  But I rarely hesitate going on a chase.  In the end I think that I was so lifted by seeing the Least Tern at this special place that I did not want to chance a failed chase overriding such a successful one.  I was very much in my comfort zone.

A Long Trip to More Familiar Ground

Every year in May and into June I have actively birded favorite places in Eastern Washington to see some of the newly arrived species that were then on breeding grounds. With only small variations to this trek every year, this has become familiar territory with mandatory visits to Bullfrog Pond and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds near Cle Elum, the Yakima River Canyon, Bethel Ridge and Oak Creek, the Liberty area, the Quilomene Wildlife Area, Wenas, County Line Ponds and Potholes Reservoir.  When there has been time for longer trips, and I have always found such time, other mandatory visits have been to Lyle, to the Walla Walla area and to Spokane and then Calispell Lake.

Each place, with some overlap, can be relied upon for specific species.  Just a few examples (among many others that are found at each place):  Veery at Bullfrog Pond, Pygmy Nuthatch at the Railroad Ponds, Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting in the Yakima Canyon, Lewis’s Woodpecker at Oak Creek, Williamson’s Sapsucker at Bethel Ridge, White Headed Woodpecker at Wenas, Phalaropes, Stilts and Avocets at the County Line Ponds, Forster’s Tern at Potholes, Sage Thrashers in the Quilomene, Flammulated Owls and Poorwills at Liberty, Acorn Woodpeckers and Ash Throated Flycatchers in Lyle, Green Tailed Towhees, White Faced Ibis, Great Gray Owls and Ferruginous Hawks near Walla Walla and Bobolinks,  Northern Waterthrush and Red Eyed Vireos near Calispell Lake.  If the timing is right, each of these species is almost a certainty at each favorite place.

In Spring 2019 my birding was mostly out of home state of Washington visiting Eastern states as part of my 50/50/50 birding adventure.  I was back in Washington for ten days at the end of May and in early June and was able to get to many of the aforementioned favorite spots.  But I was not able to get to the Spokane area and Calispell Lake in Eastern Washington.  I had birded there in each of the previous 6 years and had grown to love the area, and knew specific spots to reliably find specific species generally found there and only there.  It had become familiar ground.  With a very rare to Washington Eastern Phoebe being seen regularly at Elk in the area and with my time with the rental car provided while my deer damaged car was in the shop coming to an end, the timing was perfect to visit this special area this week.  The original plan was to leave on Tuesday and return late Wednesday.  It is a long trip.

As usual I was up long before the alarm rang on Tuesday and was on the road before 4:45 A.M. arriving at the North Bend Black Throated Sparrow spot at 5:20 A.M.  It was already light and I hoped I had not blown it by not following my most important rule for a chase – “Go Now.”  Birds were singing as I arrived but unfortunately not a Black Throated Sparrow.  It was still early so maybe more sun would bring it out.  In fifteen minutes another birder arrived, Chris Rurik.  More eyes are always better but sadly not this time.  In another 30 minutes, John Puschock arrived as well.  Still no Black Throated Sparrow.  Shared stories and some nice birds including a Red Breasted Sapsucker that returned often to an aluminum ladder which greatly increased the volume of its drumming.  I gave it another ten minutes and then with many miles ahead, I departed, hoping that I would have better luck on the familiar ground ahead.  The Black Throated Sparrow proved to be a two-day wonder as it was not seen again.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Red Breasted Sapsucker

My first Eastern Washington target was a Clay Colored Sparrow still more than three hours away in Western Spokane County.   Although I had not been to the exact spot where a Clay Colored Sparrow had most recently been seen, as I got close, familiar names recalled previous trips to the area where I had found them:  Stroup Road and Coulee Hite Road.  Just before arriving at Mackenzie Road as I was driving slowly on West Thorpe Road, I saw a black and white bird rise from the grass and land on some barbed wire fencing – often a perching spot for sparrows and others in this semi-arid landscape.  It was an Eastern Kingbird.  I had a distant view of one at Millet Pond last week, but no photo.  This one was far more cooperative as even without playback encouragement, it flew to a closer perch on the wire and then came closer yet.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Within less than 200 yards a Grasshopper Sparrow flew up onto more barbed wire next to a grassy field.  This, too, was a familiar species in this familiar place.  It disappeared before I could get a photo but I felt it was a precursor for a Clay Colored Sparrow ahead.  I turned onto west Mackenzie Road and quickly found the brush pile where the Clay Colored Sparrow had most recently been reported.  A single sparrow was on some sage nearby.  It was a Savannah Sparrow – one of many in the area.  Then another sparrow appeared, too large to be a Clay Colored Sparrow, it was a heavily marked Vesper Sparrow, with the chestnut patch on its shoulder noted in the strong light.  It is  another common species in this area.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow2 (2)

Then I heard it, the buzzy song of the Clay Colored Sparrow.  One flew onto and then off of the brush pile.  Back on again, I got a lousy picture.  Off again and then back on , this time with company.  A second Clay Colored Sparrow was interacting with the first one.  I could not tell if they were a mated pair or competing males.  Fortunately they perched long enough for my camera.

Clay Colored Sparrow FOY #1

Clay Colored Sparrow1 (2)

It was a new species for the year, a reward for the already long trip and a confidence builder for more to come.  On the way out a pair of Mountain Bluebirds flashed by.  I thought I saw their nesting box but it was occupied by a Tree Swallow.

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird Female Mountain Bluebird

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow at Mest1

Almost exactly 8 years ago at the Rosalia STP south of Spokane, I had seen an Eastern Phoebe – quite the rarity for the state.  Now another one was being seen regularly by a bridge in Elk, Washington, north of Spokane about 50 miles from my sparrow brush pile.  I headed north with a stop at Reardan Ponds hoping for a Black Tern.  No terns but more than 100 Eared Grebes in full breeding splendor.  This is another reliable species in the area.  I already had a fabulous photo of one from a trip to Chiawana Lake a couple of weeks earlier but could not resist another one.

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes

The Ebird directions to the bridge in Elk were precise and as soon as I got out of the car I first heard and then saw and then photographed the Eastern Phoebe.  It could not have been easier.  My failed mission in North Bend had added an hour to my journey but this quick find of the Phoebe gave me some of that time back.  It was now 12:30 P.M.  Although I had been on the road for about 8 hours, finding the Eastern Phoebe was energizing and I was looking forward to “next” – the beautiful area around Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County about 30 miles away.

Eastern Phoebe FOY #2

Eastern Phoebe (2)

We are spoiled in Washington with so many different habitats and so many beautiful places.  Calispell Lake is one of those places and after many visits has become a favorite and familiar ground for sure.  Over the years relying in part on reports of others and on my own exploring, I have found very specific spots where I can reliably find the specialty birds of the area.

Calispell Lake

Although it was not on my First of Year target list since I had seen one earlier in the year at Wylie Slough in Skagit County, my first stop was at the bridge on Westside Calispel Road where Northern Waterthrush breeds.  The target here this time was a Least Flycatcher that had been reported regularly.  With no traffic in sight, I parked off the road and immediately heard three welcomed calls:  Northern Waterthrush, Willow Flycatcher and Cedar Waxwing.  The Waxwings were numerous, active and photogenic.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing1

I then heard at least one more Willow Flycatcher and one more Northern Waterthrush but of far more interest was the repeated and softer “che-bek” call of the Least Flycatcher.  It seemed that every time the Least would call, one of the Willows would drown it out with a much louder “fitz-bew” call of its own.  Neither was close or visible but the calls were clear.  I already had great photos of Willow Flycatcher and Northern Waterthrush for the year so I really hoped for a picture of the Least Flycatcher.  Not to be so I will just continue to appreciate the one I took last year.

Northern Waterthrush – From this spot in 2016

Northern Waterthrush

Least Flycatcher – FOY #3 (Photo from June 2019)

Least Flycatcher

There would however be one more good photo at this very birdy stop.  At least two Gray Catbirds were very active and unlike the case for the one I had heard and seen only through thick brush at Bullfrog Pond a week ago, this time I got a photo.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The Least Flycatcher was FOY #3 for the day, half of my “pretty likely” list.  The next species on the list was Red Eyed Vireo and here again I had a very specific favored spot – the intersection of Westside Calispel and Pease Roads.   When I arrived I heard what I thought might be the song of a Red Eyed Vireo but I had not heard one for a while and recalled that it was similar to that of the American Robin.  Indeed I found a Robin singing in the open so it was not going to be all that easy.  It only took a few more moments as I walked onto Pease Road and then heard the different notes of the Red Eyed Vireo in thick woods below me.  I adjusted my camera settings to have a brighter view in the viewfinder and was then able to located the singing Vireo on a branch.

Red Eyed Vireo – FOY #4

Red Eyed Vireo1

I am not so sure about Northern Waterthrush, but I expect that there are many places to find a Red Eyed Vireo in the area.  It was super satisfying though to find one at “my” Red Eyed Vireo spot – exactly where I had seen them before – one of the joys of “familiar ground”.  And only a couple of miles away another such spot awaited – the Bobolink fields in Usk.

I love everything about Bobolinks:  they are uncommon in Washington (and their populations are decreasing as habitats disappears); they have that wonderful bright bubbly song in flight, starting with low reedy notes and rollicking upward “bob-o-link, bob-o-link, pink, pink, pank, pink”; their fluttery flight is very fun to see; and at least to me best of all, not only are they quite striking, they are also upside down.  Most birds are darker above and lighter below.  The Bobolink reverses this.  As I was approaching the field of uncut grass on McKenzie Road, I saw a tiny bird perched on a wire above and ahead of me.  It was another of the birds that I regularly look for in the area – a Black Chinned Hummingbird.  I had seen one last week at Horn Rapids Park and this was not my go to spot, but it is always a good find, so I stopped and got a photo,

Black Chinned Hummingbird 

BCHB (2)

When I got out of the car to photograph the Black Chinned Hummingbird I heard a Bobolink seemingly close by.  I got back into the car and went no further than 50 yards and there it was flying and singing in the field.  I used playback just once and it came to a small bush right in front of me.  Photo time and another FOY.

Bobolink FOY #5

Bobolink1

It was not yet 2:30 P.M. and I had seen all but one of my likely targets.  The only miss was a Black Tern.  My best hope for them was either Turnbull NWR or Ames Lake.  Both were on the way back home which without stops would be 5 hours away.  Should I change my original plan to stay overnight?  An overnight would allow me to try for some secondary targets like Gray Partridge and Northern Pygmy Owl.  Maybe, too, I could return home via Stevens Pass and try for a Canada Jay.  On the other hand, I had stuff to attend to at home and I could avoid both the cost and one more COVID-19 risk if I stayed at a hotel.  I tentatively determined to head home and make the final decision depending on how the search for a Black Tern went.  This would be my only chance for one this year.

I had seen no terns at Reardan Ponds or Eloika Lake.  I found none at Calispell Lake either.  Last year on June 22, Cindy and I had detoured through Turnbull NWR on our way back from Montana and had seen three distant Black Terns.  My experience was the same this time but there were only two and again distant – flying among the reeds at the far end of one of the lakes.  No chance for even a poor photo which was disappointing because they are very appealing birds.  The one below is from Ames Lake in 2016.  Still hoping for a better picture someday.

Black Tern

Black Tern3 - Copy

It was almost 5:00 P.M. and without stops I could be home by 9:30 P.M. so that was the plan – with one exception.  Will Brooks had reported significant numbers of White Faced Ibis and Forster’s Terns at Marsh Unit 1 in the Columbia NWR earlier that day.  I had seen both this year but no photos.  If they were still there maybe there would be enough light for a photo.  It would add another hour to the trip, but worth the effort.  The road down to the marsh itself was closed off so I parked in the overlook and took scope and camera down the hill towards the extensive marshy area.  I could hear what I thought were White Faced Ibis off in the distance.  I scanned and searched and finally came up with 4 black forms that had curved long bills.  There were probably many more.  Even through the scope the “picture” was awful, so a visual only.  But somewhat closer a single Forster’s Tern was hunting for prey.  Again, pretty distant and not great light, but at least a decent ID photo to end the birding part of the day.

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

I was able to get home just after 10:20 P.M. so it had been an 18 hour day but there had been enough breaks and so many highs that I really was not tired.  The stay at home restraints of COVID-19 are far more tiring than being out on familiar ground doing familiar activities and seeing familiar birds, and when there are rare birds like Black Throated Sparrows and Least Terns and Eastern Phoebes to look for, there is added adrenaline and endorphins to lift my spirits.  Especially this past week with the continuing saga of a pandemic mixed with social and racial injustice and unrest and a horrible orange faced clown in the White House, lifted spirits from this birding trek were at least a temporary antidote.

What A Difference a Year Makes

Birding in May 2019 vs. May 2020 – not even close.  Some numbers:

May 2019 May 2020
Ebird Checklists 152 54
Species Seen 298 156
Species in Washington 85 156
Shorebird Species 24 12
Raptors 18 13
Woodpeckers 10 6
Flycatchers 15 9
Vireos 8 3
Sparrows 18 9
Warblers 35 8
ABA Lifers 2 0
ABA Life Photos 10 0
States Birded 17 1

Quite a difference in every category, but the biggest difference is that in May 2019, I birded with more than 100 fellow birders while in May 2020, I birded alone.  Thank you COVID-19.  I may have gotten less sleep in 2019 but I sure had lots more fun.  And oh yeah in 2020 just barely into a planned two day birding trip in Eastern Washington, I unavoidably hit a deer on Interstate 90.  The deer did not survive; my brand new car was significantly damaged; I was physically unhurt but emotionally and psychologically pretty scarred.  It could have been oh so much worse, but it was not a good day.

The New Car – Post Intersection with the Deer

car

Of course a major difference between last May and this May is that last year I was fully absorbed in my 50/50/50 Adventure trying to see 50 species in each state on individual days.  That provided a framework and purpose to my birding with defined goals and a drive to meet them.  I was managing a “project” and I have come to realize that I have been doing that in one form or another most of my life and it is important to my mental state and energy levels.  Indeed 2020 has been the only year without focus, without a project and without goals.

There was a goal in the beginning as this Spring was supposed to be one with the very important goal of further testing and hopefully cementing my relationship with Cindy Bailey.  As we entered our second year, we had trips planned to Florida, Cuba and Arizona.  Some birding, but lots of other activities as well, and the trip to Cuba would be a new place for both of us and our first travel as part of a group.  We expected to learn a lot and hopefully prove further that we were flexible, compatible and happy together.  Cindy then had a long trip planned to England in May, and I was going to bird in Texas and other spots trying to add a few more ABA Life birds and/or photos.  Not to be, any of it, as the horrors of COVID-19 caused every trip to be cancelled and our activities to be severely limited.  We have survived but it has not been fun, or at least not in the ways we had sought.

One day is often indistinguishable from another.  No restaurants, no travels, no visiting friends, often a gray malaise and a listless enervated existence.  Cindy has coped better than I have as she has been working out with a personal trainer – not in person but over Zoom – a meeting application that has become a large part of many lives – and has put much energy into a very cute knitting project for a new baby expected by her niece.  Granted there have been frustrations and some less than lady-like language at times but all in all a very positive undertaking.

The Baby Blanket – A Work in Progress

knitting

One thing remains unchanged from last May to this May.  Migration is at its peak and it is the best month for birding  almost everywhere.  So despite the limitations and despite the absence of others and despite the unwanted deer intersection on Interstate 90, I have gotten in some birding even though as shown in the earlier chart, not like last year, or any other of the last 9 years for that matter.  Birding remains that familiar turf that adds some consistency to this year’s chaos.  There have been no really special birds, nothing new for the ABA or the State and no new photos, but I have added three species to my Snohomish County list in May (after adding Great Horned Owl in March} bringing the County total to 261, most in any county in Washington.  The May additions were American Avocet, Dusky Flycatcher and Yellow Breasted Chat.  My state list for 2020 is currently 261 species.  The average in the previous eight years at this time is about 25 species more and in almost all of those years and but only for a single day, in this year, I had traveled out of state for significant amounts of time.

But given the tragedy of COVID-19 and what could have been a truly horrible accident with the deer, I am able to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.  I just hope it get even fuller the rest of this year.  So celebrating the fullness that is there, here are some favorite photos for May 2020.

American Avocet and Black Necked Stilt – County Line Ponds – Avocet Also Seen at Eide Road

American Avocet2 (2) Black Necked Stilt1

Wilson’s and Red Necked Phalaropes – County Line Ponds

Wilson's Phalaropes Pair (2) Red Necked Avocet

Lark Sparrow – Oak Creek Visitor Center

Lark Sparrow3

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers (in the same tree) – Wylie Slough

Downy WP Male Hairy WP1

Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting – Umtanum Creek and both also in Snohomish County

Yellow Breasted Chat2 Lazuli Bunting4

Yellow Warbler and Bullock’s Oriole – Bullfrog Pond

Yellow Warbler1 Bullock's Oriole1

Cinnamon Teal and Yellow Headed Blackbird – County Line Ponds

Cinnamon Teal Couple (2) Yellow Headed Blackbird (2)

Cassin’s Finch and Common Yellowthroat – Bullfrog Pond

Cassin's Finch.1ajpg P5180988 (2)

Warbling Vireo and Western Wood Pewee – Bullfrog Pond (and elsewhere)

Warbling Vireo2 Western Wood Pewee1

Red Breasted Sapsucker – Scriber Lake Park

Red Breasted Sapsucker1 (3)

Pigeon Guillemot – Edmonds Waterfront

Pigeon Guillemot

Swainson’s Thrush – Spencer Island and Many other locations

Swainson's Thrush

Great Horned Owls – Adult and Owlet – Wylie Slough

P5180893 (2) P5180922 (2)

Black Headed Grosbeak – Many Locations in Eastern and Western Washington

Black Headed Grosbeak4

Western Kingbird – Whatcom, Yakima and Grant Counties

Western Kingbird (2)

Black Throated Gray Warbler – Many Locations in Snohomish County

Black Throated Gray Warbler

Keep safe everyone!!

 

North, East, South and West…Well Not So Much South

Prompted by a related challenge from Diane Yorgasin-Quinn, I scanned my Ebird ABA list looking for species whose names had ties to geographical areas – like “Eastern” Kingbird – and  whether I had seen them in the eponymous geographical areas.  Interesting results.

I came up with 9 “Eastern” species, 20 “Northern” species (plus one “Northwestern”), and 10 “Western” species.  There were no species with “Southern” in the name and only a single species with “South”.  Where I have seen them is a bit complicated and definitely determined by how I have defined areas.  For example any bird seen in Washington counts as both North and West.  Any bird seen in Maine is both North and East.  Similarly a species seen in Florida is both South and East and anything in Southern California or Southeast Arizona is both South and West.  Hey it’s my system.

With only a couple of exceptions most species were seen in the area corresponding to the name, e.g. Western Pewee in the West and Eastern Screech Owl in the East.  One exception is the Western Spindalis seen only in Florida and thus both the South and the East but definitely not the Western geographical area.  Another exception is the Eastern Yellow Wagtail, seen only in Nome Alaska and thus in the West and North but definitely not in the Eastern geographical area.  Finally there is the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet seen in Southeast Arizona, thus not in the Northern geographical area but in both the South and the West.  Many species were seen in more than one area.  For example, I have seen Northern Mockingbirds in the East, South, West and North and the same is true for many others of these species with their geographical names.

All of the birds are shown in the photos below with the geographical areas where I have seen them following in the parentheses.  (East, South, West and North).  All of the pictures are mine except for the Eastern Whippoorwill, Northern Jacana and Northern Goshawk.  I have very poor photos of the latter and none of the first two.  Hopefully someday for the Whippoorwill but doubtful for the Jacana – seen at Maner Lake, TX more than 40 years ago.

“Eastern” Species

Eastern Bluebird  (E, S, W, N)

Eastern Bluebird 4

Eastern Kingbird (E, S, W, N)

 Eastern Kingbird1a
Eastern Meadowlark (E, S, W, N)  

Eastern Meadowlark Singing

Eastern Phoebe (E, S, W, N)

Eastern Phoebe2
Eastern Screech-Owl  (E, S, W, N)

Eastern Screech Owl5

Eastern Towhee (E,S, N)

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Whip-poor-will  (E, S)

whip-poor-will-news

Eastern Wood-Pewee (E, S, W, N)

Eastern Wood Pewee

Eastern Yellow Wagtail  (N, W) 

Eastern Yellow Wagtail1 - Copy

“Northern” Species

Northern Bobwhite (N, E, S, W)

Northern Bobwhite 1

Northern Flicker (N, E, S, W) 

northern flicker

Northern Rough-winged Swallow (N, E, S, W)         

Northern Rough Winged Swallow

Northern Cardinal  (N, E, S)      

Northern Cardinal Male

Northern  Gannet  (N, E, S)  

Northern Gannet - Copy

Northern Harrier (N, E, S, W)

northern harrier on snow goose
 Northern Mockingbird (N, E, S, W)      

Northern Mockingbird1

Northern Parula  (N, E, S, W) 

Northern Parula Warbler
Northern Pintail  (N, E, S, W)

Northern Pintail

Northern Shoveler (N, E, S, W) 

Northern Shoveler

Northern Waterthrush  (N, E, S, W) 

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Goshawk  (N, W)

Northern Goshawk

Northern Fulmar (N,W) 

Northern Fulmar3

Northern Saw-whet Owl  (N, W) 

Northern Saw Whet Owl2

Northwestern Crow (N, W)

Northwestern Crow
Northern Pygmy Owl (N, W)

Northern Pygmy Owl2

Northern Shrike (N, W) 

 orthern Shrike Okanogan

Northern Wheatear (N, W) 

Northern Wheatear female

Northern Hawk Owl (N, W)

Northern Hawk Owl 1

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet  (S, W)

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet 2

Northern Jacana (S) 

Northern Jacana

“Western” Species

Western Bluebird (N, S, W)                    

Western Bluebird

Western Grebe (N, E, W)

 Western Grebe
Western Gull  (N, S, W) 

Western Gull

Western Kingbird (N, E, S, W)

Western Kingbird
Western Meadowlark (N, S, W) 

Western Meadowlark

Western Sandpiper (N, E, S, W)

Western Sandpiper with Worm1
Western Screech-Owl  (N, S, W)               

Western Screech Owl

Western Spindalis (E, S) 

Western Spindalis5
Western Tanager (N, W)

Western Tanager1

Western Wood-Pewee (N, S, W) 

Western Wood Pewee

“South/Southern” Species

South Polar Skua (N, E, S, W) 

South Polar Skua Flight1

Diane’s challenge was actually about birds with specific cities or states in their names like seeing a Nashville Warbler in Nashville (I have) or a Louisiana Waterthrush in Louisiana (I have not).  There are many other place specific species names.  I think there is another blog post coming.  Thanks Diane.

 

Mayday! May Day!

“Mayday” is used by aviators and mariners (and often firefighters and police) to signal a life threatening emergency.  “May Day” is a holiday generally May 1st celebrating the arrival of Spring.  This year there is not really much to celebrate as COVID-19 continues to severely limit our lives and our birding activities.  Today is May 1, 2020.  If all had gone according to plan, this would be the day for final packing and planning before flying off to El Paso, Texas tomorrow with Bruce LaBar.  We would then be heading to Big Bend National Park in pursuit of a Colima Warbler – an ABA Lifer for both of us and a species found only in that park and after a long hike.  Well, maybe next year…  At least my health is good so no need send out a mayday message for medical care, so this will be the other kind of May Day post – a celebration of Spring even if vicariously.

Colima Warbler – Big Bend Texas – Photo by Greg Lavaty

Colima Warbler

I don’t recall any specific planning to be out birding on May 1st in any previous year, but since the month of May is perhaps the best month for birding throughout the U.S. including in my home state of Washington, I expected a review of my birding observations would come up with many trips on that day.  Since my birding is primarily by memory or fantasy at this time, I went back through recent history and put together a May Day list of species seen.  All are from May 1st trips since 2011 when I first started using Ebird.  They are from 8 of the 9 years and cover trips in 4 states: Massachusetts, Connecticut. Florida and Washington.  Altogether the species total is 165.  No real rarities but a nice selection of birds.  I have selected a Dynamic Dozen photos to represent the list and then include the full species list at the end.

Bachman’s Sparrow – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Bachman's Sparrow5

Baltimore Oriole – Connecticut – May 1, 2019

Baltimore Oriole1

Black and White Warbler – Connecticut – May 1, 2019

Black and White Warbler1

Canada Jay – Washington – May 1st, 2015

Canada Jay

Florida Scrub Jay – May 1st, 2017

Florida Scrub-jay

Limpkin – Florida -May 1st, 2017

Limpkin2

Louisiana Waterthrush – Connecticut – May 1, 2019

Louisiana Waterthrush-1a - Copy

Red Cockaded Woodpecker – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Red Cockaded Woodpeckers 5

Snail Kite – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Snail Kite Flight4

Swallow Tailed Kite – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Swallow Tailed Kite

Tufted Titmouse – Massachusetts – May 1st, 2018

Tufted Titmouse

White Headed Woodpecker – Washington, May 1st, 2011

White Headed Woodpecker

 

The Full List

American Coot Cliff Swallow Little Blue Heron Rose-breasted Grosbeak
American Crow Common Gallinule Loggerhead Shrike Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Goldfinch Common Goldeneye Long-eared Owl Ruby-throated Hummingbird
American Kestrel Common Grackle Louisiana Waterthrush Rufous Hummingbird
American Redstart Common Ground Dove MacGillivray’s Warbler Sage Thrasher
American Robin Common Loon Mallard Sandhill Crane
American Wigeon Common Merganser Marsh Wren Savannah Sparrow
Anna’s Hummingbird Common Nighthawk Mountain Bluebird Short-tailed Hawk
Bachman’s Sparrow Common Raven Mountain Chickadee Snail Kite
Bald Eagle Common Yellowthroat Mourning Dove Snowy Egret
Baltimore Oriole Dark-eyed Junco Northern Bobwhite Song Sparrow
Band-tailed Pigeon Double-crested Cormorant Northern Cardinal Spotted Towhee
Barn Swallow Downy Woodpecker Northern Flicker Steller’s Jay
Belted Kingfisher Dunlin (pacifica/arcticola) Northern Harrier Swainson’s Hawk
Bewick’s Wren Eastern Bluebird Northern Mockingbird Swallow-tailed Kite
Black Vulture Eastern Meadowlark Northern Parula Swamp Sparrow
Black-and-white Warbler Eastern Phoebe Northern Rough-winged Swallow Townsend’s Warbler
Black-billed Magpie Eastern Towhee Northern Shoveler Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee Eurasian Collared-Dove Northern Waterthrush Tufted Titmouse
Black-necked Stilt European Starling Orange-crowned Warbler Turkey Vulture
Black-throated Gray Warbler Fish Crow Osprey Vesper Sparrow
Black-throated Green Warbler Florida Scrub-Jay Ovenbird Violet-green Swallow
Blue Jay Gadwall Pacific Wren Virginia Rail
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Golden-crowned Sparrow Pacific-slope Flycatcher Warbling Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo Gray Catbird Palm Warbler Western Bluebird
Blue-winged Teal Great Blue Heron Pied-billed Grebe Western Kingbird
Boat-tailed Grackle Great Crested Flycatcher Pigeon Guillemot Western Meadowlark
Brewer’s Blackbird Great Egret Pine Siskin White Ibis
Broad-winged Hawk Great Horned Owl Pine Warbler White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper Greater Yellowlegs Prairie Falcon White-crowned Sparrow
Brown-headed Cowbird Green-winged Teal Purple Finch White-eyed Vireo
Brown-headed Nuthatch Hairy Woodpecker Purple Finch White-headed Woodpecker
Bufflehead Hermit Thrush Red Bellied WP White-throated Sparrow
Bushtit Horned Grebe Red Cockaded WP Wild Turkey
California Quail House Finch Red-breasted Merganser Wilson’s Warbler
Canada Goose House Sparrow Red-breasted Nuthatch Wood Duck
Canada Jay House Wren Red-breasted Sapsucker Yellow Warbler
Carolina Wren Killdeer Red-shouldered Hawk Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Caspian Tern Least Flycatcher Red-tailed Hawk Yellow-rumped Warbler
Cattle Egret Least Sandpiper Red-winged Blackbird
Chipping Sparrow Lewis’s Woodpecker Ring-necked Duck
Cinnamon Teal Limpkin Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)

As written earlier, birding now is mostly by memory and fantasy.  The photos and lists above are from those memories of earlier May Days.  Now for some fantasy.  Proving I have way too much free time, I looked through some Ebird reports from the 1st of May throughout the ABA area and came up with a dream list of birds that have been seen on that day and that I would love dearly to see as all would be ABA Lifers.  Here is a top 10.

Colima Warbler – Texas; Yellow Green Vireo – Texas; Buff Collared Nightjar – Arizona;  Ruddy Ground Dove – Arizona; Black Noddy Tern – Florida; Bahama Mockingbird – Florida; Murphy’s Petrel – California; Mottled Petrel – Washington; Black Faced Grassquit – Florida; and Black Tailed Godwit – Newfoundland

12 species seen but they would be ABA Life Photos (all reported on May 1st somewhere):  Common Black Hawk; Golden Winged Warbler; Eastern Whippoorwill;      Chuckwill’s Widow; Cerulean Warbler; Henslow’s Sparrow; King Rail; Black Rail; Groove Billed Ani; Smooth Billed Ani; Sprague’s Pipit and Mourning Warbler.

Yes, quite a fantasy list.  I would settle for any one of them — and it doesn’t even have to be on May 1st!!  And of course what I really most want is that male Smew – but did not see one on the Ebird ABA reports for May 1st in the past 10 years.  I’ll take one any day at all.

 

 

 

 

 

19 Birds instead of COVID-19

If all had gone according to plan, there would have been a wonderful blog about our visit to South Florida followed by another about our trip to Cuba and then another about a just concluded trip to Southeastern Arizona.  Well, all did not go according to plan for any of us.  The awful COVID-19 Pandemic has affected all of us, ending some lives and greatly changing all others.  Quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing have become the essential norm.  Birders may no longer board boats and planes and travel far and wide but we are resourceful and have found safe ways to bird local patches or closer in areas – maybe even a road trip of much more limited scope than in years past.  More than anything else, we have also been without the social aspects of birding with friends, casually or intensely.

Now with Spring migration in full swing and my trips where I would have greatly enjoyed it cancelled,  I find myself another year older and wondering how many good ones will be ahead.  Lost opportunities for sure but then I remind myself of the positives of good health, a loving partner, and decreased but remaining financial resources.  So a time to adjust and adapt but with care, still go birding with its many benefits to my emotional, psychic and physical well being.  I do not forget COVID-19 for a moment.  I travel alone.  I wear my mask and my gloves.  I use sanitizer frequently.  I share moments vicariously.  I keep my distance.  I accept those limitations and adjustments in response to the powerful enemy of COVID-19…but I have not been completely defeated.  The following 19 birds are my reply, my confirmation that there is a way to carry forth – to continue to enjoy something that I love and is essential to my well being.

Bird #1 – American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow2

Uncommon in Seattle, Cindy and I saw this sub adult bird at Green Lake – a perfect combination of chasing a good bird, walking the dog and getting out of the house for fresh air and exercise.  There were other people there but almost all kept appropriate social distancing and many wore masks and/or gloves.

Originally I was not going to take a long trip during the days of COVID-19 but when I saw that the Dennys were again reporting a Great Gray Owl on a nest (the fifth year it was there), I thought through how I could go for it while maintaining completely safe conditions.  I figured if I took my own food, my only contact with people would be at gas stations along the way.  If I wore gloves and a mask, maintained distance and used the sanitizer, I felt there was almost no risk.  Earlier I had come out against people reporting their birding discoveries and trips as I felt, while safe if done responsibly, they might encourage some not following the same safety measures to undertake unwise and dangerous activities.  I have only actually seen a Great Gray Owl in Washington twice and have only one photo.  They are incredible creatures.  There were lots of other First of Year opportunities for the trip as well.  Lots of motivation which was greatly increased when I contacted Mike and MerryLynn and they said they would happily join me – in a separate car and maintaining distance.

Acknowledging my hypocrisy, I compromised by undertaking the trip with the intent of not advertising the trip on Tweeters or Facebook or a blog or even Ebird.  Off I went.  I got gas at the truck stop at Exit 109 on Highway 90 in Ellensburg and was pleased to see the cashier was behind a Plexiglas screen.  A bit down the road I got a photo of one of the many Ospreys I saw in the area.  One more early stop was at the Lmuma Creek bridge on Highway 82 between Ellensburg and Yakima.  I had seen White Throated Swifts there before and found them there again – a nice FOY.

Bird #2 – Osprey – Ellensburg

Osprey

Bird #3 – White Throated Swift – Lmuma Overlook

White Throated Swift1

From Yakima, I headed east and stopped at “Kerry’s Pond” where I hoped to find three more FOY’s: Black Necked Stilts, American Avocets and maybe a Northern Rough Winged Swallow.  No Avocet but I found the Stilts and the Swallow.

Bird #4 – Black Necked Stilt – Kerry’s Pond

Black Necked Stilt

The plan was to meet Mike and MerryLynn at Dixie, east of Walla Walla, at 1 p.m.  This gave me time to drive the Eureka Flats area to look for Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks both FOY’sI made a wrong turn and missed the Ferruginous Hawk nest on Britton Road but was able to find both target species hunting and soaring in the area.  A surprise was also finding my first American White Pelicans for the year soaring high above the prairie.  I got to the meeting spot a little early and found another new bird for the year, a Lesser Goldfinch in with many Evening Grosbeaks and House Finches at a feeder.

It is always fun and rewarding to spend time with the Dennys, birding or not.  They know every bird, plant, rock, animal and road within 50 miles of Walla Walla.  Most importantly with the picture as proof, they knew the location of the Great Gray Owl on her nest.  Usually they are platform nesters, but this pair liked this hollow in a snag and returned for year number 5.  Unfortunately we only heard the male and he never came in to feed her, but no complaints by me.  A highlight of any trip.  We also heard a couple of Ruffed Grouse and a surprise Pine Grosbeak as we hiked the roads nearby.  Three more FOY’s for 2020.

Bird #5 – Great Gray Owl on Nest

Great Gray Owl on Nest1

There would be one more FOY for the day as we finally saw a Wild Turkey heading back to Walla Walla.  I usually see dozens of them in the area and also usually have seen them by now on Hanstad Road on Camano Island, but I had missed them there many times.  Only a single one walking up hill away from us, but it was a nice ending to the day.

Bird #6 – Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

The original plan had not included an overnight but we had spent a long time in the Blue Mountains and it was getting late.  More pertinently I was very tired from a very long day and the drive home was just too long.  The motel was clean with the clerk behind a plastic shield and appropriate masks, sanitizer etc, in the lobby.  I wiped down everything in my room and felt good about the safety.  How sad that we have to think about this all the time now.

The next morning I met up with the Dennys again.  We went looking for a Long Billed Curlew at a favored spot but did not find it there or at the next spot, but at Lambdin Road we were successful as we heard its lovely call as soon as we arrived and then found 5 birds in the tall grass.  (On my way home I would find another in Grant County.)

Bird #7 – Long Billed Curlew

Long Billed Curlew2

On the way to find the Curlew, I was in my car behind the Dennys and was pretty sure I saw a Western Kingbird but we could not stop.  Ones were found in the area the next day, so who knows.   At the Port of Wallula we found both Clark’s and Western Grebes and I had my first Caspian Tern of the year.  Viewing conditions in the wind and chop were not ideal but the orange yellow bill of the Clark’s Grebe was evident and visible even in the rather poor photo.

Bird #8 – Clark’s Grebe

Clark's Grebe2

Over the next hour plus we searched for American Avocets and Bank Swallows.  We picked out at least six of the latter in a big swarm with many species and then finally found American Avocets at the Tyson Ponds.  It was time to say goodbye to Mike and MerryLynn and to head home after a great morning.

Bird #9 – American Avocets

American Avocets

Eared Grebes in breeding plumage had been reported at Chiawana Park in Franklin County.  I had never been there and it was sort of on my way home.  It is a 127 acre park along the Columbia River.  I had no idea where to look and the wind had picked up making it difficult to find birds in the choppy water of the river which is essentially a big lake there.  Better lucky than good, I pulled into parking by the boat launch ramp which goes into a small protected cove.  Not more than 100 feet off the ramp, this beautiful Eared Grebe begged to have its picture taken.  I obliged.  Hard to beat this for an easy find and a very nice photo.

Bird #10 – Eared Grebe – Chiawana Park

Eared Grebe

In recent years Para Ponds in Adams County has been the most reliable spot in Washington to find Tricolored Blackbirds.  You can also count on many Yellow Headed, Red Winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds there as well in addition to various ducks and shorebirds.  When I got there I immediately had a surprise – a Blue Winged Teal – possibly the first reported in Washington in 2020.  Lots of raucous Yellow Headed Blackbirds but no Tricolored Blackbirds.  Uh-oh…

Bird #11 – Blue Winged Teal – Para Ponds

Blue Winged Teal

Fortunately as I drove a bit further east I found a huge flock of blackbirds at the cattle lot and there were at least 3 Tricolored Blackbirds mixed in.  Only a quick photo, but it clearly shows the red and white on the wing.

Bird #12 – Tricolored Blackbird – Para Ponds

Tricolored Blackbird

Much further on I stopped at the corral area on Old Vantage Highway and again found Sage Thrasher and Mountain Bluebirds and a FOY Loggerhead Shrike calling from up the trail no visual.  And the last stop was at the hummingbird feeders at Hyak on Snoqualmie Pass.  There were at least 9 Rufous Hummingbirds there.  I am omitting the less than wonderful photos.

The trip east had been a departure from my mostly isolating behavior but had greatly improved my mood – at least a partial return to normalcy even with abnormal precautions.  Every day Ebird, emails, texts, and Facebook bring me reports of wonderful birds all around the country and the state as migration brings more and more birds to us.  They are unaffected by this virus crisis.  They seem to be arriving earlier than ever – maybe proof that they are affected by another man made crisis – Global Warming.  In the years ahead there will be many reports and books to read about each crisis and how we have handled them.  I am not optimistic.

Each day after my return I read new reports of observations of Northern Bobwhites at the Muck Creek restoration area at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) in Pierce County.  Most were “heard only” but there were some visuals and even a photo.  There is some controversy about which Northern Bobwhite populations in Washington are ABA countable.  I am not sure whether the JBLM birds are countable or not.  What I am sure of is that although I have heard some in years past, I did not have a photo in Washington – one of only a dozen species seen but with no picture.  I wanted one, but a complication was that one is supposed to have a permit to visit JBLM.  I did not have one and due to COVID-19 the office in charge of them was closed.  Since it would not be possible to get “permission”, the only options were to not go or to go and if challenged beg for forgiveness.  The Muck Creek area is remote and there is not a need to go through any gates or check points to get there.  Nobody I spoke to had ever seen a patrol in the area and there was certainly no worry about virus transmission.

I decided that if the weather was good and I was up early anyhow, I would go.  The weather cooperated and as usual I was up early so I gave it a go.  The only positive of the virus is that traffic is back to levels not seen since the 1980’s and the highways are wide open.  I followed my GPS and promptly got lost.  Bruce LaBar came to the rescue responding to my call just after 7:00 a.m. and I was able to retrace steps and get to the right spot, parking at a pull out just past the Creek.  As soon as I got out of the car, I head the “bob white” call of the Bobwhite.  I headed towards the copse of trees where the bird had been seen in the previous reports and where the call seemed to be located.  I quickly got a distant view of literally a “bump on the log”.  Was it?  Yes.  I grabbed a very distant photo and then moved 25 yards closer.  Still distant but now a decent picture.  Another 25 yards but apparently not with sufficient stealth and the calling Bobwhite took off with what I believe may have been an adoring female following.  But I got the photo!!

Bird #13 – Northern Bobwhite – Muck Creek JBLM – State Life Photo #412

Northern Bobwhite 1

One motivation for making this trip was that Solitary Sandpipers were being reported at some ponds in Fife – maybe a consolation prize on the way home if I missed the Bobwhite.  I was alone at the ponds as well and found a Solitary Sandpiper with several Greater Yellowlegs at one of the back ponds.  It was the first one this year.  I also had several Cinnamon Teal and shared these finds real time with Bruce LaBar and Ed Pullen in Tacoma.  They were able to get there later and add this species to their Pierce County lists for the year.  Glad I could return their earlier kindnesses.

Bird #14 – Solitary Sandpiper – Fife

Solitary Sandpiper

Good weather continued and spirits buoyed by recent birding, the following day I went to nearby Pine Ridge Park hoping for a photo of something new.  No such thing, but I had one of those very special intersections that brighten up any day.  I heard the call of a distant Pileated Woodpecker.  I tried to lure it in closer with some playback and instantly heard drumming from a second bird very nearby.  I went maybe 30 feet up a path into the trees and found it working on a small snag.  Spectacular even from afar, up close they are truly magnificent.

Bird #15 – Pileated Woodpecker – Pine Ridge Park, Edmonds

Pileated Woodpecker1

Later that day I got a call from birding friend Jon Houghton.  He had discovered a Hermit Thrush in his back yard a few minutes earlier.  Figuring this was a chance for a new year bird and to get out in good weather for a walk with Cindy and black lab Chica, we donned masks and went to Jon’s.  No show for at least 20 minutes so we said our goodbyes and took Chica to Lynndale Park for her walk.  Of course, the Hermit Thrush had returned soon after we left and when so alerted, we returned to Jon’s house and this time the Hermit Thrush cooperated and showed up 5 minutes later.

Bird #16 – Hermit Thrush – Jon Houghton’s Yard, Edmonds

Hermit Thrush

It had been a great week and there would be one more highlight.  On April 21st a Calliope Hummingbird was reported by Jeff Bryant coming to flowering trees and plants at his South Seattle home.  It returned on the 22nd and I contacted him to see if visitors were ok on the 23rd – with virus cautions in practice.  He said sure but the hummer had not been seen that morning.  Calliope Hummingbirds are the smallest hummingbirds seen in Washington and are extremely rare in Western Washington.  This was only the second one seen in King County in the past 20 years.  At only 3 1/4 inches, it is also the smallest hummingbird found in the United States.  Oh well, I should have tried the day before.  Then Jeff sent me a message that the Calliope had been seen again.  An hour later I was at his yard – his very beautiful yard – hopeful.  A few minutes later Jeff joined me and we waited together and I learned of the amazing birds he had seen in his yard over the years – 136 species in all.  We had a quick visit from the hummer and then it disappeared.  A few minutes later with mask in place, Steve Pink arrived on the scene and in another few minutes the Calliope made another visit giving us a great experience as it did its mating display and then posed for photos.   An excellent morning.

Bird #17 – Hummingbird – South Seattle

Calliope Hummingbird Tongue

Calliope Hummingbird Grooming Vertical

On the way back to Edmonds I stopped at Yost Park hoping that some new migrants may have arrived.  Earlier in the week I had heard or seen my first Black Throated Gray and Wilson’s Warblers of the year but had not been able to get any photos.  I heard the song of a Black Throated Gray as I started my walk in the park.  I tracked him down and got awful photos from below in poor light.  Later down along the creek, I heard, then saw and then photographed a Wilson’s Warbler.  Later I heard but could not get a clear shot of a FOY Warbling Vireo.

Bird #18 – Wilson’s Warbler, Edmonds

Wilson's WarblerR

There is nothing special about the last bird on my list.  Not a lifer, not a firsts of year, not a new photo but it was a meaningful experience.  Coming up the steep trail at Yost Park to return to my car, a small bird flashed in front of me.  I had heard a number of Ruby Crowned Kinglets and figured this was another one.  Instead it was its close relative – a Golden Crowned Kinglet.  It was very active – even for a Kinglet which are notoriously so.  I struggled to get a good shot as it moved on every time I got it in my viewfinder.  Then finally I got it in the open and I was quick enough to get the photo below.

Bird #19 – Golden Crowned Kinglet

Golden Crowned Kinglet1

I include it and close with it not because it is more special than any of a number of birds seen and photographed in the past two weeks, but exactly because it is not.  It reminded me of just how important it is to me to be with the birds, chasing rarities or new birds for the year or just looking for the next bird and the next photo op.  When I am so engaged I completely forget about what the COVID-19 crisis has cost me and what I cannot do and instead remember and appreciate what I can do.  The photos above are 19 reminders of that – examples of feeling good and living “large enough” if not living quite as large as before.