Sunday June 13th was supposed to be a day when Cindy and I could attend to our “to do” list without commitments to anyone else, no places to go and no social engagements ahead. There were a few things to still move from #217 to #207, details to work on for our wedding now about 10 weeks away, but compared to most of the past 6 weeks, a pretty slow and quiet day. I had done a marathon birding trip to Eastern Washington 10 days earlier and was considering another one the next week when Cindy would be off to Lake Chelan with her “game game gals”, but there was nothing pulling me out into the field – no bird to chase.
At 10:30 a.m. still reading the New York Times, sipping my coffee, and comfy in PJ’s and bathrobe, an Ebird message popped up on my phone. Good friend and excellent birder Deb Essman had reported a Costa’s Hummingbird in “the grasslands” in Kittitas County. The report said it had been found the previous day by Walter Szeliga, another excellent birder. The description was right on – this was for real. I immediately texted Deb, got a confirmation, followed with a quick call getting directions, and playing out Rule 1 – “Go Now” – hit the shower and was on the road by 10:45 a.m. It was 126 miles to the target which turned out to be at Walter’s home. With no traffic and no stops, it should take less than two hours via freeway. I had to get gas and there was a brief traffic tie up, although it was Sunday. Even so I was at Walter’s House by 1:00 p.m. No birders there…how about the bird?
Some background. Costa’s Hummingbirds are generally found in low desert and semi-arid habitats in Southern California and Arizona in the U.S. and is resident in Mexico. It is among the smallest of our hummingbirds and the male is easily identified with a short bill, a long flared purple gorget and a white “eyebrow”. I had recently seen them at three locations in Arizona and had numerous sightings in Southern California. I had NEVER seen one in Washington where they are very rare with only a handful of Ebird records – the latest being a single observation at a feeder in 2013. Although 2021 has been a great year for new State birds for me, as the State Life List grows, additions are getting harder, thus my decision to Go Now.
Walter was in Wenatchee at a Little League Game with his son. Although there was a chance to see the hummer from the street, entering the yard would be better. I parked on the quiet street and walked down the driveway to the front door and knocked. Stacey Szeliga was home and it was immediately apparent from my binoculars and camera, that this was not a social call. But in fact it turned out to be that as well as we had a nice visit, finding out that although she was not a birder, she knew a lot about birds and her family had generations of birders dating back to one who knew John James Audubon. She told me where the Costa’s had been seen and let me roam free. The most likely spot would be a roost on some bare poplars bordering her yard and the one adjacent next to the driveway. There was also a small feeder at eye level at the end of the driveway. It had not been seen there, but it added reasons for it to remain and feed.
As is clear from many of my other writings, it often does not happen this way, but within just a few minutes, I heard the distinctive chatter call notes of a male Costa’s Hummingbird and then it landed on one of the bare poplar branches – posing for me. The sun was not at a perfect angle to catch the purple iridescence of its flaring gorget, but there was no mistaking this identity. Wow!!
This was my 429th species seen in Washington and my 416th species with a Washington photo. With no warning the hummer buzzed right over me and landed on the feeder. It was not there long enough for me to get a photo, but this was a good sign that it might remain for some time. I shared my good fortune with Stacey and told her of the visit to the feeder. I watched for another 10 minutes and the hummer did not return, possibly because one of the young Szeliga’s came out to shoot some hoops. I grabbed a photo of an Anna’s Hummingbird that was on a nest in their yard and then headed off.
Anna’s Hummingbird on Nest
It was a long drive for a single bird, but that comes with the territory on chases for new species – one of the signs of “Twitcher’s Disease” – the drive to add new species to lists – life lists or year lists or month lists or Big Day lists – lists for any of many geographical options – world, country, ABA area, state, or county or patch. And of course there was the long drive home as well made far worse by an accident somewhere on Interstate 90 that added more than an hour. I had posted about the Costa’s Hummingbird on Facebook before heading off and had been contacted by other birders who were interested in what I found. And I had contacted some birding friends to alert them of the rarity. I brought them all up to date, and thanked Walter and Deb with texts. Others contacted me for details. Over the next few hours, several others showed up and got to see this little beauty. The parade continued on Monday and some friends have seen it again today – Tuesday the 15th. I think this guy may stick around for awhile.
During my visit with Stacey, we noted how cool it was that this rarity had chosen the yard of an excellent birder to visit. I recalled other Washington rarities visiting birder’s yards: the Calliope Hummingbird visiting Jeffrey Bryant, the Tennessee Warbler visiting Ed Newbold, and the Rose Breasted Grosbeak visiting Ed Swan and I am sure there are others I am forgetting. In each case the excellent birders quickly identified the birds, knew of their rarity and notified the birding world, sharing the wealth so to speak. What if this hummingbird had instead visited a yard with a feeder down the street where the owner was not a birder but simply someone who enjoyed birds. They very well may not have recognized it as rare or even different. The same holds true for the Calliope Hummingbird, Tennessee Warbler and Rose Breasted Grosbeak. How often does this in fact often? How many other Costa’s Hummingbirds are in Washington right now? And the same question for all of those other fortunate coincidences and for rarities in general. There are a lot of birders around – covering a lot of ground – but there is much more ground not covered. What wonders are there right now? What will be seen tomorrow? The joys of birding.
In most of the U.S. spring migration is at its peak in the month of May. Additionally as the breeding season nears or begins, hormones are building in both migrants and residents and birds are active and singing making them easier for birders to find. Consequentially, this generally means more birders are active in the field and more birds are reported on listservs and on Ebird. By the science or by the numbers, it is pretty hard to beat May as the month to find the greatest numbers of species in most of North America.
Such has certainly been the case for me in my home state of Washington as (omitting 2019 when I was away from home most of the month on my 50/50/50 adventure) I have averaged 181 species seen with a high of 224 in 2013. Additionally with the exception of years when I was doing a big month (January in 2018 and February this year) it has been my most active month with non-local trips averaging over 10 that month. Non-local being defined as trips of over 100 miles. There has always been additional birding at local parks hoping for another new arrival. All told in May over the past 8 years, I have seen 296 species in Washington. I haven’t checked to confirm it, but I expect that I have not seen as many in any other month.
This May has been very different as much of my time and energy has been consumed by changes in my personal life – purchasing a new home with Cindy, moving from the old place to the new one and getting the old one ready to sell. This has also involved endless paperwork for financing. Then there was the change of tenants in a rental property and, oh yeah, getting engaged and starting plans for a late August wedding and celebrating the news with friends, Cindy and I have been very busy. Our new home has a killer view of Puget Sound and some of the Edmonds waterfront, so I have been watching for birds trying to build a “home list” which now stands at 25 species, but unlike years past, almost all of my birding has been in short stints (and that word will take on great meaning later) at nearby parks. The only exceptions have been along trip to Eastern Washington with beginning birding friend Jerry Sale on May 6, a trip to Fir Island to test a new camera and then a trip to Northeastern Snohomish County looking for the newly arrived, and returning, American Redstart which grew into a longer trip when Steve Pink showed up at the Redstart spot and then we hit a number of other locations looking for specialty County birds. That day was great until a major disappointment at the end which will be detailed with a postscript later.
So far this May I have seen only 127 species year. Not bad for only a few trips, but so many favorite species and favorite places to go have not been experienced this year. There are still a few days left so maybe there will be one more trip, but this year has had and will continue to have additional priorities – I did mention the move and the engagement, right – but especially with the removal of so much Covid-19 angst and restriction, it feels odd not to have been out more. Still lots of highlights including a very special one. Those highlights are what follows.
May 6 – Birding with Jerry Sale. Jerry and Rachel and Paul and Sarah – friends I have inherited through Cindy. Two sisters and their spouses who are intelligent, interesting and fun. We had planned a joint visit to Semiahmoo resort in Blaine County last year before Covid changed everything. Part of that visit was for me to introduce them to the world of birding just as I had done with Cindy the year before when she discovered Black Oystercatchers and Harlequin Ducks and began to understand the quirky hobby of the guy she had recently just met. That trip may still happen someday, but in the interim Jerry had taken some online birding classes through Seattle Audubon with Connie Sidles and was developing an interest. We found a convenient time and headed off to Eastern Washington on May 6th. I hoped it would be a trip that would include new birds for me, visits to familiar places and a chance for Jerry not only to see new species and new places but also to maybe develop his own interest for more.
Repeating an itinerary I have done many times, alone and leading field trips, our first stop was at a home at Snoqualmie Pass that has numerous Hummingbird feeders. It was a gray cool morning, but the hummers did not disappoint as we had at least 10 Rufous Hummingbirds putting on a show. I could not find a MacGillivray’s Warbler in the nearby thicket, but a flock of 7 Evening Grosbeaks was a treat and a new species for Jerry.
Our next stop was Bullfrog Pond in Kittitas County just west of Cle Elum. The birds were there, singing and calling, but much less responsive, active and visible than usual. Jerry got a chance to hear new birds, but there were too few visuals of MacGillivray’s and Nashville Warblers and Warbling and Cassin’s Vireos – all FOY’s for me. The pattern held at Wood Duck Road as well where the highlight was a couple of singing Cassin’s Finches and a Western Bluebird in continuing gray light. Visuals and numbers were a little better at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum where the always reliable Pygmy Nuthatches came in close and some perching Northern Rough Winged Swallows provided a good chance for Jerry to expand his birding skills.
Again following old patterns we ventured on to Umptanum Road out of Ellensburg. A first visit to the sage/shrub/steppe habitat is always fun with new birders – especially when Bluebirds – both Western and Mountain cooperate. The latter seemed to be at every nest box paired up and undoubtedly on eggs. The electric blue Mountain Bluebirds – at least 10 – were the hit of the visit. Also enjoyed were the songs of the Western Meadowlarks and Brewer’s Sparrows.
Just as we were leaving the sage area on Umptanum Road we had the first of many Western Kingbirds for the trip. It was already my ninth new species for 2021 on the trip.
Normally we would have birded along Old Vantage Highway heading to the Columbia River, but since we had already seen or at least heard a number of sage species and there were lots of other options for us, we headed instead for Grant County and to Frenchman Coulee – always an impressive place regardless of birds. Just before arriving there, we stopped at the larger pond on Silica Road and in addition to Bank Swallows and Jerry’s first Yellowheaded Blackbird, we had one of the best birds of the trip – an adult Black Crowned Night Heron. They are infrequently seen there. We also had a pair of Cinnamon Teal. Unfortunately the Night Heron flew off quickly – so no photo.
Frenchman Coulee never disappoints for scenery and usually not for birds. It is one of the best places in Washington to find White Throated Swifts and is often good for both Rock and Canyon Wrens in addition to many swallows. We only saw a single White Throated Swift but had many close if quick looks as the aptly named bird flew directly and swiftly overhead. Lots of Violet Green and Northern Rough Winged Swallows made for good comparisons and a Rock Wren called on nearby rocks not far from where rock climbers were testing their skills on the spires.
I had been there in April, but felt that a visit to the County Line Ponds in Grant County was a must for Jerry and I was especially hoping that we might see some phalaropes. It was a good decision as there were at least 20 Black Necked Stilts, 4 American Avocets and 7 Wilson’s Phalaropes, the latter doing their circle dances as they fed. There was also a distant FOY Blue Winged Teal.
We had even more Stilts and Avocets at Para Ponds in addition to many Yellowheaded Blackbirds but had no luck on hoped for Tricolored Blackbirds. A bit of a surprise was a Dunlin in full breeding plumage that was hanging around with a small group of Least Sandpipers and some Long Billed Dowitchers. Additional firsts for Jerry were a Great Egret and a male Northern Harrier.
I had one more hoped for First of Year target – a Forster’s Tern – expected at Potholes Reservoir. As soon as we arrived at the boat launch at Potholes State Park, we saw several Forster’s Terns fishing close by. There were also many Western Grebes and they were to provide us with the best experience of the day as we watched two of them begin a courtship ritual culminating in their spectacular running/dancing on the water – only the second time I have seen that except in videos. I did not check out each grebe but expect there were probably some Clark’s mixed in with the 70 plus Westerns.
We failed to find a Burrowing Owl but were more than pleased with the 90 species we saw for the day knowing that we could have added more if that had been the objective. I don’t know if Jerry will further engage with birding, but we had a good time and were still on speaking terms at the end of a very long day.
Over the next two weeks I made a few brief trips to local parks and added a few birds to the year list but nothing of note. Time was mostly consumed working on the aforementioned real estate transactions and the related moves – an exhausting project that left no time nor energy for distant birding trips despite seeing reports daily of newly arriving birds. On May 20th I got word that a new camera and lens that I had on back order for more than a month had arrived. I had seen the Canon R5 and accompanying 100mm-500 mm lens in action in Arizona and had been very impressed, and reading reviews sold me on getting one. But that was before the major financial commitment for the new condo. Cindy talked me into going forward anyhow, so I picked it up and the next day headed to Wylie Slough to try it out knowing I could return it if not pleased. It was a bright day and some birds cooperated. These are the photos that convinced me to keep it, happily.
May 24th – Snohomish County Regular “Rarities” – My new camera/lens set up is much heavier than the Olympus that I had been using but I loved the ease of focus and the image density with a 48 megapixel full frame sensor. It has gotten a couple more tests and is definitely a keeper. We finished the move over the following weekend and by Monday I both wanted and needed to get out even though there was rain and cloudy skies in the forecast. The main draw was the aforementioned American Redstarts that have been returning to a favored spot on the Oso Loop Road just off Highway 530 west of Arlington. Redstarts are common Eastern warblers but are found in only a few places in Washington. This would be my 5th year in a row seeing them at this spot. I heard one singing as soon as I arrived and after a short wait got a great visual and some photos. I thought I might have heard a second male, but was never sure. I did get a quick look at a female as well. I also heard my FOY Western Wood Pewee and both Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers.
Not long after I arrived another car pulled up – probably another birder. It was Steve Pink, a birding friend from Edmonds who knows Snohomish County as well as anyone. I quickly got the Redstart to come in for a nice view and we spent the next half hour enjoying the birds there including the species mentioned before, a Red Breasted Sapsucker, Swainson’s Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, a Bullock’s Oriole (FOY), and Black Headed Grosbeaks among others.We then walked up to the river and had a pair of Western Tanagers (FOY) and a pair of Common Mergansers. Light rain fell and the light was awful, so it was a good, and I felt successful, challenge for my new camera.
Due to Covid restraints, I had not birded with local friends in a long while and it was great to visit with Steve. We decided to continue on to other Snohomish County hotspots, known well by him. The first was near the Whitehorse Trail where Red Eyed Vireos can be found. Like the Redstart, this vireo is abundant in the East but rare and localized in Washington. We heard its song as soon as we arrived and eventually got good visuals and photo opportunities – another First of Year bird for me. Once again the light was low and I was pleased with the new camera and lens.
Steve had another Snohomish County hotspot in mind – Whitehorse Park – where we immediately found Chipping Sparrows – also uncommon in this area and also had a singing Black Throated Gray Warbler as well as a kettle of Turkey Vultures and another Red Breasted Sapsucker. The warbler was another test for the camera as the light was awful. Several runs through editing produced an acceptable photo – made possible by the density of the captured image.
While we were out, Steve got a text from David Poortinga that a Little Stint had been reported at Eide Road in Stanwood, about an hour away. It was originally found by Mitchell von Rotz. The tide did not look promising but we had to give it a go. Little Stints are northern Eurasian sandpipers that winter in Africa and are very rare in the U.S. This was only the third or fourth record for Washington. I had chased it twice before without success in Washington although I had seen them in Kenya, India and South Africa. We had to try. When we arrived the water was pretty high. We found some Western Sandpipers but unlike earlier in the day when Westerns were accompanied by the Stint, this was not then the case. After a couple of hours, we left. Several hours later I got word that the Stint had been relocated as the tide retreated. Well it had been a good day until then. I was ready to put Little Stint into the “nemesis” column.
May 25th – The Rally – After missing the Little Stint on the 24th and hearing it was seen later, I figured I would try again on the 25th but the question was “when”. There was an early morning report that it was seen in a different area – far out from the end of the gravel trail. As an important part of our move, I had to take things from our old storage area into our new one. This meant dismantling and then reassembling storage racks. I thought I had made great progress on them on the 23rd and 24th and it would be a simple matter to finish the last one on the 25th. Such was definitely NOT the case, as in order to get the shelving onto the frame, I had to undo much of the earlier work. Frustrated by that, I miscounted the “holes” where the supports had to go and the shelving was therefore misaligned. This meant more backtracking and more frustration which was made worse as I saw the opportunity to go for the Stint (an hour away) disappearing. After much cursing, I put everything down (except my phone to continue to check Stint reports) and took a 30 minute “breather”.
Much more relaxed I returned to the storage room and finished my project – and it looked GREAT! Part of my relaxing had been seeing the continuing reports not only that the Stint remained but that the water level was and would continue to be very low, so the area where the Stint was being seen would not be adversely effected. At 12:10 pm I was able to head north to Eide Road/Legue Island. Traffic cooperated and I pulled in to the parking lot just after 1:00 pm and saw birders I knew leaving with triumphant smiles on their faces and encouragement to just join the others at the end of the gravel path near the bench. Others arrived and we hiked out the half mile or so to the end of the path where maybe 5 others were peering through scopes – hopefully at a Little Stint. Good birding friend Paul Baerny was there and he said he had just had it in his scope but it was moving around. Then he had again – he thought – the one that was really orange. With his help, I got my scope onto the group of sandpipers that included the Stint and looked for the orange one. The trouble was that they were really very distant and that depending on the light and their movements, many of them looked orange. Some orange ones were definitely Western Sandpipers but how about that one – or was it that other one?
Other Little Stints that have been seen in Washington (both of them) have been in non-breeding (“basic”) plumage – with orange not being an issue as they are quite brown/gray. This guy was in breeding (“alternate”) plumage which is described in the Sibley Guide as being “bright orange overall – with a white throat”. In “Shorebirds of North America, Europe and Asia” (Message and Taylor) it is described as buffy-orange with a “split supercilium effect” a white chin and throat and a “white mantle V which is prominent” which others refer to as white braces. Generally the bill of the Little Stint is shorter and straighter than that of a Western Sandpiper and more similar to that of a Semipalmated Sandpiper. Well all that might be true but for my old eyes even with a scope, I was not super confident that I could distinguish any of the field marks and more than one bird in view looked orangish. And frankly none looked “bright orange” compared to the others which seemed to be the basis of identification for most of the observers. I was pretty sure I was seeing the same bird others were identifying as the Stint, but “pretty sure” for such a rarity and a new ABA Life bird did not seem to be enough.
The Stint and the Western Sandpipers were feeding in mud between grasses on flats about 250 yards away from us. We were on a raised dike that enabled us to see over most but not all of the short grasses and the birds were actively moving making observation more challenging. The light was good but changeable making colors even harder to discern as what looked bright orange in one moment became a duller rusty brown in another. It was executive decision time. There is a crude “almost path” that leads from the end of the dike out onto the mud, or at that moment with such little, water onto a grassy barely muddy area adjoining the mud where the birds were feeding. With boots on my feet, camera and binoculars around my neck and scope over my shoulder, I scurried down the rocks adjoining our path/dike and headed west towards the muddy area where the birds were scattered, hoping for a closer and better view, a more confident identification and even possibly a photo. Almost everyone else followed.
The immediate problem was that the perspective from level ground changed dramatically and all of the logs and snags that had served as points of reference from our perched viewing station further east were no longer useful and to some degree were misleading. Where were those birds? Well it turned out they were further out than they had seemed but were actually fairly close (maybe 100 feet?) to the fringe area where we could set up our scopes. And better yet, the weather had cleared a bit and the sun was somewhat behind us and onto the shorebirds. Depending on the light and the angle of observation, more than one of them still seemed somewhat orange, but now other details were clear and one consistently did seem brighter orange than the others. And that one absolutely did have a shorter and straighter bill, and a clear white throat and chin, and a prominent white V on its mantle – the telltale white braces. There was a clearly distinguishable “split supercilium” and as per Message and Taylor its mantle and upper scapular feathers were black centered and fringed chestnut. The orangish-buff wash on the underparts were fairly restricted to the sides of the breast. There was no doubt that this was a Little Stint.
I ventured as close as I dared without a chance of disturbing it or the view of others and put the new camera to work. I was so excited I forgot to readjust the settings back to good light, so some of the photos were overexposed, but as had been the experience earlier, the focus worked great and even at that distance with a very small bird, there was sufficient digital data collected by the sensor to give me very nice photos. I finally had a Little Stint and I had good photos to prove it.
Many birders came later and saw the Stint and now seeing others out away from the gravel path, they, too, ventured forth. The Stint was seen until late on the 25th but although looked for by many excellent birders, it was not seen on the 26th or later. So I am very happy and consider myself very fortunate. I am particularly happy to have gotten a good photo. I also acknowledge that there is no way I could have identified this individual had I not known it was there and then gotten close enough for a good look. It is considered a tough ID and I can understand why, Seeing it in breeding plumage was icing on the cake. Off the nemesis list for sure.
Before COVID-19 changed all of our lives, Cindy and I had plans for a number of trips in 2020. The first would be to visit friends in Arizona and then other trips would be to Florida, Cuba and maybe Africa. These trips would give us a chance to see how we traveled together both on our own and as part of a group. They would be trips that included birds and birding but would also have other activities as well – good first steps to see how Cindy would react to my birding travel and to see how I might change previous travel patterns to include birds but with my foot somewhat off the accelerator in terms of pace and concentration. None of those trips happened so those questions remained a mystery but the ensuing year allowed us to get to know each much better and to strengthen our bonds and familiarity. There had been a few successful fun local car trips and we felt pretty good about expanding our travel horizons. When we were able to both get our vaccines, we returned to the previous plan of a visit to Southeast Arizona. It worked out very well.
I had visited Arizona in November last year chasing some rarities and new ABA life birds or photos. It was pre-vaccination, but with the airports relatively empty and the flights no more than half full and everyone fully masked, I had felt safe. Despite a significant number of vaccinations, the pandemic infections continue, albeit at a decreased pace, and jets and airports are relatively full again. Without our vaccinations, we would not have felt good about travel, but those vaccinations gave us a sense of freedom and safety – a good thing as all our flights were completely full and there were crowds at the airports. Thankfully everyone was wearing masked, although there continue to be some folks who do not fully comply with the need to cover both mouths and noses – aarrgh!!
Our trip would start with a visit to a friend of Cindy’s who lives in the community of Marana, a bit north of Tucson. The weather was great and a visit at the clubhouse was to be a nice catchup in person after what had previously been by Zoom meetings only. In our talks about birds in Arizona before departure, Cindy expressed her excitement about two possibilities: a Vermilion Flycatcher and a Greater Roadrunner and I promised her we would see both. It does not always work out this way, but immediately as we got out of our car at the Marana Clubhouse, a male and female Vermilion Flycatcher flew out from a nearby tree to grab some insects unseen by us. A great start to the birding part of the trip and the visit with our friend was wonderful as well.
Our next scheduled stop was to be with friends in Green Valley, south of Tucson. On the way up to Marana, I had noticed a sign for an exit to Ina Road and I remembered that that was where I had turned off last November to look for a Northern Jacana that had been seen regularly from the bridge over the Santa Cruz River. It was only a five minute diversion, so on our way to Green Valley we stopped to see if we could locate it. Two other birders were on the bridge with cameras and binoculars but the Jacana was not visible. A couple of minutes later, it flew out from what must have been almost directly under the bridge and disappeared upriver. It was some distance away, but I spied it on the edge of the cattails just barely out of the water. Not the best of views, but given its rarity, certainly a great bird for Cindy’s growing life list.
“Green” conjures up “lush” and “valley” is generally defined as a low area of land between mountains or hills with a watercourse running through it. I don’t think I missed it but the only mountains were many miles away, few and isolated, and there was no river or stream to be seen in the desert scrub. There was green but only in the golf courses and plantings that were scattered among the housing developments. Perhaps Green Valley is more an emotional declaration as it is a pleasant creation in the otherwise drab continuum of browns and tans repeated in the colors of the desert and the houses people have built there. There is plenty of blue sky, sun, and dry air that was merely hot in early April would soon be replaced by hotter and even hotter as the summer arrives. Many of the inhabitants will return north to cooler climes which they had departed when the rains and snow and grey had threatened in the winter preceding. It might appear from my description that I dislike the area. A better statement would be that I liked it very much in a small dose but would tire of it quickly in longer stretches – even with the many birding attractions close at hand. I am not a sun person and neither golf or tennis, or the tennis substitute of pickleball are part of my life. But they are for many of the Green Valley inhabitants and that is a positive thing as all, well most, passions are contributors to an enjoyable life. More importantly good people are such contributors and our hosts were certainly that. Good food, good drink and good conversation with great company in a lovely home that was our abode for two nights.
The next morning our hosts took us first to a small lake at Encanto Park where I saw most of the very few waterfowl of our visit and then it was off to the Sonoran Desert Museum. The Museum is a wonderful collection of all things desert including especially many native plants and especially many cacti. There is an aviary and a number of animal exhibits but perhaps related to this past year of Covid changes everywhere, the numbers of animals in the exhibits and birds in the aviary seemed low and disappointing. There were some wild birds though with our first Cactus Wren and Phainopepla being the best.
The cacti were spectacular with far more species and varieties than I could have imagined. I did not want to imagine having to travel through the desert and getting pricked by any of them. On the way back to our hosts’ beautifully furnished and decorated home, we again detoured to the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River. They are not birders so getting to see the Northern Jacana was experienced by them differently than adding it to a list, but in many ways that was a better way to see this rarity, appreciating its uniqueness, rarity and mystery.
At home eating is mostly on a schedule and especially for my breakfast, pretty routine – tea, fruit and a flakes/granola mix about the same time each day. Lunch is generally light around noon and dinner varies but is also within a fairly set time range. On vacation, calories mount and routines disappear. A leisurely and larger and later than usual breakfast with our friends on their patio in already warm temperatures and bright sunny blue skies was the welcomed pattern of both our mornings with them. Each time we were accompanied by numerous bird visitors: House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Gambel’s Quail, Gila Woodpeckers, Curve Billed Thrashers, Canyon Towhees, both Mourning and White Winged Doves and Anna’s and Black Chinned Hummingbirds regularly and a few other species on occasion including Northern Cardinal, a species I always forget is in Arizona and I hope one day will make an appearance in Washington.
After breakfast on our last day with our friends, we went together to Madera Canyon, a famous birding area that is less than 30 minutes from their home. If I lived there, I expect I would visit it everyday. I first visited Madera Canyon in June 1977. I was not a “lister” at that time although I roughly kept track of new species seen. In 1977 I am sure there were many more species seen there, but the one that jumps out of my old record is a Varied Bunting. Forty years later I returned to Madera Canyon on a marvelous Wings Birding tour in early August 2017. Special species seen were Mexican Whippoorwill, Whiskered Screech Owl, and Arizona Woodpecker. It was not real birdy when our foursome visited this month, but it was the first real Arizona birding experience for Cindy with many observers and birds coming in to strategically placed feeders. The first time anyone sees a Broad Billed Hummingbird, there is likely to be an “omigosh” exclamation. When three are on the same feeder and then a Rivoli’s Hummingbird joins in, it is a memorable moment for sure.
As usual the Wild Turkeys put on a show and we were able to see an Arizona Woodpecker among many Acorn Woodpeckers and I also found a Red Naped Sapsucker when the rest of the group drove up canyon and I remained near the feeders hoping for some rarity to appear. Mexican Jays were numerous and loud and other specialties included Bridled Titmouse, Yellow Eyed Junco and a Scott’s Oriole.
After another enjoyable lunch on the patio, it was time to thank our hosts and head south. We would be spending the next three nights at the Casa de San Pedro near Hereford and would have plenty of time to explore the surrounding area including the Canyons of the Huachuca mountains. Our first exploration would be at Battiste’s Bird Garden. I had not been there before but had been given a head’s up about it from Ken Blankinship, a superb bird guide in the area who unfortunately was booked up solid during our stay. Tony Battiste has been running this B and B for 20 years and has had nesting Elf Owls there every year. We stopped by to see what was there then and to get the skinny on the best way to see the owls. A $10 donation per person gets you access and includes coming back in the evening for the owl show. Tony was in the yard when we arrived and we enjoyed talking with him. The only new birds for the trip were a Cassin’s Finch and a Cassin’s Kingbird. More importantly we got some recommendations for restaurants nearby (there are very few in the area without going in to Sierra Vista – not the prettiest town). We also learned that we could count on the owls appearing at the nest hole around 6:45 p.m. Our plan was set. Check in at Casa de San Pedro; have dinner at the Mexican restaurant at the intersection of Highway 92 and Hereford Road and be back at Battiste’s around 6:30 that evening.
I had stayed at the Casa de San Pedro during my Wings Tour in 2017. It was perfect. It has been run by Carl and Patrick for two decades and caters to birding guests and others. The rooms are comfortable and the setting superb with many bird feeders, a pond, trees, shrubs and brush and adjacent to trails along the San Pedro River. The breakfasts are world famous as are the pies that are set out in the dining room every afternoon. After checking in, grabbing a piece of pecan pie was our first order of business.
There were many birds and some birders at the Casa when we arrived, but after the pie, our attention was on a brief rest and then off for our dinner at Ricardo’s. The food was good and we were easily able to get to Battiste’s by 6:30. The Elf Owls nest in a telephone pole that is front and center in the yard and viewing chairs were lined up and partially filled when we arrived. Tony told us the history of the owls on the property and that there had been quite a show the previous evening with the pair actually copulating for several seconds (a long time for bird copulation) in the open. There were no guarantees of anything other than at least an appearance in the nest hole before the owls flew off. A Rufous Hummingbird was zipping around the area and a Curve Billed Thrasher was “whooting” and I am sure there were some other birds, but we were there for the owl show. I had not promised Cindy that we would see owls, but did include a probability of that in my sales pitch to pique her interest in the trip.
We learned that the female had poked her head out of the nest hole briefly before we arrived. Thankfully it would not be the last time as maybe ten minutes after we arrived the tiny owl face appeared in hole #4. Would she return back in, fly off, perch, disappear? She went back in for only a second and then poked her head out again. It was show time.
The Elf Owl is the smallest owl in the world – less than 6 inches and weighing less than 1.5 ounces – astonishingly small. After another 5-10 minutes the owl flew out of the hole and perched on a branch on a tree in the open. One of the people there was a birder/photographer with a giant telephoto lens on a top of the line tripod with an also top of the line flash attachment. This was his fifth year trying to get a photo of the Elf Owl perched in the open. This was his day – or rather his evening – as it was for all of us, as the diminutive owl remained in plain view for several minutes. Tony held the owl in his flashlight giving it a somewhat yellow tone but increasing the visibility. My camera does not have a flash but I got some okay photos in the decreasing light and others with that yellowish cast.
As it perched on the branch above us, it began to communicate with the second owl still in the nest with soft calls and then the second owl came out of the nest hole. The first owl moved back out of the open and it was joined briefly by the second and then they both flew over us and perched in branches on the tree behind the nest pole. There was a split second copulation, some more communication and then they were off. The show was over, but it had been quite a show with a very pleased audience. This was the 9th species of owl that Cindy has seen or heard in the U.S. – not bad for a non-birder.
The next morning we had the first of our three incredible breakfasts at the Casa de San Pedro, prepared a little early for us since we were going out with a guide at 8:00. There is always some baked good specialty in addition to juice, fresh fruit and usually eggs with some meaty addition or creation. On vacation we were not counting calories. I birded a bit around the Casa before joining our guide, Matt Brown. It is a very bird rich environment and in less than 30 minutes I had seen more than 30 species with my favorites being Black Throated Sparrow, Green Tailed Towhee, Summer Tanager, Pyrrhuloxia, Verdin and both Calliope and Costa’s Hummingbirds.
There was no set plan to bird with our guide but we let him know we would be particularly pleased to see a Roadrunner and a good look at a Pyrrhuloxia would be great. We found no Roadrunner in this really good habitat for them but we did find a photo friendly Pyrrhuloxia. Otherwise it was just an opportunity for Cindy to get a taste of birding in Southeast Arizona. We birded in separate cars as a nod to safety while COVID 19 still accompanies us, starting with the roads leading back to Highway 92 with our first planned stop being at Ramsey Canyon.
I had visited Ramsey Canyon in November last year and had brief views of my lifer White Eared Hummingbird. It was too early for this hummer, but other species were around and easy to see. No special hummingbirds (or maybe all hummingbirds are special) but we had good looks at Broad Billed, Broad Tailed and Rivoli’s Hummingbirds, Mexican Jays, Wild Turkeys, Bridled Titmouse, Arizona, Acorn and Gila Woodpeckers, Canyon Towhee, Yellow Eyed Junco among other birds we had already seen. Of special interest were Scott’s Oriole and Painted Redstart.
When I was there last November, I stayed at the Ramsey Canyon Inn B&B which was for sale at the time. There are now new owners and Cindy had a tour and was favorably impressed. She really liked the Casa de San Pedro, so I am encouraged that we will be returning. After Ramsey Canyon we drove through nearby residential areas heading towards the “Harris’s Hawk Stakeout Spot”. At one spot Matt heard a Rufous Winged Sparrow. We stopped and easily located it singing from atop a close by tree. These sparrows are regular in many parts of Southeast Arizona but were rare in this particular area. Nice to get a photo. Not too much further along, Matt called out “Roadrunners” and we saw two on a big open field behind a No Trespassing sign. Not the greatest of views, but Cindy was happy to see them and now I had delivered on all of my promises.
Harris’s Hawks are regular but uncommon in Arizona where I had not seen one and far more common in Texas where I have seen them on several occasions. I have also seen them in Peru. Matt said to look on every post, building and tree because a pair was definitely in the area. We finally found one perched atop a radio tower. Not a great view but unmistakably a Harris’s Hawk. I have included a picture of that bird and a much better picture from Texas. They are very striking birds. I once met a falconer on the Waterville Plateau in Washington who had a pair that he used in his commercial pest control business. He put them on a par with many of his falcons in their successful hunting. This was one of four species I added to my Arizona state list on tis trip.
Unfortunately we had to change plans with Matt as an unexpected personal matter for him came up, and we cut the day short just after noon. Matt was a fun person, great birder and good guy. He was as much into natural history in all forms as he was into birds and we would have learned a lot more and seen more birds if we had been able to spend more time together. After we parted ways, we decided to head over to the Coronado National Monument (which was disappointing) and then continue up to Montezuma Pass. There were not a lot of birds and the road was definitely one you would not want to do with a big trailer. At the top we could see quite far in all directions including into Mexico and we definitely had a view of that atrocity called “the Wall” – an expensive eyesore that extended for many miles. Also at the Pass, there were several White Throated Swifts – another new state bird for me.
Earlier we had heard that some Montezuma Quail had been seen by birders on Turkey Tract Road which leads up to the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary. We were not successful finding the Quail but we had a nice visit to the Sanctuary. I had been there in 2017 on the Wings trip including a fun visit with Mary Jo Ballator who had started a Bed and Breakfast at her home at the base of Ash Canyon in 2002. On our visit we were successful in finding our target, a Lucifer Hummingbird, the only one I have ever seen. Mary Jo’s place was the best place in North America to find this species. Sadly Mary Jo passed away in 2019 and the fate of the property, a favorite of thousands of birders, was unknown. A GoFundMe effort covered temporary costs but the future looked bleak – until a major benefactor donated the funds necessary to purchase and preserve this birding gem. Now we would reap the benefits of this generosity and purpose.
Rather than catalog the birds seen on this visit, I will add them to a further discussion from a second visit later. After an hour at the peaceful garden of the sanctuary we returned to Casa de San Pedro for another piece of that yummy Pecan Pie and then some other activities which will go undetailed here. No owling this night, we dined at the Pizzeria Mimosa, the other restaurant at the junction of Hwy 92 and Hereford Road. The food was much better than the name would suggest.
The following morning was the best of our breakfasts with a pastry that rivalled my favorite Kouign Amann from The Breadfarm in Edison, Washington and a ham filled empanada for which scrumptious is not sufficient to describe its marvelous taste. Before breakfast I had walked and birded the grounds at just after dawn and found 24 species with little effort. The Vermilion Flycatcher is the logo bird of the Casa and a flycatching pair were my first species of the morning.
To the red of the Flycatcher, I soon added the subtler red of a Summer Tanager, the orange, yellow and black of two male Western Tanagers, rare for the time and area, the orange and black of two Hooded Orioles, the browns and tans of Say’s Phoebes and Canyon Towhees, and the black and white patterns of the multitude of White Crowned Sparrows as I was continuously buzzed by the Broad Billed, Black Chinned and Anna’s Hummingbirds and distracted by flights of the many Yellow Rumped Warblers and Mourning and White Winged Doves, sometimes catching the pale blue around the doves’ eyes. A feast before the feast.
After breakfast we headed back to the Huachucas, more precisely to Miller Canyon and Beatty’s Guest Ranch. I had visited it in 2017 without much luck and this would be the status of this visit as well – at least in terms of the birds, but dogs, they were another question. The owner or perhaps he is the owner’s son joined us at the blind with at least 7 of his Redbone Coonhounds – beautiful strong dogs that are his hunting companions – and at least for 15 minutes this day were my buddies as they seemed to take a liking to me and were very friendly. Gorgeous animals that I can imagine tracking and cornering a cougar, as their owner said they had indeed done. A fun part of our visit but not for the birds, so we headed off to the next place on our list – the San Pedro House and Trails. We had heard great recent reports but found it rather quiet despite a long walk along the river. In the river, we found a pair of Mexican Ducks – recently split off from Mallards as a separate species. There was a fleeting glimpse of a Gray Hawk, a species which is known to breed there and a much better look at an Ash Throated Flycatcher.
A bit after noon, we returned to Ash Canyon where there were dozens of birds coming to feeders and to seeds on the ground. There had been a number of Cassin’s Finches the previous day but today it was only House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches and many Pine Siskins. A pale Lazuli Bunting had been seen the previous day and returned briefly this day as well. Generally the same birds we had been seeing elsewhere but in a very comfortable and amiable setting with friendly birders sitting around two feeder areas. A Cooper’s Hawk was around and without warning to the birders, all the birds would flush as one or the other would give an alarm call noting its presence. Two Ladder Backed Woodpeckers joined the always present Gila Woodpeckers – new for the trip. We heard Wild Turkeys but they never made an appearance. Like most other places we had visited, the place was abuzz with Yellow Rumped Warblers – their movement always giving hope that something new and special had arrived.
It was a very peaceful and pleasant time and our increased familiarity with the species was especially helpful to Cindy for whom this was all new. Then suddenly pleasant became extremely exciting as two Greater Roadrunners approached the area where we were sitting and then first one and then the other came into the sanctuary directly in front of us with sun behind us and directly on them. Photo ops everywhere. One of the Roadrunners remained on or near a rock for at least 10 minutes as if it was posing at a photo studio raising and lowering its crest and giving us great views of each feather and the colorful skin patch behind its eye. Cindy had been happy enough with the two distant Roadrunners we had seen with Matt Brown. This intersection was immensely better. It could only have been improved by an appearance by Wile E. Coyote. [An aside: Roadrunners do love to run and they are fast but they also can fly and they are not all that fast with a typical speed of 15 mph and a top speed of maybe 26 mph. The Ostrich is the fastest running bird and cannot fly. It has been clocked at 45 mph.]
The Roadrunner show lasted for at least 20 minutes, prolonging our stay and heightening our appreciation for the place which should be on everyone’s list who visits the area – even without the Lucifer Hummingbirds. Just as a reminder of my previous visit and further enticement for a future one, I am including the Lucifer Hummingbird seen there in 2017. It is not a great photo – the chance to improve it is another reason to return.
This was to be our last night at the Casa de San Pedro and we would be having an early dinner there, so we headed back to relax, shower and enjoy the food – this time preceded by cherry pie. This dinner was not prepared by Carl and although good was far surpassed by the breakfasts. The best part though was visiting with two other guests, Frank and Leslie Buck from Cleveland who we had also seen at Ash Canyon. They were very generous sharing wine they had brought and like most birders do, we traded stories including many from visits to Magee Marsh which is almost home territory for them and was one of the first places Cindy had birded with me when she joined me very early on in our relationship back in 2019 when I was in the middle of my 50/50/50 Birding Adventure.
At Ash Canyon, I had a chance to try Frank’s new camera setup – a Canon R5 full frame mirrorless camera with a100-500mm telephoto lens. The pictures were incredible and it got me to thinking about going that route rather than adding the newly released Olympus 150-400 mm Pro lens with a built in 1.4x extender that I have on order. Photo equipment envy is dangerous.
I got out early before our last breakfast at Casa de San Pedro to walk the grounds. Once again, it was bird rich. At least one of the Western Tanagers made another appearance and I saw a Greater Roadrunner run through the front area. I was able to see a bit of white on one of the Raven’s necks and was good with a Chihuahan Raven ID. I had not tried to ID the many ravens we had seen in previous days and expect there had been a mix of Common and Chihuahan. A Swainson’s Hawk flew past and shortly afterwards, I saw a dark raptor with a long tail and white at the back of the primaries fly low over the trees near the river. I got my bins on it but could not track it with my camera. It was a Zone Tailed Hawk – almost exactly where one had been seen the previous day. Before coming down on this trip I thought or at least hoped there was a chance for a Common Black Hawk. I have only seen this species once many years ago and it is one of relatively few species seen in the ABA Area without a photo. Unfortunately I had missed the prime time for this species which was late March and early April. If I had tried in another area, there would have been an outside chance. My heart had raced when I first saw the dark Zone Tail, hoping for a Black Hawk miracle – not to be, but a Zone Tailed Hawk is a great consolation prize.
When a I birded the street in front of the Casa I heard an unfamiliar call which I thought at first might be the bill rattles and coos of the Roadrunner but it did not match my app sounds. Later I spoke with Carl as he was preparing breakfast and he said he had heard a Yellow Billed Cuckoo that morning. I listened to the playback and that was it. I wish I had recognized it earlier as I probably could have found it perched somewhere. I had seen a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher there the previous morning and found two more this time. I also found two very nondescript birds that I thought at first were either female Verdin or Bushtits. Both were possible but a little better view and some clearer thinking told me they were Lucy’s Warblers, a species that was not but should have been on my radar screen of possibilities,
Our last breakfast had even more calories than earlier ones but somehow we managed to clean our plates. After a very lovely stay it was time to leave. We thanked our hosts and vowed to return. The Casa’s website is bedandbirds.com. Look them up and visit – the website if not the Casa itself. We had plenty of time to work our way back to Tucson where our flight would leave that evening. There was one more place that was on my go to list – the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia. It was after 10:30 when we got there and like all of our other similar stops, there were lots of hummingbirds visiting the well kept feeders and other birds were there as well. The prime goal was to see a Violet Crowned Hummingbird. This is the go to spot for them and we had one visiting a feeder within moments of arriving. There may have been other species as well, but the only other hummers I noticed were Broad Billed – real beauties especially when nicely paired with the Violet Crowned.
We had three other new species for the trip at this location: Inca Dove, Black Phoebe and Black Headed Grosbeak. The latter is just now showing up in Washington and the first would be a new state bird and would draw large crowds. We also had a better look at a Lazuli Bunting (not yet in Washington) and some more Lucy’s Warblers.
Since we were in the area we also visited the famous Patagonia Roadside Rest Area first made famous by being the spot to see Thick Billed Kingbirds. They are not back there yet so not seen by us. We also visited Patagonia Lake which was overrun by campers and families escaping the heat. Not much of a lake to us but in this part of Arizona I guess it looks good. We heard a few birds but frankly wish we had not bothered to stop after our visit to Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds which was so lovely and friendly. We had not realized it at the time but the Paton Center had been closed due to Covid 19 restrictions until the day before we visited. Great timing.
We made a last stop on the way to the airport – the touristy town of Tubac with many shops and many shoppers. There was nothing we had to have but did buy a small memento – definitely not from the large shop that had gigantic pro-trump and pro Wall signs. We did not see anyone else going in either – hope they go out of business. We misremembered our departure time and thus were back at the airport another hour earlier than we had to be – guess that was better than being an hour later, although that still would have been time to make the flight. The flight home was smooth and uneventful. It had been a wonderful trip, but as usually is the case, we were glad to be home.
We had fun and Cindy wants to go back, so this was a successful trip and I am sure we will return. We saw just under 100 species including many Arizona specialties and some real beauties. Don’t think any of them beat the Greater Roadrunners at Ash Canyon unless it was the many Vermilion Flycatchers or maybe the Elf Owls… or …
This post is prompted by a visit to Eastern Washington yesterday – March 26th. More specifically it is prompted by an early stop on our visit to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum. This is my go to place for Pygmy Nuthatches. They nest in trees just off the road – easy access and easy parking out of the way of the many large trucks that are often roaring by. I have never missed finding this species there where they are permanent residents. I often hear them chattering as a group before getting a visual and they are very responsive to playback and pishing – coming in to pose for the camera.
Someone responded to seeing that photo with an “Ooh, so cute!” and that led me to think of some the taxonomically close group of small birds also found at the Ponds that might bring that same response. “Railroad Ponds” does not conjure up images of cuteness but the following photos might change that association.
There are two other nuthatch species found in Washington: Red Breasted and White Breasted. The first is very common at the Ponds and the second can sometimes be found there as well. I have found all three species at this location on a single visit. Both have to be included in Washington Cuties.
Closely related to the nuthatches are the chickadees. On one trip to the Ponds, we had the three most common species of Washington Chickadees in the same tree. There is overlap in range and habitat for Chestnut Backed, Mountain and Black Capped Chickadees, so not so hard to find them in the same area but this triple header was a first and only.
If we are talking, cuteness we have to add the other Washington Chickadee species – the Boreal Chickadee that I have only seen in extreme northeastern Washington. If one ever made it to Cle Elum county listers would go crazy.
There are at least two other indisputable cuties to be found at the Railroad Ponds – not including any baby birds which are almost all cute, with some definite exceptions at least to human eyes.
Close to all of the above at least taxonomically are the wrens. With the recent addition of a confirmed Winter Wren, seven species of wren have been found in Washington, of which five have been reported at the Railroad Ponds. When chattering in angry response to a provocation, they may not be so cute, but generally speaking, they are – perhaps “cute with an attitude”. Most common at the Railroad Ponds are Bewick’s, Marsh and House Wrens. Pacific Wrens are somewhat less so and there have been only a couple of reports of Rock Wren. I might rank Canyon Wren at the top of the Wren Cuteness ladder and while all wrens have great songs, I would rank its song on top as well. But not present at the Ponds.
Another species found at the Ponds that is very closely related to all shown here and especially the wrens is the Brown Creeper. I guess it has to be included as pretty cute, but it has always struck me as odd in appearance although very appealing in behavior as it creeps along tree trunks and branches searching for tiny insects to devour. Probably more common than I realize everywhere, it is easy to overlook.
The last of the closely related Washington cuties found at the Ponds are the two species of Kinglets. Their golden and ruby crowns are best seen when the birds are agitated. Definitely more colorful then but another case where at those times they may be “cute with attitude”.
I think I just need a distraction today and writing serves that purpose for me. Did not expect it would be writing about cuteness, but somehow it worked. It also helps that the sun is shining…
It was February 22nd. One more week to find at least 5 more species to get to 200 and hopefully a couple to spare as safeguards against misidentifications, rejections, whatever. There were single species here and there that were possible adds, but the best chances for multiple new ones would be to retrace steps and return to places where I had missed birds earlier. The top three options were another trip to Clark County, to the Okanogan and back to either or both Kittitas County and Walla Walla. Kittitas could be birded on the way to Walla Walla or as a long way around to get to Okanogan County. This is how I assessed opportunities.
Kittitas County – the shortest trip by a little – about 150 miles to Vantage. The longer I waited the better the chance that some of the shrub steppe/sage species would be in including Mountain Bluebird, Sagebrush Sparrow, Say’s Phoebe and another chance for Chukar. I would have to go over Snoqualmie Pass which meant possible snow issues.
Walla Walla County – hard to do in a single day (although I have done it before). At least 250 miles to get there and another 50 plus driving to various target areas. Possibilities included Blue Jay, Cedar Waxwing, Ferruginous Hawk and possibly Say’s Phoebe although none had been reported yet. This trip also would require negotiating Snoqualmie Pass.
The Okanogan – impossible in a single day. At least 600 miles round trip as several spots would have to be visited. Targets would be Sharp Tailed Grouse, Bohemian (and possibly Cedar) Waxwings, Chukar and a newly reported Yellow Billed Loon. One positive was that at least 3 of these species were being reported consistently. In addition to the length of the trip, there was also the need to go over Stevens Pass which had had even more snow trouble than Snoqualmie.
Clark County – about 190 miles one way – definitely doable in a single day. Targets were the Acorn Woodpeckers I had missed before, Tree and Violet Green Swallows, Red Shouldered Hawk and a very remote chance that the Snowy Egret had returned. A very surprising Swainson’s Hawk had been reported by good birders which provided additional incentive. Plus I could stop (yet again) at Levee Pond near Tacoma on the way trying for the Green Heron that everyone except me had seen there. Unfortunately, the White Faced Ibis that I had missed earlier was no longer being seen, perhaps a victim of the snow. Another plus for this trip was that while there might be traffic, there was no mountain pass to negotiate.
No mountain pass and the addition of the Swainson’s Hawk determined my choice – with the knowledge that I would probably have to go to one or even two of the other locations later. So early Monday morning I again headed south planning to stop first to try for the Swainson’s Hawk in Woodland then try for the Woodpeckers, then the Swallows and hope for a Red Shouldered Hawk somewhere along the way. If time permitted I would go for the Heron on my return. I found the place in the Woodland Bottoms where the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk had been seen the previous day. On my first pass, I did not see a single raptor. As I retraced my route, I found a hawk perched in a direction where I would not have noticed it coming the other way. I grabbed a photo and then watched it fly off. There was no red in the tail and I was pretty certain it was the juvenile Swainson’s Hawk – a species that had not even been on my possibilities list originally. Later when I had a chance to review the photos without the influence of seeing what I wanted to see, I concluded that I had a much more likely Red Tailed Hawk so this species was counted for a day but then moved over to my “not really list”. Instead of including that errant photo, I include one of a group of Sandhill Cranes – always great to see anywhere and especially easy to find in Clark and Cowlitz Counties.
Buoyed by what I thought was the find of the Swainson’s Hawk, I continued south and went to the grove of oaks at Fort Vancouver National Historical Site where I had the Acorn Woodpeckers in January but had missed them earlier in the month. I scanned every oak there and at some adjacent groups but found no woodpeckers at all. They had been reported off and on since the snow, but today at least for me it was “off”. Next it was on to Lower River Road hoping that the Snowy Egret had returned or that swallows would be flying over the lake. No egret and no swallows. The day was looking much dimmer and then I was somewhat rescued by a Red Shouldered Hawk that I heard and saw briefly as I returned to my car. So at that time I thought I probably had added two species. There were two more possible locations for swallows, so there was hope. I had never been to the Shillapoo Wildlife Area on Lake Vancouver off of LaFrambois Road. As I drove to the boat launch it did not strike me as special – just another place to view the large lake. But today it was special as there were numerous swallows feeding above the water picking off insects, invisible to me but seen by them. There were at least 40 and very probably more. I viewed each as best I could with binoculars and my scope and found only Tree Swallows – new for the month. I tried to make one into a Violet Green Swallow or other species but could not do it. Maybe luck would be better at Ridgefield NWR.
I saw the “normal suspects” at Ridgefield but no swallows at all. On the way home I tried unsuccessfully yet again for the Green Heron at Levee Pond so what had started out as a very positive day became a far less positive once especially with the removal of the Swainson’s Hawk. I had added two species but was particularly disappointed in not finding the Acorn Woodpeckers. There were still 6 days to go to find at least 3 more species, but somehow the fun was disappearing – maybe because I thought I had to take one of those longer trips considered above.
The weather was bad on Tuesday precluding trips over the passes due to avalanche danger and frankly I was a little bummed by the previous day. A Glaucous Gull had been reported from a park in Burlington, WA in Skagit County. An hour or so north, it would not require going over the mountains so that became my target. Another Edmonds birder had reported it about an hour before I got there. I found the field and saw maybe 25 gulls. I also saw another car with a birder inside that looked like it may be there for the gulls. She was and had not seen the Glaucous Gull. I spent the next hour driving around the area checking each gull. No all white gulls were to be found. My mood darkened as it was the second time I had chased this species this month without success after easily finding the one at Gene Coulon Park in Renton in January. Had I gone an hour earlier, would I have seen it? No way to answer the question. It was too late to try for anything else anywhere except maybe a couple of places for Cedar Waxwings, but I had lost steam and just went home to attend to other matters and regroup.
On Wednesday I was feeling both down and guilty. I should have tried harder on Tuesday. Gone north earlier or said weather be damned and tried again for the Green Heron or go to Mason County and try for a Mountain Quail. There were still problems on the passes so a long trip East was not a good idea. Cedar Waxwings had been seen off and on at Magnuson Park, so that became my goal. I don’t enjoy birding in Magnuson Park or Discovery Park, two places in Seattle that are heavily birded and produce many good observations. Somehow they just don’t feel intuitively good to me with trails and roads that don’t work well in my mind at least. I got to Magnuson and decided to cover as much of the probable good habitat as I could. I spent about an hour walking about a mile and a half, retracing some steps and almost upon returning to my car I saw a bird atop a poplar that just might be a Waxwing. The lighting was not great, but I could see its crest and the yellow tip on the tail, grabbed a photo and finally checked off what should have been an easy species off my list. I include the lousy photo and also one that I really love from the Waxwings I easily found when I wasn’t looking for them in January.
With this success in hand I felt that maybe finally I would find a Green Heron. Everyone else in the world had seen it at Levee Pond and another was a possibility at the Boeing Ponds. The latter was closer so was my first stop. Nope – nada. How about Levee Pond – again nothing and I scoped every branch on every tree surrounding the pond. Having junked the Swainson’s Hawk, I was now at 198 species. There were 4 days to go and at least two more species needed. Hopefully more which meant that I would have to go east again in the remaining days left. I figured I would put that off until the weekend, try for something else west of the mountains and then devote one or even two days to Eastern Washington depending on what was needed. A benefit would be that it gave more time for the birds to move into the sage and be there when I arrived.
When I got back home, I saw another report for the Glaucous Gull in Burlington with a notation that it had been seen early – before the dog walkers had arrived. I planned to be there at first light the next morning. When I arrived around 7:15 there were many more gulls than I had seen on my previous visit – well over 100. I scanned diligently and found exclusively Glaucous Winged or Glaucous Winged x WesternHybrids – the common Larus gulls of Puget Sound. Nothing all white. I was not a happy camper. After 15 minutes I spied what seemed to be my all white Glaucous Gull at the far end of the field, barely visible with binoculars. And I also saw a guy walking directly towards the gulls with his two off-leash dogs. Of course the dogs charged the gulls and the gulls took flight. Now I was a very unhappy camper but figured at least that the gull was here and was likely to return. About 15 minutes later, it did. This time a lot closer to me and I had hopes for a photo. Now what? A security guard in a white pick up was driving right towards me. He had seen me from his route up on the levee and came down – to be friendly and chat. Ok, I enjoy such encounters on my trips, but this was bad timing. As his truck approached, again the gulls took flight. I watched my bird take off and disappear over the neighboring buildings. I was really mad but managed to be civil and even a bit friendly as I explained why I was there and that a very rare gull (he did not realize there were such things) had just flown off.
At least now I felt certain I had seen it and pretty certain that it would return IF there were no other intrusions. This time it did not take so long. Mr. Security had returned to his duties. No dogs were in sight but the gull was at the furthest part of the field at least 250 or 300 yards away. I took a distant record photo and then began walking towards it stopping every 25 yards or so to get a better picture. Finally I got within less than 50 yards got a great picture and felt not just relief but conquest. Stay tuned as that feeling would get challenged later.
Glaucous Gulls are essentially all white with a large bicolored bill – pinkish with a black tip. This gull was all white for sure and it had a bicolored bill, kind of pinkish with a black tip – well sort of. The tip was blackish not as solidly so as on other Glaucous Gulls I have seen. A question has arisen as to whether this might be a hybrid Glaucous x Glaucous Winged Gull or possibly a leucistic Glaucous Winged or Glaucous Winged x Western Gull Hybrid. I sent photos to two “experts” who were inclined to a good Glaucous Gull ID but also acknowledged an imperfect bill – possibly an aberration or possibly something else. I have kept it in the “win column” but it thus became even more important to go past 200 species for the month to be safe. I had hopes for the rest of the day as well.
My best shot for another new species that day was for a Western Bluebird at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Pierce County. They are regular in the prairies there even in February. I had good directions from Bruce LaBar but since there is “Restricted Access” on the Base and I have never gotten a permit, I was a bit leery. It was unlikely I would be stopped and I did not have to go through an access gate, but I still felt a bit uneasy. The same situation applied last year when I went to JBLM to try for a lifer Washington photo of a Northern Bobwhite. My approach then was to be ready to beg for forgiveness rather than seek a complicated permission. It worked and I got the photo and never saw anyone. At JBLM there are woods and open areas and firing ranges with warnings that there could be undetonated ordinance so “Remain in Your Vehicles”. It took awhile to find the right spot but once I got there, the habitat was perfect. It was quite windy and I did not see any Bluebirds flying about. On a second pass I was able to find a single bird perched on a distant signpost. If the Glaucous Gull was the real deal this would be species #200 for the month. Sure I was pleased but there had been so many misses and ups and downs for the week that there was no jubilation, That would come – hopefully with another species or two.
On the way back home I got a call from friend Jon Houghton who shared information that Frank Caruso had found a perched Barred Owl in Yost Park in Edmonds. They have bred there for the past several years but have been tough if not impossible to find this year. I called Ann Marie Wood and shared the information. She had not seen one this year, so we met and trekked down the trail together finding it exactly where Frank had left it a couple of hours ago. It was not a new species for the month but the earlier one in Pine Ridge Park was heard and only briefly seen in flight so this was much better even if the photo is not award winning.
On Friday, I almost decided to go over to the Okanogan and make a two trip to find 2 or 3 or 4 or even 5 new species, but I had lost my enthusiasm. I think the combination of too little sleep, way too much snow, and way too many misses had taken their toll. I felt confident that I could go over to Kittitas County again on Saturday and find at least one or two species and if I didn’t then I could venture further to the Okanogan or Walla Walla that night and find one or two there. I can’t even remember what I did on the 26th, but it did not include birds. I headed east very early on the 27th in crappy weather on I-90 as I neared the Pass. It was open but it was snowing and traffic was heavy and slow with the normal 60 mph limit reduced to 35 mph. Trucks were not even going that fast. It was supposed to clear and be warm later, but what usually took about two hours to get to Ellensburg took at least 2.5 hours. At least the weather there was clear and it was windy but not gale force. My main goal was to find a Sagebrush Sparrow with additional hopes for Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Bluebird and Chukar. Normally I would bird my way east along Old Vantage Highway trying for Sagebrush Sparrow along the way. That had been unsuccessful my last trip and with the lost time I wanted to get to Rocky Coulee in Vantage where I hoped for the Phoebe and Chukar earlier before crowds appeared.
Just before getting there I got a call from Deb Essman. She and husband Bill were jeeping in the backcountry and had found Sagebrush Sparrows. I could not access that area but her suggestion was to hike up into the Quilomene area above the corrals where there was really good sage. I was close to Vantage so I carried on instead of back tracking to do so. Rocky Coulee and Vantage have been major disappointments this year except for the Bighorns I have seen there twice. Usually Say’s Phoebe and Canyon Wrens are guaranteed and Chukar is a good possibility. Once again I found no Canyon Wren and no Say’s Phoebe. I found probably the same two Rock Wrens that I had seen on an earlier visit – looking like they had paired up and were building a nest. It was not very satisfying and at any other time I would not even have counted it, but I did hear the call of a Chukar high up on the rocks. I scanned through my scope hoping for a look but never did get a visual. I have heard them there many times before and have usually gotten at least a brief glance. But they camouflage well and I have also missed them before. I decided to count the species – but only if I found a Sagebrush Sparrow later.
I headed west and stopped at Milepost 20 and other sage areas along Vantage Highway. The wind had picked up and I found only Ravens and a Prairie Falcon along the way. I got to the corrals and drove in. The snow had been deep when I last visited and was now completely gone. Unfortunately the melt off meant there was mud – lots of mud. I would be hiking up along a jeep road into a draw that was usually good for the sparrows but the mud meant slow going – so slow in fact that I abandoned the “road” and mostly bushwhacked. It was fortunately, at least, less windy up the draw and after something less than a half mile, I heard the song of the Sagebrush Sparrow – definitely music to my ears. In another month or so there should also be Sage Thrashers, Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows and Mountain Bluebirds. This day, the single Sagebrush Sparrow was the only bird I saw or heard. Now I felt OK counting the Chukar, I so had either 201 or 202 species depending on whether the Glaucous Gull would remain in the good column. I would not have to carry on to Walla Walla or the Okanogan. If the week had gone better, I think I would have been in better spirits and done so anyway. Not this time. Time to call it a day, call it a month and head home before who knows what would happen on the Pass.
In fact the Pass was completely clear. Still many feet of snow on the sides of the road, but the road itself was clear and traffic flowed easily. I was home for dinner. And Sunday was birdless – and sadly somewhat joyless as unlike with other such endeavors I was left thinking more about what I missed and less about what I had found. I think it is mostly related to snow – not enough earlier to bring the Sharp Tailed Grouse into the Water Birch in the Okanogan and then too much which changed conditions and access for many days and may have led to the demise of some birds. It was good to end with the Sagebrush Sparrow and move away from the quest and rest.
I feel pretty good that when all is said and done, 200 species will still remain on the list for the month. The Hoary Redpoll may not be accepted by the Records Committee and is a tough call in any event. I think it is good and that opinion is shared by many who have seen the photo. The Glaucous Gull could also disappear. With both of those, my tally was 202 species, so 200 is good even without them. Maybe it was unlikely with the snow, but I cannot help feel that a lot more species were possible and at least several more should have been seen. Maybe I have lost some of the necessary drive for an all out quest, and that is probably just fine. I have had over 200 species in Washington in the months of January (when I tried for it) and in the month of May when that had not been on my mind and just happened. I don’t know if I will ever try for another month again, but it would be cool to add some more to done column. I am pretty sure it could be done for March and April and probably December. With pelagic trips and migration, it should also be doable in September and October but I am not so sure about July when birds are quiet and more inactive. August and November would also be challenging. I am too old to take on all of these quests. Maybe one more…maybe.
These are the species that I specifically missed together with some that I did not specifically try for. If planning and execution had been perfect (it never is) all 21 might have been seen and there are a few more that showed up and were seen once or twice in the state this February: Green Heron, Mountain Bluebird. Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Quail, White Faced Ibis, Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow Billed Loon, Sharp Tailed Grouse, Ferruginous Hawk, Bohemian Waxwing, Western Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Pacific Golden Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Turkey Vulture, Violet Green Swallow, Black Legged Kittiwake, Canada Jay, Evening Grosbeak, White Winged Crossbill and Blue Jay. And this is with Neah Bay still off limits.
Good birding all. Find a challenge and go for it!!
Week 2 ended with some local birds and 132 species for February. When doing a time delimited project like a Big Day or Big Year or my Big Month, it seems inevitable and is definitely sad that the memories of the misses often overshadow the memories of the great successes. As I started Week 2, I was optimistic that the misses in Clark County and the Okanogan would be dimmed by a second week filled with new birds. Well the first day of the new week had some of those new birds but also had another bad miss.
The story began at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles in Clallam County. Ediz Hook is a sand spit that extends 3 miles into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. It is almost as good as having a boat and I have had many great birds there over the years including a Glaucous Gull last year. Another had been seen there at the same spot as the previous year on February 7th. It would be a great place for other new species for the month and a Glaucous Gull was a “3” in my rating system meaning it was rare indeed. The previous year the Glaucous Gull had remained at the same spot for several weeks so I felt the odds were pretty good it would be there when I arrived. It wasn’t there and it also was not on the log boom where it had also been seen. Other expected new species fortunately were, all common and readily found elsewhere, but numbers matter at least in they indicate some progress, so I was happy to add Pacific and Red Throated Loons, Common Murre, Harlequin Duck, Black Bellied Plover, Sanderling and Black Oystercatcher – the latter find assisted by Alex Patia, a superb birder that now lives in the area and with whom I had a nice visit.
I picked up a Hermit Thrush at Salt Creek County Park and a Sharp Shinned Hawk in Port Angeles but was shut out looking for the Plover flock on Shmuck Road which might still have a Pacific Golden Plover. Not thrilled with the results of the day despite adding 9 new species, I decided to catch a later ferry and divert to Point No Point where Bonaparte’s Gulls are almost guaranteed. It proved a good choice as the Bonaparte’s were plentiful and I also added three good alcids, Rhinoceros Auklet and both Marbled and Ancient Murrelets. The 13 new species for the day brought me to 145 for the month, but a Glaucous Gull would sure have been nice.
The next day I was joined by Ed Pullen and we headed off to join good friend Deb Essman for a day of birding in Kittitas County starting with a visit to a large tract of private land in the beautiful Teanaway Valley. Before meeting those friends, Ed and I stopped at Bullfrog Pond and the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in Cle Elum. We were entirely in snow but still managed to find Pygmy Nuthatches and American Dippers, an excellent start for the day. Joining Deb, we then hiked around some gorgeous land and found our main target – White Headed Woodpecker and had a bonus Great Horned Owl and even better we flushed a Ruffed Grouse, my fifth new species for the day.
Deb, Ed and I then headed further east hoping to find Canyon and Rock Wrens and maybe a Chukar to make up for my miss in the Okanogan. Deb knows every nook and cranny in Kittitas County and we visited many of them, but the birds did not always cooperate. At Rocky Coulee at the end of Recreation Road, we dug up a Rock Wren but no Chukar and surprisingly no Canyon Wren. I got my first Peregrine Falcon of the month on Badger Pocket Road and saving the day at the end, we found a pair of Golden Eagles on Canyon Road canceling out another of the Okanogan misses. Birdwise, it could have been better, but I knew I would be back later in the month and the chance to spend time with Ed and Deb was a welcome boost in these days when we have been so isolated because of Covid-19.
The Golden Eagle was species 153 for the month and, as I said, I knew I would be back to this area, one of my favorites in the state. My plans for the rest of the week were to bird locally on the 10th, get my second Covid vaccination on the 11th – YAY!!! and then head back out of town for a day or two. Things do not always go as planned. I did bird locally on the 10th picking up some easy species like Bushtit, Ruddy Duck and Downy Woodpecker and then ventured a little further afield into northern Snohomish County and on to Skagit County. New birds in the former were Brown Headed Cowbird and American Pipit on Thomle Road where there were also at least 10,000 Snow Geese. My best bird was the Harris’s Sparrow on Polson Road on Fir Island where I was helped by the landowner putting out seed just as I visited. I picked up very distant but targeted White Winged Scoter and Long Tailed Duck from the Samish Island Day Use Overlook and then joined others at the East 90’s on the Samish Flats hoping that the Short Eared Owls would put on their display. I had my first Savannah Sparrow as I waited and then was treated to flights by several of the owls.
Once again getting our Covid vaccination – #2 – was very well done. Our arms were a bit more sore than after the first dose, but we had no side effects. Some of our friends had flu like responses but we were spared. So the 11th was a day of rest and then I was going to head off to the Coast on Friday, my first trip there this year. We may have been spared any after effects from the shots, but we were not spared any snow. A major storm hit the entire state on the 12th and while it was pretty and I had reliable all wheel drive, the state was essentially shut down. We had more than 8 inches over the next couple of days in Edmonds and in other parts of the state, there was twice that much. Not good for birding. Not good for planning. Not good for Big Months. I was able to get out to Pine Ridge Park and with snow on the ground was able to finally add a Pileated Woodpecker on the 12th but that was it. Sure it was fun to see more than 18 Varied Thrushes there, but not the kind of fun I had in mind. With the vaccination and the snow, I lost 4 days of birding. It is bad enough that February only has 28 days – not even a Leap Year – and now I had lost 4 of them, over 14% of the days available. Guess I could reduce my goal by 14% and settle for 172 species, but we all know it doesn’t work that way. Definitely would be harder, though.
So Week 2 was a real downer – 164 species – with only 32 new ones. I know it gets harder as each day goes by and new species are added, but this was a full 100 fewer than the previous week – I was now way behind and would have to go full throttle to have a chance at 200. And those early misses were back in my head – if only I had seen the …and the …
Week 3 – Going All Out
Even though there was still a lot of snow on the ground, the roads were clear by the 15th and I headed for the coast – finally – there was a lot of ground to make up. There were not as many birds on the outer beach at Ocean Shores as there might have been and the wind was cold and forceful, but I was lucky and found targeted Semipalmated Plover and Snowy Plover fairly easily. No Marbled Godwits but I hoped to see them at Westport or Tokeland. I drove 7 plus miles on the sand all the way to the Point Brown jetty. It was a fairly high tide but not yet in. Where were the Rockpipers? With waves crashing over the rocks, I was not seeing any until about halfway out the jetty a large wave flushed a bunch of birds. All three were there – Surfbirds, Black Turnstones and at least two Rock Sandpipers. Mission accomplished.
I had added five shorebirds to both my year and month list – a good start but I felt like I had lost ground and needed much more for the day. So it was on to Westport which turned out to be very disappointing with no Marbled Godwits in the marina. Maybe they would be at Bottle Beach but I had to make a choice – get to Tokeland the go to place in Washington for Willets or go back up to Bottle Beach. With a seeming high and incoming tide, there would not be ideal conditions for both. I opted for Tokeland which also could be good for the Godwits. Tide was indeed high but I found the Willets – at least 13 of them. Not too many years ago we felt lucky to find 4 here. There were no Godwits but a couple of Least Sandpipers were mixed in with a large flock of Dunlin and Black Bellied Plovers, so I did add two new shorebirds for the month and year. A small bonus was a group of Greater White Fronted Geese. I had seen one earlier at Walla Walla Point Park on my way back from the Okanogan but it had been a distant scope only view so this was much better.
Heading home just before Bottle Beach I could see that although it was 2.5 hours before scheduled high tide, the water was already high and it would be pointless to stop. I headed instead for the Brady Loop where needed Wilson’s Snipe had been reported. I did not find them there in the snowy fields but did get my first of month Purple Finch and Western Meadowlark. The traffic was good so I had time to stop by Nisqually NWR where there was also a chance for Snipe. There was lots of snow and some trees had fallen across the boardwalk path. I bushwhacked over them and at the end of the trail in a pond between the dike and the old barn I got the best bird of the trip – an American Bittern posing in the open. These birds are regular but can be very difficult to find. No Snipe but it was new species number 9 for the day – a great ending.
In any “big” undertaking whether it be for a day or a year or a month, the clock is always ticking and the accumulation of numbers is always gauged both by the time already past and the time ahead. With 174 species seen “only” 15 days into the month, at least mathematically it should be easy to find “only” 36 more in the 13 days remaining. The first 15 days had averaged over 11 species per day and I only needed to average fewer than 3 a day going forward. Of course these are not mathematical pursuits and they are very much subject to the law of diminishing returns as there is a limited field of opportunities and many of the best parts of the field had already been harvested.
The single biggest remaining opportunity would be a visit to to the Walla Walla area, where especially if I could team with Mike and MerryLynn Denny, maybe as many as a dozen possibilities could be found. The original plan had been for Cindy and me to reprise a fun visit to the area from 2020 where we had a little birding and a lot of wine tasting. But Walla Walla had been hit hard by snow as well and more snow was projected ahead. Even getting over the pass on I-90 might be challenging, and birding would be more difficult and probably not as rewarding. The wine would still be good, but there would be a better time to visit for that purpose. Deferring Walla Walla until later, I chased a few local birds on the 16th, finally finding a Golden Crowned Kinglet and a Barred Owl in nearby parks and returned to Greenlake to hopefully see the Sora that had been a mainstay there since December. The Sora again was mostly uncooperative with only its whinny call and a few glimpses through the reeds showing its presence. Someone has been feeding it regularly bringing it into the open, but my visits have never coincided with his, so furtive glances only.
The last bird for the day was an early Rufous Hummingbird that had been visiting a feeder in Seattle. I didn’t know if the feeder was visible from the street but took a chance and found that it was. It was still awkward though, as the only parking was at a spot where there was no visibility and I ended up sitting on part of a concrete wall across from the house with feeders. When someone is looking at a feeder with bins and a big lensed camera, it can seem to others that he is spying on the house instead. Fortunately only one person came by and we had a nice chat removing that suspicion and avoiding a call to the local constabulary. Also fortunately the Rufous Hummer showed briefly – twice. The feeder was regularly visited by at least two Anna’s Hummingbirds and every time the Rufous appeared it was instantly chased off by one of them. I really wanted a photo but the chases did not allow for that and after 30 minutes I decided that counting it was good enough and left.
The snow conditions on Snoqualmie Pass had cleared a bit on the 17th and I decided to go for a “guaranteed” Lewis’s Woodpecker at Fort Simcoe with chances again for shrub steppe birds and others in Kittitas County as well as two of my other previous misses that were possible in Yakima residential areas – Blue Jay and Lesser Goldfinch. My first stop was again at the Umtanum Creek area on Canyon Road hoping for the Canyon Wren that Ed, Deb and I had missed earlier. I crossed the Yakima River on the rickety suspension bridge and hiked a bit into the Canyon. No wren was calling and none responded to my playback. Disappointed I head back to the car. I did not hear a wren but I heard what seemed like the familiar whistle notes of a Townsend’s Solitaire. Not impossible here but unexpected. When it flew out of one of the trees by the creek and went directly over me crossing the river, I was certain of the identification. A consolation prize for sure – making up for the miss yet again of the Canyon Wren. Then as if the somewhat dark mood had been broken by the Solitaire, just as I got to the bridge I heard the unmistakable beautiful descending notes of a Canyon Wren. It was singing from the top of the hill to the north and would not be lured in closer by my calls. After so many failures, this was a great spirit lifter and impetus to carry on to Fort Simcoe.
Fort Simcoe and Oak Creek are two places in Washington where Lewis’s Woodpeckers are guaranteed – in quantity and usually in quality. Fort Simcoe park was closed but I parked by the chained off entry and first heard and then saw at least three Lewis’s Woodpeckers as soon as I got out of my car. I debated just checking the species off the list and moving on to other targets but I love the area and its numerous oaks and figured there would be many more Woodpeckers ahead and a chance for a good photo. The complicating factor was that there was at least 10″ of snow on the ground and my boots were at most 8″. I did the best I could to stay in the footsteps of others that had been there probably the day before and trudged for 30 minutes around the Park. Lewis’s Woodpeckers were indeed everywhere but they seemed very edgy and rarely stayed put for more than a few seconds on perches either distant or high up in the oaks – often both distant and high up. I reported 25 woodpeckers on my Ebird report but there easily could have been 40 or more as counting accurately was impossible with them constantly moving about. I took a couple dozen photos but would be doing a great disservice to such a beautiful bird by including one of them here. Instead the photo below is from Oak Creek where the views are generally better and more photo friendly as the Woodpeckers sit in relatively close snags at eye level from the roadway heading up Oak Creek Canyon.
It was only 1 little after 11:00 a.m. I had three new species for the month with possibilities ahead. Unfortunately I was not able to find either the Blue Jay or the Lesser Goldfinches that had been reported in a Yakima neighborhood. There was lots of snow and I felt uncomfortable parking on the residential streets where the snow had limited passage so maybe I did not have sufficient diligence, but I felt there would be chances for both elsewhere later in the month. This proved to be only partially true.
I headed back to Kittitas County towards Ellensburg and then Vantage via I-82. Zooming along at just over 70 mph which is the speed limit, a small flock of small birds were flying towards me from the west. Flocks are not common on this highway but they might have been House Finches or Horned Larks. I pulled over and stopped as quickly as I could and got my bins on the last couple of birds as they carried on to the East. Lighting was great and I could make them out as Gray Crowned Rosy Finches. There were at least 8 and possibly a dozen. NOT a quality look, but a quality bird that I had regretted missing on my Okanogan trip. They are often found among the cliffs at the rest areas on the highway, so not that great surprise. Rosy Finches are little beauties, so not getting a photo was disappointing. Stay tuned.
Once again I birded the length of Vantage Highway and then Recreation Road all the way to Rocky Coulee and then the Gingko Park overlook hoping for shrub steppe/sage birds. Again not a one. So still lots of misses but there had been a couple of good surprises as well. Traffic home was easy and a long day ended with another 4 new species bringing me to 182 so far. Coulda, shoulda, woulda been closer to 190 but that’s birding.
That night – February 17th, I noticed an Ebird report from friend Jon Houghton for his visit to Juanita Bay Park that included both Red Breasted Sapsucker and Wilson’s Snipe. I had seen the former there before and had noted other reports of the latter from that location but I did not know the story. Jon provided the details and the following morning in fairly unpleasant rain, I went to the Park which is a half hour from my home. I saw another birder there with bins and an umbrella – now that was a good idea – and not being shy I asked her if she was familiar with the park. She was and kindly guided me to the boardwalk where the Snipe were being seen. They were easy to find even in the grass and mud for which they were perfectly camouflaged. There were at least a half dozen. And after my new guide departed I moved over to a wooded area where she said she had seen Red Breasted Sapsuckers in the past. In a few moments I heard one calling and then drumming and thus had a good twofer to start the day. I had hopes for another one ahead.
Neal Road in Fall City has been a great spot for good birds including a White Wagtail in January 2018. There is a huge flock of blackbirds and Starlings at a farm there and both Rusty Blackbird and Yellowheaded Blackbird had been seen in February and a very rare for Washington Common Grackle had been seen there earlier. Views are distant and best with a scope and trying to find the Rusty Blackbird in constantly moving and shifting mass of similar looking birds is challenging at the best of times. Constant rain did not help. The single Yellowheaded Blackbird was easy and quickly seen as it favored the ground. The Rusty was far more difficult and I only found it after 45 minutes of searching when an accipiter, presumably a male Cooper’s Hawk flushed all of the birds and the somewhat paler Rusty stood out as it flew and then landed on a mostly open branch. A double twofer brought me to 180 species. I really needed to get to Walla Walla.
It is pretty apparent that weather has played a large role in my February quest – both the actual snow and the continuing threat of more to come. The impact has been two fold in preventing trips to Eastern Washington and the Coast as highways and the mountain passes have been closed and also in probably slowing the arrival of new birds and even possibly leading to the demise of some early arrivals as their food source has disappeared. Walla Walla had had lots of snow but a warming trend was projected for the next few days. That alone was not enough to make a visit viable, however, as warming could make avalanches more likely over the pass. Mike and MerryLynn Denny were able to bird with me on the 19th or 20th. Snoqualmie Pass was open on the evening of the 18th so even though I had been out birding all that day, I decided to head over that night and at least be there to bird the following day. Cindy, as always, was both supporting and encouraging so I took off just after an early dinner with plans to stay in Richland that night instead of the very long drive over early the next morning with unknown conditions on Snoqualmie Pass.
It turned out to be a good plan especially when a FOY Barn Owl flew right over my car in Mattawa, WA on the way over. This was an almost guaranteed species on Dodd Road the next day, but at this stage, a bird in the hand is definitely better than two in the bush. I was meeting the Dennys at 9:00 a.m. which gave me time to bird a bit on my own and I found one of the targets, American White Pelican, at the Columbia Park Marina in Benton County. Two down and hopefully many more to go.
Mike and MerryLynn Denny are special folks. Always in good cheer, incredible birders, familiar with every nook and cranny in Walla Walla and adjoining counties, tireless and always ready and willing to help. MerryLynn is the better birder (expect Mike agrees) and Mike is the all encompassing naturalist and historian. They are an endless font of information about geology, wildlife, agriculture, botany and everything else in their area. I had sent them a list of “needs/wants” and they had an itinerary in mind to maximize our success – despite snow still covering the area. We traveled in separate cars linked by radios and covered a lot of ground. I could not recount our route and stops as I just followed their excellent lead. Here are some highlights:
Barn Owls as usual in the dirt banks off Dodd Road. After incredible persistence and skillful observation by MerryLynn, we had a single Tricolored Blackbird at the Iowa Dodd Beef/Tyson Ponds feedlots. Among the hundreds of blackbirds and thousands of starlings as well as hundreds of White Crowned Sparrows, we also had numerous Yellowheaded Blackbirds. We also had our first of many Ring Necked Pheasants another new species for me. Next up was a search for a Long Eared Owl. We found a single Northern Saw Whet Owl but could not locate the Long Eared Owl that had been seen the week before, so we carried on to Smith Springs Road and somehow Mike and MerryLynn picked out a pair of Long Eared Owls buried in the thick brush. There were probably others in this favorite roosting place. We also had more Pheasants and also a number of Gray Partridge.
We headed over to the small and almost fully abandoned town of Ayer. [I wish I could recount the history which Mike shared. I will see if I can find it and add it later.] Our reason for the visit was that they knew it a great spot for Lesser Goldfinches. Sure enough we found a noisy flock and I could now move it from the “missed” list to the “found” list.
As I said the Dennys know every nook and cranny in the county and also know what has been seen when and where. Following up on some great intelligence we went to Lyons Ferry Road and exactly where they had heard they were hanging out and roosting at some farm buildings, we had a nice flock of very cooperative Gray Crowned Rosy Finches with individuals of both the Interior and Hepburn’s forms. Probably my favorite photo of the trip and definitely my favorite story was when Mike and MerryLynn got out of their car for better looks, I got out of my car behind them and took a picture of one Rosy Finch that perched on the roof of their vehicle. Not a new species for the month but so very much better than the brief glimpse I had earlier on I-82.
And then MerryLynn came through again. We had been seeing Horned Larks all day long. Most flew off without being able to search them for something else. But MerryLynn kept trying and on Eureka Flats, we finally one larger flock which stayed in view long enough for a search. I had noticed a “different” looking individual in the flock when they first landed and then lost it. When they landed a bit further down the road MerryLynn was able to get her scope out and find a coveted Lapland Longspur. I could see it momentarily in the scope just before they took off again and disappeared in a distant field. A new bird for the month and one that had not been expected – a real long shot.
We tried for one more target arriving too late in the late afternoon to find Blue Jays that had been seen regularly for the past month – but always earlier in the day. I had missed this species elsewhere and figured it would remain a nemesis. I said my good byes and returned to Richland to spend the night. Maybe I should have stayed closer to Walla Walla and tried again for the Blue Jay and maybe for Cedar Waxwings which had been seen in the area – or maybe tried for a Ferruginous Hawk. The Dennys thought the hawks had departed after the snow, but one was found a couple of days later. One of the species I had thought was a good likelihood on this trip, Black Crowned Night Heron, had been missed that day and there were consistent reports coming from the Tri-City Animal Shelter pond in Pasco. My motel in Richland was very close. I would also have yet another chance for Blue Jay at W.E. Johnson Park.
The pond behind the Animal Shelter was a cool location. Surrounded by snow, I decided to put on heavier boots and then scan everywhere with the scope. As I was putting on the boots, I saw the distinctive form of a small heron fly by. It had to be the Night Heron. I probably would have counted it just on that but I was hoping for a better view. Nothing at first, but when I walked a bit and found an opening, out in the open were both adult and juvenile Black Crowned Night Herons. Outstanding!!
I moved on to W.E. Johnson Park and found it very quiet with lots of snow on the ground. A Blue Jay has been coming to a feeder at a nearby house for almost three months. I watched for 30 minutes and then gave up and left. It has been seen off and on again in the following days.
There would be one last stop on the way home. Red Crossbills were being reported by Walter Szeliga at the Japanese Garden on the Central Washington Campus in Ellensburg. I made my way to the Garden, probably illegally as I followed signs but the “road” seemed more like a “walkway”. Somewhat uncomfortably I parked next to the Garden gate and immediately heard at least two Red Crossbills. They were feeding actively in the spruce and were in view only momentarily. Had I been on obviously legal streets, I would have stayed. I was satisfied with the ID so I left instead. On the way home, I stopped at the Stillwater Unit of the Snoqualmie Wildlife Area. Maybe I heard the Swamp Sparrow and maybe I didn’t. Certainly no visual and I was not sufficiently confident of the call note to count it.
There had been a couple of misses but it had been a great trip, enhanced by spending yet more time with Mike and MerryLynn. All told I had added 9 new species for the month bringing me to 195 for the month. Still more than a week to go, but the misses were weighing heavily and I knew I would have to find another species or two locally and then repeat trips to at least one of my former visits: Kittitas County, Clark County, the Okanogan.
On the last day of the third week of February with some guidance from Edmonds friend Frank Caruso I found Hutton’s Vireos both at Southwest County Park and near the Willow Creek Hatchery. I missed Cedar Waxwings at Volunteer Park so ended at 195 species having added 31 species for the month. I was pretty confident I could get 4 more but I wanted some surplus as well just to be safe. If I could find everything on my list of remaining possibilities – which would mean returning to Clark County and either the Coast or the Okanogan or both – 208 or possibly 210 species would be possible. It would mean being on the road everyday – almost living in the car.
Everyone birds differently. I enjoy it most when I can focus efforts around a project and/or have a goal. In January 2018, that focus and project was a “Big Month” for my home state of Washington. Prior to that time, the biggest list I had for any January was 154. My goal was to “smash” that by finding 180 species. As is usually the case, once I got going there was self imposed internal pressure to go past that and with the help of some nice rarities like Blue Jay, Rose Breasted Grosbeak, Ross’s Goose and Gyrfalcon, I was able to get to 208 species. I spent a lot of the rest of the next year birding in multiple states starting my 50/50/50 Project but with that early good start I was still able to reach another goal of more than 340 species in Washington for the year ending with 349.
With travel now still limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted another project to guide my birding and distract me from the sadness of politics and those travel constraints. I decided to again do a Big Month in Washington – but this time for February. My previous high for the month was 143 in 2015. Especially with 3 fewer days than January 180 species again seemed to be a reasonable goal but reasonable should not be a limitation for “going for it”, so I am shooting for 200 species. Today is February 11th and I have birded on every day preceding it. Today has been a non-birding day with my attention being on getting my second Covid-19 vaccination, completing the dosage and hopefully affording me a much safer existence. It has been a full and exciting ten days with successes outnumbering failures but with those failures – missed species that were on target lists – strongly threatening the possibility of getting those 200 species. This blog post covers the first week of my adventure. I will try to do one after each subsequent week as well.
I am not going to detail each day of birding, but I do want to hit some highlights and reflect on the experience so far, share a few photos and preview what’s ahead revealing the logistical work that goes with such a project. A lesson I carried over from that January 2018 Big Month and a corollary of my Rule 1 for any chase was to “go now” in this instance meaning to try for holdover rarities from January 2021 as soon as I could. Thus I headed north on February 1st hoping that the Snow Bunting would be at Eide Road, the Northern Waterthrush and Black Phoebe would be at Wylie Slough, the Ruddy Turnstone would be at Tulalip Bay, the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker would be in Everett and the Snowy Owl would be in Seattle. There were other rarities but they were farther afield and these would give me my best chance to get the largest portion of them. Luck was on my side. Off to a great start, I found these 6 rarities and 58 other species. Those were the successes but there were also some failures on day 1 as I could not find the Green Heron at Levee Pond in Pierce County nor the Northern Mockingbird near Olympia, the latter a big miss as they are not regular anywhere in Washington.
Day 1 – 64 species – two misses.
The next day would be the first of many long days as I headed south to Wahkiakum and Clark Counties hoping to add some more rarities and specialties including ones I had seen in January. The first stop was for the White Tailed Kite on Puget Island. When I arrived I could not find it in its “regular” field or on its “regular” perch. Fortunately I had my scope and found it on a tree behind the farm. As would be the case for much of the day, it was raining so due to the distance and the rain, no photo op so I include one from the earlier visit. At Steamboat Slough in the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife area, I found the Tufted Duck in with a dozen or so Scaup – and in even harder rain. I was two for two and feeling pretty good despite the rain. It kind of went down hill from there.
At Ridgefield Refuge, the targets were a White Faced Ibis that had been there for a month, Sandhill Crane, Barn Swallow and Wilson’s Snipe. I heard the Cranes, saw the Swallow and missed the others despite two trips around the loop – again in lots of rain. The Ibis is nowhere else in the state so this was a bad miss. It would not be the only one for the day. When I originally planned the trip, I expected that the Snowy Egret that has been at the Lower River Road pond for several years would be an easy get. I had seen it on my trip in January. But it had not been seen for a week and is thought to be at Post Office Lake which is inaccessible. Edmonds birding friend Jon Houghton was in the area and confirmed it was not found, so I changed plans and went first to Fort Vancouver for the “easy” Acorn Woodpeckers. It had taken me exactly 5 seconds to find them in January. Not this time even though Jon joined me and we searched diligently for 40 minutes. Another BAD MISS! We somewhat made up for it when we found the Clark’s Grebe at Shillapoo Wildlife area. Later we also could not find any Lesser Goldfinches at a likely spot.
In my logistical planning I gave a numerical rating to each potential species with 1 being the easiest, 3 being the hardest and 5 being – seen last year but no chance in hell again. The Acorn Woodpeckers were a 1 (despite being rare there) and I had Clark’s Grebe as a 2 since they were at least possible in Eastern Washington. So in some ways, it was an upgrade – but not really as I had counted on the Acorns. The Lesser Goldfinch was unfortunate but I expect I will find one elsewhere. If I can see 200 on the horizon late in the month, I may go back – a full day I hope to avoid. On the way back to Edmonds I detoured to the remote town of Yacolt to look for the remainder of what had been a nice population of Monk Parakeets. One had been seen lately and I found it – again in the rain. Introduced and not “really countable” in the state – but it’s my list and I am keeping it for now. I also stopped in Lewis County and readily found the juvenile Lesser Black Backed Gull in a large flock of gulls and in even harder rain.
End of day 2 total of 86 species with two very bad misses.
Day three was spent filling in some gaps with local birds including a visit to some local parks and the Edmonds waterfront. There was not a specific list of needs or gottas but at the end of the day I wanted very much to find a Wood Duck. Juanita Bay Park is the go to place for them – without fail. Yes it was easy – the first duck I saw there was a Wood Duck and so was the next and the next and the next. All told there were 32 Wood Ducks there. Mission accomplished.
At the end of day 3 my total was at 100 and no new misses.
It was time for a Big trip for the Big month – heading East and North to the Waterville plateau and the Okanogan – with lots of high hopes and even some “gotta have thems”. On the Waterville plateau there were the usual hundreds of Horned Larks and one large flock of 100+ Snow Buntings. But I could not find a Golden Eagle or a Gray Partridge and certainly no Gyrfalcon. Not doing so well… yet.
Off of the Plateau on the way to the Okanogan I stopped at Bridgeport State Park – another go to place – for Northern Saw Whet Owl. The way you find one is to look under all the trees searching for pellets or whitewash showing that an owl had perched above. I was the only one at the Park except for one guy in a large RV. One of my best skills in finding birds is to allow others to find them for me. When you arrive on the scene at the spot where you hope to find a bird you are chasing, it is really great if another birder is already there and especially if he or she is already looking at it. This particular park co-inhabitant was not looking at my owl, BUT he had seen it earlier in the morning and knew where it was roosting. It still took a while to find it, but we did and I moved Northern Saw Whet Owl into my “got it” column.
My usual visit to the Okanogan starts around Omak and goes to Conconully or the Okanogan Highlands or down Cameron Road. This time I took a different tack and headed to Winthrop where a lot of my target birds had been seen especially Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Bohemian Waxwings, both of which were high priorities. After my visit they were still high priorities, unfortunately. But another of my guiding principles is that there is almost always a great consolation prize. The prize here was a cooperative flock of at least nine or ten Pine Grosbeaks – another top priority and one I had doubted I would find.
A bit disappointed I headed over to Conconully where I found the usual Wild Turkeys but little else and then made it to Omak where I would be staying that night. I had picked up an unexpected Common Redpoll and a few other birds but it had only been a so so day and I ended with 13 new species for the day – almost all expected.
At the end of day 4 my total was at 113 and there were at least three new misses. Maybe the next day would find some of them.
Day 4 started in the Okanogan Highlands. Not as much snow as when I had been there in January but truly beautiful. My first new species was a Prairie Falcon flyover near Tonasket. I had planned on a gimme Chukar on Fancher Road where I have seen over 100 – but not a one – a very bad miss. On Mary Ann Creek Road I finally found a Northern Pygmy Owl but only a distant view and no photo which was disappointing. I kept looking for big flocks which could be the Rosy Finches or even Bohemian Waxwings, but it seemed like it was not to be. UNTIL – a very large flock of small birds appeared out of nowhere on Chesaw Road. At first I thought they were Pine Siskins but to my delight when I was able to to pull over for a look through my binoculars I found they were all Redpolls. I was able to get a couple of pictures and then they all took flight scared off by an oncoming pickup truck, the only vehicle I had seen that day. Bad timing. Or maybe not as the flock resettled for a couple of moments and this time as I got my bins on them, one jumped out. All of the others were fairly dark with the mix of brown backs and sides, streaked breasts and red caps (polls). This one was super pale with a much smaller red cap, barely any brown or streaking a rosy cast to its chest. I was able to find it again in my camera viewfinder and got two photos before again the entire flock of more than 110 Redpolls flew off and disappeared. Could this be a Hoary Redpoll? Extremely rare but not unheard of in Washington, it is a very difficult ID, but this bird sure looked good. It is likely that Hoary Redpoll may lose its separate species status in the near future, but for now it is recognized. The Washington Bird Records Committee will weigh in on the ID, but I sent the photos to some noted ornithologists who gave a thumbs up. Good enough for me for now. and a find that makes iup for some misses.
The feeders on Nealey Road, my next stop, can be very productive and there I got my first Mountain Chickadee and a less than cooperative Clark’s Nutcracker that refused to come out into the open. Oddly this is where I finally found a Hairy Woodpecker, a species I had missed far too often at local parks in Edmonds. I had a lovely visit with one of the residents and left a donation for seed to stock the feeders. A bit down the road I found two Gray Partridge at the same spot I had them in December. After another hour driving the back roads of the Highlands and a return Chukarless visit to Fancher Road most of which was birdless. I decided to change plans and spend the night in Wenatchee instead of again in Omak which would allow some calculated detours. The first was to the Bridgeport Bar where I found one target – American Tree Sparrow and a surprise Eared Grebe. The Grebe was the 9th new species for the day. End of Day 5 – 122 species and another bad miss with the Chukar and no rescues for either Gray Crowned Rosy Finch of Bohemian Waxwing.
Before heading out the next morning I checked my Birder’s Dashboard App to see what had been reported recently in Chelan County. This proved a great move as Eurasian Wigeon and Greater White Fronted Goose had been seen at Walla Walla Point Park which was only a few minutes from my motel. I expected to get them elsewhere but as nothing is a certainty, I was glad to add these two species to my Month list. There is a recognized certain amount of craziness in these birding projects. I had to make a choice – go to Stevens Pass, the best place for Canada Jay or make the long detour back down to Olympia and try again for the Mockingbird. I chose the latter. On the way to Olympia I saw a small falcon zip by me and take down a Rock Pigeon. It was my first Merlin of the month. The weather began to turn and in crappy rain I was able to find the Northern Mockingbird buried in the holly hedge behind 504 Cushing Street in Olympia. The benefit of that decision was doubled when a bonus White Throated Sparrow was also present. Still no Green Heron, but at the 212th Street Ponds in Kent, I finally found one of the Cinnamon Teal buried in reeds at the back of the larger pond. So it was a good detour adding 6 species for the month.
Day 6 – 128 species to date and a recovered miss but some other misses that I may have to attend to again.
After some long days, day 7 of my quest was limited to looking for some local birds. None should have been terribly difficult to find, but there are rarely guarantees in birding so bests to be sure by getting even the easy ones as early as we can – remove the pressure later. I easily got Virginia Rail at the Edmonds March but did not find Cedar Waxwings that had been photographed there the previous day. Birding friend Steve Pink had a Townsend’s Warbler visiting his feeder so I paid him a visit. He warned that it might take a long wait, but it came in as soon as I arrived and was joined by a Chestnut Backed Chickadee which was also new for the month. The last bird on my list was expected to be the hardest to find. Band Tailed Pigeons are regular but it is hard to know where they will be. As I neared the neighborhood where I planned my search three large pigeons flew into a tree about 200 yards away. I stopped the car and first got a confirming look and then a poor but ID proving photo. Turned out to be easy. Time to attend to other matters neglected in my week of chases.
End of Day 7 – 132 species. Recapping my big misses were Gray Crowned Rosy Finch, Bohemian Waxwing, Golden Eagle, Chukar, White Face Ibis, Lesser Goldfinch and Acorn Woodpecker. Hope remains for some but I think a return trip to Clark County will be necessary. Much more importantly, it has been a lot of fun and has definitely been a distraction from politics and pandemics.
Actually I could have started with “hit, hit, hit” and added “miss” four more times to the title as until yesterday 2021 had gotten off to an up and down and unsatisfying start. With COVID still raging, the protection of the vaccine a long way off and political unrest at an historic low, there is no way to know what 2021 will be and that certainly applies to my birding activities and goals as well. Since the 1st of January was a decent day weatherwise, I followed a familiar pattern by chasing a few of the local rarities that continued into the new year from 2020.
The top priority was theSnowy Owl that has been returning to the same roof on Queen Anne in Seattle for a month. I walked down the alley that had seen hundreds of birders in December and there it was at its favored roost. Not my first bird for the new year as I had seen an Anna’s Hummingbird and American Crow as I left home earlier, but it was my first targeted “hit” for 2021.
My second target was a Glaucous Gull that had been seen regularly at Gene Coulon Park in Renton. This park is very near the Mouth of the Cedar River where I have had many good birds over the past year, but I had never been to this park. I ran into friend John Bjorkman when I arrived and a couple of other birders soon joined us. I was able to pick out the Glaucous Gull with my scope as it swam next to some “logs” maybe 70 yards out. Not the greatest shot but a good enough photo of a very nice species for Washington.
As we scoped for the gull, a small group of waterfowl right in front of us included Canada, Cackling and Greater White Fronted Geese, the latter a less common species that was a good add to the 2021 list.
Two down and now what. I debated heading east to look for the Rusty Blackbird and Common Grackle that had been seen regularly off Neal Road along the Snoqualmie River but I only had time for one more chase and decided to go for the Blue Jay that was coming to a feeder in Pierce County instead. I thought the Jay was almost a certainty and the others uncertain. With directional help from Bruce LaBar and Ed Pullen, I made it to the right house and met up with Ed Pullen who was still there. I had actually seen the Blue Jay fly into a tree as I had driven up to park, but it was no longer there when I got out of my car. It took another 15 minutes for the Blue Jay to come in to the feeder. Unfortunately it did not stay long enough for a photo. The only one I got was an ID quality photo only buried in a tree in the yard. A fun addition was that we also saw a Steller’s Jay and a California Scrub Jay at the same location. I cannot recall another three jay day in Washington.
I had obligations for later in the day so it was off to home with a brief stop at the Edmonds fishing pier to add some regular species for the new year.
Well that was a great start to the year, but unfortunately at least in terms of successful chases, it went downhill from there. I was able to find the Sora at Green Lake in Seattle but it was heard only. Many others had been able to get great photos in the open, but when I was there with another birder and photographer wannabe, the reclusive rail remained reclusive. Great to have it at all but disappointing not to get a photo. At least I got some exercise walking around the lake and I also was able to add a Eurasian Wigeon for the year.
A Northern Goshawk had been reported and photographed on Fir Island in Skagit County during the last week of 2020. I had missed it twice each time being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On January 4th I tried again – no go. Others had it later in the day, but it continued to elude me. I continued on to Rosario Head at Deception Pass State Park, a beautiful place. A Yellow Billed Loon had been seen there a couple of days ago and I had seen one there on January 23, 2017 but not this time. So I was 0 for 2. The photo of the 2017 bird is below – my best ever of this species. A bonus was a nice photo of a Varied Thrush which I have seen at a number of locations this year.
I made another try for the Northern Goshawk on my way back and was once again unsuccessful despite someone else having seen it 30 minutes earlier. I went to the spot where it had been seen and found only a Red Tailed Hawk. This was becoming tiresome. I ended the day with a favorite sparrow species, Lincoln’s Sparrow, at the “sparrow spot” off Moore Road.
I was very very tempted to chase some rarities in Pacific and Clark counties but had other things to attend to. I might have made it in a very long day, but a two day trip would have been smarter. The birds to chase were White Faced Ibis, Acorn Woodpecker, and Snowy Egret in Clark County, White Tailed Kite in Wahkiakum County and a Hooded Oriole in Pacific County. The latter two are the real prizes as the others would likely be found later elsewhere where they are regular if not common. It is hard to let go of the old habit and urge to chase birds like these, but I want 2021 to be different. Not doing a big state list this year — I think.
OK – one more quick chase. Back to the tree in Everett where I saw the rare for Washington Yellow Bellied Sapsucker last year. As soon as I arrived another birder showed up as well. We immediately found the sapsucker on the tree, but WAIT this was a Red Breasted Sapsucker. Struck out again.
BUT…one thing that is not different from years past is the desire to chase birds that would be new for my Washington Life List or my Washington Photo list. Just before noon on January 8th, a post showed up on Facebook from Will Brooks, a fantastic young birder in Tacoma. He had found a Winter Wren in Orting. Not only would this be a new state bird for me, it was also the first record of this species in Washington – ever! And furthermore although it was a species that I had seen in several other states, I did not have a decent photo. Opportunity was knocking.
In 2010 Winter Wren was split into two distinct species: Winter Wren in the East and Pacific Wren in the West. Pacific Wrens are common in Washington and of course until yesterday the Winter Wren had never been seen. Both are pretty nondescript “lbj’s” – little brown jobs. The plumage is very similar with the Winter Wren often being seen as having a lighter tone and a paler throat. Fortunately, however, the songs and call notes are very different and can be used to separate the two species. I don’t know if Will had first found the bird visually or vocally, but he is meticulous and his report had all of the right details for both visual and vocal identification. I was in Edmonds and Orting was 60 miles away. Time to apply Rule One for a chase – go now!! I grabbed a protein shake, rain coat, binoculars and camera – checking to be sure it had an SD card and the battery was charged – and headed south.
In normal midday traffic for Friday, with much of the trip on freeways, I figured it would take about 75-80 minutes to get there – assuming I knew where “there” was. Problem #1. The bird was reported in Orting but there was no street address. Will had includes coordinates and I put them into my GPS and watched for directions. Not for the first time, there were problems. My GPS was taking me in the right general direction but if I followed the details, I would be 10 miles from Orting. Not good. I called Bruce LaBar who was at the site and got some clarification. I changed my GPS and changed my course. Now though I was feeling stressed with the time added for the trip. You never know, every minute can count. I was lost except for the GPS and following the new directions I had to adjust to make a quick lane shift to hit a turn. A couple of minutes afterwards, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the flashing lights of either a police car or an emergency vehicle. I slowed and started to pull off to the side of the road to let it by. Uh-oh. It did not go by – it pulled up right behind me. Was it the turn? Something else? I am sure I was going over the speed limit, but I actually did not even know what the speed limit was there as I was absorbed in the GPS adjustments.
Rule One for chasing is go now, and Rule One for interactions with police officers is be polite and honest. This time I was fortunate and what could have been a disaster turned into a really positive experience. I rolled down the window and asked for a moment to put on my mask. The officer had already checked my license plate and determined I was not a criminal. I cannot recall the exact conversation but I basically said I had been struggling with directions and was not sure what I had done but wouldn’t be surprised if I had erred somehow as I was trying hard to get somewhere and may have cut some corners. Instead of confirming that, Sergeant Pihl, a 20+ year veteran of the Puyallup City Police (details I later learned) asked why I was in a hurry and where I was trying to get to. I showed him my camera and he asked if I was a photographer. I said, sort of, but really a birder and then I told him about the first ever in Washington Winter Wren and my wanting to see it so badly. He was terrific and asked some questions about it and I gave him far more information than he ever wanted to know even though he smiled through it. Bottom line was he said that he did not want this to make my challenge any harder, so I was encouraged to head off again but cautioned to slow down which would be the safest way to get there. And then…he asked me to send him a photo of the bird when I got one. He was rooting for me. Now I am not going to tell you that it wasn’t really important to find the wren, but this interaction was a great story for the day no matter. If only all interactions with police by all people were so positive. Maybe with this guy they are…
I finally made it to the right spot and found 8 of Tacoma’s best birders there. I learned that the wren had been heard again by some maybe an hour ago but had not been seen. Will Brooks was no longer there. Winter Wrens prefer moist dense habitat and are very secretive and generally remain close to the ground. They are often heard and not seen. There was a little stream running through a small farm field with heavy brambles. The habitat looked perfect. We spread out and looked all along the stream and on both sides of the road in the brush. These were top notch birders. They were not going to miss it, if it called or came into view. But nothing for almost an hour. Finally the decision was made to use audio playback. Many apps have recordings of the sounds of each species ranging from songs to call notes to alarms. Every bird species has its own unique call(s) and songs. Not always distinguishable by me, but clearly so to those with good ears – and good processors. I still have decent hearing, but I am not at all good at distinguishing what I hear. There is some controversy about using playback. It is thought by some to unduly disturb the birds as the calls suggest another bird is around and may be challenging the territory or breeding rights. It can also draw a bird into the open exposing itself to predation.
This was not a breeding situation and there had been no predators around. The birders gathered together in case the playback was successful and a visual was made. Ed Pullen played the song of the Winter Wren and there was an immediate response. The song of the Winter Wren is different from that of the Pacific Wren, and we all agreed that this was a Winter Wren. There was no visual and the Wren seemed to be at least 60 yards away near a cedar tree. Some caught a brief view as it flew off to an area behind a fence. It called a few times and then silence. I had not yet had a visual but was sure of the vocalizations. I urged Ed to try playback again. He did and the Wren responded and flew into an area beneath some farm machinery now maybe 40 yards away. Over the next 15 minutes, the Winter Wren played peekaboo and eventually came out into the open and although still distant was there for some decent photos. I was thrilled to get the one below of it singing and clearly showing the pale throat that is one field mark distinguishing it from Pacific Wren.
Everyone was thrilled to get this rare little bird. It was the 425th species I had seen in the State and was my 412th bird photographed in Washington. It also was the 714th species I had photographed in the ABA area (all of North America north of Mexico). It was a really good day.
When I got home, I sent a copy of the photo to Sergeant Pihl with an email thanking him for his assistance and good spirit. He quickly replied with a congratulatory message. In his own way he was a participant and shared in this experience. We are all parts of many communities, birders, citizens, families, whatever. We are not all the same, but we all can relate to, appreciate and help each other.
I belong to an ABA Rare Bird Alert group on Facebook and posted there that the first ever Winter Wren had been seen in Washington and I included several photos I had taken. Within moments there were more than 50 comments or likes posted there by others in the group. Now a day later there have been more than 365 responses. There are a lot of birders out there. I also understand that more than 30 birders were on the scene this morning and had either visual or auditory observations. I expect that by the end of the day maybe even 50 people would have added this species to their lists. One friend came in early from Yakima to get it. There is a good chance that the bird will remain for awhile and many more birders will see it. Lovely. Maybe my luck has changed and I will get that Northern Goshawk soon.
Most years I spend two or three days in January or February and then again in December birding in Okanogan and Douglas Counties in North Central Washington. There are species more commonly seen in these two counties than elsewhere and often add to year lists. Generally, my visits first cover the Waterville Plateau in Douglas County before heading further north to the Okanogan Highlands. I usually access the Plateau via Highway 2 which means travelling east up over Stevens Pass (Elevation 4060 feet) rather than via Interstate 90 which can be quicker but requires going over both Snoqualmie Pass (Elevation 2725 feet) and Blewett Pass (4100 feet) – less appealing in the winter. Unless it is a very early start, a problem with the latter route is dealing with commuter traffic in and through Seattle. On this trip I chose Highway 2 getting on the road at 5:30 a.m. which meant two hours of driving in the dark but being able to get to the Plateau which is about 175 miles away from my home in Edmonds around 9:00 a.m. giving me about 7 and a half hours of birding for the day.
The Waterville Plateau rises almost 2000 feet above the Columbia River which to some degree bends around it. It is wheat farming country where the roads mostly form a grid of gravel section line roads with lettered roads running north and south and lettered roads running east and west – at least somewhat. The land is very flat with rocky outcroppings scattered about. Usually by mid December, the entire plateau is covered in snow. Some roads are paved, but most are not. Almost all are at least mostly cleared by snowplows but melting and freezing cycles usually result in a lot of ice. While crisscrossing the roads, I might see thousands of Horned Larks accompanied by hundreds of Snow Buntings and occasionally Lapland Longspurs. Each winter it seems that at least one Snowy Owl finds a rocky outcropping or two to its liking and attracts birders eager to see that rare winter visitor. Gyrfalcons are sometimes found, but it is a huge area – depending on definition over 1,000 square miles – so they are usually missed. Gray Partridge are in the area, at times near grain terminals like those in Withrow, but they may be anywhere. A Snowy Owl had been seen regularly in the Atkins Lake area of the Plateau – southeast corner, and although I had seen in Seattle earlier, they are always a treat and that area is also good for Partridge and possibly Gyrfalcons. The latter was the most hoped for bird of the trip, but I also wanted a better look and hopefully a photo of a Gray Partridge. I had seen some earlier in the year but it was a distant and fleeting view only.
On any birding chase looking for a special bird known to favor a specific location, a good rule of thumb is to look for another birder already there who is hopefully looking at the bird you want to see. Even in a remote, spacious and mostly empty and uninhabited area like the Waterville Plateau, this is good guidance. As I approached the intersection of M Road and One Road, where Ed Pullen had reported the Snowy Owl last week, I saw a single car maybe a half mile away, the only sign of human presence against the miles of snow covered fields. It was standing still. Could this be a birder with binoculars or camera trained on the Snowy Owl? As it turned out – no but just as good. I approached the car slowly and pulled up next to it. We each rolled down the opposing windows of our cars. “Could this be another birder?” I asked. It was. Debbie Sutherland is an excellent birder who lives in Cashmere, WA maybe 60 miles away. We had last seen each other at Rosario Head in Skagit County a couple of years ago. She was looking for Snow Buntings but had seen the Snowy Owl earlier on an outcropping very nearby and she gave me directions. We shared a few more stories and then I went off to see the owl and she continued her search for buntings.
Just as Debbie had said, the Snowy Owl was distant and only its head could be seen among the rocks. Still good to see. I spent the next couple of hours driving around the Plateau with more than 25 miles on icy roads, checking every outcropping hoping for a Gyrfalcon. No such luck and all in all, there were far fewer birds than I had seen on earlier visits. Noticeably low counts were Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings. I doubt I saw more than 500 Larks and fewer than a dozen Snow Buntings and I did not see any Partridge. Raptors were fewer than expected as well with only a half dozen Rough Legged Hawks and even fewer Red Tails. A single Northern Shrike was perhaps my best bird. Granted it is a big area, but I cannot remember another visit where I did not flush Horned Larks on nearly every road. One year I wondered if I had seen more than 10,000. And I have often seen flocks of more than 100 Snow Buntings.
It was a beautiful day with no wind, no fog, lots of sunshine and temperatures in the 30’s. If only there had been more birds. Maybe things would change further north in the Okanogan. I dropped down to the Columbia River and then headed north on Highway 97. There was not as much snow as I would have liked thinking more would at least make finding Sharp Tailed Grouse, a main target, easier to find. I watched for birds in the many orchards along the way hoping for a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. Alas, bird numbers remained small with House Finches being the only small birds I saw. I went through Omak where I would be spending the night and headed to Scotch Creek around Happy Hill Road where I had seen Sharp Tailed Grouse before. When there is enough snow on the ground, the Grouse climb into the Water Birch to feed and thus become visible from Conconully Road. Some snow but not lots and the trees were bare. It has been best to look early in the morning, so I figured I would return the next day and try again. I continued on to Conconully checking fields along the way where I have had Gray Partridge, California Quail and Pheasants. Nothing in the fields and only House Finches and House Sparrows in Conconully. VERY QUIET…
There were some raptors, however. American Kestrels on the power lines, some Northern Harriers, a few Red Tails but mostly Rough Legged Hawks soaring, hovering and perched. Rough Legged Hawks are striking birds, much appreciated for photo ops in the winter.
It was decision time. I wanted to check out Cameron Lake Road and I also wanted to get into the Okanogan Highlands to look for owls and hopefully visiting northern finches. There was not sufficient time to do both. Jon Houghton had detailed significant fire damage along Cameron Lake Road when he visited earlier so the birding prospects were not great, but I had always had good luck there (except for those two flat tires some years ago) and although it would take at least an hour, there was time for that before dark. The fire damage was depressing indeed with wide swaths completely burned – both brush and large trees. I wondered if the trees would still be there at my White Headed Woodpecker spot near the flag over the road. The trees were there but mostly charred and lifeless. I found no Woodpeckers or any other birds there. It was not much better elsewhere along the road. The Tree Sparrow woodlot was essentially gone. I had a couple of Kestrels, some Magpies and some House Finches. A couple of Ravens flew by and there was a single Northern Harrier. As I descended back towards Highway 97, two birds rocketed out from the snow next to the road. They were the Gray Partridge I had hoped to see, but not this way as they were gone before I could even stop the car.
The absence of birds and the impossible to miss fire damage did not make it a great trip, but I love Cameron Lake Road for its quiet serenity as I rarely see anyone else on the almost 20 mile journey on a snowy/icy road. I cannot recall another winter visit without Snow Buntings and not seeing the American Tree Sparrows was a disappointment, but there would be at least one more day and with darkness approaching it was time to check into my motel – the Omak Inn. Perfectly adequate and there was a great price through Hotels.com which I use on almost all my birding trips. Dinner would be a take out salad from Subway and then I would check in with Cindy, watch some basketball and read. It was getting cold and I expected to have to scrape off ice the next morning.
It was another early start the next morning as I wanted to get to Scotch Creek as the sun was coming up and yes there was thick frost on the windshield. I was hoping to find Sharp Tailed Grouse in the Water Birch. No go. The only patches I saw in the leafless trees were some old oriole nests. I searched for 30 minutes and then went to Plan B which had worked once before. I drove up Happy Hill Road watching every tree and every turn. I went in almost 3 miles and saw only Ravens and Black Billed Magpies. On the way out I stopped at the WDFW Audubon site and parked. I scanned every tree and every hill again and saw two distant grouse across a ravine half hidden in some brush. This is a good and protected area for Sharp Tailed Grouse and I would bet that is what they were but the views were pretty poor and it was possible they could have been Ruffed Grouse I guess. I checked the water birch off of Conconully Road along the Creek when I left just before 9:00 a.m. and saw nothing. Maybe it was too early, but I had a full day ahead of me so I carried on.
Perhaps I should have returned to Conconully and birded in town and up the west side road as I have had Gray Crowned Rosy Finches there before and I have yet to see any this year. But I thought birding would be better in the Okanogan Highlands with a chance for Common Redpolls, Bohemian Waxwings and even the Rosy Finches plus maybe some owls. I knew I wanted to get to the Havillah SnoPark and the Nealey Road Feeders, bird along Swash Creek and Fancher Road and otherwise just cover territory. It was 16 degrees when I left Omak, about the same at Scotch Creek and I would be going to much higher ground. The sun was out which might provide some warmth, but I was glad I had put on my long johns.
I will not go into all of the details, but again despite very few birds, it was a very satisfying morning. The country is beautiful with rolling hills, forest, a few VERY small settlements, and ever changing vistas. All roads were snow packed but plowed, some paved but more gravel. I was glad to have my GPS as roads twist and turn and stop and go, circling back on one another or dying out only to start up again elsewhere. The blanket of snow was beautiful, erasing all of man’s scarrings and cushioning every sound so that all I heard was my car on the snow and then just silence when I stopped. I enjoy being with others and have greatly missed birding with friends in this horrible COVID-19 year. But I also enjoy time alone and the solitude without a care, focused only on the possibility of birds and the road ahead is heartening for me.
There were maybe 500 Rock Pigeons and 50 Mallards at the fields and feedlots on Fancher Road but no California Quail, Pheasants or Chukars. On one visit there a couple of years ago during calving season, there were more than 100 Chukars. No owls at the SnoPark, but I heard an American Three Toed Woodpecker as soon as I arrived. Unfortunately a car with some snowshoers arrived at the same time and the gleeful cries of the two young boys did not bring the Woodpecker in closer. Their unfettered fun was very enjoyable to see and hear though.
I drove the length of Siwash Creek road which was beautiful and quiet. I stopped at a couple of places and searched for Northern Pygmy Owls without success. Birding would probably have been better if I had gotten out of the car and really looked for passerines but I had a lot of ground to cover and it was now 12 degrees. In previous posts, I have often stressed that when we get out into nature and are open to them, there are often surprises and even when main targets are missed, there are usually consolation prizes. It was time for one. Two fairly large birds appeared in the sky in front of me and to my left, maybe 30 feet above the treeline. At first I thought they might be ravens but as they drew closer I was pretty sure they were game birds even if their altitude above the trees seemed odd. I was in a forested area by the creek and as the birds continued their flight, my sight line was temporarily blocked by the trees but their flight path looked like they might be coming in for a landing. I got lucky and both birds landed on tree tops maybe 75 yards away. Through my binoculars I could tell only that they were grouse and with terrible backlighting I could make out no details other than a small crest. Were they Ruffed Grouse (which I had seen on tree tops like this before) or Sharp Tailed Grouse which I had never seen in anything but short low flights? Even through my scope with no direct lighting, I just could not tell.
I take photos for many reasons – to preserve memories, to share with others on checklists, Facebook or blogposts and just for my only records and enjoyment. Often they are diagnostic as well. Such was the case here. Really terrible photos but with lots of magnification and enhancement, it was clear that these were Sharp Tailed Grouse. Much better than my earlier views at Happy Hill and now without any doubt. Quite a surprise – a very pleasant one.
The feeders were gone at Nealey Road, and in general birding remained slow except for several groups of House Sparrows and House Finches, and numerous Magpies and hawks, especially Rough Legged Hawks with more than a dozen seen. I took a lot of photos of the Rough Legs and these are my two favorites with the latter hopefully not being a criticism of my presence.
By the time I got to Chesaw the temperature had dipped to 9 degrees. Maybe it was too cold for birds as well as very few were seen. My original plan had been to stay over a second night but a few clouds were starting to gather in the distance. I had put on almost a hundred miles over snowy roads and even without many birds seen and targets definitely missed it had been exhilarating because of the solitude and scenery. It would be around 5 hours to get home (or so I thought at the time) and if I cut the trip short, I could be there well before dinner. Besides getting a photo of the Sharp Tailed Grouse was wonderful and there would still be a chance for some birds on the way back. It was a surprise to see no northern specialties especially since many trees were packed with cones. That’s birding.
I did not keep track of the exact route but I did retrace some steps back along Havillah Road. At one of the few homes along the route, directly across from some small grain silos, I noticed a number of small birds flitting around. Would I finally find some of the sought after northern finches? No – only a large flock of House Sparrows, but then two larger birds flew past and landed by the silos. I had seen a number of Eurasian Collared Doves but these were Mourning Doves but more importantly they were “guide doves” as they took my eyes to a small structure near the grain silos where on the ground were several Gray Partridge. I maneuvered my car nearer to them and watched and took many photos with ultimately a dozen Gray Partridges appearing and disappearing maybe 40 feet in front of me and with light behind me and on them when they were in the open. Now I had really good views and photos of this species – perhaps a good close to the day.
Feeling very pleased I continued back to Tonasket and onto Highway 97 heading south. Just north of Cameron Lake Road a posted raptor caught my eye (even at 60 mph) and a U-turn brought me face to face with one of the prettiest Red Tailed Hawks I have seen – a very cinnamon colored western form. According to drawings in Sibley it is an adult intermediate. Truly a gorgeous bird. I am sure I have seen one like it before but I cannot recall a specific incidence and do not have any photos like this one.
I continued to check fruit orchards hoping for waxwings but saw none. There were lots of waterfowl on the Okanogan and Columbia rivers. I did not stop to identify them, but could for sure make out Trumpeter Swans, Scaup, Mallards, Buffleheads and at least one Common Loon. There were also several Bald Eagles, more Kestrels, Ravens, and Hawks but I guess I will have to return early next year if I want those northern specialties that I missed this trip.
There was one stop along the way that I wanted to make. Cindy and I are planning a few days away in January and have booked a condo near Leavenworth at the Kahler Glen resort. We want some quiet time and also to try snowshoeing which I have not done for over 30 years. Near Lake Wenatchee west and a bit north of Leavenworth, it was about 10 miles out of my way home back over Highway 2. It looked great on a quick trip and I was very pleased to see it was very close to the Nason Creek SnoPark. I think we will like it.
I don’t know if it was due to an accident or if my detour to Kahler Glen made the timing bad, but my return trip was the worst traffic mess I have ever seen – including Los Angeles at rush hour. It was pretty icy coming down from Stevens Pass with some nervous drivers causing a little delay but that was nothing compared to what would follow just east of Gold Bar. There are three horrible little towns along Highway 2 starting with Gold Bar 36 miles west of the Pass. Then comes Startup and finally Sultan. It is just over six miles from Gold Bar to Sultan. There are several traffic lights in each miserable town and it is a two lane road with no opportunities to pass. Even on good days, there are delays due to the lights which usually means it takes 15 or 20 minutes to get through them. I hate this highway even though the scenery on both sides of Stevens Pass for many miles is spectacular.
About 3 miles from Gold Bar, the traffic came to a dead stop. There was no movement for a full five minutes. My GPS said there was a 25 minute delay on this route. From this point, there is no alternate route. Go with the flow, right? But there was no flow. Originally I thought I would be home by 5:30. My first call to Cindy postponed that until 6:00 p.m. Start and stop – 30 feet at a time – start and stop. The details are brutal and I refuse to curse on this blog so I will not revisit them. Bottom line, it took a full two hours to get from just east of Gold Bar to just beyond Sultan. My calls home postponed my ETA to 6:30 and then to 7:00 and then to 7:30. I ended up opening the door home at 7:35. Did I mention that I hate Highway 2, Sultan, Startup and Gold Bar!!! There was never any indication of an accident. No sirens, ambulances, police or flashing lights. Aaargh!! Thank goodness for Sirius XM so at least I could listen to radio during the ordeal. Anger at Trump for yet more malfeasance and corruption was a distraction from anger for the traffic.
But I survived. It was good to be home. Dinner was waiting and excellent and I was pleased with some of my photos even if there were more misses than hits on the trip. I doubt I will head out again this year, so this was the last fling for 2020 – an all around awful year in so many ways. Yet, I am happy because of the things that are really important. Far fewer birds than any year in the past ten. Almost no birding with friends. The year started well with ABA Lifers Barnacle Goose and Dovekie during a super trip to see may daughter, son-in law and grandson in Boston in January. A marathon trip for a Lifer Ivory Gull in Montana followed in early February. Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head and plans for trips to Florida, Arizona and Texas vanished. I managed a few Lifers in Arizona last month and that was it. Washington birding was much reduced as well. The Sharp Tailed Grouse was Washington species #330 for 2020, my fewest in many years. There have been two new state lifers this year, the Siberian Accentor on February 7th just before COVID restrictions and the Least Tern at the Montlake fill in June – taking care to wear a mask and to maintain social distance. Yes it could have been worse, but it was intended to be so much better,
I wish I could see my kids and grandchild. I wish I could travel. Hopefully next year. Being with Cindy has been the best and has gotten me through the year and we have solidified and deepened our relationship. Black Lab Chica helps as well – at least usually although I could do without so much barking. No health issues although the pounds added during our COVID inactivity are a negative and yes, I need to get more exercise. Next year…
Seasons Greetings to all. Good riddance to Trump and fingers crossed for 2021.
This definitely has not been the November or December I thought they would be as the dual evils of Donald Trump and the Coronavirus haunt us everyday. My trip to Arizona in early November certainly helped, but it also reminded me of what else was supposed to be. Instead of traveling to Africa (probably Botswana), I gave a program via Go To Meeting on Birds and Beasts of Africa to a small audience at our Point Edwards neighborhood. It was fun but again a reminder of what might have been.
Far less so last year since I was busy with my 50 State Birding Adventure, in every year since 2012 I have devoted much time and energy to chasing birds in my home state of Washington, generally trying to be at or near the top of the list of most species seen. Somehow despite being out of state so much, I only missed the top spot in 2019 by a single species. The 335 species last year was the fewest I had seen since starting to keep track in 2012. This year with the limitations from COVID-19, the number will be smaller still and it just has not been important to me. But old habits die slowly and in the past few weeks I have at least gotten out a bit and have enjoyed the break from politics and the pandemic. What follows are a few stories and a few photos of some activity the past few weeks.
My starting point was a visit to Chinook Bend in King County on November 14 hoping to see a Northern Pygmy Owl that had been reported there earlier by Carl Haynie. I had heard one on Biscuit Ridge Road when Cindy and I did a short wine/birding trip to Walla Walla in October. There had been no visual and Cindy had never seen one. As is often the case, fortunately, there were a few other birders there when we arrived and they were looking at the small owl across the road from the parking area. It was not the greatest view, but hey it was a Northern Pygmy Owl – always a treat. Each time I see one I am stunned by just how small they are – barely seven inches – about 2/3 the size of a Robin.
Finding the owl was a kind of deja vu. In January 2015, I ran into Paul Banning and three others at the same parking area at Chinook Bend. We went off hoping to find a Northern Pygmy Owl which had been reported previously. After a couple of hours we finally found one out in a wooded area. A long search but worth it. The surprise was that when we returned to the parked cars, a second Owl was there waiting for us. A much better photo that time.
This was the sixth species of owl Cindy had seen. She would see her seventh species three days later. On the same day we saw the Northern Pygmy Owl at Chinook Bend, a report of a Snowy Owl showed up on Ebird. It was seen on a rooftop in a residential area on Queen Anne in Seattle. When it was reported again the next day, we decided to try for it. We had to wait another day but around noon on November 17th we joined several others at an alley just off Boston Street and were treated to this uncommon visitor from the North. Snowy Owls are seen in small numbers annually in Washington, but most often in Eastern Washington or along the coast. It has been a while since one was in Seattle itself. It is now three weeks after it was first seen and it is still returning to the same rooftop vicinity where it has been enjoyed by hundreds of fascinated observers, birders and others thrilled to see it.
Ebird records make it easy for birders to keep track of many geographic lists from the entire world to specific countries, states, counties or home patches. I have mostly been interested in my ABA area list (North America north of Mexico), and my Washington state list. For many birders, their county lists are of first importance. I am aware of my county lists because of Ebird but generally do not chase new birds for any county. But “generally” is not “always”. Most of my birding is organized around a quest for a certain bird and when there are no new state birds to be chased and particularly this year when there have been far fewer opportunities to go birding, a special bird for one of my “favorite” counties becomes the impetus to get going. For the last 8 years I have lived in Snohomish County after almost 40 years in King County. My largest county list is for Snohomish County with Grays Harbor and Clallam counties not too far behind. King County is number 4 and when I felt the need to get away on November 27th I decided to add a strange bird to that county list.
Black Billed Magpies are striking birds closely related to jays and crows (corvids) that are resident and common in much of Eastern Washington. One was being seen regularly near a playfield in South Seattle in King County. As I approached the playfield I realized the area was much larger than I expected and I began a plan of attack to cover the area. The plan started with pulling into a parking lot next to the area’s community center. I parked and grabbed my binoculars as I opened the car door. Sometimes you get lucky. Before I even put my second foot on the ground, the Magpie flew by overhead and continued north towards some homes. I got back into the car and drove to where I thought it had headed and found it perched on a lamp post. Somewhat like the previous photo of the Snowy Owl on a rooftop next to a chimney, this was not exactly a natural setting, but it was an easy photo and an easy addition to my King County list – species #241.
Since that pursuit was so easy I decided to head over to the Stillwater Unit of the Snoqualmie Wildlife area, also in King County to look for the Swamp Sparrow being seen there to add to my 2020 Washington State list. These sparrows are abundant in the Eastern and Southern United States but uncommon in Washington, found mostly in late fall and winter in wet areas. The Stillwater Unit is a large area accessed along a very good walking/biking/jogging path adjoining the Snoqualmie River, but fortunately this species tends to stay put in its habitat and there were very specific directions to find its favored location. Several birders were there searching for the Swamp Sparrow – and not finding it. It had been seen much earlier but had gone quiet. It is usually quite secretive and is often only heard and not seen or seen only briefly as it flies from one spot of dense brush to another. It’s call note is described as a metallic “chink” as opposed to the “tink” or “chimp” call of the abundant Song Sparrow that occupies the same habitat, as well as many others. There were lots of tinks and chimps but no chinks were heard.
After almost an hour, the other birders had either departed or moved to a different location. I heard a somewhat different call – maybe a chink and then saw a small sparrow move from one clump of medium tall grass to another. It seemed smaller than the Song Sparrows that I had seen but my view was too quick to pick up any field marks. I played the Swamp Sparrow call on my phone and got a couple of responses that sounded right on. But the Sparrow would not show itself. After maybe 5 minutes it flew to another clump and again buried itself. I signaled to one of the other birders that I thought I had it. He joined me, heard the call note and also voted for the Swamp Sparrow. No looks at all. Later other birders came to the same spot and also reported the Swamp Sparrow – one got a photo. No photo of the Swamp Sparrow for me, but nice pictures of a Fox Sparrow and a Hairy Woodpecker were consolation prizes.
That would do it for November. No, I did not get to Botswana as planned but a month that started with a Northern Jacana and an Eared Quetzal and also included a Snowy Owl was not too bad. Normally it would have included a trip to Neah Bay in Washington where there are always surprises and great birds, but access remains closed to non-tribal members as the COVID-19 virus still rages. It also included a election victory for Joe Biden and the beginning of the end for Donald Trump. Causes for celebration.
December began with a return trip to a spot near Darrington where White Winged Crossbills had been reported by David Poortinga. This winter is shaping up to be an irruption year for northern finches as Pine Siskins have been reported in huge numbers throughout Washington and in many northern tier states. There have also been many reports of Red and White Winged Crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks and some Redpolls. I had not seen White Winged Crossbills in Snohomish County and that is the one county I pay most attention to. It would also be a new species for Washington for 2020. I had tried for them the previous day and ran into two other birders that were there with the same intent. It was a miserable day with heavy rain and not a single bird encountered. Drenched despite a good parka, I gave up and returned home after almost two hours of frustration. Other birders had better luck a couple of hours later with somewhat improved weather, so when December 1st turned into a gorgeous sunny day, I tried again.
And again there were others there – at least a half dozen good birders. The “crossbill spot” had been up a right fork in the main trail – about two hundred yards past a log barrier. Three birders were at the fork and said they had heard crossbills recently. I remained there a few moments and then took the fork to explore with another birder from Seattle. We fairly quickly heard both Red and White Winged Crossbills but they were pretty distant. A small group of six flew overhead about 10 minutes later. No chance for a photo and they did not land near us, but I was able to see some white wing patches through my binoculars. This cat and mouse game continued for the next hour as we heard crossbills left and right but deep into the forest. There was one more flyover and then quiet. We elected to return to the fork in the trail and found birders who had both seen and heard the crossbills. I had a couple more “heard only” experiences and decided to head back to the car. About half way there, I heard White Winged Crossbills in the Hemlocks along the path. Then I heard a shout from birders still at the fork who said they had the crossbills there. I sprinted back just in time to miss them as they had again flown off. If I really needed a photo, I would have stayed, but I was satisfied with my quick confirming visual and several identified calls, so I departed. The photo below is from an earlier White Winged Crossbill sighting. It was nice to get one in my home county though, species #256.
Cindy had not gone on either of the trips to Darrington and since the weather looked great for a few days, we wanted to get out and we decided to visit Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. There was more than two feet of snow but the road was clear and it would be a good chance to check out an option for snow shoeing later and also to let Black Labrador Chica play in the snow. We made a diversion to Schmuck Road in Sequim so I could look for a Pacific Golden Plover that had been seen there in a furrowed field. At first there was nothing, but after maybe 10 minutes, a flock of Black Bellied Plovers flew in to a distant corner of the field and quickly disappeared in the dirt mounds. If I had not seen them in flight, I doubt I would have noticed them at all. Fortunately I had a scope and was able to scan the area and found the smaller, browner Pacific Golden Plover in among a constantly moving group of 25 or more Black Bellied Plovers and a single Dunlin. It seemed to me that the Pacific Golden Plover was always next to the Dunlin.
A long line was backed up at the entrance to the park – at least 30 cars. We were being held awaiting word from rangers at the top that there was parking available. An expected hour wait only took 30 minutes. When we got to Hurricane Ridge, it was snowy, sunny, gorgeous and crowded. Everyone wore a mask and there were many families with young kids on sleds and also quite a few snowshoers. As is usually the case, once we hiked off a bit down one of the trails, we found quiet beautiful solitude. Chica got to play only up by the visitor center but loved the snow as always – except she never did understand how those snow balls disappeared once they hit the ground, her retriever instincts thwarted.
This was not a birding trip, but I did keep my eyes open. The only species seen were Canada Jays and Ravens.
I planned some birding the next day, Sunday December 6th, in the form of watching the Seattle Seahawks play the New York Giants. The Seahawks played more like pigeons than hawks – simply pathetic. Earlier a report of a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in King County, very rare for Washington, was posted on Tweeters, our local biding listserv. I had considered going for it as a new bird for the state in 2020, but elected to watch the football game instead. Midway through the game I got a call from Ann Marie Wood. She was looking at the Sapsucker or at least that what I thought she was doing. Turned out she was looking at a different Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – this one in Everett, Washington in Snohomish County. Maybe it would take me out of the misery of watching the Seahawks’ wretched performance. I grabbed binoculars and camera (more on that later) and headed out on what should have been a 30 minute drive. Ten minutes later after hitting every stoplight possible and still not being on the freeway, I got word from Ann Marie that the bird was not being seen anymore. I turned around to go back home. A minute later, another call. It was apparently still in the same tree and in the open. Another U-turn.
Ann Marie is one of those wonderful souls who loves her birds, birding and her friends and shares her experiences with all. She also helps others with their birding (and their lives, but that is another story). Ann Marie gave me great directions to get to the right spot and then waited until I got there. David Poortinga and Phil Dickinson were there as well. I parked immediately next to the tree and got a good visual as soon as I got out of the car. I went back and grabbed my camera and got two great photos of the bird in the open. Well, not so fast there Blair. I had the Sapsucker beautifully lit and positioned in my viewfinder, but in my haste to depart I had not put an SD card in the camera. No photos. AARGH!! I joined Phil and David as the Sapsucker moved to the other side of the tree and then 30 seconds later it flew off and disappeared. I hope it wasn’t something I said.
I had seen a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker in Washington twice before, including once in Snohomish County, so the photo was not “necessary” and maybe it is even a better story without the photo and maybe, too, I have learned my lesson. The Sapsucker had been seen in a single stand alone deciduous tree in a residential neighborhood. Why was it there? Then after departing it returned to that same tree and was seen there by many birders on both of the following days. I don’t know if it is there still today or not – no reports yet. The photo below is “like” the one I should have gotten. It was taken by Phil Dickinson and shared.
Today is Wednesday December 9th. I have not been to the Okanogan in north central Washington yet this year. I love the area and generally visit there once in November or December and once in January or February as there are a number of species that are generally seen only there or primarily there. The weather report was good for Monday through Wednesday and I had planned to leave early on Monday and be back late tonight. But the reports I had seen from others visiting the area were not encouraging so I decided instead to do a long day trip to find two specific birds that I wanted to add to my year list for the state and try to get what I would consider an acceptable total even if significantly below years past. So early Monday morning I took off on a marathon trip that took me first to Ridgefield NWR in Clark County near the Oregon border and then to Nahcotta on the Long Beach peninsula in Pacific County. I was hoping for a Red Shouldered Hawk at Ridgefield and a late Bar Tailed Godwit that was hanging with a big flock of Marbled Godwits at Nahcotta.
As soon as I arrived at the River S Unit of Ridgefield I heard three welcomed calls – those of Trumpeter Swans, Cackling Geese and Sandhill Cranes. These are commonplace at Ridgefield. There would be hundreds of Swans and Cackling Geese during this visit but far fewer Cranes some gazing and others flying overhead. The first birds I saw were a Great Egret – becoming more common and widespread in Washington – and a number of Cacklers grazing in the muddy grass.
Birding at the River S Unit is primarily from the car on a 3 mile loop around wetlands and some trees. There were many hundreds of ducks and coots in addition to the Swans and Geese as well as other species. As has often been the case, I heard the Red Shouldered Hawk’s cries before I finally located it in a tree near the “blind pullout”. I have had one there before as well. Not great light and partially hidden but the ID was good – a first of the year for this species. There were a half dozen or so Red Tailed Hawks, a couple of Northern Harriers, two American Kestrels and several Bald Eagles. It is good raptor country.
I had not paid much attention to the swans and heard only Trumpeter Swans trumpeting on the ponds and overhead. I only took a single swan photo and was not aware until I looked later that it was of a Tundra Swan. I don’t know how many of each were there but several hundred swans altogether. The rarest bird I saw was a surprising and very late Barn Swallow that flew past me as I was looking at a few Sandhill Cranes grazing towards the south end of the auto route. A White Faced Ibis had been reported at the refuge and while I never noticed one, I really had forgotten about it and had not looked either.
With my early start, after about 90 minutes at Ridgefield, it was now just after 10:30 a.m. and time to head to Nahcotta. Not a great route as you cross the Columbia River into Oregon and then back again at the mouth of the Columbia at Astoria and then head due north along the Long Beach Peninsula with the Pacific Ocean to the west and Willapa Bay to the east. Being there was almost like being back in time as not much has changed since I first visited there in the 1970’s. A highlight then was a visit to the Ark Restaurant in Nahcotta – famed for its oysters and sturgeon among other locally supplied foods and said by James Beard to be his favorite seafood restaurant. The owners sold it a few years ago and it has not survived although the oysters have.
Randy Hill discovered the Bar Tailed Godwit on December 4th, and it was seen in the Marbled Godwit flock primarily from the Fish and Wildlife Station or the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center in Nahcotta. When I arrived I first went to a pullout at 268th street, south of the Interpretive Center. I saw large flocks of shorebirds to the south and walked along the flats with my scope. There were hundreds of Dunlin and many Black Bellied Plovers. Some other species may have been present but there were no large waders like Godwits. I then went up to the Interpretive Center on 273rd and saw a flock of maybe 50 Marbled Godwits but not a Bar Tailed. I then went further north and found another access at around 278th street where I found a larger flock of 100+ Godwits but again no Bar Tailed. However, there was an even larger flock further north probably around 283rd Street. In great light behind me, through my scope I could pick out one Godwit that was smaller and grayer without the rusty coloration of the Marbled Godwits. The birds foraged together with hundreds of Dunlin and often flew in small groups but never came south to me. In flight only the one bird did not have dark underwings. As the tide came in, groups would fly off and head to the south. I could never track the Bar Tailed. Eventually all were gone and I returned to the long pier to the south hoping it would be there. Only about 75 Godwits were there – up close and in great light, but only Marbled, together with many Dunlin.
It was very disappointing not to have the Bar Tailed in these flocks up close because as is seen from the photos above, the light was perfect. I include a photo of a Bar Tailed Godwit from the flock that has been at the barge near the Coast Guard Station in Westport, WA. We did not see it there on the pelagic trip I took in August this year. There was a single report of one there in late August, but since there were many pelagic trips before and after that with eager eyes watching, I wonder about the observation and also wonder how long this Bar Tailed has been in this location.
The drive home was long and boring. That part of the state (southwest Washington) is a throwback in time with so much of the economy based on logging and seafood. Very different from the now tech dominated areas of western King and Snohomish Counties. Maybe it is still affected by COVID-19, but the traffic was light even as I went through Tacoma and Seattle at rush hour. I was tired from a very good day and was welcomed by a great Beef Bourguignon dinner that Cindy had made. I am a lucky guy.