Heinz 57th Variety – Black Billed Cuckoo

This story has lots of good pieces.  It is mostly about some wonderful birding at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, PA as part of my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I birded there yesterday starting on my own and then with a new friend Ned Connelly.  That story has to wait, though.  Today the birding was with a great group of birders/folks on the 7:00 a.m. Bird Walk led by Gregg Gorton – a super birder and an even more super guy.  And more on that later as well.

Let’s start with this:  “While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever. Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number. So, he began using the slogan “57 Varieties” in all his advertising.”   That Henry Heinz was the grandfather of Henry John Heinz III, best known as Senator John Heinz who died in an airplane crash on April 5, 1991.

Senator Heinz had helped preserve the Tinicum Marsh Refuge which was was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1965.  In November 1991, the name of the refuge was changed to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum to honor the late Senator.  It is a marvelous place for birds and it was the focus of my visit to Pennsylvania seeking to find 50 species there in a single day.

John_Heinz_NWR_entrance_sign,_Tinicum,_PA

Since an essential and important part of my 50/50/50 Adventure is to interact with local birders in each state, I had contacted Bert Filemyr, someone I had met on my Tundra Bean Goose Chase and a big time birder in the  Philadelphia area, to see if I might be able to hook up with him.  Like many other birders, Bert was going to be in Magee Marsh while I was in Pennsylvania.  When I told him I would be able to satisfy my need for a local connection by joining with the John Heinz bird walk, he contacted his friend Gregg Gorton and told him of my project.  So when I met Gregg at the refuge before the walk, the stage was set for a great day.

And the stage was different than some of my other days attempting to get 50 species in a day because I had accomplished that the previous day birding first with Ned Connelly as I indicated at the start and then later on my own.  I had seen Ned when I arrived at the Refuge on Friday around 9:00 a.m. after a fairly early departure from Delaware and asked if I could tag along since I had never been there before and was unfamiliar with many of the bird calls and songs.  He welcomed me and we spent the next several hours together ending up with 40 species.  I had seen 5 other species just driving to the Refuge so with a total of 45, even though the plan had been to bird that day just for familiarity for the project day on Saturday, I returned after lunch (with Ned at a very cool diner), I returned to the Refuge alone and following some advice from Ned, I picked up another 10 species and ended the day with 55.

Some good birds from the first day at John Heinz NWR with Ned included 12 species of warbler.  By far the most abundant species was Gray Catbird – maybe 50 seen and constantly heard.

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler

Northern Parula

Yellow Rumped Warbler (Myrtle)

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Yellow Warbler – The Most Abundant Warbler – More than 20 for the Day

Yellow Warbler

Common Yellowthroat – The Second Most Abundant Warbler

House Wren1

Northern Waterthrush – Right where Ned said it would be

Northern Waterthrush

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird1

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole1

Orchard Oriole (First Year Male)

Orchard Oriole1

Considering that there were only two duck species (Mallard and Wood Duck) and a single shorebird species (Greater Yellowlegs), I was very pleased to get more than 50 species for the day.  But mostly it had been a great visit with Ned.  He has birded the refuge for decades and finds it especially fulfilling after having lost his wife not long ago.  He was full of stories and knew the Refuge and the birds well.  He was great company and reinforces how intersecting with local folks is such an important and rewarding part of this experience.

And that gets us back to Gregg Gorton.  A recently retired physician, Gregg was simply wonderful.  I had met other birders in the area before meeting him and they all told me how expert he was especially with bird songs and calls.  Dead on.  Like my friend Frank Caruso back home and Mike Resch who I birded with earlier on this trip in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Gregg had both fantastic hearing and a processor that knew every song, call and chip note.  Since this is my greatest weakness, I could not have had better company.  And there were great birders and great people in our group.  Gregg had told the group of my 50 state quest and they were all supportive and helpful and friendly.  It was a great team and we had great birds.  Many were the same as with Ned or on my own the day before, although some of those were missed this day.  However, there were many new ones as well including 5 new raptors: Red Tailed, Red Shouldered and Cooper’s Hawks. Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle.  I also added two new warblers, Chestnut Sided and Black Throated Green although I missed two seen by others in the group, Canada and Bay Breasted Warblers.

I also had much better looks at and photos of our two vireos – Red Eyed and Warbling.   Some sunshine helped.

Red Eyed Vireo

Red Eyed Vireo2

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo1

There are lots of stories I could add and definitely lots of thank yous to share, but it is late and I have to head off to Virginia early tomorrow, so I will add two quickly and then get to the close and to the story of the title of this post.   Two very fun sightings were of two little birds on two little nests,  The first was a Ruby Throated Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the East, and the second was a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher – not much larger.

Ruby Throated Hummingbird on Nest

Ruby Throated Hummingbird on Nest1

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher on Nest

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher on Nest

Coming to the end of our great morning after 5 hours, we reached the Pump Station on the Pipeline – a Hotspot within the Refuge.  A real time messaging service is used by birders there telling of special observations.  Earlier there was a message that a Black Billed Cuckoo had been seen there.  Not only is this species a rarity for the Refuge, it also had special appeal to me as I had only seen them twice before – more than 40 years ago – and I did not have a photo.  I thought one might be possible later at Magee Marsh, but not here.   When we got to the Pump Station, Denis Brennan was there.  I had met him the day before with Ned and Denis had seen the Cuckoo about 15 minutes earlier.  It had not been calling.  This is where being with a group of birders, especially good ones and motivated ones is really beneficial.  After diligent searching and great patience the Cuckoo was seen – high up in a tree and distant and blocked by branches.  I got a quick visual but no photo.  It moved.  Another view.  After much hide and seek I finally got a great look and a photo – and then an even better one.  The Black Billed Cuckoo was the 57th species I had seen that day at the Refuge – Variety 57.  Much more importantly the lifer photo was number 698 in the ABA area.  I should be able to get 2 or more additional ones on the remainder of this trip getting me to the magic number of 700.

That ended a wonderful day with wonderful birds, at a wonderful place with wonderful people.  Since Gregg had mentioned my quest to the others at the start of the trip, it had come up in discussions with many of them during the time together.  They were all so positive and encouraging and interested.  The birds are great but it really is about the people!!

[I have been traveling for almost two weeks now and this is the first time I have been able to post anything in these blogs.  There have been lots of other great stories and successes getting over 50 species in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.  The success in Pennsylvania made that State #31.  Still a long way to go.  Still lots of fun ahead.  And I will eventually get to those blog posts…someday.]

 

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The Coast and a Pelagic – Getting Ready for my Big Trip

It seems like I have been planning this trip forever and now my departure is only 6 days away.  On Monday April 30, I fly to Boston and take a giant step on my 50/50/50 Adventure that will take me to 15 states in 30 days, birding in 13 of them and hopefully adding all of those to the “Completed” column in that 50 species in a day quest.  The logistics have been fun but at times overwhelming:  mileage, hotels, bird lists, companions, flights, hotspots, and then more of all of it over and over again.  There are still a couple of details to attend to, but I am good to go and very excited.  Before sharing my “before I go” Washington birding, here is a peek at my upcoming schedule.

ItineraryAs I have said many times as I have discussed this trip with others, it sure would be nice if there was more than one “May” in the year.  It is the best month for the most species to find and the easiest time to find them in most states.  I am packing so much into this trip because there is only one May each year and I need to make the most of it.  One negative consequence is that I will miss almost all of May in my home State of Washington.  While I gave up on any thoughts of a really big species count for Washington this year because of the May trip east and another trip for half of June in the Mountain States, it was hard to completely break old patterns and habits.  Accordingly I have still targeted a state list of 300 species for Washington in 2019, and that has required some serious scurrying around in late March and April. Trips to Eastern Washington and Semiahmoo in Whatcom County were detailed in previous blog posts.  This one very briefly covers my trip to the Coast and a pelagic trip out of Westport.

A first stop was at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Ponds.  Not raining but very grey.    Among the many swallows were some Vaux’s Swifts, a pleasant addition to my year list.  Other highlights were a lovely Northern Harrier and a flock of at least 700 Greater White Fronted Geese at the adjoining Bowerman Basin NWR.  I would later see thousands of them in long skeins flying overhead in many places.

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier2 (2)

At the Westport Jetty and Marina, the only bird of interest was a Common Loon gorgeous in full breeding plumage.  Lots of fisherman on the jetty but no Rockpipers.

Common Loon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After Westport, I got to Bottle Beach in time for a great show – thousands of shorebirds and many birders including a WOS Trip.  I had not seen any Short Billed Dowitchers in 2019.  There were more than a thousand on the mudflats – a great way to get a FOY.

Short Billed Dowitcher

Short Billed Dowitcher

Other species were Black Bellied Plovers, Dunlin and Western Sandpipers, the first time I had seen the latter in numbers.  Returning from the beach, there were some nice warblers in the trees along the path including several Orange Crowned Warblers and my FOY Wilson’s Warbler.  The former posed nicely and the latter played hide and seek.

Shorebird Trio

Shorebird Threesome

Orange Crowned Warbler

Orange Crowned Warbler4

With the tide coming in I headed to the Point Brown Jetty at Ocean Shores, still hoping for some Rockpipers especially a Rock Sandpiper.  But it was no go – too much wave action and no birds at all.  I later found out that Wilson Cady had a Rock Sandpiper there several hours earlier.  If I had skipped Bottle Beach, I may have seen one.  Can’t do everything – sadly.  The tide was not too high for some driving on the open beach and that was my next venture.  A good choice as there were hundreds of birds with eight species of shorebirds including a large flock of Marbled Godwits and lots of Semipalmated Plovers.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit Landing

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

I had waited too long to make a room reservation in Westport for that night – before my pelagic trip the next day, so I ended up staying in Aberdeen.  Not ideal, but workable with an early start.  I made another stop at the Hoquiam STP on the way to the hotel and found nothing new.

Hopes were high for the pelagic trip – not just because it would be my first one for the year – and only then because there had been a cancellation opening up one spot – but because the previous trip had been “EPIC” with 2 Short Tailed and 8 Laysan Albatrosses in addition to the regular fare.  Captain Phil Anderson had sent us an email the day before warning us of a rough crossing of the bar and some high seas, but the trip would be a go.  Lots of good birders were on board and sea conditions aside, the weather looked great with a beautiful sunrise as we headed out.  I won’t go into great detail – just some highlights.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Crossing the bar was indeed no fun but not nearly as bad as I had expected.  There were large ocean swells though that slowed our progress, made good handholds essential, and made viewing even more challenging than usual.  A good omen was an early sighting of a Tufted Puffin – our only one of the trip.  There was also an early Manx Shearwater – but it disappeared quickly.

Tufted Puffin – FOY 

Tufted Puffin2

Lots of Common Murres and Pacific Loons but maybe due to the swells, it seemed really slow.  It seemed to take a bit longer than usual but we finally found some Sooty Shearwaters and a bit later our first Pink Footed Shearwater of the trip.  New for the year but a given for an April pelagic trip.  We had a nice flyby of some Surf Scoters and some excitement with a small flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls with some Phalaropes – both Red Necked and Red.   A single Pomarine Jaeger distant and flying away from us would be the only Jaeger of the trip.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwaer

Pink Footed Shearwater

Pink Footed Shearwater1

Surf Scoters

Surf Scoters (2)

Bonaparte’s Gulls

Bonaparte's Duo

Red Necked Phalaropes

Red Necked Phalaropes

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger1

A Black Footed Albatross made a brief appearance but it continued to be slow.  And there was some bad news.  The fishing boats that Phil had seen on radar earlier all had moved north.  There would be no intersection.  Phil’s deft intersection with a fishing boat on the epic trip had been the key to the good birds then.  Was this going to be an unproductive trip without a fishing boat to follow?  Westport Seabirds always does a great job, and my concerns proved unfounded.  Phil and Chris put out an oil (vegetable? fish?) slick and it drew in the birds and this was aided by chumming with fish “bits”.  It was not a feeding frenzy, but we had a good diversity of birds with the highlight probably being 2 or 3 Laysan Albatrosses.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross Wave

Black Footed Albatross1

Black Footed Albatross Close Up1

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross2

Laysan Albatross (2)

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel Foam

Black Legged Kittiwake

Black Legged Kittiwake1

No Short Tailed Albatross this time and only a single Northern Fulmar.  As we left this stop, we had a single Sabine’s Gull and there would be a few more later.  Numbers were low and although it had not seemed it, I had now seen 13 new birds for the year. (But who’s counting 😉 )  The seas were much more favorable on our return trip and we continued to see some of the birds that we had observed on the way out.  I had been disappointed that I missed a Cassin’s Auklet that a few others had seen earlier but this feeling disappeared when I spied one off the starboard bow.  Lousy photo but another FOY.  A much better photo is of one of the Rhinoceros Auklets that we saw.

Cassin’s Auklet

Cassin's Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet1

There would be one more alcid as well.  Not the hoped for Parakeet Auklet or equally rare Scripp’s Murrelet but a lovely pair of Ancient Murrelets.   I had seen some earlier this year – but at a distance too great for a photo.  They are lovely birds.

Ancient Murrelet

Ancient Murrelet3

It had not been an “epic trip”, but a very good one.  Numbers were fairly low and I definitely missed some photo ops, but it was fun and productive.  I hope to be able to schedule another trip in the Fall after my 50/50/50 trips…but there will still be a bunch of prairie states to bird to finish off that project.  North Dakota in September?  Maybe…

Super spotter Scott Mills – Keeping Track of “Numbers” – Sorry but no photo of the other super spotter Bill Shelmerdine – Many thanks to both and to Phil and Chris.

Numbers

 

 

Going Back East Before Going Back East

On April 28th I leave for a 12 state swing “Back East” as the next step on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I will be gone for almost all of May, and then in June I will be off again.  Since that project/adventure is my birding priority for this year, I knew I would not be able to amass a large number of observations in Washington as I have for each of the last 7 years.  But it would still be nice to at least hit 300 species for the State.  May is a great month for birding – the major reason behind scheduling my trip Back East.  Of course it is a great month in Washington as well – and I will miss it.  Over those past 7 years on average I have added 54 species during the month of May.  A big number to make up especially since I will be gone much of early June as well.

So I have been doing a lot of birding in late March and so far in April trying to get as far along as I can.  Yesterday was another big step in that endeavor as I went Back East as in back to Eastern Washington on a marathon trip through Kittitas, Yakima, Grant and Adams counties chasing some recent observations and looking for new arrivals as migration heats up.  It was one of my best days birding in the State despite yet again not being able to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Over 650 miles in over 16 hours.  Not so many species as I skipped a lot of good habitats but with a lot of luck and some assistance from Paul Baerny who was out birding in much of the same territory, I was able to find 10 new species for the year – FOY’s, and despite a day that started with clouds and rain and even a little snow, I got some of my best pictures ever.  And I had a lot of fun.

With a very early start, I got to the Ellensburg area before it was warmed up enough to get the sagebrush birds going, so I went for a sure thing – the active Osprey nest on Woodhouse Loop just off Canyon Road.  I had not had a chance to look for it on my last trip but knew the pair had returned.  Just as I pulled onto the turnoff, the male flew in with a fish still wiggling in his talons.  A terrible photo in terrible light, but you can see the fish and it was a good start with my first new bird for the year.  As it turned out I saw a total of 11 Ospreys at 8 nest sites during the day.

Osprey – Woodhouse Loop – Ellensburg, WA – Kittitas County

Osprey

I replenished my coffee and headed to the sagebrush on Durr Road – just off Umptanum Road west and south of Ellensburg.  It was pretty cold and very grey.  A Prairie Falcon sped by as I turned onto Durr Road.  Would this be a good omen? I was not sure if the birds would be active or not, but as soon as I parked, I heard bird song.  However, it was confusing as one song sounded like a Western Meadowlark and another sounded similar but with a lot more going on.  The second was a Vesper Sparrow, common at this location but already seen last week.  My target was a Brewer’s Sparrow.  I had always found them here.  But I heard nothing and saw nothing.  Then just as I got into my car to drive to other spots on Durr Road – hoping to end my Loggerhead Shrike drought, a single little sparrow flew, landed briefly and sang its buzzy little song.

Brewer’s Sparrow – Durr Road – Kittitas County 

Brewer's Sparrow

I drove a few miles looking for a Shrike and saw only a couple of Mountain Bluebirds and Meadowlarks.  I went back down to Umptanum and drove a few miles south with the same goal and had the same experience except this time with Western Bluebirds.  This was the fewest Bluebirds I had ever seen on this road – often thick with both species.  I hope it was just the chilly start to the date and not something more ominous.  Paul Baerny got to Durr Road shortly after I had left and also found it light on birds.  He had not stopped at the first place I had and when I told him I had several Vesper Sparrows there (his target) he returned to that spot and found the same birds I had – including no Loggerhead Shrikes.

Knowing I had to cover a lot of ground, I went to Yakima via I-82 rather than my normal but much slower route through the Yakima River Canyon.  I reached Randall Park where a Blue Jay has been seen regularly for quite a while.  I had never been there before and wondered where to start looking (and hoping).  I was greeted by woodpeckers drumming – two Downy Woodpeckers and two Northern Flickers.  I walked along the creek in the rain leaving my camera in the car since I had forgotten its rain shield.  In a very few minutes I heard the “mobbing call” of the Blue Jay.  I could “count it” but could I find it?  I was helped by its continued calling and then by the sight of a large brown bird flying between two trees along the creek.  It was a Great Horned Owl – explaining the Jay’s call.  I took a pathetic picture of the Jay with my phone and then raced back to the car for the camera figuring I could shield it under my rain jacket.  By the time I got it and returned, the Jay was silent and both birds were gone. Rats (or something like that…).

After another 5 or 10 minutes, I heard a different call from the Blue Jay and was able to find it buried in branches.  Not a great photo – heck – not even a good photo – but unmistakably a Blue Jay.

Blue Jay – Randall Park – Yakima

Blue Jay1

The weather was getting worse if anything and I wanted to go to three different places in three different directions and none were on the way to each other.  Mostly I wanted to find a Lewis’s Woodpecker.  They were a sure thing at Fort Simcoe State Park and would have been a sure thing at Oak Creek but the road up along Oak Creek had been closed and if still closed would require a hike in (and up).  I was sure the woodpeckers would be there but how far would I have to go on foot if closed?  I gambled it might be open (after April 1) and opted for that choice as it was also closer – sort of.  Since as it turned out I would next head to Kerry’s Pond near Sunnyside, either choice would have been about the same.

When I got to Oak Creek, the gate on the road was indeed closed and it was cold and miserable.  I tucked my camera under my rain jacket and headed up hill.  Then it began to snow with the rain.  Not cold enough to stick, but it was a bit eerie and did not help finding birds.  After about a half mile – having passed all the snags close to the road I spied two woodpeckers high up in a bare tree.  Bad light and a lot of distance but it is such a great looking bird that even with those drawbacks and with rain and snow clearly visible – still a nice photo commemoration of the trek – and another new bird for the year.  I took the photo and got back to the car as soon as I could.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's WP in Rain and Snow

There would be a lot of retracing of steps on this journey and now I headed back east heading to Kerry’s Pond where I expected to find Black Necked Stilts.  I could see some Stilts as I drove by the pond and parked.  I had seen this hotspot on many Ebird and BirdYak postings but had never visited it.  I can see why it is a popular and productive place.  I watched 10 or 11 Black Necked Stilts feeding and playing along the edges of the pond with a little bit of aggressive interaction.  I also noted several duck species including a Bufflehead which turned out to be a first for me in Yakima County.  More appealing though was a lovely pair of Redheads – the duck kind.  A gentleman on a small tractor was working the area and had a pair of dogs which came up to me at the fence (electrified) to let me know I should keep out.  (As an aside – with no dogs and if the fence were not electrified entry would have been tempting – but the sun was now out and photos were available from the fence line).  The man came over and we had a nice conversation about the pond, his dogs and his working.  A nice add to the day.

Black Necked Stilts – Kerry’s Pond – Yakima County

2 Stilts

Redheads – Kerry’s Pond – Yakima County

Red Head Couple

Long Billed Curlews were high on my list and some had been seen on Lewandowski Road – my next destination.  Along the way I found my first Swainson’s Hawk of the year.  Deb Essman had one the day before on Brick Mill Road.  I had shared her info about it with Paul and he had found it earlier.  I had planned to stop on way home to see it but now that was not necessary at least for the list.  I would later see another one not far from there.

Swainson’s Hawk – Lewandowski Road – Sunnyside

Swainson's Hawk1

Unfortunately no luck with Curlews on Lewandowski Road although there were miles and miles of grassy fields – great habitat – and I very well might have missed them.  But Paul Baerny came to the rescue.  He had just seen four Long Billed Curlews on the North Frontage Road just east of Silica Ponds along I-5.  My original plan had been to head to Para Ponds next and look for Tricolored Blackbirds.  The combination of REALLY wanting the Curlews and needing gas convinced me to change plans even if it meant more miles.  It could not have worked out better.  Over an hour later, I arrived at the spot Paul had described.  it looked right but with landmarks in sight, I called Paul to confirm – and just as I did, I saw a Long Billed Curlew flying over the field to my left (north).  Then I heard another calling.  Then another.  I walked out into the field and was treated to quite a show of birds singing, feeding and flying.  Six Curlews altogether – all sang at one point and two cooperated coming close and even flying right over me.  Photo ops!!!  Pardon this indulgence as I include many photos – my best of this species ever.

Long Billed Curlews – North Frontage Road – Quincy, WA East of Silica Road

Long Billed Curlew Ground Long Billed Curlew Landing

Long Billed Curlew Flight Wings Down1

Long Billed Curlew long-billed-curlew-flight-wings-up1.jpg

The Curlews were definitely the highlight of the day and were the 7th new species for the year.  There would be more of both.  Now it was back to the original plan – head off to Para Ponds about an hour away if I went through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge which would give me yet another chance to find a Loggerhead Shrike.  Again no Shrike and instead of stopping at the ponds – always birdy – I went directly to the grain terminal on McManamon Road further east and overlooking the ponds.  This is where the Tricolored Blackbirds were now being found and that was my target.  When I arrived there were blackbirds everywhere:  Red Winged Blackbirds (a few); Yellow Headed Blackbirds (at first only two but later joined by a flock of more than 40); Brewer’s Blackbirds (dozens) and most importantly Tricolored Blackbirds (many).  A veritable Blackbird Bonanza with some Brown Headed Cowbirds thrown in for good measure.

Now this is not the most natural or picturesque setting and often many of the birds were behind a fence, but the light was good and there were many photo ops including the chance to see the different species next to each other highlighting some of their differences such as in the thinner bill of the Tricolored compared to the Red Winged.  It was also my first time really noticing any Tricolored Blackbird females.  The Tricolored Blackbird was also new for the year.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellowheaded Blackbiird

Tricolored Blackbird – Another FOY and My Best Photo of this Species

Tricolored Blackbird1

Tricolored Blackbird Female

Tricolored Blackbird Female

Tricolored Blackbird with Brewer’s Blackbird

Tricolored and Brewer's Blackbirds

Brown Headed Cowbird

Brown Headed Cowbird

Late Arriving Flock of Yellow Headed Blackbirds

YHBB flock1

It was just a little after 3:15 so lots of birding time was left and I headed North to the Rocky Ford Fish Hatchery.  Many years ago I used to go there flyfishing for trout, now the quarry was a Sora.  I had them there last year and they had been reported frequently this year.  It was about an hour away – without stops.  Just over a mile south of the turnoff onto Trout Lodge Road from Highway 17, however, there was an important although unplanned stop.  As I was speeding along close to 70 mph, somehow I noticed a small blob on a post on the east side of the road (my right).  My brain processed it as a Burrowing Owl – completely unexpected and seemingly too close to the busy highway for it really to be that.  A quick U-Turn and the bird was still there and the bird was indeed a Burrowing Owl – my first for 2019. First I got a photo and them called Paul as I knew he had been looking for one.  He was probably too far west to seriously consider coming, but he thought about it.

Burrowing Owl – Highway 17 just south of Trout Lodge Road

Burrowing Owl Post Horizontal

With an unexpected new bird for the year, I continued on towards Rocky Ford.  About 200 yards in on Trout Lodge Road, it was deja vu all over again.  This time the blob was on some rocks and since I was only going maybe 50 mph, I was positive I had another Burrowing Owl.  Another quick U-Turn and now I saw a second owl which quickly flew off as I approached in the car.  Probably a pair with a nest right behind the rocks somewhere.  More photos and another call to Paul.  He was torn by the certainty that these birds would remain and the probability that since a nest was likely they would be there on a return visit later as well.

Burrowing Owl – Trout Lodge Road

Burrowing Owl1

Not quite, but this almost overtook the Long Billed Curlews as the highlight of the day.  If I could find a Sora, I would have ten new species for the day – even without that darn Loggerhead Shrike.  There were several fishermen at the creek but I did not see any fish being caught.  I remembered this place and catching some nice trout there years ago – and also remembered days with no trout at all.  I was more interested in a Sora and I walked out onto the boardwalk/fishing platform where I had a Sora last year.  A single playback got a response and a quick peek as it ran between some reeds and that was that.  A great topper for a great day!!

I could not have dreamed of 10 new species for the day especially without the Shrike.  I made one last try for it on the way home, driving along Vantage Highway and stopping at the Wind Farm – very quiet with only a Sage Thrasher, some bluebirds, another Vesper Sparrow and another Brewer’s Sparrow.  I was very tired when I got home but very, very pleased with the day.  And very thankful for folks like Paul Baerny in our wonderful community of birders.

Beginners and Beginnings

Do you remember when you first started “birding”?  Not just noticing a bird like an American Robin or a Mallard or Bald Eagle, but started really paying attention and trying to figure out what was s going on and what you were seeing that wasn’t one of those widely known birds.  Do you remember how challenging it was to not just see a bird but to figure out first what type of bird it was and then progressing, making lots of mistakes along the way, to what species it was?  Probably even trying to understand what a species was exactly – something that is a challenge in a different way even for experts.

We all went through it, maybe starting with a so-called “spark bird”.  We went out with others who seemed to see everything and know everything.  We got our first binoculars and field guide books.  We joined bird walks or Audubon trips or just starting paying attention differently when we were out doing other things – hiking, sailing, gardening – heck even just driving down the road.  The birds had been there all the time but we just hadn’t noticed them.  If our interest really got hold of us, we may have gotten a scope, or a camera, definitely more field guides, taken more trips, listened to recordings, started a list (or two or three or more).  Maybe we took a class, joined a club, made new friends and both our joy and our frustrations increased.  There was always more to learn, more to do, more to see, more places to go.  At some point maybe we brought others into the fold – helped others become – Birders!!  They, too, started as beginners and we were now teachers, encouragers, and best of all companions and friends who shared a love for being outdoors and were moved by the beauty and wonder of birds and the myriad joys of birding.

My “Spark Bird” – Black Rail – Baylands in Palo Alto (Wish I had a photo of my own)

Black Rail

Cindy and I met not all that long ago.  We got along better than great and found that we shared important values, politics, beliefs and a long list of other likes and dislikes.  We also found that we wanted to learn more about each other and invest the time to see where “things might go”.  What we did not have in common was shared hobbies or avocational interests or pasts.  She had spent a lot of time boating.  She field trained dogs and she was taking ballroom dancing.  The only boats I was familiar with were ferry boats, drift boats and boats going out to find pelagic birds.  I had never owned a dog and while recognizing them as great companions for dog owners and lovers everywhere, I saw them more as obligations that you had to feed, walk and take to the vet and definitely could not just leave on their own when you went off on a long day, weekend or even multi-week birding trip.  I loved to dance but the last time I had even waltzed was at my daughter’s wedding now nine years ago.

And of course, I was passionately, deeply and happily into birding.  It consumed much of my time and energy and I was also midway into my 50 state birding adventure – so how was this going to work?  Cindy liked bird pictures I shared with her and said she was game to “go birding”.  I figured the best way to go would be to start with a low stress visit to a beautiful place, on a beautiful day and where there would be some easily seen beautiful and charismatic birds.  Semiahmoo Spit at the north end of Whatcom County seemed the perfect spot.  March 16th was such a beautiful day.  Our first stop was at the harbor in Blaine and right away, a great bird, a close-in Black Oystercatcher.  Definitely the first time she had seen one and a  Black Oystercatcher offers a lot to birders and non-birders, or new birders, alike.  That long red/orange bill and the pale pink legs, and the yellow eye surrounded by orange/red and the dark spot in the middle.  Not other complicating fieldmarks and it is fairly large and is not hidden in the trees and often is relatively slow moving or even still.  It is a “shorebird” on the shore but next to deep water which provides the opportunity for some education as well.  The “spark” had happened.  More to come.

Black Oystercatcher – Blaine Harbor – March 16, 2019

Black Oystercatcher1

When is a “duck” not a “duck”?  Or better, when is a duck not “just a duck”?  One answer to the first question could be when it is a loon, grebe, coot, goose or alcid that are also water birds that maybe were never even noticed or if so just taken as just another duck.  Being able to recognize the existence of those other birds was an important goal for this trip.  So, too, was answering the second question – getting into the world of species identification.  Seasoned birders do not see “ducks”.  We see Scoters and Scaup and Goldeneyes and Pintails and Buffleheads and Mergansers and many others and know that they are all “ducks” but are also distinct species.  Beginners often don’t know that there are different kinds of ducks or maybe even what a “species” is.  If finding out is interesting to them and leads to questions, analysis and attention to detail and most importantly to wonder and joy, then there may just be a birder in the making,  Semiahmoo is a great place to begin that journey of exploration and learning.

Seasoned birders may not pay much attention to a Surf Scoter as they are pretty common and easily identified.  To a beginner though, they border on the amazing.  Definitely “duck-shaped” but look at that huge bill and the the clown-like face and the strong contrast between the black and the white.  Certainly nothing like the most well known duck, a Mallard.  Then there is the discussion about how different species of ducks don’t always have  the word “duck” in their names.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter1

And just to drive the point home, we find some White Winged Scoters.  Yes, Scoters are ducks and no White Winged Scoters are not the same species as Surf Scoters and yes they may be seen together but no not always and yes the two tend to flock with others of their species but also with each other and oh by the way, there are also Black Scoters but no we haven’t seen one yet but yes we might.  Observing, questioning, getting confused and staying interested are all part of the learning process and all part of becoming a “birder”.  And they are present big time at the beginning and hopefully never leave as that is how we all grow.

White Winged Scoter vs. Surf Scoter

White Winged and Surf Scoters

Fortunately Cindy’s interest and appreciation were growing – but the frustration of not knowing was probably ahead of the satisfaction of beginning to know.  This made me feel good and that feeling grew dramatically when I spotted one of the birds I was hoping to see and to show her – another species of duck and this one even had “duck” in its name.  Semiahmoo is a great place to find Long Tailed Ducks and two appeared in among the Scoters.

Long Tailed Duck

Long Tailed Duck

And another learning opportunity as this male Long Tailed Duck did not have its long tail.  Thus a perfect chance to at least start to talk about molting, plumage, breeding season etc. and then there was another species and another learning opportunity as we found Northern Pintails close to shore.  Tail was in the name, but duck was not and although not prominent in the photo below, the tail on this guy seemed pretty long and certainly longer than the tail of the Long Tailed Duck that we saw.  In the beginning, so many mysteries – so many details.  I could at least clear up the length of tail question when I shared another of my photos of a Long Tailed Duck with a tail that fit the description.

Norther Pintail

Northern Pintail

Long Tailed Duck with a “Long Tail”

Long Tailed Duck 1

OK, so now we had covered (or maybe uncovered) some important topics, considerations and the beauty of these species had triggered and kept interest.  So far so good.  So good became so great when Cindy got to see her first Harlequin Duck.  To me the male Harlequin ranks right up there with male Wood Ducks and male Hooded Mergansers as the most striking of our Northwest ducks.  If she had not been a believer before, she was now.  She had boated frequently in areas where I expect all of the ducks we had seen were around – just never noticed and she could not believe she had missed this fellow.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

We would see more duck species like Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and Wigeon and Mallards and Scaup – adding both enjoyment and frustration as the names and fieldmarks were confused and forgotten in the data overload.  The data increased again as we found other duck-like but not duck water birds.  No moment by moment account but try to forget everything you know and put yourself in the place of just beginning to appreciate duck species and then you see Brant and a Pigeon Guillemot and a couple of different Cormorant species and a couple of different Loon species and a couple of different Grebe species.  Yikes!!!   We had them all and at least the impressions stuck if the details did not.  More than anything else though, it was the appreciation of the wonders, diversity, accessibility and beauty of nature that mattered most and those were occurring regularly.

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

Common Loon

Common Loon1

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe1

Brant

Brant

If ducks and waterfowl are not confusing and challenging enough, how about shorebirds?  We saw some more Oystercatchers and then I heard the squeaky chatter of a small flock of Black Turnstones.  So now we had two shorebirds and both were black.  Before she could even ask if this was the norm, Cindy found a couple of mostly white birds also scurrying among the rocks at edge of the shore.  This was her first independent sighting of the trip – our first Sanderlings.

Black Turnstone

Black Turnstone

Sanderling

Sanderling

It was time to quit on that high note – mission accomplished.  A whole new world had been opened, and she was interested and appreciative and now had at least a peek into what birding was all about and why I was passionate about it.  She opened an Ebird account and when she accepted the checklists I had shared, she now had a “Life List”.  A good start indeed.  However, like it had for me when I was a beginner and as it probably did for you as well, much of the input of names and species and families and myriad other details was swirling around in her brain.  Was it Scoter or Scooter?  Not a “seagull” just a gull.  Why did one “grebe” (nearing breeding plumage) look so different than the other (still in winter garb)?   I always encourage new birders to not be afraid of making mistakes – just try to remember a name or a bird type.  If you are not making mistakes you aren’t learning and not going to get better.  I try to remind myself of that as well.

I knew things had gone well when later Cindy sent me a photo of her with binoculars around her neck with the tagline -“Hey, look at me I’m a birder”!  Our relationship had survived Round One.  Time for Round Two.  Ann Marie Wood and I were planning a long trip to Eastern Washington, looking for some of the same birds that were seen by Jon Houghton and I earlier [See FOY’s – wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/21914] as well as some new species we hoped had arrived in the intervening week.  We also planned to visit Deb Essman in Ellensburg – always a fun visit and a rite of passage of sorts for my friends joining me in Kittitas County birding.  I described the day to Cindy and invited her.  She enthusiastically accepted even with a 6:00 a.m. start time.  I think that promising her an American Dipper influenced her thinking as she was fascinated by one of my photos of it with its “nictitating eyelid” closed and the accompanying stories.  I was actually less worried about the early start than I was about the interaction with Ann Marie who knows way too much about me.  I was counting on her discretion.

So our first stop was at the bridge over the Cle Elum River on Bullfrog Road.  We searched diligently and found no Dippers.  I had told her earlier that just like it is called “fishing” rather than “catching” because sometimes the fish just aren’t there, so it goes with birds.  Still not a promising start.  I am going to skip ahead, however, because after a couple of other stops, she and I hiked out across the other bridge over the river that is accessed from the Bullfrog Pond area and we were able to see a pair of active American Dippers which were exactly in the first area we had looked.  Go figure. Too far to see those white eyelids, but lots of tail bobbing and swimming in the shallows.  She agreed to try again for the eyelid on another trip.

American Dipper – Showing Eyelid – Photo from a Different Trip I had Shown Cindy Earlier

6bdf3-american2bdipper

Prior to the aforementioned sighting of the Dippers, we had birded on Wood Duck Road.  It was not as birdy as when Jon Houghton and I had visited, but there was a pleasant surprise.  I heard what I thought was a Western Bluebird.  We got out of the car and immediately heard chatter from a flock.  It was a very active group of 20+ Evening Grosbeaks – an unexpected FOY for Ann Marie and of course for Cindy.  The light was poor and they remained in the tops of the cone laden trees but I eventually got an ok photo and was able to get one in the scope for Cindy to see briefly.  Definitely a “Wow” bird and that was one term she used.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak6

There would be better looks later but we also had a number of Pygmy Nuthatches (“they’re so cute!!”) and we heard a Cassin’s Finch.  At Bullfrog Pond itself, in addition to the views of the American Dippers, we had more Pygmy Nuthatches, more Evening Grosbeaks and also heard but did not see a number of Varied Thrushes.  “Heard only” is part of any birding experience and especially for a beginner it is pretty hard to beat the ethereal song of a Varied Thrush.

By reading some of my blog posts, Cindy had gotten the idea that I like donuts and also that a visit to the Cle Elum Bakery was part of all trips to Eastern Washington.  I think Ann Marie was a co-conspirator and they lobbied to go there next.  Having much more willpower I said “only” if we earn it – the willpower coming from knowing full well that there was no way I would not go and also that we had already earned it with earlier sightings.  So we headed to the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum – which after all come before the Bakery in any event.  We immediately saw Tree Swallows dashing above the ponds and I spied one in its nest hole in a snag – peering out at the world.

Tree Swallow in Nest

Tree Swallow in Nest Hole1

When we stopped at our “go to” spot for Pygmy Nuthatches a bit further west, it was Cindy who first spied the Pygmy Nuthatch, and it, too, was at a nest hole – looking like it was either doing some further excavating or some spring cleaning.  This was a great moment for all of us – not only seeing this fascinating bird in the open and actively displaying important behavior but moreso the sharing in a beginner’s joy at being an important part of a birding team.  Cindy was definitely becoming a birder and the big smile on her face said she was happy about that – and probably also happy that I acknowledged that this clearly earned a Bakery stop.

Cindy’s Pygmy Nuthatch at Its Nest

Pygmy Nuthatch at Nest Hole

We continued on to the road leading to the Cle Elum Fish Hatchery where we finally found a Mountain Chickadee foraging with a small group of Black Capped Chickadees.  No Chestnut Backed Chickadee for the trifecta this time but it was another new year bird for Ann Marie.  Birding with new birders is good for us in many ways.  Cindy had never really noticed any Red Winged Blackbirds before.  Several were singing and displaying their red and yellow epaulets on the reeds in river and she enjoyed that colorful display immensely.  It was a reminder that we too often take some beautiful common birds for granted and almost pay them no attention.  We should appreciate them uncommon or not.

Red Winged Blackbird Display

Red Winged Blackbird (3)

I promised not to divulge anything about the type or quantity of pastries consumed.  They were yummy and fortified us to now head to Ellensburg to visit Deb and Bill Essman.  Deb was busy working on a charity event and could not go out birding with us but a visit to them is a rite of passage including a required photo.  First though we checked out the Great Horned Owl nest a bit further east on Brick Mill Road.  Jon and I had seen it really buried in her nest.  This time the view was even better and I think it was the first owl in the wild that Cindy had ever seen.  Surely this plus the Dippers and the Evening Grosbeaks and her Pygmy Nuthatch to say nothing of pastries had to prove that birding was really fun.  And if not then meeting Deb and Bill would.

Great Horned Owl on Nest

Great Horned Owl on Nest 1

Bill and Deb Essman are really fine folks who love the outdoors.  I fish with Bill and bird with Deb and don’t hunt with either of them (or anyone else) but they are great hunters and have many trophies in their home.  I recognize the enormously positive role that hunters have played in conservation matters – benefiting many of us birders – and believe that birder/hunter coexistence and cooperation is a good thing.  The NRA is another matter altogether but one best not discussed here.  Deb and Bill are active in many conservation projects, teach ethical and safe hunting and seem to know everyone in Ellensburg.  As I said really fine folks.  All of my Edmonds birding friends have visited them with me and the rite of passage is to have your photo taken with “THE BEAR” – a bear skin covering their Brunswick pool table.  (They did not shoot this bear.)  It was Cindy’s turn, and I joined in.  It is not for me to judge the quality of the photo and the participants, but Cindy is definitely now a member of the “Bear Club”.

Rite of Passage with “The Bear”

The B Team and the Bear

Before heading off to the Shrub Steppe Sage area along Vantage Highway, there would be one more photo.  Hopefully she will not kill me for including it here, but i just have to.  Here is Deb Essman with her “Camo-Tuxedo” that she would be wearing as the emcee for the charity auction.  Who says there are not fashionistas east of the mountains!!

Deb with Camo-Tuxedo

Deb

We headed off to the Sagebrush.  I was hoping for a repeat of last week’s success with Jon Houghton and also to find a Sage Thrasher and a Loggerhead Shrike which he and I had missed.  We quickly found a beautiful electric blue Mountain Bluebird – new for Ann Marie and of course for Cindy and admired by both.  We stopped at one of Deb Essman’s go to spots for Sage Thrasher and hiked out on the abandoned road into the sagebrush drawn by the melodic airs of a singing Sage Thrasher.  It seemed close but was still ahead of us as we kept walking.  Finally I spied it on the top of a tall sagebrush singing for a mate or telling competitors to stay away.

Sage Thrasher (FOY)

SAge Thrasher1

We continued down to “the corrals” constantly surveying the wires and sagebrush for a Loggerhead Shrike or a singing Sagebrush Sparrow and found neither.  There we did find two more Sage Thrashers and heard a couple of Vesper Sparrows but nothing else.  A bit further east Ann Marie spied some sparrow-like birds on some barbed wired fencing.  Two flew off but the one that remained gave us great looks at a Vesper Sparrow – now easier to count as a First of Year bird.

Vesper Sparrow (FOY)

Vesper Sparrow1

Unfortunately we never did find a Sagebrush Sparrow or a Loggerhead Shrike anywhere.  The latter had been reported frequently in the area in preceding days, but interestingly there were a number of others birding along Vantage Road the same day as us including an Audubon trip and nobody reported a Loggerhead Shrike.  And birding was slow on Recreation Drive as well although we finally found our first Say’s Phoebe of the day – another FOY for Ann Marie.

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

It was decision time.  It was now 2:30 pm.  The weather was good and with the longer days there was still a good while to bird but was I already pushing Cindy’s time tolerance?  She earlier said she really loved the bridge across the Columbia at Vantage and I had a surprise on the other side, so the decision was made to cross the Columbia and head to that surprise – Frenchman’s Coulee.  Created by the Great Ice Age Floods, to me this is one of the truly special places in Washington.  It is a big canyon with columnar basalt cliffs, a low volume cataract (waterfall) and even good birds.  Best of all it is a surprise that appears magically as you make a turn off a drab flatland at the Silica Road ponds.  And it is one of the premier rock climbing spots in the State.  I knew Cindy would enjoy the magnificent scenery and I was hoping that we might find an early White Throated Swift.  This is my favorite spot to find them, but none had been reported from the spot yet in 2019 although one had been reported from nearby Ancient Lakes.

We saw grey skies and had a few drops of rain as we neared the Silica Road turnoff but it magically cleared and there was blue sky as we hit the Coulee.   First there was just the splendor of the area improved by a good flow in the waterfall.  And then there they were – at least 5 White Throated Swifts flying right overhead.  I think the earlier clouds may have brought them lower than usual and these may have been the best views I have had of them.

Frenchman’s Coulee with Falls

The Falls

White Throated Swift (FOY)

White Throated Swift3

We continued on to the basalt pillars that are irresistible to rock climbers.  Spectacular with or without the climbers.

Frenchman’s Coulee Basalt Pillars – Rock Climber Heaven

Cliffs

When I first planned this trip, I felt that finding a Swift was no more than a 50% chance.  I knew that some Long Billed Curlews had been seen sort of close to the Coulee and in an area where I thought we might see some Sandhill Cranes.  The odds were no better than that 50% but it had worked for the Swifts.  Everyone was game so we headed south and east along Highway 26.  We never did find any Curlews and the only Cranes we saw were in flight but it was a new county bird for Ann Marie and the first time Cindy had seen any.  Otherwise birding was pretty slow and disappointing.  There was another treat for Cindy though.  Just as I commented that I would have expected some Western Meadowlarks we heard their beautiful song and then found one posted up on a wire.  A lovely bird especially for a beginner.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

We retraced our steps and recrossed the Columbia.  One more decision to make.  Should we call it a day – already a long day – or add one more spot?  One more spot of course, so we headed south on Huntzinger Road to the small canyon where Jon and I had both Canyon and Rock Wrens last week.  We had seen neither on this trip.  At the canyon there was no response to playback for either species – at first.  After maybe 10 minutes of waiting, we tried again and this time I heard what I thought was a distant Canyon Wren.  Last week one had gotten very agitated and flown in to us from over 1/8 mile.  Maybe there would be a repeat.  Instead we began to hear a Rock Wren’s “dree” or “tick-ear” calls.  It seemed to be pretty far down in the canyon but not changing position.  Then we heard a second one but could not figure out where it was.  Cindy worked some magic again.  Ann Marie and I were so intent looking into the canyon we did not consider other options.  Cindy looked back across the road and found a spectacular male Rock Wren perched completely in the open in perfect light not more than 100 feet away.  She was indeed now a birder.  The picture is proof.

Rock Wren – Probably my Finest of this Species Ever

Rock Wren Looking Right1

Now it was time to leave but there was one more surprise.  Heading down Huntzinger Road, Ann Marie had wondered aloud it we might see some American White Pelicans.  We had not.  But on the way back just below Wanapum Dam we saw two.  One had a prominent “breeding horn” on its bill.  Another first for Cindy.

We had some good barbecue in Ellensburg and got back to Edmonds around 10.  It had been a long day.  We had missed some targets but found others.  We had really good looks at many and were really thrilled with the scenes and Swifts at Frenchman’s Coulee.  We had taken turns finding birds – a good team in the field.  I did not hear any horrible stories about me from Ann Marie to Cindy, but they were alone for a couple of minutes so who knows.  After all the water birds at Semiahmoo, Cindy had now been exposed to heavy duty birding on land in Eastern Washington.  She had also heard birds singing in breeding season and had seen her first owl.  There were no complaints and a lot of smiles.  Still barely a beginner in the world of birding but already progressing on the learning curve and enjoying it.  She and I are also still beginners in our relationship and are progressing and learning there as well.  And we are definitely enjoying that too.

 

 

 

FOY’s

What is a FOY you might ask.  It is birder shorthand.  Just as a “Lifer” is a new species seen for the first time in your life in some specific area like the World, ABA, State or County, a FOY is a First of Year observation of some species in a similar geographic area.  So for example, when I observed a Barred Owl in Yost Park near my home in Edmonds, Washington on January 1st this year it was a FOY for my 2019 Snohomish County, State of Washington, ABA Area and World lists.  If I were to travel to Louisiana later that week and see another Barred Owl, it would only be a FOY for that state for 2019 since the one seen in Washington covered all of those other bases and I had seen one in Louisiana last year so not even a “State Lifer”.  On the other hand, if that observation had been in Idaho, it would be both a FOY for Idaho for 2019 and a “State Lifer” in Idaho, since I had never observed one there before.

Got all that?  Don’t worry if not, as it is just the intro as a foundation for sharing some details and photos from a great birding trip good buddy Jon Houghton and I had to Kittitas County in Eastern Washington on March 19th when we went looking for FOY’s and found LOTS – and had a really fun time.  I had already birded Kittitas County once before this year with Frank Caruso and Deb Essman in January (See part of https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/21523) so I had seen some species there that Jon had not, but since early migration is already underway, there was also the promise or hope for some recent arrivals that would be new for both of us in addition to some others that we had just not seen as yet although they were around.

It was a picture perfect day weather wise.  Projected to get into the 60’s in Eastern Washington with clear skies and no wind – a rarity where we were going.  There was still tons of snow at Snoqualmie Pass so no newly arrived Rufous Hummingbirds at the “hummingbird feeder house”.  It was around 32 degrees there but the temperature dropped to a very chilly 25 degrees as we arrived at our first stop, the bridge over the Cle Elum River on Bullfrog Road.  We were looking for American Dippers – a FOY for Jon but not for me as I had seen them with Frank at the Teanaway River Bridge on that earlier aforementioned trip.  Jon looked East and I looked West and Jon found them, a pair working the shallows.  A good start – especially since I have missed Dippers there on some recent visits.

Next we went to Wood Duck Road just a bit further north and had exceptional birding while our hands and feet nearly froze.  Lots of singing Cassin’s Finches, Pygmy and Red Breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, Mountain Chickadees, Varied Thrushes and most importantly at least 5 Western Bluebirds, a FOY for both of us and the main target here.  Patting myself on the back, I was particularly pleased as we first knew they were present when I recognized their calls – something I am not very good at.  This time it worked. Not a great photo, but a satisfying one.

Western Bluebird – FOY for both of us in 2019

Western Bluebird

I am not going to include each place we birded – just focusing on the highlights.  At the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, we again had good birding.  Nothing new for me, but Jon picked up both Tree and Violet Green Swallows as more new for the year species, FOYs.  We also had a fun experience where we saw three Chickadee species in the same tree, Chestnut Backed, Black Capped and Mountain.  We also had all three Nuthatch species and a large flock of calling Red Crossbills (another FOY for Jon).  The Chestnut Backed Chickadee is really beautiful and I really like this picture.

Chestnut Backed Chickadee

Chestnut Backed Chickadee2

Violet Green Swallow

Violet Green Swallow

Nothing new on the Ponds themselves, but it is a good place for waterfowl in the County.  We had half a dozen duck species as well as Canada Goose and Trumpeter Swan.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan1

So I had one FOY and Jon was already at 5, but this is a collaboration and not a competition so we could both celebrate with a stop at the Cle Elum Bakery.  Yum… Then it was on to visit Deb Essman in Ellensburg but since I had seen an Ebird report from Hank Heiberg that he had seen some Evening Grosbeaks on Red Bridge Road, we headed there first.  About a half mile from the map spot on his report I heard some chatter that I thought might be our target and we pulled over to search.  There were Evening Grosbeaks but they were playing hide and seek high up in the conifers.  We had poor visuals and no photo ops so backtracked and went up Highway 970 looking for a better view.  They still teased us and the photo below of a bland female or juvenile is the best I could come up with.  But a FOY for both of us.

Evening Grosbeak – FOY for both of us in 2019

Evening Grosbeak

Unfortunately Deb could not join us for some more birding, but it is always fun to visit with her and Bill.  The Great Horned Owl that has often been roosting in their front yard was not at home but Deb thought it likely that there would be an owl on its nest a bit further down Brick Mill Road where there had been one last year as well.  She was right and Jon and I each had another FOY.

Great Horned Owl on Nest – FOY for both of us in 2019

Great Horned Owl on Nest

We continued on to the Sage/Shrub Steppe habitat along Vantage Highway.  We hoped for several new species – ones that we have seen there before even earlier in years past, but we wondered about the impact of all of the snow.  Our targets were Say’s Phoebe, Sagebrush Sparrow,  Mountain Bluebird, Rock and Canyon Wrens and Sage Thrasher.  There had been multiple sightings of the Phoebe in the county but only single reports of the next three, a few reports for Canyon Wren and none for the Sage Thrasher.  At the Western end of the good area there was still lots of snow.  By the time we got to then – on Recreation Road, a much drier area anyhow, there was none.  Before we got into the prime birding territory we had one of those great finds that are always possible when out in nature – a large herd of Elk on the top of a nearby ridge – over 100 magnificent animals.

Elk Herd

Elk

Single Elk

Shortly after the elk herd, a flash of electric blue gave us our first success as we found one and then two more Mountain Bluebirds.  Not as close as we often see them but no mistaking these birds – FOY’s for both of us.

Mountain Bluebird – FOY for both of us in 2019

mountain-bluebird.jpg

Further along Jon noticed some birds scampering on the ground in the sage.  We got only a brief look at the first one – good enough to identify it as an American Pipit – uncommon in this location.  About 50 yards away and closer to us we found several Horned Larks.  Jon and I had each seen hundreds or maybe thousands earlier in the month on separate trips to the Waterville Plateau but they like this habitat as well.  We coaxed one in for a great photo op.  Easy to see how it gets its name.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark1

The real prize was coming up.  We stopped at “the corrals” – often a good spot for all of our target species but with much more snow than I had ever seen there.  No Phoebe and no Bluebirds but I could hear a melodic song that was either a Sage Thrasher or a Sagebrush Sparrow.  Listening closer, it was too short for the Thrasher – had to be our Sparrow, but where was it?  Jon spied it perched atop some sage maybe 50 yards away.  A little playback got it moving – first to the left and then the right and then closer and closer still.  The sun was directly behind me and shining on the bird – great photo ops during its brief poses and continued singing.  This is one of my favorite sparrows especially since I finally found and got photos of a Bell Sparrow in Southern California after the two  were split from Sage Sparrow into two separate species.

Sagebrush Sparrow – FOY for both of us in 2019

Sagebrush Sparrow2

Sagebrush Sparrow1

Bell’s Sparrow for ComparisonBlack Canyon Road, Ramona, CA – March 2, 2018  [Note the plain back.  Sagebrush Sparrow has a streaked back.]

Bell's Sparrow6

We searched diligently and in vain for a Sage Thrasher – just not in yet we guess. [I had one on Durr Road a week earlier last year.]  We continued on to Recreation Road where we found a Say’s Phoebe chasing a Rock Wren.  each FOY’s for both of us, but terrible and distant looks and we hoped for better.  At the end of the road near the boat ramp we certainly got better for the Say’s Phoebe.  Fly catching from obvious perches and continuously calling, it put on quite a show and posed conveniently.

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe Vertical

We were disappointed not to find a Rock Wren here because this is one of the best places for them.  Jon was even more disappointed that we could not find a Canyon Wren as one had been reported here earlier.  He made up for it by finding some Lesser Scaup and a Redhead among the many ducks on the Columbia River – two more FOY’s for him.  Our best hope for the two wrens was south on Huntzinger Road south of Wanapum Dam.  It is a favorite stop of mine when I have led trips in the area, but it does not always come through.  This time it did – in spades.

As we pulled over to try the little canyon for the wrens, Jon called out (loudly and excitedly) that a falcon was flying by fast on the opposite side of the road.  We got decent looks as it flew away and could identify it as a Prairie Falcon – a FOY for Jon.  If we had not seen it, we would have looked for the one on Road No. 81 back in Kittitas where Frank Caruso and I had super looks earlier in the year with Deb Essman.  No need now.  And it was a precursor to more success.  I spied a Rock Wren on my first scan of the Canyon.  It was distant but eventually at least came into the open for a good look and an ID photo.

Rock Wren – a FOY for Both of Us

Rock Wren

We used playback to try to draw it closer but had zero success.  But I did hear the descending musical scale song of a Canyon Wren far up on the cliffs to our right – at least 250 yards away.  I was able to spot it with my binoculars as it moved from one rock face to another.  Then Jon was able to do the same and we again heard it sing – unmistakable.  Would it come closer if we played its song or call note?  I started with the “jeet” call note and it responded in kind and moved a bit.  I played its song, and that was all it took.  It moved again and again and again and eventually was just below us maybe 40 feet away.  It had moved over an eighth of a mile to protect its turf from an intruder.  A tiny little bird with a big song and an even bigger bravado.

Canyon Wren – A FOY for Jon

Canyon Wren2

That was our last target and find for the day – an extraordinary day.  We had not tried to maximize species counts and could certainly have added another 10 or so if we had, but we still ended the day with 65 species including 7 new ones for me and 16 for Jon.  We both agreed it was about as successful a trip and efficient a trip for finding multiple targets as we could remember.  I should have taken more photos to share it, but it was also a beautiful day with valleys, and rivers and mountains and cliffs.  I will never get tired of saying – we live in a gorgeous state.  Nice birds, too, and more FOY’s to come.

Mount Rainier from Eastern Washington

Mount Rainier

Birding Closer to Home

Here in Washington, we are so fortunate to live in a beautiful state with diverse habitats where birding opportunities are everywhere and the birds are plentiful and varied.  As February came to a close, I had recently returned from the trip to the Okanogan area which was the subject of my previous blog post.  Earlier, in addition to my birding in New Mexico and Hawaii as part of my 50/50/50 Project, I had done some birding in Whatcom County, north of my “home territory” and to Clark County to the South.  I had spent one day in Kittitas County to the East and a single day to Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties on the Coast.  I love the travel and even the long drives, but there were a lot of great birding opportunities closer to home and I have been able to get out with friends in the last two weeks to partake.

The first adventure was a visit to a residential area in Anacortes in Skagit County where a Northern Mockingbird had been reported for a couple of days.  A few are seen each year in the state but are very uncommon and are always a good State Bird.  Ann Marie Wood joined me and we easily found the location but at first not the bird.  We walked around for a few minutes and then returned to the spot where it had most often been reported.  Ann Marie spied the bird on a stone wall under a hedge and then we watched as it flew first to a small bush in the yard and then to a small tree right next to us.  It was a brilliant beautiful sunny day and in addition to our Northern Mockingbird, the tree was full of bright red berries.  Who could pass up that photo?

Northern Mockingbird (FOY) – Anacortes, WA – February 28, 2019

Northern Mockingbird1

Two days later Frank Caruso and I headed to an off the beaten path spot in Pierce County where an excellent local birder, Heather Voboril, had found some Mountain Quail near her home.  This species is resident in the state but can be very difficult to find – especially since they no longer are coming to “Quail Mary’s” feeder in Belfair.  If found it would be Frank’s first in Washington.  Heather provided excellent directions to a very hard to find place.  Even with Frank’s great ears we were having no luck hearing the Quail’s distinctive “querk” call in the clear cut.  We back-tracked and tried a different path off to the right and I was pretty sure I was hearing a distant assembly call – a whistled “tu-tu-tu”.  Frank had heard it, too, of course but having never heard it before, he did not know what it was.  We then did hear the tell-tale “querk” calls of at least two birds.  There was no doubt of the identification but especially for a new state bird, a visual was really hoped for.  Others who had visited the location had primarily only vocal ID’s or a brief view in flight as one was flushed.

I played the assembly call on one of my apps and a couple of querks and then we crossed our fingers and hoped.  There were now more querks and assembly calls – getting closer and closer still.  I was pretty sure that at least one Quail was near to and behind a log that was across some brush ahead of us.  There was no real trail and a lot of brush and mud.  I got as close to the log as I could (maybe 40 feet) and heard something scraping on the other side and then another querk call.  I thought I had a brief glimpse of a Mountain Quail moving towards the left end and top of the log.  Would it actually come up on top to survey for what it might have felt was competition from our call and pose for a photo?  Dream on.  Instead it came to near the top for the briefest of seconds and then flew off.  We definitely had our visual and I raised my camera and pointed it the direction of flight without even trying to get the bird in the view finder.  A rapid fire of 7 shots produced one that had a little brown blur.  Presenting the world’s worst photo of a Mountain Quail in flight.

Mountain Quail (FOY) – Pierce County – March 2, 2019

Mountain Quail

Not perfect but a new year bird for me and a new State bird for Frank and a lot of fun.  A couple of days later, I was able to visit a private yard for another fun adventure and another new bird for the year – another successful chase.  I am not yet allowed to share the details – but I like teasing so I mention it here for that purpose only – maybe more in the future sometime.  Smiles….

The most important chase began a couple days later.  After a few email exchanges I had coffee with a lovely woman.  It was followed by more messages, a couple of phone calls and then a dinner a few days later.  When coffee goes on for more than two hours and the dinner for more than four hours – a good sign.  Enough for now but if all goes well, I hope there will be details and shared stories in future blogs.  Bigger smiles…

Back to the birds.  After yet another snow fall – thankfully only a dusting and a quick melting, a week without being out, some new birds being reported, and some new birds arriving as Spring really was arriving evidenced in part with the much welcomed arrival of Daylight Saving Time, I headed north to familiar birding spots in Skagit County.   On the way back from our Mockingbird visit in Anacortes, Ann Marie and I had failed to find the American Bittern at the North Fork Access area.  I would try there again and I also wanted to drive Dry Slough Road and vicinity where a Gyrfalcon had been seen a couple of times including by Frank on a recent Pilchuck Audubon trip.

Having set the time ahead for DST, my early start was an hour later by the clock, but I was on Dry Slough Road by 9:00 a.m. and it was one of those spectacular days with crystal clear blue skies, lots of sun, no wind and lots of snow on the mountains.  Dry Slough Road is just off a busy road and at least on this morning there were no other cars.  I inched along studying every tree, field, bush and building.  I was looking for the Gyr and whatever else may be around.  It was so gorgeous and peaceful frankly no birds were needed to make the day.

Mt. Baker on a Gorgeous Day

2P5A5794

Just as I approached the intersection with Polson Road, a large falcon flew past in the distance.  Was this the Gyrfalcon? At moments like this with a good bird in flight, there is a challenge.  Get a good look in the binoculars or go right to the camera.  Often there is not time for both.  Since I was in the car and any photo would have been through the window, I chose the bins and unfortunately confirmed by size, coloration and facial pattern that it was “only” a Peregrine Falcon.  It is never ok to complain about seeing this species, but when you are hoping for a Gyr, it was at least momentarily disappointing.  That disappointment was removed (almost completely) when on a wire up ahead I saw two small birds perched with a silhouette that said – not Starlings and maybe “Swallows“.  There were two Tree Swallows – my first of the year.  They were among the new arrivals that had been reported the previous day or two and I had hoped to find some but had expected them elsewhere.  Works for me…

Tree Swallow (FOY) – Dry Slough Road – Mt. Vernon – March 10, 2019

Tree Swallow

Dry Slough Road ends with a curve/turn to the east and becomes Skagit City Road.  Less than a quarter mile from that curve I saw two more birds on a wire – larger than the Swallows and less than 20 feet apart.  They were American Kestrels.  They are common in the area but I cannot remember ever seeing two so close together before.  I include the mostly out of focus photo that I took only because of that uniqueness through the window just before they flew off .

Two American Kestrels

two-kestrels.jpg

I turned onto Skagit City Road just as my phone rang.  I expected maybe a report from someone else in the field that they had something special – maybe the Gyrfalcon.  It says a lot that I can acknowledge this, but the call was even better.  It was from the aforementioned lovely lady that I have begun seeing.  There being no one on the road, I pulled over and we had one of those special talks early in a relationship that promises more and sets a firmer foundation for that.  Maybe it was the good karma from the call or maybe the two Kestrels had been an omen, but about 20 minutes into the call (it was a good talk), a VERY large falcon zoomed across the road from left to right about 100 to 150 yards in front of me being chased initially by a Bald Eagle.

The best I could do was shout “Hold on.  Hold on.” to my caller and lift my binoculars for a quick view – again through the car window.  The bird was in view for no more than 3 or 4 seconds and unfortunately did not perch in distant trees to the southeast and disappeared.  My comments in my Ebird report were “Larger than Peregrine with slower wing beat. On Skagit City Road about .15 mile west of turn to right off Dry Slough. Bin view as it flew 150 yards in front of stopped car. Weak facial marks. Gray juvenile.”  A picture would have confirmed it but I was 95% sure it was the Gyrfalcon.  Later I met some other birders who had been on Moore Road about 20 minutes earlier and had a similar quick glance at what they thought was the Gyrfalcon which flew northeast – essentially in line to my position.

Had it perched I would have ended the call and chased on.  Since it did not – now with a second reason to be happy with the call, I returned to it and shared the experience.  I am happy to give credit to a pair of Kestrels or a pretty lady – just pleased to have gotten even a glimpse of the Gyrfalcon.  I continued down Skagit City Road and turned onto Polson Road.  Maybe the Gyr would reappear.  It did not.  I don’t know if it preys on Snow Geese.  There was a giant flock of them available.  I certainly did not count but even with a crude estimating approach of counting groups of 100, I believe there were far more than 5000 in the group – brilliant white in the bright sunshine.  There were also many photographers and casual observers enjoying the spectacle.

Snow Geese – Just Part of the Huge Gathering

Snow Geese Flight

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

More importantly for my listing though were at least two and probably several more American Pipits seen through my scope in one of the many furrowed fields.  I have found them in the area many times, usually distant like these and often after they have given their “pip-it” call before landing.  Looking directly into the sun, I had first thought they were yet more Blackbirds or Starlings.  Fortunately not.

I carried on to the North Access of the Skagit Wildlife Management Area at the end of Rawlins Road to look yet again for the American Bittern.  There was another very large flock of Snow Geese and there were many photographers already there as well as folks out for a walk including a guy with his dog up on the dike.  On such a gorgeous day, you had to be happy that so many folks were out enjoying it, but it almost assuredly meant no Bittern.  I did look. Not found.

Now it was off to Wylie Slough.  I could see swallows flitting about as soon as I arrived.  Having already had the FOY Tree Swallows earlier, I expected they were more of the same but hoped for a Violet Green in the mix.  Just Trees. There were 8 duck species in addition to American Coots and a Pied Billed Grebe but nothing really noteworthy except perhaps for yet another observation of one of the Black Phoebes that has been there seemingly forever.  I would think Ebird would no longer treat it as a rarity but it does.  The water was too high for any shorebirds and I failed to find either a Virginia Rail or a Sora.  It was nice to get a photo of a Bewick’s Wren right after also seeing a Marsh Wren.  The best part of the visit though was a chat with an “old-timer” (which means even older than me) local in the duck blind.  He visits there often and had good stories including the bad news that apparently a Harbor Seal had gotten into the area and had taken both fish and birds as meals.  DFW is trying to get it out.

Bewick’s Wren

Bewick's Wren

Time to head south.  I made an essentially birdless stop at Eide Road in Stanwood and then went to Olsen Road/360th trying one more spot for an American Bittern.  A wooden bridge crosses the slough/river just west of Pioneer Highway.  David Poortinga had found a Bittern there and Ann Marie Wood had seen it later as well.  There being no traffic, I parked on the bridge and looked without success and then parked west of the bridge and walked back.  When I got to the exact spot on the bridge where I had just been a few moments earlier, a large brown-backed bird flushed and flew away from me.  Click-click-click I got a few pictures of it in flight and then a distant photo in classic Bittern pose when it landed.  Not great photos but finally an American Bittern!!

American Bittern Flight (FOY) – 360th and Pioneer Highway – Stanwood – March 10, 2019

American Bittern Monday

American Bittern Classic Pose

American Bittern2

I drove around Norman Road looking for specialty sparrows without success and then headed home.  It had been a great day and as pretty a day as you could hope for.  Thousands of Snow Geese, hundreds of Swans, thousands of Mallards, and 4 FOYS:  Gyrfalcon, Tree Swallow, American Pipit and American Bittern.  With the two Kestrels together (and more later) and the Peregrine, it had been a three Falcon day which is always nice.  Oh yeah, and one very nice phone call.

Jon Houghton was recently back from a wonderful Seattle Audubon trip to Colombia.  He was not able to join me the previous day but he was eager to catch up on some local birding and I was eager to hear about the trip so we went out on Monday and retraced some of my earlier visits to Skagit and Snohomish County at spots related above.  We started at the “Wooden Bittern Bridge” – this time parking to the east of the slough.  As soon as we walked onto the bridge, the Bittern flew away as it had when I had been there the afternoon before.  We got good looks in flight only.  So Jon had a FOY within maybe 5 seconds.

Lots of Mew Gulls, a few Ring Billed Gulls and many larus hybrids/Glaucous Winged Gulls were in the fields along 360th and Norman Road.  We heard a couple of Killdeer and paralleling my experience from the previous day, they would be our only shorebirds.  The previous day I had seen Mallards everywhere and very few American Wigeon.  Over the course of this day we would still see many Mallards although just a fraction of what I had seen.  This day, starting along Norman Road, we did see many flocks of Wigeons – probably more than 1000 all told and among them were at least three Eurasian Wigeons.

Wigeons – American and Eurasian – and Mallards – Pioneer Highway

Eurasian Wigeon

Eide Road was again pretty quiet – no owls at all and no shorebirds.  We had a great encounter with a photo friendly Northern Harrier – one of many seen this day.

Northern Harrier – Eide Road

Northern Harrier Perched  Northern Harrier Wings Out

Northern Harrier Perched1

We continued North and carefully but unsuccessfully searched for the Gyrfalcon along Dry Slough and Skagit City Roads.  Lots of Swans and Snow Geese.  We had a peekaboo view of the Barn Owl in the nest box on Moore Road where further along we also found a birder/photographer who thought he had seen the Gyrfalcon but it had flown off.  No luck for us.  Unlike the previous day with lots of sun and no wind, today was cold and a continuous wind made it even colder.  Maybe as a result when we got to Wylie Slough, there were no Tree Swallows and very few other birds.  An accipiter was perched in a tree just as we arrived.  We think it is most likely a female Sharp Shinned Hawk but we debated it as maybe a male Cooper’s . [I have since heard from Ryan Merrill that it is a Cooper’s Hawk…good enough for me, so I have changed the species on Ebird and here as well.]

Cooper’s Hawk – Wylie Slough

Sharp Shinned Hawk

We continued on to the North Fork Access.  Again a big flock of Snow Geese but this time there was nobody else there.  As we got up onto the dike, an American Bittern flew off and when it landed instead of doing its freeze pose, it ran for maybe 30 feet on the ground and disappeared in the reeds.  Neither of us had ever seen a Bittern run before.   I have not checked my records but I know have seen more than one American Bittern in a day before but I believe only at a single location like Ewing Marsh.  This may have been a first with Bitterns at two different locations.

Jon had not seen the Northern Mockingbird in Anacortes so we decided to try for that.  I had seen a report from the “King of Skagit County”, aka Gary Bletsch, with several Purple Finches at a spot on Padilla Heights – just off Highway 20 and on the way to Anacortes.  Neither of us had seen a Purple Finch for the year so we brought up the map and headed to the spot.  Just as we were about to turn onto what we thought was the road to take us there, I spied a large bird flying ahead of us with a familiar dihedral wing pattern.  Sure enough it was a completely surprising Turkey Vulture.  There had been a single report of one not far away in Anacortes two weeks ago, but it had not been on my radar screen so to speak at all.  It was a First of Year species for both of us in Washington.

Turkey Vulture FOY – Reservation Road off Highway 20 – March 11, 2019

Turkey Vulture

Through a combination of a little inexact reporting by Gary and our maybe wacky GPS, we arrived at an industrial site on Padilla Heights Road that had to be wrong.  Gary’s report had numerous finches and sparrows and waterfowl.  We found some Eurasian Collared Doves and some Starlings and that was about it.  But we soldiered on and found THE spot – the feeders at “Anacortes Wild Bird and Telescope”.  Among the species seen were House, Golden Crowned, White Crowned and Song Sparrows, lots of Dark Eyed Juncos, Spotted Towhee, Anna’s Hummingbird and both House Finch and Purple Finch.  One very purple/red Purple Finch was in the open for potentially great photos several times but always flew off just before I got on it and I could only get shots with branches in the way and it out of focus accordingly.

Purple Finch – FOY – Padilla Heights March 11, 2019

Purple Finch

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

Now off to the Mockingbird Stakeout.  A photographer with a GIANT lens was there when we arrived and it looked like he was focusing on a bird.  The bad news is that he was not, but the good news is that he had seen the Mockingbird 10 or 15 minutes earlier.  We walked the area and did not find our target.  We returned with our photographer friend at the same spot – birdless – and cold.  His wife had dropped him off earlier and gone shopping.  She had returned and was waiting in their warm car.  This seemed like a good idea, so Jon and I got in is car – his very nice new Subaru Forester – and turned on the heat.  After 15 minutes Jon was ready to leave.  I said let’s give it another 5.  Three minutes later Mr. Photographer signaled that he had the Northern Mockingbird.  From nowhere and not seen by us, it had flown into its favorite perch.  At first it was buried but sufficiently visible for Jon to have a new FOY.  It eventually worked its way into the open and we all got nice photos.  I tried to convince the photographer to trade lenses with me as his was obviously very heavy and mine much lighter.  Somehow he was just not interested in my <$2000 100-400 mm zoom and preferred his 600 mm with extender which retails for only about $11,000.  Oh well…

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Mission accomplished with a Turkey Vulture and Purple Finch bonus.  Anacortes had been good to us.  We headed north to the Samish Flats area and found no owls at either the East or West 90’s but had several beautiful Rough Legged Hawks.

Rough Legged Hawks

Rough Legged Hawk

Rough Legged Hawk Flight2

Jon had not seen a Merlin yet this year and had never had a Kouign Amann (stay tuned), so we headed to Edison.  A Merlin has hung around Edison for a number of years now, but I had not seen it there this year despite several visits.  Jon must have been the good luck charm as we found it fairly quickly on a distant fir tree.  It flew right overhead but I had no view.  Jon got a good look before it disappeared – so a good FOY for him.  Then it was off to the Breadfarm in “downtown” Edison.   The Breadfarm ranks up there with the Komoda Store in Makawao, Maui as my two favorite birding bakeries.  Everything is fabulous but my favorite is the Kouign Amann.  I won’t even try to describe it.  It is one of the pastries in the photo below.  You will just have to get one yourself.  At $4.00 each, they are not inexpensive, but I would pay more – a true delight.

To celebrate our day, we bought the four remaining Kouign Amanns.  One for Jon and his spouse Kathleen.  One for me and one as a surprise for the woman that I have begun to see – if nothing else as a thank you for helping with the Gyrfalcon.

Breadfarm Pastries

Breadfarm Pastries

We left the Breadfarm and took one more swing through the area to look for the Merlin again.  This time we were much luckier and found it quickly – perched in the open begging us to take a photo.  How could we refuse?

Merlin – Edison – March 11, 2019

Merlin1

And on that note, we called it a day.  No Pipits and no Gyrfalcon, but lots of goodies.  The Turkey Vulture and Purple Finch were new for both of us and Jon had also added the Northern Mockingbird, American Bittern and Merlin to his year list.  And of course the Kouign Amann was new also.  And on that subject, somehow Jon and I were strong enough not to eat them until we got home.  I was able to make a special delivery of one to my new lady friend and told her it was kind of a test as there was clearly something wrong with anyone who did not find them wonderful.  She passed easily – as she has on all others.

Mostly off topic, she and I both passed some other tests (not really the best word, but I haven’t found a better one yet) last night.  We saw the movie Free Solo at the Majestic Bay Theater in Ballard.  It is a brilliant documentary of the first ever free climb – solo – of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park – done by Alex Honnold.  There are breath taking scenes and truly breath holding scary moments when certain death is just a misstep or slip away.  There were many times when something in the film reminded me of birding adventures and the dogged and focused pursuit of our lists and chases and beautiful birds – without the fear of death of course.  And I did identify at least one bird in the film – a White Throated Swift that flew off the rock face he was climbing – yikes!!  Fortunately we passed the test of dealing with perilous heights (at least the incredible cinematography of same) and loved the film.  We passed another test as well … nicely…

Alex Honnold – Free Solo – Ascent of El Capitan – Beautiful and Unbelievable 

Free Solo

 

The Okanogan – Hits, Misses and Gorgeous Country

I try to visit the Okanogan once every winter with some birding on the Waterville Plateau on the way up and/or back.  Temperatures and snow conditions can vary greatly and so can the birding but it is pretty hard to beat for many “specialty” species and for great scenery.  Lots of great local folks as well and usually there are other birders around although in the vast remoteness, paths do not always cross.  I usually stay in Omak which has an average of 4″ of snowfall in February.  This February has been much colder and snowier than usual and the snowfall has been at least twice that much.  The same was true on the Waterville Plateau.  I was amazed at how clear most of the primary and even secondary roads were in the Okanogan but many of the secondary roads were impassable on the Waterville Plateau.  Did it help or hinder birding?  Yes on both accounts.  But no complaints.  It was gorgeous!!

Okanogan scene 1

Snow may or may not help with some of the birds, but fog does not and there were intermittent areas of dense fog on the way.  My first “target” was the Snowy Owl that had been reported off and on on Heritage Road on the Plateau.  It was very foggy when I got there and I counted myself very fortunate to get even a distant glimpse of the bird about .2 mile further north than last reported.  It was in flight from one rock to another or I likely would never have seen it at all.  I hoped for a better look and photos on my return trip, but I could not relocate it then – more on that later.  Further along Heritage Road I stopped at a woodlot east of the road that has been a good spot for American Tree Sparrows – not a single bird.

Usually I find many hundreds or even thousands or Horned Larks on the Plateau.  The hope is always that a Lapland Longspur or Snow Buntings will be in with the flocks.  This first morning I found far fewer Horned Larks but there was a single Lapland Longspur in a flock of fewer than 100 birds just south of the junction of Heritage Road (L Road) and Highway 172.   I had not seen another car for over an hour – until I got to this spot and this flock.  One car came up behind me and another turned onto Heritage going south.  All the birds of course flew off.  If I had been quicker to spot the Longspur I may have gotten a photo as the Longspur was visible within the flock – although constantly moving and even flying up ahead  – for a few minutes.  This is usually the case with Longspurs in flocks on the Plateau – very hard to get sufficiently close for a good look let alone a photo op.

Horned Larks on Road

Horned Larks

So not great looks, but two First of Year birds and it was not yet 9:00 a.m.  Oh yeah, I had departed Edmonds at 4:30 a.m. and I was then more than 225 miles from home.  It would be a long day – an excellent day.  It was also a very cold day.  When I first hit the plateau the temperature was 5 degrees.  I watched as it went down to 1 degree.  It never hit zero and thank goodness the wind was not blowing.  I wondered though at what temperature fog might start freezing.  Fortunately it warmed into the teens so I never found out.

It really was not very birdy and I thought maybe there was too much snow.  I found no Sharp Tailed Grouse at Foster Creek – hopefully Scotch Creek would be better.  I had a weird experience at Bridgeport State Park – looking for Northern Saw Whet Owls.  I knew some were there and often a roosting tree can be found with whitewash on the ground below.  The snow made that a challenge.  After searching many spots I found an owl absolutely buried in the dense branches.  As I went to try for some kind of photo, I realized that the lens shield was not attached.  Figuring it would be a very lousy photo at best – showing maybe a tiny bit of owl –  I abandoned the tree and retraced steps looking for the shield.  It took 15 minutes, but I found it and decided that was as much good luck as I would get on this visit so headed north.

Heading north on Highway 97, I saw four raptors in flight.  At first glance I thought maybe some eagles.  I turned the car around and got a better look at a very fun interaction.  There were two eagles – my first Golden Eagle of the year. But the other two raptors were Red Tailed Hawks.  When I first saw them I had just thought they were much higher in the sky and thus only appeared smaller.  Now I could see that they were on the same plane and were harassing the eagles.  One of the photos shows just how much different in size they are.

Red Tailed Hawk Harassing Eagle

Eagle and Red Taile

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (2)

Rather than check in at the hotel in Omak I headed off towards Conconully stopping first at the Scotch Creek area along Conconully Road looking for Sharp Tailed Grouse.  My best luck finding them has been when they are feeding in the trees when there is snow on the ground.  There was plenty of snow, but despite a long look including going up Happy Hill Road into another area where I have seen them, nada.  Maybe it was already too late in the day.  There are many target species on my trips to this area, but the Sharp Tails are always on the top of the list – so a bad miss.  On into the town of Conconully itself.

The good start in the morning had definitely slowed down without the Grouse and Conconully was not cooperating either.  I did find a couple of FOY Cassin’s Finches (many had been reported the previous week) but none of the other “possibilities” like Canada Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, or Bohemian Waxwing all of which I have had there before.  But it was still beautiful and had warmed to the upper 20’s and I had fun talks with two local residents.  More birds would have been nice, but it was a really good time.  I did have lots of California Quail, Pine Siskins and Dark Eyed Juncos among other species seen.

It was time to head off to the Okanogan Highlands.  Another unsuccessful search for the Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek and an unsuccessful search for Canyon Wren at my go to spot along Riverside Cutoff road.  I had already seen 5 new birds for the year yet had also missed at least that many – but there were some sure things (probable things?) ahead.  The first stop was at Fancher Road.  I cannot say so for sure, but I believe the first time I birded Fancher Road was January 19th last year when it was stunning to find at least 35 Chukar there.  They are generally not easy to find – usually for me at least they are on rocky hillsides around Vantage or in the Yakima Canyon.  They had been reported at this location last week so it never crossed my mine that I would miss them.  At the beginning of the road just before the grazing area, I saw a couple and then a couple more but not the numbers from the previous year.  Until…I kept going and there were more and more and more.  In the cattle field and on the other side of the road in the hilly area.  I stopped counting at 110 and know there were many more.  I reported 135 on my Ebird report and expect there were at least 150.

Chukar – Fancher Road

Chukar

And here is another one from my Hawaii trip just a couple of weeks ago.  Notice anything different?  Of course it is the snow.  So here is a bird that has been introduced as a game bird in these two very different environments.  It originates in Asia and the Middle East.

Chukar – Hawaii

Chukar

The trouble with go to spots (see earlier reference to American Tree Sparrows) is that sometimes the birds forget to be there.  Not the case for me, but I later learned that while the Seattle Audubon Field Trip had Chukars at Fancher Road the previous week, the ABC Field Trip missed them there earlier.  Keeps us all on our toes I guess.

Another FOY at Fancher Road was a Ring Necked Pheasant.  I saw a second one later on the trip.  On to the Havillah Sno-Park with visions of Great Gray Owls in my head.  It has been a few years since I have seen one there and am not aware of other sightings this year, but I had hopes and it can also have other nice birds like Three Toed Woodpeckers and Clark’s Nutcrackers.  Just before turning onto the road to the Sno-Park a Clark’s Nutcracker flew by in front of the car – making up for one of the misses at Conconully.  It was the 8th new bird for the year this day – proof of the richness of the area far more than of birding acumen.  Would the Sno Park deliver a Great Gray for #9?

Ring Necked Pheasant – Fancher Road

Pheasant

Nope.  In fact it was far quieter than I think I have seen it,  Beautiful but quiet. Well at least I did not get stuck in the snow which I have done there before.  At the parking area I met two Westside birders – Pam Cahn and Jen McKernan.  They had been in the area a couple of days and were staying for more.  I was encouraged that they had seen Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek – but earlier than my visit and also they had a few Bohemian Waxwings at Conconully.   In turn they were encouraged by my Nutcracker observation and wondered if a bird they had seen at distance or perhaps as a flyby might have been that.  Always more to look (hope) for.  No owls but as we were talking I heard a Red Crossbill, a species they had seen there not much earlier.  So FOY #9 for the day.

Red Crossbill (Photo is actually from a better observation later but fits here)

Red Crossbill1 (2)

They were heading off to the Nealey Road feeders, so I headed that way as well – leaving the parking area first.  It took a while after getting onto Havillah Road to notice they were not right behind me.  I figured they had stopped for something and debated turning back.  I decided to push on as the light was beginning to dim.  If it had been a Great Gray, I would have greatly regretted that decision.  I later learned that they had seen a Northern Shrike.  I saw several later on my trip so not a big miss.

About a mile from the feeders I saw a flock of smaller birds in flight and then landing behind a red barn.  In the bright but low sun, they flashed dark and then white.  Maybe Horned Larks?  No – my first Snow Buntings of the trip.  I hoped that Pam and Jen would arrive shortly.  They did not and then the flock flew off to a hilly snowfield above me when a pick up truck drove by.  I waited ten more minutes and then decided to move on.  Just as I pulled out, I saw their car coming from behind me.  I backed up and signaled them to stop.  Fortunately the flock of maybe 100 Snow Buntings had remained and were visible at least when against the darker rock outcroppings or grass.

Snow Bunting Flock in Flight

Snow Buntings Flight

Snow Buntings on Hillside

snow Buntings Ground

There were no birds at all at the Nealey Road feeders (which have been great in the past but not so much the last couple of years).  In fading light, I started back to Omak expecting to see a Great Horned Owl on the way as I have done in past years.  Not to be and there had also been no Gray Partridge which had been seen in good numbers by many other birders.  But any day with 10 new birds for the year and such spectacular scenery and no mishaps was a great day indeed.   It ended with a very cool talk with a clerk at the convenience store where I got gas.  He saw my binoculars and camera and asked what I was watching.  I described some of the birds and particularly the Chukars at Fancher Road which was nearby.  He knew about Sharp Tailed Grouse but had never heard of a Chukar.  He really enjoyed the photos I shared with him.

A local woman had overheard part of the conversation and joined in and also liked the Chukar photos.  She had lived in the area all her life and enjoyed the snow as much as the summer heat which can get over 100 degrees.  She wanted me to know about the Bighorn Sheep that can be found at Loomis.  I told her I had seen some there in the past and that seemed to legitimize my visit more than the birding did.  A really good way to end the day.

I was very tired when I finally checked in having been awake since 3:00 a.m.  A larger than usual dinner did not help and I wondered how I could stay awake past even 8:00 p.m.  I worked on photos and watched a little basketball on TV which enabled me to make it to just before 10.  CRASH!!  I am a morning person – always up early – especially when birding.  So it was very much out of the norm when there was light streaming in through a crack in the window shades when I first awoke.  OMG it was past 6:40.  That may be the latest I have slept in years.  But it was probably a good thing as I was not on the road heading back to Scotch Creek until after 7:15.

Again a lot of searching and no Sharp Tailed Grouse at Scotch Creek.  This was beginning to feel too familiar as I had missed them last year as well.  I would try again after another visit to Conconully just a few miles further north.  Nothing exciting at Conconully but it was interesting that the day before I had seen more than 20 deer and this morning saw none.  And the previous day I had not seen any Wild Turkeys (neither had Jen or Pam) and today there were several groups totaling at least 35 individuals.  I would have traded them all for some Bohemian Waxwings but found none.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

It was now 9:15 a.m. and when I got back to Scotch Creek just north of Happy Hill Road — EUREKA!!  Sharp Tailed Grouse were feeding high in the trees below.  There were at least 25 and probably more.  They were actively feeding and within not more than 15 minutes all but a few were gone.  Timing, timing, timing!!  Terrible photos but ones I was happy to get at all.

Sharp Tailed Grouse

Sharp Tailed Grouse in Tree1

Sharp Tailed Grouse (2)

Very pleased, I thought I would try for the Canyon Wren again.  Not too far onto Riverside Cutoff Road heading southeast, rocky cliffs rise on the left side of the road.  I had one last year just past an iron gated road to a ranch on the right (and before two leather sofas that have been discarded on the left side of the road this year).  It had not been there yesterday, but then after the third playing of the familiar descending song, I had a response from high on one of the cliffs.  We had a “conversation” for a minute or so and then the Canyon Wren continued a solo without further encouragement for many more minutes.  I finally caught a glimpse of it on a rock outcropping but it never came in closer.  Another FOY and another example of how you have to just keep trying and how timing is so important.

Back on the main highway before heading Northeast into the Highlands again, I got a photo of a very dark Red Tailed Hawk.  It had been at the same spot the day before but traffic had prevented a try for a picture.  Truly a striking bird.

Red Tailed Hawk – Dark Morph

Red Tailed Hawk Dark Morph

I spent some time on North Siwash Creek Road hoping for a close up of Sharp Tailed Grouse in excellent habitat.  The Seattle Audubon trip had found them there and had great looks.  There would be no Grouse and no Partridge but I had my first of three Northern Shrikes.  Later on Davies Road on an unsuccessful search for the Northern Pygmy Owl that had been seen there repeatedly, I found a great small flock of Mountain Chickadees, Pine Siskins, Red and White Breasted Nuthatches and Red Crossbills.

Northern Shrike (N. Siwash Creek Road)

Northern Shrike (2)

Mountain Chickadee – Davies Road

Mountain Chickadee (2)

Pine Siskins – Davies Road

Pine Siskins

Red Breasted Nuthatch – Davies Road

Red Breasted Nuthatch with Seed

There may have been no owls on Davies Road, but I found a great “owler” as Khanh Tran was coming from the other direction.  Like many others, I drool over Khanh’s many fabulous owl photos – many from this same Okanogan area.  He shared some info and also told me his two secrets for finding owls: (1) perseverance and (2) great eyes.  There is no doubt that he has both.  He told me that the Davies Road Pygmy Owl was more likely to be seen closer to dusk.  I had other plans and considered changing them, but instead accepted it as another miss for the trip.

Including the time on the Riverside Cutoff Road, my visits to Conconully and Scotch Creek and then in the Highlands, I probably had traveled at least 60 miles that morning.  With the exception of the traffic (light) on Highway 97, Khanh’s was the first car I had seen and that would remain the case for most of the rest of the day.  The remoteness of this area is one of its great appeals.  We are so fortunate to share an activity that brings us to such beautiful places and at least at times to have the complete serenity of being alone in such wild country.  (As long as there is no car trouble, of course.)

More of the Countryside

Okanogan scene2

Khanh and I had talked about locations for White Headed Woodpecker.  Last year I had found 3 of them on the north end of Cameron Lake Road near the American Flag strung across the road.  The Seattle Audubon trip had missed them there this year.  Khanh said they were there – although better earlier in the morning and also in the Ponderosa pine area north of that.  Last year I had also had Gray Partridge and American Tree Sparrows on the road so I decided to head there next even though it was more than an hour away.  Less than a mile north of the “flag” just into the Ponderosa pines, I thought I heard a woodpecker.  I stopped and heard both tapping and some calls.  The calls were from a White Headed Woodpecker, but the tapping was different.  What happened next was really fun.  I played the 3 note “pred-di-dink” call of the White Headed Woodpecker which is what I thought I heard.  Immediately a male flew up from low on a nearby tree and posted on a nearby trunk.  Not more that a few seconds later a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers flew right at the White Headed Woodpecker and chased it away.  The male Hairy remained on that trunk and began tapping – the same sound I had heard earlier.  My assumption is that the two were a mated pair and were on territory with the White Headed the intruder.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker (2)

White Headed Woodpecker

White Headed Woodpecker

I added some Pygmy Nuthatches but was very disappointed as I found no American Tree Sparrows at the “go to” wetlands spot.  Jon Houghton had the same experience earlier in the month.  I had hoped for better luck.  The road was passable and I have had problems there before (as Shep Thorp did on the Audubon trip), but it was messy and had some serious ruts.  I traveled the lower few miles of Cameron Lake Road – hoping for Gray Partridge in an area I had them last year.  As I came around a sharp turn three Gray Partridge flushed off the road and disappeared into the distant snowy white.  If I had been coming up the hill in the other direction, I probably could have sneaked up on them for a good view and maybe a photo as had been the case last year.  Neither they nor I had any warning this time, so a countable but very unsatisfying look.

I hope to get a better look at Partridge with Deb Essman in Kittitas County later, but for now they are at least a check mark and FOY 14 for the trip.  The woodpeckers were the highlight of this visit and especially the White Headed – the 13th FOY of the trip and always a great bird to see.

Back to Omak and then a return to getting up earlier than I wished to start the next day caused in part by the visit of the garbage truck at 4 in the morning.  Ouch!!  I could have spent the entire day birding and gotten home late (after traffic since it was now Monday) but the wind had picked up and although no snow was predicted, I figured I would just head back spending time on the Plateau where “surely” I would find some Tree Sparrows and Partridge and then maybe look for a Sora at Rocky Ford where I had found two on the way home from this trip last year.  If all went well, I could then stop at the Stevens Pass Ski Area for Canada Jay as I had done last year as well.

No calamities but it was a strange day.  I started by revisiting the lower part of Cameron Lake Road, hoping for a better Gray Partridge intersection.  The wind was blowing much more than the previous day but at least the ruts in the road were “solid” as with the overnight freeze, they had not thawed into mud.  I saw a Cooper’s Hawk and some more Horned Larks and Snow Buntings but no Partridge or anything else of note.  Time to head south.

Snow Bunting on Cameron Lake Road

Snow Bunting (2)

Back on the Waterville Plateau it was now very windy with a lot of blowing and drifting snow – not falling, blowing from loose snow on the ground.  I stopped again at the woodlot on Heritage Road just south of Highway 172 where I have had American Tree Sparrows in the past and missed them on Saturday.  Not a single bird.  Now though there were lots of Horned Larks on the road – far more than the first day I came through.  In the same general area I had seen the Lapland Longspur on Saturday in a flock of maybe 100 birds, there was now an ever changing flock of more than 300.  I thought I caught a glimpse of a Longspur but lost it in the constantly reorganizing movements.  A few Snow Buntings were mixed in.

Much further south on Heritage Road, Shep had reported a good number of American Tree Sparrows on the west side of the road at an abandoned barn and grain silos.  I thought I found the right spot but as it was not possible to get near the buildings in the deep snow and there were fences.  I wondered if maybe I had miscalculated.  It was windy and cold.  I played all of the American Tree Sparrow calls I had.  There were two single responses from the brush near one of the buildings in the back.  I scoured the area with my bins but saw no movement.  The return call was right but a good visual would have been nice and a photo even better.  A reluctant check mark, but I hope for something better later this year.  I searched in vain for the Snowy Owl.  Maybe that fog had helped after all.

It was time to make a decision.  A good sized flock of Gray Partridge had been reported at the Withrow Grain terminals the previous day.  I have had them there as well.  This would take me in the opposite direction from Rocky Ford.  If all went well, I would find the Partridge there or better yet on the way and then could double back to Rocky Ford.  “Well” would mean finding them quickly as the trip back to rocky Ford would add an hour or more.  There was lots of grain on the ground at Withrow and many hundreds of Horned Larks were taking advantage of it.  They were very skittish, but I looked hard and saw neither Snow Buntings nor Longspurs.  And definitely no Gray Partridge.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark (2) Horned LArk Flight

I made the executive decision that I would be able to find a Sora somewhere later this year – even though I will be out of state for the better part of at least two months – and headed towards home.

With little traffic, I got to the Stevens Pass Ski area a little after noon and found a great parking spot.  I looked out of place with camera and bins as everyone else had skis or snowboards and there were hundreds of folks having a great time.  A bit windy but clear.  I figured there would be lots of folks eating and the Jays would be coming in begging for food.  But the strange day continued.  A single Raven greeted me at the parking lot.  I think it was munching on a Cheeto.  Was this a good sign?

Raven

Junk Food Raven

It was the only bird I saw.  I was shocked not to find “Camp Robbers” getting free food.  Strange.  But there was a happy ending.  I got in my car and drove around to check all of the other parking lots.  Several skiers were having tailgate lunches at their cars.  One offered me a hot dog – I would have preferred chips as bait for a Canada Jay.  As I turned back onto Highway 2 to leave, a single bird flew overhead.  Not blue, gray.  Not a Stellar’s Jay – which are also there, but a single Canada Jay.  Amen!!

Traffic on Highway 2 was less bad than usual – until the awful miles between Gold Bar and Monroe and I was home before the bad traffic for the day on I-405.  A visit to this part of our State is always a highlight of the year for both birds and scenery.  All of the snow this year certainly added to the latter and I am unsure of its impact on the former.  I did not keep a running account of all species seen and my Ebird reports were not complete – in part due to the absence of cell coverage in most of the area.

In addition to the birds mentioned earlier, I also had many American Kestrels, a Peregrine Falcon, several Rough Legged Hawks and some of these and some of those.  Altogether at most 65 species of which 16 were new for the year.  Many nice specialty birds but many missed possibilities as well including Great Horned, Northern Pygmy, Long Eared and Great Gray Owls, Sora, American 3 Toed Woodpecker, Bohemian Waxwing, Ruffed and Greater Sage Grouse, Northern Goshawk, Gyrfalcon and Evening Grosbeak.  It is a great area!!  See you again next year…

 

Life after Snow – Some Good Old Washington Birding

Following a week in Hawaii the week of record snow in Washington had me going stir crazy.  I so notified some birding friends and told them the remedy was heading off to the Coast for the first time in 2019.  Anyone else interested?  Frank Caruso needed some relief as well, and he joined me for some “good old Washington birding” on February 17.

With all of the snow the past week weather has certainly been constantly on our minds and it was interesting to process the weather data as we traveled first south and then west.  Still lots of snow on the ground in Edmonds, less and less as we traveled south until we got near Olympia where it picked up again and increased significantly for the first 20 miles or so heading west when it then again decreased and then disappeared.  However, the fog stayed with us most of the way and we wondered if we would be able to see any birds at all.

My Edmonds Snow at its Peak

Edmonds Snow

When going to the Coast, the first decision is generally whether to go towards the Ocean Shores area or to the Westport area.  Often I go first towards Ocean Shores stopping at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Ponds and then make the decision to continue West or to backtrack and head south to the Westport area.  Many times that decision is determined by the tide schedule since heading towards Westport often includes a stop at Bottle Beach where it is best to arrive at least 2.5 hours before high tide.  The night before I had mistakenly misread the tide tables and thought high tide was around noon.  Nope it was around 10.  If we forgot about the STP we could get to Bottle Beach maybe 2 hours before high tide – let’s go.  Second mistake, we did not realize just how high high tide was going to be.  The good news was that as we headed south, the fog cleared entirely and it was gorgeous sunshine.  We actually remembered what the sun looked like.

We parked, hiked to the beach and found the waves crashing on the shore with essentially no beach and definitely no birds.  It was still 2 hours before high tide and it was the highest either of us had ever seen it there.  Uh-oh.  Back to the parking area and now we were committed to head towards Westport.  The plan was to hit the beach entrance at Bonge Avenue to see if we could find some shorebirds there before the tide got even worse and then head further south to Tokeland.  Our tide woes continued.  There was essentially no beach here either – and no birds.  Pretty though if you liked heavy surf.

Waves

Now we wondered if we would find any uncovered beach or rocks at Tokeland.  Tokeland is THE go to spot to find Willets in Washington.  What started some years ago as more like one or two in the spring and later has now become up to a dozen or more all year long.  Before hitting the turnoff to Tokeland we passed North Cove where there are “always” lots of gulls – often many hundreds.  More super high water and not a single gull.  And when we got to the Tokeland Marina there was no mud at all and the rocks on the small islands were mostly covered by water and birdless.  BUT the good news was that looking back from the marina dock we found a group of 8 Willets in the grass just below the new Nelson Crab building.  A new year bird for both of us.  Later we went to the boat launch to improve our view and the original flock had been joined by 9 others.  I think 17 may be the most I have seen there.  Willets are pretty drab until they fly and flash that fabulous black and white wing pattern.

Willet Photos – Tokeland Marina

Willet2

Willets1

Willet Wings2

At Tokeland we also found some FOY Western Gulls, Western Grebes, Common and Pacific Loons among other birds – 24 species in all.  The high tide probably deprived us of some other shorebird species, but the Willets and sunshine certainly had us feeling better.  We headed back north with a stop at Graveyard Spit on Fisher Avenue.  Much of the birdy habitat was covered, but pretty far out there was some sand and mud and here we found some birds – hundreds of Dunlin and many Sanderlings (first of year for both of us).  We also had 2 surprising Common Mergansers and finally lots of gulls.

We continued north and again tried access to the beach – this time off Grayland Avenue.  It was immediately clear that it pays to attend to the coastline geography as unlike before there was open beach and we could drive some of it.  No go heading south to look for Snowy Plovers – one of our hoped for prizes for the day – and there were lots of people out along most of the way, so that may have made that quest impossible anyway.  We immediately found a small group of 4 shorebirds along one of the pools even before getting to the open beach.  Their yellow legs gleamed brightly in the sun – my first Least Sandpipers of the year.  My barely ID quality photo is purposefully omitted to avoid embarrassment.

We spotted a large flock of shorebirds and headed off towards them but they all took flight.  A moment later, we knew why.  A gorgeous and extremely dark backed Peregrine Falcon landed not far ahead of us.  I grabbed a photo and repositioned the car so Frank could get one as well.  His camera makes a sound as it turns back on and it sure seemed that the Falcon heard it and took flight immediately

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

We caught up with the flock and found it to be primarily Dunlin with many fewer Sanderlings.  This experience was repeated several times with a few other flocks.  Completely absent were any “Peeps”, larger shorebirds or Plovers.  We had expected to find some Semipalmated Plovers and maybe some Western Sandpipers – no go.

Sanderling

Sanderling

We continued north, and with the now receding but still high tide, we made it back to Bonge Avenue and left the beach.  Now to Westport hoping that maybe we could find some “Rockpipers” along the rocks – especially a Rock Sandpiper.  This was one of my key “targets” for the trip as it is a winter bird and will leave in the not too distant future.  They are never a sure thing and I have generally had my best luck at the Point Brown jetty at Ocean Shores, but that would not be an option this day.  As it turned out the water was so high and the waves so hard that we found no birds on the rocks at all and probably would not have at Point Brown either.

We were, however, able to get a view of part of what now seems to be a permanent flock of Marbled Godwits at one of the floating docks near the Coast Guard station.  Around 100 birds.  In the summer the flock in the Westport Marina can number well over 500 and for the past several years has often included a Bar Tailed Godwit.  These birds often feed at Bottle Beach and were one of our hoped for species there, so this finding somewhat made up for that earlier disappointment.

Marbled Godwits

Marbled Godwits

This stop also gave us great views of several Western Gulls.  So many of the gulls seen in our area are Western Gull/Glaucous Gull hybrids that we call “Olympic Gulls” that making an ID can be challenging.  We felt pretty good with these and their darker mantles, clear white heads and striking black wing tips.

Western Gull

Western Gull

We also had much closer looks at some Western Grebes than we had at Tokeland.  I had seen some in the distance and rain at Semiahmoo so was glad for the view and photo op here.

Western Grebe

Western Grebe

The day had certainly not gone as planned but we had done ok and were truly enjoying the sunshine.  It was just after noon and we decided to reverse course and leave Westport.  Even though the tide had receded it was still very high so we elected not to stop again at Bottle Beach and headed to the Hoquiam STP.  If only it were possible to get there without going through Aberdeen and Hoquiam.  Not the case.  Pretty depressing. Water was high at the STP and again not a single shorebird but we had lots of ducks – 9 different species and also added Pied Billed Grebe to our day list.  It’s one of those stops that often disappoints but can also have wonderful birds.  It was approaching 2:00 p.m.  In our original planning we thought about a stop in Tacoma to look for the Hermit Warbler that has been seen regularly at the University of Puget Sound Campus.  We concluded that by the time we got there, it was not very likely that the bird would be active, so we opted for a stop at the Nisqually Refuge instead.

We know it is a popular place and it was a Sunday, but we had never seen it so crowded.  Maybe everyone else was stir crazy from the snow as well.  We found a single parking spot and then first checked the pond near the headquarters hoping for an American Bittern.  No Bittern and not much else.  We heard some American Wigeon off in the distance (surprisingly our first of the day) and also added a Ring Necked Duck to our day list.  We moved on to a second pond and almost immediately saw a stalking Great Blue Heron lunge for some prey.  Zap!!!  Success – and it had a large frog for a prize.  I caught much of the action in photos as did many others (it was a busy day).  We watched for some time as it positioned the frog for the swallow but we left before it actually did so.  On other occasions I have watched Great Blue Herons catch fish that I thought were much too large to be swallowed but after many moments when it had positioned it just right, down it went.  This frog was still very much alive and wiggling so I expect it would have been a while.

Great Blue Heron with Frog

GBH with Frog Best

GBH with Frog1

We walked the boardwalk trail and picked up some new passerines for the day but it seemed pretty quiet.  Even more to my ears compared to Frank’s which are famous for their range and processing prowess.  We finally found our first  Black Capped Chickadees for the day and our only Wren – a Pacific Wren.  Several Yellow Rumped Warblers were fly catching from branches over the water.  Pretty easy to see how the species gets its name from one of my photos.

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Time to go.  No Great Horned Owl this time and no American Bittern, but the Great Blue Heron/Frog battle was a reminder of how there is always something engaging and rewarding by just getting out.  I dropped Frank off at his home and made a quick stop at the Edmonds Waterfront in failing light adding a couple of species for the day but failing to get a photo of the Eared Grebe that continues to be seen there.

Fortunately the end of Snowmaggedon gave us a break to do some birding.   There had been some misses and no real rarities for the day.  We had not tried at all to maximize species and in fact had lost many opportunities because of the high tides and impact on timing if nothing else.  Yet, including some species heard only by those Caruso ears, we had about 70 species for the day.  I have worked hard recently in a number of States – but with lots of local help – to get my 50 species in a day in those unfamiliar places as part of my 50/50/50 adventure.  This day was a reminder of how bird rich we are in Washington and how knowing one’s turf sure makes it a lot easier.  It was also a reminder to check tide tables and that there is life after snow!!

 

 

 

The Big Day on the Big Island

Logistics, logistics, research, research, planning and more planning are all critical and to me are enjoyable parts of each of my 50 species in a day quests for each state.  I need to know not only which species are possible and where to find them but also how to best plan a route that allocates the right amount of time in each place that I have to stop to find the different species that I need.  In many states that is simply a matter of picking some terrific Ebird Hotspot or two and then covering them sufficiently to get the count.  Especially with the shorter days of winter which means less time for birding, travel time and distances between areas are critical considerations.  Efficiency is essential.  For the most part Hawaii does not have hotspots where with diligence and maybe without even any luck 30 or 40 or maybe even 50 species at a single location are possible.  There would be some some spots where 20 or more species might be found, but they would most likely be many of the same species to be found at another good spot.

Accordingly, adding one or two birds here and there in multiple places to get to 50 species for the day would be necessary.  And the more stops that were necessary the more critical efficiency becomes.  Knowing which spots to visit and then exactly where to go within each spot can save 10 to 30 minutes at each of the multiple places.  That adds up especially when the locations are distant.  I am not a good birder by ear but with the help of various apps I can at least confirm the ID of a song or call that I might hear.  In Hawaii, I would know none of the calls and had no app to use to help.  Finally there are just not that many species in Hawaii, period.  For all of these reasons, I decided that this was a state where professional assistance was necessary.  Furthermore this would be the best way to get a really local perspective and an education on the culture and natural history of the area.  I was able to arrange a full day of birding with Lance Tanino and it worked out very well.

My Guide – Lance Tanino

Lance Tanino

In many ways this was a new kind of experience for me.  Not only was I unfamiliar with the area and the birds, I was also going to be relying entirely on the logistics of my guide to choose places, timing and route.  Lance had himself done a couple of Big Days which gave me a lot of confidence but they had been later in the year when the birds were somewhat different and the days longer.  In a preliminary phone conversation he suggested a long route that would have us birding in many areas all over the Island … if there was time.  I did not recognize it then, but a key spot was to be the Aimakapa Ponds that I had visited in the afternoon the day before the Big Day after flying in from Maui.  As described in my previous blog post, I had excellent birding there with 23 species including some rarities. [The Day Before and the Day After the “Big Day” in Hawaii – https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/21687%5D

As with other states in my 50/50/50 adventure, getting to 50 was the most important factor but hopefully that would include some species of special appeal which in Hawaii definitely meant some of the endemic native species.  They are only found in native forests – primarily at small preserves at altitude on Mauna Kea or at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  The number of species is relatively low and the time spent finding them – including possibly long hikes can be significant.  Balancing interests, I made the executive decision that getting some of those species was very important and that if necessary I could stretch the rules a little bit and include that hour of birding at Aimakapa the previous day on the species list for the Big Day – and then I would not count any birds seen during that same hour on the Big Day.  That hour could be used for travel or lunch but no birds … again if necessary, which I hoped it would not be.  This gave some security in case it took a long while to see the native birds and we would not have to get to Aimakapa Ponds on the Big Day which was to have been an important but time consuming stop.  Lance modified the plan accordingly and we would start the Big Day at 7:00 a.m. the next morning beginning at the same Ulu La’au Waimea Natural Area that I had birded late the previous day.

Our Big Day Route

Map

At Ulu La’au, It was immediately obvious that having a great guide would make a huge difference as Lance had great ears and quickly identified many calls and songs that I had missed the day before or heard but could not identify in any event.  We had all of the species I had seen the previous day except for Common Waxbills and African Silverbills, but also added four gallinaceous birds – Black, Gray and Erckel’s Francolins and Kalij Pheasant – plus Northern Mockingbird, Saffron Finch, House Finch and Japanese Bush Warbler.  The Black and Gray Francolins and the Bush Warbler were heard only.  Lance had asked if “heard only’ species would count.  My response was “yes” but only if I heard them and if with his instruction I could then on my own identify the calls.  Fortunately the calls were distinctive and repeated enough to qualify.  The one bird we missed that Lance expected “for sure” was the Red Billed Leiothorix.  As reported in my previous blog post, I was able to find them in this location the next morning.

Waimea Natural Area – Ulu La’au

Scene

Erckel’s Francolin

Erckel's Francolin

Kalij Pheasant – Male and Female

Kalij Pheasant Male

Kalij Pheasant Female1

The most numerous birds were both Spotted and Zebra Doves and Northern Cardinals which were calling almost constantly while we were there.  The Cardinals and Mockingbird seemed so out of place.

Zebra Dove

Zebra Dove 2r

Northern Cardinal Female

Northern Cardinal Female

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird 1

Saffron Finch

Saffron Finch1r

We left around 8:30 a.m. with a list of 20 species – an excellent start.  Next we headed Southeast to open country along Saddle Road (Highway 200 after leaving Highway 190).  We found more Gray Francolins along the way to an open area that was good for Eurasian Skylarks and hopefully a Short Eared Owl.  At first Skylarks were heard with their distinctive calls high above us.  Then we had several fly closer and land on the ground not too far away, grazing and then taking off again.  Counting the ones seen here and then at several other spots later, there may have been two dozen – more than I have seen during my entire life.  We also at first heard the “clucking” calls of a Ring Necked Pheasant and then had a distant visual.  Later one came very close behind a fence separating us from one of the fields with some of the Skylarks.

Gray Francolin

Gray Francolin

Eurasian Skylark

Eurasian Skylark3

Ring Necked Pheasant

Ring Necked Pheasant

It took longer than expected but we finally saw first one and then a second Short Eared Owl hunting low over the field maybe 250 yards out.  We also had two Hawaiian Geese fly by in the distance.  Each species mattered for the count of course.  We continued our  drive climbing onto the lower slopes of Mauna Kea and had a very close flyby of another Short Eared Owl.  Unfortunately there was no opportunity to pull off the road for a photo.  We watched the fields hoping for some Chukars and were shortly rewarded with a feeding group of more than a dozen.

Chukar

Chukar

All of the game birds on the Hawaiian Islands have been introduced for hunting.  Some are restocked on a continuing basis but the populations are self sustaining.  The only game bird we missed were California Quail.  We searched for them along the road and also at the Pohakuloa Cabins (formerly Mauna Kea State Park).  At the cabins, we found the first of our native Hawaiian species, though, a calling and then flying Hawaiian Amakihi.  Missing the Quail and the Leiothorix earlier put us two down for the day.

Hawaiian Amakihi (This photo is by Grace Oliver another Seattle area birder from her trip in 2014)

Hawaii-Amakihi Grace Oliver

There was one confusing stop/nonstop.  We had started up the Palila Discovery Trail – the best place to find the endemic Palila with a chance for other native species.  Four wheel drive is required as is a permit.  My jeep was 4 wheel drive but this was misunderstood and it was not clear if Lance had the necessary permit.  When we saw a government vehicle not far up the road, we turned back.  Another miss…

Palila (Internet Photo)

Palila

We continued along the highway until we reached our only true native forest area at an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Kaulana Manu Nature Trail .  It is what is known as a “kipuka” – in this case Kipuka 21.  A kipuka is a forest pocket spared from lava flows. There are only remnants of what used to be an extensive native forest full of native birds.  Today they are found only on the slopes of the high volcanoes.  Thousands of acres have been destroyed by lava flows and from grazing by feral goats and cattle and clearing by ranchers.  As we hiked into the thick forest, Lance identified one native plant after another – dozens of them.  Many were flowering or with seeds – the reason that the birds survive.

Most prolific of the native honeycreepers,  were the Apapane – brilliant red with black wings and bright white under tail.  Usually buried in the thick foliage, one posed in the open for several moments.  Harder to find, harder to see and much harder to photograph was the I’iwi with its extremely decurved bill.

Apapane

Apapane4

Apapane2

I’iwi

Iiwi1

Iiwi2

Another native bird we found was the Oma’o or Hawai’i Thrush.  Unfortunately the trail was so narrow that I could not get past Lance for a photo without flushing it.  I settled for great looks of one and heard calls from many others.

Oma’o or Hawai’i Thrush – Another Photo by Grace Oliver

Omao

Lance’s keen ears picked out the chattering call of the Hawai’i Elepaio.  I had a two second look of the bird buried in foliage above me and then it flew across the narrow trail into even thicker brush past Lance.  The only ID marks I could make out were a brownish color and a cocked tail – wren-like.  The photo is from a blog by Pedro Lourenço.

Hawai’i Elepaio

Elepaio

Lance motioned to come quick.  Soaring above us was a Hawaiian Hawk.  Another endemic, it was a species that I had not expected to see.  It circled in brilliant light for several moments and then disappeared.  Lance said that most people found it reminiscent of a Broad Winged Hawk, a similarly sized buteo.  Although it quickly disappeared we were very happy with the observation.  Several minutes later as we continued through the forest, we heard a crashing noise in the trees and then the Hawk flew right past us and perched in a snag overhead.  This was probably the highlight of the day for me.

Hawaiian Hawk

Hawaiian Hawk Flight

Hawaiian Hawk1

We commemorated the moment with a photo of me (with new beard) in the native forest – definitely the oldest bird of the day!!!  When we left the forest, our species count was at 33 species.  There was work to do and we headed east towards Hilo for waterfowl and other lowland species.

Native Forestr

At Lokowaka Pond, we had the best bird of the day for Lance as we located a Cinnamon Teal that had previously been seen at the next pond we would visit but had been missed on several tries by Lance.  We also added Mallard, Black Crowned Night Heron, Hawaiian Coot and Lesser Scaup.  As is still the case for Mexican Ducks, the “Hawaiian Ducks” we found are considered subspecies of  Mallard and are not countable.  There were also more than 100 Cattle Egrets.

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

“Hawaiian Duck” – Koloa

Hawaiian Duck1

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets

Our next stop was Wailoa River SP — Waiakea Pond, a much larger area with lots of waterfowl including Canada Geese, Hawaiian Geese, a very hard to find Greater White Fronted Goose, Muscovy Duck, Mallards and 3 Ring Necked Ducks.  Lance also located a single Wandering Tattler.  We searched unsuccessfully for the Pied Billed Grebe that had been seen there regularly and we also failed to find a couple of other duck species that were possibilities.  However, the new waterfowl at both ponds brought our species count to 43.  I knew that there were 6 species “in reserve” from the previous day’s visit to the Aimakapa ponds. So one way or the other, I was now relaxed that the magic 50 would be reached – but hopefully with new species ahead for this day.

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy Duck

Ring Necked Duck

Ring Necked Duck

Greater White Fronted Goose

Greater White Fronted Goose

We headed off to areas along the coast north of Hilo looking for small finch like or grass birds to add to our count for the day.  Chief among our targets were Chestnut Munias and Red Avadavats.  We failed to find the Chestnut Munias but were successful in finding a few Red Avadavats which due to its mix of colors and marking became one of my favorite birds for the day and the trip as a whole.  We also had many Saffron Finches, Common Waxbills, Yellow Fronted Canaries, House Finches and Scaly Breasted Munias.  Many of these birds eat the seeds of Guinea Grass (among others) and we found these grasses in many areas, but often the grasses had no seeds having been already stripped bare and it was fascinating to see how in these cases there were no birds while in areas where the seeds remained, there were often many.

Yellow Fronted Canary

Yellow Fronted Canary1

Scaly Breasted Munia on Guinea Grass (with seeds)

Scaly Breasted Munia 1

Common Waxbills

Common Waxbill1

Red Avadavats

Red Avadavat1r red-avadavat-3.jpg

Red Avadavat Front

We also did some ocean scans looking for any marine birds, but just as my experience had been throughout my week long visit, no birds were seen.  The Avadavats were the only new species added and it was beginning to look like I would have to add the Aimakapa birds to get to 50.  But Lance had other ideas and we headed back west towards Waikoloa.

Along the Waikoloa Road just before getting to Waikoloa Village we saw first some Gray Francolins and then later two Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse.  The latter was one of the species that I most hoped to find and photograph.  Unfortunately they were on the passenger’s side of the road and as I pulled over and tried to position myself for a photo, a truck came by and off they flew.  Lance thought there would be a good chance for more and we did revisit the road later, but we never found another one.  I include a photo that I sure wish was mine.  It is by Michael Weaver from a tour in the same area last October.

Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse

Sandgrouse

Another species that was very high on my list was the Bristle Thighed Curlew.  They can be found, with luck, in breeding season in Nome, Alaska and in winter they are on some islands in the South Pacific – 4,000 miles away – a long over water migratory flight.  The bottom line is that we did not find any at the Francis Brown golf course where they normally hang out.  Fortunately I did return and find one there and get a photo the next day, but they would not be on the Big Day list.  A consolation prize however was a visual of a Mourning Dove.  We had heard one earlier but this observation made it a definite add to the day list.  We also had a small flock of Ruddy Turnstones on the course.  I had missed the one that Lance had seen earlier so this was a major add.  I want to add that Pacific Golden Plovers were found at many of our birding stops.  On this one hole at the golf course we had more than a dozen.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone Maunu Lani1

Pacific Golden Plovers

Stacked Golden Plovers

The Sandgrouse, Mourning Dove and Ruddy Turnstone brought us to 48 species.  How wonderful it would have been to have had one of our misses and then have the Bristle Thighed Curlew for #50, but we were now oh so close and Lance had a guaranteed new species up his sleeve – Rosy Faced Lovebirds at the Waikoloa Village Shopping Center.  Sure enough, a flock of more than a dozen were waiting for us there.  We now needed just one more.

Rosy Faced Lovebirds

Rosy Faced Lovebirds1

Recall that at the beginning of the day, we had missed African Silverbills at the Ulu La’au Nature park in Waimea.  They had been expected.  Lance knew another spot that was good for them an also could have Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse – the Skate Park at Waikoloa Village.  Hopes lessened when we got there and saw that there were people at the Skate Park and at both upper and lower fields.  So no Francolins and no Sandgrouse, but there was a small wet spot next to some brushy trees and we could see lots of activity as birds came down to the wet area to drink.  On branches just above the wet area, there were two groups of little brown grey birds – African Silverbills.  Drum roll please – we had seen 50 species in one very fine Big Day.

African Silverbills

African Silverbill Lineup1

African Silverbills1

In my other 50/50/50 quests there have been two other times when I wondered if I would reach the goal.  In each case I did and then shortly after found additional species to bolster the list.  This would be the case again this day.  We returned to Waikoloa Road for one last chance to find a Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse.  No such luck but our consolation prize was a flock of 13 Wild Turkeys.  They had been another miss earlier and now provided one last species for the day.

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

When I first considered a Big Day in Hawaii, I thought it possible but by no means guaranteed.  I was aware of two Hawaii Big Days with more than 50 species but each had included a number of marine species and all had included good birds at the Aimakapa Ponds and a Wastewater Treatment plant.  They had also been done by local birders (including by Lance Tanino).  With the benefit of hindsight I think with LOTS of research and LOTS of luck I may have found 50 species without hiring a local guide – but it would have been unlikely.  I recently learned that the son of a birder I know here in Washington is a serious birder on the Big Island.  Maybe I could have made it with his help.  But I am extremely pleased with the decision to bird with Lance.  Not only was he an expert at identifying all of the birds including by sound only, he was also great company and a deep resource for all of the history – natural and cultural for the Island – an important part of my 50 state adventure.

There had been a couple of surprise or improbable birds during our trip, but there had also been a number of misses and as I said – no marine birds whatsoever.  We had also not visited the Aimakapa Ponds or the  Wastewater Treatment Plant.  With some luck and the longer days later in the year, I think it would be possible to have a 60+ or maybe even a 70 species Big Day but 70 would be incredible.  I was thrilled with my 50 species.  At the Aimakapa Ponds the day before I had 5 species not found on this day and the following morning when I revisited first Ulu La’au and then the Francis Brown South Golf Course, I had both the Red Billed Leiothorix and then the Bristle Thighed Curlew.  They were great adds to my great Big Day.  The weather had been perfect on my Big Day  – and there was no certainty that it would be, as rain is frequent.  In fact just upslope from the city of Hilo, annual rainfall can be an incredible 300 inches!! I returned to 5 days of snow in Washington and then Hawaii also had some brutal weather with high winds and even some snow at the higher elevations.  I had been lucky.

I hope to return to this beautiful place someday and spend more time in the remnant forests looking for and hopefully getting my own photos of more of the endemic birds.  For now Hawaii is state number 25 finished for my 50/50/50 project.  I am halfway there and have a very busy spring, summer and fall ahead of me.  I just may make it to the finish line.

Map of completed states

The Day Before and the Day After the “Big Day” in Hawaii

The main reason for the trip to Hawaii was to spend time with my Grandson, Daughter, Son-in-Law and Sister in Maui.  Knowing I was going to be there, I planned a try to get my 25th state of 50 species in a single day.  Research suggested that it would be a challenge and the best way to do it would be to go with a guide on the Big Island of Hawaii.  After 4 fun days in Maui which included only some incidental birding, we were all heading off to different destinations.  My sister was going back to Seattle.  Grandson and parents were off to Honolulu where mom and dad were attending a medical conference, and I would be off to the Big Island.

Our flights were all scheduled for different times so my sister and I had a couple of hours to kill.  Top priority was to return to the Cowboy Town of Makawao where we remembered fabulous donuts from a visit 35 years ago.  The Komoda Store and Bakery was still in business – going on 104 years and the donuts were even better than remembered.  [Being snowed in in Edmonds today for who knows how long with Snowpocalypse 2019, a dozen or two of those donuts would be very welcomed!!]  Truly the best donuts anywhere…

Donuts…Yum!!

Komoda Store

Donuts

The Kanaha Pond is a great birding spot very close to the airport in Maui.  We had been there once before and returned for a last look before returning the rental car.  It is best known as a preserve for the Hawaiian Stilt – an endemic race of the Black Necked Stilt but is also a good place for the Hawaiian Coot and other birds.  The Hawaiian Stilt or Ae’o is readily identified by the extensive black on the side of the neck and face compared to our mainland version.  Many of the birds at the preserve are approachable and photo friendly.

Hawaiian Stilt — Ae’o

Hawaiian Stilt Head

Hawaian Stilt Flight

Also numerous and approachable are the Black Crowned Night Herons (Auk’u) and  Hawaiian Goose (Nene).  The latter were near extinction in 1951 due to predation by Mongoose and feral cats when a captive breeding program was started that has been very successful and the geese are now found in their original open country habitats as well as in city parks.

Black Crowned Night Heron (Auk’u)

Black Crowned Night Heron

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Nene Kanaha

There had been no intensive birding on Maui and I did not even visit birding hotspots and thus had only 22 species for the whole time there.  One of the most striking was the Red Crested or Brazilian Cardinal.  I saw one on this last day in Maui, but the much better photo is from the previous day at the I’ao Needle Monument.

Red Crested or Brazilian Cardinal

Red Crested Cardinal

Then it was back to the airport to drop off the rental car and catch my flight to the Big Island.  I think there was more time taxiing, ascending and descending than in level flight.  I arrived on Hawaii around 12:30 and by 1:00 p.m. I was on my way to Aimakapa Pond only about 5 miles south of the airport.  I had seen great reports from this Hotspot during my preliminary research and it was a planned stop on the actual Big Day on Thursday, but I wanted to test the waters so to speak.  It was a fabulous place.

In just over an hour at the Pond much of which was spent walking out from the visitor parking area, I had 23 species including four that were considered rare by Ebird.  Although much of the area is birdless black lava, there was some brush and there was both saltwater beach and the fresh or brackish water pond.  One of the rarities was a Black Bellied Plover that had been seen often but was still a lucky find.  It was one of 5 shorebird species there – a lot for Hawaii.  Others were Pacific Golden Plovers (which are abundant throughout the islands), Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone and Wandering Tattler.  Most of the birds were not people shy and the great light helped with photography.

Black Bellied Plover

Black Bellied Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

Sanderling

Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone1

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler

On the way out to the Pond I found my first Yellow Billed Cardinal.  It looked very much like a crestless Red Crested Cardinal but the yellow bill certainly jumps out and the red extends down onto the top of the chest on the latter which is black on this little beauty.

Yellow Billed Cardinal

Yellow Billed Cardinal1

Green Sea Turtles rest on the lava outcroppings at the ocean beach and are protected there.  They were the main attraction for the other visitors and hard to pass up for observation and photos for me as well.  One had been a highlight for my daughter when we snorkeled in Maui.  I had missed that one.  At one point the Wandering Tattler foraged within a foot or two of one of the turtles.  It moved on before I could get a picture.

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle

As I was scanning the pond looking for ducks – rare in Hawaii – a pair of large birds flew by.  One landed and the other continued on.  These were the second of my rarities for the visit, a pair of White Faced Ibis.

White Faced Ibis

White Faced Ibis Flyiover1

White Faced Ibis1

I managed to find a Northern Shoveler and some Lesser Scaup but did not find the American Wigeon that had been reported off and on recently.  There were no Stilts but there were several Hawaiian Coots and a third rarity was a Laughing Gull that was resting in the shade.  This would be the only gull that I saw on my entire trip.  I read a comment somewhere that visitors are always surprised to not find gulls with all the water around, but the reality is that most gulls are found on or near large land masses and not islands far out at sea.

Hawaiian Coot

Hawaiian Coot

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull1

No pictures, but another common bird here and throughout the trip was the Cattle Egret.  When I first arrived on Maui and saw one in flight I mistook it for a Snowy Egret and then realized that they are not found on the Islands although often misreported by mainlanders like me.  Not nearly as common as the Cattle Egrets, Black Crowned Night Herons are seen often and there were both adults and juveniles at this location.

Black Crowned Night Herons

Black Crowned Night Heron  Black Crowned Night Heron Juvenile

On the way back to the parking area I found two new birds for the trip – Yellow Fronted Canary and Common Waxbill.  I would see both later that day and on the next days as well.  A photo of the Canary comes later but as poor as it is, this is the best I could do for the Waxbill.

Common Waxbill

Common Waxbill1

As I was trying to get a photo of the Waxbills, I heard a raucous call that sure sounded like a parrot or parakeet.  None had been reported at this location, so I was quite surprised when I easily found a parakeet on top of a snag.  It was shortly joined by another.  The only species that came up on the Ebird list was a Red Fronted Parrot and at first I mistakenly reported them as that.  They were Red Masked Parakeets – as in many parts of the Continental U.S. fairly numerous but not yet recognized as a sustaining species.

Red Masked Parakeets

Red Fronted Parrots

It was barely 2:30 and my lodging in Waimea was less than an hour north.  Now what?  Including ones from earlier in the day, I had seen 31 species.  I wondered if I knew the area better if it would be possible to get to my magic 50 species…but I did not know it better so abandoned that idea.  I considered a seawatch.  Instead I decided to get some lunch (oh yeah, I had forgotten that) and head to Waimea.  My guide for the big day tomorrow had suggested a good birding area very near where I would be staying in Waimea and so I headed north.

I checked into the somewhat inaptly named Waimea Country Lodge.  Definitely adequate but no “Hawaii” to it except for the Red Junglefowl constantly crowing.  This is the predecessor/progenitor species for all domestic chickens.  It was brought to the Islands by the Polynesians many centuries ago.  There a few wild ones in a couple of forest parks on Kauai.  All others are feral – similar to the situation in the Florida Keys.  They call throughout the day and start very early.

Red Junglefowl

red-jungle-fowl-domestic.jpg

I then went to the Ulu La’au (Waimea Nature Park) – or tried to.  My Google Maps GPS took me close by but on the wrong side of a small stream.  With some local help, I figured it out and arrived at a lovely preserved area with a good trail.  There were lots of birds and lots of bird song but I had no idea what I was listening to except for the frequent calls of Spotted Doves, Zebra Doves and Northern Cardinals.   I am sure I missed lots of birds, and added only Java Sparrow, African Silverbill and Scaly Breasted Munia for the day.  I also had a much better look at Yellow Fronted Canaries.

I had seen all but the Munia earlier on Maui.  There were hundreds if not thousands of doves everywhere there.  I still have not seen a Spotted Dove in the ABA area – having just missed one at a Los Angeles park last year.  They are very attractive as is the much smaller Zebra Dove which fooled me into thinking it was a Mourning Dove on many occasions.

Scaly Breasted Munia

Scaly Breasted Munia3

Spotted Dove

Spotted Dove 2

Java Sparrow

java-sparrow.jpg

Zebra Dove

Zebra Dove

Yellow Fronted Canary

Yellow Fronted Canary

At the end of the day I had seen 34 species.  Applying what I learned during the next two days, looking back now, I think it may have been possible to get an earlier flight from Maui and visit several other places to get 50 species in that day – but it would have been hard and the rarities I saw at Aimakapa Pond may have been missed.  In any even that would be the task the following day and will get covered in a separate blog post.  This one continues with the day after the Big Day – a short day before catching my flight back to Seattle in the afternoon.

During the Big Day, we started again at Ulu La’au Park and this time with expert eyes and ears and knowledge in the form of my guide, Lance Tanino, there had been many more species.  But we missed one that Lance thought was a given and that was high on my “wish list” – the Red Billed Leiothorix.  Proving that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, when I returned to the same trees where Lance had expected it the day before, I heard a scolding chatter call that I was pretty sure was my bird.  It was very low light and difficult to see the tiny and fast moving birds, but I got a good binocular look to confirm the ID and then as light improved I was finally able to get some nice photos.  A very cute little guy indeed.

Red Billed Leiothorix

red-billed-leiothorix1.jpg

Red Billed Leiothorix

I wondered if maybe I had seen one before in low light and confused it with the somewhat similar, much more common, and equally as quick moving Japanese White Eye.  There were many in the park and some in the adjacent trees. It is easy to see from the picture how it gets its name.

Japanese White Eye

Japanese White Eye in Cherry Tree

Finding the Leiothorix on my own was a highlight.  Feeling lucky, I thought I would go after another miss from the day before.  We had gone to the South Golf Course at the beautiful Maunu Lani Resort looking for a Bristle Thighed Curlew.  They nest in Nome and then fly 2400 miles nonstop to winter on South Pacific Islands.  They were regular at the golf course but eluded us.  We had seen MANY Pacific Golden Plovers and a number of Ruddy Turnstones.  I returned to the same exact spot and again saw many of those two shorebirds.  On my third scan of the area I saw a larger bird with a long decurved bill.  Reminiscent of the Whimbrels we see in the Northwest and possible but very rare in Hawaii, it was a single Bristle Thighed Curlew and I could even see the bristles on the “thighs”.  A highly magnified and very distant photo but I was thrilled to get it.

Bristle Thighed Curlew

Bristle Thighed Curlew

Now I was feeling very lucky indeed.  There was time for one more stop so I returned to an area near Waikoloa where we had seen Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse the previous day.  They had flown off before I could reposition the car for a photo and it was a big “want”.  No luck this time, so I went to the playfield at Paniolo another place where they had often been seen.  There are two fields.  On the lower field I saw 5 large birds that I thought might be the Sandgrouse.  Nope – all were Gray Francolin.  There were also a number of Eurasian Skylarks on the grass and flying and singing above the field.  Also in a wet spot where we had found Silverbills the day before there was a small flock of Rosy Faced Lovebirds and some Saffron Finches.

Eurasian Skylark

Eurasian Skylark 2

Rosy Faced Lovebirds

Rosy Faced Lovebird 2

I headed to the upper field and in the distance again saw birds that I thought could well be the Sandgrouse.  Unfortunately I arrived at the same time as a woman with her off leash dog.  The park is signed as not allowing any animals.  I later found out she knew that but could care less.  I also learned she voted for Trump.  Figures…  In any event the possible Sandgrouse flew off as soon as she arrived.  No photos…

It had been a great morning and a great trip  The weather had been fantastic with no rain on the Big Island at all even though it had been forecast.  I will leave totals for the blog post on the Big Day.  Somehow it seems fitting to end with a bird that was found everywhere on both Maui and Hawaii, was probably the most numerous species seen and was the last bird I saw as I returned the car to to airport – the Common Myna.  There are no Robins, or Starlings on the Islands and I think this species fills both of those niches to some degree.  This is the same species found and countable in South Florida.  They are loud and gregarious and very striking especially in flight with large white wing patches.  They truly were everywhere and now end this report.

Common Mynas

Common Mynas

 

Mahalo Hawaii!!!