Black Tailed Gull or Yellow Browed Warbler: A Chasing Dilemma

On Friday afternoon, October 18th, I saw a post on Tweeters that a Black Tailed Gull had been reported from Port Townsend, WA.  I had seen one on the log booms in Tacoma in 2011 but did not get a photo.  If I could find it and get a picture that would help with one of my goals – removing species from my ABA seen but not photographed list (there are 28 species on that list).  I have been helping Cindy after her knee replacement surgery but a trip to Port Townsend seemed manageable.  I planned to go on Saturday and sent emails to birding friends to see if they were interested.  Then things got complicated.

Good friend Melissa Hafting texted me that a Yellow Browed Warbler had been seen in Victoria, B.C.  Frankly I had no idea what a Yellow Browed Warbler was.  Quick research showed it to be one of the “Leaf Warblers”, tiny Eurasian Warblers.  This species had never been seen in Canada or in the Lower 48.  Western Hemisphere records were limited to 2 in remote Alaska and one in Mexico.  This was a Mega-rarity. But Victoria was a much more difficult and longer trip than to Port Townsend.  No doubt a better bird but also more of a gamble and a much longer absence from care giving duties.

Photo of the Yellow Browed Warbler from First Sighting – Geoffrey Newell

First YB WA

Nobody was able to join me to go to Port Townsend, but friends were interested in Victoria.  A plan came together quickly.  Carl Haynie would pick up John Puschock in North Seattle and they would pick up Ann Marie Wood in Mountlake Terrace.  They would drive to Vancouver and catch an early ferry on Saturday morning.  There was room for one more in the car.  Meanwhile Melissa was already headed to Victoria to be at Panama Flats first thing in the morning.

There are lots of reasons to cherish my relationship with Cindy.  One is that she understands the often seemingly crazy parts of chasing rare birds.  Another is that she is a pretty tough gal.  That has meant that her post surgery recovery has been a great success and also that she could do (actually overdo) without me even for a long day.  All I had to do now was get to Ann Marie’s by 4:00 a.m.  Sure let’s go!!

Not a whole lot of sleep but I was there before 4:00 a.m.  John and Carl were on time and we were off.  Three hours later we were on the Tsawwassen Ferry to Victoria.  With luck we would be looking for the bird by 8:40 a.m.  Just as we were arriving at the Ferry terminal, I got a text from Melissa.  She was looking at the Warbler!!  It was there!!  Amend the previous sentence.  With luck we would be looking AT the bird by 8:40 a.m.

Birders at the Scene

Crowd

I am going to skip a lot of details but what followed upon our arrival was an extended case of frustrating hide and seek.  There were at least 25 birders there many of whom who had already seen the Warbler and some who had almost seen it and others who were still trying to see it.  Two younger birders with truly keen eyes seemed to be constantly saying “there it is” and others were saying similar words with somewhat less regularity but the same conviction.  I tried to follow the directions of all of them but just could not see the bird.  Sadly this is not the first time I have found myself in a similar place as not only are my eyes not very keen but they are even worse at pulling a bird out of a detailed jumble of leaves and branches.  I am wretched at “Where’s Waldo” as proof of the problem.

The bird seemed to prefer the tops of the trees, constant activity never resting, and burying itself among and behind leaves of which there were still many.  The light was dreadful – gray skies, a few raindrops and the area was constantly backlit.  And it covered far more territory than I would have expected.  Friends Melissa and Ilya were most helpful in pointing me in the right direction, but I was not able to get a view that told me with any confidence that I had seen the target.  Not sure of the eye brow or of the two wingbars, but it was certainly a very small bird that I saw.  But was it the prize?  And then finally I could at least make out the eye brow.  And then it disappeared again.  And then another peek and maybe there were two wingbars.  And this continued for several peeks interspersed with those disappearing acts – never a good look but at least cumulatively finally I was certain I had seen it if not well.  A picture would confirm it, but trying to get it in the viewfinder of the camera was even harder than in the view of my binoculars.  But I tried…and tried and tried and tried.  And after literally one hundred attempts I did get THE Yellow Browed Warbler in my viewfinder.  And surprise, surprise I actually got a couple of photos and a bigger surprise, they were actually not horrible under the conditions at hand.

Yellow Browed Warbler

Yellow Browed Warbler Flight

Yellow Browed Warbler1

I continued to try for better views and photos without much success.  The poor views and viewing conditions made it a less exhilarating experience than some other successful chases but in no way decreased the sheer amazement of actually seeing a bird that I never expected I would see anywhere in the world let alone in the ABA Area.  More than 50 birders were there during our visit and many more were arriving as we left around 10:35.  The Warbler was last seen around 10:45 a.m. and despite the presence of many birders for the remainder of the day, it was not seen again on Saturday.  Was it gone?  Then it was seen again in the morning on Sunday and took a midday break before returning later that afternoon.  It was seen by many happy birders from all over Canada and the U.S. and even made it onto television in Vancouver.  It is now Monday morning.  I have friends who are trying for it today.  I hope they are successful.

Remember the Black Tailed Gull that started this post.  Many people searched for it on Saturday and it was not seen.  I guess I made the right choice.

Prairie States Wrap – Up – Nearing the End

This will not be real long, but having finished the blog posts for the states recently visited in the Midwest, I wanted to do a quick overview summary.  For starters maybe they should be “Prairie States” as opposed to the Midwest.  I hope nobody is offended with either choice.  In order visited the states are Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.  All at least had prairies but especially since I was only in the eastern parts of the Dakotas and Nebraska, I hardly had a taste of real prairie country.  I do hope to get back to do it right.

The Route

Fly in to Minneapolis.  Then Rochester, MN; Grand Forks, ND; Vermillion, SD; Sioux City, IO; Lincoln, NE; fly home from Omaha.

Prairie States Trip

Some numbers: 

These were states 43 through 47 in my 50 State journey/saga/adventure where I have endeavored to see 50 species on single days in each of our 50 states.  So far so good, as I saw that threshold number in each of these states as I have in each of the preceding 42.   I traveled more than 1500 miles by car during the 10 days.

The remaining 3 states are Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  If the bird gods cooperate, they will be added to the list later this year and the in the field part of the 50/50/50 Adventure will be completed.  Ahead will hopefully be a book sharing stories, experiences and insights gained along the way.  Also ahead will be some presentations to birding groups with at least a few invitations already in hand.  The purpose of all of this will be to inspire others to create and pursue their own adventures and to have their passions take them to special places with special people.

Along the way I have birded with individuals and groups in each of the states visited both on the actual “project days” and in days preceding or following.  Being with members of the local birding communities in each state has been an important part of this endeavor and has given me the greatest return on the time that I have invested.  I have not kept track of the exact number but know it has been more than 400 people.

The state with the most birds on a single day is Maryland – well over 100 – but since it is an exception to my normal rules, the records are fuzzy and inexact as it predates my Ebird records by almost 40 years.  The reason for this exception is that it was an extraordinary day of birding with the legendary Chandler Robbins, a co-author of my (and maybe your) first birding guide, Birds of North America.  I simply wanted that day to be part of my story.  Leaving out Maryland, the highest number was the 102 seen on May 25, 2019 with Mike Resch in New Hampshire.  The fewest seen were 51 on the Big Island in Hawaii on February 6, 2019 with Lance Tanino.

Altogether the cumulative numbers for species seen are 494 species for the 50 days in the 47 states (465 if Hawaii is excluded) and 660 species for the 47 states counting additional days birding on the same trips in those states (629 if Hawaii is excluded).

I have not kept track of miles traveled, motel beds slept in or dollars spent.  Those are significant numbers, too, but my lists are only of birds.

The 5 Prairie/Midwest States

Details and many photos are included in the blog posts for each individual state.  This summary overview picks just the top birds and a single favorite photo for each state and again thanks the birders that aided me so much.

For just the 5 Prairie/Midwest states, I saw 153 species.

     Minnesota

Birded with Craig Mandel and a fun group of birders.  66 species seen.  Best birds were the 10 warblers and 3 vireos.  Favorite photo was of a Magnolia Warbler.

          Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler2

     North Dakota

Birded with David Lambeth.  83 species seen.  Best birds were a Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk and a Red Headed Woodpecker.  Favorite photo was of the Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk.

        Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk

Krider's Takeoff

     South Dakota

Birded with David Swanson and Paul Roisen.  59 species seen.  Best birds were an Eastern Screech Owl and a Field Sparrow.  Favorite photo was of a White Breasted Nuthatch.

      White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch2

     Iowa

Birded with Paul Roisen and Bill Huser.  59 species seen.  Best birds were a Blue Grosbeak and a Lark Sparrow.  Favorite photo was of a Sedge Wren.

    Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren3

     Nebraska

Birded with Michael Willison and Knut Hansen.  91 species seen.  Best birds were a Sabine’s Gull, a Dickcissel and a Peregrine Falcon.  Favorite photo was of a Yellow Throated Vireo.

          Yellow Throated Vireo

Yellow Throated Vireo2

There were no new ABA Life birds nor any new ABA Life photos on the trip but the photos of the Sedge Wren and Yellow Throated Vireo were significantly better than others I have taken.  The birding itself was quite different than in most of the other states as the role played by lakes and surrounding areas was critical in each state.  I was continuously surprised to find little pockets of important diverse habitat in these lake areas and out among the seemingly endless fields of soy beans and corn.  To a greater or lesser degree in each state, the number of species seems larger than expected due in significant part to the presence of both eastern and western species.  This area is the easternmost range for many western birds and the westernmost range for many eastern species.

My appreciation of and thanks for the help from the extraordinary birders who were kind and generous enough to join me cannot be understated.  Great times in the company of great birders and great folks.  Many thanks.

 

Iowa – Really Good Help Really, Really Helps!

I have met so many wonderful people around the United States while trying for my fifty species in each of them.  And I have had tremendous help from many wonderful folks as well.  Some of that help has been organizational or logistical including planning, providing information and providing contacts, and some of the help has been in the field, accompanying me and helping me find and identify birds.  In Iowa, I had extraordinary help from a pretty awesome guy — Paul Roisen.

I think it is how Paul is all the time rather than a particular interest in my undertaking, but he jumped in with both feet and was critical in hooking me up with birding resources in North and South Dakota and essentially fully taking care of Iowa.  He joined me with Dave Swanson in South Dakota and then was my guide in Iowa having another great birder, Bill Huser join us in the morning.  Despite a later than most start, Paul has the number 2 Ebird list for Iowa.  He is also number 10 in neighboring Nebraska and oh yeah, also number 12 in South Dakota.  I have not researched it but believe he is near the top for a lot of counties in those states as well.  He does a LOT of birding!!  And just for the record, Bill Huser is no slouch being number 5 in North Dakota.  They were great company and superb birders.  I would have missed many species without them.

When we birded together in South Dakota, we decided to move our birding day up from the 19th to the 18th because Paul’s research suggested that there was a chance of bad weather on the 19th.  It worked perfectly.  When he met me at my motel in the Sioux City area in the morning, he was excited because he had already been out and had found a “special bird”.  We headed to Graceland Cemetery and went to “the spot”.  There they were – Red Crossbills – not a great rarity but not common and a great start for the day.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill Female

In the same area we first heard and then saw some Pine Siskins, another good species.  During our 45 minutes at the cemetery we had 15 species including numerous Chipping Sparrows and many Eastern Bluebirds.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

This was clearly a great start and Paul was pumped.  We then met Bill Huser at Bacon Creek Park.  We added a few species but it was much slower than expected.  One added species was a Red Bellied Woodpecker which has to be one of the most misnamed species as there is hardly a red belly.  It was species number 21 for the day.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker

For the next hour or so we birded non-specific habitats in the area and added species here and there including Wild Turkeys, Gray Catbird and a Hairy Woodpecker.  There was no doubt about the ID of the latter but there is some doubt whether the picture below is of the bird initially seen as there were Downy Woodpeckers in the area as well.  It can be challenging to distinguish between Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.  Usually the bill length is a key factor with that of the Downy being significantly smaller.  What do you think?

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker1

A flyover Cooper’s Hawk was our 30th species and it was only 10 a.m.  But there was definitely a feeling of things being slow – or as Paul and Bill called it, “as slow as we have ever seen it.”  At Stone State Park, we added Yellow Throated and Red Eyed Vireo and had a brief look at a Red Headed Woodpecker.  I was not able to get a photo of any and this was particularly disappointing for the Yellow Throated Vireo as my only photo of this species was very poor.  [Later I would get a great photo in Nebraska.]  Still slow though.  This is where local expertise is so valuable – knowing specific habitat areas and even some private areas where more species may be found.  It was a little like pulling teeth but mostly one at a time, we reached 40 species a bit after noon.

I was confident we would get to 50 but I could sense that Paul was unhappy about the slow day, but he was at least as committed as I was.  Bill had to leave soon so we would be on our own.  We visited some lakes and added a few new species at each including a Virginia Rail and surprisingly one of the only Song Sparrows I had on the entire 5 state trip – our 48th species for the day.

American White Pelicans at Sandhill Lake

White Pelicans

As a birding spot “Square 280th” does not sound like much but it proved an important stop for us as we had 16 species there including 6 new ones for the day getting us past the “magical 50” for the day.  We only had a single Sedge Wren but it was the most cooperative bird and I was able to get some very nice photos.  I had worked so hard to get my first photo of this guy last year in Alabama and it was not much of a picture.  These were very pleasing.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren2

Sedge Wren3

Eureka!! We had more than 50 species.  There were no more spots that were likely to produce tons of new species, but Paul had ideas of places to try.  We continued on with the plan being to try a few places as we worked back to my motel and an early conclusion enabling me to move on to Nebraska.  Paul took us to the Owego Wetland Complex where we had two surprises, an Eastern Kingbird and a Blue Grosbeak, both a little late.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Just as Paul noted surprise that we had not seen any Cedar Waxwings, he spied one near Elk Creek Pond, then another and another and eventually we had 40.  Immediately after that I saw a bird perched on a lone branch that turned out to be a very surprising Lark Sparrow.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow1

And then a bit down the road an Eastern Towhee flashed across the road.  I went for a photo and Paul went back to the car to get his camera.  The Towhee did not cooperate and we could not find it again.  It would be the last new species for the day – number 59.

So Paul had now played a direct role in my 50 species day in both South Dakota and his own Iowa as well as helping me getting together with Dave Lambeth in North Dakota.  Before writing this blog post, I asked Paul if it was ok to mention a very impressive part of his history.  His answer was yes.  I wanted to share that Paul had determined he needed to lose some weight for health reasons and completely changed his diet and with great personal strength, commitment and dedication, he lost and has kept off more than 40 pounds.  He looks great.  He brings that same dedication and commitment to his birding and is a large part of his success and was evident in our journey this day.  I was a beneficiary of it.

His approval of my request to share that information included the following:  “I am the birder I am due to the very many people who have given me of their time and knowledge.  I will never be able to repay all the help and friendship that has been extended to me.  It is only right to pass it on“.  This is exactly who Paul is and his words certainly apply to me and probably to all who read this blog.  We had succeeded in making Iowa state number 46 completed in my 50/50/50 Adventure.  I want to close by repeating and somewhat modifying part of Paul’s words:  We are the birders we are due to the very many people in our wonderful birding community who have given of their time and knowledge.  We are all fortunate and should all be grateful and should all pass it on…

Thank you Paul.

 

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun…Nebraska with Michael and Knut

Nebraska was to be the fifth and last Prairie State visited during what will hopefully be my penultimate trip as part of my 50/50/50 Adventure.  On my original schedule, I had planned to get to Lincoln, Nebraska on Friday evening, September 20th, bird in the area on the 21st finding 50+ species and flying home to Seattle from Omaha that evening. That was the day that friend Michael Willison was free and birding with him would not just be fun but would be the best way to assure success as he is a great birder and also knows the area intimately.  I have had great luck throughout my 50 state journey and this luck continued two fold in Nebraska.

Michael’s great birding buddy Knut Hansen was coming to Lincoln to bird with him and Michael was able to take off work on the 20th to bird with him.  Due to the earlier success in Iowa than originally planned, I was able to arrive in Nebraska on the night of the 19th and also be available to bird on the 20th.  It could not have worked out better.  Getting to the punchline before the story itself, I birded with both Michael and Knut on both the 20th and 21st and we were able to find more than 50 species each day.  It really was doubling the pleasure and doubling the fun as well as doubling the number of birds seeing more than 100 species combined  over the two days.  We had a great time.

Some more background.  Michael was a top birder in Washington before leaving in 2013.  A major feat was putting Eide Road on the map.  Living nearby in Stanwood, Michael birded the hotspot religiously and established it as one of the best shorebird spots in the State with other great birds as well.  It took him very little time to establish himself as a birding force in Nebraska and was the top Ebird birder there every year from 2013 through 2017 and ranks 4th all time.  He is also an Ebird reviewer for the state.  I first met Michael on our mad dash to see the Ross’s Gull that Charlie Wright had found at Palmer Lake in Washington on December 21, 2011.  Knut Hansen had been along on that trip as well.  I birded in Washington on numerous occasions that next year but Knut was piloting for Jet Blue and our paths did cross as much.

Ross’s Gull – Palmer Lake, Washington – December 21, 2011 (First birding with Michael and Knut)

Ross's Gull 2

Michael and Knut have birded together on many international trips and I listened with envy to many of their stories on the two days together.  All of that would have made for a great trip regardless of the birds seen in Nebraska, but I was there primarily to get my 50 species.  Knut was more interested in adding to his long list of birds photographed and Michael was serving as super guide to help each of us with our quests.  I could not have had better help nor better company and that says a lot as it is evident that I had great help, great company, great birds and a great time on each of the states visited on this trip – and that has generally been the case in each state I have visited during this entire adventure.  I am very fortunate.

Day 1 – September 20, 2019

There were thunderstorms with heavy rain on the night of the 19th but good weather greeted us as we began our birding on the 20th at an aptly named hotspot – the Marsh Wren Community Wetlands.  Really great habitat.  We circumnavigated the small lake giving us some good exercise and wonderful birds.  Appropriately we had a Marsh Wren joined by Sedge Wren and House Wren.  Carolina Wren has been seen there rarely but was not by us.  Now if a Winter Wren had been seen, that would have been even better as I need a photo of that one.

House Wren

Marsh Wren1

Sedge Wren (Left by me, right by Knut Hansen)

sedge-wren-1.jpg knuts-sedge-wren.jpg

I have included two photos of one of the Sedge Wrens to demonstrate that I am more of a picture taker than a photographer.  Mine on the left is “OK”.  The one on the right by Knut Hansen has the focus and settings “just right”.  Mine is a picture and his is a photograph.  Moving towards that is a project for next year.

All told we had 40 species at this very enjoyable stop.  One of my favorites there was a very cooperative Green Heron which we saw in the reeds at the marsh and perched on surrounding trees and in flight in between.  We also had a Great Blue Heron but no Egrets or Night Herons which were possibilities.

Green Heron

Green Heron Vertical

We really had a good mix of birds with 4 duck species, 2 gallinaceous species (Pheasant and Turkey), 4 shorebirds including the only Wilson’s Snipes of my trip, 3 swallows and 4 icterids.  The latter included both Eastern Meadowlarks (heard singing) and a few Yellowheaded Blackbirds.  There was also a single Dickcissel in with a flock of blackbirds.

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson's Snipe1

On the path back to our car we saw at least 2 Brown Thrashers playing hide and seek with us and each other.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

Unfortunately Knut and I missed a flyby Sora seen by Michael so I was “only” at 39 species for the 100 minutes that we spent covering 3 miles there.  This was clearly a great start and Michael was talking about the possibility of 100 species.  I was willing of course, but first we needed 11 more.   Six were quickly added on our way to and at the Whitehead Saline Wetland all supposed “gimmes”: Eurasian Collared Dove, Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, American Crow, Turkey Vulture and Great Tailed Grackle with the latter being the first for my trip.

Great Tailed Grackle

Great Tailed Grackle on SIgn

We also had a large flock of Brown Headed Cowbirds.  I had expected them to be common in all of these prairie states but found them only in two.

Brown Headed Cowbird

Brown Headed Cowbird

On our way to our next stop – Wilderness County Park – we passed a tower with a gathering of at least 150 Purple Martins.  I have seen other swallow groups like this but never Purple Martins – probably close to as many Martins as I have seen over the past 5 years.

Purple Martins

Purple Martins

At Wilderness County Park we had superb passerines, roaring past 50 species adding 16 new ones for the day.  New species were Chimney Swift, Sharp Shinned and Red Tailed Hawks, Red Bellied Woodpecker, Yellow Throated and Red Eyed Vireos, Black Capped Chickadee, White Breasted Nuthatch, Gray Catbird, Eastern Wood Pewee, Common Grackle, Yellow, Yellow Rumped and Wilson’s Warblers, Northern Cardinal and a surprising Indigo Bunting.  I cannot tell you which was number 50 but that milestone mattered only as meeting the specific “needs” of the 50/50/50 Adventure and it was clear that there was lots more great birding ahead.

I was particularly pleased to get good pictures of the Yellow Throated Vireo as my previous ones were pretty awful.  These were much better.  Getting a photo of the Red Eyed Vireo was nice as well.

Yellow Throated Vireo

yellow-throated-vireo2.jpg

Yellow Throated Vireo1

Red Eyed Vireo

Red Eyed Vireo1

We were now at 62 species for the day and it was not yet noon.  We had also added another mile plus of walking so I was feeling good about birds and exercise – feeling good about everything.  All of our birding would be in Lancaster County and there were still some really good lakes to visit.  Michael still had his sights set on 100 species for the day.  At Yankee Hill State WMA, we added Red Headed Woodpecker and American Kestrel and then at Conestoga Lake we added more species including a Spotted Sandpiper that Knut spied in flight and some Chipping Sparrows only our second Sparrow species for the day.  One of the Chippers had an odd deformed head but otherwise seemed healthy and active.

Chipping Sparrow with Deformity

Odd Chipping Sparrow

Now over 70 species, it was time for lunch.  On serious birding days, lunch is not a major undertaking – usually fast food, a sub and something liquid with a bathroom stop.  I cannot even remember where we stopped this day, but we did actually sit down to eat and then we were quickly back in action.

Our next visit was to Pawnee Lake State Recreation Area.  I had visited it the day before in sweltering heat and had a paltry 7 species in 35 minutes.  This visit was the same length in somewhat less heat and in fact with threatening skies.  We had twice as many species including some challenging ID’s between Forster’s and Common Terns – my first terns of my trip.  My photo shows both terns and a Ring Billed Gull – all new for the day.

Three New Birds – Common (left) and Forster’s (center) Terns and Ring Billed Gull

Three on the Beach

A Ring Billed Gull is a relatively small gull so it is fun to see the size difference with the terns.  Here are the comparative dimensions:  Forster’s Tern – 13 inches long with a 31 inch wingspan; Common Tern – 12 inches long with a 30 inch wingspan; and Ring Billed Gull – 17.5 inches long with a 48″ wingspan.  Interesting to note perhaps that the gull weighs 17.5 ounces while the two terns weigh in at 6 and 4.2 ounces respectively.  Birds are truly lightweights making flight possible.

At this stop we also added Eastern Bluebird, Osprey, American White Pelican and Willow Flycatcher to our day list.  It was here that we had our first real rain of the day – a heavy downpour that lasted less than 2 minutes.  After that it was clear skies for the remainder of our birding.  It is amazing that in my 47 days birding in this grand adventure this was only the second day with any rain and it had no impact whatsoever.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

American White Pelican

American White Pelican Flight

I had also visited Branched Oak State Recreation Area the previous day.  It is a huge area with a horseshoe shaped big lake.  I had merely gone in to one entrance and scanned the lake finding Franklin’s Gulls and not much else.  After a few minutes, I had departed.  This day we would spend 2 hours there covering and recovering more than 10 miles.  We had lots of birds – 44 species in all adding 16 species to our day total bringing us to 91.  There were some very good birds but the rarest had to be an immature Sabine’s Gull – a rarity here and anywhere inland.  I have seen them only on pelagic trips and in Nome Alaska.  The gull was always distant so despite taking literally dozens of pictures, none are great, but no question on the identification.

Sabine’s Gull

Sabine's Gull

We also had more Ring Billed Gulls and some new for the day Franklin’s Gulls.  Another distant bird was a Black Tern.

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull

This turned out to be a good spot for shorebirds as well although again they were mostly pretty distant.  Species included Stilt Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Killdeer, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Long Billed Dowitcher, Sanderling and Lesser Yellowlegs.  All but the Least and Killdeer were new for the day.

Shorebirds

Stilt Sandpiper and Long Billed Dowitchers

Shorebirds

At one point all of the shorebirds took off in a flash and Michael, Knut and I all simultaneously yelled “Peregrine” anticipating that there would be one scaring them off.  A few seconds later one did indeed swoop by.  It put on a great show hanging around for several minutes – chasing but not catching any of the shorebirds and then landing in shallow water providing a great photo opportunity.

Peregrine Falcon in Flight

Peregrine Falcon Flight2

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon1

Hard to choose which was the more exciting – the Sabine’s or the Peregrine but both were great shows and great birds.  Other new birds for the day were Bald Eagle, Olive Sided Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwings, Double Crested Cormorants and House Finch.  So we fell a bit short of Michael’s hoped for 100 species, but there were a number of misses for the day and the 91 species seen (not including the Sora seen by Michael only) still ranked 4th as a day total among all of the states to date in my Adventure.  So officially Nebraska was completed state number 47 – completed a day earlier than planned which meant there was still a half day on the 21st to get out and bird some more.

Lincoln, Nebraska is the capital of Nebraska and is also the home of the University of Nebraska.  This is football country and the locals, and residents from all over the state, take the Cornhuskers seriously.  A little bit of a down time from the national prominence that the team once had but that has barely curbed the interest.  We saw signs of this birding in some of the campgrounds surrounding the lakes as is evident from the sign below – at a campsite with an RV – one of many all with similar signs.  There was a group of maybe 15 fans having fun together dressed in their Nebraska Cornhusker red attire.  And this was the day before the game – which was an away game anyhow.  We would see much more Cornhusker love the next day when we made a coffee stop in the Haymarket area near downtown Lincoln.

2P5A0982

We celebrated the day with an excellent dinner at Copal Progressive Mexican Cuisine.  I had a short rib dish that was as good as anything I have had – anywhere – super tender, well seasoned, more than reasonably priced and a very sizable helping.  I would encourage anyone to try this rather unique place. https://www.copallnk.com/

“BEEF SHORT RIBS  Our famous short ribs, slow cooked for 6 hours in a mixture of beer, Dijon mustard, agave honey and spices. Accompanied with avocado paste, mashed potatoes, meat juice reduction, rice and beans.”   Yummy!!

Day 2 – Saturday September 21

On Saturday the 21st we were back in the field chasing Nebraska birds starting at the Lincoln Saline Wetlands Park.  It was an even better start than the day before as we had 42 species some which were similar to the preceding day but with several new ones as well.  A very late Orchard Oriole was new and rare for the time.  Good looks but no photos.  I was able to get a photo of a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher and an American Redstart neither very good though.

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

Blue Gray Gnatcatcher

There were better photos of two other warblers – Wilson’s Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.

Wilson’s Warbler

Wilson's Warbler1

Common Yellowthroat

Common YellowthroatThere were many swallows – five different species including another large group of Purple Martins.  We also had a Nashville Warbler – photo resistant and my first Yellow Warbler of the trip.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

There were two new raptors for the visit, a Merlin and a Cooper’s Hawk and as we were leaving we had great views of Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk1

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The single species that was found most commonly in every one of these prairie states was probably the Blue Jay as their raucous calls were heard at almost every stop.  They were mostly seen flying from one hidden perch to another.  Northern Cardinals were also common although much less so than the Jays.  Mostly it was their soft chips that we heard.  We had good visuals of both of these species at this location.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay1

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

With such a great start we took a break to visit the Haymarket Area in Lincoln for some coffee.  It was game day morning and even though the Cornhuskers were playing an away game, the place was jumping full of football fans wearing every conceivable type of fan wear in red.  We visited a store 100% dedicated to licorice.  Who knew that Knut not just liked licorice but was also an aficionado.

Michael (Right) and Knut (Left)

Michael and Knut

And if anyone does not understand how Nebraska football is dominant in Lincoln and throughout the entire state, here is the view of the stadium I saw as I was entering the city.  It is big.  On game days it holds 90,000 people in the stands.  So during the game, it is the thrid largest city in Nebraska behind Omaha and Lincoln itself.

Stadium1

OK, time to get back to the birds.  We went to Antelope Park, essentially a walking/biking path in a nice residential area with trees and good passerine habitat.  Our main target was a Mississippi Kite that had fledged a young bird there.  It had not been reported for 5 days but Michael thought it likely that birders simply had not been there recently.  He was right as it took us only a moment to find first one and then a second Mississippi Kite flying overhead.

Mississippi Kites

Mississippi Kite2

mississippi-kite3-1.jpg

We had other good birds as well.  One was our only Ruby Throated Hummingbird for the state – species number 100 in Nebraska.  Similarly among the 24 species seen, we had our first Warbling Vireo, Hairy Woodpecker and Least Flycatcher.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Later at Michael’s home before leaving to get to the airport in Omaha and to return to Seattle, we had a Peregrine Falcon flyby – our 53rd species for the day.  In some other states I had birded on my own before the official 50 species day and in a few I had found 50 or more species on my own.  This time it was with the same birders as the day before but it was a much shorter day.  If we had gone with the same drive and amount of time as the previous day, we may well have hit 100 species.  As it was, combining the two days we had 105 species.  The better measurement however, is that we had a lot of fun with great birds and experiences.  I have to close with how super Michael was as a host and a guide and a friend.

So it is now 47 states completed leaving Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to go.  I cannot get out to bird again until late October or into November or December.  Preliminary research suggests that 50 species in a day may be doable then.  It would be fun to do these days as part of Christmas Counts in those states.  We will see…

South Dakota with David Swanson and Paul Roisen

Not so sure about all the birds, but I sure do like the birders  on this trip.  I was in the company of two exceptional birders this day in South Dakota.  Taking the lead was David Swanson.  He is a Biology Professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion specializing in Ornithology and Physiology and that is where we began the day.  He is also the author of Birder’s Guide to South Dakota and Co-Author of Birds of South Dakota key books for anyone birding in the state.  He is also the author of many scholarly articles coming from his research.  So what would it be – academic or birder?  Both of course, but this day it would be the latter and he is as good as it gets.

Birder’s Guide to South Dakota

Birder's Guide to South Dakota

There was also the bonus of Dave being almost as interested in flyfishing as in birding – a subject of much discussion during the day.  Plus he was a super nice guy and I know I am laying it on thick, but super good looking too – and not just because he is 20+ years younger than me.  After that intro it hardly seems fair to also write about the other birder on the trip, Paul Roisen, but in very different ways Paul is just as impressive and it was Paul who got me in touch with David in the first place.  I will leave discussion of him to my next blog because Paul was my guide and companion the next day in Iowa.  For now, just leaving it that he is a great birder, too and added much to the day.

Now to the birds.  When we started the day, my South Dakota state list was at 7 species.  This included a retroactive listing of a Lark Bunting that had caught my attention in 1972 driving from Washington, D.C. to Seattle before I was really a birder.  The other 6 were birds I had seen at a pond the evening before as I traveled from North Dakota to Vermillion.  Of course none of those would count for this 50/50/50 quest but all were reseen on the official day – except no Lark Bunting.

Lark Bunting – My First SD Bird – Not My Photo

Lark Bunting

Our first official stop was at a small lake/pond with some mixed habitat.  Nothing unusual but it is always nice to have Wood Ducks and a Red Headed Woodpecker – and a count of 13 species.  This included a small flock of Common Grackles, my first of the trip, a surprise as I had expected them to be everywhere.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck Male1

At our next stop we had another Red Headed Woodpecker and another small flock of Common Grackles.  Only a few additional species for the day including a Savannah Sparrow – the first of five sparrow species we observed.

Earlier in Minnesota, we had used the call of the Eastern Screech Owl to bring in passerines.  Dave was very good at this imitation and at Union Grove State Park, it was very successful in finding a good number of passerines and also in getting a response from an Eastern Screech Owl itself.  It was the only owl I had on this five state trip and unfortunately was heard only.  We had good visuals and photo ops for both Red Breasted and White Breasted Nuthatch though.

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch2

It was clear that Dave knew every birding spot in the area and the roads, mostly unpaved, to get us there.  This was complicated by there being so much flooding from recent rains.  Many roads were closed and we had to resort to a Plan B or even a Plan C.  Another consequence was that many lakes where shorebirds might be expected on the shoreline mud or waterfowl in the water were not birdable.  Nonetheless, we were able to find 3 goose species and 6 species of ducks as well as a Pied Billed Grebe, an American Coot, Ringed Billed Gulls and some American White Pelicans.  Much of our birding was finding a new species or two here or there rather than at long stops.

Flooding

James River Flood

Snow Geese – One Blue Form

Snow Geese

I have made a practice during these 50/50/50 trips to pay attention early to getting common more urban birds like House Sparrow, Starling, Rock Pigeon and Eurasian Collared Dove.  In more rural areas, the Rock Pigeon and Collared Dove may be found in less “urban” areas.  On this trip, a Rock Pigeon was not found until quite late in the day and Eurasian Collared Doves were infrequent.  Our first one was maybe an omen that the count for the day would end up well.  It was about our 40th species and went unphotographed – a single bird perched on a large cross on a pretty country church.  We had House Sparrows in several places.  Two times it was a single bird and later we came upon a flock of about 30 that had one that really stood out – highly leucistic – a first for me.

Leucistic House Sparrow

House Sparrows

As had been the case earlier in North Dakota, we saw many Monarch Butterflies in migration.  A fascinating and beautiful species, they are also major pollinators wherever they are found.

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

With limited habitat, we only had three shorebirds this day: Killdeer, Least Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper.  Killdeer are found in far more habitats than the other shorebirds and I had at least one and sometimes many in all of my Prairie State trips.  They also seem to be the most vocal, which may also explain why they are observed more frequently.  Being so common, they often get short shrift, so I include a photo of one here.

Killdeer

Killdeer with Worm1

It is probably one of those cases where we remember the times it works and forget the times when it doesn’t, but it often seems like just mentioning a bird can make it appear.  Driving down one country road, I was told to keep my eyes open for Wild Turkeys.  Not more than a moment later, a small flock magically appeared.  These and a single Ringed Necked Pheasant were the only gallinaceous birds in this state or in any of the others visited on this trip.  At an earlier date and further west, others may have been possible.

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

We continued to add a species or two along the roads or at various stops and reached species #50 for the day a little before noon.  I did not keep track of the order of observations but believe it may have been either a Sedge Wren or maybe even the Turkeys.  We continued birding and went through s couple of dry spots in the doldrums of the afternoon heat.  Nothing astounding but we did find a somewhat early Swainson’s Hawk and a camera shy Lincoln’s Sparrow, the only ones of my tripSpecies #60 was a lovely Western Meadowlark.  Eastern Meadowlarks are also possible in this area but far less likely.  I had expected the fields to be full of these striking and usually singing birds, but they were generally scarce in all of the states I visited.  They can be a challenge to identify without hearing the very different songs.  Fortunately I heard songs of both during this Prairie State trek.  The numbers would have been different as in higher earlier.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Our last stop was at Spirit Mound Historic Prairie.  Recovered from former farmland it is on the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail and at least for this place, it truly was visited by Lewis and Clark – apparently not the case with some places that make such claims.  They climbed it August 1804.  There was a small hope that we might find a LeConte’s Sparrow but in this case we were a week or two early.   It was pretty quiet while we were there and we added only Common Yellowthroat and the aforementioned Ring Necked Pheasant.  There were many wild flowers and other prairie plant species.  I would love to return earlier in the year.

Spirit Mound

We ended the day with 69 species.  South Dakota was State #45 where the 50 species goal was accomplished and I would next be heading to Iowa to bird again with Paul Roisen (covered in my next blog post).  Paul headed off to Sioux City, Iowa and Dave joined me for a celebratory steak dinner in Vermillion, SD.  It was excellent and very reasonably priced.  Dave was as much fun and as interesting at dinner as he had been birding during the day.  It was a real treat and privilege to share time with him.  My closing photo is of him at Spirit Mound Prairie.  Told you he was a good looking guy.  Super birder, too.

Dave Swanson at Spirit Mound State Park

Dave Swanson

 

When Does Forty-Nine Become Forty-Four?

It happened when I visited Dave Lambeth in Grand Forks County, North Dakota.  This was my first ever visit to North Dakota, leaving Kansas as the last of the 50 states to visit.  So that explains the “forty-nine”.  The “forty-four” is explained by our finding 83 species on a wonderful day of birding in the state making North Dakota my 44th state with 50 species or more in a day as I have traversed the United States on my 50/50/50 Adventure.

Birding with Dave was another of those totally enjoyable and very rewarding personal experiences that have made this quest so incredible.  It is a great oversimplification, but Dave is what I expect many of us think of as characteristic of the solid quality of Midwesterners.  A fine person who was more than generous with his time, thoughtful and kind, hard working and appreciative of what the world has given us rather than regretting what it has not.  It was a very fun day.

Dave is the kind of person that is impossible not to respect and trust and one aspect of this was a giant boost to our birding experience as he has permission (and a key) to enter the gated Grand Forks Lagoons.  In Washington we would call these STP’s as in “Sewage Treatment Ponds” but “lagoons” sounds much better – maybe more “Midwestern”.  Call them what you will, they certainly delivered.  As previously written, my 50/50/50 day in Minnesota had no shorebirds, no gulls and very few waterfowl species.  Our visit to the Lagoons was almost a mirror image as there were many species of all of these types.  We had Eared, Horned and Western Grebes, Ring Billed and Franklin’s Gulls, Canada Goose, 10 duck species and a half dozen shorebird species.  We also had some other species and when we departed, we were more than half way to our 50 species target.  It was a great start to a great day.

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull Flight

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper2

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Pied Billed Grebe (Juvenile)

Pied Billed Grebe Juvenile

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

After leaving the Lagoons, species were added one or two or three at a time at our various stops.  I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Dave knew every road in the area – many of them unpaved.  I never had any idea where we were.  I didn’t need to as Dave guided us to new place after new place and new bird after new bird.

In Minnesota, there was only a single sparrow species.  In North Dakota, we had six: Vesper, Song, Savannah, Clay Colored, Chipping and Lincoln’s.  I was especially pleased to see and photograph the Clay Colored Sparrow since I did not look for one in Washington this year.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow3

There are two sides to a coin though.  In Minnesota we had 11 warbler species and on this trip in North Dakota, we had only 4 with the Palm Warbler being the only one with a decent photo and interestingly all 4 are ones that are regularly seen in Washington, not so-called Eastern Warblers.  In generally our forest birding was very slow — almost dead.  We did not even have a White Headed Nuthatch.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Dave aptly described much of our day as “roadside birding”.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have never used that perfect term (but I will in the future) and we indeed had great roadside birding.    We did not have tons of raptors numbers wise, but we had an astonishing 9 different species, and our variety of one of which is now among my all time favorite birds.  It was a most cooperative and to me incredibly beautiful Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk.  We saw it perched on a power pole and approached for photos.  It tolerated our getting fairly close and then would fly to the next power pole and we would repeat our routine after more photos.  I have never seen one this white.  I am in love.

Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk

Krider's Red Tailed Hawk1

Krider's Takeoff

We had another raptor that initially was a bit of an ID challenge.  Seeing it fly by before it perched, I thought it was a Merlin.  Dave was pretty sure it was a juvenile Broad Winged Hawk, a species with which I have little experience and which I thought was larger than it is.

Broad Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk Juvenile1

We also had two iconic (and half way eponymous) Eastern birds: Eastern Blue Jay and Eastern Bluebird.  To continue the theme, we later also had a relatively late Eastern Kingbird.

Eastern Blue Jay

Blue Jay1

Eastern Bluebird

eastern-bluebird.jpg

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

The latter was a “bonus” bird at the end of the day.  Despite what I considered fantastic guiding, I think Dave was disappointed about some of the misses for the day and to close it, we went to a favorite spot near his home to look for Wood Ducks.  We found them and then had the surprise Eastern Kingbird and also had a Common Nighthawk fly overhead.

It was not real birdy this time but a fun stop was at Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge.   Later in the year this famous Hotspot might have thousands of waterfowl.  Here is a photo of Dave at the NWR sign.  The other proves I was there also.  I hope to return when migration brings in those thousands of waterfowl – but definitely not after temperatures fall below zero!!

Dave Lambeth at Kellys Slough blair-at-kellys.jpg

I have included photos and stories of this species in other reports as well, but this time it was a bit different.  For whatever reason, Red Headed Woodpecker was simply not on my list of expected species for North Dakota.  But indeed they are there and two put on a nice fly catching show for us and one was an immature – a new bird for me.  As I would also say for Owls, all Woodpeckers are cool and it is definitely hard to leave any off the “most special” or “most striking” list, but for sure I would have the gorgeous Red Headed Woodpecker high up on my list.

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red Headed Woodpecker Adult

Red Headed Woodpecker Immature

Red Headed Woodpecker Juvenile1

Dave’s comments in his Ebird post sums up the day very well in his own understated way:  “The day was almost entirely sunny with temperature reaching at least 81 degrees by mid afternoon. Wind speed was less than 10 mph throughout the day. This is a species checklist for which we did not try to estimate numbers of the more numerous species. Sites visited included the Grand Forks lagoons, Kellys Slough, AFB lagoons, and Turtle River State Park, with considerable time and effort to find roadside birds.”  Very matter of fact, but hopefully from reading this blog, you can get our sense of the pleasure, excitement and accomplishment from this day with super birds and with super company.  Thank you Dave!!

On to South Dakota…

 

 

Each State is Different…Right Minnesota?

I would have bet against it.  No gulls.  No shorebirds.  One sparrow species and only one icterid species.  No way to get to 50 species in a day.  Wait, there must have been lots of ducks and geese, right?  Nope.  Only a single goose species and only 4 ducks.  How did I end up with 66 species for the day then?  A simple answer – great help from a wonderful Minnesota birder, Craig Mandel.

There have been so many lessons along the way on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  One has been the importance of persistence.  Another has been to have faith in our wonderful birding community.  As I planned this trip to add 5 prairie states to my “done” list and get to 47, I got great assistance from Paul Roisen in Iowa who hooked me up with great help in North and South Dakota, with David Lambeth and David Swanson.  I also got the wonderful news that Michael Willison would be able to help in Nebraska.  There will be stories ahead for all of these.  But Minnesota, the first state I would visit was proving a challenge.  My first two connections/leads turned out to be dead ends after each seemed to be a sure thing.  So I had wasted a lot of time and less than a week before my departure, I had no companion in Minnesota.  Time to reach out to everyone I knew and to take some wild shots in the dark with folks I did not.

And it worked.  I got in contact with Kim Eckert.  His impact on Minnesota birding is summed up well in an article in the Star Tribune: “Birding in Minnesota changed forever when Kim Eckert quit teaching, put his dog in his car and moved to Duluth.  There he created two tools that have defined the sport of birding for almost 40 years: statewide tours and an extremely detailed book.”  The statewide tours are through his Minnesota Birding Weekends company.

That extremely detailed book is “A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota”.  He is working on a revised addition and the deadline prevented him from him being able to join me himself, but he got me in touch with Craig Mandel who is one of his trip leaders and also leads trips for Minnesota River Valley Audubon.  It turned out Craig was leading a trip the weekend I was planning to visit and he welcomed me to join them in Rochester.  The rest is history.  I will not detail the trip in large part because of all my visits, this is the one where I did the least preparation and had no idea where we would be going.  But Craig was confident we would find 50 species – if the weather cooperated – so I just followed his lead and had a blast with him and his very nice group of birders.

We started off at the Willow Creek Reservoir and were disappointed to see that the heavy rain from the previous day had raised water levels dashing any hopes for shorebirds.  This pattern played out all day and not a single shorebird was seen.  We had a good sampling of birds though with the highlight for me at least being a really good view and a photo of a Philadelphia Vireo.

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

We added a few species along the way to Oxbow Park where we had 8 warbler species.  At both places Craig used a very productive technique of hanging a speaker on a tree and then playing his own playback creation combining the trill of an Eastern Screech Owl and the mobbing calls of Black Backed Chickadees.  This brought in small flocks consistently.  I would not have been able to identify most of the fall plumage warblers.  Again, I was in good hands as both Craig and his group were excellent.  Black Backed Chickadees and White Breasted Nuthatches were the first to respond and usually the most numerous but over the course of the day more than 20 species responded to this playback.

Black Backed Chickadee

Black Capped Chickadee.jpg

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler1

We visited several landfills and reservoirs trying for waterfowl and shorebirds.  Along the way we found some Sandhill Cranes, always special.  And we did have some ducks – both Blue and Green Winged Teal, Mallards and a few Northern Shovelers.

Sandhill Cranes

sandhill-cranes.jpg

Blue Winged Teal

Blue Winged Teal

We had seen some earlier but the best photo of a Magnolia Warbler came at a later stop.  Also had a decent shot of an Ovenbird.  Altogether the group had 11 warbler species and 4 vireos.  Add another 5 flycatcher species and that starts to explain how we got over 50 species for the day!

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler2

Ovenbird

Ovenbird2

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe2

I don’t know exactly when we hit 50 species for the day, but it was early enough that there was never a feeling of doubt.  We added species here and there and ended the day with 66 species – with the last being the only icterid of the day – a Red Winged Blackbird.

These trips are not just about birds.  More about people and places but there are also unexpected delights like the snake that crossed our path and was picked up by one of the group.  Also a sign next to a lake that reminded me why I would not like to live in Minnesota.  It gets COLD there!!  When birding friends knew I was going to Minnesota they warned about the flies and mosquitoes.  Just as was my experience in the similarly bug infested Maine, I had no issues on this trip – guess it is the timing.

Snake

Sign

Neither of these birds played a particularly important part of the day – although they all count to add up to 50, but I really enjoyed seeing and photographing each of them.  I have seen Eastern Bluebirds on many of my 50/50/50 days and they seem an important part of birding in the East and Midwest.  And there is just something irresistible about a Turkey Vulture – either soaring with its outstretched wings or perched with that “turkey-like” red head that only a mother could love.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

It had been more than 2 months since my last 50/50/50 trip and the intervening time had been consumed with developing the relationship with Cindy who had accompanied me on that preceding trip.  I wondered how a return would feel.  I think the wonderful folks on this trip were a key reason that it was so comfortable to return.  This 50/50/50 Adventure is about passion.  Now I have two passions in my life and it looks like the combination will make both better.

My next stop was to be North Dakota starting in Grand Forks which is just over 400 miles from Rochester.  Thinking it best to cut that driving time down for the next day, after we finished our birding I moved on to St. Cloud, MN itself 150 miles north and west of Rochester.  No real birding along the way as it was getting late, but it positioned me for a more leisurely trip the following day and I was able to do some birding.  As I was driving on I-94 near Freeport, I saw a lake off the service road that seemed to have a lot of white dots.  I could not stop on the highway for a look so I exited and doubled back.  They they were, my first gulls of the trip – lots of gulls.  There were at least 300 Franklin’s Gulls and a few Ringed Billed Gulls.  I did not have a scope and they were not real close so maybe there were others mixed in.  And filling another void from yesterday I also had my first shorebird – a Killdeer.

Franklin’s Gull and Ringed Billed Gull

Ring Billed and Franklin's Gulls

Killdeer

Killdeer1

In a small marshy area nearby I added two more new trip birds, a Common Yellowthroat and a Sedge Wren, the latter a real surprise.  Instead of returning to the Freeway I drove some rural roads and found a mother lode of Eastern Bluebirds  – at least 10 and maybe as many as 15 as I was unsure which ones that flew off had returned.  And this is how it went for the rest of the day.  No real destinations, hotspots or target areas, just exploring new ponds and lakes and rural roads.

I ended the day with 43 species including about a dozen that I had not seen the previous day.  Given that I did no forest birding, this was a really nice total.  The only planned stop was at Rothsay, MN where I had my favorite sighting of the trip – a Greater (some would say “Greatest”) Prairie Chicken.

Greater Prairie Chicken

Chicken

Let’s just say that Rothsay is not on the beaten path or a major tourist stop, but in the 10 minutes I was at this very cool “birding” spot, 8 others took the exit just to visit this well done creation.  This seems like a good place to end the saga in Minnesota.  This quest of mine has definitely taken me to new and fun places and I have learned to expect the unexpected.  And I also have learned that I can count on wonderful folks in the birding community and that persistence does pay off.  Just making the effort brings the rewards.

It was still surprising to me that there was only the single sparrow species – Chipping Sparrow and the Killdeer as the only shorebird.  At least on my solo day I did get those gulls and there were two more icterids:  5 Western Meadowlarks and a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds.  I am sure that if I had been here in the spring there would have been many more species.  Craig had great stories of days with many warblers for example.  I hope to get back – maybe even see a real Prairie Chicken!

 

 

 

Pre-Pelagic Prospecting

Since pelagic trips start early in the morning, I generally try to spend the previous night in Westport and get in some coastal birding that day.  In September the shorebird migration is generally in full swing and there is a good chance to add to state yer lists and maybe to find something truly rare.  Paul Baerny is doing a Big Year in Washington and he was going to be on the Saturday pelagic tip, so it was a good chance to join forces and bird together.  Young birder Garrett Haynes came with Paul and we all met Michael Charest who was in the area for a bit – before returning to his temporary home and birding paradise in Florida.

We met at the Hoquiam STP – not real birdy but we did have a Red Necked Phalarope and a Pectoral Sandpiper.  A Cooper’s Hawk was on a telephone wire but the Ospreys that had been there for the summer seemed to have departed.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Then we were off to Griffiths Priday SP just north of Ocean Shores.  Paul and I had been there a week ago trying unsuccessfully for the Buff Breasted Sandpiper and Red Necked Stint that had been seen there.  Our timing was bad that day as we missed  those rarities – the same fate as others that day as well.  The “Buffy” was seen on later days but had not been reported for many days now.  Nothing real special this day either but we had 32 species including another Pectoral Sandpiper and a photo friendly Red Knot.  I did not notice it at the time, but a later examination of my photos found one of a Baird’s Sandpiper.  I had seen both the Knot and a Baird’s Sandpiper before, but these were my first photos for the year.

Red Knot

Red Knot1

Baird’s Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

We found a few Whimbrels and there were many Sanderlings, Western and Least Sandpipers.  I got a fun photo of a Western Sandpiper with a worm – fun but out of focus unfortunately.  There was a momentary excitement as we thought we might have had a Black Legged Kittiwake among the many gulls at the creek mouth.  Unfortunately just a juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull.

Western Sandpiper with Worm

Western Sandpiper with Worm1

Bonaparte’s Gull

Bonaparte's Gull

We next drove the open beach near the Casino at Ocean Shores and found very few birds as the tide was way out.  I got a photo of a Whimbrel but nothing else even appealed for a photo.

Whimbrel

Whimbrel

Next up was a visit to the Point Brown Jetty.  Again the tide was way out and this could have helped or hindered our prospecting for “Rock Pipers”.  We saw some Black Turnstone at the end of the jetty and then Paul spied what at first we thought might be a Rock Sandpiper (early but welcomed by me as I had not seen one this year) but it proved to be a Surfbird – good views as we got closer and it moved into the open.  Then Mike spied a Wandering Tattler.  I had seen one here earlier in the year but it had been distant and impossible to photograph so this was a nice find.

Surfbird

Surfbird2

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler1

Then on to the Oyhut Game Range.  I have had great birds here over the years but had not visited it in 2019.  I was pleased to see that a new trail access had been created from the Radar station entrance.  Unfortunately birds were few and far between.  There were many American Pipits on the sand and in the salicornia and on the way back to the parking area we had a very surprising Yellow Headed Blackbird there.  It was a new Grays Harbor County bird for all of us.

American Pipit

American Pipit1

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Unfortunately no Ruff or Golden Plover both of which have been seen there frequently in years past.  Also no Upland Sandpiper which Paul was praying for and which I had been fortunate to see there 6 years ago.  And as long as we are talking about what was NOT seen, we also did not see any Lapland Longspurs which were a possibility or any Smith’s Longspurs – a super rarity which Paul and I had seen there in 2013.

Smith’s Longspur – Oyhut Game Range August 26, 2013 – Would Have Been Nice…

Smith's Longspur

Michael had to get back to Tacoma as he was flying out on Saturday – why he would not be joining us on the pelagic trip, so we headed east with him continuing to home and the rest of us revisiting the Hoquiam STP before continuing on to the Westport side of the coast.  Nothing new at Hoquiam.  There would be time to visit Tokeland for Marbled Godwit before heading back north to Bottle Beach to be there three hours before the incoming high tide.  Tokeland continues to be the go to place for Willets in Washington and we had 8 there in addition to a small flock of Marbled Godwits and a single Short Billed Dowitcher.  Most impressive were the 250+ beautiful Heerman’s Gulls.

Willet

Willet

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Short Billed Dowitcher

Short Billed Dowitcher1

Heerman’s Gull

Heerman's Gull1

I expect I have written this before.  Bottle Beach is a premier spot for shorebirding on the Washington Coast.  In the Spring it is a great spot for Red Knots often with hundreds there in full breeding plumage and very close.  Almost all of the Washington shorebirds have been seen there at one time or another including rarities like Ruff, Red Necked  Stint, Lesser Sand Plover, Sharp Tailed Sandpiper and Hudsonian and Bar Tailed Godwits.  There was also a Laughing Gull.  The key to success there is being “on the mud” 3 hours before high tide.  We often see people just coming out to the mud as we are returning to our cars 1.5 hours before high tide.  By then the show is generally over.

We arrived at Bottle Beach at about 3:40 pm with the high tide scheduled to be around 7:00 pm.  The tide was way out.  There was lots of mud and two birders were out at its edge.  We did not see any birds except for gulls and 4 Black Bellied Plovers.  One of the birders was Anna Kopitov from Seattle who would also be on the pelagic trip the next day.  As she walked over to join us, she said there had been lots of birds just before we arrived including a Red Knot, and lots of Black Bellied Plovers and Marbled Godwits but they had flown off in a group perhaps scared off by a Peregrine Falcon.  We watched for awhile and no shorebirds flew in.  I could not recall a single time at this location when there at the right time when there were not many shorebirds.

We saw a single Least Sandpiper, maybe a hundred Brown Pelicans and easily 2000+ Double Crested Cormorants.  The gulls were primarily Ring Billed with a few California Gulls.  Anna yelled out “That’s a really mean looking gull.”  It was chasing a Ring Billed Gull and it soon became apparent that it was not a gull at all.  It was a juvenile Parasitic Jaeger.  The chase lasted only a few seconds and then the Jaeger did something I have never seen before.  It landed on the sand/mud and just sat – for at least 5 minutes.  It then flew off – definitely in good health but possibly not yet a skilled hunter/harasser.  Certainly a great photo opportunity.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Parasitic Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger Flight

Parasitic Jaeger1

Parasitic Jaeger

Shortly afterwards we were joined by Scott Mills who would be one of the spotters on the pelagic trip.  No new shorebirds arrived and we decided to leave and get to our hotels for the night.  Not more than a minute after we started to head back, Scott yelled out that a Long Billed Curlew had flown in.  Rare for the area, it had been seen there the previous day.  It was in with the gulls but finally came into the open for some photos.

Long Billed Curlew

Long Billed Curlew

The Curlew and the Jaeger were terrific observations for this spot and just in general, proving once again that there are usually consolation prizes even when targets are missed.  The most important thing is to just get out there and look.

I tallied up the species seen for the day and was over 70, pretty good since it had never seemed very birdy and there was no effort to look for passerines or to develop a long list.  Just another very fun day at the Washington coast.

 

 

 

The Calm Before the Storm

The Seattle area is famous for rain…supposedly lots of rain and rain all the time.  On average the area gets just under 38 inches of rain a year.  By contrast Washington D.C. gets just under 41 inches.  Atlanta gets 52 inches; Boston 44 inches; New York 45 inches; Miami 62 inches and St. Louis gets 42 inches.  The national average is 38 inches.  So in many ways Seattle is not a rainy city.  On the other hand…  If you compared the number of days in the year that the city has rain, the story would be different, because many of those other cities get large thunderstorms with several inches of rain at a time.  In Seattle, rain usually comes in little drizzles and not in storms.  On average there is some rain in Seattle on about 150 days a year compared to 129 in Miami and 119 in New York City.  Rainy city?  Depends on how you define it.

On Saturday September 7th, Seattle did get a thunderstorm.  There were more than 1,000 lightning strikes.  The threat of lightning delayed the start of the University of Washington football game that evening by almost 3 hours.  It rained – HARD!!  Earlier that day I had been on a boat 30+ miles out into the Pacific Ocean on a pelagic trip with Westport Seabirds.  We had the calmest seas I had ever seen.  No wind.  No rain. No waves.  The trip would have been canceled if there was any threat of lightning.  It was definitely the calm before the storm before returning to Seattle that night.

Better yet, it was a great trip, especially since the absence of wind often means a tough day seeing birds on the ocean as pelagic birds count on wind for flight and for carrying smells to them when the boats put out a fish oil slick or are chumming to bring in the birds.  No problems this day.  And the previous day was a fun and productive day of birding on the coast before the pelagic trips, especially looking for shorebirds in migration.  No real rarities either day, but lots of good birds and some nice photos.

By September the sunrise is later and so is the departure time for our boat.  We left dock at 6:30 a.m. in truly the calmest seas I had ever seen.  Some Cormorants and some Brown Pelicans and lots of gulls but on these trips it is always much further out when things get exciting.  The first truly pelagic birds are generally the Sooty Shearwaters, at first just single birds and later maybe seemingly hundreds or even thousands of them.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican Flight1

A bit further out it is time to pay attention and look for the specialty species, other Shearwater species, Albatrosses, Jaegers, Alcids, Storm Petrels, Phalaropes, Terns and Gulls.  My “target” species for the trip with at least a reasonable chance of success were Arctic and Common Terns, Short Tailed, Flesh Footed and Buller’s Shearwaters, Long Tailed Jaeger and South Polar Skua.  Much rarer would be Short Tailed Albatross and Scripp’s Murrelet.  And there was always the chance of something truly rare like a Mottled Petrel (in my dreams).

First seen after the Sooty Shearwater were a number of Pink Footed Shearwaters, some Cassin’s Auklets, Red Necked Phalaropes, Fork Tailed Storm Petrels and Rhinoceros Auklets .  A beautiful adult Pomarine Jaeger was our first less than common species.

Pink Footed Shearwater

Pink Footed Shearwater

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel2

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

Jaegers are very cool birds.  They are gull like and are often found with gulls.  They chase and harass gulls trying to get them to regurgitate food from their gullet which is then eaten by the Jaegers.  There are three species of JaegerPomarine Jaeger (blunt tail feathers), Parasitic Jaeger (two pointed tail feathers) and Long Tailed Jaeger (long tail feathers).  In Europe the Jaegers are called Skuas.  In our area, there is another Jaeger-like bird – the South Polar Skua.  A highlight of any pelagic trip is the so-called “Skua Slam” when all three Jaegers and the South Polar Skua are all observed.  On this trip, we did find all four.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua Flight1

Parasitic Jaeger Harassing California Gull

Parasitic Jaeger Attack

Long Tailed Jaeger

Long Tailed Jaeger.jpg

They may be old hat for pelagic trip veterans, but the first sighting of an Albatross is always exciting for “newbies” and there were several on the boat.  We had fewer Black Footed Albatross than usual but they are indeed spectacular.

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross Head

On these trips, birds are not the only specialties.  Often there are whales, dolphins, porpoises, various marine mammals, and fish.  We had a couple of Humpback Whale sightings and a few porpoises and dolphins.  There was one very large (and several much smaller) Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish).  The prize fish though were the many Blue Sharks seen – more than a dozen.  One was at least 5 feet long.

Blue Shark

Blue Shark3

Most of the gulls seen on the trip were California Gulls, both adult and juvenile, but the most appreciated were the fairly numerous and very beautiful Sabine’s Gulls – again both adults and juveniles.

Sabine’s Gull (Adult)

Sabine's Gull Adult1

Sabine’s Gull (Juvenile)

Sabine's Gull Juvenile2

Usually we have lots of Northern Fulmars on these trips, but this year they have not been nearly as numerous.  We only had a few, but with terrific looks and photo opportunities.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

We did not do real well with Terns.  There were no Common Terns and only two distant Arctic Terns.  We had much better luck with Shearwaters though.  We had already had the Sooty and Pink Footed and then added both Buller’s and Short Tailed Shearwaters, each new for the year for me.

Buller’s Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater on Water

Short Tailed Shearwater

Short Tailed Shearwater Wings

Both of these Shearwaters are generally seen predominantly or even only in the Fall.  The Buller’s nests on islands near New Zealand and was once known as the New Zealand Shearwater.  It is known for its elegant buoyant flight .  The Short Tailed Shearwater is often hard to identify being very similar to the Sooty Shearwater.  It has a shorter bill and a rounder head and less white under wing.

While I was happy to add both of these Shearwaters to my Year List, the one I was really hoping for was the much rarer Flesh Footed Shearwater.  We finally found two in a mixed flock.  It is easy to identify with its all dark body and a light colored bill.

Flesh Footed Shearwater

Flesh Footed Shearwater Gaping

We saw three Alcid species on the trip but unfortunately missed Scripp’s Murrelet.  This generally rare species had been seen on several recent trips.  Not ours (but it was seen on the trip the next day – aaargh!!)  We had Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets in good numbers and only a single Tufted Puffin – odd looking in its non-breeding plumage.

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin1a

Returning to the marina, we scanned the outer jetty for “Rockpipers“.  We found a couple of Wandering Tattlers and that was it.  In the past few years there has been a single Bar Tailed Godwit among the hundreds of Marbled Godwits in the harbor.  Not this year though.  Too bad as it would have been a new year bird.

Marbled Godwits

Marbled Godwits1

One last detail.  On the way out and again on the way back we spotted Fur Seals on the water.  They have a strange look as they float with one fin waving in the air.  I have seen them on other trips and understood that they were “Northern Fur Seals“.  On this trip one of the ones observed may have been a much rarer Guadalupe Fur Seal, until recently thought to be extinct.  One distinguishing field mark is the length of the fin with the Guadalupe’s being shorter.  I don’t think there was a definitive ID on this one.

Fur Seal – Northern or Guadalupe

Possible Guadulupe Fur Seal

Despite missing the Scripp’s Murrelet and the Common Tern, it had been a great trip.  Calm seas certainly helped.  We had good looks at all of the birds seen and I added 6 new species for the year – as many as I had any right to expect.  This will be my last pelagic of the year but I look forward to joining Captain Phil Anderson and First Mate Chris Anderson again next year aboard the Monaco.  They are terrific and it is a truly first class operation.

 

 

They’re Back…and Hopefully More on the Way…Shorebirds That Is

I recently posted this on Facebook:  “SHOREBIRDS IN AUGUST!! – I checked my Ebird records to see just how good this week in August has been for my shorebird observations in Washington. The ten days from August 11 through August 20 have been awesome.  Of my 48 shorebird species in the State, I have recorded 39 of them in this 10 day period including such rarities as the LESSER SAND PLOVER, HUDSONIAN and BAR TAILED GODWITS, and WOOD SANDPIPER. Of the 9 species not seen in this period 6 were seen in the first week of September including a super rare UPLAND SANDPIPER and also rare RUFF, SHARP TAILED SANDPIPER and BUFF BREASTED SANDPIPER. The only three species seen outside of this period were super rare RED NECKED STINT (twice in July), super rare WILSON’S PLOVER (in October) and a possible super rare WHITE RUMPED SANDPIPER seen the first week in August.  So we are now in the hot zone for fall migration of shorebirds. Time to get to the coast!!”

There have been too many other obligations to get to the coast but I will be there on September 6th before heading to sea on a pelagic trip the next day.  But there have been a number of good shorebirds closer to home and this post is about them.  Three really good spots have been in Skagit County: Wylie Slough, Hayton Preserve and Channel Drive.  In the past month I have seen 16 shorebird species in those locations:  BLACK BELLIED, SEMIPALMATED and both AMERICAN and PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVERS, KILLDEER, WESTERN, LEAST, SEMIPALMATED, PECTORAL, SPOTTED, SOLITARY, and STILT SANDPIPERS, GREATER and LESSER YELLOWLEGS, WHIMBREL and LONG BILLED DOWITCHER.  The two GOLDEN PLOVERS were very distant with ID quality photos at best.

LONG BILLED DOWITCHER

Long Billed Dowitcher1

GREATER AND LESSER YELLOWLEGS

Greater and Lesser Yelowlegs

SOLITARY SANDPIPER

Solitary Sandpiper1

LEAST SANDPIPER

Least Sandpiper2

 

STILT SANDPIPERS were seen at Channel Drive and Wylie Slough and then again yesterday at the Green River in Kent just above the the 200th Street Bridge.  It was accompanied by a WESTERN SANDPIPER and both were very accommodating.

STILT SANDPIPER

Stilt Sandpiper Kent3

WESTERN SANDPIPER

Western Sandpiper1

I have already chronicled the trip to Crockett Lake which added HUDSONIAN GODWIT and BAIRD’S SANDPIPER to my shorebird list for the past month.  Earlier I did go the coast in July and had SANDERLINGS, BLACK TURNSTONES and WANDERING TATTLERS, and also a BLACK OYSTERCATCHER at Semiahmoo so 22 shorebird species all told.  Hopefully some more will show up in the next two weeks including my trip to the coast.  Then I am off to the Prairie States back on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  This is not the best time of year for passerines and waterfowl but the shorebirds make for great fun.

HUDSONIAN GODWIT (adding it again because it was such a good bird)

Hudsonian Godwit Crockett3