A Khanh Tran Kind of Day…

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

Khanh Tran

Khanh Tran

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

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

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

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

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

River Otters – High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon

River Otter

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Oregon

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

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

Young Western Bluebirds

Two Western Bluebirds

Baby Bluebird

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch

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

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird2

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

Burrowing Owl – Road 9

BUOW1.4

BUOW1.5

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

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

Burrowing Owl – Road 12.3

BUOW2.1

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

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

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

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

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow3

Rock Wren

Rock Wren3

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

Western Kingbird on Hatchery Road

Western Kingbird1

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

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

Virginia Rails

Virginia Rail1

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

Burrowing Owl

BUOW3.3

BUOW3.4

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

Yellow Bellied Marmots

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

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

BUOW1.1.2Sprinkler

BUOW1.1.5

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

On Familiar Ground

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

Case I – A Black Throated Sparrow

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

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

Case II – A Least Tern

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

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

Least Tern

Least Tern1

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

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

A Long Trip to More Familiar Ground

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

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

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

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

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Red Breasted Sapsucker

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

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

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

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow2 (2)

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

Clay Colored Sparrow FOY #1

Clay Colored Sparrow1 (2)

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

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird Female Mountain Bluebird

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow at Mest1

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

Eared Grebes

Eared Grebes

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

Eastern Phoebe FOY #2

Eastern Phoebe (2)

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

Calispell Lake

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

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing1

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

Northern Waterthrush – From this spot in 2016

Northern Waterthrush

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

Least Flycatcher

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

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

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

Red Eyed Vireo – FOY #4

Red Eyed Vireo1

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

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

Black Chinned Hummingbird 

BCHB (2)

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

Bobolink FOY #5

Bobolink1

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

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

Black Tern

Black Tern3 - Copy

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

Forster’s Tern

Forster's Tern

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

What A Difference a Year Makes

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

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

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

The New Car – Post Intersection with the Deer

car

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

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

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

The Baby Blanket – A Work in Progress

knitting

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

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

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

American Avocet2 (2) Black Necked Stilt1

Wilson’s and Red Necked Phalaropes – County Line Ponds

Wilson's Phalaropes Pair (2) Red Necked Avocet

Lark Sparrow – Oak Creek Visitor Center

Lark Sparrow3

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

Downy WP Male Hairy WP1

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

Yellow Breasted Chat2 Lazuli Bunting4

Yellow Warbler and Bullock’s Oriole – Bullfrog Pond

Yellow Warbler1 Bullock's Oriole1

Cinnamon Teal and Yellow Headed Blackbird – County Line Ponds

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

Cassin’s Finch and Common Yellowthroat – Bullfrog Pond

Cassin's Finch.1ajpg P5180988 (2)

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

Warbling Vireo2 Western Wood Pewee1

Red Breasted Sapsucker – Scriber Lake Park

Red Breasted Sapsucker1 (3)

Pigeon Guillemot – Edmonds Waterfront

Pigeon Guillemot

Swainson’s Thrush – Spencer Island and Many other locations

Swainson's Thrush

Great Horned Owls – Adult and Owlet – Wylie Slough

P5180893 (2) P5180922 (2)

Black Headed Grosbeak – Many Locations in Eastern and Western Washington

Black Headed Grosbeak4

Western Kingbird – Whatcom, Yakima and Grant Counties

Western Kingbird (2)

Black Throated Gray Warbler – Many Locations in Snohomish County

Black Throated Gray Warbler

Keep safe everyone!!

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Eastern” Species

Eastern Bluebird  (E, S, W, N)

Eastern Bluebird 4

Eastern Kingbird (E, S, W, N)

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

Eastern Meadowlark Singing

Eastern Phoebe (E, S, W, N)

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

Eastern Screech Owl5

Eastern Towhee (E,S, N)

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Whip-poor-will  (E, S)

whip-poor-will-news

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

Eastern Wood Pewee

Eastern Yellow Wagtail  (N, W) 

Eastern Yellow Wagtail1 - Copy

“Northern” Species

Northern Bobwhite (N, E, S, W)

Northern Bobwhite 1

Northern Flicker (N, E, S, W) 

northern flicker

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

Northern Rough Winged Swallow

Northern Cardinal  (N, E, S)      

Northern Cardinal Male

Northern  Gannet  (N, E, S)  

Northern Gannet - Copy

Northern Harrier (N, E, S, W)

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

Northern Mockingbird1

Northern Parula  (N, E, S, W) 

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

Northern Pintail

Northern Shoveler (N, E, S, W) 

Northern Shoveler

Northern Waterthrush  (N, E, S, W) 

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Goshawk  (N, W)

Northern Goshawk

Northern Fulmar (N,W) 

Northern Fulmar3

Northern Saw-whet Owl  (N, W) 

Northern Saw Whet Owl2

Northwestern Crow (N, W)

Northwestern Crow
Northern Pygmy Owl (N, W)

Northern Pygmy Owl2

Northern Shrike (N, W) 

 orthern Shrike Okanogan

Northern Wheatear (N, W) 

Northern Wheatear female

Northern Hawk Owl (N, W)

Northern Hawk Owl 1

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet  (S, W)

Northern Beardless Tyrannulet 2

Northern Jacana (S) 

Northern Jacana

“Western” Species

Western Bluebird (N, S, W)                    

Western Bluebird

Western Grebe (N, E, W)

 Western Grebe
Western Gull  (N, S, W) 

Western Gull

Western Kingbird (N, E, S, W)

Western Kingbird
Western Meadowlark (N, S, W) 

Western Meadowlark

Western Sandpiper (N, E, S, W)

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

Western Screech Owl

Western Spindalis (E, S) 

Western Spindalis5
Western Tanager (N, W)

Western Tanager1

Western Wood-Pewee (N, S, W) 

Western Wood Pewee

“South/Southern” Species

South Polar Skua (N, E, S, W) 

South Polar Skua Flight1

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

 

Mayday! May Day!

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

Colima Warbler – Big Bend Texas – Photo by Greg Lavaty

Colima Warbler

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

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

Bachman's Sparrow5

Baltimore Oriole – Connecticut – May 1, 2019

Baltimore Oriole1

Black and White Warbler – Connecticut – May 1, 2019

Black and White Warbler1

Canada Jay – Washington – May 1st, 2015

Canada Jay

Florida Scrub Jay – May 1st, 2017

Florida Scrub-jay

Limpkin – Florida -May 1st, 2017

Limpkin2

Louisiana Waterthrush – Connecticut – May 1, 2019

Louisiana Waterthrush-1a - Copy

Red Cockaded Woodpecker – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Red Cockaded Woodpeckers 5

Snail Kite – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Snail Kite Flight4

Swallow Tailed Kite – Florida – May 1st, 2017

Swallow Tailed Kite

Tufted Titmouse – Massachusetts – May 1st, 2018

Tufted Titmouse

White Headed Woodpecker – Washington, May 1st, 2011

White Headed Woodpecker

 

The Full List

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

19 Birds instead of COVID-19

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

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

Bird #1 – American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow2

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

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

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

Bird #2 – Osprey – Ellensburg

Osprey

Bird #3 – White Throated Swift – Lmuma Overlook

White Throated Swift1

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

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

Black Necked Stilt

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

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

Bird #5 – Great Gray Owl on Nest

Great Gray Owl on Nest1

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

Bird #6 – Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

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

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

Bird #7 – Long Billed Curlew

Long Billed Curlew2

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

Bird #8 – Clark’s Grebe

Clark's Grebe2

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

Bird #9 – American Avocets

American Avocets

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

Bird #10 – Eared Grebe – Chiawana Park

Eared Grebe

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

Bird #11 – Blue Winged Teal – Para Ponds

Blue Winged Teal

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

Bird #12 – Tricolored Blackbird – Para Ponds

Tricolored Blackbird

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Bobwhite 1

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

Bird #14 – Solitary Sandpiper – Fife

Solitary Sandpiper

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

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

Pileated Woodpecker1

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

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

Hermit Thrush

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

Bird #17 – Hummingbird – South Seattle

Calliope Hummingbird Tongue

Calliope Hummingbird Grooming Vertical

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

Bird #18 – Wilson’s Warbler, Edmonds

Wilson's WarblerR

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

Bird #19 – Golden Crowned Kinglet

Golden Crowned Kinglet1

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

Weather or Not

On March 12th the weather report for the next day in Ellensburg, Washington called for clouds and rain turning to snow maybe that night.  Not perfect but Jon Houghton and I thought we would be okay to look for newly arrived birds in the area east of Ellensburg in the sage and shrub steppe habitats along Vantage Highway especially Sagebrush Sparrows which are early arrivals and are actively vocal in March.  We also considered birding in other locations nearby maybe even venturing south to Oak Creek to find some always present and always beautiful Lewis’s Woodpeckers.   Well, weather forecasts are not always accurate.

Lewis’s Woodpecker – from March 16, 2017

Lewis's Woodpecker

A light snow started to fall not long after clearing Snoqualmie Pass and while not a travel concern, we wondered about its effect on birding if it continued.  It never got real heavy, but continue it did for most of the rest of the day and it definitely impacted the birds and our birding.  Our itinerary would normally begin with birds at Bullfrog Pond east of Cle Elum and then a swing by the Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum but since we both had seen all the birds resident and likely at these spots and it was too early for migrants, we moved on directly to Umptanum and then Durr Roads just south of Ellensburg and the first really good sage habitat.  The snow continued.

By now both Western and Mountain Bluebirds are almost assured along Umptanum Road and we found both species albeit in smaller numbers than usual and the snowy conditions made photos less than worthwhile.  Durr Road heads up into thicker sage and is often good for Brewer’s, Vesper, and Lark Sparrows and sometimes Sage Thrashers.  We had none of them and our “best birds” were three male Common Mergansers flying over – go figure.

We met up with good birding friend Deb Essman in Kittitas who joined us for the next couple of hours.  We started with the pair of Great Horned Owls that are nesting in the shed across from her home.  Unfortunately the snow and birds were no kinder to Deb than they were to us and we were unable to find some of the birds that had been seen locally in better conditions like a Prairie Falcon or Wild Turkeys which were targets.  Not going to give all the details, but essentially we struck out on almost everything along Vantage Highway, Recreation Road, Frenchman’s Coulee and Huntzinger Road.  We had no wrens and only a pair of uncooperative Say’s Phoebes at Vantage and a surprise Vesper Sparrow on Lyon’s Road in a spot where Jon had them in previous years, but that was about it.  The good news though was that we had a great visit with Deb as we always do and never thought about politics or COVID-19 the whole time.  Jon ended up with 4 FOY’s (both Bluebirds, the Phoebe and the Vesper Sparrow).  I had the same plus a Horned Lark which Jon had seen in the hundreds when he visited the Waterville Plateau earlier this year.  Since 10 or 12 First of Year birds had been possible, this was not a big success.  We aborted the trip early and returned to Edmonds driving through Seattle at what would normally be the peak of the rush hour.  There was no traffic at all – a nice consolation.

Great Horned Owl – Third Year on Nest in Shed – Photo is with Young in 2018

Great Horned Owl and Owlets

The good thing about weather is that it changes – sometimes really quickly.  After our snowy day on March 13th the wind blew heavily that night – not unusual there – and then it began to warm up – just in time for Spring.  On Thursday March 19th, Cindy and I were supposed to fly to Fort Lauderdale, FL for four days of birding and tourism before joining Naturalist Journeys on a long awaited trip to Cuba.  The following month we were planning a trip to see friends and then some birds in Southeast Arizona.   My daughter and grandson were going to come visit in April and then in May Cindy was scheduled to visit England and I was going to join Bruce LaBar birding in Texas.  But COVID-19 vetoed all of that and all of those trips were cancelled.

Knowing that the 19th would be a real downer day and anticipating that travel in Washington might be shut down at any time, when I noted that the weather in Kittitas County was going to be beautiful on March 18th, I opted for the antidote of a return to birding and to try again for birds missed the previous week.  No surprise, weather really does matter and I had fabulous birding.  I skipped Umptanum and Durr Roads and headed straight to areas near Kittitas that Jon and I had birded with Deb Essman the previous Friday.  I could not relocate the Vesper Sparrow but did find a FOY Prairie Falcon nearby on Venture Road.  I was then surprised to have a male Ring Necked Pheasant scurry out from a farmyard and got a great look and a photo.  Then about a mile away as I turned around a curve, I saw another Ring Necked Pheasant on a fence not more than 10 feet away.  It remained motionless as I got probably the best picture I will ever get of one.

Ring Necked Pheasant

Ring Necked Pheasant1 (2)

From there it was on to Vantage Highway with the first spot being a personal hotspot where Deb Essman had shown me a Sage Thrasher several years ago.  No Thrasher but I had my First of Year Sagebrush Sparrows, both Western and Mountain Bluebirds and a surprise pair of relatively early Brewer’s Sparrows.  I was particularly pleased with the finds of both sparrows as I first identified them by song, something that is not my strength and then tracked them down.

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow2-sharpen-focus

Brewer’s Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow-sharpen-focus

Retracing Friday’s route, I next stopped at the Whiskey Dick/Quilomene Corrals and this time had much better luck with visuals of Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes, Sage Thrashers, Vesper Sparrows and a distant Sagebrush Sparrow.

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebird on Sage-sharpen-focus-sharpen-focus

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird Female-sharpen-sharpen

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe

Sage Thrasher

Sage Thrasher1

Distant Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow Quilomene

Continuing to retrace Friday’s route, I turned onto Recreation Road and pulled off to walk into the Canyon and look/listen for wrens.  A bird was singing and I thought it might be a Cassin’s Finch – a little odd for this habitat, but sure enough it was in a tree right by the parking area.  Very pink including onto its streaked back.  I could not get a clear shot and it flew off across the road.  I started my hike and as soon as I got onto the trail, two Chukar flushed and flew into the rocks across Recreation Road and gave their familiar “chuck” and “chuckar” calls as they climbed out of sight.  No wrens in the Canyon but it was a beautiful walk and I had already added two new year birds.

I found singing Rock and Canyon Wrens near the boat launch at the end of Recreation Road.  This is a regular spot for them and I have had both species there many times.  I just wish they had cooperated for Jon the previous week.  Weather clearly continued to matter.  Having added the Canyon Wren to my year list I now could skip a second try at Huntzinger Road – perhaps my most reliable spot for them.  I decided to return to Ellensburg and head south on Umptanum Road and onto Wenas Road to try for White Headed Woodpeckers.  I stopped the car near an area of pines and firs near Kindle Lane, a private road, where I have had these woodpeckers before.  As soon as I got out of the car I heard the unmistakable chattering of some Pygmy Nuthatches.  There were at least six in the trees above me.  I also heard at least two drumming woodpeckers.  One was a Northern Flicker behind me and far off but identified by the calls that would follow the drumming.  Another was a White Headed Woodpecker that was in the trees on the private property on Kindle Lane.  I got a quick response from playback and saw the woodpecker uphill but I could not get it to come down for a good look and a photo.  This would not be my only woodpecker frustration of the day.  Stay tuned – and yes I am talking about you Williamson’s Sapsucker.

A little further up the road, I again heard some tapping and had a Hairy Woodpecker right overhead.  It may have been the most active Hairy Woodpecker I had ever seen, flitting from one tree to another, drumming and then flying off again.  One picture was all I got.  I also heard another sound.  At first I could not recall what it was but knew it was something good and distinctive.  Then I remembered the call I had heard and the bird I had seen while waiting for the Ivory Gull at Flathead Lake – a Townsend’s Solitaire.  It was perched high on a distant conifer.  It would not sing in response to playback – only continue to call and to remain far uphill indifferent to my pleas.  I also had two more Cassin’s Finches (in more appropriate habitat), some Mountain Chickadees, a Cooper’s Hawk and a Kestrel at this location – quite a worthwhile stop.

Hairy Woodpecker – (No offense, but I would Have Preferred the White Headed Woodpecker)

Hairy Woodpecker Wenas

I was happy to get back on to pavement as Wenas Road ended and then I turned onto Maloy Road, again unpaved.  I have had multiple White Headed Woodpeckers in perfect habitat near BBQ Flats and really wanted a photo.  But it was quiet and birdless.  However, as I retraced steps I saw two raptors circling above and one was decidedly larger than the other.  The smaller one was a Red Tailed Hawk and the second was an eagle.  I assumed it was a juvenile Bald Eagle.  My assumption was wrong as proved by a close look and my photo.  It was a juvenile Golden Eagle – always a welcomed find.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle Juvenile

It was only about 1:15 p.m. and Oak Creek and its Lewis’s Woodpeckers were only 30 minutes away.  The sun was shining; there was no wind; plenty of gas…I was off.  I had forgotten how beautiful the drive along the Naches River on Highway 12 was. Truly gorgeous.  I arrived at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area and found the gate closed.  Instead of driving up Oak Creek Road as I usually do, I would have to walk.  As long as I found the woodpeckers, I didn’t care and in fact looked forward to a quiet visit and some good exercise.  Finding woodpeckers was no problem and the hike was exactly what the doctor ordered to forget politics and plagues.  Lewis’s Woodpeckers are often very close to the road perching on the many snags along the creek.  This time, the woodpeckers seemed to favor the trees across the creek but they were plentiful and a few were sufficiently close for good photos.  This is a wonderful place.

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker-sharpen-focus (2)

Oak Creek Canyon is also perfect habitat for Canyon Wren with steep rock cliffs in abundance.  At what I expected to be a perfect spot I played its beautiful mellifluous descending song and almost immediately got a response from high above on top of one of the cliffs.  I could see the white throat and long decurved bill with my binoculars but too far for a photo.  My experience has been that these wrens are very territorial and very responsive.  This is particularly so in response to their “jeet” call.  And so it was this day as the Canyon Wren moved closer and closer and closer probably travelling at least 125 yards.  In good light I got my photo.

Canyon Wren

Canyon Wren Best-sharpen-focus

There were at least 15 Lewis’s Woodpeckers in the lower half mile or so of the Canyon and another half dozen along the river back on Highway 12.  Fort Simcoe is the only other place I know of in the state with so many individuals of this truly beautiful species.  It had already been a good woodpecker day but I wanted one more so I made one more stop – at Bethel Ridge – further down Highway 12.  I believe it is the best place in Washington for the biggest variety of Woodpeckers and it is also good for Flammulated Owls and Poorwills in the late Spring.  I have had every species of Washington woodpecker there except Acorn Woodpecker – all on the same day.  That feat requires going to the top of the Ridge – a challenging road and can only be done later in the year.  My quest today would be a Williamson’s Sapsucker.  And as I hinted earlier, it would be a very frustrating experience.

I have heard and/or seen Williamson’s Sapsuckers at the “corrals” on Bethel Ridge Road – maybe two miles in at most from Highway 12 and that is where I planned to start my search.  White Headed Woodpeckers have been found on the way up so I stopped a few times to try playback for them.  No success.  As soon as I got out of my car at the corrals, I heard the distinctive “chyaah” call of a Williamson’s Sapsucker and then some drumming.  Then I heard a second call from the other side and further up the road.  I tried playback to draw one in but only got intermittent responses and no visuals.  For the next 20+ minutes this continued and I heard calls and drumming from numerous different spots, back and forth and up and down along the road.  There were certainly at least two and possibly more.  I ran back and forth thinking I would find one for a photo, but all I got was a single visual of one flying over a hill and into more trees.  There was no question that I had found my target, but I was disappointed and frustrated not to get the photo.  As the photo below from the same place a couple of years ago shows, they are really spectacular.

Williamson’s Sapsucker

Williamson's Sapsucker

I finally gave up and headed home – 176 miles away.  It was around 3:45 and with the light post Covid-19 traffic, I actually made back to Edmonds at 6:30 in time to join Cindy for dinner.

So yes weather does matter.  The Williamson’s Sapsucker made it 11 FOY’s for the day and 16 FOY’s adding in the birds seen with Jon Houghton.  I hope there will be a chance to return to this favored area as migration continues and more birds arrive.  They will not be affected by the Covid-19 virus, but we will.  Will travel be allowed?  Don’t know.  With that in mind Cindy and I squeezed in one more trip – not focused on birds but they were included as we visited the Washington Coast – a respite from the depressing news, a day in the sun and a chance for Chica to run loose on the beach.  We visited Tokeland, Grayland and Westport.

The Willet flock cooperated at Tokeland but we did not see any Marbled Godwits.  A treat, though, was a dozen or so Greater White Fronted Geese mixed in with Canada Geese just as we came to the marina.  There were several Western Grebes in the marina and I checked each as I have had Clark’s Grebes there before.

Willets

Two Willets

Greater White Fronted Geese

Greater White Fronted Geese Duo

Western Grebe

Western Grebe with Fish1

We found only a single Snowy Plover on the open beach and it flew off with Sanderlings and Dunlin which were plentiful.  At the end of our drive on the open beach, I found two FOY Semipalmated Plovers but there were no other shorebirds.  Chica did have a chance to chase a ball on the beach and we all enjoyed those carefree moments.

Cindy had never been to Westport before.  We drove through and looked for rockpipers at the “groins” but found none.  Charters are not going out of Westport and that includes the pelagic birding trips.  Restaurants are closed.  A pretty grim place at best of times, it was moreso now.  Cindy might be willing to return if pelagic trips are available again, but not interested otherwise.  We headed home and there would be one more notable bird for the trip as we found a First of Year Turkey Vulture soaring above us about 10 miles west of Olympia.

Now we will practice our social distancing and try to ride out this difficult time.  It is going to be a long ride and probably a rocky one.  At least we had some wonderful weather for a few days.  Next week the rains are due.  Sigh…

 

Smile for the Camera Please

For the first 30+ years of my birding life, I took no pictures.  It was not until I traveled to Australia in 2003 that I finally got a camera to take pictures of scenery as much as of the birds.  That first camera was a Canon Powershot.  It was a digital point and shoot zoom camera with maybe 20x magnification.  I didn’t know much about photography and frankly didn’t care.  Mostly I was trying to get pictures to catalog my experiences and to have images to help remember them.  The pictures in Australia were limited and not too great, but the photography seed had been planted.  It would grow.

Saltwater Crocodile –  Australia – September 2003

IMG_0105

For the next 10 years until 2012 my birding continued to be mostly international as I visited Brazil in 2005, Kenya in 2007 and India in 2011.  Canon introduced new cameras in their Powershot series and I upgraded to more powerful Powershots – finally a SX50 – each providing more and more magnification.  And each provided better pictures and more importantly provided more enjoyment as the photos became more important adding to my birding experiences.

Hyacinth Macaws – Pantanal, Brazil – September 2005

Hyacinth macaws 3r

Secretarybird – Kenya – November 2007

35-secretary-bird

The continuing increased role of photography reached a high point in 2015.  I had done a a State Big Year in Washington in 2013, 364 species seen with pictures of many.  In 2015 I decided to do another Big Year in the state but trying to get photos of as many of the species as possible.  In support of that adventure I bought my first Digital Single Lens Reflex camera (a “DSLR”) a Canon 7D Mark II with a zoom lens.  The year ended with pictures of 358 of the 361 species seen.  (Photos missed were Boreal Owl, Flammulated Owl and Common Poorwill.)  That was the camera and lens combination that I have used for the last 5 years.  I had some problems with the camera body which failed in Arizona and with the lens that failed in Louisiana in 2018 – big disappointments but that set-up served me well for hundreds of field trips and many thousand photos.

Spotted Owl – June 7, 2015 – Lewis County, WA

Spotted Owl 2

Then on February 17th I put my name on the list for a new Olympus mirrorless camera that was going to be released to the market the following week.  Over many preceding months birding friends who are terrific photographers had made the switch to mirrorless Micro Four Thirds cameras which are very much smaller and lighter than the DSLR combos they and I have been using.  They appreciated the lighter weight in the field and the smaller size in their travels, but they would not have made the switch without confidence that the quality was top notch.  Many had chosen various models offered by Olympus finding the quality of cameras and lenses to be excellent with two additional advantages.  These cameras were almost waterproof and their image stabilization features were far superior to models that had preceded them.  AND…Olympus was about to bring out a new model – the OM-D EM-1 Mark III promising even higher quality.

mark iii camera

Olympus has a fantastic “loaner program” through which I was first able to get a OM-D EM-1 Mark II camera body with a 300 mm lens to try for three days for free.  I really liked the camera.  I had some trouble finding my targets with the lens but the pictures were very good.  A major plus for this camera is incredible image stabilization and with the Micro Four Thirds processor, it essentially doubles the effective magnification.  Thus with a 300 mm lens it is equivalent to 600 mm.

Bewick’s Wren with the Mark II and 300 mm Lens

Bewicks Wren1-sharpen-focus

I had been working with Joanne Dailey at Kenmore Camera and she arranged for me to be able to get an advance model of the OM-D EM-1 Mark III and I coupled that with the 300 mm lens.  I gave the combo a real workout and was sold – at least for the camera.  The lens was terrific but I was used to my zoom lens and found that I had difficulty getting on the birds in the high magnification of the 300 mm lens especially with a 1.4 extender.  Still some very nice photos including of a very cooperative Northern Waterthrush and a finely plumaged Gadwall at Wylie Slough in Skagit County.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush4

Gadwall

Gadwall-sharpen-focus-sharpen-focus

I returned the loaned equipment and picked up my own OM-D EM-1 Mark III and 300 mm lens with a 1.4 extender and gave them another try.  I continued to have trouble finding the birds in the viewfinder without the zoom and went back to the drawing board.  Olympus has a 50 mm/150 mm zoom lens but that does not have sufficient magnification for my purposes.  It is due to release a compatible zoom lens later this year maybe even two – one a 100-400 mm zoom and the other a 150-600 zoom possibly with a built in 1.4 extender.  With upcoming trips to Florida, Cuba, Arizona and Texas, I did not want to wait.  I remembered that Joanne had told me that Lumix/Panasonic lenses made by Leica were compatible with the Olympus body and there was a 100-400 mm Lumix that got great reviews.  I tried it out in the camera store and was very pleased so I traded in the 300 mm Olympus for that zoom lens and returned my 1.4 extender which is not compatible with the Lumix lens.  The original combination with the extender was equivalent to 420 mm and the zoom was 400 mm at maximum power so there was not significant loss, and the reduction in cost saved me almost $1,000 – a real bonus.

Except for the phone pix taken at the Oyster Bar Restaurant, all photos below were taken with the Olympus/Lumix combination and I am very pleased with the quality and with the much smaller size and decreased weight.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Feather Detail

feathers

On March 10, I birded in Whatcom County with the specific goal of adding three species to my County Life List bringing it to 200.  The weather was overcast and a bit rainy and I definitely have not mastered the new equipment but it was a very fun time and I did find the three new species: American Dipper, Evening Grosbeak and Purple Finch.  Decent photos of the first two but the gems were a displaying Long Tailed Duck with a VERY long tail, a Varied Thrush and a Red Breasted Sapsucker with a VERY red breast.

Long Tailed Duck – Blaine Marina – Whatcom County – March 10th

Long Tailed Duck4A

Long Tailed Duck2A

Red Breasted Sapsucker – Glacier – Whatcom County – March 10th

Red Breasted Sapsucker on Pole1A

Varied Thrush – South Lake Whatcom SP – Whatcom County – March 10th

Varied Thrush1

American Dipper – South Lake Whatcom SP – Whatcom County – March 10th

American Dipper 1A

Evening Grosbeak – Glacier – Whatcom County – March 10th

Evening Grosbeak1-sharpen-focus

Today, March 12th, I squeezed in a couple of hours of birding after taking Cindy to the Paine Field Airport as she left for a memorial service in California for a dear friend that died unexpectedly and suddenly recently – a tragic loss.  I returned to Skagit County and picked up a couple of FOY’s and then had some nice photos at Wylie Slough as I continue to gain experience with the new camera and also continue to be very pleased.

Drake and Hen Shovelers

Shovelers

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

House Finch

House Finch

Tomorrow I head out with Jon Houghton to Eastern Washington with hopes that the Shrub/Steppe/Sage species will be in and that I will have photos to prove we saw them.   [Note:  we made that trip and added some new species but we were in falling snow and or very gray skies all day – no photos.]

The photos below are out of sequence – earlier than the ones above.  The first two were surprises at the off leash dog park in Edmonds and were not long after getting the new equipment and were confidence building.  The last set are the most important – a very nice bird and a very lovely dinner marking an important date.

Brant – Edmonds, WA — March 4th

Brant

Black Scoter – Edmonds, WA – March 4th

Black Scoter

These photos of a Short Eared Owl – one of 3 seen – was very special not just because the photos are nice, but because it was an appetizer of sorts to a superb meal at the Oyster Bar Restaurant on Chuckanut Drive on March 6, where Cindy and I celebrated our one year anniversary of knowing each other.

Short Eared Owl – Samish Flats – East 90’s – Skagit County

King Salmon at the Oyster Bar

King Salmon

Sturgeon at the Oyster Bar

Sturgeon

Cindy and Blair at the Oyster Bar

Oyster Bar

Stay tuned…

 

Fotos, Friends and Fabulous Weather

Western Washington is well known for gray, cloudy and rainy weather in February.  It’s a good time to head south for some sun.  This week girlfriend Cindy did that flying off for a week with friends in Southern California leaving me to get in trouble on my own – i.e. getting in some birding.  I had contemplated a variation on a southern escape myself with a trip to South Texas to try to add some ABA Lifers.  One potential target, a Hook Billed Kite, is continuing to be seen but the other bird of interest, a Fork Tailed Flycatcher, finally disappeared.  I could not justify the expense and time for a single new bird, tempting as it was.

Birding with Friends – Day 1 – West to Clallam County

Still, I did want to do some fun birding and it could not have turned out better.  Jon Houghton is going FOY crazy right now – seeking First Of Year species for Washington.  Several opportunities were beckoning from Clallam County.  He beckoned me and I was definitely game for a trip on Monday, February 17th.  Our main target would be a Glaucous Gull being seen near the Coast Guard Station at the end of Ediz Hook in Port Angeles.  Rare but regular in Washington, a Glaucous Gull is a good addition to any Year List in the State.  It would be a FOY for each and of especial interest to me to add to the great birds with a Northern affinity that I had seen in recent chases:  Ross’s and Ivory Gulls, Barnacle Goose, Gyrfalcon, Dovekie and Siberian Accentor.

Jon and I caught the 7:55 a.m. Edmonds ferry heading west across Puget Sound to Kingston.  It was a gorgeous sunny day.  The Olympic Mountains glistened in the distance with new snow – as fine a scene as there is anywhere.

Looking West to the Olympics from Hometown Edmonds

The Olympics

Jon got his first FOY as soon as we were on the ferry as several Bonaparte’s Gulls flew nearby with the white leading edges of their wings and their delicate flight making for an easy ID.  We watched for alcids on the crossing and found only Pigeon Guillemots – mostly in breeding plumage.  I had no FOY’s but was pleased to get a photo of a Brandt’s Cormorant already showing the plumes of breeding plumage as we docked in Kingston.

Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon Guillemot

Brandt’s Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant2

Although there were several good birds in the Sequim area that were on Jon’s hit list, we decided to first try for the Glaucous Gull and headed directly to Port Angeles and Ediz Hook, a reinforced and improved natural spit extending out into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca.  It has produced many good birds over the years including Yellow Billed Loon and Thick Billed Murre and can have Snow Buntings or Lapland Longspurs in addition to being a great spot for gulls.

Ediz Hook

Ediz Hook

Maybe half-way out onto the spit we saw a birder with a scope clearly fixed on something on the shore.  It was Lonnie Somer, a very good Washington birder, and he was looking at a Plover.  In the brilliant sunshine it had a bit of a golden cast, but unfortunately it was not a Golden Plover – just a Black Bellied Plover in non-breeding plumage.  Still a nice picture.

Black Bellied Plover

Black Bellied Plover

Lonnie was also interested in the Glaucous Gull and he joined us as we went to the end of the Spit to search for a large pale gull with a dark tip on its bill.  There were 30+ gulls resting, flying, moving, foraging.  The light was perfect – not a cloud in the sky.  It did not take long to find the Glaucous Gull.  It perched, walked, flew into the water and then perched again.  Photo ops were everywhere.  We were struck by its apparent size and especially the length of its wings compared to the Glaucous Winged or Glaucous Winged x Western hybrids (“Olympic Gulls“) which the field guides say are only an inch or two smaller.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull1r

Glaucous Gull Takeoff

Glaucous Gull in Water

Mission accomplished, we headed east back to Sequim looking for new year birds.  There were hits and misses.  The tide was still too high for the Pacific Golden Plover and Willet that had been seen at the 3 Crabs hotspot and we dipped on the American Dipper at the Railroad Bridge.  I added Long Tailed Duck to my year list.  Too far for a photo but gorgeous in the sunshine.  I got a good photo of one of the many Great Blue Herons we saw and it reminded me that sometimes we get so caught up in looking for target species that we forget about some of the everyday ones that are very special indeed.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron3

Dipping on a Dipper is not the end of the world, but they are fun species and I wish it had appeared for us.  There would be Dippers later, but Jon really wanted one on this day.  I had seen one at another location on the Dungeness River a couple of years ago off Woodcock Road.  It was worth a try.  Success – for Jon, but not for me.  He walked on one side of the bridge as I scouted on the other.  He called out that he had one.  I climbed over one barrier, crossed the road, climbed over another barrier and looked where Jon pointed.  There was “Dipper Poop” on the rock but no Dipper.  Especially this year, such a miss just doesn’t matter so much.  I was glad my friend had seen it and I settled for another scenery shot, happy just to be out this spectacular sunny day.

Dungeness River

Dungeness River

There would be one more fun stop as we pulled into the Sea-watch spot at Diamond Point.  Somewhat surprisingly we had seen very few loons and alcids despite being in good territory.  We had a single loon at this spot – a Pacific Loon and not the hoped for Yellow Billed, but we had a very nice 5 alcid list:  both Ancient and Marbled Murrelets, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot and Rhinoceros Auklet.  A nice end to very nice day and we even made it onto the 4:40 Ferry despite it being a holiday and signs indicating there was an hour wait.  Jon ended up with 4 FOY’s and I had 2, most importantly for both of us including the Glaucous Gull.  Much more importantly two good friends enjoyed the super weather and great company.  And I knew that I had scheduled another birding day with friends the next day as well.

Birding with Friends – Day 2 – South to Pierce County

County listing is a big time part of many birder’s lives.  I have many friends and met many folks on my 50/50/50 journey for whom it is the most important part of how they organize their birding activities.  Fortunately it has never been that important to me.  And I say fortunately because I have enough obsessions already.  That said I do like listing, do like round numbers and do occasionally note the county lists that Ebird automatically keeps for me.  So I had often noted that my life list for Pierce County was both pretty poor given how close it is to where I live in Southern Snohomish County, how often I pass through it on the way to other areas and how many good birding friends I have there – including some of the the very best birders in the State.  I also noted that my life list was getting fairly close to one of those noticeable round numbers.  It stood at 187 species and was missing many “easy ones”.  Why not go for 200?

On our chase of the Siberian Accentor, Bruce LaBar – one of those outstanding birders in Tacoma and Pierce County – and I had discussed a trip to Texas in May.  It was time to work on some details.  And Ed Pullen, another outstanding birder in Tacoma was recently back from a month of birding in Texas and wanted to talk about some ideas for his terrific Bird Banter Podcast (birdbanter.com).   The weather was again outstanding.  Here was an opportunity to see friends, cover some topics of interest and work on that County List.  Bruce and Ed were game.  I actually think they are always game to go birding in Pierce County.  I could not have better guides or better company.  Let’s go.

When heading south out of Edmonds, planning always has to consider traffic.  It used to be that being on the road by 6:00 a.m. meant that you could pretty much keep at the speed limit on the I-5 Freeway.  Now even leaving at 5 or 5:30, there is no guarantee.  Leave after 7 and the guarantee is that it will be a slow go.  It is 52 miles from my house to the Starbucks in Old Town in Tacoma where we were to meet at 8:00 a.m.  Without traffic my trip would be about an hour.  Bad traffic could easily double that time.  So I headed south at 5:40 a.m. and made relatively good time with only a few bottlenecks.  If I had continued on I would have gotten there an hour early.  I could go to Starbucks and just sit reading Facebook or playing online games or … I could bird.

Of course I chose the latter stopping at the “go to spot” for Redheads (ducks not people) at the pond in front of the former Weyerhauser Headquarters in Federal Way.  It was almost completely dark when I arrived but I could see a hundred or more ducks on the water.  The whistled calls meant that many if not most were Wigeons but it was too dark to really see.  In another 15 minutes, there was sufficient light to find a few Redheads scattered around the pond along with the Wigeons, Gadwalls, Ring Necked Ducks and Mallards.  These were the first Redheads I had seen this year.  It is not going to be a big list this year, but I still pay attention.

Then it was off to Tacoma with plenty of time even if there was some additional traffic.  Traffic was light so there was time to make another stop along the way.  I had prepared a “needs” list for Pierce County.  It was only of birds that had been reported as seen in the County over the past two weeks.  One was a Brant – a goose that is plentiful in the salt water near my home in Edmonds but pretty rare in Pierce County.  It was being reported at Thea’s Park which was on the way to my rendezvous spot.  I pulled over and parked, grabbed my camera and thought about getting my spotting scope, expecting the goose to be out in Commencement Bay somewhere.  I looked up before hauling out the scope and not more than 100 feet from me was a single Brant sitting alone on the grass.  So within 2 seconds, I had added a new County bird.  And got some really nice photos.  An omen for a great day.  And did I mention that the weather was again spectacular?

Brant – Pierce County Lifer #188

Brant

I was at the meeting spot a bit early, but Bruce called with a small change in plans and he and Ed would be by shortly.  It turned out Ed lived very near the Starbucks so we met on the street where I could park.  Bruce had my “needs list” and places to go for many of the birds on it.  Ed had a new car, a Subaru Outback, and this would be its first birding trip.  It was if I had signed on for a guided tour.  I just sat back and got the royal treatment with two of the County’s best.  I never knew where we were going but it did not matter.  I was in good hands.

Our first stop was to Puget Park and our first target was a Barred Owl.  It is perfect habitat – wooded slopes with a good trail.  A pair of raccoons crossed the trail maybe 150 yards ahead of us.  One stopped to give us the eye and I grabbed a quick photo.

Raccoon at Puget Park

Raccoon

We played the Barred Owl’s familiar “Who cooks for you – all” call at a couple of spots not far into the park.  No response for maybe five minutes and then I spied one flying above us down the trail and then it landed on an open branch in a nearby tree.  A FOY and a County Lifer and a nice photo.  It began to call and got a response from another owl on the other side of the trail.  We watched it for maybe ten minutes and then it took off – probably to join its mate.

Barred Owl – Pierce County Life Bird #189

Barred Owl1

Our next stop was Point Defiance Park – Dune Peninsula.  What a fabulous spot – newly developed into a beautiful park with lots of viewing opportunities into Puget Sound and the Bay, open areas, grassy lawns and of special interest to us – Western Meadowlarks.  It is not where I would have expected them, but they were there in good numbers and beautiful in the brilliant sunshine.  Note:  when I looked at this picture, I could not understand the pattern in the background.  The Meadowlark had obviously just flown off a fence.  It is a fence in the background as well – just as black as the one in the foreground but lightened to a fading light as the camera’s depth of field almost made it disappear entirely.

Western Meadowlark – Pierce County Life Bird #190

Western Meadowlark

This was a well orchestrated trip.  When our next stop produced over 100 American Wigeons but without a Eurasian Wigeon among them, Bruce and Ed had a Plan B that took us to Titlow Park where a smaller flock of Wigeons included at least 3 Eurasians – two males and a female and also what appeared to be a hybrid American/Eurasian.  With the sun behind me and directly on the ducks, photos were easy.  I was particularly happy to get one photo where both male and female Eurasians were joined by an American and all were in pretty good focus.

Eurasian Wigeon – Pierce County Life Bird #191

Eurasian Wigeon Male

Male and Female Eurasian Wigeon and Male American Wigeon

Three Wigeons

Around the corner from the ducks we again viewed the salt water and had all three species of Cormorant including Brandt’s Cormorant, another Pierce County Lifer, number 192.

Brandt’s Cormorant – Pierce County Lifer #192

Brandt's Cormorants

We then moved south to Purdy Spit where somewhat continuing the surprising absence of loons in Clallam County the previous day, we (actually Ed) found only a single Red Throated Loon.  Purdy was not as birdy as it often is but Bruce managed to pull a couple of Black Scoters – our target – out of a flock of Surf Scoters.  Pretty awful views, but sufficient for an ID and Pierce County Lifer #193.  No photo of the Black Scoter but a gorgeous male Barrow’s Goldeneye was very cooperative.  There were Common Goldeneye as well, a common species throughout the morning.  Too bad there was no Common Eider here as there had been in January 2017.

Barrow’s Goldeneye

Barrow's Goldeneye

It was time to move away from the water and we headed to the University of Puget Sound Campus to look for a Townsend’s Warbler.  Nothing at first but then I saw a flash of yellow on a cedar tree and we had our bird, and then another.  It was another new Pierce County bird and the first I had seen in Washington this year.

Townsend’s Warbler – FOY and Pierce County Lifer #194

Townsend's Warbler

We continued to “the Gog” aka the Gog-Le-Hi-Te Mitigated Wetlands where we would scan the gulls on the nearby warehouse roofs looking for an Iceland Gull.  I had probably seen one there before bit had not paid any attention.  This time we found several.  I really do not like gull identification and the longer I look at them, many of the species begin to look alike to me.

Iceland Gull – Pierce County Lifer #195

Iceland Gull

And then it was further east and to new territory for me as we went to the fields in West Orting looking for the flock of Swans wintering there.  Against the green background of the field, the large white birds were hard to miss and I quickly had Pierce County Lifer #196 – a Trumpeter Swan.  Would there be another?  Bruce had seen a Tundra Swan in with the Trumpeters earlier but we could not find it now.  We did find two Trumpeters with rusty chests and necks – a result of having iron in their diet somewhere.

Trumpeter Swan – Pierce County Lifer #196

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter swans with “Stained Plumage”

Stained Swans

We also found a single Greater White Fronted Goose – not a County lifer but new for me in 2020.  Better yet, Bruce kept on looking at every bird and finally found one with the tell-tale yellow on the bill below the eye.  A Tundra Swan was to be Lifer #197 on my Pierce County List after all.

Greater White Fronted Goose – FOY

Greater White Fronted Goose

Tundra Swan – Pierce County Lifer #197

Tundra Swan Head

We tried for one more County Lifer – a Lesser Goldfinch.  We looked at several spots but were unsuccessful.  They are in the area – just not cooperating this day.  It was time to head back to Tacoma and then for me to head home.  We had missed three possibilities: Common Murre, Peregrine Falcon and the Lesser Goldfinch, but I was thrilled to add 10 new County life birds, bringing me oh so close to the magic 200 species for the County.  So definitely a great day of birds and great photos, but far and away what was best was birding with two great friends.  That big yellow thing in the sky was a nice bonus.

Two super days of sunshine, friends and birds.  Photos were a welcomed part of the adventure.  I do love birding.

 

 

 

A Siberian Accentor in Washington – Thank You Russ Koppendreyer

I often find typos or errors in previous blog posts and go back an make the change – no big deal.  Another change is in order and this one is a big deal.  A very nice big deal.

In an earlier post (See https://blairbirding.com/2016/01/21/o-canada-rare-visitors-to-b-c-redwing-and-siberian-accentor/), I wrote:  “The Siberian Accentor is a small passerine bird, much like a sparrow, which breeds in northern Siberia on both sides of the Urals. It is migratory, wintering in southeast Asia. It is a rare vagrant in western Europe, and a very rare vagrant on the West Coast of the United States. Another “mega” in the ABA area.  I don’t know if it has ever been seen in Washington State – certainly not by me…”  Nothing has changed about the description of the bird or its normal range, but thanks to Russ Koppendreyer, I have to change that part about if it had ever been seen in Washington and that part about “not by me”.

That earlier blog post followed a trip to British Columbia successfully chasing a bird found there by George Clulow on January 3, 2016.  It was a mob scene but I was able to observe and get a distant photo of a Siberian Accentor – an ABA Life Bird.  That Accentor stayed until at least January 18th and was seen by many observers from Canada and the U.S.

Siberian Accentor – B.C. – January 4, 2016

Siberian Accentor1

On Thursday, February 6th, Russ Koppendreyer, an excellent birder, posted the following on Tweeters, the major listserv for Washington birders:  “I just found what I believe to be a Siberian Accentor at the west end of Stenerson Rd in the Woodland Bottoms. Photo sent to expert, but confident enough to get the word out. In leafless tree on north side of road with Juncoes, then flew behind the west most house on north side of the road.”

And then the madness began…

I contacted Russ for more details and the photo he sent absolutely confirmed the ID.  Knowing all too well my Rule 1 for a chase to “go now”,  I debated leaving immediately.  Without major traffic issues (never guaranteed), I calculated I could get to the location by maybe 3:45 p.m.  The days are getting longer, but that still did not leave a whole lot of good light.  If I made the 3 hour drive and did not find the bird, then what?  Stay the night and try the next day? Return home with an even longer drive since the traffic for sure would be bad?  I had seen the B.C. bird but it would be really nice to have it on my Washington List.  I decided to wait and try the next day.  When reports came in that it had been seen again after 3:45 pm, I chided myself for not leaving earlier.  Maybe it would stay.

Russ’s Siberian Accentor Photo (Enhanced)

Russ Accentor

I called several friends to see if they were up for an early morning departure and quickly found 3 who were up for the adventure, including Bruce LaBar from Tacoma.  The fact that this would be a state life bird for Bruce attests to its rarity as Bruce had seen 453 species in the state, significantly atop the Ebird all-time list.  Jon Houghton, Mark Tomboulian and I left Edmonds at 5:30 a.m.  on Friday the 7th and picked up Bruce an hour later.  Our next stop would be Stenerson Road.  We wagered how many birders would already be there, but the important question was whether any of them would be looking at “THE BIRD”.

We arrived about 8:10 a.m.  The answer to the first question was somewhere between 15 and 20 and the answer to the second was “No” but it had been seen earlier.  More birders arrived in short order and by 8:40 we heard someone say “I’ve got it!”  It was seen in a distant willow tree across a field maybe 200 yards away.  The Accentor is a small bird, less than 5.5 inches long.  It could barely be seen even with our scopes, but the brief looks mostly buried in foliage were sufficient to see the buffy orange breast, supercilium and throat and black mask.  Not great looks but they were looks of a great bird.  The best picture I could get was the tree in which the Accentor was buried.  A tiny spot in the tree was the bird, so I technically had a photo of a Siberian Accentor in Washington, but certainly not ID quality and not good enough to honestly include on my State Photo list.

The Accentor Tree – It Really Is in There – to the Right of the Arrow

Acc Tree

The bird flew to the adjoining tree and continued to play hide and seek.  Barely decent scope looks and no photos at all.  Then it disappeared.  After another hour plus we said goodbye to the now more than 50 birders who had assembled and headed off for some Clark County birding.  Of particular interest was Lower River Road where a Snowy Egret continues.  Extremely rare in Washington, this Snowy Egret with one or two Great Egrets has been found at this spot for three years now – the only one in the State.  We found the two Egrets and lots of waterfowl including large flocks of Tundra Swans, Cackling Geese, Snow Geese and many ducks.  There were also many Sandhill Cranes.  We had seen some earlier at the Accentor stakeout spot.  There were also many California Scrub Jays.  Within the past 10 years this species has significantly expanded its range and in now quite common in Clark and Cowlitz counties.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

Great Egret

Great Egret

California Scrub Jay

California Scrub Jay

We failed to find the Lesser Goldfinches that have often been seen at a small park in Vancouver, WA and then were disappointed to find that the River S Unit of Ridgefield NWR was closed on weekdays.  We had hoped for a Red Shouldered Hawk there.  We looked for one at the Carty Unity of the Refuge and were unsuccessful.

We returned to the Accentor Stakeout hoping for better looks.  There were many birders there – some remaining from the morning but mostly new arrivals.  There had been sporadic observations for a short while after we left but nothing for a couple of hours.  We waited 30 minutes and then headed home.  It had been a very fun day and we had seen the main target and added some species for the year.  If only I had gotten the photo, I would have been completely satisfied.  Even an almost traffic free return trip during what should have been rush hour did not quite make for the failure to get that picture.  Guess I can still get greedy sometimes.

My best estimate is that at least 70 people had tried for and/or seen the Siberian Accentor on Friday.  There were many more than that who gave it a go on Saturday and unlike our experience, there were several times on Saturday when the Siberian Accentor flew into the close-in apple tree where Russ had first seen it or in to some cedars about halfway between the apple tree and the distant willows.  There were some ok photos and some that were quite good.  Ouch…rub it in.  I gave a quick thought to a return trip to get a photo.  We were going to an Oscars Party Sunday evening so I decided to just be happy with seeing this mega rarity again – and now in my home state.  BUT…even more reports and more photos came in from Sunday.  How about Monday?

On many occasions (birding and otherwise) I have recognized my good luck in having Cindy Bailey enter my life.  Not long into our relationship, she took a big chance and joined me on a couple of my 50/50/50 Adventures in Ohio and Michigan and then again later in Wyoming and Montana.  She got a taste of a chase when she joined Jon Houghton and me going for the Emperor Goose in Sequim in December, but she had enough sense not to come along on my Ivory Gull marathon (see https://blairbirding.com/2020/02/05/ an-ivory-gull-at-flathead-lake-whats-behind-a-complicated-chase/).  I had bemoaned my lack of a photo of the Accentor off and on Saturday and Sunday.  She encouraged me to try again.  We had nothing scheduled for Monday and Cindy was interested in a firsthand view of the craziness I had described with the throngs at the stakeout.  She was game for a road trip.  The weather was great on Monday morning and when I saw an early report that the Accentor had been seen again, the decision was made.  So we loaded Chica (our Black Labrador) into her crate and headed south, leaving at 10:00 a.m.

Helped a bit by being a car pool (even without Chica), we breezed through first Seattle and then Tacoma and made it to Stenerson Road around 1:00 pm.  I grabbed my camera and checked the settings – or tried to – but I had really blown it.  Unknowingly I had left the camera on from the Friday trip and even though I had a double battery pack in – it was dead!!!  I will not repeat the language I used to express my anger – at myself.  I have learned some lessons though and had brought a back up camera – a Canon 70SX.  I am still not used to it and it does not focus as fast or well or reload as fast as my DSLR, but it was all I had.

There were maybe 15 birders already there.  We got the word that the Accentor had been seen intermittently.  We joined the group – and waited.  Nothing for maybe 20 minutes and then it flew out from the trees behind the road where the birders were gathered and where it could not be seen, and made a 3 second stop in the apple tree and then headed off to the cedars with a bunch of Juncoes and disappeared.  We had seen it in flight and got just enough of a glance to know it was the Accentor but no chance at a photo.  Cindy took Chica for a walk and I continued the vigil as more birders arrived.  Perhaps 15 minutes later a flock flew from the cedars to the trees behind the road.  We had a one second view of the Accentor as part of the group and that was it.  Another 10 minutes passed and I had walked a little distance away from the group and was close to the apple tree.  I saw a single bird fly in and it was again the Accentor.   I yelled out – “it’s our bird”.  I should have concentrated on getting my photo.  By the time I could try, it flew off again.

I went to the car and checked on Chica and Cindy – quite frustrated as I probably could have gotten a photo if I had the other camera.  They were fine.  We nibbled on fruit and crackers we had brought along.  I regained composure and returned for one more try.  Now there were maybe 25 people there – anxious and eager.  Once more the Accentor flew into the apple tree.  This time it perched in the open and stayed in the open for a moment or two.  That was just enough time to finally get a few pictures.  I have trouble focusing this camera in general and much moreso when there are branches to deal with and end even moreso when I am stressing about it.  So, not the best photos ever, but I now had an OK photo of a Siberian Accentor in Washington.  It was state photo #410.  Hurray!!

Siberian Accentor

Siberian Accentor

Feeling very much better when I returned to the car this time, I felt I owed both Cindy and Chica some compensating time and experience.  Listing a Snowy Egret in Washington is not important to Cindy, but she had enjoyed seeing one in California in December.  More importantly I knew she and especially Chica would enjoy the walking at Lower River Road and it really was a gorgeous day, so that would be our next stop.  The sunshine was spectacular, both Mt. St. Helens and Mt Hood were brilliant against the blue sky, and there were waterfowl in the hundreds with great looks at Canvasbacks, Hooded Mergansers, American Wigeon, Ring Necked Ducks, Cackling Geese, Tundra Swans, Mallards, Pintails and Gadwalls.  We also saw what to me was an unbelievable 15 Great Egrets and then the Snowy Egret.

Much more importantly we had a great walk with Chica getting a chance to romp along and then go into retriever mode to chase and bring back “the stick”, time after time after time.  It truly was gorgeous and as relaxing a time as we could hope for, a great capper for a great day.

Mt. Hood

IMG_9631

My Two “Girls” – Cindy and Chica

Cindy and Chica

I had promised a good dinner if we found the Accentor and we thought about trying something new in Olympia.  I had passed by the “Rib Eye” Restaurant in Napavine many times on birding trips but had never stopped.  The timing was right and when the sign caught our eye about 6 pm heading north we decided to go for some beef.  They did not have prime rib on weekdays, so we settled for some rib eye steaks.  A bit of gristle but done just right and there was enough to give Chica a treat as well.

Rib Eye Steak

Steak

A few more words on the Siberian Accentor.  When Russ posted his marvelous find on Tweeters, it set in motion a wonderful reaction in the birding world.  The location was less than an hour from Portland and its airport and about 2.5 hours from Seattle.  Birders from all over Oregon and Washington flocked to see the bird beginning on the afternoon of the 6th and the crowd grew on Friday and then Saturday and then again on Sunday.  Birders from many other states came in as well.  Birding friends of mine visited from Boston and Ohio and I am sure there were  birders from other states as well.  The rush has continued in smaller numbers Monday when I returned for a second visit and the observations have continued this morning.  Birds that over wintered in Idaho and Montana stayed for two months.  The B.C. Accentor remained for 2 weeks.  Who knows how long this will one will remain.

You get a good sense of the rarity and appeal of the bird since it is the one pictured on the cover of “Rare Birds of North America” (Howell, Lewington and Russell).  After seeing Russ’s Tweeters post on Thursday, I posted the find (by him and with his photo) on the ABA Rare Bird Alert page on Facebook.  There were 100 “likes” within 10 minutes and they continue today – now being over 800.  I posted it because it was a similar post about the Ivory Gull in Montana that got me motivated to chase it.  I do not know how many people have now seen the Siberian Accentor, but I know we all owe Russ Koppendreyer a great big THANK YOU!!

Rare Birds of North America Cover

Accentor Book

I have to say this in my blogs that include rarities – I would greatly prefer that male Smew – but a Siberian Accentor is a great add to my state life list and photo lists and continues a run of successful chases and great birds lately.  Maybe this will be the Year of the Smew.