FOY’s

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

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

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

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

Western Bluebird – FOY for both of us in 2019

Western Bluebird

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

Chestnut Backed Chickadee

Chestnut Backed Chickadee2

Violet Green Swallow

Violet Green Swallow

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

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan1

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

Evening Grosbeak – FOY for both of us in 2019

Evening Grosbeak

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

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

Great Horned Owl on Nest

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

Elk Herd

Elk

Single Elk

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

Mountain Bluebird – FOY for both of us in 2019

mountain-bluebird.jpg

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

Horned Lark

Horned Lark1

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

Sagebrush Sparrow – FOY for both of us in 2019

Sagebrush Sparrow2

Sagebrush Sparrow1

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

Bell's Sparrow6

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

Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe Vertical

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

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

Rock Wren – a FOY for Both of Us

Rock Wren

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

Canyon Wren – A FOY for Jon

Canyon Wren2

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

Mount Rainier from Eastern Washington

Mount Rainier

Birding Closer to Home

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

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

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

Northern Mockingbird1

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

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

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

Mountain Quail

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

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

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

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

Mt. Baker on a Gorgeous Day

2P5A5794

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

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

Tree Swallow

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

Two American Kestrels

two-kestrels.jpg

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

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

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

Snow Geese – Just Part of the Huge Gathering

Snow Geese Flight

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

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

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

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

Bewick’s Wren

Bewick's Wren

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

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

American Bittern Monday

American Bittern Classic Pose

American Bittern2

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

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

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

Wigeons – American and Eurasian – and Mallards – Pioneer Highway

Eurasian Wigeon

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

Northern Harrier – Eide Road

Northern Harrier Perched  Northern Harrier Wings Out

Northern Harrier Perched1

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

Sharp Shinned Hawk – Wylie Slough

Sharp Shinned Hawk

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

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

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

Turkey Vulture

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

Purple Finch – FOY – Padilla Heights March 11, 2019

Purple Finch

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird

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

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

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

Rough Legged Hawks

Rough Legged Hawk

Rough Legged Hawk Flight2

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

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

Breadfarm Pastries

Breadfarm Pastries

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

Merlin – Edison – March 11, 2019

Merlin1

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

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

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

Free Solo

 

The Okanogan – Hits, Misses and Gorgeous Country

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

Okanogan scene 1

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

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

Horned Larks on Road

Horned Larks

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

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

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

Red Tailed Hawk Harassing Eagle

Eagle and Red Taile

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (2)

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

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

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

Chukar – Fancher Road

Chukar

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

Chukar – Hawaii

Chukar

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

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

Ring Necked Pheasant – Fancher Road

Pheasant

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

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

Red Crossbill1 (2)

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

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

Snow Bunting Flock in Flight

Snow Buntings Flight

Snow Buntings on Hillside

snow Buntings Ground

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

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

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

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

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

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

Sharp Tailed Grouse

Sharp Tailed Grouse in Tree1

Sharp Tailed Grouse (2)

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

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

Red Tailed Hawk – Dark Morph

Red Tailed Hawk Dark Morph

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

Northern Shrike (N. Siwash Creek Road)

Northern Shrike (2)

Mountain Chickadee – Davies Road

Mountain Chickadee (2)

Pine Siskins – Davies Road

Pine Siskins

Red Breasted Nuthatch – Davies Road

Red Breasted Nuthatch with Seed

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

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

More of the Countryside

Okanogan scene2

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

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker (2)

White Headed Woodpecker

White Headed Woodpecker

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

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

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

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

Snow Bunting on Cameron Lake Road

Snow Bunting (2)

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

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

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

Horned Lark

Horned Lark (2) Horned LArk Flight

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

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

Raven

Junk Food Raven

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

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

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

 

Life after Snow – Some Good Old Washington Birding

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

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

My Edmonds Snow at its Peak

Edmonds Snow

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

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

Waves

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

Willet Photos – Tokeland Marina

Willet2

Willets1

Willet Wings2

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

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

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

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

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

Sanderling

Sanderling

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

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

Marbled Godwits

Marbled Godwits

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

Western Gull

Western Gull

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

Western Grebe

Western Grebe

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

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

Great Blue Heron with Frog

GBH with Frog Best

GBH with Frog1

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

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Yellow Rumped Warbler

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

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

 

 

 

The Big Day on the Big Island

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

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

My Guide – Lance Tanino

Lance Tanino

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

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

Our Big Day Route

Map

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

Waimea Natural Area – Ulu La’au

Scene

Erckel’s Francolin

Erckel's Francolin

Kalij Pheasant – Male and Female

Kalij Pheasant Male

Kalij Pheasant Female1

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

Zebra Dove

Zebra Dove 2r

Northern Cardinal Female

Northern Cardinal Female

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird 1

Saffron Finch

Saffron Finch1r

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

Gray Francolin

Gray Francolin

Eurasian Skylark

Eurasian Skylark3

Ring Necked Pheasant

Ring Necked Pheasant

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

Chukar

Chukar

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

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

Hawaii-Amakihi Grace Oliver

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

Palila (Internet Photo)

Palila

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

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

Apapane

Apapane4

Apapane2

I’iwi

Iiwi1

Iiwi2

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

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

Omao

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

Hawai’i Elepaio

Elepaio

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

Hawaiian Hawk

Hawaiian Hawk Flight

Hawaiian Hawk1

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

Native Forestr

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

Cinnamon Teal

Cinnamon Teal

Black Crowned Night Heron

Black Crowned Night Heron

“Hawaiian Duck” – Koloa

Hawaiian Duck1

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets

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

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy Duck

Ring Necked Duck

Ring Necked Duck

Greater White Fronted Goose

Greater White Fronted Goose

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

Yellow Fronted Canary

Yellow Fronted Canary1

Scaly Breasted Munia on Guinea Grass (with seeds)

Scaly Breasted Munia 1

Common Waxbills

Common Waxbill1

Red Avadavats

Red Avadavat1r red-avadavat-3.jpg

Red Avadavat Front

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

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

Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse

Sandgrouse

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

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone Maunu Lani1

Pacific Golden Plovers

Stacked Golden Plovers

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

Rosy Faced Lovebirds

Rosy Faced Lovebirds1

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

African Silverbills

African Silverbill Lineup1

African Silverbills1

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

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

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

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

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

Map of completed states

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

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

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

Donuts…Yum!!

Komoda Store

Donuts

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

Hawaiian Stilt — Ae’o

Hawaiian Stilt Head

Hawaian Stilt Flight

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

Black Crowned Night Heron (Auk’u)

Black Crowned Night Heron

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Nene Kanaha

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

Red Crested or Brazilian Cardinal

Red Crested Cardinal

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

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

Black Bellied Plover

Black Bellied Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover

Sanderling

Sanderling

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone1

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler

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

Yellow Billed Cardinal

Yellow Billed Cardinal1

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

Green Sea Turtle

Green Sea Turtle

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

White Faced Ibis

White Faced Ibis Flyiover1

White Faced Ibis1

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

Hawaiian Coot

Hawaiian Coot

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull1

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

Black Crowned Night Herons

Black Crowned Night Heron  Black Crowned Night Heron Juvenile

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

Common Waxbill

Common Waxbill1

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

Red Masked Parakeets

Red Fronted Parrots

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

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

Red Junglefowl

red-jungle-fowl-domestic.jpg

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

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

Scaly Breasted Munia

Scaly Breasted Munia3

Spotted Dove

Spotted Dove 2

Java Sparrow

java-sparrow.jpg

Zebra Dove

Zebra Dove

Yellow Fronted Canary

Yellow Fronted Canary

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

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

Red Billed Leiothorix

red-billed-leiothorix1.jpg

Red Billed Leiothorix

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

Japanese White Eye

Japanese White Eye in Cherry Tree

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

Bristle Thighed Curlew

Bristle Thighed Curlew

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

Eurasian Skylark

Eurasian Skylark 2

Rosy Faced Lovebirds

Rosy Faced Lovebird 2

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

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

Common Mynas

Common Mynas

 

Mahalo Hawaii!!!

 

A New Year – Washington Birding in January 2019

[All of my blog posts share experiences that have meaning to me.  This one probably more than most is also more “for me” as it is how I am keeping track of  my birding in Washington in January this year.  So maybe a little more than usual of a recitation of “and then I and then I and then I…” Probably too much so, but it does cover a lot of ground and there was not time to go deeper.]

Although it seems like it in the middle of the year when I am chasing a bird somewhere to reach a goal, most years start off with no specific plan.  Last year was different only in that there had been a number of rare birds that were seen in late December in Washington and were still around on January 1st, so I began the year with the idea of seeing them again early.  As that proved successful and I added more birds, the idea of a Big Month came to mind and that became the goal for January 2018.  Parts of that were chronicled in several blog posts culminating in a review of the month and its 208 species in https://wordpress.com/post/blairbirding.com/20159.

This year will be different as I will be traveling much of the year hoping to finish my 50/50/50 project and I still have 26 states to go.  Most of the prime migration season – mid-April through Mid-May and into June will find me out of Washington.  I was able to bird a lot in Washington before my trip to New Mexico earlier this month (chronicled in two blog posts) and squeezed in a fun day in Eastern Washington with Frank Caruso and Deb Essman after New Mexico and before chasing the Dusky Thrush in British Columbia.     I hope to get up to the Okanogan in February when I get back from Hawaii, but after that – who knows.  This post shares some photos and experiences from January in Washington – stockpiling a few birds before my absence later.

Week One

I started the new year with a visit to Yost Park in Edmonds just down the street from my home.  At least one Barred Owl was calling but hard as I tried I could not locate it.  I also visited some other Edmonds hotspots before heading north to Eide Road and the Wiley Slough.  I was able to get a distant photo of the continuing Black Phoebe at Wiley and had a brief visual of the Northern Waterthrush that also remains in the little pond near the boat launch before a boorish trespassing photographer flushed all birds in the area.  I was not a happy camper.

Black Phoebe

skagit black phoebe

On Allen Road near Bow, there was a giant flock of Dunlin sitting in a field.  All hell broke loose when both a Merlin and a Peregrine Falcon attacked the flock at the same time.  My poor photo captured the silhouette of the latter only.

Dunlin at Rest

dunlin

Peregrine Attacking Dunlin

peregrine chasing dunlin

At the East 90’s there were multiple Northern Harriers and Short Eared Owls and only a few Bald Eagles.

Northern Harrier

northern harrier

Short Eared Owl

seow4

The next day I stayed close to home first visiting Jon Houghton who had a pair of White Throated Sparrows coming to his feeder and then looking for the Harris’s Sparrow that Frank Caruso had found near the Edmonds Marsh.  I got photos of the former but only a brief look at the latter as it flushed as I approached – thinking it was closer to Jon and Laura Brou who had relocated it.

White Throated Sparrow

white throated sparrow2

A couple of days later I made my annual early winter trip up to Semiahmoo.  Lots of new species but views were limited by damage to the boardwalk that precluded getting closer to the Long Tailed Ducks for example.  A surprise rarity was a Whimbrel that I found in Drayton Harbor sitting on a rock at high tide.

Whimbrel

whimbrel on rock1

Another surprise and an indicator of our mild winter was a small flock of Barn Swallows at the Sandy Point tennis courts.

Barn Swallow

barn swallow1

On January 5 I could not locate the Surfbird that had been seen at the Edmonds fishing pier but got nice photos of a Bonaparte’s Gull and a Belted Kingfisher.

Bonaparte’s Gull

bonaparte's gull with fish

Belted Kingfisher

belted kingfisher1

Back at Yost Park, I tried again without success to locate the Barred Owl.  It has always been a good spot for Pileated Woodpeckers.  I played one of their calls and a pair flew in close by.  They never made a sound but posed for a photo.

Pileated Woodpecker

pileated wp

Then I headed north to Tulalip where Maxine Reid had located a Ruddy Turnstone and reported it daily.  I had missed it once but was successful this time as it was close by on a crustacean encrusted log in the marina.  Always a good bird for Washington.

Ruddy Turnstone

ruddy turnstone2

On the way back home, I stopped at Everett Marine Park and was able to get a picture of a Herring Gull – one of almost 100 gulls there.  Earlier in the week I thought I had gone to the wrong place as there were no gulls present.  I had been in the right place, but this time people were there throwing potato chips to the gulls…works every time.

Herring Gull with Its Bold Yellow Eye

herring gull

There was a terrible windstorm on the night of January 5th.  I had planned to bird in the Snoqualmie Valley on the 6th but encountered roads closed and trees down.  I was able to find a couple of skulking Swamp Sparrows and get terrible photos at the Sikes Lake Bridge but I gave up when I encountered yet another closed road and went home.

I ended the week finally getting a very distant scope only view of two Surfbirds at the Edmonds Pier and then seeing the American White Pelican that Josh Adams had found in a large flock of Trumpeter Swans in a field off East Lowell Larimer Road.  It flew off while I was there and disappeared for a couple of days but returned to the same location a few days later.

American White Pelican

white pelican flight

Returning to Eide Road and then Skagit County, I finally found some Western Meadowlarks and Tundra Swans to go with the hundreds of Trumpeters that I had seen.

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark.jpg

Tundra Swans

tundra swans

Trumpeter Swans

trumpeter swan

The Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Surfbirds and White Pelican were probably the best birds of that first week.  I had been out for at least part of each day and by week’s end had 122 species in the state.  I had not strayed very far but the weather had been good except for the wind.  A decent week of birding but 23 species and many rarities fewer than the previous year.

Week Two

I started the week visiting a spot in Marysville that is a known location for California Scrubjays.  When I first started birding in Washington, this species was ultra rare in the state.  They became regular in Clark County and have significantly expanded their range.  I saw one incidentally in Port Townsend last December.

California Scrubjay

california scrubjay

Visits to Magnuson Park and Union Bay Natural Area added some expected species and later a visit to a neighborhood feeder with Frank Caruso brought a Townsend’s Warbler.  This is a pretty bird anytime but in the heart of the winter it is an especially welcomed spot of brightness.  We later found a Green Heron at Levee Pond in Pierce County.

Townsend’s Warbler

townsend's warbler1

Green Heron

green heron1

We stopped at Weyerhauser Pond on the way back home and as expected found Redheads (ducks).  This is THE go to place for this handsome species.  Only a handful this visit but I have had over 40 there on other visits.

Redhead

redhead2

Our last new species on January 10 was a Lincoln’s Sparrow at Lake Ballinger.  I had one there on the Christmas Bird Count in 2017 and Frank had one there on the 2018 CBC which I missed.  It is one of my favorite sparrows.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

lincoln's sparrow

The next day I birded again in Northern Snohomish County and then on to Deception Pass.  I found but could not get a photo of the Yellow Headed Blackbird on Thomle Road.  I was hoping for a Rock Sandpiper at Rosario Head but instead “only” had fantastic scenery views and 4 Black Oystercatchers.  I had missed this species at Semiahmoo where I usually find several so was pleased with that.  The birds called for the entire hour that I was there.  There was a distant flyby of a pair of Marbled Murrelets but no Ancient Murrelets.

Black Oystercatcher

black oystercatcher2

A gigantic raft of Scaup gathers on the Columbia River visible from Dike Road in Woodland, Washington.  Last year a Tufted Duck was found with the Scaup.  When one was reported there again, I decided to head south, look for it and then continue on to add some birds in Clark County.  I got to Dike Road before 9:00 a.m.  There were thousands of Scaup visible from the road. There was perfect light on them from behind me – and that is the ONLY reason I was able to find the single Tufted Duck in an hour of scanning with my scope.  It could be picked out only because of its all black back as the tuft was minuscule and visible only on two occasions – briefly.  The problem was that the Tufted Duck was buried in the middle of the constantly reforming raft of moving ducks.  I would relocate it with the scope but could never find it with the camera.  The ducks were far away so at best it would have been a poor photo.  Digiscoping would probably have worked.  Birders from Tacoma scoured the same raft the next day and had the same difficulty and brief view of the Tufted Duck.

I headed to Lower River Road to find the Snowy Egret that has hung out there the past two years.  On the way I found my first Great Egrets of the year and also found a Black Phoebe with a MUCH better photo than the one at Wiley Slough.  Both of these species have also been expanding their ranges in Washington in recent years,

Great Egrets

great egrets

Black Phoebe

black phoebe

At Lower River Road, I had far more trouble finding the Snowy Egret than ever before.  I may have spooked it as the first view I had was it in flight with the larger Great Egret as it moved from one end of the lower lake to the trees at the far end of the other.  In the area there were a number of swans, hundreds of Cackling Geese and many Sandhill Cranes. Their hoarse clattering calls accompanied me the entire time I was in the area.

Sandhill Cranes

sandhill cranes

My last stop was at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.  Ridgefield is always good but also always frustrating.  The auto tour loop covers the River S unit but restricts getting out of the car.  The loop is one way and narrow and on this day it was clogged with cars.  I was able to pull over just enough to get a photo of one of the many Wilson’s Snipe that are always seen in a muddy field pretty close to the start of the loop.  I find this the best place in the state to find these shorebirds.

Wilson’s Snipe

wilson's snipe

There were hundreds of both Cackling and Canada Geese, many Sandhill Cranes, 50+ Tundra Swans and many ducks.  I had hopes for two target species that are regular here: Red Shouldered Hawk and White Breasted Nuthatch.  As is often the case my first hint of a Red Shouldered Hawk was hearing its call.  I can usually then find it perched in one of the relatively few trees.  This time I could not.  And I had not sound or visual for the Nuthatch. Missing these species added to the frustration of the traffic jam.  It is of course nice that so many people were enjoying this natural place, but it is easier to bird when I have it selfishly all to my self.  There would, however, be a fantastic reward for suffering all of the traffic.  Once you are on the relatively home stretch to complete the circuit, the road widens and somehow there seems to be less traffic.  I spied a bird posted on one of the Refuge signs.  In perfect light I got my best photo ever of an American Kestrel – one of my best photos ever.

American Kestrel

american kestrel close1

It was straight home from there and no birding the next day.  On the 14th I made another trip to the Edmonds Pier and this time was able to get a good photo of one of the Surfbirds.  Good light really does help.

Surfbirds

surfbirds

A Palm Warbler had been seen on the bridge abutment at Eide Road and I had looked for it twice without success.  I tried again and this time there it was feeding on the mesh in bright sunlight.

Palm Warbler

palm warbler1

The Palm Warbler was a great bird for the day and I was happy to get the photo.  A Barn Owl had been roosting in brush by the parking area and with aid from another birder I found it buried deep and difficult to see, but it is visible in the photo.

Barn Owl

barn owl

Short Eared Owls were also being seen there and I went looking.  I found one a long way off walking down next to the rock dike.  Terrible distant photo – time to move on.  As I opened the door to my car another owl flew over me and perched on a pole not more than 60 feet away.  The light was perfect.  I include a lot of photos as they are among the best I Have been able to get.

Short Eared Owl – Eide Road – Up Close and Personal

short eared owl eyes closed short eared owl flight1short eared owl3 short eared owl flight

short eared owl

short eared owl2

It was one of the best hours of birding I have ever had – certainly so with the photos.  The next day would have one of the most disappointing hours.  A very rare Cape May Warbler had been coming to a feeder at a trailer park.  Only a few birders each day were allowed to come to see it.  The earliest I could try was the day after this visit to Eide Road and the day before I would leave for New Mexico.  The group that visited before my Eide Road day was successful and got great photos.  It was a new State bird for all of them as it would be for me.  But the group that visited on this owl rich day had not seen it.  And neither did we. A nice Slate Colored Junco – yes. a beautiful Yellow Rumped Warbler – yes.  And a Cooper’s Hawk – yes.  And maybe the hawk was the reason that the Cape May was no more.  Disappointing.

Cooper’s Hawk

cooper's hawk2

Slate Colored Junco

slate colored junco

Yellow Rumped Warbler

yellow rumped warbler (2)

The month was now half way gone.  The Cape May Warbler would have been the icing on the cake, but it had been a good cake.  The Barn Owl was species 144 for the month.  There had been good chases and good photos.  I had 32 fewer species than in 2018, but that was not the objective this year.  I was ready to head off to New Mexico feeling good.

Closing Out the Month

I returned from New Mexico on January 20th on a birding high from that wonderful trip and wanted to continue that good feeling.  I had not yet gone to the Coast or to Eastern Washington and decided to do the latter.  Frank was game for a trip and good friend Deb Essman could join us in Kittitas County and the weather looked great.  This is one of my favorite areas to bird at any season and it is always a blast to visit with Deb.  We put together a list of targets and headed off early.  Just going to touch the highlights starting with it was really a lot of fun.

We skipped our normal stop in the Spring at Bullfrog Pond, but birded across the way on Wood Duck Road.  We heard the high chattering call of Pygmy Nuthatches and found several together with both White Breasted and Red Breasted Nuthatches in neighboring trees.  We did not find hoped for Mountain Chickadees or Cassin’s Finches.

Pygmy Nuthatch

pygmy nuthatch1

We had some waterfowl and more Pygmy Nuthatches at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds and in a twist on the three Nuthatch find we found three Chickadee species on the road to the Fish Hatchery in a small flock with Golden Crowned Kinglets.  We also had a very early (or carryover) Western Tanager – the identification of the call check carefully and more confidently with Frank’s excellent ears and processor.

Mountain Chickadee

mountain chickadee

We checked in with Deb and told her we would see her after a stop at the Teanaway Bridge looking for American Dippers.  This is as reliable a spot for them as any I know and we were successful in finding an active pair immediately under the structure.

American Dipper

american dipper

Among the treats birding with Deb Essman is that we can travel in her rugged Jeep.  We did not need the extra clearance and traction this time, but the good visibility is a plus as well.  So is the fact that she knows every road, every good birding spot and seemingly every person in the Kittitas Valley.  She started off promising us a Rough Legged Hawk just around the corner from her place.  It was not there.  Instead we had a nice Prairie Falcon – much better for us Western Washington types.  Later we would have two more Prairie Falcons including as photogenic a one as I can remember.  We also had MANY Rough Legged Hawks, Bald Eagles, Red Tailed Hawks. American Kestrels, a flyby Merlin and a Cooper’s Hawk.  Definitely a raptor rich area – almost 100 altogether.

Prairie Falcon

prairie falcon head

prairie falcon flight-r

Rough Legged Hawk

rough legged hawk

Adult Dark Phased Western Red Tailed Hawk

red tailed hawk dark adult western

Juvenile Bald Eagle

immature bald eagle

Cooper’s Hawk

cooper's hawk

We were not able to find Wild Turkeys or Wilson’s Snipe for Frank’s year list but we did find some California Quail and a single Horned Lark.  I cannot remember seeing only a single Horned Lark at this time of years and area as they are usually in flocks often with hundreds of individuals.

California Quail

california quail

Horned Lark

horned lark2

We tried hard for Chukar and Gray Partridge but no luck with those long shots either.  We will have to return and find some later.  It was an excellent day.  Frank was going to spend time with grand kids the next day and I planned a day of catch up since I had not done any since returning from New Mexico.  A call from Steve Pink that night changed plans and led to the successful early morning chase of the Dusky Thrush near Nanaimo, B.C. that was chronicled in an earlier blog post.  https://wp.me/p79yl0-5Bv

There would be no more long trips as I looked forward to Hawaii but I made a few trips to spots in King, Snohomish and Skagit Counties to add a few more birds for the year.  I found what a think is a hybrid American/Eurasian Wigeon on a small pond near a car dealership on Smokey Point Boulevard that Steve Pink had pointed out.  I also found a single Ancient Murrelet when I scoped for an hour at the Samish Island Say Use overlook.  All the birds seen there were quite distant including hundreds of Brant.  A couple days later there were reports of a large flock of Cedar Waxwings at Magnuson Park in Seattle.  I found a couple of Band Tailed Pigeons at a reliable area nearby on the way and was able to locate a small group of Waxwings.  No Bohemians mixed in, but I was happy to get my first Cedar Waxwings of the year in any event.

Cedar Waxwing

cedar waxwing

On Sunday I actually had a “date” and skipped any birding.  So far that looks like a good decision.  We’ll see.  But that meant passing on a chance to chase a rare Tennessee Warbler that had been visiting Ed and Delia Newbold’s yard in South Seattle.  Although it was a long wait for many of the birders who looked for it that day, it was found.  I decided to try on my own on Monday and that was a wise choice as the weather was spectacular and at first I was the only birder there.  The good news was that I had a glimpse of the rarity as soon as I arrived.  The bad news was that I was looking directly into a very bright sun.  Now it is not often that I complain about sun in Seattle in the winter, but this made any photo impossible.  Moving to get a better perspective meant creating a stir and the birds all departed.  Afterwards there were lots of birds off and on including a very photogenic Northern Flicker but no more warblers.

Northern Flicker

northern flicker

I told Jon Houghton that I had seen the warbler and I was going to stay hoping for a reappearance.  He joined me about 35 minutes later and it had not shown up again.  We waited together for another 30 minutes or so and just as I was about to leave a flock of Bushtits flew in – the first I had seen there that morning.  I was blocked from my position, but Jon noticed a “yellowish little guy” had flown in with the Bushtits.  It was the Tennessee Warbler and we got great looks and many photos as it posed on the fence and then bathed in one of the small pools.  I have seen Tennessee Warblers twice in Washington before where they are quite rare – both times near Neah Bay and both times with very poor photos.  This was a very pleasing major improvement.

Tennessee Warbler

tennessee warbler

tennessee warbler fence1

We saw 15 species at this bird rich spot attracted primarily by the bathing/drinking opportunities.  A “bonus” photo was of a Ruby Crowned Kinglet that actually was still long enough for a good picture – something that rarely happens.

Ruby Crowned Kinglet

ruby crowned kinglet

There would be one last mini-trip to end the month.  There is a farm off Neal Road in Fall City that has drawn large mixed flocks of Blackbirds, Cowbirds and Starlings.  Last year there was a Rusty Blackbird in the huge gathering AND there also was a White Wagtail that was chased, seen and photographed (distantly) by many.  The Wagtail did not return this year, but there were recent reports of both a Rusty Blackbird and Brown Headed Cowbirds.  The weather was spring like and I decided to look for both as I had not yet seen either.  I went in the “back way” along Neal Road itself and made a first stop at a pullout just before the single lane when I saw some white birds in a distant field.  They were Trumpeter Swans.  As I got out of my car I glimpsed a woodpecker fly into a tree just overhead.  It turned out to be my first Red Breasted Sapsucker of the year, already confirming that I had made a good decision to take this trip.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

red breasted sapsucker

I continued on to the end of the road where there is a viewpoint back across the river to the farm and to several large cottonwoods that were full of birds.  Unlike my arrival looking for the Tennessee Warbler the light was perfect – behind me providing good scope views of the birds in the trees – hundreds of them – noisy and active.  I immediately picked out many Brown Headed Cowbirds and i much less time than I had any right to expect, found the female Rusty Blackbird among some Brewer’s Blackbirds on one of the upper and back branches.  Without the light behind me and the scope there would have been no way I would have been able to identify the target.  I took some random photos of “birds” in the trees but none showed the Rusty – too many branches in the way and too far away.  If I knew how to digiscope, I think I would have been able to get an ID photo.

Wanting to beat the traffic home, I left the blackbirds and spent a little while looking for the flock of geese that had been reported to have a Greater White Fronted Goose.  I found a flock of about 150 birds approximately evenly split between Cackling Geese and Canada Geese.  I scoped them carefully several times but never found a Greater White Fronted.

Now it really was time to prepare for the Hawaii trip.  Especially with the visit to New Mexico and the dash to Nanaimo, B.C., there had been a lot of biding in January bit nothing like the driven pace that came with the Big Month for January 2018.  I had not been to the Coast at all.  I did not visit Walla Walla and I did not visit the Okanogan.  So instead of the 208 species seen in Washington in January 2018, this year it is only 160 but many many good memories, photos, observations and time spent with friends.  That’s what it is all about.

New Mexico – Part 1 – Getting to 50+ Species and Wonderful Bosque del Apache

The government shutdown was in day 26.  TSA employees had already missed a 2 week paycheck and there was no way to know when the next one would be coming.  There were news stories about backlogs and potential delays at security checkpoints at the airports.  My flight was due to depart Sea-Tac Airport at 5:25 p.m.  I am always early, but this time I wanted to be sure to allow time – just in case…

I got through security in exactly two minutes.  I thanked everyone for coming to work despite the shutdown.  I was now 90 minutes ahead of departure time.   Travel last year had earned me MVP status with Alaska Airlines and I had been upgraded to Premium Class.  More leg room and more importantly to me – early boarding and sitting closer to the front, I would get off the plane early as well.  The trip was off to a good start.  Landing in Albuquerque 10 minutes early, a quick shuttle to the rental car center, an unasked for upgrade and quick processing by Alamo, and a 10 minute drive to my hotel continued the good start.  Clear skies and without wind was forecast the next day.  All good.  I was ready to bird.

In planning the trip as part of my 50/50/50 project, the key was to find a good local resource hopefully to be able to join in the field or at least to get useful input to help find my needed 50 species in a day.  As I often do, I started with the local Audubon Chapter – in this case Central New Mexico Audubon.  It turned out to be a great one stop answer to my needs.  I found a field trip to the Alameda Open Space and Bridge scheduled for January 17 led by Barbara Hussey.  Her contact information was included and I sent her an introductory e-mail. She responded positively saying I could join their group.  She shared probable species to be seen and over the course of other e-mails and a phone conversation, she helped me plan an itinerary both to get my 50 species and also to see some of the birds and places I hoped to visit.  She was terrific.

If I had done my homework a little better I would have found that Barbara was the author of “Birding Hotspots of Central New Mexico.  She and co-author Judith Liddell knew as much about birding in this area as anyone.  Both were also very active in the birding community and as it turned out Judith was also going to be on the field trip.  Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

birding hotspots of central new mexico

The Audubon trip was scheduled to start at 9:00.  I wanted to arrive early figuring to do a little birding on my own, knowing that since the maximum number of species to expect was between 25 and 30, I would have to leave before the projected 12:00 p.m ending to be able to get to other places.  On the way over I was struck by the number of Rock Pigeons.  They seemed to be on every wire and flying over every road – I must have seen 200.  This theme continued during my entire visit.  I saw far more Rock Pigeons in and around Albuquerque than I have seen anywhere else – even in big cities.

Next I picked up a few species in the adjoining neighborhood including Great Tailed Grackle which had not been on my radar screen but is common in the area.  At the Alameda Open Space Park, my first birding was a small pond immediately next to the parking area.  It was full of ducks but only a couple of species – almost exclusively Wood Ducks – at least 70.  What a beautiful start to the day.

Wood Duck

wood duck1

Black Crowned Night Heron was also in the pond.  It turned out to be a good thing that I saw it early as it was not there later and to see one would have extended my stay on the trip.  I did not know that at the time, or if they were easy to find anywhere else.

Black Crowned Night Heron

black crowned night heron

The meet up place for the trip was the parking lot and by 8:45 birders were starting to arrive.  Lots of birders.  Lots and lots of birders.  I met Barbara and saw that she was going to have her hands full leading this big group.  When the decision was made to split the group into two, with the second group led by Judy Liddell, I decided to join her group not wanting Barbara to feel she had to “hold my hand”.  Judy was great and the group was fun.  It was mostly beginning birders although a couple of them were well beyond that.  Trips like these are great for birding and are one of the important things that Audubon chapters do all over the country.  I am sure that there were at least 50 people and all seemed to enjoy the time – seeing birds and learning about them – and just having a good time.  A large group is not the best way to maximize the number of species seen, but Judy was excellent and the area along the Rio Grand River was good habitat with a mix of water birds, passerines and a few of these and a few of those.  I spent about 90 minutes with the group and ended up with 32 species – more than expected and a good start to the day.

Barbara, Judy and a couple of the local birders gave lots of suggestions for next places to go, but it was clear to me that my best chance to maximize species would be to get to Bosque del Apache NWR – high on my “I want to visit this place” list.  This had been a great start to the visit at least as much due to the people as the birds.  Birding can be a very social activity and this was such at its best.  I am sure I would greatly enjoy more time with Barbara and Judy and with many of the birders…particularly…well that would take me off topic.  😉

I have learned that often in trying to get to 50 species in a day, there are flybys on the roads between birding destinations that could prove to be a much needed sighting for the day.  On my way to Tingley Ponds I picked up an American Kestrel and a Downy Woodpecker.  I expected to see more of the former but the Woodpecker was a miss at Alameda so I was glad to see one.  I was unsure of how to cover Tingley Ponds which I was told would add several duck species plus a Neotropic Cormorant.  I never saw the Cormorant although I learned later that I had been looking in the right place.  I added only two duck species and a Pied Billed Grebe.  There were lots of people walking or fishing in the area and I probably just did not give it much of a chance.  I left after just 10 minutes with my species count at 37 for the day.

My pre-trip research had identified Valle de Oro NWR as a good place to bird and it was also highly recommended by Barbara and Judy.  It was on the way to Bosque del Apache and just off the main road.  The first four birds I saw there were new for the day:  European Starling, Say’s Phoebe, Common Raven and Chihuahuan Raven.  The latter was a challenging ID.  I saw more than 50 Ravens.  At least two of them were much smaller with relatively  small bills.  They were in flight so I could not see any white feathers on the neck a feature not always visible and which was the basis for them previously being called White Necked Ravens.  They are regular at this location, so I was good with the check mark on my list.

Most notable at Valle de Oro were the flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow  Ross’s, Canada and Cackling Geese.  All of the geese except the Canada Geese were new for the day.  I am sure there were more mixed in, but I was pleased to identify a handful of the smaller Ross’s Geese among the Snow Geese.  These are very uncommon in Washington.  I would see many more later in the day. Recent visits to the Refuge had produced Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Prairie Falcon and several other good birds, but I found none of them.  More time and local birder input would likely have made a difference but I was now at 44 species and thought some of these misses might be found at Bosque del Apache and I was eager to visit this famous place.  It was 92 miles south but with the speed limit at 75 (I love you New Mexico) and a bit of a fudge factor that seemed to be used by New Mexico drivers that meant it was barely 75 minutes away – lots of time.

nm

There will be lots of details to follow but the bottom line is that Bosque del Apache was FANTASTIC!!  Overall the “Woods of the Apaches” is over 55,000 acres with the heart of the refuge being about 4,000 acres easily accessed by a double loop road that is about 12 miles long.  I spent about 3 hours at the Refuge which was not nearly enough – driving most of the loop road and getting to the very birdy visitor center after it closed and too late for as much birding as it justified in the fading light.  Ebird shows 366 species for the refuge – an incredible list.  However it is the number of individuals that may be more impressive as many waterfowl species are present in the thousands as are the Sandhill Cranes.  It was easily one of the favorite places I have birded.

On the road into the Refuge I had a single Prairie Falcon, a single Greater Yellowlegs (joining Killdeer as my only shorebirds for the day), several Loggerhead Shrikes and two Western Meadowlarks – surprisingly the only ones I saw.  I also added a Northern Harrier, Mourning Doves, Green Winged Teal and Northern Pintails to reach 50 species for the day.  With that mission accomplished, all pressure was off and I forgot about numbers and just enjoyed the beautiful day at an amazing place.

Western Meadowlark (Eastern Meadowlarks are also at the Refuge but have a white malar) – This was the 50th species for the day.

western meadowlark1

Loggerhead Shrike (Northern Shrikes are also found in Winter but are much rarer and have a much narrower eye stripe/patch)

loggerhead shrike

Twenty-six duck species have been reported at the Refuge – with 17 present in January.  I did not check every duck there and had 11 species with Northern Pintails seemingly the most numerous.  The biggest waterfowl show was the large numbers of both Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese in mixed flocks.

Goose Raft

mixed flock of snow and ross's geese

Snow Goose

snow goose flight1

Ross’s Geese (with Snow Geese) – Can readily see size difference

ross's geese

I saw fewer raptors than expected – only a few Red Tails, a half dozen Bald Eagles and a few American Kestrels.  The one exception was a good number of Northern Harriers.  One was feasting on a Snow Goose in shallow water.  I have never seen a Harrier kill a Snow Goose in Skagit and Snohomish Counties in my home state Washington although both species are plentiful there.  I do not know if this was a kill or scavenging but a good photo opportunity.

Northern Harrier with Snow Goose

northern harrier on snow goose

A typical scene in the many fields would be flocks of Sandhill Cranes with Snow, Canada and Ross’s Geese and some duck species.  I did not try to count the individuals or scan for different species – just enjoyed the spectacle.  Thousands of birds.

Typical Scenes

sandhill crane

typical scene

Towards the end of the loop, it was getting later and many Cranes, Geese and Ducks were on the move.  It was still four days away from the full (Wolf) moon, but the already large moon did provide an interesting photo opportunity as a backdrop for the birds in flight.

Moon Mallards

moon mallards

Another treat as dusk approached was a large flock of Wild Turkeys – over 125 in a single group.  I had hoped to see quail on the drive but to this point the Turkeys were the only gallinaceous species found.

Wild Turkey

wild turkey2

I wish I had had more time and especially wish I had processed how good the birding was at the Visitor Center.  It was almost 5 p.m. when I got there and the light was getting low.  There were lots of birds including more than 125 Gambel’s Quail,  They seemed to flush from everywhere.  Other treats there were a Curve Billed Thrasher, some Lesser Goldfinches and a couple of Pyrrhuloxias – one of my favorites.  273 species have been record at the Visitor Center with over 70 reported just this January.  I only had ten in the 20+ minutes I was there – completely alone.  There are feeders and native plants – really a great place.  I will get back.

Pyrrhuloxia

pyrrhuloxia2

Gambel’s Quail

gambel's quail1

Now the light was really low with the sun setting over the low hills to the west.  Time to go.  It had been a fabulous visit.  Without really trying to get a high species count, I had seen 38 species at the Refuge, so so but the quality of the experience was outstanding.  There would be one more species and a closing spectacle.  I headed to two ponds at the North end of the Refuge on the main road.  It was the “fly-in” spot at dusk for the Sandhill Cranes.  Just before getting there, I saw a familiar silhouette on one of the telephone poles – a Great Horned Owl.  It would turn out to be the only Owl I saw on my entire trip so I include the photo despite the poor light.

Great Horned Owl

great horned owl

The Sandhill Crane fly-in was as fitting a way to end a great day as one could hope for.  There were already many photographers and gawkers there when I arrived.  There were hundreds of Cranes already in the pool, their raucous calls filling surrounding us and they just kept coming and coming.  I did not stay until the end so I do not know the total, but there are many thousand Cranes on the refuge.  I took some videos and lots of photos.  An almost spiritual experience.

Sand Hill Crane Fly-in Spot

sandhill crane sunset

It seemed like ages ago that I had left the Audubon Group at Alameda Open Space.  The wonders of Bosque del Apache had not erased but had overshadowed the birding in the morning.  The Great Horned Owl was the 62nd species seen during this day making New Mexico the 24th state where I have now seen 50 species in a day.  All of those days have been great and this one ranks high.  There are many places I have birded that I hope to revisit.  This is definitely one of them.

Bosque del Apache

bosque del apache

New Mexico Part 2 – Foothills and Mountains – Jays and Rosy Finches

When I planned my trip to New Mexico, I had two important goals.  The first – satisfied on day one and detailed in my first New Mexico Blog Post – was to find 50 species in a single day.   I believed a visit to Bosque del Apache would play an important role in doing that.  It did but had I known how much I would enjoy that place, I would have made birding there as an essential part of my trip independently of just finding more species.  My second goal was to visit Sandia Crest to see the three species of Rosy Finches:  Gray Crowned, Brown Capped and Black.  I had seen them at the Wildernest Community location in Colorado on April 9, 2016 but the views and photos of Black Rosy Finch were limited and unsatisfactory.  Sandia Crest is THE place to go to get good looks at all three species – especially at the feeders maintained by the Sandia Crest Gift Shop and Cafe.

With two days still available, I debated whether to wait until my last day to go to Sandia Crest or to try it on Friday.  A heavy wind was projected for Friday afternoon – not good for birding or possible tourist activities.  Saturday was supposed to be better.  I decided to bird in the foothills outside of Albuquerque in the morning and then maybe head up to Santa Fe later – revisiting one of New Mexico’s major attractions.  I chose Embudito Canyon, northeast of Albuquerque as my birding spot.  It had rained over night and when I got to the Canyon, it was covered with a few inches of snow and it was snowing very lightly.  It was beautiful!!

The Trail at Embudito Canyon

scene 1

Like in Arizona, habitats here change dramatically and quickly as soon as you leave the flatlands and get into the foothills and gain elevation.  I found myself in the land of cactus and sage and low shrubs with some oaks and pines.  I also found myself immediately with birds.  The first was a Curve Billed Thrasher buried in shrubs at the last house before getting into the Park itself and the second was a Woodhouse’s Scrubjay.  I had first seen the latter in Colorado in 2016 and then later had them in Arizona in 2017 and in Texas in 2018.  I had photos from those visits, but none were great.  This one was much better.

Curve Billed Thrasher

curve billed thrasher

Woodhouse’s Scrubjay

woodhouse's scrubjay1

A photo that I missed was of a Cactus Wren.  It popped up about 1/4 mile up the trail and then disappeared rather than perching in the open as I have seen them do before.  Instead I got a photo of one of what seemed to be a pair of Canyon Towhees, a nondescript but attractive species.

Canyon Towhee

canyon towhee3

The most numerous birds were Dark Eyed Juncos which seemed to be everywhere.  I estimated there to be at least 70 but it well could have been over 100.  And there were some of many of the different forms – Slate Colored, Pink Sided and Red Backed.  They were extremely skittish and would disappear quickly into the brush.

Dark Eyed Junco – Red Backed

dark eyed junco

It was great fun to walk alone in the canyon.  The snow had no other footprints except for some deer and it was eerily quiet as the snow cover muffled all sounds except for a few bird calls.  The vegetation changed the further up I went and it is at times like these that I wish I knew more about plants.  I believe the photo below is of a Tree Cholla Cactus.  Some Desert Prickly Pear can be seen in the background.

Tree Cholla Cactus

ocotillo

The place was so different from what I see in Washington.  It was peaceful and restful but at the same time energizing.  The lightly falling snow added to the magic of the place.  I think I was still somewhat on a high from the visit to Bosque del Apache and this place took me to a higher place – both literally and emotionally.  The last bird I saw in the canyon was a Mountain Chickadee, a species that always brings a smile as well.

Mountain Chickadee

mountain chickadee

A good indication of just how different this habitat was from the ones I birded the previous day is that while there were only 12 species seen, 50% of them were new.  Now what?  I had so thoroughly enjoyed this visit that I abandoned plans to go to Santa Fe and decided to head to Sandia Crest which was less than 30 miles away.  It turned out to be a bad decision.

As I headed further east before going higher into the Sandia mountains and the Cibola National Forest, there was no snow on the roads although some could be seen in the hills.  The elevation of Albuquerque is just over 5,200 feet and Embudito Canyon is around 6000 feet.  Sandia Crest i is almost 11,000 feet.  My rental car was a front wheel drive which I thought would be sufficient as I expected that the road would be plowed since it was the way to a major ski area.  But I had not figured in just how much snow had fallen on the mountain the night before or that the snow plows would not have removed much of the snow past the ski area.  The last 15 miles of the trip were on a winding road with sharp turns and still some snow.  I went very slow and was doing ok until bout a mile before the ski area – which was still 6 miles before the crest.  Even though I was following right behind a working plow, I felt there was just no way I was going to make it and if I got stuck I would be in serious trouble.  So an hour into the ascent, I turned back.  It was now around 11:30 a.m.  Where to next?

When I got back to the west side of the Sandia Mountains it was almost 1 p.m. and the wind had picked up substantially.  I considered going to Sevilleta NWR – about 30 minutes north of Bosque del Apache.  I also considered going to Santa Fe about an hour and a half north.  But the wind was a deterrent.  I decided to bird a bit at Rio Grande Nature Center, a place highly recommended by one of the better birders on the field trip the previous morning.  I added a couple of duck species but the wind was now very strong and when I went into the bosque – the woods – I found almost no birds.

A friend had visited nearby Petroglyphs National Monument and said there were a few birds and  the petroglyphs were interesting.  My friend had visited before the government shutdown.  The Monument was closed to traffic and the visitor center completely shutdown.  I tried an alternative entrance which was at least open to parking but by then the wind was gusting over 40 mph.  I admitted defeat and returned to my hotel conceding that some additional sleep might be the best idea anyhow.  The weather was supposed to be crystal clear the next day, wind free and warmer.  I would try Sandia Crest again, but I was still worried about the roads as many parts of the road would not be in the sun and it was unclear how much snow would remain.  I had a plan to solve that if my rental car company would help.

alamo

My rental car was from Alamo.  From my hotel I called customer service and asked if I might be able to exchange my vehicle for an SUV.  I spoke with Renee who was very friendly, understanding and helpful.. She checked Alamo’s inventory at the airport and found that they had no SUV’s but did have 2 trucks with 4 wheel drive.  She could not reserve it for me but said all I had to do was go to the return center and work it out there being sure not to let them check me out before securing another option.  She expected an upgrade fee of not more than $30.00 or so for the one day exchange.  To me that was worth it.  The return place was barely 5 minutes from the hotel.  Bottom line is that Alamo was terrific.  Kenny, who turned out to be the manager, got me into a 4 wheel drive pickup within 2 minutes.  We modified the paper work and I drove off – without an up charge.  The whole process took less than 10 minutes.  When I got back to the hotel, I called Customer Service, expressed my gratitude and gave an outstanding review naming both individuals.  The representative I talked to was very appreciative since in general people call to complain and not to say thank you.  Thank yous are very powerful.

The plan for Saturday was to get to Sandia Crest after 10:00 a.m. which is when the Gift Shop opened.  I filled in the early morning with another visit to the foothills, this time to the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area – an Ebird Hotspot.  I was hoping to see a Juniper Titmouse but the main target was a Scaled Quail – possible if unlikely.  At the entrance building I paid my $3.00 fee and had a great talk with the Ranger.  He gave some birding suggestions in the park.  We also talked about Sandia Crest and Bosque del Apache.  I entered the park and headed off to a spot he said at least had a chance for Scaled Quail.  As I approached the area, another visitor came speeding by from the opposite direction.  Three birds flushed – one was a Mountain Bluebird, one a Western Bluebird and the other was — a Scaled Quail.  It had been on the side of the road and headed into the brush.  I prayed that it would land not too far away but no luck and it was gone.  It was a “want” and not a “need” as I had a good sighting and photo from Colorado but they are neat little birds.  Sigh…

Scaled Quail (from Colorado in 2016)

42-Scaled Quail

 

Missing the flushed Western Bluebird was no problem as they were abundant in the park.  I expected to see many Mountain Bluebirds but no more were seen. The skies were also bright blue, so maybe they just blended in too well.  Not so colorful were two other birds seen in good numbers:  Juniper Titmouse and Townsend’s Solitaire.

Western Bluebird

western bluebird1

Juniper Titmouse

juniper titmouse1

Townsend’s Solitaire

townsend's solitaire1

As had been the case at Embudito Canyon, there were also lots of Dark Eyed Juncos of several forms and many Woodhouse’s Scrubjays.  There was one more new bird, a Ladder Backed Woodpecker.  Only 9 species were seen at this spot in the 55 minutes that I was there, but 5 of them were new for my trip.  I really enjoyed the place and my first ever truck was performing great.  It was time to head to the Crest!!

Ladder Backed Woodpecker

ladder backed woodpecker1

View of Albuquerque from Elena Gallegos

Albuquerque from Elena Gallego.jpg

Although it was only 35 miles to the Crest, I knew much of the road was slow going so I expected it take about an hour to get there.  The Gift Shop website said they would be open at 10:00, so timing looked good.  When I got to the winding road in the mountains it was clear that much of the snow from the previous day had melted.  I wondered if the car exchange was necessary.  It was.  As I got first to the Ski Area – which was jammed – and then beyond there were still a number of spots with some snow that the plows had missed or the sun had not melted.  I only got into 4 wheel drive in a few places but I doubt I would have made it with the other car.  It was spectacular.

trees

I arrived at the Crest around 10:15.  The road to the parking area for the Gift Shop was closed so I parked below.  Uh-oh…the stairs up to the Gift Shop were buried in 18″ to 24″ of snow – or more.  I trudged up them laboring in the thin air at almost 11,000 feet elevation and when I finally got to the entrance to the Shop, it was blocked by snow and seemed closed. So I trudged back down hoping to get a view of the finches as they came to a feeder that was visible from the parking area.

Sandia Crest gift Shop Entrance

gift shop

I heard them coming before I saw them.  Out of nowhere a large flock of Rosy Finches flew first into the tree next to the platform feeder and then on to the feeder itself.  It was a mad swirl of flashing wings and gorging birds.  They seemed to be entirely Black Rosy Finches but I picked out a single Gray Crowned Rosy Finch and a few Brown Capped. ones. It was impossible to single any out with the camera in their constant movement, so I just kept taking pictures.

Rosy Finches at the Lower Feeder

2p5a1522

I heard some high pitched calls coming from behind me.  They were not more Rosy Finches but I was unsure what they were.  They sounded like squeaky Jays.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw 4 blue forms fly by followed immediately by at least 10 more in a tight flock formation.  The common Jay at this location is the Steller’s Jay and I had already seen a couple of individuals on the road up.  These birds were solid blue … and had no crests and no black heads.  I had only seen them twice before but I was sure they were Pinyon Jays – uncommon but not impossible here.  Unfortunately if they stopped and perched at all, it was somewhere beyond the Gift House which was above me.  Had I not been diligently searching the Rosy Finches for Gray Crowneds I might have been able to get on them for a photo, but there was no time to switch from binoculars to camera.  Additionally disappointing because I only have two  photos from the Colorado observation.

Pinyon Jay – Colorado – April 2016

54-Pinyon Jay Flight

And…the Rosy Finches flew off as well.  A few minutes later someone came down the steps from the Gift Shop with a sign saying the shop was open but that access would be via the rear entrance.  I followed him up a second set of steps where the snow was more compacted and around to the rear entrance where he had shoveled away the snow so the door could be opened and Voila! I was in the Gift Shop where it was not only warm but where I could watch the feeders AND get some hot chocolate!!  Another thank you for his efforts.

Over the next half hour, more people came up to the Gift Shop.  Some were birders, some photographers and some were just visitors including two men from Israel.  Two of the birders were from Tucson, AZ – veteran birders a little older than me who were also there for the Rosy Finches.  We shared war (birding) stories and they liked my 50 State undertaking.  One of them, Karen Morley, was a former president of the Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS), a pretty high powered and prestigious organization in my native Maryland where I lived for the first 21 years of my life but never birded.  The small world aspect of birding came home twice with this intersection.  In 1975, I attended a conference of the Maryland Ornithological Union – predecessor to the MOS.  One of the field trips I joined at that conference was led by the legendary Chan Robbins.  In an extraordinary day of birding at the height of migration, we had well over 100 species.  It is the only 50 species day that I am including retroactively because it allows me to have Mr. Robbins as part of my story.  A second small world connection was that Karen was friends with a birding acquaintance of mine from Tacoma, Washington – indeed someone who had a connection with someone in Indiana that led to my birding companion there when I had my 50 species day there last year.  A small world indeed.

Back to the Rosy Finches.  It was not for at least 30 minutes, but they did make an appearance at the upper feeder and then made several more afterwards.  The feeder is directly on the porch behind the Gift Shop.  On days without the snow, it is possible to sit on the porch and watch the finches come in to the seed that has been placed there to attract them.  They are used to humans gawking at them and tolerate the close presence.  This day the porch was closed so the view was through large plate glass windows, but the birds were still very close and the optical distortion was slight.  I took MANY photos…many, many, many photos.

Black Rosy Finch Photos

black rosy finch with snow dust

blrf2

black rosy finch flight

black rosy finch detail

blrf trio

It was not so easy finding and photographing the Brown Capped Rosy Finches and I never again saw the Gray Crowned Rosy Finch that had been in the flock that visited the lower feeder earlier – or did I?

Brown Capped Rosy Finch

brown capped rosy finch 1

Brown Capped Rosy Finch with Black Rosy Finch

black and brown capped rosy finches

This is either a Variant Form of Brown Capped Rosy Finch or is a form of the Gray Crowned Rosy Finch with less than usual gray.

brown capped rosy finch2

The only other species seen while at the Crest were a few Steller’s Jays, a Sharp Shinned Hawk, a White Breasted Nuthatch and some Mountain Chickadees.

White Breasted Nuthatch

white breasted nuthatch

Mountain Chickadee

mountain chickadee with seedmountain chickadee

While the highlight of this visit was without question seeing the Rosy Finches, there were so many other great parts as well.  All of the birds were superb in this beautiful setting.  Sharing stories with Karen and her friend was great fun.  The views were spectacular.  And engaging the gentlemen from Israel was one of those experiences that is a special part of birding.  They were not birders but were aware of the great birding in Israel especially during migration.  They did not know anything about the Rosy Finches or how special this place was for birders wishing to see them.  Giving them some background and sharing my binoculars was very rewarding.  One of the men called his family in Israel and he spoke to his wife and his young daughter.  I believe it was 9 hours later there – so around her bedtime.  The magic of technology allowed this conversation to be had as clear as if they were in the same room, and with his smart phone he could let her see this beautiful place and even the birds coming to the feeder.  Amazing times.  An amazing place.

View West from Sandia Crest

view

It was barely 1 p.m. and the return drive would be about 90 minutes.  I considered more birding at another location or possibly some sightseeing in Albuquerque, but it had been a full three days and as is usually the case on these trips, I had gotten less sleep than I should.  I needed to get the car back to the rental return and then get back to my hotel by shuttle.Somehow it felt right to end the birding with the high – literally and emotionally with the other world feeling of Sandia Crest.  So I called it a day and a fitting end to a wonderful visit and returned to the hotel to work on photos and do some reading.

The visits to the foothills and to Sandia Crest had brought my total species count for the visit to 82 species.  There were no new ABA Life birds or photos, but some of my earlier photos had been improved.  I had visited New Mexico twice earlier – one a non-birding trip to Santa Fe and once as a brief adjunct to a trip to Southeast Arizona in 2016.  Adding species seen on those trips, my New Mexico State List stands at a paltry 95 species.  Given that the New Mexico State list is over 550 species, I want to come back and see many more.  But regardless of the species count, this visit will be one of my favorites with memories of Barbara Hussey and Judith Liddell, of Bosque del Apache, the foothills and Sandia Crest.  I really love these trips!!

24th state

 

Thrush Dreams Revisited – Chasing a Dusky Thrush

The Dusky Thrush Chase

Birding is NOT a static activity either moment by moment in the field or over time as we follow our passions.  I am updating my Thrush Dreams post from barely a month ago (December 21, 2018) because yesterday (January 22, 2019) with Steve and Connie Pink, I traveled to Nanaimo, B.C.  to chase a Dusky Thrush that had been reported two days earlier.  When I first heard of this mega rarity, I was returning from a wonderful trip to New Mexico – part of my 50/50/50 project that will get at least one blog post of its own later.  I had never been to Nanaimo and had it pictured in my mind as “close to Alaska”.  Wrong!  It is a 2 hour ferry ride from the Tsawwassen Ferry terminal outside Vancouver, B.C.  When Steve contacted me late on Monday – after I had returned from a great day of birding in Kittitas County with Frank Caruso and Deb Essman (another blog post to come) and corrected my geography, I said sure let’s go.

Edmonds to Nanaimo

map to nanaimo

We left early Tuesday a.m.  At the border it was a repeat of some earlier experiences with Canadian Border patrol – friendly, efficient AND we learned he had actually read about the rarity when we told him the purposes for the visit.  The ferry was more like a floating resort with comfy seats, shopping and food.  No good birds on the way but an easy 2 hour ride.  We disembarked around 10:00 a.m. and were at the stakeout site around 10:15.  There was a single car there and we were able to visit with a birding couple who were not high powered birders but were very friendly and most importantly, they had seen the Dusky Thrush in the company of some American Robins 20 minutes earlier.  They seemed equally interested in a Palm Warbler that they had seen.  It is a good bird for the province BUT we were chasing the Dusky Thrush and that was our only quest. With the details of where they had seen it before it had flown off, we walked back up the road and began scanning trees near the house and barn.

There are many emotions that run through birders as we chase rarities.  The strongest of course is a strong “want/need/desire/hope” to successfully find the target.  In a case like this where we are on unfamiliar territory, have traveled a long way (although not as long as cross country chases that many birders do), are looking for a VERY rare bird, and it is the day after the last report, there is the uneasy nagging feeling that accompanies the questions: “Is it gone?”  “Are we too late?”  When our new best birding friends told us the Dusky Thrush had been seen, even though it had flown off, the odds were very, very good that it was still there and it was now just a matter of time.  So we scanned and waited.

About 19 minutes later, with only a few views of American Robins the light rain was feeling wetter, the temperature was feeling lower, and the light wind was feeling stronger.  Another minute later, our awareness of all of those changed dramatically when Steve, with our only scope, yelled “Got it!”.  The Dusky Thrush was perched on top of the large oak tree next to the house.  Protocol in such cases is for the spotter to get a “record look”, then stand back and let the next and next person get a look.  Connie got the second look and then just as I focused on the bird, it flew off.  Yeah, countable but not even close to satisfying let alone a photo opportunity.

There had been other birders on the ferry who were coming to chase this bird.  As we were alone, we wondered where they were.  It turned out they had all made wrong turns, gotten lost, regrouped and arrived about 15 minutes after our peekaboo view.  But they too now knew that the Dusky Thrush was here and there were now more eyes to continue the search.  About 15 minutes later, the Dusky Thrush was re-spotted – again just brief looks and a fly off.  A short while later, it returned and now it was on the ground, still distant, difficult to see and moving around but there were some good views.  For the next 20 minutes we watched it forage on the ground and even perch up on a wood post that was flat on the ground.  I tried for photos in the difficult conditions.  Sure wish I had the 800 mm lens that one of the birders had!!!

First Photo of the Dusky Thrush – ABA Photo #697

dusky thrush1

Best Photo of the Dusky Thrush

dusky thrush3r

Final Photo Photo of the Dusky Thrush after it perched again in an even more distant tree.

dusky thrush tree1

The distance, poor light and interfering grass and gates and wires were all a challenge – so very poor photos BUT I got an OK photo, had OK looks and definitely had an ABA Life bird.  What rain?  What cold?  What wind?  It had seemed much longer, but it had only been 90 minutes since we had left the ferry and we would be able to return and catch the 12:45 ferry back to Vancouver and possibly have time to chase a Snowy Owl that had been reported in Skagit County the day before.  This was a very good chase.

We made the ferry, reveled in our good luck and then hit truly awful rain at Tsawassen which continued for the rest of the drive home.  The Snowy Owl had not been seen by anyone tht day and in the awful rain, we probably would not have tried for it anyhow.  Guess we would just have to “settle” for the Dusky Thrush.   And that was just fine!!

My original Thrush Dreams blog post was inspired by the successful Fieldfare chase to Salmon Arm, B.C, about 350 miles away from Nanaimo.  British Columbia is a HUGE province.  That fact plus it being somewhat closer to Alaska and there being many excellent birders has resulted in many rarities like this one.  My three rarest thrushes are from B.C. now adding Dusky Thrush to Fieldfare and Redwing.  Now we need an  Eyebrowed Thrush!!  

So I need to already revise my Thrush Dream  as the Dusky Thrush is thrush number 16 I have seen in the ABA Area and there now “only” 11 that I have not.

A White Throated Thrush continues to be seen in Madera Canyon in Southeastern Arizona.  If somehow it remains after I return from Hawaii the second week in February, maybe I will give in to temptation and go.  And I will definitely be waiting for an Eyebrowed Thrush sighting in B.C.  Steve and Connie Pink are ready to go as well…

 Eyebrowed Thrush

Eyebrowed Thrush

White Throated Thrush

White Throated Thrush                               

One sad note…  Great friend Melissa Hafting who has been my fabulous source of rare bird information and assistance in B.C. and who is an extraordinary birder with a first focus on B.C. birds is currently in Ecuador.  She is having a great time but is really hoping the Dusky Thrush remains until her return.  I hope so, too.